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Last fall, a reader sent me the following question: “I’m wondering if you’ve considered an article on car-sharing, and the economics of this idea?”

Handing off keys

I had to admit that not only had I never considered the idea of participating in a car-share or writing about it, until receiving his email I had never heard of it! After doing a little research on the topic, I was intrigued. I added car shares to my list of potential future blog post topics.

Recently, I read an article by Michelle Jackson in which she wrote about applying FIRE principles to transform her life. She utilized principles that we frequently discuss on this blog.

One tactic she mentioned jumped out at me as unique and particularly interesting. She wrote, “Using a car share saves me thousands of dollars a year in transportation costs.”

So I reached out and asked if she would answer a few questions to share her experience in an effort to help us all learn more about car sharing. Is this a viable option to help you slash one of the biggest items in your budget?

Welcome Michelle. Thank you for taking some time to answer my questions to help our audience and me learn more about car sharing. 

Many people may never have considered, or even heard of, the idea of car sharing. Let’s start at the beginning. What exactly is a car share? How do car sharing agreements work?

Members gain access to a pool of cars that they are able to reserve for either an hourly, daily, or weekly time period. In very basic terms, members have to be in good standing; no bad driving or negative citations on their driving record. 

I pay a monthly subscription for access to my specific membership. The company that I work with is a non-profit. Members are a part of a group insurance plan and can opt for additional coverage for a one-time fee each year (which is what I chose to do). 

Can you share some information about yourself and how you use your carshare to help other readers determine whether your experience applies to their transportation needs? 

If you’re trying to figure out if a carshare would be a good fit for you, here are some questions to ask yourself.

  • What do you use your car for? Commuting? Errands? Transporting the kids around?
  • How much are you paying for car related expenses?
  • Do you have access to other modes of transportation and do you use them?
  • How often do you use your car? 

Here are my answers:

  • I liked using my old car to go to the mountains (I live in Colorado) and to go on road trips. I’m single and don’t need to transport kiddos or pets. 
  • I was paying around $300 a month for car related expenses and upkeep for a paid off car.
  • I have access to light rail and bus routes that are within walking distance to my house. And, I live by a large number of grocery stores that are also within walking distance. 

I wasn’t using my car that often. So, it wasn’t difficult to say “yes!” to a car share. I do want to mention that I have friends with kids who use the car share in lieu of having a second car. 

What advantages have you experienced since choosing a car share compared to car ownership?

I don’t have to worry about the following: car upkeep, tags, cleaning the car, or ongoing expenses related to having a car. I’ve saved thousands yearly because I no longer own a car.

Americans on average spend around $8500 a year on car related expenses. In 2019 I spent around $700 on transportation related expenses. In 2020 significantly less (as you could imagine-where would I go?) and in 2021 I’m looking to spend a maximum of $2,000 because I plan on going on a number of road trips this year. 

I love being able to choose the right car for the type of trip I’m going on. My car share specifically has a fleet of hybrid vehicles that members can choose from. Options range from Toyota Prius to trucks. 

What has been the biggest downside of using a car share compared to car ownership?

The only downside has been in the very rare case that I would like to take a trip at the last minute and there might not be a car available in my immediate neighborhood.

Car shares seem to make the most sense in more densely populated areas where vehicles can be conveniently accessed and shared by more people. However, these are the same areas that tend to have good access to ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft as well as more traditional mass transit options and taxis. First, is my assumption correct? If so, why is a car share better than these options?

I won’t drink and drive so that’s when I would use ride sharing or public transit. 

But, if I would like to go to Red Rocks Amphitheatre for a concert/movie/or Yoga on the Rocks event I need to use a car to get there. If I would like to go hiking in the mountains, I have to drive to the trailhead. There are only very expensive transit options to those locations. Car shares are also great when I have to run errands for a friend or family. 

Also, during COVID I don’t want to be in the car with other people right now. And I’m using public transit a lot more infrequently than before. 

Denver is a fairly large city. Sometimes it’s nice to drive across town versus taking a ride share. It just depends on what I’m doing and why I’m going to a space. Likewise, you have to decide what makes sense for you. 

What are the biggest logistical considerations people should consider before joining a car share.

There are 3 main logistical issues to consider:

  • How close is the nearest car to your home? 
  • How comfortable are you using different vehicles? In the beginning using different cars was challenging for me, especially the newer vehicles. I had to get used to the technology in each car. 
  • If you’re into planning at the last minute, then car sharing probably won’t work well for you. 

What do you have to do to get a vehicle? Do you need to reserve one at peak usage times? Have you ever not been able to get access to a vehicle when you’ve needed one?

This process is specific to the program I’m a part of. Basically, there’s an online portal and you just reserve the car for the time that you need. 

In the three years that I’ve used this resource I’ve only had one instance when I wasn’t able to use a car at the time that I wanted. The reason? I waited until the last minute to make my reservation.

How do you handle gas? Do you typically pick up cars with a full tank? Do you have to pay for gas or get a credit if you put in too much? Again, are you aware if there is a fairly standard procedure among car shares or if this varies widely?

You are charged for the amount of gas related to the amount of miles that you drove. If I drive 15 miles I’m charged a super cheap flat rate per mile (cents on the gallon). If the fuel tank goes below a specific point members are asked to fuel up the car and submit a copy of the receipt. You receive a credit, if you’ve overpaid for some reason.

I don’t know what other companies do. Again, this is a non-profit and may have procedures that are different from a for-profit business. 

In general, how have you found the cleanliness of vehicles? During the pandemic, has your car share taken measures to clean and disinfect vehicles? If so, how much downtime is there between when people can use vehicles to make that work?

The cars are immaculate and members would be charged if they were dirty. There is a team that maintains the upkeep of the vehicles and I’ve never in 3 years experienced a dirty car. There are also disinfectant wipes in the car if you’re worried about germs. 

People can reserve the minute that your trip is completed. I personally don’t reserve a car less than ½ an hour after another driver. Because of COVID, I air out the vehicle for 5-10 minutes when I first get in and wear a mask until that’s done. Now I’m vaccinated so I’m not as worried about this issue.

What questions should people considering a car share ask that I haven’t? What do you wish you knew sooner (if anything) to have a better car share experience?

If you have kids it’s my view that you need to have access to at least one vehicle that you actually own. But, using a car share as a secondary vehicle could be a great way to save money and still have vehicle access. 

If you live in a town that has programs like this, test it out. Spend about a month using a car share and take notes specific to your experience. You may love it or hate it but you won’t know if you don’t try it out. 

I don’t have a pet, but if I did the car share may have rules specific how to transport pets around. 

Please note: you have to return the cars on time. You will be charged extra for late returns, low fuel, or anything that impacts access or safe usage of the cars by other members. 

You may want to ask about the ability to use the car for road trips outside of your state. It’s likely that there may be rules around that. 

I love my car share experience and will continue to use it moving forward.

My $.02

When looking to optimize your spending, it is best to start with your largest expenses to have the most impact. For most households, this means housing and transportation. We have devoted a lot of time and energy to creating an abundance of content to help you make an informed housing decision. In contrast, we have virtually no content related to decisions about cars and transportation.

When Kim and I were both working and commuting, it made sense for us to be a two car household. We simply controlled our costs by buying newer used cars that had already taken a big depreciation hit. We then drove them as long as possible until maintenance issues started creating headaches, at which point we’d repeat the process.

Since we’ve eliminated our commutes and moved to Utah, we’ve decided to become a one car household. For the most part this has worked well.

Related: Downsizing, 5 Years Later — Any Regrets?

The exception is occasionally feeling trapped, because we need to have the car available to transport our daughter to school and activities or be dependant on others for rides. The idea of a car share is appealing. Unfortunately, it appears that the two car shares in my city have closed down since the Covid pandemic, eliminating the option of using a car share at this time. Now that car shares are on my radar, I’m hoping they may be a cost-effective and convenient option again in the future as we regain some normalcy.

Thanks to Michelle for sharing her experience to help me and other readers know where to get started when considering a car share. Here is Michelle’s bio if you want to learn more about her. We have no financial relationship.

Michelle Jackson is mission driven to help her readers and listeners empower themselves financially. Her goal is to have empathetic conversations about money outside of the boring “Here’s how to budget” that we hear over and over again. Michelle runs the website and podcast Michelle is Money Hungry.  When she’s not geeking out about personal finance you can find her exploring her home state of Colorado.

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[Chris Mamula used principles of traditional retirement planning, combined with creative lifestyle design, to retire from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. After poor experiences with the financial industry early in his professional life, he educated himself on investing and tax planning. Now he draws on his experience to write about wealth building, DIY investing, financial planning, early retirement, and lifestyle design at Can I Retire Yet? Chris has been featured on MarketWatch, Morningstar, U.S. News & World Report, and Business Insider. He is also the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence. You can reach him at chris@caniretireyet.com.]

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