What Does Your Car Cost? A Lot More Than You Think

Last Updated Apr 23, 2010 5:45 PM EDT

What does your car (or cars) cost? A lot more than you think, according to the authors of the new book Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effects on Our Lives (Palgrave Macmillan). Of course, Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez (who are sisters) are predisposed to cast a jaundiced eye on our auto dependency, but their research is solid.

To calculate your own cost of car ownership, use this handy tool from Edmunds.com. And here's another one, with the caveat that it's from a bike group that hates cars. The group says that the average family spends almost as much on cars as they do on food and health care combined.

Here are the basic facts:

Transportation swallows one in five dollars spent, up from one in 10 in 1960. In 2008, the average new car cost $26,477, and it's our tendency to think of that expense (plus gas and oil) as being pretty much it. But you've only made the down payment. American families own an average of two cars, and the Department of Energy says that together they drive 22,000 miles annually. At a rate of 66 cents a mile, that means $14,000 out of the family budget. The authors can't resist adding, "Parking and tickets can add hundreds more."

If our cars had taxi-type meters ticking off the costs at 66 cents a mile we'd probably drive a whole lot less. And then we'd save a bundle if we had the novel concept of pay-as-you-drive insurance, which the Brookings Institute says could save the average family $500 a year.

Forgot about that garage you just had to have, didn't you? The only problem is that it probably added $30,000 to the cost of the house and represents 10 percent of the annual property tax bill. The Pew Research Center, piling it on, points out helpfully that a quarter of all unexpected expenses are car-related. You don't expect your car to drop its $1,600 transmission in the middle of a traffic jam, but it can and it will.

The foregoing assumes you actually own your car outright, but in the credit-happy U.S. this is often not the case. The average family carries $8,500 in credit card debt and spends 20 percent of earnings on interest payments. When people finance their cars, they don't put a whole lot of money down these days. The average car loan in 2009 was almost $25,000, the authors report, and at least until the recession of 2008 that represented 95 percent of the purchase price.

Today average car payments are $470 a month, a figure you need to double because most families have two vehicles. And a third of the people trading in cars in 2004 owed more on them then they were worth. "As a nation we now live beyond our income," the authors scold, "and we are led there in some large part by car spending."`

There are solutions to this sea of debt, but you probably don't want to hear them. Carpool. Try to get by with one car. Buy a house without a garage. Consider living in a city with good public transit and go car-free. Combine trips and get your groceries delivered. Look into car sharing. Kick the tires on an electric vehicle, which operates for two cents a mile. Like I said, you didn't want to hear them.

Photo: Flickr/Mark Sardella