That’s right, I have a family of five and I don’t own an SUV. This family of five includes two adults, one teenage boy the size of an adult, a soon-to-be eleven year old, and a three year old in a carseat.
Apparently car companies are counting on younger families buying ever-larger SUV’s. Why? Because “When families shift into the large SUVs, they can pay from $50,000 to $90,000 with extras.” according to this USA Today article. They are apparently even designing vehicles, like Ford’s new Expedition SUV, with space for extra large purses!
My fellow ladies – this is what you really want, right? At least Ford thinks so. Be sure to let them know how thoughtful they are!
What I love is that the USA Today article linked above considers 37 year olds millennial. We’ve seen this definition before in their famous article about how one in six millennials have$100k saved. So, according to this, I’m a millennial, which means this SUV strategy is targeted right at me. Hooray!
Sometimes, living in my own bubble, I forget how unusual our choices can seem to other people. I’ve seen this before when writing about why my kids don’t have cell phones, or all about kids birthday parties at home.
So yes, it’s true. I have three kids (one adult sized, one in a carseat), a largeish dog, and a cat. We go camping for a week once a year, and haul all our gear for the trip in our vehicles. We drive two cars – a 2009 Honda Accord and a 2012 Ford Focus hatchback – and make it just fine. How do we do it – and why? Let’s discuss.
But First – A Brief Sidebar
Where I live, almost every family seems to own an SUV. I know this isn’t the case everywhere in the US, or around the world, so perhaps it’s not common where you live. If so, not owning an SUV or minivan wouldn’t seem like a big deal. If that’s the case for you, I’d love you to leave a comment on what’s common in your region or country!
Also, I don’t want to play a game of frugal one-upmanship. Long time readers know that I’m big on supporting others no matter what their circumstances. Personal finance is personal – meaning you have to do what works for you. If you own an SUV or minivan, I’m not passing judgement on you. Also, maybe you have a family of ten and all ride bikes everywhere, not owning a car at all. I think that’s awesome.
My families decisions are ours alone. They may not be yours.
As long as you’ve made a careful decision based not on what everyone around you does, but on your own goals, dreams, and priorities, then you’re good.
When you want what other people don’t have, you need to do things other people won’t do ~ CMO
Why We Don’t Own An SUV – Or A Minivan
Neither my husband nor I want an SUV or minivan. Why not?
There are a number of reasons.
I’m going to go through all the different aspects of my decision – both to share with you (because it’s fun!), and to hopefully help you think through your own decision process. If you know someone struggling with a car decision, be sure to share to lend them a hand.
So without further ado, here are all the different aspects we’ve considered when making this decision.
I first got my license back in 1998, and my husband in 1992 (or so). We remember pretty low gas prices from our childhood, and from when we were first licensed. In 1998, gas was $1.06 per gallon. In 1992? $1.13.
Side note – typing this makes me feel old. “Back in my day, I could get a movie ticket for a quarter and a candy bar for a nickel…”
When we were growing up, pretty much everyone drove a car. Some folks drove trucks – my father had a truck for his painting side hustle. Large families like my husbands (four kids) drove vans.
Both my husband and I remember the first rush to SUV’s back in the early 2000’s. At first they were no where, and by the mid-2000’s they were absolutely everywhere. When parking at the grocery store, it sometimes felt like we were the only ones in a car. Back then, we just had one little child in a carseat, so a car had plenty of room for our small family. Even after our middle son was born in 2007, since both boys were small, we were good.
Before they could get much larger, we went through the gas price increase of the Great Recession, where gas spiked above $4 per gallon. That price increase was a painful addition to the budget for us, and I can’t imagine how much worse it was for owners of large vehicles.
Interestingly, after that we saw a very marked decrease in the number of SUV’s on the road. Our observations were confirmed by news reports that people were fleeing SUV’s and trucks. Cars had come back in fashion, and this would continue for the better part of the last decade.
But, as always, people don’t learn the lessons of the past. Gas prices went down, and stayed down for a long time. Eventually the financial crisis was over, and more SUV’s crept onto the road.
We didn’t forget, though. Gas prices were $4 per gallon once, and they’ll reach that price again. History shows that gas prices fluctuate a lot. I like the flexibility of not needing a large amount of gas to drive my vehicles around. In fact, I’d love to get an electric or hybrid car once the cost makes sense.
Maintaining and Insuring More Expensive Vehicles…Is More Expensive
This sounds obvious, but I believe most people don’t give enough thought to the costs after they purchase. Not only are SUV’s more expensive to buy (more on that in a minute), but they’re also more expensive to maintain.
Luckily AAA has done some research on this, and their findings aren’t that surprising. Check out the real cost of owning different types of vehicles, assuming you drive 15k miles per year (for other mileages, go to their report and find the details):
- Small sedan: $6,354
- Small SUV: $7,606
- Hybrid: $7,687
- Medium sedan: $8,171
- Electric vehicle: $8,439
- Minivan: $9,146
- Large sedan: $9,399
- Medium SUV: $9,451
- Pickup truck: $10,054
The smaller the vehicle, the less expensive it is to repair. Interestingly, the small SUV is less expensive to repair than a medium sedan. My Honda Accord is a mid-sized sedan, although my husbands Focus would be considered a “small sedan”. I think. I’m not a car person.
I always highly encourage people to check the source of quoted facts, and be an educated consumer. When you read the report, you’ll see that the cost above includes not just maintenance and insurance. It also includes gas (already covered above), depreciation, and financing.
Yes, car loans are so standard that they assume you’ve taken out a 5 year loan to buy this car.
I want to note that costs also vary a lot based on two other factors not addressed in the report:
- The brand of car. Some brands are much more expensive to maintain than others. Some types of cars depreciate faster, while others maintain their value. You can check out this article for more on cost by brand.
- Your location. Car costs for things like insurance, labor cost to make repairs, gas, and even the original purchase price of a car vary greatly by location. My friend Accidental FIRE has written a great breakdown of car ownership costs by state – you should check it out. Living in CT, I have the (questionable) honor of being in a dark blue state
Taxes On More Expensive Vehicles…Is More Expensive
I didn’t see the reports mentioning taxes, but I did want to make a (likely obvious) point about taxes. Where I live, car taxes are pretty high. Just like owning a more expensive house means more expensive taxes – forever – owning a more expensive vehicle does the same thing.
Luckily, the taxes go down over time as your vehicles get older.
The smaller, and older, the vehicle is, the less it will cost.
See, I promised I would talk about it later, and now it’s later. Hooray!
Also, I know this is super obvious. But it’s still something I want to mention.
Original purchase price shouldn’t be your only consideration when picking a vehicle. Maintenance, insurance, taxes, etc. can add up over the years to multiples of the original price of the car. It’s still a large consideration, especially if you have to finance the purchase.
Small SUV’s seem to cost about the same as mid-size sedan. Small compact cars have the lowest price. Hybrids and electric cars are more expensive at smaller sizes, of course, but generally this rule holds true.
It’s Too Much Car – Most Of The Time
This is a tip I picked up a long time ago from The Tightwad Gazette, one of the OG books on frugality that I still re-read from time to time.
I’ve known people with two kids who “need” large SUV’s, and then proceed to mostly use the SUV to drive back and forth to work. Alone. For over an hour a day. Probably not the best use of a vehicle of that size.
Are there times I wish we had a larger vehicle? Sure! When we go camping once a year, we actually fill up both cars with equipment and people. It would be nice to just head out in one vehicle. When we head out on our road trips, the car can get a bit cramped.
But deciding on a vehicle size based on one or two weeks per year, rather than our needs 50 weeks of the year, isn’t ideal. My car is mostly driven back and forth to work – by myself – so I get my car with that in mind. My husbands car is mostly used to drive the kids around, with their backpacks. So we don’t want to buy a huge car for two weeks per year.
If we ran out of room in our cars, I would rather buy a trailer for the extra stuff. Or we might rent a larger vehicle. Renting a large vehicle for a week or two would still be more cost effective for us than buying an SUV or minivan.
How We Manage
It’s really not hard to manage five people in cars.
Most weekdays, we’re driving around separately, so it’s not an issue at all. I drive back and forth to work (1.5 hours per day), and my husband drives the boys around. The oldest, 14 and adult sized, will drive in the front seat with my husband while the two younger boys are in the back.
And then, on the weekends, we’ll usually take my car (the Accord) because it has more room in the backseat. Sometimes we will drive the Focus with all five of us together, but it’s less comfortable for the teenager. He still fits, but it’s a bit cramped.
As I mentioned above, when we go camping we’ll take both cars with us.
If we need to transport something large, my cars backseats will fold down. If it’s something very large, we’ll have it delivered or we might rent a truck.
What about the dog? All five of us plus a dog can actually fit in the Focus, since it’s a hatchback. We don’t often need to do that, though. Thor doesn’t like to go camping with us, so he usually hangs out with Grandma and Grandpa while we’re gone. My husband will typically drop him off with the boys while I’m at work.
What about friends? If a friend needs a ride, there’s room for them. If we need to transport more friends, then we need to split up the kids (two cars, again) and remove the carseat from one of the cars. We’ve done that before when our oldest son had a birthday party where we drove everyone to see a movie. He had five friends over, and everyone made it just fine.
The Accord has a pretty large trunk, and since the Focus is a hatchback, it’s pretty easy to pack a large amount of stuff. We can easily fit luggage for all of us for a week into the trunk of my car.
We don’t have a frequent need to give other people rides, but if we did, we would use the same strategies.
It’s Not That Hard
From some of the reactions I get, you would think this is some sort of huge sacrifice. It’s really not. Sometimes it’s mildly inconvenient, but 99% of the time it works just fine. And that other 1% of the time, it just takes a bit of work and creativity to get things to work out.
What kind of car arrangement do you have – and more importantly, what was your decision process? And if you have an “untraditional” or unusual arrangement compared with the people you know, what kinds of reactions have you gotten?
Let me know in the comments. You’ll be part of helping others make the best of these kinds of decisions for themselves.
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