Thursday, May 26, 2016

On being a one-car family again

Three years ago now, I wrote a blog post on the occasion of the arrival of our Kia Carnival, called Becoming a Two-Car Family. In that post, I detailed our reasons for deciding to keep, rather than trade, our early-2000s Commodore station wagon - mostly to do with convenience, prompted by the extraordinary unreliability of public transport at the time. My husband was then using a bus service to get to work that was excruciatingly unpredictable, causing us endless angst as a family. Ditching the bus was a sweet relief, and one we all benefited from.

This three-year heyday came to an abrupt end last Friday, when my husband called me while on his way home from a work day in Ballarat.

"Car's broken down," he said, stress evident in his voice. "In the middle of traffic, but I got it to the side of the road ... It won't start, I don't know what's wrong with it."

After several calls, we arranged to get the car towed from Hopetoun, where it stopped, back to our local mechanics. I collected my husband from there and we went home to spend an anxious night wondering what news we'd get the next day.

By midday on the Saturday, we knew three things:

1. The car's engine was irretrievably busted.
2. Putting a reconditioned one in was going to cost $2500 - $3000, which was about as much as the very old and weatherbeaten Commodore was worth overall.
3. We had a decision to make that was potentially going to change the way our family life operated.

It wasn't an easy decision.

It came about as the culmination of what has been a truly heinous three months in terms of expenses, with items like fencing, roofing repairs, an out-of-pocket surgical procedure, dentistry, business equipment purchases, all insurances, and unexpected additional education costs, all coming one after the other without relief. The idea of spending perhaps as much as $3000 on the car, without knowing why the engine had suddenly failed with no warning (and running the risk that it might do so again in three months), was disheartening in the extreme.

We considered too, after thinking it through for a bit, the fact that our circumstances are materially different (and more amenable to one-car living) now as compared with 2013.

Firstly, I am no longer in a salaried job - I'm working freelance and usually do three days a week exclusively from home. My husband, too, has a day at home, as he works 4 days a week. This makes true car-sharing a realistic prospect, with me concentrating my client site visits onto Tuesdays and Wednesdays as far as possible.

Secondly, my husband's fitness level has increased radically in the past two years, to the point where the once-intimidating walk to our nearest station is now easily and quickly achievable for him. Our nearest station is a premium station, which means all trains stop there and in fact we have two lines to choose from. My own PT options for my biggest current work client are also excellent, which means on the days I visit them, I can also manage without the car. (Two other clients are essentially car-only access, but I only visit each of them once a fortnight or so).

Thirdly, our eldest daughter is at high school and independent in her commute now, and our second girl will be joining her next year. This leaves only Child the Youngest at the local primary school - a much more manageable ask if we needed to beg wet-weather lifts from friends and neighbours.

Fourthly, like many middle-income mortgaged households with kids going into their teens, we are feeling the squeeze with increasing costs of living (even in the context of the reasonably good year of freelance business I've had). We did the maths - it will cost us about 1/3 as much per year in increased PT as it cost to keep the Commodore insured, registered and provided with petrol. And that's before you factor in servicing or repairs - a hard sell for people who are trying to be frugal.

So we decided to let the Commodore ("Soxy", named for its first numberplates which included SOX) go the way of all metal. Between the refund of the unused registration and insurance, plus what we got from wreckers, we have come out marginally in front even given paying for the tow and the mechanic's assessment. (I'm talking "the price of a lunch out" in front here, not "holiday in the Caribbean" in front, but ANY in front is a lot better than $3000 behind!)

We'll see how it goes. So far, so good - but it is only week one, so that assessment is clearly premature. If it gets really burdensome, we will look at buying an inexpensive runaround car next year. I'm hoping, though, that we can make it work again, being a one-car family.


  1. Truly tragic! losing 'Soxy'
    Best wishes for your commuting in the coming months.. Winter is coming ;-)

  2. To put this in context it's a 20 minute (brisk) walk to the station, then after the train ride it's another 20 min walk from Southern Cross to where I work. All up if nothing goes wrong it's a total travel time of just over an hour. I lose 20-30 mins each way on my old travel mode (the drive was around 30-40 mins depending on traffic). I thought I might gain some productivity by not being behind the wheel, however the only way they could get more of us on the train is to load us horizontally (someone's out there right now, working out how this could be done I am sure). So no extra productivity for me, well...maybe scanning a few emails where velocity and acceleration allows it. It's pretty much headphones on and I'm no better off than driving from that perspective. I am a reluctant PT user, as PT has totally shafted me in the past. It is obvious to anyone who uses PT that there is not enough investment in PT and that our government does not really take it seriously. I speculate that this is because their financial backers have no vested interest in a functioning transport system. I assume this is due to A: they never use it themselves and B:don't trouble themselves with the difficulties of their widget making minions who do. So far my evaluation is that it is not a total loss since the extra walking fits in with my lifestyle goals. The fact that I am not getting any younger means I need to work on, and maintain my fitness whilst it's still achievable to do so. The walking is a plus but the PT is on balance a minus. However it should not be so, if some vision and actual long term management was applied to the system it could become the preferred option. At the moment it gets me where I need to go, and that's at least better than by previous experience... yes I'm looking at you former 232 bus service. *narrows eyes*.