Recently I’ve discovered that every month for the past few months I’ve been spending a couple hundred dollars more than I’m earning. After extensive consultations with a crack team of financial planners and economists, it turns out that isn’t how it’s supposed to work. And let me tell you, it’s a real gut punch to find out you’re living beyond your means when you own two pairs of shoes and eat most of your meals out of a 9-year-old rice cooker.
Every week I work 32 extremely flexible hours from home. I can’t add any more hours to my schedule – it’s a part time job, and the whole reason I quit my full-time job was so I could have more time for my screenplays. So I had to cut costs – but I’d already cut a lot of them, including my entire “Fuck It, I’m Going To Get A Takeout Burrito” budget. I don’t shop, I don’t go to concerts and I barely travel. The only fat left in my budget was my subscriptions to Netflix and The New Yorker, but if I got rid of those I’d be compromising my very identity as a white person just to knock $15 or so off my $300 monthly deficit.
In going over my bills, I did notice that I was spending an awful lot of money on public transit. I’m a big fan of LA’s subway system, largely because I’m also a big fan of being slightly too inebriated to drive. It’s a convenient, relatively clean and traffic-immune way to get to and from Hollywood and downtown, which was why I was spending upwards of $50 a month on fares.
And looking at this, I thought, Well, come on, man. You’re already spending hundreds of dollars a month to have a car. You ought to drive it more often and quit wasting money on the subway.
And then I thought, Wait.
I lease a little grey Prius, and I really like it a lot. I don’t love and cherish it the way I did my previous car, The Mystery Wagon, and I’m fine with that. Like a toaster oven or a high-class prostitute, I appreciate the work my car does without feeling any sentimental attachment to it. Only after going through my finances and doing painstaking amounts of math did I realize that this reliable little compact car costs me between $450 and $500 a month.
So far this year, between the payments, the insurance, gas, parking, registration and the occasional wash, I spend $14.50 every single day to have this car in my life. Since I work from home, I only really use my car two or three times a week – but it still costs me $14.50 all seven days, no matter what I do.
I like my car. I like the mileage and the turning radius and the way Electric Light Orchestra’s “10538 Overture” sounds on the stereo. But do get $14.50 worth of enjoyment out of those things every day?
The truth is, there’s only one thing in this world that I care about enough to spend $14.50 on it every day, and that’s lunch. What’s more, my favorite burrito in town only costs $7.50, and I’d long since cut that out of my budget. When I found out that I was sacrificing nearly two Taco Love burritos per day for the privilege of being able to drive to Trader Joe’s once and awhile, I started to question why I even had a car in the first place.
My car insurance company has a GPS unit in my Prius which tracks where I drive so they can bill me by the mile. It’s the sort of invasion of privacy that would give Rand Paul the vapors, but it means I spend less money, so I’m okay with it. And in this case, it gave me a chance to see on a map everywhere I’ve taken my car over the past nine months, and then run those destinations through an Uber price estimator to see how much it would’ve cost to get everywhere without a car.
When the dust had settled, the pungent stench of math still hanging heavy in the air, I had my answer: Using the subway and Uber’s low-cost UberPool option to get around would cost 44% of what I’m currently spending to lease a car. By only paying for transportation when I need it, I can keep more than half of the money I’ve been spending to have personal transportation ready 24 hours a day.
So, I’ve talked to the dealership and I'm returning my car at the end of the month.
At least a couple of my friends think I’m crazy. The main argument they make is one about freedom. They can’t believe that I’m giving up the ability to pick up and go whenever I want to, wherever I want to, just me and the open road.
Here’s the thing, though: I hate driving more than you can possibly imagine. It’s one of my least favorite things that I have to do on a regular basis, right up there with cleaning my shower and pretending I don’t think Burning Man is a crock. I don’t enjoy or cherish the responsibility of being in control of a two-ton piece of heavy machinery that kills around 32,000 Americans every year. When I’m behind the wheel I’m tenser, angrier and racister than at any other point in my day.
When I decided to get rid of my car, it occurred to me that I ought to at least try UberPool before I fully committed to this thing. UberPool offers supercheap rates by having drivers pick up two different passengers who the app has determined are going in the same direction. The idea sounded great on paper, but if it meant I’d spend every trip with some Del Griffith type talking my ear off it might be worth reconsidering, since I hate talking to strangers even more than driving.
So that evening, I called an UberPool to take me to meet some friends at a bar. The app told me the trip across town, at peak hours, would cost me $5.15. This was even cheaper than expected, and things only got better when my car arrived and I got a look at who I’d be sharing the backseat with.
The other passenger was a gorgeous blonde woman, probably no older than 23, dressed to the nines and wearing perfume. Her eyes briefly flicked up from her phone when I opened the door, and we both muttered “Hey” in unison as I had a seat.
Holy shit. Today’s my lucky day, I thought as the driver pulled away and headed for the freeway. There’s no way she’s going to try and talk to me!
And she didn’t! It was a wonderful, quiet, relaxing trip that took maybe five minutes longer than if I had driven myself, but without my shoulders and back getting all knotted up from the stress. I did some reading on my phone, jotted down some notes for a script, and then eventually just rolled down the window to people-watch and feel the wind in my face.
I couldn’t have done any of that if I was driving. And that, to me, is what freedom really is.