the money breakdown

Being unemployed right now means that I probably think about money (and not having any) more than your average bear. Or maybe not, since I hate thinking about money. But either way, I was thinking about it as I biked around today, and I got to wondering how much having only a bike has saved me.

I bought my current bike in September of 2005, so right now she’s about 5 years and 5 months old.  I’ve replaced a few things on her, and taken her to the shop a few times. I do most repairs myself, but I know there are some things I haven’t been able to fix.  Thinking back over 5 years is, of course, a rather muddy affair, but even so, here’s a wild estimate of what I’ve spent:

  • $1049 initial cost
  • $300 x 3 new wheel sets
  • $40 x 6 new tires
  • $10 x 12 new brake pad sets
  • $40 x 1 front chain ring
  • $50 x 1 cassette
  • $25 x 4 new chains
  • $150 x 2 for fenders and then replacement fenders when my first ones broke
  • $300 for random costs like cables, lube, handlebar tape, seatpost bag, lights, inner tubes, etc.
  • $800 for maintenance/shop fees
  • And then I’m going to add an extra $1000, just for incidental expenses I’m not remembering (this is approximative, remember?:)

I should add that I’m estimating pretty high for this stuff. I doubt I’ve actually spent $800 on taking my bike to the shop, for example, but since it’s possible I’m going to put it down. So over 5 years and 5 months, my total transportation has cost me roughly $4,899.

Now for the fun part. In those 5 years and 5 months, I’ve generally biked at least 100 miles a week, sometimes more, sometimes less. So let’s estimate a round 25,000 miles biked in that time.

What would it have cost if I’d had a car? Let’s say I bought a used, fuel-efficient car. I don’t honestly know much about this and I’m basically just using Google to find, again, totally approximative costs (feel free to let me know where I’m totally off base). But let’s say, in 2005 when I bought my bike, I instead bought a used 2000 Honda Civic and paid $6000 for it. That’s way too low for a car that’s only 5 years old, but that’s okay.

Now I need insurance. I just found online that the average insurance cost per year last year was about $1400. I’ll just assume I paid that much for each of the five years I would have had my car. Insurance for five years, then, is $7000. So buying my car and then insuring it for five years has cost $13,000.

Okay, now let’s assume I drove the same number of miles as I biked, 25,000. A Civic seems to get around 30 miles per gallon once you average street and highway, so that’s about 833 gallons. At a relatively low cost of $2.75/gallon (those were the days, right?), that’s still $2291 for gas. That’s also assuming, of course, that I don’t make any extra trips simply because of the convenience of having a car.

So assuming I never, ever over 5 years had to take my car in for any repairs (unlikely, since it was a $6000 used car, after all), my theoretical and low-estimated motorized transportation has cost me $15,291, more than three times as much as a very high estimate of what it’s cost to ride my bike. Again, that’s assuming absolutely no repairs, no crashes, no insurance spikes, and no increases in the $2.75 price of gas.

So even though (I can’t say this enough) this is a very rough, sketchy estimate of costs, I feel pretty good that over only 5 years I’ve managed to save myself tens of thousands of dollars simply by using my own human power to get me places. Think of how much freedom that gives me to take lower-paying jobs, not work as many hours, donate to charity, or spend on other things. How different would your life look if you had that kind of extra money lying around?


  1. I cry false. ;-) While the general point that owning a car is much less expensive than owning a car is well taken, there are other considerations that you need to factor.

    First of all, I’m troubled by your insurance estimates. I own two vehicles and insure them for $516 and $768 respectively. I’m willing to be that the average you quote is inflated by getting replacement insurance for brand-new vehicles. Insuring a six-year old Honda Civic would bring you down into my range. So, let’s split it down the middle and assume something like $640/year. That reduces your motorized transportation costs down by $3800. That brings the total costs down to $11491. Additionally, you need to throw in maintenance costs for the vehicle. I wouldn’t want to be you driving 25,000 miles without changing the oil. ;-)

    Second, you have to consider rental, public transit, and “mooching” costs. Surely you have either rented vehicles, taken the bus or Max, or relied on the kindness of other vehicle owners for certain occasions. It all has a cost.

    Third, what about opportunity costs? Not having a vehicle has probably meant giving up certain things/opportunities. It’s hard to place a dollar amount on such things. But not owning a vehicle involves such costs. For example, spontaneous trips to the beach or Seattle that never materialized. Additionally, longer commutes impose opportunity costs on your time — an extremely valuable commodity.

    Finally, I checked Tri-Met’s website for an interesting addition to your chart. You can get a yearly all-zone pass for $968. Over five years, that’s just $4840. Portland’s transit system is amazing and has the reach of most (if not more) than your average daily bike commute.

    You could have saved $59 if you were a user of public transit. Perhaps even more if you shunned the pass, walked more places and just used tickets for longer commutes. With that kind of money lying around, you could have gone out to a nice meal. :-)

  2. Darn. Should have proofread my post.

  3. Stephen, I’m not exactly clear on what your point is. If the aim of this post was to indicate the large cost differential between owning a bike and owning a car, then I think it did that, even by your own estimate. It’s strange to argue with an assertion that’s so clearly true, the hard costs of owning a personal vehicle are tremendous.

    Even by your own calculations, car ownership comes out to be many times as expensive as owning a bike. (As a point of fact, the national average for car insurance was around what the author indicated, although it’s risen slightly over the last few years.)

    If the point wasn’t to quibble about a few dollars here and there (which misses the intention of the post), then I suppose it was to say that there have been missed opportunities resulting from using a bike instead of a vehicle (as your third item gestured at). I can’t speak for the author, but I know from my own experience that there are some things lost, but also many things gained. The first and foremost in my mind being the inherent benefit of exercise on quality (and length) of life. I think none of us are rigorous statisticians, but my guess is that in the long run health benefits of cycling would factor hugely into a cost analysis. And that’s excluding the environmental, social, infrastructural, etc. costs of individual automobiles. There are also the intangible benefits of cycling, which I hope you (as an avowed cyclist) appreciate.

    As for the Trimet option, it’s true that by this quick analysis looking at only hard costs over a limited period of time, that the two options might be pretty close, but I think that that assertion also kind of misses the point. Even for the average commuter, Trimet’s span is much smaller than can reasonably be achieved on a bike. When coupled with the limited schedule of public transportation and the additional transit on both ends of the trip, it’s a much less attractive option. I used to have the annual pass that you mentioned and it was great, but it severely limited where and when I could travel. After a few years here I started taking my (free) bike instead and could never switch back to the wait times and limited scheduling of public transportation. It’s true for me that I still use it occasionally, if I’m traveling somewhere difficult to reach by bike, but the same is true of my friends who own their own vehicles.

    I’ve also not understood your negativity in your posts. I mean, the author’s clear excitement around biking to me is refreshing. Not sure why each one of your posts aims to cut that down…

  4. Stephen Dedalus

    JamesOfsink, your points are well-taken. The point of my post was not to quibble over a few dollars. Apart fromt the exaggerated costs of insurance under the assumption of a six-year old used vehicle, I noted that there are other costs to account for when owning a vehicle (like maintenance). The first point was to argue that the gap, while large, is not as large as the author (stasia) implied.

    Since the gap is smaller, I think the other costs I mention become much more important. Opportunity costs are real for any market decision. If you only make small trips within a 100-mile (give or take) radius of your home, then those opportunity costs may only involve time and (perhaps) some inclement-weather travel costs. But if you want to travel further, you will often have to rely on other car-owners or forego/postpone the trips entirely.

    Are there things gained by commuting on a bike? Surely there are. The opportunity costs of owning an automobile are just as real. I’ve experienced those benefits as a bike-owner. But I’ve also experienced the benefits of owning a car. In any case, given that stasia’s post was about “the money breakdown,” I take it that these costs/benefits are incidental to the main argument.

    My intention for the posts is not to be negative. I suppose it does look like I’m trolling, in part because the comments are rather sparse. My intent is only to expand the dialogue to focus on the assumptions that underly this blog — assumptions that many car owners will flatly deny, ending the conversation altogether. If the author’s purpose is to preach to the choir and to make car-free owners feel good about themselves, I suppose that this dialogue isn’t needed or appreciated. But if the hope is to proselytize car owners to a new way of thinking, these assumptions need to be examined.

  5. Thanks for the comments, guys. Love the sparring;)

    Just to clarify, I think I made it pretty clear that my estimates are pretty wild ones (on both ends–keep in mind I added a whole extra thousand dollars to my bike–about a quarter of the total cost–just because I’m not sure about either estimate). The point, like JamesOfsink said, is not to have a rigorous breakdown of cost, but just to broadly gesture at how not having a car has freed my financial situation.

    I think it’s pretty ridiculous to argue that biking everywhere could ever cost even close to what it would cost to have a car.

    As far as opportunity costs, good points all around. Surely a bike limits the possibility to, say, drive to the coast on a sunny Saturday. I certainly think about that sometimes, and it’s not unfathomable that I’d accept a ride from someone else going somewhere fun. I’m not totally an extremist here;)

    But that being said, I think there’s a benefit to the locality that having a bike entails. I know Portland way better than most people I know simply because I explore around here so much. Also, it’s not as though only having a bike totally precludes travel: bike travel is fun and actually quite easy (I promise), and it’s super lovely to have gotten someone by your own power. You can’t go as far, but you can see where you go much better than when you whiz by it in a car.

    I’m not sure there’s a simple solution that applies to everyone, but I am sure that my bike has saved me a whole shit-ton of money, no matter what;)

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