Getting ready for the holidays, Zero Car style!

I am afraid that living without a car for nearly 19-months has turned me into a less-than-perfect parent. Something like the opposite of a helicopter parent; maybe a pool-side cabana parent? Without weekly, or even monthly, fill-the-SUV trips to the grocery store and our summer CSA ending two weeks ago, the cupboards have seriously thinned out.

Zero Car Kid: “Mom, what can I eat?”

Zero Car Mom: “If you add some water to the flour in the pantry, you can make a paste that can be cooked like a pancake. Add some salt for flavor.”

Zero Car Kid: “Ugh. Again? Can’t I have mac and cheese?”

Zero Car Mom: “Sure, if you can find some. If not, we have some chickpea flour and dried beans.”

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This is not a real book.

I learned about that flour and water fritter recipe in 8th grade when I read the The Grapes of Wrath. Who knew it would come in handy in 2017. Without a car, we have a by-default frugal (a.k.a lazy) life that would make my Depression-era grandma proud. With not much food in the house, we’ve had a lot more “fend for yourself dinners.” Don’t worry, no one is starving. With Zero Car Dad eating a plant-based diet, Zero Car Kid eating a no-plant diet, and well, me, being pretty bored with eating anything that doesn’t have a shot of bourbon in it, it’s working out for now. There is a chance that we have never been happier because we all get to eat what we want.

But I know that you are really reading today because you are just dying to know how we going to handle our holiday shopping without a car? Of course, there are Amazon and Etsy, but where’s the fun in just pointing and clicking? Right? Is that what you were thinking? I am trying really hard to figure out what you’re thinking, because not driving a car for 19-months has me feeling quite removed from, and possibly at risk of being ostracized by, car-owning readers like you.

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The holiday shopping question is a great one because it gives me yet another opportunity to use a righteous tone while I talk about how laid back and anti-consumerist I am. Rather than take credit for these morally upstanding concepts, I will instead compare myself to the brilliant Albert Einstein who once said, “A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.” Einstein apparently wrote this good advice on a napkin or something instead of giving a tip to a hotel bellman. So, it sounds like he was kind of fiscally thrifty, too. The similarities between us are sure adding up.

Not owning a car has been one of the most restful decisions I have ever made. Like my doppelgänger Albert says, calm and modest is a happier way to live. I challenge you to argue that you do not feel rushed, one might even say restless, when you are out and about doing things in your car.

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Zero Car Mom inexplicably loves these, but can only find them at gas stations.

From where I sit, on my couch, you are always going somewhere. I am never going anywhere. You are frequently “just running out to get a few things.” I have flour in the pantry and water on tap, so I’m all set. You are frequently rushing back to where you were before you went out. You see, I’m still here on my couch. And, here’s the kicker: what is the most likely thing that you were doing when you were out driving? You were buying something, weren’t you? Maybe it was lunch. Or a 30 heads of garlic at Costco because that’s how many you needed to get the discount. Or buying gas to put in the car itself and well, since you’re at the gas station, maybe a bag of Munchos®, because you always loved them as a kid and you were sure that they didn’t make them anymore, but they do and why do they only sell them at gas stations?

 

Mile for mile, driving a car may be faster than walking or riding a bike, but driving back and forth can make us feel more rushed and out of time. You can’t feel rushed if you’re not going anywhere. It’s magical.

Magical. That reminds me, this post is supposed to be about the holidays. A magical time of year for our Zero Car Family because we keep it simple, or like my buddy Mr. Einstein likes to say, “modest.”  But I also don’t assign a success or failure label to my performance as a parent during the holidays. If I have more time to spend with my kid, I mean, come on, that really is the best gift I can give.

3 things that I don’t miss about having a car for the holidays:

  1. Parking at the mall
  2. Shopping at the mall
  3. People at the mall
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Instead of this, I am on my couch re-reading The Grapes of Wrath for frugal recipe ideas.

3 things I love about a zero car holiday season:

  1. I walk to where I can shop.
  2. I buy only what I can carry in my backpack, so I don’t overspend.
  3. I have lots of free time not driving, parking, or sitting in holiday traffic.
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This local organization may be supported by people who own cars, but we are on the same page when it comes to shopping for gifts as close to home as possible.

Not owning a car means that we have had to re-calibrate how to experience happiness, including the holidays, in a different way.  December can be a month of free time, a gift to yourself, if you walk to Main Street instead of driving to Target.  That leaves me more time to bake some brownies or watercolor some greeting cards for my friends.

Does this helmet cover my shame?

This is a Flashback post. I never posted it last year. This happened in September 2016. Things are different now.
It never should have happened. I drove a car to take my son to soccer practice. I feel like a guilty teenager who “accidentally” cheated on his girlfriend, “Uh, I don’t know, we were just hanging out and then, it just happened; our clothes were off and we were kissing.”
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I honestly don’t know what came over me.  It was a beautiful day. I started my morning with mental preparation for another joyful, ‘life is a journey’ ride. I took three ibuprofen so I wouldn’t use my cramps as an excuse not to ride. I made sure to eat lunch so I would not be hungry.  But, I guess I was more ambivalent than my self-talk could persuade. All it took was one tiny nudge from my tired boy to tip me to the dark side. When it was time to hop on the bike he asked, in his sweetest and for once non-whiny voice, “can we just take the red car ?” [our neighbors gave us the key to their red Prius for a month in 2016]

To my credit, I did push back at first. I said, “you can just ride without pedaling for most of the trip, except on the hills when I need your help.” I must have heard myself say that out loud and realized that it sounded insane.  “Okay,” I reversed, “we can take the car.” I grabbed the key and we walked up to the ball field where the car was parked. We climbed in and my heart sank. This was the pre-regret stage.
Of course we arrived twenty minutes early because we had built in extra time for biking. I parked the red Prius in the far corner so we could make a quick getaway. Maybe no one would notice that we had not ridden our bikes.  I may have been sweat free, but I was filled with guilt and a distinct lack of cardiovascular exhaustion.

Unlike a doping bike racer, I confessed immediately to the first friend to arrive. “We cheated!” I announced, then quickly looked away.
I confessed to two more people who seemed to not even know what the hell I was talking about. A lovely acquaintance from my town approached me to tell me what an inspiration we were riding our bikes everywhere, “blah, praise, blah, praise.” Awwgh. It was awful. What had I done?

“I was feeling a little under the weather,” I half-lied to someone who I am sure she gave not a single shit that I (gasp) drove a car to soccer practice.
If you regularly drive a car, you can probably muster a fair amount of sympathy for me; you might even be supporting me. Heck, you might even be rooting for me to fail, because the Zero Car Family project makes you feel bad every time you drive the 1/2 mile to take your own kid to school. We are only human, even Zero Car Mom, and humans are not designed to walk and bike everywhere, you might be thinking.
But, the thing is: we made a commitment to this lifestyle and that includes getting to weekly soccer practice; cramps or not.

Five days of free train rides

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Right now I am sitting at a picnic table, tapping into the wifi at the Garrison Art Center, for a brief pause in my day. I am waiting for the train home; here in 25-minutes. I just dropped off my 7-year-old at camp. This is our second summer without a car. No car means almost no choice. It’s the best thing ever. We had three camps within walking, biking, or train riding distance. We chose two. For those of you marinating in an abundance of summer activities, you don’t know what you are missing. No choice means no fretting and no regretting.  I also have no choice but to sit here and wait for my train. But, of course, by getting rid of the car we made the choice… to not have a choice.

The best part of this beautiful day, as I ponder my lack of choices before I head to work, is the realization that our 10 three-minute commutes this week cost us exactly $0. And, you know, I’m all about the zeroes.

My $700 weekend car rental.

When you don’t own a car and you rent one for the weekend a portal opens to glorious lands. Places well beyond the six-mile radius you are willing to ride your bike. Places to which you can’t walk. Places Metro-North has never dared to travel. Places that others speak of with great fondness and familiarity. When I tell people that we don’t have a car, they wonder aloud how I will travel to their favorite places. People say things like, “but, but, how do you get to Target?”
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No, I did not splurge and rent a luxury car. But I might as well have. I rented this one instead. The rate was $35/day, but I spent almost $600 driving around and buying stuff.
Last weekend I had to travel to a work event 45-minutes from home. Trains and buses would have made it a burdensome 90-minutes. Since, we were running low on toilet paper, my sniffly old cat was insisting on constant feeding of canned food and we were out of zero-car husband’s favorite spicy ramen, a weekend car rental was in the stars. For what it cost me, I probably could have rented a space ship to the actual stars. The car itself cost only $116 for two days (that included rental, basic insurance, and $11 in gas). However, I spent $590 driving it to places that sell things.

When people wonder how we can possibly get by without a car, they seem to mostly wonder how we will spend our disposable income.
One motive for selling the car was to eliminate the expense of owning it: car payments, insurance, registration, the occasional parking ticket, gas, and maintenance. That savings (for us) came to $25,000 for the remaining four years of our loan plus those pesky operating expenses. Once the car was paid off we estimated saving $2000 each year.
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When it was time to return the car, I put my bike in the backseat so I could get myself home. The car rental place was eight miles from our house. It was a nice day for a ride.
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Since I was in the shopping mode, I stopped by a favorite place to drop cash when I am in Beacon: Barb’s Butchery.

I haven’t added it up, but I know we save serious money because we can’t ride our bikes to the many, many places that sell things.

It’s really no surprise that on the weekend when we had a car, I went a little crazy with the spending. I filled the trunk and emptied my wallet.
We simply do not drive to malls, restaurants, movie theaters, roller rinks, trampoline places, and discount liquor stores. Are you just dying to know what we have been doing instead? Well, for the last 14 months we have been rolling around in big piles of cash and staring out the window at the empty parking spot in front of our house. Actually, I’ve just been hanging out at home baking pies and playing Sorry with my kid and dreaming about retirement, just a little bit.

 

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Picking cherries and baking pies.
Renting a car for two days cost me $700.
Car rental $67 for two full days
Basic insurance coverage $30
$11 gas
$550 BJs – groceries, lots of toilet paper, cat food, and ramen
$40  Beacon Market – peanut butter, bulk beans, popcorn, and raisins

If my calculations are correct, not having a car has saved us nearly $6250 in car expenses this year, plus at least a $200/month in buying things we probably didn’t need in the first place.
 

How to vacation without a car.

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The St. Petersburg Yacht Club on a beautiful day.

I spent 45-minutes as a passenger in a car yesterday. The shining sun and the cool air blended into the most harmonious of temperatures. It was a spring day in St. Petersburg, Florida. If you are not familiar with the seasons in the “sunshine state” early spring is a notoriously small window of time when the dreaded humidity of late spring, all of summer, and well into early fall, has not yet steamed in. Yesterday was as good a day as anyone could ask for anywhere. It was the perfect day to ride a bike or take a walk; to stroll past the crowd at the “Seafood and Music Festival” and the yacht club docks where halyard lines on boat masts clinked and clanged. But, alas, I was in a car. And worse yet, there was traffic. I looked out the window like a trapped pup and with as much mindful intention as I could muster I drew in a deep breath through my pursed lips and slowly exhaled. “Just try to enjoy the ride,” I said to myself.  OMG, I literally said that to myself. I thought about the people, so many people, not only the elderly and infirm, who delight in sightseeing from the comfort of a car. Had we decided to park the car…oh, let’s not even go there.

 

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Yesterday was more like this. There was a festival. There were lots of people. Apparently they all came in cars.
The problem with trying to live up to my zero car standards on vacation, is that other people are involved. I am visiting Florida to socialize with my parents (in their late 70s) and my brother’s family visiting from the Pacific Northwest of Canada—as car dependent a set of relatives as any Zero Car Daughter could deign to imagine. If I want to do things with these people, and that is why we flew down here, I have to get in a car. A lot.

 

My folks have bikes here for us, which is awesome. There’s a right size bike for my seven-year-old and an old hybrid with meaty tread on the tires for me. It’s a sturdy, good ride. The cheap foam helmets are just for show and I never feel safe wearing them, so this trip I strapped my own to my backpack and carried it on the plane. In the first two days, I have ridden the bike once, but I have done a good amount walking.  A grocery trip with my sister-in-law would have been an easy bike journey of about 1.5 miles, but we took the car. I have to admit that without my gigantic soccer backpack, I wouldn’t have been able to get the load of groceries back to the house.

 

One way to avoid getting in cars is to make everyone else do the errand running while I sit in the hammock by the lake reading short stories by B.J. Novak, laughing out loud while sadly reflecting on how much funnier he is than me. Or I could regress to my adolescent self (that happens anyway I suppose) and actively reject, rebel, mock, and isolate. “I am not like you people! I recycle and bicycle. I love anything with the word ‘cycle’ in it.”

 

I am trying to find the right balance of enjoying my family and staying out of cars. I will write again soon. Probably from the hammock while someone else drives to the store to get more chips.

My shower caddy and the internet gurus

A few weeks ago I got rid of a poorly designed shower caddy. It took me five years to toss it.  I bet you’re wondering what the heck this has to do with living without a car? Well, I’ve got some life efficiency gurus on deck today to help me explain.
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This is the 2017 edition of my shower caddy. I am happy to have it, but I am more happy to not have my clumsy old 2011 version.
First, about that caddy. I purchased a shower caddy in June 2011 to make my life better. The shower caddy was purchased to solve a problem: our bathtub had no shelves. But the problem-solving caddy turned out to be a real negative in my life. A negative I ignored for five years and four months. The purported problem-solving shower caddy has, for more than five years, frequently and annoyingly slipped down the shaft of the shower head spilling my razor, soap, and overpriced curly hair products to the tub floor. In my estimate this slipping caddy action has occurred in more than 50% of my showers. (keeping in mind that the average person is not a reliable reporter of events in his or her own life because of something called social desirability bias.)

 

At least half of my showers in the past five years have been disrupted by a loud crashing noise that required me to bend over and pick up stuff. Ugh. So aggravating.
On February 10, 2017, I got rid of the horribly designed bathroom accessory. Since then, 100% of my showers have been pure, crash-free bliss. To be clear, it is the absence of that shitty shower caddy that has changed my bathing life for the better, not the addition of the far superior, clamped-on, secure caddy. Getting rid of the negative thing is what made my showers happier.
 
I read a lot about frugal living, minimalism, and early retirement. The one thing these lifestyles have in common is a basic assumption that adding things to your life (even positive things) does not necessarily make your life better. For example, I owned a pretty nice car.  It was a 2012 VW Jetta. It was fun to drive. It had a five-speed manual transmission. It had leather-ish seats. It had Sirius XM. We had a crazy-low interest rate on the loan. When we bought it, I was certain it would be a net positive in my life. We sold it a year later.  In retrospect, I did not realize how many negatives it was adding. I have always owned a car, just like everyone else, and I could not consider for one second that it could be making my life less satisfying or efficient. It’s remarkable what we humans will do out of pure habit.
 
Two gurus and a lady in her bathroom. 
Last Sunday, I was on my hands and knees painting the baseboard in the bathroom, listening to a podcast on my laptop which was balanced on a yoga block in the sink. I don’t generally listen to podcasts or put my computer in sinks, but Mr. Money Mustache was being interviewed by the 4-Hour Workweek guy here: The Tim Ferriss Show. Zero Car Mom was interested to listen (and not just because we all have cool blogging handles.) I felt like I was in the Church of Born Again Walkers and these guru-type guys were my spiritual leaders. Even the 4-Hour Workweek guy walks everywhere he can. The proselytizer with the mustache preached: “Walking is so powerful and so underrated. Your brain just goes into overdrive. All of your problems sort of start to solve themselves in the background. For people who don’t do it regularly, for like an hour a day, or walking to genuinely go somewhere, they just discount it, because they haven’t even experienced this incredible power.”  They were talking about what I have been experiencing since last April when I nominated myself to be the Zero Car guru for middle-aged parents.

 

I didn’t anticipate that not owning a car would feel this good. I figured it would be great exercise, occasionally inconvenient and a great conversation starter at parties. But, I can honestly say I feel liberated. Not having a car forced me, in the words of Mr. Money Mustache, to “optimize away my car dependence.”
My optimization took the form of moving my local office six-miles closer to home (from Beacon to Cold Spring) and eliminating one of my train commute days, thus reducing my trips to Brooklyn to two days a week.  With less commuting and no car, this winter has been positively joyful. Seasonal Affective Disorder you have met your foe!

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Making the argument to “walk instead.”  Going places in winter is a snap! I put on my 3-year old Le Canadienne waterproof boots, I bundle up in my 5-year-old Patagonia coat and I walk out the door. That’s it. I just walk out the door. No digging out tires. No navigating snow piles to park. No standing in the cold pumping gas. No scraping of windows. No pre-warming the car interior. No barking at my kid to strap in. In one fell swoop, with the sale of just one car, I got rid of at least six winter negatives. I can honestly say I am happier. I am also healthier. Admittedly, I was getting a lot more exercise riding my bike (more and farther) last summer. Winter roads aren’t ideal for bicycles, and unfortunately winter walks aren’t quite strenuous enough to keep the belly fat away. But my legs are strong, my heart seems pleased, and spring is right around the corner.

The old man said to Jack, these are magic seeds. Which brings me to my second point of this post. I am planting a seed deep in the winter snow. A seed of promise and possibility. A seed that will taunt you and tease you if you ignore it. A seed that will wither and die if you drive your four-wheel drive over it.

I am inviting you to enter what psychologists call the contemplation stage of behavior change.  Get ready, mentally ready, for Zero Car Mom’s Walk Instead Challenge. The challenge starts on April 1 (your friends will think it’s an April Fool’s joke, but the positive life change joke will be on them).

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I pinky promise you that at least two of these seven things will happen:

  1. You will lose a few pounds.
  2. You will feel proud of yourself.
  3. You will be less stressed out (I’ve got some science to back this one up.)
  4. People will think you are nutty.
  5. You will save money. 
  6. You will have a new perspective on what makes you genuinely happy. 
  7. You will save the earth just a tiny bit
“Voluntary hardship is a fantastic way to short-circuit hedonistic tendencies,” says Tim Ferriss, the 4-Hour Workweek guru.
Mr. Money Mustache agrees, we need to make choices that “recalibrate ourselves to experience happiness in a different way.”
 Zero Car Mom says, “try it, you just might like it.”

90-minutes in a car with friends.

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Rides from friends can turn simple carpool trips into multi-stop adventures, much like a ride to the airport. You get what you pay for.

One of the pitfalls of hitching rides is that your driving friends may have some errands to run on the way to or from your destination. It’s like booking a seat on the airport shuttle and being forced to ride in the van for at least an hour longer to get to the airport while you pick up six more people at locations along the way.

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Last week’s birthday party carpool trip included a grocery stop at a local food market that I really like, but it’s well outside of bicycling range. I know I was pretty condescending about the entire concept of running errands in my last post, but if the side trips work in my favor, I am willing to admit I might be a hypocrite. Before the market, we stopped at another distant but beloved destination: AC Moore. Art supply shopping is a temptation that is hard for me to resist.

I figured since we were driving around anyway (and this is the slippery slope of errand running isn’t it?) that we should pick-up dinner at the best dumpling joint in the Hudson Valley.

In the end, I spent at least ninety minutes in my neighbor’s car. It was weird. It reminded my of the surreal experience I had of trekking for several days in Thailand without a mirror. When you see your reflection again upon returning to civilization, it’s disorienting. I had not been a passenger in a car since soccer season ended in October. Sitting at stop lights waiting, just waiting. I tried to be zen about it, but I was restless. I did not like the feeling of time passing uselessly.

The saving grace of the trip; the thing that made it fun and ultimately not a waste of my time, was that I had company. My kid had a best friend in the backseat. I had a pleasant, chatty companion in the front, chauffeuring me along Route 9 in rush hour traffic. When I go shopping again, beyond pedal distance from my house, I am definitely doing it “play date” style.

Nothing beats co-shopping with a neighbor while your kids occupy themselves pretending to be spies in a grocery store. Even if you have a car, I highly recommend it.