Drive a little greener, save a little green
Gas prices and a guilty conscience have made me a smarter, cleaner driver. Come along for the ride.
(Money Magazine) -- Last year I swapped out of my five-year-old smallish station wagon for a seven-seat SUV.
I did it for two reasons: fitting four kids, none of whom weigh enough to sit in the front seat, into my vehicle so that I could participate in a couple of carpools; and getting up the aptly named Long Hill Road that leads from my house to the train station in the dead of winter.
That's it. I didn't think about gas mileage, which of course I'm regretting now whenever I fork over $65 to fill the thing up or turn on the Discovery Channel to be reminded that I'm melting polar bears out of a habitat.
Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com, is hearing from a lot of people like me. "I'm not sure they all actually will admit they regret their purchases, but they are looking for options."
Dumping a gas guzzler, he concedes, may sound like a fix, but it's not necessarily the smartest or greenest thing to do. "This," he says plainly, "is probably the worst time ever to sell an SUV."
And getting out of a lease (some new Internet-based solutions notwithstanding) can be even more financially punishing than selling. "Don't get panicky and make a rash decision," he cautions, then adds: "Make sure gas prices are taking the economic toll you think they are."
I decide he's right and run some numbers. I put about 12,000 miles a year on my car (about 1,600 fewer than the average American, according to Cambridge Energy Research) and get about 16 miles per gallon.
That means I'm buying 750 gallons of gas annually (about 50 more than average, thanks to the size of my car).
At $3 a pop, that's a cost of $2,250. At $4.30, which I paid in mid-May, that's $3,225. The difference: $975. It's a lot but, I have to say, not as much as I thought. With gas prices in the news daily, it feels like more.
So for now getting rid of my big car is out. As is the solution that the New York Times reported many Americans are trying: adding a third, smaller car to the average two-car family's fleet.
It could just be me, but spending another 20 grand to save $1,000 or so on gas (assuming I drove the little wheels about half the time) seems extreme.
But there are less radical ways to shell out fewer dollars and spew out less carbon. Here's what I'm doing.
Driving the smaller car. My boyfriend's mid-size sedan - which gets closer to 23 mpg - is not exactly my car, but I have access to it. That makes me very similar to most two-car families. By using the big car for short trips and carpooling and the smaller one for long trips, I can transfer 2,000 miles a year. Yearly savings: $163; 0.34 tons of carbon dioxide.
Logging and planning my driving. I talk about tracking your spending all the time. This is the same concept. For a week, log everywhere you drive. You'll see patterns. Then sit down and ask yourself: Which trips could have been consolidated? Which eliminated? Use that information to plan your driving for the next day and week.
Sophie Uliano, author of "Gorgeously Green," also suggests making a short call rather than a long trip. "Stick a list of the phone numbers of the stores you frequently shop on the fridge. Then call before you drive to be sure they have what you need." For me these steps eliminated at least one random round trip daily for an average savings of eight miles a day, 2,920 miles a year. Savings: $785; 1.6 tons of carbon dioxide.
Using public transportation. I used to alternate driving and taking the train to work. Now I try to use the train as much as possible. Financially, even with the gas price hike, it's a wash. But if I had access through my employer to a transportation savings account, it wouldn't be. I could pay for the train with pretax dollars and save nearly a third. Call your benefits department to see if there's one on your menu. Savings: 2.3 tons of carbon dioxide.
Making my gas go further. I was already with the program when it came to checking the tire pressure regularly. The real gas saver, though, is to lighten the pressure you place on the gas pedal, however. "It's not the most popular tip, but it's really the best one," says Uliano. "Drive at or below the speed limit, and when you are on the freeway, set your cruise control to less than you would normally have it. If you normally go 70, set it to 60 and it makes a huge difference."
Brad Proctor, founder of GasPriceWatch.com, also suggests trying to drive more smoothly rather than accelerating and stopping hard the way most Americans do. "We've done fuel economy tests with a large pickup truck, and when we drove smoothly, we got 21 miles per gallon," he says. If I can squeeze out two miles more per gallon, it adds up: $357 a year; 0.74 tons of carbon dioxide.
Total it, and I can save more than $1,300 a year and emit five fewer tons of carbon dioxide. I now know that's not going to be enough in the future. For me the bottom line is that this is my last big car.
First, I'm convinced that gas prices will be high from now on. Says Proctor: "There's nothing on the horizon to lower that cost unless there's a global recession. I wouldn't even want to think about what would happen if a hurricane came through. Throw that into the mix and $6 or $7 a gallon is possible."
Second, where I once felt pretty terrific behind the wheel of my SUV, I now feel pretty guilty about both wasting resources and liquifying the polar ice caps. Those are good incentives to get on a conservation kick no matter the price of gas, and to stick with it.
Editor-at-large Jean Chatzky appears regularly on NBC's Today. You can contact her at email@example.com.
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