How to Spend Less on Gas: Trade Driving for Something Better

Some people assume that saving money and frugality is all about cutting down, getting less, and sacrifice. And when we talk about cutting down on fuel costs, it just seems like more drudgery. Commuting to work aside, here are some ways to cut down on those extra miles.

Advice about saving money on car fuel usually falls into three categories:

  1. Use your car less
  2. Consume less fuel when you do drive, and
  3. Make sure you’re getting the lowest prices on gas.

Let’s focus on number one first, because it’s the most powerful method and it’s the funnest.

Think about it this way:  if you are not in the car, not only are you spending zero on gas, but you’re getting time for other things – whether it’s hanging out with your family, getting the house organized, or just putting on a pot of soup.

Now here’s something that will really motivate you to be in the car less:  let yourself develop a passion or a hobby – something that totally engages you, and makes you want to stay home and do it.  If you pick an activity like gardening or cooking – you can save a ton of money on food. If you pick something that could turn into a part-time job or home business, you can make more money!

So let’s focus on the first point today, and we’ll cover the other two as we get closer to road trip season.

Drive Less and Get More Time

Since we’ve only got one life, time is just as valuable as money, if not more. Of course we have to pay the bills, but there are ways we can maximize the free time that we have.

1.  Organize our lives close to home or work

Every time we choose professionals and services — dentists, activities, banks — we have choices. Call me crazy, but I make my life easier by choosing services based on closeness to home.

Just like trying the cheapest brand at the grocery store first, I choose the closest doctor first.  As I explain in How to Simplify Life when Picking a Good Doctor (or Accountant or Mechanic or Dentist or…), we have had great outcomes with this method 9 times out of ten.  Not only do we have great service-providers, but we don’t spend hours going back and forth and battling traffic.

2.  Do as much as you can online

Patronize the little shops and services near home that make your neighborhood a vibrant place to live, but for everything else, let your fingers do the walking. It’s easy to find the best product at the best price by doing online research and comparing prices. Plus having stuff delivered may be eco-friendly, since one delivery truck does the same job as many individual cars, which clog the streets and create more pollution.

Everything from banking to postal tasks can be done online now. After moving a million times, we use an online bank (USAA), and I love the quiet convenience of just slipping a deposit into an envelope and letting the mail carrier do the rest.

3.  Communicate and combine errands

It’s easy to just live our own lives, rushing around to cross off our to-do lists.  However, when family members check in with each other every morning — “I’m going downtown. Do you need anything?” — we can all save time, money, and gas.

Besides thinking strategically about the paths we make with our cars, we can also give ourselves rules, like only doing errands on the way to work or school. Some families agree that if something gets forgotten, it has to wait until someone is going that way again. No more “just running out” to do this or that.

Drive Less and Make More Friends

When we depend on each other by sharing — whether it’s pet-sitting or clothes-swapping — our relationships deepen. Coordinating with another family requires familiarity and trust, qualities that most people find more satisfying than smiles and small talk.

Carpools are a great way to connect with people while you’re also getting stuff done. Of course adults can share rides to work or even to errands, but carpooling is also great for families.  (No one seems to love all the toting back and forth to extracurricular activities.)

In addition to using a ton less gas, here are a few great things families can get out of sharing driving:

Character-Building:  When kids are on their own with another family, they learn responsibility for themselves and respect for another family’s rules

Bonding:  Even though you may be spending less time with your child in the car, when it’s your turn to drive, you have an up-close opportunity to observe your child interacting with his peers.  (If you can manage to keep quiet up front (something I’m not good at), I hear that kids forget you’re there and start really talking.)

Fun:  And of course, the parent who is not driving can use the time for something else, while the kids in the car get to spend time with their friends.

Drive Less and Skip the Gym

Why drive when you can walk? Or bike, scooter, or pogo stick?  Walking to places helps me slow down and get fresh-air exercise. It’s also a great time to connect with my kids — we have some of our best conversations walking to and from school.

A lot of us live in a car-dependent communities (even though real estate prices are showing developers that Americans now value walkable communities). If  you can’t walk anyplace, can you drive and then walk?  One of the participants in the Frugal Mama Makeover video series said that instead of dropping her sons off at their activities and then driving home and back, she saved a lot of money by staying there and walking around for exercise. (You could even keep ankle weights in the car if you want a more vigorous workout.)

Saving money on gas and getting more of what we want is exactly the kind of win-win that I revel in discovering here at Frugal Mama.  If we need to buckle down — or we just want to simplify life — we might as well find the fun, right?

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  • Allison June 18, 2012, 9:36 am

    I’m a huge fan, actually, of walking and the bus. On a good week, I only have to drive once or twice. Not only do I save money (and the environment) by not burning gas, both help me slow down and reconnect with my community; I love the time to read on the bus while someone else worries about traffic, and discover so much about my town when I’m out and about on foot that I miss when I’m speeding by in my car.

    • Amy June 18, 2012, 10:42 pm

      Hi Allison,

      I couldn’t agree with you more! I love how walking helps me connect with nature, slow down, and say hello to neighbors, or even just notice interesting, quirky, and beautiful things about my neighborhood. The bus is also great because you get to look out the window. We would take it all the time in New York City, and there was something kind of old-fashioned about it. People sitting together so closely; everyone on the same boat, type of thing.

      And of course, getting to read or relax while someone else battles traffic is huge.

      Thank you so much for sharing your perspective!


  • Anonymous June 6, 2012, 3:06 pm

    we live in NOVA by a metro, and we also have one car. Husband walks and commutes via metro. I usually RUN my errands with my kids in the Bob. If I can walk it or run it, I do. I am interested to know where you do grocery delivery. I have tried Peapod and the Safeway delivery, I was not pleased with the quality of the produce or selection, and often my order was wrong and/or missing items. I also tried Washington Green Grocer but I also received smashed fruit and wilted veggies. Who do you use?

    • Amy June 7, 2012, 9:53 pm

      Hey there, Walking or running to do errands sounds awesome! Although not sure about grocery shopping. I first tried online delivery when we lived in NYC and lugging home groceries was painful. Getting things delivered helped, but I still had to do the shopping — usually with one or two small kids in tow, and that could get hairy.

      Anyway, now I use Peapod, and I have never had a problem with the produce. In fact, a friend says they pick better than her husband! I tried Safeway a long time ago, and they didn’t have anything in stock, but I hear they are better now. How long ago did you try Peapod? I would try it again, and be sure to call and complain if anything is in bad shape. I’ve heard they are great about refunding.

      Is there a farmer’s market or a CSA drop-off near you? That might make sense for better produce, especially if it were walkable. Good luck, and thanks for writing in!


      • Anonymous June 8, 2012, 7:01 am

        I will try Peapod again at your recommendation. My favorite Harris Teeter is closed for months due to flooding (Potomac yards) and the nearby HT I went to was more expensive essentials like milk and eggs, kind of weird. I would rather spend more time doing something else than lugging two kids to the grocery store.

        • Amy June 10, 2012, 3:24 pm

          Hi there,

          Oh no, I can’t believe your local grocery store was flooded! That’s bad news for everyone. I agree that quality of life is an important factor in saving money. If dragging kids to the store is stressful and it doesn’t save you much money (because you’re rushing, because the kids are begging for treats, etc.), then ordering delivery can make a huge difference in our enjoyment of the every day. We can still save money in other activities we find more fulfilling.

          Take care,

  • Nancy June 6, 2012, 10:15 am

    To get out of an hour-long, nerve-wracking car commute to work, I bought a folding bike. My commute still takes an hour, but I do 15 minutes of it on the train (with the bike folded so i don’t have to pay extra) and the rest on the bike. When I get to work, I fold the bike and keep it under my desk so it doesn’t get stolen,the way previous bikes have. I’ve lost weight and am less tired and cranky when I get home. In fact I feel great!

    • Amy June 6, 2012, 2:33 pm

      Wow, Nancy, what a great win-win! I love that you are getting exercise (which makes you feel great) and that you are not using gas or getting stuck in traffic. I have never heard of a folding bike — thanks for telling us about that!


  • Jen @ Jen Spends June 5, 2012, 11:00 am

    My little city isn’t entirely pedestrian friendly, but we love walking places when we can. We walk to church family, and also walk to playgrounds. We’re within walking distance of school, when we get to that point. We don’t have online food shopping here, but I shop almost exclusively online for clothes, gifts and toiletries, which saves me driving 30 miles round trip (and my sanity) every time I need that stuff. I fill up my gas tank only once per month. We’re probably looking at my husband’s car going kaput in the nearish future, and I’m thinking about being a one car household until we can save up the cash for a new one–I think we could manage. Driving less has made a big difference for our budget.

    • Amy June 6, 2012, 2:27 pm

      Hi Jen,

      I liked hearing about the strategies that you use to reduce mileage. Filling up your tank once a month sounds great — and being able to get away with one car would be huge. It’s encouraging to hear that driving less has made an impact on your budget.

      Thanks for writing in!