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The Real Total Cost

Project 300K - How much does (did) it really cost to own and operate a Subaru Forester?  The "real" answer is right here!

Date: December 30, 2015
Mileage: 234,250 (Final mileage)
Total Average Cost Per Mile: 28.9 cents.


There's a lot that goes into the REAL total operating cost of a vehicle.  It amazes me how many people think that the cost of fuel is the only factor worth considering.  Of course, with the recent significant drop in fuel prices I expect to see increased sales of larger vehicles.  I guess the thing with fuel is that you see it all the time so you think about it all the time since most of us do purchase fuel at least weekly and we directly observe (and groan about) the prices on almost a daily basis as we drive around.  The number above is my calculated TOTAL TRUE COST of operating my 2004 Subaru Forester since I bought it in December 2003.  My methodology is explained in greater detail below.  My plan is to update the figure monthly.  While the average cost has somewhat stabilized, I expect it will may go up or down a bit as I encounter certain costs such as renewal of insurance every six months or if I encounter a "big" repair/maintenance job.   

My Methodology

You have to excuse the engineer in me here, but if you want a REAL TOTAL breakdown, you have to consider it all.  Engineers call this "complete or total life cycle cost".  I've tried to consider every possible cost involved in operating this car over the past ten plus years.  I know this isn't an exact science either.  Please bear in mind that no two people are going to have the same total cost even if they have to the exact same vehicle.  If you have a squeaky clean driving record (like my family does) your total insurance cost will most likely be significantly lower than someone with a bit of a spotty record.  Of course, if you carry relatively high insurance coverage (as opposed to state minimums), that tends to increase your costs.  I will go over all this in the insurance coverage section.  Some states impose personal property tax on vehicles (mine - Kentucky- does!).  Other states have some sort of state inspection (they did in WV but not in KY and it wasn't free).  I need the reader to understand that there are certainly a fair number of variables.  Just like "your mileage may vary", your total cost may vary also. 

If you are somewhat handy you can keep the maintenance costs down by doing you own work wherever possible.  Fluid changes are a no brainer - anyone with a lick of common sense can change the oil and transmission fluid on a Subaru (or most cars for that matter).  Things like the air filter are another example of easy jobs for anyone.  They'll change the wipers for you for free at places like Auto Zone; the same goes for the battery.  It's even not that difficult to flush your radiator.  Getting a little more technical, you can certainly service your own brakes as well as change plugs and wires.  Servicing your own brakes is significantly less costly than paying for a service shop to do it.  The same thing goes for fluid and filter changes and other "routine" servicing.  It really adds up after a while. You can check out my Self Service Tab above for my thoughts on doing some of your own work.  One excuse I often hear is that "I don't have time for this".  Well unless you live next door to the garage and they take you right away, I can generally accomplish any routine task in less time than it takes simply to drive to a maintenance facility.

Although I am thankful that the vehicle has never been involved in an accident, I really don't consider collision repair to be a part of the cost of operating a vehicle.

I have maintained pretty decent service records and track my expenses fairly closely using Quicken.  Although I may have missed something from time to time, I sincerely believe this calculation is within 2-3% of the actual cost.  The values below are of course subject to change as I encounter new expenses or of course, put more miles on the car!  Finally, I have rounded to the nearest 10 bucks in some cases.  I could nail it to the penny in some categories but that would be difficult to track and is simply not significant.

I think I have done a pretty good job of covering all the bases but of course if any reader has suggestions for improvement by all means let me know.

I am breaking it down into several categories that I will expand upon below:

Depreciation
Fuel
Insurance
Personal Property Tax
Registration/Tags/Titles/State Inspection
Service (This included "routine" service such fluids and other service parts as well as necessary "non-routine" repairs that may come along)
Tires (I think they rate their own section)

Depreciation - Now that the project is over, the total cost for depreciation was 24,500.  I put 234,250 on the car.  That comes out to
10.46 cents per mile.  I initially wrote a check for 25,000 and took 500 from a junkyard for the car. The 25,000 included such things as destination charge, taxes, the initial registration, etc but for the purpose of this calculation I am considering all those initial charges/fees as the starting cost for the car.  That being the case, the total depreciation is 24,500 dollars.  

Fuel - This one is a little tricky (but not too bad since I do keep good records with Quicken) since from when I bought the car until today the cost of fuel has risen significantly (not withstanding the recent price collapse which I don't know how long it will last but will enjoy every minute of it).  The car has averaged between 23-25 miles per gallon it's entire life.  I routinely check gas mileage as a way of monitoring the overall condition of the engine.  If my mileage starts to suffer its because something isn't right.  As of December 30, 2015 I have spent $26,600 on fuel during the life of the vehicle.  I need to note that (even with the recent price slide) over the life of this car, the average cost that I have paid unleaded 87 octane fuel has been (at least according to my records) 2.70/gallon.  I noted in Quicken what I paid for fuel and the first time I fueled the car in December 2003; I paid 1.849/gallon for unleaded at the Exxon Little General Store near my home at the time in Milton, WV.  The highest I ever paid was 4.399 at the Kroger Fuel Jeffersontown, KY in May 2008.  My fuel cost may also be lower than it would be for some because I used to participate in Kroger's Fuel Point program for the 8 1/2 years I lived in Kentucky.  I frequently saved as much as 30 or 40 cents per gallon on one or two fill-ups per month if we bought a lot of groceries.  I only note this in the interest of full disclosure. I did participate in Speedways "Speedy Reward" program here in Florida, but it is no where near as good as the old Kroger Fuel Point program.  My final average fuel cost was 11.35 cents per mile.

Insurance - I carry full coverage well above the state minimum on the car.  I also have uninsured/under insured coverage.  Both my wife and I have excellent driving records.   As the total value of the car has decreased, so has my insurance premium for collision and comprehensive (let's face it, if they total the car it will only cost 3600 as opposed to the 20000 it would have cost several years ago).  My six month policy renewal dates are June 15 and December 15.  For the ten complete years I have owned the vehicle, I have paid an average of 580.00 per year to fully insure it.  As of December 30, 2015, I have paid a total of 7080.00 to insure this vehicle.  After moving to Florida, I did drop everything other than liability. Still, it is more costly to insure my vehicle in Florida than it was in a rural area in Kentucky.  I don't like it but it's just the way it is.  I believe that insurance coverage is most likely the biggest variable involved in calculating the total cost of operating a vehicle.

Property Tax - Hey, the government has to get their cut, right?  Well, I've paid Personal Property Tax (PPT) here in KY on the car since moving here in 2006 totaling 951 dollars (includes December 2014 payment).  Of course, the good thing is that again, as the value of the car has decreased, so has the amount of PPT I pay every year. (I have not rounded in this section - this number is exact to within a dollar).  Since Florida doesn't have PPT, this number will not be changing again for the life of the vehicle.

Registration/Tags/State Inspection - You can't drive it without a tag - that's another 346 dollars over the first nine years of the life of the car.  I should note that I have a "custom" KY Horse Council plate on the car which does add a small amount.  When I lived in WV I had to get a 12.00 state inspection every year.  It wasn't exactly cheap to register the vehicle in Florida and between various fees and taxes I dropped off 225 dollars at the Osceola County Tax Collector's office to get legal in Florida.  Altogether that brings to total here to 681.00 (and I am paid until December 31, 2015).

Service - According to my Quicken data I have spent 2803 dollars on routine service that I performed myself (like fluid changes, wipers and brake pad replacements).  I have also spent 1860 dollars on service at the dealer on a couple things (particularly the timing belt) that I didn't feel comfortable tackling myself.  Additionally, I recently had to have the head gasket replaced.  This was a pretty big job that fortunately I was able to combine with a new timing belt so I did save a few bucks on labor (my dealer doesn't "double charge" on labor).  That was a "Big Fix" that set me back 1750 dollars.  All told; That totals 6413.00 as of November 30, 2015 (I should note that this is an well audited figure as I carefully went back through Quicken and service records).  I should add that I have used Castrol Edge (formerly Syntec) exclusively since getting the car and that I generally follow recommended service intervals.  You don't need to use synthetic oil, but according to my personal research it is worth at least 1 to 1.5 miles per gallon for this car (your mileage may vary).  You can read more of my experience with self service and my thoughts on synthetic vs conventional oil by clicking on the tabs above.

Tires - I replaced the tires at 62000, 120000, 176000 and 210900 miles.  I have spent at total of 1850.00 on four sets of tires.  I presently have BF Goodrich Advantage T/A's on the vehicle.  These replaced a set of Kelly Chargers.  I had my local Subaru Dealer (while I still lived in Kentucky) replace the tires while the car was in for other service.  Don't automatically dismiss a dealer doing the tires for you.  My dealer was very competitive and it was quite convenient to get two jobs done at once.  This proves that where you buy them is significant.  Prior to the current set, I bought one set at Sam's Club and another set at a major tire retailer in Louisville, KY.  They were very competitive.  Sadly I needed to replace a set while on vacation in Florida as a result of road damage - the result was paying at least 30 bucks more per tire than I would have if I had been home simply because I was in no position to do a lot of shopping around.  Oh well, that's part of the joy of vehicle ownership.  I should note that I was not particularly happy with the Kelly Chargers.  In spite of my almost religiously maintaining proper air pressure and that I really don't drive that aggressively, the tires didn't even last 40,000 miles. That is completely unsatisfactory.  What is more disappointing is that I previous had Kelly Chargers on my 1987 Mustang GT - a car I did drive aggressively - and they really held up. So far I really like the Advantage T/A's.  They have a little over 22,000 miles on them and they still look new.

So, what's the bottom line?  According to my records, as of December 30, 2015 I have spent 67,575 dollars on the car.  The mileage is at 234,250.  This equates to an average operating cost of 28.9 cents per mile.  As far as accuracy, this number has been carefully audited using Quicken data and service records and I am confident that it is accurate to within less than +/- 1% (and in reality it is probably more accurate than that and closer +/- 0.1%).

This page was last reviewed/updated on December 30, 2015
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