Our car addiction: Americans spent $5,477 on gas and auto last year. Can we really cut back?

The average American spends 72 minutes per day in transit. Most of that time, we're driving: to and from work, school, the grocery store, the movie theater. Every year, that's more than 290 hours of drive-time radio, talking back to the GPS and wondering why, for the millionth time, people think it's okay to drive 60 in the left lane. It's a lot of time.

It's also a lot of money. The average household spent $5,477 on gas and auto expenses last year, according to Bundle data, an amount which accounts for about 14.5 percent of daily spending.* That's more than we spend on groceries or utilities, and more than we spend on travel, entertainment, clothes and shoes, and hobbies — combined.

But some places are harder on the car owner's wallet than others. The average Connecticut household spent $7,652 on its automobiles in 2009, the highest in the country and 40 percent more than the national average. At the other end of the spectrum, West Virginians spent just $4,258, the least in the country. At the city level, the differences were more stark. In Austin, the top-spending city, residents spent $10,128 on their cars — almost five times what the average Detroiter spent ($2,124).

>>INFOGRAPHIC: Gas and auto spending in the biggest U.S. cities

At the extremes, the spending patterns match what we've discovered about spending habits overall: residents of states like Connecticut, Arizona and Texas are big spenders across the board, including on their cars, while West Virginians and Mississippians spend much, much less on everything. This is largely a function of income - the more you make, the more you have to spend. On one level, that goes for automobiles, too.

Of course, there are outliers. Wisconsinites and Vermonters, solidly mid-pack for overall spending, catapult into the top 10 for overall spending on their cars, while New Yorkers and Hawaiians, big spenders in general, allocate relatively little to gas and auto expenses. (Bundle's auto expenses data covers spending at dealerships, body shops, service stations, parking garages, and tollbooths, among other car-related places. Click here to see how Bundle's spending data is compiled.)

You could blame the wicked winter weather for the higher costs of car ownership in those northern states, while a good percentage of New Yorkers benefit from a stellar public transit system. But in Hawaii, it's less straightforward: gas prices are the highest in the country, Hawaiians are in the top 10 for commute time, and an average summer temperature of 79 degrees takes a strong toll on a car. Why are they spending so little? From whence this automotive aloha?

As it turns out, Hawaiians are second only to New Yorkers for the lowest percentage of workers who drive to work alone, according to the U.S. census. Put another way: more Hawaiians are taking the bus, carpooling, bicycling or walking to work than anywhere else in the country other than New York.

This, in fact, was a trend that seemed to explain the differences in spending patterns as much or more than any other single characteristic (other than overall spending). In general, as more people drive to work alone, the amount they spend on their cars rises. At one extreme, in Alabama, where 83 percent of workers get behind the wheel solo every morning, residents also devote 16.3 percent of their budget to gas and car maintenance. That's twice what they allocate in Washington D.C., where just 37 percent of residents drive to work alone. It also offers an explanation why Californians — who rank third in overall spending and love their cars — fall to No. 11 when it comes to car spending: 27 percent of residents in the state don't drive to work alone.

Obviously, there are some states where the link doesn't hold, where other factors — like the weather, distance travelled, and, obviously, the fuel efficiency of a car — seem to have more of an effect than the driving-alone metric. In Arizona, for example, only 75 percent of residents drive to work alone, average for the U.S., but they spend $7,091 on gas and getting around, second only to Connecticut. They also spend $2 out of every $3 on maintenance: Chalk it up to the hot weather. But in trying to understand why, for example, people in New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont spend so much more on their cars than residents of nearby Massachusetts, or why Wisconsinites and Minnesotans spend more than neighbors in Montana or Idaho, driving alone seems to offer the best explanation.

The good news is, how you get to work — and with whom — is something we can control, much more than we can control the price of gas, the traffic, the weather, or even the length of our commute. For most people, there's very little that's truly "discretionary" about gas and car maintenance. But this — adding a passenger to your commute or hitting the park-and-ride — is a much easier, cheaper change than, say, buying a more fuel efficient car, or moving closer to work.

This isn't an environmental argument. (That's for a different site.) It's a financial one — and one that makes intuitive sense. Most people use their cars primarily for commuting; if you can split those costs with another person, you can spend half as much. That could add up to several hundred dollars of savings a year. To which I say, "Going my way?"

*Bundle's spending data does not include mortgage or rent.


NATIONAL AVERAGES:
Total annual spending: $37,782
Total annual spending on "Getting Around": $5,477 ($456 per month)
Annual spending on gas: $2,208 ($184 per month)
Annual spending on auto expenses: $3,269 ($272 per month)


How did your state stack up?

1. Connecticut ($7,652)
2. Arizona ($7,091)
3. Texas ($6,588)
4. New Hampshire ($6,277)
5. Oklahoma ($6,272)
6. Vermont ($6,105)
7. Virginia ($5,945)
8. Kansas ($5,909)
9. Minnesota ($5,876)
10. Wisconsin ($5,813)
11. California ($5,797)
12. Colorado ($5,752)
13. Rhode Island ($5,709)
14. Utah ($5,708)
15. Missouri ($5,691)
16. Iowa ($5,677)
17. Illinois ($5,629)
18. New Mexico ($5,606)
19. South Dakota ($5,573)
20. Nevada ($5,555)
21. Florida ($5,544)
22. North Carolina ($5,536)
23. Maine ($5,469)
24. Maryland ($5,462)
25. Washington ($5,460)
26. Wyoming ($5,455)
27. Michigan ($5,427)
28. Arkansas ($5,837)
29. Tennessee ($5,331)
30. Indiana ($5,307)
31. Massachusetts ($5,290)
32. Ohio ($5,246)
33. Delaware ($5,233)
34. North Dakota ($5,223)
35. Louisiana ($5,143)
36. Nebraska ($4,995)
37. Hawaii ($4,937)
38. Idaho ($4,861)
39. Montana ($4,831)
40. Alaska ($4,822)
41. Alabama ($4,785)
42. New Jersey ($4,762)
43. Kentucky ($4,722)
44. South Carolina ($4,710)
45. Georgia ($4,676)
46. Pennsylvania ($4,634)
47. Oregon ($4,589)
48. New York ($4,542)
49. Mississippi ($4,529)
50. West Virginia ($4,258)


About the artist: Nicholas Felton spends much of his time thinking about data, charts and our daily routines. He is the author of several Personal Annual Reports that collate countless measurements into a rich assortment of graphs and maps reflecting the year's activities. He is the co-founder of Daytum.com, a site for counting and communicating daily data, and frequent designer of information graphics for numerous corporations and publications. His work has been profiled in publications including the Wall Street Journal, Wired and Creative Review.




Related Links:

Infographic: Car spending in the biggest U.S. cities

Bundle's first quarter numbers show a spring splurge

The truth about food spending in America — a city-by-city breakdown