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Private Car Ownership is Growing, and Auto Debt is Along for the Ride

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We’re all familiar with the term “retail apocalypse,” but now “carpocalypse” is working its way into the vernacular.

Auguries of reaching “peak car” (the peak and subsequent decline of private car ownership) coincide with slowed sales of new autos, manufacturer layoffs, and expectations for the growth of autonomous vehicles and ride-share services.

In an online poll of more than 43,000 U.S. adults, CivicScience looked at car ownership since the start of this year, finding that 93% of respondents own or lease a car. That data aligns with other estimates.

More people tend to own two or more vehicles as opposed to just one, which not surprisingly, has almost everything to do with household status; 77% of multiple-vehicle owners are married, in contrast to just 24% of single-vehicle owners.

In fact, data shows that ownership of two or more vehicles has actually grown since 2016, climbing from 45% to 55%. Others have been documenting this trend as well.

What about the doomsday predictions? Multiple car ownership appears to be on an upswing and single car ownership has remained pretty static. Yet, more people are opting to buy pre-owned over new — not exactly great news for automakers. Some say that trend is being fueled by the rising cost of financing a new car, which is in part being augmented by the greater supply and demand of SUVs.

Asking nearly 4,500 U.S. adults how they purchased their most recent car, CivicScience found that taking out a loan was the most popular finance option, leading over paying outright or leasing.

Looking specifically at those who opted for loans, more people chose to take out a bank loan over a loan from a dealership or credit union. Just a small percentage took out a loan from an auto manufacturer.

All finance options combined adds up to more than one-third of U.S. adults holding some amount of auto loan debt, whether for new or used vehicles. And that’s been on the rise, as well. Auto loan debt has grown alongside rising car ownership / leasing since the second half of 2018, when it shot up from just below 30% to 36% today (see the green line below).

Financing, Auto Debt, and Stress

According to some research, increasing auto debt may be leading people to feel totally stressed out, even affecting their sex lives.

CivicScience weighed in on how different types of finance options might be related to stress (and sex) levels, finding that between 18-23% of car owners in every finance category reported feeling “stressed all of the time.” Those who are leasing and those who took out loans from dealerships or credit unions were the most chronically stressed out.

However, there were two types of car owners that reported significantly less stress overall: those who took out a loan from a car manufacturer and those who paid cash or check for their car.

Not surprisingly, those two categories — people who paid cash or took out manufacturer loans — are more skewed by a larger proportion of high-income earners ($150k+ per year) than the others.


Stress, income, and age go together, and those are all reflected in car ownership. Car debt is associated with higher levels of stress. Higher earners are more able to avoid debt altogether by paying for their car outright, or if they have loan debt, to not be as negatively affected by it.

And, to back up this less stressed correlation, those who paid cash or took out a manufacturer loan were the most likely to report having sex daily than all other car payment groups.

At the same time, nearly 40% of the population of people who don’t own a car at all report feeling stressed out all of the time. That’s almost double the rate of chronic stress that car owners as a whole report.

The study found that non-owners are more likely to be young adults — 52% are under 30 years old. Young adults also make less income and report higher levels of chronic stress.

An Urban, Ownerless Future

The narrative that young adults will make more money and buy cars as they age is being revised to one that foretells of increasing urbanization and more dependence upon ride-sharing services; automakers like GM are already hedging their bets on it.

CivicScience data shows that car ownership is lower among city dwellers when compared with suburban and rural residents. In addition, 37% of people in cities use ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, compared to 29% of suburban residents and 17% of rural residents.

As expected, current trends show that non-owners are significantly more likely to use ride-sharing services compared to car owners as a whole.

Interestingly though, ride-sharing app usage isn’t exclusive to the car-less — about one-quarter of car owners use the apps. Oddly, leaseholders are the most likely to use ride-sharing apps (55%)

Will usage of ride-sharing services, combined with rising car financing costs and related stress levels, all coalesce into a private owner ‘carpocalypse’?

While we may be slowly transitioning away from the society that Henry Ford helped to create, it’s clear that for the time being, owning a car is still pretty important to the majority of Americans, even if that means going into debt.

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