With Casey’s recent run-in with a hit-and-run driver, I’ve found myself in the precarious position of having to buy a new car fast — as in within a few days. That’s not an easy chore, especially for someone like me. I once spent a month analyzing every weed-whacker on the market until I finally gave in and bought one. In the meantime, the grass crept up the walls of my house by about two feet while it waited for me to make that all-important decision. If picking out a weed-whacker was that difficult, imagine how hard picking out a car is for me.
Long ago I complained to my dad that when he got new cars they were always used cars. I wanted him to go out and buy a new car like many of my friends’ parents did. His response has always stuck with me. He explained that he and my mother had made a decision in their marriage to never have a car payment. They didn’t want to get bogged down by monthly car payments, so they made decisions that allowed them to do just that. They purchased used cars, and they drove those used cars into the ground. My first truck as a teenager was my dad’s 1976 orange Chevy truck. My grandfather owned that truck before my dad owned it. My oldest sister’s first car was a late 70s early 80s Volkswagon Rabbit that had been the family car for 16 years. My dad’s first new right off the lot car was purchased just a few years ago long after all of his kids had grown and moved off into their own homes.
Casey and I wanted to set the same goal as my parents, so we set off following the example my parents set. Then law school happened, and despite our best efforts, all of those plans went down the tube. My $1,500 Dodge Stratus with 250,000 miles on it finally died for good, and my family had outgrown Casey’s used purple Chrysler 300M. I took that purple car, and Casey ended up with a new family vehicle.
Now that purple car is torn up and sitting in a heap on my driveway with 200,000 miles on it, and I’ve been left all week scrambling to find creative ways to get to and from work in a small town in Indiana.
What makes buying the family car even more difficult is the fact that the average car is no longer affordable for the American family. Recent studies have shown that the prices of new cars have risen to the point where only residents of Washington DC can afford the price of a new car. Newsflash, I don’t live in Washington DC. As I’ve started the process of finding a new car, I’ve learned that cars are about $5,000 more expensive than they were when I bought Casey’s purple car, making getting a car loan inevitable.
Despite being in my 30s, I have no qualms about buying a college level junker car to drive into the ground. What other choice do I have? New cars are so ridiculously expensive the only way I could justify buying one of those for my purposes is if I were somehow able to go back in time and turn myself into a trust fund baby. Even used cars with low mileage and known durability have risen to a price that I am not willing to spend — I’m looking at you Toyota and Honda (I’m amazed at how well those cars hold their value). That leaves me with a middle ground of cars with moderate mileage, a moderate price, and moderate chance of the car surviving to 200,000 miles. Addie told me I should get one of those new Bumblebee Chevy Camaros. When I told her I didn’t have enough money in the bank account to make that work she said, “You can have the money in my piggy bank.” Thanks kid. Welcome to family car buying in the post-recession era.
We live in a time where my father’s lessons about debt aren’t quite as applicable as they were when I was a kid. Even a mediocre a car is going to end up strapping my family with a monthly car payment, but there is no real way around it. Salaries and wages don’t seem to have increased at the rate in which the cost of goods like cars have over the past 20 years. I would love to be able to teach my kids the same lesson my dad taught me about avoiding a car payment, but instead I will have to teach them about only dipping into debt when absolutely necessary and for only as much as is needed. Dipping into further debt so I can get the Bumblebee Camaro Addie wants me to get isn’t something I need to do. An average college clunker that can get me to and from work each day is a need and it doesn’t overly burden my family.
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