The Car Conundrum

By , January 14, 2018

Ironically, just when I’m thinking a lot about frugality, we’re buying cars (see Introducing “Rhubarbaru”).

One of the touchstones, if you will, of our frugality has always been how we dealt with big ticket items, like vehicles. We mostly focus on smaller savings, regarding cars or trucks as somewhere beyond the pale. We had “The One Car,” our Jeep, which is, and will likely be the only car we ever bought brand new. It was The Car, what we had, and hoped to drive until it died. Which, I suppose it did. That left us in a tight spot, which we likely would still be working around, had Aly not moved the purchase of a family car along so precipitously.

traffic jam

All of these Americans expressing their individuality together… (Photo: Autoguide.com)

Further, the car represents a major focus of our frugality. Next to family health, the car’s well being, maintenance, repair, or need to replace offers potential financial catastrophe. Problems and situations arise that quickly and unexpectedly diminish our savings. Family health and the car may be the two biggest “wild cards” against which we save.

I’m relieved, and by no small measure amazed, to report that, largely thanks to frugality, we found we could pay cash for our used car with little damage to our savings.

Vehicles represent much of what’s right and wrong with this country. I feel that the American love affair with the automobile endangers our quality of life, if not life itself.

Not that I’m totally immune. We are all, particularly American males, taught to regard our car as an indicator of our self-worth, as a symbol of who we are. I bought into this for years growing up. My father loves cars, and spent long hours maintaining, repairing, and detailing the family car. He tried to instill the same interest in me.

It could be that very effort that helped me look at cars differently. He called me away from my own interests too often to stand with him, usually in the dark and/or cold, to lean under the hood of the car, tinkering. I wanted a car, of course, but by the time we bought our first one, I’d begun to see them as a tool rather than an extension of my personality. I didn’t even own a car until Michelle and I married.

I actually sold cars for a few months when we were just out of college. I worked at a dealership in Rochester, New York. I did pretty well at it—and remember just about enough to decide not to buy used cars from dealerships if at all possible, and to avoid brand new vehicles on general principal.

With one exception, we’ve kept to that philosophy. And, with the possible exception of a 1988 Mustang 5.0 that I dearly loved, I’ve managed not to become too attached to any car we owned.

Jeep Cherokee

Our one brand new car, 23 years on (with the “foster” truck in the background) (Photo: Michelle L. Zeiger).

Michelle and I have owned a total of 10 cars in almost 35 years of marriage. To me, that seems like a lot. I guess by most American standards, though,  I don’t suppose it is. We likely would have owned less, except for a few we purchased for specific needs (like a minivan for Michelle’s childcare business) then sold when the need expired.

Whatever I’ve learned, I seem to have passed it to our next generation. I began the post by saying we were buying “cars,” but Aly has yet to make an offer on any of the cars she’s looked at. She feels like she could use one—eventually—but isn’t excited about owning her own vehicle. I guess she just hasn’t been able to tie it to her self worth . . . .

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