A reader emailed me a few days ago, asking for my thoughts on buying a car – so I figured I’d share. I drive a 1991 Honda Civic wagon. It has 218,000 miles on it, and has never once left me stranded on the side of the road. Well, the muffler fell halfway off one time, but I was able to tie it back on with a rag that I had in the trunk, and make my way home MacGyver-style. My husband and I bought the car in 2003 for $2300 cash. We bought it from a private seller; he had been the only owner, and gave us meticulous records of all of the service work that had been done on the car over the 12 years he had owned it. In the years since we bought it, the car has needed very little work, and has been very reliable.
I have no plans to get another car until mine just won’t go anymore. At that point, we’ll look for another car, likely one that is around ten years old. We’ll buy from a private owner again (Craigs List makes things like that pretty easy these days), and pay cash.
Driving an older car means that insurance and license fees are very low. We pay $50/year to register our cars (it was $25 in our old city, but we also had to pay $25/car every two years for emissions testing, which we don’t have to do here), and only carry liability insurance on our vehicles. We both have clean driving records and have our auto insurance, homeowners policy, and liability umbrella policy with the same carrier, so we get a discount on our insurance.
Coolness and looks play no part what so ever in my car shopping decisions. A car is strictly for getting me and my family from one place to another, and most of the time it’s parked in my garage. Anyone who cares about whether my car is cool or not isn’t a person whose opinions matter to me. There are some factors that I do consider worthwhile when it comes to choosing a car: safety and fuel economy.
When it comes time to buy another car (hopefully a long time from now) we will look at safety ratings and fuel economy numbers, and base our final decision largely on those factors, combined with availability and price. In terms of safety, yes, I know that there have been a lot of advancements in car safety since my car was built 18 years ago. But my own driving is the biggest factor when it comes to my family’s safety in my car. In 16 years of driving, I’ve never had a ticket (nor have I ever talked my way out of one). When I drive, I drive. Nothing else. I don’t eat, mess with my phone, or look at a map while I’m driving. I would never dream of driving after I had been drinking. I always wear a seat belt and never exceed the speed limit. My opinion is that those things make me safer – even in my old car – than someone in a brand new Volvo who is eating a burger and talking on the phone while tailgating the person in front of them.
Fuel economy is a major issue for me. Environmental conservation is a huge priority for me, and driving – in any kind of vehicle – is something I try to minimize specifically because of fuel consumption. We live in a small town (5000 people) and I don’t drive at all in our town – I bike or walk instead. The town is only a few miles from one end to the other, so there’s no justification for me to drive anywhere here. We have baskets on our bikes, and backpacks, and our son’s stroller has a compartment underneath that is perfect for hauling groceries or library books. I usually make a trip into the nearby town about once per week (ten miles each way). I combine all of my errands into one trip, and make sure that I don’t drive more than 65 mph on the highway into town (even though the speed limit is 75). Keeping my speed down and avoiding aggressive driving while I’m in town means that my car averages 30 mpg, even though it’s almost 19 years old and on the larger side as far as Civics go (it’s a full wagon, with tons of room in the back). Considering the fact that I drive less than 2500 miles per year, and that my car gets 30 mpg as it is, buying a new car in order to boost fuel efficiency doesn’t make sense – from a financial perspective or from an environmental perspective. The energy required to build my new car would offset the small gain that I would make by driving a more efficient car (and it would take a hybrid to get significantly more fuel efficiency).
For a small segment of the population, space is an issue – if you have more than five people in your family, you’ll probably need something bigger than a car in order to have seatbelts for everyone. But I will note that I often see large SUVs and minivans driving around with two or three people in them (or worse, just one person). Unless you literally can’t fit your family into a car, why pay for more vehicle than you need? Not to mention the higher fuel, insurance, and licensing costs that go along with larger, more expensive vehicles.
For an even smaller segment of the population, four wheel drive is an issue. I would say that this is limited to people who live in small, snowy mountain towns where the roads aren’t plowed after every storm, and people who live on dirt roads. In most urban areas, four wheel drive isn’t necessary. In my opinion, it’s detrimental; I notice that as soon as the snow flies and the roads get icy, people in SUVs often think that they can still drive the speed limit. And they end up in the ditch.
Driving an older car that we paid for with cash means we have no car payments, which is the best part of the deal as far as I’m concerned. We’re saving money now for the day when we will eventually have to replace my car. I haven’t thought much about a replacement, as we have two vehicles (my husband drives a 1990 Audi) and could use the other one for a while. But I doubt that we’ll spend more than $5000 when it comes time to get another car.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this subject. Do you have car payments? Are you trying to get rid of them? Did you buy your car with cash? What is the most you’ve ever spent (or would spend) on a car? Are you (or would you consider being) a one-car family? Would you ever consider giving up your car all together and switching to bikes and public transportation?