I got this email from a reader yesterday:
“My parents are driving me insane. They want me to buy a new car. Or, if I won’t, they will buy one for me. It’s getting ridiculous. My car is fine. It’s paid off. It’s a subaru with 185,000 miles. But with a subaru, it could seriously last another 100k. Their argument is safety. Mine is frugality. I’m paying off debt, I have no intention of getting a car loan. And absolutely don’t want to be in the situation where I owe my parents, or where they give me such an expensive gift. (and I’m 36) Plus, I think it’s ‘greener’ to continue to use my current car. I could be wrong, but it gets decent gas milage. It isn’t low emissions or anything, but if I don’t buy one, in my mind, it’s one less car on the planet. Anyways, I don’t feel particularly unsafe, although there is only one airbag. I’m just wondering about your thoughts on all of this and would be interested in reading a post about it. You say you drive used cars, did you buy them used? Obviously one day I’ll have to purchase a car, what would you recommend (as far as new v. used v. ‘green’ etc).”
I’ve written a lot about my car. It’s a 1991 Civic wagon that my husband and I bought in 2003 for $2300 cash. It has about 214,000 miles on it. (my husband drives a 1990 Audi with 110,000 miles on it). Both of our cars are still going strong. I am on a mission to drive as little as possible. I walk or bike anywhere within five miles of our home. My yoga class and the bank are both four miles from our house, and I bike to each of them every week. The grocery store, post office, thrift store, and library are all about a mile away, and I would never dream of driving to any of them. Since we both work at home, we often go several days without taking either car out of the garage.
Here’s our long-term plan: We’ll keep both of our cars until one of them dies and/or needs very expensive repairs (we’ll do things like spark plug wires and brake pads, but not an engine overhaul). At that point, we’ll get rid of the dead car and keep the other one. We’ll keep that car until it no longer drives either, at which point we’ll go looking for a new-to-us car. We will never buy a new car, under any circumstances. In fact, I can’t see us ever buying a car less than five years old. We’re currently saving $200/month in an online savings account earmarked for a new car. We just started this summer, so we only have $600 in the account right now. But it should take a good long while before both of our cars bite the dust, and by then we should have enough money for a decent used car. (It’s a myth that you have to spend a fortune to get a good used car. We only paid $2300 for my car, and it’s already lasted us more than five years). So our plan is to eventually be a one car family. But for now, with cars that are 17 and 18 years old, it doesn’t make sense to get rid of one, since we don’t know which one will end up lasting longer – we could get rid of one and then the other one could die next week. It only costs us about $350/year to register/emission test/insure each vehicle, so we’ll keep them both around until they don’t drive anymore.
I also agree that it’s greener to keep your current car than to go buy a new one – but it depends on your circumstances. For me, since I drive so little, it’s a no brainer that keeping my current car is the greener choice. And it helps that my Civic gets nearly 30 miles to the gallon. It would be a different story if you drive a truck that gets 12 mpg and you put 20,000 miles on it every year.
But what about the safety issue? Breaking down is a possibility with any car, regardless of how old it is. Back in the bad old days, I worked at a car rental company. All of our cars were less than three years old, and the majority of our fleet was always less than a year old. And there were plenty of breakdowns. A new car is no guarantee that you won’t be left stranded on the side of the road. But most of us have cell phones these days, and that’s what they’re there for.
Speaking of cell phones, let’s look at the other safety issue – accidents. It’s true that newer cars have better built-in safety technology, and that is the only argument I would ever make in favor of a new car (and possibly the warranty, if you go with a company that offers 100,000 mile warranties). If cars were free, I would drive one that had a great safety rating and great fuel efficiency. But cars aren’t free. So I choose to continue driving my Civic (which doesn’t have any airbags at all). But I wonder how many of the people I see on the interstate driving 80 mph, talking on the phone, 15 feet behind the car in front of them, bought their new car because of the safety features? I’m guessing a lot of them would give that as a reason, but their behavior indicates that they really aren’t that concerned about safety at all. A safe car isn’t going to keep you from being in an accident – it’ll just help protect you once the accident occurs. In the winter, when our mountain highways are covered in ice and snow, I invariably see SUVs flying past everyone in the fast lane – no doubt counting on their four wheel drive to let them drive 55 mph on ice. So instead of going into debt (to the bank or to your parents) to buy a fancy new car, here are my ideas for enhancing our safety on the road, which I think work a lot better than having 25 airbags in the car:
- Driving is not a multi-tasking sport. Don’t talk on your phone (and people who text while they’re driving shouldn’t have licenses), don’t eat, don’t shave, don’t put on make up, don’t put in a new cd, etc. Just drive. With both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road.
- Drive 65 mph on the interstate. You’ll save gas, and you’ll be able to just stay in the right hand lane most of the time (frequently changing lanes increases your chances of an accident)
- stay far back from the car in front of you. If someone ducks into the space in front of you, slow down. You’ll get fewer rocks in your windshield, and reduce your chances of an accident.
- Who cares if someone cuts you off, doesn’t let you in, doesn’t use their blinker, honks at you, etc. Just chill out. we’ll all get there eventually.
I honestly think that these things (combined with driving as little as possible) matter more than the safety features in a car.
That’s my two cents on cars. We’ll have to wait and see how much money we have in our car fund by the time both of our vehicles go to car heaven. That will determine what we end up with as our next car. The number one issue for us will be fuel economy, but we’ll also be looking at safety, maintenance issues, and cargo space. I’m hoping that we won’t be car shopping for several more years though, and we’re careful about staying on top of routine maintenance to keep our cars going as long as possible.