This post is from contributor Kristin Wong.
Over the weekend, a friend and I were enjoying a couple of beers in my neighborhood. As we sat outside people watching, he drooled over every fancy car that drove by.
“That's a whatever-whatever,” he would tell me. “It costs $100,000.”
I live in Los Angeles, where these symbols of affluence are common.
“I can't help it,” I told him. “All I can think of when I see a car that expensive is that the driver made a terrible financial decision.”
“But what if the driver is rich and can afford it?” my friend argued.
We then got into a conversation about fancy cars, happiness and frugality. I argued that, no matter how much money I might make in the near future, I plan on driving my Corolla into the ground.
“You wouldn't trade it in for a nice, sleek Mercedes?” he asked. I said no, and he looked suspicious. But here's why I think I'll drive my car until it wears out.
It's got sentimental value
The non-money answer is that I love my car because it used to be my brother's.
Both of us had Corollas. I paid for the down payment on mine and spent five years paying it off completely. Since college, Old Trusty and I had been through a lot together; he had a good 150,000 miles on him. So I wanted to take him with me when I moved to California, but my parents thought he was unfit to make the trip. My car was a 2004, and my brother's was a 2008 with considerably fewer miles. For some reason, when my brother went off to college, my parents bought him a new truck (how come I never got a new truck, guys?). Mom and Dad insisted I accept his newer, less worn-out Corolla, saying it would give them peace of mind.
Who am I to turn down a better car and worry my parents? I said goodbye to Old Trusty and drove my brother's car to LA.
Maybe it's sappy and weird, but this car reminds me of home. My apartment and pretty much everything in it (even Brian) came from LA. My car is one of the few things from home that I still have with me.
Car payments scare me
“You wouldn't want a car with heated seats and a comfortable interior?” my friend asked.
Of course I would. But as comfortable as heated seats are, they don't feel nearly as good as not having car payments.
If my car was on its last leg, or if it was severely uncomfortable and I had a two-hour commute, it might be a different story. But for me, upgrading simply for the sake of upgrading isn't worth the expense.
I've always found it odd that many people consider car payments to be a constant. For lots of people, paying off their car loan means trading in their car for a newer one with all new payments. I guess if you can work it into your budget, maybe you can afford it. But I've always been a fan of the Dave Ramsey school of thought:
“When it comes to money, normal is broke. You want to be weird, and weird people don't have car payments.”
My cost of ownership is low
Last year, my auto maintenance expenses totaled $523, but that included a new set of tires. Granted, I don't drive much (mostly on weekends and road trips). But I still think this expense is relatively low. In fact, Edmunds shows that the total estimated cost of my car's annual maintenance (not including the tires) is $150. For a Mercedes C-Class, it's $260.
Let's say I did buy a new car this year — even a new Corolla. At least until its eighth birthday, depreciation is the car's biggest cost. At year one, the cost of depreciation is obviously at its highest — 57 percent of the total owner cost, according to Consumer Reports. Considering my current driving habits, my car would incur higher-than-ever depreciation while it sits in a parking spot. Seems like a waste. At five years, depreciation is still my largest expense, but at least it's not depreciating as much (48 percent) while it mostly just sits there during the week.
This is a unique example, and perhaps it depends on perception, but the point is, the costs over time should be considered.
My car still has value
I don't consider buying a new car to be an investment. It doesn't make sense to think of it that way, because it's not an asset that has the possibility of appreciating. Yes, if you buy an expensive car, you can later sell it for more money than you could a cheaper car, but the same can be said for a pair of boots.
I simply think of my car as part of my Stuff. Sure, I kind of need it, and it's worth more than most of my other Stuff, but the bottom line is, I bought it to be used, not to watch its value increase. Thus, wouldn't I want to get as much out of my money as possible?
While I don't think of cars as investments, they also aren't like the rest of our Stuff; usually, they're a lot more expensive to replace. In an age when cellphones and computers are always upgraded, I feel like it's easy to believe your vehicle needs an upgrade, too. I'm surprised at how many people say it's “time for a new car” simply because they haven't had a new car in a while. That's a costly treat. Though some would argue upgrading a perfectly usable phone is a costly treat, too.
But what if you're a gazillionaire?
“But if you're a billionaire, why not just buy a new car? It would be nothing to you,” my friend argued.
I'd like to think that, even if I had all the money in the world, I'd still drive my little Corolla around town. I'd like to think a lot of things. But most likely, if I were a billionaire, the little dings and scratches on my car would probably start to bother me, as would the non-heated seat cushions.
No matter how much wealth I may build, I hope I never lose sight of value. Because to me, this argument is like saying, “Well, you have a lot of money, so why not throw a buck down the toilet?”
But then again, when you throw money at a fancy car, you're still getting a fancy car.
As your wealth grows, I suppose your idea of value often changes. “Comfortable” isn't what it used to be, and you experience lifestyle inflation. This is where my friend and I came to a standstill — where do you draw the line? At 20, spending a couple of hundred bucks on a phone seemed like a huge waste of money, but nowadays, it's just part of my budget. “You could just live bare bones, but why else do you have money?” my friend argued.
But then again, a $100,000+ Porsche Carrera is pretty far from bare bones. That's an extreme example, but I see a lot of them around town, and I often wonder about the mind-set that went into spending that much on a vehicle.
Getting off my frugal high horse
Having control over my finances makes me happier than any luxury vehicle could. But not everyone has as much fun with frugality. I also don't get than new car itch. But plenty of people do, and I itch for other things that some people might see as a waste.
I'm about to take a pretty pricey vacation. I've been saving up for it, and I'm relishing it, the way many luxury car lovers would relish their purchase. I forget there's an important difference between me and people who buy fancy cars: they like fancy cars.
There are plenty of practical reasons for not buying a luxury car. But we all have the urge to splurge on different things.
I'll end with a question a GRS reader once posed. She wondered whether she should buy a new, luxury car. She could afford it, but she didn't need it.
This comment was singled out as a favorite:
“If you can really afford it — you're paying cash, you're already putting enough money into your 401(k) to get the full employer match, you're putting extra money into an IRA, you've got three (or six) months extra cash saved up, you don't have any looming debt — then I think you should go for it. That's what money's for: buying things. […]”
I would agree with the above comment. When you're financially free and fully prepared for your financial future, money is for buying things.
It's a great comment. But I would have closed it with:
“Unless the car costs six figures.”
Even dismounted from my frugal high horse, I still can't fathom a vehicle being that expensive.