A few weeks ago, my mom’s car died. It was death by rust and oil leak, and the cost of repairs far outweighed the value of her Hyundai Elantra.
It was a 2003 model with 32,000 original miles. Nope, that’s not a typo. My mom’s retired, and she never drives at night. In fact, she doesn’t really drive much, at all. She mostly used the car to get to and from the shopping centers that fall within a one-mile radius of her home.
When her mechanic called with the news, he said the car had only gone—wait for it—2,000 miles in the past four years. This begged the question, how much car did my mom really even need?
A Lesson in Priorities
My mind raced back to a little more than a year ago when my own car died. What began as bad noises turned to total silence, and then I drifted into the breakdown lane. Kaput.
Now, I loathe the task of buying a car. To make short work of my shopping trip, I did my homework. The night before my purchase, I had a good, long think about what I really wanted in a vehicle. Here’s what I came up with:
- It had to be new (I know there are great used cars, but I wanted to know my car’s entire history).
- I wanted a stick shift.
- I wanted to be able to play music/podcasts/audiobooks from my phone and make phone calls through the car’s speakers.
- Air-conditioning was non-negotiable.
As I made this list, I remembered that my old car had cruise control, and I thought, “Hmm. Do I need that? How many times have I used the cruise control in the past year?”
I could only think of one time that I’d used it and decided that, for me, cruise control didn’t matter. It didn’t make the list.
That little exercise was so helpful when the dealers starting come at me with “If you get this model, instead, you can get this [insert fancy feature I do not care about].”
I just kept repeating “I don’t care about that. All I want is a stick shift, AC, hands-free phone and to play my music.”
And, when all was said and done, that’s what I got. Even better, I’d saved up enough in the ‘New Car’ category of my budget to pay in cash.
Back to Mom’s Car …
My mom’s priorities are, of course, much different than my own. As I mentioned, she only uses her car to drive to the two shopping centers in her neighborhood. I did some Google Maps nerdery to discover that they’re located 1 and 1.2 miles, respectively, from her home.
Let’s be generous and say that she visits each of the shopping centers every day—she doesn’t. (Some days she doesn’t drive anywhere!) This would equal 1 mile times two, for a 2-mile round-trip to Shopping Center A, and 1.2 miles times two, for a 2.4-mile round-trip to Shopping Center B.
So, if she made a daily trip to each shopping center, she’d travel 4.4 miles per day which comes to 1,606 miles per year. Using this figure, if we want a car that’ll last between five and seven years, we’re looking at 8,030 to 11,242 miles, total. Let’s round up to 12,000 miles for simplicity.
… but what if my mom only drives 500 miles per year, as evidenced by her service records? In that case, she only needs a car to last for 2,500 to 3,500 miles! And this number is probably a lot closer to reality.
Clearly, my mom doesn’t need a brand new car. At this point, I realized that a reliable, higher-mileage car would be the best bet. Mom agreed.
Mom’s Priority List
We talked about it, and my mom really liked her old Hyundai. She’s been driving them for years, and she feels comfortable in them so that was a priority for her. And, AM radio was a must. She drives a hard bargain!
She didn’t care about color, and when I suggested that she’d need air-conditioning, she said, “Actually, I don’t care about that.”
I was surprised, but then I remembered that she only drives one mile from the house at a time—she’s never in the car longer than five minutes! The AC in her old car hadn’t worked in a while, either, so she was used to it.
With mom’s priorities in mind, we found a very good dealer and bought a 2010 Hyundai Accent with 112,000 miles on it. During our test-drive, I kept thinking, “Do I think this car will last another five to ten thousand miles? Yes, I do. Will it last five years? Likely.”
The price was $4,100, slightly under Kelley Blue Book value, and the dealer agreed to replace the belts and include new tires, front brakes and windshield wipers. And, it’s inspected for a year. (It also has AC, but that did not factor into mom’s buying decision!)
And she is thrilled.
The Secret to Two Happy Customers?
There’s no textbook ‘right’ car to buy—we’ve all got our own preferences and circumstances. By thinking through exactly why you’re buying a car and what it needs to do, you can avoid overbuying! You just need to get really clear on your non-negotiables.
Maybe you have a long commute and you need a reliable ride to and from work. Maybe you’re buying a second car for a larger household, and it won’t be the primary vehicle. In the case of the latter, maybe a used car would be a better option.
My mom’s ‘new’ car has been around the block and back (several thousand times!), but she only spent $4,000. If it dies in a couple of years, she’d be sad, but it wouldn’t bankrupt her. Lower cost means lower risk.
And if you’re wondering, “Who pays cash for a car?” check out our free, online workshop Pay for Big Expenses without Borrowing. It’s possible, it’s amazingly liberating, and our teachers can show you how it’s done.
Your Next Step
Budgeting is not restrictive. You won’t be spending less, you’ll be spending right. So what do you have to lose? Except all that debt and stress?