by KEN GONYER
On a visit to my hometown over Easter, we drove through a neighborhood I remembered well from high school days. The decades had not been kind to the houses on that road. Through overgrown shrubs, I could see peeling paint on a couple houses, a sun-faded tarp tied down where some roof shingles used to be on another and at least two windows repaired with duct tape. The yards were unkempt; some littered with trash and junk.
The fact these broken-down places were still inhabited made me sad. What I saw parked in the gravel driveways beside many of these homes, however, made me mad. Pricey, late-model cars… High-end sport-utility vehicles… Massive pick-up trucks with huge chrome grilles… all blazing in the spring sunshine with shining, highly polished paint…. Even though I really admired all the stylish cars, this seemed crazy!
I didn’t know the story behind these families’ choices, and I admit my flash of emotion wasn’t righteous anger so much as uninformed self-righteousness based on assumptions. Looking back, I don’t feel as judgmental—just very curious. As a former loan officer and financial coach, I knew these automobiles ranged in cost from $30,000 to as much as $60,000 for the decked-out trucks. I’m not sure how they made it work financially. I still recognized some of the names on their roadside mailboxes; it wouldn’t be hard to imagine them arguing over the choice between fixing the roof and buying a more expensive vehicle.
This extreme example is echoed in milder ways in my local community. Parking my car at the grocery store, the school or a restaurant, I’m often surprised at how many brand-new cars I see. At first I feel a little jealous—I wouldn’t mind driving some of those handsome vehicles. My interest fades when I think about the cost, though. I have no doubt behind each of these beauties is a loan with payments that will stretch out 60, 72 or even 84 months. Why do we do this, I wonder? Why would we spend crazy amounts of money—borrowed funds— to roll around town in the newest and shiniest? All we really need is something to get us where we’re going, but nothing is ever good enough. We want more. We have all the information we need to make good choices, but it seems as if we’re more powerfully influenced by persuasive advertising and a gut-level desire to have more and better than we currently have.
It’s not really rational. Especially at times like right now, in early summer, we go car crazy. In early June many years ago, I stopped by a car lot to test drive an economical sedan I’d seen in the newspaper. Before I reached the car I wanted, the salesman swept me over to a sportier, prettier vehicle—one I certainly couldn’t afford—and urged me to take it for a drive. I did so, and I knew within the first mile I needed that car. It had power, it had a gorgeous interior and it was almost new. Parking it after the test-drive, it was almost physically painful to say goodbye to that glorious, foreign-built speedster.
It’s not really rational. Especially at times like right now, in early summer, we go car crazy.
As fun as it was to drive, I’m really glad I didn’t get caught up in car euphoria and try to buy that vehicle. It would have been an emotional and financially damaging decision. It also would have severely hindered our pursuit of a goal to get out of debt and remain debt-free. Even now, vehicle needs remain a complicated aspect of our financial life as a family. As the family has grown, we’ve swapped little cars for bigger cars, graduated to a minivan, replaced that with a SUV, and now gone back to smaller economy vehicles. As our kids began driving, more cars were added to the fleet.
As vehicles have come and gone, we’ve struggled with tough decisions such as how much money and time we should put into car repairs before giving up and replacing the car. With my current car, it made sense to invest in a major repair. The car had low mileage and the repair improved the car’s performance. In the case of our minivan, however, we replaced the transmission several times, sometimes under warranty and sometimes out-of-pocket. It was a terrible design that kept burning out. Looking back, it would have been much wiser to ditch the van and cut our losses. After all the troubles we had with it, I’d thought of a lot of violent, explosive ways to dispose of the beastly purple Plymouth. In the end, I made the sane choice and left it in a junkyard.
When the time comes for car replacement, we’re not apt to go crazy and overspend. Part of the self-discipline arises out of the hope that once we’d paid off all our debt, we would be able to save for the next car and buy it with cash. Unfortunately for us, our recent needs for cars has outpaced our ability to save. The good news is that although we’ve had to take out small loans for our last two cars, my wife has made sure we’ve paid the loans off very quickly. And even though we haven’t managed to practice what we preach, we’re proud of our son who was able to pay cash for his vehicle. The car is five years older than its college-aged owner, but it’s his, free and clear!
Out on the road this spring, I continue to admire the cars with sleek lines and flawless finishes. I can imagine the new-car smells and the fun feeling of punching the accelerator and surging forward with the power of a V-8. Even so, I putter along happily in one of our older, not-so-sporty cars. It’s not shiny or even particularly clean, but it’s paid for and it gets me where I’m going. That’s good enough for me.
Ken and Karen Gonyer live in Broadway, VA. Ken is the CEO of Choice Books, headquartered in Harrisonburg. Karen is a real estate agent with Kline May Realty in Harrisonburg. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.