That New Car Smell

A few years and two kids into our marriage my wife’s car broke down on the highway. Not a meandering, country-road kind of highway where some kind soul might happen along and ask about your well-being, but a six-lane urban interstate where you might get the finger from a passing motorist just for having ever been born. She had our first two kids with her at the time and was five months pregnant with number three. It was July and the temperature was in the upper 90’s. She was not happy.

There was no way we could do without a second car, so we did what any typical American family with two incomes and a good credit rating would do and went to a dealership.

We wanted a safe, reliable, fuel-efficient vehicle, one the whole family would fit in – the five of us (all three kids were in boosters or car seats,) plus Grandma and Grandpa. I drove a mini-van on a daily basis, which the whole family would fit in, but it was on its last legs. It had a gazillion miles on it and, more importantly, no air-conditioning. We didn’t trust it to take extended trips and, at least during the summer months, didn’t want to anyway.

At the dealership, we found a cross between a mini-van and an SUV that got relatively good gas mileage. It had a third row of seats and the rear seats folded down to create more cargo room. Although the young salesman who sold us the car didn’t convince us to buy the extended warranty and myriad other things which make the dealership money and rarely benefit consumers, we still drove away in a $25,000 car that was, in the blink of an eye, worth $15,000.

The broken-down old car had been towed to the house where it sat immobile in the driveway for months. The transmission needed replaced and I couldn’t think of a good reason to spend the $1,500 required to replace it.

We talked about donating it to charity, but I couldn’t fathom how giving away a broken-down car would benefit anybody. Besides, I reasoned, what if my mini-van broke down; then what would we do? It was backward logic, but I had no reasonable explanation for my desire to keep the car. My wife’s insistence that we do something with it finally convinced me to have it fixed, so I dug out a credit card with enough room on it to pay for the repairs. A few weeks later, we heard about a family who needed one, so we gave it to them.

We never regretted giving away the old car after spending $1,500 to fix it, but still lament our spur-of-the-moment $25,000 decision to buy a brand new one. It was a good feeling knowing we had a reliable vehicle, but the $475 car payment (financed over five years) added that much more to our already long list of monthly burdens. Every time we thought about selling it to buy something cheaper, we rejected the idea because we owed more than it was worth. Why trade a good car for one less reliable and still owe money?

The experience left me bitter. My wife was slightly less bitter, mostly because although we’d paid too much for the car, at least it had air-conditioning. My mini-van still didn’t.

With or without air conditioning, in the future, we promised to pay cash our next vehicle and never, ever buy another new one.

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