This post is an updated version of something I wrote a couple years ago. I think it’s a good follow up to last week’s post about money and debt. I’ll do a couple more on home mortgages and student loans as well… Notice the story I form about cars in my years in high school and college…
When I was growing up my family never really had a nice car. It was something I always envied about other kids and their family’s. I’ve always been intrigued by the the idea of the automobile and the freedom that comes with owning your own car has always been alluring. My first car was a 1987 Ford Tempo that my parents gave me in my junior year of high school (1999). Humble beginnings (as it should be). I remember getting ready to go to my high school senior prom. It was a miracle that I was going in the first place. I had never been to any kind of school dance up til that point and I had never been on a date either. It was a lot of pressure. In a conversation with one of my classmates I was asked what kind of car I would drive to the event. I replied sheepishly, “My Ford Tempo…” My classmate laughed. I had to do something. I had suffered enough embarrassment from being a fat kid, I wasn’t about to be laughed at, at the prom. I begged my parents to rent me a car for the night. They agreed. Whew. “One day, I gotta have a better car…”
In college, lots of people had cars but more than that, lots of people had nice cars. BMW, SUV’s, Sports Coupes. Late model vehicles. Of course, I had no car. I wasn’t able to bring my Ford Tempo to The University of Houston with me. Houston also has a car culture. There are people with old school 1970-80 something Chevy’s with custom paint jobs and huge rims. There are people with Late model SUVs with big rims and loud sound systems that can literally shake a neighborhood block. There are people with tricked out Honda’s and Nissan’s that are supped up for racing like the cars in The Fast and Furious movies. Occasionally, you come across the people driving a Bentley, Maybach, or Lamborghini. That atmosphere perpetuated the envy that had been building in me from a young age. Quietly and subconsciously, I had attached much of my identity to my vehicle status. I had lost weight but I still wasn’t cool. I still wasn’t good enough. I was still seeking external validation. I didn’t know it. I was unaware of myself. Distracted by school and wanting to fit in. In the summer after my sophomore year (2002) of college I bought a 1991 Plymouth Acclaim for $900. It was better than nothing, but in my mind I said, “I have to have a better car.”
I drove my Plymouth for about 9-10 months until it died just after finishing my junior year of college. That summer I headed to Detroit, Michigan to do my first internship with Ford Motor Company. I went to Michigan with no car. Of course, in Motor City, working for one of the Big Three, my car envy was on fire. One of my work mentors during the Summer found out I didn’t have a car and he let me use 2003 S-Type Jaguar for one week and later on he let me use his 2003 Ford Explorer for a week. I was like, “Dang! One day, I gotta have a better car!” The car envy was growing rapidly.
During my 4th year of college, I finally had enough money to buy a decent car. In December 2003 I bought a 1991 Acura Legend. It was in decent shape and I considered it somewhat of a classic. Of Course, the AC didn’t work (The Plymouth AC didn’t work either). In Houston, of all places. Story of my life. Eventually, before going off to Ford for my second internship, I got the AC fixed. I was good for about 1 week and then one day while driving on the highway, something bounced of the ground and hit the car under the engine. A loud ‘crack’ was immediately followed by a loud ‘hissing’ sound. That hissing was the sound of the Freon leaking out of the AC system I had just gotten repaired a week earlier. All I could do was laugh. It was amazing! Luckily for me I was heading off to Michigan for my second summer in a row and I didn’t need AC but you’ve got to love the irony. I drove that car for the remainder of my time in college and eventually got the AC repaired again.
I tell you these stories to show you the path to a big mistake. Outcomes are about small decisions made over large amounts of time. We have to learn to be intentional with every moment of every day. Patterns of thought over long periods of time influence our most pivotal decision making. I was unaware of myself. This was about to lead to a critical error with money. I had little understanding of money or cars. I just knew I wanted a nice car. The reality is, cars are a luxury, whether they are new or beat up. They require money to own and operate. They decrease in value. They break. They Break. THEY BREAK. You need money to fix them! These were huge gaps in my understanding of what it means to own a car. I only saw the status symbol. I didn’t see the liability. I had formed a poor story about car ownership that centered on image rather than practicality. These critical flaws had been in place my entire life. Eventually, these weak points got exposed.
The 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Season was record breaking. 3 weeks after Hurricane Katrina had displaced so many people from Louisiana into Texas, Hurricane Rita was forcing everyone to evacuate Houston. Many people drove towards Dallas. The Freeways were like parking lots from all the traffic. I chose to drive east, home to Birmingham. It was towards where the Hurricane would land but I calculated that we had enough time to get through the hot zone before the storm hit. The freeway would be wide open because everyone else was going the opposite direction. During the trip, my power steering started to fail. Obviously, this was not what we needed while running from a Hurricane and we were going in the wrong direction. I say we because My best friend at the time, my sister, and my 3-4 year old nephew were riding with me. My sister, God rest her soul, could be incredibly challenging. She was insistent about stopping at a Walmart to get some clothes for the baby (we left in a rush so she didn’t have much). I told her that she could do that when we got to Birmingham because the car was being funny and we’re running from a HURRICANE. The combination of the Hurricane and what it might do, the car acting funny, and the dynamic of arguing with my sister about something I felt was utterly unreasonable, had me on total edge. When I got to Birmingham, I took the car to get looked at. It needed some significant work. I had just started working as an engineer and I didn’t quite have the money to pay for it. I was tired of the lack of reliability in the cars I had. I was frustrated at the fact that I had spent so much time working hard and sacrificing in school and I couldn’t rely on my car to evacuate a potential disaster area. “Screw it! I’m getting a new car!” When I got back to Houston I began looking and two weeks later I was driving a 2005 Subaru Legacy with a 5 year $28,000 loan.
A couple weeks prior to evacuating, I had come out to my Acura one morning and it wouldn’t start up. After an hour of fiddling around, I finally got it started. I can remember saying to myself that morning, “I deserve a new car!” When I got the new car, I went from $22,000 in debt from student loans to $50,000 dollars of debt, in the span of a few hours. I knew when I started working as an engineer that I probably wasn’t going to like it but I had no idea how bad it would eventually get. When I bought the car I didn’t think about the fact that the financial commitment equated to opportunity costs. Probably 3 months after I financed the car I began to realize that I was driving the very thing that was forcing me to keep the job. As I became more depressed about the job I began to resent the car more and more. The car meant that I didn’t have have freedom of movement. Ironically, the thing that represented freedom when I was a kid was now clearly my oppressor. But I chose it. When I ultimately quit my engineering job I had two choices: 1 – Let the depression play itself out and hope that I didn’t commit suicide or have a heart attack, or 2 – Let my credit go to crap as I turned the car in for voluntary repossession. I chose the latter.
Paradoxically, the ensuing years of paying off debt gave me a sense of what real freedom is. Freedom in this sense, is the ability to have a high level of control over what you do with your time and energy. Because of the loan for the car I had to make money right away. There’s no room in that equation for experimenting with work or any other area of life for that matter. The car dictated what I did with my time and energy. Even after I didn’t have it anymore. This sucked! It’s one thing to go to work for shelter/food/clothing etc. These are basic necessities. It’s another thing to go to work to have stuff. Worse, to go to work you hate, for stuff. I want to own my things. I don’t want my things to own me.
I gave personal training a shot for about 6 months after quitting engineering. I was making hardly any money. I wanted to keep going but I had the debt monkey on my back and I had to get out from under it. When left the personal training job it became very apparent to me that controlling my material cravings was a direct correlate to how much control I would have over the work I chose to do. Eventually, I would learn that precise budgeting with money helped to limit anxiety and helped me deal with sudden financial emergencies with much more ease than when I had no budget. This discipline with my financial resources has given me the freedom to experiment with work over the last 8 years. Discipline equals freedom.
The process of paying off debt totally reoriented the way I thought about money, time, and energy. Material things beyond need, have almost totally lost significance. I refuse to be dominated by things. Today when I counsel people about car purchases I tell them to get together $5000 or better. $2500 is going to pay for the car. The other $2500 is for insurance and the repairs you will have to make to the car. Having the money for a nice car and having the money to take care of a nice car are two different things. I still like cars but I don’t love them. Late model vehicles are nice to look at but I don’t really care to own one. Someday I would like an all electric vehicle but that’s about environmental stewardship as opposed to making myself feel good because I’ve got a fly ride.
As I stated in this post, my most recent vehicle died on a road trip. For now I’m going car-less and I like the freedom from thinking about when the car is going to break down next. However, I do want to get another vehicle someday but I want to do it when it super convenient financially and adds tremendous value in terms of opportunity costs.
This week’s questions piggy back off of last week’s post…
What does having a vehicle mean to you? How much does it cost to maintain it each year? What are the goals and meaningful day to day activities that the car facilitates? What would life look like without one? (Please understand that I am not against car loans but I think it helps us to understand what we have to give up in order to say ‘yes’ to the car and the money that goes to it.)