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My Misidentified Necessity

by Shawanda Greene

I purchased a new 2007 Honda Civic on March 15th of the same year. At the time, Betsy (my loyal 1995 Geo Prizm) was too unsafe to drive. The missing dome light and duct taped side view mirror didn’t bother me at all. Nor was I rattled when all the internal door handles crumbled and fell off. The nonworking external key hole on the passenger side was a non-issue. It wasn’t until after the air bag light came on, and the seat belt started to malfunction that I began to take notice: perhaps Betsy was turning into a death trap.

The decision to purchase a new car wasn’t made lightly. I estimated it’d cost at least $1,000 to return Betsy to the condition she was in during her glory days of 2005. Kelly Blue Book suggested Betsy wasn’t even worth $700 back then. It didn’t seem like a wise financial move to pay more on repairs than the car was worth. Reluctantly, I began the long and painful process of letting go.

After I decided to move on from Betsy, I commenced searching for a reliable, fuel efficient, Japanese vehicle.

Go ahead. Call me un-American.

You see, Betsy was practically identical to a Toyota Corolla. Although American made, I attributed the mechanical dependability of Betsy to the engineering prowess of the Japanese. Therefore, the most reliable vehicles were designed by the Japanese. To the best of your ability, please refrain from pointing out the fallacy in my reasoning and the inadequacy of my sample size in reaching the aforementioned conclusion.

I did my research, took the 2007 Honda Civic for a test drive, and, long story short, bought it for $17,572 (including tax, tag, title, and all the other trumped up fees charged by the dealer and local government). I thought I got a pretty good deal.

I would still consider the “out the door” price for the new vehicle to be a good deal IF I drove my car more. After 865 days (2.3 years), I’ve driven the Honda Civic 20,716 miles. You’d think I was leasing it. The bulk of those miles were accumulated in the first year of ownership. Excluding the two block drive to and from the bus stop, I don’t even drive my car most weekdays.

Here’s where I begin tormenting myself. I think about the fact that I retired Betsy when she was approximately 194K miles old. I’m guessing I could’ve bought a decent car with less than 100K miles for around $8K.

Why did I buy a new car? I thought it was a necessity. I thought I needed something reliable to last me for the next 10, 15, 20 years. You’d have to see the state Betsy was in to fully comprehend the use I get out of my vehicles.

By the time I reach the 194K mile mark on the Honda Civic, I suspect the difference in value between it and the mythical used car I could have bought will be insignificant. Even still, can you imagine what the excess cash ($9,572) paid for the Honda Civic could become if invested in the stock market over the next decade?

Faced with a stratospheric repair bill, I certainly wouldn’t tap into my emergency fund to get my car fixed. Why? Because, it isn’t a necessity. Transportation is a necessity. Who says that transportation only exists in the form of a car that you own? Being that I’m too much of a chicken to ride my bike on the open road, I’d either utilize public transit or my feet to get to where I needed to go. Should I need an actual set of wheels, that’s what Zipcar is for.

It wasn’t until after I read Chris Balish’s book, How to Live Well Without Owning a Car (buy it at B&N with Barnes and Noble coupons), that I realized I’d been lied to all these years. Don’t make the same mistake I did.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Carla July 28, 2009 at 11:55 AM

“Go ahead. Call me un-American. ”

I dont get that statement.

In terms of not owning a car, it really depends on where you live. I dont think my SO would ever want to live without one car between the two of us outside of New York City, but we did give up the second car and sold it for cash – all $28K worth.

We’ll see what happens once we move to a more walkable neighborhood. I’ve fallen too many times on the bus to want to rely on that alone. I’d rather walk, time permitting of course.

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Shawanda Greene July 28, 2009 at 12:41 PM

The “un-American” statement probably would’ve made more sense if it was appended to the paragraph above it. Some people would consider my not purchasing an American car to be unpatriotic. The same way they might consider it un-American to outsource jobs overseas.

When I was an auditor in Orlando, my place of work was usually dependent on the location of my client’s office. At times, I’d have to leave one client to drive to the next with less than even an hour notice. That sort of arrangement requires a vehicle.

But, things have changed. I live in a city with far better access to public transit, and I no longer work in professional services. I don’t plan on selling my car. It’s paid for and does offer a lot of convenience. But, I wouldn’t consider it a necessity at this point in my life.

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Carla July 28, 2009 at 12:51 PM

Ah! Where I live, I rarely seen American cars. Its all about the Honda, Toyota, Nissan) their luxury lines (Lexus, Acura, Infinity) BMW, Volvo, Saab, etc. I almost never see an American car unless its a hobby classic car or one of those “pimped out” rides with the ugly wheels. I’ve only owned (older) Volvos, recently sold the Acura and now we share the BMW.

I never heard the “un-American” comment before.

I live in a city too, but our particular neighborhood is far away from everything – Berkeley hills. We walk down to the shops, cafe’s stores and restaurants, but that’s usually on the weekends or when we can spare three hours or so. Living where everything is walkable is very expensive because its very desirable and near to the campus where I’ve seen one bedroom apartments go for $2000+ month.

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hustler July 28, 2009 at 11:29 PM

Yes, it may be un-american. I may be one too. I’ve owned two toyotas and loved both of them. I’ve also owned an american car that left me stranded more times than I can remember. I guess driving 3 cars doesn’t count as research, but I’ll probably always be a toyota girl!

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Pete August 8, 2009 at 6:36 PM

Funny thing about those "American Cars" – they're often made in Canada or Mexico. A lot of those "foreign" cars are made right here in the USA. Go figure.

I think a lot of people see a car -or even a brand new car- as a necessity. At our house though we've never bought a new car, and never will. We buy low mileage used cars – after they have depreciated for that first year or so – when they lose the most of their value so fast. So the cars we buy are cheaper -but still almost new.

I bought my current car last october with 30,000 miles on it, for less than 10k – and paid cash – so we won't be paying interest. (the same car brand new is between 15-20k. Buying used if you need a car is the only way to go!

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Shawanda Greene August 9, 2009 at 2:18 PM

You’re absolutely right. It’s possible I had a case of that “new car fever” Dave Ramsey always talks about. Until I’m a millionaire, I won’t even consider purchasing another new car. Even then, I’ll probably lean towards used.

Betsy was purchased in 1999 with about 46K miles on her. What a wonderful car. I still maintain that the 2007 Honda Civic isn’t half the car Betsy was.

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Kim January 5, 2010 at 9:30 PM

Shawanda, I did the same exact thing – I wanted a car to last me thru military service and grad school. So like you, I bought a brand new 2002 Honda. But having wised up in my financial ways, I am mad at myself for purchasing a new car. But now that it's paid off, will drive it until at least 2020; I tuneup every 25k miles and it is totally worth it (the tuneup, not the original purchase!).

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Shawanda Greene January 11, 2010 at 7:48 PM

That reminds me. I’ve never gotten a tune up on my car. It hasn’t reached the 25K mile mark yet, but it should be coming up soon. Cars are so dagblame expensive! It’s been so cold for so many consecutive days I’m actually glad I have my car. Although, a cheaper car could’ve done the same thing. It’s paid for, and I also planned on keeping it for twenty years as well, so I don’t feel totally stupid for the decision I made.

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Carla January 12, 2010 at 12:52 AM

My car '88 Volvo 240 lasted 20 years. I wonder if I could find a modern car that would these days. I think that car was the beginning to the end of an era of reliable cars!

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Shawanda Greene January 11, 2010 at 8:01 PM

Don’t say that! It would’ve all been for naught. I still have faith in the ingenuity of the, er, Japanese.

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Carla January 12, 2010 at 1:06 AM

I hear you! Just take care of it and stay on top of the maintenance and you should be fine. :)

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bloominglater February 19, 2010 at 5:02 AM

My husband and I were just talking about the fact that things are just too easy to buy with credit. It's not a car, but our laptop died this weekend and instead of paying the $300 to get it fixed ( it was five years old and several iterations behind), we spent an additional $900 big ones to get a new computer. AND, we have a desktop already – which is brand new. The point is this: we think many things are necessities, but they're not. We're just not used to "denying ourselves." Great post – excellent writing and so descriptive. You GO girl!

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casino på nätet June 21, 2011 at 6:58 AM

I just wish that you think not only twice but thrice in saying that statement because it can really be racist when you'll view it literally but I know you're just using a metaphor to show your feelings on your issue.

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