Vehicles don’t have to be a Money Pit

I know someone who is dead broke and living in a small apartment on the government dole despite having earned and inherited many hundreds of thousands of dollars in her lifetime. In part, this person is broke because she spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on new cars throughout her lifetime.

Five expensive new cars, starting with a 1974 Oldsmobile 98 (base price $5,869 when new; equivalent to $30,763 in 2018) followed by a ’77 Olds 98 (base price $6,786 when new; $29,230 in 2018 dollars) then a 1983 ’98 ($13,018 when new; $33,541 in today’s inflated dollars) then a 1987 Lincoln Mark VII LSC (base price $25,683 or $58,607 now) and – finally, at the end of the proverbial road – a 2000 Lexus RX300 ($33,000 when new – the equivalent of $49,263 today).

Whoosh—there went $201,404 and change.

This is a low figure, too—the totals are calculated based on each car’s base price, not the optioned-out price. Since I know the person and the cars involved personally, I know for a fact that she paid considerably more than the base price for each of these cars. The total is probably closer to $225,000.

Credit: Rudolf Stricker

And the figure does not count the insurance, property taxes, and cost of maintaining and repairing those cars, which (figuring very conservatively) must have been at least $5,000 per car over its lifetime.

Add another $25,000 to the tab. It is halting.

Those dollars spent by my friend could have gone toward appreciating assets or at least toward savings was instead spent on disposable appliances not fundamentally different from toasters with the one crucial difference that toasters won’t bankrupt you while new cars will.

Let’s face it—high-end new cars depreciate titanically because their value sinks almost as fast as the famed luxury liner did.

It’s predictable if you buy any high-end luxury car this year, in about six years, it will be worth about half what you paid for it.

The main reason for this is that the initial value of high-end luxury cars is primarily a function of their being “the very latest thing.” And once they’re not, well, your asset is not much of one.

Credit: Bookster451

Also, ordinary cars now generally come standard with most high-end features, which used to be exclusive to high-end luxury cars.

For example, cars now have power everything: climate control AC, a very good factory sound system, heated seats, leather, etc. All these things are available in $20,000 Corollas.

This makes it hard to understand what you’re getting when you buy a $50,000 Mercedes but easy to understand why the $50,000 Mercedes will be worth $20,000 (or less) five or six years from now.

My broke friend would have done much better buying a Corolla or even a used Mercedes.

The other big mistake she made, which you may have noticed from the timeline, is not keeping the cars she bought long enough to make them work for her rather than bleed her. Trading in a high-end car every five years or so, as she did, coincides precisely with the depreciation trough’s lowest point.

She bought high and sold low.

Had she kept the cars 50 percent longer, let’s say ten years instead of five or so, she might not have lost 50 percent of her “investment.” And if she’d kept them long enough, she might have recovered some of her investment.

The rate of depreciation decreases after about eight years and eventually stabilizes. You reach a point at which the vehicle’s value remains relatively constant as long as the vehicle is still functionally sound.

At this point, the vehicle becomes, if not an “investment,” then at least a kind of fungible asset. If it’s worth, say, $3,500 this year, it will probably be worth about the same next year, assuming it remains functionally sound. This is true even though miles will be added. After a certain point, that matters less and less as long as the vehicle remains functionally sound.

Such vehicles are also sound purchases, in part because it doesn’t take much to purchase them (most people can buy them outright, so no payments and no ongoing debt; also much lower cost to insure and negligible taxes, which are based on average retail value) and in part, because they have already depreciated to the extent, they are going to depreciate until they’re no longer functionally sound.

As an example of that (vs. the example of my now-broke friend), I submit myself. I’ve never bought a new car, high-end or otherwise. I’ve always bought older, already depreciated cars, as follows:

Credit: Niels de Wit

1973 VW Beetle (bought used for $700 circa 1986; $1,609 in today’s dollars) then a ’74 Super Beetle (bought used circa 1992 for $1,200; which amounts to $2,189 in 2018 dollar) followed by a used ’98 Nissan Frontier (bought used in 2003 for $7,000 – or $9,707 in current dollars) and then my current vehicle, another Nissan Frontier ($7,500 in 2008, equivalent to $9,336 today).

So, just under $23k (plus insurance, taxes, and maintenance) over the same period as in the example of my friend who whooshed through a quarter-million.

Sure, she got to drive high-end new cars, and I drove older cars without the cachet or the climate control.

But I’m not the broke one and living on the government dole.

Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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One Response to “Vehicles don’t have to be a Money Pit”

  1. David Holzman says:

    My car buying pretty much mirrors Eric Peters

    1. ’77 Toyota Corolla bought in ’86, for ~$950 (inflation adjusted)

    I drove it 70,000 miles over eight years

    2. my one brand new car, a ’93 Saturn SL2, for $26,400 (inflation adjusted)

    I drove it 147k over 11 years and change

    3. ’99 Honda Accord, $7,600 (inflation adjusted)

    I drove it 135k over 7 years

    4. Honda Civic $13,400 (inflation adjusted)

    I’ve driven it almost exactly 100k in 9 years

    Total cost of my cars $48,350 (inflation adjusted)

    Eric definitely has me beat on costs–having paid less than half as much for his cars.

    But besides giving me transportation, the Saturn, the Accord, and the Civic have also given me immense driving pleasure, and the expectation of that pleasure figured in the choices. They all had stick shifts.