Letter 19: Asking the Right Questions

For the past two weeks, my attention has been consumed with the quest to replace my present car, a 2007 Toyota Corolla. There is nothing actually wrong with my Corolla, but it does have 212,000 miles on it. Those are mostly commuting miles, as I live an hour from work. For most of the drive, I am on the highway, but thanks to traffic tie-ups, I will divert to back roads. Since I cross two river valleys in the course of my commute, I must climb a few hills, including the most important hill of all, the driveway to my home.

Taking all of this into consideration, I have several requirements for my car: it must be reliable and fuel efficient. It also needs sufficient power to deal with the hills. Given the time I spend in the car, it should also be reasonably comfortable. I am not so concerned with space, since 80% of the time, I’m the only occupant. My wife, however, does have one additional requirement, for the times I squire her: heated seats.

Nearly everything made by man represents a compromise. Power works against fuel efficiency, and some of the creature comforts add weight, which can further degrade fuel efficiency. And of course, the total package must cost only so much.

So I researched cars, and quickly came to an important conclusion. I could not afford a new car. Based on our budget, my wife and I had agreed that we could not afford a car over $20,000. Getting a new car with the features we wanted would put the price over that limit. When you add in the 11% instant depreciation that happens the moment you drive the car off the lot, there is little financial sense in buying new.

So used it was. That actually has some benefit, as used cars have a history. Certain models acquire a reputation for reliability, common problems become known, etc. Based on price guides, it’s also pretty easy to come up with the cost. But there are also limitations: if I was set on certain features, I may not be able to pick the color.

So I found two cars, and I took them both for test drives. Neither was a perfect match. One offered power and all the trimmings, but had a suspect transmission and history of reliability. The other was extremely fuel efficient, and known for its reliability, but lacked power, came in a color I didn’t like, and had seats that were less than comfortable. I was torn, and I needed to make a decision, fast.

I had no sense of which choice to make. The negatives for both choices were significant, and even though these were used cars, they were expensive, in an absolute sense. We could afford the payments. My wife and I have learned to start the process by determining how much we are comfortable spending per month, and then working backwards to get the approximate purchase price. No, I mean that cars are expensive, because you are paying a lot for what you get, across the board.

When I bought my first car in 1995, the average car loan was three years. Now it is five years, to keep payments manageable. I would be paying about as much for a used car in 2015 as I paid for a new car in 2007. I struggle with that.

In the midst of my dithering, a thought took root in my mind and began to grow. Had I asked God? Well, of course I was praying about the choice, but I had I brought Him into the process at its very inception? No I had not. I had plunged ahead with my plans, and hoped that God would bless them. The wheels of my mind came screeching to a halt.

I went back and started looking at the subject cars more closely, and I compared them with my Corolla. It started to look better. It’s extremely reliable, comparatively fuel efficient, and possessed of modest power. More importantly, it’s paid for, and not due for any substantial work this year. I would expect that there is probably another 100,000 miles left on it. Looked at from this new perspective, my decision was fairly clear: keep the car I have.

Of course, it’s only temporary.  Soon enough I’m going to have get another car.  But I’ll start with a different question.Sport


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