MY FATHER WAS A CAR salesman. For the last 20 years of his career, he sold Mercedes and he was good at it. He even won a sales contest that included a trip to Germany to tour the factory.
Unfortunately, selling Mercedes does not mean you can afford one. But he did get to drive them. As a kid, I was also hooked. When I was 17, I was allowed to drive a 190SL in the local July 4th parade. Once, I even drove a 300SL. I was definitely hooked.
When I graduated high school in 1961, I promised my father that one day I would own a Mercedes. Looking back, I think my quest was more about being financially successful than the car itself. My father often told stories about the people who bought cars from him—doctors, a baseball player, owners of famous restaurants. Often, people paid cash. One story was particularly motivating. It was about a fellow who bought a 300SL for $11,000 in 1953. He reached into his top shirt pocket and pulled out the cash. That’s about $104,000 in 2019 money. Perhaps it’s telling that I still remember that story.
While I never really lost my desire for a Mercedes, life intervened, including four children, 16 years of college bills and saving for retirement. Around 1994, as my youngest entered college, my Mercedes yearnings began stirring. Was there light at the end of the college tunnel?
I opened a savings account and dubbed it my Mercedes fund.
Twenty years later, I had enough money—or close enough. In 2014, I bought a E350 for cash, more money than the cost of all my previous cars combined. At age 71, I fulfilled a dream and a promise. Two days after picking up the car, I fulfilled another promise. My wife and I took off across the U.S. so I could show her the national parks she’d always wanted to see—and I got to drive my Mercedes on the open roads of the west. I won’t admit to the speed I reached once, because my wife may read this and she was asleep at the time. I put 10,000 miles on the car in a few short weeks.
Just before the trip, when I drove the car off the lot, I welled up for a minute. Still, I didn’t feel the degree of satisfaction or pleasure I thought I would. It was, after all, just a car—which was now worth less than I’d paid. What I realized was that it wasn’t about the car, but about keeping a promise, about setting and achieving a goal, and about proving to myself I could do it.
That didn’t last long. I looked around and saw people half my age in better models. Did they pay for them? The salesman told me that, in his experience, over 70% of the cars are leased. If you lease a car, are you making a good financial decision—or is it that you really can’t afford the car and it’s more of a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses decision?
It’s the same with other spending, too. What’s the point of expensive trappings that can’t be paid for in full and that divert money from truly important financial goals? It’s like cheating on a test. You get an A, but you learn nothing and accomplish nothing.
My dream car is now five years older, and so am I. I’m getting those Mercedes stirrings again. What to do, what to do? Should a really old man take a chunk from the kids’ inheritance?
Richard Quinn blogs at QuinnsCommentary.com. Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. His previous articles include Leaves Me Cold, Sharing the Wealth and Matter of Degree. Follow Dick on Twitter @QuinnsComments.