Driving Lessons

John Yeigh

THIS PAST YEAR marked my 50th anniversary of driving. Over that time, our family has owned 19 cars and driven them roughly 1.9 million miles. While latte purchases frequently evoke financial debate, cars seem less discussed, despite being Americans’ second-largest expenditure after housing. The purchase, ownership, maintenance and sale of cars can all get pretty complicated.

Cars are considered a depreciating asset, but not always. My first car was a 1967 Mercury Comet, which I bought for $400 in 1973. I sold it two years—and 15,000 miles—later for $400. While reliable, the car had a dodgy transmission. I said a silent “thanks” for every successful gear shift.

My second car was a hot, three-speed 1971 AMC Javelin, which I bought for $1,200 in 1975. It had a whopping 145 horsepower, which is less than today’s base model Honda Civic. I had to MacGyver a coat hanger to tether the exhaust pipe, use hose clamps and a split Coke can to patch holes in the exhaust, and spray starter-fluid in cold weather. As a student, I just couldn’t afford the $200 to repair the exhaust or $40 for the carburetor.

I owned that Javelin for 11 years and about 130,000 miles. Once I got a job after college, I fixed the exhaust system and carburetor. This car taught me the benefits of a buy-and-hold approach to car ownership, which we’ve refined over the subsequent 45 years.

In midlife, two events abruptly cut short our normal habit of owning cars for lengthy periods. In 1988, our house burned down and took with it two station wagons—a 1981 Pontiac and 1985 Ford. Then, in 2001, we were transferred overseas and had to quickly unload our three station wagons—a 1988 Volvo, 1992 BMW and 1997 Volvo.

Having three cars for two drivers may sound excessive. Our work commutes totaled 190 miles per day, however, so we were racking up nearly 80,000 miles a year. These three cars eventually accumulated more than 400,000 miles between them.

Having a spare vehicle bailed us out of a jam many times. Remember, these were the days when there was no working from home. Employees were required to show up every day on time, snowstorm or not. Our ownership philosophy evolved to owning three high-mileage, highly depreciated beaters to ensure that we always had two running cars. We still use this approach.

Since returning from overseas, we’ve owned 10 cars over 16 years, including two for the kids. Nine of these cars were bought used, typically at the three-year mark with 35,000 miles. We paid 30% to 70% of the car’s original price, thanks to the steep depreciation on new cars. Fortunately, there hasn’t been a lemon in the bunch.

We’ve turned over four of these nine cars, after averaging about 135,000 miles and eight years of ownership for each. We still own three of the nine cars, and gave two to the kids. On average, our cars are 11 years old and have 70,000 miles on them. These mileages are on the low side for us, as we’ve been driving far less in retirement. For six months, we were down to just two cars, but then our mechanic offered his older car at a bargain price that I just couldn’t pass up.

Our children still have their two cars. They average six years old with 100,000 miles. Our habit of holding onto cars may have rubbed off on the next generation.

One of our few new car purchases occurred when my wife returned to the U.S. several months before me. She had to promptly buy a family vehicle for herself and the kids. A new Honda minivan seemed an expedient option, as tire-kicking was out of the question. It became the family vehicle of choice for the next 12 years and 190,000 miles.

A 1988 Mazda 626 was the all-time mileage winner, with 303,000 miles clocked over eight years. We bought it new after our fire, and it required only two significant repairs. A 2006 Jeep Liberty was the cost-efficient champion. We paid $9,000 for it in 2010 and sold it for $3,000 in 2020, after driving it 120,000 miles. It never needed a major repair.

Over the years, I’ve learned some key lessons from our buy-cheap-and-hold car ownership strategy, including these seven:

  • Our car purchase sweet spot has been about three years old with 20,000 to 50,000 miles on the odometer. We do give up that new car smell.
  • We’ve had 100% success in keeping modern cars for a long time—a minimum of 11 years and 150,000 miles. This is despite the constant reminders that our “car warranty has expired.”
  • Our longtime repair shop suggests budgeting $200 to $250 per month to maintain older cars. Half goes toward routine maintenance, and half is required for repairs. AAA suggests budgeting maintenance costs for a new car at nine cents per mile, which it translates to $75 to $150 a month.
  • Buying used has allowed us to drive good-handling, higher-end models that we otherwise couldn’t have afforded. We have owned four BMW station wagons, which seemed particularly reasonable on the resale market. We paid around 50% of the original price for the first one, and 40% or less for the subsequent three. We kept each of the first three for 190,000 miles or more, and number four is still going strong.
  • Locating your well-priced, well-maintained car of choice takes time—perhaps three to five months. Buying them from the owner saves on dealer costs, and the owner may honorably attest to a lack of mechanical problems. Alternatively, dealers usually provide refreshed tires, brakes, oil change, wipers and more on a used car. That can be worth $1,000 or more to the buyer.
  • When a car approaches our end-of-life tolerance for upkeep, we buy its replacement before that car dies. Having a spare is far cheaper than being forced into quickly buying a car when the old one dies. Also, a running car still has residual resale value once you’ve replaced it.,, and Craigslist are our shopping friends.
  • Finding a competent and fair repair shop may be the key to cost-effectively sustaining older, high-mileage cars. We have two local repair shops that we trust. We’ve had limited success with auto-dealer repair shops.

John Yeigh is an author, speaker, coach, youth sports advocate and businessman with more than 30 years of publishing experience in the sports, finance and scientific fields. His book “Win the Youth Sports Game” was published in 2021. John retired in 2017 from the oil industry, where he negotiated financial details for multi-billion-dollar international projects. Check out his earlier articles.

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