Getting From A to B

Ken Cutler

DRIVE A BEATER. That’s what my coworker Neil admonished us to do. He explained that this was a key strategy on the path to financial freedom. Neil, as you might recall from one of my earlier articles, was the colleague who warned about the perils of funding a 401(k) plan.

All you really need is something to get you from point A to point B, Neil said, and consistently spending money on expensive cars simply meant you’d be forced to stay in the workforce longer. Also, when you drive a beater, you can drop collision insurance, and who cares if you pick up a few more scratches and dings?

While not consciously following Neil’s admonition, I’ve found his advice resonates with me. I also had my own corollary to Neil’s “drive a beater” mantra, which was “run a car into the ground.” I’ve owned 11 vehicles over nearly 40 years, shelling out a total of $135,000 to purchase them. Not all were beaters, but five of them averaged under $1,000 a year to drive if you consider only purchase price.

My all-time beater champion was a 1994 Ford Tempo that I purchased from my boss for $1,000 in 2014. It had been his mother’s car and had clocked 120,000 miles when I got it. It wasn’t pretty to look at on the outside and was in even worse shape on the inside. Still, it did have a strong air-conditioning system and a good radio.

I bought it for my son, so he could have a car to drive to high school and get around on his own. After he graduated from high school, he was too embarrassed to drive it any longer and, in any case, he went away to college.

Wanting to wring every dollar I could from my investment, I started driving the Tempo to work. Let’s just say it stood out in the parking lot. Even the plant manager teased me about it, to which I responded, “Maybe if you paid me more, I could afford a better car.” Needless to say, that suggestion went unheeded.

I drove the Tempo to work for more than two years, enduring ridicule but enjoying the crisp AC and the exceptional radio. One autumn day, I started feeling ill at work and decided to go home a little early. While ascending the first hill beyond the plant, I heard a weird noise and the car lost all power. The transmission had failed catastrophically. A sympathetic young maintenance technician came to my rescue and, using gravity, guided the car down the hill to a parking lot close to the plant. A week later, it was in the junkyard.

I took a different approach with another vehicle. In December 1990, while getting maintenance done on my 1985 Accord hatchback at the Honda dealership, I spotted a leftover 1990 Accord coupe with an enticingly low price. I didn’t really need a new car, but I let the salesman make his pitch to me.

In January 1991, the Gulf War began, and car sales ground to a near standstill. The salesman kept calling me about the coupe. Late in January, I made him my final lowball offer, which he accepted. I ended up driving that car for almost 15 years, racking up 185,000 miles. When the brakes started behaving erratically, I decided I’d achieved my goal of running it into the ground and traded it in for another vehicle.

At this stage in my life, I’m done with beaters, but I still like to buy used. After my two-year-old son used a stone to innocently engrave artwork into several panels of our brand new 1999 Honda Odyssey minivan, new vehicles somehow lost their appeal. As Neil might have pointed out, that inevitable first scratch or ding isn’t an issue for a used vehicle.

Used vehicles have the advantage of a reliability track record. I make use of the extensive data available from Consumer Reports to identify acceptable options. My latest vehicle is a 2017 Chevy Equinox, which I would never have considered except for its excellent reliability rating. I’m enjoying it more than any other vehicle in recent memory. Another change that age has brought: I no longer feel the obligation to drive the car into the ground. If I can get 10 years out of it, I’ll be happy.

Ken Cutler lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and has worked as an electrical engineer in the nuclear power industry for more than 38 years. There, he has become an informal financial advisor for many of his coworkers. Ken is involved in his church, enjoys traveling and hiking with his wife Lisa, is a shortwave radio hobbyist, and has a soft spot for cats and dogs. Check out Ken’s earlier articles.

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