My Car Journey

Richard Quinn

I WROTE AN ARTICLE in 2019 titled Mercedes and Me. It was about my 52-year quest to fulfill a promise to my father—one I’m sure he never even remembered. My promise: to buy a Mercedes, a vehicle my father sold for many years but could never afford, even at dealer cost.

In 2014, after 10 years of diligent saving, I achieved my goal. I paid $60,000 in cash to make good on my promise and to fulfill my dream.

Now, the car is nine years old. It’s been driven 118,000 miles, including three cross-country trips, on one of which I recklessly reached 115 m.p.h. As best I can determine, the car is worth $12,000 to $14,000 today. It isn’t hard to see that buying the vehicle wasn’t a good financial move. Even I know that.

My wife and I are talking about getting a new car. Yup, another Mercedes.

Do I need a new car, let alone a Mercedes? Of course not. My wife has a three-year-old car with just 18,000 miles on it.

Do I, at age 80, deserve a new luxury car? Nobody deserves such a thing.

As you might gather, I’m trapped between emotion and common sense. Not long ago, I wrote about why emotion-driven spending is risky. Yet here I am, struggling to follow my own advice.

The author’s Cape Cod vacation home

In the greater scheme of things, a discussion about buying a car with a price tag close to the national median household income is ludicrous. In fact, as I write this, I’m sitting in our vacation home—another costly luxury and another emotion-drive purchase. My realization: This debate I’m having with myself about purchasing a new car isn’t about the car at all. Rather, I’m trying not to feel guilty about what we have, even as I also try to avoid turning into a money-obsessed Scrooge McDuck.

Yeah, it’s valid to say I earned what I have. But that doesn’t help. Most people earn what they have, many working a lot harder than I did. The truth is, I’ve been fortunate my entire life, and I didn’t earn that good fortune. I lost just one job since graduating high school. It was my first job—and it had only lasted a week.

Sometimes, working hard isn’t enough. Illness, divorce, layoffs and more can throw our financial lives off track. I see this with my four children. Like most Americans, they’re trying to cope with medical bills, upcoming college costs, saving for retirement and paying everyday expenses. They all work hard, but serious illness and job interruptions have hurt a couple of them.

While I recognize that luck has been on my side, I also haven’t abandoned my curmudgeonly view of people who waste money and fail to plan, and thus end up in debt and facing a bleak financial future. My wife and I can claim a good measure of frugality during our 55 years of marriage. Hey, the price of my favorite oyster cracker has gone through the roof, so I’ve switched to the store brand. We may have been lucky, but we’ve also been prudent. Shouldn’t we get credit for that?

I fear I’ve grown out of touch with the financial reality of most people’s lives. I suspect that may also be true of other HumbleDollar writers and readers. Think on this: The median monthly income for Americans age 65 and older is $3,968. Among Social Security recipients, 37% of men and 42% of women receive 50% or more of their income from Social Security. In fact, 12% of men and 15% of women rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income. That’s the retirement reality for many seniors.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not super-wealthy. My assets were accumulated over 60 years. That’s a lot of time to sock away money and benefit from investment compounding. Most of my wealth was amassed by saving in my employer’s 401(k) and stock purchase plan, and through bonuses and stock awards during the final five years of my career.

The bottom line: I’ve been successful and many others haven’t, though often through no fault of their own. Dare I take credit for what I have? Should spending money on luxuries cause me guilt? Adding to my feelings of guilt: I could pay for a new Mercedes with the increase in my portfolio’s value over the past year. I didn’t do a thing to earn that money. It’s just passive income, right?

Just for fun, I asked Google, “Should I feel guilty about spending money?” The search turned up answers that discussed setting a budget, personal values and struggling to make ends meet. In other words, underlying the answers was the assumption that folks didn’t have enough money.

One notion I came across in my Googling: It’s okay to spend money on things you enjoy. If you’re spending on things that make you happy, you shouldn’t feel guilty. That sounds like a solid 21st century justification: If it makes you happy, just do it. Seems a bit short-sighted and selfish to me.

Back to the Mercedes. Am I going to buy a new one? I still have some thinking to do. After all, I fulfilled my original promise to my father. Is buying another one about status? At 80 years old, I like to think I’m beyond that. Besides, the price of many Mercedes, including the one I’d buy, is less than that of many pickup trucks and SUVs. If I wanted a status symbol, I should probably buy one of those.

At this late stage, is it worth trying to overcome my feelings of having too much, of spending too much, of being too fortunate? I’m not sure. But let me tell you this: If I ever win the lottery, I’m going to be in a real pickle.

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. Follow him on Twitter @QuinnsComments and check out his earlier articles.

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