I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea; I spend money, and plenty of it. But there are some key differences between how I spend that money and how most people do that allow me to live what I consider an upper middle class lifestyle for a lower middle class cost. One of these differences is that when I make a major purchase, I usually buy for the long term. I do a lot of research and I choose a high quality option I’m almost certain to love, both today and down the road. And then I take care of it so that I can keep it for a long time and it will stay in great condition. As a result, I’m able to own some very nice things while usually paying a lower overall cost than most people pay to own lower quality versions of them.
This is certainly my strategy with cars. It is not at all uncommon for people to buy a new one every three to five years. But that is an incredibly expensive form of vehicle ownership. For the last several years, used car pricing has been so stubbornly strong that one can make a pretty good case for buying new in many cases. I won’t argue with that and I’d be a hypocrite if I did since that is the conclusion I came to when I bought my current car – although even there I have some hacks – stay tuned. But regardless of whether you buy new or used, it is pretty indisputable that in general (there are certain exception situations), the longer you own your average car, the lower your annual cost is going to be. I owned my last truck for just over ten years and would probably still be driving it if I hadn’t failed to save it from a tragic end at the hands of black ice. Thankfully, it saved me in spite of this lack of consideration on my part. I walked away with barely a scratch from an accident that would have rendered most of today’s cars a pile of broken plastic, shattered glass, and twisted scrap metal. And in fact, the truck was still driveable. Built Ford tough indeed. Anyway, I’ve had my current car for almost five years now. However, and this is where it gets exciting, my vehicles are usually in as good of shape, both visually and mechanically, as just about anything else on the road and I almost never have any trouble with them.
How do I manage this when so many people start having problems before their loan is even paid off? Step one is to do the research and buy a quality product. For example, if you buy a Dodge, I can’t help you; you’re almost certainly going to pay a fortune to keep it on the road and the body is going to start coming apart and rusting before the new car smell is gone. I believe phrases like “you can’t polish a turd” or “trying to put lipstick on a pig” apply well here. This post I did about the best and worst brands is a good place to start and I will likely write plenty more about the ins and outs of car buying before long since it is a process I enjoy very much.
But once you own a vehicle, it is crucial that you maintain it properly. So today, at just over 60k miles, I spent a little over $400 on a handful of services: a brake fluid flush, a transmission fluid change (note the difference between the words “change” and “flush” here), new front brake pads, and the resurfacing of my front rotors to go with those pads. Before my minimalist, somewhat lazy new lifestyle, I would have done all of this myself and spent around a quarter of that much on parts and fluids only. And if you know how to work on cars or have an interest in learning, I highly recommend it as an extremely profitable hobby. But the important thing is that you get this stuff done, one way or another.
The day you buy your vehicle, I recommend you buy a repair manual for it as well. Haynes and Chilton are good options and shouldn’t cost more than $20-30, depending on the vehicle. If you spend even an hour or two reading that manual, it will more than pay for itself in the form of knowledge gained. And at a minimum, it will give you a comprehensive, realistic maintenance schedule. Don’t rely on the dealer or even your owner’s manual for this. The dealer will charge you substantially more than an independent shop for work that is no better than what a quality independent shop will do. Please note that I’m not talking about warranty/recall work here; that needs to go do a dealer. As for the owner’s manual that comes with your car, well, many of them now claim that transmission fluid is a “lifetime fluid.” Given that the transmissions in most modern cars are extremely complicated pieces of machinery that cost $5k or more to replace, I’m going to stick to changing the fluid at traditional intervals, thank you very much.
What is the payoff for the $400 and change I spent today? My brake system is now working as well as the day I bought the car – potentially a matter of life and death when you live in close proximity to as many
attempted murderers horrible drivers as I do. My transmission will continue shifting smoothly for some time to come and is much less likely to develop any problems – any of which would cost easily several times what it costs to do the maintenance I did today. And I can continue to drive hundreds of miles from home without worrying about whether I might wind up stranded somewhere. Simply put, any money you spend on competently performed, fairly priced preventative maintenance is going to be a good investment.
What other maintenance do I do on my cars? Oil changes are a must. I am a big believer in Amsoil, ridiculously high price tag be damned. I have never had a problem of any sort while using it and I am confident that if I did, Amsoil is the kind of company that would stand behind its product. I only use K&N performance engine air filters and cabin filters. Instead of throwing them out, you clean/lube them and they will easily last the life of a car. So the $80-100 investment pays for itself in five cleanings (or roughly 100k miles) at most and provides slightly better performance every day the entire time you have the car. It is important to replace the coolant in your car at proper intervals as well to keep the engine running optimally. If you have a truck or an SUV, there is considerably more to be done – one of several reasons I don’t have a truck right now.
As for keeping a car looking great year after year, my program is pretty simple. I pay $20 a month for unlimited car washes at Mister Car Wash, a high quality local option in Houston, and I run my car through about once a week. These plans seem to be gaining popularity nationwide and can make even more sense in a climate that attacks car finishes with a hellish cocktail of snow, slush, salt, and more. But rather than opting for the more expensive upgraded plan, which costs about double, I spend about a half hour around once a month applying spray wax (any decent brand will do and it costs no more than $5 for at least a few years’ worth) using basic microfiber cloths (these are great to keep at home for other purposes as well since they are reusable and do a better job than paper towels at all sorts of things). And finally, I use those same microfiber cloths to apply Nu Finish, an awesome polish product, once or twice a year. As a bonus, the waxing/polishing process is a great way to routinely inspect every inch of your car for any potential issues, which are almost always cheaper to address if they’re caught early. The result? People often ask if my cars are new, even when they’re several years old.
They certainly look and run as if they were. But instead of spending $5-10k a year on depreciation (yes, it is still an expense if it doesn’t affect short term cash flow), I usually spend $1-3k and sometimes even less. Over a lifetime, that will save me well over $100k compared to what the average person does. And again, I still drive relatively nice cars. Right now I have only one – a 2014 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T Limited, which offers 274 horsepower, a synthetic leather interior, a backup camera, blind spot monitoring, heated seats, 18 inch rims, and much more. And while it is still occasionally mistaken for being new, it is actually better than that since Hyundai took a tragic step backwards with the model in 2015 in both design and mechanical engineering (2 mpg city/0 highway gained in exchange for TWENTY NINE FUCKING HORSEPOWER lost to the tune of a 1.5 second difference in 0-60 time? If that didn’t get some people fired – or executed if it had been North Korea instead of South – it should have).
My next car is going to be a Lexus, more than likely a certain “radical” coupe that, with the aid of a few minor
corrections modifications, puts out over 500 horsepower and sounds like an unstoppable monster from hell. I will probably buy one around five years old due to the way luxury cars depreciate but I will still probably keep it close to ten years and operate the same way I always have. With the combination of legendary Toyota reliability and proper maintenance working in my favor, I believe I will do just fine. If not, I will go back to buying premium versions of regular brands like I have in the past. Either way, I’m happily driving a good quality car with almost no problems and spending much less than average to do so. Everyone is obviously going to make different choices when it comes to cars. But if you take care of yours the way I take care of mine and keep it a while, you are going to get the same kind of results.