Happy Friday! Here’s Everything You Will Ever Need to Know About Cars.

An actual car I saw in the actual world. The jokes basically write themselves.

That’s right, folks. All in one hilarious, addictive, and even Houston based Youtube channel.

https://www.youtube.com/user/scottykilmer

I’ve been thinking about doing some car posts lately and I certainly will soon. But I’ve been watching Scotty’s videos for years and I promise you, the man is legit. In fact, he knows a hell of a lot more about cars than I do. And to top it all off, he is damn entertaining. So I figured the most effective post I could write is one that directs people to him. Check out his channel now and thank me later. That’s all for today. Have a wonderful weekend!

How Much I Spend on Gas and Some Ways to Spend Less

Even in the land of gas guzzling, we still have different degrees. Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

Happy Monday, everyone! Here is the latest post in my Annual Expenses series. If you didn’t see the introduction post that summarizes all of my expenses, you can check it out here. I’ve been going into detail on one category each Monday. Over 2017 and 2018, I spent an average of $2800 on gas. This is largely because I drive a ton for work and for my other business activities. However, if I drove a typical number of miles in a year, I believe I could reasonably cut this expense down to about $1200. Are you spending more than that? Here are some ways you can improve the situation, form most effective to least.

1. Drive a fuel efficient vehicle.

Yes, this one is pretty obvious. But it’s the biggest reason most people overspend on gas. How many pickup truck owners do you know who do almost nothing but drive to work in them? How many SUV owners do you know who rarely have more than one or two passengers? These people are spending a fortune owning these vehicles – in many more ways than simply filling their gas tanks. I’ve been without my truck for almost two years now and guess what? I’ve managed to find ways to get by without it in most cases and when that hasn’t been possible, well, that’s why Uhaul and their ilk exist. Even some home improvement stores have trucks available to rent now. Renting a truck even ten times a year is much, much cheaper than owning one. So my advice is to think long and hard about why you’re driving what you are and whether you really need a vehicle that size. If you can’t get at least 30mpg on the highway and there isn’t a very good, consistent reason for it, you’re wasting a lot of money. In my case, I get roughly 30mpg on AVERAGE and drive a car with just shy of 300hp. Automotive technology has come a long way and compromise isn’t nearly as painful as it was years ago.

2. Keep your driving miles down.

There are lots of ways to do this. Carpool, combine multiple trips into single ones with multiple stops, skip going to things you didn’t really want to do anyway, etc.

3. Maintain your vehicle appropriately.

There is a good chance a poorly maintained vehicle will get correspondingly poor gas mileage. This is one way that a fair portion of your maintenance costs will literally pay for themselves. And that’s not to mention the money you’ll save in depreciation since a car that’s maintained ages more gracefully and is worth more money. Here is a post I wrote about basic vehicle maintenance.

4. Drive gently. If you’re adventurous, try some hypermiling techniques.

I’m not going to go into the extreme stuff here, although you should know there are people who can get literally double the EPA rating out of some cars. You can improve your gas mileage quite a bit just by accelerating gently, maintaining a good following distance, minimizing brake use (which is strongly related to following distance), etc. Driving your car like you’re on an imaginary race track isn’t going to save you much time anyway since you will still have to deal with the same (often horribly timed) stoplights and idiots going the speed limit in the left lane that everyone else does. And besides, any time saved will get eaten up pretty quickly when some revenue generator asshole traffic cop lights you up or you get into an accident. Driving aggressively really isn’t worth it and it has a devastating effect on your gas mileage.  

5. Buy the cheapest gas you can find.

I wrote a post with some more tips about this recently so check it out here if you missed it. Gas is the ultimate commodity item and yes, provided you’re doing an apples to apples comparison in terms of octane rating, it’s the same no matter what station you buy it from. I can’t believe how many people swear by the opposite. If you don’t believe me, drive by your local distribution center (likely in the middle of nowhere) and check out how many different logos are on the sides of the tankers – which are all lined up to be loaded with the EXACT SAME GAS.

6. Use credit card rewards to your advantage.

There are multiple credit cards that pay 3% on gas. Additionally, “category cards” like Chase Freedom occasionally pay 5%. This is free money, people. But if you don’t want it, no problem. That’s just more for me.

7. Go to your furthest away destination first.

While you’re planning your multiple errand trip after reading point number two above, consider this. Cars run most efficiently when they’re fully warmed up and this takes some time, depending on your climate. This is why if you live in a place with hellish winters, your winter gas mileage is substantially worse than in the summer time; it takes cars longer to warm up. Anyway, if you drive to your first destination a few miles away, then a few more miles, then a few more, etc, and turn your car off each time, it may never get fully warmed up and you may be losing tons of gas mileage. Contrast this with driving twenty miles to the furthest destination, completely warming up your engine in the process, then making your way back towards home. You want to be driving the highest possible percentage of your miles with your car running as efficiently as possible. Another way to plan out your trips is to avoid rush hour like the plague. Stop and go driving is bad for both your gas mileage and your car’s longevity. Few of us live in a perfect world, but most of us still have some options available that can make a big difference with things like this.

8. Regardless of climate, DO NOT leave your car “warming up” in your driveway.

I don’t know what they were doing thirty years ago because I’m not that damn old. But I do know that today’s cars are designed to run right away and also that idling is bad for them and should be kept to a minimum. I know it gets inhumanely cold in some places – for example, Wisconsin. But if you punish your car for that by leaving it sitting idling, you’re going to take a ton of life out of it in the long term and waste a ton of gas in the short.

Some Ways to Make Driving Great Again!

Between the low double digit gas mileage and the tight quarters inside, this Ferrari may not be the best choice for a road trip

My job involves a lot of driving. How much? Over the last three years of doing it, I’ve put on well over 100k miles. So I know a thing or two about this stuff. Today I’m going to throw out some random tips that I use to make life on the road a little safer, more efficient, and generally better.

Take care of your vehicle and it will take care of you.

This is an easy one. I’ve written about basic maintenance before. Whether you do it yourself or you have it done at a shop you trust, make sure it gets done.

Drive gently.

I’ve read about hypermiling techniques that allow people to get some pretty insane gas mileage. A lot of it isn’t necessarily practical for every day driving but the most important concept is; drive gently. Accelerate gradually, maintain plenty of following distance, and avoid abrupt braking. Not only will you save gas, your car will last longer and you will be much less likely to get into an accident. This can easily save you thousands of dollars over the life of a car.

Google Maps is pretty awesome!

I don’t even use the in car GPS systems anymore because Google Maps is way better. In addition to basic navigation, it allows you to search for gas stations and see many of their prices on the fly. It doesn’t have prices for every station, but it at least gives you a good idea of what area you’re likely to find the best prices in. And for anyone who doesn’t know, no matter where you buy your gas, it is exactly the same stuff. I talk to oil industry people all the time and that has been confirmed time and time again. So this is a commodity item and that means price wins.

But my favorite Google Maps feature is definitely the speed trap notifications. It isn’t a perfect system, but it is more effective than a traditional radar/laser detector in my opinion for two reasons. One, the range is much better. You can see speed traps miles away on the map. Two, there are far fewer false positives – a huge problem with even the best detectors. But the system is only as good as the data it has so please, let’s all be good citizens and put the word out whenever a revenue generation agent police officer is spotted trying to ruin someone’s day. Disclaimer: I support police most of the time and believe they provide a valuable service. But in this particular area, I believe Google is providing a much more valuable service than they are. To report a speed trap, click the little plus button on the right side of the screen in Google Maps. We need as many people doing this as possible!

I tried an app called Upside and well, not everything works out.

The app supposedly pays a rebate whenever you buy gas. But you have to take a picture of your receipt every time and that’s a pain – even if the pump isn’t out of receipt paper, which is often the case. And in my experience, after the teaser rate on the first fill up, it was almost always one cent per gallon. Also, usually only the more expensive gas stations in the area were available on the app. A one cent per gallon rebate isn’t worth much if you’re paying ten cents more per gallon to begin with. There was also a restaurant option available that paid much better, but the selection was atrocious. I did, however, use that to buy enough chicken sandwiches at Burger King, which are surprisingly decent now, to get over the $10 cash out threshold and make the whole thing at least pay off a little.  

As usual, Costco rocks.

If you can get your gas there, you will likely save at least ten cents a gallon versus the next cheapest station in the area.

Speaking of gas, if you’re getting less than 3% back on it, you’re leaving money on the table.

Both the Wells Fargo Propel credit card and the Bank of America Cash Rewards card offer 3% back in this category. Occasionally the quarterly 5% cards like Chase Freedom will pay out on gas. There are probably several other cards that do at least this well, too.

AAA is a pretty worthwhile service if you drive long distances often.

Peace of mind is worth a lot when you’re in a strange place. If something happens, it’s nice to know you’re a phone call away from getting help and that in many cases, you won’t even have to pay for it. In a lot of places, especially in the more rural areas, the tow truck business is quite a racket. With AAA, even if you do end up having to pay, you will at least be dealing with one of the more reputable options in the area (or at least one that likely doesn’t want to risk losing its AAA business by pissing off customers) without having to do the research on your own.

If Discount Tire is available where you live, you’d be a fool not to buy your tires from them. And yes, I know that my favorite store sells tires. Even Costco isn’t the best at absolutely everything.

These guys have the tire business down to a science. They have great selection, the best prices, and great service. They check/correct your pressure whenever you want and free rotation is included with your tires. But the best part is their warranty. 99% of the time I am not a warranty advocate. But Discount Tire is an exception. For about twenty bucks a tire, they will repair or replace any tire you have any issue with during the warranty period. This is all fresh in my mind because on a recent trip to the oil country, it was so hot that one of my tires exploded as I was driving. Thankfully, I wasn’t far from the nearest town when it happened. I did have to wait a day for the specific tire I had to get there (to be fair, they did have another option available, but I didn’t want mismatched tires so I opted to wait), but given how far out in the middle of nowhere oil country is, that was actually impressive in my opinion. And rather than having to pay $200+ for a replacement tire (high performance, 18 inch, low profile tires are expensive anywhere you go; Discount Tire’s price is still easily the best), I only had to pay the twenty bucks to renew the warranty on the tire that was being replaced for free. With tire prices being what they are these days, and with roads being as bad as they are in many places, this warranty is a no brainer and has already paid off more than double for me with about half the life of the three remaining tires left to go.

Have a great Wednesday, folks! And be safe out there!

How Much I Spend On Auto Maintenance/Repairs and How I Do It

The elder statesmen of my former fleet of vehicles – the legendary Ford Ranger…before Ford stopped making the model for years and then brought it back as a slightly smaller F150

Happy Monday Everyone! This is the very first post in my Annual Expenses series. If you didn’t see the introduction post that summarizes all of my expenses, check it out here. I plan to go into detail on every category with a post on one each Monday. Over 2017 and 2018, I spent an average of $1300 per year on auto maintenance and repairs and I believe I could spend a bare minimum of $500 per year if I had to. This, in particular, is an expense I am able to spend a lot less than I otherwise would on because I do as much of my own work as possible. I try to only do that in areas of life where it is worth my time and with most shops charging at least $70-80 an hour for labor alone, not including marking up parts, this is definitely one of those. Here come the details.

First off, that $1300 number would be significantly lower if I hadn’t done what I consider a minor overhaul on the truck I had until near the end of 2017. At a total cost of roughly $1500, I replaced all four sets of brakes (pads and rotors on the front and all drum components on the back), the two front wheel hub assemblies, and most of the steering and suspension parts. This would likely have cost at least two to three times that figure if I’d had a shop do the work. That said, there would have been some cost savings since there was a lot of overlap in the labor. That was why I did all that at one time; not everything needed to be done right away but it made sense to do it all as long as I was going to have everything apart. Whether you do your own work or pay someone else to do it, this is something I recommend you think about. It usually won’t make sense on a newer vehicle, but on an old dog like my truck, it certainly did since anything that wasn’t already bad was definitely likely to be before long.

I wasn’t able to do all of it myself, mind you. When doing steering and suspension work, an alignment is usually required when you’re finished and that requires expensive equipment and know how. But by doing most of the work myself, I got basically everything done that my high mileage truck would need to keep running reliably for at least a few more years, aside from basic maintenance. I’m not a mechanical genius by any stretch but with auto repair work, you can find instructional videos on just about any repair for your specific vehicle on youtube. If you are at least a little bit mechanically inclined, have a basic set of tools, and particularly if the repair is on the less complicated end, like brakes for example, I highly recommend this route to learn a new skill and save a ton of money.

What do I do in a normal year? I spend roughly $200 on oil changes with what I believe is the best oil money can buy (Amsoil), I clean and lubricate my performance/reusable K&N air filter and cabin air filter for free, I have the tires rotated every 5k miles or so (done for free at Discount Tire, the best tire store I’ve ever found), and that’s about it for routine stuff. I also spend money on other maintenance items like brakes, coolant, transmission fluid, etc, but none of that has to be done every year. I went into detail about those kinds of items here. I highly recommend you keep all the basic maintenance up to date on your vehicles. It will cost you some money and time on the front end but in the long run, it will save you tons of both. While your costs will vary based on which additional maintenance items need to be done in a given year, if you keep up with it, your average annual cost should be around $500. Note that this is for one regular vehicle. If you have a truck or SUV it will be more and if you have a giant diesel truck or you buy a vehicle that is known for mechanical issues (avoid that by checking out this post), it will be a lot more.

I do spend a little extra keeping my vehicles clean and waxed/polished because I can, because I like the look of a clean car, and because keeping the paint looking good will keep the resale value as high as possible. In my case, this costs me $20 per month on unlimited, high quality car washes, and maybe $5-10 per year on wax and polish. These aren’t things you would absolutely have to do for a car to operate properly, but if your car looks nice now, keeping it that way will most likely more than pay for itself when you end up selling it.

That’s about it. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below or send me an email at admin@healthwealthpower.com. Next week, Monday, I’m going to be covering my Cash Donations category in this series of posts.

Happy Fantastic Friday (I Wanted to Up the Ante From Last Week)!

I was looking for a picture of destruction. I found this picture of hurricane damage. It will do. Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

Holy cow are we in some suddenly dark days! I’m seeing some genuinely good people and businesses getting hurt and some being taken down altogether and it is all happening so quickly. And this, of course, only intensifies my problems. I’ve seen this recession coming on paper (or at least screens, the 2019 equivalent) for a couple of years now and while I may have made some early calls, I would much rather have been early than late. And more importantly, I believe we are now almost definitely in it. I see more real world signs of it every day and I hear similar reports from my contacts all over the country. If you haven’t started preparing yet, I strongly recommend doing so right now because you won’t get a better opportunity. Anyway, mercifully, another Friday is upon us and here are some random observations and anecdotes from the week.

Don’t Let Car Dealerships Take Advantage of You Because You’re Lazy

In spite of what I wrote above, I have been quietly watching the market for my next vehicle for a while. I’m not saying I will pull the trigger any time soon, but as I believe I’ve mentioned before, I typically watch the market for months before I so much as set foot on a dealer’s lot. I don’t just want to take the internet’s word for it; I want to know for a fact whether a price is good or not. Plus, I predict some amazing recession discounts on cars this time around. Plus, I enjoy the research. Yes, because I’m weird like that.

Anyway, I’ve noticed that these “no haggle” dealerships have gotten very popular. I’ve also noticed something else; their prices are absurdly high! I’m talking 10-15% higher than average in most cases! After doing a little googling and perusing some forum posts, I’ve confirmed that this is exactly what it appears to be – another example on the long and growing list of times American companies have had the balls to fairly openly exploit laziness for profit – and succeeded at it. Two quick notes on this.

One – and I know this doesn’t apply to all of them, but only some of the very most millennial-ly ones that may as well be throwing in a year’s supply of avocado toast with their overpriced cars – but any dealership that will not let you inspect a car in person first at a minimum, needs to be avoided at all costs. Cars, particularly used ones, are not commodity items. If you aren’t going to test drive one before you buy it, you deserve whatever you get. And if you’re not willing to spend a hundred bucks or so to have a qualified mechanic check a used car out, you’re taking an awfully huge risk. Sure, you may get lucky. But you could also wind up out thousands and thousands of dollars. And sure, some of these “dealerships” allow returns. But do you really want to stake that kind of money on these policies being honored? Better you than me if you do. But then, I’m just a car freak who has done extremely well with car purchases over the years. Not only have I had to do almost zero repairs beyond preventative maintenance, I have even pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of selling one car for a profit after driving it over a year and another for exactly what I paid after driving it for several months. But then, I don’t like to toot my own horn…

Two, these dealers literally believe they can overcharge people by thousands of dollars because the average person either doesn’t even have the courage to sit and talk to a salesman (or woman), or is too lazy to do so. Are you really willing to validate that theory for them? For the sake of all of us, I hope not. But based on the fact that some of these companies appear to be extraordinarily successful, it would appear the mob has already spoken. In any case, at the risk of sounding like your parents, do you want to get ripped off just because a million other people have been?

Aldi Now Accepts Credit Cards

This could be old news, I don’t know. I stopped going to these stores years ago because I didn’t like playing roulette with the possibility of getting stuck waiting in line for fifteen minutes because there was one employee in the entire store. Also because I don’t do business with anyone who doesn’t accept credit cards outside of incredibly rare, possibly life threatening circumstances. Anyway, I stopped in to an Aldi for the hell of it recently and was pleasantly surprised to learn that the company has joined the rest of the civilized world in accepting credit cards. Someone must have had a eureka moment and realized that not accepting by far the most popular payment method on earth to save a few nickels per order, which could easily be accounted for in the pricing of everything (again, like the rest of the civilized world does it), might not be quite the brilliant business tactic they had once thought it was. No, no sarcasm here at all. And by the way, speaking of spare change, I genuinely believe the quarter deposit thing they do with their carts is brilliant. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one freely roaming a parking lot en route to damaging someone’s several thousand dollar vehicle because someone else is a lazy, entitled asshole. My goodness, I’m in an interesting mood today. But I promise this is happy, if cynical. Remember, Friday.

Anyway, the line thing still happened. As it turned out, the only employee in the store was in the bathroom. There was a line about half the length of the building when he came out. I probably won’t repeat this experiment anytime soon. But if you’re looking for absolute bottom line grocery prices, this store may be worth a visit for you – especially now that you don’t lose out on 3% of the purchase price (it’s actually 5% until the end of June with Chase Freedom) because management doesn’t believe in pricing its products according to the costs of doing business with the vast majority of all possible customers. Seriously, charging credit card users extra is basically like installing pay toilets in the bathrooms since a few people may have a phobia of using public bathrooms or something. Or in the case of shady gas stations, who tend to discount their cash prices by several times anything approaching a possible credit card merchant rate, putting up a giant “IRS, please audit me!” sign outside one’s place of business. And not accepting them at all? Well, it’s their business, not mine. Yes, as old fashioned as I can be, I get incredibly irritated when people fail to adapt to the overwhelming convention of the times in this particular area. We are all hypocrites; the only difference is that some of us are at least willing to admit it. Anyway…

Time to Make a Dietary Change

Sugar is the devil. We all know it deep within our sad little souls and just in case we’re intentionally ignorant anyway, there are about forty million studies rightly screaming it. Recently, I finally accepted that I’m weaker than I need to be at standing up to its cocaine-esque charms. So I’m cutting it out. No, not all of it. We all have to find a balance that works for us in life. In this case, I need to be somewhere between excessive, gluttonous consumption at will, where I have been for much of my life, and eating only what I grow on my isolated, non GMO (if that is even possible given the selective breeding that has gone on with just about all crops for hundreds, if not thousands of years – but I digress), 100% organic farm in the middle of some God forsaken backwater town no one ever visited, let alone lived in, on purpose.

The logical choice seems simple. I’m not going to try to police every gram of sugar out of my life. Cutting out only the stuff that is primarily sugar (cookies, my beloved Nutella, my even more beloved Freddy’s chocolate custard concrete mixers with various mix ins, etc) will amount to a major improvement for me. I recall reading somewhere that habits take seven weeks to form so I’m going to do two months for good measure. I started on Tuesday so that means I’m going until July 28. I’m hoping that by then I won’t even want the stuff anymore. But we’ll see how it goes.

Happy Friday, Everyone! Have a wonderful weekend!

How to Get an Awesome Deal on a New Car

For starters, probably don’t buy this one… – Image courtesy of Jean-Marc Buytaert

If you had asked me to write this post ten years ago, I would have refused to do it since advising anyone to buy a new car would have been a huge disservice. Why buy new when that same car will cost a quarter less in a year and about half in four or five? However, since then, prices have skyrocketed (but so have incentives), people have largely caught on to both that trend and how generally undervalued used cars had been, and depreciation has slowed considerably as a result to the point that today, buying a new car makes sense in some, but still not all cases. But under no circumstances does it make sense to go in uninformed and let some car salesman hit a home run off of you. So let’s see what we can do about that. This is only one of many perspectives on the matter but it should at least give you a good start. The dealership model, much like that of credit cards, is set up to screw customers en masse. However, just as with credit cards, the rules of that exact same game can be turned around and exploited by a savvy customer as well. Let’s get you on your way to being one!

Much like in any sport, preparation is a huge part of winning. Don’t ever go to a dealership without having done your homework. How do you know if you’re ready? Before you ever step foot in a dealership, you should know all of the following things: which make and model you want, the differences between different model years if there are multiple new model years available (for example, today you could buy a 2020, a 2019, or a 2018 in certain cases) which options you want and don’t want, which packages you need to buy or avoid in order to accomplish that, what those packages cost, the average pricing (what people are actually paying) of any car you want, what your current car is worth, and what the terms of your financing approval are. Yes, that is a lot. It usually takes me a month or so, chipping away an hour or two at a time.

There are tons of research sites available now. Edmunds.com and KBB.com are two of the best and most venerable but countless competitors have popped up in recent years. Most of the information you need is widely available so the important thing isn’t so much where you choose to get yours as that you get it somewhere and verify it somewhere else. I recommend working through the process on multiple sites until you basically have everything memorized. But don’t be afraid to make yourself a cheat sheet of key figures to take with you. Your mind can do funny things in the heat of the moment. Whatever you do, do not rely on a salesman to educate you about cars, pricing, or especially finance. Why not? First, there is a very low barrier to entry in the job and many of them are awful at it and incapable of doing so. By educating yourself, you will ensure that weakness on the part of a salesman can only get you a better deal and will cost you nothing. Second, information is power, plain and simple. If the salesman knows more than you do about any of the items I listed above, he has an advantage that he can capitalize on from the word go all the way through the signing of a deal – and that’s going to cost you thousands of dollars.

You also need to know about your end of the transaction going in. KBB.com will give you a pretty good idea what your current car is worth, especially if you cross reference craigslist, autotrader, etc to see what cars like yours are actually being listed for. Pay attention to the type of valuation you’re getting. Private party (if you sell the car yourself) is almost certainly going to be higher than trade in. But know the difference between these numbers because it will be important. Keep in mind that in most states, you’re not going to pay sales tax on the trade in portion of the deal. So weigh things out. For example, if your state charges 5% sales tax and your car is worth $5k private party and $3800 as a trade, you would be better off by $1010 if you sold it yourself ($3800 + 190 less tax liability = 3990, 5000 – 3990 = 1010). However, if the dealer ultimately ups his offer to $4800, and you are confident in the $5000 figure, you are now better off trading ($4800 + 240 = 5040, 5000 – 5040 = -40). However, watch out for over allowance here. This is when a dealer offers more than your trade is worth but then juices the hell out of the sale price of the new car to more than make up for it. Remember, “there is no free lunch.” And also keep in mind that selling a car usually involves investing your time into dealing with at least some “interesting” people so you have to decide what that is worth to you as well and factor it in.

Finally, there’s financing. Some hardliners will say you should never finance a vehicle because it’s a depreciating asset. I would say that technically they’re right in most cases, but that the declining pace of depreciation and still nearly historically low interest rates have made things a lot less definitive than they used to be. For example, I took a car loan in 2014 at a rate of 2.9%. Cash wasn’t worth that much at the time but investments were worth a hell of a lot more. So since I was confident I would be able to cashflow the loan for the life of the term, I feel I was making a pretty good choice. I still recommend sticking to a 36 month term or shorter, just like I would never advise anyone to take out a mortgage with a term over 15 years. Why? The term becomes a limiting mechanism against both paying excessive interest and buying more than you can afford. As long as you can cashflow the payments at 36 months or less, you are pretty unlikely to get hurt. Are you dooming yourself with a 60 month term on a car loan? No, but you are stretching yourself thinner than I would prefer if you genuinely need a term that long to afford the payments.

Whatever you do with the financing, do not make it into yet another profit item for the dealership. Get your best approval option directly from a lender prior to ever looking at any cars. Credit unions usually offer the best rates. This part will involve a little more legwork but there are two big payoffs. One, the dealership finance manager isn’t going to mark your quoted rate up by a point (or three). And yes, if you don’t find the financing for yourself, that is exactly what will happen. The exception would be when the dealer or manufacturer gives you a subsidized rate. However, keep in mind that in those cases, you can usually have either the subsidized rate or the incentives on the car but not both and you are usually much better off taking the incentives, which have ballooned more and more along with the pricing in general. So you are always better off knowing what the best available non-subsidized deal is at a minimum. Two, you will spend a lot less time in a room with that same finance manager – and make no mistake, he is the smartest and most ruthless guy on the payroll or they wouldn’t force almost every customer to go through him before leaving with a new car. He is probably going to try to push extended warranties and other bullshit whether you finance through him or not, but if you take the financing out of his hands, you’ve taken away his best weapon. He loves to say things like “we can give you all this additional coverage and it will only cost you x per month” because it puts thousands of dollars in his pocket without some people even realizing what he’s doing. Before you walk into that office, remind yourself that the only way to walk out without losing money is to say no repeatedly until the finance manager accepts that you’re not a rube and gives up.

That brings me to another key point. Any time anyone tries to talk about monthly payments, stop them in their tracks by telling them you’ll be basing any and all decisions on the total sale price only. As a finance guy, I can tell you that from your perspective as a customer, nothing good can come from conversing in the language of monthly payments. If you are a lion in an epic struggle for survival with a crocodile, this would be the part of the program where the crocodile tries to pull you off of the river bank and into the water, where you go from having a fighting chance to virtually none. Don’t let it happen. Fight the enemy on your terms only. Negotiate on total sale price only!

Now let’s get to that most fun part! What? Negotiating isn’t fun for you? I get it. You’re a normal person and you don’t like awkward, high pressure situations. But unless you want to donate at least a few thousand dollars to some “no haggle” (in other words, “take the easy road and just pay us a lot more”) dealership, this is a necessary evil. First off, shop at the right time. There is no one best part of the year although there are several good ones. Late summer is good because business tends to be slow and dealerships are hungry. Different parts of fall and winter are good for a variety of reasons. But by far the most important timing related factor is to shop when it’s good for you. This means you have a functioning vehicle and are under zero pressure to buy anything now. This is crucial because indifference is your best weapon.

Only visit a dealership if you are 100% ready and willing to drive away in the same vehicle that got you there. I can’t stress this point enough. The heart of the negotiation process is the power struggle. If a salesman (and by extension, the finance manager, who you are actually negotiating with through the conduit of the salesman) has any reason to believe you are not going to leave without buying something, you are going to get soaked. This is not to say you can’t let him think you’re serious about buying a car. But make sure he has no illusions about you being unable or unwilling to walk away. Bottom line, if he gets you to the point where you have to have his car, he wins. If you get him to the point where he is ready to let you walk away, you win. And that is exactly the metric I use to determine if I’ve pushed the deal to the limit.

The battle is usually going to rage for hours. Go in mentally prepared. Like it or not, you’re in the game and if you want to win, you have to want it more than your opponent. The salesman will use whatever his favorite tactics are, often just lowbrow emotional manipulation, but the structure is usually about the same; he first tries to build up the value of the car and your desire for it. Ideally, he will succeed in making you feel that this is not a negotiable situation and he’ll have you paying premium prices for both the car and every bullshit add on that has ever been dreamed up. But of course you don’t let that happen and say you want a lower price so it goes into the negotiation phase. He goes to visit his manager, who coaches him on his performance, talks to him about a sports team they both like, ogles that hot new receptionist, whatever. This is a game, after all. But you can play too. If the salesman is gone too long, you can smile as say something to the effect of “if you’re gone that long again, I think I’ll go see what kind of deal the guys across the street are offering while I’m waiting.” Bonus points for a sarcastic wink at the end of it. The manager visits will usually yield a few hundred dollars or so each on the total sale price – assuming you’ve been smart enough to force the conversation to stay focused on it. Keep in mind that they want to toss in other things – undercoating, extended warranties at reduced prices, various subscription packages to all the tech bullshit the cars are loaded with now, and anything else that costs them a fraction of what yet another of those expensive price reductions will. Think of it like you’re trying to dig a hole and every manager visit is another time pulling the shovel up and dumping it. You want that shovel to be full of dirt every time or it’s going to take you forever to get the job done.

The forever part is the dealership’s goal. The longer it takes you to get them down on the total price, the more likely you are to just give up and settle. Have fun with the process. Engage in whatever mental warfare amuses you. The key is to send the message that you’re here for the long haul and that doesn’t bother you in the slightest. If you do it right, they may just give up and make a big cut in the hopes of convincing you it’s their bottom line. But remember, my metric is whether the salesman will allow me to leave. If he says something is the best he can do, thank him for the information, tell him you will compare his numbers to some other dealerships you’re going to be visiting (it helps if you know which competitors are nearby so you can mention a name and make the threat more real), and act as though you’re preparing to leave. Gauge the reaction. He may say “this offer is only good if you sign now.” That’s bullshit. You can easily come back and renegotiate it anytime you want – maybe even a better deal. Keep moving. He may say “let me go talk to my manager and see if there is anything else I can do.” You’ve just caught him lying since he already said it was the best he could do. The negotiation phase isn’t over and you would have left money on the table if you had believed what he said just moments ago. Or maybe, just maybe, he’ll have nothing to say for the first time all day. If that’s the case, it means he actually has done all he can do.

Now this doesn’t mean you immediately change your mind and take the deal. Remember all that research you did? As part of that, you will undoubtedly know what the average person is paying for this particular car. Some sites even give you a range from low to high. So all this time, you will have that in your back pocket and be well aware of whether or not what’s in front of you is actually a good deal. So when the salesman bows his head in apparent defeat, it’s time for you to make a decision. Are you at or near the bottom of the range? Or below it? You should probably have a change of heart about leaving and sign the deal. If you aren’t where you want to be, it’s possible that this dealership is just particularly greedy and you’d get a better deal elsewhere. You’d certainly be more effective at the negotiation process with this one just recently under your belt.

One other fairly new phenomenon is the internet price. There are sites where you can choose exactly the car you want down to the particular trim, options, and even color. Use an email address you’re ok with getting spammed at, of course, because the next step is that area dealers will spam you with quotes. It will keep coming, and coming, and coming. But last time I tried this, I noticed something interesting. Some of the dealers’ offers improved over time. When I got one that looked almost too good to pass up, I went in. Of course, I’m a crazy person, so I worked the whole negotiation process without telling anyone I had the internet offer in my back pocket. When I got pretty close to it and the salesman seemed unwilling to move any further, I pulled the offer up on my phone and told him it had made me think it might be worth coming in since it was “in the ballpark.” The salesman was pissed. But after one last conference with his manager, he came back with a slightly better offer than the internet one and an assurance that he would go no further. My leaving ploy confirmed it and so did various websites.

So the internet price was pretty dynamite in that case as I was only able to get a little bit lower through negotiating. And my final price was almost off the chart in terms of the range of prices being paid on the websites. But I never would have known that if I hadn’t verified it by working to arrive at it another way. And just because that one internet price was good, it’s no guarantee that any others are. Dealerships aren’t suddenly going to stop wanting to make as much money as possible because the internet is here. I’m sure they will continue to innovate.

I see by the word count that this has been a longer journey than I had planned on. But I believe everything I’ve said has been necessary and probably still didn’t cover absolutely everything. A successful car negotiation often takes several hours (although I did have a very quick one once) and although it may seem very straightforward at times, there is actually a lot going on. I will leave you with two more general tips to keep in mind. One, the salesman is only going to present options that benefit him. Don’t assume they are the only ones that exist. Two, you are not in this to make friends. The salesman and finance manager will most likely get very frustrated if you are well prepared to get an extremely good deal and it may very well come out in some sort of emotional response. In this narrow context, being their friends means paying them thousands of dollars more than you have to. I don’t know about you, but those are the kind of friends I can do without.

Car Maintenance Basics: Today’s $400 Investment and Why It Was a Great One

My current car having its oil changed in a freaking hanger by an absolutely fascinating man!

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.

How to Choose a Car: The Best and Worst Brands

There is no getting around it. If it has four wheels and an engine, I love it! From a finance perspective, this can be a dangerous area. But a little knowledge goes a long way towards solving that problem. I could write at least one book on this subject but I think I’m going to approach it one topic per post. In this one, I’m going to talk about which brands are best and worst from a financial perspective. I’m not going to cover every single brand that exists – only the more common ones that are either at the top of the heap or the bottom. I will touch on cars and trucks here but I will not talk about SUVs simply because I know nothing about them. Why not? I’m a finance guy and approach everything from that perspective. So in my world, SUVs basically don’t exist. As you will notice as this post progresses, you need to look beyond the brand name because those get bought and sold all the time. Who actually does the manufacturing is much more important than the logo they’re slapping on the product.

With cars, I have to start with Toyota/Lexus. They are simply the best of the best. It starts with their manufacturing process. These guys are absolutely obsessive about efficiency and quality control and it shows in everything they produce. They have very few misses. Almost any of their cars are very reliable, efficient, and refined, and as a result, the cost of ownership is low. That said, they are not perfect. While they’ve gained ground in recent years, especially with the Lexus brand, they are a little weak on the design side, both interior and exterior. And as a former Supra owner, I am horrified and disgusted at the way the name is being bastardized today. That car appears to be more BMW than Toyota and bears little resemblance to the legend it shares its name with. That said, I’m sure it will sell very well; just not to those of us who loved the original for what it was – a beautiful, relatively reliable, extremely modifiable, high performance machine at a surprisingly low price.

While not quite up to Toyota’s standard, Honda/Acura is a solid choice as well. Originally a motorcycle manufacturer, Honda is a little more performance oriented than Toyota. Their reliability and efficiency are also great although both are a definite step below Toyota’s. In my opinion, their design is hideous – especially with their Acura brand – but I suppose beauty is in the eye of the beholder. One other Asian manufacturer that deserves a mention is Hyundai/Kia/Genesis. These cars were much maligned years ago but they have come a long way. Today they are nearly competitive with Toyota and Honda on reliability and efficiency. And as a bonus, because they are still working through their reputation struggles of the past, they are very value oriented. They tend to offer features you normally don’t see at their price points. I would expect Hyundai’s new Genesis luxury brand to continue that trend and offer a very competitive value relative to that of its competition.

On the truck side, things are a little simpler; get a Ford. The F150 has been outselling the competition for a very long time and with good reason. It is the best truck, period. There are plenty of good competitors here – the Silverado/Sierra and the Tundra at full size and the Ridgeline, Tacoma, and Colorado/Canyon at mid size. That is the smallest trucks go these days unless you want a Nissan Frontier, which is the lone small, cheap truck left in existence (sadly, the legend in this category, the Ranger, is coming back as an F150 Light, a similar bastardization to that of the Supra). In general, I don’t recommend Nissan as it is a middle of the pack manufacturer but in this case, it is the only option. Trucks are very expensive so I would only advocate buying one if you genuinely need it. But if you are going to use a truck as a truck, a Ford is a no brainer.

Those are the best brands. Which ones should you stay away from? If we’re talking about cars, anything American is a pass. The big three (Ford, GM, Fiat/Chrysler) have huge legacy costs that go into every vehicle they produce. With big, expensive vehicles like trucks, they can make it work. With cars, it simply handicaps them too much. The best evidence of this is their reliability. With the better Asian brands, you can usually get the odometer to six digits without doing much more than changing oil, brakes, etc. If you pull that off with an American car, count yourself lucky and sell it soon because that luck won’t last forever. That trend only accelerates as the mileage gets higher.

And please don’t be fooled by Chevy’s incredibly irritating JD Power commercials. They are flat out bullshit. A lot of money changes hands when it comes to using JD Power awards in marketing and they are dubious at best anyway. In fact, some other manufacturers took Chevy to task on this recently, pointing out some of the most blatant lies and threatening to take legal action. While refusing to admit to anything, Chevy wisely pulled the ads in question, tacitly revealing the reality of the situation in the process. It shouldn’t have had to come to that but it’s a great example of how low the standard for truth in advertising actually is. I ignore 99% of it in all forms and I highly recommend you adopt that policy as well if you haven’t already.

Aside from American branded cars, I don’t recommend anything German because of reliability issues and overall high cost of ownership. They manufacture everything with very tight tolerances and the result is that while the quality of the better brands (BMW and Mercedes Benz) is very high at first, it goes downhill quickly from there and maintenance/repairs are not cheap. Volkswagen (including Audi, Porsche, and some other brands under the same ownership) is on the automatic pass list. I don’t recommend anything British (or formerly British brands like Jaguar) as their reliability is atrocious, particularly when it comes to electrical issues. And finally, while Fiat/Chrysler vehicles (Dodge, Jeep, Alfa Romeo, Maserati, and a handful of other brands are included under this banner) are usually cheaper than their competition, there is a good reason for that. They are simply some of the worst vehicles on the road. Efficiency and build quality are usually poor while reliability is worse. This was the case long before Fiat got involved and it hasn’t changed. And let’s not forget that the Ram logo is literally a vagina. You can’t make this stuff up.

To sum this all up, if you’re looking for a car, you want Toyota/Lexus, Honda/Acura, or Hyundai/Kia/Genesis. If you’re actually going to use a truck, stick with Ford. If I didn’t mention a particular brand or group of brands (ie German cars), that means it is somewhere in the middle – not among the worst but not among the best either. And who wants to pay good money for something average? Obviously you still want to research individual models but in general, if you stick to the best brands I’ve listed here AND take care of whatever you buy, you are very likely to come out ahead.