I bought a new car this week (Thursday, March 22 to be exact). It is a 2009 model, so technically it’s not “new,” but it’s “new to me.” (When I talked to my mother that night and told her I bought a “new to me” car she had me repeat it several times before she understand what I was saying. “Oh, we just call those new cars, honey,” she said.)
Since I’m one of those people who is constantly researching things and a voracious reader of media covering the many topics that interest me, the decision to buy a new car was not as impulsive as it may sound. My last car was a 2001 model purchased new in 2002 when they were practically giving cars away due to the continuing economic turmoil caused by the September 11 attacks. It was a Saturn LW200 (that’s a wagon) that I had coveted for a few years. I was doing a lot of landscaping at my new house and was eager to have an easy way to haul massive bags of mulch and plants. While I still do a lot of gardening, those days of hauling are over, except for veggie seedlings. (I now have a landscaping crew come in every couple of years to replenish the many cubic feet of mulch required in my over-sized yard.)
Last year, I started really paying attention to the car ads on TV and added sites and blogs about car buying (including used car buying) to my reading list. Every time I saw a car commercial that seemed interesting, I would look at the web site. I’ve been sadly disappointed at what is available to US consumers when it comes to fuel efficiency these days, so I’d mentally cross the vehicle off my list.
Meanwhile the Saturn wagon worked just fine to move me around the Chicago metro area when I needed to visit my family in the far off ‘burbs, take the dog to the vet, drop off the recyclables (oh, please can we get Blue Cart recycling in my neighborhood next year? pretty please?), pick up loads of groceries, etc. I don’t drive to work, and when I’m meeting friends in fun but congested neighborhoods like Wicker Park, Andersonville, or even Oak Park, I prefer to take the CTA buses and el trains.
In 2009, just a few months after a divorce that left me house rich but cash poor, my low maintenance Saturn threw me for a loop. The battery died and it had to be towed to a mechanic from my garage. Then some critical sensors needed replacing. And the brakes needed work, as well. In early 2011 when I took it in for an oil change, I reported a little oddity with the steering and was told that I may need to replace the rack and pinion steering and it would cost about $1,500. Topping off the power steering fluid seemed to do the trick, though, and I continued to drive the car doing just oil changes, tire rotations, etc.
Last spring I was tempted to buy a 2010 Toyota Prius on clearance. I just couldn’t stomach the price, though. I’ve been saving money in my “Big Goals” fund that I set up for things like car replacement, major house repairs, but I didn’t have enough to cover the cost of any of the 2010 clearance models I was finding. But I’ve continued to look at cars knowing that sooner or later I would need to either replace my Saturn wagon or give it up entirely and go car free.
Going car free is quite a temptation, and with B living with me now my driving has been reduced even more. He loves to drive and has his own car, so he happily takes me to the grocery stores on weekends, and when we go out as a couple he always drives. I’ve been thinking hard about being car free, but I’m just not really there yet. (How do I get to the dog to the vet? How do I get to the orthodontist in the short time I can get away during the work week?)
Earlier this week I was reading one of my favorite personal finance blogs, Get Rich Slowly, and the article linked to another blog, which linked to yet another blog, and I ran across this and this. Which led me to a few searches for used 2006-2009 Prii in the Chicago area. (Why stop at 2009? Because I really didn’t care for the interior of the 2010. In 2010 the Generation III Prii were released and while they are supposed to get even better MPG, getting into the driver’s seat felt like I was slipping into the cockpit of a military jet. I felt too confined in there.)
This was just for research, of course. There were quite a few Prius listings to look at, which was great because if there is a good supply on the market that means prices shouldn’t be astronomical like they are for the new models. Most of the models were basic, with few bells and whistles. (Many of these basic models come from rental car fleets.) I really wanted to at least get a model that allowed me to plug-in my iPod, and looking at the photos of the dash on these cars I was worried that an after-market audio system (such as the one that I had added to my trusty old Saturn so I could listen to the iPod) wouldn’t fit very easily. If I was a true frugalista none of these extras would have mattered to me, but I didn’t want to replace a fairly luxurious car with a lower end one. That was my choice and my preference.
A dealer listing on Craigslist led to a real beauty, though. A 2009 with upgraded audio system, and it even had navigation. It looked really good, so I emailed the dealer. I got a reply a few hours later confirming the equipment. I emailed friends for advice, I talked it over with B, and I slept lightly that night. If I wanted this car, I’d have to move fairly quickly as there were few models in the used car listings with features like this.
I got a call the next day from the salesman. I was going to have to leave work early that day anyway for a fix to my orthodontia (two weeks in and I’ve already had to replace a wire!) So I gathered up papers and off I went to a suburb close to the Wisconsin border. I felt very comfortable with the salesman. I felt very happy with the car on the test drive (No fighter plane interior! Yay!), and I looked it over carefully. I had my car estimated as a trade in, and the value was actually a bit more than I had researched and expected for its year and condition. (The really low miles probably helped; the scratches on the bumper from city parking did not help.)
And that was it. I said I wanted it, and we got the paperwork rolling. Even buying a used car with no financing involves a lot of paperwork. I added an extra maintenance plan that will cover everything but the tires for the next seven years or 100,000 miles. Considering how much I drive, I’m sure to hit the seven years before I hit the mileage limit. I probably could have done without the maintenance contract, but I thought about it and ran some figures in my head and realized that pre-paying for standard maintenance like this would save me some money. Plus I won’t have to budget for maintenance (except for tires when the new ones currently on the car wear out). I was essentially paying for peace of mind and giving myself another advantage if something should happen to my current income.
I didn’t haggle. I could have tried to haggle, but as my research had shown, the supply of cars with comparable features like this were low so the probability of getting a price break wasn’t great. Besides, the total price was just about spot on to what I had figured the car would cost me.
Writing out the check for the purchase price was exhilarating. This was the first time I had ever bought a car for cash, excepting the two beaters I drove in high school. (Technically, I put $5,000 on a credit card, but I will pay it off promptly. I would have put the entire car on credit cards just for the rewards if they had let me.)
I still have more than enough in my “Big Goals” savings account to cover a major home expense, too. Now that I know the one big planned purchase is over, I’ll feel more comfortable looking for ways to invest some of that money in something giving me higher yields (I-bonds, perhaps?). Maybe it’s easier for me to save money than some other people because I have a well-paying job and live a fairly frugal and low-key lifestyle (lots of home cooking and very little shopping). But this is why I live my life that way: so I can save for the things that do matter to me.
Today I’ll get to drive my new car for an extended trip as I visit my father in a far-off suburb. I drove it home from the dealer and I ran a few quick errands in it yesterday, and I think I’m getting the hang of how to drive for the best mileage. I really love this car and that the fancy extras make it a treat. Yay, me!