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On cars and change

The last week of (very desultory) car-shopping I’ve experienced both a Starbucks Moment, an epiphany, and a moment of adult anxiety, which is a lot to handle in less than a week.

The Starbucks Moment came when I rode in and even drove a friend’s brand-new MINI. I was expecting a deep envy-producing experience, one that might make me try to buy one. Instead I drove an average car with a very small trunk, unremarkable mileage, and an instrument panel shimmering with wink-nudge retro irony –  lots of round nobby things, lots of faux analog.

I felt the way I feel in Starbucks, which is that I’m trying to buy a cup of coffee while Starbucks is trying to manipulate me into a heavy-handed “lifestyle experience” (one that has become shopworn with time, as even Starbucks acknowledges).

In the course of talking about cars, also unearthed the Malthusian anti-Prius argument, which goes thus. A Prius! Why, you won’t Save Money if you buy a Prius! Have you used the calculators? Have you figured it out?

The part about this argument that makes me really itchy is that if we were buying cars strictly on economic rationales, we’d all buy used Corollas: a great balance of initial cost and long-term fuel efficiency. (I have nothing against Corollas, by the way; we’ve owned several in our family, and they have all comported themselves quite well.) Or, for that matter, we’d wait until the SUV/truck market completely collapsed. I bet I could get a Hummer for a song, and then even if gas were $8 a gallon, I’d probably be ahead.

Can you see me driving to Norcross in my green Hummer? (No, me either; I’d be mortified.)

However, I didn’t think driving a Prius was about “saving money.” I thought it was about reducing consumption of fossil fuels and participating in the commitment to alternative energy (while driving a car I find both physically comfortable and delectably geeky in a very friendly way — I’ve rented them three times, and each time has been bliss).

I’m willing to pay more for fruit and vegetables from local farmers; I don’t buy into our national obsession with the absolute bottom line.  Participating in solutions to our gobbledy-gobble addiction to oil takes some commitment to change, which includes paying more for local lettuce (yes, mass-produced lettuce is part of the oil game; if you haven’t yet, read The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and for alternative transportation. (I’d really prefer light rail to Atlanta, but this is the South, where public transportation is a grudgingly-provided last-ditch service for the poorest of the poor.)

Surely I’m not alone in thinking that the very phrase “fossil fuel” tells us why we need to retrain our focus on clean, renewable energy. Um, fossils? They take a heck of a long time to turn into oil, you know? That, and the little problem of climate change…

If I could buy an electric car, I would. In my dream last night we were two years out from a solution; memory dims, but I think it was an electric car. The only problem was that this created car-resale issues for people who at the time of the Big Innovation were driving vehicles with fuel-based reciprocating engines. There’s always something.

However, I still can’t really get a Prius for much under $30,000 out the door (including the extra $2k the gummint lifts off so it can continue to spend our money on the wrong things) — even used. This is where my adult anxiety comes in, because I know many average income-earners do spend that much on cars and go deep into hock, while I’ve been carefully (or carfully?) working out cost models where as the lone salary-maker, I put some money down on a gently-used car with excellent mileage and match my “down” with a small personal loan. For me, even a two-year-old car will be a massive (and mildly anxiety-producing) expense.

People will discuss their sex lives before they talk about their financial situations, so I don’t ask my friends what their budgets are like or what it means in their lives to commit to major debt for a vehicle. Sandy and I have always tried to live a little “below our means,” which I think has made us resilient and flexible. (At least, I hope it has.) I remember a moment at one Former Place Of Work where someone mentioned that because of the way the pay period hit I might find it hard to pay my bills that month, and I thought, we may drive used cars and have dining room chairs that don’t even come close to matching, but it’s been a decade since I actively worried we wouldn’t be able to meet that month’s bills.

But then I get those adult-anxiety moments, like we’re doing it wrong or something.

I have two whirlwind weeks (Norcross/Boise/Madison) and then I think a gently-used Honda will land in my lap: a Civic in a nice color with dark upholstery, a moonroof, and an automatic transmission. I feel it in my bones. Either that, or I need to stretch more.

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  1. Debi wrote:

    Amen, sister!

    I often find myself discussing our food dollars with someone who says “but buying tomatoes at the grocery store is so much cheaper than the farmers’ market.”

    That is absolutely true, but the couple of dollars difference is one I can afford. We shop a lot at the farmers’ market, and get a CSA farm box every week.

    I do live somewhere where I think sometimes people vaguely compete over how far they can make their money stretch — i.e, “You got your bike at a thrift shop? Cool! I got mine from a dumpster and fixed it up in my garage, which I got in a barter for space in my garden, etc.” It’s a freecycling, recycling, composting, library-supporting, low-carbon-footprint town, and as such, I love it. Luckily, it seems the town also knows when spending more is ok, and has lots of farmers’ markets and drop-sites for CSA shares.

    The argument about when spending more is good for society comes in handy when talking about WalMart, too. When someone tells me how cheap the prices are there, I say that I feel lucky that I can afford the $10 package of socks from Target, and don’t need the $4 package from WalMart — I know I’ll make up the extra $6 paying for the health care of under-insured (or uninsured) WalMart employees, the support services for their children, the pollution from those factories in countries without regulations that supply Walmart, etc. Where are we really saving?

    Cheap produce and cheap socks are better than having none of either, but when I can afford to vote with my money, I do.

    And for further reading on local produce, try “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver.

    Sunday, July 13, 2008 at 10:33 am | Permalink
  2. I drive a Prius. I think it is worth the stretch ;-) I suppose it is a ‘statement’ car, which is both good and bad.

    I think Starbucks is a major institutional innovation. It provides on-demand space in many places with predictable levels of service/quality. I know what I will (usually) get. And it can come with a newspaper.

    My inclination would be to go local, where it exists, but one cannot predict levels of service/quality.

    I think they do a poor job cake-wise: a large part of their clientele would go for stuff that is lower on the fat/sugar scale. And I have noticed a worrying trend towards fuller conversation: And how is your day going so far? Are you doing anything interesting today? Not really welcome for somebody with my limited phatic communication experience/inclination.

    Sunday, July 13, 2008 at 10:40 am | Permalink
  3. Karen wrote:

    I’m surprised there are “gently used” sensible cars like Hondas, Corollas, etc. to be had. I’d think most people who get those get them because they l-a-s-t and l-a-s-t and l-a-s-t while they are getting good fuel economy and serving most purposes a car should, apart from projecting a grandiose image-they project an image, of course, but it’s one I’m happy to have projected about me. And I run mine until there is no more running it over the average 14 years of ownership–which means I’m only on my third car of my adult life.

    But I’m with you on buying within one’s budget!


    Sunday, July 13, 2008 at 11:41 am | Permalink
  4. My answer is to avoid Starbucks except while traveling and then treat it as some strange and not-quite-right treat. Airport Starbucks usually don’t bother with the pretend chumminess.

    Lorcan, I think a Prius is more than a statement, because like Debi’s friends and neighbors who very pointedly talk about reducing/reusing/recycling, the Prius actually is part of the process of rethinking how we relate to our energy sources. The sacrifice is up front — paying extra for a car that truly “sips not guzzles,” to refer to an early and I think misleading MINI billboard…

    Sunday, July 13, 2008 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  5. Two reasons, Karen M.: leasing; and people who still buy cars every two years. Plus the usual serendipity. (I bought my current Civic from a family that had bought it for their daughter and had just upgraded her to a Jeep or something. It was four years old and just off warranty.)

    Sunday, July 13, 2008 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  6. Ruth Ellen wrote:

    Have you looked at the Honda Fit? About 1/2 the price of a Prius (at least the amount you quote here), and while it’s not hybrid, it does get pretty good mileage – according to CU the automatic averages somewhere between 32 and 34 mpg, which may be better than a used Civic. (Except for mine, which is a 97 with a continuously variable transmission, which gives it great mileage. I have 180,000 miles on it so far. Great little car.) What bugs the crap out of me is that my first car, a 1981 Toyota Tercel, got 33 miles per gallon on the highway. My second car, a 1989 Suburu Justy, got about the same. My third car, the Civic, gets just a little better on the highway (about 36). In the 27 years since my first new car they haven’t seemed to do much to improved gas mileage (except, of course for hybrids).

    Sunday, July 13, 2008 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  7. Yes, sure – that it is a ‘statement’ car does not mean that it is *only* a statement.

    Sunday, July 13, 2008 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  8. Lorcan, I do know what you mean, though. I think it’s why I am SO fond of Panera’s (given that comfortable, large coffeeshops with free wifi are few and far between in these parts).

    Monday, July 14, 2008 at 6:09 am | Permalink
  9. I was wondering if a Mini would really suit you. Your report is just what I’ve heard others say. They seem to be the car you love to want.

    Monday, July 14, 2008 at 9:38 am | Permalink
  10. I loved the Mini until I got in one a couple of times. They’re adorable, but not very comfortable. I’m a pretty small person, but the inside door handle jutted into my side while I was in the passenger seat.

    It’s so unfortunate that there is a taboo against talking about finances. We could all learn so much from each other if we discusses these things!

    Monday, July 14, 2008 at 11:08 am | Permalink
  11. Joe Shubitowski wrote:

    Karen – we bought a Mini Clubman when they first came out in January, and really like it. The extra foot of space and the barn doors really make the back very usable. We get between 28 and 36 mpg city/highway in it. Plus it is a blast to drive. It is just like a slot car

    One spends alot of time in a vehicle out here in LA…so one had better like what one is driving (as much as one’s checkbook will allow!!). We took it to Central Coast a few weeks ago. It swallowed up our weekender stuff, a cooler, other assorted junk, and then had enough room for five cases of wine to schlep home as well (with the bask seats down). Averaged 35 mpg all the way – and we are lead foots too.

    Personally, I find Prius’ boring to drive (from a driving experience) and I see my friends fixated on the computer mileage readout. To each his own.


    Monday, July 14, 2008 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  12. Bobbi Newman wrote:

    I have the same dilemma with the Prius, I don’t need a new car, my Saturn is 8 years old and (fingers crossed) run for many more years. It gets great millage, it’s a 4 cyclinder manual transmission and I baby the heck out of it. But I know some day it will go to that big car lot in the sky and I’d really like to replace it with a something like the Prius, except, it’s out of my price range. I too shop at the Farmer’s Market, I ride my bike there, and never step foot in Walmart, so I’ve been feeling frustrated that I couldn’t make car choice that reflects my beliefs. Hopefully by the time the choice comes around I’ll be able to get a nice used one.
    So I guess I’m just saying, I’m in the same boat as you and thanks for talking about something people are often hesitant to. I don’t really have any advice or suggestions but I’ll be filing away what car you purchase for future reference.

    Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 11:23 am | Permalink
  13. Pete Daniels wrote:

    Me too, where has the fun gone since I bought that bright orange 1970 Karman Ghia, brand-new for $2,400. My Vietnam money well spent. Thinking about a Subaru but I feel disloyal driving other than Detroit iron.

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 3:08 pm | Permalink
  14. Sarah wrote:

    Get the used Civic. Manual. Drive 65 and get 40 mpg. Save your money for other ways to save the planet. Don’t go into debt for a Prius.

    Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  15. Sarah wrote:

    Here’s another thought: if the goal is to save fossil fuel, then perhaps we should see just how energy-efficient all of this 2.0′ing and blogging and flick’ring etc etc ad nauseum really is. Perhaps we should be monitoring our consumption of PC-related activities. Or is that heresy? There is no free lunch; there are costs (financial and non-financial), involved with EVERYTHING.

    Saturday, July 19, 2008 at 10:39 am | Permalink

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