Whitney and I teamed up for today’s post about our new (to us) car. We decided to do it interview style. Here we go.

Q. I understand you were recently involved in the purchase of a “new” car for you to learn to drive and then drive to high school. What were the criteria your dad gave you for the car?

Whitney:

Yes, recently (as in 4 months ago) we purchased a “new to me” car that I’ve been learning to drive. However, my dad imagined a set of nearly impossible criteria. It had to run well, (which isn’t easy to find for that cheap of a price), it wouldn’t need any immediate repairs (which was REALLY difficult to find), and it had to be a manual transmission or “stick-shift” which really helped the ever-narrowing options. But the real kicker: the car had to be under $1,000. I began searching around the beginning of May and found some interesting listings on a local Craigslist-like website (KSL.com). One (my personal favorite) read, “Bought this car for my son to learn to drive stick, he crashed it into the mailbox, I gave up, so good luck!” Unfortunately, we didn’t get that one or that would’ve been a great story, but not to say my car doesn’t look like it’s been crashed into a mailbox.

 Jim:

As regular readers are well aware, we could easily have gone out and bought Whitney a brand-new Tesla to drive to high school. But what kind of message would buying a new car have sent to her? Imagine how hard your life would be if you started out flying first class and then found yourself riding in coach later? So we decided not even to put Whitney in coach. She’s basically riding on the wing, the cargo hold, or the lavatory. We hope she’ll appreciate being able to ride in coach later. The reasoning behind the criteria was:

  1. Manual transmission: Katie and I both drive Toyota Sequoias with automatic transmissions, but we feel strongly that our children need to learn to drive a manual transmission under our guidance as teenagers. So the options were to buy ourselves another car to drive or to simply buy a third one.
  2. Running: Pretty much any car that actually runs is worth $1,000, but the point of this criteria was simply that I didn’t want a “mechanic’s special.”
  3. No immediate repairs: Similar to above, I didn’t want to have to do any initial work on the car, so anything, where the brake lights or windshield wipers weren’t working, was out. That didn’t mean the power mirrors or door handles had to work, but it had to both run and have its safety equipment working.
  4. < $1,000: Three reasons for this criteria. First, it is meant to be a disposable car. So any large repair or even minor collision totals the car. Second, I wanted to teach both Whitney and my readers that short-term transportation can be very cheap. I have often said that reliable transportation costs $5,000. A $1,000 car isn’t reliable, but it is transportation. Third, I wanted Whitney to have to learn to shop for a car. It’s easy to find a $5,000 car. A $1,000 car requires more work. She had to make the calls and decisions.

Q. What did you end up with?

driving an old car

Sweet ride eh?

Whitney:

After a couple of weeks of searching, I ended up with a 1997 Nissan Altima that’s the same (very attractive) color as our 12-year-old couch, with a manual transmission. It was originally listed at $900 but we were able to get it down to $800 due to my expert bargaining skills. Actually, it’s because we had to meet the guy at a burger place because he left his house while we were test driving the car and he gave us a discount for our time. It was kind of a crazy story, especially given that he left the signed title in the car. Now my car may not look that beautiful on the outside, but it’s got a nice personality. It’s a little banged up but still looks pretty decent and runs well, nothing a sub-par paint job can’t fix, right?

Jim:

We don’t have a 12-year-old couch. We’ve never had one that new. In fact, Katie and I have never actually purchased a couch in our lives. We’re looking forward to getting a couple next Spring, though.

Q. I heard it cost even less than $800. Why was that?

Whitney:

The actual cost of the car came to $796.68 due to the $3.32 in change left in the ashtray. And yes, I did only count it up for this article. But among the change found there were also a few gas receipts and a movie ticket for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which coincidentally came out the year I was born.

Jim:

I told Whitney that by paying only $800, she would have $200 left over for repairs.

Q. Now every sub-$1,000 car has a few quirks. What quirks does your car have?

Whitney:

Every car has some quirks that you get used to after a while, but this one has some especially interesting quirks. For starters, the windshield wipers, radio, and mirror adjusting buttons won’t work if you turn the ignition too far, which we figured out a couple weeks after getting the car. The other (slightly more annoying) quirk is that, when unlocked from the driver’s door with one of the keys, the alarm will occasionally go off until you unlock it from the passenger’s side (my neighbors especially enjoyed that quirk after we tried to unlock it at 10 pm).

Jim:

But wait, there’s more! She apparently hasn’t noticed all of the quirks yet. It leaks oil for starters. There are two brand new tires, one moderately worn tire, and one nearly bald tire. The driver’s door only opens from the inside, too. That one is getting a little old, so I think it is going to provide Whitney an opportunity to learn to work on the car very soon.

Q. How does it run?

Whitney:

Honestly? It runs great. Although I put about three months of starts on it in about three weeks, we haven’t had any problems with it actually driving. Driving an old car is perfect to learn on, because if I hit an overhanging tree branch, who cares? Just another scratch to add to the other 900, right?

Jim:

Three weeks? You mean three days? In between the time Whitney wrote this and publication, it broke for the first time, about 4 months after purchasing. That quirky ignition has finally gone out. So now Whitney definitely gets to learn how to work on a car since it will no longer start.

[Update just prior to publication: We fixed the door handle. It was a broken $2 clip. We also swapped out the ignition ourselves. It cost $53 and some time–good family activity. We even got the $5 FOB we bought to work after that, so hopefully the alarm issue is also solved. Still below $1,000 too, but I think it may need a battery soon.]

Q. How long do you think it will last? How will you know when it dies? What will you do then?

Whitney:

I’m hoping it lasts quite a while, (I’m already slightly attached) and I wouldn’t be surprised if it lasts quite a while due to the new transmission and clutch that was installed not long before we bought it. We’re planning on painting it purple, which is my sister’s favorite color, so she’s hoping it lasts long enough for her to drive, but I’m not sure it’ll last THAT long. 

Jim:

It’s a disposable car. I’m not going to throw it away for an ignition we can do ourselves with a Youtube video, but I’m certainly not going to put $1,000 into it. If those two want to paint the car, they better hurry. If it lasts a year, I’ll feel like I got my money’s worth out of it. I’ll be ecstatic if Maren (# 2) gets to learn to drive in it, too. When it dies, we will buy another one. How fun is it to get a new car every 6-12 months?

Q. I understand that you’re not the only one driving it around.

Whitney:

Half the time my car isn’t even home anymore! My mom uses it to drive carpool, and my dad just zips around on his way to work. They say it’s because it gets such good gas mileage, but I’m convinced it’s because they just think it’s fun to drive and they don’t care if it gets a little ding or two. Even my littlest sister likes driving in it because she can get in by herself because it isn’t as tall.

Jim:

It’s actually been really convenient to have a third car around when one goes into the shop or someone comes to visit. Katie and I both drive it occasionally, especially when we’re running Whitney around. I really don’t care if my 2005 Sequoia with just as many miles as this Altima gets a ding either.

Q. What lessons did you learn from the buying process?

Whitney:

After inquiring about multiple cars, and going to see three different ones, I’ve learned the important questions to ask. For example, “any known mechanical issues?” may not cover the fact that the A/C is totally busted for somebody, as we learned from the second car we looked at. Just like, “Has marijuana (which is illegal in Utah) been smoked in it before?” Which we learned from the first car we looked at.

Q. How are your driving lessons going?

Whitney:

I mean, the fact that my parents feel the need to have a giant bumper sticker on my car that reads, “STUDENT DRIVER” should tell you something, but in my personal opinion I think I’m pretty good. I only stalled eight times in a row that one time… Joking aside, I drive everywhere now so I’ve gotten the hang of it, and my parents are right that a stick is fun to drive, but it just started snowing here, so we’ll see how I feel about that in a week or two.

Jim:

She’s terrible. The whole neighborhood is having fun watching, though. I’m a little biased, but I had to drive two Alaskan Winters with my parents before I was allowed to get my license. She only has 6 more months and a single Winter before she turns 16. I’m hoping for significant improvement.

Q. A lot of doctors think any car with more than 50,000 miles is not reliable and so borrow $30-40,000 in order to buy a car. What would you say to them?

Whitney:

That’s absolutely ridiculous. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I would drive my car through rural Mexico. It’s not quite that reliable, but it gets me from point A to point B just as well as a brand new Tesla. However, I don’t think that I would ever borrow money for a car. Just listen to the Dave Ramsey Show, every other person on the show has car payments and thousands of dollars of debt. As much as a car seems essential, it is a luxury. I could be riding the public transportation bus to school every day,which would take four times as long, but it’s definitely cheaper. If you can’t afford it, take the time to save, or find another option. It may not be easy or ideal, but few things in life are.

Jim:

Amazing how much smarter a 15-year-old can be about cars than a surprising number of residents and even attendings. While a $1,000 car is not reliable, a $5,000 car is and you can easily expect to get 5 good years out of a $10,000 car. I see little reason to ever borrow more than $5-10K for a car and no reason for an attending physician to ever be in a position where they need to borrow for one.

20 year old car

If your first car wasn’t worthy of a name, you missed out on an essential part of your teenage years

Q. What other lessons do you expect you will learn from this car?

Whitney:

I expect to probably learn some humility. My car will definitely stick out like a sore thumb in the parking lot of my high-income school. However, that may be because of the paint job. Either way, who wants to park an expensive car in a high school parking lot anyways? Are you asking for a nice big dent? I’ve also been learning what to do if your car spins out, as well as basic mechanical procedures like changing a tire or checking the oil.

Jim: 

I’ve got her convinced that she’s at the high-income school. Apparently she doesn’t even know about the private one down the street. As far as the lessons to learn, I mostly want her to realize that transportation can be very cheap, learn to work on a car a bit, learn to drive a stick, and mostly learn that she isn’t what she drives. This week she got to learn to identify all the parts under the hood, check the oil, and top it off.

Q. Your parents are quite wealthy. They could probably buy you a nice pick-up truck, a new Volvo, or even a Tesla to drive. But they didn’t. Why do you think that is? Are they just cheap or are they trying to teach you something?

Whitney:

They are definitely trying to teach me something. My soccer coach has always said, “It doesn’t matter if you win if you didn’t learn anything.” and I think that applies perfectly to this situation. Not only did I learn how to buy a car but the next time I would ever be driving a Tesla would be after I’m well into my career so it wouldn’t make sense for me to be getting accustomed to one now when I won’t be driving another nice car for some time. Besides, who wants to peak in high school? By living a somewhat more humble life, my parents are showing me that I don’t need a successful blog and a high-income job to have a nice life. They are creating an example of an attainable lifestyle for me.

Jim:

Looks like she learned the lesson. Maybe if this one dies quickly she’ll get to upgrade to a $5K car.

Q. Which car has more miles, yours or your dad’s?

Nice Bumper StickersWhitney:

They actually have about the same amount, around 242,000 miles which just means they’ve been on their fair share of adventures. That’s even with the extra 7 years my car has on my dad’s.  In fact, my dad’s car is only worth about 3 times as much as mine according to Kelley Blue Book

 Jim:

Wow. My car really is only worth $3K now. Strangely, I consider it very reliable and took it all the way to Cabo San Lucas this year and routinely tow a boat 6 hours each way to Lake Powell with it.

Q. Do you look forward to having something nicer to drive when you get older?

Whitney:

Yes and no. I love being able to drive a car that’s unique and you can tell whose it is when you pull up. I also enjoy the fact that I don’t have to stress about telling my parents if I scratched it or if someone hit it in the parking lot. It’s not a big deal. However, I would love a nice, new car, but that just gives me a goal to work towards in the future. It would feel so much better to buy my dream car with my hard-earned money than to just be handed the key.

Jim:

Yes. When this one dies, I’ll get something nicer. I mean, Katie will and I’ll get her Sequoia.

What are your thoughts about driving an old car? Would you buy your child a beater? Also, every beater needs a good name, any ideas? Let me know in the comments below.