Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Cars

This has been a difficult entry for me to write. I'm having trouble sorting out my personal hang-ups on this issue from the way God is using my conscience to guide me. But a bigger part is that I really don't know how you can possibly be responsible to the poor while buying a new car.

I hate cars, in general. They're money suckers that start to hemorrhage value the minute you drive them off the lot. Even the most reliable car still costs money every time you drive it, and between gas, insurance, repairs and parking fees, the entire proposition of car ownership requires a nearly constant payout. Beyond the dollar aspect, I have a natural disdain for things other people look at as status symbols. I'm blessed in this respect. Of all the crosses I bear and vices I struggle with, I'm lucky that at least I don't have to fight a desire to own several sporty, luxury cars and wheel them around town to impress people.

So it's understandable that when my husband first broached the subject of buying a new car, I was less than enthused. Moreover, we already HAD two cars -- a '98 Toyota Camry and an '02 Toyota Solara. I was driving the Camry very happily to the grocery store and my parents' house and the mall and church and school, etc. My two kids easily fit in the back. In fact, my whole family easily fit in the car, as did a week's worth of groceries and a stroller. But my husband couldn't adjust the driver's seat comfortably and still fit my daughter's backward-facing car seat behind him.

This, my friends, is where the breakdown occurred, and where my petty will prevented me from finding a way to make good come out of a bad situation. I didn't want a new car. I wanted to make do with the ones we had, or perhaps to keep the Camry and buy a used hybrid for my husband to drive to and from work. My husband was firmly for buying a bigger car that would give us the flexibility to take longer trips, especially since we now lived an hour away from our nearest relatives and would likely be taking weekend or longer trips in the car.

In a perfect world (and a perfect marriage) we would have discussed the options and come to a mutual conclusion that satisfied all our interests. Instead, I had a few reluctant conversations where I whined about not wanting a new car and my husband insisted that we needed one. In a perfect world, I would have researched and prayed until I found a car that met all my needs and satisfied my husband as well. Instead I crossed my arms and adopted a "Then let it be upon your head!" sort of attitude.

So I didn't get involved with researching and weighing our options. I didn't even speak a single word about it to God, not even to ask that He guide our decision. It's a classic example of my passive-aggressive tendencies. If I didn't get involved, then I could pretend that I didn't really buy a car, even though I was driving it every day. Yeah, it doesn't make sense to me, either, but there it is. This is, unfortunately, one of the crosses I bear: the tendency to procrastinate on things I don't want to do.

Had I been doing my research, I would have discovered the following:

1. Cars are useful things that can HELP you take the poor with you. One with ample trunk space enables you to shop garage sales for things like furniture and bicycles so you can buy used instead of wasting money and resources on new household items. One big enough to fit your whole family enables you to drive to Michigan to visit grandparents instead of flying there.

2. Unless you live in a major metropolitan area with excellent public transportation, you need a car. If you have more than two kids under the age of 12, in order to comply with car seat safety laws, you need a big car. On the scale of need to frivolous purchase, a car is firmly on the need side. What KIND of car you get can tip it over into frivolous, so the selection is what matters most.

3. It's not all about price. It's not all about fuel economy either. Obviously, price and size are going to the the primary factors that govern your decision, with fuel economy running close behind. Beyond the basics, there are host of other considerations: emissions, manufacturer's ethics, company philosophy and practices, recyclability of materials, reliability, longevity etc. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a comparison site that lists all makes and models and gives their emissions rating and fuel economy. Keep in mind that there's more to an environmentally sound car than fuel efficiency. If you're interested in taking the poor with you, pay close attention to where and how the car is manufactured, especially considering the poor tend to live and work within breathing distance of factories or in countries that provide many of the raw materials used to make cars.

4. Dealerships will finance a used vehicle, usually one that has been returned at the end of a lease rather than optioned. The manufacturer's website should have a link to "certified used cars" which allows you to search for used vehicles in the make and year you're interested in online. In general, the same financing options that apply for a new car will apply to a used car, allowing you the flexibility to buy a used car without putting tens of thousands of dollars down. If you prefer to lease, there are companies that provide this service for used cars, too. While used is almost always better than new, be sure you find out the fuel economy of the newest model to see whether it has substantially improved and check recalls and safety improvements.

5. The web is a great tool. There are tons of sites where consumers rate the reliability of their cars (used and new!), so you can determine which make will likely last the longest as well as see specific information on the cars you're considering (repair estimates, recalls, problems, etc.) Cars ought to last a long time, long enough to see that toddler you're strapping into a car seat off to college if they're maintained properly and parts replaced when necessary. Google "car comparisons" or "consumer reviews auto" and get comfortable.

6. Keep an open mind. I went into the process DEAD SET AGAINST an SUV. I thought they were the heaviest, most expensive cars on the market. Not so. I thought they were all gas guzzlers with the worst fuel economies on the road. Nope. I thought they all drove like buses and were unsafe, prone to rollovers and catching on fire. Not all.

The outcome of our car search? As you can guess from all the links, we ended up with a 2007 Honda CR-V. It's a great car -- inexpensive, reliable, comfortable, roomy, sensible and everyone who owns one loves it. Including me. Despite my hatred for cars, I can't deny that it drives like a dream, gets great fuel economy for its size (25.7 mpg on the last tank) and (though this probably won't appeal to everyone) has a shelf in the trunk that's perfect for changing a baby's diaper when you're out and about. No need to lug that diaper bag into the store with you! Change in the parking lot before you enter. It's fantastic, though I think the fun will end abruptly come winter.

I've thought about an appropriate gift to the poor as a gesture of appreciation to God for the privilege of my new car. I'm considering giving a llama to a family in South America. Heifer International provides needed livestock to the poor under the charitable philosophy of "teach a man to fish, and you'll feed him for a lifetime. Just be sure you also give him a fishing rod." In addition to wool and milk, llamas provide transportation and can carry goods to market. And a whole llama only costs 0.7% of the car we're financing.

When it comes down to it, I'm not proud of the outcome. We should have gotten a used car, I think. But I can continue to take the poor with me by walking as much as possible (as I did to the library today, dragging a recalcitrant 4 year old along beside me) and combining errands into one trip. Whenever I drive , I can save gas and increase my mileage by following a few simple tips. And most importantly, I can drive my nice, new CR-V into the ground. When my 4 year old wants a car to take with him to Harvard, I can hand him the keys and say "Load it up, Sweets. That shelf in the back nearly doubles the trunk space!"

4 comments:

Jennifer F. said...

Very interesting! Thanks for your honesty.

This post also reminds me of a question I've been meaning to ask you: what is the best source for finding out which charitable organizations are reputable? How did you know, for example, that Heifer.org actually does what they say they do?

I don't mean to sound overly cynical -- I do believe that the vast majority of charities do *intend* to do the right thing, I just know that some can unintentionally get bogged down in so much red tape that a lot of the money gets misused.

Anyway, I'd love any resources or tips you could point me to!

Amber said...

This is an interesting post, thanks for your honesty with it. We'll be getting a new (to us, at least) car in the next year or two because once we have another child we'll need more space. I really am not looking forward to the car picking process! When we got the car we had now I rather checked out of the process because, like you, I didn't think we needed a new one. While we ended up with a car that I really like, it does not suit our long term needs.

Jennifer - one resource I really like is charitynavigator.org. I personally do not send money to Heifer - they have a neat idea and all, but they spend such a huge amount of money on fundraising (17.3%!) that I don't feel comfortable supporting them. One I like is Mercy Corps. Another concept I really like is the micro-loan programs. Every year I buy an international micro-loan investment note to add to our portfolio. I get them from calvertfoundation.org

Anyways, sorry to barge in, but I thought I would add my 2 cents! You have an interesting blog here, and I'll look forward to reading more.

Tienne said...

Amber -

Charitynavigator is a great site; lots of good information there.

In Heifer's defense, only 2% of their revenue comes from government grants, so they have to spend more on fundraising to solicit individual donations. It's a choice they've made, and I can understand why it might turn some people off. But others may see it as a strength: less government dependency means more freedom, less political hoop-jumping, and in many cases, more finanical stability between administrations.

Pat Stanley, the northeast community relations coordinator at Heifer International, reveals an underlying factor not addressed by the site [charitynavigator.org]. "The charities listed with Heifer are not development organizations. Heifer receives the majority of our funding from individual donors. The organizations Charity Navigator has us listed with receive the majority of their revenue from gifts in kind and government grants." Nowhere on the site does Charity Navigator list where an organization procures fundraising monies. Considering that Heifer International raises money differently might account for the discrepancy in figures." From: http://www.brandchannel.com/features_webwatch.asp?ww_id=217

Tienne said...

Jennifer -

Great question! I'm working on a post that should address it.