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Spending Smart

In praise of clunkers, rust buckets, and nonfat payments

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / February 12, 2009
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In case you hadn't heard, Detroit is bleeding, and desperate to sell you a new car. And the federal government wants to nudge you into a showroom, with legislators working on ways to offer rebates to anyone buying a new car.

But here's a thought. Hold on to your clunker, or rust bucket, or whatever you want to call it, and, if the need really calls, consider buying something used, or at least "preowned," that will come at a discount and still drive like new.

I speak from experience, as somebody who started out with a blue 1979 Plymouth Horizon TC3 hatchback in high school to my current wheels, a swank, 1997 Buick that I bought for $1,700 from a 90-something-year-old lady in Sharon. I know there are people out there who would frankly not even put a toe inside my 12-year-old sedan - my friend Lori, for example, who told me recently she wouldn't ride in the Buick even if we were in love.

Temptation is strong, I know. That's why so many shiny, leather interior luxury cars, most of them with fat payments, have arrived in our neighborhood in the last few years.

But why?

True, an old car can feel clunky. It might not have a built-in iPod adapter, or even, in my case, a CD player. But an old car can offer something a new car can't - low costs all around. And all those stains from your commuter coffee mug and crumbs from the Goldfish consumed in back are easily removed with a quick detailing.

Old cars have soul. They have character. They get us where we're going without forcing us to spend money we should not be spending or should be spending on something important.

I know the other argument. "To many people, a car is an expression of their personality," said car dealer Dan Quirk, owner of Quirk Auto Group. "People drive expensive cars because they feel good about themselves."

And Bostonians tend to be more into image than folks in, say, Eau Claire, Wis., according to Jesse Toprak, a senior analyst at car buying guide Edmunds.com.

"I know some friends who have a lease for $1,000, $1,200 a month, and they're putting off buying a house," he said. "A car is all about portraying who you are, and the image part of car ownerships can be a lot more important than the financial element."

Fair enough. But tough times demand tough choices. That means thinking about some basic facts. Even before the recession hit, Americans proved they were willing to spend foolishly beyond their means. The rate of auto-loan defaults hit a 10-year high of 3.4 percent last year. In addition, statistics showed people were taking out longer loans than in the past. That boosted auto-loan balances from $282 billion in 1998 to $772 billion last year.

In other words, our homes weren't the only thing we borrowed too much to buy.

Nancy Sullivan, a contracts manager, drives a Subaru Impreza she bought new for $15,250 in 1996. When she parks her 13-year-old car at the train station, it's dwarfed by the trucks, vans, and SUVs surrounding it. But, it has been completely reliable. Even without a CD player.

"I've always been cheap," Sullivan told me. "I spend my money on things I think are important. And cars aren't important. Every summer we take a family vacation to Nova Scotia. I'm cheap, so it's not a very expensive trip. We go to Handel and Haydn Society. We have a tiny TV with $10-a-month cable because that's not important to us. And then, for the past, two years, we've gone to Bermuda right after Christmas. That's important."

Her lifestyle isn't for everyone, to be sure. But think of it this way: If you spend $600 a month on a car lease or payment plan, that's $7,200 you can't use on something else during the year.

That's not to say waiting won't be painless.

As an arts reporter at a major metropolitan newspaper, I've often found my "economy" cars somewhat embarrassing. I remember doing an interview at Museum of Fine Arts director Malcolm Rogers's house and wishing it wasn't set back from the street. I had to park my dissolving Mitsubishi Eclipse near the house, and, when Rogers walked out with me to say goodbye, I knew he must have noticed the felt headliner hanging down inside my then 11-year-old vehicle.

When I attended a gala at the Institute of Contemporary Art a few years ago, I made sure to park a few blocks away so as not to be seen rolling up to Boston's shiny new museum in my not so shiny wheels.

Quirk, the car dealer, didn't mock me for my Buick or urge me to come in for a look-see. In fact, he mocked me for something else.

"Don't be ashamed," he told me of the Buick. "A car's just a car. But some people think they need to drive a big fancy car or they'll be considered a social outcast. Only insecure people worry about that. Pull that big, fancy Buick right out front and be proud of it."

He's right. So I will. Then I asked what he drove.

A Volkswagen Touareg sport utility. Sticker price: $70,000.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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