What would you do if your car died today?

Carhenge

“Mobility is empowerment” is a phrase I’ve long internalized. That goes for the micro level (being able to get from place to place) and the macro level (being able to move to another place). And if you are far away from town, or just live in a place where car ownership is expected, it’s quite unnerving to think of what would happen if you lost your car or were unable to drive.

All of this leads to a question that you would be good to investigate: what would happen if your car died today?

Assumptions

I’m of course making an assumption that you own a car. Not every one does.

But nearly every person in the U.S. does. There are over 250 million car registrations in the U.S. (as of 2016), off a population of over 320 million.

For most of the U.S., a car is pretty much required. Public transit is often scarce (some would say intentionally so) and usually much slower than driving. Unless you live in a downtown core, or in a big city like New York City, chances are that you will be at a little bit of a disadvantage if you don’t own a car.

There are obvious and far-reaching consequences of this. The primary one is that we now build places that cause people psychic pain.

But another consequence is that people design their lives around needing the car, which entrenches car ownership.

Take suburban living. While I was lucky to grow up in a suburb where I had direct train access into Philadelphia, most people I know weren’t so lucky. When they were younger, they were in effect, stuck at home unless a parent would drive them somewhere.

When we’re adults, we do the same thing to ourselves. We desire space and quiet (or, some would say, protection) and so we find a place that gives us a nice backyard, but forces us to drive miles to get anywhere. Even a trip to get basic foodstuffs can be an ordeal.

It gets even worse if we have children, because then under the guise of “my children need good schools” we often will go even farther out to the school districts on the edge of the city, where the school infrastructure is newer and thus cheaper, and you don’t need to worry that your children will interact with people too different from them.

More assumptions

Enough finger-pointing. Some people don’t have a choice.

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Whether it’s the person who moves back home with their parents for a time in order to get on their feet, or that their income dictates how far away that they need to live (as we are getting really good at pushing poor people out of our cities these days), people may not want to be in a car-dependent place, but are.

This is a precarious situation to be in. You are, in effect, dealing with what I call a “single point of failure”. Since most people don’t own more than one car, your car is your lifeline to the rest of the world.

What happens when that single point goes away?

Option #1: Buy a car

The most probable or obvious outcome is that you buy another car as soon as possible.

If you had to do that, would you be able to? How would you do it?

The first question is: do you have the money? This case clearly counts as an emergency, so it seems viable that you might use some or all of your emergency fund. An emergency find, you will recall, will for most people be in the $10,000-$20,000 range, assuming it’s fully funded.

Do you think you could get a good car for $10,000? I think you can. It won’t be new, but new cars are terrible deals, only fit for people with money to burn.

Even if you only have $5,000, I think you could get a good deal too. (Remember that this car isn’t a life sentence, it’s something you need to get from place to place.)

Option #1a: Finance a car

But what if you don’t have $10,000, or $5,000, or even $1,000 for a car?

You could finance a car. This would definitely make some car salespeople happy, since financing is where car people make their money. They do that by making you pay less up front, but more over the long run.

That is a bad deal. Emergencies are the worst time to use debt. Unless you like compounding your problems, but I didn’t think so.

Option #1b: Rent a car

If it were me, and I didn’t have the money right then and there, I might try to rent an inexpensive car for a period of time while I figured out a better option. Car rentals don’t have to be expensive, especially if you aren’t renting from the airport or other high-traffic place. I found a weekly rental near my place for $113, all-inclusive.

Your place might be more or less expensive.

Is $113 a week for a rental car a good permanent solution? No. But it might give you time to find a better, more permanent solution. It would certainly be better than locking in 5 year loan terms on a car.

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Option #2: Rely on transit (or shared rides)

If buying or renting anything isn’t in the cards for you, in some cases you might be able to rely on transit. I think people often feel like public transit isn’t an option, when in actuality, it is, just an inconvenient and slow one. Which I get isn’t the best situation, but if you’re in this situation, it’s already not great.

(And please make sure that your aversion to transit isn’t about how it “looks” to people, or worse, that you don’t want to be associated with “the people who ride the bus”. Shame on you if you’ve had this thought.)

You could also carpool. This might only work for your job, and might not even work in that case, but the old-fashioned rideshare is always an option.

And your area might offer some form of paratransit, a door-to-door pickup service, that you might be eligible for. That’s definitely a last resort.

Option #3: Move

And, if we’re going totally nuclear, you could move. Perhaps being dependent on a car that you couldn’t afford to replace means that you’re in an area you might not want to be living in. I know it’s much easier to say this than do this, but it could be an option.

Time to make a plan

Your car is going to die eventually. You know this. And that day might not be so far off.

So you have a golden opportunity: plan for this eventuality now.

How might you do this? First, determine which of the above scenarios you would be most likely to employ now, and which ones you might want to work toward.

For me, the best options for me is some combination of “buy a car with cash” and “live in a place where I can be car-free”. When my car died a few years ago, I spent a year doing the latter until I could do the former.

If I couldn’t live in a place where I could be car-free (and most of you probably can’t), I still think that the saving up for being able to pay for the car is the best option.

It’s certainly the least cumbersome. No credit checks, no ongoing engagements, no terms. You hand over a check (most likely to a private seller, whose prices are better anyway) and then you’re good.

But while it’s the least cumbersome, it requires the most work. Because it means that you need to be saving up for that purchase right now.

Most people don’t do this. When their car dies, they wander over the dealer and get on a payment plan for a car. But you don’t have to do that. It’s time to start preparing right now.

But enough about me. What would you do if your car died tomorrow?

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