Category Archives: Automobiles

Your Unnecessary SUV Is a Financial Boat Anchor

Each day, millions of Americans arise before the crack of dawn. They begin thinking about the day’s tasks and cultivate lengthy to-do lists while sipping their first cup of coffee. Moments later, they begin their solo treks to work behind the wheels of 5,000 pound leather-clad SUVs with heated bucket seats; this begins the all-too-common trade of time and money for unnecessary, inefficient luxury.

It is sadly ironic that many of us search for efficiency in countless places – automatic bill pay, dishwashers, DVRs, and online shopping, to name a few – yet reject many of the fundamental notions of efficiency under the disguise of luxury. Unnecessary SUV ownership is a prime example.

Millions of Americans love large sports utility vehicles. But could an unnecessary SUV be stealing your current financial stability and future retirement?The rationalizations for owning massive vehicles are plentiful and predictable. We convince ourselves that we “need” the luxury of a large vehicle in our lives for safety reasons. Some cite their recreational pursuits or profession as the reason for their SUV ownership. Others “bought the SUV for the kids.” Those who are honest with themselves may admit that they sought the feeling of prestige inherent in driving an expensive vehicle.

Surely I’ve ruffled a few feathers thus far, which is both intentional and revealing: Americans are very defensive about their pet luxuries. I’ll admit that I am defensive about some of my own inefficient luxury expenses (dining out, for example). These kinds of wasteful luxuries are akin to subtle body odor: almost everyone notices it is a problem, but we don’t speak up because the offender is blind to their own scent. It is simply easier to remain quiet.

Luxury is ironic. Over time, what was once something that we cherished and appreciated becomes unnoticed, commonplace, and ordinary. We begin taking it for granted, it becomes normal, and the thrill and resulting happiness of the luxury wears off.

To recap, many Americans drive around inefficiently in large sport utility vehicles, which are designed to efficiently transport large numbers of people, because they believe that this luxury will make them happier. The happiness is temporary, which leads to disappointment. And disappointment leads to more spending in search of lasting happiness.

Why do we continue to this maddening cycle? Why won’t we learn?

There are likely all sorts psychological, mumbo jumbo-ish explanations for the unnecessary SUV phenomenon. Perhaps scientific explanations are more fitting; after all, the notion of contentment doesn’t mix well with survival of the fittest. I personally feel there is a simple explanation:

We have become better at rationalization than reasoning.

Reason states that my driving habits and adherence to standard safety protocol is much more likely to keep my family safe during any type of commute, yet rationalization argues that a larger vehicle provides additional safety. Reason argues that SUVs are only necessary for off-road adventures. It also points out that a small utility trailer can support transportation of recreational vehicles at a fraction of the cost of an SUV. Yet rationalization argues that it’s just easier to own an SUV. Reason notes that generations of children survived without SUVs. Rationalization allows us to satisfy our own selfish urges under the guise of sacrificing for our children.

Your Unnecessary SUV Has Taken the Place of Other Necessities

The bigger problem, of course, is not the SUV, or even its outrageous cost. The problem is that when rationalization replaced reasoning, lifestyle concerns replaced responsible financial management. The pursuit of luxury replaced the proclivity to practice restraint.

I truly believe that if most Americans were polled and asked to choose between a new luxury SUV in the driveway every 48 months or a stable retirement with a multi-million dollar nest egg to live on, most people would choose the latter. Yet our actions irrationally put us on the former path. Ironically, our actions in this regard do not actually align with what we value the most.

Parting Thoughts

To put it most simply: We really want B more than we want A, but A is easier to attain and we can have it right now, so we choose it.

This phenomenon is present everywhere. I experienced it myself this afternoon when I indulged in one of my wife’s fresh-baked Christmas cookies. In that moment, immediate gratification outweighed my desire to loose a few pounds. Much in the same manner, unnecessary SUV ownership is like a boat anchor which ensures the owner will remain drowning in debt or at best treading water. In all but the most rare circumstances, most drivers would be wise to embrace efficiency when choosing a vehicle in order to live the best possible life both today and in the future.


What vehicle do you drive? If you drive an SUV, do the costs associated with its operation represent more than 10% of your annual spending?

The Finance Superhero Rules for Car Buying

Let me be the first to say that I enjoy cars. You won’t catch me standing in my driveway admiring our two vehicles, but I appreciate them. They are reliable, cosmetically appealing, and mechanically-sound. We could drive two brand-new cars if we really wanted to do so, but we hold a more conservative view on car buying.

When it comes to car buying, be sure you are not fooled by myths of status, reliability, and safety. Check out these helpful car buying rules to be sure you make a smart purchase!

The Purpose of Cars

Among many, this approach to car buying stems from an understanding of the fundamental purposes of cars. In no particular order, I believe they are as follows:

1. Function as people movers – transports people from point A to point B.

2. Support income opportunities – provide transportation to and from work.

3. Support recreational opportunities – provide transportation for recreational pursuits*

*Note: Though I note this as a fundamental purpose of cars, I believe that significant financial difficulties overshadow the need for recreation.

In my experience, purposes beyond those listed above cease to be fundamental; they are what many people would call luxury. 

Ulterior Interior Motives for Car Spending

We’ve all been there before. You call out for pizza delivery on a Friday evening, and your piping hot pepperoni pie arrives 45 minutes later. In a puzzling twist, the delivery driver pulls into your driveway in a shimmering, new-ish Lexus. You pay for your pizza, instinctively tell the driver to keep the change, and then immediately find yourself wondering if he really needed the tip or even the delivery job. And then you start wondering, “Why don’t I drive a shimmering, new-ish Lexus?”

Thus begins the battle between the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other shoulder. The rational part of you is quick to answer this question. “We don’t choose cars based upon their value as status symbols. My car is just as reliable as that Lexus. It compares well in terms of safety ratings.” But the irrational part fires back with an emotionally-charged response. “But think of what that car could do for your status. You’d be the talk of the block and the envy of everyone at the office. And wouldn’t a new car be more reliable and safer for the precious, fragile children? You can’t expect little Johnny and Susy to risk their lives riding around in a 2008 Honda Accord, can you?!?!”

It’s easy to laugh at the previous rationale from the devil, but the average person has had many of those same thoughts, particularly when contemplating the purchase of a new car. When emotion enters the equation, fear, pride, and a sense of duty tip the scales and allow people to make excuses for the purchase of a car.

Consider the following motives:

Status – It can be very difficult to drive one of the “worst” cars at the office. I know, because I’ve been there. In one two year period, I drove my 2000 Ford Taurus for three embarrassing, painful years. Younger colleagues surely wondered why I couldn’t “afford” a nicer car. In hindsight, driving this vehicle was one of the smartest financial decisions I have ever made. Buying a nicer car may have improved my perception of my status among my colleagues at the time, but it wouldn’t have helped me win with money. In fact, you’ll rarely win with money if others’ opinions drive your decisions.

Reliability – Blame the auto makers and their television commercials for this one. We’ve been conditioned to believe that an “old” car is a ticking time bomb, ready to implode and stop working at any given moment. Likewise, we believe that newer cars cannot possibly have this kind of problem. In reality, a well-maintained vehicle of any age will boast superior reliability.

Safety – Blame the commercials for this one, too. You know, the commercials that guilt-trip you into believing you are The World’s Worst Parent if you don’t drive your child around in a full-armored Panzer. Never mind the fact that you’re driving with a latte in one hand, sending Snap Chats with the other, and cranking Ed Sheeran’s latest so-so song at a dangerous decibel level. Yup, your sedan is officially a death trip for you and your family.

Children – Sometimes I think it would be fun to be a car salesman. I would sit at my desk, slowly sipping on my coffee, waiting for a family with a young child to come in. After silencing my “SUV-buyer-radar,” I would easily tap into the average parents’ desire to provide “a better life” for little baby Emma and laugh my way all the way to the bank.

Harsh? Perhaps. But in all but the most extreme and unfortunate circumstances (special needs, disability), an SUV is unnecessary until move beyond two-kiddo-territory. Kids will survive riding around in a sedan, and they’ll be OK without a drop-down Blu-ray player, Dolby Digital surround sound, and dual zoned climate control. I promise.

Maintenance – I have actually heard people rationalize endless leases and perpetual new car buying under the guise that they are “bad at maintenance.” My response is a typical a nicer version of the question, “So you’re bad at driving your car to a mechanic?” In 2016 and beyond, unless you’re a true “car guy,” you probably shouldn’t be doing your own maintenance beyond oil changes, brakes, and tire rotations, anyway.

Smart Methods for Car Buying

Once you’ve talked yourself out of a myriad of excuses for why you “need” a ridiculous car, you can begin to examine your true needs. Ironically, this begins with revisiting the bold categories above. Is there a particular reason that you truly need a specific vehicle (i.e. will you be fired if you drive a clunker?) or model year? Will you be driving primarily around town and racking up local miles or spend a bulk of your time on the freeway? What weather conditions will you face during your regular commutes? How many people will you transport on a regular basis? What are the costs of routine maintenance for the vehicle relative to the mileage you expect to drive?

Notice that there was scarcely a hint of emotion in the previous questions. When aiming to follow a smart method for car buying, there is rarely room for emotion.

Cash is King

When it comes time to buy a vehicle, the most preferred method is the cash purchase. Many people will argue otherwise, which I counter with the following facts:

*A cash purchase is the only one to ensure that you don’t continue to pay others for the right to drive your car after already paying others for the right to own your car.

*A 0% APR auto loan is almost a farce. Trust me, automakers and dealers aren’t in the business of selling you a vehicle and making $0 profit.

*Every interest payment you make to others, no matter how small, is a red blemish on your overall net worth picture.

Big Down Payment + Small Loan = Instant Equity

In the interest of honest, full disclosure, I financed my most recent vehicle purchase, a certified 2013 Hyundai Sonata, utilizing this method. Why? I was in a position to wipe out my other debt, my student loans, in short order, but I couldn’t do so and pay cash for the new vehicle. This vehicle was a true need, based upon our non-emotional answers to the above questions. By taking on a small loan at a very low interest rate, we were able to eliminate higher-interest debt. By tossing in a sizable portion of cash, we created instant equity to mitigate against the effects of depreciation.

What Can I Afford?

Whether you choose one of the above options when buying a vehicle or choose to finance a significant portion of the purchase, you have yet to avoid the biggest mistake of all when it comes to car buying: tying up too much of your annual income in vehicles which rapidly lose their value.

In order to win with money and ensure that do not become “car poor,” I recommend finding your place on the chart below and adopting the recommendations listed by income level.

When it comes to car buying, be sure you are not fooled by myths of status, reliability, and safety, and spend in line with your annual income.
Recommended Car Buying Figures By Income Level

If you earn beyond $200,000 per year, I recommend remaining at a maximum allowed spending figure of $45,000 until you reach a net worth of at least $1 million. Even if you are not financially independent at this stage, loosening the purse strings a bit will not be highly consequential.

Final Recommendations

The car buying process is not one to be entered into lightly. Do your research, consider the cost of insurance and ongoing routine maintenance, particularly for foreign and luxury vehicles, and above all, be sure that you find a vehicle which will meet your needs without drastically exceeding them.


What are your rules for car buying? Are these rules too stringent? Too relaxed? Just right?

The Car Lease – A Formidable Villain

Yesterday, while driving around town to complete errands in my fuel-efficient, three-year-old Hyundai Sonata, I found myself waiting at a lengthy stop light. Naturally, the wait annoyed me to some degree, as I was the only car in sight. However, Moonlight (my wife’s affectionate name for our Hyundai) and I weren’t alone for long, as we were soon joined by a sleek, shiny 2016 Audi A8 Sedan.

2016 Audi A8, courtesy of www.audiofdesmoines.com
2016 Audi A8, photo credit to www.audiofdesmoines.com

While I am admittedly a car lover, I must admit that my interest was divided equally between the A8 and its driver. Why? The driver could not have been a day older than 25, by my observation, and naturally, the Finance Superhero in me could not compute many scenarios in which this young man could afford such a fine vehicle.

I know what many of you are thinking:

  • Good for him! This fellow has clearly done well for himself.
  • Did you strike up a newfound friendship with Mr. A8?
  • Age is hard to predict; maybe this hot shot is older than he looks.
  • Weren’t you jealous?

My thoughts:

  • Maybe.
  • No.
  • Maybe.
  • No.

Jealous? While others may have felt envy, I only felt pity.

Yes, it is quite possible that this driver was closer to 35 than 25. It is possible that he is a new partner at a leading law or accounting firm. However, statistics dictate that it is more likely that he is a 20-something who earns slightly above the median US adjusted gross income ($36,841 in tax year 2013, according to IRS.gov). Regardless, I assert that the driver’s income is a variable that pales in comparison to the opportunity cost in driving such a fine vehicle.

I Hope He Likes the Car

Except in cases of significant wealth, the luxury vehicle represents one of the largest financial boat anchors in the lives of Americans. It is a formidable villain capable of derailing one’s budget, dreams of financial independence, and even hopes for a modest retirement.

Let us assume, for the purposes of illustration, that Mr. A8 is leasing his vehicle. The current manufacturer lease offer for this vehicle is $899 per month for 36 months with $4,644 cash due at the time of signing. This represents a total cost of $37,008 over three years, or $12,336 per year! Should I don my cape and rescue this fellow from his foolishness?

What’s that? You’re still not convinced that Mr. A8 isn’t getting a fine deal?

Let’s assume that Mr. A8 utilized the $4,644 cash due at signing on the Audi and instead purchased a much more affordable yet attractive vehicle. For example, suppose he found a deal on a 2004 Honda Accord and stretches his budget to $5,000. In this scenario, he would not have any monthly auto expenses, aside from gasoline and regular repairs. This would free up $899 per month!

How might a Finance Superhero manage these additional funds? Here’s a suggested monthly breakdown (rounding up to $900 for the sake of simplicity):


$400 placed in a money market account as a sinking fund designated for the purchase of a replacement vehicle when the Accord goes to the junkyard in the sky

$500 invested in a company 401k/403b, up the company match, with remaining funds invested in a Roth IRA


 Again, for the sake of simplicity, let us suppose that our 25 year old driver’s investments earn an average return (after inflation, the generally-accepted return figure for the S&P 500 is approximately 7%) and is compounded monthly. After thirty six months, our developing Superhero would have just over $20,000 combined in his 401k/403b and Roth IRA accounts, not including any company matching. Additionally, he would have $14,402.22 saved in his money market account (assuming a very non-Superhero interest rate of .01%) toward the purchase of a future vehicle. If he continued investing this same amount each month until age 65, he would be poised to retire with investment accounts valued at approximately $1.3 million.

I hope Mr. A8 really likes his fancy car!

Common Objections

Despite the fairly simple math above, which clearly illustrates the disastrous opportunity cost of leasing such an expensive luxury vehicle, some people may still wish to raise objections. As a developing Finance Superhero, it is your duty to gently correct people when the following objections are raised.

I need a luxury vehicle for work purposes.

I understand that for many professionals, the appearance of one’s vehicle is of high importance. However, a 3-4 year old Honda Accord or even 10 year old BMW will get the job done. A Finance Superhero uses his brain, remains persistent, saves money, and like Finance Superhero Grandpa, flashes cash to secure a great deal.

I am not handy when it comes to automotive maintenance, so a lease makes sense for me.

Let me count the reasons that this objection rarely rings true. First, in 2016, very few people are capable of maintaining their own vehicles beyond routine fluid changes, brake replacement, and tire rotations. Leasing a vehicle does not eliminate maintenance costs. And no, maintenance is not free with a lease. You are paying for it, as the costs are built in somewhere.

Second, new vehicles are often subject to repairs that will later be addressed by manufacturer recall. Strategically purchasing used vehicles which have already had these concerns addressed and repaired and have already had their 50-60k mile maintenance performed is a much better way to go.

With a lease, I can drive a new car every two or three years.

Listen. You need to make a decision. We are talking about your vehicle or your retirement! Which do you want more? 65 year-old you will want to kick 25 year-old you in the butt for being stupid and leasing a vehicle when you could follow the simple mathematical plan above and still simultaneously fund your retirement AND drive nice vehicles. And 65 year-old you is likely to get that opportunity, as Apple will probably have invented the iTimeMachine by that point. Don’t screw things up for future you!


What are your thoughts on car leases? Does it ever make sense to lease a vehicle? Have you or someone you know ever been burned by a car lease? Share your thoughts in the comments section.