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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.
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.
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?
FinanciaLibre saysDecember 14, 2016 at 8:28 AM
I like the body odor analogy – ha!
Team Libre drives the LibreWagen, which is not only free but sprays profit out of its tailpipe like it’s spritzing cologne samples for shoppers at the mall. It’s got all the luxe features of an SUV but none of the cost…
Donovan saysDecember 14, 2016 at 9:46 AM
Great article and a good point! I like to think that you should always favor practicality over luxury, unless you are an enthusiast. I have no desire for a big expensive SUV, but I do like fast cars – it brings me joy to drive them, so I do, even though they’re not practical for everything a car is generally used for.
I find the rationalization/ reasoning thing to be particularly accurate and the statement resonates with me. An example of this I struggle with is coming home from work, knowing full well there is nothing in the fridge to reheat or cook, but instead of going to the store to buy stuff (ugh, more effort after a long day? No thanks.) I just go straight home and recruit hungry roommates who want to come get fast food with me. I reason that cooking in is cheaper and healther. But the convenience of having food immediately outweighs the sound reasoning most of the time. I find that the key to overcoming this is in prep when you’re in a better emotional state (e.g. not tired or hungry) and to always have the fridge stocked with fresh ingredients.
Hero saysDecember 26, 2016 at 4:18 PM
Ah, dinners-after-work… the perfect example of rationalization over reason! Thanks for the comment, Donovan!
Financial Slacker saysDecember 17, 2016 at 9:10 AM
I love my SUV. But I totally agree with you. It’s expensive to drive with gas, maintenance, and insurance. And it’s really not practical as over 50% of my driving is just me in the car. Plus it’s a pain to park.
But at least I bought it used and at a big discount. And, it’s almost 8 years old. I tend to drive the same car for 10 years or more, so have no intention of trading mine in for something newer.
Hero saysDecember 26, 2016 at 4:20 PM
As I said in my reply to Emily, I’m sure that you haven’t allowed your SUV to overtake other priorities, FS. And I’m confident that if it were preventing you from remaining on the path toward FI, you’d ditch it in a heartbeat. I wish I could say the same for everyone else. . .
Emily @ JohnJaneDoe saysDecember 22, 2016 at 10:15 AM
I drive a Honda Pilot…so probably an unnecessary newish SUV, bigger than we need for transportation and not particularly fuel-efficient. I used to have a CRV that I adored, and there were plenty of times in nasty weather I felt better for having AWD. I thought it was fine, and would have driven it into the ground.
But my husband was insistent on my upgrading to the bigger Pilot because of IHS crash tests that showed that people were much more likely to survive crashes in heavier vehicles. He drives a similarly sized one, but his is a 2002, and he manages to exceed the EPA estimates most of the time by driving conservatively.
I think if fewer people drove big heavy cars, he’d be more amenable to going back to smaller cars too. But as long as most people drive big cars, he’s going to insist that we need one that will hold it’s own against them.
Hero saysDecember 26, 2016 at 4:16 PM
Your comment has had me thinking for the past few days, Emily. I think that a case can be made for the safety perks of an SUV for large families, depending especially upon one’s location. That said, I know that you and your husband are not ones to let an expensive SUV take over your lives and outweigh other priorities.
Mrs. Groovy saysDecember 23, 2016 at 2:55 PM
How sad, but I think you’re right that many people would choose retirement funds over an SUV mentally, but are not willing to follow through with their actions.
We have a 2004 Toyota Camry. We had a Jeep (“Betsy”) but she was only good for scrap metal by the time we were done with her. We may do a slight compromise on our next car and get a hatchback.
Hero saysDecember 26, 2016 at 4:14 PM
I LOVE hatchbacks! I think that would be a great choice.
SB BEN saysDecember 26, 2016 at 2:13 PM
My gosh – All of your posts consists of 40% bragging and 60% shameful jealousy over what you can’t afford yet. Now, we’re on to bashing SUVs….are you sure you’re not just venting because you can’t afford one yet. I mean, protecting kids and ensuring safety while driving seem like big ticket items. No? Yea, let them die in the back of the Civic, right? Hmmm…
Your article suggests that people are lying to themselves…wow!
How do you know what other people driving SUV’s have saved for retirement? Are you a securities broker? Are you a financial consultant? Do you work for the IRS or the government? Where is your data to support that everyone driving an SUV is an idiot?
Your work is utterly insensitive, self seeking and you don’t have the absolute insight to make that claim. Go read more and stop biting off my blog posts and changing a few words because you’re not writing it right.
Another debt blogger…ugh (newsflash – market is saturated!!!)
Hero saysDecember 26, 2016 at 3:39 PM
Thanks for the comment. I believe yours is the first “troll like” comment on FinanceSuperhero. FinancialSamurai always says that when you start getting trolls, you’re on the right track, so today is an exciting day.
I appreciate your analysis of the past 100 posts on FinanceSuperhero.com. I hadn’t thought much about it, but perhaps I should add “Shameful Jealousy” and “Bragging” as post categories. Then again, it might be difficult to brag about my modest home, used vehicles, and lavish teacher salary. Care to point out a few instances of either occurrence to help me get started on the right foot? Thank you.
Based upon your comment, you must be an SUV driver. Tell me – do you think your SUV is the most efficient way to get from point A to B? How frequently do you find yourself behind the wheel of your otherwise empty gas guzzler? And can you kindly point out where I said SUV drivers are idiots?
Your opinions that my writing is self-seeking and insensitive surprise me, as I’m not sure how anything I have written resembles either. At any rate, I thank you for your comment because it absolutely proves my point that people will go to desperate lengths to justify and rationalize their decisions, such as SUV ownership, even so far as commenting on “another debt blogger’s” site in a manner that is pretentious and condescending.
Lastly, I’m not familiar with your writing. Do you have a website? If you do, I might suggest that visiting other sites and vociferously attacking others’ writing does not put yourself in the best light, nor is it the best way to endear yourself to readers or other bloggers. Also, you should create a Gravatar which properly links to your website.
That said, if you would like to write a guest post on FinanceSuperhero explaining exactly why you feel I am wrong about the points in the above article, I would welcome your submission. Seasons Greetings!
Financial Slacker saysDecember 26, 2016 at 4:10 PM
Nice response, SuperHero.
I guess everyone sees what they want when they visit a site.
Keep up the good work!
Hero saysDecember 26, 2016 at 4:14 PM
Thank you, FS — much appreciated as always!
Steve saysJanuary 5, 2017 at 10:57 PM
The choice is between an SUV and a multi-million dollar nest egg? Really? 😳
I agree it is almost always a mistake to buy an SUV financially. Just like people not in construction usually don’t really need an F-150. It makes a lot more sense to rent one when occasionally needed. But declaring what people feel and what utility they receive seems a bit much. It’s of course trendy to bash SUVs, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily irrational. Yes I do drive one, but you know what? I enjoy it every bit as much as my much more efficient motorcycle (about the same gas mileage as a Prius). Both get me the 10 miles from home to work. One in comfort, the other with heart pumping excitement. As I get older the comfort thing is becoming much much more important. 😃
Rather than focusing on the psychology, perhaps you could look at the actual finances? How many years do you think I could drive my 2004 SUV for the cost of a new Prius? I know because I broke out a spreadsheet and calculated it. Which is why I’m still driving my SUV.
Sorry, this is the first of your posts I’ve read and your troll response rubbed me the wrong way. I’ll go back to my cave now. . . .
Hero saysJanuary 6, 2017 at 3:58 PM
Hello Steve. Thanks for the detailed comment. Please don’t go back to the cave! 🙂
If I may ask, what is your current occupation? Is your SUV at all a work-related vehicle? Do you regularly transport large groups of people?
If your answer to the latter two of my questions is “no,” then I’m curious about the primary value you derive from owning and driving such a large vehicle just for a 10 mile commute. On the other hand, if you love the vehicle and have the rest of your financial affairs in order – as it sounds like you do, I might add – then this article wasn’t necessarily talking about you. Speaking specifically into your situation, it sounds like our SUV has long been paid-for, which is very different than shelling out $500 monthly payments for 72 months. IMHO, you are best-served driving your SUV into the ground at this point.
While you note the psychological and financial aspects of SUV ownership, my overarching point is that many SUV owners don’t even consider the ramifications of their purchase. You obviously considered both when weighing out the purchase, which makes you unique and intelligent. Thanks for the great comment.