How I afforded my choice of used cars

My Story: My New Used Car

contributed by JW

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The rewards for being thrifty are sometimes few and far between, at least the big rewards. But, I got a big one this week. My trusty old Subaru station wagon was biting the dust, and my driving needs were exceeding its reliability. It needed $1200 worth of struts right now and I'd never done any major engine repair in the 208,000 miles I'd driven it. At 280,000 miles and 18 years old, it just wasn't worth fixing it up to be the reliable car I needed it to be.

So, I gritted my teeth, set a budget and my car-buying priorities, and went to see used car dealers. The first one took one look at me in my dirty thrift store clothes (dirty because I'd been out doing fieldwork for my job all day) and commented on how I couldn't afford anything on his lot and to try Craigslist! I want to go back with my current car and re-enact that scene out of Pretty Woman. I have nothing against Craigslist. However, I was bothered by his implications that I was too poor to be on his lot and that poor people shop on Craigslist.

I've had that 1994 Subaru wagon for nine years and haven't made a car loan payment in eight of those years. Instead, I put a car payment in the bank every month. It comes right off the top as part of my savings plan. It wasn't always easy to skim that money off before expenses, before trips, before luxuries, and before turning down requests for money from spendthrift friends (all of whom make more money and live higher on the hog than I do). It was hard. Sometimes it was financially difficult and sometimes it was emotionally difficult.

That is why I showed up in thrift store clothes. I don't buy new clothes. I buy used clothes. That is why I showed up in an 18-year-old car with nearly 300,000 miles on it. I don't do cosmetic repairs on my cars. I maintain the engine and suspension, not the paint job. Because I had that old car and the cheap clothes and because I do so many other thrifty things, I had enough money to buy a car without a loan. That first car dealer just saw the low cost choices and assumed poverty. That was his mistake.

Several salespeople at other lots suggested that didn't need to see the engine or take the car to a mechanic before I bought it. I quickly left those places.

Finally, I found the dealer who had local cars for sale with full maintenance records. By being careful with my money and diligent in my car search, I got a certified three-year-old vehicle with a drive-train warrantee for three more years and 56,000 more miles.

This is the first time in my life, about 24 years of owning cars, that I've had a warrantee and a car that looked "new" rather than outdated. I don't care about the looks, but the warrantee is amazing. I didn't think I'd get it this time, but this car was $3000 less than a car the same year without a warrantee and with an electronically adjustable driver's seat. For $3000 savings, I'm sure I can muddle through with the manual seat.

As I was trying to drive away in my brand new used car, the salesperson was telling me how to preserve the trade-in value. I laughed. In at least 10 years and 200,000 miles, I'd just get $750 like they gave me on my old car.

On Monday, I will put the first car payment toward the new car in the bank, and I'll be wearing thrift store jeans when I do it.

"My Story" is a regular feature of The Dollar Stretcher. If you have a story that could help save time or money, please send it to

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