Death of the Car(go) Cult(ure)

I had an epiphany recently. It sneaked up on me, right about the time I let go of my comfortable illusion of middle-class security and embraced the fact I may be faced with more than $26,000 per year in health care premiums and untold thousands in out-of-pocket deductibles and medication expenses. It could be more than my household income, forcing me to draw down on retirement savings nearly ten years prematurely.

Ticking off monthly expenses — what things could be reduced or eliminated in my household to make up for the additional health care expenses if some mutant abomination of AHCA passes — I came to an abrupt conclusion.

I don’t need a car anymore.

It costs more to own a car at my personal disposal than calling a car-for-hire, whether Uber or Lyft or local cab service.

I had to sit down after that. For nearly fifty years I’ve thought I needed a car, that every American aspired to vehicle ownership, save for big city residents for whom cars would be unmanageable. My entrance to adulthood was marked by the ability to drive a car; my personal freedom hinged upon being able to get away in my own vehicle.

But now? I might be trapped by a car. My six-year-old grocery-getter Mom mobile cost me more than I invested in the stock market the year it was manufactured — it’s worth a fraction of its original value, while my stock is worth several times over. My investment in wheels won’t pay for my future health.

I thought about my kids and the reality they face; only four years separates these two siblings, but a massive cultural shift occurred between them. My 23-year-old daughter drove off like the wind when I gave her my car keys seven years ago; she saw her first vehicle as freedom, just as I did when I was her age. She just signed her first lease on a vehicle, though; after crunching the numbers on new cars, it didn’t make sense to buy one. Leasing a car would yield a lower total cost to operate than buying one. She’s also not stuck with trying to sell it in a couple years when an electric vehicle might be preferred.

This isn’t an earth-shattering shift, but it’s a tectonic move; no one in my family has ever leased a vehicle. We have always bought and owned them over the last four generations.

And now my son. One might assume he was a car buff living here in the backyard of the Big Three Automakers, the progeny of one family which made its fortunes in auto parts and spawn of another family in which two successive generations made a living engineering in automobile manufacturing.

But no — he dragged his feet for nearly three years getting his license. He just didn’t care to get it; the only reason he got a driver’s permit was that everyone else his age had done so. He had the public school bus to get him to class every day, and me to get him to every intramural event. Why should he bother when he had it so good?

Especially when it came to the annoying expense of having his own vehicle. Being in a high-risk group — male, 16-25, driving more than 25 miles a week — he might pay more in insurance each year than the purchase price of the car he would drive. And then gas, which was near $4.00/gallon when he got his permit. And car washes, tires, wipers, oil changes, other increasingly frequent car repairs, and so on…this was not freedom.

His sister had been fortunate to land an internship for the duration of her college career, which helped defray automobile expenses. This has not been the case for her brother because of their different academic pursuits. He works at a summer job, stashing as much of his paycheck away for the academic year while living on his tips during the season. The paycheck and tips combined from his summer service job do not equal the amount his sister made each year; he simply cannot afford a car of his own.

We don’t know how long this may be the case, either. His prospects are different from his sister’s given his field of study. He may need to pursue a master’s degree immediately after he gets his bachelor’s. Leads on internships for his junior year of college are good, but the pay may be less than his sister made at the same point in their studies. A car of his own is a very iffy prospect for years.

Let’s face it: my son’s life is closer to that of the overwhelming number of American’s his age than my daughter’s is to her cohort. This is the shift in our culture, one in which we begin to let go of personal and family automobiles as a norm.

The more I thought about it, the more disturbed I became. Both of my kids will leave college without any debt; I spent what should probably have been my retirement health care savings on their tuition and board. In contrast, my prospective son-in-law carries $40,000 in debt after his graduation this month. Thankfully he has a good job and can pay it down quickly, but what of all other college students in the U.S.? The overwhelming majority will be saddled with a similar or greater amount of debt and middling jobs. They’re part of nearly 50% of America which cannot muster $400 cash in the event of an emergency, perhaps part of the 53% participating in the stock market but still one of the precarious.

These youngsters will be hard pressed to juggle health insurance premiums and deductibles under AHCA with massive college tuition debt and rising rents.

They will be hard pressed to buy a car outright. Screw all of those idiotic “Millennials are killing everything!” opinion pieces; their parents and grandparents have done little to ensure college would not burden them as much or more than an automobile payment.

Or a mortgage. I realized, too, that I am financing and paying taxes on a garage and a driveway I rarely use. I must trek out and shovel tons of snow every year to keep that rarely-used driveway clean; when it’s too much to do by hand, I break out the gas-guzzling, exhaust-belching snowblower.

All in service to a rapidly depreciating fossil-fueled demi-god with a deteriorating finish and in need of an oil change. I’ve become an adherent of a cargo cult, who has for too long believed that possessing this object would yield some greater blessing from the great god of capitalism. Instead of throwing several handfuls of dollars per mile traveled into a gaping maw I should be riding my bike or taking a bus.

When the rest of the U.S. wakes up to this same reality, the real earth-shattering shift will begin. Perhaps it already has.

What happens to a people when they lose their religion? We’re about to find out.
Food for thought:
U.S. automakers question possible excess capacity – but is the challenge too much manufacturing capacity or too little buyers’ capacity due to decades of stagnant wages?

If carmakers like Volvo are already committed to switching completely to electric while entire cities and countries are forcing fossil fuel’s phase out, are potential car buyers simply driving their gas guzzlers to death until the industry has completely migrated?

Or maybe the future isn’t on the road but in the air; will buyers save their pennies for a flying car?

12 replies
  1. bmaz says:

    You will take my car from my cold dead hands only. Sorry, that is just how it is.

    My daughter, however, was much like your son, and did not bother to even get her license until she was 20 years old, and still does not have her own car. Like you, that was fine by us. Cheaper, and never had to worry about her out on the road.

    The one thing I have done, however, is giving up on buying new cars. It is ridiculous at this point, and if you are careful, you can get as good as new for literally about half the price.

    • Rayne says:

      I’ve only had a new car once — bought it the year my son was born, in 1997, and it’s his car now. All my other cars were used in order to offset the massive first year depreciation hit. But a reliable used car with reasonable expectation of maintaining resale value still costs in the ballpark of $20,000. Since it’s ridiculously expensive to finance a used car, buyers should have that much in savings to pay cash. As I noted, many Americans can’t get their hands on $400 cash; 20K may be impossible.

      You have a business reason for your car; you can write off mileage. I don’t have an active personal business so I can do that. I estimate my cost per mile (gas, maintenance and insurance only) at $3-5, not including the depreciation or registration and licensing of the car itself. A cab here would be cheaper.

      I’ve already acknowledged my next car will be electric. I might as well hold off buying one and drive this puppy into the ground. Or maybe I should sell it, capture the residual resale value and invest it, and drive my son’s 20-year-old car and tell him to catch a cab when he needs one. LOL

  2. lefty665 says:

    Yikes! $26k a year plus deductibles and copays does not come under the heading of “affordable” in my book.  Medicare, Part D plus a medigap policy  approach a grand a month for my spouse and me. That ain’t cheap, but around two and a half times that seems more like extortion (nice life you got there, wouldn’t want anything to happen to it) than insurance. And, if the Repubs get their way that will only get worse.  That sucks.  I am sorry, would that there was something I could do for you beyond ineffectively agitating for Change.

    I also have two kids, and while the details vary, their prospects are similar to yours. One is an engineer and the other an artist.  It is not a challenge to figure which one is thriving. It is sometimes hard to believe they are living in the same country much less about 50 miles apart.  I have two young grand kids. We are putting money in 529 plans for them in hopes that will help them through college without debt as we were, and were my kids. My folks cashed savings bonds to help me in school. I was fortunate to have good cash flow when my kids were young and EE savings bonds with good returns came along at the same time. My mom and dad helped with EEs too. I am tickled to be able to pay that forward with 529s for my grand kids, and I understand we have been extremely fortunate as well as industrious.

    My kids separate paths help me understand how our country has changed in my lifetime, and how precarious and fragile the path to thriving has become. The statistics on access to cash in an emergency, average wages and median family income are cold and detached, but are profound.  My mom was a preachers kid who grew up during the great depression, she used to observe: “We are the richest nation in the history of the world, surely we can figure out how to take care of one another”. My answer more and more is I’m not so sure mom, it seems like a very few of us want it all, and are for the most part getting it. They don’t spill much for everyone else either.  Sometimes I am almost relieved she is not around to see what we have become.

    Despite our squabbles I wish you and your kids well. Hopefully communities like emptywheel can figure out how to get us on a path to decent living conditions for us all. Surely we can figure out how to take care of one another.



  3. JonKnowsNothing says:

    If the car is paid for don’t sell it. You might need to live in it.

    Many of the 79% do. A goodly hunk of the 20% will soon fall into the 79% category and will be needing to live in their cars too. Which means the 20% will get smaller and the 79% will get bigger. The 1% won’t be affected.

    Living in your car is cheaper than living in a house – even if the mortgage is Paid In Full (which would be a complete rarity). Not to mention that those Health Care Services you are expecting to take advantage of, will not be anywhere near “easily accessible: by any means.

    Welcome to your future in the 79% from a former 20%.

  4. pdaly says:

    I know many retired blue collar workers who are snowbirds: they fly to Florida in winter and return to New England in the summer and fall. They have two homes in two states and a car for each one. Imagine the work environment they had in order to afford such a retirement?

  5. pdaly says:

    My mantra has been “10 doublings of 1000 equals a million.” Achieve that a few times, and you can be financially set.
    That seemed easily achievable in the heady days of 30+% annual returns in the stock market.

    Based on the “Rule of 72”, in which the time (in years) to double your principal is 72 divided by the annual rate of return (in %), the doubling time was less than 3 years.

    Now, however, with average rates of return closer to 8% (or lower), the time to achieve that 10 doublings in a lifetime is looking further away than comfortable.

  6. Michael says:

    I donated my car to the local PBS station nearly a decade ago and have not regretted it. I rediscovered cycling. Today I am looking down both barrels of 70… and still cycling, in spring and fall rain, in the dead of winter (simply dress for it!!). My “baby” brother, a natural athlete who has run the Marine Corps Marathon, asked me why this natural couch potato does it. “Because I like the way I feel at the end.” He just nodded; he understood.

    • bmaz says:

      That is excellent for those that can do so, and I seriously applaud it. I have to traverse a valley area for work stretching out 40 miles in any direction, and arrive there in a suit not looking terribly worse for the journey. Oh, and it will be 115º here today.

      Those are all practical reasons why I cannot ditch a car. But, even more than that, I grew up around cars and cannot imagine not having at least one. Just because. As my story of my daughter above indicates, I may be a dying breed, even in my own family, though.

    • Rayne says:

      Two words about biking’s limits here: Michigan winters.

      Three more words about biking’s limits for this household: Teen boy’s appetites.

      Commuter biking in the city here isn’t bad, I did it for a few years during the summer. But I now live right on the border between a suburb and country — closest grocery store is on the other side of a state highway with +50K vehicles per day, and we have no bike lanes nor sidewalks between here and the city.

      Now imagine trying to slog home enough groceries to feed an active 19-year-old in a backpack and a pannier without having to make daily trips through some sloppy conditions along a state highway in summer or winter here.

      This is why online grocery shopping will eventually succeed in a big way; once we let go of cars, we question why we can’t change the tasks we did with them. Hoping grocery store chains figure this out before Amazon does, though.

  7. P J Evans says:

    Doing without a car sounds nice – but there are stores that I can’t get to easily without one (both Target and W*lM*rt are several miles away – off the same street, but one is a couple of miles north and the other is a couple of miles south). And hauling shopping bags on the bus is So Not Fun. I also use the car to visit my sister (who stopped driving some years back for medical reasons and is not close to any place I can get to without a car).

    We need hella better transportation system in this country, and instead we have a maladministration doing everything it can to kill what we still have.

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