The Vehicles We Choose to Drive


This past week, I attended a large car auction in AZ with my parents who were visiting from South Dakota. The week-long event brought in 300,000 visitors, auctioning off 1,900 vehicles, and was expected to surpass $200 million in total sales.

The most expensive car last week sold for $2,750,000.

The entire event reminded me of a quote I find most often attributed to Harvey Mackay. The quote has significantly influenced my life.

“If you can afford a fancy car, you can make more of an impact driving an ordinary one.” —Harvey Mackay

Let’s be clear, I know nothing of the people who bought vehicles at the auction I attended. And I know nothing of their motivation. This article isn’t about them—it’s about me. And maybe about you if you want.

Harvey’s quote is a helpful guiding principle in all walks of life—automobiles being one of the most important.

In our society, people are obsessed over cars. Not all people, of course, but many. To a point, this makes sense. We have built many of our cities and towns in such a way that vehicle ownership is generally assumed.

But our fascination with vehicles goes well beyond our need for them. In our culture, they represent far more than a tool to move from Point A to Point B.

The statistics concerning vehicle use and expense seem to back-up the premise that the cars we drive are no longer just about getting from one place to another.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the average annual cost of owning an automabile in 2022 was $10,729.

On average, car ownership and operating expenditures represents the second most significant expense for households representing 16% of annual income (housing ranks #1 at 34% and food ranks #3 at 12%).

The average auto loan for a new vehicle is over $41,000. And the average used car loan comes in at $28,500. That’s a whole lot of money.

A financial advisor once mentioned to me in passing, “There are three things that often lead people into debt or financial hardship: too much house, too much car, or too much dining out. This may be an overgeneralization, but most families who get a handle on these three factors, tend to make budgets that work.”

Looking past the simple economics of the matter, there are other factors in play in choosing the vehicles we drive.

Owning a car has become about something far greater than the necessity of transportation. For many people, they are the ultimate idol.

Car ownership has become very much about status and reputation. We seek to prove our success in society by the car we choose to drive.

Car manufacturers have intentionally fueled this thinking. Over the course of decades, some car brands have successfully positioned themselves as status symbols on the road. This is not necessarily because of the quality of the workmanship, sometimes it is merely a result of shrewd branding.

Often times, even influence within certain occupations can compel us to purchase certain cars. I have a doctor friend who bought a Hyundai. Upon telling his physician peers about his choice, he recalls their immediate reaction and visual disgust over his choice, “Are you kidding? Why would you settle for a Hyundai? You are a doctor for goodness sake.”

In addition to status and cultural expectation, there are internal factors that can subtly determine the cars we drive.

We may be moved by the sake of nostalgia. We become addicted to the adrenaline rush of speed or power. The appeal of a certain vehicle has fascinated our affections for as long as we can remember (“I have always wanted to own a Mustang”).

Sometimes, the ownership of a specific vehicle is intended to heal wounds that have yet to close (this can especially be seen in some father-son relationships). For others, the love of engines and mechanics impacts the cars they pursue and purchase.

Years ago, I spoke at a church in Phoenix, AZ on the life-giving pursuit of minimalism. On this particular Sunday, I invited anyone with personal questions to find me in the lobby afterwards.

Many did. And the typical questions were asked: “What about my kids? What about my spouse? What about my sentimental items?” Etc.

Towards the end of the morning, after everyone had left, one young gentleman remained. He approached me and presented his dilemma.

“Joshua, I agree with everything you said. In fact, I live a pretty minimalist life already. But I just have one question. I’d really like to own a nice car. I mean, I really, really want to own a nice car when I can. Is that wrong?”

His question was complicated—on many levels. For starters, I am not in any position to determine the rightness and wrongness of any purchase. Most of those answers generate from our motivations behind each purchase. I was in no position to determine which motivation was directing him. On the other hand, he was at a church and on some level, he would probably agree that pursuing the things of God is more important than pursuing the things of this world.

Two thoughts raced through my mind.

First of all, his desire for a nice car was clearly controlling him rather than him controlling the thought. His facial expression, tone, and even the question itself communicated this to me. Inherent in his dilemma, was the reality that he felt compelled to own a really nice car at some point in his life. Almost, as if, for some reason, he didn’t think he could change this desire even if he wanted. One of the motivations above had taken control of him.

Secondly, I was reminded immediately of the thought process spurred by Harvey’s quote above, “If you can afford a fancy car, you can make more of an impact driving an ordinary one.”

Rather than offering any specific answer to his question or instruction on how much money should be spent, I simply invited him to consider the fact that his money and life may be spent on more valuable pursuits than fancy cars.

In my own life, I try to balance my pursuit of minimalism and my need for transportation with these three questions.

1. Do I need a different vehicle? If not, why do I want a new vehicle? And is that a good enough reason to spend the resources?

2. How much cash + trade-in have I saved? One of the best pieces of financial advice I ever received was, “Always, always buy your vehicles with cash.” Despite a modest income my entire life, I have never carried a car payment. The freedom you will experience not having the monthly payment is well worth the sacrifice of never driving a new car off the lot. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

3. What are the additional expenses associated with this purchase? Calculate insurance, gasoline, anticipated maintenance, and unique circumstances (parking, tolls). Factor these into your decision by comparing several models. Sometimes a vehicle may cost more upfront, but save money in the long run.

We live in the 21st Century. Unless you live in a location with convenient public transportation, you will almost certainly need to own a vehicle. But that doesn’t mean you need to own the vehicle marketing teams compel you to purchase.

Instead, you’ll be better off owning a vehicle that provides you with the freedom, the reliability, and the resources to accomplish the greatest amount of good in this world with the one life that you have to live.

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