Forgive Me, Father…

I am aware of our relatively privileged situation of having not one, but two cars. Unfortunately, neither of them is quite suitable for us.

I have made references throughout this project to our troubles with reliable transportation, an issue we share with many low-income families. Lacking the disposable income or high credit scores to obtain favorable financing on a new or gently used vehicle, we lurch from clunker to clunker, either paying cash from our tax return or getting sucked into the “buy here, pay here” vortex of despair. Those with mechanical aptitude fare slightly better, as they can keep the clunker rolling past its expiration date and may even be able to make something special out of it.

Research shows that we are not alone here; vehicle age tends to decrease as income rises. Older vehicles also tend to pollute more through poor gas mileage, improper maintenance, and inappropriate disposal, leading to negative environmental impacts on an already vulnerable population. Regular, preventative maintenance carries an expense level and a time commitment that many poor folks just can’t afford and an expertise that many don’t have. Nor am I, with some training and mechanical ability, immune from this; I cringe every time I see the telltale black spots under my own cars that show another nail I’ve driven into Mother Earth’s casket.

Surely there are alternatives, you say. Yes, and we take advantage of them. I walk or bike to work, and My Dear Wife walks to school. Our town has a decent bus system, which gets our older boys to their school; our youngest walks the two blocks to his. So, while not a car-free family, we are “car-light.” We’ve averaged roughly 8,000 miles per year for the last 6 years, well under the national average of 12,000. Not bad for a family of five.

And yet…we like to travel. Correction: we love it. And somehow, driving almost always comes out as the cheapest option for a long trip. Welcome to the American West, where distance is measured in hours rather than in miles.

“We’re about an hour from there.”

“That’s about a six-hour trip.”

“Oh, it’s just a half-hour from here.”

And the things you get to see…

The Oregon coast, for instance

So we’re not ready to give it up entirely, though I respect those who have.

I mentioned two unsuitable vehicles; permit me to elaborate. The Little Red Wagon is old, slow, loud, and small. Bits are now falling off and failing to work. It only gets 17 miles per gallon. But, it’s got what we like to call “character:”

Isn't it cute?

“Character” being shorthand for the aforementioned shortcomings in something that’s basically useful and fun to drive. I brought a 15-cubic-foot chest freezer home in this, and it managed to pull a 12-foot U-Haul trailer across the state. Too bad the whole crowded/noisy thing is so dominant.

The Green Hornet, named both for its color and the number of times I’ve felt stung by it, is our “daily” driver, not that we drive every day. (Number One Son calls it “The Green Monster,” so I think we know how he feels about it.)

the years have not been kind...

That is, when it’s running. We actually bought Little Red as a temporary backup to Green some years ago, when The Hornet was once again in the shop with a mysterious drivability ailment. Certainly part of the reason why it has relatively low mileage (~156,000) for its age (18 years) can be traced to all the time it has spent out of commission, either in the shop or the driveway. Now, another thousand dollars in repairs later, it is back on the road. Yes, it theoretically seats seven. Yes, it has a handy roof rack. Yes, we have a sweet retro X-Cargo car topper for it. Yes, the A/C nearly spits ice cubes. And yet…

We just don’t trust the darn thing anymore. It’s broken down more times than John Boehner and had more work done to it than Joan Rivers and Cher put together (scary thought that, not to be taken literally.) It’s the main reason we keep our auto club membership current, although we do appreciate the free maps too.

We’re also crowding out of it. The Boys are growing larger by the day, now ranging from 4’11” to 5’11”, and we always seem to have stuff along as well. Even when we try to pare down, as we did for a recent overnight camp-out and bike ride, we were stuffed to the gills and in each other’s grills. Our ice chest (that’s a cooler to you folks on the East Coast) barely fits behind the rear seat, and The Great Gray Bin of Camping Stuff fits not at all, having to ride shotgun in the middle row.

And…the windshield is doubly cracked, the sliding door’s inner panel resides in our basement, and the “LOW OIL” light now flickers intermittently, as if to keep us from growing complacent. Oh, and the windshield wipers shut off when the right turn signal is applied. All this for 21 miles per gallon, and all the money we might pour into it won’t make it any bigger.

What, then, are we to do? The answer may shock you. Watch for it…



About poorlocavore

Welcome to one family's journey towards a smaller food-mile footprint on a small food budget. How do our choices affect the environment, and what influences our choices? Read on and find out what I'm learning.
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7 Responses to Forgive Me, Father…

  1. Amy Doering says:

    LOL… love the Cher/Joan Rivers/John Bohener reference!
    I wrote this first paragraph in a rough draft of a paper, (on what research is out there to help therapists understand the effect of financial issues on families) and my teacher said she didn’t understand what “social comparison” meant, or why debt could be linked to positive outcome. So for my final paper, that I turned in last Monday, I added the “story” to it. Guess who “Louise” is!
    Dew (2007) explains that consumer debt is more strongly correlated with marital outcome than accumulated assets. Although assets alleviate economic pressure they have only indirect effects on marital relationships, whereas debts have a direct correlation to marital outcomes. Debts also perhaps surprisingly, can have a slightly positive effect on marriages due to social comparison and have no relationship with depression unless there is also economic pressure (pp. 100-101).
    Examine the following story to illustrate these points: Louise is a graduate student with a one-hour commute. She and her husband have two cars. One, a 21-year-old station wagon with a broken back window that is covered with plastic and duct tape, but runs fairly well. The second car is a nicer-looking, 10-year-old minivan. The minivan has just broken down and will cost more to repair than it is worth, so they are looking for a new car. Lousie’s best friend Melanie just inherited a car from her grandfather, and has offered to give Louise her 10-year-old Saturn with a missing back seat belt and a broken, taped up driver’s side window. The advantage to this would be she could put a lot of miles on the car in her commute, with good gas mileage with no cost for the car.
    However, buying a newer, better looking car would have a positive effect on her and her husband because it would better blend in with the cars of her friends and neighbors as she parks next to her next-door neighbor’s meretriciously kept truck and BMW motorcycle. This is what is meant by social comparison. Although if the car payment is difficult to make, (economic pressure) it will be detrimental to the family relationship.
    Louise also has one asset that she has recently inherited that she is looking to get appraised. Although she might not be able to sell it right away, if it appraises at a value above the amount of the car loan, it will alleviate the economic pressure of the debt and thus have an indirect positive effect on the marriage. Conversely, if it appraises for a lot less than is expected the debt of the car loan will exert more financial pressure on the couple.
    Therefore helping a clients re-examine their outlook on social comparison from one which measures status symbols, to one with the financial goals of self-reliance, paying down debt and asset accumulation, might help raise their self-esteem. [In other words if I can learn to deal with broken car window, not having a car payment might make me feel better in the long run.]

    • poorlocavore says:

      Amy, I agree that not being concerned with appearances allows one more potential financial comfort, though wanting something newer because it will be more reliable and require less maintenance is perhaps a different motivation.
      “…meretriciously kept truck and BMW motorcycle.” did you mean “meticulously kept”? Sorry, but that jumped out at me. Either might work, though…

  2. Jen says:

    Your writing gets more enjoyable with each post. Keep up the good work!

  3. Pingback: …For We Are Up-sizing… | The Poor Locavore

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