What's really beneath the nice car thing?

I was talking yesterday to a new friend, a woman who is in her first year of trying to drastically cut her spending in order to become financially independent so she can quit her job and be a full-time mom. We started talking about how hard it was to spend less. Specifically, how hard it was to drive old cars. 

She told me about the challenge of letting go of her precious brand-new car. It was a reward to herself when she reached a level of income that felt like she had "made it." She loved that car - loved driving it, loved looking at it, loved feeling like she had earned it with years of hard work - but when she decided that she wanted to reach financial independence, it was clear the car was an expense she couldn't justify. 

This is such a common story with people trying to be more frugal so they can work less, right? The crazy expensive car loan that cost them as much as their rent. The giant truck they never used to haul anything. Yearly upgrades to a newer car. But most of these conversations focus on the relief that happens when the car is gone. No more monthly payment. No more stress. 

There's another side to it that we don't talk about as much, maybe because we all feel a little embarrassed. We don't want to be seen as the shallow consumer who is tempted by the fickle gleam of a shiny decklid. She told me that she felt stupid even mentioning it to me; she knew cars were giant beasts of depreciation and stolen dollars. But she missed her car. 

"I get it!" I told her. And I totally did - I am constantly trying to convince myself to buy a nicer car, something shiny with heated leather seats and flashy rims.

"Why don't you just buy it then?" she asked. And it's true - Andrew and I could afford to buy a fancy car. And I do think about it often. At least once a year, I shop online for a BMW convertible or a Nissan Z (don't laugh, Andrew already teases me horribly about it). 

"I get really close," I admitted to her, "but I just can't get myself to do it." Because when I'm honest with myself about why I want a car, it really comes down to a few frustrating facts: I'm insecure, I care what people think, I want people to be impressed by me. 

And when I stare that realization directly in the face, the fun of buying a new shiny car is gone. I jokingly told her that my secret to curbing my spending is by realizing that 99% of my purchases are fueled by insecurity. 

"Be honest," I asked her, "How much of your fancy car was about keeping up with the Joneses?" 

A little, she admitted. She liked the idea of driving a nice car. She liked being seen by her friends as successful. "The day I sold my car, when I saw someone else driving my car away," she said, "it was like my old self was leaving with it and I wasn't sure if I wanted to be this new self." 

Then we started talking about our childhoods. Her family saw nice cars as a sign of being a hard worker and were always quick to upgrade to the newest model or most luxurious brand. When she started making more money, they pushed her to get herself a nice car too. She had achieved so much - didn't she want to reward herself? 

My story with cars is a little different. Growing up, my family always drove twenty-year-old Volvo station wagons that my dad repaired himself (Volvo's are a big part of Pattee family lore - one of my parents' first dates involved a broken Volvo, the backroads of Guatemala and a pair of pantyhose). My brother and I would get rides home from our friends' parents in their shiny minivans and SUVs and talk about how we needed to convince our parents to buy a new car. My dream car then was a 1990 hot red Mazda Miata and I saved every paycheck for two years to buy one. Then, right before my 16th birthday, I decided to blow it all on a trip to Europe and spent the next five years driving my parent's old Volvo. 

My car choices since then have bordered on the vagrant: a 1996 Toyota Camry with no door handles for $1800, a 2001 Honda Civic for $3K, and my current car: a 2006 Scion XB that I got for $5K.

At first I bought cheap cars because I didn't have the money to buy a nice car and then I bought cheap cars because I was trying to become financially independent before I hit 30, and then it turned into some kind of Moral Self-Righteous achievement: I drive a cheap car. I don't need a shiny car to prop up my ego. My cheap car and I are better than other people. 

That kept me happy with my torn seats and broken radio for a while...until I started working with a marketing agency. And we started visiting clients in their offices. I would get there early and watch my co-workers pull up. BMW. BMW. BMW. BMW. And then me, in my scratched up Scion with a wire hanging out from under the bumper like a rat's tail. Did I picture it or were my new co-workers wincing when they saw me get out of my car? Were they suddenly questioning if I was the successful, competent marketer I had sold myself as? Were our clients peering out their office windows at the sound of my squeaky brakes in their parking lot? 

I told myself I didn't care, but who was I kidding? I started to park blocks away and pretend I couldn't find an empty spot in the lot. Even my Target blazer and Old Navy skirt were starting to look a little shabby next to so much Vera Wang and J Crew. Did I need a new wardrobe? Finally, I went to Andrew and told him that I thought my car was holding me back in my career. Hearing myself say that out loud was the wake-up call I needed. Wasn't that the same rationale I heard from so many of my friends who were driving new cars they couldn't afford? That I heard over and over from people who wanted to become financially independent but didn't want to give up their expensive cars? That they needed it for work. That they needed a new car because they wanted their kid to be safe. That they needed four-wheel drive. 

Maybe I wasn't so different from all those people I had been looking down on. 

This is why I don't judge you for missing your car, I told her. And it's why I don't blame myself for wanting a new one. Because at the end of the day, aren't we all just little kids on the playground? Wanting to make new friends. Wanting to have the cool shoes that the other kids are impressed by. Wanting our parents to approve of us. Wanting the gold star, A+, you did good, kid.  

So if you find the car that cures insecurity and guarantees the approval of others, let me know. I'll buy two. Until then, I'm sticking with the toaster oven. 

 it may not be fancy, but at least it's Winnie approved.

it may not be fancy, but at least it's Winnie approved.