Going Up?

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Today, Seth Godin (one of my favorite bloggers who usually talks about marketing) posted a great piece about consumer debt. Two great excerpts:

Here’s a simple MBA lesson: borrow money to buy things that go up in value. Borrow money if it improves your productivity and makes you more money. Leverage multiplies the power of your business because with leverage, every dollar you make in profit is multiplied.

That’s very different from the consumer version of this lesson: borrow money to buy things that go down in value. This is wrongheaded, short-term and irrational.

It takes discipline to forego pleasure now to avoid a lifetime of pain and fees. Many people, especially when confronted with a blizzard of debt marketing, can’t resist.

Resist. Smart people work at keeping their monthly consumer debt burden to zero. Borrow only for things that go up in value. Easy to say, hard to do. Worth it.

The general point of the article is that any time you go into debt for something that decreases in value, you’re making a bad move. This is a pretty clear take on “good debt versus bad debt” philosophy and using that perspective as a central rule of thumb helps you to make much better choices about your money.

Virtually anything you put on a credit card is bad debt. The stuff you buy with a credit card is either consumed (like food, for example) or decreases rapidly in value after you buy it (like a DVD, for example). Once you own food, you eat it and it no longer has any value. Once you own a DVD, you open the shrink wrap, turning it into a used DVD, which has much less value.

Student loan debt is (usually) good debt. Provided that you finish a degree program, student loans are usually good debts because the value of the degree you bought with that loan is much more than the face value of the loan. As we discussed yesterday, an education has such a huge positive impact on your lifetime earning potential that it blows away the value of your student loan. Of course, this requires that you take schooling seriously and complete what you start.

A car loan is bad debt. An automobile decreases in value with every mile you drive it – it will never reclaim the original price that you paid for it. Yes, it does provide transportation which can help you earn more money, but in that case, you’re talking about absolute minimal transportation – a mid-’70s Honda Civic bought for a few hundred dollars from a junkyard will get you from point A to point B.

Mortgage debt is (sometimes) good debt. A home will usually hold its value over time and perhaps increase a bit, but a home mortgage still isn’t always a good debt if you’re paying more in interest than you would be paying in rent living elsewhere. You should always strive to minimize the amount that you “lose” each month to housing, whether it’s in the form of rent or in the form of mortgage interest.

Financing any consumer purchase is bad debt. Furniture? A television? A riding lawn mower? All of these things are often bought with a financing plan – and all of them are bad things to go into debt for because they drop steeply in value as soon as you buy them.

But I need all of this stuff that depreciates! If you need a lawnmower and can’t afford it, buy a very low-end push mower and start saving for a better one. You need only to mow your yard, so get the item that covers what you need, not what you want.

If you need a car, head to the used car dealership and look at the $1,000 section. You need only to get from point A to point B, so get the car that covers this basic need, not the shiny features you want.

If you need a new couch, head down to Goodwill. You need a place to sit, but you only want something shiny and expensive from the furniture store.

I don’t begrudge anyone a nice shiny car or a great riding lawn mower or some new furniture or a flat-panel HDTV. But those things cover your wants, not your needs. Don’t go into debt for them. Cover your needs, then save up for your wants.

The most interesting thing? Once you start separating your needs from your wants, you discover that you don’t actually want a lot of that stuff too much after all. If you have a working lawn mower, after all, the desire for a replacement is quite a bit lower.

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51 thoughts on “Going Up?

  1. Specifically: we owned a $1,000 car that was constantly dying on us in inopportune places (a shady neighborhood, in the airport pickup/dropoff lane, etc.). We needed a new to us, safe and reliable vehicle. We wanted one that would last us a long time. We frugally picked the $10,000 used Civic that will last us a long time. Score 1 for frugality.

  2. “If you need a new couch, head down to Goodwill. You need a place to sit, but you only want something shiny and expensive from the furniture store.”
    You also can sit on the floor until you can afford a couch.

  3. Ayup. That’s the rule I grew up with. Especially after my sister worked for a bankruptcy law firm (calling people to foreclose on them on Christmas Eve) and told me the big lesson she learned was to never ever borrow on a car. She called to reposess so many cars that the borrowers still owed money on AFTER they lost the car. Never borrow for anything that depreciates in value.

    re lawn mowers: totally recommend the new-fangled engineless push mowers. They’re much safer than the old versions and actually work so long as you don’t let your grass get too long. They’re quiet enough to use at 6am without waking the neighbors too.

  4. My spouse & I set our entertainment budget at a tight $30 a month. It caused us to get out & do more than see a movie. We’ve benefited from finding new parks,trails, & things to do all over our area. Turns out we really didn’t NEED to see a movie for entertainment & seeing a flick every weekend didn’t really give us what we WANT which is quality time together.

  5. @Nicole: Yes! I really like my reel push lawn mower. :) [Scotts 2000-20 20-Inch Classic Push Reel Lawn Mower: $120]

  6. LOL… the lawnmower issue reared it’s ugly head last fall when our riding mower died (with a half acre of field grass, we’re NOT going to use a push mower!). I’m still procrastinating on fixing the mower because I _want_ a new one, but we only need the old one repaired.

    I can recommend the cordless power mowers if you have a normal-sized yard. Quiet, though not as quiet as a push mower. Powerful. Only maintenance is replacing the battery every 5-6 years and the usual sharpening-&-balancing.

  7. I hated my push mower! Granted, it was 30 years old and weighed a lot more and required a lot more stength to push than the new ones. It slid around and didn’t spin on wet grass. I didn’t cut anything higher than it’s axle, so it NEVER cut weeds and wouldn’t cut tall grass either (7 or 8 days growth max during the spring). That meant that if I didn’t cut it on the weekend(rain, busy, out of town…) I had to take time off work just to mow the lawn. That happened so many times I would just let it go wild for a month then weedwack the whole yard. Not fun. I bought a lightly used electric mower off craigslist this year and I’m so pleased. I don’t stay up late worrying about how I’m going to fit in lawn mowing to a busy day. And it takes 1/2 as long to mow and I’m not sore afterwards.

  8. Virtually anything you put on a credit card is bad debt— Amen!

    I plan to start treating my house as bad debt and just pay it off

    I’m changing my mindset

  9. I borrowed for my first car and don’t regret it, granted I bought a slightly used 2008 Jetta for 12K. According to internet sources I am ahead on the value but that is mostly because I made a couple of $1000 payments in the first couple of months.

    I don’t have a ton of experience but I feel like the problem isn’t with borrowing money to buy a car but instead, just like with houses, borrowing money to buy a car that in actuality you cannot afford.

  10. I like this rule – a very general rule of thumb to keep in mind when debt is considered.

    As a young couple fresh out of college, we are getting very close to following this, just as soon as we get 2 auto loans finished off.

    I go back and forth when it comes to paying off the mortgage. I don’t think it would be a bad thing to have the house paid, but its just such a long term goal, and who knows what might happen along the way. At this point in my life, I value liquidity more than having a slightly lower mortgage balance.

    I would hate to have the mortgage half way paid off, and then lose my job, and not have a substantial amount of cash in the bank to use as a cushion. Right now our emergency fund is around 6 months. If that were to increase over 12 to maybe 18 months, then we might consider diverting cash flow to the mortgage.

    But then again, maybe not. We might just acquire more assets with the cash.

    But, it is our sincere goal to only take out new debt in the future to finance appreciating assets. This plan was foiled late last year when the wife totaled her 12 year old Jeep. We had to replace at, and had to get a loan to do so, beucase we were not yet finished saving up for her a car.

  11. I had to borrow $2k to get my roof replaced. I’m not sure if that counts as going up in value or not. But the roof was leaking and if I ever want to sell the house, it would have to be replaced. Other than that loan, I’m as fugral as can be.

  12. Good Debt, Bad Debt…wouldn’t we like to think so. How about, all debt is bad…period.

    Debt is debt. No good, no bad. Pay it off, get out of debt. Simple Dollar Lessons provided by Murder Your Debt.

  13. As someone who has gotten burned by debt, all I have to say to this post is AMEN!

    Learning a lot from experience and your posts. Thanks Trent!

  14. The thing that frustrates me about all these general rules can be best illustrated by my parents. They are great savers (and have passed the gene on to me), but they totally refuse to use the money they have saved over the decades on anything enjoyable, instead, rationalizing against spending on anything by saying “it’s too expensive”. So they have a decent savings account, but have never traveled, never bought anything new, and rarely go out to enjoy themselves.

    To that end, my wife and I have decided that every time we hit a significant savings goal, we take a certain percentage of our net worth (say, 2%) and go on a trip. This happens about every three years, and keeps us in balance on the whole save/enjoy life scale without, we believe, negatively affecting our long term security.

    Trent, I’d enjoy a post on the balance between saving obsessively and actually being open-fisted enough to crack that bank account occasionally.

  15. Sue: a leaky roof, over time can damage the walls of your house, among other things. This loan was a must. Mind you an emergency fund would have been nice.

  16. Re: lawnmowers: Or you could dig up the lawn and plant a vegetable garden. That’s the first thing I plan to do when/if we buy a house.

    Re: a new couch: I recommend sitting on the floor until you find the Perfect Couch. Those things are expensive! And a used old couch can be pretty nasty. The only thing *more* nasty is a used mattress. If you must get a used couch, look for one in a leather or close-to-leather upholstery.

  17. I don’t care much for debt myself, try avoiding taxes too because the more money you make the more they’ll usually take.

  18. “Once you own food, you eat it and it no longer has any value.”

    Although food will increase your productivity, so perhaps it is good debt. Starving people aren’t nearly as productive.

  19. Nice plan, Craig.

    And I think that theme–be financially secure, but enjoy life–runs throughout many of Trent’s posts. There are quite a few posts on the subject, in fact–might have to dig in the archives a bit to find them, though.

  20. RE: lawnmowers – in line with #14: we have an electric mower but I don’t remember the last time it’s been out of the shed. We have no actual lawn. (We don’t have children at home any more, so don’t need a play area.) Front yard (in 2 sections) is xeriscaped with 2 different flowering ground covers, flowering bulbs, and trees. Remaining yard areas are planted with a lot of fruit trees. We have a small flower garden alongside the front walk and ferns in the shady area in front; climbing roses in a few spots. We spend a little time on weed control, leaf raking & occasional pruning, but that’s about it! Plus we have fresh citrus & tree fruit about 10 months of the year.

  21. Simple lessons are rarely as simple as they seem.

    A while ago, there was a post comparing Trent’s new Prius to his friend’s series of old junkers that he drives into the ground. Trent concluded that the Prius would actually cost him less over the long term – even though the Prius itself goes down in value, and even though it’s shiny.

    I’m not sure I agree with all the details of his analysis, but the basic point (that spending more money upfront often means spending less money overall) is certainly sound. More expensive items often (but not always) last longer and require less maintenance and upkeep. How many times on this blog has someone contemplating a purchase been advised to “spend a little more and get something that really lasts”? This is on stuff like clothing, furniture, appliances, and cookware – all things that generally do not go up in value.

    If you’re a faced with a situation like that, and you don’t have the extra money to spend upfront, does it make sense to borrow it? Maybe, maybe not. From a psychological perspective, there are all kinds of factors that may or may not apply. (If debt stresses you out, for example, that’s a good reason not to borrow.) From a pure numbers perspective, though, probably yes – as long as the interest rate isn’t so high that it eats up all of your anticipated savings.

  22. “buy a very low-end push mower…” ???

    Folks in Ohio must not have the privilege of enjoying lawns planted in St. Augustine, a grass that mows like steel wire. Maybe you don’t have 118-degree days, either? :-D

  23. Student loans are often NOT good debt.

    Sometimes people go 20k into student loan debt to get a degree in something that does very little to enhance their earnings, when they could have figured out ways to pay for a similar degree without the debt.

    Student loan debt can not be bankrupted away–only death removes the obligation. It’s a scary thing, and it shouldn’t be blithely passed off as good debt.

    I say avoid it at all costs.

  24. “a mid-’70s Honda Civic bought for a few hundred dollars from a junkyard”

    For some people, a few hundred dollars is money they don’t have – and the cost of a junkyard car should take roadworthiness/MOT tests into account.

  25. Craig, I just posted about that yesterday…I make my own yogurt and my own bread, but I just dropped $1550 (cash, not credit) on a camera body. Because spending on that was more important to me than spending on store-bought yogurt and bread.

  26. Love the example of the lawnmower, because I just got one.

    I regularly mow 2 acres, and the little Craftsman riding mower took about 4 hours to mow it. The mower came with the house, burns oil, and needs work. But instead of buying a new mower, I waited. I cursed. I saved money. I put the word out that I was looking for a good used riding mower. And I kept putting oil into the Craftsman until I found a good deal.

    Yesterday, I picked up a used commercial mower for a few thousand dollars, paid cash, and mowed the entire yard in about an hour.

    I hate the Craftsman (not that it’s a bad mower, just that it isn’t meant for the size and type of yard we have). But I’d rather push-mow the entire lawn than drop $8k for a new mower that works half as well as the mower I bought.

    Did I mention the finance plan was 100% down with $0 per month? Someone else decided to finance the thing, and couldn’t make the payments when his landscape business didn’t take off.

  27. The rule I’ve always used is “The only good reason to borrow money is to make money.”
    Before computers, I always thought installment debt was the root of all evil.

  28. Probably a very good suggestion. There are, however, many things in life we cannot eradicate. Even the MBA guy would put money in things that depreciate in value. An effective solution would be not let those depreciating expenses exceed the ones that goes up in value.

  29. I love that quote from Seth Godin! I *almost* made it my Gmail status message, but I had to go with a quote from Glee’s Coach Sue instead.

    I started to bristle about your blithe statement that a $300 junker will do the job as well as a more expensive car (thinking about the true risk of rape, murder, etc if one breaks down in a bad neighborhood in my violent city, and remembering the gut-twisting fear I experienced when I was very very poor and took public transportation after dark in my affordable, i.e. bad, neighborhoods)… but I do get your point, that people get caught up in the need for ~transportation~ and confuse it with the want for ~pretty~ or ~sporty~ and end up throwing away $1,000s or $10s of thousands above and beyond the actual need, for wants… without ever addressing that fact directly and making a conscious decision.

    Craig, I appreciate your statement about your parents, who save money but never enjoy any of it. That’s a good reminder to remember why we work on frugality, to improve our lives.

    Tip for a great, affordable, pet-safe couch with removable covers… check out Home Reserve. Great storage too.

  30. We are kind of stuck in this right now. Our HVAC system is on it’s last legs, and a new system will cost approximately $6500. We have this amount of money plus in savings, but I am insecure with the idea of pulling this much liquid money and leaning more towards getting a loan for the purchase. We will pay more in the long run, but as a single paycheck household I feel like a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and we can’t eat an HVAC.

    Ah, and no system is not an option- 90 degree plus summers, chilly winters, and a five month old baby don’t mix!

  31. My lawn mower example is a flash forward from #19 Doug.

    Back in 1979, my Mongomery Wards riding mower was dying. I kept it running until Labor Day when a local tractor dealership put their demonstrator commercial mowers up for sale. I bought a walk-behind machine (about 40% off list price with only 3 hours on the meter) with a 50″ finish mower. The mower came free because I bought last year’s “old style” snow blower attachment, and it was half price.

    Two years ago, I replaced the mower deck shell with a new one. Yes, still available after 29 years. Sometime in the next month or so, I’m rebuilding the clutch pack in the walk-behind machine. Yes, new clutches still available after 30 years.

    Although inflation has pushed these replacement parts a major percentage of what I paid for the whole thing in 1979, it’s far cheaper to repair than replace.

    Best of luck with your ‘new’ mower!

  32. I know this point gets hammered to death, but I don’t think car loan is always bad debt. It depends on your own fiscal discipline and what else you are doing with money.

    For example, the next car I buy will most likely be on credit. Could I, with different decisions in the years preceding, buy this car with cash from a dedicated car fund? Yes, but I would have been forced to pull back the extra money I’ve been putting into long-term savings since I paid off my cars. Since the interest earned by a car fund would be minimal and my car-loan interest rate would at worst be 3.99%, I believe I am coming out ahead this way.

    One excellent benefit to a dedicated car fund is that it saves us from being “tricked” into buying a more expensive car than what we require or can afford. When financing, it is much easier to give into wasteful impulses. However, with proper planning and fiscal discipline, there are many other options to consider.

  33. I agree with other commenters who said they got a little upset about your comment that any old crappy car will do. I encourage you to think about the different situations people live in: from urban neighborhoods where safety is an issue and perhaps public transportation is not available; very rural places (like much of New York state, where I live) where having an unreliable car is not feasible since most people live more than two or three miles from where they work and public transportation does not exist.

    I certainly agree that not everyone needs a brand new top of the line Cadillac or expensive sports car. However, while you’re correct that cars can only depreciate in value, sometimes they are an investment that is necessary for people who need reliable transportation and do not live in a metropolitan area like NYC where they could choose to take the subway if they did not own a car.

  34. Wow Trent! I usually love your post and have been following you since the beginning but today you are a bit off in your advice…A couch from good will??? Buying the cheapest possible on EVERYTHING? What about buying good quality items so that they last longer? If you invest in decent quality (and I don’t mean over the top expensive) the item will last MUCH longer than buying something used and half way through its life. I have found this to be true of furniture, clothes, lawn equiment. There are certain things that are “neccessary”, a house with furniture to make it a home, clothes, maintaining your yard….

  35. “The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

    Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

    But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

    This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”
    — Terry Pratchett (Terry Pratchett’s Men at Arms)

    - Sometimes, particularly for the mower example, it does save money over the long run to buy quality. And sometimes you might not have the money to do so right then.

  36. I get what your saying Trent…but my home is important to me, so buying a yucky couch from Goodwill would be a no go for me. I need a pleasing looking environment in order for me to relax (I’m slightly anal like that – especially considering my dream job would be as an interior designer)…but I do always wait until I can afford it and look for the best deal I can find…because I do border on being CHEAP most of the time. ;)

    BUT, I did sit on a ‘donated’ tiny loveseat from my office for almost a year after my divorce while I saved up for a newer sofa. I couldn’t bring myself to pay full price and ended up finding exactly what I wanted in the Classified Ads, in a ritzy part of town, in someone’s formal living room that had never been sat on! I paid about a 1/3 of a new one…and it didn’t even have butt wrinkles in the fabric yet. LOL :)

    But I do paint furniture and up-scale alot of my home decor out of garage sale and clearance finds.

    Also, I don’t need a flashy car, but I drive 60 miles a day for work, as a female, and single mom, I NEED a VERY reliable car. My 6 yr old Nissan Sentra does the job perfectly…but I don’t think I could buy a $1000 clunker, I wouldn’t feel safe.

    But I do get the point of the article…you don’t need flashy or the best…it just needs to function. So, don’t go in debt for ‘stuff’.

  37. You say that “Student loan debt is (usually) good debt. Provided that you finish a degree program.”

    Let me add two other provisos:

    1. Provided that you make good grades: if you only manage a C = 2.0 GPA you won’t find a really good job upon graduation. A minimum GPA of 3.25 out of 4.0 is what you should aim for.

    2. Provided that you major in a marketable degree. Go online for the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook (http://www.bls.gov/oco/) to see what the outlook is for various jobs. Too many people spend 4+ years and incur a lot of debt and only then find that they’ve prepared for a low-paying career rather than a high-paying one.

  38. What is your position on home improvement projects? Is that still considered bad debt if it contributes to an increase in home value? (I’m not talking about small, incremental improvements – my home was built in 1968 and not updated since)

  39. I don’t believe there is a such thing as “good debt.” I will say that some debts are less bad than others, but that’s not the same thing as being “good.”

  40. I liked this post but like others bristled at the suggestion to buy a $1,000 clunker instead of borrowing on a more expensive car. Thank you but an inexpensive clunker will quickly bring you to borrow for repairs and rescue!! Ask me know I know!

  41. I gotta agree with some of the other commenters. I think paying for a 1,000 car is short-sighted. It might actually be more frugal to get a 10,000 car that last 10 years with minimal repairs then to get a 1000 car that will only last a few years and requires extensive work…

  42. Funny About Money– We use the push mower on our St. Augustine (about an hour and a half away from where you live). It is VERY important that the push mower is silent… because it isn’t 100+ degrees at 6am. And you have to do it once a week or it is too long to get cut. If it were me mowing I wouldn’t do it, but after 3 years of lawn service and 4 landscapers, DH did a lot of research and decided to give it a try– I said as long as he mowed the lawn 4 times with it the push mower would pay for itself. The biggest benefit is in the upper body muscles on DH… it completely gets rid of any need to go to the gym. We did eventually get a gas mower for when we let the lawn get too long (using the edger as a stopgap solution wasn’t very efficient), but DH prefers the push mower and the cool silent of the morning.

    Re: the car. My thought process is: You can buy any kind of car you want in cash, if you have the cash for it and are taking care of your other obligations (including retirement). Don’t get a beater just for the sake of getting a cheap car. If you NEED a car to get to work but don’t have the cash yet, then it is ok to take out a long on the minimum safe car that you can afford because the asset that is appreciating is YOU. Don’t go overboard and get a top of the line Mercedes, but if you want a new Hyundai Accent or a used in shape Honda Civic, sure, take out a reasonable loan on it. If you don’t need the car, then don’t buy one until you can afford to pay cash for it. And definitely make sure you’re not in that situation again by saving more in advance for the next car.

  43. I’d agree that it’s not worth getting a junk couch from goodwill. Better to sit on lawn chairs that you borrow from a friend until you can afford something you like… but it’s not worth borrowing so you can get Italian Leather either.

    And if you need a car to get to and from work, I would borrow enough to get something reasonably reliable, but a 5-year-old car that’s been well-maintained and was a good car to begin with (say Honda, Toyota) will get you from point A to point B a lot cheaper than a brand new one with the same name. And go small, go for the Corolla instead of the Camry. You’ll save money on the purchase now and on the gas later, and unless you frequently take adult-sized passengers in the back, you’ll rarely notice the difference.

  44. If you have good credit, take advantage of 6 months same as cash, even 18 months same as cash that I found at Best Buy when I needed a new television (old one croaked and service person said it would be too expensive to repair). I bought my gas leaf blower, my HP computer and that television all on credit that didn’t cost me any finance charges-yes, you have to be disciplined and set these up as monthly bills calculated so they are paid in full within the designated time period so as to not incur any finance charges. As for cars- I am a single mom with a 70 mile round trip commute to work. I have two reliable cars I switch out so as to not put a ton of miles per year on either one. The 2002 has 145,000 miles on it and I maintain it so it will be going for a long time. I plan to pay off my newer car this year, but with routine maintenance, it too should give me many years of service. I put extra towards my principal on the one car payment as well as my home mortgage whenever I can.

  45. Add my name to the list of those who think the $1000 car advice is really bad. In fact the person who wrote this said it better than I could:

    “I encourage you to think about the different situations people live in: from urban neighborhoods where safety is an issue and perhaps public transportation is not available; very rural places (like much of New York state, where I live) where having an unreliable car is not feasible since most people live more than two or three miles from where they work and public transportation does not exist.”

    It was worth it to me to take out a loan to buy a late model used car in order to get a warranty and to know that my car wasn’t going require $$$ worth of repairs or, worse, break down and leave me stranded at a crucial moment.

    There is such a thing as being foolishly frugal. And I don’t know of ANYWHERE where $1000 will get you a reliable car.

  46. The advantage of buying a home is that you can make changes and transformations to it, which you could do if you rent the place. By making these transformations, you increase the home’s value for yourself (and probably also for a future buyer).

  47. I understand about the car, but I grew up with buying used cars. Being ignorant, I bought cars that broke down. I now think I will always buy new. My current and previous car were new, and I paid both off early. The ex-husband got the prior car in the divorce. My current car is a 2001 Toyota at 93K miles, and I plan to be driving it until over 200K.

    I don’t buy a car thinking of resale. I plan on keeping it until it becomes unreliable. My time frame is not 6 years or so, but rather 15. I’d probably still have the first new car I bought which I let go in the divorce.

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