When I turned sixteen, I had roughly $1,000 saved up with which to buy a car. Obviously, my biggest concern was what is the cheapest thing that can get me on the road? Reliability wasn’t a concern at all – I mostly wanted it to drive back and forth to school and to some extracurricular activities. I looked at several very low-end cars – many of them for sale by their owner – and carefully examined the pros and cons of each option. Mostly, my worry revolved around which one could provide about 5,000 or so miles of driving at the cheapest price.
In the end, a family friend gave me an old car of theirs as a sixteenth birthday gift. It wasn’t running, but it needed just a few hundred dollars’ worth of repairs to get it on the road again. I used the rest of the money for gas – and even though the car only ran for a few years after that, it served its purpose quite well.
When I purchased my next vehicle, a 1997 Ford F-150 pickup truck (purchased in 2003 – I spent several years without a vehicle, actually), my biggest concerns were low price and hauling capacity. Given my lifestyle at the time, I had constant need for the ability to haul all sorts of things, and I was mostly concerned about getting that hauling capacity at a low price.
What happened? Without a doubt, I was able to do plenty of hauling with that truck. However, the truck’s reliability has been highly suspect since day one, breaking down along the side of the road several times – and more than a few times, my kids were in the truck with me. A few of those times, the situation wasn’t good – tears and blankets were involved and bad dreams were the result.
Thus, the next time I was involved with a purchase, reliability became a major factor in the purchase, whereas before I wasn’t nearly as concerned about it. I was quite willing to pay more for that reliability because, for me, not stranding my kids along the side of the road is much more important than if it were just me.
Having young children naturally prejudices me towards buying cars with better reliability numbers and cars with lower mileage. I assign more value to those factors because of the current situation in my life. At other stations in my life, the values will be different. For example, if I have a small farm in ten years, the value of hauling capacity will go up substantially for me, while high-mileage reliability will be somewhat less important.
How about this example? A single person focused on their career is likely going to look for different factors in a washing machine than a person with a large family. A large family is going to be more concerned with large load capacity and reliability. A single person won’t need the large load capacity, but may seek quick washes and minimal water use.
It’s easy to run out the numbers on any major purchase and figure out what the best deal would be over the next ten years based solely on those factors. But those numbers rarely tell the whole story.
How much extra is a reliable car worth if you have a sick child at home?
How much extra is a smaller footprint on your washing machine worth if you have a tiny apartment?
How much reliability are you willing to give up to get a car for $1,000?
There is no exact answer to any of these questions because of the uncertainty in life and the varieties of personal experiences and situations.
There’s only one real solution when you’re making a major purchase. Figure out what factors really matter to you, do the research on those factors, and find the best deal with those factors in mind. It may be that your conclusion as to what constitutes the “best deal” differs greatly from someone else’s opinion – but that’s fine.
True frugality is not about finding the cheapest item – it’s about finding the best value for your situation. The trick is to figure out exactly what is valuable to you (and not necessarily to others) – and that’s not always easy. It’s a key part of really finding the best deal when you’re doing the research for a major purchase.