The Problem with “Driving It Into the Ground”

I subscribe to the philosophy of driving a car into the ground before you replace it. I’m thirty five years old and over the course of my entire life (since I was sixteen), I’ve been the primary driver of only three automobiles – and the third one is going to last several more years.

With the first two automobiles, I literally drove them until the buildup of problems became completely overwhelming, leaving the repair bill for serious impending problems higher than the value of the car. In both cases, the odometer was at 200,000 miles or more.

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In both cases, I replaced it with a used car. I replaced my 1985 Buick Skyhawk with a 1997 Ford F-150 in 2003, then in 2010 I replaced the Ford F-150 with a 2004 Honda Pilot. I plan on driving the Pilot for at least five more years.

This policy saves quite a bit of money. My insurance rates on the vehicle are pretty low (it’s more than a decade old at this point, since it was manufactured in late 2003), which is the big savings point. I’m also enjoying a long period between car replacement cycles. I’ve had this car paid for since 2010 (we paid cash for it) and I won’t have to pay for another car until 2019 or so – that’s nine years without a car payment.

The “drive it into the ground” policy creates an interesting problem.

Part of the reason for owning a car is that it’s reliable – you can simply go out there and start it up when you need to go somewhere. After a certain point, every car begins to wear down and when sufficient wear begins to build up, parts break down.

This cuts right into that reliability – when the parts start breaking down, you’ll find yourself heading out to start the car, only to find that it doesn’t start or that some other disabling problem pops up when you drive it. When a car becomes regularly unreliable, then it’s time to move on to a replacement car.

When exactly is a car considered to be “driven into the ground”?

For me, when you begin to accept it as a given that your car might not start when you go out there in the morning and need to get to work (or get children to school), I consider that car “driven into the ground.” If you feel as though it’s more than a remote possibility that your car won’t start because of yet another problem, then you’ve driven it into the ground.

That’s more of a personal feeling than an actual metric. I personally view reliability as the number one thing that matters when it comes to an automobile, so when it loses that trait, it loses significant value in my eyes.

I also consider a car to have reached that point when you take the car to get repairs at a reputable mechanic and he/she suggests that you’ll be facing a bunch of repairs in the near future. If those repairs significantly exceed the value of the car, then it’s time to move on.

Here, at least, you’re relying on numbers. You can pull out the blue book value of your car and if the repairs are more than 20% more than the value of your car, then it’s probably time to move on.

In both cases, there’s usually some advance warning before you have to replace your vehicle. Both of these situations are precursors to the moment where you actually have to upgrade the car, giving you a month or two to shop around.

That, to me, is really the key to all of this. You do not want to wait until your car is completely unusable before you start shopping for a replacement. You need a little bit of time to shop around so that you’re not stuck simply buying the first car you find that’s available simply out of urgency. You might lose a slight bit of value by upgrading before the very end, but you’ll save far more by having some time to shop around.

Thus, when you practice “running it into the ground,” you should actually start shopping around when the warning signs are clear, not when the car actually fails. This gives you time to find a good bargain before you’re pushed up against the wall.

Look for the warning signs before the end of your car’s life and your wallet will really thank you.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.