We Bought a Car for $200
I’m always a little afraid our site title will be taken too literally. We don’t claim to be “extremely frugal” or living at the poverty level. But if there’s one area we veer pretty far from the norm, it would be our vehicle purchases. Perhaps a good way of describing it would be “pretend to be a teenager.” Because who besides a student drives a $1000 car?
While I wouldn’t assert that everyone should follow suit, allow me to divulge the thinking behind the thrifty approach to vehicles that’s served us well into our 30s, carseats and all. Perhaps you’ll find something that will help next time you need a car.
Would foregoing car ownership altogether be the cheapest option? Yes! But this isn’t a good fit for many, including us. Instead we’ve tried to minimize what we’ve deemed a necessary expense.
Who Wants a Hooptie?
We’d been preparing to replace our rusty but trusty 2002 Focus for a while. This meant we had money in our car fund and Neil had his eye out for the type of car he wanted in the under $5000 price range. He was strongly considering flying south for a weekend and bringing back a rust-free vehicle. Before a free weekend materialized, his coworker told him that his neighbor wanted to sell a car for $500 max—a 2004 Scion that needed a clutch.
After contacting the owner, Neil got a ride from his coworker since the location was an hour away. Neil, usually a hard-core haggler, wasn’t trying hard to get the price down. Because it had some problems in addition to the clutch, the owner thanked him for taking it for $200. No, that’s not a typo. That’s $200–less than what most people pay for a bike or a stroller.
Neil got the Scion home without incident. He could replace the clutch himself for around $300, but that could take the better part of a weekend. A mechanic friend quoted him at $500 for the job and we decided it was worth it to outsource. (See–not extremely frugal.) The total for all repairs came to $800. So you could say we bought the car for $200, or spent $1000. Either way, it’s a steal.
Neil listed his other car on Craigslist and within the week it sold for $750. More on that below.
Uncommon Sense for Car Buyers
Having the option to buy a car for $200 is hardly reproducible but it wasn’t totally random either. I picked Neil’s brain and unearthed the secrets of a frugal car-buyer, most of which fly in the face of conventional wisdom.
- Don’t drive your car into the ground. While we believe in driving cars for a long time, but we don’t drive them into the ground–anymore. We jumped Neil’s 1985 Ford F150 twice on the 5-mile trek to the junkyard. Later we were a one-car couple for a month while searching to replace a dead car, the free totaled vehicle he restored and drove for years. This is when we bought Neil’s beloved 1990 Dodge Shadow, a $750 car he sold years four later for $500. My 1992 Brother still drives it. Most grown-ups (including us now) can’t tolerate the inconvenience of a truly dead car, and that urgency tends to spur people into overpaying for vehicles.
- Don’t pay for less miles. Not only do we not see the point in buying a new vehicle, we don’t see why we’d pay much more than $5000 for any vehicle. Beyond $5000, you’re most likely just paying for lower mileage. We actually prefer cars that have lived a good life 100,000 miles, at which point some major repairs have been done and depreciation drops off dramatically.
- People do notice you drive a clunker–and that’s a good thing. Getting connected with the $200 car wasn’t entirely random. A couple years ago, a different coworker had a car he wanted to get rid of. Neil bought it for $1800 and sold it for $3500. All he put into it was the price of the temp tags and about an hour’s work. Neil works at an engineering firm that employs lots of young grads who drive nice cars. He sticks out in his rusty 15-year-old vehicle. Being known as a scavenger/grease monkey is ideal when someone is looking to offload a hooptie.
- Less rust is worth it. If you work on your own cars and live where it snows, it’s worth starting out with a rust-free vehicle. Getting a $50 airline ticket somewhere south and driving back in a solid vehicle is a good idea if no one tries to sell you a car for less than the price of a bicycle.
- God provides. The timing of both cases of Neil’s two most recent vehicle purchases was uncanny. In the first, the $1700 profits covered the exact balance due after fund-raising for my India trip. In the second, we’d been actively planning how/when to replace the Focus. We’ve found time and time again that God provides in unexpected ways as we follow Him.
Car ownership is expensive, to be sure. But it doesn’t have to a $20,000 proposition. It doesn’t even have to be $10,000. You can save a lot by recalibrating your view of what a reliable used vehicle can cost. And how sweet would it be to never have a car payment again?
For further reading check out How I Spent Less Than $8k on Cars in 17 Years of Commuting.
What is your approach to vehicle purchases? Has your frugal reputation ever scored you a great deal on something?