Monday, June 11, 2012

The Prius Puzzle: a case of mistaken identity

I have driven through trailer parks marveling at all the nice-ish cars parked in the driveways.  I mean, who got their priorities screwed on backwards at the factory?  Buy a real house, a real investment, you nimwits!  But no, instead you all spend money on shiny cars. Be like us! I wanted to tell the trailer-park people - Buy a house and drive your grandmother's Oldsmobile!  (P.S. I cried when they towed it off!  I cried?!) We bought our first house in Pullman, 1000 square feet and a postage stamp yard for $88,000, 20% down (thanks to a "lucky" car accident (that messed me up) partial payout that came in days before we closed and a family loan), and we were paying $550 per month, total. Cheaper than renting a place with a yard!  So I was a little snide about the trailer park down the road, filled with cars way newer than our Olds.  Ignorant Idiot Trailer Parkers, get what you deserve.  Okay, I probably wasn't that harsh, but a little of that was inside me.

Ah, but I was the ignorant one.  I'd never needed a car loan, so I didn't know a thing about why they had the cars they did.  And now I know.  I was the idiot.  But it turns out I'm not alone!  A LOT of people are ignorant.  This is why we are fielding so many shocked questions about our newish Prius.

OMG Idaho plates!  Did we get the wrong car?
Prius! Sarajoy! Aren't you always kvetching about money and your lack thereof?  Aren't you always worried, nail-biting it, every month a question mark?  Isn't your financial theme song "Living on a Prayer"? For Pete's Sake you don't even have a WORKING oven!  Where are your priorities?  What you SHOULD do is buy another rag-bin car, another junker because I know (somehow with my powerful judgmental thoughts) that's what you can afford and that's what you deserve. Why would you do such a foolish and ignorant thing as to get a Prius, the car of elitists, latte drinkers and the wealthy educated elite liberals and the elitist elites?

Oh, criminy, do I really have to deal with these questions?!  Apparently, yes.  So deal with them I will, thoroughly. I'm getting a little defensive now, so I might as well have it all out once and for all.

Frankly, we are educated, I like lattes and we are liberals (turns out I knew, by name, AT LEAST half the people in Spokane's Pride Parade on Saturday! Including the Grand Marshall, the Other Grand Marshall, the entire corporate Sponsor or Marshall or what-evs (our church), half the Planned Parenthood marchers AND the politician entourages AND Blue and Huck who were marching in support of our gay friends (Coyote didn't feel like marching, so we watched, someone has to watch or it's not a parade, right?)- our church is at least 70% lesbian, I believe.).  Anyway, everything but the wealthy part is there.

Apparently the Prius has some cache.  Who knew?  Common Assumptions made by many liberals themselves: we got it just to make a statement, it's new, it's expensive, it's financially irresponsible, and we should have/could have purchased a junker.

So let's deal with this all bit by bit.  First:  I make myself talk about money and about not having it sometimes for a reason. I'm not complaining, whining, begging for donations or anything else our society assumes about people who worry aloud about money (and sometimes that is true of money kvetchers and sometimes the people who whine the loudest have WAY more than the people who are just trying to grin and bare it).  Talking about money is a conscious choice for me. I hate the way our society makes it a big old TABOO and I think this taboo is why so many family finances collapsed during these last few years.  Everyone was fronting, pretending to have more than they did, buying things they couldn't afford, just to look good, to fit in, expensive cars, houses way beyond the price range of a sensible loan, crazy loans that people tried to talk us in to too and I was all: And then what happens in five years? The crap-ola hits the fan-oli!  We felt like we were the only ones who were broke, a student-family on food stamps (but yes, buying a house too!) with the g-ma car, while all our friends maxed out credit card after credit card and bought brand new cars.  It was lonely.

But now, I am happy and comfortable, everyone is owning up to spending limits.  Now, lunch with friends might turn in to a walk because someone admits to not being able to afford a meal out that week..  That wasn't happening a few years ago.  So that is why I talk about money, I want to be honest.  And it only isolates us all to pretend we have more than we do.

I also want to say that we are broke a lot of the time because we did buy a house outside our price range. It was a decision that was fabulous and made perfect sense in every way but financial.  I do not regret it. And I take responsibility for it, but I am not going to pretend it's a barrel of monkeys.  It is difficult some times.  And that is just how it is.  I say this precisely because I am not in denial about it and I don't need to you "open my eyes" to the reality.  I'm very familiar with it, thank you.

You may think, as some have suggested, that we're just bad at managing money.  Au contraire.  We may not have a lot, but every penny is managed to the hilt.  I should be appointed to run the entire country's finances based on my expertise and my understanding of a dollar.  And my credit score is close awesome, and I only bring that up to give you an token of objective analysis that I can point to as evidence that I'm not suffering delusions of money management grandeur and that our heads are not up our financial assets.  Not that there have never been snafus or miscommunications between Huck and I resulting in an over draft once or twice!

So, here's the situation I now understand that the trailer park people already knew. (DISCLOSURE: I AM trailer park people.  My father used to manage a trailer park. I grew up in a double-wide in Marietta, WA until I was six or so .  And I lived in one in Glenallen, Alaska as an independent 18 year-old "adult": a tiny single-wide, half-length, rated for Malibu, rusty, pink trailer with no phone (I didn't have car either but hitch-hiked all over).  The pillows froze to the wall every night and you couldn't flush until the blow-driers (which were duct-taped into place on the pipes) had run for at least half an hour in the morning. So there. I'm not as elitist as you think!)

Step one: Do not have enough cash on hand to buy a running clunker when your old one breaks down.

There's a possibility that in the near future it will be important for both of us to have two reliable cars we feel okay about kids riding in, so clunker wasn't going to work, even if we did have $2000 somewhere.

Step two: Go to credit union and get pre-approved for a loan.  The credit union has very clearly defined parameters for what they will finance and what they won't: title, mileage, etc.

I cried and the sky cried with me
Step Three: Park your butt on Craigslist for almost an entire week.  Discover that most of the cars don't fall within your credit union's parameters (which are more generous than a standard bank's) and so you are forced into buying something shiny and nice-looking.

So, as you can see, even buying a clunker requires a certain amount of liquid capitol that we just didn't have which brings us to the surprising revelation that you kind of have to have a lot of cash to buy a clunker.  So we tried on a bunch of cars and test drove ourselves insane.  It's not like comparing apples to apples or even oranges. It was like comparing kumquats to cheese wizz because each car is a different year, a different make, gets different mpg, and depending on miles will have a different interest rate.  We had spread sheets covering the kitchen table and the living room floor.  (When I say "we"  what I mean is that Huck went to work in the car and I stayed home and over-analyzed the hell out of every available vehicle, through Consumer Reports and internet sites and loan calculators and all our spread sheets.)  And just on the off chance, I ran a car through this system, a car that I've envied since they came on the market - the earnest, goody-two-shoes Prius.  And this is the surprising thing I found: a used Prius is more than a used Corolla which is more than a used Pontiac (okay that's not so surprising!).  But comparing their gas mileage, the Prius turns out having an equal to or lower out-of-pocket monthly expense than any lower priced car that would satisfy the bank's demands.  A Prius, with conservative estimates, will save us $70 per month.  Given that I drive 20k miles a year, twice as much as those estimates are based on, it will probably save us more.  This brings the monthly out-of-pocket for an '05 Prius into the "under $100 range" and NO other car meeting the Credit Union's criteria could do that.  Maybe, maybe within $10, but then I'd have an '05 Pontiac with 140,000 miles on it.  So put that in your elitist pipe and smoke it, suckers!  Maybe that's a little too in-depth a financial analysis for this blog, but hey, if I didn't tell you, you would have made assumptions just like I used to, just like everyone else has.

So, after test driving a few and trying to negotiate a price, I finally found one in Pullman that was worth the drive and the price and boy is she a pretty thing.  My new Prius is silver with a dark gray and wine interior.  It is in the best condition and was the cheapest price of any that we looked at.  But yes, we did have to drive to Pullman, kids and all, 1 1/2 times (dear Pullman friends, I wanted to call you up, but these trips were kind of really late at night). And now it's all done and she belongs to the credit union, but she's parked in my drive way.

But the other thing the "bank" made us do is to get an emissions test.  The emissions-tester-ladies were all laughing when I drove in.  "What the hell are you doing here?!  By law, a Prius doesn't have to be tested!  We don't even know HOW to test a Prius!"  Listen ladies, I said, my bank is making me do this.  And after conferencing for forever, they finally figured it out.

And just in case I was under the delusion that owning a Prius would save the planet and be all good for all god's little critters, fate needed to show me otherwise.  I ran over a squirrel with it this morning.  I've never hit an animal ever, (except for once this cat jumped out of a bush and hit the side of my car.)  But I didn't completely run over the squirrel. I ran over the wrong half. It would have been better if I'd hit its head and killed it instantly.  But no, I just ran over its hind legs and watched in the rear-view mirror as it army-crawled into the ditch.  This was just the end of the bloody, gory, animal deaths-gone-wrong weekend we've had - and later, I promise, when I feel a little stronger, I'll tell you the worst story ever about putting down a cow.  But for now, lets just leave it with the squirrel and my non-elitists Prius.


  1. Started reading this because I really wanted to know why and how you bought a Prius to replace your olds - I sincerely hoped there was a story. For reference, I drive an Audi - I like that it makes people think I'm successful AND artsy, but I actually bought it used at a phenomenal, Providential value.

    But, my concern here is how long your article is. I just got through the first bit and thought, "I have to get back to work."

    I do want to finish reading your post soon, but please remember that whatever your rational and justification and your own Providential story, it's just a thing. Despite the temptation, things just don't need that much explanation.

    In fact, I don't doubt that you had to explain your Oldsmobile more often to your neighbors, your mechanic, your family, than you will this new machine.


  2. Dear Andy,
    You are right! This is a long post. I do try to keep my readers somewhat in mind as I write, yet my blog is also a special place, unique to me, where I get to give to the world what it is I want to give that day, without expectations, sales quotas, word counts, specific "readerships", etc shaping my work. Here, I have a right to be exactly the person I am without the menial demands of the world coming first (Same reason, incidentally, that I attended Saturday's parade! I love it when people get to be themselves.) So if I am long winded at times, se la vie.

    The other wonderful thing about blogs is that they aren't performances or church services. With blogs, you are welcome and entitled to read thoroughly or skim as you wish, quit in the middle and go back to your life, take a bathroom break, whatever. And I'm not offended.

    Except that I don't need to be scolded or lectured for not delivering to you today precisely what you needed in the format you wanted. That is simply not within the parameters of what my blog offers.

    As for it being too long winded for just a "thing", literature burgeons with "things" as doorways to concepts. My Prius explores ideas about class, stereotypes and misguided social norms.

    I stand my it, length and all.

  3. Another note: I just remembered I also lived in a trailer park in Columbia, S.C. for my senior year of high school! How could I forget that fabulous turn of events!

  4. Sarajoy, I love your blog. I read it religiously, which is one of the very few things that I do religiously. I also want to tell you that I love our Prius. Of course, having gone to college precisely so I wouldn't have to know how to repair my own car, I decided a long time ago that it was a better use of my time and energy to buy a car that was dependable and pay the price, which amounted to a premium for peace of mind.

  5. Rocci, Thanks for your comment both here and on Facebook (where the love for this post did not appear dampened by its length!) and your endorsement of our decision! I think you probably went to college for more than just not having to do your own car repairs!



Related Posts with Thumbnails