Everything I Needed to Know I Learned While Buying a Car

buying-a-carYou probably don’t enjoy buying a car, assuming you’ve experienced this convoluted trauma. Yet running the auto dealership gauntlet is informative: about yourself, whether you understand how relationships work, and your mastery of tough stuff like negotiation.

The schooling offered in the auto showroom begins with “curb appeal:” how the vehicle looks. All material goods offer the same criterion by which to judge them. We value houses, watches, and phones this way. First impressions don’t stop there, but continue with the physical appearance of everyone you meet, the sound of a new voice, the scent as you stand close.

You then peer under the hood of the car. Applying this to people, you get to know them, check for substance beneath the surface; evaluate the individual’s humanity, strength, and kindness or self-interest. At least I hope you do and thereby move beyond the dazzle of a stunning exterior. A pity if instead your head is stupefied by a gorgeous facade and you ignore a person of common appearance bearing treasures within.

The vehicle sales rep hopes you will be captured by his kindness and prone to an impulsive decision. He highlights the techno whistles and bells. Will you be lured by his siren song and dance? We all need resistance to a sales pitch, whether the seller is trying to unload a TV or promote himself.

Given an auto’s cost one can benefit from homework. Do you have the patience to perform the needed research or will you do what “feels” right? We face the war between emotions and intellect daily: between due diligence and slipshod judgment.

How dependent are you? Do you rely on others to make decisions? Friends and relatives have lots of opinions about cars and, if they are experienced and smart, such knowledge is worth considering. Best, however, to learn what can be discovered on your own as well as from expert advice: “own” the process by which you come to own the product.

The act of car buying shakes up some of us. We plead for a spouse or friend by our side. A successful transaction demands the ability to say “no” and stick to it — a test for many.

Decades ago my wife and I lived in New Jersey. Soon after our arrival our car was destroyed in an accident. We hoped to purchase a new 1972 Dodge Duster, expecting that we’d get a better price than on the just released 1973 model.

The first salesman we met counted on our being callow customers, novices in the veiled combat of car buying. The man told us he had the only remaining new 1972 Duster in New Jersey. Aleta and I understood there would be many more ’73 models than the 1972 Dodge we wanted, but we didn’t trust his report. He offered us a price, but we said no and began to walk out. The sales rep trailed us. As our closeness to the door increased the price of the vehicle decreased. We soon discovered dozens of available 1972 Dusters, the cars he said were as rare as a dodo, the extinct flightless bird.

There is power in letting people see your back. Wanting a thing less than the next guy usually gives you the upper hand in a transaction with him. So, too, in romance. Rhett Butler’s last words in Gone with the Wind offer an example of the attitude I’m writing about. Such a stance often elicits concessions by the counterparty in his effort to get what he wants from you. Generally, the longer you remain silent the more favorable the terms offered become. In effect, you can set most of the conditions.

When desiring a thing desperately we risk giving away the best of ourselves in the act of acquisition. Money is the least of it. Honor and basic human decency may be forfeited, as well. Among ancient philosophers, the Stoics gave particular emphasis to the dangers of becoming too “attached,” whether to objects, honors, power, or people. Buddhists make the same argument.

Self-possession, they would argue, is far more valuable than anything you can buy.

Some things in life are not worth the price you pay for them. As many young people have discovered, cars can be among those things. Sadly, the list of overvalued commodities, jobs, titles, high income lifestyles, and relationships is beyond reckoning. Beware defining your hoped-for future by a list of “must haves.”

As the knight guarding the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would remind us, “choose wisely.”

11 thoughts on “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned While Buying a Car

  1. So true Gerald. Although it seems the only way to aquire this wisdom is by being taken in a few times. It reminds me of how vulnerable you are coming out of the teenage years with all the dreams and idealisms of how the world is only to face the realities that most things aren’t as they seem. Adulthood is often just a rude awakening. It seems alot more dangerous for young one these days though and the implications even more scary. In the face of the recent attacks in France and in other places around the world our young people are being recruited because they don’t have the experience or ability to see beyond the shiny messages that are given to them. I know my 20s was just a fight for survival it was made worse because I was given no skills from my upbringing only trauma that made me even more susceptible. What I’ve eventually learnt has come from the school of hard knocks, I’ve learnt the lessons now but my goodness,the pain.

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    • Thank you, Claire. I’ve come to think that no matter how well parented we were, life still has things to inform us; and many of the lessons only come with pain and failure. This is in no way to diminish the damage of inadequate or abusive parenting. I am only saying that for some of the challenges down the road there is no ideal way to prepare for them. One hopes to become increasingly wise and, perhaps even welcome the new learning as time goes by. I can say (for myself only) that I’m grateful for some of the scars and even for the contact with those who inflicted the wounds, though I wouldn’t go back and give the people in question a pat on the back or volunteer for the same harsh duty! 😉

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  2. Great essay. My favorite part? Finding someone who knows what a Dodge Duster was. 🙂

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    • I’m glad to keep giving you laughs, Harry, however unintentional. Maybe I should have said we were shopping for a Model-T! Hope you are well.

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  3. I like this week’s post! “Some things in life are not worth the price you pay for them.” Amen to that! Problem is that it often isn’t until after the item is acquired (or achieved) that the realization is made.
    And thanks for the GWTW clip – LOVE that sound track and, of course, the quote is a classic.
    I hope you have an enjoyable holiday week – perhaps with the family including the new little Sir William — JT

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    • Yes, I’ll be seeing the little guy. Glad you enjoyed the post, JT. As I suggested (above) to Claire, the learning doesn’t come easy, just as you say. Thanks for your good wishes, JT, they are reciprocated.

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  4. I don’t drive, so I’ve never had to face the “convoluted trauma” of buying a car. I do, however, understand well your metaphor. These days, my weakness of “must haves” has become “must reads.” The list grows long.

    Now, I’m in the process of letting go of my attachment to the friends I’ve lost. It’s tough, this convoluted trauma of life.

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    • Thank you, Rosaliene. I have my own book list and, it becomes clear, I will have to live multiple lifetimes in order to approach the receding end of the list. Eternity might not be enough time. Another of the tough choices we face, but at least not one of the most painful. “Choose wisely” applies to us all.

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  5. I need to shop for a new car in the new year, but dread it. I’m usually a ‘jump in with two feet’ guy, but this time, I’ve already started the research….mmm…I wonder if I could start applying a similar principle to life… Nice post

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    • Sounds like progress, Cat. You can look at this situation as something to dread or recognize that you are actually in the driver’s seat, pun intended. There are tons of dealers and they want your business. By the way, the best time of the year to buy a new car is the very last day the dealership is open during the year. They want to make their sales numbers. The website put out by Edmunds can help you figure out very close to the best price you can get. Good luck and congratulations on your continuing progress.

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