You are not your car

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I was car-less for over a year, as I sold mine since I didn’t need one when I moved into the city. I lived in center city Philadelphia. I didn’t need a vehicle; I could easily walk to the grocery store (Reading Terminal Market) and to my bank (downstairs) and my friends were also within walking distance. Whenever I wanted to go home, I walked five minutes and hopped on the train, and within an hour I was at my parents house. It was the perfect logistical situation at the time. I felt free and I wasn’t tied down by the expense of a car. I didn’t have to worry about parking it in the city. Hang with me, there's an important moral here.

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When I moved into the suburbs, we chose a place that was within walking distance to my new job. 10 easy minutes and I was at work.

I still felt relatively independent. I could walk to work. I could sort of walk into the town center. I could walk to the gym. The train station was nearby, so I could still easily get into the city. And we ran larger errands together in his car.

But somewhere around six months I started feeling isolated. I couldn’t visit my parents when my partner was away. I couldn’t drive to my suburban friends’ houses. It was fine for a while. Then I hit a wall. I spent a week obsessing over what kind of junker car I could get to tide me over for a while, so I could drive myself to the surrounding suburbs and go to Target and stare at people and such.

I thought a junker would do the trick. I'd only be a couple thousand dollars out, debt-free, and I’d have transportation. It’d be magic!

I’m getting to my real argument soon, I promise….

I quickly realized that I’m not cut out for a junker car. It’s not that I have a lot of material pride (I really don’t) – it’s the fact that I didn’t want to waste time and money if it broke down or needed parts. Onward with shopping… I ended up wanting to lease a new car, and I found three entry-to-mid-level cars from three different makers.

Three cars. All sedans. Just about apples-to-apples. I negotiated the shit out of each car and got great offers from each dealer. I played the cold shoulder game – which, by the way, made me extremely uncomfortable, but I'm glad I did it – and then got the prices knocked down even more.

For the sake of this post, since comparing car numbers is complex, let me say one car would cost me $200/month. The second one would cost me $250, and the third is $280.

First, $200, $250 and $280 don’t seem like incredibly different numbers. But keep in mind I was going from a $0 car payment and $0 insurance to suddenly way more than that. While the cars I was looking at weren’t devastating hits to my monthly expenses, it was a hit nonetheless. $0 car expenses that suddenly increase to $300 to $400 a month for insurance and gas is a bit shocking. Plus, these costs added up over the course of a year:

  • Honda Civic: $200 x 12 months = $2,400
  • Toyota Corolla: $250 x 12 months = $3,000
  • Subaru Impreza: $280 x 12 months = $3,360

Guess which car I liked best. The Subaru Impreza. Best ride, best look, best color available. They play the exclusivity card too (claiming that Toyota and Honda are car making robots). I got attached to the Subaru pretty quickly. Granted, these are all pretty un-sexy cars, but being able to get the hottest out of the three was appealing.

I fought with myself for a few days. I kept telling myself my original goal was to get something – anything – so I could get around and not feel isolated in suburbia. And that restless feeling was also something I could get over by simply waiting until I had to get a car. So the car shopping was already a splurge.

But then I felt the allure of the most expensive option. It was shiny. Pretty. It beckoned my name. It was the most fun to say. “Soo-buh-roo” echoed through my mind in a whisper. Plus, it drove the best and had the coolest features.

The minimalist side of me wanted to beat up the consumer side of me. “You’re already making a splurge. Why are you suddenly in hot pursuit of the shiniest option?” I couldn’t shake this argument for a couple of days. Plus I was being really lame. The Honda was just fine. I just… you know… Honda. So maybe I should go for the Toyota. "We are a Toyota family after all," I reasoned.

My thinking kept going in circles like this for a couple more days. It wore me down.

Finally, I texted my mom and explained my angst.

My mom replies:

Depends on how much a car means to you.

She was right. My mom is a genius. She sets me straight. Just a few days ago I was considering buying a junker outright, just so I could get around. I was letting the consumerism spirit cloud my judgment. The clear winner was the least expensive car. (Turns out I fucking love the car anyway.)

So what am I really trying to say?

Let this be a lesson to you if you’re an angsty minimalist consumer.

You are not your car. Your car is what gets you around. If someone judges you by your car, you’re better off keeping your distance from them anyway.

I’m not saying that anyone who has good taste in cars is a bad person or a mindless materialistic consumer. That’s not what I’m saying at all.

My mom’s phrase says it all:

It depends how much it means to you.

Great. But what’s the bigger picture?

Here we go.

You are not your car. You are not your job. You are not your belongings, or your house. None of these define who you are.

You’re an individual first and foremost; a complex individual. If someone takes you at face value, that’s their problem. They’re just shallow-minded and quick to judge. Or, the thing they value so much doesn’t matter at all to you, and they can’t understand why it doesn’t. It happens.

Spend your money on things that matter to you. But just remember that you own these things; they shouldn’t own you.

If writing matters to you, don’t spend a ton of money on an amazing writing desk and a fancy chair and expect the setup alone to make you a writer.

If you’re a budding designer and you want the coolest, fastest laptop because that’s what your designer idols own, great. But don’t expect your fancy laptop to pay your bills for you. Buy the computer that will help you do your job. It's a tool, not a defining factor. It’s a subtle but important difference in mindset.

Necessity needs to come before desire. But sometimes the Wants outshine the Needs. And if you've experienced anything like I did when I was car shopping, the want-vs-need debate can be incredibly draining.

Just remember: You are not your car. You are not your job. You are not your belongings, or your house. None of these define who you are. You are an individual who just happens to own some things.

Cover photo by Matteo Paganelli