I see this question of repair or replace show up on in financial independence forums and it goes something along the lines of: “My car has 150,000 miles on it and there’s a $2500 repair, does it make sense to spend the money”? I personally replaced three cars around this time and I used to be in the discard/replace camp, but now my answer has changed. You might want to repair the car.
My first three cars were compact American cars that I drove well past 100,000 miles. Unfortunately in the range of 130,000 to 150,000 miles, the expensive repairs started piling up. The value of the car didn’t exceed $1,000, but the repairs often totaled that much. The financial thoughts started rolling through my mind and my internal narrative looked something like: How much more of this can I take? I’ve been driving this car for seven years. What if it strands me on the side of the road? Look at all this fancy technology I can get in a new car. These repairs could pay for three months of payments. Cars have a finite life and don’t last that long.
Enter the Honda.
In 2007 I moved on from compact American cars and purchased my first Honda. I bought Honda’s midsize truck and bought it new instead of used because of the small price difference between the two at the time. This vehicle was more than I had ever spent and I committed to meticulous maintenance to see how far I could drive it. The vehicle ran great for the first seven years with only one repair. Around 100,000 miles there was an axle issue that was my own doing. Our driveway required a hard right turn daily to sweep the car into garage and eventually that hard turn wore one piece down.
Shortly after 100,000 miles, it suffered a hard rear end collision from a mini-cooper sandwiching me in between two cars. I was sitting at a stop and hit by a mini doing about 40mph with no signs he ever attempted to break. His car was likely totaled and the Mercedes in front of me was totaled. My cost was on the fence between repair/replace. The rear end damage was not bad and the front was mostly cosmetic plus a radiator. Since I had an otherwise great vehicle with a known maintenance record, I chose to repair. The only unintended consequence of this choice was giving me that taste of new car technology in the fancy rental. The backup camera and satellite radio were convenient.
The 150,000 mile bombsell(s):
The truck was eight years old and the large maintenance bills finally arrived. The replacement radiator hadn’t held up leading to a four figure bill then subsequently the catalytic converter fails state emissions inspections. I was nearly $3,000 into repairs on a 150,000 mile vehicle. All those normal consumerist feelings came rushing back: Wouldn’t a fancy car be nice? Maybe I need “more safety!”. What if this car leaves me stranded somewhere? Should I keep “Throwing money into the car”.
There were all these new fancy models coming out. I was now a manager of employees and drove one of the oldest cards in the parking lot. That internal narrative started showing up: I work hard would tell myself! I’m the boss now and I drive the oldest car. What about my image? Don’t I *deserve* leather seats that heat for me in the morning? My peers drive things like a Lexus coupe, BMW sedan, new Toyota 4 Runner, and a classic Land Cruiser. I suppressed this narrative and reminded myself that my car is a tool to get met to and from work, not a status symbol.
Eventually these feelings pass and I keep driving the truck. Now almost five years and 70,000 miles later, there have been zero additional repairs. This photo below was a milestone moment in November of 2019.
The Importance of Maintenance
I started tracking the maintenance on the car consistently after 100,000 miles and have completed some preventive replacements like the water pump and timing belt twice. A sheet like this is helpful in two ways, one is to track your schedule and the second is to not be surprised by the upsell many repair/oil change places try to give, especially for items like filters that can be changed out with some help from YouTube.
|Water Pump, Timing Belt, Coolant, Spark Plugs||07/09/12||100,000|
|Oil Change, Rear Differential||08/23/14||146,500|
|New Radiator, Radiator Fluid||12/02/14||150,000|
|Oil Change, Tire Rotation, Transmission Service||01/03/15||153,500|
|Alignment, Steering Fluid, Brake Fluid, Battery||01/29/15||154,000|
|Oil, Tire Rotation, Cabin Filter, Alignment||09/02/15||165,729|
|Oil Change, Rear Differential||03/09/16||172,529|
|Oil Change, Tire Rotation||09/30/16||178,900|
|Oil Change, Airbag Replacement||06/01/17||184,777|
|Oil Change, Tire Rotation, Air Filters||03/30/18||196,934|
|Balance, Steering Fluid, Brake Fluid||04/15/18||197,400|
|Oil Change, Battery||08/01/18||202,000|
|Water Pump, Timing Belt, Plugs||09/12/19||219,538|
The truck has seen an incredible run from a radiator replacement that required immediate servicing at 150,000 miles until today at 222,222 without a repair. There has been no stranding me on the side of the road five years since having all those thoughts about reliability and *needing* a new car.
How To Get Over The New Car Desire
The appeal of a new car to me came down to two parts: Technology and appearance. I was never big into car technology, I bought a base line model and was happy to have fancy things at the time like my first vehicle with power windows and an automatic transmission. A friend recently showed me his new Tesla and the technology in that thing was somewhere between neat and completely ridiculous. (Does the car really need to blast Christmas music while opening its doors vertically?).
The only real burning desire for technology I had was connectivity audio with my phone so I could listen to podcasts. One $70 adapter and a friends help solved that problem for me. If there’s other technology you’re really looking for, check out this list of cheap car upgrades from the Frugal Engineers.
Appearance of the vehicle has always been important to me. When I was a working professional, I felt as if the vehicle was like part of my attire when I showed up to meet clients. Many people try to “look the part”, but for me it was “does this pass the binary test of acceptable”. To me this meant the vehicle needed to be well kept. Repair things that cracked, keep it from developing rust, and keep the interior relatively clean. The toughest of all of this was going to be the paint job. We always lived in the southeast and I lacked covered parking for most of my employment. The exterior and interior were left baking in the sunshine for some tough summer months.
I started noticing a little sun damage on the very top of the truck and through some quick research determined I needed to start waxing the vehicle. I turned to this inexpensive Turtle Wax Ice Kit (affliate link) and now do it three to four times per year after washing it by hand. I’ve seen minimal additional sun damage and now when someone asks how old the car is, usually the first response after I tell them is “wow, I never would have guessed based on how good the paint looks”. Interstate driving along with some bugs and rocks have left some small marks in the front, but a nice protective coating helps minimize the damage. I know my friends up north have additional issues when it comes to winter travel, but fortunately for me the car was only exposed to road salt 1-2x times per year and avoided for the last three seasons.
Just recently I forked over the money for new roof upholstery. It was purely cosmetic but thoughts of being the poor kid in high school came back to me when I saw part of the ceiling starting to sag. Financial independence gives me choices and I chose to have it fixed professionally instead of using thumbtacks to hold it up. It still feels wasteful for me to do since it wasn’t a mechanical issue with the car, but if it helps me get further along while suppressing the new car desire then it was worth it!
What Is The New Goal & Wrapping Up
I’ve had a moving target on how long to keep this car. At first I wanted to exceed the mileage numbers on my last vehicles. This meant getting ten years and then 200,000 miles. Now I think it can go for 300,000. We don’t have a regular commute but still use this for our car trips. If I can get another 78,000 miles and three years out of it, the Honda will be a great success.
If you are faced with the decision to repair/replace, its easy to think about the worse-case scenario. Repair costs and the hassle of dealing with transportation when your car is in the shop with no financial benefit over driving a new car. However, there could also be a best case: What if after one or two repairs then can get another five years without doing anything else? A paid off vehicle with low taxes and insurance costs might help you achieve your other financial goals. When you look at just how indebted the US Consumer is to their automobile debt, maybe we need a lot more repairs and a lot fewer replacements.
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