What is a Beater Car? Should You Buy One?

When I turned sixteen, my parents bought me a ten-year-old used Ford Escort. After a stream of thank yous and lots of big hugs, I took it out for a spin. I hopped in, manually cranked down the windows, popped a tape into the in-dash cassette deck, and drove straight to my friend’s house.

Beater Cars

“Nice ride,” my good friend said when I pulled up. 

“Don’t you mean beater car?” her crotchety best friend mumbled under her breath. 

My happiness popped like a balloon. Beater cars are rusty, dented, and covered in peeling paint. They have windows that won’t open, broken odometers, and fuel gauges permanently stuck on empty.

“Beater car,” I repeated in my head. My new-to-me vehicle didn’t feel like a beater car. It felt like the best birthday present in the world.

What Does Your Car Say About You?

Do you judge people based on their cars? Many people do. When a minivan pulls into a parking space, do you picture a soccer mom sitting behind the wheel? Do you think rich people drive expensive cars?

Judging others based on the vehicles they drive isn’t unusual. We’ve all heard the stereotypes before. 

Status seekers drive luxury vehicles like BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Insensitive guys with big egos drive Hummers and lifted trucks. Soccer moms drive minivans. 

Environmentalists drive electric cars, hippies drive Volkswagen vans, and high school students ride around in beater cars and clunkers.

Why do we think this? 

What Does Your Car Say About Your Personality?

Cars represent who we are as well as who we want to be. While some drivers buy a car to get from point A to point B, others use their car as a form of expression. 

That includes making statements about their beliefs and values. My friend bought a Prius because she cares about the environment. As we drove around in her new car, she said, “I bought one, so others know I care too.”

Cars act as extensions of ourselves. We add bumper stickers to show our political preferences and favorite bands. Then throw on window stickers to depict the size of our family and the number of pets we own.

We even use stickers to display the intelligence of our prodigies. Ever see those school honor sticker badges on the back of the vehicle in front of you?

What Your Car Color Says About You

When choosing a car, color choice is often a big concern. Why? Because color defines our personality.

Risky drivers love the color red, environmentalists like green, and executives prefer black.

If you are fun-loving and joyful, you might choose a funky color like orange or yellow.

Drivers who own red cars are often energetic, attention-seekers. Tech-savvy, forward-thinking folks often own silver vehicles.

Do Women Judge Men on the Car They Drive?

In college, a good friend of mine believed women judged him based on the car he drove. “My friends with fast cars never have trouble finding dates,” he said, “but women don’t want to climb into my Geo Metro.” 

He asked me to imagine myself standing outside our dorm. “Picture two men driving by. One is driving a BMW, and the other is driving a beater car. Which one would you date?” he asked.

Although his vehicle ran without issues, he spent a year saving up money to buy a more expensive one.

When I polled my girlfriends, they said they cared about the cleanliness of a man’s car, not how much it cost. If they judged a man by his car, it would be less about the type, and more about trash tossed into the backseat.

Judging Someone By Their Car

But, I understood my friend’s concerns. It’s easy to judge people by the cars they drive. If they drive a nice car, they must be rich, right?

We judge each other for the cars we drive. We also understand that others judge us.

A neighbor who is a real estate agent drives a luxury sedan. “I want my clients to know I sell houses,” she said. “If I drive a beat-up old car, clients might not hire me.”

A small business owner told me the exact opposite. “I want my employees to believe I pay the highest rates possible,” he said. “My older car makes it look like I’m not skimming extra money from them.”

Another business owner disagreed. “I drive a flashy car, so my employees feel confident in my abilities.”

What is a Beater Car?

Beater cars, jalopies, clunkers, and hoopties describe run-down vehicles with thousands of miles clocked on their odometers. If you see a dented beater car racing up the road, you’ll probably do your best to avoid it. As my friend suggested, you might also refuse to date the person driving it.

Many people look at a high-priced car as a sign of wealth. Drive a beater car around town, and most folks will assume you can’t afford a better one.

Cars Are Not Indicators of Wealth

We place a lot of weight on the price of the cars we drive, but contrary to popular belief, cars are not indicators of wealth. Just because you drive an ultra-expensive vehicle doesn’t mean you own it. You could lease it or be so leveraged in car payments that you can’t pay for anything else. 

While the general population might think luxury vehicles signify wealth, most money nerds say the exact opposite. They’ll tell you the richest people own the least expensive cars.

Car Buying and Money Shaming

Many money nerds dismiss new car buyers and anyone buying pricey vehicles. They think you should purchase older, used vehicles instead.

Here are two recent money shaming tweets from social media:

  • “If you want to get rich, stop buying new cars.” 
  • “The reason I got rich was because I financed my car instead of paying cash,” said no one ever.

“Why plunk down a ridiculous amount of cash for a new vehicle when you can drive an old one for a whole lot less?” personal finance enthusiasts ask.

They also have a misguided belief that millionaires don’t buy new cars. I’ll let you in on a secret. I’m a millionaire, and four of my last six cars were new. I bought the other two from family members.

Should I Buy a New Car or an Old Car?

Why do financial enthusiasts hate new cars? They claim a new car loses its value the minute you drive it off the parking lot. That detail may be true, but new car haters are missing a vital fact. New vehicles are under warranty in the first few years of ownership.

A lot of dealerships throw in extras like free oil changes or air filter changes. That means you won’t pay for repairs for a while.

Newer cars also tend to get better mileage than old ones. My 1997 jeep sucked down gas like nobody’s business. I replaced it with a new vehicle that can drive nearly three times as far.

The Used Car Fallacy

It’s possible to find reliable used cars. It’s also possible to purchase a lemon. Car maintenance is expensive, and tire rotation, oil changes, and car repairs add up. 

When you buy a new car, you own a complete history of its maintenance records. If the oil needs to be changed, you remove the old sludge. If the tires need rotating, you take it in for service.

Most cars come with a scheduled maintenance list. If you’ve owned your vehicle since day one, you’ve asked mechanics to look at the list. If you are handy, you may have done the work yourself.

When you buy a used car, you can’t know how someone has taken care of it. If you haven’t owned a vehicle from the beginning, you can’t assume the previous owner has taken good care of it.

Can You Fix a Car Yourself? Do You Know a Trustworthy Mechanic?

Can you fix cars on your own? Do you know a mechanic who can fix them for you? If you don’t have a trusty mechanic, what will you do when your car breaks down? It’s easy to get tricked by mechanics who tell you to fix everything.

Saving money upfront on a car doesn’t mean you won’t shell out a ton of money after purchasing it. When you buy a used car, one fix can quickly turn into many.

Let’s say you spend $10,000 on a car, and something breaks. You take it to the mechanic who tells you about a $2,000 fix.

Okay, you think that’s not so bad, but as soon as you fix that part, something else breaks. Now, before you know it, you are shelling out another $2,000. What if your car breaks down again? Do you throw in the towel after spending $4,000? It’s hard to stop once you’ve spent thousands to repair it.

A car is supposed to get you from point A to point B. If a vehicle becomes unreliable, it can no longer fulfill that role. If it’s always in the shop, it’s failing you.

Buying a new car can have the same problems, but you won’t pay for maintenance in the first few years. Look for a reliable vehicle with excellent ratings from Kelley Blue Book or Consumer Reports.

Financing a Car Isn’t Always a Bad Idea

My husband and I tend to pay cash for our cars, but financing a car isn’t always a bad idea. No-interest and low-interest rates are a dime a dozen these days if you have good credit.

Money nerds like to avoid debt. I get it. I aimed to live mortgage-free as soon as possible, but now I regret that decision. I could’ve leveraged that money in more profitable ways.

Rather than shelling out thousands of dollars upfront, could you invest that money, use it to purchase a rental property, or better your finances in some other way?

Sometimes it makes sense to take out a small loan so you can use that money to accomplish a different objective. Don’t take out a loan to buy unnecessary stuff. Continue to live with less but make your money do more for you.

Buying a New Car

There is a big difference between buying an expensive, luxury vehicle and a beater car. You don’t have to go to the junkyard to pick up the cheapest car for next to nothing or buy the priciest car available. There are lots of options in between. 

Don’t buy a vehicle outside of your price range, but don’t turn away every new car option either.

Maintain Your Vehicle and Keep it For As Long As Possible

Let’s debate less about new and used cars. Instead, let’s talk about saving money by maintaining the vehicles we own. 

We purchase new cars and regularly change the oil, rotate the tires, and ask a mechanic to look under the hood for more significant issues once a year. We keep them going as long as we can, which saves us money over the long haul.

Understand Your Financial Goals

While it’s true that some people lease expensive cars they can’t afford, it’s silly to believe that everyone driving a high-priced vehicle shouldn’t own one.

Some people love their cars. Don’t let others dismiss your purchase if you love your car and can afford to buy it.

If you aren’t sure if you can afford a vehicle, review your other financial goals. Do you want to buy a house, save for retirement, achieve financial independence, or create an optional work life

If so, don’t let a low monthly payment for five years sway you from your goals. Don’t sacrifice your dreams for a vehicle that will decrease in value.

If you feel pressured to buy a new car you can’t afford, it’s time to walk away from the dealership.

Before signing on the dotted line, review the cost of the vehicle you want to buy. Could you buy a less expensive car that’s just as reliable? 

What could you do with the money you save? Do you need to pay down debt, rebuild your 401k or save for a downpayment?

Does Your Car Define You

Whatever you decide, try to feel confident in your choices. For decades my husband and I drove old beater cars and practiced stealth wealth. Then we bought new cars and felt the weight of being rich.

Don’t let your car define you. Establish your priorities and learn to be grounded in the things that matter most to you. If you are intentional with your money, it won’t matter which car you buy.

6 thoughts on “What is a Beater Car? Should You Buy One?”

  1. I’ve come full circle on cars. My first was new and financed, and I had to work hard to pay it off (early!) because I truly needed that loan. My next personal cars, not counting the ones I purchased for family members, were used and paid for in cash. I thought I’d never go back. So naturally here we are with a need for a bigger car and naturally the one we want that’s more environmentally friendly is new and I’m considering financing it which is cheaper than the taxes on selling off some stock. Inventory is incredibly low though so who knows when we’ll land that one. šŸ™‚ We’ll end up with whatever color they have that has the specs we need.

    But I did just judge someone for their car today. We were in a rich part of town and as I was in the street letting JB into the car, I noticed the car pulling up was a very expensive one and automatically braced myself for the usual jerk maneuver of the richie rich entitled jerks who typically drive cars in that price range. They always zoom you. This one actually waited at a polite and safe distance from me until I got back on the sidewalk. I was shocked!

    • Newer, environmentally friendly cars are much tougher to find on the used car market. It’s interesting how two people can perceive a car in opposite ways. One will think, “wow that person is rich, I should be like them.” The other will think, “that guy is a jerk who is going to speed past me.” But of course, both things can be true in different situations.

  2. Love the blog Jewels! Everyone buying a car should read your post. There is so much judgement over cars, but you’re exactly right – your car does not define who you are as a person. Keep up the great work!

  3. We drive older reliable and clean cars. When our daughter was attending private school, I felt a bit embarrassed about my car. Everyone else was driving newer fancy cars. As the months went on, I contributed financially to all the events and fundraiser etc but noticed some of the families were being too cheap (not frugal). There was a toy drive and I noticed that some of the toys were freebies from fast food kids meals. In the food events, they brought the cheapest possible store brands that I would never buy (for health reasons not money). It made me realize that we just have different values. I may drive an older car but I am happy to give my time and money to causes I believed in.

    • Thank you for this comment. I love the distinction between frugal and cheap. It’s important to save things for the things that matter to you. It sounds like you’ve done exactly that. Kudos!


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