I’ve been thinking a lot lately about socio-economic class. It started when we took my wife’s van in for repairs two weeks ago. The mechanic reported that it needed $600 in brake repairs, $1800 in A/C repairs and, in his opinion, the transmission might go out soon. He advised us to just get rid of it because it would cost us more trouble and money than it’s worth in the coming years.

We bought this van, a 1999 Plymouth Grand Voyager SE, new, and due to a one-time economic windfall, we were able to pay off the loan when it was less than two years old. We had driven our previous car (a 1988 Chevy Nova, which was basically Toyota Corolla assembled at a Chevrolet plant) for 12 years and 180,000 miles. It looked like hell, but ran great. We had planned to drive the van this long, too.
When I weighed the economic data, I was willing to keep the van: after all, it would need about $8-10K in repairs in the next two years to equal payments on a new van. That sounded like a reasonable bet. Besides, I reasoned, millions of people drive vehicles in a similar or pooer state of reliability, and they manage.
But Katie had other concerns: that having the van in the shop frequently would be a hardship and that the van would leave her and the kids stranded on the roadside. I couldn’t argue with the former point, but I questioned her about how horrible a roadside break-down would be: after all, she has a mobile phone, she just drives around town without me, etc. She finds the prospect pretty scary: as a man, she stated, I just can’t understand how vulnerable a woman feels. I agreed, I probably can’t. (To be fair, this is a sanitized rendition of our discussions; they were much more tense and difficult than portrayed, as we each tried to understand the different way of thinking of the other).
After considering all issues, we decided to buy a newer van (we bought a 2-year-old bottom-of-the-line Honda Odyssey, which is reputed to be much more reliable than our Plymouth van).
But this got me thinking about the type of people who buy a new car every few years and those who drive older cars. Previously, my view of those who buy a new car every few years was pretty one-dimensional. But now I see more depth to the issue. In addition to making it clear that they (we?) have enough money to drive a newer car, these people are also buying (the feeling of) security and convenience: I have enough money that I don’t have to deal with the issues that come with driving an older car. It seems like a pretty expensive purchase to me.

Categories: Intellectual