The (Not Very Well) Hidden Cost of Operating an Automobile

by Chris McGinty of

Most cars are reliable as long as
you maintain them. There are lemons, mostly made by Kia, but the odds are in
your favor that you won’t buy a lemon. When I say lemon, I mean a car that for
some reason can’t function for large sums of mileage without stranding you
somewhere. I’m talking about a car that has the same issue over and over, and
the fix won’t keep. I’m not talking about a car that has to go to the mechanic

Most of my adult life, I’ve been
a pizza delivery driver. This means that I’m largely unaffected by taking my
vehicle in to be repaired. I put more miles on my vehicles in three months than
a lot of people put on the entire year. It’s a cost of doing business. It only
really matters if the repairs start trying to outpace my necessary income.
No one likes paying for a car
repair. The downtime is inconvenient. It’s likely that there were other plans
for that money. Life would just be good if things didn’t break as much. I’m
just used to it. Back in the 1990s, I read an interesting fact. Based on tax
returns, the IRS estimated that maintaining a vehicle while delivering pizza
costs around 32 cents a mile. In order to adjust for inflation, and to make the
math easier, I use 50 cents a mile as a guideline. When I can look back and see
that I’ve driven enough miles to be below that average, it softens the blow of
needing a repair.
This is the hidden cost of owning
a vehicle, and it’s really not that well hidden. It’s like the kid in the hide
and seek game who can’t stop giggling. We all know it exists, but we try to
ignore it. The reason that the cost is seemingly hidden is because we can’t
truly predict how much repairs are going to cost. Before reading that IRS
figure, my hypothesis was that you should save somewhere around what you would
be paying for a car payment to go toward repairs. If you didn’t end up having
that many repairs, you would have money to buy a nice car after a while.
Now, I realize that it’s pretty
easy to estimate an overall repair amount over the course of a few years by
averaging the number of miles you drive in a given month and saving 50 cents
per mile for repairs. If you have a sustained problem for over a year of
running out of saved money then you maybe have a lemon, or you’re driving more
miles than you estimated.
Car owners must figure these
expenses as part of the cost of the vehicle, so that they don’t spend all of
their available funds buying the car and then not having repair money. Having
$2,000 set aside for unexpected problems during the first 4,000 miles that you
drive a recently purchased car is a good idea anyway. You might be able to get
away with not saving for repairs if you have a warranty and full coverage
insurance, but even then I would suggest saving for problems. Car insurance
companies have been known to not honor their agreements on loopholes, and Kia
screwed me over on the bumper to bumper warranty I paid for by not fixing an
engine that broke after only 35,000 miles. They blamed it on me, because I hadn’t
kept all of my oil change receipts. The two mechanics that I talked to said
that the engine shouldn’t have died that soon anyway.
When I first started delivering,
I never did anything preventative. It made more sense to me to top off my oil
than to get a small leak repaired. I drive a lot of miles though, and small
leaks become big leaks fast with big sums of miles. Once I prioritized keeping my
cars as close to optimal as I could, my cars have become more reliable overall.
Find a trustworthy mechanic and keep your vehicles in good running condition as
a budget item, so that your emergency fund isn’t nicknamed “the unforeseen car
repair fund.”
Chris McGinty is a blogger who
isn’t going to know what to do with himself when he quits delivering and drives
like a normal person.

Leave a Reply