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Driving What You Deserve

The Quest to Find the Perfect Used Car

by Ellen Penski

The Rolling Stones, Tattoo You, compact disk slid out of the cd slot in the car stereo. One more thing my seller forgot. I found the baby shades, the pacifier, and the lipstick from the glove box before Keith Richard’s and I drove away. After ten years of driving around in my light blue 1989 Toyota Celica, from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, I had finally done it. I bought myself a younger Subaru Forester from California. This was not an easy feat. Not financially, logistically, nor even emotionally.

I work for myself as a freelance writer and business consultant. Every first of the month I pay myself a salary and hope for a new contract to replenish my stash. A few months ago one arrived promising enough money to buy a car outright, “pre-owned” of course.

“Get a loan,” my brother advised. “Money runs cheap these days. It’s worth the interest.”

In my mind I’d have 25% more bills each month.

“Take the money that you would have paid to the seller,” my brother continued, “and put it in for automatic withdraw. That way, you’ll still have cash for the ‘just in cases’.”

Convinced that a loan was the right way to go, I started the borrowing process.

Over the telephone, my banker and I reviewed each step. “To verify your income,” she said, “we’ll need to see your employment check stub, or you can bring in last year’s income tax forms.”

Problem. I don’t get a check each month. And, thanks to my accountant, my earnings from last year were too low to even warrant a Dreamsicle from the local convenience store much less a car loan. I suggested to the woman that she take my 1099 forms, the official tax documents from the corporations I consulted with. These, along with my excellent credit rating provided the go ahead for my loan.

Next, logistics. I knew that I wanted an SUV type of vehicle with a hatch back, large enough to put my bike in, and small enough to get good gas mileage. I settled on the Subaru Forester for its comfort and longevity. Using the Internet and the classifieds I started calling.

The first sellers, a married couple with a new baby, wanted to replace their car with a roomier mini-van. I asked for the year, mileage, and condition to get a baseline price before going for a test drive. With the husband at my right, and his toddler in his car seat, I nervously skirted around the block, worked the brakes, and checked the air conditioning before returning to their house. I went inside and offered 10% less than their asking price. They immediately refused and sent me on my way.

That same afternoon I stopped at a dealership to view a really low priced silver Forester. When I asked him why so low, he opened the driver’s side door and showed me the repaired damage. “But it has a great new paint job,” he pleaded. Not for me.

Another dealer kept me for two hours. With four different lots, we spent the first twenty minutes looking for the car. Once inside for a test drive, we stopped for gas. At the station, I opened the back hatch and almost broke my neck as the liftgate came crashing down on my head. Even though they offered me a fantastic “out the door” deal, I said no.

For over a month I called, test-drove, and plotted my options. I even started to look in other cities. Emotionally, I wasn’t ready. Nobody was going to decide for me that I deserved a new car. That I had to do for myself.

Instead of believing that I was getting older and more responsible, a friend suggested that I think of the car symbolizing my successful and fun life. I worked and reworked the numbers to calculate the exact impact on my spending. “I can afford this.” I’d say to myself to build trust in my income-making capabilities.

I let go of my Baby Blue, the Celica that brought me to California, the one that leaks from the sunroof, splits at her interior seams. The one that I knew exactly how to pack and when to refill. I became annoyed at the obnoxiously squeaky brakes that yell louder in the early morning dew and get irritated by the pool of sweat around my waistline from no air-conditioning.

And then came the fancy party at a Country Club. I spent the afternoon showering, painting my nails, applying make-up, and hot rolling my hair. I ironed my Thai silk scarf, reserved for special events. With dress pressed, shoes strapped, and my Balinese beaded purse in hand, I walked out the door and down to my rusted, low-to-the-ground, rattling, old vehicle. Deflated, I opened the car door, got in, and realized that this Cinderella deserved a new carriage.

The next day I drove past the first married couple’s house. The Subaru still sat out front. I secured my magic number, the number that I would pay and still feel satisfied. It was higher than the first, but still lower than theirs. The husband asked if I wanted to buy it. “I’m still having a hard time with the price,” I said.

I learned how much a months worth of diapers cost. They learned that I’d have to work three days to cover the difference they were asking. Both in the same situation, we watched each other’s actions, the rocking of the baby, eyes towards the ground. I picked at my fingernails, she sighed then continued chatting. I moved to the edge of the couch. He made a lower offer. A little bit more, I suggested. More silence. For forty-five minutes we played the negotiating game before coming to my magic number.

I picked my car up today. We immediately drove to the car wash, Mr. Richards, my Pretty Panther and I. That’s her new name, my powerful and fearless black cat. Baby Blue has graciously stepped aside. She sits on the street leaving the parking space for my new car, the one that I deserve.

Ellen Peneski currently serves as President of EEPConsulting, a firm specializing in customer service solutions. She has just finished her first book in the Road Map Series.

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