I Don’t Need a Bigger Car

CC BY 2.0. Brett Neilson

I'd rather be snug than in debt.

When my husband and I were expecting our third child, countless people asked when we’d be trading in our 2006 Toyota Matrix for a minivan. Our answer? “Never.” This confounded many people. The family minivan (or giant SUV or pickup truck) appears to be such an inevitable outcome of having children in North America that nobody can wrap their heads around not going that route.

Instead of dropping $30,000 on a new van, however, I spent $30 on a compact booster seat that allowed two school-aged kids to fit on either side of an infant car seat. Several years later, the three kids are still in that backseat. It’s highly convenient. I can reach in easily to buckle up the youngest; nobody has to climb up high or walk way back; and the older siblings are close at hand to pass around snacks and entertain each other. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Mr. Money Mustache argues that the key to growing rich is living as efficiently as possible, which means choosing a car (if you need one at all) that’s optimized for whatever you’ll use it for the most. In other words, it’s financially irresponsible to spend thousands of dollars on a large, powerful vehicle whose purpose will rarely be put to use. One should focus, rather, on purchasing the least amount of car required to fulfill a task.

So, for my family, a small hatchback is sufficient for grocery store runs, visits with friends, and going on weekend camping trips. Our extracurriculars do not involve a load of equipment (another conscious decision), nor do we concern ourselves with transporting other people’s children (an absurd justification for taking on the financial burden of a large vehicle). Sure, we might be squished for a few hours sometimes, but that’s OK. I’d take that sensation any day over a suffocating car payment.

Matrix trunk

© K Martinko -- Trunk all packed for camping trip

On rare occasions when we must transport more than our family of five, my husband and I drive separate vehicles. Our other car is an ancient four-seater Acura coupe that’s excellent on gas. And if we had to haul a very great amount of stuff, we would rent a truck for a day.

There are creative hacks that add storage or make space in existing small cars. For example, you can add a roof rack and buy a carrying case for those family vacations, or add a cargo rack to the back of the vehicle. (Mr. Money Mustache made his own back box. Details here.) Add a trailer hitch and buy or rent a small trailer to haul bigger loads when needed.

My family hasn’t done any of these things yet. Instead, we reduce the amount of stuff we carry. For example, this past weekend, we went camping for two days and fit everything in the trunk, with room to spare. There is a tendency for belongings to fill whatever space you’ve got, and I suspect a family in a minivan would be just as snugly packed as we were because they’d travel with more stuff.

Another benefit of having an old small car (with roll-up windows, manual transmission, and not even a USB connector) is that, admittedly, it takes much of the pleasure out of driving. That’s a good thing! Why make something more appealing if we’re striving to do less of it? As a result, I’m more inclined to get the kids on their bikes to run errands around town.

In an interview with Tim Ferriss, Mr. Money Mustache said that $10,000 is a reasonable maximum to spend on a vehicle; it’s enough to get a good quality used car that will last years. The challenge, of course, is resisting the temptation to buy new. In a moment of idealistic weakness, my husband and I put down a (refundable) deposit on the Tesla Model 3, and while we haven’t canceled it yet, we’re increasingly certain that we will. It’s impossible to justify such an outlay of money on a car, of all things, when something smaller and cheaper (and even electric) can do the job just as well, for far less money.

But that’s far in the future, since my little Matrix continues to chug along just fine.