My first car, a 9-year-old Ford I bought before my junior year in college, lasted me the two years I needed it to hold a part-time job until graduation.
Not bad considering I paid just $50 for the clunker, all I could afford. I also had to carry jugs of water in the car. Every five miles or so I had to stop, open the hood and pour water into the radiator so the engine wouldn't overheat.
After graduation, I sold the car for $35. I warned the buyer about the car's condition, but he let it overheat and die in the middle of downtown Miami three days later.
Caring well for our cars, my wife, Georgina, and I have had only five other automobiles combined in the 40 years since, from a red Volkswagen Beetle I bought new for $1,400 after I started working full time to our current silver Mercedes C-Class four-door sedan we bought in 2001.
Our mantra: Buy only cars we can comfortably pay for with cash, keep up with the maintenance and follow common-sense steps to make them last.
The Volkswagen Beetle, alas, was going strong after more than 130,000 miles before rains that flooded our street knee-deep ruined it beyond repair. Our cars routinely break 100,000 miles, except a Toyota Corolla we donated to charity in 2003 when we realized that, working part time from home, we did not need two cars.
Along with home ownership costs, buying or leasing more car than you can afford or need can derail your finances.
"Our family has withstood some potentially damaging events because we had lower expenses and higher savings than we would have had if we had bought the bigger house and the new cars throughout the years," wrote Nancy Howard of Dodgeville, Wis.
After paying off a car loan, the Howards kept their car a few years while regularly saving an amount equal to the car payments. They were able to make a bigger down payment on the next car and eventually buy one for cash.
The magazine Consumer Reports, meanwhile, found that, with proper care, many cars today can last 200,000 miles or more with few if any major repairs. An annual survey by the magazine found 6,769 readers with 200,000 miles or more on their vehicles, including 488,000 miles for a 1994 Ford Ranger pickup. (See the October issue.)
When comparing the costs of buying and keeping a car for 225,000 miles over 15 years with buying and financing an identical model every five years, Consumer Reports found savings could be more than the original purchase price, and even greater if the savings are invested.
Buying a car with a good track record is, of course, important, and the magazine, which is published by the not-for-profit Consumers Union and does not accept advertising, names several Honda, Lexus and Toyota models as good bets. But the magazine article and a Consumers Union news release also emphasize our make-them-last strategy.
Among the advice: Follow the maintenance schedule in the owner's manual (skipping even one oil change can damage the engine and accelerate wear). Use only parts and fluids meeting manufacturer specifications (we do while also shopping around for the repair and maintenance shop with the best combination of price and service). Check the car yourself from time to time, looking for fraying or cracks in belts, and cracks or bulges in hoses. And wash the car regularly, not just for looks but also to help preserve the paint and keep the sheet metal below it from rusting.
Humberto Cruz is a columnist for Tribune Media Services. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.