Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Money Train Fatigue

Eventually, people get tired of riding the money train.

In a long-ago post, I mentioned how teenagers get after-school jobs, so they can afford a car.  When you ask them why they need a car, they say, "to get to my after-school job!"   We expect that of teenagers, but many adults live the same way.

One gets tired of riding the money train - having to make money to pay for "things" and then have these things wear out, become obsolete, or just depreciate down to nothing.  (My smartphone broke today, so I am on a tear).

Prior to World War II, if you look at the car brochures of that era, you will notice that the styling of the cars changed very gradually - usually major overhauls were only every three or four years.  And this was at a time when auto technology was rapidly changing - from the Model T with its solid axles and mechanical brakes, to independent front suspensions, enclosed bodies, and hydraulic brakes (on all four wheels, no less!).

But after the war, particularly in the late 1950's, the car makers started changing the styling on a yearly basis, in some instances.  They realized that cars were more than transportation, but a style statement as well - your car said something about who you were.  And back then, even the most plebeian car make showed people in ball gowns and tuxedos lounging in the back seat.  Cars were all about glamour!

Well, at least they convinced people of that - for a while.  Between annual style changes and price wars, the "Big-3" slowly squeezed the independents dry.  But not before Rambler and Studebaker introduced smaller, less expensive, and less complex cars.  Combined with a recession in the late 1950's, sales of small cars took off - and sales of land yachts, such as shown above, tanked (if you'll pardon the pun).

Of course, the "Big-3" followed suit with their own small cars - the Falcon, the Chevy II, the Dart - and eventually Studebaker threw in the towel, and Rambler became AMC and struggled for another two decades before being absorbed by Chrysler (well, almost vice-versa, talk about two drunks holding each other up!).

What happened in the late 1950's was that people got tired of spending enormous amounts of money on cars that only lasted a few years before they looked dented, faded, and rusty.  People don't remember this, but a five-year-old car back then was junk - the seats were shredded (why do you think seat covers were so popular back then?) and the sheetmetal rusted through. Batteries, exhaust systems, brakes - all needed to be replaced by the three year mark.   It was costly to buy and maintain these land barges, and when the economy hiccuped, people moved on to something less costly.

So they bought a VW Beetle - something that, in retrospect, was barely a car.  But you paid nothing for it, drove the wheels off it, and bought another one.  But surprisingly, they lasted just as long, if not longer that the overwrought American cars of the era.  And since the styling never changed, there was no stigma of "driving an old car".  Yes, people are motivated mostly by fear and pride - psychology sells, not logic.

If you had a "good job" back then - or even today - you traded your cars in every three years or so (at least the automakers suggested such a thing) before "something went wrong" - like all the things I mentioned above.   The car dealer would make those repairs and then put your heap on the "OK Used Cars!" lot - and someone else could "buy your troubles".

Today, it is leasing that is sold to the plebes.  Get a new car every three years!  Just pay car payments perpetually!   And the same is true with cell phones.  Buy a new one every three years!  You "plan" gives you "free" upgrades!  Always have the latest and smartest smart phone to impress your brain-dead friends!

It is a good system - for the merchants.  But for the consumer, it means an endless string of payments, for life, to pay for "things" in your life.   Televisions last about three-to-five years these days, and then they go flakey and you have to buy a new one.  Why not?  The new TeeVee is half the cost of your old one, and one the same price is half-again as large.  The only exception to this rule seems to be smart phones, which keep edging up in price.  $500 was the first barrier, then $1000.  Today, $1200 or more is bandied about, if you want the "latest and greatest" phone.   Sadly, since they all look alike, you can't impress your friends, particularly if your case obscures the Apple logo (which is why some cases have an apple-shaped hole for display purposes).

I digress, but I put a vinyl bra on my car once - there are pros and cons about these, which maybe I will address in another posting - they seem to have fallen from fashion, anyway.  But for the BMW, they offered the bra with and without a little hole for the BMW "Roundel" to show through.  What's the point of having a BMW if you can't rub other people's noses in it?  I no longer own any BMWs.  It was fun, but the other owners were a real turn-off.  But I digress. Or did I?

The money train is frustrating - you get tired of spending and spending and spending, just to maintain things you already have.   You just want to buy something and keep it forever, without having to renew or replenish or replace it every so often.   But such is the nature of technology - and life itself.  The only "final" purchase you will ever make is a coffin, and even then, there are maintenance fees on your "plot".

I noted before that appliances have a design life of about 15 years.  Our house was remodeled about 15 years ago, so guess what?  Yea, we are replacing things, one at a time, every year, it seems.   When you buy a "brand new" house or condo, there are few "repairs" to be made for a decade or more, which can lull a homeowner into a false sense of security.  But once that honeymoon period is over, well, welcome to the real world.  Climb aboard the money train!

Of course, the easiest way to avoid the money train - as much as you can - is to live with less and choose simpler alternatives.   I cry because my $99 used smartphone died - after several years.  Imagine the anguish of dropping your $1200 iPhone and cracking the glass!  That's why people actually buy insurance on those things.   Hmmmm...... a good indicator of owning something too expensive for your income level - if you have to insure it.  Phones, cars, etc.  I mean, you should insure your house, of course, but one way to get off the money train is to own a secondhand car worth little and costing little to insure - if you insure it at all.

That is why people didn't buy many 1958 Oldsmobiles - or even Chevies.  They were expensive and overwrought, and people craved something simpler.  Of course, by the mid-1960's, the cycle took off again, this time people wanting "Personal Luxury Cars" or "Muscle Cars" or "Pony Cars" - all of which carried a higher price tag.   The small car craze took off again, with compact cars being supplanted by a new class of "subcompacts".   A crappy economy and high-priced gas, of course, goosed the whole thing.  But I think also, people just wanted basic transportation and not a perpetual drain on their wallets.  My parents could afford a fancy car, but my Mother drove a Vega.   Why give money to a car dealer, when you can put it in the bank instead?

It almost seems that you could make your whole life into a subscription service.  I buy new sneakers every couple of years (the same make and model!).  Why not just have them shipped on schedule, or better yet, lease them?  (of course, there is no residual value).  And the same is true for household appliances and whatnot.  We paid $5000 for a new central air system, which lasts about 15 years.  That works out to about $27 a month, if you look at it in terms of cash-flow.

Of course, some things last longer than others - failure rates follow a bell curve.   And how you use or care for things can help determine how long they last.   So, owning has an advantage over leasing or some subscription.   And in owning, you can decide how complex and how expensive you want to make the technology you use.   You can choose simplicity over complexity, durability over status.

Maybe we can't get 100% off the money train, but at least we can slow it down!