Sunday, September 28, 2014

On giving into adult peer pressure and buying a car

My worst nightmare came true. When I decided I would move to a bigger city with a “kak” public transport system, I had to make peace with the fact that I had to buy a car. I had always hoped I would stay in a small town that didn’t really require a car (only just as a luxuary) or I could be anti-establishment and try to live without a car: shun consumerism and save the environment one taxi ride at a time. But my plans were thwarted and I took the plunge and decided to buy a car.

When I look around, it seems everyone approaches this part of their life with much ease. I envy people who inherited cars from their mom, dad or grandparents. My girlfriends and I always spoke about getting cars but in a casual non-committal sort of way. It's the adult thing to do. And I don’t know what it’s like for guys but I’ve decided that it’s way easier; the same way there isn’t much anxiety about getting a drivers license. Cars aren’t a mystery for men. Growing up, I knew few women who actually drove  or even owned cars so cars became the thing men did and women tagged along. (I've never seen my mother drive)

My disdain for cars also came from a secret I harboured: with the salary I have and the responsibilities on that salary, there’s no way I could afford a car. And the expectation that I must indeed have one in spite of this slight hinderance gave me heart palpitations. It felt like a cruel joke: people ask “when are you getting a car?” and I knew the answer wasn’t allowed to be “when I get a better salary” or even better “when I don’t have to contribute a chunk of my salary to my mother”.

So for the first two years of working I decided I would rather travel than save for a car. The first bit of money I saved I blew on a trip to Mozambique. I knew I couldn’t have it all like my friends with corporate salaries so I decided to make a trade off: a car or travel? And I chose travelling. I blew my first bonus on a trip to Kenya the following year. After the trip in Mozambique I was surprised by a conversation which made me realize I would make a somewhat major life choice: I had decided to move to Joburg and immediately I started thinking about the logistics: when? How? What would I do when I get to Joburg? Teach? Study further? So first I decided to get my drivers license.

I started saving hoping to buy a cheap jalopy sometime during the year. I would practice driving in Cape Town so I wouldn’t have a seizure when I stall in the middle of Jan Smuts Avenue in Joburg. I didn’t realize how little I know about cars until I started getting specific with friends. I knew the basics: if you don’t have enough money, vehicle finance is what most people do. Getting a car on credit is quite normal but also outs your social class in a huge way. It says “I’m normal: I want things I can’t afford and my parents couldn’t afford to help me out with a starter pack”. I was also grateful to find out that AVIS and most car rental companies sell their cars so I went for the AVIS option.

I don’t remember if I ever had a dream car (my few attempts at being anti-consumerism). A car is an object I wasn’t willing to spend too much energy on. It’s a possession that loses value as soon as you sign on the dotted line. So I knew I wanted something simple, basic and didn’t attract any attention or say anything about me at all: I didn’t want it to be an extension of me. I didn’t consider fuel consumption or whether it’s fuel consumption friendly. I didn’t know how long I wanted the car. I just wanted a car.

AVIS responded immediately after I sent them forms and documents(a day and a bit is too quick in my world). It all happened too quickly. Within a day I knew I qualified for vehicle finance. The biggest sham ever! On my current salary, there’s no way I can afford a car. I guess they make the decision based on credit. Money I don’t have. I made the decision based on my salary starting in January next year and the savings I had so far. My heart broke every time I considered that the money I saved so studiously would end up buying a car and not go into some other long term investment

And then the jargon began. My communication at AVIS was rerouted to the sales rep and not the administrator who processed the paper work: payslips, certified copies of this and that. I started making lists and ticking off all the documents as I went I along. An email from the sales rep told me good news and made me realize I had to ask questions: “your finance has  officially been approved with no residual with an estimated instalment @ 12% linked R2650 +- including warranty and service plan and smash and grab”. She offered to find someone who would help me with insurance quotes.  She told me I had the public holiday to think about it. Think about what? I didn’t know anything about residual and 12% linked. I asked around. I was also getting loads of advice from everywhere: ask about the service plan, ask about the warranty, ask about the accident report. And every time these questions were posed I felt like I was making the biggest decision of my life. Deciding on a career or degree of study wasn’t as stressful and that determined my future in real measurable terms. Why was there more pressure when buying a car?

The questions were sent in bits and pieces and I outed myself: I’m a first time buyer who has no clue what is going on. I assumed that people think like me: a teacher. Either assume the kids know nothing about what you’re talking about or start from what they know and build from there. It turns out this basic principal only applies in the classroom. In the real world people assume you know everything.

I then went onto the Hippo website. The Hippo adverts on tv were always lost on me: why compare insurance prices anyway? Because everything is a potential scam! Everyone is trying to squeeze as much money out of us as possible and the more na├»ve you are, the better. The website was helpful because it gave me a sense of what to expect when I eventually got a call from someone who would give me more quotes. I saw the words “excess” on the Hippo website and I didn’t know what that meant. It turns out, for every claim I make with the insurance company I would first have to pay money. But what about all the instalments I would have made already? The excess is supposed to be a deterrent from claiming willy nilly. The remaining lessons at school on Friday were a blur. I had heart palpitations every time I thought about the car and the word insurance made me queasy.

After school, the car arrived and I went for a test drive. I did a pit stop at AVIS and finally met the people who had bombarded me with emails. I realized as I had the face to face conversation: I probably should have done my homework a bit more. I decided to be a victim and blame all the friends I kept asking who gave me half-hearted advice or worse, advice in instalments. The thought of prolonging this trauma and doing more homework gave me a sleepless night. I was up until 2am looking at other car websites. I didn’t know what I was looking for. Some people told me to look a bit more. Look for what?

I think I’ve decided on the deal. It’s not my dream car but it will do the job for the next few years. I haven’t dealt with the trauma of what buying on credit really means: I will eventually end up paying more than the price I saw on the website. The system is flawed and how much room is there to find the ideal situation? What is the ideal situation when buying a car? I still resent the fact that I need a car. But the whole process has been a rite for passage. I can already see the next stress with the car (assuming there are no accidents, the breaks don’t fail, I don’t burn the clutch, the fan belt doesn’t start screaming and whatever else it is that ruins a car): how long will I keep it for? Will I trade it in? Will I be able to sell it?

I’m not anymore car savvy than when I began this process. I just feel a little more like an adult. After a 40 minute conversation with friends I realized, perhaps I should have read a little more. Perhaps I should have waited one more month. Shoulda, coulda, woulda! Now I have my heart set on having transport options from this week onwards. I don’t have to take the taxi or bus if I don’t want to. I probably will, to save and not have to worry about parking when I get to school. I don’t have to bother people with asking for lifts anymore. I don’t have to worry about carrying stuff next time I go grocery shopping.

I have given away a fraction of my soul because buying a car is a necessary evil.