Chapter 16 – Transportation Expenses

“Cars are lousy investments; they never rise in value. ~Suze Orman

In the last chapter, we discussed the difference between fixed and variable costs and how budgets can help you track those. We’ll use the next couple of chapters to discuss various expenses. The first variable expenses you have almost total control over are your transportation expenses. Your first opportunity to influence control over transportation is the necessity. You have control over how much and what type of vehicle you need, or if you need a vehicle at all. The farther and more frequent you drive, the more reliable of a car you’ll need, and vice versa. Some people don’t use a car at all in locations where public transportation is readily available.

How much you should spend on your car? The vanilla, certified financial planning advice recommends the 20/4/10 rule.[1] This states that you should make a down payment of at least 20%, finance a car for no more than four years, and not let your total transportation expenses exceed 10% of your gross income. Another popular vanilla advice is the total value of your car should not exceed half your yearly income.[2] So if you make $50K a year, you should look for a $25K car or less. The most I’ve ever spent is 17% and my most recent car purchase was 8% of my gross annual income. It’s important to live within this framework or below, because making the wrong transportation decisions, like the majority of America does, can literally cost you millions. Check out this article in the blog, Modern Personal Finance, where the author shows you how continuously financing new cars can cost you millions.

The appetite for buying cars above our means is strong, and car dealerships and banks are more than happy to loan us the money to satisfy our appetites. The default rate is lower on auto loans than any other type of loans. As such, banks will even allow you to roll over loans above the value of a car by establishing negative equity. This is where you owe more than the car’s worth, and the dealer tacks more on top of the new car loan. For example, when he was 26, the author of the Chain of Wealth blog, bought a $30K car tacked with the $20K negative equity making him $50K in debt for a $30K car.[3] This seems like a high amount of negative equity to me, but the total authorized amount of negative equity for 2018 is $5,100.[4] States have various laws controlling how much can be rolled over each time you trade in a vehicle. This rolling over negative equity is a major contributor to the all-time record high for auto loan lending. Total American debt keeps reaching all-time, records highs at $1.22 TRILLION, at the end of the fourth quarter of 2017.[5]


A big decision for many of us is to decide between buying a car outright or financing a car. My focus is not to help you make that decision, but just provide useful information, because there are too many variables. Plus, like we’ve discussed in many chapters, there is a behavioral aspect to financial decisions. Some people really like cars and keep them as their life’s major focus. For a good article about buying a used car, check out this article on the Hungry Being blog. Additionally, here’s 5 tips on how to buy a car from a former salesman on the Get Rich Quick’ish blog. Most people recommend the following order: 1) Purchase a reasonable used car in cash. 2) Finance a reasonable used car using the 20/4/10 rule. 3) Purchase a nice car outright, not to exceed 50% of your gross income. 4) Finance a nice car using the 20/4/10 rule.

Buying a car outright isn’t always the best return on investment. As we’ve discussed many times, all financial decisions come with an opportunity cost. Check out this article on why the author of the Win at Life Finance blog loves his car payment.  In the current low-interest rate environment, he’s able to get a higher rate of return on the money he invests than he would’ve if he bought his cars outright. As long as the return on investment is greater than the interest on the loan and the car’s depreciation, then investing the money can be a better investment. Cars depreciate quickly, and it doesn’t make sense to spend money on maintenance costs while also paying down a car loan. Banks now offer a 7-year (84-month) loan. According to, the downside of these loans are a greater cost over time (more interest paid over a longer time), depreciation (9% percent immediately, 20% one-year later, 63% by 5 years), and paying for repair issues while still paying for the loan.[6] Like I said, there are too many variables for me to help you make a personal decision.


There are three ways people typically buy or finance a car. The most common method is to go to an auto dealership or its internet site. Auto dealerships are typically owned by franchisees. According to the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), the average franchise cost is $11.3 MILLION.[7] Most dealerships offer new cars directly from the manufacturer and used cars of all types. They buy the used cars when you trade them in or at special auctions. In this case, the dealership makes profit, and the manufacturer makes money.

The next most common way is to sell it yourself, known as a private purchase or peer-to-peer. Under normal conditions, sellers can get more money by privately selling a car versus a trade in at an auto dealership. You can see the price differences by going to Kelley Blue Book ( and compare the Private Party Value to the Trade-In Value. Selling cars on websites is also becoming popular. is the most commonly used website to sell cars privately. In this case, because of the rapid depreciation of cars, the seller doesn’t necessarily make a profit, but he or she receives money in exchange for the car.

These used to be the only two ways to purchase cars until Tesla Motors began selling luxury electric cars directly to consumers. This caused major controversy at the federal and state level, with many states banning the practice altogether. In 2015, the Federal Trade Commission supported Tesla, a new startup company called Elio Motors, and the direct sales model; however, also recommended regulating it closely. The FTC concluded, “Absent some legitimate public purpose, consumers would be better served if the choice of distribution method were left to motor vehicle manufacturers and the consumers to whom they sell their products.”[8] In this case, the manufacturer profits from the sale.

We’ll explore the auto industry in more detail in future chapters. The auto industry faced a crisis in 2008 at the same time as the housing market. Exactly like the banking industry, the auto industry consolidated as big companies bought smaller or struggling companies. We’ll explore the auto industry family in later chapters.

Automotive Family Tree

To implement the 20/4/10 rule, you need to track your expenses to ensure you’re not spending more than 10% of your annual gross income on transportation expenses. Some people confuse not having a car payment with saving money on transportation expenses, while they spend more than 10% of their gross income on repair costs. Here’s the current financial genome.

Chapter 16 – Financial Genome Project