Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Math for the Masses

When I was in grade school we used to have to do Word Problems in math.
I hated that stuff.

"A train leaves New York City at 11am travelling 70-mph, and another train leaves Los Angeles at 3pm, travelling 50-mph. What time do they serve lunch?"

Who the flip cares?
Put me on the red-eye to LA, and I'll have the rib-eye tonight.

I have used Algebraic equations to solve everyday problems at work exactly ONCE in my lifetime since graduating from school. Maybe it was just the way the Word Problems were written...

So I get this e-mail this morning from a sweet, sweet lady at church, and it’s for a website where you can punch in your zip code to find the cheapest price on gasoline. Fill-Me-Up.com, or something like that (not the real URL).

How important is a couple-cents’ difference in the price you pay at the pump? I’m not talking 30-cent/gal variations—no one’s going to ignore that—but how many of you will drive past a station selling fuel at $3.14 to look for gas at $3.11? That’s a 3-cent/gal difference.

Let’s suppose you fill-up with 15-gallons of fuel…that 3-cent difference in the price nets you 45-cents on the purchase. If you drive 5-miles to save three cents on the price of a gallon of gasoline…you’re actually costing yourself $2.52 to drive the extra difference.
Plus the time and irritation of another 5-miles worth of traffic.

We have allowed ourselves to become caught up in the mythical, mathmatical mindset that a few-pennies saved can make our day—and that’s not wrongheaded thinking. However, you cannot become overwhelmed by that one aspect—cost per unit—and make all of your decisions based upon that sole perspective.

Same thing when you’re considering whether to get rid of the car you’re driving and trade up for a newer, snappier model. The car manufacturers are really insidious about making you think you need to buy next year’s model this week…and I admit, this is one of my personal weaknesses.

I love new cars.
I love the smell, I love the tightness in the steering wheel, I love to hear the soft purring of a freshly-assembled engine with only 5-miles on the odometer. And I will sit here and tell you all the virtues and attractions of the next new car, because I am a car nut.

I should go to Automobiles Anonymous meetings…
Hello, I am Brent.
I am addicted to cars.

If they had a 12-step plan for weaning me off the new-car addiction, it might include this mental exercise (which is not too unlike the word-math problem we went through on gasoline prices:)

If your car is paid for, and still runs safely, you’re probably better off sinking a few hundred dollars a year into it in maintenance expenses than going into hock up to your gill slits for a show-room fresh model.
Do as I say, not as I do.
I am guilty, guilty, guilty, of not following my own advice sometimes.

Look at it from this perspective: If you’re not making car payments (the average monthly payment in America is somewhere north of $375/mo for an average term of 63-months) you should be able to afford $100 for a new battery, $500 for new tires, $400 for a new brake job…let’s throw in a new, crack-free, stone-pit-free windshield for $275…over the course of a year.

Do the math: $4,500 for a year’s worth of car payments vs. $1,275 for the maintenance list I just suggested. Add $100 for a good hand wax to restore your automotive self -esteem.

If money is no object, go ahead, take the plunge, and drop 5-G’s a year for new car payments. Remember—the most expensive element of car ownership is not the operational cost, however. You take the biggest hit in value when you drive that new buggy off the lot, often owing more than the car is worth fifteen minutes after you seal the deal at the dealership.

I still like new cars, though.
Not quite reformed…yet.

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