Keep the Clunker — Until You Can Afford Cleaner Transportation

Mar 16, 2018 | Harmonize Family Life Ways

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Never spend your money before you have earned it.

Thomas Jefferson

In this chapter of my book, I sing the praises of paid-for vehicles. Do we all want electric vehicles (EVs) we can plug into our home’s solar panels? Of course! Personally, I can’t wait to use sunbeams to transport myself to the grocery store. But many of us, especially those of us raising kids in a falling empire, don’t have that kind of cash. Going into debt for a home is one thing, but borrowing for a machine that quickly depreciates in value or might be a lemon or might, heaven forbid, crash? To be avoided like the plague, in my opinion.

I advocate keeping ugly, paid-for gas guzzlers until cleaner transportation is affordable—without the car loan ball and chain. These days, many EVs are about the same cost as gas ones (round of applause here!) and you can find used ones more easily now than ever. If, like me, you can’t even afford those $6,000 used Nissan Leafs (leaves?) because you’re paying college tuition or medical bills or any of those things people in civilized countries like Canada don’t pay for, keep your gas guzzler. Better to drive a clunker and have time to dethrone the bullies in power than get a second job or loan to pay for an EV—and never have time to revolt.

I drove my gas-guzzling, soccer-team-hauling 7-seater Toyota Camry for a decade while lusting after a Prius. Last year, I found a great one used and handed over the $4,000 we’d saved. It’s not my EV dream, but climate-wise, it’s still better than my clunker. As I write this, I’m saving for an EV—and solar panels to fuel it.

Meanwhile, my husband carries on with his three decade love affair with a two-door, 1983 Toyota Starlet. Take a peek at how “Scarlet” is powerful enough to haul soccer players, patio furniture, and concrete, yet carries my husband to the best campsites in Oregon—sometimes after slipping under fallen trees. And not only is she 100% paid for—no one ever tries to steal her!

If you have . . .

An old, paid-off car: Keep it. Maintain it well. Save up for a cleaner car, watching for used EVs or hybrids or, soon, used e-trucks and self-driving cars.

Interest in buying an EV: To compare the average emissions of EVs versus gas and hybrid cars, visit (with older kids) the Union of Concerned Scientists interactive website. Buy used, if you can, to minimize producing more cars.

No car: Stay that way, if you can. See my “Swoon over Family Biking” chapter and rent cars for trips. Try car-sharing or transportation services such as Zipcar, Lyft, Turo, or Uber. To compare these services, see the Clean Fleet Report. Read the Carfree with Kids blog for advice on how to thrive with kids—and without a car.

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