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Looking for a shortcut to penury? Buy a car

Published: Monday, Oct. 8, 2012 12:30 p.m. CST

We’re buying a new car this weekend. I’m hoping the clunker we’re using for a trade-in doesn’t conk out before we get to the showroom, or drop its engine when the salesman opens the hood.

The “Check Engine” light comes on randomly; no one at any garage seems to know how to fix it. If it’s not lit up when we get to the dealership, do we have to mention it? If the shoe were on the other foot, would the car dealer tell us? The clown who sold us the car didn’t mention that the windshield leaks when it rains or that the muffler was 20 miles from falling off. It actually dropped off in our driveway, which was unexpectedly convenient.

We didn’t notice the stain in the backseat that has grown bigger and more prominent over the years. At first we thought the seat was being bleached by the sun; now we think a bloodstain is becoming visible again as the cleaning agent wears off. The only way you can open the driver’s side door is to roll down the window and pull the handle from the outside. They tell me a 29-cent part will fix that. But it will cost $300 to pull apart the door to install it.

We don’t expect the thing to have much trade-in value. According to the Kelley Blue Book, it could be worth $9,000, but that’s for a car with 50,000 fewer miles than ours that starts every time you turn the key. You’d think it would have some antique value. In 40 years, people will empty their IRAs to buy this sexy, 2003 vintage car with only a few dings. But in 2012, store owners wish we wouldn’t park it in front of their shops because it might scare away business.

Nine thousand dollars would just about cover what we’ve spent on the car this year. Sure, we should have traded it in last year and stuck someone else with this lemon, but that’s the thing — you never know. You start off the year by springing for a new radiator and end it by finding out the car needs a new $1,200 head gasket. In between, you’ve bought new tires, an alternator, an ignition coil, a catalytic converter and a horn.

And will we be trading in this piece of junk for a new car? You’ve got to be kidding. Who can afford a new car? We’ll be trading it in for a newer car with newer problems. Maybe one with a glitchy GPS or a paint job that will start peeling the moment we leave the lot. Maybe we’ll get another one that comes without a spare tire. Probably not; I’ve learned to check. But sometimes that’s not enough. We bought a car once that had a spare tire, only to discover, in a time of need, that it had no tire iron. I hope I never again have to spend three hours on Christmas Eve trying to flag down some help.

The sales manager will pull a credit report on us and then ask if we have any other sources of income. I will say, our investments. He will try not to laugh. The sales manager will whisper something in the salesman’s ear, and the salesman will walk us over to a 2004 Desperation and start describing its many features. They include a spare tire and a tire iron, in addition to a windshield, three out of four doors and a much smaller bloodstain than the one we now have.

I will almost be sold, but Sue won’t be so sure. “How’s the gas mileage?” she’ll ask. “Don’t worry about it,” the salesman will say. “It’s better than 90 percent of the vehicles out there.” And he’ll be right. Compared to city buses, RVs and monster trucks, it will get great mileage. And it’s not the gas mileage we should worry about; it’s the burning oil.

Jim Mullen’s newest book, “How to Lose Money in Your Spare Time — At Home,” is available at amazon.com. You can follow him on Pinterest at pinterest.com/jimmullen.

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