Why Your Teen’s First Car Should Be a Clunker

Think back to your memory about your first set of wheels: the excitement, the anxiety and the freedom!  You could finally go places without your parents’ serving as your personal taxi service. 

Getting those keys in your hand is such a memorable time and a fun rite of passage.  When it comes to cars, quite a spectrum of choices is available.  On one end, you have the shiny new luxury vehicle and on the other end is the rusty clunker/jalopy category.  If you were like me, your first car was closer to a clunker.

The year was 1997, and this dual-colored specimen was my first set of wheels.  My driving excitement screeched to a halt and I wanted to cry when I saw that beater in the driveway.   The car was a 1980 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. (Keep in mind I was born in 1982 and horrified by the idea that my car was older than I was.)  My dreams of driving a sporty turquoise Neon or a candy pink Tacoma (which my father assured me did not exist) were shattered.  Instead, I would be driving a huge hunk of steel that looked like a cross between Driving Miss Daisy and something out of an early ’90s rap music video.  It came with an 8-track tape player, manual windows and a horn that sounded like an elderly lion’s final roar.  The nose of that beast seemed to be at least 20 feet from the driver’s seat, and it took everything I had to pull those 80-pound doors shut. 

It took me a while to warm up to that car, but after a few months, we became one.  I affectionately referred to the Cutlass as my Hoopty, G-Ride or the Bucket.   We got into all sorts of mischief together: running into mailboxes, knocking siding off my parents’ house and wrapping around poles in the grocery store parking lot.  We caused some damage here and there, but the Bucket never even showed signs of a scratch.   I even made a few upgrades like installing a cassette player and having it painted so that it was all one color. 

The truth is, the Cutlass was the perfect car for that time of my life.  I was a teenager with limited income from babysitting gigs and working as a grocery store carryout.  I clearly had limited experience behind the wheel and was prone to minor fender benders and frequent rear-ending incidents. 

Really, your car should match your lifestyle and place in life.  If my first car had been an Audi, I wouldn’t have been able to afford the premium gas those things require, let alone any repairs or ongoing maintenance.  And going “backwards” once you have become accustomed to a luxury is difficult.  For instance, if your first car is a brand new Lexus and you have to downgrade to a used Prius once you are on your own and it’s all you can afford, you have a tough pill to swallow. 

Start near the bottom of the spectrum and work your way up as your income and overall wealth increase.  When I went to college and upgraded to a 1992 used Pontiac, you would have thought I owned a Rolls Royce, the way I talked about that bright blue Grand Am.  I was so proud to have a “sporty” new ride and thought it was the best thing since sliced bread!  (It’s all about perspective.)  I still get excited about the heated seats and Bluetooth capabilities in the 2008 Toyota I currently own.  Every “new” car I have acquired has been a step up from the previous one and something I am proud of.  Help your kids “act their wage” by starting with an affordable used car and working their way up the spectrum as their income allows.

As a recap, here are the reasons all teens’ first cars should be clunkers:

  • They will destroy it.  A high probability exists that their first vehicle will be in numerous accidents (maybe even totaled) and will be the victim of neglect in terms of required maintenance.
  • They learn to appreciate what they have and what they can afford.  Remember, you want them to “act their wage.”
  • Humility and pride.  Driving that Cutlass was humbling to say the least, but every time I see that picture, I am reminded of how far I’ve come and I’m proud of it.

I am not saying that your kid’s first car should be reincarnated from a salvage yard or a dangerous bucket of rust, but starting near the bottom of the spectrum could actually be a setup for success in the long run.


Jamie Bosse, CFP®, RFC, is a financial planner at KHC Wealth Management. Jamie loves to write, travel, barbecue, watch the Kansas State Wildcats win football games and spend time with her husband, son and pet corgi.

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