We took it as just so much more enemy venom when Nikita Khrushchev said the Russians didn’t have to fight the United States because we would spend ourselves out of the “race.” Enemies are always wrong; who would believe a character like that?

Take a gander at the national debt and balance of payments deficits if you have the stomach for it, but I’d like to get on to the subject of individual finances and the many wage earners who are paying too big a portion of their salary for cars, boats, bikes and the never-ending parade of new essentials, with interest thereon.

Back in 1927, Will Rogers had this to say about the Easy Pay set-up, which was already becoming a big deal:

“This Country right now is operating on a Dollar down and a Dollar a week.

“First payments is what made us think we were prosperous, and the other nineteen is what showed us we were broke.”

I’m in that uneasy age group which saw the minimum down payment change from one-third to naught down on automobiles, with payments becoming extended to four or five years — making it easy for the person on a modest income to obligate himself to pay the price of a small farm on a car that might be melted and made into several Datsuns before the term of payments was finished. A rush of progress, of buying — buying everything.

Most of you have seen how vehicles take one to work, school, vacation or just cruising — thrills of motion, prestige, to see and be seen, new car smell. At least a few have gotten the picture of how cars also take a person to the cleaners, to the divorce and bankruptcy courts. Incompatibility frequently means that the couple cannot pay for his super pick-up with all the goodies ($8-9,000), while paying for all the household essentials they had to have.

Here are some examples. A good friend, during the ’74 energy crisis, traded his big shiny beloved Buick for a Toyota. He later traded the Toyota for a Plymouth stationwagon with every extra imaginable save mag wheels — back into the big comfort and convenience, out of the toy jitneys (dropping a few bucks on the deal, of course) . . . until after awhile he got to brooding over the 8.5 mpg.

There he was, in a remote area, with an $8,500 investment (not counting the little ripoffs by dealers in previous trades) in a nice big wagon which was not a hot seller as a used car — no sporty name, no foreign flavor, so the only alternative he saw was to “trade up” to a Volvo stationwagon, at about $10,500. Not a lot of dough to some people, though it sounds like a fortune to me. I could buy a good camera, five acres of scenic land, a couple of good cars, a used piano, and still have money left for some gasoline, a subscription to Fur-Fish-Game, and a gross of sparkplugs from some discount house. Ten thousand dollars just to go from A to B, while bragging about getting 24 mpg on unleaded.

He’s a retired businessman, and can afford most anything he wants and pay cash. But, try those same trades on a young couple with one or two modest incomes during somewhat rampant inflation with no end in sight — at interest for most of the price. Economy, like hell! $8,000 in 48 installments would be $166.66 each month, plus a minimum interest charge of 12% . . . add maintenance expense, the price of Pampers, plus all the other things one needs besides shiny cars: food, clothing, and shelter; plus microwave hair dryers (His & Hers); plus all those things being invented and brought back in style.

At current prices in Yuma that $10,500 would buy about 17,500 gallons of high-test gasoline, which would propel my Paid-For Ford about 280,000 miles, at only 16 mpg. S-u-r-e it hurts to watch that frenetic dollar meter run up past $12 while the leisurely gallon register rings up 18 gallons; however, there is a bit more to the cost of owning and operating a jalopy than how far it goes on a gallon. Interest is a biggie for most and insurance has already become prohibitive. Don’t forget warranty services, which assures you that the dealer is going to charge you double the price of parts at automotive supply houses, and at least double the price of oil.

So, let’s drive the Paid-For and the Volvo 280,000 miles — the Ford at 16 mpg, the Volvo 24:

Paid-For Ford    17,500 ga @ 60 cents    $10,500
Volvo                        11,666 ga @ 58 cents      – 6,766

Savings, favor of Volvo                                       $3,734

At that rate you would need to drive the economy car nearly three times the 280,000 miles to “save” the purchase price. Picture the car, or you, lasting that long.

I apologize to those who altruistically think only of the impending end to our fossil-fuel binge, and base their buying and living habits on that eventuality. Sure, I’m going to get a car that burns less gasoline, and that unleaded, but not to the tune of $7 - 8,000 bucks by duping myself on some mythical savings. When the old car gives a last gasp I’ll buy one with the prestige worn off — old enough to keep me from getting “warranteed” or “serviced” by the new car dealers. I’ve seen too many farm laborers sporting about in new Monte Carlos, while not having enough income above payments to make a down payment on a six-pack of tortillas.

Another personal story, but true. A woman weighed down with debts and a baby from previous marriage, working for about as little as the law allows, does the Vows with a disc jockey who rakes in the fabulous sum of $600 a month, on which he plays Mr. Splendid in an Audi. On that overrated item he often pays $175 per month by skipping his house payment. Imagine having almost the snob value of a Mercedes plus saving all that gasoline. Keen gearshift, too — a real hooray economy set-up!

Yeah, picture who buys the diapers, milk and plastic essentials and you’ll realize why grandmothers look older and act meaner than is justified by their age.

Then comes time for a tune-up at $115, while the most I’ve paid for the same service to my LTD was $34.50, because it hasn’t been to a car dealer since I bought it. I asked the car rental company to toss the warranty in their trash can. A breakdown of your fancy foreign car in a remote area might see you becoming mayor before parts arrive via Hoboken.

I used (1962) to have to listen every day to a character who never ceased singing the praises of his Mercedes, until the clutch “went” . . . gloom was with him that day and our ears got a rest from the glories of his car. He still talked a bit too much, but of other things. The clutch job was $235 as opposed to around $65 for the same work on an American auto. What priced economy can a person afford?

Since nobody asked, my advice on foreign cars is to avoid them until such time as you are financially and otherwise situated so that you do not have to depend on them. Could you walk or ride the bus while waiting for a dock strike to end at Los Angeles or Newark so they would off-load your new carburetor? Seems to me a more germane question than gasoline mileage alone. Leave the snob cars to the wealthy, the pretenders and the business people who live out of inventory.

The tiny foreign cars are cute toys for adults but I do not care to depend on one as my sole set of wheels. When a local mechanic was putting in the third float in the tank of my daughter’s Datsun — shaking his head because he wouldn’t curse like some — he said the Japanese were about to catch up with the English on shipping defective parts over here. He made the third one work by using a lot of epoxy.

Some people do beat the sucker routine of frequent car trades, and the first recall on that score is the old guy who is still driving the 1937 Chevy sedan which he bought new — his first and only new car. How much interest would you guess he has missed paying by not trading every three years?

Another was a musician I knew, in New York City, who had owned cars for 40 years but never paid more than $200 for any of them. He bought junkers parked at service stations, drove them until they conked out, called a junkey and bought a replacement — never an “Easy Monthly Payment” involved. At the time I knew him he was driving an old Dodge he had bought for $175 and had driven 18 months with no expense other than two quarts of oil added, and gasoline.


There are still about two basic ways to financial security; 1) To spend less than your income or, 2) To earn more than you spend.