What does your car say about you?


What kind of car do you want? Why?

The decision to purchase a car is one that requires a great amount of thought, intention, and analysis. It is one of the most significant purchases that we will make in our lives, and we tend to do so relatively often.

According to kbb.com, the average American purchases a car every 57 months. And given the ever-changing nature of our lives, it is inevitable that your circumstances will be quite unique each time you purchase that next vehicle.

Perhaps you recently got a raise, or perhaps you got fired. Maybe your family is growing, or you’re having a midlife crisis.  Whatever your situation is, it is unique to one moment in time, and it will absolutely factor into your car buying decision.


It is for these reasons that I believe your car buying history, along with your future ownership desires, provides a window into your soul – a unique history of what was, and a telling statement of what is.

It is not surprising then for me to tell you, that when I first met my (now) fiancée, one of the things I was most attracted to was her car. It was a thing of beauty – an 8 year old, beat-up, gray Honda civic, with over 150,000 miles on it. To me it said so much. She was comfortable with herself, frugal, and practical. She was down-to-earth and unencumbered. She was everything I was looking for and everything I aspired to be.

My chariot of choice was not so practical. For the low monthly payment of $615, I had recently purchased a brand new, black, 2-door, Infiniti G35. Never mind the fact that I could barely afford it, I had reached the pinnacle (or at least until I could afford an M3).

Don’t get me wrong, it was a beautiful car and I hope to own something similar one day. I like cars and I don’t think that is a bad thing. The key is to know why I wanted that car. What was I searching for?

It wasn’t until years later, when the irony of my situation hit me, that I understood the entire journey.

In short, 2 years after purchasing my Infiniti, my circumstances were quite different. My unhappiness with the daily grind had forced me to quit my corporate job, vowing never to return. I was unemployed, unmotivated, and clueless as to my next move.  But one thing was certain; I definitely couldn’t afford this car payment. So there I was, without a car.

Fast-forward 18 months through a whole lot of soul searching (and no car) and I had determined I was going to go for my passion! I was going to become a golf instructor. But there was only one problem. I needed a reliable method of transportation to get to work, but my bank account and credit cards were in the deep red. How could I afford a car.

And there she was in all her faded glory – my trusty 1989 Mazda 626.


This was the same car that I had LEARNED how to drive on, still waiting in my parents driveway, ready to make me face my own vanity. It was my only option. So I put my ego aside and I drove this car for a year – through that summer without air-conditioning and that winter without heat.

Think about the IRONY.

I was 26 years old, driving the same car I drove when I was 16. I had worked my way from this Mazda, to an Infiniti G35 over the course of a decade, only to find myself back in the exact same spot.

But in fact, I had come a long way. It may have been the same car, but it was a vastly different driver. It was a fantastically cathartic experience. One that taught me humility and appreciation, utility over indulgence.

However, there is something in this message that people often miss. The fact is, that Mazda was a piece of shit! It sucked. I was absolutely motivated to be able to afford a better car. And that’s perfectly fine.

It’s OK to strive for nice things and want creature comforts. It only becomes dangerous when you define yourself by these things, and this is a VERY thin line.

When the act of consumption becomes the goal, you will never be satiated.

In my last blog post, I referred to a video by Alan Watts that is also relevant in this discussion.  He says:

If you say that getting money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You will be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living; that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing. Which is stupid.

Many of us have experienced first hand that material things always fail to make us happy. In fact, the more things we buy, the more things we want. You may have heard of this phenomenon referred to as the “hedonic treadmill”. We discussed the hedonic treadmill concept in one of my favorite Smart People Podcast interviews with Roman Krznaric:

You think that what’s going to make you happy is earning money so you can buy a second car or a widescreen TV or a vacation house. You work like crazy to earn the money to do that. Finally you purchase those items, they give you an immediate spike of satisfaction, but then your levels of happiness drop down to where they were before.

What happens then is you ratchet up your levels of expectation of what a good life is and so you have to work even harder and harder to have an even bigger television or a faster car and you get caught in this cycle, this hedonic treadmill.


But the hedonic treadmill represents so much more than our craving for material goods. It represents this constant longing for the future that never arrives.

In this imaginary future, you will be 10 lbs. lighter, you will finally quit the job you hate, you will pay off your student loans, you will get married and have a family, and you will FINALLY achieve that life that everyone else on Facebook apparently already has.

But it is a mirage.

And by the time you realize it, some of the best moments of your life have passed you by. As the famous saying goes, you can’t go home again.

At this point in this post it may seem that we have come a long way from cars – but I don’t think so.

Think about the things you own – the things you have accumulated over a lifetime of consumption. The debts you owe, the jealousy you carry, the uncertainty you dwell on, the resentment you harbor, the self-image you loathe, or the “friends” you have accumulated. All of these things are yours, but are they necessary?

Do they serve a purpose, or are they just something you picked up along the way?

If you can simplify your life in any way, I recommend you try it. Even a small step can feel extremely freeing. Here are small ways you can simplify your life today:

  • Unfriend those people on Facebook that really cause you angst (or cancel Facebook altogether if you struggle with it)
  • Delete 3 apps that you rarely use
  • Go DVR/Tivo your favorite TV shows and stick to only watching those shows
  • Make a list of 5-10 things you are thankful for and put it in a place you will see it every day
  • Donate some of your clothes to Goodwill. The physical act of “cleaning out your closet” can feel amazing

You don’t have to take my word for it, but you might want to listen to this guy:

“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”

So I ask again – what kind of car do you want? Why?

5 replies
  1. Christine
    Christine says:

    Thanks for your honest story and thoughtful insights. I love my 95 Passat station wagon complete with pleather seats, paint scratches, and plenty of dents. My husband and I drove home from the Capitol Christmas Tree in it the night we got engaged, we drove it to Sibley Hospital when I was in labor with my son and later my daughter, and brought our precious babies home from the hospital in our “green bean.” Thanks for reminding me that life isn’t about the car you drive, but the blessings held in it.

    • Chris Stemp
      Chris Stemp says:

      Thanks for the note Christine. I completely agree. Sometimes those dents and dings are just good reminders of our experiences. As long as the car has heat and a/c!

  2. Jesse Wynn
    Jesse Wynn says:

    To your question…

    A design which maximizes the safety of my fellow passengers and I while protecting our shared environment, so as to increase the chances of actually getting to the places, people and things that matter perhaps a bit more than the bells and whistles.

    Decrease speed, increase following distance…

    Thanks for the post, Chris!

  3. Justin Risedorf
    Justin Risedorf says:

    I’ll be 26 this summer and am still driving my first ride as well. My 2000 Ford Focus (Gold) isn’t pretty and doesn’t always start on the first try but the freedom of not having a car payment and the priority to invest that money else where make it a no-brainer.

    The connection you made between spending habits and values is really insightful. Reminds me of what Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

    Like you, I aspire towards a more simplistic, minimalistic lifestyle. I find that I have to continually reevaluate my commitments and cut back where I’ve over extended myself or my family. Wish I could get better at picking up less stuff “along the way.”

    Thanks for the post!

    • Chris Stemp
      Chris Stemp says:

      Hey Justin! Thanks for the comment. I definitely agree it’s a continual process, but each time you clean out the closet it becomes a little bit easier. I’ve moved so many times in the past 5 years, I know exactly what I need and it’s pretty minimal!

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