An Economist’s Approach To Buying A Car

Good personal finance skills are not exclusive to economists, but this little piece by Theodore Cangero provides great instruction for thinking through the economics and executing the plan for buying a car.

One part he glosses over is the decision to buy new rather than used. Precisely because cars depreciate rapidly with high mileage (especially the first bunch of miles), the opportunity cost of buying a new car is pretty high relative to buying a (relatively) low-mileage used car. The question is in large part one of risk aversion due to uncertainty about the reliability of a used vs new car, and the availability of information about the car in question (e.g., CarFax reports, maintenance records, model reviews, etc.). If one is going to put lots of miles on a car anyhow (like the author), letting someone else take the depreciation hit for the first bunch of miles may be a better deal…depending on one’s risk attitude over repair costs.

Another factor that he doesn’t touch on is how long one plans to keep the car. If you are one that likes to trade in/up every so many years (as he seems to imply), then the value retention he talks about is more important. If you are one that drives a car until its useful life is nearly over (or if you plan on putting a couple hundred thousand miles on it before selling it, or even handing it down to your future teenage driver), value retention may be less important–though certainly a factor to consider at the margin. That said, value-retention and expected reliability tend to go hand-in-hand. So focusing on expected reliability for long-term use will likely result in choosing a vehicle that tends to hold its value better anyhow.

Despite the quibbles, the article lays out a pretty good approach that might help you make the best car-buying decision you can.

Research Confirms: More Is Better

There’s a nice article in the WSJ Online today reporting on recent research by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers at the University of Michigan. Their article takes to the task a popular assertion that, above some level of income, more money doesn’t really lead to greater happiness. Of course, that would violate on the basic assumptions underlying this blog. They write:

The income–well-being link that one finds when examining only the poor, is similar to that found when examining only the rich. We show that this finding is robust across a variety of datasets, for various measures of subjective well-being, at various thresholds, and that it holds in roughly equal measure when making cross-national comparisons between rich and poor countries as when making comparisons between rich and poor people within a country.

Moreover, Stevenson and Wolfers also find that the third rule of the blog is also substantiated; namely, more more is less better. Or, to use their terms, “while each additional dollar of income yields a greater increment to measured happiness for the poor than for the rich, there is no satiation point.” That is, someone earning $10,000 may get more sense of happiness from an additional $1,000 than does someone earning $1,000,000, but both experience an increase in well-being in a consistently proportional way.

So who cares? Well, I do for one. Hey, if you’re going to build a blog on a pretty basic concept, it’s nice to have the research back it up (unlike, say, some Keynesian economists).

You should too. Some government policies seem to assume (conveniently so) that once a person has a certain amount of income (call them “rich”), they do not value additional money anymore. Therefore, you can take money away from them and give it to people who do value the additional money (call them “poor”) and make society better off by creating a greater sense of well-being. This utilitarian approach would seem to justify redistributive social policies. The only problem is, it isn’t accurate–or at least it isn’t as simple as that (as the research above shows). And that’s even before taking into account the costly nature (both direct and indirect) of the mechanisms for redistributing the wealth.

So there you have it. No matter how much you make, no matter what country you’re in, more is better than less.