Dear Tom and Ray:
You give such sage advice that I thought you might be able to help me out. We gave our twin children (a boy and a girl, now age 19) the promise of their first cars when they graduate from high school. We told them they would be used cars, and they would be expected to pay all related costs. We also said they will not get their cars until we all agree that they are ready for the responsibility.
Now that they've completed their first year of college, they've starting lobbying for their cars. Since they both seem to want different things in a car, I've decided to give them each a set amount of money, and if they want something newer or fancier, they can pay the difference themselves. The question is, what is a fair and reasonable amount of money to give them that will put them in a decent, safe car? We live in the Midwest, if that matters. By the way, you should know that my wife and I have promised ourselves that our kids CANNOT be driving nicer cars than we are. She has a 2002 Mazda 626, and I have a '98 Jetta with 86,000 miles.
RAY: My father made the same kind of deal with my brother when he graduated from high school. He said he'd buy Tommy a car when Tommy was mature enough for the responsibility. My father died a few years ago, and he was still waiting to shell out the money!
TOM: My number is $5,000, Scoop. I think that's both fair and reasonable. If you want to make them work a little harder or suffer a little more, you could ratchet that down another thousand or so. But I think you can get a decent, safe car for $5,000.
RAY: Yeah, like a '98 Jetta with about 85,500 miles on it (but don't worry, Scoop, you can always go out and whack a dent in it to make it uglier than yours).
TOM: Actually, our primary criterion for young, new drivers is safety. And for $5,000, you can certainly find a decent, late-1990s Ford Crown Vic with air bags and maybe even anti-lock brakes. That's a pretty safe car because of its heft. Or you can get an early- to mid-1990s Honda Accord, which has front-wheel drive, is reasonably safe and is extremely reliable.
RAY: You could even get an early-'90s Volvo, like a '93 or '94 850, which is a real tank. But then you'd have to worry about significant repair costs and the real possibility of the kids, with their leather seats, showing you up in your Jetta, Scoop.
TOM: I would add one rule to your deal with the kids: I would insist that you be able to approve the type of car before they buy it. Maybe your kids are great, sensible young adults. But at 19, it's unlikely.
RAY: Right. You don't want your 19-year-old boy taking your five grand and buying himself a Camaro or Firebird, or something else he's going to drive at 100 miles an hour and wrap himself around a tree in. Left to their own devices, most 19-year-old boys would do just that. That's why God invented parents. Good luck, Scoop.