By Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
Last week I did something I’ve never done before and hope to repeat some day, but not anytime soon. It was fraught with anxiety (mine), dishonesty (theirs) and large financial stakes. I bought a new car. Not a “new to me” car but a bona-fide, brand-spanking, plastic-smell off-gassing, new car. In four days. I went from decision to down payment.
I had been stubbornly proud of my geriatric station wagon. Who needs the status of a fancy car? Never mind that I had to regularly dump major repair money into it. I liked that the odometer equaled a trip to and halfway back from the moon. But it kept breaking down. The check engine light came on as often as I checked the oil. My mechanic had practically become a family friend. In fact it was Paul, my mechanic who finally broke it to me.
“You need a new car,” he said, when I brought it to him for the umpteenth time for diagnosis. I kept telling myself that with a new alternator/timing belt/starter/battery/etc. it would be fine for a good long while.
The car itself promptly reinforced Paul’s statement by munching a ball bearing and making type of noise a hiccupping-machine-gun might make when I tried to start it. Due to the number of tow truck trips the car needed, the Triple-A lady warned me that I had reached my annual limit.
I had a broken down car, a burned out mechanic, and an exhausted roadside assistance program. It was time to make a change. When I make decisions of a mechanical nature, I am about as savvy as a kindergartner operating a back hoe. The variables felt as endless as counting stars on a clear night. What make? Which model? What year? Financing option? Specific features? Which dealership? How on earth do people buy cars? It seemed easier to grow an extra limb or bake a cake in a canoe in the middle of the Atlantic.
We all feel overwhelmed when we contemplate and engage in new behaviors. Getting a new job, attending a new school, going away to college, moving to a new neighborhood, making a major purchase, and pursuing new relationships all raise anxiety by removing the comfort of mindless habit. The complexity of variables and the fear of making a mistake can be formidable barriers to the decision making process. For those of you who feel confused and anxious when confronted with the need to choose there are three helpful questions to ask yourself and a fourth question which is not for you personally but for your community.
- 1. What are most important factors for me about this decision?
My highest priorities were reliability, crash-test results, warranty and economy.
- 2. In this instance, what is the consequence of not deciding?
Not deciding, known as “de facto” decision making, is what happens when people anxiously ruminate until there are no more choices left. It relieves them of the possibility of making a mistake, but it robs them of vast opportunities as well as exercising (and experiencing) appropriate power.
Keeping my old car was inconvenient, expensive, and unpredictable.
- 3. What specific, informed resources (objective written data, experienced friends, and experts) are available for to consult for advice?
Fortunately I have a fantastic community, an internet connection and a library card.
First I looked up the Consumer Reports car buying edition in the reference section of the library to research car buying tips and “recommended” cars. I asked a few of my older, most sensible friends for recommendations. I asked my mother. I checked in with my obsessive-compulsive researcher friend, who conveniently had been car shopping herself. I used the internet to compare prices at multiple dealerships and took enough test drives to determine that every single new car feels pretty damn good.
For financing I compared bank loan rates, HELOC (Home Equity Line of Credit), dealer rates, and liquidating assets.
- After you have made your decision, ask yourself: What have I learned that I can pass along to others in the future?
I discovered certain dealerships still treat customers like fresh meat at a barbeque. My favorite ridiculous exchange: A dealership manager told me “The MSRP is what we paid for the car.” “No it’s not,” I said. “Let’s not argue,” he said, looking as though I hurt his feelings instead of embarrassed he lied.
If you are car shopping, send me an email and I’ll be happy to share with you my newly learned negotiating and financing tips.
I’m so glad to have this big decision behind me. Every time I get into my new car I feel relaxed and confident. I turn the key and hear the quiet purr of a happy engine turning over. If you are facing a major life decision I wish you great support during the sorting process and confidence when you choose.