Where I grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania, counting down to the day you turned 16 and could finally get your driver’s license was a huge deal. It was the difference between having to take the big yellow bus — less-than-affectionately known as the Cheese Wagon — and having the freedom to whiz down country roads at night just because you didn’t feel like going home yet. It was an enormous rite of passage then in a way it doesn’t seem to be today.
Like most 15 year olds I grew up with, I had starry-eyed visions of the total freedom that would be mine for the taking just as soon as I got up the courage to go to the state police barracks to take my road test (preferably at a course that was rumored to skip the parallel parking portion of the exam). So imagine my surprise when, new license in hand, my parents announced that if I wanted a car, I had to buy it myself.
The Ground Rules
My parents politely informed me that if I wanted to drive to school, I would need to buy my own car. This wasn’t really much of an “if”, by the way: In case you couldn’t tell from that Cheese Wagon anecdote, riding the bus was unpleasant physically as well as socially. Besides, I had extra-curricular activities every day, and a car would make it much easier for me to get home immediately afterward to start in on my homework instead of waiting for a parent to be done with work.
I was definitely interested in having my own car, but I had absolutely no idea how to go about it. My parents said that they would front the money, but it would have to be cheap enough for them to pay cash. I would pay them back in monthly installments over the next two years; the final payment had to be before I left for college.
I also had to pay my share of the insurance, which they calculated by making me pay amount their total bill increased when they added me to the family plan.
Gas, oil changes and mechanics bills? That was all on me, too.
For a kid who had only ever sporadically babysat for the neighbors and got just enough allowance to cover one trip to the movie theater per week, this was a pretty sudden introduction to adulthood — at least as far as finances are concerned.
Here’s what I learned:
Lesson One: A Job’s a Job
I ended up looking for work after summer was already underway, so there weren’t many opportunities. I ended up working at a discount movie theater that was reopening after being closed for several years. It was the only gig going, and I was the only kid. I spent the first week screwing cup holder arms onto the old seats and came home with cramped hands. My second task was disinfecting the bathrooms. Fun? Nope. But I had a paycheck, and I was determined to keep them coming.