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How Much is Enough?

My daughter recently turned 16. Several weeks later she completed driver’s education. After another 10 days, she felt almost ready to take her tests. As her father and I were leaving town for several weeks, she decided she had better go for it.

Despite several questions that were so obscure that no licensed driver could possibly know the correct answers, she passed the written portion. But then there was the road test. We had to wait a good half hour between tests, long enough to build anxiety and suspense. Although we had tried to get more practice time in, she had not driven enough to be entirely confident. But what was the worst that could happen? She comforted herself with the knowledge that a friend had failed after running a red light. Blowing it wouldn’t be so bad.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Her turn finally came. I waited. I don’t know when I’ve seen such an ear-to-ear grin as when she stepped out of the car, making it clear that she had passed!
 
Sure enough, we now have a teenage driver in the family. Others who have been down this road (no pun intended) tell me this is both good news and bad news.
 
All of this leads to a big new question in our family: Should my daughter have a car “of her own?”
 
A couple years ago, she assumed she would have a car, as if it were an adolescent right—because almost every young driver we knew did. Then she began to fear—even cried about it a year ago—that she would not get her own car. Then she complained about how terrible it would be to drive an old Volvo wagon—of which there are many in our neck of the woods—which is one of our two family cars. (The other, a newer Volvo at 5 years old, is a standard transmission, which she has not yet mastered.) Next she indicated that the wagon wouldn’t be so bad, if it could be at her disposal.
 
But why not just buy her a car? Well, there is the money part—the cost of the car, of insuring it, of registration, upkeep and repairs. Could we afford all that? I suppose we could…
 
It all comes down—like many of our purchasing decisions—to that age-old difference between needs and wants. What do we have to have? What would be helpful to own? What is a pleasure we can justify? What is a total luxury? What is so over-the-top as to be out of the question (especially for a pastor’s family in a small town!)?
 
Is it a given in our land that every 16-year old automatically gets a car? When we lived in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Oklahoma, it certainly seemed that way. Maybe it was the wide open spaces and distances traveled. Maybe it was the oil and gas heritage. But it seemed to me that families of just about every socioeconomic class talked—even years in advance—about the car that a turning-16 child would get. Granted, many kids do work for their own vehicles, to cover at least a part of the expense.
 
As to our family, at this very moment, we have two cars sitting at home, with the automatic available for our daughter. When my husband and I return, he will be able to walk across the street to work, while I will drive three or four days a week to my office 40 miles away. It won’t necessarily be simple, but we can probably work out car-sharing among the three of us. Our daughter can catch a ride to school and catch a bus home, when necessary. She can drive to her weekend job.
 
My daughter has only one-and-a-half years of high school left. She may be gone for a big part of next summer. We don’t yet know where she will go to college. There is a good chance it could be someplace where freshmen do not get to have cars on campus. Besides, given a culture of indulging our youth, what would it hurt for a kid today to “do without?”
 
I suppose we could pick up a cheap used car, but it has to have a great safety rating. Or we could lease a new Saab for $229 a month, as I just saw advertised on TV. My daughter would approve! Or maybe I’ll drive that, and she can have the 1995 wagon. We could look into a Hummer. That would be safe!
 
Beyond the financial, there is the question of whether every single driver in a family needs their own vehicle, even though quite often one or more cars are parked in the driveway. Such an assumption is both a sign of our general affluence and a reflection of our infatuation with individual ownership.
 
Beyond transportation, this goes to the more general question of how we make our purchasing decisions, large and small. Are they based on national or local cultural expectations? Is our consumption for reasons conspicuous? And what of ecology? Are we willing to sacrifice some convenience for the sake of the environment? Contrary to the way most of us act most of the time, more stuff, vehicles included, is not the answer to all our problems. (Please don’t think me unpatriotic, as we have been told that purchasing is particularly American.)
 
I suppose it’s easy for me to suggest that my child sacrifice—and save me money! But what about me? I think of the many decisions that go along with a house renovation my husband and I are undertaking. How much is enough? We like hardwood better than linoleum. And that granite surely is nice. Which appliances will we choose? Should we do that costly upstairs project that requires moving plumbing? Well, if we don’t buy a third car…

Karen Johnson Zurheide is development director of Lutheran Social Services of Northern New England and chair of BCE’s board.