Money Matters

How A Car Can Recession-Proof You

Access To Mobility Could Be Key To Navigating Economic Uncertainty

BY Thom FainJune 4, 2019

Economically speaking, things are clicking for a good number of Americans.

While the average millennial like me might not be lounging in a McMansion or staked out in the skyrocketing stock market, employment opportunities abound for full-time employees and gig workers alike.

And while our generation continues to get back on its feet in our slow rise toward spending $1.4 trillion in 2020, many CFOs, banking firms and academics are already tempted to ruin the party by calling the next recession. In a recent Reddit AMA, none other than Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates suggested that, although it is difficult to predict when, another financial crisis like 2008 is a “certainty.”

It’s another reminder that even in flush times, downside thinking is never far off. After all, even Warren Buffet reminded us: “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.”

And even though it might seem natural to futureproof your life by going all Depression-era frugal like the grandfolks, there’s one expense that could actually be the key to surviving the next downturn: your car.

Motoring Through A Downturn

Getting A Car If you're impacted by a possible recession, you might be inclined to clip your monthly car payment. But you shouldn't, say experts.

Let’s start with the most obvious reason that a car could be your sleigh through a financial winter: it can efficiently deliver you to and from a paying job.

“Jobs are often located a great distance from central cities,” said Dr. Karen Sterheimer, a professor of sociology at USC. “[T]here is often a spatial mismatch between where people live and where work opportunities exist. A car then can become a prerequisite for employment, and those without the funds to buy and maintain a car can get caught in a vicious cycle.”

This is doubly important if you’re a contractor who has to criss-cross town in pursuit of your duties for more than one 1099-issuing entity.

And while it may sound like a good idea to axe that monthly car payment along with other debits you’re likely to ditch in times of economic uncertainty, that could well be the equivalent of cutting muscle instead of fat.

Driving Upward Mobility

While cars are handy across all economic backdrops, data suggests that they become even more important when things are lean. In fact, roughly a quarter of low- and middle-skill jobs—exactly the kind many people may turn to during a recession—are accessible in under 90 minutes via public transportation systems, according to a study by the Brookings Institution.

An Urban Institute study found that those with access to a car were twice as likely as transit users to find jobs—and four times likelier to retain them.

It's not a new idea. In fact, an automobile’s ability to sow the seeds of upward mobility were previously noted in a 1999 Progressive Policy Institute study that made a direct link between mobility and economic opportunity.

“[T]he shortest distance between a poor person and a job is along a line driven in a car,” the study said.

Cars: The Great Connectors

In addition to chasing down economic opportunities, millennials are also busy developing the relationships that will define their careers and social lives—something psychologists and sociologists say is an essential ingredient of financial independence.

Unsurprisingly, it’s a pursuit that’s seriously aided by having access to a car. Just ask anyone who’s tried to pick up a date along a bus route.

“By having your own car and consequently being on your own schedule, you can have more time and energy to make plans with coworkers or other friends and get to enjoy life,” said Adina Mahalli, a mental health professional and wellness writer. “And once you feel that you’re meshing well with your colleagues, you’ll be more inclined to participate in group activities [so] that you’ll feel socially fulfilled while at work.”

Over the past half-century, owning a car has been among the most powerful tools for social mobility for families in the U.S., according to a 2019 study in the Journal of Planning Education and Research.

“[V]ehicle access is associated with less stress, more employment, and higher earnings,” the study said.

The Good News: You Don’t Even Have To Buy One

Calculating Car Loans-2 There are new ways of getting a car that don't require subjecting yourself to a long-term loan or even keeping it longer than you want to.

Sure, it’s easy to understand why having a car might be advantageous during an economic downturn. But it’s another matter to actually absorb the cost of owning one when you’re struggling financially. After all, you’re looking at a five-figure sticker price—not to mention the strict credit requirements, demoralizing negotiation process, maintenance costs and multi-year contract.

Fortunately, there are subscription-style platforms that can give you access to a car without subjecting yourself to the commitment and debt that comes with actually owning it.

Through these services, you can agree to an all-in-one monthly payment to achieve bundled services that might otherwise be offered piecemeal or at a premium. These services, like Fair, also offer the flexibility to cancel any time so you’re never locked into a commitment you can’t afford.

How beneficial is an option like this in a time of economic uncertainty? Even the Urban Institute mentioned these shorter-term opportunities as a lower-cost option to address mobility needs in a time of financial scarcity.

“These services may be particularly useful to households with at least one licensed driver but who do not have sufficient assets to own and maintain a car,” the study said.

While being tied to a long-term auto loan can prevent wage earners from having flexibility with their future and their finances, car subscriptions are designed to provide optionality alongside mobility, said Derek Szeto, co-founder of subscription tracking app Butter.

“Five years ago, in many of these hard asset categories you had to buy upfront at a much higher cost,” Szeto said.

Most importantly, car subscriptions allow their users to accurately predict their monthly expenses, since most of the costs of driving are baked into the car’s monthly payment.

“Even though you don't know what to expect from the economy, you can know what to expect from your monthly expenses,” said Caio Bersot, a community manager at EnergyRates.ca. “There are many things millennials can do to make their costs more well-planned and predictable.”

That benefit is doubly important for gig economy workers, many of whom live more by the week than by the month.

“Whether freelancers or regular workers, people need to do more than just expect a recession, but actually start preparing their financial life for any unexpected situation,” Bersot said.

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