Finance Retirement

Car Shopping: A New Retirement Sport

About once a year I take my wife car shopping. It’s one of the greatest sports I’ve found to occupy a few hours of our leisure time, a more or less inexpensive Sport of Kings if you can keep it all in perspective.

To keep it in perspective all you need is a calculator. No car salesman, or his sales manager, can bear to see a customer pull out a calculator, so anytime you want to kill a deal and walk away all you have to do is pull out your calculator and punch a few keys.

Usually the thing that gets us off on an auto adventure is some mail solicitation from a local car dealer.

Last year it was a local Ford dealer who offered us a $4,500 “instant rebate” to come look at the latest Ford had to offer.

We drove down to the dealers in my wife’s cherry 1999 Ford Windstar van. An an ambitious salesman held the door for her to get out. He offered us a cup of coffee and a seat in some comfortable overstuffed chairs in the showroom. Then he proceeded to solicit all the information he needed to run a credit check on us, and set the stage for the wheeling and dealing of the day.
I’m not really a new car buyer, but of course he didn’t know that. He was salivating at the prospect of a quick sale.

My one Lemon

I’ve bought one new car in my life, a 1985 Dodge Ram Charger SUV. That was one of the first Chrysler trucks built in Mexico — and the biggest lemon I ever saw. I went through four transmissions under the warranty, each with an additional surcharge for installing, even though it was a warranty item. Its electric windows fell out of the channels, its brakes would stop working for no apparent reason, and it got the mileage of a rock — although it would pull a six-ton boat with ease. I ended up trading it for a Volkswagen camper that I restored, and then drove twice as many miles as I had the Ram Charger — without any of those reliability issues.

Generally speaking I am a used car driver. We have owned everything from Lincoln Continentals to VW Bugs. From my first 1950 Dodge to my current 1995 Ford Windstar van with 232,000 miles on it. I have bought and restored Volkswagen Bugs, Campers and Things, Chevrolet El Camino pickups, Karmann-Ghia convertibles and GMC motor homes, all of which have given me many, many miles at costs far below the price of any new car of the time.

So, I am not the best candidate to whom a salesman might sell a new vehicle.

Back at the Ford dealer’s last year, they pulled the old bait-and-switch on us before we got done with our first cup of coffee. The salesman walked my wife out to a nice Hyundai sedan, put her behind the wheel, and had her drive it around the lot, all the time extolling the virtues of the car.

Then we sat down to deal. The $4,500 “instant rebate” immediately became a down payment to be added to a more-than-minimal trade-in allowance for her used van. Somehow the sticker price evaporated in the pencil work, and he brought the deal in for an outrageous price.

That’s when I pulled out the calculator. What he was offering, based on the payment he suggested, was to sell me a car at a total price of more than $8,000 over the sticker price. I mentioned it to him.

He excused himself and returned, asking us to step an adjoining office where his sales manager would do his best to make us a deal we couldn’t refuse. Expect this. It is the most common closing technique — good-guy vs. bad-guy — used by cars salesmen.

Massaging The Numbers

The sales manager and his financial assistant proceeded to massage numbers in an effort to produce a deal we would buy. But, with calculator in hand, I kept reminding them we would be paying well over the sticker price for the vehicle, and we weren’t interested at that level, especially since the original solicitation had included a supposed $4,500 “instant rebate” on the purchase of a new vehicle. Apparently they were more interested in selling a new Hyundai without a rebate than a new Ford with the rebate, so we reached an impasse.

I don’t know if we parted friends or not, and don’t really care, but it was a fun morning with a little free coffee thrown it.

This past holiday season I got a solicitation from a local Chrysler dealer who claimed I had won one of four prizes: $10,000 on a credit card, a new Mac iPad, $150 cash, or a $500 Gift Card.

We drove over in my old ’99 Ford Windstar and four salesmen met us in the parking lot. Once again coffee and a seat in the show room, while a salesman took down enough information on us to run a credit check.

I looked at the prize board, and discovered that there was only one $10,000 credit card, one iPad and one $150 cash prize being given away. My best guess was those went to some one in the Chrysler organization or a close friend if, indeed, they were ever given out at all. All the rest of us had won the $500 Gift Cards. More on that later.

Back to the wheeling-dealing. The purpose of the promotion was to get rid of a large stock of used cars in inventory before the end of the year, so we opted for a used Mercury sedan.

The salesman was quick to point out that there was another one on the lot that was three years newer for just a few more dollars, so we took a ride in it and it did turn out to be a very nice, low-mileage automobile.

Car Dealer Math!

We returned to the show room and the salesman began penciling in a deal pointing out that the bank that held the paper on the car had $28,000 in it. That became the beginning of the deal. From there it went from one disaster to the next. First I reminded the salesman that the same car, or one similar to it and possibly a year or two newer, could be purchased from any number of dealers for half of what the bank claimed to have in it.

Apparently he didn’t believe me. He just kept making offers. I pulled out the calculator and kept reminding him that he was asking two or more times the average sales price of the car.

Finally he called in the sales manager. We replayed the game. They wouldn’t budge an inch so I asked them for my $500 Gift Card and left.

When I got home I discovered the official looking bank-card type Gift Card could only be used to purchase items from an online store that I am sure is somehow connected to the Chrysler dealership and its promotions.

Items offered for sale in the store are mainly overstock items, at prices two and three times what you could buy them for anywhere else. Plus, the shipping and handling charge on any item is four or five time what normal shipping would cost. In other words, in spite of the supposed “giveaway” the dealer and distributor of the items sold through the cards was making a good little profit selling leftover junk on the side.

I’ll use my $500 Gift Card to buy my grandsons some remote-control racecars that I could buy at one-third the price in most toy stores so the adventure was not a total loss.

Don’t Forget Your Calculator…

The car buying game is fun about once a year, a good way to break up the old retirement routine. But do not ever attempt it without your calculator in your pocket.

There is only one calculation you need to make to find out exactly what you are paying for a car. It is the Down Payment (i.e. $5,000) + the total of all payments (i.e., $250/mo. x number of months, or $250×60 = $15,000) + other charges (i.e. Dealer Prep $500 + tax, title and tag $1,250, or $1,750) – Trade-In (i.e. $2,000) – any other discounts (i.e. rebate $5,000). In other words in this deal you are paying a total of $14,750.

No matter what the sales people try to tell you, that’s what you will pay.
Your calculator won’t lie to you. It’s a lethal weapon when it comes to ducking out of a deal!

Dave Whitney is a retired journalist and adventurer who has won many writing awards. He was born and raised in central Ohio, attended school in Missouri, served in the US Army Security Agency, and migrated to Florida a half century ago. Author of four books, he is a former Associated Press writer/editor and has been nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize during his writing career. As editor and founder of the Free Press newspapers in the Florida Keys he was the first publisher to pick up Frank Kaiser’s “Suddenly Senior” column when it entered syndication. Whitney currently resides in Lakeland, Fla., after living 25 years in the Florida Keys.


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