I Drive a Beater — But Don’t Ask Me to Love It

“This car is pretty old,” my 6-year-old daughter said on our morning drive to school. She paused for a minute, and I could tell she was wondering if what she’d just said was rude. “I mean… it’s also a pretty car?”

Her blooming self-awareness is awesome to watch, and I find her white lie adorable. Because while her first comment is accurate, my car is anything but pretty.

In truth, I drive a beater: A dark blue 2008 Nissan Versa that’s scratched up, dented, and beaten. The front bumper cover is held on by zip ties. The hub caps fell off long ago, leaving the rusting wheel exposed for all to see. It’s clocked just under 150,000 miles to date.

I took a deep breath as some faint embarrassment, shame, discomfort stirred. I wondered what, behind those comments, my daughter was thinking. Did she feel embarrassed about our car? Did she think we were poor because it’s old? Did she find it dirty, uncomfortable, unsightly?

Or, oh my God — was I thinking all those things?

The beginning: before my car became a beater

In 2011 when I bought it, the Versa was used, formerly a company car, well taken care of but with few bonus features. As in, none. Everything was manual, from the transmission to the windows and locks. There was no cruise control, no neat radio, nothing of that sort. 

But the price was right, we needed a car, so we bought it. And I was actually happy with this smart, practical choice.

We weren’t paying for fancy features we didn’t care about, and the model is reliable. I didn’t feel so guilty the first (inevitable) time I scratched the paint.

When I landed a job with an hour-long commute each way, I didn’t stress about putting miles or wear and tear on the car like I might have with a nicer model. And the loan was small enough we paid it off in full within 3 years.

In short, I’ve liked driving a low-cost model. The wear and tear shows, sure, and has slowly morphed the Versa into the beater that it is today.

But it’s been a good car, and what reasons could I have for wanting more?

I’m happy with my low-cost car… right?

Somewhere, somehow, my contentedness with my car changed. 

It started a few years ago, with me in Los Angeles and working at a mid-sized company that hired a lot of young 20-somethings. I was also a young 20-something, but I felt out of place. I was married and pregnant, yet surrounded by single, carefree Angelinos. 

I couldn’t shake this feeling of social displacement, including what my coworkers seemed to have and spend money on that I didn’t. It seemed my peers were treating themselves to bayalaged hair makeovers, coach handbags, or vacations to exotic locales — things that, to me, felt far outside my financial reach. 

And this gap I noticed in what I had was even more obvious when comparing our cars. I felt self-conscious about my car, easily one of the least valuable in the employee parking garage. 

Driving a cheap car can make you feel, well, cheap

Putting the Versa up against my coworker’s bright orange hot rod felt like too apt a metaphor for how I saw myself in comparison to my peers. Basic, lacking in fancy features, and looking older and more worn down than you’d expect for my age.

My coworkers’ cars and clothes and lifestyles were a sharp reminder of how my life stage and responsibility forced frugality and limits on me, while around me my it seemed everyone was enjoying more financial freedom and few limitations. 

The difference in our cars painfully highlighted the wide gulf between our lifestyles, how my life decisions had closed off my money choices, too. I wasn’t exactly dying to upgrade my hair, my wardrobe, or my car — I just craved having the same space in my budget to do so if I wanted.

I rarely volunteered to drive to lunch, citing the carseat taking up space. But the real upside for me was not having to point out which vehicle was mine. If my coworkers didn’t see my car, I could avoid feeling judged or self conscious.

It made it easier to bury the deep insecurities I felt in the choices I was making, and the fears that occasionally arose that they might have been stupid or wrong. After all, who gets pregnant and becomes a mom at 24? No on who I knew or saw around me. 

Bumping up against my car insecurities

The pangs of self-consciousness over my unimpressive wheels themselves were mild and momentary. Most of the time, it was easy to remind myself that it was just a car and nothing worth feeling upset about.

Until, earlier this year, the front bumper cover fell off. I reversed my car to go pick up my kids from school — but my front bumper cover stayed stuck in a snow bank before me.

Losing a bumper did next to nothing to make my car less functional. But it did markedly worsen my car’s appearance, taking it from “beat up” straight to “trash on wheels.”

Suddenly, the self consciousness I had felt driving my beater around my bougie LA coworkers was back in full force. Only now, I was worried about being judged not by my peers who had more freedom than me, but by those who had similar responsibilities: other parents. 

All at once, the thought of being seen in my raggedy, no-bumper car by the moms or dads of my kids’ classmates made my skin crawl. I could just imagine Evalinsey’s mom eying the Versa, seeing the scratches on the paint and the rusty wheels and the open-to-the-air metal bumper gaping beneath the grill and headlights, like some mouth with no teeth. 

She would give it a once over and then make eye contact with me and I’d know: she was judging me and assuming that she now knew something about me, and that thing was that I, like my car, am trash. Oh, and definitely a bad parent to boot.

Viewing my car as a reflection of myself

I can’t pretend that any of this is really about the car because I know straight up — it isn’t. It’s always about what else I get (or don’t) from my car that has nothing to do with its basic utility. 

My vehicle, like many things I own or purchase, reveals things about who I am: my tastes, my socioeconomic status, even the car seats reveal I’m a parent. The state of my car speaks to my character, how responsible I am or am not, or how well I can take care of the things I own. 

So while driving a beater serves me perfectly well in terms of getting from one place to another, it sometimes contradicts the ideas I have of myself and that I’d prefer others have of me, too. That I’m responsible, organized, clean, well-maintained. That I have my shit together well enough to change my oil when those little window stickers say, and not after a timeframe twice as long has passed.

In short, the something “more” I want from my car, maybe have always wanted from my car, is that it be not just transportation — but to be armor. To shield me from judgments, to hide my embarrassments, to be dazzling enough to distract from or even offset my downfalls. 

I don’t care what people think of my car, necessarily, but I always care what they think about me. And for better or worse, the trappings of life such as my wheels, short hair, or unmowed grass, those are all data that feeds into the judgments and ideas others form of me. Which leads to those moments of anxiety over the gap between who I like to think I am and who my car says I am.

Separating my identity and emotions from my car’s make and model

But am I really my car? Buying a vehicle is one of the most expensive ways I can think of to bolster my own sense of identity, and I’m not even sure it would work. 

Ultimately, a new nice car doesn’t change who I am. I might be more careful when driving, but I’ll likely still collect minor scratches and dents along the way. This new car might stay cleaner for months, maybe even years — but it will eventually get as messy or dirty as any car that’s used on the daily. It’d require the same level of maintenance and attention or more, and I’d still be someone who doesn’t care to spend much time on that vehicle maintenance.

After the bumper cover fell off, it was a couple of months before I worked out how to get it back on. In the meantime, I got to drive a beater around and confront all the ways its disrepair makes me uncomfortable. I tried to peel back the feelings about my car to see what was underneath: desires to be liked, respected, be a good parent, to treat my belongings with greater care and responsibility. 

Even more uncomfortable than facing my falling apart car has been facing the falling-apart areas in myself.

It hurts to look at and try to fix my internal messiness, so I’d often project it onto external things: the car, the house, the clothes, the gadgets. But I can’t buy my way to a healthier and balanced internal world; it’s something I have to build.

The car still gets the job done

“You know, this car is old and I don’t think it’s very pretty. But that’s okay to me, because it’s job isn’t to be pretty. It’s to get us where we need to go safely and easily.” 

“Yeah, you’re right,” she replies cheerfully. “It gets us everywhere we need to go. Can you turn on ‘Sunflower’?”

And I have to explain to her for the millionth time that my car only has an AM-FM radio, and I can’t control the songs on the radio, and then she’s singing “Sunflower” over my explanation.

I drop her off, and to get back into the car I have to open the passenger-side door and clamber across because the handle on the driver’s side fell off weeks ago. 

And then I drive myself and the car off of a cliff.

The end.

Photo by Nine Köpfer on Unsplash

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  • Reply
    July 24, 2019 at 10:21 pm

    I drive a 2008 myself with onsiderably more miles on it than yours. But just this year a friend asked me if it was a 2018 model. There is no reason your 2011 car should have dents or rust or be missing anything if you take reasonable care of it. 2008 and 150,000 miles is only halfway through a normal lifespan.

    • Reply
      Elyssa Kirkham
      July 25, 2019 at 2:34 am

      I can see you’ve formed some judgments about me based on my car and how I maintain it. Fortunately for me, I just wrote a whole entire post about dealing with the judgments and assumptions people might make of me based on my car!
      Thanks for commenting!

  • Reply
    Abigail @ipickuppennies
    July 25, 2019 at 8:31 pm

    Great post. Maybe you can start thinking of your car more like a trusted friend than a status symbol? Something that’s been there through thick and thin, taken a beating and stuck with you, etc etc.

    Glad you realized that it’s not just about the car. I sometimes feel self-conscious about things other people spend money on and I don’t. (Especially if I run out for an errand in my scrubby clothes — which is the norm — and everyone around me is dressed like a competent adult while I’m in shorts, a sports bra and an old t-shirt with unwashed hair up in a ponytail.) That said, I get a little overdressed whenever I go out on a date or whatever (especially considering most of these guys keep showing up in t-shirts, c’mon make an effort!) so I guess I overcompensate then. Because yeah, I don’t spend a ton on my wardrobe. My favorite pieces are from the thrift store, which I love but also makes me a little self-conscious when I see someone looking especially well put-together.

    But it’s not really about the clothes. It’s about my priorities. They differ from a lot of women’s. That’s just how it is. Maybe I’m judged about that when I run to the grocery store looking awful (OK, I’m definitely judged about it). But how much do I really want to care? How much energy/mental bandwidth can I spare to focus on such things? Not a lot, as it turns out. So by and large, I’m fine. But every so often, like yours does, my brain lets a little self-doubt creep in. And it’s a tough thing to deal with. I guess we just have to remember that it’ll pass.

    • Reply
      Elyssa Kirkham
      August 9, 2019 at 11:04 pm

      PRIORITIES. Yes. I find with things like my car, I make the decision that matches my priorities (I really don’t care much about my car). But I still, like you said, have those moments of self-consciousness. We all want to appear polished and put together. Who doesn’t want nice things? But I try to keep in mind that there are things I rank as nicer than a new car — like a paid off one 😉

  • Reply
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  • Reply
    July 31, 2019 at 4:18 pm

    I loved this post!

    • Reply
      Elyssa Kirkham
      August 9, 2019 at 11:05 pm

      Thanks for commenting, it means a lot!

    • Reply
      June 17, 2020 at 3:26 am

      In this day and age, with the uncertainty with the economy and job security, we have to find ways to keep our money in our pockets.
      I’ve exclusively been driving used cars which some people may call beaters. My old 2000 Silverado pickup is the beater (faded burgundy paint on the top side). We also have a Rx330 and Durango. As a 3 car family, the 3rd vehicle is there just in case one breaks down.
      You can say that my vehicles are a part of my personality. I try to keep them running and if I come across other small projects (ATV/UTV) that someone can’t fix. I try to fix them. Although a new car / truck would be nice , that’s just it, something that’s nice but is half the cost of my mortgage every month. Everyone has their priorities but a new car isn’t. Vacations , family experiences , and saving are more important.

  • Reply
    Cathleen Cooks Stuff
    July 31, 2019 at 6:35 pm

    I had a friend’s mom who had a beater, had the money to replace it, but just couldnt bring herself to spend the money. Once, she was in NYC and someone wanted to carjack her. She said “really?! Thank you!”…car jacker ended up just leaving. I think this is a bunch of people’s problems- that they think their car = their worth. Just think of the car as your beach car…that you drive everywhere, just in case you need to go to the beach last minute. (or you can try my not-patented way of appreciating your car: clean the crap out of the inside, wash and wax the outside, and walk everywhere for a weekend).

    • Reply
      Elyssa Kirkham
      August 9, 2019 at 11:06 pm

      Haha, this is amazing. I just washed it and vacuumed it out this past weekend and indeed — felt much better about it. And ultimately it is all about remembering that I’m more than my car, and my worth and vehicle are in no way related to each other.

  • Reply
    August 13, 2019 at 7:29 pm

    Love your post. My car is 2004 so just turned 15. It will have to keep going till it’s 19 as we won’t be able to replace it. I love this old car, it has so many memories attached to it. It’s first dent, the day I bought it! Taken me to hospital for all my chemo appointments and home again. Taken my kids to school, taken us on family holidays and more. It’s rusty, minus it’s hubcaps, has a replacement wing mirror that’s glued on and a damaged passenger door. Do I see it as a reflection of myself? Absolutely! I too am a bit wrecked, a but old, missing a few parts and held together in places. But also like my old Toyota, I am reliable, trustworthy and well fit for purpose. I will be very sad when this old wreck takes it’s last gasp, I’ll feel like I’ve lost an old reliable friend…

  • Reply
    August 18, 2019 at 9:43 pm

    I will cry when my beloved 2003 Mazda Tribute is finally laid to rest. Almost 210,00 miles on her, and she is getting creaky and rusty. But I love her sportiness and zippy V6 engine. And just like you and many of your readers, I relate my car’s slow deterioration, but dogged determination to carry on, to my own!

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    August 9, 2020 at 6:54 am

    As someone who also drives a beater, I love this post. My family thinks i’m foolish to feel ashamed about driving that car, yet the fact is that in the world we live in, people do judge others by their possessions. Shallow as that seems, things like clothes, accessories, and cars are indeed part of our identity because they reflect our taste, personality and status. All of this has an effect on how we feel about ourselves. Even if you remove this factor, new cars are safer and much more comfortable than older ones. So glad I’ve almost saved up enough money to get a decent car, hope you’ll get your dream car soon as well!

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