Ask Jack: Dropping Five Grand on a Game of Golf?

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
ask jack dropping five grand on a game of golf

It’s called “optimism bias”, and for a while it fell into the realm of what people like to call “settled science.” Supposedly, humans are “hard-wired” to be more optimistic in any given situation than a realistic appraisal of the circumstances would justify.

This is why people buy lottery tickets, which are statistically equivalent to toilet paper. It’s why I continue to ride a BMX bike at skateparks even though I’m far more likely to endure yet another painful injury than I am to perform anything like a respectable stunt. It’s why people respond to “casual encounters — w4m” ads on Craiglist even though forty-nine out of fifty ads are utterly fraudulent attempts to steal anything from your wallet to your personal data to your kidneys.

But wait, there’s more. A new study suggests that optimism bias is more an artifact of bad experiment design than a reflection of actual human predisposition. Who’s right and who is wrong? I’m optimistic that we will eventually know the truth. In the meantime, let’s consider a question that verges on the outrageously hopeful…

Jacob writes:

I currently have a 2008 Honda Accord coupe (my wife’s vehicle) and a 2008 Ford Ranger and, though I like the Ranger (and use the four-wheel drive enough that selling it is not an option), I need something a little more driver friendly and fuel efficient to drive to work. I am currently considering a 2000-2003 Golf TDI manual but would be open to other suggestions. My budget allows for up to $5,000 and, like stated above, fuel efficiency is priority but I also want it to be reliable. So what is your advice? Do I go Golfing or is there a better option?

Let me start by saying that I am always inherently suspicious of multiple-car solutions to a single-car question, and that goes double when the reasons given for that multiple-car strategy are economic or fuel-related. I’ll show you why with some very simple math.

Let’s say we have a commute that racks up 20,000 miles annually, which is well above the national average. Now let’s imagine two cars. There’s a Ford Ranger that gets 15 mpg under those conditions, and a Golf TDI that gets… oh, hell, let’s shoot for the moon and say that it gets 45 mpg. So that’s…

20,000/15 = 1,333 gallons x $3/gal fuel = $4,000 a year in fuel costs if we stick with the Ranger.

Or we can go with the Golf…

20,000/45 = 444 gallons x $3/gal diesel = $1,333 a year.

Note that I made some pretty wacky assumptions. I assumed that gasoline will be $3 a gallon in the near future, which isn’t the case anywhere outside the major metro areas, and I assumed that diesel will cost the same as gasoline, which it does not. If we use current fuel costs, the savings drops from the $2,667 a year above to about $1,950 a year. But we’re going to continue with the idea that you can save a grand total of $222.25 a month on fuel if you pick a Golf TDI over the Ranger.

I don’t think that $222.25 is enough money to cover the monthly expense of purchasing, insuring, and maintaining a second car. The Golfs I found in that price range have between 150,000 and 210,000 miles on them. Even if we assume the engine is a sealed perpetual motion device that will never require service, it’s bolted into a MkIV Golf, which means that there will be costs and they will be substantial.

No matter how I fuss these numbers, I can’t see any way that you really save money by driving a Golf TDI to work. Mathematically, I see it as betting five grand up front on the idea that the fuel savings will rack up faster than the maintenance expenses. That’s a bad bet.

However, Jacob mentions the idea of wanting something more “driver friendly”, so I’m going to latch onto that second part. The fuel savings are a red herring. They don’t make sense. Let’s look at the idea of spending five grand for something that would be more fun and less taxing on the daily commute.

The 2002-2003 Honda Civic Si hatchback is far more amusing to drive than a Golf TDI, is cheaper to run, and will more readily find a buyer when he’s ready to let it go. Four grand should find him a decent one and he can throw a thousand bucks at fixing the problems it will eventually have. The fuel savings won’t be quite as good but the car itself will be much better. And while the purchase of any old hatchback is a fundamentally optimistic act, the odds usually work out better when there is an “H” on the grille. Even if the dammed thing is built in the UK. What made Honda think that people would pay big money for an odd-shaped little hatch assembled across the wrong ocean? Talk about misplaced optimism. Maybe that “settled science” is right after all, huh?

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2 of 44 comments
  • Slance66 Slance66 on Jun 28, 2017

    I too hate the two car solution. So would propose selling the Ranger, taking the $5k and getting a car that does what is needed in all phases. Perhaps a Subaru. Insurance costs would be a benefit as well, and OP might not have an old third car parked on his lawn. There's a reason CUVs are taking over. They are the Swiss Army knife of vehicles. Never the best mpg, or space, or handling, but generally acceptable in every area, with the fewest weaknesses.

  • Jeff Zekas Jeff Zekas on Jul 01, 2017

    Jack: perfect. Same calculations work using a Prius instead of a Diesel Golf. Tho the Toyo doesn't have all the maintenance of VW, the cheapest (at auction) is $7K for low mileage, useable vehicles. By the time you break even, you have gone insane from driving a mediocre, hateful little shitbox.

  • DenverMike What else did anyone think, when GM was losing tens of billions a year, year after year?
  • Bill Wade GM says they're killing Android Auto and Apple Carplay. Any company that makes decisions like that is doomed to die.
  • Jeff S I don't believe gm will die but that it will continue to shrink in product and market share and it will probably be acquired by a foreign manufacturer. I doubt gm lacks funds as it did in 2008 and that they have more than enough cash at hand but gm will not expand as it did in the past and the emphasis is more on profitability and cutting costs to the bone. Making gm a more attractive takeover target and cut costs at the expense of more desirable and reliable products. At the time of Farago's article I was in favor of the Government bailout more to save jobs and suppliers but today I would not be in favor of the bailout. My opinions on gm have changed since 2008 and 2009 and now I really don't care if gm survives or not.
  • Kwik_Shift I was a GM fan boy until it ended in 2013 when I traded in my Avalanche to go over to Nissan.
  • Stuart de Baker I didn't bother to read this article. I'll wait until a definitive headline comes out, and I'll be surprised if Tesla actually produces the Cybertruck. It certainly looks impractical for both snowy and hot sunny weather.