My Son’s “Free” Car: What We’ve Got Here Is a Failure to Communicate

My teenage son, Matthew, turned 14-years-old last month, so I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when he recently broached the topic of getting a driver’s license on his 16th birthday while I was driving us to the golf course to play a round with his Grandpa and Uncle Ben.

“Even if I allow you to get your driver’s license when you turn 16, son, you’re still going to need a car.”

“But Grandma says she’s going to give me the Chevelle after me and Grandpa are done fixing it up.”

“Oh really?” I said in that indignant parental tone that makes every teenager cringe.

“Really!” my son countered.

Of course, I immediately took Matthew’s reply as a golden opportunity to try and make him understand that many things he’s taken for granted in life up to now — including something as mundane as using a car to get from point A to point B — costs money.   I figured if I played my cards right, my impulsive-spending son who has never been able to save anything would suddenly be inspired to start putting a little of his chore cash away for the future and, dare I say it, maybe even think about getting a summer job. “Okay, Mr. Moneybags, tell me again how you plan on paying for that car?”

“I’m not paying anything for it, Dad. I’m getting the car for free.”

“And you’re going to pay for it how?”

“Dad, you aren’t listening to me. It’s free. F-R-E-E. Free.”

“Yes, but what about when you start driving it around town?”

“What about it?”

“How are you going to pay for that?”


I know. It’s all too obvious: What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate. Some teens you just can’t reach. Then again, I’m not one to give up quite so easily. “Don’t cars need a little something called gasoline?” I asked.

That’s when I swear I saw one of those energy efficient CFL bulbs above Matthew’s precious little head finally light up. “Oh. That.

“Yes, that,” I said. “Gas isn’t cheap, you know.”

“It’s not that expensive, Dad. It’s like $4 per gallon.”

Heh. Not that expensive. That’s my son, God love him. I mean, this is a kid whose current income is somewhere in the neighborhood of ten dollars — per month. Never mind that Matthew could make more doing additional chores and odd jobs around the house, but for now he chooses not to. Undaunted, I continued. “Not that expensive, huh? I’m betting the Chevelle will be lucky to get ten miles to the gallon.”


“So, in other words, for every ten miles you drive that ‘free’ car you plan on getting from Grandma it’s going to cost you at least four bucks.”


Okay? At that price, do you want to guess how much one little trip to the beach and back will cost you?”

“Not really.”

“Well, I’ll tell you anyway: $20.”

“Twenty bucks?!”

“Yes, twenty bucks — and that’s assuming you don’t stop along the way to get a bite to eat.”

“Then I just won’t drive so much.”

“Good luck with that. But even if you do manage to limit your driving, there are other costs too, son.”

“Like what?”

“Like car insurance, registration fees, and maintenance costs.”

“How much does that stuff cost?”

“It depends, but you should plan on those expenses costing you at least $1200 per year. Probably more though.”

“No matter how much I drive the car?”

“Pretty much.”

Several seconds passed while, I can only assume, my son pondered the expensive implications I deftly placed before him. “That’s a lot of money, Dad.”

“That it is, son.”

We didn’t say anything more to each other until we got to the golf course. To tell you the truth, that didn’t bother me at all.

Photo Credit: Collector Car Ads


  1. 3

    Rusty says

    We raised five children on a single, modest income. We started early to help them appreciate what life costs. As the oldest approached her teen years and became conscious of cars (and boys), we laid down the rules simply because we had no other choice: you may have a car when you can afford to purchase one, to buy insurance, and to maintain it (details included as per your talk with your son). She didn’t like the idea, so on graduation, she went to live with my in-laws who promised her a free car, college tuition, and no rules or regs.

    One out the door and four to go (hoping for better results).

    The second oldest (daughter) was observant and learned a lot from the first girl, who learned (too late) the down-side of getting everything free (including pot, three husbands, three kids, and … nuff said). By the time the second daughter graduated from high school (with honors), she had purchased her own truck (yep, cowgirl through and through), paid for her own insurance, regularly changed her own oil, and understood that there are no free rides; she was responsible, independent, self-reliant, and confident.

    The last three kids had two clear object lessons set before them, but that’s a whole nuther story. Having a car seems to be one of the first important decisions a person makes between high school and the rest of life. It often sets the pace for what comes next.

    To use a baseball analogy, no matter how much you learn and plan, you never really know if the next pitch will be a change-up or come with heat, but at least making mature and responsible decisions early (with a little encouragement from family and friends) will keep you conscious and alert at the plate.

    • 4

      Len Penzo says

      Your story proves that parents can conscientiously guide and preach their children all they want, but in the end it’s entirely up to the kids as to whether they are going to listen or not. Thanks for sharing.

  2. 7


    When I saw that Chevelle I immediately thought ‘Gas Hog’! I do chuckle that your son thinks 4 dollars a gallon is not that expensive. I guess just those of us that remember gas being a dollar a gallon truly appreciate how expensive it has gotten. Or, maybe he thinks he only will need 2.5 gallons a month?

    My son is 17 now and we have a third car he drives. Since he drives all 3 kids to school, we cover a bit of the gas costs. Last night he balked about cleaning out the car and I wanted to scream. He then got a nice long lecture, and I don’t think he will be complaining about that again.

    We probably cover more of the car expenses than we should. It can be a tough balance when having that third driver makes life more convenient and frees up more time for you to work. (In my case, I work part time from home, so when my son drives to school as opposed to myself, I can start work 40 minutes earlier.)

    • 8

      Len Penzo says

      I realize parents like to leverage their kids who have driver’s licenses. I remember the jubilation I had when I first got my license! Of course, within a week I started to change my attitude because my folks were seemingly sending me out to run errands all the time. I think they loved me getting a license more than me!

    • 9

      DC says

      >> those of us that remember gas being a dollar a gallon truly appreciate how expensive it has gotten.

      At the risk of showing my age, I still remember the summer I turned 17. I was already gas price conscious, and bought from an independent station with a new-fangled money-saving feature — self-service. There was a gas war that summer, and prices dropped down to 25.9 cents a gallon. But even normally, gas sold for about 30 cents a gallon or less, and maybe 33-34 cents a gallon at the name-brand stations.

      It was possible to fill up the gas-hungry 1966 Jeep Wagoneer with a 327 V8 for less than $5.

    • 11

      patrick says

      This comment is to the guy who’s son’s driving made his life easier.

      Instead of chipping in for the gas, why don’t you hire your son as a driver? Pay him on a contract to drive the other kids around, and pay him enough to cover his costs. Seems the fair thing to me.

    • 13

      Len Penzo says

      I won’t consider this a lesson-learned though, Paul, until Matthew gets a summer job and/or starts saving more money.

  3. 14



    I love the Chevelle. It looks like a ’69-71 model. It’s almost exactly like my first car, which was a ’70 Buick Skylark. GM called it an A-Body.

    The kid is going to be pretty lucky to get this from Grandma for a first car. I suspect he will find a way to put gas in a stylin’ ride like that. Bad news for you parents, because girls are going to be impressed.


    • 15

      Len Penzo says

      I’m pretty sure Grandma’s car is a ’69, Bret. It has lots of potential, that’s for sure. The bad news is, when it comes to cars for teenagers, there are about a thousand other makes/models that would be much cheaper to own!

  4. 16


    I believe they call this a teachable moment! Car insurance alone could be $2,500 per year (California). He can start mowing lawns now to save for it. This may be a good life lesson for him!

    • 17

      Len Penzo says

      Ha! Matthew used to get $10 to mow/trim my front and back lawn (very easy job) — but he lost it, mainly due to lack of interest. So he needs to find another way to make money now.

  5. 18


    Len, I know you know you can’t alter the testosterone influenced teen’s dreams.

    Their mind doesn’t work in a structured fashion like us old folks.

    The contemplative silence was just his way of avoiding more conflict, not that he was “getting” what you said.

    Your only hope is time. Time for his brain to mature. I hope, in the meantime, you won’t do something that would get the social agencies in LA involved…

    • 19

      Len Penzo says

      An interesting take, Dr. Dean! I hope you’re wrong, but you may be right. Like I told Paul, I’ll know if this lesson really sunk in when he starts saving more and gets himself a summer job.

  6. 22

    Landed Gentry (j/k) says

    On a related note, I recently discovered that there is no such thing as a free horse. No matter how beautiful, how fast, how sweet-tempered she may be, she will be a money pit. I do not regret taking the mare in; she was abandoned (it happens all too frequently in this economy) and it has been a wonderful experience for me and my son.
    Just be warned–your “free” horse will be better fed, better shod, and have better medical care than you. Start packing your lunches and mending your clothes, my friends.

    • 23

      Len Penzo says

      As a huge lover of horses myself, I appreciate the tip. Despite your admonition, I still dream of owning one myself one of these days. :-)

  7. 24

    deRuiter says

    Landed Gentry has done a good deed, because of the economy horses are headed in vast numbers to the Mexican slaughter houses. You too can own a horse for nothing or next to nothing. Ask your local large animal vet to find you a suitable horse, or horses (they are herd animals and do better with a companion) and he/she will know of folks looking to give away a good natured, rideable horse to avoid sending it to auction / slaughter. You can cut down on the expense if you have your own land of course. An electric fence allows you to move the fence frequently to fresh grass, saving on hay in nice weather. You can arrange with a local stable to board your horse at a discount or free in exchange for doing work at the stable. You can board someone else’s horse at your home and the money beyond the cost of feed will pay for your horse’s feed, and your horse will have a companion. You still need to pay for shoes or hoof trimming every two months (seek horse with hard feet who doesn’t need shoes if you don’t ride a lot on hard pavement, trimming is cheaper than shoeing, money saving tip!) and twice a year vet visits for worming, emergency vet visits, equine dentist for teeth floating. Buy better quality used tack and take care of it, instead of cheap new tack which may hurt the horse and doesn’t get better with age. Cost for feed (hay and pellets, plus blocks of brown mineral salt and a carrot or apple a day is now running around $200./ month depending upon size of horse, and whether you have energy and space to move an electric fence around to fresh grass every couple of days.

    • 25

      Len Penzo says

      Thanks for the additional information. It looks like cars and horses both require significant cash outlays. (I’ll make sure I plan accordingly.)

  8. 26


    I remember when I was a teenager, I was shocked by how expensive car-related costs were (insurance, gas, repairs and the like) compared to my earning potential ($5.15 at the McDonalds drive-thru. My first job was the ultimate cliche).

    I wondered how on earth anyone earned enough money to afford anything. At that time — good teenager that I was — I read personal finance books and advice, but I couldn’t relate to the advice I read AT ALL. Everything I was reading warned against big-ticket things like buying a “new” car, which I thought was crazy. I mean, these people must live in a fantasy world. Who can afford to even think about buying a new car, when just coming up with $100 requires 20 hours of physically demanding work?

    In retrospect, I should have been brainstorming ways to earn more, or getting into my first entrepreneurial ventures, rather than putting in low-paid hours at McDonalds. C’est la vie.

    • 27

      Len Penzo says

      Yeah, it is tough to make a serious go of it working for minimum wage, Paula. Still, for teenagers living at home, the income is generally enough to get by — plus it hopefully instills a bit of self-respect and strengthened work-ethic along the way! :-)

    • 29

      Len Penzo says

      Why, thank you, Paula! I think that makes you the first fan who is not a relative of mine. 😉

    • 32

      Len Penzo says

      You would hope so, Joy. But sadly, there are plenty of examples out there that prove that’s not always the case.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *