My folks, who don't drive as much as they used to, recently decided to give my son the keys to a 21-year-old farm pickup truck they once used to take him on camping trips when he was little.
He's really happy about that. Besides the memories that are involved, the pickup will handle northeast Kansas winter driving challenges better than his Miata. And my parents and I are happy for him because free is a tough price to beat, especially when used car prices are rising.
Auto industry trade publications report that last month's Cash for Clunkers program cut the heart out of the normal seasonal flow of used cars to dealers' lots. That puts more pressure on dealers to sell new cars. It also hurts their profits because, counterintuitive as it might seem, dealers make bigger profits selling used cars than new ones.
But none of that answers another question; why pay anything if you don't have to? There are at least three ways to get a car for free without risking jail time.
You can accept one as a gift from a relative, friend or even an impulsive celebrity. That's hard to plan on, of course. You can go to work for someone who gives you a company car to use. Good luck trying that in today's job market, even if the recession is supposed to be ending.
Or you can go into advertising. There are companies that will either give you a free car emblazoned with their clients' ad messages or pay you to have yours decked out with the ad message and then drive your mobile billboard around town. Read the fine print before you sign anything though. The deals vary widely.
Financial self-help guru Dave Ramsey's organization insists there is another way to get a free car too. Buy the best used car that you can afford for cash. Stash the payments you otherwise would be making into a savings account. Use that cash and your trade-in to trade up in a couple of years. Repeat as needed. This isn't truly free, of course, but it is very thrifty.
Finally, before you do anything, do the math. As Edmunds.com senior editor Karl Brauer points out, keeping even a relative gas guzzler can be thriftier than borrowing to buy a fuel sipper.