You have to spend money to make money, am I right?

This letter is purportedly from Human Resources to an employee with an older, unsightly car. I don’t know if it’s genuine or not, but the attitude is certainly authentic — it’s just that usually they avoid making it quite so blatant.

We tend to drive our cars into the ground. My wife and I get the least expensive vehicle that has a good reliability rating, and then we drive it forever, or until it breaks down. We are not the types to buy a new car every year for the status (we can’t afford a new car every year, anyway), and I can’t imagine myself ever washing and polishing a utilitarian device like that, anyway.

Fortunately, we college professors can get away with a little slovenliness, but my wife did have at least one incident where she spotted her employer circling around her dinged-up car, scowling. You know there are lots of Americans who will judge you on the presumed prestige of your car, and that spending money on the right upscale things is an important aspect of performative capitalism.

It’s only surprising that, if this letter is genuine, anyone would make the superficiality of the attitude explicit.


  1. mastmaker says

    A car gets you from one place to another. As long as it does so reliably and safely, who cares if it is dinged up or old?
    I buy old cars in good shape (my most expensive car was one I bought last year – A Korean 2006 compact SUV for $3500), maintain the engine and transmission, change tires in time (mostly Michelins from Costco) and run them to ground.
    I bought a CrownVic once for $1700, paid $400 more for seats from a Town Car (they fit like a glove), drove it for 8 years and 80,000 miles before selling it (reluctantly) for $1200. Take that, you snobs!
    My neighbors and my fellow immigrants look down upon me for driving such old and cheap cars, but I don’t give a rat’s ass.

  2. says

    You know there are lots of Americans who will judge you on the presumed prestige of your car, and that spending money on the right upscale things is an important aspect of performative capitalism.

    And here I am, not even having a driver’s license (owning a car is unnecessary in most parts of Europe).

  3. says

    As a thought one might enquire as to how unnecessary expense on a perfectly functional means of transport go to financial soundness of personal policies?
    One might ask as to whether one is contractually obligated to prop up the motor trade.
    One might invite the people in question to f*** off and when they have got there, to f*** of another 5 yards.
    I have never been good at this tact thing or suffering fools gladly.

  4. whywhywhy says

    I use a bicycle to commute and it is over 25 years old and rusting (salt and water during winter do that, have to replace everything but the frame every few years). In other words, it is a very ugly bicycle. I can only imagine the letter that I would receive.

    In other note, I once got pulled over by the police in my driveway for the purported reason of not using my turning signal. In fact, I think they looked at the rusted out old minivan and thought I was there to burglarize the house since the state of the vehicle did not meet the capitalistic aspirations of the neighborhood.

  5. Alan Grant says

    A couple years ago my wife and I moved so I could start my Ph.D. We looked at a “luxury” apartment community relatively close to compus. Turns out any cars more than ten years old weren’t allowed to be kept on the property, or you had to pay an extra $300 per month to rent a garage and keep it in there. I was driving a 2008 Kia Sportage which was only around eight years old and in good condition. No biggie.

    My wife was driving a 2001 Pontiac Grand Am with 200,000+ miles on it that would scream whenever you started it up. All the dash lights were perpetually on, so you never really knew if anything was actually wrong with the car. None of the windows worked and would fall so there were wooden wedges shoved into the door panel to keep that from happening. But the HVAC worked so who cared? The exterior wasn’t in the greatest condition either, but it ran and it was paid for so we were planning on keeping it until after we had moved and got settled in.

    We didn’t know about the car thing and we ended up taking her car to look at apartments. We didn’t get approved.

  6. mordred says

    He, I’m actually kinda proud that the the oldest and most beat up looking car on the company’s parking space happens to be mine. Bought it used about 10 years ago, thinking of getting a new one in 2 years or so.

  7. Dunc says

    I would not be entirely surprised to learn that the “dealerships who we have worked with in the past” to whom they’ll be happy to direct the recipient are run by a relative of at least on of the senders…

  8. robro says

    I can hear the HR guy we listened to yesterday say this is the kind of thing that could get an employer sued.

  9. flexilis says

    We usually bought low mileage used cars and ran them until failure. In 2106 we got our first new vehicle since 1976. I am from a part of the US where a man is judged by the shininess and ground clearance of his pickup truck. Oh, well.

  10. ajbjasus says

    Well a new car is very possibly the worst financial investment you could ever make.

    Could make for Avery interesting discussion with HR !

  11. stroppy says

    Brings to mind the corporate caste system. So 1950’s.

    You don’t show up looking either above or below your station, even outside of work. Gotta pound those round pegs into the proper square holes!

  12. says

    @#2, Andreas Avester

    And here I am, not even having a driver’s license (owning a car is unnecessary in most parts of Europe).

    North America is mostly laid out badly and underserved by public transportation, don’t get me wrong, but comparing it to Europe is genuinely apples-to-oranges in most ways. Europe is geographically tiny — if you cut away all of North America except the mainland US, you would still be looking at about twice the area of the EU, and about the same area of the entire continent of Europe — but with less than half the average population density. Some of the infrastructure niceties of Europe just aren’t possible in North America — realistically speaking, we can’t have the same level of cell phone signal coverage, the same level of Internet penetration, most of our power/phone cables have to be above ground, and small towns out in the middle of nowhere in North America are really out in the middle of nowhere, in a way that European towns never are, so expecting every small town to have things like public transportation just isn’t reasonable. So although North American cities really should have fewer cars than they generally do, it’s not at all unreasonable for America to just have more cars in general, because more people have a genuine need for them.

  13. ajbjasus says


    Understood, and well put.

    It doesn’t explain the US obsession with enormous fuel inefficient trucks though, alltough I guess that’s a bit off topic.

  14. numerobis says

    We’re worried about your financial management skills so we want you to invest in an extensive waste of money.


  15. gaparker says

    I was the fourth owner of a ’79 Camaro from about 1995 until I parted it out in 2004. It was quite rusty and the people working for the third party company who cleaned our offices in the evening generally had nicer looking and much newer cars. Nobody cared. I must disagree, though, with PZ’s comment, “I can’t imagine myself ever washing and polishing a utilitarian device like that”. I’ve always been a “car guy”, and these days I delight in having some older vehicles that still “look like new”.

  16. wzrd1 says

    I’d reply to HR that I’ll happily discuss personnel matters, I will not discuss personal matters.
    However, my attorney will likely find the message fascinating, should any unprofessional personnel matters occur in the future.

  17. microraptor says

    @ 15 & 16: It’s because in the early 20th Century, America actually did build cities designed for pedestrians with robust public transportation. Oil and car companies promptly bought them up and closed them as part of an effort to push automobiles from being luxuries to being necessities. They’ve since devoted considerable amounts of money to prevent public transportation systems from being developed or expanded in many cities across the country.

  18. lucifersbike says

    Andreas Avester @2 and The Vicar @15. I grew up in London where the average speed of traffic is probably less than it was in the 1800s. So I could never see the point of learning to drive. Nor did my wife who grew up in a small town near an autostrada in Italy in the 1960s :) We now live in the centre of a city in the North East of England – her commute to work in the next town is a short bus ride and three stations on the local light rail. It takes her all of 35 minutes at worst. I use a bike for journeys up to about 25 km and bus or train for longer journeys or if the weather is viler than usual. Neither of us can see the point of working to pay for a machine that would spend 90% of the time parked in the street outside our house. If we lived in the Middle of Nowhere, Australia, like my sister, we’d have to rely on a ute.

  19. says

    @#20, microraptor:

    That really only applies to the cities, though. I can’t find it right at the moment, but there was a blog post by an engineer who did the math on roads, cables, and water pipes, and if you could somehow wave a magic wand and replace North America’s infrastructure with Europe’s, you would then have a choice between leaving the density/effectiveness the same as in Europe, in which case you wouldn’t quite cover the entire contiguous 48 states, or you could try to spread it out to cover the whole continent, and you would then actually end up with less coverage than currently exists, because you would have to waste so much of it connecting cities. It’s true that the US has refused to pay for real, grown-up infrastructure, but to build a level of coverage across the entire country which would make it possible for “most Americans” to not need cars would involve paying more than four times per capita what Europeans have paid, between the greater area and the lower population.

    Even in the heyday of railroads, a lot of small towns in the US were farther from the nearest rail line than European towns were/are, and Nowheresville, North Dakota (population 127) is not realistically going to be able to afford a branch line, or generate enough economic activity to get a railroad company to build one, or sometimes even make a bus to the nearest rail stop worthwhile, so there are going to be a lot of cars scattered around the country.

  20. unclefrogy says

    well there was also another interest involved with cementing the automobile that would be the real-estate development interests. For as long as I can remember it has been the sub-division that has dominated, single family houses with lawns are what is sold and it is what people seem to want . While it is true that the transportation business at least in L.A. was bought by the auto business the real-estate development business after WWII (and before as well) had made it impossible to maintain ridership and keep up the expensive equipment. there are simply no centers no hubs and that is a pattern repeated all over the entire country. There are no 1000 year old town squares any where only sprawl with new housing developments sprouting up all over, seemingly from shore to shore.
    people want a house and yard without neighbors through the wall. it is not just the auto makers that are to blame though thye are responsible for the kind of vehicles that they make and sell.
    My current vehicle is a 2004 dodge Dakota which I bought used before that was a 1966 chevy pickup which I bought used as well (one of the best buys I ever made) I would have it still but the millage was not practical any longer.
    uncle frogy

  21. cag says

    In my youth, around 1960, our family had a little roadside stand selling what we grew on the farm. It got to the point that we would speculate on what people would buy/spend based on the vehicle they drove. The beat up old cars would buy and not complain about the price, but one brand of car had, in many cases, a different outcome. Every time a Buick would stop, our first thought was “Buick cheapo”. These were the status seekers of the day, couldn’t afford to eat but had to have the status car.

  22. raven says

    The ignorance and insensitivity of this (supposed) HR guy is astonishing.
    Whoever it is, has no idea what the owner of the old car’s life is like!!!

    .1. The owner could have a child with cancer or a major handicap at home, requiring expensive health and support care.
    They could be paying for their parent’s assisted living memory care facility.
    (Which a friend of mine is now doing.)
    .2. The owner could be saving up for their kidney transplant or their…cancer or other medical treatment.
    .3. They could be supporting their sibling’s children after their sibling’s spouse was killed in a traffic accident or disappeared one day. (Something that is rather common and I’ve seen it many times.)
    .4. They could have two hundred thousand dollars in student loans to pay off and keep getting threatening visits from “Hulk” their friendly bank collection agent.
    .5. They could be sending money to their relatives in some Third World hell, who are hiding from ISIS or some other organized militia group, (often the national army).
    .6. It could be for any number of major, serious reasons.

    The point is, HR has absolutely no way to know what is going on in this person’s life.
    It could be anything or nothing.
    Then again, it is also absolutely none of their business.

  23. says

    We’re also not talking about the weather. PZ lives in Minnesota; I saw a post elsewhere a while back which pointed out that Minneapolis has about the same average annual temperature as Aberdeen — but it gets about 14°C hotter in the summer and about 14°C colder in the winter, and gets more snow in the average winter than the average total annual precipitation for Aberdeen. (And last year they got more snow in one month than the total annual precipitation for Aberdeen.) Solutions which would work in Aberdeen, therefore, are not appropriate for Minnesota. Waiting for a bus in the middle of winter will be worse, water pipes will be exposed to sub-freezing temperatures more often and for longer at a time, etc.

  24. louis14 says

    We have noticed for some time the condition of your lawnmower and wanted to discuss the matter with you. Since of course your annual salary is known to us, and a new and more appropriate looking lawnmower should be within your financial reach, it is our concern that you are having difficulties financially. Frankly, the concern is that if you cannot afford a new lawnmower, then either you are susceptible to fraud or you may not be responsible for the position you maintain.

    Sounds legit.

  25. unclefrogy says

    what you will never see or hear is ‘ “since you seem to be unable to afford a better looking or newer car and we know how much your salary is we have decide to give you a raise of 20% in hopes you can purchase a newer car and uphold the image of our company”
    Mr Burns

    uncle frogy

  26. JustaTech says

    How do we think these HR folks would respond to a really off-the-wall reason for having an older car?
    Like: “This car is all that I have left of my beloved Great Aunt Edna, who raised me after I was orphaned.”
    Or: “As a condition of Great Uncle Moneypant’s will, I must drive this vehicle until it is totaled by my insurance or a period of not less than 15 years if I want to inherit.”

    Both are unlikely, but I have a friend who is still driving the 1998 German sedan his uncle gave up driving at least 15 years ago. It’s a great car, works well, looks good, and hasn’t hit the “impossible to maintain” age yet. Why get rid of something that works fine?

  27. Zeppelin says

    While I don’t understand some people’s obession with cars (I haven’t driven since I got my license), I have to admit that as a German I was shocked by some of the vehicles I saw on the roads and as a passenger in the US. I don’t mean dirt, I mean stuff like Alan Grant @ 6’s wife’s car.
    Cars with important compontents outright broken, bits falling off, that sort of thing. You would get pulled over within 15 minutes if you tried to drive a car like that here. People would turn their heads and stare. I felt pretty unsafe in some of them. It also turned out that none of my American friends could do parallel parking, so I (not having touched a steering wheel since my driving test 4-5 years prior) had to take over :v

  28. komarov says

    Suspcious HR employee,

    we have noticed you have been wasting valuable company time checking up on the transportation and other personal aspects of employees’ lives that have no bearing on anything whatsoever. Since, of course, your annual salary is known to us, we are keenly aware of just how much money you have been wasting and worry you might be susceptible to fraud. Please let us know if there’s a reason for this nonsense or start recruiting your replacement.

    More seriously, if you’re the head of HR in a department that sends out letters like that, you must get a lot of “accidental” scratches, dents and bricks on your car. And noone ever leaves a note…

    Re: raven (#25):

    Let me just get into the corporate vampire mindeset and go through that list of yours:

    1) Health issues that’ll bankrupt the employee and make them “susceptible to fraud” (assuming US healthcare)
    2) Health -> bankruptcy -> fraud
    3) Precarious finances -> fraud
    4) Already bankrupt, is probably stealing spoons and teacups in the canteen right now!
    5) Charity? Very poor financial planning.
    6) Serious? Major? That sounds like it could impact health or finances. Sick employees are unproductive, broke and then all the teacups are missing again.

    Ergo: Fired post haste, with a very formal letter explaining just why they’re also being sued over some missing cutlery.

  29. katahdin says

    Now that I can afford it, I like to buy excellent cars three years old and drive them until I have reason to change. In 2005 I bought a 2002 Lexus sc430 hard top convertible
    which had sold for $70k (it had a $7500 sound system), for $32k with 12k miles on it and sold it in 2018 when I discovered that there had been safety improvements in most cars in 2013. No longer feeling as safe I bought a 2015 BMW hard top convertible , retail $60k for $33k which I may drive forever. Having driven clunkers for most of my life I love driving these high end powerful great driving ,and looking, vehicles. And I don’t mind that some people think more of me because of the car I drive. I grew up poor and like having money and a few things that go with that.
    Agree of course that it’s none of HRs business.

  30. says

    It’s what you get when the local worthies go to the same church as the car dealers. I’ve never bought a new car and recently moved up from a 40 year old one to a 20 year old one. If you buy quality and keep it garaged a car can look respectable for decades. Not sure if the average US made vehicle has any of this keeping ability.

  31. lanir says

    That sounds like the kind of genius, blatantly financially stupid HR decision that leads someone to suggest that foisting all the employees off on a third party who will hire them and manage them will magically make the company produce the same amount while costing less. Because having another useless mouth to feed that’s only looking for handouts and taking as big a slice of the pie as they can manage is totally the way to save money.

    So I wouldn’t worry about that job much if it were me. Either idiots are running the whole business into the ground, you’re in imminent danger of outsourcing or both. And in the rare case that the business is fabulously successful and can sustain that level of idiocy, it won’t last and then these same people are going to be looking for scapegoats. And whoever the letter is addressed to has already been singled out.

  32. lanir says

    Oh, forgot to add above… But if you’re ever outsourced the writing is on the wall. Get out. Get out ASAP. Don’t worry about the company, your coworkers, or anything you normally might consider being nice about. Drop them and run for the exit. If you really like a coworker see if you can hook them up with your new employer. But outsourcing means your pay is going to end up lower, your benefits might as well be completely gone, you’ll be expected to do more work because your new employer promised the assholes that sold you down the river more work for less pay, and while your new employer will want 2 week’s notice if you choose to leave, there’s nothing stopping them from escorting you out of the building with no warning the moment they’re done with you.

  33. Ridana says

    32) @ Intransitive:
    “If this weren’t true, I’d be surprised given that the US allows employers to sue people who quit their job”

    That may be true in Canada (the source you linked to is a Canadian publication), but as far as I can tell (ianal), it’s not so in the US, unless you have a contract that forbids you to quit without notice. At-will employment works both ways. Given the state of our courts over the last few years though, nothing would surprise me anymore.

  34. old210 says

    This letter reminds me of a company I used to work for. True story, BTW:
    A new management team came in with promises to take the company “Forward into the Future.” The new CEO set up a series of meetings to outline their plans and to inform the employees what would be expected of them.
    At the first meeting, he proclaimed the usual management drivel about loyalty, respect, hard work, etc. and then launched into a series of problems he saw concerning the workforce. His list ended with him pointing out that many employees disrespect the company by buying products from our competitors. He insisted since the company GIVES us money, the company should have a say in how we spend it.
    We were all shocked. Well, all of us except the company upper management, who sat there nodding in agreement. Apparently they had been previously indoctrinated with this idea.
    A hand went up in the back, “Since the company GIVES us this money, does that mean we don’t have to actually work?”
    “Oh, no,no,no,” says the CEO. “You still have to work. But it is, after all, the company’s money and the company should have some control over what is done with it.”
    Another hand goes up, “My husband and I loyally buy the company’s products.” The CEO grins broadly as the woman continues, “And since the company’s money comes from US, shouldn’t WE have a say as to what the company does with it, including your salary?”
    The CEO’s smile fades and he turns to glare at the rest of his staff, who apparently hadn’t even considered this counter-argument. The meeting ended abruptly, and the rest of the planned meetings at other offices never happened. A few months later the CEO quietly moved on.

  35. brain says


    owning a car is unnecessary in most parts of Europe

    Definitely not so, unless you mean “it is unnecessary if you live in the center of a major European city”.

  36. says

    @16 The reason the US likes tricks and SUVs so much is down to taxes. Motor manufacturers are required by law to produce a certain number of vehicles with emissions levels at a given (low) point. This can be quite tough, given the US driver preference for large engines. However, agricultural equipment needs to meet much easier standards…and trucks and SUVs thus get classified as agricultural, so manufacturers push sales of those much more.

  37. Dunc says

    The Vicar, @ #22: Sure, but nearly two thirds of the US population lives in cities (rising to three quarters in the mid-West and West), so solutions that only work in cities could still cover a fairly large majority of the population. [source]

    The low average population density for the US is mostly a result of there being very large areas where hardly anybody lives at all. Obviously there can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach in such a geographically diverse country.

  38. John Morales says


    Obviously there can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach in such a geographically diverse country.

    One President to rule them all. Obviously that can’t be so.

  39. ajbjasus says

    @ 41 How interesting, I never knew that.

    I guess any attempt at nudging the good ole boys into more efficient vehicles via tax or legislation would go down like a lead balloon.

  40. Dunc says

    For fuck’s sake John, the context is a discussion of transport infrastructure, you tedious prick.

  41. jack16 says

    I f you can find a good buy, consider a used electric vehicle. Probably hard to achieve but there is a market.


  42. John Morales says

    Dunc @46, ah. Geographical diversity dictates transport infrastructure, then, and the USA is an outlier in that? Elsewhere, one size fits all is possible, right?

    (Very relevant to the OP about people being judged by the condition of their car)

  43. kaleberg says

    Something like this happened to my brother in law when he was a medical resident. My father gave him his old Nissan. My brother in law parked it at the hospital and was told to park it somewhere out of sight by the powers that were.

    To be fair, the trunk hatch was twisted, its lock was missing and it couldn’t close properly. One door was bashed in and the window didn’t close all the way. The driver’s seat had collapsed and was held in place by a metal folding chair wedged in behind it. It is not clear it was street legal. Hell, at the time there were cars in better shape abandoned on the street by thieves and joy riders.

    I’m not a big fan of policing life style choices, but I know folks who work for our rural county and wind up enforcing laws against using a collection of junk cars and trucks as housing for humans or local problem animals. It’s the volunteer firefighters who have to fish out the dead after the fires, and when the neighbors a quarter mile down the road are worried after their children are attacked, it’s nice to have a nuisance law on the books to enforce a clean up.

  44. mikeyk says

    The two “signatures” on an email make it look phony. Why wouldn’t one person just copy another?