The Man Who Gets His Cars for Free


Don’t make this one of your ‘mbitions’

When it comes to the Automobile, you really have a choice between two possible relationships.

You can be the Master, and thoughtfully use cars as a tool as needed to reach your goals. Or you can be a Slave to the auto – worshiping it, allowing it to steal your money, your physical fitness, and your sense of control over your life.

The Master sees the Auto for what it really is: A very elaborate and heavy gas-powered wheelchair. There is no shame in using a wheelchair to get around if you need one. But it’s obviously counterproductive to do so when you don’t. So the Master chooses the most efficient model he can find, keeps it in good condition and uses it only when necessary.

The Slave finds the very definition of the Master to be insulting. “I need my car!”, “And maintaining a certain image is important in my lifestyle and profession!”

So he buys wheelchairs so expensive that he has to borrow money from a bank for them, and so enormous and complex that the ongoing fuel and maintenance costs are more than what he even manages to put into long-term investments each month.

Slaves make up the overwhelming majority of auto users here in the United States. Our irrational habit of spending virtually all of our income on the constant driving of cars we can’t afford is so common that people offer only a speechless dull stare if you mention you don’t do the same thing yourself.

So until recently, I thought I was doing pretty well in the auto department because I get plenty of blank stares. Walking my son to the school in the morning, we notice the zoo-like roads from the comfort of our powerful sidewalk.  Junior office workers swipe on smartphones while idling in BMW M3s. Teachers on $45,000 salaries show up at school in $42,000 Honda Pilots. Young fathers rip the breathable air to shreds as they spool up the turbos in their jacked up Diesel farm trucks after dropping off a 60-pound child.

Meanwhile, my car and van sit in the driveway waiting for the monthly trip to another city or a haul of building materials, burning just a few tanks of gas per year. It’s a complete luxury that I even own these things, but at least the cost is kept down to a reasonable percentage of my income: a hundred or two bucks of fuel, $400 of insurance and registration, and under $1000 of combined depreciation and maintenance per year.

When you compare this spending of $1500 per year with the average two-car family’s spending of over $9000 and assume I invest the surplus, after 10 years you end up with a wealth difference of $104,751. 

That’s 104 grand. Every. Ten. Years. Just by having slightly less new (and slightly more efficient) cars and being slightly less ridiculous about the amount of Car Clown driving we do.

So there I was, going along feeling smug as usual, until I met a new friend named Ben.

Although Ben is an American, we got to talking while riding in adjacent seats on a bus in Ecuador. A fellow fortysomething retiree, it turned out that he was virtually a copy of Mr. Money Mustache, but with strengths in different areas. And one of these differences is in the realm of cars. Ben doesn’t just limit his losses on cars, he makes money on the habit. To the point that he has owned and driven over 50 cars in his lifetime, and sold almost every single one at a profit after he decided to move on.

Suddenly I wasn’t so impressed with myself, but my mind had been opened to a new paradigm about car ownership.

  • Most people assume you should blow everything you earn on cars.
  • Mr. Money Mustache works on the idea of keeping this waste to a minimum.
  • But where we see only loss, Ben creates opportunity and actually makes money on the habit.

So I followed up with him by email to get more information on how he does it. In his own words:

The Man Who Gets His Cars for Free

by Ben M., a Mustachian who lives in Maine

My friends think I’m crazy. “You look like a grease monkey! You went to a fancy college, saved enough money to retire early, speak another language, etc. just to work on a creeper, stuck under a car?”

It’s true. I’ve reached FI and I work on cars. Junky older cars, not even fancy restorations or sports cars. Why? because I like to drive and I like free. So I found a way to combine them.

I have to say that one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life was when I fixed some fancy Honda MaxiVan* sliding doors for $4 in parts and an hour of my time tinkering (well, OK, I did some research online for about an hour as well, from the cozy comfort of my couch and there was nothing else I would rather have been doing). Seriously – it was WAY better than when I got my degree, or landed my first consulting gig in Tokyo, or won any race. $4! Take that, Honda Stealership!

Driving is a right here in America, not a privilege. Or at least car ownership is. I know it’s supposed to be the other way around, but it’s always been shocking to me how many people seem to believe they’re entitled to a car, but then stop right there and forget that how they get a car, and what type of car they get are entirely up to them. And if they go a step further (and they’re Mustachian Car Drivers – yes, we exist!), they can do the impossible (according to MMM): Driving For Free.

Yes my friends, DFF is not just for people with trust funds or car sponsorships and I am living proof.

My vehicle background begins with my first car back in the 80s and continues to today, and not one of my literally 50+ vehicles has been sold at a loss. In fact, at times, I’ve made significant profits buying, fixing, driving and selling cars, all with the goal of DFF. I’ve made great friends, learned tons of fun stuff and gotten from Point A to Point B in a motorized barcalounger, all while earning money.

So, how do I do it?
Here are some simple rules:

Buy low.
Almost all of my purchases these days are made simply by searching Craigslist. Once in a while I hear about someone (foolish) trading in their car or better yet, paying to have it junked and I swoop in and match any offer since I know any dealer offer has plenty of profit in it.

My first DFF deal in Maine was when my wife’s coworker lamented the “dead” Subaru Forester in his driveway and said he was having it junked for $100. I readily offered to trade him a crisp (single!) piece of boring paper in exchange for 3100 pounds of high tech steel and plastic – a complex machine that has the power of hundreds of horses and four wheel drive to boot! What a deal. I drove it for a few months (can you say four-wheel-donuts-make-winter-in-Maine-more-fun five times fast?) and sold it to a friend in need (bankrupted by the health care system [and a brain tumor] but that’s another story) having covered all of my expenses, including all the gas I used, insuring and registering it, AND the cost of all the repairs and inspection.

Look for neglected cars.
My wife thinks I should start a little company called Ben’s Foster Cars. I foster cats for the local shelter – unwanted animals that usually have nothing wrong with them but for various reasons their owners are no longer interested in caring for them. Some are pretty much ready to be re-homed, others have a little damage. The same goes for cars – there are tons of cars, EVERY DAY, being sold/traded in/junked that are just a little TLC away from being reliable, safe and enjoyable but the current owner just can’t see it.

My current ride is a 2001 Honda Odyssey. The seller was tired of it and even let me know during our meeting (“I just want to get rid of it. We need room in the driveway and we already bought a new car”- not the best negotiating on his part, huh?) and it had some deferred maintenance and one major problem (in his mind) – the sliding doors on both sides were not working.

He called the dealer and was quoted $1K per side to repair the doors. A minivan without side doors is really just a small box truck so what was he to do? Dump it on Craigslist. I got it for $500, spent $4 on parts and had both doors working in my first hour of ownership. I detailed it, registered and insured it, did the minor repairs necessary to pass the safety inspection and now I have a killer, leather/heated-seated, luxury MaxiVan that so far has cost $878 including gas, registration and insurance. I am planning to sell it next month and will ask $1000 more for it. DFF and then some!

Research, research and more research.
Find a car you know/like/want and check out all the cars in your area online. You will start to develop an innate knowledge of what a 200x Honda Odyssey is worth so you’ll be able to quickly respond when you see one that’s underpriced. The seller will often fully admit why they don’t want/like the car – that’s your chance to not only research the frequency of those issues, but you also have a great prybar with which to separate their thought of what it’s worth from what you’re willing to pay. They’ve handed you the psychological keys to their wallet.

I wasn’t lying when I pointed out to the Odyssey owner that it certainly was a large vehicle and that I wasn’t sure if it would fit in MY driveway… but that I was willing to take that risk (and remove it from his driveway, conveniently) for the right price.

Do as much work as you can, yourself:
This includes the research part. Case in point: I had a 1990 Montero with a frozen brake caliper. Before I learned how to do this myself, I called a few shops to get quotes. They were all around $300 for a front brake job. Then I did a bunch of research – watching YouTube videos showing the entire job, pricing the parts, etc. I then made calls back, telling the shop exactly what I needed done, that I had parts, and asking what their T&M (Time and Material) rate would be, knowing that even John Amateur on YouTube did it in under 2 hours. Voila – I get a not-to-exceed quote of 2 hours at $75/hour. Half the original price, since I did the research and made it much easier for the mechanic to feel like he would be able to make quick money on the deal.

Remember, that original quote was not because the mechanic was sleazy; she was just trying to cover the possibility that it was much more involved (sight unseen).

As I did more research, I began to notice that other successful DIY mechanics people I saw or read about were normal people like me, with normal, cheap tools and a desire to learn and save money. Now I do brake jobs myself, and know that if I ever get in over my head, I’m just left where I was when I started – having a car with no brakes.

Sell quickly and at a modest price:
I don’t set out to make money though it always ends up happening. The goal is DFF, remember? In the case of the Forester, my friend still got a killer deal (since I sold it at cost) because I bought it so low and only priced it at my cost. All of the other vehicles I’ve sold have been very fairly priced and every buyer has walked away from the negotiation happy. This comes from knowing the market, having cash ready to pounce on a good deal, and keeping my expenses low.

This includes shopping for the best insurance deals, separating accessories from the vehicle when documenting the purchase** and in Maine, rolling over registrations from one vehicle to the next***. When it comes time to sell it, I price it according to the market and the research I’ve done, and I value my time so I keep it fair. I also market the heck out of it with really good photos (and I use all 24 photo spots CL offers), concisely written ad copy and honest details. I respond super quickly and politely to every contact I receive and I offer incentives to friends and even strangers to sell it “for” me by telling their friends, etc. I’ve had potential buyers decide they don’t want a car, but end up bringing me a friend of theirs who wants to buy it!

The point is:
You can do this. It can be at a high level (maybe you want a Subaru WRX and who am I to judge you for wanting that? That’s MMM’s job…!) or a low one (search Craigslist with a <$1500 filter and see how many awesome cars there are) but the point is to come from the DFF perspective and you just might surprise yourself.

Here is a list of some of the more memorable or recent transactions. All cars from Craigslist unless otherwise noted):

The List:
2003 Jetta TDI wagon – bought for $5200 after five months of searching online; knew I wanted over 40MPG without the magic (and complexities) of a hybrid. Later sold for $6500.
2005 Toyota RAV4 – bought for $19,000 back when we lived in California, enjoyed it for five years. When we moved to Maine,  got someone to drive it here for free and sold it here as a rust-free California car for $18,000.
2006 Jetta TDI – bought for $3900 and it’s still my wife’s car. Learned a lot from that first diesel. Started with a failing camshaft and luckily for me, the owner only went to the VW stealership for a quote (of $6200!). I didn’t lift a finger on this car except to call an independent shop after doing my research. Got it fixed for $900 total.
2003 Saturn Vue – bought for $1000 from a guy who had a bad breakup and this was his ex’s car (remember that psychological prybar?). ‘nuf said. Later sold for $2500.
2001 Subaru Forester – you know about this one already!
1999 Audi A4 Quattro – Bought for $900 because seller didn’t realize color matched paint comes in a spray can. Sold for $2000. It’s amazing what a million little scratches do for depreciation…
2002 Passat AWD Wagon – Bought for $1000. Seller was tired of the car failing to start on cold mornings and having the Check Engine Light on all the time. Invested $8 in spark plugs. Later sold for $3480.
1988 Chevrolet 2500 pick-me-up truck w/plow – Seller bought a house in winter with an old truck in the back yard, covered w/snow. I offered $400 knowing the plow blade alone was worth that. Turned out to just need fluid changes and it fired right up! Separated the plow and sold it separately. Sold for a total of $2,000, making 500% markup on the entire package.
1999 Mercedes ML320 – Bought for $1000 – Seller waited until a week before they were moving out of the country. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Meet my friend Ben Franklin! Later sold for $2100
1997 Toyota Tercel Blackhawk (ooh! Google it!) – Seller thought it had a transmission issue. Turns out the brakes were all seized from rust. Brute force and ignorance (aka a sledge hammer and nothing to lose) and I drove it home after I paid him $400 for it. Sold it for $1300.
2004 Honda Element – Belonged to seller’s ex-wife. It had a cracked radiator so no heat. Bought for $1300. Replaced the radiator, bought a used hood to replace the dented one and sold this highly-desirable, cult car for $6500.
2008 Mercury Grand Marquis – offered to me by an elderly neighbor’s out-of-state family when they came to dispense w/his property and heard I was a “car guy”. I offered to help sell it; they asked for quick $. I offered to match dealer trade-in of $3200. Later sold it for $6200.
2003 Kia Sedona Van – Seller’s rich mother handed down her fancier car. I pointed out how the neighbors in their McMansions didn’t have surplus cars outdoors cluttering their pretty driveways…and flashed some cash. Bought for $1250, sold at cost to a local school.
2003 Honda Odyssey – Seller hit a deer and dented the front quarter panel and hood. Replaced these parts from the local junkyard. Also the passenger windows wouldn’t go up after the accident so the interior got wet. Seller haphazardly covered windows with plastic but got sick of it and bought a new car. Bought for $1000. Turned out the child safety switch had been tripped by the collision – I flicked a switch and closed the windows for the first time in 6 months (and avoided the stealership quote of $600 to replace window regulators). Sold at cost to local school
2001 Honda Odyssey – you know this one.
1990 Mitsubishi Montero – given to me for free by a Californian acquaintance who was tired of her old (yet very reliable) car. It failed smog in CA and rather than pursue repair, it came to Maine where it’s a highly desirable hipster rig with NO RUST. I still drive this one but it’s worth about $4k.
2001 Mercedes C320 – Seller came out to a dead car one morning and almost lost his job for being late (I’m guessing this wasn’t the first time). Took a taxi to work and then a taxi to the stealership after work. Couldn’t be bothered to do any research so I bought it off him for $1000. Sold to a local friend in need at cost. Another cheap Benz for DFF!
1989 Jeep Wrangler w/Plow – my latest project. I’ve always wanted a plow rig. I found this up North (very sparsely populated) and knew as soon as I saw it that it was underpriced. Took my trusty prybar (Seller said it wasn’t “truck enough” for him) and a few pieces of green paper (man, people love trading real stuff for abstract stuff!) and now I have a Cheap DFF Jeep! Bought for $2250, current market value is $5k including plow.

* Like Mr. Money Mustache, Ben considers US “Minivans” to be absolutely huge, so he calls them MaxiVans.

**In most states, the DMV needs to know the sale price to calculate taxes and other fees. I don’t advocate tax evasion, but do appreciate tax efficiency. If the jeep is worth $1500 and the plow, extra tires, cool Hello Kitty seat covers and Truck Nutz (trucknutz.com) are worth another $1000, then I’m going to be sure to document that I paid $1500 for the truck, not $2500.

***Learn about the rules in your state. In Maine, for example, we remove the plates from a vehicle when it’s sold; the plates can then be transferred to your next car for a small fee.

++Keep in mind that I have legally and fully registered, paid taxes on and insured every car I’ve owned and I’ve driven them as my own. I’m always looking not only to DFF but also to find the car of my dreams. If only the former happens, I sell it. So, I’m not a dealer; I’m a guy looking for the right car and I can honestly say that to anyone who asks.

An Epilogue From MMM:

It turned out that Ben and his wife and I got along so well (plus each family has a single 10-year-old kid), that we decided our families should meet. We booked a vacation rental for next month on an island in South Florida and started working on logistics.

Should we rent a minivan? (Ben emailed me a Craigslist posting entitled “2004 Chevrolet Venture LS – $800” and said we could drive it for a week then sell it at a profit. Minutes later another one arrived for a big old Chrysler Sebring convertible for a similar price.)

How much is the water taxi to get out to the island? (Posting for a 6-person paddle boat for $80 on Fort Myers Craigslist)

Where can we get food? Fun? Bikes? All questions readily answered with just a few seconds of research.

You adopt this philosophy very casually or dive right in as Ben has done. The point is that resourcefulness and not following the standard consumer script pays great dividends, in both money and fun.

  • Graham January 29, 2016, 7:07 pm

    Oh shit, did my last comment not go through?

  • ArboristByTrade January 29, 2016, 8:24 pm


    I am in the process of reading through your whole blog, start to finish, and your comment here seems like a nice one-liner to summarize

    “find ways to spend less of your life in a car”

    Love it.

  • thiseye January 29, 2016, 8:46 pm

    Definition of DFF? Driving for fun? It’s not mentioned anywhere. Love the article, nevertheless!

    • Kellie January 31, 2016, 12:20 pm

      Driving for Free

  • SwordGuy January 29, 2016, 9:41 pm

    I mentioned this article to a friend at work. He’s smart, capable, thoughtful, and one of the most well-read people I’ve ever met. I was very surprised by the result.

    It was as if I could see him actually building up the mental defenses necessary to discard the possibility that this could be true. It clearly appeared to threaten some core worldview.

    It was somewhat bizarre.

  • Adam January 30, 2016, 2:46 am

    “From the comfort of my powerful sidewalk” – that made me laugh out loud, brilliant!

  • Jaydub January 30, 2016, 7:56 am

    While my wife and I are debt free and in the building wealth stage of life in our late 40’s (we did non-profit work for many years in South America making very little which makes us late to the retire early party but we are so glad to have our lives enriched by the experience), I make my profit by using cheap cars and get my employer to pay me mileage to use them. I do all my own maintenance, including tire changes, timing belt changes, etc. I’m an engineer for a utility company and have to do a lot of field visits.

    My last car, a ’94 Honda Civic sedan, with a very large race stripe painted on the hood, had 150k miles on it when I bought it. Long story short, it was a craigslist buy at a negotiated $1500. Fast forward 4 years and the car is now at 280,000 miles still running like a champ. The best part is after taking out the fuel costs, parts costs, I still pocketed over $16k from mileage checks. That’s my best investment vehicle (defined both ways haha) I’ve ever made in my life.

    Co-workers used to laugh at me driving junk for the company until I told them how much I made on it. A few of them use leased vehicles and have to pay overage on their miles. I was raking in money while they pay money to the stealership for the privilege of using their cars for the company…idiots! Pay more money than you take in to use the vehicle for the company? Yep, many do…and they justify it by saying they’re more comfortable, yadda yadda.

    I finally bought a 2005 Civic as a replacement ($2k under KBB) and gave that 94 to a broke friend and I hear it’s going strong with over 300k miles. Sure, it looks stupid with that racing stripe but it sure made me money. I’ve had the 05 for 2 years and KBB is still higher than I paid for it and I’ve made a few thousand bucks in mileage on it.

  • passiveKonnoisseur January 30, 2016, 11:03 am

    Know what I don’t need? A car. Know what I have been looking at for 45 minutes? A car. Dang you!!! Found some good deals too, it is the worst.

  • Florida Mike January 30, 2016, 2:59 pm

    I’ve worked on cars as a hobby since I was in high school so learning the basics is very possible. My only problem is some 30 years later, I buy them when I see them on a great deal but never sell them…like the BMW motorcycle I found for a steal yet still haven’t ridden it much after 3 years. :)

  • Dave January 30, 2016, 4:42 pm

    Having worked on an automobile assembly line for a number of years I am continually amazed how fast people trade in their cars. With the number of parts engineering and labour used to put them together they should be keeping them 10 years minimum. Anything less and people are surrendering to the non stop advertising and furthering mindless consumerism not to mention parting with a huge chunk of their hard earned dinero

  • Mike Hardy January 30, 2016, 6:23 pm

    As it happens I have a trip to Florida planned soon, for around a month. That’s usually a breakeven point for buying a beater vs renting a car so after reading this I looked into it more deeply.

    In order to legally register the car in Florida (which is a requirement right? not just a technicality?) after purchase and for title transfer etc, you’ll need to change drivers’ license to Florida, which also requires changing residence to Florida. And to get the DL itself you have to take a written and driving test – a nontrivial use of time.

    Now, Florida is not a bad state to establish residency in for a few reasons for a few groups of people (those that live there, those that live outside the US, and those that travel permanently within the US like fulltime RVers), but for those that actually have a house in a different state it gets a bit sticky quickly – the tax complication of two states fighting for you over residency during an audit is the sort of thing Kafka stories could be made of

    And then there’s the frictional cost of the sale, in terms of time taken, even if $0 cash

    So I completely dig the idea of “driving for free” by buying low, adding value, and selling high(er), I don’t think it’s really viable to do a vehicle purchase as substitute for a “short or medium term rental” if the vehicle is something regulated/licensed. Maybe the paddleboat then…

    So the real question to me is – did you do (or are you really planning to do) this during the vacation? If so, how’d it work?

  • Businessgypsy January 31, 2016, 10:27 am

    I’ve done this, off and on, for decades. More as entertainment than anything else. If it’s fun to get your hands dirty, it’s not the same spreadsheet item as “having” to do something or “being frugal.”

    So, I live on the Caloosahatchee just upriver from Sanibel/Captiva. Send me a PM (guessing you’ve got my email, as it was asked for in the comment protocol) if you and your new friends would like to stop by for a Jambalaya dinner and a few beers by the fire by the seawall. We’ll be around except for the end of Mardi Gras (Feb. 5 – 12th,) when we head home to New Orleans for Carnival. Also can lend you some kayaks to use during your stay. I’ve been exchanging meals, lodging and sports equipment with folks all over the world for all my adult life – another way to make the things we own larger and more useful than they would be otherwise. Spread the fun, spread the utility, live large on a small budget!

  • Money Stoic January 31, 2016, 10:37 am

    Ok..current car roll call with price paid:

    1999 Toyota Camy. 1 year old to me. Only 60,000 miles on it and two huge dents.
    $0 to purchase (2 hours of barter website work in kind). 150 one time VAT tax and $350 to insure per year.
    30 mpg @ 1.59 gas a gallon.

    $0 in repairs done. Good tires. Should last 100,000 more miles/ 10 years before major repairs kick in

  • Jackson January 31, 2016, 1:02 pm

    I could use input as we try to save all we can. Although we are a 2 car family ( dropping 1 car after we retire) my 2003 Toyota only has 14000 miles on it- a bit over a thousand miles a year. I keep it in top shape. Paid for it in cash, new. Low maintenance. Any reason I should sell it? I hope the answer is no but I’m open to any suggestions. Maybe I’m missing something.

    We have the Toyota because: my spouse works erratic and sometimes long hours, has to travel without much advance notice and we live in a city where the climate doesn’t always allow me to bike or walk everywhere ( although I do when I can). But the MAIN reason for the car is our special needs child. When a health issue arises, I have to be able to get in the car and rush to a clinic or hospital. No time to wait for a taxi or call my husband ir a friend.

  • GlennR January 31, 2016, 2:13 pm

    Cars usually aren’t too difficult to repair, if you have the tools and a place to work on them. Minor repairs can be done outdoors when the weather permits. If you are an absolute beginner community colleges are a great way to learn cheaply. You Tube is awesome if you have a little knowledge already, or even if you have a lot of experience & just want to see the actual job before tearing it apart yourself. There are usually little tricks & slight differences between different brands & models.
    Always shop around for parts & to price out the job before going to the trouble of doing it yourself. A shop with a lift & the right tools on hand can do many jobs cheaply enough that it’s just not worth your time & potential trouble. (You’ve always got to think about “surprises” that can cause extra trouble. If you get stuck & can’t complete the job, how much will the tow truck charge?

    Be careful about buying customized vehicles. Lift kits ruin expensive suspension & drivetrain components. You can’t make any money after doing a complete front end rebuild & brakes. Beware of “stupid looking” vehicles from rednecks or punks. They know how to ruin cars & trucks.

    • dave February 3, 2016, 3:27 pm

      Lol just today I saw a young kid in a subaru wrx with a big bumper sticker that boldly stated “I VOID WARRANTIES”. This is one of those punks that you do not want to buy a car from.

  • Simon Kenton January 31, 2016, 2:56 pm

    At law enforcement school, my firearms instructor told me that when he and his wife first started their marriage, their agreement was that he could have $200 for a gun account; the rest of his earnings went to the family account; he would never use the family money for his hobby; when the gun account was once empty, it was done. When I knew him it was about 15 years later. The gun account contained 60 guns and $58000 (about $175000 in present dollars).

    I never had enough interest to develop the knowledge of value in guns and the ability to fix them that he had. The point is not guns or cars but the vision of value and the ability to supplement it, in his case by repairing them. I think of him occasionally while finding closed-end, dividend-paying value-based mutual funds selling at deep discounts.

  • Joel January 31, 2016, 4:13 pm

    I’ve done this exact same thing for nearly 20 years (I’m an electrical/software engineer too). It’s getting harder, but I’ve now owned now over 150 cars, 90% profitably. I’m not 100%, but I did really well. I got to drive some GREAT car through all this – lots of fun stuff! This is the best way to own cars if you can just learn how to find the info in the forums online, then learn how to turn a few wrenches. Lots of variety, some fun along the way, and it turns into side income somewhat. This has gotten notably harder for me to do since 2008 though. Lots of people looking to flip cars WITHOUT fixing them up makes this more difficult today – it takes some diligence.

  • Mr. Magoo February 1, 2016, 9:11 am

    Great advice, this is exactly how I get home appliances on the cheap. Buy them at scrap price because needs a new switch/valve and bask in the feeling of accomplishment! Last spring I bought my Scion xA on the cheap because it was lowered and no one else wanted it. Seller even had the stock springs in a box. I bought the cheap xA and spent an afternoon changing the springs and then a $50 alignment. Afterwards, I sold the aftermarket springs and thug life wheels off the car and bought steel rims at junkyard for $50 as well as LRR tires. I think I got the car for about $4300 all said and done, low miles, well maintained, and very clean.

  • Matt G February 1, 2016, 1:41 pm

    I agree with the general gist of the post, but it seems quite clear (and is even mentioned at one point) that Ben is a “Car Guy” – that this is his interest and hobby, and he enjoys pouring hours of his free time into doing things like learning the auto market, scouring car listings to uncover deals, learning how to repair a car, and sometimes actually personally fixing said car himself (hours which are realistically necessary for a practice like this to be successful). I used to, and still occasionally do this kind of thing, so I do acknowledge the value in it, but one has to realize that this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and not everyone has the time or desire to pour hundreds of man hours into researching cars in the pursuit of “DFF”. If it is your hobby, that’s great, but Ben’s general tone here is that he’s discovered a Secret of the Universe, and is amazed that more people don’t abide by the same creed. I think a more generalized “life hacking” approach is warranted, as mentioned by commenter Stephen above – try to find a way to make your own interests profitable, whether they lie in real estate or web design. Time and energy are finite, and not everyone finds it pleasing or profitable to spend so much of these resources engaged in hacking the auto market. Still, great ideas and info in this post for those that are interested, and a great way of thinking about life and car ownership nonetheless!

  • JWU February 1, 2016, 5:20 pm

    I agree with this concept, and would like to do something like this once I reach the point where I can take it up at leisure – but what about the situation where you honestly like to drive? I mean, I could care less about what society says about getting a fancy car or what not, but at the same time, you can’t deny there are differences between how different cars drive – granted, with stuff like the mazda mx-5s around, I see no reason for anything more expensive but still – kind of a different factor for some I’d think…

  • Max Schneider February 1, 2016, 5:42 pm

    The thing that everyone here patting themselves on the back keeps forgetting that you are adding value to the car by fixing it. Sure you pay less (in money) but you pay in time. If you enjoy tinkering with the car, that’s totally fine. But if you don’t particularly enjoy it, well, you get the drift.

    Even by selecting the car / finding the deal you are adidng value to it because you don’t know more than the average Joe because you are so smart but because you invested the time researching it/trolling craigslist etc. Is it a fun thing to do? Sure. Does it *really* pay? I’m not so sure…

    I like to work on bicycles. It makes me focus. I like the feeling when I make a wreck rideable again.

    Those bicycles are given to me by friends for free (“Hey, I have a really old bicycle in the garage which is broken, you want it? Otherwise I’ll trash it”). I find them around (usually stolen/abandoned ones => I turn them over to the city’s lost & found, if nobody claims them within six months they are legally mine, for a small fee). People ask me to help them fix their bicycles. I always say *you* have to do it but I can tell you what to do / help you doing it (I usually end up doing most of the difficult work, but I’m not their mechanic. They need to be involved, otherwise they come back with every tiny problem. My goal is teaching, like the “teach them how to fish” proverb). (“Price” is; they have to cook me dinner) (See: I don’t like cooking, but they do)

    Once those bicycles are fixed I sell them. Of course I make a profit. But: if I want to make more than minimum wage doing it I have to do a quick & dirty job and get lucky. I can’t really do it properly even if no parts over 5$ are needed. If I do it properly I’ll “make” less than minimum wage or just about that.

    But I enjoy tinkering with bicycles – that’s why I keep doing it. And of course I enjoy gaining the experience (“you can’t break a broken bike you got for free – the worst that might happen is junking it”). This tinkering also justifies the “tool habit” that comes with it.

    Of course my own bicycles have never been happier and never been in a better shape – because now I know what I am doing and have the experience to actually be sure to be able to do the necessary job(s).

    But I know I can’t really think “Wow – I just sold a bike I got for free for 100 bucks” even if I *did *- because I spent time fixing and thereby adding value to it.

  • Acroy February 2, 2016, 9:38 am

    Great story BUUUUT:
    Unless Ben is very accurately counting all his expenses, it’s nonsense.
    For instance the fluids in the “500%” truck were not free!
    Taxes, Fluids, Tires, Registration… it adds up quickly. I bought one car for $17k and sold for $19.5k. Profit, right? no, barely broke even…
    I’m a car guy… it’s VERY difficult to be honest.

    • nevlis February 2, 2016, 10:04 am

      This. Transmission fluid and engine oil can be up there. Also, it’s easy to not account for the incidental expenses like hand cleaner, shop towels, buckets, car wash, glass cleaner, carpet cleaner, etc. Not to mention that going from no tools to all the tools necessary for the job may not break the bank, but all those little $5-10 tools you score on CL can add up quickly. Then, add in the tool chest to hold them all… or the air compressor and air tools you end up justifying.. or that land you’re thinking about buying just so you can build a shop with a lift and have a nice place to work on your car projects…

  • Brazo February 4, 2016, 6:02 am

    • Mr. Money Mustache February 7, 2016, 6:02 am

      Yeah, kinda sad but not really: the Scion xAs, xDs and xBs already produced are enough to keep Mustachians supplied for at least the next 20 years, which is already longer than the remaining era of the gas-powered car anyway.

      Bring on the electrics! (and shortly afterwards the autonomous Uber service so people don’t even need to own cars).

  • Skipper February 4, 2016, 9:07 am

    I started doing this with motorcycles last year. I stumbled on it by accident when I bought a used bike for $1000 to ride across the country, and it came with a “parts bike” that was almost complete and had a title. The running bike alone, after I cleaned the carb and fixed a bunch of little things (and learned a ton in the process – thank you YouTube!), I could probably sell for at least twice what I paid, and I still intend to make the parts bike run. The limiting factor on this game is the number of bikes my girlfriend will tolerate on her property ;)

  • Hudstache February 5, 2016, 8:42 am

    Seeing this article on MMM makes me happy to no end. A big part of my pre- and hopefully post-fire life is doing exactly this but on a larger scale (think vintage Italian sports cars). I caught so much flak for it on the forums that I was really starting to doubt myself, but fortunately stuck to my guns because the numbers work. It’s nice to have validation that enjoying driving doesn’t have to constitute a crime against financial independence.

  • Eric February 5, 2016, 12:15 pm

    This is the most interesting blog post I’ve read today. I just recently bought a 1998 Honda Accord for driving to and from work mostly. It has 280k miles and I bought it for $750. It’s valued at around $1200 so I’ll probably ride it around for about 6 months and then try to sell it for a small profit.

  • J P Frogbottom February 5, 2016, 2:22 pm

    Really enjoyed the DFF article. While I’m not yet ready to give up my 1993 Cadillac with now 74,000 miles on it, I still enjoy an automotive bargain.

  • Doug February 5, 2016, 3:58 pm

    This is a great idea given that most of the people reading this are going to keep a car around for occasional use like me. It still doesn’t change the fact, though, that driving as more than an occasional splurge is not doing your waistline, your gasoline budget, or your air quality any favors. Plus you’re not actually driving for free, you’re just getting dumb people’s ridiculous clown car habit to pay for your own. MMM still has license to feel a ridiculous dose of smug superiority in the school dropoff line. Good idea, though, if you’re going to be ridiculous like me and keep a one ton metal wheelchair around just for occasional joyrides.

  • Hawthorn February 6, 2016, 3:18 pm

    I have basically done this most of my life, but the strategy has its problems too. For example, I live in upstate New York and some things are very difficult to fix when you don’t have a garage and it is below zero, sleeting, or pitch black. I don’t care how much you like working on cars, it is not fun to be out there crawling under a car in the winter. The other issue is that some people are simply not cut out to do it. My wife could never even contemplate the idea–she might be able to change a tire, but for her it would be worth paying someone many times what any repair is worth to simply not have to do it. You shouldn’t do things in life that make you miserable no matter how much money they are saving you!

  • ks February 7, 2016, 5:59 pm

    hmm, the failures and losses are conspicuoulsy absent here. Surely there must have been some poor decisions.

  • Rosanne February 8, 2016, 8:47 am

    I think this same method can be applied to almost any item. It only requires knowledge and commitment. I love high end furnishings and have found, bought, fixed and sold all the while upgrading my personal pieces. My style may appear very un-mustachian (Baker mahogany dining set, folk art portraits, a wing chair covered in Brunschwig “le Lac”, etc…), but the actual cost of these pieces was comparable to awful (my apologies to those who own these things, but remember I am a design snob) overstuffed sofas and recliners , rugs made of synthetic materials and art that looks like it came from Marshall’s. I make my own window treatments using my regular Singer machine, and therefore have lined and interlined drapes. I have a friend who purchases clothing items at a nearby consignment store during their twice a year sale. She buys crazy good labels, takes impeccable care of them. She uses a clothes brush on pieces after each wear and airs them out. Handbags and shoes get wiped. She polishes handbag hardware and even occasionally stains or treats the leather. Then after using a year or two of use she sells on ebay and gets her money back or makes a profit. I think if you love something pricey,you can always figure out a way.

  • Jenny February 8, 2016, 8:21 pm

    A couple years after I graduated from college, I was moving across the country and wouldn’t need a car where I was headed. So, I sold the old VW Passat I’d been driving for a couple of years for $800 on CL. (I paid only $2000 for it, learned to drive a manual transmission on it, and still walked or bused most placed while I owned it, so even though it wasn’t DFF, it was a good investment.) The dude who bought it, though, was super smart. He had a friend coming to stay with him for a couple of months from abroad, and renting a car for that length of time was astronomically expensive. Instead, he paid me $800 cash for my old, slightly decrepit car, and planned to sell it for at least that much — if not more — two months later. I was massively impressed.

  • Selva February 9, 2016, 9:10 am

    Interesting blog and nice article!
    After reading few, I already feel like i already a mmm, but with little knowledge.

    After 3 years of public transports, shared rentals with friends averaged $100/mo on commuting finally I spent 2grand on my first dodge from a friend who got it from auction(you know how much we both saved). used it until it meet an accident and sold it for a grand. Was it a 1grand loss? No, including myself, 7 of my friends used it to learn driving including rough handling to all of our needs and everyone got license!
    That was a saving about 3grand on rentals. You won’t understand unless you are a foreigner.

    No I am not college kid. If I want, I can get any new car with lowest rate of interest or buyout. I see car as basic equipment to go one place to another, not a fancy one.

    Now got a well maintained Prius top end for a nice price at 50k miles on it from a ford dealer (Toyota dealers had similar car for 5+more grand). Just got it for less contribution to pollution, less gas means less waste, intelligent car with high efficient engine. Yes, I got it it is not for people with rocking acceleration. Now with gas prices rocketing;) I spend around $30 per mo, that’s all commuting in my car for everything. One thing I am not able to cut down is insurance. Spending 1 grand for insurance is ridiculous. May be I will pay off bank( just keeping for loss interest) and go minimal to save 500/yr. Just keeping auto loan to fast boost credit history to get best rate on home.

    I used to do share commute to office, so u enjoy less gas, faster lanes, and make friends. Now enjoying riding alone! Can I be more frugal? Yes, but I like to enjoy my life as I save.

    English is one of these language I speak. Sorry if it doesn’t please.

  • Jared February 10, 2016, 8:55 am

    I worked as an auto tech for a few years, SO this should work out well. But I don’t particularly enjoy buying and selling cars. Though I plan on buying a decent used car and maintaining our existing car at home. One car for the 2 of us works but the expense of a second car that is rarely driven is pretty low, and worth it when you need it.

  • Taylor February 11, 2016, 3:00 pm

    I love this post, and I’ve seen the lucrative possibilities of this approach first hand with motorcycles.

    I LOVE motorcycles, but I live in a place in Colorado that makes them a completely impractical mode of transportation for at least 50% of the year. As much as I’ve tried to rationalize riding motorcycles as a way to save on gas and decrease my carbon footprint, this isn’t really justifiable. They’re basically a luxury item.

    BUT I’ve also fostered a love for working on motorcycles over the years. And living in a place where motorcycles aren’t at all in demand through the long winter leaves a plethora of underpriced two wheeled vehicles on the local market, especially those that need some work.

    Over the last few winters I’ve been able to turn my motorcycle addiction from something typically seen as an expensive hobby into a profitable, fun, side business. I’ve learned a ton, and every year when the snow flies I have no trouble finding the next profitable motorcycle project. When spring rolls around demand for two wheeled fun machines sky-rockets and I have no problem unloading my winter projects for a healthy profit.

    I love hearing about someone’s ingenuity and seeing the same results realized with cars. I’ve never ventured into 4-wheeled projects, but I know this could work with a little ingenuity after seeing it first hand in the motorcycle niche.


  • Alternate Priorities March 7, 2016, 2:04 pm

    I think I’ve read all your posts on driving and I can’t recall any mention of hitchhiking. It seems sharing a ride with someone who is already going the same direction anyway is ultimate mustachian way to travel long distances just as a bike is the ultimate solution for short distances. It can also be good exercise walking between rides. People often seem concerned about safety. I haven’t had a problem in the 15 years and 10k miles I’ve hitched and it seems like modern technology should make it possible for anyone possibly even families to comfortably share a ride. I’m curious what MMM’s position on hitchhiking is.

  • Kevin Coleman March 15, 2016, 11:05 am

    I made the mistake of having my dead old Ford Ranger collected by a junkyard but it was just after I moved out here to Colorado and I didn’t have anything available to me. I should have looked around to see if I could have got more money for it, but they paid me 500 which was money I needed RIGHT then or I wouldn’t have made rent. Still pretty good considering market value for it was about 2500 if it was running (it needed the engine to be rebuilt and wouldn’t start though). Definitely a loss though. We got it about 3000 under market value originally. I’ll miss the truck, but I’m glad I got rid of it, barely got 12-15 mpg. Now I have a 2004 civic, great mileage, highly reliable, cheap parts, only paid 4,000 for it when it had 80,000 miles. Such an excellent car. I want to take it over 300,000 miles if I can.

  • Robert Nubie June 14, 2016, 6:14 pm

    I am an attorney, not a mechanic. But I have been doing exactly this for 30 years. Right now, I drive a 2002 Buick Regal LS. Craigslist find. Leather interior, and all the 2002 bells and whistles, aluminum wheels, power roof, and etc.. 205,000 miles. I’m the second owner. I bought it over three years ago for $1,800.00. Cash. Today, almost 300,000 miles, and it still looks nearly new. Insurance? a little over $400 per year.

    Admittedly, I’ve have to do some minor repairs here and there. Replaced the serpentine belt, whoopy doo. $30.00 and fifteen minutes. Replaced the alternator. $15 for a used one from the local junkyard and 15 minutes. Replaced two sway bar links. About 6 bucks and 20 minutes.

    I am baffled as to why anyone of ordinary financial means would buy an expensive depreciating asset, let alone borrow money to buy an expensive depreciating asset. Or worse, borrow money to buy an expensive asset that depreciates 15-20% the moment you take title and it becomes “used.”

    The point has been made by others, but replacing brakes, changing oil and fluids, replacing lights and simple broken fixtures requires no special knowledge or skills, very little time, no expensive tools, and no garage. Spend $100 – 200 for a simple, say, 120 piece Craftsmen tool set, a cheap floor jack and two inexpensive jack stands, and you’re in business. When you discover that removing that broken taillight lens requires some funky little socket or bit you don’t have, spend $2 – 5 and throw it it your tool box.

    Having said that, I will grant that there are folks (my girlfriend is one) who genuinely suffer from a sheer inability to even use a screwdriver. This is still no justification for buying a depreciating asset or borrowing money to do so. Find a reasonable mechanic and pay him to fix this stuff. You’re still light years ahead return-on-investment wise.

    An additional observation: I have found, over and over and over, that often just spending a day washing, waxing, scrubbing, shampooing, a bit of generic Armorall on the dash, touching up little scuffs and fades (often with a 99 cent can of black spray paint), a little tire shine, and shooting a couple of cans of degreaser on the motor and power washing it off at the local car wash (followed by drying, and selective application of the same 99 cent can of black paint) will often double the value of an $800 to $1000 Craigslist purchase.

    Best part: I’m self employed. I drive about 900 miles of (non-commuting) business travel a week. The IRS allows me to deduct 54 cents per mile! (Down a bit from recent years) This seems like a damn license to steal. Even counting oil changes, gasoline, tires, and etc., I’m not just saving money but profiting from the purchase. Putting aside the mileage deduction, if I sold the car today for $2500.00, I would profit from the purchase notwithstanding the cost of repairs and maintenance, or the “profit” realized from deducting the 80-900000 miles I drove the damn thing.

    Sound like a lucky fluke? No, it’s probably my second least profitable auto buy I’ve made in 30 years because the gas mileage (about 25) isn’t so great. This is not rocket science. And Craigslist has made it so easy it’s silly.

  • J-m major March 20, 2017, 3:20 pm

    Hi MMM,

    New to your website and I love it. I just wanted to pitch in here: i do mystery shopping for Honda (through a third party mystery shopping agency) and basically pay for all my car’s maintenance at a dealership. This method is amazing. For 2hrs of my time, i receive the equivalent of $125 work done on my car. Break all big maintenance in small jobs and pay close to nothing in car maintenance with dealership parts and work done.

    Just my little tip.

  • Dan April 22, 2017, 2:32 pm

    I absolutely love this strategy but one cautionary note borne of my own near-geting-screwed experience this morning. I’d forgotten that in addition to screaming deals Craigslist is littered with scammers dead set on separating me from my hard earned financial slaves. I very nearly got sucker punched this morning on what I thought was a killer deal on a car that would meet my needs and be extremely affordable. So just be careful out there while hunting for deals.

  • Mark April 27, 2017, 2:38 pm

    I still say the best car is no car.

    I’m on my 7th year of being car free. Yes, the physical benefits are great (I lost weight), but the financial benefits are even better. While I’m not on Mustache’s level of financial independence, organizing my life to be free from car ownership will allow me to retire at least 5 years earlier than I would have otherwise. And if I do decide to get a car, I’ll be able to pay cash for it.

    Not enough people consider the costs of cars – especially the yearly operational costs, which are substantial even for used cars.

  • Mark May 3, 2017, 9:59 am

    Though this article is only a year and a half old, technology is changing to such an extent that the paradigm of car ownership is in question.

    Most people only drive their cars less than 10% of the day. This means there’s a huge amount of time people are paying for ownership of cars while receiving no benefit from ownership. Uber is an option for people who want to turn their vehicles into (usually small) money making machines, but even this is limited by the amount of time one can spend driving other people around.

    Self driving cars are inevitable – the technology is already here. On one hand this increases the front end expense of car ownership. On the other hand, this opens up a huge sharing economy and possibly frees most people from the burden of owning a depreciating asset. While you’re at work, just program your car to pick up paying customers and shuttle them around town – an Uber without the need for a driver. If you’d rather go car free, self driving cars will make life even easier – just hail one of many self driving cars or shuttles to your destination. The big financial benefit is that you’re only paying for the actual time you’re utilizing the car.

    The era of car ownership is already coming to a close. First with Zipcar and Uber, and soon with self driving vehicles. Overall I believe this will be a great thing for the middle class who frequently spend more than 25% of their income on car ownership.

  • C Mac October 2, 2018, 2:23 pm

    Love this article because it’s ME to a T. I’m a complete gear head and love working on cars. I would be retired now how I been smart and applied the DFF philosophy when young. Unfortunately I went through the muscle car phase, followed by the import phase and finally the Euro phase. It wasn’t until 20+ years later that I began flipping muscle cars for serious profit in some cases. Mainly 60s era muscle cars since I know most of them and their problem areas by heart. I would find projects that people lost interest in. Scoop them up for a good price. Finish them or just apply the skills I learned from doing high end detail jobs on the side for people preparing for car shows. I once bought a 68 GT-500 clone for 18,500. Spent approximately 500 dollars in parts and two weeks doing minor repairs and extensive detail/resto work. I entered it in a car contest at the end of the two weeks and took second place. Then sold it at the end of the summer to a buyer in Florida for 28K. That buy then added a couple improvements and resold the car for 39K a month later to a buyer in NY. Which is where I originally bought the car. Now I flip all kinds of cars in the lower end price range. Typically 1-5k. I usually make 500-1500 per vehicle after driving it for a few weeks or months and the buyers are always happy since they’re getting a good deal on a car that they know the history on. I’m painfully honest about any issues and people appreciate that. It’s fun for me to drive different cars and I really learn what I like. The money I make on them is put into a dream car investment fund for the purchase of a Tesla S….if I ever move back to the US. I’m working in Europe where almost half of my income is non-taxable. Love your blog. Might have to share my Nicaragua and Panama real estate investment adventure sometime. Keep up the Mustachianism!


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