I know I’ve blogged a few times about the thoroughly unintuitive and frustrating way that access to credit dominates life in America, but I think this past week’s experience, for us, takes the cake. It went something like this:
MIKE: We should really get a second car if I’m going to be out of town half the week.
LUCY: As much as having two cars for two people makes me feel like a terrible person, you’re probably right. What price range do we want to look at, then?
MIKE: Well, when you factor in depreciation and the fact that we’re only here for three years, it actually makes the most sense for us to lease a new car.We’d spend less than we’d lose in value buying a new-ish used car, and I’d like something more reliable for winter driving.
LUCY: What’s the matter with Bob the Toyota Camry, or something just a bit newer?
MIKE: Have you ever been in Bob when the rain freezes to the windshield faster than the wipers can get it off? On the motorway? Because that happens.
LUCY: …fine, that sounds somewhat dangerous. I guess we should go look at some cars.
[MIKE and LUCY look at some cars]
CAR SALESPERSON 1: Hello Michael! Michael. Michael Michael Michael. Are you getting the same funny feeling I am there’s someone else in the room? No, probably just me.
CAR SALESPERSON 2: BUY OUR CAR. BUUUUYYYY IIIIIITTT.
CAR SALESPERSON 3: So I think this is what you’re looking for. What do you think?
MIKE and LUCY: Yeah, looks good. Let’s sort this out.
CAR SALESPERSON 3: No problem. We just need to do some paperwork.
[MIKE and LUCY do several books' worth of paperwork]
CAR SALESPERSON 3: Well, this is odd. Apparently your social security numbers don’t exist.
[MIKE and LUCY produce social security cards]
CAR SALESPERSON 3: I suppose they might be real. In which case we also need to see your paystubs, your private diaries, and your first-born child’s Plunket book.
MIKE and LUCY: First-born child?
CAR SALESPERSON 3: We can get to that once you have one. We’ll call you back when this is all sorted.
[Some time, and paperwork, goes by]
CAR SALESPERSON 3: I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that we can’t lease you the car after all, even though we said you could, because your visas are expired and you haven’t been in the country long enough to have good credit.
MIKE and LUCY: Our visas are not our legal immigration status documents. We can show you the actual immigration status documents.
CAR SALESPERSON 3: I don’t understand.
MIKE and LUCY: And in terms of credit, we’re talking about a monthly payment roughly equivalent to our *cellphone bill*. Which we’re on a two-year contract for, by the by. A car is repossessable. Cellphones, not so much.
CAR SALESPERSON 3: …but we can sell you the car for payments over the same timeframe!
MIKE and LUCY: …which would end up with us paying way more than if we leased it. And you being in the same position in terms of the possibility of us fleeing the country.
CAR SALESPERSON 3: It’s a very good interest rate! I promise! It’s an amazing car! Look at it! LOOK AT IT!
MIKE and LUCY: …way more than if we leased it, over the same time period, with the same risk of us fleeing the country. Unless you’re promising in writing to buy it back for a reasonable price.
CAR SALESPERSON 3: …not my fault. The bank is evil.
MIKE and LUCY: The lease would cost about 8% of our disposable monthly income.
CAR SALESPERSON 3: The credit gods have spoken.
MIKE and LUCY: We can pay for the first year upfront.
CAR SALESPERSON 3: Then you can afford to buy it! At this amazing interest rate!
MIKE and LUCY: …yeah, no.
It turns out, see, that in America there’s a special way to be poor: one where you can afford to pay for things, but you’re not allowed to. Not because you’ve ever failed to pay for anything before, but because the Credit Gods Say No. (And, while they’re at it, make our credit scores worse by asking about them, because this is a system of deeply peverse incentives.) We’re still going to get a car, of course, it’s just not going to be the one we wanted. We’re probably going to end up spending more than we would have otherwise.
I’d say that there was some greater logic to all this, except, well, financial crisis. So not so much.