It all started with one of my classic fixations. I identify a goal and fixate on it, this is who I am. As I’ve mentioned before the best description of my personality is that I’m 1st or 5th, i.e. I’m in 120% with what I’m interested in or I’m going to do the minimum I need to do. In this case I started fixating on the possibility of a trip I’ve dreamed about from before I would even consider myself an adult. I want to do the classic American cross country road trip. The seed of this idea goes all the way back to High School. A couple of my friends loaded up a van in the summer after graduation and traveled the country. Over the years I’ve heard of other folks doing this sort of American Road Trip, but high school was the first time I remember being exposed to this idea. It seemed so bombastic to me, well beyond anything I was mentally or emotionally prepared to take on at the time, but I loved the idea more than I could say!
The idea didn’t die, over the years my wife and I mused about it. We always thought about it as something we would do when the kids were out of the house. We figured it had to be at that point in our life. Beyond the obvious needed free time issue relating to two full time working parents, leisurely transporting a family across the country isn’t ideal unless you have a camper or an RV. I don’t do debt so buying an RV is out of the question and anything less than that would be too challenging for me as I can’t stand driving with other people on anything that resembles a longer trip. Well to clarify, I don’t enjoy long drives with more than one other person in the vehicle. It’s odd, I know. It’s a big personality quirk of mine. I guess it developed during the many hundreds of thousands of miles driving by myself during my outside sales rep days. As parenting set in I quickly learned driving with family chaos in the car is so frustrating to me that I’d rather not go on a trip than have to hear kids arguing behind me.
But some things in my life have changed that put the trip back into consideration. The biggest component is time. I have summers off now that I’m a full time instructor. As I write this I have just started my first summer break. It’s very interesting having so much time off, and honestly I didn’t manage this first summer well. I put together too heavy of a schedule. I’m doing a ton of stuff to prepare for the fall and I’m also doing a considerable amount of work to upskill myself for my new career. I also have some projects I wanted to explore, not the least of which is this blog and the related podcast. On the positive side, keeping busy is, sort of, keeping my -still working a normal job- wife from being annoyed with me. Even though my work is not mandated, it doesn’t feel like I’m goofing off while she is maintaining her traditional stressful corporate schedule of a full time load inclusive of four or more annoying Microsoft Teams meetings a day.
The second thing was money. No, I didn’t get a windfall by being an instructor, but it’s near time to get a new vehicle. I hate car payments and I save like mad so I can buy my vehicles with cash. The money we would allocate to a vehicle is starting to be enough to consider buying one. I tend to buy used but the vehicles are always low mileage and reliable, so perfect for a cross country trip.
So I started to think that this is a real possibility. If I plan it right, then next summer I can clear the schedule, and just go. For companionship along the way I can take one of my kids who will be old enough to be interesting company but not old enough that he doesn’t want to hang out with his dad. Plus it does have the added benefit of justification. What mom wouldn’t want her husband and son to bond over some amazing one-in-a-lifetime trip? I also figured if I was strategic, I could have my wife and other kids fly into specific locations allowing them to be a part of the trip.
So I started to form an idea for a pickup truck and truck bed camper. We’ve been wanting a truck forever as they are tremendously useful when you live in rural America. We always assumed this would be our next new car. It all aligned perfectly. I could buy it for the trip then drive it as my primary ride for many years afterwards. Also, since it was a truck, I could easily throw a cheapie old truck bed camper on it.
I started looking around. I figured I’d be somewhat conservative. So I began looking for a pickup with an extended cab, not the four door crew cab that is so in demand. I thought a classic F-150 or ½ ton equivalent would be perfect. Immediately I experienced a serious episode of sticker shock. Buying, even used, would eat up most of my savings. Of course the outlay didn’t even count the truck bed camper I wanted to haul all of our stuff and give my kid a place to stay when we weren’t at a hotel. The only thing that was even remotely close to our price range was the standard cab models. I told my wife about it and her immediate, and very snarky response was “we are a family of four, not two.” FYI, technically we are a family of five, but our oldest has already left the nest. My wife knows this and was referencing the two little ones still at home.
Her comment, and the reverberating shock at the truck prices got me starting to think about inflation. Not the financial side, but inflation in our expectations. I knew there was some inflation due to the computer chip shortage effect on the auto industry, but that changes pricing by a few small percentage points, not tens of thousands of dollars. I always thought of F-150’s as inexpensive vehicles. I wondered if my mind was playing games with me. I decided to look it up. The F-150 came out 1975 and its original MSRP was $4,002.00 or $19,865 in today’s dollars. Today’s comparable F-150 carries a base price of $28,940, or nearly 50% more in real dollars. This is, shockingly to me, apparently one of the lower starting prices in the class. The SuperCab models, like the one I want, start at $33,025, and SuperCrew models start at $36,650. The popular F-150 Lariat starts at $44,695, and the F-150 Limited has a near unbelievable starting MSRP of $70,825.
I thought to myself: How many people get the regular cab? Drive down the road around my home and you can see that nearly all trucks in use sport four door crew cabs. And then a light bulb went off. It’s the same effect I talked about years ago on my blog when I discussed the size of houses getting bigger. The TL;DR version of that article is that nobody makes a traditional small three bedroom two bath starter home with a carport anymore. My earlier commentary was all about the system, mortgage rates, and people happily going further and longer into debt to get bigger homes. My thoughts today were all about the motivation side of that trend. To be clear there is a bit of financial inflation at play here, or maybe it’s simply deflation of real wages. In 1975 the average annual wage was approximately $8600, so the truck cost a little less than half a year’s income. In 2020* the average wage in America was $52,000, so the base model is a bit more than half of that, more expensive, but not insanely so. We can’t forget that’s the base model, something that mostly just gets purchased for corporate fleets. The highly popular SuperCrew sold to consumers is a tad over 70% of an average worker’s annual wages.
With vehicles, like housing, there’s inflation financially, but the real inflation is in expectations. My wife isn’t alone in her thoughts of what is a minimum expectation. I’m sure there are many wives and mothers who feel a four door is the minimum for a family truck. You can see it in the trucks that are everywhere and who is driving them.
I couldn’t help but ask the question: What if we reset our inflation expectations? I’d be happy with a 3/2 with a carport and an old converted shed in the back yard that can serve as my mancave. I really don’t think many people feel that way today, as evidenced by the fact that there aren’t really any of them being built. I’d also be very happy with a standard cab pickup that can fit three people maximum. We have a second vehicle that can fit the whole family for those times I’m forced to travel with them.
Then we get to the question of: How do we get others to reset expectations. The culture of more and more is hard to stop. We have tons of marketers and financial systems that strive to make it easy and emotionally justifiable to get the next step up in whatever it is you want, no matter where you are on the financial food chain. Ultimately they have changed the answer to the question of “what is the minimum we need?” This is a hugely gray area because the financial situation for everyone is different.
It’s not just housing and vehicles, although they are the marque expenses in life. I see minimum acceptable inflation everywhere, the food we eat, the entertainment we engage, the healthcare we pursue. It’s on every financial level as well. I have family members who I feel like are insane with some of their statements on what minimum acceptable levels are for their lifestyle. Sadly it’s motivated them into getting higher paying yet ever more stressful jobs.
There are clearly natural benefits to lowering your minimum acceptable standard. You can pay off your house earlier. You can have newer and more reliable vehicles if you get more inexpensive ones. You can have a much healthier savings account for the unexpected in life, and ultimately you can retire earlier. None of this seems to matter to the majority of people I see around me. Their minimum acceptable standards align to what their income can support through financial machinations i.e. greater debt or what your peer group thinks is minimum acceptable standards. To be clear, even those who are high earners and don’t have debt, often align to what a standard is for someone in their financial strata who does the accepted things like having car/boat/house payments.
The only way I see a reset of minimum acceptable standards happening is through an unexpected life event, i.e. an illness or losing a job and being forced to live on significantly less for long enough that it resets your expectations. Then even if you make more again, your expectations should stay where you have reset them. Still this isn’t coming from an internal place, it’s an exterior shock through the system.
I feel that I’m fortunate. I think differently enough that I buck the trends, even to the point where I’m made fun of by my peers. That’s why I used my wife, and this truck experience, as an example. I did this because she’s a good muse, and I think she represents much of the thinking of a typical American mom. She understands that we could use a pickup as having one around simply makes life easier when you live where we do. She also technically gets that we only need the standard cab, but emotionally she’s all in that it has to be a family vehicle. I can’t think of a way to change the mindset. If I can’t figure it out for my wife, I’ll never figure out how to change it for the typical American.
I’m going to keep working on my cross country plan. If I am able to pull it off this article will post about the same time I set off on my trek across the heartland and back. I may even post about my experiences as I’m traveling. If I do that, on top of hearing about my drive through monument valley, what it was like to see old faithful, and how much I enjoyed fishing for salmon in the Pacific northwest, I’ll also try to remember to fill you in on how much lifestyle inflation I see along the road and if I come across any good solutions for resetting our baseline minimum acceptable standards in life. I guess that’s something they both have in common. No matter if your traveling across America, or resetting your expectations as to what constitutes a minimum acceptable standard for your lifestyle, both will be a life changing journey!
*Editor’s Note: I used average wages in 2020 because I didn’t want to include any financial information affected by the COVID-19 pandemic