How Long Should You Keep a Car?

I've come to a fork in the road with my beat-up, 210,000 mile, 2004 Saturn Ion. I wrote about her awhile back, when I duct-taped the passenger-side door (I've had to tape ‘er several times since then – and the door is still hanging on!). The issue: how long should I keep driving it?

Here's my default, thrifty guy answer: until it breaks down.

While I hate the idea of having it go kaput on me in the middle of the highway in rush hour on the way to work (sorry, this is my worst case scenario that runs through my head every time I take it out for a spin these days), I really want to get the most out of the car as possible.

how long to keep a car

I can think of a few reasons for selling the car while it is still functional:

  • I'll have some money to put towards another vehicle
  • I won't end up on the side of the highway. In rush hour, on the way to work.
  • No more duct taping the side door
  • Expensive repairs are imminent (last one cost about $1200)

And, I can think of reasons for hanging on to her until she clonks out:

  • I'll have gotten all the life out of it
  • No cash out-of-pocket for buying a newer, used car
  • I could be trading it for a lemon (this happened to my brother). At least I know what I have with this one.

We do have money in savings that will go towards a new car. But, I really want to hold out as long as possible. Like I mentioned, there are several things wrong with the car and one is a pretty expensive fix (which is more than its resale value).

I'm sure there are other ways to figure this out – so I'd love to know how you decide when to purchase a new vehicle. Do you drive it til it won't drive any more OR do you always get rid of a car at a certain mileage?

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  1. We have trouble knowing when to quit also. We have learned through experience that at 200,000 miles big repairs happen. Because we commute the first big $$$ repair after the afore mentioned tipping point,we trade. It’s the breakdown on the freeway part that gets me. If it happened on the way to work, I’d be OK. On the way home, another matter.

  2. Mine has almost 150,000 mileage and more than 10 years now. I wish to keep it 10 more years although I’m really egging to get a brand new car. The problem is the budget so I have to stick to 10 more years.

  3. I have a friend that happens to be a great one for finding cars that may need minor body/maintenance work, fixing them and flipping them. He’s always telling me not to form an emotional attachment to a car, which I definitely do. His advice has always been to sell as soon as you have to start putting more money into it. We just sold my 2003 Honda Civic, which was going to need more work than I wanted to put into it, and with only an additional $500 was able to get a 2011 Nissan Versa that runs great, so I’m a happy camper.

    • A car flipper can be a great way to purchase a car. I’ve done it before. They usually have some reasonably priced mechanics for contacts too.

  4. Don’t forget to buy a Chilton Manual, folks, for DIY fixes. We have a 2002 Sequoia with 210,000 miles on it and have zero intention to sell it before it dies. It’s one of the top ranked cars for longevity and satisfaction, and we can see why. We have had to do very minor repairs – ordered the oxygen sensor off eBay and used the Chilton Manual to replace it. I think it was about $25 and a couple of hours. We did that twice and saved a FORTUNE over having it done at the mechanic. Yes, it’s a gas guzzler, but I drive a Prius for the other car and the Sequoia only has to go about 20 miles/day. I think the money we save in not having a car note far outweighs the pathetic gas mileage.

  5. I’m not really skilled at car maintenance beyond anything routine, so my plan is to keep my car until it is no longer cost effective to pay for necessary repairs. A long time hopefully!

    • I’m with you too Heather – no real maintenance knowledge beyond changing oil and spark plugs.

  6. I am in a similar situation. I look at the coming year and see if there are other big purchases I should brace for. In my case, going back to graduate school. So I am counting that my car would get me through until then. Perhaps making a contingency plan and having on call tower, mechanic and maybe the road side assistance with your insurance company would be a better way to appease your anxiety about the worse case scenario. I already have a towing company on speed dial, I have a mechanic’s cell phone number and I also know where to get replacement parts for a reasonable price.

    • Great ideas Allison! I’ve meant to put the tow company in my contacts – thanks for the reminder.

    • I also drive an older model car. 2001 with 205K miles.
      Allison, do you mind sharing your contact for replacement parts?

      Thank you.

  7. I’m in the same situation. I’m driving a Pontiac 1997 Firebird. However, it has low mileage at only 52,000 miles on it. I had sold my other car to bring in needed cash after being out of work. So since I’m now dependent upon the Firebird, I’ve been putting A LOT of money into repairs due to it being 18-years old with aging parts needing repairs and replacements. The thing is, I don’t currently have an income to buy another car at this time. And the repairs are costing more than the car is currently worth. Yet, in a few years, it will become a classic and worth more. Firebirds went out of production in 2002. My car will be worth much more once it becomes a classic, so it doesn’t pay to sell it now, at this point. Yet, my dilemma is: do I continue to drive it, adding mileage and costly repairs to it?

    • Oh I always wanted one of those Firebirds! That’s a good way to think about the car – that it could be a collector. Maybe my Saturn will be too since they stopped making those (though I have a hard time envisioning folks wanting duct tape on the door) :)

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