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Is a car a good gift?

Under the right circumstances it is, but you'd better know what the recipient likes.

By Karen Datko Nov 25, 2009 9:53PM

Several questions come to blogger Abigail Perry’s mind when she sees one of those commercials with a car in the driveway topped by a big bow. You know -- where the wife goes outside and there it sits, all nice and pretty.


Abby (the daughter of MSN Money "Living With Less" columnist Donna Freedman) wonders how the car got there without the wife noticing. Did they bring it in the middle of the night? Did they check with the husband to make sure she’s asleep? “Does that mean the husband gets a walkie-talkie and gets to say things like ‘The bear is in hibernation’ and ‘Roger’ and ‘Over’?” Abby writes at I Pick Up Pennies.


OK, that’s the silly stuff. But Abby also raises some good questions. Is a car really an appropriate holiday present? No, she says, and here’s why not -- from the hypothetical wife’s point of view:

  • When you bought me a car, you spent several thousand of our money on a down payment. Are you sure I’m OK with that? (Besides, you had to be sneaky to do it -- not cool when we co-mingle accounts.)
  • You, sweet lips, have increased our debt. That’s not a gift; it’s an obligation. “You're not really buying a car. You're buying debt,” Abby writes, “albeit in a very attractive form. (And most debt won't get 0 to 60 so quickly! Unless you're talking about a credit card's APR.)”
  • You probably didn’t get a very good deal. If the salesman knew it was a gift, you lost bargaining power. “It also means you'll be hard-pressed to deny a lot of the extras. No one really wants to say, ‘Merry Christmas! Look how generous I am! Oh, but on-board GPS was extra so I told them not to bother,’” Abby says.

What do you think? We think the gift of a car would be nice, if your spouse or significant other makes enough money so that the purchase doesn’t adversely affect your household budget. Better yet if the SO pays cash.

Several of Abby’s readers shared their thoughts:

  • Kids going away to college will always appreciate a car, even a used one.
  • Adults said they'd prefer to be involved in the purchase.
  • If you’re giving a car, make sure you know what the recipient wants. “D in Kansas” recounted how her father-in-law years ago gave her MIL a minivan for the big 4-0 birthday -- after trading in her cherished Mercedes. They later got a divorce.

Here’s a lovely scenario from Christina:

My dad has purchased a car to surprise my mother several times over the years for Christmas or her birthday, but I don't pretend that they are the norm as he always pays cash for it from an account that she probably won't be looking at.

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