Have you ever seen the car someone is driving, and think differently about them? For example, see a fresh-faced 16 yea- old in a brand-new Mustang and automatically assume their well-off parents bought it for him? Or see an old run-down pickup and feel bad for whoever owns that soon-to-be pile of scrap? Or how about the kind senior citizen down the street with a Porsche he only drives around on sunny days, he must be financially responsible, right? Is what car you drive a sign of where you stand in society? You would assume a successful CEO of a fortune 500 company to be daily driving the latest Tesla or Ferrari, while your local barista putting around in a ’99 civic while they pay for college. These assumptions we tend to make about people’s mode of transportation has lead vehicles to become a status symbol. Proof of cars being status symbols (and people making decisions based on that) is the cost difference in price between a Cadillac EL-R and a Chevy Volt, the Chevy is cheaper and, on paper, a better vehicle. But why is the Cadillac more expensive? Owning a Cadillac is a status symbol, a symbol that tells people you are successful enough to own a Cadillac, because that is the brand Cadillac has made for themselves.

I’ve owned many vehicles in my short time on this earth, and I am of the opinion people will absolutely make assumptions about you based on what you drive. The first job I got out of high school was selling real estate. A fellow, much more experienced, real estate agent gave me the advice of buying a nicer car. “What’s wrong with my old 15-year-old Volvo with almost 200,000 miles on it?” I thought to myself. Clients want their agent to be good at what they do, and if they’re good at what they do, they make a lot of money. If you make a lot of money, you drive a nice car. Now, I had sold a couple homes at this point and was willing to spend a little on a nicer car. Being the 18-year old I was, I went with a sports car, naturally. So, I bought the most expensive looking (emphasis on “looking” expensive, the Rx8 I purchased was under $7,000, but looked much more expensive to the unaware) car I could find.  The result? Almost everyone who saw it mentioned how nice it was, asked what it was, how much it cost, etc. For an 18 -year-old kid to be selling houses and driving such a car, must be very successful. In reality I was almost as broke as most of my college-aged peers after the purchase. None the less I had created an image of a successful person, as I had the status symbol to prove it.

But perhaps that just means people are easily fooled into thinking you are successful, just by seeing you own nice things. We live in such a materialistic society that we base someone’s financial situation off of a passing glance at their mode of transportation. To this day, I wonder if I would have been better off just putting that $7,000 in the stock market and just leaving there. I would, by comparison financially, be more “successful” had I kept the old Volvo and just been patient.

Expensive cars being an indicator of how fiscally responsible you are is self-refuting when you look at it. All cars depreciate, especially new and expensive ones. Therefore, the more you spend on a vehicle, the more money you lose long-term, making you less financially responsible, right? So that old geezer down the street with the Porsche might be driving around the worst financial decision of his life!

But what about all the attention from driving a nice car, isn’t that worth it? Well, all the attention you get might not be all its cracked up to be. In the first 3 months of owning my Rx8, I was pulled over by police 4 times, I was never ticketed, mind you. I am, however, sure that if I was driving something a bit more mundane, the cops never would have taken a second glance my way. Don’t get me wrong, all the “nice car!” remarks you get while running errands always put a smile on my face, but I would hardly call it life-changing.

I think the question is not really ‘if’ cars are status symbols, but more ‘should’ they be status symbols. If you manage to save up $30,000 to use as a down payment on a house, but think it would be more fun to spend all that on a pre-owned Lotus, sure everyone in the grocery store parking lot will think a millionaire just rolled up, but in reality they’re looking at someone who just decided to put off owning a home for the next 5 years. So, by acquiring a status symbol to appear more financially successful, he became less financially well-off. So at the end of the day, cars really shouldn’t be status symbols. So why are they?

People also like to find a sense of comradery in car brands and models. Bring up the Rx8 example again, whenever I passed another one on the street, there was always a wave or head nod of solidarity, which is something I personally enjoyed. This mentality also can create “brand wars” like which car maker is better, and can be fun from the same perspective as rooting for your favorite sports team. This mindset can also be detrimental, as a non “car-guy” might not realize that the Prius he bought will be the butt of all sorts of jokes from his grease-monkey friends for the rest of time. Many people just don’t care what they drive as long as it works, and so from those people’s perspective what you drive is not a measure of success for them, and that’s probably a good thing.

Cars are status symbols for many reasons, one major one being the vehicle you drive is often tied to your identity.

What is the first thing people see when you pull up in their driveway, or to a party, or work? Your vehicle. People see your car driving around town and say “hey, that’s him/her” and wave. Every car is unique, and usually stay with the same person or people for a long time. As a result, we become emotionally invested in our cars, even going to far as to give them names. We find a source of pride in the vehicles we drive because we attach them to our identity. So the more valuable what we drive is, the more valuable we are right? Everyone wants to have the fastest, coolest car. Because if you’re a cool person, you drive a cool car, right? No action movie star drives a ’98 Toyota Camry, but I’d be pretty amused if they did. Media such as action movies have contributed to the notion that only wealthy people drive exclusively expensive cars, which is just not the case in the real world.

We all by habit make assumptions about people by what they drive. Maybe that 16-year-old driving the brand new mustang worked his ass off to afford that, and his parent’s money had nothing to do with it? Maybe that’s the guy with the run-down pickup as 3 other brand new trucks and kept the old crappy one because it was his first truck, and so has sentimental value? Maybe the old gentleman down the road has never worked a day in his life, and won the lottery decades ago? The fact of the matter is, we know no one’s story and their mode of transportation won’t tell us that story. It is up to us as individuals to decide how much value, or how much of our identity, we find in what we drive. “Car guys” might be willing to spend their life savings on their dream car, or the closest thing to it they can afford. While many very successful people, like Warren Buffet, for the most part don’t car what they drive as long as it gets them from A to B.

Perhaps we should challenge ourselves to put less value into the things people own as a judge of how “successful” they are, and pay more attention to why they drive that vehicle, and how they worked to get it. Imagine the world we would live in if people measured success purely by how happy a person is. If owning a fast car makes you happy, then by all means, but I would advise against purchasing a vehicle in order to appear to be something or someone you aren’t. And no matter what it is you drive, take pride in it, because it is yours, a part of who you are, and I think that’s pretty neat.