Driving Me Crazy: Motoring On a Student Budget

It was as I wincingly placed my card on the reader for a new clutch worth almost the value of my entire car that I wondered if it was time for an upgrade. Problem is, I don’t believe in finance when I’ve got plenty of other monthly bills to pay, and I am a diehard supporter of keeping old cars on the road as long as possible. They’re built to be driven! Yet, despite me not believing in finance, privatisation of bus companies has driven the prices up so far that it’s becoming more expensive than driving in a lot of cases. So, in this article, I’ll give you a rundown of how to buy and run a (used!) car on a student budget. Whilst there are a lot of costs involved in car ownership, it gives you huge freedom in terms of day trips, holidays and even something as trivial as nipping to the shops. More than that, it’s becoming more and more valued by employers in all sectors. So without further ado, let me begin!

Step One: Know The Requirements

You might have grand aspirations, and that’s great. You might feel confident repairing what Jim from the advert refers to as ‘minor crash damage’ or ‘misfires but easy to fix.’ But to ensure you get something that takes you from A to B, you should avoid anything damaged like a plague. It makes insurance difficult, bites you with hidden faults and will probably make your life miserable.

Full Service History is a must when buying a car of any age, more important in the sub-£1500-runabouts category. Missing service history is an indication that the last owner either didn’t care or has something to hide! It can also help you distinguish between a car that’s done 60,000 of the harshest miles ever and a car that’s done 100,000 gentle and well maintained miles. If you’re looking at a high-mileage car, important things to check are wheel bearings, brake pads/discs and clutches. These items all start to wear out somewhere above 50,000 miles but can be expensive to replace due to high labour costs. A dealership will probably replace these before selling a car if they seem worn, but if you’re buying private, either ask the seller to replace them or advise them to do it and move on!

Step Two: Learn The Basics

Hooray, you’ve got wheels! Although, if you’re buying a car for £1k or less, my guess is you probably won’t be calling the AA every time a fault manifests itself. Personally, the solution to many of my knocks and rattles has been to turn the radio up so I can’t hear them. Sadly, this approach won’t work forever and there may come a time where you’re stuck up a mountain with a worrying smell and smoke coming from the clutch (though, of course, this has never happened to me…)

Happily, a lot of the things big garages like Halfords, Kwik Fit and most main dealers will charge over the odds for are easily replaced at home. Pick up a Haynes Manual for your car – it is quite literally a cheat sheet for everything that can go wrong with a car. Whilst something like a clutch requires a bit of adeptness with a wrench, most of the things that regularly go wrong on a car can be fixed on the driveway. I advise that you invest in a jack (your car may already have one underneath the boot floor) and a pair of axle stands to keep the car in the air if more than one wheel requires removal. Both can be had for under £30 from most parts shops.

Changing a wheel is also super easy once you’ve got the hang of it – I always recommend that you keep a spare tyre on board as a call out to an emergency mobile tyre repair service will cost a shitload of money. Most independent garages will do much better deals on tyres than the main dealers. The brand you choose doesn’t really matter too much unless you really really value cornering performance. However in my experience (and I’ve bought a LOT of tyres over the years) Toyo tyres provide a good balance between performance and affordability.

Small parts like air filters, brake pads, oil, spark plugs can be bought for £30 or less from any shop like Halfords or Europarts. Ask a friend or your mechanic to walk you through a service so you can see if there’s anything else you can do easily at home. An exhaust unit isn’t too challenging on a lot of small cars, and would cost you around £200 fitted at a garage. However, if there’s significant issues with your car and you don’t feel safe driving any further, stop and call a breakdown service. Many mechanics will be able to drive your car to a safe place and are experienced in doing it safely, and if necessary, a local towing firm will be able to tow you to a nearby garage. Driving your car when there’s an obvious issue can cause a danger to you and other drivers and may affect your insurance.

Step Three: Buying Guide

It’s true that there a lot of fast, powerful and luxurious cars available for small money out there. However as many exposés have shown, if you buy one, you’ll have out spent the cost of the car within the first year of ownership. The wealth of options that these cars were fitted with gives them thousands of extra potential problems. Particularly avoid anything with a uniquely complicated suspension system (a few old Citroens are fitted with this and belong in the classic car category, not the student transport category.)

No, the student’s best choice is a small car with simple mechanicals. The less that can go wrong, the better. That’s not to say you should aspire to Fred Flintsone’s car; you’re allowed electric windows and heated seats. But you should be prepared to forgo a bit of power and speed, and settle for focusing on transport over luxury. That inevitably means you’re looking at a small hatchback with a small engine.

So, if you’ve found one you like, familiarise yourself with the different varieties of that car that exist. The Ford Fiesta, for example, is a solid and cheap choice for students, but you don’t need to settle for the bog standard version. The Zetec S TDCi model came with the same uprated suspension as the sports version and a bigger diesel engine than the standard model. If you’ve a real hankering for speed and are willing to shell out the slightly higher insurance costs, look for sporty variants that didn’t sell in huge numbers when they were released. Toyota Yaris T Sport, Suzuki Ignis Sport, Fiat Stilo Michael Schumacher edition… anything you don’t see too much of on the street and isn’t massively desirable may just fall into your price range.

But mainly, focus on simple, small cars that don’t have much on them to go wrong or crumple up in a crash. A good approach on a site like autotrader is use their online search engine and specify the maximum amount of tax you want to pay, how fuel efficient your car needs to be, your maximum insurance group, how fast you want to go, how many missiles concealed behind the headlights, etc. The website will handily narrow down your options so all you have to choose is the colour!

If you’ve found something that looks too good to be true, be sceptical, it probably is. Be wary of buying anything repaired after damage because you don’t know the knock on effects of small bumps; big and pricey parts may be much more likely to give up without warning. You’re looking for a well-maintained car with as few miles as possible, but if you’re seeing a nearly brand new car in our price bracket, it’s either been crashed or is a spectacularly awful machine. Safe bets are things like a Toyota Yaris, Volkswagen Polo, Nissan Micra, Ford Fiesta, Mazda 2… high-selling front-wheel-drive hatchbacks, essentially. Minis are funky and appealing but are actually built by BMW, and early ones are prone to a lot of electrical issues as they are really starting to show their age now.

Step Four: Busting Breakdowns

Mechanics can seem a bit scary sometimes, but in the end, it’s their job to help you get back on the road. They also get a trade discount on replacement parts, so even if the job seems expensive, it’s probably worth the hit. Significant issues are best left to the professionals. Plus, the unfortunate likelihood is that those garages able to offer the super low prices are fully booked for weeks with trade vehicles and the public transport you’ll use while you wait will start to hurt your wallet more than the car. That said, it’s always a good idea to shop around for the best prices and get an idea of who might be trying to pull a fast one on you. (No pun intended!)

The best way you can avoid breakdowns is by addressing faults as soon as they appear, however frustrating it may be. 99% of the time, it’ll be something trivial (i.e. a sudden and unexplained loss of engine power is likely down to a faulty spark plug) and if it is a big fault, it’s much more likely to affect other parts of the vehicle if you leave it too long.

Luckily, now you’ve got the knowledge to beat most of the pesky problems that keep big garages like Kwik Fit able to charge £2bn for a pair of tyres. Happy driving!

Bonus Step: Wildcard, bitches!

So, my sensible choices were far too boring for you. Worry not, there are ways you can get around the incredibly high premiums afforded to first time drivers. The one I’m going to talk about is the classic car.

‘Classic’ is a bit of an abstract term. Legally, it used to apply to any car over 25 years old. Since 1997, however, it’s applied only to cars built in 1974 or earlier in terms of tax and MOT exemption. As of 2018, it’s applied to any car over the age of 40. However, if you want to take on a classic car, you’ve got to be prepared to treat it as a project.

Whilst insurance, tax and MOT are going to be significantly cheaper with a classic car, insurers will ask you to adhere to a limited annual mileage to qualify for one of these policies, and you will probably have to pay a yearly subscription fee to the relevant owners’ club of about £60. This depends on the make of car, although I assume not many students are cutting about in 1920s Rolls Royces. Moreover, it is going to go wrong at some point, and will require you to get familiar with its inner workings for some inevitable roadside repairs. You will probably also need somewhere dry to store your car, as old metal does not agree with rain, and we get a lot here in the UK.

If you’re taking this approach, once again I advise choosing a simple car. An original Mini or Beetle is a safe bet and most mechanics probably grew up tinkering with them, so it won’t be like rolling an alien contraption into their forecourts. MGs and Rovers also have a very extensive parts network in the UK and can be had for not-that-much money, but as I say, if you want a classic car, be prepared to invest in it to keep it shipshape and don’t expect it to be as much of a convenience as an ordinary car. That said, love one, and it’ll love you back. You’re keeping a piece of history alive and you will smile when you get the odd anorak like myself taking a picture of your car parked in the street.

Published by Jonathan Tonge

23 year old history graduate, classic car enthusiast, musician

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