5 ways you can enjoy cars without breaking the bank

I paid 1/10 the price for my Miata compared to my WRX, but the fun factor is the same or better.

When it comes to cars, the sky's the limit. Even if I made 10x my current salary there would still be countless cars I could never afford. The trick is to make the most of the money you do have without over-extending yourself financially. At the time of writing, my wife and I are really trying to save for a house, which doesn't leave a lot of margin for fun with cars. Below are 5 ways I've been able to continue my addiction hobby while maintaining a conservative budget.

1. Buy an inexpensive project car

Pictured at the top of this page is my 1994 Mazda MX-5 Miata. It's a 24-year-old car that has been well loved by three previous owners, coming to me with 112,500 miles on the odometer and a clean title. You'd be hard pressed to find a cheaper rear-wheel drive car with more driver involvement than one of these. Is it perfect? Certainly not! It has plenty of parts that need some TLC... and that's the best part.

Being a car enthusiast doesn't mean you have to drive a fancy car. You don't even need to own a car. It's about a love and passion for cars, an enjoyment of all things related. I enjoy talking about cars as much as I enjoy driving them. Even fixing them up can be fun; taking something old and restoring it is an adventure of its own which requries time, patience, learning, and a little money... but not a lot of money.

2. Do it yourself when possible

I've heard it said that each time you hire someone, you could do it yourself three times over for the same price. This means I can buy the most expensive parts or mess up once or twice, yet end up saving money in the long run. When I bought the Miata I knew it needed some work and was willing to do as much as I could on my own. I was confident I could figure it out eventually, but was worried that my lack of experience may hold me back, especially on safety-critical work.

Fortunately my father-in-law is mechanically inclined and willing to teach as long as I'm willing to learn. He has been monumental in helping me learn how to work on cars safely at low cost. Here's a list of all the things we've fixed in my first six months of ownership:

I'm rather proud to say I conquered my fear of airbags by replacing the computer on my own; it can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. I found instructions from Mazda for how to safely disable and reenable the SRS and followed them carefully. Though often portrayed as a bit of a bomb defusal, this can be done safely if you follow the instructions. A bad airbag computer is a common issue with Miatas and an expensive fix if taken to a shop.

3. Prioritize cheap fixes that get the most bang for the buck

When I bought my Miata, the hood was keyed down to the aluminum with a message from a vindictive college student. This was the single thing that bothered me the most about the car's aesthetics. Since (old) red paint is very difficult to match, I decided to repair the hood myself and repaint it black. The fix cost me about $30 and was a great opportunity for me to personalize my car a little bit.

4. Focus on the "driver mod", not faster car parts

It's fun to go fast, but we all inevitably get used to the sensation of being pushed back into the seat when we step on the gas. Try to resist the urge of upgrading your car and focus on your skills as a driver instead. Go to local autocross events; though intimidating at first, they will teach you proper car control by experience. If you mess up, you knock over some cones and simply go about your merry way. You can also read books written by professional drivers, such as Ben Collins' How To Drive. It's a very interesting read geared toward people of all skill levels, and I personally learned a lot from it.

5. Patience

If you're on a really tight budget, you may simply have to wait a couple years until your situation gives you the freedom to fully appreciate the hobby. I certainly felt this as a college student. I've always liked cars but really couldn't afford my very own until I graduated. It was worth the wait, but took discipline in the meantime. I had other priorities, like paying for school and saving up for an engagement ring for my then-girlfriend.

Everyone's situation is different, and there's no silver bullet for how to manage finances in each case. If you're frugal with spending, you may start to see money appear seemingly out of nowhere! In the meantime, sit tight, do a little research, and know that a little saving and learning each month will go a long way over time.

After writing this article, I came across this video on YouTube which is very similar to what I've said here, so I thought I'd link it below. Enjoy!