How To Be a Frugal Auto Enthusiast

A couple of my extended family members have a very expensive hobby. They rebuild old cars, turn them into hot rods, and show them off at car shows. They sometimes recoup their financial investment if someone likes what they’ve built, but unless someone is actually paying them for a custom hot rod, it’s never a guarantee and sometimes results in a loss – occasionally a steep loss. This doesn’t even include situations where things don’t go quite right and all of the other associated costs, like traveling to car shows, paying for entries, and so on.

Even if you’re not quite as into cars as my relatives, the appreciation of and ownership of and, if you’re into it, the improvement of nice cars can still be a really expensive hobby. What do you do if you love beautiful cars but are trying to have some degree of financial responsibility? Here are six suggestions, mostly straight from the mouths of friends and family.

Go to and actively participate in car shows. Car shows are a prime opportunity to enjoy beautiful cars without having to shell out much money at all, especially if you’re willing to get involved and help with some of the work involved with putting on a successful show. Many car shows are free, while others have a very low cost of admittance; people who volunteer usually get extended access to the cars and the makers themselves, along with other perks.

Some advice for attending car shows and getting maximum value and enjoyment from the trip:

Plan ahead Take a look at the car show’s schedule in advance and make a plan so that you can see every scheduled event of interest to you. Make sure you give yourself some windows of time to just wander around and look at the cars, too.

Pack a bag Have a bag with you – or at least in your car – that includes things like sunscreen, aspirin, a light jacket, a water bottle, snacks, and maybe even a meal. This will keep your costs low and your comfort high at the show.

Be humble The people that put cars on display at car shows have often put hundreds or even thousands of hours into those cars. Even if it’s not something that aesthetically pleases you, their car is usually something intended to please someone, often the person making it themselves. Rather than tearing down a car at a car show, look for things to appreciate in each car. That will make the car show far more enjoyable.

Ask lots of questions There are few better ways to show genuine interest and appreciation in someone’s work than to ask lots of sincere questions about it. Come equipped to ask plenty of questions. Center the questions around what interests you and give the car’s owner or maker plenty of time to respond at length. Most of them will happily do so – it’s great to be appreciated!

Consider what you need Many car shows include a swap meet or a car part flea market. If you’re looking for specific components, this can be a good place to look, but make sure you know what you’re actually looking for and what those things should actually cost. Do your homework in advance and you won’t get ripped off by someone asking an elevated price.

Volunteer If there’s a local car show in your area, consider volunteering to help out with the show rather than just attending. Most shows will happily accept volunteers to help out with all kinds of tasks, and volunteering usually comes with perks of some kind. Plus, it’s a great way to get yourself “known” in the local car community even if you don’t have anything to show.

Buy an old junk car with promise and slowly fix it up yourself. One of my closest friends does this. He owns a house with a fairly large garage. He’ll go to estate auctions and junkyards and other places and finds an old beat up car that he thinks he could turn into something beautiful. He gets it home, parks it in the garage, and spends his spare time over the course of many months or even years turning it into something beautiful. He does all of the work himself and goes very slowly to do it well, investing relatively small amounts of money into parts and no money into labor (because he’s figuring everything out on his own).

He then takes his finished car to local car shows, puts a price on it that’s obviously meant to get it to sell, and then flips that money right back into buying his next car to improve, equipment for his shop, and parts to improve that next car, and maybe a little bit of pocket money.

In other words, the actual work of improving a car is his hobby, not the acquisition of cars. He loves the tasks involved in shaping an old rusty car into something utterly beautiful, and in doing so he recoups his cost and more. Yes, his time isn’t well compensated, if it’s compensated at all, but it’s his hobby and passion.

Use this strategy yourself. Buy an old junk car and slowly improve it, entirely with your own hands. Figure out how to do all of the tasks involved and slowly turn that car into a beautiful machine. You can then sell it to recoup most of the costs involved (usually, the startup costs exceed the return on the first car or two, according to my friend) and then do it again, and again. It’s a great way to really dive deep into the hobby.

Find friends who are also into fixing up old junk cars and help each other with the projects. This doesn’t need to be a situation where you’re alone in a garage, though it can be. Seek out friends who are also into doing this. The best way to find them is at auto shows and any auto-related meet ups in the area.

Simply find people who seem to be doing this on their own because they love it, then invite them over to your shop to tinker around. If they’re similarly passionate, you may have just found someone to help on jobs that require more than one person, and you can offer that help back to your new friend. Not only that, this kind of hobby exchange is often the foundation of a new friendship.

Buy and assemble model cars with care and love. Another avenue for enjoying an automotive hobby without breaking the bank is to buy model cars, or even receive them as gifts, and then invest the time to slowly and carefully assemble and customize those models for display in your office and home. An automobile model that you’ve assembled and painted yourself can involve many, many hours of detail work that gives you the opportunity to know some of your favorite makes and models in intimate detail.

This can also be a somewhat expensive hobby, but the cost per hour invested in a model car is far, far lower than the cost per hour involved in buying and selling cars or fixing up old cars or even attending car shows. It allows you to really examine the fine details of some of your favorite auto models and produce a beautiful end result that you’re proud to display in your home or office.

Dive deep into automotive media, particularly online media. This is a great free way to dig into your hobby without breaking the bank. Get involved online in the multitudes of conversations constantly happening involving the automotive world. One good place to start is to simply get a Twitter account and follow some of the best automotive Twitter accounts and dig into those conversations. Look for car forums dedicated to your favorite makes and models – you can find them through a simple Google search. Hit Youtube and check out some of the many great channels and programs related to cars on there.

Don’t like online media that much? Hit your local library. They often have extensive back catalogs of car magazines. Borrow a bunch of back issues and dive deep into the world of automobiles.

Take classes on automotive repair. If these ideas seem interesting but you’re simply overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, consider starting by taking an automotive repair class at your local community college. Most community colleges offer an array of automotive repair classes; many offer a full curriculum. Community college classes are inexpensive and usually hands-on.

If nothing else, a community college class on automotive repair will help you feel more confident in handling small repairs on your own car, which will end up saving you a lot of money over the long haul.

You don’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to be an automobile enthusiast. You just have to be curious and be willing to get your hands involved a little. While diving deep into any hobby is usually a little expensive, there are many ways to keep the cost of an automotive hobby low while constantly keeping it engaging and social.

Good luck!

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