In pursuit of financial independence and personal fulfillment

Put your piece of junk car out of its misery — donate it

It was the third call for a tow truck that month that finally snuffed out any hope of selling the cursed piece of crap.

“Buy an older car and drive it into the ground,” many frugal and FIRE bloggers say. I not only found the ground — I kept digging.

The plan all along was to sell the 2004 Ford Focus around the end of August. I was expecting my son would no longer need a vehicle around that time, and while the reasons changed the fact remained the same: We had one more car than necessary. The Kelley Blue Book value was only about $1,500 for a private sale. Not exactly big money, but a tidy sum nonetheless.

My oldest son was driving this car while his was in the shop (this is why we have an emergency fund). The day before he was to get his car back from the shop, the extra car died while he was driving it. I got it towed. So began a monthlong mess of trying to figure out what was wrong and how much it would cost.

The first repair attempt — replacing the powertrain control module — didn’t get the car started. Then the shop discovered a wiring issue, which did get the car started again. I paid $470 and drove off. However, on the way back home the car died again after about 16 miles — just 6 miles from my house. The shop paid for the second tow (which, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have taken).

New diagnosis: The alternator was shot. Repair: Another $500.

There’s a lot more to the story than I’m going to go into here, and it’s better told over a cold pint, but suffice it to say a mechanic near my house owed me an alternator. So I wasn’t going to pay $500 for the shop to put in a new one when I could get it done for about $75 if I could get the car home.

I asked the shop to charge up the battery so I could just try to limp all 22 miles. I figured the car made it 16 on whatever juice was in there before, surely it could make it another six with a full charge.

I was wrong.

I made it just five miles before it stalled and died again.

Weighing my options

In one month, the car went from a mostly reliable $1,500 asset to three tows, a wiring problem, a bad alternator, likely a bad battery — and now the radio wasn’t working and the driver-side interior door handle was acting up. I was probably looking at spending as much money to get it back to road-worthy as it was worth.

Sure, I could do all of that and end up basically even if I sold it for $1,500. But given all that had happened, what are the odds something else wouldn’t break down? And honestly, could I look at a prospective buyer and tell them this car wasn’t a lemon? After all it had put me through in the past four weeks?

No. I couldn’t, and I wouldn’t feel right trying to do that. In fact, I would feel terrible if I sold it to someone and then something else went wrong and it needed more repairs.

So despite having freshly paid $470 for ultimately futile repairs, my wife and I opted to cut our losses and donate the vehicle to charity.

Donating a car to charity

It turns out this is rather easy. There are dozens of charities that will take your used vehicles and sell them at auction to help fund their mission.

I needed to find one that would get the car quick, because it was sitting in another repair shop parking lot and they weren’t too happy with the idea of me storing a clunker there until someone else came to pick it up. I started calling charities based on an Internet search, and when I found one that could pick it up in 24 hours, I committed it to them.

The winner was the Utah Food Bank.

The process was simple:

  1. Fill out a form online saying you’d like to donate your vehicle and they would be in touch to pick it up.
  2. They contact you to confirm the donation and set up a tow, if necessary.
  3. You sign over the title and give them the keys.
  4. After pickup, remove the car from your insurance and report it sold, if necessary.

That’s it! When it comes to donating clunker cars, the food bank isn’t a charity that comes to mind. I was pleasantly surprised. That’s a great cause.

For my donation, I can deduct $500 or the actual sales price of the vehicle — whichever is higher — from my taxable income on an itemized return. The charity works with an auction house that will make the sale. Because we are in the 25% tax bracket, that will reduce our tax load by at least $125. That’s a far cry from the $1,500 I hoped to get, but better than continuing to put money, time and emotional energy into something that clearly wanted to be put out of its misery.

That’s another thing to consider. My time and sanity are worth something. They’re worth more than a couple hundred bucks. Plus, I can feel good about donating the car to a good cause. I hope they get more mileage out of it than I did at the end!



  1. Miguel @ The Rich Miser

    I’m a big fan of making donations and taking the tax deduction (for those that itemize). I find that the biggest hurdle can be assigning values to the items, but organizations like the Salvation Army and Goodwill have online valuation guides that make this a lot easier.

    • I Dream of FIRE

      Good point. My understanding with the smaller items is that unless you get really “creative” with your pricing you shouldn’t get into trouble. Of course, if you’re being audited it’s good to be able to point to something like a guide!

      • Miguel @ The Rich Miser

        Yup, the valuations in the Salvation Army and Goodwill guides are pretty low, but I feel safe using them.

  2. Cubert

    Nicely done, DiC! I agree with the idea of driving a used car until the thing dies of natural causes (say, 300,000 miles?) but you need reliability too.
    Just a few days ago I made too tight of a turn at the fuel pump and scraped the hell out of my rear wheel well. I hate cars.

    • I Dream of FIRE

      Based on my current rate of driving, I won’t drive 300,000 miles the rest of my life 🙂 This one had just over 130,000, so the engine *probably* had plenty of life in it. Considering my thought process that led me to buy a new air conditioner rather than service the old one, along with this, I think I have an aversion to fixing old, expensive things that may continue to have expensive repairs. I’ll probably need more years of data to determine if this is a feature or a bug.
      Sorry to hear about your car! That’s an unfortunate reminder to have around all the time.

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