Car Buying Counsel for a Teenager

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Kid I know is contemplating something he shouldn’t be thinking about doing at this point in his life – and it has nothing to do with girls.

He is thinking about buying a car. Rather, he is thinking about assuming car payments.

And not just them.

There is the car insurance payment to go with the car payment, which I pointed out to him will be a bigger payment because instead of the liability-only policy he’s got on the car he has – which is paid for – he will pay more to insure the car he takes out a loan to buy. Because  he will have to buy a full-coverage policy; lenders require it because until it’s paid off, the loss becomes their loss if he wrecks it.

Figure another 20 percent, vs. liability-only, escalating with the replacement value of the car.

Then there is the property tax applied to the vehicle – in my state, at least. This is based on the average retail value of the vehicle and can easily amount to several hundred dollars annually, for years – until the vehicle depreciates to almost worthless.

I pointed out to my young friend that I am still being mulcted for almost $100 annually in property tax on my 17-year-old little pick-up truck. Imagine what the mulcting would be on  a new truck – or even five-year-old truck that hasn’t yet depreciated to near-worthlessness.

But the main cost – the hidden cost – is the opportunity cost.

What the money spent on car payments, insurance payments and property taxes could have been used for  – if it hadn’t been spent.

Teenagers and young adults tend to not have much money. Ergo the importance of not spending it. And of saving it, in order to have it and – ideally – more of it, as the years pass.

Which they do, quickly.

It is easy to become emotional about a car at 17 or 18 years old. I have been in those very shoes, I told my friend. But the shoes you don’t want to be in are debtor’s shoes, especially when you are all of a sudden pushing 30 and thinking how much you’d like to buy your first house but can’t because you’re broke – because you spent the past seven years making car payments.

And car insurance payments. Etc.

Few things are more debilitating to your freedom than the loss of your economic freedom. If you are chained to a payment, you are far more chained to a particular job. You aren’t as free to do something else, just because you want to. Debt stifles your life. It is a trap – worse in many ways than getting a girl pregnant when you are 17 or 18 because in that case, at least you get progeny out of the deal.

With cars, what you get is a rapidly depreciating appliance. You will spend years making payments on something that will be worth less and less with each payment you make, until the finally day comes when it is worth next-to-nothing at all. That will be the day after you made your last payment.

And all the money you spent on those payments, as well as insurance and taxes, will have gone up in smoke. Plus, what have you got? An old, not-worth-much-anymore car.

Why not cut out the proverbial middleman?

The best advice I have for any teenager – or parent of a teenager reading this – is to buy no more car than you can afford to pay cash for. This will free up cash for other things which are of durable value, such as getting an education or learning a useful skill (something that will help you make money) or putting a down payment on your first place.

Or just having a fallback fund.

You will be able to buy the lower-cost, liability only insurance coverage, too – which is the only insurance coverage that makes any sense on any car worth less than $10,000 because of the disproportionately high cost of repairing any car made during the past ten years.

A fender-bender can easily total a car with a retail value $5,000 or less.

You are better off putting money aside for just-in-case, which may never come – which will mean you will still have the money for other things, if they don’t come to pass. Keep in mind that even with a basic, liability-only policy, if someone else wrecks your car, they will have to pay you – either to repair the car or to pay you for its fair market value.

You only lose whatever you spent on the car if you are responsible for wrecking it. Most “accidents” aren’t – and are avoidable. Be careful and responsible – and odds are, you will not have an “accident.”

At least, not one that’s your fault.

I gave the kid the same advice I gave myself when I was a kid. I drove the cheapest cars I could afford to buy – in cash – that got me from A to B, most of the time. Sometimes, they didn’t – but those times were part of the fun times of being 17 or 18 or even 25 years old.

And by living that way when I was 17, 18 and thereabouts, I got to a point in life where I could afford to buy nicer cars – still in cash. Plus other things, like a place to live.

Instead of having the ball and chain of debt hanging around my neck.

Those are my words, young man. I hope you will heed them!

. . .

Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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34 COMMENTS

  1. My 16 year old who has never had an interest in cars bought his first one recently. A Saab 9-3 convertible. He really likes his car. But he’s feeling the costs already.

    Good info 👍

    • Thanks, Bin!

      Avoiding debt – whether car or college – is key to avoiding modern bondage. The degree of freedom one can still enjoy if one is not a slave to payments is remarkable.

  2. Maybe things have changed in the almost 20 years since I’ve been in high school, but it seemed like it was pretty easy to find cheap, unique, and fun teenager cars in late ’90s Wyoming. I bought and still have a ’47 Willys CJ-2A, which was a cold bugger in the winter, but may have been the greatest car you could have. It cost $1500.

    My little brother snagged a stretched ’76 Pontiac Catalina station wagon with 8 doors and 4 bench seats. He paid $600. It has the 455.4 CID V8 and was a hell of a road trip car. He still has it

    My wife’s youngest brother scored an ’85 Toyota Pickup 4×4 for $600 a few years ago in Utah. It ate its timing chain about three weeks later, but those 22RE engine are so easy to work on that about another $800 in parts and machining and it’s back on the road.

    And like Eric always points out, every car is safe as long as you don’t crash it. When I drive my jeep, I know damn well who is in front of me, behind me, and coming at me from any side. Helps that the visibility is unparalleled with the windshield down and the top off, but I knew from day one that I’d better be the safest driver on the road in that thing.

  3. Teenagers need four door dork cars. Like a 2005 Camry. They can buy their cool car on their own later If they want. Fewer young people are driving anyway.

  4. Might I submit some contradictory advice: When starting out in a new job, especially a career-track job, the most important thing you need to do is GET TO WORK! A new kid, in a new city, with a new job, away from mom-and-dad (& the support infrastructure they bring) precludes having any transportation that is not 100% reliable, in order to get to work. If you can take the bus/subway then okay. However, barring that you need a 100% reliable car. For the one who has salary, but no savings, the only way to attain this is to buy a new (or nearly new) car. I would even say as much as to also buy extended warranty and service coverage. That way, your transportation costs, while higher than they otherwise could be, are *fixed*. This helps with budgeting, although yes, it is inefficient b/c you’re paying more. However, the variability of costs are a killer with low wage earners who don’t have $$ saved up. YMMV

    • Hi Tom,

      Nothing is 100 percent reliable, including brand-new cars. They are just warranted. I drive brand-new cars every week; have for more than 25 years. I’ve had problems with many of them.

      A good used car can be more reliable than a new car. A specific car’s reliability is determined by use only.

      Assuming you don’t buy a piece of crap, the risk of regular break downs is trivial. The cost – and debt – of a new car is certain.

      • eric, my cousins’ son, early 30’s bought a new Ram a couple years ago. He has a good job in the patch although his sort of job is one of the iffy ones when the crunch hits.

        He was lamenting to me last year having bought that ball and chain. It HAD a warranty on some things but it’s hundreds and thousanding him to death. Sure, it’s a crew cab 3/4T 4WD Cummins, but it’s still like an anvil to a man treading water. He had a “good” old pickup that he wishes he’d put just a fraction of the money back into he’s spent on the albatross(Dodge has good drivetrains…..mostly…..since I’ve seen several babied, never worked Cummins Dodge pickups have their engine simply lay down as in throw a rod). Out of warranty that’s a big deal, as Ed would say ” A really big deal”.

        My current boss(county commissioner)is nearly my age and is a mechanic by trade. We were discussing vehicles yesterday and he always like Ford’s but failed to come up with a reason. He then did say an SBC pickup was the coming back thing and mentioned the new worth of the old square body GM pickups. I pointed out, among other things, a new water pump on a Ford V8 was always at least half a day shop time….in a real shop with all the pullers and other bs you need and most people would be hard-pressed to do it in a day, even having the right puller. I said I’d done an SBC water pump in 20 minutes and he said “For real”.

        LS are exceptionally good engines….engine-wise. But they have so much bs hooked to them they’re not much fun to work on. I cut mine off one day with 50 lbs of oil pressure and it’s never shown over 30-40 since. That sensor in the back is a bitch to reach and with Amsoil premium 5W 30 in it I’m going to play like it still has 50 lbs and ignore it as long as I can(not good at that but getting better ha ha).

        And this week my mower took a shit after having the oil changed. It’s got all the nanny bs that involves the blade, backing up with the blade running requires a backward turn of the key to light a button you then push and of course you can’t get off without having it in “Park”. I nearly took it back right when I bought it. I got one season of it not screwing up and then it started. I think it’s about to get new wiring, much less and no sensors for this or that or the seat. The seat was the only thing that would cause the old mower to die and I wired around it as fast as I could.

        • 8, my 70 year old friend bought a brand new Cummins last month (He’s always driven old Ford 7.3’s, but has cancer now, so figured he’d treat himself). Damn thing developed a KNOCK the second day he had it! Took it back to the stealership; they said they’d give him another one…he doesn’t want it, if that’s how cruddy they make ’em now- so he lefdt the truck and told them to tell the finance co. to sue his estate!

          Went back to driving his ’03 7.3, and says he’ll keep it forever.

  5. I have been fortunate that I have never paid money for a car in my life. Again I realize this is fortunate, and not everyone is in my scenario. The trade off is I never got to chose a car in my entire life…

    16 yrs old (2000) I was given a 1981 Toyota Celica — loved it, then wrecked it 3 years later
    — wrecked is the wrong word, long story short no gauges in the car worked and I drove it without oil
    — how does this happen? no oil pressure gauge or engine temp gauge helps… 🙁
    19 yrs old (2003) I was given a 1994 Dodge Caravan — the perfect car for college to pick up girls with!
    22 yrs old (2006) my parents wanted the van back and had an extra 2000 Chrysler Concorde they gave to
    me — I loved that car, until I got rear ended and it was totaled 7 yrs later. After fighting the ins co I got
    just under $7k for a 14-15 yr old car with 268k miles on it! Woot!
    29 yrs old (2013) I rode my bicycle for a year
    30 yrs old (2014) my wife’s grandmother passed and I got her 2002 Toyota Avalon with 90k miles
    35 yrs old (2019) I still drive the Avalon, it has 150k miles on it and all work on it I have done myself. I
    hope self driving cars show up before I need to buy a new vehicle…

    Again I realize I am really lucky to be around people that had extra vehicles, but none of them were really worth anything, and trust me I wish I had something shiny and new. …just too cheap…

    I have been debt free for most all of my life, (minor student loans that were paid off within a few years) and it is in part due to family members giving me their old cars. If you have kids/nieces/nephews/neighbors that are getting to be driving age, and you have an old car you don’t want anymore, treat yourself to a new one and donate the old car to them. You can probably deal with the cost much better than they could.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Robbie!

      PS: Everyone – the huge white space on the lower left is the result of my being “dangerous and derogatory.” We’ll hopefully have something else there shortly…

  6. Wow.

    This makes me think how different (for the worse) my life would have been had I mortgaged my future for a CAR!

    Being able to be free to do as my tastes and conscience dictated, because I was not shackled to some job for fear of not being able to make a payment; Being able to accumulate some cash, so that I could do what I wanted, and take advantage of whatever opportunities might present themselves; Being able to grow into adulthood without a constant debt hanging over my head; and being able to pay cash for better vehicles because I was able to save, as opposed to squandering all of my money on payments, interest and insurance….

    Assuming debt, especially when young, can set in motion a chain-reaction from which one might never escape- a vicious cycle.

    I cringe when I see adults going into debt- but how much more loathesome is it when someone who is young, and unhindered and free does it?!

    And it’s not just the finances. If I had as kid, I would NOT buy him a car. Letting a kid earn and save money, and then pay out cold hard cash in hand for something, really instills in him the value of a dollar, AND more importantly, builds character, by teaching how to make do with what he has; to not have to have what “everyone else has”; to care for and learn to maintain and repair his own stuff- and to therefor select things with an eye towards their durability and ease and economy of repair; etc.

    All this, down the drain, for a ticket to the rat-race: Slave at that job you don’t like and do whatever you have to keep it, just so can have something shiny with which to impress people who don’t care about YOU.

  7. If I had a teen, first of all would of taught him stick when he was old enough to reach the pedals in empty parking lots

    Then, get him a little $5-10k manual, and help him build it, make a little project out of it.

    Of course, hopefully we won’t wind up like MF Ghost

    • Oh hey, MF Ghost. I haven’t read that yet because I’m a massive superjingo who only speaks English. Once the animated (and subtitled) animated adaptation of it comes out I’m sure I will burn a few days watching it so I can annoy all the hardcore fans with stupid memes. I have heard the gist of it which is something about a super driver in a Toyota GT86 learning to run rings around the boring robocars that have taken over the world.

      I have, however, watched through its predecessor Initial D (actually found it while on the comedown from a nasty speeding ticket, interestingly enough) and occasionally rewatch some of the races to refresh my rage against bicyclists. I recently made my first Initial D meme. I realize it will not be popular with certain people on this board. I’m going to post it anyway.

      https://www.beamng.com/attachments/upload_2019-4-14_17-56-50-png.541793/

      • Made me chuckle, except when I see bikes, I muscle them out of the way (worse is in NYC, they ride with traffic at cunt miles per hour)

        Gotta watch Initial D, also heard they’re probably drugs dealers: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=0EFg0pnui9k (posted on April Fool’s as a flame shield).

        Still, would be a good idea to teach a future kid how to deliver Dr;. Food safely and with such skill and precision

        For those who don’t know about the AE86: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=dNF5sic8WHo

        I’m like you btw, hate subbed anime

        • I’m fine with subbed but I wouldn’t be caught dead reading or watching anything that didn’t have some English somewhere, mainly because I wouldn’t be able to understand it.

          Speaking of bicycles, I ran a quick scenario through my head to try to get some perspective of the situation. Let’s start with a certain member here who claims to ride “just to the left of” the shoulder line. So, whenever he’s around, the shoulder and the white line are both off-limits, plus you have to leave some space between, but even so, you should still be good to use the leftmost 3/4 of your own lane when this bicyclist, or any other who rides the way he does, is around. Whatever, it’s a public road, there will always be a possibility of traffic and most isn’t so easy to pass. HOWEVER, that is not the true measure of the problem. You still have to add in the speed a bicycle travels at (rarely much over 30 MPH on flat ground but likely to be a lot less), the physical size of a bicycle (barely any), and the probably of it having rear lights as powerful as a car’s or motorcycle’s (approaches zero). This creates the possibility that you won’t actually know if this bicyclist, or another that rides like him, is actually around until you are (hopefully not literally) right on top of them – so you have to drive as if you are passing this bicyclist (or, again, another like him) pretty much all the time except in those rare cases where you can see all the way through to the other side of a corner before you choose how you will take said corner. This is not even considering the possibility of a pedestrian as they move even slower, tend to wear dark clothes, and rarely have any “personal illumination” at all except for maybe an LED keychain light.

          It gets to the point where in some cases it may be safer, or at least feel safer, to cross the center line than to go anywhere near the shoulder. However crossing the center line, especially at speed, is still a dumb idea because there could still be someone coming the other way. So the long and short of it is that in any situation where the forward visibility is not perfect – so any crest, most corners, and literally anywhere at night (which is, as I’ve said before, the exact opposite of how it should work) – you have about 3/4 of a lane to work with, at best, if you feel like really pushing your luck. I’m sorry, but that’s not enough just on principle. Forget gutter hooks, how do you even pick a line through a corner when the ethical boundary is some vague, completely unmarked line in the middle of your own lane? I’d like to drive, not play a giant moving game of The Floor is Lava!

          • Everyone cater to Chuck, the public way is his private race track! Get off the road. Being to the right isn’t good enough. Hell being off the roadway isn’t good enough because Chuck might drift a bit and you shouldn’t be there to get hit. You better stay home just in case Chuck wants to try and beat his record time.

            • Hi Brent,

              Funny thing is that we would have dropped this ages ago if Chuck didn’t feel this pathological need to keep bringing it up. Anyway, given that Chuck has clearly and repeatedly described his preferred driving style, which is objectively reckless and unsafe, if “our” existence on the road is what prevents him from driving that way, I’d say that bicyclists are doing a favor to anyone on the road near him.

              Cheers,
              Jeremy

              • I have no problem dealing with other drivers. However when you add bicyclists at the same time, the result is that in any situation where forward visibility is not absolutely perfect, you have maybe 3/4 of a lane to work with, at best, if you feel like really pushing your luck, at which point I feel that things have gone way too far even if it is technically possible to drive from point A to point B within that space.

                The other thing is: it’s not just me that doesn’t like bicycles. There were some dark, dark comments on that video Zane posted. I think, if the libertarian dream of a fully-privatized road network were to come to pass, car-only roads would be the rule rather than the exception – and the “it’s technically a public road” excuse would be dead.

                One more thing. Brent or someone posed the question on some long-ago article, “what if Red Barchetta was about a bicycle?” The first time I saw that I was too angry to think straight; later I realized that it was actually pretty funny. In either case, the most accurate serious answer that I can think of is: it would probably never have been written, and if it had no one would remember it.

                • Hi Chuck,

                  The video shows a combination of asshole moves by cyclists and drivers. But, you object to every cyclist, not just asshole cyclists. Did you notice that many of the crashes were caused by asshole drivers? Check out 2:45 in the video where a clueless driver starts turning without noticing the other car driving fast to the left of him. Check out 4:30 in the video, another asshole move by an asshole driver. Your assertion that cyclists cause more problems than other drivers is ridiculous.

                  I drive faster than most, I’m not a “clover”. Wretched driving from other motorists is vastly more annoying, problematic and dangerous than the existence of cyclists. You’re demonization of all cyclists is a strawman because your descriptions of how you would like to drive are incompatible with any other traffic being on the road, period. Focusing on cyclists is bullshit.

                  As you have made abundantly clear, you wish to use the public roads as a personal playground. It’s not cyclists that prevent you from doing this.

                  Jeremy

                  • Everything I’ve seen tells me that it is possible to drive very quickly without killing anyone – as long as 1. there are only other drivers to worry about and 2. alcohol is kept very, very far away.

                    The difference between cars and cyclists/other road users comes down to one thing: distance visibility. Motor vehicles have powerful lights at both ends and move at a reasonable speed, so are reasonably easy to pick up at a distance even at night or on a curvy road. Bicyclists and pedestrians move slower and may not have any lights at all. The result is that I end up having to drive more carefully at night (when there’s no one around) than I do during the day when there are people in front of me. I’m fine with slowing down for people who are there, it’s slowing down for people who AREN’T there that’s annoying.

                    And no, it’s not just bicycles. I just pick on them because they infest the one decent mountain pass road in my general vicinity and may be slowly moving in on the main road I use to get to town. They just sit there being quietly annoying. Most of the really moronic stuff I’ve seen has been from pedestrians. The list includes:

                    -Hitchhiking or simply walking in the pitch dark with nothing more than a keychain light or the glint of a designer handbag to give them away (55PSL but with very long straights, poor lighting, variable sightlines)

                    -Standing in the middle of the lane in a black hooded sweatshirt “flagging” for a backhoe-driving friend (residential but 50PSL* and very curvy, damp surface, horrible sightlines)

                    -Pushing a stroller down the oncoming lane with family sprawled out abreast across half a lane (residential but 55PSL*, somewhat curvy, very hilly, really horrible sightlines, no idea how they got off that road alive)

                    *In both of these cases I get the impression that the road was there long before the houses were.

                    That’s the other thing. I’m usually not driving as fast as you probably think. I can and do drive in an NMT-friendly way, I just hate having to, especially as it used to be much less common than it is now. However I would, if I could, enjoy practicing lines even while loafing along at the posted, and I do also believe that the speed it is possible to travel at should increase, not decrease, as it starts to get later at night. That, by the way, is another thing: the presence of bicyclists takes the way driving should work – faster at night than during the day, safer to cut the shoulder than the center, and so on, and turns it precisely upside-down.

                    And, yes, I do believe that once the sun drops the mountain backroads should be for drivers first and foremost. See, that’s the other thing that galls me about this whole discussion; Brent won’t even acknowledge the Nurburgring Nordschleife itself as a place of car culture, let alone any “lesser” road. To him, bicycles have first priority to any place they can physically fit in, and cars don’t deserve, never have deserved, and never will deserve the same level of consideration. I mean, I know I can say some pretty controversial stuff about driving (though I figured a car blog, especially a libertarian car blog, would be a safe enough place to say it), but come on, surely there must be a point where someone can step back and go “yeah, that’s actually a pretty stupid place to ride.”

                    • You keep arguing the public way should be your private way where you decide who you will decide to share it with.

                      Even the roads were privately owned and the owners got to decide who could use them with what things would likely be far worse for you.

                      Even if the owners banished all but those you approve from the road you would have to obey their speed limit and their monitoring of you compliance to it. Why? Because at some point someone will crash and try to sue the road company. The road company will then act to protect itself.

                      Also you might find yourself banished as well. Given the electric vehicle virtue signaling, your vehicle may simply not be allowed.

                      I really don’t see anything working out for you but having government step in and ban those you don’t want using the public way from it.

            • I shouldn’t even dignify this comment, but you also are asking to be catered to. I mean, the whole point of my post is that even being entirely within one’s lane is not enough because you’re riding juuuust baaarely in the lane itself, plus the necessary buffer space, and then because bicycles move so freakin’ slow and are so hard to see, it becomes necessary to drive like there’s one around whether there actually is or not. In the end, cars are left with a very heavily constricted space to use and while, yes, it is physically possible, it also begins to make me wonder why anyone would even bother to care.

              I heard a saying recently… “freedom is a loophole, and they are working hard to close it.” Well, on the road, non-drivers are a more effective “they” than any number of speed traps. 400 horsepower has never been easier to get, but also never harder to use. With bicycles around you can’t even enjoy going the speed limit.

              • And you reply reinforcing exactly what I wrote. You want the public way as your own personal racetrack.

                You know how many asshole bicyclists have impeded my motoring in the last two decades plus? Less than a handful. And I am including the dipshits who gutter passed to the front of the queue at a light.

  8. Good advice. Remembering my teen years there was one glowing discrepancy I had. For some unknown reason I rarely took the advice of any adult especially my parents. (LOL) But thankfully, I was a quick study. Of course in my time of youth a teen rarely could get a loan unless he was in a well to do family. IMHO it was a good thing.

  9. See that car? You know, the one all the blogs are telling your parents to buy you because it’s all safe and fuel-efficient and junk?

    RUN AWAY! RUN AWAY!

  10. My dad put me on a similar but different path. When I was 8 I learned to drive, but at 6 I rebuilt my first engine (with lots of his guidance of course.) When I was 12 we got a 24 model T roadster pickup, which I restored and banked. Then a 59 Corvette, never finished, sold for a profit. Then a whole series of VW squarebacks, fastbacks, Karmann Ghias, and one lonely notchback. I learned paint and body, all major mechanical repair, electrical, and electronics, and of course sales and marketing. The key was not only did I buy cheap unloved used cars, I learned that cleaning the interior and a quick but decent quality coat of paint was a quick 2 grand a month, when minimum wage was $3/hour. Now, at 54 I’m still doing it. And while I put myself through engineering school and a couple of degrees that way, all the profit I made has kept me debt free despite the worst efforts of communist governments and my own mistakes. Also, all those tools and supplies are a nice tax loss.

    It makes me very sad when I see the last several generations with their minds chained to cell phones, and their hands soft and unskilled. They are mostly doomed. Though the better ones will mostly come out way ahead when the inevitable denoument occurs.

  11. “The best advice I have for any teenager – or parent of a teenager reading this – is to buy no more car than you can afford to pay cash for. ”

    I have tried to get my friends to advise their kids exactly this. The only time I have seen it put into practice was when my friends niece got a car for her birthday. Grandparents bought her a nice low-mile 2000 era SUV (in 2010) for $2000. Fortunately this disrupted the parents plan to get her a brand new leased vehicle. Mom was not happy.

    The biggest issue I see is that some of the fathers are willing but the mothers are completely irrational ‘Safety! Safety! Somebody think of the children!’ types. Moms tend to buy the ‘new vehicles are safer’ completely. Don’t bother explaining the ‘bathtub with portholes’ visibility issues or that auto-everything makes for crappy inattentive drivers, especially if someone is just learning to drive. They won’t listen because advertising is their only source for information.

    Then there are the ‘Only brand new cars are reliable’ types. Simply assumption not based on facts, but don’t try to explain that. Again, the authority of advertising is absolute to these drones.

    Even explaining that the beaters I drive cost less to buy than four car payments they make on a new vehicle (with 80 more to go) are dismissed with ‘it will cost you more in repairs’. Moronic as I could replace my cars entirely three times a year and still pay less for transportation than they do for a depreciating asset. Madness.

    • Reminds me of my mom, only she wanted to see me in something hot and sexy

      Of course, now as an Adult, can get whatever I want, and I’m nostalgic for classics

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