Most coupled-up people have a number in mind for how much money is okay to spend before consulting the other person. Studies suggest that for most Americans, that number is between $300 and $400, and anyone who blows over that, or any other limit you might’ve set, is a financial cheater.
And then there are the people who surprise their significant other with a brand-new car.
It’s not clear who the first person on earth was to lead their blindfolded husband or wife outside to a quaint snow-dusted circular driveway in front of a stately home to unveil a shiny luxury car outfitted with an even shiner big red bow, but it’s definitely Lexus’ fault now. When the brand tweaked its longstanding “December to Remember” holiday sales campaign with bow-laden cars in 1998, it spawned the commercialized fantasy of HOLY SHIT I BOUGHT YOU A LUXURY CAR.
For nearly 20 years, those ads have peddled the same Christmas fantasy of hetero love meets aspirational consumerism, completing the perfect picture of upper-middle-class American success. Sometimes there’s even a puppy.
That campaign made December the biggest month for Lexus car sales when it launched, and it remains among the biggest months for car sales across the board. Some dealers stock up cars just for the occasion, and many people plan out the purchase specifically for pickup on December 24th. There is an entire cottage industry around just making the bows themselves.
But that ignores the real question here: Does anyone in real life actually do this, particularly given even the entry-level expense (a Lexus starts at around 40 grand), and the exceptionally fraught risk of burdening someone unawares with insane insurance and five years of car payments?
It seems like the stuff of the rich and the famous, people with enough cash to spare and enough cars sitting around to spring for a brand-new car you could take or leave — the same way normals might spring for a round of beers.
Kylie Jenner bought mom Kris a $250,000 a 488 Gran Turismo Berlinetta Ferrari, her “dream car,” for her 63rd birthday:
Songwriter Sia recently bought her mini-me dancer Maddie Ziegler an Audi for her 16th birthday:
Offset bought Cardi B a new Lamborghini for her birthday:
The idea is so absurd on its face that it has been frequently parodied. The parodies largely get at the notion that it’s an exceptional financial burden for regular people, and that anyone “spontaneous” enough to show up with a luxury automobile out of nowhere as a romantic gesture without at least doing a little financial state of the union with your paramour is not just whimsical — they’re off their rocker:
And yet: Otherwise regular, sane people really do it.
Some estimates (2010) suggest that gift sales make up 1.5 percent of all car sales. A recent eBay report found that one third of Americans has bought a vehicle in the gifting spirit, either for themselves or another person as a celebration milestone. And some of the stories are touching. Search results for “Surprising my husband with his dream car” features a number of videos of beaming wives debuting pricey luxury rides. People surprise their dads with their dream cars, and some of them are genuinely sweet stories, like this son who gifted his dad a turquoise BMW M2:
And these two sons who saved up for five years to buy their single mother the BMW of her dreams that had mentioned wanted 10 years earlier, writing on Instagram that “Compared to the sacrifices she has made for us over the years, this is nothing.”
But personal finance experts routinely suggest that it’s kind of batshit. “Who spends $75,000 without discussing it with their spouse!?” Forbes reporter Ryan Frailich writes. “What spouse is okay with being shut out of a purchase that is likely larger than any you’ll ever make, except a home!?”
“You don’t buy a car on a whim unless you’re filthy rich,” Jalopnik wrote of the practice.
After all, you’ll pay a gift tax that could range from 2 to 12 percent, Consumer Reports notes. It’s not as if you can return the car if they don’t like it, or at least not for the same price you paid, given the fact that cars depreciate as quickly as you drive them off the lot.
And then there’s the great chance that rather than make your spouse swoon, you’ll piss them off. “A woman told me her husband gave her a car with a big bow on top for Christmas, just like the ads you see on TV,” Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist in San Francisco, told CR. “But unlike the scenes in the ads, she wasn’t delighted by it. She felt cheated because she’d had no say in picking out the car, and it was really a family purchase, rather than a gift specifically for her.”
There’s just something a bit nutty about blowing so much money on something without giving the recipient the freedom to decline, or at least curate the bells and whistles themselves.
Is there a way to do it thoughtfully? This man bought his wife, Lisa, the Fiat Multipla she’d wanted for years, after driving a used car for the previous 15. He bought something affordable she liked, knowing she liked it, presumably after much discussion. The surprise is having done the work, not blowing the savings or putting a couple on the hook for a five-year loan.
I asked on Facebook if anyone had actually had the experience of a surprise car. “Who makes that kind of investment without consulting their partner??” Larry asked. “Those commercials anger me.”
Allison told me:
My dad bought my sister a car that way as a graduation gift. Slightly anticlimactic since is was a Dodge Neon, but heartfelt nonetheless. My cousin recently posted that her husband did it too… this time a huge SUV. Meh. I like to buy my own stuff.
Another woman, Rachel, said:
My boyfriend in high school had a Mercedes A Class bought for him as a surprise, and he nearly died of embarrassment. He still resents them for picking something so flashy & seemingly designed to broadcast their wealth to all the other kids & parents.
I only know of one story of an actual person maniacal to show up with “surprise” cars, a woman who apparently did it serially with two relationships. Her first husband came home once to a surprise Mercedes they couldn’t afford and was not pleased; her second husband came home to a surprise Subaru he didn’t want, and then a Prius he didn’t want, and then a BWM SUV they could not afford. Both men described the gesture as flattering at first, but a flattery that came with a certain unease at how over-the-top it was. It would prove to be a harbinger for a money-crazed, drain-the-bank-account, 15-credit-cards future. She is now twice-divorced, but at least still driving the BMW SUV.