0 In General Financial Advice

    Large expense disease

    This week I had an interesting experience which challenged my frugality muscles.

    Over the past few months my favorite car in the world, our 2005 Honda Element, had started to feel…old. This didn’t exactly come as a surprise. The car has nearly 200,000 miles on it. We regularly maintain it, but I was out of my depth with the issues it was experiencing.

    A quick aside. Skipping vehicle maintenance isn’t being frugal, it’s being cheap. Our Element has treated us so well for so long because we’ve done our best to treat it well. If we had regularly skipped services I doubt it would still be with us today, which means much larger expenses to pay for a major repair or buy a different vehicle. Learn how to take care of your cars, it’s worth it. End aside.

    It was either time to buy something different, or drop a substantial sum to bring it back into good repair. Katie and I bought it for $7,000 in 2007 after she (wisely) dropped out of law school and needed a vehicle for the floral design business she had started. It had fewer than 15,000 miles when it came into our possession, making it by far the newest car I have ever owned. Elements are the perfect vehicles for florists. There is a ton of covered cargo space, perfect for 3-foot-tall trumpet vases. And, the entire car can be hosed out, so a little water dripping out here-and-there wasn’t even a thought.

    When we bought it I didn’t argue with the decision, it was just SO PRACTICAL, but I wasn’t close to realizing how awesome Elements are. During law school that car was my refuge, my ticket to freedom whenever I just couldn’t take another moment of thinking. We would take the seats out of the back (the work of a few moments), put down some egg-shell foam mattresses, blankets, sleeping bags and pillows, and drive our mini-RV to wherever our heart’s desired. From Portland, our destination of choice was the Oregon Coast; but we took frequent trips into the Cascades and through the Columbia River Gorge as well.

    So, even though Elements have held their value extremely well (because, for some unknown reason, Honda stopped making them: a quick AutoTrader search showed that 2005 Elements with the same mileage as ours are going for around $5,500), the idea of potentially having to part with my beloved vehicle was…depressing. Normally when I think about buying a car I get excited (I’m frugal, but I’ve always loved cars, from my earliest days of working with my dad on whatever old Ford pickup truck we happened to own at the time). This time though, nothing looked appealing. I just wanted my Element to work. I made the decision to take my car to the dealership (yes, I took it to the dealership, because I wanted people who were very familiar with this make and model to give me their opinion, we can argue about if dealerships are good value later…), have them go through it with a fine-tooth comb and give me their prognosis. If the vehicle could be brought into excellent repair with relatively few procedures, I would keep it. If not, it was probably time to part with it.

    The diagnosis from the technician was favorable. I think all Honda technicians are rooting for Elements. Every time I’ve taken the Element in for anything each mechanic I’ve spoken with has either expressed their love for Elements or just offered to buy it outright. I was rooting for it too. Aside from loving it, and the nostalgia factor, I didn’t want the expense of buying a new car. This is where we get to the heart of the matter, and why I’ve waxed poetic about my love for the car I drive. As the technician ran down the list of issues they found in their diligent search I was mentally noting the things I could and couldn’t do myself.

    Suspension issues? All them.

    Fluid levels? I’ve got that (they ended up throwing this in for free when I said I’d do it).

    Power Steering Pump? Close, but they can have it.

    New Air Filters installed for ninety-something-dollars? I’ll take that one.

    The total quote was around $2,000 to bring the car to near perfect. My deductions only dropped the total price by a few hundred dollars, and that’s when I felt it: the urge to just let them do it all.

    “I’m not the world’s best mechanic, and I want this car to work!” I thought “Besides, I’m only saving like 10% by doing these things myself. Maybe I should just enjoy a leisurely Saturday instead of taking a few hours to visit an auto parts store and inevitably smash my knuckles a few times.”

    I’ve felt this urge before when making a justified large expense. “Sure, throw in the useless warranty.” “I guess I need that too.” “It’s only a little more money, and I still feel like I’m getting a good deal.”

    Maybe this phenomenon is unique to me, but I doubt it. I think it’s the way humans are wired. When we’re already opening our pocketbooks for a large expense, the temptation is there to keep them open longer than we should. For us people who want to get out of debt or reach financial independence sooner rather than later, resisting this urge to “spend a little more and be done with it” can make a real difference.

    Let’s be real. Making the decision to spend money to have someone else do a thing for you is easier. Doing something yourself, be it cooking a meal instead of eating out, riding a bike instead of driving, or doing minor car maintenance instead of letting a technician do it, is harder. Sometimes it makes sense to pay someone to do something for you. I wasn’t about to touch the suspension and undercarriage of my car. That just felt dangerous to me. I think the fact that it was wise to let the technicians handle most of the items on the list made it more difficult for me to separate out the things I could easily do myself. This is what I’m calling the “large expense disease.” That tendency when making a large justified expense to let a few smaller, unjustified expenses, creep in. Watch out for the large expense disease. Don’t let your large wise decision trick you into giving up on several of those $10 decisions we’ve talked about so much in the past.

    This morning I saved $60 dollars for 40 minutes of my time by buying new air filters from the auto parts store down the street and installing them myself in the garage. That’s six $10 dollar decisions! That’s the equivalent of making several meals at home, or substituting lots of bike riding for car driving, or a myriad of other suggestions we’ve made to help save money that we promise make a difference at the end of the month.

    Plus, there are other benefits. I’m past the days of replacing a refurbished alternator in a parking lot of an auto parts store before driving hundreds of miles because I had no choice. For me, trips to an auto parts store bring back strong and fulfilling memories of self-reliance and gratitude. I’ve done real work on cars, and even though I was just buying air filters today, I know I belong and it feels good. It feels empowering.

    I also got to give my son the same opportunity my dad gave me. I did my fair share of flashlight holding as a kid and today I passed the torch (literally). He diligently held ratchets and lights as I worked. We were done in a a few minutes, but at the end of it I had given my son a useful experience (lest anyone think me sexist, I would have brought my oldest daughter down as well but she was ill). My son informed me as I was writing the last sentence that his favorite part was seeing how dirty the old filters were, but he thought the part where I did things with the engine was cool too. I love it when saving money makes my son think I look cool!

    Finally, the car drives perfectly! It’s amazing how much of a difference I can feel when driving it. I am very confident that, with regular maintenance and conscientious driving, our Element will easily take care of my personal vehicular needs until I’m out of student loan debt, and hopefully, beyond.

    Good luck to all of you avoiding the large expense disease, and of taking advantage of $10 decisions, whenever and wherever you may find them!