A Pile of ‘The Unexpected’

December. It’s when those good American folk out there go crazy with the shopping and spending of money all in the name of holiday cheer. Things can get a little tight financially speaking, but it’s OK because it’s for a good cause, right? So what do you do when life drops a big steaming pile of ‘the unexpected’ on top of it all? Well, let me tell you….

Our primary vehicle for hauling the kids around is the van that my wife drives. As we steamrolled into December and all that is Christmas preparation, the ABS (anti-lock brake system) light came on and, along with the traction control system, quit working. OK, not critical systems, but things that do affect safety.

As I was ‘getting motivated’ to call the mechanic to have it checked, the same said van began to leak a red fluid from the driver’s side of the engine block. It wasn’t gushing, but I certainly had a sizable puddle on my garage floor.

OK, now I’m motivated. Upon a quick inspection at the shop, the ABS and traction control issues were due to a tire speed sensor that wasn’t functioning. The bigger issue was the red fluid. It turns out I had a coolant leak in my intake manifold gasket. If you aren’t a mechanical-type person, that was going to mean some considerable dis-assembly of my engine and a new seal put back in.

Unable to fix them immediately, my guy filled the coolant to get us through the weekend and wrote out the bid for the repairs. All told, I was looking at almost $700 in repairs. Ugh…..

Off I went to break the news to my wife. In the ensuing days while waiting to get it all fixed, the van also developed a bit of a bounce in the steering wheel. It wasn’t enough to throw us off the road, but enough to let us know there was yet another problem.

So let’s recap. Our primary vehicle for traveling as a familycar in shopnow needs a new tire speed sensor, intake manifold gasket, and has a steering issue. And it’s December and my kids are expecting something under the tree. “You mean a well-running van isn’t good enough?” Uh, no. That wasn’t going to fly.

I am happy to say, the van is now in running condition and I am again comfortable sending my family out and about in said vehicle. Here’s how we survived.

The manifold gasket was replaced. Unfortunately, due to some wear and pitting, the manifold had to be sent to another shop for machining of the edge. This was an added $105 to our bill. Fortunately, the tire speed sensor began working again just before we took the van in for repair, so we elected to leave that one alone. Total bill so far – $535.

Then there was that bouncing of the steering wheel. Upon inspection, my mechanic found that the one of the internal steel belts holding my front right tire together had broken. There were tiny wires poking through the tread all the way around the tire. It was basically delaminating and falling apart. This was not something we could put off. Should the tire completely fail at driving speed, it could pull the van out of control and into other traffic or off the road.

“Merry Christmas Honey, you’re getting new tires this year.”changing tire

The back tires were fine, but we needed to replace both front tires. I took the van back to where we bought the tires, and even though we had had them for at least two years, they did give me some road hazard warranty on the one bad tire. While it was prorated based on our use of them, it meant I got a credit for almost $40 against my new tires. Credit applied, I spent an additional $215 on the new tires.

Here it is – the holiest of all shopping seasons and I’m spending an unplanned $750 to keep our van on the road. Perhaps you are rolling in it and wouldn’t even blink, but that is no small chunk of change in our household. I’m happy to say, however, that my kids will still get their Christmas presents and we will not be filing bankruptcy come January.

Here are the key points:

Prioritize – I’m sure our tire speed sensor will quit working again at some point and we will need to replace it. But it is non-critical enough that we can put it off and save that amount of money for immediate higher priorities like tires that won’t self destruct while driving around town. Whatever expensive choices you are facing, take some time to prioritize and identify the most crucial ones that NEED to be taken care of.

Benefits – In the grand scheme of a $750 bill, that $40 of road hazard warranty that I got for the bad tire isn’t a huge amount (the warranty was free with tire purchase). I would have rather gotten a free tire, but $40 is $40. I’ll take it. Consider the side opportunities as you prioritize your expenses. There is often more to it than just the lowest cost or most convenient. To get that $40 credit I had to go back to where I bought the tire which meant going dangerously near the mall on a Friday evening during the Christmas shopping season. But $40 is $40. And I spent that $40 finishing some Christmas shopping while I was waited.

Emergency Savings – While the new tires were put on a credit card, I did so only because our checking card is a VISA and the store only accepts MasterCard. (Hello!?! Welcome to the 21st century of customer convenience!) We paid direct from the checking account for the mechanic’s work and have the cash to pay the tire purchase as soon as we get the credit card bill.

We could have put it all on the credit card. But let’s take a look at that option. The card I used for the tires has a good interest rate (for a credit card) of 16% APR. Different cards have different interest rates and different minimum payment requirements. Working some math magic, if I make minimum payments of $30 per month on my repairs and add no more debt on the card, it will only take me a measly 31 months (almost 3 years) to pay it all off with additional interest charges totaling $170.

By charging it on a card and taking my sweet time to pay it off, my $750 worth of repairs are now costing me $920 and I haven’t even fixed that tire speed sensor. In short – HAVE EMERGENCY SAVINGS SET ASIDE!!!

I understand – it’s easy to speak and hear these concepts but often much more difficult to put them into action. While it may take a while to make it habit, get started now with something. Even putting $20 a week to savings is a good start. But you have to start.

If you have already had a pile or two of ‘the unexpected’ dropped on you, you don’t have to deal with it alone. Our counselors have seen about anything and dealt with just about all of it. They can help you with everything from prioritizing expenses and goals to negotiating with creditors. But you need to take the first step and call. We aren’t scary people (usually). We just don’t know who you are yet. Call and make the introduction.

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