Twice, so far, Susan and I have been a one car family. Once when we were living in an urban environment with public transportation and convenient bike trails, and the other time, we simply had no use for a second vehicle.
On Tuesday, we learned that our twenty-five-year-old pickup is broken. It’s going to cost us twelve hundred dollars to keep it on the road for another year… maybe. That’s if nothing else breaks down or falls apart. All that money just gets us past our up-coming annual inspection.
The inspection isn’t due quite yet, but we were having steering problems. A grinding noise when turning the wheel at slow speeds. Parking is a crunchy affair. I took the truck to a local shop, Mike’s Kars, for a check-up. The verdict: something’s wrong with the rack and pinion system. They say it needs to be replaced. I’m not really sure what all that means. Beyond where the gas goes, I know almost nothing at all about car maintenance. And I won’t kid myself, it might mean nothing at all. It could be total bullshit, but my options are limited. In times past, Mike’s Kars has been the only shop able to diagnose and repair what seemed, even to me, to be fairly basic automotive failures.
When our car was overheating last fall, we took it to Tom Knox—the closest mechanic to our house. Tom let it idle in his parking lot for two hours. When it didn’t overheat, he declared the problem fixed. I drove it away and five minutes later the temperature gauge was in the red. Next, we took it to Randy’s Automotive. Randy “didn’t know what was wrong with it,” but he thought we could try replacing the radiator… for $800. Ultimately, Mike’s Kars replaced the thermostat for less than one hundred bucks.
Mike’s Kars is ridiculously thorough. You take your car or truck in for a steering issue, and it comes back with a punch-list detailing problems with the brakes, the exhaust system and the tail lights (at least that’s what happened to us). You might say “Jeff, don’t be naïve, they’re just trying to up-sell additional services!” And obviously that’s true, but when driving around in a clunker, it’s important to know what’s on the mechanical horizon before fixing the immediate malfunction.
Twelve hundred dollars in repairs equals a totaled truck. We spent just two thousand dollars for it seven years ago, and in general it’s been a reliable, problem free vehicle. But we also avoid venturing more than three or four miles from our home. We need to be within walking distance when the inevitable breakdown occurs.
Yes, fixing the truck is exponentially cheaper than buying a replacement car, but our run of good luck is bound to run out. The phrase ‘throwing good money after bad’ may have been coined simply to describe me right now. The pickup has been a fun family addition for many years, but it’s time to sell it for scrap and move on.
Our good car, isn’t exactly great. It’s a 2008 Mazda minivan. Somewhat long in the tooth. A little tired and creaky. Yes, it actually creaks. Susan and I agree that as we replace our truck, we should really be replacing the Mazda. The Mazda can replace the truck. Our new car will be the one we take on our road trips. The car we drive when the weather sucks. The car we take beyond the post office. It’s time to give the Mazda a break. It’s time to offer the Mazda the luxury of unreliability.
I researched compact SUVs, which seems like the right vehicle at this point in our lives. I checked into reliability, safety and gas economy. And I developed a list of four potential cars for us to check out. I found a used-car “superstore” an hour away that carried all four models. And I contacted our credit union to line up an auto loan. I had all our ducks row; I thought of everything. All we needed to do now was decide which car we wanted. Or so I thought.
It turns out that you actually need a job to borrow money, and I don’t have one of those right now. I quit three weeks ago. My credit union won’t loan me money based on my reputation, my credit history, my home equity or even because I have an equal amount of savings to secure the loan. The only way they’ll loan me money is if I can prove I have the income to pay them back. And I don’t have any income… not right now.
So we’re stuck. We can throw money at our truck to keep it on the road, or we can become a one car family, again. The last time we did this was eight years ago. A time when Susan was working out of the home, and I was commuting a half-mile to work. Our kids were young and not heavily involved in afterschool activities. It was convenience that let us drop down to one car. Now it’s financial insecurity.
It seems ridiculous for me to talk about financial insecurity. I have a comfortable home, money in the bank, and a plethora of fresh-frozen fruit and meat in the freezer. In fact, Susan and I are about to restart our annual breakfast cooking at Gettysburg’s cold-weather homeless shelter that runs from mid-October through mid-April. The people we cook for are the ones who are truly financially insecure. But for the first time in my life, I’m unable to borrow money when I need it.
A half dozen car loans and two home loans have been approved without a hitch. My credit score is touted by lenders as exemplary. Now, deep in my career, the sweet-spot of my life, what appeared to be a minor set-back, or even an exciting opportunity to buy a new car, has become a problem to stress about. Something to overcome—or simply wait-out.
Susan says this is a good experience for us. It gives us perspective, it teaches us patience. Until I have a new job, a commute, somewhere I need to be, we can limp along with our Mazda and our barely functioning truck—or even just the Mazda if necessary.