Car Trouble and Musings about Not Spending Becoming an Obsession

Recently, golbguru wrote on his blog about his car breaking down and his decision to finally junk the old car and buy another one. I sympathized with the guy for going through the ordeal knowing full well at the back of my mind that soon I could be in the same boat. I just didn’t expect it to be so soon!

On my way to work last week, I noticed that the temperature gauge was way off the charts – it was so far on the right edge that I initially thought the gauge must be broken. So I pulled over at a gas station. A quick touch-the-boot test proved that it was not just the gauge, the engine was really over heated. I was very close to work, and very late. So I waited for a little bit, got back in and rode all the way to office. The drive was smooth but the needle on the temperature gauge was bursting out the panel by the time I finally made it into work.

In the evening I called the mechanic. He advised me that if the engine is getting overheated it was not good to drive it and so I better get it towed. As I have mentioned before, it is a very old car (14 years old with 155K+ miles on it) and I didn’t want to fuss over it much. So I decided to drive the 12 miles from work to my mechanics office with the over heated engine. I made it to the mechanic’s without stalling on the way. But by the time I got there, the engine was very hot and so was the mechanic to see me drive it in that condition.

A quick note about my relationship with the mechanic. I have taken my car there just once about 6 months back, at which time his estimate was about 1/3rd of what the big companies quoted and he did the job well enough that I did not have any trouble for the past 6 months. He had overheard the better half and I discuss if it was time to junk the car or if we should go ahead and repair it and he had ended our encounter by giving me a lecture about taking good care of my car and that he sees no reason why it should not run until it hits 200K miles. Needless to say, my husband really liked him :)

So when I drove in with an overheated engine, he gave me the cursory lecture about the kind of damage I might have caused by driving it in spite of his advice not to. After cooling down the engine, he inspected it and found that the radiator was busted. What I like about him is that he gives me multiple levels of estimates. Level 1 – must do expenses – fix the radiator for ~$250 (parts + labor). Level 2 – replace the thermostat for an additional ~$200 or so. Finally, Level 3 – replace the battery for ~$100 to $150 depending on the quality of the battery I go with. If I chose to do all the necessary repairs, it would set me back by about ~$650. My car isn’t even worth that much! And all this with a caveat that I may already have damaged the engine, in which case none of these repairs would help.

We decided to go ahead with the minimum required repairs – the radiator for a total of $268 (incl taxes). The idea was to buy at least a couple of weeks so we can look for a good deal on another car without the pressure to buy it right away.

The next day when I picked the car, the mechanic had good news for me. It did not look like the engine had any damage. The ride back to office was smooth – as smooth as a ride in a 14 year old can be. At this point however, I am convinced that it is time for us to get a different car. We were fortunate that this time we were not stalled, stranded and distressed (as golbguru so eloquently put it), but if I continue to drive this car, it will happen soon enough. Now that it is in a good running condition, we can take some time to decide on which vehicle to buy, and wait for a good deal to come along and make the leap. So I believe that we should start looking into the options of purchasing another vehicle.

The better half on the other hand, thinks that we should stick with this car for a little longer. In the past year, we have spent only about $650 on repairs. In addition, when I do oil changes, I opt for high-mileage oil and so it costs a little more. Overall, the cost of maintenance per month is around $75 (in addition to fuel + insurance costs). For the year before it came in a little higher, at around $100 per month. If we buy another vehicle, splitting up the cost of purchase over two years will definitely come up to a monthly cost well over what we have spent on this car for the past two years. And so, the better half reasons it is not yet time to go for a new car.

So, now I am very divided. I understand the logic behind better half’s argument and don’t really want to shell out a few hundred bucks each month to get a new car. But then again, during the past year, we have only taken care of the most necessary repairs and there are several things that are starting to fall apart and so past repair expenditure is not an indication of the possible future costs of maintaining this car. Moreover, the chances that it will break down and I will get stranded are high and my office is in the opposite direction from the trusty mechanics shop.

We have arrived at a truce. The better half will drive the old car for now and I will drive the other car (a relatively newer and classier model – relative being the operative key word). Even though we both have similar distances to commute, the road I take tends to get more congested and getting stranded on a congested road is a nightmare that I am happy to avoid. Also, the mechanics shop is on the way to the better half’s work place, so if he finds some issues with the car, it is easier for him to get them fixed.

Which makes me wonder – why are we making this truce? A couple of years ago, we really could not afford to buy another car and it would have made sense to make this decision. But now we can afford a new car (by new I mean new to us) – so is it really worth the hassle? Have we become so obsessive about not spending that we are slowly turning into scrooges? Are we being frugal or downright cheap? Are we saving for the future by sacrificing our present? Have we placed savings for tomorrow at a higher priority than enjoying our life today?

Sometime back I discussed about the frugality dial. It seems to me like at this time, we have crossed into the dirty green territory :(

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icefox said...

Have you thought about getting rid of your car? I sold both my cars two years ago. It was weird at first, I walk a lot and the amount saved doesn't hurt either.

BellaLinda said...

I am with your husband. It costs relatively little to properly maintain your car, and in my experience at least there is a peace of mind to be had by having the title free & clear and not having to worry about a car payment. I don't see how taking care of what you have is being a cheapskate. If you were continuing to drive a deathtrap, that'd be another matter, but if the car you have is safe and works reasonably well, why spend the money on a new one?

ispf said...

Icefox: I wish we could do that! Even getting rid of one car would be great! But both our workplaces are about a 10 mile commute each way, in two opposite directions, and there is no real "public" transportation infrastructure in my town :(

Bellalinda: Yeah, I do see my husband's point too and I prefer to avoid car payments too. But the anxiety about getting stranded on a heavily congested road and facing the wrath of a gazillion irate commuters makes me wonder if it is really worth it.... Anyway, the good news is we have decided to put off the decision until the next time the car acts up - so no new cars for now :)

icefox said...

10 miles might be short enough to ride a bike to work. I know someone who has a similar commute and they bike to work a few days a week. The office has a small gym/shower facility which works out really well. They get a nice little workout and don't have to pay for gas. Another option is to only bike one way and get picked up for the ride home and just put the bike on a rack. If there is any bus system in your area check if they have bike racks or allow bikes to be brought on board.

LA said...

The carnival is up at so please remember to link back.

ispf said...

Icefox: Biking 10 miles to work will be tiring - I will probably be asleep at my desk for the rest of the day :) Given the option between biking and my old car, I will pick my old car - I think it's in a better shape than I will be after a 10 mile bike ride :)

golbguru said...

Ispf: Get a better car asap if you are using this one to go to work. If you were just driving around with this junk for leisure then it would have been a different advice.

Being stranded is not just about irate commuters honking - it's also about safety. When my car broke down, we were extremely lucky to get out of that situation unhurt - you can imagine: no brake lights, no hazard lights, no turn signals, power windows were not coming down - all this while it decelerated from 70 to 0 mph on a free way! within a matter of a few seconds :)

Make sure you don't land up in such a situation.

Since you have already spent on the repairs thats worth almost equal to one car payment (if you get a newer one), I guess you can drive it for couple of more months. But keep in mind that you are just postponing the inevitable. Plus, right now (when the car is still working) you might be able to sell it for some value. If you wait till it acts up next time, you won't be able to do that.. so keep that in mind.

Btw, what is your husband driving? you should probably switch cars and let me have a feel of this one and see if he changes his mind after that. :)

Get something cheap. Pay cash. By used. Switch insurances. There are ways to avoid painful monthly payments. Give it a thought.

10 mile biking? I don't think some people have been to Texas ever. :)

I sound a bit paranoid, but that's how it is. Plus, I don't mind putting a high price on reliability. :)

ispf said...

Golbguru: Wow, your experience does sound very harrowing.

After the repairs, our car seems to be running smoothly again. The better half drives it these days though since I have absolutely no car sense and panic even for the simplest of problems :)

We have just realized that we may have to deal with some really high unplanned expenses in the near future ... so for now, the new car plans are on the back burner...