I have always had the sneaking suspicion that after sinking a significant amount of my savings account into my 1997 Chevy Cavalier, it will abandon me at some critical moment. And this suspicion has served me well in deterring costly car repairs thus far, though I think that luck and a clean track record has more to do with it than smarts.
Two years ago, after dropping my car off at a garage with a coupon to fix my air conditioning, I returned to find a laundry list of mechanical problems that needed attention. I felt like I was playing a game of chicken, and never averted my eyes from the mechanic’s. Was he bluffing and just trying to buffer his paycheck? Which ones were actually needed so that I wouldn’t find myself stranded on the side of the road, or worse, injured?
I asked to have the repairs listed in descending order of priority (aka: need-done-now-or-will-crash’s vs. the nice-to-have’s), buying me some time to go over the stats of my vehicle in my head and hedge my bets to see which investments would actually pay off, if any. I had bought the car as used in 2002 and paid $1500 cash for it with a total of 160,000 miles. Now in 2005, at 193,835 miles, I was being told to get the following repairs (in order of necessity): new brake drums, rotors, pads (all 4), transmission flush, belt replacement, realignment, tune-up, fuel injector cleaning, and coolant rinse. I started to fret and worry right away. If I put in this work, would the car actually squeeze out another 20,000-30,000 miles to make it worthwhile?
The drive home from the garage was only a mile, but I drove with fingers coiled around the wheel in nervous anticipation of a disaster and ears perked to this side or that as the car made all of its normal hiccups. Bracing myself at every stop sign, red-light, and bump in the road, I hoped for my sake that the car would go out in the least painful way.
At home, I decided to rationally choose which repairs were necessary (mind you with absolutely no vehicle experience at all) instead of allowing my emotions and paranoia to get the best of me. The importance of reliable braking I had witnessed firsthand moments before when I almost ran a stop sign while calculating costs. Besides, the brakes were pulsating when I pushed down on them, perhaps even grinding a little. Realignment? Sure, when I let go of the wheel my car tends to swerve to the right about 10 degrees, but that is something I have learned to deal with and it doesn’t particularly bother me. A tune-up sounded like something of an exercise equipment infomercial to me and I was sure that my car, while old and out of shape, didn’t need me to spend a few hundred dollars to ensure that its parts were toned and brassy-looking. And I wasn’t too concerned with the fuel injector cleaner either as I had no desire to accelerate faster than 2 mph in first gear anyway. My mind was made up.
The brake repairs were made—four new rotors, pads, and drums installed—with a cost of only $272.13 (I have since been told that I must have stolen the parts and labor from them). In the name of frugality I chose to not make the other repairs, and this choice was not made in vain. Now, almost four years and 36,000 miles later, my car still runs with a breakdown-free record.
Sometimes the decision to purchase things or services, and where to best focus your money, is a completely random one rife with potential for any number of catastrophes. But sometimes, with luck, the universe, God, and a little intuition on your side, you just may find yourself able to save an extra buck.