When cars go bad

This week has been a challenging one for me with regard to our kid hauler.

There’s been a recall notice that I’ve sat on for forever, and since I’m on vacation this week I decided to take advantage of some free time to get it taken care of. Unfortunately, the Toyota dealership didn’t have the part to repair our 2000 Toyota Sienna, but one has been ordered and I’ll have to take the minivan back out for the final repair when the part comes in.

Toyota inspected the vehicle, and found that the alignment was off. They offered to fix it for $119, but I decided to pass. I called around and found a tire place not far from our home who would do it for $89, and decided to go that route. The alignment was successful, but they also found another issue with the CV joints. They are broken and leaking grease underneath. I was able to see the damage myself and confirm that this is something that should be taken care of.

However, I was quoted $500 ($250 per side) to have it fixed, and I decided to hold off. The van is only worth between $1,500 to $2,000, and I couldn’t see spending up to one-third of the vehicle’s worth on repairs when we already planned on replacing the minivan in the first quarter of next year.

I was distraught by the news. Although we have no debt, we don’t have enough saved up for an all-out replacement, or even a minor step up in vehicle. So my options were, as I saw it:

  • Switch vehicles with my wife until we can save up money for a replacement and risk a catastrophic failure, or;
  • Go buy a new (well, used) car using credit

As difficult as it is to think about, I was tempted to go buy a car on credit. I rationalized in my head how we could get an inexpensive enough replacement minivan and have it paid off by the end of the year. We could use the same vigor we applied to getting out of debt by June and then be debt free, again, by December.

But the more I thought about that option, the less comfortable I became. Did we really just bust our butts to get out of debt only to go back in again? How would we feel going back in debt after we’ve done all this grandstanding to get out of it?

So I did what I’ve learned to do in my mature years: I gave it five (proverbial) minutes.

After having student loan debt for so long, I have excellent credit. I could have gone out and bought anything I wanted and had it sitting in the driveway when my wife returned home from taking the kids to a dentist appointment. Instead, I opted to contact three people I consider wise, present the problem to them, also talk to my wife, and then make a decision.

The consensus was, generally:

  • You should consider repairing it
  • You’ll hate going back into debt
  • See what else you can think of

In an moment of clarity, I came up with a third option, and ran it by my wife, Amy. “If we could pay $100 per month for five months for you to drive the kid hauler safely and buy us enough time to save up cash for another minivan by December, would you do it?”

We were already on the same page. “We should fix the van,” she said.

I called the repair place, and asked if they could come down on the price. They knocked $60 off, and I agreed to the deal. We dropped off the van to get fixed, then packed up the family of five into my little Toyota Corolla and went to a local water park to enjoy the afternoon.

I don’t believe in no-win scenarios.

It appears we get to keep our dignity in tact. Granted, I would much rather put that money into a new vehicle. But talking it over with Amy, she jolted me back to my senses. The line where we say “enough” to borrowing money has been drawn, and we’re not backing down from it.

Rosie‘s days with us are numbered, but at least they won’t come with the stain of a car payment. Let’s just hope this plan works out.

Update – July 31, 2018: There ended up being some additional repairs that needed to be done to fully fix the van. With the alignment and CV joint repair, the total repair cost came to almost $800. Although that tweaks the above numbers a little, it didn’t change the outcome. We still believe it was better to spend $800 now, than to go in debt even for a vehicle we don’t plan on keeping much longer.

It still hurt to pay it, though.

Minding the blind spot

Recently I posted an article on social media by a minimalist author I read, Joshua Becker. The article, “All The Things I Want to Say About Money But Never Do,” spoke some tough words about the difference between those who say they want to have a different life but live very differently than the story they tell.

Probably one of the hardest hitting lines of the piece reads like this: “You would have more money for the things you want if you stopped foolishly wasting it on other things.

Woo, boy. Let’s just lay it all out there.

To be clear, Becker wasn’t talking about things like “if you’re poor, stop being poor” or how the ever vilified millennials could afford a house if only they could give up their love for avocado toast. Becker was quite clear — there are people he knows who have said they wanted to do things differently with their lives and finances, yet the lifestyle they choose daily reflect a different pattern.

I have people in my life who are like that also. Over time, I have learned to keep my mouth shut. Well, mostly. I’ve gotten better about it over the years. I have found that no one wants to hear how they’re doing something wrong, especially when they’re not ready to make a real change.

An acquaintance of mine called this viewpoint “disgustingly condescending and unrealistic,” in addition to “extremely elitist and smug.” He then went on to talk about my family’s progress in getting out of debt, and then spent the rest of his time talking about how our progress would be impossible in his current situation. As such, he derided our progress in claiming that the success we had couldn’t be applied to everyone.

I tried to point out that we sacrificed a lot, cutting down expenses to the bone. I tried to explain that I had worked two jobs, and as such put all extra money on our debt. I tried to point out that our income hasn’t always been good, and that there were plenty of times where there was no more money at the end of paying bills for the month.

He didn’t hear what I was saying. No, he didn’t want to hear what I was saying. The hard and simple truth was this: he was brimming with envy, because he wasn’t living our life.

That is a dangerous road to go down, and one that will never lead to happiness or success.

There was something he said that gave me enough pause that I’ve spent weeks thinking about it. He said, “But the amount of money you were able to put toward paying off debt each month is more than some people even bring home in a month. That’s your blind spot.”

He is partially correct. My family’s ability to pay on debt was more than some people bring home every month. But the blind spot isn’t mine, it’s his and everyone like him.

I don’t consider my family rich in the western mindset view of that word (but I would say we are in the global sense). We’ve worked really hard to get to zero, but our total net worth, especially for the age of my wife and I, not very far in the positive column. We may have cut off all the red chain links, but the black chains aren’t linking together, at least, not yet.

But this discussion really isn’t about money. The actual conversation revolves around the idea that you are responsible for your destiny. Money problems are only a symptom of a greater problem that you haven’t yet taken ownership of your life. Even worse, when your thoughts are consumed comparing your life to someone else’s, you end up stuck in a cycle of defeat.

Envy is the seed that plants a tree of spiritual death.

For every 10 people who have asked me about how to make a change in their career or how to pay off their debt, there’s only one or two who actually make an effort to create change. Yes, of course, there are people out there who are burdened with terrible wages, no skills, and difficult life circumstances. Of course! But that in no way means there isn’t a way out for those who have grit.

Change won’t happen overnight. Sometimes, it takes years. Take the story of the woman whose picture of her name badges went viral last year. The picture shows the progression of her work from a fast food worker at KFC, to eventually becoming a registered nurse.

There are people I know who found free programs to teach coding, sacrificed their time to learn some new skills, then found an apprentice job. Taking a pay cut from their previous employment, they are working toward an unknown future but betting on the one thing they feel they have the best investment in: themselves.

Or how about a friend of mine who has spent a long time working in the service industry, and decided that life wasn’t good enough for him? He learned new skills, dove into the work, and just accepted a position where he’ll be doing tech support for a company in Kansas City. He used to be just a guy that served drinks at a local watering hole, but now he’s on a different path. “I’m excited to get out of the bars,” he told me.

If you go to your favorite search engine and type “what the rich don’t understand about the poor,” you’ll find no shortage of articles talking about successful people and their blind spots. But what if you flip that on its head? If you search for “what the poor don’t understand about the rich” you get very different and sparse results. The best answers I could find on that question came from Quora: “What do rich people understand that poor people don’t?”

It seems there’s plenty of blind spots to go around.

Outside of the books necessary for my job growth and my decade plus interest in nutrition and health, the only other topic I’ve read and researched immensely would be personal finance. The one thing all of these texts have in common are a common question that is asked of the reader, either blatantly or with subtlety — what are you doing to improve?

I most like how the philosopher/writer Mark Manson put it: “How do you choose to suffer?” If you want to make change and make progress, it is imperative you learn how much you’re willing to suffer to get what you want. There is no way around it — struggle is necessary for growth and success.

I am positive I could look at just about anyone’s budget and find ways to make cuts. I am certain I could look at someone’s work and lead them on a path toward greater prosperity. Will someone else have the same outcome that we are now enjoying? I certainly hope not. I hope he is more successful. I hope she makes fewer mistakes. I want everyone to be successful, and enjoy a rich, full, happy life. And that, most certainly, will mean different things to different people.

There’s an old saying that says, “You can show someone the door, but you can’t make them go through it.” To those who want to poo poo their life and compare their circumstances to others, there will be no happiness. Those who blame the government, their families, their jobs, or whatever for their current situation will have no peace. Can they truly look themselves in the mirror after yet another year and say, “Nothing has changed because the world hasn’t let me progress?”

On the flipside, there are those who refuse to be complacent. They may be battered, but they are not done fighting. They may have the odds stacked against them, but they are working to find their way to the next level, and the next, and the next.

I don’t have enough time to outline all my failures, nor would I choose to do so. Instead, I’m working to keep getting better at all the things I do. I’m going to persist in looking forward, and I keep stepping away from my past. I don’t find much value in looking backwards.

You have before you two paths, one that leads to self pity, and another that leads to struggle. The obstacle is the way.

Change!

How did you do that?

In a previous post, I talked about one of two common questions I’ve been asked since becoming debt free: “What’s next?” This post is about the other common question I’ve heard quite a bit as well: “How did you do that?”

You’ve probably heard or said this question before. It happens a lot when someone loses a lot of weight. We all want to know the magic secret. “How did you lose 20 pounds? I have to know how you did that!”

We’re all looking for the secret to a higher level of success. While I don’t know if what we did is exactly secret (this is a public blog after all), if these words can encourage others to examine how they are doing things then I find it important to share.

  1. Have a plan. I stumbled for years before I found Dave Ramsey’s book “The Total Money Makeover” and decided the plan he outlined made sense. Maybe you don’t think Ramsey’s plan is right for you, and that’s OK. But don’t sit around without getting more knowledge about how you should move forward. Do some reading, investigate, watch some videos, whatever. Knowledge is power, and there’s no reason in a modern society to claim ignorance. Between your local library, videos, blogs, podcasts, and much more, cost shouldn’t be a factor either. There are lots of ways to increase your knowledge for free or cheap, if you’re willing to give up complacency and start searching.
  2. Go all in. We made huge strides when we decided to stop doing things at half effort. We looked for ways to cut expenses. We looked for deals. We increased income. And probably most importantly since I’m married, my wife and I got on the same page. We said no a lot. It was painful to turn down going out to eat, buying that extra self indulgence, or rewarding ourselves because we “deserve it.” Going all in requires a lot of intensity, but focused intensity is how you win.
  3. Have a monthly budget. I’m not sure if people are good or bad about this, but there’s no way I could live my life without a budget anymore. At one point in my life that wasn’t the case. I was so horrible. I spent money and kept checking my bank account to make sure I didn’t go over. That worked pretty well until it didn’t. I certainly didn’t have a plan to save or pay off any debt. I spent and spent and hoped everything would turn out OK. Now, we have a monthly budget (made in a spreadsheet) that allows us to tell our money how we’re going to spend it. We adjust as needed, but no more do we spend without a plan. There are many resources available to help you get started making a budget, so don’t make any excuses not to do it. Speaking of that …
  4. Stop making excuses. I was the king of making excuses. There was always some reason we weren’t making better progress. Only after I took a hard look at myself and my family’s situation, and was honest about why things were as they were that I came to realize we could do more. As a species, we are incredibly efficient at feeling sorry for ourselves. When you’ve finally reached you’re “I’ve had enough!” moment, you can reach into the pit of your stomach, purge the excuses, and get to doing the work of making a real change.
  5. Put off buying all that stuff you probably don’t need anyway. Do you really need a new car, or would a repair and contentment or a used car do fine for now? Are those name brand shoes a necessity, or can you get by with some “el cheapos” until later? Why are you still going out to eat for $10 to $15 a pop when you could easily bring a lunch for $2 a meal? If you delay your desires for a little while, then you can reap the rewards in the near future. The time goes by quicker than you might think. Resist the urge to indiscriminately spend now, and then go get yourself some nicer things later when you can use money instead of credit.
  6. Work hard, but also work smart. I was totally willing to work any kind of extra job to accelerate our debt payoff process, and had the support from my spouse to do it. I looked around and came across some side income that utilized the same skills from my profession, which happened to pay a lot better than being a janitor or a casino security guard (two jobs I seriously considered). The side job also allowed me to work from home, so I didn’t have to be away from my family for hours on end. Cutting costs will only take you so far, but bringing in additional income will catapult your efforts to the next level. It was hard work and stressful to keep things in balance at times, but it was so worth it.
  7. Ignore everybody. You might come have people in your life who won’t understand what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. From my experience, there are plenty of people who are willing to tell you how you’re doing it wrong and why your efforts aren’t that special. Ignore them; ignore everybody. The number of people I have found who are actively working to pay off debt and improve their financial future is very low. Fortunately, we were also surrounded by people who were encouraging us. But really, you have to ignore them, too. If you get too comfortable with your progress you may be tempted to back off your intensity. Don’t back off. Ignore the haters, say thank you to your supporters, and push really hard to the end.
  8. Have a big “why.” My family was a big motivator, for sure. I want to bring my children up with sound financial principles so they grow up and hopefully avoid some of the mistakes their mother and I have made. In addition, I was angry. Our student loan was our last debt, and I hate how the student loan system is set up. When students enter higher education, they are allowed to borrow huge sums of money. Regardless if you fall on financial hardship, like say the global economy almost collapsing, you’re indebted for life. Government-backed student loans are not bankrupt-able. I made that an excuse for a long time until I decided to funnel anger into energy for getting out of debt. We’re no longer a slave to that system of control, and I hope I can teach my children to stay free as well.

There is probably more to it, but that’s a lot of the main points. What’s keeping you from paying off your debt? If I can do this, then you can do this. It certainly won’t be easy, but I doubt you’ll regret it.

And as Ramsey says, “If you pay off your debt and hate it, you can always go get you some more.”