2012 Toyota Sienna minivan

A step backwards

Just when I thought I was out … they pull me back in. — Michael Corleone, as played by Al Pacino in The Godfather: Part III

When I started writing this charting of our journey to debt freedom, I decided to be highly transparent through the process. I wanted my writing to be helpful to others who might be on the same journey, even if our circumstances are unique to us. I had hoped that giving a glimpse into our family’s journey, it might helpful to many more.

Sadly, we are no longer debt free. I am sorry. But if you will allow for my side of the story, please keep reading.

In July, I wrote about our decrepit van and the struggle we were having keeping it afloat. It was limping along until August, but then ran into yet another issue that I couldn’t troubleshoot on my own. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. I went to a local salvage yard and bought a part for next to nothing in a last-ditch effort hoping it would fix it, but the effort was in vain.

The van, which we called Rosie, had reached end of life. She wasn’t safe to drive anymore. The blinkers and the horn didn’t work, so getting around in the city without the necessary safety accoutrements didn’t seem to be the right choice since Rosie served as our main daily kid-hauler.

It seemed like we were destined to sink more money into it, but then the unexpected happened. We received a windfall in the form of a financial blessing. The amount was more than enough to cover the cost of a replacement van. We’ve been planning, researching, and saving to replace the van in December, but we weren’t fully funded toward that goal yet. And then this out-of-the-blue windfall happened, and we examined our options.

We could:

  1. Throw more money at the van and hope that the fixes would get us by until later when we could have the full amount to pay for a newer vehicle with cash;
  2. Purchase a somewhat newer, and somewhat similar mileage van that would be completely paid for with the money we received and what we had saved up so far, or;
  3. Purchase a newer, lower-mileage vehicle with everything we wanted but would require a small loan to get us all the way there, coupled with what we had in savings and our newly acquired funds.

My wife and I discussed it, and felt like putting more money into a vehicle that was destined for the scrapyard was a foolish decision. We could have went with the second option, but we believed that would be a temporary stopgap. So, we chose option three.

For most people, option three would be a terrible choice. However, we were in a unique situation where we had most, but not all, of the funds to purchase. The market for used vehicles is always hit or miss, but we knew exactly what we wanted and there happened to be the exact type of van to meet all of our needs and wants available elsewhere in the metro area.

After two test drives, lots of discussion, and some paperwork, the deal was done.

Believe me, it pains me to write this. And yes, all of this was a choice. Whenever someone says, “I had to buy a (insert whatever purchase here),” that statement should almost always be read, “I chose to buy a new (thing).” We chose to go back into debt for this purchase. No matter how small the amount is, it was a choice we made.

This weekend has really made me think hard about the baby steps. If you’re following the plan and you have things like working cars or a home that needs little maintenance, then things are going to work out great. But what happens when you get out of debt and things you’ve held together on a string start falling apart? It takes time to save up enough money for an emergency fund, and then start replacing things. If all goes well, then you’re golden. But if not?

Also, I’ve thought a lot about dogma. Those following the Baby Steps tend to be fairly cultish in adherence to the principles (raises hand). The principles are sound, and wise, but are they 100 percent applicable to all people? When do you step away from a dogmatic approach and ask, “What’s the best to do for us, in our situation, right now?” I’m not saying I have the answers to these questions. I am merely asking them.

This weekend’s van purchase was hopefully one we’ll utilize for another decade. We purchased Rosie in 2009, and it make it until last this year. That’s quite a run for a van that was made in 2000. The new van is a 2012 Toyota Sienna minivan with 107,000 miles on it. It runs and rides like a dream. The blinkers work, the horn works, and it has excellent tires. Even though our last van was a Sienna, they have made great changes in the last 19 years, and our new van has an incredible amount more space for our family of five.

I regret that we were not in a better position to make this an outright purchase, but we didn’t have enough saved yet to make that happen. Perhaps we shouldn’t have put $900 into the old van in July. Maybe my wife and I shouldn’t have taken a vacation to celebrate our 15-year anniversary that same month. It’s possible we could have been more intense in our savings since we paid off our initial debt in June. But that’s not what happened, and now we have to deal with the choices of our actions, past and present.

Most importantly, we had to tell our children of the decision, why we did it, and what this means going forward. It looks like The Year of No is still on. In a few months, we’ll be back to where we were in June; we just had to take a little detour to get there.

Dear reader, I’m sorry if I let you down. Please know I didn’t make this decision flippantly, and weighed heavily all the options we had before us. In the end, we did what we felt was best for us at this time. But I hope you can appreciate my effort to be transparent, even if that means admitting to backpedalling a little for a short time. I value integrity to a great degree, and felt I had to be forthcoming about our decision this Labor Day weekend.

My hope is that in a few months, this won’t feel like such a sting. And in a year, my hope is this won’t even be a blip on the greater story of an American family trying to navigate this country’s financial waters.

Time will reveal if my suspicions are true.

3 thoughts on “A step backwards”

  1. This was just a little set back. You wouldn’t have done it if you didn’t feel like you really needed to do it. There really wasn’t any sense in putting any more money in it to keep it limping along. You didn’t have a crystal ball in June to know that Rosie would die in Aug or the beginning of Sept. You are just knocked off your program for a few months. So what? You are further ahead than most people. Thank you for your honesty.

  2. You’ll get there. It was an eyes-wide-open decision, made consciously and deliberately, without frivolity. It’s not like you bought a Mercedes or BMW 😊 And, there are different tactics to being fiscally responsible; yes you are now in debt for a bit, but the ROI is your family’s safety in the long run. IMHO, fiscal responsibility is the ultimate goal as opposed to complete obedience to debt-free dogma.

    Of course, that last statement could lead into a situational ethics discussion, couldn’t it? 😉

    Proud of you guys, Eric, and totally delighted with your writing 🙂

  3. So I guess part of the reason of being debt free is to be able to make purchases and decisions that you want to make regarding your finances. My grandfather paid cash for everything, but didn’t take vacations or have nice cars. My parents went into debt to have things. I think there is a happy medium out there. I always think about my Public Administration class and the story of the water tower. One town saved to build the water tower, the other issued a bond. The town saving took money from citizens and they didn’t get the benefit of the water tower until it was built. The town that issued the bond had the water tower and paid for it through assessments, meaning the people receiving the benefit paid for what they received, albeit at a higher cost. I side more for receiving benefit for what you pay for.

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