A few months back, I did something stupid. Really stupid. On the way home from dinner with friends, I rear ended a car. Despite the very low speed of the collision, the rear bumper of the car I hit was at just the right height to shear through my front grill, radiator, and crunch both against the engine. There was also substantial body damage.
There were a few things that made this experience slightly easier to swallow. Most importantly, nobody was hurt. As I mentioned, the collision was at very low speed as I took a right turn, expecting that the car in front of me was doing the same (I was looking left to gauge oncoming traffic). The collision ended up amounting to a sickening crunch, but very little actual sensation of impact.
Secondly, it helped that I knew the driver of the car I rear-ended. She was forced to forgive me since I’m married to her. Yes, my wife and I were returning from the same dinner (no frugal shaming! We had both arrived separately from work). Of course, my immediate fear was for her safety, but upon establishing that we were both fine, we turned our attention to the damage to my car.
The radiator was completely ruptured, and all of the coolant was flowing quickly onto the ground. The entire front grill, the bumper, and both quarter panels were concave. The headlights were pointed inward at an unhealthy angle. The instrument panel was alight with multiple worrisome icons. The car ran, but it was obviously not going to go far.
I had my wife follow me to the shop and pick me up. Since the car was 12 years old (my wife’s car is a 18 years old, yay frugality!), the cost of any repairs would need to be very low to justify doing any work. I set a limit of about $4,000 to cover all repairs. When the shop called me the next morning, they told me what I already expected– that the body work alone would be about $4,000, and that was before replacing the radiator, grill, and addressing any other damage to the car. All in, they figured the repair would be about $7,000 if there were no engine issues.
I was extremely irritated with myself– there was nobody to blame but myself! We had been planning on some auto expenses in the near future, but we had expected that it would be my wife’s car would give out soon. She would start driving mine, and I would find a reasonably priced used car. Replacing my car meant that there was a very real possibility of two auto purchases in the next twelve months– a major setback to our FIRE progress for the year.
I arrived at the shop that evening ready to arrange for the car to be towed away as a charitable donation to the local women’s shelter. As I waited, one of the mechanics approached me and asked if he could buy the car from me for parts. Since I expected to get basically nothing from the wreck, I agreed to his offer– $500. I explained that I needed to send away for the title, since I had purchased the car in Massachusetts and never converted the title to California. He had no problem with that, and I gave him the keys to the car. I also told him to feel free to start parting the car out, and that he could pay me as soon as the title came in.
Bureaucracy being what it is, my title paperwork was returned to me (twice!) for issues related to me living out of state and no longer at the address on the title. This process dragged on for two long months, and I made increasingly embarrassed excuses to the mechanic about the wait for the title.
Finally, last week, the mechanic called to let me know that he had repaired the car and wanted to put it on the market, but that he still needed the title. I checked my bank account and found that Massachusetts still had not cashed my title check. I sheepishly asked for more time. As soon as I hung up, I realized something– the car was still in my name, and my wife’s car is still hovering near death.
I excitedly called back and asked the mechanic what he hoped to get for the car when he sold it. He told me he was hoping to get $3,500. He also mentioned that a few days after repairing the body damage, the engine had seized up, so he had replaced it with one he had rebuilt himself from the same model, but one year newer (and with near-identical mileage!).
Let’s take a moment to do the math– the expected repairs were originally about $7,000. That was before I found out that the engine needed replacement, which runs between $2,250 and $4,000. The total cost of the repair if I had gone ahead with it would have been somewhere between $9,250 and $11,000!
Obviously, I had made the right choice in not spending anything on repairs. I asked the mechanic if, since he was planning to pay me $500 for the body, he would take $3,000 for the repairs. It would be a win for everyone as he would have a full-price buyer, he’d avoid having to deal with registering the car, and I could replace my wife’s car as expected. He was only too happy to take the deal!
My wife and I went to visit the mechanic at his house. On the way, we talked about how, since the mechanic didn’t usually do body work, we would be fine if it was just roadworthy, and that even if it was several different colors or a little crumpled, we could either live with it or pay for an inexpensive paint job. We just wanted something that was roadworthy and reliable for my wife to drive to work.
When we arrived, I was floored. The car looked perfect. The body work was impeccable, and the entire car was a glistening, gleaming black that it hadn’t been since it first rolled off the lot. The mechanic had clearly taken pride in his work, and had given the car a fresh coat of paint to make sure it looked as good as possible. I took the car for a quick spin around the block and found it to run wonderfully.
As an aside, when we arrived, the mechanic was standing out front with four rough-looking guys from the neighborhood. We got out of our car, smiled, introduced ourselves to everyone, and had a really nice chat about life in our city, cars, and other little stuff. By the time we returned from the test drive, all of the neighborhood guys had dispersed, and the mechanic’s wife came out to say hello. The difference in vibe was night and day. I thought to myself “if I were in his shoes, I’d want other people there at a large transaction too!” Everything went from cautious to extremely friendly and helpful in the space of a few minutes. As we tried to pay him, our new friend kept finding small things to fix– replacing a burnt-out bulb and even the emblem on the front of the car with a shiny new one. The whole experience was just an awesome reminder about the power of kindness, and of treating everyone well.
Today, my wife is driving a car that feels brand new again, I’m driving the economical car I bought to replace it, and we saved somewhere between $6,250 and $8,000 on the repairs!
Obviously, this isn’t a blog post that gives you a system to follow when things go wrong. The fact that we got away with such a low price tag is a massive stroke of good luck. It also reminds me that even in this, an extremely unexpectedly expensive year for us, there are always opportunities to optimize. Someone else might have just turned over the keys, bought a new car, and done the same again when his wife’s car gave up the ghost. In the end, my wife is alright– happy, even!
Between the used car purchase and the repair, my mistake still set us back a few months on our quest for financial independence. There’s more to the FIRE ethos than just relentless frugality, though. It’s also a lens through which you can look at the world and prioritize what really matters. We’re always trying to cultivate an attitude of abundance and thankfulness, and the whole experience was a reminder that that which we already have is all we really need to be happy. We even made a few new friends along the way.