young man having car trouble

From Big Repair Bills to High Insurance Premiums—Cars Can Be a Lot of Trouble

Some of my most valuable life lessons I’ve learned from cars. From the outrageous monthly payments to ghastly repair bills and ridiculous insurance premiums, I know the dilemma of “Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em!”

young man having car trouble

While it didn’t cross my mind while going through so many car miseries that one day my experiences might help others, perhaps that day has come. Let’s just say that what I know about this subject, I’ve learned the hard way.

Dear Mary: I’m in desperate need of some advice. After losing literally everything in a divorce situation, I bought a car about a year ago that I could pay for with cash—a 2002 Camry with more than 200,000 miles.

In the past year, I’ve spent more on repairs than I paid for the car. Every few weeks I seem to have to pay $200-$400 for repairs and that trend continues. I just found out that I need new inner tie rods and struts for the front of the car to keep it drivable and safe. Looming on the horizon is the need to replace the clutch (it’s a manual transmission) and no doubt other things, too.

Related: How to Get Your Perspective Back on Track

At what point do you say enough is enough? I’ve been telling myself that there are only so many things that could go wrong on a car but I’m barely making it financially and if something more expensive happens that I can’t pay for with cash (I don’t even have a credit card) I’m in big trouble. I’m concerned it’ll leave me with no transportation to get to work and even worse, unable to see my kids. Thanks for what you do. Tim

Dear Tim: I am so sorry to hear of this most painful season you and your family are going through. I’m sure there are no easy answers, but I know that even this will not last forever. As for your transportation situation, this too is difficult but not impossible. You will get through this and I am confident it is going to be sooner than later.

I did a little checking using the information you’ve given me regarding your Camry and find that, generally speaking, its value is around $2,000, more or less, in its needy condition. It reminds me of my Cortina except its value was more like $200 with no choice but to keep pouring money into it.

The way I see it you have three options.

1. Sell the Camry then buy the best replacement clunker you can find with the cash you get for it. Whether you could find a more reliable vehicle for the same amount of money including applicable tax and fees is dubious, but could happen.

2. Sell the Camry, put the proceeds into savings then hunker down by taking public transportation or figuring out some kind of ride-sharing. While this option may be outside your comfort zone, you end up with money in the bank and trouble-free transportation. This assumes of course that you live in an area that offers public transportation. If you are diligent to save the money you aren’t having to spend on repairs, gas, and insurance, in time you’ll have enough cash to buy a decent clunker to get you back on the road.

Related: How to Buy a Car with All Cash

3. Keep fixing the Camry. This option requires that you continue doing what you have been doing—repairing this car. Determine to learn how to make these repairs yourself with parts you can get from your employer with your employee discount. Eventually, everything will be working reasonably well and you can start saving that $200 to $400 each month rather than pouring it back into the car.

My advice is that you go with Option 3. While these car repairs are miserable right now and keeping you on financial pins and needles, I’m confident that if you just hang in and keep going, in only a few more months you’ll be feeling tremendous relief from your car repair nightmare. Then you’ll be in a position to begin saving the money you’re not spending on repairs.

For DIY auto repairs, your computer is your friend. AutoMD and are both excellent resources for general purpose videos, how-to guides, and diagnostic assistance for the most common car problems. AutoMD also has an iPhone app with guides optimized for mobile viewing. If you need help deciding if a repair is worth your time, RepairPal is an excellent resource for checking the average cost of repairs in a shop and can help you decide if it’s worth the time and effort to do it yourself.


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5 replies
  1. Miriam says:

    If you live in a major city – not the burbs so much – owning a car should be a last resort. There are car sharing services that let you rent a car for just a few hours, say to go get groceries or pick up an item too large to take on public transportation. These services park cars all over the city so it is likely there is one near you. In my city, one even lets you leave the car just about anywhere in the city rather than having to take it back to where you picked it up – great for going to a destination where you’ll be staying for a while.
    Many years ago, just after my divorce and while raising 3 kids on a single salary, no child support, I figured out that I could take a cab home from the grocery store and rent a car for the weekend once a month and it would still cost me less than owning a car.
    Now I live in the country where a car is needed for just about any trip and although I love living here, I sometimes wish there was another way. Recently our town started a inter-city bus service to the nearest ‘city’ that runs at the beginning and the end of the day – great for workers – for $150 a month. Way cheaper than owning a car. It is going to be offering trips in the middle of the day soon. You can bet I’ll be on it instead of driving.

  2. Pat says:

    I am in the same boat but thank god I have my brothers to fix my car. They do most of my repairs for me and the ones they can’t do I have an old Mexican mechanic that fixes it for me for a reasonable price.

  3. Mara Cain says:

    I am in the same boat as Tim. I am certainly no mechanic, but have found the parts stores to be helpful about diagnosing problems. I have been lucky and found a garage that will allow me to buy my own parts at a cheaper price than they would charge. Also, junk yards will allow you to pull your own parts off their cars at a much cheaper cost than new parts. Try for neighbors that may know of the best place to go for car repairs. I keep a jar of change and when it hits 10 dollars I deposit it into a “savings” account. It adds up and I use it for unforeseen bills.

  4. T BRYAN says:

    I paid 4k for a used vehicle. The mechanic said there was about 1k worth of work that needed to be done but otherwise was in great shape. I split the cost of repairs with the seller. During the next year or 2 I ended up putting about another 4k into the car. I’d fix one thing and then another would break right after. But my last mechanic told me that the car is in good shape now. So I basically paid 8k for a car currently worth 3-4k. But it’s all paid for and working fine, hopefully for a while now. In any event, I’m keeping this car until the end.

  5. Ellen C says:

    Seek out another auto mechanic – too many mechanics unnecessarily put the
    fear of imminent car failure onto their customers. My husband does most of our car repairs and because of this our friend’s seek out his opinion when provided a list of ‘necessary’ repairs from their auto mechanic. Many of these repairs could be put off or were complete fabrications. It is shocking the dishonesty in this industry. Learn to do your own oil changes, check other fluids regularly, and learn to do your own brakes. This one repair is so overcharged it is mindblowing. Some communities offer auto repair classes in their adult education – well worth your time. Get proficient and do small repairs as a side job.


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