Dear Mary: I’m in a quandary. I can’t see the forest for the trees. By some coincidence, my washing machine finally died after my having babied it for 18 months. Within a week, my dishwasher, refrigerator, and screen door all announced they were on their last legs.
On top of that, a pipe burst and water leaked for weeks underneath my yard till we got a $670 water bill. A plumber ripped up the yard and fixed the leak ($450), and the Dept of Water and Power gave me a bill for $220 (a usual water bill is $45). Two days ago in the rain storm, my car wouldn’t start. Turns out water got into the hybrid battery which may cost $5000 to replace. Property taxes are due next week.
I have paid off one credit card, am existing on the other, and my Contingency Fund is nowhere near able to handle the cumulative disaster that has become my life. I managed to pay the property taxes, but I’m not sure how to prioritize or what to do next. It’s so overwhelming, I feel paralyzed.
It’s so surreal that all of this has happened in such a short period of time. I have one dollar and some change in my purse. Do you have some advice for me? I need some structure and a light at the end of the tunnel. I still have a young teenager at home I need to provide for. Thanks in advance for your wisdom. Amy
Dear Amy: I’m not sure I can guide you out of this mess in the brief space of this column. But perhaps more importantly, we need to look at how you got here so you can never go that way again. With only the information you’ve given me, I can see that you are living way too close to the edge. I can imagine that things were going along well, you bought a new car, allowed your savings to dwindle to a paltry sum leaving your Contingency (emergency) Fund way underfunded. But hey, when it’s not raining who really worries about an umbrella, right?
Every item you mention above—even the busted pipe and freakish battery mishap—come under the heading “Life Happens, Get Ready.”
We may not know when the refrigerator is going to die, but I can promise that it will. Refrigerators, like all household appliances, are manufactured with built-in functional obsolescence. Manufacturers used to make them to last for 30 years or longer, but not anymore. A refrigerator you buy today is made to last for 8 to 10 years tops. It’s part of the design. We know this from day one. Same for other appliances.
And underground pipes? They corrode. The age of your home can predict quite accurately when you will need to repipe. Not very comforting, but a good lesson for all of us to consider from time to time?.
So how should we cope? By first believing that stuff wears out or deteriorates; taxes are always coming due, cars require maintenance and repair, Christmas happens every year on exactly the same day and most kids go to college when they are about 18.
See? I’m talking about predictable expenses that most people never consider as they decide how to spend next week’s paycheck. As long as everything is running, nothing is leaking and no one’s calling, we assume all is well. So why not put in a pool or plan a trip to Disney World?
It’s all about preparing for rain even when there’s no rain in the forecast.
As for your specific situation right this minute, my advice is to buckle up and hang on tight. This is not going to be easy! But you are strong and resilient and you will get through it.
I can’t imagine that any car manufacturer these days makes a car that cannot endure rain. I would fight like a bull dog and not let go until I got that battery replaced and the problem fixed that allowed it to get wet in the first place.
Hand wash dishes for now and use that busted dishwasher as a drying rack. I am not convinced your washing machine cannot be repaired one more time, and you should not be either. Don’t cave too quickly into financing a new one. Consider alternatives like the local laundromat or washing clothes at a relative’s home for the time being.
A screen door can be patched, tied together, duct taped—whatever it takes to get through the season. Get creative but hold off spending or going into debt to replace it right now. If you owe the plumber, make tiny payments now with a promise full payment soon.
When you get your next paycheck, sit down and “pre spend” every nickel of it on paper, before you spend any of it for real.
Allow as little as reasonable for food for you and our child. Do not eat out. Do not pay anyone to prepare food for you. Go frugal. Stop driving unless absolutely necessary. Walk, ride your bike. Spend any money only on what is necessary to sustain life or legally obligating.
You are going to be amazed at how creative you are as you claw your way out of this difficult time. And you will. I have faith in your ability to do hard things. And please let me know how you’re doing. I want to celebrate you and the remarkable ways you got through.