When Life Happens

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.

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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.

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18 replies
  1. been there says:

    Years ago the power company would finance appliances. If so, later
    when you get your sea legs under you that might be an option for you. Food banks are helpful for groceries and personal items in a pinch. If you’re really desperate you might check to see if there are churches in the area with benevolence funds. Just a suggestion!

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  2. Ed says:

    Amy, you’ve been given great advice by Mary and the readers who have commented. I’ve dealt with many of these issues as well. As others have said, there is no shame in getting free or cheap appliances to tide you over until things are calmer, or even go without the dishwasher or screen door for a bit. With a little thought, your priorities should be clear (fridge before screen door, dishwasher, etc). The advice given below to see if the City will waive the high water bill is rock solid. Most towns will do that with a receipt from a plumber for the repair.
    As to Mary’s harshness, I don’t see it. She spoke the truth. In Amy’s own words “I have paid off one credit card, am existing on the other…”. To me that implies she’s not made the best financial choices in the past and truly is living on the edge (and heading towards it). We’ve all made poor decisions at some point. If you don’t acknowledge those mistakes you’re all the more likely to repeat them. Hopefully, with all the great suggestions she’s getting here, she’ll be able to navigate this disaster and stabilize her finances soon.

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  3. Linnea Priest says:

    There is a lot of info on the internet about fixing appliances yourself. I put new bearings on my dryer myself. There are websites that help you diagnose the problem and sell you parts. You don’t have to fix them immediately, either. And look at Freecycle for your area. I gave away a working old refrigerator and a freezer. I didn’t want to sell them because I wasn’t sure how long they would last!
    I have given away all kinds of useful stuff.
    I also installed new toilets myself. You can do many things without professional training if you can read and follow directions. Good luck!

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  4. Mary D says:

    Here I am slapping my forehead saying “Duh!” I’m in much the same situation, minus the broken water pipe. We’ve been doing dishes by hand for a month now and no big thing. But we’ve been piling them on the counter where they slide and topple, etc. At your suggestion to use the useless dishwasher as a drying rack; all I could say was “Duh!” Thanks for yet another invaluable suggestion.

    We’re in survival mode right now, but we’ll make it. And so will Amy and countless others.

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  5. JLP says:

    That scolding at the beginning of the answer was not necessary. Talk about hitting someone when they are down. Sounds like this woman was barely getting by on her income to start with. I know what that’s like. If you barely have the income to meet life’s necessities, people who have never been in those circumstances just don’t get it and have all kinds of unrealistic advice. Scolding her for living too close to the edge doesn’t help.
    I do suggest she join her local Freecycle group and see if she can get used working fridge, washer, and dishwasher for the time being. I see working appliances given away on freecycle all the time. Or she might have to resort to the laundromat and some handwashing for a while until she gets a few emergency expenses out of the way. Trying to repair that washer may be throwing good money after bad.

    If she can’t get satisfaction from the dealer or manufacturer about that hybrid battery there might be one at an auto salvage place from a vehicle that is otherwise totaled and being parted out. And maybe appeal to the city utilities to see if she can negotiate that high water bill.
    If the Amy lives near a Restore, she may be able to replace her screen door for much less than the cost of new. Or again, try Freecycle.

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  6. Kelly Sangree says:

    First, yes – the screen door shouldn’t be an emergency right now (I’m reading this in January). Remove it from the hinges if it’s banging too much in the winter wind, deal with it in the spring.

    The first thing you need to do is make sure your water doesn’t get cut off. Pay that water bill to the exclusion of most everything else – getting it turned back on will be horrific. Beg the plumber to accept 10 payments of $45 every month – explain the situation and beg for understanding. The nicer you are, the more likely they will be to work with you.

    Good call on using the dishwasher as a drying rack until later. Check the food trap first, though, to make sure a spoon didn’t end up jamming something.

    Yes, contact the dealer, even if the warranty has expired. This is one case where dealing with the local garage probably won’t help you. Are you anywhere near reliable public transportation, if they just won’t replace the battery and fix the water issue? Can you ask a co-worker for car pool lifts until you can fix the car, and have your child take the school bus? Sadly, any extra activities may have to be put on hold, and while that may be a bummer, your kid WILL understand if it’s that or being able to shower.

    The washing machine? I do hope it’s only a $40 fix. But if it’s hopelessly broken, check craigslist until you find an ugly 20 year old machine that’s still going strong for $50. (They’re out there. I have one.)
    If you have to hand wash some of your items, the hardest part is wringing them out. I saw a version of the “spin mop” bucket at Aldi for $20 yesterday, which should get a bunch of the water out of your clothes before you hang them.

    Vacuum the coils on your fridge before giving a eulogy – it really could be something that minor. And once again – if it’s totally dead, look for a $50 craigslist replacement until you’ve rebuilt your funds and no longer drowning. Yes, even if the replacement is Harvest Gold. Even if it uses more power. You’re in survival mode right now.

    BUdgetsaresexy.com has a list of “side hustles” – ways to bring in some extra money. Maybe one would help you out?

    Good luck!

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  7. Barbara says:

    I have a home warranty company which would have taken care of most of these problems for a $60.00 copay. I don’t know why more people do not have them. I have lived in my current house since 2007. In that time they have replaced my hot water heater, furnace, 3 pool motors, trash compactor, my oven/microwave combo (twice), sub zero refrigerator, kitchen faucets, bathroom faucets, my washing machine, etc. When added up, all the calls that have been made to my home would have been tens of thousands of dollars (the furnace alone was close to $5000.). When they have had to replace appliances (as opposed to fixing them) it has always been with top quality appliances. I use First American Home Buyers Protection Corp. but I know there are a number of companies out there. Look at it this way – is it easier to budget for a $60.00 copay once or twice a month or is it easier to budget for the full cost of an appliance?

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  8. DianaB says:

    I felt so sorry for this lady when I read all this. This kind of stuff makes you freeze in your tracks and terrorize you. I think most of your advice was pretty spot on. I would make a comment, however, about utility bills. A couple of years ago during a really hard cold snap (Alabama) I got a power bill over $400 that I could not remotely afford to pay. I called them and asked if I could make payments on this balance. I was told that they would split it in half and bill me $200 plus whatever the next month’s bill would be. I said that would put me in the same boat I was already in–I don’t have $400 to pay my power bill. That was their only solution to making payments. However, as we talked the person suggested I go on budget billing. I had had their budget billing before and it tends to fluctuate–it is not the exact same for a whole year, can change from month to month, which I had never heard of before, at least where I had come from in Colorado. Anyway, I decided to try it again and it was way over $200 to begin with but way more manageable than the $400. I am still on budget billing and it has eventually dropped to $138 a month and am waiting for the next drop.

    If you don’t pay property taxes right away, they are not going to repossess your home. They probably would have taken payments had she inquired, but, again freezing in your tracks is what happens.

    Yes, forget worrying about the dishwasher. There are only two people. She doesn’t need it. Laundry can be done at a friend’s house. I am sure she knows someone who would let her do that if she asked. Laundromats cost money which she does not have right now.

    Screen door isn’t needed, so take it off for now. Worry about it later. Underground pipes another story. Between the main at the street and her house the pipes are her responsibility, unfortunately. Join a freecyle.org group in her area and make a plea for a frig, washer, whatever. People always have working items that they are willing to share with those who need them. Call a metal recycling place and have the old ones hauled away. She might even make a few bucks in the process.

    As far as her car is concerned, I agree it must be under some sort of warranty and should not cost her a cent to get it fixed. Car payments she obviously must have and that will be a problem. Talk to the lender about her payments and see if they can help her for a few months.

    Food pantries exist for these exact reasons. She must not be too proud to use one. Even local churches will help her, maybe even with some cash.

    Perseverance is needed here and I still feel her pain. She and her child shall survive all of this but it will not be easy. Bless her heart.

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  9. Ian Osmond says:

    You know, my wife and I are among the most financially stable people I know, and I think even we would be hard-pressed to handle that many hits at once. This is a situation where I would have to talk to every one of my creditors and ask to set up payment plans, to pay over time. Where I’d have to ask all my friends and family if they had a fridge that still worked, but they were planning on replacing soon and would they sell it to me cheap? To buy a dorm fridge to keep me going until I could save up for a real one (which would mean I couldn’t take advantage of good deals). To contact the town and ask for a hardship extension on the taxes.

    I think this is enough bad luck that even the most prudent people would need help to get out of, at least to the extent of people giving them extensions on their bills.

    But, yeah, this is going to require sacrifice to get out of.

    Reply
  10. Pidgie says:

    In my town if you have a water line leak repaired you can take the plumbers bill into the city and they’ll adjust it. It is worth a try. Also on the screen door, you don’t need it now in the winter. Remove and store it until you can afford to make the repairs or replace it. Good luck, look at the situation as a challenge you will conquer!! You can do it!!

    Reply
  11. Erin M. says:

    Mary, I think you were unnecessarily harsh on this woman. From her letter it seems like she has been trying to do the right things–she paid down her credit card, tried to start an emergency fund, and bought a car that was supposed to save money and be reliable. Sometimes things just happen too fast and get too out of control. I have been in her situation. Because of changes in the economy since 2008, I was caguht in the pincer grip of decreasing income and increasing expenses, until a year ago I was unemployed and OUT OF PROPANE in the middle of the bitter cold winter. Did I know I was running out of fuel? Of course I did. Did I try to plan ahead and save for the resupply? I wish! . Was I spending money frivolously? Absolutely not! At the time I had been going to food pantries for more than a year, making my own laundry detergent, and air-drying all my laundry to save money. We didn’t have an emergency frund because all our money went for things we absulutely had to pay–morgage, utilities, gas for my husband to get to work. There was not even enough money for those things and we still fell further and further behind.

    This is how I survived those months until I got back to work, and maybe some of these tips will help her, too: 1. Find the food pantries in your area and use them. While you are there, talk to everyone you meet. People are quick to share advice and they will tell you all about things they are doing to save money. 2. Check out whatever government assistance is avaialble. You never know but you might qualify for something to help get you through. 3. Find out how long you can go without paying on your utilities before you get cut off. YOu may be able to divert some utility money to cover an immediate expense and then pay off your bill later,. 4. Read a lot of frugal living blogs and no matter what you want to spend money on, ask yourself, “Is there a way I can do this cheaper? Can I find a way around this?” Then whatever you need, google it with the word DIY and see what you find. In this way I learned how to make most of my own cleaning supplies and fix my dishwasher.

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  12. nyaya says:

    OK first of all no blame game. Let me put things in perspective. There are over 4 billion people who are making a living on the planet without any of these gadgets. Fridge= buy only meat and vegetable on a per day basis. Vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes, onion, sweet potatoes, all can be kept in a cool dry place for weeks. Buy tomatoes which are slightly ripe. Dishwasher I never had one in my life. wash by hand get real. Washing machine I never had one for 5 years. Wash everyday clothes by hand. Put everyday clothes in the sink, soak it water and soap powder and soak. wash and wring and dry it using hangers of ropes strung along. I do this even when I travel and dont pay the hotel people to wash. You need to iron of course. Screen door patch it up. Use nails to hang it. Carpool and pay for a while and then walk rest of the time. I can walk over 12 km everyday. Dont spend a single cent unnecessarily. There must be something wrong with the car as no car should be built that way. Check your warranty and contact the manufacturer or consumer commission. Dont buy anything new. I am pretty sure you will have lots of gadgets that you would have used once or twice. Have a yard sale and sell them. Make some money and save it carefully even if you make 50 dollars you can feed yourself for2 weeks. Unfortunately in the US there is a gadget culture. People think nothing can be done by hand and everything needs gadgets which cost interms of electricity. I have done all these survived and studied at the university too. I didnt die. So stop the self pity which obstructs your mind and get moving. You will succeed.

    Reply
  13. debi sue says:

    This rainy day is a flood of major proportions. I use an envelope system to save money for new appliances, car repairs and emergencies but none of them would be enough to cover this much debt. This lady may need to sit down with someone from her bank and see about getting a home line of credit to cover these major expenses first and then figure out how she is going to budget in the future for the next big ticket items (college for the kids, weddings, etc.) I think until she sees some way to handle the immediate crisis she will be too paralyzed by fear to function.
    I do appreciate you sharing this letter as it has encouraged me to work harder to buik up my emergency fund especially since I have an aging heating system.

    Reply
  14. Donna says:

    Mary, The reader may be able to find a fridge on a Facebook yard sale page in her area. When my 7 y.o washer stackable washer and dryer were on their last legs-after repairing 3 times beyond warranty, I found a year old stackable washer for $100 and a few weeks later found a stackable 2 y.o stackable dryer for $200 (a fraction of their new cost.). The same can be said for finding a fridge, all she need do is post an ISO(In search of). In some cases she might find a free working one.

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  15. Guest says:

    Mary, the reader May be able to find a fridge on a Facebook yard sale page in her area cheaply. When my 7 y.o washer stackable washer and dryer were on their last legs-after repairing 3 times beyond warranty I found a year old stackable washer for $100 and a few weeks later found a stackable 2y.o stackable dryer for $200 (a fraction of their new cost.0 The same can be said for finding a fridge, all she need do is post an ISO(In search of). In some cases she might find a free working one.

    Reply

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