The financial crisis was not our fault

The family car

My husband and I are, as we like to call it, frugal. We live within our means. We save. We use our stuff until it is completely used up. We bought a new bed frame only after the old one collapsed under us. My husband, Todd, used his 25-year-old ski boots until their brittle plastic cracked, first on one boot and then the next, during two successive runs down the mountain. We still use the vintage couch that I found at Goodwill more than 12 years ago.

Nowhere is our fiscal policy more evident than in our choice of automobiles. I drive a 1997 Honda Civic that my mother bought for me when I graduated from college. I am 35 years old, and I have never had a car payment. Yes, the ceiling upholstery has detached and now rests on my head when I drive. Yes, the passenger door makes a hideous groan each time it is opened. And yes, that probably was my car you heard rattling through Raleigh the other day. But I couldn’t hear it, because I was singing a smug little song about never having had a car payment.

Todd has a thing for ancient Volvos. Back when our courtship was new, he had a dented 1983 model that started erratically. At some point, he discovered that removing a fuse under the hood and then putting it back seemed to bring it to life. That is how we came to be on a remote road in the North Carolina mountains one afternoon, searching in vain for the tiny fuse that Todd had dropped into the engine. We made the four-hour drive home with a foil gum wrapper serving as a fuse. Now, Todd has a 1991 station wagon that is a practically a luxury vehicle — except for the broken driver’s side door handle, which forces him to open the door from the back seat. There’s also that disconcerting vibration (some might call it shuddering) that begins when the car reaches about 50 mph.

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised last week when I got the call from Todd. On his way back from the grocery store, just as he was turning onto our street, his trusty Volvo had died suddenly. I went out onto the porch, looked down the hill and there it was, straddled horizontally across both lanes. Night was falling and, with the engine dead, he couldn’t even get it into neutral to push it out of the road. Any second, another car might come flying down the street and plow into it.

Eventually, the police arrived and helped him get it to the shoulder. (The officer was not amused by our predicament.) And then AAA came to tow it to the mechanic. We like to think of our cars as part of our financial philosophy. But when your philosophy requires the police to push you out of the middle of the road, you have to cede a bit of the moral high ground. As I stood there staring at our car, it looked more like a safety hazard than proof of our triumph over materialism. And I had to admit it … we might just be cheap.

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