Another Crazy Week: Keep Your Emergency Fund Handy

It seems like only two weeks ago, I was driving to see my fiancée and had trouble with my car leading me to take it in for repairs after a harrowing drive.  Actually, it was two weeks ago, almost to the day.  Luckily, I made it to my destination alright, and got the problem (a power converter in my dash board) fixed without spending too much time and money doing so.  That should get me a few months without car trouble, right?

Alas, that’s not the case; less than two weeks later, I found myself having further problems, this time not with my lights, but with my brakes.  That might not have been such a problem, were it not for (a) the snow, ice, and slush on the roads of Ohio in the winter, (b) the steep hill that I need to drive down as part of my commute from school to my apartment, and (c) other cars that have the audacity to be on the road at the same time as me.  I think most of you are probably already forming an idea of what my trip home was like, but just in case you were still curious…

My Harrowing Homeward Journey

Getting to school on Thursday wasn’t too bad.  I had noticed for the past few weeks that my anti-lock brakes were engaging more often, and I was having a little trouble coming to a sudden stop.  But I wrote that off as what happens when you are driving in January in Pennsylvania and Ohio; there is no lack of ice on the roads, and when driving a beast of a car that’s over a decade old, a little bit of skidding was par for the course.  Drive a bit slower, brake a bit sooner, and don’t be aggressive, and you’ll be fine (good winter driving advice in general, while we’re on the subject).

Grow up in Pennsylvania, and you get used to driving on roads like this.

Trying to get home from school was a whole different matter, however.  Exiting the parking garage wasn’t that hard, although as I was driving down one of the parking lanes toward the exit, I was unable to stop in time to avoid cutting off another car.  The driver seemed to take it pretty well, and waved me forward, although she may simply have been unable to get past me.

On the open road, though, I soon had some serious problems.  I was in the middle lane on a downward sloping hill with cars stopped for the light at the bottom of the hill.  I tried to stop my car, pressing the pedal, trying to pump it, slamming it to the floor; no use, I wasn’t stopping.  Without doing something drastic, I was certain to hit one (or more) of the cars at the bottom of the hill; even at my 20 mph (32 kilometer per hour, if my conversions are correct) speed, I could still do quite a bit of damage to their car and mine, to say nothing of the insurance complications, higher premiums and other such headaches.

Needless to say, I wanted to avoid this sort of situation, and so attempted a rather…questionable maneuver.  I cut across the right lane of traffic (nobody was coming, luckily for me), hit the curb, went OVER the curb (I was kind of hoping it was stop me, but again, my car is a bit on the large side, and objects in motion, stay in motion-Thanks, physics!), and ended up making an unplanned right turn when I came back down.  It was rough, to say the least, but after hopping the curb, my car was going slow enough for my dying brakes to stop me.

I drove my car to the nearest place I knew could fix my brakes, slowly and cautiously, with my hazard lights flashing most of the time (I’m sure the people following me must have loved that).  There, I found out that my brake line was broken, and my car had lost most of the brake fluid.  After thanking my lucky stars, I agreed to pay the over $600 bill, and settled in to wait for the repairs to be done.  When they were finished (taking longer than they expected, and going past their closing time), they returned my car, billed my credit card (much less than the quoted price, which I figure was due to that extra-long wait), and let me get on my way with my now functional car.

The Lessons Learned

I suppose I should try to pull some helpful lessons out of this situation; lemonade from lemons, and all that jazz.  When I last took my car for repairs (that above linked post), I came with a few lessons about keeping up on my car’s maintenance and trying to help out other people.  Since all the same lessons apply here, I won’t rehash them.  (Other than to note that helping out others (either clients of your business or complete strangers) can pay nice dividends, both in increased business and better karma and that catching any under performance by your vehicle can help you get ahead of the curve and possibly even save your life.)

Instead, I’ll point out a different lesson that two car emergencies occurring within the same month has taught me: keep a substantial emergency fund.  Actually, as I’ve discussed before, you should ideally have a spectrum of emergency funds, providing you with additional sources of money to fall back on if you need them.  Particularly if you are trying to get out of debt (or avoid falling back into debt), having enough money available to weather not only AN emergency but MULTIPLE emergencies will be essential.

And how much money is that, you ask?  Most financial advisers will cite a number of months of income, which is a pretty good metric for an unemployment fund; that is, the part of your emergency fund you set aside in case you lose your job.  (Which, I will tell you from experience, is a pretty big emergency.)

But what about the sudden, unexpected expenses that we more typically think of as ’emergencies’?  Things like your water main bursting, your refrigerator dying, or yes, your car needing major repairs?  Having six months of your normal expenses saved should be enough to cover those incidents, but depending on your normal spending and the cost of these emergencies, it might not be.  If you are a low earner who suddenly needs major car work (or to buy a whole new vehicle), three to six months of income might not cover it.  If you are trying to be debt free, you should make an effort to build an emergency (buffer) fund that will cover the largest foreseeable emergency you might face.  (If you, like me, do go further into debt to cover your emergency, one of your top priorities should be to increase your debt repayment schedule to compensate.)  In my case, that would be replacing my car; while hopefully not something I will have to face soon, building a fund to cover the purchase of a gently used car when my current one finally quits on me is a goal I’m adding to my list.

Once again, my car has given me trouble, and once again, I’ve managed to get a pretty sizable post out of the ordeal.  Not that I’m hoping for more automotive troubles, but if things keep up this way, my car might end up becoming the biggest source of inspiration that I have.

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