Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The high cost of (automotive) beauty

Early this January, we got to learn a few lessons at the hands of that famous teacher, Experience.

We were taking one of our quarterly trips out to see C-son; with seven people involved we couldn't fit in one car so we decided to convoy our two cars, putting K-daughter at the wheel of my trusty old Prius.  Along the way there, K-daughter had a car accident.

The accident was a fairly typical new-driver accident:  she was travelling in the right (slow) lane on a highway; she got nervous about a car in the on-ramp and decided to yield to that car by swinging out into the left lane.  Trouble is, there was already a pick-up truck in the left lane, right next to her.  Pick-up Truck and Prius got to rub shoulders, so to speak.

The big financial Lesson that came out of this Experience is for all of us:

One:  Having liability-only insurance (no collision) saves a boatload of money!

I already knew that I was paying less for insurance by paying only for liability --- that is, not paying for collision, too.  I figured we'd eventually have to make up for that when the first big accident (or small accident, like this one) came.   The entire driver's side of the Prius was dented and scraped up, and one panel was bent in such a way that the driver's door was hard to open.  Fixing this all up costs  . . .  how much?

There were the costs to the other car; our liability insurance covered that.  But what about our car?

When K-daughter took the Prius to the mechanic, he prepared his estimate and asked for our insurance information.  At that point, I got on the phone with him and explained we don't have collision insurance; we'd be paying the costs ourself.  That rocked him back:  "Oh, well, it'll cost $4,700".

[Sort of ironically, a friend of mine had just told me she was getting ready to buy a used 2001 Prius, same age as mine, for $4K.  So my repair would have cost more than a whole other car!]

I told the mechanic I didn't care about cosmetics [that's a lie -- see below] -- I just want the car to be functional and safe.  So he took out a crow bar, bent one panel back into shape, and now the driver's side door works perfectly.  Total cost:  $0.  That increased to about $30 when K-daughter bought some touch-up paint that we've used to prevent eventual rust.

In essence, this means that when you buy collision insurance, it covers not only the things that you would have willingly paid for (like repairing defective parts for safety reasons), but also things you'd be willing to let slide.   I myself subscribe to the idea that I don't ever buy insurance for something I'd be able to pay for myself -- no extended warranties on refrigerators, no pet insurance.  But this Experience taught me that avoiding extra insurance is even more powerful than that:  it also means that I'm not insuring something I wouldn't have paid for in the first place!

Two of the other three important lessons on this list were mostly for K-daughter.

Two:  Don't yield to cars that are supposed to yield to you!  And

Three:  A car is just a THING.

After the smash-up, K-daughter and the pick-up driver pulled over to the shoulder; my husband and I pulled our other car over, too.  K-daughter was freaking out because she had just had a CAR ACCIDENT, and that's a big, scary thing, right??  After all, car accidents get broadcasted on the radio and in the newspaper.  A car is expensive (and it's not even her car).  People die in car accidents.  She was just terrified of what this all meant.

We traded insurance cards with the pick-up driver and did a check of the situation.  Although both the Prius and the pick-up had damage along their sides, all six people in the two vehicles were completely unhurt.  No bumps, no scrapes, no nothing.  The people were fine -- if you're going to crash your car while going 60 mph, it's best to crash it into something going the same direction and the same speed.   The two vehicles themselves looked a lot uglier than they had 5 minutes ago -- but I got to reassure K-daughter that a car isn't a family heirloom or a Rembrandt painting.  People break lamps, dishes, even furniture and don't get upset; a car is just another thing we own that we might break.  And if we do break it, we can fix it or get a new one, and our lives will still go on.

We gave K-daughter a brief period of time to recover.  I drove the rest of the way to see C-son; we all had lunch together; then I handed K-daughter the keys and she drove the long journey home on her own.  See?  No big deal.

Which leads to the final lesson . . .

Four:  I'm a liar and a hypocrite.
It's the rational side of me that told K-daughter this is no big deal.   It's the rational side of me that said it's not worth paying nearly $5k to pretty up a dozen-year-old car that I seldom drive.

But there was a big part of me that was wringing my hands and moaning, "but this car only has 85,000  miles on it!  And it's my car!  I'm going to have it for another dozen years, and now it will be ugly for all those years!  And I don't want it to look ugly!"

In my most selfish Oh-Poor-Me moments, I even told myself that it's just no fair that I take in this kid who's not even my own biological kid, gave her a home and a family . . . and access to my car . . . and now I have to live with an ugly car.   I was amazed that I could feel such self-pity at the same time that I was completely ashamed of myself for my whining.  Those two emotions ought to have cancelled each other out somehow, but they didn't.

Until I took another good look at the car, and realized that -- really, truly  -- it's no big deal.  Yeah, there's a bit of a frumpy, rumpled look to it -- but it's not really as bad as I'd remembered / feared / obsessed.  I can live with that.
Even if he gets his own pet insurance,
 I'm not going to let my dog drive the car.


  1. So glad you are back!

    This is an important lesson for all of us. One thing I would add, some of us with collision insurance are driving around with minor dings & scrapes because we are afraid of making a claim and having rates go up. So another reason to consider self insuring for older cars!

    PS I am curious to hear about the ironman training, so I hope you pop back with an update in a few months.

  2. My high-school-aged sister crumpled the corner of my car the year she drove it (it was a graduation/wedding present from my parents, but we couldn't afford the insurance for a couple of years). When I got it back and drove it around, it wasn't a big deal (though people would occasionally stop us in parking lots offering us "deals" on bodywork). Unfortunately we got into a wreck in a blizzard and the crumpled part got left in a snowbank, leaving a jagged part, and we failed our next inspection. At that point the cost of the repair was more than the value of the car. So we bought a new car. (Another Hyundai Accent, since that was all we could afford to pay for with cash.)