This is one of my biggest financial mistakes. My failure to learn some basic skills and my willful ignorance of the trouble I was in cost me thousands of dollars and major inconveniences.
When I was younger, I didn’t have that much of a positive track record with cars. In high school after receiving my license and throughout college, I drove my parents’ car, but I drove infrequently and was never really responsible for maintaining the car. After I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music education and found my first teaching position, I needed a car. My parents were kind enough to buy me one as a graduation gift — a 12-year old Toyota Celica in good enough condition.
Well, I made a stupid mistake, though it’s a mistake that befalls many people who don’t take the time to learn about basic car maintenance when owning their first car. I never added any oil to the engine, and certainly never changed the oil. Even if the 3,000 mile “standard” for changing oil is too aggressive for modern cars, letting the motor run dry will quickly damage the car. The mistake of not learning the bare minimum for owning a car got me into trouble.
I replaced the motor after it was destroyed and the car ran well for another few years, but I made more mistakes. These were of a more financial nature. My car seemed to attract police, who seemed almost delighted to pull me over for speeding.
Although it had a rebuilt motor, the Celica was unreliable. Before it was completely undrivable, I used it to trade in for a slightly used car, a Honda Civic, and a three-year loan to make the purchase more affordable for me. I might have changed my driving habits, or the car might not have attracted police as much, but I was pulled over less frequently for speeding. But I continued to ignore the tickets.
Although speeding tickets are expensive and I had no money, it would have been more manageable in the end had I paid the fines and moved on. I was working for a non-profit, and I was broke. For some reason, I thought my life would be better if I stuck my head in the sand and ignored the tickets and fines. I was also moving around a lot in this period of my life, and I didn’t receive notices from the DMV letting me know my license was suspended for my failure to pay these fines. Since I didn’t know my license was suspended, I kept driving, blissfully ignorant of the situation I was in.
One day, soon after I left the non-profit job I had after my short stint teaching after college, a police offer pulled me over for speeding. Since my license was suspended, they impounded my car. My biggest concern was no longer finding a new job, it was determining if and how I could avoid jail time. Good news: I didn’t go to jail.
From this point on, I needed to redesign my life so that I could survive without a car. This was soon after I left the non-profit job I started after teaching, and I was in the process of looking for a new teaching position. My search was on hold because there weren’t many schools in New Jersey I’d be able to travel to without a vehicle. I did find a job, working for a financial company, and moved somewhere that would allow me to have a convenient commute using mass transportation. I gave up my Civic to a relative.
Eventually, I had my license reinstated and the relative returned the Civic. As a result of my problems, though, I still had large auto insurance bills that plagued me for years. Through this debacle, I learned a few lessons about responsibility. Today I can look back and be glad I’ve been able to make better choices this past decade.
Here are some things I’ve taken away from my earlier mistakes, and maybe they’ll be appropriate for you.
- When you first get a car, learn how to take care of it.
- When someone sends you a bill, don’t ignore it.
- If police are involved, take care of the problem as soon as possible.
- If you owe money to the courts, it’s not going away, and it could become a legal issue.
- If you have no money to pay traffic fines, find the money.
- Keep your address current and on file with the division of motor vehicles.
- Don’t speed.
Updated August 20, 2011 and originally published August 4, 2011.