My Car Hates Me: Tales of a Breakdown

So it’s happened again — my car has failed me again. This time, the poor thing didn’t want to start after a hard 12-hour day on deadline at work. It wasn’t the “crank-crank-crank-nothing” type of non-start; it was the silent kind. Turning the key in the ignition elicited NOT ONE noise from my 9.5-year-old car.

“Wait, I have AAA Plus! The kind that says I can have it towed anywhere within 100 miles for free!” I live about 25 miles away from my office.

I dialed the Member Services number and after passing through menu after menu, I was connected to a representative who sounded like he’d just woken up. After asking my location and whether or not I needed a jump-start (I didn’t; the battery obviously worked because my lights, radio and windows worked), he told me a tow truck would arrive within the hour.

As it was raining, waiting an hour didn’t sound so bad — they must be busy! I went back into my warm, dry office, played a few rounds of Words With Friends, surfed the Net and waited for my savior’s call.

After an hour with no contact, I called AAA back and asked what was up. A more alert rep told me I was next, and that the tow truck would arrive in about 10 minutes. Hooray! I ran downstairs to my car, and within those 10 minutes, the truck arrived.

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Tow Truck Guy asks me, “You need a jump-start?” and I mutter, “Uh, no. I need a tow back to my mechanic’s shop.” I knew it was going to be bad.

Tow Truck Guy responds: “They told me it was a jump-start! I have to go do another job nearby, just tow a car to the side of the road, and I’ll be back for you in 20 mins!” He took my cell number, called me from his phone so I had his number, and off he went into the cold, wet night.

It was like being abandoned. Compounding my disappointment (a mild way of putting it), I was now locked out of my office — the doors apparently had been scheduled to lock for the night.

Dejected, I sat in my car and attempted to waste as much time as possible, calling/texting/tweeting my complaints to others who didn’t want to hear them. I whined. I lashed out at my car, threatening to replace it with a brand-new model who would treat me better. I thought about taking a terrifying cab-ride home (I live near NYC, home of crazy cabbies).

Finally, my phone rang, and Tow Truck Guy said he was 15 minutes away. Thank HEAVENS.

He arrives, hooks my car and off we go. The car gets dropped off at the mechanic’s place, my brother and his poor half-asleep girlfriend pick me up and drive me across town, where they deposit me back home, 3 hours after discovering my car had just given up on me.

Follow-Up

The mechanic calls in the morning, informing me that my headlights had been on all night, and now my battery is stone-cold dead. Oh, joy. But he tells me he’s discovered the problem with my car. And it’s not the starter.

End result: Pontiac Grand Ams from the early 2000s have this neat little glitch that causes the car to not recognize your key. Fixing it requires removing a wire from the fuse box for 15 minutes, plugging it back in and praying the car starts again.

A new car may be in my future sooner than next April/May — Mr. Not-So-Frugal’s car will be paid off by then. I think I’m ready to part with this poor thing and pass the car off to someone who can appreciate its quirks. I’m all quirked-out.

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Fuel Pump, Part Deux

It’s been barely two years since I need to replace my car’s fuel pump after an embarrassing breakdown in the middle of the street on my way to work in August 2010, but last week it was “deja vu all over again,” as Yogi Berra would say.

To be honest, the issue with my car — a 2003 Pontiac Grand Am GT — had been going on for more than a month. The damned thing wouldn’t start when I turned the key in the ignition. Sure, it would crank, but it would take a number of times to get it going before it would start.

A helpful mechanic neighbor mentioned the fuel pump wasn’t “kicking in” — advising me to turn the key to “on” and wait for the buzz of the fuel pump before trying to start it.

That seemed to do the trick, but that buzzing noise didn’t always come in a reasonable amount of time. And I’d get impatient and crank the engine again and again. Or I’d come up with ridiculous “methods” for getting the engine to turn over:

1. Open and close the car door, then try to start it.

2. Put it in neutral, foot on brake, then try to start it.

3. Lock the car using the key fob, then try to start it.

Invariably, one of these would work, and I’d latch on to the routine for the next few starts. When it failed, I’d come up with a new, even more ridiculous routine. It was the equivalent of blowing on dice for good luck while playing craps.

Fuel Pumps Have a High Repair Cost

After playing Internet mechanic, I was hoping it was the fuel pump sensor — but alas, it was not to be. I’m not sure it would have been cheaper to repair, but surely I wouldn’t have paid close to $1,000 ($935, to be exact) to fix it this time.

Why did it cost me nearly $300 more this time around? Because when I took my car to my regular town mechanic, he couldn’t find anything wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t have told him the fuel pump was only two years old — perhaps he didn’t check it because it was still fairly new. Or he focused on the ignition, starter, battery, and alternator as possible culprits.

Because I thought it was an electrical issue (it was, sort of), I took it to a GM dealer, figuring they’d have more experience. I knew the labor cost would be more, and it was. I gained a minimal measure of comfort when my mechanic told me it would have cost him almost as much to replace the fuel pump.

A few days later, the car is still giving me trouble, but nowhere near as bad. I bet I’ve been slowly burning out the starter, but you’d think the dealership would have checked that out. Guess a phone call to customer service is in order.

A new car is looking better and better, but I really need to wait another 18 months or so to pay off Mr. Not-So-Frugal’s vehicle. Two car payments would be a frugal nightmare!

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Another Car Repair II: This Time, $300 Down the Drain

My car continues to be a drain on our wallet. After the last car repair, replacing the wheel sensors, I thought I was in the clear. But about 2 weeks later, I started hearing a strange thumping noise coming from the front left wheel.

I brought it back to the mechanic, and of course, the noise disappeared while he had the car. But right before I left, the noise was back — and he thought it was a dirty brake caliper. He sent me off with this advice: get the car washes, and the water should dislodge the debris that was causing the noise.

A week later, I got the car washed. And two days after that, we had a terrible rainstorm. Not only did the noise NOT disappear, it got LOUDER. So back to the mechanic I went.

Over the phone, he told me it was “cracked brake shoes.” But when my husband went to pick the car up for me, the service ticket said the brake pads and rotors had been replaced. While I don’t know enough about brake systems to determine what he meant, I’m very glad that it’s been fixed. I was actually afraid to drive the car to and from work because of the unnerving sound coming from the tire as I drove — I heard it above the radio.

This comes on the heels of the $750 repair in early November and the $600 fuel pump repair in August. The grand total? $1650.

While I realize this is a lot of money to spend in the last four months on repairs, it’s still been a heck of a lot cheaper than a new car (and the years of payments/interest that go with it). As long as the engine and transmission are sound, I’m happy with my seven-year-old car. And I hope it’s happy with all of the money I’ve spent on it this year.

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Another Car Repair = $750 Down the Drain

As I previously mentioned, I had to take my 7-year-old car to the mechanic again on Monday, but this time, it was of my own volition. I already knew what the problem was, so I was able to anticipate that it would be a costly repair.

The ABS, Trac Off and Service Vehicle Soon lights started twinkling a few weeks ago intermittently as I started driving, but they would turn off just as quickly. So initially, I thought it was a bad fuse or a small electrical issue. When I finally decided to do some research on the interwebs, I soon found out I was dealing with something a bit more serious.

The wheel sensors were shot, and it was affecting the car’s anti-lock brakes and traction control feature. I also discovered that it would be a costly repair because they’d have to disassemble the wheel hub. It’s a problem that seems to occur in many GM vehicles.

So when I spoke to the mechanic about dropping off the car, I knew it would be costly. I even estimated in my head that it would be $500 to fix the errant wheel sensor.

Then the mechanic called back with this bombshell: BOTH wheel sensors/bearings had to be replaced. Awesome. The estimated repair bill? $800.

At the end of the day, the cost was $700 plus tax, so $749. That put a big damper on the savings/Christmas spending budget I had in my head, but that’s why a big emergency fund (or in our case, a big savings account) comes in handy. But with a baby on the way, I need the car to be safe for both me and the little one (and Mr. NSF, of course).

Someone suggested that I could have made 3 payments on a new car for about $800 without having to worry about car repair. Sure, that’s true in the short run, but new car payments last a lot longer than 3 months — more like 4-5 years. Plus, we already have a “new” car that we’re making payments on. At 0% interest, of course!

I just hope my car is now satisfied that I’ve taken care of it and won’t cause me any more problems in the foreseeable future. Other than this and the fuel pump, I haven’t had to do more than oil changes, brakes and tires over the past 7 years. I think that’s a pretty good deal that outweighs the allure — and waste — of paying for a new car.

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One Day, $110 in Prescriptions — With Insurance

Saturday was a very expensive day at the pharmacy. Not only did I have to refill my 90-day supply of prenatal vitamin, but I also had to get another 90 days worth of my thyroid medication, Synthroid. As I’ve mentioned in the past, it actually costs LESS to pay for the Synthroid outright than it would be with my co-pay. Every 30-day supply has a $30 co-pay, so 90 days would equal $90. However, it’s “only” $80 retail for that same amount, so they charge me the lesser price. After the baby comes, I may press to go back on the generic version in order to save $20/month on that prescription.

The prenatal vitamin would also cost $90 for a 90-day supply if I didn’t get the generic version. But I’m happy to pay $30 total. Again, after the baby arrives, I’ll be more than happy to go back to my Centrum multivitamin, which costs $6 or less (on sale with coupons) for 130 tablets.

Other than that, I had a wonderful dinner meetup with two fantastic ladies. Even better? We went to a cheap Mexican restaurant where the bill for three people was… drumroll please$16 plus tip!

However, Monday promises to be a doozy of an expensive day, as I have to bring my car to the mechanic to fix a wheel sensor problem that’s messing with the traction control and anti-lock brakes. I told him that while the tires are off as he tries to figure out which wheel has the wonky sensor, to see if a tire (or two) has a slow leak, look at the brake pads and rotate the tires, if necessary. I’m going to prematurely estimate the wheel sensor repair (which involves disassembling the wheel hub) at $500. This comes on the heels of my last major car repair, the fuel pump replacement that set me back $600. Other than these two issues this year, I can’t complain about my almost-7-year-old vehicle. I haven’t had to do anything other than change the oil and get new brakes and tires on occasion.

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Posts That Piqued My Interest: Now It Feels Like Fall!

We almost floated away this week, thanks to the massive rainstorm we got on Thursday and Friday, fueled by remnants of Tropical Storm Nicole. While we were lucky enough not to have any flooding, I think other folks in town had some problems. However, the storm cleared out and left us with more-seasonable temperatures — upper 60s and clear blue skies.

I’m also amazed that our car insurance company raised our premiums for the coming year — the first time they’ve had to “implement a general rate increase” in 14 YEARS. It’s a very good insurer and hard to get into, so I can’t complain too much. I’ve been with them for 8 or 9 years now. What I can complain about is the fact that it costs more to insure my 7-year-old Pontiac Grand Am GT sedan than it costs to cover Mr. NSF’s 1-year-old Ford Escape SUV. It seems my car is considered a sports car, which, at 6 cylinders and a whopping 170 horsepower, it certainly is not. But again, the insurance premiums are pretty darned reasonable for New Jersey — under $1000 for each car, full coverage (liability/theft/collision).

Posts That Piqued My Interest

Layering Your Deals at Frugal Confessions

Will 2012 Be the End of the World? at Saving Money Today

The Brightest Bulb at Joe Taxpayer

3 Tips for Buying Life Insurance for the First Time at Money Crashers

Considering Property Taxes When House Shopping at Consumerism Commentary

7 Frugal Moving Tips at My Dollar Plan

Can You Keep It Simple With a Newborn? at Simple Life in France

The Penny Frugalista on the Web

Sunday Link Love @ Ultimate Money Blog featured Hoarders Die in Their Piles of Crap

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Broken Fuel Pump Costs Us $600!?

I was extremely embarrassed this morning when, just a mile from my workplace, my 2003 Grand Am GT died at a red light in the middle of a busy four-lane avenue. One minute, I was chugging along, and the next, the engine started to choke. Pressure on the gas pedal didn’t give the car any ‘get up and go’ — and after about a 1/4 mile, it decided to take a nap instead.

The upshots:

1. I stalled out across from the local mechanic shop used by a lot of my co-workers.

2. The car died while I was at a red light, so no one crashed into me.

3. I wasn’t on the highway anymore — the bulk of my commute comprises 20-plus miles on local and interstate highways.

After pumping the gas (does that even work in newer cars?) and trying to get the engine to turn over (it tried, so it wasn’t the battery/alternator/transmission), I rolled down my window and gesticulated frantically at one of the auto shop attendants. I got his attention after a minute and he and a co-worker carefully crossed the street. They decided to push my car into the shop’s driveway, which they were able to safely do during a break in traffic.

The shop owner’s quick inspection of the car narrowed down the problem to fuel: the car wasn’t getting any. He guessed it was either a clogged fuel filter (a $20 part) or a dead fuel pump (a $200-plus part). But because of all the other cars he had to work on, he wouldn’t get to mine for a few hours. I left my car there and walked the mile or so to work.

I finally got a call around 4 p.m. and was told it wasn’t the fuel filter — it must be the fuel pump. The job is estimated to cost $600 total — that’s $20 for the filter (may as well replace it now) and $383 for the fuel pump. I thought I heard him wrong, but no. I asked if he coudln’t get a better price on it, and he said it was the cheaper of two parts places he called.

Well, I call bullshit. I had priced out the part on the good ol’ interwebs, and I was finding the same fuel pump for $150-$200. Even with a reasonable markup, that part shouldn’t cost me $383. That’s almost a 100% increase on the part. But since I had no way of getting the part myself and bringing it to the guy, I was stuck with the cost of the job. Another reason I think the pricing on the fuel pump was higher was because it happened in a town right over the border from NYC — the city inflates the prices of EVERYTHING in that area of New Jersey.

The work wasn’t done by the time work got out, so I had to leave the car there overnight (which I hate doing at a strange mechanic shop). A co-worker who lives the next town over (and who I’ve been friends with for a decade) was kind enough to drive me home and took me back to work in the morning.

I suppose it could have been worse — the car could have died in the middle of the 5-lane interstate I take to work. But thank goodness that didn’t happen. Although I could have had AAA tow the car back to my own neighborhood, where the mechanic is a friend of my father’s, and I know I would have paid less.

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