when should i stop throwing good money after bad?


About 17 months ago, my Saab 9-5 was totalled, and I bought another with the insurance payout. The new one (“Mal”) was a year older but had 10,000 miles less on the clock. I thought it was a fair trade. My mechanic warned me that Mal was going to need a new transmission at some point. I decided to buy it anyway, and so far, so good, on the transmission.

But oh, every.other.bloody.thing has needed replacing, it seems. This car has been such a money suck. I reckon it’s cost more each month, on average, than a new car payment would have.

Just last week I spent $577 on it. And booked it in for this coming Friday for another repair that will cost about the same. And that’s before this weekend’s debacle.

Early yesterday morning I left K sleeping, donned my workout gear, and slipped out to go to the gym. Mal wouldn’t start. Dead as a doornail. I decided to wait for a decent hour (i.e. more than six hours after he’d gone to sleep) before soliciting K’s help, so spent the next few hours walking his dog (yep! me!!), scrubbing things in his kitchen, and studying California’s propositions for the upcoming election.

(I am not comfortable with the damsel-in-distress act. I prefer to solve my own problems, but I was kind of stuck. I considered just calling AAA, but was concerned that the narrow steep driveway might not support a tow truck, and knew that the noise would wake him anyway. And then he’d wonder why on earth I hadn’t just woken him in the first place.)

Eventually he got up and jump started my car. Not knowing what had caused the problem, I decided to drive to an auto parts shop about 18 miles away and see if the battery had charged. It hadn’t, so I bought a new battery.

I even installed it myself.

So yeah, I was feeling pretty good about the outcome, until early this afternoon when I was driving up the mountain and all the alarms sounded. My new battery was dead dead dead. First it told me that the ABS and airbags were inoperable. Then the power steering stopped working. Then the power brakes. I was on a freaking winding mountain road and I had no control of my car. It kept DING! DING! DING!ing. Shut the fuck up, Mal! I know it’s an emergency!

I managed to wrest it over to the side of the road. And call AAA. And K. Who, though he was right in the middle of a music editing project, of course dropped everything to meet me at my mechanic’s and bring me home. (Boyfriends are kinda handy, I guess.)

So now I’m going to need (I assume) a new alternator. And the flaky transmission is still waiting in the wings, to die on me at an inappropriate time.

My mechanic tells me that I’m at 100,000 miles, and ten years, so all the parts that were designed for that lifespan are dying one by one. But if I fix them all, I’ll have another good decade. Is that true? Or is it just a tale to keep me tied to the guy who makes his living from people like me?

What’s the formula for figuring out when to bail?

Should I have been scared off by the MAL in the license plate?

When do I stop throwing good money after bad?

Leave a comment


  1. Having such a sick [sic] name should have given you a clue!

  2. gina

     /  October 15, 2012

    i feel like i jinxed you in asking! Sorry to hear!

    Mostly from input form Mark (the ex-mechanic and now mechanical engineer) and a little too much experience buying lots of used and new cars here is the equation I believe costs the least.

    I think the key is to buy a car that has 10-20K miles on it, drive it until you get to 50-60K and then trade it in for a car that has the 10-20K again. You are out a couple thousand in the trade (about $2K if you play your cards right), but overall i think you spend the least. No crazy use car costs, no major depreciation on the car’s value, and you drive a reasonable/presentable car all the time. I have found that driving a car costs me more than I want to each year no matter what, I find this formula the most cost effective and reliable.

    Leasing is always on option for those who don’t drive much and decide they are going to spend $200-$300 a month anyways. Maintenance is usually included. So you that is your total cost. This would actually cost me less but I drive too much.

    Finally, something many people do not know. Carmax is pretty damn awesome. You can sell them your car without buying anything from them. They give you reasonable funds and it does only take about 20 mins to get an assessment. But the greatest part is that carmax loans are simple interest. Which means the faster you pay off the car, the less you pay in interest. Never done before. They also have 7 year loans on some of their vechicles (newer). This gives you the flexibility to sign up for a low payment so that at times of the year that you have less cask you’re still ok, but at other times of the year you can get that loan down. I did not buy form carmax last time, but I felt so good about my experiences there, no pressure at all, I look forward to buying form them soon. And you can shop online, they will ship cars to your closest location for you to test drive. I recommend checking them out.

    Finally, I have many a time put money into 100K cars. Don’t do it. Every engineer I know will say the same. If you are an engineer and if you want a project and you want to drive a classic car, sure! Otherwise just turn away from anything with high mileage. Even the Hondas.

    You were taking votes… there’s mine :)

  3. Too bad the Car Talk guys are retiring, that would have been a great question for them. But if you listen to the show, you know every caller starts with, “My car is a 1995…”, and that’s their problem right there. I think 100K is a most for many cars and if things can going down, it’s time for something a little more reliable and less expensive to maintain.


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