When I first started working for Simple Savings around 12 years ago, I remember Fiona Lippey telling me she had bought a new car. She and Matt had been putting money aside for some time until they had enough to go out and pay cash for a lovely new red set of wheels. Not being a Simple Saver for very long at that stage I remember being quite amazed. I didn't know anyone who had saved up like that and paid for something as big as a car without finance, I couldn't even begin to imagine it! The only car I had ever purchased outright was Ronald the canary yellow Fiat, who cost the princely sum of $1950 back in 1992 and was bought with money a deceased great uncle had left me. We only had him a few months before upgrading to a white Suzuki ski bunny jeep and so the years of hire purchase began.
I mentioned a few blogs back that over the past few years as a single woman I had made some rather poor and costly decisions. I swear to God I will never repeat either of them. One was to get a credit card (now there is a story you won't believe, how I ended up with those!), the other was to put a $14,000 car on the hock. When my marriage ended, I really didn't want or need much. I didn't care if my ex took every stick of furniture and left me sitting eating my dinner on the floor (he didn't do that, quite the opposite in fact) but the one thing I needed was a reliable car. I was working two hours' drive from home a couple of days a week at the time and when you're driving over a mountain road alone at night with no mobile reception you don't want to be breaking down! Of course no sooner had I started my new life as a solo mum than my previously reliable Holden started suffering from every mechanical malady under the sun. After three weeks in a row of being stranded far from home and unable to get back to my boys I could risk it no more. I didn't know how I was going to afford it, I didn't have any money after all but I needed a new car. One that would last me a long time, which wouldn't break down on me and would get me home safely to my children each week without mishap.
I rang the one car salesman I knew I could trust and who would look after me. I rang and told him my predicament and totally expected him to laugh hysterically down the phone. I had no money whatsover and the only thing I had to trade in was a piece of crap. But he didn't laugh. He said 'No problem, I'm sure we can do something!' He put me on to a finance lady and together we worked out how much I could afford over how long. He was right, I could afford a car! At the time I was earning a decent wage and $300 a month was do-able. I wasn't really thinking of the long term, all I was thinking about was that I was a working solo mother of two active teenage boys and we needed a car. They even agreed to give me $1000 for my hopeless Holden to trade in and use as a deposit. Just a few hours later, Liam and I were driving home in our lovely new purple Mazda Demio. I named her Mildred and I loved her.
Mildred served me well and to this day she has never let me down. Unfortunately life was not kind to her in return. I bought her in June 2013. In October the same year someone run out in front of me driving home at night and I swerved to avoid them and hit a sign post, causing $3,000 worth of damage to poor Mildred's front. As if that wasn't bad enough, before the insurance claim had even been processed someone else reversed out of a driveway without looking and ploughed straight into my passenger side! Fortunately both claims were accepted and with the exception of a permanent dent in her front number plate (which always annoyed the heck out of me) she looked as good as new again.
From then on Mildred mostly managed to avert disaster. I did reverse into something white (I can't recall what) and scratch her rear bumper and I actually managed to drive into a brick house (fortunately not at speed, Ali dropped his phone under my seat and I reached underneath to help him locate it, not realising I hadn't put the handbrake on, was actually very funny) but apart from that things were uneventful.
The big problem after a while however was not fixing Mildred but PAYING for her. Although I was earning good money at the start, this unfortunately did not last and I began to struggle more and more to come up with the $300 each month for the finance company. Not only that, my registration was almost always late because I could never afford to pay for it and several times I got caught and fined for driving without my rego. When circumstances really took a turn for the worse I got in touch with the finance company. They reduced my payment down to $160 per month for six months but there would be a $350 charge payable at the end of the loan term for doing this and it also tagged on another 12 months to the agreement, which was now five years instead of four. It felt neverending.
The time was fast approaching when I could see I was going to have to sell Mildred. The end of my six months of lower payments was approaching, my driver side wing mirror was hanging off after it was swiped past another car and being an electric mirror was going to cost up to $300 to replace. To top it off, I could no longer afford to insure her, or even put petrol in her. Every time I or anyone else drove anywhere I just had to hope and pray nothing would happen. Gareth and I talked about it over and over again but every time we came to the same conclusion - Mildred had to go. I didn't mind to be honest. Sure it was an inconvenience but I had been doing the maths for a long time. I no longer wanted the debt and I knew how much I could save. I'd been thinking about it for a while, ever since Rob Stock, Sunday Star Times' money editor mentioned to me he had also sold his car in favour of cycling to work. 'That's $7,000 a year I don't have to earn any more', he'd said. While Rob lived in the city, I didn't see why we couldn't do the same where we lived.
The only thing I had left to do was get Mildred through her Warrant of Fitness to enable Ali to take his driving test. The mechanics did their best to fix up the mirror for me so I didn't have to buy a new one and did a wonderful job. All she needed was a couple of new front tyres, which were a couple of hundred dollars more than I wanted to spend but nonetheless rather necessary and would be the last I would have to spend on her before she got sold. Choosing to live without a car might be a drastic move for some, and sure, it wasn't going to be totally inconvenient but the thought of wiping out $5000 worth of debt to the finance company, plus no more forking out for petrol, WoF's, rego or insurance had me looking forward to it.
Having successfully passed his test, Ali - already an experienced driver of more than two years, revelled in his freedom and I indulged him one last trip in Mildred to go and visit his girlfriend for the day half an hour away. He was due to get a car of his own the next day and I planned to sell Mildred immediately. Now he had a job of his own, running and maintaining a vehicle was down to him, not me! He said he would be home around 4pm but as yet there was no sign of him. At 4.35pm a text came through, 'I crashed Mum, I crashed'. For a brief moment I thought he was joking - but he wasn't. He was driving the winding road home in the wet when he struck water on a corner and spun out, hydroplaning from one side of the road to the other before smashing into an oncoming car. Fortunately everyone involved was fine - but Mildred wasn't.
'I'm so sorry Mum, I'm so sorry', he said over and over again. 'I don't care about the car, it's just a car. I'm not angry, I'm just glad you're OK!' I assured him. I was glad for the two new tyres I had just bought too, otherwise things could have been even worse. The hardest part for me was not being able to get to him. For almost two hours I waited at home, picturing my poor boy waiting alone in the rain, not realising that several witnesses had stopped to help and that he and the other driver were being well cared for by police and ambulance officers. I never saw Mildred again but I almost fainted when a police officer showed me the photos a week later. My boy had been so, so lucky. And I really didn't care about the car at all.
The only other thing I did care about was the fact that I hadn't paid my insurance for three months. I had received a letter with regard to my policy's impending lapse but there was nothing I could do about it, I didn't have the spare $400+ to cover the arrears. From where I stood, I had a written off car with no insurance, I owed over $5000 to the finance company and was also presumably going to get stung for the other driver's vehicle damage as well. Despondent, I rang the insurance company and explained what happened. 'I can't imagine I would possibly be covered but I can't afford another vehicle so I'd better at least cancel the policy', I said. 'Hang on hun, I'm only new at this but I think I might be able to help', said the woman at the end of the phone. 'Can I put you on hold while I talk to my supervisor?' 'Of course', I said, feeling touched but none too hopeful. A couple of minutes later she was back on the line. 'We can cover you', she said. I swear to goodness I could feel her smiling down the phone. 'If you can pay $132 today that will bring your vehicle policy up to date and we can process your claim'. It meant using our whole food and living allowance for the week but I didn't hesitate - just when everything seemed so hopeless, my luck had turned around!
So, for a very pleasant change, rather than slagging off insurance companies I would like to give a great big shout out to Tower insurance. Ever since I switched to them a while back I have found their service to be nothing less than consistently brilliant. Dealing with them is always fast and easy and their staff are all so lovely, friendly and professional. In particular I would like to thank a lady called Frances who dealt with my claim. She rang every two days just to ask how Ali was and to make sure he was coping both physically and emotionally after his frightening experience. Mildred's pre-accident market value enabled me to pay off every cent I owed to the finance company AND the $1050 excess for Ali being under 21 AND I still have enough left over for a whole mortgage payment. So funnily enough, things have actually worked out rather well. I may not have a car any more - but I no longer have a horrible debt either and most importantly I still have my son. I shall miss Mildred but I'm in no rush to have another car. One thing is for certain - if I ever do, I'll be saving up first and paying for it in cash!