My 2016 Budget Challenge: Everything Breaks


[Editor's Note: This is the latest episode in Max Wong's journey to find an extra $31,000 this year. Read the whole series here.]

Everything breaks when I'm poor. Or at least, it seems that way. Maybe things break all the time and I just don't notice when I am flush with cash. But I do think it cycles. Every time I come off a big job I make a point to fix my house, fix the car, fix my shoes, etc. The longer I go without a big payday, however, the more time my material goods have to break down. 

It's been a long time since I have had a big payday. And that's too bad, because my household needs to come up with an extra $31,000 this year. In this second installment of my 2016 budget challenge, I'll illustrate how much-needed repairs are eating into my progress.

When It Rains, It Pours

Let me explain my last 48 hours: I was awakened yesterday morning by my mortgage company calling to tell me that I am late on my mortgage payment (I already know). It's nearing the end of the month, and I am still about $500 short of paying this month's bills and will need another $528 for next month. Also, because I am late paying this month, I am sure that I am going to get stuck with a $100 late fee. So I need at least $1,100 by the first of the month. Which sucks. Because other than selling a ton of stuff on eBay, something I currently have no time for, I don't know where I am going to find that money.

But then, out of the blue, one hour later, the Hollywood studio that hasn't contacted me with any work for literally two years, calls me with a gig. It's an emergency job that needs to be completed by the first of the month! They will pay me $5,000 to do 100 hours of work in the next six days.

Even though the work offered is soul crushing, brain hurting, and extremely stressful, I take the job. I can suck it up because voila! Emergency cash has just fallen from the sky. I am elated.

A Television Is a Computer Monitor, Right?

But the elation only lasts 12 hours. My elderly laptop computer breaks. The screen literally fades to black in front of my eyes. I need my computer to do my emergency job. My computer is ancient. It's almost nine years old. At this point it's actually better to replace it rather than fix it because it is so old, I can't even upgrade it to the latest operating system.

After attempting every reboot known to mankind, I finally decide that no combination of button pushing is going to fix the screen. I suspect it's the inverter, a $15 part inside the hinge of the screen. I briefly consider experimenting with home computer surgery that could result in an even more broken laptop. I decide that this is one of those situations where I know enough to get myself into trouble, but not enough to get myself out. And since I am not 100% sure what part is broken, I could just be spending money on parts that don't need to be replaced and wasting precious work hours as my emergency job deadline ticks down to zero.

Instead of dismantling my laptop, I buy a $15 HDMI cable and a $13 DVI to HDMI adapter, with the hope that I can use my television as an external monitor. If this strategy doesn't work, I am only out $28 for standard accessories that can be used on other machines.

The cable solution works (phew). I am possibly sitting too close to the television for good eye health, but I am, right now, typing away on my dead-screened laptop keyboard and using my TV as a monitor. My living room has a new, inconvenient furniture layout, but at least I can stave off purchasing a new computer until next year, (or until the something huge like the motherboard breaks. Whichever comes first).

While the computer situation is irritating, I am comforted by the knowledge that I am now $3,872 up on our goal of paying down our $31,000 debt, so I can stop panicking about how I am going to pay my newly expensive house insurance costs.

Mr. Fancypants Takes a Break From Fancy Lunches and Saves Big

My husband actually shocked himself and saved $2,000 last month. He tells me that he did this mainly by being extremely frugal with food.

At this point, I have to ask: Up until last month, what has he been eating for lunch? Gold bullion?

All joking aside, he has been extremely frugal. Due to demented work hours this month, I've pretty much only seen my husband while he's sleeping. We ate dinner together just once in the last 30 days, a restaurant meal for my birthday. We also haven't had time to grocery shop in weeks, but he's been diligently eating through our pantry and scavenging leftovers from work lunches, down to the little packets of pepper from the office pizza party.

However, I suspect that part of the huge savings comes from the fact that he's been using his holiday gift cards to make purchases. If he can keep up this level of saving next month, I will be very impressed.

With my husband's extra $2,000 we are up $5,872 on our goal of paying down our $31,000.

Except we're not. Because everything breaks when I am cash-strapped.

Of Course the Cars Break Down Now, Too

We own three old automobiles. I will just say it: Owning a classic car is adorable in theory, but annoying in practice. Old car parts are hard to source and can be wildly expensive. We own three vintage cars. Three.

Currently, two out of our three cars are in the shop. The transmission of our 1960 Rambler Cross Country station wagon needs a complete rebuild. This will cost $2,000. Our vintage Volvo 240 station wagon needs a mass air flow sensor. Due to the notoriously cautious driving of Volvo 240 drivers, there are only three 240 parts cars in all of Los Angeles county and they have been picked clean. This local parts crunch has naturally led to price gouging. The local independent parts dealer who specializes in 240s has a reconditioned mass air flow sensor that he is willing to part with for a measly $765. I tell him that I will keep looking.

But I can only keep looking for so long before waiting for cheaper parts starts costing more money than taking the price gouge. Our third car really should be in the shop too, but we live in Los Angeles and need a car for work. Our third car is drivable…most of the time. She only fails to start once every 20 times we get in the car. It's like Russian roulette only completely tedious. I have to drive from Los Angeles to Palm Springs for a photography class next week and I have rented a car, at the cost of $54 plus $20 in gas, for the commute. Because if I had to bet on a time and a place where our third car will break down completely, it would definitely be 100 miles from home in the heat of the desert.

Progress So Far

So, two steps forward, one step back is still progress, right?

Goal: $31,000.00

Amount Raised: $7,000.00

Amount Spent: $3,202.00

Amount Left to Go: $27,202

We managed to reach 12% of our goal so far due to a surprise windfall, but near-future car repairs could completely eat up our surplus. The goal for next month: Figure out more ways to reduce our crushing car costs.

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Guest's picture

I think you should pay your mortgage with the money you saved. I also think you should sell one of your three cars.

Max Wong's picture

@ Jen2--

Hi Jen! I like the way you think. If I didn't have to pay attention to my husband's opinion, I would sell the Rambler and use one of our vintage Volvos as the personal parts car for the other. However, before any selling can happen, the cars have to be drivable. Stay tuned to see if I can convince him that we will save a lot of money by being a one-car household...

Guest's picture

Hint: sell two cars.

Max Wong's picture


Can you hint more loudly so my husband can hear you? I would love to be a one car household, but I'm facing a lot of pushback from Mr. Driveypants.

Guest's picture

I think reworking your budget to cover your immediate needs would be a better place to start. You're nervous and in a hurry to pay off a loan you took out because you knew you couldn't afford it. While it was for your new job and maybe that was a good reason, you should be more focused on how to make your mortgage payments on time than trying to pay off the camera in less than a year. Late fees are a budget killer!

The second priority would be to build up an emergency fund especially to deal with your cars. Having older cars is fine if you can afford it, but you can't. What I mean by that is you can't afford a car that is unreliable and won't get you to your job especially when you're behind on bills.

It may seem like you're "saving" money but it looks more like you're playing the shell game. It takes courage to put your financial life out there and I applaud your efforts. But maybe a trip back to the drawing board for a more thought-out plan on what to tackle first and why. :) Good luck!

Max Wong's picture


The car emergency fund is excellent advice! This is a great idea for anyone with an older car.

We actually have a general emergency fund (which is separate from the $31,000 budget challenge), which is why we can pay for the car repairs in cash, instead of putting the costs onto a credit card. But this experience has made me rethink my car repair strategy because the pinch point of our current situation isn't actually the money, but the difficulty in finding affordable parts in a timely fashion.