My March Madness

I bought a new car this week (Thursday, March 22 to be exact). It is a 2009 model, so technically it’s not “new,” but it’s “new to me.” (When I talked to my mother that night and told her I bought a “new to me” car she had me repeat it several times before she understand what I was saying. “Oh, we just call those new cars, honey,” she said.)

Since I’m one of those people who is constantly researching things and a voracious reader of media covering the many topics that interest me, the decision to buy a new car was not as impulsive as it may sound. My last car was a 2001 model purchased new in 2002 when they were practically giving cars away due to the continuing economic turmoil caused by the September 11 attacks. It was a Saturn LW200 (that’s a wagon) that I had coveted for a few years. I was doing a lot of landscaping at my new house and was eager to have an easy way to haul massive bags of mulch and plants. While I still do a lot of gardening, those days of hauling are over, except for veggie seedlings. (I now have a landscaping crew come in every couple of years to replenish the many cubic feet of mulch required in my over-sized yard.)

Last year, I started really paying attention to the car ads on TV and added sites and blogs about car buying (including used car buying) to my reading list. Every time I saw a car commercial that seemed interesting, I would look at the web site. I’ve been sadly disappointed at what is available to US consumers when it comes to fuel efficiency these days, so I’d mentally cross the vehicle off my list.

Meanwhile the Saturn wagon worked just fine to move me around the Chicago metro area when I needed to visit my family in the far off ‘burbs, take the dog to the vet, drop off the recyclables (oh, please can we get Blue Cart recycling in my neighborhood next year? pretty please?), pick up loads of groceries, etc. I don’t drive to work, and when I’m meeting friends in fun but congested neighborhoods like Wicker Park, Andersonville, or even Oak Park, I prefer to take the CTA buses and el trains.

In 2009, just a few months after a divorce that left me house rich but cash poor, my low maintenance Saturn threw me for a loop. The battery died and it had to be towed to a mechanic from my garage. Then some critical sensors needed replacing. And the brakes needed work, as well. In early 2011 when I took it in for an oil change, I reported a little oddity with the steering and was told that I may need to replace the rack and pinion steering and it would cost about $1,500. Topping off the power steering fluid seemed to do the trick, though, and I continued to drive the car doing just oil changes, tire rotations, etc.

Last spring I was tempted to buy a 2010 Toyota Prius on clearance. I just couldn’t stomach the price, though. I’ve been saving money in my “Big Goals” fund that I set up for things like car replacement, major house repairs, but I didn’t have enough to cover the cost of any of the 2010 clearance models I was finding. But I’ve continued to look at cars knowing that sooner or later I would need to either replace my Saturn wagon or give it up entirely and go car free.

Going car free is quite a temptation, and with B living with me now my driving has been reduced even more. He loves to drive and has his own car, so he happily takes me to the grocery stores on weekends, and when we go out as a couple he always drives. I’ve been thinking hard about being car free, but I’m just not really there yet. (How do I get to the dog to the vet? How do I get to the orthodontist in the short time I can get away during the work week?)

Earlier this week I was reading one of my favorite personal finance blogs, Get Rich Slowly, and the article linked to another blog, which linked to yet another blog, and I ran across this and this. Which led me to a few searches for used 2006-2009 Prii in the Chicago area. (Why stop at 2009? Because I really didn’t care for the interior of the 2010. In 2010 the Generation III Prii were released and while they are supposed to get even better MPG, getting into the driver’s seat felt like I was slipping into the cockpit of a military jet. I felt too confined in there.)

This was just for research, of course. There were quite a few Prius listings to look at, which was great because if there is a good supply on the market that means prices shouldn’t be astronomical like they are for the new models. Most of the models were basic, with few bells and whistles. (Many of these basic models come from rental car fleets.) I really wanted to at least get a model that allowed me to plug-in my iPod, and looking at the photos of the dash on these cars I was worried that an after-market audio system (such as the one that I had added to my trusty old Saturn so I could listen to the iPod) wouldn’t fit very easily. If I was a true frugalista none of these extras would have mattered to me, but I didn’t want to replace a fairly luxurious car with a lower end one. That was my choice and my preference.

A dealer listing on Craigslist led to a real beauty, though. A 2009 with upgraded audio system, and it even had navigation. It looked really good, so I emailed the dealer. I got a reply a few hours later confirming the equipment. I emailed friends for advice, I talked it over with B, and I slept lightly that night. If I wanted this car, I’d have to move fairly quickly as there were few models in the used car listings with features like this.

I got a call the next day from the salesman. I was going to have to leave work early that day anyway for a fix to my orthodontia (two weeks in and I’ve already had to replace a wire!) So I gathered up papers and off I went to a suburb close to the Wisconsin border. I felt very comfortable with the salesman. I felt very happy with the car on the test drive (No fighter plane interior! Yay!), and I looked it over carefully. I had my car estimated as a trade in, and the value was actually a bit more than I had researched and expected for its year and condition. (The really low miles probably helped; the scratches on the bumper from city parking did not help.)

And that was it. I said I wanted it, and we got the paperwork rolling. Even buying a used car with no financing involves a lot of paperwork. I added an extra maintenance plan that will cover everything but the tires for the next seven years or 100,000 miles. Considering how much I drive, I’m sure to hit the seven years before I hit the mileage limit. I probably could have done without the maintenance contract, but I thought about it and ran some figures in my head and realized that pre-paying for standard maintenance like this would save me some money. Plus I won’t have to budget for maintenance (except for tires when the new ones currently on the car wear out). I was essentially paying for peace of mind and giving myself another advantage if something should happen to my current income.

I didn’t haggle. I could have tried to haggle, but as my research had shown, the supply of cars with comparable features like this were low so the probability of getting a price break wasn’t great. Besides, the total price was just about spot on to what I had figured the car would cost me.

Writing out the check for the purchase price was exhilarating. This was the first time I had ever bought a car for cash, excepting the two beaters I drove in high school. (Technically, I put $5,000 on a credit card, but I will pay it off promptly. I would have put the entire car on credit cards just for the rewards if they had let me.)

I still have more than enough in my “Big Goals” savings account to cover a major home expense, too. Now that I know the one big planned purchase is over, I’ll feel more comfortable looking for ways to invest some of that money in something giving me higher yields (I-bonds, perhaps?). Maybe it’s easier for me to save money than some other people because I have a well-paying job and live a fairly frugal and low-key lifestyle (lots of home cooking and very little shopping). But this is why I live my life that way: so I can save for the things that do matter to me.

Today I’ll get to drive my new car for an extended trip as I visit my father in a far-off suburb. I drove it home from the dealer and I ran a few quick errands in it yesterday, and I think I’m getting the hang of how to drive for the best mileage. I really love this car and that the fancy extras make it a treat. Yay, me! 🙂

A word about WordPress comments

This blog is published using the free version of WordPress. As a blogging platform, WordPress is usually pretty awesome.

Unfortunately, the WordPress folks made an update to the Comments feature that leaves many people who currently have or at one point in time had a WordPress account in an uncomfortable position. If you’re commenting on a WordPress blog that requires a name and email address (as most do), your comment may be eaten or lost if  you enter an email address that has been associated with WordPress at one point in time. Typically this happens when you are not already logged into WordPress.

Yeah, this change really sucks. I know because it happened to me a couple of times last week while leaving comments on blogs that are also manged through WordPress. At least the glitch that led to comments being lost even if you are already logged in has been fixed.

I’m lifting the requirement for a name and email address before commenting to see if that will result in a better commenting experience for people or if it leads to an unholy mess of spam. I’ll try it for a few days and report back.

In the meantime, check out the link above to the notice in the WordPress forums about how this affects you if you have ever had a WordPress account. I’m not sure if you can cancel an unused WordPress account since the thread doesn’t give that information, but if you do give it a try, you should be able to report back here with your results either way since I’ve changed the comment settings.

Corporal concerns

February was the month that my lack of personal physical care really hit me back. March started out not much better, too. I haven’t been exercising very much (once a week with the trainer is not enough), I had been eating more processed crap, and my stress levels at work were just not being managed well. I caught a cold — just your typical upper respiratory infection — but it kicked the crap out of me. I actually had to take two days off work to just lay in bed or on the couch watching horrible daytime TV or reading. Considering that I can telecommute most days and be just as productive from said couch as from my office in the Loop, taking time off is a big deal. The cold lingered for nearly three weeks until it was completely gone.

At the same time I was working on a project with a very critical deadline. It was driving me bonkers because I rarely had time to actually work on the project itself during the normal business day, and in the evenings I was wiped out due to the cold. I found myself going to bed earlier and earlier at night. (I’m actually still on a schedule that puts me in bed at 9 PM most nights so I can read a bit before passing out at 9:30.)

As the project deadline loomed closer and closer I fell back on other forms of self-abuse from the stress. I ate a lot of indulgent foods and drank liquor every night. It’s really not a good thing to eat cheese, crackers and a martini for dinner. Nor is it good to eat a cupcake or a pączki every night. (Hard to resist when they are so easy to obtain in my neighborhood pre-Lent.) I was sitting with my laptop every night, pushing through an hour or two of work while stuffing my face with crap and drinking wine or whiskey or vodka. So not good.

It didn’t take long for my body to rebel. I’m not an old codger yet, but I don’t have the physical resilience of my 20s or 30s anymore. One night after a dish of fatty stew, a glass of wine, and consuming the last pączki in the house, I felt nauseous. I went to bed extra early that night and did manage to sleep despite the nausea. When I woke up the next day I was still nauseous, and my gut was hurting.

Over the next several days the nausea was constant and the pain came and went. It wasn’t severe pain, more like uncomfortable cramping, but it worried me. It wasn’t hard to restrict my food intake; being nauseous really helped with that. But I was worried that what I was suffering from was some sort of gallbladder issue so I basically ate a vegan diet and drank no liquor. After the weekend passed I went to the immediate care clinic and also made an appointment with my doctor for the middle of the week. The immediate care doc said I likely had a stomach bug. My own doc wanted to make sure it wasn’t gallbladder related and ordered an ultrasound and some blood work. It ended up  not being gallstones, and after a week I found that I could eat animal products safely without inducing severe nausea. I added about 1/3 of a can of tuna to a salad and had no new bouts of nausea. Such relief.

The upside of all this strict attention to my food is that I lost some weight. I don’t have a scale at home, but I could tell that I had dropped a few pounds because my clothes were looser. So I’ve continued to eat mostly vegan and I’ve also been restricting the amount of breads and baked goods I eat, as well as limiting my intake of alcohol. I’ve made some yummy recipes from my collection of vegetarian cookbooks and have been making an effort to get back to the gym more than once a week.

I would love to lose 20 pounds by the end of the year, but for now my goal is to just fit into some nice suits languishing in my closet by the third week in April. I think that’s very achievable because I have another “secret weapon” that is helping me control my food intake: orthodontia.

This was the year I was planning to get braces, and I finally took the plunge on March 9th. For now I just have my upper teeth in braces, but in a few months I’ll get them on the lower teeth, too. While I was considering making this the year I finally listened to the dentist and “did something” about my crowded teeth (which make it hard to clean well) the only thing that worried me a bit (besides the cost) was how ridiculous I’d feel wearing braces in my mid-forties. I hadn’t really thought of the logistical challenges, such as the fact that food *always* gets stuck in them. There are certain foods I’m to avoid completely, such as popcorn, whole almonds, caramels, hard candies, and anything “sticky.” I don’t eat very many candies and I rarely eat popcorn, but I love almonds. I guess it’s OK to eat them slivered or sliced, but any large, whole, hard nut is a no-no.

It’s not the “forbidden” foods that are the biggest change for me, though, but the fact that eating has turned into a much slower affair where I have to cut things into small pieces and eat much smaller bites than normal. In between eat mouthful of food, I find myself doing a tongue sweep to clear out the wire sitting above my molars and often taking a sip of water and swishing it vigorously to clear stuff out, too. After a meal I always retire to the washroom and use one of the handful of special brushes and picks they gave me to dislodge what seems like half my meal from around my back teeth. Ugh. But all this slow, careful eating and chewing means that I’m consuming fewer calories and reaching my satiation point with smaller portions. That’s good for losing weight!

I’ve had a lot of conversations lately with friends and acquaintances — both in person and online — about eating well and taking care of oneself. One of the challenges of the current lifestyle we’re encouraged to live up to is that it incorporates so little physical activity and leads us to foods of convenience. When we’re rushing around all the time trying to keep up with a full-time job,  commuting, keeping up our homes, and maintaining relationships with our family and friends, we find ourselves sacrificing the time we need to take care of ourselves. Time for cooking meals at home with whole foods? Gone. Time for exercising, even something as “simple” as taking the dog for a walk? Forget about it!

The results of ignoring our physical well-being are never good. We need to cut ourselves and our loved ones and friends some slack, and also stand firm with our employers as much as we can. I know that making a living during a recession is hard, but we’re shortening our lives, or at least sacrificing the quality of the remaining life we have left when we take on too much work and too many commitments. Let’s all be a bit kinder and more forgiving of each other, OK?