Down Debt

Totaling up my parents’ car taught me how to survive financial disaster

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  • I destroyed my parents’ car as a teenager and it taught me how to get through a financial crisis.
  • I had to go to traffic school to lower the insurance premium, which taught me to look for ways to cut costs.
  • I also learned to make temporary lifestyle changes to get by when money is tight.

When I was a teenager, I accidentally destroyed my mother’s car a few weeks before Christmas. It was bad. Like, “twisted axle, broken rear, never going anywhere again using your own power, the cops had to take me home” bad.

Ironically, my Christmas present from my parents that year was going to be my own set of car keys. Instead, I attended traffic school and rode the bus for the rest of the school year.

After reports were made to the police and the insurance company, my parents sat down to make a plan; I was going to be part of this plan. My parents were upset about losing a car, but it wasn’t the apocalypse my dramatic teenage years had imagined. We made a plan to come back together from this financial loss, and the lessons I learned will serve me for the rest of my life.

I learned to find ways to soften the blow of a financial blow

Part of the plan was that I would go to traffic school. The insurance company agreed to reduce the premium increase that usually occurs when a teenage driver has an accident if I went. Traffic School (before it could be done online) was incredibly boring and painfully clunky. From experience, however, I have learned to look for ways to lessen the damage of a financial fiasco.

Fast forward years later to when I was just married and in my senior year of college. Much to my dismay, I found out that my brand new husband had accidentally forgotten to pay a bunch of bills… for several months. Some had even gone to the collections.

Remembering my parents’ good example, I decided not to kill my new husband and put my problem-solving skills to work to get us out of debt. I called the companies he owed to make payment plans or to see if I could negotiate a discount if we paid in full. In less than a year, the debts were paid off and we were free.

I also learned that making temporary lifestyle changes can help you weather a financial storm.

Another part of my parents’ plan was that I would take the bus to and from school since the accident had left us with no car I could use. Anyone who’s ever been a senior in high school knows that it’s really uncool to be on the bus when you’re old enough to drive. I grumbled, but my parents insisted that it would be so until we could afford to buy another car. So it was the bus.

Despite the lack of composure, I’ve learned that in a financial downturn, some things you want may have to wait. It may even take some time to change the way you do things, but the eventual recovery and financial freedom are worth the sacrifice.

This lesson certainly served me well in college. I walked, shopped at thrift stores, looked for free things to do on the weekends, and ate tons of peanut butter and jelly, but I was able to graduate with almost no debt.

It was even more useful a few years later after a business investment went sour. My husband’s business partners turned against him and left him and us with no income and most debt. We struggled to figure out what to do and reluctantly came to the conclusion that in order to free ourselves from the mountain of debt, we needed to sell our house and live in a trailer for a while. It was cramped and uncomfortable and difficult for our kids, but it worked. We quickly paid off our debts and were quickly able to buy a new house and have a fresh start.

I think the most important lesson I learned after the car accident, however, was not to be afraid. It was a problem that could be solved. At first I was scared and a little traumatized, but my parents showed me that all was not lost. They finally got a new car and I was finally allowed to drive again.

Our plan to cut costs and change our lifestyle a bit got my family back together, and I had been right in the middle of it all. I had been taught to be physically and mentally resilient, but this experience taught me that I could also be financially resilient.