Wednesday, January 28, 2015

For Want of a Nail

You know the old thing about the want of a nail in a horseshoe and the shoe was lost, and for want of a horseshoe the horse was lost, and so forth?

I read a blog by a parent of a family who was really hit hard by the economic downturn.  They started pretty upper middle-class, but a series of disasters, mistakes, and so forth hit.  And when I say "mistakes" I really mean decisions which seemed reasonable, but then turned out badly.

So often, the "mistake" decisions are driven by trying to do something cheaply, and then having to pay more in the end, if that makes sense.  So, you have an oil leak in your car, but can't afford to get it fixed, so you add oil, but then the leak is worse, and the oil runs out, and the engine seizes, and suddenly you need a whole new rebuilt engine.  (That's not an example from the blog, just something I made up.)

It gets me thinking how very much on the margin people are these days, and how very fortunate I am not to be so much.

My car's check engine light has been going on forever.  I keep getting it read, and then they see that it's a catalytic converter thing, and they do some adjustment, and it's off for a while, and then I drive more than 100 miles, and it turns on, and I stress out, and so on.  The first time it went on, I remember distinctly because I was going out to look for snowy owls with a friend last winter, and we turned around, went back to my house, and used her car instead.  And then I took my car in, and the thing started.  I've heard that you just shouldn't worry about the check engine light, but I find it very stressful.  I'd avoided going on some birding drives last summer because I was worried about driving in the boonies with the light on and maybe breaking down.

So I recently got it fixed for real.  It cost money, but I chose to spend the money that way rather than in one or another other way because the idea of driving very far was increasingly stressful with the light coming on.  (I've since driven over 100 miles a couple of times, and it hasn't come on.)  And now, hopefully, I won't have the stress of having it come on, or the potential problems, or need to take it to the shop every couple of months to get it checked.

While I've done some things right, yes, the truth is that without all the nails in horseshoes and such that my parents provided (in part because a set of grandparents could also provide, and so on), I wouldn't be here today, no matter how much I'd done right, and wouldn't be able to get my car fixed, and so on.

Up here in the northwoods, things are looking very ugly economically, and I see a future in which a lot more people are going to have the stress of having check engine lights on, or oil leaks, and they're just not going to be able to afford to take care of these things without them getting way worse.


  1. Anonymous4:22 PM

    My father always says "we're too poor to afford to buy cheap," and I am so thankful that we have always been fortunate enough to have been able to find money for the quality nail that kept the horse alive and well whenever necessary.

  2. Ben Folds has a great song about this called "Free Coffee."

    It has always struck me as odd that the people who really need help get so little for free, but wealthy people get free stuff constantly -- like free coffee, swag, or borrowed jewelry for the Oscars. Meanwhile the people who would really benefit from bulk shopping at Costco live in a food dessert, and the people driving $40k SUVs save money as they load up on a lifetime supply of quinoa and toilet paper. Makes no sense.

  3. Anonymous2:16 AM

    I think this is true. It's expensive to be poor.

    When I go to the grocery store, and something is on sale, I'll buy a ton of it. I have the money, and a deep freezer for storage, and so I end up saving money in the end. If I didn't have the money, I wouldn't be able to realise these savings. On a bigger scale, the same is true for car loans, etc. If you can afford to buy something outright, it costs a lot less than having to take out a loan.