I drove south yesterday morning to meet with Mac, my partner at Get Fit Slowly. Between Portland and Salem, a warning light came on in my Ford Focus — the temperature gauge had risen into the red. I pulled to the side of the road, called to cancel our meeting, and cursed fate. I hate my car. After the engine cooled, I nursed the vehicle to the local Ford dealership. I gave them the keys, and then drove off in a service rental, marveling at how fine it was to be in a car with a working heater.

In the afternoon, the shop called with the damage. (I’m half-remembering this conversation — I don’t know anything about cars, so I probably have the details wrong, though the numbers are right.) “Your coolant system is shot,” the woman told me. “There was a crack near the thermostat, which apparently allowed the coolant to drain out completely. It’ll cost $373 to fix.”

I sighed. “That may fix the trouble with your heater, too,” the woman said. “The bad news is we found other problems. You know the airbag light that was on? That’s not good. Right now, the airbag won’t deploy in a crash. If you want that repaired, it’ll cost another $432.”

“Yes, I definitely want the airbag fixed,” I said. Seven years ago an airbag saved my life. Call me superstitious, but I won’t drive a car without one now.

“There’s one more thing,” the woman said. “The key is stuck in the ignition. We can’t get it out.”

I sighed again. This has been a problem for over a year, but I’ve always managed to work around it. The shop, however, was stymied. “We need to replace the ignition. It’ll cost $135 for a new tumbler, and about $225 for labor. It takes about 2-1/2 hours to get into the steering column to replace it.”

She clicked her keyboard. “The total so far is $1165.”

I was silent for a moment. $1165. That’s a lot of money, especially for a car I don’t like. (It’s 5% of a Mini Cooper!) But what other choice did I have? “Go ahead,” I said. “Go ahead.” Though I’m certainly not happy about this situation, I know it won’t lead me to financial ruin — I have an emergency fund.

Back when I was living paycheck-to-paycheck, $1165 in car repairs would have been a devastating blow. It would have put me into a panic. I wouldn’t have had any idea where to get the money, and likely would have charged the repairs to a credit card. Today, my mind is more at ease.

I have about $1500 saved in my savings account. The car repairs will drain this money, obviously, and I’ll have to restart from nearly zero, but I won’t have to get a loan or use a credit card. Best of all, I won’t have to divert money from my existing financial goals. (Yes, I’ll need to rebuild the emergency fund, but since increasing that to $10,000 is one of my goals for 2008, this should happen quickly.)

This is yet another instance in which I’ve been able to appreciate a real-life application of the Get Rich Slowly philosophy.

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