There is an old nursery rhyme about tiny things having major consequences. It’s about a horseback rider who was charged with carrying orders to battle during a war, but the horse’s shoe comes off and the horse goes lame. The end of the nursery rhyme is like this:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the message was lost.

For want of a message the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the war was lost.

For want of the war the kingdom was lost.

And all for want of a horseshoe nail.

Many “major” personal finance situations can be traced back to similarly humble roots. When I was in graduate school, for example, I was sent to collections over less than $4. Allow me to explain.

The nail (or, My car window needs replacing)

It all started when someone threw a rock the size of my head into my car, shattering the driver’s side window. Living two blocks from campus meant that I only had to drive for non-school-related errands and had cheap rent, but it also meant my neighborhood was relatively shady. This was actually one of three car break-ins at this address. Another time, someone spray-painted the side of my car.

In this instance (the first break-in), I called my car insurance company for a glass repair recommendation. The main perk of the company they recommended was that they sent someone out to my car to fix it, rather than me having to take it to a shop. After the company repaired the glass, the door handle/lock was a bit stiff. I assumed it would loosen up with time and use.

The shoe (or, The glass company breaks my door)

However, after about three weeks, sometimes I couldn’t open the door and would have to climb over the passenger seat. Also, the door would not always shut. I called the company back, and someone came out to look at it.

The second technician said that when the door was put back together after the glass was installed, the alignment was off and this caused some parts to rub together. The rubbing had actually progressed to the point that when he took the door apart again to look at it, the part shattered in his hand. He said that it would take three days to get the new part and then they’d call to make an appointment to fix it.

It was at this point that I decided I was not going to pay the $50 glass deductible until they had fixed my door. I knew the second I paid the deductible, it would be a sunk cost, and I wasn’t ready to give up yet.

The horse (or, The glass company tries to vanish on me)

Over a month and a half later, the issue had not been resolved. During this time I was disputing the repair bill by calling the glass repair company once or twice a week. I was also climbing over the passenger seat every time I got into/out of my car because the part that made the door open had been removed entirely and the driver’s side door was permanently locked.

Did I mention that this was all going on in summertime, in southern Arizona? Nothing says fun like climbing over the passenger seat in 105+ degrees every time you need go go somewhere.

The glass company said that I needed a new handle and also a metal rod to make the door open. However, since the model of car that I drove was no longer being produced, they couldn’t track down this metal rod. This is what was holding everything up.

The rider and my message (or, They send me to collections)

It was at about this time that the glass company referred my bill to collections. I remember answering my phone one day and finding the call was from a collections agent. When I said that I wasn’t going to pay the bill, she said,

“But it’s only a $50 bill. Surely you have $50?”

“I do,” I told her. “But I’m afraid that if I pay this bill, they’ll never take responsibility for the fact that they broke my door. I am not paying this until they fix it.”

She told me that while it was her job to try to collect the money, she totally understood my position and if she were in my shoes would probably act similarly.

The battle and winning the war after all

Eventually, the glass company realized that I was serious about not paying my deductible until they fixed my door. At this point, they referred me to the Chevrolet dealership to get the door fixed on their dime. After spending six days there, my car was finally repaired.

Why did it take six days? The repair technician at the dealership kept calling the glass company’s main office at the end of his shift (to get approval to order the part, for example, or to get the repair paid for after it was over).

Unfortunately, the glass company was based in Ohio, which is three hours ahead during the summer because Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time. This meant that every time he put off calling them until the end of his shift, everything took another day because the Ohio office was closed.

The horseshoe nail, redux (or, Seriously?!)

Because the dealership was billing the glass company directly, I didn’t have to pay the bill when I picked up my car. However, they did give me a copy of the invoice. The total repair on the door with tax was $202.75. However, imagine my surprise when I looked at the itemized list:

  • The replacement door handle: $44.06
  • Labor: $141
  • The rod, which was the glass company’s excuse for not fixing the door and which was responsible for a fight lasting almost three months: $3.89

Yes, the entire ordeal was over a part that cost less than $4.

Sometimes you have to fight for your finances. After what they put me through — almost two months of climbing over my seats in the middle of summer while pretending not to see other people in parking lots looking at me like I was a total weirdo, not having my car for six days — I was VERY glad that they came out on the losing end of this. Or did they? How much was the time worth that I spent on this quest? In any case, I finally paid the deductible.

I have since switched to no-deductible on glass, but sometimes I still wonder whether that was the right move. All my power in that situation was due to the fact that the glass company wanted me to pay them (even though they still ended up losing money on the deal).

It turns out that small amounts matter. What’s the “smallest” personal finance issue you’ve faced that mushroomed into something unexpectedly huge (for good or ill)? Would you have done anything differently in my situation?