How My Car Taught Me About Sunk Costs


sunk costsThis post originally appeared on The Billfold.

This year, I learned that sometimes it’s best not to throw in the towel.

I have a tendency, probably like most people, to weigh sunk costs a bit too heavily in my calculation of investments and purchases. I throw good money after things go bad, paying to have things fixed or redone. I already own them, so why not invest to make them last? The problem is I never know when to fold ‘em, when to abandon the money already wasted and move on with my life. This was the year I trusted myself to keep at it. And it worked out.

My car broke down in the autumn. It’s always been an old car, with years’ worth of dents in the bumper and rust stains on the roof. The passenger window has been broken into twice, and on both occasions, the process of shattering the window left multiple dings in the door which I’ve never had fixed. But it always drove, despite a few quirks. My car is more of a tool than a machine, really. It’s driven me across the country from the mountain west to the Great Lakes to the mid-Atlantic corridor. It’s seen oceans and two countries.

To reward its years of kindness to me, these days I hardly drive it. Maybe once a week I’ll take it out, usually for groceries, but occasionally to dinner, or the beach, or to see my grandparents two hours away. Gas is a rare expenditure, and most of the other money I throw into it (insurance and registration) is a manageable once-a-year cost. For access to a machine that gets me anywhere whenever I need it, it’s a good deal.

My city charges a nominal fee to register the car and tag it to be parked legally on the street in my neighborhood. It’s not too much money, and it feels like a fair enough tradeoff. The registration also requires the car pass an emissions test, and I had to have that done in September. Earlier this year, my “Check Engine” light turned on, and a mechanic changing my oil diagnosed something technical-sounding I didn’t understand. He said it would cost $500 to fix, but that the malfunction would show no symptoms except for the light. Something about a fuel pressure sensor, he said. Obviously, I declined. But getting my emissions test, the government-employed auto inspector said that the Check Engine light was a dealbreaker. I would have to get it fixed.

A new mechanic, whom Yelp told me was much more reliable and sure to approach any problem head-on, quoted me $600. It seemed like a whole lot of money. And it was. I bought my car a half-decade ago for about $2,000, paid in cash. To pay $600 to fix it seemed like a lot. I doubt I could get more than $1,000 or so if I sold it, and the life expectancy isn’t too great no matter what. I considered whether or not it was worth it. Instead of the car, I could get one of those carts to walk to the grocery store, I thought. It’s good exercise, and I find those carts rather charming. Perhaps this was the beginning of the carless me.

It wasn’t. I paid the $600 and got the light fixed. The mechanic said I would need to drive it a little bit so that the sensor would reset itself, so I drove around town and bought some ice cream. Then I brought the car back for another DMV emissions test. It failed again. The mechanic assured me that the problem was that I didn’t drive it enough, and would need to go on the highway a bit. I drove out to the suburbs, spending a Saturday evening watching the lights come on. Another emissions test, another failure—this time because my odometer was not readable. That, too would need to be fixed.

To find out whether or not Julian accepted his sunk costs, continue reading at The Billfold.