Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Money Is An Object

Sometimes I wish I was one of those people who buy things for fun - the people who can spend money without the constant analysis that I seem to have. For whom the phrase "money is no object" actually applies - even if I say it, money is always an object. And rarely an object of pleasure.

Of course, the problem isn't money. It's the fact that I have to over-think every decision. With a notable exception for, strangely, those decisions that turn out to be life-changing but I didn't recognize it at the time. Those decisions are completely off-the-cuff. But when it comes to something as trivial as how much to spend on a mixer repair, my stress level hits Def-Con 5 and all of a sudden the various options need the kind of examination not given to the Shroud of Turin.

Today's mental battle started about ten days ago, when my KitchenAid mixer broke. Out of nowhere, this horrible clanking sound. I took it to The Mending Shed to have it fixed, and the guy took one listen and said it's a bad gear that will cost $75 to fix. That's fine - the mixer is about six years old and I really like it. I liked it even more after I hijacked my neighbor's handheld mixer and realized I can never go back. It'd be like going from a cable modem back to dial-up - completely intolerable. (Only someone from a developed country like ours can take a stand on luxury items like this - I recognize just how frivolous this would sound in, say, India. But I digress.)

I called today to see when the repair would be done, and was told that as it turns out, the part is no longer available. The entire motor housing would need to be replaced, to the tune of $175. Instantly my brain is whirling through the different scenarios: Can someone else find the obsolete part? Is a 6 year old mixer worth $175 to fix? Would I be better off just getting a new one? If I get a new one, should I stick with KitchenAid, or try a Bosch? All of these, and many more, in the thirty seconds of "ummmmm" that I gave the guy on the phone.

I told him to fix it, but I don't know if that was the right decision, and the kicker is that I won't know if it was the right decision for years. If the mixer only lasts six months before something else goes wrong, it was the wrong decision. But if it lasts another six years, then it was a good one. But until there's a final judgement, I'll be in bad-financial-decision limbo, neither able to reconcile myself to a loss nor to celebrate a good call.

This was minor compared to buying a new car in October. I felt like my mental status and hyper-analytic-ness were under a microscope. I hate buying cars. I am absolutely baffled by people who find any happiness in either the process or the result. When people say "congratulations" for buying a new car, I always find that a little inappropriate. Shouldn't they really be saying, "Hey, good job on going thousands of dollars in debt on a depreciating asset that is already worth less than you paid for it!"?

The way cars are sold also make me bananas. The salesman holds all the cards, and we're the humble petitioners, begging for whatever tiny scrap of a discount they might be willing to toss our way. Information is distributed so lopsidedly that you can't help but assume that there's something they're not telling you that would make a difference in your purchase. Since we don't get a real price up front, and don't know all the other fees and whatnot, there's no way to compare apples to apples. And it doesn't matter how much I can haggle the guy down, I always feel like a sucker.

I hate feeling like a sucker.

The only other industry that makes its sole profit on people failing to beat the system are the casinos. The house always wins, and it is the same when you buy a car, although less showgirls involved. There's no way to beat the system, to get a better deal than the dealer wants you to have. That's why, even though car salesmen are considered the least trusted profession, according to this USA Today/Gallup poll, there's no big rush to make a change in the system - it works.

The capitalist in me has to applaud, because it makes complete sense to put a high price tag on something. If at least one person buys it at that price, then fantastic! And everyone else who wants to pay less, well, the dealer can then look generous by knocking $500 off the price (but not more, because after all, they have to make some profit off of this, right?) But now that everyone knows not to pay the sticker price, you have an entire industry being deceptive about how much their product costs, at the expense of consumers who feel taken advantage of, who are convinced that the dealer is raking in the dough.

These are all of my beefs with the car industry even without any of my hostility about the bailout. You don't even want to get me started on that.

So knowing I was going to get a bad deal, I drove myself absolutely crazy. I got as much information from Consumer Reports as I could. I haggled with the salesman (who, I was dismayed to see, had many "Salesman of the Whatever" certificates on his wall) and walked away to think it over. I tried to weigh each option in my head and try to find the absolute best use of our money possible - which to me meant spending as little as possible.

It wasn't until we had signed the paperwork and been handed the keys that we finally saw the car we bought, because it was sent down from a different dealership. It didn't have automatic windows or doors. I didn't even know car companies MADE cars with a crank for the window anymore! I was half afraid that when I peeled back the car mats I'd find holes for our feet to help pedal. (I'm guessing I paid an anti-Flintstone fee that I didn't realize.)

To make a long story short, my over-analyzing about each penny caused me to scrimp when it would have been worth it to spend. It's the same mistake I made when we bought our minivan, not spending the extra few thousand to get the automatic sliding doors. How many more purchases will I skimp on before I let go of this insane need to spend as little as possible? I don't want to throw money away on frivolous things, but I don't want to throw money away on junk, either.

There's got to be a great economics chart out there, that shows quality on one side and price on the other, and you buy a product when the quality is highest at a still-affordable price. I try to approximate this data in my head, and always seem to miss the mark, spending too little (like the mediocre dishwasher, or the injury-inducing wooden swingset), or spending too much (like the Swiss Pass train tickets this summer). Some of it stems from unrealistic expectations - the last sedan I bought was 14 years ago, so the number in my head that a car "should" cost was too low. Our mental estimate for what our kitchen remodel "should" cost ended up being pretty close, so I don't have a lot of angst over that. Our recent road trip to Albuquerque didn't fulfill the required amount of fun to have made it worth it, so there's some regret there.

Apparently, I have some issues with money. There's probably an Oprah episode that shows how to have less anxiety about money, something like opening my arms to spending will allow me to embrace my inner peace. Whatever. Ryan, for once, had a positive view of my broken mixer repair bill. He said congratulations on using your appliance so much that you wore it out. He's not focused on the money at all, just that I need a mixer and this is clearly one that I can't live without.

At the end of the day, money, like dishwashers and cars and mixers, is just an object.


Drake Steel said...

Hi Emily,
Admittedly its much easier when you're on this side of the decision making part of life... but. Here's the way I handle these things now and how I learned them. Don't worry there are only two of them.

1. Grandpa George taught me, or attempted to teach me car buying. When he wanted a car (a 1976 Chrysler something or other) he asked the guy how much they would take for the car which was $x,xxx.00. They said $y,yyy.00 and he said clean it up and I'll take it! It took many years and lots of bad decisions to get that concept right. Find the one you want for all the reasons you want it first, then ask for the best deal. We go one better and have done the UBS which promises $1.00 over the some mythical number, whatever its less than the sticker price. Are we being hosed on the deal? Are the salesmen cackling like loons at what a pair of goobers we are? Could a complete moron with worst credit than I don't know who has terrible credit have made a better deal? Probably and most likely. But in the end we've got great cars with these toyotas, they've been pretty much trouble free for the last 8 years. They have not come up with a deal good enough to get me to buy another Dodge.

Opinion #2: Getting stuff fixed. I don't care what it is, if you get a guy to fix it who makes his or her living fixing things the cost is going to be 1/2 of the replacement cost. The reasoning is going to be all over the world at how precisely he or she came up with the number but that will be the number. If you get it less than that you are ahead of the game but it probably is not going to happen. Ever notice that the car insurance companies are so eager to total a damaged car? I even understand the situation but there is no mystery to fixing a kitchenaid mixer and they all seem to have the same part break, when the guy estimated $75.00, that would have been a good deal. But it (in my opinion) was a bait and switch. There are places on the net that will fix them cheaper but guess what the number comes out to after you've paid for shipping? So is it worth it? Repairing consumer products, no. Better to find a good brand in the beginning keep it until its worn out, then get a new one.

BTW, I'm not over the moon about the reliability of Kitchenaid. I wonder if they are living on borrowed reputation? Though I love the mixers we've gotten, I wonder if there is a better version out there?

Trying to Stay Calm! said...

Great Post! Come enter the giveaway on my blog :)