Automotive Finances & Money

Financial Failures and Money Saving Auto Repairs Not to Do Yourself

girl auto repair

(Guest Post by Heather C. Stephens)

You know that pit in your stomach feeling you get when you’ve been hit with an unexpected car repair? You don’t have the money to fix it, but you’ve absolutely got to have a car to get to work? Add to it that you’ve been working arduously to pay off your credit card debt, so charging is not an option. What do you do? If you’re like me, you try do to it yourself. Sometimes it works…this time it didn’t.

Read on to hear how I turned a money-saving DIY auto repair failure into an opportunity to realize my financial success with a little inspiration from a post I read on Budgets are Sexy.

Here’s the story…

I’m a girl who’s not afraid to pick up a tool and attempt to fix something myself. My dad was a stickler for teaching us girls the practical things in life we may need to know someday. For the most part it’s served me well, although sometimes my confidence trumps my skill.

I can’t cook to save myself, but I love to save money when I can fix things by myself. I’ve been known to rewire part of our 85 year old home, fix the washer and dryer while my husband was out of town, sweat pipes, remodel a bathroom, etc.

Oil Change Leads to True Love

I actually met my husband after one of his friends tripped over my feet while I was changing the oil in my car in the dorm parking lot at college. He was shocked when I rolled out from under the car with a rag in my hand and he asked me what I was doing. He was into rebuilding old cars and was impressed that I (you know, being a girl and all) wasn’t intimidated to change the oil. We became buddies, he introduced me to my husband and we lived happily ever after.

Fast forward, 17 years–I now pay for my oil changes, but that willingness to try to fix it myself before calling in the pros has stuck with me. My husband cringes when I get an idea to start a project because I’m always willing to take on more than he is. Sometimes I’m right…this time I wasn’t.

Financial Failures Opportunities for Improvement

While I seemed to have been able to master most things my dad taught me, I have never felt confident in the areas of budgeting and personal finance. I lived by the attitude that if Visa could fix it, it wasn’t really a problem and I handled emergencies by charging them if we couldn’t pay for them out of our checking account.

Since I started blogging for the online coupon site, FatWallet, I’ve started reading financial blogs, the finance forums, and putting the things I’ve learned into practice. We’ve really worked hard to cut our spending, shop smarter, and get our personal finances under control with a simple budget. We’ve been rapidly paying down credit card debt and I’ve been super diligent to not charge a penny.

Mom’s Money Saving DIY Auto Repairs

So when our electric window on the driver’s side of the car broke last summer I told my husband that I’d just live with it until we could afford to fix it. It was inconvenient going to the bank or a drive through, but overall it wasn’t an issue. That was, until I took it to get the oil changed and the mechanic rolled the window down and we couldn’t get it back up.

There was no way we were going to be able to work the extra $400 to fix it into the budget without dipping into our emergency savings account or hitting the credit card. So I looked up some YouTube videos to see if we could fix it ourselves. My husband didn’t want to attempt it, but I used my feminine persuasion to talk him into it.

We took a trip to the auto parts store (one of the coolest little stores I’ve ever been in, that looks like it hadn’t changed in 40 years!) and bought a new motor for the window for $80 and a tool to pop the door panels off.

Would you believe there were only four bolts and a couple of electrical clips to undo to swap out the motor? And because we brought the old motor back into the auto parts store to be rebuilt for someone else, we got $40 bucks back!

Yup, a $400 repair for about $50 bucks and a Saturday afternoon I got to spend with my sweetie sharing a few micro brews while watching the kids create chalk drawings on the garage floor.

That’s an auto repair DIY project I’ll attempt again. We also just replaced the broken side mirror on the car. Easy-peasy.

Mom’s DIY Project Gone Wrong

This week, I was wrong. Our “family truck-ster” minivan is approaching retirement, but we’re about a year away on our debt payoff plan from being ready to buy a new car. So with (overinflated) confidence from our past successes, we attempted replacing the radiator.

Taking it apart was not so bad with the help of YouTube, but we felt like we were living the minivan version of The Money Pit. Every part we removed led to something else that needed to be repaired. After tearing it all apart we decided we were in over our heads.

We called the mechanic (actually I begged my husband to call) who was super understanding about it and told us we weren’t the only ones this has happened to.

My 4 year old son was so excited about the tow truck coming so we stood out there holding hands while I answered a million of his too-honest questions about us “breaking” the car. I felt like a failure watching the tow truck driver pull the minivan up onto the flatbed truck and drive away.

It got worse when I heard the mechanic’s voice mail message the next day. “Buddy, I am confused as to what you’ve got going on here, why are there are two old radiators in the back of the car? Where’s the new one you said you had?” Turns out we got an old radiator from the auto parts store by mistake. I did actually laugh at that one, since it’s how the whole job had gone!

It ended up costing us $587 for the tow and to have them replace the radiator. Quite a bit more than the $165 in parts we were planning on, but less than the $670 we were originally quoted without the tow. I assume this is because we did the disassembly. However, even though it’s more than we planned on, because we’ve been budgeting for almost a year now, we can pay for it without charging it or dipping into our emergency fund.

It’s a great reminder to me that the financial baby steps we’ve been making along the way really do add up. That’s a DIY project I’m really proud of!

Heather C. Stephens is a serial blogger who writes for FatWallet, sharing money saving shopping tips and deal guides to help consumers know what to buy when to get the best deals. You’ll also find her online blogging about social media marketing for small businesses, and her many adventures as a mom of three.

About the author

Clever Dude


  • I like the story about the oil change – wow what a way to meet your husband! My grandparents met in a car crash, that’s a pretty good one huh?

    Thanks for the story.

  • Wow, really?? I just heard of someone meeting their wife at a funeral 🙂 Crazy how bad stuff could lead to the good!

    Great post too, btw, Heather – enjoyed it!

  • Thank you John & J!

    I can’t imagine meeting someone in a car crash! That’s fate, no doubt about it.

    I actually think meeting at a funeral is a good sign for the relationship since both of the people had someone in common that they both respected, liked, or loved enough to come and pay their respects. Good for them…hope it turned out to be a match made in heaven.

    So glad you both liked the post! 🙂

  • Great post. I’d recommend procuring a service manual for your vehicle(s) if you plan on doing any DYI repairs. For the miniscule amount put out for the manual, it makes a huge difference in outcomes when tackling larger jobs. I’d highly suggest you go with the OEM one too, as sometimes the 3rd party (Haynes, etc) are not specific enough when it comes to certain procedures. All in all, I’d say you’re quite handy to be wrenching (or even attempting) on your vehicles; something most girls/women avoid like the plague.

  • Thanks Jeff!

    I agree with you about the manual and wish I would have gotten one before our “project.” In a different situation, having a service manual helped tremendously when a sock got stuck in the pump on our front load washer. I should have thought to get one before we attempted the radiator, maybe we could have done it ourselves.

    Clever Dude,

    To be honest, I love craft brews, but when money permits I’d rather leave the working on cars to the mechanic and work on other “fun” projects around the house. This weekend: building a swing set!

    Thanks so much for publishing my guest post here! I really appreciate it!

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