When to do it (no, not that)

By Mir
October 11, 2006

I received a really interesting question from Sheryl a week or two ago. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, hoping to come up with a pithy, amusing answer. But it’s a complicated question, so I think it’s going to be sort of a complicated answer.

Hi Mir!

I have a question for you. I find myself facing a lot of things that need to be replaced, or fixed. My glasses are scratched beyond belief, My car door is broken, our carpet needs cleaning, etc., just a bunch of things that are about $200 bucks a pop, give or take. Needless to say, my purse isn’t filled with Benjamin Franklins, so how do you prioritize things like this? Obviously things that may cost more later need to be taken care of first, but all these things are neccesary, but put-offable, which is why they’re still not taken care of! Then there are some larger ticket items, like a good chunk of our shower tile came off this summer, and we haven’t been able to save up enough to re-do the shower (my husband is not handy, so we’ll have to hire someone), so we haven’t used that bathroom in months. So, any hints about how to prioritize, or shall we just sell one of our children?

I may not know the exact right method for you, Sheryl, but I can tell you that human barter is not the answer. Believe me; I’ve tried.

So. Let’s talk about this. There’s a number of issues here, of course, so I’ll try to detangle them and get in a few words about each.

Sheryl is asking about prioritizing, but of course I can’t get into that without a few words about preparation, first.

Look; I’m a single mom on a budget, and I know that sometimes there just isn’t enough money to go around. Do not take the following as me flippantly suggesting that only if you’re careful with your money, you’ll always have cash on hand for the unexpected. That’s not what I’m saying. But a little forethought can go a long way.

Set money aside now to save money later. What do I mean by that? There are lots of ways that a bit of advance planning and allocation saves you money in the long run:

  • Flexible Healthcare Spending Accounts. (This applies to Americans; I don’t know how/if it works in other countries.) Do you have the option to contribute to a HSA through your employer? Such a plan allows you to set aside money, pre-tax, to be spent on medical expenses throughout the year. The good news is that you’re saving the taxes. The bad news is that you have to spend it or forfeit it. But it not only removes that money from your paycheck before you spend it on something else, it saves you money overall as long as you spend about 80% or more of it (the amount is determined by you). If you have this option, and you have children (and therefore probably more than your share of medical expenses), and especially if you have orthodonture and/or optical expenses, take advantage of a HSA if one is offered.
  • Utilize budget payment systems or pre-buys. Can you pre-buy your heating oil or natural gas at a discount? Can you make set monthly payments to avoid being socked with a huge bill during a particularly frigid month? You have to examine your billing history to see which of these might be advantageous for you. And maybe you can’t afford to pre-buy or don’t feel like it’s a good idea (I know lots of people did an oil pre-buy for this season, and now prices are dropping and they’re Not Happy.) This one applies to things like car insurance, too. Pay it on a set monthly payment unless you enjoy those periodic huge bills and the coronaries they spark.
  • Have a slush fund or two. Again, I know this isn’t always possible. But if you own a house? You should have a house repair fund. Even if you can only put $5 or $10 into it per month—make sure it’s an interest-earning account!—that’s money earmarked for the inevitable breakdown. Set it aside as part of your monthly bill-paying and you won’t even miss it, and boy will you be glad to have it when your washing machine walks across the room and then bursts into flame.
  • Consider an investment now in something that will need to be done again and again. Sheryl mentioned cleaning the carpet. It will cost you $200 to hire someone to do it. If you shop carefully, you can probably get a pretty good-quality home carpet steamer for that, and then you can do your own carpets to your heart’s content. Is that a logical purchase for you? It depends on how much carpet you have and how often you feel they need to be cleaned. This principle applies to all sorts of things, large and small. Buy clippers and do haircuts at home, or buy a sewing machine and do your own alterations (small scale). Buy all the landscaping tools you’ll ever need and never use a lawn service (larger scale). Just consider the options as needs arise.

Never put off what will cost more money later. You already know this, of course, but it bears repeating. Water damage, for example, is the sort of thing that needs to be fixed immediately unless you’re planning to go into the penicillin- growing business. Something that’s a basic structural issue with your house, too, is a no-brainer.

Consider what your time and various compromises are worth. There’s money to be saved in doing your own repairs, but only if you truly have the time (and ability) to do so. If it’s going to take you forever and take time away from other things like working (where you, you know, make the money to pay for stuff), it may not be worth it. Also: having a bathroom out of commission may be a minor annoyance or it may be a huge hassle, depending on your particular tolerance. If it’s driving you slowly insane, it must be fixed. If you don’t mind so much, well, then, it can wait.

Now, with all of that in mind… how do you prioritize the stuff that needs to be done?

First you take care of things where it would be hazardous not to do so. A sinkhole right outside your front door or a pressing medical issue takes precedence.

Second you tend to things that will be more expensive the longer you let them go. If you don’t have someone repair the missing shingles on your roof now, chances are the entire thing will need replacing by next year.

Third you start ordering things on two separate axes: cost and annoyance. Something very expensive that isn’t all that annoying can wait. Something very annoying that isn’t all that expensive can be done now. Easy. The hard part is the vast grey area inbetween. If it’s highly annoying but also really expensive, well, then you have to start thinking about options such as is there a way to make it less expensive (can you patronize a discount website for your glasses, for example) or less annoying (is there a temporary but inexpensive way you can render the shower usable for your kids, for example) until or instead of forking over big wads of cash.

I would suggest that there’s almost always a way to make things less expensive, but it’s a very individual matter as to what’s less annoying. For some things you have to take other factors into account as well—for example, maybe you don’t care that a tree fell down on your property, but the neighbors are starting to give you dirty looks.

One last caution, particularly for moms: Don’t underestimate your needs. Every mother I know does this, including me, on occasion. We’ve all gone without so that our kids can have what they need, and that’s lovely and selfless and whatever, but our kids also need us well and whole and not out of our minds. If your glasses are all scratched up and you’re blind without them, for heaven’s sake, get new ones. You need them. If you have a family of eight and the dishwasher dies and your kids are too little to be turned into slave labor in the kitchen, figure out how to replace the dishwasher before you start hurling plates at the wall.

Most large purchases can be financed through the seller at little or no interest, and most contractors will agree to payment plans if discussed up-front. There are ways to make things affordable. What you don’t want to do is become paralyzed by impending costs and do nothing.

I hope that helps, Sheryl, and that you’re able to refrain from selling the kids. At least until closer to Christmas.


  1. This is a good one. Thank you!

  2. Awesome post, Mir!! While we all love knowing that we just saved 53% on a cool robot vaccuum (which my husband doesn’t *quite* know about yet….), this hits on the really tough stuff that we don’t like to deal with.

    I’d like to add the possibilty of bartering for services. I am a new stay home mom, and our income has been slashed by 40%. So no more $100+ cut and color at the salon. But my neighbor is a hairdresser, so I asked her if we could work something out. Now she does my hair, and I pay her in FOOD! We both win…I’m cooking dinners for my family anyway, and now she has a few nights where her family gets fed, but she didn’t have to worry about the cooking. This only works for individual service-type stuff, the local eyeglass store isn’t big on bartering!

    Also, ask friends if they have things you can borrow. I’m asking my friend today if we can borrow their steam cleaner for a weekend to clean the carpets and couches. I’ll pay for any cleaner, and promise to return it in the same condition. Of course, this will mean we’re cleaning the carpets, so it only works if I have the time to do it myself. Which in this case, I do.

  3. Thanks Mir, I appreciate your help :o)

  4. So funny, I was going to write you about the carpet cleaning issue! I think some friends of ours have a carpet steamer, so I may make a nuisance of myself and impose on them. My carpet is driving me crazy!!!!

    The health spending account is a good idea. It’s open enrollment time… I may sign up for one.

  5. I have to agree on the barter thing. Now I’m lucky – my husband is a carpenter, and they’re more popular than a doctor at a party these days. I’m a former corporate computer geek – although I’ve been out of the corporate world for a number of years, I can still hold your hand while setting up your wireless network or reformat your hard drive while doing my nails. Even though we have eminently tradeable talents, I’ve also traded for babysitting, leaf raking, weeding, furniture refinishing, hemming pants, dog walking etc. Obviously barter isn’t going to help you buy a new car, but it might help in some of the smaller situations, allowing you to save for the bigger ones.

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