Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Not Quite Zero Cost New Year's Eve

Unlike last year, when I spent an absolutely lovely evening in, I'll actually be going out and socializing tonight. Yeah, it'll be a bit more spendy: I'll be out the cost of a bag of chips and some onion dip to bring to a party at my dear friend S.'s apartment. The invitation didn't make it quite clear what sort of party it will be. Previously she has had the sort of events where everyone plays Trivial Pursuit or Settlers of Catan and also the sort involving huge crowds, sixteen flavors of jello shots, body glitter, and French hip hop. I'm rather hoping this will turn out to be the former, but I'm so eager to see everyone I'll gladly endure being the socially awkward sober person if it's the latter.

Adventures in Used Car Shopping, Part 1

I've scoped out Consumer Reports, started looking seriously at what's available, and tried to narrow things down a bit. I'm pretty much set on a sedan (or, well, maybe a hatchback, coupe, or wagon, but anyway a car). Hondas or Toyotas are my top choices, with Nissans, Mazdas, and Suburus in consideration as well. I wouldn't be opposed to another Taurus if the price is right and the mileage is low.

Yesterday afternoon my mom and I fit in a little bit of car shopping around driving my grandmother places and running errands for her. We stopped at the first place to ask about test driving a Taurus wagon that it turned out wouldn't even start! (This does not engender confidence in a used car dealer.) I tried driving a Focus just to see what it was like, and, while it seemed like a decent car, they wanted way too much money for an American car with 90,000 miles. The owner of the dealership kept arguing with me when I told him that I wasn't interested in another Taurus he had because, although it was fairly new, it had been a rental car and thus had probably been driven by quite a few people who treated it like a disposable toy.

We then headed to a small used car dealer that had a Suburu Legacy I'd scoped out online. It would fit, just barely, in my budget. The guy was nice, helpful, and not high pressure at all, which was a pleasant change. The car, however, failed to impress. It was neat and well maintained, but the steering just felt sloppy.

The used lot of the massive car superdealership didn't yield any fabulous finds. There was a Honda we'd wanted to see, but it was a bit high compared to Blue Book value, especially for a car that turned out to be sticky and smelly so I didn't drive it. I tried out a nice, late model Taurus. It was comfortable and had reasonable mileage, but it was again at the very top of my budget, in part because it was a fancy model loaded down with power everything, leather seats, trim that looked like wood, etc., etc., utterly unimportant to me etc. The salesman wasn't too obnoxious, other than insisting I address him as "Coach" and correcting me every time I tried to cal him "Sir."

We then headed way the heck out into the country to go see a 2004 Civic I'd found in the classifieds. It was a one owner car with 87,000 miles on it and was in good condition. They'd done the oil changes and routine maintainance on schedule, and the asking price was a mere $6,200. Alas, there was someone else there at the time we'd arranged to see it. By then it was getting dark, and we all stood around with flashlights looking over the car. The other guy offered $6,000, and the owners accepted. They were very apologetic about our coming out for nothing. As we were walking back to my mom's car, a third prospective buyer drove up.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Figuring out how the heck to buy a used car

Thanks to a combination of wrecks and parents, I'm going to be hunting for a decent used car this week. My car shopping experience to date is fairly limited. I was involved in the hunt for my first car and was the one who found it in the classifieds in the paper, but my parents made all the decisions. They set a budget, looked at Consumer Reports buying guides, and decided on a Ford Taurus. I, who had managed to reach the end of my senior year in high school without getting a driver's license, didn't really have any say in the matter, or else I would have had no car at all.

Immediately after moving to the Delta, I helped my friend U. go car shopping. I'd expected to offer little more than transportation from one dealership to another, but he was someone who'd lived with his parents throughout college and never had to deal with so much as checking his own oil. He's also the nicest man on the planet and had this idea that he wanted to "put money into the local economy" when purchasing a car. U. was lost, and he asked for advice. I'm not a car guy, but my dad is so I grew up reading Road and Track, changing spark plugs, and helping bleed the brakes on the Mustang. I may not be an expert on this, but I was in better shape than U. Fortunately, when two twentysomethings of opposite genders go into a dealership together, it seems to be a universal assumption that they are buying a car together and will want to go off and talk about things. Thus I was able to steer U. away from the satin shirt clad vulture at the first dealership, introduce him to the Kelly Blue Book so he could determine whether he was being cheated, and gently inform him that driving three blocks at 30mph does not constitute an adequate test drive. Still, the ultimate decision was his.

Now I've got to sort out what I want. My still achy neck has convinced me to scrap my plan that my next car would be a Miata. The priorities are now crash test ratings, reliability, and decent gas mileage. Beyond that, I don't really know. My dad advises me to buy Japanese, but I've been very happy with my Ford. I haven't quite figured out my budget yet either. The car fund was at $6,000, but I could probably go as high as $8,000 without feeling overly pinched. Is $2,000, a vast sum to me, likely to make a big difference in the quality of the car? Any advice from my wiser and more experienced readers on how to avoid screwing up the first major purchase of my adult life?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I got asked that basic question on Saturday by the professors who consider themselves to be my extra set of parents. They want me to figure out whether I want to be a biologist or a physicist so I can start preparing for the application process next year. Naturally, my answer is that I want to be a biologist who understands EM and quantum. So, basically, I'll be looking for a graduate program where I can be a physics student doing interdisciplinary research so I can keep working on the squishy systems I perversely seem to prefer. (What can I say? Biology was my first love. One Scientific American article on the mechanisms used by antibiotic resistant bacteria while I was in elementary school and I was hooked.)

If only I'd made that decision firmly a year and a half ago...I knew then it was almost certainly what I wanted, but I felt the need to do something else first. There was no point in being mad as hell about the inequality of educational opportunity in this country if I wasn't going to do something about it. However, it doesn't feel like I'm doing much about it now. There are a lot of good kids here, but overall I'm not moving them forward as much as they need. I'm getting better as a teacher, but the classroom management remains a struggle. Even that seems to be improving, but every now and then I'll have one of those awful days where no one learns anything one period because, for example, two of the girls decide to fight in the middle of class and I have to physically restrain one of them and drag her into the hallway to keep anyone from getting seriously injured. It's draining.

Now we have had regime change in the school, with the head principal quitting and the superintendent taking over as acting principal. I remain hopeful that this will have some positive effect, but on the day before Christmas break began we had our first faculty meeting with the superintendent, and the gist of his speech was, "Things around here are screwed up. You aren't doing your jobs. I have no problem firing any of you. I am in charge and you will do exactly what I say, or else. I have no problem firing any of you. Have a Merry Christmas." Yeah, the school is failing dramatically and we need major changes, but I suspect he might make more progress if he tried a slightly different tone and tried to get us pulling together to improve things. Maybe I'm bad enough that he should get rid of me at the end of the year, but we're what he has right now, and if he'd start by offering us guidance on what he wants done differently, he might find that his teachers are as eager to turn things around as he is.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

In non-financial news...

Quite to my surprise, I've somehow ended up with a new beau. It still doesn't make sense to date someone who lives 300 miles away, but he's kind, funny, charming, and delightfully insane. Thus I now have someone with whom to get sushi, take long walks, browse bookstores, and watch old episodes of Star Trek on the weekends I go home and the promise of more emails and phone calls while I'm here. So I'm willing to see where this leads.

It also doesn't hurt that he seems fairly financially sane, brokish, but with a plan in place so he won't be that way for long. I doubt he has much in savings, but he has no debts. He was until recently living just barely within his means, but he was pulling it off with a very careful budget. Now that he's living in a cheaper apartment with a roommate, he's taking $100 a week in cash to use for all expenses besides his share of rent ($162.50 a month for a somewhat crummy but not that terrible apartment) and utilities and finding that to be the height of luxury.

He knows what I earn, which is more than he makes as an apprentice electrician, but possibly less than he'll get once he gets his journeyman's license. I've told him about my savings goals while I'm here, my struggles with my job, my dreams of grad school, and my uncertainty about my future plans. It's a trifle bizarre to let my guard down about these things this soon, but I guess a relationship founded in years of prior friendship engenders a certain degree of openness. On the other hand, while he's one of the handful of people I know in real life who're aware I dabble in personal finance blogging, there's no way I'm letting him read Not Living on Ramen just yet!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

I guess car shopping is in my future after all.

Well, there goes my glee over the seemingly reasonable repair bill for the 1999 Taurus. My parents technically still own "my car", and tonight they informed me that they won't let me have it back. They let me borrow my mom's shiny newish Altima to use until I can come collect the Taurus during Christmas break, and now they are insisting that I must continue driving the Altima until summer! They're planning to get a new vehicle for my mother and have my father use the Taurus. They insist that they don't want me making the 300 mile trip home in a car with 115,000 miles because they picture me broken down by the side of the road somewhere. (Never mind that I made the much longer trip from Houston to the Delta just fine and the car has been thoroughly checked out structurally following the wreck and found to be fine.) They might let me drive it while I'm home during the summer, but it'll never be mine to use as I see fit again.

I'm completely uncomfortable with driving my mother's car. First of all, I feel ridiculous driving something that shiny and new. It's not an appropriate vehicle for a recent grad living on a teacher's salary. Yeah, it's an image thing. I know that's shallow, but I hate feeling ostentatious with a passion that burns with the intensity of a thousand suns.

Second, its my mother's, and I know my mother. No matter what she says now, if anything were to happen to it, she would hold it against me for the rest of my life. The odds of something happening to it aren't encouraging either, when you consider that I'm not a good driver, I live in an area with a ridiculously high crime rate, and students think it is great fun to throw rocks at my car.

Third, I'm doing my damnedest to become an independent adult. I've been leaning on my parents far more than I should because I found myself alone in a strange place, stressed past my breaking point, and grieving and wracked with guilt. I love my parents and there's no way I would have survived this without them, but I need to learn new coping mechanisms and find a little more space to become myself. That became increasingly clear when I was left dependent and feeling helpless in the aftermath of the wrecks, hurting and fuzzy from the meds, watching my parents fall into their old patterns of fighting and then spending days avoiding each other and seething, getting yelled at a lot by my mother because I seemed like a convenient proxy for my father and/or am just generally a worthless human being who almost never manages to meet anyone's expectations, listening to my father's detailed analyses of everything that's wrong with my mother and why his responses are wholly logical, and remembering just how painful it often is/was to be home. I could accept keeping my old car as a vestige of my parents' kind efforts to launch me into the world, but accepting the use of the newer Nissan would give them leave to continue treating me as a dependent child and would not help me disentangle myself financially or emotionally.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The damage

It sounds like the total cost for the repairs to my car is going to be slightly under $400. Jasmine contacted her insurance so the police were able to find her, and I talked to a claims person on the phone today. Other than that, there isn't much to report. I still hurt.

My father is now trying to figure out what he should get to replace his poor Mazda Protege. He's been considering a small Toyota pick-up, and my mother called car dealerships to start checking out prices so while I was home we were getting calls from salesmen about every two hours. They're getting desperate, I guess, so someone who's prepared to pay cash for a brand new vehicle is a very hot prospect. My dad thinks a Toyota would be a practical choice, and, while buying new may not be the single greatest idea in the world, he's an obsessive car guy, mechanical engineer, and former Navy mechanic who would probably maintain it and drive it for a couple of decades.

What he really wants to get, however, is a Model A coupe. (I'm hoping he goes for it.) He argues that once he gets his '66 Shelby GT 350 running enough that he can move it into and out of the garage easily he can focus on fixing up the '55 Chevy and use that on days when he wouldn't want to commute in the Model A. My mother will be aghast at the idea, but I don't think he cares much.

At no point did I claim to come from a normal family.

Monday, December 1, 2008

So I may be breaking into my car fund a bit earlier than expected...

The short explanation is that people in Arkansas, me included, have no idea how to drive on ice. I still feel like crud so I'll start by just giving you with what I wrote to a friend last night so that he wouldn't worry when I failed to call to let him know I'd made it home. It's full of irrelevant details, and I don't promise much in the way of coherence.

So, first of all, I am fine. However, I am decidedly not in [Delta town where I teach]. The first car wreck of the day involved spinning out of control and sliding backwards down an embankment for what seemed like forever, and then realizing in amazement that I was able to get out and climb up the embankment, where I was greeted by kindly alpaca farmers who kept me warm until the state police arrived. The state police turned out to be my parents' neighbor. He kept me in his car until my father arrived, then told us to go park by the side of the interstate with hazard lights on while we waited for a tow truck to arrive. After said police officer drove off, my father got out and started climbing down embankment to see what had become of my car. Then a 28 year old Vietnamese chemist named Jasmine slid off the road at pretty much the same spot I had, only this time my father's car with me in it was there for her to collide with on her way down. That time my neck hurt like hell, my leg hurt somewhat, and I had no glasses and was missing my right shoe. My father confirmed that I was conscious, told me to stay where I was, and went down to check on the other people. I lay there in the dark and got snowed on for a bit. Eventually the fire department showed up, then one of my dad's old EMT instructors, They backboarded me and got me out of the car and into an ambulance where I rode beside the very distraught and apologetic Jasmine whom I could not see because we were both strapped down, though I did hold her hand for a while as my dad and the paramedic tried to calm her. We got to the hospital, I eventually had various X-rays and was deemed ok to go home. So I'm home, feeling utterly lousy but basically ok, and am hoping the muscle relaxers and pain meds kick in shortly.

My father's car was apparently totaled. They finally located my car in the past hour or so and will be towing it out and bringing it to my parents' house. The police officer said it might be drivable once they get it out, but I suspect I have repair bills ahead of me.

Since there were many wrecks last night, the police didn't arrive before they had taken us in the ambulance so there isn't any police report on the second wreck at all, and we have to figure out how to get a hold of Jasmine. My mother is deeply annoyed that we didn't exchange information, but it wasn't the something that occurred to me at the time as my primary concerns were whether Jasmine was badly hurt since she sounded a great deal worse off than I was, how to get her to stop worrying about me, and my throbbing neck. I'd just been in two car wrecks and was in a crowded ambulance with sirens blaring; I sort of assumed that someone else would take care of that sort of thing. I know her last name, her university and year of graduation, the city in which she was visiting family for Thanksgiving, what sort of company she works for and the city in which it is located, how old she was when she emigrated, what make of car she drives, and the name of her cousin who works as a nurse at the hospital to which we were transported because all of those things came up in conversation during the long ride to the hospital, but none of that is adequate for the bureaucratic hassles my mother is dealing with today, and I'm not in any mood to get griped at about how my father and I screwed up by not getting phone numbers. So now I'm fighting with my mom, hurting, loopy from the muscle relaxers, and basically want to go cry.