Monday, June 22, 2009

Madd Money: Beware the Dangers of "Autopilot Actions"

I'm usually one who is pretty good about certain things when it comes to frugality and focusing on areas where I know I can shave a few bucks here and there. However, there are certain areas where, for some reason, I just go on autopilot. For the record, there are many times when autopilot is awesome, and it's a great thing to do when you are actively trying to save money (setting up automatic deposits into a 401(K) account or an IRA or 529 plan should be the normal course of action for most people; this way, there's never a guess as to whether or not you remembered to make a payment or deposit, it just happens). However, there are times when spending money that you can really make some boneheaded decisions, and it doesn't even dawn on you until after you finish with it.

Case in point, this weekend I finally got off my duff and went to get my oil changed in my car. Generally speaking, this is not a job I do on my own. Could I? Yes. Do I want to actually put in the time to do it? No. Hence, I will usually pay someone to do this for me. I follow my owner's manual's schedule of oil changes, which calls for every 5,000 miles. At the rate that I currently drive, it takes me close to a year to drive 5,000 miles. Most of my life revolves around driving to BART and back most days, plus we have the minivan for our generally extended family excursions; my car sees more mileage during the winter months and for scout camp, but other than that, it doesn't really get driven very far.

On Saturday Morning, I went int and decided, I just want to get a standard oil change, no extras, no frills, just the basics. However, while I was doing this, I was asked, "OK, do you want to go with what you have been using previously?" Well, of course, why wouldn't I? We ticked off the list for all of the things that were optional and I answered "no" to all of them. Finally we rang up the estimate, and the estimate was $65. Really?! Wow, that seemed high, but then again, it had been almost a year since I last changed it. We were already there, they had prepped the car, and I figured it might well be in line with what oil changes cost right now. Besides, I felt it was more of a hassle to close up everything and look elsewhere than to just get it done. Less than half an hour later, I was out the door, and for the moment, feeling glad I'd gotten it done.

When I got home, I put the receipt on the counter, as I usually do and started going about some morning details around the house... until I heard a sharp "Whoah! You spent *how much* to get an oil change?!" For those astute readers, that "whoa!" came courtesy of Christina. She was not at all happy about this, and she showed me a bunch of coupons she had for oil changes... none of which were for any areas near us (yeah, I'm justifying... more on that in a minute :) ), but as I was looking at these coupons, my heart sank. Did I really just pay a 100% premium over these other places? Could that honestly be right? And if so, what made that difference and why?

About a half an hour later, I got a call from Christina... she went down to ask the place where I'd gotten the work done why in the world an oil change would cost so much. What in the world did I buy?! This was where the revelation part came out, and where I whistled under my breath, got a little mad and testy, but deep down, knew that Christina was right... I violated a basic rule of personal finance, and did it just because I was in that spur of the moment and figuring, "sure, let's just go with what we've always done". In this case, what I had always done was get the top of the line synthetic oil for my car... oil that until yesterday, I had not realized carried close to a 200% premium over standard oil.

Now, granted, the whole reason that I got this oil was because of my frequent very short trips, and the idea I wouldn't be changing it again for another year of 5000 miles, whichever came first (and the last few years, it's been a toss up). Perhaps, if I had considered all that, I would have gone with my original choice, saying "well, since I drive a lot of very short hop trips, and since the car doesn't hit 5000 miles many years, is $70 too much to pay for what amounts to an annual oil change. Problem was, I didn't even do that level of due diligence, I just accepted that that was the way it was and (shrug!) OK, I guess we'll just do it. Looking to see that I could have had the same service done for anywhere from $30-45 less struck home, though. What's more, I probably could have saved at least $30 just by picking a different grade of oil.

Thus, I'm sharing this less for this weekend. There are moments that are emergencies, and in those times, paying for a particular service at a particular rate is just the way things go. At other times, though, it pays swell to do a little research and see who is offering what, and for how much and what that entails. While I saved a little time, I would gladly have given up an hour's extra time to have saved $45. Thus I now have to chalk this up to the "well, make sure to remember this this time... and as an added reminder, I will be printing out this blog post and putting it into my car's owners manual, right next to the next service milestone (65000 miles... not too bad for a 9 year old car ;) ), so that I do not just jump in and do what I've always done. Being alert, awake and active is a much better choice... and hey, it could save considerable money. Even if it doesn't, it helps to know why you are paying what you are paying and for what... at least that way, you can answer *why* you chose something and at least have a plausible explanation. In any event, even this old dog can learn some new tricks.

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