OUR LAST SUMMER road trip didn’t exactly go as planned. That ordeal changed my mind about an annual expense I’d been paying without much thought. I gained a new perspective—even if I did learn my lesson the hard way.
On a Saturday morning last summer, Sarah and I woke our kids at 4 a.m. for a predawn drive through the mountains of East Tennessee and across the Carolinas. We were on our way to enjoy the beaches of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
For the first eight hours of our planned nine-hour trek, we all watched the trees go by in peace—a significant feat, as any parent will tell you. Then suddenly, every light on the dash began flashing incessantly. The alternator had gone bad and the car battery was failing quickly. When I stepped on the gas, the car would barely accelerate.
Luckily, I saw a pizza place coming up on the right. I coasted into the parking lot. Once everyone was inside—where they could enjoy lunch and wait safely for help—I stepped out and dialed AAA. I was calling for a tow using my roadside assistance coverage.
To my chagrin, four calls and four hours of waiting produced nothing more than one extended wait-time quote after another. I was told repeatedly that all AAA-affiliated tow truck drivers were busy working on other calls, and the service was doing all it could. As the afternoon wore on, I finally realized that if we ever wanted to get out of that parking lot, I’d have to arrange for help myself.
First, I took an Uber to a nearby service shop to secure a loaner car before it closed for the weekend. I’d arrived just in time. I had to give a “desperate dad” speech to convince the shop to release a car to me since ours hadn’t been towed in yet. Thankfully, the employees took pity on me.
Once I made it back to Sarah and the girls, I found that there was still no response from AAA. I called the first local tow service I saw in my phone’s search results. An employee answered and told me someone would be there to help us in 15 minutes.
I was relieved and flabbergasted at the same time. I explained our situation and learned that, sure enough, I was talking to one of AAA’s contractors. No one from AAA had called them to request a dispatch to us, however.
How was Sarah handling all of this stress while caring for our two girls, who by this time were screaming and crying? Well, if it gives you any indication, while I was working with the tow truck driver, she singlehandedly managed to stuff the entire contents of our jam-packed Honda Pilot into the loaner vehicle—a Honda Civic. She’d found a productive way to burn off some steam.
I didn’t have good feelings toward AAA, but after a week at the beach, I felt better. “Everyone has a bad day,” I thought. I figured once I explained what happened, AAA would be appalled and would make it right. I called to tell the company what happened. To my surprise, the service representative didn’t seem surprised.
All the rep could do was reimburse me for the tow at AAA’s contracted rate—about half of what I’d paid. I pressed the issue, asking for more. Eventually, a manager came on the line and relented by offering a meager $10 off the price of next year’s membership. “No thanks,” I said.
Roadside assistance is the reason I signed up for AAA membership. Yes, I know a few other perks are included, like discounts on hotels and attractions, but I rarely use them. If AAA can’t reliably provide roadside assistance when I need it, it doesn’t offer me much value.
After 19 years of membership, Sarah and I fired AAA. I’m not sure why the company performed so poorly on that day last summer. I assume AAA does better much of the time. That one horrendous experience, though, isn’t the real reason we’re dropping our membership. It took that mishap to open my eyes. Now I could see that I’d been paying AAA to manage something I would rather manage myself.
When we started our membership, smartphones didn’t exist. I viewed AAA as necessary to avoid getting stranded. Now, all it takes is a quick search on my phone, and I can find a local tow service that I can call myself. I’m confident I can do a better job coordinating this service than AAA did.
AAA membership costs Sarah and me $151 every year. If we go a year with no need for emergency service, we save $151. That would be great.
If we do need roadside assistance, however, I don’t mind paying up. Saving money is not my priority in an emergency. I want someone to get my family and me safely on our way as quickly as possible. I’m happy to pay the going market rate for that.
We all have expenses that we “set and forget.” If we take a moment to think, we might find that we’ve been paying for services we no longer want. I’d rather have avoided all that stress on our road trip last summer. But I’m glad the experience prompted me to rethink a “set and forget” expense.
Matt Christopher White is a CPA and CFP® who writes about money and apprenticeship to Jesus. He’s the author of “How to Love Money: Four Paradoxes that Breathe Life into Your Finances,” available at MattChristopherWhite.com. Matt is equally comfortable talking about Luke 6:43, Section 643 of the Internal Revenue Code and the 6-4-3 double play. There’s no place he’d rather be than with Sarah and their two girls, Lydia and Eliza, at their home in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Follow Matt on Twitter @WriteMattWhite and check out his earlier articles.