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Fluid Situations

James Kerr

A RECENT CNBC SURVEY found that more than half of Americans don’t have an emergency fund to handle life’s financial curveballs. The survey also found that seniors are more likely to have an emergency fund than younger adults, and men are more likely to maintain a rainy-day fund than women.

I don’t know how I’d manage if I didn’t have an emergency fund. Now that I’m retired from fulltime work, I try to keep to a fixed budget, but unexpected expenses keep blowing holes in my financial plan. I had two recent reminders of this. Both incidents are embarrassing—though for different reasons.

About a month ago, I had a couple of friends up to my mountain house for a visit. They were there for a few days and we had a lovely time, at least until the end. As they were getting ready to depart, one of my friends stepped out of the downstairs bathroom to give me the bad news that the toilet was clogged. He might have put down a bit too much paper before flushing, he told me sheepishly.

One must always be gracious in delicate situations such as these, and so, with hospitable good cheer, I told him it was no problem and reached for the plunger. Now, being a longtime homeowner, I’m no novice when it comes to clearing clogged toilets. Slip on a pair of rubber gloves, stand back, and plunge until you hear the satisfying gurgle of the clog giving way.

This time, however, the clog would not budge. Two hours after my friends had left for home, I was still plunging away, and the only thing I had accomplished was to spill much of the toilet’s contents onto the floor.

Ah, the joys of homeownership.

Desperate now, I did a Google search and located a local plumbing outfit in the rural area where I have my cabin. The friendly young lady who answered the phone told me that, as luck would have it, one of their on-call plumbers had an opening and would be able to come out right away.

Within the hour, the serviceman was standing inside the house in booties. After inspecting the mess in the bathroom, he worked up an estimate for what it would take to clear the clog. The visit itself would cost $85. Use of a drain snake would be another $275. If the snake didn’t work and he had to remove the toilet, it would be another $250.

After I picked up my jaw off the floor, I managed to find words to speak. The ensuing conversation went something along these lines.

Me: Holy cow. Do you think the drain snake will do the trick?

Plumber: It should, but I won’t know until I try it.

Me: Why is it so expensive?

Plumber: It’s an industrial-strength drain snake.

Me: Do I get to keep the snake after you’re done?

Plumber (laughing): No, no. The snake goes back with me.

Me (not laughing): If you were a carpentry shop, would you charge me by the hammer for services?

Plumber: We don’t provide carpentry services, sir.

He stood there, awaiting my decision. If he left, I’d owe him $85 and still not have fixed the problem, so I bit the bullet and told him to proceed.

It took the serviceman all of 10 minutes to clear the clog with the drain snake. After putting away that apparently gold-plated plumber’s friend, he charged my credit card $360 while I silently fumed. Nothing gets under the skin of a penny-pinching frugalist like being pickpocketed by someone who’s not even wearing a mask.

I was still steaming about that incident when, two weeks later, I got hit by another unexpected expense. This one, however, was entirely of my own making. 

I own a 26-horsepower Kubota diesel tractor that I use for mowing, snowplowing and other tasks at my mountain house. Every spring, before beginning the mowing season, I make sure to change the oil and filter, lube the grease fittings, and do other basic maintenance tasks taught to me years ago by my late father.

While I’m no mechanic, I’ve done dozens of oil and filter changes over the years, and I know my way around equipment. This day, however, I was not at my best. I had woken up with a bad headache, and was feeling washed out and muddy headed. 

I should have known better and saved the job for another day. But being both stubborn and impatient, I went ahead. After draining the oil and putting on a new filter, I dumped in four quarts of fresh oil and started the tractor. The engine fired, but roughly, blowing out smoke, which was strange, given that the Kubota is only a few years old and normally runs like a charm.

I turned off the engine and went to check the oil dipstick, which was when the realization of what I’d done hit me like a punch to the stomach. In my head fog, I had poured the new oil into the gas tank, not the oil tank. 

I couldn’t believe it. I’d never done anything so mechanically stupid in my life. Fearing I had ruined my nice new tractor, I called the dealer, who sent out a serviceman. 

The mechanic, when he arrived, assured me that what I’d done was not fatal and certainly wasn’t the worst thing he’d ever seen done to a tractor. The bulk of his repair jobs were from human—not equipment—errors, he said. This one, fortunately, was fixable.

He drained the oil from the gas tank, replaced the gas filter, and blew out the injector lines. Within the hour, he had the tractor running again, good as new. The bill: $350.

Ouch. 

I consoled myself that it could have been worse. I have a working tractor and a working toilet, and—as much as I hate to part with it—I have the money in my emergency fund to pay the $710 of new charges on my credit card.

The moral of the story? For me, it’s three things: Keep finding a way to fund that emergency account. Invest in an industrial-strength drain snake. And never, ever attempt a mechanical job when I have a headache—or else I may be creating an even bigger one for myself.

How much emergency money should you hold? Offer your thoughts in HumbleDollar’s Voices section.

James Kerr led global communications, public relations and social media for a number of Fortune 500 technology firms before leaving the corporate world to pursue his passion for writing and storytelling. His debut book, “The Long Walk Home: How I Lost My Job as a Corporate Remora Fish and Rediscovered My Life’s Purpose,” was published in 2022 by Blydyn Square Books. Jim blogs at PeaceableMan.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesBKerr and check out his previous articles.

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