Playing by the rules gets you penalized

You live your life playing by the rules, not mooching off the world or sticking it to innocent people, and are you rewarded for it?

Not if you’re trying to buy a car.

For the last six-and-a-half years, I’ve driven a 2004 Chrysler Sebring with hardly a problem. I’ve had to replace the battery and the starter, the convertible roof and two sets of tires. Otherwise, the car drove like a dream.

 

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Lee Pulaski sitting next to his Chrysler Sebring shortly after purchasing it in 2010 in Arizona.

 

The dream turned into a nightmare more than a week ago.

I was driving to Sturgeon Bay, about 90 minutes away from Shawano, and was just about to get out of Green Bay on Highway 57 when the car suddenly started shaking like a tin of Jiffy Pop. I was able to pull over to the side of the road and checked my tires, initially thinking the shaking was due to a blown tire. All four tires were fine, and I hopped back into the car and started it up. The engine started, but the shaking continued, and I knew then that I wasn’t going anywhere.

I had to call my sister and brother-in-law for help, and they arrived after a couple of hours with a car hauler to bring me home. They took the car to a mechanic friend in Wittenberg to see what was wrong with it. It turned out to be the worst news—the engine had jumped timing.

With many vehicles, this would be a simple fix, but it turned out that the Sebrings operate under what’s called a “zero-tolerance engine.” It was developed to increase fuel efficiency, but if one little thing goes wrong, the whole engine is a loss.

The mechanic offered to replace the damaged engine with a refurbished one for $2,200 but was hesitant to do so, considering it would be the same type of engine, a ticking time bomb that could also go bad at any time. It’s one thing to drive a vehicle that you don’t think is going to blow at random; it’s another when you know it could blow.

With the car pretty much a loss and bound for the junkyard, that meant I needed to find another vehicle. Obviously, with the new knowledge of zero-tolerance engines, whatever car I chose would need to have an engine that would not turn a car trip into Julius Caesar’s death scene at any moment. My sister and brother-in-law both had Kias, which have excellent Consumer Report ratings, and so we decided to go to the dealership they went to for a new vehicle.

The Optima that my family had found online was unavailable, but we got to test-drive a 2014 Kia Rio, similar to the one I rented in Arizona in September. It was in my price range, and I was ready to buy it, so we sat down to discuss financing.

That’s when the nightmare kicked into high gear, no pun intended.

I’ve lived most of my life by only getting what I could afford. If I couldn’t buy something I wanted when it came out, I waited until I had saved up enough money. Now, in our society of “get it now, pay it later,”

Apart from one disastrous attempt 13 years ago to help an ex-boyfriend start a business, I had never used credit. As a result, I have no credit rating, according to Transunion and Equifax. Turns out that’s an even bigger red flag when I’d bought a car than if I’d dug myself deep into debt.

After trying with several lending institutions at the dealership, I received rejection after rejection. The dealership was willing to try financing on other, less expensive vehicles. A 2007 Saturn Vue seemed to be the best option, but by that point, we were all starving and decided to break for lunch.

It seemed like the Vue would solve my transportation problems, but then a call to my stepdad to find out about a Vue confirmed the worst. The Vue was equipped with a zero-tolerance engine, which meant if I signed the deal, the vehicle could go kaput. I’d be without a vehicle and in debt. The day ended with me returning home as a passenger instead of a driver in a new vehicle.

We rail against the government for not living within its means, but when it comes to those of us who practice that creed, we’re punished when it comes to purchasing a new vehicle, home or other premium items. We’ve gone away from being a society who offers things at a fair price and can establish deals with little more than a handshake. Part of it is due to people without scruples sticking it to those who have them, and as a result, we’ve become less trusting. However, we’ve all started out without credit at some point, and it seems like we should have faith in our fellow man at some time.

In the meantime, I’m figuring out a way to have wheels that won’t go wonky 50 miles from home while also trying to build a credit profile. It’s a shame I must live beyond my means to get something essential and that, to win the game of life, I must break the rules.

 

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