In pursuit of financial independence and personal fulfillment

Gratitude in a car crash

My wife’s car has been declared a total loss over a relatively minor crash.

Our car insurance will assuredly go up — maybe a lot.

I’m not bringing in a steady income right now, so this is not a good time to buy another car.

The crash happened the day before we boarded a flight to Florida for Christmas, meaning everything was done over the phone during vacation.

We were in limbo for three weeks while the repair shop and insurance went through their process.

All told, this will probably cost us at least $5,000.

And yet, I am gratefully annoyed at the situation.

Let me set the scene for you

When unfortunate events happen, it’s very easy to go on emotional autopilot and focus on all the negatives in front of us. It’s a natural instinct. I’m no different, so let me break down for you exactly what happened and what was going through my mind so you don’t think I’m some hippie saint who only sees the sunny side of the world through my rose-colored glasses.

On the Friday before Christmas, our 22- and 20-year-old sons went out to meet their dad and stepmom for dinner. Just a week or so prior, my wife started letting our 20-year-old take her 2007 Dodge Magnum with him to where he lives and goes to school 90 minutes away. He hasn’t had a car since the last car debacle I wrote about.

He had come to our house for a few days for an early Christmas before my wife, daughter and I left for Florida to visit my parents. He would drive back on Saturday, as we were headed to the airport that afternoon.

We opened gifts and then sent them on their way to see their dad and stepmom. My wife must have said at least half a dozen times, if not more, to drive safely because the roads would be busy and there was lots of construction. They were running late already and had to make a stop along the way as well.

It was about 40 minutes later when I heard my wife animatedly talking on the phone with our younger son. The story unfolded.

Deja frickin’ vu

Question 1: Was anybody hurt? No. No one in either vehicle was hurt.

Question 2: Who was driving?

The younger son doesn’t have any driving incidents on his record. The older son, on the other hand, is what my insurance agent sister-in-law referred to as “borderline uninsurable” last time she ran a quote for us. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you which one was behind the wheel.

It was stop-and-go traffic on the freeway and my son ran into the back of the car in front of him. It’s a familiar story. It happened the exact same way two years ago while he was driving his 2007 Ford Focus, which was repaired but frankly has never run the same since. He already had two speeding tickets at the time.

That’s a lot to mentally process 18 hours before you leave for a 10-day trip.

The car is leaking fluid, has no power steering, and isn’t drive-able. The insurance can’t tow it to a garage because it’s the Friday before Christmas and no one is open until Wednesday, the day after Christmas. There’s a $1,000 deductible that will have to be paid sometime. Who knows if or when we’ll see that car again.

The car is a 2007, but it only has 85,000 miles on it. It has never given us major issues. We just spent $700 on new tires and $150 on a new battery in the past two months.

I’m sure my older son wanted to drive because he would “get there faster.” Yeah, that didn’t work out.

Now we had a steaming pile of crap to deal with that would make things complicated and expensive for months to come.

Gratitude and ‘The Happiness Advantage’ at work

Once I had run through the situation in my head for awhile, I was able to take a step back and look at it with fresh eyes.

And what emerged was gratitude.

I was grateful no one was hurt.

I was grateful they were in a big, heavy car like my wife’s instead of my son’s compact Focus, or it could have been worse.

I was grateful we were not heading to the hospital.

I was grateful the crash didn’t affect our plans to leave the next day in the slightest.

I was grateful having two cars is a luxury rather than a necessity at this time in our lives.

I was grateful we had insurance.

I was grateful we have the money to cover our deductible (which, by the way, is going to be paid by my son).

I was grateful that despite all that had happened and was going to happen over the next several months, I was privileged enough to be annoyed.

And honestly, that was my emotion. I wasn’t scared, worried, exasperated, broken, distraught. I was annoyed. And I was truly grateful that I could be annoyed rather than any of those other emotions.

I have recently been rereading “The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor, and I was reminded of an exercise he does with groups.

He says to imagine you walk into a bank. There are 50 other people in the bank. A robber walks in and fires his weapon once. You are shot in the right arm.

If you were honestly describing the event to your friends and coworkers the next day, do you describe it as lucky or unlucky?

He said it typically breaks down to 70 percent calling it unlucky and 30 percent calling it lucky. The unlucky group says it’s hard to see being shot as a fortunate event. The lucky group, though, sees that far worse events could have transpired. They could have been shot somewhere else and died, or the 50 other people in the bank could have been harmed as well.

In Achor’s example, the event is fictitious, so participants can choose any interpretation they please. Yet 70 percent choose to invent a negative counterfact — the story we tell ourselves to make sense of things that happen — instead of a positive one. Choosing a positive counterfact creates a whole cascade of other positive effects on our mindset, research shows.

People who routinely choose a negative view see themselves as helpless to improve their situation; they are merely pawns in the game of life, being moved by hands unseen to a future over which they have little control.

People who routinely choose a positive view see adversity as a call to rise to the occasion and make the best of the situation as it stands and turn it as best they can to a positive outcome.

What positives are going to come out of this?

We’re getting what appears to be a reasonable settlement for the value of the car. At least we have that going for us. What other positives can we gain from this?

Well, my wife and I have been saying for two years we could probably get by with one car as rarely as we both are out driving to different places. Now we get to test that.

My son will get a very expensive lesson in the consequences of his actions. He may not be able to afford to drive for a year or two, or at the very least he will pay a steep price to do so.

I will get at least one, and maybe more, blog posts out of this event.

I will have better insight into car insurance issues, which will help me deal with financial coaching clients who are having similar problems.

We can put the settlement toward the purchase of a used convertible my wife has been threatening to buy for years. But only when the time comes. In the meantime, it will be extra padding in the bank.

At least we hadn’t yet paid the annual registration fee due at the end of this month.

Look, I’m not happy about the totality of the situation. Obviously I wish the crash hadn’t happened. But it did happen, so the next best thing I can do is accept the things I can’t change and change the things I can.

I can always choose my attitude toward the situation.


  1. Trevor

    We had something similar happen in our family. Talking with our insurance broker (who had something similar happen in his family too), we thought it best to limit our risk exposure and have our daughter get her own separate policy. Our rates went down a little and should go down a bunch in a year or so. If any of these accidents had been worse, the financial impact could be significant and life changing. Attorney’s won’t go after the poor 20 something. They go after the parents who have been saving for retirement, have investments and home equity. Punting the kid to their own insurance, or as you said, maybe they can’t drive for a while, is a life lesson that is tough but needed for those who don’t think about consequences.

    • I Dream of FIRE

      Ugh, sorry you had to deal with that, too! I’m all for helping your kids out when you can. Certainly my parents have helped me out a lot over the years in many ways. But like you said, sometimes the lessons are best learned the hard way. I had a few of those expensive lessons myself, and I remember them to this day.

  2. Erika Wilde

    Ahhh this is what I deal with all day every day! But your attitude is certainly better than most folks.

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