My Recent Car Episode and How I Could Have Wasted A Lot of Money on Nothing

The engine bay where my diagnosis journey started. The battery and one of the fuse boxes are in the back left compartment.

A couple months ago, I replaced my car with a nicer, newer one. Unfortunately, cars can have issues at any time – even early in life. And on one recent morning, when I went out to the garage, my car wouldn’t start. In fact, the dash wouldn’t even light up. The battery was 100% dead. Thankfully, I have AAA, so I was able to get someone out there within about half an hour to jump it.

As anyone who has bought a battery for a late model car already knows, batteries die all the time now. In a typical example of “progress” in action, what had been a $50 purchase that would last roughly a decade is now an often $150+ purchase that lasts about three years. The warranty period, of course, has adjusted to reflect this new reality and in my experience, batteries tend to survive just barely long enough to surpass it. The culprit, of course, is our obsession with putting more and more electronic crap in cars, including a significant amount that continues to draw when the car is turned off. Today’s batteries are actually much more powerful than the ones that used to cost so much less, but the demands on them are also much greater.

Anyway, I priced out batteries while I was waiting for AAA to show up and determined that NTB had the best offering for my car. Once the car had been jump started, I drove straight there. It was less than a ten minute drive, but interestingly enough, by the time I got there, the battery tested perfectly fine. It was still a little low, but it had more than enough juice to start the car. I discussed this with the manager, who ultimately advised me to test it again after driving a further distance I had planned for that day. He suspected that it may be the alternator. In the over 250k miles of driving I’ve done in my still relatively young life, I’ve never once had an alternator fail. And I would have been rather surprised to see it happen on a five year old car with well under 50k miles, but testing is free and my AAA membership would have taken care of me again if the battery died again, so I went on my way.

I drove around for the rest of the day without incident. Of course, this only deepened the mystery of how the battery had died. But that very evening, I had a lucky break that led me to the answer. I happened to leave something in the car after I had closed the garage so I went back out to get it. To my surprise, when the door was open, I discovered that the headlights were still on. Like any modern luxury car, my car has automatic headlights. So while the battery mystery was immediately solved, it also gave way to another one. Why weren’t the headlights turning off?

When trying to diagnose any car problem, you want to start with the simplest possible explanation. In the case of an electrical problem, that means checking any potentially applicable fuses, which I immediately did. But none of them were bad. So I was back to square one, although at least for the moment I knew I could keep the battery from dying by turning the headlights on and off manually. But I had a lot of other stuff that had to get done so I moved on from the car situation for the night.

The next morning, I thought more about the car as I sat in the sauna. I had realized something had been different for a few days, but I couldn’t put my finger on what. But in thinking about the automatic headlights not turning off, I realized what it was. The dome lights, which are inexplicably non LED and incredibly dim to begin with in this car, had not been coming on. And that’s when it came to me. The automatic headlights were working fine. The issue was that the car didn’t know the doors were being opened and closed! When I thought about it, the automatic adjusting windows, which open slightly when the doors are opened and then close when the doors are closed again, hadn’t been functioning normally either. Clearly I had found the problem. But how to fix it?

First, I went back to the fuses again, this time looking for any door specific ones. But again, none were bad. So I started looking very closely at the doors, checking to see if any wires looked damaged, etc. Everything looked ok. But there was one thing slightly – and I mean SLIGHTLY – out of place. This little guy.

Literally one screw that holds this thing on being slightly loose was causing all of these problems!

It was just slightly loose when I touched it. I didn’t know what it was, but I figured it had to be related to the door somehow due to its location in the door jamb. I tightened it up and VOILA! Suddenly everything worked correctly again. Apparently, the little thing is a sensor that compresses when the door is opened and decompresses when it is closed. And apparently it is very sensitive. So what lessons are there in this experience?

First and most importantly, don’t make assumptions with cars. There are way too many mechanics out there who will just start replacing parts that might solve the problem rather than first finding the exact diagnosis. This can be simple inexperience, but it can also be more sinister. After all, the more work they do, and the more marked up parts they replace, the more money they make. And there is really no way of holding them accountable for doing that aside from not coming back. Had I taken that approach in this case, I would have replaced a perfectly good battery for about $150 and been no better off than when I started. Then, when that didn’t work, I may even have replaced an alternator for considerably more than that. Thankfully, most auto parts stores are happy to help you with testing and even some advice, as the friendly folks at NTB were in my case.

Second, know your car and pay attention to it. While I am no electrician, had I been more observant, I could still have solved this pretty easily. I would have noticed the dome lights not coming on and the automatic adjusting windows not adjusting. At that point, I would already have known what the problem was and could have skipped straight to the last step of the process I just finished describing. Sadly, with as much as I have going on in my life, someone in a clown suit could probably be riding a giraffe through the parking lot of my apartment complex as I walked out to the garage and I’d say there’s at least a decent chance I wouldn’t notice anything unusual. In today’s world, I’m guessing I’m not alone in that.

Third, even in a world of incredibly complex cars with numerous computer modules and miles of wiring, the simplest solution is usually the right one. Yes, a bad battery would have been an easy explanation in this case – but not the correct one. That was in doubt as soon as I got to the auto parts store. In the end, it turned out to be a part so simple that cars have probably had them for as long as they’ve had dome lights that turn off when the doors open. And it wasn’t even bad – just slightly loose.

How I Keep My Technology Expenses Super Low

Even my very basic setup results in this mess of cords behind my tv. Bonus points if you can spot the rabbit ear antenna I pull out on Sundays, which allows me to see the games in HD (on Saturdays I typically watch the Badgers let us down as always with the local alumni association).

Happy Monday, Folks! This is yet another post in my annual expense series. I’m sorry it’s been a little boring, but we’re nearly through! And hopefully I’ve helped you save at least some money. Today I’m going to tell you how I keep my technology expenses much lower than most people and still get everything I need. I’ve already written posts that address this, so this will be a quick one as a good portion of the information is already available at the links I will provide. Over 2017 and 2018, I averaged $500 a year on technology services. I believe a bare minimum number could be as low as $350 a year if you were trying to save every penny.

Step one is simple. I don’t have cable and I don’t recommend it for anyone. Instead, if I were the type who watched tv much outside of football season, I would simply figure out which streaming services had the shows I liked and subscribe only to those, only when those shows were on. Or just use Kodi. But I didn’t say that… So anyway, the only technology services I need are internet and cell phone.

For internet, I use whichever option is cheapest. The dirty little secret of this industry (at least the one most relevant to saving money) is that you need a hell of a lot less bandwith than most people think. Unless you’re streaming video on multiple devices in your home consistently, 20 or so Mbps is plenty. Even then you could get by with it. Those 100+ plans are the internet equivalent to driving a Ferrari on a road where the speed limit is 65 anyway. Last year, I was paying about $40 a month for AT&T. The year before that, I was paying $15 a month for a very minimalist Charter (formerly Time Warner) plan in Wisconsin. This year, I’m paying $30 a month for Comcast Xfinity. I do have my own router and modem, which I spent about $100 total on and should last several years. AT&T provided their own unit and while they didn’t come out and say they were charging rent, their service was about $10 more per month than Xfinity, which means they probably were. But since they didn’t separate that out on the bill, there was also no option to not have it. However, I was able to negotiate $200 in Visa gift cards up front, which made the difference for me and got me to sign up for a year. What do I do when the “promotional pricing” period ends? This. I don’t EVER reward the shenanigans that seem to be standard practice in this industry by paying more.

That leaves cell phone service. Everyone offers unlimited talk and text for basically nothing now, knowing that data is the choke point. So how do I slay the data demon and ultimately spend so little? I know how much I actually use (very little when not on WiFi, which is almost everywhere now) and I use services that provide minimal amounts for minimal money. Previously, and for all of the years 2017 and 2018, which the average above was calculated on, I had been using Republic Wireless. But when their new pricing scheme came out, it effectively doubled the price for a minimal user like me. So I switched to Mint Mobile when I got a new phone and would have had to start participating in that pricing scheme. Either service is a much better option than the contract carriers for most people and I’ve had zero issues with either. The key is taking the time to figure out how much data you actually need. For most people, it is actually a lot less than you think once you factor in that most of it is on WiFi.

That’s it – everything you need to know to pay a small fraction of what most people do for technology and still get everything you need.   

Mint Mobile Update: So Far, This Fox Rox!

Note the absence of a charger cord, which is very rarely connected!

A couple weeks ago, I switched from Republic Wireless to Mint Mobile, the company with the little green marketing spokesfox. Republic worked out great for me for over four and a half years and I have nothing negative to say about the company…except that it changed its pricing scheme in a way that would have effectively doubled the price for light users like myself when I wanted to upgrade my phone. So when it finally came time to do that, I first did what any financially conscious person would in that situation and re-evaluated the market. It turned out that while it was a price increase of about $5 per month from what I had been paying, Mint still came in about $5 cheaper than the new price Republic would have charged for what I do; and it offered 3gb versus 1 on top of the cheaper price. So I gave it a shot. I wanted to give y’all a quick update on how it has worked out.

So far, there isn’t much to say because Mint has done exactly what it promised to do. In almost half a month, I’ve used just over half a gb of data since I’m on WiFi the vast majority of the time. And to give it a good, fair test, I haven’t made any effort to avoid using data whatsoever beyond setting the phone to use WiFi when available. So unless I use about five times as much data for the remainder of the month as I have in the first half, I won’t hit the point where I start getting throttled. As for quality, everything has been great. Calls are clear, I’ve had zero reception issues or dropped calls (Mint uses the T-Mobile network; Republic uses Sprint), text messages go through, and data speed is more than adequate in the rare circumstances when I need to use it. The setup process was very simple and it took me less than ten minutes from unboxing to having a fully functional new phone.

Being a relative luddite by design, I’ve been predictably thrilled with the upgrade from the Moto X1 to the X4 and with a little bonus I didn’t even anticipate (keep in mind that the X1 was my very first smartphone). I hadn’t realized I would still be able to use my existing phone as a WiFi device. That is a kick ass development since the only real problem I had been having was call related (and even this likely had more to do with Republic Wireless than the phone itself) and being able to continue using it this way for probably at least a few more years is worth much more to me than the few dollars I could have gotten in return for recycling it. Aside from that, I’ve particularly pleased with the X4’s speed, battery life upgrade (I only charge it every other day so far), fingerprint sensor, camera upgrade over the X1, and very fast charging.

The one downside about the phone itself is that the speaker SUCKS for listening to music. But I use a Bluetooth speaker I got on Amazon for ten bucks around my apartment so that’s not a huge deal. The only other annoyance, aside from the dramatically increased phone size that comes with making just about any upgrade these days (Why do they assume we want to carry around laptop sized phones? Or am I the one making an assumption in thinking other people don’t want that just because I don’t?), was having to add a second type of charger (USB-C) and cable to the birds’ nests of them I keep at home, in my travel bag, etc. But everything has its price and that lighting quick charging of my new phone is no exception I suppose.  

Overall, I’m very happy with this change. It sure is awesome when a company delivers on its promises and thus, I’m more than happy to recommend Mint Mobile to anyone! And as always, my recommendation cannot be bought; I’m not being compensated in any way for saying this. Even if you use a lot more data than I do, Mint is still a great option for you at $20 for an 8gb cap and $25 for 12. Happy smartphoning!