Car Troubles Before and After a Fuck Off Fund

After is definitely better.

To the Bee Mobile!

In May 2014, Rohan and I piled all of our worldly belongings, including three dogs, into our ute and drove 800 km from northeast Victoria to the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. We were on our way to a fresh start as professional beekeepers, leaving jobs we’d grown to hate behind us in the dust.

We were ecstatic. Getting hired by the largest naturally managed commercial apiary in Australia was a dream come true. And the apiary work was even better than we’d imagined.

Moving interstate, Joads-style.

Honeybees possess something that most other insects don’t: an ability to tap into human nurturing instincts. Perhaps there are people out there who are emotionally attached to grasshoppers or cockroaches, but I’m guessing they’re few and far between. Honeybees, on the other hand, have countless people under their spell. I’ve heard many tough, grizzled, a-million-times-stung beekeepers talk about how they ‘fell in love’ with bees.

We were no different, and the more we interacted with the bees, the more enamored we became. After both being restless and unfulfilled in our professional lives, Rohan and I felt like we’d finally hit the jackpot and officially had the best jobs in the world.

A couple of months later, convinced we were in it for the long haul, we decided to demonstrate our dedication by buying a vehicle for transporting hives.

By chance, Rohan spotted a red Volkswagen transporter with a big tray parked outside a pub with “For Sale $6,500” scrawled on the windscreen. He came home very excited about the potential Bee Mobile.

We’re not impulse buyers. We thought it over, did plenty of research on that particular model of VW, considered the extra money it could earn, and decided it was a sound investment. My parents came to visit soon after and my father — an ex-truck driver who knows a thing or two about vehicles — took the VW for a test drive and spoke to the mechanic who’d serviced it for years.

Dad gave it the thumbs up. He even offered to loan us the money. We’d planned to take out a personal loan, but interest free and making repayments without pressure? It was too good an offer to knock back, and we thought with the extra money we’d earn hauling hives, we’d have no problems paying him back.

That thumbs up turned into a double thumbs down pretty quickly.

It wasn’t long before we got the first sign we’d bought a lemon. And oh, what a lemon!

We’d spent a long day in the bee shed, on our feet for eight hours labelling honey jars, and were glad to be on our way home. We were looking forward to a hot takeaway Indian dinner and bed. It was after the sickeningly steep ascent exiting Lithgow, about halfway through the three-hour trip, the Bee Mobile began to sputter.

Then, much to our horror, we saw smoke coming from under the hood. At first, we told ourselves it must just be steam because of the freezing mountain air. But when we smelt the burning smell, we knew it wasn’t good.

We pulled over, put the hazards on, and Rohan got out to take a look under the hood. He confirmed our fears that something was terribly wrong: smoke billowed from somewhere, and liquid was pissing out onto the ground. It was pitch black by this stage, and with nothing but the headlights for illumination, Rohan couldn’t see much more.

He got back in the car, and we tried to figure out what to do next. We only had my phone, and the battery was almost dead. Plus there was no internet reception out there in the middle of the mountains, so we couldn’t look up the number for a tow truck even if there was enough battery for a call. We planned to flag down a car if one came past, but traffic is scarce along Bells Line of Road at that time of night. We resigned ourselves to spending a cold, uncomfortable, and boring night in the Bee Mobile. Without any dinner.

Apparently we had a little luck left, and it wasn’t long before lights crept around the corner. A car pulled up in front of the bee mobile. An impressively bearded man got out.

Not only was this beardy fellow a good Samaritan who gave us Gatorade and lollies, but he was also a mechanic. There was a glimmer of hope: maybe he could get us back on the road? He had trouble seeing what was going on in the dark, too, but he could see enough to say it would be a while before we’d be driving the Bee Mobile anywhere. Then he called us a tow truck. (We sent him a lot of honey later.)

On the way home, squashed into the bench seat in the tow truck, the driver told us horror stories about people who cleverly mask problems in dud vehicles before selling them, so they’ll chug along for a few months before falling apart on the new owners. He told us all the possible causes of our breakdown and how costly they would be to fix. We felt sick.

That was the first time the Bee Mobile broke down.

The last time was on the way home from our final beekeeping job. I was pregnant, and things hadn’t panned out with the beekeeping. The work was too unstable, and we were hand-to-mouthing it. We were worried that if anything went wrong during the pregnancy we’d be screwed (it was a good call, albeit a bit late, because things did go wrong).

Having a Baby When You’re Broke

Delivering the last lot of beekeeping equipment felt like we were closing a rough chapter in our lives, and we were happy when it was done — a physical and a metaphorical load had been lifted. The Bee Mobile had already been advertised for sale and, now that it was in good working order after all the repairs we’d shelled out for, we figured we could sell it for close to what we bought it for.

About half an hour from home after that last delivery, the Bee Mobile died. With little fuss or noise, the engine stopped and refused to start again. We called a tow truck and sat for more than an hour in sweltering heat waiting for it to arrive.

While we waited, a guy left a message on my phone saying he wanted to come and take a look at the VW, and he was bringing cash in case he liked it. Surely some higher power was playing a cruel joke?

We didn’t bother fixing the Bee Mobile after that; it was too far gone. In the end, we sold it to the guy who’d left a message when we were sweating and swearing while waiting for the tow truck — he was still happy to buy it cheap for the chassis and put a new engine in himself. (We gave him honey, too, for taking that red hunk of junk off our hands.)

In between those first and last breakdowns, there were several others, and each took our stress levels to a new high. It seemed like the engine had started rapidly disintegrating the moment we took possession. As soon as one problem was fixed, another one was there to take its place. We kept paying for repairs, caught in a cycle of needing the vehicle running in order to earn money to recover from the last lot of repairs.

We wondered if the pessimistic tow truck driver had been right, and the VW had been offloaded because the previous owner knew it was on its last legs. Come to think of it, that guy did seem kind of shifty.

Total cost of towing and repairs: $4,288.30 AUD, or $3,234 USD.

While the Bee Mobile wasn’t our only financial worry at the time, it did a lot of damage. The thousands it cost us meant we never built up any savings, which could have taken the pressure off a bit and given us a few more options when we quit the beekeeping. It was the straw that broke our financial camel’s already fragile back.

On the bright side we did get to see some spectacular parts of the country and became much better beekeepers.

The Bee Mobile saga left and indelible mark, and when we finally got rid of it, we made two vows: first, to never, ever buy another VW; second, to start an emergency fund as soon as we could.

Eight months later, after the birth of our son, we were finally in a position to start that much needed Fuck Off Fund — we wanted to be able to say ‘fuck off’ to unsustainable jobs or dodgy vehicles or any other potential disasters much sooner than we had the beekeeping and Bee Mobile. We squirreled away any spare cash and fed our emergency fund every chance we got; a fat FOF would be the antidote for our lingering financial anxiety, and the constant bracing for unexpected expenses.

Recently, the gearbox on our ute began making weird sounds — it was on its way out. We went to the mechanic, and he warned us that even with a refurbished gearbox, it was going to cost around $2,000. We told him to go ahead and replace it. With over $20,000 in savings, paying $2,000 AUD ($1,500 USD) to get a functioning vehicle quickly (which we needed) was worth it.

And the best part?

There was no spike in blood pressure, no sick feeling in the pits of our stomachs, no worrying about how we were going to pay for repairs and still have money to eat. If the mechanic had told us the car was beyond repair, we could have gone out and paid cash for a new one.

Very few unexpected expenses could truly shake us now. The work we put into building our FOF was more than worth it: it has brought us the peace of mind we wanted so desperately after experiencing persistent financial insecurity for over a year.

We adore our FOF and will never be without one again.

Emily Friedel is a freelance writer based in Victoria, Australia who still loves bees and still harbors a grudge towards Volkswagen. You can follow her on Twitter via @ej_friedel.

This week, we’re celebrating the Fuck Off Fund. This story is part of this series.

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