Always Buy the Rental Car Insurance

Learn from my failure.

Photo: sylvar/Flickr

With one sickening crunch — that awful sound of one car smacking into another — my fate was sealed. I was a fake adult, a total failure at managing my own affairs, a toddler in a college graduate’s clothing. The jig was up.

That’s ridiculous, of course. Accidents will happen, and as they go, this one was fairly minor: a parking lot dustup, both of us traveling 10 mph or less, no injuries. Under normal circumstances, this should have been nothing to worry about. There was just one problem, or actually three: it was my fault. I was driving a rental car. And I did not get the insurance.

For me, being a “real adult” has mostly meant trying to reverse the bad financial luck I grew up with. I was raised by a single mom, and there was never quite enough to make ends meet. Fortunately, our city had good public schools that allowed me to thrive, eventually resulting in a full college scholarship; I likely would not have had a way to get a bachelor’s degree otherwise. It was a chance for a fresh start, and I seized it, not only educationally but financially. I was going to do things the “right way” in my own adulthood, I told myself.

Other than one small student loan taken for a study-abroad program, I had no debt at graduation. I didn’t get a credit card until I was 22, and have paid the balance in full every month since. Despite not making much money during my first few post-grad years, I always managed to save a bit of every paycheck to build up a small emergency fund that, luckily, I wasn’t forced to dip into often.

Still, I was young and mostly as broke as everyone else in their early twenties during the recent recession. My now-husband, then-boyfriend was a low-paid graduate student, and for a long time we drove his parents’ hand-me-down Saturn, to which we didn’t hold the title. Since the car was in his parents’ names, so was the insurance. This would turn out to be my fatal flaw.

In the fall of 2010, I flew home to Wisconsin and rented a car at the airport to drive upstate to my hometown, where I was to be a bridesmaid in my dad and stepmom’s wedding. I’d already spent more than I’d wanted to on the plane ticket, and hadn’t really wanted to pay for a car too, but it was the only way to get around. I signed the contract, paid the “young driver” fee — it was just weeks before my twenty-fifth birthday — and, as I normally did, declined the insurance.

I’d heard something about the one credit card I had at the time, a Visa, offering rental car protection. Between that and the insurance on the Ion, I figured I was covered. What I hadn’t considered was that, because the insurance on my car wasn’t actually in my name, it only covered that car — not me while driving another car.

As soon as I heard that crunch, I had a feeling I’d made a big mistake. My future mother-in-law figured it out when I called to tell her what had happened: “Oh, the insurance will cover it… Actually, wait.”

The woman whose car I hit seemed surprised at how upset I was. “It’s a rental,” I explained, holding back tears. “Oh, I hope you got the insurance!” she laughed. I just sort of nodded and avoided the question.

It felt like a failure to sheepishly admit to the police officer that, no, I technically did not have coverage relevant to this particular situation. The other driver looked confused. This was exactly the situation I’d been trying to avoid my entire adult life. How could I have been so stupid?

If you have a major credit card, odds are it does provide some level of rental car damage protection, but only for the car you rent. Because the accident was my fault (I was pulling out of a parking space and hit a car going past me that had the right of way), I was responsible for the damage to both cars. Visa paid its half of the claim, and I was on the hook for the other half — over $3,000.

I dealt directly with the rental company’s insurer, who immediately called to ask me all the details of the accident — details I wasn’t totally comfortable giving candidly and over the phone, but what could I do? Not cooperate? By this point, I was afraid I was going to get arrested at my home in Kansas and extradited back to Wisconsin for crime of driving without insurance. I had no roadmap, pun intended, for this sort of thing.

I also panicked at the first notification from the insurer, a week after the accident, demanding I pay them $3,372.74 immediately. Surely they couldn’t ask that, right? There was some kind of appeals process, or a payment plan?

I had no idea. So, eventually, I just called and asked. It was similar to negotiating with a collections agency, or at least what I perceive that to be like. We worked it out; I said I could afford $150 a month, a blind stab in the dark at what seemed reasonable.

A little over a year later, I was in a much better financial position; we’d moved again, to Ohio this time, and both of us had higher-paying jobs. So I increased my monthly payments and managed to get the debt paid off early. Mostly, I just wanted to be rid of the constant reminder of my bad decisions.

Why was I so hard on myself for this one small bump in the road, which turned out to be no big deal? Because not having proper car insurance felt like the kind of risky choice a person would make to save a few bucks. And I didn’t want to be that person. I was passing the kind of value judgment on myself that I would never pass on anyone else.

When I mentioned to my husband that I was going to be writing about this, he said, “You barely even said anything to me about that accident when it happened. You were just kind of like, ‘I had a thing with this car, but everything’s fine, don’t worry about it.’” That’s true; I don’t think I even told him the exact amount I owed to the rental company, just that it was “taken care of.” I was too embarrassed to admit a small financial failure even to my own partner.

I now realize how ludicrous it was to feel that way. I wasn’t purposefully trying to live on the edge of the law or of my means; for the most part, I was a very responsible adult, even at 24. In the end, I was only fighting against my own perception of myself, not anyone else’s. This was the kind of story I should have been laughing about with my friends over drinks; instead, I let it fester in a pool of internal shame for years, for no good reason.

Since the accident, I’ve made plenty more bad calls, financial and otherwise. I work in the startup world, where failure is common and often even celebrated. I’ve seen friends lose jobs and get divorces and go into debt for various reasons, and I don’t consider any of them bad people. This piece was written in a house for which I hold a mortgage, with a new-ish car (just recently acquired, after the Saturn finally died) parked outside; not too shabby for someone who was allegedly failing at adulthood just six years ago. Suffice it to say, I’m a little less hard on myself these days.

But I have learned one thing: keeping the car insurance in your own name is important. And when you get a rental, you might want to take that extra coverage, just in case.

Steph Barnard is a writer, activist, and project manager in Cincinnati. You can follow her at http://twitter.com/hiwhojoined

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