Dude, That's My Car?

We should not be surprised when our nation's youth gets sidelined by the simplest financial glitches. Heck, we don't even teach them the most basic practical money lessons in our schools.

So it was no surprise to me when on a Saturday at 2:30 a.m., 11 days after playing real-life Grand Theft Auto with my Honda Accord, one such workaday financial hiccup ended: They ran out of gas.

Real-life cost for continued play: $23.10 for tank of gas.

Budgeting for gas isn't a big selling point for Grand Theft Auto, one of Sony's PlayStation's most popular games. No, the main point of the game, in the words of one reviewer, is to go on a "psychopathic rampage of random carnage, which typically culminates in a bloody shootout with police, a fiery car crash or both."

Kids these days... letting a computer-generated fantasy script their imaginations instead of exploring the infinite world of their own minds. Who can blame them? Free from the constraints of reality -- actual costs, tangible consequences, limited do-overs -- they can have the time of their lives.

I've got to hand it to the kids whom I now affectionately refer to as "my little perps" for carrying on the heist of my vehicle with game-worthy aplomb. Lesser perps would have simply parallel parked, packed up, and found a suitable replacement (such as a Cadillac Escalade EXT or a Nissan Maxima, quite popular among the theft set according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety). Not my boys. They clearly have a future in fantasy-game scripting: They ended their ride with a flourish by clipping what appears to be a solid cement object and bravely accelerating through the impact while depositing a Mondrian-esque sweep of blue paint across the bumper and passenger-side doors.

Real life cost: $607 to replace front bumper cover, headlight lamp, and turn signal and adjust the radiator support; $25.01 to find out why it's now making that awful buzz saw sound; and $152 to straighten and align sheet metal/core and retrofit the bumper.

To up the intrigue, the car was abandoned running, with the screwdriver in the ignition and thoughtfully blocking someone's driveway so that the traffic offense would be called in to the authorities.

Real-life cost: $167.20 for towing and storage; $291.88 to replace punched-out ignition.

Because of a gross malfunction, which prevented the Honda's airbags from deploying during impact (my sincerest apologies, boys), the front and back seat passengers couldn't help but spill their beverages. But these young citizens were brought up right: They took the passenger-side headrest to the cleaners (just let me know when it's done, OK?) and made a good-faith effort to clean up the other obvious trash. (Don't worry about the empty beer and Bacardi bottles. I'll go ahead and recycle them for you.)

Unfortunately their faulty vacuum deposited a coat of detritus rather than remove it. (I don't want to spoil the surprise, but I think someone might find a Dyson vacuum cleaner under the Christmas tree this year!)

Real-life cost: $69.95 for deluxe interior detailing (including shampooing of all carpet) and $8.95 for odor eliminator treatment.

I also owe you a few mea culpas for depriving you of audio entertainment during your fun. (Next time I'll leave the access code that activates the radio. Silly thing goes into "anti-theft mode" if you sneeze too hard around it.) Although I see you found my portable CD player. If you happen to find the battery cover, and the car adapter, and the lid, just let me know. No big whoop, though.

Real-life cost: $21.18 for portable CD player with car adapter.

Committing random acts of kindness
So much is said about the sad state of America's youth by the nation's ageist media. I'd like to recognize the socially conscious kids I met through random circumstances who thoughtfully put their own interests aside to better the lives of the less fortunate:

  • Thank you for delivering the rolled up wool rug in the back seat to the Salvation Army, its original destination. I hope you lifted with your knees!

  • Make sure that the needy family that received the coat, wool hat, and dress from my trunk knows that these are "Dry Clean Only" items.

  • That tranquil watercolor print of a canoe lolling serenely in a lake had been destined for a silent auction fundraiser. But I'm sure wherever it hangs now it is appreciated in ways that cannot be measured by mere dollars.

  • I, too, use music to reach across social, economic, and taste boundaries! So when you're done with my Lyle Lovett and Lemonheads CDs, let's get together for tea and compare notes about them!

A formal thank-you note for all of this is in the mail, but in the meantime I want you to know that I'm enjoying the box cutter and screwdriver you left for me. However, no words, no gesture, not even a lovely fruit basket can adequately express my gratitude for the life lessons you left with me. Yes, you, my dear perp grasshoppers, have changed my worldview by revealing truths beyond your tender years. The only way to repay such generosity is by sharing with others what I have learned from our brief experience together.

Grand larceny: Grand lessons
Cash cushions are critical: Job loss, disability, family death, grand theft auto -- life's grander scheme does not adhere to a schedule. Fortunately the disruption that accompanies such life milestones can be mitigated with a little bit of planning. Having a short-term stash of cash at the ready in an appropriate savings vehicle will lessen the ramifications and help you get back to normal (in a new used Toyota Camry, for example) in no time.

Insurance is a gamble. Get in the game:Insurance coverage -- life, disability, home, and auto -- is all about odds. You pay money to protect yourself from a "what if" scenario that you hope never occurs. Yes, paying for it is about as satisfying as writing a five-figure check for dental surgery. However, those twice-yearly premium checks will be worth their weight in gold when you do need to make a claim. If you haven't checked what hand you've been dealt lately, take a look at your coverage.

Get your values straight: I mean this literally. Next to your home, a car is probably the most expensive item you own (unless you happen to be on the cutting edge of plasma TV consumers). Nationwide, car theft is the costliest property crime (until arson becomes the next gang bonding experience), costing the nation more than $8 billion last year. But your car worth is more than what you'll get paid for the parts. It is your transportation, your freedom -- an investment (though not one that appreciates in value). Your level of insurance should reflect your vehicle's worth to you.

Prepare to pay the price: Although overall theft claims have declined since the 1980s, certain locales can't get a handle on the problem. For example, auto theft is at a six-year high in Washington, D.C., something I should have maybe considered before moving here from New York City. Comprehensive insurance premiums have also steadily risen -- the average rising 9% from 1995 to 1999, the most recent data available. That may be due to the rising value of the cars being stolen these days.

Go ahead, overinsure: In many locales the odds against car theft are in your favor (1 in 196, according to the most recent statistics). However, if you live in an urban area, all bets are off. If you live, for example, near me, get comprehensive coverage -- even if you drive a beater car. Liability insurance alone does not cover theft. Many people drop comprehensive coverage once their car's worth dips below a certain level -- such as less than salvage value. However, that doesn't mean that you see your car as a scrap heap. The costs of adding comprehensive coverage to your policy on an older car may not be that much. If you choose to forgo it, you are essentially self-insuring against accidents or loss. At the very least bank what you're saving on your premiums for your next automobile. And keep your fingers crossed that a thief won't prematurely force you into the market for a new car.

Get The Club: Go ahead and laugh. But I'm using The Club -- yes, even when idling at a long traffic signal -- from now on. Unlike car alarms, LoJacks (Nasdaq: LOJN  ) , kill switches, and my poison needle idea, The Club is an immediate visual barrier to car theft. Yes, there are plenty of workarounds; however, the tow lot guys, cops, shady friends, and Mom claim it is enough to deter many thefts.

It's only stuff: The loss of material possessions pales in comparison to greater losses such as life, limb, and Lyle Lovett CDs. But seriously. Things like having your car stolen can be devastating, but they are merely hiccups in the larger scheme of life. So when someone plays Grand Theft Auto with your car, do what I did: Fix it, buy a cheaper car, sell the Honda, and make a profit.


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