After sleeping in the leaned-back front seats of our Nissan Versa Note rental car for several days, it was time to get a car of our own (and an apartment too — but that’s another story). Our 6-month honeymoon in Hawaii in 2015 was one of the most poorly-planned trips we’ve ever taken, but it left us with a lot of great tales to tell. How we bought a car there is one of them.
The dream car for this trip needed to be cheap and used, so we could recoup most of our money* when selling it. But we also wanted it to be unique. Having no responsibilities and no friends or family within 3,000 miles or so, it was the perfect opportunity to buy a completely impractical 2-seat convertible. After poring over Craigslist at Starbucks all morning, we were pretty sure we had found the one: A cherry red 2000 Mazda Miata, listed for $5,000.
So, we went to check it out and immediately became obsessed. Keeping our cool, we negotiated the price down a bit to $4,500 and agreed to buy the car. The only problem was that we only had about $400 in cash (in retrospect, I really have no idea what our plan even was there, tbh).
We offered to write a check for the difference, arrange a bank transfer, or pay the balance with PayPal or Facebook, but the owners only wanted cash and gave us an ultimatum: Come up with money by the end of the day, or the deal was off.
Instant Noodles; Instant Cash
The issue wasn’t a lack of funds. We had plenty of money in the bank, but no way to convert it into cash. There are zero mainland banks on the Big Island of Hawaii, so we couldn’t just walk into a local branch for a withdrawal. On top of that, did I mention that it happened to be the 4th of July? None of the local banks were even open.
The next obvious play was to hit up an ATM. We went to Costco because we heard that they had fee-free ATMs for members, and we were able to get $400 more before hitting the withdrawal limit. We called our bank’s national hotline, and they upped our limit to the absolute maximum of $1,000. Cool, but we were still $3,100 short of our car.
Our next attempt was to see if any credit cards would let us take out cash advances through an ATM. We learned pretty quickly that this is a terrible idea. The limits were very low (like $200), and the ~30% APR interest starts accruing instantly without any grace period. Not helpful.
Other ideas we floated were super sketchy, like offering to PayPal complete strangers $3,100 in exchange for an equivalent amount of cash. Then, Lauren said something so simple and so unbelievable that it just might work: “Don’t grocery stores let you get cash back with a purchase?”
I almost completely dismissed the idea at first, since we were so far off from our goal. To get cash back at the grocery store, we would have to use our debit card, which had already reached its cash withdrawal limit. Surely that would apply to cash back, too. It seemed impossible, but Lauren forced me to give it a try.
We went to the local Safeway and picked up the cheapest item in the store — a single pack of generic ramen noodles for $0.25. I took it to the register and typed in my debit card PIN. The cashier asked, “Would you like any cash back?” I just said, “Give me the most I’m allowed to take.” She handed me a pack of ramen, two crisp $100 bills, and a receipt for $200.25. “Have a nice day!”
Now we just needed to do that about 15 more times in a row. I was still not a believer. Lauren was unbearably optimistic. We developed a strategy to go through each register one at a time, acting like we didn’t know each other in order to avoid detection. With only four or five cashiers on duty, we would still have to hit each one several times.
By about the eighth time through the registers, a cashier had to call the manager to get more cash out of the safe in the back of the store. “This is it,” I figured. “We’re done.”
To my complete surprise, the manager happily unloaded the safe for us more than once, as our pockets bulged with all of the store’s money. We left with $3,100 and no less than sixteen packets of ramen noodles. The car was ours within an hour. Thanks, Bank of Safeway!
There’s a Way Out of Every Mistake
Hopefully this story was thoroughly amusing to you, but I’ll be the first to admit that it doesn’t qualify as a genius money hack. The real solution to our problem was obviously to just not be dumbasses in the first place, think ahead a little, and bring plenty of cash with us when trying to buy a car off of Craigslist. You could have told us that, right?
But our experience made me think a little bit. Sometimes, when people realize they’ve made a mistake (especially a financial one), it can feel like there is no way out of it — they just have to live with the consequences. But in reality, there’s a creative (but sometimes very inconvenient) solution to most problems.
Take housing as an example. Rightfully, most people view moving as a big ordeal. Once you’ve moved to a new place, it can feel like it’s impossible to undo that decision if it was a mistake, especially when there are financial implications. But if your move was a mistake, there’s almost always a way out of it you should consider.
If you rent a one-bedroom apartment by yourself and later realize how financially powerful it is to team up with roommates, you don’t have to wait for your lease to expire. You can do the math on the early lease termination penalty compared to the savings from a different path forward, bite the bullet, and move immediately.
If you realize that you’ve bought more house than you really need to be happy, you can sell it (even if at a loss) and change course, understanding that the decision will save you money in the long run. The same goes for moving into a place that’s a long commute from where you work.
This applies to other financial decisions, too. Maybe you invested a bunch of money into a high-fee mutual fund with a big sales commission, only to learn about low-fee index investing soon afterward. Or maybe you bought a brand new car only to come to the realization later that new car ownership is financial suicide. It can feel like those are irrevocable decisions, but with a little ingenuity, there’s often a way to get out of them without a total loss. Don’t just accept your fate.
As you read our blog, you might find your mindset starting to shift from where it was when you made some past decisions. That’s a good thing. But the hard part is deciding whether to stay on the same path going forward, or to take a creative (if inconvenient at first) new direction.
* In case you’re curious, we ended up selling the car for $5,600 ($1,100 more than we paid) at the end of the 6 months. Those ramen noodles really paid off.