September 4, 2011

Delayed maintenance

Several months ago a news story probably caught your eye: a hole opened in a jet while flying from Phoenix to Sacramento. Luckily, skilled pilots and the closeness of a nearby airport averted what could have been a disaster. Follow up checks revealed problems with other planes of the same style resulting in  flight disruptions and enhanced maintenance procedures being put into effect.

It got me to thinking about maintenance in our lives. The type that might have caused the airplane's problem is delayed maintenance. We know that something will require fixing but decide it can wait a while longer. That toilet is more difficult to flush, but it still works. The front door is showing wear and the wood is starting to crack. But, hey, there's no budget right now for a new $2,000 door. The roof should last another few years, I hope. I know the car battery is pretty old but it still works. Let's wait until fall.

My experience with delayed maintenance is that the eventual cost is always higher than when the problem is first recognized. I have always wondered why I wait until it is time to move or until something stops working completely before I repaint, repair, or replace. The hassle is always worse than if I had simply taken care of it when I should have.

When building a satisfying retirement, delayed maintenance can describe similar behavior. One example might be our investment plan isn't really working well for us anymore. With the upheaval of the last few years we know we should spend time reviewing our approach. But, that is a lot of work and it might force us to admit we are not in the type of financial shape we thought we were. Things will turn around, they always do. We'll just wait awhile and see how it goes.

Another type of delayed maintenance might involve a business venture of yours. I have personal experience with this type of delayed maintenance. For at least 4 years before my consulting business declined to the point I decided to shut it down and retire, there were plenty of signals that things weren't going as well as they once did. The industry had changed dramatically a few years before that, resulting in a drop in demand for what I offered. The number of clients had grown regularly every year for the previous decade. Then, the growth stopped. I decided that was fine with me. I was overextended and tired.

Suddenly, the number of clients I served began to drop, one this month, two a few fews months later, a couple more at the end of the year. I was concerned, but still convinced things would stabilize at a comfortable level. That was not the case. The loss of business continued and accelerated.

Suddenly I was at the point where my cash flow was dangerously close to my expenses. I knew what I needed to do: increase the marketing and promotion of my business, become much more focused on the clients and their particular needs, and find a way to re-brand myself for the changes the industry was undergoing.

Unfortunately, I had delayed that business maintenance too long. When things were good I didn't spend time looking for cracks in the foundation. I didn't figure out I needed a major overhaul. When I realized things had slipped to a near-fatal level, it was too late.

Your most significant relationship can certainly suffer from delayed maintenance. Last October my post on Relationship Maintenance suggested steps you can take for a relational tuneup. Just like a car that misses regular oil changes, new brakes, or a new set of spark plugs, your marriage or key relationship can't be ignored for too long before trouble will surface.

Health is certainly a key area of delayed maintenance for many of us. We know a diet of fatty foods, a lack of fruits and vegetables, and a sedentary lifestyle will probably end badly for us. We know sun screen is important. We know about checkups and tests that should be conducted.  But, the future is still way out there. We can change later. We can adjust our living habits when we turn 65....or 70...or 75...or.....

Not doing what we know we should will hurt us. Our quality of life will suffer. Our ability to do what we like will be curtailed. Taken to its logical conclusion, our delayed maintenance in taking care of ourselves could end our life early.

What is the answer? Preventive maintenance. This is a proactive, deal-with- a-problem-before-it-gets-out-of-hand type maintenance. I act before something becomes critical or dangerous. Maybe there are no visible signs of a problem today, but I know the consequences of a certain action is likely to cause problems.

Preventive maintenance is the best way to build your satisfying retirement. It may be a tough habit to develop. I think most of us are hard-wired for avoidance. But, waiting until things break or decay or become much too difficult and expensive to repair is the wrong choice.

What in your life requires some preventive maintenance? What delayed maintenance have you put off because the task is too difficult or the answers too unsettling? Share with us, if you dare!

Related Posts

Money Magazine is featuring an article on my family and how we built a satisfying retirement. The October issue is due on newsstands in a week or two. Look for it!


  1. My husband does all the maintenance around here. With my nagging, of course. Our dryer broke last week. DH looked it over and it needed a new belt. Cost $18 and fixed pronto. Service call would have been $125, plus price of part.
    He also noted our new bathroom sink had a leak. It needed a new washer. Cost for that was only thirty three cents (you read that correctly)! If he had waited or if we called in a plumber, that would have been a $65 to $125 service call.
    The lawn mower needed a repair. That part cost $22. The gardener charges $80 to $100 per cutting.
    Both cars get all their required maintenance and oil changes. On time. Ford sends us reminders and coupons. Oil changes only cost $22, less than if we purchased the parts ourselves.

    If anything breaks or needs repairs we do it immediately because we know if we didn't the costs would snowball.

  2. Morrison,

    DH is a very handy fellow. I can handle many of the basics repairs, but fixing anything with a gas engine (from lawn mowers to cars) is left to others. That's one of the reasons my lawn mower is electric.

    I must replace a shutoff valve on the sprinkler system today. The part is $20. The sprinkler company would charge $140. That's a no brainer.

  3. I am a planner at heart so I am more aligned with proactive maintenance than preventative. That is I usually don't wait for something to break down before I tackle it. But of course there are those things that don't give a warning.
    Thanks so much for referring back to your post about relationship maintenance. It was most helpful to me. Sometimes we forget what originally drew us to our future mate. Those things are usually still there but maybe covered with years of "issues".
    I am pretty good at "things" maintenance; not so good at "people" maintenance. I need to work harder at that.

  4. Yeah, I really ought to get that sensitive spot on my lower left molar looked at. But it's not that bad. . .and I hate dentists. . .and there's no money in the budget this month. . .and I hate dentists. . .

  5. Bob,
    I can certainly relate to this post. Actually, we have a front door that is rotting and needs to be replaced, yet our double oven needs to come first. If we had ever flowing money, we may act on things sooner rather than later. You bring up an important point as far as the retirement savings. We know we are not maintaining as we should. As soon as our emergency fund is in place, we will be working on that. Is that considered delayed maintenance? Or just a priority check? GREAT post!

  6. RJ,

    I'm glad you found the relationship maintenance post interesting. For those of us in a long term relationship (35 years and counting!) it is easy to let things begin to slide. We become too comfortable with whatever is the state of the relationship, without being sure we are protecting it and looking for growth opportunities.

  7. Jean,

    Dentist and delayed maintenance...don't those words mean the same thing? Why can't I floss everyday even when I know it will prevent problems later? Because I dislike flossing a lot.

  8. Sharon,

    Sorry it took a little while to answer your comment but I was out back replacing a sprinkler valve and then re-wiring all the valves after blowing a fuse. I knew about the problem for a few weeks but just ignored it. That was actually the trigger for this post!

    Our front door needs replacement, too. But, the cost is $2600 and that is not in any budget. We probably will sand it down, putty in the cracks, paint it and put on fresh hardware. That should cost no more than $400..much better!

  9. We know that we don't really enjoy maintenance or the do it yourself projects; although we tackle a few for fun and to save a few dollars. Some things I won't even consider doing myself, like trimming the trees or replacing the gutters on our two story home. Other things that aren't so safety challenged, I'm glad to tackle, although since it's not a passion of mine there is certainly maintenance too long delayed.

    In many instances we purchase "higher quality" goods that require less maintenance. These are often more expensive initially, but I think they are a greater value long term and less headaches.

    Kudos to those of you who enjoy the home projects and can do so many of them successfully.

  10. Hi Rick,

    I don't enjoy doing home repair projects, but I enjoy paying a plumber even less. I fixed a sprinkler problem yesterday for $22 that would have cost well over $100 if I called a pro.

    I envy the people who can replace a car's brakes in an afternoon or build kitchen cabinets in the home workshop.

  11. Oh, a dare! The topic, as you have presented it, covers a wide range of possibilities! My first thought wasn't home/car/finance issues. My first thought was "inner" issues. Specifically, my prayer/meditation practice. My routine in that departement goes in fits and starts. I would like to devote more effort to making it a more solid and basic part of my daily routine. Anyway, that's what came to mind!

  12. Galen,

    Inner there is a challenge. It is probably much easier to replace a gutter! But, for long term benefit you are on the better track. Thanks, Galen, for adding an important perspective.

  13. Bob,
    I used to consider myself quite handy around the house. I could replace washers, do simple wiring and carpentry. These days I don't have the equipment (my wife, the anti-pack rat sold them all when we moved. Then too the manufacturers conspire to make the simple complex. My shower controller has a washer but it is contained in a module so you can't really replace it. And when you try to find the right component it is very hard and there isn't good information. I ended up buying a module (which was not the correct one) and then still having to call a plumber to get it all working right. It's not always easy to DIY.

  14. Hi Ralph,

    Ditto on the not easy DIY projects. A simple sprinkler repair will send me to Home Depot a minimum of 4 times for various parts, cements, and adapters to fix what I screwed up the first time. But, if I can fix it, I refuse to pay 5 or 6 times what the parts cost me to have someone come in and complete the job in 10 minutes!

    Recently I did have an outside faucet simply come off in my hand. After racing to turn off the water to the house, I did call a pro for that one. I have my limits.


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