You've graduated: Now it's time to get your own car insurance

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Shortly after college graduation, living on my own in Los Angeles, my father called from Ohio and informed me that I would have to buy my own car insurance. I could no longer be on my parents' plan.

Because I hadn't started my job yet and was carefully watching my shrinking bank account, I knew that I didn't want any expensive insurance, which seemed like such a waste of money to me, and so when I heard an ad on the radio, touting inexpensive car insurance, well... I felt like fate had intervened. That nice radio announcer was talking directly to me.

I made my call to the 1-800 number, dickered with the person over the phone about the price and what plan I would receive, or so I believed, and then signed up for my car insurance. I can no longer remember the name, but they seemed like a reputable group. After all, they were in the phone book, and they had the money to make radio commercials, and the bill statements I received every month sure looked professional.

You can probably see where this is going.

About 14 months or so after moving to Los Angeles and getting my new car insurance, I had an occasion to use it. I had been making a left-hand turn on a yellow light, following about four automobiles in very heavy traffic. I saw a car in the distance, but figured he'd have the sense to slow down. He didn't, and the next thing I know, I'm spinning around like a top, and my rear bumper is mangled.

We got out of our respective cars, and I swear, the other driver said, "Not again!" Then we traded insurance information, and he said something about it not even being his car, but his friend's, and, well -- I wasn't too worried. At least I had car insurance. I climbed back into my car, after studying my rear bumper and my trunk, which now wouldn't shut, and I drove the 37 remaining seconds to my apartment. I literally could see my building from the site of the wreck.

Anyway, nobody will be shocked to learn (although I sure was) that my insurance carrier didn't pay for the wreck. It probably didn't help me that I had been making a left-hand turn on a light. "You can't do that in California," my co-workers would tell me. "It's your fault."

But I never really got the chance to learn if my insurance would pay for the damage or not. They never answered their phones, and after a talk with someone in the attorney general's office, I learned that the funds belonging to my insurance carrier were tied up in some off-shore banking account in the Caribbean, and that I was one of many "customers" who had complained. The owners, I was told, had fled the country and that my chances of getting any money from them were about as good as my building a rocket ship and flying to Pluto, which was then still a planet. I don't remember what else I was told. Maybe at that point in the phone conversation, I blacked out.

After that, I found an insurance company with a nice, big brand name that I had heard of. And a couple years ago after a December snowstorm, when I had a transmission go out on me on the highway after hitting some giant chunk of ice, I called my insurance company, and they replaced the whole thing. Trust me. If you've just graduated from college, you should watch your money. But make sure you're buying generic foods at the grocery store or paying for basic cable instead of the whole enchilada. Don't make my mistake. Don't pay a portion of your hard earned salary to some guy laughing on a beach and sipping tequilas in the Caribbean.

Geoff Williams is a business journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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