It's a question everyone asks when they end up paying an unexpected and expensive bill. What went wrong?
Too often, what went wrong is that a problem was ignored until suddenly there was no ignoring it. Almost of all of us, unless we're highly organized, are susceptible to financial time bombs. In the spirit of keeping these from decimating your bank account, here are seven big ones to consider.
The dryer vent. Forgetting to empty a dryer vent, something that costs nothing but time, can, over time, lead to a home fire, which, of course, can do hundreds or thousands of dollars in damage, says Jonathan Heuer, co-owner of Home Square, a professional home maintenance company in Stamford, Connecticut.
Heuer isn't being an alarmist. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 15,000 fires are started every year by clothes dryers.
The sump pump. The average cost to purchase a sump pump is $442.53, according to Angie's List, and if you have someone install it, expect to tack on a few hundred or more dollars.
Still, that's far cheaper than dealing with the results of a neglected sump pump. Heuer says a colleague of his had a broken sump pump and a blocked drainage line. The colleague didn't fix either and ended up with $15,000 in damage.
The air filter in your furnace. A filter costs about $7, says Mike Catania, co-founder of the coupon and promotion code website PromotionCode.org. But neglecting to change your filter -- generally recommended every other month or so -- "can cause debris to build up that can shorten the life of your furnace by five years, cause a myriad of respiratory problems and make you lose out on up to 15 percent savings on your electric bill," Catania says.
Water spots on your wall. "You may see the smallest leak on your drywall and think that it is isn't a big deal at all," says Ron Schmedly, who lives in Cincinnati and became an unwitting expert on financial time bombs at home.
He and his spouse didn't think a minuscule leak in the family room by the chimney was a big deal, and they ignored it for a couple of years.
But the leak and the resulting damage got worse. What probably would have been several hundred dollars for a handyman to fix became something much more expensive.
"We had to replace 25 percent of the chimney this year at a cool $12,000 because we waited too long to repair the initial damage," Schmedly says.
Gutters. Cheryl Reed, a spokeswoman for Angie's List, says you really should clean your gutters.
"Ever see little trees growing in the gutter? ... Ignoring the gunk collecting up there will lead to serious water damage, not to mention the gutters," she says.
According to Angie's List, homeowners spend, on average, $125 to $175 to get gutters cleaned. Judging from various home improvement sources on the Internet, gutter replacement would likely cost about 10 times what it would to get gutters cleaned -- and, of course, water damage to your home can easily set you back thousands of dollars.
Insurance. Not buying any or enough insurance is a big mistake, says Holly Wolf, chief marketing officer at Conestoga Bank in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania. (Her bank doesn't sell insurance, nor does anyone in her family.)
"It's just something I believe in," Wolf says of insurance, and she makes the observation that frequently people will get, for instance, cheap car insurance, but then if they're unlucky enough to have a claim, "they get no support and battle [the insurer] every step of the way."
Your car. As a general rule, regular car maintenance is smart, and if you hear a suspicious sound or your vehicle acts weird, you'd do well to check it out.
Thomas Wooldridge, a marketing consultant in Atlanta, says that last summer, his car engine was making odd noises. And while he thought the sound was strange, he ignored it.
"I knew I had to get it checked out but kept on delaying. Then one day last summer, I was 50 miles away from home and heard a loud bang in the engine," Wooldridge says. "I immediately lost all engine power and was only on batteries. The car was slowing down by itself, and the gas pedal was not responsive. The power steering wasn't working either and [the] only thing I could do was pull over on the side of the road."
It turned out to be a faulty water pump.
"A simple $200 water pump repair that I should have done weeks earlier cost me over $2,400 worth of engine damage," Wooldridge says.
Of course, your life may have many realms: home, car, health, kids, pets. If you have a lot going on, and especially if you're on a tight budget, it can be hard and seem impossible to anticipate all the potential problems that could drain your finances.
Still, it's worth trying. As Heuer says, "Take care of the small stuff early, and it won't kill you down the road."