jjonesI must have been 17 at the time. I had recently sold the little Nissan Sentra I drove during high school and I bought a sports car. Every teenager’s dream, right? A hot new sports car just as I was getting ready to head off for college. Think of all the possibilities.

Well sort of. It was a 1987 Pontiac Firebird. Okay, so maybe I didn’t have the most refined taste in cars.

The Firebird was a 2.8 Liter V6 automatic with power steering. Quite a bump up in performance from the manual transmission 90 HP Nissan Sentra with power-assist steering. The Sentra had the power of a John Deere ride-on, but required body-builder biceps to make a three point turn.

About two months after I bought my new “sports car” I noticed that the engine was sputtering when the gas was low. Ah ha, I thought. It must be the fuel filter. I asked some friends and family (none of whom were auto mechanics of course) and all agreed. The fuel filter was the problem.

Feeling ambitious, I set out to fix it myself. I had changed the oil in my Sentra before without a problem so I thought, how much more complicated could a fuel filter be? And it was going to save me a ton of money which was in short supply in those days. I wouldn’t have to pay the mechanic to diagnose the problem, which my diligent research had obviously identified as the fuel filter, and I wouldn’t have to pay him to fix it either.

So I headed to the auto parts store and picked up the Chilton’s manual for the ’87 Firebird, grabbed all the parts I needed, and headed home to fix it. I read through the instructions and thought the job would be a cinch. Even easier than changing the oil in my Sentra.

The fuel filter was underneath the car near the driver’s side rear wheel. All I had to do was scoot under the car, loosen a couple of nuts on the fuel line, pop out the old filter, put the new one back in and retighten the nuts on the fuel lines. The filter even had labels for fuel in and fuel out so I couldn’t put it on backwards. It was fool proof. Or so I thought.

Here’s how it unfolded.

I grab the fuel filter and a wrench. I didn’t have a car lift of course, so I get on my back, slide under the car and find the fuel filter. I see the two nuts I need to loosen. I grab my wrench, but there isn’t enough room under the car to get my arm in the right position to loosen the nuts.

I scoot back out from under the car and decide I’ll just use the tire jack to lift it up. Probably not the safest idea, but it gave me the space I needed.

I’m back under the car now with the wrench. I take the first nut off without a problem. I start on the second nut. I turn and nothing happens. The nut is on there tight. I turn harder. Still nothing. It must be rusted onto the fuel filter.

WD-40 will fix that. I get back out from under the car, find the WD-40, spray it on the nut and try to turn again. Still nothing. I turn even harder. There is movement now, but then a strong odor of gasoline.

Oh no, what did I do? Turns out my fuel filter didn’t have a bracket holding it in place. I was turning the nut so hard I bent and broke the fuel line. I got the fuel filter off alright, but a good chunk of the fuel line came with it.

Now I had a real problem. A problem I couldn’t fix on my own. So after plugging the fuel line to prevent gas from leaking everywhere, I called the tow truck driver and had him drop the car off at the mechanic.

About $1,000 later, my “sports car” was as good as new. But when I got it back it was still sputtering. The fuel filter was never the problem. I don’t even remember now what was causing the sputtering. All I remember is that I took the car straight to the mechanic to fix it.

That was the last time I attempted a DIY job on one of my vehicles.

What does all of this have to do with investing? If you are going to pursue a do-it-yourself investing strategy, be sure you have all of the right tools and the right knowledge before putting capital at risk.  Mistakes in investing can be costly.

If you aren’t inclined to put in the time and expense to attain the right knowledge and tools, don’t be afraid to seek the help of professionals. You will likely save a lot of time, money and heartache. For investors seeking professional help, we have always advised boutique registered investment advisors charging less than 1%. You can’t take your retirement portfolio to a mechanic for a quick fix once it’s been broken.