Updated on 01.17.08

The Ballad of the Rusty Bumper

Trent Hamm

While filling the air in my tires yesterday, I happened to look up at the rear bumper on my truck, and I noticed something I didn’t like: rust. There was just two little spots of it, barely noticeable unless you’re looking for it, but in the harsh and variable weather of Iowa, it doesn’t take long for such things to rapidly spread.

This observation leaves me with a lot of options.

Should I do nothing? Right now, the rust spots are barely noticeable (I didn’t even see them until my face was inches away), and it will be quite a while before they’re easily noticeable. The bumper is slightly weakened by the rust, but not incredibly so.

Should I get a rust treatment to prolong the life of my bumper? Most rust treatments are a temporary fix to an average bumper. They’ll get rid of the visible rust just fine, but they don’t get rid of the underlying problem: rustable metal exposed to harsh conditions. Obviously, there are more expensive treatments that can keep the rust away for a long time as well.

Should I replace the bumper? This will likely cost $300 or so (depending on what exactly I choose to get), according to the thumbnail estimate of a friend of mine who works on cars. That will fix the problem permanently, but is also the most expensive choice.

I haven’t decided which route to take, but I did notice one important thing: In a lot of ways, this question has very little to do with a rusty bumper.

The bumper happens to be an item that is going to eventually need to be replaced, much like many other items in life, like a washing machine, a dryer, a television, and so on. Obviously, near the end of their lifecycle, these items will begin to have problems. A television’s screen will get darker, a washing machine will have a motor go out, and so on.

At that point, is it prudent to just go ahead and replace the item? A highly frugal person would probably say no or, at best, it depends. A big spender would probably chuckle, as they rarely keep an item long enough to reach this point.

What about me, a person who leans towards the frugal side of things? I tend to use an item until it breaks or begins to wear out. At that point, I try to fix it myself – is it something I can actually do myself with minimal parts purchased? Quite often, I can find a washing machine motor or make up a homemade solution to fix the problem for a while – if it’s simple and an enjoyable task, that’s the route I’ll take.

However, when I’ve reached that point, I start to bargain shop. I do research, figure out what my ideal replacement options are, then start seeking bargains on that option while my “repair” is working. Then, when I find the replacement I want at the right price, I go for it, even if the item is still working, because I know that it’s about to fail.

So how do I handle that rusty bumper? I just mix together equal amounts of cream of tartar, hydrogen peroxide, borax, and baking soda (a cheap homemade rust remover) and scrub it on the bumper with a brush, removing the obvious rust. I do this a few times while scoping out bumper prices and I keep an eye on the bumper itself. If the bumper lasts until I replace the truck for other reasons – great. If it’s obvious the bumper’s having problems or I come across a good deal on a bumper, then I’ll just replace it entirely and swallow the cost.

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  1. Amanda B. says:

    This may sound (or be) stupid, but it is a girl trick that works on a lot of things. Remove the rust and then apply clear nail polish. I don’t know if it will stay on long, but it will “un-expose” the rustable metal for a while and shouldn’t be noticeable. Just a thought.

  2. Usually different auto parts stores (NAPA, Autozone, O’Reilly, Advance) will have something that will fix it for a minimal amount of money. I’m like you, I tend to try to fix things myself first, so I look for different solutions at stores that specialize in whatever it is I’m fixing.

    There is a steep learning curve for me on some items (washers, dryers, late model cars) but your bumper should be relatively easy to fix, depending on how bad it has gotten.

  3. H-Bomb says:

    They also have sprays that do the same as nail polish. They come in crome clear etc.

  4. CBus says:

    I used to work in a 4×4 customization shop. Whenever we drilled through sheet metal body panel, we would apply clear nail polish on the then exposed bare metal. However, these areas were typically covered with brackets, components, etc. I’m not suggesting you drill out the rust, but its an option.

    You are in Iowa; you could show your political patronage proudly on your bumper ‘coincidentally’ hiding the rust. Does the sticker seal out O2/moisture?? idk, my bff Jill.

    It could also act as a passive security system…”What’s in this pickup tru…oh, nm, its got rust on the bumper…where are the Bimmers?”

    Then again, it is a truck. Used cars, and esp. used trucks, have dents, dings, swirls, scratches, etc. When someone goes to buy you truck in 2010+, it will be 6ish+ years old. If you can find a 2001/2002 truck in Iowa with no rust, you found the guy that owns the paint shop.

    Plus, when you do sell, what would be the dollar difference between a truck in good condition with a good bumper, and a truck in good condition with a spot or two of rust? My guess is probably in that $300-500 range.

    Since the bumper itself is not a structural support of the car, its really there to protect other cars from the box edge of your frame, I would let it slide. When someone asks you, “Why don’t you replace your bumper, there is rust?” you could always answer, “I have great memories with this bumper. It reminds me everyday of how my small compromises today will ultimately allow me to live my dream.”

  5. turbogeek says:

    Frugality, to me, includes adding to your base of personal skills that allow you to ‘make the most of what you already own by extending its usable life’.

    As an engineer and avid do-it-yourselfer, I would NOT recommend a professionally applied rust treatment. Nor would I recommend replacement. Even with very visible and extensive rust the bumper will fulfill its primary purpose which is to absorb energy in the event of an impact.

    I you want it to look nice, some recommendations from others are right on the money. The cheapest rust remover is cola (your recipe works well, too, but costs more). Buy some generic brown soda (not diet) and use a green dish-scrubbing pad and the surface rust will come off easily. If the rust is deeper, use Naval Jelly — wear nitrile gloves and work outside, this stuff is aggressive. Naval Jelly actually bonds additional carbon to the oxygen trapped in the FeIIO3 (Iron Oxide) turning it into a rust preventer. Once the rust is removed or nuetrallized, any clear coating will help prevent recurrence. Fingernail polish, as mentioned, is fantastic for small areas. For a full coat purchase a clear rust-inhibiting spray for $6 a can (like Rust-O-Leum Clear Overcoat, for example, but the generic or store brand works just as well in this case).

    Even in harsh conditions this could be done every 2nd year and work well. Even if you did it every year, at ~$10 for materials and ~$10 for time, and did so for 10 years, you are only at $200. A good bumper, professionally installed, will be well more than that.

  6. laurak says:

    @Amanda B. – I guess the nail polish trick is not too girly if they’re doing it at 4×4 customization shops! :)

    Trent – why not try to get rear-ended at a low speed (but fast enough that the bumper needs to be replaced)?! The other guy’s insurance will pay for your replacement. :)

    OK, maybe not the best idea, and I don’t know how they drive in Iowa, but it’s REALLY easy to get rear-ended in Boston (unintentionally; I’d never try this at home!). They don’t call us ‘Massholes’ for nothing!

  7. Chazzman2000 says:

    Sam Walton drove a rusty truck. He wasn’t hurting for cash. It’s a bumper. :)

  8. Joel says:

    The clear nail polish or paint option is likely going to be your best bet (I’d go with clear spray personally). Since you’ve managed to take the rust off, the spot will actually corrode faster because you’ve exposed the area to oxygen again, whereas the rust that was there was acting as a protective layer.

    If the bumper is painted, a good spray primer and a can of matched spray paint will protect as well.

  9. Coupon Fetcher says:

    I like your way of thinking. I would do the same, try to remove the rust myself, monitor the situation and try to avoid replacing it.

  10. luvleftovers says:

    I vote with Amanda, clean it and use clear nail polish. (i use that sooooo much). Save a little extra $ and keep an eye out for deals for when you do need to replace it – if at all.

  11. Anna says:

    Off topic slightly, but inspired by this post:

    I have found white nail polish to be a wonderful cover-up for chipped enamel on white appliances.

    Nail polish comes in so many shades these days that you could probably find the right shade for almost any color of chipped enamel.

    And oh, yes, White-out (white or ivory) for little spots and dings on similarly colored walls and woodwork.

  12. Sm4k says:

    I’ve done turbogeek’s method to an older truck I used to have. The chrome-colored bumper started to rust, and I used a combination of coke and elbow grease to get it off, rustoleum to protect it. When it was done it looked brand new.

    You can use clear or they even have a chrome colored spray paint that I used and it looked just fine.

  13. Gina says:

    Rust on a quarter-panel would concern me but rust on a truck bumper is just a minor annoyance that I’d clean up and forget about. Replacing a truck bumper because of rust is not only not frugal, it’s just plain wasteful.

  14. Frugal Dad says:

    Rustoleum makes a great product for covering rust, and I’m pretty sure it comes in a metallic, or chrome finish for bumpers, grill, etc. Funny you mentioned this, I just wrote last week about my project to sand and paint the top of my old vehicle, which was covered in rust.

  15. j says:

    Trent – this is a great post in the sense that it’s a problem we all have – run it into the ground, fix it, or replace it. I just wanted to share quick what your posts inspired me to do.

    Sitting in front of the tv after a stressful day, I heard the Simple Dollar voice go “Turn the TV off and DO something”. Well, I had something to do – my 6 month old HP All-In-One had just crapped out for NO reason last week. I was so frustrated that it was broken that I couldn’t deal with fixing it.

    But last night I took a deep breath, shut the TV off, and attacked this printer with all the internet advice, cleaners, and ideas I possibly had. With in 30 min, tho I have no idea HOW, I fixed it. I not only saved money but I had a new sense of self after what I call a “low confidence” day.

    Again, thanks for The Simple Dollar!

  16. Kevin says:

    I would recommend painting the rusty area with POR-15 ( http://www.por15.com/prodinfo.asp?grp=1&dept=1 ). A pint is $27.25, which is more expensive than ignoring it or using nail polish, but should be more of a permanent fix.

    Another compromise is to find a replacement bumper at a junkyard. It can be hard to find matching colors, though, so you might end up with a bit of a franken-car.

    I grew up in Vermont where cars usually rust apart before the mechanical parts wear out. The rule of thumb my family used was to patch small spots, try to replace big spots with junkyard parts, and scrap the whole car when a hard-to-swap part like a floorboard or frame piece developed holes.

    Some of these cars would get pretty ugly, so you may want to think about how much you care about having a car that appears rust-free, and by extension how much you care about other people seeing you driving a rusty or patched-together car.

  17. ericabiz says:

    Everyone’s talking about inexpensive rust removers, which is great for your specific situation. I’d love to see you expand this thought, though. When IS a new car the right thing to do? I’m stuck in this dilemma right now… I’ve had my car for over 7 years. It’s a 1999 model with 150,000 miles on it. My repair bills are now running over $250/month for just regular maintenance. Worst, the car has developed 3 really annoying squeaks that repair shops can’t seem to fix (I’ve taken it in twice.) I can finance a new car, but I’m looking at spending $30,000 if I buy new, and that’s a lot of money. Would be great if you could talk about this sort of thing more :)

  18. For smaller scrapes you can probably patch it up with a bottle of touch up paint. I’ve given up trying to patch up every microscopic chip on my vehicle – scrapes are simply sort of unavoidable.

  19. !wanda says:

    @ericabiz: Try late model used. Also, if you must buy new, there are decent full-sized cars that go for half of what you’re saying.

  20. robtwister says:

    Great post – I like the ‘rusty bumper’ metaphor (most of the previous comments seem to have missed the point of the essay). Get the full utility from things you own, use until they wear out, then either fix or replace.

  21. Glen2gs says:

    “Never buy New…When Used Will Do”

    I would have to “Second” turbogeek’s advice except to to recommend a product that is popular in the Car Restoration Community called POR-15


    To “ericabiz” If you have to buy another car (and it sounds like you do..Monthly Repairs > or = Monthly Payment) Find a 3 year old car with 12 to 15K miles per year…Let someone else take the depreciation loss, Don’t buy new!

    Good sources are leasing companies lease return vehicles (just DON’T let them talk you into leasing the used vehicle) and New Car Dealerships’
    “Certified Vehicles”

    Bad News/Best advice; If at ALL POSSIBLE have 20-25% down payment and fiance for 36 to 48 months
    (and better yet, find out how much “T T & L” or “Tax,Title & License” will be in your area by calling Car Dealers asking for the “Title Desk” or “Title Clerk” Title Fees are a source of extra income for some Dealers…like charging $300.00 while others charge $100.00 TRY REALLY HARD to pay the “TT&L” in cash in addition to the down payment)

  22. turbogeek says:

    @Kevin, & @Glen2gs,

    Thanks for the tip, I wasn’t familiar with Por-15. Great website. Do I read correctly that you can prepare the metal as we discussed, then use their clearcoat product in this case? That you don’t have to use their prep/neutralizer?

    Also — I’ve got to agree with Glen2gs on another point — — if you can’t pay 20%-25% down plus TTL you should hold off on buying the new car. If we assume someone is being smart and buying late model solid used cars for ~$18k, that would tally up to be ~$5,500. Drag the old car along kicking and screaming, sock away $500 a month, and buy that ‘new to you’ car 11 months from now.

  23. Louie says:

    honestly, i would ride it out until it bothers you so much but in the mean time, take a look at local scrap yards/ junk yards, its likely you can find one with no rust or damage for 30 bucks and a bumper is not crazy difficult to put on. read up on it, granted i dont know what kind of truck you have, odds are it is fairly common on the road and you could find one in the junk yard or ebay.

  24. Lurker Carl says:

    Great metaphor! I think the point you’re making is determining when to repair or replace something. But since many folks are taking your example literally, here’s my 2 cents.

    Just sand the rust down to bare metal and paint it. If the bumper has holes rusted through it, touching it up is pointless – ignore it or replace it. But you’ll know in the future to regularly clean out all the dirt that builds up behind the bumper to prevent it from happening again.

    Replacement vehicles. Don’t ever buy a brand spanking new one, let someone else take the initial depreciation. Never put less than 25% down or extend payments beyond 36 months. This ensures the vehicle is worth more than you owe. If you can’t afford 25% down with a three year payoff, you can’t afford the vehicle.

    Ericabiz, don’t worry about the squeeks. Turn up the radio. A $30,000 replacement will also require maintenance and repairs in addition to your monthly car payment. Plus, auto insurance will cost much more. $250 per month to keep your old car running is peanuts to purchasing a new car.

  25. sunny says:

    Take a crumpled piece of aluminum foil and rub the rust spot off. We used this all the time as kids to take rust off our bikes in Michigan. We live in Florida now and our cars don’t rust (the plastic bakes and cracks then the headline melts and falls on your head).

    I’m driving a 2002 jeep w/115K on it. My plan is to drive it until it’s an empty used up husk.

  26. Glen2gs says:

    Shout out to Everybody…lots of great posts!

    Turbogeek…I’ve always used “Naval Jelly” without an “etching solution” afterwards, I just grind or sand it down to bare metal (same difference?) and applied POR-15..I’m not saying I’m right..POR-15 is supposed to be the best for stopping moisture and air from reaching the metal and that’s what allows rust to form.

    Ericabiz…The “rule of thumb” is that if the cost of your repairs in a 3 month period are equal to or greater than the monthly payment you are (or were)paying…prepare to bail…if you are paying in monthly repairs more than the monthly payment..Just BAIL!

    Difere repairs as long as the car will Start and Run..run the “wheels off of it” (at 150k miles, you may be close)

    Another thing a Dealer won’t tell you, your monthly car payment really shouldn’t more than 20% of your monthly NET income, also if you finance for 36 months, try to keep the car for 6 years total (9yr old car) 48 months = 8 years (10yrs)and save the monthly payment amount in a separate savings account.

    Finally, your mileage may vary, batteries not included and Cape does not allow you to fly (found on an Adult BatMan costume box)

  27. Glen2gs says:

    at the end of 8yrs…it’s 11yrs old


  28. Bill says:

    Dangit, the guys beat me to the POR-15 punch.

    Although you can use Naval Jelly to prep the area, pass that up and use POR’s Marine Clean and Metal Ready to prep the bumper. They both go a long, long way and are quite economical. Same for the paint itself. A pint will do more than just cover the inside of your bumper; I used a pint to cover the entire back half of my ’64 Chevy truck’s frame. With some left over. You’ll get some mileage out of it (pardon the pun).

    Some things to keep in mind: POR-15 is not UV resistant, so if you use it in any areas that are exposed to sunlight, you’ll have to cover it with another paint (or just deal with the discoloring). Also, wear gloves, long-sleeve shirts and pants when you use it. The stuff will wick into your skin and take weeks to wear off (although nail polish will help remove it a bit quicker).

  29. Jon says:

    POR-15 has been mentioned a few times, there’s a similar product known as Rust Bullet. When asking for advice on treating the rust bucket I call my daily driver, I was debating between Herculining and POR-15, quite a few people on the forum had compelling arguments for using Rust Bullet. Naturally I don’t remember them now, but cost comparison between it and POR-15 would be my first step. I would not recommend Herculining your bumper =]


  30. Penny says:

    Great post everyone! I’ve learned a great deal. I am an Organizer and so I read a lot of reference books, and how to books. But living in California I never had trouble with rust, but now that I’m in Oregon this will come in handy. Thanks to everyone.

  31. kim says:

    As I read this I am sitting at my laptop computer that has “micro-fractures” on the mother board. This is quite frustrating as the power connection has to be seated just right (apparently jiggling allows the microfractures to line up so the machine will power on). At this point I cannot allow my laptop to move at all or it shuts off. Eventually it will shut off just from the natural vibrations of the moving parts in the machine itself and I have to do the whole jiggling act again. Does the machine work? Much of the time, with very careful usage I can check email, check my online book sales and send IMs. I no longer trust the machine for my writing or for work and can no longer take the machine with me.

    It is about a $650 repair. Obviously with the cost of laptops these days, replacing beats out fixing it every time. The struggle is to determine how long I should keep trying to baby the thing along and deal with the frustration of having a laptop that simply shuts off mid-

    Okay, this time it didn’t, but it has happened during the middle of a required 30 minute survey, three times in a row, forcing me to start from the beginning. I have spend hours getting the connection just right so that it will power on.

    I am struggling to relate the rust spots on the bumper to this situation. Must I have the laptop? I am seriously limited without its full usage. I am struggling to keep up with my work, struggling to keep up my online writing, struggling to keep the machine running long enough for me to keep my online book sales shipping in a timely manner.

    I am trying to approach the matter with this thought process: It is now beginning to cost me money in refunded book sales due to being unable to pick up my sales requests in a timely manner, or additional shipping fees for upgraded shipping. This is not substantial, but I don’t sell books just for the fun of it.

    It seriously interferes not just with my enjoyment of life, but with the exercise of my life-long passion for writing.

    It interferes with my being able to communicate with my son in Iraq.

    For these reasons I am treating this as a stage 3 situation. I am saving for the machine as quickly as I can, even slowing down some of my emergency fund savings to put into the replacement fund. This may mean that I have to pull my book sales offline for a month or so if the machine dies early, and I will suffer Internet silence for a while, which will really be hard on my son when he wants a word from home.

    However, this is not the primary source of my income, and while it is a serious inconvenience and headache, it is not the top priority. I do not have savings to cover this expense and do not consider this one of the items to dip into the emergency fund for, although in the past I would have considered this a full-scale, Stage 4 emergency.

    This is what I am getting out of the rusty bumper story, Trent. If the rust were preventing you from working or endangered your family it would be time for a full-scale assault on the rust, treating, replacing or even scrapping the vehicle. Since it isn’t, there are more subtle decisions that reflect your priorities.

    Unfortunately, had I understood the beginning signs of this problem when they started this all would have been covered under warranty. Lesson? Flaky computers under warranty should be checked by experts licensed to perform and diagnose problems under your brand warranty. Don’t assume you know what the problem is and that it is minor. Other lesson: don’t ignore the small stuff (like small spots of rust) or intermittent power outages or batteries that don’t seem to charge or have the life they are supposed to have. Small problems often become big ones.

  32. down says:

    Thanks I needed that one.So in other words, facts won’t change your mind.

  33. Advice says:

    You asked when is it a smart decision to replace a used car? I’d answer – never. Really, I guess when the frame and other components have rusted beyond repair…but aside from that, the economics don’t make sense.

    The trade value of your ’99 is next to nothing, so if you spend $30k on a new car your payment (over 6 years) is $525 – $300 a month more than your $250 a month repair bill.

    My truck is a 1984 Dodge Ram. I just keep driving and rebuilding it.

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