Failure to backup: Why I’m paying hundreds of dollars because I didn’t follow my own advice

Hard drive spindle

I’m not always the best at taking my own advice. There are many examples on this site. Like the time I went $500 over budget. Or my foot-dragging on getting a will.

“Be prepared” isn’t quite up there on the top of my catchphrase list, but it is true that a little preparedness now can save you a lot of money later.

I’m learning this the hard way right now, because of a dead hard drive.

Death of a hard drive

One night recently, I was working on my home computer, where I store a bunch of my financial records (my budgets, tax stuff, documents, etc.) when it started making loud clicks and other death noises.

Uh oh. That’s not good.

I jiggled the connectors, blew on the drive like it was a Nintendo cartridge, and did lots of other diagnostic stuff that I really didn’t know much about. But the result was clear: The hard drive was toast.

On losing really important things

So much of our lives are stored digitally. And while we talk a good game that anything on the internet will be there forever, we’re learning that this isn’t the case.

But forget about the internet. What about your home devices? I’m talking about your computers, cameras, phones, and the like.

What would you lose if one of those devices died an unrecoverable death right now?

It’s very probable that you don’t know the answer to that. We are so used to technology these days, and the blurred line between device and server, that it could be easy to think: my phone is backed up somewhere, right? I remember something about “the cloud”?

Maybe. Maybe not. If you don’t know, probably not. And that’s a problem.

The screw

Robert Pirsig, in his excellent book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance“, writes about a screw on a motorcycle that needs to be removed so that the unit can be repaired. But the screw had become stripped and wouldn’t budge:

“Normally screws are so cheap and small and simple you think of them as unimportant. But now … you realize that this one, individual, particular screw is neither cheap nor small nor unimportant. Right now this screw is worth exactly the selling price of the whole motorcycle, because the motorcycle is actually valueless until you get the screw out.”

Likewise, I bet you haven’t thought about the hard drive in your computer (or your phone) very much. You know it’s there, but that’s about it. And yet, when it stops working, it becomes very much worth your consideration. Very very much.

I’ll do it later

You hear exhortations to “back up your important files”, in the same way that people say to floss more or donate blood. “Yeah, totally, I’ll get on that. At some point.

These things fall under the Eisenhower Decision Matrix as being Important but not Urgent; that’s the stuff we need to do the most, but are most likely not to.

Now, in my defense, I did have an external hard drive that I used to periodically back up files. But while I thought it had been a few months since I backed up, it turned out that it had been over two years.

Hoo wee, where does the time go?

Everything I’ve done on that computer since about 2015 is now locked away on that hard drive, completely inaccessible to me. Behind a “screw”, effectively.

And the thing is, I actually had a plan to replace that drive. It was on my to-do list during the week in between leaving my old job and starting my new one.

But, like so many things that are important but not urgent, I didn’t get to it.

Pardon me while I hang out in the Regret Cave for a while.


I’d never looked into data recovery services before. I had always assumed that it would cost thousands of dollars, and involve equipment that looked like something out of a contagion disaster movie.

But it turns out that it only costs hundreds of dollars. (No word on the contagion movie yet.)

While I do have the money savings, it definitely gives me a pain in the solar plexus to spend it unnecessarily. And technically, submitting my drive to a data recovery service is an unnecessary expense.

And yet, personal work is irreplaceable. If someone steals (or totals) your car, it’s a terrible shame of course. But it’s just a thing. You can get the exact same thing again.

But your photos, documents, and other personal items can never be replaced. Given that, if you had the opportunity to pay to recover something that would otherwise be unrecoverable, wouldn’t you?

Having the expense hurt is actually a good thing. I don’t want to self-flagellate too much, but I want to remember this so that it will lessen the chance of me doing anything this foolish again. I have a suspicion that I’m going to remember this purchase for a long time. (I wish I could pay cash, so I would feel it more.)

You have a task now

Okay, let’s make it easy. You must now do the following:

  • Back up the photos you have on your camera and phone and the files you have on your desktop or laptop computers. Keep it easy: Buy a hard drive (I like what Wirecutter recommends), plug it in, and copy files to it. Or, use a service like Dropbox or Google Cloud, and they’ll host your files there.
  • Then, after you’ve done the above, test the recovery of a file. You don’t want to find during a disaster that you can’t recover the files you’ve backed up.
  • Automate the backup if possible.

Please, do this. Spend a little bit of time and money now, so you don’t need to do this later.

Or, you can pay lots of money for data recovery. Your choice.

And if you want more tips on digital backup, please let me know in the comments. Boy have I learned a lot in a short time!


  1. mpinard

    One of the things I actually do! I am OK losing contacts stored in phone and text messages, because those live too long anyway. But I upload photos about once a month to laptop, and backup laptop 1-2 times a month, and the photos are double saved to the cloud when I connect laptop to internet. Music? in the backup. :)))

    • Mike @ Unlikely Radical

      Nice! You are a model to the rest of us. 😛 What service do you use? Do you have any recommendations?

      • mpinard

        Just an external HD and Dropbox and Google Drive. I am flirting with the edge of my Dropbox limit and they keep sending me emails, so I may have to look into that…

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