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How to Save Money When Buying a Car

No Haggle-a-Thon Needed

Looking to save money buying a car? I’m here to share a few under-the-radar tips that will save you time (which is money!) and money (which is also money!) when buying a new car, all without having to get into a haggle-a-thon with the dealer. Phew!

1. Opt for À La Carte Upgrades

Just about every kind of car has a handful of confusingly named trim levels like EX, LX, LRX, and EIEIO to choose from, as well as a range of upgrade packages. While some of the features in those packages may be important to you, you’ll likely wind up taking out a car loan for a laundry list of features you don’t care about to get the ones you do. Rather than opting for a whole package, try choosing à la carte upgrades instead.

For example, I’m a music fanatic, so having a set of great-sounding speakers in my car is a priority for me. Upgraded speakers were available when I was shopping for my most recent car…as part of the upgraded “Technology Package” that also included the following products and services:

  • Ventilated leather seats
  • Aluminum pedals
  • Power tilt and slide sunroof
  • Integrated deep-frying churro maker
  • And more!

On second thought, that churro maker might not have been available…but the price of that package was a whopping $3,500, and all I really wanted were some nicer speakers!

So I declined to get the Tech Package on this car purchase, and instead decided to shop around afterwards to get exactly what I wanted, at a price within my budget. I did my research and purchased aftermarket speakers to be installed by a local custom shop. Total price after installation? About 10% of the cost of the Tech Package!

2. Consider all the Costs of a Car

You’ve been saving money for months. Crunched the numbers to find your monthly payment or (*gasp*) if you could pay cash. Then, you’re finally ready to buy that shiny new (to you) car!

Let’s say you’re looking at getting a used Kia Soul that costs $12,000—which fits well within your budget, when suddenly…oooh. You spy a listing for a slightly older, but much more German, BMW 328i and it’s only…$12,000 as well! Sure, the insurance might cost a little more, because vroom, vroom, but you’ve checked your budget (because look at you, personal finance rockstar!) and are willing to prioritize a few more dollars to car insurance.

Want complete clarity with your money and your tradeoffs? Try a zero-based budget for total control.

Here’s the problem; the average maintenance cost of a BMW 328i is almost $11,000 more over 10 years than a Kia Soul’s maintenance. That’s a significant expense that you’ll need to save for each month. If your dream is to own a sleek German sports car, then allotting a few more dollars to paying for maintenance might be the right choice. But if that’s not something you’re passionate about, you’ll regret picking a car that didn’t align with your priorities.

Just like it can be easy to forget about the cost of routine maintenance, it can be easy to forget just how many costs are associated with buying and owning a car. Just a few to think of when you’re considering your budget:

  • Gas
  • Auto Insurance
  • Predictable maintenance like oil changes, tire replacement, etc.
  • Non-routine maintenance like cracked windshields, broken A/C units, etc.
  • Registration and license fees
  • Parking, garage, or toll fees
  • Car washes

Suddenly a car payment that you expected to pay $250/month for really adds up to about $400 after you account for everything else—and those expenses aren’t necessarily covered in your auto loan. These are the kind of surprise expenses that can rack up a balance on credit cards, or make you dip into your savings account. Perhaps those little hamsters were onto something when they picked the Soul.

3. Shop Smarter, Not Harder

This one is going to save you a boatload of time, and time equals money, right? First, take a few test drives and do your model/trim/feature research. Once you’ve decided on the exact model you want, instead of scrolling through pages of online listings, driving around to local car dealers, or worse, actually picking up the phone and calling dealerships, here’s what you can do:

  • Run a quick Google search and grab the emails of a number of local car dealerships within your area (which is however far away you’re willing to drive to buy a car). I had about 7-8 dealers within an hour of me who I thought would have the car I wanted.
  • Paste all of those email addresses in the To/CC box of your email.
  • Draft up an email along these lines:

Hi there!

I’ve been test driving [car model] and I’m ready to buy in [timeframe]. Can you let me know if you have [exact model and trim with any packages, color, etc. that are a priority] in stock and ready to test-drive at your dealership?

If so, what is the best price you can do out the door? [Be sure to mention any discounts you qualify for up-front so that they take that into consideration in the quote]


[Your Name]

You’ll soon have a few dealers email you back with their available cars and prices. Once you’ve decided which dealer to buy from, call and verify with a sales manager the price you’ve been quoted, and if there’s anything that might impact that price before you spend the time driving to the dealership to purchase.

4. Play Smart on Car Loans

If you’re looking at financing options for your car purchase, keep in mind that the auto dealer is not the only place that can offer you financing, and sometimes a local credit union might offer lower interest rates, especially if you don’t have the best credit score. Interest rates matter and add up to thousands of dollars over the life of the loan.

The good news is that whatever rate you lock into, you can still take your time (and money!) back from interest by paying just a little extra each month. Take this example, where paying an extra $100 each month takes over a year off the life of the loan and saves you over $1,000! How’s that for taking total control?

Use the loan planner tool in YNAB to test out plans for aggressive payoff to take time and money back from your loans.
Use the loan planner tool in YNAB to test out plans for aggressive payoff to take time and money back from your loans.

5. Buy the Right Car for YOU

Any time you mention that you’ve started car shopping, you’re bound to get a smorgasbord of opinions given to you. Some good, some bad, and some from people like me, who think that churro makers should be standard in all cars.

There are literally thousands of magazines, websites, podcasts, and forums devoted to reviewing and recommending cars, but none of them can answer the most important question to consider when buying a car: what are your priorities? Answering this one question will allow you to feel good about your purchase, and avoid overbuying a car that might not be the right fit for you and your needs.

After determining your budget for a car, take some time to consider what’s really important to you in a vehicle. Is it speed, safety, storage, style, or something else entirely? Make a list of your top three priorities, and use those to filter your initial vehicle search.

When I began shopping, my list of priorities looked like this:

  1. Safety: If a car didn’t get top safety ratings, I wasn’t going to feel right driving my partner and our dog around, especially with the amount of road trips we take. I decided I’d rather pay a little more up front for extra safety features which would help avoid accidents and injuries in the future.
  2. Storage: I needed enough room to transport my family, our luggage, and my guitars when I’m gigging. But I’m not chauffeuring a soccer team around yet, so I don’t need a bus.
  3. Style: I had owned my previous vehicle for just over ten years, and I knew I planned to own my next one for a similar time frame. I wanted something that I wouldn’t hate to see parked in my driveway every day for a decade.

Making that list guided me to the exact type of car I would be shopping for: a hatchback, with 5-star safety ratings, made in the last few years, in my price range. Knowing those details based on my priorities, I was able to reduce a sea of possible car choices down to a handful of options that would be a good fit for me.

There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to deciding on that list. As with all purchases, your priorities are just that; your priorities! Start by identifying what’s important to you, take all of a car’s expenses into consideration (both monthly and non-monthly), and then see if there are less expensive alternatives to get the features you want in a car. Happy searching, and drive safe!

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