I’m a professional car buyer who has helped hundreds of people find the right car and get a competitive deal, and along the way I’ve spoken with numerous young people entering the car buying market for the first time. I’ve also had way too many conversations with folks that make some wrong moves early on and put themselves in a tough spot. Here’s how to avoid that.
First things first: Congratulations, you have graduated college! Or not. Either way, maybe you have a “real” job lined up, and you think it’s time to upgrade your ride from that car you had since high school. There are a lot of pitfalls on the way to doing that and I am here to help.
Get a Handle On Your Budget
I realize you may have avoided all those high-level math courses on your way to getting that liberal arts degree, but now is the time to bust out that calculator because the adult world is all about being real with how much money you have coming in versus how much money is going out.
The best defense against getting in over your head on a car purchase is running some numbers ahead of time. Your student loan statements are going to come in faster than you realize, and when you combine that with rent, utilities, cell-phone bills, and food that first real paycheck is going to shrink very fast.
Once you allocate funds for your expenses and put some money aside for a rainy day fund (trust me you will need this), how much is left for a car payment? Plug that number into a loan calculator to see how much you can actually spend on a car.
Here is an example:
Check Your Credit
Did you sign up for a credit card your freshman year in order to get a free t-shirt and possibly win a trip to Cancun? Did you make all of your payments on time? Even if you don’t have any major demerits on your credit profile, your limited history can pose a challenge for getting an auto-loan at a reasonable interest rate.
Get a free copy of your report and keep a close watch on your score, your FICO can drop much faster than it will rise and you need to be familiar with terms such as “utilization” and “debt-to-income” ratio. Keep making those payments on time and try not to borrow more than you have to.
If you decide that a car purchase is necessary, shop around and get a pre-approval on a loan before you ever have a conversation with a dealership.
Don’t Worry About “Looking the Part”
I get it, you don’t want to be seen as a “kid” anymore and are itching for a ride that will project the message of “I’m a professional and I know what I’m doing.” I’ll be straight with you, no one really cares what kind of car you drive. Your performance on the job will send the message regarding your professionalism.
Now is probably not the time to get an entry-level luxury lease even if the payments seem manageable, and I would strongly advise against grabbing a used luxury car that is out of warranty that may hit you with some expensive repair bills. Your boss does not want to hear that you will be late because your eight-year-old BMW decided to leave you stranded on the highway.
You also don’t have to get a cheap beater from Craigslist, but there are a ton of affordable cars that come well equipped with modern tech and safety features, and you can also get a lot of bang for your buck shopping for used cars under $20,000. Do some research and don’t get so hung up on badges, there will be plenty of time to upgrade as your income increases.
While I already warned you against luxury leases, be careful with leases on mainstream cars as well. Remember your limited credit history is going to mean you don’t qualify for the lowest rates, so the lease payments on something like a new Civic may be higher for you than someone with tier-one credit. I’ve also seen a lot of cases where a young person got a lease and they didn’t have a full understanding of the usage, which means they were way over the allotted miles. Or someone’s job situation changes and now they are stuck with payments that they can no longer handle.
Perhaps the best move is just to keep what you have for a while, especially if it is still working fine. There is freedom in not having a car payment. If an upgrade is necessary, more often than not, a quality pre-owned car will provide a payment structure that is more in-line with your budget and allow you the flexibility to keep it or sell it, if your situation changes.
This may not have been a list of awesome cars you should buy or the secret tips to “beat the dealers,” but sometimes the best life hacks require an honest look at your own reality and require you to just be responsible.