Car Shopping: 5 Ways to Save

After three and two respective years as public transportation enthusiasts, my husband and I recently rejoined the car-owning population of the world. While taking trains and buses gave many opportunities to stand on a soapbox and brag about our money-saving, environment-saving lifestyle, we are again thrilled at the convenience of owning a vehicle.

We tried to make this change in the most affordable way possible by following these four tips for purchasing a car:

Buy Used

Don’t even think about buying a new car. Voila! You instantly saved literally thousands of dollars! Doesn’t that feel good?

There is an endless supply of excellent used cars available for any budget. For $12,000 you can own something extremely nice with very low miles, say, 30,000. For $9,000 you can own something great and reliable that’s still well under 100,000 miles. Because we may eventually have to buy a second car, we set our budget at a very low $5,000 and essentially looked at vehicles that were 10 years old and had more than 100,000 miles. This is where tip #2 comes in:

Read Reviews

This might be my favorite tip. If you’re on a budget, one of the best ways to save money on a car is to buy one that will drive. for. ever. Replacing a car every three years is an expensive habit. If you can drive a car for five years or more, feel free to pat yourself on the back for being a budget-savvy genius.

Of course to hit that 5- or 10-year mark, it’s important to buy something reliable and with low maintenance costs. Reviews are your best bet. I googled things like “Best used cars for $5,000” and “Reliable used cars on a budget.” Honda, Toyota and Subaru came up regularly on these lists, but feel free to do your own research – car makes and models can vary in quality from year to year.

After further narrowing our search, I spent quite a bit of time on edmunds.com and kbb.com (Kelly Blue Book). Along with spotting duds and learning what prices to expect, reading reviews helped us to know which questions to ask when we test drove vehicles, including using words we didn’t know, like “head gaskets.”

Buy From an Owner, Not a Dealer

Craigslist is my favorite place to shop for cars, and eventually we found something we liked! Unfortunately, it was at a small dealer. Here’s where my advice becomes “do as she says, not as she does,” as we wound up purchasing the vehicle from a small dealer in the Chicago suburbs.

I would have preferred to buy from an individual owner. We probably would have saved some money, plus we’d have the benefit of receiving more of the vehicle’s maintenance history. Naturally you also get to (silently) evaluate the trustworthiness of the seller, and (verbally) ask why they put the car up for sale. I once bought a coupe from a pregnant lady; she was clearly selling her small, sporty car because her life was changing. When she explained that she needed an SUV for the car seat, it was obviously true.

Finally, there is more room to negotiate the price when you’re standing in someone’s driveway offering to pay thousands of dollars while asking to save a few hundred. This is a crucial factor – be bold! Drive that price down!

Buy with Cash

In an ideal world, you will have saved money to buy your car. Here’s where that cash can really benefit you! Offer to pay cash and ask for a better deal. Receiving money in-hand is a great motivator for dealers and private owners alike. You can almost always save money on big purchases with cash. (This phenomenon is not limited to cars – but that’s a post for another day.)

Stick to Your Budget

Don’t get talked into something you can’t afford. I hate buyer’s remorse, and overpaying is a quick way to catch it. Be ready to walk away if you must.

We offered $4,200 for a car that was listed for $5,000. The dealer didn’t want to budge past $4,500, but after we conferred and then insisted that we wouldn’t pay more than $4,400, he gave in.

If you start to feel weak and want to pay the high price, remind yourself that you’ll have the pleasure of spending hundreds more on taxes and fees. Good luck, and happy driving!

34 By Chelsey Evans Funk | Chelsey is a bit of a fanatic about responsible personal finance. Since getting married last year, she and her husband have paid off more than $20,000 of student loan debt through determined budgeting and dedicated use of mint.com. She works in marketing and is happiest when people rave about her baked goods, listen to her advice, or let her pet their dogs on the street.

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6 Comments

Comments for Car Shopping: 5 Ways to Save are now closed.

  1. Lovely thoughts.

  2. Reviews are your best bet..
    Nice tips…….

  3. Hey Chelsey, these are great tips. From my experience, the two areas that are the biggest bang for your buck here is to do your research and buy used. I can’t tell you how much money I’ve saved buying used, and then using the information I’ve found to negotiate a lower price.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Woo hoo, Chelsey!

    Good tips all around.

  5. I bought my Subaru Forester new. It is 11 years old and has 150,000 miles. I think it can go to 200,000 easy and 300,000 is doable. I have made some expensive repairs, but far less expensive than car payments.

    • The used car we bought is an 11-year-old Subaru Forester, no joke! Is yours the red/orange one by chance? Too funny…