7 Tips for Deciding How Much Car You Can Afford


According to the most recent State of the Automotive Finance Market study from Experian, the average new car loan surged to a shocking $30,534 during the first quarter of the year. Unfortunately, those purchasing new cars didn’t lower their expenses that much. The study noted that the average used car from a franchise set consumers back $20,904, whereas the price of the average used car purchased independently climbed to $16,612.

But what’s really astounding is how long people promised to pay their loans back. New car loans—for both new and used vehicles—lasted an average of almost 69 months, the report noted. Obviously, this is a lot of cash, and there are borrowers who can’t truly afford these loans.

If you’re getting ready to purchase a car and don’t want to overspend or borrow too much, here are seven tips that can help.

#1: Review Your Budget

Whether you plan to finance your car or pay entirely in cash, you need to make sure you understand the financial implications of the purchase. Figure out how the monthly payment will affect your monthly budget or how paying in cash might affect your finances over all.

If you’ve been paying a $400 or $500 monthly car payment all along, you might already know what you can handle. But if you’re financing a car for the first time, you’ll want to sit down and write out a budget and your expenses to gauge how much you can truly afford without forsaking your other financial goals.

If you’re paying for a car in cash, make sure you’re not depleting your emergency fund—and that you’re leaving enough money behind for your regular bills and living expenses.

#2: Consider the Interest Rate

While the total cost of your new or used car is a good place to start your comparison, you should also check to see what interest rate you qualify for. Generally speaking, the interest rate you qualify for will depend on the quality of your credit score. (You can view your free credit report at Credit.com to get a sense of how your credit score may affect your rates.)

And if you think it doesn’t matter, think again. Even a few percentage points can make a huge difference. If you borrow $25,000 at 8% APR, for example, you’ll pay $506.91 per month and incur a total loan cost of $30,414.59. If you take out the same loan but qualify for 4% APR, on the other hand, you’ll pay $460.41 per month and only $27,624.78 over the life of your loan.

#3: Don’t Forget about the Length of Your Loan

While it’s important to gauge the affordability of your new car’s payment and the interest rate you qualify for, don’t forget about the length of your loan. Taking out a longer loan can help you qualify for a lower payment, but you may pay a lot more interest due to the longer stretch of time it takes you to repay.

And if you need to borrow for longer than you really want, it might be worth asking yourself if you’re spending too much.

“If you must borrow money for a car, make sure it is an amount that can be paid off in three to four years and the payment will comfortably fit within your monthly budget,” says financial planner Matt Adams of Money Methods. “If you need to finance a vehicle for anything longer than four years to simply get the payment within reach, you are likely buying more vehicle than you should.”

#4: Remember the Higher Ongoing Costs of New Vehicles

In addition to the sticker price of vehicles you’re considering, it’s smart to look into other costs you might incur, says financial adviser Ryan Cravitz of Milestone Wealth Management.

“Make sure that you don’t forget to account for the many so-called hidden costs when buying a particular car,” he says. “Factors such as the cost of insuring the vehicle, the average maintenance and repair costs, the fuel economy ratings, and whether you should buy the extended warranty are just a few things that should not be ignored.”

Also, don’t forget that a lot of these costs can be higher if you purchase a new car right off the lot. Auto insurance rates in particular tend to be heftier than you might expect when you purchase a newer, more expensive vehicle.

#5: Ask Yourself about the Trade-Offs

Taking on a new car loan is often one of the easiest ways to get into the car you want. While it’s difficult and time-consuming to save up tens of thousands of dollars in a new car fund, you can visit a dealership, finance a car, and drive off the lot in a matter of hours.

Unfortunately, you’ll likely pay a pretty penny for the privilege. While you may theoretically be able to afford the payments on your new car, something usually has to give. And that something might be an expense you miss being able to afford like you were back in the days you didn’t have a huge car payment hanging over your head.

“Remember that whatever you spend on your car, that’s money you won’t have for clothes, food, or going out with your friends,” says financial adviser Anthony Montenegro of Blackmont Financial Advisors. “So, weigh out the trade-off carefully and spend wisely.”

#6: Set a Firm Limit and Consider Your Options

While any of the tips above can help you figure out how much you can afford to spend on your new ride, some financial advisers suggest simplifying the process with a firm limit.

For example, New York financial adviser Joseph Carbone of Focus Planning Group recommends that his clients never take out a car loan that exceeds 10% of their monthly income. “Of course, everyone’s situation is different,” he says. But this situation can truly work if you let it.

Let’s say your take-home pay is $4,500 per month. Using this rule, your car payment should come in under $450 per month. That may not be enough to get you into the car you want, but it’s enough to get you into the car you need.

Financial adviser Brian Hanks also suggests considering more than one car as you make your final selection.

“After you choose a model car you think you want, pick your second favorite,” says Hanks. “Compare the monthly costs of your first and second choice cars side by side. Without a tangible second choice to compare against, it’s too easy to justify higher monthly costs for your first choice.”

#7: Spend Less Than You Can Afford

If you’re still struggling to decide how much to spend—or you’re worried about overextending yourself—take a step back. Unless you need a new car today, there’s nothing wrong with thinking through your decision for weeks or months until you know exactly where you’re at.

And if you still can’t decide, try to err on the side of spending less than you can afford, says financial planner Mitchell Bloom of Bloom Financial, LLC. Bloom says he sees a lot of people who under-budget for and overspend on cars to the point where it puts them in financial peril. Fortunately, this situation is completely avoidable if you do some legwork.

The bottom line: Keep your expenses low, save as much as you can, and have a long-term plan. And if this advice doesn’t mesh with the car you want to buy, you’re probably spending too much.


Image: iStock

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Pros and Cons of Having a Car on Campus During Your Freshman Year

Car on Campus

As college drew nearer, I had visions of throwing all my belongings into the back of my Toyota Tacoma and driving off into adulthood. My parents had another idea—leaving the truck at home.

They said that not having a car on campus would save me time, money, and the occasional headache. It would allow me to focus on adjusting to university life and spending my weekends around the school. This turned out to be pretty solid advice, but the right decision for me won’t necessarily be the right choice for you. You need to weigh the pros and cons to determine what’s best.

First, though, you need to find out your school’s car policy. Some schools discourage students from having cars on campus. Others, such as Georgetown University, don’t even allow on-campus parking.

Northern California’s Santa Clara University, as another example, bars first-year students who live on campus from bringing their wheels with them. The school explains that keeping freshman on their feet makes them more involved in on-campus activities, and it also reserves parking space for upperclassmen.

Then again, many colleges do encourage you to bring your car. In fact, 48% of students have a car on campus, according to a 2016 survey from U.S. News & World Report. And at 14 of the 215 schools surveyed, at least 90% of students have a car.

If your school allows you to bring a car to campus, weigh these three cons first.

1. You’d Have to Pay Auto Insurance Premiums

The simple fact is that if you bring your car to college, you’ll need to insure it. Most of us know that student car insurance can be costly. Leaving your car in the driveway at home, however, could save you or your family some money.

If you’re included on your family’s insurance coverage, your parents could drop you to an “occasional” driver on the policy. That would decrease the policy’s monthly premiums. Ask your insurer about its “resident student” discount or a “student away at school” discount. There might be a 100-mile minimum requirement for the distance between your permanent address (your home) and your school to qualify.

If you have individual insurance coverage and decide to leave your car at home, you could pause or reduce your coverage. Canceling your plan would create a gap in coverage, though, potentially raising your future premiums.

2. You’d Be Footing the Bill for Parking Costs

Having a car on campus means having to park it on or near campus. There are two ways this can become costly: parking passes and parking tickets.

Even if you live off campus, you may still have to buy a pass to park on campus. It might not be cheap either. Parking permits at University of California Santa Cruz, for example, can set you back $583 per year.

Short of buying a pass, you might be tempted to break parking regulations on campus—and you’re not alone there. The average college student receives two parking tickets per year, according to Best Value Schools.

Your school’s parking enforcement might charge lower fines than your city’s police department. They’re $25 across the board at SUNY Cortland, for example. But still, the charges could pile up if you’re not careful.

Research your school’s policies and costs. There’s a wide range of possibilities. Consider New Jersey schools as an example. Rutgers University issues 5.5 tickets per driver, William Paterson University distributes 0.12, and Princeton University doesn’t ticket drivers at all, according to MyCentralJersey.com’s research.

3. You May End Up Being Your Friends’ Chauffeur

Almost 30% of millennials say affording rent and other necessities is among their top sources of money stress. And cars can bring more than their share of money troubles. Insurance, parking, gas, maintenance, emissions checks, and more are all part of car ownership and use.

But there are more cons than those that hit your wallet. If you’re a freshman driving, having a car could help you make friends, but ask yourself if you want to be the driver each time you go off campus in a group. You might rather be the one asking for occasional rides.

But a car can do worse things than cramp your style—it can put you in an unsafe situation. If you have a car, and you drive to bars with friends, you run the risk of getting behind the wheel after drinking too much. It might not always be cheaper to take public transportation or reserve an Uber, but it’s much safer.

If these cons don’t sway you, then know there are some advantages to having a car in college.

1. It’s the Best Form of Transportation Available

If your school has a sprawling campus or satellite campuses, driving from class to class might be less of a luxury and more of a necessity. There are other possible reasons for needing a car

  • You need to commute regularly for an off-campus job or internship.
  • There is no viable bus, train, or similar option to get you where you need to go.
  • The distance between your residence and classes is too far to bike.

If you decide that having a car on campus is worth the trouble, consider creating a carpool to make it worth your while. You could find classmates who live in your dorm and offer rides in exchange for something else.

2. You Can Work Your Wheels into Your Side Hustle

Having a car on campus affects your wallet in negative ways, like with insurance and parking—but it can also make you money. Some of the best side hustles require a car.

Consider one or more of the following:

  • Be a rideshare driver for a company like Uber and Lyft.
  • Treat your car like a moving billboard with help from Carvertise.
  • Rent your car out to neighbors or classmates using Turo.

If you already use your car to make money or you’re looking into it, do the math. See if your potential earnings would covers costs for parking, insurance, and the occasional oil change. Better yet, see if you could turn a profit.

You can perform the same calculation for office jobs or internships that require a commute.

3. It’s the Cheapest Way to Return Home

Freshman and college students generally live by the academic calendar. Aside from having the summer off, there are spring and winter breaks and occasional long weekends. A student’s top option is typically returning home.

No matter where you see yourself taking breaks from school—whether it’s at Mom and Dad’s or a friend’s place—map the route ahead of time. If it’s a few states away, you might be booking flights for each trip. If you live within a road trip’s distance from home, however, having a car might be your best choice—and you may decide that putting up with parking on campus is worth having the ability to drive home at a moment’s notice.

Decide Whether to Take Your Car to Campus

On a daily basis, full-time college students spend 1.4 of every 24 hours traveling, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you know you’ll be taking a car to college, you should include the cost of gas and parking when figuring out the real cost of your classes. Choosing how you travel could save you time, but it could also save you money or trouble.

Research your school’s policies and think critically about whether you need your car on campus.

The less time you spend behind the wheel, the more time you can use on your college experience.


Image: iStock

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Should You Ever Lease a Car? Here’s What You Need to Know


If you’re in the market for a new car, you may be wondering whether it would be better for you to lease or outright buy new your set of wheels. While there are many factors to consider, we’ll put it out there upfront that most experts say that it makes more long-term financial sense to actually buy and keep a new car than it is to lease one.

Having said that, here are some of the factors that should go into your decision, either way.

1.What’s your monthly budget?

While it’s true that you may be able to lease a car for less money than it would cost for you to outright buy one, what you’re essentially doing in the case of leasing a car is renting it and paying interest on something you’ll eventually need to return. That means that once your lease is up, you’ll be left with the same decision you’re faced with right now — what’s the best option for a new car?

Also keep in mind that breaking a lease — for whatever reason — often comes with early termination fees and strict payback policies (meaning you could still be on the hook for the money that’s left on your lease). You might be able to work with your dealer on some of these things, but in most cases, if you want to break a lease early, you’ll be responsible for the remaining amount left on the lease, as well as the termination fee (which could be a couple hundred dollars).

2. Check for additional upfront fees

While your overall monthly fee to drive a car on a lease will may be cheaper than auto loan payments, there are additional fees to be on the lookout for before signing a contract. For example, often customers are asked to shell out hundreds or even thousands up front in order to get the best deals on leases. This extra money is usually put towards paying down a portion of the lease, but if something were to happen to the car early on (like an accident), insurance companies often agree to pay back the value of the car, while the amount that you paid upfront would most likely be forfeited.

3. Consider any mileage limitations

The problem with leasing instead of buying is that you don’t outright own your car, so there will still be rules — set by your leasing agent — to follow. Take mileage limits, for example. Most leases have limits on the number of miles you can drive while leasing a car (usually between 10,000 and 15,000 miles per year), and customers are penalized when they drive over that set amount. At a penalty that could be around 20-to-25-cents-per-mile, those fees can really start to add up, depending on how much you drive. Always do a little math before signing on for a lease to determine if you think your estimated mileage will be within what’s offered with your lease.

4. Get on the same page about “normal” wear and tear

Since you’ll be returning this car after your lease it up, most leasing companies want to ensure that they get cars back that are within a certain realm of wear and tear. If you return a car that the company deems above average use, you’ll likely be charged extra for it. To avoid that problem, make sure you chat with the leasing agent in depth about what’s expected in terms of the condition of the car when you return it, and take photos for back up if needed.

Remember that in some cases these stipulations will be negotiable, but again, you’ll likely have to pay more for any modifications or upgrades to the typical lease that you want to make.

While leasing a car may seem like a viable option right now — and it could be — it’s worth putting in a lot of thought about the type of driver you are, how much driving you do and how much flexibility you want with your car before going into a lease. If you can’t afford a new car and a lease doesn’t feel right to you either, you can always consider buying a used model. Check out this piece for six of the best auto loans for buying a used car.

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