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Buying a Car with the Bitches, Part 1: How to Choose Your Car

When I got my first big-kid job, I took most of my savings from over four years of nannying and bought a used car with cash. Seven years of hard commuting later and that car was a thirteen-year-old dinosaur with over 300,000 miles on it begging to be put out of its misery.

When I refused to let the poor thing die with dignity (because I definitely didn’t plan to buy a new car while in the middle of Operation Student Loan Decimation), it made the decision for me and offed itself.

I didn’t have enough cash saved up to buy a new car without a loan because I’d been spending every last shining penny on my student loans at the time. This process had drained all but a minimal emergency fund dry, so buying a new car with cash was out of the question.

And making my forty-mile round trip commute by bus was actually more expensive than driving: four hours and $10 a day, to be exact.

So I needed to buy a new car. Here’s what I learned from the process.

Determine if car ownership is right for you

I kind of fucking hate cars. They’re expensive, time-consuming, and ruin the environment while simultaneously turning you into the kind of person who thinks it’s ok to scream obscenities at complete strangers from behind the shield of a “COEXIST” bumper sticker.

So if you can operate your life without a car, I highly recommend doing so. Sadly though, they’re often a necessity.

Dating back to the Eisenhower administration, our country’s infrastructure has been built around personal cars. Bike lanes and affordable public transportation are therefore sadly lacking in much of the country. Not to mention the disgraceful state of transportation for disabled people.

So your situation might necessitate a car. But that doesn’t mean it needs to leave you destitute.

If you must buy a car, buy the right one

Evaluate your car needs

Do you live in a particularly snowy climate? Will you primarily be using the car to commute long distances on a highway? Will you frequently need to transport multiple passengers? Does your job require you to drive off-road, to haul heavy equipment, or to transport children or wheelchair users? Are you super concerned about safety? Are you trying to save gas money?

Getting the right car requires you to know a lot about yourself and your lifestyle.

Prioritize your day-to-day usage over rare needs. When Kitty was buying a car, she considered how nice it would be to have something with hauling capacity… But she calculated that it was cheaper to buy a small, efficient car and occasionally rent a truck for a few hours than to buy a large vehicle and drive it every day.

Get objective

Car advertisements should not be considered sources of information. They regularly extol the virtues of cars in an attempt to sway your decision.

It’s so efficient it runs on angel tears and poops out saplings like the fucking Johnny Appleseed of motor vehicles! It won’t just keep you safe, it’ll walk your dog and babysit your goddamn kids! You know damn well that you aren’t outdoorsy—but this car will magically fill you with a zest for camping and transport you to mirror-smooth lakes nestled in the bosom of pristine snow-capped mountains! This baby will vet potential significant others for you, and only unlock the passenger door for raven-haired beauties with perfect teeth.

Bullshit. Don’t believe a word of it.

Instead, go to reputable, unbiased sources to research cars that might suit your needs. Kelley Blue Book or Consumer Reports are a great place to start. There you can evaluate a vehicle’s merits and compare multiple models without the distraction of someone trying to sell you something.

As an added benefit, these resources will also tell you the true value of a particular make and model. This will give you a sense of what’s fair when it comes time to negotiate.

Make a list of acceptable models

Take notes. Study this shit out. Compare the information in your unbiased sources with the manufacturer’s website, then make a short list of car models that might work for you.

Unless you have the luxury of a long time and a big market, it’s a good idea to have a few that fit your criteria. You might not find a 2016 Toyota RAV4 XLE with less than 40,000 miles in Black Sand Pearl with heated SofTex-trimmed front seats in your price range quickly. But you can find a Toyota RAV4 or a Honda CRV, in any color or year, so long as it’s under your target milage and within your price range.

Just don’t be tempted to buy more car than you need just because it’s cool. I once borrowed a friend’s mom’s Midlife Crisismobile for an afternoon. I’ve never given much of a shit about cars, and I had zero interest in owning a tiny red convertable—until I was zipping around in one. It made me feel like Isadora Duncan on the Riviera when I was just me, going to the Food Lion to pick up jarred salsa. Luckily for me the fever dream passed, but beware: Nice Car Hypnosis is real.

Calculate the mileage you need

A car’s age in years is kinda irrelevant. It’s the mileage that matters most.

Once you know what model(s) you want, you can gather information about how long that car tends to last. Some are known for needing expensive repairs before 100K miles, while others can hit triple that with good luck and routine maintenance.

Next, determine how many miles you tend to drive. You can judge this by checking your odometer, insurance, or maintenance records. You can also calculate a month’s worth of average-ish usage—the drive to work, home, school, grocery store, grandmother’s woodland cottage, wherever you go—and multiply it by twelve for a rough estimate.

Americans drive a whole freaking lot: 13,000 miles a year, on average. If you have a lengthy commute now (and will for the foreseeable future), it’d be worth it to get a car with fewer miles and/or a reputation for longevity. If you drive your car less than the average person, you can save a lot of money by getting a car with more miles than most people are comfortable with.

Average lifespan of the car – (years you need it to last x miles you drive in a year) = maximum mileage for a new used car

Let’s go through this. When Kitty was car shopping, her top choice was a Honda Fit. Hondas have great reputations for reliability; they can live to 200,000 pretty easily. She wanted it to last for at least ten years, and she calculated that she drives six thousand miles a year.

200,000 mile lifespan – (10 years x 6,000 miles) = 120,000

Lots of people consider cars with that much mileage to be automatically ancient. So the prices are way lower. As it happens, she found a perfect one with only 60,000 miles. If the rate she drives stays steady, she may have a car that lasts for two decades. Jackpot!

Buy used, you beautiful fool

I’m going to hit you with a controversial statement that shouldn’t be controversial at all.

There is no goddamn reason to ever buy a brand new car.

I know your Baby Boomer parents buy new cars. The Jetsons lied to them about the imminent arrival of flying cars, and I swear they’ve been reliving that trauma ever since.

But they’re more expensive than a used car, they lose 10% of their total value the second you drive them off the lot, they’re often more expensive in taxes and insurance, they’re not significantly more reliable than a used car, they’re worse for the environment, and just… don’t fucking do it, ok?

A one- or two-year-old used model is basically brand new and will cost significantly less. If you’re just aching for that new car smell (no kink-shaming), save your money and get a spray instead.

Here, let’s debunk some frequent excuses people use to justify buying new instead of used:

  1. “I want a very specific trim model with very specific features.” If you look hard enough you can absolutely find a used vehicle that matches your ridiculously personalized specifications. And if you can’t, well, then as the philosopher Jagger once said, “You can’t always get what you want.” A white car is unlikely to have a lasting impact on your lifelong happiness versus a silver car. Very few people on their deathbeds have gasped out a final regret re: moonroofs.
  2. “The dealership gave me a much better interest rate on a new one!” I knew the state of education in our public schools was bad, but holy shit listen to yourself. A slightly lower interest rate on a larger car loan is more expensive than borrowing less money at a slightly higher interest rate.
  3. “Ew, used? I don’t want to drive around anyone’s leftovers.” Please tell me what it’s like to live this long with this level of blinding entitlement. Truly, I’m dying to know.

Here’s the thing, kids: a used car with 20,000 miles on it is practically brand fucking new and it’ll cost you much less than its shiny counterpart from the factory lot. Anything with fewer than 75,000 miles on its odometer has some time before it needs major repairs. A well-made car with a reputation for longevity can hit 250,000 miles or more in its lifetime. But then, you’ll know this from all the research you just did.

Anyone trying to talk you into buying a brand new car had better be footing the bill.

Do not go to a car dealership to shop

I repeat: DO NOT GO TO A FUCKING CAR DEALERSHIP TO SHOP.

Car salespeople desperately want you to just wander haplessly into their waiting maws because once you’re there, they have you. When asked to rank the honesty and ethical behavior of certain professions, the American people ranked car salespeople second-to-last. They’re known for using social pressure, psychological tricks, misleading statements, and predatory practices to move inventory at any cost.

Fortunately, there’s the Interwebz. Gone are the days when you had to actually visit car dealerships to find out what was available for purchase.

Start with your insurance provider’s used car buying app (if they have one), Craigslist, or Cars.com. These services will help you search within your area for used versions of the models you’ve already researched.

If you’re a USAA member, using their used car buying app to buy a car will actually get you a discount on the price of the car! And I’m sure they’re not alone among insurance providers. Which is to say: it pays to do your homework.

I understand that the feel of a particular car model is kind of ineffable until you actually drive it. So if this is important to you, don a suit of mental armor and stop into a few dealerships to test drive the new models. Resist the siren song of their paid-by-commission salespeople! You are there only to drive, not to buy. Allow nothing they say to sway you.

This is a dangerous mental tightrope to walk. I recommend bringing your bitchiest friend along to help you resist the temptation to buy a brand new car while test driving. (Announcing a new service from Bitches Get Riches: rent a bitchy friend! Our rates are low and satisfaction guaranteed! Terms and conditions apply.)

Timing is (almost) everything

Know thy enemy, as they say. If you must use them, understanding how car dealerships work could save you a lot of money.

For example, dealerships have to meet monthly and annual quotas to satisfy their corporate overlords. This means that if you buy a car on the last day of the month, a desperate salesperson just shy of their quota will be more likely to cut you a deal if they think it’ll make you buy.

It also means that buying a car at the end of December, especially if it’s the previous year’s model, is literally when you’re most likely to get the cheapest deal. At that point in the year, those extra cars are hanging ‘round the dealer’s neck like albatrosses. Help the poor beleaguered salespeople out and take them off their hands for close to wholesale if you can!

Do your homework before throwing money around

Ideally, you want to get most of the research out of the way before you ever set foot inside a car dealership or meet a private seller. This will save you from getting reeled in like a fiscally irresponsible mackerel by salespeople who don’t have your best interests at heart.

Sometimes these steps take time! I was stuck commuting on the bus for months before I’d saved enough to buy a new (used) car. During that time I was also hunting online for the right car to become available. I test drove, did my research, and by the time I’d saved up enough I was armed and ready for battle!

By the time you’re all set to buy, you should be bursting with knowledge and ready to get the whole thing out of the way with deadly efficiency.

Tune in next time when we talk about how to actually make the purchase. Bring your math hats cuz IT’S GONNA GET MATHYYYYYYY! BRAA B’BRAA BRA BRAAAAAA!

This is an excellent opportunity to watch one of Kitty’s favorite MST3K shorts. She and Mr. Kitty still shout “TEN CARS?!” at any number greater than originally expected.

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16 thoughts to “Buying a Car with the Bitches, Part 1: How to Choose Your Car”

  1. I would add: don’t write off a manual used car just because you don’t know how to drive one. They are pretty easy to learn (it took me maybe 2 days, and I probably took longer than average), and replacing a manual transmission is waaaay cheaper than replacing an automatic one. Plus, they usually have better gas mileage.

  2. Spray is NOT the same… I never let people eat in my car and am super conscious about not leaving things behind. New and fresh, man. That’s where it’s at. 🙂

    In all seriousness, yes, used cars are usually better financial decisions.

  3. When I was a couple of years out of college and buying my first car, I insisted on handling the negotiations myself. I’m pretty sure that I drove a salesperson to the brink of a mental breakdown because I was playing hardball (a.k.a. asking him to answer a direct question) and he wasn’t expecting it. He actually told me that he thought he’d be dealing with my mom instead of me. He got so emotional that he handed off the transaction to someone else.

    I think that gender, and especially race, are big factors in the deal you can get. As a young white woman, I may get the run around, but there is hard data showing that racial minorities are regularly ripped off at car dealerships. A few years ago, specific anti-discrimination laws were passed, but those laws have since been repealed…

    If you’re walking into a dealership, rent a white guy!

    1. “If you’re walking into a dealership, rent a white guy!”

      I completely agree. When I bought my current car four years ago, I brought my brother along with me. He shrewdly negotiated every condition I wanted and which we had discussed at length in advance, and the salesman was completely at ease because he was talking to someone exactly like him (a white male). When it came time to finalize financing, the salesman was shocked when my brother turned to me and said “you have to deal with her now.” And I paid cash, so there could be no sly loan tricks. The salesman walked away and left the building for 20 minutes, frankly because I don’t think he knew how to respond. My brother and I waited until we were driving away in the car to laugh about the entire situation.

  4. I got lucky with my current car, tbh. My previous car was on its last leg (had it for 11 years, and it was 9 years old when I got it), and my coworker’s husband worked in the parts department of a local dealership. She pointed me to a car they’d just gotten in: 2013 Nissan Altima, 27k miles, still under factory warranty. (This was 2 years ago, so the car was 4 years old at the time, WAAAAY newer than my 1999 car).

    I know I could’ve shopped around for a better deal for the loan itself, but I dropped a large down payment on it, got a 5.05% interest rate (yay good credit!), and made it with a $235 car payment for a 5 year deal. (My insurance tripled from what I was paying, which was an unpleasant surprise, but that comes with getting a MUCH newer car that would be way more expensive to repair/replace.)

  5. Absolutely can recommend buying a previous rental car. A lot of the times rental cars are only rented for a year or two and are in tip freaking top condition — so that means low mileage cars that have been well maintained and can be less expensive than what you would find at other dealerships. My car should have cost $24;-$30k even after depreciating for a year, but thanks to a used car sale (and some hale damage), I have a great car and have had it for nearly four years now. BUY A FORMER RENTAL CAR.

  6. Just my $0.02 (k-chink) on my years of car-buying experience. I tried used cars b/c well, cheaper, but they all took one look at me and died, even the one with only 17K miles. I might try again with the next one – might. Current modus operandi is to buy a low-end model from a good make (Honda Fit! Honda Fit!) brand-spanking-new AFTER researching online the price etc., negotiate like hell and math, math, math, get all changes in writing and take your time reading and rereading the contract even when your hubby, who only cared about the color, is ready to divorce. Last time, I was also pre-approved for a loan from the credit union, and the dealership gave me a much lower (0.9%) interest rate – more math, I basically paid $450 in interest total over the 5 year loan. Take car for all its checkups, do all maintenance, and do repairs as needed. Continue to drive it until the monthly repair bill > a modest car loan payment. Honestly, this is the only way I’ve gotten a car past 100K (and yes, this was with repairs and maintenance on the used ones). Guess you could say mileage varies. 🙂

  7. We bought our last 2 cars new from dealerships. One of them was a terrible decision mostly made on emotion and youthful stupidity. We got 0% interest on the Prius however, and we are not handy or knowledgeable car people so we prefer to have the full warranty for a least a couple years.

  8. I use numbers. My benchmark is a car should cost $.10 per mile to drive. But a $75,000 suburban will not make it 3/4 of a million miles. A 12 year-old Honda or Toyota for $3,000, however, will usually go another 100,000. $.03 per mile is hard to beat.

    1. We only buy used. I am an opinionated loudmouth with no formal training in economics.
      The problem of adverse selection is part of why we recommended above that you have a mechanic look at the car before finalizing the purchase.

      1. There’s nothing wrong with buying used either. Both are fine choices. Mechanics don’t find everything—if they could then used cars would be more expensive because there would be less risk. People would feel like they could get a fair price for their peaches so long as the buyer brought a mechanic, so that’s what would happen—peaches on the market bringing the price closer to the wear and tear price than the lemons price. That’s why cars with warranties and certified cars cost more, because they help with adverse selection.

  9. Love all the solid advice here. I find it oddly pleasurable to go to a dealer to drive cars I’m interested in, but only do so because there’s just no way I’d buy a car from a dealership these days. They have to increase the cost of the car to cover the cost of the lot, the salaries of all the workers, their benefits, those little bottles of water they hand out. Nuh-uh. I don’t have money to pay for all that. But sure, I’ll test drive the hell out of that car.

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