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A Tale of Two Car Buyers

Car for sale

Content provided courtesy of USAA.

To borrow a line from Mr. Charles Dickens, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…"

Yep, I'm talking about my personal experiences with car buying. The worst and foolish times were long ago. The best and wise times were pretty recent. I think there are lessons in each.

The early years

I had just graduated from college when I walked into a car dealership. From what I recall, it went something like this:

Sales Guy: "What are you looking for?"

Me: "Something like this one over here."

Sales Guy: "How much do you plan to put down?"

Me: "Nothing. I just graduated from college."

Sales Guy: "How much payment can you afford?"

Me: "About $275 a month."

Thus began the age of foolishness. No advance research by me. No comparison shopping. No plan whatsoever. And the result? I drove off with a shiny new car and — hold the presses — a car payment of $275 for the next five years. Imagine that. "Not bad," I thought at the time. But remember, it was the age of foolishness — and it was also 1991. Adjust my payment for inflation and we're talking about nearly $480 today. That's a lot of money for a kid fresh out of college.

What's worse, I did it again 12 months later. No planning, no shopping and no research. And this time I experienced a whole new wonder. Since I owed more than my trade-in was worth, the dealer kindly rolled that into my new loan. So, I had a sweet new car and a $400 car payment to go with it. If you're keeping track, that's about $675 a month in today's dollars. Not my best financial move.

A changed man

Fortunately, the age of wisdom did eventually arrive, and with it came better car-buying decisions.

In the last five years, I've been involved in three car purchases. And I've done well. Why? Because planning took the place of spontaneity, and logic won out over emotion. This is my wish for you: No more bad car-buying moves.

Here's how you can make my wish your reality:

  • Keep your options open. Don't fall in love with a particular car. Find two or three models you think might work. Then sleep on it for a while.
  • Listen for deals. Manufacturers and dealerships are almost always offering incentives to get you behind the wheel.
  • Do your homework. I didn't have the Internet back in the early '90s, but you do. Use the information and services at your disposal to become an informed shopper.
  • Minimize emotions. You're looking for a car, not a mate. So be more logical than emotional and you'll probably make a better decision.

Thinking about buying a new ride soon? A trip to the car dealership doesn't have to be the worst of times. I urge you to learn from the mistakes of my youth and choose the path of wisdom over foolishness. 

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