How to buy a car and stay under budget

How to Buy a Car & Stay Under Budget

Mariah French Saving Money, Spending Money 48 Comments

Several months ago, I was on a family road trip when our car suddenly broke down on the side of the road. We were at least 5 miles from the next town and stuck in a place with no signal. 

No signal!

I may have started to panic, but luckily my husband Nate took charge and made sure we were okay. And yes, we were okay.

Unfortunately, our car never recovered so we began our search for a new one. 

We were able to miraculously buy our dream car and stay under budget! Do you want to know how? Keep reading to find out!

1. Determine What Features You Need

Assuming you actually care about the kind of car you drive and how long it will last, you will want to make a list of features you will need in the car. This can be anything from having a CD player to the amount of miles on the odometer.

Here is the list that Nate and I use when shopping for a new (used) vehicle:

  • Made within the last 10 years
  • Less than 100,000 miles on the odometer
  • Clean title (we want the car to last and we don’t want to pay to have parts repaired)
  • Large trunk space
  • Large backseat (we will need to fit two carseats in pretty soon)
  • 4 doors
  • Automatic windows & transmission
  • Built-In CD player (my choice)
  • Built-In Automobile Auxiliary Power Outlet (I’m always charging my phone)
  • Good reputation

Putting this list together, you can then look it up online and see which cars are best suited to your needs.

Remember, your dream car doesn’t have to be an expensive red Camaro. It can be as simple as a nice family car that fits a double stroller.

2. Narrow Your List to 1-3 Dream Cars

Let’s be honest, there are a ton of vehicle brands and models that would fit our requirements easily. Sometimes it’s simply up to personal preference on which direction to take.

Nate’s last car (the one that randomly decided to die) was a Nissan Sentra. It was nice and reliable, but had some transmission issues for the past several years. Obviously, we didn’t want a repeat of that.

My last car was a Ford Focus. Funny enough, the check engine light was on when I bought it, but nothing bad ever happened. Then we sold it to Nate’s parents (with the check engine light on) and they still drive it today! That Ford was very reliable and with our second kid on the way, we wanted to make sure we bought another reliable car. Hence, we chose to buy another Ford.

We subsequently narrowed it down to three different Ford models: Focus, Fiesta, and Fusion.

The Focus was on our list because we were familiar with it. The Fiesta was on it because Nate likes the look of hatchbacks and we had read that they provide good truck space. Then we added the Fusion to our list last minute. Honestly, about 5 minutes before we left our house to test drive cars, we read that they have the biggest backseat. By the time we looked at all the cars that day, the Fusion was our favorite!

3. Decide on a Strict Budget

Nate and I got really lucky when it came to budgeting for our car. Due to the sudden need for a new one, we didn’t have a lot of time to save up for it. Fortunately, it happened right before we received our tax refund and stipend check from the government so we just saved those instead.

As a general rule, I buy as much as I can in full – cars included.

Therefore, when creating a budget for our new car, we knew it had to be low enough where we could pay it and have leftover money in our savings account, but high enough that we could actually get a nice car.

The budget we had was $5000, in the hopes that we could negotiate to a lower price. You also have to calculate how much it will be to register the car and if your insurance will change.

4. Negotiate!

Does anyone else have the negotiation scene from Jobs in their head? Negotiating is a crucial part of the car-buying process because you shouldn’t have to pay full price for anything. 

In the past, Nate and I had only purchased cars from private sellers. We prefer that because it’s easier to negotiate and there are less papers to sort through. 

This time was different. The only Ford Fusion we found that was within our budget was being sold at a dealership. And once we gave it a test drive and ensured it checked off all our boxes, we knew we had to snatch it before someone else did.

Let me give you some background information. Most used Ford Fusions we saw were listed at around $7500, much higher than our budget would allow. This one was listed for $4800! It was a miracle deal!

We talked to the salesman, did a little negotiating, and got them to knock the price down by a couple hundred more. Of course, the total did come out to over $5000 (taxes, registration fees, etc), but the dealership also handled our registration fees so it was worth it for us.

A couple hours later and a couple thousand dollars out of our bank account, we drove away with our dream family car. And we felt proud about our decision too!

It’s now been about a month and we still show off our car to anyone who will listen. There really is a lot of room in the backseat!

Now we want to know, what is your dream car and what steps are you taking to purchase it?

Comments 48

  1. Negotiating is definitely key when it comes to a lot of things. Glad you all took the time to get what you want without burning your pockets!

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  2. Perfect list – and concur on the negotiate! I love that part! Quick tip – research online and in newspapers before you go to the dealer. Our one truck had THREE different prices – online, print, and the lot price. I certainly showed them all three and even got a bit lower than the lowest!

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  3. Very good advice! I hate buying cars! I know they are a necessity but I don’t like having to buy one. This article helps give guidance to an otherwise uncomfortable situation

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  4. We got burned on our the last car we bought. We bought it from a used car dealership and the guy was up front about a problem that it had. We factored the repair cost into what we paid for it, and thought we got a decent deal. Not great, but good. Come to find out the car had a lot more problems that what he led us to believe. We ended up putting about $6,000 into getting it repaired when we had only budgeted for $2,000. We are hoping this car ends up lasting us a long time so that we don’t have to buy another car anytime soon.

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  5. Great advice! My husband is the MASTER negotiator – to the point where I’m over here with my hand in front of my face like, “let’s just go!” Haha – but we always walk away with a fantastic deal.

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  6. Pretty soon I will have to do this and I am dreading it. I held out on getting a car until my dad finally caved when I was 22 and gave me his old one. Until then I didn’t drive (though I did have my license) because I didn’t want to spend the money on it. I just hit 100k miles with it so I’m sure I don’t have too many years left with it. Hopefully I can find my dream car in the price range I want!

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  7. My dream car would be a small SUV. I love my little Honda Fit but getting in and out of it after a 9 hour shift at Walmart is difficult with my back issues. However, a SUV is probably not affordable so a minivan would work as well. Low miles in good shape. Also, I want a blue car! It’s my favorite color!!!

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  8. My last two cars have been Fusions. I love them! My current Fusion is a Hybrid, which is getting over 40 mpg. It cost a little more, but I love how little I have to go to the gas station – especially during COVID! Who wants to touch those pumps?!?

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  9. I’m so glad you got your dream car!

    In less than a year I owned three cars. The first one I bought from my step dad. It was totaled when a driver going the wrong way on a one way street hit me. I bought another used car, from a dealer. I owned that car a few months. Then the EF5 tornado that tore through Joplin took that car. Then I bought my dream car, a new Toyota Camry. Because of insurance I paid a sizable cash down on it. I’m still driving it and love it.

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