Wondering should you buy new or used cars? I’d like to show you our own history with buying used versus when we bought new to help you decide.
Should you buy new or used cars?
For us, I can easily and decisively say that all of the new cars we purchase in the future will be used.
In fact, all of the cars I’ve ever purchased in my entire life have been beater cars – only recently did we purchase a moderately-priced used car with 66,000 miles on it (the least amount of miles I’ve ever seen!).
But perhaps you’re used to having a monthly car payment. Or perhaps you’re very concerned about your car’s reliability, and certain that a used car will break down on you.
Let’s discuss a few reasons why you want to buy used instead of new, with a few digits + personal experience to back it up.
Psst: you'll definitely want to check out our update, where we became a one-car family for 2.5 years!
Vehicle Purchase as a Percentage of Income
My father has always told me that a car is meant to get you from Point A to Point B. That is sound advice. The purpose of a car is not to be an extension of our homes (although we are spending much longer commuting than we used to), to show off to coworkers and friends, or to produce concert-quality music through the speakers; the purpose of a car is to safely deliver you to your destination.
Just to strengthen my resolve in not wishing to purchase a new vehicle, I have researched new car prices and its percentage of household income in the United States, versus used car prices as a percentage of household income.
Below I’ve listed the top 5 selling cars for 2017 as well as their MSRP price. The list is a little vague in specific car (for example, what bells and whistles were included?), so I chose the lowest priced car in each category I could find.
- Nissan Altima ($22,500)
- Honda Accord ($22,455)
- Toyota Corolla Sedan ($18,500)
- Toyota Camry ($23,070)
- Honda Civic ($18,740)
The median household income in the United States in 2017 was $60,336. That means that the least expensive car listed above (Number 3 at $18,500) is 30.6% of a household’s annual income, pre-taxes.
Over 30%! In case you weren’t aware, this is the MAXIMUM amount of your income you should be spending on your housing, not on a vehicle.
The most expensive car in the list (Number 4 at $23,070) is 38.2% of a household’s annual income, pre-taxes. Since most people do not purchase their cars in cash, let’s take a look at the percentage of household income on a monthly basis – because that really means something to us, right? Using the median income minus 15% for federal taxes, monthly take home pay comes to approximately $4,273.80 (this will vary by household and state). An estimated monthly payment on the cheapest car above at 4% interest for 36 months is $546. This is approximately 12.8% of the median monthly budget. The most expensive car on the list at the same loan terms would be at $681, or approximately 15.9% of the median monthly budget.
And guess what? This cost doesn’t include the gas you need to put into the car, the insurance you pay each month (and this will be higher than a used car), or any other maintenance.
Now, what if you spent just $7,000 on a used vehicle, with 66,000 miles on it (this is what we paid for our 2009 Ford Focus last year)? Now you’re looking at jus 11.6% of your household income (and if you paid it off monthly, instead of in case, you’re looking at a monthly car payment of just $207, or just 4.8% of your monthly cash flow.
That’s close to Financial Samurai’s 1/10th rule (limit your vehicle purchase price to just 10% of your annual gross income for radical wealth growth).
That leaves a lot more room to save for retirement and other pursuits!
Disadvantages of Buying a New Car
Most people understand the advantages of buying a new car – that you’ll look great driving it around, everything works, you likely have many, many miles to go before you need to do serious services to it, and you have greater reliability.
So, let’s instead focus on the disadvantages of buying a new car.
Disadvantage #1: You Take the Car Depreciation Hit
With a used car, the first owner takes the most of the car depreciation hit. But if you are the first owner…well then, you’ll have to just take this one on the chin. Most cars depreciate in value the moment you start driving them on the highway by an astounding 10%, followed by another 10% in the first year alone. CarFax reports that you typically lose another 15-25% in value each year, over the next four years.
Hint: It’s a great idea to be on the buying end after all that depreciation has come off!
Disadvantage #2: You’ll Likely Take on a Loan
If you can pay for your new car in cash, then my hats off to you! That is great. But most people will need a car loan to cover the cost, which means they’ll not only have to pay interest on top of the cost, but they’ll have to insure the care with full coverage (which costs more).
Not to say that you shouldn’t use comprehensive insurance; but it’s nice to have the choice if you want to instead of it being stipulated because you don’t technically own the car (the bank does).
Disadvantage #3: Higher Insurance Costs
Speaking of more insurance costs, your plan will cost more anyway because there’s a direct relationship between the value of your car and the insurance premium you’ll pay.
Psst: live in a flood-prone area? Here's our experience with two car flooded insurance claims.
Advantages of Buying a Used Car
Now, let’s look at some of the advantages of buying a used car.
Advantage #1: Lower Insurance Costs
It follows that if the value of your car is lower, the cost of your insurance premiums is lower. In fact, you might just choose to self-insure – keeping enough in an emergency fund or car maintenance account in the event of an accident – and just carry liability only insurance to cover you in the event that you injure another person or another car.
Advantage #2: You Don’t Need to Worry about Small Blemishes
With a new car, you’re starting from the best.
So, every little scratch or dent is going to be like a punch to your gut. But with an older car? Well, they already have a little “character”. If something else happens that is minor? You probably won’t sweat it.
Advantage #3: Lower or No Interest Payments
With used cars, you can either afford to pay for them in cash, or your loan is lower anyway so you’ll be paying less in interest overall.
Hint: one of the cons of buying a used car? Are the added repair costs. Keep reading all the way to the end, where I give you the secret tip for finding an honest car mechanic (shared with me by my friend).
Is it Worth Buying a New Car? Our Own Experience.
Now I want to share with you our own experience with buying a new car versus a used card.
You see, my husband bought himself a brand-new Ford Mustang in 2007 as his gift to himself for getting out of the Navy.
We paid off the rest of his $22,000 loan in 2010.
The car lasted for 10 years (it would have lasted us longer, but it flooded in a flash flood here in Houston, just three weeks after our other car flooded in Hurricane Harvey).
Here’s some states for you:
- Insurance Cost More: His car cost us more to insure (because it would have cost an insurance company more to replace). Also, since it was not a beater car, we kept Comprehensive Insurance on it (13 actionable strategies for saving on car and other insurances).
- We Paid Interest: I’m not sure how much interest was paid on this car overall. We paid the loan off just 3 years after he got it. His interest rate was at 4.5%, so an estimated amount of interest paid using an online calculator shows $1,559.56 (hint: two of the beater cars I’ve purchased in the past cost less than this).
- We Received an Insurance Claim Payout: Due to the flooding, and due to us having comprehensive insurance coverage, we received around $5,800 check from the insurance company.
- It was a Gas Guzzler: Unfortunately, I have no specific stats to share with you. But I promise you he had to fill the tank up WAY more than I wanted him to!
Given all this information, I can estimate that to run this vehicle, it cost a total of $1,775.95/year (and that doesn’t take into account the extra gas or the extra insurance costs to us compared with a beater car).
Granted, if we could have held onto the Mustang for several more years – which had been our plan – then we probably would’ve gotten that number down some.
So, if you purchase a new car and hold onto it for 15-20 years? Well, now you’re talking. Of course, at that point, you’ll be driving a beater car, anyway!
When you compare this with the beater cars we’ve purchased from between $1,500 – $3,500 that have taken me through the last 16 years…you start to get the picture. Even with extra repairs on the beater cars, I know we’ve come out ahead money-wise with them versus the new car we hung onto for 10 years.
|Car||Cost||How Long it Lasted|
|One of those late 1980s burgundy vans||Free (family car passed down to me)||3 Weeks (oil leaked out and something melted)|
|Buick||$1200||3 years (head gasket blew)|
|Chevy Cavalier||$1500||6 years (transmission)|
|Nissan Frontier||$3500||1.5 years (needed new engine)|
|Chevy Cavalier||$3200||6 years|
|Mitsubishi Lancer||$3500||5 months (flooded, and our insurance claim payment was almost as much as we paid for the car)|
|Ford Focus||$7,200||Still going strong (4 years so far)|
Let’s say we add $3,500 worth of repairs to the amount of cash that I paid for the vehicles above. This comes to a grand total of $23,600, which is approximately $98.33 per month (over the last 20 years).
Since my income has swung wildly from mucking horse stalls to minimum wage to entry-level worker to environmental investigator to full-time blogger in the last 20 years of my life, I do not know what percentage it was of my income; obviously, it's a very small percentage for any person's income.
Bonus Tip for Used Cars: Finding an Honest Car Mechanic
When you own a beater car like I've done my entire adult (and teenage ) life, you quickly learn how important finding an honest, handy mechanic is to your whole operation.
Over the years I've had some weird mechanical needs come up, mostly because I usually purchase my cars with over 100,000 miles on them and take them over the 200,000-mile threshold.
Things like non-working automatic windows, worn-out bearings, heating core leaks, and mufflers (yes, with an ‘s').
The fact is, most mechanics probably look at a rust-bucket car like mine coming into their lot as a huge opportunity. It would be a very believable story to say that anything is “on its last legs” because the whole car kinda looks like it could come apart at the next stoplight (don't worry, it legally passes inspection + emissions tests).
So how can I, and you, know that we've found an honest mechanic, especially when we don't particularly know much about cars?
My good friend Helen introduced me to the best mechanic I've ever met. He's very honest, and he's helped me out of some potentially expensive situations with a little cleverness + flexibility (such as rerouting my car so that, while there is no heat, there is also no more leak at a cost of only $95 when the alternative would have been $700. I live in Houston, so living without heat in my car is not a deal breaker).
She then told me how she ended up finding this honest mechanic, and I thought it was an extremely smart method.
We'll call this Method #1 to finding an honest mechanic:
- Helen's father is very savvy when it comes to cars, and typically fixes his own. However, on a road trip from Los Cabos to Texas, his car needed to be fixed and all his tools were left in Canada (her family has lived all over the world).
- He assessed what was wrong with the car himself.
- He went through the Yellow Pages, and visited several mechanics (with Helen as his chauffeur), until he found one that assessed it correctly and also gave him a fair price.
- Boom: he found Helen's future mechanic.
How cool is that? And let me tell you, this guy's place stays busy. People have obviously figured out that he is smart, efficient, and honest.
So the second method to finding an honest mechanic? Is to catch them NOT lying to you.
Over the years, through experience, I've spotted some dishonest mechanics (doesn't hurt that I was an environmental investigator for the State of Texas for four years — I've put those skills to good use!).
This is my own method, but I have tried it twice now and will not be going back to either of these places:
- Go in for a simple car maintenance need. Mine is always an oil change that I'm not mystery shopping.
- When they suggest you need something cosmetic added to the car, ask them to show the worn out/broken part to you.
- You'll quickly see if they're being honest or dishonest, and can gauge the rest of what they say based on that assessment.
Once I was told I needed new windshield wiper blades. I couldn't make this up if I tried: I had literally just replaced the blades three weeks earlier when I had gone for my inspection.
When I told the man this, he smiled and said, “my eyes must be failing me.” Yeah…or you didn't look at all. Worse yet, you looked but didn't care because it's some sort of policy to tack on extra work? Who knows.
The second time I was told I needed a new air filter. So I asked them to show me the old one. It was almost Orbitz-sparkling white. So I said, “well, I guess I don't really need one.” He agreed.
While owning a used vehicle comes with its own perils — possible breakdowns, not knowing the vehicle’s history, typically no warranty (unless purchasing through certain places), not having that new car smell — it is usually a much cheaper route to get you from Point A to Point B. Because of this, if and when we decide to get our second vehicle, it will be another used car.
Do you purchase new or used vehicles? What has made you decide one way or the other?
Amanda L Grossman
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Monday 28th of October 2019
I didn't know that your insurance costs will be lower if you buy a used car. Next month, my wife and I will be buying a car. We'll be sure to consider saving money by looking for used cars.
Saturday 6th of August 2016
It is always ideal to try something first before buying it. Used vehicles, most especially, should be test-driven first before purchasing them. Good article. Must read for car buyers.
Sunday 1st of May 2016
Thank you for information useful.
Tuesday 22nd of March 2016
I totally agree with your father's saying that a car is simply meant as transportation. I haven't ever bought a new car, and I don't plan to in the future. Cars and trucks lose value as soon as they're driven out of the dealership, so buying a used car, even if it's less than a year old, is almost always going to be cheaper than buying new. Thanks for the article.
Tuesday 15th of March 2016
Great advice that a car is just to get you from point A to point B. I will often get caught up "falling in love" with a certain car. Yes new cars feel great to drive off the lot, but the money saved on used is worth it for me. I recently purchased a used Civic and am very happy. Thanks for the post.