Car payments: ‘Til death do us part

Your car breaks down on the side of the road … again. It's rush hour and it won't start. You have to have it towed and you're not happy about it. At all.

So what do you do?

You head to the local dealership in a fury, ready to replace it with something far more reliable, but also affordable. But the dealership has a few tricks up their sleeve and, according to Paul (the salesman helping you), it must be your lucky day. Amazingly, your car died at the most opportune time in history.

“Amazing deals are on the table for today only, folks, and we are in the midst of a complete liquidation,” says Paul. “Prices are being slashed left and right, and you need to act fast.”

“This is the sale of the century!!!”

So you bite, and before you know it you're standing in front of a shiny, new sedan covered with stickers exclaiming things like “0 PERCENT INTEREST” and “$2,500 CASH BACK.”

You slide into the plastic-covered seat and breathe in that indescribable new car smell. You play with the knobs and the radio, and you notice how little squares of plastic have been methodically placed to shelter the dashboard from the germs and fingerprints of anyone who dare touch this car. The flawless upholstery is still largely untouched, never having been exposed to the rain, the sludge of winter, or your toddler's leaky sippy cup. You like it.

“Pick your payment and I'll make it work,” says Paul.

And the rest is history.

The High Cost of a Low Monthly Payment

This kind of scenario happens every day of the year and all over the country. It happened to me when I was 22 years old. At the time, I had a job making something like $8 an hour but had just gotten my residential real estate license. I headed to the dealership, convinced that I needed a newer car to drive around all of the clients I would surely have. (Feel free to laugh.) Soon I was talking to a shark of a salesman — a nice guy — who used buzz words like “elegant,” “sophisticated,” and “successful” to describe how I could look in something new. And I bought it all hook, line, and sinker.

Even though I went to the dealership with something much more modest in mind, I pulled out of there with a brand new Mitsubishi Galant, a $24,000 loan, and a monthly payment somewhere close to $500. Even worse, I quickly found out that I was a terrible saleswoman and never sold a thing.

But I still had that payment.

Car Payments: ‘Til Death Do Us Part

And I'm not the only one. A recent study from Experian shows that Americans continue to spend lavishly on new cars, despite the fact that wages have mostly stagnated and the median household income continues to hover at around $51,000 per year. A few of the key findings from Experian's report:

  • The average car loan for a new vehicle climbed to $27,430 in Q4 of 2013, up from $26,691 the year before.
  • The average monthly payment for a new car loan rose to $471/month.

According to Experian, new car leases are also on the rise accounting for 28.4 percent of all new vehicles financed in Q4 2013 and with an average payment of $420 per month.

“Leasing continues to grow in popularity among car shoppers, especially those hoping to stay within a strict monthly budget,” Melinda Zabritski, senior director of automotive credit for Experian Automotive, said in a press release. “Our analysis this quarter showed that the average monthly lease payment was $51 lower than the average loan payment, which can make a big difference to consumers trying to stretch their dollar.”

But What If…

The new car industry probably loves hearing that new car loans continue to rise. But the family budget? Not so much. At nearly $500 per month, that payment is as much as some families spend on groceries or even a small mortgage.

But what if you chose to do things differently and forgo a new vehicle every five years? What if you drove something older and cheaper and paid it off? Or paid cash to begin with?

What could you do with an extra $471 per month? What would that mean to your bottom line? A few ideas:

  • You could pay down debt. No matter where you are in your financial journey, freeing up an additional $471 monthly could make a world of difference.
  • You could save it. Pocketing the average car payment for five years would mean adding another $28,260 to your savings.
  • You could invest it. Investing $471 each month into an account earning 4 percent would yield $31.837.57 after five years. Invest that amount for ten years and you could be sitting on $70,572.85.

And that's not all. Imagine having an extra $471 each month to help your kids pay for college, or using it to beef up your dream vacation fund. You could even set it aside and use it to pay for your next car with cash. After all, whatever you're driving won't last forever.

And obviously, the choice isn't just between buying a new car and keeping your old one. Some people drive considerably more than most people and need something reliable. Others want the “new car warranty” that protects them from out-of-pocket repairs and the worst-case scenario of getting stuck with a lemon. Fortunately, the average car loan can easily be cut in half on even a new car, simply by choosing an inexpensive model. even offers a list of the cheapest 2014 models that start at considerably less than the average car loan, including three that cost around half:

  • 2014 Chevrolet Spark — $12,995
  • 2014 Mitsubishi Mirage — $13,790
  • 2014 Nissan Versa — $13,800

You can even shop around for a reliable used car. Remember, the experts say that a new car loses 20 percent of its value within a year and up to 60 percent of its value within five years. If you have to replace your car, consider buying a used model with low mileage and a warranty.

Break Up With Your Car Payment … For Good

The new car smell, the way your friends ooohhhh and ahhhhh as you pull into your driveway, the sense of pride you feel when you pick your kids up at school, all of that is an illusion — a fantasy –– perpetuated by an industry that desperately wants you to see your new car as a symbol of your status and a sign of success.

We're paying dearly for the privilege and giving up far more than what we get in return. Next time you are in the market for reliable transportation, don't forget to run the numbers. Calculate the real cost of a new car and ask yourself, “Is it worth what I'm giving up?”

Chances are, the answer will be no.

More about...Debt

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