Why Your Car Payment is Destroying Your Financial Future
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How much is your car payment each month? How much of your monthly income, on a percentage basis, goes towards your car payment? Experian reports that the average monthly car payment breached the $500 mark for the first time in 2016.
Just let that sink in for a moment. In an age where we face financial headwinds like bloated student loans and out of whack health insurance, the average car payment is over $500. I think the underlying problem goes back to a number of things, chief among them our lust for status and comfort.
Unfortunately, last I checked, car payments don’t keep us warm at night. They don’t put food on the table. They most certainly won’t take care of us in our golden years when we want to enjoy life. However, we continue to gobble up car payments like a kid at a candy store.
Thankfully, there are ways around such a massive car payment, but it requires a shift in thinking.
Why A Massive Car Payment is Foolish
Let me step back for a moment. I don’t want to sound like I hate cars. I don’t. I love a good sports car like the next guy. My first car was a fire engine red Pontiac Firebird (that I bought with cash), and treated like it was a baby. I washed it. I waxed it. I kept it in covered parking. I loved it. But, when push came to shove I had to get rid of the car.
Back to the point…I love cars, but I hate car payments. Why is that? It’s because they do nothing to provide long-term wealth. They do nothing to increase your net worth. They do nothing to provide you shelter. In short, cars are depreciating assets, and when paired with a massive car payment, they erode your wealth.
Case in point is the negative wealth we face in our society. Negative wealth means your debt is worth more than your overall assets like a house, investments and so forth. True, with a house you may have a mortgage, but you can argue that a house will probably rise in value and thus can reap those gains upon moving.
*Related: Not certain if you should buy or lease? Check out our leasing a car vs. buying a car guide to learn which is best for you.*
A car, on the other hand, provides none of those benefits. Regarding negative wealth, reports indicate that those in America with negative wealth have 40-55% of their total assets residing in one thing – their car and that’s just plain stupid.
Just think of what you could do with an extra $500 per month. Here’s a short list off the top of my head:
- Max out your retirement account
- Save money for a down payment on a new house
- Save for your children’s college fund
- Pay off debt
There are many other things you can do with $500 – heck, that kind of money is life-changing money when managed right. This really is the key, using money as a tool to benefit your future self and not throwing it away on something that adds no value to your bottom line.
Take it a step further, though – what if you’re in the “everyone has a car payment, so it’s ok if I have one” camp? What if you always have a car payment in the $500 range? Over 20 years that’s $120,000 – and that’s not even accounting for how you could grow that money through investing.
The Hidden Risk of Large Car Payments
So we know that large car payments can destroy our financial future, but what does it mean in the present? How can they impact our day-to-day living? For starters, large car payments put you at risk if you’re unable to make your payments.
In fact, Experian reports that growing numbers of individuals are at least 60 days late on their car payments. The report points back to several key reasons for the growth – the booming car sales market and the increase in loans made to subprime borrowers.
That aside, having a large car payment puts you at risk if you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck and you take a financial hit. It varies by state, but this puts you at risk of repossession by the lender if you default. Such a situation can impact your job and your livelihood and is simply not worth the risk as it will hurt you both in the short and long-term.
If you currently have a car payment and need relief to lower payments, you may be able to refinance the car loan to lower the interest rate. This will lower your payment and help you pay it off quicker – assuming you don’t lengthen the loan of course.
Car Payments Are One of the Few Things You Can Control
If you listen to the ‘everyone has a car payment’ camp then you’d think large car payments are unavoidable and just a part of life. Just think about it for a second. You’re at an office gathering or dinner party, and you hear people complain about their finances.
*Related: Did you know it’s possible to get free gas? Check out our guide on the best ways to get free gas gift cards and lower your fuel costs.*
What are some of the common targets of their ire? You’ll almost certainly hear blame thrown at taxes; the rising price of gas; how much their daycare costs; or the cost of health insurance; you’ll rarely hear complaints about car payments. Why is that? I think it’s because we accept them as a fact of life that can’t be changed. In actuality, car payments are something we can pretty readily control.
Unless you need a nicer car for your profession, there’s no reason why you even need to consider approaching something near the average car payment. Instead, opt for that reliable and practical used car like a Honda or Toyota and pocket the difference you’d pay for a status symbol car.
Sexy, no, but all you need is something that will take you from point A to point B – sexy is saving that money for your future.
Ways to Break Free of the New Car Mindset
Much of the average car payment problem is an appetite that’s rarely satisfied. We want the status symbol or think we need a shiny new car every few years and on and on the cycle goes.
It is possible to break free of this mindset, but it does require a change in outlook about how you manage your money. It means changing it from one that seeks to have what you actually need for the present without harming your future instead of one that seeks the status of the present at the risk of the future.
More practically, you can do any of the following to break free of the new car mindset and rid yourself of the shackles of a large car payment:
- Buy used. There’s nothing wrong with a used car, and they can save you thousands of dollars. Buying new is simply stupid as depreciation hits you immediately.
- Wait until you can grow your down payment to 20 percent, or more, of the car. Put your savings in a high yield savings account, so you can earn a little something on the money.
- Wait to buy in cash
- Shop around for the best interest rate. Even the difference of 1-2% can increase your monthly payment to being too much of your monthly budget. I know many will argue the point of taking a low-interest rate loan and borrowing funds. I get that point, but a loan is a loan.
- Absolutely, positively, do not tell the dealer how much of a monthly payment you can afford. They will use that information against you to get you into a more expensive car. Don’t make their job easier for them; instead, keep your cards close to the vest.
Ultimately, breaking free of the large car payment mindset requires you to look holistically at your finances. How much of what you make will be obligated to that set of wheels? How else can you use that money to help your future self? These are questions you should ask yourself as you begin the car buying process and not thinking about what others will think of you because you roll up in a shiny new car.
How much of your monthly income is your car payment? When was the last time you bought a car and how much did you put down? Have you ever bought a car in cash?
John is the founder of Frugal Rules, a dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry whose writing has been featured in Forbes, CNBC, Yahoo Finance and more.
Passionate about helping people learn from his mistakes, John shares financial tools and tips to help you enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. One of his favorite tools is Personal Capital , which he used to plan for retirement and keep track of his finances in less than 15 minutes each month.
Another one of John's passions is helping people save $80 per month by axing their expensive cable subscriptions and replacing them with more affordable ones, like Hulu with Live TV.
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