The process of buying a car can be deeply confusing and at times, even stressful. Trying to conduct a fortune-telling session about how much you’ll like the car two years from now, how comfortable you’ll be with its maintenance and repair requirements, and how your financial situation may change down the road often creates the kind of paralysis-by-analysis that leads to poor decision making.

There’s no one to stop you from making a mistake when you choose the car you think is a perfect fit for your lifestyle, budget, and image. In fact, automobile manufacturers invest heavily in swaying you toward their product.

The auto industry spends a great deal of time and money marketing their products to kids that aren’t old enough to drive. Even in the 1990’s, children were targeted with advertising during shows like Blue’s Clues. There’s a current Town and Country ad that features kid-to-kid minivan envy, and the marketing efforts don’t stop at television and print.

Social media campaigns targeted to young teens set them up to develop ideas about their “dream car” long before they’re old enough (or financially secure enough) to own and drive it.

Once you’ve decided to give in to a mental image of a certain car and how great it would be to drive it, you’ll mentally create a scenario that makes it possible, at nearly any cost. This is one of the reasons buying the right car is so difficult. Clinging to reality in the face of powerful image campaigns launched by automobile companies with seemingly endless marketing budgets is a huge challenge.

Stay away from car lots

It may seem counterintuitive, but avoiding car lots while you try to decide which automobile is best for you is a solid plan. Getting swept up in the idea of driving a fire engine red hatchback before you learn about whether it will accommodate your kids’ car seats is a real possibility for most people.

Don’t crowdsource your automobile choice

Your friends and family may have great advice for you about which car they think you should drive. But they aren’t you, so it’s OK to ignore them. They want good things for you, however they don’t have all the information about your wants and needs, so it’s best to make the decision yourself.

Be aware that advice from outside sources nearly always comes from one of these motivations. People are naturally helpful, and getting advice is fine, but simply being aware of natural motivations will help you remain focused.

Confirmation bias

After you make a decision for yourself, you are more likely to tell others to make the same decision.

Anecdotal evidence

If you have an unpleasant experience, you’ll want everyone you know to stay away from the car or brand you had the bad experience with. This doesn’t necessarily mean to the car or brand is bad, statistically speaking.

Ratings and reviews

Cars are just as likely to get bad reviews because the driver doesn’t understand how to use the new features as they are because of unreliability.

Stop shopping for a deal

Heading out on a car shopping excursion to find the “best deal” could land you in a lot of trouble. Cars that are a deal often carry hidden costs. There’s no such thing as a great deal on the wrong car.

Now that you are firmly rooted in reality, it’s time to set a budget. Start by taking a hard look at how much money you spend to drive the car you have, now.

Gather this information:

  • If you have a car payment, how much is it every month?
  • How much are your insurance premiums?
  • How much have you spent on maintenance and repairs over the past two years?
  • How much do you spend on gasoline?

Figure out the monthly average of those costs and look closely at your overall budget. How much more are you able to spend on the monthly costs associated with owning and driving a car?

Take the number as far up as you can. Many people make the mistake of trying to restrict themselves to an unrealistic budget and then can’t get the car they need without blowing the budget.

Instead, give yourself a realistic and firm but high number. If you can get the vehicle that meets your needs for less money, that’s great.

The rule that makes good sense for most people financially is this:

If you must have a new car, lease one. If you are OK with driving a pre-owned vehicle, look for one that is three years old for the best deal on price and the best chance of getting new features and car with fewer kilometers on the odometer. A three-year-old automobile may still be under warranty, as well.

Assess your tolerance for risk

Even new cars come with surprises, so think ahead a bit to how much risk you are willing to take. Do you have the funds to pay for a repair that isn’t covered under the warranty? Can you handle having to go without your car for a few days if it needs to be in the shop? People who drive older vehicles for fun, or who consider a 1977 Jaguar XJ6C their dream car understand that maintenance and repairs are much different on this type of vehicle than if they would be on a 2017 Toyota Corolla.

Assess you driving needs

This is an area that most people have trouble with. When assessing your driving needs, think about your day-to-day life, and try to disregard the once-in-awhile needs. For example, if you take a carload of kids to school most days, a two-door sedan will cause the whole family pain. A mini-van or SUV is a better vehicle to consider. If your relatives visit from out of town several times each year but you don’t often carry passengers outside of those times, the two-door sedan will probably be a fine choice. Simply rent a minivan for those infrequent times when you need more room.

If you are changing the type of vehicle you drive to save gas money, make sure you factor in the entire cost of driving a new car. While the fuel costs may be difficult in your current situation, adding a bunch of unnecessary (and expensive) debt doesn’t automatically put you in a better financial situation.

Getting the car you want

Humans make decisions from an emotional place. We are wired to collect information from a lot of sources; both those that we are aware of and those that we are not aware of.

Getting the car you want is the ultimate goal, and wanting the car you need is part of the decision-making process. Changing your mind about the vehicle you decide to buy a year or two from now could cost you thousands of dollars, and a lot of extra time. Making a careful and well-thought-out decision means you’ll get to drive a car that you want that meets your needs at a price you like for a long time.

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