Getting a Safe, Reliable and Cost-Effective Car Without Breaking Your Budget

publication date: Jul 10, 2018


Even though I’ve done so many times now, I still find buying a car a challenge. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel this way if I were one of those people who simply walk in and pay whatever the dealer is asking and doesn’t push back on the numerous ancillary charges they are notorious for adding onto the final bill. I don’t like wasting money and whenever I’m buying something, I’m always thinking of you, my readers and trying to do things in a way so that I can learn and explain how you can get better deals and not throw money away.

I recently accompanied a younger relative to several auto dealers to assist him with buying a used car. Like many young adults, this young man was trying to stay within a budget. He had, however, managed to save enough so that he was willing and able to spend about $15,000 total for a car.

While there are some new cars available within that price range, he wasn’t interested in a smaller or less safe car. And, he also knew that most new cars depreciate greatly in their first few years of life. According to Consumer Reports, “…the new-car premium you pay for a tricked-out vehicle often vanishes the second time around. As new technology evolves, the old-tech gadgets depreciate faster than the rest of the car, according to data from TrueCar. Most cars are worth about half their sticker price when they hit the three-year mark, but technology loses a larger chunk of its value as its relative obsolescence gets factored in.”

I knew from prior experiences that I didn’t want to get “trapped” at a dealership negotiating on price because I had been subjected to long waits, stalling and endless statements along the lines of, “I’ll need to run that by my sales manager…” My previous strategy, which had worked out pretty well for me in the past, had been to find a car or two that I liked, make an excuse as to why I wasn’t quite ready yet to buy (“I need to check with my wife”) and then call from home and negotiate by phone so I could exit the situation if my time was being wasted.

In this case, however, because I was helping a young man and letting him do as much handling of the situation as possible to help him learn and gain experience, I coached him before we got to dealerships and spoke with him more when the salesman was out of earshot. He found a car that met his major criteria and it was priced at about $15,900. After some back and forth with the salesman over the phone and via text messages, we had a tentative agreement to buy the used car for what we thought was a bottom line price of $15,500 which was a little more than he wished to spend but close to his budgeted amount. 

We got to the dealer expecting to complete the paperwork on the transaction, but we ended up sitting around for nearly an hour while the salesman was busy doing something including getting our paperwork together. When he presented us with the document totaling up the cost of the car, I immediately saw that we had a big problem – starting from the price of $15,500, taxes and numerous other fees were added which brought the actual bottom line for the car to more than $17,500 – about 13 percent higher than the price we thought we were getting.

I went back and reviewed the communication my young relative had had with the salesman and concluded that some of this was the result of a misunderstanding but much of it was due to the salesman trying to take advantage of an inexperienced and young car buyer. We walked away, somewhat discouraged and disappointed, and started over. In discussing this with the sales manager at this dealership I learned that a “CLD” fee of $177 that was added for a supplemental collision loss damage waiver auto insurance policy which paid out if you were in had an auto claim and were out the deductible. When I expressed we had no interest in this, the manager claimed that he had to include it on every deal otherwise it might be viewed as discriminating against some customers. When I insisted it be removed, he said he could do so by refunding it after the completion of the transaction. Still, we were way too far apart on the price.

With another dealership, we had no less than four frustrating interactions with salespeople. After finding a specific car we were interested in on their website, two different salespeople promised to get back to us regarding some questions we had about the conditions of the car’s tires and breaks – they never did. A third salesman, who actually worked in the new car department successfully answered our questions from information at his fingertips and assured us he would get to us shortly regarding what he could do on the price. Instead, he had another used car salesman contact us who had information on a completely different car. By the time he got back on track about the car we were interested in, it had been sold. Exasperated, I contacted the used car sales manager and told him our tale of woe. To his credit, he was highly apologetic and wanted to sell us a car at a really good price. To my pleasant surprise, he was willing to discount a $15,900 car to just $15,000 bottom line total out the door price including taxes, state licensing and registration fees, etc. This time we got everything in writing before agreeing to the deal.

Car Buying Tips

I’ve never particularly enjoyed the process of buying a car. It’s something that I do infrequently and the negotiation process with auto salesmen almost always has problems, stress, etc. That said, I always remind myself that it’s my money at stake and there are many cars out there for sale if the one I’m currently considering doesn’t work out.

Here are my best tips for you to get a great car at a favorable price:

  • Research car models before you even set foot in an auto showroom or dealer’s lot. In my own case, I won’t even consider cars that don’t have the highest (five-star) crash test rating. I also recommend cars that are reliable and not too costly to maintain over the years.
  • Research car dealers in advance of visiting them. There are many sources for reviews online. That’s not to say that all posted reviews are objective, but you can sometimes eliminate the worst dealers and find those that have more satisfied customers.
  • Visit dealers to view and possibly test drive specific cars you’ve pre-screened online as meeting your general criteria. Never buy a car in that same trip!
  • Don’t get sucked into the monthly payment mentality that car sellers try to push by advocating leasing or taking out an auto loan. Leasing is made to appear artificially lower priced by having you make an up-front payment of thousands of dollars. When you spread that cost over the term of the lease, the monthly lease expense ends up being far costlier.
  • If you’ve found a car that you’re interested in buying, do some research on sites like Kelly Blue Book (, Edmunds ( and Consumer Reports ( to determine what is a fair sales price for the car. Also review the car’s history through reports like CarFax.
  • If something appears too good to be true, it surely has something wrong with it. I found a car online that turned out to be priced more than $2,000 less than the low end of other dealer prices. The initial reviews I found for this dealer online were quite favorable but then I found some on Yelp that recounted horror stories of previous buyers at this used car lot that ended up with cars with major problems that the dealer did nothing about. Another red flag – the dealer never sent me the promised CarFax for his low-cost car.
  • Call the salesman and negotiate over the phone. That way, you can more easily extract yourself and walk away if it’s not working out efficiently. Sketch out in advance the key points you wish to make.
  • Ask them for the bottom line, out the door price on the car which would include state sales tax (which in most states is around 6 percent) as well as any other dealer fees for required paperwork (e.g. filing documents of the transaction with the state). Question the fees and insist the dealer remove any unnecessary fees and reduce exorbitant fees.
  • Always remember that if the dealer is expecting too much or otherwise being difficult to work with, you can walk away and find similar cars elsewhere. If they are being unpleasant now when they are trying to make a sale, it’s probably only getting to get worse once you might buy a car from them.



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Copyright Eric Tyson, 2008 - 2023 all rights reserved.

Eric Tyson is the only best-selling personal finance author who has an extensive background as an hourly-based financial advisor and who does not accept speaking fees, endorsement deals or fees of any type from companies in the financial services industry or product or service providers recommended in his articles, books and his publications.