The Payoff: 5 things to know before buying a car

I bought my first car the same week I started my first writing job. I was 22 and didn’t have much money, but I was determined to get the car of my dreams: a Mustang GT. I remember driving it off the lot the same day I went to the dealership with a smile as wide as the Grand Canyon. And then experiencing a full-body panic attack and sobbing while telling my father, “Oh, God! I actually have to pay for this thing.”

Nine years later, my Mustang is paid off and looks as beautiful as the day I bought it. But if I could go back in time, there are a few things I would have done differently before dropping $34,000 on my dream car. So to keep you from making the same mistakes, I’ve got five tips you should follow before buying a car.

1. Balance the car you want with the car you need.

Everyone wants a cool, good-looking car. But there’s a reason there are 20 billion minivans on the road: people need them. So, as much as you might want that slick pick-up or speedy two-door, you’ll have to take into account your lifestyle. If you’ve got a family of four, a coupe is probably out of the question. If you’re a single person, chances are you don’t need a seven-seater. There’s a happy medium for everyone. You just need to find yours.

2. Check your credit and prepare your budget.

Before you even hit the dealership, be sure to look up your credit report. Each of the three nationwide credit services is legally obligated to provide you with one free credit report every year. Getting your credit report can help you better understand the kind of loan you’ll likely be eligible for.

Also, make sure you know how much money you want to spend. If you go into the dealership without a set budget, you’ll end up with a car you can’t afford, and your new-car euphoria will quickly turn to anxiety

3. Do your research.

Once you know you the kind of car you’re going to get, do your research. You’re going to want to know everything from your car’s safety rating and fuel economy to its overall reliability and how much you’ll spend a year on scheduled maintenance. The first time I realized my Mustang’s tires were more than $200 each was when I needed a new set. That was a bit of a shock to my wallet.

You’ll also want to do some in-person research. Which means you shouldn’t buy your car the first time you go to the dealership. I get it — getting a new ride is exciting. I would have run through a brick wall just to get behind the wheel of my Mustang when I first saw it. But agreeing to such a large purchase so quickly is crazy. You’re going to want to test drive your car and haggle with the salesperson over the price. You don’t want to make a $40,000 impulse buy.

4. Look for sales and incentives.

A lot of dealerships and automakers offer specific deals and incentives on vehicles that they’re trying to move off the lot. Before you head out to look for your new ride, make sure you’ve checked both the dealership’s and manufacturer’s websites to see if they’re offering any special deals on the car you’re looking for.

5. Don’t be afraid of pre-owned or used cars.

This was the one thing I was glad I did when I bought my car. At full cost, I could have spent close to $39,000 on my ‘Stang Certified pre-owned cars are lightly used vehicles that have been inspected by a dealership and certified to be in top shape. They generally come with some kind of warranty, as well. Used cars might not come with the same kind of assurances, but they also offer greater savings.

Above all, my best advice piece of advice is to enjoy your new ride. Whether you went with a Vette, pickup minivan or hatchback, it’s yours now. So have a little fun with it.

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