How Much Should I Spend on a Car?

By Janet Siroto · September 19, 2023 · 6 minute read

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How Much Should I Spend on a Car?

If you’re thinking of buying a car, you are probably wondering how to budget for it. Figuring out how much to spend can be a challenge: Do you go for a cheaper used car or splash out on a fully loaded new vehicle? And how do you balance a car loan with other debt you may have?

Read on for guidelines to determine a car-buying budget so you can make the best decision for your needs. You’ll learn valuable options as well as helpful tips for when you are ready to start shopping.

Determining How Much to Spend on a Car

There are a few guidelines to consider when you’re trying to figure out how much money you should spend on a car. Before you dig into the details, perhaps start by taking a minute to balance your budget so you have an accurate idea of how much money you’re able to spend on a car.

Tally up your monthly income and all of your monthly expenses so you have a keen understanding of where you are spending your money. Once you have a solid grasp on your monthly expenses, you may be better able to determine how much to spend on a car.

Here are some common recommendations for determining how much to spend on a car. Think of these more as guidelines than hard and fast rules. They may give you an idea of how much you should spend on a car, but of course it all depends on your specific circumstances.

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The 10% Rule

The 10% rule is pretty straightforward. The general idea is to not spend more than 10% of your gross annual income on a car. But the low limit can make it difficult to stick to this rule. If you just need a car that will get you from point A to point B, you may be able to find a vehicle that will fall under 10% of your income. But if you need a car with more features or more space, you may want to consider one of the following rules.

The 36% Rule

This rule takes into consideration your total debt-to-income ratio. This guideline suggests you keep all of your debt, including your car payments, to less than 36% of your income. If you, like many Americans, have debt from credit cards, student loans, or a mortgage, you may want to calculate how a car payment would factor in.

•   Another related guideline is the 15% rule, which can be useful if the only debt you have is a mortgage. If that’s the case, the guideline suggests that you don’t spend more than 15% of your net monthly take-home pay on car expenses.

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The 20/4/10 Rule

This is a multi-part rule.

•   First, it suggests that when you buy a car, you make a down payment of 20%.

•   Secondly, it recommends that when you take out a loan to finance the car, you plan to pay it off in no more than four years.

•   Finally, the total monthly vehicle expenses shouldn’t be more than 10% of your monthly income. Having your dream car is great, but it may not be worth it if you can’t afford to save for retirement or focus on other goals because your disposable income is primarily going toward your car payments.

The 50/30/20 Rule

If you find the above rules unrealistic, you could also consider using the general 50/30/20 budget rule. This rule says that you should spend 50% of your income on needs, 30% of your income on wants, and 20% of your income should go toward saving.

Your auto loan would fall into the needs category, but if you opt for a more expensive vehicle, you could consider a portion of the payment as part of your wants. This way, you can get the car you need with the features you want, while still keeping your budget balanced by allocating some of your discretionary spending money to your car payment.

Recommended: Check out the 50/30/20 calculator to see the breakdown of your money.

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Finding a Car You Can Afford

Buying a car can be an intimidating process. Thankfully, there are plenty of options, so you can find a car that works for your lifestyle and budget. Here are some things to consider as you embark on your search for a car that fits into your budget technique.

What Are You Going to Use the Car for?

Will you use the car mostly for quick trips to and from work? Do you have a large family that you’ll be driving to and from baseball games, soccer practices, and play dates? How you plan to use the car may influence the type of car you choose to get.

It’s also worth considering the weather. Do you live in an area with harsh winters where a larger vehicle with all-wheel drive may be helpful? There are a wide variety of vehicles on the market that fill different needs so take the time to determine which features are most important to you.

Doing Your Research

Once you decide on the type of car you want to buy, you’ll want to dig into the research phase of the process, so you are familiar with the models available, the features, and their average price.

When you’ve decided on a few models, there are a variety of resources that can help you track down details on each car. Sites like Edmunds, Kelley Blue Book, and Consumer Reports have reliable information to help consumers. And hopefully being an informed shopper will take some of the intimidation out of buying a car.

Will You Buy Used or New?

You’ll also need to decide if you plan to buy a new or used car new. If you are on a tight budget, a used car may be a more affordable option. Something to remember is that a car is a depreciating asset — it typically loses around 20% of its value within the first year.

Test Driving a Few Options

Before you consider buying, consider test driving a few options. Buying a car is a big purchase, so take your time if you’re able to. It can be worth trying the car out on a few different types of roads so you can see how it drives in different settings.

It can be easy to feel pressure to make a purchase after a test-drive, but it is a standard part of the car buying process. The salesperson will likely be interested in making the sale, but there’s no reason you need to decide on the car immediately after the test-drive. One option is to let the salesperson know at the beginning of the drive that you’re still researching options and don’t plan to buy during this visit.

Being Prepared to Walk Away

When buying a car, you may have to negotiate. Haggling can be an acquired skill, but if you’ve done the research and know exactly how much the car is worth, you can dust off your negotiating skills and try using them to work out a deal you’d be happy to accept. If negotiations aren’t going well, being prepared to walk away may help.

Recommended: Budgeting for Beginners

Saving For Your New Car

As you are saving for the purchase, consider which kind of bank account can help you get to your goal ASAP.

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