Leasing vs. Buying a Car: What’s Right for You?

By Maureen Shelly · May 11, 2023 · 6 minute read

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Leasing vs. Buying a Car: What’s Right for You?

So you’ve decided to get a new car. You’ve picked out everything from the color to the floor mats. But pump the brakes. Should you lease or buy? There are many factors to consider.

Check out this overview of leasing vs. buying, plus get help deciding how to save for your next set of wheels.

Owning vs. Leasing a Car

When you own a car, you purchase the vehicle outright from a dealer or private owner with cash or by financing it. You can keep it for as long as you want, and you can sell it in the future, if you wish.

When you lease a car, you do not own the vehicle. Instead, you make monthly payments to the owner for the right to use the vehicle. You must return the car at the end of your lease agreement or buy it at that time.

Initial Costs

When buying a car, the upfront costs are fairly obvious. You either need enough money to buy the car outright, or you need a big enough down payment to start financing the vehicle. Financing will also involve taxes, registration fees, and other charges.

When financing a car, it’s a good idea to look at the total cost: Multiply the monthly payment by the number of months in the loan, add the cost of taxes, fees, and add-ons, and finally subtract the value of any trade-in or down payment. The result is your total cost.

With leasing, the upfront costs can vary. Typically, the initial costs to lease a car include at least the first month’s payment, a security deposit, taxes, registration fees, and an acquisition fee.

Some lease charges are negotiable, according to Edmunds. They include the cap cost, or basically what the vehicle would sell for, and sometimes the “money factor,” or interest rate.

If you suspect that a dealer is marking up the money factor, you could ask for a lease based on its “buy rate”—the rate you could get from one of the dealer’s lending partners without the dealer markup.

Many other factors that may be negotiable during the leasing process are the mileage allowance (you can always try to get a higher allowance without paying extra fees); the trade-in value of any car you’re trading in; and, if you plan to buy the leased vehicle after the term, the buyout price (you can try to haggle for an amount lower than the anticipated value of the vehicle at the end of the lease).

Monthly Costs

If you buy a vehicle outright you will not have to make any monthly payments, of course. If you take out a loan, you will need to make a payment toward the principal, plus interest, each month. (You’ll also need a good credit score to finance a car.)

When leasing a car, you will be required to make monthly payments that include interest charges and taxes.

Recommended: Car vs Truck Value: Comparing How They Depreciate

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Better to Lease or Buy a Vehicle?

When you own your car, it’s yours—and you can drive it as often as you’d like. If it’s a new purchase, you’ll get a manufacturer’s warranty for three years and sometimes longer.

When you lease, typically for three or four years, the number of miles you can drive in a given year is usually limited to 10,000 to 15,000. If you exceed the mileage limit, you will pay an additional fee per mile.

Beyond mileage, you may have to be more careful when driving a leased car. Any scratches, dents, or dings could come with wear-and-tear penalties.

What about repairs? A leased car is usually still covered by the manufacturer’s warranty. Basic maintenance may also be covered.

Two other broad thoughts:

Consider Your Lifestyle

If you’re someone who simply loves to go on road trips with your mountain bike, surfboard, and camping gear in tow, owning may be a good option. That way, you never have to worry about how many miles you’ll log or the scratches your car will get as you drive through the forest.

If you’re looking for a commuter car, or if you like to have the newest model with the latest tech accessories, leasing a car may be the way to go. When your lease is up, you can look for something new.

Just realize that when the lease ends, you may face a turn-in fee if you don’t lease another car from the dealer.

Recommended: How to Spot Good vs Bad Car Value Estimates

Consider Your Finances

Before deciding to buy or lease a car, it’s crucial to look at your current financial situation.

If you have enough money tucked away to purchase the car outright, would you still have money in savings?

Or if you’re looking to take out a loan, do you have enough money coming in each month to cover the payments? Do you have enough money in an emergency fund to cover unforeseen events? If you can answer yes to these questions, you may be in good shape to buy a vehicle.

As for leasing, you should assess whether you have enough income to cover the lease payments for the entire term. Breaking a lease can be an expensive proposition: It means paying the balance due, including any penalties and fees.

You also want to ensure that you have enough money to cover any unexpected expenses, including costs for going over your mileage limit.

Recommended: Does Paying Off a Car Loan Help Your Credit?

Dollars & Sense of Leasing or Buying a Car

The monthly cost of leasing a vehicle is often lower than auto loan payments. But to parse it further, consider the costs of buying a new vs. used car. (Buying a high-mileage car has its own pros and cons.)

In one detailed comparison of leasing a car, buying a new car, and buying a used car, over the course of six years the total costs for a used car were the lowest (the comparison did not include any repairs). Leasing was the next lowest. Buying a new car had the highest total costs.

Here’s another wrinkle if you do lease: If you decide to buy the car at the end of the contract, you’ll likely pay thousands of dollars more than if you had bought it from the get-go.

Discover real-time vehicle values with Auto Tracker.¹

Now you can instantly monitor vehicle prices in this unprecedented market—to help you make smart money moves.

The Takeaway

The decision to lease vs. buy a car can rest on factors like total costs, annual mileage, and the urge to drive the latest model every few years.

Need help saving for a car, purchased or leased? A money-tracking app like SoFi’s can help.

Keep tabs on your cash flow and spending habits, and get credit score updates, at no cost.

Put your finances in gear with SoFi today.

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¹SoFi Relay offers users the ability to connect both SoFi accounts and external accounts using Plaid, Inc’s service. Vehicle Identification Number is confirmed by LexisNexis and car values are provided by J.D. Power. Auto Tracker is provided on an “as-is, as-available” basis with all faults and defects, with no warranty, express or implied. The values shown on this page are a rough estimate based on your car’s year, make, and model, but don’t take into account things such as your mileage, accident history, or car condition.

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