Nobody likes writing a check every month.
The joy of that new car quickly gives way to monthly misery — especially when the size of the check is sometimes equivalent to the size of a mortgage payment.
Americans are carrying an increasing amount of auto debt, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The average amount financed for a car is a whopping $31,707 and the average loan length is 69.1 months — nearly six years — up from 61 months in 2010.
That's not surprising when you consider that some trucks and SUVs cost $35,000 or more, says Bryan Bibbo, lead advisor with wealth advisory firm The J.L. Smith Group. "You have an auto loan stretched between five and seven years, and a $150,000 home loan over 30 years — and they're almost the same [amount]," Bibbo said.
As a sign that people could be struggling financially, the percentage of auto loans delinquent for more than 60 days is on the rise.
For some people, owning a car is almost more of a requirement than an option, says Eric Poe, chief operating officer of CURE, a nonprofit auto insurance firm. "The rising need for a car has caused the overall number of borrowers to rise," Poe said.
Those endless regular payments are a drag on your happiness.
"Our goal in life is to pay everything off, just the way you'd like to go into retirement free and clear," Bibbo said.
Approach dealer financing with extreme caution. You don't need to bend over backward to avoid it, but Bibbo recommends doing some research and walking in prepared.
First, check out your own bank or credit union. "You'll usually get a better rate through a big-box bank, though it's not always the case," Bibbo said. "If you've been with a bank for 20 years, it might work out."
Getting preapproved for a loan puts you in a stronger position to negotiate: You're ready with a lower interest rate than the dealer offers at first.
People may not realize it, but the dealer is able to mark up interest rates. If you walk in with a lower rate than they're going to offer, it puts you in a stronger position. "They want to sell you a loan," Bibbo said. "They'll look to give you the lowest rate possible so you write it through them."
"Do the car research, of course," he said. "But look for the right financing. If people put that two-tiered approach in, it turns out better."
Have life insurance? Bibbo suggests taking a loan against cash value life insurance. You'll pay interest on the loan, but some of that is actually put back into the loan, so you pay a lower rate.
Here's how that looks. Say you have $50,000 of value in the policy, and you'd like to borrow $30,000. Ask the insurance company how much of the interest rate — assume it is 6% — gets credited back to your account. "They might keep 2% and then 4% goes back into your cash value," Bibbo said.
Call the insurer to get a complete understanding of how the loan works.
Even if you can pay cash, see if you can use a credit card and then pay it off at the end of the month. This can be a good strategy for those who leverage credit card points.
Finally, Bibbo says, when you do buy a car, remind yourself it is not going to last you for the rest of your life.
Start saving immediately for your next car, even if it's $50 a month. After a few years, you'll either have the next down payment or — depending how much you stash —even the entire price of the car.