Five Things You Could Afford If You Didn’t Buy a New Car

America’s love affair with cars has reached critical mass. According to Experian’s quarterly “State of the Automotive Finance Market,” the average car payment for a new vehicle is an astounding $482 per month – stretched out for 67 months, or more than five years.

That amount of money is hard to fathom on a national level, but it’s even crazier when you consider something else: The average American household is saving just 5% of their disposable income for retirement, which isn’t enough for most people to ever retire – let alone retire comfortably.

Almost worse than that is the fact that almost half of American families – including ones with ginormous car payments – couldn’t even come up with $400 to cover an emergency or financial crisis. Yes, you read that right. A recent poll by the Federal Reserve showed that 47% of families don’t have the cash reserves to cover emergency car repairs, unexpected medical bills, or any other minor life crisis that pops up.

But at least we’ll all look and feel awesome driving our new cars… right? 

What You’re Giving Up for That New Ride

Well, on second thought, maybe not. Although we recently argued that 84-month car loans might be the worst idea ever, I’m going to up the ante and say that all car payments suck. 

There are exceptions, of course. If you have the cash to pay for a car but opt for a 0% APR loan so you can invest instead, that’s super cool. Or let’s say you have other high-interest debts – borrowing money at a lower interest rate so you can completely annihilate your other loans is yet another smart use of your funds.

However, most car shopping isn’t quite so strategic. Most of the time, we head to the dealership, fall in love with something shiny, and sign our lives away without thinking twice.

We’ve been programmed to think that “everyone has a car payment,” and that it’s an inevitable fact of life. Even worse, we’re convinced that a new car is the ultimate sign of affluence – that upgrading is our “right” as we earn promotions at work, secure bigger and better paychecks, and take our position as the head of our households.

Sadly, all of that is bull$#!t, and complete propaganda perpetuated by the car dealerships and automakers who profit from our hard-earned dollars.

That’s why they pay people like Matthew McConaughey big bucks to pretend he won a huge poker game with his friends then drive away smoothly in a Lincoln MKX. When you really think about it, it’s so, so, so, so sad that we actually fall for this crap.

In an age when cars are better built and more reliable than ever, there’s no need to trade up every five years and live in a state of perpetual new-car debt.

The average age of cars on the road in the U.S. was a record-high 11.5 years in 2015. That’s just the average –meaning for every brand-new car sold, there’s another one out there that’s 20 years old — and an owner who might have been living sans car payments for 15 years by now.

Five Things You Could Afford If You Didn’t Have a Car Payment

Imagine what the world would be like if everyone (or at least most of us) saved that new-car cash and drove an old beater-mobile. Imagine if we said, “To heck with the Joneses,” and drove that smart Honda Civic to the ground instead of buying a new one every few years.

What could we buy then? And what could we save? What dreams could we achieve with that money?

It could be anything, but let’s start here:

A College Education for Your Child

While no one knows exactly how much a college education could cost five years from now, it’s fairly safe to say it will cost a pretty penny.

College Board estimates show that the average cost of tuition at a public, four-year school ranges anywhere from $4,891 in Wyoming all the way to $15,160 in New Hampshire – and that doesn’t include room, board, and living expenses. Even tuition at public, two-year schools ranges from around $2,000 per year all the way up to $6,500, depending on the state.

Obviously, a lot of what you’ll pay depends on where you live, but it also depends on what type of school your child attends, and for how long. But let’s just say your goal is to pay for most of your child’s college education – maybe not all, but as much as you can.

If you funded an investment account for your child at the moment of birth with just $500 and added $482 per month for a full 18 years, your child would leave high school with $163,921.02 for college – and that’s if your investments earned just a conservative 5% per year!

While we’re on the subject, that $482 per month could also bankroll your own online masters degree.

An Income-Producing Rental Property

While landlord horror stories may have dampened your dream of owning rental property, plenty of people still hope to get in the game one day – and it is a time-tested way to grow your wealth if you can handle the headaches. However, the biggest barrier is usually coming up with a down payment. To buy most rental properties, you need a down payment of at least 20%, plus excellent credit.

Imagine you started socking away that $482 right now, and kept doing so for four years. You might get seriously sick of your beat-up minivan by then, but you would ultimately wind up with $23,136 stashed away.

Depending on where you live, that might be enough for a down payment on a small rental to get you started. Over time, you could let your renters “pay off your property” while building equity in an investment that will hopefully increase in value over time. This plan is totally feasible, but you’ll want to prepare yourself for the realities of rental property before you get started.

An Annual Vacation to Europe (or Somewhere Else Really Cool)

Let’s say you have all your financial ducks in a row – you’re saving like crazy for your children’s college education, socking away 20% of your pay in your work-sponsored retirement accounts, and sitting on an emergency fund big enough to handle nearly anything that pops up.

That’s all fine and dandy, but are you taking the time to smell the roses? If you were able to sacrifice that monthly car payment, you would have plenty of cash to live – and travel – nearly any way you wanted.

These days, you can easily score a sale fare to Europe for $800 or less round-trip, depending on where you live. By saving that $482 per month – or $5,784 per year – you could afford to fly your family of four to Ireland, France, Italy, Portugal, or Spain every year, for example, plus pay for a standard bed-and-breakfast and most of your activities.

Or choose a cheap, all-inclusive resort in the Caribbean, and you could take your family twice per year easily. With average round-trip airfare to most places in the Caribbean at around $400, a family of four could fly for around $1,600 and still have money to select a nice property and have a boatload of fun.

New car? I’ll take a gondola, thanks. Every year you put off buying a new car is worth a trip to Venice. Photo: Piervincenzo Madeo

A 15-Year Mortgage

Just like we’re programmed to think a five- or six-year car loan is normal, we’re taught early on how it makes sense to borrow as much money as we can to buy our dream home. And of course that involves a 30-year mortgage, which is absolutely nuts if you think about it. Thirty years is a long, long time to be mailing in a monthly payment on something – anything — yet we do it all the time, on purpose.

But, what if you could get out of debt 15 years sooner? That’s exactly what you would accomplish if you took out a 15-year mortgage instead of the standard 30-year ball and chain.

Even better, a new car might be all you need to give up to make this happen, even if you already have a 30-year mortgage. Let’s say you borrowed $200,000 for your home at the going interest rate of around 4% — your monthly payment on a traditional 30-year mortgage, including principal and interest, would be about $955.

If you simply put that $482 car payment toward your mortgage principal each month, you could pay off your mortgage a full 14 and a half years earlier, and save about $75,000 in interest over the life of the loan.

Better yet, for another $42 a month ($1,479 total), you could just choose a 15-year mortgage from the outset, cutting the life of your loan in half. You’d save close to $80,000 in interest over the life of the loan.

Raise your hand if you want to be mortgage-free a full 15 years sooner. I think most of us would say, “Yes please!”

A Rocking Emergency Fund

Remember how almost half of American families don’t have an extra $400 laying around for emergencies? If you fall into that camp, forgoing the fancy car and car payment should be an absolute priority.

When you go without an emergency fund, you’re just one step away from losing it all. One job loss, a health scare that keeps you from working, or an emergency situation might be all it takes for you to lose your home, your car, and anything else you might own.

Once your car is paid off, don’t trade it in! Instead, stash away the equivalent of your monthly payment and start building your emergency fund. Based on the average American’s car payment of $482, after year one with no emergencies, you’ll have $5,784 saved up. And after your third year, you’ll have $17,352! And if you were sticking those funds in a high-interest savings account the entire time, you’d have even more stashed away.

And all you have to do is drive your old car a few years longer. Sounds look a good trade-off to me.

The Bottom Line

While the idea of driving a brand new car might get you excited, the reality of those monthly payments can be downright ugly. With all that money on the line, it’s important to consider what you’re giving up when you insist on buying new all the time. Chances are, you’re sacrificing a whole lot more than you think.

Before you head to the dealership, stop and think about what you really want. A shiny new ride – or more freedom, financial stability, and choices in life. As always, the decision is yours to make.

How do you feel about car payments? Is there something you can afford only because you don’t buy a new car every few years?

Related Articles:

Holly Johnson

Contributing Writer

Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.