Help! I Owe More On My Car Than It’s Worth!

“Michael” writes in with a common question:

What do you do when you find your car is worth less than you owe on it?

This is a pretty common question, particularly given the current state of the economy. Some people are out of work. Others are looking to seriously cut back. Thus, there are a lot of people out there that would like to get rid of their current car loan – but they’ve found that their car is worth less than they owe on it. Often, there’s not enough cash laying around to make up the difference, either.

So what do you do? I see a handful of options.

Ask yourself if you really need to change cars. Many people who are underwater in their car loans are looking at upgrading their car. If you’re in this situation, spend some time asking yourself if you really need to make a change. Would this upgrade serve any purpose other than aesthetics? If there is a purpose beyond that, is it worth the huge amount of debt you would incur?

Delayed gratification is the key here. If you can put off the purchase for even a year or two, you’ll end up in substantially better financial shape than if you pushed things right now and wound up even further in the hole than you are now.

Trade down. If you still need the car for transportation, consider trading down – you’ll take a big loss on the value up front, but over the long run, it will definitely balance out.

Let’s say, for example, that you’re driving an almost-new 2009 Toyota Avalon that’s worth $6,000 less than you owe. You realize you can’t really swing the $500 a month car payments. So, you take it in and trade it for a $7,000 late model used low-end sedan. Some dealerships will accept this trade – others won’t – but what you’ll wind up with is an upside-down loan on this used car. However, the car payments will be significantly lower, as will the insurance rates.

Park it and remove insurance. If you don’t need to drive the car right now, consider parking it somewhere safe and eliminating insurance on it. This will reduce your monthly bills (no insurance), plus you’ll not actually have to give up the car – it’ll still be there for you if you return to work. It’s not accumulating miles or wear and tear, so you save on maintenance costs as well.

This strategy works well if you’re in a situation with a healthy emergency fund and are anticipating several months without work. I know of several people in this position – they’re currently staying at home, either looking for work or trying to get their own business started while living off of savings.

Get a different loan, then sell. If you have very strong credit, you might have the option to get a personal loan or perhaps add to a home equity line of credit in order to pay the car loan down enough so that you’re not upside down in the loan. When you’ve done that, actively seek to sell the car.

This is a great solution if you have strong credit (or at least access to a healthy credit line with low interest elsewhere). Essentially, you’re just eliminating the car (and its value) from the loan, leaving you with just a small debt that can be repaid over time. Plus, you get the additional savings of no insurance and no vehicle tags.

Are there any other good ideas that Michael might be able to try?

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