Home > Auto Loans > A Quick Guide to How Much Car You Can Really Afford

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If you’re planning a car purchase, and even if you’re in the middle of financing your car, a few tips from financial experts can help you save money (and hopefully guard against becoming “underwater” on your loan).

Paying off a car is, of course, a highly individual process dependent on many different personal factors like credit score (you can view two of your credit scores, updated every 14 days, for free on Credit.com), financing rate, down payment, and how much you can afford to pay each month.

When budgeting, it’s also critical to consider expenses such as your auto insurance premium, gas, and maintenance into the total cost of ownership of your vehicle.

Still, there are some general guidelines that most people can follow:

  • Financing: Experts The Zebra spoke to said they recommend auto loans not exceed 10% (for just the loan) to 20% (for the loan plus related expenses like gas and insurance) of a consumer’s gross monthly income.
  • Timeline: You should take the shortest term you can afford for two reasons: Shorter terms come with lower interest rates and they allow vehicle equity to build faster, Bob Harwood, vice president of Carloan.com in Richmond, Virginia, said. Experts cited four or five years as the ideal balance of affordable monthly payments and reasonable total interest. If you have to spread your payments out over six years (72 months) or more to get monthly payments you can afford, you might want to consider a less expensive car.

“Your goal as a consumer is to decide what works best for your monthly budget so you can decrease the long-term expense,” banker Deric Poldberg from American National Bank in Omaha, Nebraska, said.

Hypothetical Financing

The Zebra asked three financial experts from around the country for their input about what type of loan over what time period a person living in Texas making $50,000 a year (the average statewide income) should expect to pay for a 2016 Honda CR-V LX (one of the most popular cars in the U.S.) for $23,000 (a little below the MSRP).

The Verdict(s): You’ll pay between $400 and $500 per month, depending on your credit and how quickly you can/wish to pay the vehicle back. Here are three ways of getting there:

  • Per Poldberg: “For this customer, the interest rate is going to be between 4.79% – 5.49% based on the U.S. average credit score (687). Because most people finance their vehicles for five years, that would lock our customer into a rate of 4.99% for 60 months, making the monthly payment $433.93. During the term of the loan the customer would end up paying an extra $3,035.97 in interest, bringing the total out-of-pocket expense to $26,035.97. Financing your vehicle for the least amount of time possible will save hundreds or even thousands of dollars in the long run, but often people just want a lower monthly payment and disregard the long-term cost of the loan. If you financed that same CR-V for the maximum 75-month term, you’d end up paying $3,820.11 in interest (quite a bit more). But most consumers just look at the low monthly payment of $357.60 and think it’s a better deal.
  • Per Rob Jupille, president of RTJ Financial in Santa Monica, California: “Assuming a relatively ‘normal’ level of other debt, when doing a budget, generally target your auto loan to be in the neighborhood of 10% of gross pay (excluding other auto-related costs like gas, maintenance, insurance, etc.) and put at least 20% down to reduce the likelihood of being ‘upside down’ on your loan. This way, you’d look for a monthly car payment not exceeding $400 and we’d recommend shopping for a combination of interest rate and term to stay within that number.”
  • Per Harwood: “Considering that your monthly car expense (including insurance, gas, etc.) should be no more than 20% of your take home pay, we can assume that an annual income of $50,000 translates to about $3,300 in take-home pay monthly after taxes. Budgeting around $250 for secondary auto expenses leaves room for a payment of around $450. For a consumer with decent credit, the $23,000 financed over 60 months at an interest rate of 6.9% lands the payment at $454 per month. (Of course, everyone should pay off their car loan as quickly as they can, but this is a realistically affordable scenario.)”

The bottom line: For a smart financing deal, pay the most you can for the shortest amount of time and after you’ve paid off your car loan, keep saving for your next car – or for a “rainy day.”

Image: Squaredpixels

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