Money Motivation: Key car-buying tips for college students

Sam Kozlowski & Zak Royka

Digital Editor & Reporter

Buying a good car is not only a draining task, but an expensive one too! For this reason, we compiled a list of car-buying tips for you.

Understand what the car needs to do, really and truly. Nobody lives the Instagram lifestyle of cruising in Lamborghinis on weekend trips in southern Italy, especially not college students trying to get a set of wheels that won’t explode. For the majority of us, a car is a necessity of life that is needed to transport groceries and occasionally some more serious luggage. Take into mind things like interior space, fuel economy, and total cost of ownership (don’t forget tax and insurance) before you purchase anything. Spreadsheet software (or your calculator and notes apps) can help keep all of this information straight when you are on the hunt for your next set of wheels.

Use all available resources

There are plenty of online resources that say how it is to live with any given vehicle. From professional sources like Kelley Blue Book ( or, to the more informal, but equally valuable internet forums and even subreddit. The internet holds an array of information on even the most obscure vehicles. A good place to start would be a google search with the form “Year Make Model problems.” For example, with my own car the search would be “1986 Honda Accord problems” and this leads to passionate fans of these cars laying it down like it is, not a salesman trying to extract money towards a commission. If you think you found ‘the one’, then it might be worth checking the vehicle’s history report from a service like CarFax or AutoCheck. For a fee (CarFax is $40), these websites can provide a report on the history of a vehicle. However, the data they provide is not always accurate and can be misleading. 

Budget ahead

Buying a car takes a lot of time and money, whether you buy a $1,000 beater or a $20,000 dreamboat. Cheap cars can be a blessing or a curse. Although you may find a great deal, sometimes persistent and unavoidable maintenance costs will draw on your bank account and free time like a leech. If you have prior mechanical experience and are willing to put in the time and effort, most anything non catastrophic can be fixed relatively cheaply. By catastrophic, I mean failure of significant driveline components like a bent connecting rod or warped cylinder head. With cheap cars, you’ll often run up against the old adage “time is money.” If you enjoy working on cars and are in a situation where reliability is not your main concern, go right ahead and purchase a smoking, 30 year old Camaro. Otherwise, steer clear and stick with small monthly payments or use cash on reliable, modern econoboxes.

Consider cash

Fully purchasing a used car with cash has several benefits as opposed to taking out a car loan. Buying a car outright means you have full ownership from day one, no monthly payments and you avoid any additional interest payments you would be spending with a loan. Having cash ready to pay for a car also gives you increased leverage when negotiating at the dealership. 

Always test drive your cars before buying if you can. If shopping online, look for proven, reputable sellers. Make sure the cars you like have high-quality pictures, detailed descriptions of their mileage, location and transmission. 

Have fun

If you have gotten this far in this article, there is a good chance that you deeply enjoy driving; embrace that. There are plenty of eat-your-vegetables cars out there, and there is nothing wrong with the design philosophy of function over fun, but don’t pigeonhole yourself into the seemingly responsible choice. Happiness is worth a lot in life. Making mistakes is how people learn and do better. So don’t be too afraid to go for the adventurous option, but be smart and play the long game regarding your financial future. 

Patience and persistence

It may seem obvious, but one of the main issues that crops up when hunting for the perfect car is fatigue. After a few weeks of searching for the right deal, previously unthinkable cars might start to look appealing (I’m looking at you, lightly used, rebuilt minivan!) Be warned, this is a trap! Our brains always try to take the easy way out that involves the least amount of work in the short-term. ‘Patience is key’ remains true when looking for the right car (or house, and many other big purchases in life). This mindset can get you into an unsatisfying and/or subpar car. Stick to your goals and ride on. 

In conclusion, keep your fluids in check. Buying a car is expensive, but it will cost you even more if you fail to maintain it. Most cars last a long time if their fluids are refilled when they need to be. 

Remember, always do research on the car you want and what will work best for you in the long-term.


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