As you begin your career, you might suddenly realize that your beat up old faithful from college looks a little shabby parked in the company lot. Though I don’t believe a car determines your worth as an employee in any way, it might boost your confidence to have a vehicle to match your new professional image.

Car buying can be a real challenge. If you are anything like me, car buying was uncharted territory. My Dad handled the negotiations for my first vehicle and so I had no idea how this whole car buying thing worked when it was my turn.  Thankfully, after a few days of intensive research on cars / car buying, I gained some great tips from friends and the Internet. The experience was a lesson in negotiation, assertiveness, and stamina. This was not an easy ride, but Roxy (my first new car) was definitely worth it. I thought that I would share some of my new-found car buying wisdom here for those interested.

1. Know that car buying is an endurance sport. Do not expect to sprint through the car buying process! Rushing to a purchase might prevent you from getting the best bang for your buck. If done correctly, the process will take several days – even weeks – so plan accordingly.

2. Determine your budget. This article provides great information on choosing the right car to fit your budget. If you will be financing your vehicle, use this Payment to Income Budget Calculator to determine your recommended monthly payments by gross monthly salary.

3. Figure out which cars fit your budget and read reviews on each.  Edmunds provides a snap shot of the most important information about most makes / models of vehicles that you might be interested in. You will find specifications, available color options, pros/cons, consumer reviews, MSRP information, and much, much more. You may also consult dealership websites for internet prices, but know that there is most often still significant mark-up on these prices and that you’ll likely be able to talk them down from there.  Do your homework thoroughly so you can narrow your choices down based on your budget and preferences. (Remember, there is often a big difference between what you need and what you want!)

4. Test drive as many cars as you’d like, as many times as you deem necessary. Once you’ve narrowed down your options, do take the time to test drive each of them. Even with the best reviews, you need to know what the vehicle feels like with you behind the driver’s seat. Although this is a great way to build a relationship with a dealer, you don’t have to test drive at the dealership where you plan to purchase your vehicle, so don’t feel bad for taking their time. Go back as many times as necessary for you to know exactly what vehicle you want – down to the color and extras. Do make sure you understand the differences in packages (for instance, a “comfort” package v. an “anniversary” package) and pen down your preference so that you can refer to it later.

5. Timing is everything. The best time of the year to buy a car is in December, or July – October. During these times, car dealers are trying to clear their inventories to make room for the release of new models. If your circumstances don’t allow you to wait this long, do try to buy around major holidays, as dealerships will have special offers (we received another $500 rebate because of St. Patricks’ Day!).  Also keep a close watch on big sales events, like the “Nissan Now” sales event, or the Ford “Sign and Drive” event. These are packed with rebates, making a new vehicle much more affordable.

6. Contact dealers via the Internet to start gathering quotes. This is where the fun starts. Negotiating is an art; don’t underestimate the process. Identify a few dealerships who have online vehicle listings that match your exact specifications. Initiate contact by requesting more information (including cost) of listed vehicles, or simply send an e-mail with your vehicle specifications to see if they have any on the lot that are not posted online. You want to get quotes in writing, so request e-mail contact only. As a girl, most dealers will underestimate your car buying prowess, so use this to your advantage. Once dealers get back to you with prices, you can start pitting them off against each other. For instance, “I have been offered a very competitive rate of $(price) at XYZ dealership. I’d much prefer to deal locally/I’ve enjoyed working with you up to this point, so if you can beat that price I’ll drive the vehicle off of your lot by (day).” I recommend that you focus your efforts on no more than 3 dealers, as this back-and-forth process can take a lot of your time and energy. It works beautifully, though, as dealers start to compete with one another realizing that you can get the exact car that you want elsewhere easily. Try not to feel bad, as this is merely a part of the process. You will be surprised how easy it is to keep pushing them towards their rock-bottom price.

7. Prepare the documents that you will need to close the sale. Once you’ve identified your top dealership, arrange a time to go close the deal (though they only need to know you are scheduling a test drive). Make sure that you have all the necessary documents before setting foot on the lot. At the very least, you will need your driver’s license, proof of new/existing insurance, and your down payment (cash, money order, check, or credit card – why not get those sky miles?). If you are planning to finance, you should also prepare proof of your employment status. Usually pay stubs will do here and it will count in your favor if you’ve been employed for more than 6 months at the time of purchase. I also recommend that you walk in to the dealership knowing what your credit score is. I have learned that the only reputable free credit score website is Annual Credit Report, which will grant you free access to all 3 credit reporting agencies once a year. It will also be to your benefit to get pre-authorized for financing through your bank or local credit union so that you can weigh the dealer’s financing terms against others. Finally, make sure to check the rebate offers to see what other documentation you might require. For instance, a “recent graduate” rebate might require a copy of your diploma as proof that you graduated within the last 2 years.

8. Pack a negotiation survival kit. Do not go to the dealership on an empty stomach! The day of sale can get excruciatingly long (remember, endurance sport). Many dealers will try to wear you down so that you’ll sign just about anything to get out of there, so make sure that you take some snacks and water. It will also help if you have printouts of all your research so that you can refer to that as the negotiations take place.

9. Visit your top dealerships and negotiate further in person. Just because you have negotiated via e-mail does not mean that the dealer has given you their bottom line price. It is likely that they will be willing to go down even further in person. Make sure that you don’t seem too attached to the vehicle in question and that the dealer knows that you can walk away at any point and get the same vehicle elsewhere. Just stick to your guns and push for further discounts as much as possible.

10. Watch out for unnecessary add-ons. Just when you think you’re on your way out the door, you’ll get sent to the financing guy, who will walk you through your financing options. He/she will likely talk so fast that you can’t keep up, and you’ll likely end up feeling like a complete idiot. (All the more reason for you to get pre-authorized for financing through an agency that you trust). The finance guy/girl will also do their best to sell you on some dealer options, so tread carefully here. Many of them are unnecessary and confusing. See this article for the top 5 dealer options to avoid during the sales pitch. Do your homework ahead of time, especially in terms of extended warranties and service plans so that you will know how reasonable the dealership’s plans are.

11. Get the tour! After a long day, you’ll be ready to get out of the dealership as soon as humanly possible. Do fight the urge to rush through the final send-off. Your dealer will walk you through the ins and outs of your new vehicle and will often also help you to set up your technology. Make sure to ask as many questions as you need to operate your vehicle safely on your ride home. Adjust your mirrors, put on your favorite tunes, and hit the highway in style!

12. Don’t forget your insurance! Now that you’re all caught up in the excitement of being a proud new car owner, don’t forget to update /purchase your car insurance straight away. No need to tempt Murphy’s Law, is there?

Wow, I sure did learn a lot through this process! I can’t guarantee that this method will work for everyone, but it has for me (we saved nearly $7,500 off of MSRP!) and countless others. As a parting thought, the video below offers a summary of the Top 5 mistakes to avoid as you go through the car buying process.


Happy negotiating, friends!


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Vera Chapman, Ph.D., is Mommy to a super active (and adorably willful) toddler boy, a creative spirit, and a cheerleader for meaningful living. Born and raised in sunny South Africa, Vera now freezes in beautiful upstate New York, where she strives each day to live on purpose while balancing her career as mid-level manager and career counselor at a highly selective liberal arts college. In her free time, Vera creates custom clothing for little munkis (, and, along with her rugby-obsessed husband, is preparing for the arrival of their baby girl in March. To learn more about Vera’s professional accomplishments, visit her LinkedIn profile:

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