"Ask Brianna" is a Q&A column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I'm here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. Send your questions about postgrad life to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: I need a car to get around, but I'm trying to save money. How can I keep my driving costs in check?
A: We millennials have been accused of taking on too much debt, not properly valuing home ownership, eschewing marriage and waiting too long to have kids. Add to that list car manufacturers' fears that we don't want cars, either, thanks to Uber, public transportation and the lingering effects of the recession.
The truth is, we need cars just like the generations before us did, and recession-era grads are, in fact, showing up at the car dealership. Auto sales reached an all-time high in 2015, according to the Automotive News Data Center. Of customers who bought or leased new cars, the share who were ages 21 to 38 rose from 17 percent in 2010, to 28 percent in 2015, according to data from the Power Information Network at J.D. Power.
In places where public transportation and ride-hailing are available, combining the two can be enough to get you around town, along with the occasional rental car for adventures. But many of us can't get to work without a car or find ourselves renting one nearly every weekend. If you need your own set of wheels, these tips can keep you from getting mired in debt.
Straight from Captain Obvious herself comes this piece of advice: Buy a used car. That doesn't mean giving your neighbors a few hundred bucks for a rusty 1970s clunker like my sister did when she was in her 20s. Instead, go for a 2, 3 or 4-year-old model. You'll save almost $8,000 when you buy a 3-year-old midsized sedan instead of the latest model, according to data from car-advice website Edmunds.
Buying a used car protects you from the immediate depreciation hit of a new car, which loses almost a third of its value in the first year, according to Consumer Reports . And a used car is likely to last a long while. The average age of a passenger car on the road in 2015 hit a record 11.5 years, research firm IHS Automotive reported last year, due in part to cars' increasing reliability.
Try one of the growing number of trusted websites and apps to search used cars in your area. Ask the dealership, or the private seller if you're buying from someone else, for a Carfax vehicle history report for the car you're interested in. Make sure the car has had as few owners as possible, that it hasn't been in any major accidents, and that the owner has kept up with scheduled maintenance. Consumer Reports publishes lists of the best used cars for various budgets, starting at less than $10,000.
COMPARE MORE THAN STICKER PRICES
Before you buy, compare cars based on how much they'll cost you over time using the five-year cost calculators on the Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book websites. When you look up the total cost of owning a car, you'll see how much you can expect to pay in interest on your car loan, gas and maintenance.
"You'll find some cars are more expensive to maintain, and you don't realize that until you've already bought the car in some cases," says David Bennett, manager of automotive programs at AAA.
If you need to finance your car, a higher credit score will save you money. In most cases, good credit will get you a lower interest rate, potentially as much as several percentage points lower, a lower monthly payment and a shorter loan term. Keep your credit score in top shape by paying your bills on time, maintaining low credit card balances, and avoiding applying for additional lines of credit in the months before you get a car loan.
Most importantly, get preapproved for a loan before you enter a dealership. Shop around with your bank, credit union or a trusted online lender to get a quote. If your bank offers you an interest rate of 3.9 percent, for instance, the dealer will likely try to offer you a lower rate, Bennett says.
MINIMIZE ONGOING COSTS
Your new wheels will come with extra expenses beyond the cost of the car itself, like insurance. Compare auto insurance rates and look for discounts, including going to traffic school to remove points from your license, which lead to higher monthly premiums. Check insurance rates before you buy your car, too, because some models might cost more to insure.
There are even ways to save on gas. Use an app like GasBuddy to compare gas prices on your route, and consider using a credit card that gets you cash back on gas purchases. But take that step only if you're prepared to pay the balance in full every month. Rewards are a lot juicier when interest charges don't eat away at them.
This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet.
Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @briannamcscribe.
Consumer Reports: Best Used Cars for $25,000 and Less
NerdWallet: What Is the Total Cost of Owning a Car?