Buying a Car: Picking a Car That Fits Your Needs

Buying a Car Picking a car that fits your needs

Photo courtesy of John Shepherd

Based on my recent experience buying a car, I’ve created a car-buying series that will take you through the lessons I learned. Today is Part 3 in that series.

In this post we’ll talk about the process of picking a car that fits your needs. There are a lot of cars out there and the last thing you want is the dealer picking one out for you. You don’t even want to talk to a dealer about purchasing until you’ve taken the time to research the options on your own and found the model that fits your specific priorities. But with the huge selection out there this isn’t always an easy process. Below are some of the things my wife and I found helpful when trying to narrow down our options to the one or two cars we really wanted.

CLICK HERE to get the entire 6-part guide.

Where are you now and where are you going?

When done right, a car purchase is a long-term decision. Though there are exceptions (generally people who buy very used cars), people who replace their cars every few years are typically spending more money than people who keep their cars for the long-term. So if you’re looking to maximize the financial side of your car-buying decision, you should be trying to purchase a car that will last a long time.

With that in mind, it’s important to consider not only what you want from your car immediately, but what you might want from it a few years down the road. You don’t want to buy something that fits your needs now but needs to be replaced in a couple of years. That still might happen simply because life is unpredictable, but if you can reasonably project a different need within the next few years then it only makes sense to plan for it.

It’s important here to distinguish between changes that might happen from those that will probably happen. As an example, it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to plan for a growing family just because you like your current boyfriend or girlfriend a lot. Maybe you don’t get the two-seater, but you probably shouldn’t run out and spend the extra money on a minivan either. On the other hand, if you’re newly married and either have a child on the way or have serious plans for them, then it makes more sense to plan around that reality. There’s a balance to strike between prudently planning for the future and needlessly spending more for something you may never end up needing.

What features do you want and how do they fit within your budget?

The list of available features when it comes to cars, especially new ones, is almost endless. You’re going to have to sort through these and determine which ones are truly important to you.

At the very top of the list for my wife and I were practicality, reliability and safety. In other words, could it fulfill our primary reasons for wanting a car (for us this was space and convenience with little kids in mind), could it do so with minimum ongoing maintenance, and could it keep our family safe? For us, these were really the only features we cared about. Sure a built-in DVD player, a rear-view camera or Bluetooth would be nice, but are they really necessary? For us they weren’t.

Depending on your needs and/or wants, the features you care about might be different. You might want something that’s better off-road. Or maybe you really do care about the rear-view camera or Bluetooth. Maybe you don’t need space and you really want something with a lot of horsepower. Or maybe you really want something that needs a lot of work because you just like fixing up old cars.

Each person’s priorities are different, but in any case it’s important to prioritize the features that are important to you and then understand the cost of each one. One way to do this is to compare similar models of different vehicles. How does the cost of a base-level sedan from one company compare to a base-level SUV from that same company? That can give you some sense of the cost difference for cars with different purposes. Then you can compare different levels of the same vehicle to get a sense of the price involved when you start adding on some of the luxury features. You can also compare similar models across companies with different reputations for reliability to understand the extra up-front cost there. With this last one though, keep in mind that the long-term cost of a reliable vehicle may actually be less even if the up front cost is more.

The point here is to prioritize and then evaluate. Back in Part 1 of our series you set a budget for your purchase and you need to make sure you let that budget, and not a never-ending quest for additional features, be your guide. One thought here, courtesy of Jake from iHeartBudgets, is that if features are important to you, consider looking at older, more used vehicles. You may be able to get a car with many of the features you want at a discounted price simply because it’s an older model.

Ask the internet

My wife and I had some initial ideas on the kind of car we wanted, but one of the best things we did was take our situation to the internet. There are countless forums and other venues online where you can pose questions and get some really valuable feedback. I posed our situation on my blog here and got a lot of great responses, but you don’t have to have a blog to do this.

Honestly, the most helpful input I got was from the Bogleheads forum. This is a site I primarily love for investment advice, but they also have a personal finance forum and it was there that I created a post summarizing our situation and what we were looking for and asked for advice on the kinds of cars we should consider. Not only did I get some great feedback on specific models to look at with detailed pros and cons of each one, but I received some advice that ended up changing our minds as to the type of car we wanted. We went into this process thinking one way and ended up going a different, and I think better, route because of the input we received here.

Edmunds is another site I used heavily as I researched our different options. They have detailed reviews and specifications for almost every car you can imagine, as well as numerous articles with advice for almost any car-purchasing decision you might face.

Another online resource I was able to use was Consumer Reports. Though you typically have to pay a subscription fee, my library membership actually allowed me to access Consumer Reports online for free. This was an incredibly helpful resource to evaluate reliability across different models. Even if you can’t access it for free it may be worth paying the subscription fee. The subscription cost is very low (as of this writing it’s $30 for an annual subscription or $6.95 per month), especially when compared to the hundreds or thousands of dollars it could save you on your car purchase.

How we decided on the car for us

As I mentioned above, our main priorities with our car purchase were space and convenience with a second child on the way, safety and long-term reliability. Initially this had us thinking about a hybrid SUV like the Honda CR-V or the Toyota RAV-4. Our thinking was that we’ll likely have to replace my wife’s car in the near future as well and at that point if we expand past two children as we’re planning then we could go the minivan route. In the meantime the extra space of the hybrid SUV would serve our needs.

But the advice I got from the Bogleheads forum ended up changing our minds. I had multiple people reason that if we’re really serious about adding a third child in the near future and a fourth not long after (and we are), then the best route would be to get a minivan right now. That way we’d give ourselves flexibility to handle my wife’s car on our own timeline and budget. Rather than being forced to replace it with a minivan in a few years, we could choose to replace my wife’s car when it’s convenient for us. And we could also choose to replace it with something more cost-effective, like a sedan. A sedan-minivan combination would be a lower long-term cost than our originally planned SUV-minivan combination. That flexibility is what ultimately convinced us that a minivan was the way to go.

Once we decided to get a minivan, it was a matter of finding one that met our desires for safety, reliability and space. We looked at a number of models but in the end our decision came down to just two: the Honda Odyssey and the Toyota Sienna. Every other model we looked at failed either our test for reliability or space. Once we had our options narrowed down, our search became much more focused and easier to handle.


With all of the car options out there, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. The most important step here is really thinking about the main things you want your car to be able to do. What primary functions will this car be performing, both today and for the next several years? If you can identify those key things, you can start your search with those in mind and quickly narrow your options to the specific models that best fit those needs.

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46 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Brian @ Luke1428 September 16, 2013

    When we purchased our minivan we decided a DVD player was a must. We were taking many long trips to the grandparents house and felt the kids needed some entertainment options over the 10 hr. one-way trip. Sure made portions of the trip much quieter. Makes me wonder though how I ever survived back in my childhood days on those long trips.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 16, 2013

      I can certainly see how that would be helpful. We’ll have to get a little creative when we make those longer drives. I can only keep them entertained with my singing for so long! Haha.

  • Edward - Entry Level Dilemma September 16, 2013

    Listening to NPR the other day, I discovered what I want my next car to be. Remember my post of buying a car with a credit card? That car. If it doesn’t become available for sale until next year, I could probably have most of the $6800 purchase price saved up by then. For me, there is only one feature I really want/need: high fuel economy. Anything else, whether a radio or cruise control,is just gravy.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 16, 2013

      For us, fuel economy was important as a part of the long-term cost of ownership, but didn’t stand on its own as a priority. What we ended up getting is certainly far from the most fuel-efficient vehicle, but overall we think the long-term cost of ownership will be relatively low because of it’s solid overall reliability.

      • Edward - Entry Level Dilemma September 16, 2013

        If I wasn’t driving 600+ miles per week right now and for the foreseeable future, I probably wouldn’t have fuel economy as quite so high a priority either.

  • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer September 16, 2013

    Another thorough post, Matt. You guys really did a great job of thinking things through before purchasing your vehicle. Great job!

  • Suburban Finance September 16, 2013

    We bought a car last year that I think its our needs quite well, but may not in the longer run. it’s got great re-sale value but we’ll probably just suffer through it because I don’t want to lose money.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 16, 2013

      Hopefully the re-sale value will give you guys some options. Even if you couldn’t make make all of your money, at least minimizing the losses could be nice. But I also think you’ve got a good outlook in that you can probably make the current vehicle work, even if it’s not ideal. We would have made our previous car work a little longer if it hadn’t totally died on us.

  • Grayson @ Debt Roundup September 16, 2013

    You are doing exactly what you should be doing Matt. Doing the proper research and taking the time to figure out what the right car for you is of the utmost importance.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 16, 2013

      Thanks Grayson. I definitely think it makes sense to figure at least some of this out before you actually hit the dealerships.

  • John S @ Frugal Rules September 16, 2013

    Good post Matt! We took a very similar approach in buying our last car and took plenty of time to research what we wanted and what we needed. We ended up with an Altima and hope to be able to turn that over to our six year old when she starts driving in ten years. We’ll likely get something bigger in several years once the little ones get older.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 16, 2013

      Now that’s a nice long-term plan! It’s hard for me to even imagine my son being old enough to ride the bus to school, let alone drive. But that’s definitely a worthwhile event to plan ahead for.

  • AvgJoeMoney September 16, 2013

    When my clients involved me their car-buying decisions, I’d always create an Excel spreadsheet so we could A/B/C the choices. Down the side of the sheet we’d list all of the features that were important to them. Across the top we’d list the models they’d evaluated. At the bottom of each column we’d place the price. We’d often find that the car they “were in love with” was $3k more than a car missing only one feature. The decision was often pretty easy when looked at with hard numbers.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 16, 2013

      I like that approach. Very visual. If there were more features we actually cared about that kind of thing would have been very helpful. I think an interesting thing about a number of the features is that they’re things you could handle almost or just as well without having them built into the car, but they really get you on the allure of having it come with the vehicle.

  • Michelle September 16, 2013

    There are so many options out there when it comes to cars. It can definitely be intimidating! I always want automatic everything, cruise control, and a couple of other things. I would say good gas mileage, but I do love Wranglers.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 16, 2013

      It is pretty amazing what they can cram into a vehicle these days. Even the car we ended up purchasing, which was relatively no-frills, is just so jam-packed with convenience it’s pretty astonishing.

  • DC @ Young Adult Money September 16, 2013

    I think this is one aspect of buying a car that is difficult for me. I want an SUV for future pets (and kids) down the road. I want a reliable SUV so AWD or 4WD is also what I want – my wife gets stressed driving in snow and we live in Minnesota. Problem is SUVs are more expensive than cars (sometimes significantly more so). I have to weigh needs with finances. Definitely something I think about.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 16, 2013

      There are definitely ways to balance the two. An SUV is rarely going to be the cheapest option, but it still might be the best for your lifestyle. And you don’t have to get the higher-end model. But balancing those wants against your available budget definitely can make for some tough choices.

  • Tonya September 16, 2013

    I think that’s a big mistake people make is they only think short term. What looks good/feels good now? I’m about safety and reliability too. I don’t care how sleek it looks. I also consider gas mileage very important. At this point though, by the time I buy a new car it should be able to fly. 🙂

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 16, 2013

      Haha, if you can find the flying car Tonya let me know! We’ll be in the market to replace my wife’s car before long and that sounds like a pretty cool option I might have overlooked.

  • Jacob @ iHeartBudgets September 16, 2013

    Another great breakdown of thoughtful considerations on what is bound to be someone’s second biggest purchase of their life! We’re looking Mini-van at some point as well, or possibly the anti-mustachian Sequoia (gasp!). But research and taking your time is the key to getting EXACTLY what you want and saving thousands. This isn’t a cheeseburger, it’s a MULTIPLE THOUSAND DOLLAR PURCHASE, so no need to rush into it. 🙂

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 16, 2013

      Ahh, but if only it was a cheeseburger! Although those can often come with just as many difficult choices.

      It’s funny, I was actually just talking with my mom about cars the other day and she mentioned the Sequoia as a car people get and completely fall in love with. Sounds like a reasonable option to me.

  • E.M. September 16, 2013

    There really are so many makes and models to choose from these days, let alone all the other options and packages you can add on if you wish. I’ve had my car for 4 years and so far it’s served my needs well. It is a coupe, though, and I might possibly rather have a 4-door in the future. Safety and low maintenance are key for me, too. I want something simple and reliable and it doesn’t have to have all the bells and whistles.

  • Done by Forty September 16, 2013

    My advice is generally to think minivan, hatchback/wagon, & scooter…and really think if one of those vehicles won’t meet your needs. I hope this won’t ruffle too many feathers, but the pickup truck, SUV, & sedan all seem like inefficient niche vehicles to me.

    I especially agree that if you’re pretty sure that you’re going to have 3+ kids though, then the hatchback or sedan is likely not going to be very convenient for you after a while. Better to think far ahead, like you noted.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 16, 2013

      I would look at a hatchback or sedan as a nice 2nd vehicle that’s useful for making trips that don’t involve the entire family in a more efficient way. As an example, I could drive a more fuel-efficient sedan to and from work every day rather than having to use a bigger vehicle like a minivan, and also use it to drive a couple of kids to and from soccer practice or whatever. But trips that involved the entire family would require the minivan. Anyways, it would be difficult as a primary option but could work well as a secondary one.

  • Shannon Ryan September 16, 2013

    Thanks for mentioning those forums you found helpful, Matt. We plan to replace our vehicles in the near future and those forums sound like they may come in handy. We have the SUV/sedan combo. Our family isn’t as large as you intend your family to be so an SUV worked perfectly for us. But it does make sense to get the minivan first since the likelihood of you needing all that space is pretty high!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 16, 2013

      No problem Shannon. I was pleasantly surprised at how helpful those forums can be. There are lots of smart people out there willing to give their 2 cents.

  • cashRebel September 16, 2013

    It’s painful to watch people at a car dealership who haven’t already figured out what car fits their needs. They get upsold and upsold again by the dealers and they end up walking away with a vehicle that is way more than they actually needed.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 16, 2013

      That’s exactly the situation I wanted to avoid. I know that the dealer has their best interests at heart, not mine, so I wanted to go in knowing exactly what I was looking for.

  • Your Daily Finance September 17, 2013

    For us it was about the cost, safety and size. We knew the budget we wanted to stay within and when we found the SUV that met the size and safety we just got an older model to stay within budget. Fuel wasnt as big of a concern as my wifey works pretty close to home and I work from home. Now we are considering a minivan as well so I have to get to work looking.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 17, 2013

      Going with an older model is really a great route. You have to do your research to make sure that the reliability was there for whatever year you’re looking at, but in most cases all you’re really sacrificing is some of the more luxury features. If you end up going the minivan route, I’ll be the first one in line to welcome you into the club.

  • Alexa Mason September 17, 2013

    When I bought last my car I looked for safety, room, and reliability. I was pregnant with my first daughter when I bought it so I was a safety freak. I ended up getting a Chevy Equinox have had it for five years and never had a problem. I think I made a decent choice. Now I am gonna drive her until she dies!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 17, 2013

      That’s our goal too. Drive it till it dies. It’s definitely nice having a bigger car and knowing you won’t just get trampled by some of the mammoths out on the road.

  • Andrew September 17, 2013

    When I bought my car a few years back, we didn’t have any kids but were planning on having 2 kids (possibly 3). I decided on the Sonata because it was a full sized sedan with a lot of trunk space. It also had the latest safety features as that was very important to me…that and reliability. If we ever had to add a 2nd car, we may go the minivan route too. So now that you got a minivan, will you be driving your wife’s car to work and she’ll use the minivan?

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 17, 2013

      That sounds like a pretty prudent strategy given where you guys were. I’m actually driving the minivan around for now but eventually we’ll switch. The plan is for me to drive it long enough for her to feel like it’s my car, at which point she can start “borrowing” it, haha. Needless to say, she isn’t all that psyched about having a minivan. But she’s been awesome about it.

  • jefferson @seedebtrun September 17, 2013

    Our last car buying experience went super smooth because we knew exactly what we wanted before we walked into the door. We knew what options we wanted (a rear DVD for road trips), and knew the perks that they had available. The whole process took less than an hour. It was great.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 17, 2013

      Wow, less than an hour is pretty impressive. Ours was a little bit more of a hassle, but it was done with the exact same principle in mind. You want to dictate your needs to the dealer, not the other way around.

  • Pauline @ MakeMoneyYourWay September 17, 2013

    the rav4 is my long time favorite. I should think more deeply about the reasons why I need a car, the last time I only wanted a rav4 and points for being red :s

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 17, 2013

      The Rav4 is a great car. We actually rented one on our trip to Costa Rica and loved it. If we didn’t end up wanting something bigger that definitely could have been our final choice.

      On a side note, did you know that red cars get pulled over for speeding more than any other color? I’m not sure if that’s just in the US or what, but it’s pretty interesting.

  • Kim@Eyesonthedollar September 17, 2013

    Not letting the dealer influence you is important. When we got my Altima, the salesman kept trying to get me to buy a Maxima because he said we could afford it. It was fancier, but really just had more bells and whistles and drank more gas than the Altima.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 17, 2013

      I think we were pretty lucky that the dealers we ended up working with didn’t try to up-sell us too much. Not that it would have mattered in our decision-making, but it would have been an extra thing to deal with. You guys were smart to have a plan going in.

  • MoneySmartGuides September 17, 2013

    I actually was thinking about this today. I just got a rental car today and got to thinking where the heck do you even start when you are buying a new car? There are so many out there and so many options you can get on each one! I have an older car that I love, but most important to me right now is to not have a car payment. So for now, I don’t have to worry about it. But all good points for when I do eventually start considering.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney September 17, 2013

      I was pretty intimidated when I started out. I knew pretty much nothing about cars so I was starting with the whole universe of cars to choose from. But it’s just like anything you have to learn for the first time. You start somewhere and slowly chip away. Eventually things start to make a little more sense.

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