The Family Car – How to make the smart choice

car

When you have kids, you NEED a car. Having a car is probably second to only the washing machine as a possession that I would find it very hard to live without.

However, it can be very confusing to decide how to go about getting a car. Should you get a used car? New car? Buy it? Lease it? Take the one with a rebate or lower interest? And unfortunately, you can’t ask a dealer because they will tell you that you should do what will make them the most money at that time. All “free gas for a year!” promotions and “0%!!!!” have a profit margin built in to them so don’t be fooled that you are getting a “deal”.

At the end of the day you need to remember that a car is a depreciable asset and prior to getting a car you need to consider the following:

1) What kind of monthly payment can you afford?

This should include the cost of the car AND the insurance (and insurance will be different depending on the type of car you get). Most financial experts would recommend that a car should be paid off within 3 years, so it is a good bench mark to use when considering the price range of the car.

The best way to figure out what kind of car you can afford you should do the following:

Step 1 –  Take the price of the car and add all the applicable fees and taxes

Step 2 – Divide that amount by 3 to see how much you should be spending per year

Step 3 – Next, divide that amount by 12 to see what your monthly cost would be. Add the insurance premium you would expect to pay for that car.

Step 4 – Compare that to what you have allocated for your monthly car budget or stick it into the budget template and see what percentage of your overall budget it comes out to be. If the amount is higher, you most likely CANNOT AFFORD IT. Pick a cheaper car.

2. Should you buy or lease?

From a responsible financial standpoint, the general consensus is that buying is always a better choice than leasing in the long-run. The reason is that buying results in ownership and presumably you will have an asset at a time when you aren’t making a payment. If the average life of a car is 10 years and you pay your car off in 3, you will have 7 years of no car payments. That could be a HUGE savings, even if you factor in the higher maintenance costs associated with an older car.

Leasing means you will always have a car payment and nothing to show for it. Insurance is usually higher on a leased car, most leases still require a down payment (which you will have to come up with every time you get a new lease),  your payment has an amount for depreciation worked into the monthly cost AND when you return the car you can be hit with extra fees for going over your allowed mileage and “above normal” wear and tear on the car (and “above normal” is determined by the dealer). I had a friend who had to pay a $2,000 fee for above normal wear and tear on a leased Audi (apparently the rims were more scratched up then they should have been).

I think leasing makes sense if you relocate often and moving a car around would be inefficient/expensive. Also, leasing can sometimes be a better choice for those who are strapped for cash because monthly payments are often lower because they are often done over a longer-term. You also don’t have to worry about reselling it later on since the dealer takes that risk. Lastly, I guess if you are the type of person who always wants to have a new car than leasing is a good option but to me its in the same category as leasing a fridge or a TV and I think is just silly when you have kids.

3. Should you buy/lease the car with the rebate or the low-interest?

Again, its all about the math and the best choice is the one that has the lowest overall cost at the end of the loan. I recently read that zero interest, or a number close to zero, is “the crack cocaine of consumer financing, and automaker ads stress this to make the purchase of vehicles guilt-free”. And I know plenty of smart people who totally fell for this. “This car is ONLY 0.9% interest!” and then justify spending MORE money on a car because they think they are getting a better “deal”.

For example, say you are comparing two cars, each with a base price of $30,000.

Car 1 has a 0.9% financing rate for 5 years and Car 2 has a $5,000 rebate at 3.99% for 5 years – what is the better deal?

Car 1 vs Car 2

 

In this case, the car with the higher interest rate (but with a rebate) is actually the better deal.

But if you are buying and find that the two deals result in the same overall cost —say, choosing between a large rebate with a higher interest or no rebate but with a zero percent interest for five years—taking the rebate is the better strategy.This is because you get the savings right away via discount on the purchase price, whereas the interest savings on the 0% (or whatever the low interest rate is) are earned over the life of the loan. If the car is written off early or you want to sell it before financing is paid off, the customer with the rebate will be ahead.

4. Should I buy new or used?

This one isn’t as obvious. I’ve personally done both. My current car was purchased new. The one before was used.

Yes, used cars are often much cheaper (and have cheaper insurance) and if you get a good one, can save your family a lot of money. But they are also cheaper the older they are and older cars need more repairs AND you can never be sure that they were well maintained before you bought it. As a parent, this was very important to me – I wanted to make sure that the car I was putting my kids into was safe above all else.

The reason we ended up selling our used car (that we bought when it was 3 years old) was because we no longer felt it was safe (lots of trouble with the brakes and the engine spontaneously turning off) and the extended warranty that we had purchased (thank goodness, because a lot of the repairs would have been extremely expensive) was about to expire. I was disappointed because I actually really liked the car overall.

The reason we decided to buy new was that we just didn’t want to deal with that worry again and figured that the premium of driving a new car off the lot (that we would ensure was properly maintained) was worth it.

Happy car shopping!

Can you afford to be a stay-at-home mom? 5 steps to see if you can.

my boys

Both times when I was pregnant with my boys, I used to visit internet forums where I could chat with other moms and moms-to-be. While we discussed many parenting (and many non-parenting) topics, one topic that dominated was whether or not to stay home after their babies were born.

Now, I’m not saying that all women should stay home and be stay-at-home moms. Some love their jobs and want to get back, some don’t want to lose their momentum in their careers and some just know they can’t afford not to. But all moms will want to take some time off after birth and many want to know how long that period can be – be it a month, a year or several years.

While in Canada we are entitled to a year of maternity leave and many can claim employment insurance benefits, it isn’t a given that everyone can afford to take this time off or if they should from a financial point of view.

So, if you are considering becoming a stay-at-home mom or already know this is something you want, this post is for you.

Step 1 – Update your budget as if you were a stay-at-home mom.

Like with all things financial, its all about the math. So the first thing you should do is delete or adjust the income of the parent that will be staying home from your budget (while I do refer to stay-at-home-MOM, I really mean “parent” since this also applies to dads who want to stay at home as well).

Kasia’s Basic Family Budget – updated template 

Step 2 – Analyze your budget

Next have a look at what this does to your housing and essential fixed cost allocation (so your rent/mortgage/property taxes/insurance). If this amount is now greater than 40%, you CANNOT afford to stay at home – at least not in the current home you are in – whether or not the amount you save on daycare is more than the income you were bringing in (I’ll do a post on this later – because unless you TRULY make a significant amount less than a reasonable daycare costs, this is very short-term thinking).

However, before you call your real estate agent, there are some things you should consider. Even if you are able to find a cheaper home, you need to factor in other costs associated with moving. And I don’t mean the moving truck and pizza and beer for the friends who help you move. But all the ongoing costs that you will incur because of living in a different location, (and not to mention the non-financial factors like amenities and quality of local schools etc).

For example, say your current rent is $1,500/month. You find a place thats $1,200/month and that amount puts you under the 40% threshold. However, you now need to get a second car because the new place doesn’t have public transit close by. Say that it will cost you $300 for a car payment and insurance. So essentially you are in the same financial position because your new car payment and insurance become essential costs.

If you are still under the 40% threshold when you delete your income, great. Now lets consider your other budgets. You have to be realistic. You can’t cut your grocery budget from $800/month to $500/month and expect to stick to it unless you drastically change the way and what you eat. Similarly with utilities – if someone is at home all day, heat, electrical and water will all go up.

Same goes for your “Life” budget. If you have barely any money left over for life, this isn’t reasonable. I constantly hear from moms who think that they can live for free (The library has free activities! The park is free!) but forget that their children will still need clothes and WILL persist in growing out of them, that they will want to play soccer and go to the movies. That birthdays, Christmas will still require presents, washing machines will break, and pets will need to go to the vet . Make sure that you have at least 15-20% of your after tax income available to you for Life.

Next, are you still able to save for the future? I recommend that 20% of your budget goes towards debt repayment and savings. And I feel like once you have children, it becomes THAT much more important to have a good safety net in place.

However, if you are just planning on taking a couple months off for maternity leave (or even the full year) and not making an RRSP contribution for a few months is what will help you pay the bills, I don’t think its a big deal. But if you plan to be a stay-at-home mom permanently, skimping on savings or debt repayment is completely irresponsible.

Step 3 – Make sure your partner is on board

Losing an income and reducing your budget, even if manageable, will require a change in lifestyle. You need to sit down with your partner and make sure that they are on board. You may think that cutting the gym membership, canceling cable and not taking any more vacations is a small price to pay for being able to stay home with your kids, but your partner may not, or at least may not in the long run. Make sure that this is a decision you are making TOGETHER and its not something that YOU want and THEY are giving you. You don’t want them to resent being in a tighter financial situation or the burden of being the single income earner because this will eat away at your relationship. And you don’t want to be in a position where they can hold it over your head with “I make the money, so I get the final say” on every decision going forward.

Step 4 – Start planning – and saving – now

If you run the numbers and it really looks like you won’t be able to afford to be a stay-at-home mom, don’t despair. This is still a possibility, it just may not be one right away. But the sooner you start planning (and saving) to take time off, the better.

Start brainstorming ideas  to still contribute financially – perhaps you can work part-time, get a direct sales job or do some free-lance work if you are able.

Also, look into seeing where you can cut costs. Can you reduce your insurance premiums? Lower your cell phone plan? Stop getting your hair highlighted? If it is important to you to stay home there are some easy sacrifices that you can make that won’t impact your life as much but can be the difference in making becoming a stay-at-home parent a reality.

If you are pregnant, try living on just one income plus what you expect to get while on maternity leave and bank the rest or use it to get the essentials for baby. Is it doable? Easier than you thought or downright impossible? If you have already had your baby or your child is older, do a trial run. See if you can live off one income.

Step 5 – Be flexible and be aware

Spending time with your children is a precious and really, a priceless thing. But the end of the day it is good to be aware of what a major life decision like becoming a stay-at-home mom really means. Some people are ok with going into debt in order to take the whole year of maternity leave. To be honest, I judge this less than someone who goes into debt to buy a luxury car, renovate their kitchen or go on an all-inclusive vacation. Just know what you are getting into and make a plan as to how you will manage it.

But also be open to some compromise. Maybe you can’t afford to be a stay-at-home mom until your kids are in school but maybe you can for their first two years of life. Maybe you can’t take the full year of maternity leave with your first child but perhaps if you plan accordingly, you can with your second.

Lastly, and this is something that I know from experience, whether you end up staying at home or not, remember its the quality of time and not the quantity of time that you spend with your children that really counts.

Budgets for Beginners Part 3 – Sticking to Your Budget

The hardest part of having a budget is sticking to it. So I’ve come up with some ways to simplify it.

PLAN your spending

At the beginning of each month, I like to think about all the “Life” expenses that we will have and want to make sure that we have enough money for them. For example, later this month I am attending a baby shower and I wanted to buy a special gift for another friend who is turning 30. I’ll deduct those amounts from the “Life” budget at the beginning of the month to make sure that I have that money set aside for when I’m ready to make the purchases. You may also set aside some money for a much larger purchase you want to make later in the year. For example, I wanted to buy this kitchen island cart from Crate & Barrel and it cost $600. That would have killed our “Life” budget if we applied it to one month, so we decided to post-pone buying it for 3 months and just allocated $200/month towards the purchase.

TRACK your spending

Just like a diet, a budget requires that you TRACK what you spend. There is no point in setting up a budget and not keep tabs on where you money is going.

My tip for easy budget tracking is to only track your  “Life” expenses on a daily basis. Food and transportation I’ll track weekly and I consider money in my housing, utilities, savings etc categories to be already spent. Its gone as soon as the 1st of the month rolls around. Its easy – you KNOW how much your mortgage or rent will be every month. There is no need to track it.

But there IS a need to track food and all other miscellaneous spending.

One method my husband and I used is our “Daily” method – basically we divided our “Life’ budget by 30 (or 31 depending on the month) and tried to stick to that. If either of us wants to spend more than half of the daily budget that day, we need to clear it with the other person to make sure we STAY on budget.

So say we have budgeted $1,200 per month to spend on “Life”. In June, that would be $40/day total or $20 each.

Then every day we would take 5-10 minutes and update a spreadsheet (using a Google doc is  great way to do this, as then you can both access and update the same one in real time). Add up the total spent, subtract from the balance from the day before and divide by the number of days left in the month to see what your remaining “Daily” balance is.

The reason this is a good strategy is because it will make you think about spending more than your daily allotment. So, with my example of $40/day, if I want to buy a pair of shoes for $120, that is like 3 days worth of our whole family spending. Now, that might be ok – we don’t NEED to spend $40 per day. Some days, we will spend less than $40, some days we won’t spend anything at all. But at least I know – and perhaps if I want to get those shoes I’ll be more conscious with my other spending to make sure the budget isn’t blown. I might skip that latte, arrange to meet a friend for a walk in the park instead of for dinner and make my husband lunch for a week so he doesn’t have to buy it.

Example: Budget Tracker example

Above is an example spreadsheet I created (I like to add little comments to my sheet to remind myself what I spent money on and so my husband knows too). You can replicate it for the other categories you want to track too, like food and transportation.

USE technology

Using the Excel or Google Docs spreadsheet is a good basic way to track your budget and spending. However, there are some great apps and websites out there that can help you. I really like Mint.com – it links all your banking, credit card and investment info to it and it updates it every time you log it. You can set your budget amounts and then allocate transactions to it – its pretty good at guessing (so when you buy something at a grocery store, it will automatically add it to the grocery budget)) though sometimes you have to adjust it (for some reason, whenever I went to this one coffee shop it would categorize it as “Hardware Store”).

Note: some people are uncomfortable to put all their financial information like that on a website for security risks. You need to do what you feel comfortable doing. I check my Mint.com balances every day so I’d be aware if something funny was going on.

CASH FLOW is king

One of the easiest ways to get off budget is to screw up your cash flow. If you run out of cash, you will go into debt. We NEED cash for certain expenses such as our mortgage, property taxes and any other expenses that are debited directly from our bank account. This requires a bit of planning regarding the timing of paying our bills. So will my bank account may LOOK healthy on the 1st of the month, a lot of that money may be required to pay those bills. So, sometimes as much as I’d love to pay off my credit card (which I always do in full) right away, I will often wait till just before its due. This avoids me going into overdraft  – which can get really pricey at $5 every time I go in plus interest. That being said, its a good idea to have overdraft protection in case you do forget a bill or miscalculate your dates, because an NSF charge is much higher AND will affect your credit rating.

So off you go! Next in the budget series will be a post on Making the Most Out of Your Budget.

cant afford cat