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Sometimes, you don’t realize you sign a bad deal until you start having to pay for it.
Imagine this scenario: When you walked away from the auto dealer’s lot, you were excited. You had a brand spanking new — or new to you — vehicle. After the hassle of saving for, finding, and finally purchasing your dream car, your financing terms were likely the last thing on your mind. When the dealer sat you down and told you what your monthly payment would be, you did some mental math, figured you could afford the bill, and signed the dotted line. A few months later, you notice your loan could have been less expensive and feel cheated.
What do you do?
“If it’s in the contract and you signed the contract that’s it. You’re stuck with that,” said Anthony Giorgianni, associate editor at Consumer Reports.
If you’re not sure about your financing deal, a good way to evaluate it is by taking a look at the amortization table in the contract you signed, said Jerry Buchko, a Minneapolis-based debt counselor. If you can’t locate the original contract, you can ask for one via email or look for one online and estimate, but it’s most ideal to get it from the lender, and they should have a copy, said Buchko.
The amortization table is a set of tables that shows the total cost of your financing deal assuming all of your payments are made on time.
With the table in front of you, it becomes much easier to see if you’re currently paying more than what your vehicle is worth and if you’ll be in danger of being upside down on the loan (paying more than the vehicle is worth) in the future.
“With that information you should have all you need,” said Buchko. When analyzing and comparing the amortization tables for each loan offer, look for the one offering you the greatest overall savings, he recommended. Take a look at the interest rate you’re currently paying and the length of your loan, and see if you can make any adjustments to your lifestyle in order to save money.
For example, if the interest rate you’re paying isn’t very high, but your financing term is long and you see you’ll hit the ‘underwater’ point before your auto loan is completely paid off, you may want to consider increasing your monthly payments to pay off the loan faster (and get a chance to make money on a trade-in or sale before you can’t anymore).
While you’re looking at the contract, look at everything else it says, like the line items that were financed and any caveats in the terms, like a prepayment penalty that would penalize you for paying off the loan faster, as suggested above. You may also find there are elements of the loan agreement you didn’t really agree to.
“Sometimes the loans are packed with unnecessary things that are really expensive,” said Giorgianni. “If you feel you were misled, then go to the dealer and complain, and to a state agency if they don’t help.”
If you think you were duped into taking on more financing or given an unfair interest rate at the dealership, file a complaint with agencies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Trade Commision or the Better Business Bureau. The CFPB and FTC are also two good resources for consumer information on auto financing.
4 options to explore if your auto loan is too expensive
If you realize your auto loan payments are too costly, the interest rate is too high, or the loan term is too long, you can try taking these steps to get out of a bad financing deal as well as better afford your auto debt.
Option #1: Try to refinance for a better deal
When you’re noticing your monthly auto payment may be too large to fit your household budget, you could try to lower your monthly payment somehow, by reducing your interest rate or lengthening your loan term. You can accomplish either by refinancing your auto loan at more favorable terms to get your payment under control.
If your credit score was lower at the time you financed your vehicle, then you may have been given less favorable loan terms. Understandably, you can’t always perfectly time a car purchase. If you desperately needed a vehicle to get around and didn’t have time to build your credit, your circumstances may have forced you into taking a bad deal. Now, if your credit score has improved or interest rates have gone down, you may have a better shot at reducing your interest rate.
“If it turns out that the main problem with the contract is that your rate is higher than it should have been, then a refinance is a good option but for a shorter or the same period,” said Giorgianni.
When you’re looking to refinance, compare loan offers with several different lenders, like your bank, a local credit union, and online loan search sites. Make sure to compare the final cost to you using the amortization table.
“Take a look at who is out there” said Buchko. “If you see another institution offering a lot better terms, contact them.” He recommends asking for the best loan arrangement you can get to pay off the loan when you contact a lender.
Extending a loan term to save money in the short run isn’t always the best savings strategy. But, if you need your vehicle and you are strapped for cash affording it, refinancing at a longer loan term may prove extremely beneficial. Giorgianni suggests borrowers avoid extending their loan terms unless it’s absolutely necessary — for example, if “you can’t afford the car and it will be repossessed.”
Whatever you do, be careful to make sure that the offer you ultimately decide to go with is as good or better than your current loan offer. If there are any fees associated, take care to factor those in as well as they could drive your monthly payment higher. Pay attention to the total cost you’ll pay and consider passing on the deal if it’s higher than what you’d pay in your current arrangement.
Buchko recommends asking yourself: “Am I meeting a goal of a smaller payment?” and, “Is the overall final cost of the loan going to be worth the smaller payment?”
Option #2 : Negotiate your terms with your current lender
Buchko said he often recommends trying to negotiate your current terms with the lender holding your loan. “Go to the lender you have been working with and see if there is anything they are willing to do to help you,” he said. “It’s much better to work out some sort of arrangement before you fall behind.”
You may be able to negotiate a lower interest rate or work out a deferment arrangement where you can skip making payments for a period of time, but they will be added to the end of your loan term and you’ll ultimately have a longer loan and pay more interest over time.
Buchko said speaking with your current lender works because the lender that you’re working with already has a vested interest in keeping you as a customer. However, he added, “a lot of it is up to the lender and how flexible they are willing to be to the customer.”
If your loan is still with the dealership, you may be out of luck if you want to negotiate better terms.
“Generally speaking, the dealer is probably not going to be interested in dealing with you,” said Jack Gillis, director of public affairs at the Consumer Federation of America and author of “The Car Book.”
If some time has passed since you made the purchase, the dealer probably doesn’t hold the loan anymore, Gillis pointed out. Your loan has probably been transferred to another company, anyway. You could call that company and ask for a refinance, and they may or may not respond with another offer.
Option #3: Cut back on other spending in your budget
An oldie but goodie. It’s always a good idea to refine your budget if you’re having a tough time covering your bills. If your car payment is difficult to manage, and you aren’t able to refinance your loan for a lower monthly payment, you should take a look at your budget to see if there you can find a way to get the car loan under control.
First, calculate your monthly income. That’s what you’re working with each month. Next, subtract your fixed expenses. Those are fairly non-negotiable items in your budget that aren’t likely to shift much like your rent or mortgage payment, auto loan payment, food, and any insurance you’re responsible for paying.
According to the 50/20/30 budgeting rule of thumb, your fixed expenses should comprise no more than 50 percent of your total income. If they are higher, see where you can save money. You could dial back spending on food, for example, by cooking more of your meals at home or switching grocery stores.
Next, your savings. Subtract what you intend to save for the month. Under the 50/20/30 rule, about 20 percent of your income that goes toward saving for things like retirement and vacations, or funding an emergency fund.
What you’re left with is money you can use on flexible expenses like dining out and entertainment. It should be about 30 percent of your income if you’re able to follow the 50/20/30 rule. Your flexible expenses should be where you should look to make the most adjustments because you may have more room to cut back. You may find extra money by cutting back on how much money you spend on coffee each week, or reducing the number of shopping trips you take each month.
Option #4: Sell your vehicle
Selling your car can be a tough decision to make for a myriad of reasons. Your vehicle may hold sentimental value to you, for instance, or it may be the only method of transportation for you and your family.
“Unfortunately, most people don’t want [sell the vehicle] but it’s better than getting the car repossessed,” said Giorgianni.
If your current financing deal is too much for you to handle, or if you realize keeping the car will eventually lead you to holding an upside-down loan, selling it may be your best option.
“If you are in trouble, then your only option really is to sell the vehicle and keep your fingers crossed that you are not upside-down so that you can use the proceeds from the sale to pay off the vehicle,” said Gillis.
If you plan to sell, sell as soon as you can. The longer you own your vehicle, the longer it has to depreciate (lose monetary value).
“If the car is fairly new, there is still value in the car,” said Buchko. If the vehicle still holds some value, and it’s more than what you owe, you can try to trade it in and use whatever value it still holds to purchase a new car, under more favorable financing terms for your