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How to Find the Right Car for Your Family

There are about 300 different new cars currently on the market in the U.S. Finding the one that will work the best for your family is daunting, but not impossible. By focusing on what you need and want in a family car, it’s easy to ignore the cars that won’t work and find the ones that will.

Set a Budget

The first rule of family car shopping isn’t finding the car with the most style or horsepower. It’s finding a car that won’t break the bank. A new luxury car is enticing, but the appeal will wear off fast if owning one means rationing diapers and skipping date night with your spouse.

If you’ve saved up enough money to buy a car outright, congratulations! That’s your budget. Only about 11 percent of car buyers pay cash, so for most people, setting a budget means finding a car with a price tag that gets you monthly car payments you can afford. Keeping your overall debt levels to less than 36 percent of your gross income indicates to lenders that you should to be able to repay that debt. That means lower interest rates and long-term savings. To find out what kind of car payment you can manage, figure out what 36 percent of your monthly gross income is, then subtract the total debt payments you make each month from that. The difference is what you can afford in a car payment.

Just because you can afford that payment doesn’t mean you should. Smart shoppers look for cars that are below their means. That way, you’ll have more breathing room in your budget. Don’t think you need the breathing room? Consider what would happen if day care costs go up, your kids need private tutoring or your spouse decides he wants to be a stay-at-home dad. You’d be grateful for the budget cushion. Once you have a monthly car payment in mind, hop online and use various car payment calculators to see how much car that monthly payment, plus any down payment or trade-in money you may have, will get you. With that full number in mind, start looking at cars that fit your budget.

Prioritize

Start thinking about what you really want and need in a family car, and then prioritize those wants and needs. Are top-notch safety scores important? What about the availability of certain options, like Bluetooth? Do you absolutely have to have leather seats? Prioritize your list into must-haves and nice-to-haves to guide your shopping. That way, you won’t get distracted by bells and whistles that ultimately aren’t as important as fitting your kids’ car seats.

Think Long-Term

Buying a family car is tough because your family will change. The kids you have now will grow, you may decide to add to your brood and grandparents might move in. Buying a new car every time your family’s circumstances change isn’t financially smart. Finding a car that fits your family’s lifestyle today and the plans you have down the road is. Before deciding on a car, think through the changes you expect your family to go through during the life of the car. If you’re planning another two kids, that subcompact car probably won’t work. But, if your car pool days are over and the last of your kids is about to leave home, it might be time to downsize from a minivan to a sedan.

Consider Daily Use

When you’re setting your list of family car priorities, keep how you’ll use the car on a daily basis at the top of your mind. If your daily routine includes dropping the kids in day care and sitting in traffic as you head to the office, good fuel economy and city maneuverability may matter more to you than having acres of cargo space. At the same time, if you routinely drive car pool, go for a car that has more seats than you have kids (unless you’re looking to get out of car pool duty).

It’s tempting to look beyond daily use, but this usually means you end up with more car than you need. If you just plan on using your car for shuttling your kids to school and you to work, a smaller car will work fine. But, a lot of families will go for a large SUV or minivan so they have one when it’s time to go on vacation or when relatives visit. Don’t make this mistake. Larger cars not only cost more up-front, but they have higher ownership costs because they tend to use more gas. Opting for a smaller car or SUV for daily use and renting something larger for special occasions will save you money in the long term.

Don’t Forget the Extras

Now that you’ve got a list of big things to look for in your new family car, don’t forget little amenities that will make your life easier. Features like a conversation mirror to keep an eye on kids in the back (available on most minivans, as well as some Honda and Toyota SUVs), a dual-level cargo shelf (available on the Honda CR-V), easy-to-clean upholstery and handy storage bins for stashing toys, may not be the determining factors when you buy a car, but they make family life easier, and that makes owning the car all the more rewarding.

Test and Retest

When you’ve winnowed your list down to a few family cars, hit the dealership. Take each car for a spin several times, and take the time in the parking lot to make sure it really works for your family. Make sure everyone has enough room, and that gear you regularly carry is easy to pack in the cargo area. The dealer should not mind if you install your car seats to asses fit, or load up the car’s trunk with strollers and little league gear.

Make sure your kids can get in and buckle themselves in with a minimum amount of help from you. You also want to be sure they can reach cup holders, any climate controls and storage cubbies they may want to use. If you’re looking at a family car with a third row, make sure it’s easy to get to. In any car, see how easy it is to fold the seats and increase cargo space. Also make sure your kids can understand and operate features, like a rear-seat DVD player or separate radio controls, independently. And, of course, make sure that you can use any features, like Bluetooth or the navigation system, that you’ll use frequently.

Drive into the Sunset

Ultimately, having a firm list of what you need in a family car will ensure you buy a car that fits your family’s life, keeping you and the kids happy. It could also save you money in the long run. If you purchase a car that you’re not 100 percent happy with, you’re likely to replace it sooner rather than later. Not only does that mean you’ll be laying out more cash, but you’ll also have to go through the whole process again. Do the work in advance, find the right car for your family, and drive happily into the sunset.