Save on Your New Car: Send Mom, Not Dad, to the Dealer

Some people just shouldn't go car shopping on their own — like Chris, who drove home to his horrified family in the garish chartreuse coupe on which he got "a great deal." Chris should have never walked alone through the auto dealer's doors, not only because he is colorblind — but because he is a man.

In generations past, buying the family car was considered Dad's job, but women now account for just over half of all automotive buys and play a big role when the family chooses a car. And that's a darn good thing for the household budget. Ahead of your next trip to the new car showroom or used car lot, you'll want to know what the automakers and dealers know about gender differences in car buying:

  • Although on the whole more knowledgeable about cars — how they work, who makes what model, how Road and Track rated a new vehicle — men tend to be less rational about their purchases than are women.
  • While men in a recent market research survey put "styling" on the top of the list of attributes they found most important in a car, women ranked it 11th. Women placed practical items like "visibility from the driver's seat to both the front and rear" high on their list.
  • Men are more likely to carry into adulthood the unshakable desire to own their childhood "dream car." Whether or not it is a practical or affordable purchase, they may well go ahead and snap it up. A man can overlook the difficulty of getting the kids in and out of rear car seats when he test-drives the gleaming model whose poster was on his bedroom wall as he grew up.
  • Unlike women, who approach salespeople with a set of questions, men are more likely to display their knowledge at the dealership rather than test or build on what they think they know.
  • Women are more focused on cost, using dealer incentives like rebates to reduce the overall amount they will pay while men generally use them to buy a more expensive car.
  • Men fall out of love with vehicles at mach speed. Research shows that it takes only four months for the average man to grow bored with his car and become susceptible to advertising and sales pitches to buy a new one. Women bask in the pleasure of their new purchases more than three times longer (though still not terribly long).

Knowing all of this, you may decide it's sensible to send Mom, not Dad, to the dealer next time. Of course, these are generalizations. There are men who buy cars pragmatically and women who buy them impulsively. (Unsurprisingly, it is an industry goal to turn women into more emotional purchasers.)

Nevertheless, car shoppers of both genders would benefit from following a dispassionate process that involves these steps:

  1. Ask yourself whether you really need a new car or just want one. Owning your current car a year or two longer could save you thousands.
  2. Make a checklist of realistic, everyday needs before researching models that fit those criteria. Avoid buying for peak cargo, passenger, or terrain needs; instead plan on renting a vehicle for these occasions.
  3. Conduct research online and view vehicles at an auto show before entering the high-pressure setting of the showroom. Try to avoid the pitfall of using research to justify an emotional decision rather than to help make a reasoned one.
  4. Rely on trusted sources for comparative information that don't accept advertising from the car companies, such as Consumer Reports.
  5. Bring your most frugal friend or family member with you to the dealer to help you stick to your needs checklist.
  6. Know how much a car will cost you to own, not just to buy. A car with a higher sticker price can cost you less to own over the first five years based on, among other things, its depreciation rate, repair costs, miles per gallon, and cost to insure. A good site for this data is Edmunds True Cost to Own™.
  7. If you cannot save up before buying, secure financing before going to the dealer. Understand how much you need in total (roughly two times the monthly loan payment) to own your car. Dealers know how easily payment shoppers can be convinced to buy more car once in the showroom.

This is a guest post by Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez. Catherine is an anthropologist at Brown University’s Watson Institute, and Anne is a former marketer and banker. They are the authors of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on Our Lives (Palgrave Macmillan). Read more by Catherine and Anne:

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Guest's picture

How my wife feels about my car choice is irrelevant. She's not the one driving it every day. When it comes to buyign a car that meet her needs as a mother she can certainly do that for herself. We should each buy the cars that meets our needs AND desires. Life itself is not just about meeting needs. We are human beings and we also have WANTS and DESIRES and ignoring those is not WISE.

Guest's picture

OK, the original article was obnoxious* so I can see how you'd be defensive. But how your wife feels about your car choice is irrelevant? Really? Marriage is a partnership. I think it would be awfully immature for someone to buy an expensive flashy car without consulting, or against the wishes of, his/her spouse. I hope I am just misreading your comment.

* You can't come up with gender stereotypes, apply them to individuals you've never met (wouldn't the reader know better than you which people are more 'into' cars in their own relationships?), and get an out because you buried a one-sentence disclaimer in a 700-word article. Sorry. This could have easily been an article about having the partner less emotionally-involved with any big purchase decision being responsible for it. But that probably doesn't get as many pageviews as divisive 'boys vs girls' nonsense.

Guest's picture

My mother-in-law came with us when we purchased our car. We knew what we wanted, had done the research... but my husband and I just aren't that great at dealing. A few hours later with all the i's dotted and t's crossed, my mother-in-law negotiated $2,000 off our new car. I'm forever grateful to her for saving us that money.

Guest's picture

There's kind of a giant problem with this article. Dozens of experimental studies that have sent men and women to go buy the same car show that men systematically get better deals. And it has nothignn to do with the bargaining ability of the shopper or their rationality - rather sellers assume they have to give men a better deal to get them to buy and assume that they can take advantage of women.

So really this post is just wishful. Sorry.

Guest's picture

Perhaps you are missing the point, it's not just about getting the best deal for A car, it's also about getting THE right car. Women are, according to the article, more likely to make the last decision better. So there are two factors that matter here.

Guest's picture

Understanding 2 women wrote this explains a bit of the spin on this article. But with that said I will have to disagree in our situation. My wife when we were living in Mobile, AL had us pick out a car that had no air conditioner. Now when I looked back that was a huge mistake as the heat is terrible in that part of the country. I have also negotiated the deals and have come up with some great ones and bargain until I get my price. I think a dealer will take advantage of a woman buying a car, just like they will during the servicing of a vehicle if they can get away with it. But I do think the points of what you should do above are worth following.

Guest's picture

Thanks to the post's authors for disclosing that they wrote a book that bashes the very idea of owning a car. No, I haven't read the book, but the synopsis is on their website. And contains an egregious grammar mistake in the third line.

Catherine and Anne (I assume you're reading this), if your car-buying decision has progressed to the point where you're visiting the dealership, the only reason you'd want to bring another person along would be to help negotiate. (Well, that and you'd need someone to drive your old car home.) You say it's better to take a woman to the dealership than a man, but you don't say a word about whether Mom or Dad would negotiate better. Frankly, if you bring any other person to the dealership - other than a cold, seasoned negotiator - you're already ceding ground. Do the smart thing and read this instead:

"Chris should have never walked alone through the auto dealer's doors...because he is a man." I'm going to write something similar for my blog, only changing the sexes of each person in the post, and see how long it takes before someone calls me a chauvinist pig.

Guest's picture

While women might be more careful in trying to get something practical, they are also seen as goldmines because salesmen think they can tell a woman anything and she'll believe it. So, unless a woman is tough and negotiates strongly, she's not going to get a better price than a man.