About seven years ago, right after my wife and I were married, we went on our very first shopping trip as a married couple, to furnish our brand new apartment. We bought all the essentials, like a broom, a doormat, a coffeemaker, toilet paper, sugar, and other things you never think of until you move into a new place. When we went out to the parking lot, I tried to start my car, but it wouldn’t start. But it didn’t just need a jump or a tow, it was totally dead—broken beyond repair, as we found out.
Anyone who remembers that little blue 1989 Ford Escort hatchback I drove wouldn’t have been surprised that it died—just about everything else on it was already broken by that point. So there I was, stranded in the parking lot, with my new bride, wanting to head back to our new home with a car full of groceries. Fortunately, my wife had a car as well, so we just drove hers back to the house and planned what to do next.
As you might guess, we decided to look at buying another car… we just couldn’t live without two cars! So I started doing research on a replacement for myself, and figured that as long as I was at it, I should look into a new car that wouldn’t break down. I had remembered liking the new (at the time) concept of CUVs, or “Compact Utility Vehicles,” and I particularly liked the Ford Escapes I had seen on the road. So off we went to motor city—city of shining headlights on the hill by I-25. We drove around for a bit looking at the cars, then parked at the Ford dealership and got out to take a look around.
True to the stories you’ve heard from others, I’d barely gotten out of the car when a salesman instantly materialized and asked the old bugaboo line that must be the only question salesmen know to ask: “Can I help you find anything?” I responded as customers always do to that question, saying: “No thanks; we’re just looking.” He told me that was fine, and welcomed me to take my time. …but he stuck around, watching me as I looked around. He slowly peppered me with several more questions. Why I was looking at an Escape? What did I need in a car? What was my budget? (I’m afraid to say I answered this question, which was a big mistake.).
“$17,000” was my answer. I hadn’t exactly pulled this number out of thin air, as I had done some number-crunching the night before, but it was a ballpark figure, and it was the highest I was willing to pay. (I later learned that car salesmen will take any number you give them and treat it as the lowest you’re willing to pay.)
We chatted a bunch more, and I decided to fire questions back at him to test his mettle. Did he really know what he was talking about? I asked about engine size, fuel economy, towing capacity, traction control systems, recommended maintenance plans, and more. Eventually, he ran out of answers and had to run inside and get a little book with statistics. He eventually answered all my questions. And then he did something magical: he asked me “would you like to take it for a ride?” For some reason, I hadn’t even thought of taking a test drive. Of course I said yes! We drove a few miles and I tested the acceleration, the brakes, the cruise control, the power windows, and more. I was impressed. I WANTED it. It was smooth, it was fast, it had the “new car smell,” and it had enough room for our tiny family. I was on such a buzz from the test drive when we got back that I barely even remember being talked into coming back to the sales office to “run some numbers.” That was certainly against my better judgement.
We went inside and saw the sleek, modern and spacious inside of the Ford dealership. There was chrome and glass everywhere. It had an incredible view of the city, I must say. And there was a really sexy sportscar on display in the lobby. I don’t recall what it was—a Mustang perhaps, or a GT.
We sat down at a little round table. I was offered some soda from the fridge. My wife and I both took one. Hey, why not? Free soda. We started talking, and while sitting at that table, I learned several very important lessons that I didn’t realize I was learning at the time, and certainly neither did the salesman. Chief among the lessons I learned that day was that if you stumble onto a car dealer’s lot without a plan, you will lose.
Car Buying Lesson #1: there is no such thing as “just looking” at a car dealership. A car salesman spends his entire day converting people who say “I’m just looking” into paying customers.
I was pressured into running a credit check (which they refer to as “pulling a bureau“), even though I didn’t intend to purchase a car that day, or maybe ever. I was just looking, after all. But I reluctantly agreed, since they asked me a crucial question for which I had no answer: “what’s your credit score?” Wow—I had no idea; I’d never looked it up before. Since it made sense that I should probably learn what my credit score was, I relented. They ran my credit report and got my credit score.
Car Buying Lesson #2: a car dealership is the worst possible place to learn what your credit score is and what your credit report contains.
The sales team pulled up my credit report, or that’s what I had to assume—they wouldn’t actually show it to me. They wanted me to trust what they told me what it contained. I found out that I had a credit score of 640. Was that good or bad? I had no idea, which is the next lesson I learned.
Car Buying Lesson #3: if you don’t know your financial standing, you have absolutely no power to negotiate.
I found out that a score of 640 meant I had “good” credit. Not awesome, but good… or “good enough,” as they told me. It might have been good enough to get a car loan directly through the dealership, and boy wouldn’t that be convenient?
Car Buying Lesson #4: a car dealership is the worst possible place to get financed for a car loan.
Just because it seems convenient doesn’t mean it’s a good deal. I’ve since been told by more than one person that car dealerships actually make more money off the interest in a car loan than they do selling you the car itself (!)
Car Buying Lesson #5: car salesmen use very complicated math to try to confuse you into accepting a deal you can’t understand or afford.
Perhaps not all of them do this, but a majority do. I watched as the salesman pulled out a piece of paper with two lines on it that divided it into four squares. (I’ve since learned that in the industry, they call this “The Four Square Method.”) Clever. On this paper, he wrote down some numbers I gave him: a potential monthly payment amount, my trade-in value (I didn’t have one), a potential down payment and the sticker price on the car. Seems simple enough. But BEWARE! This is a magical piece of paper. It does exactly one magic trick: it takes four reasonable-sounding numbers and makes it so the math just doesn’t work, no matter how you work it. Genius! (I recently heard another car salesman explain this tactic in detail, and if you don’t believe me that this is a devious trick, you need to know that one of the steps in the four-square method is called “scraping the customer off the ceiling”—referring to the fact that customers always hit the roof with sticker shock. This is how they’re trained to do it).
In my case, what the four-square paper meant was that even though I told the salesman from the moment I walked onto the lot that my budget was $17,000, he didn’t care. Honestly, he probably didn’t even hear me say it. The magical paper made my budget number vanish—all of a sudden, we weren’t even talking about total price anymore, we were only talking about monthly payments. He asked me how much I could afford in a monthly payment. I told him I could pay $300 per month for five years. He laughed—yes, laughed—and told me that what I asked was impossible. I told him it should be possible, since the $300 per month is actually $18,000 when all is said and done, which was more than I was initially willing to spend anyway. So we talked about it more, and he fidgeted with the four-square paper more. For some reason, the numbers just weren’t working out. He sure tried fidgeting with that sheet though. Over and over.
He pretended to look for room in one of the squares—any of the squares: different interest rates, credit scores, concessions they were willing to make, manufacturer rebates, etc. But they just couldn’t make the numbers work. My $300/mo wasn’t going to cut it. The car’s list price was more than $18,000, so the fact that they were working with me was already generous, as they reminded me, several times. I told them I simply couldn’t do better than $300/mo. The salesman told me that he’d run out of ideas. Perhaps we could talk to his manager and maybe he could work something out. That made sense to me, so I let him talk to his manager and see what he could work.
Car Buying Lesson #6: there is no such thing as a car salesman “seeing if his manager can make it work.”
He brought out his manager, an older, much bigger man, who firnly shook my hand and asked me “what the problem was.” Of course, there was no problem, but I explained my situation politely. He told me that what I was asking for simply couldn’t be done—they wouldn’t make any money if they sold me a Ford Escape for the price I was asking. He further asked if they could see that they’d spent a lot of time with me trying to work with my budget, and that I should appreciate that. …after all, I didn’t have very good credit. (A remark I found interesting, since earlier I had been told that my credit was “good enough.”)
I insisted that I wouldn’t go over my $300/mo budget. So they worked with the numbers again, together. The salesman made several trips back and forth to the manager’s office. Miraculously, they were able to figure out a way that I could get exactly what I wanted—a brand new 2003 Ford Escape for only $300/mo! Hooray! I looked at the numbers, and noticed that this deal was made possible by applying for a 6-year (72-month) car loan. …which made the total price of the car I would be buying $21,600 (a full $4,600 over my initial budget). But hey, it worked! Finally!
Car Buying Lesson #7: if a car salesmen can’t sell you a car that’s a good deal for you, he’ll try to confuse you, wear you down, and appeal to your emotions and insecurity.
At last—they had found a way to make it possible for me to buy the Ford Escape. They printed out a nice, clean sheet of paper with a few small paragraphs on it.
It read: “Do you want to drive home in a new Ford today?“
I held it in my hands. At last. By this time, the dealership was closed, and I’d spent an hour or two haggling with both the salesman and the manager, and after being told what I wanted wasn’t possible, I was now holding a sheet of paper that made it all possible.
I asked the salesman, “so you’re saying, all I have to do is sign this paper, and I can go home in my brand-new Escape? It’s mine?” “That’s absolutely right,” he assured me while holding up the keys and smiling.
I looked at the paper with the big signature line on it. It wasn’t right. My mind was spinning. I didn’t even understand how it was possible that I was about to sign a piece of paper that would let me drive home in a brand new SUV, when only a few hours earlier that day I hadn’t even been thinking about cars and had no intention of buying one.
I asked the salesman “Can I think about this for a while?” I quickly learned that car salesmen really don’t like it when you ask that question. The conversation turned ugly at that point.
Car Buying Lesson #8: car salesmen do NOT want you to “go home and think about it.”
I asked him if I could have a few days to think about it: if it really was a great deal, I would be sure to come back. I think at this point, he became personally offended. “Well, it sure took a heck of a lot of work to get to this point—we’ve been here for nearly two hours… why do you need to think about it all of a sudden?” he asked. I told him that it all happened so fast and I wanted to do more research. I promised him that I would get back to them the next day or so. “No, that’s not how it works—we created this deal just for you, just for today.“
Here’s where I started to push back. “Wait, so you’re saying that the deal is off if I leave now, even if I come back later?” He answered, even more sternly: “Yep. I can’t promise that you’ll get the same deal if you leave, even if you come back tomorrow… This is deal for today only.“
I stalled for time by telling him I needed to run to the bathroom. I went to where the bathrooms were, and stood outside, and picked up my phone and called my chief financial advisor—my Dad. The phone rang. He picked up. “Hello, son.” “Hi Dad, I’m sitting at a table at a Ford dealership and I have a paper in front of me that says I can drive home today in a new Ford Escape if I just agree to a $300/mo payment. What do you think?“
My Dad thought about it, and responded slowly. “Well… $300/mo times how many months?” I told him “six years, so 72 months.” He did some quick math and continued: “Well then, that means you’ll be paying a total of $21,600 for the car right?” I conceded: “Uhh, yes.” He asked “What did you tell them your budget was?” and I answered “Well, I told them $17,000, but the $300/mo payment is the most important part.“
My Dad is always cool and collected, and that’s exactly what I needed. “Ron, let’s think about this…” he said. “Did you even want to buy a Ford Escape? I know we had been talking about you getting a car, but this is kind of sudden isn’t it? And which exact model is this one anyway? Is it just the front-wheel drive model or the 4×4? And what is all that extra money going toward if the sticker price on the car is around $18,000? Did you ask them if you can take some time to think about it? Why don’t we both work on this together and do some more research over the next week or so?“
I was stuck. Oddly, I felt like I was stuck in the middle of the negotiation—I felt almost like I was trying to convince my Dad that that the salesman was giving me a good deal and that he needed to see that. But how did that happen? I didn’t think it was a very good deal either—that’s why I called him in the first place! Darn that salesman! How did he do that?
Car Buying Lesson #9: car salesmen are MUCH better at convincing you that you should buy a car than you are at convincing yourself that you shouldn’t buy one.
I thanked my Dad, and hung up. I walked back to the table where my wife was sitting. I told the salesman that I needed more time to think about it. (What I didn’t know at the time was that while I was “in the bathroom,” he had been talking to my wife about the great deal her brand new husband was getting and that if I walked away now, I would be making a huge mistake. If I had known this, at the time, this alone would be a deal-killer.)
When I told him I wasn’t ready to buy, he was incredulous. Visibly irritated, he crossed his arms and huffed and told me “This is a really good deal here—we are giving you everything you asked for. If you want to walk away, fine. But you can’t come back later and expect the same deal. This is for today only.“
I walked away. I thanked him for the free sodas and we left.
I felt every employee’s eyes burning into the back of my head as I walked out the door. As I stepped outside, I noticed then, for the first time, that the sun had gone down. I had wasted the whole evening. I had been there much, much longer than I ever planned. Honestly, I hadn’t even planned on being there in the first place. How strange. But I was leaving. I felt free. I walked away, with my integrity. I felt like a man.
My wife and I talked about it afterwards, and it was a fascinating discussion: she couldn’t believe that I walked away—she was hoping I would sign the paper so we could drive home in a brand new car! Throughout the week, we had plenty of time to discuss all the reasons why I didn’t agree to the deal, and I was able to convince her that it was the right choice.
I’m not mad about this experience at the car dealership. Though I was extremely frustrated with the behavior of the sales staff, the overall experience was actually a gift in disguise. It was a CRUCIAL test for both of us. For me, it was a test to see if I could be a man and stand by my convictions even when I’m the only one at the table who feels the way I do. For my wife, it was a test to see if she would follow my leadership regardless of whether she had all the facts or not. I am proud to report that I learned through that experience that I have a wonderful wife who is teachable, and who follows me even if she doesn’t understand where I’m going. Through this experience (and a few others since then) she learned that I usually have a lot of crucial information that I’m stewing on when making decisions; I just don’t always share them. I like to keep my cards close to my chest.
For the next few days, the scenario kept playing through my mind, over and over again. I still couldn’t believe that they were able to take me from just wandering onto the lot all the way to nearly signing a paper to purchase the car in such a short span of time.
Surprisingly, sweet vindication came a week or two later when I received a letter in the mail from Ford Motor Credit. I wasn’t sure what it was all about, since I had decided not to go with the deal, but I opened the letter anyway. The letter told me that, regretfully, I was denied for the loan I had applied for. I wouldn’t be able to purchase that wonderful Ford Escape after all. My mind did a backflip: “Wait just a second… they told me I could have driven it home. I had the paper that told me I could drive home in a new Ford today. I had the key in my hand! So what was this letter all about?“
I made a quick call to an attorney and asked “What’s the deal with this letter? It doesn’t make sense—it’s already a week after I left the dealer.” He chuckled and told me that if I had signed that paper and driven that Ford home, I would have had to bring it back. After what would have been a week of enjoying what I thought was my brand new car, and showing it off to all my friends and family, I would have had to bring it back to the dealer and turn in the keys. AND I would have had to pay them for every single mile I had driven on it—probably to the tune of 50 or 60 cents per mile. Of course, I never thought to ask about this at the dealer, and of course, the salesman would never tell me this. All he wanted was for me to sign on the line.
If ever I’ve heard of a case of adding insult to injury, this would have been it. …only I didn’t sign on the line. I told them no. I never did take home that new car. So I never had to take it back.
I happily shredded the letter from Ford Credit. Who needed it? I didn’t have the car. Praise the Lord.
Still to this day, whenever my wife and I are discussing a big financial decision we have to make, if I start to get lured into the new car smell, or the sawdust of the new home, or the sound of a new guitar… she’ll give me a wink and ask “Do you want to drive home in a Ford today?” At which point I’m reminded that it’s time to walk away.