Best Car for Students: A Beater

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Beater Used CarWhen I read this latest Bankrate article on the best car to buy for students, I was a little surprised at the very first criteria – less than $20,000. I’m twenty nine, nearly six years after graduation, and have yet to own a car that is even close to $20,000! My current car is a used Toyota Celica I bought off eBay for $16,000, 20% less than the $20,000.

Anyway, so what’s my point? Most students don’t need and won’t appreciate a new car whiel they’re in college. They certainly won’t appreciate a car that they didn’t pay for. While I appreciate Bankrate’s efforts in publishing a list of cars that are sub-$20k, fuel efficient (> 21 mpg), safe and comfortable (has A/C)… I think a student needs to drive a beater. A clunker. A piece of junk they can beat the crap out of, hence the term beater. As my dad used to say, if you start life with all the nice stuff, you never learn to appreciate it.

In all fairness, they did start the article off by saying you could go the clunker route or the more sustainable one and that this article was for the sustainable route – “The clunker will accept four years of hard use and neglect without serious harm. The new car likely will see your student through college and, it is hoped, beyond.”

  • Dodge Caliber SXT
  • Honda Fit
  • Hyundai Sonata GLS
  • Mazda3 i Sport
  • Mini Cooper
  • Mitsubishi Lancer ES
  • Nissan Sentra 2.0 S

My list?

  • Anything older than 10 years and cheaper than your mortgage payment.

What do you think? 🙂

(Photo: wickenden)

{ 29 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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29 Responses to “Best Car for Students: A Beater”

  1. The Other Schmitty says:

    I was just reading an article on an automotive blog about how Nissan was suprised to find that their hip new young-person’s car, the Cube, is mostly being bought by old people. The same thing happened with the Honda Element and – to a lesser extent – the Scion xB. Young people just can’t afford a $20k car, and there are a lot of older people who can’t find anything else that’s as frugal and practical.

  2. I paid $3200 for my first car, back in 1996. It was a 1988 Taurus with 90k+ miles. Engine was still running great 3 years (and 35K+ miles) later when I sold it … but the body was a bit worse, do to a collision with a deer (the insurance settlement helped cushion the blow of the loss).

    I sold it to a friend for $200 (??). His uncle had a body shop and got the body back in OK shape. The friend drove the car for a few more years, before the steering finally went south.

    It got 30+ mpg, even hitting 33 one one longer trip, I think.

    (sigh). Sometimes I miss that car.

  3. Traciatim says:

    If you don’t mind driving drunk people around, you’ll be the hit of the party if you drive a 7 or 8 person minivan. Buy one about 2 or 3 years old. Give it an interesting name, like ‘the drunk tank’. You’ll get invited everywhere cause you can shuttle lots of people, plus since you care about others the girls will love you. Plus, you’ll barely ever get pulled over cause your in a minivan . . . It’s a win-win-win.

  4. Neil says:

    As far as appreciation goes, my in-laws bought my wife a new car while she was in school (or, well, made the lease payments…she bought out the lease when it came up shortly after graduation). We certainly appreciate it and 8 years on, it’s still the car we use, and expect to get another 5 years out of. It’s been paid in full for 4 years.

    But. Students and recent graduates tend to live in situations where they have outdoor parking. So our car that has about 50k miles on it is quite weathered, and looks like it’s gotten much more use. The car won’t be replaced until we move somewhere with indoor parking, and when it is, it will sell for less than a vehicle that’s more or less the same by the numbers, but had indoor parking. A used car would have been better in the long run.

    Another factor. I don’t know if student loans work the same everywhere, but here, if you meet the criteria for a government loan, it’s interest free until 6 months after you finish school. There’s also a tendency for government loans to be partially forgiven for whatever random reason. They are, simply, a very good deal. Having a newish car in my wife’s name, even as a lease, made her ineligible for this arrangement, thus costing a few extra thousand dollars in interest on a private loan during her school years.

  5. Jim, I couldn’t agree with you more. I think one of the worst decisions a student or recently graduated student can make is to go out and secure a large new car payment. The reliable used car route is definitely the right approach, especially if the student has school loan debt to tackle. I recommend a good used Honda Civic!

  6. Dave says:

    I don’t think you should ever buy your kid a car. I may help my daughter buy her first car when she’s old enough, but she’s going to have to save up for it, and if she can only get a beater, then that’s what she’ll drive. The reason I say that I may help her is that I might help her upgrade to something that isn’t a death trap (my first car certainly was).

  7. Sam says:

    I have great advice on this. When I graduated highschool, a lot of my friends got new or almost new cars, I begged and begged for one and finally got a mustang that was 3 years old. I moved upstate to college and the first week I was there someone backed into my car while it was parked in the parking lot on campus. 4 years later my poor mustang had dents and cracks on it but mechanically wise was fine. I do regret getting it since my high school car was in perfectly fine condition, and it was bought for $4500 but the mustang served me well and went for about 130k miles.

  8. Dedicated says:

    The rule in my house is and has always been – no more then you can afford to walk away from. Insurance for kids is expensive, so in order to make the ownership worthwhile I suggest they stay $3k or below, pay in cash and have liability insurance only. Has worked good. Especially when my daughter had her car run over in a college parking lot, with no note of who the culprit was.

    The reason my rule has no number, is that value and cost are different to everyone. My son has a $5k truck that he loves, but it is paid for and will get him through college with liability only.

  9. Drew says:

    I bought my first vehicle without assistance from my parents by saving up for it – a 1999 Ford Ranger which I bought in June of last year. The truck needed some work (brakes, tires, oil change, etc), but it had a decent body and runs strong. Now I can carry minimal insurance on it, have no monthly car payment, and it will do me just fine until it finally dies (hopefully many years down the road). In the mean time I can take the money I would have been using on a car payment and save it for another vehicle when this one dies.

  10. jim says:

    If you live on or near campus then you may be able to live without a car entirely. I didn’t have a car on campus my first 3 years of college and I got by just fine.

    • Sarah in Alaska says:

      Wahoo! Yes, this. My husband and I both got through school without a car. My parents gave us a 20 y/o vehicle when we got married (which we kept another 4 years).

      In college I always had roommates or neighbors with cars who were more than willing to take me places in exchange for a few $$ or a homebaked dinner.

  11. In the Money says:

    My parents handed me down a fairly new Honda Accord in high school. I brought it to college for 3 years and still drive it today. It is 9 years old and I intend to drive it for at least another 5 years. I have to say, I really appreciated my car all through those years and have taken very good care of it. Since my parents have supported me with a dependable car, I was able to save my money all throughout college. If I have been driving a beater, I probably would have spent a ton of money on repairs and there would really have been no point in taking care of a car that broke down all the time.

  12. Brian says:

    Well you know how i feel about the subject. My Hyundai Sonata came in at under $20,000 after taxes, tags, and title. I am really quite pleased with it. I sort of still have a college lifestyle, or at least i try to relive those days!

  13. Rob O. says:

    I’m with Dave on the notion that you shouldn’t simply give your child a car, but instead help with the first car when he/she is mature and responsible enough to handle it.

    There’s really something to be said for driving around in an old clunker giving you an appreciation.

    However, I veer more towards a lower-priced new (but maybe last year’s model) car for kids now simply because they’re safer, more reliable, and less costly to drive.

    You can help your kid get into fairly basic & utilitarian 4 cylinder hatchback for somewhere around $11-13k (maybe a bit less?) and it’s going to do everything required. A more basic car hopefully would make reckless driving and/or dangerous-speeds less possible or likely.

  14. lostAnnfound says:

    First car (bought in 1980) was a 1969 VW bug with 69,000 on a rebuilt engine, paid $100.00. Add $150+ for a little electrical work. Talk about a beater!! Went through a clutch and still was able to shift gears to get it home. Battery died one (wet) weekend camping and we had to “pop-start” every time we wanted to drive somewhere. Once you got it going, it kept on going. Fantastic in snowy NE weather because the engine was in the rear and provided great traction. I would be going up hills in 2nd gear while everyone else was sliding around. All in all, it was the best car I had and I have had a few since.

    For my kids (1st one old enough in November to get driver’s permit), I agree with Dave… kids save for the car and, if needed, we will help “upgrade” to a safer vehicle. Insurance is out of their own pocket, so is gas. Repairs will be dealt with as needed (will it be worth it to help pay for repairs so that they don’t need to use our vehicle or so that we do not need to drive them to work/school/etc? Is it worth putting $XXX into this vehicle?)

  15. zapeta says:

    I think a beater is the way to go as long as its not a complete death trap. Several people I know got brand new cars as soon as they turned 16 and several of them had totaled the car by the time they were 17.

    I’ve got an old beater of a Buick thats about 15 years old that I drove in college and still drive now….I plan on driving it until the wheels fall off and then we’ll see what happens.

  16. I’d never buy a new car.
    Beater? Well, it doesn’t have to be that old.

    But it must be affordable. That means pay cash or very small payments. Don’t begin economic life by going into debt.

  17. Robert says:

    I agree with the “beater” concept. I have raised three sons, the youngest is now 19 and in college. All three had inexpensive cars in high school with liability insurance only and all three wrecked (totaled) by the time they were 17 or 18. I’m now 52, had 2 accidents before going to college, none since. I told my sons they were a statistic waiting to happen. I told them that they most likely will be involved in a wreck before graduating from high school. The insurance companies say the same thing. Their friends were having accidents in much more expensive vehicles.
    From the day I bought that first beater for each one in high school, I told them I would save $1 a day until they had their first wreck. Whatever I saved is what they got from me to purchase their second car. If they did not wreck, they could decide when to cash in the savings to buy a better car, as long as it was after graduation.
    I agree with the concept of having the child work and save to buy their own vehicle. Since my three sons were heavily involved in sports beginning at the age of 6, and did not have time to work too, I told them that I considered their sport as a job. It is harder work with greater discipline.
    They thought they were above having an accident. They were wrong, all three. Sometimes a small child has to get burned to learn what “do not touch, it’s hot” means. The same holds true for teenage driving. Let them learn in a beater, or clunker, something safe and reliable.

  18. Carla says:

    I got my first car when I was 20 (1999) and it was a $1200 1982 Volvo – paid for by yours truly of course. It lasted until it was stolen a few years later. The next car was a 1988 Volvo that lasted until it died completely last year. I only put $300 in actual repairs all the years I had it. Of course, that doesn’t include oil changes, tires, breaks, etc.

    Safety is #1, reliability is next in line. I’ve known too many people who took the ‘beater” concept to heart and gotten pieces of crap that was more of a money drain than spending a few more dollars on something that would last.

  19. Erin says:

    I definitely think that students should not have a new car (especially if it is paid for by mom and dad…beggars can’t be choosers!). My junior year of high school (2000) I got a 1988 dodge dakota from my parents and I LOVED it. When I graduated from high school (2002) my dad sold the old dakota, and handed me down his newer 1996 dodge dakota with an extended cab. I was living the high life. My husband and I are still driving that truck today and love it b/c it is very reliable, has only liability insturance, and has no payment!

  20. My first car was a ’73 Nova. I paid $500 for it, and it had 85,000 miles on it. It had no air conditioning, or power anything, but it served me well through college. My son’s car is a ’94 Buick Regal with 130,000 miles on it. He paid $1,900 for it. It’s loaded, though, with a leather interior, power seat, power windows, cruise control, and stereo controls on the steering wheel. It’s dependable, and he’s content. He’ll appreciate a new car even more after driving this one for a while.

  21. Comedian Jeff Dunham said in a skit, “I don’t know why anyone would buy a new car for a teenager. They’re just going to use it as a bumper car anyway!”

    I fully agree. My son will be of age next year and in need of a car. It will be a beater. There’s no agony or debate attached to that decision in our house!

  22. I couldn’t agree more with the beater rule for kids.

    My twin sister and I bought our first car together for a grand total of $600. It was a 1984 Ford Escort and this was in 1994, powder blue and lovely.

    We had a garage sale to earn the money to ensure it for a year, this cost $150.

    My dad is also a mechanic, so his rule was that he would help to fix it, under certain conditions.

    A) I paid for any parts, and

    B) I was present and helped, and listened to the step by step instructions throughout all repairs and maintenance.

    Might not have cost me money, but I certainly earned my keep. I recall fixing it once when I was at college, about 4 hour drive from home. Back before cell phones I had to call from the dorm, get instructions, go back in and call, repeat. I eventually took the bus to the store, bought a battery, hauled it back, and voila, it worked!

    Those are lessons you aren’t going to learn if someone buys you a brand new car.



  23. Patrick says:

    I agree completely. There is no reason to buy a student an expensive car. At the same time, it’s import to give them a car that is reliable and gets good gas mileage.

  24. eric says:

    lol I’ve never had a car that expensive either. I bought my car used for $8000.

  25. I use the 1/10th rule we coined. Essentially, the car you buy should cost no more than 1/10th your gross income. I’ve used this rule to a T, and it works well.

    I drive a $6,500 car, and I love it. I’ve also had 8 cars in 10 years, which is kinda of ridiculous. But, when you’re only spending 1/50th-1/100th of your gross income on cars, it’s pretty cheap and fun to do. That said, I do believe I have a problem! 🙂

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