Car Buyer Labs

Car Buying Advice, Tips, and Reviews

A salesman is shown handing a customer the keys to a used car.

Finding the Best Used Car for Your Budget

When on the hunt for a quality used car that fits with your personal finances, it’s always wise to find a payment that makes sense in relation to your bring-home salary. One can easily get caught up in the hoopla and end up driving off in a more expensive (new or pre-owned) car than was originally circled on the budget sheet. The good news is, there is an abundance of used vehicles in all the popular categories/price ranges that still offer good value, such as available warranty, features-a-plenty, and most importantly — a monthly payment that your budget can absorb. Let’s examine some vehicles you can expect to find (from economy to mid-level) that are within your budget constraints.

The Range

In the scope of what you make and ultimately hope to shell out for a nice “gently-owned” vehicle, we’ll suggest a couple models for each salary level from $20,000 to $50,000. The formula is your customary “latest model for the best price” logic. And why not? The average vehicle which may have been exposed to harsher climates for an extra few years is naturally the less attractive option than a newer car available at around the same price — even with a bit more mileage than you expected. All those knobs, buttons, latches, sensors, and other expensive stuff have a shelf-life before issues surface.

Needless to say, every buyer has a somewhat different set of financial obligations to consider when coming up with a payment that can work for them. Your current credit status, the amount you have for cash or trade, and the number of months you chose to finance will ultimately dictate much of what the following numbers reveal (Captain Obvious moment here). This is merely intended to give a ‘general-ish’ idea of what a target payment will potentially bring to your driveway.

The Rates

Using a 700 credit score as a marker, most will pay approximately 9% interest for a used auto loan. However, that rate can vary from around 4% to well north of 10%, depending on buyer circumstances. We will pencil in $1500 down (cash or trade) and 7% sales tax for loan calculation purposes. On a side note, a figure of 40-50,000 miles is the prime-target window for our used purchase. Vehicles that carry some type of certified warranty or lifetime powertrain coverage should always be strongly considered over little-to-no coverage once you drive away.

A blue 2019 Chevy Spark is shown parked outside of a cafe.

What Car to Buy on a $20k Salary?

If you’re semi-retired, work part-time, or are a gig driver, you could be pulling down around twenty grand per year. Most vehicles in this price range tend to offer practical features without the expensive trim options, which drive up costs. If your sole means of income represents the entire $20k, you’ll need a sensible purchase for sure. Keeping things under $300 a month sounds like an excellent idea. Here’s what you can find:

If you’ve got an OK down payment and no trade, you’ll struggle to get affordable late-model vehicles without potentially significant mileage on what will likely be a 4-cylinder gas engine. However, with the better industry warranty coverage and various certified programs we see today, you can find something with, say, 50k miles that can be covered for up to an additional 50k (and sometimes more). Here are a couple of examples of what’s out there:

2018 Chevy Spark

The inline 4-cylinder gets a nice 31/39 mpg, and the interior has a decent amount of cubic room for a subcompact. The Spark is an excellent choice for most types of gig delivery and those who want the economy that comes with it. A backup camera and popular apps are included. You can score a 2018 Spark for around $9,500, and your payments (using the highlighted numbers above) would be:

  • $178 for 60 months
  • $214 for 48 months
  • $274 for 36 months
  • $394 for 24 months

2018 Mitsubishi Mirage G4

Much like the Spark, this Mitsubishi has an economical, no-frills persona about it. The mini-sedan look is a slight departure from a traditional hatchback body often found in this segment. Like the Chevy Spark, the Mirage G4 comes with features such as a rear camera and Apple/Android capability. Mitsubishi’s standard 10yr/100k powertrain warranty is a nice buying point that gives this ride a little extra steam. The Mirage G4 will run about $11k, and here’s what the payments look like:

  • $211 for 60 months
  • $253 for 48 months
  • $324 for 36 months
  • $467 for 24 months

A black 2019 Hyundai Elantra SEL is shown parked on the side of a highway.

What Car to Buy on a $30k Salary?

Those making around $30k have a little more wiggle room than the previous demographic, but the concept of looking for an affordable, efficient vehicle makes a lot of sense here as well. While you may still not be able to afford the latest and greatest, you will be able to get behind the wheel of a larger and more modern vehicle.

2019 Hyundai Elantra SEL

A stellar 28/37 mpg figure and good safety ratings make the Elantra an attractive consideration. Features such as a panoramic sunroof, lane departure and blind spot alerts, and even an overhead airbag come standard. A good-condition 2019 SEL can be had for around $15,500; payments:

  • $268 for 72 months
  • $309 for 60 months
  • $372 for 48 months
  • $476 for 36 months

2019 Buick Encore Essence

A pre-owned Buick Encore crossover is a sensible choice for those who’d welcome a smaller SUV purchase. The Encore has a classy look and luxurious feel with heated seats and steering wheel, a Bose sound system, and more. A nifty 25/30 mpg and a possible GM certification for the 2019 Essence model will go for around $17k, and that looks like this:

  • $297 for 72 months
  • $342 for 60 months
  • $411 for 48 months
  • $527 for 36 months

A white 2020 Honda HR-V is shown parked on the side of a city street.

What Car to Buy on a $40k Salary?

For this level, we’ll bump up the cash/trade to $2,500 to keep potential monthly payments somewhat within reason. This figure opens up more possibilities in hopes of scoring a vehicle that perhaps you previously wanted or had your eye on.

2018 Honda HR-V

Honda dependability and lower-mileage 2WD and AWD models are available for around $22,500. This crossover offers 28/35 mpg and comes standard with 17-inch wheels and keyless entry. An impressive standard safety package includes electronic braking/traction control and complete airbag coverage. A 2018 Honda HR-V will require:

  • $384 for 72 months
  • $443 for 60 months
  • $532 for 48 months
  • $681 for 36 months

2019 Jeep Renegade Latitude 4×4

A very good condition certified Jeep Renegade Latitude 4×4 model comes packed with useful features such as dual-zone front climate control, a rear folding seat, and 21/29 mpg. The Renegade is known for a quiet cabin and good off-road ability. At a price tag of around $25,000, you can possibly take one home for:

  • $431 for 72 months
  • $498 for 60 months
  • $597 for 48 months
  • $766 for 36 months

A blue 2019 Chevy Silverado 1500 is shown driving on a highway.

What Car to Buy on a $50k Salary?

If you’re pulling down at least $50,000, there’s a good chance you’ll have a decent trade or some cash to apply. Accordingly, we’ll bump up the cash/trade to $4,000 for this segment.

2019 Acura TLX V6 Technology

Nothing wrong with looking out your front window and seeing a sporty Acura TLX on the property. The optional 3.5L powerplant delivers good zip along with classic Acura responsiveness; this makes for a sure-thing, pleasurable driving experience. The Technology model comes with heated seats, 19-inch wheels, and of course, a good technology package. Nicely equipped and warrantied models run approx $31,500 for payments of:

  • $528 for 72 months
  • $609 for 60 months
  • $732 for 48 months
  • $938 for 36 months

2019 Chevy Silverado 1500 Custom

Some really sweet and fairly loaded Silverado 1500 Custom models with V8 power and low-miles are out there starting at around $35,000 (under warranty). You can expect a spacious cab area and amenities like a remote start, 20-inch aluminum wheels, and a cool infotainment setup. The light-duty pickup still offers some pretty decent 385 horsepower and 383 lb-ft of torque. You would be spending:

  • $595 for 72 months
  • 686 for 60 months
  • $824 for 48 months
  • $1056 for 36 months

Good Deals Are Out There for Any Buyer

To find just the right deal that’s an all-around score for your budget, you may have to do a little diligent shopping. Therefore, it’s always nice to have numbers and angles to digest when considering a purchase. This guide is useful for a very-general outline of what’s potentially affordable and compatible with your salary. You can easily manipulate the numbers to fit your personal financial situation better. As stated, the guide was geared toward the latest available model vehicles within a certain budget. You’ll find a lot of options in the range of what your finances can handle — but remember, choosing to invest in a vehicle that has warranty coverage is a wise foundation to build on.