Tips and Tricks to Safely Buy
a Car as a Military Family

Being in the military often comes with a lot of change: new cities, new homes, new friends, and new cars. Military personnel are frequently the targets of fraudulent car dealers and are often taken advantage of. Because of past occurrences, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) created the Office of Servicemember Affairs (OSA). The OSA “works to help military families overcome unique financial challenges by providing educational resources, monitoring complaints, and working with other agencies to solve problems faced by service members.” The CFPB has done work to strengthen the Military Lending Act and it monitors service member complaints. Additionally, the website provides a number of resources for military personnel, such as how to navigate a financial life-cycle in the military and how to manage money in general.

Why This Happens

Military personnel are guaranteed a paycheck two times a month. In 2012, at the time director of CFPB, Holly Petraeus, did an interview with the Associated Press in which she shared that the automotive industry is a big installation, and “for a big installation like this one, that’s a whole lot of those paychecks.” Car salesmen target military personnel because those service members are making a consistent income and are able to pay their dues. However, car salesmen often threaten or coerce active-duty military members into buying a car by not allowing them to leave the dealership until contracts are signed, or by failing to put trade-in vehicles on sales contracts.

Pick the Right Car for You

Edmunds gives a list of 10 steps to finding the right vehicle for you and your family.


How many passengers do you need to carry? What amenities do you need? Do you need to house car seats? How much trunk storage do you need? As a military family, will you be PCSing soon? If so, do you need a lot of space for moving? These are the types of questions you should ask yourself when you’re looking to buy a new or used vehicle.

Set your budget

We’ll cover finances and budgeting for a vehicle a little later, but make sure you set your budget and don’t overspend! Especially as a military family, you probably have some set expenses. Make sure you don’t overshoot what you can spend on a car. The list provided by Edmunds states that the monthly car payment should not exceed 15 percent of your monthly income.

Decide if you want to lease or buy

Leasing a car is a great idea if you need a car right away, but really can’t afford to buy one. The down payment is little-to-none, and the monthly payments are less. However, buying a car is a good idea if you need something to last you a little longer.

Consider other cars in the class

While you may have a vehicle in mind that you want to purchase, make sure you keep an open mind and look at customer reviews or other vehicles before making a final decision.

Weigh the cost of ownership

While a vehicle may be cheaper to buy at the beginning, it could be more expensive to own in the long run. It’s important to look at long-term costs such as maintenance, insurance, depreciation, and fuel costs.

Find cars for sale

There are ways to find cars to buy without going to the dealership. We talk more about using your resources in the next section, but you can also look online through Edmunds or other car websites to look outside your immediate location to find a vehicle.

Set up a test drive

Test driving a vehicle before you buy it is imperative. While a car may have all the amenities you want, it may not drive the way you want it to. It’s recommended that you test drive at least three different vehicles before deciding on the one you want to purchase.

What to look for in a test drive

It is important to drive a car on a test drive the way you would in everyday life. For example, if you consistently drive on the freeway, you’ll want to do the same during your test drive. Or if you often drive during rush-hour traffic, do the same. This will give you a realistic idea of how your desired vehicle will perform in the day-to-day.

Pick your car

After you test drive a few vehicles, you may want to sleep on your decision before you make a final one, specifically to weigh the pros and cons of each. If you are unable to choose a car after you’ve test driven a few, you may need to drive a few more. Buying a car should not be taken lightly, especially since it is not a low expense.

Time to buy or lease

Since you’ve had the time to research and test drive a few vehicles, now you get to decide whether or not you want to lease a vehicle temporarily or buy one!

Use Your Resources

Purchasing a vehicle through a car buying service rather than going directly into the dealer is a practically fool-proof way to avoid being taken advantage of by sales personnel. These car buying services most often have the buyer’s best interest at heart, especially since they work to find the best deal for you, not for any singular company.

USAA has an amazing car buying service that assists USAA members (military personnel) with the entire car-buying process. This service provides bonus cash offers, ways to save on a vehicle, car buying tools such as a loan calculator, and a learning center to answer all questions. USAA has a large variety of helpful articles about this topic, as well.

AAA also has a great car buying service. While this is not tailored specifically to military personnel, the company provides resources to its members for both new and used cars. When shopping for a new car, this service allows buyers to research the vehicle they want, see how much they can save as AAA members, and enables them to set up a test drive at the selected dealer with no obligation or cost. When shopping for a used car, this service allows buyers to participate in pre-negotiated pricing, provides discounts, and ensures a buy-back guarantee.

Balance Your Finances

Before buying a car, it is important to know what your monthly income looks like. As a service member in the military, you most likely get a paycheck every two weeks. However, this does not mean that you and your family do not face financial hardship. In 2013, 22,000 active-duty troops were on food stamps. Additionally, a survey in 2018 showed that the greatest cause of stress for military families was finances. Military Onesource gives a breakdown of budgeting tips for military families:


Track your expenses


Live within your means


Be vigilant about saving money


Pay down your debt as fast as possible


Avoid impulsive purchases


Don’t let deployment throw you off your budget track


Watch out for the holidays

Following these tips is a great starting point to ensuring that you spend responsibly, both in general and on an automobile.

Account for the Total Cost of a Car

Robert “Camo” Gleisburg is a retired Marine lieutenant colonel that set up a car-buying class for marines on Camp Pendleton, California. In this class, he taught the marines the acronym GRIM when planning for the total cost of a car:

G: gas costs.

R: registration.

I: insurance.

M: maintenance.


Accounting for the total cost of a car is important--it isn’t just paying for the car that counts. Additionally, the more you know about how much a car will cost in total, the more you can stand firm on your feet when you go into the dealership; you’ll know exactly what you want and what you’re looking for rather than being led around blindly by a salesman.

Do Your Research

One of the best ways to ensure that you’re getting a car from a reliable source is do research dealer reviews and ratings. Edmunds has a dealer review system that allows you to find local dealers according to your zip code. These dealers come with a star rating scale, and will often be accompanied by customer reviews. Reading the reviews of those who have worked with these dealers beforehand is a great way to educate yourself on what you are walking into, rather than walking in blind. Doing this will enable you to know who and what you are dealing with so you know how best to represent yourself and get what you need.

If you’re located in San Diego county, The San Diego Better Business Bureau has a section dedicated to Military and Veteran consumers. This enables active duty and retired service members to know their rights and also find resources or file an auto dispute if necessary. The San Diego Better Business Bureau is highly aware of the scams and schemes that military personnel get caught up in because of the proximity of the Bureau to many military bases. It now works to keep these types of schemes and disputes from happening.

Know The Tricks

Founder of Greg Fidan created an exhaustive list of 112 scams that car dealers use against buyers. While this is not specific to military personnel, it is still important for service members to know what scams they could be trapped in. Fidan lists each of these scams with a rank from 1-10, 10 being the worst, and explains how car salesmen use each of these scams against buyers. Additionally, Fidan provides explanations on how to avoid these scams, and some of his explanations include links to helpful resources.

Another scam that military personnel are at risk of falling prey to is the ‘Yo-Yo’ scam. This scam occurs after you purchase a car, then the dealership calls and says there was an issue with the financing. When this occurs, the dealership will often bring you back into the shop and attempt to renegotiate the financing terms at a higher interest rate and longer loan terms. Here are some red flags to look for to avoid being pulled into a ‘Yo-Yo’ scam:


You’re asked to sign a sales contract with some fields left blank


It’s not clear what interest rate you’ll be paying


You’re asked to sign a form that says the deal is “conditional”


The dealer lets you drive away in the car without any contract at all

Look Into Both New and Used Cars

If you’re looking to buy a new car, MoneyCrusher recommends that you look at the “invoice” price rather than the MSRP. However, if you’re looking to a buy a used car, it’s recommended that you look at the resale price of the car, which will give you the upper hand in working a bargain.

There are benefits to buying a new car:

New safety technology

Stability control
Adaptive cruise control
Lane departure warning
Blind spot monitoring
Rear-view camera

Fuel efficiency breakthroughs

Fuel efficiency is making its way to common automobiles such as minivans and pickup trucks.

Alternative energy advances

Electric vehicles, diesel-engine cars, etc., are making their way to the top of the charts in North America.

Cars for the long haul

With a used car, you are taking on whatever maintenance the previous owner did not. However, with a new vehicle, you are solely responsible for the upkeep and can ensure that it lasts longer.

Government incentives

There are a number of government incentives available to those who drive primarily alternative-fuel vehicles. Additionally, if you purchase a hybrid, you may be rewarded a tax credit, which is the equivalent of cash back.

Simpler needs, simpler costs

Typically, the minimum cost of a vehicle is the most basic model of that vehicle; if you want more advanced features, it could tack on up to $10 thousand to the total cost. But if those features are something you want, that can be negotiated at the dealership.

However, there are also benefits to buying a used car:

Lower price tag, less depreciation

When you buy a car that’s a few years old, you still get a depreciate vehicle, and you lose less money at a less rapid pace.

Sales tax on new cars

Most used cars are not subject to sales tax like new cars are.

Falling registration fees

In many states, registration fees are based upon the model year of the vehicle being purchased. Therefore, if you purchase a used vehicle that is an older model year, your registration fees will likely be less than if you were to buy a new car.

Useless extras on new cars,
cheaper features on used cars

When you purchase a new vehicle, the salesmen at the dealer will most likely try their best to get you to upgrade all your features. However, when you buy a used car, it’s probably cheaper to pay for the upgrades you want after the fact, so there is no sense in paying extra on a new car for what you can pay less for on a used one.

Dealers and their crazy fees

New car dealerships will often convince buyers to pay for things like shipping charges, destination fees, and “dealer preparation,” none of which are necessary when purchasing a vehicle. When you take the opportunity to buy a used vehicle, you are more in control of what you pay for in the long run.


Cars are typically meant to last for approximately 100,000 miles. However, when buying a used vehicle, a good deal of that mileage could be taken up already. Luckily, there are a good number of manufacturers that will provide warranties for up to a certain mileage, which is helpful when buying a used vehicle.

All in all, there are benefits and downfalls to purchasing both new and used vehicles. With purchasing a new car, you get updated features and less mileage. However, you end up paying more in the long run because of interest rates and beginning costs. With a used vehicle, you pay less, but you get more used mileage and possibly less features.


As a military family, buying a car can be a big expense. But if you use these tips and take your time choosing a vehicle, there should be little to no issues with the process. Remember to do your research and use your resources, especially to avoid any scams or being taken advantage of for the consistent paycheck you receive as a service member. Be aware of the traps you may fall into as a member of the military, and don’t stray away from what you want. Make sure to read contracts and leases thoroughly, and don’t leave any fields blank even if the salesman insists. Don’t forget to schedule a test-drive, and don’t be afraid to test drive a few different vehicles! Weigh the pros and cons of all your decisions, and do not forget to shop only within your financial means. Buying a new vehicle is an exciting feat, and one that should not be taken lightly. Happy shopping!