The Ugly Emotional Arc of New Car Buying


First, you take your old car to the mechanic.

Cartoon drawing of me standing in a mechanic shop. The mechanic says, "I will fix your car for you so you don't die in a fiery crash." I am saying, "Yay!"

Emotion: Happy and looking forward to a nicely running car.

Four days later, you go pick your car up from the mechanic.

Same cartoon. Mechanic says, "I fixed your transmission then found and unfixable engine problem. Here is your broken car back." Me: "Yay?"

Emotion: Confused and bummed.

Me: "Will this engine problem kill me in the next week?" Mechanic: "Maybe."

Emotion: Concerned. Extremely concerned.
This drawing is an exact representation of our conversation, by the way.

In the cartoon, I am holding a wad of cash and have a sad look on my face. The mechanic says, "That will be $700, please."

Emotion: Sad. Also poor.

Chapter One:

Because your car is not just a death trap, but also ten years old, you decide to buy a new car. Daredevils both, you and your husband jump in your rattlemobile and drive to the dealership that is the farthest away from you in the world because they have the car you want in the color you want.

Cartoon of me and Alex in a gold car.

Emotion: Imminently even poorer, but excited.

Chapter Two:

You sit for your first extended wait of the afternoon as someone brings your new car from The Other Lot.

Cartoon drawing of Alex and I sitting behind a table at a car dealership.

Emotion: Patient.

Chapter Three:

You will test drive a new car, which will be better than your ten-year old car in every single way it is possible to be a better car and even a couple where it is not.

Cartoon of me and Alex in a red car with huge grins on our faces.

Emotion: Pure joy. The last joy you will feel for THE NEXT FOUR HOURS.

Chapter Four:

Now is the time in the car buying process when the dealership will take your death trap trade-in to see how much it is worth. I suggest that you take this time to place bets on what offer they will come back with.

We're sitting at the table in the dealership again. Alex says, "I think they will offer us twelve dollars." I say, "I think they're going to make US pay THEM."

Emotion: Unease.

Chapter Five:

Now they will tell you how much they have decided to pay you to take your car off of your hands. You will be momentarily excited that you won your bet, but then the reality of how little money they are paying you for the second most valuable thing you own after your house will hit you and your emotions will change.

A man has joined us at the table. He says, "We will pay you a pittance." Alex says, "How about a pittance plus $500?" I say "Please?" The man says, "No."

Emotion: Resentment.

Chapter Six:

Now you haggle. You can avoid this most terrible of steps by paying full price (not recommended), using a pre-negotiated car-buying service (highly recommended), or faking your own death so your significant other can get a sympathy discount.

Drawing of black squiggles with stars, exclamation points, and various limbs sticking out, indicating a massive struggle.

Emotions: Hunger Games-esque

Chapter Seven:

Your car salesman will bring you a paper with all your charges and discounts listed on it. He will have intentionally left out at least two of your discounts in hopes that you won’t catch them.

Same cartoon of us at the desk. There is a paper with a dollar sign on the desk. Alex is saying, "It seems that you've, ahem, accidentally overcharged us by more than $1500." The salesman says, "Oopsie."

Emotion: Deep-seeded anger thinly veiled by fake conviviality.

Chapter Eight:

You will now be left alone again for a long period of time. Why is unclear. A price has been agreed upon. The car is there; you know because you were just in it. It can’t possibly take more than three or four seconds to print out a sales contract. Nonetheless, you will sit there unattended for what feels like hours.

We are sitting at the empty table. Alex has circles under his eyes. My head is down flat on the table.

Emotion: Boredom, the kind that comes after mind-numbing.

Chapter Nine:

You will turn down a service contract sixteen times in five minutes.

A salesman says, "This service contract is great because..." Me: "No." Salesman: "But this one will work because..." Alex and I: "NO!"

Emotion: Annoyance.

Chapter Ten:

They will send in a third person to try to sell you a service contract. And undercoating.

There is a woman saleslady at the table now. She says, "If there is *one* thing you need, it's..." Alex says, "I said no." I say, "God, please. Make it stop."

Emotion: Hopelessness. Utter and complete. They’re never going to let us leave, are they?

Chapter Eleven:

This same saleslady will then put sticky notes as bookmarks in your owner’s manual so you will be able to find such important information as how to set the clock. She does this by looking in the index. Because, you know, not many people know about the index.

The clock-setting lecture takes place three and a half hours into the process. It is ironic, what with the fact that TIME HAS LOST ALL MEANING.

We still sit at the table, looking even more downtrodden than before. The saleslady continues, "And if you look here on page 86 of the owner's manual, you will see how to preset a radio station. Of course, page 87 tells you about the clock. And I see in the index that..."

Emotion: Incredulity. Are most of the people who buy cars here illiterate, or do the salespeople just assume they are?

Chapter Twelve Through Eleventy Billion:

At this point you are so worn down that you would consider paying for the optional paint protection if it means they will just let you go home. You will eventually be moved to another room where you will sign anything they put in front of you just so you can leave. The business manager who is handing you these papers will uncover a $345 in-your-favor mistake the salesman made. When the salesman tells her to just waive the $345, you are so grateful, not because of the money you are saving but because you would not have been physically able to stand the extra four hours it would have taken to fix the mistake.

Image of the word "DESPAIR" in different fonts and at different angles.

No explanation necessary.


Chapter Eleventy Billion and One:

You are done. You have your owner’s manual. You have your keys. You are sitting in your new car. Your salesperson will still not let you go. Evidently, you have to connect the bluetooth so you can talk on the phone in the car.

Presumably to the salespeople who want nothing more in life than to chat with you.

Cartoon image of Alex and I in the car with a salesperson in the seat behind us. He is saying, "Now I'll call you so you can hear the car ring!"

Emotion: Murderous exasperation. It is so an emotion.

Chapter Eleventy Billion and Two:

You will drive home, all the excitement of buying a new car stripped out of you.

Drawing of me and Alex driving home in the car. My eyes are closed. He has circles under his.

Emotion: Tired. So very tired. Also, poor again.

But don’t worry. Tomorrow you will love your new car. And just like with a new baby, you will forget how painful the act of acquiring it was.

Photo of Alex and me in the new car. We are smiling.

Emotion: Happy. Bonus: No crumbs under the seats.

You may even remember how to smile again.

45 thoughts on “The Ugly Emotional Arc of New Car Buying

  1. My FIL worked for a car company so for the last 17 years we have used his “family plan” to set the price for our cars. It took that step out of the process of buying a new car.

    But! OH! Your description of the sales person showing you how the car works? Exact same thing happened to us. I guess they think it’s part of their friendly service and why you *need* a car salesperson. We had our 2 kids with us when we picked up our car 3 years ago. They, of course, just wanted to get moving in our NEW! CAR! My husband and I were trying to be polite and just saying yep, got it, you bet, sounds good just to try to get the guy to finish. Because, like you said, apparently we can’t read the owner’s manual.

    • We didn’t have our kids with us this time. Thank the good lord in heaven, because last time we bought a car, we DID have kids with us and there are only so many times you can climb in and out of every car in the showroom with them as they pretend to drive before you want to just lie down under the tires and let them run over you.

  2. So happy for you. (After you actually got out of the dealership.) And now you have a pretty, yet safe, car. What did you get?

  3. Bob’s parents’ Audi burst into flames on the Beltway as they were driving it to trade it in. They got more from the insurance than they would have on a trade-in. And you could have skipped chapters 4 and 5! (Not that I recommend this method)

    • You should have seen my eyes widen as I read this. Burst into flames? On the Beltway? Good God.

      Although yay for the insurance payoff.

      • I remember when Susan said she would go to your blog sometimes just to read the funny comments. I’m following her advice today and oh wow – your readers are awesome. And I had the same reaction you had to the flaming beltway-mobile. Yikes! But…a friend of mine had a car do the same thing on the tri-borough bridge leaving Manhattan. Once she was away from the car and safe, she couldn’t stop telling everyone how awesome it was for a car to flame out like that because it totally eliminates the questions of “should I try and fix this old clunker, or buy a new car”. That choice has been made, avoiding some of the initial steps in your post.

  4. Congratulations on the new car! I hope you have many years of trouble-free driving in it.

    And with that out of the way, HAHAHAHAHA! I love your illustrations! We bought a new car for Bill in June, and our experience matches yours so closely–from the 5-hour ultramarathon purchasing ordeal to the 45-minute “I’m sorry, but you CAN’T LEAVE until I show you how to connect your phone to your new car’s Bluetooth system, and I will get in the car with you to ensure that you can’t drive away until I do so”–that I’m willing to bet that I know exactly which dealer you purchased the car from. I probably can also guess which sales associate sold it to you.

    Then again, the whole car purchasing process is so stressful and miserable that this scenario probably plays itself out daily in any number of local dealerships. Thankfully, you have the shiny new crumb-free car to ease the pain. Yay!

    • Our car salesman was Basil. That is, in fact, what it says on his business cards. Basil. No last name. Like Cher. But Basil.

  5. OH MY GOD…why? Why does it take so long AFTER you’ve already agreed on everything? You left out the “let’s sit around while they wash the car” piece. UGH.

    • Fun fact: Our new car was COVERED in pine needles, both outside and in the doorframes. For having 58 miles on it, it seemed to have traveled through a lot of pine forests with the back lift open. We needed that car wash.

  6. I loved this whole thing. I remember the incredulity particularly well. And I love this line: “And just like with a new baby, you will forget how painful the act of acquiring it was.” And the last picture. THE WHOLE THING.

  7. OMG this is exactly why we’re still driving our 1998 Explorer. The driver side door sticks all the time, forcing us to climb in and out the passenger side. It’s had more engine repairs than anything on the Nascar circuit. But it’s better than buying a new car because of this insanity. Enjoy your new ride, you deserve it!

  8. If I’d known you were car shopping I would have told you to buy it over the internet. Doesn’t completely eliminate all steps but enough that you aren’t so crazed with the ones you do have to sit through. Your illustrations are terrific though!

      • Just email the local dealers that have the car you want. They all have internet sales teams now. Make them barter for your business. Once you get prices, go back to the lowest ones and ask them to lower it again. You can pretty much know what a decent price is and they know it. Agree on the price before you go in and that eliminates several steps. Plus the last time I bought a car I was clear that i had to leave at a certain time to pick up my kids or no sale. They had incentive to get it done quick(er).

        • You should offer to do this for people as a paid service. I would have hired you. You are brilliant.

  9. Is it a Honda??? Because that Bluetooth thing is INSANE!!! It’s like, please, please get out of my car and let me go home! Hey! Maybe Caroline will consent to ride in this new car!

    • We just have to get her in there quick before someone pukes. We took our kids out to dinner in it and Jack wasn’t feeling well and in my head I was all, “If he throws up in this car on day ONE, I will lose my shit.”

      I’m hoping we make it to at least Day Nine or Ten.

  10. You are so much nicer than me. I would have been like “I can read and I will figure it out myself. No, really, I am a tactile learning and need to figure it out myself. Seriously. WE’RE DONE NOW.”

  11. Completely agree with other comments – more posts with drawings please! *
    Anyway, your scenario is just why I drive a 1998 Accord. :)

    True story: Years ago, I left my car at the airport for a week. On starting it, I see the Check Oil light is on. No worries!
    Then, on the TOLL ROAD, there’s a ‘pop’ sound, and the car gradually decelerates, so I pull over. A very nice guy stops, and knocks on the window to ask if I need help. Needless to say, I decline, while carefully checking that all doors are locked. [tbh, I’m sure he was genuinely concerned.]
    I donated that car, although the dealer did offer $400.
    If I ever buy a new car, I plan to use the credit union buying service. It SOUNDS so easy.

    PS: it is good luck when your first car picture includes the Pep Boys in the background. :)

    * At an Adobe conference in July, I tried Adobe Ink. It was very cool, but I could only draw a picture of a leaf.

    • We used our insurance (USAA) buying service. It was great. Or, at least, less horrible than it could have been.

      I bet that leaf was AWESOME.

      • Well, it was a rather abstract gingko leaf.
        With Adobe Ink & Slide, you choose a color and brush type, and then you draw on your iPad. Or, in my case, you draw on the vendor’s iPad, while they smile politely and pretend to not notice that you have trouble with your hands.
        Oh, I just said that. :(
        The drawing app you use, is really excellent.

        • Just btw, the vendors at this conference were super friendly.
          I don’t know if they noticed that I have problems with my hands, OR if they thought that I like abstract drawings.
          Perhaps, both.

  12. OMG, this made me laugh so hard because we just went through this in November!!! We figured we’d just trade in our 10-year-old car, because it still had a good blue book value and it would be so much easier to just be all done in one day. But man, when they told us what they’d give us for it, we almost cried! But of course they have you right where they want you at this point. This is why we only buy a new car every 10 years. Oh, and good move on not taking the kids, wish we’d been that smart.

  13. This was freakin’ hilarious. Brought back many memories. Oh, it’s extra fun when you have kids w/ you for this kind of thing, and it’s um, the pre-ipad and pre-smartphone era. Gah! My kingdom for bag of M&M’s and the chance to go home!

    • Frankly, I don’t know that I would have made it through if *I* didn’t have a smartphone and M&Ms. :)

  14. LOVE the drawings and your story. Our dealership finished by demanding we pose for a picture of ourselves and our newborn beside our new car, which turned out to be such a lemon that we got a full price refund from GM because they could not fix the non functioning brakes. We then had to go through the same thing all over again with a very active 1 yr old. You would think buying a new car would be fun. They suck the joy out of it.

  15. OMG, I had so much fun reading this. I know it wasn’t fun for you and it brought back ugly memories of when we bought a car after moving across the country and me being without a car for 6 weeks that summer. We ended up walking out of a dealership when they were being assholes and I cried in my husbands car because I wanted a car, ANY car, so badly.

  16. hyperventilating, that’s me. i hate those kinds of things, buying new cars, and all the ca-ca they put you threw.

    i hope it’s not an omen that you’re in front of Pep Boys in that final picture…

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