How to Finance a Car in 5 Easy Steps


Do you want to finance a car in the near future? Whether you’re in the market for your first car or looking for a replacement for your current car, it’s essential to educate yourself about the car financing process.

couple buying a  car

Financing a new or used car might seem overwhelming at first. Many people wonder what credit score they need and how much they need to put down on a car.

The truth is that the answers to these questions will vary based on your lender, your cash flow, and the type of car you want to buy. However, if you conduct enough education and research ahead of financing a car, you can go into the process confident and prepared to get the best deal.

Luckily, you don’t have to go far to get this information. In this post, you’ll find everything you need to know about financing a car. It’s the ultimate guide that will hopefully answer all your questions about this process and help you get on your way into a new car at a value you can afford.

This guide is organized by five important steps. You should complete each step to get the best rate.

Step 1: Know What’s on Your Credit Report

Before you spend time researching which car you’ll be driving into the sunset, you need to know what’s on your credit report. Usually, the better the credit score you have, the better the interest rate you’ll get.

Credit reports sometimes have errors on them, which could lead to lower credit scores.

Go to to get your credit report from all three major credit bureaus. If it’s been a long time since you’ve looked at your credit, take the time to look at your credit report from all three credit bureaus.

You should enter your personal information such as address, social security number, and more to verify your identity. However, if that doesn’t work, the credit bureaus might ask you to request your report in writing. So be prepared that the latter could take a few extra days.

Step 2: Repair Any Adverse Accounts

When looking at your credit history, you might notice adverse accounts at the top of your credit report. These are accounts that have been sent to collections or bills that are past due. Underneath that section will be your accounts that are in good standing. You’ll also be able to see the balances on those accounts if a loan balance remains.

How is your credit score calculated?

The information on your report directly impacts your score. And your score determines how much you can finance. Your score is calculated based on five different factors:

Payment History35%
Amounts Owed30%
Length of Credit History15%
Credit Mix10%
New Credit10%

As evidenced by the chart above, the best way to improve your credit quickly is to improve your payment history and your amounts owed. These impact your score the most.

When you owe a collection agency money, that reflects negatively on the “Payment History” portion of your credit score. On the other hand, when you pay your bills on time, you will have a good history of payments. Lenders like to see this because it implies you will also pay them on time.

What credit score is needed to buy a car?

Many lenders will offer car loans to people with poor or fair credit scores. However, if they approve you for an auto loan with poor credit, your interest rate will likely be higher than someone with an excellent credit score.

740-799Very Good
579 & belowPoor

If you have poor credit, a lender might ask you to make a larger down payment or prove your income.

What credit score is needed to finance a car with no money down?

You can get a car loan with no money down if a lender approves you. However, it is in your best interest to improve your credit score before you seek auto financing.

If your annual percentage rate (APR) is too high on the car you buy, you risk becoming “underwater” on your car loan quickly. Being underwater on a loan means you owe more on your car than it’s worth. This can make it hard to sell without losing money. Moreover, if you total the car in an accident, your insurance check might not cover the car’s value if you’re underwater.

That’s why it’s so important to take an in-depth look at your finances before financing a car, which brings us to step three.

See also: 5 Best Auto Loans for Bad Credit and No Down Payment

Step 3: Create a Car Budget

We all have dreams of the car we want to drive someday. However, before getting your heart set on driving a certain vehicle, first create a car budget.

To know how much car you can afford, first take a look at your income and expenses. Then, list all of these in a document, and you can see what your overall household budget is month to month.

Example of a Budget

When creating a budget, make two columns, one with your income and one with your expenses.


In the income column include:

  • W2 Income from your day job
  • Income received from side hustles
  • Income received from investments

Once you know your income, then fill in your expenses.


Expenses usually consist of:

  • Your house or rent payment.
  • Your household bills like electricity, cable, Internet service, and water.
  • Insurance (life insurance, house insurance, health insurance, & car insurance)
  • Phone bill
  • Gas/Transportation costs
  • Student loan payments
  • Daycare bills/babysitters
  • Groceries
  • Out-of-pocket medical costs
  • Your car payment

The Importance of a Car Budget

Once you have a firm understanding of your household budget and how much room you have to spare for a monthly car payment, you can create a budget for your car. You should have a budget for your car because it’s likely going to be one of your biggest monthly expenses.

Your income needs to cover all of your expenses, preferably with room to spare for saving and investing. So, when you’re looking for your next car, run the numbers.

Ask yourself if there is even room in your budget to pay for a car. If so, can you afford a brand new car, or should you get a used car? Can you get a luxury brand, or are you happy with any brand of car so long as it runs well? Can you get a car with low miles, or will you only be able to get something with high mileage?

Buying a car is a big decision, so you should take as much time as you need to run these numbers. Once you know the price of a car you can comfortably afford, it’s time to apply for a loan.

Step 4: Apply to Multiple Lenders

There are many ways to finance a car:

  • At the car dealership
  • Through a bank
  • With a credit union
  • With a private, online lender.

You can arrive at the car dealership to test drive cars. Then, if you decide you want to buy one, your dealership will likely have a dealership financing program or the ability to apply to multiple auto loan lenders on your behalf.

However, some people find it very helpful to apply to multiple online lenders, credit unions, or banks ahead of time just to see what they qualify for. So, if you apply to numerous lenders ahead of time, you will know whether you’re approved and for how much. That way, you won’t test drive a car that’s too expensive for your budget.

To get pre-approved for a car loan, lenders will look at your credit, and they might ask you for proof of income as well.

Is it better to get a car loan from your bank?

The best auto loans are the ones with the best loan terms and lowest APR. So, if you have a good relationship with your bank, they might offer you a low APR and little to no fees. However, if a different bank or a credit union in town offers you a better deal, sometimes you could save hundreds or thousands of dollars by getting a loan from them instead.

How much does financing a car cost?

There are a few costs for car buyers to consider when financing a car. Remember, the cost of your car is more than just your monthly payment. You need to consider the total cost of the loan, the interest you’re being charged, and the taxes you have to pay.

Here is a list of costs to consider:

  • Your down payment.
  • Your total monthly payments (over a 48- or 60-month loan, for example)
  • Your total loan interest
  • Insurance
  • Sales tax and title costs

We recommend using an auto loan calculator to find out how much interest you’ll have to pay over the life of a car loan. It might be tempting to get a long 72-month loan because of the low monthly payment, but remember that cars depreciate quickly. You want to avoid being underwater on your loan. A high interest rate combined with a longer loan term could mean you owe more than your car is worth over time.

How much do you need to put down on a car?

You can get an auto loan without money down if a lender approves you. However, making a down payment shows a lender you’re willing to take buying and financing a car seriously. Even a $100 or $500 down payment is better than no down payment at all.

How long will they finance a used car?

The longest car loans are for seven years or 84 months. However, according to Edmunds, more and more people are now financing cars for more than five years. Keep in mind that interest rates are usually higher for longer loan terms.

Plus, if you finance for seven years, you risk owing more on the car than it’s worth. So, even if a lender approves a used car loan for seven years, think long and hard before signing the loan agreement.

Step 5: Select the Best Lender

Once you’ve compared loan offers, you can select the best one. When you get your loan paperwork, be sure to read the fine print. Make sure that everything in your loan paperwork matches what you agreed on. Double-check the monthly payment and car loan term.

Once you approve the loan paperwork, sign on the dotted line, and make regular monthly payments. If you stick to your household budget and make your car payment on time every month, it will help improve your credit. It will also serve you well if you choose to repeat the car buying process a few years into the future.

Catherine Alford
Meet the author

Catherine Alford is the go-to personal finance expert for educated, aspirational moms who want to recapture their life passions, earn more, reach their goals, and take on a more active financial role in their families.