We Bought a Car for $200

We sold our rusty but trusty Focus last weekend.

I’m always a little afraid our site title will be taken too literally. We don’t claim to be “extremely frugal” or living at the poverty level. But if there’s one area we veer pretty far from the norm, it would be our vehicle purchases. Perhaps a good way of describing it would be “pretend to be a teenager.” Because who besides a student drives a $1000 car?

While I wouldn’t assert that everyone should follow suit, allow me to divulge the thinking behind the thrifty approach to vehicles that’s served us well into our 30s, carseats and all. Perhaps you’ll find something that will help next time you need a car.

Would foregoing car ownership altogether be the cheapest option? Yes! But this isn’t a good fit for many, including us. Instead we’ve tried to minimize what we’ve deemed a necessary expense.

Who Wants a Hooptie?

We’d been preparing to replace our rusty but trusty 2002 Focus for a while. This meant we had money in our car fund and Neil had his eye out for the type of car he wanted in the under $5000 price range. He was strongly considering flying south for a weekend and bringing back a rust-free vehicle. Before a free weekend materialized, his coworker told him that his neighbor wanted to sell a car for $500 max—a 2004 Scion that needed a clutch.

After contacting the owner, Neil got a ride from his coworker since the location was an hour away. Neil, usually a hard-core haggler, wasn’t trying hard to get the price down. Because it had some problems in addition to the clutch, the owner thanked him for taking it for $200. No, that’s not a typo. That’s $200–less than what most people pay for a bike or a stroller.

Neil got the Scion home without incident. He could replace the clutch himself for around $300, but that could take the better part of a weekend. A mechanic friend quoted him at $500 for the job and we decided it was worth it to outsource. (See–not extremely frugal.) The total for all repairs came to $800. So you could say we bought the car for $200, or spent $1000. Either way, it’s a steal.

Neil listed his other car on Craigslist and within the week it sold for $750. More on that below.

Uncommon Sense for Car Buyers

Having the option to buy a car for $200 is hardly reproducible but it wasn’t totally random either. I picked Neil’s brain and unearthed the secrets of a frugal car-buyer, most of which fly in the face of conventional wisdom.

  1. Don’t drive your car into the ground.  While we believe in driving cars for a long time, but we don’t drive them into the ground–anymore. We jumped Neil’s 1985 Ford F150 twice on the 5-mile trek to the junkyard. Later we were a one-car couple for a month while searching to replace a dead car, the free totaled vehicle he restored and drove for years. This is when we bought Neil’s beloved 1990 Dodge Shadow, a $750 car he sold years four later for $500. My 1992 Brother still drives it. Most grown-ups (including us now) can’t tolerate the inconvenience of a truly dead car, and that urgency tends to spur people into overpaying for vehicles.
  2. Don’t pay for less miles. Not only do we not see the point in buying a new vehicle, we don’t see why we’d pay much more than $5000 for any vehicle. Beyond $5000, you’re most likely just paying for lower mileage. We actually prefer cars that have lived a good life 100,000 miles, at which point some major repairs have been done and depreciation drops off dramatically.
  3. People do notice you drive a clunker–and that’s a good thing. Getting connected with the $200 car wasn’t entirely random. A couple years ago, a different coworker had a car he wanted to get rid of. Neil bought it for $1800 and sold it for $3500. All he put into it was the price of the temp tags and about an hour’s work. Neil works at an engineering firm that employs lots of young grads who drive nice cars. He sticks out in his rusty 15-year-old vehicle. Being known as a scavenger/grease monkey is ideal when someone is looking to offload a hooptie.
  4. Less rust is worth it. If you work on your own cars and live where it snows, it’s worth starting out with a rust-free vehicle. Getting a $50 airline ticket somewhere south and driving back in a solid vehicle is a good idea if no one tries to sell you a car for less than the price of a bicycle.
  5. God provides. The timing of both cases of Neil’s two most recent vehicle purchases was uncanny. In the first, the $1700 profits covered the exact balance due after fund-raising for my India trip. In the second, we’d been actively planning how/when to replace the Focus. We’ve found time and time again that God provides in unexpected ways as we follow Him.

Car ownership is expensive, to be sure. But it doesn’t have to a $20,000 proposition. It doesn’t even have to be $10,000. You can save a lot by recalibrating your view of what a reliable used vehicle can cost. And how sweet would it be to never have a car payment again?

For further reading check out How I Spent Less Than $8k on Cars in 17 Years of Commuting.

What is your approach to vehicle purchases? Has your frugal reputation ever scored you a great deal on something?

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19 Responses to “We Bought a Car for $200”

  1. Brian says :

    We are used car buyers. You can get such value on anything over 3 years old. I purchased my first car for $60. The guy was asking $150. My dad did the negotiation. It was really my first experience haggling. Good luck with your new ride!

    • Kalie says :

      I agree that after the big hit of depreciation occurs at the beginning, you start seeing savings. It just doesn’t make sense to us to pay for a brand-new car. Thanks for the well wishes!

  2. Tonya says :

    Wow that’s a crazy good price! I have a feeling, just for me, that for $200 I’d be spending a lot on repairs and have no idea how to fix cars myself. I think that would be the only catch for me. I agree with buying used though. I do not see the point of a new new car at all anymore. 🙂 Congrats! Hope you get lots of life out of it!

    • Kalie says :

      Being able to work on cars definitely allows Neil to look at older, cheaper cars. Though like you said it’s still worth it for anyone to buy a used car of some type.

  3. Laurie Frugal Farmer says :

    Love it!!! You’re lucky that Neil is handy with cars. I remember an old boss of mine was handy with cars too. His goal was to never spend over $250 on a car. He retired early. 🙂

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, I am so glad Neil is handy. That saves us a lot. Although I don’t think you have to be extremely skilled to save by buying used cars. That’s a great story about your boss’s limit on the price of cars. We’ve definitely spent over that before!

  4. Amanda says :

    Congrats on the phenomenal deal!!! It’s great Neil has the know-how to do repairs and maintenance on the cars. My husband is pretty good at doing most of ours too.

  5. Wade says :

    So you went from a 2002 Focus to a 2004 Scion. Was the Focus rusty and the Scion not rusty? You didn’t mention the miles on the Scion. Did you go from 200k Focus to 150k Scion?

    I agree this was a good move. Going from Ford to Toyota is a good upgrade. I commute in a 2001 Toyota Echo with 144k miles. The “big little” car that could. You should add a photo of the Scion. Which model was it? The car version?

    Thanks for the post. A good reminder that deals are out there with a little time/money.

    • Kalie says :

      To answer your questions–yes and yes. The Focus was very rusty and the Scion xB is not. And the Scion has fewer miles. The Scion is in much better shape (after the necessary repairs) than the Focus. For a net cost of $250, it’s a solid upgrade.

  6. DC YAM says :

    “Less rust is worth it. If you work on your own cars and live where it snows, it’s worth starting out with a rust-free vehicle. Getting a $50 airline ticket somewhere south and driving back in a solid vehicle is a good idea if no one tries to sell you a car for less than the price of a bicycle.” This is a really cool idea that I’ve seen a few people do here in Minnesota. I would consider doing it myself for our next car.

  7. Fruclassity (Ruth) says :

    “And how sweet would it be to never have a car payment again?” Very sweet! And for the first time in our lives, we are abiding by that outlook. We have an 18-year-old van (your point #1 is food for thought – it’s needed some jump-starting lately) and money in the bank to buy its replacement when the time comes. Speaking of sweet, it’s also very sweet that your whole family was involved in fixing up the car. Very cute photo : )

    • Kalie says :

      That’s great you’ve changed your approach here and are prepared for your next purchase. The kids love “helping” their dad!

  8. Amy says :

    We always buy used cars, and like to drive them until it no longer makes sense to put money into them. However, this point can be difficult to discern sometimes. For example, I drive an 07 Camry, with 189,000 miles, and my husband drives an 08 Accord with 212,000 miles on it. The air conditioning is not working in either of them, and while an “extremely frugal” person might not consider paying for AC worth it, we do. (We’ve tried to go without.)

    Unfortunately, we’ve learned that older AC systems can be bottomless pits for money. After extensive diagnosis, we just got a $1150 quote for a new compressor for the Camry. Since this car is lower mileage and just had the engine rebuilt due to a Toyota recall, we plan to make the investment in the AC and hang onto the car for as long as possible. We haven’t had the Accord AC diagnosed yet, but I’m not sure if we’ll be willing to pay for a pricey fix of that one. If repairing it costs more than, say, $300, we may skip it and take turns driving the car with AC this summer. What would you do??

    • Kalie says :

      I agree it can be hard to discern. We went back and forth about when and how to replace the Focus for several months. We aren’t the best people to ask about the AC problem–the Focus never even had that option. We live in the Midwest where summers are warm but bearable, and are able to go without it. That said, I think if the fix is less than you’d spend to replace the vehicle, and you think it’s got years more of life left, it makes sense to fix it. The sharing option sounds like a good plan!

    • Kalie says :

      You should be able to get a compressor replaced for less then that. Try to get another quote. Consider getting the part yourself and finding someone who will let you bring your parts and do the work for you.

  9. Mike says :

    Great deal! We buy used, and I do most repairs myself too. Sometimes, the used car is great. I had a 1991 Honda civic from 2003 to 2009 at which point it rusted out, but I loved it. Sometimes, it is not so great. I had a 2003 Mazda protege that was a never-ending money pit. I worked out my effective car payment accounting for all the the repairs, most that I did, and it was still over $260.

    • Kalie says :

      Wow, it sounds like that car was a lot of work and money for you! I guess that is still less than most car payments, but not exactly what you want to be putting into a car, especially when you’re doing that work yourself. In my experience, those money pit vehicles are the exception rather than the norm when you know what to look for.

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