Sean Pyles: Welcome to the NerdWallet Smart Money podcast, where we answer your personal finance questions and help you feel a little smarter about what you do with your money. I’m Sean Pyles.
Liz Weston: And I’m Liz Weston. As always, be sure to send us your money questions, call or text us on the Nerd hotline at 901-730-6373. That’s 901-730-NERD. Or email us at [email protected] We are here to help you, so keep your questions coming. And if you want more Nerdy goodness delivered to your device every Monday, hit that subscribe button.
Sean: And if you like what you hear, leave us a review. On this episode of the podcast, we answer a listener’s money question about whether it’s better to buy a new car or a used car. But to start, in our This Week in Your Money segment, we’re talking with NerdWallet data journalist Liz Renter, about her latest study, which focuses on unequal unemployment recovery in our pandemic-driven recession.
Liz W.: All right, Liz, welcome to the podcast again.
Liz Renter: Hey, thanks guys. I’m excited to be back.
Sean: We’re happy to have you. This is a really interesting study that dug into how the pandemic recession recovery has been pretty unequal for different parts of the economy and different demographic segments. So to start, can you walk us through some of the most significant findings in your report?
Liz R.: Yeah, Sean. So what I looked at in this analysis was the unemployment rate. And, as you both probably know, unemployment was extremely high in April. It hit 14.7%, which is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression. Now, it’s been improving since then. As of August, it’s 8.4%, but the unemployment rate is a really broad number, right? So, for this analysis, I kind of dove deeper into looking at different segments of the population and what their unemployment rates look like among men versus women, among different age groups, among different races. And by looking at the unemployment rates among these groups, a more nuanced picture starts to develop about unemployment across the country.
Liz W.: And what did you find?
Liz R.: Well, overall, women and men had relatively similar unemployment rates going into the year, for example, but women were hit much harder by unemployment when COVID struck. So they peaked at 16.2% in April, versus men, who were at 13.5%. So, it’s worth noting that since then, like I said, as with the overall population, those numbers have improved and women have basically caught up to men. Both of them were around 8.5% in August. But another thing worth noting is that the unemployment rate doesn’t capture people who have left the workforce entirely, which may play a role in women’s recovery rate — because we are seeing some anecdotal signs that women are leaving the workforce, whether it’s to care for their children who maybe their day care didn’t open back up, or their children who are learning from home, and mom wants to be there to help guide them through that process.
Sean: In the beginning of the recession, I heard that a lot of women were unemployed because they tended to work in more service-sector jobs like nail salons, day cares, things like that in general. And a lot of those places have opened up again, but a lot of them also haven’t. So it seemed like there was a bit of a disconnection between the number of jobs that were available and the unemployment rate. So it seems like what you pointed to, the fact that people are maybe leaving the workforce, could explain that discrepancy.
Liz R.: Yes, it could. And you pointed out something really quite interesting there, is that a lot of the industries that were most impacted by the shutdown — so the food service industries, the retail industries — when I’m looking at these demographics, age, sex or race, a lot of the people that were most impacted by unemployment were within these industries. And like you said, some of them are recovering, and you can see that in the numbers, but others are kind of getting left behind.
Sean: One of my upcoming columns is about sudden retirements, and there has been an enormous increase in people, as you say, exiting the workforce, basically calling themselves retired. I think by the end of April, there was a 7.7 percentage point increase. So from 53% to 60% of the people that basically said that they were out of the job market. These are enormous changes going on.
Liz R.: Another interesting thing, Liz, you mentioned age. One of the things that I’ve found when looking at unemployment across the ages is that the youngest workers were those most likely to be affected by unemployment. So unemployment among workers aged 16 to 24 hit 27.4% in April, which is huge. But if you look at their pre-pandemic unemployment rates, they were also the highest among age groups. So in January, that age group had unemployment at 8.2%. So if you’re looking at recovery as a group of people getting to their pre-pandemic levels, the youngest people are actually closer to their pre pandemic unemployment levels than the oldest. It’s actually the oldest workers, those 65 and above, who are the furthest away from their January unemployment numbers. And so that age group is taking longer to recover.
Liz W.: Yeah. Which tends to be the case whenever there’s bad economic times, it’s the older people who get in deep.
Liz R.: Yep.
Sean: One thing that I found interesting in your report is that it also spoke to how this pandemic has exacerbated many of the divisions in our economy, and this beyond age also is along racial lines as well. And this is something that you found in your report. So can you dig into some of the racial inequities that you saw in your findings?
Liz R.: Yeah. So racial disparities have existed in unemployment numbers and really the workforce in general, since long before 2020. And that’s for a variety of reasons, but that includes systemic racism. So when looking at unemployment during the pandemic, specifically, some things popped out to me. For example, Black and Latinx workers peaked with the highest unemployment rates of all the groups I looked at. So they peaked at 16.8% and 18.9%, respectively. But these groups also had the highest rates going into the year — so in January, for instance. So it’s true that the events of this year have worsened the unemployment situation in these populations. It’s also true that if recovery is defined as getting us back to pre-pandemic rates, recovery is still going to be unequal.
Sean: Right. Well, all of this has me thinking about a certain letter I’ve seen floating around a lot lately in articles about the economy, and this is the letter K, as in a K-shaped economic recovery. We’ve heard about a V-shaped recovery, a W-shaped recovery, a U-shaped recovery, maybe even a swoosh recovery, all of these different things. Economists like to have letters on them so it’s easier to grasp. The K recovery is basically an unequal recovery across economic groups and industries. So if you think about the Zoom economy workers versus the frontline service economy workers, or the stock market, more than half of which is owned by the top 1% of earners, versus the “real economy” where Americans are lining up for food banks in record numbers. It looks like this inequity is bound to get worse before it gets better, but for those who are in the situation where they’re still unemployed or making less compared to the start of the pandemic, what can they do?
Liz R.: Yeah, I would say the first thing is don’t be afraid to contact your creditors, your bank, your utility — anybody you have a bill with — and tell them what’s going on. These are unprecedented times, and these industries, these organizations out there — they know people are unemployed. They know people are having problems making ends meet. And they may have a program to help you get by in the meantime, whether that means coming up with a payment arrangement or delaying a payment. So again, don’t be afraid to speak up. Along those lines, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Family and friends, if they don’t have the resources, I know you guys have talked about 211.org, and that’s an excellent resource for looking at local organizations or local resources that may be able to help you. Also, state and local government beyond the unemployment office. Do you qualify for food stamps? That’s an option that may be available to you.
And then finally attack your spending. I think that’s sort of a no-brainer, when people stop earning as much, they stop eating out as much, for instance. But really get into the minutiae here. Open up your bank statement, open your credit card statement. What sort of recurring things are coming out of your account that you can eliminate entirely or cut back on? So, maybe you can scale back on your phone’s data plan until you’re back in the workforce. Or if you don’t have kids at home trying to take classes, maybe it’s your Wi-Fi speed that can take a cut. But really, just pay attention to where every dollar is going and ask yourself if it needs to go there.
Sean: Those are really helpful tips. And this is something I struggle with, as we talk about the inequity in our economy is … at NerdWallet, we are so action-oriented. We want to provide tips and tricks that can help people through the most difficult or the most exciting financial decisions that they’ll make. And oftentimes, there isn’t a nice little bow that we can put on something like this. So not to get too soapboxy, but I would implore anyone who is maybe in a good position right now, or not, who wants to make this inequity a little bit less severe, to look into what they can do at a local level or a national level to make our society more just and equal for everyone.
Liz R.: Something worth pointing out along that vein to people who aren’t suffering from unemployment, is that people who are in this situation are receiving far less money now than they would have been receiving in, say, June, for instance. Back then there was a $600 federal supplement that was getting tacked onto their weekly benefit, and that’s gone. And as of the last time I checked, only 21 states are doling out the new $300 federal supplement. So the unemployment benefits definitely aren’t what they were in June, and they probably simply aren’t enough for a lot of people.
Sean: Right. Even looking at donating into my local food bank in Portland, the dollar amount goes very, very far when you donate to food banks, and they need it more than ever. And that’s something that’s pretty easy for people who are still making a steady income to help out people who really need it.
Liz W.: Yeah. You can start by going to Feeding America. They have connections with all the local food groups. And, as Sean said, donating money is so much more effective than donating food. Obviously donate food if you’ve got it, and you can spare it, but the money goes a lot farther.
Sean: Mm-hmm. Well Liz, thank you so much for talking with us again. I always appreciate it.
Liz R.: Thanks for having me back, guys.
Liz W.: Let’s get to this episode’s money question, which comes from Irmine. Here’s your question.
Irmine: Is it better to buy a new car or an old car? What are the pros and cons of each? Thank you.
Sean: Thank you for your voicemail, Irmine. I love hearing your voice, and it’s such a classic car-buying question, and it’s one that I debated a lot with my partner as I was car shopping a few months back. So I know where I stand on this question, but to help Irmine understand the pros and cons of new and used cars, on this episode of the podcast, we’re talking with Phil Reed, a Nerd with decades of experience writing about cars and someone who’s actually a bit of a mentor to me. So I can’t wait to talk with him.
Liz: Hi Phil, welcome back to the show.
Phil Reed: Thanks very much.
Sean: Hey, Phil, I’m really happy to talk with you. So I want to hear from you, how you think about buying a new car versus a used car. What should people be thinking about?
Phil: Well since we’re Nerds, I think probably we’re thinking about price, and the price and the judgment on that end of it couldn’t be clearer. You’re going to save an enormous amount of money — it’s almost like one of those hidden secrets in life — that buying a used car just far and away will save you so much money in a number of ways. The purchase price, the insurance, the registration, all of those things. So many people are afraid of the reliability, and yet we’re living in a time when the cars these days are just astoundingly reliable, despite heaps of abuse that people put on them. So I come down very, very strongly on the used car side of things.
Sean: Right. As I kind of mentioned, I bought a car recently and my partner was very pro new car because of the reliability factor, and the fact that it would be basically a blank slate — something that no one’s ever driven before. He seemed to think that it’s a better deal overall. And I came down on your side, thinking I can probably get a nicer car, more of what I want, with a used car. And so I ended up getting a used car, but how do you dissuade people who think that a new car is really the way to go because they think it’s fresh and clean and untouched?
Phil: One of the things that’s changed in recent years is that leasing has become very popular, and that means that there’s an awful lot of 2- and 3-year-old cars coming back into the market. So, this is basically a near-new car. It will look and feel very much like a new car, and will have the dependability. In some cases, it will still have the bumper-to-bumper factory warranty, so you have a lot of security in that regard. The only thing that really kind of tilts things in the favor of the new car is financing is usually lower. There could even be 0% financing for a new car. And it’s also a little easier to shop for a new car, because it’s assumed that every new car is in perfect condition. Whereas the condition level of a used car is always the big question mark.
Liz: And Phil, how do you check that out?
Phil: Well, we’ve got more tools than ever before. It’s really amazing. Of course, vehicle history reports, so that would be Carfax and AutoCheck, those are the two big ones, will immediately tell you much of what you need to know about the car. If you’re shopping in that 2- to 3-year-old window, the car’s probably got about 36,000 miles on it, and that means it’s really just starting its life.
The advice is always take it to a mechanic, and this is actually one of the big hassles of used-car buying, and one that’s probably disregarded more than anything else, but we also have what they call certified pre-owned cars. This is a very specific sort of program that all the manufacturers have now. What they do is they pre-inspect the car for you. They give you a report, so you don’t have to take it to a mechanic, and they give you a little bit extra warranty so that if something does go wrong, you’re covered and you’re not out of pocket on it.
So that’s kind of one of the easiest ways to handle it without being a mechanic or having a lot of savvy. Of course, it’s really important to read online reviews to see what kind of success other people have had with it.
Sean: For me, when I was shopping for a used car, I had a number of criteria that I was looking for. I wanted a car that had under 20,000 miles, was around $20,000, fewer than five years old. I made a very big spreadsheet with all of these different makes and models that I was looking for, and spent too many hours doing this, but for me, that helped me hone in on the fact that yes, I’m buying a used car, but I’m going to get one that is in really good shape relative for how old it is, and the kind of car it is. How do you think about that as well in the used car shopping process, Phil?
Phil: I think you did a smart thing, and I have done the same thing. I’ve done the spreadsheet. Because one of the things about used car shopping is that there’s a lot of trade-offs. One is a lower price, but higher miles. One doesn’t have everything that you want, but it does have a good price and low miles. So you’re always juggling these things. And ultimately, probably you’re going to look at your spreadsheet and make a gut decision based on it. But I know that AutoCheck will actually give a number rating. So a single number rating. It sort of takes all of these criteria and groups them together and then says, “This car is 8.7 out of 10,” and that’s one way to do it.
Once people kind of delve into this and start doing what you described you were doing, they actually can have a lot of fun with that. And I’m a big believer in serendipity. You start out looking for one thing and you get your heart set on a car, the deal falls through, and then something even better comes up.
Liz: I like that approach. Yeah.
Phil: It’s that way with so many things in life, and you have to be kind of open to the treasure hunt. I always think of it in terms of a treasure hunt.
Liz: Hey, before we move on, I want to talk about the D-word, because that’s the one thing that convinced me that used cars were the way to go. Depreciation. I don’t think a lot of people factor that in, or really think hard about that when they’re buying a new car. Can you talk about how depreciation works with new cars?
Phil: Yeah. Everybody’s heard this statistic that as soon as you drive a car off the lot it loses 20% of its value. By the end of the first year, it’s lost at least 30% of its value.
Phil: So, you just think of a $30,000 car, a year later you could buy it for $20,000. That’s a huge change. Not only that, but the depreciation curve drops steeply in that first year, and then it levels out between about two and five years. It’s fairly flat. So if you own it between two and five years, you’re driving a car and not losing a lot of value. So that’s sort of a quick look at depreciation, but depreciation is one of the biggest factors that makes used car buying a deal.
Liz: All right. You want to let the other guy take the depreciation hit, in other words — the first buyer.
Phil: Exactly. You do pay dearly for that new car. People that buy new cars are people that want to be the first on the block. That’s a really big thing. They want the new model. But even the argument that technology is advancing rapidly, you can get 3- to 5-year-old cars that have almost all of the technology, the safety technology that we have today. We’re at sort of a plateau in terms of technology.
Sean: I’m wondering how we should think about depreciation of used cars as well, because that’s still happening. Although it’s not as extreme as with the new car. Basically, selfishly, wondering if I should be worried about my own car depreciating in value.
Phil: It’s not really a question of worrying about it, because this is just a fact of life, unfortunately. What happens is if you keep the car long enough, the car enters the zone where they call it fully depreciated. Now, fully depreciated doesn’t mean it’s worth zero. It just means that it goes level and more or less stays there. And then what happens is the amount of miles you put on it and how you take care of it affects the value of it much more than the age of the car. And that’s why a lot of cars, even a Ferrari … I was helping a friend sell a Ferrari, believe it or not — and it went from about $250,000 to $120,000. But then it stayed there for like 10 or 15 years.
Phil: Yeah. And then in rare cases, it will start coming back up again. Probably the smartest thing you can do is buy a used car and drive it until the wheels fall off of it. And then you’ve gotten every penny of value from that car.
Sean: That’s my plan. That’s why I got a certified pre-owned car that didn’t have a lot of miles. It wasn’t super expensive, but still had some of the bells and whistles that I was looking for. So, you’re talking about serendipity, and that’s exactly what happened in my case. I was shopping for a car for over a year, actually. And then I kind of was waffling on it, I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to buy a car, and then once the pandemic hit and I’m not going to be flying anywhere, I’m going to be driving a lot more to see family, I realized this is the time to do it. And so, yeah, I got the right car at the right time and place and price, most importantly. I felt like I was kind of jumping the gun a little bit with buying a car. It’s a big purchase, but again, it was used. It had depreciated. So I don’t know, I’m feeling happy with it. No buyer’s remorse so far.
Phil: Well, it sounds like you did a good job with your research too. And let me ask you a question. Did you ultimately wind up sort of feeling like it was kind of fun and exciting doing the shopping?
Sean: It was. Well, I think the most fun part was making that spreadsheet, as nerdy as it sounds. In part because in the pandemic I’m not about to stroll into a dealership and try out a bunch of different cars. It helped me figure out what I wanted. I did look at some new cars just to humor my partner mostly, but I really liked comparing and getting into the details of the mileage, the care, the annual cost of maintenance for each car, cargo space, all of these different things that I was looking into. That was really fun for me to dig into and research. But in terms of actually shopping in the dealership, I only test-drove a couple of cars because I wanted to get in and out, not really spend a lot of time in that environment. So I found the most part was just sitting on my couch and kind of fantasizing about what kind of car I wanted.
Phil: Right, right. But you shouldn’t underestimate the test drive. I think in this age of data that we’re living in, there are people that feel that they don’t need to test drive. But the test drive is a little bit like trying on clothes. It can be a perfectly good car, but once you sit in it, it’s like, “This doesn’t fit,” or, “The seats aren’t quite right,” or, “The vision isn’t quite right,” or, “The scale of the car wasn’t what you imagined when you were looking at pictures of it.”
So the test drive is really essential. I totally get it that it’s a hassle going to dealerships — that’s probably one of the hardest things to do to get in and out safely. Taking a risk, right? But there are ways to do that. And these days there’s a trend toward delivering test drives to your house. So that’s something that people should take full advantage of if they’re car shopping. Because if you boil your list down to maybe three target cars, test drive them back to back and that will probably help you make the decision.
Liz: I want to endorse the idea of driving cars before you buy them, because I was shocked at how much even electric cars — I was looking for a plug-in hybrid to replace my Chevy Volt, and I was blown away at how differently these cars drive. It’s phenomenal. Same price range, same package. And basically I stuck with my Volt because I couldn’t find anything I wanted to drive that was as fun. But before we move on from the new versus old discussion, we need to talk about warranties, Phil. Because that’s why a lot of people think they need to buy new cars. It’s because everything’s covered under warranty. Could you talk about that a little bit, of what warranties actually do?
Phil: Every brand new car comes with at least three-years bumper-to-bumper warranty, which means that anything that breaks will be fixed, except for the wear items. So tires, windshield, wipers, brakes. Those are wear items. So once that expires, at around 36,000 miles, or three years, some of the cars have four- and five-year warranties. Then what kicks in is a powertrain warranty. Almost all manufacturers have a powertrain warranty. And this, most people don’t really know what this is, and they don’t know that it’s in effect, and if they knew that it was in effect I think it would really help them have a lot more peace of mind. But the powertrain warranty, basically they will pay to fix anything that prevents the car from running — so anything in the engine, anything in the suspension system, any of those things. But they won’t pay for things like the power windows don’t work anymore, or something like that. So the powertrain warranty often will go up to 75,000 miles. So you’re in pretty good shape.
Now, one of the things I’ve learned kind of the hard way, is that the warranty is a lot more popular than I thought. I’m a risk taker. I don’t really like warranties, and people overpay for them constantly. But I have learned that I can’t discount them, because many people do really feel good knowing that they’ve got a warranty. But if you look at the statistics, you will find that you almost never get your money back from the cost of the warranty. So in other words, Consumer Reports actually did a study. People spend a certain amount of money on the warranty, let’s say $2,000 for an extended warranty. You now have to have $2,000 worth of repairs to your car before you even break even on the warranty. So I’m not a big fan of them, but I’m not going to tell people don’t do it. If it makes you feel good and you have the money, buy a warranty. But it’s highly negotiable. Shop around. You can buy it before your current warranty expires — call a couple of finance managers at dealerships and just ask them for their best price on a warranty. And also, factory warranties are better than third-party warranties — they’re much more convenient to use. So there’s my primer on warranties.
Liz: That’s super helpful. Because I know that we actually bought one and we bought one early on one of my husband’s cars and we totally lived to regret it. We wound up selling the car earlier than we expected, and we had to hand over that warranty completely unused. It was really frustrating and expensive and I’d never do that again.
Phil: Yeah. Warranties can be transferable. So sometimes it’s a sales point.
Phil: And you can cancel them and get refunds. So if you buy it, regret it, cancel it.
Sean: On the flip side of that, I will say that I got a warranty with my new used car because I knew that it would be due for new brake pads in the coming year or so. And the specific warranty they offered included that, along with two years of oil changes. So I knew that I would end up getting out ahead immediately because I had that expense anticipated. So in that case, it made sense for me to do it because I could see exactly how far down the road it would save me enough to compensate for the cost of it. So I think it can come down to doing the math and anticipating what expenses you might have as well.
Phil: Well I’m not going to argue with somebody who keeps it on the spreadsheet.
Liz: Yes, smart.
Phil: If it worked on the spreadsheet, it was probably a good move. So yeah, if you get a good deal on a warranty, more power to you. But very often it’s a high-profit item at the dealership, sold at the last moment — you’re tired, you paid too much for it. You have no idea what you should be paying.
Liz: Another hazard of buying a new car is having to go through that gantlet, where they’re trying to sell you rustproofing and everything under the sun to pad their profit. Right, Phil?
Phil: The system has really been honed over decades, but you buy a car, you think you’re done, and then all of a sudden you’re in the finance insurance office and you’re facing a guy who’s an even better salesman than the guy you just dealt with. And he’s friendly, he’s talking to you about your local sports team. And meanwhile, it’s like, “Well, I know you’re a smart guy, so you better buy the warranty, and it’s a good idea to get the paint protection,” and all this stuff. Look at these pictures that I have of how it protected so-and-so and such and such. It’s a very uncomfortable situation.
When I was buying and selling cars more often people would say, “I hate, hate, hate that process.” And many say, car salespeople will say, they loved it until they got to the F&I room. Finance and insurance. And you can lose your shirt in there. So the safe default position, say no to everything, even if you want it, you can buy it later, and you can probably buy it at a lower price. So have your guard up when you’re closing the deal.
Liz: That’s great advice.
Sean: Obviously we are all very pro used car, but as a final question Phil, I’m wondering when you think it might make sense to buy that new car. Is there ever a circumstance where it’s really better than the used car?
Phil: Well, there are rare circumstances when it’s actually even cheaper, because the new car, as I mentioned earlier, has better financing. In some cases they may have quite a bit of incentives in it. So the price of it is reduced, and that car could actually be on the used car market, holding its value very well. So, it could be such a close call that, why not go ahead and get the new car? You’ll have a better selection probably, and it might be an easier process. So, again, do the math on both sides. When you throw in all of these other factors, there could be a reason to buy it new. And, as I mentioned, it’s a little bit easier process. There is that feeling that you’re the very first person to sit in it, and it’s a personal decision, but it’s not something to rule out, even though the used car just opens up such a vast array of choices for you.
Sean: All right. Well, thanks so much for talking with us, Phil.
Phil: Hey, it was great. Thank you.
Sean: All right. And with that, let’s get on to our takeaway tips. First up, comparison shopping and knowing the market are key to a good deal, and can be fun too.
Liz: Second, a used car is probably an even better buy now because of increased reliability.
Sean: Third, there are many great resources available to help you track inventory and pricing. And I highly recommend tracking all of those in a spreadsheet.
Liz: Finally, keep the deal clean. Avoid the upsells and warranty offers. If you want it later, you can buy it separately. And that’s all we have for this episode. Do you have a money question of your own? Turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That’s 901-730-NERD. You can also email us at [email protected] Also visit nerdwallet.com/podcast for more info on this episode, and remember to subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you’re getting this podcast.
Sean: And here is our brief disclaimer, thoughtfully crafted by NerdWallet’s legal team. Your questions are answered by knowledgeable and talented finance writers, but we are not financial or investment advisors. This Nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes, and may not apply to your specific circumstances.
Liz: And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds.