While shopping for anything with a teenager can be somewhat challenging, shopping for something as important (and expensive) as a first car can be overwhelming, especially if you don’t have a strategy. However, with a little planning and some expectation-setting conversations, the process can go much more smoothly.
On the surface, it may seem that our priorities for selecting a car and theirs don’t align. Ours: safety, reliability, safety, cost, gas mileage, and did I mention safety? Theirs: color, how they’ll look driving it, the stereo system, and how many friends they can fit in it. With that in mind, it’s important to get on the same page as soon as possible. It’s also helpful to remember, teenagers don’t have the same frame of reference as us to know what is ridiculous in terms of price, gas mileage, and safety. So, don’t blame them for what they don’t know. Nothing shuts down a productive conversation with my daughter quicker than her feeling like she is being judged. Instead, bring them in on the process and subtly begin educating them.
Lay the groundwork. Make sure your son or daughter has been exposed to the realities of car ownership. If they’ve been borrowing your car, have them put gas in it, take it through the car wash, go with you to the repair shop, and all other normal parts of car ownership. All it took was my daughter using her own hard-earned money to fill up our cars once or twice for her to rethink owning certain models previously at the top of her list.
Set expectations. Before you begin actively searching for a car, discuss what your contribution to the car will be and how much they are expected to contribute. Whether you are matching their contribution, requiring them to pay only for gas and insurance, or expecting them to pay for 100% of the car—clearly and consistently outline your expectations ahead of time. Hopefully, this will prevent potential arguments later.
Have them do the research. Before heading out to any dealerships, make a list of all the factors to consider and have your teenager do the homework. By looking up the consumer reviews, safety records, and values, they will likely come to the appropriate conclusions on their own. Obviously, you’ll need to guide them along the way (and ultimately weigh in on the final decision), but this gives them some ownership over the process. Then collectively come up with a short list of models to look at.
Try to make the experience “fun” (ok, if not fun than at least pleasant and productive). Yes, buying a car is a big grown-up decision, but it also marks an important milestone in your child’s life, possibly one they’ve dreamt about for years. So, let them be excited about it and try to be a little excited for them. Remember, this could potentially be one of the last major decisions in their lives that you get to help steer so try to do it well.