Back in May of 2021 we bought a 2017 Toyota Sienna minivan, and yes, we paid cash again.
If you’ve been following our story, then you know that we are big advocates of paying cash for cars and we’ve been paying cash for our vehicles since 2007.
From my 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee which I bought in 2007 for $4,700, to my trusty 2002 Toyota Highlander we bought in 2009 for $7,000, to our 2009 Toyota Sienna Minivan we bought in 2015 for $8,000, we paid cash for each one.
You’ll notice that with each purchase our available pile of cash allowed us to buy a car that was a little newer and a little more expensive.
And that brings us to May of 2021. This time we bought from a dealership rather than an individual – a first for us – and we were able to get a much nicer vehicle and pay quite a bit more.
Here’s how this all went down.
The Search Begins
The search for my next vehicle started many years ago before we ever needed it. As much as I loved my 2002 Toyota Highlander, by 2018 that beast was 16 years old and I was just waiting for it to burst into flames on the side of the road. (Spoiler: It never did.)
While waiting for the Highlander to die, I thought I should at least start looking at what our next vehicle might be and size up what kind of car we could afford.
The biggest issue with my Highlander was that it couldn’t seat the whole family. With 4 kids, we’re a family of 6, and without a 3rd-row seat, the Highlander could only seat 5. Actually, with our little kids still requiring car seats/booster seats, it really only fits 4.
It didn’t happen often, but there were occasions when Val was out running errands in our current minivan, and that meant the kids and I couldn’t go anywhere because we simply couldn’t all fit in the Highlander. That also meant that when I took the minivan in for maintenance everyone else was stranded at home.
So our biggest requirement for our next vehicle was that it had to comfortably fit a family of 6, and contrary to what many SUV manufacturers want you to believe, not a single one of them seats 6 people comfortably.
So that meant we were looking for minivan number 2.
Now We Can Afford It
Needless to say, none of our previous vehicles would qualify as luxury models in any sense of the word. That was fine with us. We don’t have expensive tastes.
But there were a few things that we recognized as super convenient – especially with kids – that we really wanted in our next vehicle – things that we simply couldn’t afford (or chose not to afford) in our previous vehicles.
Things like leather seats, fully powered doors and tailgate1, Bluetooth stereo, and a DVD entertainment system.
These may sound like standard features that people have had in their cars for years, but we never prioritized these things above getting the absolute best price on a vehicle. We were focused on saving and investing more money, so we skipped those luxuries.
But things were different this time.
Now we could afford it.
Our budget for our next minivan was $30,000, a pretty huge increase from the $8,000 we paid for our last minivan.
Ten years ago $30,000 would have scored us a pretty sweet ride, but today new minivans – loaded with the conveniences listed above – were listing for over $50,000.
Fifty. Thousand. Dollars. For a MINIVAN!
And this was back in 2018 when I started pricing vehicles, not today in our crazy COVID-invested, chip shortaged, supply chain mangled, inflationary cauldron that is the year 2022.
That meant that even with a $30,000 cash budget, we still weren’t going to be buying a brand-new vehicle.
It was time to start shopping around to see how used of a used vehicle would be in our price range.
The 21st Century Car Buying Landscape
Years of buying used cars from individuals has allowed us to avoid the degrading cesspool known as the used-car dealership.
But buying a 3 or 4-year-old vehicle in the range of $25,000 to $30,000 meant buying from an individual likely wouldn’t work this time around.
Like it or not, we were going to have to wrestle with a dealership and the dreaded used-car salesman.
Or were we?
I was familiar with Carmax as the only friendly alternative to standard used car dealerships, but I was also delighted to discover there were many online-only car dealers that had popped up in the last several years, many flourishing due in no small part to the lockdowns required by the coronavirus pandemic.
Carvana is likely the most widely known online dealership even today, but I discovered many others such as Car Gurus, Shift, and Vroom. Even Carmax had started transitioning to sell cars completely online.
All of these dealers provided easy online shopping for used cars, full purchase and paperwork flows online, and delivery of the car directly to your door.
This was exactly the experience I was looking for.2
Of course, the big issue with buying 100% online is that you can’t test drive a vehicle before you buy it, and you definitely want to. It’s not a spatula. It’s a HUGE EXPENSIVE CAR!
The way the online dealers get around this is by having a no-questions-asked return policy for 7 or even up to 10 days after the car is delivered. You test drive the car for about a week after you purchase it and if you have any issues at all you can return it for a full refund.
I was sold.
I quickly downloaded the apps for all the above online-only dealers and set up alerts based on the specific criteria we were looking for in our next minivan. Then, because we were in no rush to buy a vehicle, I sat back and started playing the waiting game.
My White Whale
With the advent of smartphones and tablets and the Nintendo Switch, child entertainment in the car has become a mostly “bring your own device” affair.
That means auto manufacturers have slowly been phasing out DVD players and screens in their cars except for specific high-end trim levels.
We’ve never owned tablets or devices for our kids, so their entertainment choices have always ranged from coloring books to stuffed animals to looking out the window like my grandpa used to do.
That said, for some longer road trips we’ve done in the past, we would often borrow a portable dual-screen DVD player from a friend, and that made long trips much more enjoyable for everyone.
Based on that experience, a built-in DVD entertainment system became a must-have in our next vehicle.
Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that, unlike power sliding doors, leather seats, and Bluetooth – which were super easy features to target in my email alerts – the waning popularity of DVD entertainment systems had relegated them to “optional equipment” and were therefore rarely listed in a checklist of vehicle details.
Specifically, on the 2016-2018 Toyota Sienna minivans we were looking at, the DVD entertainment system was part of an optional “Premium Package” that could be added to different trim levels, and it was nearly impossible to filter our search for vehicles that just had the Premium Package.
So while I was saving all kinds of time by not having to drive to dealers to check out specific vehicles, I was spending more time than I expected swiping through interior pictures of vehicles to see if there was an entertainment screen tucked into the roof.
In most cases, there wasn’t.
The DVD entertainment system became my white whale for the next several months as I reviewed vehicles, prices, mileage, options, and the like.
I know that’s making the case for just buying a car brand new to get exactly what you want without the hassle, but do you remember how much new cars cost? I wasn’t willing to pay a $20,000 premium just to make finding the right vehicle a little more convenient.
(I can picture my grandpa staring at me muttering under his breath, “You call this inconvenient?” as I lie on the couch in my air-conditioned house scrolling through vehicle pictures on my phone looking for the TV screen inside the car.)
The Prices, They be a Risin’
I spent the next few months casually reviewing vehicles popping up in my inbox waiting for that one unicorn vehicle to cross my path.
Then, suddenly, March of 2020 showed up like the heaviest of wet blankets flopping onto the earth.
In an instant, the coronavirus and masks and quarantines had deprioritized just about everything else. Operation Second Minivan found itself tightly buckled into the backseat of life.
Even so, the vehicle alerts I had set up were still funneling notices of new vehicles into my email even if I was ignoring most of them at the time.
But occasionally I would look at them and I started to notice something rather disconcerting. The prices of the vehicles I was searching for weren’t falling. They were rising.
Over the course of several months, it became clear that one of the many side effects of the coronavirus pandemic was a reduction in new car production. With fewer new cars available, car buyers were turning to the used car market and that demand was pushing used car prices higher.
I had been hoping that vehicles I saw in 2018 for $32,000, just out of our budgeted price range, would drop well within our price range in a couple of years. By mid 2020 though, it was becoming clear that, at least while the pandemic was raging and life was on hold, lower prices were not going to be a reality.
So we decided to wait it out. Surely by the end of 2020 the world would return to normal. Right?
Unfortunately, my world would never return to normal as in early 2021 my mom began suffering with pancreatic cancer, and my days became consumed with regular trips from San Antonio to Houston to take care of her.
In March of 2021 she passed away and with both parents now gone, my sister and I had to embark on the task of going through everything in our parents’ home – the home we grew up in.
As I was about to start making trips to Houston to go through the house, I knew I would be bringing quite of few items from her house back home to San Antonio, and that meant taking the minivan which had excellent cargo space with the seats folded down. But that would mean leaving my wife and 4 kids with the Highlander, a vehicle they could not all fit into.
That was not acceptable.
And that was the last straw for having only one vehicle that could fit the whole family. Operation Second Minivan just got thrust back into the front seat.
But I wasn’t about to make a rash car buying decision in the heat of all the emotional stuff going on, so I ended up renting a nice Chrysler Pacifica minivan to take down to Houston and load up with items from my mom’s house.
When I returned from clearing out the house, my focus shifted to finding the next minivan we were going to bring into the family.
While relying on passive email alerts had served me well in assessing the used car market, allowing me to see what kinds of vehicles were out there and the prices they were selling for, it was time to go on the offensive.
Another trend I noticed as the used car market was heating up was that cars would often be listed and sold on the same day.
On more than one occasion I found a vehicle that looked good and was listed in our price range, but when I tried to pull it up later that evening to discuss it with Valarie it was already sold.
Eventually, Val told me that if I found another vehicle that met all the criteria we wanted and was in our price range, to just purchase it. I didn’t need to discuss it with her. Just do it.
It was about a week later that I found a nice dark grey 2017 Toyota Highlander on the Vroom app. It was an XLE trim with power everything, leather seats, Bluetooth, sunroof, and even the premium package that included the DVD entertainment system.
Best of all, it was 4 years old but only had 42,703 miles on it. Most of the models I had been looking at in our price range had between 55,000 and 65,000 miles.
And this one was listed for just $28,499 – a fantastic deal I hadn’t seen in months.
So just like tossing a virtual box of cereal in the shopping cart of my local grocery store app, I mashed the Buy Now button on my phone tossing a $30,000 vehicle into my shopping cart while sitting on my couch. (Grandpa would be so proud.)
Of course, when purchasing a vehicle there is a bit more paperwork involved vs. grabbing a box of Cap’n Crunch, but I’m pleased to say it was all quite easy and I completed everything right on my phone.
I had to pay a $500 deposit to claim the car and initiate the purchase process. The remaining paperwork only took about 3 days to generate and for me to electronically sign and complete on my phone.
The final step of wiring the money took an additional 24 hours to complete before the car could be loaded up for delivery to my home.
I had mashed the Buy Now button on May 20th and the purchase was completed on May 24th, all electronically, all on the Vroom mobile app, all while sitting in my jammies on the couch. Welcome to the future!
About the only non-digital process was shipping the vehicle from California to our home in Texas and that took about 10 days.
On June 4, 2021, our 2017 Toyota Sienna arrived in our driveway.
I quickly began putting the vehicle through its paces. This was, remember, the first time I had ever seen the van.
I pushed all the buttons, turned all the knobs, opened and closed all the doors, lowered and raised all the windows, then took it for a quick drive out onto the freeway and back.
I then scheduled a pre-purchase inspection with our local mechanic to give it a full review. With Vroom I had 7 days to return the vehicle and get a full refund – minus the $500 deposit – so I wanted to make sure it was as pristine as I was led to believe.
The mechanic gave it a glowing report. It was still practically a new car.
There was just one issue.
You Can’t See Everything Online
One of the first things I noticed when I got into the vehicle was that the plastic button on the drivers seat armrest that allows you to adjust the armrest up and down was missing. The internal plastic mechanism that you press to adjust the armrest still worked just fine, but the plastic button that covered the internals and made it look nice was gone.
Of all the 75 or so interior pictures shown online – including the interactive 360-degree camera image – none had shown this inside part of the armrest.
This was a moment where we were going to find out what buying a car completely online – sight unseen – was really like.
When I took the car to my mechanic to have him check it out, I asked him to get me a quote for getting a new driver’s seat armrest button thing put on. It turns out you can’t just get the button, you have to get a whole new armrest assembly, which Toyota sells…for $300.
I sent a message to Vroom the following day through their mobile app informing them of the issue, along with pictures I took and the quote from our mechanic for nearly $400 that included the labor to install it. I politely asked if they could credit us $400 to get the armrest replaced.
And they did!
We received a check in the mail for $400 a few days later, and we notified our mechanic. The part was ordered and as soon as it came in we took the van down and had the armrest replaced.
I was super impressed.
I’m writing this now in September of 2022, so we’ve had our new Sienna for a little over a year. We’ve put just over 20,000 miles on it, including over 4,000 miles during our 2-week, 6 national parks, American Southwest road trip this past spring.
The van has performed flawlessly and still feels brand new to us.
Back in 2007 when we paid $4,200 in cash for my 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee I never could have imagined ever being able to pay $30,000 in cash for a vehicle. Back then $4,200 felt like a million dollars.
But that choice 15 years ago set us on a path to not only save money on every vehicle we’ve ever owned, but to free up money to save and invest for our future.
We never got to experience our 2017 Sienna as a $50,000 brand-new minivan, but instead, we saved $20,000 and that has allowed us to experience so much more.3
If you’re interested in starting your journey of paying cash for your cars, be sure to check out my Step-by-Step Guide to Buying a Used Car with Cash blog post. Then become a Live Your Wage subscriber and I’ll email you my free Buying a Used Car checklist. This is the exact checklist I’ve used to purchase every one of our vehicles and it will help you know exactly how to find a great used car and save a ton of money when buying it.
- I used to think power doors on a minivan were lazy and stupid, but then I realized kids are often the ones opening and closing those doors and they were too heavy for them. Having the little kids be able to operate the doors completely by themselves is a game changer.
- Sitting in a cramped cubicle across a desk from a salesman negotiating nonsensical fees for 4 hours is about the most horrible experience I can imagine when purchasing anything.
- It’s also worth noting that shortly after our new minivan arrived I sold my 2002 Highlander for $1,880. Remember that we bought the Highlander for $7,000 in 2009, so that’s 12 years of driving that cost us $5,120 – or in other words, $35 a month.