You have heard of the Truth In Lending law. The idea is to provide interest-rate information honestly and consistently so that people know the interest rate they’re paying and can sensibly compare loans.

Now comes reader Erik Sten with a refinement.

With regard to those “2.9% financing or $1,500 cash back” deals one so often sees, Erik suggests that the 2.9% may not be 2.9% after all. Accepting that it means paying $1,500 more than necessary for the car, that foregone $1,500 really should be considered part of the cost of financing the car.

So what is the interest rate really?

Say you are buying a $12,000 Ford Escort LX 4-door, which is more or less the example Erik supplied me with last summer. The dealer was offering 2.9% or $1,500 cash back. The regular 48-month car-loan rate available to people with good credit at the time, Erik says, was 8%.

Well, on a $10,500 48-month car loan (assuming you were financing all but $1,500 of the $12,000 purchase), the payments are $231.95 at 2.9% and $256.34 at 8%. So you save $24.39 a month or $1,170.72 in interest over four years. But you don’t save $1,500 – and what you do save, you don’t save all at once. No, the prevailing interest rate would have to be 9.4% or so for a 2.9% rate to save you $1,500 over four years. And because $1,500 up front is better than $1,500 spread out over four years, the “true” interest rate would have to be nearly 10.5% for this 2.9% rate to represent an equivalent saving.

Still not terrible, and not necessarily something to pass laws or enact regulations over. But to the extent the 1.9% and 2.9% financing deals make the average car buyer even less likely to pay cash, and thus even more likely to pay what may amount to 10% interest that’s not tax-deductible, it compounds a common consumer error; namely, someone who unwittingly earns 5% in a savings account (which may be 4% or less after taxes) while at the same time paying 10% to finance a car. Borrowing at 10% to earn 4% is no quick way to get rich.

Is truth-in-auto-lending a problem? Worth a crusade? Let me know your thoughts and I’ll pass them on to Erik.


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