The Psychology of Car Buyers Remorse & What To Do When It Hits


The second I hung up the phone, I realized that the 5-day cruise that I had just booked us onto was a mistake. I immediately called my credit card company but was too late. I called the BBB, hoping that I had, at least, given my money to a reputable company. Yes. Phew. Then it set in… that heavy, aching and ominous feeling, in the pit of my stomach. It’s called “buyer’s remorse.” It has a few others names too- “buyer’s regret” or “post-purchase dissonance.” Whatever you call it, it’s not fun.

Car Buyers Remorse

Chances are you’ve had a similar experience. Car buyer’s remorse happens frequently. Psychology would tell us that its root is in cognitive dissonance, which is the tension you feel when your thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, feelings or behaviors are at odds within yourself. You purchased that new car and perhaps paid beyond what you intended to, and now you’re at home wondering how massive of a mistake you just made.

I can’t afford this. Shame on me, it’s way too extravagant. I got conned. These are the thoughts behind car buyer’s remorse. This after-the-fact reasoning is, unfortunately, not the reasoning that convinced you to sign the sales contract. Once that sales contract is signed, the car is yours. Full stop. As soon as you drive away, the dealer does not want it back. Law likes contracts, and it will side with a dealer who has your signature on a sales contract.

But what about the 3 days I have to return the car? There is no “3 Day Rebate” law, not for a sale done with disclosure, for a car that performs as you were told it would, providing you didn’t misrepresent your credit score or who you were buying the car for. The US Federal Trade Commission’s ‘Cooling-Off Rule’ pertains to sales made at your home, workplace or other temporary location. It’s aimed at high-pressure door-to-door sales, not vehicle dealerships. Most car dealers don’t have written policies about returning a vehicle, so you’re fully at their mercy. Of course, it would be wise to talk about this in the negotiations before a car’s purchase. After a sale, it would be well worth any reputable dealer’s time, to discuss how you might renegotiate ownership of a more affordable car. However, they are under no legal obligation to extend that to you.

How to Avoid Buyer’s Remorse

Do your research. Read our car buying tips. Know what features you want and why. It’s OK to buy a pair of shoes on impulse, but not a vehicle. Be prepared by getting your credit score and financing set up ahead of time. Make sure you know how to read the numbers in the sales contract.

Make sure that you test drive the model, maybe even rent one for a week to really get a sense of its driveability and fit for your lifestyle, driving habits and body size.

Ensure that your purchase is based on reason, not emotion. Go in with a strong sense of agency- “I am prepared. I know what I want and I will walk away from a deal that isn’t perfect for me.” There will always be another deal at another time. Remind yourself that you don’t owe a sales person anything for their time. If it’s not right for you, it’s not right.

Ask yourself, “How will this be of value to me after I buy it?” That way, when you do feel a sense of regret creeping in, you can remind yourself that your decision was well-researched and made for what is important to you.

Last year was a record-setting year for vehicle sales. The 17.5 million cars and light trucks sold in in the US in 2015 broke a sales record that was 15 years old. According to the Autodata Corporation, 70% of those buyers experienced car buyer’s remorse. You owe it to yourself to do what you can to help turn that statistic around.

As for our accidental cruise, the remorse hung around while I spent the day trying to figure out how I’d tell my husband that I’d just committed $5,000 that we didn’t have to a trip that we had no idea we were even thinking of taking. His response? “The Bahamas…. Let’s do it! Let’s make this awesome.” So we set out to make something out of the regret. With a shift of thinking about the mistake, I managed to trivialize the voice that told me that I was a failure. No, I just failed at making a good decision. Big difference. Now I know better.