Car Purchasing Decision: Minivan or Not?

My wife and I are actively working on buying a replacement car. My 1998 Nissan Sentra is currently having some problems (significant oil leak) and I've decided that I don't want to continue to invest in the car since we plan to replace it in the near future.

The biggest discussion point for us has been whether or not we think we need to purchase a minivan for the family or a commuter car for myself. My wife currently drives a small SUV, a Hyundai Santa Fe, that we really enjoy and our family currently can manage distance travel in. However we recognize our family needs are continuing to evolve and while we don't have an immediate requirement for a minivan we recognize that a minivan will be more practical and a longer term need for us.

Of course I am always focused on the numbers. Its hard for me to justify spending an extra ~$10,000 for a perceived convenience / need in the future. A minivan offers a number of small conveniences, however an extra $10,00 in our pocket could be allocated a number of ways:
1) A weekly home housecleaning for nearly 2 years
2) A large family vacation
3) A significant part of one of our child's college education
4) A sustained increase in our food/dining out budget

In the end if we do buy a minivan the financial numbers won't support it. That doesn't necessarily mean its a bad decision for us. If our primarily goal was to maximize our savings, the minivan discussion would end here. If other priorities such as convenience, social opportunities, and family travel are important then there is a lot of merit of considering spending more for a family minivan. I'd love to hear you comments especially if you have made the decision to purchase a minivan for your household.

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Comments (11)

Check out the Mazda 5.

We have one and call it the nanovan. Seats 6, although the 3rd row is really only suitable for kids/small adults on a longer trip. You also don't have a ton of rear storage when the 3rd row is in use.

Pluses: at least $10K cheaper than a full size minivan. Better gas mileage. Smaller overall dimensions than a minivan, so easier to maneuver, etc.

We've had ours for 6 years and love it.

It's not entirely clear why a minivan is 10k more than a commuter car for yourself. Used minivans are cheap and plentiful, and they really are incredibly practical with kids. We eventually switched from an SUV and would do it again in a heartbeat - no more dinged doors, having to help kids get in and out, side-by-side bickering during road trips... need I say more! And after 10-ish years, then you can upgrade back to an SUV :)

I'm a long time reader but never commented before. When we had our first child 3.5yrs ago my wife was adamant that we get a mini van and I was adamantly against it for many of the same reasons you mention. We are on a similar savings path as you and your family, working towards the goal of financial freedom and I felt like we had much better uses for the cash than the convenience of a mini van.
I'm the end we found a low mileage Toyota Sienna and I reluctantly admit that I like traveling with the family in it. The convenience of the space and power doors is great and it handles snow very well.
I have also found that low mileage used vans seem to hold their value well. We owned that first van for 3 years and put 60k miles on it before my wife totaled it in an accident and the insurance settlement was for almost the same amount we originally paid for it.
I replaced that van with another used van of the same year and fewer miles for the exact amount of my insurance settlement.
As luck would have it, my wife totaled that van a month later. My insurance settlement on it was $1500 more than I paid. Now we are on van number 3, same year and half the miles of our first one for about $1000 out of our pocket.
I bought each van from individual sellers on craigslist who's kids were heading off to college and each time they claimed dealers were not allowing them anything for their trade ins as their reasons for selling. Hope that is helpful.

Have you investigated the oil leak at all? maybe it's just a valve cover gasket. Easy to change and cheap to fix.

The white panel vans are pretty cheap. Or a cross over vehicle is nice. Mini vans are OK, but they are more soccer mom-ish...

You already have an SUV and if there are no reliability concerns it's probably all that you need even with two kids. If you haven't already you can always expand its storage by adding a top box or a hitch box. I would just get a small car for my commute and be done with it.

I have always found smaller car to be more beneficial. Specially considering I can rent as required.

We were faced with a similar situation about 5 years ago when our family was small(2 kids). My wife was driving a minivan and I was driving an older small sized truck. The hard decision, if she had the minivan what was I going to buy. Another SUV or small car?

After looking at the difference in gas and knowing that the car would be 90% a commuter we bought the car. We estimated we would be saving about $200 a month in gas alone over my older truck vs. used prius we would buy. Turns out we are saving closer to $250-300. That's because we realized my wife takes lots of trips alone to get groceries and errands when I watch the kids. Those trips went from the minivan to the prius and we dropped about 5k per year on the minivan and transferred them to the car. More gas savings we didn't consider.

I'm glad we went with the car not alone on the purchase price but the gas, tire, oil savings are all cheaper.

It justifies $10000 I think especially if you'll keep it for 15 years that's $660 per year. Minivan fits 8 so when you have out of town guests like grandparents you can just take 1 car. With a minivan you can buy more often from craiglist and worry less whether it will fit into your car or even big stuff from Lowes will fit in without worry, so save on delivery cost. You can bring more stuff to your vacations, like more food in an icebox, or a kids bicycle etc to get more fun from your trip and save on some meal costs by packing more without inconveniencing the people sitting in the back. But Hyundai Santa Fe complicates things. You just need one very small car, and one very big car and Santa Fe doesn't fit. I know because I'm in a similar situation.

My wife and I had a Toyota Sienna van from 2004-2013. Before the van, we had a Camry. At the time of the van purchase, our two boys were 5 and 3. We enjoyed the van tremendously. We took epic driving vacations (still do) starting from Texas and driving to Florida, Arkansas, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and all over Texas.

We really really loved it and used every single feature of it. It was great for camping, car-pooling, hauling sports gear and music instruments. Not to mention it was safe, and put a lot of steel and features between my family and danger. My wife and kids got rear-ended by a texting teen while they were stopped at a stop sign - the oblivious teen plowed into the back of them. $4000 repair and not a scratch on them - just scared them badly.

No, the van wasn't flashy at all, so you can be sure it wasn't a vanity laced decision. It didn't get great mileage either. It chewed through tires like a NASCAR racer. But we both felt comfortable driving it.

We sold the van last year and got a Honda Pilot. We switched because we were having repeated, expensive mechanical problems with the A/C and the transmission was starting to concern us. Otherwise, I am certain we would have continued driving it in order to save money.

Good luck in your decision!

I'm farther along in life (read, older), but when my kids were 5 & 3, we bought a 2002 Honda Odyssey (brand new, $27K). After I got it, I wished I had ignore the "minivans are lame" people and had a car with sliding door when my kids were babies. The sliding doors are also great with kids opening their own doors, because you don't have to worry about them accidentally damaging other cars or yours. Also, if your children want to take friends along, or if you carpool with friends/neighbors it's easy to accommodate extra kids in the van before they're old enough to ride in the front seat.

Prior to the minivan, we had a Ford Taurus station wagon, thinking we were going to save gas. The station wagon averaged 14 mpg in town, so the minivan was a huge improvement with 20 mpg around town and about 25 on trips. I'm not sure how that compares with mpg on today's minivans.

All of our relatives live in other areas, so we often drove 2 or 6 hours to see them. The van was great while we needed it, and it made traveling more enjoyable because we had plenty of room for people & cargo. If you are going to drive a lot with the whole family during the next 10 years, I would highly recommend getting the van.

Awesome - appreciate all the great comments. I should add we have been looking at low mileage used minivans as well, but finding the new minivans a better value overall (the used minivans are not marked down enough to justify the miles/miles).

I should also mention we did get a hitch haul for the Santa Fe back in 2012 to expand our hauling capacity.

As several folks mentioned I am a bit swayed by the people carrying capacity of a minivan. Certainly helps socially - we can carpool (w/ carseats); take the family + grandparents somewhere, etc.

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