Your car broke down, and now you're faced with a high repair bill. It's not the first time this has happened, and you're getting tired of pouring money into an aging machine. A new car would be nice, but is that the smartest decision? Would you be better off fixing your current ride, or is it really time to buy another one? There's no clear-cut answer to these questions, but we can show the pros and cons for each option to help you make a more informed decision.

The Costs of Wear and Tear

Even if you've taken good care of your car, some high-priced repairs are unavoidable, sometimes due to excessive wear or time itself. Rubber belts and hoses dry out and crack, metal on rotors warp or wear too thin, and electrical parts stop working. Wear-and-tear items such as axle boots, belts and brake rotors will eventually need to be replaced. The timing belt has long been a big-ticket item on high-mileage cars. On many cars, it needs to be replaced at around 100,000 miles. Dealership service advisers will often recommend replacing the water pump and the other drive belts in the car at this point. This "timing belt package" can cost between $600 and $1,000. Repairs such as this begin to surface between 90,000 and 120,000 miles.

Arguments for Fixing Up

Buying a new car may not be right for you, for budgetary or other reasons. Here are a few examples of why it might be a good idea to get the repairs done.

  • It is almost always less expensive to repair a car than buy a new one.
  • Although something as severe as a blown motor or a failed transmission will run you between $3,000 and $7,000 to replace at a dealership, such repairs still don't cost as much as buying a new car. That $3,000 or $7,000 would certainly make a nice down payment, but then there are the monthly payments to consider. You can perhaps purchase a used car for that much, but just keep in mind that another used car could come with its own set of issues.
  • Insurance and registration fees will be higher on a new car.
  • A new car typically loses an estimated 22 percent of its value in the first year. Your car has already taken that depreciation hit.
  • You really need the car to last a while longer. Let's say you were planning on getting a new car in a year or two, but it broke down earlier than expected. Repairing it now will help you stay on the road and keep you from making a hasty new car purchase. It will also give you more time to save up and get your finances in order.
  • You have a sentimental attachment to your car. Maybe it was your first car, a gift from a loved one, or a dream car you finally were able to purchase. For you, buying a new car would mean giving up an old friend. This is not the strongest argument for fixing it up, but it's a real one.

Arguments for Buying a New Car

You swore you wouldn't put another penny into your old car after that last repair. But buying a new car seems like an intimidating prospect. Here are a few reasons why buying a new car might be the way to go.

  • You don't want to fret about future breakdowns. Old cars can be unpredictable. Repairing a single problem with an older car doesn't guarantee that another breakdown won't happen with another part or system. If you buy a new car, its warranty means you'll have at least three years (and often far longer) before you have to worry about paying for any major repairs. Even buying a more reliable used car, such as a certified pre-owned vehicle, is enough to bring back some peace of mind.

  • You're tired of the constant trips to the repair shop. Some things don't get fixed the first time around, while others seem to need constant attention. Either way, trips to the mechanic are costing you too much money and time away from work or family.

  • You're fed up with your old car. Perhaps it's so beat that it embarrasses you. It rattles like crazy. Or you have to bang on the A/C to get it working. All these are reasons to move one. Take a look at your budget and make an honest assessment of your financial situation. Let the Edmunds suite of auto calculators do the math for you.

  • You want something safer. New cars have modern safety equipment. Features such as automatic emergency braking, backup cameras, and blind-spot monitoring are increasingly becoming standard fare on new vehicles.

When Is It Time to Buy Another Car?

Here are a few scenarios in which we'd opt for buying another vehicle:

  • The repairs are becoming more frequent, and the costs are hard to keep up with.
  • The car leaves you stranded often, putting you in a potentially dangerous situation or making you late to work.
  • The repair in question will cost more than half the value of the vehicle.
  • You had already planned on getting something new, but your mechanic clues you in on an impending major repair on your old car. Hold off and let the next owner handle it. Just be upfront about it when it comes time to sell.

Extend the Life of Your Car

If you are not yet faced with making the tough decision to fix up or trade in your vehicle, there are steps you can take to prevent or avoid costly repairs.

  • Get your new car maintained at its proper intervals to avoid problems and breakdowns. Use our maintenance guide to learn the recommended service intervals for your vehicle. Maintaining a much older car means paying close attention to items that commonly break down. We recommend finding a good, reliable local mechanic as a less expensive alternative to a dealership service department.

  • If you're experiencing issues with your car and don't know whether things are likely to get worse, look for advice on message boards and forums for the make and model of your car.  Other people have probably been down this road before you. You can get a preview from them of the problems associated with your vehicle as it ages.

Don't Let the Clunker Decide for You

Everyone seems to have a theory on when to repair a car and when to get a new one. But you know your needs and your car's history better than anyone else, so use these tips as a guide, not gospel. Buying a new car might seem like the easy way out of a high repair bill, but depending on your circumstances, it may not be the best financial decision.

On the other hand, a car that's teetering on the edge of oblivion can keep you awake at night. It's better to part with that car on your terms rather than waiting for it to break down at exactly the wrong time. If you make the decision while the car still has some value, you can sell it or trade it in, turning the cash into a down payment on your next car. If you also can take advantage of the incentives and rebates being offered on new cars today, you may find that a new car is within reach. And it's hard to put a price tag on the peace of mind that a new vehicle can bring.