Arm Yourself with Information
Your best ammunition when you're car shopping is information. The more you know about the type of car you want and how much you're willing to pay, the stronger your bargaining position.
Most of that research can be done from your desk. The auto section of Bankrate.com has calculators and insurance information to help you with different payment scenarios. Consumer Reports offers details on most makes and models, including how much the dealer paid for the car -- a key fact for the consumer.
The federal government also has several sites that can help you hone your decision and save money. One website, Fueleconomy.gov, gives you the lowdown on gas guzzlers versus fuel sippers while Safercar.gov has safety ratings, recall alerts, and crash and rollover tests.
Print out the research, make a folder and take it with you to the dealerships.
The more you know, the more money you'll save. And be sure to get any offers they make in writing.
Set your own schedule
When you're buying a car, don't be lured by slick ads. Set up a shopping schedule that includes visits to several dealerships, and stick to it even if you've found your dream car on the first lot. If you stay true to your schedule, you won't be tempted with an impulse buy. And let the salespeople know you're shopping around.
Consumer Reports and car-buying sites like Edmunds.com say you can find bargains at the end of the month, when sellers are more anxious to make their quota. But be prepared for more aggressive tactics from salespeople hustling to make their numbers.
You can also shop for cars online, but don't forget about newspaper ads from individual sellers or the "For Sale" sign on the car in your neighbor's driveway.
The first rule of financing a car loan: Don't do it.
A quick spin with Bankrate's interest-rate calculator will show you the thousands of dollars you'll pay in interest.
Steve Economides, co-author of " America's Cheapest Family Gets You Right on the Money," says his family always buys used cars, and always pays cash.
"What would you rather have: a shiny new car sitting in the driveway with big monthly payments hanging over your head or being able to sleep at night?" Economides says.
Practice the frugal car buyer's mantra: patience. Start to save money for your next car before you need one.
If you need to finance, know your credit score, research interest rates online and shop around at banks and credit unions for a low-interest car loan before stepping into a dealer showroom. If you go in as a cash buyer or with your own car loan already approved, you can avoid the dealer's finance office. Doing so can shave several thousand dollars off the cost of your car.
If you're following the frugal path and are about to buy a used car, take it to a trustworthy mechanic before you close the deal. If you don't have a good mechanic, find one. Seek out word-of-mouth recommendations from friends with well-maintained cars.
Treat your relationship with your mechanic like you would with your doctor. This is the person who will help prevent expensive disasters if you pay him or her regular visits and follow his or her advice.
"If you maintain your car, you're avoiding expensive repairs down the road," says Leona Dalavai Scott, editor of AutoInc., a publication of the Automotive Service Association in Bedford, Texas.
It's far cheaper to change a few hoses than to replace a blown engine, Scott says. So, take the time to get your car serviced regularly and save money in the long run. And if you bought from a dealer, take full advantage of the warranty and follow the recommended maintenance schedule.
Find car insurance before you buy
If you want to save money, shop for car insurance before you buy your car by finding out which models are more expensive to insure. Check the latest list from the Highway Loss Data Institute to find the cars that are stolen the most and are more costly to insure.
Shopping for car insurance beforehand also will help you see if certain car features -- such as antilock brakes and side air bags -- will get you a break.
Other car insurance perks exist for safe drivers, drivers over 50 and drivers in certain neighborhoods. Follow the federal government's primer on buying car insurance to save money
Car savings every day
Once you get your car at the right price, with the best car insurance and a maintenance plan lined up, you can still practice frugal car ownership every day.
Smart-phone applications help you find everything from the cheapest gasoline in town to a map of the most efficient route to your office.
Many businesses and schools facilitate car pooling. If your company doesn't yet, start one. You can even save money on tolls and time on some highways that give breaks to high-occupancy vehicles.
"When you're car pooling, you're saving money on gas, on tolls and on maintenance," says Christine Maley-Gruble, executive director of the Peninsula Traffic Congestion Relief Alliance in Northern California. "You can use the high-occupancy vehicle lanes, so you get to work faster."
Even simple things like parking in the shade during the summer can help you save money. You'll work your car's air conditioner less.
"There are lots of ways to save on car ownership," Economides says. "It just takes research and patience."