New cars are nice -- new car payments, not so nice. But while often you can't have one without the other, you can keep those payments reasonable.
1. Buy what you need, not what they're selling
Dealers will sometimes try to hard sell you into buying off the lot rather than ordering a car with just the equipment you want -- and nothing more. For the dealer, it's a double tap. He moves inventory off the lot -- and he "up-sells" you into a more expensive model/trim line. Don't fall for that. If the exact car you want is not available among the cars the dealer has in stock, ask that it be ordered for you -- with just the equipment you want. If the dealer makes a fuss, leave. Or you can turn things around on him -- by announcing you'll buy the car off the lot, provided it's got the same price tag as the one you wanted to order. Sometimes, you can haggle your way into a more highly optioned car this way. Use the dealer's urge to make a sale "today" to your advantage -- because it's the biggest advantage you've got.
2. Examine your options
Some features, for example air conditioning, are "must-have" options most of us would be hard-pressed to live without. But some -- for example, automatic climate control air conditioning -- aren't. Both will keep the car cool and comfortable -- but one will cost you more. Sometimes, a lot more (climate control AC, for example, is often "packaged" with other cost-padding options -- or part of a higher trim line with a fatter MSRP). The big difference? Instead of manually turning a knob (or pushing a button) to adjust temperature and fan speed, etc. the climate control unit can be set for a specific interior temperature and will do the adjustment for you. Maybe that's worth the extra coin to you. But if it's not, you can definitely get by without it. Ditto premium audio systems, power seats, and extra-cost wheel/tire packages. They're all nice to have, sure -- but far from essential.
3. How many cylinders?
Here's an area where you can save a lot of dough -- up front and down the road. The average new car four-cylinder engine produces as much power (around 120-150-hp, on average) as the typical V-6 did 10 or so years ago. And today's V-6 engines offer 200-plus horsepower -- output levels you used to have to buy a V-8 to enjoy. In other words, it's no longer necessary, in most cases, to step up to the larger, optional engine just to get adequate power/performance -- as it used to be in the past, when four (and even six-cylinder) engines were often under-powered and any car so equipped borderline dangerous because of its inability to pull into traffic safely. Before you get sold on a bigger engine you may not need, test drive the model equipped with the standard engine. It may be more than enough. And remember, smaller engines use less fuel, too. A 3-5 mpg difference can amount to hundreds, even thousands of dollars, in fuel savings over the life of the car.
4. Buy ugly. Or more accurately, buy unpopular
You'll pay top dollar for any vehicle that's trendy -- but when the model's a slow seller, you're holding all the cards. Right now, for example, full-size SUVs and pick-ups are languishing on dealership lots because of sky-high gas prices. But you can turn that to your advantage. After all, even at 15 mpg, a $40,000 SUV you nabbed for $7,000 under sticker is still a deal. Work the numbers and you'll see that it might even be cheaper, on the whole, than paying full sticker for a more fuel-efficient alternative. Whether you're spending money up front (on the higher priced "efficient" car) or weekly at the pump, its still bills out of your pocket. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is the net cost -- not where those bills end up going.
5. Let the weather help you out
There's nothing like a little hail damage to put a "discount" sticker on the windshield. In some western/southern states, hail damage is common -- and the bane of new car dealers. Yet what are a few dimples/dings as far as the functionality of the car is concerned? Or especially, a truck? It's going to get some of those anyhow -- so why should it matter if there are some minor imperfections there to start with? Unlike, say, flood damage, hail damage doesn't affect the operation (or warranty coverage) of the vehicle. It will run and drive and should last just as long as any other new car of its type. And often, the dings are tiny -- noticeably only to the perfectionist. But new car buyers (rightly) demand perfect sheet metal -- and so dealers are compelled to offer even very lightly hail-damaged new vehicles at discount prices.
Watch those classifieds -- and be first in line when you see an ad for hail-damaged vehicles on sale.