Buying a new car doesn't have to be a stressful (or wallet-draining) experience. Just be sure you follow the rules:

1. Buy when you don't have to

The best way to get a great deal on a new car is to avoid being in the position of having to replace the one you've got because it just broke down and it's beyond fixing (or you just don't want to put any more money into it). Desperation rarely results in a good deal -- for the buyer, anyhow. Smart shoppers anticipate the need for a new car and begin looking at what's available long before they actually need a new car.

2. Shop for money first

Unless you are buying a new car with cash, you should think about new car financing (and interest rates) before you think about what color to get. Many buyers forget that the cost of money is just as important to the bottom line as the new car price. Whatever you saved up-front on the new car price can easily be lost over the course of the loan if you sign up for a loan with a higher rate than you could have/should have paid. Check with several potential lenders -- including credit unions, banks and the automakers' captive financing arms (GMAC, etc.) -- then buy a new car. This way, you can focus on one thing at a time instead of two things at once. You will know you got the best deal you could have on at least one of them.

3. Compare incentives

To jump-start sales, many automakers offer various incentives (cash back, "customer loyalty" discounts, special financing deals, etc.) that can be worth several thousand dollars off the new car price. If you're considering two similar (but different brand) vehicles, incentives on one of them could be all the incentive you need to make the choice between them. You can also use incentives on one brand as a negotiating point for the purchase of another. Point out to the salesman that you could buy new car brand "x" for $2,000 off the sticker and ask if there's anything he can do to make his brand more cost competitive -- such as tossing in a no-cost extended warranty or free oil changes for two years, etc.

4. Know what you're buying

Most models of new cars (and trucks, SUVs and minivans, too) come in several trim levels, with your choice of engines, transmissions, safety equipment and other features. You should always know at least as much about your next new car as the salesman does so you can talk about the car knowledgeably with the salesman. You don't want to get pushed into buying a new car with things you don't really need or end up with one that lacks some things you end up wishing you had bought. Information is readily available: see the automakers' Web sites and read as many expert reviews as you can find. You should also take a thorough test drive of at least two hours before buying a new car. Make sure the vehicle is comfortable and there are no design problems (excessive blind spots, uncomfortable seats, noisy engine/hard to shift transmission, etc.) that you might hate to have to live with if you actually owned the car. You may save yourself a big headache and a lot of money, too.

5. Know how much your old car's worth

A big mistake made by many buyers is to focus on the new car, and its price, while forgetting to know just exactly what their old one's worth. It doesn't do you much good if you save $2,000 on the new one but lose an equivalent amount on your trade-in. The exact value of every used car is vehicle-specific, there are almost always significant differences in condition, equipment and mileage. However, you can still get a very solid "ballpark" idea by checking current trade-in/resale prices for cars like yours in the classified ads and in trade guides such as Kelley Blue Book and the National Automobile Dealer Association's used car price books. You can adjust the value up or down for things like higher-than-normal mileage, excellent (or just average) condition and so on. Be aware that there is a difference of about 10 percent in retail vs. wholesale prices. "Retail" refers to what the used car would be advertised for by a private seller or dealer; "wholesale" refers to the offer the dealer would make you for the car as a trade. The difference reflects his profit margin as well as the costs involved in cleaning up and otherwise "prepping" the vehicle for resale.

And finally ...

6. Don't wear your heart on your sleeve

Getting emotional about a new car or truck is fine, once you get home. But when you're buying a new car, you'll almost certainly do better if you can remain as aloof and detached as Mr. Spock. Never portray more than casual interest in a car; salesmen react to emotional buyers like sharks react to blood in the water. If you feel your heart might get ahead of your head, bring a spouse (or a good friend) along to keep you out of trouble. You should convey a "take it or leave" it impression -- and the more convincing your performance, the more likely you'll drive home a deal.

New Car Buying Resources:

- New Car Search

- Best Car Deals of the Month

- New Car Incentives and Rebates

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