Jodi Furman is married to a man who loves expensive cars. "Pretty cars, fast cars," said Furman, 46.
She has bought 12 cars in about 20 years, and she's picked up a wealth of knowledge and tips. "I had to find a way to keep him happy but also keep my wallet fat," said Furman, a personal finance blogger in Minneapolis.
It's critical to understand what a monthly payment means and how to negotiate for the best deals, she says.
"Ultimately, cars are a commodity," Furman said.
The fact is, whatever car you want, you will likely be able to find vehicles that are decent equivalents. It's not as if a dealer has some special one-of-a-kind offer.
"If you have the time, you can save a lot of money and it's worth the time investment," she said.
A four-hour round-trip to a distant dealer is worth it if she's able to shave $1,000 off the price of a car, Furman says.
Build a relationship with a trusted mechanic. "You don't want to save $500 only to spend $500 because the engine blew," Furman said. Having your mechanic look at a car you're considering can save time, money and aggravation.
The right answer to "How much do you want to pay?" is "As little as possible!" Furman says.
These tips can help you save money when visiting the dealer.
Even if you're not a born haggler, you need to learn to negotiate when you buy a car. That means doing homework on prices and financing.
You'll save the most by paying cash for the car, but if you need to finance, Furman recommends going to your bank first for the best loan rates. Also, check out websites such as Bankrate or Lending Tree for a comparison of interest rates in your area.
Don't negotiate in person, Furman says.
"For almost every vehicle, I've done all negotiations over the phone or by email," she said. "They often get a lot more flexible." Furman's MO is to take a car for a test drive and grab the seller's card before leaving.
"It throws them off their game," Furman said. "I can respond after researching." She does not want to demonize car dealers, but most buyers are at an extreme disadvantage: "They know all the answers, and you barely know the questions," she said.
This also gives you more time plan a strategy. If a dealer is are not able to come down on the price, consider asking for other services, Furman says, such as free oil changes for the next year or two, new tires or upgraded car mats.
Despite what you may have heard about showing how tough a negotiator you are, you can get what you want while being pleasant and non-confrontational. "People who sell cars are people," said Matt Jones, director of industry education at TrueCar. "Just as when you go to a restaurant and get more bread or better service because you were polite, it's the same with car sales," he said.
Keep it light and professional, and you could get a break on price or some extra perks. "A dealer is more likely to know how to save a consumer money because they do this all day, all week, and they have [been doing it] for years," Jones said. Don't go in with the attitude that it's all about trickery. Sellers want to provide service and flexibility.
Ask which vehicles you could get a good deal on, Jones says. "Regardless of how much research we do, we are part-time when it comes to buying cars," he said. Sellers, on the other hand, are full-time sellers.
You can't know every single incentive on every piece of inventory and what motivations the dealer has.
"Maybe there's a contest or it's the end of the month," Furman said. "They have reason to want to move things."
When both members of a household work from home, it may be possible to get by on one car.
Whitney Morrison, 33, a certified financial planner and personal finance blogger in Austin, found herself in this situation — with one wrinkle. Her car was leased, and the cost to get out of the agreement would have been stiff.
"I Googled online lease takeovers and found SwapALease," Morrison said. She checked the firm out on the Better Business Bureau site and found it to be a legitimate business. The site provides a marketplace for sellers and buyers to find each other.
SwapALease offers tiered pricing based on how much visibility a lease receives. Customers pay extra for photos, banner ad rotation and placement in a special auto section, among other features.
Morrison chose the least expensive $300 option for a basic search listing and was able to transfer her lease in about three weeks.
Morrison's lease payment had been $325. With insurance, her monthly total was $490, so a onetime $300 fee was a win.
Scrutinize the terms. "I didn't realize I could negotiate mileage," Morrison said.
She exceeded the mileage limit on her first lease and was told she'd have to pay $3,000 — or enter a new lease and avoid the charge. She agreed without realizing they'd pack that charge onto the value of the car in her new lease. This meant a $25,000 car was now valued at $28,000 — which she says did not match the Blue Book value.
Luckily, she negotiated for more miles in the second lease. When she wanted to get out of the lease, the extra miles made it more attractive to potential buyers.
Proceed with caution. "No matter how much you know, they know more," she said.
Search for the top vehicle features you want — not a specific auto brand.
Furman starts with the things she wants most in a car, such as "no older than X years" and specific number of miles. Then she puts in items from a second-place wish list, such as sun roof, heated steering wheel and seating.
It's easy enough to start out saying you want an all-wheel drive SUV, but don't get stuck on a Ford Explorer. "You might find in the secondary market that a luxury car in the after-market is cheaper than you'd think," she said. "A Lexus SUV may fall in price more than a Ford Explorer because there's a model change."
Doing that search without looking at vehicle brands and models will get you to the car that has what you want.
Make sure the car you want is actually worth owning, Furman says. Use Consumer Reports and look at Edmunds. Your homework is to research how expensive or inexpensive the vehicle will be to maintain.
"What's the point if it doesn't start every morning?" she asked.
A free app, Gas Buddy, shows you gas prices at local stations. "I don't think you should drive 30 miles out of your way" just to get the absolute lowest price, Furman says, but the app can definitely save you some money. "You can plan in advance what stations to use," she said.
Furman likes credit cards that let her earn points for buying gas or give cash back. A Costco Visa card gives 4% back on gas purchases from specific retailers for the first year, up to $7,000, and 1% afterwards. The Blue Cash Preferred Amex gives 3% back on all gas stations as well as parking, tolls and other transit expenses.
Not everyone who interacts with a dealer is ready to buy, Jones said. A seller can't always tell right off the bat who's simply gathering info for a possible future purchase and who's ready to buy.
"If you're a seller and have to drop everything, who's most likely to get all your attention?" he asked.
If it's between someone who wants to buy today and someone who's merely window shopping, that's an easy choice. "Those are the people who get the best deals, buy-in from the dealer," he said.
Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.