If you’ve ever purchased a car, you know the roller coaster of feelings you get throughout the process. The research and browsing of local dealer inventory part is awesome, but once you actually step foot onto a dealership’s lot, the reality of the transaction kicks in pretty quickly. Upsells, negotiations, extra fees, and financing are the worst buzzkills for your car-buying high.

Unfortunately, if you’re going to buy from a dealership, that’s the reality of car buying. If you can find a deal on Craigslist, know someone looking to sell a great car,  or find an option to completely buy a new car online–do your research and then jump on it. That’s the real way to save money.

But if you’re looking to buy a new car right out of college, or just want the peace of mind of buying a car through a dealership, here’s the advice I wish I had heard before my first car-buying experience.

Do Research. Lots and Lots of Research.

There are so many great models to choose from nowadays, and that makes car buying really difficult. Not in a bad way, but if you’re indecisive about major purchases like I am, you know how frustrating it can be to settle on a particular car after spending hours and hours researching reliability on CarComplaints, resale value on KBB, and prices on AutoTrader and TrueCar.

When deciding, however, the most effective way to find the best car for you is to create a classic pros and cons list. Include everything you can think of and start narrowing down your options until you’re down to just two. Once you’ve got your two, bring someone with you who can point out things you may not notice and test drive them.

10 Great New and Used Cars for College to Consider in 2015

The list below represents some of the most reliable and affordable vehicles you can buy, whether you’re looking to buy new or used. For a college student, a subcompact car is the perfect balance of reliability, affordability, and functionality, which is why they’re at the top of this list. However, for the more adventurous and capable students, there are other choices to add some additional functionality or just pure fun to your life.

  • Honda FitSubcompact
  • Hyundai AccentSubcompact
  • Hyundai Elantra – Subcompact
  • Volkswagen Golf – Subcompact
  • Mazda Mazda3 – Compact
  • Toyota Corolla – Compact
  • Honda CR-V – Crossover SUV
  • Subaru Forrester – Crossover SUV
  • Mazda MX-5 Miata – Sports Car
  • Ford Mustang – Sports Car

Come in with Cash or a Minimum 20% Down Payment

Buying a car with zero down is absolutely ridiculous unless you have incredible credit or are buying a $5000 car. And if you’re a recent graduate or a current student, you’re more than likely to have no credit or subpar credit.

If you’re buying a new car, you really want to come in with at least 20 percent. That may sound high, but if you’re planning on committing to buy a $20,000 car, $4,000 will show that you’re serious and allow you to get better financing.

And if you can’t save up $4,000 to buy a new car, save up what you can and start looking at used cars. I’ve only purchased one new car in my life, and I ended up immediately regretted it due to the depreciation. (Not to mention the fact that I found 20 better deals the next day. Lesson learned!)

It’s important to remember, however, that you should concentrate on the final monthly payment as well. Bringing a higher down payment will not only get you a better interest rate, but will also lower your monthly payment and help you pay off the car faster than you’d otherwise be able to.

If you’re dead set on getting a new car, and are more focused on a low payment than anything else, consider leasing. With manufacturer incentives, you can walk away with a great deal on a lease nowadays.

The best method, of course, is to come in with cash. There’s really nothing more to say about that. If you’ve worked hard to save your money and need a car, pay for it in cash. The less debt you accrue early in life, the better you’ll be off later on.

Contact a Salesperson Online to Make an Offer and Stick to It

Once you visit a dealership, they’ve got the home field advantage. Their game changes entirely when you’re there in person versus negotiating via email or text.

Don’t get me wrong, though; dealers are not natural scumbags who will take advantage of you for the fun of it. They’re simply looking to make more money at the end of the day. It’s your job as an informed customer to understand what the car is worth and know what you want to pay for it.

If you make an offer and it’s refused, stop the conversation. Obviously your offer needs to be fair considering the value and condition of the vehicle, as dealers have to make profit and you won’t be able to buy a car without some compromise. On the other hand, salespeople know they can get most people to balk in order to raise the price.

The goal here should not be to pull one over on the dealership to ensure they make little to no profit. You need to set a price in your head that you’re comfortable paying and that you’ve researched to be a competitive, reasonable price and then let me know that you can’t go any higher.

Chances are the salesperson will work on your behalf to get you the price you want–even if you think they’re secretly trying to pull one over on you.

5 Things to Know About Car Buying Before You Actually Buy

I don’t have all of the answers to car buying, but there’s a lot of information out there that can put you in a million different mindsets about every little part of the process. To help steer you back toward reality, here are a few big things you need to know:

  • Signing a purchase agreement does not mean you’re legally obligated to buy the car. Don’t let a salesperson make you believe that, but also don’t sign anything until you’re 110 percent sure that’s the car you want.
  • The CarFax/AutoCheck report doesn’t show everything and can be wrong. If something looks suspicious, be wary of the vehicle. It might not be the dealership’s fault, but you need a third-party to check it out if you’re not confident in its condition.
  • Reliable brands aren’t always reliable. You can have the most reliable model from the most reliable brand and still have problems. Most modern cars are fairly reliable with the right owner and proper maintenance.
  • Point out the car’s issues and make sure they get fixed. Take an extended test drive and really get a feel for the vehicle. Check every little thing you can think of and get the dealership to note the problems and agree to fix them before you agree to buy.
  • Certain cars are more of a risk to buy used. And you know what cars I’m talking about! The sportier the car, the younger the driver, the more it was probably abused for entertainment. If you want a sports car, it’s always safer (and more satisfying) to buy new.

Conclusion: There’s No Perfect Way to Buy a Car

Rarely is the car-buying experience perfect. Everyone, at one point or another, thought they could have gotten a better deal or regretted buying an extended warranty. The fact is, these tips give you the foundation you need to make an informed decision on your first car.

There’s no way to predict the future of your car–whether it’s new or used–and there’s certainly no way to get the “best” price because that’s subjective to you as the buyer. So as you go out to hunt for your first car, keep this advice in mind and your options wide open!