Mercades car dealership
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Next to buying a home, a car is the second-most expensive purchase most Americans make. Yet, they often spend just a couple of days on the process, shelling out more money than they had to.

Here are the three biggest mistakes you can make when getting a car loan. Avoid these missteps, and you’ll save a lot of money.

Not knowing your credit score

Shopping for a car without knowing your credit score is like picking out clothes without knowing your size. Your credit score dictates whether you will get a loan at all. Not knowing that number before you start negotiating with an auto dealer leaves you vulnerable to believing whatever the dealer might tell you about your credit, and therefore, your payments.

Play around with Bankrate’s car payment comparison calculator to see how low-interest financing, rebates and traditional financing would affect your payments.

Getting a loan at the dealer

Like a mortgage or any other loan, car loans can be obtained from many lenders. You don’t have to get your loan through the dealer you buy the car from. You may initially be attracted to a certain car because the manufacturer is offering a low interest rate. But you can find out if you qualify for that rate in advance by visiting the website of the automaker’s lending arm before heading to the dealer. It pays to shop around for a car loan, even if you qualify for the promotional interest rate from the manufacturer. Getting the loan elsewhere and taking the cash rebate offered may save you money.

Focusing on the monthly payment instead of overall cost

It’s easy to think about a car loan in terms of your monthly payment, but negotiating based on that is a big no-no. If you tell the dealer what you want your monthly payment to be, he might try to sell you a car with the longest term available (usually 72 months), which means he sells you a higher priced car and you pay more in interest over the life of the loan.

Use Bankrate’s auto loan calculator to estimate your monthly payments for different terms.

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