Buying a vehicle is a big financial step — one that could affect your life for years to come.

Whether it's a car, truck or motorcycle, make sure the road head isn't pitted with payments or unexpected costs you can't afford. 

If you're a service member returning from deployment with a stash of cash, don't rush out to buy that vehicle, said Sue Katz, a financial educator and outreach specialist for American Consumer Credit Counseling in Auburnvale, Massachusetts. She regularly conducts pre- and post-deployment briefings, and provides individual financial counseling to service members.


Katz said she's seen what happens when service members don't take the time to get the best deal.


"A lot of them have that money burning a hole in their pocket and by the time we do the post-deployment briefing, they've already bought it and have buyer's remorse," she said.


Whether you're in or out of uniform, don't get to the dealership without doing your research. Some basic buying tips:

1. Credit 101. Pull your credit report well ahead of your auto-shopping and get any inaccuracies fixed. Your credit history is an important factor in how much money you can borrow and at

what interest rate.

Visit www.annual creditreport.com or call 877-322-8228 to order your free credit report; you can get one free report from each of three major credit reporting services per year.


2. Know your limits. Decide how much you can afford to pay — and not just the sticker price. Figure out down payment and monthly payment maximums, then factor in costs like fuel, insurance and maintenance. These can vary widely based on location, miles driven and other factors.


Unsure what you're getting into? Visit the True Cost to Own tool at Edmunds.com for guidance.

3. Get good value.

If you’re seeking a used car, or looking for a value on your trade-in, head to Kelley Blue 

. Don’t agree with the dealer’s trade-in offer? Shop your car around to other buyers before you settle.


4. Loan in hand. After you've figured out your budget, talk to your credit union or bank to see what interest rate they can offer and apply to be pre-approved for a loan. Use that rate as a bargaining chip to drive down the car's price, or see if the dealer will beat the lender's rate and save even more.


5. Military-related reading. Read the fine print of the loan documents. In a review of service member consumer complaints received in 2015 by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency found that service members frequently report "unique struggles with their auto loans," according to a report issued the following year.


Some troops had loan contracts that forbade them from taking their cars out of the country, but didn't realize it until they'd received orders to move overseas.


6. Get online early. Do your research into price ranges and types of cars that will suit your needs, and do it before you get sweet-talked by salesmen.


Look into the dealers, too: One red flag, Katz said, is any company boasting "no cash, no credit, no hassle" or similar words to lure in buyers.

7. Pre-owned edge.

Katz suggests buying a vehicle that’s at least two years old: It could mean cheaper insurance payments, along with a lower sticker price, and may be under warranty.


Still want to go new? Find out whether the dealer offers a military discount.

8.Timing is everything. The Federal Trade Commission recommends visiting dealerships at the end of the month, when dealers are more motivated to make a sale to meet monthly sales quotas. Also, go in the middle of the week when it's less crowded.


9. Negotiation tips. Settle on the "out the door" price first, the FTC suggests, then figure out trade-ins, rebates, and so on. And don't be afraid to walk: Stephanie Bittner, New Jersey community outreach manager for Clarifi, a nonprofit organization that provides financial counseling and education, said when she bought her car last year, she walked out of the dealership, unsatisfied with the offer.


"The manager came running out, got me out of my car, and brought me back," she said.

10. Plan your costs. Start a separate account for the vehicle. Add to it monthly to prepare for future maintenance costs, Bittner said.

"And when the car payment is paid off, pretend you still have a car payment," she said. "Even if it's not the full amount, put at least half ... into a separate savings account to be used for maintenance, or to be used as a down payment for that next car they need to purchase."


Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at  kjowers@militarytimes.com .