Having a vehicle is key to survival for many Americans. They need cars for running errands, going to work and for a sense of personal security. These tools are expensive, however, and represent a long term financial commitment should they ever need repairs or maintenance. For those seeking auto loans, the costs and attachment go up even more.

Before heading to a car dealership or looking at ads, there are a number of steps that should be taken first.

Balancing finances

Reviewing your individual wealth portfolio can help you decide how much you can really afford in terms of a car loan. This should include bank accounts, monthly expenses, income and other assets that might affect your regular budget. Add on to this any major life changes like moving, getting a new job, getting married or having a baby and the amount you can afford each month will continue to drop.

Looking at a personal financial plan will help dictate the final dollar amount of the loan you request.

Picking a lender

One of the biggest things that should happen before you go shopping for a car is applying for the loan itself. MSN Money says that it may seem counterintuitive to some buyers to have the money already before finding the car, but this way you won't be as tempted to get something you can't afford.

On top of that, as The Wall Street Journal pointed out, dealers are notorious for scamming shoppers on car value, loan rates and closing costs, so talking to a financial advisor about car lending options and securing a note before you browse will help keep costs under control.

Second time around

Don't get hung up on the idea you need a new car. Look for something practical and safe, as these qualities are likely to pay off in other ways.

Reliable cars are often the least flashy. They require less maintenance, as they haven't been driven as hard, and have reduced insurance rates compared to other kinds of vehicles. Extra airbags and a lowered chance that the car will be involved in unsafe driving scenarios make insurers and lenders more confident in giving you a deal.