If you think of your car as an investment, you’re almost certainly confused as to either what the word “investment” means or what a car actually is. Unless it’s purely a business vehicle, your car is going to cost you money, and probably quite a lot.
To begin with, its market value declines between 10% and 30% every year, even if it’s just sitting in a garage. Added to that, you have to buy fuel, tires, insurance, account for wear and tear…really, a car, however necessary, is nothing but an expense, a money pit with four wheels. Anything you can do to pay less for the privilege of getting from A to B is worth considering, but what exactly are the best ways to save money on the road?
It’s a real eye-opener to realize that it’s not the money you spend on your car every month or even over a year that matters: the cost of owning and operating a vehicle should really be calculated over the entire period of time that you own it. This means it’s extremely important to get the right set of wheels to begin with. If you drive over 20,000 miles a year, paying extra for a model with good fuel economy may work out cheaper in the long run. In another scenario, you may just need something that runs and take advantage of a low price on the second-hand market, but end up paying more than you expected on frequent repairs. Also in regards to the choice of which vehicle to purchase, it seems almost like a law of nature that flashier cars cost more to maintain.
Apart from selecting the right car, there are several ways of making driving cheaper. Some require you to change your habits a little, some take an hour or so of work every year, but all of the tips you’ll find here are guaranteed to save you money on the road.
Table of Contents
- 1 Daily Routines
- 2 Slow Down
- 3 Take Your Own Snacks with You
- 4 Pay Less for Fuel
- 5 Stuff to Do Once in a While
- 6 Start Doing Your Own Oil Changes
- 7 Check Your Tires
- 8 Keep on Top of Maintenance
- 9 Plan Ahead
- 10 Yearly Tasks
- 11 Review Your Auto Insurance
- 12 Consider Leasing Instead of Owning (Or Vice Versa)
- 13 Use the Right Kind of Credit Card
- 14 Making a Start
Whether your goal is to get better at tennis, cultivate the perfect garden or become financially prosperous, success often relies on doing the right things consistently. Trying to perfect your backhand stroke or get rich by making a single, huge effort isn’t much of a plan. Small, steady achievements are much more reliable and become easier over time. In fact, once you start driving more deliberately, you even may find that saving money on the road is in some ways more convenient than what you used to do.
Your car’s engine is designed to work most efficiently at a certain RPM number, usually around 3,000. What may surprise you is that air resistance actually increases as the square of speed instead of proportionally. This means that just driving at 55 mph instead of 50 wil usually increase your fuel consumption a lot more than 10%.
You may be able to find a similar graph for your model of vehicle, but in general, you’re burning excess gas at any speed over 60 mph, and going 70 mph usually means spending as much as 20% more than you need to on fuel.
Your gas bill isn’t the only thing at stake here, either. Yanking the vehicle around every turn and revving the motor just to screech to a stop at the next traffic light puts unnecessary strain on your engine, drive train, suspension, brakes, and several other systems. When you really think about it, this kind of jerky driving usually doesn’t even get you to your destination any faster.
Taking things easy also saves you the hassle and expense of speeding tickets. If you have to exceed the posted limit all the time, you should probably work on your time management skills rather than complain about the police bleeding you dry.
Take Your Own Snacks with You
A large bottle of iced water can stay cool for the whole day, and a thermos of coffee at least drinkably hot. If you have a blender and the right container, a smoothie can be the perfect breakfast to enjoy in traffic. It’s really easy to lose track of how much you spend at gas stations and convenience stores – just a donut and soda every day can add up to $50 or more by the end of the month. Keeping a small cooler in the trunk instead isn’t a bad plan, especially when traveling with children.
Once you embrace this idea, you’ll soon find that there are plenty of healthy alternatives to overpriced candy bars and greasy drive-thru food. Your waistline will thank you, and eating gas station burritos is a lot like inviting the diarrhea fairy for a visit anyway.
Pay Less for Fuel
Typically, gasoline (or diesel) accounts for about two-fifths of the total cost of owning a car. Getting into the habit of filling up where it’s cheapest can, therefore, save you a serious amount of money, making the occasional five-minute detour worthwhile.
Apps like GasBuddy, Gas Guru and Dash (which does a lot more besides, including monitoring your vehicle’s health) can become your new best friends. Some will even let you know if there’s a good deal on fuel along your regular routes. It’s also worth mentioning that Costco always offers fantastic fuel prices – this by itself can make getting a membership worth it.
One thing you should not do, however, trying to save money by choosing a different grade of fuel than your car was designed for. Putting premium gas into a car that doesn’t need it shouldn’t cause any harm other than to your wallet, but doing the opposite can result in serious damage.
Stuff to Do Once in a While
“I don’t have time for that” is one of the lamest, most overused excuses there ever was. Anyone who regularly watches TV does have time, if not the motivation required for important errands. If saving money is important to you, you can certainly spare a few minutes every couple of months giving your car some TLC – the rewards definitely outweigh the effort.
Start Doing Your Own Oil Changes
If you’re still paying a mechanic to change your oil, you may just not know how easy this really is (and yes, girls can do it too!). Plenty of basic maintenance tasks are actually surprisingly straightforward once you’ve bought the right tools and watched a Youtube video specific to your model of car. This is particularly true for older vehicles – newer models seem designed to make this way harder than it needs to be, for instance by requiring special equipment for no apparent reason.
Regular oil changes save you money by both reducing your gasoline usage and extending the life of your motor. Use exactly the kind of oil recommended by your car’s manufacturer – this is one of those instances where it really is worth paying extra for the good stuff. High-quality, clean oil doesn’t just make the engine turn and the pistons pist a little more smoothly: it actually prevents corrosion, reduces engine running temperatures, prevents blockages within the engine block and protects gaskets, which are a pain to replace if one should blow.
While you’ve got your hands dirty, you may as well change the filters at the same time. Swapping out the old oil filter at the same time as the oil is a no-brainer, but your engine and gas mileage will also benefit from a new air filter every six months. In fact, you can now get washable intake filters that can be reused indefinitely.
Check Your Tires
Just like you need the right kind of shoes to run without risking an injury, the kind of rubber your car is equipped with has a major effect on your gas mileage. Especially if you do a lot of highway driving, paying more for tires actually saves you money by reducing fuel consumption. “Bargain” tires are often a false saving: not only are they sometimes less safe, they’re also damaged more easily by road hazards like potholes.
Checking your tire pressure is no less important and for exactly the same reasons. Your car’s owner’s manual will give you a recommended PSI figure; contrary to common belief, it seems that exceeding that doesn’t have much of an effect on your fuel consumption. Proper inflation also makes your tires last much longer and prevents balancing and alignment issues.
When you have half an hour or so to spare, you should also rotate your car’s tires to make them wear out evenly and increase their lifespan. Of course, all these errands also serve to keep you safer on the road. We’d all like to pretend that the worst will never happen to us, but even a relatively minor accident can cost many times the price of a new set of tires.
Keep on Top of Maintenance
If your car makes a funny noise or starts to handle differently from before, getting someone qualified to check it out may save you a bundle by catching little problems before they grow up to become major dilemmas. Repair chips and cracks on the windscreen before you have to replace the whole thing; your insurance will often cover this without charging you a deductible. Periodic inspections on minor components like hoses and belts are a good idea too: a skilled and trustworthy mechanic can often spot something that’s about to go wrong with no more than a glance. If you can, schedule a workshop service right before taking a long road trip.
If you’re organized enough, try to keep a car maintenance diary. Most mechanics will appreciate knowing what was done when. If two alternators fail within a few months of each other, for instance, there may be some kind of underlying problem with the electrical system. Though having a record like this won’t by itself increase your car’s resale value, the reassurance that the vehicle was taken care of is likely to help sway a hesitant buyer.
One of the greatest benefits of owning a car is that you can be a little impulsive and go wherever you want, whenever. Abusing this freedom can cost you a lot of money, though.
Whenever possible, you should schedule your week’s driving ahead of time to combine multiple chores into one trip. This saves you time as well, and in the case of grocery shopping, you may find that you end up spending significantly less money on stuff you don’t really need. Sometimes, you may not even have to start the car: a cold engine uses as much as 20% more fuel, so consider walking instead if the trip is short.
Carpooling can be frustrating depending on the schedules and personalities of the people involved but bear in mind that the cost per occupant per mile is immediately halved if you have just one passenger. In cities, you can often save a pile of money by learning where and when you can park for free or cheaply. Most people don’t tally up this expense, but multiplying what the meter eats in one day by 30 (to give you a rough monthly figure) is often something of a revelation.
Finally, a basic emergency kit can save you the cost of calling roadside assistance as well as a lot of frustration if you should get stranded. Aside from basics like road flares and a flashlight, you will want to include a power bank that lets you jumpstart the engine without needing another car, as well as a tire sealer that can deal with flats in minutes.
It’s an excellent idea, once every twelve months and perhaps in the week leading up to your birthday or some other memorable date, to slow down, take a deep breath and spend some time figuring out a few ways in which you can do better financially. Think of this as an opportunity to consider complicated decisions without any pressure.
Review Your Auto Insurance
Older cars are cheaper, of course, but they sometimes more than make up for this by carrying higher insurance premiums. Chances are pretty good, though, that you can save on car insurance even without changing the kind of vehicle you drive.
If your credit score has improved since you signed up and you live in a state where insurers are allowed to adjust premiums depending on your creditworthiness, you can almost certainly negotiate a better rate or switch to a more economical provider. It may also be time to cut out frills you’re unlikely to need from your policy, like “enhanced” glass coverage and rental car reimbursement. Even if you don’t want to do this, you may still be paying too much: comparing different insurance companies online takes only a minute and may reduce the rate you have to pay by a third.
You can also consider taking a defensive driving course, which has been statistically proven to reduce the chances of you ending up in an accident, even one caused by another driver. On a related note, you may want to invest $100 or so in a dash cam. This will not affect your premiums directly, but it’s still worth having: honesty is typically in short supply among people who’ve just experienced an accident, and your insurer will not fight very hard to prove that you weren’t the one at fault.
Consider Leasing Instead of Owning (Or Vice Versa)
There are pros and cons on both sides of this equation, but it’s worth checking every now and again whether the way you currently pay for your vehicle is really in your best interest. Assuming you use the car for business, for instance, you can sometimes lower your tax bill by leasing instead. This option also allows you to drive a more expensive car with lower monthly payments, though of course, you won’t own it at the end of the lease period.
You should also keep in mind that you can sometimes refinance your auto loan on better terms. If interest rates nationwide have dropped or your credit score improved since you originally signed, there’s a good chance that you can get a better deal at your current bank or elsewhere just by asking.
Use the Right Kind of Credit Card
Different credit cards come with different rewards packages. Especially if you often travel long distances, you can earn a significant amount of points or cash back on everything from gas to roadside accommodation.
Presumably, you already have a credit card, so you might be worried that getting another mainly for vehicle-related expenses will affect your credit score. Just like with all forms of debt, using it responsibly is the most important part. Ordering an additional car-friendly card increases the total amount of credit available to you (which may lower your score a bit), but not overspending reduces the proportion of this credit you actually use (which raises your credit score). In other words, if you won’t be using the new card for expenses you don’t currently have anyway and keep the balance under control, getting a card that offers a few percentage points cashback on fuel works in your favor.
Some cards you may want to look at include:
- ExxonMobil Smart Card: Offers a 10 cent per gallon discount for the first two months as long as you install the associated app, dropping to 6 cents per gallon afterwards.
- Sam’s Club Mastercard: Get a whole 5% cash back on gas purchases (up to $6,000 and only at participating gas stations).
- American Express Blue Cash Preferred Card: Not meant just for filling up, this card gives you 3% cash back on fuel and 6% on groceries.
Making a Start
The thing about money-saving tips is that simply reading about them does you no good at all. It’s important to begin taking action and then build up better saving habits gradually.
Perhaps you can learn how to check and adjust your tire pressure today and make a resolution to fill up your tank whenever you’re near a cheap gas station instead of once you’re running on fumes. Researching your auto insurance options takes a little more work, but considering that this may save you hundreds of dollars a year, it’s worth doing.
The key is to start doing these things consistently, not just whenever you feel like it. Once these routines become automatic, it takes no willpower at all to keep doing them – and you may be surprised at how much extra money you’ll have available.
Perhaps you have some tried-and-tested tips of your own about economical motoring? We and other readers would love it if you share them in the comments below.