Cars wear out, they burn gasoline and rubber, their parts need to be replaced every so often and – occasionally – they bump into something or are bumped into. All of the above costs money over and above the purchase price, which makes owning an automobile one very expensive proposition.
At the same time, this is hardly optional for most of us. Unless you work from home, a car is not a luxury but a necessity; even if public transportation in your area is better than average, its inconvenience, the time you spend waiting for trains and buses, as well as the possibility of being late to work makes this kind of commute a lot more expensive than it seems once you add up factors other than just money. Driving your own car really is about a better quality of life, including the freedom to go where you want to whenever the urge strikes.
The actual dollars and cents you’re forced to spend matter a lot too, of course. Particularly when you’re faced with an unexpected repair bill, your whole budget may be thrown out of whack, forcing you to get a personal loan to tide you over.
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Choose the Right Kind of Car to Begin With
On a superficial level, the running costs of your car are simply your monthly gas bill plus whatever you spend, on average, doing repairs and routine maintenance. Taking the longer view, it’s not difficult to see that:
In other words, you really want to buy a car that’s light on fuel, reliable, and easy to maintain, but also one that keeps its value during the time you own it. Not too surprisingly, cars that don’t break down often also sell for a good price on the second-hand market, so this choice usually isn’t much of a trade-off.
Try researching different models using the Kelley Blue Book and other sources. The individual seller matters as well: if a car’s exterior is in good condition, the owner probably took good care of its innards too. A dealership offering a free maintenance plan for the first year or so is confident enough in the reliability of their products to put their own money on the line. Unless you’re in a red-hot hurry to buy, you should definitely insist on the vehicle being checked out for major defects by a mechanic of your choice, which generally costs less than $100. If the seller isn’t amenable to this, it’s time to leave and congratulate yourself on dodging a bullet.
If you have any concerns, explain to the seller that you’re thinking about the lifetime cost of the car, not just the sale price – this may be enough to get you a significant discount. If saving money on maintenance is your goal, you should also try to steer away from “luxury” cars. Cheaper models come with many of the same bells and whistles, don’t start to fall apart after five years, and use more economical spare parts.
Find a Trustworthy Mechanic
Here’s a tip: the managers of national chain shops get paid the same today even if the outlet they’re running will go out of business in five years – many, in fact, aren’t even trained mechanics themselves. Local, independent garage owners, however, know that their reputation is worth a lot more than this month’s profit: if they become known as a bungler or a crook, word will spread quickly and they’ll have to find another source of income. Conversely, a mechanic with a reputation for fair dealing and knowing his stuff will almost certainly see his client base and business grow.
You should also keep in mind that different technicians and repair shops have different specialties: some are wizards with automatic transmissions but don’t know large diesels all that well; others concentrate on only one or two brands of vehicle. If there’s a certificate from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence or your car’s manufacturer on the wall of the waiting room, you can have that much more confidence in their abilities. A willingness to take you into the back and show you what they’re doing, as well as a high level of general cleanliness, are also good signs – if the workmen care enough to keep their premises tidy, chances are that they’ll do the same for your car, including the parts of it you don’t normally see.
Committed mechanics, like veterinarians, also get to know your car over repeated visits. If, for example, you’ve experienced the same suspension issue far more often than is normal, they may start to look for underlying causes that would’ve been missed otherwise, or ask you about your driving habits.
Keep Your Bills Under Control
Though knowing a reliable mechanic can prevent or resolve many potential headaches, you should also shop around for the best prices if you understand exactly what needs to be done. When you know that you’ll soon need to get new tires, for instance, you may want to keep an eye on the local newspapers and couponing websites for special offers: these will often save you a surprising amount of money.
Unless you’ve grown to trust a particular repair shop, you should insist on an itemized bill so you can check what kind of markup they add onto parts you can buy at the auto store yourself. Some repair shops aren’t shy about charging double what you would pay for the exact same part, even though they themselves probably get a discount. In fact, a couple of bad apples sometimes claim to have changed a component when they only inspected or cleaned it – if you have doubts, you can ask them to give you the boxes the parts came in (do this before they get to work). If they use generic parts, which often come off the self-same assembly line as their brand-name counterparts, they should be candid about this and charge appropriately.
On the other hand, the customer isn’t always right to be suspicious. “Labor” charges, for example, don’t represent the actual dollar amount that ends up in the technician’s pocket; overheads such as rent, utilities, administration costs, and so on are typically all folded into this sum. You should probably think twice if they estimate that fixing a car is going to cost more than half of what it’s worth, especially if they offer to buy it from you.
Sometimes, however, they have only your best interests at heart when they recommend a more expensive repair option. Reconditioning a part may be cheaper today, but if it already has a few miles on it, a total replacement will probably keep ticking for a lot longer and prevent you from breaking down when you can least afford it.
Keep up With Routine Maintenance
We’ve probably all heard the joke about the lazy man who couldn’t fix his leaking roof while it was raining because he didn’t want to get wet, and wouldn’t fix it while it was sunny because it wasn’t leaking then. This isn’t a perfect metaphor for scheduled car maintenance, though: if you don’t spend a little money every few months patching up some leaks you can’t even hear dripping, your whole ceiling could collapse in a torrent of water and repair bills.
Don’t delay taking your car into the shop if the “Check Engine” light comes on, something is making a funny noise or – especially – if the car starts to handle noticeably differently. With the right diagnostic tools, figuring out what’s wrong may take no more than five minutes, saving you a lot of money by fixing little problems before they escalate into serious headaches. Many places won’t even charge you for just taking a look under the hood or, more likely, inside your car’s on-board computer.
This is why it’s important to take the owner’s manual seriously. A hundred or more engineers probably had a hand in designing your vehicle; if you trust their skills to keep you safe at 80 m.p.h, you can trust them about the recommended tire pressure too. If you don’t have this valuable piece of documentation, perhaps because either you or the previous owner threw it away, it’s pretty easy to find a replacement online.
Update a logbook (or an app) with every maintenance service and repair, and also use it to keep track of your car’s fuel economy over time. If you notice that you’re burning more gas, something is probably not working flawlessly and a little tuneup may be in order. Unless you’re a very organized person, put a sticker somewhere unobtrusive but visible to remind you of the mileage at which you need the next oil change. Keeping stuff like this up to date definitely saves you money: your car will stay in working condition for longer, be less prone to major breakdowns, and use less gas getting from A to B.
Over time, a little bit of tender care will cause you to spend much less on fixing problems that appear, apparently, right out of the blue. As an added bonus, being able to produce a record, with receipts, of all routine car services will make it much easier to get a good price for your vehicle when it’s time to upgrade.
Learn What You Can (and Can’t) Do Yourself
Changing the air filter and wiper blades on your car takes two minutes and can cost you less than $20. Topping up fluids is just as easy. Replacing the oil and spark plugs requires a little more skill (and strength), but still isn’t beyond the average person’s capabilities. Switching out brake pads and greasing wheel bearings don’t call for years of experience either, but considering the possible consequences of making a mistake, you may want to leave tasks like these to the professionals.
Many people who like to tinker with engines as a hobby started out just trying to save a little money on car repair and maintenance. If you think this may be for you, get your feet wet first by reading a little on the subject, checking what the owner’s manual has to say, watching a Youtube tutorial on whatever task you’re about to attempt and – if you’re still not sure whether the job is within your wheelhouse – chatting to an experienced mechanic online. It’s certainly true that no technician likes to fix something messed up by an amateur, so try to err on the side of caution – you certainly don’t want to risk an accident due to under-torquing the wrong bolt.
The very simplest type of maintenance everybody can (and should) do is to take care of their vehicle’s tires. Your life may literally depend on the quality of the four handpalm-sized patches of rubber that are your car’s only source of traction on the road.
The most important thing is to check the pressure every week or every time you stop for gas – the ideal pressure will be listed in your car’s owner’s manual. This isn’t hard to do, yet many people don’t realize how much this simple action affects both their safety as well as their wallets: underinflated tires wear out faster and take more gas to turn. Overinflated tires, for their part, are more easily damaged by road hazards like potholes and debris, and reduce your ability to stop in an emergency. In other words, if you want to show someone you care about them, get them a cheap tire pressure gauge, perhaps along with an air pump they can run from the car’s electrical outlet.
Another way to keep your tires – which can easily cost a thousand dollars or more to replace – in good condition is to rotate them every 5,000 miles or so. If you prefer not to get your clothes dirty, you can have this done at the same time as getting your wheels balanced and aligned. These routine maintenance actions reduce vibration, leading to a more comfortable ride and much less wear and tear on several suspension components. It will also prolong your tires’ life significantly and keep you safer on the highway.
Finally, when it’s time to get your car a new pair of shoes, don’t be tempted to go with the cheapest set of tires that will fit. Don’t put off this purchase until they’re as smooth as billiard balls, but take the time to research different options and find one that will go the distance with you and your driving habits. Saving a hundred bucks now may mean having to spend several times that amount many months sooner.
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Next to your home, your car is probably your single most expensive possession. It has sentimental value, too: nobody wants to drive around in a vehicle that looks eager to go to rest in the nearest scrapyard. Keeping it in good repair is therefore important, but you don’t need to spend the earth doing so.
Perhaps you have a few money-saving tips of your own regarding car maintenance and repair? If so, we and our readers would love to hear them, and that is exactly what the comment section is for.