Ask anyone who’s involved in the automotive aftermarket or service business what happens when the cost of gas escalates rapidly, and the answer you receive will be consistent:  people put off servicing their cars.

It’s a fact. Faced with a dollar that doesn’t go as far, a lot of drivers will begin extending oil change intervals and ignoring basic service requirements.  This is NOT a risk-free approach to saving a few dollars on your car, however.

Ignore oil and filter changes, and you could damage your car’s engine.  Pay no attention to tire pressure and rotating your tires, and they can wear prematurely, requiring replacement long before they normally would. Have a dirty engine air filter, and your gas mileage will suffer.

Simply ignoring your car’s basic maintenance requirements will cost you MORE in the long run.

So as the economy slows and we all watch our finances more closely, are there any sensible steps a car owner can take to reduce auto maintenance costs? Absolutely. And they apply to any time – whether the economy’s booming or in recession. Best of all, you don’t need to be a mechanic or even mechanically inclined to put these strategies in place!

Simple steps that will save you money…

These are the basic “gotta do’s” that you can’t ignore.  The good news:  do them and you’ll actually SAVE money in the long run:

  • Oil / Filter Changes: Thanks to the quick lube industry, many of us have gotten the idea that our car’s engine oil and filter needs to be changed every 3,000 miles.  Most modern vehicles call for oil and filter changes every 7,500 miles; check your owner’s manual. Unless you drive in extreme conditions – lots of very short trips, extreme temperatures, very dusty / dirty conditions, you should choose the regular maintenance schedule as reviewed in your owner’s manual – and it’ll likely call for oil change intervals in the 7,500 to 10,000 mile range.

If you observe the 3,000 mile interval, you’re wasting money.  Check your Owner’s Manual and service your vehicle accordingly.

  • Oil changes:  Dealer vs. Quick Lube: If your car is new, you may feel that you have to bring it back to the dealer for simple services like oil changes, for fear of voiding your warranty.  This is not necessary.  Take it wherever you prefer, and SAVE YOUR RECEIPTSThe manufacturer of your vehicle cannot void your warranty because you used an aftermarket filter, per the Magnusson-Moss Act. If the local Jiffy Lube is considerably cheaper than your dealer for oil changes, by all means bring your car there.  You are gaining nothing by having the dealer’s tech change your filters.

NOTE: if you have concerns about what oil filter the quick lube will use on your car, buy several OE filters from your dealer and the quick lube will install them and give you a small credit.  By the way: it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference what filter you use, if you’re observing the recommended change interval.  Most modern filters will exceed the engine’s basic requirements by a healthy margin if the proper interval is observed.  You can buy the OE filter if you like, but keep in mind that no automobile manufacturer actually manufactures filters – they are manufactured for the OE by another firm. (The same is true, of course for quick lubes.) If you live in a large metropolitan area – NYC, L.A., etc. – be wary of filters installed at quick lubes; they may be Chinese or Korean imports, and the media used may be of lesser quality than U.S. made filters.

One other quick note: pay attention to the type of drain plug washer or drain plug itself that your car requires. If it’s non-standard, buy several and provide one to the quick lube each time you have your oil changed.

  • Maintain proper tire pressure: for safety and long tire life, check your tire pressure periodically – at least once every week or so.  Over- or under-inflated tires will wear unevenly and prematurely, and under-inflated tires can be dangerous.  It’s popular to suggest that you over-inflate your tires by 3-4lbs. to improve fuel economy.  Don’t do it – inflate to the pressure recommended by the manufacturer. Checking your pressure takes only a few moments – pick up a gauge and put it in your console or glovebox. Consumer Reports reviewed a number of gauges last year, and their top pick was a ~$6 pencil-style gauge available at NAPA stores.  For those who aren’t familiar with how to check your tire pressure, here’s a quick video on the subject from Ford:

  • Rotate your tires: Again, in order to maximize tire life, rotate your tires periodically… usually at 7,500 mile intervals. If you’ve purchased tires from a tire warehouse, tire retailer or even Wal-Mart, your purchase often entitles you to free rotations for the life of the tires.  Take advantage of it!  Rotating your tires will extend their life and by doing so, save you money!  If you’re handy and have the proper (read: safe) equipment, rotate them yourself.  Always observe the car manufacturer’s recommended sequence for rotating tires.
  • Change your engine air filter yourself: Almost every Owner’s Manual will show you exactly how to do this. It usually requires no more than 5 minutes.  Pick up a quality aftermarket filter (WIX, Baldwin, NAPA, Hastings) at an auto parts store, do it yourself, and save anywhere from $10 to $30 each time you replace it!
  • Windshield Wiper blade replacement: New wiper blades are cheap insurance. Worn out wiper blades reduce your ability to see clearly during heavy rainstorms, and are dangerous as a result.  Blades are relatively inexpensive and can be purchased at ANY auto parts store.  You’ll save significantly if you replace them yourself versus having your dealer replace them.  Why pay your dealer $65+ per hour for labor; you can do this job in a few minutes yourself?!  Change your wiper blades or inserts at least once every 12,000 miles or so. Here’s a quick video that covers the basic of wiper blade replacement:

  • Finally, listen to your car.  I vividly remember jumping into my younger son’s car several years ago for a quick drive with him.  After backing out of the driveway, I headed down our street and went all of 300 yards before I pulled over.  Summoning every ounce of my parental tact and diplomacy, I said something like, “Fer Chrissakes, Brian!  Does the car actually have to DISINTEGRATE before you notice it’s got a problem!!!?”  The car was in dire need of a front wheel bearing. That poor thing was grinding away like Britney Spears at the VMA’s, but Brian hadn’t noticed. (He may have been distracted by his audio system, which typically operated at approximately 130 decibels.)  Listen to your car.  When operating normally, it makes normal sounds.  Just like you, if something goes awry, it makes bad sounds.  And when it does, get it checked out. Bring it to a mechanic you trust and describe its “symptoms.”  Waiting is NEVER a good idea: doing so usually will cost you MORE.

Dealer service: you’ve got money; they want it!

Fact: Dealerships don’t make all that much money on new car sales.  Their heftiest margins are on the crap their Finance Manager manages to fob off on unsuspecting customers, and on service.  Your Owner’s Manual’s Maintenance Schedule is a minefield. Many of the checks and inspections specified are not all that necessary.  You can save yourself  A LOT of money by taking an aggressive approach to navigating through the maintenance schedule.

Here’s a page from the schedule for my G35; click on it for a close-up view:

Before you think I’m an Infiniti basher, let me say:  I love the car and my dealer is actually very good. I am using this schedule merely as an illustration.  Like many manufacturers, Infiniti has a couple of service schedules (I and 2) and you choose which one is appropriate to your driving conditions.  One of the schedules is for normal driving conditions, the other for extreme driving conditions.

(Infiniti has also added another entire level of service called “Premium Maintenance” – this was apparently designed specifically for people who possess way more money than sense.  I’ll ignore it here.)

Take a look at the Schedule 1 / 2 schedule (they’re the same in this case) for 30,000 miles on my car.  A number of basic services are specified:

  1. Replace engine oil and filter
  2. Replace climate controlled seat filter ( ! ) (not applicable to G35)
  3. Replace engine air filter
  4. Replace cabin air filter
  5. Rotate tires
  6. Inspect 16 separate items

Take the à la carte approach!

My approach to scheduled maintenance with the dealership is simple:  NEVER call the dealer and say you need to schedule a 30K – or 15K, 50K, 75K – any of the scheduled maintenance milestones.

Instead, pull out your Owner’s Manual and take a careful look at the services they’d perform if you DID schedule the recommended maintenance.  Determine which you can have done for you more inexpensively and which you can do yourself. Then call the dealer and tell him specifically what you them to do, and make no mention of the “xxK” service. In the case above, this is what I’d do:

  1. Oil/filter change: Quick Lube, provide my own filter.  Put my receipt in the glove box.
  2. N/A
  3. Air filter: buy one at Advance Auto, NAPA, etc. and replace it myself. Takes 5 minutes. Check your Owner’s Manual. Put the receipt in the glove box.  Alternatively, have the quick lube replace it – it’ll still be cheaper than having the dealer do it.
  4. Cabin air filter: Have the dealer replace it – sometime around 50,000 to 60,000 miles
  5. Rotate tires: Have the local tire place do it. Save the receipt.
  6. Many of these items are covered by the “full” service at most quick lubes; the others are not essential. When I get my tires rotated, I’ll ask the guy writing up the work order to have his mechanic take a peek at the rotors and brake pads. If it makes you feel better, have the dealer check them all at 50,000 or 60,000 miles.  At $85 per hour, I don’t really need someone glancing at the exhaust system; if there’s a problem, I’ll hear it.

If you have the essential maintenance performed on your vehicle, your car will be protected and your warranty will be intact. Most of the inspections are on the list to help the dealer generate revenue. No one ever had their warranty voided because they didn’t have the dealer examine their brake light switch!

A few more ways to save…

Here are a few other car-related ways to save some bucks:

  • Don’t abuse your vehicle! Avoid jackrabbit starts, beating the car over rough roads, and just generally treating it poorly.  In the morning, particularly in colder climates, give it 30 seconds or so to warm up a bit before starting out – and take it slow for the first mile or so.  One word:  Karma.  Take it easy on the beast and it’ll last longer
  • Raise the deductible on your auto insurance policy. Many of us have a deductible of $500 on our auto policies, but how often do you actually have to file a claim?  If you can handle the heftier deductible should you have an accident and be at fault, consider raising the deductible to $1000.  You’ll save a hefty amount of money over time
  • Slow down. Trim your lead foot back a bit and enjoy higher mileage – with gas still hovering around $2 per gallon, these savings will add up quickly.  Your blood pressure will likely go down as well – give it a try

Share your money saving tips!

If you have techniques you’ve used to save on auto expenses, please join the discussion by commenting. And remember:  be safe out there!

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5 Comments on Risk-free ways to save big on car maintenance costs

  1. I’ve been reading along for a while now. I just wanted to drop you a comment to say keep up the good work.

    [Reply]

  2. Michael W. says:

    A great and timely article!

    I have a few minor comments:

    1. If your average trip is less than 5 miles, you should probably change your oil between 3,000 and 5,000 miles, since short trips are very hard on engine oil – it never warms up enough to “boil out” any moisture that condenses in the engine (remember that “white water vapor” that comes out of the tail pipes of cars when just started up and moisture builds sludge and acids. FWIW I’ve owned a few “OLM” or “oil life monitor” cars (which actually used the engine’s computer to track engine usage and conditions, not to actually peek at the oil) and on my 30 mile freeway commute, I get 7,000-10,000 mile oil change recommendations BUT on my wife’s car, which is used for almost all surface street short trips, the recommended oil change intervals is only 2,500-4,000 miles. And that’s based on the car manufacturer’s bias towards using less oil, not more (we know the Jiff Lubes etc. are biased towards 3,000 mile oil changes no matter what). (What cracks me up about Honda, in particular, is that the manuals used to call for 10k oil change intervals, except in “severe” conditions, but even on my easy freeway commute the OLM in my Fit called for 8,000 mile changes – still much better than 3,000, but far short of the “standard” 10,000 mile intervals they used to preach.)

    2. I used to like oil change shops because they wouldn’t try to upsell you on useless services. But now the Oil Changers and Jiffy Lubes of the world have gotten into the same racket as dealerships, and try to sell you stuff that goes beyond the oil change. Only Wal-Mart doesn’t do that, mainly because they don’t offer other services. So if you want the least hassle, go to Wal-Mart. Otherwise, most dealerships offer oil change specials at prices that match the independents, plus include a free inspection. One downside: not all dealers are as fast as independents. Look for the ones with designated “Express Lanes” etc. Also don’t overlook dealerships that service “other makes and models” – dealerships usually hire and train better personnel than oil change shops, where turnover is brutal. As you pointed out, take your own drain plug washers with you just in case, the evil rule of mechanics is “when you don’t have the right part, use the old one or improvise”, so never assume they will send out for your “crush once” Honda or Nissan drain plug washer if they don’t have them handy.

    3. The big 3 of critical items are oil changes, tire pressure, and wiper changes. You can almost skip everything else for the first 50,000 miles and not be in serious trouble. Sure, your air filter might be wheezing a little, which might affect gas mileage, but it actually filters BETTER as it loads up with dirt. BTW, I am a big believer in factory air filters – it’s not a question of the filtering medium or number of pleats, it’s how “perfectly” it fits and seals into the air box, so there are no leaks around the edges. Almost all oil filters are good and the oil doesn’t need as much filtering these days as you might think, thanks to cleaner running engines.

    4. It’s simply astonishing how good the other engine fluids are, in modern (post 2000) cars. Apart from the engine oil itself, most fluids are good for 50,000, 100,000, or even 150,000 mile intervals – read your manual. The oil change shops let us down here – they try to talk us into replacing coolant etc., on “old time” schedules, and then replace them with so called “universal” fluids that aren’t as good as the manufacturer’s spec fluid. For fluid changes, it pays to call the dealerships and price their “specials.”

    5. The one item I DO service that isn’t always recommended, is to replace brake fluid every three years. Brake fluid is “hygroscopic” which is a fancy term for “absorbs moisture from the air like a magnet.” Water lowers the boil point, and could lead to an unsafe condition if you are coming down a mountain and riding your brakes a lot. Dealers don’t promote this particular fluid change because there is no magic machine that will do it quickly and cheaply and become a high profit center, but I’d think about changing brake fluid before worrying about coolant, and unnecessary power steering fluid changes are bordering on the scam of the day.

    6. The best way to save money is not necessarily in avoiding dealerships – it’s reading the owner’s manual and learning to say “no” to all their ploys to upgrade you to 20 year old service schedules harkening back to the days when cars had rotors and points instead of electronic ignitions and 100k sparkplugs. If you avoid the service writer’s Jedi mind tricks, there are actually a lot of good reasons for finding a good dealer and establishing a relationship with them, not the least of which is checking for recalls and doing warranty work.

    7. I have found Firestone much improved as a “chain” independent repair shop. YMMV from location to location, but I’ve had good experience with them as have some friends and co-workers. And don’t forget the local service station – they often lease out the service bays to a contractor who is highly dependent on word of mouth and repeat business to survive, and as family run businesses they often seem to care more than large chains.

    6. Cabin air filters are a rip-off – cost about $15 at an autoparts place, but many dealers and oil shops want $80 or more to put them in, and recommend aggressive replacement schedules. For THESE filters, one from Wal Mart or Kragen’s etc. is just fine – any little dust that slips by goes in the cabin, not into the engine. The engine is a LOT fussier than us, believe it or not.

    [Reply]

  3. Kevin says:

    @Susan: thanks for stopping by! I appreciate it. Please consider subscribing if you don’t already.
    @Michael: thx; good points. I don’t know when the last time I had brake fluid replaced in one of our cars, though… ? One thing I forgot to mention in the post is the ready availability of online forums devoted to brands/models – a GREAT source of information and tips.

    -kc

    [Reply]

  4. Chris says:

    @Michael — agree on Firestone.

    Also, don’t be scared to negotiate with your local Firestone dealer. I picked up a set of top of the line Bridgestone Dueler A/T Revos for slightly more than the Firestone Destination A/Ts I intended to purchase, only because I asked for their best deal.

    Also, cabin air filters can be cleaned at least once between replacements. There are cleaning solutions on the market specially designed for air filters.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    Chris -

    Thanks for commenting!! Just blowing out a cabin air filter might be enough to get several thousand more miles out of it.

    Kevin

    [Reply]

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