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 RECEIPTS. The 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:
- Replace engine oil and filter
- Replace climate controlled seat filter ( ! ) (not applicable to G35)
- Replace engine air filter
- Replace cabin air filter
- Rotate tires
- 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:
- Oil/filter change: Quick Lube, provide my own filter. Put my receipt in the glove box.
- 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.
- Cabin air filter: Have the dealer replace it – sometime around 50,000 to 60,000 miles
- Rotate tires: Have the local tire place do it. Save the receipt.
- 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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