10 Keys to Saving Money on Vehicle Maintenance

The average age of a vehicle on America’s roadways today is approaching 12 years. Twenty years ago that number was 8.4; 40 years ago it was only 5.5 years.

Whether it is a testament to improved manufacturing, higher car prices, or maybe Americans have figured out that life is pretty good without a monthly car payment, one thing is clear: Vehicles are lasting longer and proper maintenance can push life expectancy to unprecedented levels.

But we can’t forget all that care and feeding can still present some sticker shock. Here are 10 tips for keeping your ride and your wallet in good shape.

Change Your Own Oil

Even if you ignore every other scheduled maintenance item, don’t forget to change the oil. Nothing will ruin an engine more quickly than expired motor oil. But a typical oil change can run between $40 and $100, an average of three times per year (every 5,000 miles). Doing it yourself can cut that bill in half or more. Yes, your hands will get dirty, but soap is cheap.

Keep Tires at Stated Pressure

If you can find a free air pump, the only cost is a few minutes of your time. Invest in a $5 pressure gauge, check the sticker on the driver door for the proper pressure—regardless of tire type—and check and fill regularly, especially when seasons and temperatures change. Under- or over-inflated tires can lead to premature tire wear or, worse, a blowout. Then you’re looking at new tires or a costly collision accident.

Rotate and Balance Tires

Not enough people do this, but it can add years to the life of your tires. Every 6,000 to 8,000 miles is recommended. If you can change a spare, you can rotate your tires. Next time your vehicle is in for repairs, ask the shop to do it for you. If you bought the tires from a tire shop, they may do it for free.

Keep the Battery Clean

Worldwide demand for lead, the main ingredient in auto batteries, combined with milder winters has, uh, lead to huge battery price increases. New ones used to cost around $50; now they’re well over $100. Corrosion on the terminals can kill the cranking power of even a new battery, so take a wire brush to them regularly and your battery will thank you with years of reliable service.

Plug Into Savings

Every 40,000 miles or so, new spark plugs will rejuvenate your engine and boost your fuel economy. Changing them yourself isn’t as easy as it used to be—their locations are less obvious—but a little DIY can spell the difference between $50 and $200 or more.

Get Frugal With Filters

If you’ve ever been to a drive-through oil change, you’ve no doubt been shown the filthy air filter they just pulled out of your vehicle for shock value. They’re right. Air and cabin filters are important to engine life and interior air quality, but you don’t need to pay $40 each to get them changed. Your local auto parts store can supply them for around $10. You can change them yourself in a minute or less.

Crack the Codes

Most people panic and go straight to a dealer or mechanic anytime a warning light shows up on the dash—and they pay for the diagnosis, plus whatever repairs are needed. (It could be something as simple as a loose gas cap or underinflated tires.) For less than $100, you can buy and OBD-II reader that will read your vehicle’s diagnostic codes, enabling you to find out what’s wrong without having to take it in. Many auto parts stores have these readers and will diagnose for free.

Don’t “Brake” the Bank

If you’re a little bit handy and have a couple hours to devote to the task, changing brake pads every 20,000 miles can save you hundreds and a trip to the mechanic. Most pads can be purchased at an auto parts store for $40, about four to five times less than what you’ll pay a shop to change them.

Get to Know YouTube

For all of the above maintenance tasks, you can find detailed how-to videos that walk you through every step of the process. Chances are, you’ll even find videos specific to your make and model. Take your time, and take your smartphone, tablet or laptop out to the garage or driveway.

Don’t Marry Your Dealership

Yes, a dealer’s service department will know your vehicle make and model, perhaps better than anyone. But that doesn’t mean they’re your best choice for routine maintenance or even repairs. Ask friends for recommendations on reliable and reasonably priced independent mechanics. Or check Craigslist for local services offered. You might just find a seasoned, certified dealer mechanic who moonlights after hours—and will come to your home, saving you money and hassle at the same time.

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