Car ownership can be expensive–not only do you have to pay for the vehicle itself, there’s also maintenance to think about.
Between oil changes, brake pads, new tires, and dealing with the inevitable “check engine” light, car upkeep doesn’t come cheap. If you ignore car maintenance, however, you may be asking for trouble–and end up paying for major car repairs down the line.
The good news is that you can save on parts, labor, and servicing simply by being smart about how you maintain your vehicle. Read on, for simple ways to save.
How to Lower the Cost of Owning a Car
What follows are 31 ways to make vehicle maintenance less expensive. Some of these strategies help you save money right away, while others can lead to serious savings down the road.
1. Buying the Right Car
One of the best opportunities you have to lower your maintenance costs comes before you actually buy the car.
If you’re looking to buy a new car–or for a good deal on a used car–it can be wise to not only consider the purchase price, but also the long-term costs. With a little bit of research, you can likely find out the model’s repair record, and the average annual cost of upkeep.
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2. Keeping Up With Oil Changes
It’s inconvenient and, with synthetic oil changes running around $70 a pop, the money you may not feel like spending. But this regular expense will almost certainly save you money in the long run. Oil lubricates your engine and keeps it from overheating. And, replacing the whole engine will definitely cost a whole lot more.
3. Reading Your Owner’s Manual
Unless you’re a serious car geek, you probably haven’t spent a lot of time perusing your owner’s manual. But this guide contains key information about what maintenance services need to be done and when making it essential reading. (If you’ve misplaced yours, you can probably find it online — just search for your car’s make, model, year, and the words “owner’s manual.”)
4. Timing Your Maintenance Properly
The maintenance schedule set out in the owner’s manual was created by your car’s designers to help you keep ahead of major repairs that would pop up if you didn’t intervene. Skipping preventative maintenance can be penny-wise, but pound foolish.
5. Knowing Fair Maintenance Prices
Charges for car maintenance services, like tune-ups and tire rotations, can vary widely depending on the shop. One way to find out if you’re being charged fairly is to research rates before you bring the car in. Websites like RepairPal can tell you what you should expect to pay for a particular maintenance task — and can even connect you with certified shops.
6. Patronizing a Mom-and-Pop Mechanic
Independent mechanics can sometimes offer lower pricing (and potentially better customer service) than auto repair chains, which have to cover the cost of being part of a franchise. So it can be worth shopping around. Exception: if your car is still under warranty at the dealership, you might void the agreement by taking it anywhere else, so it may be best to stick with them.
7. Sticking With the Same Shop
Although it might not matter for minor maintenance issues like oil changes, bigger services can be costly — and if you continually take your car to new mechanics, they won’t know your vehicle’s service history, which could lead you to pay for the same service twice.
8. Getting Your Transmission Fluid Changed
Transmission fluid is as vital to your transmission as oil is to your engine. This fluid is a lubricant that helps keep all of the moving parts inside of your transmission functioning properly. Transmission repairs are some of the priciest you can face, running anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000.
9. Getting Your Coolant Fluid Flushed
Yet another important fluid to keep an eye on, your coolant protects your engine from overheating, as well as offering more lubrication for certain engine parts. It usually needs to be changed out every 10,000 to 50,000 miles (you can find out in your manual), and failing to do so can lead to rust and dirt clogging up the system.
10. Cleaning Your Battery
You may not think about your battery very much…until the morning your car doesn’t start. To keep your battery in good working order, and avoid surprises, it can be good to occasionally clean the corrosion off the terminals using a small brush, some water, and baking soda.
11. Keeping Up With Your Transfer Case Fluid
This one only applies to those with four-wheel drive vehicles — but if you have one of those, you’ll likely need to familiarize yourself with the transfer case. That’s the part that shifts power from the transmission to the axles so the wheels can turn. And, like other parts, it has its own special lubricating fluid which needs to be regularly checked and changed.
12. Getting your Tires Rotated Regularly
You’ve probably already noticed how expensive tires are to replace — so chances are, you want to replace them as seldom as possible. Getting your tires regularly rotated and balanced can help ensure they wear evenly, which extends their overall longevity.
13. Carrying an Air Pressure Gauge
Maintaining optimum air pressure in your tires can improve your mileage (and save you money in gas) and also extend the life of those expensive tires. It also keeps your vehicle safe to drive. The good news? You can check your tires free of charge by keeping a tire gauge (typically less than $10) in your glove box.
14. Refilling Your Tires as Needed
As you roll around on them, your tires will gradually seep air over time — but you usually don’t need to schedule a special maintenance trip to refill them. Most gas stations offer coin-operated air pumps, and many even allow you to pre-set the proper PSI. (Otherwise, you can grab your pressure gauge.)
15. Regularly Checking Your Alignment
Alignment controls the angle at which your tires meet the road, and is important for making sure your tires wear evenly. Proper alignment also helps increase your vehicle’s gas efficiency, so it’s worth getting it checked at least once yearly, or sooner if you notice a pull as you’re driving.
16. Inspecting Your Shocks and Struts
Your shocks and struts, which keep your car from bouncing, also impact how quickly your tires wear, as well as your vehicle’s fuel efficiency. Depending on your driving habits, these generally need to be replaced roughly every 75,000.
17. Shopping Around for Tires
No matter how assiduous you are maintaining your tires, you’re eventually going to have to replace them. But unlike other car parts that may be proprietary to your car’s make and model, tires are pretty easy to shop for yourself — and doing so can lead to major savings. Warehouse discount clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club sell tires, as do online retailers like Discount Tire Direct .
18. Using Winter Tires Only in the Winter
Using winter tires can make driving in snowy conditions much safer. But these tires wear considerably faster than all-season tires, especially in non-winter conditions. So it can be a good idea to change your tires back to all-weathers as soon as the last frost has thawed.
19. Skipping the Winterization Package
Many mechanics will offer you a “winterization” service that involves flushing and replacing your coolant (also called antifreeze). However, you only need to have that done every 10,000 miles. If it hasn’t been that long since your coolant has been replaced, you don’t need this service.
20. Having Your Spark Plugs Inspected
Spark plugs literally spark the fuel that runs your engine. When the spark plugs start to fail, your engine won’t run as efficiently, and eventually, their misfiring could put stress on your catalytic converter, which is costly to repair. Fortunately, you can usually get up to 80,000 miles without needing to replace your spark plugs. When the time comes, however, it can be wise not to hesitate.
21. Changing Your Own Engine Air Filter
In most cases, paying a professional to do your maintenance and repair work is worthwhile in the long run (and less costly than making a mistake and hiring someone to repair it). But changing your engine air filter is actually easy. Since that filter keeps dirt and debris out of your engine, keeping it clean is key to your car’s longevity. There are plenty of YouTube tutorials you can check out to learn how.
22. Keeping Jumper Cables in the Trunk
This might not seem entirely necessary, but if your battery dies and you’re not near home, you’ll likely be glad you didn’t have to rely on a tow truck for such a simple problem.
23. Making Sure You Have Roadside Assistance
…That said, every once in a while, you might need a tow. If you do, having access to a roadside assistance program can be major cost savings. And, it can pay to shop around for this service. AAA might offer perks, like travel discounts, but the roadside assistance package offered by your car insurance company might cost less.
24. Heading to the Car Wash
It may seem like a minor detail, but keeping your car’s exterior clean can help the paint job last longer by removing road grime and residues that can eat through the finish. A $10 drive-through wash is way better than paying up to $900 for a new paint job.
25. Detailing the Interior
Your car’s interior is also vulnerable to staining and residue build-up that can lower your car’s overall value. At many car washes, you can access a powerful vacuum that can get rid of loose debris, but giving your car’s interior more thorough attention every few months may help you resell it for a higher price later.
26. Waxing Your Vehicle Every Six Months
Waxing your vehicle twice a year is another important way to help keep the paint job looking fresh and new. It can also help to avoid rust build-up that can cause structural damage to the body of your car.
27. Changing Your Own Light Bulbs
For most bulbs on your car, changing them isn’t difficult. They typically have a twist-and-pull bayonet base or simply pull out and push in. You can find usually replacement bulbs in any auto parts store, and sometimes even hardware stores. In some cases, accessing a bulb can be tricky, so you may want to check the manual or look online if getting the bulb out isn’t obvious.
28. Paying Attention to Recalls
If your car’s manufacturer sends out a notice about a recall, it’s likely worth making an appointment at your local dealership — no matter how insignificant the problem may seem. The recall repair will be free at the dealership, and it could save you from more extensive damage that would not be covered.
29. Buying Some Touch-Up Paint
Just like washing and waxing, using touch-up paint can be a smart maintenance measure. With a little bit of touch-up paint, you can seal chips and cracks early on before they have a chance to become a real (and real expensive) problem like rust or paint decay.
30. Heeding the Check Engine Light
It may be annoying, but your check engine light is trying to tell you that something needs your attention. And, typically, it’s better to pay attention sooner rather than later. A small repair cost now is better than a large one later on if you let that light go for a few months.
31. Driving Less
The less you drive, the less wear-and-tear you put on your vehicle– and the lower your maintenance and repair costs are likely to be. When it’s possible, you may want to consider walking, biking, or carpooling, which are not only wallet-friendly,
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Generally speaking, the best way to keep your car maintenance costs low is to keep up with maintenance in the first place. That means referring to your manual and following the recommended service schedule.
You can also save money on car ownership by doing some basic vehicle care yourself, such as keeping your car clean and inflating your tires properly, as well as shopping around for a mechanic who charges fair prices.
To make sure you have enough money to cover all the expenses of car ownership, it can be a good idea to set up a dedicated “car fund,” which is easy to do with a SoFi Money® cash management account.
With SoFi Money’s special “vaults” feature, you can separate your savings from your spending (and even create different vaults for different goals), while earning competitive interest on all your money.
Photo credit: iStock/MrJub
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