It’s always a good idea to spend a little now to save a lot later if you can, which is exactly what strategic car maintenance is all about. The following is a checklist of automotive to-dos that won’t cost you much upfront, but that might save you big money in the long run. Some will improve your fuel economy, others will prevent small problems from becoming big problems. But all of them are relatively simple and easy, yet have the potential to save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars over the life of your car.
Caked-on dirt, sand and especially salt from the road can gnaw away at the protective coating that’s embedded in modern car paint. The New York Times once compared washing your car to brushing your teeth — if you regularly scrub away the stuff that causes decay, you won’t get cavities.
Neglect regular car washes, however, and that layer of grime will eventually penetrate your paint and expose the vulnerable metal body beneath to rust, which will eat your car from the outside in. According to Coats Auto Body and Paint, you can expect to pay $500 for rust removal and restoration — times two for extensive rust damage.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), you can improve your fuel economy by as much as 3% — 0.6%, on average — just by inflating your tires to the proper pressure. That’s about 2 cents per gallon. If your tires are underinflated, you can expect to use 0.2% more gas for every one-pound drop in psi.
There’s also the element of safety. Underinflated tires can diminish handling and increase the time it takes to stop. In the worst cases, underinflated tires can overheat and cause dangerous blowouts.
According to Kelley Blue Book, you can expect to spend $40-$150 for a basic engine tuneup that replaces spark plug wires and spark plugs. It can pay for itself and then some, however, in the form of much better gas mileage. According to the DOE, a properly tuned engine can improve fuel economy by a full 4% — that’s 13 cents per gallon.
Change Your Oil…
Financially speaking, the two worst things you can do to your car are to total it in an accident and not change the oil. In terms of money, the end result is the same in both cases — it costs you your car.
Life happens and it’s easy to go overdue for an oil change — but don’t. Firestone calls fresh engine oil “the lifeblood of your vehicle,” responsible for lubricating all the many metal-on-metal moving parts whirring around under the hood.
You’ll void your warranty if you wait too long between changes, and then you’ll notice an all-around decline in your car’s performance and reduced gas mileage. Let it go long enough, and you’ll eventually experience complete engine failure and find yourself staring down a ghastly, car-killing repair like a blown head gasket or seized engine.
…But Not Too Often
If you’re afraid of skipping an oil change, good — that’s a healthy fear to have. But don’t let a mechanic talk you into too many — and the old standard of an oil change every 3,000 miles is too many.
That used to be about right, but with modern engines and modern lubricants, today’s cars can generally go between 5,000-7,500 miles between changes, according to AAA. That means that, on average, you’d be paying double what’s necessary for oil changes over the life of the car.
If you’re adding your own engine oil in between professional changes — or if you’re considering finally conquering your first DIY oil change at home — keep in mind that not all motor oil is created equal. This is not a time to guess.
According to the DOE, you can improve fuel economy by between 1%-2% just by using the right grade of oil — that’s about 3 to 7 cents per gallon.
Oil isn’t the only inexpensive fluid that can save you big money down the line in the form of repairs you never had to make. Coolant — aka antifreeze — protects engines both from freezing and overheating while also lubricating moving parts and preventing corrosion.
Here are just a few of the parts and systems that UTI says you can damage by driving with insufficient coolant, and the average cost that RepairPal cites to replace them:
- Water pump: $413-$545
- Radiator: $677-$839
- Head gasket: $1,529-$1,819
- Cylinder head: $3,104 and $3,444
According to Quality Lube Plus in Manalapan, New Jersey, “Corrosion on car batteries is the primary cause of shortened life spans and subpar performance.”
Battery terminals are easy to clean — you can do it with baking soda, water and a wire brush, according to Repair Smith. While baking soda isn’t free, it certainly doesn’t cost $313-$324, which is the average cost to replace a battery, according to RepairPal.
If you get a crack in your windshield that’s small enough where it’s still safe to drive, you might chalk it up to a cosmetic flaw and put repairing it on the back burner. That will cost you a lot more in the long run. According to AAA, it costs about $60-$100 to fix a small crack in a windshield — a fraction of what it would cost to replace one.
The cost for that varies from place to place and car to car, with AAA citing $250-$300 as the cost to replace the windshield on a Honda Accord and $350-$450 for a BMW X6.
Learn, Observe and Inspect
The best thing you can do for your car will cost you nothing — except for an investment in time. Read the manual like you were supposed to when you first bought the car, and learn as much about it and its systems as possible. Download a printable checklist that covers things like inspecting and checking wiper blades, spark plugs, tire treads and filters, and conduct your own inspection four times a year or — if you’re really diligent — monthly. There is literally no better way to spot emerging problems before they fester and prevent costly repairs.
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