23 Ways to Slash Your Car Expenses
After a home, a car is the second-largest purchase most consumers make. But the costs don't stop when you drive off the dealer's lot.
Owning and operating a vehicle also accounts for the second-largest household expense, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; continuing upkeep costs roughly $8,700 a year, according to AAA's Your Driving Costs study. That breaks down to $725 a month and 58 cents, on average, for each mile driven.
Want to know in advance what kind of outlay to expect? Before you purchase a new vehicle, run your options through Kelley Blue Book's cost-of-ownership calculator. This tool will estimate the out-of-pocket costs -- like fuel, state fees, maintenance, financing and insurance -- and depreciation of a car for the first five years you own it, allowing you to compare vehicles beyond initial sticker price.
Once the car is parked in your driveway, however, there are a variety of strategies that can help you save thousands of dollars over its life. (Scroll down to the bottom for the set of assumptions we used for these calculations.) These tips fall into three main areas: fuel costs, insurance, and repairs/maintenance.
Save on Fuel
1. Drive sensibly: Speeding, rapid acceleration, and hard braking are the quickest ways to waste gas. Such aggressive driving can lower your gas mileage by 33% at highway speeds and by 5% around town, according to research prepared for Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which developed and maintains the U.S. Department of Energy and EPA's website on fuel economy.
Savings: Up to $477 a year, or between 13 cents and 89 cents a gallon, depending on how aggressively you drive and the number of highway miles you rack up.
2. Cruise at 50 mph. Gas mileage typically decreases once your speed exceeds 50 mph, so set your cruise control. “You can think of it like this: Every 5 mph you drive above 50 mph is like paying an additional 20 cents per gallon of gas,” says Bo Saulsbury, senior researcher at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Savings: $198 a year, if you normally drive 60 mph on the freeway.
3. Stop idling. If you're parked and waiting, turn the engine off. Idling can use a quarter to a half-gallon of fuel per hour; restarting your vehicle, by contrast, only takes about 10 seconds worth of fuel, according to research from Argonne National Laboratory. And don’t leave it to warm up in the winter: Most manufacturers recommend driving your car slowly 30 seconds after starting it. "You'll get warm quicker by doing it this way, since the engine warm ups faster by being driven, and thus allows the heater to turn on sooner," says Saulsbury.
Savings: $140 a year if you usually idle for two hours during the course of a week.
4. Embrace the heat. Try setting the air conditioning for a higher temperature or, if you're really bold, go without it. Running the air conditioning can reduce a vehicle's fuel economy by more than 25%, according to Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Saulsbury recommends "driving with the windows open for a short time before using the A/C to let hot air out first, and putting the windows down at low speeds and using A/C at high speeds."
Savings: Up to $120 a year in extra fuel costs, if you would otherwise run the air conditioning four months out of the year.
5. Get the right motor oil. Using something other than the manufacturer's recommended grade of motor oil will lower your gas mileage by about 1%-2% because of increased friction in the engine; the correct oil can prevent the metal surfaces in the engine from grinding together. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory also recommends looking for oil that says "energy conserving" on the API performance symbol -- an indication that it contains friction-reducing additives.
Savings: $27 a year.
6. Keep your tires inflated. Making sure you've got proper pressure can improve your gas mileage by 3.3%, according to Saulsbury. Do not go by the maximum pressure level printed on the tire's sidewall, experts say: You can usually find the correct tire pressure level for your car printed on a sticker in the driver's side doorjamb or glove box. (It will be in your owner's manual as well.) Abilio Toledo, Los Angeles area manager for Firestone Complete Auto Care, recommends buying a tire gauge and checking your pressure about once a month, as tires lose an average of about two pounds of pressure per month. "Even if you have a tire pressure monitoring system, these systems usually only alert you once the tire has lost about five pounds of pressure and that causes your fuel mileage to go down." (The other upside of properly inflating your tires: less chance of a blowout, which could be both costly and dangerous.)
Savings: About $112 a year, according to a study conducted by Edmunds, though it says savings can top $800 for drivers with severely underinflated tires.
7. Check the apps. To find the lowest gas price in your area, consider using the GasBuddy app or website, says Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com -- "but remember not to drive out of your way to save. Instead look for the cheapest station along your commute."
Savings: Using the Money office's zip code, we were able to find a 50-cent price difference per gallon between the five nearest gas stations. If that differential held, it would yield almost $270 in annual savings.
8. Spend smarter. To save even more when you're at the pump, sign up for a credit card that offers cash back on gas purchases. Money recommends the American Express Blue Cash Preferred, which offers 3% cash back on gas (as well as 6% on groceries). It comes with a $75 annual fee, though the $150 signing bonus can offset that in your first year.
Savings: If you buy $500 worth of groceries and $120 of gas each month, you'll get $478 back the first year, counting the fee and bonus.
Save on Insurance
9. Shop around. Only 39% of Americans looked for new auto insurance last year, according to a study by J.D. Power. But shopping around can yield big savings, the study found. The next time you need to renew, get annual quotes from at least four companies that have low complaint ratios with the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
Savings: Shoppers who did switch reported average savings of $388.
10. Cut coverage on older vehicles. Once your car is 10 years old or worth less than 10 times the premium, the cost of repairing it could be more than the car is worth, says Reed. Ditching collision coverage could save you up to 40%.
Savings: As much as $440 a year by scaling down to just injury and property damage coverage.
11. Bundle insurance policies. Insuring your home and auto with a single company could bring your rates down by about 10% a year, says Alec Gutierrez, senior market analyst of automotive insights for Kelley Blue Book.
Savings: A study of 2 billion price quotes from more than 700 companies nationwide by Consumer Reports found that bundling home and car insurance would save the average customer $97 a year. But you may get an even bigger payoff, depending on your location: Michigan residents, for instance, would save $240 by uniting the two.
12. Take your insurer for a spin. Many insurance companies now offer drivers a discount if you install a device that lets them monitor your driving habits. Progressive, for example, gives discounts of up to 30% for drivers who do not display any alarming tendencies. (Those with poor habits are not penalized. Yet.)
Savings: Up to $330 if you're well behaved.
13. Ask for a mileage discount. Work from home? Bike to the office? Some companies will offer you a discount if you drive less than the average number of miles per year, says Jeanne Salvatore of the Insurance Information Institute. A study commissioned by insuranceQuotes.com found that a person who drives 5,000 miles a year pays 8.4% less for auto insurance than someone who drives 15,000 miles a year.
Savings: $92 a year if your car travels less than 5,000 miles annually.
14. Mind your credit score. There are any number of good reasons to pay off your credit cards in full each month, but here's one more: Your credit score could also be factoring into your insurance rate. There is a 49% difference in the cost of auto insurance premiums for someone with excellent credit and someone with no credit history, a WalletHub study found. So any time your score improves, you want to ask your insurer for a discount or shop around for another policy.
Savings: $214 was the average difference paid by drivers with good credit scores and similar drivers with the best credit scores, according to a Consumer Reports study. In some states, drivers with merely good scores paid as much as $526 more a year.
15. Say no to your teenager ... A married couple can expect to pay 80% more on average for car insurance after adding a teen driver, according to an insuranceQuotes.com report. You can lessen that impact by having your teen wait to drive; 16-year-olds cause the highest spike (96%) but 19-year-olds raise your premium by only 60%. Or you can make him pay for his own insurance, though he'll end up paying 18% more as a single policy-holder than he would under your insurance plan, according to insuranceQuotes.com.
Savings: You'd pay $396 more in the first year of insuring your teen if you add him at age 16, rather than at 19.
16. … Or brag about your teenager. Make sure your insurer knows if your child gets good grades; a NerdWallet study found that teens with a "good student" discount paid an average of 6%-20% less than their fellow teens did on insurance.
Savings: $263 is the average national savings a family will see, a Consumer Reports study found. But depending on your location, the benefits can be much greater. In Los Angeles, a 16-year-old "good student" who buys his own insurance can expect to pay $5,864 on auto insurance, while the average costs are $7,098, meaning good grades can save families there as much as $1,234, according to NerdWallet.
17. Know when not to claim. Filing a single claim following an accident can raise your premium by an average of 41% if you are at fault, according to InsuranceQuotes.com. So if you're involved in a minor collision, carefully consider whether the money you'll get back will exceed the premium hike. For small accidents that do not involve someone else or cause bodily harm to yourself, you're better off paying out of pocket for the repairs if you can afford it. (If you are unsure, use this “When to Make an Insurance Claim” calculator to help you decide.)
Savings: $451 a year, if you have a small accident you can skip reporting.
Save on Repairs/Maintenance
The days when you could wrench around on your car in the driveway are mostly gone, but experts say there are still several steps an ordinary driver can take to cut the cost of upkeep.
18. Know what your car needs and when. Checking the owner's manual will save you from being up charged when you take it in for maintenance. "Often dealerships will give you a list of things they recommend you also have done," says Reed. “These are additional things they will profit from that your car may not actually need at that time. A common one is offering to drain and replace transmission fluid and also flush the transmission -- but most modern car can go to 100,000 miles before they need this.”
Savings: Resisting the pitch could save you up to $120 on an unnecessary service like a transmission flushing.
19. Cut out the hard braking. Remember how aggressive driving hurt your gas mileage? Easing into a stop, rather than slamming on the pedal, also offers a maintenance payoff. "You'll extend the life of your brakes and get the appropriate 20,000-30,000 miles rather than 10,000," says Gutierrez. "If you drive a higher-end car, the wear will be even quicker."
Savings: "If you're able to save changing brake pads three or four times, it could equal between $600 and $1,000 in savings over the life of the car," Gutierrez says.
20. Rotate your own tires. Front tires wear more quickly than rear tires. By switching them, you help ensure both sets wear evenly and that you won’t have to prematurely replace them. To know when to switch them, look in your owner’s manual.
Savings: Doing it yourself could save you up to $120 annually, Edmunds.com found, assuming a person drove 12,000 miles a year and needed two tire rotations.
21. Replace your air filter: To keep dirt out of the engine and improve fuel economy, you should replace this every 30,000 miles or so; check your owner's manual for the exact timetable. You can make this fix yourself in fewer than five minutes.
Savings: $19-$60 in labor charges roughly every two years.
22. Handle other easy repairs. If you are handy, try replacing wiper blades, fuses and lights by yourself. "These are easy to do and you can go online and watch how-to-videos to learn," says Rich White, executive director of Car Care Council.
Savings: Replacing your own wipers could save you as much as $70 in labor costs each time, says Reed. And replacing your own lights and fuses could net you $17-$132, depending on the make and model of your vehicle, according to Edmunds.com.
23. Don’t over oil: Your mechanic may tell you to change your oil every 3,000 miles, but newer cars using synthetic oils can easily reach the 10,000-mile mark before needing a change, says Reed. Be sure to look over your manual and keep to your car’s specified timetable.
Savings: Roughly $40 for each unnecessary professional oil change you don't get (but only $15 or so if you do it yourself).
Unless otherwise stated, we assumed: a fuel price of $2.69 a gallon; 15,000 miles driven annually, the average driven by U.S. workers in their career prime, according to the Federal Highway Administration; 28 miles traveled per gallon, the typical fuel economy of a midsize sedan; and $1,100 a year spent on car insurance, the national average, according to according to NerdWallet research.