As any driver knows, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the abundance of car-related goods and services, from pricey detailing to third-party warranties to premium fluids. Car owners on a budget must decide when to invest and when to cut corners. Pinching pennies in the wrong places can cost more down the road and raise concerns about safety. Cheapism.com consulted auto manufacturers, technicians and maintenance guides to determine what’s worth the money when it comes to your car.
Regular Tire Rotation. If you’ve ever looked at the bottom of your shoe and noticed that one area is more worn than another, you already have an idea about the need to rotate tires regularly. Tire treads wear unevenly through normal driving, a process worsened by incorrect tire pressure and uneven alignment. When tires are rotated properly, they wear more uniformly, resulting in a smoother ride, more balanced handling, increased traction and more effective braking. Plus, rotating tires makes them last much longer and improves gas mileage. Use the opportunity to make sure they are inflated to the appropriate pressure.
Check the owner’s manual to see how frequently tires should be rotated. Manufacturers generally recommend doing so every 6,000 to 8,000 miles. If tires make noise even on smooth roads — typically a loud humming sound — that can be a sign that they need to be rotated. The job takes less than an hour and the average cost ranges between $27 and $35, according to RepairPal. Car owners who purchased tires from Costco, Sam’s Club, Walmart and Sears really have no reason to shirk — this service comes at no charge.
Certification Program. When buying a used car it’s worth spending the extra few hundred or thousand dollars on one that’s “certified pre-owned.” These vehicles often come with an extended manufacturer’s warranty. Plus, if any problems crop up after the warranty expires, the manufacturer may be willing to help out — good luck getting anyone to do that for a vehicle that was purchased without the certification.
Buying a certified pre-owned car also provides assurance that the car is in working order and won’t break down as soon as you drive it off the lot. American Honda, for example, requires a 150-point inspection for a vehicle to earn the certified pre-owned title. Among other things, the inspection looks for aftermarket parts on the car, which Honda (and some experts) contend can affect the vehicle’s safety, reliability and performance. Moreover, using aftermarket parts generally voids the manufacturer’s warranty.
Oil Changes on Schedule. An oil change is one of the least expensive maintenance services and also one of the most critical, so there’s no excuse for neglecting it. Oil keeps a vehicle’s engine clear of sludge and build-up and ensures that all components run together smoothly. Dodging regular oil changes can lead to a host of problems, from worn pistons to all-out engine failure, that require extremely expensive repairs.
Even car owners on a tight budget should stick to the schedule. Having a trusted technician looking at the vehicle on a regular basis is a smart habit because it draws attention to small issues, such as fluid leaks or worn-out parts, before they become unsafe or costly disasters.
Oil changes generally are recommended every 2,500 to 3,000 miles, but check the owner’s manual for the manufacturer’s specific recommendation. It will also indicate the recommended grade of motor oil, which is important because the wrong grade can reduce a car’s gas mileage by 1 or 2 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Frequent Washes. It might seem frugal to forgo car washes in order to save money, but this is an outlay that pays off. Bird droppings, for example, can cause permanent damage: When the paint on a vehicle gets hot, it softens and molds itself around the hardened droppings. The result is uneven paintwork that appears scratched, pitted and dull. Getting a fresh clear coat is costly and blemished, unsightly paint reduces a car’s resale value. The longer the droppings remain, the worse the damage, so remove them promptly and in general wash the car frequently.
Periodic Waxing. If a future sale is in the cards, occasional waxing is critical to maintaining the value of the car. Wax does more than just add extra shine — it prevents paint from fading and dulling and preserves the clear coat. Wax protects the car’s exterior from the elements, such as UV rays, salt, exhaust, acid rain, ice, bug splatter, scratches, dirt and so on. When it comes time to sell the vehicle, the better the exterior looks, the higher the asking price can be. Prospective buyers always notice the exterior even if they have no idea what to look for under the hood.
Most experts recommend hand waxing every three months or so or at least every six months. To gauge the need, splash a little water on the car: If it doesn’t bead up, it’s time for fresh wax. A little practice makes this a cheap DIY job. Alternatively, go the professional route; CostHelper users report paying $40 to $90 for a simple wash-and-wax. Splurge for a hand wax. The wax add-on at automated car washes doesn’t offer much real protection.
Brake Pad Replacement. When it comes to brake pads, a little prevention and maintenance go a long way. If worn brake pads are not replaced, the brake rotors will warp and need to be resurfaced or replaced, both of which are costly. It’s easy to get brake pads checked during a standard oil change or tire rotation.
Brake wear depends on several factors, so there’s no hard-and-fast schedule for replacing brake pads — consult a trusted professional technician. However, if you hear a squeaking, screeching or grinding sound or feel pulsing or vibrating when braking, it may be time for new pads. Decreasing brake effectiveness — it takes longer to stop or you must press the pedal harder than usual — is another common sign of brake wear. Replacing brake pads is both a money saver and a crucial safety measure. New brake pads cost cost between $100 and $250 — an expense that’s worth every dime.