From monthly payments to gas, insurance and repairs, the annual tab for owning and operating a vehicle totals about 59 cents per mile — or nearly $9,000 a year — according to AAA.
While many of these costs are fixed, one key way to save is to perform proper, routine maintenance. Small investments in time and money can save you big financial headaches down the road and keep your car safely on the road for a much longer time.
To start, experts say it's important to follow the instructions included in your car owner's manual, as opposed to what you hear is the best way to maintain your vehicle. One popular myth is that you should change your car's oil every 3,000 miles, but with advancements in oil and vehicle technology, oil change intervals have also improved, according to Jay Rosenthal, a Jiffy Lube owner and operator in Mercer County, New Jersey.
"Some cars can go as long as 5,000 miles, even 7,500 miles between oil changes, but you have to consult your owner's manual," says Rosenthal.
Keep in mind: How you drive is also a key consideration before deciding when to change your car's oil. If you're a stop-and-go city driver, your vehicle may require what's called "severe service" and a more frequent oil change.
Next tip: Choose the gasoline that gives you the most miles per dollar, according to Mike Allen, senior automotive editor at Popular Mechanics. "Almost any car made since 1996 will in fact run just fine on regular," says Allen. "If your car does, in fact, call for the use of 91 octane premium in the owner's manual, it might very well do pretty good on 89 or 87 [octane], which is a lot less expensive."
If after several months of pumping regular gas, you notice your fuel efficiency dropping, this could mean your engine needs a cleaning. Allen then advises running a tank of high octane, top-tier graded gasoline for your tank once or twice a year, which provides extra cleaners for the fuel injectors.
Finally, keep a close eye on your check engine light, which usually turns on when a gas cap is loose, so, if you notice the light coming on about three miles after a fill-up, check that part of the car first. Then, make sure you hear three clicks when you're tightening the cap back up.
Otherwise, the check engine light could signal a problem with your emissions system. The key is to act fast. What could be a $50 fix can help you avoid an engine breakdown, which could cost thousands of dollars to repair. Allen suggests investing in a code reader device, which detects what your car's computer thinks is wrong when the check engine light turns on.
The device ranges in price, but they can be as low as $30 and are usually no more than $100. Some common manufacturers of code readers include Actron, AutoXray and Equus. You can find the devices at general stores, like Walmart, or auto stores. The readers can help inform you of the potential problem before arriving at the mechanic or dealership, and "they will be less able to take advantage of you," Allen says. He also adds that instead of buying one, some mechanics will let you borrow the reader while you're at the repair shop.
A final tip for cleaning your car: Wash beyond the surface. Salt deposits from the road can eventually rust the car from underneath, so it's really important to clean thoroughly.