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Car Sense

Top Car Care Tips for Under $50

Under the hood of your car are many hard-working components and fluids that can break or deteriorate, bringing your plans to a screeching halt. Luckily, if you stay on top of basic preventive maintenance, you can head off an expensive trip to the mechanic. Better yet, you can do much of it yourself for less than $50. In the long run, you’ll spend less on car maintenance and repairs, and when it’s time to sell, you can ask for a higher price.

1. Wash and wax

Staying clean on the road is a challenge, considering the mud, dust, road salt and bugs your vehicle's exterior "collects" along the way. It’s hard to stay clean even when you’re parked, thanks to tree sap and birds.

A clean car doesn’t make the motor run any better, but regular washings and applications of wax will protect your car’s clear coat finish and delay the spread of rust. That alone can be a huge factor in the future sale price of your wheels!

Whether your car needs it weekly or just a couple times a month, give your car’s exterior a regular wash down by hosing it off in your driveway or taking it through a car wash.

Car wash costs can tally beyond $50 a month, especially with weekly visits. For those who live in winter climates, car washes are essential when it comes to removing that layer of corrosive road salt from the exterior and undercarriage. To trim your costs, watch for discount days, coupons and punch cards.

Self-serve car wash bays are often cheaper, especially if you work efficiently so you don’t have to keep pumping quarters into the coin bank. The high-pressure wand can blast away the toughest layers of grime at a fraction of the cost of a car wash. When taking aim, keep a distance of at least 20 inches from the car’s surface; a too-close blast can damage your clear coat finish and weaken your tire walls.

With a simple investment in a few products and supplies, it will be much cheaper to do a home car wash. While detergents and dish soap are excellent dirt busters in most other situations, when it comes to your car, they’re bad for your car’s finish. Use auto products that are designed to safely loosen and remove the gunk. You’ll also need a lamb’s wool or microfiber mitt, along with a stack of microfiber towels for drying. Every few months, apply a coat of wax. Use a microfiber cloth, keeping clean cloths on hand to remove the film and polish to a luster.  

2. Oil changes

Keeping fresh, clean oil in your engine is the best way to prolong the life of your car. Dirty oil carries contaminants and heavy metals, which can damage your engine.

Not too long ago, conventional wisdom said cars needed oil changes every three months or every 3,000 miles. These days, newer cars can go much longer between changes—excellent news for your budget. Consult your owner’s manual and keep an eye on your oil change indicator light on the dashboard, along with the actual mileage. If you take frequent short trips, aim for the lower end of your mileage range. If most of your driving is on the highway for 10 or more miles per trip, you may get by with the top end. 

How do you save money on oil changes? One solution is to go the DIY route. You’ll have upfront costs rounding up the gear, such as an oil pan, wrench, drain pan, funnel and jack stands. But once that’s out of the way, all you’ll need going forward is to purchase the oil and the oil filter. A mechanically inclined car owner can do the job for around $20.

With cars needing fewer oil changes these days, the long-term savings may be somewhat lackluster. And there’s the fact that every make and model are different. Some cars are harder for home mechanics than others. Still, there’s the satisfaction factor of knowing you can change your own oil. Do your research, watch online tutorials and decide if this option is right for you.

Otherwise, if you go the mechanic route, here are a few ways to save:  

  • Price oil changes at different mechanics, and keep an eye out for coupons. Many auto repair shops and lube stations offer these to attract new customers.
  • Think twice before you agree to promos and upgrades. If you come in knowing the kind of oil your car needs, it will be easier to say no to unnecessary upgrades.
  • Learn to do simple maintenance on your car, so you don’t have to pay the mechanic to do it for you. Learn how to check your fluids, change air filters and rotate your own tires.

3. Fluid levels

Every month or so, pop the hood and have a peek at those fluids: oil, transmission, power steering, coolant, brake fluid and windshield wiper fluid. Your owner's manual will show you where everything is and how often the fluids need replacing. What you’re doing here is checking for proper levels and quality, so you can catch problems before they turn into expensive damage down the line. This is one of those cases where maintenance is the best prevention. Schedule a reminder and follow this handy checklist.

Oil: The best time to check your oil is when your engine is cold. Remove and wipe the dipstick and replace it. Remove it again, but this time, check the level. If it’s somewhere between the low and high levels (or within the crosshatching), you are good to go.

If the dipstick indicates low oil, it’s time to pick up a quart at the store (consult your car’s manual to get the right grade). Since overfilling is bad for your engine, go slow and add a quarter of the bottle at a time to your cool engine, consulting your dipstick between applications.  

You’re also checking the appearance of the oil. Milky oil is a sign of leaking coolant. Metal particles are a sign of engine damage. In either case, it’s time to get the car to a mechanic immediately.

Brake fluid: Simply locate the reservoir and check the fill level. If it’s too low, remove the cap and top it off. Then, get the car to a mechanic.

Coolant: This is the stuff that keeps your engine from overheating, so a leak could lead to a breakdown and a hefty mechanic bill. Check the reservoir to make sure it’s between the minimum and maximum fill lines. Again, if it’s too low, top it off and get your car checked. Some newer cars have extended-life coolant, which can last up to 100,000 miles, but a simple test strip can help you check the quality and pH level. 

Transmission: Here you will determine the condition of the fluid that’s keeping your transmission gears lubricated. While the car is running with a warmed-up engine, remove and wipe off the dipstick with a cloth. Return the dipstick and remove again to examine the color of the fluid. It should be red. If it smells burnt or looks brown, it’s time for replacement.  

Windshield wiper fluid: One upside to these monthly fluid checks is you can top off your reservoir knowing you’ll never be caught empty. Even better, there are plenty of add-ins and solutions on the market formulated to repel rainwater or wash away smashed bugs, bird droppings and ice.

4. Windshield wipers

When wipers go bad, it’s difficult to see the road. Replacing your own wipers doesn’t take a lot of know-how or expense. And you can get by spending as little as $10 per wiper depending on the size of your car.

To save money, resist claims made by more expensive brands. In reality, the rubber on your wiper blades starts to show signs of deterioration in just a few months, so you may not see much benefit from an upgrade.

Extend the life of your blades by keeping them clean. Wipe the blades with a towel soaked in rubbing alcohol. And when you park, mind the elements. Ultraviolet rays and freezing temperatures are hard on rubber. When possible, park in a garage or in the shade. If snow or ice are in the forecast, raise the blades to keep them from sticking to the windshield.

5. Air filters

Clean filters will keep the dirt particles from getting into your engine and keep the interior of your car smelling fresh and clean. With a little know-how, you can change both the engine air filter and the cabin air filter yourself for much less than a mechanic would charge.

Your engine also needs air to run, and if your filter can catch those dirt particles, your engine runs better and more efficiently. At the same time, you want to be sure it’s changed when it’s truly needed. Otherwise, how do you know if the mechanic is recommending a change when it’s still perfectly fine?

How often you change your engine air filter depends on your mileage and driving conditions, but generally, every two years is appropriate. To get to the filter, you’ll need to open the air box and remove the top. You may need a socket set to loosen screws, but in some makes, access may be as simple as removing a clamp. Just be sure and do a little research before you start.

Once you remove the engine air filter, take a look between the folds. If particles are collected there that you can easily remove with your fingertips, it’s time for a change. If you’re not sure, drop the filter on a clean, dry surface. If the area is still dust free, there’s still mileage left in your filter.  

Cabin air filters trap pollen, debris and dust before the air comes through your car vents. Some makes and models are easier to replace than others, but many of these are found behind the glove compartment. Once a year, pop it out. If it’s gray and has lots of gunk — bits of leaves, seeds and bugs — it’s time for replacement.

6. Tire rotations

Tires don’t wear evenly. And it’s no wonder the front tires wear down more quickly than the rear: Front tires turn side to side with the weight of the engine riding on them.

It’s a good idea to swap the front with the rear every six months. (Your owner’s manual, though, should have its own recommendation.) Doing this can save money in the long run, since your tires will last longer.

Learning to do it yourself is definitely the cheapest way to go, once you’ve invested in a car jack and jack stands. While you’re at it, make sure the tires are properly inflated and show no signs of distress, such as a “bubble” or bulge in the sidewalls.

Otherwise, when it’s time for a new set, shop around. Some places offer free rotations for the life of the tires.  

Life is a journey, and many times, you need your car to get there. The road will be much more enjoyable if you can keep your car in top condition and avoid the unexpected expenses of a preventable breakdown. 

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