The overriding advice auto experts give is to know your car well--and act accordingly. For instance, the oft-repeated recommendation to change a car's oil every 3,000 miles just doesn't apply to most vehicles anymore. At around $30 a visit, the cost of unnecessary oil changes can add up quickly. Instead, drivers should adhere to what the manufacturer dictates: No more, no less.
"The most important thing is not to try to save money by skimping on regular maintenance," says Jim Travers, associate autos editor at Consumer Reports. "What you should do is take out your owner's manual and read the service information in it and follow it. If it tells you to get an oil change every 6,000 miles, get an oil change every 6,000 miles."
Do It Yourself
A general rule of thumb is that the smaller and less complex your car is, the cheaper it'll be to maintain. But no matter the size of the vehicle, maintaining proper tire pressure and performing minor repairs, like replacing wiper blades or changing oil, will save money no matter the size of the vehicle.
A high-intensity discharge headlight bulb for a 2008 Mazda 3 sedan, for example, costs just under $100 on the Internet, and it's easy to install yourself. Retail prices for the same bulb can run more than $300, and that doesn't include paying for labor at a garage.
Choosing the right mechanic when your car needs significant work saves money as well. Most warranties won't turn void if a vehicle is serviced someplace other than at the dealership, but keep your receipts and follow the maintenance schedule in the owner's manual, just in case.
If you do choose to take your vehicle to the dealer, beware of unnecessary maintenance. Often when dealers do a 30,000-mile maintenance check, they include a laundry list of services not required by most owner's manuals.
Adding on the price of "valve-frame cleaning things and cabin filters and stuff--that obviously is one way the cost of a routine oil change can suddenly mushroom into a $300 job," Travers says. "If you choose to get your service done at the dealer, that's fine, but...make sure you bring the owner's manual in with you also and say, 'I want these things done because this is the 30,000-mile thing recommended by the manufacturer.'"
Colleen Mylott, director of BuyingAdvice.com, a car advice Web site, suggests finding a good mechanic in your area even before you actually need one--when you're desperate for a repair, you'll have less time to do the research required to find quality service.
The best way to do this, she says, is to ask friends and acquaintances who own the same make or model of car. Once you find a mechanic with pricing and service that fits your lifestyle, start building a rapport that will have positive implications over the life of the car. Call regularly to check on the status of your vehicle and demonstrate a familiarity with its historical and potential problems.
"It's more about the relationship-building, too, because if you find a mechanic that you like, you want to be very public about the fact that you're referring other friends and people to that mechanic, because your relationship will deepen and you'll learn more about your car," she says. "You might even get some pricing favors."
The Internet has valuable information about reliability ratings, mechanics and possible mechanical problems. Mylott calls it "an empowering tool" whose blogs, forums and do-it-yourself tips can offer a bevy of money-saving advice well worth the time it takes to research.
Online comparison shopping for insurance providers, for example, can save hundreds of dollars per year. The average five-year total cost of insurance on a compact premium car can range from $7,432 in Iowa to $14,871 in New York, according to data from Vincentric, an auto research firm--and that's just the difference in cost between states. Never mind how much costs will vary depending on what services you select.
One thing to look for when evaluating insurance plans is their network for and availability of roadside assistance, which should then be compared with the cost of using other, separate roadside-assistance services from GM's On-Star or from AAA.
"Make sure you talk through the pricing and the service details with your representative because you just might find that you can get better roadside coverage for less elsewhere," Mylott says. "A lot of the time they'll simply roll that into your monthly premium."
In it For the Long Haul
Perhaps the simplest way to cut costs for every year of car ownership is to eschew standard two- and three-year leases and, if you own the car, to resist the urge to upgrade your car every three or so years. Insurance rates drop as cars age, even with the same level of coverage. And for a car kept properly maintained, driving it longer saves hundreds of dollars in the fees, taxes and depreciation a new car incurs.
According to Consumer Reports data, depreciation alone is the biggest reason cars cost so much to own during the first few years, comprising almost 60% of the total ownership cost in the first year. It's the largest annual cost for vehicles until they're six years old.
In fact, the average vehicle costs twice as much to own the first year as it does the second year. And the sixth, seventh and eighth years combined about equal the cost of the first year. In short, the cost savings accumulate the longer a car is owned: a veritable snowball effect, Travers says.
"It also makes sense to keep your policy in line with the value of your vehicle," he says. "Perhaps at some point the value of the car is such that it's providing perfectly good service but it's only worth $2,000 after a number of years. At that point it's questionable whether you would want to spend the money for complete collision coverage."Sure, it's a little less dramatic than stockpiling gas. But it's far less of a hassle, and it'll probably save you more money in the long run anyway.