It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the abundance of car-related goods and services, from pricey detailing to costly maintenance and premium fluids. Car owners on a budget must decide when to spend more and when to cut corners. Pinching pennies in the wrong places, however, can cost you far more down the road and raise safety concerns. We spoke with car experts across the country to identify which car expenses are worth the money.
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Incorrect tire pressure and alignment make the problem worse, but tire tread wears unevenly just from normal driving. When tires are rotated regularly, they wear more uniformly, resulting in a smoother ride, more balanced handling, increased traction, and more effective braking. Plus, rotating tires helps them last longer and improves gas mileage.
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Owners should check the tire alignment every few years. If the alignment is off, the wheels will hit the road at odd angles causing unbalanced wear, which decreases the tires’ lifespan and lowers fuel efficiency. An alignment check and adjustment cost about $75.
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An oil change is one of the least expensive and most critical maintenance services, so there’s no excuse for neglecting it. Oil keeps the engine clear of sludge and buildup 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 if you’re on a tight budget, try to stick to the schedule specified by the manufacturer.
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Repair shops and dealers will nearly always try to upsell you on more stringent maintenance, says Alex Lauderdale, transportation analyst and automotive expert at EducatedDriver.org. Don’t listen to them. “However, do study your manual’s maintenance schedule and follow it to the T,” he says. “This will give you the best chance at prolonging the life of your car and holding a high resale value.” Having a trusted technician inspect 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.
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When it comes to brake pads, a little preventive maintenance goes 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 repairs. It’s easy to get brake pads checked during a standard oil change or tire rotation.
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In general, it’s a good idea to replace parts that are known to fail before they actually do so, says Richard Reina, product training director for CARiD. Keeping an eye on things like car batteries, tires, and radiator hoses can save a lot in the long run. “As a rule of thumb, batteries that are over 3 years old should be checked for reliability,” Reina says. “Ask your mechanic to perform a battery load test. If you’re planning a long trip and your battery is at or nearing the 3-year mark, it might be a good idea to replace it pre-emptively.” Similarly, replacing tires proactively can help avoid surprise blowouts.
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 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.
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If a future sale is in the cards, occasional waxing is critical to maintaining the value of the car. Wax does more than 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. 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.
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For car enthusiasts who wash their vehicles by hand, chamois cloths or mitts are considered the gold standard for car care. Soft chamois won’t scratch a vehicle’s paint but does wear out over time, so having a fresh supply on hand is a must. Stick to products marked “microfiber,” which is gentlest on automotive finishes. They’re not exactly cheap (compared to using an old T-shirt or towel), but protecting a vehicle’s finish is worth a little extra. Top-rated offerings on Amazon include Zwipes 735 microfiber towel cleaning cloths ($12.50 for a 12-pack) and Meguiar’s X2000 Water Magnet microfiber drying towel ($9 each).
“Invest in detailing by a pro once or twice a year to root out buildups before they go too far,” says Janet Groene, a travel writer from Gainesville, Florida, who has spent a lot of time on the road. Several other sources echo her advice. Although our frugal instincts argue for the DIY approach, professionals have the know-how and equipment to vacuum, steam, and shampoo stains and dirt. Prices start at about $60 but can easily top $200.
Install seat covers if you want better everyday protection from spills and pets. They aren’t the most stylish accessories, but a small investment now (as little as $20 but mostly in the $100-to-$200 range) can pay off big time when your car hits the resale market.
Likewise, protect the floors with mats, which are a practical necessity during the winter months and much cheaper to replace than the car’s flooring. They can be bought for cheap (less than $25 a set), but this is a good place to spend a little extra if you can, especially if you’ve got a newer car. WeatherTech makes a wide variety of mats and liners for car floors, trunks, and cargo areas specifically designed for many models of cars. Expect prices of $150 and up.
When buying a used car, it’s worth spending more for a vehicle that’s “certified pre-owned,” says CarGurus.com Senior Editor Matt Smith. “Shoppers might balk at the higher price tags typically seen on certified pre-owned cars, particularly when there’s a nearly identical model selling for a thousand dollars less — and missing that CPO sticker. But paying for a certified car makes a lot of sense in a lot of ways. Certified pre-owned cars come with powertrain warranties, and some manufacturers include one- or two-year comprehensive warranties, too.” Other advantages include attractive financing offers and perks like roadside assistance and a complimentary loaner vehicle when the car needs repairs.
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If your car is older, it may be worth choosing high-octane fuel at the pump, says Lauderdale, of EducatedDriver.org. “As your car ages beyond five or so years … carbon deposits in the engine can actually raise the engine’s octane rating over time,” he says. “These deposits happen over time, so typically newer cars won’t really benefit from the higher octane fuel, unless your manufacturer specifically recommends it.” The higher-octane gas often has other additives, as well, that help clean out your engine.
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Most new engines are engineered to run using synthetic motor oil. While synthetic-based fluids are more expensive, they offer better, longer-lasting protection against cold starts and excess heat compared with cheaper mineral-based fluids, says Chris Burdick, founder of Automoblog.net.
A battery tender is important if you own multiple cars or have a vehicle that you store or don’t use for long periods of time (perhaps you’re a “snowbird” or travel a lot for work). A high-quality battery tender maintains the proper voltage, so you don’t have to worry about your car not running when you’re ready to use it again, says Burdick, of Automoblog. A battery tender doesn’t have to be expensive either. They sell for as little as $24 online.
It’s important not to skimp on this critical gadget that protects you from a weak or faulty car battery, says Burdick, who advises not spending less than $100. “This is definitely one of those things that’s worth spending a bit extra on. After all, it’s mostly for emergency situations, so a cheap knockoff just isn’t worth it.” He recommends looking for at least 800 peak amps; 1,200 or higher is best. Some even come with an emergency LED flashlight and USB charging ports for your phone, because nobody wants to be stranded and unable to make a call for help.
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Keeping a digital tire gauge handy can save you money on fuel. “Driving with underinflated tires will drastically affect fuel economy,” Burdick says. “You can easily check the tire pressure using a digital tire gauge.” An added bonus: This purchase can cost as little as $10.