I can't believe that I've gotten this far in my Frugal Friday series without mentioning how to save on automobiles. Granted, I have written on the subject before, particularly when my car was giving me trouble this past winter, but never a comprehensive post on how to save when it comes to cut down on the expenses involved with buying (and maintaining) a car.
Unfortunately, in most places in the United States, cars are not simply wants, but are needs, all but required in order to get from home to work to your children's schools and everywhere else you might need to go. (This does not mean you need to a brand new sports car, leasing a new one every three years, of course.) While this means you may NEED to buy a car, it's still important for you to try to keep your costs to a minimum. In order to have your car and afford to drive it, too, stick with the following steps:
1. Buy a (Quality) Used Car: One of the first facts about new cars you'll learn is that they lose a sizable portion of their value the minute you drive them off the lot. There are few things that lose value faster than new cars (up to 20% in the first year), and it means that paying for the privilege of being the first person to own a car can end up costing you a substantial premium. A much better approach is to buy a used car, letting someone else shoulder the higher cost of the car when it's new, and then buying it for 25-50% of the cost (if not even less) in a few years. (Just be sure to buy a quality car; if you buy a real junker, you can end up spending more to get it in running order than you save by buying it for a song.)
2. Keep Your Car In Good Repair: Much as with people, preventative maintenance for cars is less expensive than trying to fix a problem after it develops. It will cost you to keep the oil changed, the fluid levels at their proper points, and the mechanics of your car in good shape, but compared to the cost of getting a whole new car, it should be downright inexpensive. (Now, unlike with people, if the costs of repairing your car start to exceed the likely value you'll get out of the car for the rest of its running life, you should look into replacing it; a twenty year old car probably should be retired, rather than trying to replace every part to keep it in running order. This is especially true because as the car gets older, the parts get harder to find, so the cost of replacing everything starts to get higher the longer you own the car.)
3. Don't Buy Premium Gasoline (Unless Called For By Your Car's Maintenance Manual): It's tempting to go for the high octane gasoline for your car; after all, the more expensive food at the restaurant (generally) tastes better, so why wouldn't higher octane gas be better for your car? Well, while you might enjoy the good things in life, your car doesn't need it; unless your car's manual recommends it, your vehicle will do just find with the lower octane (and less expensive) regular gasoline. This alone can save you ten, twenty, even forty cents per gallon every time you fuel up.
4. Drive Less Aggressively: There's much about driving that isn't in your control: the condition of the roads, the driving style of others, whether a deer will jump out right as you are driving on a forest road. (It's a major problem in Pennsylvania, where it sometimes seems like deer cause more accidents than almost any other issue.) One thing you can control, though, is how YOU drive. By not aggressively accelerating and braking, not trying to weave in and out of traffic and going the speed limit (or less), you can keep the costs of fueling your car to a minimum, prevent wear and tear on your engine, and avoid accidents (and deer) that can end up costing you a bundle.
5. Not Having the Right Level of Insurance: You're probably thinking that I mean not having enough insurance. While you definitely need to make sure that your car is insured (at least to the legal limits mandated by your state), you might be paying for TOO MUCH insurance. If you're driving a used car, especially a very old used car, you can think about dropping your comprehensive and collision coverage; particularly if you have a high deductible (and will end up paying a sizable amount for a replacement car anyway), it can make more sense to simply not have that coverage and put the savings towards your future car replacement costs.