Car Maintenance: Spend Now, Save (a Lot) Later

Car maintenance is one of those things that not everyone prepares for, specifically because "it costs so much!" Considering that labor rates at the dealership and even some independent shops is heading over $75/hr in many parts of the country, and that some automakers actually specify the more-expensive synthetic oil, it comes as no surprise to us that the typical oil change can cost well over $100. Add in regular tire rotation and balancing and you could be looking at an additional $50 per visit. For most late-model cars, this is the basic required maintenance.

On top of this, there are other major services like engine coolant, engine air filter, engine timing belt (if equipped), brake pads, suspension alignments and a number of other regular maintenance items. Don't forget regular car cleaning, both inside and outside. Now, the question is, "Does spending all this money on car maintenance make financial sense?" The answer is "Yes," but how? Again, the simple answer that maintenance is always cheaper than repair.

Car Maintenance Costs vs Repair Costs

Regular engine oil changes might cost over $100, depending on year, make, and model, and most automakers recommend 5,000-mile/6-month service interval, although some have extended that to 10,000 miles or 12 months. To keep things easy to imagine, we'll stick with $100 per oil change and tire rotation, every 5,000 miles, which means that the average American, driving a 2010 Toyota RAV4, will change the oil almost three times a year. This basic maintenance averages $270 per year, or $2,000 per 100,000 miles driving. While $2,000 may seem like a large chunk of your paycheck, how does it compare to replacing or rebuilding an engine?

While most engines are fairly forgiving when it comes to extending your oil change a little on occasion, oil performance quickly begins to degrade. High engine heat starts to break down the detergents and compounds that keep the engine clean and properly lubricated. Eventually, oil begins to oxidize, leaving less liquid oil to flow and harmful deposits in inconvenient places like the crankshaft bearings or camshaft journals. Lack of lubrication eventually leads to some serious engine problems, the only remedy for which may be a complete engine rebuild or replacement. If the engine lasted 100,000 miles without an oil change, the $2,000 savings from skipping oil changes would quickly evaporate when faced with engine repair costs starting at $3,000 or $4,000. Suddenly, your costs have jumped to well over $3,000, perhaps as high as $7,000 per 100,000 miles.

Similarly, we know that tires are a "wear" item; a good tire can last up to 60,000 miles, but only with proper maintenance. Again, part of the regular basic maintenance for our community 2010 Toyota RAV4 is tire rotation and balancing. Depending on the condition of your tires, a technician may suggest a suspension alignment, with some places charging over $100 for the service. Without a proper alignment, regular tire rotation, and proper tire pressure, a set of tires can wear out with far fewer than 60,000 miles. If a new set of tires goes for $700, plus mounting, balancing and an alignment, your 100,000-mile tire costs would come to about $1,500. You could skip tire rotations and the alignment, saving you about $800, destroying your tires in less than 20,000 miles. Suddenly, your tire maintenance costs have inflated to $3,750 per 100,000 miles!

Car Maintenance Costs vs Fuel Economy

Another facet of car maintenance that cannot be ignored is its impact on fuel economy. These days, with gasoline prices hovering around two dollars per gallon, it may not seem like much of a concern. Still, just six months ago, gasoline was just shy of four dollars per gallon, and President Obama has said of the current cheap gas that, "It won't last." In other words, don't get used to cheap gas. Of course, the price of gasoline has everything to do with how much it costs to drive our 2010 Toyota RAV4, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) estimating that the average driver will spend $1,300 per year on fuel. With fuel economy averaging 26 miles per gallon combined, that rounds out to about 9.5¢ per mile, or $9,520 per 100,000 miles.

Some maintenance issues can seriously affect your fuel economy, increasing the cost to drive every mile, every day. Take, for example, proper tire inflation. Keeping an eye on this might even be free, if you learn to do it yourself, but failure to do it can have a serious impact on fuel economy. The EPA estimates that, for each pound-per-square-inch (psi) under specification, fuel economy decreases by 0.3 percent. Considering that tire pressure naturally decreases over time, tires 10 psi under-specification could be costing you at least 3.3 percent of your mpgs. At 25 mpg, the RAV4 now costs 9.8¢/mi.

Another issue comes up with the check engine light, which can drastically reduce your fuel economy, increasing how much you pay to refuel. With a faulty oxygen sensor, the engine controller no longer can calculate how much fuel to put into the engine, so it reverts to a very basic program, just to keep the engine running. The EPA estimates that this could impact fuel economy by as much as 40 percent. A new oxygen sensor may cost $300, including installation, and probably lasts upwards of 80,000 miles. Replacing the oxygen sensor may amount to $375 per 100,000 miles. Skipping this important sensor may save $375, but fuel economy losses will cost you an additional $3,800 per 100,000 miles.

Keeping Car and Budget in Shape

Just from these few examples, we can see that car maintenance has a huge impact on your long-term costs. True, it may seem daunting when you have to pay $120 for an engine oil change and tire rotation, or pay extra for an alignment or an oxygen sensor. After all, not everyone prepares for these expenses. Really, you should, and setting aside money for regular maintenance and repairs, in the short term, will really help out your long term bottom line.

Picture courtesy of Damian Morys, used under CC license.

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