It’s easy to feel completely helpless when your car breaks down. Most of us don’t have experience with car repairs, and just looking under the hood can feel overwhelming. But putting a little trust in yourself can help you save major dollars when inevitable fixes are needed.
There is a level of ease that comes with driving a new car—for a good while, you won’t have to worry about repairs. But continuing to drive an older vehicle can be a great money saver. “It’s almost always less expensive to repair a car than buy a new one,” Edmunds.com notes. Also, driving an older vehicle that still runs well can be greener than purchasing a new hybrid, owing to the amount of energy required to manufacture new vehicles.
Want to keep driving your beater for a little longer, or a lot longer? Here’s how you can take more control over your car’s repairs and elongate its life while also saving some cash.
I’m a no-frills person when it comes to the vehicles I drive. I’d rather drive one that’s paid off and gets the job done than a brand new one with a huge loan attached to it. I’m not ashamed to admit that my current car is a year older than the same model my parents bought new when I was in elementary school. But that does mean I spend a good amount of time and energy maintaining my car.
Repair costs often come as unpleasant surprises, but you can roughly anticipate maintenance costs. After all, if you drive a vehicle for years, it’s going to need certain parts (like its battery and tires) replaced on a fairly predictable basis.
With half of U.S. workers unprepared to address $100 emergency, it can be a struggle to pay for routine maintenance, but keeping up with it often translates into vehicle longevity. Take it from someone who’s driven a few cars that were neglected by their previous owners: Skip routine maintenance, and you just might find your mechanic saying to you, “Huh, I’ve never seen anything like this before, and it could have been prevented,” which is never great news.
That said, make sure you aim to follow the repair schedule your manual suggests. For example, since my car is a 1998 model running on conventional oil, its manual recommends having the oil changed every 5,000 miles rather than the 3,000 mile frequency that most service centers recommend. Want to take it up a notch? You can even learn how to do your own maintenance.
Strange issues can crop up with older vehicles. This has been especially true with my current car. One winter, without warning, the car’s radio quit working. The next summer, the automatic locks on two of my doors started unlocking themselves. Spooky, huh?
If you’re like me and don’t have a lot of experience working on cars (I don’t think watching my dad change the oil when I was four counts), the second something bizarre happens, it’s easy to think “I’m out of my depth here–better call a mechanic.”
But vehicle issues can be easier to resolve than they initially appear.
I learned my lesson with the radio issue. I was ready to pay to have a replacement one installed, but the technician I spoke with over the phone recommended that I try one thing first: check my car’s fuses. Sure enough, one of them had busted during a cold snap. It cost less than $5 to buy a package of new fuses, and the radio has been working (without additional repairs) for more than a year since then.
After that incident, I’ve made a habit of trying to diagnose (or at least make an educated guess about) any problems that have come up with my car. I’ve discovered that lack of knowledge is the enemy when it comes to saving money on car repairs.
I try to estimate what the fixes may entail and whether I can do them on my own or with the help of a friend.
I’m up for experimenting with repairs if they meet a few conditions:
If the repair is truly out of my wheelhouse, I will turn to a professional. No need to hurt myself or my car trying new things. You’re likely capable of a lot more than you give yourself credit for, but it’s important to know when to say when.
If you know about how much you should expect to pay for a repair, you’re less likely to fall prey to price gouging.
Also, if you’re willing to live with something that isn’t quite perfect, a cheaper solution might exist.
When my car’s doors started unlocking themselves, I quickly realized I needed outside help to put a stop to it, but I was able to find a cheap fix to the problem.
After I tried a simple fix at home that didn’t work, the next step seemed to be taking apart my car doors and replacing or disabling the lock sensors. I wasn’t comfortable trying that on my own, so I brought the car into my mechanic.
Since it would cost me multiple hundred dollars per door to get the automatic locks working again, I asked my mechanic to instead disable the automatic locks. This cost me about $40. The only inconvenience is that I now have to manually lock my car’s doors.
Even if your vehicle is out of commission, it can pay to spend an extra day or two investigating how much different mechanics will charge. That’s especially true if you have been told the car has a long list expensive, pressing problems.
After a certain point, it makes more sense to upgrade than funnel more money into an older car with a lot of problems. Want help with this decision? There are a lot of handy online guides and forum discussions on this topic.
Rachel Crowell is an Iowa-based writer exploring science and math. Rachel lives with Delilah, a golden retriever a stranger once called “the cutest thing in America.” Outside of STEM topics, Rachel also welcomes writing opportunities on everything from art to finance. Follow them on Twitter at @writesRCrowell. Reach them at [email protected]