How To Squeeze Every Penny Out Of Your Car

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

People who lived through the original Great Depression learned how to squeeze every last drop of value out of every penny they had — and never wasted anything.

It looks like this generation is going to have to relearn those lessons… double-time quick.

The best way to save money, of course, is to avoid having to spend it in the first place. Here are a few ideas that might be helpful:

Extend Your Battery Life

Batteries are expensive — good ones can cost more than $100 — so the longer yours lasts, the better it is for your bottom line.

One way to extend the useful life of your car’s battery is to keep it at full charge by avoiding such practices as running accessories (radio, headlights, interior lights, etc.) for extended periods with the engine off. When the engine is off, so is the car’s alternator — which produces the electricity that normally operates the car’s electrical systems as well as keeps the battery fully charged. When the engine is off, you are running on the battery exclusively — which drains away charge.

When you restart the engine, the alternator will restore full charge to the battery; however, excessive discharging (and recharging) of the battery is bad for its long term ability to hold a full charge. This is why you should only use the battery to start the car — not run the accessories for long periods of time.

If the car is not used regularly, consider buying an automatic “trickle charger.” Even though the car is off, there is a gradual draw of current that, over time, can weaken the battery and reduce its longevity. A trickle charger is a simple device that you connect to the battery’s positive and negative terminals and plug into a household outlet. That’s it. The device turns on and off automatically, as needed, to maintain the battery at full charge. Automatic models are completely safe and cannot overcharge your battery. But they can save you money in the form of longer-lived batteries.


Take Care Of Your Tires

Flats are much less commonplace than they once were, in part because modern tire construction methods and materials are much improved over the way tires were made in the past. However, the downside is that people often take tires for granted — and don’t regularly check tire pressure. Everyone has read how this hurts gas mileage — which is absolutely true. But under-inflated tires also wear out more rapidly — which can affect your vehicle’s safety as well as cost you money in the form of more frequent tire replacement.

Under-inflated tires may actually be more commonplace today than in the past because of the widespread use of aluminum alloy wheels. Reason? Alloy wheels often have air bubbles and other imperfections imparted during the casting process (vs. stamped steel wheels). Internal — and microscopic — corrosion can also result in tiny porosities that let air slip out as you drive. The leaks are typically very minor, but over a period of weeks or months, the losses can be significant. And it won’t be noticeable to the eye until the pressure has dropped to dangerously low levels.

New (2009 and up) model years cars have built-in electronic tire pressure monitors, but most older cars do not and require the old-fashioned manual check with a gauge — ideally at least once every two weeks.

Keep An Eye On Your Gas Tank

Keep it full, or as close to full, as possible at all times. There are several money-saving benefits to be had. First, you can save a few bucks on the fuel itself. If the tank is kept full, or near full, you won’t find yourself running on fumes and forced to fill up at the first-available (and probably most expensive) station you find. Second, you can save money by reducing your vulnerability to the random upticks in price we’ve been seeing lately. If you find a good deal, tank up — and you’ve got more time to find the next good deal.

But the real money savings from keeping a full, or near full, tank comes in the form of cutting back the odds you’ll need expensive fuel system service in the years ahead. Why? A partially empty fuel tank is more prone to internal condensation (water) build-up as the outside temperature goes up and down. Tanks and fuel lines are made of steel — and steel exposed to water eventually begins to rust. The rust particles flake off and can clog fuel filters, fuel lines and fuel injectors — leading to big bucks repairs.

Eventually, rust can eat holes in the tank (and lines), too. Replacing these parts is neither easy nor inexpensive. A full gas tank will help avoid these problems.

Be Smart About The Clutch

Just like brakes, clutch wear occurs during the course of normal operation — mainly through friction. When the clutch is out and you’re driving along, there is virtually no wear on the clutch disc. The majority of the wear happens when you’re just starting out — and when you’re shifting gears. This is when the clutch is partially (or fully) disengaged. Material is being worn away through friction. Reduce the friction — and you decrease wear and increase longevity. Since replacing a clutch can cost as much as $1,000 or more, the longer you can go between clutch jobs, the better.

Avoid stop and go-type driving, for openers. In fact, if the majority of the driving you do consists of stop and go driving (which forces you to constantly engage and disengage the clutch) you might be better off buying a car with an automatic transmission. The difference in fuel economy is minimal (today’s modern automatics are very efficient; the difference in fuel economy between automatic and stickshift versions of the same car is usually no more than 1-3 MPGs) but more importantly, the slight fuel savings isn’t worth much if its wiped away by an $800-$1,000 clutch job.

Next best, try to tailor your driving to minimize stop and starts — as well as gear changes. Try to maintain your vehicle’s momentum in traffic. It is much easier on the clutch to “roll out” in second than to start out from a dead stop in first. When you change gears, do it smoothly and quickly (but not abruptly). Avoid “riding” the clutch — which is just like riding the brakes and has the same effect.

Lastly, don’t allow drivers who aren’t fully competent with a stickshift near the driver’s seat of your car. The best car for them to learn on is someone else’s car.

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