Fourteen(!) tips to lower the cost of car ownership and driving

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I’ve spent hours in commute over the past decade or so, driving up to 120km a day to Uni and work. Over time, I’ve collected a bunch of ways to improve mileage and reduce the cost of owning a car. I don’t always practice what I preach, but 80-90% of the time I hit each of these tips below, and find them pretty darn useful. Thinking about a few of them again this weekend, I thought I’d share them here. I’ve broken them down in to two categories, the first, reducing how far one drives and the second, changing how one drives to improve economy.

Directly reducing the distance you drive

  • Walk or cycle to your destination, which are especially good ways to increase your health at the same time as reduce the environmental and financial impact of driving. If you’re on a date or with family, it also allows for more connection with important people in your life
  • Using public transport for part or all of the journey, which can be more practical for those commuting to a city from the suburbs or satellite towns than sitting in congested traffic for an hour or two
  • Car pool with colleagues or friends when going to work or social gatherings, roughly taking it in turn who drives/which car is used.
  • Reduce or eliminate your commute to work. For example,  you can move closer to your work, take a job closer to home or work from home a portion of the week. Of the three, working from home is the simplest approach.  What’s neat is that each day you work from home instead of the office you effectively reduce your weekly commute 20% which will lower your fuel (gas) bill, car mileage and any parking costs. If you consider moving or changing jobs, it’s important to consider the other financial costs. Of course, saving $2000 a year on fuel but spending $15,000 more on your mortgage and $1000 more on insurance etc. hardly makes sense, but this can work for some. It’s also important to look at the social costs  to you or your family (e.g. you might like where you live for a variety of reasons and a partner or kids may have work, social or education needs to factor in too).
  • Mix and match the above; e.g. At the university, I would sometimes car pool with a colleague to the train station, and we would catch the train to work.

If however, you still want or need to drive, that’s absolutely fine.  So if you must or choose to drive, what can you do? Here are my top ideas for reducing your regular and long term costs of driving.

Improve fuel economy and reduce costs

  • Buy the right size car for your needs. At least in Australia, travelling into the city you can often see huge SUV’s and 4×4’s on the highway with only one occupant. Granted, for all I know, the driver may be going in to town to take delivery of a small herd of buffalo but it seems like a huge cost to drive such a vehicle when 99% of the time, it’s just oneself in the car. I must dismount my high horse momentarily and confess, I drive a 4 door sedan and mostly it’s just me. Although it’s a not a huge gas guzzler, I could use a downsize (Mmm, a VW Polo or Honda Jazz would suite 90% of my needs exceptionally well).
  • Service your car according to the manufacturer specifications. You might think you can save some money by skipping or postponing a scheduled service, but saving $200 now and spending $5000 on an engine rebuild or new car in a year’s time because you didn’t have the oil changed is not smart (if you can do an oil and filter change yourself, I salute you!). As a bonus, you can often save money by going to a specialist independent mechanic (often called an ‘indie’) and supplying your own parts/oil, if they agree to it. I do this and save around $100 on a regular service and $50 on the engine oil twice a year. It also means you can build a good relationship with the service staff who may point out potential repairs that might be needed down the track, allowing you to avoid a nasty surprise and save some cash to remediate the situation before it gets out of hand.
  • Use the correct fuel grade, and experiment with higher fuel grades (this often has no effect, but you occasionally get better mileage/$ out of a higher fuel grade depending on the engine and the cost of the regular vs premium fuel. The best way to test is under as similar driving conditions possible – start with a full tank and record the mileage you get running near to empty vs the volume (liters or gallons) and cost of fuel purchased at  your next refill. When changing to a higher grade fuel, you might ideally run one tank through so that the (next) comparison tank is as close to purely the higher grade as possible, not a mix. You can do a few tanks of each type to be sure  of the result, and if the minimum grade  required by your car is more economical, there’s no reason not to use it). Whatever you do, don’t use the wrong type of fuel or a lower grade fuel than specified. Draining a tank of fuel and cleaning it out is an expensive affair, and a damaged engine is costly to repair.
  • Accelerate and brake smoothly. Accelerating aggressively uses far more fuel than a smooth and gradual getting up to speed and using the car’s momentum to keep its speed up. I may sound kinda weird, but when I drive I sometimes imagine a little tunnel connected to the money in my bank account where the harder I depress the accelerator, the more quickly little dollars gleefully run out of my account, through the doors of the bank into the free world. I want those dollars to stay with me, so I’ll ease up on the gas and brake smoothly, anticipating the traffic flow so that there aren’t many sudden accelerations required.
  • Drive in the right gear – driving in a lower gear will rev the engine and waste fuel whilst driving in top gear up hill or under load also wastes fuel. Listen to the sound of the engine and select the best gear for the conditions. The engine should sound like it’s working smoothly, not about to send itself into outer-space or moaning like and old man rolling out of bed after a few too many drinks.
  • Empty your trunk/boot and reduce aerodynamic drag. Carrying more weight than necessary or having superfluous equipment on roof rack kills fuel economy and makes it harder to accelerate and brake smoothly.
  • Keep your tyres inflated to the correct pressure (check and adjust fortnightly or monthly. Take the opportunity to check your oil level too, the car handbook will have details on how to do these simple tasks if you’re unsure).
  • When on the freeway, drive in the inside lane at a slightly lower speed (left for Australia and England or the right side in the US or most or Europe)  – above 90km/hr or 55mph, engine efficiency decreases (e.g. at just over 100km/h or 65mph, an engine is 10% less efficient).
  • Plan your trip and leave 10% earlier so you don’t need to rush (and thereby can drive less aggressively). Leaving 5mins early for a half hour trip gives you time to spare even if you drive at a sensible clip.

Have any tips of your own? Please share them to the comments below!