Read the Manual (30/365)

When my wife and I first got our Prius, we had a very difficult time getting the car to turn on.

Now, this seems like a completely simple issue. Put in the key, right?

Well, our Prius has a button on the dash that says “Power” instead of a key. Unfortunately, if you push that button without having a little keychain in your pocket, it won’t work.

Even stranger, if you push it with that keychain in your pocket and haven’t pressed down on the brake, you’ll just get the auxiliary power.

It took Sarah a while to figure it out. Then, a few days later, I spent more than an hour figuring out how exactly this worked. (It seems simple, but when you’re in the car with no idea how to do it, it’s a bit trickier – trust me.)

How did I figure it out? I read the manual.

Read the Manual (30/365)

Those of us who have owned a car for a while generally feel pretty confident about how the thing works. Put in the key, put it into drive, and go, right? Who needs the manual for that?

In truth, a car manual is loaded with useful things, particularly if you’re new to that model of car. It tells you how exactly each feature works on the car, for starters. After my experience with the Prius, I spent about an hour sitting in our Pilot after we purchased it, trying out all of the features just to see how they worked. Let’s just say I never found myself wondering how the emergency brake or the windshield wipers worked during the moments when I needed them.

The manual tells you lots of little useful facts, like the recommended tire pressure (invaluable for when you air up your tires) and the details of your warranty. It tells you the maintenance schedule (something I’ll talk more about in the next few days), where the tools for changing a flat tire are, and how exactly to turn on your flashers. It describes how to change the oil yourself, how to replace the windshield washing fluid, and how to change the transmission fluid.

Every single one of those things will save you time and money. Often, that time and money will be saved during a key moment when time and money are of the essence. All it takes is some time spent right now reading the manual and trying out the things described in it.

Your car manual is a giant recipe for relieving car-related headaches. Take advantage of it.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

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  1. Mister E says:

    Good advice in and of itself, but this one seems a bit vague on the frugality aspect..

    Is the implication that you would have to have paid someone to come and show you how to turn on the car if you hadn’t read the manual?

  2. Jenny says:

    I drove 5 miles on the freeway – at freeway speeds – in first gear one time because my rental car had “sport” transmission. It worked like a regular automatic unless you put the gear shifter into a side slot (which in my regular car corresponded to drive). If the gear stick was in that slot, the car worked like a manual and you had to press a button to change gears.

    If I had asked more questions from the rental agent, or read the manual, I wouldn’t have been in danger of ruining the engine/clutch/transmission or whatever. Thankfully I realized what was going on after I checked the manual at my destination to see why the engine was so darn loud.

  3. Ryan says:

    I don’t mean to add more criticism to this series, but the intro to this post had me saying “seriously?”

    The push botton start feature is advertised on TV all the time and it makes perfect sense that you would have to have your foot on the brake to start the engine. Trent was previously a computer programmer, familiar with technology.

    I don’t know, it just seems like a stretch that this was a “very difficult problem”.

  4. Tracy says:

    I’m all for reading the manual but I don’t really think it’s one of 365 Ways to Live Cheaply.

    Unless it killed an hour of your day that you would otherwise have spent buying things at a gaming store.

  5. moom says:

    Yes, you can break things on needlessly take them to be fixed if you don’t read the manual.

  6. Angie says:

    OK, the photo is completely out of focus. Maybe clever if the manual was for a Ford Focus.

  7. Tracy says:

    I also can not believe it took you an HOUR to figure out how to start the car.

  8. Ruth says:

    Alternate Frugal Tip #30: Test drive a car before you buy it so you know how to start it.

  9. Gretchen says:

    Didn’t they tell you these things at the dealer?

    ~chuckle~ at Tracy #4, though.

  10. elyn says:

    Reading a manual can save money. I think Trent forgot to include that aspect in this post. We’ve had a Donvier ice cream maker for years, but lost the manual a long time ago. For years, I assumed that it was a defective one because the ice cream never firmed up. I was just about to buy a brand new one, when I went online to research. It was actually on the reviews section for the ice cream maker that I read that you are supposed to have the freezer set to the coldest setting for the chiller to get cold enough to firm up the ice cream. Being frugal, we didn’t have the freezer set low enough. If I’d read the manual, I wouldn’t have wasted all those attempts at ice cream. And wouldn’t have come so close to ditching the Donvier…

  11. David says:

    An example from personal experience of the savings to be had from knowing how things work:

    In 2002 I was in Orlando, FL and had decided that when my work there was done I would drive to Chicago via New Orleans, Memphis and St Louis. I had never driven in the USA before, and I was not able to leave on Sunday as I had hoped but had to wait until Monday (of Thanksgiving weekend) to begin the first and longest leg of the journey, from Orlando to New Orleans.

    I picked up the car from the airport at Orlando at an hour of the morning that I had heard of but never actually experienced in a waking state. And I sat in the vehicle for about half an hour going nowhere, because I couldn’t find the gear shift. I knew, of course, that the car would be an automatic (I had never before driven one of those either), and I who live in a country where we drive on the left had even successfully remembered to get into the car by the left-hand door (the location of the steering wheel was of course a significant clue). But it had simply not occurred to me that the gear shift would be on the steering column, although I did wonder vaguely why what I presumed to be the indicator stick was quite so massive.

    Eventually I got out of the car and found a helpful attendant, who to her undying credit did not dissolve at once into laughter. She told me where the gear shift was. I got back into the car and tried the thing that was now not the indicator stick. It did not budge. But my guardian angel was still hovering, and explained to me that indeed the gear shift would not budge until I put my foot on the brake. I started the car again, put it into gear, and drove off down the ramp with my heroine walking beside me every step of the way (presumably she was justifiably worried that I would not know how to turn the steering wheel either).

    I was now in a hurry, so when I was stopped on the Florida Turnpike by a trooper named Angus, he enquired whether I knew how fast I was going. I judged it best not to give the Heisenberg Answer (“no, but I know where I am”) and merely hung my head when he informed me almost in a shriek that I was doing ninety-eight. “Let”, I thought to myself, “them truckers roll”, but Angus said he would have to give me a citation. It turned out that this was not a scroll of commendation for driving faster than anyone else ever had on the Florida Turnpike at epsilon in the morning on the Monday following Thanksgiving. Instead, it was an injunction to pay the State of Florida a sum approximating to two hundred dollars.

    As Trent rightly says, learn how a car works before you take it on the highway. It will save you money.

  12. Gin says:

    There are recomended maintenance schedules in the manuel that should be done at certain miles. I just did a 90,000 mile timing belt/kit, and tune-up which is a gas saver when done. Also my car has a traction control button that I wouldn’t have known anything about had I not read the manuel shortly after my purchase. Good to know about in the climate where I live. Some people don’t know they should change their oil, which is a no brainer to many, so an article on reading a manuel could save someone a lot of money!

  13. Andrew says:

    At least car manuals are written in reasonably clear, grammatical English.

    Many consumer products either have manuals that appear to have been badly translated from the original Klingon, or have no manual at all and make you go online to get any help (thank you, Apple!!)

  14. Des says:

    RE: Ryan #3 – I had this exact same experience the first time I was in a Prius, I am also a software programmer. I must not watch enough TV, I have never seen a commercial that advertised this feature, and it was completely un-intuitive. My passenger and I tried a number of different things before a friend who had been watching us and laughing came and helped us out. The next day, we did the SAME THING again when we couldn’t remember the specific order of the various things we had to do to get it started. I (true to point) had to consult the manual to get it started. I would say between both of those instances we wasted an hour of time.

  15. jim says:

    One way that reading the manual can save you money is that you can see for yourself that your cars own manual says that you don’t need to change the oil every 3,000 miles but instead likely only need to change it every 5,000 or 7,500 miles or whatever the car in question requires. If you’re typical driver then this should save you $20-30 a year in oil changes. You might also find out the various other things that oil change places try to sell you may not be necessary as often as they may claim which could also save you some money.

  16. Michelle says:

    I don’t understand why someone would waste an hour trying to start a car when it takes about 10 minutes to follow the instructions in the manual.

  17. kc says:

    “It took Sarah a while to figure it out. Then, a few days later, I spent more than an hour figuring out how exactly this worked.”

    Tomorrow’s installment in this series: How to Operate a Dimmer Switch

  18. David says:

    They’re called that for a reason – the longer it takes you, the dimmer you are.

  19. SwingCheese says:

    As I have several family members who would not think that starting a Prius is intuitive, I understand how this situation stumped them. What I don’t understand is why, after, say, 10 minutes of not figuring it out, they didn’t consult the manual. If I’d gotten stuck, I’d have probably checked it out after 5 minutes, but I’m impatient. :)

  20. T'Pol says:

    @David: Cute story! Loved it. The first time I drove in the US, I had a similar car but since I am old enough, I remember the old cars with the gear shift right by the steering wheel. I have learnt to drive in a 1967 Peugeot 404 with standard stick shift. It was not automatic but the gear shift was by the steering wheel.

  21. Shannon says:

    Dude, you’re running out of things to write about.

  22. getagrip says:

    Why are you folks surprised that people don’t read the manuals? How many times have you seen someone just take an item out of a box and plug it in and start hitting buttons expecting what ever it is to work the way they think it should? Or better yet, start assembling that toy or cabinet without really consulting the directions (how many Christmas memories does that dredge up :). I don’t know if it’s overconfidence, an assumption that they’re smart or experienced enough, but I’ve seen it time and time again from plenty of folks who are reasonably smart and savvy. I’ve found I’m in the minority for actually reading the manuals before I dive in!

    And really, even if the dealer or seller does tell you every detail about the car or other item you’re purchasing, you’re getting the information all in a shotgun manner, are typically not practicing each instruction so that you’re really not learning what to do, and are highly likely to forget crucial details when you need them a day or so later.

    I ran into both the automatic turn on issue and the darned manual shifting sans clutch while renting vehicles. Given neither vehicle had the manual in the car to reference, I called the rental company directly, they usually put the local office’s number on the paperwork and they were able to help me.

    For Ryan in #3, the commercials tell you to push the button to start, the button has nice big letters on it saying push to start, so when you push the button, you kind of expect that’s all you really need to do to start the car. Then when the instrument panel lights up, the radio comes on, etc. upon pushing the button because you have the “key” in your pocket, you figure the vehicle is on and quiet because it’s electric and there is no need for the gas engine to kick in yet. So then you are surprised when you shift and hit the accelerator and go nowhere with no obvious indication the vehicle is not powered. Note the button doesn’t say depress brake pedal and hold then push the button to start, because if you push and hold the button and then depress the brake that doesn’t work (at least in the rental I had it didn’t). Nor is there an indicator (I certainly don’t recall one) on the instrument panel like a tachometer which would indicate the engine isn’t ready to go. So I can easily see someone thinking the car is ready to run, but something else is preventing it and struggling with that for some time.

    It’s always amazing how “simple” something is once you know how to do it, and how quick we are to put down folks who haven’t gotten it even as we forget our own struggle to understand or need to be shown.

  23. Michelle says:

    @ #22 getagrip: Plenty of people start trying something out before checking the manual, but to spend OVER AN HOUR tinkering when the manual is right there? That’s just silly.

  24. Andrew says:

    TPol–I also learned how to drive in a Peugeot, in my case it was my morher’s 1970 504 station wagon. Stick shift on the steering column, locks that locked up instead of down, manual choke.

    I loved that car and if Peugeot still sold cars in the US I would buy one immediately–despite the terrible rust problem!

  25. EdTheRed says:

    RTFM (Read the forgotten manual) for the win!

  26. David says:

    Or as we ex-programmers put it, UTSL (Use the Source, Luke.)

  27. Kai says:

    *forgotten* manual…?

  28. kc says:

    There’s another option: read the manual online before taking delivery. Every auto manufacturer’s website offers them.

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