Updated on 02.13.12

Don’t Get Optional Stuff During Maintenance (43/365)

Trent Hamm

Whenever I get an oil change at one of those typical oil change places (think JiffyLube or something similar), I’m inundated by requests for tons of optional things. They say things like “you need a new air filter” or “you need a sealant on your windshield” or “you need transmission fluid” and they try very hard to make it sound like it’s a desperate crisis.

Every time I’m there, I overhear people falling for these tactics. They buy some overpriced transmission fluid or a completely unnecessary air filter.

Why do these sales tactics work? They work on people who have no idea what their car maintenance schedule actually looks like. They work on people who have no real idea what’s going into their cars. Instead of having to spend thirty seconds reading the manual every once in a while and noting what you’re putting in there and what you should be doing at each mileage level, they just throw money at their oil change place to give them some peace of mind.

Don't Get Optional Stuff During Maintenance (43/365)

I’m not suggesting that you start doing all of your own maintenance, though it is far cheaper to do all of these things yourself and there’s also the reward of having a much greater understanding of how your car works. The drawback here is time – many people don’t want to spend a significant portion of a Saturday once every few months to do the maintenance on their car when they could just stop at the quick oil change place after work.

Instead, just spend the time you’re waiting on that oil change understanding what’s going into your car and what you need at the next oil change.

What do you do? When you get your next oil change, take your manual with you and do the best job you can filling in that maintenance schedule. Note what’s actually in your car right now if you can.

Then, figure out exactly what you need to get at your next maintenance. This should be five thousand miles down the road (if you’re driving a typical car). Use that maintenance schedule to figure out exactly what you’re going to need maintained at that point.

When you reach that mileage marker, only get those things maintained. Ignore the other suggestions they give you.

Every time there’s a “major” maintenance that needs to happen, such as a belt replacement or brake pad replacement, get your full maintenance done at your preferred auto shop.

If you do these things, then there’s no reason to say “yes” to the optional nonsense when you just need your oil changed. You’re not stuck paying their high prices for incidental things like this, and that savings goes straight to your pocket.

A couple more tips:

Save your maintenance history. Every time you get maintenance done, note the mileage and what services were done in your manual and save the receipt. This can help repairmen when you need to have something looked at in your car, and perhaps more importantly, it can boost the resale value of your car significantly.

Know the specifics of any product you put into your car. What’s the right oil for your car? What type of oil are you putting in? What’s the estimated mileage for that oil? You should know this for every fluid and item that goes into your car during maintenance stops. Don’t just trust what they’re telling you. Read the packages yourself and know what you’re putting in there.

These tactics will save you money over the long run. They’ll make your car worth more when you sell it and they’ll help you avoid unnecessary expenses during maintenance time.

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. josh says:

    Windshield sealant? Are you kidding me? I have never even heard of that.

  2. Stephen says:

    I’ve created a basic binder for my maintenance records that I keep in my car. It may sound like a big undertaking, but it shouldn’t take more than an hour or so at the most. I initially did it because the original manual that came with my car was literally falling apart. The glue for the binding wasn’t holding and so pages slipped out. That prompted me to find a PDF of the manual online, which I was able to easily print out, hole punch and put in a one ring binder. With that done, I decided to go ahead and put in some binder tabs for things like oil changes, or tire replacement, etc. It provides a quick and easy place to put receipts for service and to track the maintenance schedule. The only downside is that the binder is slightly too big to fit in a glove compartment or seatback pockets, so it’s always just kick around in the back.

  3. CNP76 says:

    @Josh: Clearly that’s because you do not drive a yellow Neon!

  4. lurker carl says:

    Instead of taking your vehicles to the high school dropouts at Jiffy Lube for routine maintenance, why not take it to a trustworthy professional like ASE certified mechanic? The mechanic will look for hidden problems like cracked CV joint boots, leaking hydraulics or ATF in the antifreeze that end up creating very expensive repairs if not dealt with ASAP; instead of some goofball told to rip off their customers with stuff like overpriced wiper blades and air filters.

  5. Angie says:

    yellow neon.! :)

  6. jim says:

    This is good advice. The oil change shops try to make a fat profit off overselling optional or unnecessary services.

    I’ve had one try to sell me transmission oil changes when my car manual clearly said it wasn’t necessary per their maintenance schedule. They’ll usually show you the oil or part they want to replace to try and convince you how desperately it needs changing. Course most of us have no idea what the oil is supposed to look like. Course its not like everything they pitch is a rip off. Giving them $10 for a new air filter is hardly robbery given the convenience factor and its often necessary to replace.

    I think a sealant would be used if the windshield actually leaks. But maybe Trent might mean a ‘windshield treatment’ like Rain-X? Thats a coating that helps rain water bead off.
    I actually used Rain-X on my old Neon (mine was green, not yellow). Rain-x works pretty good. I could see some oil change shops trying to charge you $10 to spray 50 cents worth of it on your windshield.

  7. Steven says:

    I think this series would be more interesting if the topics were mixed up more randomly. Reading yet another automobile related article is…mmm…boring. Not that there isn’t information or ideas to be had, just that I feel like I’m overloading on car stuff. 365 ideas…surely there are some non-car-related ones.

  8. AnnJo says:

    Most auto supply shops will not only sell you items like air filters and windshield wipers, but it’s been my experience that if you pick a time when they’re not super busy and ask nicely, they’ll put them in/on for you. When I ask for that kind of service I pay attention and ask questions so that I can learn how to do it myself next time.

    There’s no substitute for having a good AND ethical auto mechanic. In my limited experience, these are usually not the dealers’ service centers, after your warranty have expired.

    I live in a smallish suburb of a large city, and have been taking my out-of-warranty cars to a local auto shop for almost 20 years. I love those guys. Most of them have been there for as long as I’ve been going although the dad’s retired now.

    Places like that often depend on an excellent reputation for honesty and quality work, and word of mouth for their clientele. This particular shop does no advertising and is usually booked up for non-emergency stuff several weeks out. But when that pesky Check Engine light goes on, I can pop in there and get it checked and re-set, get a fuse replaced (the fuse boxes in my car are in very inconvenient spots), or other minor items, often for no charge. The flip side is that, even though they’ve told me I can get my oil changes cheaper at a chain, I usually prefer to have it done with them. They don’t push unnecessary work, and every time I’ve checked their prices against information available on the Internet, they’ve come in below average on labor and right on the mark on parts.

    It’s worth a lot in peace of mind to have that kind of connection, especially when the goal is to keep a car as long as it is dependable and safe (my car is 14 years old, although low mileage for its age).

  9. Rob says:

    So general piese of advice. If your mechanic recommends that you need to replace your brake pads – you either need to replace your brake pads or replace your mechanic. Go to someone you trust and do what they say.

  10. Valleycat1 says:

    My mother was once told she needed a new air filter because hers was full of holes. My dad had replaced it the day before. I’m with the others- if the place you take the vehicle to suggests unnecessary items, let the owner or manager know why you’re taking your business elsewhere.

  11. Angie says:

    I agree with #7 – maybe in book form it’s not so tedious, but all of these tips could be grouped together in fewer posts.

  12. getagrip says:

    @Josh I believe its a product like rain-X, though I don’t think they advertise it as a sealant. I’ve had them push it on me once, especially with an older car with an older windshield to “revitalize” it and make it clearer. Supposed to also make your windshield shed water better and help your wipers streak less.

    It isn’t just the fast oil change places. I’ve had people tell me I needed a new alternator when I went in for a battery (which is all I needed), new brake rotors when I still had a good bit of time on them, etc. Usually when I’m taking advantage of a coupon or getting tires. I just get what I went there for and if they’re proclaiming something dire I take it to my regular mechanic to get it checked out. Lately though I’m getting to the point where the five to ten dollars I’m saving on service isn’t worth enduring the sad eyed, head slowly shaking, sales pressure pitch. So I’m just having the bulk of the maintenance done by my regular mechanic.

  13. Jon says:

    For years, I’ve never “bit” on those offers of extras at Jiffy Lube type establishments, but I was pleasantly surprised a couple of months ago when I was having my son’s truck serviced to find out that a new air filter was only $6. Wasn’t worth my time to drive by the parts store and perhaps save a buck, perhaps not, so I had them install it – no additional labor charge. Can’t hurt to ask what something costs before refusing it, eh?

  14. CNP76 says:

    Honestly I use my dealer. The reason is this, I did NOT purchase the “free” service plan (or worse have it bundled into my *gasp* loan). Because I don’t get the “free” service, they actually only do what the manual says (ok they do recommend oil changes about every 4000 mi, but I know to just add mileage onto the sticker). So no extra service (which I am sure adds up to extra costs when some part of that service turns out not to be covered by the “free” plan).

  15. Kevin says:

    The one that gets me is when they try to convince me I need to replace my “cabin air filter.”

    Why? What happens if I don’t? It doesn’t filter anymore. And? And I’ll end up breathing unfiltered air. Just like the other 23 hours of the day when I’m NOT in my car. Whoooooo… scary!

  16. tentaculistic says:

    #6 – A GREEN Neon?! Pix or it didn’t happen. (wait, that doesn’t work on this site, darn it!)

    #15 – Huh, I hadn’t thought of that. You’re right, our normal air isn’t filtered, why need a cabin air filter? I googled it, and really the only reason I found was that if it gets really clogged, the HVAC airflow can drop. The filter I know IS important is the engine air filter – you really want oxygen getting into a combustion engine. But cabin air filter, maybe not so much. Thanks for the comment, that was a good thought.

    About this article, I have to say a resounding YES! A lack of knowledge makes us so helpless, and we end up leaning for direction on a stranger who probably makes commission on the sale. I really recommend finding a local Adult Continuing Education class on car maintenance (sometimes community colleges have these classes too, but in my area the co-cos are 4x the price). It is so eye-opening how much *simpler* cars are than we think (not counting all the electronics).

    For maintenance, the difference between my last car (a beater) and the current car (used but cute) is night and day, because my approach has been so different. I printed out the manual (none came with), read it front to back and highlighted anything important, and then – this is the important part – I went to Edmunds.com to get the mileage points and what service was needed, and then took a clear mailing sticky label and wrote it out (concisely) with a Sharpie, then stuck it in the corner of my windshield where oil-change stickers usually go. I also printed out a wallet-sized version and stuck it in my visor – that way even if sun fades the Sharpie (which it has) I still have an easy reference. Having it on the windshield is still good because it reminds me.

  17. Suzanne says:

    I just went through a bad experience at our local mechanic, and we will no longer be using them. It involved scare tactics and telling me I needed things done that I repeatedly said I had already had done. Bottom line is: comparison shop, and unless you explicitly trust the mechanic/shop, get a second opinion.

    I took it in because my heat wasn’t working right and my engine looked to be overheating periodically, based on the gauge. They wanted $1,700 for a water pump, all the belts (which I had just replaced one year ago because I did my due diligence and had them done. The dealer didn’t replace the water pump because it wasn’t bad at the time, and now I’m being told that the belts are soaked in antifreeze and must be replaced. Brand new belts.), “fuel induction service” (which I think is BS), and a bunch of other stuff. Including some fluids that I had had done a year ago, per my owner manual. When he gave me the breakdown, it didn’t even add up to $1700! When I balked, he said, “well some of these things are just recommended.” OH, so you were saying before that the world was going to end if I didn’t get these done and now everything’s ok! In any case, I called around to a bunch of place in my area, talked to neighbors, and got the water pump and belts down from about $1,000 to $600. What a bunch of shit. Then I picked up the car and had an $88 diagnostic bill waiting for me…which he never told me about.

    We really wanted this garage to be our go-to place, as we’re new in the area and just bought a house, but too bad. Funny enough, since I got the car back, it has worked perfectly fine!

    I knew when I started talking to the guy and he said, “Should I talk to you or someone else about this?” that he was going to try to fleece the chick. I’m not a dumb girl, and I’m an informed consumer. Also, now I know they screwed my husband over on work he had done. Auto mechanics can shove it.

  18. tentaculistic says:

    I’ve always thought that a mechanic could do incredibly well if they spent the time and money in advance, and created a repository of the most common problems, and had a simple graphic with simple information like “what does the cabin air filter do” and general information on that part. Then when doing an estimate, they could just print out that little box – and all other problems they found – so that customers would feel more comfortable. A bit of education, and more customer trust (because the info is pre-packaged, unlike whatever slick talk a crooked mechanic may try to sell based on the situation). I think that would be incredibly welcome for the vast majority of customers, and would not offend the “expert” customers.

    I also think that mechanics should make efforts to make their lobbies, and bathrooms, at least nominally welcoming to women, to reduce the intimidation factor. But that is another story.

  19. AnnJo says:

    Hmmm. Maybe that’s one reason my mechanics are so affordable – they HAVE no lobby or public restroom. Their whole front office is about 7′ x 9′.

    Your idea is really terrific and that service would really appeal to me, but you and I and people who like that kind of thing may be a fairly small percentage of the population. I wonder how many people actually do read their user manuals for cars, appliances, etc., or even refer to them if they experience a problem.

  20. jim says:

    I just saw this on Motor Week…

    THe reason to replace the cabin air filter is that if it gets too clogged up then your heater or air conditioner won’t be able to function well. If your AC has to push air through a blocked filter then that will strain the AC and you won’t get much cool air and eventually the strain will induce failure. Probably the biggest impact is that you won’t get much cold /hot air through a clogged up filter and your car will not heat or cool properly. But eventually it will likely cause the AC to fail faster which is a big cost to fix.

  21. Joan says:

    I like my quick oil change place. I drive out of my way to go there. I went to one within two miles of my home for several years, and received great service, then they changed management and the service level went way down. Now I go about 8 miles to a quick oil change place and again I get great service. Of course, I know just what I want and they never try to sell me anything that I do not need.

  22. Kate says:

    I keep all auto information in a 3-ring binder that I take along with me to the repair shop. I keep all the receipts and car repair info in it so I can easily note things like: when I need to buy new tires, a brake job,etc.

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