Updated on 09.17.14

How to Save Money When Buying a Car

Trent Hamm

An oil change and tires by kevindooley on Flickr!Many car-buying guides tell you how to save money beforehand – how to research the right car for you, how to negotiate, how to get the best car loan deal – and then they leave you right as you sign your name on the dotted line and walk off the lot, keys in hand.

The methods of saving money don’t stop when you drive off the lot. In fact, as soon as you leave the lot, there are several things you can do right away to save significantly on the money you’ll invest in maintaining this vehicle.

8 Ways to Save Money When Buying a Car

1. Read the manual in its entirety

This should be the next book that you read. Cuddle up with it, read through it, and know your new automobile. You’ll almost always learn a large handful of important things during the read-through, most of which will save you surprising amounts of cash – and can also save you a lot of time later on, as well, when you really need it.

2. Follow the manual’s recommendations for gas purchases

Many people think “new car, better put premium gas in it.” Don’t. Instead, before you ever visit a gas pump, flip through your manual and find out what gasoline is recommended. Almost all cars recommend the low-grade gasoline – the high-grade doesn’t do anything at all, and buying it is purely a waste of money.

3. Establish a maintenance schedule

Another key piece of information that’s provided by the manual is a maintenance schedule. It tells you explicitly when you should get your car maintained in various ways – oil changes, brake pad replacements, air filter replacements, and so on. Follow this schedule. Doing the maintenance when suggested will save you significantly on repairs over the lifetime of the automobile. Getting proper oil changes now can make the difference between engine problems and a smooth ride years down the line. Even better – learn how to do the maintenance yourself.

4. Photograph the car thoroughly

This is a useful move that many people fail to do. Detailed photography of your car can be useful as evidence if you’re ever in an accident or have damage done to your car as you can provide clear visual “before and after” images to make the damage of the accident clear. This can save significant time and effort with the insurance company and with repair work.

5. Keep necessary/useful supplies in your car

While an AAA membership can be useful, it’s much more useful to have supplies on hand to handle most small roadside emergencies yourself. A deflating or blown tire and a dead car battery are things that anyone should be able to handle themselves without calling for expensive help – and in the winter, a few extra supplies can really make all the difference.

Here are the things I keep in my own car – they save money and time over and over again

Car kit checklist
+ A tire pressure gauge
+ A felt chalkboard eraser (it takes off window fog with ease)
+ A tire iron that fits your tire
+ A windshield scraper (when winter approaches)
+ Sidewalk salt (in winter – the weight of the bag plus the ice-melt ability are useful)
+ Blankets and warm clothes (again, in winter)
+ Car jack
+ Utility knife
+ Emergency flares
+ Can of tire sealer/inflator
+ Jumper cables

6. Air up your tires

Since you’ve already got that tire gauge in your car, put it to good use. Flip through your car manual to find out what the maximum recommended tire pressure is for your car, then drive up to that free air pump at your local gas station. Use the gauge and the free air to fill up your tire to the recommended level. Keeping your tires inflated can easily shave 5% off of your gas bill – I do this re-airing process every month.

7. Shop around for car insurance

The best time to shop around for insurance is when you get a new car, as that’s when the rates will diverge the most from company to company. Call around, get some auto insurance quotes, and sign up with the best company. It’s useful to do this every few years, as new insurers appear and the level of competition between insurers changes, adjusting the rates you may pay.

8. Establish a carpool

Again, the best time to form a carpool is when your car is new, because the fewer miles you put on it now, the longer it’ll be between maintenance and repairs and the longer your vehicle will last overall. Plus, with a newer car, you don’t have to feel as though you’ll be driving the “bad” car in the carpool. Ask around the office and find some people who are willing to ride together – it’ll do nothing but save you cash.

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  1. GEoff says:

    For a used car I also immediately check the air filter. They’re simple to replace and can make a big difference in your gas mileage.

  2. I would add three things to the list of items to be kept in the car: a hand-crank LED flashlight, a store of “emergency” food, and a change purse with coins to feed parking meters. I keep energy bars that I really don’t care for in my glove box, just in case I’m ever stranded. Also a few bottles of water. It seems like a cheap form of insurance against bad situations. Since I don’t carry change in my pockets on a regular basis, and I don’t have to park at meters very often, the change purse comes in handy when I have to.

  3. flawed says:

    A few key supplies certainly are helpful – but empty your trunk otherwise. The more weight you carry around the more fuel you consume.

  4. Captian Proton says:

    I like your list. I would also add a good wax on your first car wash and then an additional wax every time you get your oil changed.

    This cuts way down on rust over the long term.

  5. Mark says:

    One caveat: don’t use the can of tire sealer if you have tire pressure monitoring system in the valves of your wheels – it may ruin the sensor.

  6. Trent, excellent post. I had never thought of taking a picture immediately of a new car, nor using a felt classroom eraser for windshield fog.

    Your suggestion of reading the manual thoroughly and sticking to a preventative maintenance schedule will save drivers hundreds of dollars. I could not believe the number of teachers at my school who would go a year without even changing the oil. Others had NEVER changed the ATF, nor had their radiator flushed. Repairs for transmissions or rebuilding an engine are off the charts.

    Thanks for an insightful post.

  7. James S says:

    Good advice, however the manual generally isn’t where the recommended tire pressures can be found. This information is printed on a label titled “Tire and Loading Information” and is found either affixed to the center pillar, aka door jamb, under the drivers door latch or in the glove box. This label lists the original tire size and COLD pressures as well as the load limits for the car.

  8. Leaving your car at home and taking the bus saves you a lot of money too, but you don’t need to buy a car to do that one :-)

    Tires aligned, inflated and not badly worn is a big money saver. Snow tires cost you money in terms of loss of mileage, but it saves lives too (at least in Ontario).


  9. Your Friendly Neighborhood Computer Guy says:

    I also keep a self powered portable generator (for jumping your car) in my trunk…my car is only a year old so it’s probably not so useful now, but back when I had my older car, it saved me the time and hassle of asking for a jump from someone else.

  10. t says:

    If I don’t move closer to work, I may do a car pool again. Bad car ==> I understand that one because a couple years back I was in a pool where one of the people had a coupe compact. It blew when it was their day to drive because I’m a tall guy. I barely had any room and the room height didn’t allow me to sit up straight! Everyone else in the pool had a nice midsized four door. At the time, I think I cut my commute costs from 30-40%.

  11. t says:

    If I don’t move closer to work, I may do a car pool again. Bad car ==> I understand that one because a couple years back I was in a pool where one of the people had a coupe compact. It blew when it was their day to drive because I’m a tall guy. I barely had any room and the room height didn’t allow me to sit up straight! Everyone else in the pool had a nice midsized four door. At the time, I think I cut my commute costs by 30-40%.

  12. liv says:

    you know what else you can add to your car kit?…1-2 bottles of water. i thought it was interesting when i saw some in my sister’s car, but it’s for in case your car overheats. smart!

  13. andrej says:

    Shouldn’t the fuel grade be a consideration for purchasing the car in the first place?

    Having to buy premium gas is a lot more expensive over the long run, and it’s something people should consider at the outset.

  14. Lynn says:

    Say what you will about lower grade gas but since we switched to premium, our mileage went up by 3-5 mpg. The car runs so much better. Each and every tank bears this out. Think about it, its only $2 (roughly) more per fill up. For us, it was the right choice. YMMV. Your other points though are spot on.

  15. AK says:

    Great post!

    Does anyone have any suggestions on how to approach the manual’s maintenance schedule when entering the schedule somewhere in the middle (buying a used car)?

    I had trouble figuring out where to start with mine.

    I like to keep a couple of camping chairs in my trunk. They don’t take up much space and are very convenient to have available when on the road!

  16. Justin says:

    I always found a light source of some kind was always helpful. Changing a tyre in the dark with no light isn’t the easiest thing.

  17. KC says:

    I’ve heard some people claim they get better mileage from different grades of gas. My car requires premium and that’s what I put in it. I’ve never tested the mileage with other grades and I don’t plan to either. But when I sold my 89 Stanza a few years ago the guy that bought it tested every type of grade – low, mid, high, super and different brands (Exxon, Shell, BP, etc) and he said Exxon mid-grade gave him the best mileage. Needless to say this guy was very methodical (and cheap, too). So there is some evidence out there to suggest you get better mileage from certain grades of gas (this guy even said brand). Again I haven’t tried this myself, but my car requires a certain grade and that’s what its going to get. If I had a car that took low grade I’d probably test this theory just to see if it had any validity.

  18. KC says:

    I also keep a little notepad in my glove box that I right down things that were done, the date, and the mileage reading of my car. This way I never forget when the tires were last rotated, battery replaced etc.

    And when I buy tires I only buy the best. They cost more, but they last longer. I can usually get 70k miles out of a set of Michelins (there are other great brands, too, this is just one). For me 2 sets will last the lifetime of the car. They ride so well, even when the tires are at the end of their lifespan they still give a pretty smooth ride.

  19. pete says:

    I don’t plan on buying a new car anytime soon, but I have to be the annoying guy on every single car buying post that says – buy a bicycle.

    You wanna extend the life of your vehicle? Only drive it to work once or twice a week. You can buy a pretty awesome bike with the savings on gas. Just my $.02.

  20. ablemabel says:

    I’d add to this – read your warranty (if your car comes with one) and be careful about not invalidating it. We bought a year-old car that still had a warranty up to 50K miles, and I believe that changing our own oil (or failing to ever get the oil changed) would invalidate our warranty.

  21. Debbie M says:

    Like KC, I get a little notepad, too. I have 3 sections (you can make dividers by taping the end of a piece of tape to the edge of a page so it sticks out, then fold it back on itself so it sticks to itself and then the back of the page):

    1) Gas – I keep track of miles, gallons, miles per gallon, price, and notes (such as whether it was mostly highway driving or whether I had just aired up the tires since last time). This helps me see what affects mileage. It also helps me see when mileage gets worse, which is a sign that something may need fixing.

    2) Repairs and maintenance – like KC said, it’s nice to have this information handy.

    3) Other (insurance, repair book) – this, in combination with the other two categories, helps me keep track of my real cost of owning a car.

    Whenever I get a “new” (to me) car, I like to get a repair book, too. It has more information than the manual and helps me figure out easy things myself. And I like to stock up on oil, oil filters, and air filters the next time I see them on sale. (Everything in this paragraph also goes to the next person who gets my car.)

    Another idea: I live somewhere hot, not somewhere cold, so water (for the humans) and hats could be good.

    To the person who recommended a flashlight, big metal flashlights also can be used as weapons (defensively only, of course).

  22. Mike says:

    Stash a little cash somewhere clever just in case – gas, toll booth, tow truck or whatever. Get a spare key and put it in a magnetic box again in a clever hiding place. I store tire chains and a spare old coat (for changing tires/putting on chains) for winter time emergencies. If you ever change belts or hoses etc. save the old ones for emergencies (unless they had holes in them of course).

  23. AD says:

    Isn’t worrying about having the “bad” car in the carpool giving in to The Joneses mentality? I don’t ever plan to buy a new car, and I don’t really care what people think about that. Letting go of worry about what others think (or might possibly think) was one of the biggest money savers for me.

    Otherwise, very good points.

  24. beth says:

    I think everyone’s additions of things to keep in the car just in case are perfect. I moved away from Midwestern winters, but make many trips up the mountain each ski season now, so I have a Rubbermaid tub with the winter-only necessities that goes in and out of my car.

    I also transport hungry teenagers around all the time, so I try to keep a box of fairly melt-proof snacks (Cliff Bars, etc.) and a case of water bottles in the car (the only time I give in to disposable water bottles), along with a few extra pairs of socks, emergency toiletries (the bathrooms at the ball fields always run out of TP!), a first-aid kit, and a book for me to read when I’m waiting for them.

    That’s all along with the usual roadside emergecy kit that has the jumper cables, flares, tools, plus a power inverter and some bungee straps for unintended cargo. It’s amazing how little room all of that does take up; it’s all in a smallish tub that’s scootable.

  25. Jules says:

    My brother keeps kitty litter in his trunk for wintery roads…what wintery roads there are in Virginia.

  26. Sara says:

    @the people who are buying the not-recommended octane – a super-duper important point about buying the type of gas recommended for your car:

    The octane recommended for your car is recommended because that’s the appropriate timing for your car. If you change to a different grade, you can throw off the timing of your engine and damage it severely. (This is when your engine starts to knock.) Ask your mechanic about it.

  27. Nick says:

    If you’re buying your car used, spend the $100 and get it inspected by a trusted mechanic. That can save a lot of headaches.

  28. Randy says:

    Another way to save money: don’t drive it! Use it only for trips you can’t make walking or bicycling.

  29. Denise says:

    I also keep a disposable camera in my car. In case of an accident or other mishap, it is very helpful to take a pic of possible damage, another person’s license plate or their driver’s license.

  30. Jillian says:

    Great article! I would also suggest keeping a first aid kit in the car (and learning how to use it!) as well as an emergency picnic rug :-)

  31. ^_~ says:

    hey Trent, you always recommend airing up your tires to save on gas but according to a study by edmunds (http://www.edmunds.com/advice/fueleconomy/articles/106842/article.html) the difference in gas mileage was unnoticeable when they let the tires deflate, although they do give a generic “but it might be different for some cars” disclaimer

  32. Kathy says:

    I have AAA. At this point I’m more incline to let them change my tire and perhaps even jump the car. Some of what I get out of that is someone else getting their clothes dirty and their knuckles scrapped rather than mine. *grins*

    Although I’ll never allow someone else to jack up my car with the included car jack that is not me regardless of how capable they appear to be. If you fail to place the jack where it is supposed to be placed it might just slide off of the jack and embed the rotor in the asphalt.

  33. ken says:

    Although more towards a survivalist standpoint (but you did included warm blankets), you should have some food and water in the car “just in case.” My recommendation:

    1. cans of sardines (protein and healthy fat plus oil they are packed in)
    2. sealed boxes of raisins (carbohydrates)
    3. Water (preferable stored in glass jars)

    It might not be tasty, but it will keep you alive. Also those items can easily last a year+ in the car minimizing the need to change them out.

    Disclaimer: I cross a range of mountains when I visit my parents. Cars have been stuck on the pass for a day or more due to a traffic accident or weather conditions. If need be, I can curl up in my car (out of the wind) wrapped up in warm clothes/blanket and eat if hungry.

  34. doctor S says:

    Cars are by far the worst investment in the world. I am sure many people agree with me. The second you drive it off the lot it depreciates. I have been beating up my car the last few years b/c I have a long commute to work. I am hoping to get at least 7 years out of it and close to 200k miles on it by that time. I take great care of it, but that idea of using the felt chalkboard eraser is gold! Thanks Trent!

  35. Kelly says:

    I love that chalkboard eraser tip! That’s brilliant. In addition to the items you mentioned (sans eraser, which I must add), I always keep:

    • flashlight
    • spare tire
    • first aid kit
    • small tool kit
    • bottled water
    • insurance information
    • emergency contact numbers
    • medications
    • waterproof matches
    • cash stash (ideally)

    Also, I’m not sure putting a higher grade octane does nothing for a vehcile. I found I got better gas mileage putting in higher grade fuel, as it burns cleaner. Then again, you’re paying more, so are you really saving?

  36. Jon says:

    I bought a spare headlight and other bulbs. Now I won’t have to scramble to find one.

    I keep a pair of mechanics gloves (and a pack of nitrile gloves) with my jack. I should throw in an old tshirt.

  37. steve says:

    It is prudent to always have in the car everything you would need to survive being exposed or stranded in your climate if the car breaks down. In winter that means something that will keep you alive (avoid hypothermia) when in a disabled car (which can serve as a shelter). I keep a -20 bag combination in my trunk.

    Also, I’d like to suggest that a container of sand is really what you want in your trunk, not salt. All salt does is melt ice, and ice with water on it is even slipperier than ice alone. Sand, however, provides traction.

    The reason people use salt is to clear ice off of pavement, which is not your need when your car is stuck. In that case, you just want traction so you can get moving.

    Get a pail or a sturdy bag and go to your local sand dump and fill it up. It’s much more useful than salt for automotive purposes. (call your city to find out where).

  38. Kevin says:

    If you drive in a winter climate where salt is used on the road, getting your vehicle rust proofed year after year is worthwhile (on top of getting regular car washes to get the salt and other grit off the car).

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