11 Ways to Be a More Frugal Driver

This week’s Ask The Simple Dollar theme is automobiles — buying them, maintaining them, deciding when to sell them and getting car insurance for them. Click on the number to jump straight down to the question.

1. Car maintenance checklist
2. Buying from a private seller
3. Trusted car manufacturers or brands
4. Long-term hybrid car use
5. When to drop comprehensive insurance
6. Performing car maintenance at home
7. Is a mechanic lying?
8. The value of pickup truck
9. Thoughts on the Subaru Outback
10. Do I need a car?
11. What car do I need in a rural area?

Q1: Car maintenance checklist

Do you have a checklist of things a person should do to maintain their car? I just bought my first car at age 31 after living in NYC for many years. I now live in a much smaller city that doesn’t have much for public transport but I really needed to get out of the rat race. I know how to drive but I really know nothing about taking care of this car. I want it to last as long as possible.
– Shaun

The most important thing you can do is look in your car’s manual for a maintenance schedule and follow it diligently. Ask around for a really good local mechanic, pay them a visit and get them to just do all of the maintenance for you. You can do some of the things yourself without much equipment, like changing the oil and the oil filter, and that’s cheaper, but a lot of the maintenance is simply better done by an actual mechanic in a shop environment with a lift and all of the needed tools on hand.

  • As for other steps, I have a monthly checklist that I follow for car maintenance:
  • Wash and wax the vehicle’s exterior. Sometimes I do this by hand, sometimes I use an automatic car wash.
  • Vacuum out the interior and remove any and all items that shouldn’t be in there.
  • Clean and wipe down the dash and any other surfaces.
  • Put air in the tires to the maximum recommended pressure as listed in the manual. You can do this at many gas stations or by having a small air pump at home. We have a small air pump.
  • Apply some Rain-X to the windows. Although not necessary at all, this is incredibly helpful in a rainstorm; without it, visibility becomes much more difficult.

Another thing worth doing, if possible, is to park the car where there’s shade on it. During much of the day, our house provides shade for the cars in our driveway, and then during the late afternoon and evening, a big tree provides shade for them (one car somewhat more than the other).

If you do those things, you’ll be in great shape.

Q2: Buying from a private seller

A friend of a friend is looking to sell his grandmother’s Corolla since she can’t drive anymore. It is a 2015 Corolla without many miles on it, about 7,500. I have only bought from dealers so I am not sure how to go about this. Got advice or an article?
– Jamie

The first thing you’ll want to do is test drive it, see if it’s right for you, and have a trusted mechanic check it out, just in case. With such a new car, it’s probably in wonderful condition, but you want to make sure. Grab the vehicle’s identification number and pull the Carfax report on the car and make sure there’s nothing out of the ordinary.

You’ll also want to make sure that the car actually has a title. If it doesn’t have a title, you’ll probably want to walk away. Since you have the VIN, call the DMV in the state where the car was purchased and is registered to make sure there aren’t any liens on it. You want to make sure it’s fully paid off or, if it isn’t, what the scoop is on any loans. This info, along with the state of the car, will help you decide if the price is right or whether you want to make a lower offer.

You’ll want to check up on the rules of your state regarding private car buying and make sure you’re doing everything by the book. You may also want to use an escrow service — see if there is one in your area or if your bank will provide that service (assuming you’re getting a loan to buy the car). An escrow service basically gathers all of the items that are being exchanged (the money and the car’s title) and then exchanges them for you when they have everything in hand so that you’re not handing over money first or they’re not handing over a title first.

You’ll want to make sure you’re insured before you drive off, and you’ll want to get the car registered with the state immediately.

This might seem like a lot of things, but each step is really simple. Just go through this one step at a time and you’ll be fine!

[Related: Should I Buy a Used or New Car?]

Q3: Trusted car manufacturers or brands

What car manufacturers or brands do you trust?
– Damon

First of all, it’s really important to state what I look for in a car. My number one concern is reliability — that’s the most important thing to me. I want a car that will run for a long time. I also tend to buy things that are very “bang for the buck,” meaning that I don’t simply buy the best version of something; I’m willing to accept 10%–15% less performance for only paying a fraction of the price. I value fuel efficiency, too. Comfort and extra features don’t mean too much to me — most cars today are reasonably comfortable and the extra features are rarely used and often are points of failure.

Given that, Toyota is my preferred car manufacturer. Sarah and I have owned several Toyotas over the years and they have been excellent automobiles. If a Toyota doesn’t match what we’re looking for, we’ll typically look at Hondas or Nissans.

I tend to trust Consumer Reports when it comes to information about cars, particularly their reliability surveys. Toyota is consistently at or near the top of those surveys, year in and year out, which is why I started buying Toyotas, and I’ve been happy with them ever since.

Q4: Long-term hybrid car use

I have driven a 2007 Toyota Corolla since 2011. It has accumulated 260,000 miles on it. The mechanic says that there are several things that will need major repair on it soon and suggests this might be a time to move to a newer car.

In normal times, I use the car for work commutes across town (about five miles) and for regular two-hour drives to visit my parents and other family and friends in my hometown. I probably go twice a month.

I have been considering buying a hybrid car, either new or late-model used, and then driving it like the Corolla and keeping it until it is starting to have major issues. I am looking at a Prius but am considering other options. My concern with a hybrid is how it performs when it starts to reach high mileage.

You have mentioned that your wife drives a Prius for her commute. What has been her experience, particularly as the miles have started to build up on the car?
– David

My wife and I follow the same philosophy as you when it comes to cars. We prefer to buy them new or late-model used, paying entirely cash, and then driving them until significant repairs start to pile up and reliability becomes doubtful.

My wife’s 2009 Prius has a little over 200,000 miles on it. It has experienced no major problems other than a catalytic converter issue. There were a few other very small repairs along the way, along with the normal maintenance. The battery does not contain as much “juice” as it once did, meaning the fuel efficiency has declined a little bit over the last 50,000 miles, but it’s still well above 40 miles per gallon.

I expect that we will replace it in the next one to three years, as our trusted mechanic has suggested that there may be problems down the road with it. I expect it will reach about 250,000 miles before we move on from it.

My wife would like to have another Prius, probably this time with a plug-in option. We are considering getting a solar panel for our home, so this would make the cost of charging it at home very inexpensive.

Q5: When to drop comprehensive insurance

The general advice on car insurance seems to be to have comprehensive insurance when the car has a lot of value and collision only when it is getting older. How do you know when to make that switch?
– Barry

Let’s be clear here: most states require cars to always have collision insurance. Comprehensive insurance is usually paired with that insurance to provide additional coverage to the car. So, what you’re asking is when is it the right move to drop the comprehensive insurance and stick with just collision insurance.

My general rule is that when the total annual premium of the collision and comprehensive insurance combined is more than 10% of the blue book value of the car, I drop the comprehensive insurance. It just isn’t providing enough value at that point.

This might change if you’re in a situation where you have no savings at all or have very bad credit, meaning that you might struggle with situations where you would have had a comprehensive insurance claim on that older car. If you have a reasonable emergency fund and good credit, however, keeping comprehensive insurance when your car is very low in value isn’t a good idea.

[Read: 9 Things You Didn’t Know About Car Insurance (But Should)]

Q6: Performing car maintenance at home

I am sick of going to [a quick lube place] and paying out the nose and constantly getting up-sold to crap I don’t want. I want to start doing as much of my own maintenance as I can. How much maintenance can be done at home without a lift or other expensive tools, just basic stuff you can get at a hardware store or an auto repair shop? Can’t find any good answers with Google.
– Stephen

You can definitely change the fluids in your car regularly — things like the coolant, the oil and the transmission fluid. You can change the air filter and the oil filter easily. You can keep the car clean, clean the headlights, clean the battery terminals, and things like that. You can do the maintenance things suggested in the first question in this article. Beyond that, it gets trickier.

What I would do if I were you is sit down with my car manual and see which things in the maintenance schedule have instructions in the manual that seem like you could follow them at home. Fluid changes and filter changes should definitely be in the camp of things you can handle, with instructions in the manual and YouTube helping you out. You don’t need too many tools to do those things yourself — just some flat space, the right kinds of fluids, a pan to collect the used fluid, a jack and a couple of inexpensive tools. It is far cheaper to do these things yourself.

For more complex maintenance, you should take the car to an actual mechanic rather than a “quick lube” place. Find a local shop that has a good reputation (ask your friends if you’re unsure) and start consistently taking your car there; they’ll get to know your car over time and can let you know when bigger repairs are coming. If you’re changing fluids and filters yourself, there’s no need to ever go to a “quick lube” place again.

My biggest piece of advice? Stick to your maintenance schedule. There’s almost nothing else you can do that’s more effective at extending the life of your vehicle.

Q7: Is a mechanic lying?

I hate going to the mechanic because it feels like they are just dropping a bunch of buzz words and jargon on me and then give me a bill. I just want my car to work without feeling like I am getting scammed! I don’t know or care what my rear differential is! And how do I know if they’re lying?
– Chris

The reason that most mechanics will tell you what they’re fixing on a car is so that you know what they’re fixing in case you want to look up information on your own or in case you need to communicate that information later to someone else. They understand you might not know the nuance of a rear differential — that’s their job, not yours. For those curious, a differential is just the piece of the car that makes your tires line up correctly when you turn, so that you don’t “turn” like a Hot Wheels car and your tires don’t slide around. This is a great video explaining how it works.

The vast majority of mechanics want to do just like you describe — get your car running so you can get back on the road. They make their money, you’re happy, and you give good recommendations. They just give you details so that you know what it is they’re doing.

As for whether the mechanic is lying or not, you always have the freedom to take your car to another mechanic and see if the story matches up. If multiple mechanics tell you the same thing, then you know that’s likely the actual problem. That’s why it’s useful to have just one mechanic that you trust, so that you don’t need to go to multiple mechanics for most repairs.

I get a sense that perhaps you don’t fully trust your mechanic. You may want to ask around your social network and see if there are any mechanics that your friends trust and start using that one, or see if your current mechanic and another mechanic line up in terms of their diagnosis of your next moderate car problem (where it’s easy to take your car to another shop).

Q8: The value of pickup truck

In 2016 I bought a pickup because I saw the utility in having one. I borrowed a friend’s pickup several times to help move and do other things, thought it would be useful to have my own. Since I bought it I have used it in a way that I couldn’t use a car once every six months maybe and now I am not sure it was worth it.
– Eldon

If you were able to just borrow a truck from a friend each of those times, then it probably wasn’t worth it.

Trucks have a lot of virtues and a lot of drawbacks. Their big virtue is their utility and ability to haul things. Their big drawback is the relatively poor fuel efficiency compared to a well-designed sedan. People who buy a truck are generally ones who will find a lot of value in the truck’s utility and hauling ability, and if you don’t find a lot of value in those traits, you’re probably not making the right choice in owning a truck.

What if you’re unsure? Let’s say that you were to rent a pickup every time you needed to use it for something that a car wouldn’t handle. For you, that’s once every six months. I priced out the cost of renting a pickup truck for a day with a few different rental places, with the assumption that you’re driving less than 300 miles, and the cost was somewhere in the $100 to $200 range each time. So, let’s figure it’s $150 per day, and you need to do it twice a year, so it’s $300.

If you are spending more than $300 extra over the course of a year on car payments, fuel, or insurance on a truck versus the car you would have bought, then it wasn’t a good deal. A Ford F-150, for example, gets 25 miles per gallon (roughly), whereas a Toyota Corolla gets 36 miles per gallon. If you figure $2.50 a gallon and you drive 10,000 miles a year, you’re spending $1,000 in gas on the truck and $694 on the car. In just that example, the fuel alone makes up for the difference. If you paid more for the truck or if the insurance is higher, then a car is probably a better choice.

Now, I’m not accounting for whether you enjoy driving the truck more or things like that. Those are more ascetic things that I can’t judge. I’m just looking at pure dollars and cents.

[Read: How Much Car Can I Afford?]

Q9: Thoughts on the Subaru Outback

What do you think of the Subaru Outback? I intend to mostly use it for grocery shopping, errands around town, tent camping, and visiting family.
– Sienna

You basically described the ideal use case for a Subaru Outback. That’s the kind of thing that an Outback is perfect for.

The Subaru Outback is a station wagon, a type of car that I like to think of as a more fuel-efficient SUV or a hatchback with more storage space in the back. A close friend of ours has one and their family really likes it.

Station wagons are a category of cars where there’s not a whole lot of competition. I usually turn to Consumer Reports when evaluating cars, and they seem to lump station wagons and hatchbacks together in the same group. Thus, it’s being compared with cars like the Volkswagen Golf, Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Kicks and the Toyota C-HR, among others. However, amongst that group of cars, the Outback seems to be on top.

I think if we had a family with one or maybe two children and we weren’t intending to use the car for commuting, we would consider a hatchback or a station wagon and the Outback would be very high on our list.

Q10: Do I even need a car?

Before coronavirus I used my car for commuting, groceries, and occasional short trips. I have not driven my car since March 11 but I started it a few times. My job converted entirely to working from home and I use my bike to go to the grocery store about 0.75 miles from home. My job will be WFH for the foreseeable future. I have no reason I can think of to own a car so I am thinking of selling it. Good idea?
– Terry

Your situation definitely sounds like it’s perfect for selling off a car. If you are able to get what you need near your home via bicycle or via delivery, then there isn’t a whole lot of benefit in keeping a car. It’s an expensive paperweight in your driveway.

There are two things I’d think about first, though. One, will you be able to easily bike to the store in winter? If you live in the south, that’s probably true. If you live in, say, Minnesota, that might not be the case. Two, is there any chance that your job will go back to in-person work in the foreseeable future? If there’s zero chance of that, then I wouldn’t sweat it, but you don’t want to suddenly have to buy a car again in three months.

You may want to consider just stopping the insurance on the car and letting it sit for a while, starting it once in a while to make sure it works. If things change, you can always restart the insurance on the car and then you’re good to go.

Q11: What car do I need in a rural area?

I am hoping that you have a great answer for me as we seem to have similar values and you live in rural Iowa. My husband and I have decided to move out of the city entirely and move to a rural area. We have no intention of having kids or anything. We just want some land to have a big garden and lots of peace and quiet. We want to live far enough out in the country that there aren’t any homes near us. We estimate that we will probably live 30 minutes to an hour from any cities, where we would go once a week for groceries and maybe to eat out. What do you suggest for a vehicle that would work well in this situation?
– May

If you are planning to do much DIY work at all on your property, such as fixing up the property, building box gardens or anything like that, you are probably going to want a vehicle with some significant cargo room, likely either a truck or a SUV. Without knowing exactly where it is you intend to live, it’s really hard to give more of a specific suggestion than that.

I have owned a truck, a van and a SUV during my adult life while living in rural areas. I think they excel at different things. The truck was best for hauling lots of things and very good at towing. The van excels as a people hauler with room for lots of smaller things. The SUV was kind of a middle ground choice.

If you’re pretty sure that it’s just going to be the two of you, I would probably go for a truck. Now, as for which one, it again depends on what exactly you plan on doing on this land that you intend to buy, as that will determine things like the size and the towing capacity that you’ll want. Do you anticipate doing things that will require a trailer that will have some weight on it? For example, do you think you will own a horse and have a horse trailer? That would lean you more toward a heavy-duty truck with good towing capacity. Will you be living in an area that gets much significant snowfall or might have slick or muddy roads? If so, I would strongly encourage you to have a 4WD pickup.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I am very partial to Toyotas. Given that I live in an area with lots of winter weather, if it were just Sarah and me, I’d probably own a Toyota Tundra SR5 4WD. They review pretty well and are usually in the top tier of full-sized pickups along with the Ram 1500 Classic and the Nissan Titan, both of which seem fine.

Be aware that trucks, especially full-sized trucks with good towing capacity, do not get great gas mileage, but if you’re mostly staying on your land and not traveling too much, it’s a small issue compared to the flexibility it will give you.

Again, be aware that I’m making a number of assumptions about what exactly you’ll be doing on your land, how often you’ll be going anywhere else, whether anyone else will be with you with any regularity, what the weather will be like, and so on.

Got any questions? The best way to ask is to follow me on Facebook and ask questions directly there. I’ll attempt to answer them in a future mailbag (which, by way of full disclosure, may also get re-posted on other websites that pick up my blog). However, I do receive many, many questions per week, so I may not necessarily be able to answer yours.

We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at inquiries@thesimpledollar.com with comments or questions.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.