Updated on 09.09.11

Saving Pennies or Dollars? Oil Changes

Trent Hamm

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Matt said, I’d like to see your take on changing oil at home versus having it done at a shop. I’ve done my own calculations on the matter but I think it might be worth exploring on your blog.

Oil changes are pretty simple to do at home. If you’re changing the oil, you literally just slide under the car with a pan, remove the plug so that the oil runs into the pan, then go do something else. A while later, you put the plug back in place, open the top, and add oil until full. Done. If you’re changing the filter, you also just pull out a filter in the middle and insert a clean one in the middle of this process.

The actual labor for this is five or ten minutes (once you’re used to it), and you can save the old oil in a jug in your garage until you have a chance to drop it off somewhere when you’re out and about on errands.

On the other hand, if you go get your oil filled for you, it takes at least that long to interact with the people there, plus there’s the dreaded waiting. Ideally, you have the ability to do something else while there, but that’s not always a guarantee.

My local Jiffy Lube will change the oil in your car for about $30. For roughly another $20, they’ll also change your oil filter.

I can acquire a quart of the high-quality synthetic motor oil I like to use in our car for $6 (shipped to our house for free), and it takes four quarts to fill it. I can also get an oil filter that fits for $11.

Thus, our materials cost for a single oil change is $24. If we couple that with an oil filter change, it’s $35. This compares to an oil change cost of $30 and $50, respectively.

In short, I save about $15 doing it myself. (The exact math will vary depending on your make and model of car, of course, but it will be along this order of magnitude.)

Now, here’s the tricky question: how much is it worth it to you to avoid having to climb underneath your vehicle twice? For some, it’s just a job that they don’t want to do and it’s worth the $15.

For others, there’s extra value in doing it yourself because you can be sure it’s done correctly and with oil and filters that are of your own selection and not of the dealership. What do I mean by “done correctly”? Many oil change places do not let the oil drain for a sufficiently long period of time. A few minutes of draining means there’s oil still inside, while an hour or so of draining will get rid of much more dirty oil. However, oil change businesses usually won’t let your car drain for an hour.

For still others, it comes down to the value of their time. Whenever I get my oil changed, I choose to do it simply so I can drop off my car while running other errands. I’ll walk to a nearby grocery store, choose to drive up to get my groceries, walk back to the oil change station, get my car, then drive back for the groceries. Doing this allows me to effectively multitask.

On the other hand, if it’s a Saturday afternoon and there’s nothing special going on, one might as well change the oil in one’s car and save $15.

Changing your own oil saves dollars, not pennies, but there may be other factors that convince you to hire someone to change it for you.

Dinner With My Family won’t be posted this week because, frankly, I spent most of the last week traveling or at other social events. It should resume next week.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. kc says:

    It’s pointless to change your oil and not your filter; the dirty filter will quickly contaminate your fresh oil. I don’t know why you’d even suggest such a thing.

    Your numbers on Jiffy Lube seem to be wrong – in most areas, you can get your oil AND filter changed for ~$30 total. Even my local Ford dealer has a special for $29 at present for an oil/filter change – and it includes synthetic oil.

  2. Mary says:

    My boyfriend and I find changing the oil in both of our cars ourselves, well worth the savings. Though with his car, an ’06 Mazda 3, most of the undercarriage of his car is covered in plastic barriers, making it kinda tough and intimidating to try and pull those things off in order to get to the drain plug, not to mention put them back in place. My car, a ’94 Buick Century, it’s easy to get to. Parts are cheap too. The closest place for a long time for us was the Walmart, but their auto center was always jam-packed with people on non-business hours, and it took nearly 2 hours to get done. Not worth my time. But now we found a place closer to our house that actually does an oil change in record time. 5 minutes tops. $30, but if you seriously don’t have time it’s worth it. And in high school and college whenever I went home my dad would do it for free. He didn’t mind doing it at all, as he is a diesel mechanic and likes working on cars too.

  3. Jon says:

    Not sure if Trent is lying or really that ignorant. The oil filter is included in all oil changes. The air filter is an extra charge. I like to have mine done fir me so a mechanic gives the jeep a once over a couple times a year. They check brake pads, tire tread, wipers and all other fluids.

  4. There’s nothing in here to also count for disposal of oil. Also, oil changes do not cost $50 with an oil filter, like others have said. A lot of oil changes also include topping off all other fluids, which is not accounted for.

    Then there’s also the TIME it takes you to do it when you could be doing something else. It’s not as cut an dry as Trent makes it out to be.

  5. chuck says:

    waiting an hour to drain the oil does nothing but waste an hour. After a few minutes, 99.99% of the oil is already drained. the best thing to do is make you change your oil after the car has been driven awhile so small contaminants that the filter misses are suspended in the oil and drain out.
    many states have laws that require places which sell oil must take used oil for recycling.

  6. Derek says:

    I also have some problem understanding the estimated price of getting an oil change outside. I haven’t paid more than $25 for an oil change in a long time. In fact, where I live, it’s quite easy to find oil changes for about $16. These all include changing the filter.

  7. lurker carl says:

    Oil is easy to drain and refill but oil filters are a different story. Oil filters can be hard to reach, difficult to remove and almost always messy.

    By the way Trent wrote this article, I’m of the opinion this is a task he has never performed on his own.

  8. Lesley says:

    I get my oil changed at the local shop. They change the oil and filter, top off all my fluids, check all my lights and gauges, and wash the car. For me, it’s completely worth spending the money to have my car looked over by experts every few months. Plus, they offer free top-offs and tire checks between oil changes–in the winter, I really appreciate not having to be out in the freezing cold doing it myself!

  9. Kate says:

    I know a bunch of you apparently live near cheaper oil-change places, but I just want to say that Trent is NOT necessarily unrealistic with his pricing. With a discount coupon and regular oil, I can get the price down to about $40 locally – using synthetic oil or paying full price runs $50 to $55. So it really depends on your area. I have done a lot of comparison shopping, tried different parts of town, etc. Just because it is cheaper where you live doesn’t mean that Trent is ignorant, you know. I just means you have to do your own calculations based on your own local prices.

  10. krantcents says:

    I have my oil changes about 3 times ayear. Alongg with the oil change I get a free car wash. I realize it is not truely free, but it saves me from doing it.

  11. Dave says:

    I do nearly all my own car work, and it is a huge cost savings. There is an investment in tools, but good hand tools last a lifetime. I do change my own oil of course, but it is a minimal cost savings compared to other jobs… for example, my girlfriend’s car needed brake pads, shop wanted to charge her $350. I did it for less than $40. And before the “only experts can be trusted with your life!!!” people come in, both of us have been driving the car for 2 years since this repair, no tragic accidents. Most car repairs are not rocket science, if you are willing to invest the time to learn, you can save thousands.

  12. Barry says:

    I have to agree with Dave on this one I just put a strut in my car finished 1/2 hour ago I ran into problems and the whole job took about 5 hours before the comments start flying “everything went wrong” . I would rather be dirty like I am right now with my money in my pocket than to have paid someone $400 in labor.I think about oil changes on a long term basis save $15 a pop 2 cars 4 times a year that’s $120 per year the wife and I have been together for 15 years that’s $1800 and if there’s nothing else I could be doing at the time to make a buck then it is very worth it.

  13. bogart says:

    Definitely agree the savings in my time is worth changing the oil myself, so much quicker and more pleasant than the alternatives. Though I’d add to my costs a one-time purchase (at a yard sale) of metal ramps onto which to drive my low-to-the-ground car as even as a smallish woman I can’t fit where I’d need to to reach the filter without them. I’ve been told it’s better to remove the upper cap (that you pour the clean oil into) before draining the pan as it facilitates draining — and of course you need to take it off anyway.

    I agree with Dave, above, and learned recently that if I need an obscure and rarely used tool (e.g. special to a particular make & model), the Autozone near me (and presumably other Autozones) will let me “rent” it for a fully refundable deposit — really just a loan.

  14. Bill says:

    Wow, Jiffy lube charges $19.95 here with oil filter, Takes about 15 minutes.

  15. Carole says:

    My husband was very mechanically minded and he always had the oil changed professionally. He thought it was worth it. They can dispose of the oil which is a problem when doing it at home. I let the pros do it, too, now that I take care of those matters because I like for them to check the car out while they’re at it. However, recently the fellow changing the oil for my son forgot to replace the oil and let him take it. As you can imagine big problems followed.

  16. Bill says:

    @15 Carole

    I had a co-worker, that got their oil changed at a local shop. They made it about 1 mile and the engine locked up, because they didn’t replace the oil plug. After a quick investigation they fixed everything with out any problems.

  17. Chad says:


    The engine locked up, but then it was fixed after a quick investigation? Those two statements don’t go together… if the engine locked up, a quick investigation would show that the engine needed to be replaced.

    My local service guy charges be $17.95 for an oil change. I can’t even consider changing it myself for that price.

  18. lurker carl says:

    Recieving your vehicle after an oil change without oil in the crankcase is ludicrous. Even with the most difficult automobiles, an oil and filter change is, at most, a ten step process. I don’t think your Kwik-E-Lube $15 oil changes are performed by automotive engineers, more like a high school drop out with issues.

    Does anyone know what a dipstick is, where it is, how to read it, how to open the hood?

    It makes me wonder how many oil changes don’t actually happen. Don’t even get me started about brakes.

  19. tb says:

    there is NO PLACE that i can get my oil changed for less than i can do it myself. i don’t make a special trip to get the oil and filter and when i find them on sale i buy as much as i can afford. i drive a truck which sits higher than most cars so it takes me 10 minutes at the most to change my oil. while i am under it i give it a look over. since i looked last time, i will know if anything is amiss.
    i don’t trust that anyone will care about my vehicle the way that i do.

  20. deRuiter says:

    Trent’s figures seem high, and yes, he aparently has never done an oil change as he doesn’t realize the oil filter is changed along with the oil by the shop. By the time you clean up from the greasy job, haul a jug of filthy oil to be recycled, you’re way behind. If you are mechanically inclined and like doing it, I commend you. If you can safely replace your own struts and brake pads, I’m quite dazzled by your skill!

  21. deRuiter says:

    Watch the Val pack (blue envelope) for coupons making oil / oil filter change really cheap!

  22. lisa says:

    The oil filter change is not always included in the oil change , in fact, it is more , if it is. The cheap oil change places do not always do the change right or even do it. We do it ourselves. My dad had it done 1 time & like someone else said on here, they never put any oil in.Any recycling place will take the used oil.fifty dollars is about average .

  23. Gretchen says:

    The Prius probably requires synthetic oil, hence the higher prices.

  24. Liz says:

    I think I am spoiled when it comes to car service. DH works at a national chain automotive after care place near us. When I need service he just takes my car in, and it is done by the time he comes home for lunch. They do a thorough job and the cost isn’t much.

  25. con says:

    I am a girl but live with a guy who worked as a mechanic for many years. He has off and on changed his own oil and mine. However, the rule is NEVER change your oil without changing the oil filter at the same time. That is craziness. It costs me $30 max for an oil/oil filter change and just a few minutes. I live in the midwest as does Trent. And they get rid of my oil. Trent, you are young, but please pay more attention to this stuff. You will learn as you grow older.

    I beg you to re-evaulate your advice to others because so so many times they’re wrong and you could lead others onto the wrong path. As someone said, your heart is in the right place, but you lead a dangerous path for others just the same. Just think about it.

  26. con says:

    And I meant it costs $30 max at an oil change place.

  27. matt says:

    Trent lives in Ames, IA and I can tell you for a 100% fact jiffy lube in Ames will change your oil and filter for $29 and they top off all fluids, vacuum and check tires, lights, etc. Trent couldn’t be more wrong with the pricing and what’s included.

  28. Bill says:

    @#17 Chad
    I said they “fixed everything” they indeed replace the engine, not sure what you couldn’t comprehend.

  29. sewingirl says:

    At one time I drove a Mercury Grand Marquis that you had to be a contortionist with six foot arms to change the oil filter. Hubby did it ONE time, and told me to go to the Buggy Lube after that! I wonder if automotive designers ever change their own oil?

  30. Brittany says:

    As others have pointed out, Trent’s figures are high because (as he states in the article), he uses “high-quality synthetic oil.” It appears his savings are coming from a)buying the oil cheaper online and b) a mark-up on “fancy” oil at oil change places, as customers buying “fancy” oil are less price elastic than those buying basic oil.

    When I’ve calculated this with “basic oil” prices, I’ve always found it to be a wash or $2-3 savings (on oil alone). By the time you add in fluid top off, quick inspection, and oil disposal, it’s a major win for having someone else do it. Also, the place I went to between when I moved here and when I went car-free included a free tire rotation as well! Definitely worth paying for the oil change.

    Although I have found that places that do $16 oil changes have HUGE mark-ups on non-oil change services and sometimes “find” problems that aren’t actually there. I recall a place telling me I really needed to change my windshield wipers–for only $35!–because they were deteriorating and going to become unsafe. This was strange to me because I’d changed them myself one week prior for about $8.

  31. littlepitcher says:

    The price figures also overlook the nasty little fact that some oil change dudes have relatives who are mechanics. A Jiffy up in TN ruined an acquaintance’s engine and he had no idea that Jasper Engines (a manufacturer) had temporarily laid off their workers a couple of weeks before the oil change.
    That said, my tetas won’t clear the Jeff Foxworthy Ranger and my arthritic hands are growing substantially weaker. Purchased oil and filter changes are in my future, like it or not, but air filters still surrender to me at the turn of the wingnut.

  32. Deb says:

    I am *shocked* by the prices you have listed. I would like to know what kind of vehicle you are driving, since you didn’t say. I’m sure the filters and oil are more expensive for larger vehicles than they are for compact cars. Also, after reading the comments, it sounds like can be more expensive when you live in less-populated areas, which I haven’t for a few years.

    When I change the oil in my Dodge Neon myself, the cost averages $18-25.

    I do use non-synthetic oil, which costs approximately $4.27 per quart at Walmart, and I can get it for that price on sale at Auto Zone and O’Reilly Auto Parts as well. A Fram brand oil filter is $3.24. At that price, I’m sure the auto shops are only paying $2-3 for an equivalent filter for my car.

    However, MIDAS will change the oil *and* rotate the tires (and check fluids and tell me stories, etc) for $19.99. My trusted local mechanic changes the oil for $25. Tire rotation is extra there. The “really expensive” mechanic that I used to live near charges $35 for oil changes. I never priced the tire rotation. ALL of these places include the oil filter and labor charges in the oil change price. Additionally, I have moved around the US a few times, and have had my oil changed by a few different major chains and local shops. I have never been charged separately for the oil filter.

    The JiffyLube may be charging an extra $20 to change your air filter, but if they are charging that extra $20 to change the oil filter, you should call their corporate office to complain. That should be included in the $30 for the oil change.

    If these outrageous prices are due to you driving a specific kind of vehicle and you give the shops specific oil/filter requirements, then please remember to include that detail in your posts.

    If I need the tires rotated, I take it to MIDAS and plan to attend a yoga class that is just around the corner at the same time. My car is often finished before I am. :) If I don’t need to rotate the tires, then I will do it myself, because I have had too many mechanics either miss existing problems or make up non-existent problems, and I like to look it over myself at least occasionally.

    Thank you for looking at this subject. The discussion here was fairly interesting (aside from the running trend of everyone assuming that everyone else is ignorant simply because *all cars are different,* and some are easier to work with than others). :)

  33. Robin S says:

    When you have to pay to dispose oil, suddenly Jiffy Lube looks really good. Plus, I live in an apartment and don’t have a garage, so have nowhere to store said oil. A good place will do oil filter and disposal for $30. Plus I don’t have to trust myself to put the car up on the jack. I don’t have the proper equipment to put the car up for longer than it takes to change a tire and have the car be sturdy enough for my to feel safe crawling under, and it definately needs to be up to reach the filter.
    Yup. This is slightly harder than you’re making it sound.

  34. Telephus44 says:

    This is one of the few situations to me where my local dealship wins out. It costs $30 for an oil change, $40 if they also do a tire rotation. They not only will do it in 20-30 minutes with no appointment, but they also provide free coffee/juice/bagels/cereal – so I figure the extra couple dollars I’m paying also just covered my breakfast. It’s slightly more than what the local quick change places charge, and I find that most of those try and talk me into extras – windshield wipers, etc.

  35. beth says:

    The most important issue is frequency: the oil shops will tell you to change the oil every 3,000 miles, but the Car Talk Guys on NPR verify that you only have to do it every 7,000 miles.

  36. JS says:

    The drivetrain of my car is still under warranty for another 18 months, and I have to prove that I followed the maintainence schedule to keep the warranty valid. The independent shop I go to charges $39 for an oil change, inspection, fluid top-off and tire rotation. They have a free shuttle to any downtown office, so I just have it done while I’m at work. I will revisit the issue when the warranty expires, but for now, I think having it done by the mechanic is worth it.

  37. Chad says:


    Oh, sorry.. when you said “After a quick investigation they fixed everything with out any problems.”

    I kind of figured that a ‘seized engine that has to be replaced’ counted as a problem.. but I guess you and I have different definitions.

    Come on, seriously.. in your book that doesn’t count as a problem? That’s a HUGE problem and replacing an engine is a total pain in the butt.. I don’t care if it is at the oil company’s expense, your statement still doesn’t make any sense.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *