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Save Money on Car Repairs

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A few years ago I decided that changing the oil in my car was something I preferred to outsource instead of doing it myself. I decided the maintenance shop could do it for only a little more than I could do it myself and they have the experience to look for other problem areas on my car. This is more than a time vs. money equation: they also top up all the fluids, check the air pressure, and make a few other inspection points. Even though it costs a few more dollars up front, the added services and professional touch save me money in the long run.

I took my car in for some scheduled maintenance this weekend – just an oil change and transmission flush. I walked out of the store about $130 lighter, but I know that I saved much more than that in the long run. In addition to the coupons I used to ave money, I know I kept my car running in top shape and prevented engine and transmission damage – two of the most expensive items to repair for most vehicles. I’m going to share a few tips I use to keep my vehicle in good condition, and how I save money in the process.

How to Save Money on Car Repairs

Follow Manufacturer Recommended Maintenance Schedules

Your car comes with a service manual for a reason. The manufacturer includes a service schedule for items they know will almost certainly need attention within a set time frame, or number of miles. For example, you should get your oil changed according to the maintenance schedule – every 5,000 miles for my car, or since I don’t drive very many miles, every 6 months or so.

If an item isn’t covered in the maintenance manual with a certain mileage or time frame, use common sense, or defer to your mechanic. Most service centers offer a car inspection free when you get your car serviced, or for around $20-$50 if all you are doing is getting the car inspected.

Here is a recent example: I recently went to Firestone to get an oil change and they informed me the transmission fluid in my car was looking dark and had a slightly burnt smell. There was no manufacturer’s recommendation regarding when to change the transmission fluid, but the situation called for it.

Use national repair shops or franchises

I know I may get some flak for recommending people take their business to a franchise instead of shopping locally, but sometimes the big shops offer a better deal both in the short term and the long run. I’ll shop locally for restaurants, craft stores, farmer’s markets, and even auto body shops. But I’m going big when it comes to things like tires, alignment, batteries, or other basic repairs which are covered by warranty.

Case in point – last year I had the privilege of sitting in the waiting room with a WWII vet while I was getting the oil changed in my car. We had a great conversation and it was an enjoyable experience for both of us. Aside from the life lessons I learned from him while we were talking, I learned another lesson – your warranty is only good if you can get it serviced where you are. And he couldn’t.

He lived in NY and was driving to his winter home in CA. His rear tire came apart while he was driving. It appeared to be defective and covered by his warranty. Unfortunately, the warranty he had was through his shop back in NY – and he was driving to CA. He had to spend over $100 for a new tire and installation. If he had purchased the tires through a chain store, he could have received a free tire and service. As it was, he didn’t have room for the old one, and wouldn’t want to carry it to CA, store it all summer, then take it back to NY. He chucked the tire and was out over $100.

How I use this to my advantage: I bought my last set of tires from Firestone because they offer a lifetime balance and rotation with the purchase of the tires, and they have franchises in almost every area where I drive. I do other maintenance with Firestone, including oil changes and alignments (more on this in a moment). Every time I go in for an oil change I ask them to inspect the tires, rotate them if necessary, and document their actions in my vehicle history – which brings up another point: Most major chains maintain a database of your service and repairs. This way they can help you keep track of all maintenance performed on your vehicle, even if you are visiting another franchise location. For example, I recently moved to IL from OH and the local Firestone had service records for the tires I purchased, recent oik changes, lifetime alignment, and more.

Pay for lifetime service

When available, spring for the lifetime service. I was driving home in a freak snowstorm a few years ago and my car hit a patch of ice and skidded into a curb. I was literally only going about 5 mph, but the impact was strong enough to knock my tires out of alignment. I discovered that, with a coupon, I could buy a lifetime alignment service for the vehicle for the price of two individual alignments (regular price was slightly more than double, but less than three times the price).

My car was only a couple years old and I was planning on keeping it a long time, so the decision was a no-brainer. I’ve had the alignment adjusted at least 3 or 4 times since then, one time a major adjustment, and a few other minor adjustments. Each of these came at no out of pocket cost. I think of it as insurance.

Keep your own service log and your receipts

I mentioned that most chain shops keep a record of the services performed on your car. Many do, but the responsibility ultimately relies on you. Many service manuals that come with new cars include a notes section in the back, which is the perfect place to document all the maintenance performed on your vehicle. Simply take the service manual out when you go to the shop and fill it out while you wait. Then put it back in the glove box when you are done.

The other thing I recommend is maintaining a copy of your receipts. It’s not essential for things like oil changes, but it is for most items which have a warranty. For example, items like tires, batteries, and other components often come with a limited or lifetime warranty. But you need to prove that 1) when you purchased the item and 2) you took proper care of the item (which is why I always have Firestone document whether or not my tires need rotating or other service when I take my car in).

Do you have any tips for saving money on car repairs?


Published or updated April 11, 2011.
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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Pat S.

I think your first point is really important. Follow the maintenance schedule. I saw a documentary recently about a man who had a car with 1,000,000 miles on it. When asked, he said the key was following the maintenance guide.

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2 Ryan

Pat, we had a Toyota with a quarter million miles on it – at least until the engine threw a rod going down the highway. My older brother was driving and he swears (to this day) he was going the speed limit. To this day I’m not so sure I believe him. ;)

We’ve had a few other high mileage vehicles as well. Cars can last a long time when you take care of them, especially the newer vehicles, which seem to be much higher quality than even just a decade ago.

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3 krantcents

I prefer to use a mechanic I can trust. It was a lot easier to find an attorney and CPA! I replace the oil about every 4,000 miles. My next priority is filters and other fluids. I think I save myself 99% of the problems that may occur! I have 2 cars 16 & 14 yrs old, 1 has 160,000 miles ant other has 108,000. No real problems!

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4 Ryan

krantcents, you bring up a great point. My dad has a mechanic back home that he goes to for almost all his work. It’s great when you know you have a mechanic you can trust. I’ve moved around fairly frequently over the last few years, so my opinion is from someone who wants to know my car is covered wherever I go (hence using the franchise for purchases such as tires, alignments, etc.). We are in the process of buying a home and we plan on living here a long time, so maybe I will slowly change my tune. As for now, I’ll stick with the chain shop for my routine maintenance and I will investigate a local shop if I need more in depth work done.

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5 Jon | Free Money Wisdom

A big tip that I want to share is using the dealer alternative. I, for one don’t want to take my luxury vehicle to a national mechanic chain (sorry :)) For people that want to save upwards of 40% or more on car repairs, take your car to an independent dealer for that brand. For example, I own an Acura TL. I refuse to pay the dealer charges so I take my car to an independent Acura shop. They are ex-Acura mechanics and will get the job done significantly cheaper than the dealer.

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6 Ryan

Jon, you have a good point. I wouldn’t take a luxury car or a classic auto to a chain shop either. There are dozens of different situations for everyone, so it’s a matter of finding which situation works best for you. Thanks for sharing!

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7 K.C.

It is important to keep your own records. I don’t know how many times a mechanic has recommended something like a transmission fluid change within months after I had it changed.

I understand your rationale for using national automobile service companies, but my experience with them has been very poor, especially with the Firestone stores in my area. My problem with the chains is that they seem to be more concerned with selling that servicing. That’s not to say some local mechanics won’t take advantage of a situation to make some extra bucks, I’ve encountered that, too. It’s tough to find a good mechanic. We’ve tried a boat load of them with varying results.

Our biggest frustration came from trying to get warranty work done at a dealership. The valve lifters were rattling, the noise was obvious, but the dealership kept telling us that the computer didn’t indicate any abnormalities. Essentially, they told us if the computer doesn’t indicate that something is wrong, then there is nothing wrong despite how the car is actually functioning.

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8 Ryan

K.C., I’ve had a few shops really push selling repairs and other services to me as well. I always ask them if it is absolutely necessary at this point, or if it is something I should monitor and what I can expect. I also ask some variation of “if this were your car would you do it now,” or “if this were your mother’s car would you recommend she do this immediately, or wait.”

I find these questions elicit a more personal response and in most cases, they give me more information about the vehicle, what to look for, etc.

I haven’t run into any major problems getting warranty work done, but only one of my vehicles is currently covered by a warranty and we have only had one issue with it. If I ran into those problems I would take it to another authorized service center or contact their corporate headquarters and leave a complaint.

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