You went in for an oil change. You left with an itemized bill as long as your arm.
Costly services are a reality for many car owners, especially for those who have delayed maintenance. According to insurance marketplace SmartFinancial, the cost of car parts has jumped since early 2021.
Many people don’t trust their mechanics to do only what’s necessary. You shouldn’t arbitrarily agree to every repair — but you shouldn’t reject them out of hand, either. Instead, learn to ask the right questions, and ask yourself about the way you drive and how well you’ve kept up on service.
Quality of parts and driving habits influence maintenance timing
Some maintenance is recommended at regular intervals, like an oil change every 6,000 miles, while other services occur at irregular intervals. When variable maintenance will be required depends on the wear and tear of your car and how long parts last.
Items like batteries “usually have a lifespan, and the more you spend, the longer the lifespan,” says Nicole Miskelley, manager of PMR Auto & Diesel Repair in Marion, Illinois.
Driving habits also impact how quickly you’ll need maintenance. Two people driving identical vehicles might need the same type of maintenance at different intervals, says Miskelley.
Show me the money — and the maintenance
Most car owners can probably spot balding tires, but the trouble comes when mechanics recommend maintenance for issues that drivers can’t see.
Miskelley estimates that about 60% of her clients who come in for regular maintenance learn there’s something else that needs to be done to their cars. In some cases, it’s based on a car’s mileage; other times, it’s something a technician noticed while giving the car a quick inspection.
But not being able to verify that a recommendation is legitimate rather than an attempt to take advantage of a car owner has some drivers skeptical of mechanics.
According to AAA, 63% of Americans do not trust mechanics’ recommendations. The top reasons were experience with unnecessary recommendations and being overcharged for services. However, mistrust in mechanics can lead to lapsed maintenance and higher costs later on.
Pay now or pay for it later
A 2022 AAA study estimates that the average car owner pays 9.68 cents per mile for maintenance and repairs over a five-year period — about $1,300 annually.
And these costs only increase as cars age: Consumer Reports’ 2021 Annual Auto Surveys showed the 12-month cost of maintenance and repairs for a 10-year-old car was nearly double that of a 5-year-old car.
So it’s no surprise that IMR Inc., an automotive market research company, found that 24.1% of drivers delayed services or repairs in the third quarter of 2022. And a recent survey by United Tires found that 52.2% of drivers who delayed maintenance cited price as a reason.
But little issues can “go from zero to 60,” says Miskelley, which can lead to more problems and higher bills down the road. And according to the same United Tires survey, regularly delaying maintenance adds an average of $1,193 to maintenance costs throughout the ownership of a car.
5 tips to offset unexpected car maintenance costs
1. Create an emergency car account
In addition to a general emergency account, having a savings account for unplanned car expenses helps you prepare financially, says Peter Locke, a certified financial planner and the head of financial planning at InSight, a financial planning company. Preparing for those expenses is a part of car ownership, just like planning for house maintenance.
2. Research the recommended maintenance
It can be expensive to agree wholesale to all recommended maintenance. Research mechanics’ recommendations to learn what they include, how they affect your car’s performance and when they need to be performed.
3. Ask questions
Don’t be afraid to ask a mechanic for more information about what the maintenance includes and why it needs to be done. This will help you make an informed decision based on your car’s condition.
“Whenever you talk to a mechanic, they should be able to explain pretty clearly why they’re doing it,” says Miskelley. “And what the long-term effects will be by avoiding it.”
4. Research maintenance quotes
Just like comparing prices for hotels or flights, compare quotes for maintenance on your car, says Locke.
Dropping off your car at the nearest auto shop might be the quickest option, but that doesn’t mean it’s the cheapest. Ask around to see if you can get a better deal.
5. Time your services
Some maintenance might not be as urgent as other services. Take a look at your budget and the recommended services to figure out a plan for tackling the necessities first.
Your mechanic should be able to help you prioritize the maintenance, says Miskelley. Safety issues should “be done immediately to keep your car alive versus ‘this is what we’re recommending just because it’s time.’”
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File
There’s no such thing as a universal best credit card. The right card for you depends on your lifestyle, your goals and your credit history. For instance, if you’re looking for travel rewards but your friend is building credit, the best card for each of you will differ greatly.
And while there may not be one best card for you — the average American has about three cards, according to a 2021 Experian study — there are many times a card can be wrong for a specific situation.
Here are eight times you could be using the wrong credit card, and what you can do instead.
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File
You may have started out by building your credit with a secured card, student card or alternative card, but once your credit is in better shape, it may be time to upgrade.
If you’ve used a starter card responsibly by keeping your utilization rate low and paying balances in full every month, you may qualify for a card that’s a better fit now. A different card could offer a higher credit limit, better rewards earnings and perks like cellphone protection and travel benefits. Some card issuers may automatically upgrade your card once you’ve reached certain thresholds, while others may not. Contact the issuer to check your options.
AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File
New cardholders can often earn a lucrative welcome bonus but usually with a caveat: You have to spend a minimum amount within a specific time frame to get it. Note the spending requirements for a card’s sign-up bonus, and use the new credit card enough by the deadline. If you continue to pay with an older credit card that’s already in your wallet, you risk missing out on the bonus if you don’t spend enough on your new card.
A little planning can help. Think about upcoming big purchases you need to make, such as a car repair or a new laptop. Just one of those could be enough to hit the bonus’s spending requirements.
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
It’s true a store credit card can save you money, especially if you are a frequent, heavy spender at that store. However, the rewards earned with a store credit card are often only redeemable at that store, limiting their usefulness.
Most shoppers would be better off using a general rewards credit card and earning more flexible rewards. Some cards have elevated rates for online shopping purchases, while others earn as much as 5% back at popular merchants like Target, Walmart and Amazon.
AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File
Several cards boast a top 5% cash-back rate in popular spending categories like grocery stores, restaurants and gas. The catch, though, is that you’ll have to do some work to earn that rate. In most cases, you’ll need to track categories: Qualifying 5% purchases may rotate quarterly, or you may have to choose your own categories. If you’re spending outside of those categories with this card, you’ll likely earn a paltry 1% instead of the juicy 5% you think you’re earning.
Most times, you’ll have to activate the bonus categories before the issuer’s deadline to earn the 5%, even if you’re spending in the right category. Plus, you’ll likely run into spending caps in those 5% bonus categories; once you hit those caps, the rewards rate drops to 1%. For those who find a 5% card to be high maintenance, opt for one that earns a flat 2% cash back on every purchase instead.
AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File
According to a 2020 NerdWallet study, 14% of Americans view credit cards as “complicated,” and it’s not hard to see why. Some issuers offer suites of cards in the same family and have names that are nearly identical. The logos of some issuers are strikingly similar, too. Perform a quick audit of your credit cards to make sure that they are the cards you intended to get. Cards that look and sound nearly the same may be worlds apart in terms of fees and rewards structure.
AP Photo/David Goldman, File
Balance transfer cards can be excellent tools for paying off debt. They consolidate several debts into one place, making them easier to keep up with, and they can give you a breather on interest for many months. However, if you’re using a balance transfer card for everyday expenses as well, it will be hard to whittle that balance to $0. Plus, many balance transfer cards don’t come with rewards. Leave the balance transfer card at home but take the cash-back card with you — and be sure to make regular payments toward both.
AP Photo/Richard Drew, File
It pays to know the rewards rates for all of your credit cards. Say you have two credit cards, one that earns 4% on gas and another that earns only 1%. Using the 4% card whenever you fill up would return $30 more if you spent $1,000 annually on gas. That $30 may not seem like a lot, but small amounts add up, especially if you have multiple rewards credit cards. To help keep track of different rewards rates, you could label your cards with sticky notes or keep a small reference guide in your wallet.
Often you’ll have to keep spending caps in mind, too. Issuers typically cap earnings on their highest rewards rates after you reach a certain amount of spending in a particular category. Make sure you track your progress toward that cap and switch to another card with a better rate when you reach it — until the limit resets.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Though they may look and feel virtually the same, a debit card is very different from a credit card. Credit cards offer protections and perks that debit cards (and cash) do not. You can earn cash back and other rewards with credit cards that you won’t get with debit, and it’s often easier to recover from losing a credit card than a wallet full of cash. More importantly, responsible credit card use builds your credit score, which can translate into more favorable loan terms and insurance rates, among other money-saving benefits.