9 Ways to Save Thousands on Car Expenses

By John Persinos
January 04, 2011

Cars are supposed to give us freedom, but you really have to wonder sometimes when you add up the costs of owning one. Luckily, owning a car doesn't have to feel like an unnecessary indulgence -- which is great, as they can be a joy to own.

Here are nine money-saving ways to save thousands of dollars in car ownership costs.

1. Keep your car longer. Of course, the easiest way to save money on car expenses is to keep driving your current car. Take it from yours truly: I've owned the same Volvo S70 for more than 12 years. The car has over 220,000 miles on the odometer, still runs beautifully and was paid for a long time ago.

You don't need to buy a new car every year. Despite the inevitability of planned obsolescence, it's perfectly feasible to keep your car for up to 10 years or longer, if you properly maintain it.

2. Buy a used car. The moment you drive a new car off the lot it immediately loses at least $2,000 in value. Scores of consumers frequently trade in perfectly good cars just to get a new one, which means plenty of high-quality used cars are available.

New car buyers often lose sight of the fact that the original factory warranty on a new car can be automatically assumed by the next owner, at no extra charge. This means people who buy a used car from an authorized dealer can obtain a used car with the original warranty still in force.

The upshot: You can save thousands of dollars in upfront payments and financing costs, with no discernable difference in warranty coverage. Some estimates peg the savings at as much as $2,000, on average, over the life of the car ownership.

There's now a huge glut of perfectly good used cars on the market still covered by warranty, and these cars are reliable because of modern technology. It all makes for a compelling argument to opt for a used car.

[For more advice on buying a used car, see our previous article on the topic: 5 Essential Tips for Buying a Used Car.]
 
3. Choose a shorter time frame for financing. Too many people get stuck with an extended car loan because they choose the lower monthly payments that come with the longer payment option of five years or more. 

Making car payments for an extended period of time is bad for your long-range cash flow and leaves you with less of a cushion if you run into financial adversity. Go for a time frame of about two or three years. It will mean a higher monthly payment, but will save you thousands over the course of the loan.

Consider this scenario: Under a 72-month loan of $20,000 at 6.75%, you'd pay a total of $4,378 in interest, compared with $2,545 for a 48-month loan at the likely lower rate of 6%.

When negotiating with the dealer, don't reveal how much you can afford for monthly payments because that's exactly what you'll end up paying. Dealers play a lot of shell games with car financing. Get the best possible deal and then find out what the payments amount to.

4. Don't fall for "cash-back" offers. It never fails to astound me how many consumers fall for cash-back arrangements that are trumpeted with such fanfare on television ads. Cash-back offers amount to dealers taking your money and then giving it back to you. One way to view it is to think of cash back as 105% financing, which means you're paying interest on money that you loaned yourself.

There are better ways to scrape up some immediate cash than to resort to a car dealer and his financing sleight of hand. Seek the car you want for the best possible deal, but never let a cash-back offer be your motivation.

5. Reject pressure to buy superfluous options. A car that's loaded with options will cost more. These costs can quickly add up. Satellite radio can cost about $200 for two years; undercoating or rust-proofing can run $500 for a single application. Why pay premium prices when you can do it yourself with a $25 kit?

These options also will inevitably deteriorate over time, which adds to the overall cost of ownership. One basic rule of thumb: Keep it simple.

6. Don't buy cars that cost extra to insure. Insurance companies are a lot like car dealers. They have every angle covered to maximize their interests, not yours. Insurers have detailed records on every imaginable make and model.

Sports cars, for example, are notoriously more expensive to insure. Porsches, Corvettes and Vipers cost several hundred dollars more to insure every year than, say, a Honda Civic. According to the latest figures, an average 40-year-old man insuring a new Porsche would pay, on average, up to $3,000 a year in insurance, depending on the area in which he lives.

And don't worry about driving a red car. Car insurance companies don't take a car's paint color into account when determining premiums. It turns out that the old urban legend about red cars costing more to insure is just that -- a legend.

Bottom line: Avoid cars that incur higher insurance premiums.

[Click here for more tips on how to save on car, home and life insurance: Seven Places You're Spending Too Much on Insurance.]

7. Sell your used car on your own. Using Craigslist or any number of websites, you almost surely can sell your car for more money than you'd get from the dealer. It will take more time and effort on your part, but it will be worth it.

You can expect a dealer to give you several hundred dollars less than what you could get on your own in the open market. Dealers always push for as much as they can get. If you're willing to sell a car at $10,000, they'll pay you $9,000. If you're willing to buy a car at 3%, they'll sell it to you at 4%. Car dealers are members of the world's second oldest profession.

8. Do your homework. Don't go into the showroom blind. Be an informed consumer by arming yourself with facts, figures and background information.

The Internet is a cornucopia of statistics about any car you may be interested in. Two trusted sites where you can start: Cars.com and CarsDirect.com. The more information you have on your side, the less your chances of being manipulated.

9. Find a trustworthy mechanic. A good, trustworthy mechanic won't try to mystify you with mechanical jargon. He'll also level with you as far as cheaper alternatives are concerned. He will advise you on ways to keep your car safely on the road, without enticing you to pay the hilt to fix everything all at once.

Word of mouth is crucial -- ask friends and neighbors for the names of reputable mechanics with whom they've had good experiences.

We're all in thrall to the tyranny of the automobile. Unfortunately, our infatuation with our cars also tends to take its toll on our pocket books. But if you follow this advice on buying, owning and selling a car, you'll save a bundle on unnecessary repairs and costs. Take it from a Volvo-driving skinflint like me.