While it would be most excellent if we all could ride around on bicycles or use public transportation to get to where we need to go, in reality that’s not what happens with most Americans. Some live in towns with limited public transportation options, some have long commutes to work, some need their car for business while others just want the speed and convenience of getting from point A to B in an enclosed climate-controlled cage. It’s no surprise that for most households “Transportation” is consistently one of the top 3 biggest expenses.
People spend a lot of money on cars and everything that they entail – car payments or cash to buy one outright, insurance, various state fees including registration and taxes, maintenance, accessories… You can reduce some of the costs, for example by shopping around for insurance or driving less, but buying a car used instead of new has probably the biggest positive impact on the bottom line. Besides costing less upfront, a cheaper car tends to have lower insurance (drop collision/comprehensive), lower fees and a much more palatable depreciation curve. Of course the downside is that the older the car, the higher the maintenance costs associated with keeping it in good working order.
If you read this post about my car history, you already know that I only bought 1 vehicle new, which was a mistake but back then I liked to learn on my own mistakes rather than those of the others. All the other 5 cars were older and most had high mileage. Not only that, but 3 of them were older BMWs which are notoriously expensive to maintain, given complex engines and electronics and $150/hour dealer labor rates combined with expensive parts sold by the same dealer. No wonder why a 5 year 3-series can be had for a price of a Toyota Corolla! Since I was always frugal (I know, an unusual follow up to the 3 BMWs) I was not ready to pay for the pricey maintenance but still wanted a chance to drive some of the best cars out there. I had to devise a plan to reconcile both sides.
The plan was actually pretty simple – learn to do as much maintenance myself and learn how to get good deals on parts. The latter was easy and intuitive because I love hunting for deals. Turns out that most BMW parts are not inherently more expensive than any other car brands as long as you stay away from the dealer’s Parts Desk. The former took some time, practice, bloody knuckles and swearing but I am now comfortable troubleshooting and working on pretty much anything that needs attention or can go wrong on a car. The result is that I could own these nice bimmers at a fraction of the cost that someone without the same knowledge and skillset would surely spend. The Yin of frugality and the Yang of wanting a sporty German car could happily co-exist!
Everything I learned while working on those 3 BMWs is, of course, applicable to any other vehicle with an Internal Combustion Engine. I could probably even do whatever little maintenance there is on an electric car such as a Tesla. While there is much less work to be done on the engine (when was the last time you maintained your vacuum cleaner’s engine?), there are still fluids to be changed, suspension components to be replaced, brakes to wear out, window regulators to go bad and other electronic gremlins to troubleshoot.
Since I now have most of the tools needed to tackle all kinds of auto projects, all I need to do is research the issue if it’s new to me and buy the right parts to fix the problem. No more time wasted at the dealer along with their huge repair bills. If there is something seriously wrong that I’m not willing or able to do in my own garage, at least I will be equipped to know what the issue is and how it needs to be addressed before I walk into a dealer’s office.
A quick example of how much money and time you can save just by knowing a little bit about cars follows. Last month my mom complained about noise coming from the front passenger side wheel area of her car with 120,000 miles on the odometer. After driving and confirming the noise I parked the car in my garage and noticed that the plastic liner inside the fender was hanging down and rubbing on the tire. Taking the car for a ride after fixing that problem with a couple of zip ties replacing broken clips the noise was still there. Since the easy repair did not help it was time to lift the car with a jack, take the wheel off and inspect the front suspension a little closer. I quickly found the culprit – a torn CV boot that allowed the dirt and road grime to enter building up in the front axle joint and causing the noise. Knowing that the other side is usually not far behind, I took off the front driver side wheel and found that side torn as well.
This is not something I would want to do in my garage without a lift on a car with so much rust while laying on the floor, so I called a couple of shops to see how much it would be to repair. Since I knew exactly what needed to be fixed the conversation was just about the price and we quickly had the quotes. All shops refused to use my own parts that I could buy much cheaper than they were quoting and their estimates ranged from $650 to $800 parts and labor. I called my friend who just started a shop and he quoted me $180 for the labor. After finding a $50 dollar off coupon for Advance Auto I ended up paying $95 for the parts for a total of $275. My mom was happy to save more than $350 on this one repair and I was happy to help her.
Looking at the same example from a different angle – I earned over $450 pre-tax ($350 after tax) for about an hour of my efforts that went into this process. This time I did not even do the repair work and still was able to save a ton of money just because I’m comfortable around cars. Without help, my mom would certainly end up paying $650-800 to get her car back on the road and that’s what most people would do in her situation as well. I have lots of other examples like this one and the amount we saved on car maintenance over the years is staggering. I don’t know a lot of other opportunities that will allow you to make this type of a return so it seems logical to suggest that learning how to work on your car is one of the best investments you can make in yourself.
Best part is that the skills, the knowledge and the tools are all transferable to other “expensive labor” parts of your life and you will find yourself well equipped to handle anything from a broken lawnmower to a malfunctioning HVAC unit.