You know that sinking feeling when you see the “check engine” light illuminate your dashboard or hear strange noises coming from under your hood? That’s the dread of having to take your car to the shop and not knowing how you’ll pay for the repair.
National auto chains like Pep Boys, Midas and Firestone offer store credit cards because they know customers aren’t prepared to pay expensive repair bills. But going into debt isn’t the best money move.
You can’t just put off car maintenance until you have enough time to save either. And by the way, stop ignoring that check engine light.
“You need to maintain your car properly to help avoid breakdowns and failures that can be more expensive to fix,” said Michael Calkins, former manager of technical services for AAA. “If you take care of your car on a regular basis, you’re less likely to experience an unexpected failure.”
Having a stash of cash saved up before you need to go to the auto shop relieves that financial anxiety. Here’s your guide to how — and how much — to budget for car maintenance and repairs.
Prepare for What Lies Ahead
If your car is not under warranty, all maintenance and repair costs fall to you. Even with a warranty, it’s likely you’ll still have to foot a few expenses, like oil changes or new tires.
Your vehicle’s owners’ manual — what Calkins calls “the least-read book in the Western world” — lays out how frequently you should get certain work done. If you don’t have your manual, check your car manufacturer’s website for a digital copy. That’s your primary guide to how much to budget for car maintenance.
When your car will need servicing depends on the make and model, plus other factors like how often you’re on the road and if you’re driving in rough conditions.
“The most common maintenance job is an oil filter change,” Calkins said. “A typical oil change price can range anywhere from $30 for a quick lube job with conventional motor oil to upwards of $150 for a full synthetic oil change on a car that requires quite a bit of oil.”
Modern cars typically need oil changes every 5,000 to 10,000 miles, he said, but European imports using synthetic motor oil may go as far as 15,000 miles before needing an oil change.
Other forms of routine maintenance you’ll want to stay on top of include tire rotations and alignments, filter changes and even spark plug replacements. You can address this maintenance in 5,000-, 10,000- or even 20,000- and 30,000-mile intervals.
When you leave maintenance to a professional — especially a dealership service department that works on your specific make — you can also count on a thorough multi-point inspection. During this inspection, the mechanic will check things like your brakes, battery and engine for potential problems. And don’t worry: This inspection is usually included with the cost of the oil change. (But the repair work it results in, not so much.)
One common routine maintenance item people overlook when it comes to maintaining their cars is tire pressure. And that’s because you should be monitoring your tire pressure more regularly, between visits to the mechanic.
“There are a lot of cars running around with underinflated tires,” Calkins said. “Most newer cars have a tire pressure monitoring system that lights up a warning light on the dash when [a] tire is 25% low on pressure. But AAA feels that’s too late.”
He recommends checking the air pressure in your tires at least once a month, filling them up as necessary. As colder weather comes in, Calkins said it’s important to note that tires lose about one pound of pressure for every 10-degree drop in outside temperature.
Having properly inflated tires gives you the best handling and braking as well as the best fuel
How Much to Budget for Car Maintenance and Repairs
You can’t see into the future to know exactly when your car will need to be serviced and how much it’ll cost, but you can prepare for the inevitable.
A few years back, AAA conducted a study on the cost of auto repair; while they haven’t put out an updated study since, it’s safe to assume that rising inflation has slightly increased the costs in the last couple of years.
“First, the typical unexpected repair is in the $500 to $600 range,” Calkins said of the study. “We also found that 1 in 3 Americans couldn’t afford to do that repair without going into debt.”
So how can you start saving for unexpected car repairs and even just routine maintenance? We’ve got a few suggestions:
1. Set Aside $100 a Month, Per AAA
AAA recommends saving about $50 a month to cover unexpected repairs, which adds up to $600 a year. Then there’s the money you’ll need for maintenance. It will vary by car, but AAA recommends setting aside roughly the same amount that’s in your repair fund.
Auto website Edmunds has a car-cost calculator that includes estimated maintenance and repair expenses so you can narrow things down to your individual make and model.
Saving $100 each month for maintenance and repairs doesn’t mean you’ll need to use the money right away. You may skip a year or two without needing any major work and then end up spending over $1,000 on service.
2. Use Last Year’s Expenses to Inform This Year’s Budget
A different budgeting approach is to review how much you’ve spent on maintenance and repairs in the previous year and save up that much. However, keep in mind that each year may not mimic the next. If you recently had major work done, you might be safe to budget less. If your car is older and overdue for servicing, you should budget more.
3. Treat It Like a Car Payment … to Yourself
If you bought a new or certified pre-owned car, it likely came with a warranty. Depending on the manufacturer, the warranty may last just about as long as your scheduled car payments. That means, just as you’ve finally paid off your car, you’re going to be financially on the hook for larger repairs.
Since you’ve already adjusted your budget over the last three to five years to make the car payment, continue spending that money each month by shifting it from your checking account to your savings account. Let it sit there until you need it.
And if you miraculously don’t wind up needing it all by the time you go to sell your car? Well, you’ve got a healthy little down payment set aside for your next set of wheels.
4. Get Cheaper Car Insurance
If you haven’t thought about your car insurance in a while and you’ve got a clean driving record, it’s time to shop around. Get quotes from multiple car insurance agencies (check out Policygenius for an easy comparison), and explore what coverage you might be able to scale back, especially as your car ages.
If you wind up saving $20 a month, put that monthly $20 into your savings account to cover unexpected repairs. It likely won’t help with a full $600 bill, but every little bit counts.
How to Save Money on Auto Services
Having a relationship with a mechanic you trust is a good way to make sure you’re getting the work your car needs at a fair price.
“(AAA) found that 2 out of 3 motorists don’t trust auto repair shops,” Calkins said. “It’s a pretty common feeling. People think they might be getting ripped off.”
If you don’t have a regular mechanic, you can search for a AAA-approved auto repair shop. Calkins said the association evaluates various factors such as customer satisfaction, financial stability, business track record, technician certification and whether the facility is insured and has proper equipment.
You can also look for a shop recognized by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, or ASE. Checking the Better Business Bureau, asking friends and family for recommendations and reading online reviews are other ways of identifying trusted mechanics.
Getting service quotes from more than one shop could help you save money. You may be able to use a competitor’s price to negotiate a better deal with your preferred mechanic.
Ask about sales promotions and discounts, and look for coupons for oil changes or tires online or in your weekly circular.
An onboard diagnostic (OBD-II) scanner can help you determine why your car’s check engine light is on before going to an auto shop. You can buy an inexpensive one for under $20.
You’ll pay more to go to a dealership service center for your specific make, but they will use genuine OEM parts for better performance and efficiency, are specially trained for your vehicle and are governed by the actual vehicle manufacturer, meaning they’ve got more pressure to operate fairly. They’re also the only place you can get recall fixes done free of charge.
Another way to stay within your budget for car maintenance expenses is to do some of the work yourself — if you’re able. Just don’t cheap out on necessary parts or products, Calkins said.
“There’s a big difference in quality between a $3 oil filter and a $7 oil filter,” he said. “You can’t see it, but inside there is a big difference.”
Been a while since you turned a wrench? Use a service guidebook like a Haynes Manual (which is not to be confused with your owners’ manual) or watch free DIY auto repair videos online.
Keeping up with minor maintenance — like replacing worn-out windshield wipers, topping off fluids and keeping your tires properly inflated — will keep you from encountering worse (and more costly) trouble later on down the road.
Nicole Dow is a former senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Freelance writer Timothy Moore contributed to this report.