1. Check your spare tire.
It’s just as important to keep the backup tire inflated as it is the four tires under your car. The last thing you want is to discover your spare is flat while you’re pulling the jack out of your trunk. That’s when you’ll need to call a tow truck—which can run you hundreds of dollars. It’s better to spend a dollar on an air pump to inflate your spare. That way you’re spared the cost of a tow.
Maintenance Tip: Test the air pressure of your driving tires and your spare tire once a month.
2. Change the oil.
How much can your car’s oil affect your budget? Oh, plenty. Oil problems can be some of the costliest car maintenance issues to fix, since oil affects a lot of your car’s functions. It’s better to spend as little as $25 to get the oil changed than to put it off and risk wearing out your engine—which costs a lot more than $25 to replace.
Maintenance Tip: Change the oil every 5,000 miles or follow what is recommended by your car manufacturer.
3. Keep the battery clean.
Corrosion (which looks like white or bluish powder) can form on the terminals of your battery. If you don’t keep them clean, the battery could develop a crack or not function properly, leaving you stranded. Since a quality car battery can cost upwards of $100—and a tow can run you even more—buying a $5 wire brush and keeping the terminals looking spiffy is money well spent.
Maintenance Tip: Test your battery twice a year and inspect it for corrosion.
4. Replace the brake pads.
Do you hear a squeaking sound when you hit the brakes? If so, your brake pads could be on their last legs. A new set can cost up to $300 for all four wheels, plus the labor charge if a professional installs them. We know that price tag may seem hefty. But being able to stop before rear-ending that Lexus in front of you is priceless.
Maintenance Tip: Check the brake fluid every time you change the oil to be sure it’s not dark in color. If it is, you’re going to need to change the brake system sooner rather than later.
5. Replace your air filter.
Your car’s air filter keeps pollutants from coming in through the vents. The air filter has a pretty important job, so you want to treat it well. Plus using an old air filter long past its life can lead to major problems for your air conditioning system. And trust us, you don’t want that. Replacing your full AC unit can run anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000.
Maintenance Tip: Change your air filter every 12 months or 12,000 miles.
6. Get new windshield wipers.
Depending on the make and model of your car, buying new windshield wipers can run you from $30 to $50 for the pair. While that seems like a hefty price tag for something so small, efficient wipers are a necessity when you’re out on the open road. After all, if you can’t see the road, you really shouldn’t be driving. And if you don’t clean the windshield, dirt can build up over time and may even cause the glass to break down. Just remember, new windshield wipers are much cheaper than a brand-new windshield ($100 to $500).
Maintenance Tip: Check your windshield wipers at the change of each season and replace them when necessary.
7. Get your tires rotated.
Did you know you can easily extend the life of your tires just by rotating them every so often? It’s true! All four tires on your car do not wear down in the same way. Sometimes the front or back set of tires can wear down at different rates depending on your car, your speed and your roads. Rotate those tires and you can extend their life and save yourself $400 to $800 for a brand-new set of four.
Maintenance Tip: Rotate your tires every 3,000 to 5,000 miles.
8. Check the shocks, springs and struts (suspension system).
The suspension system is one of the intricate parts of your car that you most likely take for granted. Most of us rarely think about it—until it stops doing its job and makes a roller coaster ride out of your ride. If you find that one of the shocks does need to be replaced, make sure to replace all four of them. We know, it’s sad but true.
Maintenance Tip: Check the shocks and full suspension system every 15,000 to 30,000 miles.
9. Check your coolant.
If you don’t stay on top of changing your coolant, you run the risk of serious corrosion inside your car. The coolant affects everything from the heater and air conditioner to the radiator and water pump. For something that impacts that much of your car’s overall health, you don’t want to skip the maintenance on this one.
Maintenance Tip: It’s a good idea to check your coolant twice a year—once before the warm weather hits and again before the cold weather swoops in.
10. Check your spark plugs.
Oh, spark plugs. They’re the one car part everyone seems to have heard of. And that’s for good reason. If your engine is giving you trouble, one of the common reasons (and easy fixes) is the spark plugs. And since engine work can be out-of-this-world expensive, swapping out a $15 to $30 spark plug is a small price to pay for avoiding major engine overhaul. Replacing the engine could run you anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000!
Maintenance Tip: Check and change the spark plugs about every 30,000 miles.
11. Inspect your belts and hoses.
Giving your belts and hoses a once-over can save you from a huge mechanic bill later on down the road. Worn-down belts can cause other damage to essential components of your car. And if you have a weak radiator hose, it could go belly up completely, which would cause your engine to overheat and not run at all. That’s bad news.
Maintenance Tip: Replace your timing belt every 60,000 miles and your serpentine belt every 40,000 miles. It’s recommended that you change your hoses every four years or whenever one is showing signs of wear.
12. Do the emissions inspection.
Depending on the state or even county you live in, your car may be required to pass a state emissions inspection. By keeping up with the necessary car maintenance on your vehicle, it should pass with flying colors. But if it doesn’t get a gold star, that’s something you want to know too. The emissions facility will tell you what failed and what needs to be fixed in order to fully pass the inspection.
Maintenance Tip: Don’t forget to take your car in for inspection once a year. Check with your local department of motor vehicles to know the specific requirements in your state.