Create a Maintenance Budget

January 14, 2010

There is a small list of items you can (and should) easily keep track of to assure a long, healthy life for your car. You may rely on your mechanic, or a dealership to tell you what and when, or like me, you may prefer to keep track of maintenance on your own. In either case, we've got to pay to keep our vehicles in good shape. The tricky part is that the costs can vary quite a bit depending on the age of the vehicle and the required maintenance at any given time. For example, I spend about $30 on an oil change a few times a year. Not that bad right? But then every few years I should expect to spend more like $500 on new tires. That can be a huge problem if you're not expecting it. I'm not going to get into the details of maintenance schedules in this post (I will later, so stay tuned), but I'm going to provide you with some tips about what kind of things you should expect to wear out and need replacement. Specifically, certain parts on our cars are designed to wear out and be replaced after a given amount of time or mileage.

On a regular basis, you should be prepared to change small things like your oil and oil filter, wiper blades and washer fluid, and maybe even brake pads. Over the course of a year, these items may only add up to a few hundred bucks, but if you've only budgeted for fuel costs, things could get tight. Take a look at how many times per year (on average) you replace those items. Some newer cars may only require one oil change per year. Depending on the nature of your daily commute, you may blast through a set of brake pads in a year, or they may last you 50k+ miles. Estimate the total cost and add that to your normal budget. That's not all though.

There will be less frequent but more expensive items like tires, and tune-ups. A $500 set of tires can be an unpleasant purchase, even if you only do it every 5 years. Divide that cost up over time though, and you're spending a $100 per year on tires. The same goes for tune-ups. It's normal for newer cars to go 80k-100k between tune-ups. If the only things you're addressing at that point are spark plugs and wires, maybe ignition coils and a fuel filter, it shouldn't cost you too much (unless you drive a more exotic car and exactly following the factory recommended service schedule). If you're not sure about the cost of a tune-up, your mechanic or dealer should be able to give you a quote. Make sure you know exactly what they are including in the quote.

The bottom line is, if you add all of this up and divide it into your yearly or monthly budget it won't seem so bad compared to what you are already spending on fuel. Remember, this doesn't include unexpected repairs, but you should be somewhat prepared for that, too.

I found it interesting to calculate my maintenance costs per mile I drive my car. Here's how to do it. Add up how much you spend on each item in a year - oil, filters, wipers, tires, etc. This will depend on how many times these items get replaced annually. For tires, you probably won't buy a set every year, so it's going to be a fraction. Buy a $400 set of tires every 4 years or so, and it's $100 a year. I think you get the idea. Then decide how many miles you drive your car each year. This will all vary, but use an average. Then divide the total cost of maintenance in one year by the total mileage driven. That will be the regular maintenance cost associated with driving your car one mile. For example, if you drive your car 12k miles and spend $480 maintaining it in an average year, your cost per mile is going to be $0.04. Make sense? Not much, right? Let's say you spend $2400 on fuel per year. Your fuel cost per mile will be $0.20. When you put it into perspective, maintaining your car seems like a reasonable investment. 

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