Fuel Economy: How To Get The Best Value

Non-ethanol gasoline pump
What you drive and how you drive are obvious major factors in fuel economy.  Getting the best value at the pumps, though, is too often overlooked.  Consider these when you fill up and you could get a lot more bang for your buck.   

Watch the pump.  We’re not claiming gas stations do it on purpose, but human and mechanical errors occasionally happen.  Before you fill, verify the price per gallon is the same on the pump as it is on the sign.  And when you turn on the pump, make sure the total price zeroes out properly.  State inspectors test pumps for accuracy periodically, not continuously.  If you spot a problem, make it known--and use a different pump.

Regular, premium or ethanol?  We don’t all drive the same kind of car in the same manner under the same conditions, so we can’t make blanket statements about which gasoline is the clear value winner.  If your owner's manual confirms it’s okay, try several tankfuls of each grade and track your results to determine which is the best value.  Premium could have only a placebo effect, or it could allow your engine to run more efficiently and offset the higher cost per gallon with improved mileage.  There’s only one way to find out.

Don’t top up.  If you really must have an even dollar amount of fuel, prepay.  Otherwise, accept the reality that it does not matter what numbers are displayed.  If your tank is full, it’s full.  Topping up is a waste of fuel, money and time.  You wind up stirring (and buying) more vapors than gas with those annoying ka-thunks of the pump.  Stations’ vapor recovery systems are working against you, not to cheat you, but to limit the fumes released into the atmosphere when you have a full tank but stubbornly press on.  Whatever additional gas you do get makes your car’s vapor collection system (also known as the evap canister) work overtime, shortening its service life and lowering gas mileage.   

Enroll in programs.  Some gas station chains offer free rewards programs that cut your per-gallon price without the commitment or restrictions of a credit card.  These are sometimes be tied in with supermarkets.  If you already use one or both, you can increase your value at the pump with minimal effort.

Cash or credit?  Speaking of credit cards, pay attention to stations that set prices differently for payment by cash or plastic; something seen often at stations around freeways.  Consider gas company credit cards if your usage and their structure can translate to everyday savings.  If it’s just another credit card with high interest rates, take a pass.  You’ll only wind up paying more in the end.

Don’t spend to save.  Marketing has bombarded us for years with the hype of driving a little to save a lot.  To see how this isn’t a universal truism, look no further than the guy who’s driven miles through heavy traffic and is now idling, in gear, waiting his turn for a gas pump that’s three cents cheaper than the station near his home.  He neither drove a little nor did he save a lot.  Discuss.    

Use a gas mileage tracker.  You can’t really know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.  Several apps are available for smartphones that let you enter details with each fill, and track your mileage and use habits over time.  To the earlier point of trying different grades of gas, a tool like this eliminates guesswork and considerably narrows the margin of error.  The value here is not instant, but with more data you will be able to identify trends and adjust accordingly.
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