For me, cars are a major frugal skill fail.
I seriously felt like a rock star last week when I figured out how to put windshield washer fluid into our 15 passenger van.
One area that always makes me hesitate is all those recommendations they give you at Jiffy Lube when you get your oil changed. I almost always say no because I feel like they’re just trying to sell me extra stuff, but in reality, that stuff does probably need to be done at some point.
Frugal Mel would really like to know when that point really is. She’d also like to know when she has to do it and when it would be a really good idea to do it – because in reality those are probably two pretty different mileage numbers.
This is a prime example of ignorance costing money – either from spending it because the Jiffy Lube guys have frightened me into thinking I need something I don’t or from not maintaining something I should and now it costs more money to fix.
Jiffy Lube is super convenient and always has coupons out for oil changes, so I’m actually a big fan (and yes, those of you who are far frugal-er out there, I know the cheapest option is just to learn how to do it myself), but they are famous for their unnecessary upsells.
So today that ignorance ends!
For these examples, when possible we’re going to use my 2008 Toyota Matrix. But for you, check out your car’s manual and it will tell you exactly the optimum time for each maintenance item.
The confusion starts here, because you roll in to get a regular old oil change and suddenly you’re told there are 4 different kinds of oil. Is it better for your car to pay $10-50 more? Honestly, probably not. But Jiffy Lube knows you don’t know that and if you look at the wording in their ads, why would you buy anything less than Full Synthetic which has “the highest levels of protection and performance for ultimate peace of mind.”
This literally tells you nothing about the oil.
Jiffy Lube claims that more vehicle manufacturers today require it, so check out your manual to know for sure, but for the vast majority of folks, especially if you change your oil within a 3,000-7,500 interval, conventional oil is just fine. Synthetic is actually worth considering if you live in a desert (where temperatures are constantly hotter than average) or you tend to go too long between oil changes. This doesn’t make it ok to go longer between oil changes, but does make it likely that you will incur less damage.
Toyota Matrix: Suggested oil changes every 5,000 miles. No indication that synthetic oil is necessary.
Verdict: If you go in to get your oil changed, get your oil changed, but you probably only need conventional oil (unless your manual says otherwise), even if you own a high mileage vehicle.
Air Filtration Services
Air filters are used to keep the air you’re breathing clean and the air that flows through the engine clean. This is important because dirt and muck can clog up your engine.
So here’s some good news, if you wait way, way too long to change your air filter, it might make your car stop running, but it is unlikely to cause permanent damage to your engine. Just get the air filter changed. That being said, let’s just try to keep your car running.
Even better news, it’s seriously easy to learn how to change your air filter yourself. Multiple places have described it as about as difficult as hanging a picture. But if changing your own air filter isn’t your thing, the best way to know it needs to be changed is to ask to see it. You can tell if it’s really dirty or not.
That being said – make sure Jiffy Lube is showing you yours! There have been many reports of Jiffy Lube showing folks a disgusting filter only to find out it wasn’t even the same shape at their car’s filter.
Toyota Matrix: Change air filters every 30,000 miles or every 36 months, unless you live and drive in a dusty environment, then every 15,000 or 18 months.
Verdict: The best way to know if you need to change the air filter is to visually inspect it. If it looks too dirty, then let them change it, but make sure you know it’s your air filter!
Your batter powers the electrical system of your car. You can kill it by doing stupid things like walking away overnight with your headlights on (and I mostly call that a stupid thing because I’ve done it), but it will also stop holding a charge as well as it gets older.
Battery problems are a pain in the butt, because they will stop you in your tracks (remember Monster, the great eater of alternator belts? I speak from experience), so good battery maintenance is important. Fortunately, a lot of the time, your battery gives you a few warning signs before it quits on you. The headlights will seem dimmer. Your engine will struggle turning over. The horn may sound quieter. The engine struggling to turn over is the big one though.
While you can change the battery yourself, if you notice several of those things happening and the folks at Jiffy Lube recommend a new battery, they’re probably not just trying to hook you for $150-200 (because batteries are kind of pricey). If you’ve never noticed any of those issues and they tell you that you need a new battery, you probably have enough time to at least get a second opinion. That being said, batteries do also have a habit of just up and dying on you.
Toyota Matrix: Recommended every 4 years.
Verdict: Most people just drive until their battery stops working and then they replace it – this can vary anywhere from 5-10 years, with plenty of people who have stories about extraordinary battery life. Additionally, living in extreme temperatures, especially cold, will reduce the life of your battery.
Battery Terminal Cleaning
This is done to keep the contact point between the cables and your battery clean. Clean contact points mean that the electricity flows through easier. Very dirty contact points can keep the electricity from flowing at all – and it’s much cheaper to just clean the contact points than to replace the battery.
Good news – it’s really easy to see when your battery terminals look gross. Now, it’s pretty easy to clean the battery terminals on your own at home with a toothbrush, some baking soda and water after disconnecting the cables, but if you’re not interested in doing this task yourself, just ask the Jiffy Lube guy to see the battery. You’ll know if you are looking at some corroded, gross terminals and then it is probably worth it to pay to have them cleaned.
Toyota Matrix: There is no set time for this maintenance to occur.
Verdict: If your battery terminals look dank, let Jiffy Lube clean them.
Brake Fluid Exchange
I’ll level with you here – I don’t understand much about brakes and if a Jiffy Lube technician really wants to freak me out, he can just say there’s something wrong with them. I do know my brakes need to work.
That beings said, brake fluid is one of the things that often comes up in that checklist that go over before you says “no, I just want the oil changed.”
So brake fluid helps your brakes to work. It transfers force into pressure and makes it easier to brake. The reason it needs to be changed every couple of years is that moisture can seep into the system. When moisture gets in, the system can start to corrode, which makes your brakes less effective. Moisture also lowers the boiling temperature of the fluid, which makes your hard stops less effective too.
Toyota Matrix: Unofficially, change brake fluid every 2-3 years for total peace of mind, but you can push it to 4-5 years without worrying too much. Officially, Toyota doesn’t specifically say in their manual.
Verdict: Most cars benefit from having their brake fluid changed every 4-5 years, although some cars, like Chevrolets, say they can go 150,000 miles before needing to flush the brake fluid.
Coolant System Flush
The coolant system in your car keeps it from overheating. Sometimes dirt and scale (do you have a Keurig? Yup, scale just like that) can build up in your coolant system and make it ineffective. If your Check Engine light is on, a Low Coolant light is on or your engine just keeps overheating, these are signs you should consider having your coolant system flushed.
Say you ignore this service, in the long run, you are likely to do some major damage to your engine. You can also destroy the radiator, heater core and other cooling system components. So every 5 years or so, it’s a good idea to pay for the service. Your coolant should have a freezing point of -34 Fahrenheit. The mechanic should be able to do a pH test to let you know what the freezing point of your coolant is – if it’s much higher than -34, it’s time to replace it.
Toyota Matrix: For most Toyotas, the coolant system should be flushed at 100,000 miles.
Verdict: In general, most cars should have their coolant system flushed every 40,000-50,000 miles (or roughly every 5 years for the average driver).
Fuel System Cleaning
So first, you might wonder exactly what the fuel system is (I sure did). It starts where you think it might, with the gas tank, and then it follows your gas out of the tank, along the fuel lines, through fuel filters, fuel pumps, fuel injectors and includes the spark plug.
Fuel injectors have a tiny nozzle on them that sprays out the gas. Ideally, the gas come out like hairspray, with a thin mist, but if the nozzle gets clogged, more gas comes out thicker and it doesn’t ignite as well.
Jiffy Lube’s recommendation to clean your fuel system might be legit if you’ve noticed a loss in power, your gas mileage is lower or the car hesitates when you put your foot down.
Toyota Matrix: There is no service recommendation.
Verdict: My research has returned very mixed on this. Some people claim to have cars that they put 300,000 miles on and never once flushed the fuel system. People who err on the side of caution seem to recommend doing it as part of a 100,000 mile check up.
Man, if I had a penny for every time some Jiffy Lube guy compared my tires to shoes and then scammed me for ridiculous quantities of money – especially when I was a teenager. Ugh.
Here’s the deal of tire rotation – tires don’t wear exactly evenly. It is to your benefit to rotate them so the treads wear down kind of even. Treads are what give you traction and their depth really matters when you’re driving in rain or snow.
You can buy tires from many places that will rotate them for free. You can also learn how to rotate them yourself pretty easily.
Toyota Matrix: No set recommendation.
Verdict: Rotate your tires every 5,000-8,000 miles or every other oil change.
Transmission Fluid Change
Your transmission gets the power from the engine down to the wheels. It acts as a lubricant to keep everything in the transmission moving freely.
The majority of us who know little about our cars are probably driving automatics. Automatic transmissions actually generate more heat, so the transmission fluid actually breaks down while it’s being used. Over time, all the dirt and muck becomes all that remains and that’s what starts to lubricate your transmission. Changing the transmission fluid is a major player in keeping your transmission working, and if you don’t, transmissions are a pretty expensive fix.
Toyota Matrix: Transmission fluids on automatics are expected to last a lifetime.
Verdict: You should definitely make a transmission fluid change part of your car’s maintenance plan. Check your manual for specifics, but most of the time you’ll be ok changing out your transmission fluid anywhere between 60,000 and 100,000 miles.
One final hint, just throw a little notebook into your glove compartment and write down the mileage that you do any of these additional services at – then you’ll know if you’re coming up on a manufacturer recommended service. This is especially useful if you use different companies for oil changes who only track the last time they performed a service.
I also like to think of this a little like cooking or any other skill you can develop over time. The above are baseline suggestions, just like you can crack an egg, add a pinch of milk and scramble that sucker in a microwave. It’s a real breakfast. You are fed. Over time though, you might refine this recipe and add spices or vegetables or all sorts of things – both are still breakfast. Over time you might learn all about the different chemicals that make up the different oils and realize that a particular one is better for you and how you handle your car – but if you don’t just start out with that basic oil change, you’re not getting any breakfast! …or something like that. ;o)