Cars are expensive. And I don’t just mean expensive like eating out at a nice restaurant is expensive. I mean AUUUGHHH!!!! MY CAR IS SUCKING UP WAY TOO MUCH MONEY HOWEVER WILL I SURVIVE!!! Expensive. But thankfully, there are ways to minimize car costs if not get rid of them altogether. And in general, they all boil down to the same single trick:
Use the Internet.
That’s it. All your expensive car problems are now magically solved! Tada! Feel free to send me a huge thank-you email after you’ve saved hundreds if not thousands of dollars.
What’s that? You don’t think the internet can help? Ok, ok, fine… let me explain with my own example.
A couple months ago, as I was just starting out on a long, 7-hour trip to my parents’ place in upstate NY, all of a sudden my Prius dash lit up like a Christmas tree with Warning lights. My engineer brain suddenly went “DING DING DING!!! ERROR!! DOES NOT COMPUTE!!! MUST FIX!!!” followed immediately by “Oh NO!! What if I can’t make it all the way and get stranded in the middle of the Adirondacks?!?” And so I started trying to figure out the problem, right there going down the highway at over 100 kph (that’s about 60 mph, for all you English-units folks).
The first thing I noticed – which didn’t really take an effort on my part – was that I was suddenly slowing down, and I thought I had lost engine power completely. I tried the gas pedal which worked fine, so then I realized whatever went wrong had simply disengaged my cruise control. I tried setting the cruise again but the system immediately kicked it off again, and the cruise light start blinking angrily at me.
“Hm, this is not good,” I thought. “I better get off at the next exit and walk around the car, make sure no wheels are falling off or anything like that.”
As I was slowing down to get off the exit, I noticed something was funny with the brakes – they worked fine, but I had to press the brake pedal much further. I looked at the dash and noticed the fancy braking system in my Prius (fancy braking system = regenerative, battery-charging brakes + regular brake pads) was not working completely, and the regenerative braking part didn’t seem to be functioning.
Here I need to get on a soapbox for a minute and interject something that to me was obvious but to the average user might not – I knew the brakes were functioning this way, because I knew what each and every light and dial and graph and bar on my dash represents. I CANNOT stress this enough. “But Mr. EfficiencyNerd, I don’t know what all those funny dials and lights on my dash mean!” And I would say that’s your problem, not mine. If you want to make your life more efficient, and be able to diagnose problems with your own car, it is your responsibility to FIGURE OUT WHAT YOUR CAR IS TELLING YOU. The other option is to pay someone $100+ per hour to figure out what your car is telling you, while you sit around at the car dealership wasting your time. But you’re not reading this blog because you want to waste time, are you? You’re reading this blog to have a more efficient life. And guess what? There’s an awesome and completely free hack to learn what all the dash lights and symbols and graphs are on your car, that you have access to right now, without having to go anywhere! Can you guess what it is? That’s right, there it is again… the internet. But I digress.
Anyway, there I was, pulling off the exit ramp and driving to the closest parking lot I could find to take a look at my car. The car seemed to drive completely normally with exception to the weird braking and several warning lights, so I figured that was probably a good sign that nothing too major was broken. Then just as I was pulling into a parking lot… all the warning lights went off.
“Wait, what?” I wondered aloud. “So much for that…” I stopped in the parking lot anyways, and walked around the car, looking for anything suspicious. I gave each tire a good shove with my foot, and they all felt fine and solid, and didn’t look soft. Nothing that I could see was hanging down below the car. So… I got back in, and continued my trip. The lights came on a couple more times during my trip, and each time went back off several minutes later, until finally they stayed off completely, and I warily finished my trip without any issues.
I knew those lights didn’t just turn themselves on however, so something should probably be done. But did I immediately try to call a service shop? Of course not! I used the internet to search for the specific warning lights and issues I was seeing, to see if anyone had experienced similar symptoms, and what their end problem was. I found several forum posts where users had the same issues on the same type of car I had – score! It looked like it was possibly a couple different things, but the best way to figure it out would be to have someone with a scanner read the error codes with a computer through the car’s OBD plug. One user suggested I give my location and they could try to point me to a local reputable shop. As it turned out, there was another forum user who lived very close to where I was at the time (my parents’ house), and had a full scanner that could read all the error codes. After sending him a message the guy agreed to meet me and plug his computer into my car completely free. I could not believe my luck!
(Sidenote here: I must comment that the PriusChat forums are absolutely awesome! Huge shout-out and thanks to the users who freely helped me out. Those forums are particularly geared towards Prius owners, of course, but I’ve seen posts about other cars as well. And there are similar maintenance/help forums for all other kinds of cars as well, you just have to use the Internet to do a little searching.)
After reading the error codes, it turned out a sensor that was part of a rear wheel bearing/hub assembly was going bad. With a bit more Googling, I found detailed instructions with pictures showing how to replace the bearing. I also found a good-quality aftermarket bearing online for about $200 (CAD) shipped, ordered it, and a few weeks later replaced it in a couple hours on a fine Saturday morning.
But… my troubles didn’t end there. A couple weeks after replacing that bearing, I started to hear a funny noise! My first thought was that I must have received a bad bearing, so I put the old bearing back in. Nope, still noisy. Once again turning to the internet, I determined it was most likely something to do with the tires or a different wheel bearing. It was almost time to switch back to my summer tires, so I switched them out anyways to see if that was causing the noise. Nope, not the tires… probably a bearing, then. There are plenty of videos online showing you how to determine which bearing was bad, so I tried several things to determine which bearing it was, but in the end couldn’t figure out which one it was, or if it was actually a bearing. So I actually did the thing I hate… I took my car to a Toyota dealer, and paid them $118 for up to an hour’s worth of diagnosis.
I know what you’re thinking… “HA! Even you, the infamous EfficiencyNerd, still go to the shop! Not so high and mighty now, are ya?!?” Hang on, not so fast. The difference between me and the average car owner is that taking the car to a mechanic was my last resort, not my first step. I felt like a total wussypants doing it, too, and was feeling very incompetent and questioned my self-esteem. That didn’t last long, however. After about 45 minutes, the mechanic came back and told me I was right, it was a bearing, the rear one opposite the one I had previously replaced with what I thought was a bad sensor. He showed me a print out with a quote, showing charges for labour and the part they would need to order, to the tune of over $600.
“600 DOLLARS!!!” I shouted at him. “You’ve got to be KIDDING me!!!!” I grabbed the print-out from his hands and ripped it to shreds, stormed out of there, squealing my tires as I peeled out of the parking lot, and spraying loose gravel all over their brandy-new shiny cars and trucks, just like any sane person would if they were shown a quote that high for a simple wheel bearing replacement.
Okay, no, I didn’t do that. I calmly said I had experience replacing a wheel bearing, so thanks, but I would take care of the replacement myself. I paid the outrageous $118 for the simple diagnosis, thankful that I at least now knew what the problem was without having to guess as it. I knew how to order a part online for much cheaper than the dealership, and I was confident that I could replace the bearing in about an hour and half having done it before, when they wanted to charge ~$275 for an estimated 2.5 hours of labour. So not only was I going to be more efficient and faster than their mechanic, I was going to save a boatload of money – essentially, paying myself at a rate of over $100 an hour. My faith in DIY and always trying to figure things out myself was restored and strengthened. And guess what – you can do the same thing! At first you will have to buy some tools, but tools usually last a lifetime and if you look around in the used markets of kijiji or craigslist they can be had for fairly cheap. So what are you waiting for? Go out there and be efficient!
P.S. – This article is mostly about how to do your own maintenance on your cars in order to save money, which is only one aspect of the expensiveness of cars. But there are several other aspects of car costs, such as which cars to buy, new vs used, and how much you drive. Those will likely get their own post in the future.
Epilogue: My first step to diagnosing the noise issue was to put the old bearing (which I thought had a bad sensor) back in the first side, which I then left in for a while… and so far the sensor issue and dash warning lights haven’t come back. So it seems the issue was really a bad connection, not the bearing/hub itself, and after I cleaned up the connector a bit that has fixed the issue. So my total costs for both of these issues were about $320 ($200 for the bearing+shipping, and $118 for the dealership diagnosis). Had I let the dealership do all the work, I would have been about $1200-1300 poorer by the time everything was done. I spent around 15-20 hours total between Googling things and actually replacing them, so if you figure I saved $900, I basically paid myself $50 an hour (with no income taxes!) for all this work. That’s what I call being Efficient!
Do you have any questions or concerns? Feel free to leave them below in the comments, or contact me directly!