How to Budget for Car Maintenance Costs

Don't be caught unprepared by surprise car maintenance costs. This guide will help you budget for everything, including the unexpected.

A vehicle owner and mechanic look under the hood to stay ahead of car maintenance costsShutterstock

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If you're looking to buy a car, you may think you'll easily be able to swing your monthly payment—but there are other car maintenance costs to think about, like insurance, gasoline, or even those pesky subscription services.

This guide will help you break down all the costs associated with owning a vehicle to better establish a reasonable budget once you've driven it off the lot.

Know Yourself—and Your Car—for Smarter Budgeting

When starting a budget for car maintenance, it's best to understand your driving behavior, seeing as it's likely that national averages for things like fuel consumption could be misaligned with your driving style or the car you drive. To start, it's best to understand the following:

  • How far you drive in a week and what you use your vehicle for
  • Costs of gas and automotive service in your area
  • Your driving style and the roads on which you drive
  • Your car's age, fuel mileage, and service history

For example, if you're consistently braking heavily while driving a used car on rutted roads, you can expect to replace brakes and suspension components more frequently than the national average.

Now that you have a basic picture of your habits, it's time to consider costs.

Weekly Costs

Weekly car costs include things you pay for on a regular basis. These include:

  • Gasoline — You can calculate the weekly costs of your gasoline by taking into consideration how many miles you drive per week, the size of your gas tank, your car's fuel economy, and the price of gasoline in your area. To reduce costs, consider joining a rewards program with a specific fuel brand.
  • Cleaning — Experts recommend that you wash your car every other week—although if you live in an area that salts the roads, or if you find that your car is always muddy, it may help to do it every week. Cleaning your car regularly can prevent rust and unnecessary damage. Automatic and self-service car wash prices vary by location, but you can expect to pay between $5 to $30. To reduce costs, try washing your car at home if possible.

Monthly Costs

Every month, you'll have regular payments to consider:

  • Financed payments — This is your "car payment," or the money you spend each month to pay off the cost of your car. Your monthly payment will vary based on the amount of money you owe, your credit score, the lender in question, and the length of the loan.
  • Insurance — Car insurance is required in most states and will vary based on location, your driving history, your age, as well as the age and cost/value of your car.
  • Parking — Renters often have monthly fees associated with using parking lots, and you may also be required to purchase a parking pass for your place of employment. These costs vary by location.

Costs for Six Months to a Year

Depending on your vehicle usage, you'll have a handful of greater car maintenance costs every six months to a year due to the following causes:

  • Inspection fees and property tax — If you live in a state that requires you to pay for a yearly inspection, this will be on your list. These fees vary based on location.
  • Consumables — After a certain number of manufacturer-set miles, you'll need to change oil, air filters, brake pads, and rotate your tires. These are often associated with fees from $25 to $500.
  • Larger services — Brake services, suspension alignment, and tire replacements will also come due once per year or once every two to three years. They're associated with higher costs, often more than $50.

Actual fees and service prices will vary depending on your location. Consult your owner's manual to understand when your manufacturer recommends repairs.

Costs for Five to Ten Years Out

If you plan to keep your car for a long time, or if you've purchased a used car that hasn't undergone any major service, you'll likely be due for some increased costs when you hit 60,000 to 120,000 miles. For many automakers, this is also the period when warranties expire, so it's important to be prepared for this milestone.

  • Major service — At this point, some of your more durable car components, like powertrain parts, suspension, engine, exhaust, electronics, or overall brake system may need repair or replacement.
  • Future repairs — If you've previously had a warranty that has now expired, note that all future repairs will be more expensive after this point because the manufacturer is no longer assisting with payment.

If you stay atop weekly, monthly, plus yearly maintenance and repair needs, you will likely be able to defer significant wear and damage expenses. However, all cars will need major repairs at some point, so it's best to be prepared for them.

Subscriptions for Car Maintenance

You may opt for certain car maintenance and feature subscriptions, such as:

  • Roadside assistance
  • SiriusXM radio
  • Spotify or Pandora music apps
  • OnStar telematics
  • Driver-assist technologies
  • Extended warranties
  • In-vehicle Wi-Fi

Beyond strictly maintenance costs, many people forget to calculate subscription services into their monthly budget. Also note that some services, like AAA roadside assistance, provide discounts for other automotive-related purchases or even access to theme parks.

Maintenance Emergencies

Accidents, sudden car maintenance concerns, and traffic tickets happen, and it's best to be prepared for them when they do. Finance experts recommend you should have three to six months' worth of living expenses saved up in the event of an emergency—but if that's too intimidating, start with $500.

To calculate your ideal emergency fund, you can use the information in this article to help understand your long-term car maintenance costs and what you could expect to pay during a six-month emergency period.

Stay Prepared for Surprise Car Maintenance Costs

Car expenses can creep up on you if you aren't paying attention, so consider this guide to better understand what you're currently paying for your vehicle, and how to budget appropriately. You can also use this guide to help predict, roughly, what your maintenance costs could be on any vehicle you buy in the future. After all, a car may seem like a good deal until you understand what you'll be paying each month. Budget wisely, and you won't have to worry.

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Elizabeth Blackstock
I’m Elizabeth Blackstock, and after growing up around the Detroit automotive industry, I’ve made it my life’s mission to make information about vehicles accessible for the average consumer. Whether you’re a hardcore auto enthusiast or someone looking for a practical machine for the daily commute, I’m here to help you make your most informed decision.