A car-care checklist for college students that can help you save money

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By Andrew Ganz

A guide to basic car maintenance

One of the most valuable lessons a college student can learn is to invest in vehicle maintenance. A car kept up today will last longer and cost less down the road. The key is to prevent future car problems by faithfully continuing vehicle maintenance.

Being a college student with a car is great (when you can have one on campus). However, between books, housing, tuition, and maybe a little fun and travel on the side, a college student’s budget can quickly run dry.

Here are some valuable tips to help college students stay on top of car maintenance without breaking the bank.

A college student’s guide to basic car maintenance

You don’t have to spend a lot of money today to help ensure your vehicle stays as trouble-free as possible down the road. Many of the best ways to maintain a car only take a few minutes, and they apply to just about every new vehicle.

Keep your tires in shape

Check your tire pressure. It’s easy to forget to check your tire pressure. Incorrect tire pressure leads to premature wear and can negatively impact fuel economy. Tires are expensive – at least $100 each plus another $20 to have them installed – and even a few more mpg means fewer trips to the gas pump. A quality tire pressure gauge only costs a few bucks and can migrate into the glove box of every car you ever own.Check your owner’s manual for tire information. Your vehicle’s owner’s manual will tell you what pressure the manufacturer recommends. Stick to that number, but be sure to confirm that the tire size on the vehicle matches that listed in the manual. Some cars were offered with multiple tire sizes when new, and recommended pressures can vary accordingly.Care for the spare. Don’t forget about your spare tire. It may have a different pressure recommendation, too. While you’re down at the tire level, grab a penny and insert it into the tread. You shouldn’t be able to see the top of Abraham Lincoln’s head. If you do, head to a tire shop for an inspection.Rotate your tires regularly. Rotating your tires from position to position around the vehicle is critical to their longevity and reduces strain on its suspension. Rotating tires regularly – every 5,000 or so miles – will ensure even tread wear, which keeps them lasting longer. It’s also a good opportunity for a qualified mechanic to look at the tires anyway.Have your tires balanced. Tires and wheels must be balanced to roll smoothly. An imbalanced wheel will make the vehicle shake at speed, which is uncomfortable and quick to lead to costly suspension component failures. Balancing tires and wheels requires special equipment, but it is critical to safe driving.Carry tire repair sealant. Store a can of tire sealant in your car. Often referred to by the popular brand name “Fix-A-Flat,” it can work as a temporary fix for a small puncture. If you have a significant cut in the sidewall, no sealant will be robust enough to plug that hole. Additionally, these cans will provide some air but probably not enough to fill up a big SUV tire. Tire sealant is an excellent backup, but a spare tire with the correct air pressure is a better bet.

See: 20 ways to squeeze better gas mileage out of your car

Maintain your battery’s health

Your car’s battery may look innocuous – it’s housed in a big plastic box typically under the hood – but it handles vital functions.

Keep an eye on your battery. Every month or so, it’s worth popping the hood to look at the terminals on the battery for signs of corrosion. Disconnect the battery and use a wire brush to clean them off if they are. Corrosion can lead to premature battery wear.Listen for the warning signals. Maybe you’ve noticed it’s taking longer than usual to start your car. Or perhaps some electrical issues such as a wonky radio, window, or auto lock are slightly off. That may also be a sign that the battery is on its way out.Test your battery. An auto parts store can test your battery’s health with a simple inspection. And if you need a new one, it can cost over $150, though most auto parts stores will at least install the new battery for free.Carry jumper cables. Always carry jumper cables. You never know when you’ll encounter a stranded motorist, even if it’s not yourself.

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Check and top off your fluids

Engine oil, coolant, and gear oil run through every significant mechanical component of your car. They need to be inspected and replaced at regular intervals. These fluids keep the gears turning and prevent the vehicle from overheating and ruining its engine.

Check your oil. Oil changes need to be performed every 3,000 to 10,000 miles; to find out how often, consult your car’s owner’s manual (typically available for free online in PDF form on a manufacturer’s website). An oil change can run from $25 to $250 on a high-end car. In addition to keeping track of the interval between oil changes, you should use your car’s dipstick to check its level. Consider doing this once or twice between oil changes on a newer car. If your vehicle has over 100,000 miles, you may want to do this more often. A low-oil reading on the dipstick means fluid is going somewhere, which is not normal.Check your coolant. Additionally, look at the coolant level. The overflow tank under the hood will have readings for “hot” and “cold.” Ensure the coolant is at the right level, whether the car is hot or cold. If you have to add any, do so when the engine is cold, and be sure to use the correct type of coolant. Again, an auto parts store can help you determine this. Your owner’s manual will spell out other fluid change intervals, too. Think of fluid changes like regular toothbrushing and visits to the dentist, which can help ward off the costly replacement of a failed transmission due to old or low fluid.Check your wiper fluids. While looking at fluids, give your windshield washer fluid reservoir and the wiper blades themselves a glance. Windshield washer fluid is very cheap, and even wipers may only cost $12 to $15 each.

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Clean your car regularly

A clean car is more than just lovely to behold. Crumbs inside can attract insects and rodents, which can do costly damage to wiring, insulation, and upholstery.

Watch for rodents. A little mouse that chews through wiring on its way to an errant crumb may cost thousands of dollars in damage.Use quality cleaning products. When it comes to the car’s exterior, regular washing with quality soaps is vital. Also, an excellent protective wax will keep the paint finish shiny and ward off light scratches and metal-eating corrosion.Keep your car neat. A well-kept vehicle holds its value better than a neglected heap. When it comes time to sell or trade for a different car, potential buyers notice the difference.

Regularly inspect your lights

Light bulbs are considered wear items on your car. These items can get you a fix-it ticket from the police.

Do a nighttime walk-around. Ask a friend to walk around the car and check your brake lights, turn signals, and reverse lights operate as they should.Swap bulbs when they dim. Automotive light bulbs tend to be inexpensive. It’s not worth using aftermarket bulbs, even if they produce a whiter hue. Bulbs equivalent to those installed by the automaker will do the job much better and cost less.

Get your brakes inspected

Your brakes could be the most critical part of your car.

Inspect your brakes. Many shops offer free brake pad and rotor inspections. A mechanic will measure the thickness of the brake pads and rotors to ensure that they are up to par.Replace brake parts when needed. Replacing brake pads, rotors, and, if necessary, wear sensors can be done at home by a handy do-it-yourself driver for most vehicles. Doing so at home may save an hour or two of a mechanic’s labor charge.

Check the heating and air conditioning system

Hot air should be hot and cold air should be cold. Sounds simple, right? A functioning climate control system makes you more comfortable in the car, but it can also give you an idea of how well the car’s cooling system is operating.

Check heat intensity. A heater that barely pumps out warm air hints at a more significant cooling system issue. It could mean that there’s a substantial engine problem.Check cool air effectiveness. Air conditioning systems can be recharged at home using kits that cost around $50 from an auto parts store. But a mechanic should check for leaks if the system soon blows warm air again. A weak heater may mean a heater core needs to be flushed. Thankfully, a handy shade-tree mechanic may be able to repair some cars at home.

Watch for the check engine light

What about if the check engine light illuminates on your dashboard? This little reminder is your car’s way of telling you that something is amiss.

Get a diagnostic test. A repair shop or even a car parts store can plug a code reader into the vehicle to help narrow down what’s wrong with it. Occasionally, a check engine light may signal something as simple as an untightened fuel cap. But it also may suggest a significant underlying issue that could be cheaper and easier to fix now than down the road.

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Be prepared with an emergency kit

Even if your car fails just a couple of miles from home, you’ll want to be prepared just in case. Here’s a quick rundown of equipment to keep in the car, perhaps nestled alongside the spare tire:

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