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Cut Your Car Costs

Saving money just takes a little creativity — try these clever tricks

En español | Americans love driving — and pay dearly for it. In 2010 it cost more than $8,500 to drive a midsize sedan 15,000 miles, according to the American Automobile Association, which factored in gasoline, maintenance, insurance, and depreciation. Car expenses run second only to housing costs in the United States, and they are getting no cheaper: Compact used cars sell for almost 17 percent more than they did in summer 2010, reveals the Manheim used-car price index.

See also: More tips to cut car and gas costs.

Cut Your Car Costs in Half

Photo by Dan Saelinger

Relax — we have tips to cut your car costs.

But there's good news: New technology and old-fashioned common sense can transform your driving lifestyle and cut your costs in half, or more. Here's how.

Learn to Share

Typically touted as a transportation alternative for the young and the carless, a car-sharing service that rents vehicles by the hour or day makes sense for older drivers, too — especially those who can combine it with biking, walking, and mass transit. Market leader Zipcar operates in 15 metropolitan areas and on more than 230 college campuses, and rental giant Hertz recently launched a similar program, Hertz on Demand. About 12 percent of Zipcar's 605,000 members are over 50 — among them, retired financial manager Patricia Hogan, 74, of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her annual car costs are now about $1,400 a year, less than half of what she once spent to keep her old Toyota on the road. "I love driving, but I wouldn't own another car for all the tea in China," says Hogan.

If you own a car that sits all day, you can put it to work by joining a peer-to-peer car-share service such as RelayRides or Getaround; they allow members to rent vehicles from one another. And if you haven't done it since grade school, reconsider carpooling. Dr. David Rizzo, a 60-year-old Los Angeles podiatrist and transportation expert known as Dr. Roadmap, calls it "the best possible way to immediately cut your driving costs in half." Alternating drivers saves gas (one rider doubles your passenger miles per gallon*) and reduces vehicle wear. To help set up a pool, websites Carpool Connect and eRide Share let users leave messages and find commuters seeking rides. Or try GoLoco, a carpoolers' social media site that sends alerts when friends (or friends of friends) are heading places they want to go.

Rizzo, alas, can't follow his own advice: He averages 100 miles a day seeing patients around Los Angeles. For solo drivers, route planning is key. Instead of multiple short hops, pack several trips into one longer errand, and drive to your farthest destination first (that also gets the engine warm, so it runs most efficiently). To plan an itinerary, smartphone users can use the free app Maps + Compass; to monitor traffic, download the app Aha, which gives real-time road info. To find cheap gas, preview prices online at GasBuddy or GasPriceWatch.

Next: Consistent maintenance is key. >>

Keep It Running

Gone are the days when many drivers felt as if they needed to replace their vehicle every few years: Today's cars are staying in service longer than ever. According to the marketing firm R. L. Polk, the average age of cars and light trucks on the road now is 10.2 years — 21 percent older than it was 14 years ago.

You know the car-survival drill: Change the oil regularly, rotate the tires, and don't ignore weird noises, especially squeaky brakes, says Fort Myers, Florida, technician Pam Oakes, author of Car Care for the Clueless: "Nothing is more important than your brakes. If your car doesn't start, it's frustrating, but it's not going to be dangerous." Get your hands dirty and do easy preventive maintenance yourself — changing wiper blades, topping off fluids, checking belts and hoses for wear. For gas savings and safety, check tire pressure monthly. Clean dust and dirt from the engine's air-filter element by knocking it against a tire. And don't let gas drop below a quarter tank — that can lead to a burned-out fuel pump.

Tune Up Your Insurance

Peter Kaufman, M.D., a 57-year-old Potomac, Maryland, gastroenterologist, isn't exactly a cheap driver: He has five cars, including two classic Porsche 911 Carreras. But he still likes saving money, so he registered both Porsches for historic license plates, which cut his insurance bill for those cars by more than half. Kaufman also insures his cars and his home through the same company; bundling policies can save 10 or 15 percent. Several other cost reductions are available for older drivers, says David Snyder, vice president of the American Insurance Association. Many insurers provide 5 to 10 percent savings for participating in driver-safety programs such as the one AARP offers, paying your annual premium in full, paying via automatic withdrawal, or riding public transit to work. But the biggest savings go to drivers who keep clean driving records, Snyder says.

Despite a penchant for Porsches, Kaufman says, he has managed to do just that. "I don't drive fast on the road," he says. "I drive fast on the racetrack."

Next: Pass by the pump: 5 tips to slash your gas costs. >>

Tai Stillwater, a transportation researcher at the University of California, Davis, is a fan of the eco-driving movement known as hypermiling, in which drivers compete to squeeze amazing fuel economy from their cars. He doesn't recommend resorting to such extreme hypermiling measures as drafting behind 18-wheelers, removing the backseat to save weight, or zooming around corners without braking, to avoid losing momentum. But here's what you can do:

1. Slow down: Driving 5 miles over 60 miles per hour is like paying 29 cents extra for every gallon of gas you burn. That premium goes up as your speed increases.

2. Be a smooth operator: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, drivers who accelerate moderately and evenly and go easy on the brakes (coasting whenever possible) can save $1 or more per gallon.

3. Lose the rack: Add-ons such as flags, bike carriers, and luggage racks undermine your car's aerodynamics. (Close the windows, too, particularly at highway speeds.)

4. Chuck the junk in the trunk: Extra weight makes the engine work harder — so resist the urge to store your bowling balls in the backseat.

5. Kill the engine: Fifteen minutes of idling can burn a quarter of a gallon of gasoline, especially if the AC is blasting.

Michigan native Joe Eaton has been wrenching on old cars for two decades; he now writes from Baltimore.