It's a simple fact of life: Cars break down. And fixing your car is never cheap. But if you're like most Americans, you need a car to survive. So how can you spend the least amount of money and still keep your car in good working order?
First, read the manual. Think about it; after a home purchase, a vehicle is the most expensive thing the average American owns. It's a huge financial investment, and it's in your interest to keep it working for as long as possible. With cars and other vehicles, an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure. Regular and routine maintenance will keep your car running longer and with less expensive repairs further down the line. The manual will give you the manufacturer's guidelines for all routine maintenance. You may not need to get your oil changed every 3,000 miles; some vehicles can go longer.
Next, be rigorous about keeping track of what maintenance you've had done, when it was done, and what you need to do in the future. With smartphones and their digital alerts and calendar reminders, that shouldn't be a problem. There's probably even an app for that. If keeping track of these kinds of things is not your forte, find a place to get your car's maintenance done, and be loyal to that place. You will build a relationship with the mechanic, and that mechanic will then be familiar with your car's history and its quirks. Another benefit to getting maintenance done on time and at the same place? Your mechanic may notice a small problem that could become a big hassle later.
Yes, it can be tempting to just go to any place offering a deal when you realize you're a thousand miles over your recommended oil change. But someone unfamiliar with your vehicle may try to up-sell you on services and maintenance you don't need -- and it's usually coupled with dire warnings regarding your car's safety. If it's simply not possible for you to go to the same mechanic, be very aware of what your car needs. It can be hard to remain firm about what you want and don't want in the face of alarmist tactics and fear mongering.
What about going to a dealership? It makes sense. After all, most dealerships specialize in only one or two brands of automobiles, so they should be able to fix your car best, right? Not necessarily. Most of the time when you go to a dealership for auto maintenance and repair, you'll be working with a service adviser. Service advisers usually work on commission: the more work they get you to do the more profit they see. That can lead to a quickly escalating bill. Of course, if you have a new car and there is a problem covered under the warranty, you should absolutely take it to the dealership.
But even when you are rigorous about keeping your car maintenance current, things can still go wrong. And what if you don't have a regular mechanic? What do you do then? Or what if the shop you go to isn't able to do the repair work you need? Often shops can do basic repairs, but don't have the ability to fix more difficult problems, like transmissions. How can you find a good trustworthy mechanic for your car's specific problem?
Ask. Ask everyone -- friends, neighbors, co-workers, family members. Ask someone at your car insurance provider whether he has any recommendations. If you have AAA, ask someone there. Generally, this will give you a few leads to follow up on.
Next, research. Check peer review sites online to see whether any of the mechanics you were considering have been reviewed and what other customers' experiences were like. It should always be kept in mind that you are only reading one side of the story, and it's not always the truth. But if someone has more negative reviews than positive, or many different people complain about the same thing, it's most likely a problem.
The Internet is also the great equalizer when it comes to finding out the cost of things. A few searches should yield you a general price range. This will help brace you against sticker shock. If you have time, get estimates from a few different shops. You may get a better price, and it will also give you some negotiating room.