Fuel efficiency: How to maximize yours

Fuel efficiency can add up to big savings over time. In December and January, The Simple Dollar is posting a daily series focusing on specific activities you can do right now to set the stage for a great 2011.

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    A Saturn dealer in Warren, Mich., advertises good gas mileage to try to sell cars in this 2008 file photo. If you maximize your car's fuel efficiency, you'll save only a few cents per gallon, but over a year, that can add up to hundreds of dollars.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor / File
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Maximize your car’s fuel efficiency.

Over the last five years, we’ve put an average of 20,000 miles a year (combined) on our vehicles. When you’re driving that many miles, even a little bit of fuel efficiency makes a huge difference.

For example, if we’re getting 15 miles per gallon and I discover a way to get that mileage up to 16 per gallon, suddenly we’re burning through 83 gallons of gas less per year. At $3 a gallon, that’s $250 a year in gasoline savings.

If you can make a bigger jump – from 15 to, say, 20 miles per gallon – you’re saving more than $1,000 per year if you drive as much as we do.

That can be a huge savings, particularly when most of the choices you make don’t really impact your day-to-day life. Here are eight specific steps you can take to improve your fuel efficiency.

Shop for fuel efficiency. When you’re looking for a replacement for your current car, keep a serious eye out for fuel efficiency. Use sites like FuelEconomy.gov to find out the fuel efficiency of the models you’re considering and give an extra look to models with better fuel efficiency. If you can buy a car with 5 miles per gallon more efficiency, you’ll save significant money every year you own it.

Don’t speed. When you’re speeding, your car uses fuel much less efficiently. A car traveling 75 miles per hour is much less fuel efficient than a car traveling 55 miles per hour. Beyond that, you also run the risk of acquiring traffic tickets if you speed, which not only have their own cost but also increase the cost of your insurance.

Maintain even acceleration. You eat gas whenever you press down the gas pedal in your car. The most efficient way to drive is to maintain even acceleration, meaning you don’t push the pedal down and you don’t let it up, either. Cruise control works for this if you’re driving where it’s flat, but if you’re in a hilly area, you’re better off doing it yourself, speeding up on the downhill slope and slowing down when going uphill.

Air up your tires. Fill up your tires to the maximum recommended pressure in the owner’s manual in your automobile, which takes into account the mass of your car. Every pound of pressure that you’re low in any of your tires results in a 1/8% reduction in fuel efficiency – and almost everyone’s tire pressure is at least five pounds low per tire. If that’s true for you, just airing up your tires would result in at least a 2.5% increase in fuel efficiency – it’s like going from a 20 mile per gallon car to a 21 mile per gallon car. I check my pressures every month.

Minimize your car’s weight (unless it’s winter). The more weight your automobile is carrying, the more work the engine has to do and the less fuel efficient your car is. The best solution is to minimize your car’s weight, which is a good idea when the roads aren’t slick.

Use the right kind of motor oil. Read your car’s manual and make sure that whatever service you’re using to get your oil changed is putting the right kind of oil in your car. Using the wrong kind of oil can result in a 2% loss in fuel efficiency for your car (on top of other potential problems).

Turn off the ignition instead of idling. If you’re sitting for more than fifteen seconds, turn off your car’s engine rather than just idling. Idling eats up gas – it’s essentially burning money. I turn off the engine even at some stoplights, but I always turn it off when waiting on trains, in traffic jams, or waiting on accidents.

Use a warehouse club. This is the single best principle I’ve found for saving money directly on the gas you buy. Over the course of a year, we pay for a Sam’s Club membership solely through the gasoline savings. Our local Sam’s Club offers gas at least $0.04 per gallon less expensive than each of their competitors. If we use 1,000 gallons of gas over the course of a year, there’s the $40 for our membership. Any savings we actually get for anything else is subsidized just by the gas.

Saving money on your car’s fuel efficiency is a great way to cut down on your costs in the coming year. Best of all, most of the methods are things you can do just once and reap the rewards from for a long time.

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