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While you’re cruising down the highway, a tiny light comes on on your dashboard. You dismiss it because it’s only the oil change icon, and you can afford to stretch it for a few hundred miles.

And then another one appears. This time, it’s the check engine icon. Panic mode instantly sets in. The last time you visited the dealership, you ended up with a tab well into the hundreds, and you simply can’t afford to do it again.

Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the cost of car repairs and maintenance. Keep these tips in mind:

1. Check & Change the Oil Regularly

Your oil is essential to the life of your car’s engine. Regularly changing your oil is the best defense against oil pump replacement and costly engine repairs. The cost of replacing an engine is easily $2,000 and often much more.

Instead of following the standard advice of an oil change every 3,000 miles, whip out your owner’s manual to confirm what’s best for your ride. You may find that the recommended oil change is every 6,000 miles. Some luxury cars will let you stretch further than that.

Also, check your oil color and level regularly. If the oil drops to the minimum level indicated on the oil dipstick, add oil now. (Your owner’s manual will tell you the type of oil that’s best for your car.)

Also regularly check the engine coolant level and the tire pressure, two other things that every car owner can easily do themselves. Checking tire pressure is a must-do when the seasons change. “Goodyear experts explain that air pressure in a tire typically goes down 1 to 2 pounds for every 10 degrees of temperature change,” Goodyear says.

2. But Don’t Stop There

Your owner’s manual comes with a maintenance schedule, addressing maintenance and replacements that should be done at major mileage intervals in the life of your car. When was the last time you looked at it?

Neglecting your vehicle could present safety issues and reduce your car’s longevity. “If you don’t maintain your car, you’re taking a vehicle that might have been driven for 200,000 miles over its life, and you’re knocking it down to maybe 150,000 miles,” Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com, told Bankrate.

Can’t find the manual? Edmunds provides a car maintenance guide that you can customize for your vehicle’s year, make, model and mileage. Better yet, you can find your owner’s manual online. Just do a search for your make, model and year and “maintenance schedule” or “owner’s manual.”

What types of items will be addressed? Among them:

  • Air and fuel filters.
  • Timing belt.
  • Spark plugs and spark plug wires.
  • Brake pads.
  • Fluids, including coolant, transmission fluid, power steering fluid and brake fluid.
  • Hoses.
  • Timing belt.
  • Battery.

3. Pay Attention to Warning Signs

Taking your vehicle in for regular maintenance doesn’t relieve you of responsibility.

Just as you should keep an eye on tire pressure and the level of coolant and oil, you should look for other signs that something is wrong. Do you hear a thumping in the back? Do you smell burning oil? Is something leaking, leaving a puddle on your driveway? You need a trip to the shop. Meanwhile, an online diagnostic tool like this one at AutoMD can help.

And if the check engine light comes on, don’t ignore it. It could indicate a simple problem or a major one.

4. Find a trustworthy mechanic

Having a good mechanic is essential to your car’s well-being. Having one who doesn’t overcharge or rip you off is important for your bank account.

Let’s say you have an older-model vehicle that’s no longer under warranty, and you’ve never been impressed with the service at the dealership. Or perhaps you’ve moved to a new town. Your best source of information about good mechanics is simply by asking around, zeroing in on friends and colleagues who know more than the basics about vehicles. Also check online for complaints. Plus, does the shop have experience in repairing vehicles like yours?

Give a new shop a try. If you’re not satisfied with the results, try another one that’s been recommended.

Tip: Independent shops can be more affordable because they don’t have all the overhead that dealerships do.

Another tip: If your older car is called into the dealership for a recall, take advantage of the full free screening it may offer when you take your car in. Someone I know learned about another vehicle problem during one of those checks, and then took it to her regular shop to make the repair at much less expense.

5. Use Aftermarket Parts 

You will have to get service done at an independent shop to take advantage of this opportunity, but using aftermarket parts can save you a substantial amount of cash. Aftermarket parts can be just as good, if not better, than original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts.

Edmunds.com says:

An aftermarket part is any part for a vehicle that is not sourced from the car’s maker. If the parts are direct replacement parts, they will not void your car’s warranty. A number of companies make parts designed to function the same, or in some cases even better than the original.

But sometimes aftermarket parts aren’t as well-made, so Edmunds suggests you do your homework. This is where a trustworthy mechanic can help.

Edmunds also recommends using OEM parts when you’re repairing collision damage or having work done on a leased car.

6. Research the Price Before You Go

Is your vehicle in need of a costly service? Use AutoMD or Repair Pal’s online estimators to gauge your expenditures. If the estimate you receive at a shop seems highly inflated, get a second estimate elsewhere.

7. Look for Discounts

Before paying a visit for service, look for coupons, including at the shop’s website. Don’t see any? Just ask. Maybe the shop gives a discount to AAA members.

Also, be on the lookout for the discounted offers that often come in the mail and serve as a kind reminder that your car is due for service.

Karen Datko contributed to this article. This post originally appeared on Money Talks News.

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