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How to Keep Your Car In Check Without Blowing Your Budget

Auto maintenance is one of those "to do" items that often fall to the bottom of the list. No one wants to pour money into a car that seems to run fine, but as soon as the "check engine" light comes on, you can be looking at a lot of expense as well as stress.

Typically, there are 10 parts of your vehicle that need regular attention. Some of this maintenance you can handle on your own but others require the  service of a mechanic or a quick-lube shop. You'll want to shop and compare online for parts, use auto coupons and read reviews for quality mechanics. You also might consider having basic car service performed at big-box stores (which we've included under the "Quick Lube Shop" category.

Read on to learn which jobs are DIY and which ones you should pay for on 10 important auto parts.

1. Air Filters - DIY
Auto air filters get plugged up, causing the car to run using too much gas and not enough air. When this happens, your car will lose power and run about as well as your grandma's Hoover. A dirty filter also can lead to abrasive contaminants invading the combustion chamber.

Happily, changing your filter is easy peasy. Purchase the filter using coupons from an auto parts store and save $10 or more, in addition to labor costs.

2. Coolant - Quick Lube Shop
Coolant is the fluid that absorbs heat from the engine and spreads it through the radiator. It's also dissipated through the heat exchange in the passenger compartment when you crank up your heat each winter. Draining the coolant and refilling the system removes dirt and rust particles that can clog up the cooling system.

You'll need to check your coolant level periodically, as recommended in your owner's manual. If you check it when it's cold, the coolant should be at or above the "minimum" or "fill" line on the transparent refill reservoir. Check when the engine is hot and you should find the coolant marked at or just  below the "maximum" line.

3. Axle Boots - DIY
Axle boots are rubber cover protecting the drive axle joint. You also may have heard it referred to as the CV (constant velocity) boot. Over time, the rubber boots crack or tear open, allowing grease held by the boots to leak out. The CV joint will then be exposed to dirt, moisture and unpleasant things left on the road.

Replacing the boot costs in the mid-hundreds, whereas replacing a boot costs a fraction of that amount. Happily, you can check the status of your axle boots fairly easily. Your owner's manual will indicate where to look.

4. Drive Belts - Mechanic
Every car has several parts powered by belts, including your water pump, alternator, power-steering pump and more. Each of these parts is driven by its own belt on older cars while modern cars use just one. These belts don't last forever; They wear out, crack and decay from exposure to ozone.

Should one of these belts go kablooie, you'll lose the function of whatever part it was powering and your engine can severely overheat. Have your mechanic give all belts the once over during the auto's annual checkup. Also make sure you change the timing belt at the mileage level recommended by the manufacturer or you'll end up shopping for a new car.

5. Oil Changes - DIY or Quick Lube Shop
Changing your oil is one of the most important things you can do to keep your car happy, which is why there are so many shops dedicated to this service. Here's the reason why: Oil breaks down under high operating temperatures making the oil a less-effective lubricant. This leads to parts of the engine rubbing together and wearing out faster.

There's a lot of controversy as to how often you should change your oil but, in general, it's wise to follow the recommendation found in your owners manual or change it every 5,000 miles. You'll want to change your oil more frequently, however, if you live in an extremely hot or cold climate; drive frequently on dirt roads; and/or drive insanely (jack-rabbit starts, rapid acceleration or excessive speeding). Older cars also will require more frequent oil changes, so keep an eye on the oil level by checking it with your dipstick.

6. Power-Steering Fluid - Quick Lube Shop
Most lube shops check your power-steering fluid as a regular part of their service. This isn't a DIY job because you have to drain out your car's old fluid and add fresh fluid. That requires a fair amount of mechanical knowledge.

Avoid this service and you'll chew up your power-steering pump which, at best, costs hundreds of dollars to replace. At worst, you could end up in an accident when your steering goes wacko.

7. Rotating Tires - Tire Shop
The wheels on the car go round and round...hopefully in a balanced manner. Rotating tires from front to back and side to side ensures they wear out evenly, thus extending their lives. This service should cost no more than $20 and should be performed regularly.

8. Spark Plugs - DIY or Mechanic
These little plugs are found in the cylinder that absorbs high-voltage electricity at one end and creates a spark at the other end. The spark then ignites the air and gas mixture, resulting in combustion. (Thus the term "combustion engine.") Service requires removing the spark plugs and replacing them with new ones to make sure the "gap" is properly spaced.

When spark plugs fail, your engine will start to misfire. As a result, performance goes down the drain, efficiency decreases, and emissions will dramatically increase. Your car also may fail to start, the biggest hassle of all.

9. Tire Pressure - DIY
This is an easy one. Too-low or too-high tire pressure reduces your mileage, wears out your tires faster and gives you a crappy ride. Fortunately, it's an easy problem to solve: Simply buy a tire-pressure gauge; look on the driver's side door post for the inflation rate (measured in pounds per square inch); insert the gauge; and add or remove air as needed to reach the proper inflation.

10. Transmission Fluid - DIY or Quick Lube Shop
This lubricant works on all moving parts inside your transmission. Automatic transmissions also use this fluid as a coolant and as a viscous fluid that transmits power from the engine to the transmission.

Transmission fluid should be changed every 30,000 to 60,000 miles on a manual car and every 30,000 to 60,000 miles on an automatic transmission, although changing it more frequently does no harm. Don't change it and you'll lubricate your transmission with metal shavings and other junk, shortening the engine's life and resulting in hefty, hefty, hefty repair bills.

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