Posted by: thatjen | June 3, 2008

Tightwad Tuesday 4: Gas Pains

Having driven to NY and NJ for the weekend, the topic for this week’s TT was pretty obvious: the skyrocketing cost of gas, and how to cope with it. It’s not a subject I know that much about so I may have more questions than answers. I hope we have a lively discussion in the comments with lots of information added by YOU.

We all probably know the main solutions: walk more, bike more, take public transportation, carpool, drive less, drive a more fuel-efficient car. But some of them require a shift in attitude or behavior, others are challenging based on where you live or other circumstances of your life (I do know a mom who bikes with her two small children on a double-trail-a-bike, but that’s not practical for many of us), and others are too expensive in the short term even if they save money or help the environment in the long run. We would have loved a hybrid but couldn’t afford one that met our other needs (room for 6 for carpooling, etc.), and public transit, while widely available in our area, can cost us more out of pocket (not to mention time) than driving (even with ownership and maintenance figured in).

But as with so many things in life, it may be that the devil is in the details, and that we can make a difference with small changes, too.

Cait and I were debating whether it really saves money to drive with the windows down instead of A/C. Interestingly, I, who LOVELOVELOVE air conditioning, was arguing for open windows — I think I was enjoying feeling a tiny bit martyred — and Cait, who gets cold in JULY, was arguing for using the A/C because the open windows make too much drag. Turns out Cait was right as far as highway driving is concerned, but we’re unclear about city/suburban driving at lower speeds and with lots of stop & go. Natalie turns out to be a big fan of open windows and was irritated this weekend that we used the A/C. “Put window down. DOOOOOWN!”

I’ve read a little about hypermiling but think it would probably make me nuts, and not result in much savings, but maybe I should learn more.

I know we should combine trips and plan better, but that’s an area we have to work on… seeing as Cait went to the grocery store today and then I remembered something I really, truly must have tomorrow for a work event, so had to go back tonight. D’oh!

So what do you do with the constraints you have to maximize your gas dollars?


  1. Well we moved closer to where I work so instead of 27 miles one way to work I now drive less than 10.

    I filled up today at a quarter of a tank and it had been 2 weeks since I last filled up. Before I was going about 8 days and I’d be at empty. That’s a huge difference, but not really the practical solution for most people.

    This is obvious: don’t leave your car running when you aren’t driving. Seriously. Yes a cold car sucks, but it doesn’t warm up very fast when it isn’t moving. Although I admit when it was 25 below zero this winter, I did turn in on for 15 minutes before we got in.

  2. Ideally, in this area you can get places by bus and bike, which is cheaper than metro, but ar more of a pain timewise. But it’s cheaper. Now that you can have bikes on all buses at all times, it’s more of an option.

    we basically just don’t drive as much. we both walk or metro to work (metro is way cheaper than gas, maintenance, and parking- which is 250 bucks plus for monthly and 20 a day otherwise). We go to the cheapest gas station we have found, and combine errands almost all the time. It’s rare that we go out and only run one errand ever.

    That’s about all we can do- although I think zipcar (car sharing) is a fantastic option. If we didn’t own our cars outright already, i think that would be a good option for us- no insurance, no maintenance, and NO GAS. So as infrequent users of the second car, I think it’d be perfect. But alas, we own the thing and dont want to get rid of it.

  3. I bought a new car last fall, a 2008 Hyundai Elantra, which boasted mpg up to 37-ish. Unfortunately, I live four miles from home and do mostly surface streets and lots of stop and go, so I’m averaging about 24 mpg, which was pretty disappointing since I bought my car primarily b/c it would be more fuel efficient than my previous car, an ancient Ford Taurus. I did get 35 mpg on a Christmas road trip, so that was cool… I love the car otherwise.

    In terms of wind resistance, I read somewhere, or heard somewhere, that having your windows open is better up to about 45 mph. Over that and it the drag will cost you more gas.

    Here in LA gas prices are around $4.35 for regular. It’s nuts. I don’t want to ride my bike b/c I feel like it’s a deathwish w/the crazy drivers. I’m at a loss as much as you guys are! But I appreciate your posts for inspiration.

  4. We cannot bike or walk anywhere. It was not my favorite feature about our house (to put it mildly). I know we’ll move someday, to a walkable/on-the-bus-routes neighborhood, and I worry that no one will want to buy our boondocks house.

    In the face of those constraints, I’ve been consolidating trips continuously. Spouse does much more of the shopping on the way home from work. It ties in with doing less buying, too.

    Luckily, the major commuting car in this family gets 35mpg. The minivan only gets 20mpg (which makes the sticker claims a complete joke) and we’re nursing it along until they come out with a new generation of engines (dare we hope for a hybrid?) that will do much better. I wish I could reconcile myself to a sedan, or even a station wagon — my parents made it work — but so far, we can afford the higher costs of running a minivan. So I keep it.

  5. Oh here’s something I forgot to mention- how often do you check your tire pressure? Not often, if you’re like most people. But this is the single free thing you can do to save the most gas without compromising time/effort… (according to Mother Earth News: With today’s gas prices [the decline in tire pressure that happens naturally] will add up, especially as the tires lose more pressure over time. Consider this example for a 25 mpg car driven 1,250 miles a month and $3 a gallon for gas: After five months of declining pressure, you’d spend an extra $13.80 on gas; after 10 months, an extra $51.68.

  6. Know thy vehicle–seriously. Get your owner’s manual out and read it. Find out what size, type and tire pressure that the vehicle manufacturer reccommends, and ensure that you have those tires on and balanced. Then check and maintain the tire pressure every 2-4 weeks. Check the wear and tear on your tires, if they are low tread, replace. If the wear is uneven it can be because of low/high tire pressures, or alignment problem, or suspension problem. Have any alignment or suspension problems fixed as soon as you can.

    Check and replace the vehicle’s air filter regularly. (I used to check my mini-van’s once a month because I drove in dust areas) Hold it up to a light and if there is very little light shining through, replace the filter. Engines will use more gas if they can’t get enough air in. Replacing your own air filter with a good quality air filter is usually inexpensive and can increase your fuel saving by up to 10%. If you don’t know how to check your air filter or tire pressures, please ask some one that does to teach you.

    Be a “smooth operator” (cue George Micheal) Accelerate smoothly, and if you can, coast to stop as much as you can, as that allows your engine to go into a fuel saving idle. If you have a smooth foot, use it as much as you can instead of cruise. If you can, travel at a mile or two under the speed limit, as you will get to your destination in around the same time, but will use just that teensy bit less fuel.

    Keep your car clean on the inside as well as out. The less you carry around, the less your engine will have to work to move the vehicle.

    Forget drive thrus, go in and order. (plus you can make sure that your order is correct before you leave)

    Windows up at 35mph or higher and windows down at 34pmh and lower in warm weather. Also, in cold weather, you only really need to warm your engine up for 1-2 minutes, to avoid the excess wear that jack-rabbit starts can do-OR- if you have an engine block heater, plug it in an hour before you need to use your vehicle, just don’t forget to unplug it when you leave!

    Buy gasoline during coolest time of day – early morning or late evening is best. During these times gasoline is densest and there giving you just that little bit extra. Don’t buy during or right after a fuel semi has filled the Stations tanks, as sediment and impurities are stirred up and will clog your fuel filter.

    Fuel and oil additives and/or add on engine devices are a bit of a hotly debated area with motorheads. It is my opinion to stay way from any devices to improve mpg, and any additives that claim 15-25% increase in mpg. If one feels the need for any additives to improve mpg, use the old “tried and true” brands. I think that as long as you treat your vehicle kindly, it will return the favor.

    Whew! how about that for a novel!


  7. Most of my suggestions are of the not exactly practical variety, since we live car-free in a city with good public transit. You’re right that living this way involves a shift in priorities. We decided to pay more money for less housing, in order to stay in town and not need a car. The cost of living in-town with easy walking/biking commutes was more than offset by the savings on car costs. The zipcar option really makes this practical, since when we really want to get out of town or visit a friend in the burbs, we can do it.

    More practically, 2-car families might be able to use zipcar to get down to one car and be “car-lite.” We know several families that do this. If one parent can commute by bike or public transit, the car can be used for kid hauling, and the zipcar is available for those times you *really* need another car. The biggest cost of a car is not gas. That’s just the most obvious one (and of course it gets more painful by the minute). This is true even for a car you own outright (insurance, parking, and repairs cost more than gas, even now).

  8. Thanks for the great tips.

    Lisa, you must still be getting better city mileage than you were with the Taurus, aren’t you?

    Jody, they don’t make station wagons like they used to! I assume your parents had one of the gargantuan 8 passsenger wagons and there’s nothing comparable now except some SUVs and I don’t know if they get better mileage than vans.

    Lizzardbits, you’ve got some really helpful information. However, a snippet on the news over the weekend claimed that it doesn’t matter what time of day you buy gas because the tanks are underground where the temperature is more stable – testing by Consumer Reports and others has confirmed that the difference, if any, is nearly unmeasurable. However, it maybe better to buy gas first thing in the morning from an ENVIRONMENTAL standpoint, as I think there are fewer vapors released into the air? Not sure about that one.

  9. Check out snopes about a lot of fuel savings tips. A lot of it is bogus.

  10. What CAN’T you do with Snopes??!?! 😀

  11. We drive an SUV (gasp!!!) – we justify this by being a 1 car family. We bought it when we first came to Canada, and my North Carolinian partner would be driving in snow for the 1st time. Alas, it’s time to let Dorothy (her full name’s Dorothy Ford) go for a few reasons: the snow-driving’s a piece of cake now; I feel so damn guilty about the gas-guzzler (we have bumper-stickers about vegetarianism and I can just see people sitting in their Priuses, saying “don’t eat meat but killing the planet” as we drive by); and gas prices are $1.35/litre now ($5.13/gallon), but they’re predicting $1.50/litre next month ($5.70/gallon). This summer we’re planning on selling the SUV and getting a 2nd hand smaller vehicle (new costs way too much for right now). It’s a tough balance we’re trying to strike – good gas mileage, cost to buy vehicle and size (roadtrips with two grownups, two cats and soon, one baby). I don’t think we can satisfy all three criteria at once, but we’re going to try (we’d love a Prius, Matrix, Corolla, etc, but given that we don’t have $25-45,000 lying about, we’re looking at the Ford Focus station wagon).

  12. Kate, we love our Mazda 5. It’s not as fuel efficient as a hybrid, but it’s a really great compromise on space/fuel economy/price. We can seat 6 people (have put 4 adults and one baby in for 4+ hours pretty happily), haul big loads from the hardware store or warehouse store, or carpool — but it’s still small enough to park easily in the city and gets reasonable if not fabulous mileage. We did go with standard shift to save money and maximize fuel economy, plus Cait just likes stick shift. There are used ones available – a bit more than a Focus, but worth looking into.

  13. ha, we had the same argument about open windows vs. A/C yesterday. I was hoping that the moonroof we got with our preowned car (never would have paid for that!) was saving us money, but C made the point about the drag. Blech.

  14. Ugghh! This issue hits really close to home for me since I commute about an hour each way to work every day (and that is on a good day with no traffic). We do this both because living in Boston is not affordable (it has just surpassed NYC for the most expensive housing in the country) and because Renee works in Western Mass. This means that we live in one place, but both commute. This is not ideal, and we hope that in the future at least one of us will not have to commute.

    Public transportation is not really an option for us at this point (there is no public transportation to Western Mass and the commuter rail is expensive and rarely comes out to worcester). I signed up for a ride-share message board when we first moved to worcester and I started working in the city, but I think it may be time to put a bit more effort into trying to find someone to carpool with.

    I do drive a Toyota Echo which is a great little commuter car and gets good milage. I try to work from home once a week to save on a day’s worth of gas and we are definitely thinking more about driving before we do it.

  15. Keep your tires inflated, but don’t go over what it says on your sidewall or you risk a blowout (remember the Ford crap a few years ago?). Also, if you are hypermiling, forget the part about drafting. It’s too dangerous and only provides benefits when you’re driving so close to a vehicle that you could never stop in time if you needed to.

    Basically, we try not to pack more stuff in the car than needed, and if we’re not in a hurry we drive a little slower on the highway. There’s a pretty decent gas savings difference between going 60 vs 70mph for an hour long trip. Being easy and gentle at stoplights helps too.

    Mostly, I’ve been leaving my car at work for when I need it and walking or biking back and forth, but that wasn’t an option for me when I worked in the city. We also try to shop and eat out locally instead of driving to the next town, unless we have to.

  16. A/C on the highway, windows down in town. Glad to hear you’re taking on the crisis! It’s so frustrating just trying to get your schedules together and plan ahead. Wish we all had magic carpets.

    Love your blog. Your archives are going to eat my day away. xo

  17. Can you tell me more about how you’re going plastic free? I just purchased KK bottles for the three of us. We are already trying to be eco concious (we recycle, use cloth for the bathroom, kitchen and cleaning…). But we still have plastic sippy cups and plates. What do you use instead? I have found myself becoming really paranoid..if it’s not bpa’s in plastic, it’s lead in painted toys or ceramic plates. My partner is afraid to use wooden plates because she’s afraid she will not be able to disinfect them well enough. What else is there??

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