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Few situations throw a wrench into your budget more than a large, unexpected car repair. While accounting for predictable maintenance costs in your budget is easy enough, unplanned repairs are more challenging. You never know when your car might go kaput or what the repair bill will be.
According to 2023 data from AAA, maintenance, repair and tire costs average around 10 cents per mile. Meanwhile, the average number of miles drivers cover yearly is 13,476, reports the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Given these figures, a good starting point when budgeting your routine car maintenance and repairs would be about $1,350 per year or $112.50 per month. If you drive significantly more or less than the average suggested by the FHWA, you can adjust your budget accordingly.
How Much to Budget for Routine Car Maintenance
Understanding the costs of common routine maintenance tasks and how often they must be performed can help you adjust your budget to your lifestyle. Check your car manual's maintenance schedule to help you plan ahead. Also, you can perform some maintenance yourself—like changing your cabin air filter and wiper blades—which could reduce your maintenance costs.
As you budget for transportation expenses, consider these costs for various maintenance needs:
Oil Change: $35 to $125
According to Kelley Blue Book, the average cost of an oil change ranges from $35 to $75 using conventional oil and $65 to $125 for modern vehicles that require synthetic oil. Oil change costs may also vary depending on your location and how much oil your vehicle requires.
How often you should change your oil depends on your car's age, the type of oil you use and driving conditions in your area. The old rule of thumb was to change your oil every 3,000 miles, but most cars today require lubricants that only need to be changed every 5,000 to 7,500 miles or up to every 15,000 miles if your car uses full-synthetic oil, according to AAA. Follow the instructions in your vehicle's manual for best performance.
Cabin Air Filter: $20 to $100
Your car's cabin air filter helps to remove dust, pollen and pollutants from the air you breathe in your car, so it's important to replace it every 15,000 miles. Plan on paying around $20 to $50, including labor, to switch out the filter or up to $100 for luxury or performance vehicles.
Of course, you can reduce your cost by replacing it yourself. If you're unsure how to do it, you can likely find a video tutorial online showing how to replace the cabin air filter for your car model and year.
Tire Rotation: $60 to $132
AAA recommends rotating your tires and setting the air pressure when you change your oil, ideally every 5,000 miles. That's also an excellent time to have the mechanic check your front end for proper balance and alignment.
Generally, tire rotation costs range from $60 to $72; adding tire balancing can bring that range of costs to $112 to $132.
Windshield Wiper Blades: $53 to $64
It's a good idea to replace your wiper blades every six to 12 months to avoid visibility problems due to rain. You should replace them sooner if the blade's rubber looks worn or cracked.
Thankfully, this is a job you can do yourself inexpensively. Wiper blades should only cost about $10 to $23 or more for high-end blades. Some national chain tire stores may install them for free if you purchase the wipers from them. Otherwise, expect a professionally installed replacement to cost between $53 and $64.
Brakes: $100 to $1,000
When it comes to your brakes, routine maintenance could save you money in the long run. Many experts recommend checking your brake pads for wear every six months, but you may want to do it more frequently if you use your car heavily. Generally, your brake pads should last between 30,000 to 80,000 miles.
Should your brake pads wear to the point they scrape against the metal rotors, a complete brake job to replace your pads, the calipers that hold them and the rotors could run up to $1,000. By contrast, the estimated cost to replace your brake pads before they damage your rotors is $100 to $300 per axel.
Tires: $200 Per Tire
There's no specific timeframe for how often you should replace your tires. Your tires become unsafe when the tread is too thin. Accordingly, you should change your tires before the tread depth falls below 1/16th of an inch, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
One way to check your tire depth is to perform the "penny test." Place a penny with Lincoln's head upside-down into the tread of your tires. If the top portion of his head disappears in the thread, you have more than 1/16" inch tread on your tires. However, if his entire head is visible above the tread, it's a sign you should replace your tires immediately. Check each tire in multiple spots, particularly where it appears most worn.
Tire prices vary by brand and where you purchase them, but typically, tires and installation cost around $200 per tire.
How Much to Budget for Unexpected Car Repairs
Budgeting for car repairs is particularly challenging due to the fact that costs can vary so widely. While replacing a set of spark plugs yourself may cost less than $100, a professionally installed new transmission could set you back several thousand dollars.
Aim to set aside some money—at least $50 a month per AAA—for unexpected vehicle repairs. Refer to the following list of common car repairs and their costs as you set your car budget.
Catalytic Converter: $2,300
The catalytic converter on most modern vehicles should last around 10 years and only be replaced when it stops working. Unfortunately, catalytic converter thefts are up over 400% since 2019, according to a State Farm report, leaving more car owners stranded with the replacement costs.
According to Cox Automotive, the average cost to replace a catalytic converter at a dealership is $2,300. Thankfully, a comprehensive auto insurance policy will typically cover theft of a catalytic converter.
Dead Battery: $45 to $250
Your car battery provides the initial jolt of power to start your car's motor and also operates the vehicle's electrical systems.
With so much riding on the battery, it's wise to replace it before it expires. Ideally, car batteries will last about five or six years, especially in colder climates, but you may only get about three years out of your battery if you live in a hotter climate.
Car battery prices vary by size, power and quality, but generally range from around $45 to $250.
Flat Tire: $54 to $64
Many flat tires can be repaired quickly and inexpensively at an auto shop or tire center (some places even do it for free). Kelley Blue Book puts the typical cost of a car tire repair at between $54 and $64. However, if there is significant damage, you may need to replace the tire, which raises another dilemma: Should you replace the one tire or the whole set?
Generally, it's a bad idea to replace just one tire, as even minor differences in the tire's tread pattern, age and other variables can affect your car's stability. You might replace a single tire if the other three tires are relatively new and you purchase the exact same tire. But if the other tires are worn more than 1/16 of an inch of tread, it's best to purchase a complete set of new tires, at an average cost of $200 per tire.
New Timing Belt: $367 to $585
If you turn on your car and the engine makes a squealing sound, or if your engine stalls or idles roughly, it could be a sign of a bad timing belt. In that case, replace it as soon as possible since a broken timing belt can lead to engine damage, or even failure.
The cost to replace the belt varies, but prices usually range from $367 to $585.
New Transmission: $2,900 to $7,100
There isn't a magic number for how long your transmission will last. Some transmissions give out after 10,000 miles, while others can last well over 100,000 miles. Of course, routine maintenance and avoiding aggressive driving can help to extend your transmission's life.
If your transmission does give way, expect a transmission replacement to cost between $2,900 and $7,100, according to Kelley Blue Book. You may be on the lower end of the range if you choose a rebuilt transmission at a local shop, while a remanufactured transmission at a factory could raise your expense significantly.
Engine Replacement: $4,000 to $10,000
Unfortunately, car insurance typically doesn't cover engine failure unless it results from an accident or another covered event. That means you could be on the hook for a pricey replacement. J.D. Power states the price range from engine replacement is as high as $4,000 for a four-cylinder to $10,000 for a high-performance engine. You may be able to save money by choosing a rebuilt or remanufactured engine.
How to Pay for Car Repairs
With the costs of some repairs so high, it's no wonder a AAA survey found that 64 million drivers don't have the funds to cover an unexpected vehicle repair without going into debt. If you have enough money in your emergency fund, use it to cover the repair costs. Otherwise, consider other options. Here are a few ways to pay for car repairs:
- Budget for car repairs. Include a maintenance and repair line item in your budget and estimate your costs by reviewing your car expenses last year. Alternatively, you could save the aforementioned $112.50 each month derived from AAA and FHWA data as a starting point.
- Build your emergency fund. Experts often recommend building your emergency fund in a high-yield savings account. Aim to save at least three to six months of living expenses in your fund. It takes time to save such a substantial sum, but this emergency fund can safeguard your finances from unexpected car repairs and other surprise expenses.
- Get an Intro 0% APR credit card. A 0% APR credit card may give you enough time to charge a car repair and repay the debt interest-free. These cards come with a 0% promotional interest rate for a predetermined period ranging from 12 to 21 months. You typically must have good to excellent credit to qualify, and if you don't repay the balance before the introductory period ends, the remaining balance will be subject to the card's standard APR.
- Consider a personal loan. If you don't have a sufficient emergency fund or don't qualify for a 0% APR credit card, a personal loan may be worth considering. Personal loans are a type of installment loan with a fixed interest rate. That means your payment will remain the same for the duration of the loan term, which can range from one to five years. According to recent Federal Reserve data, the average interest rate for a two-year personal loan is 12.17%.
The Bottom Line
When budgeting for transportation costs, the most obvious factors to consider are your car payment and insurance. But remember to plan ahead for the maintenance and repair costs that are sure to pop up. Setting aside money in your budget for an unexpected car expense can help protect your financial health if you suddenly face a major repair cost.
Similarly, it's also wise to protect your credit health, as good credit may help you qualify for lower interest loans and credit cards. Even a 1% interest rate reduction can potentially lead to substantial savings over time. Check your credit report and credit score for free with Experian to get a clearer picture of your credit and identify any potential areas of improvement.