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Stop Speeding, Get the Junk out of Your Trunk: Strategies to Save Money at the Gas Pump

Drivers are always looking for ways to cut their costs. Here are some strategies that can save you money.

The Washington Post

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Gas prices in Berkeley, Calif. on March 9

Gas prices in Berkeley, Calif. on March 9, 2022. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News)

When prices at the pump escalate it always causes a lot of angst, so I’m going to do that annoying thing that older folks do when someone younger is complaining about a hardship: Tell you that it isn’t as bad as you think.

Back in the day, during the gas shortages and surging gas prices of the 1970s, I remember sitting with my grandmother for hours in a line that snaked around the gas station to fill up the family station wagon. Big Mama could buy gasoline only on odd-numbered days of the month based on the last digit of her license plate. To save money during the gas crisis, my grandmother rarely drove anywhere except to work, the grocery store and church.

The invasion of Ukraine, which led President Biden to ban the import of oil and natural gas from Russia, contributed to the spike in gas prices that started in 2022. It’s tough for a lot of folks living on the financial edge, especially those who use their vehicles to earn a living. Even if you can afford to absorb the increase, paying $6 and some change for a gallon of gas can cause some psychological pain.

People are looking for ways to spend less at the gas pump. No, having your food delivered to avoid a trip to the restaurant doesn’t necessarily save you money when you factor in a service fee, a delivery charge, a possible surge charge and a tip.

West Virginia was the top state searching for “Gasoline” as of midday Thursday that year, followed by Idaho, Indiana and Alabama, according to Google Trends. People are also searching for answers to how long gas prices are expected to be high and what’s causing the spike.

Until prices stabilize and come down, there are some things drivers can do to cut down on what they pay to fill their tanks, said Ellen Edmonds, AAA public relations manager.

“We just don’t want people to panic, because when people panic buy or hoard, it can really affect the price,” Edmonds said.

Here are some strategies that can save you money — and other moves that may not reduce your costs as much as you think.

How much can slowing down really save?

If you are a heavy-foot speed demon, you’re costing yourself money. Slow down and you can make a significant dent in the price you pay at the pump.

Edmonds says that fuel economy peaks around 50 mph on most cars, then drops off as speeds increase. Reducing highway speeds by 5 to 10 mph can increase fuel economy by as much as 14 percent. Plus, you might avoid a speeding ticket!

I’m in stop-and-go traffic a lot. Can I save gas by turning off my vehicle?

“Where safe to do so, shut off your engine if you will be stopped for more than a minute,” Edmonds said.

A car engine consumes one-quarter to one-half gallon of fuel per hour when idling, but a warm engine takes only around 10 seconds’ worth of fuel to restart, according to AAA.

AAA also recommends that you avoid rapid acceleration, hard braking and “jack rabbit” starts, or shooting forward at a high speed as you might do after a light turns green or to pass a slower-moving car. These actions can lower fuel economy by as much as 15 to 30 percent at highway speeds and 10 to 40 percent in stop-and-go traffic.

How much can I really save by getting rid of things in my trunk?

An extra 100 pounds can reduce fuel economy by up to 1 percent.

That admittedly doesn’t seem like a lot, but you can combine emptying out your trunk with other measures, such as slowing down and making sure your tires are inflated at the proper pressure. Underinflated tires can affect fuel economy by as much as 10 percent, according to AAA. Cargo weight affects the fuel mileage of smaller vehicles more than larger ones, Edmonds noted.

I see people filling up gas cans, so why shouldn’t I do the same?

Hoarding can lead to shortages, which then leads to further price increases because of higher demand.

“Sometimes people will use the wrong containers, and that can be a safety issue,” Edmonds said.

Why shouldn’t I add more gas after the pump clicks?

Here’s another tip from AAA: Don’t top off your gas tank trying to get every drop of gas before prices tick up ahead of your next fill up.

“Topping off” your tank may damage the Evaporative Emission System, which is designed to collect and store fuel vapors, Edmonds said.

In your effort to save a little, you could end up with a high auto repair bill.

Should I just sell my car and buy an electric vehicle?

In the long run, it might be better for your pocketbook and the environment to switch to an electric vehicle. As gas prices have climbed, more Americans are researching greener vehicles, according to Edmunds, an online car shopping resource.

On-site searches of hybrid, plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles jumped 39 percent from early February to early March, right about the time Russia invaded Ukraine.

But as a strategy to just save on the current spike in gas prices, purchasing a new electric vehicle is not the best financial move right now.

Because of a microchip shortage, prices have skyrocketed for new and used vehicles. People are paying over sticker price for new cars, and that, in turn, has sent price-conscious shoppers looking for used cars, sending those prices soaring, said Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights at Edmunds.

The average cost for a new electric vehicle was $60,054 in February, which was $1,820 more than the average manufacturer’s suggested retail price, or MSRP, of $58,234, Edmunds found.

“Inventory has been tight since last spring, so I don’t think that it’s really a good time for people to make the switch,” Caldwell said.

Although you may qualify for a tax credit for purchasing an electric vehicle, you still need to factor in the price of the car, the borrowing costs, higher insurance and the expense of installing a charging station at your home  if you want to boost your charging power.

Should I get a gas rewards credit card?

“I’d advocate for general-purpose cards with strong gas rewards rather than gas stations’ co-branded cards,” said Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst for Bankrate and CreditCards.com

Gas-branded cards usually give only something like 5 or 10 cents off per gallon.

“That’s less and less impactful the further prices rise,”  Rossman said.

General-purpose cards with strong gas rewards, on the other hand, give 4 to 5 percent cash back on gas.

Rossman says he likes to stack a gas rewards credit card with a gas station’s app. Almost all of the major gas brands have these, and they often offer another 5 to 10 cents off per gallon, he says.

To maximize your savings, of course, you shouldn’t carry a balance on the credit card. Otherwise, you end up paying interest, which defeats the penny-pinching move.

The average credit card charges 16.34 percent, according to Bankrate. The average gas station co-branded card interest rate is 25.8 percent.

And there is this: Nearly 40 percent of current credit card holders are carrying a balance on their cards, according to the latest credit card market report from the American Bankers Association.

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This post originally appeared on The Washington Post and was published March 11, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.

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