What's Your Emergency Car Care Plan?

It happens to everyone. You’re cruising along in your daily routine, living within your means, when emergency car repairs strike. And they strike hard.

Consumer Reports estimates that, on average, auto repairs cost drivers 4 percent of the yearly cost to own their vehicles. So, even if you drive one of the least expensive cars to own, you could still be looking at a $200 annual repair bill. Throw in a few common emergencies—blowing a tire, overheating, killing your battery—and that number can quickly increase beyond your budget.

Reduce the burn with these 10 tips for avoiding (or at least planning for) a surprise auto repair bill.

1. Keep a Maintenance Calendar

Keep a car care calendar to track and manage repairs.

Keeping your vehicle in tip-top shape ranks as one of the smartest ways to stave off emergencies. Start with your owner’s manual (or a Chilton’s Auto Repair Manual) for details on regular upkeep. You can also check out free apps such as aCar (available in Google Play, the Amazon App Store, and BlackBerry World) and RepairPal (available in the iTunes App Store) to help you track your repairs and make a checklist of upcoming fixes you need to save for.

2. Find a Reputable Mechanic

Find a reliable and trustworthy mechanic.

Instead of rushing into the arms of a less-than-trustworthy auto mechanic when an emergency hits, find a reputable repair shop before you need one by:

  • Asking around. The experience of trusted friends and family members should carry more weight than that of strangers you’ll encounter on Yelp.
  • Consulting the Better Business Bureau. Scour www.bbb.org for common complaints about local mechanics to know which auto repair shops to avoid.
  • Giving your top pick a whirl for non-emergency care. After narrowing your options (and ensuring this mechanic is certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence), see how well you like a particular shop with small tasks before the bigger repairs pop up.

3. Stash Some Cash

Put money aside to prepare for car maintenance.

Whether you favor stashing cash under the mattress or in a bank account, start saving now. If you go the safer, bed-less route, shop around for the best rate on a basic savings account by contacting at least two or three banks. Also inquire about minimum initial deposits. Most require your Social Security number, a photo ID, and at least $25 to get started.

4. Sign Up for Roadside Assistance

Sign Up for a Roadside Assistance service.

Avoid the hand-to-forehead moment when you realize you should have signed up for roadside assistance before breaking down. Do it now. Inquire with your auto insurance provider about emergency roadside assistance coverage. Then consult AAA and compare notes. At the very least you’ll want an affordable service that comes to the rescue if you:

  • Get a flat tire.
  • Need to jump your battery.
  • Lock your keys in your vehicle.
  • Run out of gas.
  • Need a tow.

5. Watch Your Warranties

Keep track of your warranties.

Most car dealerships offer warranties, but some require you to use specific facilities (such as the dealership auto shop) for repairs. In addition to warranties that cover your whole vehicle, there may also be separate warranties for parts, such as your car’s battery, timing belt, and tires. Keep warranty paperwork on hand and register products as soon as possible after you buy them to ensure that you don’t miss out on free or reduced-cost replacement parts.

6. Know Your Alternatives

Know your transportation alternatives.

If growing gas prices and carbon-footprint sizes don’t encourage you to check out alternative transportation options, pricey emergency car repairs just might. Instead of going into hefty debt over auto repair, look into your local ride- and bike-share communities, as well as public transportation alternatives. A few good places to start include:

  • eRideshare—a free service that connects carpoolers.
  • B-Cycle—inexpensive community and public bike rental.
  • Google—geotargeted search results for keywords “public transportation.”

7. Stop the Bleeding

There comes a time in every vehicle owner’s life when you must decide when enough is enough—when your beloved Buffy or Big Red spends more time at the shop than at your house. Before you face your next bank-busting auto repair bill, determine how much more you’re willing to spend before considering *gasp* a replacement. If you suspect that your mechanic is taking advantage of you at this vulnerable time (or in general), check out RepairPal’s estimator tool to get the local going rate on your specific repair along with a list of nearby trustworthy mechanics.

8. Make a Car Emergency Kit

Even the most prepared drivers encounter out-of-the-blue repairs. But you might be able to keep an emergency situation from escalating from bad to worse with a car emergency kit. Whether you need to flag someone down for help or survive a blizzard in your backseat, emergency kits can save you a lot of additional heartache and harm. Reliable resources you can turn to include:

9. Bone up on the Basics

Take a deep breath and repeat this mantra: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, there are some things I can fix on my own.” Even if the name Stuart Smalley means nothing to you, you can still easily familiarize yourself with replacing the easy stuff such as:

  • A worn drive belt.
  • Battery.
  • Spark plugs.
  • Fuses.
  • Lightbulbs.
  • Air filter.
  • Windshield wiper blades.

Start with a Chilton Auto Repair Manual for your car (there is also an online DIY resource). You may want to shadow a friend who is handy with cars to see first-hand how to do things the right way, rather than relying on instruction manuals or YouTube videos. Check your community for beginner classes on auto maintenance and repair. The more you know, the more empowered you will be if disaster strikes.

10. Don’t Forget Recalls

Keeping your vehicle super fit isn’t always enough; you should also stay up to date on the latest automotive recalls. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) maintains an extensive database of safety recalls that covers:

  • Vehicles (by model year, make, and model).
  • Child restraints (by brand name and model).
  • Tires (by brand name, tire line/tire size).
  • Equipment (by brand name, part number/model number).

You can sign up for the subscription service that sends out email recall notifications and instructs drivers on submitting a safety complaint or acting on a recall.

Bonus Tip: Build up Good “Car-ma”

Start building your bank of good car-ma by helping friends, neighbors, and maybe even a stranger who is experiencing automotive woes. The key is to expect nothing in return. Then perhaps the next time you need a lift or help out of a road-related rut, you’ll be on the receiving end of an act of kindness. Keep in mind that emergency auto repairs will strike; it’s just a matter of when. The key to staying financially afloat is staying resourceful. Do you have any tips on warding off car repair woes? Share your tips and experiences in the comments below.


Any reference to a specific company, commercial product, process, or service does not constitute or imply an endorsement or recommendation by National Endowment for Financial Education.