These days — and especially with the summer driving season in full swing — conspiracy theories abound as to what’s behind high gas prices. It’s hard to believe that as recently as late 2008, you could find gas at $2 a gallon. In Chicago, where I live, it’s nearly at the $5 a gallon mark.
Now I’m not one for conspiracy theories, though it is juicy to hear some of the theories proffered by frustrated pump patrons over the years. Like: well-timed price fixing by Big Oil, as allegedly worked out in former Vice President Dick Cheney’s secret energy task force meetings. Or: the Russians cutting gas supplies from their nation, perhaps to form a new cartel.
Here’s a more prudent, provable theory: Oil and gas are natural resources, now consumed in record quantities even as the planet’s non-renewable supply vanishes. Meanwhile the U.S. must compete with developing nations such as China and India that have an unquenchable thirst for the stuff.
These factors may loom far beyond our control — but we’re not powerless. Even with that $5 threshold looming like a vulture over our wallets, we can start using less gas in sensible ways: public transit, biking and walking, to name a few. Otherwise, there’s nothing wrong with using every means at our disposal to find the cheapest cheap gas, or save on gas expenses. Here are 10 ways to spend less on gas: strategies, products and miscellanea that will push the pump price back a bit, keeping your tank and bank account full at the same time.
1. Use grocery store gas discounts
It’s becoming common practice for supermarkets to offer per-gallon discounts on a particular brand of gas as a reward for your grocery shopping loyalty. In the Chicago area, for example, you can save 5 cents a gallon for every $50 spent at Dominick’s stores. That’s good for up to 20 cents a gallon off at Mobil stations, and up to 50 cents a gallon off wherever a Dominick’s has a gas pump.
2. Lighten up your car.
My Toyota Sienna minivan gets generally poor gas mileage, about 15 miles to the gallon, so this past week I tried an experiment: I took out my two rows of rear seating. Lo and behold, the car is burning less fuel, and no wonder: Every 100 pounds of added weight in a car reduces fuel economy by up to 2 percent by some estimates. That makes sense, since my passneger seats have a combined weight of about 200 lb., and I’m consuming roughly 5 percent less gas than before. I’m going to keep those seats in storage for as long as I can get away with it.
3. Buy your gas at Costco
This recommendation comes with a caveat: Don’t join Costco just to get the cheap gas, as it’ll be hard to break even on your $55 annual Gold Star membership fee. That said, Costco has been pretty aggressive about pricing its gas 6 to 12 cents a gallon cheaper than stations in the neighborhoods surrounding its stores. Other membership-only warehouse clubs have adopted a similar pricing strategy, so consider these places when looking for the cheapest gas close to you.
4. Use GasBuddy.com.
This website, up for about a decade, ranks among the granddaddies when it comes to finding low, low gas prices. It updates the cheapest prices in the past 24 hours for specific states all over the country. There’s also a GasBuddy app for your smartphone you can download, too. Joining GasBuddy is free, and once you do, you could win $250 in free gas for spotting low prices in your area. Hey, that’s as good as liquid gold these days.
5. Use GasPriceWatch.com.
This site works in similar fashion to Gasbuddy, and has been around just as long. Here’s to giving you another online arsenal in the fight to save at the pump, as it’s entirely possible that a rock-bottom price missed by Gasbuddy will be captured by GasPriceWatch, and vice versa. GPW also has a way-cool screen crawl at the upper right corner of its home page that shows gas prices from all over the U.S.
6. Inflate those tires.
Countless studies show that cars with properly inflated and balanced tires get better gas mileage — around 3.3 percent, according to government stats. If you’re really in a miserly mood, look for those rare gas stations that still offer free air; it might run you 50 cents or so otherwise.
7. Change your oil, and put the right oil in.
This is key for older cars especially, which in many cases will benefit from using 5W-30 motor oil. Again, the feds tell us that the right oil grade will save you another 1-2 percent in gas mileage — see how all this is adding up? But the next time Mr. Quickie Oil Change Dude tells you to replace the air filter, consider taking a pass. While some folks say this will boost mileage, government studies show that a new air filter, while it will improve engine performance, won’t help much in the gas department. (Neither do those highly touted gas additives, by the way.)
8. Go over the big-city line to buy gas.
In large urban areas, gasoline is heavily taxed and thus more expensive. Odd as it may seem, I can drive to gas stations just across the street from Chicago’s city limits and find gas that’s much cheaper. Beyond that, keep your eyes peeled for especially busy stations, a sure sign that prices there are very low. But don’t drive too far out of your way to get the cheap stuff, as a long trip may negate any savings you realize. (I plan suburban gas buying sprees around necessary errands.)
9. Buy low-octane gasoline.
If you’re among the suckers, er, consumers, who buy high-octane gas because you think it gives you better gas mileage, I’m sorry to say that experts agree this is a waste of money. Props to the folks at Bankrate.com for pointing this out, along with other gas-saving tips you can read here. Bottom line: Unless your car specifically requires premium, skip it and go for low-octane fuel.
10. Just. Don’t. Drive. (Duh.)
It’s amazing how many Americans consider cars a Constitutional Birthright, right up there with free speech and unlimited Twinkies for all. True, it’s hard to get around without a car in the ’burbs. But now’s the time to ask yourself some tough questions: Is it time to get rid of my fuel-hogging SUV? Should I hop on my bike instead and take a step towards eliminating a spare tire of another kind? Can I walk to the pharmacy? Isn’t it time I learned the public transit routes in my town? I’ll tell you what: Every time I take the train or bus instead, I’m doing all sorts of business, and nixing errands off my to-do list, via my iPhone. And you can’t do that behind the wheel. (Though just today, I saw at least five motorists trying to text and drive at the same time. Heaven forbid a pedestrian should dart in front of them.)
Other alternatives exist to replace those gas shackles with a thinking cap: We can carpool. We can trade in our wasteful cars for more fuel-efficient ones. We can put all of our trips in a straight line, instead of doubling back again and again to make 15 separate convenience store runs.
We can. No sense in getting held up at the pump when we can hold the line through good habits and common sense.
How do you save on gas expenses, and what would you add to (or delete from) our list of suggestions? Tell us in the comments section below.
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