Regular maintenance is key to keeping your car running smoothly. But what's truly essential and what's simply lining your mechanic's pockets? Read on.

How often do you take your car to the shop for an oil change? And, as a follow up: how often does your mechanic, at one of these oil changes, suggest some other service—a service that you have no way of evaluating the necessity of? If this has happened, you know first-hand the technique of upselling an oil change.

If you’re like me, with oil changes you faithfully follow the recommendation on the windshield sticker most mechanics provide. I feel increasingly anxious if I delay scheduling a change and my speedometer starts to tick past the recommended mileage.

In part, this is because I know the worst that can happen if you neglect to change your car’s oil. A friend of mine once had the engine die on an otherwise fine car because he’d neglected to change the oil.

But mostly my anxiety was based in ignorance. I hadn’t (until now) read my owner’s manual or thought twice about how often my car needed its oil changed. Luckily, I go to a great shop where I’ve known the mechanics for many years and more than a few cars. Their honesty is what keeps me coming back even though there are plenty of closer options.

If you aren’t so lucky, you can easily fall victim to upselling at your oil change. So arm yourself with the best defense—knowledge—and read on. Find out what your car really needs and how often you should have it serviced.

Frequency: 5,000 Miles is the New 3,000 Miles

While many of those ubiquitous windshield stickers will tell you to come back in 3,000 miles, most modern cars can last 5,000 miles (or six months) between oil changes, if not longer. How do you know the right interval for your vehicle? Read the maintenance guide that comes with your owner’s manual. You’ll see a regular as well as a “severe” or “special operating” schedule. Unless you regularly tow heavy loads or drive on unpaved roads, you can follow the regular schedule.

For example, the maintenance log for my 2009 Toyota Matrix recommends replacing the oil and filter every 5,000 miles or six months. And even if you’re not sure or you forget, most cars have an oil light that will come on if you’re in need of a change. So rest assured that your car will not turn into a pumpkin if you fail to bring it to the shop at 3,000 miles on the dot.

Why do so many dealerships and other service stations still recommend an oil change every 3,000 miles? Some use the logic that there’s no such thing as “too much” when it comes to maintenance. And from an economic perspective, the oil change is the bread and butter of automotive repair. The more frequently a customer has her car’s oil changed, the more she’ll spend on that service, plus the possibility of other repairs the mechanic may notice during the oil change.

The bottom line: read your owner’s manual and find out how long your car can go between changes. Avoiding unnecessary maintenance is the first step to save money and avoid upselling.

Choosing the Right Oil: Original, Synthetic, or a Blend?

Conventional oil has been the default option throughout the history of the automobile. Even now, it’s a fine choice and there are plenty of options depending on what kind of car you drive and the climate you live in. As with the mileage interval between oil changes, you should consult your owner’s manual to see what type of oil the manufacturer recommends.

Synthetic oil is touted for extending a car’s driving time between oil changes. It performs better in extreme temperatures, takes longer to deteriorate, and generally offers better performance across the board. But with a price that could run two to four times as high as conventional oil, you may not save much money from getting fewer oil changes. If synthetic oil isn’t recommended in your owner’s manual, it’s probably not your best bet.

Looking for the best of both worlds? You can find it with a blended oil that combines synthetic and conventional. Blended oil is far less expensive than synthetic and not that much pricier than conventional. However, its main benefits are higher performance in hot temperatures and vehicles that carry a lot of weight. If these aren’t conditions you regularly drive in, there may be no reason for you to choose a blended oil.

The bottom line: Base your choice of oil on the manufacturer’s recommendation. Don’t let a technician upsell you on the benefits of an oil your car doesn’t need and might not even thrive on.

Additional Repairs and Services

As I mentioned earlier, half the benefit of bringing customers back for frequent oil changes is the potential to sell them on extra maintenance. This doesn’t mean the additional service or repair isn’t necessary. According to your car’s recommended maintenance schedule, there will come a time for tire rotation, air filter changes, and other small but important services. Still, you want to make sure anything your mechanic recommends beyond the oil change is actually needed. Here are the most common services you could be offered during an oil change:

  • Engine Air Filter: Keeps dirt, dust, and other air pollutants from entering the engine. Be skeptical if your mechanic recommends a new filter at every oil change. Most cars can last two to three years between engine air filters, according to Cars.com.
  • Cabin Air Filter: Purifies the exterior air before it enters your car, leading to better air quality and optimal functioning of the heating and air conditioning vents. On average, cabin air filters only need to be replaced every 12,000-15,000 miles (or every two or three oil changes). You may also be able to buy a new filter and change it yourself, which will save money.
  • Tire Rotation: My car’s maintenance log recommended a tire rotation with every oil change, but yours might have a longer interval. This service is simple—it consists of switching the front and rear tires—but it’s important because it more evenly distributes wear and tear on your tires. In the long run, you’ll spend less replacing tires.
  • Coolant change: Even if your car comes with “lifetime coolant,” check it periodically, especially in a higher-mileage car. Many maintenance logs stop at around 150,000 miles, leaving drivers hanging if they want to go the distance to 200,000 and beyond. Antifreeze can break down over time, becoming acidic and leading to damage across the cooling system.

Spending money on preventive maintenance will help you delay or avoid bigger and more costly repairs. But springing for these small services more often than needed will only hurt your wallet.

The DIY Option

One of the best ways to avoid upselling and save money on oil changes may be to replace the filter and oil yourself. But if you don’t feel comfortable with your mechanical skills, knowledge is the best defense against upselling at a dealership or other auto repair shop.

Tell us your oil change stories! Have you been subjected to upselling? How do you balance caring for your car and watching your bottom line?

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About the author

Elizabeth Spencer
Total Articles: 36
Elizabeth Helen Spencer is a personal finance and travel writer based in the Philadelphia area. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and still nurses a secret fiction writing habit on the side. When not writing for work or pleasure, she loves to sweat it out in a hot yoga class and find new books to read. Elizabeth lives with her husband and two children and has reached the conclusion that "having it all" is a myth.