This article has been updated from a previous version.
Next to home costs, vehicles can be the biggest financial investment for a household, and can cost big bucks when something goes wrong. With winter upon us — the toughest transportation season for your car — now is a good time to assess what kind of shape your car is in, and look for ways to save amid the snow and cold.
Must-have tire math
Purchasing a set of winter tires — and possibly a second set of rims — will run you between roughly $500 and $1,500 (including rims). If you own two cars, double those costs. Fortunately, if you have winter tires installed between December and March as an insured driver in Ontario, you can save up to 5% on car insurance.
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Snow tires are an annoyance on one level: you must store them during warmer weather and you need to either install and remove them yourself twice a year, or haul everything over to the mechanic to do the job for you — at a cost, of course. However, for many people, the cost is worth it. Skidding on slippery roads and putting your car in the ditch or colliding with another car comes with serious costs, including the hassle of reporting the collision, paying some or all of your insurance deductible (check your policy, it is often $500 or $1,000) if you are entirely or partially at fault for the collision, and managing the car repairs.
However, if you are at fault, not only will you pay a deductible, but your premium will go up when your policy renews. And if someone in your family is injured, you may have to deal with the repercussions of that — be it stress, not being able to work, extra healthcare costs, or worse. Add up the costs: if you live in a warm part of Canada (Vancouverites, we're looking at you), or you don't drive much in the winter, snow tires might not be worth it. In a rural area, however, with lots of snow and the need to drive even to pick up milk, you need them.
Get a tune up
While you're moving those tires around, get a proper winter check up on your vehicle to be sure it's in prime running condition and your fluids are topped up and tires fully pumped. Avoiding a breakdown on a cold, snowy evening is worth the cost of avoiding a rough walk or a tow.
Your mechanic may encourage you to switch to synthetic oil: a smart choice for climates where there's rapid temperature changes in the winter, such as southern Ontario and Alberta. This type of oil costs more, but you don’t have to change it as frequently.
Clean up your car's act
Having your car fully detailed inside and out before winter may seem decadent, but a deep clean and vacuum may actually help save you money down the line. These services remove dirt and mess from the inside of the car, making sure things don't turn into permanent stains that could, eventually, impact its resale value. Meanwhile, getting a deluxe clean should include a wax, which protects against salt and rust for the winter. With body work being easily the most expensive fix a car needs, particularly later in life, this is worth it.
Invest in roadside service
Now's the time to also do the math on a roadside assistance service, such as CAA. If you are driving long distances on the highway, the $75 or so (rates change depending on where you live) for a basic package could save you a lot of stress later on.
Stock up on safety
The trunk of your car should turn into a safety paradise in the winter. That starts with a car safety kit, available at hardware stores. It should include flares, flashlights, tools and a jumper cable. Add your own items to your kit, such as blankets, water, a bag of salt, and a shovel.
Budget for cold weather costs
Be sure you have enough in your household emergency fund to deal with a winter-related car repair, particularly if you have an older vehicle. Sitting in snowy gridlock can also be a big drain on your gas tank. Try offsetting your costs with a gas rewards credit card.