• Do monthly visual inspections of your car to prevent major repairs
  • No mechanic skills needed, only simple checks is all that is needed
  • Refer to your car owner’s manual for details on routine maintenance
  • If you spot potential problems, visit your local neighborhood mechanic 
If you’ve ever had the unfortunate privilege of experiencing a major unexpected car repair, you know how much it hurts. It hits your wallet hard and it always happens at the worst possible time when there’s so much other shit going on in life.

And, since you depend upon your car, you really don’t have much of a choice in whether or not to get your car fixed. You need your car to get to and from work and get you to all the places you need to get to on the weekends.

Your car is nearly as important as having a roof over your head, clothes on your back and food on the table.

So, you end up having to plunk down a few hundred bucks to get that doohickey repaired, leak sealed, part replaced, etc. Ugh, more credit card debt.

If you’re lucky, the repair will be less than $100. If it’s bad, the repair costs can be in the thousands of dollars - that’s devastating.

Most of these repairs happen because of normal wear and tear. In other instances, it’s because of an abnormal part failure. The normal wear and tear from commuting is unavoidable. It’s part of work life.

However, when you ignore your car and don’t pay attention to it, these normal wear items can quickly turn into big costly repairs, especially if you’re a long-distance commuter.

Sometimes, you’ll get the “check engine” warning light in your dash display. Whenever you see that red light, it just makes your heart sink, “Great, what’s wrong with the car now?”

It’s an early warning indicator of something not working right.

Other times, car problems happen without any warning - bam, all of a sudden the car stops working. It won’t start or run. Or, it just doesn’t drive normally like it usually does. Something’s not right but no warnings at all.

What we want to educate you on is how to check your car’s “vital signs” much like your own heartbeat, blood pressure, breathing, etc. so that you minimize the chances of unexpected expensive repairs and instead, spend money only on the less expensive routine maintenance and upkeep.

Basic Monthly Maintenance Checklist

Looking under the hood of a car, at the engine, is like seeing a crazy jigsaw puzzle of metal, rubber and plastic parts all interconnected. There are hoses, tubes and wires going in all sorts of directions and other random metal things attached to other metal things.

You don’t know what any of this stuff does. All you know is that all that stuff is what makes up the engine. And, the engine is what makes the car go.

The good thing about what we’re about to explain here is that you don’t need to know much about cars to stay on top of basic maintenance checks. A little elementary knowledge will go a long way in preventing big-time repairs. And, that’s what we’re gonna share with you here.

This isn’t about you becoming a mechanic. This is about learning how to spot and read your car’s vital signs so that you can spot minor issues before they turn into major wallet-busting repairs.

Checking your car’s vital signs isn’t something you need to do every single day. What we’re listing out are things that you need to do on a monthly basis.

And, you don’t need any special tools or equipment, just your own capabilities and your car owner’s manual - you know, the book that’s been sitting inside your glove box for years?

1) Wash & Clean Your Car

Driving a just washed and cleaned car is like getting into a freshly made bed with clean sheets. It feels great. The outside of the car is gleaming and the inside is spotless and clean.

You should wash and clean your car on a monthly basis to keep all the road grime and interior mess from building up too much.

Cleaning the outside of the car will help prevent and minimize dirt and other stains from embedding into the paint. And, giving the interior a good wipe down and vacuum will cut down on dust, allergens and odors.

If you’re up for some “informal exercise”, wash and clean your car at home. It’s a great way to supplement your low sweat workouts at the office. You can burn between 200 to 250 calories by washing/cleaning your car for an hour - no joke. It’s great lightweight arm exercises with easy backbends and squats.

If you’re not into a DIY wash and clean, then swing by your local neighborhood car wash and run it through the automated bubbly amusement ride and have them do a simple interior clean-n-vacuum.

2) Check The Wiper Blades

While you’re washing your car or while you’re going through the drive-thru car wash, run your wipers during the initial and final rinse phases.

This is an easy way to check whether or not your wipers are still good. The wipers should clear the windshield without streaks, gaps or blurs.

If it’s not a clean and clear wipe, then it might be due for a replacement.

Wipers usually last about 1-3 years depending on how much you use them. If you live in a rainy or snowy climate, you’ll end up replacing your wiper blades once a year. For others, they could last up to three years or more.

In addition to the wiper performance check, you’ll also want to do a visual inspection and check for any fraying or loose rubber pieces. If there’s any damage, have your local car guy replace them.

3) Check All The Exterior Lights

Being able to see and be seen is critical, especially for driving at night. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if any of your outside lights have burned out and aren’t working.

If an asshole driver has randomly flipped you the bird and honked at you when you were changing lanes, it could be that your turn signal is not working. Either that or you “forgot” to use your blinker.

It’s imperative that your car is visible to others and that you can clearly see down the road as well.

With your car parked and engine running, turn on your headlights and hazard flashers. Then, get out of your car and do a slow walk-around and check that the following lights are working:
- Front headlights
- Front turn signals
- Rear turn signals

To check if the brake lights are working properly, ask someone to stand behind the car while you step on the brakes. There should be two levels of tail light brightness - one is just “on” and the other is brighter when you apply the brakes.

If any of the exterior lights aren’t working, then head over to your local mechanic and have the bulbs checked and replaced.

4) Check The Tires

Most people really underestimate the critical importance that tires play in keeping you and your car safe on the roadways. Those four rubber donuts are the only things that are in contact with the ground.

It’s these four “contact patches” that allow you to control the car’s direction and speed. When any of these contact patches gets wonky, it leads to less control and greater chances of getting into an accident.

The contact patches need to have good and consistent traction with the ground. This is determined by the road quality, weather and tire conditions. You can’t control the first two things, but you can manage the third - the tires.

On the inside of the driver’s door, along the door edge or along the door sill of the body, you’ll see a sticker from the manufacturer that shows the recommended tire pressure for the car. This is in PSI (Pounds per Square Inch).

You need to check that your tires are at this pressure with a basic tire pressure gauge. If you don’t have one, you can buy one at Target, Walmart or any auto parts store for just a few bucks.

Then, check all four tires and if any are below the recommended PSI, get to your local gas station and add some air to the tires that need it.

Check out this short 2-minute video tutorial on how to do this.

VIDEO: How to Inflate Car Tires
YOUTUBE: Howcast
LENGTH: 1:54
Summary points:
  • Check recommended tire pressure on the inside driver door sticker
  • Check tire pressure when the tires are cool
  • Do not overinflate beyond recommended pressures
Beyond checking the tire pressure, also do a quick visual inspection of the tread depth and overall tire condition.

To check the tread depth, use the “quarter test”. Place a quarter into the tire tread and rotate the quarter until George Washington’s head is in the tread. If you can see the top of his head, the tire tread is too low and should be replaced.

Here’s a quick 22-second clip on how to do this.

VIDEO: The Quarter Test
YOUTUBE: RightTurn
LENGTH: 00:22
Summary points:
  • Insert a quarter with Washington’s head into the tire tread
  • If you can’t see the top of his head, the tire has enough tread
  • If you can see the top of his head, the tire tread is low and should be replaced soon
After checking the tread depth, do a visual check of that same tire as well. Make sure there aren’t any nails, cuts or odd blister bulges on the tire.

If the tread is too low or you spot any unusual damage, head to your local mechanic and have them take a closer look.

Keeping your tires in tip-top shape will not only keep you safe, but it will also instantly save you money on gas by improving your fuel economy.

5) Check The Engine Oil Level

Engine oil is the “lifeblood” of your engine. It keeps all the internal parts moving freely by minimizing all the friction points inside the engine. And when parts can move freely and easily, it reduces wear and increases the longevity of the engine.

Every engine has a dipstick to check current oil levels. The location of the dipstick will vary from car to car. However, the idea is the same for all.

You’re using a metal stick and dipping it into the oil tank and then pulling it out to see how high up the oil level is on the stick. This measures how much oil is in the engine.

Here’s a short video of the process.

VIDEO: How to Check Your Oil
YOUTUBE: Howcast
LENGTH: 2:07
Summary points:
  • Park your car on a flat level spot
  • Pull out the dipstick and wipe clean with a rag or paper towel
  • Re-insert dipstick fully and pull back out to see the oil level
  • If it’s at or close to the lower mark, add oil then re-check
Since every car is different, it’s best to refer to your owner’s manual and look for the section on “checking oil level” to see what kind of oil your car requires and where your particular oil dipstick and filling hole is located.

If your car is continually losing oil on a monthly basis, there’s either a leak or the engine is burning oil. Neither of which are good, so have your local car repair shop take a look at it.

6) Check The Coolant Level

Engine coolant is a water-based fluid that has additional lubricating properties to help your engine cooling system operate smoothly. The main purpose of engine coolant is to keep your engine from overheating.

It’s kinda like how sweat helps cool our bodies when we work out.

When the engine coolant level is low, the system doesn’t have enough fluid inside the system to circulate the coolant.

In all cars, there is a reservoir tank that is translucent - kinda like an opaque white plastic tank. This allows you to see how much coolant is in the tank. It’s labeled as “Coolant” and with high and low marks on the side. You want to see the coolant level in between those high and low marks.

The best time to check the coolant level is after the car has been sitting for a few hours with the engine turned off. This is because engine coolant can be scalding hot when the engine has been running. So, only do this coolant check after the car has been off for a few hours, like overnight.

If the coolant level is low, open the coolant tank and add coolant until the level is in between high and low.

Here’s a basic overview of the process.

VIDEO: How to check coolant level
YOUTUBE: In Shot Productions
LENGTH: 2:28
Summary points:
  • Only check coolant levels when the engine has been off for a few hours
  • Check coolant level and add coolant if it is low
  • Refer to your owner’s manual for coolant type
Most any coolant is acceptable for most cars. It’s usually green in color and in some rare cases it can also be pink. You can pick up coolant from any major retailer or auto parts store.

7) Check Battery Cables

The battery is the main power source for cars to start their engines. It provides electrical power to the starter, which in turn, cranks the engine until it fires up on its own using fuel.
The key critical thing with batteries is to check the cable connections. Give them a wiggle and see if they’re loose or tight.

In most cars, the battery is located in the engine bay and usually toward the front area in the corner. In some rare cases, the battery can be located in the rear trunk. Check your owner’s manual for the exact location. 
car battery
Take a look at the cables that are connected to the battery. There will be two thick cables. Each one should be firmly connected to the battery post. The post is a small metal round cylinder post.

The cables should not be frayed or splitting and should have a solid clamping connection. If either cable is frayed, has a loose connection or has corrosion on the connector, head over a local auto shop and have them check things out.

8) Check engine belts & hoses

Another easy visual inspection that you can do is on the engine’s belts and hoses.

The belts are kind of like a bicycle chain in the sense that it’s helping to transfer power from the main source to other areas. Most cars have just one belt called a serpentine belt. While others may have two.

They’re easy to spot. The belts are black narrow bands that are about an inch wide or less and have a smooth side and a ribbed or grooved side. They’re located either on the side of the engine or in the front.

You want to do a visual inspection of the belt and make sure that it’s not cracking or fraying. The example shown below is a belt that’s gone bad - you can see the cracks in the ribs.
car engine belt
You’ll want to do the same kind of visual check for your engine hoses too. These hoses are for routing engine coolant from the engine to the radiator that’s at the very front of the car.

The hoses should not be damaged, leaking, splitting, fraying, cracking etc. It’s fine if they’re dusty and dirty, so long as they’re not damaged.

If either the belts or hoses look worn or damaged, schedule an appointment with your local auto guru and have them check it out more closely.

Take Care Of Your Commuter Car & It’ll Take Care Of You

Your car is your livelihood. It gets you to the places you need to get to every day. And most of the time, it gets you there without any issues - unless you neglect to take care of your baby.

Not every system in your car has an early warning light. Despite that, many of the key parts of your car can easily be inspected visually without much effort.

Doing monthly visual checks and staying on top of any required maintenance will prevent small minor issues from turning into major bank-draining repairs.

Not having to worry about car issues ensures a stress-free and relaxing “me-time” commute instead of an anxiety-ridden one.

Think about it - your car does a lot for you. Many of us take that for granted and don’t realize how awesome it is to have a car to get around.

So, take care of your car and it will take care of you for many more miles and years to come.

Feel Better,

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