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Keep Your Car in Working Order

For going back to the basics this month, we’ve dealt with your handbag, your beauty routine, menu planning, hosting a gathering, and single parenting. What’s a more obvious inclusion than your car?

I know that’s what you’ve all been thinking. When’s she going to include auto maintenance?

Quite honestly, I was wracking my brain trying to think of the best topic to add to this motley crue of topics. I wanted something different but still useful for most of us. When my friend Nicole suggested car maintenance, I thought that was brilliant.

I’ve asked my husband Kyle to help out with this post, because quite honestly, I can make the car look clean, but that’s about it. His contributions are a reminder to me that I seriously need to brush up on my Auto 101.

We’re a one-car family, and we want to keep it that way as long as we can. It’s essential to keep our one transportation unit in tip-top shape so that we can use it well. We’re not fancy car people (ours is ten years old), but a little upkeep can keep a car running smoothly for years. It’s how we’re able to save our money for other things we really want to spend it on.

Here are basic ideas for keeping your family truckster in tip-top shape.

Simple tips to keep your car clean and maintained.

The clutter

What is it about kids and their inherent need to use the car as a trash can? Ours are no different, and the only solution I’ve found is to clean it out OFTEN.

Designate one weekly afternoon to clean it out.

It doesn’t need to take more than a few minutes—scrape everything out from the floors, seat back pockets, and cup holders, and dump it into trash cans and recycling bins. I like to bring out two paper grocery bags, one for trash and recycling, so that I can easily transport everything to the big bins in the backyard when I’m done.

Let the kids help.

Give the kids a rag and a simple cleaning solution in a spray bottle, and have them clean out the gook in their cup holders. For some reason, my kids think cleaning is fun if a spray bottle is involved (though they use WAY too much if we’re not careful). My favorite basic solution is a mix of white vinegar, water, and a few drops of tea tree essential oil. I just eyeball everything.

Make your own cheap trash can.

Use a plastic cereal dispenser for a trash receptacle in the car.

Use plastic cereal boxes as trash cans in your car.

These were a dollar each from our local dollar store.

You can close the lid, and its sturdy-but-cheap shell means it can be tossed around without major fear of breaking. If it gets gross? (“Mom, I’m done with this ice cream cone…”) Just throw it in the dishwasher. These are great for those small bits of wrappers and paper that kids magically multiply in the car.

Be prepared to have fun.

Keep a large bag of your seasonal outdoor gear in the back of your car. It’ll help contain the insanity, and you’ll have your essentials ready when you want to play. We use this bag from Ikea—it’s cheap, wipeable, and huge.

The upkeep

The info below represents Kyle’s knowledge. Good information, all.

Keep a jump starter in your car.

portable auto jump starter

We have this portable jump starter in the trunk, and it has come in SO handy. We’re able to jump start the car without hooking up to another one, and its also equipped with an air compressor for airing up low tires. (It even has USB ports!) We charge it about every three months by plugging it in overnight. Well worth the price.

Learn how to jump start your car.

Remember this basic order:

1. Red cable to the positive (+) dead car
2. Red cable to the positive (+) working car
3. Black cable to the negative (-) working car
4. Black cable to a clean metal ground in the dead car

…Then disconnect in the reverse order.

This video is a good basic demonstration:

Learn how to change a flat tire.

I admittedly need to learn this (I’m 35 years old, and I’ve never done this… that’s just wrong). Kyle’s been meaning to teach me for years. Watching a video is helpful, but it doesn’t replace getting out in the driveway and getting your hands dirty on your own vehicle. Have someone teach you how, then watch you do it until you get it right.

And by you, I mean me.

Nonetheless, here’s a good video showing the basics:

Learn how to handle basic maintenance.

My dad changes his own oil (and disposes of it properly). Both he and Kyle also change their own brakes, and it saves a lot of money on labor.

Here are a few other car maintenance how-to videos you might find useful.

And in general, take your vehicle in to a professional for serving once a year or so just to keep it in working order. We take ours in whenever we’re about to go on a longer road trip. And the best way to find an honest, reputable mechanic? Word of mouth. Ask your neighbors, friends, Facebook, and Twitter.

What are your best auto maintenance tips? What have you learned to do, and what do you let the pros handle?

Reading Time:

3 minutes





  1. se7en

    We taught our kids car maintenance one year… we were looking for a life-skills course that wasn’t in the kitchen!!! It was really just an idle idea – “What about car maintenance?”( it has been invaluable!!! They have helped so many folk who needed a jump start or who had no idea how to change their tyre… it is a brilliant thing to teach them… and is a real confidence builder, who wouldn’t want to proudly go out and help the neighbour jump start their car when they have left their lights on!!!

    • Tsh

      That’s so great! When our kids are older, we’ll definitely do the same. (Not so good for a two-year-old…) 😉

  2. Deanna

    One thing I would add to the trash can section: if you’re going to use a hard container, please find a way to secure it. You don’t want that bouncing off someone’s head if, God forbid, you flip the car.

    • Melissa N. Page

      Great post Tsh, thank you so much! I especially like the trash cans idea. And as for the lady who said to secure them in case, “if, God forbid, you flip the car”…Really? Please find some perspective.

      • Tsh

        Ha! (Yeah, I was thinking of the 18 other things that would bonk me in the head… my purse, the kids’ backpacks, etc.)

        • Wendy

          There was a time (probably over 10 years ago) when I was paranoid about stuff flying around in an accident after reading something about it…if I’m remembering correctly the tidbit that really stood out was that in a collision at 35 mph, a can of beans in the back from your grocery bag could fly forward with enough force to kill you if it hit you in the head.

          For about a year I had one of those dog gates in the back of our suv and was super-paranoid about making sure everything was as secure as it could be.

          And then I realized that unless I wanted to go back to a covered wagon in order to cart all my stuff without risk of a collision (those horses can’t go that fast), then I needed to start worrying about something I could actually control. I also had more kids, and therefore more stuff.

          And then, I did flip my suv (a different one with no gate!)…as a Discovery Toys consultant on my way to a holiday bazaar. We’re talking totes and totes full of hard plastic objects and game boxes. Nothing hit me in the head, and I didn’t die.

          • Amy

            The original commenter was completely spot on. Anything loose in your car can actually become a projectile in your accident–and it doesn’t require rolling the car for it to do that. Friends of ours lost their mother this way when a tractor trailer slammed into them on the highway & the box of tissues came flying forward from the back window & slammed into her head. Though the other passengers were injured, they all walked away from the accident. Diminishing her concern does not make it less of a realistic concern.

            With that being said, I, too, am guilty of having loose things in my car (less now than I used to, though) & always wonder how far they might fly if I had to slam on the brakes.

  3. Rachelle - Warming Crafts

    Check your tyre pressure on a regular basis, including the spare! I do check mine, but according to my mechanic most people don’t. Also if you have a space saver spare remember it’s PSI is 60, not the normal 30 odd for a standard tyre.
    I keep a mini compressor in the car that hooks into the cars cigarette lighter to run.
    If you’re in the middle of a drought leave the outside of the car dirty, only the windows actually need to be clean, the rest can wait.

    • Tsh

      Yes! A good reminder, and one I meant to put in this post. Thanks for the inclusion.

  4. Victoria

    If it is winter time I like keeping an extra warm coat and gloves and a hat in the back, so that if there is a breakdown and I was wearing a “fashion” coat I can bundle up and stay warm until help arrives. In summer I like making sure we have a towel in the back for those times when the friends pond seems all to inviting and you all jump in clothes and all (yeah it happens).

  5. Kate

    I need to learn this stuff. My dad can do some things with cars, but I am a car dunce. It took my a long time to figure out even how to pump my own gas (in New Jersey, you can’t pump your own gas).
    I like the idea of the trash can. I usually have an old grocery bag on the floor to gather up trash. We also keep an extra jacket for us in the trunk, and a box of granola bars, because someone always gets hungry. 🙂


  6. Lindsay Wilson

    Jump starter never occurred to me, I guessed you might need them up in those cold winters. I’m going to use the bins tip, my two year old is constantly covering the car with food. Everyone should check tire pressure often, both for safety and performance.

    Loving the DIY tips!! I did a very geeky post about getting better fuel economy out of your car last week, I’m easily getting 10% better mileage since I improved my style.


  7. Heather Gaither

    Tsh, I’m loving your tip about the trashcan. I have tried EVER-Y-THING to try to keep the car clean, and my feeble trash bags (which get smushed under seats, or spill, or whatever) have been a constant annoyance. My father drilled into my head the importance of taking good care of your car. Other than your home, it’s often your biggest investment! One thing I would add, especially as a Northerner, is to try to wash your car at least once a month (including an undercarriage flush). Salt on the roads can quickly find it’s way into little scrapes and start a rust colony. If you’re planning on driving that car until it collapses (as we do), rust can cut that lifespan.

  8. Jenn @ A Simple Haven

    That cereal box idea is genius. I’ve been meaning to add changing a tire to my limited set of car skills for awhile, thanks for the push!
    I like to keep a couple of blankets in the car during the winter months for cold grocery trips with the babies and a crazy creek chair and blanket for spontaneous picnics in the summer.

  9. Sandi

    Can sooo appreciate this post, I’m such a maintenance nerd 😉
    My husband commutes a 40 mile distance to and from work, so he sets a reminder in his phone to have his air pressure checked in his tires, every 3 months. Really saves on gas –

  10. kelly summers

    My husband and I own a garage in North Carolina, and I have a couple tips from my experiences with people trying to figure out how to maintain their vehicles:
    1. find a mechanic you trust and do the maintenance recommended! Most owner’s manuals have maintenance intervals in them to let you know what maintenance you should be doing as well. Ask if it’s time for those services.
    2. Put aside money for repairs. You drive your car every day. At some point, it WILL need work done to it, so be prepared. Set aside money every month so that when something comes up, you’re not freaking out.
    3. Don’t get rid of your car just because it needs work done. We’ve seen so many people quickly jump to the idea of getting a new car (with expensive payments) as soon as the repair bill gets over $300. But seriously, if you added up all the maintenance and repairs your car needs over a year and divide it by 12, I guarantee it’s still way cheaper than a car payment.
    Cars will last a very long time if you maintain them! We have customers with vehicles that have over 300,000 miles on them, and they’re still going!

    • Tsh

      Thank you so much for sharing! And I agree with every bit of this. We have a sinking fund for auto maintenance, and while it’s no fun to spend money on the car, it never hurts because—well, that’s what it’s there for.

  11. Rachael

    My parents made me learn basic car maintance before I was allowed to get a driver’s liscense, and then again when I bought my car when I was in college. I can change my own oil (although I hate doing it), and can, in theory, change a tire (I’ve only done it in my Dad’s driveway to prove I could, which is completely different than doing it on the side of the dark highway).

    One other super valuable thing my parents have taught us is to have a AAA membership. One break down on the highway or keys locked in the car pays for it. My parents buy each of us a basic membership for Christmas every year–it’s the only thing we get from them, which is just fine, as none of us need any more stuff! The regional magazine we get each month with the subscription is awesome too, I read it, mark the cool, cheap area events we want to attend (sheepherding festival, why not?!) on the calendar, and toss the magazine in the recycling.

    I just realized I sound like an AAA ad, I promise I’m not. Just a loyal customer. 🙂

    • Tsh

      I thought of adding that, too. Whenever we live in the U.S., we do the AAA thing, too. 🙂

    • Alissa

      Yes! AAA has saved our bacon so many times. It’s not something you think about needing until you suddenly NEED it. Locked out of our car 200 miles from home? The car that suddenly shut down on the freeway? The money we spend on that membership is soooo worth it. (I love the magazine, too.)

  12. Kathy

    Great post! I find it incredibly difficult to keep the car clean with two little kids. And they always seem to get hungry whenever we are in the car. I like your idea of cleaning it out weekly. I just need to stay on top of it!

  13. Amy Clark Scheren

    The plastic containers used for trash cans? BRILLIANT!

  14. cloud9_design_studio

    Oh Tsh!
    I just loooove your idea about the cereal container. So smart!! Gotta try that!
    I would add: make sure to have your tires/wheels checked for proper alignment and check your air pressure with a gauge to ensure proper balance which saves on gas.
    Thanks for this! Great post!

  15. Steph@livingbrilliant

    Great idea for a post. We all drive cars every day and probably don’t think about any of the things we SHOULD think about, like when the last oil change was! When I first went out on my own and bought my first car ( a lovely silver K-Car), my dad, a mechanic, made sure I knew how to check my own oil, brake fluid and such. He also told me that black smoke or, heaven forbid, BLUE smoke coming out the exhaust was a Really Bad Thing and to get it to a professional. I still remember him diagnosing my car from the other side of the country, as I started it up and held the phone under the hood for him to hear it. : ) So glad we can afford a newer car now!

  16. Claire

    I keep an extra pair of winsldshiels wipers in trunk. Learned the hard way about that. They’re $20 @ Costco.

    • Tsh

      Interesting! Never would have thought of that.

  17. Lauren Rothlisberger - GetGeeky

    Absolutely love the idea of cereal containers as a trash can. But does anyone have a brilliant way to keep them secure in a minivan. Not concerned about anyone getting whacked in the head with it, but really just drives me nuts having a trash can that is bouncing all over the car.
    Thanks Tsh, great tips.

    • KC

      Stick-on velcro! (usually available at craft or fabric stores for cheaper than the teeny packs with picture-hanging supplies) Find a few plausible hangout sites for the bin (where a flat surface can be well in contact with a flat surface of the bin and where the bin’s in a convenient-ish location), put strips of the “hook” side of the velcro on the trash bin, match it up with strips of the “loop” side in each of your places (this way only the bin can snag clothes, not your car…), and you’re good to go. The velcro’s stickiness will eventually degrade with the heat of the car in the summer (that whole mini-greenhouse thing), and you’ll have to clean off the stickiness and replace it, but it’s great while it works. If you use sew-on velcro, you can superglue it to the trash bin and stitch it to upholstery in the car, but pick solid places so the upholstery isn’t strained.

      (This is also my solution for remotes. I love velcro-ed remotes – if they’re lightweight enough, they can live on the underside of the coffee table when they’re not in use if you want them to!)

      • Tsh

        Nice! Thanks for your $.02.

  18. Elizabeth

    Do it yourself car maintance is the cheapest way to go, luckily for us my husband is very mechanically inclined and does a lot of our own repairs, oil changes, brakes changes, etc. (His line of work is in agriculture and all that time working on equipment helps).

    I find the best way to keep my car clean is to take everything out each time. I don’t leave garbage or anything in the car longer than it needs to be left there. When I have something to donate is probably the only exception to this because I don’t take one item at a time but wait for a least a few. The hardest part of my car cleaning is under the carseats since I dont’ take them out a lot but it can get so dirty under there!

  19. Lynne Moore

    Well, I need a bigger container than a cereal container. What we do is the plastic grocery bags (I know bad, but no matter what I do I end up with them and like to use them in some other way.) But I suppose you could use a reusable bag that you could wash. Anyway, the trick is to use the headrest on the seat to hang it from so it doesn’t bounce around in the car. Take the hearest off, put the post ends thru a handle in your bag, put the headrest on. I put it hanging on the back of the passenger side and can reach it from the drivers seat fine.
    Also we keep a roll of papertowels in the car as we have needed them for sudden spills, cleaning windows, who knows what. Even covering the seats when it’s 100 degrees in the car.

  20. Heart and Haven

    And when did you change your “About Tsh” section? Cause I just read the part about you being a recent convert to kombucha. I did a double take, and had to google it, cause I thought it was some sort of crazy cult or something, lol! 😉

    • Tsh

      Ha! That’s hilarious. About a month or two ago.

  21. Heart and Haven

    Tsh, I appreciate your courage trying to tackle writing this post. However, in the future I would suggest keeping to topics you’re more familiar with or have it completely guest written. I was pretty disappointed in the tips you provided. 🙁

    Suggested tips:
    – change oil regularly per manufacturer’s recommendation.
    – check tire pressure (tires at proper inflation will help with mpg also)
    – change air filter & windshield wipers as needed (easy to do, no tools required)
    – check fluid levels (ie. oil, coolant, power steering, windshield wipers, etc.) and top off when needed.
    – visually inspect vehicle (ie. tires & belts for wear)
    – don’t delay needed repairs.

    However, I would think it would be interesting to include a post on useful items to keep in your car. This would vary depending on location, climate, and driving habits (ie. commuting vs. occassional or local vs. long distance).
    This might make a good Project Simplify post. 🙂

    • Stan

      All good ideas. I just have a few more suggestions. Its a great idea to check your air pressure often. Under inflation will cause tire wear on the outsides of tires. Over inflation will cause he middle of your tire to wear out prematurely. Wear on just the outside or the inside of the tires is a suspension problem and needs to be checked out right away. This could be dangerous.
      Be careful when attaching jumper or a portable jump starter make sure you are attaching them correctly(unless you like a spark show). Red to red and black to black. A misconnection could lead to having to replace the alternator. It only take a wrong touch.
      As for oil. Check it often, but ask your mechanic about change intervals. I don’t agree the oil needs to be changed ever 3000 miles but I don’t pay your repair bills. Keep up the good work.

  22. cred

    Check your oil- very important and basic maintenance, if you drive an older car especially.
    And while not maintenance but more for safety, those in more northern climes are wise to keep windshield washer fluid topped up and extra jug in the trunk.
    And if you don’t have a portable jump starter, booster cables are a necessity. It’s rare that you couldn’t find another car with a live battery to give you a boost if you needed it.

  23. Monica

    Great post! Like many of the readers, I love that cereal trash can tip. I am horrible about cleaning out my car, but it makes a road trip so much better when the car is free of clutter. And since we drive an hour for everything (major grocery store, doctor, dentist, etc…) we do a LOT of road trips. I also keep an old wet bag (for cloth diapering, there are cute ones on Amazon) for dirty clothes-type accidents or even a garbage bag in a pinch. You just toss them in the wash, they are great!

  24. Tamara

    Love the tip about the cereal bin/garbage can – I’m definitely adopting that idea!

    My only tip is to keep a set of warm winter clothes in your car so that if you real down and have to walk, you know everyone will be properly dressed. Of course, that’s not quite as important in the summer, but I’m thinking of throwing a gym bag in the trunk with one clean set of clothes for everyone in the family.

  25. Claire @ Lemon Jelly Cake

    I’m so guilty of leaving granola bar wrappers and receipts and all sorts of junk in my van . . . time to break that habit before my daughter starts imitating me. 😉 I also have a bad habit of leaving boxes for Goodwill in the back of the van for weeks . . . or months. Thanks for the tips!

  26. Emilie

    Love, love, LOVE the addition of your playlist to the Sunday post!!

  27. Mary

    No. Food. In. the .car
    Water bottles only
    Seat covers
    There’s no reason to eat in the car. None. Its not safe . Food will nasty it up faster than anything.
    Also retrained my stepchild to not carry more than one toy anywhere. He’s cool with that.
    Our car gets filled on road trips. But no food ever

  28. Tori

    As a wife of a very mechanically included man (I’m talking can pull an car/motorcycle engine, rebuild it, and put it back together with no missing parts), and a driver of older cars (last one was 12 yrs old with over 200K before it hit a deer), an oil change is an absolute must every 3000 miles. I’ve seen engines that didn’t get regular oil changes, and they’re pretty gross. Shortly thereafter, said engine blew up under 100K miles and the car needed to be replaced. When my husband and I first got together almost 9 years ago, his first present for me what an oil change kit… how romantic. It took many tries, blood, sweat, and tears… but I can now confidently do an oil change on pretty much any car. Not everyone has the skills/time/tools to do it themselves, but it’s sure worth the 30 min wait while a shop does it.

    Another must- checking your fluids on a regular basis. A jug of fluid is much cheaper than the cost of repair if it runs low.

    Love your blog!

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