I Earned $30 an Hour Doing My Own Car Maintenance

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car maintenanceThis week my car was due for an oil change so I dutifully took it into the shop like I do every 5000 miles.

Each trip there makes me nervous, because I have 115,000 miles on it, and I’m always worried they’re going to find something catastrophically wrong and crazy expensive that needs fixing.

This time, they informed me the battery tested low and was due to be replaced. I knew this was coming, because it the battery was actually the original that came with the car — 8 years ago.

In other words, it had a good run.

The shop’s cost to replace the battery? $139.99.

I had some vague memory of changing a battery in my old truck back in college — 10+ years ago. I remembered the battery only being $50 or $60, so $140 seemed pretty steep.

Me being a savvy shopper, I politely declined.

My wife, skeptical, quizzes me, “Why didn’t you just have them do it?”

She’s right to question my decision; I’m not exactly Mr. Goodwrench. I’m the guy who sometimes still has to think to himself, “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.”

In fact, when I went to find the hood release on the car later, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d opened it.

“Hey, give me some credit. I’ve changed a battery before!” I replied. “It’s not rocket science.”

And it’s not. If you can operate a wrench, you can probably change your battery.

Battery Shopping

The next day, I stopped by Walmart to pick up a battery. It was by the gym and I was already making the trip, so it wasn’t horribly out of my way.

They have a handy little electronic guide where you punch in the details of your car and it tells you which battery you should buy.

For my 2006 Ford Escape, it spit out 96R.

Whatever that means.

I was surprised to see the price tag for my lovely 96R though: $94.99!

Apparently the cost of batteries has gone up since I was last in the market!

My visions of big savings quickly evaporating, I went to the checkout where they added on tax and a “core charge” — a $9 fee I got back when I took the old battery back in for disposal or recycling or whatever they do with it.

(But I had to make another trip to Wally World for that. Had I brought my tools and a willingness to swap out the battery in their parking lot in the rain, I could have saved the trip.)

That brought my total to $104 out the door.

Back at home and safe in the dry garage, I pop the hood and locate the battery. It’s secured by a plastic casing and a couple connectors, which is a relief — I really should have checked that before getting all cavalier with the oil change shop.

I got the old battery out without incident, and inserted the new one, proudly tightening the screws and making sure the car still started.

It did, but oops — I forgot the plastic casing!

I had to backtrack a little to correct my mistake, but in total it was about half an hour start to finish.

My Hourly Rate

Sweet, sweet victory: I saved $36!

But how much time did I spend?

On top of the half hour of physically swapping out the battery, I spent 20 minutes on each trip to Walmart — figuring out which battery I needed, standing in line, exiting the massive building, etc.

Total time: 1 hour and 10 minutes

$36 / 1.17 = $30.77 per hour.

(Minus a few cents for extra gas consumed, if you want to get technical.)

Was it worth it?

That’s not a terrible hourly rate, but it’s less than I expected it to be given my sticker shock on the price of the battery.

The more important question to ask is about the opportunity cost. What else could I have been doing with that time. Could I have earned more than $36?

Worth mentioning: I’d be lying if I didn’t say I got some satisfaction from doing it myself. I rarely get to “work with my hands,” and this was the perfect easy repair to make me feel accomplished.

What I Should Have Done

In hindsight, there were a couple questions I should have asked the oil change shop before declining the battery installation.

After getting the quote for $139.99, I should have shot back with, “Can you do it for $100?”

Everything’s negotiable, right?

Worst case, they say no, and best case I start a negotiation and get closer to price I can live with.

Failing that tactic, I could have asked what the price for just the battery was, excluding the installation.

Even though the professional technicians are surely faster at doing the work than I was, the retail labor rates for car maintenance are probably in the $80-100 per hour range. It’s feasible the battery itself could have been purchased straight from the shop for similar to what Walmart charged — and saved me the trip.

Next Time

The next time you take your car to the shop and they recommend some upsell you technically could do yourself, keep in mind the “phantom costs” or your time, effort, and inconvenience.

It still might be worthwhile to go the DIY route, but be aware of the full value the shop provides.

Ever cheaped out and tried to do some repair yourself? Did it work or did it backfire?

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(photo credit)

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9 thoughts on “I Earned $30 an Hour Doing My Own Car Maintenance

  1. I’m not a big DIY person either when it comes to cars, but I’ve saved a lot of money doing some low-risk things myself. YouTube and web forums specific to your make and model help a ton.

    AutoZone will install your battery for free. Other stores like Advance Auto, O’Reilly, etc., may do the same. Albeit, the Walmart price was $20 cheaper than what I saw for your battery, but when there is a sale or an online coupon code, you can match or beat Walmart’s price and possibly get free installation. Just remember to keep your receipt. When that battery dies, take the receipt back to Walmart and you will get a new battery at a prorated cost.

  2. Hate to sound negative, but this article is a little ridiculous. How could he not know that any part store will change out the battery for free. There are a lot of great examples of how doing your own car maintenance can save money. This is not one of them.

    • Not everyone knows that. For the longest time, I didn’t know that you could get a “check engine” light scanned at a parts store for free. There I was paying the shop an hour’s worth of labor to do that for me. Thankfully, with my latest vehicle, I haven’t had to deal with the light much at all. :-)

      He probably faired better going to Walmart for the battery and doing it himself. He would have paid about $20-$30 more for the battery going to AutoZone or Advance Auto. Would the time have been worth the extra expense? That’s for him to decide.

  3. I was *this* close to taking my neglected pushbike into the shop to get it cleaned up and oiled. Then a quick google search showed that I could do it myself – $15 for some brushes and lube, plus about 2 hours of mine (actually mostly my boyfriends time).

    The service fee would have been $150, so we definitely saved some cash, plus spent some time learning a new skill and getting the satisfaction of DIY-ing.

  4. My father recently try to fix his bike ,but it was over ,and speed uncontrolled, luckily no hard injuries.
    I must say that we all do small maintenance or repairs ourselves ,even if it saves us a few cents (example like filling air in tire tubes of bicycle or bike. twisting ,tightening a knob.) .But it may have some passive costs.

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