This 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.
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.
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?