Gas is cheap right now, but that doesn't mean you can't save even more than you already are right now on this everyday purchase. And not many people know this, but there is actually preventable damage you can hold at bay simply by never letting your tank run too low!
Read your owner's manual to determine what kind of gas you need
Americans have very short memories. When the price of a barrel of oil hit a record-high of $147 in July 2008, I took a ton of calls from people who wanted to dump their SUVs and buy a hybrid or other fuel-efficient vehicle. But as prices subsided, Americans resumed their love affair with bigger vehicles.
It's been the same trend with the sale of premium gas. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, premium gas sales dropped to an all-time low—7% of all gas sold in the United States—when the price of oil was at its peak in July 2008. That's a big drop when you consider premium gas has accounted for up to roughly 20% of all gas sold in the last 20 years.
But now that $4-a-gallon gas is a distant memory, sales of premium are going up again. Yet I'm here to tell you that premium gas is, for most people, an unnecessary waste of money. Most cars will run just fine on regular gas—even a Porsche! And unless your vehicle specifically requires premium, using higher-octane gas may actually harm it. If you're not sure, just check your owner's manual to see what your car or truck needs. Ultimately, you want to use whatever the manufacturer specifies, even if that means premium gas.
Also, you need to know that there's no difference in the quality of gas between a brand name and a no-name filling station. What goes into gas is regulated by the state, and price is the only difference between any two stations. So save your money!
Comparison shop for gas before you fill up
When gas prices at wholesale drop significantly in short time periods, you'll probably notice there will be big differences in the price of a gallon from station to station in most metro areas. The normal price ranges from 15 to 20 cents, but it's possible to see disparities of around 35 cent per gallon from station to station.
Why the almost double spread? It's all about delivery cycles and the volume of business at filling stations. Stations known as "pumpers" in the lingo of the trade may get three deliveries a day. By comparison, slower stations that don't sell as much gas may only take delivery once every few weeks.
So during times of falling wholesale prices, the high-volume stations cycle through deliveries every day and reflect market prices quicker and more accurately. Yet during times of rising gas prices, the whole cycle is reversed and the low-volume stations have the best prices because they're still selling gas from a week ago before the run-up in price at wholesale.
Pay attention to what prices you see as you're driving around and fill up when you see a deal. "Pumpers," in general, will be the best place to fill up. You can use apps like GasPriceWatch and GasBuddy to help you comparison shop for gas prices. But remember, it costs around 58 cents per mile to operate a vehicle, when you consider fuel, maintenance, depreciation and other factors. So beware of driving too far out of your way to get cheap gas. It defeats the purpose!
Skip the debit card and pay cash or credit at the filling station
Are you still using debit for pay at the pump? There's a real risk that you need to know about. If you use a prepaid card and there's a skimmer on the pump, your money is gone. While you stand there pumping gas, the skimmer sends a text message to the crook with your card info. You might not even be back in your car before they are out there charging up a duplicate version of your card! But if you use a credit card and you're skimmed, it's no big deal. Disputes are easy with the major credit card issuers. You won't be responsible for the charge and you'll most likely get a new card to use in the mail.
When I get a call from somebody whose debit card is compromised, they are shocked. But the risk to you is real. Gas stations are trying to stop card theft, but they won't start accepting the new chip-based cards until 2017.
Read more: 9 places you should never use a debit card
Never let your tank get below 1/4 full
Waiting until your gas tank is almost empty before a fill-up is a bad idea. For starters, the fuel gauge isn't always accurate. Experts suggest you should consider it an estimate -- rather than an exact measurement -- of how far you'll make it before running out of gas. Second, you could be damaging your vehicle by running that low on gas. The gas in your car "acts like a coolant for the electric fuel-pump motor, so when you run very low, this allows the pump to suck in air, which creates heat and can cause the fuel pump to wear prematurely and potentially fail," according to Consumer Reports. The repair could cost well more than what it would have cost you to fill up the tank in the first place.
Don't overlook the simple ways to improve fuel economy right now
Looking for some no-brainers that can improve fuel economy on your existing vehicle? The old standbys still apply. We've all heard them a hundred times. But almost nobody remembers to do them—unload your trunk, keep your tires properly inflated, and slow down out on the road. Make a resolution and do these things! And the real twofer here is to walk short distances because it saves money and improves your health!
Want more safety and money-saving advice about automobiles? Visit our Cars section.