Cars are more efficient these days. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average passenger vehicle’s fuel efficiency on U.S. roads rose from about 13 miles per gallon in 1975 to about 25 miles per gallon in 2018. Vehicular carbon emissions fell by about 50% during that time, even without a federal carbon tax.
Yet American drivers still spend staggering amounts of money on gas for their cars. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, drivers spent about $348 billion on fuel in 2017, the most recent year for which final government figures are available. That works out to a national per capita spend of $1,072 on average. In rural states where commute times are longer and public transportation impractical or nonexistent, per capita spending on gasoline approached $1,500.
Your annual vehicle fuel bills aren’t entirely within your control. Fill-ups cost more when gas prices increase and less when prices decline. Economic recessions and short-term shocks affect driving behaviors and, as a result, gas spending. But, as a cost-conscious driver, you do have considerable control over what you spend on gasoline.
The actions you can take to reduce fuel consumption and overall driving costs fall into two broad categories: driving and gas-buying habits and activities directly related to your vehicle.
Modifying Your Driving and Gas-Buying Habits
Surprisingly simple changes to your driving habits can significantly impact your overall fuel bill. To trim your fuel costs, adopt these practices.
1. Use a Gas-Finding App That Helps You Save Money
Gas prices can vary quite a bit over short distances, especially in border regions. Every driver — particularly those who regularly cross county and state lines — needs a fuel-finder app that surfaces the best gas deals in real time.
The best gas-finding app of the bunch is GasBuddy. GasBuddy features accurate, near-real-time pricing information for tens of thousands of U.S. gas stations and boasts a handy internal payment platform that can save the Standard plan’s users up to $0.20 per gallon. Heavy drivers can opt into GasBuddy Premium, a $99 annual membership that promises up to $0.40 per gallon in savings.
2. Always Pay With a Gas Credit Card
If you don’t already have one, apply for a gas credit card and make a habit of using it every time you fill up. Perennial favorites available to consumers with good to excellent credit include:
- The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, which earns 3% cash back on all eligible U.S. gas station purchases
- The Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card, which also earns a 3% effective rate of return on eligible gas station purchases
- The Citi Premier® Card, yet another card that earns a 3% effective return on eligible gas purchases
If you belong to a warehouse club like Costco, consider applying for the Costco Anywhere Visa® Card from Citi (read our Costco Anywhere Visa Card review), a robust rewards card exclusively for Costco members. Eligible gasoline purchases earn 4% cash back (payable as Costco store credit) on the first $7,000 spent each year — a high enough limit to accommodate all but the highest-mileage drivers.
3. Modify Your Commute to Reduce Driving
Driving your own car to work with no passengers is tougher on your wallet — not to mention the environment — than any other commuting method. This is especially true if you work in a congested business district where parking is scarce and expensive.
Look into more cost-effective commuting options. Depending on where you live, how much time you have in the morning, and your physical fitness, you might consider:
- Carpooling with coworkers who live near you, swapping driving responsibilities every day or week
- Public transportation, such as a municipal or regional bus or train, using a monthly pass to reduce your net cost per trip
- Biking to work
4. Work From Home Whenever Possible
The COVID-19 pandemic made clear that many white-collar jobs can be done remotely with minimal impact on productivity. If you can do your job remotely but haven’t yet negotiated a remote work arrangement with your employer, make that a priority. Even part-time remote work can significantly reduce your household transportation costs, and a full-time remote position could set the stage for a move to a more livable community with less traffic and more green space.
5. Plot the Most Efficient Route to Your Destination
Cars burn more fuel during acceleration than while coasting or cruising. That means the most fuel-efficient route to your destination isn’t necessarily the shortest. It’s the route that requires the least acceleration and deceleration — the one with fewer stoplights, less congestion, lower traffic volumes, or better traffic flow overall.
6. Start and Stop Gradually
Even the most efficient route involves some stops and starts. To minimize these maneuvers’ impact on your fuel economy and cost, execute them as gently as possible. Accelerate slowly and coast gradually to a braking stop. Don’t try to test your car’s zero-to-60 rating at every light change, and don’t make a habit of flooring it until you absolutely have to hit the brakes.
The EPA reports that these basic defensive driving practices can reduce fuel consumption by up to 40% in stop-and-go traffic and up to 30% on the highway.
7. Observe the Speed Limit
Vehicles optimize fuel consumption at different speeds, but fuel efficiency tends to decline rapidly above 50 miles per hour, according to the EPA. Assume that each increase of 5 miles per hour over that threshold works out to a surcharge of $0.17 to $0.33 per gallon burned (assuming a per-gallon price of $2.38).
Driving 50 miles per hour isn’t practical or safe on the open road, of course. The best you can hope to do is drive at the speed of traffic in the slowest lane. If that means observing the posted speed limit in a 75- or 80-mile-per-hour zone, so be it. But don’t waste fuel by exceeding the limit.
8. Minimize Idling Time
An idling vehicle’s fuel mileage is zero. Avoid running your car’s gas motor whenever possible while parked or waiting. Common situations when it’s better to cut the engine than keep it running include:
- Waiting in stopped traffic
- Waiting at at-grade railroad crossings
- Waiting to pick up a passenger
- Sitting at a long stoplight
Idling is unavoidable in certain situations, like warming up and de-icing a car on a frosty morning. But you don’t need to let your car run for 30 minutes before hopping in. In fact, you don’t need to warm up fuel-injected cars (those built since the mid-1990s) at all, at least not for the sake of the engine, according to Cars.com.
Leave your car idling in the morning only as long as absolutely necessary to reach a comfortable interior temperature. Or, keep your coat on in the car and drive off as soon as you start the engine.
9. Park Farther Away From Your Destination
U.S. motorists spend about 17 hours per year looking for parking and waste about $345 in fuel doing so. One way to reduce — if not eliminate — parking-related fuel waste is to settle for parking spaces farther from your destination.
This isn’t always possible in business, shopping, and entertainment districts with fewer parking spaces than cars, but it’s a good rule to live by. Rather than drive around the block yet again in search of the perfect spot, head to a less crowded area a few blocks away and put on your walking shoes.
10. Make Longer, Less Frequent Errand Runs
Reduce your total mileage driven on errands around town by consolidating those excursions whenever possible. Instead of hitting the grocery store today, the home improvement store tomorrow, and the post office the following day, set aside a weekend afternoon (or weekday if your work schedule allows) to get them all done at once.
11. Keep the Windows Up
You might not notice the difference on a day-to-day or even month-to-month basis, but keeping your car’s windows up improves your car’s aerodynamic performance and trims your fuel bill. If you pine for the feeling of the wind in your hair, it helps to imagine pennies rushing by your head into the gas station attendant’s hand.
12. Don’t Wait Until Your Tank Is Almost Empty to Fill Up
Waiting to fill up until you’re nearly out of gas increases the risk you’ll have to settle for a higher per-gallon price at the first station you see. My rule of thumb: Once my tank is three-quarters empty, I plan to fill up at the first low-cost station I encounter.
In my case, that’s usually the closest Costco gas station, where prices are reliably $0.10 to $0.15 lower per gallon than elsewhere nearby. When my travels take me in a different direction, I use GasBuddy.
13. Avoid Gas Stations Known to Charge More
You know the ones. Like clockwork, their signboards proclaim per-gallon prices $0.10, $0.20, even $0.30 higher than those a mile or two down the road. These “premium” stations know they can charge more, whether due to a convenient location in a high-income neighborhood or the fact that they’re the only station for minutes in any direction.
It’s in your best financial interest to avoid these expensive stations at all costs.
14. Limit Air Conditioner Use or Use the Eco Setting
Using your car’s air conditioner can reduce fuel economy by as much as 25%, according to the EPA. This is especially pronounced in very hot weather, on short trips, and in hybrid-electric vehicles.
On pleasant days, turn off the air conditioner entirely and use the coolest non-AC blower setting instead. When it’s too hot to go entirely without air conditioning, set your AC to the lowest comfortable setting or use your vehicle’s “eco” AC setting if it has one.
Choosing and Maintaining Your Vehicle
The biggest influence on your overall fuel bill is your vehicle itself. Choosing a more fuel-efficient car will reduce your gasoline costs, all other things being equal. In the meantime, you can optimize your current vehicle for fuel efficiency by doing some basic maintenance.
15. Purchase a Hybrid or All-Electric Vehicle
When you’re ready to purchase a new or used car, strongly consider a hybrid-electric, plug-in hybrid-electric, or all-electric vehicle. Many popular car and SUV models exist in hybrid form, including the Toyota RAV4, Hyundai Sonata, and Volvo XC90. That’s not counting hybrid- or electric-only models and model families, such as Toyota Prius, Honda Clarity, and Chevrolet Volt, or entirely electric makes like Tesla.
If you buy certain plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles, you may qualify for federal income tax credits as large as $7,500, significantly reducing your net cost. The EPA has a complete list of currently qualifying vehicles and the exact amount of the credit for each.
16. Keep Your Tires Properly Inflated
According to the EPA, tires inflated to the vehicle manufacturer’s recommended pressure can improve gas mileage by 0.6% on average and up to 3% in some cases. Every pound-per-square-inch decline in pressure below the recommended level equates to a 0.2% drop in fuel efficiency. You can likely find your vehicle manufacturer’s recommended pressure in your owner’s manual.
17. Use the Correct Motor Oil Blend
Simply using the motor oil blend recommended by your vehicle manufacturer (also found in your owner’s manual) can boost fuel economy, according to the EPA.
18. Follow Your Car’s Recommended Maintenance Schedule
Proper vehicle maintenance improves vehicle fuel economy and reduces harmful emissions. Keeping your vehicle’s oxygen sensor in good working order is especially important. A faulty sensor can reduce fuel economy by as much as 40%, according to the EPA. Simply keeping your engine tuned — a key component of manufacturer-recommended scheduled maintenance — can improve fuel economy by 4%.
None of these fuel-saving strategies require radical lifestyle changes or inordinate sacrifice. Other than purchasing an electric vehicle next time you’re in the market for a new car, the biggest change you’re likely to make in your pursuit of lower fuel costs is taking the bus or train to work — or perhaps carpooling — instead of driving a single-occupancy automobile.
If you like reducing your car’s gas bill, you might enjoy finding other ways to trim your driving expenses. Fiddle with your deductible and reported miles drive to save money on car insurance. Join a warehouse club like Sam’s Club or Costco and take advantage of discounted fuel and bulk tire pricing. Take on a side hustle as a delivery driver for DoorDash or Instacart to turn your car into an income-producing machine.
The possibilities might not be endless, but there’s plenty of them to go around.