Think for a minute about the biggest purchases you’ve made in your life. If you’re a homeowner, this list will include your house itself and probably some major repairs you’ve made to it, such as replacing the roof or a major appliance. If not, your largest purchase might have been buying a car or a computer.
When you’ve spent thousands of dollars on an item like this, it makes sense to keep it working as long as possible to keep the cost of ownership as low as possible. For instance, if you spend $1,000 on a laptop and you’re able to use it for seven years, the cost of owning it averages out to $143 per year. By contrast, if the hard drive gets fried after just two years, your cost is $500 per year.
Of course, maintenance itself isn’t free. It costs you a bit of time and money to keep all your stuff in good working order, on top of the price you paid for it. But even with this cost added in, it’s still a much better deal than having to replace your things within a couple of years because you didn’t take care of them.
Here’s a list of items you should maintain to save money in the long term and some advice on how to do it.
1. Your Car
According to Consumer Reports, a car that’s properly maintained can easily last 200,000 miles, which works out to about 15 years for the average driver. Yet Auto Trader reports that the average car owner keeps a new vehicle for only 71.4 months — less than six years. In other words, typical car owners keep their cars less than half as long as they reasonably could. According to Consumer Reports, being one of the rare drivers who make their cars last until the 200,000-mile mark could save you $30,000 or more.
Here are a few steps you can take to achieve this goal:
- Follow Your Maintenance Schedule. The owner’s manual that came with your car should include a maintenance schedule. It shows you how often to do both basic maintenance tasks, such as changing the oil and filter or the air filter, and bigger jobs, such as replacing the timing belt. To make your car last as long as possible, follow this schedule religiously. Some cars have a built-in maintenance light on the dashboard that alerts you when it’s time for service so that you don’t need to keep track on your own.
- Keep It Clean. Keeping your car clean doesn’t just improve its looks; it can also extend its life. Regular washing and waxing preserve your paint job and prevents rust that can literally eat away your car’s body. Vacuuming the carpets and seats removes grit that could eventually wear holes in the fabric.
- Buy the Right Parts. It’s tempting to buy cheap, off-brand parts for your car, but this is one of those cases where spending more will actually save you money in the long term. At best, these cheap parts might not wear as well as name-brand parts, requiring you to replace them more often. At worst, they could damage your car, requiring expensive repairs down the road and possibly voiding your warranty. Make sure all parts and fluids you buy meet the manufacturer’s specifications outlined in your owner’s manual.
- Use the Right Gas. If your manual says your car needs premium fuel, take it seriously. Higher-octane gas is more expensive, but without it, some cars will develop “engine knock,” a problem caused by uneven fuel burning, which can result in serious damage to your car’s pistons and cylinder walls. However, if the manual doesn’t call for premium gas, don’t bother spending extra on it; it won’t improve your car’s performance, lifespan, or fuel economy.
- Pay Attention. Even if you follow your maintenance schedule to the letter, that’s no guarantee you’ll never have problems. So when you drive, keep your eyes and ears open for any sign of a problem, such as an unusual noise, burning smell, or puddle under the car. Also, even if the maintenance schedule doesn’t mention it, make sure you regularly check the fluid levels of all fluids (such as motor oil and coolant), the condition of belts and hoses, and the amount of wear on your tires. That way, you can spot and fix small problems early before they turn into big problems.
2. Heating & Cooling Systems
One of the best ways to save money every month is to save energy at home, and one of the best places to cut your energy bill is your heating and cooling systems. According to ENERGY STAR, a program run by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the average U.S. household spends more than $900 per year — nearly half of its total annual energy cost — on home heating and cooling. Maintaining your heating and cooling systems properly can help you lower that cost.
Proper maintenance can also prolong the life of your HVAC system, one of the most expensive parts of your home. According to HomeAdvisor, the price of a new HVAC system can be anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000, depending on the brand, size, and type. In other words, even a low-end HVAC unit is a major investment. The longer you can keep your current system running, the longer you can put off shelling out big bucks for a new one.
Furnace or Boiler
Unless you live in a very balmy climate, your heating system uses more energy than anything else in your home. According to the DOE, heating costs make up more than 40% of the average American household’s annual utility bill. By maintaining your system carefully, you can keep it running at top efficiency, reducing your heating costs and carbon footprint at the same time. Regular maintenance also saves you money by preventing costly problems and extending the life of your equipment.
Your heating system doesn’t come with a maintenance schedule the way your car does. However, the Annual Home Maintenance Checklist from The New York Times lists steps to take throughout the year to keep your system in good working order. These steps depend on what kind of system you have: forced-air or hydronic.
Forced-Air Heating Systems
A forced-air heating system burns fuel — gas or heating oil — in a furnace and circulates hot air through a system of ducts. To maintain this type of system, you need to:
- Change Filters Regularly. Your furnace has an air filter to keep airborne particles out. When this filter gets clogged, it reduces airflow through your ducts. Your furnace has to work harder to heat your home, increasing fuel use and putting stress on its parts. To avoid this problem, change the filter every one to three months. The International Association of Certified Home Inspectors explains how to know when it’s time to replace your furnace filters and how to perform this simple DIY job.
- Keep Registers Clear. Warm air from your heating ducts enters your rooms through heating vents, or registers. Make sure these vents are clean and not blocked by furniture, drapes, or carpeting.
- Get a Tune-Up. Have your furnace professionally cleaned and tuned up once per year to keep it running at top efficiency. At the same time, do a checkup on your ductwork and get it cleaned if necessary. If you don’t have a contractor you use for your HVAC system, head over to HomeAdvisor. They will provide you with several reputable contractors in your area.
Hydronic Heating Systems
A hydronic system burns fuel to heat water in a boiler, then distributes the hot water or steam through pipes to radiators in each room. For this type of system, you should:
- Get a Tune-Up. Like a furnace, a boiler needs an annual tune-up to keep it running efficiently. The plumber or heating pro who does this job can also check your radiators and thermostat to make sure they’re working properly.
- Drain the Boiler. Rust and sediment particles can clog up your boiler, impairing its efficiency and possibly causing damage. To clear out these particles, drain all the water from your boiler once per year and then refill it. You can do this yourself or have it done by the professional who services your system.
- Bleed the Radiators. If air gets trapped inside one of your radiators, hot water can’t circulate through it. To prevent this problem, the DOE recommends “bleeding” your radiators once or twice each winter. You can find instructions for this simple chore on Bob Vila’s website.
Like your heating system, your air conditioner needs regular maintenance to keep it working efficiently. If you have a central AC system, it should get an annual tune-up once per year. You can have this done at the same time you have your heating system serviced.
Aside from this annual service, you can take care of basic maintenance for your AC yourself. Here’s your chore checklist:
- Clean or Replace Filters. Like your furnace, your air conditioner has a filter that will hamper the system’s efficiency if it gets clogged. AC filters can be either washable or disposable. Inspect the filters on all your AC units once per month and clean or replace them if they’re dirty. According to the DOE, this one step alone can reduce your air conditioner’s energy use by 5% to 15%.
- Clean Coils. At least once per year, examine the coils on your AC unit’s evaporator. If they’re dirty, clean them with the upholstery attachment on your vacuum cleaner. Make sure the unit is shut off or unplugged before you do this.
- Align Fins. While you’re examining the evaporator coil, check to see if any of the fins on it are bent. If they are, use a tool called a fin comb to straighten them.
- Clean the Condenser. At the beginning of each summer, examine the condenser on your central AC unit and clear away any debris that could restrict airflow, such as grass and leaves. Then clean the coils and fins by rinsing them with a hose.
- Clear the Drain. The evaporator on your AC has a pipe called the drain line to remove excess moisture. To keep this drain clear, push a stiff wire through this pipe every so often to clear out dirt and debris.
- Check Seals. If you use a window AC, inspect the seals around the edge each summer. If any of them aren’t forming a secure seal between the unit and the window frame, replace them.
- Cover it Up. When summer ends, cover up the outdoor parts of your central AC unit to protect it from snow and debris. If you have a window unit, you can either remove it or cover it — both inside and outside — to protect it and keep out drafts. If you choose to remove it, store it upright, not on its side.
You can slash your long-term heating and cooling costs by investing in a dual air conditioning and heating system. In smaller living spaces, a portable, low-maintenance product like the NewAir Portable Air Conditioner and Heater is more than adequate.
3. Major Appliances
Replacing a large appliance, such as a refrigerator, is a major hassle. First, you have to put in a lot of work shopping for the best deal on a new fridge. Then, you have to make an appointment to have it delivered and take time off from work to wait around for the delivery crew. If they aren’t willing to haul away the old, broken fridge at the same time, you also have to make arrangements to dispose of it. And, of course, you have to do all of this in a hurry because until your new fridge arrives, there’s nowhere to store cold food.
Naturally, you’d like to avoid doing this any more often than you have to. So it makes sense to take care of your old refrigerator — and all your other appliances — to keep them running as long as you can.
Maintaining your washing machine properly helps you save on laundry costs in several ways. It prolongs the life of the machine, so you won’t need to replace it as often. It also helps you avoid major repairs that require expensive service calls or leaks that could flood your entire house. Finally, a well-maintained washer works better, so you’ll use less water and detergent to get your clothes clean.
Here are a few maintenance tips for your washing machine:
- Clean the Machine. After every use, make sure there’s no laundry left behind in the tub, which could cause a musty smell or a rusty spot on the drum. Leave the washer door or lid open after use to help dry out the machine, and wipe down the door gasket if it’s a front-loader. Also, empty the lint filter, which may be in the center agitator tube or near the top of the washtub. Once per month, run an empty load in the machine with hot water and a cup of vinegar to remove soap residue.
- Load It Properly. When you do a load of laundry, take care not to overload the machine. Use the right amount of water and soap; adding too much can cause extra wear and tear on the washer, as well as leave residue on your clothes. Keep small or delicate items in a mesh bag so they don’t get snagged, and remove loose change and other items in pockets that could bounce around and ding the washtub.
- Replace the Hoses. Check the washer hoses regularly for signs of damage, such as bulging, cracking, or leaks around the ends. Replace any hose that looks damaged, and replace them all every three to five years, even if they look fine.
- Position the Machine Properly. Make sure the washing machine is at least four inches from the wall. It will reduce the risk of kinks in the hoses.
- Keep It Level. If your washing machine isn’t level, it can rock, vibrate, or even “walk” across the floor during the spin cycle. That may damage the machine or the floor. Balance your machine by adjusting the legs or, if it doesn’t have any, adding a shim on the side that’s lower.
The main enemy of a clothes dryer is lint. When it builds up in the filter or dryer vent, it blocks the flow of hot air. That means the machine takes longer and uses more energy to get your clothes dry. Worse still, if a stray spark gets into the trapped lint, it could start a fire.
Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to keep this problem at bay. Just follow these simple steps:
- Clean the Filter. Each time you use the dryer, remove the lint from the lint screen. Also, if you use dryer sheets, scrub the filter once a month with a toothbrush. It will remove the film these sheets can leave behind, which impedes airflow. Alternatively, you can clean the filter by running it through your dishwasher.
- Clean Inside the Trap. While you’ve got the filter out, take a peek inside the lint trap to see if any lint is building up inside. If it is, clear it out with a tool called a dryer lint brush.
- Wipe Down the Drum. The residue from dryer sheets can also clog up the small air holes in the dryer drum. To remove it, wipe the drum from time to time with some rubbing alcohol on a lint-free cloth. (State Farm recommends unplugging the dryer before you do this.)
- Clean the Vent. Michelle Maughan, a dryer expert at Sears, says the most important thing you can do to prevent a dryer fire is to clean the dryer vent. You can pull it free from the back of the machine and remove excess lint with a brush or your vacuum hose. Sears says you only need to do this every two years, but Lowe’s recommends doing it every three to six months.
- Keep the Vent Clear. In addition to cleaning the vent, make sure nothing is blocking it from the outside. Check the vent cap every so often and remove any dirt, debris, or snow.
- Replace Plastic Vents. Plastic dryer vents are much more likely to catch fire than metal ones. A rigid metal vent is the best kind, but if you can’t find one the right size, a flexible foil vent is better than a plastic one.
Of all the appliances in your house, your refrigerator can cause the most trouble if it breaks down. To avoid losing all your food, you’ll need to get it fixed in a hurry, probably paying extra for an emergency service call. Maintaining your fridge will help you avoid this expense, as well as save you money on your utility bills.
Here’s how to take care of your fridge:
- Fill, But Don’t Overfill. Your fridge and freezer run most efficiently when they’re full. The cold food in your fridge holds its temperature better than empty space, so the fridge doesn’t have to work as hard to stay cold. If you don’t eat at home that much, you can fill extra space in the fridge with several large jugs of water. However, don’t cram it so full that you impede air circulation.
- Clean the Interior. To keep the fridge odor-free, wipe down the shelves and the insides of drawers every few months. Keeping an open box of baking soda in both the fridge and freezer compartments will help absorb odors.
- Clean the Drip Pan. Most refrigerators have a drain hole to remove excess moisture and a drip pan to catch it. You can find the location of your fridge’s drip pan in the owner’s manual. A couple of times each year, pull it out and scrub it to remove odors and bacteria. Then, before putting it back, check the drain hole and clear it if it’s clogged.
- Clean Coils. Dust on your refrigerator’s condenser coils hampers its efficiency, wasting energy. Every three to six months (or as often as once a month if you have pets that shed), clean the coils with a broom or vacuum cleaner. If the coils are on the bottom of the fridge, remove the grill on the lower front to clean them. If they’re on the back of the unit, pull it out from the wall for cleaning. Make sure to leave at least an inch of clearance when you push it back into place.
- Check Seals. If the gaskets on your fridge and freezer door can’t form a tight seal, cold air can escape. To keep them in good shape, clean them two or three times per year with soap and water to remove crumbs and food residue. Then, examine the seals to see if they look cracked or warped. Finally, test their strength by closing a dollar bill in the door with half inside and half outside. If you can pull it out easily, it’s time to replace the seals.
- Keep It Level. Another reason your doors might not seal tightly, or might not close on their own, is that the fridge isn’t level. To find out, put a carpenter’s level on top. If the bubble isn’t centered, adjust the feet of the fridge or shim it up.
- Change Filters. If your refrigerator has a built-in ice maker or water dispenser, it probably also has a filter to keep the water clean. You’ll need to replace this filter every few months if you don’t want foul-tasting water and ice. Your owner’s manual should explain how often to replace it and where to buy new filters.
Since a water heater can cost about $1,000 to replace, it makes sense to keep yours working as long as possible. In an interview with Angie’s List, plumber Carl Kenworthy says the average lifespan of a standard water heater is 8 to 12 years. However, some heaters last 17 to 18 years, and he’s even heard of one that made it to 30. So if you keep your water heater in good shape, you can more than double its useful life.
To maintain your water heater, follow these steps:
- Flush the Tank. According to Kenworthy, what usually kills a water heater is a buildup of minerals on the inside of the tank. This buildup slowly clogs up the tank and the pipes, limiting the flow of hot water. The best way to reduce this buildup is to completely drain and refill the tank every three to six months. You can find detailed instructions for this DIY home maintenance job at HGTV.
- Check the Pressure Valve. Before you drain the tank, take the opportunity to check the pressure valve, which prevents the tank from becoming overpressurized. If this valve fails, the water heater could explode. After shutting off the power and water flow to the tank and placing a bucket to catch drips, pull the valve’s trip lever, then let go. If water keeps flowing, it’s probably time to replace the valve.
- Replace the Anode Rod. Many water heaters contain a rod called the sacrificial anode, which is made from aluminum, magnesium, or an aluminum-zinc alloy. This rod’s job is to attract corrosive elements in the water so they don’t attack the tank itself. It wears out after about six years, at which point your tank begins to rust. However, if you remove and replace the rod after about five years, you can keep the tank rust-free, possibly doubling its lifespan. You can find instructions for replacing the rod at Family Handyman. However, be aware that it may not be possible to remove the rod yourself, and not all plumbers are willing to do it for you.
Maintenance for a tankless water heater is a bit different. You can’t simply drain the tank to remove mineral buildup, so you need to flush it once per year with vinegar. The vinegar should circulate through the unit for about 45 minutes to dissolve all the minerals. You can hire a plumber to do this job for you or follow the instructions on SFGate.
4. Roof Gutters
If you own a house, you probably don’t really notice your roof gutters unless they clog up. At that point, they become a big problem.
Without gutters to divert rainwater away, it can pool up around the base of your house and damage the foundation or work its way under your shingles and damage the roof. A clogged gutter can also become a home for mold and pests such as mice and bees.
To prevent these problems, experts say, you should clean your gutters at least twice per year, once in the fall and once in the spring. You can remove leaves and other debris with gloved hands, a wet-dry vacuum, or a tool called a gutter scoop. While you’re up there, inspect the gutters for signs of damage, such as rust, holes, leaking joints, or missing hangers, and fix any problems you find.
Don’t forget to inspect your downspout as well. Remove the elbow joint and look along the whole length of the pipe for clogs. If you find one you can’t reach, push it out from the bottom up using a broom handle, plumber’s snake, or hose turned up to full blast. If you push on the clog from the top down, you might end up packing it tighter.
If you have guards on your gutters to keep out leaves, you may think you no longer need to clean them. But according to gutter pros interviewed by Angie’s List, that isn’t true. Gutter guards reduce the amount of debris that gets into your gutters, but they can’t eliminate it entirely.
So even if you have gutter guards, you should still inspect your gutters once per year to see if they need cleaning. And if the answer is yes, you’ll need to remove the guard before you can clear out the gutters — a job that may require a professional. Professional gutter cleaning can cost anywhere from $75 to $225.
5. Computer & Other Devices
Apart from your car and major appliances, your home computer is likely one of the most expensive things you own. According to CostHelper, a desktop computer can cost anywhere from $300 to $3,500, not counting the monitor. Laptops cost about the same, and a new smartphone costs an average of $580.
After spending this much money on a device, it makes sense to do all you can to protect it. By maintaining your computer, you can prolong its life and optimize its performance so that it’s less frustrating to use. You’ll also protect it from viruses and malware, which can not only damage your device but also compromise your sensitive personal data, putting you at risk for identity theft.
Here are the most important steps for keeping your computer in peak condition:
- Keep It Clean. Dust and dirt can clog up the vents and ports on your computer, reducing airflow. That increases the risk that the computer will overheat, shortening its life. Every few months, unplug the computer and wipe down all its parts with a microfiber cloth slightly moistened with water. Clean the keyboard, mouse, and monitor as well. You can use a can of compressed air to clear out any nooks and crannies you can’t reach with the cloth.
- Let It Sleep. Another way to reduce the amount of heat and stress on your computer is to put it to sleep when you’re not using it. Doing this prolongs the life of the screen, battery, and hard drive. According to Digital Trends, there’s no need to shut your computer down completely at night if you’re planning to use it again in the morning. However, doing a full reboot once in a while will improve its performance.
- Use a UPS. Power spikes can damage your computer’s internal parts. To avoid this problem, keep your computer plugged into a surge protector — ideally, one with a battery backup, or uninterruptible power supply (UPS).
- Protect It From Malware. One of the biggest dangers to your computer is destructive malware, including viruses, worms, spyware, and adware. To protect your computer from these threats, use a good antivirus program and run scans on a regular basis. Also, make sure your operating system’s firewall is always running to keep out harmful software.
- Keep It Up to Date. Another way to avoid malware is to keep your operating system and all applications up to date. Older versions of software often contain security holes that viruses can exploit. By always having the latest version, you can patch up these holes and protect your system.
- Remove the Junk. Old, unused software and files clutter up your computer’s system, taking up disk space and sometimes slowing down its performance. Check your computer from time to time and remove any unwanted programs, making sure to uninstall them completely. Also, use a disk cleanup utility, such as CCleaner or the Disk Cleanup tool in Windows, to remove temporary files and system files, and clear your browser’s history to remove cookies and junk files. When you’re done, empty the trash and reboot the system.
- Back It Up. No matter how careful you are to protect your computer, you can’t eliminate every possible threat. However, if you back up your hard drive regularly, you won’t lose your data even if you lose your computer. You can store your backups on an external hard drive or use a cloud storage service.
Many of these precautions are useful for laptops, tablets, and smartphones, as well as desktop computers. In addition, these portable computers have another component it’s important to protect: the battery. To prolong your battery’s lifespan, limit the brightness of your screen, the number of programs and browser tabs you have open at once, and the amount of time your device sits idle before going to sleep.
Also, whenever you charge your device, make sure to unplug it as soon as it’s fully charged. As Tech Guided explains, overcharging not only shortens the battery’s life but also causes damage to the charging jacks, which can’t be replaced.
According to the Consumer Expenditure Survey published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American household spends $1,883 per year on clothes – $1,066 for single people and $2,232 for families. That’s a surprising amount when you consider how cheap clothing is these days. When it’s possible to buy a pair of jeans for $20 or a T-shirt for $5, it makes $1,066 per year seem like an awful lot of clothes.
One reason the number is so high is that cheap, modern clothes don’t always last very long. If your $20 jeans wear out after three months of use, then the cost of keeping yourself in jeans jumps to $80 per year. So one of the easiest ways to cut your spending on clothing is to take care of your clothes so they’ll last longer. That’s especially important for classic, high-quality pieces you intend to keep wearing for years to come.
Here’s how to do it:
- Don’t Wash Too Often. The more often you put your clothes through the laundry, the faster they’ll wear out. Fortunately, most garments don’t need to be washed every time you wear them. According to GQ Magazine, dress shirts, jeans, slacks, and sweaters can all go for at least a few wears between washings, and you shouldn’t need to wash outerwear more than once per season.
- Follow Care Instructions. Every garment you buy should come with a label that tells you how to care for it. If you want your clothes to last as long as possible, take those labels seriously. A garment that says “Tumble dry low” won’t necessarily shrink or fall apart if you dry it on high heat, but it probably won’t hold up as well as it would with proper care. And any garment labeled “Dry-clean only” absolutely needs to be dry-cleaned. If your care label has no words, only a string of mysterious symbols, this key from Primer Magazine can help you interpret them.
- Wash in Cold. In general, the care label on your clothing describes the harshest treatment it can handle. A garment that says “Machine wash hot” can stand up to hot water, but that doesn’t mean it needs hot water to get it clean. Unless they’re especially dirty, clothes will clean up just fine in cold water, and they’ll hold their color better. And as a bonus, you’ll save on your energy bill.
- Wash Inside-Out. Another way to keep dark-colored clothes from fading is to turn them inside out before tossing them in the wash. It will reduce friction on the outside of the garment, which tends to wear away the dye. This step matters more for cotton clothes than synthetics.
- Keep Fasteners Closed. If you unzip your jeans and toss them straight in the wash, that open zipper can snag on other garments and damage them. To reduce this risk, close zippers, snaps, and other fasteners before you wash.
- Limit Dryer Time. The high heat and tumbling action of the dryer are hard on clothing. If you can find the time and the space to air-dry your clothes, they’ll last much longer. If you don’t have room for a clothesline or drying rack, try putting garments on hangers and hanging them on the shower rod to drip dry. If you don’t have time to do this with all your clothes, at least consider taking this extra step for special garments that you want to last as long as possible.
Depending on your circumstances, the items on this list might not all apply to you. For instance, if you don’t own a car, you don’t need to worry about car maintenance. If you don’t own a house, you don’t need to worry about roof gutters.
On the other hand, if you have a large house or yard, you may have other belongings to maintain that don’t appear on this list. Some possibilities include lawnmowers, snow blowers, fireplaces, and swimming pools. You can easily find instructions for taking care of these things by searching “maintenance” plus the name of the item.
No matter what your situation is, you can apply the same general rule: Anything you own that would be expensive to replace is worth taking the trouble to maintain. Any large, long-term purchase is an investment, and putting in the time and effort needed for maintenance is a way to protect that investment.
Maintaining the things you own has another benefit too: It’s better for the environment. The longer you can get your car, computer, or clothes to last, the less often you’ll need to buy new ones. That means that over the long run, you’ll consume less and create less waste, saving materials and energy as well as cash.