DIY Oil Changes: Are the Cost Savings Worth it?
My wife and I wrapped up our kitchen renovation project a few months ago, and the only thing we paid someone else to do was to install our countertops (kind of hard to transport (30 lbs. per square foot), cut, and polish stone unless you are in the fabrication business).
The tear-down, appliance plumbing/wiring install, sink and faucet plumbing/install, backsplash tile cutting/grouting, and soon-to-be-completed cabinet resurfacing were all things that we learned how to do ourselves, for the first time ever.
There were some headaches along the way, but there were three big payoffs:
- It is rewarding to see the fruits of our own labor, multiple times daily.
- Our work saved us thousands of dollars versus outsourcing – no exaggeration.
- If we sell our house in the next decade plus, we’ll more than make back our time and monetary investment.
Despite this growing appreciation for DIY work (I like to refer to it as insourcing), there is one common DIY auto maintenance skill I have never been excited to take on: the oil change.
Many years ago, I learned how to change automotive air filters – which turns out to be an amazingly simple task. A new air filter (typically purchased from a big box or auto parts store for $10 or less) plus a socket wrench or screwdriver and five minutes of your time, and you will have saved the $20 or $30 an auto mechanic would charge you.
Easy, minimal time requirement, and most importantly – notable cost savings.
Oil changes are different.
There are plenty of YouTube videos out there (like this one) to learn how to do an oil change. It seems easy enough. But here is where things veer off course with DIY oil changes versus no-brainer DIY projects like changing your vehicle’s air filter:
- oil changes require more up front investment, including an oil drain pan ($10+), car jack stands ($30+), funnel, towels, and rubber gloves.
- there are more safety concerns: potential to be burned by oil, human/pet/environmental exposure to oil, and the possibility that the car could fall on you and kill you if not jacked and stood properly.
- it makes a mess every time, even if you are a pro at it.
- the possibility to really screw things up and create large repair expenses if you don’t know what you are doing or forget to complete a step: buy the wrong oil or filter, don’t properly attach the filter or re-plug the engine, or don’t use appropriate levels of oil.
- there isn’t the same type of noticeable reward and satisfaction that you get from many DIY projects where you can see the fruits of your labor.
DIY Oil Change Cost Savings? Or Lack of
Now, all of these things might be worth the time, risk, and effort if you were to realize significant cost savings for that time, risk, and effort. Here’s where your experience may vary quite a bit by make and model.
My current make and model uses 5 quarts of full-synthetic dexos1 oil. The cost for the oil plus a filter can be had for as low as $34 (after tax) from WalMart ($45+ in many other locations). Add this on top of the aforementioned up-front investments.
What does it cost to get the synthetic oil and filter change done at an auto shop? I’d recommend sticking only with reputable mechanics or dealerships (who run surprisingly good deals on oil changes) versus looking for a bargain basement deal. The last few oil changes I’ve had have been through the dealer for my car. Recently they were running $50 Visa gift card promo for anyone who came in to do a test drive. The cost of the oil change? $35, including tax. We literally pocketed $15 (and they didn’t even ask us to do the test drive).
Lets assume I pay the full $35 charge every single time (rare, but I want to do a worst case comparison here). My actual cost savings for a DIY oil change? $1. All the time, effort, risk, purchase/disposal run, and mess for one freakin’ dollar!!! I have to go through about seven years of oil changes just to pay off the oil drain pan.
This, to me, makes choosing not to do my own oil changes a no-brainer, even if it means a few points have been subtracted from my DIY or man card.
Historically, I don’t think the lack of cost savings was always like this. My guess is that automotive maintenance business models have changed over the years to look at oil changes as a loss leader as more people have moved away from DIY oil changes. Quite literally, on an at-cost oil change, the shop is losing money because they have to pay their mechanics for labor. They are hoping that they will be able to discover and get you to come back for much more profitable maintenance work. Maybe even have you add-on that $30 air filter change.
Don’t get me wrong – I clearly appreciate self-sustainability and learning how to do things on your own. But if auto shops are willing to subsidize the cost of my oil changes, save my time, and lower my risk, just to get me in the door – then I’m more than willing to oblige.
Maybe you have a difficult-to-service luxury foreign make/model and would be charged hundreds for an oil change. Or maybe you live an hour from the closest auto shop. Then, I get the DIY oil change.
Otherwise, please convince me why I should do my own oil changes, with the lack of cost savings. I’m open to reconsideration.