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Home » Auto Ownership, DIY

DIY Oil Changes: Are the Cost Savings Worth it?

Last updated by on 36 Comments

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:

  1. It is rewarding to see the fruits of our own labor, multiple times daily.
  2. Our work saved us thousands of dollars versus outsourcing – no exaggeration.
  3. If we sell our house in the next decade plus, we’ll more than make back our time and monetary investment.

DIY oil change cost savingsDespite 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.

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36 Comments »
  • Tom says:

    For $1 and retaining your man card, that’s why! :)

    Actually, I’ve been on the fence a lot about this lately. I just bought the oil and filter yesterday, so I’ll still do it, but it might be the last time…

    I also just bought an extra jack, a trolley jack for $35. This will allow me to rotate my own tires for cheap. I’ll also be using the jack that came with my car (my car just needs front to back on the same side). This should pay off pretty quickly.

  • Matt says:

    I do agree that the individual cost of doing JUST an oil change is not a huge amount of savings however, since I do ALL of the maintenance on my cars, I usually time my oil changes with other under-the-car maintenance events thus using my time more efficiently and combining a lower-savings maintenance event with other much higher-savings maintenance events (rotating tires, inspecting suspension parts, checking / replacing brake pads/rotors, etc)

  • JL says:

    One reason I do my own oil changes is that i know it’s done right. I’m not saying I’m better than a mechanic, but when i do my own oil change, i know what has been done to my vehicle and that it has been done right. No more stripped drain plug holes, jacking up the car without using jackpoints,…
    Im currently also using an oil extractor, cost me less than $50, and i don’t even have to get under the car, and i don’t need a catch pan. Extract the oil, poor new oil in (and replace filter), poor old oil in the oil jugs you just emptied. Easy.

  • Trevor B says:

    While I think it would be hard to convince a frugal minded individual such as yourself. There are several things to consider.

    1) Risk, you mention the risks regarding changing the oil, but neglect risks of your other undertakings such electrocution from wiring your kitchen, fires from improper wiring, busting a pipe, or improper install causing leaks….etc etc. I don’t see an oil change being any more or less dangerous/risky.

    2)Temptation,I think you recognize that the more you surround yourself with the consumer based world, the more likely you are to spend. Going to get an oil change by someone else and the aforementioned sales tactics, promos, specials etc are bound to eventually win. Sure, they wont convince you the 1st, second or 5th time to buy something, but maybe that 6th time, when your XYZ is really worn out, and you are already there, they can just put it in for you for right now.

    3) Over-exaggeration for worst case scenario. While i have found 5qts of synthetic plus a filter to almost always be on sale for $35 (as long as you are fine with multiple brands) Those dealer promos you mention don’t last forever. Not to mention, using your “dealers special promotion” stretched out to infinity as the “worst case” example seems a little unfair, can we at least see a best case scenario?

    Love your blog, but i think you missed the mark by discouraging this frugal habit.

    • Colin B says:

      I have the same qualms about this article, though I too enjoy the site.

      Sure, you could screw up your car changing an oil filter, but you could also wreck it pulling into the garage. So apply the same principle to both possibilities equally: personal responsibility. I find it weird that people don’t trust themselves to empty/fill 5 qts of liquid from a tube with the physics of a drinking straw, but they’re perfectly fine trusting themselves to steer a 3500 pound hunk of metal moving at 70 miles an hour.

      I find oil changes/general car maintenance meditative because of the attention, intention, and patience necessary to do it right. I’d pay $1 extra just to get the personal lessons out of the experience.

  • Aldo R says:

    I usually save $10-$15 by doing it myself, but I don’t really like the hassle either. I do my own breaks, air filter, cabin filter and anything else that comes along, but I don’t think doing your own oil change is worth it. It takes me an hour to two hours to do it, with getting the oil, filter, oil pan, getting the car ready, going to the recycling center to drop the old oil. I could just pay an extra $15 and be done in 30 minutes or less, without me doing any work other than driving the car to the place… and I get a free car wash.

    I’m all about DIY and I think everybody should try to do their own oil change at least once – to get their man card – but it’s really not worth it in my book.

  • Noah says:

    Interesting take on DIY. I also agree that some DIY projects are ineffective and not worth your time (i.e. sunscreen). While we can all learn to save extra money by learning certain DIYs, we also need to keep in mind if the time cost is actually worth it. Also, people often think DIY can be applied to everything (including bedbug repellants, cleaning formula, etc.), which often case is not true.

  • RG says:

    I agree with Trevor. Once you’ve changed the oil a couple of times and feel comfortable it is no more dangerous than other DIY procedures around the home. I think it also makes a big difference the type of car you are servicing. Being relatively thin, I can service my 02 tacoma with no jack, simply lay a piece of cardboard underneath for my back, crawl down there and change my oil in about 30 minutes.
    Besides there is more to DIYing oil changes than just the added savings. For me the 5 bucks that I save actually may be the least important reason for doing it anyway. I cant put a value on the satisfaction I get knowing that I am increasingly rare among people in their 20’s-30’s [Im 34] who have little to no mechanical aptitude nowadays.
    Also, by doing it myself I know its getting done right, I know the oil that’s going in there and I know the filter that’s going in there. You’d be amazed at how incompetent technicians at dealerships can be. The last time I had my oil changed at a dealership (I was living in an apartment and had no choice) the technician also replaced the air filter and put it on backwards!

    • Marven says:

      This is so true. I remember sitting in the first day of aero engineering class a couple years ago and the instructor going through the course and the career. Part of that included making sure that the stuff the engineers designed was serviceable afterwards, but it’s hard to do that when one isn’t familiar with mechanical tinkering. Needless to say, I was one of maybe 4-5 in a class of over 30 who know how to change brakes, oil, spark plugs, etc. and most didn’t even know how to change a flat tire. This does have serious implications for the mechanics of the future, especially with 3D printing allowing engineers to design truly outlandish stuff.

    • Marven says:

      I stopped changing my own oil because it changes itself. Prior to that, I did acquire a vacuum pump that allowed me to literally do it in my pajamas (with gloves, of course) since my oil filter is on the top of the engine bay. I never bothered taking it anywhere to have them change it because learning to change the oil in a car are literally some of my earliest memories. I’ve always done it on my own cars. Walmart cannot be beat for price on the oil I need and it’s one of the few places that I’m even able to find the viscosity that my car should have. But I stay away from those Fram filters and order the OEM ones from Amazon in bulk. If I were to do a full change, oil + filter is about $65 total. Since it changes itself, I just buy a 5-gallon jug every couple weeks and change the filter yearly.

  • Natalie H says:

    I change the oil in my own car. It’s only slightly more difficult than filling a glass with water. I do it because I want to know it’s done right and I want to know what get’s put in my car. I’ve seen too many things go wrong to trust the guys at the lube shop. Where I live they just put filtered oil in your car unless you specify otherwise. Might as well not change the oil. I’ve seen them leave the old filter on. I’ve paid for synthetic and watch them put in the filtered brown stuff. I had a friend who’s engine was ruined because they forgot to refill it with oil at all. All this is anecdotal, but I feel better putting in the filter that I know is the right kind for my car and pouring in the oil myself. I know it’s done right.

    Besides, who has time to sit and wait in a disgusting waiting room for 45 mins to 3 hours? (That was the last time I took my dealer’s flyer special.) I’d rather start the oil draining in my garage, go inside for 30 minutes to play with my boy and then go back out to finish the job. Much more convenient.

    The risks you mention are not substantial if you are sober and follow reasonable precautions. With my current car and my previous car I don’t have to jack up at all. I just keep it on the ground, lie at the front of the car and the filter and plug are within arms reach and I’m 5’4. Try doing the oil change once, it might change your mind.

  • Ron Ablang says:

    G.E. You forgot to mention another benefit of paying to have someone else (a auto shop) do you oil changes for you. Usually when you pay for an oil change, a shop will throw in a “safety check” for free where they will do a xx point inspection of your car to look for any potential maintenance items to have done in the future.

    Yes, I admit some of these shops over-recommend items for maintenance but if you take your car to 2 different places and hear the same thing twice, it’s probably valid.

  • Tim says:

    BAM!! Some people nailed it right on the head. Probably 85% of my friends who can be put in that Male 28-24 year old category have no freaking clue how to change a tire on a car let alone do an oil change or make an assessment of when and how to change the brakes and do other very basic car maintenance procedures.

    I have been doing ALL of the vehicle maintenance for myself and my significant other and a few friends over the year and can say without a doubt that I have surely saved thousands of dollars and doing something I enjoy. The only thing I haven’t done was a motor and transmission swap on an old Buick I had.

    My oil changes still seem to be MUCH cheaper than your. I still don’t run synthetic and I buy my oil when it is on sale. The typical oil change for me run $15 with a filter. Yes there are many other costs in general with tools, jacks and other expendables.

    I have taken my vehicle once or twice for an oil service when I thought I didn’t have time for it… It seems I would have been better off doing it on my own. It roughly takes me 30 minutes to do that service. (I typically spend more time looking over other things over along the way as well so overall it is longer than 30 minutes.) However, it would generally take me an hour or more to go to a service station and have it done for me. So generally it saves me time which is money in my book for me.

    From where I live NOW the closest auto service center is probably 25 minutes away each direction so in the time I can drive there and dive home I can do all the work anyway all the while in my garage having a beer or 2 at the same time. So for me it is a win-win all the way around to DIY.

    • Tom says:

      15 bucks for an oil change! How are you getting it so cheap?!?

      • Tim says:

        I usually go to Autozone when their 5 quart jugs are on sale which used to be #9.99…. prices have jumped up a bit and now their sale price on those is generally $12.99.

        They also have this sale where they have integrated the oil jug and filter all into one which is generally about $17.99 so the prices have crept up in recent years.

        A couple of years ago they were running a deal for $24.99 on a jug with the recycled oil in which they gave you a $20 gift card for the purchase. So at the end of the day the oil change was $4.99.

        I practically bought the store out. I got 10 of those deals. Plus not to mention with their rewards card every 5th one becomes essentially free with the $20 reward credit.

        My only regret is not buying their stock in 2008 when everyone started holding on to their cars and making them last a little longer.. the autoparts sector had performed very well. AZO in particular.

  • Buckthis86 says:

    I felt the same way about changing my oil. I ran the costs on it and would only end up saving about $5. No way am I sitting out in the Texas heat in the summer under a car spending an hour of work for $5, not including the cost to me to go pick up the parts (gas & time), water to wash my sweaty clothes, etc…

    However, I think you could do a very thorough segment on car care in general. I found a couple things out over the years.

    Transmission flushes are almost useless, and can even be detrimental. However, draining your own transmission fluid is as easy as draining your oil, and can save considerably more money. The auto shops charge more for these because they’re done more infrequently and they have the word “transmission” in them. I found I could save quite a bit of money on these.

    I also found out air filters and spark plugs are just as easy to change and can save a lot of $$$ in labor.

    Changing your own brakes requires a bit more skill, but it’s still quite minimal. If you can use a jack and a socket wrench, you can change your own brakes.

    I got a quote to repair my struts on my old car. Cost? $1,600. I found a Youtube video online. It took a day, but the total cost to me at the end of the day was about $550.

    There are a lot of opportunities to fix your own car, or perform routine maintenance. Don’t be afraid. Most of them are mechanical components that are fairly straightforward in how they run. I’ve saved thousands at this point by trying a DIY method and using YouTube :). If only the body work was so easy…

  • Warren says:

    The 5 quart container has a cheaper unit price per quart than the single quarts, but I suppose the 55 gallon drum that the mechanics buy is still significantly cheaper per quart. Not to mention buying filters 100’s at a time.

    Even though they do one car at a time, it’s rather an assembly line process. Put the car on the lift, put the pan under the car, remove the plug, and then walk away to do something else on another vehicle while the oil drains. Come back later, replace the plug, replace the filter and lower the car, add the oil. And it’s done.

    I have a hard time viewing this as something that’s worth my time to replace with my own labor. Especially since I would then have to make an additional trip to the location where used oil is returned.

    This is completely different from rebuilding a kitchen where your own labor is the replacement for expensive custom work.

  • Brooks says:

    I think people are forgetting the worst part about getting your oil changed by a mechanic. Sitting in that little room waiting for them to do it… looking like a schmuck who can’t do their own oil change! No thanks… man card retained.

  • Michelle says:

    My dad used to change my oil all of the time when I was a teenager. But it seems that when I purchased a newer car, he stopped doing it and he said it was cheaper to just go get it done at the shop (which looking at it now-he is full of it). I think he got to the point where it was just too much work for him and he didn’t feel like doing it. I don’t blame him, it’s a dirty job.

  • Old School says:

    Nice post G.E. I just wrote one about building a work bench and the importance of weighing your choices when taking on DIY.

    I have to agree with the oil change scenario as well. With the cost of oil and filter so high (30+) why would I do it myself when my local dealer only charges 29.99… I actually save money by going to the dealer!

  • Syed says:

    Thanks for the breakdown. It’s so easy to find places that do oil changes for cheap it seems like there’s always a place running a special on it. I’ve even found some secret shopper jobs at dealerships where I get paid to get an oil change.

    I also like to use the waiting time to be productive. I’ll usually bring my current book or my laptop to get some work done. Even if they take longer than usual I don’t even notice it because I’m trying to get some work done.

  • I’ve done my own oil changes before but honestly, like you said, the difference in cost is very minimal. Plus, my time is worth more doing other things and letting a dealership or oil change shop do it for me only takes about 20-30 minutes (if they’re busy). I can also deduct these car maintenace charges from my tax return, lessening the money savings between DIY and getting it done professionally even more. There are lots of things I do DIY to save money, but my oil change isn’t usually one of them.

  • Greg says:

    I’ve always done my own oil changes rather than take my car somewhere, and while the cost savings isn’t (generally) significant, I myself get personal enjoyment and a sense of satisfaction about doing it.

  • Meg says:

    If you’re not the type of person that likes working on cars, then I don’t really see a reason to do your own oil changes or other car maintenance, especially if you can get it done for relatively cheap and you trust the mechanic.

    I change the oil in my own car because I got tired of having guys at shops tell me I have to do this or that when it really wasn’t necessary (both at dealerships and at jiffy lube type of places). I also enjoy learning about the ins and outs of my car.

    As for the mess that changing the oil makes – I just put a valve on my car’s oil pan. I can put a hose on the valve and have it drain directly to the oil drain pan so it’s less messy.

  • Blueriver2 says:

    Just one question…

    The quote you got from the dealer is for full synthetic?
    If it’s really $35 for full synthetic, I’d say it’s really good price.

    But if it was for like conventional or blend, you might be comparing wrong.
    In my town, full synthetic oil change goes at least $60 from the dealer ($40 for blend)

    Hope you took the quality of oil into account, rather than just comparing the price.

  • jorge says:

    Depends on the car and shop also .
    I actually loose money if I do my own oil change on my f150 it takes around 6.9 quarts of conventional,so i have to go to the shops that don’t charge more (off the books) for over 5qts.
    but i save close to $27 if i do my own oil change on my mirage 2.9
    quarts of 0w20 full synthetic.

  • Greg says:

    Mobil has a nice mail-in rebate right now for buying their oil. $12 back if you get either 5 quarts or a 5 quart jug. WalMart has the 5 qt jugs of Mobil 1 Synthetic for $22.98 right now, making it only $11 + tax (and stamp and envelope) by the time you get your rebate back. You can use this for up to two qualifying offers per household per the fine print.

    http://www.atwoods.com/images/rebates/mobil.pdf (Work safe link)

  • Bob says:

    I like to use a certain type of oil, and filters ( wix). And stp oil. Can’t always find at store the kind I like , I order on line the oil, I like to use an oil treatment also.. The filters, wiper blades , PCI valve, ect I get at rock auto.com. Don’t have to leave the house for parts. Here’s a hint, if you change your oil at regular intervals, 4-5 thousand miles, synthetic oil is a waste of money,

  • Mike says:

    I have a hard time believing a full synthetic oil change for $35 (especially at a dealer).

    The places around here all charge $29.95 for conventional and synthetic gets to anywhere from $79-$100.

    DIY cost is $40-$50
    $20-$30 oil (depends on sales etc)
    $10 filter
    $10 “stuff” (pan, towels, etc)

    So total savings is anywhere from $30-$60 per change. Also, the tire rotations, seasonal wheel swap etc ($29.95 at shop) is completely money in your pocket no material cost.

    Jack + stands + chocks cost me $130.

    In one winter my 2 vehicles swapping to winter tires basically pays off the tools (4 swaps @ $29.95 = $119.80). Add one oil change and I’m saving money. Also, one of the vehicles has a front brake job coming up so that’s another big saving.

    DIY car maintenance is not that hard, saves money, and is a good way to spend time with your kids.

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