One of my biggest financial frustrations is stopping at a gas station. You dump fuel in your car, spend $40 or more, and then all you do is burn that fuel getting to where you need to be. It just goes up in smoke, literally.
Whenever I see something that I’ve spent my hard-earned money on just disappearing like that, I want to conserve it. I want to find every strategy that there is in order to reduce how much is disappearing, because the slower the gas disappears, the slower my money disappears.
Much has been written about strategies that people can use in order to improve the fuel efficiency of their car through actions taken before and after driving. Strategies like reducing the weight in your car, keeping your tires properly inflated, and keeping up with your maintenance schedule are all wonderful strategies and they do have a great impact on how efficient your car is in terms of how much gas it gobbles down per mile.
However, that’s only part of the story. Another big part of maximizing the efficiency of your car comes when you’re behind the wheel. Many of the little decisions you make as a driver impact how much fuel is consumed and how much time it takes to get there.
Here are fifteen little tactics I use myself to maximize the fuel efficiency of my driving. Some of these techniques add a little time; others actually shave off some of that time. In the end, I find that my driving times haven’t really changed that much when using all of these in concert.
Turn right as often as possible and avoid turning left when approaching your destination. This seems like a strange trick, but stop and think about it for a moment. Whenever you’re at an intersection with a stoplight, in most cities and states you’re completely allowed to turn right as long as the traffic is clear. On the other hand, whenever you need to turn left, you often have to wait on a stoplight to show a green arrow that seems to last for about three seconds before turning yellow and quickly red, meaning that you just continue to sit there idling in the turn lane.
Time spent idling is time wasted and fuel wasted, too. You’re far better off driving a little more if it means avoiding a high likelihood of a few minutes idling.
Take advantage of that observation and make sure that, as often as you can, you’re turning only right at busier intersections. That might even mean going around a block and traveling a bit further than you might otherwise go, but you make up for it by being able to turn so much more quickly than you would if you waited on a left hand turn.
If you must make a left hand turn, plan ahead for it and make that left hand turn at a point where there’s less traffic.
Drive the speed limit. Most cars are engineered to have maximum engine efficiency at or near the highway and interstate speed limit – somewhere between 55 and 65 miles per hour, depending on the exact car. Once you start going over that, your fuel efficiency drops through the floor.
Another disadvantage of speeding is that you quickly begin to escalate the risk of getting a traffic ticket, which is quite expensive and completely shoots any time benefit you get right in the foot. There’s also a pretty rapid escalation in the chance of accidents.
Keep it at the speed limit and you avoid those risks and additional costs. The decrease in fuel efficiency, increase in ticket likelihood, and increase in accident likelihood add up big time, and when the latter two more than eliminate any time gains, it’s just not worth it.
Leave a little early so you’re not predisposed to rushing. Many people convince themselves that they need to speed because they’re either running a little late or they’re merely “on time.” You can simply take away that temptation by leaving a bit earlier. Add an extra 10% to the time you expect to spend driving.
That way, there’s much less incentive to speed and, if you get there a little early, you have time to go to the bathroom or freshen up or grab a bite to eat or something to drink before your appointment. It’s simply a lot less stressful.
On the other hand, you can leave a bit later, speed to get there, still arrive late, have no time to freshen up or use the bathroom or grab a drink or a bite to eat, and also burn a bunch of extra fuel and run a higher risk of accidents or traffic tickets (both of which would make you far later).
Leave five minutes early. You usually won’t regret it and you’re likely to save some money.
Use cruise control on flat roads; disable it near hills. If you’re on a long straight stretch of highway or interstate, it’s a good idea to engage that cruise control at the speed limit and just let the miles slide by. On a flat stretch of paved road, the gas pedal isn’t going to vary much at all, so keeping it steady is actually very efficient.
Where it’s not efficient is in hilly terrain. Your car tries to maintain the same speed when it’s going down a hill as when it’s going up a hill. The end result is that your car needlessly brakes when going down a hill and then guns it when going up a hill. That’s a lot of wasted gas.
The best solution? Turn off cruise control when you approach a hill. Allow yourself to coast into a downhill segment, where gravity will help you speed up, and for an uphill segment, gently accelerate into it and don’t worry about going under the speed limit before you reach the top of it. Just keep the acceleration gentle and accept that you’ll slow down while going up the hill.
Make this your natural reaction to hills and you’ll save a lot of fuel along the way.
Slow down gradually when approaching stoplights. If you’re doing a lot of stop-and-go driving in town, don’t accelerate hard when you’re coming out of a stoplight. Instead, gradually speed up to the speed limit. If you see a stoplight ahead of you that’s already red, don’t speed up just so you’ll stop again. Go slowly and then start coasting as you approach the stoplight.
Every time you hit the accelerator hard, you’re burning gas. You’re far better off accelerating slowly over a longer distance than accelerating quickly to the speed limit.
Similarly, every time you hit the brake hard, you lose most or all of your car’s forward momentum. Your car’s forward momentum is responsible for a lot of fuel efficiency; it enables you to cruise at a steady speed without burning much fuel. When you drop your speed to zero, you have to hit the gas hard to re-establish that momentum and your fuel goes away rapidly.
Even better, if you coast slowly toward a stoplight rather than driving quickly toward it and then braking, there’s a decent chance it will turn green as you get close to the light, which means you didn’t lose much time at all and your car is already moving forward, which means it uses much less fuel to get back up to speed.
So, when you’re in town, accelerate slowly out of stoplights and when you see a red light ahead of you, start coasting well in advance.
Choose more lightly traveled routes. A busy road means lots of traffic. It means long waits at stoplights, where your car is probably idling. It means even longer waits at turns, where, again, your car is probably idling. It doesn’t really save you any time.
Instead, find an alternate route to where you’re going, even if it’s a bit longer or a bit “slower.” If that alternate route has a lot less traffic, then you’ll find that you spend a lot less time at stop signs and stoplights than on the “faster” or “shorter” route and you get to your destination often much quicker than if you had taken the “shorter” route.
Try to avoid main roads in cities. Instead, stick to interstates and to side roads whenever possible.
Avoid peak traffic times if at all possible. If there’s any way for you to possibly do so, try to avoid driving during peak traffic times. Peak traffic times are loaded with stop-and-go driving, which is absolutely atrocious for the fuel efficiency of your car.
If this doesn’t work well with your employer, ask whether it would be possible to come in an hour earlier and leave an hour earlier each day. You may find that you can work out an arrangement where you can actually avoid both the morning and the afternoon rush and, by doing so, save on fuel and actually spend significantly less time commuting. Other similar options include a 9/9/9/9/4 work schedule or a day of telecommuting, all of which keep you off the roads during people traffic times.
If you have errands to run, run them in the evening or in the midday on weekdays so that you’re not on the road during rush hour.
Do the longest leg of a series of errands first. This is a very subtle trick, but it’s a powerful one. Unless there are reasons to do otherwise, you should start a series of errands by going to the furthest one first and then working backwards toward your home from there.
The reasoning is simple and twofold. First, approaching your errands in an organized fashion like this reduces the total distance you’re driving, and this is a simple rule to minimize that distance. Second, driving the longest leg first gets your car engine warmed up as much as possible, and thus it’s going to be a bit warmer when you turn on the ignition at each subsequent stop on your trip. Your car operates most efficiently with a warm engine.
Basically, the argument here boils down to choosing an efficient route for your errands, and this is one of the most optimal patterns to follow. If you add onto that the minor benefit of having a warm engine after all subsequent stops, it all adds up to the best pattern for fuel efficiency (again, if there aren’t any extenuating circumstances).
Assume “stale” green lights are about to change. If you’re driving along and notice a green light ahead of you that’s been green for a while, start assuming now that it’s going to turn yellow and then red before you get there and lay off of the accelerator. Most of the time, you’ll be right.
How is that beneficial? Let’s assume you’re right and it’s going to turn red before you get there. If you keep speeding along instead of coasting, that extra gas is completely wasted. You’re going to wind up sitting at that red light regardless. So, if you used extra gas to get to that red light, that gas was completely wasted.
Just keep an eye up ahead of you and if you see a light staying green for a long time, start coasting, especially if you see traffic in the cross lane waiting for their green light.
Minimize use of the brake pedal. This is a great general-use strategy. Whenever you hit the brakes, even a little, you’re killing the momentum of your car and you’re going to have to burn gas to restore that momentum. The simple solution? Minimize brake use.
You can do that by following many of the other strategies in this article along with a heavy dose of common sense. If there’s a situation where you see that you’re going to need to slow down soon, start coasting and wait to apply the brakes until you’re closer – the congestion may relieve itself by then. If you’re on the highway, go at a constant speed and don’t go up and down constantly. It’s easy.
Remember, every time you hit the brakes, you’re losing money on gas. Drive with the mindset of driving as safely as possible without needing to hit the brakes and you’ll significantly improve your fuel efficiency.
Drive without shoes. Really? Yes, really.
The reason is simple. If you’re driving without shoes, you can feel the pressure of your foot on the accelerator with a lot more sensitivity than you can when you’re wearing shoes and feeling the pedal through the rubber in your soles. Without your shoe, you can tell by pressure whether you’re accelerating or not with far more detail than with your shoe on.
On long trips, I almost always remove my shoes once I’m in the car because I know that the extra sensitivity of my feet on the pedal will keep me from accelerating too much, something I might do through the dulled sensation of a shoe’s sole.
Avoid parallel parking. Even the best parallel parkers are going to spend some time idling as they turn their tire angles back and forth in order to get their car into a parallel slot. Those of us who aren’t good at parallel parking (most of us, in other words)? We’re going to be jockeying back and forth for a long while, moving in fits and starts, braking constantly, and burning fuel the whole while.
You’re far better off parking a little further away in a non-parallel spot than you are using a parallel parking slot (unless you can just pull straight into the parallel slot). The time you spend jockeying for position in that parallel slot and the extra fuel you burn are more than recovered by simply parking in a non-parallel slot elsewhere.
Yes, sometimes you have to parallel park, but in many places there are other options around if you look for them. Take advantage of those other options.
Manually cycle the air conditioning on and off. Many people simply turn on the air conditioning and let it run until they feel frigid, then they’ll knock the temperature up a few degrees. That’s extremely expensive in terms of fuel.
A much better approach is to simply run the AC for a while, turn it off when you feel cool, and then turn it on again when you feel hot. Let your body temperature tell you when to use the device rather than just leaving it on by default.
Rolling down the windows seems to be a wash in terms of fuel. You’re not running the air, sure, but it increases air resistance as you’re driving due to the air blowing into your car.
Minimize use of four wheel drive. Four wheel drive is another nice automotive feature in some situations. Some situations. Not all situations. If you leave four wheel drive on all the time, you’re using much more fuel than you need to.
Instead, leave it off unless you actually need to due to rough terrain or hazardous weather. When you’re driving down the highway normally, there’s no reason to have the four wheel drive engaged. It’s just sucking away at your fuel.
This is a setting that people sometimes overlook when they hop in their vehicle and drive off, so get into the routine of checking on your four wheel drive and turn it off if it’s engaged.
Listen to anything other than high-tempo music. High-tempo music tends to subtly encourage people to start speeding, running many of the financial risks described earlier in the article. It’s less fuel efficient, it increases the risk of traffic tickets, and it also increases the risk of accidents.
Instead, when you’re driving, listen to low-tempo music or to spoken word – talk radio, podcasts, or audiobooks. Those types of tracks don’t get the adrenaline pumping and thus don’t encourage you to mash the gas pedal.
There’s absolutely a time and a place for uptempo music. However, that time and place isn’t behind the wheel of a car.
If you follow these strategies together, you’ll find yourself getting to your destination on time, but you’ll also find yourself spending a little less time at the filling station. If you can shave off just a stop or so a month, that’s time and money saved just by driving a little bit smarter.
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