How Oil-Change Coupons Can Cost You Money

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That free oil-change coupon can cost you in repairs you don't need. Here is how you can beat the mechanics at their own game.

Every week, I find a coupon for an oil change in my mailbox. It seems like mechanics all over town want my business – badly enough that I’ve seen coupons for $9.99 oil changes.

I never bite. I’ve always been leery of those quickie oil-change shops. I’ve heard rumors about customers being sold products they didn’t need, or being told their car had problems they didn’t have.

As it turns out, I may have been right to avoid using those coupons. In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson meets one woman who walked into a mechanic’s shop with a coupon for a free oil change and walked out with a hefty bill. Watch what went wrong and then read on for tips to keep it from happening to you…

In the video, Stacy interviews a woman who got a free birthday oil-change coupon from her dealer, but the mechanic said she needed a new oil pan and drain plug. So instead of a free oil change, she spent $269. When she asked for the old parts back, she took them to her regular mechanic – who found nothing wrong with them.

It’s a shady practice, but some mechanics are more than happy to charge you for parts you don’t need. And that isn’t the only scam. Here are a few other pitfalls to avoid when you bring in your oil-change coupon:

  1. The up-sell – If you’ve ever bought a sofa and had a salesman try to sell you “leather protection,” you’ve experienced an up-sell. Mechanics are no different. Some will use a cheap oil-change coupon to lure you into the shop and then try to top off your fluids, replace your air filters, or drain out sludge from your radiator hose – all for an added charge.
  2. The oil change that wasn’t – Many years ago, I took my car to a small shop for an oil change. A few weeks later, my dad checked the dipstick and asked me why I was so low on oil. To this day, I’m convinced that the shop never actually changed my oil. They just charged me for it.
  3. Not replacing the filter – Some mechanics may try to make up for the cost of the coupon in other ways, like not replacing your oil filter. At best, reusing an old oil filter will keep your car from performing at its peak. At worst, you could end up with some major car problems – and big repair bills.
  4. Using low-grade oil – Some coupons say they’re only good for a certain type of oil (usually of lower quality) or only good for so many quarts. Other mechanics will simply give you the cheapest stuff anyway. And while some cars can do fine on low-quality oil, others may under-perform.

Make sure you’re getting a fair deal

Not every mechanic is trying to take advantage of you, but it doesn’t hurt to protect yourself from financial shock just in case. Take these steps the next time you use an oil-change coupon:

  1. Read the fine print – Read the coupon before you go in to make sure you’re really getting a good deal. For example, the big print may read “Free oil change,” but the small print may say, “with an $89.99 brake inspection.”
  2. Compare costs – A coupon may not always be the best deal. For example, bulk stores like Sam’s Club have an in-house auto shop. You may get a better deal there without a coupon. Check prices at other nearby places before you head in.
  3. Read your owner’s manual – Your car probably doesn’t need an oil change every 3,000 miles – most newer models don’t – and you may not need the more expensive synthetic oil. Check your owner’s manual for the specifications and then ask the mechanic to follow them. Your car won’t perform any better by changing the oil more frequently than you need to, or by buying a higher-quality oil than you need.
  4. Watch the mechanic – If you have the time, ask to watch the mechanic. If you’re standing there, odds are you’ll get the oil brand you asked for – and you’ll get to make sure all the work is done.
  5. Mark your oil filter – Put a slash or “X” on your oil filter with a marker before you leave the house. After you get an oil change, look under the car and see if the mark is still there. It’s an easy way to tell if the oil filter was replaced.
  6. Check your oil – Check the oil in your car right before you get an oil change. It will probably look dark – nearly black. After the change, the color should be more of a honey color.
  7. Pop the hood – After your oil change, pop the hood and make sure all the caps are in place. Sometimes mechanics forget to replace the fluid caps, and you may have to pay to replace one if you drive off without it.
  8. Just say no – You don’t have to accept any additional repairs the mechanic suggests. If the shop tells you that you need maintenance or repairs, ask for an estimate, then take your car somewhere else for a second opinion. You may find out that you don’t need the work done at all, or that you can get a better deal.
  9. Ask for parts – If you do decide to have work done while you’re getting an oil change, ask for the old parts. At least then you can take them somewhere else and see if they needed replacing at all.

Bottom line? Coupons exist because they work. The business gets a shot at a new customer, and you save a buck or two. But most coupons don’t put you in the position of being faced with a potentially expensive up-sell you’re ill-prepared to evaluate. So when you get a coupon for an oil change, take advantage, but don’t get taken advantage of.

Stacy Johnson

It's not the usual blah, blah, blah

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