Fill your tank

by Philip Brewer on 9 June 2008 19 comments
Photo: dittaeva

Last week I saw several reports about a sharp jump in people running out of gas on the highway.  The stories attributed the increase to high gas prices, suggesting that people who were short of cash simply didn't have enough to fill their tank.  That's a good example of how it's very expensive to be poor.

(Two examples:  The AAA reports calls from out-of-gas AAA members in Philadelphia have doubled.  In Atlanta, the taxpayers will foot the bill for a gallon or two, as Jason White described in One way to combat high prices.)

Notwithstanding a few sources of free gas for people who'd otherwise be stranded on the highway, it's pretty darned expensive and inconvenient to run out of gas.  In many big cities it's against the law to run out of gas on the highway--you may get a free gallon of gas, but it comes with a ticket that makes it no bargain at all.  Even if you dodge that bullet, your plans are thrown into total disarray--along with those who were counting on you, plus anyone you might call to help you out.

It'd be one thing if buying less gas saved you money.  But it doesn't.  What saves you money is driving less.

After all, it's however much you drive that determines how much gas you need.  If you don't change how much you drive, there's not really anything you can do at the gas station that'll cut down on how much gas you need to buy.

In fact, I'd go on to suggest that it makes good sense to keep your tank reasonably full most of the time.  Think of it as an investment--gas in your tank is an asset just like cash in your checking account.  It doesn't earn any interest, but the interest rate on most checking accounts these days doesn't keep you even with inflation anyway.  As an investment, gas in your tank has done pretty well just lately.

The main win, though, is not the "investment return," but the convenience of hardly ever running out of gas, plus the convenience of not having to worry about minor disruptions in the supply of gasoline.  

So, what do you do if you can't afford to fill your tank?  If it's just because you're a little short until payday, that's one thing.  But if payday comes and you're still a little short, that suggests that you're living beyond your means.  (Admittedly, means severely pinched by the recent rise in gas prices.)  You might consider driving less.  If you can't drive less, you might look over your budget for other possible savings.  But your spending on gasoline depends on how much you drive, not how full you fill your tank.

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Guest's picture
Jul

We haven't owned a car in years, but this past weekend we borrowed a friend's for a quick weekend trip. The gas for the weekend ended up costing well over 100 euros (ie, $160+++). It was quite the eye-opener to where gas prices are these days! Yes, they're much higher here in Europe, but still I never expected to pay so much for a short trip. It makes me very happy that we have the option to take trains most of the time here, something that I know doesn't come into play for most of America. Here's hoping for improved public transport!

Guest's picture

I cannot tell you how much blogging I have recently seen about rising gas prices. It is a huge deal that affects us significantly and you can see by the blogging traffic that is taking place. I believe that cutting back on your costs usually means taking out unnecessary purchases. Many people don't understand what unnecessary purchases is. You need to cut back on how much you go out to eat, cable costs, driving costs. Any thing to cut back your expenses can help you greatly.

Guest's picture
Chris Yi

What unnecessary purchases *are*.

Guest's picture
WB

Excellent point. Our local freeway DOT "rescuers" are known for giving free gallons of gas to stranded motorists which some people have been taking advantage of. Now there is debate about whether tax payers should be footing this bill. I vote no. If you can't keep gas in your tank then you get to walk to the next freeway off ramp, find a gas can, pay for the gas, and walk back and fill up your car.

Jason White's picture

Thanks for the mention, Philip.  You are correct that adjustments need to be made by the average driver's habits.  No longer can we afford to "cruise" on Sunday afternoons, or even take scenic routes instead of the shortest path home.  The less wasted driving the better!

Guest's picture

So true about the hidden costs of running out of gas! I didn't do it to try to save gas, but a couple of times (years ago) I ran out while I didn't have AAA membership. I had to call my then boyfriend, wait around for him, either fearing for my life from speeding passing cars or feeling guilty when nicer folks slowed down to offer me their help (further pissing off other cars around them). After that, I vowed never to let that happen again. The level of stress I experienced during both those times cured me of that needlessly risky behavior for good.

I think taking care of our physical, mental, and emotional health as soon as we detect a potential serious problem with it is another area where we try to save a buck but often comes back to bite us in the end. I know a doctor's office visit is expensive, but an ER bill is astronomical! But, we never think about that when we decide to let our lingering cold continue for weeks. I understand that's how Jim Henson died. He had pneumonia but didn't realize it until it was too late b/c he assumed it was just a cold and never got it checked out. That sad story affects my life in 2 ways: (1) I always make sure I do what I can to stay healthy (try not to overburden my body with work, stress, etc.); and (2) closely monitor any new, suspicious symptoms and force myself into a doctor's office after a week at the most.

Also, if you drive around with only a few gallons into your gas tank all the time, that's likely to cause you tank to rust and cost you its replacement parts and labor costs. Plus, think of the wasted time and gas for all those extra trips to the gas station! I stopped driving almost completely since I quit my day job and began blogging last year. It's heavenly not to be stuck in traffic for 3 hours of my day every day! I also hear that more people are commuting by bus (sometimes 4 hours each way!) and walking to their local groceries stores. I've noticed people walking long distances a Ralphs bag in each hand. And this is L.A.! Remember the song "Nobody Walks in L.A.?" Well, they're walking now! Thanks for the great post!

Guest's picture

Driving less. . . Never were truer words spoken.

My wife and I recently laid down some decent money on a couple of bicycles. It turns out (despite what all the naysayers around me said) that EVERYWHERE I go to on a daily basis is very well within reach. I even biked 15 miles in one trip on Saturday-- just on a "casual ride"!!

biking through downtown- normally a painful experience of stop-and-go, fear-for-your-life moments, was turned into a great experience that made me feel not only liberated from the shackles of the car, but also saved time!

Bicycling is completely awesome, IMO

zach
pennywise-poundfoolish.typepad.com

Guest's picture

Also, we had only filled the gas tank once the entire month of May, making for a 50% decrease in our gas bill!

Guest's picture
ra

This is really a good article. It is very common sense but I think this is a must read by all.

I always keep my tank at minimum half full. Just in case there is a disaster that requires I need to travel a good distance without access to fuel.

Guest's picture

If you've got a relatively consistent weekly commute I highly suggest filling up all the way and driving until almost empty. The less time you spend going out of your way to fill up and waiting at your local crowded station (it would be pretty crowded if it's the best priced one), the less gas you waste.

Doing this, I am also more able to track my gas mileage from week to week fully. By being able to accurately track, I've gotten 36mpg consistently for two weeks now when my car's EPA estimated highway mpg is 35 (and I'm not on the highway 100% of the time), and my old average combined mileage was around 30-33 (average for everyone was around 29). That's a 20% increase in efficiency, or about 10 dollars saved every week!

Guest's picture
Guest

Driving on fumes is not good for the fuel pump which is cooled by gas in your tank. Replacing a fried fuel pump is very expensive.

Guest's picture
Julia

Thank you for emphasizing driving less! It's a simple solution to higher gas prices, and one that we all should have been doing when gas was less expensive.

zack's got it right about bicycling, and ra has an interesting point about having plenty of gas in case there's a natural disaster.

I live in Texas where Katrina was one of our more recent disasters. People left Houston, primarily by car. The highways were so jammed, there wasn't much progress on the roads. So many evacuees ran out of gas, stalling all the people behind them. It really wasn't their fault, many gas stations in Houston and most along the way were all out of gas. The government sent gas tankers to help, but it was a mess and took a long time. What if instead of hopping in your car only to be stalled on a highway or freeway, you put essentials in a backpack and hopped on your bike and rode pass the traffic jam via a highway or back road? Then you would no longer be dependent upon oil to escape the disaster. Sure it wouldn't work in every case, but I think it's a good possibility to consider. Our legs can take us far (so many people have proved that by running 26 miles in a day!), and with the help of a bike, we can travel even further.

Philip Brewer's picture

Thanks, everyone, for all the good comments.

I hadn't thought to mention the disaster-preparedness aspect of not letting your tank get empty, but it's a good point, Julia.  In the United States, people have gotten used to that sort of thing working smoothly, so it's a great shock when there's any kind of disruption to the system.  The fact is, though, the "gasoline delivery system" is highly complex, and vulnerable to various kinds of glitches.  Keeping a few extra gallons in your tank can turn a minor supply disruption into a non-issue.

Guest's picture
Guest

I was just going to mention about the damage to the fuel pump by driving on fumes! You beat me to it!!

Guest's picture
Guest

Thank you for suggesting driving less. I recently stopped driving and started biking instead, and it's been quite a relief on my pocketbook.

If I can, I would like to say that not everyone who is having a hard time with the gas prices is over-consuming. Food prices have jumped considerably. Many people can't afford high health care costs. The recession has made new jobs harder to come by, and minimum wage (which hasn't changed since who knows when) can do less to support a person (not to mention a family) than it could 6 months ago, let alone 6 years ago. I think it's important to have compassion and respect for those who are really struggling, not just those of us who have to cut back on Sunday driving to save a few dollars.

With that said, I think there are many possibilities for people who truly can't afford high gas prices -- and your blog helps people find these alternatives! Finding ways to drive less is an important one -- as well as learning how to make more meals from scratch and finding other ways to live frugally without sacrificing a lot. Thank you for the work you do. I think it's especially important for those who really do need to stretch an income.

Guest's picture
Guest

I think this advice is great but would also add a caution. I've been reading on the news sites about thefts of gas from parked vehicles, especially from the larger vehicles like SUVs which have larger gas tanks. Apparently the thieves just cut a hole in the tank and let the gas drain out, so the owner has to replace the whole tank along with his gas. If you don't have a locked garage available, invest in a locking gas cap and be safe.

Guest's picture
Horia

First of all, Americans should be thankful, for they are the privileged kind in regards to gas prices (and not only). In Europe for example a gallon of gas is around $8.16. That is more than double what the price here in the States is. It is only because Americans are not used to such high gas prices that they complain so much. And I see why they complain, they have to change their lifestyle. This means no more Hummers or other gas guzzlers of that sort and no more "boat" vehicles (very large cars) that usually are used just for one or two people. In Europe things had to change a long time ago because of higher gas prices, that's why cars are a lot smaller and get a lot more MPG than American cars. I see that slowly happening in the States now too, with the release of SMART cars and other compact cars on the market. It is still a long way to go until American car manufacturers achieve the MPGs that European car manufacturers are getting.

Philip Brewer: why did you chose that picture for your post? It is not a highway, actually it is a dirt road in a rural part Romania.

Keep up the good work, I enjoy reading your blog.

Philip Brewer's picture

As I sat down to answer this question, I realized that I actually have a process I follow for finding pictures for these blog posts.

If I've got a clear idea of just what picture I want, and I can stage it myself, I go ahead and do that.  I've taken quite a few pictures like that.  The image for my money laundering post, for example, was staged in the laundry room of my apartment building.  For my post on hoarding, I two bags of rice from our pantry, plus a third bag that originally held rice and still looks like a bag of rice, even though it now has wool fiber that my wife is planning to spin into yarn.

I also carry my camera around with me, and try to grab pictures that I think might be useful--I took some pictures yesterday at the Farmer's Market, for example.

I've been doing that for a while now, so I've got a pretty good library of pictures that I can draw on, especially for the more metaphorical images (forest paths and gnarled old roots and the like).

There are a lot of photos at the Library of Congress that are free of copyright because the were taken by government employees.  They're searchable by keyword, and are a great place to get images of America in the 1930s and 1940s.  I've used those several times.

If I don't have one I like, and I can't quickly stage one, and I don't expect to find something good on the Library of Congress site, my next stop is Flickr.  I do a search for images licensed with a creative commons "attribution" license, trying to guess a keyword that will produce an image to illustrate the post.  For this one, I was particularly looking for a car off the side of a rural road, to evoke the image of someone walking a very long way to get gas.

If I use a Flickr post, I always give credit to the photographer and provide a link back to the photo's page a Flickr.  I only use photos with a license that allows such use--usually an "attribution" license, but I can sometimes use a photo with an "attribution-noderivs" license, if I don't need to crop it. 

There are actually a good number of images on Flickr specifically of cars that have run out of gas, but they usually show the driver looking shocked or sad--there's nothing in the picture to evoke the sense that I was looking for.  This picture, though, seemed to like it could illustrate the story (even though it isn't of a car that actually ran out of gas).

I could have staged this photo--it would have been just a mile or two to drive to the edge of town, find a place to pull over, and then take a picture of my own car.  If the post were of a different topic I might well have done just that.  But for a post about gasoline, I just couldn't bring myself to do even a few miles of unnecessary driving, simply to get a photo very similar to one I could find on Flickr.

Thanks for asking--it's given me a chance to articulate a process that I hadn't really tried to describe before.

Guest's picture
Horia

Thanks for being so thorough with the description of the process. I appreciate it a lot. Have a great week!