January: The Perfect Maintenance Month

In between doing my own household chores on New Year's Day, I noticed that my husband (a.k.a. Mr. Handyman) seemed very busy. Rather than focus on my own boring list, I decided to pester him and see what he was up to. As it turns out, he was doing his "January 1st money-saving stuff." Why January 1st, I wondered? He says it’s just because that’s a pretty easy date to remember to do his "money-saving annual chores."

I was intrigued and figured he might be doing something I could parlay into a post for Wise Bread readers, a crowd that is also pretty darned interested in money-saving stuff. Don’t worry, we’re not too late. He says if you don’t actually get these things done right on the first day of the year, the system still works, because “approximately annually” is close enough. Once you get into the annual, first-of-the-year cycle, you can catch everything on time next year. 

I began by quizzing him while he was underneath his truck. Frankly, he is not much of a conversationalist in that position, but I persisted in the name of thorough reporting. Patiently, he explained that he uses synthetic oil, which is more expensive, but it does not break down over time the way petroleum-based oils do. Thus, because he does not put very many miles on his pickup, he can go for extended periods of time between oil changes. He says he could go even longer than a year, but he always errs on the conservative side when it comes to oil changes. Of course, changing it himself also saves the labor charges. Though he admits that the labor charges for an oil-and-filter change are often not significant, he also reminded me of the several-hundred-dollar repair bill we wound up splitting with a national muffler chain when we had to replace the oil pan on my car, and we weren’t confident that we could prove the chain’s negligence in cross-threading the oil plug when they replaced it the previous time. He carefully threads the plug in by hand and then tightens it with a torque wrench to the manufacturer’s specs, instead of jamming it in with an air wrench the way the muffler shop apparently did. I wish I had taken auto shop in high school. 

While he had all the tools out and the rubber gloves on, he also changed the oil in the lawnmower, which Briggs & Stratton recommends be done at the lesser of every fifty hours of operation, or (wait for it…) annually! Since he definitely doesn’t mow the lawn every week, and it usually takes less than an hour to mow each time, he changes the oil once a year, near the first of the year. Mr. Handyman says that most small-engine mechanics will tell you that the single best thing you can do to prolong the life of your four-cycle, air-cooled engine is to regularly change the oil. For the cost of less than a quart of oil, the use of a wrench, and a few minutes, you can keep your lawnmower engine purring for years after your neighbors have had to shell out for new ones.

To support himself through college, my husband sold tires for a living. That experience taught him the importance of proper tire inflation and wheel alignment in maximizing the life of tires. So he regularly checks the tire pressure on our cars — about semi-monthly — to make sure they are inflated to our cars’ specifications (not, as some people think, to the maximum pressure stamped on the side of the tire). Every set of tires we have owned since we have been married has lasted more than 55,000 miles. He reminded me that we have been married for a very, very, very long time (sarcasm noted). At several hundred dollars per set, that really helps the cause.

But there’s something else I learned on New Year’s Day. Not only did I spy him under the front of his pickup, changing his oil, but also under the rear. I suspected he was trying to ditch me, but he had removed his spare tire from its winch under the truck bed to check its pressure and general condition. After that, he did the same for my car. Somewhat patiently, he explained that if we happened to have a blowout on the mountain road we frequent, we would either need to use that spare or call a tow truck (if we happened to be in an area with cell phone coverage).

If he left the spare under there the way many people do, without ever checking it, chances are it would be flat when we needed it — as he found most of his tire customers’ spares to be back in his college days. The average car old enough to have worn out a set of tires is also old enough for an unattended spare to have naturally gone flat. So for the cost of only a few cents in electricity to run the compressor while filling the spare, he avoids the potential tow-truck call up the mountain, which could easily run a couple hundred dollars, depending upon the location. You do the math: Even if you have towing insurance, it is reassuring not to be completely dependent upon your cell-phone coverage and a towing company.

For his last auto-related New Year’s task, he also changed our wiper blades. Because East Hawaii is known for its prodigious rainstorms, wiper blades last just about a year before becoming noticeably less effective.

I thought he was trying to ditch me again by going inside the house, but he still had some chores. While putting the Christmas ornaments away in the attic, he paused to change smoke alarm batteries. Most fire marshals recommend that you change smoke alarm batteries every six months. When we lived on the mainland, he changed them at each Daylight Savings Time change. However, the state of Hawaii does not participate in Daylight Savings Time, so his reminder dates are January 1 and July 1. Though this technically isn’t a “money saver,” you can’t put a price on having working smoke detectors, should ever need them.

Readers, if you have other suggestions to add to my husband’s New Year’s to-do list, I am sure he would like to know!

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Guest's picture

For checking the tire pressure I do this every time I get fuel rather then trying to remember every couple weeks. I just carry a pressure gauge in my car and check each tire while pumping instead of staring at the fuel pump.

Marla Walters's picture

Hi, Chris! Thanks for your great idea. I am guilty of staring at the fuel pump, like you mentioned. Might as well do something constructive.

Guest's picture

More ideas: Change (or clean) your furnace filter (for those of us who don't live in Hawaii). Even though it should be done more frequently than annually in a lot of places, most people don't even do it that frequently. It can make a forced air furnace - a major investment - last a lot longer.

Marla Walters's picture

Hi, Guest, and thanks for your comment! I remember how expensive it was to buy a new furnace in our last house. Ouch.

Guest's picture

what a great husband! thrifty and handy!

Marla Walters's picture

Hi, Guest! Yes, he's a keeper. :-)