Ask Unclutterer: Regular car maintenance

Reader Roberta submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Do you have any tips to keep track of upkeep for your vehicle, such as when to have tires rotated, etc.?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a cross-the-board answer to this question. All cars need regular oil and filter changes; brake, hose, spark plug, and belt inspections; coolant system flushes; tire rotations; and some need distributor cap, rotor, power steering, manual line, and gas line checks. However, when your car needs these things done is based on the car’s manufacturer, model, production year, and type of engine under the hood. For example, my old Dodge Colt could go 7,500 miles between oil changes, but my VW’s engine needs it every 5,000 (or earlier).

The specific information for when to have your car serviced can be found in your car’s owners manual. If you don’t currently have your car’s manual, you can likely find it in its entirety online or at least order a new one. The website has a comprehensive list of “Where To Find Your Car Owner’s Manual Online.” (Porsche and Mitsubishi owners will need to contact your dealerships directly to obtain a new manual.)

My car’s manual feels like it is written for a 10-year-old with a first grade reading level, so it was really easy to create a spreadsheet of all of my car’s maintenance requirements. If your manual isn’t written as basic as mine, I suggest finding an online community of people who own the same make, model, year, and engine you do. Someone in the community has probably already created a similar spreadsheet and would eagerly share it with you. If you can’t find an owner’s online community, turn again to and their recommended maintenance schedule to at least learn what basic work you need done at your car’s current mileage. (The recommendations for my car aren’t 100 percent in line with my manual, but they’re close enough that I think it’d be fine to follow it in a pinch.)

I taped the maintenance spreadsheet I made to a page in the front of a Moleskine notebook that I keep in my car’s glove box. In this notebook, I also record work I have done on the car, dates, mileage, and store my registration and insurance cards in the notebook’s front pocket. If I sell the car, I’ll take out my cards and just pass the notebook along to the new owner. Nothing fancy, but I’m not certain my little VW really needs fancy.

Thank you, Roberta, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

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14 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Regular car maintenance”

  1. posted by Meg on

    I didn’t see waxing in their schedule. For the first time we own a new car and are trying to find out the best wax for these finishes. This site seems to have good advice. They take ads from manufacturers, so I am trying to find a second opinion.

  2. posted by Dawn F on

    For tires, we use Discount Tires and they email us when it’s time for tire rotation – very cool.

    I keep an Excel spreadsheet log for both of our trucks hanging up in the garage near our car care products area. We regularly change the oil and filters, check belts, check brakes, flush the radiator, etc. and each time my husband and father do our maintenance I update the log (including date, mileage, what was done, who did it and how much $ was spent), print the new log, toss the old log and post outside in the garage.

    It’s easy to refer to our owner’s manual – or just call my dad 🙂 – and then check our master vehicle maintenance list to see what upcoming maintenance needs to be completed. That list is our guide to taking care of our vehicles – so they will keep us safe and last for many years.

    Great topic today!

  3. posted by R. M. Koske on

    I have troubles with remembering things and procrastination, so a schedule that stayed in my car probably wouldn’t work for me. Keeping up with the maintenance is one of the ways I use my tickler. I put a note in that says (for example) “Oil change” in the appropriate month, then I can figure out when I have time and schedule it on my calendar when the month arrives. (Not a statement that the suggestion is terrible, just a second idea…)

    If a moleskine is too pricey for a notebook you’ll leave in the car, a small composition notebook (they’re 3″x4″ or something like that) is quite durable for the purpose too.

    Meg- Maybe find a car-enthusiast’s message board? I know that some of the more distinctive modern car models have fan clubs – I know Honda’s S-2000 and the Mini Cooper do, and I’d bet the Mustang, Charger, Challenger, Camero, and Corvette among others would as well. If you could find a “general auto” car club they’d probably advise you, or you could look for people who are fans of a car that is manufactured by the same company as yours. The intervals will likely be a bit short, but it would be a starting point. If a Camaro owner wouldn’t dream of waxing their baby less than once every 2 months, then once every two months is probably a generous plenty for waxing an Aveo, for example. (Not dissing Aveos, just saying that I don’t think the average Aveo would be as painfully meticulous as obsessed Camero owners might be.)

  4. posted by Gus Van Horn on


    Although I currently am free of the hassle of owning a car — I live in Boston — I’ll offer my $0.02 anyway…

    I would be similarly concerned about keeping a book in my glove box, and then completely forgetting about it, but like the idea of having everything laid out in a booklet or a spreadsheet.

    The problem is that the tasks aren’t strictly time-dependent (and so are hard to schedule in advance), and yet they still need to be checked on from time to time (and THIS is what really belongs in a tickler file or calendar).

    A good way to combine the best of both worlds (tickler file and comprehensive list) might be to leave a note (to check the maintenance schedule or spreadsheet) in your tickler file, or even to schedule a regular check in your calendar.


  5. posted by Dave P on

    If you have an iPhone there’s nothing better than the Gas Cubby app.

    It does multiple cars.

    It has an online sync. It does charts. Customized tags. Tracks gas mileage as well as vehicle maintenance.

  6. posted by Wyatt Hadlock on

    I keep track of my vehicle maintenance with this simple free program.

  7. posted by timgray on

    Waxing 2 times a year… no not driving through the car wash and getting the “premium” wash… Getting your hands dirty and spending an hour hand waxing with a good wax is highly important if you want the car to look new and stay looking new. I go even farther and I get under the car every fall and wash and WAX the underside of the car. I use a spray wax and a washing brush.

    11 years later my release day (got number 12 off the assembly line) Pontiac Aztek looks like new and has ZERO rust. I live where we get 6 feet of snow, they dump salt on the roads by the truck full and we still drive in it.

    As to “reminders” I use my phone. set re-occurring reminder for dates that typically end up around when it needs to be done AND a pre-reminder to look at the mileage about a month before it.

    Change brake fluid, transmission fluid, etc… actually do these things and your car will last for 15-20 years easily. Most cars on the road are poorly maintained.

    Finally, get a Good trustworthy garage, not the dealer. do all services there and they will remind you every time you get the oil change plus they will monitor things for you. I really trust mine and they give me a nice discount for being a regular customer.

  8. posted by Eileen on

    My brother-in-law posts the mileage and date for the next oil change in the garage so you see it every time you pull in. Kind of like the reminder sticker from the oil change shop. Pretty low tech but practical. I haven’t implemented this yet because I don’t park in the garage.

  9. posted by catherine on

    Great question and answers! I just got on line and found a great PDF checklist for my car (Nissan Micra) with what to check at 50,000km, 75,000km etc. Very useful. Here in NZ we are required by law to get a warrant of fitness every 6 or 12 months (depends on how old your car is) and that’s useful because your car HAS to have brakes, tyres etc checked regularly. I usually get my oil change then too. I agree with timgray, find a good garage who will send you a reminder to get this stuff done, but the PDF I found is also great to remind me to ask them to check certain things.

  10. posted by Cara on

    If you happen to have an iPhone, there is a awesome app called Car Minder that will keep track of ALL of this stuff for you. I ALWAYS know when I am due for an oil change or tire rotation thanks to it. As an added bonus, it also keeps track of fuel economy!

  11. posted by Amy on

    June and December I get the oil changed and tires rotated. Every six months. Easy to remember. Brakes when they squeak. I use the same shop and the guys tell me when I need new tires. I’m not high tech, I’m a blonde.

  12. posted by carla on

    my car (a VW Golf) tells me when it’s time for just about everything.

    of course, the message is in French, but I can read down kilometers with the best of them and then get it to the shop.

    when we lost the skid plate and oil pan, the message center literally screamed STOP!!!! Don’t drive! (okay, that was French too, but it was not some tiny oil can light calmly turning on, I knew to stop driving the car)

  13. posted by Erika on

    Gosh, that all sounds so complicated! Why are there so many things to keep track of, that there are all these applications to do it for you?

    Manually you can just put them all in your diary (I use an old-fashioned paper version).

    Otherwise, I don’t know about other countries, but in Australia it’s law that the mechanic puts a sticker in your car each time you see him with the date of the next service, comments regarding what sorts of things are coming up, and when I pick up my car, if I have to have something done before I see them next (car tyre changeover, etc), they tell me when and I call them to book it in right there.

    Seriously, applications, website programs, phone thingies? No offence, it just sounds like people are making things complicated for the sake of it to me.

  14. posted by DAve on

    We have 4 cars, 2 motorcycles, a lawn mower, garden tiller, snow thrower, etc. etc. I use Palm Desktop to create maintenance schedules for all of these. When we get a new vehicle, I just enter the maintenance items into the Palm task list and set it up as a repeating task. An example is for the cars, I do a monthly for each that includes things like checking oil level and tire pressures. Included in the task notes is the mileage when the next oil change is due, when the next coolant flush is due, etc. I also include helpful things like what oil filter is used, what wrench size, etc. Each Saturday, I just print out what’s due and take it to the garage, and mark the job as complete in the Palm Desktop software, even though I haven’t actually done the work yet. Since it is a repeating task, it gets automatically set to the next due date. Then as I do the tasks, I check it off the paper printout.

    I do the same with household items, such as checking the gutters, changing the furnace filter, etc.

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