Do your own inspection.
It’s basic, but give your car a once-over periodically so you catch anything that looks out of the ordinary. Make sure all your lights are working. Check the air pressure in your tires every month or so (and buy a tire air pressure gauge and keep it in the glove compartment). Doing so is good for your tires, gets you better mileage, and saves you money in gas if you discover that the pressure is off. Listen for any strange sounds, inside and out. Make sure your tires have enough tread. You can use a coin to do it, or look out for the wear indicators on the tire treads. If anything’s out of the ordinary, don’t ignore it.
Learn to check your fluids.
Even if you don’t ever learn how to change your antifreeze, power steering, coolant, or even your wiper fluid (although seriously, don’t let someone charge you to change wiper fluid), you should learn how to check those fluid levels. In some cases, you can see the tank level directly, but most have gauges or dipsticks you can pull out to check current levels against a notch that indicates optimal levels. Even if your owner’s manual doesn’t have much to say about checking your transmission fluid or antifreeze, don’t be afraid to open the hood and see if you can find it. If you’re running low, add more (if you can) or get it changed. Most importantly, never ignore a leak.
Inspect and get your timing and serpentine belts replaced when necessary.
Many people will tell you to get your timing belt replaced every 60,000 miles or so, and your serpentine belt replaced every 40,000 miles, give or take. Again, your owner’s manual will offer real numbers for your type of vehicle. If you can’t find the manual, look around online. You’ll probably find the actual recommendation for your car. Use it as a guideline, and ask your mechanic to inspect the belts when it gets time to replace them mileage-wise. If they’re still in good shape, don’t bother, but if they’re worn out, get them replaced before they fail. If you wait and those belts do fail, you’ll break down, and the damaged belt can damage other accessories, making the repair even more expensive.
Check your oil and get it changed regularly.
Whether your car has a dipstick to check the oil’s color and oil level or the dipstick has been replaced with an electronic gauge, you should know how to check it. Knowing the difference between clean oil and muddy, murky oil will save you a ton on unnecessary changes and gives you a way to tell if something’s wrong with your engine (e.g. the oil looks terrible but you just had it changed). It’s hard to make a universal recommendation for how frequently you should change your oil, but the answer is—as we mentioned—in your owner’s manual. Don’t just blindly follow the 3,000 mile myth though—for most vehicles it can be as high as 10,000 miles, depending on the oil your vehicle calls for (something else that’s in the manual).
Check your battery and clean the contacts (if necessary).
Most batteries these days don’t require much in the way of maintenance, but you should know where it is and check it to make sure it’s not leaking and there’s no mineral or other buildup on the contacts. If there is, clean it off with a battery cleaning brush. It will set you back a couple of bucks at any auto parts or department store. Buy one and keep it in the trunk. While you’re at it, consider buying a cheap battery tester or jump starter. You’ll never need to call someone or wait for JAA (or a friendly passer-by) to give you a jump.