When the price of oil spiked during the February deep freeze, I started using a gas price app and was amazed to find that the cost of fuel in my area varied by 70 cents a gallon. By purchasing the cheapest gas, I could save $8.40 each fillup and as much as $220 a year.
As we come out of the pandemic and pump prices climb, it’s once again time to be smart about your gas purchases. With some simple planning, a household with two cars could easily save the cost of a car payment each year. And businesses with a fleet of vehicles have much more to save.
Combine the following strategies to maximize your savings and perhaps find other rewards, too. (Of course, buying gas at a bargain is only half the opportunity; you can drive in a way that stretches your gas even further.)
1. Use a gas price app
If you do only one thing, this is it. A recent study by GasBuddy concluded that convenience — going to nearby or familiar gas stations — was the biggest money-wasting culprit. Shopping around on a gas app will quickly show you the cheapest gas in your area or along your intended route.
“People think that the difference between $2.00 and $2.21 is not that much,” says Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis for GasBuddy. “But if they are buying 20 gallons every week, the savings adds up fast.” In cities, prices can vary by as much as a dollar a gallon, he says, making the savings even greater.
While GasBuddy is perhaps the best-known gas app, there are others available. And you can filter the results to show the price of different fuel grades and which stations offer diesel.
2. Choose a good rewards program or credit card
Many such programs abound, but drilling down — pun intended — to the savings is difficult. Here’s a quick look at the important factors to consider when choosing the best card for saving money on gas:
- Annual fee: If a credit card carries an annual fee, it can quickly wipe out your initial savings. However, if the card offers robust savings in other areas too, it might be worth it.
- Reward caps: Some gas savings are capped either per quarter or per year. Figure out what your spending is and determine whether it fits under the card’s rewards cap.
- Redemption value: Make sure you understand what each rewards point is worth. Many are a penny, but some are even less. Also, once you accumulate points, what can you redeem them for?
- Pump or gas station: Some cards offer rewards on anything bought at a filling station, while others specify their gas rewards are for pay-at-the-pump purchases only.
- Membership requirements: Are there membership costs that ding you or is it a hassle to join?
Remember, if you are using a credit card, pay off the entire balance or the interest will wipe out any gas price savings.
3. Buy from a warehouse club
Filling up at one of the warehouse clubs is a great way to save if you don’t mind the trade-offs, such as membership fees and long lines. The Costco in my area was selling regular gas for 45 cents lower per gallon than my county’s average price as reported by AAA. But keep in mind that you have to offset a $60 yearly membership fee, and long lines means you’re weighing your time versus savings. Still, you could go early in the morning since the pumps open well before the store does.
4. Buy the right fuel for your car
Purchasing a higher grade fuel doesn’t necessarily benefit your car. Look in your owner’s manual or on the gas cap: Is it “recommended” or “required”? For cars that merely recommend it, premium gasoline may slightly improve performance and fuel economy, according to Greg Brannon, AAA’s director of automotive engineering and industry relations.
But if your car doesn’t require premium, don’t bother. When you buy lower grade fuel, “The savings you get is much greater than the cost of the drop-off in fuel economy,” Brannon says.
5. Pay cash
Most gas stations advertise a cash price that is cheaper than the credit card price. This might mean bringing paper money — remember that stuff? — and paying the clerk inside. But at some stations, using a debit instead of a credit card will also get you the cash discount.
If you opt for a debit card, make sure you’re getting the discount before you start pumping since not all stations allow this. And keep in mind that debit card transactions are less secure than using a credit card since thieves could intercept your PIN code and empty your coffers.
6. Fill up before a spike
Natural disasters and severe weather can eventually bring higher gas prices to your area. For example, the deep freeze in Texas forced the shutdown of Gulf Coast and some Midwest refineries and drove up gas prices by 13 cents in one week. You can easily check prices in your area on AAA, which also predicts oil price increases.
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Philip Reed writes for NerdWallet. Email: Preed@nerdwallet.com.