Full disclosure: Some of the links to products within this post are affiliate links and will earn me money if you purchase the product. As always, I only include affiliate links for products I actually use and have proven helpful for me personally.
I have never been incredibly handy or mechanically inclined. I’m not the guy to call when a shelf needs to be fixed or when there’s a leak coming from under the sink. For better or worse, those just aren’t skills that I learned or was particularly interested in growing up.
But a variety of factors have spurred me to want to be more hands-on with my car and the maintenance it requires. It’s been having a lot of issues recently and I’m tired of shelling out money without really knowing what’s going on. I’ve also read a number of articles showing that basic car maintenance is not only eminently possible to learn, but that it can be very rewarding. So I’ve resolved to tackle one project at a time, starting simply and working my way up. First project: changing my car battery.
Recognizing the problem
The first step in any car maintenance project is recognizing the problem that needs to be fixed. In this case it was fairly simple. Just about a month ago I left my office and tried to turn on my car to go home, and nothing happened. A co-worker helped me jump the battery (a post for another day) and I made it home fine.
Now, I’m not an expert, but I do not think that your battery failing to turn on once necessarily means you have to replace it. So I decided to just keep an eye on it over time. It never actually died again, but there were plenty of times where it took a few extra seconds to start up, and I could clearly tell that it was on its way out. It was time to get a new battery and learn a new skill in the process.
Learn how to fix the problem
I had never changed my car battery before, so I needed to learn how to do it. Luckily for me, the internet is an amazing resource. I typed “change battery 1998 honda civic” into Google and was immediately provided with a number of helpful resources. In the end, I found an eHow article that explained the process step-by-step, as well as a YouTube video that actually demonstrated the entire process (on a later model Civic, but still incredibly helpful). These two resources taught me everything I needed to know.
Gather the parts and tools
As it turns out, changing a car battery is actually an incredibly simple process, so there aren’t a lot of tools or parts needed. For tools, the only thing I needed was an adjustable wrench, pictured here. I had received a Black & Decker Tool Set as a wedding gift, which has come in handy many times, so I already had the wrench. If you don’t have the tool you need, you might want to see if you can borrow it from a friend or family member first, especially if you’re just starting to learn these skills and you aren’t sure you’ll really keep them up. You don’t want to go out and spend money on something you won’t end up using again. On the other hand, if it’s a tool you will be able to use for multiple other projects down the road, investing some money in a good one could be a good decision.
As for parts, all I needed was a new battery. I first checked the typical auto parts stores online and found batteries ranging from about $100-125. Costco was my next target, and I found that I could get one there for $74 with a 3-year warranty. Pretty good. But I was lucky to have mentioned my goal for changing my battery on a Mr. Money Mustache post, and one of his readers suggested I check some local junk yards for a used battery. Since I’m already planning on replacing this car in the near future, the potential for reduced cost was worth risk inherent in this approach. Plus, this felt like it totally fit in with my newfound spirit for learning something new.
So I did another internet search for junk yards and other used auto part stores near me, and found two that fit the bill. One could sell me a battery for $40 with a one-year guarantee. Another would sell me the battery for $30 with a 30-day guarantee. In the end, I went with the $40 battery for the better guarantee.
The main lesson here, and it’s one I learn over and over again, is that the easiest or default way of doing things is rarely the best. If I had simply chosen Costco over a typical auto parts dealer, I would have saved $25-50. By choosing a used auto parts dealer, I saved another $34. A little time spent on research saved me a decent amount of money.
How to change a car battery
Finally, it was time to actually do the job. For a more complicated project I would probably have enlisted someone to help me out, but this was so easy that I figured I could go it alone. So I watched my YouTube instructional video again, wrote down the step-by-step instructions, drove over to the parts dealer, made sure they still had the battery, and got to work.
The first step is taking out the current battery. This is pretty easy, but you have to do things in a certain order. If you go out of order you run the risk of damaging some of the electrical components in your car.
First you have to disconnect the protective cover from the negative terminal. The negative terminal will typically be black and have have a “-” symbol next to it. Disconnecting it simply involves using your adjustable wrench to losing the bolt enough that you can pull the cover up and off.
The second step is to disconnect the protective cover from the positive terminal, which will typically be red and have a “+” symbol next to it.
Next, you have to loosen the bolts on the bracket holding the battery in place enough that you can remove the bracket. From there you take out the old battery and set it to the side.
Now you simply take the new battery, put it in place, and run back through Steps 1-3 in reverse order: 1) Re-attach the bracket, 2) Re-connect the cover for the positive terminal, and 3) Re-connect the cover for the negative terminal.
And that’s it! Now you have a new battery and you’re good to go. For me, the entire process took about 10 minutes.
Changing the battery ended up being a pretty easy procedure, but it’s one I wasn’t motivated to try until recently. By taking a little bit of time to research the part for myself and learn how to do it on my own, I saved anywhere from $60-100. And the best part is that next time it will be even easier. As I master even more basic car maintenance skills, I will not only continue to save money on those jobs, but I’ll learn more about how my car works and hopefully be able to make it last longer, which in turn will save even more money. And on top of it, I’ll feel good about taking control over another part of my life.
We all face things like this in our lives. There’s a certain job or task where the amount to learn feels daunting and prevents from even trying. Investing is like this for a lot of people. Budgeting is for others. The fact of the matter is that we can’t learn everything about a topic before we start. But by starting somewhere, we begin the learning process and start on the path towards mastery.
What’s something you’ve been hesitant to start? What’s one simple step you could take in the next week to get started?