Though I generally believe driving to be a miserable way to spend my time, I nonetheless drive when life calls: to the gym or grocery store, up to my in-laws’ house for holidays and other occasions and, every now and again, to my client’s fortress (also known as their “office”) nearly 1.5 hours away. During these hours on the road, I realized something fairly shocking.
I was driving like an idiot.
My driving style kept draining gas out of my car’s gas tank faster than it should have, and it took years for me to realize that making a few simple adjustments to how I drive can effectively extend the reach of my gas tank – regardless of what kind of vehicle I drive.
Even a few MPGs north can save quite a bit of money on gas throughout the year, and that money goes straight into my get the hell out of the rat race fund. Some people call these collective techniques “hypermiling”.
For all I know, you might be driving like an idiot too. If you find yourself always passing other cars, speeding up to “close the gap” between you and the car in front of you, or constantly out-accelerating other drivers at stop lights, then you’re probably not maximizing your fuel economy. I sure as hell wasn’t.
5 steps to better gas mileage
Start incorporating these simple changes into your driving style and watch your gas budget take you farther while on the roadway.
1. Stop braking. Brakes are there to keep your car from plowing into the one in front of you (or a pedestrian, stop sign or any other impediment). The problem is people misuse their brakes ALL THE TIME, primarily due to over accelerating when in traffic. Brakes are a big drain on your gas mileage.
Understand that traffic, like the ocean waves, ebbs and flows, and the severity is a direct result of how the majority of us drive (trafficwaves.org offers a decent break-down of what’s going on with traffic waves). To decrease the time it takes to travel from point A to point B, the majority of drivers want to close the gap between them and the car in front of them because we link unused road with wasted time. They do this by speeding up (or continued acceleration) and then using their brakes to stop before a collision. It is this behavior that not only contributes to traffic jams, but it causes drivers to use their brakes and accelerator much too often.
My technique: Rather than kissing the guy’s ass in front of me the whole time, I leave a bit of a distance between me and the car in front of me. This means that by the time that I coast up to the car in front, there is a good chance that the car has begun moving again due to the natural flow of traffic. If I time it just right, I don’t use my break AT ALL, even in fairly heavy traffic. Not only does this help conserve my precious and expensive fuel, but it also helps to save my brakes.
2. Stop idling. I never used to turn off my car during an extended idle because I naively believed that starting the car winded up using more gas than the idle. But, that is not true. Whenever your car is turned on and the engine is running, the car is using precious gas. Add in the use of the air conditioner and you wind up using even more gas as your car fights to keep the engine cool (along with you). In fact, some vehicles blow through nearly a half gallon of gas during an hour of idling. Worse, AAA estimates about a quarter of a gallon of gas is burned during a 15 minute idle.
My technique: I turn the car off at an idle when I can. This means if I’m waiting for 5 minutes to pick someone up, I still turn off the car and enjoy some silence as my gas tank level stops shrinking. If it’s cold, that’s fine – I’ll man up and get a little cold. If it’s warm, then I find a tree and park in the shade. If you’re not going anywhere, turn that car off.
3. Stop speeding. I have always been a bit of a speed demon, but I have nixed that habit after learning how severely faster speeds effect gas mileage. The speeding that I am talking about here goes beyond simply obeying the speed limit.
Most cars have a sweet spot when it comes to speed, and that is generally in the 50 to 60 MPH range. Driving faster than your car’s optimal speed results in a disproportionate increase in fuel consumption and overall decrease in how far your gas budget will take you.
The exact numbers vary based on car, but studies have consistently shown a severe decrease in fuel efficiency at higher speeds. The California Energy Commission says that slowing down from 65 to 55 can result in a 15% increase in mileage.
Whatever numbers you happen to look at, it is clear and convincing that speeds above about 55 to 60 decrease your mileage.
My technique: Do I drive 60 in a 75 zone? Hell no, that’s a damn good way to cause an accident. But, I have adjusted my overall driving technique so it no longer prioritizes speed, as it once had. If it’s safe to do so, I might drive 70 in a 75. After all, when you’re looking to retire early and enjoy a lifetime of true happiness, why rush?
4. Stop short trips. Believe it or not, the duration that you take your car affects its gas mileage. Similar to #3 where I discussed how driving above your car’s optimal speed can decrease gas mileage, so can taking frequent short trips. This is because your car’s engine operates most efficiently when it is completely warmed up. Especially in colder months, shorter trips give your car less time to warm up completely and results in a less efficient driving experience. This phenomenon is even worse with Hybrids.
Also, letting your car warm up before you begin your drive does not increase its fuel efficiency. Like I discussed in #2, any time that your car spends sitting at an idle is wasted fuel. Instead, simply drive your car in a reasonable fashion and let it warm up as you drive.
My technique: Rather than taking shorter trips throughout the week, I pre-plan my trips and opt to take care of several different errands during the same trip once or twice a week, which also helps my time management (which I find to be wasted behind the wheel of a car). By the time that I am on my way to my second stop, my car is usually plenty warmed up and operating at its most efficient. I also park the car that we use for errands in the garage, rather than outside in the driveway, to keep it warmer.
5. Stop hauling crap. For many of us, our ride is like another closet in our house. If your ride’s trunk looks like a damn war zone, then you are probably hauling around way too much shit that your car’s engine ultimately has to carry. Your car’s weight has a direct impact on how efficient its engine operates, and the less your car weighs, the less your car carries.
Is it any wonder that large, over-sized pickup trucks and gigantic SUVs bring with it some monumentally crappy gas mileage? A 2015 Toyota Corolla weights in at around 2,800 pounds and gets about 31 combined miles per gallon (city and highway = combined). Compare that with a Ford Expedition. This fat boy weighs a whopping 5,500 pounds and gets right around 17 combined miles per gallon.
My technique: I have completely cleared out my car of everything but the essential items, like jumper cables and other safety accessories. I haven’t actually taken the back seats out, but if you rarely use your back seats, consider removing them. I keep my car’s trunk as clean and clear of debris as the day I bought it, and my car never stays packed full of stuff any longer than the time I need to drive home after finishing my errands.
Also – I drive a motorcycle around as much as I can (a 2004 Honda VTX 1300c that I bought used). Not only is my motorcycle a ton of fun to drive, I get about 50 miles per gallon on this bike, and in a comparison of money spent vs. gas used, motorcycles in general are darn tough to beat. I will fill up this bike every week and a half for about $8 bucks.
Have you discovered any other driving tips that help you conserve your precious fuel? If so, comment below and let us know. I’m always interested in hearing different techniques to extend the reach of my gas budget.
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.