How to Beat the Gas Pump Blues

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JUSTIN SULLIVAN/GETTY IMAGES

Gasoline prices have risen over the two-dollar mark in San Francisco

These days, everyone's looking for a way to ease the pain of the pump: the national average cost of a gallon is up to $1.66, just a nickel less than the all-time high, and prices have soared past $3 a gallon in some parts of the country. And many motorists worry that war in Iraq could bring a further spike in the cost of filling up.

So, what's a money-conscious driver to do? Beyond the obvious answer (don't use the car unless you absolutely have to), there are actually plenty of other steps you can take to make your car more fuel-efficient — and to keep your gas station bills from driving you crazy. Among those recommended by the AAA and other auto experts:

  • Keep the engine warm-up time to a minimum. Even in the coldest weather, your car doesn't need more than about a minute to get its juices flowing.

  • Avoid "jackrabbit" starts. Sudden acceleration can use up to two times as much gas as a gradual start. And guys, stop revving your engines while you're at it (another unnecessary gas-guzzling habit).

  • Obey the speed limit.They don't put up those signs just to keep you from having fun on the interstate — posted limits indicate both the safest and most fuel-efficient speed.

  • Learn to use your stick shift. Cars with manual transmission generally get better gas mileage than their automatic peers, but only if drivers know what they're doing. Driving fast in a low gear uses up huge amounts of gas.

  • Stay on paved roads. If at all possible, steer clear of gravel or rough road surfaces; bouncing along uses 30 percent more gas than driving on a smooth surface.

  • Have your brakes checked. In fact, a total tune-up now will save you cash down the road, but if you can only spring for one diagnostic test, apply it to your brakes. If your brakes aren't properly adjusted, they can create drag on your car and waste lots of gas.

  • Don't sweat it at the pump. This is not a consideration for most of the country at the moment, but those of you who are actually enjoying temperatures the rest of us remember fondly as "warmth," try not to fill your tank at the hottest point in the day. Cooler temperatures keep the gas at its densest state, which means you essentially get "more" gas for your money.
  • Follow gas-grade instructions. Most cars today run perfectly well on regular unleaded gas. Unless your owner's manual specifically demands an upgrade for your car, go with the least expensive grade of gas. It won't make any difference to the car in the long run.

  • Don't overfill your tank. Pay attention to the noises the pump is making when you're standing at the gas station. When the pump clicks off, don't try to force your car to accept more gas — the resulting spillage is expensive at best, and dangerous at worst.

    As you've likely gathered, following this advice will not totally alleviate the pain associated with filling your tank. But at the very least you'll make your car healthier and happier — which, in the long term, is more good news for your cash flow.

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