How to Spend That Tax Return: Maintenance Projects You Shouldn't Sleep On

Got a tax return burning a hole in your pocket? While you're correct that the obvious choice is a supercharger, your vehicle might need some of that pricier, overdue maintenance that you've been putting off. Uncle Sam wants you to have a safe and reliable ride. Here's the most cost-effective way to get it all done.

Complete Brake Replacement

This isn't "Mario Kart," where you can just press "B" to slow down. Brakes are a serious business, as the US averages over 6 million traffic accidents every year. If you've been putting off those squealing brakes, it's time to adult and take care of them.

That annoying squeal is usually caused by the wear indicator. As the friction material on the pad wears down with use, the metal tab on the indicator comes into contact with the brake rotor, making that metal-on-metal shriek. If you ignore it long enough, the squealing becomes a grinding, and the vehicle takes longer to stop. That's because the only braking ability you have is coming from direct metal-to-metal contact, which is not only really dangerous but will quickly wreck the smooth surface of your rotors and make your brake job a lot more expensive.

Do it right by replacing the pads and rotors with a high-quality set. This will massively improve your stopping ability and safety. Even a set of premium platinum pads cost roughly $50 a set, and rotors average less than $50 each. If it's been a while, flush and replace the brake fluid, too. If you're wondering about what kind of shape the fluid is in, just scrape a flat-blade screwdriver along the bottom of the fluid reservoir in your master cylinder. If it comes back with any gunk on it, your brake fluid's in need of replacement.

Replacing all three when it's time (or overdue) is probably the single best/cheapest way to noticeably upgrade your ride for safety and comfort.

Change those Shocks & Struts (Finally)

Your daily driver doesn't have to ride like Fred Flintstone's car. A bumpy ride isn't pleasant, beats up other components, and you're losing Uber ratings. Shocks and struts are the suspension parts that add the bit of float to your ride—the cushion to protect you from the road's bumps. They wear out, leaving an uninsulated bumpy ride, after hundreds of thousands of compression cycles, the gas and oil leaking out. Braking quality suffers, too. A quick stop causes the nose to dive, overworking the front brakes and limiting the rear brake's ability to slow your vehicle.

Shocks and struts are easy enough to replace, if you have some experience, and start around $25. Performance versions offer a different compression rate, changing the feel of the ride toward sportiness for cars, and increasing off-road ability in SUVs and trucks. Performance shocks and struts average a little over $100 each.

Lube Chassis and Bushings

Just admit it: You've been putting this off. It's affordable enough for any tax return, but people dislike this job because it's messy. Greasing the bushings isn't fun, but it is necessary. Hearing some squeaks from suspension parts as you drive? It sounds even worse outside your vehicle, making it seem cheap and poorly maintained. Grab a grease gun and get under there.

If your ball joints, tie rods, a-arms, Panhard rods, or other suspension bits have rubber polyurethane bushings with grease fittings, use the gun loaded with a silicone synthetic grease. For bushings without grease fittings, soak them in a quick blast of silicone spray. This whole process takes all of 30 minutes tops and makes everything last longer. Replace worn, compressed, or torn bushings, since they're cheap and simple to replace.

Wheel Bearing Replacement

A failed wheel bearing makes a humming or grinding sound as you drive. You might also feel a vibration in the steering wheel, hear clunks, or notice a pull to one side when braking. It might even store a code, illuminating the ABS and traction control lights on the dash. The wheel bearings are quickly wearing out beyond use, creating a dangerous situation. It sounds like you're hurting your car, because you are. Increased friction causes increased gas consumption, so you're even paying extra to cause that damage!

Wheel bearings are really affordable items, which is good since it's best to do the left and right side at the same time. You wouldn't replace just one strut, right? They require some specialized installation tools, but with patience, a novice can get it done. Swapping the entire wheel hub is a bit easier, without costing much more.

Fixing the Exhaust

Maybe you can see a rusty exhaust pipe sadly hanging out the back of your truck. Maybe your Ford Focus has a hole in the muffler that makes it sound like a race car. Your neighbors don't love that. Symptoms of exhaust issues include a loud exhaust noise even at idle, visible emissions from somewhere other than the tailpipe, a "check engine" light, and you may fail visual inspection in some states. Rust causes holes are easily patched by a shop, but the weakened metal is still there, so it will just do it again next year. Fix it for good.

Replacement stainless-steel exhaust components resist rust and corrosion and will probably outlast your vehicle. Catalytic converters are somewhat pricey due to the precious metals involved in construction of the interior. If your catalytic converter went bad, make sure you have fixed the cause of the failure. Often there is a misfire, causing fuel to go through the exhaust and into the catalytic converter and ruining the precious metals inside.

Perform a Full Tune-up

Maybe your "check engine" light is showing random misfires, or you noticed your performance and gas mileage have decreased. Carburetors are long gone and spark plugs last far longer than they used to, but a modern vehicle still needs a complete tune-up every now and then.

Change the engine air filter and the cabin air filter. Change the oil, oil filter, and PCV valve. Change the spark plugs and the plug wires if they are old. If you don't have spark plug wires, check the engine's codes to see if there's a coil pack that's misfiring. Change the fuel filter if it has one, and add a bottle of fuel system cleaner to call it a day.

Check Out that "Check Engine" Light

Sometimes you're lucky and that little warning light just means you had a brain fart and forgot to tighten the gas cap. Sometimes it's not that cheap or easy. The nice thing about a CEL is a stored error code, which can be read for free and helps you narrow down the possible causes of the CEL and any other symptoms.

We've covered several of the most common codes here, but in general you are probably looking at emissions, spark, fuel, or sensor problems. This could be as simple as a cracked vacuum line or worn-out spark plug or coil pack, or as complex as a crank position sensor or slipped timing belt. Usually these symptoms will increase in severity over time and could damage other parts or even the entire engine. Regular maintenance is a real investment, so put your cash to work now to save future you an even bigger amount of money.

Not behind on maintenance? Great, you have two more options:

Performance Upgrades

If you're swapping out parts anyway, it makes sense to upgrade to bolt-on parts that will last longer, or provide more power, stopping ability, better handling, or another benefit. If your vehicle is entirely up to date on maintenance, then why not use your tax return to make it even better? Performance air filters are a great way to start, costing little cash but providing a real power benefit, as recently proven by YouTube channel Engineering Explained. Cooler air is denser, and a cold air intake can enhance performance by increasing the diameter of the intake tube, straightening bends for higher air velocity, and pulling air from a cooler location. The result is a power gain you can feel. Intakes start around $150 and can top out around $400. They're easy to install too.

Performance brakes are a smart investment for anyone upgrading power. As Uncle Ben told a young Spiderman, “With more speed, comes great braking force." Or… something like that. Take his advice by installing performance pads. Costing as little as the platinum pads above, performance pads have a more aggressive bite and can withstand higher temperatures found on track conditions. Match that with a pair of performance slotted rotors. The slots channel away heated air, keeping the brakes cool so they don't fade from repeated use. Plus they just look cool. For the final piece, add braided stainless-steel brake lines for a firmer brake pedal and more direct feel. Total cost for all of the above depends on your ride but could be as low as $400 for the entire package.

On the suspension side, let's revisit those shocks and struts. Match them with a set of thicker sway bars, performance springs, and polyurethane suspension bushings for a vehicle that will stay flat in any corner. Note that upgrading suspension components with performance parts usually results in a less-forgiving ride, so don't accidentally turn your Lexus LS460 into a Chevy Corvette, unless that's the route you're actually going for.

Got a truck? There's a ton of upgrades for you guys, too. A lift kit increases ground clearance when off-roading, and allows much bigger wheels and tires. Just remember that the more radical the lift kit, the more you alter drivetrain and suspension geometry. A winch is a tough-looking off-road mod, but they do have real-world practicality getting you unstuck in a pinch. Light bars provide all the off-road lighting you will ever need, they wire up easily, and are a cost effective solution to dark conditions.

Tool Time!

Maybe a small windfall is the perfect time to upgrade your ability to wrench. If you're wondering what tools to buy, take a look at the recommended tools for total beginners here, and those with a bit more experience here.

If you don't have a jack, let's start there. That junky OEM scissor jack that came with your vehicle doesn't count. Get a heavy-duty floor jack and save your knees and a ton of time. Lift your Dodge Charger off the ground with as little as two pumps.

Next up is a code reader. We've gone over these cool devices in-depth, and you'll be a believer first time you try one. Instead of guessing what that "check engine" light means, you can diagnose it right now and get right to the solution.

If you already have the basics, the biggest/best single investment is an air compressor and air tools. Forget struggling with bolts or getting tired halfway through the job—these tools will make any maintenance easy. Don't want to make the investment in a compressor and air tools? There are plenty of rechargeable battery tools that can deliver almost as much torque as their pneumatic counterparts.

The nice thing about a big chunk of change is the chance to get everything repaired and maintained on your vehicle, ensuring safety and saving you time and money down the road.

Anything else you'd fix with your tax return? Let us know in the comments below.

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Last updated February 15, 2019

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