By Robin Whitsell

Take the time to learn about your car to prevent problems in the future.

Did you know that the single most important tool for keeping your car in good working condition, protecting your reliable transportation source and ensuring your family’s safety in your car can be found in your glove box? It’s your owner’s manual.Follow the Manual

According to AAA’s John Nielsen, director of the AAA Auto Repair Network and an ASE-certified master automotive technician from Heathrow, Fla., the manual contains almost everything you’ll need to know about servicing your car. All consumers need to know a little bit about their car, he says. "[The manual] will tell them what they need to do and when. Armed with that information, motorists should not be intimidated by the process."

Find out how regularly the manufacturer of your car recommends routine services like oil and filter changes. Don’t neglect transmission fluids and coolants; this needlessly stresses your car. What’s in There?

Nielsen recommends familiarizing yourself with what’s under the hood. "If you know what the inside of your car looks like, you will know when you pop the hood (once a month) if something is different. It might help you get the car in [to a shop] earlier and save some money," he says. Do-It-Yourself Maintenance

A savvy consumer can perform some routine maintenance activities, such as replacing a filter or changing the oil. "For some families, there is no reason that they can’t change the oil. It takes just a couple tools and the desire to get it done," says Nielsen. However, there is such a thing as too much. Nielsen cautions that some consumers "over-maintain" their cars. "Some people change the oil too often," says Nielsen.

Other very basic aspects of car care have nothing to do with the view under the hood. AAA research has found that 24 percent of drivers drive with at least one tire under-inflated. This can lead to a 10 percent decrease in fuel efficiency, cause uneven wear on your tires and create unnecessary expenses. Tire gauges are inexpensive and easy to use. Think you might need new tires? If you’ve got a penny, you can find out.

"Insert a penny with Lincoln’s head down into the tire tread. If you can see the top of Lincoln’s head, you need new tires," advises Nielsen. He also recommends evaluating the tires for uneven wearing. "If one side has a lot of tread and the other doesn’t, something’s wrong," says Nielsen.

Another do-it-yourself service recommended by AAA is keeping your car interior clean and your car exterior waxed. These simple activities can extend the lifetime of interior carpets and exterior paint.

For the big stuff — like the diagnosis of an unusual noise or smell, a steering wheel pull, etc. — take your car to professionals. To ensure that you are getting good service at the right price, Nielsen recommends establishing a relationship with a garage or dealer service department. "Can you talk to these people? Do they treat you with respect? Once you develop that relationship they are going to take care of you. Where you are vulnerable is where you don’t have a relationship. I think that’s where people get taken advantage of," says Nielsen.

The owner’s manual, an awareness of your car, and a penny can get you most of the way to maintaining your car. The rest of the way? That’s up to you.

Robin Whitsell is a freelance writer who lives in North Carolina.