For going back to the basics this month, we’ve dealt with your handbag, your beauty routine, menu planning, hosting a gathering, and single parenting. What’s a more obvious inclusion than your car?

I know that’s what you’ve all been thinking. When’s she going to include auto maintenance?

Quite honestly, I was wracking my brain trying to think of the best topic to add to this motley crue of topics. I wanted something different but still useful for most of us. When my friend Nicole suggested car maintenance, I thought that was brilliant.

I’ve asked my husband Kyle to help out with this post, because quite honestly, I can make the car look clean, but that’s about it. His contributions are a reminder to me that I seriously need to brush up on my Auto 101.

We’re a one-car family, and we want to keep it that way as long as we can. It’s essential to keep our one transportation unit in tip-top shape so that we can use it well. We’re not fancy car people (ours is ten years old), but a little upkeep can keep a car running smoothly for years. It’s how we’re able to save our money for other things we really want to spend it on.

Here are basic ideas for keeping your family truckster in tip-top shape.

Simple tips to keep your car clean and maintained.

The clutter

What is it about kids and their inherent need to use the car as a trash can? Ours are no different, and the only solution I’ve found is to clean it out OFTEN.

Designate one weekly afternoon to clean it out.

It doesn’t need to take more than a few minutes—scrape everything out from the floors, seat back pockets, and cup holders, and dump it into trash cans and recycling bins. I like to bring out two paper grocery bags, one for trash and recycling, so that I can easily transport everything to the big bins in the backyard when I’m done.

Let the kids help.

Give the kids a rag and a simple cleaning solution in a spray bottle, and have them clean out the gook in their cup holders. For some reason, my kids think cleaning is fun if a spray bottle is involved (though they use WAY too much if we’re not careful). My favorite basic solution is a mix of white vinegar, water, and a few drops of tea tree essential oil. I just eyeball everything.

Make your own cheap trash can.

Use a plastic cereal dispenser for a trash receptacle in the car.

Use plastic cereal boxes as trash cans in your car.

These were a dollar each from our local dollar store.

You can close the lid, and its sturdy-but-cheap shell means it can be tossed around without major fear of breaking. If it gets gross? (“Mom, I’m done with this ice cream cone…”) Just throw it in the dishwasher. These are great for those small bits of wrappers and paper that kids magically multiply in the car.

Be prepared to have fun.

Keep a large bag of your seasonal outdoor gear in the back of your car. It’ll help contain the insanity, and you’ll have your essentials ready when you want to play. We use this bag from Ikea—it’s cheap, wipeable, and huge.

The upkeep

The info below represents Kyle’s knowledge. Good information, all.

Keep a jump starter in your car.

portable auto jump starter

We have this portable jump starter in the trunk, and it has come in SO handy. We’re able to jump start the car without hooking up to another one, and its also equipped with an air compressor for airing up low tires. (It even has USB ports!) We charge it about every three months by plugging it in overnight. Well worth the price.

Learn how to jump start your car.

Remember this basic order:

1. Red cable to the positive (+) dead car
2. Red cable to the positive (+) working car
3. Black cable to the negative (-) working car
4. Black cable to a clean metal ground in the dead car

…Then disconnect in the reverse order.

This video is a good basic demonstration:

Learn how to change a flat tire.

I admittedly need to learn this (I’m 35 years old, and I’ve never done this… that’s just wrong). Kyle’s been meaning to teach me for years. Watching a video is helpful, but it doesn’t replace getting out in the driveway and getting your hands dirty on your own vehicle. Have someone teach you how, then watch you do it until you get it right.

And by you, I mean me.

Nonetheless, here’s a good video showing the basics:

Learn how to handle basic maintenance.

My dad changes his own oil (and disposes of it properly). Both he and Kyle also change their own brakes, and it saves a lot of money on labor.

Here are a few other car maintenance how-to videos you might find useful.

And in general, take your vehicle in to a professional for serving once a year or so just to keep it in working order. We take ours in whenever we’re about to go on a longer road trip. And the best way to find an honest, reputable mechanic? Word of mouth. Ask your neighbors, friends, Facebook, and Twitter.

What are your best auto maintenance tips? What have you learned to do, and what do you let the pros handle?