How to squeeze those MPGs --without squeezing your finances
By Eric Peters
for immediate release

The conventional wisdom about many things is often not very wise. Tips on how to battle high gas prices, for example, can sometimes end up costing you a fortune.

Here are a few unconventional ways to keep your head above water that might just contain a few kernels of real-world wisdom:

* The paid-for car (or truck) -- Even if it gets just 15 mpg, a paid-for vehicle can be a better money saver than a new car that saves more on gas. After all, the bottom line is how it much it costs to operate your vehicle; not just how much it costs to feed it. Does it really matter whether you're spending cash on gas at $3 per gallon or $300 per month on a new car payment? Depending on what you drive now -- or are thinking about buying to "save" some money -- replacing a less-efficient (but paid-for) vehicle with something new that gets better mileage (but which will take years to pay off) could be a real money-loser.

For example, let's say you have an eight-year-old SUV that gets 15 mpg (but which is completely paid off) and you're considering a new economy-type car that gets about twice the mileage. That would cut your monthly fuel bill in half -- for purposes of our discussion, let's say it goes down to $150 per month vs. $300 per month with the old "gas pig" SUV. Over a year, you're saving about $1,800 on fuel. That's a nice chunk of change, right? Well sure -- providing, of course, you don't factor in the $15-$20k price of buying the new gas saver. Even if you bought a very cheap one -- let's say a $12,000 subcompact -- it'll take you at least six years of driving it just to break even vs. feeding what you've already got. And then there are the peripheral costs that always come with buying a new (or just newer) car -- including sales and title and other DMV fees, personal property taxes higher insurance premiums (because newer cars almost always cost more to insure and if it's being purchased on payments, you must have a full comprehensive policy instead of the basic/collision deal you can opt for with an older -- and paid-for -- vehicle). And so on.

So don't be so quick to jump on the "gas saver" new car bandwagon; it might make more sense -- and be a much better deal -- to keep driving what you're already driving.

* The econo-Hooptie -- In high school/college, most of us could not afford to drive anything more than a hand-me-down Hooptie; something paid for in cash, that could be parked fearlessly in even the worst neighborhoods and which cost virtually nothing to operate beyond an occasional quart or three of no-name brand oil to replace what seeped past the engine's leaky seals or blew out through the tailpipe. Why not relive those days today? Keep your shiny and much-loved V-8 pet (be it a V-8 muscle car or dressed-out SUV with 21-inch rims) parked under cover, ready for when you really need it -- and beat on the beater for daily driving chores. What's the point in sitting in traffic, doing the bump and grind, in a nice new vehicle? Or anything nice, for that matter? Three or four hundred horses in gridlocked traffic are about as useful as teats on a hog, as we say in the country. And every mile you drive means stone chips, the sun drying up your paint and leather -- depreciation city. But the Hooptie -- so long as it's still running -- never loses its value. Once a car descends to a certain rung on the food chain, it clings to it tenaciously. A ragged Corolla bought for two grand will still be worth two grand two years -- and another 20,000 miles -- down the road. Essentially, free transportation -- so long as you don't break it.

And so long as your self-image isn't tied in too much to your wheels.

* Skip the Moped -- Not only are these embarrassing to be seen on, they're pretty damn expensive (as much as three or four thousand bucks, new). A much better option for the true penny-pincher is a used dual-sport motorcycle in the 250 cc range. A dual-sport is a street legal motorcycle that can also handle trails. They have knobby-style tires (sort of like an SUV) and greater suspension travel/clearance (also just like an SUV) so that they can be ridden on rutty, unpaved roads and other places you wouldn't take a street-only bike (well, not sober anyhow). These lightweight, easy-to-ride bikes can also handle highway speeds -- and get 70 mpg or even more. That's better economy than anything on four wheels -- including the most efficient two-seater hybrids, like Honda's Insight. And you won't pay $20k to get one, either. Lightly used dirt bikes in excellent condition with low miles are in the $2,000-$3,000 range, give or take (depending on the make/model/year and overall condition, etc.). And they are virtually indestructible, requiring minimal (and cheap) upkeep -- such as the occasional oil change (less than two quarts, in most cases) and chain lube (a $3 aerosol can). Plus, they fit almost anywhere; you'll never circle the parking lot for 20 minutes again!