auto

How much does it cost to operate your car?

Tara Baukus MelloIt's getting more expensive to own a car -- 4.8 percent more than last year based on 15,000 miles of annual driving, according to the latest AAA Your Driving Costs study. For SUVs and minivans, the cost ran even higher.

AAA conducts its Your Driving Costs study each year to gauge how much Americans are paying to keep a car in operation. The 2010 study analyzed the cost of insurance, license and registration fees, taxes, depreciation and finance charges as well as operational costs such as fuel, maintenance and tires. For the study's results, see Bankrate's story on increased car costs.

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While this study offers owners and shoppers a good rule of thumb on ownership costs, the reality is that actual costs to own and operate a car can vary widely because there are so many variables. Let's look at how to calculate the ownership costs for the car you drive daily.

Step 1: Determine your annual car costs and fees. Add up your annual costs for car insurance, license and registration, and any other annual fees you are required to pay to keep your car on the road.

If you have a car payment or lease payment, you'll want to factor that in as well. To get the most accurate number for a car you own, add together your finance charges and the amount of depreciation for the car that year. If you lease and you know you'll need to pay fees when you turn the car in, such as if you are driving over the mileage limit, be sure to add those numbers in as well.

Step 2: Determine your annual operating costs. First calculate your fuel costs. Determine your mileage per gallon by dividing the number of miles driven by the number of gallons used over several full tanks of gas. Then divide your total fuel costs during that time by the number of miles driven to get your per-mile cost. Multiply that by your total annual miles to get your yearly fuel costs.

The other operating cost is maintenance. This includes your regularly scheduled maintenance, including oil changes, as well as items that periodically need replacement, such as tires and brakes. Because labor costs can vary widely, your most accurate calculation will come from looking at your service receipts and getting estimates for future major services from your local mechanic. An alternative is to use the maintenance cost estimates from a third-party vehicle pricing site and add that number into your calculation. Finally, be sure to add in any other items associated with your car, such as car washes and detailing, or the cost of aftermarket accessories if you have any.

Step 3: Determine how many miles you drive annually. Measure your round-trip mileage for work and multiply that by the number of days you work in a year. Then, add in extra miles for your driving that's not work-related. Don't forget to factor in car costs for things like your annual vacation or any other road trips you might take.

Step 4: Calculating your actual cost. To arrive at your actual cost per mile, add together your annual car costs and fees from Step 1 and your annual operating costs from Step 2, then divide that number by your annual mileage from Step 3.

Knowing your actual per-mile cost to own and operate your car is helpful when creating a household budget. Just keep in mind that when you purchase a new car, your new per-mile costs may be radically different than for your current car, depending on the body style you select, how well the car holds its value, its insurance costs and your payments, among other factors.

Bankrate's content, including the guidance of its advice-and-expert columns and this Web site, is intended only to assist you with financial decisions. The content is broad in scope and does not consider your personal financial situation. Bankrate recommends that you seek the advice of advisers who are fully aware of your individual circumstances before making any final decisions or implementing any financial strategy. Please remember that your use of this Web site is governed by Bankrate's Terms of Use.

Read more Driving for Dollars columns and Bankrate auto stories. If you have a car question, e-mail it to us at Driving for Dollars.

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Tara Baukus Mello

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