The "Frugal Family Challenge" Helps Two Families Save Gas

Part 1: A Family Game Plan for Fuel Economy


  • The Rhodes Family of Camas, Washington

    The Rhodes Family of Camas, Washington

    The Rhodes family, of Camas, Washington, with their cars. | March 18, 2010

5 Photos

The Massachusetts family has two cars, two drivers and spends $610 a month for gas. The Washington family has four cars, six drivers and spends nearly $790 a month for gas.

But both families have one thing in common: They can barely afford to pay for the gas they use. Finally they decided they had to do something about it. Their success in limiting spending on gas will be viewed by — and hopefully inspire — millions of Americans.

The two families have embarked on a friendly competition: to see who can save the most money on gas in one month. The goal is a 25 percent gas reduction. The strategy is, well, that's where Edmunds.com comes in.

We Test the (Gas-Saving) Tips Since gas prices began climbing in 2004, I've been studying simple ways to help people save gas. Along with other Edmunds.com editors, I've run a series of tests called "We Test the Tips" (and the more detailed "We Test the Tips II"). Our results showed that gas consumption can be dramatically cut by changing a person's driving style. We felt our information could help the two families. And Good Morning America and USA Today agreed.

In a joint project with the TV show and national newspaper, Edmunds is advising these families, caught in the vise of rising gas prices, how to save money on fuel bills. I flew out to Salem, Massachusetts, and spent the day with Kelly and Tim Porter. I inspected their cars, observed their driving habits, analyzed their trip routes and spending habits and designed a gas diet just for them.

A day later, I was on a plane to Camas, Washington, to meet Randy and Mary Rhodes and their family to see what I could do to help them. I did the vehicle inspection and ride-along and made my recommendations to the Rhodes family, too.

Contest Rules Good Morning America's producer Mable Chan decided that turning the event into a good-natured competition would motivate the families to commit to a plan that will show real savings. To make things fair, I asked all drivers in both families to save gas station receipts and fill out log books to track their mileage. The results will be reported to me each Sunday so I can put them into the spreadsheet and give the families feedback about their progress. The family with the greatest percentage reduction in fuel consumption (as compared to the previous month) is the winner. The goal is to save at least 25 percent of the past month's usage, which would be $152.50 for the Porters and $197.50 for the Rhodes.

The Porter Prescription Tim Porter works a changing shift as a manager at a foam manufacturing plant 30 miles from his home. He drives a 1993 Toyota Camry XLE V6 with 270,000 miles. He has never actually checked his gas mileage, but Fueleconomy.gov shows it probably gets 18 mpg combined city and highway mileage. I found that three of his four tires were very low on air pressure — 20 pounds per square inch (psi) instead of 29 — and his air filter was heavily clogged with dirt and leaves. Remedying those things might boost his fuel economy by 5 percent.

Kelly Porter is a stay-at-home mom with a 2002 Toyota 4Runner 4WD who looks after her daughter Emma, 2, and her son, Alex, 12. While her tires and air cleaner were fine, she admitted she is an aggressive driver.

"I have no patience with slow drivers in front of me or people who don't know where they are going," she said. On near-weekly visits to a vacation home 75 miles away, she often drives 75-80 mph.

After driving with Kelly I noticed that she often left the 4Runner idling as she picked up and dropped off the kids and ran other errands. I told her our tests showed she could save 10 percent by just remembering to shut the car off if she is safely at the curb and going to be there for more than 30 seconds. If she could reduce her highway speed to 70 mph and remember to avoid jackrabbit starts and midrange acceleration, she could save from 20-30 percent.

During a long day of shooting the Good Morning America segment, in which Kelly drove her city streets while being videotaped, she would occasionally leave her 4Runner idling. After I pointed it out, she would then jump as if startled and quickly shut off the ignition. "I never really thought much about it. It's so easy to forget and just leave it running," she told me. "But if it helps [save gas], I'll try it."

The Rhodes Remedy In Camas, Washington, I met with the busy Rhodes family, which has four cars (although since I visited them, one car was disabled in an accident).

"We have one full-time salary, some part-time salaries and four drivers," said the father, Randy Rhodes. "It's hard to keep up."

Randy works in the computer industry in nearby Portland, Oregon, and often commutes in a 1999 Ford Expedition 4WD with an estimated combined mpg of 12. They are not SUV-type people, Randy assures me. They only bought the large vehicle because they got a good deal on it, and with seven-passenger seating, it's nice to all go together on family outings.

Mary Rhodes has a changing schedule as an adult care provider and drives a 2004 Subaru Forester. Ryan Rhodes, 20, owns a 1994 Acura Integra LS (the car damaged in an accident) and his sister, Hilary, 17, drives to a part-time job and college classes in a 1991 Toyota Camry. Mack, 19, and Keegan, 16, with a learner's permit, sometimes drive the parents' cars.

An inspection of the Rhodes' cars showed that they were well-maintained. However, tire pressure was down in several of the cars, most notably the Expedition. The air filter in Hilary's Camry was dirty. This family would have to cut fuel consumption by changing their driving styles and using the cars differently. For example, I suggested that Randy switch his Expedition with his wife's Subaru since he logs more miles a week. He said they had already done that on occasion, but he would be more consistent in making the switch.

During a short drive with Ryan, 20, I learned that he drives nearly 300 miles a week to a part-time job for UPS. I suggested that he learn the tricks of hypermilers. I suggested he learn to "short shift" to keep the engine revs down, and coast whenever he could safely do so in the mountainous area where they live.

During a short test-drive with Hilary, I saw that she had a tendency to accelerate up to stop signs rather than cutting her speed in mid-block and coasting part of the way. "Yeah, it's kind of silly to do that," she admitted. "But sometimes I get in a hurry." Also, she felt her car was "pretty old" and had a hard time climbing the many steep grades in her area. She forced the transmission to downshift, but that boosted the revs and consumed more gas. I suggested that, when no one was behind her, she climb at a steady rate in a lower gear. She was very open to my suggestions and seemed interested in learning more about car maintenance, such as doing her own oil changes.

Reality Check for an Automotive Journalist As I flew back home, I began to reflect on how my visits to the two families were a "reality check" for an automotive journalist who is often insulated from the constraints facing ordinary families. Visiting the Porters and the Rhodes, it was very clear that they were feeling the pinch of a tightening economy. Gas prices are the most noticeable culprit in this gloomy landscape.

"People are feeling a loss of control because of rising gas prices," I had told them. "But there are things you can control — namely, the way you drive and how you use your car. You'll be amazed at how much you can save and still make it to all the places you need to go."

A few days later, I got an e-mail from Kelly Porter in Massachusetts. "I am still driving on the same tank of gas since Wednesday, which is highly unusual and have gone 215 miles," she wrote. "If I hadn't been following your suggestions I would have gotten gas about once or twice by now."

From the West Coast, Randy said his family was making many adjustments to save gas and still cover all the bases despite having one less car. The situation "will produce some tight moments, but it's good for us," he said.

Now for the Tough Part These families are finding that cutting gas consumption comes down to planning and consistency. A systematic program needs to be applied over time rather than just a day or two. The goal is to make permanent changes that will save money in the long run. The good news is that both families seem motivated and eager to show they can do it.

In just 30 days, I'll be reporting the results and letting you know who the winner is of this "Frugal Family Challenge." But if both families meet the goal, it will be victory for both of them, and an important example to other Americans.

Part II: Results and Winners

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