Have you hit your tipping point on gasoline? That's when you're jolted to do something about what you're spending, like join a carpool or put off your vacation. IHS Global Insight predicts that many Americans will "tip" when the national average for a gallon of regular gas reaches $4. That could happen this summer.
Gas prices have been climbing steadily for a year. In mid-April, the national average for regular was $3.81 a gallon. Folks in California and some other states were already paying $4.50 or more.
But don't rush to trade in for a hybrid yet, or even cancel the family road trip. You can take steps now to spend less on gas: Improve your car's fuel economy by changing how you drive (see the box below). And also slash costs by following our tips on finding the cheapest places to buy gas and the best ways to pay for it.
Do you automatically pull into the same gas station every time you fill up? Start checking prices along your regular routes and buy where gas is cheapest.
If you belong to a warehouse club like BJ's Wholesale or Costco, try fueling up there. Super-sized independents can afford to market gas for less profit than regular gasoline stations.
Differences in quality are negligible from one brand to another, so shop by price. And don't buy premium unless your car requires it. If your owner's manual specifies regular fuel, the engine won't run any better on premium. The only difference you'll see is about 25 cents more per gallon.
Lots of websites can help you find the cheapest gas in your area, including Automotive.com, GasBuddy.com, and Gasprices.Mapquest.com. You can also download phone apps that will help you find cheaper gas, which is especially useful when you're traveling. GasBuddy and Cheap Gas are free for Android and iPhone users. Other apps will calculate your fuel economy, including Mileage for Android (free) and GasHog for iPhone ($1).
GPS navigators can help you cut costs, too. Some high-end models let you choose the most fuel-efficient route to your destination rather than the fastest or shortest one. The devices take into account driving terrain, number of stops and starts, and even expected traffic snarls in plotting out the best route.
In states where it's legal, some stations charge less if you pay with cash, saving you about 5 cents a gallon.
If you prefer to pay by credit, consider a gas-rebate card. Unbranded gas cards can be used at any gas station and other retailers, too. For example, the PenFed Visa Platinum Cashback Rewards card pays back 5 percent on purchases at the pump and 1 percent everywhere else. The card is free if you have some tie to the U.S. military; others pay a small one-time fee.
Consider a gas-rebate card only if you pay your full balance every month. And read the fine print before signing up for any credit card. For more information, see our article on rewards cards.
In some parts of the country, supermarkets including Giant Eagle, Kroger, and Safeway give gas discounts based on your grocery purchases, often 10 cents per gallon for every $50 or $100 you spend shopping. And some Kroger stores let you redeem discounts at the store's own gas pumps or at Shell stations.
This article appeared in Consumer Reports Money Adviser.