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THE FINE PRINT

How to save at the pump in these high-priced times

A person holds a fuel pump nozzle at a Chevron Corp. gas station in San Francisco, California.David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The average cost of a gallon of gasoline in Massachusetts may have ticked down a few cents in the last week or so, but it’s still higher than at any time since 2014.

Hard-hit consumers already facing surging home heating and food prices are now also confronting gas prices that hovered around $3.40 a gallon this week, about 60 percent higher than a year ago.

But there are ways to save at the pump. It takes a bit of time and focus, but shopping around for lower prices, and taking advantage of various loyalty and rewards programs, could save you hundreds of dollars a year.

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There are also ways to modify how you drive and how you maintain your motor vehicle that can help stretch your gas budget. And of course, if you decide to occasionally hop on public transit you will not only save money but also reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

Here’s what you should know as gas prices stubbornly remain well above $3 a gallon:

Q. How badly is the price spike hitting my wallet?

A. The US Transportation Department says drivers in Massachusetts logged an average 13,000 miles a year behind the wheel in 2019 (the most recently available statistics). But let’s say that, since the pandemic hit, you are working from home more often and driving fewer miles — say 8,000 a year. If your motor vehicle gets 20 miles per gallon, and you pay $3.40 a gallon for a year, your annual fuel cost would be $1,360. That’s about $520 more than if you had paid $2.10 a gallon all year, which was the average cost of a gallon of gas a year ago.

Q. How much difference is there in prices among gas stations?

A. It’s substantial. This week, I compiled a list of gas prices at the two dozen stations I spotted during a drive through three suburban communities near my home. Prices ranged from $3.09 a gallon to $3.59 a gallon, a 50 cent per gallon difference. My midsize sedan has a 16.5 gallon tank. Filling up my tank at the lower price saves me $8.25, compared to the higher price. If I do that 25 times a year, my annual savings is more than $200. That’s more than 1,000 miles of “free” driving.

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Q. Is there a more efficient way to find the cheapest gas near where I live or work?

A. Yes. Search online for “cheapest gas near me” to find options that may work for you. Doing so led me to download a couple of apps to try out on my phone including one from GasBuddy, which is one of the most popular.

Q. How does GasBuddy work?

A. GasBuddy sorts and ranks fueling options by price, distance, fuel type, and payment method (cash or credit). It includes reviews and rates stations on a one- to five-star basis, and notes station amenities, such as air pump, pay at pump option, restrooms, and full service (as opposed to self-service).

I got a list of almost 50 stations when I recently opened the app. GasBuddy depends on various sources to report gas prices, most importantly, from GasBuddy members who earn redeemable points for doing so. There can be a slight lag in posting prices. When I went to a certain station hoping to score the lowest posted price around, the attendant informed me the price had gone up a few hours earlier. (It was still the lowest price around.)

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Q. Can I save money by joining a loyalty and rewards program?

A. Yes. There are many options. Cumberland Farms, for example, offers 10 cents off a gallon at its stations if you use its SmartPay card. SmartPay offers lower prices because payment is drawn not from your credit card — which charges merchants fees for transactions —but directly from your checking account. It’s like paying with a debit card.

You can also link it to a NetSpend prepaid card.

A 10 cent discount on a full tank of gas for a midsize sedan like mine is $1.65. Do that 25 times a year and save more than $40.

Q. What other rewards programs are available?

A. Many supermarkets and warehouse stores have programs. Star Market and Shaw’s supermarket, for example, give you 10 cents off a gallon at participating Exxon Mobil stations for every $100 you spend on groceries and other items at their stores.

Stop and Shop provides similar rewards discounts at its own gas stations and at Shell stations.

BJs members get 5 cents off on every gallon they pump at BJs stations, which are competitively priced even for non-members. You can drive down the cost at BJs even further by opening a credit card account with BJs and using it for gas purchases.

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Most of us shop at a supermarket or warehouse stores and purchase gas. Finding out which combination saves you the most money takes some effort. But it’s probably worth it. Otherwise, you are paying higher prices on things you buy week in and week out.

Q. Other ways to save?

A. Some rewards programs offer additional discounts at the fuel pump based on your spending at participating retailers, restaurants, and other businesses. Shell, for example, offers discounts with its Fuel Rewards card based on spending online at such stores as Home Depot.

Q. Other ways?

A. GasBuddy also offers “Deal Alerts” with savings of up to 25 cents per gallon. These deals show up on the app intermittently and require you to take advantage of them within four hours of activating them. When I checked gas prices on my GasBuddy app recently there were half a dozen Deal Alerts listed among the dozens of stations within a couple of miles of my home. You need to have the Pay with GasBuddy card to use them.

Q. What should I know about changing my driving habits to save money?

A. “Slow down,” said Mary Maguire of AAA Northeast. “Curbing your speed, and avoiding hard braking and jackrabbit starts saves fuel.”

Maguire said it’s also important to have properly inflated tires to get your best possible mileage, and to get rid of anything unnecessary that may weigh down to your motor vehicle, like junk in the trunk or an unused cargo carrier.

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Q. Anything else?

A. Buy regular gas, unless your vehicle is one of the few that calls for midgrade or premium, Maguire said. And don’t be concerned that cheaper gas is inferior gas. It isn’t, she said.

Q. Any swerves I should be wary of?

A. Gas stations usually display their per gallon prices on big signs in front. But be careful. At one station, the low price on display turned out to be deceptive: in smaller lettering it said the low price came only with the purchase of a car wash.

I also encountered a station that displayed a similarly low price on its big sign, only to find out after pulling in that it was the cash-only price, and the price using a credit card was 10 cents a gallon higher.



Got a problem? Send your consumer issue to sean.murphy@globe.com. Follow him @spmurphyboston.