As you're undoubtedly aware, gas prices are spiking - again. And as always happens when gas prices spike, the media will soon begin gushing tired and obvious advice on ways to save.
I've been watching, and participating in, this well-worn parade of stories for more than 20 years. But no more. Because while the advice offered is largely sound, it misses the point entirely. Here's the point: When it comes to gas prices, if you can't beat 'em (you can't), join 'em (you can).
By way of illustration, here's an article I wrote in Dec. 8, 2010, during another gas spike. I reprint it here exactly as it was written. Check it out, then I'll give you a short update...
28 Ways to Save on Gas You Already Know - And Maybe One You Don't
The last time you were at the pump, you probably noticed the price of gas is creeping skyward. According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), a gallon of unleaded is now averaging $2.95: up 10 percent in the last year and nearly 4 percent in just the last month.
Get used to the idea. As the world economy improves, rising world demand for oil, coupled with a weak dollar, virtually guarantees higher prices. Oil yesterday broke the $90/barrel barrier - the highest it's been since 2008. And some experts are predicting $100/barrel won't be far behind.
Just as predictable as higher prices at the pump are the plethora of articles you'll soon start seeing offering advice to save on gas. As you did the last time prices spiked, you'll see ideas like "shop around," "slow down," or "use a gas credit card that offers rebates." If they sound familiar, that's because you get them every time there's a gas spike. In fact, I offered many in Money Talks News stories going back as far as 1991. And yet, many of the web's most popular personal finance sites will serve them up and call them "new." If you don't believe me, do a search for "New ways to save on gas."
Here's a list of tips recently culled from popular personal finance sites. Check it out, then I'll tell you the best way to deal with higher gas prices - really.
The 28 ways to save on gas you already know
Pay cash (If you get a discount for it - rare indeed)
Fill up at the warehouse club
Take the extra weight out of your car
Get a tune-up
Get a gas rewards card
Get a tire alignment
Clean your air filters
Check your tire pressure
Eliminate jack-rabbit starts
Ride a bike
Buy a car that gets better mileage
Use a smart phone app to find nearby low prices
Brake as little as possible
Turn off your air conditioner
Close your windows
Pick a better route
Ride the slipstream
Buy gas in the morning when liquids are more dense
Don't fill up until you're nearly empty
Make sure your gas cap is tight
Turn off your car if you're going to idle for more than 30 seconds
Don't use high octane gas unless your car is pinging
Don't top off your tank
Watch traffic ahead of you so you can anticipate slow-downs and avoid stops
The one way to deal with higher gas prices you might not have considered
Hedge against higher gas prices by owning a few shares of an oil company's stock. Not only will your shares likely rise with rising oil and gas prices, added bonus: You might earn a higher interest rate on your savings as well.
If you check out my online portfolio, you'll note that I bought 300 shares of ConocoPhillips in the spring and summer of 2009 at an average price of about $37/share, investing about $11,000. It's now at about $64/share and worth about $8,000 more than I paid. Some of that 70 percent gain undoubtedly comes from the fact that the entire stock market has rebounded nicely since then: The Dow was only at about 8,000 in July of 2009 - it's 37 percent higher now. But a lot of the gain is probably due to oil prices. When I bought ConocoPhillips, oil was $59 a barrel - now it's $90.
So the gains I've made by owning this stock have more than offset any extra money I'm paying for gas. In addition, ConocoPhillips pays a nice dividend: $2.20/share, which comes out to 3.42 percent at today's prices. Are you earning 3.4 percent in your savings account? I'm not.
In short, owning an oil company like this one can pay in two ways: The dividend may offer a heck of a lot more interest than your bank, and the stock might be a very effective hedge against rising oil prices.
Are there drawbacks to owning shares in an oil company? Of course. First, while doing things like rolling up your windows or properly inflating your tires cost nothing, buying ConocoPhillips means coming out of pocket to the tune of $64/share. Second, as with all stocks, there are obvious risks involved. While it's unlikely ConocoPhillips will go belly-up, I just told you it was $37 a share less than two years ago. There's no law that says it can't go there again. Nonetheless, if oil prices do go higher in the weeks and months ahead, it's highly likely that owning shares in an integrated oil company will be more effective than rolling up your windows.
I'm not particularly touting one oil company over another - if you like the concept, do a little research on your own. To get you started, here's a page of analysts recommendations on ConocoPhillips.
But humor me - Assume you buy a few shares of ConocoPhillips at today's price of $64/share. If gas prices go up, see if it goes up with them.
And even if you hate my idea to defend against higher pump prices, at least give me credit for not serving up 20-year-old tips and calling them "new".
While it's true that using some or all of those tired tips will help you save gas, when I wrote that article two years ago, gas was $2.95. Now it's once again approaching $4. Use as many tricks as you want - they won't keep you ahead of this game.
And what's happened to ConocoPhillips?
At the end of August ConocoPhillips closed at $56.55. But since I wrote the article above, Conoco spun off its Phillips 66 refining business to its existing shareholders. So in addition to the 339 shares of Conoco I now own (300 originally purchased and 39 from reinvesting dividends) I also own 167 shares of Phillips 66. Total value? $26,208: that's about $7,000, or 37 percent, more than in 2010.
Personal finance isn't about pinching pennies, it's about becoming wealthier, or at least maintaining your current wealth. In the case of combating rising oil, while pinching pennies doesn't hurt, it doesn't come close to solving the problem. Nor does rehashing 30-year old gas saving tips.
Want to become wealthier? Whenever you find yourself the victim of price hikes, see if there's a way to also become a beneficiary. In this case, there is.
As I said in my 2010 post, stocks are risky. If you can't afford the risk, don't take it. But if you can - even if it's just with a couple of hundred bucks - you're potentially going to go a lot farther than you will by rolling your windows up.
Has this train left the station? If I thought so, I wouldn't still have 26 grand in Conoco.