Home » Quick-Lube Oil Change Math: How A $20 Job Becomes A $100 Job

Quick-Lube Oil Change Math: How A $20 Job Becomes A $100 Job

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One of the most basic parts of car ownership is taking care of basic maintenance. The most frequent item that should be addressed is changing your vehicle’s oil , and that’s a task that comes down to a simple choice: Do you do it yourself or take it somewhere?

As we’ve established, I was a grease monkey in a prior life. But even with those skills and know-how, I elect to have someone else handle the job. Why? Well, time is money, and the money you save by doing it yourself, you might have to reinvest many times over in labor, risk, and cleanup. I was trained to work on cars standing up; crawling under is a hard adjustment. But I’m cheap and picky, so I’m selective on where I get an oil change done. 

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Let’s run the numbers.

As Matt has recently shown us, oil, through the right retailer, is cheap. And based on lab testing as David discusses in “Expensive Oil Is Waste Of Money,” there is little difference between the performance of the cheap stuff versus pricey oils. [Ed Note: I hated the headline “Why Expensive Oil Is A Waste Of Money.” I didn’t write it. That headline, without the word ‘sometimes’ after ‘is,’ is misleading. -DT]

However, if you’re going to a shop for an instant oil change or even the dealership, you might feel like you’ve just lost an arm and a leg. It just depends on what the shop is prioritizing and what you’re willing to accept. 

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1024px Valvoline Instant Oil Change Outlet On Baseline Road Hillsboro, Oregon (2015)
Photo: Steve Morgan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

For this demonstration, I’ll be using my Ford Maverick hybrid. It takes 5.7 quarts of 0W-20. When I called the nearest Valvoline, they quoted me:

  • $107.68 for full synthetic oil: $99.99 for 5 quarts and a filter, and an additional $7.69 for the remaining 0.7 quart
  • $75.99 for synthetic blend oil: $70.40 for 5 quarts and a filter, and an additional $5.59 for the remaining 0.7 quart
  • $55.88 for conventional oil: $50.99 for 5 quarts and a filter, and an additional $4.89 for the remaining 0.7 quart

Now let’s look at the nearby Ford dealership where I took my Maverick to address four recalls.

  • $98.47 for 5.7 quarts of Full Synthetic Oil and a filter

Welp, that’s the last time I ask someone to do an oil change without asking the costs ahead of time. And now the Chevrolet dealership in Mishawaka that I took the truck to last May.

  • $55 for 5.7 quarts of full synthetic oil and a filter

Between the highest and lowest prices, for the same type of oil, that’s a 95% difference in price! So what are the differences between these places?

Let’s Talk Labor Costs

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Me hiding my face from the camera, presumably in shame at the prices.

At Valvoline in 2016, I was making $10.50/hour as a Senior Tech. I was one or two steps above entry level and was a keyholder, a shade below Assistant Store Manager. Then in my second stint with Valvoline in 2021, I picked it up as a second job in an attempt to pay off bills, and my primary source of income was just enough to break even; I was making $15/hour. Based on this trajectory of increase, I’ll use $18/hour as the going rate for labor in 2024.

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For a two-bay store, there’d typically be between four to five staffers at a time; one or two customer service advisors, two toppers, and one pitter. Each car would take at most 15 minutes, barring any complications or additional services. Based on this, on a busy day, the store could get through at least eight cars in an hour.  

Labor cost per car with four staffers:
$18/hour x 4 staffers ÷ 8 cars = $9 in labor/car

Labor cost per car with five staffers:
$18/hour x 5 staffers ÷ 8 cars = $11.25 in labor/car

Seems straightforward enough! Yet, while eight cars in an hour would be ideal for profit, like any business, there are rushes and dead times throughout the day. A possibly more exact calculation would be to look at the average number of cars a quick lube shop sees in a day and the total hours paid out for that day.

Using my primary store in Midland, we would see roughly 32 cars a day and hopefully have at least five people scheduled for eight-hour shifts.

$18/hour x 5 staffers x 8 hours ÷ 32 cars =  $22.5 in labor/car

Cost Of Oil And Filter

1024px Motor Oil For Cars And Motorcycles From Various Producers In German Hardware Store
Photo: Pittigrilli, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Oil is cheap! While that might run counter to current prices at a quick lube, you can get 5 quarts of full synthetic for $18.98 at Walmart, $21.99 at Meijer, or if you’re getting more outdoors supplies, $24.99 at Tractor Supply. I’ll stick with using full synthetic oil for the rest of this exercise because if you need to use 0W-20 oil, it’s probably the best option. And the Maverick is my queen and deserves the best. 

Walmart Supertech Oil X

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Looking for cheap but acceptable filters, Bosch filters for my Maverick start at $2.60 a piece at Rock Auto. 

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Obviously, places like dealerships and Valvoline get fluids at wholesale prices. A quick search for bulk quantities and I learned you could order a 55-gallon drum of 0W-20 full synthetic oil from the Miami Oil Company for $654.75. That works out to $2.98/quart or $14.90/5 quarts. I’d assume there are even better rates for Valvoline and the like but I do not have access to their books.

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Ticket Price, Or ‘How Did I Just Come In For Just One Thing And Leave With Five?’

The ticket price is the hidden number customers don’t see. It’s a target corporate sets as the desired revenue per car. At Valvoline, if your store did well on the number of customers you saw per month, the average “ticket,” and customer reviews, you’d get a bonus. This obviously encouraged CSAs to upsell when possible.

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That could be from suggesting customers try a full synthetic oil instead of a mix, or attempting to sell a coolant or transmission service. Heck, air filters were/are a big part of this too. As of now, Valvoline charges $24.99 for an engine filter and $54.99 (!!!) for a cabin filter. While researching prices for my significant other’s 2012 Honda Fit, I saw Rock Auto sells Bosch engine and cabinet filters for $4 and $9 respectively. This is one of the more uncomfortable aspects associated with working in quick lube.

I was texting one of my closest friends whom I met while working at Valvoline. I had expressed my shock after discovering Valvoline’s new prices. He gave me permission to share his response. 

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Adding It All Up

So working with limited data, my best estimate is that it costs at least $22.50 in labor/car and at most $17.68 in materials costs for my Maverick, for a grand total of $40.18 for a quick lube oil change. Subtracting that from the original quote of $107.68 leaves $67.50 to go towards overhead costs and net profits.

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The dealership was three blocks from my apartment, so I could pedal back and enjoy the pool while they were working on the truck.

Now looking at the Mishawaka dealership, labor costs are slightly different. The best-going rate I can find when calling around is a $25 labor charge when I supply my own oil and filter. If an oil change takes 15 minutes, that’s $100/hour in labor costs, not an unheard-of number. $25 in labor + $17.68 in materials = $42.68. Subtracting that from the $55 overall cost leaves $12.32 for revenue, a much more reasonable number.

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I once asked one of the dealership’s service managers why the cost was so low, relatively speaking, compared to their competition. He said it’s an intentional loss leader. They didn’t care about squeezing the money out of an oil change because that’s not their main business – they want to sell cars. By offering cheaper oil changes, they establish a positive reputation in the community and increase the number of people who visit their dealership. And boy, did it work. It wasn’t uncommon to see the dealership’s driveway filled with cars in line for oil changes.

For me, my go-to is grabbing oil and a filter for $29 while I’m grocery shopping at Meijer. I then take it to whichever dealership has the best quote for labor. I’m okay with that because I don’t have jacks or stands (yet) and my apartment complex frowns upon wrenching in their parking lot. But one day, I’ll have a house with a pole barn and a lift. Then just watch me. I’m sure I’ll find new, unexpected ways to make mistakes and get messy. [Ed Note: And write about them!]

Topshot: oil container via Valvoline; background image by methaphum/stock.adobe.com

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K Rich
K Rich
1 month ago

Not putting Cheep Oil in my RAM Cummins no matter what anyone says! It gets Shell Rottela T-6 only!!! My 01 GMC Yukon only gets Mobile 1, they say there’s no difference? Let’s agree to disagree! Because.my Yukon has 365000 miles on it and it’s still purring like a kitten! Just driving 2600 miles in 2 1/2 days checked the oil it’s still full and clean like new. If you don’t plan on keeping a vehicle past it’s warranty use cheap oil, i just hope the next owner gets some good use out of it? I’m also a retired mechanic and wrecker Driver, I’ve worked for people that cut corners and some that took good care of the equipment. The cheapos were always fixing the trucks engine rebuilds junking trucks. There is a difference trust me.

Sgtyukon
Sgtyukon
1 month ago

I bought a new Ford Taurus wagon as a leftover in 1987. Around 1989 or 1990 an anonymous oil-change shop (let’s call it a Jiffy Lube) wanted to charge me to change the fluid in the rear differential. I told the kid if he could find a rear differential with fluid in it, he could change that fluid.

Bassracerx
Bassracerx
1 month ago

If all you did was change oil you would be out of business. especially with modern car oil change intervals of 5,000 , 7,500 , or 10,000 plus miles. All of the money is made in additional services. Also if all you did was change the customers oil there is really no interaction with the customer and they will go to a competitor the next time they get a coupon in the paper. (or wherever people get coupons these days) Showing the customer their wiper blades are dry rotted, the cabin air filter/ engine air filter needs replaced, putting a test strip on the customers coolant and brake fluid. Taking measurements of the tread on their tires and the thickness of their brakes .. when you do all of these things you show the customer that you are invested in keeping their vehicle in top shape and keep the customer safe on the road. It is up to the customer at that time to make a decision what to do with their vehicle.
But all of the additional services is what keeps your shop profitable and keeps the doors open and people employed year over year.

When you pay for “labor” you are not only paying for the technicians wage you are also paying for all of the overhead to keep the shop open. Power, water, rent/mortgage, garbage collection all of the overhead plus profit. Doing calculations of how many workers are at the store for how many hours and how many cars got serviced only tells you a small part of the equation.

Who has the best “deal” on an oil change is not really the smart way to have your car serviced. You want a relationship with your mechanic/dealer and you want them to be constantly evaluating the condition of your vehicle so nothing goes missed. You want to be able to trust your mechanic when they say that it is time for something to be serviced. You also don’t want to pay too much money too but I would argue the cost of their service is less important than all of those other things.

TheDrunkenWrench
TheDrunkenWrench
1 month ago

I simply buy full synthetic on sale and run OE/OEM filters. Best bang for the buck and improper springs in aftermarket filters for the Hyundai/Kia Theta II engine taught me OEM filters are your best bet. Often your cheapest when bought in bulk as well.

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