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Smart ways to reduce your car insurance costs

If you're looking for clues about what impacts your car insurance rates, check in the mirror — it's mostly about you. And while there are some parts of your personal profile that you can't change, for many of the items that affect your premiums, you're in the driver’s seat.
Your ZIP code counts when it comes to how much you pay for car insurance. Insurers use location to break down their assessments of trends such as accidents, car thefts, lawsuits, and the cost of medical care and car repairs. Joshua McKerrow / AP
/ Source: DailyFinance

If you're looking for clues about what impacts your car insurance rates, check in the mirror  it's mostly about you.

"When it comes to car insurance, there's hardly anything that isn't personal," says Carroll Lachnit, consumer advice editor for, an online resource for automotive information.

Here's a look at what matters most.

You can't escape history
What's your driving history? How many tickets and accidents do you have on your driving record, particularly in the past three years? Insurance carriers will also look at the number of miles you drive each year.

"The less you drive, the less risk of an accident and a claim. Safer driving, meaning a history free of accidents and moving violations, also points to someone who's less likely to file a claim," says Lachnit.

How much you pay is directly related to how long you've had your license. "Get your driver's license as soon as possible, because this is the largest factor affecting your auto insurance rates," says Deane Silke, vice president of Fiesta Auto Insurance Center. "Even if you don't have a car or don't plan to drive, get your driver's license so that the clock starts ticking on the number of years you've had a license," he adds.

Born this way
There are things that effect your rates that you can't control like gender and age. "Women's car insurance rates are lower, because they tend to have fewer accidents and tickets," says Chris Kissell, a spokesperson for Youth also is a disadvantage. "Drivers who are very young pay higher rates, particularly males, because they tend to have more accidents and tickets," he adds.

Insurance companies base their rates on actuarial information, and they look for patterns of claims activity among people like you. For example, a teenage boy is likely to have a higher insurance rate than a middle-aged woman because statistically, teenage boys have more accidents than do 40-year-old women, says Lachnit.

How you can change the equation
The average American driver spends about $850 a year on car insurance, according to the Insurance Information Institute. While that's not an insignificant amount, no one is suggesting you make dramatic life changes simply to lower your premiums. Still, there are a number of factors based on life choices that come into play.

For starters, there's marital status. It's not a reason for running to the justice of the peace, but a married person may pay less than a single person with an identical driving record.

Your ZIP code counts too. Insurers use those location codes to break down their assessments of trends like accidents, car thefts, lawsuits, and the cost of medical care and car repairs, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Is it worth moving to a "safer" area? Maybe, maybe not.

What you do for a living isn't only of interest to the people you meet socially: Insurers want to know the answer as well. If you're stuck behind your computer all day, you'll likely pay less than the outside salesperson who hits the road regularly for work. "More miles driving, statistically speaking, equals more risk of an accident," says Lachnit.

Be ready to shell out cash if you insist on flash. It costs more to insure cars that are expensive to repair. If you drive a luxury vehicle or sports car, you'll pay more than if you drive a family sedan.

"Repairs from a fender-bender will be much more expensive to fix if you drive a brand-new Mercedes than if you drive a used Yaris," points out Richard McGrath of McGrath Insurance.

Another time when credit scores count
Everyone knows that a poor credit score makes you less qualified for the lowest interest rates offered by lenders. And many people are now aware that bad credit can scare off potential employers. But your credit score is also a huge factor in how much insurers decide to charge you.

"Right now, almost all carriers are relying on credit scores as a way to predict whether a client will have claims or not," says Celia Santana, president of Personal Risk Management Solutions.

Insurance companies have analyzed a lot of data, and determined that people who do a better job of managing their finances are less likely to have claims, she adds.

Choose your coverage carefully
It's obvious, but worth repeating: The more coverage you elect and the lower deductible you set, the more you'll pay.

"Don't go for every bell and whistle," says Lachnit. "If you're willing to pay a little higher deductible, you can wind up saving big on your rates. Going from a $250 to $1000 deductible could save you 25% to 40% on your policy."

Set aside a portion of what you save to cover that higher deductible cost in case you ever do have a claim, and you should come out ahead.

Dig for discounts
There are plenty of less obvious ways to pay less for car insurance.

It's a paradox, but the more personal you get with some insurance carriers, the better your rates might be. A relatively new product, pay-as-you-drive insurance, offers better rates because the policies are tailored to how you personally drive, as opposed to how people like you drive, explains Lachnit.

For example, she says, a teenage boy who is an excellent driver, doesn't speed, drive at night or drive many miles, can get a better rate than the average teenage boy whose actuarial profile pegs him as a greater risk, based on the accident history for people his age. The requirements for pay-as-you-drive plans vary. Some carriers will have you install a telematic device that transmits information about your actual driving  — speed, distance, braking patterns  —  to the insurance company. Others base their profile on how many miles you drive, not how you drive.

Be sure to explore discounts for being a senior citizen, a member of certain organizations, having safety devices or bundling policies (having home and auto insurance with the same carrier), among others.

You can also do some cleaning of your records. Take actions to boost your credit score, such as paying your bills on time and otherwise being a good debtor. You can even buff up your driving record. If you do get a ticket, ask about traffic school, which will keep the ticket off your driving record with many insurance companies, says Fiesta Auto Insurance's Silke. "Better to spend one day in traffic school than to pay higher auto insurance rates for three years," he adds.

VIN registration is a great deterrent for thieves. Get the VIN etched in your car window. It's free, disrupts theft and can cut the cost of comprehensive insurance by up to 5 percent, says Mark Carrasquillo, an agent with insurance broker E.G. Bowman.

When car shopping, you can also look for a model with a historically lower rate of insurance losses.

Though it may not always feel like it, when it comes to car insurance, you are very much in the driver's seat.

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