Cooper Tires

A wheel alignment will cost you about $50 - $100 for a single alignment and about $200 for a "full" alignment.

What Is a Wheel Alignment?

Not to be confused with "Dungeons & Dragons" alignment, which is a categorization of the ethical and moral perspective of the game's characters and creatures, wheel alignment is purely mechanical, and an important part of auto maintenance and safety.

A wheel alignment is when the mechanic ensures that your wheels sit at the proper angle relative to each other, the steering wheel and the road. To do this, the mechanic will check three main parts:

• The Camber - This is the angle between the road and the tire. If your tire isn't sitting flush with the road it can wear the tire improperly, causing problems from fuel inefficiency to blowing out the tire completely.

• The Caster - The steering mechanism in your car has two ball joints, an upper and a lower section. The caster is the angle between them. If it is misaligned, it can cause instability and steering problems.

• The Toe - This is the angle between your tires themselves. As with the camber, if the toe is off it can cause instability and even blowouts.

What Does a Wheel Alignment Do?

A wheel alignment is crucial to keeping your car in good health. In particular, if you don't pay attention to getting your car aligned periodically, two very common problems can occur:

• Drifting - This is when your car will tend to move in one direction even though you didn't actually turn the wheel or when the wheel is in center position.

• Instability - This is when the steering wheel may rattle or give other feedback when you try to turn the car.

These problems can add up over time, eventually causing significant damage to your vehicle.

Beyond preventing damage, a wheel alignment can help extend the life of your car and its parts. It will reduce the wear on internal components, helping them to last longer. More urgently, it will make sure that your tires keep better contact with the road. When your tires aren't flush with the pavement, it can cause them to wear through improperly. As noted above, not only can this hurt your fuel efficiency but eventually this can wear right through the tire and cause a flat.

How Much Does This Cost?

A single alignment just checks one set of wheels. This will generally cost between $50 - $100 at most mechanics. A full alignment checks both sets of wheels. You should expect this to cost between $150 - $200 at most mechanics.

However, like most auto repair, this is not a hard and fast rule. A mechanic might charge more for particularly complicated cars or ones which require specialized equipment.

Further, bringing your car in for an alignment might trigger additional repairs. The mechanics might find issues with components such as the suspension, which they must repair before working on the alignment, or the breaks, which they really should repair before sending you back on the road. This can add to the cost as well.

Many new cars will come with a warranty that covers alignment for a period of time.

Insurance will typically not cover a routine alignment as this is an act of maintenance. If your car requires a wheel alignment due to an accident or some other covered event, however, it will typically be included in those repairs.

Why Does Taking Care of Your Car Matter?

Well, because you need your car. The truth is, even in most major cities you can't get around without one.

Here in the U.S., sometime during the mid-20th century, we decided to make 3,000 pounds of metal, fabric and plastic essential to life. In the span of just a few short decades the car went from a niche product for the wealthy to an unshakable reality of modern life owned by 95% of all households.

Virtually every American community depends on cars to function, and this didn't happen by accident. It's the result of two ideas that rose to prominence at the same time: urban zoning and highways.

Zoning laws dedicate certain sections of a community to specific purposes. They're the reason why modern communities isolate retail, housing, offices and industry into their own blocks of land. You can visit the shopping and retail districts here. People will live over there. Any factories or warehouses will typically operate on the edge of town someplace else altogether. Among other benefits this shortens supply routes and reduces noise near homes.

Yet, while efficient, zoning laws forced people to build the grocery store far from the homes, and their jobs farther away still. That could never work without an easy, convenient way to get from Point A to Point B. So communities built paved roads connecting everything and highways connecting major points of interest. Now it didn't matter that urban planners had put the residents far from their jobs and food, because people could get around in minutes.

If and only if they had a car. The modern American town depends on the idea that residents can drive between zoned regions, and they're built to facilitate that.

But that caused its own problems. In small and large communities alike this caused a crush of downtown traffic. Urban planners began dedicating more and more space to parking and driving the cars that residents now need for basic chores, to the point where now most city centers dedicate 50% - 60% of their land to streets and parking lots. 

And meanwhile, everything keeps getting farther and farther away. Even without zoning, access to federal- or state-funded roads means that businesses can always chase cheaper real estate a little further out of town. So Americans drive.

Everywhere.

And that means those cars need maintenance.

It's never too late - or too early - to plan and invest for the retirement you deserve. Get more information and a free trial subscription to TheStreet's Retirement Daily to learn more about saving for and living in retirement. Got questions about money, retirement and/or investments? Email Robert.Powell@TheStreet.com.