With Spring sports starting, my daily calendar has gone from "busy" to "ridiculous." Essentially I'm a glorified chauffeur after about 3pm, and all day Saturday. So, what's the keystone that holds everything in place? Besides maybe my iPhone, there's nothing more important than my minivan.

So, you can imagine my concern last week when the, "check engine" light came on just before an epic weekend of soccer, softball, and birthday parties.

To make a long story short, I did what every responsible mother would think to do: I took it to a local garage and paid to have someone tell me (the stupid reason) why it was on.

Well, after fixing the problem, I am poorer in money, but richer in knowledge. Here are my tips for what to do if your check engine light comes on, and how to get it diagnosed for free.

1. Don't Freak Out!

When the owner of a garage sees a despondent parent walking through the door with a car problem, it must be like a spider seeing a fat housefly approaching it's web. If you look desperate and need something fixed immediately, it's going to cost you more!

2. It's Probably Not Serious

There are a number of somewhat costly reasons why your check engine light might go on, but you should be OK to drive your car for a couple of days until you can get it checked out. It could be something like a bad oxygen sensor, which can cost a couple hundred dollars, but isn't an emergency repair.

In other words, no need to make a beeline for the closest garage to overpay and and wreck the rest of your day.

Ready to hear why my check engine light was on?

A loose gas cap!

3. Is Your Gas Cap Tightened? 

Yes, a loose gas cap is listed as one of the top reasons why a check engine light will go on. Did I mention that the mechanic charged me $50 to diagnose that!

You see, I live in New Jersey where we don't pump our own gas. Turns out the guy who filled my tank last didn't screw the cap on tightly, and soon after I left the gas station my car sensed that something was wrong and tried to tell me so, in its limited vocabulary.

4. Get It Checked for Free

OK, I wasted an hour and $50 having a mechanic scan my minivan's computer to see why my check engine light came on, but you don't have to. In fact, you can go to a local automotive chain store like Advance Auto or AutoZone, and they will scan it for free! Now, they may not have a definitive answer and advise you to go to a garage, but many times they can figure it out, or even fix it as one of their free services. These free services also include free wiper installation, battery testing, and oil change specials for those who are into DIY. (Not me!)

In Conclusion...

I'm not a handy person, and when something goes wrong with my car or anything mechanical, I'm likely to just stare at it while making monkey noises. However, after wasting $50 to learn that my gas cap was loose, I can at least pass on this tidbit of automotive knowledge to other women.

So, before you spend a dime on fixing your check-engine light, check your gas cap first. If it doesn't seem tight, give it a turn or two, and then see if your check engine light goes off in the next day.

If it's still on, consider stopping by your local auto parts store for a free diagnosis. Good luck!