You’re driving down the road when the dreaded engine light comes on. Your first thoughts are, “my engine is toast and I’m out thousands of dollars.” Before you cancel the summer vacation and start serving the kids beans for dinner, check for one of these simple, cheap fixes that are common causes for engine lights to come on.

1. Your Battery is Dying

Dead battery

Image via Flickr by Charles Williams

Depending on the manufacturer, some vehicles are programmed to alert drivers when the battery is dead or in the process of dying by activating the check engine light. This can prevent you from getting stranded on a dark street at midnight, in the rain, or in the event of an emergency. Finding out if a bad battery is the culprit is free; just pull into the nearest automotive parts store and most will check your battery at no cost. Battery replacements typically run about $50, and if you return the old battery they’ll even refund part of the cost.

2. Your Gas Cap is Loose or Damaged

Many manufacturers design the vehicle so the engine light comes on if you don’t replace your gas cap properly, or if the gas cap is damaged and doesn’t seal properly. If you just left the pump and forgot to tighten up your cap, this fix is free. Replacing a damaged cap runs about $5. Be sure it’s the right cap for your vehicle, though, because the wrong size won’t create a good seal, and your light will stay on.

3. Your Engine Got Wet

Opening the hood in the rain or wet snow, or driving through standing water can allow water to get into the engine and working parts, which can also cause the engine light to illuminate. Just allow the engine to dry, and your car will be fine. However, be extremely careful if the brakes are also wet, because this affects your ability to stop.

4. Your Hoses are Loose or Cracked

The belts and hoses under the hood aren’t just there for decoration, they all serve necessary purposes. A split or damaged hose means something under there isn’t being supplied with what it needs to function properly. You can usually find damaged hoses by a hissing sound, or if the gash is obvious. Replacement costs vary according to your vehicle and the region you live in, but labor is usually the most expensive part of this repair.

5. Your Spark Plugs Are Bad

Your mechanic can diagnose faulty spark plugs. These usually cost about $300 to replace, but before you balk over the price, remember that faulty plugs can cause serious, expensive problems like a damaged catalytic converter, which costs $1,000 or more to replace.

When the engine light comes on and stays on solid, this is generally less serious than when the engine light blinks. Taking care of small problems as soon as they develop can save you huge expenses later. Many small issues, left unattended, lead to bigger problems. It’s always wise to have a mechanic you trust look at any issues.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions that seem silly, such as those about funny smells or sounds, because these are important ways mechanics diagnose issues. Most auto repair shops offer free diagnostic testing, so you can find out what the problem is and how much it costs to repair before agreeing to the work.