You Can Do It! Save Money by Replacing Your Headlight

Autos & TrucksRepairs

  • Author Derik Schnagl
  • Published January 16, 2024
  • Word count 1,833

On a summer night about ten years ago, my family and I enjoyed a wonderful evening at a friend’s house. The time came to say goodbye, and we packed into the minivan. No sooner had I pulled out of my friend’s driveway when I heard the blip of a siren and saw red and blue lights in my rearview. I’d traveled maybe fifty feet and hadn’t reached the speed limit yet, so why was I being pulled over? The officer approached and informed me in a not-so-pleasant tone that I had a headlight out. Impossible! I checked my lights consistently, and they were not burnt out when we left home. But sure enough, I had a burnt-out headlight. It was a Saturday night, so taking it to a shop to be fixed was out of the question. And the police in the military housing area we lived in were relentless. What does the average person do in this situation? Is not driving until Monday when it can be replaced an option? What if the shop can’t get you in on Monday? And you still have to get it to the shop without the police seeing you again.

I’ve been a mechanic my whole life. I fixed it the next day, and all was good. But what about people who aren’t mechanics? Answer: you don’t have to be a mechanic to fix something like a burnt-out headlight. Most people can do a lot with confidence and some cheap tools. Even better, not taking your car to a shop will save a ton of money and time.

Not Your Typical How-to Article

To be clear, I won’t give you detailed instructions on how to change your headlight. There are far too many different vehicles, and each one is different. I will inspire you to utilize the countless resources our modern age presents us with to fix your car and save some money. Why would I do this? Recently, physical disabilities caused me to retire from being a mechanic. I love fixing things for people who can’t, and being unable to do what I’m great at and enjoy doing is hard. But thankfully, God helped me realize that though I can’t physically be a mechanic, I can put my years of mechanical expertise into writing to help people. Now that I’ve got you to shed a tear for me let’s get to the fixing, shall we?

Difficult, but Not Impossible

Decades ago, cars weren’t as hard to work on. A former coworker used to say, “It ain’t the 70s anymore”—wow, he was so right. Many vehicles, like my 2008 GMC Yukon, require loosening and removing various panels to access hidden bolts to remove the entire headlight assembly (see link 1 below). On some cars, changing a headlight bulb can be very time-consuming, so it can cost a decent chunk of change to get a bulb replaced by a professional. Occasionally, you can access the bulb without removing anything, or you may be able to find a shortcut (see link 2 below).

Read The Manual

I want to point something out for those who watched the last video (link 2). The guy in the video shows that his owner’s manual has instructions on replacing the bulb on his car—check your manual. I lost count of how many times people brought things in to be fixed that they could have done had they read their manuals. It reached the point where we mechanics would write “RTM” on the repair order. If you didn’t figure it out, RTM means read the manual. It’s not just in your glove box to take up space.

I know that’s a lot of video links in one paragraph, but that’s my point. Someone, somewhere, has posted a video on how to change the headlight bulb on your car. You may be asking yourself, if there’s a video on how to do it, why am I reading an article that tells me to watch a video on how to do it? You wouldn't be reading this if you knew there was a video. So, at a minimum, I informed you that there are videos on how to do this. Mission accomplished. You’re welcome.

Be Honest About Your Abilities

There are some things to consider before tearing apart your car. First, some people are not apt to tackle a task like this. Be honest with yourself. Or if every time you’ve tried to fix something, you broke it, you may want to take a pass on this. Once you start, there’s no stopping. If you can’t finish the job or break something, you must bring it to a mechanic who gets upset because you brought him a torn-apart car. It may be best to budget the money to have someone else do it. If, and only if, you have one of those cars that the bulb can be changed easier than my 1980 Datsun, most auto parts stores will do it free of charge. Additional note: many parts stores are open on Sunday. Remember the story at the beginning?

Things You’ll Need

Do you have the tools to do to replace the bulb? Like my Yukon, you can often change a headlight with a few basic hand tools like a socket set, screwdrivers, and pliers that you can get at stores like Walmart or Harbor Freight. Remember that these are cheap tools, so if you enjoy doing this and decide to be a mechanic, they won’t cut it. Most videos do an excellent job telling you what tools are needed (see link 1 below).

In addition to tools, you may want a pair of gloves; that’s up to you. You will likely have to handle small parts, so your puffy winter gloves won’t work. Mechanic gloves can be purchased in a variety of stores. Many old-school mechanics consider it a sin to wear gloves and call them something I cannot include in this article—something to do with mittens. My wife loves my rough, scarred-up hands, but I wish I hadn’t waited twenty years to start wearing gloves. Not only does it prevent cuts, but it also keeps your hands cleaner.

The last thing you will need is a replacement bulb, which can be purchased from various sources: auto parts stores, online retailers, or even Walmart. Most towns have at least one auto parts store—four in my small town. Walmart is everywhere, and they carry most of the standard bulbs.

Time Is of the Essence

You’ve got the confidence, the tools, and the bulb. What’s next? If you’ve never done it before, car repairs can be intimidating. For your first attempt, give yourself enough time to get the job done. Mistakes happen when you rush. The last thing you want is to get halfway through and remember you have to pick up Johnny at school. I’ve already mentioned watching a YouTube video or finding a DIY article online, but perhaps you possess my ability to figure things out, feel saucy, and want to challenge yourself. If so, give it a good examination. Look at it carefully and see how your headlight assembly is mounted. How many bolts are holding it in? What things need to be loosened or removed to take it out? Or maybe you can find a simpler way than how the person in the video did it. Remember, I mentioned some bulbs can be changed without tools (see link 2 below). Ensure this is not the case before unnecessarily tearing your car apart. I can’t emphasize this enough. Nothing is worse than taking apart things you don’t need to—especially when you’re limited on time.

Some Final Things to Consider

Once you know how it comes out, dig in. I always recommend inexperienced people be meticulous when taking things apart. Place each part that you remove someplace where it won’t get lost, and lay them out so you know how to put them back in. If needed, take a picture or take Johnny’s crayons and draw one on a piece of cardboard and set the parts where they were on the car. It sounds silly, but losing track of where each piece came from is easy if you've never done it.

Don’t force it. Don’t force it. Don’t force it. Did I get my point across? If something doesn’t come out without excessive force, chances are, you missed a bolt, a screw, or something needs to be moved to get it out. Forcing things results in broken things, and broken things cost money.


When installing the new bulb, do not touch the glass part of the bulb. Repeat: don’t touch the glass part of the bulb! With halogen bulbs, the oils from your skin will shorten the bulb's life, and you will have to do it all over again. Don't touch it if you don’t know if it’s a halogen bulb. Only hold the bulb by the metal or plastic base when installing it. If the video you’re watching doesn’t tell you how to put it back together, reassembly is simply the reverse of what you did to take it apart. Be careful not to overtighten the fasteners. You don’t want them coming loose, but you also don’t want to follow the advice of guys who define tight as snug, enough, or worse yet, turn it till it breaks and back it off a quarter turn. Tight depends on who’s doing the tightening. Pay attention to how much force it takes to loosen a bolt, or find the same bolt on the other side of the car and tighten it gently until it begins to move. This will give you an idea of how much force you need to tighten it. Lastly, make sure it works. You don’t want to assume it’s working and get a ticket because you forgot to plug it in or got a bad bulb.

A Job Well Done

Congratulations! You just replaced a headlight bulb on your car. I know I didn’t give you step-by-step instructions. I wanted to inform you that anyone can perform basic repairs on a vehicle with some aptitude, confidence, a few tools, and the internet. You can do it yourself and avoid getting a ticket on a day when shops aren’t open, and most importantly, save money! Some things require professionals; some require critical thinking and some elbow grease. So, next time you have a burnt-out bulb—any bulb, it doesn’t have to be limited to headlights—roll up your sleeves and do it yourself. Who knows? Maybe you’ll enjoy it so much that you’ll post how-to videos on YouTube or want to be a mechanic.

Derik Schnagl is a retired automotive, Powersports, and power equipment mechanic and is now a Christian fiction author.

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