These days, with a gallon of gas near or above $4, it's a rare driver who doesn't pay attention to the cost of filling up. For Mike Wolf, recording gasoline and diesel prices is old hat.
Last Wednesday, Mike Wolf pulled his Taurus sedan out of his Maple Grove subdivision and headed to his office in Eden Prairie. He needed gas, but he drove past two stations charging $3.86, then crossed heavy traffic to fill up at Freedom Valu Center off Interstate 494 in Plymouth where the price was ... $3.86?
That's not for the name, the location or even the coffee it serves. Wolf likes Freedom Gas for its money-saving coupons. "I bet if you Googled your gas station, they probably have a website where you can save some money. And in this case it's 5 cents a gallon."
That's one of many tips he's received from Twincitiesgasprices.com, a website designed to help drivers find stations with the lowest price and avoid those with the highest. Wolf is a volunteer gas spotter for the site, which was started by Jason Toews and Dustin Coupal, two high school pals from Saskatchewan.
The pair have grown their company, Gasbuddy.com, into a network of 181 fuel-price-tracking websites around the United States and Canada while holding down other jobs; Coupal is an opthamologist, Toews describes himself as a "serial entrepreneur," with interests in restaurants, farming, consulting, and fitness clubs. Toews said what revenue they have is reinvested in the business, enabling the duo to send fuel prices to wireless devices and work toward adding prices for E85.
It used to be that a mention in a newspaper story or on the radio would cause website traffic to spike. Today, "traffic is more consistent," Toews said. And with new price records hit almost weekly -- including more than $4 a gallon around town Monday -- traffic to the site also is growing.
In May, average daily page views reached 4.9 million.
The website, with the tag line "Consumers working together to save on gas," relies on drivers such as Wolf to update prices regularly. Curiosity brought Wolf, who works for a debt collector, to Twincitiesgasprices.com in 2001. He always had wondered what caused gas prices to rise between the time he set out for work and the time he headed home. And it drove him nuts when he'd fill up his car only to find a cheaper price around the bend.
Now after seven years of spotting, he has a few theories. For instance, warehouse stores such as Costco and Sam's Club consistently have the lowest prices. And if you're curious about where gas prices are headed, scope out SuperAmerica.com. "It's always SuperAmerica that initiates a price hike," Wolf said. Check its website before heading out to fill up and "sometimes you can see the price hike before it even gets to Twincitiesgasprices.com and act accordingly," Wolf said.
Wolf, 53, also has detected a pattern that gas price increases happen midweek, in the middle of the day. "If you only fill up once a week, try to fill up Monday night."
Wolf, who's known as "Wolfer" online, has earned nearly 2.5 million points at Twincitiesgasprices.com, second only to "Splinter."
Users generate points by entering gas prices for stations and posting in the forum. That qualifies them for free gas giveaways and other drawings. He's never won, and he jokes that "they should be making up T-shirts or something" for high-point spotters with bad luck when it comes to winning contests.
To maximize his points, Wolf scopes out fuel prices on the way to work and at lunch, and also will submit the prices for premium and diesel fuel. Spotters never drive for spotting's sake. "If you're going to go more than a couple of blocks out of your way to spot a price or to fill up, then you're negating the savings."
Wolf doesn't carry a notebook to record his findings; 90 percent of the stations have the same prices, he said, and it's usually the same stations that stick out. "It doesn't take that long -- about five minutes a day. I've saved so much money using it. I can give five minutes a day to help other people."
Wolf, a self-described coupon clipper, considers his need to sniff out deals the modern-day equivalent of cavemen tracking saber-toothed tigers. "We're hunters -- we're always hunting for the best bargains."
Using the cheapest stations on the site, he figures he saves about $100 a year. That helps ease the pain of his 35-mile round-trip commute to work, which cost him about $35 per week last year; this year, it's about $60.
Friends and co-workers ask him where to find cheap gas. When they do, he tries to recruit them as volunteer spotters.
"This is capitalism at its best. There's no way [stations] could fix prices because the competition from other stations would prevent them from doing that," he said. Does he harbor negative feelings toward the oil industry? "You know, you and I have 401(k)s and IRAs that are invested in their stock. Why would we want to begrudge them for doing the best that they can?" he said. "In the meantime, we can ... make sure we are doing our best to save as much money as possible."
Kara McGuire • 612-673-7293. Read Kara's blog: www.startribune.com/kablog.