Thursday, March 4, 2010

Dissect Your Budget - Part 2 - Utilities

Tip #238 - Dissect Your Budget - Part 2 - Utilities. In this series we are going beyond just having a budget but actually going through your budget line by line to take it apart, analyze it, and improve upon it. In Part 1 of this series we discussed the biggest line item of most people's budget - housing. One idea I failed to mention to lower that cost is to take in a roommate or renter. If you are single, one-half of two can live more cheaply than one. In other words, half of a two-bedroom apartment is cheaper than a one-bedroom apartment. If you have a family, having a roommate is not ideal, but depending on how dire your circumstances, taking in a boarder might be the answer to cut down on housing costs. It doesn't have to be a stranger. You might have a brother-in-law, nephew, elderly aunt or other relative in need of cheap housing, so it could be the perfect solution. In addition to making your housing costs cheaper, having a roommate or two can cut down significantly on utilities, which brings us to today's topic.

The cost of housing does not stand alone. Along with that major line item in your budget comes ancillary costs, one of which is utilities. This can be thought of as electricity, gas, and water. Nearly everyone has electricity in their home. It is what controls the power to lights, air conditioning, and appliances. It might also run your gas furnace or be your heating source. Some people also have gas lines which is their heating source and possibly their cooking source. There are alternatives such as propane or wood heating as well. Many, but not all, people are hooked up to city or county water and along with it come standard fees plus cost of amount of usage. Others have a well which has more startup costs and possible maintenance fees but no monthly fees. Unless you live in the perfect climate and like to rough it, these expenses are necessary utility expenses. So because we generally have to pay these costs, how can we lower them?

For heat, regardless of the type, the best way to keep the costs down is to keep the temperatures as low as possible and still be comfortable. A good investment is a programmable thermostat that allows you to change the temperature of the home based on time of day. If family members are gone for a good part of the day then it is worth it to lower the temerpature when no one is there. Additionally, you can program it to be lower when everyone is asleep under heavy bed covers and have the temperature go up before familiy members wake up. Another trick to keeping heating costs down is to walk around your home and find places where cold air is getting in. Weather stripping can be added to doors or even putting a mat or stuffed strip of material in front of doors or windows can keep cold air from leaking in. Make sure your furnace or heat pump is in good working order and that you change air filters on schedule. Lastly, in order to keep your monthly budget balanced, get on an equal payment schedule with your gas or utility company so you don't have high bills in the winter and low bills the rest of the year. By keeping your gas bills the same each month, you won't be scrambling to find a way to make up the extra money in the winter to pay for your heat.

For lighting and power purposes, most of us have electricity. In order to lower these costs, it is necessary for you to turn off lights and appliances when they are not in use. The television should not be blaring if no one is watching it. Rooms do not need to be lit up if no one is sitting in them. And computers should be turned off or at least set to a sleep mode if they are not being used. Buy lower wattage light bulbs. Not every lamp needs to be set to 60 or 100 watts. Even better, buy compact Fluorescent bulbs which use up significantly less wattage to give off the same amount of brightness as a standard bulb. During the heat of the summer keep air on a steady, moderate temperature. You don't need to walk in from the heat to a blast of cold air. Just by having the air conditioning on, the humidity will be taken out of the air and will cool you down. Try to go as late in the season as possible before turning on the air. Use fans if you have them. And if you are going to be in your home for a long time, look into investing in ceiling fans. They can lower the temperature of a room dramatically without using up too much electricity. Lastly, install a clothes line and use it. By reducing your dryer use, you will save lots of energy and costs. Again, ask the utility company for an equal payment plan to keep your monthly electricity bills the same.

For cooking purposes, some people have all electric and some have a mix of gas or electric. Others have all gas. Again regardless of the type, the tips to lowering your costs in this area are the same. When using the oven, try to cook more than one thing at once. Most ovens have two racks. A cake and a lasagne can both be cooking at the same time. Double your recipes. When cooking a dinner or baking cookies, why not double the recipe and freeze some for later. By using an oven that is already heated up, you save money when cooking the second batch. Cut down on your cooking and baking in the summertime. At least when you cook during the winter, the heat of the oven can warm up a room, keeping the heat from turning on, even for a short while. When buying new appliances, find energy efficient ones. Use a toaster oven when making small meals or for heating up. Crockpots are also energy efficient. Lastly, plan ahead. By pulling food out of the freezer in advance or taking butter out of the fridge, you will not have to use the microwave to warm things up.

Finally, we will discuss the water bill. We all need water to drink and depending on where you live, it can be relatively cheap. But there are still ways to conserve it and save money. First and foremost, don't let the water run unless you are using it. This includes brushing your teeth, washing your dishes or taking a shower. Also, keep your activities as short as possible. A shower does not have to run for 15 minutes. Similarly, you might not need a shower everyday. Every other day may be just as good unless you work out in the field, a construction site, or at the gym. Look at weather forecasts. Don't water your grass if the weathermen say it will rain the next day. Only do full loads for both dishwashers and washing machines. Collect water, if you can. For example, use rain buckets outside to water the plants.

My final suggestion for lowering utility costs is to call your utility companies and ask them about an energy-saving plan. Many of them have plans that you can utilize to lower costs. If no one is home during the day, you may be able to go on a plan that does allow you to use above a certain amount of power or gas during the day. Depending on your areas needs and resources, there may be a plan that would work for your family to lower costs. Above all else, use common sense and conservation ideas when using your utilities. Each time you use less or use resources wisely, you will save money.

In Real Life (IRL) - I grew up with a dad who was constantly telling us to turn off lights. So, in some ways, it's ingrained in me to do so. Although, I have to admit I am not one who enjoys being cold, so I tend to keep the house warmer than I probably should and my gas bill each winter shows it. Having said that, I utilize common sense when running appliances and using electricity and gas. In fact, I use most of the ideas I suggested above. We have ceiling fans in almost every room. We have a clothes line (that gets used!) in our basement and outside. We have a programmable thermostat. My husband has added weather stripping to drafty doors. I bake double batches when I can and use the toaster oven frequently instead of the full-sized oven.

When I was single and living with a roommate, we used the energy-saving plan from the electric company. We both worked during the day and weren't home. I don't remember exactly how it worked, but I beieve we got cheaper rates because we didn't use above a certain amount of power during the day.

Utilities are not something we can easily get rid of in our budget unless we want to make drastic changes like powering our homes by solar or wind power. In the meantime, there are smart things we can do to reduce the resoucres we use and in return we will have a lower monthly bill. For other ways to save money check out Frugal Fridays.

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