Utility bills are a major expense for every household. Fortunately, there are a number of money-saving tips that can help you trim expenses to make the most of your budget. No matter how frugal you are being now, chances are that there are at least a few new ideas you can try to trim your bills even further.
Heating and Cooling
According to Energy.gov, heating and cooling "accounts for more than half of the energy use in a typical U.S. home, making it the largest energy expense for most homes." With that in mind, temperature control is an important area to start with when considering how to save money on your utility bills. This is true whether you rely on gas, electricity or a combination of both.
Eric Tan, real estate agent for technology-focused real estate brokerage Redfin, shared the benefits of his experiences helping clients learn how to make the most of their utility dollars. He suggests starting with your thermostat. "The easiest way to cut down on home heating and cooling costs is to start turning down your thermostat in colder weather and turning it up when it's warmer. Use ceiling fans to stay cool or layer on clothing when you want to warm up."
The Energy.gov thermostat recommendation is 68 degrees during the winter and 78 degrees during the summer for times you are at home and awake. When you are away or asleep, you can save money - as much as 15% of your temperature control costs - by adjusting the temperature by ten to 15 degrees (warmer during summer and colder during winter) for stretches of at least eight hours.
According to Energystar.gov and ConsumerReports.org, you can save up to $180 per year on heating and cooling costs by installing and using a quality programmable thermostat. A key to this is setting temperatures to recommended levels automatically, including at least eight-hour set points for times that everyone is out or likely to be sleeping.
Energystar.gov also advises installing separate thermostats for different heating and cooling zones. For example, if your family only goes upstairs when it's time to go to sleep, keep the second floor temperature higher or lower (depending on the season), with the thermostat set to a more comfortable level shortly before bedtime.
The same Energy.gov article that provides temperature recommendations also provides recommendations for thermostat placement for maximum energy efficiency, stating "To operate properly, a thermostat must be on an interior wall away from direct sunlight, drafts, doorways, skylights, and windows. It should be located where natural room air currents-warm air rising, cool air sinking-occur." It's also important to make sure that your thermostat is not blocked by furniture.
Not all changes require temperature adjustments; there are a number of ways to improve your home's energy efficiency. Tan suggests, "Simple things like weather stripping around doors and windows is a cheap way to keep heat in during the colder months." This can, of course, also keep cool air in when it's hot outside.
Tan also recommends using heavier drapes. Room darkening and blackout shades can also help, as can adding insulation to the attic and walls, around power outlets and windows, as well as under the floors for raised homes. Also, consider installing energy efficient windows.
Properly maintaining your heating, venting and cooling (HVAC) system is critical to making the most of your utility dollars. The Building Efficiency Initiative states, "Effective maintenance can reduce HVAC energy costs by 5 to 40 percent depending on the system or equipment involved." Additionally, taking good care of your equipment can help it last longer and reduce the potential for downtime.
According to This Old House, general routine maintenance requirements are:
- Heat pumps oil-fired burners need annual professional service
- Gas-fired, forced-air heaters need professional checkups every two years, annual circulation fan oil, and filter changes every month or two during the winter
- Central HVAC units need routine service calls at the beginning of both the heating season and cooling season
If you have a gas heater, be sure to extinguish the pilot light during the summer. Depending on your comfort level, you can do this yourself or have a professional handle it during a seasonal service call.
According to EnergyStar.gov, HVAC system duct leaks cause a significant loss of heated or cooled air in many households - as much as 20 percent. Taking the time to improve duct performance yourself or hiring a contractor to do so can lead to reduced electricity and/or gas bills.
While heating and cooling may be responsible for a significant portion of your energy expenditures, they are not the only culprits behind high power bills. There are a number of additional ways to ensure that your electricity and gas bills aren't higher than they need to be.
Entergy warns customers about the costs associated with leaving electronics plugged in when not in use, something that leads to energy usage through phantom loads, also referred to as standby power and vampire power. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy indicates that U.S. homes typically have 40 products plugged in that constantly draw power, accounting for nearly ten percent of electricity usage in residential settings.
To combat this expensive problem Tan recommends, "Start the practice of unplugging all appliances when you're finished using them. You may not realize it, but although these items may be turned off, if they're still plugged into an energy source they are using energy. Things like televisions and microwaves are commonly left plugged in."
Even plugged-in cell phone chargers and video games can increase your electricity bill. As a general rule, anything that has an indicator light for "on" zaps power simply by being plugged in.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, home lighting made up about 13 percent of the country's residential electricity usage for 2011. With such a significant amount of energy usage going to lighting, it's easy to see that cutting back could reduce your power bill. Be sure to turn off lights in rooms that are not in use. When possible, gather household members in a single room to minimize the need to light additional areas. For example, the kids can work on their homework in the kitchen while mom is preparing dinner rather than having people spread out all over the house.
The type of bulbs you use is important to consider. Tan advises homeowners to "switch out all of your incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. These use 75 percent less energy and last a heck of a lot longer." According to Green America Real Estate, Light emitting diode (LED) bulbs are even more energy efficient than CFLs, though they do tend to be more expensive. As of 2014, incandescent bulbs cannot be manufactured in or imported to the United States, per compliance with the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.
The way you use appliances can have an impact on your power bill. A few suggestions for easy changes include:
- Safe Natural Tips suggests opening the door of your dishwasher to let your dishes air-dry once they are clean rather than using the electricity-powered drying cycle.
- The Consumer Energy Center of the California Energy Commission recommends cleaning the lint trap of your dryer after every use for maximum efficiency.
- Eversource suggests cooking outside on your grill when it's hot outside to avoid adding heat to your home with your gas or electric stove or oven.
- Using a microwave for meal preparation requires less energy than a stove or oven, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEE).
- ACEE also points out that convection ovens can cut energy use for cooking by about 20 percent over conventional ovens.
- TLC recommends keeping your freezer full for maximum energy efficiency, using such space-takers as plastic bags or storage containers filled with water or bags of packing peanuts to fill in empty spaces. It's also best to keep your refrigerator relatively full.
According to Tan, "Homeowners should try all of the low-cost and free fixes first to see how much they're really saving. If they'd like to cut costs even more, and it's in the budget, they could try replacing their old appliances with energy efficient models. Some homes come with appliances that work just fine but are outdated and use a lot of energy. Technology in recent years has really improved the efficiency of appliances like washers, dryers and refrigerators. Make sure it has the Energy Star symbol and you could cut cost dramatically."
Alternative Power Sources
Look for ways to incorporate alternatives to gas and electricity into your home, such as photovoltaic shingles, solar attic fans, geothermal energy and wind energy. For a small change, consider using a solar oven for some of your cooking.
Investigate Hardship Programs
Depending on availability in your area, if you are living near or below the poverty level you may be able to qualify for Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) funding to defray your utility costs. Senior citizens can often qualify for special utility discount programs provided by their municipalities (such as Seattle), states (such as Georgia) or service providers (such as Consumers Energy).
Some areas also have assistance programs for people with certain types of medical conditions or who must use electricity powered life support equipment, such as the Medical Baseline program in California. Contact the energy providers that service your area to find out what programs may be available, what the criteria are and how to go about applying if there is a possibility you may qualify.
Gas and electricity aren't the only utility expenses. Taking steps to keep water usage to a minimum is another important consideration when trying to minimize utility bills.
According to ConserveH2O.org, showers account for "nearly 17 percent of residential water use indoors," and they also impact electricity or gas consumption. Even though showering can be expensive, showers are generally cheaper than baths, according to the Grace Communications Foundation. However, the amount of time you spend in the shower can greatly impact your water and power bills.
To cut shower-related costs, Tan advises, "Take shorter showers and use a low-flow shower head." EnergyStar.gov recommends a shower head with a flow rate of less 2.5 gallons-per-minute (gpm). ShowerManager.com provides a shower cost calculator you can use to estimate how much your showers are costing, in terms of water and sewer usage, as well as gas or electricity.
Shower heads aren't the only plumbing fixtures that impact water usage - faucets and toilets are also important. Fixing drips and leaks can go a long way toward cutting your expenses. For another relatively small, but impactful change, Tan suggests, "By putting aerators on household faucets and shower heads you can cut your annual water consumption by 50 percent."
Tan continues, "Low-flow toilets are another great option. They use only 1.6 gallons per flush, compared to 3.5 gallons per flush for any pre-1994 models. If you have an older model, adjust your float valve to admit less water into the tank."
Look for the EPA WaterSense label when shopping for new plumbing fixtures to ensure you're getting the most efficient options available. You can calculate the potential savings at EPA.gov as well as look for products that bear the WaterSense label.
Generating hot water is a significant water-related expense that impacts your electricity or gas bill. You can cut down on this cost by installing a tankless water heater. Recommended by Energy.gov, this type of appliance produces hot water only when you actually need it, rather than heating water and storing it. Depending on how much water is used in your home, switching to a tankless unit can cut energy costs associated with hot water by eight to 34 percent, and even more if you place one at each hot water outlet.
Water heaters aren't the only appliances that impact water usage. It's also advisable to invest in an efficient clothes washer and dishwasher.
Watching television is a source of information and entertainment in many households, but cable and satellite subscription services can be quite costly. There are a number of cost-efficient (even free in some cases) options for those who are willing to rely on an antenna for local channels.
- As long as you have Internet access can watch many shows on your computer via the free version of Hulu, and get even more programming streamed to your television with the fee-based version for around $8 per month.
- Depending on the age of your TV, you may need a Roku streaming player or Apple TV device (less than $100 each) to receive Hulu on your TV; with these devices you can access a number of other no-cost programming options, such as WatchESPN and Crackle. Gaming devices such as Playstation, Wii and Xbox also work for this purpose.
- Television networks often offer programming via their websites at no cost, and with a $35 Google Chromecast device and an HDTV with a USB port, you can stream those shows directly to your television.
According to Pew Research, as of 2013, 91% of adults in America own a cell phone and 78% of kids between the ages of 12 and 17 have one. The increase in usage speaks to the importance of finding ways to keep cell phone bills to a minimum, as well as to reduce expenses associated with other types of telephone service.
Cell plans and costs vary widely, so it's essential to select a plan that works well for your circumstances. For example, if you have teens that text incessantly in your household, getting a plan with unlimited texting can save you money in the long-run, even if the recurring service charge seems a little high. Other cost-saving suggestions include:
- Consider a family cell plan if you need phones for several people in your household and are comfortable pooling minutes.
- Shop around for the cheapest cell phone plans before committing to a locked handset or a service contract.
- Investigate no-contract plans, also referred to as pay-as-you-go options, as they are often cheaper than contract-based options.
- Consider budget-friendly options like Walmart cell phone plans rather than going directly to providers.
- If your income is very low, find out if you may qualify for a low income cell phone program.
- Don't get a Smartphone if you won't actually use mobile Web features.
- Rely on WiFi whenever possible to reduce mobile data-usage if you do have a smartphone.
According to a 2012 Centers for Disease Control survey, more than 50 percent of U.S. households either no longer have a land line phone, or have one and do not use it. While going to a purely mobile household may not be for everyone, it is certainly a good idea to make sure you aren't spending more than necessary on home phone service. Tips to consider:
- If you are paying for a home phone and do not use it - or use it on only very rare occasions - consider if it might be a good idea to cancel the service.
- If you have not changed home phone service providers in the last few years, investigate to see if less expensive alternatives might be available since the last time you checked. For example, Vonage service has decreased significantly in price over time.
- Investigate the potential savings of bundling home phone service with other subscriptions you have, such as Internet access or cable or satellite television service.
- Look closely at your bill to see if you are being charged for features that you don't really use, such as visual voice mail, call waiting, etc. Cancel any that are not worth the cost.
Whether you live in an area where you are responsible for hiring a trash pick-up service or if your service is municipally-based, you can have an impact on the immediate and long-term cost by reducing the amount of waste you generate.
Avoid throwing away items that are recyclable, instead ensuring that they get to a facility where they can be re-used rather than taking up space in a landfill. In 2013, the town of Plymouth, MA saved $36,000 during the first month of a managed program to increase personal recycling, and is on-track to save $145,000 per year. Doing your part as an individual or lobbying for a similar system in your community can help impact municipal expenses, helping to keeping tax and fee increases at bay.
Cut Back on Processed Items
When you buy processed foods, you end up with a lot of packaging waste - some of which is recyclable and some that is destined for the trash can and landfills. An article on the A Life Unprocessed blog reveals how one family eliminated the need for weekly garbage pick-up services (to the tune of $300 per year) by switching from supermarket shopping to community supported agriculture (CSA) and direct purchasing from a distributor of natural foods. Instead of needing curbside pickup, they are able to rely on a public bin and assistance from a family member who lives in an area where there is a community dumpster.
According to Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, composting organic waste can keep hundreds of pounds of waste out of your garbage each year. Making your own compost also provides you with environmentally friendly fertilizer to use on your lawn and garden.
Do not throw away items that still have a useful life. The fact that you don't want or need them anymore does not mean that they can't benefit someone else. Look for a charity that accepts donations of used toys, household goods, clothing and furniture before tossing out anything that is still functional. You'll keep trash to a minimum, and may even benefit from a tax deduction to boot.
Small Changes Matter
Even tiny lifestyle or habit changes can have a powerful impact on the direction of your energy bills. Take steps to make sure that the decisions you make are focused on helping drive your bills down rather than keeping them where they are or - worse yet - making them go up.