Cutting Utilities

Sara Colley / September 24, 2016

Cutting Expenses, Continued

Utilities

When most folks think of utilities they think they can’t possibly cut back anywhere.  You’d be surprised.

Cable / Television

The first place to look is your cable or satellite bill.  Cable is no longer the lifeline it once was.  You can get most television shows online, and there are much less expensive alternatives for movies and shows: Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and more.  Ditch your cable – you’ll never look back.

Gas and Electric

You probably have more control over your gas and electric bill than you think.  We knew a woman whose monthly heating bill ran under $20 even in winter.  (Yes, it was a California winter, but even so most folks in the area were running between $100 and $200.)  How did she do it?  Sweats!  She layered up in the winter.  That isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but once you’ve tried it you may find it’s not that bad.

To lower your electric bill, figure out where your biggest draws are.  You may need the help of an electrical engineer or a contractor to help you.  Electric heating (or air conditioning in the summer) should be the first suspect.  If you can afford it, it might make sense to switch heating to gas.

Any electrical appliance needs to be suspect.  A/C units, microwaves, stoves, space heaters, toaster ovens, coffee pots etc. all use huge amounts of electricity while running.  We won’t suggest you stop cooking at home, but do consider if you are using your appliances efficiently.  Make only as much coffee as you intend to drink, for instance.  Over the course of a month, that one little change can save you quite a bit.

If you still have incandescent light bulbs, it’s time to replace them with LCDs.  We know your incandescents aren’t dead yet – don’t worry about it.  The new bulbs will cut your bill into a fraction of what it was, and last much longer too.  LCDs are now made with “warm” light spectrum, too, so the complaint about the light feeling “cold” is no longer valid.

Finally, make sure your small users of electricity are turned off when not in use.  Even something as innocuous as your television can use up a lot of electricity in “standby” mode.  Many folks leave their computers, printers and other electronics on and let them go into sleep mode, but they are still using electricity as long as they’re on.  Can you see a light indicating the unit is in standby mode?  Then it’s using electricity.

Ask your neighbors how much electricity they use.  Then reduce your budget to aim to equal the lowest cost any of your neighbors are paying for a similar-sized home.  You might have to make some major adjustments, but it’s an area where you can save some serious dough.   

Gas, on the other hand, is used almost exclusively for space and water heating, and in many cases cooking.

Starting with the big users first, if your home isn’t well insulated now is the time to look into that.  Ceiling insulation will give you a lot more bang for your buck than wall insulation, but do both if you can.  Then, if you don’t have double-pane windows, now is the time to look into them.  Put your hand on the glass of your window on a cold day.  If the glass is much colder than the room, you need double-pane windows.  If you can’t pay cash, consider financing them.  You’ll read elsewhere that we think financing is a bad idea for most things, but ceiling insulation and double-pane windows pay you back so quickly that paying the extra for financing is usually worth it.

If you are a renter you probably can’t just make changes like these, and it wouldn’t make sense.  But you can play “small ball” when it comes to preventing heat loss.  Make sure you have weather stripping around all your doors and windows; you lose way more heat (or let way more in during the hot months) than you think through the miniature cracks around the edges of your doors.

When it comes to your water heater, try turning down the heat a little.  Most water heaters are set too high, and it would be rare for most families to need that.  (You probably mix hot and cold water to shower or do dishes anyway, so the hot water is too hot by that measurement.)  Turn down the heat in increments until you find you don’t have enough hot water for all the showers, and then bring it back up incrementally until you do have enough; that’s your sweet spot.

If you have a gas stove, once again we don’t suggest you cook less.  But do check your stove’s insulation to make sure you’re not pumping heat into your space when you’re baking, and have it inspected by your local utility to make sure the pilot lights are working properly and that there are no gas leaks anywhere.  Most utilities provide this service for free.

Finally, turn your heat way down and layer up like our California friend whose bill was only $20 a month in the colder months.  After your debt is paid off or you’ve saved enough for your dream home, or car, or boat – you can crank it back up them.  But you might find that you love the savings better than being toasty.

Water

In many areas of the country people pay only a fixed fee each month for water regardless of how much they use.  This is not the case in drought-stricken California or through much of the Southwest.  Going back to the notion that the bigger the bill the bigger the opportunity to save, water is an area where the potential savings are growing dramatically in some areas of the country.

If you live in an area where you have to pay for water, you’ll probably find the three biggest uses of water for most families are landscaping, showers and laundry, in that order.  For landscaping, the first thing you probably need to do is ditch your lawn.  Yes, it’s pretty and nice and looks great when you pull up after a hard day of work, but it uses tons of water.  If you can afford an artificial lawn, great!  If not your local nursery probably has some fairly inexpensive solutions for drought-tolerant landscaping that would easily pay themselves back quickly.

Reducing water use in the shower is fairly easy.  Get a low-flow showerhead, and limit your showers.  The right time is different for everyone, but standing in the shower soaking up the warm water is a sure way to send your water bills through the roof.

With laundry wait until you have large loads, and hopefully you have a water-wise washing machine.  At the very least, cut back slightly on the amount of soap you use and you won’t need an extra rinse.

As with gas and electric, ask your neighbors how much water they use every month, and use the most efficient homes in the neighborhood as a benchmark for your own water use.  Make it a game to see if you can be as efficient as your neighbors.

Sara Colley, Staff Writer

Financial Help Desk

 

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