Why You Could See Cheaper Energy Bills This Winter

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A little warming -- whether it's global or not -- may be music to people's ears this year after one of the harshest winters in memory last year. Milder temperatures make for a more enjoyable winter and may even leave you with a few extra dollars in your pocket.

That Furnace May Be Working Less This Year

In preparation for winter, the U.S. Energy Information Administration analyzes expected consumption (using National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather predictions) and pricing for heating fuels. A vast majority of America's homeowners heat their homes using natural gas or electricity, and both sources are expected to be cheaper this year -- but the big savings are expected in heating oil.

The federal agency expects natural gas consumption for heating to be down 9.8 percent this year, which will lower the average home's heating bill by $31 to a season total of $649 -- despite higher prices for natural gas. The biggest savings are expected in the Midwest, where heating bills are projected to be 7.9 percent lower than a year ago. But don't be shocked if prices move even lower this winter. Low demand can lead to quickly falling prices, and if that happens, bills could be down double-digit percentages from a year ago.

Electricity is a little less volatile in pricing, and prices typically rise a small amount each year. But electricity consumption for heating is expected to fall 4.6 percent, helping save consumers $17 for a total cost of $938 this winter. Again, the Midwest is expected to save the most money, because of a 7.1 percent decline in consumption.

The big winners this year could be the 5 percent of America's households that use heating oil. The agency expects consumption to fall 9.6 percent, and when combined with a 6.4 percent drop in prices from a year ago, consumers could save a whopping 15.4 percent, or $362, this year on heating.

How to Save a Few Extra Dollars on Your Energy Bill This Winter

Beyond predicted warmer temperatures and lower fuel costs, there are other ways to cut your heating bill.
  • Smart thermostats are easy and fun to use and easy to install. They could save you hundreds of dollars over the course of the winter by automatically turning the heat down when you're not home and yet having your home toasty warm when you return. Google's (GOOG) (GOOGL) Nest thermostats start at $250 and can be controlled remotely with a smartphone. Honeywell's (HON) Lyric thermostats have similar features and start at $280.
  • Replacing old windows with double-pane windows will keep the warm air inside and hence will save you lots of money. Kirk Lindstrom of Building Energy Experts tells Bankrate.com that these energy-efficient windows can cost as little as $150 and earn their money back in as little as two years. If you're not ready to spend that kind of money, you can put plastic sheeting over windows to reduce heat transfer.
  • Check your chimney's air damper. If it's not airtight, you'll have heat going up the chimney all winter long.
Motley Fool contributor Travis Hoium has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Google (A and C shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. To read about our favorite high-yielding dividend stocks for any investor, check out our free report.

7 Valuable Things You Can Get for Free
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Why You Could See Cheaper Energy Bills This Winter
The days of the dot.com bubble are long past, and with them, companies whose "business" model involved giving away free stuff in hopes of attracting "eyeballs" to their websites. (Remember when Priceline.com would allow you to buy groceries and gasoline for less-than-cost -- for no particular reason?) But the business practice of giving away sample products in hopes you'll try, then buy, still has some merit. Kiplinger's highlights two websites that compile lists of goodies you can get free:
  • HeyItsFree.net as of this writing features free samples of Nesquik chocolate milk, Arm & Hammer toothpaste and Dove shampoo among its front-page offers.
  • MrFreeStuff.com currently tells you how to pick up a free cookie at McAlister's Deli and a free photo magnet from Shutterfly.
Restaurants are another great place to pick up freebies -- although you may need to keep a close eye on your calendar. Surveying just a few of the offerings, Kiplinger's notes that on National Pancake Day (Feb. 28 next year), DineEquity's (DIN) International House of Pancakes serves up a stack of free pancakes. Only July 11, 7-Eleven hands out free Slurpees. And to help take the bite out of tax day, Cinnabon offers up two free Cinnabon Bites.
After scarfing down a Cinnabon (much less two), dessert is probably the last thing on your mind. But for incurable sweet-tooths, Kiplinger's points out that Dairy Queen has a loyalty club that entitles members to buy-one, get-one-free Blizzards. And one day a year, Ben & Jerry's gives away free cones of ice cream during Free Cone Day. (Kiplinger's notes that this "usually" happens in April.)
Pep Boys (PBY) will rotate your tires, inspect your brakes and track down what makes that annoying "check engine" light keep turning on -- all for free. Now, you may have to sign up for a Pep Boys' loyalty card to take advantage of this. Pep Boys also use the free services as a way to lure you into its stores, and these "free inspections" are a great way to encourage you to pay Pep Boys to repair these problems. Like the saying goes, there's no such thing as a free lunch. But jumping through a few hoops may not be too high a price to pay for "free."
Free health care, anyone? Kiplinger's points out that under the Affordable Care Act, "most health plans now must provide a variety of preventive-care benefits free." These include "screenings for high blood pressure, mammograms for women older than 40, and routine vaccinations for children, as well as a long list of other tests and services." Granted, taxpayers are paying for all of this -- so in a sense it's not actually "free." But if you're a taxpayer, you've already paid for it, so you might as well get what you've paid for.
There's hardly a parent in America these days who would argue that college doesn't cost too much. But sometimes it's free. Kiplinger's notes that Berea College, in Berea, Kentucky, provides all students a four-year tuition scholarship that amounts to nearly $100,000 in value. Berea's website promises this: "Every Berea student is awarded our Tuition Promise Scholarship." Admission to Berea is "highly competitive," of course. But if you get in, "the actual cost to students and their families is $0."
And now for our final freebie (although to be honest, Kiplinger's offers many more ideas, some good, some not so good): Free language training. For those who don't make the cut at Berea, or who just want to add some specialized knowledge to their brains but leave the official sheepskin on the sheep, Kiplinger's points out that you can get free foreign language lessons online at OpenCulture.com and at the website of the Foreign Service Institute. To which we'd just add that you can get even better free language training at DuoLingo and get free lessons in just about everything else at KhanAcademy.org.
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