Save money in every room of your house
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways you can turn the dial back to "middling" when it comes to utility bills and other home costs, and you can do so in every room of your house. But you're going to have to get busy (another way to keep warm on those cool evenings, right?) in order to see those savings during the next few months.
This one's a no-brainer. The quickest way to save cash in your basement -- where most people's home-warming appliances are located -- is to sheath your water heater in a blanket. You can buy special water heater blankets from home improvement stores and hardware stores for $15 to $20; and many local conservation groups offer special rates this time of year. Michael Bluejay's Mr. Electricity says this can reduce your energy use by 10% to 15%, for a total savings of $20 to $40 a year based on your family size. Since it may take a year to pay off the cost of the blanket, you might consider using an old holey wool blanket and some duct tape instead. Other water heater tricks include turning down the thermostat, wrapping pipes with insulation, and insulating the room where the heater is.
Speaking of insulating rooms, I'm guessing your furnace -- if this is how you heat your house -- is in the same basement room as your water heater. All the more reason for a super-insulated room! My own water heater/furnace room is tiny and would only take a few rolls of insulation to cover. And be sure to keep the door closed -- there's no point in letting cold air in.
Another key to maintaining savings in your basement is to keep moisture out. Friends with leaky basements are regularly complaining of floods that ruin any finished floors, destroy furniture and books, and cost a lot to fix. What's more, how much productivity is lost in dealing with a flooded basement? And then there's the mold... invasive, unhealthy, and hard to expunge. A nice tutorial on eHow lists the steps to moisture-proofing your basement, starting with getting water away from your foundation -- with simple steps like diverting downspouts properly -- and applying a sealant paint to interior concrete walls.
Living room/family room
There are a few simple steps you can take in your living room to lower your utility bills, each of which saves just a bit but together, they really start to add up. The most hidden route to money savings -- but one of the easiest to address -- is to remember the concept of standby electricity. Up to 5% to 10% of our power bills go to the appliances and electronics that are idling. In other words, they're off but still plugged in. I ran the energy calculator at Mr. Electricity and found out that my cable box, which I always leave on, is costing me $2 a month. Not huge, but when you add that to the TV, the laptop, the phone, the fax machine (which I use about once every few months).... Still, installing a switched power strip or individual flip switch can't hurt.
The simplest thing to do, of course, is to turn your lights and television off. Especially your lights, which in my house can get accidentally left on during the day when we're leaving the house in the semi-dark (and those days are fast approaching). With electricity rates here in Portland, which vary from 5.12 cents to 6.89 cents per kWh based on usage, one 100-watt bulb will cost $0.87 a month if I keep it on just four hours a day (after it gets dark until bedtime) versus $5.18 if I leave it on all day. And the difference between compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) and regular light bulbs is pretty startling: The cost for CFLs is about 20% that of the others, a monthly difference of $4 per bulb if I keep it on 24 hours a day.
One last thing: While "TV Turn-Off Week" may be over by the time you read this, there are more benefits to getting you and your kids to embrace such pastimes as reading books, board games, and building complicated tower defense systems with Legos than the lack of commercialism. They save money, too! I was startled to see a difference of 30 cents a day -- 20% -- between this August and last August on my electricity bill. What had changed? Well, my husband is overseas in Kuwait; last year he was at home, watching TV news and old episodes of Law & Order while he folded laundry and puttered around the house. As excessive consumption of TV and video games have been shown to be correlated with obesity and junk food consumption, too, the savings could be way more far-reaching (especially given news of the individual cost of obesity published Tuesday).
The best way you can save money in your kitchen is to use it. A lot. Not for heating up things in your microwave but for cooking things from scratch. There have been numerous studies done that show convenience foods don't even save you time, let alone money. So why are you still buying those "meal kits" and, worse, getting take out from Boston Market or your grocery story deli? Instead of going with the flow, go inconvenient in your kitchen. Buy a bag of organic onions and a few pounds of organic dry beans and a couple of really good whole chickens. Cook a few big dishes on the weekend, and make leftovers into healthy, cheap meals all week. Think: enchiladas, pulled pork/chicken sandwiches, vegetable chili, yummy wraps.
Here's another tip for you: Do not buy foods that are individually packaged. Do not buy snack food (I hereby grant you two exceptions to this rule per month). If I force myself to only eat snack food I've made myself, it'll have many results: I'll cut down on snack food consumption, make the snack food I do eat healthier (I sweeten foods with honey instead of sugar, and use whole grains, for instance), and save lots of money. I don't have dollar figures here, as there are so many assumptions that go into it. But cutting out just one candy bar a day -- empty calories you don't need, ever -- could save you $300 or more per household member per year.
Finally,buy foods in bulk,and I'm not talking about shopping at Costco. I've argued before that shopping at a warehouse club costs you more due to overbuying, impulse purchases, and false confidence in the money you're saving, so don't start. Find a local buying club in your area, or start one. Or check with local grocery co-ops for savings on bulk purchases. If you can't use 20 pounds of peaches, find other families to share with (my buying club has a busy online forum where we regularly split large purchases), or can the remainder for cheap healthy delicious food year-round. My co-op gives me 10% off when I order a 50-pound bag of flour; if I split it between myself and my sisters, we've got a fantastic deal that we'll use. If you can find a way to make group buys from a local farmer, everyone will benefit: the farmer can get a better price dealing directly with a consumer, and so can you. Plus, your new group of buying club friends might come over and help you can those tomatoes.
This is going to be painful. First off, clean up the clutter. The simplicity web sites and organized living gurus are all over this one: By sorting what you've already got, you'll avoid buying items you already own. Second, things can easily be damaged when there's too much to fit into your space: I've stepped on any number of objects, breaking them, because they were covered with my kids' dirty clothes. And dirty spaces can lead to allergens, molds, and plain old depression; extra stuff leads you to believe you need a bigger space, or a storage unit. You don't, so just clean up, give it away, or sell your extra stuff, and you'll find the space you were looking for right at home.
Second, rethink the heating in your bedrooms in all but the coldest times. Could you forgo central heat at night in the fall and just use a few more blankets and a nice pair of slippers? How about an electric blanket? If your kids, like mine, are always kicking off the covers, consider a space heater for your bedroom; some efficient models use very little energy, and you don't need to heat your whole house while you're sleeping. Turn down your thermostat at night, too; bodies at rest need very little heat to stay comfortable.
Consider upgrading your windows. Bedrooms are often the coldest rooms in a house in the winter and hottest in the summer. So think about replacing the windows and upgrading the insulation in your bedroom. While you probably don't mind wearing a sweater during the day, you don't want to have to dress for the Arctic at night: Brrrr -- and brrrr equals a lot of money.
If you like simplicity and green living, and hate chemicals, this could be the best tip for you: Clear out your shower caddy and your medicine cabinet. Shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and fancy face soaps and lotions are both expensive and awful for the environment. Check out the no-poo (as in shampoo) movement: I've been a no-poo practitioner for a year now, and I spend about $1 a year on my hair (seriously). In my opinion, it looks great and feels great, too. Think you need a daily facial cleansing regimen? The oil cleansing method people say, no way. And since both of these concepts mean your only toiletry purchases are also foods, you can buy them through your buying club and save big. The only thing in our shower is a bar of Dr. Bronner's soap and a little jar of jojoba oil.
Since you use a lot of water in your bathroom, wherever you can, go low-flow. New purchases of showerheads and toilets in most areas are mandated to be low-flow, and this is one place where it definitely makes sense to buy new. The brilliant toilets with the dual buttons -- one for pee, one for heavier stuff -- can save you a lot on your water bill. The estimates vary, but a low-flow showerhead could save you $100 or more a year by cutting water usage by 50% to 70%. Low-flow toilets offer similar percentage savings, good for another $50 for most families. You can even convert your toilet yourself with an online tutorial.
While it may not have the huge dollar amount savings, adjusting leaky faucets and pipes can be surprisingly effective (and who wants to send all that money, literally, down the drain for no good reason?). A leaky faucet in our tub ended up costing us $40 over three months before we finally fixed it (and it was the receipt of that surprisingly spendy water bill that got me convinced).
Saving money in your attic, sadly, will cost you. The most common sources of money drains in your attic are poor insulation and poor roofing. But fixing these problems will save you lots of money over the life of the upgrade and will also increase the value of your home, should you sell it. (The most commonly listed upgrade for a home on a real estate listing: a new roof.) Heat escapes upward; the logic is inescapable.
But let's not forget the other potential source of money in your attic: old stuff. When my kids found out our attic was completely empty of old, creepy, ghostly, valuable stuff, they almost wept. Yours may not be so boring. While discoveries of Van Gogh paintings in attics are fairly rare, nonetheless, it's possible to find artifacts in your attic worth a few hundred or even thousand dollars, enough, maybe, to pay for some new insulation. Even if you don't find items of historical significance, it's possible to make a few hundred dollars from a weekend garage sale. Call it an "estate sale," and you'll make even more.