. . . and then you can buy more shoes

By Mir
June 27, 2006

Jean wrote… well, here’s what Jean wrote:


I love this site! I can’t wait to see what tips you give us each day. The only way the site would be better is if we could see your pretty face every day! Here’s my question for you…I just purchased my first home with my husband. My income is the only once since my husband is a SAHD (we have a 2 year old). What are some of the best ways to cut down on our oil costs (used for heat/hot water) and our propane (used for stove/dryer) and our electric expenses? Thanks!


We will forgive Jean her obvious poor taste in wanting to see my terrifying mug each day (I would, you know, but on a bad skin day y’all might lose the will to shop), and try to sink our teeth into the matter of cutting down on energy costs. Just give me a second to finish weeping over my latest oil bill. Okay!

Right up front, let me point you to two really useful resources. I like The Home Energy Saver Answer Desk and also Twenty Things You Can Do To Conserve Energy. They’re not particularly entertaining reads, but they have lots of great tips.

Following are some of the things I feel the need to either reiterate or make up, in addition to what those sites tell you.

Heating and cooling your home (general)

Hopefully your house already has:
1) Separate heating/cooling zones (that is, more than one thermostat so that you can put different parts of the house at different temperatures),
2) Programmable thermostats.

If you don’t already have zones on your system, ummmm… move. No, not really. But that’s not easily changed. Or maybe it is. Okay, look, I’m not a contractor. Let’s just say that’s beyond my scope and sounds expensive. Just keep in mind that even with a stay-at-home parent and kid(s), do you really need the entire house at a certain temperature? Probably not.

If you don’t have programmable thermostats? Shame on you. Now go on over to Big Hardware Store and buy some. They’re not expensive, and if you can read you can install them yourself. If that scares you, an electrician can install them and charge you for an hour of labor.

“But I’ll remember to turn the heat down.” No you won’t. Or maybe you will, sometimes, but nobody remembers all the time. Programmable thermostats are the single easiest way to cut down on energy consumption. Not home? Heat is down. Sleeping? Heat is down. You don’t have to think about it. It just happens. Like magic!

My main concern is heating, because I live at the North Pole. Um, well, almost. Anyway. I hear tell that some people live where it’s hot all the time; can you imagine? Heh. Keep in mind that even if you have central AC or a few window AC units, you can still save money by setting the temperature higher and running a fan in addition to the air conditioning. Fans use very little energy, but good air circulation can render a warmer room more tolerable. Remember the zones issue here, as well. Why cool a room you’re not using? Turn off the unit or close the vents, and then close the door.

Sing it with me, to the tune of “Anticipation”: Good insulation. Goood in-sul-a-tion, good insul-ay-ay-tion is saving me dough…. Sorry, I got carried away there for a minute. Ahem. Caulk your windows. Wrap your water heater. Have a layer of insulation in your attic. Put weatherstripping along the bottoms of your doors. All of these things (and more) are mildly annoying, but very easy and inexpensive.

Heating and cooling your home (things to consider)

Do your research. Utilities have been deregulated, you know. Are you getting the cheapest electricity possible? There may be options for providers in your area, and the cost may differ. Check it out.

What type of power are you using to heat your home? This breakdown of how to figure out if you can save money with portable heaters is really interesting. Check it out.

Using oil? Most companies will give you a small price break for using their budget payment system (which will also save you from a nasty bill during a cold snap). Many will allow you to purchase your year’s oil up-front at a fixed cost, which may result in significant savings overall if you’re able to pony up the cash and not have an aneurysm.

Have a wood stove that you use for a significant portion of your heating? Keep your eyes peeled for cheap wood, particularly in the summer when people are landscaping and renovating and looking to get rid of things like… trees!

Do your regularly scheduled furnace/boiler/stove maintenance, and clean your air filters as recommended. Better tended equipment = more efficient operation = lower cost.

Even when you work at home (like I do) or are home with kids, again, do you need to have the entire house at a comfortable temperature all day long? I basically don’t heat my bedroom during the day in the winter. The kitchen isn’t much better—which helps me to stay at my desk working. I scurry into the kitchen to fix myself some lunch and run back to my slightly-warmer office with my sandwich clutched in my hands and icicles forming on my nose. The heat goes up a bit when the kids get home, then down again at bedtime. Children who complain about the cold are cordially invited to hang out in the family room (always the warmest room in the house) or go to bed early.

Electricity (lighting)

I agree with everything suggested on the previously-mentioned two sites about reducing electricity usage except for one thing: I do not, and will not, use compact fluorescent bulbs. They last longer, and they’re cheaper to run. Which is great. They also give me headaches, don’t fit most covered lamps (the exception to this is the fluorescents sold by Ikea, by the way, so if you have a local Ikea and are dying for compact fluorescents, there you go), and cause me to burst out with “U-G-L-Y you ain’t got no alibi!” at inappropriate times.

If you can deal with the fluorescents, fabulous. If, like me, you have Seasonal Affective Disorder and require light that looks like, well, light, I recommend the GE Reveal line of bulbs, which happen to go on sale with regularity.

Now, does that mean I advocate using as much electricity as humanly possible to light your home? No. Turn lights off when you’re not in the room. Use the lowest wattage bulbs that make sense for a given fixture. And for fixtures with multiple bulbs, don’t feel the need to use them all—my kitchen ceiling fan holds 3 bulbs, and has never had more than 2 working bulbs in it at a time. Friends come over and point out “You’ve got a dead bulb there” thinking they’re being all helpful, and I just nod and smile and pretend I care or point out something shiny.

Electricity (general)

Some highlights:

That whole EnergyStar rating thing really is true. It’s worth a little more money to get an appliance highly rated for efficiency.

Don’t run the dishwasher unless it’s full. Ditto for the washing machine. And the “heat dry” on your dishwasher? Sucks up energy and turns your plastic food storage into modern art. Skip it, and just open the door when the cycle’s over. This mysterious substance I like to call air will dry your dishes in no time. (Leaving off the “heat dry” on the dishwasher is how I justify not going all Little House on the Prairie and hanging my laundry out on a line. We have only two seasons here, Winter and Pollen, so I’m just not going to do it.)

Don’t just turn it off… unplug it. I confess I’m only just getting better at this one, but it does become habit. It’s not only safer in terms of reducing the risk of electrical fire, it staunches so-called “electrical leaks” and lowers your energy bill. Done with your morning coffee? Unplug the coffeemaker. Done with the toaster? Unplug it. Not charging your cell phone right now? Take the charger out of the wall. Hey, if I ever stepped away from the computer, I’d probably shut it down and turn the power strip off… but that’s just crazy talk.

Check the temperature in your fridge. G’head—splurge for a thermometer. 37F is perfect in there… any colder and you’re likely spending more than you need to.

Getting around

I know we’re all really enjoying the cost of gasoline these days. Yup. I mean, really, back in 1987 when I got my driver’s license, if you’d told me I’d be paying $3/gallon for gas, I would’ve laughed myself silly. And then I would’ve filled up the enormous tank of my full-sized 1978 Ford Bronco for $18 and complained about how much I’d just spent.


You know to drive less; combine errands into a single trip, all of that good stuff. I think I talked about some of this before. Do you need me to tell you to buy a fuel-efficient car and shop around for the best price on gas? I don’t think so.

But did you know that underinflated tires can lower your gas mileage? It’s true. Check your tires regularly.

Hey, if all else fails, you can always live on ramen noodles for a while. But I doubt you’ll need to. With a few simple adjustments, chances are you can decrease your household energy bills. I recommend always prefacing “Look at the cute shoes I bought” with “Honey, just look at how much lower the electric bill is this month!”


  1. Jean and Mir, I almost had a heartattack when I saw what the locked in rates for oil are for next year (here in maine between $2.69 and 2.89/gallon). It’s over doubled for us in 5 years. So I called my oil company and asked what rate they would give us if I brought him 10 new customers, what the rate would be for 25 new customers, etc. Well, as it turned out, I got nearly 50 neighbors in my community together, mostly by email and word of mouth, and we all got a special rate on our oil- nearly 40 cents cheaper than if we had just signed the regular rate. I figured I saved at least $400 on oil for next year. It works great for the oil company too since they get new customers in a close geographic area. Worth a few calls and emails.

  2. Lisa, you are SUPER PRETTY! That’s brilliant. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I am so dreading the winter time. The past 2 years, we have spent at least $1900 for fuel oil. I gag when I think about it, and what kinds of cool stuff I could have for that money…ugh.

    Thanks for such a great post!

  4. Our (expletive deleted) electricity bill went up FORTY PERCENT. Ladies, did you see that number? Do you know what that number means? It means I had a heart attack and died on my kitchen floor because our two story and furnished basement? Sucks up looooot of money.
    It wasn’t just us; the entire metro DC area (or maybe just Maryland? Don’t remember.) went up that much. It’s terrible, especially because our two seasons? Are hella hot and hella cold.
    I’m a big fan of turning off lights, and when we are gone during the day the air conditioner gets turned up to EIGHTY. Coming inside from the heat it still feels chilly, and once we adjust we just tap that baby on down to a nice 75 for the hours we’re at home. Which isn’t a lot. Due to the working. TO PAY THE ELECTRICITY BILL.

  5. Mir, you are pretty and smart. I love the post. Entertaining and informative too. I live in the deep south, where we have hot and warm seasons only, no winter to speak of. Sometimes fall sneaks in and makes the leaves pretty for a day or two. I have gas heat and this past winter my bill was up 35%, due to the increase in natural gas prices. What a shock. Of course, our winter almost equals your spring, so why am I complainiing…??

  6. I have no tips, but I would just like to say that every month when I open our natural gas bill, I thank every deity there is that we don’t have fuel oil or propane. I think getting a $1900 bill would kill me!

  7. I live in central TX where it is rather hot and humid in the summer (100+ and at least 70% consistently) My energy saving trick is to not turn on my AC until the house thermostat consistently reads 90 or more. Then I turn on the AC and set my programable thermostat to 85. It is so much more comfortable than outside air, and much better than letting it get to 90 in the house. Once you get aclamated to the temperature, it is very comfortable. Also I turn the AC off at night and open windows on cooler breezy nights. Keeps the AC from having to run until at least 10am the next day.

  8. I will tell you that I am very thankful not to have to struggle with the fuel oil prices, but our gas bill was enough to make want to go off the grid this past winter. Our gas company was very sneaky though. Here in Ohio, our winter was very mild, so even with the price hikes, things shouldn’t have been too bad. BUT…
    The gas company refused to come out and read the meter all winter long. They just estimated our bill from what we had used the previous winter (which was a bitter cold, heat-sucking fiasco) and didn’t take an actual reading of gas used from Nov. to April. When they finanlly came out in May, it turned out that we hadn’t even used a third of the gas that we had been paying for all winter.

  9. We close the rooms we aren’t using. And I mean really close them, like with a towel at the crack at the bottom of the door. Why heat or cool a guest room or a closet or the dining room we aren’t going to use for the next week (or the next five hours?)

    This past winter, our heating bill was lower than it’s EVER been. We turned the heat way, way down, and used a kerosene heater in the living room, kitchen and den–but only while we were in those rooms. I’ve always been a little afraid of kerosene heaters–the one we had when I was a kid was smelly and dangerous. However, the new breed of kerosene heater is cheap to run, efficient, safe, and VERY warm! You’ll be surprised at how quickly one can heat up a room. And they don’t stink!

  10. I was going to suggest pre-buying your heating oil. You buy in advance and lock in to a lower rate. We also installed a wood pellet stove in our fmaily room which cut the amount of oil we used significantly.

    Also, we do a lot of baking in the winter. You can never have too many cookies, I say. My ass begs to differ, but the extar fatty layer keeps me warmer, right?

  11. Would you please call my dear hubby and tell him how terribly ugly fluorescent bulbs are?? Yes, he not only uses them in lamps where they are hidden under a shade, but he will actually put them in fixtures, like ceiling fans where everyone can just look up and see their incredible loveliness! I haven’t the heart to tell him how much that makes me cringe.

    I say, sometimes, you just gotta sacrifice frugality for aesthetics!

  12. No suggestions (cause yours were all brilliant and I’m gonna try some of em…), but I was shocked by this line:

    “Don’t run the dishwasher unless it’s full. Ditto for the washing machine.”

    Do you mean to tell me that you’ve actually witnessed a washing machine that WASN’T FULL?!! If you have pictures, I’d like to show them to my family. Our machine just isn’t like that at all. It is a glutton that is constantly in motion, sucking in the dirty clothes and spitting out clean ones. Our household is single-handedly keeping BC Hydro in the black!

    …so, that unfull washing machine thing was just a joke right?

  13. My electric bill dropped $20 this past month, even with me using my air conditioner (which is a wall unit in the living room – not central air).

    My secret? My kids moved out!


  14. We strike a balance in our home with the use of the energy saving bulbs. Unlike busyHSmom’s husband, I do not put those bulbs in things such as ceiling fans, and the lights like my wife’s bedside lamp (where she does most of her reading).

    Beside the longevity, the amount of energy saved just by switching SOME to the more efficient models is worth it. And while purely anecdotal (and perhaps because I did not switch over ALL of them), I have not found any effects on my S.A.D. or had problems with headaches (reading)… other than of course when looking at bills.

    On air conditioning, (and because of house logistics this of course will not work for everyone) when our old 12,000 BTU air conditioner decided to retire this year, rather than buying another BIG until we purchased two smaller (6,000)units, and placed them at opposite ends of the Living Room/Dining Room area. One handles a majority of the work, with the other, kept in “Energy Efficient Mode” only kicks on when the heat becomes too much for the single unit to handle.

    Also if your air conditioner is more than 5 or 6 years old, it may be time to start considering replacing it. While it may work “perfectly well” the money you save with the newer more energy efficient models (and particularly those that have an actual thermostat rather than just a 1-10 dial of “coldness”) will more than pay for the cost of the new unit.

  15. Mir, this is great!!! Thanks for all the tips (up to unplug my coffee pot, my toaster and my cell phone charger right now 🙂

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