Saturday, February 24, 2007

Sweating the small(er) stuff

I've mentioned Amy Dacyczyn's wonderful Tightwad Gazette on this blog a few times already. Her collected books were the perfect fulcrum for shifting my viewpoint to a more frugal mindset. Most of all, she assured me that it was okay to "sweat the small stuff." More often than not, the thousands of tiny economies we could be practicing are pooh-poohed by both spendthrifts and frugalites who are more "big picture" types.

But the philosophy to be found in the Tightwad Gazette struck home for me so profoundly because Amy Dacyczyn's family and mine are similar in a financial sense. I'm not raising six kids on a single modest income, as the redoubtable Mrs. Dacyczyn did. But I am free of credit card debt and other crippling sea-anchors that so many other households struggle with. I don't worry about meeting my basic needs from paycheck to paycheck. I've never had a financial, life-altering crisis. I really admire those who labor long and hard to get out from under mountains of debt. But I'm not in that position, so I come to the frugal lifestyle from a different place and with a different perspective.

Still, I hope that my experiences and my advice can be of use to a wide variety of people in a lot of different circumstances. Today, I'm going to focus on some tips for energy efficiency that can be of use to new homeowners and other money-saving tips for those who are just breaking free of debt other than the home mortgage. Credit card debt is obviously the single highest priority for those trying to make it into the black. If you're still carrying a balance on credit cards or other loans, I would urge you to skip these most of these tips (because most of them are going to require some outlay of money) and instead make a higher monthly payment. But if you've finally arrived at the point where your car loans, your credit card debt and your student loans are things of the past, congratulations! There must be a symphony of emotions for people in such a position: euphoria, pride, relief, gratitude, giddiness. And this is where I step in with some grounding, no-nonsense suggestions on how to use some of the money you've been putting towards paying down the debt each month, now that it's gone. Implementing these suggestions will cost money, but it's money that will be working for you for years to come. If the monthly surplus you have freed up by eliminating debt is tiny, then choose the cheapest of these tips to make a start. In time, the savings from each tip will snowball into a larger and larger saved amount, which can then be plowed back into more expensive cost-cutting measures or an extra principle payment on your mortgage. So dig deep and find the money to do these things early on.

  • Change out your regular light bulbs for compact fluorescent bulbs. These bulbs are more expensive than incandescents, but each one will save you 50 cents per month on average. If money is tight, buy just a few bulbs and put them in the lights you use for the most hours per day. Add more compact fluorescents as your budget allows. Do not install a compact fluorescent bulb in any light that is on a dimmer switch. The bulb will get burned out in seconds and you'll have wasted the money spent.
  • Insulate your hot water pipes and your hot water storage tank. Long tubes of foam pipe insulation are cheap and easy to install. If money is really tight, start with the tank itself and the pipes in unheated spaces, closest to your water heater. Be sure to measure the diameter of your pipes and buy the smallest tubes that will fit them. Also be sure not to cover the thermostat on the tank.
  • If you rely on forced air heat, make sure your ducts are well insulated. You can lose as much as a whopping 60% of your heated air if your ducts are passing through unheated areas of the house. You may need professional help to insulate and/or repair damaged ducts. But if you're relying on this form of heat, it's well worth the investment.
  • Check your outlets and light switches that are mounted on the exterior walls of your home. Remove the plate covers and see if there's a piece of foam insulation there. If not, buy some and install them.
  • Wash all your clothes in cold water. If you're not satisfied with the results, use an overnight soak before returning to a hot water wash. The average load of laundry run on a hot cycle uses 32 gallons of heated water, compared to 20 gallons for a hot bath. If you've been washing in hot or warm water out of habit, give the cold cycle a try and see if you can really tell the difference.
  • Buy some clothespins and rig up a clothesline inside. You can use it anytime, despite rainy or cold weather. On average, it costs 50 cents to dry a load of laundry, and more if your dryer is electric. If your family goes through just two loads of laundry per week, that's $52 per year. No excuses here. There are plenty of suitable spaces for a line or two in most homes. Consider the attic or the basement if space is really tight. I have two 7-foot lines, one above the other, just inches from the wall in my small laundry room. I also hang socks and underwear right off the edge of my rubber-coated wire shelving in the laundry room. A collapsible drying rack handles the rest. If you can't abide scratchy towels or clothing, it is permissible to put the dried towels in the dryer on "air fluff" (or whatever the unheated cycle is called on your machine) for 5-10 minutes. That's really all it takes to soften fabrics up. So long as the clothes are already dry and you use the unheated cycle, the dryer will use an acceptably minute amount of energy.
  • Add insulation to your attic if it needs it, and it probably does. Heat rises. So a poorly insulated attic is the equivalent of an open door during the wintertime. Same goes for crawlspaces. Though the expense is higher than for many simple fixes, this is one of the most cost-effective investments you can make to improve energy efficiency.
  • If you live where the summers are hot, install an attic fan to vent hot air. These can be hooked up to sensors that only turn on when the space reaches a certain temperature. They can make an enormous difference to the overall temperature of the house, and thus to your cooling bill.
  • Check with your local electric company about a home energy audit. Many utilities offer these for free. Heed their suggestions as your budget allows.
  • If you rely on window unit air conditioners to cool your home in summer, place them on the shady side of your home. Or plant a fast growing shrub where it will shade the air conditioner. This also applies to condensers for central air conditioner systems. Operating in the shade can increase the efficiency of the unit by as much as 10%.
  • Air dry your dishes, either in a drying rack, or by not using a heated drying cycle on your dishwasher. If you can time it right, the dishes in a dishwasher will still be hot enough to dry very quickly if the machine is opened and the racks pulled out for better air circulation.
  • If you're going to be living in your home for years to come, consider replacing your windows with newer high efficiency models. Windows are often the biggest culprits in heating loss during the winter, losing as much as 25% of the heat in the home. Be sure to run a return-on-investment analysis if you don't plan to live in the house for years to come.
  • When it's time to replace a major appliance or furnace, buy an EnergyStar rated model.
  • Install a programmable thermostat, especially if you are out of the house for hours each day.
  • Plug your electronics into power strips with on/off switches. Turn off the power on each strip when you're not using the appliances plugged into it. TVs, VCRs, DVD players, digital projectors, kitchen appliances and stereo equipment all continue to draw power when they are turned off. In fact, on average an astonishing 75% of the energy these appliances draw is consumed when the appliances are not in use. Power strips eliminate this problem by cutting all power to our gadgets.
Most of these tips involve a once-and-done monetary investment. Pick and choose among them according to the budget you must operate within. As the small savings accrue, you will be able to afford the more expensive investments.

1 comment:

Carl said...

You might actually be able to save a little money by cutting out the dishwasher altogether and using one of the Dishmatique sponges (or similar), which have a sponge head and a hollow plastic handle that you fill with detergent.

Using one of these sponges, you really only need to use water to get an item wet (a few drops), then to rinse off the suds after you scrub it (a couple of seconds, and not at full bore), which is going to be less than the dishwasher will use. Particularly if you put a plug in the sink and use the collected water to get things wet, only using the tap to rinse.

This has the added advantage that you're always rinsing with hot and suds-free water (unlike filling the sink), and you can rinse dishes as they get dirty, instead of waiting for a full dishwasher or sink load.

The only question is whether it uses more detergent than the dishwasher, which it probably does...