Anyone who keeps even a modest budget knows the one big killer.

No, it’s not the biggest expenses. It’s the unpredictable ones. Those can come in two forms.

The first, and most detrimental, is the unforeseen expense.

The other is the fluctuating expense — you know, the ones that recur every month, but change in value.

The most prominent example of the fluctuating expense is your electric bill. It presents quite the conundrum.

Conservation vs. Convenience

Electricity very well might be man’s most powerful innovation. Think about how greatly our lives depend on electricity.

This fall, for example, we experienced two major storms in New Jersey. First came Hurricane Irene in late August, which left many residents without power for nearly a week.

Then came a wet snowstorm in late October that knocked out power for even longer. The inconvenience was astounding.

My apartment was essentially a dark shell — no lights, no hot water, no heat (or, in August, AC), no oven or stove.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to live without these modern conveniences. At the same time, they cost considerable money. Even when your gadgets and appliances aren’t on, they’re drawing power from the to save energy

The result is a potentially enormous electricity bill. Yes, we can take measures to conserve energy and lower our costs — and our carbon footprints — but the issue of conservation vs. convenience will always remain. The best we can do is find a balance between them that fits our budgets and our human needs.

Scrimping and saving

When addressing energy conservation, there are really two tactics. First is to cut out some of the largest energy sources. That will significantly cut your bill, but will also likely cause significant inconvenience.

The other way, then, is to find many little areas that you can trim. Plenty of these opportunities exist all around your home. They might prove inconvenient in some small ways, but the payoff, a lower energy bills, largely make them worthwhile pursuits.

Here are just a few easy examples of things anyone can do to trim energy costs. Many of these have appeared on the web on dozens, maybe even hundreds, of sites, so we’ll just give them a quick passing.

  • CFL lightbulbs. Not only do they draw less voltage than their incandescent counterparts, but they last much longer. I’ve been in my current apartment for nearly 18 months, and we’re still using the same lightbulbs as when we moved in.
  • Unplug gadget chargers. Remember, they’re drawing current even when not in use. It’s one thing to unplug your TV and other big appliances when not in use; the inconvenience often trumps the savings. But with gadget chargers it’s easy enough to remove them from the sockets when not in use.
  • Make sure doors and windows are sealed. The more air that escapes from your home, the more energy it takes to heat and cool them. If you own a home, make sure that windows, particularly those near heating and cooling units, are sealed. If you live in an apartment, speak to your superintendent or management company.
  • Cycle the AC. If you have an automated thermostat this is easy enough. But if you’re running typical wall units, make sure to cycle down the AC intermittently. The AC will cool down the room, and as long as it’s properly sealed much of that cool air will remain inside. Once it dissipates, cycle back on.

Here’s one that requires a little more elaboration:

Learn to love darkness. In the summer months, sun coming in through windows can heat up a room, therefore making the AC work harder to cool it. Blinds and shades will reduce that residual heat, which takes stress off the AC. That’s less energy used, meaning a lower bill for you.

Likewise, turning off lights unless completely necessary can help considerably. This is one area I wrestled with recently.

While working, I liked to keep three sets of lights on. It gave my work area more of a positive glow, and it was easier to keep in good spirits. And then the electric bill came. Turns out, that lighting solution cost me far more than it was worth. I’ve since begun learning to appreciate darkness.

Unconventional methods

Again, much of what you see above has been printed on the internet many times before. The reminder is always nice, though, since it can spur us to make beneficial choices. Still, there are other ways to trim your electric bill that you won’t see everywhere.

Ditch the TV. My girlfriend and I often watch Netflix on our TV. This means booting up our big HDTV, which draws plenty of power, and then firing up the PlayStation 3, through which we access Netflix. That’s a huge power draw. At the same time, it seems to fall on the convenience side of convenience vs. conservation. Yet there is another way.

We could choose to set up a laptop, or even one of our iPads, on a coffee table and watch the same Netflix programming. Laptops — and in particular the MacBook I own — draws very little power from the wall when charging. The iPad draws even less.

The difference between the TV-plus-PS3 and the laptop/tablet solution is astronomical. We do watch on a smaller screen, but that’s somewhat mitigated since it’s closer to us. We’ve taken to this lately, and our electricity bill has repaid us in kind.

Preparing meals in bulk. I’m not sure exactly how much this helps, but it does seem that preparing meals in bulk helps cut down on the energy I use when cooking. That is, I’m not using the stove every day.

I’m only using it a few times a week. I might be using it longer than normal, but I believe that on the balance it saves me energy. It also saves times, since I don’t have to prepare every meal.

Turn up the fridge. This one hurt a little bit at first, but eventually it yielded results I could tolerate. After all, who doesn’t enjoy an ice cold glass of water?

I essentially kept my refrigerator at one of the coldest possible settings, mainly to keep beverages cold and produce fresh. Unfortunately, it ate away at my electricity budget.

While I didn’t want to take away those conveniences, I did want to conserve a bit. So I turned up the thermostat by one number (not sure how many degrees that translates to). The result is slightly less chilled water, but a lower energy bill.

None of us wants to imagine a world without electricity. It’s one cost that we’ll never completely remove from our budgets. But we can take measures to save some money at the margins.

It might result in minor inconveniences, but that’s a small price to pay for the savings we’ll realize every month. We might never get a firm hold over our energy costs, but with a little scrimping on the edges we can at least get them down to a reasonably low level.

Joe Pawlikowski edits several blogs across the web, including his work-from-home project, A New Level.

Photo Credit: Clean Wal-Mart

Featured in the Carnival of Personal Finance – Invest Yourself.

2 Comments on Energy Saving Tips for Modern Living

  1. Me and my husband live in Houston, Texas. And it is absolutely astounding to see the difference in our AC bill sometimes. We ran a little experiment though. Our unit has a built in timer so if you wanted it to be 80 degrees between 12-3pm you could do that. Same thing as cycling the AC which you touched on in the article. We used the timer to program the house to stay at 78 degrees while we were at work. Then, a half hour before arriving home we would set it to 75. As compared to leaving it at 75 the whole time, we saved over a hundred dollars in one month using our system smartly. Read up on your manual most systems these days have these settings.

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