This post is from staff writer Sierra Black. Sierra writes about frugality, sustainable living, and getting her kids to eat kale at Childwild.com.

The chilly season is upon us. If you live in North America, you’ve probably had at least a few cold nights by now. Up in my neck of the woods — in the Boston area — we’ve had our central heat running for a few weeks. Which means we’re in full swing winterizing, with an eye to keeping the heating bills low.

Frost crystals on car windowOver the past few years, we’ve actually gotten pretty good at this. In New England, winter heat can eat up a big part of a family’s budget. Our heating bills used to run over $500 a month; last year, we had them down to $250 or less. This year, I’m hoping to go even lower.

No, we don’t live in a refrigerator. Our house is pretty comfortable all year round. Here’s how we keep the bills low.

Invest in Insulation and Efficiency
Small changes can have ripple effects, but big changes are worth even more. Last year, we had our walls insulated with blown cellulose insulation. We also replaced our 40-year-old oil burner with a high-efficiency natural gas system.

These home improvements aren’t cheap. Since they’re good for the environment as well as your budget, though, there are often government grants and loans available to help make them more affordable. We didn’t have the savings to do this, so we took out a 0% loan through our state’s energy-efficiency program. The loan payments are far less than the immediate savings on our heating bills. The upgrade is paying for itself already, and will continue to do so long after we’ve paid off this loan.

Of course, I used the savings from lower heating bills to accelerate paying off my higher-interest debt. I wouldn’t normally suggest taking out a loan as a step towards financial health, but in this case it clearly saved us money. It also helped shrink our whole household’s environmental footprint.

In addition to your heating system and your home insulation, you may want to think about upgrading your windows.

To find out what big-ticket investments will pay off, you can schedule a free energy audit through your utility company. They’ll send someone to your home who will walk through the house and give you a full report on ways to save energy and money. When we had ours done, the nice young man also replaced all our lightbulbs with compact fluorescents — free of charge.

Bundle Up
There’s no need to keep your house balmy enough for T-shirts all year. Make sure you and your family have good, comfortable warm clothing and don’t be afraid to use it.

When I was 21, I had a roommate who would turn the thermostat way down and walk around our chilly house wearing a winter hat and clutching a hot mug of tea. At the time, I mocked her with my friends as we lounged around their toasty living rooms. Now I’ve become that roommate. I’m always turning the thermostat down and telling the kids to put on a sweater.

J.D. bundles up to stay warm, too.
J.D. advocates bundling up to stay warm, too. So do his cats.

I don’t want anyone here to feel cold — I hate being cold myself — but I’ve learned that wearing warm clothes is a cheap and easy way to stay cozy. Best of all, you can create your own personal heating zone. Don’t like it so warm? Take off a layer. There’s no fighting with your spouse about how warm to keep the living room.

Not that we keep it frigid. I set our thermostat in the mid-60s during the day, and turn it down at night when we’re all tucked into warm beds anyway.

If you don’t already have one, get a programmable thermostat. They make it easy to adjust the heat for different times of day automatically. You don’t have to worry about remembering to do it — it just happens.

Bundle the House Up, Too
Don’t just bundle yourself up. Adding layers to your house will make it feel warmer even if the thermostat stays at a modest temperature. I have a nice collection of Oriental rugs that I lay down this time of year, which keeps the hardwood floors warmer on little bare feet. This is essential because small kids lose their socks at an amazing rate, but it’s great just for giving the whole room a warmer feel, too.

I also put up window plastics and insulated curtains to cut down on drafts from the windows. If you haven’t done it already, spending a few hours going around your windows and doors with some draft-sealing putty or caulk will make a huge difference to how comfortable your home is in the winter.

Use Heating Zones
Chances are, you’re not using every part of your house all day long. If you live in a modern house, you probably already have several “heating zones” so you can program your thermostats to different temps in different areas.

If you live in an older house like mine, you probably have just one thermostat that controls the whole system. That means that if it’s 64 degrees in my living room, the heat kicks on. If it’s 65, the heat shuts off because it’s warm enough. Doesn’t matter what the temperature is in the rest of the house. There’s no way for the heating system to know that.

To solve this problem, I’ve created a bunch of “heat zones” in my house. By keeping the bedroom doors closed upstairs and hanging drapes in the hallway doors downstairs, I cut our drafty hallway and staircase out of the heating system entirely. Now the radiators in each room only have to heat those rooms, not those rooms plus several hundred square feet of largely unused hallway space.

I was shocked at the difference this made to how warm the house felt. Hanging the drapes to keep the heat in the rooms and out of the hallway is new this year: I just did it a few weeks ago. I won’t know for months yet whether it pays off in reduced heating bills or not. But the comfort factor was immediate and obvious.

The other heating zone change I made was to my workspace. I’m the only person home most of the day, and I spend most of the day in my office. Rather than keep the whole house toasty, I’ve lowered the temp on the main thermostat and set up a space heater in my office. This way, I can be as warm as I like without wasting a lot of energy warming up empty rooms.

What do you do to keep your heating bills low in the winter?

Photo by Net_Efekt.

This article is about Frugality, House and Home