How to lower your heating bills this winter

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.

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Claus Jensen
Claus Jensen

While I should probably rather restrict my computer usage, during winter time, I keep the door to my office/bedroom closed while the computer is on. Modern computers just develop obscene amounts of heat, and that thing alone can heat up the bedroom quite nicely. No need to turn on the heat in that room.
Once the room is warmed up, I can open the door to the rest of the house, and be my own manual thermostat 🙂

Mike
Mike

Try the TV as well. They develop huge amount’s of heat coming from the back and have saved my butt more than once. And I’m in Northern Maine to boot !

s
s

One of the perks of living in the South – our electric bill drops this time of year because we turn off the AC! Maybe someday the kiddos will see snow.

One question – we had an energy audit completed and it was suggested NOT to close off vents/doors in the house – that this somehow ‘suffocates’ the system and causes more wear and tear? Any HVAC/heating engineers care to comment? Thanks.

LifeAndMyFinances
LifeAndMyFinances

Since I live in Florida, this is an awesome time of the year for us. There’s often no need for the A/C or the heat, which drops our utility bills down to around $40.

And now I can pay off those debts even faster!

mugabo
mugabo

55° when occupied, 48° when not at home. Space heater and portable electric blanket keep me warm enough. (Yes, the drywall and pipes are just fine after living like this in this house for 15+ years.) Do I win? I have central electric heat in this 1800sf two-storey house, and keep two heat registers wide-open (bedroom and bathroom), two half-open (living room and kitchen), three cracked open, and three completely off. My furnace has suffered no ill effects in the last 15 years by closing off about 50% of the total forced-air output. Works for my house, but you should… Read more »

DreamChaser57
DreamChaser57

We are currently renting, and do not yet know the joy of paying our own utilities, save electricity, and does cable count? Anyway, I’ve heard horror stories, people paying upwards of $500/month. Sometimes renters idealize homeowners but neglect to consider all the expenses that come with a home.

Nancy L.
Nancy L.

We use a wood stove. The wood is cheaper than an equivalent amount of heating oil, we get lots of exercise stacking & bringing in wood, and we’ve met a few neighbors who noticed we were burning wood and offered to let us take trees that they cut down on their property. The best thing is that the stove keeps the house toasty warm and we have windows so we can watch the pretty fire burning. There are a few negatives–there are times it’s hard to deal with lugging in the wood, and dirt tends track in from the woodpile.… Read more »

Leah
Leah

I totally use a portable radiator to heat just the room I’m in. I don’t pay for my heat now (yay, renting apartments), but I did have one cold winter where I got burned by heat costs. I lived in a huge house with very little insulation and five other roommates. Since our heat bill was split between 6 people, they didn’t feel much incentive to reduce our bill (same for electric). We did keep the temperature at 62 and use space heaters so that the bill wasn’t astronomical . . . and we each paid $70 a month in… Read more »

Candice
Candice

We drastically cut our bills just by putting a new furnace in a few years ago. But on top of that we close off rooms we don’t use, winterize and seal drafts, and we are fans of space heaters. We use one in our bedroom at night, and keep one handy in the living room or office depending where we’re at at the time.

Steven Grey
Steven Grey

For me, I live in the south. Heating is not as big of an issue, but can still effect our energy bill in the dead of winter as much as a very hot summer day. I have a wood stove and a chain saw. I usually head out to find a fallen hardwood tree and recover the wood. I have about 4 cords stocked up and seasoned. It prevents me from even running my heat pump in the winter. So in the winter all I have to pay for is the lights. Up north I dont know if this would… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole

As previous folks say, I keep my heating bills low by living in the South!

I will await your summertime post on keeping a/c and water bills low.

Dave
Dave

Also don’t forget you can still get a tax credit for insulation or energy efficient furnaces/water heaters until the end of the year… if you’ve been thinking of adding insulation, do it NOW as it’s essentially a 30% off coupon from the government.

Mike H
Mike H

I put room darkening shades in my daughter’s bedroom to help her fall asleep during the summer.

WINTER BONUS – here in Minnesota those shades do double duty. They make a surprisingly noticable difference in keeping the heat in.

Tip – my shades are mounted so they make a decent seal around the window trim (the gap is no more than 1/4 inch).

Laura in Atlanta
Laura in Atlanta

Cats in the lap are the BEST way to stay warm!

🙂

Bill
Bill

Another Floridian here, echoing the statements that this is the time of year we save on our heating/cooling. Here in North Florida, we actually have a winter (temps in the 20s, rarely any snow), so heat is a factor, but not for another month or so.

Mike H
Mike H

To those in the southern US…

My Mom lives in Florida and had hurricane shutters installed last summer. (The type that roll up & down)

Her A/C bill was cut by 35% after she put them in. She leaves them down where & when she can during the hottest parts of the day.

Of course, if its just the AC bill you want to deal with, I would think that room darkening shades would be better bang-for-buck, even if they don’t save 35%, the payback would be quicker.

Mom of five
Mom of five

The original part of our brick home was built in the 40’s, and other than the attic has no insualtion. Unfortunately, it has the first generation of drywall where it’s not possible to blow in insulation. If we wanted to insulate the old side we’d have to give up square footage. Since we do most of our living in the new side of the house anyway, we’ve decided to let the insulation on that side go and keep that zone (which mostly is used for sleeping) in the high 50’s and low 60’s. A huge saving for us was installing… Read more »

Mom of five
Mom of five

Just remembered back when I had to pay my own heat when I was renting. I basically kept the heat off during the day while I was at work and could keep the heat really low at night by using an electric blanket.

Jason
Jason

I remember when I was a kid my dad would always have the thermostat at 68 in the winter and 75 in the summer. I told him that was backwards. Because of trying to save money these days I’m the one who has it 65 in the winter and 78 in the summer. My winter bill had usually been about 100 to 120. In October I had gotten it down to 45 (windows open). I’m hoping to see it around 60 to 70 for December and January, but I guess we shall see what November brings me to. -j

Edward - If You Can Read, You Can Cook
Edward - If You Can Read, You Can Cook

I’m fortunate to be one of those rare souls that is comfortable a lower temperatures. Last night, I was shoveling snow in just a flannel shirt. In our old apartment, we set the thermostat to 50 and kept it there all winter.

I wish this house had zoned heating because our living area in the basement has more vents per cubic foot of space than any other part of the house and it get’s so toasty down here that I have to close the vents during the day!

Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate
Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate

How about complete and utter furnace abstinence? http://thenonconsumeradvocate.com/2010/10/no-heat-challenge-2010/ Okay, just kidding. We keep our house cool all winter long, and utilize the programmable thermostat. 57 degrees at night and 63 degrees when people are at home. If we’re sitting still, (reading, watching TV, etc.) there are plenty of lap blankets to go around. No one complains. I turn the furnace up when we have guests though. It’s amazing how much you acclimate though. My husband turned the heat up to 68 degrees a couple of weeks ago and I thought I was going to pass out. Katy Wolk-Stanley “Use it… Read more »

calliope (Greece)
calliope (Greece)

I’ve installed an energy efficient fireplace and it heats the whole downstairs.
We always turn the heat off at night.
I try to do the cooking in the hours that I’m cold the most, for me it’s the afternoon, and when I’m done I leave the door oven open.
Hot soups also help!
Last but certainly not least, I use the roof solar system AND the central heating system to heat the water in the house. This alone has saved tons of money in electricity.

Wayne Mates
Wayne Mates

Another way to help lower your heating bill is the use of ceiling fans. The ones that reverse help to keep the cool air from air conditioning off the floor.When they are reversed, they gently push warmer air off the ceiling and down toward the “people” area. We run our ceiling fans year round to help control both electric and propane costs.

Nick
Nick

Anybody in a deregulated state using another electric provider? seems like a good way to save money

Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
Kent @ The Financial Philosopher

I live in SC but temperatures still often drop into the 30’s. Just yesterday, I reversed the direction of my ceiling fans. In the winter, they should be pulling air upwards to disperse the heat across the ceiling and back down the walls. It seems counter-intuitive but it helps.

During the summer, ceiling fans should be pushing air down.

Erika
Erika

We have an old house with about 30 original windows. We were going to replace them, but at a cost of 50K the energy savings would never pay off. So every winter, my awesome husband goes around and puts weatherstripping in each one.

When I work at home, I mostly stay in the office, use one space heater, and let the rest of the house get cold.

Barb
Barb

I admit it-im a weather wimp. I keep it 70 or so at nite and seventy four or so during the day. To me mid sixty would be frigid. Im willling to save in other ways and live with those utlity bills. Of course Im also willing to keep it eighty during the summer (and yes, at the moment I live in texas, where natural gas is dirt cheap, but when I move to colorado I will still keep it at 70))

tb
tb

i live in a 60 year old house so my wood stove is what keeps me warm. i hate the up and down of furnaces. wood heat is constant heat.i do have a propane furnace but don’t use it much-only if i have to keep things from freezing if i will be gone for an extended period.
burning wood not only reduces the amount of propane i use, it reduces my electric bill as well.i only use the blower in the evening and the furnace is not powering on and off endlessly.

Another Kate
Another Kate

I’m glad to hear from Barb, but she lives in Texas, and I live in Minnesota. I confess I cannot STAND being cold. We have the programmable thermostat set for roughly 70 while I am home from work (my husband can tolerate much colder temps), but I confess to cranking it up to around 75 from time to time. I know you can put on more layers, especially on top, but keeping one’s hands and nose warm are a challenge. I’d love to hear from some Northern wimps like me on how they deal with this. I have hypothyroidism and… Read more »

Alexandra
Alexandra

I live in Canada, and we have our thermostat set to 68. Sometimes if it is really cold I move it up to 70.

We wear appropriate clothing and use lots of blankets!

sarah
sarah

I really don’t like to be cold at home, and I live in Chicago. We have a powerful oil space heater that keeps our “office” (where we spend most of our time) toasty and the rest of the house just stays cold. For the bedroom it doesn’t matter once you’ve been under the down comforter for a few minutes, it’s plenty warm (I often put a heating pad at the foot of the bed for about 10 minutes before I get in, to take the edge off). If we watch tv or a movie, we get under a big blanket.… Read more »

Contrarian
Contrarian

A strategy I have never heard mentioned anywhere, is buying the stocks of the energy companies that punish us with increased fuel prices. The common stocks of energy and utility companies (usually) track the rising prices of energy. The Theory: The more they charge us, the more they earn, and the higher their stocks go. Example: Two years ago when oil was $140 a barrel and gas prices where at almost $4 gallon, the stocks of oil and gas companies where also skyrocketing and trading at all time highs, so I bought the stocks of these companies which became a… Read more »

Lynda
Lynda

Feline heating is one way to go, the other, of course, is a lapdog!

Susanne
Susanne

Our last electric bill was $107, and that’s with our outdoor light. I turn my heat down or off when we leave for school and unplug our computer at night. We are comfortable all winter at 65 in the evening and 64 seemed quite warm while we were getting ready this morning.

elisabeth
elisabeth

we replaced an old wooden garage door with an insulated metal one and immediately the garage (which is under the house) was warmer and so were the rooms above it. I’m always amazed when i see my neighbors leave their garage door open — there’s got to be heat waste from that, unless the garage is a separate building.

Jo@simplybeingmum

I work from home and part of the day is spent sitting at my desk. Instead of having the heating on I wear my warm dressing gown over my clothes. In the UK it is cold! We have hit winter early and hard. This may seem like such a basic suggestion, but it works.

retirebyforty
retirebyforty

Our electric bill was about $65 last year. This includes stove, fridge and everything because we live in an old style condo – no gas. The building is concrete and retain the heat very well and we don’t even have to turn the heat on and we stay at around 64 degree (Portland, OR.) During the cold spell, it got down to 62 degree. To stay comfortable, we use a kotatsu table. I’m going to have to write a post about this indispensable appliance.

KC
KC

I live in the south and a cold day is one that only gets to 50. If it gets below 32 at night we’re worried we might turn into icicles. But the few things I do are 1) close doors of closets, bathrooms and lesser used rooms. Why pay to heat your closets or the seldom used powder room? 2) If different floors of your house are different temps (but controlled by the same thermostat) then adjust the vents. We have 2 units in our house. One controls the upstairs and one controls the main floor and the finished basement.… Read more »

Jen
Jen

Last year I got an electric throw for Christmas. It is wonderful!! When I’m in the basement watchi TV or working from home I can put the throw on and keep warm without turning up the heat. Sometimes I even get too warm and have to turn off the throw.

LoveBeingRetired
LoveBeingRetired

Our house stays typically cooler inside than it is outside! So if we are home, we are bundled up. We recently had a gas fireplace insert added to the family room which is the main room that we live in. Now we can quickly heat just that room and not waste money heating the rest of the house. Of course, the bedroom is a bit cool at the end of the night but just more of a reason to snuggle together for warmth!

KC
KC

oh and don’t forget your hot water heater (it contributes to your electricity/gas bill by heating the water). Wrap a blanket around it. Turn it down, too, so it isn’t that busy trying to keep that water warm. I keep mine on the lowest setting. The only reason I can think of for scalding hot water is if there is a man in the house that shaves using a razor – they like hot water for a smoother shave. But if the man (Men) use an electric razor turn that thing down on the unit – you’ll still get hot… Read more »

s
s

#28 Kate – if you are still cold, you maybe undermedicated – ask your Dr about switching to Armour Thyroid. One surefire way is to track you temps – take your temperature 3 times a day and average it. If it averages less than 98.6, you are still hypo and probably need more, or better ;), meds.

(You were probably cold all these years because you were undiagnosed hypo.)

Avistew
Avistew

I’ve never lived in a place where I could control the temperature… It’s always been a building-wide things.
I wish it wasn’t the case though! I’ve had it all, from the heat not kicking in when it was already freezing (and I mean that literally, here the windows freeze shut in winter) to the heat running when it’s hot outside and inside already…

All very good advice to keep in mind when I’m finally in control of the temperature in my own home, though.

Another Kate
Another Kate

#41 — Thanks. My doctor says I’m properly medicated — my numbers come out fine now — but I think my average temp runs 97.8 vs. the average of 98.6. At least, that is what it is most of the time when I take my temp and don’t have a fever. Maybe worth taking up with the doctor anyway the next time I have an appointment.

Frugal Texas Gal
Frugal Texas Gal

#43 Kate-prior to living in Texas, I lived in Germany, WAshington DC and devner. I went to collect in Connectcut. I still kept my heat at 70 and 74-in the winter. I am unwilling to be cold, period. I am willing to be hot in the summer. I also am uncomfortable wearing layers-and now that I have damaged knees, layers hurt the damned knees, which need to stay warm. We have used ceiling fans, insulated windows and door with plastic (my house in dc was a 1940s brownstone). Basically though we decided that we would cut in other areas because… Read more »

SnookHaus
SnookHaus

I work in the construction business, and recently worked for a contractor who shut his remodeling business down to start an energy retrofit business, out of concern for the environment. http://www.vestaperformance.com/faq.html You would be amazed at your return on investment for the little things. Mostly sealing up air infiltration. I hate to say this, if you are replacing your windows from purely a financial standpoint, you will be hard pressed to recoup your money. Typically bad ROI. Expandable foam and caulking are your friend. One way to see where air is coming in is to use a match/lighter/feather. Follow around… Read more »

KM
KM

I live in Minnesota in a house and we pay about $250/mo for all utilities (natural gas, electric, & water) in the winter. The house is very well insulated with double pane windows, but otherwise we don’t do anything special to save on utilities. We have a programmable thermostat, set to 70-72 oF in the winter (day) or 68 oF (night), and and 62 oF when no one is home. It’s not true that everyone can get used to lower temps–my father kept our house at 58oF when I was growing up and I never got used to it. If… Read more »

Hannah
Hannah

@Another Kate I’m in New England so I should be used to it, but I too am always cold! When I visit my inlaws, they keep the heat in the low 60’s, but no matter how warmly I dress, I find that very uncomfortable. That’s why I love the wood stove suggestions. I think that would really work for someone like me, because I could warm up sitting by the stove, and the entire house could be kept cooler. If I was still in debt I wouldn’t take out a loan to make non essential home upgrades. Just because the… Read more »

Peter Beaucher
Peter Beaucher

I live in Maine. I ran out of oil in March three years ago and couldn’t afford the minimum 100 gallon delivery, so squeaked through that season with portable electric heaters. That summer I had tax money that I used to buy a hand fired (no electricity required) coal stove. I borrowed against my 401K to have a chimney built. Now I use two tonnes of coal (about $700.00) a year to heat my house. It is quiet steady heat. I shake down and reload the the stove twice a day, at 6:00 AM and PM. My house is warmer… Read more »

Alicia
Alicia

Great post! Now I’m inspired to make my 1924 Chicago bungalow a little more efficient.

We keep the heat at 64 during the day and 62 at night. I get SO cold! But I deal with it by either bundling up under a blanket and cats, or getting up and doing some cleaning or exercise. Both work well.

Oh, and I spent $6 on a hot water bottle for my feet. One of the smartest things I bought all year.

Thomas
Thomas

Can anyone recommend a thermostat that requires a code to adjust it? Is there such a a thing? Our thermostat is programmed by us parents. It’s very easy, though, for our teen to simply hit the “up arrow” button on the temp when we’re not looking so he can lounge in shorts and T-shirt. I’m wondering how to lock him out from changing the temp, like the parental control code on the TV. Parent directives do little for teens, nor do lectures on the environment, money, getting his own house so he can control the temp, etc.

Thanks!

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