Thrifty Spending Issue 85

FEATURE ARTICLE:  Energy Wasters in Your Home

According to Maria Vargas, spokesperson for EnergyStar, a division of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), energy bills can differ depending on the size and location on your home, but the average household spends $2,200 a year. The good news is these costs can be cut dramatically.

Energy Star, a program started in 1992 to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower energy costs for consumers, offers suggestions for how to reduce your annual electric costs by a third. In other words, you can save about $700 a year on electricity. Last year, Vargas points out, Americans saved about $17 billion on energy bills and reduced green house gas emissions by nearly the equivalent of 30 million cars. Using data compiled by EnergyStar, MainStreet breaks down your energy bill and identifies the biggest wasters to help you save money (and reduce greenhouse gas emissions!) this winter.

HVAC Systems 

If you really want to cut back on your energy use, you need to focus on heating and cooling your home,” Vargas says. That’s because these two categories combined account for 46% of your overall electric bill. While most homeowners can’t afford a complete overhaul of their homes’ heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, some changes can increase energy efficiency and include:

• Installing a programmable thermostat, which lets you set temperatures for specific times of day. These devices can save about $180 each year on energy costs.

• Change air filters regularly. The harder your HVAC unit has to work, the more energy it eats away. Filters should really be changed out monthly, especially during the summer and winter months when the HVAC unit has a heavy workload. If you find this tedious, EnergyStar suggests changing filters a minimum of every three months.

• Seal your heating and cooling ducts, especially those running through the attic, crawlspace, unheated basement or garage, as that improves the efficiency of your HVAC unit by as much as 20%.

Water Heater

According to EnergyStar, your water heating system accounts for 14% of your energy bill. Monetarily speaking, the average household spends $400-$600 per year on water heating. To reduce this expense, lower standby losses, such as heat that escapes the water heater and seeps into the surrounding basement area, as well as the amount of hot water you use in your home.

When set too high, or at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, your water heater can waste anywhere from $36 to $61 annually in standby heat losses, and more than $400 thanks to overall consumption. Lower that expense by bringing the heater’s thermostat to 120 degrees Fahrenheit or below.

Lights Out

In EnergyStar’s breakdown, lighting accounts for 12% of bill, but it also represents one of the easiest fixes. In fact, by simply replacing five of your standard incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs, you can save $70 a year.

Hot Stuff

Appliances only account for 13% of electric bills, so naturally, most people don’t upgrade to an energy efficient toaster. Still, if you are committed to reducing the amount of energy you use, you need to focus on larger appliances that use a heat coil, such as a refrigerator or washer and dryer. To do that, make sure that your fridge’s filters are cleaned regularly, and consider using only cold water to wash laundry loads. That can save $30 to $40 each year. But don’t be too stingy, Vargas says. Replacing a major appliance, like a refrigerator that is 10 to 15 years old, may help you save in the long term as new technology is constantly subject to federal standards that adjust every year.

Energy Vampires

Any appliance or device that sucks up energy when it’s plugged in, despite being turned off, is one of these money-draining culprits. According to EnergyStar, this includes most electronic devices, especially those that use some sort of display, like a television, laptop or DVD player. Slaying energy vampires won’t lower your energy bill significantly — electronics only account for about 4% of the total cost — but it’s important to keep them in mind, as they consume 75% of the electricity used to power home electronics and appliances.

Powering Down

The best way to eliminate this phantom menace is not only to turn energy vampires off, but unplug them. This may be easier said than done, but unplugging a laptop in between uses isn’t particularly problematic. However, doing so with your television would require you to wait for the cable to reboot every time you wanted to watch a program.

As an alternative, EnergyStar suggests plugging your television and/or DVD player into a power strip and then turning that off when your television is in stand-by mode. Put your computers on sleep mode, or manually turn off the monitor inbetween visits, as opposed to utilizing a screen saver, which, contrary to popular belief, does not reduce energy output. Also, make sure you unplug a battery charger of adapter as it continues to draw energy even when the product no longer needs it.

Put Stand By on Stand by

The final 11% of your electric bill comprises devices that don’t exactly fit into any particular category. This includes dehumidifiers, external power adapters and video game consoles, which are all considered energy vampires.

An Xbox 360, for example, if left on the draws approximately 1,000 kWh/yr. The PS3 draws 1,300 kWh/yr. According to EnergyStar, these values drop dramatically when users routinely turn the device off after use, lowering annual energy levels down to 110 and 120 kWh/yr, respectively. Since it costs about 12 cents per kWh/yr in the average residential home in the U.S., it costs $120 if to leave your Xbox plugged in for the entire year.

To lower these costs, unplug the devices when you are not playing and only resort to stand-by mode as, well, a stand-by. Energy Star estimates that stand-by power accounts for more than 100 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of annual U.S. electricity consumption, and $11 billion in annual energy costs.

MONEY SAVING TIP:   Plan a pantry week

Challenge yourself to get through one week every quarter (or more often, if you can) without setting foot in the grocery store, says Mary Hunt, author of “Debt-Proof Living.” Use leftovers, unbury freezer items and clean out your pantry. Chances are, you have more food on hand than you think. Use the money you’ve saved on groceries to pay down debt, bolster your savings or even make a contribution to charity.

DID YOU KNOW…a budget can help you build growth?

Once you have a clear view of your overall financial picture, you can shift your focus to aggressively eliminating debts and building wealth. Once I solved my personal debt issues, I was already in the habit of putting a certain amount monthly toward debt. So rather than change that habit, I simply redirected those funds toward my savings.

As my savings and investments build, I’m able to generate a passive income from interest payments and capital gains while still using my actively generated income to budget for monthly expenses. In other words, I’ve been able to increase my total income simply by being smarter about how I use my regular paycheck.

Thrifty Spending Issue 84

FEATURE ARTICLE:  You can expect more bank fees in 2012

Banks will continue to experiment with fee increases in the New Year, according to our own analysis and industry experts, as they attempt to make up billions in lost revenue due to the bad economy and new regulations.

Here is some of what you can expect for 2012:

  • Higher penalty fees: Overdraw your account, and you’ll probably pay more. It costs banks just a few cents to handle a debit-card transaction, but when an account is overdrawn and the bank has to figure out what happened, the cost can escalate to $13. 
  • Less-favorable rates: Banks could try to reduce their losses by increasing the interest-rate margin—the spread between what they pay to borrow money and what they charge to lend it. That could mean higher lending rates, especially on credit cards and other unsecured loans, as well as on auto loans.
  • Charges for premium services: Customers could see new or higher charges for premium services, such as safe-deposit boxes, online budgeting tools, or person-to-person payments, such as Chase’s QuickPay service, which allows you to send money to someone else using just an e-mail address or cell phone number.
  • Move toward electronic banking: Banks save when you serve yourself, just like gas stations do when you pump your own. So expect them to push computer and mobile-phone banking. That means you might pay more if you use a teller or speak with someone on the telephone. Some banks might present the changes as a perk, not a fee.
  • Big credit-card push: Banks are likely to encourage the use of credit cards, says Bill Hardekopf, CEO of, a consumer resource for credit-card information in Birmingham, Ala. They get a swipe fee when someone uses a credit card, and so far those fees have escaped regulation that has made debit cards less profitable for banks. 
  • More relationship accounts: Banks will probably dangle more carrots and brandish more sticks to get you to consolidate your accounts at a single institution, which will mean more fees. But you can avoid them by, for example, having direct deposit of your paycheck or linking your savings and investments.

MONEY SAVING TIP:  Form a wholesale buying club

Families — not just businesses — can band together and form buying clubs to purchase groceries at wholesale prices.

There are some logistics required, but a buying club could make sense if you don’t have a warehouse-club type store nearby. Club representatives fax or e-mail a group order to the wholesaler, arrange for delivery and divvy up the goods. Generally, items are purchased by the case, then shared. Many wholesalers offer produce, organic items, baby supplies and paper goods in addition to nonperishable food items.

To find a club in your area, search online for “grocery buying club” and your city’s name, or check sites like or

DID YOU KNOW…that buying generic is super smart?

When it comes to stocking up on basic ingredients like flour, salt, sugar, rice, and milk, you’ll barely notice a difference in taste between the generic and the brand-name equivalent. In many cases, the only real difference is the colorful packaging and presentation of the product. You’re buying the exact same item with virtually the exact same composition of ingredients whether it has a fancy label on it or it’s the supermarket’s own brand. Make the switch to more generic products and you’ll be able to shave a few dollars off your grocery bill.