spending

Save Money on Utility & Phone Bills

Here are 14 ways to pay less for electricity, gas, water and phone service.

There's nothing you can do to stop those household bills from arriving each month. But you can lower their shock value.

Here are 14 ways to pay less for electricity, gas, water and phone service.

1. TURN DOWN THE HEAT

This tip is a no-brainer, but it's one of the easiest ways to trim your bill. All it takes is dropping the heat a degree or two to start reaping savings.

An Energy Star programmable thermostat can save more than twice its price within a year and will adjust the temperature automatically for you when you're away or asleep.

2. AUDIT YOUR CELL PHONE BILL

Most people don't use all of their cell-phone plan minutes each month, according to an informal Consumer Reports poll. Go to BillShrink.com, enter some data from your bills, and the site will direct you to plans that may be a better fit -- and cost less. Or try FixMyCellBill.com -- you'll pay $5 for a similar service, but it looks at your actual cell-phone bill to give you more detailed analysis.

If you're an infrequent cell-phone user, you might save money with a prepaid plan. Compare rates at MyRatePlan.com.

3. LOWER YOUR WATER TEMPERATURE

Set your water heater at 120 degrees Fahrenheit. If your heater does not have a temperature gauge, dial down until the water feels hot, not scalding.

(Before going too low, make sure your dishwasher has a booster heater, which gets the temperature back to 140 degrees, necessary for proper cleaning.)

4. STOP WATERING THE SIDEWALK

Watering that strip of land between your sidewalk and the street is often a big waste of money. Because the so-called parking strip is so narrow, your sprinkler probably showers most of the water on concrete.

Landscaping this area with a rock garden or drought-resistant plants could save you 90,000 gallons of water and $135 on water bills annually, according to estimates from the Utah Rivers Council.

5. UNPLUG ENERGY SUCKERS

Appliances with a clock or that operate by remote are still sucking energy when they're turned off. Use a power strip, and flip the switch when you're done.

Or buy a device to do it for you, such as the Smart Power Strip ($31 to $44 at www.smarthomeusa.com), which will stop drawing electricity when the gadgets are turned off. The device will pay for itself within a few months.

6. INSULATE YOUR ATTIC

Your mom always said you lose a large part of your body heat through your head. Your home is no different. You could save hundreds of dollars on your heating bill each year with a well-insulated attic. Plus, you can claim a tax credit for 30% of the cost of the insulation, up to $1,500 through December 31, 2010.

The U.S. Department of Energy recommends an insulation level of at least R-38 (or about 12 to 15 inches, depending on the type of insulation). The coldest parts of the U.S. should insulate up to R-49.

7. STOP DRAFTS

While you're at it, seal any air leaks through your attic access.

And caulking drafty windows and weather-stripping doors throughout your home will save you even more money on those energy bills.

8. CAPTURE THE SUN'S ENERGY

You don't have to shell out thousands of dollars on solar panels to use the sun to your advantage. In the winter, opening your blinds and letting the sun shine in can help warm your space.

In the summer, close the shades -- especially on the south and west sides of your home to block the sun's rays during the hottest times of the day.

9. RETHINK YOUR PHONE COMPANY

Save on your long-distance bill and chat via computer with free software from Skype.com. You won't pay a dime for any call to another Skype user. You can call non-users' landlines, too, for about $3 a month. Sure beats the $15 to $25 fee for a typical no-frills land line.

Or consider other low-cost Internet phone services such as Vonage. It comes with more perks, such as voice mail, caller ID and call waiting, and costs $25 per month for free unlimited local and long-distance calls.

10. TEND TO YOUR FRIDGE

Refrigerators use the most energy of all your appliances. Check your fridge's temperature with a household thermometer -- it should run at about 35 to 38 degrees (0 degrees in the freezer). Stick a piece of paper in the door to see how tightly it seals when closed. If the paper comes out easily, cold air is doing the same thing and you need to fix the seal.

Plus, make sure you vacuum off the coils on the back of your fridge at least twice a year. When dust builds up, your fridge has to work harder.

11. GIVE APPLIANCES THE COLD SHOULDER

Use cold water to wash your clothes and save 50% of the energy you would otherwise use for hot water. Set your dryer on the moisture sensor, not the timer to trim energy use by 15%.

Or turn off the dryer altogether and hang your clothes outside. You can also air dry your dishes by turning off the heat-dry function on your dishwasher.

12. BE A DRIP

For gardens, consider installing a drip-irrigation system, which maintains moisture in the soil. Drip irrigation can reduce water loss by 50% to 60% when compared with hand-watering or sprinkler systems.

A drip system consists of a tube or hose with holes or emitters along it. It uses a timer to deliver water to plants. By maintaining the moisture level of the soil, less water is lost to the sun and the wind.

MORE WAYS TO SAVE

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