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Earth day – time to fight some home energy thieves

Welcome to Earth Day. It’s our worst one so far! The earth is heating up, oceans are rising and forests are ablaze. What a great blog post opening! Who’s still with me? It’s hard for us to totally solve these issues as individuals, but we can all do something. Let’s start by slaying some of those home energy thieves. Saving energy helps green the planet, and adds some green to our wallets. And while energy savings may not be the most exciting topic, some quick projects can improve your financial wellness without giving up anything important. Like a nice glass of Merlot, tickets to a Browns game or a new set of clubs. And now is the perfect time to tackle some of these projects while we are all locked down.

We saved 44% on electricity and 12% on gas bills. How ’bout you?

Well it’s great to talk about home energy thieves, but what about actually doing battle with them? What really works and is it worth the effort? We dug in right here at Cashflow Cookbook global headquarters. With a bit of sleuthing, and a few dollars in parts, we managed to save 44% on our electricity bill and 12% on our gas bill. How did we calculate that and what made the difference?

For the gas bill, we compared the heating season gas consumption in 2019-2020 to our consumption this past winter. Log in to your utility company account to check out your own info. After correcting for temperature differences (degree days for the technical among you) our consumption dropped by 12%. How did we get these savings?

Air sealing is usually the best return on energy projects

My basement workroom was freezing cold. After a bit of poking around, it turns out that there was a 3/4″ gap under the door that goes to the unheated garage. A bit of math tells me that is a 22.5 square inch gap or about the same as a 5″ hole in the wall. If you noticed a 5″ hole in the wall of your living room, might you fix it? Hell yah!

stop home energy thieves
energy saving door threshold from M-D building products

I bought a heavy duty threshold and weatherstripping for about $30 and installed it. No breeze under the door and the workroom is nice and toasty. Love that! I checked the other 2 doors that lead to the garage and they were leaking air as well. About another 5 square inches in total. One needed a door sweep  and the others had gaps around their door stops. I removed and re-nailed the door stops and muffled that breeze as well.

Up on the second floor, in our Harry Potter closet, our electrician had installed a secondary panel. The cables from the panel head up to the attic, but the hole left a 1″ x 14″ arctic breezeway. I filled it with foam and will build a wooden cover to finish it off.

All told, those changes totaled about 42 square inches of air gap. Whoa that sounds a bit nerdy!  Maybe a lot nerdy. For the less geeked among us, that is about the same as a 7″ hole in the wall. As a result of these changes our gas bill dropped 12% which saves us $150/year. Not a bad start, and a warmer, more comfortable home.

What is next for gas savings?

Here are the projects coming up for 2021:

  • More air sealing – We still have lots of drafty windows and doors to go. So we will check and replace weatherstripping and ensure that doors and windows aren’t leaking air. Should be able to save another $50/year
  • A programmable thermostat – great way to to save about 10% or $120 for us for a one-time investment of about the same. As a side benefit, a cooler room leads to better sleeping in the winter and a greener planet.
  • Attic insulation – our 1938 home could use an additional layer of attic insulation. Insulating existing walls can be expensive but most attics can be easily accessed. A few hundred dollars in insulation should save us another $250 a year.

So by next year, we should have saved about $570 a year on our gas bill. Not a huge deal, but once these projects are done, they keep rolling in the savings year after year.

On to some surprises in our electricity bill

We caught the home energy thieves red handed in our electricity bill. Those nasty boys! With a few simple changes, we dropped our bill by 44% vs the same period a year ago. On an annual basis, that will save us about $700 a year. How did we do that?

  • Turns out that our roof heaters (melt the snow around the gutters) were wired to a circuit that was permanently on. We installed a simple switch and turn them on only during heavy snowfall, saving about $25/month year round.
  • We swapped out our old fridge for a new one saving about $10/month. Bonus: the new one is wider and shallower – my spinach can’t hide behind the chocolate cake anymore.
  • Our lightbulbs were mostly incandescent so we swapped them for LEDs throughout the house. Great light, less bulb changing and and more greening of the planet. And savings of about $25/month.

What is next for electricity savings?

  • During our kitchen renovations, we will replace our ancient dishwasher with a new, more efficient one. The newer models use about 1/3 the water and will save about $5 a month vs the old one. And they have that nifty silverware rack.
  • All of the gas savings ideas about will also carry an electrical savings benefit as our furnace pump will run less in the winter and our air conditioner will run less in the summer, easily saving another $5/month.

So all told on electricity, with current and future projects, we expect to save about $800 a year.

Overall summary of our work on battling our home energy thieves.

Looking at both utility bills we expect to save about $1,400 a year. Once the projects are done, we will be able to realize those savings each year and the actual value will rise with the utility rates.

What to do with the $1,400 in annual savings?

$1,400 isn’t a massive game changer. Maybe head out for 4 or 5 nice dinners out? See what’s on sale at the mall? But here are some better ideas:

  • A $116 extra mortgage payment on a $300,000, 30 year mortgage at current rates will save $25,000 and 3 years and 7 months of payments. Nice!
  • Investing the $116 monthly at 7% would grow to $20,000 over 10 years or
  • $60,400 over 20 years or
  • $141,000 over 30 years or
  • $304,000 over 40 years. Boom! There’s your Lamborghini right there.

Other ideas to stop home energy thieves whilst greening the planet

  • Start by adding up your energy bills and compare them to national averages. As a quick guide, electricity bills average $110 a month, gas $72 a month. These vary a lot by climate and rates. If yours are way out of line, do some investigating.
  • Consider a 3rd party energy audit. There may be offers on these from your local utility.
  • Change your furnace filters regularly and clean the lint trap in your dryer.
  • Turn down your thermostat a couple degrees in the winter and up a couple in the summer. Adjust for the difference with your clothing.
  • Turn off lights as you leave a room. Teenagers do this naturally. Kidding.
  • Close the doors! Leaving them open while heating or air conditioning is a huge energy waster. There is an exception to this. In my part of the country there is something called a Midwestern Goodbye. A 20 minute farewell in the house followed by a 20 minute lovely-to-see-you-again at the doorway, then a 20 minute let’s-do-this-again-soon at your guest’s vehicle in the driveway with their engine running. Very warm and caring – not great on energy use – but a wonderful custom!
  • Check for phantom power loss – electronics use power even when off. Smart power strips can provide savings

Check in next week when we look at an opportunity for much bigger savings in a whole different category with much less work!

What are you doing to save energy and how are you investing the cash? Let me know in the comments below.

Photo credit Allesandro Bianchi at Unsplash

As the sands of time flow through that glass thing, we get creakier, stiffer and, well, older. Diet and exercise can do their thing, but sometimes we need to turn to chemistry for help. A routine doctor’s visit led to the discovery of my rising blood lipids and the need for some statin pills. The medication lowered my numbers , but the process opened my eyes to another set of numbers. The whimsical world of drug pricing. You get to benefit from my journey and learn some ways to save on prescription drugs.

It’s the start of a new year, marked by some timeless traditions. Some of us drag out Christmas trees to the curb, others dismantle and box our Festivus poles while others pack up menorahs or kinaras. There are lights to be stowed, pine needles to vacuum and gifts to be worn, hidden, stowed, drank, returned or re-gifted. But after the cat eats the last piece of tinsel and the final unloved morsel of fruitcake is tossed, comes the hard part. How to eliminate holiday debt?

So unforgiving, that bold black text on crisp white statement. And the totals, so clearly inflated. There must be a mistake or five here. Then starts the questions and or blamings, “what was that $312.54 for?” or,  “honey did you buy something from JBM Trading Company 412?”.  Often there is a surprise bill or two that arrives around the same time, some medical test invoices, the annual property tax bill, or some school fees for the kids.

It all adds up to, well, more than you have in your checking account. What to do? With credit card interest at 20-30%, compounded monthly, getting rid of this debt is a 5-alarm blaze. And paying the minimum amount due is a ticket to the start of a financial apocalypse. It needs to go. All of it.

How bad is this thing?

Start by surveying the damage. Get it all out there. The paper statements, the online balances, the main credit cards and the branded store ones. And yes, even the “I only got it to get that in-store discount on that one big thing that you swore that you would never use again”, cards. Add it all up. Make up a quick table of the cards, the balances, the interest rates and the due dates. Not pretty, but at least it is all out in the open. Involve your partner in the process. Work out a plan to pay them all off. Missing due dates can lead to credit score issues, delaying the ones with the highest interest rates are costly. Work out the priorities and make a plan.

Remember the pain of all of this, since you will need that for next year’s planning.

What is the funding gap?

What do you owe and what funds do you have available? Identify how big the gap is. That is a key first step to solve the issue. Take a look at timing, when are the next paychecks coming in and which bills are due when.

Let’s pay things off

The first few moves are obvious, using available cash to pay pressing bills, but then it gets trickier – how to fund the bills that have, well, no funding. Here is a list of key action moves:

  • Do you have government Covid checks coming your way? Is there any action to get them sooner? Can you register online or otherwise speed up their arrival?
  • If you are expecting a tax refund, can you get your return filed sooner to access that cash?
  • Are there other bills that will let you delay payments or reduce payments without penalty? Call them and see if they can help you.
  • What about that $1,200 you lent your brother-in-law? Might now be the time to collect?
  • Is there some part time work that you could do to get some extra cash? Overtime at work, some Uber or Lyft driving, some retail shifts or some online tutoring? Can your partner help?
  • Are there some gifts that you don’t like, don’t need or could live without? Try returning them for cash refund. As a minimum, could you return them for a store credit, then sell that online? Or use the credit for essentials that would otherwise need to be paid?
  • Anything else around the house that you could sell on ebay, craigslist or offerup? As an example, maybe you are now a smartwatch devotee and no longer need some dress watches.
  • What changes can you make to reduce your usual monthly spend and free up cash for the bills? Going vegan for a month, reducing take out and drive through food, turning down the thermostat and of course curbing new purchases can all help. Check out my other blog posts or Cashflow Cookbook for more ideas.
  • It’s not ideal, but it might make sense to temporarily reduce payroll or other automatic savings provisions for 401ks, RSPs, company stock plans etc. to free up cash and pay off bills. Not a good long-term solution, but sacrificing a return of, say 7%-10% to pay off bills with an interest rate of 22% has some logic.
  • Try calling the credit card companies. Explain that you are willing to do your best to pay, but you are overwhelmed with holiday bills and are wondering what they might be able to do to help. Worth a try.
  • A final option is to take out a loan or use a line of credit to consolidate the bills and pay them off. Line of credit interest can be as low as 3 or 4%. The danger of course, is to take out one of these loans and then let your credit card balances creep up.

How to Eliminate Holiday Debt for Next Year

Of course, the best way to solve this problem is to never have it in the first place. Now that we have solved your current year problem, let’s start now to set you up right for the new year.

  • Once you pay off your cards, call and cancel all but one. That’s all you need. Multiple cards are damaging to your credit score, make it easier to ring up more debt, complicate your monthly bill payment and record keeping processes and lead to more spending. Oh, and make your wallet fatter. The freebies and extra discounts from these cards don’t save you money, they just encourage more spending. One good reward card. You got this!
  • If you are sweating your holiday debt, so are the rest of your family and friends. Now is the time to set an agreement that limits holiday gift value to an agreed amount. Start a family discussion, be candid and get it done. Whew!
  • Or go a step further and switch to cashless gifts. Why not give vouchers to make a meal, do some house projects, kitchen cleanups, car washes or other services? A backrub for your partner? Or even promises for time together for a picnic or a hike?
  • If the spending can’t change, then at least plan for it and save up. If holiday spending is, say, $1,000, then set aside $83.33 a month into a holiday gift account. Lots of banks now have set ups to let you save for a few different goals. Or just stash the cash somewhere.
  • Pre plan your shopping so that you establish limits for each recipient and stick with them. Plan the gifts too so you can watch for sales, Groupon deals or discount coupons.

Hopefully that will set you on the right course and eliminate some financial stress. What other ideas do you have to help with holiday spending and debt? Let me know in the comments.

All the best to all of you for a wonderful 2021.

Gordon

photo credit Freestocks at Unsplash