The Electric Slide: Cut Your Electricity Bill In Half

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Now that you’ve put those Christmas lights away, we’ll show you how to lower your electricity bill by up to half. In fact, it’s almost wrong we haven’t written about this yet. Neil is an electrical engineer whose specialty is power and energy. And I used to develop curriculum for a green energy education company.

Together, we’re an energy-saving team with an electricity bill of less than half the national average. The average residential US electricity usage is 911 kWh per month; ours was just 371 kWh per month in 2015. We’ve watt-metered a few devices in our day and can show you how to cut your energy use without wasting your life on silly tasks like unplugging your toaster.

The Electric Slide

The average American electricity usage slides slowly up each year, even with all the HE options now available. I’m sure expanding home sizes and technology use are partly to blame. We’ve found ways to fight the upward slide without living in the dark or giving up modern conveniences. In the last five years, we’ve doubled our human occupancy but steadily decreased our usage. Mostly our improvement is owed to the power of tracking. We’ve recently made much of why we don’t budget, but we do track our expenses and continually seek ways to reduce them.

In fact, utilities are a prime example of an expense for which tracking is superior to budgeting. Seasonally variable costs and fluctuating rates make utilities a slippery item for budgeting. Paying an average “budgeted” plan lacks precision as you’ll almost certainly over- or underpay. So people are left with two options: guess, or budget what you spent last month. The latter is essentially the same as tracking, but lacks the power to adjust behavior unless it’s compared over time.

Tracking in an organized, graphic fashion where you can watch the trends over time is the best way to fight the upward electric slide. No one needs to read a whole post about turning off the lights or unplugging electronics. The behavior that can actually change your variable utility costs is tracking them.

The “No Impact” Myth

Failure to track electricity use perpetuates the “no impact myth” that turning off a light or two won’t make a dent in your bill. But you’ll never know if your changes are helping if you don’t track your bill month by month. The myth that your behaviors won’t substantially impact your utility costs is not only fatalistic, it’s false. Thus tracking is the first step toward lowered utility bills.

Pricey home meters can be installed to track your usage, but of course we’d never pay for something we can easily accomplish for free ourselves. To slide your electricity bill down instead of inevitably up, help yourself to our free utility tracking spreadsheet. Our data is there for example, but you can easily overwrite it with yours. Check your past usage, available online through many utility companies.

Of course, tracking alone can’t alter your bill; you need some changes to track. In this post we’ll tackle the topic of lighting, going beyond the obvious “turn off the lights” to simple strategies that will save money and improve your quality of light. And Wednesday we’ll share a few other heavy-hitting cost reducers that help us keep our bill below half the national average without sacrificing time or convenience.

Evict the Incandescents

It’s hardly news that indcandescents are becoming obsolete. Even though compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) and LED bulbs cost more upfront, they pay for themselves in energy savings. An LED bulb uses 1/6 the amount of energy as a comparable incandescent, and lasts 20 times as long. LEDs have recently dropped in price, making them an affordable and highly efficient option for the average consumer. If you have ANY incandescent bulbs in your house, I urge to replace them with equivalent LED bulbs.

If you’re overwhelmed by switching out every bulb in the house, begin with most-used bulbs in living rooms, kitchens, dining rooms, and entryway chandeliers. Then work your way to bedrooms and bathrooms (which might already have fluorescents). Newer technology in CFLs and LEDs produces a higher quality of light than old-school types; in some studies their light quality has been preferred by consumers to traditional bulbs.

You may be able to score some free bulbs by contacting your local energy provider about promotions or energy savings kits.

Let There Be Light

Our sunlit living room on a partly cloudy day.

Our sunlit living room on a partly cloudy day.

We use daylighting as much as possible, opening the blinds even when it’s partly cloudy to supplement or replace electric lights. Try turning off lights one at a time to see how much of a difference they actually make during the day. Often it’s negligible.

If this sounds time-consuming, rest assured that it quickly becomes second-nature, especially as you soak in the all the sun’s benefits. Studies have demonstrated that sunlight improves people’s mood, productivity, and health. I don’t know a human who doesn’t feel happier on a sunny day than a gloomy one.

I’ve noticed that in many homes, most lights are left on all the time. But why compete with the most powerful light source in the solar system? We take the opposite approach by turning off all the lights and adding one or two as needed. Kids can complicate the equation as they notoriously forget to shut off light switches, but we’ve noticed that our son has picked up on the habit through our modeling rather than nagging. He even tells us not to waste electricity!

Again, tracking is your first step toward lowered utility bills. Savings across several bills could add up to well over $100 per month. I’d be mad if I lost $100 bill every month, which is why it’s well worth it to me to employ a few simple steps to save that sum. Please check our free utility tracking spreadsheet, enter your numbers, and watch the magic begin. Happy tracking!

Do you track your electricity usage? How do you save on lighting costs? 

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35 Responses to “The Electric Slide: Cut Your Electricity Bill In Half”

  1. MrsParadise says :

    We track our real-time use with the Effergy unit recommended by MMM. For those of us who like instant gratification, you get to see immediately what turning off a bank of lights (or using the microwave, dishwasher, etc) does to your kW usage.

  2. Mrs. Mad+Money+Monster says :

    I love that you shared your spreadsheet. All too often we forget that the little things can make a huge difference, over time. Just last week I bought a replacement old-school bulb. Ugh. My parents never wanted to spend money on electricity-this meant we grew up watching TV in the dark. I engage in this practice today, too. It makes every evening feel like a night at the movies 🙂 We do, however, have friends over quite a bit. Inevitably, when this happens, we have every light in the kitchen and family room beaming. I think it’s time we start making the switch.

    I love that your son is on board. Our daughter knows that the more money we spend on utilities, the less money we’ll have to spend on the fun stuff. She doesn’t fill the tub up to the top anymore 🙂

    • Kalie says :

      What a great strategy to dissuade kids from asking for a full bath tub.

      We also have friends over a lot and of course are not going to be too conservative about the utilities then. Efficient bulbs do make a difference.

  3. ThePersonalEconomist says :

    Thanks for sharing your expertise and the great tips and congrats on your outcome. We were lucky enough to have a skylight in our place already and I think that makes a huge with bringing in natural light.

  4. Tonya says :

    My electricity bill just went down a lot since I don’t use my computer at home anymore. Like $20/month and now it’s around $30 per month!

    • Kalie says :

      Wow, that is a significant drop & a tiny bill! I’m sure your computer is the biggest culprit, but I bet you’re using less lighting and appliances, too.

  5. Amy says :

    Wow – you guys really ARE the experts on this topic!!

    My parents were pretty obsessed with minimizing power usage, so it’s pretty ingrained it me to use sunlight and turn off lights when not in use. The same is definitely not true of my in-laws, and as a result, I spend almost as much time reminding my husband, as I do our daughter. Maybe we need some sort of incentive system for my daughter, so, like your son, it becomes more ingrained and less like drudgery…

    • Kalie says :

      It’s funny how what is habitual to some is not even on the radar to others. Honestly, there are other habits I’d almost rather my son had. I’m glad he’s picked up on this one, but we still have to remind him to ask politely for what he wants just about every time!

  6. Barb says :

    Just curious – did you track the changes you made or have you just made a more concerted effort to conserve? I think it would be an interesting “experiment”!

    • Kalie says :

      It would be an interesting experiment. We weren’t super organized about all the changes, but did some of them one at a time and noticed the steady stop. I’d say we first tackled the dryer, then lighting, and then some old technology/smart power strip stuff we’ll cover next post. Even with incremental changes we saw a difference & that was motivating. Good question!

  7. Prudence Debtfree says :

    Thank you! This is definitely something that we can start doing. Even with personal finances in general, tracking results in a spending cut – by something like 17% – and that’s apart from budgeting. Very smart idea to track electricity use. Being aware is more than half the battle.

    • Kalie says :

      I agree that being aware is so helpful and leads to real change. Tracking can help you be more strategic with your spending in lots of areas.

  8. Holly says :

    We are pretty lucky in the fact that this house was already pretty well insulated. Our electric bills have been relatively low since we moved in. There is plenty of natural lighting and I think that helps a lot.

    • Kalie says :

      Insulation makes a huge difference. Our home is heated with natural gas, so that’s a topic for another post, but we own the same exact style of home as our friends down the street and ours feels cozier and costs less to heat because of the insulation we inherited.

  9. Abigail says :

    Our electric company sends us a monthly (or maybe bi-monthly) report to show us how we measure up to the neighbors. Spoiler alert: We always use more.

    Of course, we’re home all day. There are, I think, a fair number of retirees. But probably not 4 of them home all the time. And they probably don’t use any many pieces of technology as we do: iPod, iPad, laptop and a couple of gaming systems.

    That said, our charges have gone down by about 50% in the past few years. It was averaged out at a heinous $300ish. We added insulation, and it went down to about $200. Then we put HVAC in for the in-laws, and now we’re paying $145 a month!

    But we could still be better about unplugging things that aren’t in use. It’s just that, being home all day, we actually use the things that most people unplug (microwave, toaster, charging cords) more than most people, which can make it pretty inconvenient.

    • Kalie says :

      Being home all the time–and working from home on the computer–would definitely suck down more energy. Our home is heated with natural gas so that’s not included in our electric bill. I’m sure we spend more than if the kids & I weren’t home a lot during the day, but of course our goal is to be more efficient given our lifestyle. Dropping 50% is huge so it sounds like you’re doing that! Proper insulation and HVAC make a huge difference, too.

      I don’t think it’s worth unplugging those items all the time, especially if you are actually using them frequently. I’ll cite Neil’s expert opinion on the “vampire load” question next post, but it could end up costing you more to wear out the outlet quickly.

  10. Becky says :

    I agree! We haven’t actually tracked any data, but we rarely use lights in the dining room, living room, or bedrooms until the sun has gone down or if it isn’t up yet. I think the sun shines in bright enough to light our rooms, and when it starts to get dark, we start turning lights on in rooms that we are in.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes–starting with sunlight and using electric lights only as needed makes a huge difference to the quality of light as well as the bill.

  11. Thomas says :

    Nice tips. We’re also cutting down our electricity bill. The last thing we did was change the fridge. It just died so when we replaced it we went for one of the most efficient ones available. This was actually a lower priced unit. Its slightly smaller but way more efficient. It also has the freezer on top which helps.

    Our next project is to get a wireless electricity monitor from Efergy. These things measure your usage in real time down to the watt. It really helps with those behavioural changes because you can see the results immediately.

    • Kalie says :

      The real time monitors sound very neat. I do think when it’s time to replace an item, that’s a great time to decide whether you need it (a fridge–yes!), and whether you can downsize or get something more efficient.

  12. Hannah says :

    My husband loves tracking utilities too (must be an engineer thing) We still have some low hanging fruit though. Our dryer is close to a decade old, so it’s an early version of HE. We also need to put our floorboards up to improve insulation efficiency.

    We’ve held off on some improvements since we are guessing we aren’t going to live here long enough for them to pay off.

    • Kalie says :

      I do think it’s an engineer thing. The job used to be mine, but I’m glad he’s taken it over!

      It might not make sense to do high-cost improvements if you won’t be there long. Sometimes the ROI can be a bit long.

  13. DC YAM says :

    You bring up some great points. I typically don’t even think about the energy I use because the bill typically aren’t “too high.” But if I could save $50 a month (or more) why wouldn’t I? I like the idea of LED bulbs and I think you just convinced me to test them out. Also very cool that you have a utility-tracking spreadsheet – so great!

    • Kalie says :

      It’s easy to accept utility bills until they get outrageous. Glad you are ready to switch to LEDs. I think you’ll see a difference for sure!

  14. Latoya - Femme Frugality says :

    I never even thought about tracking our electricity usage. I assumed signing up for the budget plan with our electricity was saving us money, but you’re right…we always end up either owing or overpaying every year. Thanks for sharing your wisdom on this topic.

    • Kalie says :

      The budget plan saves you from getting slammed during high-usage months, but yeah, in the end you’re going to pay the same over the course of the year, and you miss out on seeing the impact of your behaviors.

  15. Simon says :

    It’s funny, I got my heating bill for last month in my email as I was reading this.

    $130…

    I already have my themostat set to 60 degrees. 60! I thought for sure turning it down that low and bundling up in sweaters and wool socks would do the trick for my electric bill, but nope.

    I’m seriously at a loss. Guess I’ll try 55 degrees…?

    • Kalie says :

      Hmm, we have natural gas heating (and lots of wool sweaters). I’ll post about how we save on heating soon, but insulation, weatherstripping, and caulking can make a difference. Maybe try that before you go below 60 degrees!

  16. James Pollard says :

    CFLs are awesome. I’ve definitely noticed a huge difference by using them!

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