Winter can hammer your home – and your budget – unless you take some precautions before the season settles in. Between heating your home, removing snow and adding extra lighting, there are lots of extra costs in the cold months. And emergency expenses from burst pipes or car troubles can add even more to the winter bill.
Take time to identify trouble spots in your home before it gets really cold out. You may need to make some modest investments up front to avoid tapping into your emergency fund down the road.
Pay less when you turn up the heat
Even in some warmer parts of the country, the winter chill means turning up the heat (though in the hottest climates, people may get some expense relief by not running their air conditioners). Last winter was fairly mild in the Northeast. This year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts much lower winter temperatures, which translates into higher heating bills.
The average American household that uses natural gas is expected to spend $635 between October and May for heat. That’s a 22% jump from last year! When it’s time to turn up the thermostat, make sure you’re heating in the most efficient way possible. Here are some tips:
- Install a programmable thermostat: You can turn down the heat while you’re away from home during the day, and turn it back up shortly before your arrival. These thermostats cost around $200, but will pay off within the first year (with savings of close to $200 per year).
- Winterize: Ensure heat doesn’t seep out of your home by filling in big holes with spray foam insulation, caulking any cracks around windows, and using weather stripping around windows and doors. A can of spray foam costs less than $10 – though you may need two or three cans to get all the holes.
- Commission an energy audit: Some states offer generous incentives to help you identify (and fix) energy trouble spots.
- Light up with LED: Many of us love bright holiday displays. If you plan to decorate for the holidays, keep your electricity bill down with LED light bulbs – which are 75% more efficient than incandescent bulbs – and last 25 times longer.
Continue saving when you step outdoors
- Fill driveway and walkway cracks: Small cracks in concrete surfaces can become big problems in the winter, due to constant freezing and thawing. A concrete sealant, which you can buy for $10 or less at a home-repair store, can help you fill the cracks and avoid a big repair bill in the spring.
- Maintain your car: In cold climates, cars need a little extra attention to ensure they’re working efficiently. Oil can thicken and become less efficient; you’ll want to use the right mix for winter. Check the pressure on tires, as it usually falls in winter, making for less-efficient fuel economy. If your car battery is more than three years old, try testing it to ensure it’s able to hold a charge.
- Remember your water pipes: A burst water pipe is a winter nightmare that’s not only messy, but also costly to repair (not to mention how much it can cost to repair damages to your property beyond just a busted pipe or two). Insulating exposed pipes before the temperatures fall below freezing can help avoid the problem. In addition, shutting off the water supply to outdoor faucets can also help. Fiberglass insulation costs less than $10 a roll.
Save even more when you hit the road
Between holiday travel and getting out to enjoy winter activities, you can save money while you’re out of the house, too.
- Unplug electronics: There’s no need to run electricity to your microwave, DVD, TV and computer while you’re traveling.
- Turn down the heat: Don’t heat your home to toasty while you’re away – but do set your thermostat to at least 50, so your pipes don’t burst.
Spending a little time and money at the beginning of winter can help you save throughout the coldest season. After that, settle in for a well-deserved winter nap in front of a roaring fire.
Ilana Polyak is a freelance writer who specializes in personal finance and the financial advisory industry. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Barron's, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and CNBC.com, where she is a frequent contributor.