Posted by: thatjen | July 1, 2008

Tightwad Tuesday: Silent Savings

Before we left for our trip, I went around the house and unplugged all the stuff I could get to, and reset the A/C to a pretty high setting. I learned a few months ago from the newsletter that comes in our power bill (ever read those? I’m such a geek that I usually do!) that the myriad fat black plugs that we all have these days are sometimes called wall warts, and waste a ton of energy because most of us just leave them plugged in 24/7. I was guilty, but have become a wall wart exterminator. We’ve already seen a tangible savings (5-15%) in our electric bill. So I unplugged just about everything I could get my hands on before the trip, hoping that will save even more since we’re gone for more than 2 weeks.

Utilities can be an area where you can quietly save money, or burn through it in an equally sneaky fashion. One of the first things we did after making our fast-and-loose budget was to snip away where we could at the utilities. We had a few conversations about whether we could get by with one or no cell phones, but concluded that we were more comfortable having them for safety and family communication needs (although we know that people got and get along just fine without them). We did examine the bills closely and determine that we were paying for services we didn’t use, and cut them, instantly saving over $15 a month (’cause DAMN, do those taxes get you on cell phone bills). We also looked at eliminating our landline but are a bit too old fashioned to make that leap yet. However, Cait shopped around and found the cheapest possible plan (limited calling range, and we’ll make LD calls on the cells), slashing that bill by about half.

The electric bill was our next target, and as I mentioned I launched the attack on wall warts. Most of our lightbulbs are compact fluorescents, though there are still a few we need to replace. (Does anyone know where halogen bulbs fall on the energy efficiency spectrum? We have two sets of halogen track lighting.) We can still do a better job on this one, and we also need to learn more about other energy use in our house. A device that can help in this quest is the Kill-A-Watt. You plug any electrical item into it, and plug it into the wall. It immediately calculates the amount of energy the device uses. This helps you see how much energy your laptop uses while “sleeping” (I’m scared to learn that one) or if your TV uses any juice when it’s hooked up by not turned on (I have no idea). You can also assess various appliances to see whether they are performing with the energy efficiency the manufacturer claims or if you need to replace something because it’s costing you more to run it than to get a new one.

I swear this column is not all about devices you can buy to save money – and in this case, I have options for you! Some power companies and green organizations have Kill-A-Watts available for rental or loan (locals: the Rockville Library loans out K-A-Ws!). Other people buy one with a group of friends and split the cost (which is not much to begin with), buy used from Craigslist or eBay, or see if you can borrow one from a friend or a local listserv.

We also did some of those things we mean to but rarely get around to, like turning off the pilot on the gas fireplace. We missed out on a conservation opportunity when many in our community bought water-saving toilets, but that was more because of poor publicity (and right now we can’t afford the upfront expense, especially since the water bill is part of our condo fee).

We live in a green community — our building is less than 10 years old and was built with geothermal heating/cooling and other features, earning us an Energy Star certification — so we are lucky that our energy and water bills are pretty low compared to many. We don’t have cable TV or NetFlix, so there’s nowhere to trim there (we borrow DVDs from friends, neighbors, family, and occasionally the library, instead). We cut our newspaper subscription back from seven days to Sunday-only years ago, and the subscription more than pays for itself through the coupons we use from time to time. Plus the Sunday paper provides us about a week’s worth of entertainment, mostly in life-with-toddler friendly chunks (comics, an op-ed here or there, columnists in the magazine, etc.).

There must be millions of ways to cut back on utility expenditures – tell us what you do!


  1. We don’t have television or Netflix and we don’t use cell phones. Up next: do something about the power bills.

  2. I have to say, utitilities are an area we’re not good at saving on. We have switched most lights in our home to compact fluorescent (if only they made ones that fit *any* of the fixtures in our bathrooms!). I have an insane fear of the dark and can’t go into rooms that are dark. To avoid my turning all the lights on all the time, we’ve put a couple of lower wattage lamps on timers so that there’s always enough light for me to move through my house w/o panicking. Our computers, however, are a huge power suck and are not only always plugged in but always ON — Mr. W swears that it’s bad for something (disks? fans? the little elves that live inside them?) internal to turn them on and off all the time. Though I just realized my coffee pot is always plugged in and used (literally) about 10 times a year — we both hate coffee and only use it if guests ask for it! I think that one’s coming out of the wall today (a day before guests who will ask for it arrive)!

  3. I read about a power cord that could help save money by not giving electricity to things that were plugged in, but not turned on– unfortunately, I do not remember the name of it. This alone should make it clear that we need to think a lot more about how to save on utilities.

  4. I can’t think of many things we have with those types of plugs. The battery chargers I guess, and maybe the phones (not all of which need to be in use). Most appliances don’t use much energy when plugged in, but not on. I know that big appliances (stoves, etc) are not designed to be plugged in and unplugged all the time, so you can actual waste money doing that because they will need more maintaince.

  5. For us it’s cell phones, baby monitors, iPods, iHome boom box, video camera, camera, external hard drive, maybe the router?, chargers for power tools, one of the halogen light fixtures (oops, forgot to unplug that one), and probably others I am forgetting. Many of those were never plugged in unless the device was in use, but we were leaving the cell phone and baby monitor plugs in ALL the time, which was not necessary.

    I would (will, as two of our neighbors have them, I just have to get around to it) use the Kill-A-Watt to determine which things are worth hassling with and which aren’t.

  6. Would love to comment but have to go unplug shit…….

  7. We are bad about unplugging. I had Beth turning off the powerstrip for her phone chargers every morning but then we rearranged (note to self). I bought a UPS (battery backup) for my work desktop and it includes a feature that shuts off peripherals when you power down the CPU. So my monitor and printer go OFF instead of idling on while not in use. That’s sort of points in my favor. We also have gone to CFLs and halogen (which is efficient but I forget by how much). And we always spend the extra money to get energy star, or the same and ensure it is there if we can!

  8. we have c*mcast for cable. everytime we’re not getting something for a reduced rate i call to see what the “specials” are. i don’t think i’ve ever paid the full amount for highspeed internet more than a few months in a row. i tell them that i’m going to go to att and switch to dsl if they don’t price the service more competitively. needless to say, the $42.95/month is typically reduced to 19.99 for 3-6 months chunks at a time for us until i get a bill with the full price and i need to call again and start the process all over. in the end, i usually save a few hundred dollars/year and don’t sacrifice my internet speed in the process.

  9. Cable is pretty great for us – it’s under 100 per month, and includes internet, AND, it gives us: “Elmo on demand,” so for us, that’s a keeper and a necessity! 😉

    We have CFL’s in every light in our house, except the bathrooms – (just haven’t found the right kind yet…)

    I’m MUCH better at turning shit off than Narda, but we could ALL be better. What I’d LOVE to do is to put all of the “entertainment stuff” on a power outlet, and just switch that off when we go to bed, as opposed to leaving things humming all night – that’d save a bundle, I’m sure!

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