Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tips for lowering your power bill

I pull back the curtains to reveal a beautiful and unseasonably warm February day here in Napa. Opening the back door, I can hear our chickens waking up to greet the day and breathe in the the fresh, crisp morning air that will soon heat up to over 70 degrees. There are many thoughts going through my head - including that I must add an unplanned stroll downtown to today's to do list - but chief among them is that it's time to get the laundry started because this gorgeous sunshine is about to lower my power bill.

Probably not what you were expecting but, well, no one has ever accused me of being impractical.

It was not until recently that I experienced what a big impact lifestyle choices can make on energy use. While I've always done little things to conserve gas and electricity, like turn off lights and keep the furnace set a reasonable temperature, there wasn't incentive to do much more as our usage was already very low.

Then we had a baby. And, as all parents know, with a baby comes laundry - mountains and mountains of it, especially if you're using cloth diapers like we are. What was once a one- or two-times-a-week-thing quickly became a daily occurrence - often snowballing into multiple loads. The dryer seemed like it was running constantly and, needless to say, the first bill we received from PG&E after our son was born was a painful one. Although I expected our costs to go up, my jaw hit the floor when I saw our electricity bill had increased by nearly 100%.

After recovering from the initial shock (I had NO idea the dryer used that much energy), it was time to figure out how to get things back within the budget. Enter into the equation much trial and error and a newfound passion for our PG&E SmartMeter and, I'm pleased to report, our energy use is back to, and some months even lower, than our pre-baby bills.

You know you're a little crazy when you do a dance of joy when your power bill arrives. Bonus? What's good for us is good for the environment.

It's been a bit of a long road getting here and along the way I discovered ways to conserve energy - some big, some small - that have made a big impact on our bottom line. Here are a few things that have worked for us.

Know your enemy: Identify the energy hogs in your home. For us they are the electric dryer, electric stove, and gas furnace. Now, everytime I use these I mentally see dollar signs and think about how to conserve energy. Another potential culprit? Your hot water heater - we replaced our old electric one with an on-demand gas hot water heater a few years ago and the $1500 price tag has already been paid for. Yep, that was a good investment.

Become friends with your SmartMeter: I love this new contraption. I can log into my MyEnergy page online and see, virtually in real time, my energy use down to the hour. I even kept an energy log for a week and compared it to the online graphs to identify our above-stated energy hogs. I. Love.It. (No, I have not been paid for this endorsement - though that's not a bad idea...)

Be a master of the obvious and use your energy hogs less: I'm all about bang for the buck so I stared with the big guns. Here are some tips on reducing your use of the oven, dryer and furnace. (We do not have an air conditioner, so unfortunately I can't offer any good tips to that end except the obvious - don't use it. I know we're lucky to live in California where that is an option.)
  • Use your slow cooker or toaster oven more often.
  • Plan fewer meals each week that require the oven - for example salads, sandwiches, etc.
  • When you do use the oven, take advantage of the cost to preheat and and piggy-back your dishes.
  • Line dry your clothes. Seriously. The first month you do it you will see a big impact. I guarantee it. If you don't want to put an ugly umbrella looking contraption in your back yard to do this, I'm right there with ya. Invest in a retractable clothesline for all of $10 and you'll be saving money in no time.
  • Be strategic when you do use the dryer. Obviously the winter months make it difficult to harness the power of the sun so when you do need to use the dryer, be smart about it. For example, as we do a load of cloth diapers everyday, I wait to dry the diapers until I have another load of laundry that also needs to go on the dryer. If I dont have another load that needs to go into the dryer, they get put on the clothes rack in the garage to dry which leads me to...
  • Line dry inside. You know that pop-up clothes rack you have for your delicates? It's also a great way to save money. Put things that you don't need to be dried immeately on the rack. Even if they don't dry completely, the dryer will not need to work as hard.
  • Spin, spin, spin. Let the spin cycle on your washing machine get out as much water as possible.
  • Pay attention to the temperature setting. I was using low heat and the temperature sensor to dry our clothes, but noticed that things were not getting dry and I needed to keep the dryer on longer - thus using more energy. I switched to medium heat and now do a 30 minute (or less) cycle to start. Often that does the job but if the clothes need more time, I add it in 10 minute increments.
Over the last year I had some major 'ouch' moments with our gas bill as I figured out how to set the thermostat with a baby in the house. As a new mom, the last thing I wanted to do was make our home uncomfortable for our little boy. While it was easy to monitor his temperature when he was in our room either in a co-sleeper or our bed, after he moved to his crib and the cold winter months ensued I didn't know how to keep him warm - but not too warm - at night.

To make a long story short, after a few very high bills I called PG&E to see if they had any advice. I spoke with a sweet mother of five kids, and she told me, in not so many words, that I was over-thinking the situation (me? Never). Here are some tips I gleaned -
  • Keep your heat set at 62 at night - if your child is too cold, he/she will let you know it.
  • During the day set your thermostat at 67 or less when people are in the house, and have it turn off when no one is there. If you are cold - or worried about your child being cold - get out a sweatshirt.
  • Things you can do to help keep your child warm at night are use a footed sleeper and/or a sleep sack, put socks on under the sleeper and, if need be, put a cap on your child.
  • As SIDS has been linked to overheating at night, be careful not to put too many layers on your child. Err on the side of slightly cool rather than too warm.
So, that night I put our little guy in a sleeper and sleep sack and turned the thermostat down to 62 degrees and, wouldn't you know it, he slept through the whole night and we all woke up refreshed. Go figure. Problem solved.

Energy Tiers: Here in California we are on an energy tier system. The lowest electricity tier (for us, an average of 11 KW per day) is the cheapest, once you exceed that you get bumped into the second tier, once you exceed that it's into tier three, and so on. After I understood how the system works, it was easier to manage our energy costs and shoot for the 11 KW average that would keep us in the lowest tier (though I think it's just about impossible to live on 11 KW a day - even with our 1,000 square foot house that doesn't have AC). Call your utility company to find out how your plan is set up and see if there are other pricing plans you can try - for example, many power companies offer a 'time of use' plan that, as you might imagine, charges different electricity prices based on the time of day. The lowest prices are typically at night, so that is the best time to run the dryer, heat up the stove, etc. If you're religious about it, I hear the savings are significant - I'll be able to let you know soon as we're going to give it a go.

These tips have made a huge difference for us in trimming our power bill and I hope they are helpful for other frugal mamas out there. How do you conserve energy and keep your costs down? Please share your ideas in the comments section!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Throwing a birthday party on a budget

Our little boy is turning one! Strange as it may seem, there was a part of me (OK, let's be real - the whole me) that thought this day would never come. That our little man would stay little forever. Denial? Perhaps. Well, earth-to-mom - time only starts moving faster after having kids.

After I got over the initial shock that this day was indeed upon us, it was onto the fun part - planning a memorable (and inexpensive) get-together to celebrate Will's big day. I wanted to keep it low-key and fun - aka. not turn it into an overly orchestrated Martha Stewart-esque party that would stress me out - but in typical fashion I needed to let the creative wheels turn at least a little bit. My goals with the party were 1) fun for Will and the attending kids, 2) fun for me to plan and not too much work and 3) of course, cheap!

I'm happy to report that the party was all of the above and more. It was one of those special days that we'll never forget (especially not with all the photos snapped and videos taped), and it was relaxed enough for all of us to enjoy it - including the birthday boy and mom. From budget to decorations to - of course - the cake, below are what I hope are helpful tips on how to throw a fun and frugal birthday party.
Timing: Less is more. We hosted our party from 1:30 - 3:30 and that allowed us plenty of time to enjoy the moment and then wrap things up before the kids got too tired. The timing fit with Will's nap schedule and that of his friends (although it's impossible to accommodate everyone), and also meant that we wouldn't need to do lunch (thus saving money and mommy's sanity).
Invitation List: Who to invite? For a few days I had flashbacks to the lengthy process of putting together our wedding guest list and felt like I needed to check myself into a 12 step program for the decision-making impaired. But seriously - where do you draw the line? Do you invite friends from school? His or her teacher? Your friends both with and without kids? The answer is going to depend on your individual situation and I say go with your gut. I erred on the side of small and simple and we ended up with two families attending (though I invited and planned for five - January is apparently a challenging month to throw a kids' party) and his school teacher. It was the perfect size. (After the fact, my mother-in-law told me a good rule of thumb for planning kids' birthday parties: the number of kids invited should be close to the child's age plus one. So, for instance, you should invite three kids to a birthday party for a two-year-old.)
Budget: I gave myself a $100 budget to throw the party and made it work. How did I do it? Here is the breakdown.

$20 for invitations and postage
$50 for food and drinks
$20 for decorations, activities and plates/cups
$10 for goody bags

Food and Drink:
Cake: A few months back I found a mold for a giant cupcake at a garage sale for $1 and snagged it knowing it would be perfect for his first birthday party - and many a bake-sale in our future. I made a yellow butter cake ($2 mix) with homemade strawberry filling ($3), cream cheese frosting ($2) and sprinkles ($2). While I considered making the cake and frosting from scratch, considering my track-record when it comes to baking I decided to push the 'easy' button and buy cake mix and ready-made frosting. Don't have a giant cupcake mold? Make regular cupcakes - they're inexpensive and the perfect size for both kids and adults. (Tip: I discovered that you can use a turkey-injector to put filling in the middle of cupcakes - just make sure the filling has been thinned in your food processor and inject the cupcakes before you frost them. Score!)

Food: I easily could have gone overboard here and had to reign myself in a few times. I made three types of tea sandwiches that were also kid friendly - hummus and roasted red pepper on wheat ($5), cheese and fig spread on wheat ($8), and cucumber, cream cheese and dill on white bread ($5). Other than that, I kept it really simple and put out some cheese cubes ($2), grape tomatoes ($3) and chips ($2). After all, what guests are really looking forward to is the cake.

Drinks: We got a 12 pack of beer ($12), apple juice ($2), ginger ale ($1) and sparkling water ($2). We avoided drinks with bright colors, thus no worrying about stains on the carpet.

Decorations: This is a flexible part of the budget because you can do as little or as much as you want - for me, this is where I wanted to have a little fun. I bought the necessities (plates for $3 and napkins for $2), hats ($2), balloons ($5 filled), and a cute felt 'Happy Birthday' sign at Target for $5 (there is no way I could have made that for less).  To add a little extra pizazz, I made and hung tissue paper pom poms around the house for a grand total of $4 (really, more like $2 as I didn't use all of the paper).
Kids' activities: Keep it simple! I had some crayons and paper as back-up, but didn't need them as cake and the opening of presents offered plenty of excitement.

Goody bags: I certainly didn't need these for a first birthday party, but found some cupcake themed goody bags on sale at World Market for $2 that I couldn't pass up. I added some rubber duckies for $1 a piece and voila - done.

Planning: This is my type A personality talking, but I found it helpful to spread the to-do list out over the week so that I didn't feel overwhelmed come Friday/Saturday. As in decorate house on Wednesday, make grocery list on Thursday, shop and bake cake on Friday, etc. A little forethought here went a long way because Lord knows life is unpredictable with a soon-to-be one-year-old!

Video and Photos: Get some help here! You simply can't do it all and play host at the same time - not to mention that the guest of honor is going to need a lot of your attention throughout the whole party. Ask two friends or family members to help with photos and video and let them know what you want them to capture - like your little one stuffing cake in his or her mouth (or eating crumbs off the floor...just saying...) or ripping up wrapping paper.

Have fun! Above all, once the day arrives go with the flow and don't sweat the small stuff. The most important thing is to enjoy the company of family and friends and help your little one feel at ease. The more relaxed you are, the most relaxed everyone - including the birthday boy or girl - will be.

Being new to kids' parties, I'd love to hear other ideas for budget-friendly birthdays. From food to themes to cake to activities, please chime in with your comments!