Dear New Frugal You,
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I live in Georgia where the summers are hot. Wish I had rented a place where the electric was included because my summer electric bills are killing my budget. Being in an apartment, many of the tips I see just don't apply to me. I can't add insulation or plant shade trees. Is there something I can do to keep the AC from frying my budget?
Yes, rented homes get just as hot as owner-occupied homes in the summer, and true, renters don't have all the options that are available to homeowners to reduce the cost of air conditioning. That doesn't mean that you have to sweat your budget all summer. There are some tools you can use to keep frugally cool.
Let's start with something a little offbeat. It may seem strange, but you can use a psychological ploy to make yourself feel cooler. It begins with this concept: Colors affect how we feel. It's a concept you can use to chilling effect.
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Kathy Woodard, author and editor of TheBudgetDecorator.com, suggests that, "Using color can change the visual temperature in a room. Cooling colors include light or bright blues, greens and violets. Combine these colors with fresh white for a 'hot' take on a cool look. These colors can be used on walls, soft furnishings or with painted furniture pieces for a quick summer update that takes the scorch out of summer!"
In your question you mentioned insulation. And, you're right, adding insulation to the walls or attic of a rental is the purview of the owner. But there are other ways to make insulation work for you.
The purpose of insulation is to keep hot and cold air separated. There are a number of techniques available to you. All cost a little money, but you should recover your costs in lower electric bills.
Ever notice how hot it gets sitting near a window with the sunshine pouring through? If you're hot, the air in your apartment is hot, too. Window tint is an excellent way to bounce the heat-generating rays back outside. Tint manufacturers claim they can reduce your bills by up to 30%. Applying tint is an easy do-it-yourself job. You probably need the landlord's approval first (check your lease), but a wise landlord would say "yes" to your request. Begin by measuring your windows and then go to a home center. You'll be surprised how affordable the tint is.
Another way to keep the hot air outside is to create an air pocket. Even before modern double-pane window designs, people put up storm windows in the winter. The idea is simple. Create a space where an air pocket acts as a buffer between the outside and inside. That air pocket will absorb much of the outside cold or hot and keep the inside more livable.
You can accomplish the same thing for just a few dollars without buying double-pane windows. The simplest way is to buy some heavy clear vinyl and attach it to the inside of the window frame. You don't need to create a perfect air seal, but a better seal will make it more effective. I've seen people use hooks at the four corners of the window frame. Also some have made a simple frame out of 1-by-1 lumber or even cardboard. You don't need much of a structure -- just something to hold the vinyl in place.
Energy-saving drapes can accomplish the same task. They are more expensive, but they do look better and you can take them with you when you move. Another advantage is that you can open them when the sun isn't shining on the window.
Don't forget about caulking. Yes, it's something that the landlord should be doing, but even if you have to do it yourself, the job is easy and the caulking is cheap. The results will easily repay you for materials and effort.
Next, reduce the amount of heat that you generate in your apartment. Cooking is a major heat producer. With rising food prices, most of us can't afford to eat out or bring in meals every day. We can cut down on the use of stovetop and oven. It's a perfect time to break out the tabletop grill and slow cooker. In fact, if you have an outdoor patio area you might even move the slow cooker outdoors. And, if your apartment allows for it, a barbecue grill will keep all the heat outdoors.
Remember that not every meal needs to be a hot meal, meal, especially in summer. It's a great time to consider a lighter diet. Your body and swimsuit will thank you for it.
Another heat producer is your water heater, if it's in the living area. Get an insulating blanket -- available at any local home center -- and wrap that heater. Keeping the hot air from escaping reduces the amount of time the heater runs, which will save you money. In addition, the blanket prevents hot air from being released into the room. It's a twofer!
Don't forget your computer generates a lot of heat, too. It's a good idea to turn it off when you're not using it. The same thing applies to incandescent bulbs. If you don't need the light right now, you're wasting electricity and creating extra heat for your air conditioning unit to remove.
Speaking of your AC, there are things that you can do to make sure it runs as efficiently as possible. Replace or clean your AC filters monthly. Filters cost a dollar or two. Airflow around the outside portion of your air conditioner is important, too. Clear away any bushes that could be blocking airflow.
And, the final step is to raise your thermostat. A 2- or 3-degree change could reduce your bill by 10%. Use ceiling or room fans to make up the difference.
I hope all of these tools keep you frugally cool this summer!