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The financial journey of one young family out of debt and into building real net worth

13 Free or Cheap Ways To Keep Your Home Cool This Summer

Much to the chagrin of my pregnant wife, I held off on turning on the air conditioner until last night. In the evening it was getting cool enough to open the windows and let Mother Nature cool our house. In the morning, I would close the windows and blinds before I left for work to bank the cold air from the evening. Unfortunately, due the rain we anticipated overnight, I was unable to open the windows. As the humidity grew and the temperature inched upward, it became apparent that no amount of fans would keep my wife and daughter happy (and rightfully so since it was 85 degrees upstairs).

In past years, we likely would have had our AC running at full blast by mid-May, but rising electric rates and shrinking budgets caused me to get a bit more creative this year. If you don’t mind being a little uncomfortable, you can get away with a lot of savings.

1. Open Your Windows

When the outside air is cooler than the inside, it’s foolish to keep using electricity for something nature can do for you instead. We have two separate indoor/outdoor thermometer setups (one for each floor of our house) so we know exactly when we reach that tipping point. When the temperature outside is starting to drop and has sunk at least one degree less than the inside temperature, we turn off the air conditioner and throw open the windows.

Nothing is more satisfying than getting a breeze of fresh air after having your home closed up all day.

2. Turn On the Ceiling Fans

While a ceiling fan won’t make your room cooler, it will definitely make it feel cooler by speeding sweat evaporation and they cost far less to run than your air conditioner. If you don’t have ceiling fans already, they’re not very hard to install – I’ve added or rehung five in our house so far.

Once your fans are in, make sure the fan is set to spin in the correct direction: You want the air blowing down in summer and up in winter. If you’re not sure which way the air is moving, look at the blades as they spin: If the leading edge is higher than the trailing, it is pushing the air down. Honestly, we never turn our ceiling fans off whether we have the windows open or the air conditioner on. It’s nice to have air blowing over you and making you feel cooler.

3. Put In an Attic Fan

We’re having a contractor friend come over soon and give us an estimate for installing an attic fan and a timer. When I was growing up, I loved it when we turned on the attic fan; the cool outside air rushing in the windows and the hum of the fan made sleeping very comfortable.

An attic van gives you the combined benefits of moving air (like a ceiling fan) and pulling in the cooler air from outside. Of course, a prerequisite for running this is opening your windows, so the best thing is wait until after dusk to open your windows and then set the timer to run at least until after you’re deep asleep. It’s an investment that can easily pay for itself in a couple of years.

4. Shut the Blinds

On hot summer days, the sun is your worst enemy. The last thing you want to do is have your air conditioner running full blast to offset the increase heat from the sunlight pouring in your windows. By closing the blinds, you’ll still let in enough light to see by, but you’ll reflect back the rest.

5. Run Your Furnace Fan

Many thermostats will allow you to tell the fan to run without initiating the furnace or air conditioner. By turning on your furnace fan, you cause the air to be circulated throughout the house, balancing out any cold or hot spots so that you whole house feels more comfortable. An added benefit is that it will trap any potential allergens that have been introduced by opening your windows – just make sure to regularly check the furnace filter and replace it when it’s dark enough to block light passing through.

6. Install a Programmable Thermostat

It doesn’t make much sense to cool your home while you’re gone, but it’s hard to remember to tweak your thermostat every day before you leave for work. Program your thermostat to go up by five degrees about 30 minutes or so before you leave and have it come back to your “normal” temperature a half-hour before you return. For added savings, program it to also raise the termostat by two or three degrees through the night – you’re unlikely to notice the change in your sleep.

7. Turn Up The Thermostat A Degree Or Two

It’s recommended that you set your thermostat at 78 degrees during the summer if you have central air conditioning. It’s a pleasant temperature, but isn’t necessarily the cheapest setting. If you can handle it, raise your thermostat by one or two degrees and realize a savings of about six to seven percent for each degree above 78.

8. Close Unused Vents

I don’t know about your house or apartment, but there are some infrequently-used rooms in our house. If you’re not going to be in a particular room very much or very often, consider closing the vent in that room so you’re not cooling dead space. That will cause more air to come out of the other open vents, potentially allowing you to add some cooling to a room that wasn’t getting it otherwise.

Note: I wouldn’t recommend completely shutting the vents in a basement since the air conditioner helps remove humidity and you don’t want to end up with a soggy basement.

9. Turn Off the Lights

This isn’t really a suggested limited to summer, but it’s most appropriate now that it’s heating up. If you don’t need a light on, turn it off! All light bulbs generate heat as a byproduct of producing light (even though compact fluorescents run cooler than incandescent) and why would you want to add heat to the summer mix?

What light is filtering in through your closed blinds should be sufficient to get you around the house during the day. When night falls, turn on only the lights you need only when you need them. Not only will you save electricity, but you’ll also do your air conditioner a favor.

10. Hold Off On Cooking

I love chicken salad. In the summer, there is no meal I like more – it can be eaten chilled, you don’t have to cook anything, and it’s quick to prepare. Any time you turn on that stove while your air conditioner is running, you’re taking money out of your own pockets.

During the summer, do what you can to avoid turning on the stove and, if you must turn it on, turn it on in the late evening and (preferably) after you’ve opened the windows for the night.

11. Leave Laundry Until Nighttime

Like a huge, spinning oven, your clothes dryer puts out a decent amount of heat. Much of that heat will be vented outside, but some will still leak into your house. The later you wait to turn it on, the better chance you have of not working against your air conditioner as much. If you live somewhere that has time-based metering of electricity, try to wait until the lower evening rate kicks in.

Of course, nothing beats line-drying in terms of electricity usage, but if your subdivision is like mine and bans outdoor clothes lines, running your dryer at night is the next best option.

12. Use Your Lowest Level

When I go down to the basement to grab something out of our storage, I’m quick to notice that it’s at least 10 degrees cooler down there than our first floor. And, likewise, when I go upstairs to put away laundry in the bedroom closet, I can see that it’s five degrees warmer up there. I would love to spend most of our time in the basement, but we haven’t yet scraped together the funds to finish it as a living space, so we’re stuck on our main level. If you have a basement, don’t hesitate to take advantage of its stable temperatures all year – I know we will be once we finish ours.

13. Unplug/Switch Off Unused Electronics

Not only are those wall warts eating electricity when they’re not in use, they’re also converting some of that power into heat. By unplugging everything you can and putting the rest on switchable surge protectors, you can potentially save yourself a lot of money and unnecessary heat.

Bonus: Turn Off the TV

I don’t know about you, but our TV can really heat up! It’s a seven year-old 27″ CRT and our entertainment center heats up whenever it’s on for more than a few hours. If you’re not really watching something and just have it on for background noise, you can save a lot of money and heat by switching on a radio instead. As an added bonus, switching off the TV allows you to do other things, like go outside and enjoy the cool evening air first-hand instead of using any variety of cooling devices to bring that air to you!

Stay cool and enjoy the summer for less!

Setting Boundaries for Grandparental Spending

My in-laws came over to our house yesterday. Their visit was very tense as my wife and I had decided to begin confronting the issue of my mother-in-law’s spending habits, especially concerning our children. She is a spendthrift and she would rather spend every penny she finds instead of saving anything for her retirement and increasing medical expenses. We are very worried for her and her impact on their finances and we’re just as worried that she will spoil our children.

At my in-laws’ house, my wife’s old bedroom has been forcibly converted into a huge storage area where my mother-in-law drops off her purchases. When my wife went over there a few weeks ago to get the last of her remaining belongings, she found bags stacked upon bags of new clothes shoved into her old closet that have never even made it out of the shopping bag that brought them home. These bags were from early winter or even before, considering the dust that had settled on these bags. Simply put, my mother-in-law has a problem.

When they arrived at our house yesterday her arms were full of junk that she had bought for our daughter: A huge shopping bag full of dresses and hats (my daughter hates wearing hats), a plastic doll bought at a flea market, a little purse, and a few other useless trinkets. Upon seeing this pile of crap it became clear to me that my mother-in-law is trying to pass her ideals on to our daughter instead of respecting our wishes. The doll immediately went into the trash considering it was far from safe for a 17-month old and the risk of lead-based paints brought by purchasing cheap, unmarked toys. The trinkets also found their way into the trash since we are trying to avoid clutter in our house. The dresses that will fit will be added to her wardrobe, but the rest will be donated along with all the hats.

We have complained numerous times to deaf ears that we do not want them to purchase anything for our daughter, especially without consulting us first. My mother-in-law simply has no concept of what is and isn’t safe for children and she cannot control her urge to purchase nearly everything she sees. This trip finally forced us to take corrective action to prevent this problem from growing. On their way out, she tried to sneak a $20 bill to our daughter without us noticing. This sent me over the edge. What in the world can a toddler do with a $20 and why does she refuse to respect us and the boundaries we have set?!? We have decided that she is an unsafe influence on our daughter. If she is blatantly trying to undermine us now, how bad is it going to get in the future?

The unfortunate consequence of this is that we are going to have to further restrict their interaction with our daughter – which is a real shame since my father-in-law is a blameless victim in this fight. I am in the process of drafting a contract that we are going to make them read, understand, and sign that clearly lays out our wishes and the rules concerning respect for our family and our rules. So far, I have included notes such as:

  • You may not purchase anything for our children without asking our permission first.
  • You may not give any amount of money directly to our children and you must ask for permission before giving money to us for them.
  • You must respect and obey the rules we have set for our household and our children at all times and in all locations, regardless of if we are present.

It really breaks my heart to have to do this, but it all comes down to the one important principle: We are the parents and it is our house, our family, and our responsibility to set the rules governing them. I really didn’t want to have things end up like this, but you eventually have to put your foot down. Hopefully this will cause my mother-in-law to notice her problem, but I am doubtful this will bring anything but guilt trips.

As a parent, you cannot be afraid to stand up for what you believe is right for your household and your family. Sometimes it means you have to step on some toes, but that is all part of being a good parent. It’s painful at times, but it is too important to ignore.

I Just Paid a Stranger To Mail Me $29 Worth of Worms

Yes, you read that correctly:  I paid a stranger $29 to send me a pound of worms via Priority Mail.  But, you see, these aren’t just any ordinary worms. These are Eisenia fetida, otherwise known as Red Wigglers.

Last week, I stumbled upon a post on DIY Life titled, “Start your own worm composting bin” and I was enthralled.  The idea that one can wrangle a bunch of worms into eating your food scraps and waste paper and turn it into super-charged dirt for your plants or garden quickly caught my attention.  I immediately showed it to my wife and she surprised me by becoming just as excited about the concept as I was.  (I had no idea my wife could be such a tom-boy!)

I am always looking for ways to reduce the trash our house sends to the landfill, but solutions are hard to come across that are both economical and subdivision-compatible. For example, I would love to have a compost pile, but there is no way it would fly in my subdivision.  And I would also love to be able to recycle more, but our area provides no curbside pickup and storing the recyclables until we have enough for a trip to the recycling center quickly becomes unmanageable due to space and bugs.   That is where my wonderful worms come in…

I made an inconspicuous home for my worms to do their work that can stay in or outside and won’t smell or make any noise or look too out-of-the-ordinary.  My starter system was easy to make and relatively cheap.   We were able to purchase a new 10-gallon plastic storage bin for $5 and I already mentioned the $29 for the worms, for a final total expense of $34 – and the great part is, I never have to spend another dime if I don’t want to as long as we take good care of our worms.   Although, I probably will upgrade to a larger wooden box if the experiment succeeds and our worms dramatically increase their population.   (Here is a resource covering one way to build your own worm bin.)

Red worm composting

Once the worm home is set up, you have to put together a bedding of a 6 inches of soggy paper shreds and a handful of compost.  After that, all you have to do is feed your worms a regular diet of common household biodegradable trash (except for meat, oils, and dairy).  That means, if I manage my bin well and I grow a lot more worms, I might never have to throw away any spoiled or scrap food and I could keep my shredded credit card applications out of the trash. Just think, my worms could help save me from the risk of identity theft!

If you want to order some worms for yourself, I recommend Red Worm Composting since the seller is a red worm expert (and blogger) and the prices and quality are great.  My worms should arrive sometime early next week and I guarantee I will be writing more about this experiment after they arrive and when they start showing results.

If you would like to learn more about vermicomposting and building your own worm bin, you can check out these resources:

A Recession Could Do America Some Good

I’m pretty sure I know what you’re thinking… “How in the world could a recession be good?” A recession is a painful thing that nobody likes to go through. It’s an exercise in endurance and it’s all the more painful since we’ve had such outstanding growth since our last recession. But it’s because of that growth that we need a recession.

Let me make an analogy to nature. We need a recession like a forest needs forest fires. A forest fire is a violent, painful experience for the forest and all who live in it. In a matter of days or weeks, everything is seemingly wiped out and reduced to a field of char. But once the flames have disappeared and the rain returns, new life springs from the rubble. The fire removed all the old growth and tree corpses, returned their nutrients to the soil, and prepared the land for new growth. Young trees and grasses sprout again, the animals return, and the now-young forest thrives. It’s a natural cycle that trades shorter-term losses for long-term gains.

Just like the forest, our economy is an ecosystem of a different shade of green. Over time, the shells of dead and dying companies litter the economic landscape, old tried-and-true methods and thoughts aren’t so true anymore, and we discover that we’ve spread ourselves a little too thin. The situation begs for a forest fire to come and clean up the waste.

As we enter a recession, it gives us a chance to analyze our books a little closer. In order to save money, companies and individuals both pull back on the riskier investments, cut what waste they can find, and streamline their operations. In the process, revenues for some companies dry up and, following the Darwinian principle of natural selection, they die and free up their resources for a “better-suited” competitor to take their places. It’s a painful time of contraction with lost jobs, stagnant salaries, and increasing costs. It’s difficult, but it’s all part of the cycle that will make the economy stronger as we leave the recession.

That is, as long as we leave it alone and let it run its course.

Just as the case in nature, when we start messing with an ecosystem we invariably make it worse. By taking drastic measures to preserve our recent “growth at all costs” behavior, we only delay the pain and risk making it last longer or have worse effects. What we’re suffering now is the delayed pain from the tech bubble burst that we just shifted over to the housing market. It’s now a fact that the collective “we” messed up when it came to plummeting interest rates, consumer credit, and sub-prime mortgages. If we don’t let the forest fire come in and burn out our mistakes – if we continue to prop up an economy built on false assumptions – when the fire does come it will have plenty more to burn.

I’m not looking forward to a recession by any stretch of the imagination, but at the same time it’s bitter pill that we must swallow. We have to let the weaker foundations, bad bets, and wasteful investments fail and get out of the way for the growth that will come afterward. The longer we avoid the inevitable, the worse it will finally be.

It’s time to get it over with and take our medicine – let the recession happen and look forward to the field of green that will sprout from the devastation.