50 Nifty Tricks for Big DIY Savings
The best why-didn't-I-think-of-that ideas for shrinking your household expenses
Remember when the tightfistedness of relatives raised during the Depression was amusing? Our grandparents' certificates of deposit and plastic couch protectors seemed downright quaint when our own home-equity and retirement portfolios were ballooning. Suddenly, though, the pot-roast-and-potatoes ethic doesn't seem quite so kooky. We'd even say it's worthy of a salute. So tip your cap to all your penny-pinching kin and read on for the best why-didn't-I-think-of-that ideas for shrinking your household expenses, from getting free trees from your town's public works department to installing an under-sink filter to cut costs on pricey bottled water.
SAVE UP TO $50
1. Shorten your dryer-vent hose. First, disconnect it and vacuum it out. Then trim the hose length so that it's just long enough for you to pull the dryer a few feet out from the wall. A short and unobstructed line makes your dryer run more efficiently.
Savings: $25 a year on electric, gas, or propane.
Bonus: Your clothes will dry about 20 percent faster.
2. Borrow specialized tools—gas-powered post-hole diggers and table-mounted routers—from a DIYer in your area for a small fee. Go to Zilok for far better deals than rental retailers offer.
Cost: $1 to $100 per day.
Savings: $50 or more for the same tool at a rental center.
Bonus: Getting to know fellow renovators in your neighborhood with whom you can swap tips.
3. Close closet doors to lower the square footage you're heating (and cooling). Shuttering closets along exterior walls also helps to insulate the house.
Cost: Zilch—although it may take a few minutes for your clothes to reach room temperature before you put them on.
Savings: About $50 per year off your energy bills.
Bonus: You and your guests won't see closet clutter.
4. Choose one neutral trim paint for the entire house rather than buying a gallon of a particular color for each room and using only a fraction of each can.
Cost: You have to forgo the trendy color combos in the paint manufacturer brochures.
Savings: $50 on paint for three rooms.
Bonus: Crisp white trim is always in style, and you'll never have to rummage around for the right can for touch-ups.
5. Sign up for your utility's time-of-use plan.
Many regional power suppliers offer rebates for reducing electricity consumption during periods of peak demand.
Cost: Washing clothes and dishes at night during nonpeak hours, and turning the thermostat up or down a couple of degrees during a cold snap (or heat wave).
Savings: $25 to $50 per month on your energy bills, depending on the season.
Bonus: You're easing the strain on the power grid—and lowering the odds of a blackout.
6. Make your own cleaning solutions using inexpensive kitchen staples, such as white vinegar and baking soda. See The Green Guide for recipes.
Cost: A few bucks in extra pantry supplies.
Savings: $50 or more per year on commercial cleaners.
Bonus: Cleaners that don't contain harsh chemicals are healthier for your household.
7. Turn down the thermostat on your water heater. It's probably set at 140 degrees F to shorten the wait time for a steamy shower. But 120 or even 110 degrees is plenty hot.
Cost: A few minutes with a screwdriver in the utility room.
Savings: $30 or more per year on gas, oil, electricity, or propane.
Bonus: Your kids are less likely to scald themselves if the max water temperature is 120.
8. Install dimmer switches and use energy-efficient halogen bulbs, rather than incandescents. Dimmable CFLs are even thriftier, but some flicker at low power.
Cost: $10 per switch at The Home Depot, $5 for a Philips Halogena bulb at Bulbs.com.
Savings: $20 per fixture on electricity over three years.
Bonus: Halogens tend to outlast incandescents, saving more money over the long haul on replacement lights.
9. Replace central-air-conditioning filters every month during the summer to keep air flowing freely through the ducts and reduce strain on the blower motor.
Cost: About $11 for three filters.
Savings: $40 or more on cooling costs.
Bonus: New filters keep dust and mold from collecting on condenser coils, extending the equipment's life.
10. Get your chimney swept
in the summer for an off-season price.
Cost: Just a little forethought.
Savings: $50 per flue.
Bonus: Get the job done at your convenience because sweeps' schedules are wide open.
11. Use your microwave instead of your range; it consumes half the power.
Cost: $15 for the Microwave Gourmet cookbook at Amazon.com.
Savings: $40 or more per year on electricity or gas.
Bonus: Having dinner ready in a fraction of the time.
12. Use your laptop. It runs on batteries, which use 80 percent less electricity than a desktop computer.
Cost: Being vigilant about unplugging the battery charger once your computer is juiced so it doesn't sap unnecessary energy.
Savings: $30 per year off your electric bill.
Bonus: You can relax on the sofa while perusing coupon sites.
13. Insulate hot-water lines. Preformed foam tubes fit right around the pipes, thanks to a slit along their length.
Cost: 29 cents to 35 cents per foot of insulation, depending on pipe dimensions, at Energy Federation.
Savings: $50 per year on energy.
Bonus: Halving the wait for hot water to reach upstairs faucets.
14. Set up a makeshift kitchen when a remodel project temporarily leaves you without a cooking area. All you need is a prep surface, micro-wave, coffeemaker, and fridge.
Cost: Nada. (Get the work crew to help move your fridge.)
Savings: $50 per day on take-out and Starbucks coffee.
Bonus: You won't pack on extra pounds from stuffed-crust pizza.
15. Choose a light-colored roof. Using pale shingles, particularly if you live down south, will reduce the solar heat your roof absorbs, reducing the need for air-conditioning. Up north, the cooling benefit is offset somewhat by the loss of solar warming in the winter.
Cost: The same as dark roofing.
Savings: $40 per year or more on summer cooling costs.
Bonus: Your "cool roof" may earn you a utility company rebate.
SAVE UP TO $150
16. Get your fall yard-cleanup crew to clear your gutters instead of having a gutter guy make a special trip.
Cost: $100 for your lawn crew.
Savings: $200 or more that you're not paying the gutter guy.
Bonus: There's no risk of gutter gunk being dumped onto your lawn after all the leaves have been blown and bagged.
17. Set your computer to sleep—not just the monitor, but the hard drive, too—so that it automatically dims after 10 minutes of nonuse.
Cost: It may doze off when you don't want it to and you'll have to punch a key to wake it up.
Savings: $75 per year off your electric bills.
Bonus: Like people, screens and hard drives age more gracefully with plenty of rest.
18. Wait to replace your grill, lawn mower, or patio furniture until the fall, when stores mark down their inventory to make room for holiday decorations and snowblowers.
Cost: Making do with what you have this summer.
Savings: $150 or more per item.
Bonus: Retailers—especially online ones, such as Target—often provide free shipping on leftover warm-weather gear.
19. Shop for phone, electric, and cable service at Whitefence; it's like Travelocity for utilities. Enter your ZIP code and compare rates offered by providers in your area.
Cost: A few minutes online.
Savings: Up to $150 per year on your utility bills.
Bonus: The switch to a new carrier can usually be made without an in-home service call or fee, and you can keep your old phone number.
20. Prune that overgrown rhododendron rather than replace it. If the shrub is blocking your front windows, cut it down to 18 inches high in late March. It'll regenerate into the plant you want with routine maintenance in one to two years.
Cost: 1 hour with pruners.
Savings: $100 to $200 for each new mature shrub you don't have to buy.
Bonus: Because the plant is already established, it won't need the intensive watering a new specimen requires during its first growing season.
21. Buy a deluxe battery recharging station and stop using disposables. A combo unit keeps a supply of AA, AAA, C, and D batteries at the ready.
Cost: A one-time investment of $40 for the La Crosse Technology BC-900 AlphaPower charger and assorted NiMH batteries (the best kind) at Amazon.com.
Savings: As much as $100 per year on disposables for dozens of tools and gadgets.
Bonus: Never again having to raid your kid's battery-operated toys to power up the TV remote.
22. Plant a deciduous tree
on the south, west, or east side of your house. Once mature, it'll shade your roof and cut your cooling costs by up to 30 percent.
Cost: $25 to $70, depending on the tree species, at Fast Growing Trees Nursery.
Savings: About $120 per year on air-conditioning.
Bonus: The tree drops its leaves each fall, so you'll still get the warming benefit of winter sun.
23. Skip extended warranties. They're a hedge against the cost of repairing everything from LCD TVs to furnaces. But odds are that you'll never make a claim.
Cost: If something breaks, haggling with the manufacturer to get it fixed for free or paying for repairs out of your own pocket.
Savings: $50 to $200 per warranty that you don't buy.
Bonus: Not getting snagged by the fine print. Warranties may exclude your particular problem or contain a depreciation clause, meaning the product's value goes down as it ages—and hence, the payout shrinks.
24. Comparative shop online for everything from light fixtures to fridges. Then ask your local retailer to match the lowest price you find. Sears, for example, will match most online quotes for appliances and even reduce it by 10 percent of the difference between their advertised price and the better deal you found.
Cost: A few minutes surfing the Web, plus some printer ink.
Savings: $150 off a new French door–style fridge.
Bonus: Better customer service than you'll get online, and no worries about shipping charges or mail-order returns.
25. Install a ceiling fan. In the winter, run it at low speed in a clockwise direction to recirculate the warm air that rises to the ceiling. This will allow you to lower the thermostat a couple of degrees.
Cost: About $200 for the fan.
Savings: $100 per year off your heating bills.
Bonus: Reverse the fan direction in the summer and the airflow creates a windchill effect, making you feel cooler.
26. Get gently used tools, electronics, and furniture from Freecycle, an online community of folks who swap what they no longer need for stuff they can't do without.
Cost: Your fellow Freecyclers expect you to donate items, not just take freebies.
Savings: $75 or more for a new-to-you wireless router for your computer.
Bonus: Freeing up space in your garage and helping reduce the millions of tons of waste dumped into landfills each year.
27. Buy firewood in the spring when it's cheap. Logs will dry out and be ready to burn by the time snowflakes fall.
Cost: Time stacking wood in a dry spot outdoors so that it can season in the open air.
Savings: Up to $100 per cord.
Bonus: In the off-season, you won't run into any shortages of your favorite hardwood.
SAVE UP TO $250
28. Comb through your contractor's bid in search of places where he overestimated your job. For example, if the bid includes installation of a bathroom basin, vanity, and countertop but you've got a pedestal sink, point out the error and ask for a lower price.
Cost: Time reviewing an itemized estimate.
Savings: Easily $200 or more.
Bonus: Using the money you saved to splurge on that high-end overhead light fixture you thought you couldn't afford.
29. Plug in a SmartStrip. Three-quarters of the energy that electronics burn is consumed when the equipment is turned off. Rather than unplug items after every use, hook them up to a SmartStrip surge protector, which automatically kills power to electronics when you turn them off and returns it when you switch them back on.
Cost: $31 for a seven-outlet strip at SmartHomeUSA.com.
Savings: As much as $240 per year in energy costs.
Bonus: Two always-hot outlets ensure that slow-to-reboot devices like your digital cable box can be left on all the time.
30. Raise the deductible on your homeowner's insurance from $250 to $1,000.
Cost: Potentially $750, but only if you make a claim.
Savings: $200 per year or more if yours is a high-value home.
Bonus: You won't be tempted to make a nitpicky $400 claim, which could lead to a rate hike.
31. Toss the extra fridge. It's likely more than 10 years old, inefficient, and sapping tons of electricity. Many utility companies collect old fridges for free or even pay money for them.
Cost: No more stocking up on extra frozen waffles and OJ.
Savings: As much as $200 per year off your electric bill.
Bonus: Your garage or basement just got a lot bigger.
32. Install a shower timer
in the kids' bathroom. The battery-operated device limits showers to 5, 8, or 11 minutes.
Cost: $115 at Shower Manager. (You can install it yourself.)
Savings: $200 or more per year.
Bonus: Speeding your kids' morning routines eases the struggle to ensure they (a) eat breakfast, (b) brush their teeth, and (c) make it to the bus on time.
33. Do your own energy audit. Pick up Black & Decker's new Thermal Leak Detector to find weak spots in your home's "insulation envelope." Fixes are often as simple as installing foam gaskets under switch plates and outlet covers ($3 for 10 gaskets at Home Energy Solutions) and adding new weatherstripping around your entry door ($3 for 17 feet of self-adhesive foam strip at Lowes).
Cost: $40 for the leak detector at Black and Decker (available in March).
Savings: $160 or more per year in energy costs.
Bonus: In addition to lower bills, you'll feel fewer drafts, which will make your house more comfortable year-round.
34. Schedule a furnace or boiler tune-up every year to boost its efficiency.
Cost: $100 to $150.
Savings: $200 per year in energy costs.
Bonus: Tune-ups remove scale, soot, and corrosion, postponing repairs and extending the life of your heating plant.
35. Get the contractor discount on home- improvement products. Many local dealers offer a 5, 10, or even 15 percent discount to tradespeople. So, for example, drop the name of your plumber when buying new bath fixtures. Don't have a pro? Explain that you're contracting the job, and ask if they'll extend the discount.
Cost: Occasionally you may have to do a bit of sweet talking.
Savings: Easily $250 for a new tub, sink, and toilet suite.
Bonus: Once you get in the seller's computer as having received the discount, you likely won't have to ask again.
SAVE UP TO $500
36. Cancel your phone line and replace it with a magicJack, a tiny gadget you insert into your computer's USB port, instantly transforming the broadband access you're already paying for into free phone service.
Cost: $40 for the device and one year of service, $20 per year after that.
Savings: $400 or more per year on land-line phone service.
Bonus: You get unlimited calling, with free long-distance in the U.S. and Canada, and the company says it's about to roll out a feature that allows you to keep your existing phone number.
37. Start wisteria, crape myrtle, or other ornamental landscape plants from cuttings of a family member's or neighbor's plant (with permission, of course).
Cost: $10 for rooting hormone and potting soil at the local nursery, plus a few years of patience as the plant matures.
Savings: $300 or more for a nursery-grown plant.
Bonus: You can carry on a family tradition by putting an offspring of your grandfather's prized redbud in your own backyard.
38. Install an under-sink water filter, and stop buying expensive bottled water.
Cost: $55 for the DIY-friendly Kenmore Single Undersink Drinking Water System at Sears.
Savings: $360 per year on purified water.
Bonus: Reducing the environmental impact caused by the manufacture and disposal of plastic bottles—as well as shipping them to your home from far-flung places like Fiji.
39. Install a wireless light switch. Simply attach a battery-operated device to the wall and screw its receptor into the lamp socket, which then receives the bulb.
Cost: $27 for the Carlon Wireless Light Socket Switch at Smart Home USA.
Savings: $250 to $300 to have an electrician install a switch and snake in wiring.
Bonus: You won't need to patch or paint any holes in the walls.
40. Appeal your property tax assessment yourself. One in three homeowners who do so are successful in getting their fees reduced, according to the National Taxpayers Union.
Cost: $7 for a How to Fight Property Taxes brochure at National Taxpayers Union.
Savings: As much as $400 per year off your tax bill.
Bonus: The tax reduction will last for many years to come.
41. Work with a designer—
lighting, kitchen, bathroom, or interior—from the retailer where you intend to buy your products. Many stores, such as Ethan Allen, offer the service for free, while others rebate the pro's fee against your purchase.
Savings: About $300 per hour that you would otherwise pay for a consultation with an independent designer.
Bonus: These in-store folks know their products well and know what'll work best where.
42. Get free mulch and compost at your town's yard-waste recycling center.
Cost: $30 for pickup truck rental.
Savings: $300 for all the amendments you'll need to fortify and cover your raised beds and foundation plantings, per ¼ acre.
Bonus: Unlike bagged products from the home center, compost comes from leaves collected by your neighbors and the mulch from town tree pruning, so there's little risk of introducing non-native pests or weeds.
43. Cancel your trash pickup service if you currently pay a private company to cart away your refuse. Bring it to the dump yourself.
Cost: A few tanks of gas per year.
Savings: As much as $450 per year to the garbage man.
Bonus: There's no better place to meet fellow townspeople or hear the latest gossip.
44. Lock in a price cap for your heating oil or natural gas when prices are low to protect yourself from rate hikes over the coming months. Check prices at your supplier's website.
Cost: Some utility companies charge a lock-in fee.
Savings: $500 or more on energy costs—if prices climb significantly.
Bonus: Because you're taking a cap and not paying a fixed price, you won't lose out if prices drop, as they did last fall.
45. Replace worn-out air-conditioning equipment (or install a new system) in the winter, when HVAC guys offer discounts to drum up jobs.
Cost: You'll have to keep an eye on the calendar—spring may be closer than you think.
Savings: Perhaps $500.
Bonus: Air-conditioning makers typically provide off-season rebates on the equipment.
46. Get a free tree.
Many municipalities gladly provide and plant ornamental trees in the swath of grass between the sidewalk in front of your house and the street.
Cost: Just a phone call to your town's public works department.
Savings: $300 you don't have to pay for the tree and a professional landscaper to plant it for you.
Bonus: You get free advice from an arborist on which flowering trees will thrive best along your property's border, given such factors as sidewalks, power lines, and snowplows.
47. Pay your January mortgage bill in December to take the interest and property tax deductions in the current tax year.
Cost: Freeing up cash flow to mail your check early. (Make sure the bank processes it before the end of December.)
Savings: About $500 on taxes.
BONUS: Lowering your taxable income may qualify you for child tax credits, Roth IRA contributions, or other benefits that phase out at higher incomes.
48. Choose in-stock materials, including tile, wood flooring, entry doors, or cabinetry, when remodeling. Retailers want to empty their warehouses, which means you'll pay less for the same quality as special-order stuff.
Cost: Fewer choices, but that can be good when you're looking at a thousand different tile options.
Savings: $300 or more on home-improvement items.
Bonus: Not having to wait three weeks for the product to arrive.
49. Pay your property taxes yourself instead of having your mortgage lender do it. If you have good credit, ask your lender if you can set up your own escrow cushion in an FDIC-insured savings account, such as those at ING. These earn around 3 percent interest.
Savings: A check for $500 or more from the mortgage company, which is probably holding two tmonths' worth of tax payments in escrow—plus you'll earn better interest in your own escrow account than what your lender credits you.
Bonus: Paying your taxes every six months (or every three, depending on the town) instead of with your monthly mortgage, gives you more cash-flow flexibility.
50. Buy a new furnace or water heater. The 2008 federal economic bailout package includes tax credits for energy-saving upgrades made in 2009.
Cost: Between $500 and $3,000, including installation, heavily offset by the money you'll save on fuel.
Savings: As much as $500 in federal credits, which come right off your tax bill.
Bonus: You may also qualify for state credits as well as rebates from your local utility company. Find out at the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency.
WE WANT YOUR MONEY-SAVING IDEAS. Tell us how you save money on your home, and you could see yourself in the pages of This Old House magazine.