50 Ways to Feel Warmer in Your Freezing Cold House (Without Cranking up the Heat)

Winter's here, but it doesn't have to feel that way. Make your FREEZING COLD house way more enjoyable with these heat-saving bill-slashing tips.

I love winter, but everyone around me thinks I’m nuts. Do I know the divine secret to keeping warm all winter? Maybe!

The over-arching theme to all of these tips is to focus your efforts on keeping heat in your house and warming yourself, not your entire house.

Here are 50 ways to feel warmer in your freezing cold house – without spending a fortune. (In fact, most of these tips should save you money in the long haul.)

LET’S GET WARM!!! 

20 Free Fixes

Free ways to be warmer?! Sign me up! Even better, some of these tips can save you more than new windows or appliance upgrades ever will!

1. Lower the thermostat

Sure, every “how to save on heating” list starts with this one, but what does it mean? It means if you normally keep your heat at 72 F, drop it to 66 instead. You’ll survive. Heated air is expensive and it likes to escape, so the best thing you can do is to not produce it in the first place.

The rest of the tips on this page will help you live with the lower temp.

2. Bundle your butt up

Double up on socks, get some nice thick slippers, wear a hoodie over a short-sleeve shirt over a long-sleeve shirt. Shirts within shirts, folks, that’s the secret! You get a choice: be bulky or have a bulky heating bill. The first time I got slapped with a $400 bill for the luxury of wearing a T-shirt in January was the last time that happened.

Level Up House: 50 ways to keep warm in your freezing cold house! Tip #2: BUNDLE UP!

Photo credit: Mark Turnauckas

3. Close your chimney flue

Is it closed all the way? Our flue is stupid and likes to open itself on its own. Leaving a window or a chimney flue open is like opening your wallet and letting dollar bills flutter out.

4. Lock your windows

Locking windows makes the seal a bit tighter. Oh, and duh – don’t leave windows open.  If you do open a window to get some fresh air, shut the door to the rest of the house.

5. Keep outside doors tightly shut

Even if you’re stepping outside for just a few minutes, pull that door all the way closed.

6. Minimize use of your kitchen and bathroom fans.

Kitchen and bathroom fans pull lovely heated air out of your home and into the outdoors. (Wallet, fluttering bills…)

7. Wrap yourself in a blanket.

Be a human burrito. It’s winter, no one will judge.  If they do, give them a good kick.  Kicking warms you up!

human_burrito

You should see her sexy heating bill!

8. Rob a bank

Or just pretend you’re going to rob a bank by pulling up the hood on a hoodie. It’ll trap heat and keep you warmer. Bank robbers might suck at being kind to society, but they do save a bit of cash on not having to keep the house so warm.

9. Drop and give me 20! 

Pushups or jumping jacks will warm you right up – and help negate the effects of tip #14.

10. Move furniture away from vents

If you’ve got any furniture over or near your heat source, it’s probably soaking up that heat instead of letting it float around the room. Try re-arranging your furniture, if feasible, to work better with the heating vents.

11. Open drapes during the day, close ’em at night

If your summers are hot, you’re probably in the habit of covering your windows to try to keep the rooms a bit cooler.  The same principle works in reverse for heating a room: open your drapes and blinds during the day to let heat in, then close ’em up at sunset to keep that heat in.

12. Block door drafts

My first apartment’s doors were the first in the hallway to the outside, so anytime someone came in from outside I’d get a whoosh of icy air under my own door. I wised up and stuck a rolled-up towel at the base of each door.  Instant improvement!  

If you’re crafty, Not Martha shows readers how to make a pretty DIY door draft stopper. And if you’re not crafty, there’s always something like this As-Seen-On-TV Draft Guard.

doordraftstopper_350

DIY draft stopper by Not Martha

13. Take a walk outside

Counter-intuitive, maybe, but a brisk walk in the freezing weather outside warms me up and gives me a new appreciation for the inside temperature.

14. Eat (or drink) something warm

Warm food makes cold temps more tolerable. Food in general kicks up your metabolism, too, so dig in.  That’s what I tell myself as I polish off the last of the Christmas cookies.

warm_up_with_cookies

Photo credit: joyofkosher.com

15. Close the door to unused rooms

If you rarely go into a room, close the door and don’t heat it.  Cold air from the unused room won’t mix with the heated spaces.  Keeping 1500 sq feet warm instead of 1800 sq feet will save you quite a bit of cash.

16. Raise your door thresholds

If you see daylight under your front door, you’re losing expensive heated air through that crack! That metal bar you step over when you go through the door can usually be made taller to close the gap.  Turn the screws counterclockwise until the daylight is mostly gone.  Don’t make the door harder to open and close, just shrink the gap a bit.

17. Plug gaps around electrical boxes

Remove the cover plate from an electrical outlet – is there a large gap between the drywall and the electrical box?  Most hardware stores sell little sheets of insulation shaped like the outlet cover itself to stick in here. (PS: Don’t pump caulk or foam into the electrical box, that’s bad advice that sometimes shows up in lists like this).

18. Typing gloves!

Don’t heat your whole house just so your tiny fingers can feel warm. DIY typing gloves:  cut the fingertips off a pair of cheap garden gloves, and you can still use your keyboard, tablet, and phone while your hands stay roasty toasty. Or, get a nice pair of handmade typing gloves like these from ElenaLittleCreations on Etsy.

50 Ways to Feel Warmer in Your Freezing Cold House: #18 - wear typing gloves!

Typing gloves by ElenaLittleCreations

19. Roast a chicken

Fire up your oven and bake something huge – your whole house will smell great and feel warm and toasty!

kellers_roast_chicken

Roasted chicken credit: Elsie Bauer SimplyRecipes

20. Snuggle up close to someone

The world needs more snuggling.

20 Cheap Upgrades

Easy upgrades that cost less as little as a few dollars and no more than $250.

21. Get a space heater

Drop the thermostat, corral everyone into one room, and fire up a space heater for $BIG SAVINGS$.  It’s way cheaper to heat just one room via a space heater than it is to heat the whole house.

My family used this space heater trick when I was growing up and I use it in my own place now, and it’s seriously the best. It’s below freezing outside as I write this, but I am toasty warm in my heated computer-room cocoon thanks to the space heater pointed at me.

Don’t have a space heater? Browse Amazon’s full selection of space heaters to find the right one for you.

lasko_space_heater

Here’s a nice portable space heater by Lasko. It doesn’t take a huge space heater to make a room cozy.

22. Install a smart thermostat

No, not a programmable thermostat, unless you promise to program it and use it as intended (most people don’t). Read more about the programmable thermostat energy savings myth here and here.

Keeping the house the same temperature 24/7 is expensive and wasteful, but many people do it.  If you have a programmable thermostat, setting it up to lower the temperature during the work day and during the night could save you hundreds of dollars over the heating season.

make your home warmer in the winter with a learning thermostat

It’s crazy popular for a reason – the Nest thermostat finds the most efficient heating routine for your home with almost no effort on your part.

23. Change your furnace filter

A dirty filter makes the furnace work harder, which increases the cost to run the thing and wears it out faster.  This YouTube video shows how simple it is to change a furnace filter.  Measure your existing filter before shopping, since they come in lots of sizes.  Change the filter every 6-8 weeks, or whenever it looks really dirty, for the duration of the heating season.

Shop for furnace filters of every size at Home Depot.

furnace_filters

The humble furnace filter can save you $$$.

24. Upgrade your insulation

You know that fluffy pink stuff that itches like hell if you touch it?  Stapling it into your garage, attic, and crawlspace or basement is messy and unpleasant but should save you some cash.  Even better, a lot of people have a few rolls of it left over from their own insulation, so ask around – I insulated the walls around my first garage door with some leftover insulation from my parents.

25. Wrap your hot water tank

If your hot water tank is in an unheated part of your home, such as your garage, a water heater insulation blanket might pay for itself very quickly.   Many people also report their water is hotter and arrives faster, so there’s that, too.

26. Replace weather stripping

Weather seals compress and wear out over time, making it easier for expensive heated air to escape. ThisOldHouse offers a simple guide for replacing your weather seals.

27. Caulk windows and doors

Depending on your window and door style, a thin bead of caulk applied to cracks between the trim and wall might save you some cash.

28. Locate and fix air leaks

Warm air escaping through tiny cracks and crevices wastes money.  Energy.gov offers a guide on detecting air leaks.  Keep in mind, though, that you do need some airflow.  Blocking everything will cause a moisture build-up, so plug the big ones and then move on.

29. Tape duct cracks

Follow the heating ducts from your furnace: are there any cracks or sags?  You may need to seal (or fully replace) your duct work.

30. Give your chimney a pillow

Your chimney(s) are pointed in heat’s favorite direction: up!  Plug that thing with an inflatable draftstopping pillow.  It’s basically a glorified pool toy for your chimney, and it’s much cheaper than retrofits or new fireplace doors. Sizes vary, so measure before you buy. (PS: Always remove your pillow before lighting any fires.)

Chimney_Pillow_Draftstopper

Plug your chimney with a chimney pillow and keep heat inside where it belongs!

31. Get a heated toilet seat

One of the worst things about lowering your home’s ambient temperature is having to sit on a cold toilet seat.  A heated toilet seat changes everything. I got a UltraTouch Heated Toilet Seat several years ago and it is amazingOne sit and you’re spoiled for life. 

32. Apply window film

Heat lost through windows accounts for 10-25% of your heating bill.  Covering your windows with clear plastic film (find kits at your local hardware store) can reduce this loss. If you want a really cheap window fix, try this bubble wrap window insulation technique.

33. Get a furnace tune-up

For about $80-$100 a technician inspects your furnace to ensure it is performing at its peak.  Doing the maintenance is also a great way to avoid being the proud owner of a dead furnace on Christmas Day, scrambling for your city’s only available repairman.

34. Clean and repair your roof

Moss, leaves, and pine needles retain moisture, so get those things off your roof. Also, repair any existing damage while you’re up there. Replacing damaged shingles and repairing flashing around vent stacks and chimneys will both help your roof last longer and make it a bit more energy efficient.

35. Insulate hot water pipes

Pipes that are warm to the touch should be wrapped to help keep that heat where it belongs (inside the pipe).  Pre-slit pipe foam is available at most hardware stores.  Just cut to size and fasten it in place with duct tape. The catch? Your pipes are probably in your crawlspace or otherwise awkward to access.

Level Up House: Wrap your hot water pipes with foam insulation to keep heat where it belongs.

I wrapped my own crawlspace pipes – took a few hours and several yards of foam insulation. Totally worth it – our crawlspace is exposed to the ambient temperature, and no busted pipes yet.

36. Insulate the attic “access door”

Even if you pumped your attic full of blow-in cellulose, if the access door itself doesn’t lay flat or lacks insulation it’s just another way for hot air to escape.

37. Hang thick curtains

Room darkening thermal curtains are a real thing and they are awesome. Open ’em wide during the day, then close ’em up at night.  The heavier the curtain, the more it will do to retain heat.

38. …or hang thermal liners

I use a Eclipse Thermal Liners on the back of my bedroom curtains year-round.  It makes them heavier, but the liners are very effective at keeping winter heat in and summer heat out.

eclipse_thermal_liner

My Eclipse-brand thermal liner hangs on the backside of my bedroom curtains, which keeps the room dark in the summer and a bit warmer in the winter.

39. Roll out some rugs

Floors can account for up to 10% of your heat loss if they’re not properly insulated.  Mitigate heat loss with rugs (or blankets).

40. Hug a heating pad.

A 50-watt heating pad can make winter so much more tolerable for the always-cold among us.  This Sunbeam Heating Pad is a family favorite.

10 Long-Term Investments

Here’s the big upgrades: for just a few hundred or thousand dollars, you can help your freezing house be a bit warmer for the rest of all time. Unfortunately, most of these things take a long time to break even on.  Still, buying these things make sense if you’re staying a while, or the one you have is already a complete piece of junk, and will help you sell in a buyer’s market.

41. Live in a small home

The practicality of this tip varies by region. Ironically, in my area smaller (1200-1600 sq ft) homes cost just as much, if not more, than larger (1800-2400 sq ft) homes. I think other people are onto this secret. But if you’re choosing between a small home and a larger one, consider the cost to heat the additional space.

42. Replace your furnace

Depending on what you’re replacing, a new model might be way more efficient and could pay for itself in a few years.

43. Install a heat pump

A heat pump isn’t something you just walk into Home Depot and buy – it’s more like a new furnace.

If you live in a climate with mild winters, you’ve probably heard of heat pumps, which move heat rather than generate it. They’re popular here in the Pacific Northwest, and can serve as air conditioning in the summer, but it will will take several years to recover the installation cost.

Read more about heat pumps at Heatpump-Reviews.com.

44. Insulate your attic

Here’s an easy way to tell if your attic insulation isn’t cutting it: icicles are hanging from the edges of your roof.  Ice dams and icicles mean there’s heat escaping from your house through your attic – it goes through the roof, melts the snow, and that snow becomes icicles on your gutters.

We insulated our attic with blown-in insulation (it’s a fluffy cellulose material sprayed onto the “floor” of the attic). Our upstairs used to be “the cold floor” of the house: after the blow-in insulation, it’s now the warmest. 

45. Increase your home’s thermal mass

Heavy materials retain heat better. Mr. Money Mustache wrote a comprehensive guide on the concept of a home’s “thermal mass” – things to keep in mind when choosing materials for your renovations.

46. Replace your windows

New windows are expensive and messy, but depending on how ancient your windows are you may wait as little as two years for a return on your investment.  But most homeowners will wait a lot longer for a return on their window investment (like, a decade). Figure out what windows you have, and compare them to what you’d replace them with, before jumping into a new windows project.

(PS: Windows aren’t just about heat retention. This guide by Andersen Windows points out some of the other advantages of replacing your windows.)

47. Replace your front door

Is your front door super crappy? It might be beyond simple caulking and weatherstripping – replacing the whole door can also improve your resale value (assuming you pick a nice door that suits the house’s design, but you knew that).

48. Insulate your crawl space

Are your floors cold in the winter?  The crawlspace under your first floor might be poorly insulated. Explore EnergyStar’s guide on checking your insulation levels for region-specific information.  (In the meantime, house slippers help a lot.)

49. Get a tank-less hot water heater

Provides hot water on-demand, and the lack of a tank means hot water isn’t sitting around 22 hours of the day doing nothing.  I don’t have a tank-less, but some of my friends do and they love it.

50. Move!

When all else fails, relocate to a warmer climate! I happen to enjoy the cold weather, and I feel bad for people who complain from October to March about the winter season.  Las Vegas and Texas are affordable and booming – check ’em out!

Note to readers: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. They are provided to help you find the recommended product quickly.  If you shop through an affiliate link, a tiny % of your purchase (if you make one) helps support this site with a tiny kickback at no cost to you.  As always, I encourage you to shop around and price compare to be sure you get the best deal!

Dumb Money Mistakes I Made in 2013

I’ve been leveling up my frugal skills for years – I’m well beyond newbie money mistakes like lunches out, expensive TV habits, and retail therapy, but even us high level frugalists mess up occasionally.  My biggest doozies tend to be related to travel.  When I’m in a strange environment, my usual habits don’t serve me.  I’m buying things and services I don’t normally buy, and there’s a lot of opportunity for screw ups.

In celebration of 2014, I’m rounding up the dumb money mistakes I made in 2013!

derp_cash

Derp

Ready to learn from my money mistakes? Let’s start with the biggest:

Didn’t invest my emergency fund: -$6300

derp_cash_pile

My emergency fund sat around earning zero interest in 2013.

Technically, I didn’t lose money, but I missed a great opportunity to earn some. The market climbed in 2013, but I kept my emergency fund ($35,000) sitting in my no-interest Capital One 360 account “just in case”. My Vanguard investments enjoyed a 18.4% rate of return, and my emergency fund missed out!

My obsession with readily accessible cash cost me about $6300 in appreciation. If there was an emergency, I could have sold off some of my investments and retrieved the needed funds.

In the eight years since I established my own home the worst “emergency” I’ve ever seen was for $8,000, when I got a job on the other side of the country and needed to move.  The second worst? That time last year when I paid $3,500 to fix a broken water line under our driveway.  My fund is too big – and too idle.

This year:  I’m shrinking my emergency fund down to $10,000 and moving the rest into a diversified collection of Vanguard funds.

Flightseeing puke-fest: -$800

A spur-of-the-moment decision to go on a flight-seeing tour in a small aircraft left us both puking and ruined our day in Denali National Park.  We didn’t even see the mountain!  We were face-down in our puke bags for a view… of clouds.

This year:  Eh, this mistake was pretty one-off, but the moral of this story is probably to not go flight-seeing. Lesson learned.

Paid for unused landline: -$600

dumb money mistakes in 2013 landline

Paying for cell phones AND a landline – now that’s stupid.

We spent 2013 paying for two cell phones and a landline – that’s one more line than we have people.

We had the landline for two reasons:

  1. Verizon told us we had to have it in order to have FIOS when we first got the house hooked up with service
  2. We liked using our Plantronics headset with it for hours-long calls home on the weekends

A $17 TTY adapter from the Apple store let us use the Plantronics headset with our iPhones, ruling out need #2. But what about #1?

Well, we tried to cancel the Frontier landline back in February but Frontier said they couldn’t do it.  Fast forward to December 2013 when we were feeling angsty about how much we were shelling out for a landline we weren’t using, and tried again – this time, canceling the phone line but keeping the FIOS was no problem.

Why the inconsistency?  Paying for three years of phone service we didn’t need and rarely used cost us $50 a month, or $1800 total since the purchase of this house. Egads.

This year:  The landline is canceled and I’m looking forward to the $50 in savings each month.

Overpriced Hotel Stay: $-260

I bought into the “moderate hotel” hype at Walt Disney World.  We were going to stay at a Disney value resort, but decided at the last minute to go with a moderate hotel thinking the extra $260 would entitle us to comfortable beds and a quiet room.

That didn’t happen – our  hotel sucked.  Port Orleans Riverside has springy flat beds, incredibly loud flush toilets, and just as much noisy foot traffic as anywhere else I’ve ever stayed.  Now, I’ve never stayed in Disney’s value resort, but I can’t imagine the bed or noise being much worse.

This year:  Eh, we’re done with Disney for a few years, especially since the new FastPass+ system spoiled it, but if I went again I’d stay at a value resort.  It can’t be much worse, and the same Magic Hour and free parking perks still apply.

Didn’t scrutinize rental car receipt: -$224

Dumb money mistakes I made in 2013 Dollar Rent a Car rip off

Hidden charge by Dollar Rent a Car for $224 was expensive and anger-inducing.

We were scammed by Dollar Rent a Car in Orlando with a bit of receipt trickery. We declined an expensive add-on, but they sold it to us anyway without our knowledge. Had we unfolded the receipt when we accepted the vehicle, we might have discovered that Dollar sneaked in a hidden charge for an unnecessary $28.99/day “Loss Damage Waiver”.

Update: I got my $224 back, but not without having to complain a lot on Twitter like a crazy person.

This year:  I won’t leave the rental desk until I’ve read every. freaking. line on that receipt. AND THE BOTTOM! AND THE BACK!

Wasted money on in-game purchases: -$210

I work in freemium video games, so there’s some work-related pressure to play along (and buy in-game stuff), but not to the extent that I got carried away. I spent a whopping $210 on in-game stuff over the course of early 2013.  It was fun to win, but it wasn’t fun to be on a never-ending treadmill that pumped out content faster than I could play it, creating an incentive to spend.

This year:  I quit playing. It’s not fun to be hounded for cash just to keep up.  Most of my gaming right now is in premium games, where the first purchase is the only one, though I think freemium can be done well (2011’s Tiny Tower remains my favorite example of freemium done well).

SimCity: -$70

What has EA done to my favorite franchise?  And had I waited 6 months to buy it, I could have gotten it for 40% off, too. It didn’t even run at launch! Stupid.

This year:  Hehe, maybe they fixed it by now. I think I’ll hop in and check it out. :)

Didn’t Sign up for Company 401k

I started a new job in February 2013, but the company doesn’t let employees open a 401k and distribute pre-tax earnings into it until they’ve worked there for 90 days.  Needless to say, I forgot to sign up.  My last two jobs let me sign up for the 401k at the start and I contributed the max and the whole thing ran on auto-pilot, but this new job wanted me to remember to sign up later. Nope, I forgot about it for six whole months.

The impact of forgetting to set this account will be minimal, but I feel pretty silly.

This year:  I set up my automatic 401k contributions in December, which is just in time for the company 4% match to kick in at the start of my second year with the company.  Hooray!

In Conclusion

In writing this, I’ve realized that my money mistakes come in two varieties:

  1. Trusting a company to be honest with me about whether I can opt out of what should be an optional service.  The hard lesson here is no one cares about my money as much as I do.
  2. Thinking a “premium” experience is going to be worth it.  In effort to get “the best experience” (be it a pricey flight-seeing tour, a better hotel, or upgrades in a game), I think we just set ourselves up for disappointment.  Jim and I don’t seem to enjoy “premium” experiences, they never live up to our expectations and we just end up feeling like we wasted our money.

How about you?  Any shameful spending in 2013 you’d like to fess up to?  Tell us about it in the comments!

Black Friday Tips for Sane People

black friday tips for sane peopleI love a deal, but I hate Black Friday. The annual shopping frenzy that encourages people behave like animals for discount microwaves and video games is consumerism at its worst. But it sure is hard to argue with saving a ton of cash.

Three years ago, we closed on our house right before Thanksgiving – the timing couldn’t have been better: our refrigerator, washer, and dryer were all Black Friday deals, which saved us several hundred bucks, and many of the tools we needed were found on discount in December. We also filled out our gaming collection for the year thanks to Steam sales. :D

So what’s a sane person to do? I can’t stand joining the midnight mobs, but I have found ways to take advantage of holiday season sales without going crazy.

Welcome to Black Friday tips for sane people!

black-friday-meme

Plan Your Shopping Ahead of Time

If you must go out on Black Friday, don’t arrive at a store without a plan. Remember, retailers want you to go into the store for one thing and come up with 15 other things.

Browse Black Friday circulars as they become available (or get leaked) on sites like blackfriday.com and theblackfriday.com. Nearly all major retailers have released theirs by mid-November.

Making an Amazon wishlist, even if you also intend to shop in person, can help you track your shopping if you’re shopping for a bunch of people. I like to curate mine all year long to track what I might get when and if it ever goes on sale.

Shop Online

“Cyber Monday” has become more and more of a thing, with retailers holding back some online-only deals until the Monday following Thanksgiving.

Shopping online can net you some nice deals, especially on items in the $20-$100 range. I’m a big fan of Amazon, but you have to keep checking back to find what you need. You also need to be flexible – the deals aren’t predictable, so if you’ve got your heart set on a very particular item, you might not want to wait for Amazon to maybe put it on sale.

Amazon black Friday deals

Time Your Electronics Purchases

Appliances are fine and dandy but what most of us really want are toys! We here at LevelUpHouse are big electronics fans, but we’re only happy when we get a deal. Here’s what I’ve learned in some 8 years of buying electronics during the Holiday season:

Smartphones

Smartphones are expected to go on sale just before Thanksgiving.

It used to be that the only deal you could hope for on an Apple device was a free Apple Store gift card with your purchase. But times are changing: Walmart, Radio Shack, and Best Buy in particular are getting aggressive with their pricing on last year’s iPhone 5 model as well as this year’s iPhone 5C. The previous generation iPad is also on sale at many retailers. If you’ve been thinking about getting an iOS device, this is a good time to grab one.

If you’re thinking about any other phone, pretty much every major carrier is offering some kind of smartphone deal along with a 2-year service plan. Research which phone you want ahead of time, and hit the cellular store with a goal on Friday and you should come out a winner.

Laptops, Computer Monitors, and Computer Accessories

black friday tips laptop dealLaptops and computer accessories usually show up as “doorbusters” on Black Friday itself. I’ve you’ve been waiting all year to upgrade your monitor, this is your chance to do it at a record low price. I’ve personally spent a couple Black Friday mornings camped out (in the freezing cold) for the sake of a good deal on LCD monitors and video game consoles.

Dell.com has a somewhat ominous-looking Black Friday countdown showing the minutes remaining until they reveal their deals. The Big Reveal is a few days before Black Friday, so if you can still try your luck in the stores if you don’t find what you’re looking for online.

Televisions

Thanksgiving Day itself is the best day to snag a deal on a new HDTV. Deals continue into Black Friday. If you want a new TV but you’re not ready quite yet, don’t worry – Superbowl Sunday isn’t far away, so TVs will go on sale again real soon in February.

Video Game Black Friday Deals

black friday for sane people2013 is a special year: two new gaming consoles are coming out this holiday season, the XBox One and the Playstation 4. But don’t expect any deals on the consoles themselves – new consoles never get discounted on their debut Black Friday.

But deals on games are a given – Thanksgiving and Black Friday are the days to shop (in person, alas) for video games. Cyber Monday doesn’t get quite the same discounts, probably because retailers are using video game deals to lure people into stores where they can buy bigger, more expensive things.

We’re PC gamers in this house, so we usually stock up on the Steam sales, which offer discounts on games, DLC, and game bundles. It’s unusual to find a discount on brand new releases, but if you want to back fill your catalog a bit and pick up some of the games you missed out on over the last year, the prices get crazy low (like, under $10 for lots of titles).

The best part of shopping on Steam? You don’t even have to freeze your ass off in the cold like we did for our Wii many years ago.

wii_camping

Black Friday for insane people: Back in 2008, Jim and I got up early to stand sub-zero Chicago temps for a Wii ticket.

Shop the “Other” Days

Black Friday isn’t the end of the discount season – it’s the beginning! The weekend after Thanksgiving in particular is known for appliance deals, and the entire month of December usually gets good discounts on house tools.

The weekdays following Black Friday, December 4th in particular, have lower store traffic and better customer service, with many of the same great holiday deals.

Start Shopping Now

It used to be that the deals didn’t start until Black Friday itself, but in the colossal effort to out-do each other, retailers are rolling out sales earlier and earlier.

A walk around the mall in early November shows plenty of sales already in effect. Shopping ahead of Black Friday might not guarantee you the lowest price, but it might help guarantee you leave the store with what you came for.

Dealnews.com styles itself as a “year round” Black Friday site. If nothing else, getting an early start on your shopping can save you stress and anxiety as the holidays approach.

Hit up Smaller Retailers

black friday tips for sane people shop local businessIn 2010, American Express (the credit card company) started promoting “Small Business Saturday” – which is ironic because small retailers are the most likely to not accept my AmEx card.

Regardless of the origin of Small Business Saturday, doing some of your holiday shopping at a local business can help you avoid the crowds, connect you with good service, and support your local community.

Two Ways to Skip Black Friday Entirely

The easiest way to stay sane on Black Friday is to just not participate. Obviously, this article was written for folks who do want to participate, just without going crazy, but for the truly bold I give you two strategies that Jim and I have utterly fallen in love with now that our needs are taken care of:

Help Someone in Need

KITH-Logo

KITH, my favorite charity, helps the local homeless start anew. No matter where you live, there’s a charitable group near you who would love your support this holiday season.

Here’s an easy and inexpensive way to feel good this holiday season: buy a toy for a toy drive. Give $25 to a cause you believe in. Put your money somewhere where it can do good, and you’ll feel good year after year.

I want to help the homeless, so I donate to Seattle Union Gospel Mission and KITH, two organizations right here in my own neighborhood giving homeless people meals, safe places to stay, and assistance in starting a new lives. It’s super inspiring to think that money I’d have spent filling space under the tree is helping someone feel hopeful about their life instead. I love giving to these organizations.

Focusing on your own needs counts, too. Skip the trinkets and buy yourself or your family that practical thing you’ve been wishing for, whether it’s a new appliance, tires for the car, or some cash in a savings account. Sure, it’s not as glamorous, but it sure is practical – and you’ll thank yourself come January.

Go somewhere!

Here’s a tip: many tourist destinations are complete ghost towns in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas (including Disney World!). Airfare is low, lodging is cheap, and you get the airport to yourself. Skip the shopping and go lay on a beach. Or ski the mountains. Whatever you do, it’s probably cheaper (and more memorable) than anything you could buy on Black Friday.

Travel between Thanksgiving and Christmas - no one else does!

Travel between Thanksgiving and Christmas – no one else does! I took this photo on December 7th, 2012, of SeaTac International Airport. I’m sure it was a zoo two weeks later.

PS: And whatever you do, don’t shop at Walmart. Walmart is for jerks.

How to Survive When Life Suddenly Gets Expensive

Typical budget advice goes along the lines of “set aside X dollars for Y each month”, and “don’t exceed your spending cap”. But life isn’t predictable.  Or at least, mine isn’t.  Mine’s more like: spend spend … dry spell … spend spend … dry spell … OMG, EMERGENCY! SPEND! SPEND!

June brought us some nice new things… and some budget spoilers:

– $1000 couch (planned – couch budget was $2500)
– $1200 TV (planned – bought with leftovers from couch budget)
– $600 car insurance payment, which is billed every 6 months (planned)

– $225 for nine inch nails tickets (surprise!)
– $520 on a dental crown for me, yay :(  (surprise!)
– $900 on a root canal (surprise!)
-$300 removal of two cysts for me, yay (surprise!)

Holy medical and dental batman, and that’s with insurance coverage for medical and dental.

A common thread: All of the surprise items came with a time imperative.  I’m can’t ignore “my-face-is-melting” pain just because I didn’t know to budget for a root canal it going into the month, that’s nuts. Time imperatives are where debt is born. A problem needs to be solved right now, and there’s just no waiting.  The only thing that can save you (and your budget) at that point is a well stocked emergency fund.

Savings vs. Emergency Fund

You must build an emergency fund, because shit like this happens at the worst times.  It’s a rule of the universe: you lose your job, then a major appliance breaks.   You need dental work and your favorite band ever is suddenly touring and tickets are 100 bucks a pop.

“Emergency fund” is a term that gets bandied about a lot on personal finance sites, but I think it’s easy to confuse “savings” and “emergency fund”.

What’s the difference between savings and an emergency fund?

  • Savings = money you “flag” (mentally or physically by moving it to a special account) as being for a certain thing.  You might set aside money for something abstract, such as “the future”, or something concrete, like a piece of furniture, anticipated medical expenses, or perhaps (if you’re super lucky) a vacation.  It’s not “emergency fund” money and you should think of this as money you spend very deliberately at some point in the future.
  • Emergency Fund = money you keep “just in case something horrible happens” is your emergency fund.  You don’t know what this money is for, but when you need it you shouldn’t be raiding your “future” fund or your “new couch” fund to cover the emergency.  This is for the completely unexpected: you get a flat and need a new tire. You need emergency dental work. An appliance in your home breaks.

How much should be in the emergency fund?

Well, this one’s going to vary person to person, based on location and standard of living, but if I had to put a number on it I’d say $4,000.

Why $4,000?

  • It’s enough to cover you if  dental work and car repairs decide to screw you simultaneously
  • If you’re a homeowner, $4,000 will replace any major appliance except perhaps a furnace
  • It’ll also cover a $3,500 water line, should yours blow up right after you lose your job
  • For many people, $4,000 might get you through two whole months of rent/mortgage, basic utilities, and food (more or less, depending on your cost of living)
  • It’s a down payment on a replacement vehicle if something happens to yours

Having $4,000 set aside but immediately accessible for “whatever crazy shit happens” is what makes me comfortable – your own number might be higher or lower.

Where to keep it?

I keep my emergency savings in the checking account I share with my husband.  The money doesn’t earn interest, but it’s readily available.

My Savings and Emergency Fund in Action

New Couch & TV – from savings

The couch budget was about $2500 worth of savings that we’d set “tagged” as being for a couch we could both fit on at the same time.  After 6 years of sharing our too-small sofa we decided we deserved a nice piece of furniture that could meed this basic need.

In the first week of June, we got a fantastic deal on a huge couch we loved from IKEA.  Rather than sock away the rest of the couch budget into regular savings, we splurged on a new television.  Probably not the most frugal thing to do, but we were feeling saucy after saving so much money on the sofa itself.

Had all the surprise dental work come earlier in the month I doubt we’d have gone couch and TV shopping, but alas, we suck at seeing the future.

$2200 from savings.

Nine Inch Nails tickets – from savings

Omg, I can’t miss NIN.  Spending money on experiences is said to be better than spending money on stuff, and NIN shows are one of my most favorite experiences. For me, frugality is about “what can you do without so you can afford the things you really want?”.

This is what savings are for, I told myself as I bought a pair of very expensive concert tickets.  I know I’ll have a great time, and hey – at least this time we’ll save on train and hotel tickets since nin’s actually playing in our city now that we live by Seattle.

$225 from savings

Car insurance payment – from savings

I hate this expense but there’s not much avoiding it. A car is necessity for us right now, and while I shop insurance quotes every couple years this is still the best rate I have found. I won’t plug my insurance provider here – at $1200 a year for two ordinary vehicles and two drivers with perfect records, they can spend some of that on their own advertising.

$600 from savings.

Dental work – from emergency fund

My dental work came out of nowhere.

I found out in May that I would need a crown to attempt to salvage a cracked molar, but I wasn’t told the cost until the day of the procedure.  I suspect this is a common tactic. Once I’ve gone through all the trouble of establishing myself as a patient of a dentist, setting up an appointment and getting the time off work, I’m unlikely to walk out of the office after hearing the price and just begrudgingly pay it.  After all, I was in pain.

There must be a way to price-compare procedures across dental offices. My parents tell me crowns run them about $900, not the $1400 my dentist charged me (which was reduced to $520 after insurance kicked in and after I didn’t need a portion of the procedure they thought I would need).  At that price difference, I could fly to Illinois for my next crown and still have money left over.

What I didn’t know was that I would need a root canal after that crown.  The crown made the pain worse, and while that was a known possible outcome of the crown procedure, I was pretty cheesed that my pretty new crown had to be drilled into and filled afterwards.  Next time, root canal goes first.

$1420 from emergency fund.

Medical bills from emergency fund

I had a couple cysts cut off my right pinkie finger and my right ear in May.  Nothing major, just little lumps that were painful when pressed.  That was in April, a procedure which I paid a $20 co-pay for. I sort of expected that to be the end of it. Then I got a $300 bill in the mail in June.  This is a symptom of the dysfunction that is our medical insurance system here in the United States.  You don’t get to know how much of a procedure is covered and what the cost will be until after you buy it.

$300 from emergency fund.

Moral of the Story

Your emergency fund will save your ass someday.  Plump it up with regular feedings!  My emergency fund provided a cushion for unexpected expenses so normal expenses and planned purchases were able to happen regardless of any crises.

Thanks, past self, for setting aside the cash for this stuff. :)

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