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The Accidental Environmentalist

   Posted On: March 27, 2013  |    Posted In: Random  |     Posted by: Broke Millennial®

One of the many financial shocks to millennials entering the housing market are the delightful hidden expenses known as utilities. Okay, maybe they aren’t exactly hidden, but when you live in New York and spend upwards of thousand dollars for a shoebox, it’s tough to see those first few utility bills. After the first couple bills the shock begins to wane, a similar experience to no longer being startled awake by ambulance sirens and gun shots. Just kidding, I never hear the ambulance sirens.

Some landlords are kind enough to include gas and hot water with rent but electricity is the true financial burden. The first time my roommate and I got a bill from Con-Ed (NYC’s delightful electric company) it read $1,000. Now, I didn’t know much about how electric meters worked, but a grand seemed a little steep. Luckily, the meter was broken and we didn’t owe even a tenth of the original bill, but the mild cardiac arrest I suffered had lasting effects.

For starters, I’m still a little scared to open our electric bill. The fact that the amount due fluctuates monthly really messes with my budgeting style. Even worse, the entire billing system is shrouded in mystery. Each month feels like a chess game, Broke Millennial vs. the geniuses at Con-Ed.

In order to out maneuver Con-Ed, I came up with some pretty sneaky tactics to lower our electric bill. I became something of an accidental environmentalist in the process.

** I realize how extreme some of my methods may seem, but I really, REALLY like saving money. My first year in New York I was also really, REALLY broke.**

My roommate and I moved into our apartment in July of 2011. If you’ve never experienced summer time in New York City, you’re lucky. It doesn’t have the blazing heat of Texas, but what we lack in temperature, we make up for in the stench of hot garbage and lack of central air conditioning.

Most apartments in New York do not come equipped with air conditioners so plenty of city dwellers stick portable ACs in their windows and pray the unit doesn’t fall out on an unsuspecting passer-by. The first summer, air conditioners represented one thing to me, wasted money. The cooling breeze offered me no relief. Instead, each blast of cold air represented the hours on my feet at Starbucks or changing dirty diapers while babysitting. I decided to forgo an AC and embrace the heat.

The fan in my room made the journey from college to the Big Apple. The best part about that old fan was the timer setting. Each night as I drifted off to sleep I set the timer for one hour. I would be lulled to sleep with the tickle of a cooling breeze which would promptly shut off during my slumber. Sure, some nights I’d wake up drenched in sweat, but that sweat represented all my saved dollars. It was worth it!

HPIM8439(I highly recommend investing in fans with a timer setting. And perhaps occasionally dusting them.)

I also got in the habit of freezing bottles of water and putting them next to me in bed. Don’t worry, I wasn’t buying bottled water! They supplied us with bottled water at work and I always brought my bottle home. See, accidental environmentalist.

HPIM8434(Mr. Bunny displays the effectiveness of the frozen water bottle plan.)

In addition to rejecting ACs and only using the fan a few hours a day, I became neurotic about unplugging anything that wasn’t in use. Lamps, toasters, microwaves, computers, hair dryers, if it had a plug (and wasn’t the fridge) it got yanked out of the socket after serving its purpose. Later I read that environmentalists have started pushing for people to conserve energy by doing the same thing, I guess I’ve just always been a trend starter.

In addition to obsessive unplugging, lights were turned off as soon as we left a room, even if we planned on coming back only a few minutes later. Not only did it save on the electricity bill but the practice extended the life of our light bulbs.

I’m proud to say that our electric bill has never been over $54. In the summertime it’s typically around $35 total, not each, because we use natural light all day, only turn on the lights after the sun sets and keep our fan usage to a minimum. To compare, friends of mine that each use an AC in their rooms during the summer see electricity bills of $100+. They’ll argue that the extra $70 is worth being in the cool air. I respect that, but just don’t agree. I’ll strut around in my bathing suit carrying my frozen water bottle to save seventy bucks.

HPIM8440(The anxiety inducing Con-Ed bill.)

As a side note, our water bill is covered by our landlord. Otherwise there would be a two song policy for showering. No epic rock anthems like Hotel California, we’re talking awful modern pop tunes like Party in the USA to make rush through the shower just to shut it down.

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44 responses to “The Accidental Environmentalist

  1. how do u deal with the condensation that will be formed from your frozen bottle wetting the bed? do u put them inside a plastic bag? or maybe new york gets low humidity so it does not happen.

  2. I do the unplugging everything too – Max says it does not work lol (ok maybe he just does not like coming home after work to his dead laptop after I unplugged it…) hehehe. So we compromised and unplug everything except for the laptop. We also payed attention to the positioning of our apartment when we were shopping for our new place. My room at my parents house faces the sun all day long and in the summer the head is unbearable without blasting the $ AC $. With out apartment we didn’t even need to turn the head on in winter (because we get the right amount of light and are in between other units – not the end apartment). Hopefully in the summer we have the same effect with less sun coming into the apartment 🙂 meaning less aircon!

    1. I had doubts about the unplugging situation too, but the low bills prove it to be effective. The positioning of the apartment is right on the money. We’re fortunate to have LOTS of windows so we get great cross-ventilation in the summer time and plenty of natural light.

  3. That is hardcore. I am the opposite. I actually purchased a window A/C unit to save money. We live in a nice home, but the central air is way too small for the size of home (blame the builders). If we wanted to cool our home, we would be spending around $175 a month, so I purchased a window A/C unit for your room, just at night (I cannot sleep when I am warm, just can’t do it) and it has saved us quite a bit of money. Our summer electric bill is usually hovering around $65 – $70 a month. That is something I can deal with.

  4. Man you are awesome. $39 for electricity is amazing. My wife thinks I’m crazy because I’m always trying to turn off the lights when we leave a room. “I’m going back in there in a minute”. That doesn’t make sense to me whatsoever.

    I’ve kind of been an electricity-saving buff for a while. We have solar panels on the roof now, and a smart thermostat. We program it to only heat the house when we’re home and awake. Otherwise it idles, therefore saving us money. Still after everything I do to save in this area the budget billing is set at $102.50 every month. But our house is close to 2,000 square feet.

  5. Brooklyn here, in non-summer months my electric bill is $40. I think the highest it was last summer was $70 total. I got an A/C unit for free (yay mailing lists) and put it in my bedroom to use when I sleep. I am down right miserable in hot weather so the extra $30 in electricity is worth it to me. However, I refuse to put a second A/C unit in my living room and just use a fan in there instead. It’s good enough.

  6. Such a great post, you kind of remind me of myself 🙂 I unplug everything too and I detest to an AC, but the man of the house wants one :p So I turn it off when he’s no around (And also unplug it LOL) Which he also detests too! Love your blog ! 🙂

    1. Thank you so much! I really appreciate your kind words. Plugging things into a surge protector (with an on/off switch) is a sneaky way to be able to turn off the power to appliances without unplugging everything! I do that for the lamps and laptop in my room.

  7. bf pays the electric bill so I don’t complain about the AC (and some days I’m thrilled we have it). We just bought a new more energy efficient model for this summer-hopefully that will bring the bill down at least a little bit. Right now it’s stilling in our guest bedroom in it’s box. God bless the two men who had to carry it up 3 flights of stairs. Hadn’t thought about the water bottle idea, smart!

    1. Is there a certain company/model you trust for energy efficient AC units? I probably would have just tried to find one on craigslist and not put that thought into it (when I eventually feel “rich” enough to spring for one).

  8. I’m envious of your utility bill! Mine is a few multiples of that, considering Con Ed’s bill rate that’s very impressive! I grew up in NYC so know how oppressive the heat in the summer can be. I remember way back when, my brother and me sleeping on the floor (with sleeping bags as a cushion) in Mom and Dad’s bedroom because they had the only Air conditioner in the house! Here in NC you almost have to have A/C of some kind, the humidity is so bad in the summer that you would have serious mold and mildew problems without one.

    1. I’m from NC originally and spent a lot of my childhood in Japan (really high humidity there too) so I think that’s why I can deal with the heat here! Missing that glorious NC weather right now. NYC just won’t warm up for spring!

  9. We don’t have AC either but we live relatively close to the beach, so it’s normally quite pleasant, minus a few uncomfortable days. 🙂 I always think – you gotta do what you gotta do! 🙂 And it’s amazing how we adjust. I’m sure the first few nights are tough when summer rolls around, but then your body adapts. I trained my girls to turn off lights and electronics by making it into a game. The electric bill has a graph showing usage, so every month we see how we did.

  10. That is an epic sized electric bill! Well done!
    My wife and I are about to move to Texas so we are looking a ways to save on cooling. We might get a small A/C Unit, but perhaps we’ll just use fans and open windows at night…

    I’ll definitely be back to get more ideas from you. Great site!

  11. Way to go! I keep telling people that there are so many ways around giant electric bill, but what they need to see is an example. Nice job conserving energy. How many kwh did you use? Also, do you have a demand charge ($/KW)?

  12. Geez this reminds me of when I lived in my student house over the summer last year. I live in Ontario where summers are humid and hot. We didn’t have an air conditioner so we survived with fans (a fan with a timer would have been even better). I’ve also heard of freezing your sheets and then pulling them out right before bed. Crazy stuff students/people on a budget do. These are some interesting tips for sure.

  13. How funny. I’m glad your roommate is on board with saving money on the electricity bill (I’m presuming that he or she is taking similar steps to save money on heating and cooling). It’s always tough when roommate goals don’t mesh

    1. Yeah, my roommate has been great about adapting to my frugal ways. She’s pretty into all the unplugging in the outer rooms. Not sure if she does it in her room. We decided up front that if she wanted to use an AC that would be fine, but she would have to pay a little more for the Con-Ed bill. She went with the fan/open window method.

  14. What’s also fun is that our apartment started out purposefully environment-friendly and accidentally frugal.

    In my past NY summers, I stay out of the house as much as possible, wear as little clothes as is sensible with two roommates, and take a cold shower before bed (in addition to a morning post-run/gym shower). I also switch to my recipes that don’t need as much cooking; this includes your everyday sandwiches and salads, but also ceviche, kinilaw, guacamole, hummus, pesto, and so forth…

  15. A fine with a timer is genius! I got mine for free from the dorm donation bin when everyone was moving out for the summer and ultimately just threw a bunch of stuff out (Yes, technically it was like dumpster diving in a big cardboard box, but I’m not ashamed). If this one ever dies I will definitely invest in a fan with a timer.

    Also, freezing a water bottle… GENIUS!

    1. My set of knives are from dumpster diving int college. No shame in a good dumpster diving session. Senior week was THE BEST for getting people’s discarded goods! A friend of mine even scored a TV once.

  16. I’ve NEVER had an air-conditioner, and I also live in NYC. You’re right–the heat is intolerable. My incredibly ghetto-but-helpful solution is to freeze towels and drape them over myself, toga-style, while sleeping. It’s easier than freezing sheets, and it works.

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