4 Steps to Absorb the Cost of an at-Home Lifestyle

by Linsey Knerl on 15 February 2011 13 comments
Photo: nyul

We’re homebodies. My husband and I both work full-time from home, homeschool our children, and entertain from our house often. While we save big money on things like car expenses, fuel, and entertainment, we suffer from other costs: sky-high utility bills, a large grocery budget, and continuous replacement of regular household items. The trade-off is still in our favor, but the cost shift can be shocking at first. Here is how you can asses your expenses and make changes to help absorb the cost of an “at-home” lifestyle. (See also: How to Convince Your Boss to Let Your Work from Home)

Even if you don’t homeschool or work at home, these steps can come in handy. If you happen to home educate, have a largish family (or share living space with roommates or extended family), or work from home, however, these steps are essential:

1. Do a Cost Profile

I opened my electric bill today in horror — it was very large for an off-peak month, and we have been dutifully employing energy-saving measures to lower our usage. After doing a brief online audit of where our energy should be expected to go, we compared it to our actual utility bills. Turns out there wasn’t much we could do to shave the costs, but it set a baseline of what we should budget for the high months. See your local utility provider’s website for accurate energy calculators or use this general one.

2. Employ Cost-Savers Where Possible

We did an energy audit on our small, 1,400 square foot home this year and then did several of the following:

  • Used a thermal leak detector to find drafts.
     
  • Put energy-saving power strips on all our entertainment and computer workstations. (If you are not familiar, these not only protect your equipment from power surges, but they also allow you to set your printer, monitor, and other peripherals to turn off when your computer hibernates. The same concept can be applied to video game systems, DVD players, and sound equipment when your TV is turned off.)
     
  • Switched out bulbs that may not be cost-effective. (If you are reluctant to jump on the CFL bandwagon, try downgrading most of your 60 watt traditional bulbs to 40 watts. It helps!)
     
  • Installed water-saving nozzles on our shower and sink faucets.
     
  • Turned down our water heater and insulated the tank.

There are many other steps you can take, but it’s best to just start somewhere and continue making improvements over time. Every little bit helps.

3. Consider Replacing “Up”

One hidden cost to working, learning, and playing at home is the wear and tear to everything. With four little boys constantly running through the home, we’ve found that our 10-year carpet will likely last less than five. Consider the wear and tear you are saving others: schools that don’t have your kids flushing their toilets, office spaces that aren’t absorbing the energy cost of your computer work station, restaurants that aren’t using their own hot water the wash your dinner plates. It’s not that you are using more energy as a home-bound consumer, you are just transferring the usage cost to your own budget. Because you will likely see the useful life of all of your possessions plummet, it’s best to use the replacement opportunity to buy better than you had before. For example:

  • When your carpet goes out, consider laminate, tile, industrial carpet (used for churches and schools), or natural recycled hardwoods.
     
  • As appliances die, consider the possibility of purchasing gently used restaurant cast-offs.
     
  • When you find that the typical particle-board furniture offered by most consumer outlets just can’t handle the hard job of serving your family, look into office furnishings from your local Habitat for Humanity ReStore.

Craigslist is also a great place to find these types of replacement buys. Remember, you will likely pay more up front for the high-quality wares your family will need, but you are buying something that will last through the high usage. Keep it budget-friendly by replacing things only as they wear out, or picking one item a month that fits into its own unique budget category. (This is also a great way to teach kids about good stewardship of earth’s resources.)

4. Use Outdoor Spaces When Possible

I have to admit that one of God’s greatest gifts to my family has been the unlimited free use of the natural world. Sending the boys outside to dig, play, and roam not only saves me some much-needed sanity, it keeps my floors going for another few years. If you find yourself getting a little cabin fever with your home arrangement, look for ways to take your business outdoors — especially if your home office isn’t separate from the rest of your house. Patios, sitting gardens, or even just a picnic table can offer fresh air and a different view, and it costs nothing to heat, cool, or furnish!

Having a work-at-home, homeschooling lifestyle took some adjustment for me at first. While I enjoy the money I’ve saved on some of the more frivolous items I used to buy — and love the time I spend with my family — I never imagined I could be using part of that “saved” money on dish soap, propane, and toilet paper.

What are your tips for keeping home costs down?

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Guest's picture
Emily

We recently ditched our landline for a Magicjack. Saves us $61/month.

I am also growing more and more of our vegetables every year, and now have some potted blueberries and blackberries, with dwarf peach/nectarine trees arriving this spring.

Of course, I take everything to the extreme and even do my laundry by hand, but I don't expect anyone else to take this tip. ;)

Guest's picture

Just keep in mind that MagicJack requires a powered computer to work. We dumped our land-line in favor of cell phones.

Guest's picture
ChopstickHero

A cell phone with a data plan and Skype is a lot more flexible than a Magicjack.

Guest's picture
J.

Also be aware that cellular 911 is not the same as landline 911. Landline 911 notifies EMS of your address, whereas cellular 911 only gives the location of your nearest cell tower, unless you have a GPS. If you have children who might need to dial 911 in an emergency (if the parent were ill, for instance), I would recommend keeping the landline. It's much easier for a young child to learn to dial 911 and say "my mommy is sick" than to give a coherent address. Dropped calls can also be a problem, since many cellular 911 calls are handled by call centers outside the US.

For safety reasons, I prefer to have both a cell phone and a landline. You can get a cheap, "dialtone only" landline service.

Finally, consider getting a phone that does not need to be plugged in to work. It will continue working when the power goes out, as long as the landline still functions.

Guest's picture
indio

I have worked at home for the past 10 years and have a few suggestions to add to your list.
1. start the car at least once a week.
2. only check the refrigerator at meal times.
3. make sure you leave the house at once a day to remind you that there is a world out there.

Guest's picture
Ginger

We save money by using a programmable thermostat but before we got it we just had to remember to turn it down. When you go out for more than an hour, turn it down. Put plastic (from home depot) on the inside of the windows during the winter if you live in snowy climates. Use museums as part of home schooling (bank of america has a deal for free adult passes to some museums, if you have a cc with them, check their website).

Guest's picture

My desk is an old door ($10 from Habitat) on two painted filing cabinets ($10 at a yard sale); I print less; use CFL's; and re-use as much as possible (old jars to hold pens, old boxes to house stationery...). I also find tons of super cool stuff at yard sales - especially kid stuff - why pay more?!

Linsey Knerl's picture

Great comments, everyone! I love that everyone is so creative with their at-home money saving strategies. Keep sharin...

Annie Mueller's picture

Love this article & that you addressed the costs of being at home more... often overlooked. We have three young kids (whom we're planning to home school), I work from home, and we eat/entertain at home 90% of the time. Craigslist has definitely been my friend for good-quality used stuff, and I've found several ways to cut down our grocery bills as well... The utilities, that's a tough one. Old house, inefficient windows, baseboard heaters... our huge fireplace helped a lot this winter.
Still worth it to be home!

Guest's picture
Olivia

We like older furniture anyway and have found great things trashpicking, at yard sales, at auctions, from family, friends and work, even in antique coops (stagnating items do get reduced, ask for a cash discount). If you gather things you really love, they hang together.

On a smaller scale. When our boys were smaller we kept on going back to plastic water glasses. After they started washing dishes we found plastic was better too. It's only recently we've switched back to glass. It would have been wiser if we didn't even try glass until they hit high school. A friend used vintage melamine dishes when her kids were small. Our thrift store "seconds" Pfalzgraff, old airline dishes, and restaurantware held up well. The pretty dishes bit the dust. And we use cloth napkins instead of paper, and clean up rags instead of paper towels.

Guest's picture

This is good advice. It is also important to look at what expenses you are saving, compared to new ones you are gaining. For instance, your wear and tear on your house may increase, but perhaps you are saving gasoline expenses and wear and tear on your car by not having to drive so often for school pick-ups, etc.

Guest's picture
MoneyIsTheRoot

Im not very original so Im not doing anything special other than living with rundown carpeting lol, some older appliances, and just generally holding off on newer purchases. I do wash everything in cold water, and quite hontestly, it conserves your clothing better as well as conserving energy. I have always had a cellphone in leiu of a landline... other than rural areas, where surprisingly landlines are still popular, cellphones are the way to go from now on. Why pay the extra money. Like someone else said, even Skype is a cheap way to go, and i would only suggest this in time of calling someone outside of the country.

www.moneyistheroot.com (yakezie finance member)

Guest's picture

I'm trying to break the land line addiction, myself. It's not easy... I hate having to carry a cell phone with me everywhere.