We're all frugalistas now. With the economy in free fall, it's not merely trendy to reduce, reuse and recycle; it's a matter of survival. As we compiled this year's version of our annual list of things to do around the house, we kept two things in mind: (a) saving money, and (b) living sustainably, which often has the effect of (a) saving money. The old saying of a bygone era echoes: Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without. For lots of us, 2009 will be a year of hard decisions. Here's one that's easy: Make it a back-to-basics year. Clean out the clutter in your home and in your head, watch the pennies and focus on what's important. You'll end the year greener, leaner, cleaner, and with a happier demeanor.
The basics: fuel efficiency
You wouldn't go out of your way to pay $4 a gallon for gasoline, so why spend more money than you must to heat, cool and illuminate your house? These steps are the new normal, the way we all need to live now:
• Replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, which use 75 percent less energy than incandescents and last 10 times longer. They save about $30 per bulb over their lifetimes and produce 75 percent less heat.
They no longer have the ghostly blue or yellow cast or the hum of CFLs in years gone by, and you can find bulbs now that will work in most kinds of lamps and with dimmer switches.
• Install a programmable thermostat. The house will automatically warm up or cool down at times when no one's home, then adjust to more comfortable temperatures when the house is occupied.
About 45 percent of your home energy costs go to heating and cooling. Call your utility company and arrange for an energy audit. The inspector will locate leaks and cracks, check ductwork, measure the level of insulation and recommend where you need more and how much, advise you on how to cut solar gain with awnings or trees, and make other recommendations that will show up in a reduction in your bill. And some utilities offer rebates if you add insulation.
• Turn the thermostat down 2 degrees in winter, up 2 degrees in summer. Pull on a sweatshirt in winter; use a ceiling fan to feel cooler in summer. Each degree decreases your fuel bill by 3 percent.
• Insulate hot water pipes. You can find foam sleeves to slip over them at home centers. Install aerators in faucets and a low-flow head in the shower so you use less water but still get the force you want. Clean or replace furnace filters. Lower the temperature on your water heater from 140 to 120 degrees, and take showers (10 gallons) instead of baths (25 gallons). Water heaters are responsible for 11 percent of your household heating costs. Dry your clothes on a solar dryer — otherwise known as a clothesline — rather than in the dryer. Plug electronics into a power strip and shut off the electricity when they're not in use. All those little red lights — on the coffeemaker, the microwave, the radio, everywhere — are sucking up power; 40 percent of all the electricity used to power home electronics is consumed while they are turned off.
Source: energystar.gov, greenhomeguide.org, thisoldhouse.com, greenerchoices.org
Smart things to buy in bulk
No matter how great the deal looks, ask these questions before stocking up, suggests Womansday.com: Do I have room to store this? Will my family use this before it goes bad? Can I split this with a friend? What can stocking up save me in time and gas?
• Party goods. Plastic tableware and glasses, paper plates, paper tablecloths, gift bags, tissue. Think about the celebrations on your calendar throughout the year and buy accordingly.
• Greeting cards. The 2-for-$1 stores are a good place to pick up an assortment of cards, and even Hallmark has its 99-cent line. Make a list of the friends and family members to whom you usually send cards and buy all at once to avoid the last-minute hunt for a $3.95 card. Cheaper still: Send free cards online at Web sites including hallmark.com, bluemountain.com or americangreetings.com. Or design your own cards and either e-mail them or print and mail them.
• School supplies. Kids use notebook paper, printer paper and markers all year long. Unless you enjoy late-night trips to the drugstore for poster board, stock up.
• Home office supplies. Printer paper, ink cartridges, envelopes, paper clips, felt-tipped pens, note pads, sticky notes, tape, mailing labels, whatever you need. Buy a roll of postage stamps. Set yourself up to pay bills online and you'll save on postage, envelopes, late fees and time.
Think before you drink (or eat)
Take your own coffee to work or brew a pot at the office instead of stopping every day for a $1.85 grande cup of Starbucks' signature Pike Place Roast. A pound of those beans costs $9.95; enough to brew 30 to 50 cups. If you get 40 cups, they'll cost you — wait for it — 25 cents each.
BOTTLE SOME SAVINGS. You can buy a 20-ounce bottle of Dasani water for $1.39 at Publix, or you can buy a 24-bottle flat of 16.9-ounce bottles for $5.99 — that's 25 cents a bottle. Or go green and fill a reuseable bottle from the tap (It's drinkable! Really!)
Indulge, but do it thriftily. Try that great new restaurant, but go at lunch, when things are cheaper. Sit at the bar and order a drink and an appetizer only. Even some chic restaurants offer a deal if you dine early. Appetizers, desserts, drinks and coffee can really add up, so skip them or choose just one. For families, seek out places where kids eat free. Go on your birthday, when some restaurants offer a free entree or dessert. Order takeout.
Use coupons or two-for-one offers. Visit restaurant.com or the Web sites of chain restaurants for coupons and discount gift certificates. (But tip your servers based on the prediscount amount; they're pinched by the economy too.)
The dirty dozen: cleaning jobs we all forget
• Clean the phones. This includes your cell phone. You can see the grime and fingermarks; what you can't see are the germs and bacteria from your nose, mouth and ears. Real Simple Cleaning suggests using a wrung-out disinfecting wipe to clean the keypad, handset and cords. Dip a cotton swab in rubbing alcohol, squeeze it dry, and use it to disinfect the buttons.
• Do the same thing for hand-held electronics, including TV remotes, game controllers and MP3 players. If you have a keypad at the garage door, give it the treatment too.
• Clean the blades of your ceiling fans.
• Walk around the house with a spray bottle of cleaner and a sponge or cloth and wipe away fingerprints wherever you spot them. Likely places: doors and door frames, light switches, the refrigerator door handle, cabinet doors and drawer pulls.
• Do you have a pet? Check out the door frames and the edges of the doors at pet shoulder height. You'll be amazed at the dirt.
• Pull out the range and the refrigerator and clean under and behind them. Vacuum the refrigerator coils.
• Dust the top of the refrigerator.
• Clean out ceiling light fixtures and those at the front entrance of your home. Dump the dead insect bodies; wash and dry the fixtures.
• Wash your car, clean out the trash, vacuum inside. Would a trash container, console or over-the-seat organizer help keep things in order? Pick them up at an auto parts store. If your wipers aren't doing a good job, replace them.
• Clean the microwave. Set a bowl of water inside and wave it on high for three minutes, then let it sit a few minutes so the steam can loosen baked-on crusts. Use a plastic scrubby to work on the tough spots. Then wipe it out with a damp cloth. With the door open, clean the keypad with a soapy cloth, then wipe. Clean the turntable in the sink or run it through the dishwasher.
• If your oven has a self-cleaning cycle, run it. If yours requires a spray-on cleaner, pick up a can and get busy.
• Clean the barbecue. Put the grill in a plastic garbage bag, spray it with oven cleaner, close the bag and let it sit overnight, then scrub with steel wool. (Wear rubber gloves.) Clean the tubes with a pipe cleaner or plastic straw to poke out dirt and spiders' nests.
Concoct your own
Stay clean, green and solvent by mixing up your own natural cleaning solutions.
2 cups water
1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon dishwashing liquid
Mix in a spray bottle. This will break down the waxy residue left behind by commercial window cleaners.
Source: Organic Housekeeping (Scribner)
Toilet bowl cleaner
Sprinkle the bowl with baking soda, add white vinegar and scrub with a brush.
Strong all-purpose cleaner
1 tablespoon clear, nonsudsing ammonia
1 tablespoon clear laundry detergent
2 cups water
Mix in a spray bottle.
See, speak, save
Review your cell phone plan, your land line, cable, internet. What are you paying for? Do you need it? Can you get out of it? A prepaid mobile phone may be a less expensive alternative, Womansday.com suggests. Maybe you can live without call waiting and three-way calling. Get rid of the premium cable channels or your Netflix if you don't use them often. It may be cheaper to bundle services from one provider: TV, Internet, long-distance.
Cleaning products we can't live without
• Goo Gone or other citrus-based solutions that remove the sticky goo left behind by adhesive labels.
• OxiClean, the stain-removing laundry booster.
• Mr. Clean Magic Erasers. We haven't yet found the stain, mark or dirt that these resin-based scrubbers can't eradicate.
Really thrifty things to do
• All that stuff you print out on the computer and then throw away? Give the paper to the kids and let them color on the blank side. Or cut it in quarters and use it as scratch paper.
• Stretch out haircuts. Instead of every four weeks, go every five or even six weeks if your style allows for a little more length.
• Check care labels in your clothes to see if you can wash them rather than dry-clean.
• Bring back the pot-luck supper. Your friends have no more money than you do.
• If you aren't using your gym membership, give it up. Go to "pay what you can" night at local theaters. See movies at matinees, when it's cheaper. Volunteer to usher at local performing-arts halls and see the shows free.
• Look on Freecycle or Craigslist for free stuff people are trying to get rid of.
• Reintroduce yourself to your public library.
• Cancel subscriptions to magazines you no longer read. Or share with a friend.
Give back, get back
• In tough economic times, more people need your help. If you're short on money, give your time and attention.
• Offer to help out at a soup kitchen or other facility that feeds hungry people. These places need your help all year.
• Informally adopt a street or a park where you frequently walk. Make it your business to pick up the litter.
• Give blood.
• Contact an animal shelter and volunteer to walk or play with the animals. They need love. So do you. You'll both get it.
Judy Stark, former Times homes and garden editor, is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg.