Publish date:

Don't Let High Heating Costs Melt Your Budget

Don't get steamed -- try these tips.

It's going to be expensive staying warm this winter.

According to a recent report released by the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association,

winter home heating prices are expected to rise for all families, reaching record levels for those who use heating oil, propane and electricity to warm their houses. Those who use heating oil and propane, in particular, will be taking a hit to their wallet with an expected 28% increase in heating oil and 30% increase in propane costs. The average family using heating oil is expected to pay $1,834 this year, up $402 from last year while those using propane will see their average cost rise to $1,732, an increase of $384.

Those that rely on electricity and natural gas won't feel the pain quite as much, with

single-digit increases forecasted. Those using electricity will pay $883, an increase of 7%, or $58, while those using natural gas will average $881, up 5%, or $50.

While prices will be increasing, you don't necessarily have to pay those average prices -- there are a number of ways that you can easily reduce the amount you spend on heating this winter:

Shop around:

Many people still don't realize that they may be able to shop for the best price on the fuel they use. Before you even begin to look at ways to conserve energy, make sure you're getting the best price for the energy you're purchasing. While not everyone has competing energy suppliers available where they live, more and more people can take advantage of this and save 10% or more. Those who use heating oil and propane usually have the choice between a number of suppliers to fill their tanks, and more and more states are allowing competition between electricity and natural gas suppliers, giving consumers a choice and savings here, too.

Get an energy audit:

The first place to begin with energy conservation is to get an energy audit of your home. Many utility companies offer this service at a low cost, or even for free. An energy audit will identify areas where heat is escaping, such as around doors, windows and fireplaces, and offer suggestions on how to solve the problem areas. Fixes can be as simple as using caulk, door sweeps, insulation and weather stripping. Some energy companies will even offer to subsidize these materials to encourage you to make the changes and reduce your heating bill. Simply call your utility company and ask if they offer energy audits.

If your utility company doesn't offer energy audits, you can use the

Home Energy Saver self-audit program, which will allow you to compare your energy-use statistics to others living in your area. If the results indicate that you are paying significantly more for your energy use than other homes, it makes sense to hire someone to come and do an energy audit even at full price.

TheStreet Recommends

Buy a programmable thermostat:

If your house still doesn't have a programmable thermostat, it's time to invest in one. Not only will this allow you to wake up in the morning to an already heated room and return home to a house that is nice and warm, you will be saving money in the process. If a programmable thermostat is not possible, be careful not to fall for the common energy waster of setting the thermostat at a higher temperature in hopes it will heat up the house quicker. This doesn't speed up the process and will waste energy by making your furnace work harder and likely overheat the rooms.

Forget the fireplace:

That nice, warm fire in the fireplace is one of the least efficient ways to heat your house, especially if it is not designed specifically to generate heat for the house. In fact, your fireplace can actually make heating your home harder. Fires need air to burn and they suck up all that warmed air in the house and deposit it up the chimney. That means your heater is forced to heat up more air which is then sucked up the chimney again. While there are times and places to build a nice fire, don't do so thinking that it will save you money on your energy bill -- and be sure to turn off your heater.

Don't leave ventilation fans on:

People don't realize how much money they can blow outside by accidentally forgetting to turn off a ventilation fan. Make sure you use ventilation fans in bathrooms and the kitchen only when they are needed. These fans can suck all the warmed air out of the average house in about an hour, meaning your heater will have to work overtime to keep the house warm.

Don't forget proper maintenance:

When is the last time that you had someone take a look at your heating unit? If you can't remember, then it's time to have someone come out and take a look. When they do, spend some time with them and ask what basic maintenance you should be doing and how to do it. For most heating units, this is easy. Heating filters should be changed every month to make sure that the airflow is good. If it hasn't been looked at lately, it's likely running inefficiently and using more fuel than it needs to. Keeping it properly tuned will also ensure that your heating unit will last as long as possible and decrease the chance of having problems in the middle of the winter -- when repairmen are busiest and charge the most.

The shower is not a heater:

While it can be quite tempting on a cold morning to stand under a hot shower to help warm up your body, it certainly isn't a good way to conserve energy and lower your energy costs. While you probably don't want to begin taking

Navy showers, you also don't want to spend extra time in the shower just to stay warm.

Spending a little time now to prepare your house for winter and making a few adjustments to your habits can help you defy the averages and keep this winter from being the most expensive one ever.

Jeffrey Strain has been a freelance personal finance writer for the past 10 years helping people save money and get their finances in order. He currently owns and runs