With the economy skidding, the stock market crashing and concerns about everything from bank accounts to pension plans increasing, the last thing you want to hear is an expected 15% rise in home-heating costs this winter. Sure, analysts were predicting much worse when oil was trading at almost $150 a barrel. But that's cold comfort for homeowners whose budgets are already stretched thin. Luckily, you still have time to make changes that will keep your house from getting chilly in February. The Energy Information Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, released its Winter Fuels Outlook this week. According to the report, winter heating costs are set to rise, regardless of fuel type. Heating oil and natural gas are likely to lead price increases at 22% and 18%, respectively. Homeowners living in the Northeast, a third of whom rely on heating oil, will be the hardest hit. The problem? Even though the price of crude oil is down, hurricanes Gustav and Ike shut refining capacity in the Gulf of Mexico, which resulted in higher diesel and heating oil prices. And though this winter is supposed to be a little warmer than average, according to the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center, it is still expected to be slightly colder than last winter. So what can you do to weather heating season? You still have a few options to consider. Delivery plans Most delivery services no longer offer budget plans or pre-paid plans once heating season has started. Still, this year has been unusual, to say the least. Many companies changed their normal schedules in the hopes that oil prices would retreat from record highs set in July. It's worth contacting your delivery company to find out whether they offer any heating rate plans that spread costs over the next eight months or so. Just be sure you understand the details of your plan so you don't end up with a balloon payment at the end of heating season.
Efficiency improvements By making your home more energy-efficient, you can reduce the amount of fuel you need. Replace the old weather-stripping on your doors and windows, seal off air spaces in your crawlspace or basement, and get a tune-up for your boiler or furnace. Consider setting your thermostat at a lower temperature -- for every degree you drop your thermostat, you save 1% to 3% of your heating costs. Dropping it from 70 degrees to 65 degrees, for example, could offset the entire 15% cost increase. Check out these other ideas on cutting back your home energy use. Budget changes In order to adjust your budget to accommodate this year's fuel expenses, you've got to come up with an estimate of how much you'll spend. The EIA reported that home-heating expenditures would rise from an estimated $986 last winter to $1,137 this year, but that's a national average based on all heating fuels. Your numbers will vary depending on where you are in the country and what type of heating fuel you use. According to the EIA report, natural-gas users in the South stand to pay 25.7% more this winter ($948 vs. $755), whereas propane users out west will only have to shell out 5.3% more than they did last year ($1,721 vs. $1,635). To find the percentage increase for your location and heating fuel, check out this EIA table. Depending on what you find there, you may need to tweak your budget -- or you might have to make drastic cuts in discretionary spending. If you can't find the extra money, consider getting in touch with a budget counselor. Find a local agency by searching on the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. Many counselors offer free budget advice, while others charge as little as $25.