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How to Estimate the Cost of Utilities

Utilities Cost Factors
How much power do you actually use? If you love the smell of line-dried clothing, your power bill might not be so bad.
How much power do you actually use? If you love the smell of line-dried clothing, your power bill might not be so bad.
Martin Poole/

There's probably a long list of utilities you use each month, but not every one of them is essential. As far as what you need to live comfortably, you're basically looking at power (electricity/gas), trash pick-up, and water and sewer.

Water and sewer can run the gamut from $10 a month for a small apartment to, say, $200 a month or more for a large home with lots of grass to water in the summertime. Trash pick-up fees will usually stay constant regardless of season and start at around $10 a month for an apartment (possibly with additional fees for recycling).

As far as the essentials go, the single largest piece of your utility estimate is the power, and there are lots of factors that can affect what you pay there. The two root factors are how much power you use and how much that power costs. The former is up to you -- you can switch to fluorescent bulbs or use a clothesline instead of a dryer; the latter is tougher to control.

For gas, which often (but not always) runs dryers and heating systems, the main factors in the cost are where you live and the time of year. Prices fluctuate by region and season.

For electricity, you pay by kilowatt-hour (kW/h), and the factors in that rate include not only location and time of year (summer is usually most expensive), but also the time of day. You'll pay more per kW/h during peak times, particularly early evening.

If you have any money left after power, which can run, say, $30 to $60 a month for a small apartment, you'll be considering the non-essentials like home phone (progressively less essential these days), in the area of $30 to $50 a month; cell phone, anywhere from $40 to $200 a month; Internet, averaging $10 to $50; and cable or satellite TV, which can run from $25 to $150 a month.

Because all of these factors can really add up, you may need to ask yourself some questions at this point, like:

  • What's covered in rent, if you're renting? Is your landlord flexible on covering water or trash?
  • Can you bundle your phone, cable and Internet (or any combination thereof)? That can save you big.
  • Can you lock in a low rate with the gas company?
  • Can you increase your energy efficiency? Switch out bulbs, cool to 78 degrees F instead of 68 degrees F, or set up fans in the summer?
  • Do you absolutely need HBO?

It's a lot to consider. How do you even know how much electricity you can live on? What's your bottom line?

You can go through your current utility bills, research current rates and come up with a fairly precise number.

Or, if you're looking for ball-park figure, there's an easier way…