How to Estimate the Cost of Utilities

Housing costs shouldn't exceed 40 percent of your income. Before you spring for high rent or a huge mortgage, figure out how much will be going to utilities.
Housing costs shouldn't exceed 40 percent of your income. Before you spring for high rent or a huge mortgage, figure out how much will be going to utilities.
©iStockphoto.com/Gwmullis

How much can you afford to spend on housing each month? $500? $1,000? $5,000?

If you can put $5,000 a month toward walls and a roof, you probably aren't too worried about the cost of utilities.

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If you're like most of the developed world's population, though, you're going to have to give it some thought. Once you add up electricity, gas, water and trash pick-up, you could be looking at a bill that precludes the arguably nonessential utilities like high-speed Internet, unlimited texting and HBO.

Rent or mortgage payments will undoubtedly be your largest single housing expense, but utilities will typically come in second -- sometimes a close second. Depending on where you live, how much you talk, how big your place is and how often you run your dryer, you could be looking at $500 a month. Maybe more.

Considering only the cost of rent or mortgage in your housing budget could leave you in a tight spot. And while few people enjoy pouring over past utility bills and the current kilowatt-per-hour rate, it's worth it to know what you'll be on the line for at the end of the month.

It doesn't have to take hours. If you have a plan, it can be pretty quick work. In this article, we'll see how to work up a utilities-cost estimate. We'll go over which factors need to be considered, see how you can use online tools to speed up the process, and check out where you can find some savings in case your final number is too steep.

The first step in ball-parking the cost of your utilities is deciding what "utilities" includes…

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/Thinkstock.com

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).

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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…

Utilities Cost Calculators

Online utilities calculators will help you ball-park your monthly expenses.
Online utilities calculators will help you ball-park your monthly expenses.
Jupiterimages/Thinkstock.com

For trash pickup, you'll have an exact number: Either your landlord is paying it; you're paying it and the amount is stated in your lease (for renters); or you're paying it and you know the price because you set up the service yourself.

The same goes for phone, cable and Internet.

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Energy use is a different story.

If you live in a small apartment and use about 550 kW/h per month, which is about average, and you're paying about $0.10 per kW/h, again the average, you'll receive a bill each month for $55. Easy enough. But how do you know how many kW/h you're going to use?

To get a nice big picture of your electricity expenses, you can turn to any number of calculators on the Internet, provided by power companies, government agencies, energy-efficiency organizations and apartment rental Web sites.

You'll find energy-use calculators that ask some questions about appliances, lights and heating and cooling in order to give you a number, either in kW/h or in dollars. You can also use many of these to find out your local kW/h rate and to calculate how much you'd save by altering your energy habits. For example:

And then there are the overall budgeting calculators that will ask about everything -- phone, trash pick-up, water, student-loan payments, electricity -- to help you get an overall picture of your expenses. You'll find a few of these here:

Most experts say you should spend no more than 40 percent of your income on housing, and that includes utilities. Calculators are a great way to estimate this cost, but other, still simpler options may be available to you. You could ask your landlord, a previous tenant or homeowner, or find estimates online for the specific apartment community you're considering. These approaches may be somewhat less precise than individualized calculations, but they can give you a quick answer as to whether you're coming in below the 40-percent threshold, so at least you know if you're on the right track.

For more information on utilities expenses, budgeting and related topics, look over the links on the next page.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • All About Apartment Utilities. Moving to an Apartment.http://movingtoanapartment.com/first-apartment/all-about-apartment-utilities.htm
  • Creating an Apartment Utilities Budget. Apartment Guide.http://moving.apartmentguide.com/setting-up-utilities/creating-an-apartment-utilities-budget/
  • Energy Use In Homes. CPS Energy.http://cpsenergy.apogee.net/res/refuih.asp
  • Estimating How Much Apartment Utilities Will Costhttp://moving.apartmentguide.com/setting-up-utilities/estimating-how-much-apartment-utilities-will-cost/