How Much Should You Plan for Utilities?

Our readers often ask how much they should budget for utilities, so we thought we’d give a brief refresher course. We’ve listed some usual utility categories and some thoughts/pricing for each. At the end, you’ll find the estimated total cost per month. (The cost estimates are for a typical one to two BR-sized first apartment.)

Heat

The cost of heating can vary wildly, and can make-or-break the cost of an apartment. So let me break it down by types:

Radiator-Based Heat in Multi-Unit Building: if you are in a multi-unit, radiator-based building, there will almost certainly be no extra charge for heat. This is because there is no way for the landlord to determine which unit used how much heat, and therefore, the landlord will pay the building’s heating bill in total. In this situation, the cost of heating is built into the rent.

Radiator-Based Heat in a House: if you and some friends decided to team up and rent out an entire home, you may then be on the hook for the radiator-based heat. Heating a whole house could cost over $300 a month, though this would likely be split three or four ways.

Gas or Forced-Air Heating: In the winter months, this can be quite expensive. Budget at least $100 a month in the deep winter, though the cost can vary based on the size of the apartment, the quality of insulation, and the efficiency of the heating mechanism. One good way to find out is simply to ask the landlord or previous tenant, since each building will be different in its heat costs.

Summary: Heating can be a bug-a-boo, and can effectively raise your rent by $100 or more a month in the winter. Make sure you know how much you will have to pay before you sign the lease.

Electricity

Before we consider the cost of air conditioning (which is usually included in the cost of electricity), let’s just focus on the electric bill without A/C.

During winter months, or if you don’t use air conditioning, it is reasonable to pay between $30-50 a month in electricity. There are ways to lower this bill, such as turning off lights, fully powering down appliances, and using compact fluorescent light-bulbs. However, a lot of your bill will simply depend on how much you’re home, how much you watch television (tube TVs are big electric drains), how efficient your refrigerator is, and how careful you are about turning off lights.

Summary: Electricity is necessary, and it will cost you about $40 a month, if you’re an average user with an average unit.

Air-Conditioning

This expense can be a real wild card – and it all depends how much you use. Unlike with heat, in most places in the country, you don’t need air conditioning, though it’s nice to have, especially when a heat wave hits.

According to the website CarbonRally, the average American’s AC system costs about $280 a year to run, though the website notes that many systems cost much more. This seems about right to me, when you factor in a few things: first, most people only use their A/C about three to five months a year. And, in some places, like Minnesota or Maine, you may only use it a few times a summer, which averages out with the southern US, where you’d use it much more. So, for people who live in places with average weather, you’ll really only be using it May-September, which means about $56 a month extra on your electric bill. This seems about right – I’ve had my total electric go up to $100 dollars on particularly hot months.

Summary: A/C isn’t strictly necessary, but if you want it, plan on spending up to $60-70 extra a month during especially hot months.

Cooking Gas

In a lot of buildings, if you have a range stovetop, you’ll have to pay for the natural gas that you use during cooking. (And in some buildings, the natural gas will also provide your heat.) As regards cooking, the cost is very minimal – $20 a month at most, usually quite a lot less. It really all just depends how much you cook at home – and, even if you’re spending a little extra to use your gas at home, you’re almost certainly saving money by not eating out.

Summary: Gas is a negligible expense when used for cooking – it’s usually around $10 a month, and by cooking at home, you’re saving money anyway.

Internet

Forty-five dollars a month is roughly average. Keep in mind that you can split the cost with as many other people as are using your connection. For example, when I lived in Minneapolis, my next-door-neighbor and I set up the wireless router so that she could get a signal, too, and then me, my roommate, and her were all using one forty-five-dollar signal.

The other thing to consider is bundling your internet with your cable. You can often get a deal that way …. See below for my thoughts on cable.

Summary: These days, internet is a necessity. It’ll run you about $45 a month, but that will provide a signal for everyone in the apartment, and perhaps some friends nearby.

Cable

I personally don’t have cable, and don’t really miss it. This is an optional expense. Especially with the new high-definition televisions, and their digital antennae, it’s easy to get great reception on network TV, and then you can use Roku or Netflix streaming (or HBO On-Demand, or whatever) for the rest of your needs, though this will cost you about $20 a month, if you subscribe to two services.

If you simply must have cable, look for a deal. They come along frequently, and can save you some money. But be careful – often they’ll have add-ons like free HBO for three months, which will then become charged to your account if you don’t cancel it when the preliminary deal expires. So make sure to read the fine print, and to keep active on your account, so you know what you’re being charged for.

Summary: While it’s not a necessity, it is nice to have cable, and you can usually find introductory deals that include cable and internet for about $90 a month, or you can use a streaming service or two for about $20 a month.

Renter’s Insurance

As Alissa touched on, renter’s insurance is worthwhile. Think of it as protecting your stuff, come what may. It’s also affordable, at only about $150 a year, or less, depending upon where you live.

Other Add-Ons

Some things you’ll only need if you live in certain areas of the country, but it’s worth touching on them here:

Parking

In some neighborhoods (namely, in big cities, where parking is hard to find), parking will cost extra. In my neighborhood (Lakeview, Chicago), it’s about $150 a month for a parking spot, though there’s enough street parking that it’s not a necessity. In other places, such as Brooklyn Heights, NYC, or Lincoln Park, Chicago, it may very well be necessary, unless you want to spend an hour a day driving around, looking for parking (I’m serious). So know whether you’ll need this before you get a place.

Doormen

If you’re lucky enough to have a doorman, you’ll have to tip him during the holiday season. Usually, it’s about $50-100 per doorman, so if the building had three doormen, it’ll be $150-300. It’s expensive, but it’s also important you do it – you want to be on the good side of the doormen, since they watch your packages, greet your guests, and keep a set of your keys.

Air-Conditioning in Sweltering Locations

I know I touched on it already, but if you live in a really hot place, like Phoenix or Dallas, you’re going to be paying a lot more per month, for more months. Say, $80-90 a month (plus regular electricity costs), for eight months a year. So keep that in mind.  Your silver lining is that you don’t have much heating costs.

Adding It All Up

The good thing is you use your A/C in the summer and the heating in the winter, so the overall cost on that evens out some, though heat is generally more expensive. If you get what I mention above, and go with Roku over cable, and don’t have any add-ons, your total utilities cost comes to roughly $200 a month. Keep in mind, though, that this is for the apartment as a whole – so if you have roommates, divide by the number of people living in the unit, though, of course, if you have a very large unit (say for four people, or more), the heat, electricity and A/C will be a touch higher, so add 20% to my estimate, and then divide.

If you want a rough rule of thumb, expect to spend on utilities an amount equal to about 20% of your monthly rent if you live alone, or about 10% of your monthly rent if your live with roommates.

Author My First Apartment
Alex

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Alex has rented in Minneapolis, Queens, Brooklyn, and now Chicago. He can kill rodents and roaches when required, and loves picture-hanging projects. If you're ever in town, give him a shout.

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Comments (12)

    • Alex Alex

      Hi John,

      This is a fairly broad question. My advice is to take it piece by piece. First, determine which utilities you’ll be expected to pay for and how much each one costs. Add up the total cost. Divide by the number of people living in the place and, voila, you have a rough estimate. If you’re asking how to get started moving out, use the same technique, but with more steps. Figure out how much you can afford to pay for living expenses each month. Then figure out what neighborhoods you can afford and so on… Piece by piece you’ll get there. Hope this helps!

      Reply
  1. Denise

    Hello! I live in an efficiency (I like to call it a matchbox) and my gas bill at minimum is around 25-27 a month. This is when I don’t use the stove AT ALL. There is a base charge of 12 but if I don’t use the range at all, shouldn’t it be less than 15? If I turn on the stove even once, during the whole month, I end up paying anywhere from 40-90 dollars. I’m calling the gas company today because I got an extremely high bill in the mail recently and it’s pissing me off. I have used my stove once for about 5 minutes (that’s a stretch) and the oven once for about 10 minutes between April 2012 and now (I either use my crockpot or an electric burner that I have). The range is the only gas thing I have since the property manager pays for heat and water. I know I can’t be crazy right?!

    Denise

    Reply
    • Alex Alex

      Hi Denise,

      I sounds like there is possibly a leak or malfunction, especially if gas doesn’t include your heat, as you indicate. It should not be that expensive; you’re right to call the company and have them take a look.

      Reply
  2. Jessica

    Question I’ve never received any bill regrading what I had to pay the Frits time I paid I call to verify the amount it was 670 all together so that’s what I’ve been payin been there 6 months I just went to pay my bill online and it went up 300 and I’m not understanding? Help

    Reply
    • Alex Alex

      Hi Jessica,

      It sounds like this is a problem that needs to be resolved directly with your utility company. I would recommend calling them and staying on the line until you get all your questions answered.

      Alex

      Reply
  3. christa

    I’d like to comment on what you said about Dallas residents not needing heat. On the contrary, while air conditioning is a must here, so is heat, although granted, the length of time is not great. In January and February (and sometimes December) the daytime temps can routinely be just above freezing when a storm passes through. And who can forget the freak ice storm last year during the super bowl (’11)? Under 20 degrees for 4 days straight with ice on the ground.

    Heat, as well as air conditioning is a must.

    Also, in your addressing of heat above, you did not include electric furnaces as a heat source. Electricity does not just power A/C.

    Reply
    • Alex Alex

      Hi Christa,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment — we always love to hear what readers have to say on the ground. And we agree, Dallas residents need heat (according to weather.com the average low in January is 37 degrees) — our larger point is it’s a relatively small portion of your overall annual utilities, whereas in a place like Wisconsin, it could be the largest single expense. As for electric heaters, they are generally quite a bit more expensive (70% or so) than gas-run heaters — unless you’re using space heaters, which are still more expensive, but can be used in targeted areas, making them a possible (if inconvenient) economic solution.

      Reply
  4. Liz

    Great article! What about water? A place I’m considering does not include water in their rent even though most others do.

    Reply
    • Alex Alex

      Hi Liz. This is a great question — it’s rare an American renter is asked to pay for water, and, also, the rate can vary significantly by city. You could be charged anywhere from $25 a month to in excess of $100 a month, depending where you live and your usage. I would ask what the previous renters have been charged … and I would also go to your city’s Department of Water website, which should publish the rates. If you’re still not getting a solid answer, call up the Department of Water and speak with someone — they will be in a position to give you an accurate estimate. Finally, I would be skeptical if a landlord is attempting to pass that cost along to you — it is usually built into the price of rent. So be sure to ask your potential landlord why he or she is charging for water — and make sure that you get a good answer.

      Reply
  5. megan

    When I first moved into my new apartment I set a budget I wanted to spend for my electricity bill and with the increase in prices due to oil I’m paying close to $350 a month just on that. With your budget you have to be flexible as there could be a rise in costs.

    Reply
    • Alex Alex

      Hi Megan! Thanks for your comment; we thought we’d respond directly. While you’re right that utility prices can fluctuate, $350 for electricity raises a red flag. In talking to several of my colleagues, we agree that your bill is so high that there is likely an error. I would recommend calling your management company and your oil and electricity suppliers, and asking them about it. Have them double check that the meters are reading properly, that their computer system isn’t counting you twice, etc … unless you have a mansion to heat and cool, your bill simply should not be that high. And, also, let this be a lesson to our readers: if something seems seriously off with your bill, have it checked out. Don’t just assume that the bill is correct — it might not be.

      Reply