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