How to lower your heating bills

House and calculator on $20 bills

Even though home heating costs haven't gone up as much as everyone feared they would this summer, prices are still high.

The Alliance to Save Energy estimates that those who heat with natural gas will pay 9% more than last winter, homeowners who burn heating oil will pay 17% more and families with electric heat will pay 14% more.

The timing couldn't be worse, as many of us are already stretched to the limit by rising mortgage payments, higher food costs, or the loss of a job caused by the recession.

If you're forced into a smaller budget, or just trying to live a more frugal and eco-friendly lifestyle, you need a plan to keep this winter's utility bills as low as possible.

Here are 8 smart moves to hold down your heating costs, plus a couple of ways to make unexpectedly big payments easier to make:

Smart move 1. Caulk and weather-strip doors and windows. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average home has gaps around windows and doors equal to a 3-foot hole in the wall. Want to stop that much heat and money from rushing out of your house? You can plug a lot of that for just a few bucks.

Smart move 2. Set the thermostat a little lower. Every 1 degree can chop 5% off your heating bill. If you have a time-controlled thermostat or want to buy one for about $40, drop the temperature another 5 to 10 degrees at night when you're under a lot of blankets and when you're out at work (unless you've got pets at home). Going away for the weekend? Set the temperature to 55 degrees (any lower and you risk freezing the pipes).

Smart move 3. Install an alternative source of warmth. If dropping the thermostat into the low 60s has you shivering, look for ways to boost the temperature of your most-used room or rooms. Wood stoves that burn logs or pellets and electric or gas space heaters are the most popular options. Just be extremely careful with portable heaters. Don't leave them on when you're not in the room or when you're sleeping. Don't use them as your sole source of heat. And make sure children and pets know not to touch. (Here's a full list of space heater safety tips.)

Smart move 4. Use your ceiling fans. Put them in reverse mode to push hot air down from the ceiling.

Smart move 5. Change your furnace filter.A dirty filter on forced-air furnaces will reduce air flow and make your heating system work harder.

Smart move 6. Heat only the rooms you use. If you've got a guest room whose only guest is boxes, why heat it? Close the vents in those rooms, and shut the doors so you keep the heat where you want it.

Smart move 7. Welcome the sun.You don't need solar panels to heat your house with the sun. During the day, open the blinds and drapes on your south-facing windows to let in the sun and heat. Just make sure you close them back up when the sun moves along.

Smart move 8. Get an energy audit. The Energy Star auditing program is now available in 22 states. Created by the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy, it sends a contractor to your home to assess your furnace and air-conditioner, doors and windows, appliances and insulation. The audits aren't free, but some utilities will cover the cost. New Jersey Natural Gas customers, for example, are eligible for a rebate that reimburses them for the $250 charge.

There are two ways to deal with heating bills you just can't afford.

Start by calling your utility company and ask whether it has a plan that allows you to average your payments over an entire year. You'll pay more in the summer but avoid sky-high bills in the winter.

If that isn't enough, the national Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program can help with overdue bills, prevent your heat from being turned off and make energy-related home repairs.

States also have energy assistance programs, with benefits based on family income and size, what type of fuel you burn and where you live. You can find that help by typing your state's name and "energy assistance program" into any search engine.

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