As a proud and often loud penny pincher, I'm always asked if there is anything I will splurge on.

I buy brand-name potato chips, Utz. They are, in my opinion, the best. Doesn't matter if they are on sale, I've got to have them.

And I hate to be cold. So I do tend to make my home tropically warm during the winter.

But with rising energy costs, I may have to give up that last indulgence and keep the thermostat at a lower temperature this winter.

I know there are a lot of people worried about heating costs this winter. I received this question from a reader: "How scared should we really be about the price of gas in heating our homes this fall and winter? I've heard horror stories about how expensive it will be. I'm worried. Please tell me I'm wrong."

Sorry, it's going to be a cold and expensive winter for a lot of folks. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is projecting that temperatures this winter will be 3.2 percent lower than last year's.

Heating bills are expected to jump as much as 48 percent, according to the Energy Department's Energy Information Administration.

On average, households heating primarily with natural gas can expect to spend about $350 (48 percent) more this winter on fuel. Households heating primarily with heating oil can expect to pay, on average, $378 (32 percent) more. Households relying mostly on propane can expect to pay, on average, $325 (30 percent) extra. The average bill for households using electricity to heat their homes is expected to climb $38, or 5 percent.

Last winter, a Washington Gas residential customer paid about $960 for the six-month heating season, October through March. This winter, the same customer can expect to pay $1,131 for the same period if the weather is normal and $1,274 if the temperature is 5 percent lower than normal. The exact amount of the increase will depend largely on a customer's usage and the type of service, the gas company said.

To help consumers reduce their energy bills, the Energy Department has launched a national campaign, "Easy Ways to Save Energy," which includes an online guide to Web sites and other resources for energy-efficiency tips. Go to for a wealth of money-saving information.

And, of course, what's a government campaign without a mascot? In this case, it's the Energy Hog, a scary, leather-jacket-wearing hog. The Energy Hog campaign includes Web-based educational games, Web banner ads and a school curriculum for grades 3 through 8, as well as radio and television ads.

Perhaps the hog is a bit hokey, but maybe it will do for energy conservation what Smokey Bear did for forest-fire prevention -- present an instant reminder to do the right thing. With energy, the message is to reduce our consumption, which saves money.

When you go to the Web site, you will also find a tool for calculating your energy use. Click on the link that says "Home Energy Saver." Based on your Zip code, you can find out the energy costs of an average home compared with a more energy-efficient home in your area. After entering information about your home, you can get an audit of your energy consumption and tailored suggestions to save on your energy bill.

There's no use worrying about what your energy bill will do to your budget this winter. Instead, do something about it. Despite rising energy costs, little more than a quarter of Americans say they plan to take measures to conserve energy in their homes, according to a nationwide survey by the National Oilheat Research Alliance, a nonprofit organization chartered by Congress for the support of heating-oil research and development, technical training and consumer education.

For example, when was the last time you had your furnace serviced? When's the last time you replaced the filter for your heat pump or furnace? Gas furnaces that have dirty filters, leaky ducts or are in need of repair use significantly more energy (meaning higher gas bills) to produce the same amount of heat in the living space, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. points out.

There are a number of easy things we all can do to cut down on our energy bills. My children were constantly leaving the lights on after leaving a room. I found a solution to that problem -- I deduct money from their allowances every time I find a light on in a room they've left. The first week I implemented this policy, my 10-year-old daughter, Olivia, received only enough money from her allowance to pay her tithes and offerings at church. You'd better believe she remembers (well, most of the time) to turn off my lights now.

In our house, we're adopting the slogan for this year's Energy Awareness Month (which is October, by the way): "Not In Use? Turn Off the Juice!"

* On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online at

* By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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