Whether from a blizzard, wind storm, flooding or heat wave, power outages can be a nuisance for families. In the peak of summer and winter, when blackouts are likely, they can also be dangerous, cutting off access to air conditioning and heat.
And if you don’t act fast, downed power lines and other outages can also be costly for your family.
So how can you save money during a blackout? Our power outage tips cover everything from protecting your expensive groceries to cheap ways to stay cool or warm.
14 Power Outage Tips to Keep Costs Down
Power outages can be a drain on your patience — don’t let them drain your finances too. Here are 14 ways to save money when the power goes out.
1. Keep the Refrigerator and Freezer Closed
Even without electricity, the interiors of your refrigerator and freezer can keep food cold — temporarily. They’ll need electricity to maintain their cold temperatures, but their insulation can trap in the cold air for a little while:
- Four hours: A refrigerator will keep perishable food safe for four hours.
- 24-48 hours: A half-full freezer can protect food for 24 hours. If it’s full, the food is generally safe for 48 hours.
The problem? As soon as you open the refrigerator and freezer doors, that cold air isn’t trapped. Every time you open the door, you reduce how long that food will be safe.
Do you absentmindedly check the fridge for snacks? When the power goes out, place a chair in front of your refrigerator as a reminder not to open the door.
2. Invest in a Large Cooler
If you end up in an extended power outage but you don’t want to throw out a week’s worth of groceries, you can load all your perishable items into a large cooler. Budget-friendly brands retail for as little as $60 and can keep ice from melting for up to five days.
Keep a bag of ice in your freezer. If a blackout affects more than just your neighborhood, you might have to drive farther to find a store that has ice.
3. Throw Out Bad Food
Discarding expensive meat and dairy products might be painful, but the risk of eating contaminated food isn’t worth it. Perishable foods are no longer safe once they hit 40 degrees; eating them after that point could lead to food poisoning. That could mean expensive medical bills if you have to go to the ER — plus added unpleasantness to an already bad situation.
4. Unplug Electronics
When electricity is restored, major electronics could be susceptible to power surges. If you don’t want to shell out for a new TV or laptop, it’s a good idea to unplug them. Appliances like your refrigerator, oven, washer and dryer are generally safe, but if you’re worried, it never hurts to unplug everything.
5. Use Surge Protectors
Don’t feel like stumbling through a dark house to unplug every single electronic when you’ve lost power? Invest in power surge protectors for your electronics instead. You can get a surge protector power strip for as little as $15. Place a few strips strategically throughout your home, and plug your vulnerable electronics into these.
6. Don’t Use the Stove to Heat Your Home
If your home uses electric heat and loses power during a winter storm, you may be tempted to heat your home with a gas stove. As toasty as the family might be crowded around the oven, attempting to heat your home with a gas stove could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.
7. Invest in a Generator
If your home frequently loses power because of local weather patterns, it might be worth your money and safety to buy a generator. Budget-friendly generators can cost as little as $300, but you can drop several thousands of dollars on a nicer, more powerful one. When deciding how much to spend, consider how many of your electronics are necessary to survive vs. nice to have.
But power generators can also pose a threat to your family. Never use one indoors. If possible, use the generator at least 20 feet from your house (and your neighbors’ homes) and always away from windows, doors or vents.
8. Use Portable Chargers for Your Cell Phones
Smartphones are now essential during power outages. Cell phones connect you to friends and family, they provide updates on storms and info from your power company, they can educate you in an emergency and they even serve as a flashlight.
Having one or more portable phone chargers handy can be helpful, especially if you’ll be without power for multiple days. You can also use your car to charge your phone in a pinch, but fueling your phone could drain your car’s battery.
9. Buy Battery-Powered Fans
Losing power during a heat wave can be miserable. While small battery-powered fans won’t provide the instant relief of stepping into an air-conditioned building, they can provide a cool airflow that can keep you comfortable, at least temporarily. You can find them for less than $20 online.
10. Stay With Family and Friends
If it looks like your power will be out for more than a few hours, it could be wise to relocate, especially in the face of extreme temperatures. Friends and family in unaffected areas may be willing to open up their homes to you — and they might even offer you some fridge space for your expensive groceries.
11. Look for a Low-Budget Motel or Airbnb
If staying with a loved one is not possible but you’ve got to evacuate for your safety, a roadside motel or a cheap Airbnb could be an affordable option. Look for Airbnbs offering private rooms rather than whole houses, as those tend to be cheaper.
Depending on the emergency, you may be able to find free lodging through Airbnb’s Open Homes program. This is a common resource for families during hurricane evacuation.
12. See a Cheap Movie
If you don’t have pets at home and just need to find a cooler (or warmer) space temporarily, take the family to a discount, second-run movie theater. These normally aren’t as luxurious as the big chains, but you can enjoy some temperature-controlled air and a (slightly) new movie for a couple of hours.
13. Head to the Mall
Online shopping might mean your mall trips are less frequent these days. But if a mall in a nearby town still has power, you can head there for the day to cool off or warm up. You don’t have to buy anything — just enjoy a break from your house.
14. Work from Elsewhere
If you work from home, you’re going to need electricity and internet to keep working — or give up a paycheck or PTO.
If your local library is open, you can set up shop there during regular hours for free if you have a library card. Some libraries will even let patrons check out Wi-Fi hotspots, but expect the demand for those to be high if the power is out in your community.
Another option is to head to a local cafe to charge up your devices and power through some work. Just remember to order coffee throughout the day and tip your baristas. If power is out in several neighborhoods, they’ll likely be slammed.
How to Prepare Ahead of a Power Outage
Power outages are more common in some places than others. If you live somewhere with frequent hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms or heat waves, plan ahead for power outages — because they’re coming.
- Build your emergency savings. If you unexpectedly need to pay for a hotel and meals for a few days, it’s helpful to pull from an emergency fund you’ve already set aside. Alternatively, you can use a rewards credit card to fund your emergency hotel stay. Just make sure you pay it off by the due date to avoid high credit card interest.
- Know where your supplies are. Keep candles, matches, flashlights and batteries in a place that makes sense. If your house has multiple floors, store lighting on every level so no one has to take the stairs in the dark. Most importantly, make sure everyone knows where the first-aid kit is and how to use basic supplies.
- Buy supplies now. During widespread power outages, you may struggle to find vital supplies like large coolers, generators and batteries. Build your emergency kit now (and get those batteries in bulk for extra savings!) so you’re ready to roll when the lights go out. Always have nonperishable food items and bottled water stocked in your home for an emergency.
Contributor Timothy Moore is a writer and editor in Cincinnati who covers banks, loans insurance, travel and automotive topics for The Penny Hoarder.