10 cheap ways to stay cool this summer

Summer is in full swing and temperatures are soaring across much of the country, which means soaring utility bills are not too far behind. If you'd like to beat the heat this summer without bankrupting yourself on sky-high energy bills, here are 10 cheap ways to stay cool.

Don't overuse the AC: While a fan does use electricity, the difference between it and an air conditioner are pretty dramatic. An average-sized window AC can consume about 900 kWh per month, whereas a fan consumes about a tenth of that -- a cost savings of more than $100 per month. So before you crank up the AC, ask yourself if flipping on a fan and putting on a pair of shorts will be just as good.

It's all about the cross currents: Often people just open the window closest to them and wonder why it doesn't seem to help much on a hot day. A single window will offer a slight breeze, but by opening windows across the room from one another, you can create a wind-tunnel effect that will really cool you down.

Invest in a good thermostat: Old school thermostats keep the temperature constant all day long, wasting big bucks to cool your home when you're not around. Purchase a good programmable thermostat, which you can set to turn the AC off when you go to work, or raise the temperature a little after you've gone to bed. While many people already have programmable thermostats, a recent study found that a lot of people don't bother to actually program them. So if you already have one, take 10 minutes to set it up to save yourself some money.

Make sure your ceiling fan is set up correctly: Most fans have two settings. The first creates an updraft, which is useful in the winter months to displace warm air that has risen to the ceiling. The second, for summertime use, pushes air down, creating a cooling breeze. To ensure your fan is doing its job, check to see if it is on the right setting during the summer months.

Give the heat somewhere to go: Hot air rises and your attic is probably full of it right now. A mass of hot air above your head can warm the upper levels of your house, causing your air conditioner to work over time. Installing an attic fan to exhaust this air is a simple way to cool things down.

Garden wisely: You can use your garden to your advantage in the summer. By strategically planting trees to limit light through windows, you can shave a few degrees off your indoor temperatures. Similarly, by allowing ivy to crawl across your walls outside, you’ll provide a little buffer between your home and the sun. Finally, a nicely landscaped backyard that provides plenty of shade will give you a cool place outside to retire to when the temperature inside simply gets too unbearable.

Check your seals: Don't let the cool air escape. Leaky windows and doors can have your air conditioner doing double duty in the summer. Caulking around windows and weatherstripping around doors are inexpensive ways to trap in cool air.

Give your AC a checkup: Over time your air conditioner can get clogged with all sorts of gunk like leaves and dust. This debris can dramatically cut down on air circulation through the machine, making your AC much less efficient. To ensure that is it running at its peak efficiency, take it in to a repair shop for a checkup and cleaning every couple of years.

Draw the blinds: It's a simple fix that many people forget -- simply drawing the blinds during the day can really cut down on heat inside the house. White or light colored drapes are the most effective at blocking out heat; so ditch the dark shades and get a lighter set for summer.

Cook outside: Using your oven to cook is quickly going to transform your kitchen into a sauna. On hot days, consider cooking outside instead. After all, do you really need an excuse to fire up the grill in the summer?