It may come as a shock to my college math professor, but where my family's finances are concerned, I'm a budgeter. Just before a new month begins, I take some time to plan for the month's regular bills as well as any special events or holidays that might require setting some extra money aside. I even have a special notebook to track all this financial data (and shopping for a new notebook every year is half the fun of fiscal responsibility).

But as proactive as I am with my monthly budgeting, I tend to be reactive when it comes to my monthly utility bills. I take a guess at what my bill will be at the beginning of the month, and then I'm either excited when the bill is less than my estimate or—and this is much worse—upset when the bill exceeds my estimate, meaning I have to shuffle funds from some other part of my budget to cover it. Even with some recent efficiency improvements, the process of paying for my home's energy usage over the last few months has started to feel like a low-budget 1950's horror film called Attack of the 50-Foot Utility Bill.

Recently I was on my utility company's Web site preparing to pay another month's bill when I noticed that the site actually puts a wealth of historical information about my energy usage right at my fingertips. There's a chart that compares my energy usage to other similar homes in my area and another that estimates what percentage of my energy usage can be attributed to which appliances. There's even a nifty graph that superimposes my energy usage with information on heating degree days in my area so I can see how the weather plays a role in my utility costs.

But when it comes to budgeting, my favorite section of the site is the chart that compares a single month's energy usage with the same month in previous years. I have nearly two years of energy data for my current home, and it turns out that my usage for a particular month has so far been relatively consistent from one year to the next. Thanks to all this data, I'm ready to get a lot more precise about my energy budgeting in the months ahead. After all, when it comes to surprises of the how-am-I-going-to-pay-for-this variety, fewer is always better.

If your utility doesn't offer these same kind of online energy tracking tools, ENERGY STAR's® Home Energy Yardstick will help you create the same kind of charts and graphs with only a little work on your part. All you'll need is a handful of old utility billing statements and the willingness to do a bit of data entry.

Amy Foster Parish is on staff with the Washington State University Extension Energy Program and answers inquiries through the EERE Information Center.