The 1999 Disney Channel Original Movie Smart House was way ahead of its time. Not only was it way better than it had any right to be, it totally predicted a future where we’d rely upon AI and technology to make our homes more liveable.
Per screenwriter Stu Krieger, “I just looked at where we’d been, where we were, and imagined where we were probably headed.”
Thankfully, today’s “smart home” isn’t a singular, million-dollar product you buy. Rather, it’s made up of $10 to $200 gadgets that you can buy piecemeal until you’re satisfied that your home is just smart enough.
So what is a “smart home?” What are the benefits? If you’re on a budget, which smart home gadgets should you buy first? Which one will save you the most time and money?
Let’s investigate smart homes on a budget!
1. Replace your incandescent bulbs with LEDs
You’d be surprised how much money switching out light bulbs can save you, even factoring in the cost of the fancy LED bulbs. In fact, swapping out every light bulb in your house with LEDs can create a budget for the rest of your smart home!
Seriously – according to the Washington Post, the average American household has 40 light bulbs inside, and if they’re all incandescents, they’re costing you about $600 a year in power bills. LEDs are $5 a pop, but each incandescent you replace with an LED will save you $1.25 a month.
That means LEDs pay for themselves within four months and save you hundreds of dollars a year.
For bonus smart home points, be sure to choose the right color spectrum of LED for each room. You may prefer warm lighting for the bedroom, so look for a set of 2700K to 3000K bulbs. For the office, something more bright and vibrant may be a better fit – look for 3500K and above.
2. Install smart plugs on your power-hungry electronics
Did you know that, even when your laptop and TV are turned off, they’re still using electricity? This is especially true for chargers, which can continue sucking power out of the wall, even when they’re not charging anything.
Electricians call this “phantom load” or “vampire power,” and it probably goes without saying that it’s a huge waste of money.
That’s why smart plugs have become so popular. Smart plugs enable you to do more than just yell at your toaster to turn it off – you can program them to regulate and prevent devices from sucking up vampire power, saving you ~$100 a year.
Since they’re only around $10 a pop, you can grab a handful of smart plugs to cover your most power-hungry areas (probably your workstation and TV), and they’ll quickly pay for themselves in power savings.
3. Program a smart thermostat to recognize your patterns
I used to think those “smart thermostats” were basically like a car’s infotainment center – needlessly putting essential functions behind a touchscreen for the sake of futurism.
Thankfully, I came to discover that touchscreen thermostats do so much more and are a practical no-brainer for anyone building a smart home.
The whole point of a smart thermostat is to regulate your home’s internal temperature for maximum comfort and minimal expense. Instead of keeping your home at an uncomfortable 74 all the time, it can cool it down to 71 while you’re home and 76 while you’re gone. Best of all, modern smart thermostats learn about your habits from how often you adjust the temperature.
In total, the EPA estimates that installing a smart thermostat can save you $180 per year in energy bills. Coincidentally, the average price of a good, midrange smart thermostat is (drumroll) $180.
Plus, adjusting the A/C using a touchscreen just feels futuristic and Jetsons-y. I highly recommend it.
4. Task a robot vacuum to regularly clean the house
You might think of a Roomba as a $500 vacuum that scares your dog and runs over your toes. While that’s undeniably true, they’re so much more than that (and they don’t have to be $500).
I’ll address the price thing first. Sure, you could pay upwards of $1,000 for a smart vacuum, but you don’t have to spend even 20% of that. A perfectly good robot vacuum shouldn’t cost more than $200, and you can usually find a pre-owned model on Facebook Marketplace for half that.
Now, even $200 for a vacuum that you don’t have to push sounds like a lot, but consider that a robot vacuum can save you time and money, especially if it saves you from just one routine housekeeping task.
Plus, it can keep your dog company while you’re working from home!
5. Install a subscription-free smart doorbell
Smart doorbells are quite the leap in technology. Consider the incumbent they’re replacing: deadbolts and knocking, which have been around since the pharaohs.
In addition to a more modern welcome for your guests, smart doorbells lend plenty of security and convenience. For example, you’ll always know the exact moment a package arrives, giving porch pirates less time to abduct your new gaming console. When paired with a smart lock, you’ll also be able to let folks in remotely, without having to share (and lose) physical keys.
Lastly, smart doorbells can actually save you money on your renters or homeowners insurance. Visit your provider’s website to see what their incentives are – they might also have steep discounts.
The key to choosing the right smart doorbell is to find one without a monthly subscription. Convenience and cost savings are quickly wiped out if you’re paying $300 a year for “live monitoring” (yeah, right). Stick with the basic package and you’ll spend no more than $150, once.
6. Install motion-sensitive floodlights outside
While we’re on the topic of safety, a lot of folks opt for $300+ home security systems with cameras, motion sensors, and everything short of a trap door.
I’ve heard great things about these setups, and if you live in an area with rising thefts and break-ins, they may be worth every penny – especially if they help you save on renter’s insurance and bring peace of mind.
However, if you’re shopping for home security measures on a budget, nothing beats a good ol’ $40 motion-sensing floodlight.
Although simple in design, motion-sensing flood lights work surprisingly well as a burglary deterrent. According to Jordan Frankel, VP of Global Security Operations, motion-sensing lights don’t just give you advance warning of someone sneaking onto the property, “they startle the intruder as if they have no idea if it was a homeowner who flipped on a light switch.”
7. Place smart speakers around the house
What’s more Smart House than having an AI assistant in every room?
Competition between Google and Amazon is so fierce that the prices of their sophisticated, all-in-one smart home devices keep dropping. A 4th-Gen Echo Dot or Google Nest are just $49 a pop, and because so many people receive them as gifts, there are plenty on the used market for well under $30.
Just two or three smart speakers are typically enough to “fill” a home (bedroom, living room, kitchen), and these devices can play Spotify, give weather alerts, help with recipes, and even play trivia with you.
It would be hard to argue that Nests and Echo Dots save money, but they’re darn convenient and undeniably cool. After all, is your home really “smart” until you can yell “Alexa – what is haggis?” into the void and receive an answer?
What are the benefits of a smart home?
Aside from bragging rights at the next friend get-together, what are the perks of setting up a smart home? Everyone knows that smart home gadgets are neat and gimmicky, but could some of them actually save you money?
Here are the primary benefits of setting up a smart home.
Saving energy (and money)
Many smart home gadgets are designed to save you energy, and thus, money. These are some of my favorites because not only are they more environmentally friendly, they also pay for themselves pretty quickly.
The classic example is LED light bulbs. Swapping out your old, Edison-style incandescent bulbs with slick LEDs saves time and money since they last longer and only use 25% of the juice.
Another example is an AI-driven thermostat. Although smart thermostats are among the more expensive smart home gadgets ($200+), they can be programmed to cut off your A/C, or lower your heat, when you’re not at home, saving you hundreds on your annual energy bill.
Since smart home gadgets are designed to automate menial tasks around the house, most of them will give you precious time back in your day.
Robot vacuums are a prime example. Sweeping the pet hair off your apartment floor may only take you 10 minutes every other day, but that’s over 30 hours a year!
If you invest a couple of hundred bucks in a decent Roomba, however, all that time becomes yours again.
Speaking of catching z’s, you might also sleep better knowing you’re surrounded by smart home safety devices. For $40 or less, you can install outdoor, motion-detecting floodlights as a theft deterrent. You can also install cameras, or smart doorbells, to deter porch pirates and ensure you’re only opening the door for the right people.
The trick to installing a budget-friendly home security system is to find one without an expensive contract.
Lastly, but certainly not least, some smart home gadgets just make life more fun. You can put multicolor LEDs in your ceiling for parties, strategically place Bluetooth speakers around the house, and put Alexa in the kitchen for recipes and morning trivia.
To recap, here are the most cost-effective, budget-friendly smart home gadgets you can install this week to turn your home into the Smart House:
- LED bulbs.
- Smart plugs.
- Smart thermostat.
- Robot vacuum.
- Smart doorbell.
- Motion-sensing floodlights.
- Smart speakers.
While not always super cheap upfront, each will pay for themselves quickly in time and power savings, lending convenience and peace of mind to a crazy world.