I'd planned to write this post sometime in early October, but the cold front that brought temps down to the 20s and 30s in the north and frosted out some of my tomatoes made me think that it was time to talk about how to reduce energy costs and usage while keeping cozy.
The first goal is to wait as long as possible to heat the house at all. Now my house is divided into two parts - a well insulated newer addition (small) and a large, old drafty farmhouse (big). But even in the drafty farmhouse, we haven't felt any need for the heat these last few days. Yes, it is quite chilly in the am, but with daytime temps in the 50s or higher and sun striking the house, we can count on warming things up during the day, opening the windows when the outside air is warm enough, and sealing the air in when it gets chilly. We simply dress warmly and cuddle up together - it is actually quite pleasant. We play "heater chicken" all fall, and try and see if we can go longer this year than last year. The goal is to reduce the heating season from Nov. 1 to April 1 - we usually end up fudging on one end or another, but we try to get closer each year.
We also don't heat the bedrooms. The temps here in the hills of upstate NY have dropped to minus 30 degrees a few years ago, and routinely get to minus 20, but we've never heated our bedrooms. Ambient heat from the stoves and household drift upstairs through a couple of vents in the floor, and our bedrooms have been reinsulated so that even at their coldest, the temps are in the high 40s. We dress the children for bed in double layers - warm long johns covered with footed fleece pajamas (Lands End makes these up to size 14 kids and Big Feet Pajamas makes these in adult sizes, if you care - my crazy-tall 7 year old son is now almost ready for the smallest adult size), and have plenty of warm blankets. When we had young babies, they slept in the warmest room in the house (never dropped below 50), in the same outfits plus sleeper blankets. Even an infant over 10lbs (the weight at which they can maintain their own body temperature) can sleep in a cool room, and in fact, rooms in the low sixties or below have been found to reduce the risk of SIDS.
Our goal is to use the oil heat (mix of forced air and radiant floor) as little as possible and to use as little wood as possible. We do this by mostly living in the well insulated apartment during the winter, except when we have guests, keeping the heat low (50 (lower when the woodstove is going), 55 when we have guests), and by dressing appropriately. That means layers, long johns or tights under pants or skirts, t shirts under turtlenecks, under sweaters. In the early fall, after acclimating to summer, even 60 feels quite chilly. After a winter of shovelling snow and hauling water jugs to the poultry, 55 inside feels pleasantly toasty. The key is to acclimate.
We are in the process of reinsulating the older part of the house but this is an expensive proposition, so we've chosen cheap ways of dealing with this, including heavy curtains (you can make your own out of blankets or pretty quilts, or buy insulated curtains - we have a mix of both - there's a great article here on window quilts: http://www.manytracks.com/Homesteading/winquilt.htm). We also have used free bubble wrap from packages on windows, and I've heard of people stapling the bubble wrap into wooden frames so it can be reused year after year.
If your walls are leaky, consider "tapestries" - they were the classic insulation of the past. Either make quilts or hang blankets. If you are cold at night, create an enclosed space that can be heated by your bodies - a four poster bed was not a mere decoration - the top and curtains meant that your body heated the space to a cozy warmth and kept the heat in.
Keep blankets around the house for when you sit, and a shawl is not a mere nicety, but a truly useful thing. Keep spares for guests, and perhaps extra warm slippers and a few sweaters to share. Drink hot beverages - my kids think a cup of herbal tea under a blanket with Mom while we read stories is a huge treat. Even a guest who isn't used to the low-heat house will find themselves comfortable when offered a lap blanket, a warm sweater and a cup of hot chai.
Insulation doesn't have to be expensive, if you do it a bit at a time. Replace old windows when you can, fill in cracks and otherwise, keep the house comparatively tight, while still allowing for good ventilation. But mostly, it is easier in many ways to acclimate and insulate yourself than to keep your house perfectly warm. A nightcap on your head, or a hat in the house will keep a good bit of your body heat in.
Most of us will find that we can tolerate a lot more cold than we've become accustomed to - it will take time and practice, but it is well within the realm of possibility. If we keep our houses heated to 70 or more, we'll never allow our bodies to acclimate fully, and thus, we'll never really appreciate how warm and cozy a fire in the stove can be, even in a cool house, as long as you are busy and working or playing.