Couples fight for control in Battle of the Thermostat

NEW YORK (Reuters) - When Harvey Montijo first moved in with his wife Natalie, he remembers exactly how long it took to get into a tiff about household temperature.

A Nest thermostat is installed in a home in Provo, Utah, January 15, 2014. REUTERS/George Frey

“Right from the get-go,” remembers the 31-year-old orthopedic resident in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The problem: Florida native Montijo likes the house a relatively balmy 75 Fahrenheit (24 Celsius). Natalie, a grant writer who is also 31, prefers a cooler and comfortable 70F. So the parents of two came up with an elegant solution, one which might seem familiar to husbands everywhere.

“The house is set at 70,” Montijo deadpans. “She won.”

On its face, thermostat control might seem like a trivial issue. But as any spouse will tell you, small issues can often turn out to have outsized effects - both on the marital relationship, and the family budget.

Indeed, according to one recent survey by manufacturer Honeywell, 30 percent of respondents who live with at least one person admit they can never agree with housemates about temperature. And 27 percent take matters into their own hands, by changing settings without others’ knowledge.

That easily beats out other household flashpoints like control of the TV remote, cited by 16 percent of people as a frequent battleground.

Younger Americans, in particular, seem persnickety about home temperature, with 39 percent of those age 18 to 34 fiddling with the thermostat dial on the sly.

According to experts, though, thermostat wars might not solely be about physical comfort. They might be about other things entirely - like control over household decision-making, for instance, or about money matters.

“Make sure you’re arguing about the right thing,” says Mary Claire Allvine, an Atlanta financial planner and author of “The Family CFO: The Couple’s Business Plan for Love and Money.”

“You might be arguing about temperature, when it really comes down to stress about bills and cash flow,” Allvine says. “So don’t talk about 68 degrees versus 72, when the real issue is that you are spending more money than you have coming in.”

Indeed, there is no denying that the savings from lower energy usage can be formidable. In the summer, each degree you raise your thermostat above 72 can save between 1 percent and 3 percent on your energy bills, according to the California Energy Commission’s Consumer Energy Center.


David Sylvestre-Margolis knows about energy squabbles all too well. The 40-year-old publicist and his partner Georges enjoy a spacious Manhattan pad that can cost a whopping $1,000 a month, or more, to heat during the winter.

David likes to set the thermostat around 70F, but Georges prefers to kick around the house in a T-shirt with temperatures in the mid-70sF. “He wants to have a warm apartment, and then he complains about the electric bill,” Sylvestre-Margolis laughs. “And he doesn’t want to wear a sweater, which I find ludicrous.”

Thankfully, there are some practical fixes that couples can implement. Programmable thermostats such as Nest, which is a unit of Google Inc, can help solve the problem, by automatically adjusting temperature depending on which partner gets home at what time. They also tend to save users about $180 a year in energy costs, according to Energy Star, an energy-efficiency program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Just make sure you are using them correctly. “Technology is only as good as the user,” says Amy Matthews, a licensed contractor and host of multiple shows on the DIY Network.

“One can purchase a $30 thermostat and have it programmed correctly, and save more money than the $200 thermostat that is wifi-enabled and not used correctly.”

If you suspect the issue goes much deeper than haggling over a degree or two, couples can also adopt more drastic measures. Allvine suggests swapping bill-paying duties for a few months, which can help drive the point home on energy costs.

“If the real issue is that one partner is a saver and the other is a spender, then it’s usually the saver who is always getting stressed out,” she says. “So switch the roles of bill payment for a while, and have the spender be the one to write those checks. Then they have to take on that responsibility about how tight money can get.”

As for Harvey Montijo, he is at peace with the outcome of his household’s Battle of the Thermostat. Since he works the long and erratic hours of a medical resident, and his wife is home much more, “she is the one who gets to make that decision,” he says.

“But it does mean our bills are a little higher. And it means I have to wear a sweater.”

Follow us @ReutersMoney orhere; Editing by Lauren Young and Lisa Shumaker