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Tips to save money going green

The economic crisis is the perfect time to go green. Helping the environment can mean big savings to your household budget. These tips can help you save hundreds or thousands of dollars a year.

In the midst of a world financial crisis, the environment may be taking a backseat to the need to reduce household expenditures, but an urgency to cut costs is all the more reason to green your life: cutting your emissions can equate to some big savings for your pocketbook.

According to money expert David Bach, the author of Go Green, Live Rich, cutting waste and spending go hand-in-hand and the profits to both you and the planet are generous:

  • $500- $2,500/year for giving up bottled water. The lesser number is for just 1 bottle of water per day. “To drink the recommended amount of water (8 to 12 cups a day), you’d spend about $2,500 a year on Aquafina. The cost for the same amount of tap water? A dollar.” (For more on the environmental damage of bottled water see our article Trendy Tapwater.)
  • $1,413 for opting out of junk mail and catalogs. Save the equivalent of 40 pounds of catalogs per year (the amount received by the average adult), and $1413 on annual catalog purchases (average spent.)
  • $2,080- $3,120 for brown-bagging your lunch instead of ordering takeout. Save on packaging (all that styrofoam and plastic) as well as the $8 to $12 per day on food.

Obama as an eco-thrifter

All of this trimming can add up. One frugal, downsized family claims to have reduced and reused their way to living off a $4,303.84 income (combined). While most of us might not accomplish such savings, there is plenty of middle ground for shaving a few hundred, or thousand, dollars from your annual budget.

You don’t need to make huge sacrifices to be an eco-thrifter. Barack Obama has made the best dressed lists, but he says he rarely buys new clothes, preferring to make things last. “I basically… buy five of the same suit, and then I patch them up and wear them repeatedly.” Despite the mending, Esquire magazine- in naming him one of the world’s best dressed men- called his suits “sharply tailored“.

Tips for the light green to the hardcore savers

In this report, we’ll explain how to reduce and reuse your way to a smaller carbon footprint and a smaller household budget. There are plenty of options here to go light green by simply eating vegetarian once a week or biking to the neighbor’s house.

Or you can, in the words of best-selling author Michael Pollan, go a bit more hard-core and “… start biking to work, plant a big garden, turn down the thermostat so low [you] need the Jimmy Carter signature cardigan, forsake the clothes dryer for a laundry line across the yard… get off the beef, go completely local”.

How green you want to be and how much you want to save is up to you.


Driving your car is not just a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s expensive. The AAA estimates it costs- in fuel, routine maintenance, tires, insurance, license, registration, loan finance charges and depreciation costs- $9,369 to drive a medium sedan every year.

Driving less has its obvious benefits for the planet (less greenhouse gasses) and for your wallet, especially now that the price of gas doesn’t hover around a dollar per gallon.

1) Switch to 2 wheels… for trips close to home

a) Take the 2 mile challenge. Ride your bicycle for trips within 2 miles of home. In the U.S., 40% of urban travel is two miles or less. Start to make those quick trips to the store or the gym by bike. After all, it’s the short trips- the starting and stopping of the engine and the stop and go of local roads- that burn more fuel.

To map your 2-mile radius. Before setting out on your bike, plan a route. Use Google Maps, Yahoo! Maps, Microsoft Live Maps, or the apps Google Earth, Micrisoft Virtual Earth, to get a sense of what are the most bikeable streets.

Annual savings: $789.86 — 4 miles (2 miles each way) x 365 days= 1,460 miles at 54.1 cents per mile (AAA estimate of cost/mile.)

b) For a bit darker greenies, try bike commuting. Even in sprawling America, half of us commute 5 miles or less to work.

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. You can simply try a 2-wheeled commute once or twice a week. Or just in good weather. Or use your bike to get to public transit (if you want to make an investment in a foldable bike, see our review Commute Bikes 2008.)

Annual savings: $1,352 — 10 miles (5 miles each way) x 250 work days= 2,500 at 54.1 cents per mile.

2) Skip the hybrid (for now) and improve your car’s fuel efficiency

If you have to drive, you can improve your car’s fuel efficiency by simply changing the way you drive.

a) Drive slower and lower your price of gas. “In a typical family sedan, every 10 miles per hour you drive over 60 is like the price of gasoline going up about 54 cents a gallon.”

b) Hypermile. The term has gotten a lot of attention lately as drivers, in particular those of cars like the Prius and the Smart, have improved their mpg by adjusting the way they drive. (See our video Hypermiling for novices.)

Here are some basic hypermiling tricks to improve your car’s efficiency:

  • Shift up: shift up a gear at 2,500rpm for gasoline cars and 2,000rpm for diesel cars. A car travelling at 37mph in third gear uses 25% more fuel than it would at the same speed in fifth gear.
  • Drive at a steady speed: try to use steady acceleration and limited breaking.
  • Maintenance: inflate your tires properly and get regular tuneups and oil changes.
  • Don’t charge appliances (cellphone, iPod, etc) in the car.
  • Drive with the windows up and remove roof racks.

3) Share a car

a) Carsharing services: Instead of owning a car, there are now plenty of services that let you share one. They pay for the cars, gas, insurance and maintenance. You pay hourly and an annual membership fee. For more on how it works, see our video on Flexcar/Zipcar in Seattle.

Since you’re only paying for the car when you need it (this also gives you the option to use an SUV when you truly need one or a SMART when you’re traveling lighter), the savings are substantial:

  • $8,769 per year, according to AAA figures that carshare members spend, on average, $600 per year while carowners spend $9,369 as an annual average.
  • $5,232 per year, according to a Zipcar survey of members.

The environmental benefits: Zipcar estimates that for every shared car, they take 15 cars off the road. According to one study, 57% of new carshare members in Switzerland drove less with the program and 50% in Germany.

b) Carpool. There are growing numbers of websites that can help you set up a ride share. Some offer anonymous ride matching services (like rideshareoptimizer.com and mycasualcarpool.com) while others organize locations to meetup for more of a park & ride setup.

Annual savings: up to $3,000 according to ABC News. (Use a savings calculator to do your own math.)


“Whatever we may have liked about the era of cheap, oil-based food, it is drawing to a close. Even if we were willing to continue paying the environmental or public-health price, we’re not going to have the cheap energy (or the water) needed to keep the system going, much less expand production. But as is so often the case, a crisis provides opportunity for reform, and the current food crisis presents opportunities that must be seized.”

Michael Pollan, best-selling author and academic.

4) Go vegetarian, flexitarian… or just cut down on red meat and dairy

Vegetables are cheaper than meat, on average. According to the USDA, the weighted average price for all fresh vegetables was $0.64 per pound in 2001. It would be difficult to find any meat cheaper than that. And protein packed legumes, in dried form, are more affordable as well.

Environmental savings: switching to a vegetarian diet is the equivalent to driving about 8,000 miles less per year. According to a UN report, the world’s livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions than transportation.

It’s tough to imagine meat on the same level as other seemingly more obvious enviro-ills like exhaust spewing cars, but the amount of meat we’re eating these days- worldwide, it’s double that of 4 decades ago-, is taking it’s toll on the planet. For more see our blog Why we all need to become environmental vegetarians.

Making the switch to a vegetable-based diet might seem a bit intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Consider becoming a flexitarian: cutting out meat when possible. Our faircompanies family did (see video) and it has cut our grocery bills by about a third.

Though we avoid fancy, and expensive, meat substitutes (soy hot dogs, veggie burgers, etc) and we buy mostly beans and rice and use tofu as a meat substitute. (Note: buy your rice and beans (dried) in bulk and save money and packaging.)

Even if you don’t give up meat entirely, swapping red meat and dairy for chicken, fish or vegetables could cut your greenhouse emissions the equivalent of driving 1,000 miles less per year. Given the price of red meat and dairy products, this can also cut your grocery bill considerably.

Health savings: cutting back on meat can help prevent heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer and thereby, saving money on future medical costs.

5) Stop wasting food and throwing away a third of your grocery budget

British consumers throw away a third of the food they buy: that’s 6.7 million tonnes annually or daily, among other products, 4.4 million apples and 1 million slices of ham are tossed. Fifteen percent of the food Americans throw away was never opened and is still within its expiration date. For more see our blog entry Glean your plate.

The environmental costs- all the fossil fuel for fertilisers, pesticides, transport and tractors, plus water- are big. If the British citizens stopped wasting food, it would be equivalent of taking 1 in 5 cars off the road.

Annual savings: £610 for the average British family; $600 for the average American family (in 2004 prices and for just meats, fruits, vegetables and grains).

Tips to maximize your food dollar and cut waste:

  • Plan ahead: create menus and make up grocery lists accordingly.
  • Inventory: know what is in your refrigerator/pantry and when it needs to be used by.
  • Understand food dates (courtesy of the UK’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign): 
    – ‘Use by’: Never eat products after this date, and follow the storage instructions. However, check to see if the food can be frozen if you need to eat it at a later date.
    – ‘Best before’: These dates refer to quality rather than food safety. Foods with a best before date should be safe to eat after the ‘best before’ date, but they may no longer be at their best. One exception is eggs – never eat eggs after the ‘best before’ date.
  • Preserve aging food: many foods can be simply refrigerated or frozen to avoid passing their due date.


We buy and discard a lot of clothing. The average American dumps 68 pounds of clothing annually. In 1997, the average British woman bought 19 items of clothing per year, by 2007 that number was up to 34.

Mathilda Lee, editor at The Ecologist and author of Eco Chic, explained to faircompanies: “Two million tonnes of clothing is bought every year [in the UK] and about three-quarters of that is dumped in the landfill every year. We have a huge waste issue where people wear clothes only a couple of times before discarding them.”

6) Take a no shopping pledge… to buy no new clothes for 2/4/6 months

One of the easiest ways to break the shopping habit is to just stop cold turkey- at least temporarily-. In the past couple years, shoppers around the world have started pledging “no new clothes” and are instead buying secondhand or recycling their own wardrobes: stretchy shirts become underwear, sweatpants become skirts and 22 mens’ button-down shirts become a wedding dress. For more see our story on redesigned clothing.

Cutting back on new clothes not only reduces the chemical and material waste involved in making new garments, but it can translate into decent savings. The average American family spends $1,874 per year on clothing so the more months you choose to pledge to “no new clothes”, the more you save.

How to get new clothes without buying new:

  • Buy secondhand clothing at thrift shops, garage sales, or on eBay.
  • Host a clothing exchange party to swap unwanted clothing with friends.
  • Remake old clothes. For inspiration try the wardrobe refashion blog.

7) If you’re going to buy, adopt a slow fashion attitude

Slow fashion is an industry trend focused on quality not quantity. Instead of simply plunking down money on an impulse buy, take the time to study what you really need. To avoid making mistakes:

  • Get to know your own “brand DNA”: what pieces will work for you, not just what is in fashion or what catches your eye in a store.
  • Before shopping, study your wardrobe to determine what you need and what would work well with your wardrobe.

For more see our story on Slow Fashion or the blog entry Slow shopping in Italy, France & Spain: investigating soignée, la bella figura and seny i rauxa.


“All of us must learn to waste less energy. Simply by keeping our thermostats, for instance, at 65 degrees in the daytime and 55 degrees at night we could save half the current shortage of natural gas.” – Jimmy Carter, 1977.

8) Reduce your climate control… and instead slip on a sweater

Heating and cooling consume about 45% of your home’s energy. Instead of constantly adjusting your home’s temperature with the seasons, try adjusting your clothing.

  • Turn down the heat: every degree you lower the thermostat, you save from 1-3% on your energy bill. By slipping on a sweater, you can add up to 4 degrees in warmth.
  • Use fans, not AC (or less AC): even with air conditioning on, fans can help spread the cool air more efficiently.
  • Program your thermostat (Buy one for $30-100 if you don’t have one. It will pay for itself within a year) so you don’t waste energy when you’re not home or when you’re sleeping.

9) Tame your energy hogs

Knowing how much you’re spending each month (read your electricity bill) will help you identify the waste. Handheld energy meters can also help recognize the energy hogs in your home (see our article Cool Gadgets to Help Save Energy.)

But even without buying an extra “gadget”, here are a few places to look to save energy:

  • Your hot water heater: lower the thermostat and turn it off when away for extended periods. Lowering it from 140 to 115 °F saves about $25 a year if heated with gas and about $55 if heated with electricity.
  • Refrigerator: make sure it’s not in direct sunlight or next to the stove or dishwasher.
  • Laundry: use cold water to wash your clothes. The friction does most of the cleaning, not the heat.
  • Clothes dryer: It’s the second most energy intensive appliance in the home (after the refrigerator). Instead hang your laundry on a clothesline and save $70 per year (see article Clothesline Wars or the blog entry A place called the line.)
  • Air dry dishes instead of using your dishwasher’s drying cycle.
  • Replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents.
  • Turn off your computer and monitor when not in use.
  • Plug home electronics, such as TVs and VCRs, into power strips and turn power strips off when equipment is not in use. Unplug unused appliances.

10) Landscape for energy efficiency

According to the U.S. Department of Energy: “Just three trees, properly placed around a house, can save between $100 and $250 annually in cooling and heating costs.” The investment is minimal if you’re willing to wait for them to grow a bit: you can buy young shade trees (2-3 foot) through the Arbor Day Foundation for just $5-15 a piece.

11) Green cleaning

Americans spend $509 on average for household cleaning products, putting at risk the environment and their health. Chemical-based cleaning products not only harm waterways and wildlife, but they degrade indoor air quality and may cause cancer, asthma, skin irritation and respiratory problems.

  • Make your own: with some basics like castille soap, baking soda, salt, vinegar, oil and lemon you can clean nearly anything in your home (see our article The Tipping Point of Green Cleaning, the blog When clean stops being green and our green clean demo video using baking soda, vinegar and lemon.) You can even use baking soda to brush your teeth and wash your hair.
  • Use less: you might be surprised to find that it doesn’t take much of the conventional products to clean. All you need is a tablespoon of dishwashing powder or a pea-sized bit of toothpaste. “Contrary to what toothpaste commercials show, the amount of paste or gel needed on your brush for effective cleaning does not have to be a heaping amount. Simply squeeze on a pea-sized dab of paste on the top half of your brush… the paste should foam enough to cover all of your teeth.”


12) Take a staycation

Instead of burning gas, and money, to fly or drive for a vacation, consider taking a vacation at home. With a “staycation” you can still have the water- try local lakes or swimming pools-, museums (again local), tennis, biking, barbecues, concerts, etc. and at a fraction of the cost.

You can choose to literally stay home and barbecue, cook gourmet meals, read and use your neighbors pool. Or if you’d prefer to camp or hike and that’s not within your immediate region, set a limit on your travel- one tank of gas, 100 mile radius, etc- and explore your surroundings.

There’s no, or little, burning of fossil fuels nor “the stress associated with travel, such as packing, long drives, or waits at airports.”

The AAA estimates the average North American vacation costs $244 per day for two people for lodging and meals. At the most expensive, it’s $673 per day. According to MSNBC: “Add some kids and airfare, and a 10-day vacation could top $10,000.”