How to Make Frugality Your Green Reality
By Diane Porter
It waits, patiently, in a corner of the pantry. It knows that it goes out on Tuesdays, doing its good work with a load of diet Coke cans, glass bottles, newspapers and plastics #1 and #2. Salad bar containers make guest appearances, and once in a while a Tide bottle livens things up with its vivid orange and blue, but that’s about as exciting as it gets for the recycling bin.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It’s the mantra of environmentally concerned people everywhere. Maybe you’ve gotten the third part of the equation conquered: If it’s glass, plastic, metal or paper, it goes in the bin. It saves space in the garbage and it saves resources for the planet. But what about the rest? Are you reducing your carbon footprint? Can you reuse more things than you do?
You can, easily, and here’s the best part: It will also save you money. Frugality gets its own cult-like devotion these days. In economically questionable times, anything that keeps a little more cash in our pocket is welcome. And while we’d all like to go out and buy hybrid vehicles and solar water heaters, it may be more practical right now to concentrate on small things that add up to make a difference. The key is, don’t think you have to overhaul your life. Look around your house, be conscious of your routines, and find small changes that work for you.
“I think the important thing to remember, when trying to go green to save green, is that you shouldn’t try to change too many habits too soon,” said author Leah Ingram, who writes The Lean Green Family, a blog that tells how she, her husband and their two pre-teen daughters have adopted a green lifestyle and saved money at the same time.
“Take it slowly, doing one thing at a time, kind of like when you might go on a diet or start a new exercise program,” Ingram said. “Take baby steps. Soon enough it will all seem like second nature.”
How small can a baby step be? Here’s how small: Milk in your cereal. When you’ve finished your cereal, do you drink the milk from the bottom of the bowl, or do you throw it down the drain? If you’re the latter, cut the amount of milk on your cereal tomorrow by about half. Make it a goal to have the cereal and milk end at exactly the same time. Just a fourth of a cup of milk saved daily adds up to close to six gallons of milk in a year. That’s six gallons’ worth of containers that don’t have to be out in the world, and a nifty $20-$30 in your pocket.
Find other little things that save you that much in a year, and you can save hundreds of dollars. Reading through Ingram’s blogs, it’s clear there’s not a lean stone unturned. She finds uses for extra rubber bands (good for helping secure decorations on a front porch), saves wrapping paper from year to year, uses credit-card offer envelopes for her grocery lists (slipping her coupons inside), hangs clothes to dry in the laundry room instead of using the dryer.
She even pulls through parking spaces that are empty on the other side so she can face outward when she leaves. Just that saves half the gas of leaving a parking space. Talk about due diligence driving!
“I would recommend choosing one thing that you want to do differently, try it for a few weeks and then see how you feel. For example, if a family decides to invest in CFLs (compact fluorescent light bulbs), sure it might cost more than traditional bulbs, but I’m confident they will see the payoff pretty quickly. First of all, the bulbs won’t burn out as quickly as the incandescent kind, meaning they’ll spend less in the long run buying replacement bulbs. And secondly, if their experience is anything like mine, they will see their electricity bills go down.”
Here are some other areas where it might be easy to be green and frugal at the same time:
• Let’s have a cup of coffee. Do you use paper coffee filters? A permanent coffee filter will cost you about $8 to $10. A common kind of paper filters costs about $2 for 40, so if you drink coffee daily the permanent filter will pay for itself in six months. After that, it’ll save you $18-$20 a year. And while we’re talking about coffee, do you throw out the grounds? They’re useful even if you haven’t (yet!) started a compost pile. Make saving coffee grounds easy on yourself. Put a container in your fridge where you keep used grounds, and then once a week take them out and work them into the soil around rose bushes, hydrangeas (especially if you want them blue!), azaleas, blueberries, laurels, rhododendrons or other acid-loving plants; you can also sprinkle them in bare spots in the lawn, but if you have pets, be sure to work them down into the dirt. Fast-growing vegetables like tomatoes thrive with coffee grounds used as mulch. And a ring of coffee grounds around a tree will deter ants (apparently they don’t crave caffeine like we do!). Not a coffee drinker? You can take home grounds from the office coffee pot. And many coffee houses will give them to you for free.
• Turn off the computer. “Enable the power management features on your computers,” said Denise Durrett of Communications Support with the EPA’s Energy Star program. Letting a computer hibernate during the hours you aren’t using it can save $12 to $90 a year, Durrett said. When you aren’t using your television or other electronics, unplug them or turn off the power strips. “Your electronics – computer, TV, VCR, even your phone chargers – use energy even when they’re turned off,” says the EPA’s Environment, Health and Safety Online website. “Stand-by power can account for as much as 20% of home energy use.” If you plug your television and other components into a power strip, turning them off just requires one switch, and a good one provides surge protection as well. Power strips aren’t inexpensive, but neither is your electric bill.
• Unplug the cell phone charger. “There are more than 5 power adapters for every person in the United States,” Durrett said. “That’s over 2 billion total. People have a habit of not unplugging the charger from the wall after the phone’s charged.” If every charger was an Energy Star approved charger, or was unplugged when not in use, it would mean a savings nationally of more than 5 billion kilowatt hours a year.
• Can you reuse instead of recycle? You’ve got the habit of tossing recyclables in the bin. Cheers! But are there items you could make better use of? Baby food jars or spice jars, for example, can be washed and reused as containers in school lunches (unless you have a klutz for a kid, in which case re-usable plastic is still probably your best friend). Round plastic plates that came with microwavable entrees can be used as water trays under flowerpots. Old prescription bottles are great change-holders in the car. And if you’ve got a dog, the sacks that newspapers are delivered in can be your constant companion on walks. The point is, take a second and look at what’s in your hand before it goes in the bin. Is it the size or shape of something useful? Can it store something? Stand in for something you would need to buy?
• Bottled water: We love bottled water. We unabashedly adore it. We are especially grateful for it when we’re in a convenience store and don’t want soda. But those bottles add up, both in the landfill and in the budget. Say you buy a case of bottled water once a week for $5. That’s $260 a year. Say you buy a refillable water bottle (be sure to get one labeled BPA-free) and use it. That’s $260 in your pocket.
• Dryer sheets: If you use dryer sheets, most of them will easily work for two loads of laundry; you’ll end up buying half the boxes of dryer sheets you used to buy. And after you’ve dried clothes with them, put the dryer sheet in a container near your cleaning supplies. They make great dust cloths for everything from furniture to computer screens, they hold up to cleaning products, and they’ll even clean glass without smears.
• While we’re in the laundry room: Set the washing machine for the lowest water level you need for each load, or do only full loads as some greenies advise, and wash your clothes in cold. “The best thing anyone could do to start living like a lean, green family would be to stop washing clothes in hot water,” Ingram said. “Your clothes will get just as clean when you wash them in cold water, and you won’t be spending money (or using energy) to heat your water.”
• Green cleaners: We’re lucky today. There have always been green cleaners you can make from scratch, but now there are also manufactured green cleaners on the shelves at the store besides traditional cleaning products. Regular cleaners cost from $3 to $4 each, and you need separate products for tubs, windows, furniture and floors. Most green cleaners are comparably priced, but can clean a variety of areas. However, if you invest in a gallon of white vinegar ($1.50), a pound of baking soda ($.75) and a quart of Murphy’s Oil Soap concentrate ($3.45), you’ve got the makings to clean just about every surface in your house, whether wood, tile, granite, porcelain, laminate or vinyl. If this saves you the purchase of just one $4 bottle of cleaner a month, that’s a $48 savings over the year.
• At the store: When you buy a disposable product, ask yourself if a reusable product would work for you too. Paper towels have become ubiquitous in most households, especially those with kids or pets, but cloth kitchen towels will cut down on the volume you use. Keep one or two out on the counter and grab the one that makes the most sense for the job at hand.
• In the car: We’re all happy at the trend of idle-free zones around schools; it keeps a cloud of exhaust from building up where parents are picking up their children, and it keeps extra carbon emissions out of the air. Be sure to realize, though, that you’re saving money at the same time! Try to be conscious of your idling when you are in long drive-through lanes, bank teller lanes, or parking lots after sporting events. Many times the fast-food drive-through is many cars long while there’s no line inside. And while we’re talking about the car, be sure you’ve got it tuned up and the tires inflated correctly. If conscious driving and good maintenance saves you just a gallon of gas a month, that’s more than $50 by the end of a year. And if you could take a bus, ride with a coworker or find an alternate way to work just once a week, you’d save a fifth of your commuting costs.
“When it comes to your car, I realize that not everyone can walk to do errands or leave the car at home on a regular basis,” Ingram said. “But that doesn’t mean that you have to drive to Point A to Point B and Point C, and so on. Figure out a way in your daily life how you can drive less. When you have errands to run, can you park in a central place and walk to the stores? Could you plan a trip to the supermarket or the mall with a friend, so only one of you has to drive? I still use my car and I still have to fill up with gas, but I’m doing both a lot less now that I’ve adapted to my walking lifestyle.”
Field trips, real and virtual
• Find your local Goodwill or Salvation Army thrift stores. While you’re familiar with them as far as donating or finding clothing, you might not be aware of the other things you’ll find there. Picture frames are often in huge supply for $1 to $2, if you’re willing to take the old art out. It’s easy to find glassware that just needs a good washing or extra silverware for around the holidays. Old t-shirts to use for rags or used towels to use as dog towels are plentiful. Used golf clubs, secondhand luggage and old computer monitors are common. And if you just need a nice piece of fabric for a project, go browse the linens and clothing. Depending on who just cleaned out their closets, you’ll find everything from Walmart to Pottery Barn.
• Find electronics recyclers. It’s difficult to know what to do with old cell phones, television sets, computer monitors, printers and other small electronics. There are local centers and national programs and everything in between. Go online to the EPA’s web site where you can search for everything from municipal programs to retail stores where you can take used items. To make money while recycling these things, help your local school, church or community group organize a fundraiser around collecting old phones and printer cartridges. Staples, Motorola and a group called Think Recycle can help.
• Go bargain-hunting. In a similar vein, there’s an endless supply of recycled goods – nearly anything you can imagine – on sale every weekend. It’s the great American tradition called the garage sale. Kids’ clothes are prime items here, because they cost so much to buy and the kids grow out of them so fast. Don’t fret and think that you have to be one of the people who are up at the crack of dawn, newspaper and coffee in hand, waiting for the sale to open. There are lots of sales with tons of good deals. Every time you buy something and put it to a second use, you’re recycling. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a sweater, an end table or a Monopoly game with a couple of missing tokens; if you’re keeping it out of the landfill, you’re making a difference. And if you found it at a garage sale, you’re saving money too.
• Find the seed display at your local nursery. Do you buy annuals each year to plant in your flowerbeds? Save the containers they come in, and grow your own next time around. If you’re not sure what to plant for your area, there are online guides to the different gardening zones. All you need is a some good garden soil (or regular dirt mixed with a little of that compost pile), some protected sunlight and a little bit of time. The annuals you buy at the home stores or nurseries are generally 6 to 12 weeks old, so start your plants with that in mind. You don’t have to have a greenhouse (or even a green thumb, really). Since it’s for a short period of time, just move a table or plant stand by a sunny window, protect the surface with paper or plastic, plant and water the seeds according to the instructions on the packets, and enjoy your savings! (A packet of seeds will cost $2 to $3, and you can get them at nearly any nursery or home store, or go online for even more selection. Compare this to what you spend on annuals — $4 to $15 for a dozen, depending on size – and imagine your pleasure when your flowerbed is full. If you’d like to go online, the Natural Gardening Company offers organic seeds for herbs, flowers and vegetables, as well as seedlings if you’d rather go that route. It’s the oldest certified organic nursery in the nation.
• Find your local used bookstore. There are so many ways to save here, it’s dizzying. First of all, you can take books to the store that you no longer want, and they’ll assess the books and give you cash for them. (Half-Price Books is a national chain, but check your local listings as well.) Second, if you shop there, most books are half-off the original cover price; buying one book a month for $5 less than it costs at a regular bookstore will save you $60 over the course of a year. And third, when you’re done with the books you bought there, you can sell them back again. It’s truly a recycler’s dream cycle.
• The compost pile. Yep, here it is, that compost pile we keep talking about. If you already have one, then you’re a convert. If you don’t already have one, chances are it’s because you’re not sure how. There are several sites online that help you choose where and how to make a compost pile, and give you tips on getting it started. And once it’s going, you have a constant source of organic material to use as mulch in flowerbeds or around trees and to work into the soil in your landscape. Not only are you keeping your yard waste, leaves, and kitchen garbage out of the landfill, you could save an easy $50 or more a year if you regularly buy mulch, peat moss, garden soil and/or fertilizer for the same tasks.
• Harvesting rainwater: Here’s the deal: It’s free! It falls from the sky! And while “harvesting rainwater” sounds really cool, all it means is that you’re catching rain and using the water later. It can be a small effort – rain barrels positioned at the bottom of your rain gutters, for instance – or a large effort complete with sophisticated storage tanks. (See our recent story for tips.) If you use your collected rainwater to water those seeds you’ve planted, you’ve got a double savings going.
On the home front
Yeah, we’ve arrived at the section filled with things you’ve heard before. Fight the urge to skip this part! It can make the most difference in your bills!
• Thermostat: Do you have electric heating? A/C? Altering your thermostat setting by one degree – one degree – can save you $15 to $40 a season. Even better, says the EPA’s Durrett, is to buy and use a programmable thermostat that has a default setting of about 70 in the winter and about 62 when you’re away from home or asleep. Proper use of these thermostats – or even a routine of constantly setting your manual thermostat down 6 to 8 degrees when away – can save the average family $180 a year.
• Hot water heaters: Set your water heater to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, if your dishwasher allows it, and you’ll save 7-11 percent of your water heating costs.
• Light bulbs: You’ve looked at those weird-looking swirly light bulbs in the store, but they do cost more than a traditional light bulb, so you’ve put off replacing them all in your house. That’s OK. Do it one at a time, but do it. The EPA estimates that nearly 20 percent of our home’s electricity use goes to lighting. The compact fluorescent bulbs, which cost about $20 for 6 on Amazon, use less power, are estimated to last 10 times longer, and will save you an estimated $25-$45 over the cost of its lifetime in electricity costs, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Consumer’s Guide to Energy Efficiency. Instead of only focusing on the immediate price of regular incandescent bulbs at the store, think about how soon you’ll have to replace them – again. And visualize your most recent electric bill and how cool it will be to help bring the total down. Last week was the EPA’s 4th annual Change A Light, Change the World day, where individuals and families pledge to change out light bulbs and light fixtures for those that are more environmentally friendly.
• The windows. Depending on the time of year and the direction your windows face, you probably have a beloved – or troublesome – source of constant solar energy. If you have south- or west-facing windows, harvest that warmth in the winter and buy insulating window coverings for the summertime. If you’ve got north- and east- facing windows, enjoy the morning sun and block out the evening chill. Something as seemingly intuitive as this can make a difference in how hard your heater or air conditioner works. While you’re at it, be sure to flip the switch on your ceiling fan that makes it push air toward the floor in the summer and toward the ceiling in the winter. Heat rises, and this will circulate it.
• Make the government’s Energy Star program your friend. A joint program between the EPA and the Department of Energy, the people behind this effort evaluate and label products that let you know you’re getting the most energy efficient and environmentally friendly product on the market. We’ve all seen the stickers on such large appliances as refrigerators or washers and dryers, but they rate small items like light bulbs and battery chargers as well. Their website, www.energystar.gov, includes an interactive house where clicking on different rooms or products shows you what you can save.
Whatever you do, don’t expect every new habit to stick, or to catch on quickly.
“It can be hard in the beginning to remember the small things that you’ve changed about your lifestyle,” Ingram said. “For us the biggest challenge was when we decided to start composting and we had to remember to put our food scraps in the compost and not the trash. I think it took a good year for my 11-year-old to remember to throw her apple cores into the compost. I could have gotten mad that she kept forgetting but we were all adjusting to our new lean, green lifestyle.”
The payoff should be worthwhile. Ingram’s family has a multi-faceted approach to reducing, reusing and recycling, and their bills show it.
“I can tell you, without a doubt, that we’ve cut our electricity bill by hundreds of dollars a year. Instead of 12 months of $500+ electricity bills, now we will have an expensive month in July and August only, when we run our pool filter and have the central air conditioning going. The rest of year, our electricity bills are in the $180 range. Using that $500 number, I could say that we used to spend $6,000 a year on electricity. Now we’re spending about $3,000, so yeah, we cut that in half.”
• One more tip: Reward yourself. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Relax tonight with a cold drink and some popcorn. Oh, and pop it the old-fashioned way, OK? Microwave popcorn is convenient, but it costs $4.30 a box for a total of 21 ounces. A bag of un-popped popcorn is closer to costing $1.60-$2 and you get 32 ounces. (Even the organic popcorn sold through Local Harvest, and pictured here, is more economical than the microwave bags.) A little oil, a pan on the stove and a tight-fitting lid is all you need; if you pop one or two fewer microwave bags a week than you do now, you’ll easily pocket another $40 over the course of a year. There are also places online that show you how to make your own microwave popcorn in brown lunch bags, where one pound of popcorn will make 50 servings. And as a bonus for your DIY efforts, you won’t have to be concerned all those added ingredients in the microwave products.
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