"The thing is, I care about the environment. And everybody knows that it costs more to live green."
That statement — or something very similar — inevitably pops up whenever I talk about the virtues of living a more frugal lifestyle. So it may come as a surprise to learn that I've been an ardent environmentalist my whole adult life. In fact, my decision to live a more cost-conscious lifestyle is largely based on my desire to live lighter on the planet.
See also: Get in on the Freecycle Network
It's been in only the last decade or so that Americans have started equating "living green" with buying specialized — and often higher-priced — green products. For the most part, that's faulty thinking. True green living costs less, not more. The fact is that if you're a typical American, the most earth-friendly thing you can do isn't to buy pricey green products, but simply to buy and consume less. It's just that simple.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, if everyone on the planet consumed at the levels that we do here in the U.S., it would take three planet Earths to provide the resources necessary to sustain us. Americans are only 5 percent of the world's population, but we consume 30 percent of the world's resources. According to U.S. Census data, the rate of per capita consumption (i.e., the amount of "stuff" we consume) has increased by more than 50 percent in the last 30 years.
So the good news is, what's good for the environment is usually good for your wallet, too. Here are some examples of how you can save some green while living green:
Cleaning Products. Specialized green cleaning products are definitely better for the environment, but a quick survey in the cleaning aisle of my local grocery store reveals that they typically cost 50 percent to 150 percent more than their toxic equivalents. Don't despair. Good old-fashioned products like baking soda and vinegar can be used to clean nearly all household surfaces. They cost only pennies per application and are even lighter on the environment than many specialized green cleaning products.
Hybrid Cars. There's no denying the fact that hybrid cars get better gas mileage and have lower emissions than cars with a conventional internal combustion engine. But most hybrids will set you back $25,000 or more, creating a price differential compared with many new nonhybrid models that's difficult to recoup in gas savings alone. Even if your current car is a relative gas guzzler, it's likely to be more eco-friendly (and much more economical) to drive than a hybrid if you simply drive less, consolidate trips and carpool when possible. Driving your 55-mpg hybrid to the office every day by yourself may make you feel green, but carpooling with four friends in an 18-mpg clunker uses much less gas and creates less pollution per passenger. Of course, all driving options pale in comparison to what are always the greenest and cheapest options of all — using public transportation, walking or bicycling whenever possible.
Organic Foods. Foods raised without the use of pesticides or antibiotics are generally lighter on the environment. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, organic foods cost more — nearly twice as much for a gallon of organic milk, for example. While some organic foods may be worth the additional cost, a decision to simply eat lower on the food chain — more fruits, veggies, grains, legumes, poultry, etc. — even if they're not organically grown, would be a boon to the health of both most Americans and Mother Nature as well. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that Americans eat, on average, twice the recommended amount of meat, and only 14 percent of us eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Eating all organic foods would be nice, but eating a healthier diet — one that's also less destructive to the planet — is a potential starting point. Eating less red meat and fewer dairy products and processed foods can also be considerably less expensive, particularly if you're a smart shopper and plan your meals around what's both healthy and on sale. That's how I came up with this list of 50 healthy foods costing under $1 a pound.
Greener Pastures. What's green but not green? Lawns are notoriously tough on the environment, with all of the fertilizers, pesticides and water they require. They're also tough on our bank accounts: According to one study, lawn care services and supplies in the United States are a $12 billion-a-year industry. Consider reducing the size of your lawn or eliminating it entirely by mulching it over or replacing it with low-maintenance ground covers like pachysandra or creeping thyme. Xeriscaping — landscaping in such a way as to eliminate the need for supplemental irrigation and toxic chemicals — can save time, money and Mother Nature. The U.S. Department of Energy says that strategically planting as few as three trees around your house can reduce your heating and cooling expenses by as much as 20 percent. Not a bad investment, given that landscaping also typically increases the value of your home when you sell.
Make It Last. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal, about 75 percent of household items Americans bought in the 1980s were to replace an item that was worn out or beyond repair. Today, only about 20 percent of such purchases are to replace a worn-out item. The other 80 percent are simply because we want a new whatchamacallit, even if our old whatchamacallit is still working just fine; after all, who can live with a whatchamacallit in last year's color? By simply using things up (the Agriculture Department says that nearly 25 percent of food in the United States ends up in the trash can) and making things last, you'll be living green and saving big. And when you do go shopping for something new, consider doing the truly earth-friendly thing and buying it used instead — at a thrift store or yard sale — or maybe getting it for free through freecycling.
Simple Energy-Saving Fixes. Don't be suckered in by every advertisement for expensive home improvements that promise to pay for themselves in energy savings. Always do the math yourself. When you really crunch the numbers, many costly energy-saving measures — like replacing the windows in your home with more-energy-efficient models — often don't make economic sense unless you're going to stay in your home for many, many years. In general, it's smart to upgrade to energy-efficient appliances and other energy-saving products only when the time comes to replace a worn-out older model. Most homeowners will save more money and more energy by undertaking simple, inexpensive, do-it-yourself projects first, such as filling gaps around the house that let heat/cooling escape, adding extra insulation in the attic, installing programmable thermostats, and turning down your hot water heater. According to the Energy Department, the typical older home has enough easily repairable energy-sucking gaps around windows, doors, etc., to be the equivalent of leaving the front door open all year long! Think about that, and then run out to the garage and get your caulking gun.
Jeff Yeager is the author of The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches and The Cheapskate Next Door. His website is www.UltimateCheapskate.com and you can friend him on Facebook at JeffYeagerUltimateCheapskate or follow him on Twitter.