How to Live Green on a Budget
SOMETHING THAT WE GET A LOT OF QUESTIONS ABOUT, especially in our recent reader survey, is how to live sustainably on a budget. It seems to be a big hurdle for many, and I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to break down some of these hurdles because I truly feel they are perceived rather than actual hurdles. I've been living a green lifestyle for years, and it's always been on a budget. Sure, every so often there are bigger ticket purchases, but, and here is the truth, when price shopping, you need to compare apples to apples. Are the items of the same quality? Are both items made in North America? Are both made of similar materials? And if you can honestly say that the two items are comparable, the eco and the non-eco, they are almost always very close in price. But the purpose of this post is not to teach you to price shop, it's to break down a few ideas and strategies to help you live green, and on a budget. In fact, this has turned into such a hot topic among our readers that we plan to keep this column going, and we're happy to field requests or questions if there's something in particular that's challenging you. Email us or leave a comment and we'll do our best.
Here are a few of the main strategies that I personally use to keep my costs down but still feel good about what I'm buying. All it takes, in most cases, is a shift in mindset, a willingness to try, and perhaps a little patience.
1. BUY LESS. BUY QUALITY.
We live in a consumer culture. We've been conditioned early on that we can buy the things we want, and the green market is no different. There's a very real temptation to buy your way green by purchasing all the latest power-saving gadgets, endless reusable bags, mugs and water bottles, or (insert in blank). Truly I think this is where much of the feelings that green is expensive comes from, and I can't stress enough that it isn't necessary. Consequently, the first principle of living consciously on a budget is simply to buy less. Every time you are about to make a purchase, ask youself: Do I truly need it? Do I have something at home I can repurpose instead? Is that item truly worn out or can I make do for a little longer? Purely saying no will obviously save you cash.
When it comes time to actually buy something, try to get your brain out of being purely thrifty and hold out until you can spend a little more on something that is really good quality so that it lasts you longer. Even if that item isn't sustainably made, if it's well made it will stay out of the landfill longer and you won't have to replace it for a very long time if you take care of it. Hence, even if you spent more in the beginning, trust me you'll spend way less over the long term. But again, this requires a mindset shift out of the immediate cost and into the long term benefit. This is especially true for bigger ticket items.
How do you tell if something is good quality? Often a company that values quality will go to great lengths to communicate how well made their products are because they are proud of it. The label or website should go into, step by step, how their products are made, and with what. Also, read reviews, they may reveal quite a lot. Lastly, buy from a craftsman or handmade if applicable. You are then buying direct and can speak with the maker to learn the most you can. As an added bonus you can feel fantastic about supporting an artisan and use your item with the confidence that your dollars went to a good place.
2. BUY USED
Especially if you're in the market for furniture or clothes, this is an awesome way to go. I've recently started purchasing clothes at a second-hand shop and I've never looked back (get inspiration here). Sure, whether buying clothes or furniture, it means looking around and being patient until you find what you're looking for, but isn't paying 70% less for something worth it? Also, you can truly see how an item will wear over time. Isn't it the worst feeling ever when you buy a dress you absolutely love only to find that after two wears it looks terrible? All stretched out and pilled up? Yeah. No thanks.
3. PLAN ACCORDINGLY & DON'T WASTE
In this case I'm mostly talking about food. In the US, 30-40% of food ends up in landfill, uneaten. In other words, for every $10 dollars you spend, you might as well be throwing away up to $4. SAY WHAT? Yep, not super budget friendly right? The simple fix is to plan better. Rather than going to the store and buying what looks good to you in that moment, take the time to plan out your meals for the week, but start by choosing a few key ingredients such as ones that are in season right now. Then plan several meals that use those ingredients, since chances are that one meal won't use up a whole head of broccoli, as an example. That's a big mistake that many make, right off the bat. Personally, I find a whole week's worth of planning overwhelming, so we plan out in 3-4 day chunks and shop twice a week. It works great.
Once you've cooked your meal, save your leftovers at all cost. Use wide-mouth mason jars (hint: these are dirt-cheap, way cheaper than glass storage containers, and you can probably get them used) to store leftovers in (since glass is the best way to store food, plus you'll reuse them). If it's not enough for dinner the next day, eat it for lunch, or combine a few small portions to make a larger smorgasbord. And hey, it saves you time!
4. ORGANIC TOO MUCH? BUY THE DIRTY DOZEN
A strategy I've often used when organic food prices skyrocket is to pare my shopping down to the dirty dozen. In the summer, I shop exclusively at the farmer's market and enjoy organic everything. I'm in heaven. But in winter, it's a different story since the grocery store is a lot more limited, which is when the dirty dozen comes into play. Also, avoid packaged food. The bulk of your grocery bill comes from items like this (crackers, chips, cereal, cookies etc.), and often you can make something similar at home for a fraction of the cost, which brings me to my next tip...
5. MAKE IT YOURSELF
The first thing you might think is "I don't have time" or "I don't know how". In most cases, a google seach will teach you all you need to know (and we're adding new projects all the time too!), and trust me on this one, it only takes a long time the first and maybe second time you try something new. After that, you know how to do it, you're all set up, and you can fit it into your schedule much easier. A good example for me is making Kombucha (find instructions here). I now make it while cooking, and I can bottle and whip up a new batch in less than 10 mintues. The cost savings makes it even more worthwhile. Last time I bought a bottle of Kombucha the cost was $10 for 1L. To make my own I repurposed swing-top bottles I'd been saving from my favourite brand of olive oil, so those were free. A big bag of organic cane sugar cost me $10 (10lb bag at Costco, enough for about 20 batches), and the organic green tea I bought, enough for 5 batches, was $3.99. (One batch of Kombucha approximately yields 4L.) See how this works? Each 1L bottle of Kombucha is now costing me less than a dollar. For more projects that will save you money, check out our DIY collection.
There's a ton of ways to save money and live a conscious lifesyle, but hopefully these few will get you started. Take a look at the way you currently do things and see if you can switch up a few things to easily put these concepts in play. If you feel that something more specific is holding you back, again, reach out (either by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by leaving a comment) and we'll help you out!
IMAGE by Huckle & Goose