Living Green on a Budget – Here’s How!


A hammock hanging from a tree over a green lawn with beautiful flower gardens behind it

So you want to get started living a more eco-friendly life but your budget is tight and you don’t have a lot of cash to spend on things like organic foods and solar panels. Can you still go green? I’ve done a lot of research and some concrete price comparisons and here’s what I found out.

The definitive answer is YES, it is totally possible to live an environmentally friendly life on a budget. Below I’ve got the top 7 things you need to consider when you want to go green without spending a lot of green! Plus concrete actions you can take today.

Being Eco-Conscious and Living on a Budget Go Together Like a Hand in a Glove

There are so many ways that you can make eco-friendly choices that are budget-friendly as well. One of the biggest expenses you have is housing so let’s start there.

1. Housing – Size matters!

If you choose a smaller home or apartment it is likely to cost you less as far as your rent and mortgage. It will also cost less environmentally speaking in that it takes fewer materials/energy/resources to build, less energy to heat, and fewer resources to maintain. So going smaller is a win all around!

If you want to live green and are in a position to downsize, seriously consider it. The less square footage you have to heat the less it will cost you and the environment. You can generally figure that heating a 1300 square foot house is going to cost you about half of what it would cost to heat a 2600 square foot house.

Additional savings that come with a smaller home:

  1. Smaller homes that cost less are also less costly to insure.
  2. Property taxes are also generally less for a smaller, less expensive home.
  3. If you have to replace the roof or get new siding, those costs are likely to be less than they would on a larger home.
  4. Interior maintenance and furnishings will also be less because you’ll have less space you’ll have to fill, less flooring to re-do, etc.

Downsizing could be one of the best things you can do for your budget and the environment. If moving isn’t an option you can “downsize in your own home” if there is an area that you can close off an not have to heat or cool. This will reduce energy costs and your carbon footprint.

Let’s talk about apartments for a minute. People sometimes equate living green with living out in the country or at least in a rural setting. But depending on your lifestyle, where you work, and what kind of home it is, it can actually be much easier to “live green” in an apartment in the city. You can check out a post I wrote about that here.

A brick house with solar panels on the roof

2. Utilities – Energy to Heat & Cool, Lights, Etc.

Utilities are often another big piece of the pie when it comes to our monthly expenses. So it makes sense that we want to be sure that we save what we can when it comes to utilities.

Going Solar?

People often think of going solar so they can do less damage to the environment as they power their homes and maybe even save on their power bill.

If you live in a house that gets a lot of sun and you’ve got some money to invest, this option can save you money in the long run. But this is definitely a long term strategy because it can often take 7-15 years to recoup your investment when you switch to solar.

The average cost of setting up a home solar energy system with installation in 2020 is about $ 13,142 after the tax credits according to EnergySage.com. They’ve got a great breakdown of costs, even state by state on this page.

So there is a significant upfront cost to get started with solar. That may not be in everyone’s budget, and that’s O.K.

There are other, less expensive ways to get your electricity through renewable resources like wind and solar. For example, in my town the power company allows you to sign up to get your energy from renewables, mostly wind power where I live, and there is just a slight upcharge to do it.

If you decide to go 100% renewable from my power company it’s only 1 penny more per kilowatt-hour. This adds up to about 8 extra dollars a month on my bill.

So while spending $13,000+ on retrofitting your house for solar might not be in your budget, $8.00/month might be.

Thermostat

Reduce Your Heating and Cooling

One easy way to save money and energy is to lower your heat by 2 degrees or so during the cooler months. That can save you about 3% on your heating bill. This is nothing new and I can remember hearing about this as a kid (waaay back when saving energy was kind of a newer thing to do). It’s not exciting or “sexy” but it’s a great way to help the environment and live a greener life.

BUT…are you actually doing it? It’s simple to do, but for some, it’s not that easy. I, for one, hate to be cold. I have a tendency to be a little on the cooler side anyway. So having it too cold in the house can make me kind of cranky. But there are ways to work around this.

If you work outside the home and your home is sitting empty all day be sure to lower your heat while you’re gone. Programmable thermostats are great for this, but it’s not a big deal to just get in the habit of doing it manually before you leave the house in the morning. Then when you come home you can turn the heat back up.

In the middle of winter if you’ve had a cold commute home it can be so tempting to just crank the heat up and say “to heck with it, I want it warm!”

Be more like Mr. Rogers!

But if you keep a comfy sweatshirt or sweater and pair of warm fuzzy socks or slippers right by the door to put on as soon as you take off your coat, that can make the whole transition a lot easier and help keep your heat to a reasonable temperature. There are a lot of reasons to be more like Mr. Rogers, but putting on a sweater as soon as you get in the door is a good place to start.

Also, be sure to turn the heat way down when you go to bed (or even an hour before). Cooler temperatures promote better sleep and if you’re in bed for 8 hours or so then that can add up to some great energy and money savings without you having to be bundled up like Nanook of the North while you’re at home in the evenings.

The same goes for air conditioning. In this case, it’s my husband who is likely to be “too hot” when the air isn’t turned up high enough. But again, dressing (or undressing) appropriately can make a difference. It also helps that his office is in the lowest level of the house and it’s always a bit cooler down there anyway.

Insulate, Insulate, Insulate

To save more on your heating and cooling costs it might be a good idea to check into insulating your attic. It can cost about $1500 to insulate an 800 square foot attic. If you do it yourself it will cost significantly less.

Depending on the age of your home, how well it’s already insulated, where you live, etc. better insulation can save you up to $600/year. So that investment will pay you back much more quickly than installing solar.

Check your Windows

Windows are another place we can lose a lot of heat or air conditioning. If they are old and don’t fit well then they could be costing you a lot in energy.

New windows can be expensive. Window replacement can cost between $175 and $700 per window. So you can count the windows that might need replacing and do the math. This again can be a pretty pricey thing to do. But it will potentially add value to your home and save you energy.

For a very budget-friendly option check out 3Ms Window Insulating Kits. For about $13 you can use this window film on 5 windows (3′ x 5′) to help insulate your home.

Use the Solar You Do Have

Most houses get sunshine at some point in the day. Keep your curtains open to take advantage of the free heat in the winter and be sure to keep curtains or shades closed during the hotter time of the year to cut down on air conditioning needs. Insulated curtains and drapes can help to keep room temperatures more comfortable.

The less energy you need to run your house the better it is for the environment and for your wallet.

A pink bath tub with pink tile and silver faucet with running water

3. Water – Treat it like gold.

Water is a resource that is in short supply in many areas so if you can only focus on one thing in your attempt to live a greener more eco-friendly life then conserving water would be a good place to start.

If you live in a home with a private well then it likely costs you very little to use water. At our house, we only pay for the electricity for the pump. This is kind of dangerous because it can seem like an unlimited resource and it can be hard to stay in a “conserve” mode for something that’s virtually free.

But if you live in an area where you are paying for municipal water then you know it can get expensive. The average water and sewer bill in the U.S. is about $104/month according to CBS News. That’s up about 30% from what it was just 10 years ago. And the price of water is likely to just keep going up.

Aside from an aging infrastructure that needs to be replaced (think lead pipes in Flint, MI, and Newark, NJ), climate change that is producing more frequent storms and is causing municipalities to have to treat more water because of it to make it drinkable is also a factor.

The easiest way to help the environment when it comes to water is to use less. There are a bunch of no-cost low tech ways to do this that will help your budget and the environment.

From turning off the tap while you brush your teeth to taking shorter showers (every minute you spend in the shower uses 2-3 gallons of water depending on your showerhead), to not pre-rinsing your dishes, to flushing less, the water you save can add up pretty quickly.

I’ve shared a bunch of tips and tricks to get the kids on board with saving water in this post.

If you have a little money to invest then consider spending about $17 on a low flow showerhead like this one from Amazon. It puts out water at a rate of only 1.5 gallons per minute. A lot of “low flow: showerheads flow at a rate of 2.5 gallons per minute. So this one can save you a lot while still giving you good water pressure and feeling like a higher flow shower.

If you shower for about 8 minutes on average that’s 8 gallons of water saved each time you shower using a 1.5 gallon per minute low flow vs. a 2.5 gallon per minute low flow. There are a bunch of low flow showerhead options that don’t cost a whole lot so definitely consider trying one.

If you’ve got a little more money to invest consider replacing a standard toilet with a low flow toilet. If you have a toilet that was made before 1994 it might be using as much as 5 or 6 gallons per flush. You can now get low flow toilets that actually work very well and only use 1.6, 1.28, or even as low as .8 gallons per flush. That’s a lot of water savings!

A new water-saving toilet can cost anywhere from about $100 to $400 and up. But there are toilets that have terrific reviews in the $100 range that you can choose for if you’re on a budget. Of course, you’ll need to figure in the cost of installation as well if you’re not up to the DIY of toilet installation (and I’m definitely not!).

Toilets use more water than anything else in our homes. If we decrease that usage significantly it can go a long way to helping the planet. And it will save you money on your water/sewer bill as well!

You can find out much more about low flush toilets in this post I wrote on that topic.

Swiss chard growing in a raised bed

4. Food – Eat More Consciously

Food makes up a significant portion of our expenses each month. How do you eat “greener” and more environmentally friendly and stay on a budget? There are lots of ways!

Grow your own

If you like to garden and have the space growing your own food can save you money. Even with just a sunny balcony, you can grow some of your own food, help the planet, and enjoy the taste of a freshly picked tomato or freshly snipped herbs. Haven’t got a lot of space or a lot of energy for gardening? Check out this post I wrote about 20 food plants you can grow even in an apartment!

Organic vs. non-organic foods

We know that organic food production is better for the environment and organic food is better for us. Unfortunately, organic foods also have a reputation for being more expensive and oftentimes they are.

BUT – not always! Check prices and compare every time you shop. You may see those organic tomatoes are actually less expensive than the “regular” ones now that there’s a sale.

Meat vs. Plant-based diet

Eating less meat is more environmentally friendly, (you can read some of the reasons in this post), and it can also be much more friendly to your budget.

Consider the cost of a homemade hamburger. A pound of ground beef as of this writing is about $6.99. That will make about 4 burgers depending on how large you like them. A package of 8 premade frozen veggie burgers (Morningstar Farm Grillers) is $7.99. A package of 4 black bean veggie burgers is $3.99.

Since these are convenience foods they are more costly than if you made your own from scratch. When you move to homemade vegetarian food such as beans and rice or vegetarian chili you can save even more. Which brings me to my next point.

Premade packaged vs. homemade food

Buying premade packaged goods usually has a higher environmental cost in terms of packaging. Oftentimes plastics are involved and we know that plastics are costly to the environment.

When you buy fresh ingredients and staples you can often eliminate a lot of the packaging and save a lot of the costs.

If you buy the ingredients to bake your own bread, for example, you can bake a lot more bread for the same amount of money in comparison to if you bought premade bread. The same is usually true for any baked goods, premade dinners, etc.

Buy local

You can eat healthier and be more eco-friendly by eating locally grown and produced foods. If food doesn’t have to be transported as far that saves on its carbon footprint. To know where your food is coming from you can shop the farmers market or join a Community Supported Agriculture group or CSA.

Farmer’s markets can sometimes be a bit more expensive so you might be thinking that’s not a good option on a budget. But it’s not necessarily the case. The pricing at farmer’s markets is complicated because you don’t always know if something is organic or not or how much (by weight) you are getting of an item. But it’s worth checking out. And the food often tastes much better because it is so fresh.

CSA’s can be a great bargain. When you join a CSA you commit to getting a certain amount of produce each week (based on what the local farmer is growing and what your family likes to eat) and you pay that amount upfront.

A small share from one of our local organic CSA’s here in Wisconsin costs $20/week or $400 for the growing season (June-October). For that, you get a box of super fresh produce each week based on your family’s preferences. You know where your food is from and how it’s grown. Oftentimes a visit to the farm is included.

Definitely check out CSA’s in your area and you may find you save money while getting higher quality food. You can learn more here at the Local Harvest CSA web page.

A bowl of peaches with canned peach preserves

Canning or freezing food

If you buy locally produced food you can save money on your food budget by learning to can and freeze foods when in season. If you belong to a CSA this can be a great thing because often you can “add on” specific food items in bulk to your usual food box when they are in season. So you may be able to get a bushel or two of tomatoes at peak ripeness for a good price if you like to can or freeze tomatoes or a crate of peaches in season.

You can also take advantage of “pick your own” strawberries, apples, and other produce from local farms and can and freeze those when they are in season, super fresh, and at their lowest prices of the year.

If you don’t know anything about canning you can check out the National Center for Food Canning website. They have great information that will show you all the ins and out. They also cover things like how to freeze, smoke, and cure foods.

5. Clothes – Thinking Green Before You Shop

If you are a “clothes horse” then some of these ideas may not be very appealing to you. But it doesn’t hurt to consider them. They help not only your budget but the planet as well.

Consider going minimal or trying a capsule wardrobe

Minimalism goes very well with living on a budget AND saving the environment. The less stuff you have, the lower your carbon footprint. (Carbon footprint being the total amount of greenhouse gases produced to create and support your lifestyle.) Plus, there’s less money you have to spend to get “stuff” and less money and energy you need to spend to keep it and maintain it.

So minimalism is a boon for the environment and your wallet!

Shop thrift

If you love clothes and love to shop for them but want to keep costs down and live “greener” then shop thrift stores to reuse the items of clothing that are still in good condition.

When I shop thrift stores I find all kinds of wonderful treasures. Designer items that have barely been worn for a fraction of the price that they would be new. Cashmere sweaters for a steal. Wonderful 100% silk blouses and linen jackets. Seriously, it’s my favorite way to shop!

Buy quality rather than quantity

When you buy quality clothing it lasts longer and that decreases its carbon footprint from cradle to grave. Plus you won’t have to spend more money to replace it in 6 months or a year. That’s why I love giving gently used clothing items another life in my closet. I can get much better quality for much less money and keep perfectly good clothing items out of the landfill.

6. Travel – Make it count!

Travel can be expensive in terms of your budget and in terms of the environment. Not traveling at all is very eco-friendly and will save you a bundle!

But since travel adds a lot of enjoyment to our lives and sometimes we need to do it for work or other obligations it’s important to choose the best modes of travel for the trip we are taking.

As you are probably aware, flying in an airplane is not particularly eco-friendly. Not only does jet fuel add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, but airplanes also pollute the air with black carbon, nitrous oxide, and sulphur oxide. These are particularly bad in that they contribute to the greenhouse effect quite a bit. If you are interested you can read more about that here on Yale’s climate site.

Depending on the trip taking a bus or a train might be a more budget-friendly and eco-friendly way to go. Since so many people are traveling on a bus or train at one time it reduces the “carbon footprint” of the trip per person.

If you’ve got several people traveling together a car or minivan might be just as good of a deal.

If you must fly, traveling on a non-stop flight is best (if you can find one!) because planes use the most fuel and thus pollute the most on takeoff.

Is travel a no-no if you want to live green and stay on your budget? Definitely not. Just consider all the options and try to make the best choices. It’s hard to cover every variable so be sure to do your research to find the best option for each trip you are considering for the Earth and your wallet.

Interior of a thrift or resale shop

7. Reduce and reuse

Two of the 3 Rs of Reduce, Reuse & Recycle can really help you live a greener life and save you money! Win-Win!

Reduce

The less stuff you buy the easier it will be on your budget and on the environment. That’s pretty easy to see. You don’t even have to be a minimalist, but just consider how much stuff do you really need.

Do you need 3 TVs? Do you need 5 blue sweaters? Do you need 3 cars (when there’s only 2 of you who drive)? Do you really need a new phone or could you wait another year before upgrading?

Our culture is so often focussed on “more is better” that we don’t stop and think about how much is actually the right amount for us (and the planet!).

Reuse

I’ve already talked about my love of gently used clothing that I find at my favorite thrift store. But reusing can go much further than that.

When I’m in the market for furnishings I always check out previously loved items. It helps that I’m a big lover of antiques so “junking” and “antiquing” are hobbies of mine. The great thing about furnishings that were made years ago is that they are often made of better quality materials and/or are made with better craftsmanship.

They are often a lot less money as well. I’m not talking highbrow antiques here. Those might cost more. But a good solid wood dresser with dovetailed joints, a round mirror, and bakelite drawer pulls was only $75 at my local antique store. A new dresser made of lower quality materials with lower quality craftsmanship costs a lot more than that!

Furniture that gets used over and over again doesn’t end up in landfills and doesn’t require new trees to be cut down for materials to make the product. Also, any “off-gassing” that you might get from newer furnishings will also be over with and not a concern anymore. (The one caveat is if the item was recently refinished. Then check with the dealer to see what was used.)

You can also look to repurpose some of your own furnishings to turn them into things that are more useful to you. This saves money and landfill space.

There is really no limit to things you can “reuse” to save you money and not contribute to our “throw-away” culture. Pinterest has a bunch of ideas on how to repurpose and reuse all kinds of items in your home. So you might want to do a quick search there.

Living Green on a Budget is Totally Possible!

I hope you are beginning to see that living a greener more eco-friendly life is not just for the well to do! We all, no matter our budget, can make more environmentally friendly choices in our lives. We can even save money doing so!

I’d love to hear your eco-friendly budget-friendly ideas! Please comment below to share them.

Thanks!

Thank you for reading and thank you for caring about our environment. Each decision we make can contribute to the healing of the planet! All your efforts matter!

Resources:

https://news.energysage.com/how-much-does-the-average-solar-panel-installation-cost-in-the-u-s/

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/water-bills-rising-cost-of-water-creating-big-utility-bills-for-americans/

https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_home.html

https://www.yaleclimateconnections.org/2015/09/evolving-climate-math-of-flying-vs-driving/

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