These days, green living is a hot topic. Scan the pages of a range of publications, and you’ll see stories about how people and businesses are working to save water, save energy, and generally save the Earth. But what you won’t always hear about is what else they’re saving: cold, hard cash.
Too often, it seems like making your life greener means spending more: loading up your cart with organic produce at Whole Foods, or shelling out big bucks for hemp-fiber blue jeans. But that needn’t be the case. One of the best ways to be more eco-friendly is to cut back on your use of energy and natural resources – which cost money. In taking steps to protect the environment, you can protect your wallet as well.
Anything that saves energy also saves cash. According to the Energy Information Administration, the average cost of electricity across the United States is 12.9 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). A kilowatt-hour is the amount of energy you use when you run a 1,000-watt appliance – say, an electric space heater – for one hour. So every hour you keep that space heater turned off puts another 13 cents in your pocket.
It may not sound like much, but all those 13-cent savings can add up to real money. If you were running that space heater for four hours a day throughout December, January, and February, it would cost you $46.44 by the time March rolled around. So even changes that look small can make a big difference. And big changes, such as investing in more efficient appliances, can make an even bigger difference in the years to come.
Energy-Efficient Light Bulbs
Efficient light bulbs are a classic example of an eco-friendly product that costs some money up front, but saves lots more money over the long run. Suppose an old 60-watt incandescent bulb has just burned out in your bedside lamp. Cheap incandescent bulbs are no longer available due to new efficiency standards for lighting described on the Department of Energy site, but if you go down to the home center, you’ll find three choices:
- Eco-Incandescent Light Bulbs. These more efficient incandescents cost around $6 for a pack of four, or $1.50 per bulb. They last 0.9 years and use 43 watts of energy.
- Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs). These cost a bit more: about $8 for four, or $2.00 per bulb. But they also last 11 years and use just 13 watts of energy.
- LED Bulbs. These cost the most up front, at roughly $8 apiece. But they also last the longest – an amazing 22 years – while using only 11 watts of energy.
At a glance, it looks like the $8 LED bulb is the most expensive. But consider this: You don’t need to replace it for the next 22 years. Over that entire period, if you use it three hours a day, it burns a total of 265 kWh – about 12 kWh per year – which costs you $34.19. Add the $8 you paid for it, and the bulb’s total cost for the 22 years comes to $42.19.
The CFL bulb lasts half as long, so over that same 22-year period, you need to replace it only once. That means you spend less on the bulbs themselves: just $4 total. But the energy they use comes to 313 kWh, which costs you $40.39. That brings their total 22-year cost up to $44.39 – a tiny bit more than the LED.
If you choose the eco-incandescent bulbs, you need to buy 24 of them over 22 years, spending $36 on the bulbs alone. On top of that, they use a whopping 1,035 kWh – 47 kWh per year – for $133.63. In total, these bulbs burn through $169.63 in 22 years. They’re more efficient than your old burnt-out incandescent, but compared to the LED and CFL bulbs, they’re no bargain.
Replacing a major appliance costs a lot more than replacing a light bulb, but it also offers a bigger payoff in the long run. Because most appliances use far more energy than a light bulb, cutting out just a fraction of that energy use can make a major dent in your electricity bill.
A refrigerator is a good example. The ENERGY STAR website has a handy tool for calculating how much you can save by replacing an old, inefficient fridge with a new one that carries the ENERGY STAR label. For instance, if you have a 20-year-old, 20-cubic-foot fridge with the freezer on top, the site estimates that it uses 857 kWh per year. At the average national rate, that old beast of a machine is costing you $111 a year to run.
Now suppose you upgrade to a new Energy-Star-rated refrigerator of about the same size. Your new fridge uses only 411 kWh each year – less than half as much as your old one. Making the switch shaves $58 per year from your electric bill.
Of course, replacing your old fridge isn’t cheap. A large, Energy-Star-rated, top-freezer refrigerator costs around $1,000. At that rate, your new fridge takes over 17 years to pay for itself in energy savings.
However, if your old fridge is on its last legs and you need to replace it anyway, choosing an ENERGY STAR model is a good bet. Similar refrigerators that don’t have the ENERGY STAR label cost almost as much, and they use at least 10% more energy.
A quick way to compare the energy costs of two different models is to look at their yellow EnergyGuide labels. They show how much electricity the appliances use and estimate how much per year they cost to run. With this information, you can quickly figure out which model will cost you less over the long run.
This one is a really big investment, but it has potential for big savings too. Exactly how big depends on several factors, including where you live, how much sunlight hits your roof each day, how much electricity you use now, and how much you’re paying for that electricity.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to do the math. Just check out a solar calculator, like the one on the EnergySage Solar Marketplace, and answer a few simple questions about your location and energy use. In just a few minutes, you’ll have an estimate of how much a solar array will cost you and how much it can save you over 20 years.
For example, when I inputted my location to this solar calculator, it told me that I could buy a solar setup that would meet all my energy needs for around $7,700. That’s a big investment, but tax credits would pay for 30% of it right away, so the net cost would be only $5,400. The site said the system would pay for itself in just six years and would save me $13,000 over its 20-year lifetime.
If you can’t afford to invest thousands of dollars up front, there are other ways to go solar. You can take out a low-interest loan to pay for the solar panels or lease the system from the solar company. However, you probably won’t save as much this way as you will by buying the system outright. My estimate at EnergySage said I’d only save $9,900 over 20 years with a loan, and $4,200 with a lease.
An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculator illustrates that a typical passenger vehicle travels 11,310 miles in a year, using 534 gallons of gasoline, and produces the equivalent of 4.8 metric tons of CO2. It would take 3.9 acres of forestland to remove that amount of CO2 from the atmosphere.
While taking your car off the road may not be practical, there are many ways to cut down the number of miles you drive it. Some ideas include:
- Making more trips on foot, by bike, or on public transportation
- Combining errands into a single car trip, instead of making several shorter trips
- Joining a car pool
If you live fairly close to your workplace, biking to work can be a great way to save gas (and get exercise). Suppose your daily commute is five miles each way and your car has a fairly average fuel efficiency of 25 miles per gallon. For each day you bike to work, you’ll save 0.4 gallons of gasoline. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that gas costs an average of $2.66 per gallon as of May 2015, so biking to work will save you about $1.06 per day on gas.
This may not sound like that much, but it adds up over time. Biking to work just twice a week throughout the year puts an extra $110.66 in your pocket – even more if gas prices are higher than the national average where you live. It also saves 41.6 gallons of gasoline, keeping 0.37 metric tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere.
However, the money you save on gas is just the tip of the iceberg. Driving fewer miles also reduces wear and tear on your car, saving you money on maintenance. All told, the Internal Revenue Service estimates that every mile you drive costs you around $0.575. That means your 10-mile round-trip commute actually saves you $5.75 a day, or $598 per year.
An added bonus of biking to work is the healthy, open-air exercise. If you do it regularly, your daily commute can take the place of a gym membership, saving you another $50 or so each month, or an additional $600 per year.
According to the EPA, Americans use about 69 million tons of paper and paperboard every year. About 65% of that is recycled, but that still leaves over 24 million tons of paper per year cluttering up landfills. Fortunately, a few quick tricks can cut out a big chunk of your paper use – and the costs that go with it.
A packet of 300 paper napkins costs about $4.75 on Amazon. If you use one napkin at each meal, the packet lasts 100 days, so a year’s supply costs $17.33. By contrast, you can buy a dozen cloth napkins on Amazon for only $10 and use them over and over for years.
However, cloth napkins also make more laundry. Tossing them in the laundry after every use gives you 21 napkins to wash every week. Amy Dacyczyn, the author of “The Tightwad Gazette,” calculates that it takes about 200 napkins to make one full load of laundry. That means one napkin per meal adds up to about 10 extra loads of laundry per year.
How much will those 10 loads cost? According to the laundry calculator developed by Michael Bluejay, also known as “Mr. Electricity,” the cost of one load of laundry ranges from $0.16 to $1.22, depending on the type of washer you have, the temperature of the water, the detergent you use, and how you dry your clothes. That means your total cost for the extra laundry could be anywhere from $1.60 to $12.20 per year.
However, you can cut this cost by using the same napkin several times. If you don’t happen to spill something on them or use them to wipe away a sticky sauce, they can stay clean for 10 to 20 meals. If you wash two napkins each week instead of 21, you only need to do about one extra load of laundry a year instead of 10. Even at the highest price, $1.22 per load, that’s a savings of over $16 a year.
What about the number of trees saved by switching to cloth? Well, for a single person, it’s not very many. However, small changes add up to big changes when a lot of people make them. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) claims that if every household in the United States were to eliminate just one package of paper napkins, it would save one million trees.
Online News Sites
A few decades ago, a newspaper was exactly that: a stack of printed paper that you could buy at a newsstand or have delivered to your door. But today, more and more people are choosing to read the newspaper online. A 2012 Pew Research survey found that 55% of New York Times readers, 48% of USA Today readers, and 44% of Wall Street Journal readers now read the paper mostly from a screen rather than a sheet of newsprint.
One reason for the growing popularity of online news is the price. Some newspapers, such as The Wall Street Journal, charge the same price for digital-only access as they do for home delivery. However, most newspapers are much cheaper to read online.
- The New York Times. Daily delivery of the Times costs $7 a week, or $364 a year. A digital subscription to NYTimes.com and the NYTimes smartphone app costs $0.99 for the first four weeks and $3.75 a week after that. That’s just $181 for the first year – less than half the price of print. Switching to digital saves $183 per year.
- The Washington Post. A print-plus-digital subscription costs $1.79 a week for the first 12 weeks, and $8.75 a week after that. That comes to $371.48 for the first year. A subscription with Web access only costs $99 a year, and Web access plus a tablet or smartphone app costs $149. Switching to digital saves anywhere from $252.48 to $272.48 per year.
- USA Today. A print subscription costs $25 a month, or $300 a year. A digital subscription costs just $99 a year, for a savings of $201.
According to a Slate article, it takes about 12 trees to produce one ton of newsprint, which is equivalent to 280,000 pages. A Sunday paper has around 172 pages; a daily paper might use half as much. This means a year’s subscription to a newspaper contains around 36,000 pages. If 100 readers cancel their print subscriptions and switch to the Web, that saves about 150 trees.
Office Paper Use
Even if you can’t do much about overall paper use at your workplace, you can reduce the amount of office paper you use personally. Here are a few strategies to try:
- File Electronically. When you receive a document for work, do you automatically print it out and file it? Printing out just one 10-page document each week adds up to 520 pages, or just over one ream of paper, per year – about 6% of a tree, according to Conservatree. So if every worker in a 170-person office started filing documents in electronic form instead, that office would save 10 trees each year. And, since each ream of paper costs about $5, the office would also save around $850 per year on paper alone.
- Choose E-Bills. A 2015 study by the US Postal Service shows that most Americans are still receiving their bills in paper form. Between credit cards, cable, cell phone, land line, and other utilities, a person can receive as many as 10 such bills in a month. According to the Paper Footprint Calculator on PayItGreen.org, opting in to receive and pay those bills electronically can save seven pounds of paper each year. It can also save you $58.80 a year in postage for the ten $0.49 stamps you would no longer be using each month.
- Use Direct Deposit. Paper paychecks use less paper than bills, but they still add up over time. Having paychecks mailed to you every other week uses up about 0.4 pounds of paper each year. Switching to direct deposit cuts out all that paper use and saves you 26 trips to the bank. It also gets the money into your account faster, so you can use it right away.
- Cut the Catalogs. According to Forbes, Americans received more than 12 billion paper catalogs in 2010 – about 35 for each person in the country. If each catalog weighs about five ounces, then those 12 billion catalogs add up to 1.875 million tons of paper a year. Conservatree estimates that it takes eight trees to make just one ton of catalog paper. If 10% of Americans canceled all their catalog deliveries and ordered online instead, it would save more than 23,000 trees.
Of course, there are lots of reasons to choose a greener life, aside from the money it saves. For many people – myself included – the biggest benefit is knowing that we’re doing all we can to prevent a major global warming catastrophe. We also care about preserving natural resources, such as water and forests, for future generations. But I’ll admit it: I feel extra good about my green choices when I know they’re putting money in my wallet as well.
What are your favorite green-living strategies? Do they save you money?