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 don’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, like 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 12.7 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh). A kilowatt-hour is the amount of energy you use when you run a 1,000-watt appliance, such as 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 ran that space heater for four hours per 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. Big changes, such as investing in more energy-efficient appliances, can make an even bigger difference in the years to come.
Use Energy-Efficient Light Bulbs
Energy-efficient light bulbs are a classic example of an eco-friendly product that costs some money upfront but saves lots more money over the long run. Suppose an old 60-watt incandescent bulb burns out in your bedside lamp. You can’t buy another cheap incandescent bulb to replace it because the new efficiency standards for lighting have pushed them out of the market. So you go down to the home center and find three choices:
- Eco-Incandescent Light Bulbs. These more efficient incandescents cost about $7 for a pack of four or $1.75 per bulb. They last 0.9 years and use 53 watts of energy.
- Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs). These cost a bit more — about $8 for four, or $2 per bulb. But they also last 9.1 years and use just 14 watts of energy.
- LED Bulbs. These cost the most upfront at roughly $9 for four, or $2.25 apiece. But they also last the longest — an amazing 22 years — while using only 9 watts of energy.
At a glance, it looks like the LED bulb is the most expensive. But you don’t need to replace it for the next 22 years. Over that entire period, if you use it three hours per day, it burns roughly 217 kWh — less than 10 kWh per year. That costs you about $28.20. Add the $2.25 you paid for it, and the bulb’s total cost for the 22 years comes to $30.45
The CFL bulb lasts less than half as long, so over that same 22-year period, you need to replace it twice. That means you spend more on the bulbs themselves, at $4 total. On top of that, the energy they use comes to 337 kWh, which costs you about $43.80. That brings their total 22-year cost up to $47.80 — significantly more than the LED.
If you choose the eco-incandescent bulbs, you need to buy 24 of them over 22 years, spending $42 on the bulbs alone. And that cost is dwarfed by their energy use: a whopping 1,277 kWh (58 kWh per year) for $166. In total, these bulbs burn through $208 in 22 years. They’re more efficient than your old burnt-out incandescent, but compared with the LED bulbs or even the CFLs, they’re no bargain.
Buy Energy-Efficient Appliances
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 even 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 a freezer on top, the site estimates it uses 1,031 kWh per year. At the average national rate, that old beast of a machine is costing you $131 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 576 kWh each year — a little more than half as much as your old one. Making the switch shaves $73 per year off your electric bill.
Of course, replacing your old fridge isn’t cheap. A large, Energy-Star-rated top-freezer refrigerator costs about $1,000. At that rate, your new fridge will take over 14 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 without the Energy Star label cost almost as much and 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. These 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 term.
Install Solar Panels
This one is a really big investment, but it has the potential for big savings. 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 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 entered my information into this solar calculator, it told me I could buy a solar setup that would meet all my energy needs for about $3,600. That’s the net cost after a tax credit that would pay for 26% of the total. The site said the system would pay for itself in 4.2 years and would save me $10,000 over its 20-year lifetime.
If you can’t afford to invest thousands of dollars upfront, 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 $8,300 over 20 years with a loan and $1,700 with a lease.
Once you’ve determined that solar panels make sense economically for your home, it’s time to choose the optimal array. Use this guide from EarthTechling to understand your choices, narrow down your options, and select a setup that you can grow into.
According to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculator, the average passenger vehicle in the U.S. travels 12,480 miles in a year at 21.4 miles per gallon, using 583 gallons of gasoline. This produces the equivalent of 11,807 pounds (5.26 metric tons) of CO2. It would take about 34 trees to remove that amount of CO2 from the atmosphere, according to the carbon calculator at Carbonify.
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 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 carpool
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 5 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. Gas costs an average of $2.25 per gallon as of March 2020, so biking to work will save you about $0.56 per day on gas.
This may not sound like much, but it adds up over time. Biking to work just twice a week throughout the year puts an extra $54 in your pocket — and 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.
And the money you save on gas is 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 about $0.575. That means your 10-mile round-trip commute actually saves you $5.75 per 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 67 million tons of paper and paperboard every year. About 73% of that is recycled or burned for energy, but that still leaves over 18 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.
Switch to Cloth Napkins
A packet of 400 paper napkins costs about $15 on Amazon. If you use one napkin at each meal, the packet lasts 133 days, so a year’s supply costs about $41. By contrast, you can buy a dozen cloth napkins on Amazon for only $9 (including shipping) and use them 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 Complete 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 $0.32 to $1.34, depending on the type of washer you have, the water temperature, the detergent you use, and how you dry your clothes. That means your total cost for the extra laundry could be anywhere from $3.20 to $13.40 per year.
However, you can cut this cost by using the same napkin several times. If you don’t happen to spill something on it or use it to wipe away a sticky sauce, a napkin can stay clean for several meals. If you wash two napkins each week instead of 21, you only need to do about one extra load of laundry per year instead of 10. Even at the highest price of $1.34 per load, that’s a savings of over $30 the year you buy your cloth napkins. For future years, the savings jump to over $39.
What about the number of trees saved by switching to cloth? For a single person, it’s not very many. However, small changes add up to big changes when a lot of people make them. According to Norwex, a manufacturer of eco-friendly products, if every household in the U.S. eliminated 70 paper towels or napkins, it would save more than 540,000 trees.
Read Online News Sites
Not so long ago, a newspaper was one of the only ways you could stay up to date on daily news. But today, more and more people are choosing to read the newspaper online. A 2018 Pew Research survey found that only 16% of Americans now get their news from print newspapers — less than half the number who read online news sites.
One reason for the growing popularity of online news is the price. Some newspapers, such as The Wall Street Journal, charge almost as much 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 $10 per week, or $520 per year. A digital subscription to NYTimes.com and the NYTimes smartphone app costs $5 for the first four weeks and $4.25 a week after that. That’s just $208 for the first year — less than half the price of print. Switching to digital saves you $312 per year.
- The Washington Post. Print delivery of the Post is available only in the Washington, D.C. metro area. A print-plus-digital subscription costs $4 per week for the first 12 weeks and $14.70 per week after that. That comes to $636 for the first year. You can save by paying for a full year in advance, but it still costs $200. A digital-only subscription costs only $29 per year, and an extra $10 per year gets you a second subscription to share with a friend plus unlimited downloads of e-books by Post journalists. Switching to digital saves anywhere from $161 to $607 per year.
- USA Today. A print-plus digital subscription costs $10 per month for the first three months and $30 a month after that, or $300 a year. An ad-free digital subscription costs only $5 per month, or $60 a year, for a savings of $240.
According to Slate, it takes about 12 trees to produce 1 ton of newsprint, which is equivalent to 280,000 pages. A Sunday paper has around 172 pages, and a daily paper might use half as much. That means a year’s subscription to a newspaper contains about 36,000 pages. If 100 readers cancel their print subscriptions and switch to online news sources, it saves about 150 trees.
Use Less Office Paper
The idea of the paperless office has been around for decades, but it’s far from a reality. In fact, the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates a typical office worker goes through 350 pounds of office paper per year.
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 over one ream of paper, per year. That’s about 6% of a tree, according to Conservatree. If every worker in a 170-person office started filing documents in electronic form instead, that office would save ten trees each year. And since each ream of paper costs about $5, the office would also save about $850 per year on paper alone.
- Choose E-Bills. A 2018 survey by Consumer Action found between 45% and 74% of Americans still prefer to receive their bills in paper form. Between credit cards, cable, cellphone, landline, and other utilities, a person can receive as many as 10 such bills in a month. Assuming each bill weighs about 1 ounce, including the bill itself, envelope, and enclosures, opting in to receive and pay all your bills electronically could save about 7.5 pounds of paper each year. It would also save you $66 per year in postage for the 10 $0.55 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 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 CNBC, Americans received about 9 billion paper catalogs in 2017 — roughly 27 for each person in the country. If each catalog weighs about 5 ounces, then those 9 billion catalogs add up to 1.4 million tons of paper per year. Conservatree estimates it takes eight trees to make just 1 ton of catalog paper. If 10% of Americans canceled all their catalog deliveries and ordered online instead, it would save over 1 million 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 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 especially 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?