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 you don’t always hear about what else they’re saving: cold, hard cash.
How to Save Money by Living Green
Too often, it seems like living a greener life means spending more, like loading up on organic produce at the farmers market or shelling out big bucks for hemp fiber blue jeans. But that needn’t be the case. One of the best ways to go green is to save energy and natural resources — both of which cost money. That protects the environment and your wallet.
Anything that saves energy also saves cash. For instance, according to the Energy Information Administration, the average cost of electricity across the United States was 12.8 cents per kilowatt-hour in December 2020. A kilowatt-hour (abbreviated kWh) is the amount of energy you use when you run a 1,000-watt appliance, such as an electric space heater, for one hour.
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 hours of 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 (at December 2020 prices), it would cost you $45.57 by the time March rolled around.
So even changes that look small can make a big difference. Substantial changes, such as investing in energy-efficient appliances, can make an even bigger difference in the years to come. And they reduce both your utility bill and your carbon footprint.
Use Energy-Efficient Lightbulbs
Energy-saving lightbulbs are a classic example of an eco-friendly product that costs some money upfront but saves money over the long run. Modern eco-incandescent, compact fluorescent, and LED bulbs all cost more than we used to pay for old-fashioned incandescent bulbs. But they last longer and use between 28% and 85% less energy.
LED bulbs cost the most upfront, but they offer the best long-term savings. A single LED bulb costs about $2.25 and lasts up to 10 years. Over its lifetime, if you use it three hours per day, it burns roughly $12.60 worth of electricity.
If you use eco-incandescent bulbs instead, you’ll go through roughly 11 of them over 10-years. At approximately $1.05 each, that’s $11.55 for the bulbs plus $60.25 worth of electricity. That’s a total of $71.80 as compared to just $14.85 for the LED. The LED costs nearly 80% less — plus you won’t have to change it for up to 10 years.
Buy Energy-Efficient Appliances
Replacing a major appliance costs a lot more than replacing a lightbulb, but it also offers a bigger payoff in the long run. Because most appliances use far more energy than a lightbulb, cutting even a fraction of that energy use can make a significant dent in your electricity bill.
A refrigerator is a good example. The Energy Star website has a handy Flip Your Fridge tool for calculating how much you can save by replacing an old, inefficient fridge with a new one that carries the Energy Star label. It estimates that replacing a 20-year-old, 20-cubic-foot top-freezer fridge with a new Energy Star fridge could save you $659 on your utility bill over five years.
Of course, replacing your old fridge isn’t cheap. A large, Energy-Star-rated top-freezer refrigerator costs about $1,000. But with the energy you save, it pays for itself in less than eight years.
When you shop for appliances, you can compare energy costs easily by looking at their yellow EnergyGuide labels. These show how much electricity each model uses and estimate how much per year it costs to run. With this information, you can quickly figure out which model costs less over the long term.
But before you buy a new appliance to replace your outdated, energy-inefficient model, check out our guide to the best time of year to buy large appliances.
Adjust Your Thermostat
In the wintertime, you can save on heating costs by turning the thermostat down when you’re out of the house. You can also turn it down at night while you’re tucked in your nice, warm bed. Energy Saver, an office of the U.S. Department of Energy, suggests keeping the heat set at 68 degrees F while you’re home and turning it down by 7 to 10 degrees F at night or while you’re away.
Similarly, you can save on air conditioning in the summer by keeping the house warmer when you’re out or even turning it off altogether. Even when you’re home, try to manage with the temperature set a little higher than usual — around 78 or even 80 degrees F. You can rely on air conditioning alternatives like fans and ice packs to keep you comfortably cool.
According to Energy Saver, adjusting your thermostat up or down by 7 to 10 degrees F for eight hours per day can cut your energy bills for heating and cooling by as much as 10%. If you keep regular hours, you can get a programmable thermostat to adjust automatically based on your schedule. And as your energy use shrinks, your carbon emissions will too.
Use Power Strips
Many electronic gadgets, such as TVs and cellphone chargers, never really turn off. When you hit the off switch, if they’re plugged in, they go to standby mode and continue to drain a small amount of electricity. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Energy estimated that U.S. households were spending an average of $100 per year on these “energy vampires.”
Fortunately, there’s an easy fix. Just plug your gadgets into a power strip with an on-off switch. When you switch the strip off, it cuts all the power to every device plugged into it. As a bonus, these strips typically have built-in surge protectors that safeguard your sensitive electronics against power spikes. That can save you the cost of replacing expensive gadgets after a bad lightning storm.
Better still, invest in an advanced power strip. These devices automatically switch certain groups of electronics — such as a TV, DVD player, and streaming device — on and off at the same time.
Do Laundry Efficiently
The choices you make in the laundry room can have a surprisingly significant impact on your energy use. For example, running one large load in your washing machine uses much less energy than washing two small loads. By washing only full loads, you can save both energy and water.
The temperature of the water matters too. According to the Energy Saver, unless your clothes are very dirty, warm or even cold water can get them clean while saving all the energy you’d use on hot water. Simply switching from hot water to warm can cut the energy usage of each load in half.
To save even more on laundry, consider drying your wash on a clothesline. It’s completely free, and it gives you a chance to get outdoors and enjoy the sunshine. If you don’t have time for line-drying, you can still save energy by keeping your dryer’s lint filter clean and avoiding overdrying.
Install Solar Panels
Adding solar panels to your roof is a big investment, but it has the potential for significant savings. Exactly how significant depends on several factors, such as where you live, how much sunlight hits your roof each day, your current electricity use, and your cost per kWh.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to do the math. Just check out a solar calculator, like the one at Project Sunroof. Answer a few simple questions about your location and energy use, and it estimates your costs for a solar array and how much it could save you over its lifetime. It also shows how many metric tons it could shave from your carbon footprint.
This calculator factors in the value of federal and state tax incentives and rebates for going solar in your area. It can also compare the costs and benefits of buying solar panels or leasing them. With a lease, you don’t own the solar panels. The company covers all or most of your installation costs, and then you pay the company for your power.
For instance, the Project Sunroof calculator told me I could buy a solar setup for $10,000 cash and save $9,000 over 20 years. Buying it with a loan would save me only $1,000 total, and leasing would actually leave me about $700 poorer.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average passenger vehicle in the U.S. emits around 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per month. That calculation assumes the car travels 11,500 miles in a year and gets 22 miles per gallon of gas. Choosing a more fuel-efficient car or driving it fewer miles saves money on gas and reduces emissions.
Replacing your car is a big and expensive decision. However, cutting down the number of miles you drive is cheap and easy for many drivers. For instance, you can:
- Make more trips on foot, by bike, or on public transportation.
- Combine errands into a single car trip instead of making several shorter trips.
- Join a carpool.
If you live fairly close to your workplace, biking to work helps you save gas. If your daily commute is 5 miles each way and your car gets 25 miles per gallon, you save 0.4 gallons of gas — about a dollar’s worth — each day you bike to work. And the exercise you get can take the place of a gym membership, saving you another $50 or so each month.
Depending on where you live, you can also give up your car completely. According to AAA, the average medium sedan costs over $500 per month to own. By contrast, a transit pass can cost as little as $100 per month. Thus, going car-free could save you as much as $4,800 per year.
When many people think about going green, they think about recycling. But of the three R’s — reduce, reuse, and recycle — recycling is actually the least important. You can save a lot more — and do more good — by refusing things you don’t need and reusing what you have.
You probably know you can save a lot of money buying things used. But have you considered how it benefits the planet? When you shop secondhand, you’re keeping old stuff out of landfills and saving the energy and natural resources that go into new stuff. That’s a sustainability three-fer.
Some of the best things to buy secondhand include:
- Clothing. Visiting the thrift store is one of the easiest ways to buy eco-friendly clothing on a budget. Kali Borovic of Insider, who spent a year shopping exclusively at thrift stores, says she paid an average of just $1 to $5 per garment. And according to ThredUp, secondhand shopping saves literally tons of water and carbon dioxide emissions.
- Furniture and Housewares. Along with clothing, many thrift stores offer cheap furniture. Other places to find furniture and housewares at bargain prices include social networks like Nextdoor and Facebook Marketplace, P2P sites and apps like OfferUp and Craigslist, and garage sales. According to Angi (formerly Angie’s List), decent furniture pieces at yard sales usually sell for no more than one-third of their original price.
- Books. Secondhand bookstores are a reliable source of cheap books. According to Mill City Press, new trade paperbacks typically cost $14 to $18. By contrast, sites like Amazon and ThriftBooks offer used copies of bestsellers for as little as $4.
- Home Repair Supplies. At reuse centers like Habitat for Humanity ReStores, you can find furniture, appliances, and building materials such as tile and lumber for a fraction of their retail price. These items are typically salvaged from demolished or renovated buildings or left over from new construction projects.
- Cars. Buying a used car isn’t always the best deal. You have to weigh the costs and benefits, including maintenance, fuel costs, and features. But if you can find the right model for you, a 4-year-old used car could cost less than half as much as a new one, according to automotive information resource Edmunds.
Single-use products like plastic bags and water bottles are a big source of waste and a waste of money. You can save money and lighten your trash load by replacing disposable items with sustainable alternatives.
- Water Bottles. According to Food and Water Watch, bottled water costs literally thousands of times more per gallon than tap water. The bottles are also a major source of plastic waste in the oceans. A reusable water bottle refilled from the faucet can replace hundreds of bottles of water and save you hundreds of dollars each year.
- Batteries. Single-use batteries create millions of tons of waste each year. A set of rechargeable batteries can replace up to 700 disposable batteries each, saving you hundreds over their lifetime.
- Paper Napkins. If you use a 4-cent paper napkin at each meal, you’ll spend about $44 per year on napkins that are going straight into the trash. By contrast, you can use a $9 set of cloth napkins over and over, saving you more than $30 in their first year alone.
- Paper Towels. According to The Atlantic, in 2017, Americans spent $5.7 million on paper towels — $17.50 per person. A one-time purchase of a dozen washable dishcloths for $12 could eliminate this expense for years to come. Or cut up old socks and T-shirts to make reusable rags that cost nothing at all.
- Disposable Diapers. Disposable diapers are definitely easier to use than cloth diapers. However, they also cost a lot more. According to BabyGearLab, cloth diapers can save you anywhere from $685 to $1,321 over four years and keep roughly 6,000 diapers out of landfills.
- Razors. If you use and discard a $1 disposable razor every day, you’re tossing 365 razors — and $365 — each year. But if you shave with a safety razor, you get a close, clean shave and all you discard is a blade that costs around 15 cents. That’s a savings of over $300 per year.
- Menstrual Products. A 2019 Intimina survey (via SWNS Digital) reveals that the women surveyed spend roughly $13.25 per month on menstrual products. A $20 menstrual cup or a set of reusable cloth pads could save you up to $139 in just one year. And over your lifetime, they could keep up to 300 pounds of waste out of landfills, according to green marketing company the Shelton Group (via Fast Company).
According to the EPA, Americans used about 67 million tons of paper and paperboard in 2018. About 75% of that was recycled or burned for energy, but that still leaves over 17 million tons of paper per year cluttering up landfills.
You can save trees and money by going paperless at home. Today, you can replace many kinds of paper with pixels on an electronic screen. For example:
- Read News Online. Reading news online is much cheaper than having a paper delivered. Digital subscriptions to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today cost 70% to 80% less than print subscriptions. And services like Apple News, Yahoo News, and Pocket provide access to stories from various publications for free (sometimes with the option to upgrade to a premium account to unlock even more content, often for under $10 per month).
- File Electronically. Printing one 10-page document each week adds up to 520 pages, or over one ream of paper, per year. Each worker who switches to storing documents in digital form could save the office around $7 per year. If you don’t have room for it all on your hard drive, consider a secure cloud storage service like Sync or Dropbox.
- Choose E-Bills. A 2018 survey by Consumer Action found between 45% and 74% of Americans still prefer to receive bills in paper form. If you switch to receiving and paying 10 bills per month electronically, you save $66 per year on postage.
- Use Direct Deposit. Having a 1-ounce paycheck and envelope mailed to you every other week uses up about 1.6 pounds of paper each year. By switching to direct deposit, you can save 26 trips to the bank and get the money into your account faster, meaning you can use it right away.
- Cut the Catalogs. According to CNBC, Americans received about 9 billion paper catalogs in 2017. At around 5 ounces per catalog, that adds up to 1.4 million tons of paper per year. Choosing to cancel your catalog deliveries can save trees, reduce your recycling load, and cut down on costly impulse buys.
Cut Food Waste
Americans waste a shocking amount of food each year — over 70 billion pounds, according to Feeding America. Some of this waste happens on the farm or at the store, but a lot of it occurs in our own kitchens.
A 2020 study published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics found the average household wastes about 32% of all the food it buys. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average household spends $8,169 on food per year, so that’s over $2,600 worth of food going into the landfill.
The primary way to cut down your household’s food waste is to plan meals before you shop to avoid ending up with food you can’t use. If that doesn’t work, use your leftover food for future meals and snacks. And if you have any scraps you can’t use, composting them ensures nothing goes to waste.
Eliminating Toxic Chemicals
Many common household products, from cleaners to cosmetics, contain harmful chemicals that pose a hazard to your family and the environment. Rather than shell out big bucks for products specially marketed as eco-friendly, try making your own. Homemade alternatives aren’t just healthier and greener than commercial products, they’re also considerably cheaper.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, household cleaning products often contain toxic chemicals like bleach, lye, phosphates, and petroleum distillates. You could avoid these harmful chemicals by choosing organic cleaning supplies, but they can be pricey.
For a solution that helps both your health and your wallet, make your own natural cleaning products. These DIY alternatives are safe and eco-friendly, and most of them use only common household ingredients like baking soda, vinegar, and salt.
You can combine these basic ingredients in different ways to create your own carpet cleaner, stain remover, and a wide variety of surface cleaners. If you’re feeling ambitious, you can even make your own laundry detergent. Because the ingredients are cheap, you can clean most things in your home for pennies.
According to the Environmental Working Group, 12 chemicals found in beauty and personal care products are known to be harmful to human health. Because of their risks, these chemicals are banned in the European Union and many other countries but remain legal in the U.S.
You could avoid these chemicals by checking the label of every product you buy, or you can make your own green beauty products. You can find recipes online for almost every product you use, including shampoo and conditioner, facial scrubs, skin lotions, lip balm, perfume, and makeup.
DIY beauty products can be amazingly cheap. For instance, one popular homemade shampoo is nothing but a solution of baking soda followed by an apple cider vinegar rinse. Both ingredients cost less than $1 per pound.
Eating a Low-Carbon Diet
One of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint is to eat less meat. According to Our World in Data, more than 25% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from food, particularly meat. A 2020 study published in The Lancet Planetary Health found that replacing meat with plant-based foods cut the greenhouse gas emissions of people’s diets by up to 50%.
Coincidentally, meat is also one of the most expensive products on your grocery store’s shelves. Cutting back is good for the Earth and your budget. In the Lancet study, eliminating all meat from people’s diets cut their food costs by an average of 10.5%. And in most cases, the change made their diets healthier too.
However, you don’t necessarily have to become a vegetarian to enjoy these benefits. Beef is the biggest source of carbon emissions in most people’s diets, so you can make a significant change in your diet’s carbon footprint just by cutting out or cutting back on beef.
As a chart from Our World in Data shows, protein sources like chicken, fish, and beans are lower in carbon than beef or lamb. The more beef you replace with these lower-carbon — and cheaper — sources of protein, the greener your diet will be.
The perks of going green aren’t limited to savings at the store or on your utility bill. In some cases, you can double your bonus by taking advantage of tax credits or rebates from your power company. These can provide an immediate payback when you invest in a solar array, an energy-efficient heating system, or a hybrid or electric car.
Of course, there are many reasons to choose a greener life aside from the money it saves. For many people, the biggest benefit is knowing we’re doing all we can to prevent a major climate change 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 good for my wallet as well.