We live in a throwaway society. We wipe up spills with paper towels and wipe our noses with paper tissues we discard after a single use. We upgrade our computers and replace our cellphones nearly every year. Many of us even change our whole wardrobes every season, discarding old clothes that are in perfectly good shape because they’re “so last year.”
All this waste is costly, both for us and the environment. We could all stretch our dollars much further by using the same product many times rather than just once. And because we’d be buying less, we’d cut down on our use of energy and natural resources as well. So when you choose to reuse, you’re making your life greener and cheaper at the same time.
How to Reuse Items to Save Money and Reduce Waste
There are many ways to make reuse a part of your life. Some are simple, such as carrying a reusable shopping bag to the supermarket. Others take a bit more effort, such as shopping secondhand or using pallets for building material.
If you’re new to the idea of reuse, start with a few baby steps. Once you become comfortable with those, work your way up to the big stuff. As you become accustomed to the practice, you’ll discover even more ways to trim both household waste and your personal budget.
1. Ditch Disposable Products
For many people, using disposable products is just a matter of habit. They grab a disposable water bottle when leaving the house or purchase paper napkins at the grocery store.
In these cases, switching to reusable goods can feel awkward and unfamiliar at first. But if you give it a chance, before long, it becomes second nature. And once you’ve watched your trash can become lighter while your wallet stays heavier, you’ll never want to go back.
These are some examples, but there are many disposable household goods you can ditch forever.
Drinking bottled water is a common and expensive habit. If you go through a $10 case of bottled water every week, that’s $520 per year for something you could get out of a tap for less than $1.
Invest in a $20 reusable water bottle instead, and it will pay for itself more than 25 times over in its first year of use. At the same time, you’ll keep more than 1,200 disposable plastic bottles out of the waste stream. And according to a report from the Pacific Institute, you’ll save more than 100 kilowatt-hours of energy.
The EcoVessel New Wave BPA-free plastic sports water bottle (available in 24- and 32-ounce volumes) is perfect for on-the-go sippers thanks to its durable straw lid design and ergonomic body.
Americans use billions of plastic shopping bags each year. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, New York state residents alone go through 23 billion plastic bags per year. That’s nearly one bag per person per day. Producing the plastic for all those bags contributes to climate change, and the bags themselves often end up as ocean waste. You can avoid contributing to this waste by carrying reusable bags.
And avoiding reusable grocery bags can sometimes save you money at the checkout. For instance, grocery stores like Aldi charge directly for shopping bags. Although the fee for each bag is modest, you can avoid it entirely by bringing your own. Other stores, such as Target, offer a small discount for each reusable bag you bring.
There are dozens of kinds to choose from, including canvas, nylon, and string grocery bags. There are even bags you can fold and tuck into a pocket or bag to ensure you always have one when you need it.
Dishes and Utensils
You probably use washable dishes, glasses, and silverware for your meals at home. But during the workday, you might not think twice about grabbing a paper coffee cup or plastic fork. And when you’re done eating or drinking, it goes right in the trash.
But there’s a cheaper and more eco-friendly alternative. Keep a mug, plate, and set of silverware at work to eat your takeout or leftovers in style, and just wash the dishes when you’re done. If you typically use one disposable plate, one paper cup, and one set of plastic utensils each workday, this tip can save you about $72 per year.
The large food portions at restaurants are more than many people can eat in one sitting. You know you can save as much as a dollar or two (for those who take their lunch to work) to upward of $10 (if you usually eat out).
The downside is that when you ask to take home your leftovers, the server usually brings you a giant Styrofoam clamshell that just goes straight into the trash after you eat. But by bringing a reusable container when you’re planning to eat out, you can avoid both food waste and packaging waste.
A family of four that uses one paper napkin at every meal buys and discards more than 4,300 napkins per year, more than $515 worth. That same family could buy a dozen cloth napkins for $9 and reuse them for years. They’d save over $500 in the first year alone, produce less trash, and save trees.
Paper towels are even more mainstream than paper napkins. According to Earth911, the average American spent $17.50 on them in 2017.
But many reusable products can take the place of paper towels. For less than most people pay per year for paper towels, you could get a dozen washable sponges or microfiber cleaning cloths you can reuse for months. Or you can make reusable cleaning rags from old socks and T-shirts for free.
2. Repair Instead of Replacing
When something around your house breaks, do you fix it or buy a new one? In many cases, the first choice is both cheaper and greener.
And if you directly compare the replacement versus repair cost for most things, it’s no contest.
If you own an old car that’s in and out of the repair shop all the time, it may seem cheaper to buy a new one than to keep paying for repairs. But according to Credit Karma, the average monthly payment on a car loan is $568, or $6,816 per year. So unless you’re paying that much every year to keep your old car on the road, it’s cheaper to keep repairing it.
But money isn’t everything. If your old car has become so unreliable you fear being stranded miles from home, replacing it could be a better choice. You can also replace an old gas-guzzler with a newer, more fuel-efficient model as a way to reduce air pollution and shrink your carbon footprint.
An unreliable computer can be just as frustrating as an unreliable car. But once again, replacing it isn’t always the only option. You can often cure a sluggish PC just by clearing away unnecessary system files, defragmenting the hard drive, or removing viruses. In many cases, it can cost you nothing at all.
Other computer upgrades cost money. For example, it costs about $90 to upgrade to a new solid-state hard drive or add 16 gigabytes of memory. But that’s still quite a bit less than the $650 or more you’d pay for a new desktop computer, and it produces less toxic electronic waste as well.
If you have an old, scratched table or a chair with a worn-out cover, don’t give up on it. You can cover those scratches using a $5 bottle of scratch-cover polish instead of spending $200 or more on a new one. You can remove the seat on a dining chair and recover it using a staple gun and $5 worth of fabric, saving you the cost of an $80 replacement.
For more complicated furniture repairs, such as refinishing or reupholstering, you can hire a professional. But that may cost more than replacing the piece, so check prices before making your decision. Selling or donating your old furniture keeps it out of a landfill too.
Clothing with minor damage, such as a ripped seam or a missing button, is easy to fix. You can purchase a $7 mini sewing kit with everything you need to make minor repairs: needles, thread, buttons, scissors, and pins.
If you have a more complex repair project or don’t know how to sew, you can find a tailor to do it for you. According to Thumbtack, simple repairs like replacing a zipper generally cost around $20, which is quite a bit less than replacing a winter coat or a nice pair of dress pants.
Sometimes, it seems like the minute you get a new pair of shoes comfortably broken in, they wear out and you have to replace them. But a simple DIY shoe repair may be all it takes to keep those comfy shoes going. For example, scuff marks are easy to cover with a marker pen, while broken shoelaces and worn-out insoles are easy to replace for $10 or less.
For more complex jobs, such as replacing soles or heels, you can go to a shoe repair shop. But according to Vox, that kind of repair may cost $50 or more, so it’s only worth doing on quality shoes that cost significantly more than that to replace.
3. Shopping Secondhand
Sometimes, there’s just no way to repair something. But that doesn’t mean you need to buy a brand-new one. You just need one that’s new to you.
Pretty much anything you can buy is cheaper when you buy it used. The primary exceptions are antiques and collectibles, which gain value as they age.
But secondhand shopping doesn’t just save you money. It keeps perfectly usable goods out of the landfill and saves the resources and energy needed to make new ones.
And there are many places to shop secondhand.
You can find secondhand clothing, furniture, and household goods at thrift shops. Prices vary depending on the type of store.
Nonprofit thrift stores, such as Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and church basement shops, typically charge the least. For instance, at my local church thrift shop, most goods are $2 or less, but you have to watch out for damage, such as stains or missing buttons.
By contrast, consignment stores often focus on selling like-new clothes from high-end brands. Prices are usually more than you’d pay for new clothes at a department store but still much less than you’d pay for new designer-label clothes.
You can find even bigger bargains at garage sales, also known as yard sales or tag sales. Yard sale shopping is very hit-and-miss, but on a lucky day, you can find real treasures at great prices.
You can pick up all kinds of things at garage sales, including books, games, movies, music, furniture, electronics, and clothing, all at prices well below retail. Kids items, such as clothes and toys, are prevalent since children often outgrow things that are still in good condition.
This giant online auction site has just about anything you can think of for sale: art, music, collectibles, clothing, and even cars. That makes it the perfect place to look for obscure pieces you can’t find anywhere else.
But not everything sold via eBay is secondhand, and not everything is a bargain. To ensure you get a good deal, set a price limit — say, half what the purchase would cost in a store — and refuse to pay more than that.
Another problem is that you can’t see the merchandise in person to check for defects. The best you can do is read the listings very carefully and pass up anything you’re unsure about.
Despite its name, Swap.com is not a bartering website. Instead, it’s a consignment site where you can buy and sell clothing and several other items, like toys and books, in good condition. Prices are generally more than you’d pay at a nonprofit thrift store but less than you’d pay at a consignment shop, with most apparel and accessories priced between $4 and $50.
Another suitable site for buying and selling clothes online is ThredUp. Garments start as low as $4. You can also send your old clothes to ThredUp in exchange for cash or credit to spend on the site if they accept them.
Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace
Craigslist is a marketplace where people in a local area can buy, sell, and swap goods and services. The for-sale section includes listings for just about any commodity you can imagine, including cars, clothes, appliances and electronics, and furniture.
Since anyone can post a listing, prices and product conditions vary widely. But when you shop through Craigslist, you often have a chance to check out the merchandise in person before you pay money for it. Most Craigslist sites also have a free section for giveaways and a section for yard sale listings.
Facebook Marketplace has a similar platform.
If you’re renovating your home, check your local reuse center before heading to the big-box home improvement retailer. These stores carry a wide variety of building materials, appliances, and furniture in good condition. Prices are usually no more than half the retail price and sometimes as low as 10% of retail.
Secondhand Specialty Stores
Many stores specialize in a particular kind of secondhand wares, such as books or music. Some stores, such as Half Price Books, offer a selection of used books and recordings alongside their new ones.
4. Swapping Goods
Swapping goods is an even bigger win-win than shopping secondhand. You can get rid of your unwanted stuff and pick up new stuff at the same time, with no money changing hands. So you get all the environmental perks of buying secondhand, and the price is unbeatable: absolutely free.
And you’re not limited to your friend group. There are plenty of places where you can swap goods with neighbors you don’t yet know.
The Freecycle Network is like a version of Craigslist where everything is free. Freecycling doesn’t require a direct swap for things of equal value. Instead, everyone posts listings for things they don’t want (or things they need).
For example, if you’re in the market for a new pair of ice skates, you can look for them on your local Freecycle group instead of hitting the store. And when you have something you no longer need, you can post it for someone else to take. You could get someone else’s too-small pair of skates for free and keep them and your unwanted goods out of the landfill at the same time.
Freecycle has listings for just about everything: clothes, books, furniture, electronics, and even plants. Some goods are in like-new condition, while others are completely broken but still useful for parts. To see if there’s a local Freecycle group in your area, visit Freecycle.org and type in your city and state.
Some larger cities have free stores and markets, which are like an in-person version of Freecycle. You can drop off unwanted pieces in good condition and help yourself to anything other people have left.
Most free stores (sometimes called “really really free markets”) don’t have permanent storefronts with regular hours. Instead, they’re open-air markets that occur on a particular day or large boxes where people can pick up and drop off items. To look for a free store near you, do a search on your town’s name followed by “free store” or “really really free market.”
Swap Shops and Swap Meets
Swap shops and swap meets are similar to free stores but with a twist: You have to give something to get something. It doesn’t matter what you bring or what it’s worth, as long as you donate something.
One type of swap meet is a clothing swap party. At these events, you and all your friends bring the clothes you no longer want and trade them with each other.
Online Swap Sites
You can also swap online at swapping websites. For example, Rehash is like an online clothing swap party for people all over the country. At PaperBack Swap, you can trade in paperback books you’ve read and get new titles in exchange.
5. Utilize the Sharing Economy
When you shop secondhand, you’re reusing old stuff someone else no longer needs. But there are also some things nearly everyone needs but almost no one needs every day.
For example, anyone with carpeting needs a vacuum cleaner, but most people only use it about once per week. So it would make a lot of sense if there were some way for a bunch of neighbors to have just one vacuum and take turns using it.
That’s what the sharing economy is all about. It lets just one item — a book, a car, or even a building — be enough for multiple people. There are many examples — some old and familiar, others more modern.
Libraries aren’t just for books anymore. At many public libraries, you can also borrow audiobooks, music CDs, and DVDs of popular films and TV series. You can even read popular magazines instead of shelling out $5 or more to buy them off the rack.
Taking advantage of all these features can save you big bucks. For example, the average household with cable or satellite TV spends nearly $110 per month on it, according to Leichtman Research. If your library gives you enough entertainment choices to cancel your cable, you can save close to $1,320 per year.
Let’s say you like to bike to work in good weather, but you prefer to drive on cold or rainy days. Instead of having a car that just sits in the driveway most of the time, you could join a car-sharing program, such as Turo or Zipcar.
Zipcar costs approximately $70 per year, plus a driving rate starting at $12.50 for each hour you use the car. If you made 10 three-hour trips per month, that would come to $4,570 per year. That’s less than half the $9,576 per year Car and Driver says it costs the average driver to buy and maintain a car.
If you use your car more often than your bike, you can keep the car and join a bike-share program instead. It gives you access to a whole fleet of bikes you can check out as needed.
For example, at Capital Bikeshare in Washington, D.C., you can borrow a bike for 24 hours for only $8. Doing so twice per month comes to $192 per year, which is quite a bit less than the cost of most new bicycles. Plus, you don’t need to store the bike, which is handy if you live in a small apartment.
Many houses have rooms that sit unused most days. For example, perhaps you only need your laundry room once or twice per week, your formal dining room twice per month, and your guest bedroom even less frequently.
In a cohousing community, people can share these seldom-used spaces with others. Each person or family has a small private home, while a larger building or home has areas all residents can use. Living in a cohousing unit usually costs less than owning a separate house of your own with all the same amenities.
The exact amount you save with cohousing varies. According to the Foundation for Intentional Community, a survey of 200 cohousing residents found that each household saved between $200 and $2,000 per month. And in a 2018 Journal of Accountancy article, a retiree who downsized into cohousing estimated her savings at $10,000 per year.
Just like homes, many office buildings have spaces workers don’t use regularly. Desks sit empty while people are on vacation, and employees only use conference rooms once per week.
Coworking spaces allow a bunch of freelancers or solo professionals to share one building. That way, they all save money on rent and amenities like coffee and Internet access. Calculations by ValuePenguin show that small businesses with fewer than 12 employees save an average of $2,700 per month by using a coworking space rather than leasing an office.
It’s possible to share outdoor spaces as well. Community gardens are shared plots of land in a city where people join together to grow flowers and fresh vegetables. These sites turn unused and unsightly vacant lots into sources of fresh food.
Many community gardens are free to join, but even if there’s a membership fee, it may be much lower than the cost of owning a house with a yard of your own. And having many people share a single garden is a much more efficient use of land than spreading the same amount of garden space across multiple lots.
In many cities, there are special “libraries” where people can share all kinds of goods. For example:
- Tool-lending libraries make it easy to borrow home and garden tools you only need occasionally, such as an extension ladder. Having 10 neighbors share one ladder is a much more efficient use of resources than each one having a ladder they rarely use.
- Toy-lending libraries let kids choose from a much wider variety of toys than they can keep in their rooms at home. Parents can swap toys when their kids get tired of them rather than throwing them away and buying new ones.
- Seed exchanges allow gardeners to trade extra seeds and seedlings they don’t need for new ones they can use rather than discarding them.
6. Get Creative
Often, when you reuse something, you’re simply continuing to utilize it for the same purpose. For example, you take a cloth grocery bag on yet another trip to the store, upgrade an old computer, or donate a too-small sweater to a thrift shop so a smaller person can wear it.
But sometimes, an item can’t do its original job anymore. When that happens, there are two things you can do: throw it out or put it to a new use. For instance, an old Mac computer that can’t handle today’s software can become an aquarium, or a sweater with moth-eaten sleeves can be cut down to make a vest.
These are examples of creative reuse, also known as upcycling or repurposing. It can be one of the more complicated ways to reuse, but for people who love to let their imaginations run free, it’s also the most fun.
There are many creative ways to repurpose common household items, such as:
- Mesh Bags. To give mesh onion bags a new life, string a shoelace through the top. This drip-dry storage bag can hold bath toys or corral small kitchen tools in the dishwasher. A rolled-up mesh bag, held together with a few stitches, makes a good scouring pad for pots and pans.
- Milk Jugs. An empty milk jug also has lots of uses. You can cut off the top to make a storage bucket with a built-in handle. Cutting off the bottom at an angle creates a dustpan or a large scoop for pet food, kitty litter, or potting soil. Cutting off just the base makes a miniature greenhouse to protect your tender seedlings in the garden.
- Blue Jeans. A pair of blue jeans that’s worn out at the knees still has lots of good, usable fabric. The simplest way to reuse it is to cut off the legs and make shorts. But with a little more sewing skill, you can turn the denim into a sturdy apron, a tote bag, a purse, or a set of potholders.
- Canning Jars. The humble Mason jar has become a trendy decoration. These glass jars can store anything from candy to office supplies to leftover paint. At chic parties, they can contain cocktails, hold candles, and display flowers. Do a quick search on “Mason jar projects,” and you can see literally hundreds of other ideas.
- Shipping Pallets. Typically, shipping pallets are used once and discarded. But for creative carpenters, they make an almost unlimited supply of free wood. At sites like 1001Pallets, you can find instructions for turning pallets into tables, chairs, wine racks, shelves, and just about everything else for the home.
That doesn’t mean you have to start saving all your trash so you can upcycle it. The point of creative reuse isn’t to avoid throwing stuff away. It’s to avoid buying new stuff by putting what you have to good use.
Once you get into the habit of reusing things, the whole world becomes your materials bin. Instead of running to the store when you need something, you start looking around to see what you already have.
For instance, if you need a hat rack, you might spot a big branch out in the yard and think, “Aha!” An hour later, the branch is stripped of bark and mounted on your wall, and you have a unique hat rack your friends will envy.
The three R’s of the green lifestyle are “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” Of these three, recycling tends to get the most attention. These days, we all know how to separate our trash and check the numbered logo on the bottom of a plastic bottle. And it’s easy to think recycling means we’re doing our bit to help the planet.
But reusing is much better than merely recycling. Yes, recycling a water or soda bottle is better than making a new one from scratch. But turning old bottles into new bottles still takes energy and produces pollution. Plus, it only works if people remember to “close the cycle” by buying recycled products.
But when you have a reusable bottle, you stop waste in its tracks. Any energy that went into making that bottle has already been used, and using it again doesn’t take a single watt more. When one reusable bottle can take the place of more than 1,200 disposable bottles every year, you save more energy — and more money — every time you use it.