You Can’t Buy Your Way To Green: How Frugality Is Environmentalism
One of the many reasons I love frugality–beyond, you know, the money it saves me and the financial independence it brought me–is the fact that its application in my life has made me a more environmentally conscious person.
I’ve always respected natural resources, been a fan of mother nature, and loved the outdoors, but it wasn’t until I became a frugal weirdo that I began living a holistically environmental life.
I’ll say right now that I know there’s more I could do in the arena of environmentalism–deeper changes I could make and countless ways I could further reduce my carbon footprint. But it’s my hope, and my experience, that by applying the lens of frugality to my life, I’ll continue to uncover avenues for stewarding our planet in my daily life. The side benefit of environmentalism is just one more way that frugality helps me craft the type of life I want to live.
How Frugality Is Environmentalism
Here’s a list of all the ways in which our frugality increases our environmental consciousness.
1) We use less electricity and water.
The easiest way to save money on your utilities? Utilize them less. Our electricity bill is usually quite low since we’re cognizant of how much we use on a daily basis. It’s not some formal, regulated system within our home, but rather an overarching awareness that we apply to how we live.
We turn lights off when we leave a room and we don’t turn lights on unless we truly need them. Additionally, our lightbulbs are highly efficient LED bulbs. Sidenote: many states offer discounts on such bulbs, but only for local purchases (not online orders) since power companies subsidize these discounts.
Here on the homestead we have a well, which means we don’t pay for water per se, but we did pay for it back in the city and so water conservation is incorporated into our routine.
2) Our laundry dries on a drying rack.
I hang our laundry up to dry on clothes drying racks in order to avoid using the dryer too often since it’s a huge energy (aka money) drain. In the spring and summer, I hang the laundry out on the porch and in the wintertime, I put the drying racks in our kitchen.
I’m pleased to report that both systems work quite well! The clothes dry more quickly outside, but they don’t take too long indoors–especially if you can position your racks near a sunny window.
There’s a triple advantage to line-drying clothes:
- The clothes last longer–a dryer is harsh on clothing and by hanging them up to dry, our clothes endure for years. Case in point: the only clothing item I’ve purchasing in over three years is a pair of boots.
- It’s less expensive since dryers gulp tons of electricity, even high efficiency dryers like the one we have.
- Line-drying uses less energy, or rather, it uses free solar and wind energy ;).
3) We buy efficient appliances.
We don’t buy appliances often, but when we do, we buy efficient. The most recent example of this is our chest freezer, which we purchased about a year and a half ago. We could’ve found a cheaper freezer used, but after calculating energy usage, we determined it would be more efficient–and less expensive–in the long run to purchase a new, Energy Star certified freezer.
Investigating the energy usage of major appliances is an excellent way to reduce your home’s consumption and your electricity bill. I’m not saying you should rush out and replace perfectly serviceable appliances, but when they break and the time comes to replace them, the cheapest option is not always the wisest proposition for the longterm.
We test the energy consumption of our appliances with this energy use monitor. The beauty of this gadget is that it averages energy usage over time and thus isn’t merely measuring what the appliance utilizes in a given moment. This averaging capability is crucial for things like refrigerators since they naturally cycle through higher and lower periods of energy consumption. And, the monitor translates this usage into cold, hard cash–you type in how much you pay per kilowatt hour (printed on your electricity bill) and it displays how many dollars per month, kilowatt hours, and pounds of C02 the device in question consumes/emits. So handy!
More on this concept: Why Buying A Chest Freezer Is Saving Us Serious Money
4) We drive less and we drive efficient.
When we lived in cities (NYC, DC, Cambridge), we walked or took public transit just about everywhere and Mr. FW biked to work everyday–even in Boston winters. One element of our decision to live in cities is that it meant we were close to our offices and thus didn’t have long commutes.
Now that we live rurally and work from home, we don’t have daily commutes, but we also don’t have access to public transit. Thus, we drive a hybrid Toyota Prius that gets a whopping 51 miles per gallon in the city and 48 on the highway. We also have an all-wheel drive Subaru, but we honestly don’t drive it all that often since the Prius gets such excellent gas mileage and handles rural dirt roads a lot more capably than we expected.
Considering commuting options not only saves money and reduces carbon emissions, it also saves time and can make you a happier person. No one wants to sit in grinding, relentless traffic for hours every single day, yet many folks do. Consider orchestrating your life so that your commute is either short or via public transit or biking. Taking public transit is fabulous because you can read a book or catch up on work while you commute.
Biking or walking provides the chance to exercise in fresh air while getting your commute taken care of. Mr. FW reports that bike commuting was: faster (he’d often pass hundreds of cars in traffic), relaxing as opposed to the stressful fight of rush hour traffic, invigorating exercise, and on the way home, it was a great way to decompress from a day’s work. Not to mention how much less expensive it is to maintain and ride a bike versus a car!
5) We conserve wintertime warmth.
In the wintertime, we make sure our house is sealed up tight. Our Cambridge home (now our rental property), being 120+ years old, was a prime candidate for letting air sneak in through various cracks and crevices. To combat these pernicious drafts, we went around with Moretite caulking cord to seal up errant spots, which reduced the amount of escaping heat. When the ancient storm door on that house bit the dust, we purchased not-the-cheapest replacement in order to further insulate the front door.
When we had the upstairs ceilings refinished in that home, we had loads of insulation put in the attic in order to keep the house warmer. Adding insulation is a superb way to ensure you’re retaining as much heat as possible during the colder months. Anytime you do a renovation that entails removal of drywall or exterior cladding, see if you can cram in some insulation!
Our heating situation is vastly different here on the homestead for two reasons: 1) Our homestead was built in the early 1990s and even more insulation was added by the previous owners, thus the house doesn’t suffer much heat escape; 2) We heat via woodstove with wood Mr. FW harvests from our land.
Our woodstove is a newer model that’s super efficient and was able to heat our entire home all winter long. We do have oil heat as a back-up, but we set our thermostat low and it rarely turned on this winter except for the deepest, darkest, coldest nights.
Wintertime is also sweater time! Not only can you insulate your home, you can insulate yourself! In the cold months, we layer up on cozy clothes so that we’re comfortable keeping the heat down. For bedtime, Mr. FW and I have an electric blanket and down comforter on our bed, Babywoods is toasty in fleece PJs and a fleece sleepsack, and Frugal Hound snoozes atop this hound warmer on her dog bed (which is the equivalent of a heated mattress pad for dogs… don’t laugh, it totally works!). By ensuring that all Frugalwoods family members are snug and warm in their beds, we can turn the heat down to circa 58 at night.
We also live by the philosophy of zone heating. We close off any rooms that we’re not using and don’t turn the heat on in those parts of the house. Here on the homestead, we cluster around the woodstove on the coldest days. As long as the pipes don’t freeze in your walls, a house can maintain a pretty low temperature and be just fine. I can tell you all about that one time we messed up and a pipe did freeze… which is how Mr. FW taught himself how to be a plumber at 10pm one winter night: Extreme Frugal Insourcing: Repairing a Frozen and Burst Pipe with PEX. Yep.
More on this: 11 Frugal Hacks to Stay Warm and Save Money This Winter
6) We don’t have air conditioning.
While winter is all about sealing up tight, summertime is all about flinging our house wide open (with screens). Here in Vermont, not many folks have air conditioning–us included–because it just doesn’t get all that hot here. If you live in a similarly temperate summer climate, consider if you can make it sans the almighty AC.
Mr. FW recently switched all of our storm doors over from their glass exterior enclosures (to retain heat in wintertime) to their screen equivalents, which allow lush breezes to blow through all summer long. On the hottest days, we open up all the windows and doors at the coolest times each day–early morning and night–and close them in the height of midday heat. When it’s comfortable outside all day long, we leave everything open all day. But the morning and night technique works incredibly well if you’re not home during the day–that’s what we did in Cambridge and it allowed us to turn our AC on for only a few weeks every summer.
Often, in this culture, we turn on our AC (or our heat or our overhead lights) without first considering if we truly need it. On a 75 degree day, do you really need to cool your house down to 70 degrees? Probably not. Totally different story on a 110 degree day, but acknowledging the difference in those “needs” is a vital element of strategic frugality. I’m not suggesting anyone bake away in their home or be too hot to sleep, merely that you make a conscious decision about turning on your AC. It’s not free–for you or for the environment–so only deploy it when you’re in dire need.
Another way to combat interior heat is to carefully consider what you cook in the summertime. Firing up the oven (or stove or crock pot) to bake delectable meals is fabulous in the wintertime–it adds wonderful auxiliary heat to your home. But the inverse is true in the summer. During the warmest weeks, we alter our diet and try to avoid cooking indoors.
Our chef-in-residence, Mr. FW, turns to either no cook meals (such as homemade hummus and veggies) or, more often, he’ll grill out. A favorite summertime meal plan for us is to grill a bunch of protein and veggies once a week and then eat them cold as leftovers all week long–either atop salads or alone. There’s nothing better on a hot August night than cold grilled chicken resting on a bed of arugula and kale with a homemade lemon and olive oil dressing accompanied by a glass of chilled white wine (from a box, naturally). Yum!
7) Food waste is banished from our home.
Wasting food is a major environmental sin. According to The Atlantic (which is my favorite magazine, by the way, and the only one I read cover-to-cover), “Wasted food is… the single biggest occupant in American landfills.” That’s disturbing and deeply depressing. Bloomberg reports: “… food that ends up in landfills contributes to the release of methane, a major contributor to global warming.”
If those stats don’t convince you, consider that food waste is also expensive. The Atlantic notes that, “For an American family of four, the average value of discarded produce is nearly $1,600 annually.” That’s not an insignificant amount of money, folks.
I rail against food waste every year at Thanksgiving, but it deserves a mini-rant here. In sum: do not waste food. Do not buy more food than your family can eat. Consume (or freeze) all of your leftovers. Do not cook meals you don’t want to eat in their entirety (or freeze). Give kiddos small amounts of food at a time–and always offer more–so that they don’t have heaping plates of uneaten food (and if they do, pop it into a glass container and serve it for their next meal).
If you’re going out of town and have a fridge full of food, freeze what you can and give the rest away to friends and neighbors. And, if you’re able to (which just about everyone is), start composting either in a pile if you have a lot of land, or in a handy dandy bin if you’re in a cramped urban locale.
8) We buy less, need less, want less, spend less, and waste less.
There’s a myth that in order to be “green” you need to rush out and purchase reams of environmental goods. That you must replace your wardrobe with all organic cotton, that you must replace all of your children’s toys with solid wooden construction, that you must buy all new Energy Star certified appliances, that you must purchase exclusively organic foods and cleaning supplies.
And yes, there are elements of this approach that are helpful as I outlined with regard to home appliances. And yes, I choose to purchase primarily organic produce and fair trade coffee. But there’s also a very real, very insidious “green” marketing strategy aimed at conning us tree huggers into spending what amounts to very sizable chunks of cash in service of becoming greener.
The best way to steward our earth is to stop consuming. You can’t buy your way to green. You can make wise decisions when you legitimately do need to buy stuff, but consuming new goods presents a heavy burden to our earth.
A core tenet of extreme frugality is to change your mentality around consumerism. By saying that I have enough in my life–enough clothing, enough furniture, enough toys for my child–I’ve been able to find peace and happiness with how my life is, not some ephemeral idea of how my life might be if I were to buy the latest and greatest/greenest gadgets on the market.
The carousel of consumerism is strong in our culture and every single day we’re inundated with products that promise to make our lives better. But we all know the falsehood of buying your way to happiness (or greenness). We all know that inner peace isn’t found on a store shelf (or on Amazon… ). So take this as your release, as your permission to stop mindlessly consuming, to simply say that you have enough in your life, and to acknowledge that you can achieve your goal of environmentalism without buying more stuff.
9) When we do buy, we buy used.
The environmental impact of buying new is profound. There are embodied environmental costs to manufacturing, transportation, packaging, and more. By circumventing this cycle–and instead sourcing products used–you’re reducing the environmental footprint of new, saving something from a landfill, and spending far less cash.
When you re-home a used couch, for example, that’s a major amount of product kept out of the dump. Nearly everything I own is used–from Babywoods’ hand-me-down nursery furniture, to our clothing, to our cars. There’s rarely a need to incur the profound costs–both financial and environmental–of new stuff.
10) If we can’t buy used, we buy durable instead of disposable.
Mr. FW and I usually don’t buy the dirt cheapest thing on the market when we must buy new. Instead, we aim for the middle ground in an effort to purchase things that we won’t have to replace frequently. Buying cheap junk that’s likely to break and then be thrown out isn’t strategically frugal and it’s also not environmentally friendly.
The muck boots I purchased this winter are an excellent example. They were fairly expensive, but my hope is that I’ll be able to wear them for decades as opposed to a cheap pair that I’d need to replace every few years.
More on this: Strategic Frugality and The Tale of Stormzilla
11) We clean green.
I make my own cleaning solution from a remarkably complex, ludicrously expensive recipe of–get ready for it–half white vinegar and half water. Since I buy a 4 gallon jug of white vinegar from BJ’s for $3.99, and have reusable spray bottles, my cleaning solutions probably cost me about 0.04 cents per batch. Womp womp.
No need to spend $20 or whatever outrageous sum is charged for those certified green and earth-friendly boutique cleaning products that smell like someone squeezed an entire lemon over a bed of lavender. I can almost guarantee you vinegar and water works just as well (if not better… ). I am what is known as a neat freak and this is no weak sauce cleaning solution.
I clean with reusable rags that are an assemblage of old t-shirts I’ve cut into squares, ancient dishtowels, and retired bath towels. I wash them every week and then use them all over again. I sweep the house on a regular basis since a broom doesn’t require electricity and then about once a month I’ll bust out the vacuum for a deeper clean. I try not to vacuum on extra hot days since I find it heats up the house (not to mention the vacuumer).
More on this: The Zen Of Vacuuming
12) We fix it, we don’t toss it.
The old adage of reusing is a powerful friend to both frugality and environmentalism. Hone your DIY skills to learn how to repair and rejuvenate your old things. I’ve done everything from refinish furniture to repair baby toys to sew holes in clothes to glue shoes back together. Fixing isn’t always a complex task, sometimes it’s as simple as being mindful that you can use a bit of tape in order to bring something back into functional shape.
Buying less stuff and owning less stuff means less waste all around. If our homes are crammed with material possessions, we’re more likely to throw things out, take them for granted, and consider our lives disposable. I take the opposite approach. Each material object we choose to bring into our lives becomes our responsibility: we need to care for it, clean it, repair it, and eventually recycle it or pass it on to someone else.
The disposable mindset that the fashion, tech, and other industries perpetuate is nothing more than a sinister tactic to keep us buying, buying, buying and, as a result, wasting, wasting, wasting. The less you own, the more apt you are to take care of what you do have and make it last for decades. The less you own, the less waste you generate as a household. The less you own, the more money you’re likely to have. And the best part? The less you own, the less you’re owned by your stuff.
13) We cook from scratch.
I’ve long heralded the economic boon that is cooking from scratch, but did you know it’s also better for the environment? Buying bulk, raw ingredients is cheaper and involves less disposable packaging.
The added bonus is that cooking from scratch is often healthier since it entails less sugar, less salt, and no preservatives. Before you buy your next loaf of bread or tub of hummus, consider making it on your own.
More on this: Our Complete Guide To Frugal, Healthy Eating
14) I take my own waterbottle, coffee thermos, and grocery bags.
I have a waterbottle and coffee thermos on my person nearly everywhere I go. Far cheaper and far less wasteful than buying paper cups of coffee or plastic bottles of water. I try to extend this philosophy to as many things as I can, for example we take our own reusable grocery bags to the store every week. OK, turns out I didn’t have much to say on this one… but I think it stands alone (and reveals that I drink a lot of fluid in a day… ).
15) Our frugality fosters a deep respect for nature.
The best frugal hobbies are free hobbies and some of the best free hobbies involve the outdoors. Walking, hiking, biking, snowshoeing–these are all inexpensive/free outdoor pursuits that foster an appreciation for the natural world. And when we have a deep connection with nature, and a reverence for its beauty, we’re more likely to treat it as the sacred resource it truly is.
16) I’ve reduced my use of beauty-related chemicals.
Letting go of wearing makeup and perfume on a regular basis and not painting my nails and not coloring/treating/hair spraying my hair did three things for me: 1) it made me more confident about and happier with my appearance; 2) it saves me a ton of money (not to mention time); 3) it’s good for the environment because it means I’m putting fewer chemicals into the waste stream. Plus, my at-home haircuts by Mr. FW involve nothing more complex/chemically enhanced than a pair of scissors. The end.
17) We (try to) grow our own food and/or eat local.
I put this last because it’s still very much a work in progress for the Fugalwoods fam. Our longterm goal is to grow epic amounts of veggies on our land in order to can and preserve them for year-round consumption. We want to make hard cider and apple cider vinegar from our apples, grow our own hazelnuts, and one day raise chickens for meat and eggs. In our first year of homesteading, we’ve made progress towards this permaculture goal, but it’s still largely aspirational for us. In the meantime, we’re enjoying the asparagus, rhubarb, arugula, and berries that do seem to be flourishing under our novice ministrations.
If you don’t have enough land for a garden (although you actually don’t need that much space), consider joining a CSA (community supported agriculture) or finding other hyper-local sources for your food from farmer’s markets or other outlets. Another goal I’m working on!!
More on this: This Month On The Homestead series
The benefits of everything on this list are equal parts fiscal and environmental. You will save money doing each of these acts and you will also reduce your impact on our earth. It’s a true win-win scenario that I think could be of use to help a resistant-to-frugality partner or spouse hop on board.
Frugality is an environmental statement that’s far more powerful than empty words or bumper stickers. Ultimately, environmentalism stems from acts of doing less: less consumption, less commuting, less carbon emissions, less wastefulness, less carelessness. Frugality finds the same root in the pursuit of less and in the joy and peace that stems from a life of simplified pleasures. The interwoven nature of frugality and environmentalism serves as a testament to their shared values.
How has frugality encouraged environmentalism in your life?
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