Environmentalism, frugality, and minimalism are intertwined. They form a complementary, interconnected system that goes something like this:
Need less, buy less, use less, consume less, spend less, deplete less…. and finally, want less.
Today, I want to discuss how these three values can work in concert to save money, reduce stress, and inform choices.
Much of frugality, environmentalism, and minimalism is encapsulated by doing less. It’s more compelling to buy into expensive “solutions” engineered to deliver a facsimile of these goals, but buying your way to environmentalism (or minimalism or frugality) is nothing more than effective marketing at work.
The cycle of doing less doesn’t get much press because there’s no real profit in it (ask me how I know). The cycle of doing less doesn’t have the advantage of being flashy or even particularly Instagram-able (though I’ve tried). Nevertheless, it’s a compelling way to live.
Frugality, environmentalism, and minimalism are symbiotic. I say this because it’s possible to be, for example, environmentally-conscious and not frugal. Same goes for minimalism: you can be a very un-frugal minimalist, but if you’re frugal, you’ll spend less in service of your minimalist aims. It’s also possible to be frugal but not environmentally-conscious and not minimalist.
Since each value has deficits on its own, it’s the intersection of the three that equals lasting benefit. Here’s how.
The Tactics of Frugal, Minimal Environmentalism
Other than abstention, there’s a slew of tactics you can employ to hit at the principles of frugality, environmentalism, and minimalism. We’ll get to the mindset of this approach in a moment, but let’s explore the action items first:
1) Use What You Have.
Instead of buying The Ideal Consumer Item for every scenario, use what you have around the house. Here’s an example: Kidwoods needed a lunchbox for school this year. Instead of buying her a new lunchbox, I dug out a small, insulated, zippered bag I’d gotten for free from a conference a few years ago. Perfect.
This approach delivers benefits in all three of our target areas:
- Saving money (frugality)
- Avoiding the carbon costs of buying new (environmentalism)
- Reducing the clutter of having an unused bag sitting around (minimalism)
It’s this synchronicity between the three that I strive for. It’s not that buying a lunchbox would’ve been super expensive; rather, it’s the idea that most of us (me included) are conditioned to rely on buying new as our first option. We see that our kid needs a lunchbox for school and our immediate reaction is to hop on Amazon, click around a bit, and have one shipped to our house.
If we start to consider the broader perspectives of environmentalism, minimalism and frugality, we give ourselves the opportunity to meet our needs in a way that’s cheaper and doesn’t impact the planet quite so much. Through the incorporation of the triumvirate, we can re-train our consumer-focused brains and look for solutions that don’t involve amassing more material goods.
2) Buy Used.
When you do need something? Buy it used. Sourcing your stuff second-hand yields long-term benefits: it’s cheaper, it keeps things out of the landfill, it removes the paralysis by analysis of comparing tons of new products, it teaches you to accept imperfection, and it eliminates the carbon costs of buying new (manufacturing, transit, packaging, etc).
3) Don’t Waste.
Waste creates the opposite effect: it puts stuff into landfills and it necessitates you buy more to replace what you’ve thrown out. This holds true for clothing, food, household goods, everything really.
The goal of reducing waste can be accomplished by incorporating:
- The frugal ethos of not buying more than we need;
- The environmental ethos of not replacing older stuff;
- The minimalist ethos of not desiring more stuff.
4) Keep What You Already Own.
Similar to ‘use what you have,’ the idea here is to keep products for as long as they’re operable and to fix them when they break. I’m not a wholesale Buy It For Life advocate because often, I think Buy It For Life products are too expensive to justify their purported longevity. But, I do like to keep and use our stuff until it’s broken beyond repair.
A great example: our television. We bought it for about $600 in 2007 and we use it to this day. It still turns on, it still works; therefore, we see no reason to replace it.
Applying this mindset to everything we own is how we hone in on our triple goal:
- Not buying a new TV saves us money and eliminates the paralysis by analysis of buying new.
- Not buying a new TV engenders a gratitude mindset–instead of lusting after the latest, greatest technology, we’re thankful for the thirteen-year-old television we already own.
- Not buying a new TV avoids the challenge of what to do with the old TV.*
I want to reiterate that each of these examples aren’t–in themselves–going to create a tipping point for money saved or environmental impact averted. However, the overarching idea is that by crafting a lifestyle with these values in mind, we can simplify, streamline and eliminate a great deal of the stress associated with persistent lifestyle inflation, consumption, and comparison.
Additionally, the “it all adds up” trope applies. If I factor in every single item I own (from cars to socks), I’ve saved tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of dollars over the course of my adult life by buying used, reusing, and keeping old stuff.
*I’m going to disagree with myself. Sometimes, I think it makes more sense to give away an aging item–such as our TV–while it’s still functional and can provide someone with a free, usable item as opposed to waiting until it’s dead as a doornail.
5) Although, Do Consider Energy Efficiency.
I know I just said to keep stuff and use it forever, but I’m compelled to also make the case for energy efficiency. Older appliances can be massive energy hogs and, in some cases, it’ll make more sense in the long run to buy newer, more energy-efficient appliances. Lucky for you, there’s a super easy way to figure out if you’re harboring energy hogs under your roof. Enter: the energy monitor (affiliate link). You plug an energy monitor into an appliance and it gives you a read-out of how much energy it’s consuming. Brilliant! This is how we determined our old fridge/freezer was sucking down electricity like a warthog. We unplugged that hog post haste and bought a brand new, energy efficient chest freezer.
6) Drive Smart.
A small, efficient car is a prime illustration of the intersection of frugality, minimalism, and environmentalism:
- It’s better for the environment
- It’s cheaper because it’s small
- It costs you less in gas
I’m not saying to go out and buy a new car; but, the next time you need a car, consider energy efficient hybrid and electric cars.
It’s also true that if you focus on quality–and buy a well-maintained used car–you can drive that car for a very long time. Our hybrid Toyota Prius (which we purchased used) is ten years old, has 144K miles, is still going strong, and we plan to drive her for as long as she’ll run.
7) Do Without.
Doing without encourages us to access our creativity and reduce our clutter. For this, minimalism is my guiding principle. After all, it’s easy to get a lot of stuff for very cheap or free (hello garage sales and the side of the road!) in a way that’s environmentally compatible (keeping stuff out of landfills!). But it’s not cheap–from an emotional perspective–to have a ton of stuff in your house.
A cluttered, overcrowded house induces stress–at least, it does for me. One way to eliminate the need to constantly organize, re-organize, and clean is to have less stuff. I’m getting better at this, but I still have a hoarder gene embedded in my psyche. I have an instinctual urge to collect resources JUST IN CASE. My hoarding mentality comes from a place of fear: fear that I won’t have what my family needs, fear that an item might not be available in the future, fear that I might be passing up the deal of the century at a yard sale. I’m slowly reforming this mindset by continually purging our stuff.
Last summer I gave away about 70% of my wardrobe (maybe more?), which gave me incredible relief. I no longer have to store, clean, and fret over these clothes. I wasn’t wearing most of them anyway, so why was I hoarding them? I donated them to friends, to the hospital (for patients to wear home), and to the homeless shelter. Someone can now wear the clothes that were doing nothing but causing me stress.
I still struggle with this one and we still own WAY more stuff than we need. But every year I come closer to recognizing the fear undergirding my hoarding tendencies and I fully acknowledge the stress that owning a lot of stuff brings me.
8) Donate, Don’t Trash.
When you are ready to part with stuff, don’t throw it out. Other people will be happy for your hand-me-downs! Join your local Buy Nothing group, swap baby stuff with friends, drop bags off at the thrift store, or look into recycling programs (such as for broken electronics). Or find a toddler near you–they freaking love broken electronics… says the person with two broken cell phones currently in HEAVY use by two in-house toddler CEOs.
The Mindset of Frugal, Minimal Environmentalism
The mindset centers on arriving at a place of enough. Of recognizing and internalizing that we have enough food, clothing, couches, cars. Of being content with what we own and not in a constant mode of greed and grasping.
I think it’s also a question of accepting discordant facts:
Fact: There are newer, nicer, bigger TVs on the market.
Also a fact: The thirteen-year-old TV we own works perfectly fine and serves its purpose in our home.
We’re not disavowing the truth that newer TVs are nicer; we’re acknowledging the fact that newer TVs exist and making the conscious choice to be happy with the old television we already own. There will always be bigger, newer, and nicer. The question is how we manage our expectations around bigger, newer, and nicer things.
This approach takes conscious work every day. Over time, these choices can become habits, which is the key to sustainable and effortless frugal/environmental/minimalist living.
And, full disclosure? I still find myself tripped up by these choices on a daily basis. This morning, Littlewoods threw her water cup onto the floor (as two-year-olds are wont to do) and without thinking, I grabbed paper towels to mop it up. There was a cloth kitchen towel right there, but in the heat of that watery moment, I grabbed the easier, more expensive, less environmentally-friendly option.
Needs Versus Wants
This is the oldest axiom in the financial management book (whatever book that is), but it brings a lot to this discussion. I parse our needs versus our wants by writing down everything we consider buying and figuring out which category it falls under. This ties into my 72-hour waiting period before buying something. I want stuff all the time, you guys! I’m not a Zen master divorced from the material world, lofty in my perfect encapsulation of wanting nothing, needing nothing.
I just spent 25 minutes scrolling through cute summer dresses online WHILE WRITING AN ARTICLE ABOUT NOT BUYING NEW STUFF.
So, please, know that you’re working with an imperfect guide here. My point is that isolating the variables of need and want inform most of my purchases and cause me to not click buy. I didn’t buy any of the dresses I looked at because I gave myself time and space to think it through. I realized that:
- I already have summer dresses I can wear.
- I don’t want to incur the carbon costs of manufacturing, shipping, and delivering a new dress.
- I don’t want to spend money on a dress that I ultimately don’t need and/or could find at a thrift store for a fraction of the price.
- I’m not eager to clutter up my freshly cleared-out closet.
In most of these instances, it’s a question of letting myself take a beat. Of taking a breath, writing down what I want and why I want it, and then waiting. It isn’t always possible to not desire more stuff–I will probably desire new dresses for the rest of my life. And sometimes, I will buy them! Other times, I will step back and pause. I will come to the realization that we can hold discordant truths and make the right choice. We can accept the cognitive dissonance that we WANT a new dress, but that we do not NEED a new dress.
Why Frugality, Minimalism, and Environmentalism Work So Well Together
You can’t buy your way to minimalism, frugality, or environmentalism, but you can–with every decision you make–inch your way closer to a lifestyle that incorporates these three values. What I like about keeping these three values top of mind is that I can fall back on one of the three if I’m not super compelled by another. Their interconnectedness enables me to shuffle them around and make decisions that are well-rounded and thoughtful.
Here’s another example for you: I want a new coffee thermos. The coffee thermos I have (which I am drinking from at this very moment) is about five years old and there are all these totally newer and flashier thermoses (thermii?) on the market, specifically on Amazon where I am embarrassed to admit I am looking at them…. And the kicker? They’re not very expensive.
- For $27.97 I could have a brand new, turquoise (my fave) thermos delivered to me (affiliate link). From a frugality perspective, saving $27.97 isn’t terribly compelling. $27.97 just isn’t all that much money and besides, I’ll use this thermos every day for a long time, right?!?
- Not convinced by the frugality metric, I step back and think about the environmental impact: buying new is going to increase my carbon footprint today, which I don’t want to do.
- Next, I put on my minimalist hat (which is not a real hat because having a real minimalist hat would defeat the purpose of trying to be a minimalist) and I realize that if I bought a new thermos, I’d then have two thermoses to store, clean, and look after when I can only–in all honesty–use one thermos at a time.
It’s this triple threat, and this three-part process, that gets me to close the “Hot New Thermoses” tab and realize I made a wise choice five years ago when I bought a quality coffee thermos that’s still chugging along with aplomb.
I can take the results of this three-pronged test and see that a new thermos doesn’t facilitate my goals in any of the three areas. After deciding not to buy a new thermos, I understand the following:
- The Ideal Consumer Solution exists for everything, but I can get by just fine with something Less Ideal that I already own.
- I have found “good enough.” I accept the imperfection of my old thermos. I know that I don’t have the best, and I am OK with that.
- I am not falling into the trap of thinking “I need to replace this,” when in reality, I WANT to replace it, but I don’t need to.
I am not the most environmentally-conscious person on earth. Nor am I the most frugal. I am obviously not the most minimalistic. Also I’m not the most glamorous.
But none of that matters for today’s discussion. We’re on an imperfect journey together, you and me, and I think the key is an ongoing thirst to learn more and do better.