This post from staff writer Sierra Black is in honor of Earth Day.

As soon as you start thinking about how to live more lightly on the earth, your eyes start opening to the myriad ways you can do that. You can eat only organic food. You can bike to work instead of driving. You can insist on high-efficiency appliances. You can line dry your clothes.

Some of these lifestyle shifts will save you money. Others are expensive. Often, I hear cost used as a reason not to “go green”. In fact, environmentally damaging products and lifestyle choices are only affordable because we’re not paying the full cost of them. While you enjoy your cheap plastic toys, people in the developing world are paying the price in terms of pollution, exploitative labor, and natural resource consumption.

Most of us want to do right by the environment. We’d love to have pesticide-free homes and diets. We want our spending to support small farms, local businesses, and fair wages for workers in the developing world. That doesn’t mean we necessarily have the available cash to do what our values dictate.

A lot of green lifestyle changes also have a time cost, associated with them. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how easy it is to slip into Time Debt by thoughtlessly taking on new commitments. Biking to work sounds great, but if it adds an hour to your commute time each day, you’re losing an hour at work or at home.

With every green step you take, you need to consider whether or not you can truly afford it.

Here are some inexpensive steps you can take that will “green up” your bank account and the planet:

  • Stop buying Stuff. You all knew I was going to say that, right? When you buy consumer goods, you create demand for resources to make, transport and sell those goods. That can be good for the economy, but it’s bad for the planet — and your wallet. When you do need to buy something, always investigate your options for getting it used rather than new. Used goods are cheaper and greener.
  • Cut back on utilities. You can save about $150 a year worth of electricity by line drying your clothes instead of drying them in a machine. Another $150 can be trimmed just by washing them on cold cycles instead of hot. Using high-efficiency light bulbs, insulating your home, and using recycled rainwater to quench your garden are all small changes that can save you big money. They also leave a smaller ecological footprint.
  • Park your car. Biking to work might not be practical every day, but maybe you can do it one day a week. Try expanding your radius for walking and biking, and explore public transit options in your area. My family of four drives less than 500 miles a month these days; much less than that in the warmer months. How low can you go? Make it a game. The prize: more money in your pocket, and fewer emissions into the atmosphere.

Once you’ve explored your free or cheap options, you may want to take a close look at some of those spendier choices. Should you be buying organic strawberries? What about “green” disposable diapers? How do you know what the best use of your limited resources is?

Making a decision about a green lifestyle change or product is like making a decision about any other expense. You just need to add the impact on the planet into your set of priorities.

It helps to do your homework. I can’t afford to buy only organic foods, so I use this handy table to help me understand which foods absorb the highest amount of pesticides. I prioritize getting organic apples and strawberries because they’re high on the list, and worry less about sweet potatoes, since they’re very low.

It’s also useful to consider how the added cost of an eco-friendly item will affect your ability to do other things you value. For example, I cloth-diapered both my children. We used second-hand diapers and washed them in a high-efficiency washer. If you’re going to use diapers at all, this is about as low-impact as you can get.

When my daughter’s daycare refused to use the cloth diapers, I assumed I’d put her in the “eco-friendly” disposables you can buy at Whole Foods. Those diapers, made in part from recycled paper, can cost as much as ten times what a box of generic disposables costs at Costco. I bought the generics, and used part of my savings to pay for a membership in the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Ultimately, being an earth-conscious shopper is a bit like being a frugal shopper. It’s important, but it isn’t the whole answer. The simplest, best thing we can do as consumers is to just consume less. That’s good for our bank accounts, our environment, and our bodies.

When we do consume, we’d do well to weigh the environmental impact of our purchases and look for used or eco-friendly options. We also need to hold corporations and governments accountable for large-scale change.

Don’t buy into the idea that every purchase you make needs to be local, organic, hand-made, or recycled. What matters most is that we bring our lives into balance, value the simplicity of buying less, and work for change on a global scale — as well as in our own backyards.

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