This post is from staff writer Sierra Black. Sierra writes about frugality, sustainable living, and getting her kids to eat kale at

I spent last weekend at a lake house in Maine with a broken water pump. For three days, we had no running water. Being beside the lake gave us ample access to water, but nothing flowed from the taps.

To get clean, we swam in the lake or bathed with damp cloths. To flush the toilet, we carried buckets of water up from the lake. We did the same for washing dishes, boiling the water before washing our plates in it.

Drinking water became a precious resource. We were careful to drink what we needed without waste. We hard-boiled half a dozen eggs in the same pot we cooked pasta in, and steamed a basket of veggies over it. We made every drop count.

When you have limited water, you’re highly motivated to figure out what you really need.

It turned out that five of us could live pretty comfortably on about five gallons of water a day.

In the Real World
At home, I use at least ten times that amount to shower, wash dishes, do laundry, clean my house and cook my food. I run the water while I brush my teeth, and while I water the flowers in my garden. I do all of it with hardly any thought about the amount of water pouring out of my tap, or the dollars this adds up to when our quarterly water bill arrives.

We’ve made all the usual water-saving adjustments: we have low-flow showerheads, and rain barrels to catch gutter run-off and re-use it in our garden. Our appliances are Energy Star-approved for low water use.

I tend to think I’ve done what I can to conserve water. But I haven’t changed my personal habits much. I was astonished at how easy it was to live on such a tiny fraction of the water I’d always assumed I “needed” every day.

Paying such close attention to my water use made me wake up to how little attention I give to my consumption in other areas. I tend to think of myself as pretty frugal these days: I’ve cut my expenses down to a fraction of what they were two years ago. I’ve given up shopping of all stripes. When it comes to services, I’ve learned to do it myself or do without in most cases. This week, I made my last credit card payment, after ten years of debt.

But after writing about financial blind spots last week, I’m beginning to wonder how much I’m still spending and consuming needlessly.

I’ve been using my 50-percent solution to scale back on expenses ranging from date nights with my husband to the hair products I use. My weekend water adventures left me feeling braver about cutting back on even more basic things.

Trading Money for Time
The downside to these kind of cuts is, of course, diminishing returns. Washing the dishes with a single pot of water is a great savings measure. If I did that every day instead of running the dishwasher, I might save hundreds of gallons of water over the course of the year. That adds up to real dollars.

But there’s a time cost. The dishes may take an extra 20 minutes when done by hand. This seems like a small sacrifice, but if I hand-wash my dishes and line-dry my clothes and do my own taxes and bake all my own bread…you get the point. Pretty soon, each of those great savings options has soaked up a little bit of my time and there’s none left. I can spend all my time pinching my pennies and have no time to earn a living or enjoy my life.

You need to choose a few radical steps to save money by consuming less. How can you pick?

  • First, find your trouble areas. Look over your financial records and try to spot where you’re routinely busting your budget. Is at the grocery store? In paperwork mistakes that add up to big fees? Are you splurging on shoes at the mall?
  • Choose activities you’ll enjoy. My husband and I love to bake, so doing our own bread was a no-brainer. We have a sourdough starter we’ve nurtured for over a year now, and we bake two loaves of bread a week. Our homemade bread is delicious, and the flour and water we use to make it costs pennies on the dollar what we’d pay for bread at a supermarket.
  • Make sure you’re really saving money. I love to garden, and I keep a garden in our backyard each summer. I’m lazy about it though, and the financial return is pretty small: we got half a dozen strawberries this year for several hours of labor planting, weeding and watering the strawberry patch. This is a pleasant and cheap hobby, but it’s not saving me money on my grocery bill!
  • Stick with it. I’m not really going to start hand-washing my dishes in a pot of water. I know I won’t stick to it; I just don’t like washing dishes that much. On the other hand, I love walking and biking, and I really have cut our driving costs down to a tenth of what they used to be by taking advantage of alternative transport to get me where I need to go.

As always, part of the benefit to frugality is in the money saved, and part of it is in the mindset achieved. Becoming more mindful of my water use not only helps me save water, but also encourages me to expand that skill to become more mindful in other areas: when I’m filling my gas tank or my grocery cart, for example.

What surprising areas have you found to radically reduce your consumption? Where did you get the biggest savings?

J.D.’s note: I really wish I were still tracking my driving mileage and fuel consumption. I spent about a year doing this, but stopped in April when I stopped tracking my spending. But over the past couple of months, I’ve been biking and walking more than I ever have in my life. I’m learning I can live with less car than I ever thought I could. I’ve no doubt all this walking and biking is saving me money — I just don’t know how much. Photo by L’Yoshka.

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