Can You Afford to Go Green?

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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Mich @BTI
Mich @BTI
10 years ago

The easiest way of cutting your energy consumption is to install programmable thermostats in all your rooms. Then set up the programming depending on your life style and needs. I am currently paying an avg 125$/mo in electricity for a 2000 sqf house in Quebec.

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

For organic veggies and fruits, look into an organic buying club or a farm share. My local club has prices on seasonal vegs and fruits that are half what you’d pay in the grocery store. Some times green choices include start up costs that save in the long run. We re-did our yard to a more sustainable footprint, less grass, different grass, more native and tropical plants (we are in Fla.) which cost us some money up front but has reduced our costs over the long run and reduced impact on environment. Same could be said for energy efficient windows… Read more »

Mr Credit Card
Mr Credit Card
10 years ago

I am glad finally someone brought up the fact that going green has it’s cost. And for many folks costs is a real issue. The same applies to things like food for example, eating healthy can cost more. A 99 cents Wendys burger may be cheap but unhealthy!

Chett
Chett
10 years ago

You missed the biggest part of the whole movement, advertisement. Companies know “green” sells, even if it isn’t really any better for the environment, and in some case worse. As one article put is, “green consumerism is an oxymoronic phrase.” Anything we consume takes away from natural resources. We shouldn’t be trying to consume more green, instead we should simply consume less stuff. The green phase craze reminds me of the Snackwell food craze of the mid 90’s. “Wow these are fat free. That means I can eat two boxes and never gain a pound.” Somehow everybody forgot to check… Read more »

E West
E West
10 years ago

Totally agree with Chett!

Buying “green” is a marketing scheme all by itself. Do you need to buy a “green” shopping bag at the grocery? Chances are you already have a canvas bag at home. Do you need to buy a new fuel-efficient car when you have one now that works fine?

Prepackaged foods is the biggest real green decision most of us will make. All that extra packaging and plastic for individual servings. Instead make food at home from scratch and use reusable tupperware when you need food for on the go.

Jane
Jane
10 years ago

I personally think that in terms of produce and being green that it is more important the food be local rather than strictly organic. We are a member of a local CSA, and we visited the farm last fall. They try their hardest to be organic, but it is not always economically possible. But I still feel like this is the best choice. I would rather eat non-organic tomatoes in season from an hour away than pay for organic tomatoes from South America. This just doesn’t seem green at all when you consider the fossil fuels that it takes to… Read more »

Molly On Money
Molly On Money
10 years ago

I raise chickens (meat & eggs) and recently switched to organic feed (3x’s the price). It has a huge impact on my profit if I don’t raise prices. Another impact we have as consumers is in how we build our homes in the US. The positive effects you can have just by cutting down the size of your planned new home down and reusing materials is potentially very large. I knew an architech that spent a ton of time designing a ‘green’ house that would be highly insulated (it got very cold) and placed the house to take advantage of… Read more »

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

@ Molly: I totally agree! We can buy all the green products we want, but the big cars and big houses (complete with swimming pools and big lawns) suggest that our society doesn’t really care about the environment. If we were serious about being green, we’d use a lot less!

In my area, it seems like all they’re building is luxury homes and condos. There’s very little to offer for someone looking for affordable housing. I guess expensive homes are okay for people who have the money, but I wish people would realize we’re all paying for them.

retired
retired
10 years ago

Going green can be many things from buying used, to buying less. Getting rid of something you already have to replace with a “green item” is not green. Use the original until it no longer works. Play board games in the evenings, take a walk as a family. Grow your own tomato’s.
I grew up on “green vegetables” chemicals cost money leaves and grass cutting were natural and free. Buy used books and then donate to the library so they can be reused.

steven@hundredgoals.com
10 years ago

I wrote about Earth Day today as well and would like to share my story and thoughts about what it means to Be Green! Enjoy!!!! Today is Earth Day. Around the globe people are banding together to help improve the health of our planet. My contribution this year was to clean the river that runs through our campus. Halfway through what I expected to be about a two hour job, we ran into a bit of a problem: a tractor tire almost as tall as me, buried in the middle of the river. It was filled with sediment that smelled… Read more »

DIY Investor
DIY Investor
10 years ago

Worth thinking about is investing in the “Green Movement”. Possible to do good and do well at the same time. You can diversify by buying ETFs. TAN is the exchange traded fund for mainly solar companies, FAN is for wind power. There are many others – just google green etfs.
I wouldn’t invest more than 20% of total assets and no more tha 5% in a single ETF.
A couple of good paperbooks: “Green Investing” Ulrich and “The Clean Tech Revolution” Pernick and Wilder.
Keep in mind that this is a very volatile part of the market.

Trini
Trini
10 years ago

I started getting all my groceries from my local farmers’ market (I’m lucky; I have two in walking distance) after I read Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (and other books by him, Joel Salatin, Barbara Kingsolver, Nina Planck, etc). I actually find that I spend less on groceries now – I eat much less because these real foods fill me up faster and satisfy my hunger longer. Also, I’m not spending $3.49 on a 13 oz bag of Baked Lays (my biggest weakness) or other junk foods. I didn’t use to take my nutrition/cost ratio into account, but I think… Read more »

ElysianConfusion
ElysianConfusion
10 years ago

Everyone may have already seen this, but it brought up some similar points: How to Be a Savvy Cheapskate – Yahoo! Finance (http://finance.yahoo.com/news/How-to-Be-a-Savvy-usnews-3454225752.html?x=0) “For most Americans, the greenest thing you can do is consume less, which probably means spending less…. Take green cleaning products. They tend to be more expensive than the toxic products. But you can clean almost everything with baking soda and vinegar, which are safer for the environment than green products and cost less than any other cleaning products, green or toxic.” Sometimes, though, the market push for this stuff has positive results. For example “Target Opens… Read more »

ami | 40daystochange
ami | 40daystochange
10 years ago

Thank-you for this article Sierra. You make some important points about the choice – or should I say choices – to go green. A couple thoughts to add to the pile: 1. You can cancel catalogs and junk mail by going to catalogchoice.org. Just by reducing the amount of paper that flows through the system, you’ve helped. 2. You can count some of your green activities (like walking or riding a bike to work) as your exercise for the day – so gaining back some of the time commitment. 3. love the walkscore.com that Sam #2 shared) Choosing to live… Read more »

Deborah M
Deborah M
10 years ago

Hey, Mich @BTI… is that home of yours in Quebec heated mainly by electricity? I know that’s often the case where you live.
Any supplementary heat sources?

Re: Going Green Affordably posting
Let me crow a little… we’ve cut roughly 50% off the electrical use at our home in the last 5 years, by modifying our behaviour and replacing old appliances inherited from previous owners, over time. Thank god the 30 yr old fridge “died” within a month of moving in! It was taking alot of armtwisting to convince DH. LOL

And absolutely….agree with consuming less, and creating more.

arm-and-leg-safe
arm-and-leg-safe
10 years ago

I agree that majority of people want to do right when it comes to protecting our environment, after all, we all breathe the same air. But the cost of going green is a valid excuse for delaying the pursuit if not at all. The media is partly to blame for helping in upping the premium on going green. It’s a double edged sword in a way. It’s nice that they were the vehicle for awareness but on the other hand, they made it the “IN” thing so people will try to make a profit out of it, hence the cost… Read more »

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

I would say that buying less stuff and cooking at home have had the biggest impact on our carbon footprint. I only have to put out garbage and recycling twice a month because of how little goes in the bins these days. When we stopped eating out, I fully expected that the garbage and recycling would shoot up. It’s amazing that the opposite has happened. Oh, and we use less gas by not doing extra driving going to restaurants and I usually shop twice a month. A grocery budget has eliminated all those one-off trips to the store for cilantro… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
10 years ago

I’m all for doing green things that SAVE money first, then deciding after that which things are worth spending some extra money.

Line drying, growing food on my porch, and walking or biking places are all things that I can easily do in the city that save me money. There are other things I do that cost money (buying food at the farmer’s market, say), so I think it evens out.

Kirk Kinder
Kirk Kinder
10 years ago

Great post and comments…lots of ideas. One that is often overlooked is cleaning with vinegar and baking soda. This is as green as it gets, and it doesn’t cost a ton like other green cleaning products.

Trini
Trini
10 years ago

Huh, did you know the 3R’s used to be the 4R’s? “Refuse, reduce, re-use, recycle”

Another good Earth Day article here:
http://www.thenextfamily.com/2010/04/it-aint-easy-being-green/

Luke
Luke
10 years ago

For the posters commenting on green credentials being used to sell yet more products that we probably don’t need, it’s a well-documented phenomenon and even has its own name ‘Greenwashing’. Many of the world’s most influential companies are guilty of this sort of spin and there are even blogs dedicated to the topic. The easiest way of going green for most Americans (I’m a Brit, we have our own failings!) would be to cut down their water use. I read a recent newspaper article and the average person in the US uses up to 10 times as much water as… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
10 years ago

Good point about the catalogs, Ami. I just went to http://www.catalogchoice.org and unsubscribed from all of the ones I could remember (Lands’ End, Campmor, Performance Bike, VS). I don’t even know how we got these as we don’t catalog shop.

I also sent an email to Time Out Chicago as they are the worst, sending us TWO magazines per week that we never asked for and never read.

Lindsey
Lindsey
10 years ago

I agree on both sides. The greenwashing (aka companies cashing in on going green) is a problem.

However to simply say “it’s too expensive to go green!” is nothing but a lazy cop-out.

You can eat healthier for cheaper. People are just lazy and choose the .33 box of macaroni and .99 soda because of laziness.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago

The way I see it, there’s only two options:

1) Your decision is helping to save the planet from becoming an uninhabitable place. In this case, can you afford *not* to do it?

2) You decision makes no real difference, in which case, why bother?

People have made environmentalism all about feel-good self-congratulation, and almost nobody is actually checking to see tha the world’s a better place because of their decisions, which was ostensibly the whole point in the first place.

Jackie
Jackie
10 years ago

You can grow strawberries in a hanging planter on your porch. They won’t be as big or appealing as the ones you buy in the store (organic or otherwise) but they WILL taste a thousand times better.

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
10 years ago

My husband and I aren’t that “green” but simply frugality leads to “greener” ways of life. We own a Prius for it’s storage space. We were in the market for a small SUV until we saw that the Prius had the room we needed and was cheaper than the Hyundai Santa Fe we were interested in. We also use as little electricity and water as possible since I’m cheap. Oh, and I save our aluminum cans to trade for money every 6 months since we don’t have recycling in our area. Lots of things you do can save money and… Read more »

Kristin @ klingtocash
Kristin @ klingtocash
10 years ago

We’ve done a lot in the past few years to go green. I buy most of our groceries at a store where most of its products are local, hormone free and antibiotic free. We’ve cut back our energy usage and recycled more. We eat less processed and packaged foods.

These changes have helped our wallets and the environment.

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

Trini has a point. Many marketing campaigns involve free giveaways like cheap toys, items we use once or twice and throw away and samples that come in wasteful packaging. (And enough of the eco-bags! How many of them do we really need?)

It’s frustrating being an individual trying to help the environment when much of the waste comes from systems that are beyond our control.

Michael Crosby
Michael Crosby
10 years ago

Not in any way to be offensive, but for me “Going Green” is one big turn off. When I think of “Going Green”, it’s some nebulous group wanting me to think the way they think, and not to think for myself. They are the all-knowing and I’m merely the sheep following along. It’s namby pamby, followed up by the pseudo science of global warming. Follow in line with us, you’re part of the group, keep your mouth shut, and keep sucking on the tit of ever growing mama government. Basically, when I see the word “Green” nowadays, I want to… Read more »

SF_UK
SF_UK
10 years ago

A lot of “environmentally friendly” detergents are about the same price (or less, because they’re no-name) as “normal” ones, but they are also specifically designed for low temperature washes (less energy use = money saving). Win-win!

Kathy P.
Kathy P.
10 years ago

Anyone who follows the advice on this and other personal finance blogs should certainly be able to afford “going green”. Ever since getting out of debt in Oct. of 2007, I have had no trouble paying for more sustainable choices like energy efficient appliance replacements, switching to locally grown, grass-fed foods, etc. I buy very little food at the grocery store now, and I find my overall food bill has decreased slightly. It’s the folks who are addicted to the consumer lifestyle who claim it’s too expensive to “go green” because they can’t comprehend that the greenest action they could… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
10 years ago

Great article! Not buying stuff (and not going places) is the absolutely most frugal and greenest thing we can do. Also, thinking in frugal (instead of cheap) terms is key – we are putting in the money now to make our house more energy efficient. The new furnace we got in 2005 (replacing one that was 60 years old) cut our heating bill by $200/mo in the winter. It is halfway paid for just in those savings already. Instead of always thinking of the up-front cost, we need to be thinking of lifelong costs. (p.s. my old car is pretty… Read more »

Katy Wolk-Stanley
Katy Wolk-Stanley
10 years ago

Sierra,

Nice post! I find that the “green” choice is often the easiest choice. This is because it’s often about what I DON’T do. I don’t take vacations where I have to fly, I don’t buy brand new stuff, I don’t buy premade packaged meals, I don’t spend much, so I don’t have to commute much.

People can get caught up on what they have to “DO,” when often the thing to do is “DON’T.”

Sustainably and lazily yours,

Katy Wolk-Stanley
“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

Dmitri
Dmitri
10 years ago

I recently realized something about myself – I’m absolutely unwilling to compromise my lifestyle for the sake of the environment. I used to think I was relatively “green”: I barely drive, I have a small apartment and don’t spend much on heating/electricity, I don’t buy Stuff (especially of the electronic gadgetry variety), and I shop almost exclusively at Whole Foods (purely out of convenience – they are everywhere around here; actually I don’t know if this one makes any difference at all). But that’s just my natural tendency, I don’t make any of those choices based on “greenness”. On the… Read more »

Lizbeeth
Lizbeeth
10 years ago

I must admit that I am not green at all. We don’t even recycle in my house. We do have energy and water saving appliances though.

Mich @ BTI
Mich @ BTI
10 years ago

@Deborah M

Yes Deb, my house is heated only by electricity, no other heat sources. It was built in 2003 so the insulation here is another variable that helps.

Shirley
Shirley
10 years ago

I agree with Dmitri. Do what you can at home and travel if you want to travel. Would it be the best thing for everyone to stay home and give up travel? I would go insane.

Michael
Michael
10 years ago

“You can grow strawberries in a hanging planter on your porch. They won’t be as big or appealing as the ones you buy in the store (organic or otherwise) but they WILL taste a thousand times better.” You could grow the same cultivars that you buy at the store if that’s what you want. In strawberries (as in most things) there are tradeoffs. A chart like the one found at the UMN Extension website can help you choose the type you want to grow: http://www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/horticulture/dg5625.html Store berries are usually very hardy and have very good texture. These attributes help them… Read more »

Julie
Julie
10 years ago

Giving up meat at least one day a week is a way to help the environment and potentially save money on your food budget as well. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that meat production accounts for nearly a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Also, the decision that has the biggest impact on your carbon footprint by far is how many kids you have. And having fewer kids is certainly something that everyone can afford!

Kandace
Kandace
10 years ago

I wrote and posted a similar blog on my site today. Fundamentally, I think “going green” where one can is a socially responsible thing to do and represents good stewardship over what we have. You can choose to make it more expensive or you can choose to have awareness.

Thekla Richter
Thekla Richter
10 years ago

Great article Sierra! It’s complex to choose when faced with these trade-offs. Sometimes the time investment to go green or save money is deceptive. Biking to work is a great example. It takes longer, yes, but you are accomplishing more than one thing– not only are you getting to work, but you also are getting exercise. So that one hour investment is serving double duty to spend time on two things that you might instead have done separately. With bussing to work, as another example, again your trip takes longer, but you can use the time for something else– read… Read more »

Gretchen
Gretchen
10 years ago

Great thread. Like others, I tend to do the lazy or cheap thing because I’m lazy and cheap. Not because I’m green.

I particularly dislike the organic food movement. Uncertified organic or IPM (integrated pest management) from someone who could be my neighbor over certified organic flown from Peru any day. Esp. when it’s in season!

Trini
Trini
10 years ago

@Julie (#39): It’s true that animals grown at CAFOs contribute in a bad way to the greenhouse gases. However, raising animals on pasture helps trap carbon (good for the environment). See today’s post at http://www.sustainableeats.com/. So you don’t necessarily have to give up meat – just give up CAFO meat!

Kate
Kate
10 years ago

I was thrilled to find out we are going to have a famers market throughout the summer in my area. Thank you for the other suggestions on how to be green.

Avistew
Avistew
10 years ago

I think “reduce, reuse, recycle” remains a great way to think about it. And it’s in the right order: reducing helps more than reusing, reusing helps more than recycling. It’s better to drink from glasses made of glass and reuse them than to use paper or plastic cups and recycle them. I’m sure everyone can see that. But what people sometimes can see is the amount of things that can be reused that way. Handkerchiefs or cloth napkins. Glass/metal straws. Cloth diapers or cloth/silicone feminine products. Reusing is better for the environment, and it’s cheaper as long as it’s things… Read more »

Dmitri
Dmitri
10 years ago

@Avistew: It’s easy to forget the costs of reusing, though. Diapers is the perfect example: washing cloth diapers is about as tough on the environment as manufacturing disposables (I think the jury’s still out of which one’s worse).

There many things which are economically cheap, but have a disproportionately high environmental cost: transportation and washing are probably the big two.

Soultravelers3
Soultravelers3
10 years ago

Great points! We have always been frugal, so that has made us green in many ways. We’ve been traveling the world as a family non-stop since 2006 & live large on just 23 dollars a day per person. We rarely take a flight yet have been to 4 continents & 32 countries & even though we have used every mode of transportation from cargo ships to camels, mostly we see the world by walking, biking & using mass transit. Despite popular belief, travel, especially slow travel, can be extremely green and extremely frugal even in some of the most “expensive”… Read more »

hsnmp
hsnmp
10 years ago

Here what I do to stay green. Always cook before its get dark outside so I can cook in sunlight so don’t have to turn my kitchen light on. Never use my dishwasher. Never use my dryer until its emergency. My kids cloths are always had washed and hand wash always give long life to cloth then machine wash. My light bill never more than $60.00 per month because we use high-efficiency light bulbs in every room. We never use air-condition because we always have open windows and if too hot then we spend lot of time in basement which… Read more »

Golfing_Girl
Golfing_Girl
10 years ago

I’ll get right on that biking 12 miles each way down the interstate in my business suit. Most cities in our country simply don’t encourage mass transit or are too sprawling to make walking and biking an option. The nearest bus stop to my home is 5 miles away. I guess if I loved the environment more than anything else, I’d give up my 1900 square foot home and move downtown into a 1200 square foot overpriced condo (and possibly pay more) so I could walk to work. Just not very practical.

Bazood
Bazood
10 years ago

I just made the second payment on the solar array going up on the roof of our house. However, it wasn’t so much a “green” decision as an economic one. These solar panels will provide most, if not all, of my power needs for the time that I live in this house. My upfront cost of $20,000 that I pay now will be returned within 5-6 years and after that, I’m paying no power bill. In fact, since I live in sunny AZ, my power comany will be paying ME at the end of the year for what I will… Read more »

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