Living on (a Lot) Less

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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Sam
Sam
10 years ago

I like your example, at our summer cabin growing up, we had limited water as well. Kids “showered” under a cold hose, adults got a warm shower once a week. Drinking water came from a spring. It is great when you start paying attention to something you start noticing how much you use, how you could use less and what makes sense. Consumption wise – we do our best to keep our consimption flat. We are debt free except for the mortgage, save a good chunk, max out our 401k and our IRA. So we are not looking to cut,… Read more »

elizabeth
elizabeth
10 years ago

Sierra, congratulations on that last credit card payment! I know how hard it is to “pay off debt slowly.” (I couldn’t do it that way, I had to wait until I had a lump sum, now that I’m debt free, I’m turning super-frugal, because I never want to be in debt again.) I had a similar moment of awakening a few years ago after hearing Jeffrey Sachs at Harvard. He showed slides of women in Africal walking miles to get their daily rations of water … they could only use in a day what they could carry … but it… Read more »

Single Mom Rich Mom
Single Mom Rich Mom
10 years ago

You’re so right – we go camping a lot in the summer and much of the time we’re in areas that are unserviced with water. I can stretch out an RV tank of water to last a very long time. No, it’s not something I’d do at home, but it really isn’t a hardship. This last month, three blogging buddies and I have been doing a frugal challenge on a few variable cost categories, just for the month of June. The challenge has made the cost cutting that I’ve been doing actually sort of fun, believe it or not. I… Read more »

Jason
Jason
10 years ago

Don’t demonize the dishwasher. Study after study has shown that using a dishwasher uses less water (and energy) than hand washing. There’s a persistent theme in the frugality world where hand washing is better, but the facts just don’t bear it out. A dishwasher also gets the dishes cleaner than hand washing, saves time and so on. With a family of four we end up running the dishwasher pretty much every day, and it’s always full. Lessening the use of other appliances, like the dryer, can translate into a direct energy savings since the alternative of line drying the clothes… Read more »

Everyday Tips
Everyday Tips
10 years ago

This is a very interesting post. When we had a power outage for a week last year, I learned about a lot of things I could live without, but also that I didn’t WANT to live without. You are right, there are always trade-offs. Sure, we could all go back to living like they did on Little House on the Prairie, but if I did that, I would never have time to go on a bike ride with my kids or visit my mom. One thing technology has given us is time. Yes, there are costs, but time is also… Read more »

Kate
Kate
10 years ago

Some other water saving tips that are easy to integrate into your daily habits: When brushing your teeth, fill up a glass with water and turn off the tap. Use that water to get your brush wet and to rinse with. Uses a LOT less than if you keep the tap running. While you’re running the tap waiting for your water to warm up for your shower, throw a couple of buckets in there and use that water for your plants. It’s surprising how much water goes down the drain while you wait. Not for everyone, but only flush when… Read more »

Carter Adler
Carter Adler
10 years ago

“It turned out that five of us could live pretty comfortably on about five gallons of water a day.” This is pretty accurate; I’ve seen a lot of emergency preparedness advice saying to plan on one gallon per person per day.

PMT
PMT
10 years ago

Lighting Automation. I bought and installed a lighting system from X10. This allows me to set it and forget it for things like porch lights, interior lights etc. For example we leave a porch light on for safety in the front and back of the home. The lighting automation turns it on 1 hour after dusk and off one hour before dawn (it does adjust automaticall for seasonal changes). No more forgetting that I turned it on and leaving it running all day. We also set it for a couple interior lights so that we never come home to a… Read more »

Jo
Jo
10 years ago

I spent 10 weeks last summer at a biological research station in Uganda. The station is probably the nicest in the country and one of the nicest on the continent. We had two taps, both in the cook house / shower building behind the main building. The water had to be boiled and filtered before it was safe to drink(when we had tap water – we relied on rainwater reservoirs at least a third of the time). The first few days we regularly ran out of drinking water with no way to get more in under a 2 hours. When… Read more »

Ty
Ty
10 years ago

Even handwashing in a tub is less efficient than a dishwasher. Dishwasher does the same thing – fills the tub at the bottom, and rinses with it repeatedly. The dishwasher is designed to recirculate wash water as much as possible, replacing it during rinse cycles. You can’t recirculate water for handwashing or spray it at high velocity – you just can’t compete with industrial efficiency like that.

Cath Lawson
Cath Lawson
10 years ago

Hi Sierra – It’s tough balancing saving money with wasting time isn’t it? I tried baking bread by hand but it was so time consuming. If I invest in a breadmaker, I know it will save me money though. We have saved a lot on fuel recently. I work from home and my DH has a company car. Rather than make unnecessary journeys myself, I ask him to collect anything I need on the way home from work. Another great saving I’ve found is a supermarket comparison site. You browse what you want to buy and add it to your… Read more »

ami | 40daystochange
ami | 40daystochange
10 years ago

Smart post, especially like the point about choosing the areas of frugality mindfully. I love that you save money by choosing to do things you love, like bread making. Note also that you can adjust your mindset about money saving activities – to love things you didn’t think you could love. Never thought I’d be a couponing person – too much trouble, too much time, too little payoff. Then I read some posts on ‘playing the drugstore game’ by people who claimed to pay virtually $0 for all their drugstore supplies (and some of their groceries – at the drugstore).… Read more »

Sara
Sara
10 years ago

On the whole, very interesting post. Yet:

“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.”

I don’t believe you cut the costs that much. You still have to pay for insurance (and if you don’t outright own the car, car payments) if you drive a lot or a little.

The Soup
The Soup
10 years ago

You are completely correct about the importance of finding an activity that you enjoy – and that saves money. About 1 year ago, we realized that we were spending a lot of money at Starbucks. We would make drip coffee at home, but would still find ourselves going out for coffee before work. We realized that part of the appeal of take out coffee was both the speed and the lattes. To address this, we sold our drip coffee maker on CraigsList, added $200 to buy a super automatic coffee maker (refurb) which was easy to use and fast. Then,… Read more »

Kristia
Kristia
10 years ago

I absolutely love this post. The keyword is changing your mindset. As my husband and I struggle to become debt free, posts like this one keeps me motivated to stay focused. I work part time at a grocery store and I can tell you first hand, shopping with coupons can save you hundreds of dollars. Time consuming, yes; but well worth it at the register when you’re checking out. One of our areas of weakness is eating out. After paying most of the bills, there’s usually little left for grocery. Sad, but true. To address this problem, every week when… Read more »

ladykemma2
ladykemma2
10 years ago

i was astounded to learn that people leave the water running when washing dishes. had never seen that behavior before. i was always taught to use one dishpan (or side of the sink) with soapy water and the other dishpan (or other side of the sink) for rinse water.

Gal @ Equally Happy
Gal @ Equally Happy
10 years ago

I had the same issue when I first started living healthy. I could give up fast food and I could give up bacon and I could give up chocolate and I could give up ice cream and I could give up… see where this is going? Eventually, I got to a point where I wasn’t enjoying my meals very much and that made me unhappy. These days I have a more balanced diet. It’s healthy but I still have the occasional treat.

Choose what matters to you, focus on that and cut out the rest.

The Crunchy Conscience
The Crunchy Conscience
10 years ago

“I don’t believe you cut the costs that much. You still have to pay for insurance (and if you don’t outright own the car, car payments) if you drive a lot or a little.”

Is gas not expensive where you live? I went from going through a tank of gas every other week to only once a month. Sure that’s only $35 but pretty significant for the little effort involved.

Additionally, you can get discounts on your car insurance if you drive under a certain number of miles in a year.

Early Retirement Extreme
Early Retirement Extreme
10 years ago

On the dish washing. Use your largest pot (which you use to cook to hold the water), use the plates to cut on to avoid using/owning a cutting board; to avoid killing the knife use a serrated knife and drag with only the tip on the plate; use the eating sized spoon to stir with; wash immediately after eating. Very fast if you optimize a bit. One thing I noticed is the dearth of manual cleaning brushes available in the US. I import mine from Europe. In general, consider that by doing things yourself, you’re replacing technology+job with skills. In… Read more »

Patrick Szalapski
Patrick Szalapski
10 years ago

Really? Aren’t we being frugal or cheap here? There’s getting rich slowly, and then there’s living life slowly so that you don’t have time for anything worthwhile.

Ramit writes about this “false frugality” often at iwillteachyoutoberich.com.

Linda in Chicago
Linda in Chicago
10 years ago

I keep seeing comments about saving money with coupons, but I can’t believe that is the case for everyone. Where do you get coupons for fresh produce, meats, and whole grains? Most of my food purchases fall into these categories. It seems to me that most coupons are for processed items or personal care products. Sure, I use things like toothpaste, shampoo, and soap, but I do so sparingly. If I put a pea-sized amount of toothpaste on my brush every time, the tube lasts a very long time. I think that saves me more money than scrounging for a… Read more »

Darcie
Darcie
10 years ago

@Cath Lawson – Could you possibly post a link to the supermarket comparison website? I’d really like to add that tomy arsenal. Thanks.

Joe
Joe
10 years ago

Water conservation is important because water is a limited resource.

However, saving “hundreds of gallons of water over the course of the year” probably won’t make a material financial difference. Our water dept. charges $4.53 per 1000 gallons.

Rob
Rob
10 years ago

It is so true that you could do a lot of things. But after a certain point, you are not gaining much (for example – the washing dishes in a pot). This reminds of what Ramit talks about on iwillteachyoutoberich in that you should go for big wins. Although I’m somewhere in the middle on that – I think it is important to do the little things too when you can.

Joe
Joe
10 years ago

Saving water is important because it is a limited resource.

However, saving hundreds of gallons over the course of the year is probably immaterial from a financial point. The water dept. here charges $4.53/1,000 gallons.

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

I appreciate Sierra’s example of water scarcity. It is something most of us Americans never think about because all we have to do is turn on a tap to get unlimited, safe water. It may not always be mountain-spring-pure-and-tasty, but it’s not going to give you parasites or lead poisoning.

I trust Sierra is now turning off the tap while brushing her teeth. 🙂

Adam
Adam
10 years ago

Energy-Star Approved really doesn’t mean jack. It’s nice that it makes people feel “green,” even though they truly aren’t.

MommaBee
MommaBee
10 years ago

I was speaking with my mom last night and we discussed how she grew up in the 1930’s. When the economy went, jobs were scarce, banks locked their doors and people lost their homes, family moved in with my grandparents. A total of 13 people living in a home! My grandfather collected $12/week from delivering ice and had a farm. The family grew vegetables/fruits and raised animals. My grandma canned everything and cooked evryday and spent each day cooking/cleaning for this crew. That’s how she spent her time. Was it worth it? I guess she had no choice. Today, people… Read more »

LauraElle
LauraElle
10 years ago

I disagree that bathing in a lake will get you clean. It’s fun, though.

Bert K. Badrinath
Bert K. Badrinath
10 years ago

There are basic necessities that we need in this World. Everything else is just icing, so enjoy what you can while you can. It’s not very filling though.

LauraElle
LauraElle
10 years ago

Sorry, but bathing in a lake does not get you clean. They are often silty and you emerge covered in scum. It is fun, though.

Kristia
Kristia
10 years ago

Linda, I work at a Publix Supermarket; not sure if there’s any in Chicago. Our stores mail out $5 coupons for $30 or more purchases (seems like monthly). We have very picky eaters in my family; however, I still save on cleaning products, toiletries, dairy products,food sauces/ingredients, and non-processed food items. Sometimes, I do run across coupons for produce as well. Also, our stores accept competitor coupons. For me, I welcome the savings big or small.

Madeline Arce
Madeline Arce
10 years ago

I don’t mind being aware of what I’m consuming and getting rid of excess; but I loathe the idea of punishing myself for using this amount of product vs this amount of product. I do believe it can be taken too far. It reminds me of old school Catholics who whipped themselves as penance. Like you said, I think it’s great to look at things you enjoy doing as ways to reduce consumption– not by stripping them but tweaking them. For me it’s reading and I wouldn’t have cable if it wasn’t for the fact having my cable and internet… Read more »

Early Retirement Extreme
Early Retirement Extreme
10 years ago

@#14 I do the same thing. I used to roast (on a pan), but never got good at it (that’s in terms of consistency … the caffeine punch is supreme). Maybe I’ll try again with a hot air popcorn machine. The rest of my coffee brewing looks like a minor science experiment (something which a responsible five year old could do). One trick is to make sure that the water temperature is very close to 195F (within a few degrees)—use a thermometer to check your machine (I don’t use a machine). If it’s too hot, the coffee becomes bitter, too… Read more »

Andrew
Andrew
10 years ago

The National Geographic Magazine recently published an edition this year dedicated almost entirely on water and its scarcity in the world. It was an eye opener. Some people in India and Africa spend 8 hours per day looking for water or carrying a pail of water. And it is water that is frequently undrinkable, yet they use it because they have no choice. Those of us in the Western World only have to open a tap to get to that precious resource. It should be treated as what it is – precious. We can live without oil products and electricity,… Read more »

Bridgette
Bridgette
10 years ago

For the fuel loggging – I used an android app on my phone, which is very convenient. Personally I don’t care how much water I use at my house – the utility doesn’t meter it, so I pay an “average” townhouse rate every 3 months. Now if they spent big bucks on metering my little house, maybe I would care more. Yes its a natural resource, but when there is no financial penalty for using it, nobody cares. Its even hard to get people to care about their utility costs when they ARE paying for it. For example, my line… Read more »

The Soup
The Soup
10 years ago

@31 The hot air popper is key. If you do not overfill it, all of the beans roast evenly. You just need to keep an eye and an ear on it to reach the preferred roast. I also recommend roasting outside to keep the smoke out of the house.

Gabe Anderson
Gabe Anderson
10 years ago

Good article, but I have to ask: What possible reason is there to keep the water running while brushing one’s teeth? Besides wetting the toothpaste and rinsing your mouth when you’re done, why keep it running?

Personally, I’m not even in front of the sink when brushing my teeth; I’m using my 2-minute Sonicare cycle to do leg stretches / strengthening exercises. 🙂

And what about the environmental impact? Being conscious of water consumption (and waste) is important not only for financial reasons.

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

I like the idea of being aware of consumption in general. I know how much water and electricity we use because I see the bills and cut back to where my husband and I can agree on. I didn’t realize how much food we were actually eating until I started our detailed budget 5-6 years ago…it’s way better imho to have knowledge of what you are consuming so you can make decisions accordingly.

Money Reasons
Money Reasons
10 years ago

Eating out was a big expense (and business lunches). I’ve cut the expense on those by 1.) not drinking wine (very expensive by the glass). 2.) eating cheaper meals like soup (much less expensive, and yet often times very tasty!) I also like to save water by taking a Navy Shower (click here if you interested in reading). While it’ll only save you a little money, it saves the environment by using less water! I live in a midwestern state so I don’t do this in winter! What I do is basically rinse in the shower, turn off the water,… Read more »

Caroline
Caroline
10 years ago

I think it’s awesome that you can take a necessity – water – and still be able to cut down. It’s something we’d all do if we had do it, but we don’t have to. The wants are much easier – I used to think I couldn’t live without cable or a car, now I find myself wanting to get rid of the tv and finding a way to bike to work (I still have Netflix and I take the bus – I’m only trying to show how I’m moving to the other end of the spectrum). When you plunk… Read more »

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

If you don’t live at a cabin on the lake you really can’t compare swimming in a lake with taking a shower.

And what are you people talking about that water isn’t a renewable resource? It can be a scarce resource as anyone who lives in the desert will attest, but it’s the original recycling system unless you’re breaking up the hydrogen and oxygen.

Rosa Rugosa
Rosa Rugosa
10 years ago

My husband and I think our navy showerhead is one of the best purchases we ever made! We do NOT do the turn off and soap up thing (too spartan for us!) We love it because it gives the most wonderful showerflow in the world, and as a side benefit, it is a low-flow water saving device as well. We first met it at a favorite hotel, and it took us years to find one because there was no brand name on it. We bumped into one by accident at Home Depot while planning our bathroom remodel about 7 years… Read more »

Starving Student Survivor
Starving Student Survivor
10 years ago

I read “What the World Eats” a few weeks ago, which chronicles a week of eating for families across the world. It made me think that if something like water/indoor plumbing were taken away from us how much time we would spend to get what is now simply convenient. I make sure any electronics that aren’t in use are unplugged. It makes one more step when it’s time to turn it on, too. I think we have the TV on less often when we have to reach all the way down to the power strip to turn on a video… Read more »

Jenzer
Jenzer
10 years ago

Just this week I came across a water-conservation tip I’d never heard before: of “relieving oneself” on the compost pile to save on flush water AND help the composting process along. You learn something new everyday. 🙂

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthnews/6554958/Urinate-on-the-compost-heap-to-save-the-planet-says-the-National-Trust.html

Naomi
Naomi
10 years ago

Water usage doesn’t make a difference. My husband and I joined the new gym in our neighborhood and we both shower there nearly every single day. We also use their towels, so we do fewer loads of laundry. What happened to our water bill? Absolutely nothing. I was so disappointed. I was hoping the water savings would offset the gym fees, but no such luck.

Bananen
Bananen
10 years ago

As a low income European student it sometimes amazes me how some of you idealize a lifestyle that I live out out of necessity. I’d love to have a dish washer and a car. I’d love to be able to complain about how I waste too much money on dining out.

David/MoneyCrashers
David/MoneyCrashers
10 years ago

No matter how much you’ve already saved or cut out of your budget, you can ALWAYS find ways to get by on less.

Sheri
Sheri
10 years ago

Make sure you calculate whether or not your savings are worth it. Our water bill has never varied more than $2. A few summers ago I accidentally left a hose on for 2 days straight. I was so scared to get that bill, but when I did it was a whopping $4 above what it normally is. Now I never worry about saving water since it really isn’t worth it where we live. Changing my light bulbs however has easily save me $40 a month. That’s worth it to me!

Jason
Jason
10 years ago

I ended up saving a lot by cutting my cell phone down to just a basic phone and by dumping cable TV. Those two moves alone put about $150ish back into my pocket each month, which can then be invested.

As for the water bill, I’m almost convinced that they just make up your bill. I’ve tried all sorts of stuff. Even when I’ve been away from my home for a week my monthly bill is about the same.

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