It’s easy being green, but it doesn’t have to be expensive

It’s not what you buy; it’s how you spend.

Boy Changes Temperature On Central Heating Thermostat Control Using Mobile Phone App
Keeping an efficient temperature at home is only step one.Monkey Business Images via Deposit Photos

Being ecologically conscious is increasingly important. But no matter how much we want to, many of us can’t trade in our car for a Tesla or own a house we can put solar panels on. If you think bringing your own bags to the grocery store and using metal straws for your iced coffee are only small ways to pitch in, know that you don’t need a lot of money to live a greener life—you can always spend the money you have in a more planet-friendly way.

Understand your carbon budget

To figure out how many emissions result from your habits and spending—and it can vary widely—use a carbon footprint calculator. The idea here is to understand how much carbon you’re emitting as a household and how it relates to your spending. Pull out your utility bills, your gas card statement, and any other fuel bills, then write down how much fuel you’re burning and how much you’re paying for it. Americans burn a lot of fossil fuels, so don’t be shocked if it’s far more than you realized.

Take a look at what you came up with, compare that to your actual budget, and check for the easy wins. For example, flipping the washing machine knob to “cold” and line-drying some of your laundry does a lot for your bills and your footprint. Turning down the thermostat in favor of working with your home’s design to retain heat for longer will help. If you’ve got a lawn, retiring the leaf-blower in favor of a broom and a rake has the double benefit of being a nice workout and allowing you to leave the gas cans in the garage.

Once that’s done, it’s time to look at getting the maximum environmental impact out of the money you spend.

Optimize your spending

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Are your plants at risk of getting dysentery? Then there's no need to hose 'em down with drinking water.londondeposit via Deposit

If you can secure a credit card that automatically donates to green causes, such as Bank of America’s affinity cards or the Charity Charge card, you can mitigate the impact of expenses that are difficult to make planet-friendly, like your car payment or your mortgage. Beyond that, though, there are changes you can make that will reduce your overall carbon footprint without adding to your budget.

Utilities and public services often offer climate change mitigation and renewable resource programs that serve as a win-win: You can reduce your bill or swap out polluting sources for something cleaner, and they reduce strain on their systems. A few things to look out for:

  • Power utilities are increasingly offering renewable power options, where a certain percentage of your energy usage comes from solar or wind. Solar and wind are already driving down your overall energy bill, generally by offering a fixed discount of 10 to 15 percent on the power drawn from the project. That works out to potential savings of $135 to $200 a year, on average.
  • Call your water utility and ask them about water use reduction options, such as rain barrels, to use water for non-drinking purposes, like watering gardens and cleaning. These are sometimes offered at cost or even deducted from your bill, as preventing storm runoff helps maintain water quality and reduces pollutants. But even without those perks, 30 percent of the water we use is used outdoors, so based on an average water bill of $70 a month, you could save an average of around $250 annually on your water bill.
  • If you use heating fuel, some companies will swap out your old thermostat for an “intelligent” one that could reduce your bill by up to $180 a year, and the load on their system, at no charge. Be sure to ask them about bio-gas or green alternatives; they may offer a consumer discount option.

Repair before replacing

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Thrift stores are a great place to find cool, cheap, and green outfits. And they're environmentally friendly, too!gabriel11 via Deposit

Keeping the things you already own is usually more effective than replacing them. The carbon has already been spent to haul that appliance or those lightbulbs to your house, so especially if money’s tight, using it and repairing it is the smarter option, both ecologically and economically.

But when it finally goes to the junk pile, it’s a prime opportunity to reduce your impact.

Buying clothes from thrift stores could save you between 50-80 percent of what you usually spend on clothes, which for the average American works out to around $1,800 a year. Potential savings of at least $900 per person in your household is a pretty nice bonus. Not only will buying used save the carbon of making and shipping new clothes, you can pick out clothes with natural fibers to limit the microplastics flowing into the environment.

Appliances that break down should be replaced with EnergyStar certified devices. They may cost a little more, but the difference can often be made up by rebates from your utility and could save you up to $575 a year in power, on average. If you have to buy used, though, just look for the most recent model you can find—energy efficiency has risen enormously for even non-Energy Star appliances, so you’ll save on your power bill regardless.

When you need a new car, trade for a more fuel-efficient option. How much carbon you generate is fixed in terms of gallons—for every gallon of gas you go through, you generate 19 pounds of carbon dioxide. So the less gas you burn to get there, the better, and that’s also true for your wallet. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s examples and handy calculator, you could save roughly $600 a year for every 10 mpg you trade up to.

Fuel-efficient vehicles also tend to be cheaper up front. A new, full-sized SUV will run you somewhere around $30,000 and gets 22 or 23 combined miles per gallon, depending on the model, while a family car like the Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla costs roughly $10,000 less and gets a combined miles per gallon of 32.

And if you’re definitely keeping your car for as long as possible, you may also want to do the math on a hybrid. A recent analysis by Kelley Blue Book found the average hybrid purchase ran about $27,500, and had 50 mpg, saving $12,000 over the lifetime of the car.

As for groceries, keep track of what you eat versus what goes in the trash, and cut back on the stuff that sits waiting for the garbage. Forty percent of what we buy goes uneaten, wasting an estimated $1,600 a year per four-person household. Simply figuring out what you won’t eat and not buying it will help with both your wallet and the planet. For the stuff you have to throw out, save money on your garbage-hauling bills by composting organic scraps. Your department of public works may run their own composting program; otherwise, you can compost yourself, even in the tiniest apartment. That said, the best economic advantages with composting come with scale, so starting a neighborhood program will save the most money.

Buy used and buy less

For everything else, focus on “reduce” and “reuse.” “Buying is voting,” explains Bea Johnson, author of Zero Waste Home. “Every time you buy, you have the power to support a practice that’s sustainable.”

Not everything can be bought used, of course, but it’s worth checking local freecycle boards on social media and local thrift stores for the items you need. If your stuff breaks and can’t be fixed, you may be able to donate items like electronics and get a small tax deduction. For example, you can donate your old phone to domestic violence outreach organizations.

All that said, keep in mind that this is about long-term change. We’re not going to save the planet just by using toothpaste tabs and riding a used bike more often. But our everyday decisions have weight, and the more we make it clear we want what we spend to protect the planet, the more weight it has.