Frugal Environmental Living

It’s Easier (and Cheaper) than you Think

It’s not easy being green, but does it also have to be expensive? It’s a question I’ve frequently pondered as my husband and I have balanced our commitment to the environment with the realities of paying for graduate school, working in lower-paying nonprofit jobs, and suffering through periodic bouts of unemployment. Over the years I’ve evolved some basic strategies to walk more lightly on the Earth without breaking our budget.

View the Big Picture

Focus on overall spending, not the cost of individual items. I used to be one of these people who’d agonize about paying a premium for eco-friendly dish detergent. I’d still buy the more expensive, vegetable-based, biodegradable brand, but every time I did, I couldn’t help but reflect on how much my beliefs were costing me. Of course, it wasn’t just dish detergent that was taking a chunk out of my wallet, it was the whole myriad of eco-friendly supplies that frequently found their way into my shopping cart. Then a former cleaning woman told me she’d done almost all her work with homemade cleaning supplies consisting of vinegar, water, borax, baking soda, olive oil and tea tree oil. Her tales inspired me to pick up Karen Logan’s book Clean House, Clean Planet, which is packed with recipes for cheap, eco-friendly cleaners that can be made in less than one minute if you stock your kitchen properly. Now my overall cleaning costs are so low I don’t worry about splurging on the eco-friendly dish detergent.

Don’t compare mangoes to mangoes. For many years, grocery shopping was a challenge. We wanted to buy organic, but could we afford it? I knew we were in trouble when my husband called me from the co-op wanting my opinion on the tomatoes—could we afford the extra buck or two per pound for the organic ones?

My moment of epiphany came in the produce aisle soon after we moved to Vermont. I was agonizing over the mangoes—the organic ones cost an extra $2 each, a shocking $3.50 per mango. They were clearly out of my price range. Then I began to wonder just why organic mangoes are so expensive. It’s the transportation, stupid! Why was I even considering buying a mango that had been flown from Haiti to Vermont? I marched over to the organic apples, some of which came from less than 15 miles away, and were not much more expensive than the conventional ones. Now, instead of comparing the cost of organic versus non-organic boxed cereal, I head for the bulk organic oatmeal. No longer do I agonize about the price difference between organic rice and beans and their chemical-laden siblings. Rather, I compare organic bulk grains and beans to take-out burritos.

Study Those Lifecycles

Be lifecycle cost-sensitive. For years, I resisted buying compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). Sure, they were better for the environment, but at $15 per bulb (since reduced to approximately $6), I was sure I couldn’t afford them. That is, until I sharpened my pencil and applied some rusty high school math to determine the bulb’s lifecycle cost. These bulbs will last about 10,000 hours, more than six times as long as the traditional, energy-guzzling bulbs that cost 50 cents each. But would the $12 premium be worth it? I calculated just how much I’d save on my electric bill during the bulb’s lifetime. For example, if I replaced a 100-watt traditional bulb with an equally bright 27-watt CFL bulb, I could save more than $58 over the CFL bulb’s life (assuming electricity costs eight cents per kilowatt hour). How could I afford not to buy the bulbs?

Stay Positive

Eco-friendly living on a budget is a balancing act. I still can’t afford to eat out at most organic restaurants. I’m tapped into a public utility grid that generates about 30 percent of its power at a nuke plant five miles from my apartment, and I don’t envision being able to go off-the-grid any time soon. There are times when I look around at the smog, or worry about radiation exposure, and I’m overwhelmed by guilt; I know I’m still complicit, but because of my financial situation, I feel powerless to act. But I’ve also learned that guilt about what I can’t change is disempowering.

Instead of feeling guilty, I ask myself: what can I do? I can try to drive less. I can explore creative ways to use as little electricity as possible. By accepting that I"ll never be a "perfect" environmentalist, I can focus on the positive changes I’ve made in my life, and direct my energy towards figuring out how to improve even more.

LISA FARINO is the editor and publisher of the quarterly journal The Frugal Environmentalist, which is at