How I Saved $30,000 and Helped the Earth at the Same Time


Over seven years ago, I joined The Compact out of green guilt (and because everything I do in my life has to be a dare).

In brief, The Compact is an environmental movement that challenges members to step away from the consumer grid and take as few new resources out of the planet as possible for one calendar year. Compactors pledge to buy only used goods for twelve months, with obvious exceptions for things like food and health care products.

I've stayed with The Compact for longer than one year because, in addition to allowing me to live closer to my environmental values, it's also a super fun challenge.

As it turns out, The Compact is also a massive money saver.

This week's horrible personal project is purging the filing cabinet. I have gone through all sorts of boring paperwork, fiddling with old receipts. Along the way, I've also been doing a little math (always a dangerous thing for me) and discovered that my effort to save the planet has saved me at least $30,000. $30,000! That savings is spread over 7.5 years, but still. $30,000! And that's a conservative estimate.

Here are 22 ways I saved at least $30,000 while also saving the planet.

1. I Make Every Effort to Buy Only Used Goods

Since I happen to like vintage clothes, old houses, and classic cars, only buying used goods is hardly deprivation — it's my aesthetic. That said, about once a year, I'll get dinged financially for buying used. For example, I could have bought a new, cheap pair of boots for less than the price I paid to resole my old ones. However, for most purchases, buying used is far cheaper than buying new.

2. I Spend Consciously

I can no longer shop without intention. When I buy something, I don't just think about how I will use that item, but how I will eventually dispose of it. This extra environmental awareness saves me a lot of money, because I can't unlearn my good shopping habits and go back to the days of mindless spending. The extra bit of inconvenience sourcing used versions of everything I want also gives me time to consider how badly I need something. Is it something I really need or can I get by with something I already own?

3. I Shrank My Living Space

One of the fastest ways I shrank my carbon footprint was to share my house with other people. When I lived alone in my 1000 square foot house, I took up all 1000 square feet. I also paid for the entire mortgage. While living alone was something I considered an adult achievement, having roommates, renting my house out as a B&B, and ultimately moving in with my husband have all saved me money and helped lighten the load on the planet.

4. I Cut My Car Use to Under 5000 Miles a Year

To a lot of city folk I know, this doesn't sound impressive. But in Los Angeles, a gigantic metropolis, with iffy public transit, this is a huge challenge. My rule? If the destination is less than three miles from my house on surface streets, I have to walk or bike instead of getting in the car. In addition to cutting my gas costs by more than half, I also saved money on tire replacement, car servicing, and insurance. Also, because I now walk anywhere from three to 10 miles daily, I was able to cut my $40 a month gym membership.

5. I Bought a Used Car

As much as I'd love a gas-sipping Prius, the resource cost of creating a new car is much greater than the resources I will use to drive and keep up the 1989 Volvo station wagon my husband and I just bought from a friend for $3500. It's hard to see on the surface, but an old gas-guzzler, driven less often, can be lighter on the planet than the creation of a brand new car. Also, to quote my mechanic, "You cannot buy a new car of this quality for $3500."

I should note, too, that my parent's first generation Prius just died after 200,000 miles, and there is no way repair the hybrid engine. 200,000 miles on a Volvo 240 is nothing. Our other car is a Volvo 240 sedan that is still rolling strong after almost 400,000 miles of driving.

6. I Realized That Car Preservation Was Smarter Than Car Repair

My husband's Polish relatives drive "The Machine," the name they gave to their Iron Curtain-era compact automobile because it is so lacking in amenities. The Machine is in its 4th decade but still running smoothly because the family treats the car like it's the only car they will ever own. (And it is.) They do everything from driving the speed limit to regularly washing The Machine (to maintain its original 1970's paint job) to ensure that they put as little wear and tear on the car as possible. It's preventative medicine for automobiles.

I used to drive, everywhere, like the cops where chasing me. Now I drive like an old lady. It's annoying to my speed-demon friends, but it saves wear and tear on my car and gives me superior gas mileage.

7. I Pay Attention to My Tire Pressure

The average driver who drives 12,000 miles a year on under-inflated tires uses an extra 144 gallons of gas and adds an additional 2880 pounds of green house gases to the environment annually!

Properly inflating my tires saves me about $240 a year in gasoline costs, but it also extends the life of my tires. Under-inflation causes more rolling resistance, which adds substantially more wear and tear to the tires. This is also a safety hazard. A badly timed blow-out can kill.

8. I Became a Black Belt Composter

Dirty cardboard food containers cannot be recycled. However, the greasy pizza box, the butter wrappers, the take-out containers, and the wax paper from the cheese can all be put into the compost as the "brown" ingredient. In addition to dramatically cutting down on food related trash, the resulting light and fluffy compost is the perfect amendment for my clay garden soil, adding both nutrients and friability. Better soil equals a more productive garden. Beyond the food savings of a victory garden, using my homemade compost has saved me several hundred dollars in fertilizer and soil amendment costs.

9. I Mulched The Yard

California is in the middle of a severe drought. As a result, our water bill is sky high. To suppress weeds and keep our garden soil moist, I first laid down a layer of "liquor store mulch," aka flattened cardboard boxes procured for free from my corner liquor store. For the delivery cost of $30, the stables at my local racetrack were more than happy to supply me with an entire truckload of wood chips and horse poop as a garden topcoat. Not only did this organic buffer cut the amount of water used in the garden by 50%, three years later we are still enjoying the results. The cardboard and topcoat have composted down to rich topsoil, and we have 90% fewer weeds.

10. I Got Hardcore About Wastewater

Because fresh water is becoming scarcer and more expensive with each passing year, I am constantly on the hunt for more ways to save water. One major component of this is recycling my waste water. Sadly, my home and yard is poorly configured to use the gray water from my washing machine. That said, I've gotten into the habit of cleaning my floors and my car with buckets of leftover bathwater, and watering my ornamental plants with leftover dishwater.

11. I Started Using Homemade Cleansers

Reusing my gray water got me thinking about how I clean my house. If a cleanser was too poisonous to pour into my garden, isn't it also too poisonous to pour down the drain leading to the ocean? Cleaning with baking soda and white vinegar, or removing the soap scum out of my bathtub with table salt and a grapefruit rind, is not only less toxic than any of the commercial cleansers, it is also far cheaper. (See also: How to Clean Everything With Just 3 All-Natural Cleaners)

12. I Bought a Small (Used) Refrigerator

Every new home now seems to feature double wide, French door refrigerators. Unless you have a gigantic family, it is impossible to eat through 20+ cubic feet of food before it goes bad. This leads to poor shopping and eating habits.

When shopping for a refrigerator, read the fine print on the energy usage. There are many smaller refrigerators that don't get an Energy Star rating but use less energy than the bigger refrigerators that do.

Also, refrigerators and freezers run more efficiently when they are full rather than empty. Why pay extra to cool unused space? Consider ignoring the signage inside the fridge and arrange your food in the most space-saving way (like using the crisper drawer for canned drinks instead of vegetables), using every nook and cranny. My small refrigerator enforces smart shopping habits and saves me money on my energy bill all year long. (See also: 8 Ways to Make Your Fridge Last Forever)

13. I Exorcised the Phantom Load and the Vampire Draw From My Home

Here's a terrible secret: Many modern appliances leak energy even when they are turned off. The Dust Buster, the phone charger, the video game console…I love them, but they were sucking up $20 a month in electricity while I slept. Those little monsters. To combat phantom load, I plugged my entertainment system into a power strip and then I put the power strip on a timer. From 2 a.m. to 8 a.m., the TV, the DVD player, and the game consoles get switched off automatically at the plug. All other small electronics are unplugged manually and religiously when they are not in use.

14. I Became a Beekeeper

Beekeeping, unlike gardening, takes up very little space. I know over a hundred yard-less, urban beekeepers who keep bees on their tiny balconies, on the rooftops of their office buildings, or at community gardens. Honeybees increase the yield of gardens by 30% to 60%. This dramatic increase in productivity is an obvious money saver for the home gardener. More produce for less work!

Since bees are in decline all over the world, giving a safe home to pollinators is good for the planet. My new skill set also gave me two more revenue streams: selling honey and doing live bee removal from public buildings and peoples' private homes. Keeping bees is a fascinating hobby job, and I learn something new about beekeeping every day. That said, the youngest member of my local bee club is five years old and the oldest is 96. It's an activity that people of all ages can learn and enjoy.

15. I Learned How to Preserve Food

Canning is the new knitting. And, as with knitting, canning is a fake frugal activity if you are paying retail for your supplies. Canning really only saves money if you are preserving surplus produce. Even though I have my own garden, I have yet to grow enough food that I can't eat it all myself.

When I learned to can, instead of buying fruit for jam at the store, I put a want ad on my local Freecycle group for surplus fruit. I got an insane response from my neighbors. The first year, I collected over 2000 pounds of free fruit. In exchange for gleaning privileges, I give my fruit-donating neighbors a jar of every new batch of preserves. My neighbors love being members of my Jam of the Month Club, and I've met so many new friends this way.

Because I have access to so much free produce, I've started canning the surplus to sell and barter. I trade my jam with my neighbor for eggs and fresh poultry. I also make several hundred dollars a year selling my preserves at local craft fairs.

Beyond my own grocery savings, making homemade preserves has saved me hundreds of dollars on gift purchases. People make birthday jam requests now!

After the ingredients, the next most expensive aspect of canning is the jars. New jelly jars cost $1 each. I accidentally fell into a free source of canning jars last year when my friends got married. Apparently, the new trend in frugal summer weddings is to use eight-ounce jelly jars instead of buying or renting glassware for the wedding. After the wedding party, my friends offered to give me the dirty jars for free. For the cost of elbow grease I got 340 jars with new, unused lids, my friends had one less thing to deal with after the wedding, and the reusable jars stayed out of the waste stream for that much longer.

It's old-fashioned etiquette to return jars to the cook when you finish eating the jam. My customers actually love this green aspect of my business, and I get about a 30% return rate of jars every year.

16. I Decided to Take Bottle and Can Recycling Seriously

Los Angeles has the largest recycling program in the country. I used to just throw my bottles and cans into the recycling bin without another thought. It's so easy. But then I realized that my laziness was costing me about $300 a year in easy money!

While recycling for money versus letting the city recycle for money had a net impact of zero on the environment, the time spent dropping off bottles and cans at the recycling center myself pays for one entire month of water and power. For me, this is a huge deal.

17. I Became a Hard Core Trash Picker

Last week I made $120 at a garage sale. Most of the merchandise I'd found on the curb while walking through the neighborhood on trash day. I kept fifty items out of the waste stream for a little longer by literally selling garbage back to my neighbors.

18. I Moved The Cats Indoors

Our two cats used to be indoor/outdoor cats. Although the cats loved the freedom, the injuries that they sustained from running around outside were costing upwards of $800 a pop at the vet.

The most obvious way to save on medical costs and medical waste is to stay in good health. Veterinary waste might be smaller than human medical waste, but just like at the people version of ER, very few medical supplies at an animal hospital can be recycled or reused legally. All the tubes, syringes, and medications are single use items, and even washable equipment uses a lot of resources to keep clean.

Although the cats still lurk by the door, hoping they can sneak outside without me noticing, I am resolute in my decision to keep them indoors. The average lifespan of an indoor cat is 12 years, while outside cats often live less than five.

19. I Split the Cost of Tools With My Friends

I share a china pattern with my brother-in-law. I share a weed whacker with my friend Laura. I share luggage with my sister. I share a Cuisinart with my neighbor Alexandra. Why do I need to buy and store an entire set of tools that aren't in constant, daily use when I can split the cost and the storage space with other people?

20. I Stopped Eating Meat During the Week

Eating a vegetarian diet is an easy way to live light on the planet and light on my body. My husband and I eat meat twice a week, usually when we are dining out with friends. Eating meat is now an event for us, which is how it was for humankind for most of history. Monday through Friday we eat vegetarian meals. Cutting out meat during the week has allowed us to spend more money on organic produce and dry goods. As part-time vegetarians, we actually eat better quality food, and still have money left over to eat dinner at a restaurant twice a week.

21. I Reuse Paper Before I Recycle

American businesses throw away 175 pounds of paper per worker per year. Even though I run my business from my home, it would take me over a decade to use that amount of paper as I make an effort to use both sides of every sheet of paper that crosses my desk.

In addition to making double-sided printing the default setting on my printer, I save myself a lot of hassle and misprinted documents by carefully labeling my printer, so I know exactly how to insert paper, envelopes, and labels for perfect print outs every time.

I never use virgin paper as scratch paper.

I can get two extra uses out of used envelopes! First, I like to write grocery lists on the back of used envelopes. That way I can store my coupons inside for easy access while I'm shopping. Once both sides of an envelope are used, I carefully pull apart the envelope and refold it inside out for reuse a third, or even fourth time! A little glue stick is all that's needed to glue everything back together.

22. I Use Second Hand Packing Material

I sell a lot of vintage goods on Etsy and a lot of books on I get all of my padded envelopes for shipping books and records from my local college radio station. College radio stations, with their eclectic music programming, receive hundreds of CDs and records from musicians and record labels for play on air every month. If you don't have this type of radio station in your area, think of what local businesses might receive a lot of packing material they aren't reusing. It never hurts to ask.

My go-to source for small, heavy-duty boxes is my local hardware store. Hardware stores have a huge variety of boxes of all shapes and sizes because their merchandise selection is so broad. Every day, the owner of my local mom-and-pop hardware store puts all the unwanted cardboard boxes next to the dumpster in their back parking lot. The hardware store pays less for trash pickup, and my neighbors and I get the pick of free storage and shipping containers.

Has anyone else had this sticker shock, but in a good way?

What do-gooder things for the environment did you do that ended up saving you a lot of money? Please share in comments.

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Guest's picture

Since you are enjoying jam making and giving so much you may want to consider brewing "country" wines. After one year of particularly heavy dandelion coverage in our yard, I took it up. Then I tried violet. It has been great fun, and friends/family now put homemade wine on their Christmas wish list each year.

Max Wong's picture

Hi Olivia!

Wow. Violet wine sounds incredible. Where did you learn how to make country wines? I'm so intrigued by this!

Guest's picture
Thrifty Writer

Max - How do you find the time and energy to do all of these things and run a business?! I know that not having to be somewhere 9 - 5 (or a variation on that) probably helps, but you manage to accomplish a lot!

As always, I enjoy reading your articles - you really are endlessly creative.

Max Wong's picture

Hi Thrifty Writer--

My daily struggle is with time management. If I devoted just one hour each day to each of my eccentric hobbies, I would have no time to sleep or work. My current lifestyle took years of practice to achieve and I'm constantly tinkering to make my world more efficient and less wasteful. Since I enjoy this challenge, this is itself a hobby and not a burden for me.

If you look at my list, a lot of the things I do to save money dovetail into each other, so I save time by doing things like "batching errands."

One of the reasons why I am constantly looking for ways to downsize is that I realized that I spend a huge amount of time amassing and carry for material goods. Less things, less things to dust. Once I cut out shopping, that gave me a lot of free time to do things like start a garden.

I try to focus on creating side jobs that I not only enjoy, but am also really good at. For example, I don't recommend starting a home canning business if you truly don't love food preservation as a craft and you aren't speedy with kitchen prep. I just canned 50 jars of marmalade last weekend in 100 degree weather in preparation for a craft fair. Standing over a hot water canner in that heat would be a terrible experience for anyone who doesn't think canning is generally fun. 50 jars took all day to pick and prep the fruit and to process the marmalade. To free up a day for canning, I had to organize my week's schedule around that day.

Beekeeping doesn't take up much time. The bees do all the hard work.

Guest's picture

There are flower wine recipes online. I figured if people in old times made it in crocks it can be done in gallon sized glass pickle jars. Check your library perhaps for more recipes. You may want to learn from local people too. The only ideas I could offer are those others gave me, one person suggested I use potassium metabisulfate to sterilize the fermentation vessel and bottles, instead of bleach water. Another suggested Cote des Blancs yeast, instead of baking yeast. The product with the legit wine yeast turned out a bit better. I siphon off the clear liquid from the the sludgy "lees" using a length of fish tank tubing, but there may well be other more standard methods. The big work is finding enough flowers and processing the petals to make the "must". After that it's mostly stirring and siphoning off. Hope you have fun.