Savings Expert: Go Green Without Spending Your Green


By Amy Suardi, of and Buttoned Up’s Savings Expert

Cheap and convenient might be good for our bottom line, but it’s often bad for the world at large.

As a frugal mama, I struggle with this dilemma. I feel more and more uneasy about not forking it over for local, organic food (which often costs three times as much). Yet I do force myself to buy pricier recycled printer paper, aluminum foil and paper towels, as well as eco cleaning products.

But taking care of the environment and looking out for number one do not always have to be on opposite sides of the coin.

Planet Green’s show WA$TED!, now in its third season, is all about this win-win double-green. At a luncheon this spring, I got to meet the host of the show, pro-earth comedian Annabelle Gurwitch, and a few of the reality show families.

These families — the sisters who run Sweet Melissa’s Patisserie in Brooklyn and the Space family in rural New Jersey — ended up saving thousands of dollars by becoming more cognizant about the ways they were being wasteful — with resources as well as money.

Composting was the key to the bakery’s savings (reducing the cost of carting off organic waste). But how can regular households trim spending while feeling good about it too?

How to Save the Earth and $1000 or More Per Year

By cutting back on wasteful practices, most of the families on WA$TED! save on average $1000 per year, but some save as much as $2,500 per year.

The Spaces are in many ways a typical American family: two incomes, four children, and a big new house. Before the Planet Green team arrived, they weren’t recycling anything (even though as mayor of their town, Mr. Space had recently passed a law requiring recycling), they loved using disposable packaging including paper cups and plastic lids for their home-made coffee, and were driving two ginormous SUVs to the same job.

1. Reducing Electricity Use

The Spaces saved the most on their electric bill. Jill Space started out the episode saying how much she loves to hear the sound of her washer going all day long. The entire family — all super hooked up with computers and hand-held digital devices — took care to unplug items when not in use, turn off lights (especially during the daytime), and install power strips that help shut off unused appliances. (Planet Green recommends the Conserve Surge power strip from Belkin.)

In addition, WA$TED! encourages and sometimes helps fund the purchase of Energy Star appliances as big money-savers over the long haul.

2. Conserving Fuel

Whether switching out a gas guzzling car, making an effort to combine trips for errands, or cutting back on unnecessary driving altogether, participants find that gas is another huge factor on their bottom lines.

While the Space family was not able to keep it up, during the show Jill walked the 1/2 mile to work instead of driving her SUV. When another WA$TED! family didn’t have the funds to trade in their gas-hungry SUV, Annabelle showed them how to set up a carpool.

3. Cutting Down on Disposable Products

Countless households that the WA$TED! crew visited had perfectly good dishes in their cabinets but were using paper or plastic dinnerware for convenience. Not only do the families who make the switch save a lot of cash from not buying disposable products, but the environmental impact is tremendous.

One family in Season One saved upwards of $500 per year on paper towels alone.

4. Eating Less Meat

When Planet Green visited a group of three bachelors, they convinced them to reduce their spending by eating veggie burgers and veggie sausages (which they loved). Meat is one of the most expensive items in the grocery store and one of the most environmentally-damaging.

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization reports, for example, that 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock (more than from transportation). See No Impact Man for more on why eating less meat helps the environment.

5. Finding New Homes for Good Things

One of the funny yet excruciating moments of the show is when the participants’ trash is brought back to them, dumped out and examined. The Space family had entire wardrobes of usable clothing in their dumpster. Jill Space explained how instant gratification won over better intentions, “When I clean out a closet, I want the clothes gone immediately.”

While organizing clothing swaps and sharing hand-me-downs is a great way to recycle while increasing social capital (mutual good will), you can always donate clothing and household goods to the other Goodwill. Plus, if you take a minute to fill out a donation form, you can save money on taxes.

(For more on social capital and how helping other people and joining community groups can increase your wealth and health, see Get Rich Slowly’s Social Capital: More Valuable Than Money? .)

What about you? Do you always go for the cheapest and easiest, or do you make compromises for the greater good? Also, what are some things you do that are good for the environment and your wallet?

Amy Suardi writes about saving money & making life better at Frugal Mama.