Save the Earth and Your Money: Environmentally-Friendly Ways to Cut Costs

My husband is a fiend for finding ways of saving money on our energy costs. He monitors our electrical meter at least once a week and can figure out when even relatively small things are costing us more money. He’s also keenly focused on how his driving style affects his gas mileage, so that we get a big savings when he takes the wheel (although we get everywhere much slower). He’s convinced me that whether your main concern is to reduce your cost of living or your carbon footprint, you can do a lot of good for yourself and your planet by making some simple changes. You can use the savings from your increased energy efficiency to fund your investing, build up your emergency fund or increase your total quality of life.

Around the House

  • Stake your vampires: Leaving just one of your chargers plugged in while they aren’t actually charging anything, or while they are charging items that are already charged, can cost you about 10 cents a day. That’s $36 a year, not that much. But that’s one charger. Now think about all of the other things around your house that stay plugged in all of the time but are only used a few hours per day: A DVR here, a game system there, your computer. It begins to add up quickly. One suggestion is to put timers on the surge protectors for some of the biggest offenders, so that they automatically cut off power during the times you aren’t going to be using them. Think about how much you can save if these devices are turned off completely while you’re at work and while you’re sleeping.
  • Get to know your programmable thermostat: According to a recent study, 40% of the people who have a programmable thermostat don’t know how to use it. A third had overridden the programming. If you know how to use it, though, a programmable thermostat can save you money by reducing or raising your home’s temperature during the times when you are regularly away from your home, like during your workday. During the winter, we found it useful to lower the temperature at night when we slept. We slept better, cuddled more, and saved money.
  • Summer is supposed to be hot: Keep your house a little cooler in the winter, and a little warmer in the summer. Heating and cooling your house can make up almost half of your total energy bill. Everyone’s situation and personal preferences are different, but keeping your house as warm as comfortable in the summer, and as cool as comfortable in the winter, can save you a lot of money. To make your heating and AC system work as little as possible, dress appropriately for the weather to stay comfortable. While you are at it, adjust your bedding for the weather, too. Finally, think about how your cooking style is affecting your heating or cooling efficiency, so crank up your grill in the summer to keep from heating up your house.
  • Watch your windows: Windows can raise your total heating and cooling cost by 10-15% if you aren’t careful. When it’s cold, open your shades to let more light and solar heat in during the warmest part of the day, and close them at night to eliminate drafts. When it’s hot, make sure those shades are closed, at least on the south and west facing windows. During milder weather, you might want to leave windows open part of the day to warm up the house during the day or cool it down at night. Regardless of season, check your window seals to make sure that you are heating or cooling your house as efficiently as possible and controlling the air that comes in or out of your home.
  • See the light on lightbulbs: Most homes spend about 5% of their total energy cost on lighting. Energy saving LED and fluorescent lightbulbs may cost a little more on the shelf, but low energy usage (and possibly longer usable hours) can save you more than the difference. Some power companies will even subsidize the price of switching your bulbs.  Outdoor lights, which stay on the longest, can be some of the best targets to begin if you want to phase in your energy-efficient  lighting a little at a time.
  • Consider enrolling in your power company’s time of use or load reduction program: Lots of power companies will give you a reduced rate for shifting your power consumption to the times when there is less demand, or allowing them to turn off major power users like your heating and AC system or water heater down for 15 minutes or so when power needs are the greatest. During peak demand, power companies may have to engage expensive and resource guzzling secondary systems to meet all of power needs. By shifting things activities like drying clothes to nighttime and weekends, you can save a lot of money. For instance, our local power company, Duke Energy, charges a little over 10 cents per kilowatt hour to regular customers where we live, but 6 and a half cents per kilowatt hour for off peak power usage if you are part of the time of use program. They will charge more than the standard rate for you to use power during peak times, however, so you need to make sure that shifting most of your power usage to off-peak is practical for you and your family before you enroll in one of these programs.
  • Have to buy a new appliance?: Appliance usage makes up about 13% of your home’s energy usage, so when you are picking out new ones, make sure you are factoring in the energy cost of owning the appliance in addition to the sticker price. Our energy bill went way down when we replaced a 15 year old fridge with a shiny new Energy Star efficient one, so it didn’t take long for it to pay for itself. A dishwasher or clothes washer that use less water can save you on your water bill as well. Other things you can do to save money by using less energy: Wash full loads, set the temperature on your water heater down a couple of degrees, use cold water when possible, keep your dryer vents and lint screens clean, and use microwaves and convection ovens when possible instead of your regular oven.
  • Vacation savings: Going out of town? Shut off your water heater and all unneeded power strips. Turn down your AC or heat. If you aren’t going to be home for a few days, there’s no sense in not cutting your energy usage down a bit while you’re gone.

In your Car

  • Slow down and smell the roses: The higher your speed, the worse your gas mileage. According to the US Department of Energy, you spend an additional 25 cents per gallon for every 5 mph you drive over 50 mph. Rapid acceleration, hard braking and other aggressive driving also cut into your gas mileage. If you consider that the average car goes 10-15 thousand miles over the course of the year, getting some extra miles per gallon can save you a lot of money. Bonus: it’s also safer for you and your passengers.
  • An ounce of prevention: Your car is often your second-largest expense, after your house. Like anything with moving parts, even the best care will not prevent it from occasionally needing a new part or two. Not maintaining will make it wear out a lot faster, not to mention eating into your gas mileage. You don’t have to be a mechanic to keep your tires inflated properly and keep the oil topped off. Make sure you are also making sure it gets regular oil and filter changes, as well as other standard services, even if you don’t feel you can do the work yourself. Bankrate has a great chart comparing the cost of maintenance versus the cost of not maintaining your car. It breaks down to about $1000 to maintain, but about $8000 if you skip the maintenance, and that only includes fixing the damage, not the added cost of worse gas mileage and the risk of a costly accident due to a poorly maintained vehicle.
  • Watch what you carry, and where: If you keep stuff in your car, you can be costing yourself money by increasing your gas usage. The US Department of Energy estimated that you spend an extra 7 cents per gallon for every 100 pounds of extra stuff you are hauling about. Using a roofrack to carry all that extra stuff can subtract an additional 5% from your gas mileage.

Your Shopping List

  • Just say no to bottled water: Unless you live in an area where tap water is problematic, there’s no reason not to use the tap or public water fountain. I get it. Bottled water is convenient, and easy. I used to like drinking it gave me a very good idea of exactly how much water I was drinking each day. (Usually not enough, but such is life) But even buying water at the grocery store can run you 10-25 cents a bottle. Go to a drink machine and you pay $1.25 if you’re lucky. Water bottles are a huge waste issue, with Americans throwing away up to 1.5 million tons of bottles. It’s cheaper and better for the environment to fill up from the tap when possible, even if you purchase a water filter to give you a cleaner taste and a stainless steel thermos to drink it from for that handy portability.
  • While you’re at it, ditch the K-Cup: Even John Sylvan, the inventor of the K-Cup, prefers drip coffee. K-Cups are another landfill issue, with the one use pods adding tons of plastic to landfills each year. While biodegradable and refillable pods are available, they aren’t the norm. On the other hand, you can easily compost the coffee grounds and filter from your drip coffee maker. The one-shot machines themselves are about 3 times the cost of a good drip coffee maker, as is the coffee itself. If you make 3 cups a day, that can add up to about $400 a year.  Unless you only drink one cup a day, it just doesn’t make money sense, much less environmental sense.
  • Not everything needs to be new: I sold used books for 17 years, and believe me when I say you can get some truly wonderful things secondhand. It costs a lot of resources to make new things. If you can find used items, it can save you a lot of money (not to mention saving the rest of the world energy and landfill space). Clothes, books (especially textbooks), sports equipment, furniture and cars are all things worth shopping used. Kid’s items, in particular clothes, bikes and toys, are all worth a trip to the secondhand store or a Saturday scouring the yardsales. The caveat is there are also some things you should never buy used, like mattresses, helmets and car seats.
  • Don’t forget to think “Reuse”: There are all kinds of things we buy that we only use one time: sandwich bags, paper towels, disposable diapers. Most of them have reusable alternates that are less expensive long term than continuing to buy the disposable kind. So if you buy cotton barmops instead of paper towels, you might spend $30 instead of $100 over the course of a year.You can look at this list of 17 Cheap and Awesome Reusable Replacements for Disposable Products for inspiration of some simple substitutions you can make to reduce waste and save money.

Have a great idea to add? Please share your favorites in the comments.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

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