Being Cheap is Good for the Earth

If we are going to save the planet from certain disaster, it’s not going to be by purchasing electric cars. Despite what business and politics would have you think, the earth does not need more products.  In fact, it needs the opposite: a reduction in wasteful consumption.  Luckily, an earth-friendly lifestyle is also better for your wallet. 

It all comes down to a simple motto: Buy less, Waste less.

One question I often ask myself is, what would my grandma do?  Having lived through the Great Depression, her generation was about as frugal as could be.  They grew their own food, fixed things when they broke, and let nothing go to waste.  In doing so, they also lived in an environmentally sustainable manner – though they may not have realized it at the time. Here are some ideas about how to be earth- and wallet-friendly today.

Go used

I know I’m not the only one who rolls my eyes when an ad for “eco-friendly” business appears on my feed. Clothing made from hemp is fine, but guess what’s even better?  Using the clothes you already have.  Or, if you must buy more, then at least buy them used.  Think of all those perfectly cute vintage outfits just waiting to be discovered in thrift stores!  Thrifting is good for your wallet and for the planet.  

Don’t forget about garage sales!

And it’s not just clothes.  Goodwill has multiple aisles full of nice matching china sets that spoiled brides throw out right after their weddings.  Flea markets abound in uniquely refurbished furniture that’s almost always better quality then what you’d find at Target.  You can find just about anything you want on Facebook Market, in gently-used status.  With all this good stuff lying around for cheap, nobody should need to cut down more trees or manufacture more plastic.  

Outdoors gear is notoriously expensive.  People often purchase expensive outdoors gear on a whim –  and then after trying the sport once or twice they give it up.  You can find really good quality used gear on various internet sites and Facebook groups.  In many cities you can find thrift shops dedicated to sports (like Play it Again Sports, where my boyfriend picked up a quality Northface ski jacket for $20).  I found a Kearns canoe on Facebook Market for $80; it had only been used once, and cost $700 new.  Imagine if instead they had thrown it in the garbage! 

Please don’t throw away good stuff!  When you’re done with an outfit, a game, a set of dishes, or a book, remember that you can sell it and make back some of your investment.  Or if you’re feeling nice, just donate it.  Whatever you do, don’t let it go to waste.  Everything takes resources, and whether those resources are sustainable or not, it’s still better not to consume more than we need to.

Fix It

Don’t throw away anything that is broken if it can still be fixed.  Rip a hole in your sweater? Sew it.  Hole in your inflatable pool toy?  Patch it.  Drop a mug?  Glue it back together.  Scratch your wooden table?  Sand it to make it look nice again.  We should not automatically resort to throwing things away and replacing them.

When I was growing up, it would have been considered very wasteful to throw away something that could be easily fixed.  But in the age of Amazon, it’s become less appealing to fix things when we can easily order a cheap plastic version to be delivered the next day.  If our depression-era grandparents could see how wasteful we are, they’d have a conniption.  

And don’t even get me started on cell phones.  You may be flooded with emails from Verizon telling you about the hottest newest iPhone… but if yours still has some life left in it, don’t you dare think about replacing it yet.  It’s nearly impossible to live modern life without a cell phone, but we should be highly conscious about the toll they are taking on the earth.  

A coltan mine in the DR of Congo, from Humanity in Action

“It’s an environmental disaster, because building every phone requires the polluting extraction of irreplaceable elements like gold, cobalt or lithium. To make matters worse, the average user switches phone every two years without recycling the retired device, generating toxic waste and squandering materials.”


The main problem is that to manufacture cell phones, it is necessary to mine rare earth minerals.  Mining is a dirty business that destroys ecosystems and communities, from poisoning water sources in the Amazon, to draining salt flats in the Andes, to spawning humanitarian crises and civil war in Congo.  I won’t flood you with details but I do recommend doing some research on it.

Before ordering a new phone, pause and ask yourself:

  • Do I really need this new phone, to the point that it’s worth destroying the earth and lives of people across the world?
  • Can I get my current phone fixed instead?  Thanks to the Right to Repair Movement, the answer is increasingly yes.  Look for an independent repair shop near you.
  • Does the battery need to be replaced?  An easy fix, which will cost significantly less than purchasing a new phone!
  • If my current phone can’t be fixed, can I purchase a certified used one?  There are tons of websites for this purpose.

You can also take steps to make your current phone last longer, including:

  • Closing unused applications which drain excess energy
  • Turning the phone off while you sleep  
  • Use a high quality screen protector and case
  • Cleaning it on a regular basis, especially the charging port 

Much of this same advice applies to computers and other electronics, all of which use valuable materials and energy.  And the side benefit for you, of course, is that at the end of the day you will have more money in your wallet.  Cell phones are expensive!  For more about cell phone care, here’s a good article from

My brother and I posing in our family garden

Waste in the Kitchen

Every time I find something going bad in the back of the refrigerator, I want to cry.  A significant amount of effort, money and energy has gone into not just growing and preserving that food but also transporting it to my city apartment.  So how can we prevent food waste on an individual level?  Here are some ideas that I try to implement:

  • Meal planning so I don’t buy more than I need
  • Keeping my fridge organized so I know exactly what’s in there and what needs to be eaten soon
  • Freezing anything that can’t be eaten right away
  • If all else fails, I feed it to my dogs!  (assuming none of the ingredients are bad for them, of course)

If you have the land to garden or raise chickens, do it. I live in a city apartment, but I’m still able to grow some herbs and peppers on my balcony.  Growing your own food obviously saves money, but also decreases the need to transport food which uses fossil fuels. 

Since I can’t don’t have the space to grow much, I choose the next best option, which is to purchase “flawed” produce through Imperfect Foods.  Lots of fruits and veggies are deemed too “ugly” to sell in a grocery store, even if they taste perfectly fine.  To prevent this food from going to waste, companies like Imperfect purchase them from farmers and deliver to local consumers.  I get great local organic produce for low prices, while simultaneously fighting food waste and helping local farmers.  It’s win-win-win!

My balcony herb garden in its beginning stages

Don’t waste stems and peels!  If you live in an apartment like me and can’t have a compost pile, then you can use unwanted portions of veggies to make broth.  This is a great use for the greens of carrots or celery, and stems of kale or chard. Simply add salt, water, and a bay leaf and boil it for a while.  You’ll never have to pay for store-bought broth again.

And those pumpkins everybody buys in the fall, only to throw away?  You know they’re edible right?  One pumpkin produces a ton of food – and it’s quite healthy.

One more thought on the topic of waste: paper products.  Are you still using paper towels and disposable napkins?  Stop.  It’s cheaper and classier to use fabric ones and wash them.

Go Without

Before you buy something, imagine your life without it.  Is this item really going to make your life that much better?  Or can you live without it? Do you need to buy that book on Amazon or could you perhaps rent it for free from the local library (and save a tree)?

I grew up in a 1-car family.  My brother and I rode our bicycles took the bus – a healthy and cost-effective habit which continued throughout our teens and into our 20’s.  If somebody needed the car, we just scheduled around it.  It was never an issue and I didn’t think twice about it until I grew up and realized it was unusual.  So many families have more cars than they need.  Each one has to be insured and maintained, which is extremely expensive.  By getting rid of a car or two, you can save all kinds of resources.  

Living in a city, it’s even easier to situate my life in a way that a car is mostly unnecessary.  I can walk to the grocery store and take the light rail to work.  Currently my boyfriend and I share a car.  But when I was single in Denver, I enrolled in a car share program called eGo.  Electric cars were scattered throughout Denver, which could be opened with a personalized key fob.  When I needed a car I simply swiped my fob and paid a flat hourly rate to use one.  I had access to trucks if I needed to haul anything, and to 4WD if I wanted to go into the mountains.  The cost of insurance and gas were included in the hourly rate, which was surprisingly affordable.  

Bike riding can be a pleasant, healthy experience

Cars are one example but maybe not necessarily the one that will apply to you.  I have friends living in 1 bedroom apartments with multiple TV’s.  Unnecessary.  I know people who pay a monthly fee for a heated storage unit with almost nothing in it.  Crazy.  Almost everyone can point out multiple things in their household that are both unnecessary and expensive.  

I love HGTV as much as the next person, but renovations can be incredibly wasteful and expensive.  Before ripping out your wooden floors because they’re “out of style”, remember that entire swaths of the country faced deforestation for the sake of Victorian era flooring.  If you absolutely must then try to salvage as much of it as possible and donate it to Habitat or resell it. You can sell and/or buy salvage pieces that look super stylish and unique, which saves money at the same time (think Joanna Gaines with her famous repurposed barnwood ceiling beams).

But… the Economy

Especially if you’re American I can guess what your response to this post will be.  “If everyone consumes less stuff, it’ll ruin the economy.”  I’ve had this thought myself.  Every day we are inundated with the message that a healthy economy relies on consumption, and that it is our patriotic duty to spend more money.

First of all, I must remind myself that my individual purchase decisions are not big enough to ruin an economy on any scale.

Second of all, the average American has a very warped view of Economics.  Thanks to our political system we are intensely focused on GDP (gross domestic product)- a measure so flawed it’s stupid.  Even the person who created the concept warned that we shouldn’t be using it.  

GDP measures growth.  That’s it.  It doesn’t measure what is growing or who is benefitting or – perhaps most importantly – the cost of that growth.  For example, let’s say I’m a state senator and I decide to clear cut all the forest in my state.  Because I’ve eliminated habitat, I cause a number of species to go extinct, thereby eliminating the only sources of food and income for all the area’s residents.  I deplete a great deal of natural resources and send a whole region into poverty.  But according to the measure of GDP I have had a successful year, because I exported goods.  It is clear that I’ve acted unsustainably by using all my resources at once, and that my local economy is headed for a crash in the near future.  However, GDP does not measure these crucial aspects and therefore is incredibly misleading.

Deforestation, from The Guardian

That’s exactly why Senator Robert Kennedy famously stated that “GDP measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.”  

So if you’re really worried about your economic impact, focus on the long game.  By taking earth-friendly actions, you are investing in the long-term economy, even if you’re not increasing some company’s profit in the short-term.  For anyone who’s interested in the relationship between sustainable living and the economy, I highly recommend reading or listening to English economist Kate Raworth.

In conclusion: Buy Less, Waste Less. 

I’m constantly trying to improve my own finances and carbon footprint, so if you have more ideas, please feel free to share them in the comments!

One thought on “Being Cheap is Good for the Earth

  1. Great post!
    I also hear so many people say that leading a more conscious lifestyle is expensive – while ignoring the simple face that using what you have (instead of buying more) and reducing waste are actually money saving!

    Liked by 1 person

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