How to Be Sustainable on a Budget

By Maureen Wise in Thinking Sustainably

Many people associate green living and sustainable practices with wealth. After all, eco-friendly clothing brands, organic foods, and responsibly made home goods and furniture tend to have higher price tags. But eco-friendly living is for everyone. So, let's flip this idea on its head and look at how to be sustainable on a budget.

Read on to discover how to reduce energy and waste and minimize your carbon footprint without making a dent in your bank account.

purple, teal, blue, green plastic clothes pins lined up on laundry line with plants in the background

Greenify Your Laundry

It costs nearly nothing to make your laundry routine into a greener chore. First, wash your clothes on a cold wash cycle. This uses less energy and helps your clothes last longer. Be sure to only wash full loads, too. When you wash multiple smaller loads, you use more energy and water to do the same amount of work.

Next, use dryer balls instead of dryer sheets. These wool balls help dry your clothes faster by absorbing some of the wetness while reducing static and wrinkles. Plus, you don't need to replace them for several years. When they're finally worn out, you can take them apart and compost them.

To make laundry an even greener chore, skip the dryer and air-dry your clothes instead. Dryers are the second-biggest energy user in most homes, just behind air conditioners. Air-dry indoors with a few folding drying racks, or hang your clothes on a laundry line to dry outside in the sunshine.

Shop Eco-Friendly Clothing

Many brands that sell organic or recycled clothing are more expensive than their traditional counterparts. But you can enjoy sustainable fashion on a budget, too. Check out your local thrift store for new-to-you clothes instead of buying fully new. Not only is it cheaper to buy secondhand, but it also has a lower environmental cost. The resources used to make the fabric and to manufacture and transport the clothes have already been spent.

If your local secondhand shop doesn't have what you need, you can find sustainable fashion on a budget through thredUP, Worn Wear (specific to pre-worn Patagonia clothing), Swap, Poshmark, and other online thrift shops. You can also seek out local clothing swap events to find used clothes—and new eco-minded friends.

Beyond shopping secondhand, consider upcycling your clothes into something new. Try cutting the sleeves off an old shirt to add them to another one, sewing shorts out of an outdated dress, or making worn jeans into a purse. It can be fun to look at old clothing in a new way.

woman in blue head scarf carrying black tote bag with palm trees in background

Reuse, Reuse, Reuse

Sustainability-minded people have been preaching the "reuse" mantra since the 1970s. By using durable products instead of single-use items, you're saving the energy needed to extract, process, and transport materials again and again. Plus, being a good steward of the world's limited natural resources is a key environmental ethic.

Reusable grocery bags and water bottles go a long way toward reducing single-use plastics. Take it a step further and reduce your paper products by using rags (try cutting up old T-shirts or socks!) instead of paper towels and cloth napkins instead of paper napkins. Even if you do buy rags and cloth napkins new, you'll save money—and trees—in the long run.

And while you're at the thrift store looking for clothes, nab a few extra sets of silverware, plates, and bowls so you won't need to use disposable tableware at your next dinner party or gathering.

Eat with the Environment in Mind

It's true that environmentally friendly food is often more expensive, from organic produce to milk alternatives. But you can eat green on a budget. For example, meat is often the most expensive thing on your plate. By choosing vegetarian or vegan protein options, like tofu or beans, you're almost always eating cheaper. And while plant-based "meat" is still more expensive than animal proteins, research shows the gap could narrow significantly by 2030.

Eating locally by visiting a nearby farmer's market or joining a Community Supported Agriculture is also often cheaper than buying from the grocery store. In addition, you'll be getting fresher produce, reducing the distance your food has to travel, and supporting your local economy.

Finally, reduce food waste. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, if global food waste were a country, it would generate the third-most greenhouse gas emissions in the world behind China and the United States. By being more careful about eating leftovers and minimizing what you throw out, you'll cut costs and reduce your contribution to landfills.

brown curtains, both opaque and sheer with shadow of blinds across them

Think Beyond Renewable Energy

Not everyone can afford to put solar panels on their roofs, but you can reduce your energy consumption in low-cost ways. If your energy company offers free energy audits, go for it. They'll show you where you can save electricity and where your home might be leaking conditioned air. If your energy company doesn't offer them for free, do an energy audit yourself. Here's a quick checklist:

  • Check for leaky windows and doors.
  • Look at your outlets to see what doesn't need to be plugged in all the time.
  • Buy a hot water heater insulation wrap to keep your water hotter and minimize lost heat.
  • Invest in LED bulbs, which use less energy than incandescent bulbs (and last longer).
  • Keep blinds and curtains closed on the south side of your home in the summer and open in the winter to reduce passive heat gain and loss.

You might also consider buying a programmable thermostat. While it comes with an initial cost, it can save you money and energy in the long term. These thermostats allow you to adjust the temperature throughout the day so you can stay comfortable when you're home but let temperatures rise or fall when you're away to save energy.

Teaching Others How to Be Sustainable on a Budget

The widespread belief that sustainable living is more expensive has its truths. But you can incorporate plenty of little-to-no-cost eco-friendly habits into your lifestyle. In fact, many of these tips can actually help you save money. So, spread the word. Breaking down the stigma to make sustainable living more accessible starts with teaching your loved ones what this lifestyle is really about: simple, resourceful, Earth-centric living.

If you have children in your life, educate them about the power of reusing and get their creative juices flowing with these fun recycled craft ideas.

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The views and opinions expressed in any guest post featured on our site are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Tom's of Maine.

Why It's Good

While some eco-friendly products come with higher price tags, sustainable living can also mean living simply and more affordably. Shifting your mindset can help you find sustainable habits that work for you and allow you to share the message with others.