Money Mic: Being Green Saves Me Over $21,000 a Year

People have a lot of opinions about money.

In our “Money Mic” series, we hand over the podium to someone with a strong opinion on a financial topic. These are their views, not ours, but we welcome your responses.

Today, in honor of Earth Day, Maria Pesantez tells us how her radical experiment in earth-friendly living resulting in savings of $21,590 a year–without sacrificing her quality of life. 

Three years ago, I was happy with my lifestyle.

I was 28, living in Houston with my husband and 8-year-old daughter. I recycled, bought organic food for my family, and had 100% wind power for our home. I thought I was leading a model environmental life.

But I was about to learn that environmentalism is like your career, giving to charity or managing your finances–there is always room for improvement.

And in the process, I would also learn that planet conservation leads to cash conservation.

In the three years since, I’ve saved thousands that I’ve shuttled toward my savings account (and a little luxury for myself), improved my health, grown closer with my family and, of course, lessened my impact on the earth. I’ll show you how I did it.

The Movie That Changed Everything

In 2009 I was a new member of the Houston chapter of U.S. Green Building Council Emerging Professionals, whose members were slowly introducing me to green habits. But it was their screening of “No Impact Man” that changed everything. This film (and the book by the same name) follows author Colin Beavan and his family around for a year while he tries to have, quite literally, no impact on the planet.

He makes no trash, buys nothing new, shuts off his electricity, uses only self-powered transportation, eats locally and gives back to the community … and discovers that living with less doesn’t mean a life of deprivation, but one of simple happiness. He also did all of this while living in New York City–not in a cave somewhere.

When I saw this movie, I was floored. Yes, it was extreme. But there were also many ideas for how I could improve without compromising my quality of life. This movie showed me how I could be healthier and feel more connected to my family. It was full of joy instead of environmental gloom and doom.

The one scene I keep remembering is where the three of them—Colin, his wife and his little girl–were playing cars in candlelight, giggling and having a good time. I wanted that sort of connection to my family for myself.

My No Impact Week

I wasn’t the only one who was affected so strongly. The movie was so successful that Colin created the No Impact Project, which encourages people to try out the No Impact Experiment for a week–and since 2009, over 40,000 people around the globe have. Each day you focus on a different aspect of your life and try to “green” it. After the week is over, you keep doing the things you like and let go of the things you don’t.

I was so inspired, I went home and started the challenge the very next day.

Sunday: Consumption

Before the challenge, I made regular trips to the mall for household items, clothing and shoes. My credit card statements used to be close to $2,400 each month. Not only was this bad for my finances, it pushed up carbon emissions, wasted resources and helped trash our environment. Each cheap blouse I bought was often fabricated from petroleum products in another country, then shipped across the world to me where I would wear it until it fell apart, and then donate it.

Starting on Sunday, I wasn’t allowed to buy anything new. Instead I had to try to get it used, borrow it, use something I already had or just go without. That’s how I discovered thrifting.

After the challenge, thrifting turned out to be one of my favorite eco-friendly activities. It allows me to try out many brands and styles in one trip and powers up the local economy. And what can be more fun than finding a BCBG Max Azria dress for $25? I still get everything I need (and some things I want). But because I now buy as much as I can used rather than new, and have gotten into the habit of pausing before buying anything new to ask myself if I really need it, my credit card statements are now closer to $1,200.

Total savings: $14,400 a year

Monday: Trash

Before the challenge, we recycled as much as we could, but we didn’t even think about reducing our trash. I brought home plastic bags and takeout containers, paper towels and napkins and racks of bottled water, which would all be quickly used and sent to the landfill or recycled.

Starting on Monday, I chose items that came in less packaging, traded disposables for reusables (bye plastic grocery bags!) and finally started composting like I had been thinking about doing—I just hadn’t had the push I needed to get started. I also broke up with bottled water. Aside from having toxic chemicals that leach from the plastic and contaminate our rivers, it costs 10,000 times more than tap water. All I needed was a good water filter and a stainless steel bottle that costs less than $0.001 to refill. This change alone saves me over $600 a year!

Of course, Colin Beaven and his family stopped using toilet paper too, rigging up a bidet. We didn’t go there.

After the challenge, we ditched bottled water and disposables almost completely and continued to compost. We haven’t used any paper towels or paper napkins for three years. Instead, we have a little pile of all-purpose rags and cloth napkins that we use and wash in hot water. This saves us about $30 a month.

Total savings: $960 a year

Tuesday:

Transportation

Before the challenge, we used our car for everything. We paid $2,000 a year for gas, $1,200 for maintenance and $1,500 a year for parking at my work at the nearby university, contributing to air pollution and carbon emissions. Meanwhile, I would get on my bike on the weekends for fun.

Starting on Tuesday, I had to get to work and around town by “self-propelled means,” so I started biking the two miles to work every day. It wasn’t always easy. I have an addiction to high-heels and cute outfits, so I took a big backpack full of clothes and rented a locker at the gym at my work for $10 a month. And if I wanted to get to the other side of vast Houston, trying to get there using public transportation sometimes requires three or four bus changes!

After the challenge, we didn’t keep moving around everywhere without the car. Some days are too hot; others are too cold or rainy. The transportation and bike lanes in Houston aren’t so great, so we often have no choice. But I kept biking to work, and a cool morning breeze and chirping birds are part of my daily routine. My car spends most of its time in the garage, and most of the $4,700 car budget stays in my pocket. The challenge cemented our preference of living in the city, where we can walk or bike to restaurants and I have easy access to work.

Total Savings: $4,580 a year

Luxury or Necessity?

How do you tell which is which? (And which really is which?) SHARE

Wednesday: Food

Before the challenge, we ate nutritiously but bought all our food at the grocery store, which has more packaging, is more likely to be processed and is shipped from thousands of miles away. I had no awareness of farmers’ markets whatsoever.

Starting on Wednesday, we had to buy all our food locally–ideally produced within 100 miles. It was a lot more work, involving a trip to the farmers’ market, then another one to the grocery store to get anything you still needed. I had to cook every day instead of getting prepared food, and was limited to just the vegetables that were in season.

After the challenge, we slid back into shopping at Whole Foods the majority of time for convenience, which costs us more. But we cut meat out of our diets, because of the resources it takes to raise it and the way animals are treated at industrial farms. That and cooking at home together lowers our grocery bill. Financially, it’s a wash. But when it comes to my carbon footprint and the amount of pesticides on my food, I feel like I’ve won.

Total savings: $0

Thursday: Energy

Before the challenge, we used to watch a lot of TV, paying $65 a month for cable, and like many Houstonians, we switched on our air conditioning and heat as soon as we got slightly uncomfortable.

Starting on Thursday, we had to unplug completely, using no electricity whatsoever. Instead we spent time with each other instead of our electronics. We also hung our clothing out on the line to dry. It required some adjustment, especially because the clothes didn’t turn out as soft and fluffy as with the dryer and it was more work than throwing everything in the dryer. It was October, so we delayed turning on the heat.

After the challenge, we went right back to using our air conditioner and lights like normal. If you didn’t know, Houston is hot in the summer, and unlike Colin, we like to do things with the lights on at night instead of by candlelight. Yes, I loved the idea of playing with my daughter by candlelight, but it’s so much easier to flick on a switch. And someone is usually on the computer.

But now instead of gathering in front of the TV at night, my husband will get in a workout, my daughter will do her homework, I’ll read a book, and we’ll gather in the kitchen to cook a meal. On weekends we’ll go out for a bike ride or a walk. And now we really like that the clothes hung on the line come off smelling like sunshine and fresh air. I just throw them in the dryer for a couple minutes with a wet rag for humidity to fluff them up. We turn on our heater much later than everyone else, using sweaters and cozy socks instead. (And avoid the drying effect of artificial heat on our hair and skin, too.)

In the last two years, both my electricity and gas bill have gone down, even though the cost of electricity and gas went up where we live during that same time period.

(Use these strategies from a rocket scientist to save on your own bill.)

Total savings: $1,650 a year

Total yearly savings after the experiment: $21,590

 

Doing It With Joy

The No Impact Project certainly was a challenge, but I never doubted the worth of the experiment. Deep inside of me I knew it was the right way to live. Right now people are competing for what car they drive and who has great clothes, and that is not making anyone happy. So even if changing my habits hadn’t saved me so much money, I would have done this anyway. It was just an enormous perk!

My daughter and husband are also very conscious about the environment and really enjoy participating in all these activities. If it gets too hard, they skip it. And so do I. When I have to take my car, I take my car, without the guilt. This week-long experiment just gives you a window into what is possible, it doesn’t force you to live uncomfortably.

What I Do With The Money I Save

Now that I’m saving so much money, we haven’t started spending more money on, say, more clothes or a better car. Instead, I shuttle that money to my emergency fund. It’s always good to be prepared.

And I love that it frees up money for little splurges. For example, we now have a green company that comes to clean our house once a month. It’s a treat!

As told to Alden Wicker.

Maria J. Pesantez is a financial and grants analyst at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. She lives with her husband and 11-year-old daughter in the city. 

You can learn more, order the movie and sign up for the No Impact Project at the No Impact Project website and continue to follow “No Impact Man” author Colin Beavan’s adventures at his blog

More From LearnVest

Are you a parent? Sign up for our LV Moms daily to receive advice on how to budget, save and spend on your family.
Are you a conscious consumer? Take this quiz to find out!
According to this woman, staying home is more economical than working.
If just a third of Americans biked more, the U.S. economy would save $17 billion a year.

  • Raquel

    I think her transformation is wonderful. I’m feeling her about the bidet.  We live in Richmond, VA so the climate changes a LOT during the fall and the spring.  I’m looking forward to using her expereinces as a reference.  I’m glad I signed up to your link :D

  • Anon

    She really spent close to $30,000 a year on shopping? I’m confused how learning to thrift is eco-friendly. You’re more likely to make MORE trips to find what you want than less. 

    • Dvbtsen

      The shopping thing as me confused too.  Mainly about how $2,400 was being spent on the credit card and now it is down to $1,200.  To me that is still a heck of a lot of money to spend on shopping.  Why does a person need different clothes all the time.  I buy new underwear a couple of times a year but otherwise maybe one or two shirts a year and one pair of pants a year.  If you take care of your clothes they last fairly well.  I suppose the daughter is growing and needs new things but still that seems like a lot of money to me. However, I do agree that thrift stores are nice though.  Sometimes people drop off items that still have the tags on them. That’s nice – brand new shirt for $3. 

    • Lauren Chircus

      Thirfting is more eco-friendly than buying new clothes because of all the energy and chemicals and materials that go into making and transporting new clothes.  It’s the same idea as recycling bottles and paper, just that you’re recycling clothes instead. Also, thrift store clothes generally are “locally sourced” – i.e., they come from people who lived nearby.

      However, local produce is not necessarily greener.  In fact, because globally sourced foods are more efficiently produced, packed, and transported, they generally have a lower carbon footprint per item than locally sourced foods.  Here are some good blog entries on the subject:http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/11/14/the-inefficiency-of-local-food/
      http://www.swifteconomics.com/2009/12/28/eco-friendly-food-buy-global/

      • Tania

        Slow food movement is not just about carbon emissions although it was presented that way in this article. Taste is generally better, produce lasts a bit longer in one’s kitchen and the money goes back into the local economy. I have a certain perspective on this though because I live in Hawaii so flying/shipping produce in is a bigger deal (time and fuel) than in mainland states.

    • Michi

      I was wondering if she puts everything on the credit card. I know many people who put all the groceries, utilities, gas, etc on their card for miles, etc. If she cut out the unnecessary clothing spending but was still spending on food, auto and other necessities, $1,200 for a family doesn’t seem unreasonable.

  • N_nicolaisen

    I’m impressed, I saw that movie as well. This is the kind of article we need to see more often, as the green changes we make in our lives also help preserve the resources that keep us alive, literally. Thrifting is eco-friendly because you’re reusing clothing, rather than buying new. Most people don’t know how many resources it takes (a lot) to manufacture new clothing. I find name brand clothing that fits me every time I go to a thrift store, you can also try consignment stores, which are usually a little nicer to shop in. I’m inspired to make more changes myself, this poor planet needs as much help as it can get.

  • Alix

    I already do almost every single one of these things, minus thrifting for clothes.  (I’ve found it very difficult to buy a professional wardrobe for my hard-to-find size.)  I don’t even think about these things as exceptional, since this is how I was raised.  However, I sometimes find these “I saved $20,000 just by going green” titles to be misleading, since I can’t really calculate the opportunity cost if I’ve never lived the wasteful, expensive lifestyle of bottled water and cars.

  • Rachel

    These ideas are great but some of them sound very hard to do. I buy used all the time, better on the budget. I’m confused though- was her credit card bill reduced to $1200 by just shopping purchases or did this reflect her grocery changes too, such as going to farmers markets and limiting paper product usage. Did she really only spend $120 on gas for a year? She must have limited her traveling outside Houston. Cool story!

  • atomic117

    agree with alix…. i don’t spend more than 1500/year on clothes/shoes/jewelry/traditional indian outfits and probably buy one six-pack of bottled water a year and use it for emergencies.  I think my situation is much more common than this lady’s 14k. 

    some of the ways i like to save on are soaps, shampoos, lotions, and fragrances.  Castile soap lasts a long time and works wonderfully as soap, shampoo, and household cleaner.  i buy the unscented kind and use essential oils to add fragrance and properties like antibacterial, etc.  a blog i like to get ideas from is http://zerowastehome.blogspot.com/

  • Mostlywentzel

    Sorry, but I’m not all that impressed.  She stopped buying a wasteful amount of new clothing? Big deal.  I don’t spend $100 a month on new clothing and household items for my whole family of 5.  We buy what we need, not what we want.  We look for the best deals and repurpose when we can.  My entire dining room (table with 6 chairs, china cabinet and buffet) is full of hand-me-downs and cast-offs that I have cleaned up or painted.  My transformation of my stepdaughter’s room cost less than $200 and that included new bedding, shelves and a dresser.  It’s easy to save $20K a year when you over-consume to begin with.

    As for heating/cooling, we keep our house at 68 in the winter.  If you’re cold, put on a sweater.  Once the outdoor temp nears that, we turn off the HVAC entirely, until the temp creeps into the high 70s.  Then we turn on the air, keeping it only a few degrees cooler inside than it is out, which is better for your body.  If you keep it 70 inside when it’s 90 outside, your body doesn’t know what to think.

    As for the grocery bills, I don’t think it’s news to anyone that bottled water is wasteful and overly expensive.  I buy some when it’s on sale and keep in the basement only for when we have parties.  The rest of the time we use tap water.  We have a no-energy water conditioning system for our house which granted, was $2000, but it took care of our hard water without having to use salt and it tastes great.

    I already use reuseable bags whenever I can and make more food from scratch than a box.  I also make my own laundry soap and am starting to make my own cleaners and weed killer too. And as for transportation, we have to drive pretty much everywhere because of where we live, but we drive carefully, making a game out of getting the best MPG and we group trips together.  If we have to go to t store that is 20 minutes away, we make sure we have at least 2 or 3 places in the same area we need to visit or take that opportunity to visit with a friend or family member nearby.

    While some of these suggestions may be helpful, I call most of them common sense.

  • country girl

    A good idea, but the transportation thing for folks in rural communities is just stupid. When things are so spread out self powered transportation is out, and so is public transportation. It just doesn’t exist. 

    • skinny country girl

      I grew up in the country myself, so I feel your pain re: no mass transit.  However, I also remember that my piano lessons were held less than a mile up the road and my mom still drove me every saturday.  School was less than 3 miles away as well, so my family could have biked to school events in the warmer/brighter months.  Grocery store, gym, bank, hair salon, dollar store, state store, dentist… all within reasonable biking distance.  My brother biked everywhere in high school because we couldn’t afford another car for him to use.  He still bikes now that he lives in the city, and he’s slim and fit.  

      So really, I think a lot of people just need to suck it up and get off their fat butts.

  • MtrlGrl

    You thought you were green but knew nothing of farmer’s markets or thrift stores and didn’t compost?  Seriously?  We have been shopping at thrift stores our wholes lives and composting!  Not to mention using reusable everything.  Check out the West Coast – most of these are normal activities for us!

  • Robs

    I’m a little disappointed in this article as well.  I already bottle my own NYC tap water, use public transportation or walk, and make all my own food from mostly local produce.  If I could hang my laundry up, I would.  How about some tips for those of us who are already trying not to live lives of conspicuous consumption?

  • JS

    Although I do think her spending habits were a little wasteful beforehand, I still applaud her dedication to changing her lifestyle. I already do, or have thought of, most of the things she mentioned, but I still learned a couple of things from the article. I think it’s important to remember that most people in the US start from where she was, rather than from where a lot of veteran LearnVest members begin from.

  • Cafe2

    I respect what more eco-friendly people think about this article, but I will definitely take its advise. Some of us come from backgrounds where buying new is expected.  This article and this story are an inspiration to many of us who have not had the thrifting experience, or use the car at all times.  What calls my attention is that serious environmentalists are knoking down what is, at all lights, a very positive environmentalist message.  Interesting…

  • Grateful2hlf

    I think it is wonderful that she is showing what she took from the movie and was able to adapt to her way of living. I read comments about how others kind of condemed her for stating how she made her changes when they are already doing things that they can do. I try and do my part also, but there are instances where it is impossible to change everything. I applaud anyone who can do only part of these things to make a difference in the world. Eat meatless meals just 3 times a week, go out to eat just once or twice a month instead of every week, or 2-3 times a week, hange sheets outside and dry the towels becasue you like fluffy towels, use bottles water if you are out and need a water and forgot to take one with you from home. See the good that everyone is trying to do even if it isonly one or two of the things that you can do…. We are all in this worl together and we all can make a difference… even if it is a small one. MY THANK YOU goes to all of us who are trying to make a difference, even if a small way. My Grandchildren will thank you too…. Grateful….