Every pivotal life decision, from choosing where we live to eating healthier, can support our best interests environmentally, as well. The good news is that it is possible to afford a sustainable way of life. Ecofriendly choices for housing, vehicles and food—generally perceived as expensive for the average individual or family—often are not only attainable when pursued in a thoughtful way, but can actually save us money compared to maintaining the status quo.
1. Buying a Home
When considering a move to a new place, we often find out how much house we can manage and then proceed to invest to the hilt. But if hitting our spending limit will leave a deficit in the amount of green and healthy home features and furnishings we can achieve, we could end up with a residence that makes neither financial nor ecological sense, and isn’t good for our health. A solution is to scale back on costly square footage. Spending 25 to 40 percent less than we think we can on a smaller home provides more possibilities when planning the renovation budget, enabling us to create a home that is more deeply satisfying.
Nicole Alvarez, an architectural designer with Ellen Cassilly Architect, in Durham, North Carolina, who blogs at IntentionallySmall.com, says that if we value quality over quantity, place over space and living more intentionally in every aspect of our lives, we are ready for a small home. Occupying less space has profoundly influenced her daily life and happiness.
Alvarez has found, “When space is limited, everything has a function and a purpose. Everything has to be intentional. Over time, as you grow in the home, you make small modifications to personalize it more to adjust to your routine. You grow a strong bond with your home.”
Securing a much smaller dwelling than what we originally had designs on can lead to a lifetime of savings. With less space to furnish, heat, cool, light, clean and maintain, we can enjoy greater financial freedom, less stress and more time for fun.
2. Deciding Where to Live
Urban, suburban or rural, where we live incurs long-term repercussions on the natural environment. Choosing an established community within or close to an urban center tends to be more protective of air, water and land quality than living in a distant, car-dependent suburb, yet many families feel either drawn to or resigned to the suburbs for the lower housing prices.
But as Ilana Preuss, vice president at Washington, D.C.-based Smart Growth America, explains, “There is more to housing affordability than how much rent or mortgage we pay. Transportation costs are the second-biggest budget item for most families. In locations with access to few transportation choices, the combined cost of housing and transportation can be more than 60 percent of the total household budget. For families with access to a range of transportation choices, the combined cost can be less than 40 percent.”
In most suburbs, where the only practical transportation choice is a personal vehicle, dependency on a car takes a toll on us financially and physically. Driving a personal vehicle 15,000 miles a year can cost about $9,122 annually in ownership and operating expenses, according to AAA’s 2013 Your Driving Costs report, and hours spent daily sitting behind the wheel being sedentary is eroding our health. Lack of transportation options is a leading detriment to the nation’s collective wellness, according to the federal agency Healthy People.
Sustainable cities provide many transportation options, including public buses and trains, car-sharing services and all forms of ride sharing; and perhaps most importantly, they are bike- and pedestrian-friendly. Choosing communities that make it possible to reduce driving and even go car-free much of the time can save us money, reduce stress and improve our health.
3. Choosing a Car
We know two primary facts about cars: They are expensive and those with internal combustion engines pollute during operation. Still, many of us need one. Reducing the total impact and burden of owning a car can be as simple as prioritizing fuel efficiency. It helps that fuel-sippers now come in more sizes than just small, yet small subcompacts remain a good place to start our research because of their budget-friendly prices and high fuel economy.
A subcompact that averages 32 miles per gallon (mpg) and has a sticker price below $15,000 can save us so much money compared with a topselling compact SUV—upwards of $16,000 over five years, according to Edmunds.com—that if we need a larger vehicle on occasion, we can more easily afford to rent one.
Hybrid electric vehicles (HEV), both small and midsized, can be an even better choice, averaging 41 mpg. Cost comparisons show that an HEV can save a heavily travelling city driver nearly $1,000 in fuel costs annually versus a comparably sized conventional gasoline-powered car. Although a 2014 midsized HEV has an average suggested retail price of $28,431, the category has been around long enough to create a market in previously owned vehicles. A used hybrid that is just two years old can cost up to 25 percent less than a new one.
4. Buying American
According to Consumer Reports, many shoppers prefer to buy products made in the USA, but with more than 60 percent of all consumer goods now produced overseas, finding American goods is not always easy.
The good news is that buying American doesn’t mean only buying American made. We back the U.S. economy and jobs when we purchase used items that have been renewed or repurposed by enterprising citizens. Creative reuse supports new and existing businesses that collect, clean, sort, recondition, refurbish, remanufacture, update, refinish, reupholster, repair, tailor, distribute and sell used parts, materials and finished goods.
Sarah Baird, director of outreach and communications of the Center for a New American Dream, an organization working to shift consumption away from wasteful trends, loves the history of used items. She says, “An item that has already lived one life has a story to tell, and is infinitely more interesting than anything newly manufactured.” Another reward is the big savings afforded by previously owned durable goods; not even America’s big-box discount retailers can beat these genuine bargains.
Of course, not everything is available in the used marketplace, but when it makes sense, we can proudly know that our purchases support American ingenuity and workers.
5. Getting Healthy
Going green is healthy in innumerable ways. In addition to driving less, banning toxic products from our household cupboards and dinner plates is another solid place to start on the road to improved well-being for ourselves and the planet.
Toxic consumer products pollute the planet, from manufacture through use and disposal. They aren’t doing us any favors. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that the average human body now contains an estimated 700 industrial compounds, pollutants and other chemicals due to exposure to toxic consumer products and industrial chemicals. After researching proper local disposal of such hazards, replace them on future shopping forays with safer choices. It’s an investment in our health that can save untold pain and money and pay off big time in avoiding health problems ranging from cancer, asthma and chronic diseases to impaired fertility, birth defects and learning disabilities according to the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition.
To reduce exposure to the toxins that are commonly sprayed on conventional crops, select sustainable and organic versions of foods to prepare at home whenever possible. Such choices help keep both our bodies and the environment healthy and can be surprisingly affordable compared with eating out and consuming prepackaged convenience foods.
By substituting whole foods for prepared foods, cooking more meals at home and practicing good eating habits—like eating less meat and downsizing portions—the average person can enjoy high-quality food for $7 to $11 per day. This matches or falls below what the average American daily spends on food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Considering that diet-related diseases can cost afflicted families thousands of dollars a year, better food choices can make us not only healthier, but wealthier, too.
Crissy Trask is the author of Go Green, Spend Less, Live Better. Connect at CrissyTrask.com.