People have a lot of opinions about money.
In LearnVest's “Money Mic” series, they hand over the podium to someone with a strong opinion on a financial topic. These are the speaker's views, not LearnVest's or ours, but we welcome your responses.
Today, 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.
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
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
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
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
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!
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.
As told to Alden Wicker.
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