Going Green on the Cheap

You don't have to be rich to help save the planet. Here are 15 ways to live an environmentally friendly lifestyle on a budget.

As energy consumption and gas prices continue to grow, you'll hear a lot about the importance of doing your part to be a friend to the earth. Sure, you can buy a hybrid car, install solar panels on your roof or replace the windows in your home. But these things will all set you back a few thousand dollars or more.

For those of us with more limited means, there are small things we can do every day to trim our energy use. Many are low-cost or free, and some will even save you money. After all, you shouldn't have to be rich to help save the planet. Check out these 15 ways you can live an environmentally friendly lifestyle on a budget.

1. Relight your life. Replacing five incandescent bulbs with compact florescent light bulbs (CFLs) can save you 50% on your annual lighting bill. If every U.S. household did this, it would prevent the release of as much greenhouse gas as removing 8 million cars from the road for a year.

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2. Eat fresh. Buy produce from local farmers rather than at the grocery store. Not only will your foods be fresher, they won't have made a gas-guzzling cross-country journey just to get to you. LocalHarvest lets you search for farms and farmers markets by zip code.

3. Measure your footprint. At Carbonfund.org, you can use their calculator to determine your carbon footprint -- your direct emissions and emissions from everything you consume -- and then do something about it. A donation of just $10 offsets a ton of CO2, by funding their efforts towards renewable energy supplies, energy efficiency and reforestation projects. You even have the option of reducing your carbon footprint to zero ($240 for an individual, $960 for a family). Or, use the calculator to offset the activities in your life that directly emit carbon, such as driving, flying, and/or a party.

4. Use a programmable thermostat. If you own your home, this is a cheap and easy fix to bring down your energy usage. You can get one for about $30 and it can save you more than $100 a year on your energy bills. There's no reason to heat or cool and empty house, so set your thermostat to kick on just when you'll be around. If just one household in 10 did this, the change would prevent more than 17 billion pounds of greenhouse gases, according to the Energy Star Action Guide.

5. Park your car. You may not have enough money to buy a new fuel-efficient hybrid or diesel vehicle, but there's an alternate method of transportation for everyone. Check out your local bus system or subway or look for a carpool at vride.com, Erideshare.com or your local Craigslist. To run short errands near your home, take a power walk or peddle your bike. Use our calculator to see how much riding your bike will save you.

6. Go paperless. By checking your bank account online and signing up for online accounts with creditors from your credit card company to the electric company, you can eliminate the need for paper bills and monthly statements. The rewards are two-fold: Less paper for you to store and you'll save a tree.

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7. Take a volunteer vacation. Instead of hitting the beach in a pricey rental or taking in the European sights, consider a trip to both help the environment and save some dough. Trips with the Sierra Club involve conservation efforts all over the country. Examples of weeklong volunteer vacation offerings include restoring and maintining Civil War battlefields in Virginia ($585), building wildlife-friendly fences in Arizona ($695) and park refurbishment in Utah ($545).

8. Fix drafts. Drafty windows and doors can be fixed (or at least upgraded) with a can of caulk and weather stripping from the hardware store. The cost should run under $100 and can instantly save you money, while improving the comfort and durability of your home.

9. Keep your wheels in good condition. When you have to drive, roll in the right direction by inflating your car tires. Pumping them up can improve your gas mileage by more than 3%, saving 7 cents per gallon.

10. Shop for a star. When buying a new home electronics or appliances, check out the models that have the Energy Star seal of approval. In the average home, 40% of the power used for electronics is consumed while they are turned off; Energy Star models use as much as 50% less energy. Energy-efficient doesn't equal no-name brands -- find products by Panasonic, Sony, Magnavox and more at www.energystar.gov. You'll trim your consumption and save money too: Simply choosing an Energy Star-rated product over one that's not saved Americans $14 billion on their utility bills last year and saved enough energy to avoid greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 25 million cars.

11. Shower for the world. Replace your water-hogging showerhead with one that puts out less. The standard showerhead spews 4.5 gallons-per-minute, but by replacing it with a 2.5-GPM head, you could save 20,000 gallons of water per year. You don't have to reduce your shower to a trickle either -- deluxe Oxygenics showerheads start at $22 at HomeDepot.com.

12. Fill 'er up. Run full loads of clothes and dishes. Most of the energy used by dishwashers is to heat a set amount of water, so running smaller loads wastes both energy and water. Air dry dishes for added energy savings.

13. Get off mailing lists. Use the toll-free number on junk mail and ask that your name be removed from listings. Have online retailers email you instead of sending catalogs. Almost half of all catalogs are never opened, but nearly 62 million trees are destroyed and 28 billion gallons of water are used to produce them each year.

14. Clean greener. Find earth-friendly cleaning products at online retailers such as Mother Nature and ShopNatural. Many of the products they sell contain no phosphates, no animal ingredients, no chlorine, and no petroleum and aren't tested on animals. They're a bit pricier than your regular cleaning products, but only by a few dollars.

15. Plant it forward. There are a million ideas of ways to recycle, reuse and otherwise be creative with everyday materials. Check out ideas on The Green Guide.

Jessica L. Anderson
Associate Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Anderson has been with Kiplinger since January 2004, when she joined the staff as a reporter. Since then, she's covered the gamut of personal finance issues—from mortgages and credit to spending wisely—and she heads up Kiplinger's annual automotive rankings. She holds a BA in journalism and mass communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was the 2012 president of the Washington Automotive Press Association and serves on its board of directors. In 2014, she was selected for the North American Car and Truck Of the Year jury. The awards, presented at the Detroit Auto Show, have come to be regarded as the most prestigious of their kind in the U.S. because they involve no commercial tie-ins. The jury is composed of nationally recognized journalists from across the U.S. and Canada, who are selected on the basis of audience reach, experience, expertise, product knowledge, and reputation in the automotive community.