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Simple Ways to Help the Environment Without Spending Ton of Money

Going green can be intimidating if you’re a college student and on a tight budget because so often saving money and buying sustainably are pitted against one another.

 How many times you have stood in the supermarket staring down two bins of apples, one labeled organic, the other not, and you realize organic products are more expensive.

This dilemma of choice between the “green” option and the more affordable one isn’t limited to food shopping — it extends to most every aspect of consumerism. Do you want to spend a buck on the deodorant with palm oil in it that’s contributing to deforestation, or do you want to spend four times that on a brand that stands by sustainability? 

If money weren’t an issue, there’d be no question and we all would always opt for the greener alternative. While that would be wonderful if we could all live that way, there are ways we can live green right here and now. In fact, here are some simple tips to help you live green on a budget.


  • Use what you have. Let’s be honest. Consumerism is extremely wasteful and hard on the environment. Think of all of the resources needed to make a single item you buy at a store, from the raw materials grown or created to the marketing, packaging, shipping, and selling of said product. One of the greenest things you can do is choose to buy less stuff. Sure, that organic cotton T-shirt made with environmentally sensitive dyes is eco-friendly, but unless you truly NEED new a new shirt, the most eco-friendly option is not to buy one at all, no matter how environmentally responsible the item or the company that made it may be.
  • Buy secondhand. If you do need something, buying secondhand is always better than buying new, even if that new product is eco-friendly. Buying secondhand uses existing resources instead of tapping into new ones. There are many things that you can buy gently used, and this option will typically always save you money as well. I’m a big fan of craigslist, ebay and nextdoor app for finding furniture, tools, lawn equipment and other miscellaneous items. Garage sales, flea markets, antique malls, consignment shops (great for clothing and accessories) and thrift stores can be amazing resources for inexpensive and truly unique fashions, home accessories, furniture, toys and other odds and ends. Next time you think you need something, ask yourself, “Does the item I need already exist?” or “Could I buy this used?” Another bonus to these scavenger hunts is that everything you buy has a story and memory associated with it.
  • Borrow. If you don’t already have it, can’t buy it used, or don’t really need the item more than occasionally or for a one-time project, considering just borrowing or renting it. How often do you really use a ladder, power washer or leaf blower? Don’t forget the library, a great place to borrow books, movies, and music.
  • Stop buying disposable goods.  If you are regularly buying single-use disposable items, such as bottled water, disposable toilet scrubbers and the like, consider investing those same dollars into a more permanent solution to save money and decrease waste that goes to landfills. Cloth napkins, kitchen towels, and reusable water bottles are inexpensive, eco-friendly and they save you hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars in the long run.
  • Unplug and turn off. When plugged into an outlet, many electronics are using power even when they’re off. You could invest in an expensive “smart” power strip to prevent this, or for free, you can simply make it a habit to unplug your electronics whenever you aren’t using them.
  • Opt out of mailing lists and switch to paperless billing. This will save you time, paper waste, and postage. Each time you buy something from a website or catalog, request that company not share your address with anyone else and say you do not want to be added to their mailing list. When junk mail comes in, collect it. Once a week, spend a few minutes calling the company from which it came and ask to be removed from their mailing list. And don’t forget about officially opting out of credit offers (it’s free and easy!) to prevent even more junk mail from coming your way. When you receive “privacy notices” from companies you are in business with, read it. Most of them require you to call or write-in with a request for them to not share your address with other mail-marketing companies. Lastly, most bills can be sent to you and paid online these days (but look out for hidden fees). Schedule paperless billing as often as possible to reduce paper waste and save on checks, envelopes and stamps.
  • Control your portions. There are enough calories available from food in the United States alone to meet the needs of twice our population. Yes, this prevalence of easy, cheap calories does contribute to an obesity-promoting environment, but it also wastes a considerable amount of resources. Eating less not only helps you manage your weight; it can prevent food from going to waste and prevent overeating, both of which save money and resources.
  • Buy fewer packaged foods. Those little plastic produce bags for your apples and broccoli—totally optional. When possible, forgo food packaging or try to make some of your purchasing decisions based on foods that use less packaging. This most often will apply to processed foods that you often don’t need to eat anyway. When you do, choose the larger sizes in lieu of small packages or single serving items to decrease packaging waste. Yogurt, beverages, snack foods, cereals and more all come in larger economy sizes, so choose those whenever you can.
  • Less driving. Even if you drive a hybrid car, the emissions from the cars that bring you to work, school and home again are terrible for the environment. For people who live in cities with robust public transportation, it may be easier and cheaper to not even own a car. For those who are unable to rely on public transportation, do your best to minimize the amount you drive. Try walking or biking to places nearby and carpooling when you can to cut down on emissions.


  • Reuse and repurpose what you already have. This may mean rethinking what you currently view as trash. Every bag that enters my house, be it a bread bag, shopping bag or take-out bag is saved and reused before it is thrown away or recycled. All of the above can be used as pick-up bags for your dog, countertop compost bags before you take your scraps outside, lunch sacks, produce bags—you name it. Don’t want to invest in reusable cloth bags for the grocery store? Then reuse the plastic and paper ones you get from the store for free, stocking them in your car and bringing them into the store with you each week. Paper bags can also be turned inside out and used as wrapping paper or flipped over and used as scrap paper. You can also keep and reuse boxes or padded envelopes for future shipping needs (just peel off or black out the labels or put a new label on top).
  • Make something new out of something old. I recently made my own washable “hankies” out of a large piece of fabric that used to be curtains in my old apartment. I’ve made cleaning cloths out of ragged T-shirts and boxer shorts, and bottle cozies out of mismatched or holey tube socks. With a little craftiness or the help from a crafty friend, you can turn your old bedspread into pillow shams—or anything else your heart desires.
  • Donate, sell or give away before you throw away. Throwing something away should always be your last resort. Try first to give it a new home, donate it to an organization or school (think tax write off!), or sell it in a yard sale, online ad or consignment shop.
  • If it breaks, repair instead of replace. Back in the day, we used to sew buttons, mend holes, and fix broken appliances or cars. These days, we toss our broken items and buy something new. Just as buying secondhand is more earth-friendly than buying new, fixing a broken item is the way to go—for your pocketbook, too. Taking good care of the items you own can also ensure that they’ll have a longer useful life, reducing waste in landfills and saving you some green.


  • Recycle—everything. Most of us do our part to recycle plastic containers, paper and cardboard each week, but many easily recyclable items fall through the cracks and into the trash. Make a commitment to recycle everything you can. There are many items that need special treatment to be recycled: no. 5 plastics (typical for yogurt containers), electronic waste (computers, monitors, TVs, etc.), steel, latex paint, tires, used motor oil, hazardous chemicals and more. Some of these things should never be thrown away because they can contaminate the water we drink, for example. Others will never break down in landfills and can emit chemical contaminants into the atmosphere. If you can’t reuse or repurpose these items, a quick Google search will help you find how to recycle pretty much anything. Most cities have hazardous waste drop offs or pickups throughout the year. Some even have special recycling centers. Do your part to collect these items and t hen make just one trip a year to dispose of them properly.
  • Compost. I think of composting as recycling since it turns what would otherwise be trash into something valuable and useful: a nutrient rich soil for your lawn, garden and flowers. If you think sending your food scraps to a landfill is virtually the same thing, think again. Composting isn’t gross, dirty, stinky or an attraction for animals or pests. It’s a completely natural and clean process that you can do in your own backyard without spending a dime.


  • Start your own garden. If you’re looking for ways to save in the kitchen and ensure your produce comes without pesticides and other chemicals, consider starting your own garden. Some basics like lettuce and tomatoes are easy for beginners. If you don’t have the space for growing, find a local community garden where you can plant.
  • Shop your local farmers market. Gardening isn’t for everyone, but if you’re still looking for fresh, clean produce, your local farmers market might be a great place to check. Produce is often less expensive than at grocery stores, plus you get to support local business and help shrink your carbon footprint.

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