Mother Earth News Blogs > Nature and Environment

Nature and Environment

News about the health and beauty of the natural world that sustains us.

How to Save a Million Dollars With a Sustainable Lifestyle

Black FridaySome federal agencies refer to U.S. households as “consumer units,” an insult that should incite acts of consumer disobedience rather than bargain-day stampedes. Yet, sadly, the term is all too appropriate. Most American homes are codependent with a lifestyle-support-system of roads, wires, pipes, lines of credit, satellites, and a collective identity determined by the supply side. Yet just about any household budget offers continuing opportunities for creating a healthier, less expensive lifestyle that’s also easier on the environment.  Because changing circumstances will demand it, we have to re-think the values that shape our decisions and rearrange our priorities to match those values. In other words, reach a new agreement about what constitutes a life well lived. We can imagine a symbolic “flag” flying over millions of homes, signifying that people are assertively changing the patterns of their lives, not just the pieces.

Rather than consumer units, our homes can be units of creativity and productivity that provide a higher percentage of what we need. For example, we can produce rather than consume entertainment, with house concerts or poker games in our own living rooms and backyards.  We can be as bold as the current First Family, replacing a chunk of lawn with miniature fruit trees and rows of vegetables. The food we eat can supply both vitality and monetary savings from avoided drugs and expensive medical treatments.  (Forty percent of the most prevalent diseases are related to diet, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, allergies, and depression). Some of our transportation needs can be fueled by carbohydrates from the garden rather than by hydrocarbons from Middle East oil wells.  By making a few well-researched choices about energy and water efficiency, we can cut our utility bills by a third. With this new, more sensible way of thinking, we can easily imagine avoiding a million dollars of expenses per household over the course of a lifetime, and enjoying many more hours of leisure.

How a Sustainable Lifestyle Generates More Than a Million Dollars of Value

* Thousands of dollars a year avoided for purchases, maintenance costs, and loan interest payments for new cars, gadgets, and clothes you no longer covet because you’ve found other values to be passionate about;

* Thousands avoided in interest payments because you have very little debt;

*  Energy, water, and resource bills cut in half because your car is more efficient; you live in a more compact, resource-efficient house; and the things you need are close by;

* Expensive, resort-style vacations you don’t need because you’ve learned it’s cheaper to create your own, culturally rich vacations; and also because you’re more content being home than you were before you changed your life;

* Reduced food costs by cutting restaurant dining in half, since the food is usually pre-cooked and served in huge portions that make us feel bloated; and by preparing food at home that is higher in nutritional value (and flavor) so less food is needed.

* Reduced lawn care, day care, wrinkle care because you convert your lawn to a vegetable garden; you and your spouse alternate staying home with the kids, and a less stressful lifestyle results in fewer wrinkles (and less concern about them).

* Entertainment costs you don’t spend for spectator sports and home movie theaters because active entertainment (playing sports, talking with neighbors, practicing a craft, playing an instrument) is really far more engaging and stimulating.

* Diet programs, equipment, books, tapes, classes, psychiatrists, hypnotists and over the counter drugs not necessary because you’re not overweight;

* No dental problems from chronic soda, candy and cigarette consumption. Foods like yogurt and frequent exercise have been proven to prevent gum disease that can cost five or ten thousand dollars to treat;

* Lower mortgage payments and less consumer spending after selling a house larger than you need. All remaining debt erased with the profit from selling the house).

Though a million dollars in savings might seem far-fetched to some readers, blogger and self-made millionaire Jen Smith can easily substantiate that estimate with transportation savings alone. She writes a blog called Millionaire Mommy Next Door and speaks on national TV about financial independence. In a recent post she asked her readers, “Would You Ditch a Car for $1,000,000?”  She begins by telling her own story. “22 years ago, my husband and I sold one of our cars to pay for our wedding and honeymoon. We intended to replace the sold vehicle eventually — after we built up our credit score so we could get a car loan — but as time went by, we discovered that sharing one car between the two of us was no big deal. We learned to carpool, drop one another off, take turns, group errands, walk, bike, take the bus, work from an in-home office, go places together. Surprisingly, 22 years later, we still share just one car.”

CyclistThen Jen does the math: the average American spends $9,369, excluding loan payments, to drive 15,000 miles, according to the American Automobile Association. (This sum includes fuel, routine maintenance, tires, insurance, license and registration, loan finance charges and depreciation costs). Jen asserts that by choosing alternatives to the standard 2.28 vehicles per household, her family has already saved a small fortune. And if the family continues to share one car instead of owning two for the next 29 years, invests their compounded annual savings at 8 percent return per year, they’ll save an additional one million dollars. The point is not to “give up” the good life to save money, but rather to redefine the meaning of the good life, in terms of overall value rather than just symbolic stuff. 

Photos by David Wann 

t brandt
1/8/2012 12:11:46 PM

I didn't say we don't need a social security system, I said our Social Security System is extremely inefficient and suggest that it needs to be dismanted and a new, smart one put in its place. Right now, it takes five workers contributing to support one beneficiary. According to my suggestion, one worker could support five. Something's rotten in DC and it could be the voters who don't look at the problems or solutions very deeply.

david wann
1/7/2012 10:26:07 PM

These are great, experience-based comments. Thanks! The heart of what I wanted to say in The New Normal (from which this piece is excerpted) is that with prevention, precision, and participation, we can AVOID the need to spend 100,000 hours per lifetime at jobs that don't inspire us. The way we come out ahead is not needing the $1 million, and instead harvesting health, time affluence, and connection with things that are real. Yes, it's true that the economy of the future will be radically different, and that's a good thing. If we need less money collectively, let the *##*@@$ GDP shrink! My favorite mantra is Let's move away from deadlines and dying species, toward lifelines and living wealth.

bruce morstad
1/4/2012 11:23:30 AM

We have been living this life for the past ten years, and have found that we can now live on one income rather than two. Ten years ago this was totally out of the question. The only downside of this lifestyle is that we are the only ones in our area living it, and we really would like to be able to share this with other people. People sharing this lifestyle is key.

bruce morstad
1/4/2012 11:23:28 AM

Move to the country where life is cheaper.

colleen marie-blanchefleur whalen
1/3/2012 3:34:32 AM

I don't blow money on ANY of the above mentioned items - don't own a car, don't own a huge house that is an energy glutton and I'm still broke - so how do I save that million dollars the article promied?

josephine elmstrom
1/3/2012 12:46:02 AM

I always told my kids it was cheaper to brush and floss everday and get the six-month cleaning rather than wait until you have to get a cavity filled, or worse a root canal.

marci wedel
1/2/2012 5:52:47 PM

Great ideas, but I do question the math. Sharing a car does not eliminate the whole annual cost of a second car. Many of those miles still get driven - gas and maintenance still apply to those miles. The 8% compound interest is also not a reality for most of us. In order to get that kind of return, you need to have a lot more capital than most of us will ever see. Also, a good portion of us don't own a house bigger than what we need that we can sell to pay off debts. Some don't own a home. And, if you try to sell these days, many find themselves having to sell short, not getting a profit substantial enough to pay off other debts. In other words, you have to have the stuff in order to be able to give it up.

gina bisaillon
1/2/2012 4:57:25 PM

@R Brandt: Social Security is a kind of insurance: what you don't get back is used for other insured people. That's what it's like to live in a decent kind of place, where we look out for each other, not just ourselves. I do have one question: where can I get 8% return on my investment? Right now it's more like 1%. Thank you for a great article and keep up the good work!

t brandt
12/29/2011 5:36:38 PM

Talking about saving money, this is also a good opportunity to point out how stupid our Soc Sec system is. That average worker will pay almost a half million dollars into the system over his lifetime. IF he lives 20 yrs into retirement (only 50% live that long) he will get back only about $425,000, paid out in newer, less valuable dollars than those he paid in. If he dies early, any remaining money in "his" account goes back to Big Brother. Had he been allowed to keep his own money and invest it conservatively in, say, the Dow (which has returned ~5%/yr over the past 120 yrs), he would have 2 1/2 MILLION dollars at age 65, and whenever he dies, remaining money would go to his heirs (if we get rid of the Death Tax)....They say "a penny for your thoughts" but it's "here's my 2 cents worth.." Who's gettin' that extra penny?

robert johnson
12/28/2011 3:19:42 PM

if we avoided using oil and the Arabs went out of business, I doubt too many Americans would shed a tear. I think the point of MEN is to be self-sufficient. I would what percentage of MEN readers work. Probably a lot are retired and not concerned about the unemployment rate. Having said that, of course you are right, my job depends on people consuming.

t brandt
12/27/2011 10:04:00 PM

Reality check: average American income $50,000/yr. Over a lifetime (45yrs of working life) that's about 2 1/4 million bucks. If each household cut out a million bucks, that would mean they would be spending about half of what they spend now. Sounds great, BUT: that means the GNP (the natl. economy) would be cut in half too, ie- we'd all be living like Third World people...For every dollar you avoid spending, someone takes a dollar cut in pay.... Some of us realized long ago that the best things in life are free, but if everyone knew that, the system would fail.... Noah didn't try to save everybody.

tatiana stone
12/27/2011 7:38:22 PM

This is SO inspiring! I will continue to work towards this kind of lifestyle everyday

sandra davis
12/22/2011 8:41:59 PM

Most folks are just amazed at the savings.