Living on less doesn't automatically mean living in a small house, but this Arkansas couple decided it was a perfect fit for them. They're quite happy together in a 480-square-foot cabin.
PHOTO: KEVIN PIEPER
These days, many people are getting inspired by the ideas of simple living, self-reliance, and living on less. Not only are more people looking for ways to go green, but in these uncertain economic times, it just makes sense to try to stretch every dollar as far as possible. Here at MOTHER EARTH NEWS, we believe that saving money, protecting the environment, and living a satisfying life all go together. It’s all about making the most of the resources you already have and finding joy and satisfaction in “doing it yourself.” Below you’ll find a collection of our best advice for simple living, including ideas for how to trim your budget and, in the process, enjoy better food, consume less, and be healthier and happier, too!
A Thrifty, DIY Lifestyle
First, let’s consider some general strategies for simpler living. Much of living on less is figuring out what you really need and want, and what you’re better off doing without. And when there is something you need, it’s worth shopping around to find the best deal! Comparison shopping is always a good idea, whether you’re buying groceries, gas, or general household items. It’s even more crucial when you start looking at services such as insurance, banking, or a cell phone plan, because there can be so many optional extras and such a wide range of prices. Make sure you’re not paying for services you don’t really want or need.
It also pays to discover your handy side. Before spending, get in the habit of asking the question, could I do or make this myself? Many frequently purchased items are surprisingly easy and inexpensive to make at home — including most household cleaning supplies and toiletries. Consider mending your own clothes, changing the oil in your car, fixing plumbing problems, and cutting hair for yourself or any willing family members (especially kids).
Another good idea is to ask yourself whether you really need to buy something new, or whether you can get it secondhand — especially furniture, clothing or tools. Buying secondhand at thrift shops, consignment stores and yard sales saves money and conserves resources, too. For online scavenging try eBay, Craigslist and Freecycle. These days there are more options than ever to buy used or nearly new and save big bucks!
Look for opportunities to borrow, barter, or rent instead of buying. For example, you may need a pickup truck a few times a year, but do you really need to own a truck? If you can borrow or rent a truck for those few occasions you can save a bundle! Many tools can be rented, too. Where available, take advantage of tool-sharing programs, or even consider organizing a tool co-op. Visit your local library to borrow books, movies and music. The library is also a good place to get free Internet access, as are coffeehouses and other businesses that offer free Wi-Fi. And finally, when you do decide to buy something new, keep an eye open for sales, coupons, and rebates.
Cut Your Food Bills
Let’s look at some specific areas of household budgets. This Department of Labor chart breaks down the typical American budget by category. While food isn’t the largest item on this list of expenses, it’s a good place to start thinking about cutting costs, because you can actually save money while improving the quality of your food. How is this possible? Because eating healthy, homemade, and homegrown foods is cheaper than eating out or purchasing processed foods.
Starting a garden is a good first step. It’s amazing how much you can grow in even a small gardening space. When the Dervaes family measured the output of their one tenth of an acre in Pasadena, Calif., they discovered they had raised more than 6,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables in a single year! Planting a kitchen garden is a great strategy for greener living because it’s an efficient use of resources. You simply can’t get more local than food from your own backyard. There are other benefits, too — homegrown produce can be picked at the peak of ripeness, for maximum flavor and nutrition. And then there are the money savings. We were amazed when garden writer Rosalind Creasy reported that her 10-by-10-foot garden produced more than $700 worth of organic food in one season!
If you already garden, you know some garden supplies can be pricey, but you don’t have to spend a fortune to grow your own food. One way to save is to forgo commercial fertilizers and use free, homegrown options such as grass clippings, shredded leaves, or compost. It pays to start from seeds whenever possible instead of buying transplants, and you can stretch those dollars further by organizing a seed swap with other gardeners. You can even learn how to save your own seeds from plants you grow yourself. Tomatoes are one simple crop to start saving seeds from and beans are another.
You can raise your own meat, eggs and dairy products, too. Even in urban and suburban areas, local ordinances often allow you to keep a few backyard chickens. If you live in a rural area and have more land, you might also consider cattle, goats, sheep, pigs or ducks — whichever animals best fit your available space and resources. The value of the meat and dairy products you produce will usually add up to far more than you’re spending. Homesteader Gwen Roland tracked her expenses for raising a flock of meat chickens and calculated she was spending just $1 per pound for delicious, free-range meat.
Another way to save on your food bills is to change your cooking and grocery shopping habits. Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant suggests that many families can cut their food bills by half or more by taking these simple steps:
- Cook at home, from scratch when possible. Make big batches and use leftovers.
- Take your own lunches and snacks to work or school.
- Eat produce that is in season and locally plentiful.
- Buy cooperatively, in bulk or directly from producers.
- At grocery stores, shop the sales and use coupons.
- Build your diet primarily around plants and whole grains, eating meat more sparingly and choosing less expensive cuts when you do.
It’s also a good idea to hone your cooking skills and learn more about brewing and home food preservation. Consider drying, freezing, canning and fermenting your garden harvest. (See Save Money on Groceries.) Learn to cook some new foods from scratch to enjoy both terrific flavor and money savings. We’ve found that if you bake your own bread, you’ll only spend about 50 cents per loaf, and homemade cheeses cost about a third of what you’d pay in the grocery store. If you drink alcohol, you can save money by brewing your own wine, beer or cider, and the taste is fabulous, too. Yep, “housework” can pay off very nicely!
Getting There Greener
According to the Department of Labor chart, the average American family spends more than $2,000 on gas each year. Wouldn’t it be nice to save some of that money? Using less gas is also a great green choice because you’re reducing your contribution to global warming, smog and other forms of air pollution.
When shopping for a new car, be sure to seek out the most fuel-efficient vehicle that meets your needs. Even minor mpg differences between models can amount to serious savings over time. For example, if you really need a truck, choosing the 16-mpg model over the 14-mpg model can save as much as $400 in gas annually. When driving, certain driving habits can greatly reduce your fuel consumption — the big ones are maintaining proper tire pressure, braking less, and slowing down. For example, depending on your specific car, lower speeds can save you 20 to 66 cents per gallon of gas.
When you can, drive less! Not only will you save gas, but you’ll also save on tolls, vehicle upkeep, and parking costs. One option is to carpool to work — the more the merrier and the greater the savings. For shorter distances, bike and walk whenever possible, which will also keep you healthier and can reduce stress. And if you’re in the position to do it, consider ditching one of your family cars, or even going completely car-free. You’ll be saying goodbye to car payments, repair bills and car insurance, too.
Housing is an item that looms large in most people’s budgets. If you’re looking for a new place, a simple strategy is to start by limiting your square footage. You’re likely to pay less for a small house, and you can save big on your energy bills. For truly small-space living, the book Tiny Houses by Lester Walker is an inspiration, as are Shay Salomon’s Little House on a Small Planet and Jay Shafer’s company, Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. Portable and low-cost tipis and yurts offer other minimalist housing options, especially for rural living. Even if you have no inclination to live in a smaller space, you may want to take a look at Sarah Susanka’s book, The Not So Big House, which outlines the elements of a well-designed house that feels spacious and looks beautiful, no matter what the square footage.
If you have the know-how and enthusiasm, you can save considerably by building your own house . If you build in stages, as time and money allow, you may even be able to forgo a mortgage. We’ve written about several homeowners who went the DIY route and built beautiful homes at minimal cost. One breathtaking example is contributing editor Steve Maxwell’s home on Manitoulin Island in Ontario. Stone by stone, board by board, Maxwell and his wife, Mary, built their two-story Victorian home by hand and completely mortgage free. The couple estimates their out-of pocket building expenses at only $35 per square foot. Another great example is Les and Jane Oke, also in Ontario, who built their home for only about $5,000 in 1994. They not only did the construction work on the house, but they cut and milled their own lumber using trees from their own property, which lowered their costs substantially.
If you’re not comfortable building your own home from scratch, consider whether there are parts of the process you feel comfortable tackling yourself, and then go for it! The more work you do, the more you can save. You might choose to build a conventional stick-frame home, but many DIY builders decide to go with natural materials. Traditional natural building styles include log cabins and timber frame houses, straw bale homes, and adobe and cob buildings. These building methods don’t require much in the way of high-tech equipment, the skills are relatively easy to learn, and you can harvest some of the materials — such as stone, clay and straw bales — from your own property.
Cheaper Home Heating
Home heating is another major expense, and in the long term, it’s likely to get even more expensive as fossil fuel prices rise. You can reduce your energy use (and your carbon footprint) by making your home more energy efficient — especially through simple air sealing measures and by adding insulation. (See Best Home Energy Improvements.)
If you heat your home with a furnace, you may be able to save substantially by choosing a more efficient model. We calculate that for a house with 2,500 square feet, replacing an old gas furnace that’s only 60 percent efficient with a new, 90 percent efficient model would save as much as $1,200 a year! With a more efficient oil furnace, you could save as much as $1,600 a year.
Another way to save on your heating costs is to take advantage of solar energy — a free, renewable source of heat. You can buy a commercial solar space heater, or save even more money by building it yourself. Contributing editor Gary Reysa has built two solar heaters. The first was a solar air-heating system that he uses for his workshop. It cost only $350 in materials and paid for itself in a year through avoided fuel bills. The second was a solar water-heating system for his house that is flexible enough to work in almost any home.
Another variation on solar heating is to incorporate passive solar features into your home — for example, putting more windows on the south side of your home where they will capture sun in the winter. If you’re building a new home or planning a remodeling project, passive solar design is a great way to reduce your energy bills without any additional costs to you.
In the right circumstances, heating with wood can save you money, too. Wood is a renewable fuel, and if you harvest it yourself, it’s often absolutely free. If you do opt to buy a woodstove, look for an EPA-certified model to be sure you’re getting an efficient and clean-burning stove.
Slash Your Electric Bills
For more energy savings, let’s consider electricity. When shopping for appliances and electronics, always look for the Energy Star label to select the most efficient models. When looking for other ways to conserve energy, pay particular attention to your home’s biggest electricity users: air conditioners, refrigerators, and water heaters (which are sometimes gas, but often electric).
Let’s look at air conditioning first. It pays to turn off your air conditioner whenever possible, or to turn up your thermostat as much as you comfortably can during the summer months. For every degree you turn up your thermostat, you cut 7 to 10 percent from your cooling costs. Ceiling fans, whole house fans and portable floor fans are all good options for making your home feel cooler and all will burn much less electricity than an air conditioner. You also can keep your home comfortable in the summer using natural cooling strategies. Here’s where passive solar design comes in again. When remodeling or designing a house, you can use these strategies to decide the best places for windows and overhangs. Also consider paint colors that will reflect heat, and where to plant trees and vines for the best shade (see passive cooling example in photo).
For water heaters, one option is to switch to an energy-efficient tankless water heater. Another possibility is to install a solar water heater, which can pay for itself in just a few years when you factor in available incentives. You can save even more by building your own solar water heating system. You’ll find many DIY plans online. For refrigerators and freezers, your best bet is usually just to choose an efficient model. Also, do you have a second fridge at home? If you keep an old fridge in the basement to keep soda cold, it can really add to your electric bills. To find out whether it’s time to recycle an old refrigerator, check out the handy refrigerator retirement calculator on the Energy Star website. Look around your house and you’ll find many other ways to save on electricity. Purchasing and using a home energy monitor, such as a Kill-a-Watt, can help you find the biggest savings. Some of the simplest conservation measures include turning off the lights when you leave the room, or adjusting your computer’s settings so it goes into sleep mode more often. All together a lot of simple steps can help you slash your utility bills.
So are you ready to start living on less? All the suggestions in this article are just starting places, and you’re sure to find many other ideas you want to explore. Think big! How would your life look if your grocery or utility bills were cut in half, or if you didn’t have a mortgage? It’s amazing what you can accomplish with a DIY attitude and the desire to live a simpler, saner and more sustainable life.