Eight Money Saving New Year’s Resolutions That Also Save The Planet

The Path Towards Money Saving New Year's Resolutions. Credit: Patrick Fore
The Path Towards Money Saving New Year’s Resolutions. Credit: Patrick Fore

It’s 2017 and that means it’s time for some money saving New Year’s resolutions. All of these are free or cheap to do so they’ll save cash quick. Having some more dough won’t hurt your bank account, and the energy they’ll save will help the planet too. Doing everything below could save you thousands of dollars a year, but even if you only do the Good option for a few you’ll still save a significant amount of money and energy. So what are you waiting for? Read on and get saving in 2017!

1. Only heat when you’ll really notice it

  • Good: Turn thermostat down to 58 °F whenever you leave the house
  • Better: Turn thermostat down to 58 °F whenever you go to bed
  • Best: Program your thermostat to to drop to 58 °F whenever you normally leave for work or go to bed.

Bonus: Set it to 55 °F or below.  Test this by taking a thermometer to the coldest parts of your house that have pipes on a cold night while the thermostat is set lower than 58 °F and confirming that it stays above 45 °F near your pipes so you know they won’t freeze.

2. Adapt to a cooler indoor temperature in the winter

  • Good: Set thermostat 2 degrees below its current setting while at home
  • Better: Set thermostat to 68 °F while at home
  • Best: Set thermostat to 64 °F or lower while at home

Note: Wearing a sweater, fleece, or thermal underwear makes this much easier.

Note 2: Leaving your thermostat the same all day is not more efficient, here’s a detailed explanation why.

3. Reduce meat consumption

  • Good: Eat less beef
  • Better: Eat less dairy
  • Best:  Eat less lamb, pork, and chicken

Note: Proteins are expensive and Americans get way more than we need, so eating more fiber and less protein will save you money and help the planet.

4. Reduce car use

  • Good: Bike or walk when you go shopping
  • Better: Carpool to work/school
  • Best: Bike/Walk/Bus to work/school

Bonus: Get a friend to bike/walk with you.

5. Increase lighting efficiency

  • Good: Replace porch lights with LED bulbs
  • Better: Replace outdoor flood lights with LED bulbs
  • Best: Replace all lights in home with LED bulbs

Note: LEDs put less heat in your house than incandescent bulbs, so they save the most when you’re running the air conditioner (read more here). Outdoor bulbs aren’t helping heat your house in the winter so they’re the first ones to replace now. When summer rolls around you’ll save more by having LEDs inside your house. For some reason Lowe’s has had cheaper LEDs than anyone else for the last few years, sometimes less than a dollar per bulb. At these prices, replacing an incandescent with a LED will pay for itself in under 200 hours of use without even factoring in air conditioner savings. If you have the bulb on 4 hours a day, payback is less than 50 days.

6. Save water, especially hot water

Note: It takes a lot of energy to heat water, so you’ll save money faster if you reduce hot water usage than if you reduce cold.

7. Reduce paper waste

Bonus: Set up clean and dirty rag buckets in the kitchen to make washing easier.

8. Purchase mindfully

  • Good: Bring reusable bags shopping
  • Better: Try and buy products that promote sustainability or use less packaging
  • Best: Buy less stuff in general.  Go a day, week, month or even a year buying nothing but groceries.

A lot of people are scared by what 2017 will bring, but these simple money saving New Year’s resolutions can make it a lot better. Whether you fully accept the science on climate change, or your political bedrock beliefs prevent you from doing so, we can all agree that wasting money sucks. Why spend an extra dollar on energy that you don’t really need to use? Even the resolutions above that cost money (like replacing incandescent light bulbs with LEDs) are so cheap that they’ll have paid for themselves in just a few months. These resolutions save money so fast that they make sense for everyone, whether you’re renting or you own your home. True, building these resolutions into your life will take some work, but if you don’t think 2017 will be a year that calls for some financial badassity, you haven’t been paying attention.

Matt Herndon
Environmental Blogger at Rampant Discourse
Earnest pragmatist. Non-theist ascetic. Data aficionado. Amicable skeptic. Matt is a new father who's spent too much time debating whether the plastic box his spinach came in is the perfect first birthday present for his baby, or just a good one.

This article has 7 Comments

  1. Great suggestions. I had a few questions I was hoping you could answer:
    1) Does setting the thermostat to leave the house warmer/cooler when nobody is home or during the night save energy? I’ve heard that it’s more efficient to just leave the house at a constant temperature so the heat/AC can just work at a regular level instead of working overtime to “catch-up” in the morning or when people get home from work. Is that just a myth? We’re going to be in the market for a new heating and cooling system this year. Anything in particular we should be looking for?
    2) Are re-usable grocery bags really better for the environment? There are a lot of articles out there which claim the answer isn’t as clear cut when taking into account that plastic bags can be re-used as liners for trash cans at home and that the carbon footprint of canvas bags are pretty substantial. Also, freakonomics had a podcast where they discussed the danger of re-usable bags containing bacteria if not washed between uses (http://freakonomics.com/2010/09/30/the-downside-of-reusable-grocery-bags/) and that would seem to make them less environmentally friendly as well.

  2. Hmmm, how do I stand up to your scrutiny?

    1) It’s tough for us to do this one since my wife stays home with a child all day. We do lower the thermostat at night, though, although it’s not as low as 58. I think like 62.

    2) Between “Better” and “Best.” I just recently adjusted our normal temperature down to 66 degrees and we all wear sweaters or robes along with slippers or socks.

    3) “Better”. We already don’t eat much beef simply because of cost but the carbon footprint repercussions are nice. My wife is trying to cut out most of her dairy to decrease some potential food allergies. But we still love cheese. We’ve talked about instituting a “Meatless Monday” dinner at least once a week.

    4) Living in the suburbs can make this tough. And considering my office is near an airport and a major mall there aren’t many areas within traditional biking/walking distance. I’ve discussed this issue with you privately, and for now I’m settling for just keeping our driving to a minimum. Maybe when spring returns and we get bikes out of the shed I’ll investigate more biking for things like groceries, the library, and tee ball.

    5) “Best”. All our indoor lights are LED bulbs. Well, except the bathroom vanities which BGE upgraded from incandescent to CFL for free. We don’t have any external lights except our porch light, which will be replaced with an LED once it burns out.

    6) “Best”. We already wash everything on cold and we hang dry everything except towels and blankets (it would just take too long) using racks in our basement. BGE installed some sort of low flow shower head in every bathroom, again for free. And we both take short showers. I just timed this morning, singing 99 Bottles of Beer and turned off the water as I reach 72. By my rough estimate that’s about 3.15 minutes, and that included waiting for the water to get warm.

    7) Mixed results. We have a bin for clean bibs and towels in the dining room along with a bin for dirty ones (white for clean, black for dirty; not some racial commentary, just black won’t show the mess as much). But we still use paper towels as napkins. However, we do recycle our hand towels and wash clothes as rags for wiping up spills and such. This has also helped us pare down our wide array of “good” towels. Not sure I’ll ever sell the wife on using a handkerchief instead of tissues…

    8) Some “Good”, some “Best”. We definitely use re-usable shopping bags. Although as Paul mentioned, we do still occasionally get plastic bags for kitty litter scooping (when I don’t have an empty litter container, that is) and paper bags to contain our paper recycling. We don’t purposefully buy products for sustainability, though, but I will choose less packaging simply as a convenience. That said, I still prefer “dead tree” books to digital ones, although I have switched almost entirely to digital music and other media. And we’ve attempted a “zero spend” month in the past, although not to the extremes of some of your examples since we still paid for things like Netflix and Hulu.

    So overall, looks like I’m averaging about a “Better” on your scale. I’m looking at 2017 as a year to improve all these types of things to save us money and energy.

    1. Hey Travis, looks like you’re doing pretty well, but everyone, myself included, can do better. Here are some specific thoughts on each of your points.

      1) I’m at home most of the day too. One thing I noticed is that comfort is relative, sometimes I’m cold at 70 other times I’m hot at 64. Taking this into account I program my thermostat to automatically set to a lower temperature a few times during the day in winter. Then, if I’m at home and feeling cold I will try and do a little exercise to warm up, and if that’s not working I’ll make the shameful walk to the thermostat to admit my wussy-ness and manually turn it up. These auto set backs also help if I go out and forget to turn my thermostat down. I lucked into a wifi thermostat in Ithaca which made this even easier. They’re pretty cheap these days and easy to install yourself, maybe one would help your wife keep the temp lower during the day? Dropping your temp just a single degree probably saves more energy than upgrading all your bulbs to LED, so even a small change here can help.

      2) Awesome! Obviously there is still room for improvement, but 66 is better than the average Marylander.

      3) Cutting cheese is really hard cause it’s so tasty. I’ve been vegetarian for nearly a decade now, but I still succumb to cheese. Meatless Monday is a great idea. A lot of vegetarians preach 100% abstinence, and that may make sense from an animal rights perspective, but from a sustainability and budget perspective cutting 10% of your meat consumption out improves the price and efficiency of 10% of your consumption, so it’s a worthwhile change. For myself I’ve done 100% because I’ve found it easier to remember and stick to it.

      4) You’ve done a good job outlining the problems of living in a suburb, but it’s not completely hopeless. This is an area where getting involved in your local government can really help. I’ve been back in Fairfax for the holidays and I’m impressed with all the bike lanes they’ve put in over the last couple years. If there was a bike/pedestrian bridge/tunnel over/under the highway and a few more bike lanes/paths your community would be able to ride around so much more easily. These things aren’t cheap, but they can pay huge dividends for your whole community and seem worth fighting for.

      5) No reason to wait on replacing the porch light. The sooner you replace it the sooner you start saving money on lower energy costs. Feel free to keep the old incandescent bulb in a closet in case you ever need a heat lamp. As for CFLs, it may even make sense to replace them with LEDs. A CFL that produces as much light as a 60 W incandescent uses around 13 watts while a similar LED uses 8 or 9. Only saving 4-5 watts instead of 50 makes the payback take 10x as long, but that’s still only a few thousand hours of use while most LEDs are rated for 10’s of thousands of hours of life. If you use the CFLs often then the LED replacements for them will pay for themselves in 1-3 years, plus they’ll turn on instantly and probably provide a better spectrum of light. If you do replace the CFLs don’t just throw them away, find someone who still has incandescents and help them replace them with CFLs, or find a charity that will take them.

      6) Awesome, hang drying is a huge energy saver! If you’re doing a great job using a small amount of hot water you might consider upgrading your water heater to a tankless unit. This way you only heat the water you use instead of having a big 60 gallon tank of hot water constantly leaking heat into your house. That being said, tankless units can be expensive to install and honestly a solar hot water unit has a better payoff long term (but even higher up front costs).

      7) Handkerchiefs are definitely a hard sell (I’ll admit I don’t even use them regularly). Watch Nick Offerman’s American Ham on Netflix for a funny and impassioned defense of the hanky. Cutting out paper towels and napkins saves a ton of money and energy though, especially if you’re reusing old clothes for them instead of buying new ones so good job on that.

      8) If you’re using all plastic bags you get for things where you couldn’t use a re-usable bag then I don’t see much of an issue (just make sure it’s truly an activity where you need to throw the bag away). The biggest thing here is to simply reduce the quantity of new things you buy. The amount of stuff people buy in America is staggering and a huge driver of people not having enough money and of our world slowly being destroyed.

  3. Thanks for the questions, here are some answers:

    1) The idea that keeping your home at the same temperature throughout the day is a pernicious myth. I’ve had to explain this to a lot of people, and there are some hard to grasp concepts. The main reason is that heat transfers faster from the inside to the outside of a building the hotter the building is. That means if you’re home is at 70 degrees it is losing more heat per second than if it were at 65. Every watt of heat that is lost must be replenished by your heater, so losing more means heating more. Most heaters are most efficient when running at full blast, so when you get home and turn the heat from 65 to 70 you are not losing anything by having your heater “catch-up”. There’s more to it than this, but that’ll probably take a whole post.

    As for getting a new heating/cooling system, that’s an awesome opportunity to become more efficient and save money. At the moment the cheapest option is a gas furnace because gas is significantly cheaper than electricity at the moment and a gas furnace is cheap to buy (even cheaper if you install it yourself http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2015/11/23/diy-gas-furnace/). If electricity prices ever get closer to gas you may regret this though (this could happen as we make more gas power plants, or as renewables fall below the price of gas and we make more of them). The most efficient heating system you can get is a geothermal heat pump. These pull heat from the ground and can be more than 4 times as efficient as the best gas furnace. They cost a fair amount to install, but there are tax credits available for them and they will more than pay for themselves over their lifetimes (https://energy.gov/energysaver/geothermal-heat-pumps). The other great thing about heat pumps is that they can provide you with AC as well as heat so you kill two birds with one stone. Whatever you do though, make sure you have a home energy audit and insulate/air seal your home before you replace your heater/ac. A better sealed and insulated home can be heated by a smaller and cheaper unit and save you a bunch of money and energy.

    2) I think it’s pretty clear that re-usable grocery bags are really better for the environment when you live with less stuff. A recycled polypropylene plastic bag requires 26 uses to be better than a disposable bag and I’ve probably used all of mine hundreds of times each (http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/09/to-tote-or-note-to-tote/498557/). I do get an occasional plastic bag from the store to use as a trashcan liner, but when I throw stuff out I combine it all into my main kitchen trash bag and end up re-using the small liners for months on end. If I got new plastic bags every time I went to the store, I’d be swimming in them, and with oil prices as low as they are plastic grocery bags generally aren’t even being recycled any more (http://www.npr.org/2015/04/03/397213109/how-the-price-of-oil-caused-a-downturn-in-the-recycling-business). As for the article on bacteria, that seems like usual local news scare tactics. I have been using reusable bags without washing them for years and I haven’t had any terrible illnesses. One thing that may help me is that I’m not buying meat. I’m betting the million bacteria bag they had was due to blood leaking on the bottom of it. If you buy meat, maybe put it in your plastic bag, or maybe just don’t buy it?

  4. 4) There’s actually a movement in Howard County, MD to implement a master bike plan. They are supposed to get funds to enhance the miles of current paths and build new ones. That will help biking around the county but not so much for getting across 95, as far as I know.

    5) Yeah, I even have a spare pack of 6 LED bulbs I could immediately put in the porch. And you’re right about those CFLs in the bathrooms; they take forever to light up. Although honestly that’s sometimes a blessing at night when you don’t want instant brightness. But I figured since BGE would at least replace the old incandescent bulbs with CFLs for free I would do that while paying for LEDs everywhere else. I was wondering what to do with all the old CFLs I did replace with LEDs, so thanks for the suggestions.

    6) We just replaced our hot water heater last year (or maybe 2015), so we won’t likely replace it any time soon. If we replace anything that large it will be the HVAC system itself since ours is likely a 2003 (that’s the date written in Sharpie on it) and there’s been significant upgrades in those 14 years, including the freon being legislated out of use.

    8) 100% agree with you about reducing what “stuff” we buy. We’re constantly in the reverse mode of getting stuff out of our house. It’s much less of our personal energy to keep things organized and the house clean if there’s less objects to maintain, which usually amounts to shuffling piles from one corner to another and back again. We’ve already started selling off baby supplies, although that can be tougher than it should be without registering for a consignment sale. But so many people seem to want everything new instead of buying something gently used, which is another major contributor to waste of materials and money.

Continue the discourse