Where Oh Where Does Your Money Go?

Cutting carbon may be a happy side effect of saving dough.
This post is 2 in the series: My Year of Nothing New
small black handbag

Gracey, Morguefile.com.

My motivations for resolving to buy nothing new in 2012 are numerous, but chief among them is the desire to save money. It’s a point I want to stress because saving money appeals to just about everybody.

Unlike cutting costs, though, efforts to live more sustainably have the potential to alienate some people. And while I hope my ‘year of nothing new’ will cut my family’s climate impact, I fear experiments like mine can be easily dismissed or derided as just that much more predictable, tree-hugging pretentiousness.

I’d like to avoid that stereotype here. Because saving money is everybody’s thing—and in many cases, the money-saving choice happens to be climate-friendly too.

(The stereotype is tough to shirk; I’ve already been the butt of plenty of jokes from within my liberal Seattle milieu about going without toilet paper for a year—no pun intended. And, for the record I’m not giving it up.)

For now, I’m going to focus on the money—noting where climate-friendly is a happy accident.

One month in, the ‘no-new’ experiment is making me more conscious about where all my money goes—if not toward new stuff, where else? So, articles about how Americans spend (or waste) money are catching my eye.

Commutes, Lattes, & Lunches

Turns out there are some big costs associated with working Americans’ daily grind (sorry for another pun there).

Did you know that those of us who buy coffee regularly on workdays (half the workforce) shell out more than $20 a week on it—or around $1,000 a year?

Those of us who buy lunch on work days rather than making it at home (two thirds of Americans) spend an average of $37 a week—or nearly $2,000 a year. (Younger professionals (18-34) spend even more—$44.78 per week!)

All this according to Accounting Principals’ latest Workonomix survey (pdf).

Getting to work, of course, drains our pocketbooks too.

Time Magazine‘s Moneyland looks at gasoline and car costs.  “In 2011, the average household spent $4,155 on gasoline. That’s an all-time high, as was the year’s average price for a gallon of regular: $3.53. A 2011 AAA study (pdf) estimates that, after accounting for insurance, gas, depreciation, and other expenses, the average car that’s driven 15,000 miles per year costs $8,776 annually.”

I haven’t figured out a way to give up “new” fuel entirely, but the good news is that cheaper ways to commute—transit, carpool, bike, walk, tele-commute—are usually easier on the climate than the expensive single occupancy car commute.

Coffee and lunch aren’t necessarily the worst carbon hogs, at least in the scheme of things. It depends a lot on what you eat for lunch—beef and dairy are big carbon producers—and how the food is packaged. Likewise, it’s the milk we put in coffee that creates the significant climate-warming emissions. (And, coffee production takes other environmental tolls.) No big surprise that meat-heavy lunch options as well as the fancy coffee drinks with lots of milk are usually more expensive.

I’m not giving up coffee anytime soon nor lunch, but the lesson here is that our food and beverage choices do matter, just as our transportation choices do—to our pocketbook and for protecting the climate.

Unnecessary Splurges?

The Workonomix survey also found that, like me, lots of working Americans yearn to save money this year. The top goals are paying down credit card debt (43%), bringing lunch to work instead of buying it (35%), and cutting down on non-essential shopping (33%).

The key word here is “non-essential.” Time Magazine Moneyland uncovers some surprising places where Americans really splurge, sometimes because there’s no choice, but often quite unnecessarily:

Christmas: “The average American shopper spent a bit over $700 on holiday gifts and purchases. The average rich American, mind you, dropped closer to $2,300 on gifts during the 2011 holidays.”

I love Christmas, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like it’s become overly commercialized. In my book, less stuff doesn’t equal less joy, but it does equal less carbon, less clutter, and less waste.

Pets: “According to the American Pet Products Association, the average dog owner spends $1,542 annually [on their pet], while the average cat owner spends $1,183.” Last year, Americans planned to spend $300 million to dress pets up for Halloween. (Total spending on Halloween—for pets and people—is estimated at $7 billion.)

On climate—what can I say? If you insist on stripping your dog or cat of his last shreds of dignity, make a costume from stuff you already own!

Cell Phones: “According to one recent estimate, the average cell phone costs $605.95 annually. That’s the total for recurring monthly charges, taxes, overages, and such, and that doesn’t include the cost of the phone itself. And that’s for an average cell phone, not a smartphone. The costs related to using an iPhone can easily top $1,900 per year.”

There’s an awesome series in The Guardian on the carbon footprint of everyday stuff. Newspaper, cup of coffee, your mortgage, a banana, The World Cup…and using a cell phone. Interestingly, “the footprint of your mobile phone use is overwhelmingly determined by the simple question of how often you use it.” It turns out the energy required to transmit your calls across the network is about three times that of the manufacturing and phone operating electricity put together.

Electricity: Rates have simply gone up. But in addition, due at least in part to the rise in gadget use—as well as rising house sizes and increased number of outlets in homes (and in spite of more efficient appliances), “the average US household paid $1,419 for electricity in 2010, up about $300 from five years prior.”

We don’t have the option of using NO electricity, but we can certainly cut waste. The good news here is that home energy upgrades—both big and small—that cut our electricity waste are big money savers and big carbon cutters. US Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently said that insulation, caulking and weather stripping upgrades make a real difference during hard times, lowering energy bills. “On average,” he said, “families save more than $400 on their heating and cooling bills alone during the first year after a home is weatherized.”

Considering that the United States’ 114 million households and more than 4.7 million commercial buildings consume more energy than the transportation or industry sectors, accounting for nearly 40 percent of total U.S. energy use (pdf),  simple, low-tech fixes that make our homes cozier and cheaper to live in also represent huge potential for cutting climate-warming emissions (and a chance to create local jobs in the bargain).

Shoes: “Estimates for what the average woman (no numbers for men) spends on shoes range from $370 per year ($16,410 over 67 years), up to $25,000 over a lifetime.”

Like Christmas and pets, I like shoes—a lot. But I’m not buying any new ones this year. And with shoes, the chief carbon culprit isn’t shipping or anything like that. It’s leather. Cows are a huge source of emissions.

Finally, a CNN Money News list of the top avoidable ways Americans waste their money. The surprises here: People pay a lot of unnecessary ATM fees (around $500/year). We buy gym memberships and Woot or Groupon-type “daily deals” and then never use them (By one estimate, 20% of all “online daily deals” go unused. That’s a whopping $532 million wasted a year!!). We eat out a lot ($2,400/year), and some of us smoke a lot of cigarettes (Americans spend $80 billion on cigarettes per year—an average smoker spends $280/month). We are prone to “impulse buys”—online and via TV (the infomercial industry brings in a whopping $400 billion a year.)

The carbon footprints of these “wasteful” expenses vary. It takes lots of energy to make stuff. Some kinds of food and drink are energy hogs. Services are usually less energy intensive.

Of course, waste is often subjective. I personally believe money spent on cigarettes, or most impulse buys is a waste (and I’ve wasted my share on unused gym memberships and Groupons too), but I think a nice meal out is money well spent. Since becoming a parent, it’s also worth it to me to buy healthy, safe food—organic when I can—even though it’s often more expensive.

Everybody’s different.

The takeaway: It’s in our prioritizing that we can shift toward more thrifty living and more sustainable spending too.

Prioritize & “Conservo”

Prioritizing to save money is WAY easier than prioritizing to cut carbon impacts. As TerraPass points out, “Calculating carbon emissions is complicated business, and it turns out that environmental impacts are spread widely throughout our integrated economy, often hiding in unexpected places. One of the reasons that putting a price on carbon remains an important policy goal is that it’s otherwise quite hard to know what part of the problem to attack. When carbon carries a price, the issue suddenly becomes a lot more tractable.”

So, my point here is not that everyone should start religiously tracking their emissions or that they should feel bad when they buy their dog a new toy or get themselves a new pair of shoes. My point is that saving dough often means cutting carbon too.

A price on carbon would help us prioritize what to buy. In the meantime, the Wall Street Journal puts it best: “The easiest way to cut carbon emissions may be to buy less of a product.”

At the risk of ending on a note that sounds a bit like the environmentalist stereotype I’m trying to avoid, I will say that one beautiful thing about the idea of saving money and cutting waste is that it may be an important place where conservatives and conservationists line up together behind their shared Latin root: conservo, to save, keep, hold, guard, protect.


* There are differing estimates of the costs of commuting. A Bundle.com report from 2010, for example, estimated that the most expensive US commutes were only $700 or $800 for gas and auto expenses annually.

We are a community-supported resource and we can’t do this work without you!

Read more in ,


  1. Tomie says:

    Love this project, Anna. I’m inspired to rethink my own buying habits too. It’s crazy to see where our money goes, especially in these times when we’re so worried about the economy and still Americans are failing to put much at all away in savings of any kind (it’s the opposite for most=big credit card and other debt.) Thanks for writing about your own experiment. TDP

  2. JMG says:

    I know it sounds strange to Americans, but you SHOULD give up TP. It’s environmentally disastrous. Get a bidet and buy a set of decent washcloths and a baby diaper pail with a foot operated lid. Use toilet. Use bidet. Dry with washcloths stacked on toilet tank. Deposit in pail. Wash clothes when pail full, line dry. Reuse for years.

    Having adopted the bidet a couple years ago, I now really regret when nature’s call strikes away from home, because TP is not just environmentally bad, it’s also a pretty ineffective hygenically. I bought a very inexpensive bidet that you attach to your standard toilet lid with four screws. You attach it to the toilet’s water supply line and presto, you’re in business (USABidet).

  3. jonesey says:

    One thing that most people don’t think about when they’re considering the price of something is that they are paying with after tax money. In Oregon, for example, a middle-class person pays about 33% of her last dollar of pay in taxes (15% federal income, 9% state income, 8% in payroll tax). That means if you save $20 a week by not buying coffee, it’s like getting paid an extra $30 a week. That’s like a $1500 annual raise.

    When’s the last time you got a $1500 raise?

Leave a Comment

Please keep it civil and constructive. Our editors reserve the right to monitor inappropriate comments and personal attacks.


You may add a link with HTML: <a href="URL">text to display</a>