Introduction: How to Reduce Costs, Save the World, and Feel Better About Yourself

Picture of How to Reduce Costs, Save the World, and Feel Better About Yourself

The poverty line in the U.S. is floating just above $10,000 for a single person. Unfortunately, this is much higher than the global poverty line. I say "unfortunately" because it means that no matter how hard we have it right now, there are millions of people elsewhere that have been living in far worse conditions for their entire lives. It is important to keep this in mind as we strive to save money here at home. Never buy cheaper goods without considering the fact that they may contribute to a system that keeps other nations in poverty while making a gigantic corporation tons of money.

I am going to target everything we do on a daily basis with this Instructable in hopes that we can pare down our lifestyles to something that can be considered sustainable, both financially and ecologically.

Step 1: Change Your Attitude

This is the most important step. You have to be willing to make the leap from "I want it so I must have it" to "Hmm... do I REALLY need that right now?" This may seem obvious, but it is a huge reality that is going to have to set in eventually. Not everyone can live the "American Dream" type life that has plagued our world for centuries. It is just not possible. The earth cannot handle it. This is a fact.

Don't get me wrong, I love the freedoms that being an American affords, but the abuse of these freedoms destroys so many more lives than the ones it enhances. We must change our state of mind so that our percieved luxuries include less waste and reliance on the suffering of others. But let's not get preachy. Let's get practical.

Step 2: Buying Food

The tricky thing with food is that we have a grocery system that makes worse food cheaper and better food more expensive. For the most part. We've all seen the "organic" food right next to the "non-organic" food. The price difference is right there in your face. To battle this, all we have to do is take a step back and realize that food does not have to come from the store. Before driving over to the local supermarket, try these alternatives:

Farmers Markets: moderate savings

I have found that farmers markets usually have very competitive pricing on their goods. Along with these cost-savings, farmers markets are guaranteed to be local, which means that the food did not travel very far. The shorter a distance the food travels, the better it is for the environment. Also, these market situations promote a greater sense of community and social interaction. Those are good things.

The Nursery: high savings

Go buy some seeds and/or plants that you can harvest. This option does take more effort and time on your part, but can be very rewarding. Not only will you learn about how magical plants are, you will have the satisfaction of saying "I made this." Chances are that if you are reading this, you prefer to say "I made this" rather than "I bought this."

If you do find yourself needing a store, try to buy as many products that are the store's own brand. These are always cheaper and almost always exactly the same product.

Don't look at the price. Look at the price PER OUNCE. Most food products will have a little number somewhere on the shelf-tag that says the price per ounce.

Don't be fooled by sales and great deals. Sales and price reductions are meant to catch your eye and get you to buy things that you don't need. Always enter a shopping situation with a game-plan. Buying something you don't need for really really cheap is still buying something.

Step 3: Finding Food

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This part might take a little bravery, as it is the step that challenges our current system the most. In America, roughly one third of the food produced is wasted. Done. Gone. Wasted. This sucks, and doesn't even take into account all the food that doesn't go through the system. Eating picky/lazy peoples' waste food is a great way to save money. Try some of these tips:


Get over your fears of eating other peoples' leftovers. For some reason, everyone is afraid of cooties. Sure, there are very real and very dangerous germs, but someone will probably tell you if they've got something truly dangerous before you eat their food. Also, try to limit your own portions so that there is very little waste.

Urban Agriculture:

Take a page out of the Portland Fruit Tree Project's book. If you see someone with an obviously unattended fruit tree or vegetable patch, knock on their door and offer to take some of it off of their hands. Simple. Free. Delicious.

Special Events:

Being a part of clubs/organizations ( like Human Powered Vehicle teams ) that host events is great. Planning appearances at said events during meal times is a fantastic way to save on meal costs. When it really comes down to it, you don't even have to be a part of the group. Sneaking food off of a table is easier than you'd think. If you get caught, just put the food in your mouth and leave. They were gonna throw away the leftovers anyway.

Step 4: Consumable Liquids

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For some reason, I've found this to be one of the hardest concepts for people: stick to water. You don't need a sensory overload every time a drink touches your lips. The financial and bodily benefits of drinking plain and simple tap water are astounding.

Bottled water is the devil. Unless you are living or travelling in a country without a clean tap water supply, avoid bottled water like the plague. Do not buy it. Refuse it if somebody offers, even if it's the only thing available. Chances are there is a drinking fountain somewhere. Bottled water isn't even guaranteed to be cleaner than tap water. It is one of the biggest scare-tactic industries in the world.

If the pipes in your home are very old and contaminated, consider buying a fridge or faucet filter. These will remove pretty much everything you need to worry about from tap water (in the US).

Imagine a world where everyone used batteries in their home instead of the electricity coming in through the power lines. Why would you do that with water?

Replacing your coffee with a little extra sleep and your sodas and juices with water, you can easily cut down on your daily costs.

Step 5: Dumpster Diving

An artform in itself, dumpster diving can be one of your biggest cost-saving devices. You can find anything from freshly-tossed food to nearly-perfect construction materials. With a little exploration and patience, you can find out what usally ends up where and tailor your dumpster outings to your needs. Do some experimentation and see what you find!

Step 6: Transportation

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For this one, let's do a cost comparison.

Subjects A and B just got out of college and moved to the same city. They have the same job, but different attitudes.

Subject A decided that he's moving up in the world so he should buy a car. To be the earth-friendly person he is, he purchases a lean, green, hybrid machine (or just a car in general). Subject A now has monthly payments to cover the car and insurance and he must pay for gas. Oh, and there's maintenance too. This can easily be anywhere from $7000 to $12,000 in expenses per year.

Subject B decides to stick to "alternative" modes of transportation. He commutes to work on his bike, takes the bus when the trip is too long, and takes the train to other cities when necessary. To be fair, he buys renter's insurance for the bike and his stuff, but his maintenance costs are quite low. And no gasoline. Even with a monthly bus pass, train ticket or two, and maybe even a couple cab rides thrown in, his costs are quite a few thousand dollars less than Subject A.

There are many factors that determine if you MUST use a car or not, but the trick is at least to think about all of them and consciously decided which ones really are "musts" and which ones can be changed. There is no rule that says you must drive everywhere if you own a car. The savings are in your legs.

Step 7: Social Interaction

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Most of us have people called friends and/or family. With these friends and/or family, we like to do things. Here are some ideas to save money while still having a blast.

Bocce Ball
Bike ride
Invent a sport
Movie/historical battle reenactment

Board/card/parlor games
Naked pillow fight (not recommended with family -- only special friends)
Pirated movies
Cook (involve everyone in the eating AND preparation)

Art Gallery Hopping (possible free food)
Jam Session (does not necessarily require musicians)
Make a Collaborative Instructable

Movie Theaters

Step 8: Around the House/Energy/Water

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Our home is probably where most things get overlooked. We do things the same way every day and stop paying attention.


Don't refrigerate something unless it REALLY needs it. This also goes hand-in-hand with buying food more often. Think back to the days when people would buy food daily because they couldn't keep it cold. Plan what you want to eat for the week, while keeping a good stock of general foods that really don't go bad. An hour of planning on the weekend can make all the difference. Knowing what you will make ahead of time also reduces waste. You might even be able to switch to a smaller fridge.

Living Room/Den/Entertainment Cave:

Power strips are your friend. Electrical devices like DVD players, TVs, speaker, computers, and gaming systems leech energy while not in use. If you plug them all into a power strip, you can easily cut power to everything when you leave the room.


Purchase a water-saving shower head. These can reduce consumption by half when in use, and some even have a "low-flow" mode for when you are soaping up but don't want to turn the water completely off.

Put a brick in your toilet. This will displace some of the water in the tank, recuding the amount used per flush. Push the limits of how much water you can save this way. Remember, you can always flush twice if need be. Buying a dual-flush toilet is nice, but can be pricy and we're trying to save money.


Use sunlight/shade to your advantage. If you have large windows that get lots of sun during the day you have a lot of options. Plant trees outside of them that provide shade in the summer, but let the light in during the winter when the leaves fall off. A similar effect can be achieved with your blinds or curtains. During the summer, open your windows and blinds at night to let the cool air in and then shut them in the morning to keep it in and block the sunlight from heating the house.

Change your thermostat a few degrees and increase your tolerance for being "too" cold or warm. Adding/removing clothing is very inexpensive. Make yourself a quilt to stay warm.


Do the whole CF lightbulb deal.


Puzzledd (author)2010-10-24

Since you have a fridge, don't forget to stock it up with bargains. If you go to markets and supermarkets near closing time, you'll often get lots of good food at throw-out prices. Our freezer is always stocked with cut-price food we rarely pay full price for anything except the basics- milk etc.

Electric breadmakers have become cheap and they make great bread for a fraction of the cost of bakery bread. Plus you can use less salt/sugar and add healthy grains if you like (I use 1/2 bread flour and 1/2 bread mix with some oat bran mixed in - quick, easy, cheap and delicious) :)

Buy fruit by the boxful when it's in season and make jam or preserves to go on your bread- or grow your own if you can. Our tomatoes get bottled in the microwave for healthy pasta meals all year round.

And don't forget your local charity opportunity shops or garage/yard sales for bargains of all sorts- or Freecycle, if you have a local branch. It's amazing what people will just give way or sell for peanuts.

Thanks for the thoughtful 'ible - the more people who break the Constant Consumer pattern, the better for us all!

SOFISINTOWN (author)Puzzledd2012-03-01

If I can chime in, bread machines are a waste of time and energy.
I use my hands to mix the dough every 20 or so days, and I make 6-7 large loaves every time, which I freeze as soon as they cool, and I have always fresh healthy bread.
It only takes about 10-15 minutes to thoroughly mix 5-7 pounds flour of different kinds (wheat, rye, ground oats flax seeds etc.,) which yields 8-10 pounds of great bread.

You can use the healthy ingredients you choose, and you only need to run the oven for one hour, instead of using the bread machine every time for a tiny loaf.

Sasza (author)2011-05-06

We got a flat screen tv from someone's garbage. It was in perfect condition but the transformer burned out. My dad fixed it and we've had no problems with it since.

Denger (author)2009-02-03

I'd like to mention one thing omitted in step 7 above: turn off commercial television and commercial radio ...advertising is the root of all the evil we're talking about here. You may be surprised at how quickly you can lose the taste for buying unnecessary products and services when they are not 'in your face' all the time! If you must watch TV, watch your local PBS station, you'll probably learn something, (whether you want to or not)!

BeanGolem (author)Denger2009-02-18

I completely agree. The fall of capitalism will be a great day. (OMG! how unAmerican of me). haha. But seriously, who said that Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness need capitalism. wtf.

junkscience7 (author)BeanGolem2010-12-11

Without capitalism, you can have life, liberty and pursue happiness, as long as you have the consent of the mob. Nice Instructable.

mrjoancroft (author)2010-12-03

I'm in FL, so drinking straight from the tap is like guzzling chlorine. So we have a filtered pitcher, and it rocks :] I don't miss soda.

tomglo10 (author)2010-10-25

Tap water has to have more required testing than does bottled water. That being said our city water usually , according to mandatory reports we receive, has 2 or 3 items on list below standard. Though it is monitored if it does not pass inspection nothing is done to fix it, except maybe a small fine.

Chowmix12 (author)2010-08-18

you'll probably lose more power with all the cameras and such, plus its hard to get a good view of everything with just cameras when you have many different hings crammed into a fridge...

sooper_elf (author)2010-07-13

Considering that pirated movies are kinda-sorta-pretty much-yeah they are illegal, I would like to point out that often, libraries have collections of DVDs and VHS that people can take out. And it's free.

Totysheep (author)sooper_elf2010-08-15

Yeah, I totaly agree!!! They have pretty good movies at the library!!!!

Totysheep (author)2010-08-15

Hey, I'm a collage student so that means I dumpsterdive for a living almost. My boyfriend calls me a scavenger but it is as it is...I've found a cashemere knitted hat in a bus, Gucci umbrella in the train, free chouches (yes, plural) and an Ikea coathanger for in the hallway and many many more. It pays to be a scavenger!!!!!

MissJessica184 (author)2010-07-19

I really like this post. I will be taking ideas from this and applying them to my everyday life. Thanks! ♥ Jessica ♥

juanoporras (author)2009-12-03

yo!! this has worked sooo god for me... always since I was a child I used to collect stuff from the street, I mean not any stuff, but stuff that I kew I was going to Use later, like bolts, nuts, wires etc, and I still do, so I usually when I go out I look around to see if there's any useful garbage or furniture, etc that might work, or probably to use the wood from that furniture to build something else I need.
Around 2 mothns ago walking around I found a laptop in the garbage YES A LAPTOP, It was wet and all that, but I took it home; it didnt have a hard drive and the screen was cracked... I inserted a HD then connected it to a monitor and it was good to go!!! actually is the one I am using right now and the best part is that it is faster than the one I had before!!
It feels good, I am saving money and recycling at the same time!

BeanGolem (author)juanoporras2009-12-03

 That's awesome! I pick up stuff all the time. I've found some great springs and small hardware. And a rubber snake once. hah.

juanoporras (author)BeanGolem2010-03-05

last Sunday I found a V3 Razr and a DLink Wireless Router, Both in perfect condition :D.

juanoporras (author)juanoporras2009-12-03

BTW One Man's Garbage is Another Man's Treasure!! ;)

juanoporras (author)2009-12-02

hello, this are really good ideas, I am a student and sometimes I barely make it to pay the rent, but then I have very little money left to buy food, what I do is I go to the food banks that some churches sponsor weekely and I get some food from here, most of the food you are going to get is pasta and canned food, but if you have a litlle left you can buy some meat at the store and you are good to go.
I also ALWAYS buy food mostly meat by the Kg(or Lb) price, they fool you with the big number and you think thet is cheap but look again! and compare!, privately owned meat stores are the cheaper ones to buy meat from.

thanks for your tips

Mako-chan4 (author)2009-07-23

You should TOTALLY check out the idea of getting a chest freezer and converting it into a fridge all you need is one of those external thermometers from a homebrew site!!! It works WITH nature and not against it! I say this because cool air sinks and since you open a chest freezer at the top instead of the front, all your cool air doesn't fall out and a bunch of warm air doesn't come striding in. I'm gonna do it for my sophmore year in college instead of a mini-fridge. (I don't think those wierd tiny fridges REALLY work... it might be pure suspision and malice for my last itty bitty cooling device but still...)

trafficone (author)Mako-chan42009-09-03

Mini fridges don't work, and if they do, it's because they take as much energy as a regular fridge.

lampajoo (author)2009-04-27

woah! I NEED my diet dew. seriously, though, your tap water is toxic. you shouldn't even bathe in it, let alone drink it. the amount of different chemicals in it is mind blowing. oh, the government says it's safe? n/m

SharraMarie (author)lampajoo2009-08-31

We started growing tomatoes on our balcony this year and they started turning yellow and dieing. We looked it up online and discovered it could be salt damage from our water. We got a facet water filter and they perked right up. I will never live without one again!

poop11346 (author)lampajoo2009-04-27

is filtered boiled and sterilized in sum places.....prove to me its toxic....+ mountain killz spermz(jk)

belsey (author)2008-11-03

Your refrigerator tip only works if you downsize your fridge -- an empty refrigerator actually consumes more electricity than a full one (because more warm air can come in each time you open the door). So buy a smaller fridge, and yes, you will save energy. But fill up the one you have. I put bottles filled with water into my freezer for this reason. Although occasionally I'll use them in a cooler, they are in there to fill up space.

BeanGolem (author)belsey2008-11-03

An empty fridge can consume more if you actually open it. The idea behind my tip is that you keep as much food out of the fridge so that you don't open it as often. I'm willing to bet that a lot of people pop open the fridge looking for a snack at least several times a day. Cut back on the number of times you open the fridge and you'll save. You can also compartmentalize the fridge by hanging plastic strips from the shelves so that the section's air remains undisturbed.

belsey (author)BeanGolem2008-11-04

Hanging plastic strips is a good idea. I'd heard that the average number of times a fridge is opened in a day is between 70 and 100 times, so I'm sure they would help. The best way to reduce the time the fridge is open is to keep it well stocked and well organized. And to decide before you open the door what you're getting. In the US the problem is in the big is better culture -- when I bought my smaller fridge I had to argue with the salesman, who tried to convince me that I'd save more energy with a bigger fridge (his logic: the difference in energy consumption between energy star and a regular fridge is higher if you get the larger model. Never mind that the smaller fridge actually consumes less!)

BeanGolem (author)belsey2008-11-04

I can't wait to have my own house and be able to choose my own appliances. Living with people who don't recycle, let alone believe that it actually works, is killing me.

belsey (author)BeanGolem2008-11-06

It can be a challenge -- no matter how many times I tell them to do it my kids can't get into the habit of turning off the light when they leave a room. But they're great at conserving water... they never flush!

niceday8888 (author)belsey2009-05-07

I use regular light bulb with motion detector switch in hallways which my son and husband will never turn of the light, also for safety and CF's at all other areas. I taught my son, 6 y/o don't let the "electric vampire" to suck all the energy, it helps.

Mako-chan4 (author)niceday88882009-07-23

your awesome!!! XDDD That ranks right up there with my "Your boiling you puppy!!!!" idea!!!!
Except your's isn't cruel or unusual!!!
I gotta write that vampire thing down somewhere...

gloflyer (author)belsey2008-11-08

Ditto with my kids. If I go somewhere and come home late, it is not unusual to see every light in the house on. We have CF's, but we still don't need to leave them all on.

Actually CF lights don't tolerate being turned off and on as well as conventional bulbs. They also don't tolerate heat as well (flourecents don't last long as canister lights) You're still saving money and electricity, but using CFs the same old way is actually shortening the life of the bulbs. Your kids "bad habits" are actually better suited to the new technology! Hopefully we can look forward to LED lights soon which are more efficient still.

Derin (author)ChristobalDeLicia2008-11-14

LEDs are the best!

cormac3050 (author)Derin2008-11-15

Praise be LED's!!

matthewabel (author)BeanGolem2008-11-09

An empty fridge will still use more energy in the long run. Having a full fridge may mean you open it more often, but the dense food and liquid inside will "hold" the coldness much longer than a large space of air, thereby keeping the costs down. It takes more energy to keep light air cold than dense heavy food and liquid.

niceday8888 (author)2009-05-07

Nice instructable. Thanks for sharing your idea. I am able to work part-time by choice and still have enough to use by not over spending, which I have co-workers who work full time +over time and not able to make ends meets. It's all about decision. I always bring my own water in my "stainless steel bottle" for past 6 years. People think I am weird in the beginning, but now it is more popular and no body is laughing any more. I DO filter my water before I drink. I also hope there are more people who care. In the town I lived, recycle paper is mandatory, but not reinforced. A lot of people dump their cardboard box as trash and the town will discard for them. I e-mail to the town public service and mayor and did not even get any reply. I confront one of my negihbor who always put her cardboard boxes out with trash but not on paper recycle day and she said " the town will take it". Some people just lazy and don't care.

BeanGolem (author)niceday88882009-05-11

lazy people are frustrating.

foo23220 (author)2009-04-14

Great instructible. However I have a couple of things to add. Bulk rice is a great way to save money. You can buy a #50 bag at a costco or a chinese grocery store and it costs much less than if you bought that much at a grocery store, and rice goes with everything. Also, if you have to go a distance every day try getting a moped or motorcycle. My moped was $500, and got 100+ mpg. My current motorcycle cost $1500 and gets about 55-70 mpg. And motorcycle insurance is only like $300 per year.

cloudykate (author)2009-04-05

I keep reading about farmers' markets as a place to save money, but here in Portland OR they are more often a place to find expensive boutique foods, like tiny little goat cheeses rolled in "special" herbs raised by certified "master herb raisers", and fruits off "grandpa's certified pioneer-planted" trees, and on and on. Granted, there are some local truck farmers scattered among the stalls, but getting to them around the "greener and cooler than you" folks with their dogs and giant strollers for the kids is more trouble than I can handle. Then I need to go home and have a glass of wine, and consume any few pennies I saved. Am I just a cranky old lady, or have other people found this problem?

BeanGolem (author)cloudykate2009-04-06

I grew up in Portland, actually, but I guess I moved away to college before it got too crazy. I can see how Portland could turn it into what you describe. I also think it depends which FM you go to in Portland. I'm sure the one near the Ecotrust building is more of what you describe than some of the smaller ones like near the Peoples' Food Co-op.

acesnanna (author)2009-03-13

Although I 'm not behind you completely;Do you mind if I make some suggestions? Join Freecycle...during "picking time" there is usually a lady or two who are willing to take over large crops off someone's hands..... Join a Gleaner organization...Most will go to farms and plants where foods are processed, take home the seconds.....and foods like apples that have fallen from the trees and may be winter they usually work with Dell and dairy to take older foods out of the markets to be used of frozen.. Do you know you can freeze MILK...if you are out of town a few goats and chickens can be your best friends... There are many many ways that don't involve your swiping food from a buffet table....YOU are on the right track and quite brave to subscribe to some of these ideas....thank you for an entertaining presentation! Good Day... Ace's Nanna

TATTERH00D (author)2009-02-18

Regarding removing stuff from the fridge: fridges and freezers operate more efficiently when full. Simply put, air changes temperature rapidly, so each time you open the door, your fridge has to work hard to change its internal temp and then maintain that fickle air. A thermal mass (aka "stuff") once at a temperature tends to stay there, so fill all the space in your fridge/freezer that you can. Granted, if you can downsize the appliance...DO IT! Awesome work on the instructable.

BeanGolem (author)TATTERH00D2009-02-18

Agreed. The point is that if you can afford to keep more food outside the fridge in the first place, you don't even need to open the fridge at all. And it's not that air necessarily changes temperature more rapidly, it's just that it is a fluid and the cold fluid is easily replaced by warm fluid.

TATTERH00D (author)BeanGolem2009-02-18

Indeedio. Describing air as a fluid makes the most sense for this mental illustration.

Denger (author)2009-02-03

Living Well on Practically Nothing is a terrific resource, full of great ideas like the ones above. Stimulate the local economy by purchasing it from your neighborhood book store, or get it from your public library and use the savings to pay down your credit card debt or the principal on your mortgage.

Joyce (author)2009-02-01

Enjoyed the instructable, but one comment. At least here Farmers Market does not always mean local produce particularly this time of the year. Our State does not have any requirement that produce should be local and I expect that is true for a lot of places where the market is open all week.

BeanGolem (author)Joyce2009-02-01

Thanks for the heads up! I guess I'll have to leave it up to the reader to decide if their market is local and/or seasonal.

Galileogst (author)2009-01-12

Nicely written and good luck with your house. You could always find like-minded folks to live with to further help the Earth and your pocket book. Woo-Hoo for communal living!

Turd Ferguson (author)2008-11-28

The reason why some countries are poor is because of lack of revenue in their economy and the introduction of a foreign corporations brings jobs that stimulate the economy of country, the wages are lower from U.S. standards, but are generally double wage rate then their national standard. The cheaper quality foods that you mentioned come from the those countries because agriculture is greatest resource. If you don't care for quality of goods in the product markets your dollar is a powerful way of changing those markets they want your money they will evolve to the consumers wants. You have some good ideas waste is bad but some "green" ideas are wasteful and use up other resources. Economics is great tool to make good decisions in your life.

8bit (author)Turd Ferguson2008-12-20

That is a rediculously illogical set of ideas in more ways than I even have space to specify.

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Bio: I make music and things.
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