Personal Finance

How to Shrink Your Carbon Footprint Without Shrinking Your Wallet

Taking individual steps to help reduce your carbon footprint can help you save the earth while also saving you money.

Going green may be trendy, but it’s not just a fad. “The climate crisis is intensifying, with eminent scientists warning that our actions over the coming decade will determine how life on Earth will, or will not, prevail,” said Fran Teplitz, executive co-director of business, investing and policy at Green America, an environmental and social justice nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

The need to address climate change on a grand scale may feel overwhelming, but each of us can take steps to reduce our individual carbon footprint, or the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we cause, both directly and indirectly. Some environmentally-friendly steps, such as installing solar panels, can cost a pretty penny, but Teplitz noted that there are plenty of ways to shrink your carbon footprint at little to no cost.

As an added bonus, taking actions to reduce your carbon footprint can also save you money. Increasing your home’s energy efficiency, such as sealing leaks, adjusting your thermostat and improving insulation can potentially save you over $1,000 annually. Being mindful about using less energy and water lowers your utility bills, so while you help the environment, you’re also helping your wallet.

5 ways to shrink your carbon footprint

Idea #1: Make your home more energy efficient

Taking steps to improve the energy efficiency of your home is key to reducing your carbon footprint, Teplitz said. For starters, don’t use electricity if you don’t actively need it. This means turning off lights in empty rooms, unplugging technology not in use and not charging equipment 24/7, all of which draw on energy, she said. It also helps to adjust your thermostat to use less heating or cooling when you’re not home.

MagnifyMoney, another LendingTree-owned site, has a list of tips to help you reduce your home’s energy usage, but Teplitz recommends paying special attention to your electric bill. “If you’re still getting paper bills, there will often be special coupons to make energy efficiency steps even more affordable,” Teplitz said. If you get your bill online, visit your utility company’s website or call to find out what programs or discounts are available.

Another important step is to improve insulation to reduce wasted heat or air conditioning, Teplitz said. “This can be done at a variety of differently levels, including the most basic of rolling up a towel and putting it at the base of doors where they might be leakage and seepage of hot air into the cold,” she said. She added that plastic sheeting can be stretched over windows for insulation, which is affordable and can be found at any hardware store.

Taking steps to conserve water in the home, like using water-conserving shower heads or toilets, can also help reduce your carbon footprint—and lower your water bills. “It’s all tied to our carbon footprint since we use energy for everything,” Teplitz said.

Idea #2: Change your transportation habits

One of the most obvious ways to make a difference with transportation is to switch from driving to taking public transportation if you can, Teplitz said. Another option is to bike instead of drive. “Not only is that better for all of us in terms of our physical health, but more and more bike share opportunities are coming to the fore,” Teplitz said. “Also, more parking garages for vehicles now have bike storage and more office buildings are making it easier for people who bike in to have a secure place to leave their bikes.”

If giving up driving isn’t an option, Teplitz suggested carpooling when possible, driving the most efficient routes and piggybacking errands to make your driving trips more efficient. You may also want to consider switching to a more energy-efficient car, which has the added benefit of saving you money on gasoline. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit that focuses on using science to address global issues, noted that going from a 20 MPG car to a 40 MPG car can save you more than $18,000 over the car’s lifetime.

How you drive can also affect your carbon footprint; check out these tips from CarbonFund.org.

Idea #3: Shop for food locally and in season

Buying food locally can make a tremendous impact on your carbon footprint, Teplitz said. “For some time, we’ve been seeing the rise of the local food movement, supporting the farmers and growers who are closest to home, ensuring they have strong livelihoods and then cutting down on the cost of trucking in all of that produce,” she said.

Teplitz acknowledges that there may be certain foods that are out of season in your area during certain times of year, like citrus or avocados in the winter in the north. “But how can we shift the bulk of our food consumption to options that don’t require all of that shipping and trucking?” If you have access to a farmers market, obtain as many of your groceries there as you can. Sticking with organic food can also help the environment, Teplitz said, since it not only reduces chemicals in our food, but keeps the soil healthier, which improves its ability to sequester carbon.

Idea #4: Decrease food waste

Tending to issues around food waste is one of the key ways to address the climate crisis, Teplitz said, pointing to the extensive work by environmentalist Paul Hawken, creator of Project Drawdown, an initiative to reverse climate change.

“We put so much energy into food production; not just the shipping, but refrigeration and everything else that goes into how we bring food to the table,” Teplitz said. “When we discard so much of it, that’s so much wasted energy. There’s instances of food waste all throughout the food production cycle.”

To reduce your own food waste, try to avoid buying more food than you can eat, and find creative ways to use leftovers rather than throwing them away. For example, instead of tossing out chicken bones, use them to make stock. If you have food waste you can’t use, you can compost it, Teplitz said. Composting helps the environment by contributing to regenerative agriculture, a method that decreases the amount of carbon in the air by increasing the amount available in the soil.

Idea #5: Start a vegetable garden

Creating a home garden has numerous health benefits, but it can also help the environment. Gardening and farming with healthy soil actually pulls in greenhouse gases and reduces carbon in the environment, Teplitz said.

During World War I and II, Americans were encouraged to start “victory gardens” to help grow food for both their communities and for troops serving overseas. Organizations like Green America are now advocating for everyone to create “climate victory gardens” to decrease reliance on food brought in from long distances and help reduce greenhouse gases through soil. It’s easy and affordable to start your own vegetable garden with a quick trip to a local hardware or gardening store. Plus, if you grow some of your own food, it’ll lower your grocery bill.

The bottom line

While some of these actions may seem small, they all add up to create a large impact. “Our collective actions can truly help protect people and the planet,” Teplitz said. “The time has never been more urgent.”

This article contains links to LendingTree, our parent company.

Emily Starbuck Gerson

Emily Starbuck Gerson is a freelance writer with over a decade of journalism experience. She's currently based in San Antonio, Texas, and specializes in writing about personal finance, small business, and LGBTQ issues.