A couple of years ago my family put ourselves through a serious budgeting process. We lined up our financial budget and our energy/waste budget to ask where each was leaking. The two processes blended well, since we needed to get out several years of utility bills to check what our energy and water usage had been. Once we started looking at costs, we just kept going and included finances with resources.
We looked for our leaks and set about fixing the holes.
I dragged my family into this project when I heard about the 90% reduction movement through No Impact Man.
George Monbiot wrote in Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning (or just Heat) that the developing world uses more than its fair share of world resources. No surprise there. As harsh as the book seems, it offers the developing world an out from global warming: reduce carbon emissions by 90% to avoid the worst potential effects.
The 90% reduction project became the Riot 4 Austerity. Reductions they recommend cover seven categories:
- Heating and Cooking Energy
- Consumer Goods
Using the calculators developed by other rioters, I entered my family’s emissions estimates into a spreadsheet. We were already below average in our energy usage and waste, but we had a long way to go before we could meet the 90% reduction target.
At the same time, we looked at financial budgets for that period asking what we spent our money on and how to spend less.
Though our usage was below average, our heating and cooling costs seemed high. We started our audit in the spring, so we determined that we wouldn’t use the air conditioning that summer—or since. Instead, we opened all windows and doors at night to let cool air in then closed the blinds to unused rooms in the day—we left blinds open in rooms we used since we also didn’t turn on lights during the day. That winter, we set our thermostat to a chilly 60-62 degrees. Together, these summer and winter plans reduced our bills and our energy usage by 33-50%. We’re nowhere close to the 90% reduction, but we made a big impact for ourselves.
We were not just pushing all numbers down. We were looking for ways to improve. In some cases, we allowed ourselves to spend more. We paid an extra amount per unit to our power company in order to cover the amount of our highest monthly usage with wind power. That ends up costing us an extra $175/year.
In other cases, our reductions worked well to reduce both impact and costs. When we buy flour, rice, and beans in giant bags, we save a lot of money and end up with just a burlap or paper bag to show when we are done rather than a garbage full of plastic bags. Buying in bulk means big savings.
Bread was a big expense for us. We wanted high-quality, whole wheat bread. We bought locally made bread, but it was $4.50-5.00 a loaf. Crazy (but delicious). We were eating a lot of bread, so this was a leak point. We plugged that leak when my husband embraced his love of breadmaking and started buying in bulk. We now buy 25lb bags of locally milled flour for $8.00 (about a 2-month supply for us) and 1lb blocks of yeast for $6.00 (covers about 6 months for us). We were eating about 10 loaves of bread a month. For comparison, that was about $285 for 6 months of store-bought bread; when we started making the bread, we paid about $30 for 6 months of homemade bread. Granted, that doesn’t include the energy costs of baking 2-3 loaves a week, so boost the cost a bit. We probably aren’t as efficient in our energy usage as a commercial bakery, but we plugged a little financial leak in this case and replaced it with a fun activity and really great bread.
One of the leak points that we didn’t plug was a room that is particularly cold every winter. This room could use more insulation. We weighed the savings in energy against the expense and decided that was just not the time for us. Every family needs to set their own priorities.
One of the things I have liked about the Riot 4 Austerity is the general lack of judgment. This could become yet another opportunity for holier-than-thou environmentalism, but it doesn’t need to be. I think people will make better, longer-lasting choices when inspired to do the right thing—a positive choice—than when they are bullied or they give in to guilt—a negative choice.
Balancing Your Financial and Carbon Budgets
We know that reducing is the most important of the three Rs of Reduce Reuse Recycle. We can reduce in small ways, like reusing Halloween costumes from year to year, but this is really only a very first step. We need to become aware enough of our full impact, then we can be realistic about what it would take for us to use our fair share.
Start with a resource audit, home energy audit, or even a simple carbon footprint audit. This is a step in building awareness.
Move on to ask yourself how you can reduce energy and resources while saving your family money.
For my family, both of these endeavors involved finding our leak points and deciding where they overlap. That is how we prioritized our own reductions. We didn’t try to do everything at once, but we do come back to our budgets and ask how we can continue to do better.
Figure It Out
- Riot 4 Austerity Resource Calculator: http://calculator.riot4austerity.org/
- DIY Home Energy Audit Tool: http://hes.lbl.gov/
- Carbon Footprint Calculator: http://www.carbonfootprint.com/calculator.aspx
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