How to Live Zero-Waste on a Budget

buy quality, not too much, mostly used

On the weekend, I asked my followers on Instagram what misconceptions they feel people have about living a zero-waste or low-waste lifestyle. Over 20 percent of the 144 responses were along the lines of “People think it’s expensive.”

Misconceptions about zero-waste or low-waste living

Some zero-waste items do cost more up front, such as menstrual cups and cloth pads. But they pay for themselves pretty quickly. Certain foods at the bulk bins cost more—and others cost less. Make the best decision for you. As for zero-waste gear, you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on reusable items. Use what you own first. (Go here for a zero-waste kit that costs zero dollars.)

“What is, missing the point, Alex?”

16 Money-Saving Ideas for Zero Wasters

Zero-waste living goes hand in hand with frugality.

1. Eat the planetary health diet

This first science-based diet “tackles both the poor food eaten by billions of people and averts global environmental catastrophe.” It calls for a 50 percent decrease in red meat and sugar and a two-fold increase in fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes (beans, lentils, peas) and nuts globally. To eat the recommended amounts of these foods, the average North American must “eat 84% less red meat but six times more beans and lentils. For Europeans, eating 77% less red meat and 15 times more nuts and seeds meets the guidelines.”

This diet will not only improve your health and the health of the planet, it costs less than a typical American diet. I can buy a pound of organic chickpeas for less than $3. That cooks up to over seven cups, which will make a giant vat of hummus that we will eat throughout the week. A similar amount of protein higher up the food chain costs much, much more. And if you take health care costs into consideration, you will likely save even more money later by taking better care of your health now.

To put more legumes on your plate, check out my recipes for dal, pumpkin dal, chana masala, not-too-spicy black beans, refried beans, hummus and hummus with preserved lemon.

2. Buy less food

Most of us have more food on hand than we think. If you want to save money, buy less food. I have missed the farmers’ market a few Sundays this year and during those weeks, we still have had plenty to eat. And I’ve finally made a dent in the mystery grains in my pantry.

3. Or buy more food

Deploy this strategy only for non-perishable food you can buy in huge quantities for a discount—and that you will eat. If you eat lots of rice or oats, for instance, find out how much your grocery store or market charges for 25-pound bags of it.

Someone on Instagram told me recently that she buys 25-pound bags of rice for $11! That is crazy inexpensive! If you can’t eat a 25-pound bag of rice or oats or whatnot but have friends who can help, split the food and the cost. Yes, you will have a bag to deal with—the same bag that stores dump into their bulk bins.

4. Buy no food

Find free, edible food that might otherwise go to waste with the food-sharing app Olio or search for fruit trees available to harvest for free in your area, through Falling Fruit. Other awesome food sharing or recovery organizations include Food Is Free, The Real Junk Food Project and Spare Harvest.

When you’ve finished eating, if you can’t compost in your home, look for someone who will accept your food scraps via the app ShareWaste. Or list your home on the app if you accept food scraps for your compost pile—free (eventual) compost!

(Find a longer list of food sharing and food recovery organizations here.)

5. Produce food

I have grown food sporadically over the years. One day, I hope to have more space to grow lots of vegetables. I planted a few fruit trees in 2003 and although they didn’t bear fruit for the first three or four years, they now do so every summer, with practically no maintenance. I will never again be able to bring myself to buy a lemon.

My sister Michelle has a flock of very happy egg laying chickens that live in a hen palace. She not only saves money on eggs for her family, she also supplies our mom with plenty of them. One day!

backyard chickens and their deluxe hen house
My sister Michelle’s hen mansion in Ontario, Canada

6. Eat all your food

This tip is pretty self-explanatory. Wasted food wastes money—and all the resources that went into producing the food (water, energy, land, labor, capital). In the US, up to 40 percent of the food we produce goes uneaten and 40 percent of that food waste occurs at the consumer level (i.e., that’s us).

Go here for 23 simple ways to avoid wasting food.

7. Cook food

Processed food may contain inexpensive ingredients but it is not inexpensive to buy. Avoid shiny packages, cook food from scratch, using whole ingredients, and you’ll save money. And if you subscribe to a meal kit service, cancel that! Those kits produce piles of packaging waste and can cost a small fortune.

(Go here for a 12-step program to wean yourself off of processed food.) 

8. Eat food in season

You’ll pay much more money for imported strawberries in winter that travelled thousands of miles to get to you—and have no flavor so why bother—than you will for locally grown strawberries in season.

9. Eat at home

Save money by brewing your coffee or tea at home and eating your meals there too. For the $30 I would spend in a restaurant for dinner for two, I can buy quite a bit of food at the farmers’ market. Dinner parties and potlucks also cost much less than meeting friends at a restaurant.

10. Preserve food

Have some perishable food you won’t be able to eat soon? Preserve it and enjoy it later—and save money. If you’ve caught the fermentation bug, ferment your extra vegetables and fruit (see my recipe index for ideas). When we had a plum tree, I made plum jam and canned it. It tasted amazing and cost almost nothing to make. Or simply preserve food by freezing it in your freezer.

If you want to save more money, buy large amounts of food in season and ferment, can, dehydrate or freeze it. But only do this if you can commit to the time necessary to process your large crates of fresh food!

11. Buy less stuff

When you do buy, choose quality items that will last and try to buy secondhand. Two friends of mine recently wanted new-to-them sewing machines. They mentioned this to their circle of friends and each found what they were looking for. Halnya bought a serger for much less than she would have paid retail and Rachael is getting not one, but two free sewing machines!

With apologies to Michael Pollan

12. Fix your stuff

In my last blog post, I talked about how a zero-waste or low-waste lifestyle leads to the recovery of at least some hands-on, life skills, such as cooking and carpentry. I should add repair and mend to that list. 

13. Make your stuff last longer

Hang your laundry up to dry either on a clothesline outside or on racks inside. You’ll save money on electricity and your clothes will last much longer. Season your cast iron pans. Don’t leave your knives sitting in the bottom of the sink where they can rust (and cut you).

Secondhand pillow cases and sheets hanging up on outdoor clotheslines

14. Borrow stuff

Looking for entertainment? Hit the library. I do still buy some books (I won’t give up books) but I also borrow books—for free! Our library also has a fantastic selection of DVDs.

Watching DVDs consumes less energy than streaming video does. When I watch a DVD, I use energy to run my device (usually my laptop). When I stream that same movie, I use energy to run my device and Netflix or Amazon consumes additional energy (a lot of it nonrenewable) in order to deliver that large file to my device, increasing the carbon footprint of my movie watching.

15. Get free stuff

Look for free stuff through:

16. Dumpster dive for stuff

So I don’t actually go inside dumpsters but I do find very nice free stuff on the side of the road constantly. At this point, I see thrift store shopping as extravagant. Some of the items I (or Chandra or Charlotte) have found on the street are:

  • Le Parfait jars
  • Pyrex glass dishes
  • A chrome dish draining rack
  • Wooden wine crates 
  • Hand-thrown mugs
  • A like-new, working Cuisinart ice cream maker
  • A vintage cast-iron popover/muffin pan
  • An antique treadle sewing machine and stand
  • A 1960s era working Singer sewing machine
  • Two like-new Ethan Allen dining chairs that match my bartered-for dining table

(Go here to see more stuff I’ve found on the street. If you’re on Instagram, and would like to see more of these, I post curbside finds in my stories constantly.)

ice cream maker
New-to-me ice cream maker

9 Replies to “How to Live Zero-Waste on a Budget”

  1. It may be more or less expensive to go zero-waste depending on the overall consumption culture where you live. If you’re starting from a very indulging, readily-available product market, which consistently pushes products that are often unnecessary, it may feel like striving for zero-waste is budget-friendly. Conversely, if you are frugal by nature and live in a different sort of setting, it may be quite costly to make a consistent shift to a zero-waste lifestyle. Bulk dry products are up to three times more expensive than packaged ones in Lisbon, Portugal. I can’t afford that with a family of 6, I’m sorry. I wiil keep on buying unpackaged fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, which I already bought anyway. But I will also (painfully) get the 500gr packaged pasta for 0.49€ instead of 500gr of bulk pasta for 1.5€.

  2. Other big ones for me:

    1. Befriend your farmers at the market.

    Unlike faceless stores, meeting farmers and their vendors as a regular at farmers markets leads to them happily sharing food.

    They give me tons of things like beet and turnip greens that other shoppers left with them (not knowing how delicious and nutritious they are) that would have become compost. Or bruised apples that make great vinegar. Or ugly vegetables that others pick over but taste the same.

    2. You didn’t mention CSAs, but mine has worked out to save me money.

    3. You didn’t mention vacations, but my local vacations have taught me more about the world, other cultures, and myself compared to flying. Since I can’t see everything, I’ve learned to enjoy what I can more than I did before. A vipassana retreat, for example, expands my world more than flying around the globe as a tourist. Biking or hiking and camping takes me farther from my day-to-day world and into nature more than flying to the Amazon.

    I also reduce my greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution to a rounding error in comparison, though not zero waste.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you for these additions Joshua. Amen to local vacations (and all of your ideas!). ~ Anne Marie

    2. 2. Our CSA has awesome “working share” options. If you’re willing to work on the farm over the course of the season for a certain number of hours, you can get a CSA share for about half price. They also have all kinds of membership perks such as excess crop collection- members can go pick excess crop to bring home for canning and storing at not extra charge, you just have to pick it yourself.

  3. I grew up in a religious environment that has traditionally embraced the idea of simple living. Though I’ve since rejected the church’s otherwise conservative theology, I find that its opposition to consumerism is in harmony with my environmental concerns. Own what I need, eat simply, live frugally. In response to Joshua, though, I indulge my love of travel. Over the years I’ve noticed that we all, in some way, contradict our values.

  4. I LOVE this post as thriftiness and frugality are also hobbies/ lifestyle choices of mine and they compliment zero waste perfectly! Maybe not Instagram perfect ZW, but actual sustainability for sure. As a huge maker and crafter, I wanted to mention that you can exchange many “upfront costs” for your time and effort. I use cloth pads that I sew myself (often from scrap materials) extremely cheaply. I also sew all of my bulk bags, knit and sew dish towels and scrubbies, and do my own mending and refashioning of worn clothes and fabrics. It takes time and effort, but most of my zero waste gear has been gleaned and thrifted as well. Do what you can, and take steps, any steps!

  5. The two things that we changed that cost us no money are:
    1. No more straws. We stopped using straws while looking for an alternative to plastic and in the process got used to drinking smoothies without a straw at all. So this tip actually saved us money.
    2. We have an abundance of coffee travel mugs. I stuck a couple in a cloth bag and put them in the trunk of my car and use them when we buy coffee out and about (a rare treat!).

    Buying local fruit in February in the Midwest isn’t possible, and the “fresh” stuff from far away tastes like wood chips. Any suggestions? Is preserved fruit from the grocery store a horrible option?

  6. […] recent blog post by Anne-Marie Bonneau, a.k.a. the Zero Waste Chef, whose work I love and cite often on TreeHugger, […]

  7. Great post – these tips are great ways to live zero waste on a budget! I started a zero waste journey back in May of last year, and I have learned that most people view the lifestyle as being too expensive. However, I have found that I actually don’t spend as much money as I don’t eat out anymore, I don’t shop in retail (only thrift shops!), and I try to repair things before replacing them. Glad I found your blog!
    -Jenna ♥
    Stay in touch? The Chic Cupcake

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