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Eco-ergonomics: Reducing Strain on Your Budget

This article was written by in Frugality. 12 comments.


This is a guest article by Donna Freedman. Donna writes the Living With Less personal finance column for MSN Money, posts weekly at MSN Smart Spending and blogs at Surviving and Thriving.

Is your budget hurting? It could be overuse syndrome.

Ergonomically speaking, a body part that is forced to work at a greater level than it is prepared for will suffer strain and possibly serious damage over time.

Economically speaking, a budget that’s impacted too hard will suffer, too.

The obvious answers are to earn more or to spend less. A whole bunch of people would love to earn more. But during a recession, a whole bunch of people feel lucky to have jobs at all.

Which brings us to spending less, i.e., causing less strain on your paycheck. But suppose you’ve already cut the health club membership or the 600 cable channels. Or suppose you never had those frills to begin with and are wondering where to cut back.

Try some macro savings techniques. Specifically, look at the things you do every day to see if you’re overdoing them.

Here’s an easy example: driving at the speed limit or above it. If you slow down from 65 to 55 mph, your gas mileage improves by 15%, according to this article.

xeriscapeIt’s hard to estimate the cost of some habits. Water is a good example. Some people pay for city water (and, later, for the city sewer). Other consumers pay only for the electricity needed to pump it up from their own wells (plus, maybe, eventual pumping of their septic systems). Folks who live off the grid use people power to pump or haul. The first two groups can benefit from suggestions like xeriscaping the yard, installing faucet aerators and low-flow showerheads, and breaking habits like letting the water run while dishes are rinsed or teeth or brushed.

But we indulge in many other forms of waste that are much stealthier. I’m talking about habits so ingrained that we don’t realize how much they cost us – or why they might be unnecessary.

Pill popping

For example, do you take a pain reliever at the first twinge of a headache? Maybe you really need that ibuprofen. But maybe you just need a change of scenery, especially if you’re stuck in Cubicle Land with a bunch of other Whack-A-Moles. Some people take several smoke breaks a day or hang out by the water cooler; surely you can justify stepping outside for five minutes of fresh air, or at least to walk out of the room and move around for a few minutes. (Best-case scenario: You find a quiet spot to take a power nap.)

Headaches can sometimes be a sign of mild dehydration, so take a drink of water. Massage your neck or scalp. Brush your hair. Stretch. If you can find that quiet and private spot, do a couple of simple yoga poses.

Feel better? If not, then go ahead and take the ibuprofen.

Notice that I said “ibuprofen” rather than a brand name. The generic versions work just as well and are almost always cheaper, unless you have a coupon or rebate deal.

Keep it clean, on the cheap

Do you fill the laundry soap cap all the way? It’s probably overkill, unless your spouse is a farrier or a sewer worker. Clothes that aren’t heavily soiled can be washed with as little as one-fourth the recommended amount of detergent. Cut back slowly and see if you notice any difference. If not, then you’re spending 50% to 75% less each year on soap.

Some people make their own laundry detergent. You could do that, too, if you like that sort of thing. Maybe I’ll try it myself, once I go through the approximately two years’ worth of suds I’ve stashed cheaply thanks to coupons and rebates.

Speaking of laundry: Do you wash a bath towel after one use? Do you have to launder clothing every time you wear them or could you sometimes delay laundry day? I’m not talking about clothes you’ve worn while toting barges and lifting bales, but rather a shirt you wore for a few hours at church or a dress you wore to a job interview. Re-wearing means saving more laundry soap plus water, utilities, and wear and tear on your washing machine and your clothes.

Not on your dryer, though, since you mostly hang clothes to dry. You do, don’t you?

Cleanliness is next to thriftiness

Apparently you have to fill only one of the two detergent cups in your dishwasher. Personally, I use my dishwasher for storage; it’s full of canning jars and lids. Thus I can’t vouch for this tip -– but I see no reason to doubt it.

You don’t need to frost your entire toothbrush with toothpaste, despite what you see in the ads. (Think about it: Who designs the ads? The folks who sell toothpaste!) My sister the dental hygienist says this is true. In fact, she agrees with Amy Dacyczyn, who wrote a “Tightwad Gazette” article saying that you don’t really need toothpaste at all: Just plain water and dedicated brushing for at least three minutes will do the trick.

Myself, I like feeling all minty-fresh. But a little dab’ll do ya. Really. Try a spot of toothpaste the size of a pea. That’s up to a 75% annual savings.

How many times have you accidentally squeezed out too much shampoo but used it anyway? Next time the bottle is half-empty, fill it with water and shake well. Just a little squirt of the resulting liquid lathers quite nicely. When the bottle is empty, pour half of a new bottle into that one, fill both the rest of the way with water and shake, lather, save.

Also, consider washing your hair every other day (unless it’s particularly oily) and conditioning only a couple of times a week (unless your hair is particularly dry). Potential savings: 50% or more.

Or: Don’t use shampoo at all. This one’s a bit fringe-y for me but some folks swear by it. (Others swear at it.) Potential savings: 100%.

More ways to save

Do you automatically order soda or iced tea with meals out? At fast-food restaurants do you always upgrade to the cup that’s big enough to bathe in? In both cases you could save a couple of dollars a pop, as it were, by sticking with water or choosing the regular meal sizes, which are usually plenty big enough. Or try this: Order a kid’s meal and refill the cup as needed. It’s not only cheaper, you get a toy!

Of course, restaurant meals should be the exception, not the rule. Packing a lunch is a much thriftier way to go. Healthier, too, since you can control portion size, sodium intake, etc. When I interviewed people who’d started doing this, a common refrain was, “I just never added it up — I could kick myself now that I realize how much I’ve been spending all these years.”

dried beansCould you cut back on the meat used in a chili, stew or casserole? Or do you need to use meat at all? I’m a dedicated opportunivore — I’ll eat whatever’s around — but I can also go a week with few or no animal products. Maybe you can, too. Try a “meatless Monday,” a “vegan until 6” or some other way to go vegetarian once a week.

When making that chili or other dishes, do you need to use canned beans? Dry beans are much, much cheaper; for the price of one can (1 and 2/3 cups) of beans, you can buy almost two pounds of dry beans, which will yield six cups when cooked. They’re easy to prepare in a slow cooker or a pressure cooker.

Penny-ante or penny-wise?

Some people decry these nickel-and-dime tips as, well, too nickel-and-dime. They don’t think that packing a lunch or washing Ziploc bags could translate into real savings.

I don’t agree. If adjusting a few habits saved you 50% or more on everyday expenses, why wouldn’t you do it?

Let’s assume you spend $50 a year on that laundry soap. (I have no idea what it actually costs, thanks to those coupon/rebate deals.) Paying attention to how much you use could put up to $37.50 a year back into your budget. All it takes is a minor lifestyle change.

And that’s just one change. Add up all the examples cited above and it starts to sound like real money.

But don’t stop there: Come up with your own small changes. Start paying attention to the way you do things. Ask yourself why you do it that way. Brainstorm ways to do it differently. Keep track of the savings, which may motivate you to find more ways to save.

And by the way, washing Ziplocs is completely optional. So is washing your hair with baking soda.

Photo: dpatricklewis, Tamara Burross

Updated September 12, 2011 and originally published June 30, 2010. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

A newspaper journalist for 18 years, Donna Freedman has been a staff writer for MSN Money and Get Rich Slowly and is currently with Money Talk News. In addition to freelancing for The Real Deal by RetailMeNot, Donna has contributed to many other online and print publications, from Quail Unlimited to The New York Times Review of Books. The mother of a grown daughter, Donna got a college degree -- on full scholarship -- at age 52 (better late than really late) and was delighted to discover that midlife love rocks. She now lives and writes the frugal life in Anchorage, Alaska. In her free time she enjoys reading, doing crossword puzzles, making atrocious puns, growing and preserving food, and monitoring her playground for words (DonnaFreedman.com). She also makes a mean snow angel. View all articles by .

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Steve

If you can get 200 ibuprofen for $10, take two pills once a week – that’s a whopping $5 a year. Less if you pass the money through a helathcare FSA. Now maybe it’s good to avoid taking it just because the less chemicals in your system, the better – that’s a personal preference and I’m not going to argue with it. But it’s not worth giving yourself a headache thinking about!

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avatar Kyle

I draw the line at cutting out toothpaste and shampoo. Your hair would get all greasy and your breath wouldn’t smell quite as fresh. For $37 per year, I’ll choose clean hair, thanks. It’s just not worth the time or effort for me.

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avatar Jenna

Also paying attention to washing instructions on clothing labels before purchasing is really helpful. Buying clothes that have to be dry cleaned (or ironed) is expensive!

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avatar H Lee D

I started no-poo hair washing (baking soda & vinegar) a few weeks ago and love it! My hair is still clean, and it feels nicer! And no, I don’t smell like a salad.

We’ve been making our own laundry detergent for a while and I would leave one small piece of advice: keep a bit of the regular stuff on hand, just in case you run out of the homemade before you make more. Doesn’t happen too often, but has happened once.

Also, using reusable kitchen items that most people discard, such as napkins, towels, plates and cups saves some change.

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avatar Candide

If you need to follow most of these tips to stay afloat, you’re in a lotta trouble.

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avatar dottie

I also starting using just baking soda and vinegar to wash my hair 8 months ago. My hair is much nicer and fuller. It was a LITTLE oily for the first week while my scalp was getting use to the change, however now my hair is in much better condition then with Shampoo.
I was very hesitant at first but wanted to give it a try. I don’t think I will ever go back to store bought shampoo or conditioner. I had my husband ( a nose like a blood hound) smell it almost every hour the first weeks to see if I stunk or smelt like vinegar and he said it was always very pleasent fresh scent. He does the no poo now also.
I also cut way down on the laundry soap. Each load I would use less and less. I think I use about a little more than a tablespoon or ERA and I can’t not tell a difference at all in the cleanliness of our clothes, neither can the “blood hound”

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avatar Jay

Great article Donna-very thorough! At first blush it may seem that you are really nit picking things but your message is great-live below your means!

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avatar Funny about Money

Nice survey of things to think about.

In the pill-popping department, did you know you can develop an allergy to OTC painkillers like aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen? Not only that, but if you’re allergic to one of ‘em, you’re probably going to be allergic to all of them.

Every time I got a mild headache or even thought I might have sore muscles after exertion, I used to take one or the other of these drugs. Then one day after I took an aspirin, my tongue and throat started to swell up. Tried substituting one of the others and had the same reaction. Docs say there’s nothing to be done about it — I just can’t take any nonprescription pain-killers. It’s apparently the result of taking the darn things at the drop of just any old hat.

And guess what? When you tell a doctor that, he assumes you’re trying to bum controlled drugs! So you can’t get a prescription for anything that might substitute, either.

So that means you get to go without any painkillers, now and forever, world without end. Nothing for headaches, nothing for sore throats, nothing for a fever, nothing for muscle sprains, nothing for a back spasm, nothing for a dislocated shoulder or a fractured bone or arthritis or anything else.

Just because you can get aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen over the counter and cheaply doesn’t mean they’re not real drugs. Don’t take them unless you really, really need them.

Best thing for a headache, BTW, is a strong cup of coffee and an ice pack.

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avatar David

A good way to save is to get a roommate. My mortgage is $600 a month but I only pay $300 and my roommate pays me the other $300. I have a small, cheap $80,000 house but its ok for 2 people.

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avatar FB @ FabulouslyBroke.com

All good tips. My favourites are the big savings like buying a used car, bringing lunch to work that you make the night before (or the week of), not buying furniture or “things” that you don’t love, want or need… and finding another reason to save money other than to save money.

Mine is minimalism (www.everydayminimalist.com)

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avatar Laure ♦198 (Cent)

Funny – I just saw some safety “commercial” on t.v. that said it’s dangerous for kids to use more than a pea-sized bit of toothpaste, as they may be likely to consume it. So safety and thriftiness go hand in hand. Thanks for all the inspiration in the article!

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avatar 4hendricks ♦248 (Cent)

Great tips – I have washed baggies for years, much to the dismay of my husband and mother. One day I made him give me the equivalant $$ for the bags I had just washed. He got it. I only use the least little bit for everything. I am not sure I could give up shampoo – I may try it. We are killing ourselves with chemicals in OTC drugs, cleaning products etc. I make my own cleaners out of vinegar/baking soda, works good.

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