8 Ways to Stop Wasting Money (and Energy)

A new analysis of the latest scientific research suggests some counter-intuitive ways to reduce carbon emissions.


If reducing your carbon emissions didn’t require a big sacrifice—and in fact could mean some lifestyle upgrades—would you go green? What if doing so also meant you could save upwards of $500 a year?

[In Pictures: 10 Ways to Reduce Your Summer Utility Bills.]

Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living, a new book from the Union of Concerned Scientists, shows that being energy efficient doesn’t require adopting a spartan lifestyle, and in fact, it often means embracing new technology, including e-readers, the latest appliance upgrades, and easy-to-use programmable thermostats.

In the book, the scientists challenge readers to reduce their energy usage by 20 percent, since doing so would reduce total carbon dioxide emissions by over 1 billion tons and allow one-third of the country’s coal plants to close. Here are eight counter-intuitive ideas from Cooler Smarter on how to reduce your carbon emissions—and they don’t involve too much self-sacrifice, either.

1. Go shopping for a new fridge. Sometimes buying new appliances, instead of making do with the old ones, is actually the better environmental move. That’s because manufacturers are constantly finding ways to make energy-sucking appliances more efficient. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that on average, fridges cost $123 a year to operate, a figure that has dropped significantly over the last three decades.

The last major round of fridge standard improvements took place in 2003; that means that if your appliance predates that, it might be time to consider an upgrade. In fact, even though fridges are larger and cheaper today, they use 70 percent less energy than the pre-2003 models. If you do shop for a new one, the federal Energy Star ratings (www.energystar.gov) can help guide your choice.

While you’re budgeting for new major appliance purchases, consider your air conditioner and dishwasher as well—both types of machines have seen great efficiency improvements in recent years.

2. But don’t upgrade your clothes dryer. That’s because you can cut energy costs yourself, without make a single purchase. Dryers cost the typical household about $100 a year to run, and you can cut that cost by hanging clothes up to dry instead—then think of a new way to spend $8 a month.

[In Pictures: 10 Ways to Save on Food Costs]

3. Buy local, despite the extra transportation costs. Buying local has earned a bad rap in recent years, since critics have pointed out that small, local farms have to use gas and energy to transport their produce in smaller quantities than the mega-trucks used by national food distributors. But the Union of Concerned Scientists says these transportation costs account for only a tiny fraction (4 percent) of carbon emissions related to food.

Instead of worrying about buying local, consider focusing instead on just what’s going in your grocery cart. Avoiding meat and poultry can significantly reduce your carbon emissions, the scientists report, because the production of those products requires so much energy. (Cows, for example, require lots of land and grain.)

4. Keep your (LED) lights on. If you switch from traditional incandescent light bulbs to the new LED bulbs, you can spend about $150 less a year on your household lighting costs. Yes, LED bulbs are expensive, but even given that initial expense, you can still cut costs by investing in replacements. If you’re worried about the glow, there’s no need to be: They’ve improved a lot since initially hitting the market.

5. Install a programmable thermostat. Again, here’s a case of spending money to save money. Programmable thermostats allow users to automatically reduce their energy usage when they’re out of the house. Otherwise, Americans tend to forget to do so: One study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that most people leave their air-conditioning or heating on, even when they’re out of the house during the day.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, you can save around $180 a year just on heating costs by adjusting the temperature daily. New programmable thermostats even let you make adjustments remotely, by smartphone or computer.

6. Don’t be fooled by “hybrid” labels. Even large SUVs, such as the GMC Yukon and Toyota Highlander, come with hybrid options, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re fuel efficient, particularly compared to smaller, even non-hybrid cars. The Highlander Hybrid, for example, gets around 28 miles per gallon on highways, compared to the Honda Accord’s 34 miles per gallon on highways.

7. Use your e-reader. It might sound strange that using an electronic device to read could use less energy than buying a traditional paperback, but for heavy readers, that appears to be the case. Since the emissions caused by creating 20 to 40 books roughly equals those caused by creating one electronic reader, someone who reads 100 books on his e-reader causes less emissions by avoiding all those paperbacks.

The scientists point out that the far bigger issue is how books get to the bookstore and how we purchase them. The drive to the bookstore can cause more emissions than the creation of a single book. So if your e-reader allows you to stay home and order books instead of driving to the store to get them, you’re probably coming out ahead.

[In Pictures: 10 Ways to Reduce What You Pay at the Pump]

8. Take the bus (or a train). You might think staying off the roads is the best way to avoid gas-guzzling energy consumption, but there are some methods of road travel that are quite efficient. Trains, buses, and full cars (a typical car with fur passengers) are among the most fuel-efficient ways to travel. In contrast, one of the most energy-consuming ways to get from point A to point B is to fly, or to drive in an SUV with no passengers. (The most efficient methods of travel also rank among the most affordable.)

The scientists suggest planning your travel schedule accordingly: In addition to traveling by bus or train, also think about staying in one place for longer, or visiting family and friends for less frequent but lengthier times.

The bottom line: To reduce your energy consumption, invest in upgrades where necessary, and bring your e-reader on road trips.