Combating a number of medical problems, including chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and severe reactions to chemicals and artificial products, Kimberly Button decided to adopt eco-friendly living habits in 2001, which not only improved her health but also paid off financially. She started using natural cleaners like vinegar and baking soda, which meant no harmful chemicals and no fragrance residues. She also gave up sodas and prepared drinks and began drinking only water.
A lot has changed in the 12 years since Button, a freelance journalist based in an Orlando, Fla., and author of "The Everything Guide to a Healthy Home," modified her lifestyle. Over the past decade, enhanced technology and growing consumer demand for natural products and organic foods have transformed the way many U.S. manufacturers do business. Even the razor business has gone green: Schick, for example, now sells a $10 "intuition naturals sensitive care razor," with a shaving solid that's made from natural Aloe and Vitamin E. The product's packaging is manufactured with no artificial colors and is 100 percent recyclable.
As Richard Kujawski, managing editor of LivingGreenMag.com, puts it, "Living green has turned the corner from a fad or a vestige of the hippy days."
Still, Brian Keane, author of "Green Is Good: Save Money, Make Money, and Help Your Community Profit From Clean Energy," says some people worry about the costs associated with sustainable living. But he says many homeowners don't realize how much energy and money they can save just by reducing "phantom load" – the energy an appliance or electronic device uses even when it's turned off. According to Cornell University, leaving items such as televisions, cell phone chargers, microwaves and coffee makers plugged in year-round can add around $200 to your annual energy bill.
Aside from switching off appliances, there are plenty of green consumer behaviors that don't require large financial sacrifices. Here are some easy, effective ways to live an eco-friendly lifestyle without wrecking your budget:
Shop smart for fruits and veggies. Some foods are worth buying organic. Fruits and vegetables such as apples, grapes, potatoes, spinach and cucumbers are on the Environmental Working Group's 2013 "dirty dozen" list – meaning, according to the environmental health research and advocacy organization, they're high in pesticide residues. As such, buying those items organic may be better for your health. The EWG's "clean fifteen" list contains produce that's generally safe to purchase without shelling out extra for organic, including onions, mushrooms, pineapples, sweet potatoes and mangos.
Renée Loux, an eco-advisor for spas, restaurants and hotels and host of the television show "It's Easy Being Green," says more retail chains like Safeway are producing organic items in-house, offering an alternative to pricey organic brand names. (According to the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada, organic fruits and vegetables can cost anywhere from 10 percent to 174 percent more than conventional produce.)
Grow your own food. If buying organic foods isn't financially feasible, try out your green thumb. Growing your own produce can help cut costs, but setting up and maintaining a garden takes work. Be prepared to devote time to preparing the soil, irrigating and fertilizing your crops and dealing with pests. Such labor can prove costly for some if it eats up too much time.
If you decide to grow your own produce, also keep in mind what fruits and vegetables are suitable for your climate. Button says growing cold-weather crops like broccoli in Florida, for example, isn't good for water conservation, as they'll require watering twice a day.
Farmers markets may be a reasonably priced option if you don't want to get your hands dirty.
Don't be wasteful when eating out. Going green doesn't have to mean giving up meals at your favorite restaurants, but Button says there are several eco-friendly practices to follow when eating out. Bring Tupperware to take home leftovers, as Styrofoam boxes are difficult to recycle. Tell your server ahead of time if you're not going to eat a side dish that comes with your meal, so the food doesn't go to waste. And one of the easiest behaviors to change: If you're going to leave the restaurant shortly, don't let the server refill your water glass.
Replace old appliances. Lowering your utility bills also conserves energy, making it a win-win for your finances and the environment. In fact, a number of utility companies offer customers rebates for saving energy. When Diane MacEachern, author of "Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World," bought an energy-efficient refrigerator, she received $100 from Pepco, and the utility company gave her $50 for recycling her old refrigerator.
EnergyStar.gov provides information on what appliances are the most energy-efficient.
Lease solar panels. While solar panels are the gold standard, most consumers simply can't afford the technology. For a typical three-bedroom home, installing a medium-sized 4-kilowatt system can cost upwards of $25,000 to $30,000, based on 2012 data from GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association.
However, there are a number of national solar leasing companies such as SolarCity.com, Sungevity.com and SunRunHome.com. "A homeowner can get the benefit of solar panels and lower utility bills immediately without having to lay out all that capital," Loux says. For the average three-bedroom home, leasing solar panels costs around $100 to $300 a month. (Many companies don't charge a down payment.) According to SolarCity.com, for a typical three-bedroom home with a current electricity bill of $200 per month, installing a 4-kilowatt solar system will generate enough electricity to reduce the bill to an estimated $60 per month.
Patch minor damage. A poorly insulated home requires more air conditioning in the summer and, naturally, more heat in the winter. Loux says this can be a major problem in older homes that are less energy-efficient than homes built in the last 10 to 20 years.
[Read: 10 Ways to Save by Going Green]
Two of the biggest culprits are gaps and cracks, which expand over time. Low-cost calks, sealants and repairs can make your home more insulated and save you hundreds in utility costs each month.
Control your home's temperature. Another way to reduce energy costs is by installing a programmable thermostat, which costs as low as $40. You can program the device so, say, the in-house temperature is higher when you're at work, then cools down when you're at home. Some devices let you set different temperatures for specific rooms.
Change the lights. Installing energy-efficient lighting like LED bulbs throughout your home is also a way to save money. "I have [energy-efficient] light bulbs in my house that I haven't changed in 10 years," MacEachern says. "It's a no-brainer." LED bulbs last up to 10 times as long as compact fluorescents and significantly longer than typical incandescents. They also only use 2 to 17 watts of electricity – a fraction of what incandescents or CFLs need – meaning with LEDs, you save money on both energy and replacement costs.
Pinpoint areas in your home for improvement. For specific tips on how to make your home more eco-friendly, consider getting an energy audit. You can pay an energy professional to inspect your home and identify ways to make the property more energy-efficient. (Some utility companies offer free home energy audits.)
Reuse materials. When doing home renovations, you can often recycle old materials. If you're doing a kitchen remodel and replacing the cabinetry, for example, rather than disposing of the old cabinets, consider installing them in your garage for extra storage space. If you're putting new tile in the laundry room, use the old tiles as a walkway outside.
Homeowners planning to renovate can visit their local Habitat for Humanity ReStore, a nonprofit store and donation center that sells new and gently used building materials at a fraction of the retail price. You can find your nearest ReStore outlet at habitat.org/restores.
Burn less fuel. Driving a fuel-efficient car is the best way to save money on gas, but it's also a quick way to drain your bank account. If you can't afford a green vehicle, you can still make small lifestyle changes. "Fundamentally, the most eco-friendly car you can get is the one you have and to just drive it less," Loux says.
If you're running errands within a short vicinity, park your car at one place and walk to the nearby locations. Since heavier cars burn gas quicker, removing excess weight from your vehicle will reduce your visits to the pump. You can also improve your gas mileage by up to 3.3 percent by keeping your tires properly inflated, according to FuelEconomy.gov.
When renting a car, depending on how far you're driving, it may be worth paying extra for a hybrid. Go to FuelEconomy.gov if you're trying to determine the best fuel-efficient rental car on the lot.
The bottom line. By taking steps to improve your home's energy efficiency, conserve gas and waste less food, you can do the environment – and your wallet – a favor.