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    HomeLifestyleHow Sustainable Lifestyle Choices Saved Me Money as a College Student

    How Sustainable Lifestyle Choices Saved Me Money as a College Student

    Wool dryer balls, washable kitchen towels, and reused peanut butter and pickle jars are some of the sustainable swaps I made in college that I still use today. (Image: Taylor Haelterman) 

    When I set out to become an environmental journalist, I took classes that left me pondering how to practice sustainable living in daily life. But from what I’d seen on social media, living more sustainably looked pretty expensive — and like many college students in the United States, I was on a strict budget.  Adding the newest, trendy, eco-friendly products to my delicate balance of bills and necessities was not an option.   

    Fortunately, over time I learned that making sustainable changes to my lifestyle doesn’t require buying new things or following trends — and it can save me money, too. For our 2024 Sustainable Living Challenge, I’m reflecting on the simple things that made a big impact in my student years. 

    Conscious and secondhand shopping 

    One of my earliest college memories is digging through a week’s worth of my trash for a class assignment. The goal was to categorize it and determine how to reduce my waste from the results. You might know this exercise as a waste audit

    That’s when I realized far too much of the food I bought was going to waste. As someone who used to live a 30-minute drive away from the grocery store in a house that split groceries between three people, I was stocking up out of habit. So, I tried conscious shopping. There are many definitions of the practice, but I did so by taking a second to consider the environmental and social impacts of my purchases and asking myself whether I would truly use things before buying them. 

    I started by picking up smaller portions of ingredients and taking more frequent, smaller trips to the grocery store. Seeing the reduction in my food waste encouraged me to consider all of my purchases this way. When it came time to furnish my new apartment, I took my time considering what new furniture pieces I truly needed and waiting for the right thing to pop up at a thrift store or on Facebook Marketplace. This kept me from impulsively buying trendy decor that would be “out of style” quickly or acquiring furniture I wouldn’t use just to fill space in a room. 

    Sustainable swaps and reuse

    My new focus on reducing waste led me to find reusable alternatives for household items like paper towels and dryer sheets. Sure, the upfront cost of washable towels is more expensive than a roll of paper towels. But if I reuse the washable towels for years, the upfront cost is negligible compared to the amount I’d spend on disposable paper towels in that time. 

    I used what I had left of single-use items like dryer sheets and disinfecting wipes before swapping them for reusable options like wool dryer balls and cleaning concentrates that can be mixed with water in refillable bottles. I also looked for ways to reuse things I would otherwise throw away. Glass peanut butter and pickle jars make great storage containers for leftovers. 

    Sharing with friends and roommates 

    I didn’t have a lot of free time between work and school, so grocery shopping and cooking became ways to spend quality time with my friends and roommates. This also made it easier to shop in bulk for ingredients and split them, which produced less packaging waste and cost less than smaller portions. 

    Making cooking a fun social activity frequently kept me from ordering takeout that would arrive in foam containers and plastic bags. And I could take the leftovers to school the next day instead of grabbing more to-go containers of food for lunch. 

    Even when we didn’t cook together, we often brought extra food to each other’s houses when we accidentally cooked too much or would be gone for a few days and didn’t want it to go to waste. 

    Food is the main example I have of sharing, but there are plenty of other things to share. When I didn’t have an oddly specific tool I needed to fix something, for example, my friends studying engineering usually did and were happy to save me from buying something I may never use again. 

    Taking care of my belongings 

    The most valuable lesson my pursuit of living sustainably on a budget taught me was to take better care of my things to keep them out of the landfill and avoid buying replacements.  

    I learned to bring my dirty, sometimes smelly sneakers back to pristine condition by carefully washing them. I asked my mom to teach me to do a basic stitch to sew up small holes in my clothing. For the alterations I couldn’t make myself, I found a tailor. I made sure to keep up with routine maintenance on my car like changing the oil, and I started sharpening my kitchen knives. I updated, restarted, and removed unnecessary files and apps from my laptop frequently — which, I’ll admit I’ve been slacking on since college and I’ve noticed a difference in performance. 

    Initially, this felt like additional work I didn’t have time for, but most of the tasks were easier and less time-consuming than I assumed. And the payoff of keeping my things working better for longer is always worth it. 

    Using less energy 

    One of the things I dreaded most while attending college in Michigan was the winter utility bill. The average temperature in my college town during January is a high of 29 degrees Fahrenheit and a low of 13 degrees. My utility bill typically doubled when I turned on the heat for the winter because I was using more energy. 

    Though it seems counterintuitive, I learned that keeping my apartment at a lower temperature would slow the heat loss to the outside world compared to when my thermostat is set at a higher temperature. This small change saved energy and lowered my monthly bill. Luckily, I grew up in a town several hours to the north, so I didn’t mind keeping my space a couple of degrees colder and wearing sweaters around the house. 

    I also took advantage of the heat from the sun by opening my blinds and the heat from cooking in my oven. In the summer, I did the opposite. Avoiding using my oven, keeping my blinds closed, and keeping the thermostat at a higher temperature helped keep my space cooler while reducing my energy use. 

    Having fun at home 

    My focus on saving money as a student didn’t stop me from having fun. My friends and I spent countless nights playing board games (many of which were purchased from thrift stores), playing instruments together (several of them were in the college marching band), and simply enjoying each other’s company at one of our apartments. 

    Though staying home was a habit formed mostly by budgetary constraints, it remained one of our favorite ways to spend our free time after a few years passed and we had more money to spare. Our choice to enjoy the things we already owned also happened to be the sustainable option. If we’re putting in the effort to make our spaces more sustainable, why not take the opportunity to enjoy our hard work with our friends and family by inviting them over for a night in? Playing board games and instruments may not be your thing, but you’ve probably stocked your home with things you’d enjoy doing instead. 

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