Sustainability on a Budget

sustainable living on a budget

I often hear the excuse / complaint / declaration that living more sustainably is a privilege. What on earth does that mean? Does it mean that people in crisis haven’t the time or headspace to make changes in their life? Well, duh! I’d hope that people in such situations have the common sense to scroll past posts on how to cook from scratch or mend their clothes until they emerge from their crisis. If it means that sustainability is only for people with lots of disposable income, then bullshit!

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Perhaps this fallacy lies in the misconception that living more sustainably means that you HAVE TO buy organic food and clothing, or HAVE TO cycle everywhere, or HAVE TO grow all your own fruit and veg. Firstly there are no HAVE TO’s in sustainable living, there are simply options – some that will suit and some that won’t. Secondly the supply chain for goods in our over-developed world is so complex that there’s often no way to be 100% sure that one item is more sustainable than another without doing a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) for each product for each location! When I’m in danger of getting lost in ‘the weeds’ of comparing products, I pull back and focus on what I know to be 100% true; less consumption = sustainable. A mantra that suits this budget conscious citizen very well.

4 Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse and Rehome
Reducing consumption is actually quite straightforward, and quite addictive once you get going! All you need is to live by the 4 Rs; refuse, reduce, reuse and rehome. Firstly refuse any freebies you get offered, reduce the quantity of stuff you buy, reuse what you already own before buying a replacement and rehome what you don’t need to others that do. You might have notice that none of those Rs cost any money, in fact quite the opposite, they save you money.

Personally I’ve found the refuse option easy peasy and if I think someone is going to interpret refusal as an insult I add in the statement that ‘we’re a zero waste household trying to reduce our consumption’. That seems to soften the blow.

Reducing what we buy not only frees up lots of money, it also frees up a lot of time, both in terms of shopping and tidying up! Having less stuff means having less to wash / tidy / dust / store / repair / move. It also makes it so much easier to find things so I spend less time looking for lost items. This R is really crucial when it comes to shopping. Over consumption, even of second-hand goods is unsustainable. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that your 3rd t-shirt purchase of the month is sustainable if it’s pre-loved or organic cotton. Too much is too much, period!

Reuse, for me, is probably the most powerful of these 4 R’s. I was always the type of person that wore clothing and shoes to death. It just seemed wasteful to replace perfectly good items just because some in the fashion industry said they were dated! What is new to me is reusing other people’s stuff. Prior to our journey to sustainability is never occurred to me to wear clothing owned by others, or to borrow something instead of buying it, or to take stuff from skips that were useful to me. In the beginning I was a bit worried about people’s reactions but having estimated that such actions save us €2000 annually that embarrassment has dissapated. It’s a sad state of affairs when the norm in society is to hand over our hard-earned cash to store or dispose of goods that we bought with our hard-earned cash. Remember all that stuff in the bin or skip used to be money!

Rehoming is another R I’m passionate about. There is nothing more wasteful that leaving something sitting in a press or wardrobe unused for years, especially electronics as they go out of date really quickly. Giving something you’re not using, even as a loan, is one of the most sustainable things you can do. Even after refuse, reduce and reuse I constantly have a basket in my hall with items in need of a new home. This is partly because I don’t donate to charity shops. I buy in them and donate money to them, but knowing just how much of the donations end up in landfill I prefer to rehome items to individuals directly. I do make exceptions to my ‘rehoming’ rule. My weight fluctuates quite a bit and so rather than re-buy different sizes when it does I keep hold of clothes from my skinny, fat and middling eras!

I purposely left repair off the list of R’s in this article because unless you can repair something yourself and already have all the tools to do so, repair can be very expensive. It maddens me that this is the case and think we should lobby politicians hard to change it. I do appreciate that repairing something can save you money in the long run but currently I can buy a barely-worn boots in a charity shop for less than €10 whereas re-soling an existing pair costs me €25. That’s not to say that I don’t re-heel and resole shoes, I do, but for someone on a tighter budget that might not be an option.

One of the biggest money saving switches for us was ditching all those proprietary cleaning products. Now we only buy toilet cleaner, washing up liquid, dishwasher tablets and washing powder. Everything else is cleaned with damp rag with maybe some bicarbonate of soda or vinegar. Not only did we save a fortune but my asthma cleared up.

I’ve noticed huge disparities between prices for eco cleaning products and equipment so definitely hunt around for the best value. I’ve seen coconut scourers on sale for €2 in one shop and €4 a few hundred yards up the road. The cleaning products we buy are comparible in price to what you’ve find in Tesco, Dunnes or Supervalu. We tried cleaning products from Lidl and Aldi but they caused breathing difficulties and rashes in our house. Our washing powder by Sonnet is the most expensive item we buy. It’s comparible in price with Persil. When we lived a high-consumption life we wouldn’t have been able to afford this but because we’ve reduced the amount of washing we do, and overall cost of cleaning products we can now. To find out more about how we clean check out my article on Sustainable Ethical Cleaning

Shopping for Food
We’ve become accustom to low-cost food in Ireland. If you don’t believe that it is low-cost just compare the cost of food in relation to salaries in Ireland to other countries. I appreciate that this doesn’t meant everyone in Ireland can afford food, which is a terrible indictment of successive governments in this country. If I was dictator for a day our entire food system would be reconfigured to ensure a reasonable profit to farmers and retailers, at a price that made a weekly shop of healthy food affordable to anyone on the average wage. But I digress, this article isn’t aimed at people who can’t currently afford to feed themselves. They’ve enough stress in their life without having to worry about living more sustainably.

In my experience it is far cheaper to eat healthily in Ireland than it is to eat unhealthily. By that I mean it is far cheaper to buy the ingredients for a home cooked meal, made from scratch, than it is to buy ready-prepared meals or sauces. It’s even cheaper if you reduce the amount of meat in them or cut it out altogether.

Just a note before I leave the issue of food. If you’re regularly putting food that could have been eaten into the bin you can afford to spend more money on it. Believe you me, you will not allow a €20 organic chicken to end up the brown bin.

I will also say that organic or local-grown food or groceries at farmers markers aren’t always more expensive than what you find in supermarkets. If you buy in season you’ll be able to save yourself money at the farmers market and get better quality healthier food to boot.

Shopping for Non-food Items
If you’re on social media you’d be forgiven for thinking that living sustainably requires you to exclusively buy from artisans and independent retailers. Eighty percent of what we buy in our house is from charity shops, most of which started life in high-street stores so my family pretty much looks like every other family in the neighbourhood. The only difference being is that we’ve generally paid a tenth of the price my neighbours have for their clothes. If you’d like to have a go at this check out this list of second-hand stores and websites in Ireland

If we do need something specific or new we always try to buy from makers directly, then from independently-owned local stores, but sometimes the budget won’t stretch that far and I have to buy a ‘less-bad’ item on the high-street. That’s not to say that independent stores or makers are always more expensive. You’d be surprised at how competitively priced some suppliers can be, so always take a look.

In some areas though it’s just not feasible for me to go the route of maker / independent store. Take kids clothes for example. I really can’t afford to pay €50 for organic pyjamas that my children will only get 6 months wear out of. I would consider investing in them as Christmas presents if there was a healthy resale market but I’ve really struggled to sell on second-hand kids clothes in Ireland. For this reason I still do quite a bit of shopping on the high-street. I know that buying from non-Irish retailers isn’t as good for our economy as buying from Irish companies so if the sale price in an independent retailer is <30% of the high street and it’s long-lasting item, and I can afford the difference, I’ll generally pay the extra.

I will add that buying more sustainable / ethical options on the high-street isn’t without its benefits. An order for organic cotton from a boutique label is fantastic, but an order for organic cotton from a fashion chain can have hugely positive knock on effects. Every time you buy a ‘better’ version of a product in a high-street store you’re saying ‘yes please’ to more of this and that ‘vote’ translates into more orders of the same. Is it ideal to be buying items shipped from across the world and made by people living below the poverty line? No, of course not, but life isn’t ideal, and we’re just doing the best we can with what we have.

On my travels of the high street I’ve spotted a few positive moves by some brands / stores. Some are accessible at full retail price but for some I’d be waiting for sales or buying second-hand.

If I’ve missed any out please let me know in the comments. One great tip mentioned in the comments is to buy kids clothes a few sizes ahead. Like them I’ve found by rolling up the ends of trousers and sleeves a child can wear a garment for up to 3 years. I would also suggest avoiding gendered or themed clothes when buying new if you can. It can really helps with hand-me-downs to other kids.

Because we reduce the amount of waste we create, have a compost bin and rehome as much as possible our waste bin charges are about a 1/3 of our neighbours. Currently we spend about €100 on bin charges and I’m eager to get that down further.

We recently switched to a 100% renewable electricity company Bright Energy, which also turned out to be one of the cheapest electricity providers on the market, renewable and not!

We have an electric car, and although it was an expensive purchase, even second-hand, it’s saved us a huge amount of money in terms of fuel and tax. An electric car won’t suit everyone and not owning a car is far more sustainable than owning an electric one.

Also what with insurance and repairs, having a car is an expensive business. So one way to save yourself a fortune is to forgoe owning one and to use liftshare and car share services. To find out more read my article on How to Avoid Buying a Car

If you are thinking of buying an electric car read my review of driving an electric car.

Quick Fixes
If you’re in the mood for some instant gratification I’ve previously written a lovely list of free and easy steps to sustainability . There’s a few steps in there for you to tick off without even getting up from your seat!

Another useful guide is my article on How to Avoid Buying Stuff

That’s all for this week peeps. Take care, chat soon.


PS – Thanks for reading and remember you can catch up with me on  Facebook and Instagram between now and next week’s newsletter.

Published by Elaine Butler

I am a circular design consultant helping manfacturers prepare for the circular economy

8 thoughts on “Sustainability on a Budget

  1. Love this 💗
    Another thing that can save money & is sustainable is buying (whether preloved/new) a few sizes bigger for small children. They tend to slim up and get over a year out of them -I’ve gotten up to 3 years. Size 4-5 from age 3 to age 6!
    Especially if you’ve bigger kids like I have-don’t buy their age band! Put gifts on as early as possible. Just try them on. My baby is in the same dungaree cotton knit he got as a gift when he was born. Size 6-9m Worn age 3months-14months and counting! Legs are a bit short now but he wears long socks! (It’s cute)
    Also, don’t put things away if you’ve a slim child just cos I’ve had age 18 months still fit a slim 3 year old.


  2. I think its a mind set and overcoming false economies, I will happily pay 25 a year to get my boots reheeled – the boots were about 140 when I got them 6 years ago and are very comfortable. Reheeling keeps them looking good (as will basic maintenance). I prefer this arrangement to buying a new cheaper pair/lower quality each year. Secondhand is always worth a look too, as I got very lucky this year with a pair of boots, perfect fit from the charity shop.
    Making clothes last longer and charity shopping for me is the easiest switch, but as I have done this since student days its a habit for me.

    With regard to food, I generally bulk cook, buy only what I need, and avoid prepackaged processed foods. I find this economical in terms of money and time and saves me from buying lunch out. My new favourite food is barley risotto – its a serious super food, v cheap and grown in ireland.


    1. Barley risotto? That sounds fab. Mind posting a recipe? I’d love to try it.

      I think you’re so right about it being a change of mindset. I found that as I became more sustainable I shifted my expenditure rather than increased it. I now spend on different things than I did in the past; longer lasting, quality objects and experiences rather than momentos


      1. I used the bbc good food one – I think. Its frying one chopped onion and chopped butternut squash in butter (I use butter and oil) in a large pan for 10 mins add 2 cloves garlic 1 minute and glass wine if you have. Then add 300g (the recipe calls for 400g but I found this too much) pearl barley and add 900ml stock. leave to simmer 45 mins and done – they added 2tbsp marscapone and grated cheese here. I have added left over philadelphia or cream (or nothing) instead of marscapone, . I have done variations of this, its a super handy food, very filling and I usually have with salad on side or spinach.


  3. Thank you for such an informative post. We have slowly tried to adopt more sustainable habits over the past 5-6 years. I love rehoming things I no longer use. I try to buy higher quality items if I cant find secondhand. Sounds like an obvious change but I just dont go into shopping centres anymore- I’ve never been a follower of fashion but I do feel tempted to buy stuff I dont need when I’m in that atmosphere. I have a few friends who we are developing a swap habit with sharing cookbooks/ clothes etc but I’d love to develop this more


    1. Well done you. Great to be part of a group of like-minded people. It really does help when we’re not alone. I have a really big shopping centre near where I live. I used to visit it regularly when the kids were little for a bit of ‘retail therapy’. Now it holds not interest for me. It’s largely full of tat designed not to last and to keep me consuming. Hopefully more of us with make the switch going forward.


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