Zero Waste Finances. Show Me The Money!

A young journalist interested in the Zero Waste lifestyle contacted me a few months ago to ask if she could follow our family for a day for an article she was writing.

Of course, I said yes.

I will take advantage of any opportunity to demonstrate that our life differs only slightly from everyone else. Most people believe our life is drastically different, consisting of more work and less luxury. In fact, our lives are richer today. We experience greater happiness, an increased sense of purpose (reducing our environmental impact), and an improved financial situation through reduced costs and a simplified lifestyle.

The journalist asked if we would share our financial savings. And, while I did believe we were saving, I had yet to crunch the numbers.

In the past–before kids, before my husband’s nine-month deployment, and before Zero Waste—we used to be much stricter with our budget. When we adopted the Zero Waste lifestyle, I figured that was enough of an adjustment without also worrying about our budget, at least in the beginning.

However, questions regarding finances are probably amongst the most common questions I receive, and I understand why. Financial savings provide a huge incentive for change. The journalist’s request was the push I needed to set me to the task.

For the purpose of this exercise, I looked at variable spending in specific categories: Lifestyle (shopping, drugstore, salon, etc.), Gas, Groceries, and Eating Out. I examined three months in 2013 and then the same three months in 2016.

Overall, our family is saving more than 13% of our variable spending. The most significant reduction is in the Lifestyle category, a massive 56% reduction, followed by Gas saving 17%, and Eating Out saving 10%.

The Lifestyle savings are easy to explain. Our purchases became purpose-driven; we began to question each item before purchase, asking ourselves, “is it necessary or just fulfilling a fleeting desire?” I started shopping secondhand for almost everything, and we became conscious of choosing activities that did not cost money.

We reduced our Gas expenditure by making the conscious decision to drive less. I organized my errands into a few days per week and enjoyed car-free days in between. We switched to a pre-school within walking distance; we no longer drove 25 minutes to shop at big box stores and opted for family activities closer to home.

Our Grocery expenditure was a bit surprising. It increased by 4.6%. However, I was not abiding by a budget. My attitude was, “if it’s package-free, it’s for me,” I recommend approaching your shopping this way, at least in the beginning. You will have change enough to deal with simply by giving up packaged foods. If Zero Waste is a lifestyle change you wish to embrace long term then I advocate loading up on all the unpackaged foods you love to avoid feeling deprived. Personally, I bought flat upon flat of fresh, unpackaged local berries during the summer to freeze and use throughout the winter. I didn’t look at prices for vegetables or fruits, I left the grocery chain deli and meat counter for a local butcher and cheese shop that accepted my home containers, and I allowed us whatever our hearts’ desired at the bulk store.

Of note, our family grew by one during this time and based on numbers from Statistics Canada it costs on average $95 per month to feed a toddler, which is roughly a 10% increase in the average household monthly grocery expenditure. Factoring in our growing family and the rate of inflation, an average of 1.1% over the three years I examined, makes my 4.6% increase look quite a bit better, don’t you think? (Wink, wink!)

Looking at what we were spending on Eating Out was a bit of a reality check. We did recognize an average savings of 10% since adopting Zero Waste. However, it is my opinion that the overall amount we spend on eating out is ghastly. Without completely crucifying ourselves, I will share that there were months when the Eating Out spending was 50-70% of what we spent on groceries! Egads! We eat out, as a family, on average once a week. Then there is typically a date night every six to eight weeks which consists of dinner and drinks. I pop to the coffee shop once or twice a week for a heavenly soy latte (and cookies if the kids are in tow), and my husband is no stranger to the local pub where he, every so often, enjoys a pint or two and plate of wings with his buddies.

So, yes, there is room for improvement in certain areas. Perhaps we could frequent the less expensive Sushi restaurant two blocks further down the street or opt for a family-style restaurant instead of gravitating to the ones Mom and Dad currently tend to choose.

The savings described in this blog are just the variable savings we have achieved. Changing our lifestyle has changed how we look at the big stuff, too. In moving to Toronto, we opted to live in a central, walkable neighbourhood. Living in such an area meant choosing a suite over a house so we could afford it. But it also meant we could let go of one car and that our monthly heating, electricity and gas bills would be less than if we chose a family-size home in the suburbs.

Starting with the small stuff inevitably leads to the big stuff. I am excited about all of the sustainable, money-saving practices our family hopes to embrace in the future, from gardening to going car-free to one day building a sustainable home.

So much to daydream about!

So to the naysayers out there, I say: Embracing the Zero Waste lifestyle will save you money. From time to time, you will be annoyed at the random high prices in bulk, where purchasing the packaged version is cheaper. But that is the exception, not the rule. And I think we all need to start thinking of the true cost of our purchases. How much water, energy, and oil goes into food packaging? How much water and energy, and how many chemicals, go into recycling that packaging — If it is even recyclable?

It becomes easier to pay the extra few cents per kilogram or pound once we start valuing our resources differently.




“Don’t tell me where your priorities are. Show me where you spend your money and I will tell you what they are.” James W. Frick