Servicey: You Don’t Have to Spend a Lot to Save a Lot

One upside of the current economic conditions is an increase in interest in helping people save money on things like utilities and other basic costs of living, complete with the endless release of savings guides. You know the sort of thing; little booklets and news features on how to lower your electric bill or use less water or what have you. One thing about the framing of such guides kind of disturbs me, though, and it’s the fact that many of them suggest that it is necessary to spend money, sometimes lots of it, in order to save money.

This is not particularly good advice to give people who may not have very much money, because it can be a real turn off. Why should you bother making your home more energy efficient when it apparently costs a lot of money that you don’t have? You might very much want to lower your electric bill or water bill but when the first entry on the list of recommendations is ‘buy an expensive energy-efficient appliance even if your existing appliance works just fine,’ it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. You might not skim further down the list to learn more.

I’ve discussed the problems with framing environmental friendliness in terms of what you can spend in the past, and these problems seem to be growing even more acute. Many poor folks naturally have a lower environmental footprint, and naturally have lower energy bills because they have smaller homes and fewer appliances by nature. Telling them they need to ‘do more’ while at the same time informing them they need to spend money they do not have is highly counterproductive. Especially now, when many people may be struggling with rising energy prices paired with unemployment or underemployment. The thing is that you actually don’t need to spend money to save money in all cases, and framing it that way is very exclusionary.

I can think of a number of things people can do to lower their water bills, for example, for free or at very low cost. Some of them may not be particularly glamourous and showy, but they can still be important. Things like dropping a brick in the toilet tank to reduce the water per flush. Replacing the washers in your sinks and spigots to prevent drips. Watering the garden (if you have one) in early morning or evening to reduce water loss through evaporation. Changing the way you wash dishes or brush your teeth; for example, wash all the dishes and drop them in the sink as you go, then rinse. You will use less water! Change the way you shower.

For what matter, save the water you’re using when you warm up sinks and showers. Stick a bucket in the shower so people can remember to do it. You can use the water on the garden, or to flush the toilet, or whatever. You’d be surprised by how much water goes down the drain while you’re prancing around the bathroom, waiting for the shower to get hot enough to jump in. You can make a significant difference in household water usage, again, without really spending money, beyond that necessary to obtain a bucket if you need to buy one.

These are all measures that can make a big difference, and some of them may be listed in those helpful guides, but they are often below ‘buy expensive appliances.’ Guides also may leave out things like renegotiating your water bill, or checking to see if you qualify for assistance. Some cities even have a program where households that drastically reduce their water usage get a discount for being more environmentally friendly. All of these options are things to pursue in the interest of saving money on water bills.

And, yeah, there are some appliances people can buy to save water. Using an on-demand heater requires less water and also cuts heating expenses. Likewise, low flow and power-assist toilets use less water, as do low-flow shower heads (a relatively minor investment). High efficiency dishwashers and clothes washers can also cut the water bill (and don’t you love how many of these articles assume everyone has a washer/dryer and a dishwasher? I do not!). But, the thing is, replacing appliances willy-nilly is not necessarily productive. It may be better to wait until they actually wear out, or to wait and see if a program for appliance recycling comes up. Sometimes the government offers financial assistance with energy-efficient appliance purchases, and that can be a good time to replace water hogs.

And, of course, many people rent (hello there!) and may not have very much control over their household appliances. Landlords do not need to ask tenants before replacing appliances and don’t necessarily solicit our input on it. I’ve had appliances replaced during my tenure in various homes and was never asked about my preferences. A new appliance arrived, the old one went away. Some landlords do check with their tenants and have a discussion, but they’re not required to. And a landlord may not want to pay the premium for an energy-efficient appliance when a cheaper one is available. After all, property owners don’t pay the utility bills in that case, so they might not think, or care, about the expenses for the tenant.

Refocusing these oh-so-helpful lists to include people of lower income and people with less power over, say, the appliances in their lives would be a very good idea, given that those folks may stand to benefit the most from things like lower water bills. After all, the advice for many rich people really basically boils down to ‘no, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, move to a smaller house.’