Living Sustainably on a Low Income Is Easier Than You Think

You don't need to be rich to make key lifestyle changes that help the environment.

cutting up a large bowl of fresh tomatoes

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As a sustainability consultant, people often tell me that they would do more if their budget allowed it. There is a common belief that a desire to live more sustainably is something that only the privileged and wealthy have the luxury to indulge. Of course, there is some truth in this. It is often easier to make the right decisions when finances are not as much of a concern. But living sustainably on a low income is more possible than many think.

A recent poll in ten countries found that few people are willing to change their lifestyle to save the planet. The most common reasons that people gave for not being willing to do more were, “I feel proud of what I am currently doing” (74%); “There isn't agreement among experts on the best solutions” (72%); and “I need more resources and equipment from public authorities” (69%). The next most common reason was “I can't afford to make those efforts” (60%).

You Don't Need To Live in a Rural Idyll to Take Small Steps

I live in a rural area, on a property that we bought with some relatives. Co-housing (sharing the property and the costs) meant that we were able to make our dream move. Purchasing property with others can be a solution for some. Cooperation can help people transition to a more sustainable way of life even when they are on a low budget.

It is important to remember, though, that you don't need to live in a rural idyll to take small steps to a more sustainable way of life. Even if you live in a tiny flat in the heart of a city, there is still a lot that you can do as an individual to live in an eco-conscious way. 

Sustainable Living Is More About What You Don't Buy Than What You Do

Many people focus on making sustainable product switches and buying premium organic food—things that can feel impossible if you are living on a low income. But one of the very best things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint and live in a sustainable way is simply reduce consumption in general.

First, buy less. Then, if possible, when you do need to buy anything, buy better. If you skip the first step, budgets can feel strained. But if you generally think carefully before you buy anything at all, you will soon pare things down to the real necessities and you might have money left to pay a little more for more sustainable versions of the things you do really need.

Buying less often involves taking things into your own hands. Taking a DIY approach, reusing, repairing and recycling, sharing, and swapping can help you see that many of the things you need might be obtained very cheaply or without spending any money at all. 

Many Steps Won't Cost a Thing

Cutting consumption also reduces waste—another key strategy for sustainable living. One thing anyone can do for free is start composting at home. Yes, you can compost even if you don't have a garden. All you need is a reclaimed container to put the compostable materials inside. 

You can regrow vegetables from scraps and sow seeds on a sunny windowsill if you want to make cost-free forays into growing your own.

Depending on where you live, and your current energy deal, you might be able to switch to a renewable energy supplier without this adding to your monthly bills. 

Conserving water won't cost you, either. Anyone can switch off taps when brushing teeth and wash themselves and their clothes only when really required, to give just a few examples. If you have metered water, water conservation will save you money, too.

Best of all, learning new skills won't cost anything, and skills like gardening, cooking, foraging and plant identification, make-do and mend skills, etc. can help you move forward toward a more sustainable way of life.

Other Sustainable Steps Will Save You Money

Even renters can cut energy consumption with simple steps like switching off gadgets, plugging gaps with homemade draft excluders, batch-cooking, and cooking with lids on pots. Small steps can add up and cut the cost of your energy bills, as well as shrink your carbon footprint.

Switching to a predominantly or exclusively plant-based diet is one key feature of a sustainable way of life. But you might not be aware that cutting down on or eliminating meat from your diet can save you money, too. A study in the UK found that vegan shoppers spent approximately 40% less on groceries than meat-eaters.

Cycling or walking are other obvious ways to reduce costs by saving you money on fuel or public transport—and you may be able to choose slow travel solutions more often than you think. 

If you are truly making your life more sustainable, the more you learn and the more you act, the less money you will spend. Even when your end goals are still out of reach, even on a very low budget, there is still plenty you can do right now to live in a more sustainable way.