Sometimes I look at our finances and wonder what’s going on. From freelancing to hourly work to variable expenses as we get settled in our house, every month is a bit of a guessing game as to where we’ll end up. Luckily, we manage to save and thrive as a small zero waste budget household. We practice the first R of zero waste – refuse – heavily and that’s really helped us manage a small budget.
I almost didn’t post the promised January zero waste budget overview simply because the month was so different than usual. We both brought in and spent way more money than we usually do; and basically broke even. But I figured a strange month is a month of budgeting after all, so have a look.
Maybe another, more typical month would be in order.
Come in and read about where we’re making our money, how we’re spending it, and what trash we’re producing along the way.
What’s our situation?
My husband works about 35 hours a week as a chef at a daycare. Unfortunately they don’t offer health insurance but may do so in the future, so we’re uninsured. He also occasionally paints miniatures for nerdy folks.
I’m currently working on Green Indy full-time, partly by choice and partly by the job market here. After interviewing and receiving offers for several jobs as a case manager for young children, I realized that I couldn’t work another emotionally draining job and continue to earn about $26,000 per year. My husband and I agreed I’d spend until April seriously putting effort into Green Indy projects – if the money and non-fiscal rewards were enough, I’d keep doing it. Otherwise I’d reassess the situation.
We have a savings account set aside for this reason, so we have something to fall back on should anything happen. I realize how incredibly lucky I am to do this and hope to make a serious go of cultivating a more eco-friendly community while earning enough to support myself.
We also own our house and living in a low cost of living area, which is why we chose to move here.
Our concrete numbers: $2,493.54 in, $2,375.08 out
Combined, my husband and I brought in $2,493.54
This month’s numbers were artificially high as we received two large payments that aren’t typical. First, we got $494 back from our old apartment’s security deposit (just four months later…). Second, my husband got a $300 painting commission; typically these would be maybe $100/month.
The rest is my husband’s holiday, lower-than-normal paychecks (just over $1000), $532.39 from various Green Indy related works, and about $150 cash from a clothing sale here in Lafayette.
More accurately, our typical month would be closer to $1900-$2100. I expect that number to be higher in the coming months thanks to current and future projects on here.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, since we had the extra money), our expenses were a lot higher this month: $2,375.08. See the next section for a full breakdown of numbers. Without those extra expenses, we would have had a great savings month.
This month we basically broke even.
Luckily, we’re actually typically able to save $400-$500/month with any extra income immediately being saved as well. That means we’ve got a healthy savings account, emergency fund, as well as a couple extra hundred dollars in the bank for months like this with higher expenses when we wouldn’t have those extra windfalls.
But as I said above, we’ve made a conscious choice to not have me working for the next few months to explore my options working on Green Indy full-time. If we didn’t already have a solid savings in place, I would not have made this move.
Our budget goals
musts at 50%
food at 15%
other at 10%
savings at 25%
anything extra over $2000 to savings
What did we spend it on?
The graph covers everything – this list probably doesn’t catch everything, but it gets pretty close to accurate.
Musts: $1572.79 | I’ve divided it into typical expenses and atypical expenses since it was a weird month. The typical:
- $543.73 for mortgage (our biggest expense of the month)
- $100 on two student loan payments
- $81.84 for gas (high)
- $63.29 (high)
- $40.50 for husband’s cell phone
- $55.47 for car insurance
- $51.76 for the worst internet ever
- $17.12 for water softener rental
Atypical spending (won’t be repeated):
- $183.95 to close out a student loan
- $119.40 for a year of site hosting
- $174.35 for yearly vehicle registration
Food: $355.55 | we shop at Fresh Thyme for bulk and produce and Meijer for anything else. We spent a bunch of money on food this month. I would guess our food budget is closer to $250-275/month. That’s approximately $35 per person, per week which seems low as we rarely restrict ourselves. (My husband does eat lunch at work, so that helps, although I think he eats less than I do.)
If you take out the $58.80 of spending for my birthday this month (cocktails and dinner), that’s actually pretty close to our usual budget. We also spent $37.30 on a big restock of bulk items like rice, legumes, baking materials, and snacks along with some additional spending to prepare the fridge for my parents’ visit at the end of the month.
Miscellaneous: $228.02 | the bulk of this was my husband’s $131 ticket to GenCon. The rest was a haircut (about $25), purchasing a RubyCup ($36), and some other stuff I couldn’t figure out what it was – stuff my husband puts on the credit card, likely supplies for his painting projects.
House: $200.95 | because we just bought the house, we’ve carved out a space in our budget for home renovation; although now I look at the numbers, I’m definitely going to clamp down on this. The big spend was $75.37 which included a mattress pad, pillows, and a few other items that will serve guests in the future. We also spent $19.24 on paint and $43.25 on tools that we’ll continue to use and share. A total of $46.74 was also spent on household goods like sponges, brushes, and assorted goods we’d been waiting to repurchase and did it all at once online.
Clothes: $35.42 | I wouldn’t normally include this, but it was definitely higher than usual. We spent about $25 on winter items (mostly sweaters and a coat) and $10 on items I later resold. This will usually be $0.
how much trash did we make?
NB: all food/organic waste is composted. I didn’t keep track of those numbers, although I emptied our 3 gallon indoor compost bin twice, I believe. Hard numbers saved for another month!
I’m sure I’m missing things, but is a close list. We took out our small two gallon trashcan once and haven’t taken the trashcan to the curb for about a month (the cat poop has to go every so often, but the bin isn’t full). All in all, I think we did a pretty good job, aside from those damned receipts. We grocery shop often which is reduces food waste but ups the amount of receipts we get. Anyway…
Trash from food (an approximation as I didn’t keep exact track):
- 2 chip bags
- twist ties and rubber bands from produce
- a billion stickers from produce
- 3-4 glass jars (I’ll reuse them)
- 2 plastic take-out containers (I’m reusing them)
- 2 wine corks
- 2 paint cans
- two paint rollers
- plastic bag for foam mattress (repurposed, will not be thrown away)
- 5-6 plastic tags from clothing
- 20-ish receipts? (most places I can’t refuse them)
- thin plastic wrap from 2-3 items
- a Mason Jar I shattered
- cat poop (we use the large litter bag until it’s filled – stored in the outdoor trashcan)
What we recycled:
- 4 cans from a 12-pack of soda
- 2 cans of tuna (ugh, my husband)
- assorted junk mail
- plastic bottle of tequila mix
- 2 plastic milk cartons (brought home from my husband’s work)
- can of black olives
- a ziploc bag I accidentally stabbed with a knife
As you can see, zero waste isn’t truly zero. Trust me when I say I’m usually not that focused on these tiny bits of trash – no one should be if they want to save their long-term peace of mind – but I wanted to give you an accurate idea of what went into our trashcan for the month.
What I learned about our habits
- Zero waste is much easier to do – no matter budget – once habits are in place. I honestly am not sure how I made all the changes I did at the beginning of my journey when we had a margin of nothing. But now I have my habits and systems in place that make it pretty simple to not live a “zero waste life” but just a life without much waste. I don’t have to waste precious thought on what I’m doing or valuable money on stupid mistakes. Your zero waste habits will get easier; if they don’t, it means they’re not sustainable and you’ve got to drop them.
- I’m an impulse IRL shopper, but not online. I’m able to shop online 24/7 and leave everything in the cart, but when I’m in a store I find it hard to say no. I’m going to try to limit myself from popping by other stores when I’m on a mission and only going into stores with a concrete list. I don’t spend a lot, but unnecessary spending is unnecessary.
- We spent nothing twelve days of the month. (I’m including days in which automated payments were made as I don’t count those fixed costs as “spending”, per se.) This is a much higher number than I would have imagine and reminded me that we really don’t spend much money despite the fact I constantly worry about how much money we spend. I’d like to spend future months being more intentional about not spending.
- Strategic shopping is key. We only spent $17 on gas for the whole month. My husband works a 5-minute drive from our house and we try to plan our shopping trips around other things we’re already doing. Plus, our tiny car is awesome. Being strategic is very helpful to reduce carbon emissions and save money!
General thoughts on zero waste without disposable income
A this point we don’t allocate ourselves ‘fun money’; times pop up where we spend money on non-essential things (like tickets to a convention or workshop), but those are planned and also have some bearing on our businesses. If we want to save any money we’ve got to limit ourselves.
- Prioritize your zero waste focus. When money’s tight, food packaging is my priority. It pretty much always is, as that’s where we generate the most waste, but I also feel like that’s the one thing I can control more easily than any other aspects. Choose your focus and celebrate whatever wins you can in that sphere – let the others come with time.
- The first R of zero waste is refuse, which costs nothing. Too many people get caught up in the Pinterest-perfect idea of what zero waste should look like. That leads to buying items in order to achieve a lifestyle which ferociously advocates for not buying stuff. Weird, right? Stick with the ugly mug and the boring old plastic containers to bring your lunch to work. Once they no longer work, find the best way to retire them and only then carefully consider what to buy. Zero waste is not about spending money.
- Think about what you can sustainably switch over to DIY. Going DIY – particularly with cosmetics items – is a huge budget helper. I’ve been able to cut deodorant, shampoo and conditioner, lotion, baked goods, and even sauces out of my budget. While the initial cost may be more expensive, the savings (of both money and unnecessary packaging) can be substantial. And if the initial cost of items are too high, consider finding a friend or two that would be willing to split the cost.
Was this zero waste budget sharing helpful? Not at all? Any thoughts?