Sunday, March 2, 2014

Environmentalism, Dishwashers, and Debt

As I grew up, parents taught me about saving. They saved money by buying groceries in bulk when they were on sale. They re-used gift bags, film canisters, and peanut butter jars. They turned off lights when they left a room and kept the thermostat cold when we weren't home to benefit from the heat. The rainbarrel and the composter formed cornerstones of the garden, and I have never met a commercial fertilizer as rich as the combination of kitchen scraps and time.  They avoided buying anything we didn't need.

I learned a lot from my parents: enough to pay off over $10,000 of college debt and buy a house before I turned 25. (Full disclosure: I had a lot of help from them through college, but not enough to cover modern exorbitant college tuition, even after merit aid. I also suspect they were able to provide so much help because of their careful, responsible resource management.)

Today, I was discussing whether it made sense to run the dishwasher every day, even if it's only mostly full. To check my facts, I consulted the Internet.  According to, when full, "the dishwasher uses only half the energy, one-sixth of the water, and less soap than hand-washing an identical set of dirty dishes".

"So," I said, "it is, of course, better to run full loads whenever possible.  But it's not awful compared to hand-washing if we run a smaller load when we need to.  The difference in water consumption is huge."

"Actually, where we live, water is cheap and plentiful.  I don't care how much water I use," he replied.

This floored me. Water is vital to life, and even if we've grown up with the luxury of having as much as we like for very little money, we shouldn't squander what we have.

It makes me wonder: does this kind of indifferent attitude carry over into money management?  Budgeting is the first place where a blase "it isn't expensive, so it doesn't matter what I do" thought process can snowball into not having money for the things that do matter.  This is where the make-your-own-coffee budgeting advice comes from: a few dollars here and there may not feel like much to pay, but is always a few dollars you will not have again until you work to earn more.

Perhaps we could all benefit by using the same advice we use to balance our budgets to decide whether to spend every precious resource in our life.  Time, water, goods, and electricity: all these are valuable and finite in the same way money is in your personal finances.  Why not treat them as carefully we would any precious resource?

We don't need to change our lifestyles drastically.  We don't need to all move into 100-square-foot micro-houses or adopt anti-consumer minimalist lifestyles. We just need to apply a little thought to every resource we spend.  If it doesn't benefit us to spend it, save it for another day when we may need it more.

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