Ask Athena: Penny for Your Planet?

Sustainable living on a budget for change we can all afford. 

Q:  As a recent college grad, I’m setting up my own home for the first time. I’m trying to make environmentally-friendly choices, but wow this stuff is expensive! How’s a person supposed to live sustainably without breaking the bank and/or doing without basic modern conveniences? Help, Athena!

A: You are right, in a lot of cases, buying the sustainable option is more expensive. Organic costs more than nonorganic and renewable electric costs more than fossil fuel. Living sustainably affects almost every aspect of your life, from how you live to what you buy. It means examining what you really need or want in convenience.

Let’s start with some easy choices. For instance, buying local, where you’ll find some surprising bargains, especially on items from bulk bins like nuts, spices, and whole grains. Instead of plastic packaging, you can byo spice jars and compostable baggies. While you are there, check out the price on organic or sustainably-grown staples. Think about that value proposition: how important is that item to your lifestyle and how much more costly is the sustainable option? Small changes add up. Turn off the lights when you leave a room, take shorter showers, don’t linger in front of an open refrigerator, etc.

As you make these line-item decisions over time, you’ll find what works best for you. Maybe in the process, you’ll discover an eco-inspired passion for cycling, baking bread, making soap, or upcycling thrift store finds! Consider making gifts and cards instead of buying them. Better yet, give experiences: meals, adventures, company, maid service, tech help, etc. Sharing your time and talents also builds priceless bonds of love, trust, and appreciation.

There are other choices to make, too, perhaps the biggest one: do you really need a car? In addition to pollutants like benzene, hydrocarbons, and formaldehyde, the average passenger vehicle produces about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. To help put this number in perspective, the average passenger jet emits 30K – 40K metric tons of CO2 annually. Maybe rethink those cheap tickets to Cancun.

Cruise ships pollute, too. Big ones emit as much CO2 as one million cars per day.

And this is just one type of pollution in one sector of industry, there are many more environmental offenders in agriculture, textile production, mining, agriculture, construction… And on and on, for a carbon load of 36.3 billion metric tons every year (not counting other greenhouse gases).

Clearly, the problem is bigger than we are. Athena is all for recycling and reducing our carbon footprints individually, but compared to these massive polluters destroying the planet, individual efforts can seem maddeningly miniscule and even wasteful in their own way. We can’t give up! We also can’t limit our efforts to lifestyle changes alone, no matter how much money we spend on zero waste goals.

No budget? No problem! It’s free to advocate for cleaner energy, stricter environmental protections, and – here’s a thought – an end to corporate welfare. TRUE STORY: the only reason fossil fuels are so cost-effective is because oil and gas companies receive about $20 billion in subsidies every year. That’s seven times what renewables receive. Talk about unsustainable!

This election (and every election!), we need to vote out the craven politicians behind this dirty legislation. You can find a list of the country’s worst offenders at, and connect with other climate warriors locally through groups like Philly Climate Works and the League of Conservation Voters. By holding polluters accountable and demanding better legislation, we join forces and make a difference together.

Thank you for your question, and your good intentions. The world needs all of us to figure out how to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Think about your choices, do what you can, stay positive, keep motivated, and seek out others for support and encouragement. Mother Earth and I salute you!

AGREE? DISAGREE? Please leave your remarks below in the Comments.

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Read the last Ask Athena here.

About Athena 44 Articles
When she’s not advising mortals, Athena spends her time on earth in NW Philly with her husband, two sons and a day job where she’s paid to tell important people what to do (naturally). Send your questions to

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