This month's Action Item is all about paper. Disposable paper items abound in western culture. They are designed for obsolescence. Sometimes their utility life from first use to disposal is mere seconds long. I want to challenge you this month to see paper products, especially those you pay for outright, in a new way. When you go to the supermarket and look at paper towels, toilet paper, paper plates and cups, and even "feminine hygiene products," you are looking at landfill. In other words, you're about to spend your hard earned money on garbage-to-be. Think about it: paper plate lying on the ground in a park - garbage; paper plate stacked up with other paper plates on the grocery store shelf - something you pay good money for. Does that make any sense to you? This is definitely one of those areas where frugality and ecological ethics match up very closely.
Sometimes we don't pay for paper explicitly. We get the paper for "free" with our purchase of coffee, fast food, or other convenience items. Needless to say, this is no bargain. Not only is the paper being consumed in a ridiculously frivolous fashion, but along the way you're paying a huge premium for the convenience of having food prepared for you, rather than making it at home.
Yet another form of paper consumption that I'm targeting for removal this month is junk mail, catalogs, and newspaper or magazine subscriptions. I've blogged before about all the good reasons for getting off catalog mailing lists. If you're trying to trim the budget (and these days, who isn't?), you don't need temptation delivered to your door on a daily basis.
So without further ado, here are several ways to cut the paper out of your life and save some money in the process.
Newspaper - you're reading this online. Get your news online too or off the radio. Cancel your subscription and ask for a refund of the balance. If you use the coupons that come with the Sunday paper, see if a non-frugal friend or family member will save the coupon section for you. If you can't make that happen, at least cut your subscription back to just a Sunday delivery if possible.
Magazines - Do you really read the magazines that you subscribe to? If you do, and you learn something from them, great. See if there's anyone in your area who also reads the same magazine who might like to split a subscription. You'll save both money and paper. Even better, cancel the subscription and get the magazine from the library. Unless you're subscribing to a magazine that is so packed with useful information that you're certain to refer to it again and again, it's worth asking yourself if you really need to pay for a personal copy.
Napkins - I hereby give you permission to actually buy new cloth napkins if you don't already have some. If you're going to do so, I recommend you steer clear of white or very pale napkins, which will show stains the best. If you have the choice, go for napkins with a small pattern on them; they'll hide stains very well over the years. Choose a sturdy flat woven cotton cloth with good stitching at the seams. I suggest you buy one for every member in the family you have or plan to have, plus at least two more for guests. If you have no cloth napkins, and your birthday is this month, this is the perfect gift to ask for. They'd make nice housewarming gifts too.
Paper towels - There aren't too many tasks that really ought to be done with disposable paper. Cleaning up cat puke or other unmentionables may qualify. But those should be rare events. Use cleaning rags to wipe up most spills and to perform most cleaning chores. You can replace paper towels for some uses with pages torn from old phone books. Phone book pages work great for cleaning glass. They'll work for soaking up grease from fried foods too.
Junk mail - There's no reason to put up with junk mail. There are plenty of unsubscribe lists you can find online. Fewer catalogs in your mailbox mean less covetousness, fewer temptations to spend, and less clutter in your life.
Paper plates - Again, is there really any need? Even if you want to go on a picnic, re-usable plastic plates, or the new re-usable Bambu plates fill in just fine for disposable paper. There are some plastic picnic plates that can even stand up to the dishwasher. If paper plates fill a need in your life, see if the re-usable lightweight plates could step into that role.
Paper cups - I can't conceive of any real need for these at home. Again, if you picnic or camp a lot, durable plastic cups will serve. Be disciplined about using your own mug at the office water cooler, or if you're still indulging in cafe drinks.
Tampons or Sanitary Napkins - I know not every woman is going to be swayed, but I am totally converted to the use of the diva cup. Over at the Simple, Green, Frugal Co-op where I occasionally post, Eilleen discussed the re-usable cloth menstrual pads she uses, in conjunction with the diva cup. There's no question at all that women pay a lot of money to menstruate in mainstream fashion. When I debated buying a diva cup, a quick calculation told me I'd break even after eight months of using the cup versus tampons. If you're smart enough to switch to a diva cup in your early years, you'll probably save more than $1000 by the time you hit menopause. That's not a trivial amount of money, especially considering that the money is just paying for landfill. If your first reaction is squeamishness, try giving it a second or third thought.
Note pads and scratch paper - Okay, even when you've gotten off as many of the junk mailing lists as possible, you'll still get some unwanted mailings and then a few legitimate pieces of mail. Use the envelopes for your grocery lists, notes to family members, etc. This is a much better choice than actually paying for a small note pad. And if you open up that junk mail and find paper that only has printing on one side, you can use the other side for scrap paper too. Obviously, pay attention to what information might be printed on the used side. You might not want to lose a shopping list that has your financial information printed on the back. So just shred that stuff and use the form letters for your to-do lists. If the paper isn't folded or the folds won't be an issue, you can also use blank sides of full-sized paper in your computer printer for drafts or informal use.
Paper shopping bags - C'mon. You know the drill here. Instead of facing that familiar ethical dilemma between deforestation (paper bags) or albatross chick and sea turtle mortality (plastic bags), let yourself off the hook already and make a habit of canvas or recycled plastic shopping bags. Keep a few in your trunk, or wherever you'll remember them. It's not that hard. And it's becoming commonplace enough that you won't be mistaken some granola-munching, patchouli-smelling, Birkenstock-wearing hippie these days (if that concerns you). If you're fortunate, the store you shop at is forward-thinking enough to give you a small bag credit for providing your own bag.
Advanced Action Item: There's really no alternative item this month. Instead we have a few items that are for frugality/sustainability adepts. If all of the above is old hat for you, then you've probably already considered these options. I freely admit that I'm not yet at the point of committing to cloth toilet wipes. Since I don't have kids, the diaper issue isn't one I have to contend with. (For the record, my own infant years were spent in cloth diapers.) If you are still in the process of having babies, or if kids are in your future, consider the many advantages of cloth diapers, not least of which is the monetary savings. Trent at The Simple Dollar wrote up a cost comparison between cloth and disposable diapers. His conclusion was that he wished he'd put his first child in cloth diapers rather than waiting for the birth of his second child to make the switch.
For those of you who have been following along with these Frugal Action Items since the beginning of the year, how's it going? Have you noticed the savings? Have your efforts made a difference in your budgets or savings goals? Please chime in via the comment section.
New to these monthly Action Items? Catch up with more here:
January: Compact Fluorescent Bulbs & Hot Water Pipe Insulation
February: Kitchen Competence
March: Rein In Entertainment Spending
May: Solar Dryer
June: Raise the Deductible on Your Auto Insurance
July: Stay Cool Without Touching that Thermostat
August: Repair It!
October: Preventative Health Care
November: Frugal Holiday Wish List
December: Plan Next Year's Garden