How to save money by going zero waste: A guide for beginners

A zero-waste state of mind can save your wallet—and even the planet. Here's how.

Take out your wallet and pull out a $5 bill. Now, take that same $5 bill, crumple it up and toss it in the trash.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But throwing away money is actually something many Americans do every day when they throw out food, plastic water bottles and other items that can be reused, repurposed or recycled.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the typical American produces about four-and-a-half pounds of waste every single day. Just over 50 percent of it ends up in landfills each year, where it can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA.

But there could be another way—choosing a zero-waste lifestyle.

“To be zero waste means to generate little to no trash,” says Antonia Korcheva, founder of Escape Waste, a commerce site and blog promoting zero-waste and plastic-free living.

Ok, ok. You may buy how reducing your waste could be good for the planet, but “How can a zero-waste lifestyle save me money?”

You may be wondering how a zero waste lifestyle can save you money. But it’s simple—the less waste you produce, the less you tend to buy.

The short answer, says Korcheva, is that when you’re reducing waste you tend to buy less—saving you money in the process. However, you may need to spend a little money to get started.

“With zero waste, there is an upfront cost followed by long-term savings,” says Kait Schulhof, founder of zero-waste living blog A Clean Bee.

If you’re ready to find out how a zero-waste lifestyle can save you money, here are six ways to get started:

1. Track your waste

A good way to see how much trash (and money) you might be wasting is to keep track of what you’re throwing away. The first step to save money with zero waste is to record everything your family tosses out for one week. No joke.

Then, categorize the waste. (A little gross, but worth it.) Are you throwing away mostly plastic items, paper items, food waste? This can help you decide which waste areas you need to focus on most.

Pro Tip:

Take note of any single-use items you throw away that you could either avoid purchasing altogether or recycle, Schulhof says.

2. Rethink your approach to grocery shopping

Another step to save money with zero waste is to revisit how you shop for groceries. Purchasing package-free food like fruits, vegetables and dry goods measured out by weight is a strategy that Schulhof advocates as a way to produce less waste and save money on family expenses.

Next time you hit the grocery store, see if there’s a section with food sold in large bulk bins, open-market style. Rice, nuts, beans, flour, grains, cereals and spices are common bulk-bin items. You can even bring your own containers from home, such as cloth drawstring bags or glass jars, and fill them with the amount of each item you need.

One way to save money by going zero waste is to bring containers, jars, or bags from home to the grocery store to minimize plastic and cardboard waste.

This bulk-bin strategy checks the box for minimizing waste because it allows you to skip plastic or cardboard packaging. When you’re learning how to save money by going zero waste, the key is making sure that you’re not buying too much of an item that could potentially go bad before it’s used.

How a zero-waste lifestyle can save you money comes into play since you’re only paying for what you need, and package-free goods can also be less expensive than their packaged counterparts.

When you’re taking this step to save money with zero waste, you might need to spend more upfront as you make the switch from packaged goods and stock up on bulk-bin ingredients for the first time, Schulhof says.

Pro Tip:

Make sure to weigh your containers in the grocery store before filling them up, so that the container’s weight isn’t calculated in the weight of your bulk-bin items, Schulhof says. A cashier should be able to help you out.

3. Plan and prep meals

Meal planning means mapping out the meals you plan to eat each day for a set time period. You can do your meal prep a week at a time or by the month, depending on what works better for you and your family.

Putting forethought into meals enables you to buy the specific amount you need of a particular item, which is key for learning how to save money by going zero waste. How many times have you needed only a small amount of a certain ingredient, says Schulhof, but ended up buying the entire package—only to then have too much leftover?

Thinking about meals ahead of time is also a way to stop overspending on impulse buys, which can tax your grocery budget. How many times have you bought something at the grocery store because it sounded good in the moment? Fast-forward a week, and you’re tossing it out because you never had a purpose for it.

When planning meals around ingredients you buy from bulk bins, Schulhof says the goal is to make use of everything you purchase. If you’re creative, you might be able to stretch basic staples, such as rice, beans, potatoes and grains, into several meals, putting a fresh spin on how they’re cooked each time, she adds.

Pro Tip:

When creating your main meal plan, include plans for the leftovers and scraps as well. For example, you might be able to make soups or salads from the leftover bits of celery, carrots and other veggies, Schulhof says.

4. Grow your own ingredients

Another strategy for how to save money by going zero waste is growing some of your own produce and herbs at home. You may have to invest a little bit of money in seeds and potting soil at the beginning, but you can reap savings later by being able to shop your own garden for vegetables, fruits or herbs, instead of buying them from the grocery store.

If you’re considering how a zero-waste lifestyle can save you money, know that you can even combine the grow-your-own method with composting to further reduce waste. Composting rotting food is a way to create natural fertilizer for a backyard vegetable garden or indoor herb garden. At the same time, you’re reducing the presence of methane-producing food scraps in your yard or local landfill.

Pro Tip:

If you can’t compost at home, try reaching out to a local farm or food co-op to see if they accept food scraps for composting, Schulhof says.

5. Look beyond food waste at home

Groceries and food waste might be your biggest focal point (especially if you’re a frugal foodie), but there are plenty of other ideas for how a zero-waste lifestyle can save you money around the house.

These alternative ideas can “help eliminate the need for consumers to purchase single-use products, which, over time, will save money,” Schulhof says.

Shopping secondhand for clothes, furniture, and other household items is a great example of how a zero waste lifestyle can save you money.

Here are Schulhof’s and Korcheva’s steps to save money with zero waste by looking beyond food waste:

  • Check your personal inventory before making a purchase. For example, an old cookie jar can make a great mini compost bin, thereby eliminating the need to purchase a new one.
  • Invest in reusable products. When learning how to save money by going zero waste, consider swapping out paper napkins for cloth, paper plates for regular dishes and single-use cleaning bottles for refillable ones.
  • Buy secondhand instead of new. You can find furniture, clothing, books, games, gardening supplies and plenty of other household items at consignment shops, thrift stores, flea markets and online marketplaces.
  • Make your own. Instead of paying for makeup, personal-care or cleaning supplies, consider what you can make yourself from natural ingredients you already have, such as vinegar and baking soda.

Pro Tip:

For more leads on how to save money by going zero waste, Korcheva says to consider joining a network or community that allows people to give and get items for free.

6. Reduce waste while on the run

Many zero-waste living tips focus on things you can do at home to cut down on waste and save. But there are also steps to save money with zero waste that you can take when you’re away from home.

On-the-go strategies include skipping plastic straws when you’re ordering drinks out or packing a handkerchief instead of a packet of tissues.

Instead of turning to “retail therapy” when you’re having a bad day, steps to save money with zero waste include doing something else relaxing (e.g., go for a walk, take a free yoga class in the park or meet up with a friend). These are just a few low-effort, high-impact ideas on how to save money by going zero waste.

Pro Tip:

If you drink multiple plastic bottles of water at work or when running errands, replace them with a reusable water bottle, Korcheva says.

Sustaining a better future

The motives for going zero waste may be different for everyone, but finding out how a zero-waste lifestyle can save you money has its merits if you want to reduce unnecessary expenses, reduce your environmental impact and save more.

Schulhof says she and her family have used the money they’ve saved to start an emergency fund that covers six months’ worth of living expenses. Whether that’s your goal, or you’d rather support an education or a vacation fund, consider opening an online savings account to collect and grow the money you are able to uncover from adopting a zero-waste state of mind.