Recalculating the Cost of Living

Illustration by Jason Raish

One of the satisfactions of my relatively green lifestyle is that it enables me to live more frugally than I once did. Or perhaps frugal is not exactly the right word. More accurately, it gives me greater control and choice over where my dollars go. It shifts some of the variables in the cost-of-living equation.

For example, instead of spending lots on utility bills and things like laundry detergent and household cleaners, I now use a clothesline and make my own laundry soap and other cleaners (the recipes are surprisingly simple). My boyfriend complains that my house is cold because I keep my thermostat so low in the winter, but I am a knitter, so I was delighted to make him a handsome wool sweater. The wild swings in gas prices haven’t affected me much, because I fuel up my car usually twice a month. Instead, I routinely walk and take public transportation, including my work commute.

There is some meat in my diet, but not daily. I get a lot of protein from other sources—eggs, pairing beans and grains, nuts, and my dearly beloved cheese—that are much less expensive. So when I do buy meat, I can splurge on something locally farmed, grass-fed, and fabulous. I cram food gardens into every sunny corner of my yard, a long, narrow lot in a Decatur neighborhood. I can and preserve much of the food I grow and gather. I keep a few chickens for eggs and buy dairy and additional produce from local farmers. That way, I’m putting my money into a local organic chicken feed co-op and my neighborhood farmers’ market instead of a food system dominated by fossil fuels.

I’m always on the prowl for a good barter and the alt-economy it helps create. I have traded apples for sweet potatoes and eggs for wild venison, local honey, and homemade tempeh. Last year I helped my neighbor, a gifted fabric crafter, build her website. She paid me in a custom order of her exquisite handmade creations, which constituted most of my holiday shopping for 2011. I’m also a small-scale food forager—mulberries, pecans, and persimmons from volunteer trees, blackberries from brambles on the side of the road.

Somehow, all of these practices make the value of goods and services seem more real and precious to me. They are pragmatic choices, but they are also ethical ones—made to resist the notion that I am trapped in a culture of consumption, that I have no choice but to sink my resources into industries and processes I abhor.

Yet my intention is not to live “impact free.” I am not interested in extremes or gimmicks that don’t reflect the reality of most folks’ everyday lives. I still own a car and a dryer. Rather, I yearn to live more lightly, with a sense of balance and bounty, joining the growing ranks of city dwellers around the nation who are becoming more thoughtful and creative about their own environmental impact as it relates to quality of life.

This quest is not without its contradictions. One of the conundrums, for example, of the “locavore” movement is that it has upscaled quality basic ingredients. Restaurants that feature locally and sustainably grown foods tend to be very pricey. I love that my local Saturday morning farmers’ market accepts Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT—Georgia’s electronic version of food stamps) cards, and that it is located within easy walking distance of the city’s public housing development. But then again, if you’re stretching your EBT allocation as far as it can go, and you can get a much bigger bunch of carrots at Kroger, where would common sense take you?

These are complicated questions about food, sustainability, class, culture, accessibility, and economics: What kind of upside-down system renders the most basic, simple, easily produced food the least accessible? For me, it goes back to that choice of thinking about my lifestyle in simple economic terms.

If I make some kind of major purchase for my garden, I think of it as a long-term investment for greater future food production. Two years ago I hired someone to help me improve my rainwater catchment system. It was a significant up-front expense, but I didn’t water my garden from the public works at all last year.

Maybe frugal is the right word, after all. I want my cost of living to be low, and I want my environmental impact to be low. So I consider the flow of goods and funds in a different way. If I sell a few dozen eggs to my neighbors, my organic chicken feed is paid for; I enjoy eating at restaurants that serve local food, but I also love preparing great meals at home.

It’s easy to feel powerless and inconsequential, a tiny David banging my fists on the toe of an inevitable Goliath. What could I possibly do to slow impending environmental doom—the global consumption of fossil fuels, the rapid construction of coal burning power plants, the overpopulation of the planet, the destruction wrought by factory farming?

Ultimately, not much, until I realize that I am actually Goliath: my addictions, my habits, my enslavements of mind. Those seemingly inconsequential steps—getting out of the car and onto a bicycle or into walking shoes, shopping for “real” food at a local farmer’s market, turning the thermostat down and putting on a sweater, hanging clothes on a line in the spring sunshine—those steps are the seeds of monumental transformation.

Allison Adams 00G is editor of the Academic Exchange, a publication of the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence at Emory. Read more on her blog, The Southern Urban Homestead

Allison Adams 00G is editor of the Academic Exchange, a publication of the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence at Emory. Read more on her blog, The Southern Urban Homestead (

Email the Editor

Share This Story