For many people, phrases like, "going green," "off grid" and "neutralize your carbon footprint" hold an emotional appeal, but people face a very real financial barrier. It's true that a full solar panel array will save you money in the long run, but the startup costs - ranging from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars - are too high for most people. In this article, we'll look at small ways to make your home greener - and save money doing it. (To understand what this is "green" thing is all about, see What Does It Mean To Be Green?)

Water Conservation
Water is the cheapest resource we use in the home and, consequently, the one we use most carelessly. In some European countries, new homes are being plumbed differently, so that gray water (the runoff collected from your sinks and washers) and urine are collected, treated and recycled as irrigation water for gardens and lawns. However, in America, a large scale replumbing of your home can be costly, and the building and waste management codes in your area might actually prohibit this alteration. Fortunately, water-saving appliances and systems are becoming popular and affordable for the average homeowner. (For some added tips and tricks when you're building your home, see Building Green For Your House And Wallet.)

But wait: Before you spend the $300 to $2,000 on a composting toilet, or redo your pipes to use gray water more efficiently, consider the cheaper and more efficient designs that reduce waste coming out of the pipes. A $20 low-flow showerhead can save water, while actually increasing or at least maintaining the water pressure you're used to. Similar heads are available for every faucet in the house. For around $200, you can get a storage tank system that collects the water going down your bathroom sink and reuses it to flush those water-hungry toilets.
That said, water discipline is your best bet. Some examples of discipline and conservation that can reduce your water bill just as dramatically include:

  • Keeping the length of your showers to a minimum by wetting yourself, washing without running water and then using the shower only while rinsing
  • Collecting rainwater for use in your garden, or watering only at night, when the sun doesn't have a chance to steal the moisture

Energy Conservation
There are some pricey pros and cons to reducing your energy footprint. Let's take a look at a few.

  • Taking your home completely off the grid will reduce your power bill to zero. But when it costs tens of thousands to install, it is an investment that takes years to pay off.
  • Supplemental solar arrays for houses are getting cheaper and can produce 30-50% of a homeowner's electricity needs; however, in 2009 the arrays are still retailing at more than $5,000. The best bet for the frugal and conscientious homeowner is in conservation of electric energy. Unplugging appliances (when not in use), changing your light bulbs to compact fluorescents (CFL), running you dishwasher full, and even following Ben Franklin's advice of "early to bed, early to rise" helps you to take advantage of natural light, which costs nothing and can result in real savings. (To read more about how being frugal can make you rich, see our case study of billionaire Warren Buffett in Warren Buffett: The Road To Riches.)

  • If you have a little money to spend, you can go solar in a small way. Portable solar panels retail from $300 and collect enough juice to power garden lights, a camper, or even indoor appliances. A few panels aren't going to power your home, but they are an affordable way to get rid of some of the extension cords leading to your backyard. Like the larger arrays, the panels won't pay for themselves for some time, but if people continue to buy into solar energy (panels), the technology will become cheaper. (To keep reading on this subject, see Ten Ways To Save Energy And Money.)

  • Many exciting ideas are in the pipeline for reducing the carbon that heating your home produces. With the rising costs of oil, many homeowners are making the leap to the cleaner, more efficient natural gas fuels. This set-up can cost anywhere from $4,000 to $5,000.

  • Some homeowners are considering the geothermal heating option, which involves using the earth's heat to replace the burning of fuels. If you don't have $4,000 to $5,000 to put in a new natural gas set-up or the $4,000 to $12,000 for a geothermal pump system, alternatives are available that will do until the new technology becomes cheaper. Simple discipline will help you reduce your bills without any costs. Wearing a sweater indoors, turning down the thermostat at night, keeping curtains closed, and similar actions do have an overall affect.

  • If you have extra money to put into your house, start by insulating it. Many homes are insulated according to the minimum of the regional building code, but by adding more insulation, you can reduce the amount of energy you use to heat and cool your home. Insulation is something that can be done gradually, in affordable steps. Start with weather stripping and pipe insulation, then move upward in cost to add false walls or insulation. Next, consider replacing the burner on your furnace, because newer burners operate more efficiently. If you have the money, buy a $500 regulator to fine-tune how your furnace is using fuel. If $500 is too much, purchase a $30 programmable thermostat to control how often your furnace is kicking in; it will probably pay for itself within the year.

    The Next Step in Reducing Your Footprint
    Rome wasn't built in a day, and your journey to a more energy-efficient home will also take time. By taking small, common sense steps rather than making expensive leaps into new technologies, you can do your part without going broke.

    Although the following benefits vary from state to state, you might be pleasantly surprised to find that:

    • The local utility company will provide a free energy audit
    • The government (federal, state, or local) will give you a tax deduction for reducing your carbon footprint

    The most important consideration to remember about turning your home green is to do it at a price and pace that you can be comfortable with. Being environmentally friendly doesn't have to be financially painful.