Going green means saving money: 10 tips for cheap, green dorm living

If you're a college-aged twentysomething like me, you've probably heard the phrase "going green" so many times these past few years that it seems more of a hollow catchphrase than a rallying cry. And though it'd be nice to buy new biodegradable pens, they can cost $6 for a four-pack: and damn, you can get 60 packets of sale price-ramen for that!

So what's a penny-pinching but eco-conscious college student to do? Never fear; there are many ways to live more sustainably by modifying your daily habits or making smarter purchases with money you'd probably spend anyway. Ease your eco-conscience and follow Money College's 10 tips to be greener for (almost) free.

1. "Turn off lights, turn off lights, turn off lights."

When I asked a green-minded friend for his dorm advice, these were the first words out of his mouth - and seeing as he just spent a year living in simulated poverty in an immersion program, I believe him. Check it out for yourself: Click around these websites from Notre Dame and Arizona State University, which demonstrate the remarkable energy savings when you turn off or unplug electronics in your dorm room. Thankfully, the U.S. Department of Energy publishes precise information on how to maximize savings, depending on the bulbs you use. The best part? Mindfully flipping that switch costs you nothing, but could potentially save hundreds of dollars over the course of a school year.

2. Better bulbs, stingy strips

Your appliances are lying to you. Even when turned off, many perpetually plugged-in electronics still suck power from the wall. This needlessly wasteful phantom power usage can account for up to 75% of a home's electricity use, according to the Department of Energy. Getting into good habits now - like investing in an energy-saving smart strip over a regular power strip, or unplugging electronics you aren't using - literally pays dividends, espcially if you live off campus and have to pay your own electric bill. Opt for an energy-saving smart strip over a regular power strip when outfitting your dorm, or unplug electronic you aren't using. And trade in those wasteful standard light bulbs with greener compact fluorescent ones if your campus holds a light bulb swap.

3. Squeaky Clean

For all you green cleaners, consider mixing your own cleaning products out of household substances instead of buying more expensive, ready mixed bottles of cleaners. Since you can buy and mix batches in bulk, it may turn out to be less expensive than brand-name cleaning products, with the added benefit of using natural products instead of harsh or toxic synthetic chemicals.

4. Edit thoughtfully

This advice works just as well for dorm shopping as it does for Tim Gunn's mentees on Project Runway: look at what you have, then take away all the unnecessary crap. Sure, Corporate America wants to sucker you into buying every color-coordinated photo holder, folding rack and dorm room "essential" ever marketed under the "Back to School!" banner, but we know better. Shop the free stuff portion of Craigslist, and let functional, not flashy, be your guide. Buying less means conserving more -- and who really needs wall decals anyway?

5. Rags over paper towels

Say goodbye to paper towels. As handy as this they may be, Green America lists paper towels on their list of "Ten Things You Should Never Buy Again," saying they waste trees and landfill space. Invest once in reusable rags instead of continually buying packs of paper towels for a planet- and wallet-friendly alternative.

6. Bottle it up

According to environmental advocates, plastic waste from bottled water sucks up massive amounts of resources to produce and ship, while the water itself can be 1,000 times more expensive than tap water. Do yourself (and Mother Nature) a favor - try saving up what you would have spent in a week or two on the bottled stuff and invest in a BPA-free reusable bottle (one's only $4!).

7. It's in the bag

Chances are you'll have oodles of plastic grocery bags after a few shopping trips to fill your snazzy new micro-fridge. Sadly, these often end up filling landfills or terrorizing animals (read here). Bring your backpack on shopping trips as a sustainable solution. And if you do accidentally grab a bag, use it again as a trash can liner.

8. Recycle! Repeat...

As self-evident as this seems, few of my dorm-mates made the extra effort to separate recyclables and place them in a separate, campus-provided bin. With most colleges jumping on the green bandwagon, chances are recycling options are easier and closer than you think.

9. The upside to double-sided

That massive 20-page essay uses only 10 sheets of paper when you print double-sided. Ask library or computer lab staff to help you print-double sided copies- which may cost you less in printing fees anyway - and advocate for using recycled paper on-campus.

10. Green alert!

Warning: This last suggestion is not for beginners. I'm told it's tricky to do right (and smelly and messy if you fail) and our unlike tips, requires some cash for supplies. But for you die-hard do-gooders and sustainability scholars this may be for you: compost indoors. Check to make sure you're not breaking any dorm regulations (or ticking off your roommate), then check out these videos to see how students at Columbia University and UNC-Chapel Hill compost indoors using special worms.

See? You don't have to spend green to be green. Now go fulfill all your childhood Captain Planeteer fantasies and start savin' that Earth, bit by bit.

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