1. Plan Your Menus
If you can plan ahead, even by as little as a few days, you can eliminate those last-minute trips to the grocery store to pick up something for dinner, or school lunches, or because you're out of milk again. If you get disciplined enough to plan a week or two ahead of time, you can save even more.
2. Subscribe to a Food Delivery Service
Have you heard? The milkman is back. And so are a number of other food delivery services, often delivered by bicycle or electric car, thanks to passionate entrepreneurs. In my city, for instance, you could choose from SoupCycle, a dairy that delivers yogurt and cheese, to an organic produce club and a gluten-free macaron delivery service -- and most of these offer food that's way tastier and healthier than what I can get in local stores.
3. Join a Buying Club
I never run out of milk because I pick up my milk each week as part of a standing order through our buying club, where I also get maple syrup (a bottle each month), fresh produce, bagels (a half-dozen each week), a couple of kinds of locally made cheeses, meat from local farmers, and fresh produce. I plan my week around Tuesday afternoon grocery pickup, often combining it with coffee with friends or my eight-year-old's Little League practice.
4. Commit to Local Food
It's a bigger commitment, but making family rules about the sources of your food can keep things simple, even it's something as uncomplicated as deciding to only buy the produce that's available at the farmer's market on Wednesdays, keeping the short trips for bananas and oranges out of bounds. If you make a farmer's market part of your routine and plan your meals around that, you could achieve a big lifestyle change that will have you canning peaches in the summer with a group of friends and eating them all year round, eschewing the grocery store because your pantry is full, and feeling good about the global savings in "food miles" and all the gas it takes to get food to your grocery store by eating local.
5. Buy in Bulk
Stacey Bradford and Sarah Lorge Butler suggest sharing trips to Costco -- as well as the flats of toilet paper you'll buy there -- with friends. And if you eat a lot of oatmeal or bake a lot, you may want to consider getting flour, oats or other grains in 25- or 50-pound bags. Shared among a few neighbors, you could cut gas prices and food costs.
6. Carpool to School
Unless your children are in private school, it's nearly certain your neighbors are also taking their kids to the same schools; carpooling can save gas costs and help your kids make those after-school playdates to which you don't have to drive.
Not only do I encourage my children to make friends with neighbor kids; I actively court their parents' goodwill, offering to watch their kids when they need to go on errands or out to coffee. It's a great way to keep my kids happy and to avoid having to go anywhere for companionship. I keep a sharp eye on the window for signs of kids playing and alert my own; it keeps them from spending too much time in front of the screens, too.
8. Coordinate your Activities with Nearby Friends and Neighbors.
Are you doing Little League this year? We are, if Avery is. Some kids may have very defined tastes and special skills that need careful tutelage; most kids could be happy with any number of activities, sports and lessons. Come up with a few choices, and huddle up with neighborhood parents your kids' age; surely you can agree on something and share the transportation. Maybe you can take turns coaching, too; if you take Little League, I'll take soccer...
9. Just Say No to Over-scheduling.
You want to give your kids everything a kid should have. But can you really manage the stress of having to coordinate transportation to three activities each Saturday? I know I can't. So figure out what your child adores, and say no to the rest. This goes for adults, too; you can say no to the volleyball league and the lawn sign brigade. Do you really want to spend your Sunday afternoons driving to the suburbs on the other end of town? Day of rest, right?
10. Find Walkable Groups and Activities.
I was over the moon when my eight-year-old's Little League team got assigned to the field a half-mile from my house. If we want to do swimming lessons this summer, they'll be at the pool that's only a three-minute bike ride away. I've stopped agreeing to book groups and knitting circles unless they meet within a few miles of home, so I can bike there in 15 minutes or less; if I'm going to spend time away from my family, I'm not going to spend half of it commuting.
11. Offer to Host
I'm not the only car-free member of my weekly writing group; Rebecca is committed to sustainability, and she hates to drive. So she's the most frequent hostess of our group, and none of the rest of us mind a bit -- we don't have to clean house, and we don't mind that she's saving money.
12. Combine Errands
This is the easiest and the most stress-reducing way to reduce gas. Pick one day every week (or, if you're lucky, every month) to run all your errands, and make sure you've plotted them efficiently. If you're like me, forcing yourself to do everything at once will reduce the likelihood you'll forget something. Well, hopefully.
13. Eliminate Errands.
This advice may make me unpopular, but I'll bet there are things you do regularly that you could live without. Imagine for a minute that your family's income was cut in half. What would you let go first? Could you let go of it now? Maybe you get a manicure at that place near your old job once a month; maybe it's a scrapbooking habit that you honestly don't have time for; maybe it's a standing lunch date at a pricey restaurant with an old boss. What would happen if you let it go? You never know -- maybe it would be a relief for you and your wallet not to have that in your schedule.
14. Combine Working Out with Errands
I've done this "trick" since even before I had kids and felt the time crunch so dearly: I'll try to make my run's midpoint an errand. This is especially simple if you have something lightweight to do (deposit a check, mail a bill, buy stamps or bus tickets, drop off a computer file). If it's something a little bulkier -- in business school, I'd do my grocery shopping -- you may have to put it near the end of your run, walk or bike ride. (Ladies, my secret is the sports bra meant for bicycle racers; they have huge back pockets that can fit my wallet, a couple of rolls of film, and a cloth bag for carrying home my purchases. Men, you're on your own, but the bike people make jerseys, too.)
15. Never Buy Anything on Credit
If you give yourself the freedom to use your plastic, it will encourage you to say "yes" to those whims you and I both have, such as spending a little time trolling antique stores on Saturday, say, or trying out that new restaurant on opening day, or getting in line for a special "doorbuster" or day-of-release event. You'll be encouraged to hop in your car and go somewhere, when you could just as well be reading a book or cooking those farmer's market veggies in your crisper before they go bad.
16. Budget Both your Money and Time
When it comes to errands, I've been known to spend a whole day-that-could-otherwise have been spent so well: writing the next great American novel, or baking shortbread cookies for my kids. If I plan things ahead of time, I find I'd much rather play ball in the backyard than go shopping for baseball gear. And if I go all the way to that sporting goods store, shouldn't I also stop at the fabric depot a mile away? If I've come up with a strict plan for my expenditures of money and errand time, I'll be more likely to conserve both.
17. Say "no" to Big Box Stores
Category killers are, it's true, the best way to evaluate absolutely every product in a category; big stores like Walmart and Target entice you with their aisles full of everything under the sun (that's wrapped in plastic and marked with a bar code, that is). They're also typically located outside a central city area and are great for sucking up an afternoon (and a few hundred dollars more than you meant to spend). Keeping your selection limited and your shopping source nearby will save you gas money and the moolah you use for everything else, too.
There are as many ways to reduce your spending on gas as there are ways to use gas. The best advice I can give you is to be present in every decision you make. Don't grab your keys without at least first considering, just for a moment, if you really have to make that trip. Could you save it for another day when you'll be going that way, anyway? Could you do it over the phone or online? Could you walk, bike or take the bus? Are you just going out to get out of the house? (In that case, grab your walking shoes and your children/pet/significant other instead!) Could you ask my child/friend/spouse to catch a ride with someone else or find another way home?
While you won't see that every trip has a gas-free alternative, lots will, and if you're anything like me, you'll save guilt and stress as well as money and carbon emissions.