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How to Go Green in One Weekend

Becoming more environmentally conscientious will earn you eco-props from Mother Nature, Al Gore, and your grandkids. But let's be honest. The more immediate payoffs -- say, a little cash to line the pockets in your undyed, organically milled cotton pants -- aren't a bad incentive, either.

Our Earth Day special yesterday gave you plenty of tips on how green investing can add some green to your bottom line. From obvious picks such as solar companies Suntech Power (NYSE: STP  ) and Evergreen Solar (Nasdaq: ESLR  ) to green initiatives from Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) and eco-friendly diapers from Kimberly-Clark (NYSE: KMB  ) and Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG  ) , there's plenty of potential profit for your green portfolio.

But investing isn't the only way to enrich yourself by going green. How does saving $600 sound? You can do that every year by making just a few small adjustments in how you conduct your everyday business. Here are a handful of easy chores that you can tackle in one weekend -- and for free -- that will pay off sizeable financial and environmental dividends over time.

Pare down your paper trail
Want an extra hour and 45 minutes a month? Start paying your bills electronically.

According to NACHA -- The Electronic Payments Association, the average household receives 20 bills every month. Those who pay bills the old-fashioned way -- writing out checks and licking envelopes -- spend two hours a month on the task.

No wonder more and more utility companies, service providers, and financial institutions are actively encouraging customers to go virtual. Many are even offering incentives to their customers who conduct business online. Take them up on their offer: NACHA reports that consumers who pay bills electronically spend just 15 minutes a month on the task.

What can you do this weekend to reduce the waste of managing your monthly affairs?

  • Get out last month's bills and go to each service provider's website (or call) to see if they offer any incentives for switching to e-billing.
  • Check with your bank to see whether using direct deposit will get you free checking or better interest rates on your savings.
  • On the investment side, opt out of paper reports and prospectuses and sign up for email alerts so you know when the information is available online.
  • Halt the delivery of unwanted catalogs with the free opt-out service at catalogchoice.org. (Other for-pay junk mail-busters are greendimes.com, whose services cost $20 for one year of monitoring and $10 a year thereafter, and 41pounds.org, which charges $41 for a five-year plan.)

For more motivation, let's calculate both the karmic and monetary payoff.

Cash and karma in the bank
Going paperless is not just about salvaging a few trees and saving time. Managing your financial affairs electronically also reduces the world's noxious gases and waste.

A 2007 survey by Javelin Strategy and Research found that if every U.S. household received and paid its bills electronically, we'd save enough trees every year to build 216,054 single-family homes, decrease air pollutants to the equivalent of taking 355,000 cars off the road, and reduce our solid waste by 1.6 billion pounds -- that's 56,000 fully loaded garbage trucks' worth.

On an annual per-household basis, receiving and sending bills electronically will result in 6.6 fewer pounds of paper used, 170 pounds fewer of greenhouse gasses emitted (which is like cancelling out 167 miles of driving, or planting two trees), and 63 gallons of water and 4.5 gallons of gasoline conserved.

On the dollars-and-cents side, your operational savings (stamps, checks, and late fees when the check was not actually in the mail, even though your spouse swore it was) comes to roughly $150 a year, or $12.50 a month. Have your paychecks deposited directly into your account, and, according to NACHA, you'll be $90 per month richer than those who conduct their affairs with paper checks and visits to bank machines and tellers.

Now that we've saved a few square feet of forest, let's see what we can do to whittle down the amounts due on those bills you're paying online.

Corral the costs of creature comforts
If you really want to conserve energy, stop standing there with the fridge door open!

Eartheasy.com says that the typical home produces more air pollution than the average car does. The breakdown of the average household's utility costs, according to the Energy Information Administration, is roughly 40% spent on heat and air conditioning, 14% on hot water, 36% on lighting and appliances, and 10% on refrigeration. (Find out how much it costs to run everything in your house, from your air conditioner to your video game player, at michaelbluejay.com/electricity.)

But before you clear the backyard to install a wind turbine, try a little elbow grease. You can wrap up both financial and atmospheric savings by giving your heating and cooling systems and your major appliances -- which are your home's biggest energy hogs -- a little TLC.

You can improve your home's heating and cooling efficiency by a whopping 30% simply by plugging leaks. Replace old weather-stripping, caulk holes around pipes, and make sure ducts are leak-free, and then brag to your mom that, finally, you're not paying to heat or cool the whole neighborhood.

If you need a hand, call your utility company and schedule an energy audit. Many companies will perform these thorough inspections for free or a small fee, or they may offer a rebate if you hire an outside company. Your inspector will identify trouble spots and make remedy recommendations. Or you can conduct a DIY home energy audit at hes.lbl.gov and get an upgrade report that calculates your savings as well your return on investment and payback time in key areas such as heating, cooling, water heating, appliances, and lighting.

Once you've plugged the leaks, a few easy chores will help your home run more efficiently. Simply changing the filter on your HVAC and cleaning the coil can improve your unit's original efficiency by anywhere from 5% to 20% each year. Regular checkups improve efficiency and prolong the life of your appliances. And doing seemingly small things like replacing light bulbs, programming your thermostat, adjusting the temperature on your water heater, or washing your clothes in cold water can save you hundreds of dollars over the course of the year.

When it's time to replace any of your appliances, go to energystar.gov to see what products earn the Energy Star seal of approval. Find out whether your state offers energy savings incentives by checking out dsireusa.org, and get the latest on federal credits at energytaxincentives.org.

Add it up
Vacuuming the coils on the back of the fridge and slipping Junior a few extra bucks to change the HVAC's filter make a bigger difference than you might think. If every household improved the energy efficiency of appliances by 10% to 30%, the reduced demand for electricity would be on par with shutting down 25 large power plants, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

As for the cash-money bottom line, though an imperfect comparison, the amount the average household spends on utilities per year is $1,500. Divided equally over 12 months, we're talking a savings of up to $37.50 a month. Our calculators can't measure the karmic payoff of a weekend of service to Mother Nature's cause, but I'm sure it's pretty substantial, too.


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