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How to Go Zero Waste on a Budget

Sustainable Finance

Last Updated on January 23, 2024

I have been zero waste for almost three years now. I have picked up so much information along the way and found the best tools for me. 

Every zero waster is going to have different things that that make their lives easier. It will take time to figure out what those things are for you. 

I have saved SO much money since going zero waste, which has allowed me the opportunity to experiment with different items.

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I also write a popular blog, which has given me a platform to test new items. This means companies send items to me for free in hopes that I will write about them. Very few make it to the blog, but I just want to make sure you know that it is a privilege I have now. 

When I first started going zero waste in 2015, I was completely broke. I didn’t have a blogging platform. I didn’t have really any disposable income, but going zero waste was important to me. 

I decided that all I could invest in going zero waste was $50. I’m going to tell you what I bought, and how I would have handled it hindsight. 

Of course, I still realize having a spare $50 is not a luxury everyone has. But, I do hope this helps people who are looking to go zero waste on a budget!

It doesn’t have to be a super expensive endeavor. You don’t have to have fancy metal lunch boxes or shop at specialty zero waste stores. 

A lot of the fancy zero waste items I have, have been gifts over the years birthdays, Christmas, and of course gifts from companies. But, I just wanted to give you a glimpse of where I started… 

$2 pillow cases: 

I went to the thrift store to buy pillow cases to stitch into produce bags. I picked up two large pillow cases for $2.

I figured pillow cases would be a good place to start since they would have a couple of sides finished for me. I cut my pillow cases into six bags, and hand stitched the edges. I do not have a sewing machine, but I am pretty handy with a needle. 

I only bag produce that is small and needs to stay together like lettuce or mushrooms. This prevented me from needing lots of bags. It was rather limiting when going to the bulk store, but I did have a hefty selection of mason jars. 

I’m very proud of my hand stitched produce bags! Also, a photo of my thrift store pillow cases. I was so proud of my purchases. 

$15 mason jars:

I feel very fortunate that my thrift store had mason jars for cheap! I could get a mason jar with the lid for around 50 cents. 

I also bought grocery items in glass jars with the intention of reusing the jars. $15 worth of mason jars plus the ones from pasta sauce and salad dressing gave me a pretty large collection of around 50 jars.

I also had three roommates, and I collected all of their jars too. 

This photo is of my very first run to the thrift store after deciding to go zero waste resulted in these four mason jars. Back then my thrift shop wrote on the glass jars with a wax pen. It kept the whole experience waste free. 

$2 scrap fabric: 

I also picked up a couple yards of some nice scrap fabric at my local thrift store. I hand stitched dinner napkins for myself and Justin. I figured it was the cheapest way to get cute napkins. 

I was also very into stitching at the time. I embroidered a cobra on the back of Justin’s denim vest for Valentine’s Day. It was a nice little hobby for me. 

Recognize these napkins? They have certainly shown up in a fair amount of my posts. Also, can we just admit how much better my photography skills have gotten? 

$14 menstrual cup:

This was definitely a HUGE splurge item for me. I was also terrified of buying a menstrual cup. I had never liked wearing tampons, so making this switch was a little scary. Also, a HUGE investment for me at the time. 

I wound up going with the Blossom Cup* because it has a love it or your money back guarantee. 

I knew if I didn’t like it, I could always send it back. I wound up loving it, and it’s one of the best purchases I’ve made. 

$2 klean kanteen and thermos: 

I found my very first klean kanteen at the thrift store for $1! I was so incredibly thrilled. 

It was not an insulated klean kanteen, but I also found a stainless steel thermos for hot drinks. Justin and I both like iced coffee so we traded off on who got hot coffee with our one thermos and who got iced coffee in the mason jar. 

9 times out of 10, I got the iced coffee in the mason jar because it was just a little too “hipster” for him. 

This was the run to the thrift store where I found my first klean kanteen! You can see from the receipt for three mason jars and the water bottle I paid $2.31. 

$15 reusable bags: 

I have to say, I thought these bags* looked amazing. Look at the pockets! I could keep my mason jars from banging together when going to the grocery store! 

But, those bags are complete and utter failures. By far, my most disappointing purchase I have made since going zero waste. 

The pockets are sewn to high up on the bag. The pockets don’t have any bottoms. They’re open top and bottom, and any thing you put in them just falls out through the bottom of the pocket. Unless it’s a baguette. The only thing tall enough to actually utilize the pocket is a baguette. 

I still have the bags and use them, but they’re not my favorite. 

I honestly can’t believe how many photos I have documenting my first zero waste purchases. This was before I had an instagram account or a blog. 

It’s nice to be reminded how enthusiastic and excited I was. Not that I’m not excited now, but zero waste has become routine for me.

Back then, it was all so new and thrilling! It was exciting, and every day was like a game. I woke up with a, “How can I avoid trash today?” mentality. 

Did you have a large start-up cost when you went zero waste? Were you budget savvy? How did you get started? 

*This post may contain affiliate linking you can read more on my disclosure page. Thank you for your support.

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  1. Hi Kathryn, I have been vegan for 4 years, mainly for environmental reasons, and I just decided to transition to zero waste as well. Your blog has been a great help so far! I do not have much disposable income at the moment (I’m a graduate student) but I received a $100 Amazon gift card over the holidays and decided to use it to purchase the supplies I thought I’d need to get started: microfiber cleaning cloths, dinner napkins, produce bags, castile soap, essential oils, wool dryer balls, lids for my mixing bowls, a microwave popcorn maker, and plant hangers for an indoor herb garden. Of course this purchase involves packaging but I already had the gift card. I’m buying jars at a thrift store and saving the ones in my pantry. The one splurge purchase I hope to make soon is a soy and nut milk maker, which will save me a lot of time in the kitchen. Thank you for being an inspiration to all of us who are trying to make better choices for the environment!

  2. I received a reusable bag with pockets like you described. They are for keeping your wine bottles in place šŸ˜‰

  3. I’m just starting out, and it’s not always easy to keep the family aligned with my ideals… Nor my purchases! Sometimes things backfire (I order or buy something with hidden plastic), sometimes I regret a purchase, sometimes I waste ingredients trying a new recipe… But I’m moving in the right direction and that’s enough to keep me going!

  4. Love, love, love this. It’s so important to remember zero waste doesn’t have to be expensive! In fact, in the long run, it’ll save you a buck! ;D

    Btw, this post inspired me to make some DIY napkins for myself using scrap fabric! When I was younger, I was known as the "napkin queen" and literally used at least 10 napkins at the dinner table. Ugh. So glad I don’t do that anymore, but I love the idea on cutting back on disposable napkins all together by DIYing some!

    Thanks for another great post. You rock!


  5. Hi! Just an idea, those bags you were dissapointed in, since you can handle a thread & needle, would it be possible to use some scrap fabric to make "bottoms" for the sleves? To adjust the bags more to your liking? It’s too bad they made the design poorly, but if you could adjust them to better suit your needs they wouldn’t be a waste? šŸ™‚ And you could get the intended use from them.

  6. Great post! I”ve recently started my zero waste journey and I’m fascinated with all the ideas I can use to make my life more waste-free. So far, I haven’t spent anything because I used the fabric that I already had at home to sew shopping bags and reusable cotton pads. When I read how much you paid for your mason jars and klean kanteen I started envying you a little bit šŸ™‚ Unfortunately, both these products are very expensive in my country and I will probably not be able to afford them anytime soon. I’ll be documenting my zero waste struggles on my blog together with different sewing projects. I love your blog and I’m going to look around here šŸ™‚

  7. Recently I bought a menstrual cup for about $12 and I’m so pleased with it. I love that it saves money, reduces waste and makes me forget I’m on my period. Highly recommend for anyone looking to buy less garbage!
    I was also surprised by the packaging. I ordered the Misscup online and expected a plastic-lined box inside a shipping box. Instead there was a padded shipping envelope with an instruction sheet, and ziplock bag containing the reusable pouch with menstrual cup (in another ziplock bag). So there was some plastic, but less than I expected. I saved the little bags and shipping envelope to reuse.
    I hadn’t thought about making my own reusable napkins – thanks for the idea!

  8. Love this post! I am very new to trying to reduce my waste. I purchased a college mason jars from the thrift store, my mom had about 8 from my wedding so I got those, too. I made some bags and have bought a couple. I’ve made other small switches so far and can’t wait to do more!

  9. I have purchased flannel receiving blankets at thrift shops. I’ve been cut them into oval shapes a little bigger than my hand & sew two together. I have made what they call Family cloths or personal wipes. I can’t tell you how much it has saved me in the cost of toilet paper. I still have toilet paper on the roll for company and to use when needed. I have a small step on plastic trash container next to the toilet that has bleach water in it (much like you would do for baby diapers years ago) and I am still using the cloths that I made 3 years ago. I also cut larger squares from receiving blankets p, and made approximately 30 cloth (paper) towels. I keep them in a small tray I bought from the dollar store and no longer purchase paper towels. I also have made dinner napkins from remnents purchased at the fabric store on sale.

  10. This might be a stupid question with an obvious answer. If you buy something like rice or oatmeal in bulk, how do you weigh it if you don’t use a plastic bag? Do you use one of your pillowcase bags and pay for the extra weight?

    1. Nearly all scales (especially manual ones, not electronic) can have their 0 line set to the weight of your jar.
      So if you fill your jars with whatever you’re buying, then at the counter dump the product into your extra bag (such as the pillow case bag) let the cashier weigh your jar and reset the scale, then you’re good to go.
      I’m sure some locations will let you weigh the jars first and have a cashier write on each jar how much they weigh before product is added.
      I hope this helps a little!

    2. I have reusable cotton bags just so I don’t have to bother with the Terra weight. When I get home, I empty it into glass containers.

  11. A lot of stuff I use I already had (totally free metal water bottle, cloth napkins, *ahem, Captain America lunch box) and other things ive picked up along the way have all been pretty cheap. I love my beeswax wrap, most expensive item to date, at 9.99.