Living on Less: 10 Trusty Tips

By Diane Herbst, Tonic

On top of a mountain in West Texas lives the artist Alyce Santoro, best known for inventing sonic fabric, an audible textile woven from recycled audio cassette tape. The creation of sonic fabric — once made into a dress worn and “played” by Jon Fishman of Phish — came from the cash-strapped Santoro’s attempts to scavenge for free art supplies. “It was more about that,” Santoro says, “than save the earth.”Now Santoro’s daily life is wrapped around saving the earth. Her studio is a converted bus outfitted with $500 worth of solar panels that power her computer, scanner, lights and sewing machine. Home is a 14-foot trailer with $10-a-month electric bills. She and her boyfriend collect their water in rain barrels, power their outdoor stove by the sun, and expect to be completely off the grid by the end of the year.

“There are so many things people can do at a personal level to make a difference now,” says Santoro, 41, who recently launched a conservation campaign on Facebook called USE HALF NOW!, a forum for sharing energy and resource-saving tips. Santoro hopes to get at least 5,000 people to vow to halve their average resource use by Earth Day, April 22. “It’s like everybody’s going around, trying to raise awareness, talking about things you can buy to make your life greener,” she says. “But it’s really the opposite. Now is when you need to learn how to conserve. We don’t have time to wait.”

A former city dweller — she lived in Providence, Rhode Island for 12 years followed by 5 years in Brooklyn — Santoro and her boyfriend, a guitarist/composer named Julian, 40, moved in 2006 to the mountaintop outside of Marfa, a small desert haven that draws artists from both coasts. “I could have more space and more time to do experiments into sustainable living,” says Santoro, “and I would have more time to make art.” (Click here to see some of her conservation-minded creations.)

“I felt like my time in New York was just going into ways to make money to live,” she continues, “whereas here, I can live on a lot less.”

The couple lives frugally on family owned land, so there’s no rent or mortgage to worry about. They grow most of their own vegetables, watering them with runoff from dish washing. Instead of buying a refrigerator, the pair found an old chest freezer next to a dumpster, installed a new thermostat, and created an energy-efficient fridge. That innovation cut their electric bill to a remarkable one-tenth of what is was before. “Of course it’s inconvenient,” she says of her dumpster-find innovation, “but if you are willing to reduce your usage, you can do simple things that cost almost nothing.”

Next: 10 Simple Tips

Do This Now

What, I ask Santoro, are 10 simple things our Tonic readers can do now? All, she admits, are things we’ve heard before but just don’t always do:

  • Unplug appliances/power strips when not in use.
  • Reach for the broom before the vacuum.
  • Instead of turning on the AC, open a window when there is a breeze.
  • Compost kitchen scraps, either in the backyard or in a worm box if you’re in an apartment.
  • Walk, bicycle, use public transport when possible. When running errands in your car, consolidate trips.
  • Reuse your plastic grocery sacks, or use cloth ones.
  • Air-dry clothes when possible, indoors or out. Hang the heavy items like jeans and towels if you’re pressed for space.
  • Shop used: Check out thrift stores first for good used household items, clothes, toys, etc.
  • Reuse your paper coffee cup/water bottle a couple of times before throwing it away — or better yet, use glass or ceramic.
  • Use both sides of paper for multi-page printing.

Other tips, in addition to her Facebook campaign, can be found at Santoro’s blog, The Obvious Observer.

Since Santoro and Julian live 25 miles from the nearest town, they need a satellite Internet connection — their highest bill at $80 a month. It is their only extravagance. “I have pieces in shows all over the world, and I can conduct my entire career as if I was living in Brooklyn,” Santoro says. “We’re just living a very simple life and it’s very rewarding.”


Patty B.
Patty B5 years ago

I already do 8 of the 10 hints. Can't garden as I am also in a desert and if I miss ONE DAY everything wilts and dies. I do not have a printer as it is rare I need to print..but when I do...the library is fine.

Patty B.
Patty B5 years ago

There is a goodwill clearance center in the city where I live .So..instead of hitting a big box store I go to the clearance center .REALLY REALLY cheap .Clothes 30 cents a lb and odds and ends 40 cents a lb.Items as chairs and appliances are different prices . I never go early because it is INSANELY busy and the guys grab the furniture first ,Definitely worth a trip if one is near you .There is a regular GW attached and they also have great things at times with higher prices .

Emma S.
Emma S6 years ago

Thank you - off to look at her blog now.

Elizabeth Brawn
Elizabeth Brawn6 years ago

thanks for article, it's good to see

Sarah Elizabeth L.
Sarah Little6 years ago

I'd leave a more thoughtful comment, but I have to go unplug the appliances I'm not using! ;)

Josefina N.
Jo S7 years ago

Thank you so much!

Patricia B.
Patricia Bucio7 years ago

Buen artículo

Sue Cannon
Sue Cannon7 years ago

I fine myself any change i get when shopping and put it in the charity boxes everytime i go into a shop and realise i don't have a cloth bag on me and have to use a plastic bag from the shop. i have lots of bag for life bags and cloth bags but im amazed at how many times i forget to take them.

Jewels S.
Jewels S7 years ago

This is a list we have all seen before. The key is to get creative like the artist in the article. You have to find out what uses the most energy for you and find a way to lower it. It may be that you eat food that has been packaged and sent across country or sea. Then you can change your eating habits and eat local. I have friends in Northern cal that have been living off the grid for over a decade now. They have tried to get me to convert to that way of living for years. Ten years ago I was not ready but I have changed my thinking enough that I am headed in that direction now and it is not going to be a big deal because my EXPECTATION of what I want from life has changed. Change your mind and change your life. It really is that simple.

Dianne D.
Dianne D7 years ago

I do all of these. Need some more tips please.