Monday, 15 October 2012

Ice Cream or Tigers?

Only 15 months away from surviving on a student budget I'm still quite good at making my money go a long way when it needs to. But even though I'm now getting much more in a salary than I did as a student it seems to disappear very quickly and I've slipped into a life of relative luxury and excess very easily. So where does it all go?

As a quick guesstimate I'd say on an average week, when I'm not counting the pennies, I'd spend about

  • £15 at the pub or socialising with friends
  • £5 on "treat" foods like chocolate, ice cream, coffee, melon etc. that don't make up part of a meal
  • £5 on petrol for unnecessary journey's by car
I'm pretty good at not wasting money on heating or lighting unless it's completely necessary (I've been known to wear two big woolly jumpers and snuggle under a blanket rather than admit we need the heating on) and I don't spend much on new clothes very often. So I would guess I'm around (or below) an average spender for my age and income. I wouldn't want to cut out the pub completely but could some of that money be better spent elsewhere?

After rent, taxes, food and bills I do still have a fair amount of cash to play with, and it mostly goes on the above or into savings. The savings account I use is with Triodos (who only lends to groups that work to make a positive social, environmental or cultural change) so I know that money is doing good for me and the world while it sits in my ISA and out of my reach. But what about the rest? If I bought two fewer pints a week (let say £5 less as the average pint up here is about £2.50) and stopped making unnecessary journeys and buying "treat" food I'd have £15 each week spare. At the moment that £15 is mainly helping me gain weight and adding some very short term happiness into my life, what could it be doing?

£15 a week is about £60 a month, and that's a whopping £780 a year. £780 spent on nothing in particular. There are lots of things that I could do with that money. I could save it, and stop complaining I didn't have enough money for bigger consumer items like ethical clothing or organic meat. I could start to support three new charities at £5 a week; that's £260 a year that three charities would love. I could sustainably travel abroad more often as I could afford to take the ferry or train to Europe and not fly. The more I think about it the less I need to make that car journey or have to have that piece of cake in the shop. I'd be fitter, healthier and the world would be a better place too.

I wish I had someone stood next to me each time I opened my purse to ask two simple questions
  • Do you need to buy this?
  • Could that money be better spent elsewhere?
but I don't. I might do better if I force myself to see every pint as a potential £2.50 to provide drinking water for children or each short car journey as not only polluting but also a waste of £2 that could go towards rainforest protection. I'm not going to cut out everything, but hopefully I will do better in the future because £780 a year can go a long way for a better world. But that's just one person for one year; just think what could be achieved if everyone did this.

In the most recent issue of Science there is an article by scientists from the RSPB, BirdLife International, Cambridge University and elsewhere which puts an estimated price tag on meeting two key targets for the 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets:
  • To protect the world's most important wildlife sites
  • To prevent the extinction of the worlds most threatened species
These are targets agreed upon by governments to halt biodiversity loss by 2020. The fact that we need targets for 2020 at all gives away the fact that the 2010 Biodiversity Targets weren't met. So what would it cost to sort this problem?

The report says that to save all the world's globally threatened species it will cost around £3 billion a year. That sounds like a huge amount. At least it does until you remember that there are 7 billion people on this planet, and if half of them could afford £1 a year we could raise that money. That's less than half a pint a year. Put another way, it would take about 3,846,154 of me swapping £15 a week from pointless spending to saving the planet. In the UK alone there are 16 times this many people. So the UK could raise this on its own if one in 16 people wanted to. That's not going to happen, and I probably wont always have £15 spare each week, but spread over the whole world population that £3 billion doesn't seem such a big ask. According to the RSPB's Conservation Director Martin Harper it's less than half of what is spent on ice cream each year in Europe!

The second target is a bit more pricey. To protect and manage all the world's most important wildlife sites the estimate is £50 billion a year. So every person on the planet would need to find about £7 a year to do this. Now for me, that would be fine. In fact, I would happily pay that each month so 11 other people wont need to. It is a lot of money, but then it is a lot of land. How much do we spend on gardens each year? If you imagine a garden that covers 17% of the worlds land surface (as the world's most important wildlife sites do) then £50 billion doesn't seem so mad, it's one fifth of what the world spends on soft drinks each year after all.

So from now on I'll be trying to see each purchase as what it is. If it's worthwhile I'll buy it, if that money could be better spent saving lives, protecting the planet or just making the world a little bit better somewhere else then I'll try to do that instead. What purchase could you swap? Maybe spending a few pounds on a charity each morning would make starting work even better than spending it on a coffee. Or by having one less pint a week you could swap to free range meats. It all adds up, hopefully to a better world.


  1. Good thought provoking post there J. I'll stick with the local beers and avoid giving even more money to those soft drinks manufacturers.
    A little self indulgence does us good from time to time but I fear too many off us are too self indulgent too often at the expense of the rest of the rest of the occupants of this precious planet!



  2. Thanks for the great comment Dave and good point about local produce! I'll definitely try to find local beers when I do venture out.