As devastating as the drought in the Western Cape is, it has resulted in fundamentally changing human behaviour, which has, in many instances, positively impacted how citizens manage their water consumption. 

There is nothing like a shortage of something as precious as water to elicit a radical change in behaviour, proving that, although we may be creatures of habit, we are perfectly capable of learning new and better habits when we are forced to do so.

Our water-saving journey over the past 24 months has led me to reconsider our attitude to saving, and how our water-saving techniques could be applied to our personal money management. 

As a family, we have put an enormous effort into saving more water every month, demonstrating that, even when we thought we could not save any more, we could – and we continue to do so. Our water-saving strategies are, in some ways, comparable to our money-saving habits:

Knowing where it’s going

Until the drought, many of us had very little awareness of exactly how much water we consumed and how much water appliances such as dishwashers and washing machines actually used. 

The implementation of water restrictions caused many of us to analyse the water consumption of the various wash cycles, how often we did washing, how long it took for the hot water to reach the shower, and how many times we flushed the toilet each day. We all undoubtedly found some surprises in our water usage that prompted behaviour change.

Similarly, knowing where our money goes every month should be the starting point for our money-saving journey. Keeping track of our expenses, particularly of on-the-fly purchases, bank charges and subscriptions, will arm us with a logbook of where our money is being directed every month.

Checking the statements

Before the drought, our water bill was nothing more than a line item in our monthly budget, and it was never analysed – a reactive and inefficient way of managing anything. 

The water restrictions (and the associated threat of penalties) have forced us to pay closer attention to our monthly water account, checking it against our water-meter readings and previous statements. The result is that we now fully understand the billing system, how our meter works and exactly how much we are paying for services, and we can easily detect if anything looks awry.

Our bank and credit card statements deserve the same scrutiny if we are serious about saving for the future. Retail and bank accounts are not immune to errors, over-charging and “fee creep”, and we would do well to check these more regularly. Every drop counts, and every penny does too.

Stopping the leaks

Armed with a better understanding of our water consumption and how we are being billed, our next step was to stop the leaks – the dripping tap, the ill-fitting plug and the running cistern. This prompted me to look for the “dripping taps” in our budget and to plug the leaks. Going forward, however, it makes more sense to do proactive maintenance to our budget, to prevent “taps” from “dripping” in the first place.

Using less

Consider our 87 litres per person per day as our family’s net income. We will be penalised for using more than we have been allocated, and it is in our best interests to use less than our quota. Similarly, our spending should remain within the boundaries of what we earn, failing which we will be penalised with high interest rates and the burden of debt.

Recycling and reusing 

The drought has created a new appreciation for the number of times water can be re-used and recycled, and we, as a family, have learnt valuable financial lessons from this. 

In our “throw-away” generation, where it is easier to replace than to repair, we have become more conscious of how items can be re-purposed and re-used, not only to reduce costs, but also to be kinder to the world we inhabit.

Saving 

Water scarcity has given rise to a more determined drive to save and store water. Now that we are more conscious of the need to save water, we have implemented innovative water-storage solutions in our homes and places of work. In doing so, we have maximised water-
storing efficiency and massively reduced consumption.

It lies within us all to be more intentional and creative when it comes to saving for our futures. When pressed, and with some creative thought, we should be able to find savings capacity within our budgets.

Harvesting

Harvesting our water reduces our dependence on the municipal water supply and spreads the risk against either of the supplies running out. Expanding on this analogy, creating alternative sources of income (specifically passive or annuity income) reduces a household’s dependency on a single source of income and alleviates financial pressure. 

A passive income provides breathing-room and can terminate the cycle of living from pay-cheque to pay-cheque.

Planning for the future

Previously, we did not have to think about where next month’s supply of water would come from. But with dam levels rising only 0.3% this past week, during what is historically the fourth wettest month in the Western Cape, we are starting to plan seriously for Day Zero.

In the context of our retirement planning, what is our Day Zero? How long will our money last? When will it run out?

Prioritising

Now that we are restricted to using a limited quantity of water a day, we have learnt the art of prioritising our water consumption. Naturally, drinking and cooking take priority, followed by personal hygiene and ablutions. Thereafter, we have to prioritise accordingly.

In a world of infinite choice, the drought has proffered valuable lessons in identifying what is important to us and making informed choices. The same principles apply to how we prioritise our spending, making carefully considered purchases that align with our goals.

Staying educated

If nothing else, the drought has been a catalyst for increased education and awareness of weather patterns, climate change and water treatment options. We are all the better for knowing where our water is stored, how it reaches us and the future options available to address the crisis. 

With most South Africans being under-funded for retirement, there has never been a greater need for investor education as a way of addressing the savings crisis we face.

Nature has many valuable lessons to teach us, least of which is that we can change our behaviour and form new habits that are friendlier to our goals. We can adapt, create and innovate to ensure better outcomes in times of crisis. We can be robust, resilient and resourceful in times of scarcity.


EVERY LITTLE BIT HELPS

Sue Torr offers the following suggestions on little ways to save:

• Making your own coffee instead of buying a take-away cappuccino (at R28 a cup) every workday can save you R560 a month.

• Eating one less takeaway burger a week (at R43 a burger) can save you R172 a month.

• Boiling and bottling your own drinking water instead of spending R10 a day on a 750ml bottle of water can save you R280 a month.

• Reducing your data consumption by R35 a week (that’s 100 MB a week) can save you R140 a month.

• Packing your own work lunch instead of spending R25 on a pie and Coke once a week can save you R100 a month.

• Making your own pureed baby food (at R17 for a 1kg bag of apples) instead of spending R14 for a bottle of Purity can save you R300 a month.

• Buying your own nail polish at R40 a bottle instead of paying R150 a month for a manicure can save you R110 a month.

If you implement all of the above savings measures, you will save R1 662 a month.


Sue Torr is the managing director of Cape Town advisory firm Crue Invest.