A mum of three whose family wiped out debts of nearly $48,000 in four years by following “zero waste" principles has revealed how their self-sufficient lifestyle means they are taking the lockdown in their stride.
Facing a mammoth $68,000 Canadian (~ $48,316 USD) debt back in 2016, Amber Allen, 31, a content creator, and her software developer husband Joseph, 32, became solvent again by adopting a minimal, eco-friendly lifestyle—selling most of their belongings, only buying secondhand replacements, growing their own fruit and vegetables and using makeshift reusable diapers and toilet paper.
As well as drastically reducing their spending, by living sustainably, the couple, of Ontario, Canada, their children Indie, five, and Galaxie, two, as well as Amber's daughter, Selkie, eight, from a previous relationship, are also helping to save the planet.
And while others have struggled with isolation during the pandemic, Amber says the Allen family have taken it in their stride, adding:
“We went into lockdown on March 11 and didn't freak out at all, because we knew we'd be able to cope."
“We try and live as close to zero waste as possible, so things like stocking up on toilet paper wasn't an issue for us."
“In our house we only have ethically sourced toilet paper for guests. We all use reusable cloths instead of toilet paper."
Amber with her reusable cloth wipes (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“I make them by cutting up old t-shirts or blankets. We use the cloth, wash it and hang it up to dry. Then we can use it again and again."
“I do the same thing with Galaxie's cloth diapers—wash them out and use them over and over."
Amber, who raises her children on a plant-based diet, also strongly believes we should embrace the simpler way of life imposed on us by the lockdown.
Amber's son playing outside (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“People should learn to enjoy the simplicity of the situation—rather than fighting it."
“Isolation makes you evaluate what you have in life, and rather than buying more stuff or stockpiling—people should take the time to work out what they don't use and give it away to other people."
Amber, who grew up in Québec, Eastern Canada, first became interested in the environment and the animals in it when she was just 12 and, despite her family eating meat, turned vegetarian.
Amber with two of her children (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“I loved animals—I didn't want to eat them—we lived next to a forest and I'd always be running about in there with the animals."
“If I found a bird with a broken wing, I'd take it back home and nurse it better. Or, if I found abandoned cats or dogs then I'd take them home and find them a new owner."
Amber's next step, aged 17, when she moved to student halls at Dawson College in Montreal, Canada, where she was studying film and communications, was to start living sustainably.
Some homegrown vegetables (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“Back then, I was a skint student, so I was living sustainably because I needed to. I only wore clothes from what we call thrift shops—charity shops in the UK—and I'd wash them in the bath, using a bar of soap, to save on the electricity."
Living in a city was difficult for nature-loving Amber, who also found ways to bring the natural world into her home.
“I started growing vegetables inside the apartment. I used second-hand containers to grow tomatoes and beans in."
Amber in her garden (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“Otherwise, I'd put soil in secondhand kitchen bins, or used kiddie paddling pools to grow larger veg in."
Then, in 2013, aged 24 and a single mum to Selkie, she met Joseph on the dating website, OK Cupid.
Clicking instantly, while they are both “spiritual people," he was not in tune with Amber's sustainable way of life.
Homegrown veg (Collect/ PA Real Life)
"Let's put it this way, he had 100 T-shirts, 100 bottles of cologne and couldn't get his head round why I had so little stuff."
After dating for five months the couple moved in together in October 2013 and had baby Indie in July 29, 2015.
Happily building their life together, they did not realize how much they were spending until 2016, by which time their debts had reached an eye-watering amount.
Amber's children (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“We had about $50,000 Canadian (~$35,500 USD) worth of school loans to pay off between us and Joseph just wanted to buy everything completely new—all the house furniture and household items—and I suppose that's where we went wrong."
“I suppose I ignored it for a while, and we were in denial, but when we realized on top of the school loans, we owed another $18,000 (~$12,780 USD) so $68,000 (~$48,316 USD) in total. We knew we needed to do something about it."
So, the couple quickly overhauled their lifestyle.
Amber's children sorting sunflower seeds (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“I thought 'I'm going to lead by example', and I started getting rid of stuff I didn't need anymore."
“We sold a lot of our items and it got to the point where 90 per cent of our things were thrifted—we saved so much money by cutting back."
And by 2018 the family were debt free and have since embraced an ethical lifestyle—with Amber citing her desire to take care of the environment as one of her main motivations.
Amber and her family try to be as sustainable as possible (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“I don't believe anyone can live completely zero waste, but our family try our best—even though we're not perfect—to produce as little waste as possible."
“But for me, the world is a gift, and we all need to do what we can—however small to take care of it."
And Amber—who currently homeschools her youngest children while Selkie goes to mainstream school—has plenty of techniques for keeping the family's waste as low as possible.
Amber's plastic-free pantry (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“My entire pantry is filled with reusable jars that I've either found, or bought second hand from websites like Facebook marketplace."
“I fill them up at a store where everything—from cereal and rice to spaghetti and oatmeal—is sold loose, so you don't use any plastic."
“I do sometimes buy supermarket clearance food, because I know it'll end up on a landfill site, so if I can't save the plastic, at least I can save the food waste."
Amber Allen (Collect/ PA Real Life)
But as often as she can, Amber tries to grow her own produce.
“I grow all sorts of fruit and veg in my garden like apples, tomatoes, cucumber and beetroot in the summertime."
"I prepare for winter by preserving the summer batch. In summer, I'll do things like pick some tomatoes boil them, and turn them into sauce so I can freeze and preserve it."
Amber's little girl drawing on the pavement (Collect/ PA Real Life)
Living on the bare minimum, Amber insists that half the items found in an average household are not necessary.
“Our kitchen is very basic—there's no coffee maker or toaster—we use the oven to toast our bread in."
“We have one proper knife to chop things up and one chopping board. Not having loads of utensils means we save on washing up water, too."
Amber tries to feed her family as much homegrown food as possible (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“We get all our cutlery and crockery in thrift stores, so it never matches, which means we're a lot more laid back is something does break—because it's not part of a set."
And the same rules apply to their children's toys.
“We don't let our children have loads of toys, and the toys that they do have are from thrift stores."
Amber's zero waste principles have helped her clear her debt (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“Every time we get them a new toy, we take one away and donate it to someone else. It actually means the kids take a lot better care of their belongings."
“We don't watch TV much, either—we prefer to make our own fun. We've built the kids a sandbox made out of wood we've foraged, and our next project is to build a playhouse."
The Allen family wardrobes are also reflective of their minimal approach to life.
Amber's partner Joseph (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“We have a lot less clothes than most people—and all our clothes are from thrift stores. I own less than 30 items of clothes and I only have three pairs of shoes—slippers, rubber boots, and slip on shoes."
“I am a vegan, but I do get leather shoes secondhand, because they can last a lifetime—which means I can pass one pair of shoes down to all my kids."
“Plus, the meat has already been used, so it's reusing the world's resources."
Amber Allen (Collect/ PA Real Life)
Amber, who became a full-time YouTuber in 2016, also shares her pearls of wisdom about sustainable living with her 230,000 followers.
“I set-up my YouTube channel as a way to document how we were getting ourselves out of debt."
“I wasn't embarrassed about it—I wanted to share how we were doing it—and that eventually led onto living a zero waste life."
Amber shares her sustainability tips on YouTube (Collect/ PA Real Life)
Nowadays, Joseph is very much on board with their eco-friendly lifestyle.
“He saw that the lifestyle meant we were getting out of debt. Now he realizes family and looking after the world around us are what is important—not having stuff."
But while her husband now shares her philosophy, Amber admits her lifestyle would not suit everyone.
Amber Allen (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“My oldest, Selkie, had been at a friend's for tea and she said, 'Mummy, they've got so much garbage in their house'. I had to explain that not everyone lives like us, and it's okay if they have more rubbish than we do."
“I do appreciate that no one can be completely zero waste unless they live off grid, though, and that it's harder for some than it is for others. Still, even the tiniest change can benefit the earth."
“I'd never judge anyone for the way they live their life—and I know everyone has their own reasons for doing things and I respect that."
Homegrown produce (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“I know we're very lucky to have gotten ourselves out of debt by living so frugally and I know not everyone can do the same."
Now, as the world is gripped by coronavirus and many people are facing an indefinite lockdown, Amber believes the time can be spent constructively—and may even encourage people to consider a more sustainable way of living.
“Every January we do a 'no spending challenge' where we don't spend any money for the whole month."
Amber Allen (Collect/ PA Real Life)
“Occasionally we do a 'pantry challenge' where we eat everything in the pantry before buying any more food."
“People should set themselves an 'isolation challenge' and see how self-sufficient they can really be. I think a lot of people would end up surprising themselves."
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