Waste Less, Want Less
Okay, Pretenders: open your refrigerator and—if you have the stomach for it—find all the expired, old, and rotting food it contains. I’m sure your parents pulled the starving Ethiopian card enough for a lifetime. But this might hit closer to home: perhaps you can’t buy something you want or give more generously because you’re wasting hundreds of dollars each month on things you throw away or don’t really need.
One of my favorite adages, which I quote frequently to the chagrin of my family, is Ben Franklin’s pithy “waste not, want not.” And it goes way beyond letting some leftovers go bad. Americans have strayed ironically far from this founding father’s wisdom. In the U.S. we are wasters by default; we think nothing of throwing away 251 million tons of trash annually. That’s 4.3 pounds of garbage per person per day, not including recycled or composted material.
This issue of waste is central to our financial problems. Just think about why so many personal finance bloggers and readers are engineers. My (engineer) husband says it’s because engineering is all about reducing waste by figuring out how to do more with less. And that’s very much what being thrifty is about, too. It’s like getting the best deal, all the time, on everything, so you can do what you want with your money (i.e. financial flexibility).
According to a recent TIME article “America’s Clutter Problem” by Josh Sanburn, “Americans have more possessions than any society in history.” For example, the U.S. is home to 3% of the world’s children, but buys 40% of the world’s toys. The equilibrium between population and possessions is similarly off when it comes to food, clothing, electronics, petrol, or just about any consumable you could imagine. We have more buying power than most, but also waste A LOT of everything.
We throw out TVs, not because they are broken, but because they aren’t big enough and flat enough. We throw away clothes not because they are completely worn but because they aren’t stylish enough—according to arbitrary standards we’ll laugh at in a few years. We throw away food not because it’s contaminated but because we forgot to eat it. I’m guilty, too, but it’s outlandish to waste like we do.
I’ve been reading Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my son and it’s astonishing how little the family wastes. They save the ashes from their stove all winter, and combine them with animal fat saved for months to make soap. They save rags to braid into rugs, or to trade for new dishes from the tin peddler. When a July frost threatens to kill the corn, every family member spends hours outside in the middle of the night, splashing water on 3 acres of corn plants to save them.
And sometimes I’m too lazy to sew a button back on a shirt.
I doubt any of us can go from producing 4.3 pounds of garbage per day to zero. But certainly we could waste less, and subsequently, want less. Wasting less means spending less by using what you already have. This in turns leaves you with more money to give, save, and invest as you seek financial flexibility. So what can you waste less of? Some of the top resources we waste are:
- Food. Make a menu, shop with a list, and keep perishable foods in a visible place. Put leftovers in clear containers. Pack them for lunch instead of going out to eat.
- Energy. Turning off the lights, setting back the thermostat, keeping the AC off, hanging clothes to dry…simple steps like these can save you hundreds each month on gas and electric bills.
- Gas (petrol). We don’t do anything extreme to limit our driving, but try to bike or carpool when we can to reduce fuel costs. Plus it’s more fun to bike or ride with a friend.
- Electronics. We simply don’t need to upgrade computers, TVs, or phones every year (or several years). The global impact of our wasted technology is huge and takes the biggest toll on the most impoverished.
- Money. Spending money on products or services you don’t need or get real happiness from is a waste. Maybe you waste on recreational shopping, an outrageous cell phone bill, a bad life insurance policy, frequent restaurant dining, or cable TV that you don’t have time to watch. Decide what is really worth your money and what spending has simply become a habit. Tackle one area at a time; a few minutes’ hassle could save a lot over time.
While any one act of wasting less may not save a ton of money, the habit of reducing waste, along with the attitude of being content with what you have goes a long way toward meeting financial goals. Wasting less turns the tide from always wanting more to actually building wealth.
What could you waste less on? What goal will you put your “waste less” savings toward?