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 kid in other country 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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? 

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15 Responses to “Waste Less, Want Less”

  1. Samantha says :

    The past few weeks I’ve been doing a “pantry challenge” in an effort to waste less food. It’s basically where you clean out your cupboards/freezer, organize and pull out all the crazy (old) half-used ingredients that are languishing in the back. And then making a concerted, intentional meal plan to use them! We’ve saved a bunch on groceries so far, and we’re finding new favorite recipes. It’s also serving to teach me a lesson on not buying special ingredients for one meal that I know we won’t use the rest of (here’s looking at you, chia seeds).

    • Kalie says :

      I like doing a pantry week every so often to use up those random food items, too. It does make me think twice before buying something I might not want to finish. Great tip, thanks.

  2. Lisa Beech says :

    One thing have been dong lately is selling the excess that I have accumulated over the years. Once you buy a home and fill it with kids and 15 years of living, you’d be amazed at the unneeded clutter that lurks in closets, basements & garages.
    For instance, my sons have not played teeball or baseball in nearly 10 years. Then, why do I still have 3 excellent bats and 4 mitts? I have made use of Facebook swaps pages and sold these items as well as other. In just one week of doing so, I have made over $200 from my junk.
    Swap sites are easy to use. Find something you no longer need or use. Post a photo with price on page. People on the private pages posted that they are interested in your item. You arrange to have them pick up the item on your porch and they leave cash in envelop provided.
    So much easier than the mass effort of the garage sale and can be done in a moment on your phone/computer in the evening or while on the go.
    I am using my funds to supplement our vacation to NYC this June. Now we can visit the new One World Trade Center without going over our budget. Its so nice to gain a wonderful experience from useless excess and to know someone else will get more use from your castoffs.

    • Kalie says :

      I can’t believe how much we’ve accumulated in just a few years of having kids! That’s great you can sell it, someone can use it, and you can go on a family vacation.

  3. Diana says :

    So completely true about the chia seeds haha! Clear containers help us not waste as much food as we do when they are out of sight out of mind. I think this relates well to your post about not always having our favorites. It helps to be thankful about the fact that I have good, healthy food to eat instead of focusing on what I feel (or don’t feel like eating). I also have to give a shout out to Pinterest and allrecipes for always helping me figure out what to do with random leftover ingredIents.

  4. Derek @ MoneyAhoy.com says :

    Waste can be a good thing for those of us that learn to feed off of others bad habits. My family has become a family of parasites of sorts… by frequenting yard sales and the goodwill, we can get our fashion, toys, and other things for 5 cents on the dollar! The society as a whole is wasteful, but that doesn’t mean you cannot prosper if you learn to be different!

  5. C@thesingledollar says :

    One of the cool things about getting comments from a new person is that sometimes I find someone whose blog looks awesome! I’ve been on a tear about cutting food waste out of my life all year, but as I scrolled down the page I saw a lot that I liked. I have a dream about buying a house with friends, actually, although I don’t know if it will ever work out in reality. I think you should totally go for that if you have the chance.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for checking out the site. It’s cool to hear from someone with a similar dream. I hope we can get all the logistics worked out and make it happen someday!

  6. Abigail @ipickuppennies says :

    We’ve stopped buying certain foods because they just go bad. Unfortunately, it’s usually the healthy stuff like vegetables and fruits. When I do buy it, I buy in very, very small quantities.

    I talked to my MIL, and she’s going to cook extra when she makes dinner. (They live in our guest house.) That means I’ll eat more healthy foods, and fewer trips to fast food or other restaurants, which means reducing our gas consumption.

    We’re cutting down on our consumption overall because we have a major medical bill at the end of the year. We had grown a little lax, and there’s definitely some unnecessary things. I’m trying to clear those out and make a little money in the process.

    We did replace the TV in our bedroom a couple of years ago, but we kept it for the guest room, in case one of our friends actually followed through on moving down here. The room is still empty, so we gave it to the in-laws when their bedroom TV broke. They were thrilled not to spend the money, and it means a 15-year-old TV is still alive and kickin’ rather than sitting in a dump.

  7. Our Next Life says :

    So much yes! Never mind that the Earth is quickly running out of the raw materials to make all this stuff, or that the oceans are full of plastic… Reducing waste changes your life and your mindset, and is the perfect match for frugality!

    • Kalie says :

      I used to write for a green education company so for this post I had to restrain myself from getting into the environmental benefits of frugal living, but there are many!

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