What Your Trash Says About Your Spending Habits
Here’s the kicker when it comes to the waste we produce: this is also money.
Since I’m also a sustainability blogger and advocate, I thought I would bridge the gap between how consumption affects your wallet and the waste that you generate. You can find more articles on eco-friendly living over at The Do Something Project. I normally write about reducing waste and one of the things that I recommend is to to look at your trash and see what you are producing. This is called a waste audit. From here, you can then figure out solutions on what to eliminate, what to switch over so that you have more reusables instead of disposables, and what product alternatives to find that are more eco-friendly. Normally, I would recommend starting with your kitchen as this can be the biggest waste producer, followed by your bathroom, then office and bedrooms. For many of us, we probably have a trash can for every room in the house so it is good to see what goes in there.
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We may not realize it right away, but each item we buy not only costs us money, but costs us time. When I was doing this exercise for myself, I found that I had a lot of food and packaging material in the trash. This meant I was overestimating the food we needed per week and not planning ahead. Thinking about this some more. I was essentially working a few more hours a week so that I could throw away food. The second item I found was lots of packaging from ready made food and takeout. Sometimes, due to lack of time, lack of planning and some general laziness, ordering and buying packaged foods was just seemingly more convenient. I mean hello Seamless!
A waste audit doesn’t have to be strictly at home. Take a look at what is in your office desk bins. If you work in a office, you probably have your individual waste baskets. What trash are you generating? Can you bring some of these things from home instead so that you can avoid purchasing? You would be surprised at how much we spend just at work. If you work in a city like I did at one point (I worked in Manhattan), prices are definitely higher than normal anywhere else. Relative to income this may be OK but it’s still a cost. For me as an example, there was a period of time where my desk trash bin consisted of a few coffee cups, a foil wrapper for my bagel and a Styrofoam or plastic container for my lunch. What this actually meant was that I was spending at least around $25 a day just to eat. If we translate that further, I was essentially spending some of my time at work just to pay for my meals. It's sobering to start quantifying these things because they add up. The solution for me in the end was to have breakfast at home and bring lunch. It took a few habit changes, but it worked out in the end. I would just double dinners or prepped during weekends so that I have some to take to work. This resulted in me producing less waste, but also saving money in the long-run.
Another area to look at is what you are throwing away while you are out and about. Are you buying these things out of impulse or desire or real need? Sometimes, we get caught up in the "basic" lifestyle so we start spending like everyone else. If we want an unconventional life, we have to start thinking, living and spending our money differently. We have to start thinking about the consequences of our consumption. It is actually our consumption that is depleting our natural resources. There is an excess demand for extra stuff. This results in more being made and manufactured. The outcome is not only waste byproducts, but also wasted materials. The lifestyle of product is so short nowadays that it essentially goes from the store to our hands to the trash in a matter of days or even minutes. This means that the flow of our hard earned money also goes from our pocket to the trash pretty quickly. I also write over at Mother Earth Living and I have posed a few challenges if you are interested to see what you are consuming and how it affects the Earth and your wallet.
Continue with your trash audit, going room and by room and figure out what is being wasted. There's a lot of solutions out there to refuse, reuse and reduce. One other thing too, we take for granted that it also costs money to haul our trash away. If you live in a community where you have to pay for the size of your trash bin, it's worth looking into reducing this and saving yourself a few dollars a month.
Some other suggestions:
- If you have lots of packaging in your bins, take note of what they are for. Can you get these things second hand instead so that you can skip the packaging and save some money?
- If you have lots of food items, do a fridge and cupboard audit before going grocery shopping. Have your list handy along with specific recipes for the week. Start saving some jars to reuse for leftover storage and invest in a good Tupperware (I personally like the glass because it's easy to see what's inside though it can get heavy to carry) or stainless still lunch box so that you can bring leftovers to work, on picnics, etc. Learn to store food properly. Save the Food is a non-profit that encourages people to reduce food waste. Download their Save the Food Skill on Alexa and use it to learn how to store fresh vegetables and fruits.
- If you are seeing lots of coffee cups, invest in a reusable cup so that you can make your coffee at home or get a few cents off when you see it at Starbucks or other coffee shops. Make it a point to not get coffee if you don't have your cup. I recommend the Klean Kanteen Stainless Steel Insulated Cup with the loop cap (which I personally use) because you can seal it and just dump it in your bag and it keeps things cold or hot for hours and produces no condensation on the outside. The 16oz is a Grande at Starbucks.
- If you are seeing lots of plastic water bottles, invest in a reusable bottle. Again, I recommend the Klean Kanteen Stainless Steel Insulated Bottle. Bottled water is sometimes 100x the cost of tap water, it's not regulated and contains microplastics.
- If you are seeing lots of mailers and catalogs, time to opt-out of these shopping temptations and curb the online shopping. You can contact the stores to get your name removed from the list or head to Opt Out Prescreen to get your name removed from a few general mailing lists.
- If you are seeing remnants from bad habits like lots of cigarette butts or alcohol bottles, re-assess if this is where you want your money to be going.
I also want to briefly talk about donations because while this isn't trash per se, it is still the discarding of items. We sometimes give ourselves a pat on the back because we are donating items to organizations, but buying things that we don't need or use is detrimental to the Earth as well as to our pockets. Let's not give ourselves the excuse that "I can just donate an item later" when I get bored of it. Let's really think carefully about what we buy and what we spend our hard earned money on. Donations provide deductions, but it will never be as much as just saving the original dollar amount. I also want to drop a bit of reality into our good intentions of donating. Sometimes, some of these items end up in the trash anyways because there is 1) already an influx if stuff in the system that it's difficult for organizations to manage and store it, 2) some of the items are of low quality (like fast fashion) that other countries don't even want to deal with it and lastly, 3) the stuff is just outdated.
The idea of disposable income is a fairly new concept relative to our existence on this planet. For decades, humans had just enough to meet their basic needs, but over time, we started acquiring more to satisfy or attempt to satisfy other perceived needs. I know many personal finance experts will tell you to write down and track what you spend in a day or in a week, but I think the more telling sign is what is in your trash. I would encourage everyone to do a waste audit and see where your money is going. If you are really interested in living a FI/RE life, it's time to start thinking differently.
If you are interested in living a more eco-friendly lifestyle and reducing waste, check out What is a Zero Waste Lifestyle and Ginny's story on how she moved towards reducing her trash to save money.
I also recommend picking up David Bach's Go Green, Live Rich at your library in which he talks about the Latte/Litter Factor where seemingly small things add up to generate waste and hurt the wallet.