Waste Not, Want Not

August 27, 2010
Jeff Brown, MD

A refrigerator on the fritz and a relocating neighbor teach our blogger that there's potentially hundreds of dollars a year that can be saved, and a more orderly environment and clearer conscience to be had, by giving up our all-consuming habits.

"A home is where you keep your stuff while you are out getting more stuff," comedian George Carlin once famously said.

He was right. We all accept without question that we are a wasteful, consumer-driven society. We might think of those around us as being wasteful, but after some reflection maybe we'd have to sheepishly admit that, just maybe, we are too. For example, we waste a lot of money on food and clothes -- just to name two examples -- and then look at our checking account balances and wonder where all the money goes. If we recognize that our extravagant food and clothing purchases are wasteful, and then opt to make no change in our habits, at least we can say we have taken responsibility for our actions.

Case in point: My relatively new refrigerator went into a death spiral this week. Now I am not going to get into the money/time/aggravation spent on having an appliance repairmen come to our home. Nor am I going to detail the small fortune in food that perished along with the compressor. Instead, I’m going to focus on what we waste on food in refrigerators that actually work.

If you walk over to your fridge and look inside, you will probably be shocked by how much food is in there. There’s probably stuff you didn't you had, products you forgot about or groceries that you know should be tossed but are too lazy or guilty to throw out. (People tend to react only when there’s a smell or a visible pulse coming from the back lower shelf.) The same scenario plays out in the pantry, where certain food products spring to life when left open and unattended for too long. We typically just look for a couple of regular items found in a few regular places, and we assume “someone else” will regularly tend to the rest.

When that someone finally gets around to it, the discarded packages from the fridge and pantry typically fill a couple of large garbage bags. At that point, you can’t help but feel embarrassed or guilty that you’ve wasted a few hundred dollars. Once cleaned out, you’re also usually left with a hodge-podge of items that leave you wondering what on earth you were thinking when you bought them. If nothing else, you’ve learned two valuable lessons: 1) don’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry; and 2) don’t send the man of the house food shopping without a list. (I’m not even talking about nutrition, just sensible cost and waste management.)

Seriously, though, what were we thinking? Are we unconsciously “survivalists” that require weeks of stored food? Do we really believe we’re saving money when we go to a warehouse store and buy “Chips in a Drum,” only to throw out what’s left in the bottom half of the barrel? I recently told my wife that we are going broke "saving" money by buying in bulk. What happened to just buying what you know your family will actually eat, when you need it, and in reasonable quantities that will not leave half to spoil? Consumer heresy these days, I know.

While I’m on a waste-not, want-not rant, how about all the surprises that turn up when you move? My neighbor is going through this process now and we have vicariously relived the horrors of confronting the reality of our wasteful consumerism. Is it hoarding to save a group of too-small T-shirts printed for a family reunion in 1995, or are we just lazy?

A closet expert once told my wife that for every new garment she purchased she should remove one from the closet. (She admits she no longer does that.) When the family does manage to stage a "closet intervention," we find many clothes that are long out of style, "but may come back”; clothes that no longer fit, but may again one day (warning husbands, don't go there…); clothes that are stained and moth-eaten; and most amazing of all, clothes with the price tags still on them!

So we bag up what we can and send them off to a charity that can make use of them. We get a new sense of freedom, more space to view and refresh our remaining ensembles, and a nice deduction because we wrote an itemized list with the estimated value of each donated item. (We also feel a bit of chagrin, because that amount is usually higher than we might have imagined.)

What have I learned about money this week with my failed refrigerator and relocating neighbor? I learned a lot that made me uncomfortable about our too casual shopping habits and laissez faire hoarding. (I also learned that there’s potentially hundreds to thousands of dollars every year that can be saved, and a more orderly environment and clearer conscience to be had.) Not a bad day's work.