Want to save? Examine your trash

Keeping tabs on what you're tossing away will focus on money leaks you're probably not aware of.

By MSN Money partner on Tue, Feb 22, 2011 2:12 PM

This guest post comes from Jennifer Derrick at SavingAdvice.com.


One of the most frequent pieces of advice given to those wanting to save money is to write down all of your spending. Doing this exposes all the wasteful spending that often slips by unnoticed.


I have a corollary piece of advice: If you want to save money, start by examining your trash, both at home and at work. When you look at what goes into your trash, you not only see what you're spending money on, you start to get a picture of how much money is being wasted. While you may see cleaning wipes, for example, as a necessary expense, your trash sees them as wasted money -- something you used once and then threw away.


Here are 10 things you don't want to find in your trash if your goal is to spend less and save more:

  • Disposable products: Paper towels, napkins, plastic silverware, paper plates, disposable cleaning wipes, and wraps and baggies are all things that can be replaced by reusable options. Reusable options are cheaper over the lifetime of the product than their disposable counterparts.
  • Wasted food: Leftovers, produce that went bad before it was eaten, expired canned goods, and food thrown away because no one liked it are all wasted money. Don't buy things you know you won't eat, and regularly go through your pantry so you use things up before they expire.
  • Boxes and wrappers from highly processed food: A lot of food in the grocery store is highly processed. Not only is it bad for you, it's expensive. Boxed and frozen dinner kits, canned "food" like SpaghettiOs or Spam, and most boxed snack foods/desserts all fall into this category. The homemade versions are cheaper and healthier.
  • Single-serve product wrappers: Those prepackaged snacks are convenient but expensive. Packs of cheese cubes, 100-calorie packs, small packages of chips, and single-serve fruit bowls are all more expensive than if you buy the bigger size and parcel it out yourself.
  • Cans and candy bar wrappers from the vending machine: Anything you buy in a vending machine is overpriced. Bring snacks and drinks from home.
  • Discarded "junk" that could have been sold or donated: Books, CDs, DVDs, household items and clothing can all be sold, donated, or traded as long as they are in serviceable condition. If you're throwing functional items in the trash, you're wasting money.
  • Packages from commercial cleaning products: Yes, commercial cleaning products are easy to use, but you can make homemade cleaning products that work just as well for a fraction of the price. (And they're better for your health.) Vinegar, baking soda and essential oils can be used to make almost any product you need.
  • Takeout boxes and wrappers: If you're eating out a lot, you're wasting money. If your trash is full of wrappers and boxes from the pizza place or fast-food chains, try cooking at home.
  • Single-use water bottles: Single-use plastic water bottles are a huge waste of money. Buy a sturdy, reusable bottle and drink tap water instead. If you hate your tap water, buy a water filter. It's still cheaper than buying single-use water bottles.
  • Newspapers and magazines you don't read: If you find yourself throwing away issues of magazines and newspapers unread, you're wasting money. Stop the subscriptions. You may think that subscription to Sports Illustrated is a legitimate entertainment expense, and it may be. But only if you read it.
  • Shopping bags, tags and packaging from "new stuff." If your garbage is full of shopping bags, tags from clothing, wrappers, and packages from new things you just had to have, ask yourself if any of it was really needed. If your trash is full of these things on a regular basis, chances are you need to stop shopping and find something else to do with your time.

What do you want to see in your trash? Very little, actually. If you want to reduce your spending and stop wasting money, your goal should be to generate very little trash.

When you replace expensive disposable items with reusable products, you save money and generate little trash. When you stop eating processed food, you stop filling up the garbage with boxes and you start saving money. Chances are you'll discover a direct correlation between the amount of garbage you generate and the amount of money you spend or save.


Here are some things you might want to see in your trash:

  • Peels, stems, seeds and any other remainders from natural food: Natural food is cheaper than boxed or bagged. It's also better for you. If you see a lot of peels, stems, and cuttings form real food, you're on the right track.
  • Things that are so broken or beyond repair that they are truly trash: The only things that should go in your trash are things that have no more useful life in them. Anything else can be sold, recycled, or traded for money.
  • Larger containers: It's generally better for your wallet if you see a large empty box of crackers in the trash as opposed to 20 single-serve packets. If you've taken the larger box and broken it up yourself into individual servings, you've probably saved money.
  • The remainders of food you brought from home: If the soda cans and snack wrappers in your trash at work came from home, you're doing better moneywise than if they came from the vending machine.
  • Reusable items that have been used to death: When the rags you use for cleaning or your cloth napkins are so frayed you can't use them anymore, that's when they should appear in the trash. The same goes for reusable storage containers or water bottles. Toss them only when they break or are so used up that they leak or are starting to break down.
  • Other things in moderation: Most people will never get rid of all their disposable items, fast-food wrappers, convenience foods or cleaning products. The goal here isn't to eliminate all of the fun or ease from your life, but to become aware of what you are buying and wasting. If you can cut down on the amount of trash you generate even a little, you'll see a corresponding jump in your net worth.

More from SavingAdvice.com and MSN Money:

Tue 7:11 PM
This article is spot on! I remember reading once that the packaging costs more than the food for about half of grocery store items. It also seems to me that there is a lot of excessive packaging designed to advertise rather than protect the item. So, you can also think of your trash can as being full of expensive little commercials that you paid to watch.
Tue 5:46 PM

Remember you don't have to do all or nothing.   Buying a big frozen lasagne is more expensive than making one from scratch, but still cheaper than 4 people going out to eat (even fast food).   Getting the 20 single serve packs from costco is still cheaper than buying individual packs at the convenience store or gas station.  You may not want to load and drive all your unused junk to the thrift store but offering on craigslist or freecycle gets it to someone who needs it and it doesn't go to the landfill.   Paper plates might save my sanity when I'm tired or sick or late getting home from work. 


I try to keep moderation in mind because otherwise being thrifty can be overwhelming and that means caving in!  So do what you can and don't try to swallow the whole bottle of medicine at one time!

Tue 2:28 PM
It is incredible how much waste adds up during the year. I try to re-use as much as possible and try not to buy products with much packaging. Many retailers are starting to recycle packaging.
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