My garbageman awarded me a verbal honor. He laughed when I asked if he would take some slightly outsized trash. Of course. According to him, I throw out less trash than anyone on his five routes. He was happy to finally meet me. I had a lot of unofficial credit built up. The extra trash was barely noticed. Evidently there are benefits to being able to fit a week’s garbage into one grocery bag. It isn’t a challenge. It is merely the consequence of living frugally where frugal means respecting the resources of materials, time, and money. Living this way makes it hard to imagine living anyway else. I didn’t realize how uncommon my story is. Really? The lightest on five routes? What else are people throwing away? There was a lesson in a grocery bag of garbage.
I feel odd writing about my frugality because it is habitual. Even as a millionaire and married there wasn’t much difference in my lifestyle. But lately it has become more apparent to me. Money worries can do that. Habits that became unconscious have been reviewed as I reflect on my lifestyle. I’ve found little to change.
A depleted portfolio (down > 90%) and a lack of a paycheck mean my money is tight. Hopefully, my consulting business and artist sales grow to compensate, or even exceed, for my needs. Being prudent though, I’ve put my home on the market in case the business, the portfolio, or a windfall don’t come through. In this society, I’ve got to get the money to live from somewhere, and the place I live in is my largest asset.
I had plans for the bits and pieces of old chairs because I am resourceful. Why buy new when a bit of cloth can remake a lawn chair? (Ah, I just had an idea that would’ve worked. Rats.) But in the world of real estate, it is deemed necessary to visually de-clutter so the buyers can visually fill the scene with their mental image of their stuff. A few armfuls later and the carport was much cleaner.
A trip through the neighborhood proved my garbageman’s point. Houses occupied by only one person had two garbage cans, or cans with bulging lids, or cans that needed wheels so they could get out to the curb. First I wondered what was in the cans, but then I wondered how much it cost to fill those cans. I saw the second garbage can as a sign of wealth. Every week they bought enough stuff to fill two trash cans. That meant buying at least two trash cans worth of stuff, which probably involved several shopping trips in the car, or lots of deliveries. It also probably meant no recycling. My friends who shop by bicycle probably don’t have the same problem. (Occupy Your Bike!)
My recycle trips are also about a bag’s worth too, but they are only every other week. Evidently, I have been exercising the other two R’s: Reduce and Reuse. This is not a brag. It is a personal surprise.
I suspect that the easiest way to fill a trash can is with lots of packaging. Plastic doesn’t compact easily, and maybe people are throwing away cardboard boxes without breaking them down instead of recycling them. Packaged foods probably account for a lot. Yard waste can end up in the trash too.
There isn’t much plastic in what I buy, unless it can be recycled. Take a virtual trip out to Midway Island via my friends who are documenting ocean plastic. They can tell where the birds have died because their carcasses are piles of plastic in the shape of a bird. There’s so much plastic that the birds can’t distinguish between trash and fish. It is easy to imagine a plastic bag being confused for a jellyfish. Cardboard recycles, so I don’t throw it away unless I hung onto it for painting projects. I like to cook, so there isn’t much packaging with my food. Veggies are in bags. Meat comes with those little trays, but each bit of meat stretches across many meals. The biggest food packing I deal with are egg cartons, and I use them for firelighters (I put a bit of used candle wax in the bottom and break it up into a dozen firestarters), or I find folks that have other uses for them. My yard waste is mulch and compost material. That’s good stuff; especially, when it is mixed in with food scraps.
It is easy to become inured to waste. I recall working in the corporate world and watching some very unconscious, unfrugal behaviour. Materials were easy to waste because the company would always buy more of whatever was needed, and there was no personal benefit to reducing, reusing, or recycling. Despite urgency, time was easy to waste because asking yet another irrelevant question delayed important decisions while rarely threatening anyone’s paycheck. Money was easy to waste because it was corporate money. People who balked at spending for a fancy meal, had no problem when it came to the catering budget. I was like that for a while until one day I was looking at a budget item. It was a small budget item, not even six figures. It was about as large as my salary. How many such items were casually accepted and possibly wasted, and did anyone notice the correlation with layoffs?
Government seems to have the corporate issue at a larger scale. The term billions is used freely, yet there aren’t billions of Americans. Every billion dollar program means more than three dollars per person – and we talk about trillion dollar debts and budgets!
Pardon me as I take a breath.
What I notice is that my frugal lifestyle is actually enjoyable. Most of the money I need to make is for mortgage, insurance, and utilities – not stuff. I’ve seen others live similarly frugal lives and, as long as they can pay the bills, they enjoy a precious freedom. I’ve seen businesses and corporations operate with care and respect for materials, time, and money, and they are seen as green and tend to have lower expenses. (I enjoyed f5’s stockholders meetings that they held in the breakroom. FFIV) After I post this I may go research the most frugal country in the world. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that it is a nice place to live.
Wouldn’t it be amazing, that when we finally contact an extra-terrestrial civilization, they look at us with respect because of the respect we show for what we have, how we spend it, and what we save? Maybe we’ll be honored for that.