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Are You Throwing Money Away?

The contents of your trash may show how you could be wasting money and Earth's resources

Let's talk some trash. Or rather, let's listen to what the contents of your trash can and recycling bin are telling you about how you're probably wasting both your money and the Earth's resources.

See also: Don't waste old pantyhose.

Try spending a few minutes doing what I call a "trash can autopsy" and discover the bad spending habits you need to break:

Tomatoes packaged in styrofoam and plastic.


1. Packaging

Too much packaging in your trash can be a sign that you need a smart-shopping intervention. This could be anything from fast food and carryout containers, plastic drink bottles and single-serving items. Packaging costs money, which consumers pay for in the end. Buying in bulk, shopping at food co-ops and avoiding elaborately packaged products usually are cheaper and save natural resources. Larger containers are typically a better value than smaller, but just to be sure, always check the "per unit price" label on the shelf when comparing items. Shopping at membership warehouse stores can also make sense for some families, particularly if you keep these tips in mind. If you see a lot of brand names in your garbage, you might be able to save on a generic version, which may cost less and you may like better.

If you're finding a lot of burger bags and pizza boxes in your trash, you're not alone. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the typical American family now spends about 45 percent of its food budget on meals prepared outside the home. Cutting back on restaurant and carryout meals by preparing batch recipes at home and freezing the leftovers can save you as much as 80 percent compared with the restaurant price. 
If you buy bottled water, you're getting soaked financially and hurting the environment as well. About 1.5 million barrels of oil are used every year to produce plastic water bottles for the U.S. market. If you drink only bottled water, you'll spend more than $1,000 annually to get your recommended daily amount of water, as opposed to about 49 cents for a year's supply of just-as-healthy tap water. As far as disposing of the empty bottles, try some of these nifty repurposing ideas.

Peeled zucchini with peeler.

Tetra Images/Corbis

2. Excess food

The Agriculture Department says that nearly 25 percent of all food sold in America ends up in the trash. That means that if you're a typical American family, you could reduce your grocery bill by a quarter simply by being smarter about food storage and portion control. Here are 10 simple ways to do cut down on your grocery bill. If you see you are throwing away a lot of food and vegetable scraps — such as apple, cucumber and potato peels — you're throwing away valuable vitamins, fiber and other nutrients. The skins of fruits and veggies often contain more nutrients than the flesh. Remember to always wash produce thoroughly before consuming. What you don't eat, I'm sure your compost pile will enjoy.  

Mail, catalogs, and magazines stuck in a letter box inside a door

Jason Edwards/National Geographic/Getty Images

3. Catalogs, newspapers and magazines

We receive so much unsolicited junk mail for a reason: It inspires many of us to buy things we don't need. You can reduce impulse purchases and save trees by getting your name taken off unwanted mailing lists. Contact for help. (By the way, 41 pounds is the amount of junk mail the average American adult receives every year!) Magazines and newspapers also can be recycled. You can save some serious cash and paper by canceling your subscriptions and reading them online or borrowing them from the library instead. 

Shirt hanging on a clothesline outside.

Rubberball/Getty Images

4. Dryer lint

This stuff represents the life of your expensive clothing being beaten and cooked out of them by an electric dryer. Washing and drying clothing is typically harder on fabric than everyday wear and tear. Your clothes will last much longer by drying them on an old-fashioned clothesline. You'll also save about $200 per year on electricity and appliance costs. 

A woman wheeling a wheelbarrow full of leaves and grass clippings to a compost pile.

Håkan Hjort/Johnér Images/Corbis

5. Lawn clippings

Grass clippings and other organic material from the yard should always be returned to nature via the compost pile rather than entombed in a plastic bag and sent to the landfill, where experts say it will take 500 years — give or take a century or two — for them to decompose in their plastic covering.

Also, consider reducing the size of your lawn by covering part of it with mulch or planting a low maintenance ground cover. Lawns are hard on our wallets and hard on the environment, what with all of the fertilizers, pesticides and water they require.

A woman holding a glass lamp at a yard sale.

Tony Garcia/Getty Images

6. Things you don't know what to do with

Before you throw away anything you no longer want, ask yourself, "Could someone else use it?" Consider selling unwanted items at a yard sale or online, or giving them away for free via websites such as or Craigslist. Donating items to charitable thrift stores often gives you a tax deduction, and there are even specialized charities eager to receive donations of everything from your old saxophone to that bicycle in the garage you haven't ridden since the Reagan administration.