On Conservation

When I sit down to eat a meal, I eat the whole meal. Like, every bit of food on the plate. There’s not a single grain of rice left when I take my dish to the sink. And while I try to behave like a civilized human being in public, in my own home I have been known to go as far as licking the plate.

While I can’t completely exclude a genetic component, this trait was not inherited from my parents (they both eat like normal people), and my mom often looks at me with a concerned look as I attempt to eat food that’s barely there, while apologizing to other people at the table.

I fully acknowledge that this is not in any way “normal,” but at the same time I really have no desire to change it. Food is meant to be eaten, not thrown away, and whatever quantity of food I leave on the plate is just more food I’ll have to eat later, since the consumed calories will likely be burned on the next run, which is usually less than 12 hours away. In this view, there’s no good reason to leave any bit of food on the plate. This food is completely wasted, and there’s something very unsatisfying about waste.

Sometimes waste is easy to spot, like if you walk into the garage of an average American. We all have a collection of stuff just laying around that is completely useless to us. This is an obvious example of waste: a waste of space, a waste of stuff, a waste of money. Another easy way to find waste is to keep an eye on the quantity of trash you produce on a regular basis. The more you produce, the more opportunity there might be to cut waste.

But other times waste is tougher to spot — particularly wasting money. Let’s take a look:

Going to the library and getting a book for free versus buying a book is a prime example. Assuming that you can bundle the library trip in with another trip (you can literally get the book sent to any library in your area), the cost of physically going to the library in time, money, gas (if you’re not biking!), etc. might be 1/10th the price of buying the book. That’s like eating a tenth of the food on your plate and throwing the rest away! Or, cooking 10 meals (or ordering 10 meals at a restaurant), eating one, and throwing the rest away1Writing this reminded me of this MMM article, so credit to him for thinking of the food analogy. Would a normal person engage in this type of behavior?! No! Or, consider your cell phone plan. I can use my phone for $60/year, or I can use it for $60/month. In either case, I’ll get everything I need and more out of my cell phone use. Obviously, for the same reason I wouldn’t order 12 meals, eat one, and throw the rest away, I’ll choose the former plan!

You don’t need this many sandwiches to feed one person.

“Aha!” you might be thinking. “This example doesn’t apply to me, because I actually use all 10GB of data associated with my cell phone plan, while you only use around 400MB per month. So I’m actually eating my whole plate of food.” If this is you, I have some news that might be horrifying. You are not simply eating all the food on your plate, you are actually eating 12 plates of food!!! I’m not a doctor (yet), but I do think this type of over-consumption is very unhealthy, and will surely result in poor outcomes down the road. Even if you do enjoy eating 12 times the amount of food that’s necessary.

So why is waste so bad, after all? This brings us back to one of the most important concepts in personal finance: opportunity cost. The money you wasted could have been used for a better purpose2This is kind of obvious, since anything is better than throwing it away.. Instead of throwing away 11 plates of food, you could share them with 11 people who have no food. Instead of being a slave to your belly (or your job), you can spend time with people you love. Of course, all of this is magnified when you consider the fact that money you don’t spend can be invested and compound into much much more money (i.e. the 11 plates of food you threw away are actually much more than 11 plates). And when you do this, you’ll end up with a whole lot more money. But what will you do with it?

The logical conclusion of all the above is that you will not waste it. Money is a powerful tool that can be used for a whole lot of good. The possibilities are numerous, and we’ll continue to explore them in future posts. When you start thinking of money like this, instead of just a medium to exchange for stuff, you’ll be much more likely to conserve it, invest it, and use it for good.

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