Garbage Can Photo

Every Line Item Has a Story

As discussed earlier, the line item is a basic unit of analysis that helps you come to grips with your spending (see here). The next issue is this: how do you make effective use of line items so that you can start spending less than you do now.

Under the classic approaches to frugality, any analysis of a given expense focuses heavily on the bottom line—a cold calculation that’s both heartless and artless. I happen to like this approach. Here’s an example that shows my line item for trash collection compacted down into a short spreadsheet. You’ll see that a huge drop in spending appears in 2009. That’s when I switched to a “pay-as-you-throw” program. (In 2012, the reported cost is zero because I paid using a credit balance that was left over from 2008.)

Moose Household Trash Collection: 1997-2012


 $      240.58


 $      198.00


 $      201.00


 $      165.00


 $      240.00


 $      247.00


 $      261.90


 $      265.20


 $      273.00


 $      296.88


 $      256.20


 $      276.48


 $        67.20


 $        33.60


 $        33.60


 $               – *


 $  3,055.64
* paid with credit left over from 2008

If you love numbers, you adore this spreadsheet’s brevity. It shows everything a numbers nerd needs to know: spending fell dramatically and money was saved. To any devoted bean counter, that’s a beauteous thing.

If you’re not in love with numbers, this spreadsheet fails to inspire. It induces yawns instead of cheers. If that’s your reaction to my beautiful chart, it’s okay. The planet we both share is large. There’s room enough in it for bean counters like me and poets like you. But I believe fervently that both types of humans deserve to spend less on trash removal. So if my wonderful spreadsheet hasn’t filled you with inspiration, perhaps the following short story will.

My tale of this line item is a woeful saga of neglect and oversight. I began keeping close track of my household spending in 1997, but I never thought much about whether I was overpaying for trash removal. I had my excuses. The expense represented one of my smaller annual outlays. At the time, I was employed and $250 per year seemed like a fair price to pay for a large truck to visit my berm each week. But I really didn’t need the service 52 times per year. Mrs. Moose and I recycled. I easily could have gotten by with removal half as often.

In 2008, I retired and started looking for new ways to save money. I finally focused on trash collection. I decided to ask the service whether they would charge me half price since I was putting out bags only half the time anyway. The telephone call to them went well but not as I expected. When I called, the representative said that her company didn’t offer alternate week pick-ups, but that maybe I could save by joining its “purple bag” program. Under this program, she explained, I could buy ten specially marked purple bags at $33.60 and when they ran out I could buy ten more. The fewer bags I used, the less I would pay. I decided to give it a try.

And then something interesting happened. With trash removal on a “pay as you throw” basis, I was incentivized to throw out even less than before. For years, I had recycled basic items like cardboard, glass, cans, and paper. Now I began to recycle plastic bags at Walmart. I began to recycle worn out electronics at Best Buy. I began to stomp down trash with my feet to get the most use out of each bag. I began to burn combustible items in the fireplace. These and other tactics paid off fast. In 2009, I bought 20 purple bags, but I was soon buying half as many each year. Basically, I was taking a single purple bag out to the berm once every five weeks.

My bottom line for this line item? During 1997-2008, I averaged $250 per year on trash removal, but after that my annual cost plummeted to $33.60, for savings of 86.6%. These results were dramatic—inspiring, even. My long nightmare of overpaying for trash removal was finally over. I had seen the light and my trash output was lighter as well.

*  *  *

So here’s your official takeaway from today’s post: if you’re a poet who dislikes numbers, consider creating for yourself an inspirational narrative in lieu of a spreadsheet. Every line item has a story. Figure out each separate expense in depth, devise an inspiring tale about how you might save, and take heroic action. A new guidebook has been published to assist you in this life-changing process. You can buy it by clicking here.

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