The United States of Financial Waste

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Dinners out. Unwatched cable packages. Armloads of expired food. Even the most frugal Americans have a tendency to squander hard-earned cash on unnecessary expenses. We asked 2,000 people across the country to share their two cents about the various ways they waste money.

Which are their worst money wasters? Which habits are they willing to change? And how do gender, generation, income bracket, and geographic location factor into the equation? Keep reading to see how your splurging (and saving) habits stack up.

Will We Change Our Spending Habits?

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Over 8 in 10 Americans admit they waste cash – but where are they willing to cut corners? The top four financial flubs involve food: Nearly 70% admit they spend too much eating out, almost a third toss out uneaten food, a quarter say they spend too much on alcohol, and another quarter splurge on groceries.

Respondents say they’d cut down on restaurant meals and alcohol, but they won’t budge on grocery bills and wasted food costs. How else would people tighten their belts? They’re willing to trim certain utilitarian expenses (credit card interest and electricity costs), and they’ll also give up certain extras, including clothing, cigarette, and lottery/gambling costs.

However, certain types of life-enriching costs are off the table when it comes to reduction: People want to keep their hobbies and activities, entertainment, streaming services, cable or digital TV, cell phone, and tech gadgets. Another surprising refusal? Despite the cost and the environmental impact, those who buy bottled water don’t want to give it up.

Wasting Cash: Men vs. Women

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When it comes to the top 10 ways they waste money, men and women have some common habits and some differences. Nearly 7 in 10 of both genders cite dining out as a way they blow cash. Expired food, grocery bills, and alcohol suck up funds too – though more women cite food as a financial drain, while more men say bar and liquor store bills are an issue.

So which wasteful expenditures differ between the genders? Women say they waste funds on clothes and cell phones. On the other hand, men are more likely to empty their wallets on tech gadgets and TV services.

How Different Generations Blow Budgets

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Every generation is known for its unique relationship with money. So how does that affect its members’ spending missteps? All three generations rank dining out as the top way to fritter away money – but only half of Baby Boomers say so, compared with 62% of Gen Xers and 72% of Millennials. Expired food and high grocery bills also perch fairly high on each generation’s list.

For Millennials, drinking, entertainment, and hobbies rate relatively high on the list of money wasters, while Gen Xers and Baby Boomers are both more concerned about credit card interest and cable TV costs. (Baby Boomers find cable TV even more of a financial drain than groceries and expired food!) Baby Boomers are the only generation of the three to rank bottled water as a concerning expense, and Millennials are the only ones for whom cigarettes don’t make the cut.

Wasting Money in Every Income Bracket

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We asked people at various income levels to ‘fess up about their financial fails. Eating out, grocery costs, and tech gadgets are the biggest weaknesses for people in the highest earnings bracket. Uneaten or expired food, cable/digital TV, and credit card interest are the money wasters the second-highest wage earners admit to.

The people who earn the least say hobbies and entertainment are their worst financial frivolities, while people who make slightly more cite alcohol and streaming services as their top money wasters.

In the same vein, people’s childhood economic status appears to play a role. Those who say they grew up lower class are more likely to deem “fun” expenses money wasters (think streaming services and hobbies), while people raised in upper-class families are more concerned with the cost of tossing expired food.

Mapping Frequent Restaurant Diners

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Based on our survey, the top money waster across the country is dining out. But which Americans drop most on their breakfast, lunch, or dinner checks? People in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi lead the pack: Nearly 77% say they spend too much at restaurants. Much of the Midwest and South follows fairly closely.

New Englanders lead the pack for lowest amount wasted on restaurant meals. Nearly 63% say they spend too much on it – 14% fewer than the first-place East South Central region. People on the West Coast also fare well when it comes to scrimping on restaurant meals, as do people in South Atlantic states.

Wasting Money … and Food

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We’ve all filled the fridge with produce from the farmer’s market or grocery store, only to guiltily toss out the wilted veggies a few days later. Across the board, people toss out groceries at a higher rate than meals. But based on gender, generation, and childhood economic class, who wastes the most money on food overall

Women discard around $280 worth of food each year, compared with $250 for men. Generation X and Millennials average $265 in wasted food per year (compared with only $190 for Baby Boomers). Finally, people who grew up middle class waste the most ($280), while those who grew up lower class throw away the least ($240).

The most money wasted on discarded $280 per person on average. What could that buy? Nearly six Thanksgiving dinners with all the trimmings; a couple of tickets to an NBA game with enough left over for parking costs, baseball caps, and concessions; or a new bike at a sporting goods store.

Mapping Food Waste in the U.S.

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As much as 30 to 40% of the food produced in America is thrown away every year. How does that differ by region? The same region that spends the most eating out also discards the most food. Each person in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi averages $285 per year in wasted meals and $360 per year in discarded groceries.

On the other hand, New Englanders (who spend the least eating out) are least wasteful when it comes to food: Each resident wastes an average of $180 a year on meals and $215 a year on groceries.

Mapping Convenience Packaging Use

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After looking at food waste, we examined Americans’ use of disposable food packaging, such as takeout containers, paper plates, and plastic cups and cutlery.

When it comes to a heavy reliance on these types of convenience packaging, Southerners take the cake. Specifically, residents in the East South Central region again top the charts. Nearly 17% of people in the region regularly use disposable convenience packaging. In second place is the West South Central region, followed by South Atlantic states.

On the other end of the spectrum, only around 8% of people in the Mountain states regularly rely on convenience packaging. New Englanders claim a close second, followed by people in West North Central states.

Smart Money Savers

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At Hloom.com, we’re all about saving money. According to our survey, the majority of Americans say they waste money on unnecessary expenses: too many restaurant meals, wasted groceries, and credit card interest charges. To add insult to injury, many of these habits – from tossing out food to discarding plastic water bottles – are harmful to the environment.

Making some small changes can add up to big savings over time. One fewer restaurant meal per week can save over $600 a year, switching electronics to sleep mode (or unplugging them), can save $100 a year, and kick that bottled water habit (because it can cost as much as 2,000 times more than tap water!). 

Methodology

We surveyed 2,000 people across the United States about their financial waste. To calculate the cost of food waste, we used the USDA’s Cost of Food at Home at Four Levels. For every calculation, besides Baby Boomers and genders, we took the average of the thrifty and liberal plan for ages 19 to 50 for both genders. We calculated the same way per gender, only using that gender’s costs. For Baby Boomers, we used the costs related to ages 51 to 70.

Sources

Survey of 2,000 people from the United States

http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/sites/default/files/CostofFoodMar2016_0.pdf
http://www.thesimpledollar.com/dont-eat-out-as-often-188365/
http://www.mytravelcost.com/USA/prices-alcohol/
http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/tables/economics/infographics/
http://www.leichtmanresearch.com/press/090315release.html
http://www.bottledwater.org/economics/real-cost-of-bottled-water

Fair Use Statement

We grant permission to share all the images on this page freely. When doing so, please credit back the authors by providing a link to this page so your readers can learn more about this project and the methodology.