When Did We Become a “Throw Away” Culture?

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throw away culture

I have a little confession to make.  Back in the day, I used to throw away  almost everything. If something broke, it would go right in the trash.  I could have come up with a good amount of reasons to throw away something.  While the number of reasons were plenty, the quality of reasons were extremely poor.  Luckily for me, I have changed my ways.  Now, I am all about DIY and making things work.

If something breaks, I fix it. It I lose interest, I sell it.  If I can’t sell it, I donate it.  The best part is I might not even replace the item after it goes.  This all depends on my need, not my want.  Just a few days ago, I fixed a broken lamp socket in less than 5 minutes.  The lamp would have cost me $40 to replace, but it ended up only costing me $2.30!  All of this is leading up to a question which I have.  When did we become such a huge “throw it away” culture?

The Throw Away Culture

You have to admit that we as a nation throw away stuff so quickly.  This is especially true with electronics and clothing.  Not as many people donate their old items as they should and I used to be one of them.  I don’t have an excuse for it, but that is what it was.

I was in deep with this “throw away” culture. It was ingrained in my mind.  If it is broken, don’t fix it, get a new one.  We all love new things and I think that is one reason why we throw things away so easily.  Here are some other reasons I think we throw items away before thinking of the alternatives.

Lack of Repair Knowledge

I am happy to be a part of DIY nation.  My knowledge has really expanded since I started building and fixing my own items. For me, the thought of being able to put something together with my own hands is a thrill.  Also, bringing something back from the brink of death is also rewarding.

When I go into a store and get items to fix something or build something, I do tend to get questions.  These might come from cashiers or other people. I am not sure why I get questions like this, but I will take it.  Most of the questions revolve around finding out what I am doing.  Maybe they are curious of my shopping list or want to make sure I am not doing something illegal.  Either way, I have no problem telling them what I might be building or repairing.  The sad thing is, this is the typical response I get:

Why don’t you just hire someone?

This response used to irritate me, but now I find it so usual that I respond with a simple smile.  Along with that smile, I tend to ask my own question as a response.

How do you think “professionals” became professionals?

After this question, I typically get a blank stare.  Then I follow up to say that you can’t become good at something without practice.  I learn by doing and why pay someone to do something I am more than capable of doing myself.  This just shows the lack of repair knowledge in our culture.  Some people might not know how to fix something, but they will try to figure it out. Others will just suck it up and call the pros.  I will always try something once!

The Availability of Credit

We are definitely a plastic driven society.  Cash might not be king anymore.  Credit is ruling our world and people love it. Don’t get me wrong, I buy almost everything on credit, but I pay off my balance each and every month.  The issue here is many people don’t do this.  We all understand that credit allows you to live beyond your means.  Because of this issue, I feel we have become more prone to just throw something away when it breaks or we don’t want it anymore.  Since we can buy a replacement which is new and shiny, why repair your old one?  Eww…something old!

The Shiny Effect

Ah, shiny! We are enamored by shiny things.  If it is new, it has to be ours.  When a new iPhone or something else from the tech world debuts, people drool over said item and then justify their need for it.  We obviously need the newest iPhone. It has a bigger screen and this and that. It doesn’t matter that our current phone still works perfectly fine.  I need this now!

I blame both the marketing machine we call consumerism along with consumers in general.  We have lost control of our emotions. We let them play such a big role in our buying decisions.  Anyone can justify a purchase if you give them enough time and reasons.  Doesn’t mean it was a good one.

Over the years, I have changed the way I look at my possessions. Most are not necessary, but that doesn’t mean I am going to toss them for new items.  That just isn’t economical. The biggest problem is our economy is based on how often people toss their old junk for new items.  Most products are designed to have a short lifespan because it keeps the buying cycle efficient. It is just basic economics and marketing baby!


What about you?  Do you have two left thumbs when you try to fix something or are you a Do-it-Yourselfer too? Do you have a tendency to just “throw it away” or do you attempt to fix/donate items?



Photo courtesy of: Scorpions and Centaurs

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Grayson is the owner of Debt Roundup and Empowered Shopper. He also co-owns Sprout Wealth and Eyes on the Dollar. After going to battle and winning against consumer debt, he decided it was time to learn how to use credit wisely and grow his wealth. He discusses all things personal finance and is not afraid of being controversial. He also is a freelance writer and blog manager.

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  • We are super guilty of throwing things away. My husband likes to fix things, but it seems like all the “wrong” things to me (aka stuff that doesn’t really need fixing).

    He recently spent 30 hrs restoring our 1920’s front door lock but went to throw out the digital antenna the previous owners left at our house (and us without cable!)

    That said, I’ve been known to donate clothes because a button is missing 🙁

  • Michelle says:

    I really hate just throwing things away. It usually makes me cringe a little because it seems so wasteful. I always try to find a way to fix something, or I will try to donate it or give it away to a friend or family member.

  • I think a big part of the “throw away” culture is the fact that they just don’t make things like they used to. I know it makes me sound like an old person, but it is true. We have a home that is 25 years old and it has a full house vacuum built into it. The vacuum is 25 years old and works better than any new vac you can buy. We also recently replaced the 25 year old oven, that was working fine, but too small. Now it seems that you buy something and within 3 years there is some sort of self-destruct button built into it by the manufacturer that forces you to replace it. That being said, we are part of the DIY nation, and the more we can avoid throwing away, the happier we are.

    • I agree. They don’t make things like they used to, but this is more about how people feel the need to “replace” their working phone with the latest and greatest. They also just throw working stuff away in order to purchase the new item.

  • Lauren says:

    These are all good points. Unfortunately, the quality of many items has gone down so much, which I think purposely encourages us to throw away and buy new all the time. I try to hold on to things as long as possible and find ways to fix them before I spend money on new.

  • Cat says:

    Great post! I am really big on decluttering and donating but I don’t often take the time to fix things! Good inspiration!

  • I definitely believe the electronics cycle has something to do with this. By the time you purchase a computer or phone it’s already obsolete. (Not quite but you get the point.) Plus for many, DIY is simply not worth the time or hassle to try and fix it. They’d rather take the easy route and go buy a new one, even if it costs them more. I’m in the middle on this one depending on the item that needs to be fixed.

    • I think it does depend on the need, but people are really the ones responsible for making electronics obsolete. While new ones come out, old ones still function. I am using a computer from 6 years ago. It still runs fast, is up to date, and I can do everything on it. I will run that thing until it craps out.

  • Will says:

    I have this super annoying, super awesome part about me where I do EVERYTHING to repair/maintain/modify my car on my own. I learn a ton of stuff while doing it and whenever something breaks (very rarely thanks to my rigorous maintenance plan) I don’t freak out because I know I can tackle the job. It’s very peaceful knowing I can do it all myself.

  • Okay, I am guilty of this in part. I definitely purge everything and anything extra. I hate clutter! I love clean. However, I do not purge and replace. I think that’s more of what you’re talking about. I just don’t like a lot of extra stuff. If something breaks, though, I am all about fixing / DIY-ing. Loving YouTube for that 🙂

    • My wife hates clutter and will throw things away that I wasn’t wishing she would. I am a big DIY, but sometimes I do try to DIY too much. I just don’t like throwing fixable items away.

  • Great article! I am usually not a fan of throwing out things. I will try to fix it first before doing something like buying new one. And if it can’t be used anymore, I would recycle it. But with the used clothing like old ones that don’t fit to me anymore, I would donate them to the needy ones.

  • I think about this all the time. It really bothers me how much waste we create just by eating lunch at Subway (the packaging and bags) or buying my kids a toy (the packaging). Not to mention how many electronics and everything else are thrown away on a daily basis. Humans are so stupid.

  • Aldo @ MDN says:

    I’ve thrown away a lot of stuff in my life, but now I’m more of a try to fix it first kind of guy. I look at it as a challenge, “if other people can fix it, why can’t I?”

  • John says:

    Good post Grayson! Nicole and I were actually talking about this topic a few weeks ago. We’re not very good at fixing things, but we almost always give it a try and many times we fix whatever it is that we need taken care of. We ran into an issue with our mower about a month or so ago and was beyond my knowledge level. The ignition block was shot and needed replaced. It cost us $75 I think to get it repaired and it was crazy the number of friends who told us just to get rid of it and buy a new one. I would come back with saying why on earth would I do that? The reason given to me each time was “Because it’d be new.” I spent 1/4 of what a new one would’ve cost us and our old one runs just like new now.

  • I personally favor throwing away over hoarding, though now I try to avoid accumulating things altogether. As for DIY, I’m pretty terrible when it comes to fixing things, I try running it by the boyfriend first, and if he can’t fix it, it gets tossed. As for clothing, I have been known to wear shirts with holes in them 😉

  • I am a DIYer with some things and a hire-it-out with other things. Totally depends on the project. I plan on taking a week of PTO to rebuild and expand a two-tiered retaining wall in our backyard. It should save us thousands of dollars going this route, and I’ve already learned a lot in the preparation process. I am doing some other landscaping projects as well.

    I think part of the “throw away” culture is just how cheap things are these days. You can get many things for so cheap that it doesn’t make sense to take the time or spend the money to repair something. It sometimes even saves money to throw things out and replace them versus paying to have them fixed or paying for extra parts and spending time fixing it.

    • I wish you luck on the project DC! I agree that things are cheap and that is why we have a false buying cycle. Some things should be just replaced with new, but others can and should be repaired or at least sold.

  • I’m terrible at fixing things, but like you I try to sell it, donate it, or recycle it. I would say some of it is our fault, yet some of it I think is the manufactures fault. Things are cheaper nowadays, but then again, things are cheaper. I can’t tell you how many DVD played I’ve purchased that have broken. Or blenders…you name it. But now I’ve gotten better about how I handle those things when they do break. I like that places like best buy have a recycle program. That being said, I wish they would make things higher quality. I’d totally spend more for that.

  • E.M. says:

    If things aren’t completely beyond our scope, we do try and fix them. I would never simply throw something away without looking into the problem and a possible fix. I don’t like spending money when I can save more by repairing. My boyfriend really loves being able to find solutions and has been getting DIY fever for the last year or so!

  • So true…it’s one of the things that I’ve noticed. Back in the days, people kept things for years if not decades, or perhaps even a lifetime. Nowadays, everyone is ready to throw it away at the first instance that it isn’t working like new or when something “cooler” comes along.

  • Kassandra says:

    We try to fix/re-purpose when possible instead of immediately throwing it out. This is why I like to find “new to me” items on Craigslist or Kijiji. The DH is also very handy. He installed two ceiling fans earlier this week and I was really proud of him because he did a great job, didn’t electrocute himself, and we saved money by not paying someone else do install it.

  • It’s all about convenience, ie, not wanting to put in the effort to fix something. I think the “ooh, shiny!” effect plays a big part of it too…if people feel like they can buy something new, it strokes the ego and makes them feel more successful.

  • Kim says:

    I also think things today are meant to be tossed pretty regularly. My Mom had her toaster for 40 years before it died. It didn’t actually die, but she accidentally melted an apple candle in it, so the toast tasted like candle wax. I bet out toaster won’t last for five years, melted candle or not.

  • Amy says:

    I confess that I’m not much a DIYer. My biggest obstacle is my impatience. I get frustrated and give up too easily when trying to learn something new. (This brings up bad memories of my mother trying to teach me to knit…)

    Fortunately, my husband is the exact opposite. He’s a diehard DIYer, and is very patient and good at figuring things out. It’s one of the many reasons I feel lucky to have him. 🙂

  • I am not at do it yourselfer, absolutely not. I look at a broken anything and run screaming. That does not mean I just throw the item away and replace it. Mostly, I get my girlfriends kids, who seem to know how to repair anything, to fix what is broken. If it is too broken even for them, then it gets donated (I assume Goodwill can fix anything). Items only get replaced after considerable thought.

  • Derek at MoneyAhoy says:

    I can understand throwing something away if it is broken – just barely understand, mind you.

    A couple weeks ago our neighbors were throwing away their tricycle. There was absolutely nothing wrong with it, their kid had just outgrown it. Needless to say, I was flabbergasted! My wife ask for it, and sold it later to someone for $10 🙂

    I think outsourcing all our production to China and other low cost of labor countries has conditioned people to throw broken stuff away because it can be cheaper to buy new than pay someone to fix it.

  • Phroogal Jason says:

    It really pains me when I see curbs filled with stuff for the trash buys to pick up. Not because I want them but it’s a reminder how we are a throwaway society. We buy things with the idea they shouldn’t last. The key is shouldn’t because we need to replace it.

    This post also reminded me of a documentary I watched about the world’s oceans. How we make items using plastic but our intentions are to throw them away. So we basically make things that lasts for generations with no desire to keep them

  • Jason B says:

    I try to fix a lot of things. If I can’t fix it I give it away or sell it. I’m glad people throw a lot of things away. It makes it easier to find items to resell on eBay.

  • debt debs says:

    My husband is pretty handy which helps when things are broken (good) but as a result he tends to hoard things with the intention of fixing one day and it never happens (bad). He also recently replaced his front brakes recently which was a bit of a disaster and I wrote about it. It wasn’t his fault but it was an experience to make us reconsider going this route.

  • Great article. I realized this issue after we moved to a different house. We had some items that were old or in need of repair that were discarded. When time allows, I’ll try selling items on Craigslist or just flat out donate them to Goodwill.

    Dear Dividend

  • Michelle says:

    We always try and donate what we think is usable. But when it comes to things that need repairing, we like to figure out if it would cost more to fix or would it cost less to buy new.

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