The proverb “Waste not, want not” is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, and was quite possibly published by him in Poor Richard’s Almanack back in the 1730s. Whether the saying originated with him, or whether he picked it up from someone else, is not known. But it means that if you don’t waste what you have today (be it time, money, food, or anything else) then you’ll have it later when you need it. To “want” something, in the context of this saying, is to desire it but not have it.

Ben Franklin was writing for a different culture in a primarily agrarian age. Back then, most people were farmers, seasonal laborers, or small shop owners. When farmers brought the harvest in for the year and canned, salted, dried, and otherwise preserved it for use during the winter, the food they had was pretty much all the food they were going to have for a long time. If they threw it away, gave it away, or let it spoil when they had the opportunity to do otherwise, there was a very real chance they’d run out before spring. So their behavior today affected the availability of food tomorrow. The same was true of seasonal laborers and shop owners. Money mostly followed the harvest and the sale of cotton, wheat, or other crops. When the farmers sold their crops and were flush with money, or when a whaling ship came back into port, that’s when money was available. Farmers could pay to have all the horses shod, or to buy shoes or boots for the family. Whalers bought new clothing to replace what they wore out on the voyage and to perhaps indulge in a treat. But if you were in a line of work that depended on producers such as the farmers or the whalers, your income was tied to their spending. If you were the farrier who shod the farmer’s horses or the barber who cut the whaler’s hair, there would be times when money was good and times when pickings were lean and you’d have to rely on what you set aside during the more bountiful times. So waste not, want not made sense.

Times have changed. Most people are no longer directly invovled in agriculture, and with the globalization and mechanization of farming the various growing seasons are less pronounced. Although fruit “in season” is generally cheaper, you no longer have to wait until December to buy a Mandarin orange, and when you do, you need not buy them by the crate. You can go to the grocery store any time of the year and pick up a small bag of them, simply because they are now grown around the world and imported at need. People in industrialized countries now also have access to systems intended to provide basic living services during times of poverty. Social Security payments for the elderly and for people with disabilities, unemployment insurance, health insurance, and supplemental nutrition aid programs exist to help mitigate the hardships associated with unemployment, illness, or old age. Indeed, most Americans now consume more calories than they need to survive: obesity has reached epidemic proportions.

Wasting food is a popular American pastime because it’s a form of conspicuous consumption. The working poor, who often cannot afford enough food due to medical or living expenses, never waste food if they can help it. But people a little higher or a little lower on the socioeconomic scale who consider excess food to be a luxury. Like all luxuries, excess food is something that is associated with bizarre behavior. When the food suppy is guaranteed, there’s no connection between wasting what you’ve got today and whether more will appear tomorrow. To many people, waste not, want not no longer applies.

Conspicuous consumption takes many forms, be it a fancy cell phone, an elaborate manicure, or the act of rejecting a meal because it contains an ingredient that isn’t trendy. Ordering the most expensive item on the menu at a restaurant, or buying the biggest possible smoothie, is a way to publicly show that the buyer can in fact afford the largest serving. It’s also a way to maximize the benefit if someone else is paying. This is important, because it relates back to the notion that there may soon not be enough food, or that the source of nourishment may go away.

 

If you’re renting out an extra room in your home instead of using it to store various hobby materials or wardrobe excesses of your own, chances are that you’re a basically frugal person. Your tenant may not be so frugal, especially if you’re the one providing resources. If she receives SNAP benefits (often called “food stamps”), she has a guaranteed food budget every month. Depending on her benefit level and whether she has other sources of nutrition such as a food bank, a parent’s fridge, work leftovers from a restaurant, or included meals at work, your tenant might receive more food than she needs, wants, or can use. If so, be prepared for her surplus-related behavior to be different from yours.

Try not to nag or harp about your tenant’s wasted food unless it affects you directly in some way. A glass of milk poured down the sink may frustrate you, but if you didn’t buy the milk and the tenant isn’t spilling the milk in your carpet or leaving the empty glass for you to find and clean, it isn’t your problem.

If you’re providing board but your tenant chooses to eat out instead of dining in, go ahead with the meal you planned to serve. If the tenant never does get around to heating up her leftovers, you don’t have to eat them yourself, and in fact you shouldn’t. What you prepare for your tenant as part of the board agreement is the tenant’s food, because she paid for it as part of the rent and board fee. Whether she chooses to use it or not is immaterial.