Charles Grafe

I took a shaky sideways step off the back of the truck, not yet used to the boots or the grip of the standing platform. I flipped open the can in front of me and began to grab the handle and roll it back to the truck, still in shock from the stench. “Just throw the bags” yelled my coworker, but my stomach turned at the thought as the bags were covered with what I had first seen as leftover rice. I quickly changed this viewpoint as I noticed one piece of “rice” start crawling about, and another, and another. Soon, I realized that the whole can was full of maggots that had proliferated out of some unused meat at the bottom of the can. I looked ahead to the next can, and, noticing it was similarly stuffed with bags, began to question my decision to defer a year from medical school and take this job as a trashman.

2023 WCI scholarship Charles Grafe

Charles Grafe

A couple of months before my first day as a trashman, I was walking across the stage of my small liberal arts college in South Carolina. I had done well in my four years of undergrad, and I was excited for my future in medical school and the medical profession as a whole. However, I had already made the decision at this point to defer a year of medical school, and my reasons were grounded in Dr. Jim Dahle’s teachings.

One reason I decided to defer was to focus on my new relationship with my wife before the hustle and bustle of medical school, as I had learned through WCI that it is “cheaper to keep’er.” Another reason was to save up for medical school with the goal of paying for the first year of school in cash. Surprisingly, it was this second reason that led to my job as a garbage man (or “sanitation engineer” as I liked to tell family and friends). Even more surprising is that this job taught me many lessons that have impacted not just the way I see trash but the way I see finances. With the remainder of this essay, I plan to share these lessons and focus on both sides of a simple equation for wealth: spend less + make more.

The winter months meant a couple of things for the trash run: wear more layers than usual; expect more trash from ending leases; and, thankfully, enjoy a slightly kinder treatment of the nasal passages as the cold weather kept the stench of the cans low. It was during one of these winter runs that I was first shocked by the wastefulness of many of our residents.

We were picking the trash up from a house that had just changed owners. I picked up a heavy bag and struggled to get it into the truck. My curiosity caused me to rip open the bag to see what was weighing it down, and I was surprised to find a cordless drill, its battery, and a charger. I tested it out expecting some function to be broken, but it was flawless. As we continued our run, my new drill now in the seat of the truck, I kept thinking to myself, “Why would anyone throw that away?” This phrase became somewhat of a mantra as over the course of the year I pulled a weedeater, several textbooks, unworn clothes, and even a TV from the trash bags (admittedly, and somewhat ashamedly, part of my wife’s Christmas gift was similarly found). Seeing the value in these reclaimed items, I would clean them and list them on Facebook Marketplace, netting me an extra $200 a month through these sales. The first lesson I learned is straightforward: only throw it away if you don’t need it, if someone else can’t use it, or if you can’t sell it.

One of my least favorite things to pick up on trash runs were cardboard boxes. The upside was they rarely smelled, but the downside was that their bulkiness slowed down the run as we had to repeatedly use the compactor to break the boxes up. There were always a few homes that reliably had several boxes by their can each week. Reading the labels of these boxes led me to realize the wide variety of subscription box services that are offered. It was almost comical to see the extent to which our residents were automating their lives: subscription box study snacks, razor blades, fully cooked meals, groceries, printer ink, and even doggy treats would show up on a frequent basis to several of the homes we serviced.

To think that twice, or even four times a month, a pretty substantial bill was automatically being withdrawn from these students’ bank accounts for things that seemed superfluous was shocking. A rule of thumb in the world of economics is that the more something is processed (regardless of the type of commodity), the more you pay for that convenience. This is why bottled water costs more than tap water and obviously why a set of slacks costs more than raw cotton. These students would benefit from lesson No. 2, which is to automate saving, not spending. Instead of having that $25 withdrawn each month for a pack of razor blades, buy the blades yourself and have your predicted savings automatically deposited into a high-yield savings account, a personal brokerage, or a retirement account. The solution is to have savings automatically deducted from your paycheck so that your spending is confined to whatever is left over after savings and not vice versa.

One day before work, I was gathering my things to head out the door and I (minorly overstating the importance of my job) told my wife that I was “going out to save the world.” She laughed and agreed, but as I stood on the back of the truck that day, I reflected on how the disdainful necessity of my job allowed for a higher compensation than most people expect.

Most individuals do not seek out employment as garbage men and women. However, picking up and disposing of trash is an integral part of maintaining a clean and productive commercial world. This high demand and low supply is a perfect equation for a higher salary, and this idea leads us to our final lesson: you will always be compensated for doing things that others don’t want to. Many WCI community members pursue this in the medical world in the form of holiday shifts, nightlighting, or even studying harder in school to match into a higher-paying specialty. This lesson is also perfect practice for the most famous of WCI slogans “live like a resident,” as delayed gratification is at the core of decreasing spending and increasing income.

In the end, my wife and I accomplished our goal of saving for the first year of school, but I think these lessons we learned along the way are far more impactful. With four years of school ahead of me, I will continue to “live like a trashman” and be glad that the cadaver lab is the only foul smell in my future.