30 Ways to Shave the Cost of Laundry

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The average American family washes almost 400 loads of laundry per year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s nearly $100 just spent on detergent a year — not counting the cost of energy used to power your washer and dryer.

Imagine putting most of that money back into your pocket. Nice? Yes. What’s more, many of the tips below whittle the cost of doing laundry and also are kinder to the environment.

1. Skip the detergent

Washing clothes without the soap may strike you as nuts, but give it a try, at least with lightly soiled laundry. If you’ve ever washed clothes in plain water while camping you know you can get by without detergent.

Dubious? Maybe you’ll believe it from an expert. The Wall Street Journal interviewed Jeffrey Hollender, co-founder of Seventh Generation, the maker of eco-friendly laundry soap. Hollender:

… wonders why more people haven’t stumbled upon laundry’s big, dirty secret: “You don’t even need soap to wash most loads,” he says. The agitation of washing machines often does the job on its own.

2. Cut (way) back on the detergent

“More soap does not, in fact, mean cleaner clothes,” writes cleaning expert and author Jolie Kerr, at Huffington Post. “Excess suds can hold dirt pulled from clothes and get caught in areas that won’t always rinse clean, like under a collar, leading to bacteria buildup,” CNN reports.

“Too many suds (a sure sign of an over-zealous detergent-pourer) might shut down your high-efficiency machine, and can wear on the equipment over time,” advises Good Housekeeping,

Read a detergent bottle’s label to know how much soap to use. and measure. If your wet clean clothes feel stiff or sticky you’re using too much soap. Or run the machine empty — no laundry, no detergent. Suds visible in the water means you are using too much soap.

3. Skip the detergent every few loads

Do without laundry soap just occasionally, with a load of lightly soiled items like sheets, for example. Skipping soap now and then stretches the life of your detergent. It’s also kind to your washer, which benefits from the break.

4. Rinse residue from your machine

Using too much laundry soap can cost you the price of a new washing machine. Liam McCabe, laundry appliance tester and writer at TheSweetHome, writes in an email to us about the newer high-efficiency (HE):

HE washers are made to work with very small amounts of detergent. All the experts I talked to said that the number 1 reason HE machines break down is because people use too much detergent in them. It’s not able to rinse away properly, so the residue builds up in the machine, which causes performance problems, followed by mechanical problems.

Rodale News suggests preventive maintenance:

… running an empty machine with no laundry, adding a cup of white vinegar to help remove soap residues. If the wasted water and energy make you cringe, run a normal load of clothes and add the vinegar to that.

Run one of these rinses at least every six months — monthly if you do lots of laundry.

5. Make your own laundry soap

Making your own laundry soap cuts your cost from a quarter or more to 6 cents to 10 cents per load, HouseLogic finds. Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson shares his favorite recipe for homemade laundry soap:

  • 1 bar of soap
  • 3 gallons plus 4 cups of water
  • 1 cup borax
  • ½ cup washing soda

(Borax can irritate your eyes. Be careful.)

Washing soda? What’s that?: It is sodium carbonate, closely related to baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate. “[U]nlike baking soda, slightly stronger washing soda can’t be ingested; wear rubber gloves when handling it,” says Real Simple, which reports that both can be purchased at supermarkets — roughly $1.08 a pound of baking soda vs. around $1.75 a pound for washing soda. Penniless Parenting, a blog, tells how to heat baking soda to make it into washing soda.

How to DIY: Money Talks News’ Angela Colley gives instructions:

Bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Grate the bar of soap with a cheese grater. Drop the pieces into the boiling water and cook until the soap dissolves. Pour 3 gallons of water into a large bucket. Add in the soap and water mixture. Add in one cup of borax and half a cup of washing soda. Stir until the ingredients thicken. Use about ¼ cup (the size of a normal laundry detergent cap) per wash cycle.

Use one to two tablespoons per load.

More recipes: Experiment to find an approach you like. Here are several more:

  • Utah State University Cooperative Extension offers two variations.
  • Kristin Marr at Live Simply uses castille soap and essential oils among her ingredients.
  • HouseLogic (link above) tests and compares three recipes and a commercial detergent.

Results: Former Money Talks News writer Jim Robinson made his own laundry soap. “I, like many before me who’ve traveled this road, couldn’t tell the difference between store-bought and homemade,” he wrote. The product testers at TheSweetHome, on the other hand, found that DIY detergents don’t work as well — probably because they’re missing the “enzymes, surfactants (which work better at cleaning than soap), or polymers, which keep dirt from re-depositing on your clothes and making them turn grey over time.”

6. Use half the soap with soft water

“Hard” water has lots of calcium and magnesium, minerals that make it difficult for cleaning products to perform their jobs. If you have soft water, though, you can dial back your use of detergent. The Chicago Tribune writes, “Softened water reduces the need for detergent by more than 50 percent because it doesn’t contain the minerals that interact with the cleaning products.”

7. Wash all you can in cold water

Laundry machines are among the biggest energy hogs in a home. The EPA urges washing laundry in cold water to save energy: “Hot water heating accounts for about 90 percent of the energy your machine uses to wash clothes.” The average household saves about $40 a year using cold water to wash, it says.

If your home’s water is “hard,” you may find that you require warmer water.

8. In a pinch, wash laundry in baking soda

If you are out of detergent, substitute a cup of baking soda. “Your clothing will be cleaner than you imagine with the action of the baking soda, water and agitation from the washer,” writes Mary Marlowe Leverette at About.com. She links to instructions for making your own laundry soap in powdered and tablet form as well as liquid. (Money Talks News’ Donna Freedman has 84 other great uses for baking soda.)

9. Hang a clothesline

You’ll save $100 a year in electricity ($40, if you use a gas dryer) by hanging clothes to dry instead of using an electric dryer, we wrote a while back, quoting the National Resources Defense Council.

10. Wash full loads

Laundering is expensive because the machines require lots of energy. Cut your costs on energy by doing laundry only when you have a full load. Choose the correct water level and load size on your machines’ controls.

11. But don’t overload

Stuffing a washer or dryer too full stops your machines from working efficiently. Read your product manual for guidance on optimal loads. In general, if the clothes feel crowded you can be sure they won’t have the space they need to tumble or agitate well. They won’t get clean enough and fabrics can wear from rubbing against each other.

12. Set the right water level

When you must do a smaller load, select a lower water level. You’ll save money on water, on heat if you’re using hot water and by running the washer a shorter time.

13. Use an HE washer

When replacing your washer, consider buying an HE (high-efficiency) version.

Front-loaders cost about $200 more, says Reviewed.com, at USA Today. Are they worth it? They clean better, use about five gallons less water per load and consume up to half the electricity with an electric hot water heater, so experts prefer them. But homeowners are passionately divided, the article says, concluding that, “if you can afford the extra up-front cost, front-loaders may offer significant savings down the road.” Good Housekeeping compares front loaders vs. top-loaders.

14. Use the right soap for your machine

If you have a HE washer, whether top- or front-loader, avoid conventional laundry detergent, Consumer Reports cautions. Use only soap labeled “HE.” Also, avoid detergents labeled “HE compatible” in your HE washer, warns this guide from The Cleaning Institute, an industry organization.

About.com’s Mariette Mifflin explains why this matters:
High-efficiency front or top loading washers are designed with low water levels and a tumbling washing action. HE detergents are low sudsing and specially formulated to provide clean washloads in these energy-saving washers.

Use of any other kind of detergent in a high-efficiency washer, not only can confuse your washer cycle and stop the machine, but can prevent it from washing or rinsing properly.Fortunately, prices are comparable for both types of detergent, so doing the right thing costs no more.

15. Feel fine about using homemade soap in HE washers

You might wonder if homemade laundry products are appropriate for HE washers but no experts warn against them. Many bloggers say they use DIY laundry soap in HE washers with no issues. Mary Leverette, at About.com, writes of homemade laundry soaps that, “since none contain a sudsing agent as an ingredient, all are safe for a high-efficiency washer.”

Using homemade soap in your washer or not is a question of personal preference, University of Utah extension agents say, adding:

Homemade laundry detergents are naturally low in suds, which meets the HE washing machine detergent requirement. Homemade laundry detergents have not be found to harm or damage the clothing or washing machine.

16. Buy detergent in bulk

When buying laundry detergent, shop during sales. Purchase in large containers or in packs of multiples bottles at box stores for more savings.

17. Shop with coupons

Reduce the cost of laundry soap by downloading coupons before you head out to the stores. Search for “detergent” at MoneyTalksNews’ coupon page. When you are making your own laundry soap, find coupons for the individual ingredients.

18. Use the dryer again while it’s still hot

Dry one load immediately after another to take advantage of the warm machine. A cold dryer consumes more energy warming up.

19. Jump when the buzzer goes off

Be ready to open the dryer immediately when the buzzer announces that a load is done. Have hangers and a basket ready and be prepared to pull clothes out quickly and hang, fold or smooth them out. That way you won’t need to waste energy and time on ironing.

20. Use off-peak rates for drying

Some electrical utilities charge less for energy when demand is lower. Portland General Electric, for example, has on-peak, off-peak and mid-peak prices. If peak pricing is available to you, schedule your laundry hours accordingly.

21. Don’t let your dryer run too long

When the dryer is near the end of its cycle, check the contents for dryness. Pull it out when it is dry to the touch rather than letting the machine keep running. Newer dryers have sensors that signal the motor to stop when clothes are dry.

22. Remove dryer lint regularly

Lint build-up in clothes dryers is more of a fire hazard than many realize. Remove lint from the lint trap screen with every use. Don’t let it build up. Periodically clean the dryer vent and exhaust duct and behind the dryer. We explain here (in tip 11) how to do it.

23. Use the high-speed spin

If your washer allows you to select spin speeds, use a high spin speed to wring the most water out of laundry. Clothes emerge from the washer dryer and require less time in the clothes dryer.

24. Forget fabric softeners

Fabric softeners are another expensive commercial laundry product that can be effectively replaced with a DIY solution. Two options:

  • Add a quarter cup of white vinegar to the final rinse to soften fabrics and prevent static cling. Caution: Do not use vinegar if you are also using bleach. The combination creates toxic chlorine gas.
  • Or, add a half cup of baking soda to the last rinse.

25. Or cut back on fabric softener

If you’re hooked on commercial fabric softener and don’t like substitutions, try using half as much as you usually do.

26. Buy easily washed clothing

Make life simpler and cheaper by steering clear of garments with dry-clean only tags and limiting your purchases of hand-washable items.

27. Use a mesh laundry bag for delicates

Protect delicate items by segregating them in the washer inside a zippered mesh laundry bag. Hang them to air dry. They’ll last much longer.

28. Keep a stain-removal pen with you

This trick is for parents. If you can whip out a stain removing pen or wipes at the moment the stain is fresh, you up the odds of saving clothes from being ruined by stains. If you’re out of the house, don’t forget to launder the item as soon as you get home.

29. Sort laundry

Washing like fabrics and colors together is a basic way to prevent expensive laundry disasters in which an entire load of Dads underwear, for instance, is colored pink by a red t-shirt.

30. Be prepared for red wine spills

Not ten minutes after I walked into a party one summer evening, someone accidentally dumped an entire glass of red wine down the front of a favorite white cotton blouse. A stranger told me about a product called Wine Away, often carried in grocery and beverage stores. Astoundingly, it saved the blouse and left no trace of the wine.

Tell us your money-saving laundry tips and tricks. Write a comment below or at Money Talks News’ Facebook page.

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