30 Ways to Shave the Cost of Laundry

Here's how to save 90 percent on detergent and other ingenious ways to get your clothes clean for less.

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.”

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