My Frugality Wake-Up Call

I want to tell you about a frugality wake-up call I had—something I need from time to time. I’m sharing this now because my moment happened during the holidays—just the time when you don’t want a wake-up call! In any case, it happened and it reminded me that it’s so easy to get sloppy, especially since we’re surrounded by abundance and a seeming endless supply of everything.

Wake Up Call

Some rights reserved by hillsieboy

It was the morning of our big annual Holiday Dinner Party. I had limited time and many things to do. On my list was “clean patio chairs” because we would undoubtedly need them for additional seating. I wanted them sparkling clean and presentable. I grabbed my supplies only to discover I had just one roll of paper towels, and it was partly used. This would be a three-roll job at the very least. I don’t count out one or two towels; I just spin off a big wad.

Normally, this shortage would have sent me on a quick trip to the store. But, as you may recall from previous columns, I do not have a car. By choice, I share a car with my husband. On this day he was at the office and I wasn’t. I did not have time to walk to the nearest store so I decided to go with the only choice I had at the moment: Make do.

I carefully tore off three towels. I scrubbed and cleaned. Then instead of tossing those wet towels in the trash (my first inclination) I opened them up, straightened them out and cleaned some more. At first I was irritated that I had to do this, but it didn’t take long to turn this into a game to see how long I could make the towels last. I worked my way through the chairs and ended up with clean white chairs and towels on the roll to spare. I was downright proud of myself.

My experience with the paper towels made me think: What if I approached everything with the same sense of scarcity and the fear of running out? Would the milk last longer? Would I measure the laundry soap instead of “eyeballing” it? Would I be more careful with errands if gasoline was scarce? Would I be careful to wear an apron in the kitchen?

What if this was the only tube of toothpaste for the foreseeable future? Could I make it last? Would I throw away half a pot of cold coffee or freeze it in ice cube trays for later? Would I use the tea bag to make two or three cups of tea, as if tea was in short supply?  How long could I make other things last—items that seem so ordinary and available it’s easy to be wasteful?

How long could you make things last—not because you have to, but because it’s just the right thing to do? It’s good for the earth, for your attitude and good for your wallet, too.

Question: How long have you made something last? Tell us here


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  • Beck

    I cut tubes in half that have hand creme or face creme in them to get out the last bit. I have often put hot water in the instant coffee jar to get the last bit. I rinse out tomato cans and spaghetti can/jars to get the last bit. If a gallon size zip lock bag is not too dirty to reuse I put them under the sink and place SOS pads that are used in them so it won’t rust until the next use.
    Dryer sheets can be cut in half or reused until you get static going then use them to start your campfire.
    Leftover pasta can be frozen and added to soup later as long as you use it with in a week or so it doesn’t get freezer burn.
    Shamees, old clothing that is not good enough to donate and old towels/washcloths make for good “paper towels”. The new cloths sold at Dollar Tree microfiber are great to use and rewash as well.

    • luvs frugality

      Some really good frugality here. I do most of these as well but can add to turn bottles of oil upside down to get the last teaspoon to tablespoon of oil clinging to the sides. My coconut oil glass bottle gets put on a warm burner to melt down the last bits of that wonderful oil before re-purposing the glass bottle.

      • ShelBarr52

        My stove top cleaner has lasted me 7 years!

  • JENE

    So, I am wondering why you didn’t take an old face towel, a bucket of soapy water and wash them all down? leave the paper towels on the roll??

    • MikiStewart

      My thoughts, exactly! I make my money last by using worn out wash cloths, cut in half, for cleaning rags and a free end roll of newsprint for buffing. The only reason I have paper towels is that my husband insists.

  • Dee

    Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without!

  • Gigi

    I still use the same hair brush I used in high school – and that was over 30 years ago! It’s one of those Air-Flow brushes and I haven’t found anything that works better for me, so I take care of it by cleaning it regularly. I hope it lasts forever!

  • Mary

    Well, you know those little plastic scrubbie things for getting food debris off of pans? I made one from the plastic netting off of a ham a few years ago. Just crocheted a little square. It worked well and was nearly indestructable. You could put it through the dishwasher to clean and sanitize. It only met it’s demise when it accidentally went down the garbage disposal and I was unaware and turned the thing on! I wish I still had it.

    • AngleMine

      Mary, I get apples, onions all kinds of produce that come in those plastic like bags. Also I ask people to save them for me. Like you mentioned it is a great scrubbie thing for dishes. I also save slips of soap and tie them inside on of those and you have an instant bathroom scubblie and can use every bit of that last sliver of soap. Yes, we use the turkey large ones for cleaning the car. List are endless. LOL

    • Pat C in Washington

      You can make your own! You can buy netting at Joann Fabric, cut it in strips, stitch down the length of it with a basting stitch, pull up the stitch until it’s all gathered together like a scrubbie and tie it off securely.

  • Duchess

    While staying with son who has minimal kitchen tools I needed a cooling wire rack so I took the little one out of the toaster over, small but works great!

  • Betty

    I was out of wipes for my eyeglasses,and on the counter was a bottle of windex, so I just gave them a squirt, and they have never looked so clean

  • Erika M

    I have a pair of gym shoes that I am DETERMINED to wear until they literally fall apart. They still have good support, and I’ve had them already for almost ten years. I did buy new ones, but they’re still in the box! And I finally threw out the tube of toothpaste that’s lasted for several months. Whenever it would get hard to squeeze more out, I’d smooth the tube up towards the top so we could get every little bit out, and keep from throwing any away (which means throwing money away for me!)

  • Terrie

    I too cut my dryer sheets in half. I put an empty tissue box near the dryer and save the halves of the dryer sheets when the dryer stops. I use them to clean the dryer vent. I have an additional vent on the dryer vent hose going to the outside. In the winter months, I save the lint in another tissue box and stuff paper tubes from toilet paper with dryer lint. When I have several tubes of lint, I dip the tubes into melted parafin wax. I use my lint tubes to start a fire in our wood stove.

  • Lynne

    I save plastic cups, rewash & use multiple times. I use them not just for drinking, but to start new cuttings, store my metal scrubber so it won’t rust on anything, and so on.

  • MikiStewart

    Regarding tea, I make a large pot with 2 teabags, rather than 6 cups with 6 teabags. The tea tastes better when made in a pot, and I use 1/3 the amount of tea.

  • Pat

    I don’t use dryer sheets or liquid fabric softner. Not sure why but I never get static cling. I hang the clothes on the line when it is nice outside but when I use the dryer in the winter or on rainy days I can’t ever remember having static cling. These are some wonderful tips. I thought I was frugal (my mother was raised during the war in Germany so she is very frugal) but I have a lot to learn from reading all your tips. Thanks!

    • Shellee

      Perhaps you don’t get static cling due to the fabric content of your items; for example, cottons will not develop static but polyesters will.

  • I bought a bottle of fabric softener in December 2008. I filled an emply spray bottle 1/3 full of the softener, and 2/3 full of water. I shake it and spray 8 sprays on an old washcloth for every dryer load. I have more than half of the fabric softener left!

    • Mitz

      Oh I love this idea! Thanks!

    • Elizabeth

      I love this idea, but it would never work in my house. We’ve been married over 40 years, and he never remembers to look for the big bottle to refill the little bottle. He just throws the little bottle away.

  • Friend.

    This is a little too much. Its one thing being sensible about finances, it quite another turning into a no offence meant but there is definitely something that doesn’t sit well with me if i have to cultivate a lifestyle of stinginess. I do enjoy your posts by the way, but this particular one is a bit off.

    • Janice

      It becomes stinginess when it affects your heart. If you would refuse to let your friend use your shampoo because they won’t scrape out the bottom, you have a heart problem. If you HAVE to make everything go 10x farther than the average person, you have an obsession. If you like to see how far you can make things last, and it doesn’t affect your relationship with others, or take time away from more important activities, you have a very useful “game” that many find fun and good for their budget.

  • Betty Thomas

    My foundation make up comes with a pump for application. When it could no longer dispense any foundation I saw there was still make up in the bottom that couldn’t be accessed. I tried to get the lid off but it was sealed in some way. My husband took a screwdriver and was able to pop off the top. With a cotton swab I could get the make up I needed and I’m on week three or daily applications that I wouldn’t of had if I had to rely on the pump. It looks as if I have at least another full week in there. I also cut dryer sheets in 1/2 and turn shampoo and conditioner bottles upside down to get the very last drop.

  • kate

    Stingy is different from reforming a careless habit of waste. Living purposefully and practically means we adjust our habits to the current necessity. And sometimes it is just fun to see how you can make do, do without, etc. My fondest memory of making do is an outing with my mother and aunts. When we got back to the house we all wanted a cup of ea but only one teabag. So, we each had one cup of very weak tea (or strong water) and a lot of laughter. Precious memories.

  • Mitz

    I have made a box of dishwasher detergent last longer by using 1/2 as much as recommended. Once I ran out, I used 1 (ONE) drop of Dawn dish detergent and it worked just as well as the dishwasher detergent!! So…..I then started using less of all cleaning products, soap detergent, etc. Even toothpaste! I use to squeeze out a big glob but now I just use a little. This whole idea of using less is what our grandparents (even my parents) were all about.

  • Cyndi

    I am a quilter. I make quilts for family, friends and charity. I hate to waste ANYTHING. One day I noticed I had a bagfull of scraps, from making the quilts, I was throwing out. OH NO!!! I started making dog beds, from the scraps and taking them to the local shelter. I have checked with the shelter to determine the size of bed they can use the most of and I ALWAYS go through the fabric scraps as I stuff the beds to be sure there is only fabric in the beds. I have made hundreds of bed and I think of the animals that will benefit from the beds and the landfill that will be alittle smaller because of the beds!! Did I mention we have 2 small dogs that allow us to care for them? They like to check out the beds as I make them!
    Another thought is our shelters take old towels, sheets and bedding. The animals don’t notice if there is a stain on a towel.

  • lslb2271

    You made me laugh with the paper towel story. I have been reusing them for years. They graduate from napkins to counter cleaners, and finally to cleaning spills off the floor before they hit the trash can 😉

  • Eunice

    Why use paper towels at all? Save all those old undershirts, t-shirts, towels, etc.
    They make wonderful rags for cleaning and dusting and when they get too soiled to use, just throw them in the washer for another round or two. Also, they do a much better scrub job than paper.

    • Faye

      This is exactly what I do. I’ll save my sons’ shirts and even socks and use them as old wash rags so I don’t waste anything. They last forever!

  • Tam

    Try shampoo bars, no plastic bottles in landfills and bars go a long way. Google them to find sellers online, and keep them dry between uses. I’ve been using them 4-5 years now and won’t go back to bottled shampoo. They’re easier to travel with, no spills and no airline restrictions.

  • DinnerDiva

    Poor “Friend” (poster below) – she just doesn’t “get it”. It’s fun to be frugal! I, too, get the last drop from bottles of lotion, shampoo, stuff in tubes (I also cut the tube in half and scrape out the remainder of the contents which can be a lot). Hubby laughs at me but is impressed! I put dish detergent in a re-purposed glass bottle with a pourer spout (the kind for pouring oil or liquor with a cork around the bottom) – this allows me to put in very little instead of a whole big squirt with is unnecessary and wasteful. I re-use zip lock bags as long as there is no meat juice in them – I wash them out and dry them over an empty bottle so air can get up inside and dry it. I cut steel wool pads into 1/3’ds because they go much farther – they always rust and this way, I get more uses – you really don’t need that big pad anyway. I crochet scrubbies from the mesh bag that onions or other produce come in. Instead of buying swiffer refills, I simply use an old towel or t-shirt cut to size – they work much better and can be washed and re-used. You can make your own solution (I like vinegar and water) to refill those expensive bottles – here’s how to get the top off the bottle:
    I don’t use fabric softner anymore – I use vinegar in the rinse dispenser and my cloths do not smell like a salad. I have some leftover dryer sheets so now I use them to clean the bugs off the car (yes, it really does work) – just wet them and scrub – the bugs just dissolve off. Takes 2 sheets for my car. Be sure to wash the car afterwards to keep it from streaking but this works on the windows as well to get the bugs off.
    I could go on and on but you get the idea. Love the hints others have shared.
    Thanks, Mary, for great ideas.

    • Darlene

      I put steel wool pads in my freezer to keep them from rusting between uses. Works like a charm!

  • Jackie

    I always use teabags for 2 cups of tea. If you save the used one until you have another that you have used for 2 cups then you can combine them for yet another cup. That is 5 cups of tea from only 2 teabags.

  • I dig the deodorant out of the base. The only thing is, I hate the way it sticks to my fingers.

  • Sandy

    Yes, What about rags? Paper towels are a relatively recent invention. Kitchens formerly had scrub rags, floor rags etc all from outworn things and stored under the sink. Frequently washed hand towels are suitable for that purpose. A frugal kitchen would have these, as well as a stack of newspapers slit and ready for the worst duty like cleaning up fish guts or cat barf. They are also good for wiping the fat out of a pot or pan before letting that all go down the drain. Clean paper bags are fine for draining fried food, as is a rack put over a pie pan. If it’s a house like mine, there is also a woodstove, so everything can go into the burn bag and nothing wasted at all.

    As to making things last, a friend taught me that used dish water is good for watering outside plants. She says the soap works like insecticide and the food bits like fertilizer. Not sure about that, but she did have lovely plants and mine seem to be doing well too. Since I carry it out in a watering can, the neighbors don’t see me throwing a dishpan full over the porch railing.

  • I received for sets of sheets as wedding gifts 30 years ago. We are still using 3 complete sets and have replaced one bottom sheet that tore in the middle. I have had to sew some corners and seams, but as I rotate them, they get used 13 times a year.

  • Mary2

    I rarely but occasionally buy a on sale pie or something like that at the bakery or grocery. Those clear or black plastic trays are good for plant trays, to put ripening fruit or vegetables in or to line a basket you are using for flowers or other things. I don’t reuse the meat ones of course. Little plastic knives make good plant markers and can be used for a lot of other things if you start thinking about it. I also use those free cards you get in the mail to join something to scrape pans or other things.

  • Priscilla

    Whenever I am in a public place and have to wash my hands and dry with a paper towel, I fold the towel neatly and put it in my pocket. When I get home I put it in a Kleenex box under the sink. Then when I spill a bit of this or that around the burners or on the floor while working in the kitchen, I grab one of those towels and clean up my mess. They come in so handy and I feel like I have used something twice. My regular roll of paper towels lasts forever because of this habit.

  • a wise “old woman”

    My sons are 51 and 50; I still have a few of their stained little shirts that I have used as rags for nearly half a century..instead of paper towels why did you not use a cloth rag that could be washed and reused and reused and reused. Paper towels are wasteful for such a project as yours

  • Barb

    I can remember my mother reusing aluminum foil.She’d wash it after using and reuse several times before it finally gave out.I also remember her cutting kleenexs in half.Got twice as many for the same amount of money.

  • Karen

    I do this routinely, make things last. One half of being frugal is to get things at the cheapest price, the other half is to use as little of the product as possible. For instance, I cut my brillo pads in quarters for use and then freeze to prevent rusting between usage. Like this, a box will last for years. I test my detergent, shampoo, toothpaste and so on to see how much I need to use, not trusting the manufacturer’s instructions. The amount of toothpaste shown in advertisements is enough to last me a week or two. I use just a small dab. And I only use paper towels for messes I don’t want to wash up, like oily, hard to wash things. Most of the time I use rags from old washrags, sheets or those cheap bundles of rags you can get at Walmart. I wash these rags with whites, again avoiding anything that’s hard to clean and that I don’t want in my washer. This way, a roll of paper towels lasts for a long time.

  • Judi G.

    I love my coffee with flavored liquid creamers (sugar free), and have found a way to save a few pennies. When the creamer is about half gone, I refill it with 2% milk. I was surprised at how delicious my coffee was with the “diluted” creamer.

  • Brooksie

    What I like to do is save old shampoo bottles and when I buy a new bottle of shampoo I will empty half of it into an old bottle. Then, I fill the rest of the bottle up with water. And if you shower everyday it is better on your hair and scalp because it’s not so strong.

    • Michelle

      This made me laugh. Only because when I was younger and one of five children, my Mom was a wonderful example of stretching her dollar. She had this habit of putting water in the shampoo and conditioner bottles when they were almost empty. However, most of it ended up going down the drain because we thought the heavy bottle meant it was full of thick shampoo. One good squirt and half the bottle would come pouring out! I am grateful, though, that I was brought up to not be wasteful and make things last as long as possible.

  • soozeeq

    We’ve had the same clothes dryer for 28 years. The handle on the lint trap is broken, and the inside light doesn’t work. It doesn’t steam the clothes and it has some scuffs and rust marks, but it works!

  • Lynn

    I re-use my sandwich lunch bags for the same item throughout the week. I scrape out the deodorant left in the part that pushes the stick up, put in a bag, and apply with my fingers. Some bottles of body wash, shampoo, etc won’t let you remove the cap. I use scissors to cut the top away to get to the good stuff. I use old toothbrushes to clean as well as for plant markers. My husband can’t tell me he didn’t see that toothbrush sticking out of the ground when he was using the weed eater. I cut up old bath towels into wash cloth size and serge the edges, and now we have “new” washcloths. But my favorite re-use hint is this: we live in an area where ground moles love us. Killing them was difficult at best, poisoning them is not efficient. They are feeding on slugs (bad) and earthworms ( good), so if you can’t beat ‘me, join ’em. When I see a mound of fresh ground dirt, all nicely sifted to a fine powder (good work, Mr. Mole), I go out and scoop up that wonderful dirt to use in my garden and flower beds and pots. We have a picky lawn neighbor so frustrated that he had mole hills in his perfect yard. He saw me doing this and now he does it too. I knew then that I was on to something. I won’t be buying soil for a long time now!

  • Anne

    There is an old quote I imagine you are aware of. “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” I think a lot of us immediately went to “Why didn’t she use rags.” I love paper towels and use them but also use rags and the industrial blue paper towels that really do the tough jobs. They cost a little more but you get a lot of mileage out of them. .

  • Pat C in Washington

    I grew up having a “rag bag” in the hall closet. Old cut-up towels, undershirts and other soft cloths made it in there to be used as dust cloths, wiping-up-spills cloths, cleaning-the-car cloths and whatnot. When we did buy the odd roll of paper towels, when mom used a paper towel, she immediately hung it on the drying rack in the utility room to dry out and use again. I am not making that up. Empty bread bags? Cut in a long circular strip to be crocheted into a kitchen rug to stand on while doing dishes. My sister and I actually darned the holes in our brothers’ socks. No, they did not return the favor.

  • Michelle

    I have been trying to use fewer paper towels, since I have more than enough cloth dish towels and rags to spare. If I do use a paper towel to dry my hands, I let it air dry on the counter (living in a dry area helps) and then stash it under the sink for another dirty job like cleaning up an oily mess or scraping out a pan before washing. I love the idea of using newspaper for certain cleanups! Thanks for the tip.

  • Sandra

    Men’s sport socks cut open make great cleaning cloths. The rough side is good for scrubbing, the smooth side for wiping down.

  • angela

    I like to keep a empty bottle of Blue Dawn on my sink and fill it part way with water and add a couple of squirts of Blue Dawn this is just fine for rinsing dishes, etc, for greasy items I use undiluted Blue Dawn.

  • Cheryl

    My family has been accepting this challenge right now. Not only how long can we make something last but also how much of something can use? I have absolutely thread bear kitchen towels. Not all of them but some that I have had for awhile where I can’t even recognize the pattern for which I originally purchased them . They can still clean , however? How much of a whole chicken can I use? Can we take something that is broken and use parts from it? A dryer , a pair of pants , a door? To some people , low funds means lack and depression, but with the right perspective it can actually be exciting!

  • Bev

    We bought a cheap tractor mower when we bought our farm in 1993. We still use it to trim fence lines. But it takes constant tinkering by my husband or our herdsman. But the like the challenge of keeping it going. He will try to do almost anything, and darn if doesn’t succeed. Farmers are some of the most frugal on earth. We consider it an honor to be a good “scrounger.” We built a “new” barn by salvaging materials given to us from a tornado demolished boat storage barn. We cleaned up the mess. Less taken to the landfill. And now have a barn perfect to shelter our fall-born calves in winter AND store hay. It took LOTS of sweat equity, which seems to be in short supply these days. Is that the reason our nation is obese?

  • Phyllis

    I once had a iron, before steam or anything else, I’m a sewer and would use it everyday. It kept breaking, would get to hot, wouldn’t get hot enough, etc but my husband kept fixing it for 30 yrs. One day he was out of town for a week and it stopped working again and I had a project I needed to complete. I thought I’m going to go buy a brand new steam iron before he gets home to fix the old one. I bought the iron and put the old one in the trash which was picked up before he returned. When he got home and I showed him my new iron, his only comment was, “did you at least save the plug”. I love his ability to fix and repair everything (washing machine, dryer, furnace, water leaks, you name it) around the house, it has saved us more money than I can imagine but I really wanted one of those new steam irons.

  • Elizabeth

    I put one regular sized tea bag in 8 oz. of hot water and let it sit. With that 8 oz. of steeped tea, I can make 2-3 cups of hot tea (put 2-3 oz. in a cup and add hot water) or 32 oz. of iced tea.

  • Don’t the rags still have to be washed with water, soap and energy to make the washer work? It probably equals out.

  • Lee Shelby

    I use just one teabag every morning for my whole pot of tea. I actually have found that the basic generic orange pekoe and pekoe cut black tea combination is a better cup of tea than the higher end specialty blends. Stretches the dollars spent on tea and ( along with prayer) starts the day beautifully!

  • K Skousen

    DITTO on the wash rags. I am really very surprised that you use paper towels in this capacity, Mary!

  • Nancy

    I save used paper towels that I just used to wipe up water, etc. and put them in a bucket under the sink. I reuse them for cleaning. You would be surprised at how long a roll of paper towels lasts around my house!

  • cyn

    this is pretty gross but i was poor growing up and gum was a novelty i chewed the same piece for about 6 months and it never lost its flavor. my mom finally made me throw it out or i would probably still have it

  • Laura

    I put my shampoo in a pump dispenser. One pump shampoos my hair and I use the suds to wash the rest of myself. I use about 1/4 as much for a shampoo as I used to and never use body wash or soap. One bottle of shampoo lasts for months.

  • Laura

    i use a pump dispenser for dish soap, too.

  • Barbara Bates-Davis

    I don’t know if this will help someone or not. i enjoy the coffee maker that lets you use the pods for a one cup at a time cup of joe. Firstly I buy the pods at Costco box of San Francisco flavor. It is a strong one. I make my cups of coffee at med. strength and get two cups for myself out of that. My husband like his coffee very weak so I get another cup for him out of the same pod. Three cups for one pod. I keep my used pods in a plastic zipped bag in the fridge to use for my husband. It works great for our budget and I can justify having this type of coffee maker.