paper towels

How Scarcity and Bar Mops Helped Me Kick My Paper Towel Habit

Years ago, I had a frugality wake-up call—something I admit to needing from time to time. It’s so easy to get sloppy when we are surrounded by abundance and a seemingly endless supply of everything.

paper towels

Cleaning Mode

It was the morning of our annual Holiday Dinner Party. I had limited time and many things to do to get ready for the big event. On my list was “clean patio chairs” because we would undoubtedly need them for additional seating. I wanted them to be sparkling clean and presentable.

Big Spin

The chairs had been out during several recent rainstorms and they showed it. 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 was too busy to carefully count out one or two towels. My style back then was to spin off a big wad.

Normally, this shortage would have sent me on a quick trip to the store to replenish my supply. But, as you may recall from previous columns, back then I did not have a car. I lived in automobile-dependent Southern California and by choice, I shared a vehicle 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.

From Irritated to Gaming

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 to spare. I was downright proud of myself.

What if?

My experience with 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 thoughtful with errands if gasoline were scarce?
  • Would I be careful to wear an apron in the kitchen if I had only a limited amount of laundry detergent?
  • 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 if some rare beetle destroyed the world’s coffee harvest?
  • 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.


It was this event, now more than 20 years ago, that served as the catalyst to change my arrogant attitude about abundance and entitlement.

A half-used roll of paper towels turned into a lasting wake-up call. I won’t say we have entirely kicked paper towels from our home, but we’ve come pretty darn close!

A single roll can last for six months. If paper towels were to become extinct and disappear from the face of the earth, not a problem, as we have replaced paper towels in our home with bar mops.

Bar Mop FAQ

stack of white bar mops

What is a bar mop?

A bar mop is a small white 100% terry cloth towel. Typically it is  16 x 19-inches, but the exact size can vary. A cross between a washcloth and a dish towel, you’ll see them in restaurants and bars as they are used to clean up counters, tables, bars, and so forth.

Where do you keep your bar mops?

I have six dozen bar mops. I fold them in half and store them standing file drawer style in a kitchen drawer—with the fold up. This makes them easy to grab. In our home, bar mops need to be super handy.

How do you use bar mops?

The easy answer is everything I used to use paper towels for, cleaning up spills, wiping down counters; we use them as napkins, for window-washing,  washing dishes, dusting furniture, cleaning baseboards, scrubbing anything that needs scrubbing, detailing the car. I use them as hot pads, too. Bar mops are so versatile and easy to use.

How do you wash them?

I have a small hamper under the kitchen sink, where I toss used (dirty) bar mops. I use many every day, and with abandon. When the hamper gets full, I launder them.

Yes, they get stained, but honestly, my current set has to be at least two years old and they’re still fluffy, white, clean, and amazing. When one gets stained beyond repair (it happens), it goes to my husband’s workshop or my housecleaning cupboard to get a second life as a down-and-dirty shop rag.

My bar mop laundry routine

HOT water, 1/2 cup borax, 2 tablespoons liquid laundry detergent, heavy-duty cycle; extra rinse; white vinegar in the last rinse (I pour it into the liquid softener reservoir).

Now and then I will pretreat a serious stain, but that’s pretty rare. Once or twice a year I add bleach.

The secret to keeping them sparkling white is that 1/2 cup of borax I use in every load and the hottest lo. Since I launder bar mops almost daily, stains don’t have a chance or set, nor do wet, dirty bar mops get mildewed.

Where do you get bar mops?

While the most universal resource is Amazon (link below), my favorite is Costco. I find a bundle of 52 in the automotive aisle. Mechanics and car washes use bar mops (Costco calls them terry cloths.)

Costco’s version (by the way, you can find them online at and anyone can purchase there, even non-members although if you are not a member, you’ll pay 5% surcharge) are of excellent quality. You can also find them at I find those from Sams to be lower quality, but sufficient for sure. Another idea, which I have not tried, but if you have an auto supply store near, check there.

Do you really need six dozen?

No, that’s totally a personal decision. I suggest you examine your current paper towel usage. Do you go through a roll a week? Yeah, you’ll need many bar mops to kick that habit. Also, it depends on your personal ick factor!

Personally, I don’t like to clean up a spill with a bar mop then straighten it out, fold it nicely to use as a hot pad. If you’re a re-user, you can probably get by with fewer.

You could easily buy maybe two dozen bar mops and put them to use. See how that goes for you. Do you run out before you can wash and replace—resorting back to the paper towels? Then you need more bar mops. Experiment. You haven’t much to lose other than a bad habit.


Also available in 12-count and 60-count bundles

24-Count White Bar Mops



Costco 52 count bar mops52-Count White Bar Mops

COSTCO $26.99


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  1. Betty says:

    I bought soft, white cotton cloth at the fabric store, cut it into 6-inch squares, and zig-zagged the edges on my sewing machine. I use it in place of facial tissues. I rarely buy tissues, now. The hankies are very absorbent!

  2. crabbyoldlady says:

    If there are no paper towels in your house, what do you use to drain things like any fried food? I seldom fry anything, but even a lowly hamburger can be greasier than expected.

  3. Pat says:

    I recently purchased the bar mops through your Amazon link. However even after washing before use they shed significantly, making these rather difficult to use for window cleaning. I hope over time they get broken in and stop shedding.

  4. Nina Koch says:

    Your use of bar mops certainly saves on paper towel usage but running a washing machine is not cheap. Do you actually save money?

  5. carol webb says:

    Here is a simple way to keep cast iron skillets seasoned. I have two. After something is finished baking in the oven I coat the skillet bottom and sides lightly with Crisco. Put skillet in oven and let it set until oven is cold. If you have to, you can turn oven on 350, pop skillet in, turn oven off and wait until cold. Your skillets are already to go when you need them

  6. H. Rice says:

    Regarding your paper towel post: I use Scott Rags in a Box, $12.99 for 200 10 x 12″ sheets (less than one cent per sheet). They can be used wet or dry and are re-usable. No need to launder and recyclable because they’re paper. On box can last six months. Can be found at home improvement box stores. In the upper Midwest that’s Menard’s.

  7. Sharon Deters says:

    After just one or two washings my bar mops no longer absorb water. I make my laundry soap by your directions and use hot water. I have even boiled my towels, no luck. Coke added will remove any greasy smell and I have tried most everything I have come across. I got my mops at Walmart and wonder is that might be part of the problem. Will the quality of material make that much difference? Even my dish cloths won’t absorb water. We have soft water and I use vinegar in the rinse. HELP

  8. Bonnie says:

    You’ve also recommended using microfiber cloths for cleaning. When would you use a bar mop and when would you use a microfiber cloth?

    • Mary Hunt says:

      Microfiber is for absorbing water, i.e. washing windows, wiping floors dry, polishing things clear. Once you start using bar mops you instinctively know when to use them (like all the time!).

  9. Lynne Powell says:

    We are currently experiencing a severe drought. We are under water restrictions and have been for several years. Washing bar mops daily would be out of the question. Even if I limited the number to several times a week, that would put me over the limit of water usage. This is an ongoing problem for many areas in the west.

    • Mary Hunt says:

      Well then, I guess you need to load up on paper towels! Have you ever calculated how much water your washer uses? I choose to do frequent loads of bar mops, but you could certainly limit that to once or twice a week and add them to your regular white laundry.

  10. Sherill says:

    Years ago I followed your advice and bought 4 dozen bar mops. I keep them in an attractive basket (fold side up) on the kitchen counter and use them every day. Thanks to your advice I use almost no paper towels, and also thanks to your advice, the bar mops are all still sparking white. (In addition, I dyed another dozen bar mops orange to match my dishes, and use them every day for table napkins.)

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