A close up of a towel

The Power of Scarcity


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 where we are surrounded by abundance and a seeming endless supply of everything.

A close up of a towel

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 sparkling clean and presentable.

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 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, I do not have a car. I live in automobile-dependent Southern California and by choice I share 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.

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.

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 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?

Would I use the tea bag to make two or three cups of tea, as if tea were 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.

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  1. Cath says:

    Great post. I am reminded of when a co-worker of mine returned to her native India for a brother’s wedding. She came back with lots of photos to share. One that struck me was a photo of her father, wearing nothing but a loincloth, sitting on the floor, eating a meal with his hand, the food sitting on a banana leaf. Whenever I feel sorry for myself because I don’t have enough stuff, or fancy enough stuff, I remember that photo. We really don’t “need” much to get along in life. Much of what we think we need is based on vanity or laziness. It is, indeed, good to take a step back and think about how many material goods we use in a given day.
    Your story about paper towels brings up a long simmering debate about using paper towels vs cloth towels. I can’t give up my paper towels altogether, but I do try to limit my use of them. I think about how many germs I’m cleaning up and whether I run the risk of spreading those germs when I rinse and reuse a paper towel (why I always buy a better quality towel that will hold up to scrubbing), or whether I can easily use a cloth, sponge or brush to wash and dry something.

    Thanks for the nudge. It’s a good challenge to rethink things and say, “How can I make do with less?” You didn’t mention the gas you save by not hopping in the car and driving to the store for one item, or the cost of having storage space for a multi-pack of paper towels, or the plastic bags to line the trash can to hold all the used paper towels. Consuming begets more consuming.

  2. Annie says:

    I’ve lived on the “edge of scarcity” for the last 40 yrs., just a way of life to be ever soooo frugal, & like Mary said, saves everything from your pocket to just being wasteful, most folks don’t think ANYTHING about it, but I ALWAYS have & I don’t mind!!

  3. Jane says:

    Food for thought here – both in your post & in the comments. Growing up, we always cleaned the windows with vinegar water & balled-up newspaper pieces. The ink on the newsprint was said to make the windows shiny. One of my current faves is to cut off the lower portion of the lotion bottles to get at least another week’s worth of lotion that the pump doesn’t reach.

  4. Kathy says:

    We lived in Russia in the early 90’s. We were in the “boonies”, 5 time zones east of Moscow so didn’t get much stuff from the West at all. Boy, did I learn to conserve & improvise. Microwaves & food processers? Not available. Dishwasher? Ha! Our Russian friends couldn’t believe there was actually a machine that would wash & dry your dishes for you. Canned soup? Nope. We even went 6 weeks one time unable to find toilet paper anywhere in the city. An older friend visiting us said it reminded her of America in the 30’s. We learned to make jam with just fruit & sugar….rendered our own lard from pork fat so we could make pie crusts for Thanksgiving…you get the idea. All that being said, it was a wonderful time learning to live a “sparse” existence and improvise.

  5. Beck says:

    My grandmother always reused her tea bags even had a cute little tea bag holder set which I inherited when she passed. My mom also made two cups of tea out of each bag. Ice tea can be made with fewer tea bags if you brew the tea twice what I mean is pour hot water over the bags and steep – put it in the pitcher then use the same tea bags and more hot water steep and put it in then add the sugar. We use 1/2 cup or 3/4 of a cup rather than a cup of sugar too. Sometimes we drink it without sugar. Every recipe can be made with less meat than it calls for as well. It is a mindset that I wish I followed every time. I tend to forget about it but you brought up a great point today we should all live like things will be scarce it will save a person money!

  6. Mom says:

    I have had to cut back due to unemployment and plumbing problems. My husband and I take a bath n the same water, only once each. We repurpose old t shirts, we use little water to brush our teeth. It is amazing how you start thinking about how much you can cut back even when you must do it for a short period of time. I try to repurpose as much as possible

  7. Cindi says:

    My daughter was the one who shared unpaper towels with me. Love them. I use them for everything that I would use paper towels for. If it is extremely messy I might use a regular paper towel or two but if it is just a wet bigger job I have old towels and rags for that. Now if I could get the rest of the family to remember a bit more often that I have these unpaper towels. THey are made out of birdseye cotton so they are very absorbent.

  8. Arlene says:

    Our biggie is toothpaste. It’s a contest to see which of us (Hubby or myself) has to cave and open the new tube. Our daughter, while visiting from another state, was thinking about buying a new tube because ours was “empty” and we didn’t have another in the drawer. I about laughed myself silly, I had no idea she was using our toothpaste.

    Secondly, we ONLY use paper towel for greasy jobs (draining bacon, fritters, etc.). I have kitchen towels for cleaning and wiping up spills, they are terry cloth on one side and flannel on the other. They are about the size of a sheet of paper towel so you can use “tons” of them without noticing the “extra” laundry.

    I, also, make my own terry cloth pads for the swiffer. I use a spray bottle of a pine sol and water mixture and my terry cloth swiffer pads. When one side is dirty I turn it over, when both sides are dirty, I get another pad. You never notice the extra laundry until it’s time to fold it and I don’t mind folding laundry at all, especially when I think about the savings. And you can make a bunch of pads out of one old towel.

    I make a lot of “stuff” because it saves us money and/or it produces a better product, some of them are granola, yogurt, laundry soap, laundry pretreater, wipes, granite cleaner, window cleaner.

  9. cathy says:

    Hi Mary,
    Yet another reason why I save old, hole ridden, thread barren, socks and tee shirts and turn them into rags; for times such as these. I have virtually banned paper towels from the house as they are too easy to waste. Even micro fiber clothes that can be used again and again and washed would do the trick. Just keep them in your ‘rag bag’. If I have an extreme mess to clean up then there is no guilt in throwing out a sock or piece of tee shirt that has seen better days… I also do the same with dish towels that should be deep sixed. Repurpose, repurpose, repurpose…
    Cathy Sage
    Tampa, Florida

  10. cares1 says:

    Yep I think I might step up to the challange, partly because I need to and partly because I really want to!
    Thanks for the incentive 🙂

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