Monday, January 14, 2013

The small stuff

Today, before putting in a load of laundry, I wrote the date on the detergent bottle.

Why, you may ask, would I do a thing like that? Do I think the detergent's going to go bad, or something? Well, no, it's more to settle a bet with myself. Several of my cronies on the Dollar Stretcher forums have posted from time to time about homemade laundry detergent as a way to save money. I was skeptical about this, because it doesn't seem to me like laundry detergent is actually all that expensive. We can usually find it on sale at about $2 for a 50-ounce bottle, which is usually labeled as a sufficient quantity to wash 32 loads of laundry. At $2 to wash 32 loads, we'd be paying 6.25 cents per load—so if we do, on average, 1.5 loads per week, we're spending about $4.88 a year on detergent.

Even this figure, though, is probably too high, because when we wash a load of clothes, we generally don't use nearly as much detergent as the manufacturer recommends. (At 32 loads per 50-ounce bottle, the amount indicated by the "fill line" on the cap is presumably around 1.6 fluid ounces, or a little over 3 tablespoons, per load.) I started cutting way back on detergent use after I read about a 1997 experiment conducted by the staff of "The Straight Dope" to see whether those high-priced "laundry balls" actually work. In a controlled test, it turned out that pre-stained clothes got almost as clean when washed with plain water as they did with either Tide or laundry balls. Contributors speculated that this might be because of the detergent residue lingering in the clothes from previous washings, but even so, that's only the merest trace of detergent—so it seems likely that you don't need anywhere near the 1.6 ounces the manufacturer wants you to use. I generally put in one-third to one-half that amount, depending on load size and dirtiness. So logically, a 32-load bottle should actually clean anywhere from  64 to 96 loads, and should last us anywhere from 43 to 64 weeks. That's only $1.63 to $2.41 per year.

But of course, logic has its limits. In practice, I might be underestimating the amount of detergent I use per load or the number of loads I do per week—or the manufacturer might be exaggerating when it claims that its bottle will wash 32 loads. The only way to know for sure, I reasoned, was to take a brand-new bottle and keep track of just how many weeks it took me to use up. So that explains (finally) why I wrote the date on the new bottle of detergent before using it for the first time. What it doesn't explain is, why do I care?

Partly, of course, the answer is that I am an obsessive bean-counter, and I always want to track every detail of my life, from my mortgage balance to my home energy use. But there is some method in my madness. As Amy Dacyczyn (all hail the Frugal Zealot!) wrote back in her first Tightwad Gazette book, if you're trying to live on a budget, it really does make sense to "sweat the small stuff." There are a lot more small strategies for saving money than there are big strategies, and a lot more opportunities to use them in your daily life. Knowing how to negotiate with a car dealer might save you a few hundred or even as much as a thousand bucks at one shot, but only once every, say, ten years. Knowing how to pay less for laundry soap, on the other hand, might save you only a few cents on each load—but you do a lot of loads in a lifetime. And if you put this strategy together with all the other small-stuff strategies that save you just a few pennies a day, after a while, those pennies start turning into dollars.

Moreover, she points out, it usually doesn't take that much effort to net a small savings. True, writing down the date on my laundry bottle can't possibly save me more than a few bucks per year—but on the other hand, it only took me a few seconds to do, and spending a few seconds to save a few dollars is a pretty good return on the time invested. And even if it doesn't end up saving me a penny—even if all I learn is that I'll spend the least by doing what I'm doing already—it's still worth the effort to find that out, because it's "good training." It helps me keep in the habit of thinking about what I spend, which is, as I noted back in 2010, the single most important habit for saving money over the long term.

And finally, it's fun—at least, if you're an obsessive bean-counter like me and the Frugal Zealot. I honestly think that even if I won a 500-gajillion-dollar lottery and never had to think about money again as long as I lived, I would still continue to count my pennies, because I genuinely like doing it. Knowing that I'm using only what I need, and no more, makes me feel smart (and considerate, since it makes me a better steward of the earth and its limited resources). Some people might find it silly to keep track of how much laundry soap you use when you could buy every bottle of laundry soap in the world and never miss the money, but personally, I would feel silly using more laundry soap than I need just because the manufacturer told me to fill the cup up to the line. After all, why let them take advantage of me just because I'm rich? Sure, maybe I don't need the money, but don't I have as good a right to it as they do?
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