Sunday, July 19, 2015

Savings Challenge, Weeks 19-20: Clean and pretty

Once again, the Bankrate 52-week savings challenge has served up two challenges in a row that are already quite familiar to me. The first one deals with DIY cleaning products, the second with DIY hair care—two things that I've been doing for years. But, for the sake of argument, let's go through them:

Week 19: Make your own cleaning products

The Bankrate reporter who tried this challenge, Laura Dunn, decided to try homemade versions of three specific cleaning products: laundry booster, oven cleaner, and carpet stain remover. This struck me as a bit odd, since these are three products that I use very seldom, if at all. It seemed to me that the best way to save money on cleaning products would be to try a DIY version of an all-purpose cleaner that you use every day.

Her choice might still make sense if Laura Dunn uses these products a lot more often than I do, but based on her experience with the laundry booster, it appears that this was a product she'd actually never tried before. Basically, she just took a friend's advice to add vinegar to the wash cycle when doing laundry to "kill any bacteria" that could be causing "the smell you may have detected in your towels." Dunn was impressed with the result, because her towels came out "very fresh-smelling" and "decidedly softer than usual"—and at $2.48 per gallon, she figures the vinegar costs her only 4 cents per load. Which is all very well, but it's still an extra 4 cents per load, not a savings. Dunn tries to argue that this trick is actually saving her money by extending the life of her towels; in fact, she goes so far as to suppose that the vinegar treatment is actually doubling their lifespan, thus saving her $150 on a set of towels every five years—but she gives no reason at all for this supposition, and no one who commented on the article offered any evidence to back up the claim. Given that I have towels I've been using for 15 years and I've never added vinegar to the rinse cycle, I'm a little skeptical. (I also can't honestly say that I've ever found my towels to smell bad when they've just been washed, so it would make no sense for me to spend an extra 4 cents per load to deal with a complete non-problem.)

The other two DIY products Dunn tried were even less successful. The DIY oven cleaner, a paste of baking soda and water, worked fine, but Dunn calculated that it cost about 56 cents per use, while a bottle of Easy-Off costs maybe 50 cents per use. She thought this was only a worthwhile tip for people who prefer eco-friendly products. Personally, I'd say that baking soda has one other advantage: it's something most of us always have in the house. So if you decide after a cooking debacle that you really need to clean that oven, you don't have to run out and buy a bottle of a product that can only do one job and will probably take years to use up. (We've owned this house for seven years, and I don't think we've cleaned the oven more than once—and it doesn't look particularly dirty inside.)

As for the DIY carpet cleaner, made from a mixture of dish soap, baking soda, and hydrogen peroxide, it ended up bleaching Dunn's carpet, and she had to buy a commercial stain remover to undo the damage—which, she notes, cost less than the homemade stuff. Personally, I wouldn't use anything with hydrogen peroxide on any kind of fabric unless it was already solid white—but then, I also wouldn't try this recipe in the first place, since our house doesn't have any carpets. We have a few area rugs, but we've never yet had to remove a stain from one, so there's really no way we could save much money with a DIY carpet cleaner.

So on the whole, Dunn's success rate with DIY cleaners was pretty unimpressive and unlikely to inspire her readers to try them. Which is a pity, because if she'd tried DIY versions of common, everyday cleaners—like good old vinegar and water—she could probably have achieved some much more impressive savings. I use this old standby on practically everything—bathroom, kitchen, floors, windows—and I haven't bought any sort of commercial surface cleaner in years. It's not tough enough for scrubbing the tub, but I do that with a "dish wand" dispenser filled with a mixture of half dish soap and half vinegar, and it works better than any commercial product I've tried. And for anything vinegar can't handle, there's baking soda.

The one thing I can't seem to do with either vinegar or baking soda, or a combination of the two, is removing the faint brown stain our walnut cat litter has left on the inside of our white toilet bowl. I may eventually have to resort to nasty, toxic chlorine bleach for that one.

Week 20: Be your own hairstylist

Bankrate reporter Crissinda Ponder says it costs her $60-$70 to have her hair straightened and styled, and keeping it that way all the time would mean shelling out that amount every other week. So she cut her salon visits back to "a handful" per year with the help of tutorial videos from YouTube. She embeds one such video that shows how to create "super cute summer curls," and the results certainly are as advertised, but alas, it's specifically for African-kinky hair, so it won't work for me.

Now, I can't really say how much I save each year by styling my own hair, because it's been so many years since anyone else did it for me. The last time I had a professional haircut, I think, was when my sister treated me to a session with her posh Boston stylist as a wedding present. I came out of the salon feeling not at all like myself, and I ended up stopping in the restroom and sprinkling water on my blown-out curls to bring them back to normal.

After that, I came to the resolution that I wasn't going to bother with professional hair care anymore. I had never, not once in my life, come out of a hair salon feeling like I looked better than when I went in, and my recent experience had convinced me that going to a pricier salon wouldn't make any difference in that regard. If I just trimmed my own hair at home, maybe it would never look really great, but at least I wouldn't have to pay someone to make me less happy with it.

After several years of trial and error, I now have a simple routine that I'm pretty happy with. It's basically a simplified version of the Curly Girl Method: I wet my hair thoroughly in the shower, then wrap it in a microfiber towel to soak up excess moisture while I do my exercises, and then I comb in some plain old VO5 conditioner and let it air dry. Once it's completely dry, I can fluff the curls up to an appropriate volume. And when then look like they're getting too long or too uneven, I just trim a bit off here or there until it looks right. The results may not look "professional"—but I'm happier with them than I've ever been with a professional cut.

So that's two more challenges that pose no real challenge for me. Perhaps next week's, which has to do with meal replacement shakes, will prove more interesting.
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