Saving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.
Calista writes in: Aside from the environmental benefits, does using vinegar for cleaning and household tasks really save any money? I can find white vinegar at the cheapest for 2.39 per gallon, and it seems to go really fast. E.g. if I were to use 1 cup for fabric softener as is suggested, I would be going through it like candy. Similarly, baking soda is not as expensive, but it does go quickly as well.
While there are a lot of household uses for white vinegar, it’s not always the absolute best bargain out there.
We’ll use the fabric softener example that Calista points out. As she mentions, it’s often recommended that you use one cup of white vinegar instead of fabric softener in a load of laundry. I often use half a cup myself, except on extremely heavy loads, and it seems to do all right in terms of making the clothes soft.
So, what does that cost? If you can purchase a gallon of vinegar for $2.39, and there are 16 cups in a gallon, you can do 16 loads of laundry with vinegar as the fabric softener for $2.39. That gives you a cost of 14.9 cents per load for white vinegar as a fabric softener.
On the other hand, one can easily find 120 loads of Downy for $15.99 – 13.3 cents per load.
Of course, with the prices being so similar, you can experiment a lot here to find out the right level of fabric softening for you. You might find – as I do – that half a cup of vinegar is the right amount for most loads of laundry (unless the machine is approaching over-full, which I rarely do). In that case, the price of using vinegar as a fabric softener drops down to about eight cents per load. Of course, there’s nothing saying you can’t use smaller amounts of Downy, either, though I’ve never really experimented with that.
Of course, vinegar has a wide variety of uses. Are the other ones cost effective? I ran the numbers on a few of them.
Window cleaner Typically, you mix one part vinegar with four parts water (and three drops of liquid dish soap at a negligible cost) for an effective window cleaner. You can purchase a 32 ounce bottle of Windex for $2.49. On the other hand, you could use a cup of vinegar, costing $0.15 as calculated above, along with three cups of water and perhaps a cent of dish soap, to make your own effective window cleaner. Winner: vinegar.
Spot-free dishwasher rinse Typically, you can use an equal amount of vinegar in your dishwasher as a replacement for a cleaner like Jet Dry. It works pretty well, based on my own experience. Of course, half a gallon of Jet Dry costs $18.49, while an equal amount of vinegar costs about $1.20. Winner: vinegar.
Plant remover I’ve found that if you pour a significant amount of vinegar on unwanted grass – such as grass in the sidewalk cracks – you can get rid of it. Of course, you’re talking a quart of vinegar to cover sidewalk cracks that are dealt with with just a few sprays of Roundup. You can buy Roundup concentrate for $30 which, when used in a tank sprayer, can get rid of all of the weeds on our sidewalk about fifteen times over (based on other observations – I’ve never used Roundup on our own sidewalk). It would take about a gallon of vinegar to achieve the same effect, which would bring the cost of the vinegar to about $38. Winner: Roundup.
I could go on and on with these comparisons. In some of them, vinegar would win the day in a landslide. In others, vinegar would lose running away. In yet others, it’s close enough that one could argue endlessly about the details of the comparison.
There are two key things to notice here. One, vinegar does a lot of things. The simple fact that you can compare it to so many different products demonstrates that. Two, vinegar is friendlier to the environment than virtually all of the other options. Vinegar is essentially just a product of the fermentation of alcohol, after all, which occurs naturally all the time and is easy to do in a kitchen environment.
Does this save you money? It certainly can save you a bit of money if you’re selective in your uses of the vinegar. The key thing is, though, that it’s flexible. You can have one bottle of vinegar instead of lots of bottles of other stuff that will probably go bad before you ever use all of it. Add on top of that the friendliness to the environment and you’ve got a pretty compelling case for putting a bottle of vinegar under the kitchen sink instead of fifty other products.