Updated on 03.25.12

Avoid Clothes That Require Washing Separately (84/365)

Trent Hamm

Several years ago, I owned this wonderful sweater that I liked to wear during the winter. It fit me almost perfectly, the color of it matched my complexion, it wasn’t itchy at all, and I loved the pattern.

As much as I liked it, though, I ended up wearing it only once or twice a winter, and I eventually ended up giving the thing away.

Why? It required individual washing. Every time I would wash the item, I couldn’t help but run the numbers on the extra time and money this sweater was costing me, and when I compared that side-by-side with a nice article of clothing that didn’t require such extra care, I always leaned toward the item that was easier to care.

Avoid Clothes That Require Washing Separately (84/365)

At the time, Sarah and I lived in an apartment that had a coin-operated mini-laundromat in an adjacent building. To do your laundry, you would carry a basket of clothes over there, pop four quarters in the washer, come back in half an hour, pop four quarters in the dryer, and come back in about an hour.

Two bucks, you say. Big deal. Let’s think this through, though.

Let’s say I would wear this sweater five times a winter for five years. Each time I washed it, I need to use some cleaning agent, costing (say) twenty cents. Also, I’m going to have to devote, say, five minutes each time to the process of washing it.

Just to wear this item regularly as described above, I’m spending an hour and forty minutes just cleaning that shirt and spending $55 in the process. Even if I had my own washing machine and air-dried the shirt, I would still be spending about $18 over the life of the garment just for washing that one item (over 25 washings).

That realization led me to try other methods of cleaning it. Hand-cleaning worked wonderfully and saved considerably on the money side of things (I just needed the cleaning agent), but significantly increased the time investment. Having a cleaning service do it would have been even more expensive.

Eventually, I found myself wearing it perhaps once per winter, cleaning it afterward, then talking myself out of wearing it for the rest of the winter. I eventually donated it to charity.

The immediate response people might have to this experience is that I was being lazy or cheap. Regardless of whether or not that’s true, there is a significant additional financial cost and time cost to washing items individually that adds up over time.

That’s why, given a choice between adding a garment I can wash normally to my wardrobe or adding one that requires individual washing, I’ll always lean heavily towards the one I can wash normally. It devours significantly less time and less money over the long haul.

I do still own multiple garments that require special cleaning, but I rarely wear them. All of the “special care” items were gifts. When the opportunity comes around to wear them, I often can’t justify the time and expense when there are many other wonderful items I can wear that don’t require specific cleaning methods. Why not just wear that nice shirt I can launder with everything else?

This response winds up informing my shopping practices. If I see an item with special cleaning instructions, I’m simply very likely to skip it.

Special cleaning instructions have a cost, both in time and in money. Keep that in mind when purchasing clothes, and don’t be afraid to look for similar items that don’t require special practices.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

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  1. D. Olivier says:

    I have had a few items like this. One trick that has worked very well for me is to throw the items in a pillow case and tie the case shut. I throw it in the machine along with the rest of my load and the items have always come out clean and ready to go.

  2. Kathleen says:

    Dude. You should NOT wash a sweater every time out wear it. It sounds like once per season would have been plenty, given 5 wears and barring stains.

  3. Rachel says:

    Kathleen beat me to the punch. Washing almost anything after wearing it once is completely unnecessary, with the general exception of socks and underwear. Also, care instructions should often be taken more as guidelines than as strict rules.

  4. Steven says:

    Fill up a sink with water. Swish, swish, swish. Squeeze. Air dry. Problem solved.

  5. Steven says:

    Hmmm…I see that washing it separately in the sink wasn’t a proper alternative either. Too time consuming. And I’m with Kathleen. Who washes a sweater every time you wear it? Not this guy. Not even if it doesn’t require special care.

  6. Ryan says:

    Agreed with #1, you shouldn’t be having to wash a sweater every time you wear it, unless you’re getting it really really dirty. It most likely reduces the lifespan of the garment to be washing it so frequently. Also, with many delicate items such as sweaters, it’s preferable to hand-wash rather than run through the machine, so you can save your change as well.

    From my perspective, many people launder other types of clothes more frequently than is necessary. I always wash shirts, socks and underwear after each wear, but most other types of garments, including jeans and chinos, can generally last at least a few wears before they need to be cleaned.

  7. Felicia says:

    Has no one heard of handwashing? A lot of items that need to be washed seperately are made of better material. Sometimes it is the better investment to have these items than the worn out hand me downs.

  8. Sutemi says:

    If special care simply means handwashing and drip or flat drying I really disagree. I have to handwash my bras every couple weeks and throwing in an additional sweater doesn’t add much work.
    In general for larger women, there aren’t any such wonderful things as bras that can be thrown into the washer and drier.

  9. Nicole says:

    If something calls for separate washing, I do that once avoid color bleeding if I think it’s necessary. After that, I wash it in cold water on gentle cycle with like colors and dry it flat. I do the same with most hand wash items. Never had a problem.

  10. Riki says:

    Not to mention, Trent now uses homemade detergent that costs $0.05 per load (his own calculations) and doesn’t have to pay laundromat costs any more.

    And wasn’t there an article a while ago about not washing clothes every time you wear them?

    For what it’s worth, I avoid special-care items where possible but again, an article full of holes. Do you write everything in a vacuum where you’ve forgotten everything you’ve ever said before?

  11. Juliska says:

    What was so special about that sweater that it needed to be washed separately? I hand wash wool sweaters, roll them up in a couple old towels to squeeze out excess water, and then lay them out flat on top of a folding drying rack. Cotton sweaters, or blends, I turn inside out and machine wash cold on the gentle cycle, as part of a full load, and then air dry on the drying rack. If a sweater seems delicate and likely to snag, I put it in a large mesh washing bag, zip it up and throw it in the machine. I have mesh bags in four sizes; the largest one is even called sweater size.

    Manufacturers are required to put a cleaning method on clothing tags; it doesn’t have to be the most sensible one.

  12. valleycat1 says:

    I ignore ‘wash separately’ directions, unless it’s a case that the color might run & stain other items. If it’s delicate, I put it in a lingerie bag, wash with cold water with similar-colored items on a short cycle.

  13. That Other Jean says:

    WHAT? For a somewhat more realistic estimate of time and money, let’s try this: You wear the sweater, say, five times a winter for five winters, and hand wash it twice a season, using cleaning agent at twenty cents a wash. You spend four minutes washing your sweater (swishing it around in the sink, squeezing the cleaning agent through it, which is all it really needs unless it’s stained), one minute rinsing it, and a minute to roll it in a towel before you lay it out to dry–six, maybe seven minutes in all (Seven minutes is a LONG time; set a timer and see).

    Over five years, you have spent $2.00 in cleaning supplies, and an hour and ten minutes actually cleaning your sweater–forty cents and fourteen minutes a year. This is too much time and money to spend on a sweater you loved?

  14. Lauren says:

    Yeah, I agree with the above people that one easy solution to this is just wearing it more times between washes. I bought a sweater last winter that I LOVE, but it’s dry-clean-only. I wore it seven times over the course of the winter without cleaning it (wearing a thin shirt under it to make a barrier from the worst of my body gunk and letting it air out between), then took it to be cleaned. It costs more than cleaning my other clothes, but it’s still less than a dollar per wear, and I’m OK with that because I love it. (And it still smelled OK after all this; I finally just took it because it was starting to look a little tired and because winter was almost over.)

    But sure, if the tedium of caring for an item outweighs the joy you get from it, by all means cut it loose.

  15. M E 2 says:

    The washing is rarely the problem, it’s the drying. Wash the sweater inside out with other items on the delicate cycle. Line dry said sweater. Problem solved.

  16. Emma says:

    Most “nice” clothes need special cleaning. Hand washing an item or two is not a big deal.

  17. kiki says:

    My first instinct was to respond “what’s the big deal with washing it by hand now and then?”. But I think the bigger picture is about your personal scale on time and value.

    Personally, I find it really difficult to find such a sweater, so investing some time and energy into maintaining it wouldn’t bother me at all. But for other people it may not be worth it.

    But have to agree with the other commenters…not sure why were you washing it every single time you wore it??

  18. I buy a lot of designer thrift clothes that require “dry cleaning”. When I’ve worn something a few times, I toss it in a special bag and when the bag has roughly 6-8 items in it I wash them all by hand at the same time with Woolite. If I have more items, I put them in my HE washer on “delicate” and hang them to dry. Doesn’t take me longer than 30mins. I can see that with just one item like that it would be a nuisance but if you have several, why not hand or delicate wash them all at once? :)

  19. cathleen says:

    This post does not ring true to me.
    How does washing one item separately (while you are doing other laundry) add any extra time?
    You say “It fit me almost perfectly, the color of it matched my complexion, it wasn’t itchy at all, and I loved the pattern.”

    And that’s *not* worth $55 for FIVE YEARS? Yikes!

  20. Jenny says:

    You guys can’t see the forest for the trees. He’s not saying you shouldn’t hand wash things. He’s saying that there is a cost involved in hand washing things or in having to specially treat things and that you should take that into consideration when buying an item. If you bothered to read the CONCLUDING paragraph, it’s pretty clear.

    Are you guys saying it’s a BAD idea to look for alternatives that don’t require special washing?

  21. Marcus says:

    All of you guys shouting about not washing clothes if they’re not dirty must not have read “365 Ways to Live Cheap.” Not washing clothes if they’re not dirty is tip #95. Since he’s going in order, that one should show up in about a week and a half.

  22. Josh says:

    I ignore special care instructions. I just throw them in gentle in the wash/dryer and hope it turns out ok!

  23. Kai says:

    I have always wondered about items that say ‘wash separately’. I always wondered what they meant it should be separate from. It never occurred to me that it could possibly mean separately from everything else such that it required its own load.
    I don’t buy dry-clean requiring items for this reason. But I own a number of things that say ‘wash separately’, and I put them in a normal load and have yet to find that causes a problem.
    New clothes, of course, get a good soak before their first wash to bleed out the excess colour.

  24. jim says:

    Cathleen asked : “How does washing one item separately (while you are doing other laundry) add any extra time?”

    It adds the time it takes to wash the item. If you hand wash it takes however long that takes.
    If you use a machine it takes however long it takes to throw the item in the machine and then pull it out. That could seem negligible but it might add a minute or two.

  25. Gillian says:

    So by the same logic, we shouldn’t buy bras. I’m being facetious here, but some things do need extra care.

  26. Donald says:

    Hi Trent, great article as always. Do you know of any great coupon sites for Washing and Drying of Clothes? Thanks in advance. Donald.

  27. Alice says:

    This seems to miss the big picture: with slightly more than minimal effort, Trent has a great looking sweater. But ocassional hand washing was too much time and work (!), so he got rid of it. All other things being equal, it makes sense to select clothes that need no special cleaning. But if you already have the item, received it as a gift, found something great second hand, it certainly seems worth the minimal effort of hand washing.

    I’m guessing this didn’t really happen and is just an illustration to generate comments. This makes me sad, as this blog has, in my opinion, gone from offering entertaining, useful advice to appearing to provoke comments with silly anecdotes.

  28. AK says:

    I ignore special care instructions too. Hand wash, wash separately, dry clean only? It all goes in the washer with cold water and gets hung up to dry.

  29. Pam says:

    I agree with Josh and if it doesn’t turn out okay I turn the item into a pillow or some such thing.

  30. J Marie says:

    Hi Trent,
    Thanks for the great advice. I always try to avoid clothing that requires special handling. It’s jsut not worth it. I used to buy clothing on QVC, but no that almost everything is made in China, it seems that everything has special instructions. AGGH.

  31. Elysian says:

    I agree with not washing until its not dirty, except that I sweat a ton and sweaters get dirty after one wear because they will smell. I have so much stuff with special care instructions though, that its not a problem because the marginal cost in terms of time is very low for one more item.

  32. Steve says:

    I have to agree. I try really hard to avoid any clothes which can’t be thrown into the washing machine. I know that anything with more than the simplest washing instructions will just migrate to the bottom of the laundry bin. I try to discourage my spouse from owning such items as well, but with minimal luck. She has a few items that have been “dirty” for literally years – at that point I guess one of two things happens: either the germs expire somehow, or they gain sentience. What good is it to own it if it’s never clean for you to wear it? Recognize the reality of your life and get rid of the item that isn’t worth the extra effort.

  33. Johanna says:

    @Gillian: Trent would probably accept that logic. Or if you do buy a bra, it should cost $3 or less.

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