Over the last several months, a number of questions for the reader mailbag have revolved around what exactly I buy for various common household purchases. What kind of trash bags do I buy? What kind of batteries do I buy? You get the idea.
I’ve been using these questions regularly in reader mailbags, but I have so many little questions like this backed up that I decided to just make a single post listing the specific products that I buy for a number of normal household uses. I generally view these items as the best “bang for the buck.”
The specific items I chose here were items that readers have asked about in the past. If you’d like to see my recommendations on other products, send me a message via my Facebook page and I may do a follow-up in the near future.
Two important caveats:
First, I will often buy other items in the event of exceptional sales or coupons. These are the items I buy just by default at local stores at their normal prices without sales interfering with the purchasing decision.
Second, your experiences may vary. There are some items that I buy in generic form and others that I avoid in generic form. There are some name brands that I’ve been happy with for the price. I also have some particular needs when it comes to specific products. Your specific situation and your experiences may in fact vary – and probably do vary. These are just the products I buy because I find that they work very well for the dollar in my situation.
So, let’s get started. Almost all of the links below go to Amazon for purchasing so you can see the item and buy it from there if you so choose.
For batteries, I’ve found that rechargeable batteries tend to be far more cost effective than non-rechargeable batteries over the long haul. Recharging a battery takes about a nickel or so of energy, whereas buying a new battery – even the cheapest ones – costs far more than that, so if you have a good rechargeable battery that can last for hundreds of charges, you’ll save a ton.
I’ve tried several different kinds of rechargeable batteries and the ones that work the best are eneloop batteries made by Sanyo. They’re a little more expensive up front compared to other options, but they come mostly charged straight out of the package (I use them right out of the package) and tend to hold their charge for a long time, so I can recharge ones that have gone dead as soon as I swap them and just toss them in the drawer for use in a month or two. They seem to hold a lot of juice, too, and have survived years worth of recharges and uses in electronic devices.
For kitchen bags, I’ve had many disastrous experiences with generics, resulting in trash all over the kitchen and the entryway. As a result, I just don’t buy generic kitchen trash bags any more. Instead, I usually buy Glad ForceFlex kitchen-sized bags, which have never failed on me.
If I buy in bulk and shop around carefully, I can buy them for as little as $0.13 per bag. Considering that most generic bags sell for about $0.10 per bag, that’s actually not too much of a premium. For larger bags for things like yard waste, I buy store brand generic bags as they seem to work just fine.
For most of our liquid soap needs around our house – not just hand soap, but other things – we buy Dr. Brommers.
At first glance, this soap seems really expensive, but there are a few catches here worth noting. First of all, the soap you get from Dr. Bronner’s is really concentrated. For hand soap, we cut it with three parts water to one part soap and use about two squirts out of our dispenser. I do the same with an old bottle of Dawn, since we also use this stuff for our dishes, so I fill it about 3/4 full with water and fill it the rest of the way with Dr. Bronner’s. For many other uses, we cut it with water or else use very little of the stuff. It’s potent.
Second, it works effectively for cleaning almost everything. I’ve used a little of it as laundry soap before, as well as a shampoo, and it seems to do the job very well for everything. It’s really versatile.
Still, it’s pretty hard to get around the expense per bottle. Our strategy is to just watch for sales on the stuff, as our local grocery store carries it and has had sales on it in the past. It’s also one of the items on our “Amazon gift card” list, which is just stuff that we buy with our Amazon gift cards if we receive any as a gift or for other promotions.
In the past, we have made our own castile soap – you can see a variation on this in our homemade soap article. This is definitely cheaper, but it’s also labor intensive and we’re kind of wary doing it when the children are around due to the materials involved. It is much cheaper to just make castile soap yourself, though, instead of buying it. It’s worth noting that when our children are older, we’re likely going to just make a lot of our own castile soap, as we really like the versatility of it.
This is easily my most “debatable” recommendation on this list. Straight out of the bottle, Dr. Bronner’s is not an inexpensive option. It only really shines if you dilute it drastically. The thing is that Dr. Bronner’s is really concentrated, so even at a one part soap to three part water dilution, it’s still really effective, which ends up cutting down the price of a big container of it by quite a lot.
Plates and Cups
Dollar store, all the way. In fact, I would buy these at a secondhand store if you can get them cheaper there. There’s no real advantage to investing a lot of money in these items because you will eventually damage and break them through dropping and scuffing. We had a set of Corelle plates that we purchased shortly after getting married that lasted for about three years before enough had broken that we gave up on maintaining a set.
(Having said that, one of my gifts to my wife earlier in our marriage was a set of hand-crafted dinner plates made by a potter that is an old friend of ours, but that gift was more due to the meaning and relationships embedded in those plates rather than the actual functionality.)
Honestly, many of the pens I use are freebies that are given out at parades or by businesses. Most of them don’t work very well, but they’re good enough for most uses.
If I’m actually going to buy a pen, I do spend a little bit more – as much as $0.80 per pen. I usually buy Uniball Signo 207 Ultra Micro pens with black ink. If I shop around, I can find these for about $0.80 each, which is certainly more expensive than super-cheap pens. However, these never leak ink in my pocket and write perfectly virtually every time. I do not trust carrying cheap ink pens in my pocket as I have had far too many ink “explosions,” but I do trust these Uniball Signo 207 pens – they’ve never caused an ink “explosion.”
This is an example of a situation where paying a little more eliminates a lot of little frustrations, at least for me. I find great value in carrying a pen and a Uniball Signo 207 works great for that; for just grabbing a pen out of a drawer to jot something down, though, freebie pens work great.
I am an avid user of pocket notebooks. I constantly use them for things like jotting down ideas on the fly, taking notes at meetings, and so on.
The number one factor that makes a pocket notebook worthwhile is whether it survives time spent in my pocket. If I carry a pocket notebook for three weeks, is it still intact (good)? Or has the binding failed and I’m left with a bunch of loose sheets in my pocket (bad)?
For the longest time, I used generic pocket notebooks with a top spiral that I could buy in bulk for a quarter, but they constantly fell apart in my pocket after even a few days of constant carrying. I don’t know whether I’m exceptionally hard on them or what, but I’d only get through a small fraction of the pages before they fell apart.
These days, I generally buy pocket notebooks that are side-bound and stapled so that they hold together, like Field Notes. A single notebook of this size – 48 pages – lasts me for at least a few weeks and they simply don’t fall apart in my pocket no matter what I’m doing, which is important. I will generally buy whatever brand of the side-stapled pocket notebooks I can find at the lowest price, but if prices are equal (or very close), I stick with Field Notes because they’ve done well for me for years.
For everyone in my family but me, the strategy is to buy very inexpensive socks and wear them until they fall apart, then simply replace them. These socks are usually purchased at the local department store, particularly when they happen to have a sale on them.
The problem is that my feet are large enough that very inexpensive socks generally aren’t available (I wear size sixteen shoes). For me, outlets that consistently have socks in my size are very rare, so when I can find anything that I’m confident will fit me at a good price, I just buy them in bulk. This is why I have fifteen pairs of Gold Toe socks right now – I found a really, really good sale – and it’s also why I wear my socks into oblivion.
While merino wool socks do last much longer than normal socks, the cost factor of a pair of cheap socks on sale swings the pendulum to cheap socks, as you can pick up a dozen pairs of cheap cotton socks on sale for the same price as a single pair of merino wool socks. It’s just not worth it.
Cleaning Rags and Dusting Cloths
Honestly, I prefer to use old, ragged, unwearable t-shirts for these tasks rather than buying cloths. A t-shirt wraps nicely around your hand if you’re doing things like washing windows or dusting, enabling you to spray on cleaner with one hand and wipe things down with the other. This also gives ragged old t-shirts some additional life.
We have purchased a few large rag bundles over the years, but these are currently being used along with a mix of old t-shirts. Any rags will do just fine, though I find old t-shirts do a stellar job cleaning windows.
We haven’t bought paper towels in a very long time. We use the aforementioned rags and old t-shirts along with dishcloths in their place for virtually every use for paper towels. Why buy them at all?
We have other items that serve the same purpose of almost everything one might use a paper towel for. We’ll use cloth napkins when napkins are appropriate. We’ll use rags when quick spills occur or for cleaning uses. For sitting a drink, we’ll use ceramic coasters that we still have from our wedding. We just have no need for paper towels.
In terms of quality for the dollar, I tend to prefer the Target “Up and Up” store brand toilet paper, bought in the largest quantities available. Naturally, this is a product that varies quite a lot in terms of personal preference, with different levels of softness and water absorption preferred by different people. I have been very happy with “Up and Up” for a while, however.
Multiple friends of mine have strongly encouraged the purchase and use of a bidet for this purpose, which should theoretically result in a drastic decline in the amount of toilet paper usage. I do not own one, however.
Since I keep my hair very short, I often don’t really even need it at all. When I do grow my hair a bit longer, which I do for some family events, I generally use whatever is on sale. My hair is never really long enough to really require much else than a rubbing with a soapy washcloth.
When my hair was longer, several years ago, I used Suave for Men and would still use it. However, my current hair care does not necessitate it. A short haircut is very frugal.
I typically buy whatever’s on sale at the drugstore when I need a refill. I’ll often buy these in multi-packs and start watching for sales when I’m down to the last tube. I don’t have any preferred brands or scents and I’ve not found enough difference in wetness resistance to really comment or prefer one brand over another.
Peanut Butter, Oatmeal, and Other Dried Foods
I’ll be honest with you: My local grocery store offers bulk peanuts for sale along with a peanut grinder that makes stellar peanut butter that’s cheaper than pretty much any prepackaged peanut butter that’s sold there. This is even better because I can see for myself that the peanut butter is made from pure peanuts, plus I can select the granularity that I prefer.
This is a great little tactic for grocery store shopping for many items: Check the bulk bins before you buy. At my local store, almost everything sold from the bulk bins is cheaper than buying the prepackaged version. This holds true for things as varied as oatmeal, dry rice, dry beans, flour, cereals, and other things.
The thing you really need to look for is the price per ounce or the price per pound. That’s the true basis for comparing items that come from the bulk bins with the prepackaged items on the grocer’s shelf.
It’s worth noting that not all grocers have really good buys out of the bulk bins. You need to compare all of the prices for yourself and make up your own mind. Some grocers have low prices from their bulk bins, while others charge more from the bulk bins. Don’t overlook them, though, as they certainly can be cheaper.
We have used a single plastic food-safe cutting board for a number of years. It’s a thin blue cutting board that we purchased at our local department store. We run it through the dishwasher after every use, relying on the heat and cleaning to eliminate any bacteria that might be on the board.
(It should be noted that our family is very close to vegetarian and I don’t recall the last time that any sort of meat was cut on our plastic cutting board. It’s used almost exclusively for vegetables.)
We actually own a nice wood cutting board, but it’s much heavier than the plastic one so we usually just pull out the plastic one for convenience.
This is a question I get asked surprisingly often. I believe this is mostly due to the ongoing transition away from incandescent and CFL bulbs to LED bulbs. Since LED bulbs require a larger upfront investment than other types of bulbs, it makes sense to buy the right ones first.
As LED bulbs have become more popular, I have tried several different brands and none of them have failed over the past few years. I do want to comment specifically on two types of bulbs, however, as these come as close to recommendations as I would make.
We started replacing lamp lights in our home – usually 75-watt bulbs – with bulbs made by LE in the past two years. Their A60 E26 bulbs have served us very well in lamps in our home, providing more than adequate reading light at a low energy usage – our Kill-A-Watt energy meter indicates that they use about 12.5 watts in replacing a 75 watt light bulb, so it’s saving us about a dime in electricity every fifteen hours of use, which is about what the bulb gets in a workweek around here (as well as a single weekend).
In my office, which is primarily lit by the light fixtures on a ceiling fan, I’ve been using these candelabra base bulbs made by Triangle for more than a year, using them at least 10 hours per day on weekdays – 2,500 hours of usage minimum so far. None of them have gone out and they’re just as bright as ever, filling my office with light. I have been so pleased with them that I installed the exact same kind in candelabra fixtures in our dining room recently.
LED bulbs are a market that hasn’t really “settled out” yet, but I have been quite pleased with Triangle and LE bulbs so far.
I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about the things my family purchases on a routine basis, particularly household goods that we use daily and replenish often. If the product always works well for us, that’s a plus; if that same product is also cheap, that’s another plus.
The items I’ve listed here are the items we actually use that, for the most part, stand up to those two core criteria. They’re relatively inexpensive and they’re actually something we use with success on a regular basis with little or no failure. From our perspective, those are the factors that really matter when it comes to buying products that you bring into your home.