Optimizing Dishwashing for Money and Time

Over the last couple of months, I’ve received quite a bit of positive feedback about my earlier Optimizing Laundry for Money and Time article, where I looked at my routine for doing laundry in extreme detail, and so I’ve decided to do an irregular series on other normal life routines that I’ve optimized in a similar fashion.

Before we dig into this, let’s back up and make clear what I’m talking about.

If you optimize a frequent routine for money and time, you’re going to save a lot of money and time over the long run.

My belief is that if there’s something you do multiple times a week, figuring out how to minimize the money investment and time investment in that routine is going to pay off enormously in the long run. If I can invest some time and thought and effort into optimizing a routine I do three times a week, and that optimization trims off five minutes of effort and $0.50 in cost, I’m literally saving 13 hours per year and $78 per year for the rest of my life. Even if that time is chopped up into five minute increments, if I manage to optimize several tasks, it turns into a pretty big time savings on a daily basis, time that I now have for more meaningful things in my life.

For me, then, trying to optimize the efficiency of the things I do regularly, in terms of both money and time, is a pretty worthwhile endeavor. I previously wrote about how I optimized laundry for money and time, and today I’m going to discuss how I optimize washing dishes.

Doing dishes is a daily task at our house. At the very least, we eat a family breakfast and dinner at home almost every single day, and during the summer months and on weekends, that usually includes a family lunch as well. Given that there are two adults and three children in our house, that adds up to a lot of dishes.

You’ll likely find that many of these tips are familiar to you, while some of them are new ideas. That’s to be expected. However, the tips that are old hat to you may be new to someone else and vice versa.

Here’s how we optimize it for both money and time. In general, time is saved by reducing time used for re-washing dishes and time invested in scrubbing things, and money is saved by reducing use of soap and buying more economical soaps.

We have an absolute rule of scraping and lightly rinsing all dishes immediately after meals and snacks.

If you eat something, it is on you to remove all food or beverage debris on the item, rinse it a bit, and put it in the dishwasher immediately after using it. If the dishwasher is currently running, then you simply leave the rinsed dish in the sink. This goes for everything, and sticking with this rule saves us an incredible amount of time when it comes to doing dishes.

The biggest investment of time when it comes to doing dishes is dealing with dishes with hard-to-remove substances on them, and the simple act of scraping food and doing a quick rinse right after using an item takes care of the vast majority of that task. If you don’t do this, you’re often left with tasks like removing dried-on crusty spots from dishes, either before putting them in the dishwasher or, even worse, when you’re removing them from the dishwasher and doing that takes far more time than it’s worth.

This needs to be a habit established by everyone in your home. When you are done using a dish or a cup or a piece of silverware, you scrape it and quickly rinse it and immediately put it in the dishwasher, no exceptions. If the dishwasher is in use, you can leave it in the sink.

Rinse, wash, and soak things in cold water, switching to hot water only if needed.

This not only saves money on hot water, but saves time, too. How does it save time, you ask? Dairy and starchy foods do not respond well to hot water when you’re trying to clean them. If the food you’re trying to rinse off or clean off has anything starchy in it or anything dairy-based, treating it with hot water will make removal worse. Stuff like melted cheese and dried-on milk and bits of dough simply wash away better in cold water.

This is especially true for dough mixing bowls. Please, if there’s anything you learn from this, it’s that if you have a bowl where you mixed dough, do not immediately try to clean it with hot water. You’ll end up with this warm glue-like mess that will take forever to come out of the bowl.

What I’ve learned over the years is that stuff best removed with hot water doesn’t mind the cold water first, but stuff best removed with cold water turns to a hard-to-remove gluey paste if you use hot water first. So, if I’m hand-washing dishes, I’ll use cold water first and scrub at the food particles a bit and only switch to hot if they don’t budge at all. If I do it the other way around, anything that’s starchy or has dairy in it will turn into a problem.

Rather than worrying about the nuance of each dish, I just go with a general strategy of washing everything with cold water and then switching to hot if there’s still stuff on it.

As for rinsing, I always use cold water. There’s pretty much no reason to rinse dishes you’re washing by hand with hot water. If they’re not already clean, why are you rinsing them? The purpose is to just wash away any remaining soap residue, so just use cold water.

Because I’m using cold water most of the time, there’s no additional cost involved for heating up the hot water. Plus, this method saves time because cold water removes dairy and starches much easier than hot water.

It’s worth noting here that most of the time, we’re just rinsing a dish with cold water to remove remaining food particles before it goes in the dishwasher. For the few items we have that must be hand-washed, we soak in cold water by default because of the issues with starch and dairy; we then scrub them out to get rid of all of the dairy and starchy stuff, then finish the wash with hot water. This is just far faster than any other method I’ve tried.

Use liquid dish soap by the drop, not by the squirt.

As noted above, we have a small pump bottle for our dish soap that we refill out of a larger container. Each pump dispenses a pretty small amount of soap, but it’s almost always enough to get the dishes clean.

If I only need to hand-wash one or two dishes, I’ll use a single pump right on the dishwashing brush. If I have several, I’ll fill one basin of our sink and use perhaps two pumps of soap in there. No more is needed to get everything clean. Dumping on a bunch of soap is a waste of soap (and of a bit of time, too).

The best dishwashing detergent and the best liquid dish soap for the dollar are the store brands at warehouse clubs, bought in bulk.

Both the Kirkland Signature (Costco) and Member’s Mark (Sam’s Club) dish soap and dishwashing detergent do an absolutely fantastic job with our dishes.

We don’t have easy access to a Costco, so we use Member’s Mark Ultimate Clean Dishwasher Pacs most of the time for our dishwasher loads and Member’s Mark Liquid Dishwashing Soap for handwashing dishes. We keep a smaller pump bottle near the sink for actually doing dishes by hand and refill it from the giant jug we buy when we need more. These manage to be both the least expensive option we can find and also among the most effective at getting dishes clean, so they’re what we buy. I’ve tried a lot of different options over the years and, for the dollar, nothing beats these (except for perhaps the Costco equivalent, see below).

If a Costco is more convenient for you, multiple members of my family and a few friends report that Kirkland Signature Premium Dishwasher Pacs and Kirkland Signature Liquid Dish Soap are equivalent products from Costco and work wonderfully.

This falls right in line with our family’s overall practice of buying store brands in bulk unless the product gives us a reason not to, and in this case, the store brand in bulk seems to do better than anything else.

If you’re washing by hand, start with a scrub brush, switch to a rag if there’s nothing visibly left for a once-over, and then rinse.

If I have to wash something by hand, I start with a squirt of soap right on a scrub brush, then scrub it down with cold water and soap. This usually removes visible food and other spots or films from the item pretty quickly. If something is really stuck on, I’ll switch to hot and then try to pry it off, but cold water and soap, especially after the dish has soaked, usually does the trick.

If the dish looks free of debris or any major film or anything, I’ll turn the water to hot and scrub it quickly with a rag, then rinse it again with cold, then set it aside in a drying rack. Ideally, if there’s another person helping me, I can just hand the item to them to dry with a towel.

Put the dishes you use most frequently in cupboards closest to the dishwasher.

This is pretty common sense, but I’ve been in quite a few kitchens that didn’t do this. You should keep all of your most frequently used dishes in cupboards that are very close to your dishwasher so that you can unload the dishwasher very quickly.

In our case, the cupboard that houses the plates and cups and bowls is directly above the dishwasher, enabling the entire top rack and part of the bottom to be unloaded without moving most of the time. This simply makes unloading as fast as possible.

Have a spot right by the sink to dry washcloths and towels.

There are always little water spills and other issues near the sink and dishwasher when you’re doing dishes, so having a spare drying towel or two nearby so that you can grab it immediately can really help. A simple rack near the sink can really help with this.

We actually use a couple of clothespins attached to the curtain above the sink for this. I have considered installing a small rack for this purpose, but it’s one of those “back burner” tasks I’ll get around to someday.

If there’s anything fragile, secure it with a small bungee strap.

This mostly applies to wine glasses. If we’ve had wine recently and there are a few wine glasses in the dishwasher, I’ll just snag a small strap (or a rubber band) and secure them in place. We keep such bands close to the dishwasher.

Why do this? Spending five seconds securing the wine glasses means that you’re not dealing with the decent chance of a wine glass breaking during the wash, which means quite a bit of time dealing with broken glass inside the dishwasher and the eventual cost of replacing that glass. Securing the glasses with something is a good idea. I prefer to use a not-overly-tight bungee strap with hooks on the end so I can just line up the glasses on one side of the top rack then put the strap in to hold them in place snugly but not too tight. They never break and the strap keeps them lined up so that the glass gets clean.

Do not overfill the dishwasher!

You need your dishwasher to run properly. If you don’t, it leaves dishes with spots and sometimes soap residue right on the dishes, making it obvious that they need to be washed again. That’s a giant waste of time and money.

One of the most important steps for proper dishwasher functioning is to simply not overfill it. If there’s not a direct line from the jets at the bottom of the dishwasher and the dishes you want to be washed, they’re not going to wash. Never, ever try to squeeze in another item or two by stacking them on top of each other. Nothing involved in that stacking will get properly cleaned, no matter what detergent you’re using. Similarly, don’t put anything on the bottom rack that blocks the water jets on the bottom of the dishwasher, because that will keep things on top from getting clean.

When you load the dishwasher, the dirtiest side of any dish should be facing the center of the bottom of the dishwasher (in most models). There should be as clear of a line as possible between those jets and the dirty side of the dishes.

When the dishes are finished washing, open the door for drying in the winter, but leave it closed in the summer.

In the winter, we actually welcome a bit of extra heat and moisture into the air in our home. It helps with keeping the house warm. I avoid using the drying mode entirely during the winter and let the dishes air dry, ideally with the door open (unless there are special circumstances, like if I need to come home to find dishes in the dishwasher ready to use immediately).

In the summer, the last thing we want is extra heat and humidity, so we keep the door to the dishwasher closed until the dishes are fully dry. I’ll still usually avoid the drying mode to save energy, but I don’t open the door until the dishes inside are mostly dry.

Clean and maintain your dishwasher frequently (we do it monthly).

The exact procedure for cleaning and maintaining your dishwasher is in your owner’s manual. If you don’t have it, you can probably find it online quite easily. Follow those instructions to the letter so that you maximize the life of your dishwasher and also maximize how clean the dishes get (without spots, ideally) in each load.

Here are a few things that are pretty consistent parts of keeping your dishwasher clean.

Look at the sprayer arm, usually found on the bottom of the top rack, and inspect it to make sure that there are no clogged holes. If you see any, clear them out with a toothpick. Do the same with the jets on the bottom of the dishwasher.

Clean out the drain on the bottom of the dishwasher. Make sure nothing looks clogged. If it’s easily opened with a single screw or bolt, open it up and gently clean it.

Straighten out all of the tines on the dishwasher racks. This will keep the dishes in line and help the jets and sprayer to reach all of the dishes.

Get a spray bottle with some white vinegar in it and spray it all over the insides of the dishwasher, especially on the sprayer and the jets. Also, clean around the seal at the edge of the dishwasher, both on the door and on the unit itself.

Finally, put a cup of white vinegar on the top rack of the dishwasher and run it through a complete cycle.

This takes perhaps 15 minutes, but it will significantly extend the life of your dishwasher, drastically reduces the number of dishes that don’t get perfectly clean in the dishwasher, and also noticeably reduces water spots and soap scum.

When buying a new dishwasher, stick with current Consumer Reports recommendations.

Currently, their preferred dishwasher for home use (both as a “best buy” and as an overall product) is the Bosch Ascenta SHX3AR75UC, which is currently sold at Home Depot and Best Buy, but this will change over time. You should stop by the library and check out what Consumer Reports has to say about dishwasher models.

In general, the top dishwasher models always have good marks on the three areas that are most important (in my opinion): reliability (meaning you won’t have as many repairs and it’ll last a long time), energy efficiency (meaning it won’t ding your energy bill too much), and washing effectiveness.

I cannot recommend an optimal mode to run your dishwasher in. It depends heavily on the model itself and how it uses water and heat. It is worth your time to experiment a bit and figure out what works best for you.

These strategies will save you a ton of time and money over the long haul with your dishwasher.

The most important tactics I’ve picked up over the years are to wash most things with cold water first (because hot water can make some things harder to remove), to keep your dishwasher maintained, to avoid overloading the dishwasher and put the dishes in properly, and to have spots near the dishwasher and sink for drying towels and also cabinet space for your most frequent items. Buying good dish soap in bulk and using a pump for dispensing is a significant money saver over the long haul, too.

Most of these individual tactics are simple ones that I’ve been able to teach to my children, so they actually take care of a good deal of the dishwashing themselves, with good results.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.