Nine Frugal Tips I’ve Passed Along While Teaching My Kids Life Skills

One of the biggest subtle themes of this summer has been teaching our children a number of life skills and encouraging them to practice them. This includes ordinary household tasks like doing laundry, preparing food, doing dishes, cleaning rooms, vacuuming, and so on – things that we all have to do to keep ourselves clean, our clothes clean, and our home clean.

While my children are all several years from living on their own, Sarah and I both believe in the value of them being well-practiced at these life skills when they move out so that all of the other changes that will hit them when they live on their own aren’t nearly as overwhelming and they don’t fall into some bad habits and routines immediately.

As I’ve worked with each of them on learning these life tasks, I’ve noticed that there are a lot of really useful little frugal things we do as a matter of routine that were exposed by my kids when they were asking questions along the way. I actually started making a list of these things, and I wanted to share them with you.

Use cold water when doing most laundry. I basically don’t use hot water on laundry at all any more. Hot water means that all of that water has to be heated up first, eating up energy and dinging our energy bill, plus hot water tends to set stains in clothes. On really dirty non-stained clothes, hot water might be better at getting them clean, but unless you’re putting clothes in the washer that’s just caked with dirt and filth, it’s not necessary to get clothes clean.

Just use the “cold/cold” setting for all laundry in your washer. This means it’s using cold water for the wash and cold water for the rinse, meaning that none of that water is heated, meaning that your energy bill stays lower.

Measure the laundry soap and use the lowest amount. The measuring spoon or measuring cup is there for a reason. Don’t just dump in an amount that seems okay and call it good enough – you’re almost always using way more than is necessary. Instead, actually measure the right amount. If you’re using a plastic spoon or measuring cup and measuring liquid, you can actually just toss it into the load and let it run, retrieving it when you move clothes to the dryer, and all of the liquid detergent will be gone.

When you’re using the right amount of cleaning agent, you’re spending a lot less money on laundry soap and still getting everything nice and clean.

A further tip: just get a couple of tablespoon measuring spoons, a measuring cup, and a large resealable container that can hold several cups of powder. Mix one cup of borax, one cup of washing soda, and one cup of flakes in the container, and shake it thoroughly. Use one flat tablespoon of this mix per load and you’re good to go. This will last for about 50 loads; just add a cup of borax, a cup of washing soda, and a cup of flakes to the container whenever it’s low and shake it thoroughly again.

Use the “permanent press” setting on the dryer for anything that you don’t want wrinkled. Whenever you’re drying shirts or dress pants, the “permanent press” setting is the best setting to use on the dryer. It runs at a lower heat setting and actually stops circulating hot air near the end of the cycle. This means that the dryer is using less energy for the load, saving you money, and actually doing less damage to the shirts and pants (you’ll notice this in the lint trap, where there will be less lint).

Unless you’re drying thick items that don’t really care about wrinkles, things like blankets or jeans or sweatshirts, use the “permanent press” setting to save energy and reduce wrinkles. You’ll also save time (and a bit of energy) due to a lot less use of the ol’ iron.

Cook a bunch of meals on Sunday afternoon so you don’t have to worry about it during the week. This can be as complicated or as easy as you want to make it, but it works every time.

One thing I really like to do is to make a really big pot of soup on Sundays, have it for dinner, and then fill up a bunch of containers with that soup. Some of the containers go in the freezer, while a few go in the fridge for meals during the week. We’ll often have that soup for dinner again on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Sometimes, I’ll make a casserole or other meal in a pan that’s intended to be baked in the oven for Sunday dinner, except that I’ll make four pans of it at once and pop the other three in the freezer, using the fourth for dinner. The pans are usually much more than we’d eat at a single sitting, so I’ll take the leftovers and put them in individual meal containers in the fridge for either an evening meal on Tuesday or Wednesday or individual lunches.

The point is that meal prep doesn’t have to be this enormous all-day encompassing thing. I do that kind of meal prep once in a while, but most of the individual and family sized meals in our fridge and freezer are just extras from meals I’d normally make on a weekend.

During the week, it’s often just a matter of pulling a meal out of the freezer one day, letting it thaw for a day, and then finishing the cooking the next evening. For example, if I’m pulling out the lasagna I made three weeks ago on a Tuesday morning, I can let it thaw for about 36 hours and then finish baking it on Wednesday evening. That way, all that I have to do for meal prep on Wednesday evening is pop the lasagna in the oven for 75 minutes or so, make a simple salad, and have the kids set the table.

Buy store brand stuff at the store if it’s an option and only move to other brands if the store brand fails you. Whenever I go shopping with the kids, I make a point of buying the name brand stuff. Usually, three or four times during the trip, I’ll point out how the store brand is way cheaper than the name brand, and then I’ll ask them if the store brand we use at home does a good job or not.

The vast majority of the time, the store brand does a wonderful job. About the only thing I used to avoid in store brand form was trash bags and I recently switched back to store brand ones as they seem to have drastically increased in quality as of late, putting them more on par with name brand bags.

Hand soap, trash bags, dish soap, toilet paper, sugar, salt, flour – all of those kinds of things and many more are bought in store brand form around here.

If bread seems really stale, run a bit of water over the outside and pop it in the oven. This has saved countless loaves of homemade bread and whole store-bought loaves of bread, bringing them back from being turned into croutons or breadcrumbs and making them edible again. Just moisten the outside of the bread, toss it in the oven at 400 F for about seven minutes, and the bread will be like it should be.

This seems to make both baguettes and crunchy breads far crunchier and also makes softer breads less crunchy. It just rescues them from being stale. This simple tip has nudged me toward making more homemade bread simply because far less of it goes to waste.

If you notice white spots on your dishes that would make you want to run them again, first run an empty load with a cup of white vinegar and, if you have it, a few teaspoons of citric acid or lemon juice. Seriously. What I do is put the white vinegar (and mix in the citric acid or lemon juice if I have any) in a spray bottle and just spray all over the insides of the dishwasher, everywhere, until the spray bottle won’t spray any more, then I dump the last few dribbles in the place where the soap goes, and then just run an empty load without soap. This is way, way cheaper than re-running your dishes and glasses all the time.

The reason for this is that eventually soap will build up in your dishwasher and the vinegar and citric acid will get rid of that soap buildup. Doing this as soon as you see white spots on any dishes will save you a ton of money and the cost of lots of extra dishwasher loads, plus it’ll extend the life of your dishwasher.

Better yet, just make your own dishwasher “pods” in an ice cube tray. This is a good way to wash your dishes and also keep soap buildup at bay. Mix a cup of baking soda and a quarter of a cup of salt. Add two teaspoons of liquid dish soap, then a teaspoon of lemon juice. This should form a thick slush that you can easily mold – if it’s too dry, add a bit more lemon juice, but if it’s too wet, add a bit more baking soda. Push this mix into the wells of an ice cube tray, then let it dry for 48 hours. After that, just pop out a “cube” and use that to wash your dishes. These seem to do a great job, but you might decide it’s less work to just use the vinegar-citrus spray every few months instead.

Aim the dirty side of all dishes toward the center of the bottom of the dishwasher. In most dishwashers, that’s where the main source for the cleaning jets is, so you’re going to want the dirty side of your dishes facing it. This is a simple rule for remembering how to load a dishwasher well so that everything in there gets clean. Just face everything toward the middle and the bottom of the dishwasher and try to not ever have a dirty face directly and completely blocked by another item.

This simple rule makes it easy for almost anyone to figure out how to load a dishwasher, and a properly loaded dishwasher is one that will only have to run once to wash everything inside. You’ll have a lot fewer dishes that need additional runs or hand washing to be truly clean.

If you notice an air draft, you should eventually seal it up, but for now, just toss a sweatshirt in front of it. While the best solution to a draft is to either caulk the window or put a weather strip around a door or a rubber strip inside the door, that’s not always going to work as an immediate solution to the problem. Instead, just toss a sweatshirt on the problem area. Sweatshirts do a great job of temporarily blocking the flow of air until you have some free time to fix it properly.

I did this recently with a discovered air leak in our home that was causing a noticeable amount of warm air to come in on a really hot day. I just grabbed a sweatshirt and put it in front of the leak. A few days later, I fixed it properly when I had the right stuff – it only took a few minutes. However, tossing that sweatshirt in place saved us a lot of energy in the interim for very little effort.

Teaching the kids basic life skills is a rewarding adventure, but it’s also a nice way to remind myself of all of the little tweaks I’ve built up over the years to keep food, household, and energy costs low, and when I get to pass those ideas on to my own kids as a good way of doing things, that’s all the better.

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