Updated on 08.11.11

Paper Towels and Frugality

Trent Hamm

For a long time, my wife and I have kept a big pile of rags in our kitchen as a cost-saving strategy. Instead of using paper towels for the endless small kitchen messes that come from having three children (wiping off faces, cleaning up spilled food and drinks, etc.), we strive to use rags from our “rag drawer” as a cost-cutting measure. We simply keep the dirty ones in another spot and wash them once every week to ten days as part of a load of towels.

That’s not to say we never use paper towels. There are certainly some tasks where paper towels are the item of choice, particularly in food preparation. They can also easily handle many of the tasks mentioned above. We just tend to use rags as a less-expensive alternative.

But is it really less expensive to use rags? Clearly, there are some costs involved in using old washcloths and the like as our kitchen rags. Some fractional amount of the cost of each one should be included here, as should the cost of washing the loads of laundry.

As always, that means it’s time for us to run the numbers.

It costs us $1.34 to run a load of laundry. For this number, I’m using Mr. Electricity’s estimate. Usually, we do a load of half towels and half rags, which means $0.68 for that load just for the rags. Each time we do this, we run about 40 rags or so. Thus, our cost per rag for cleaning is about one and a half cents.

It also costs us $0.49 to dry a load of laundry, again using Mr. Electricity’s estimate. As mentioned above, half of this load is rags, cutting it down to $0.25, and resulting in a cost of roughly three-quarters of a cent per rag for drying.

We usually acquire the rags in bulk. They can often be found at yard sales and the like in large quantities for a cheap price. Let’s say, hypothetically, that I would pay ten cents per rag and I’d get 100 washes out of that rag before it fell apart. That would give us a cost of about a tenth of a cent per rag for acquisition.

All told, the cost per use with a rag is about two cents. A cent and a half per rag for washing, three quarters of a cent per rag for drying, and a tenth of a cent per rag for acquisition are all rounded up a bit, so I’ll round down to give the overall estimate. Two cents really is pretty close to the cost per rag.

How many paper towels does a rag equate to in the kitchen? It depends on the task. For wiping off faces, a rag is about equal to two paper towel sheets of the brands we buy (we usually buy good paper towels, because the cheap ones just disintegrate). For other tasks, though, such as washing dishes or scrubbing tabletops, a rag is equal to quite a few paper towel sheets – say, ten of them. For our uses, I’ll estimate that one rag use is equal to five paper towel uses.

How much does a paper towel cost? Obviously, costs vary. I went to Amazon and looked at lots of different paper towels and found the best bargain I could on a brand we’ve used in the past – Bounty. There, you can get a twelve-pack of Bounty “Huge” Rolls for $33.99 (shipped for free with Super Saver Shipping). Each huge roll has 130 sheets, so that equals 1,680 sheets for $33.99. Since every five sheets equals roughly the same usage as a single rag, that’s 336 “rag uses” for $33.99. That’s almost exactly ten cents per “rag use.” It’s also roughly two cents per single sheet use.

In other words, if I use a rag for a very light use, such as washing off my infant son’s face after he attempts to feed himself pureed carrots, it’ll cost two cents. If I can do it with a single sheet of paper towel, it’ll also cost two cents. The rag and the paper towel are roughly equivalent in cost for very light uses.

However, when the task becomes heavy duty, the rag wins. I can use a rag for scrubbing dishes, while a single sheet of paper towel will simply fall apart. The same goes for giving our kitchen table a good cleaning, handling messes from art projects, and so on. If a task is going to require me to use multiple sheets of paper towel, it’s cheaper to use a rag.

Given all this, we just default to using a rag for as many kitchen tasks as possible. Even if it’s a light task, the cost is roughly the same as a paper towel, and a rag is less expensive and more convenient for a heavy task.

We leave the paper towels for the handful of things they really shine at, usually involving food preparation tasks where you’re trying to dry off a piece of meat or some vegetables. For everything else, we turn to the rags.

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  1. Adam P says:

    I use both rags and paper towels. I can’t buy paper towels in bulk because of space constraints (even a big 2 pack takes up most of my free space cupboard) but I buy them on sale–a higher quality paper towel can do most any tasks that a rag can manage.

    Honestly tho, at something like this I’m more likely to think about convenience, health (will the rag contaminate other surfaces if I reuse it versus a disposable paper towel), and environmental impacts (running the washing machine over cutting down tress for paper towels) rather than a few pennies cost savings.

    I just can’t get into penny counting personal finance articles like this or make your own in a crockpot, although I guess for some people on the brink it’s necessary.

  2. Catherine says:

    I love seeing the numbers crunched like this. Of course, this analysis doesn’t take into account personal feelings on using rags vs paper towels in terms of waste. The only thing I use paper towels for anymore is blotting fat from bacon.

  3. Riki says:

    I tend to use rags/dish cloths more than paper towels.

    However, my province has a successful composting program and I really like being able to put paper towel (and the tubes and all other box board for that matter) into the compost rather than a landfill. So for really messy jobs I tend to choose the paper towels.

    Both are really handy to have around.

  4. Carrie says:

    We also use a combination of paper towels and old washcloths in our house for kitchen tasks. I prefer the sturdier towels for the same reason as Trent. I guess, though, I’m not seeing using as many paper towels per task as Trent indicated. I use paper towel and kitchen cloths at about the same rate for any given job. I treat my kitchen cloths like I do a paper towel – one use, then it goes into the wash pile. I seriously think it’s gross otherwise, and since I can just wash and reuse, not such a big deal to just use it one time.

    So, for my family, I don’t know that using washable kitchen cloths would actually reduce my costs, based on Trent’s estimates. My choice, however, is more based on reducing waste, and trying to encourage reuse.

  5. Michele says:

    I use both. Since I have 3 dogs (no kids at home any more!) there are just some doggie chores that require a paper towel…but I use about one roll every two months and I buy a roll for about 89 cents at Sherm’s Thunderbird. I just can’t fathom buying paper towels online and paying for shipping! I use rags for cleaning- dusting, scrubbing, cleaning counters, sinks, tubs, toilets, mirrors, windows, and floors.I also wash all my rags together on the sanitize cycle of my washer and hang them to dry…outside in the summer, and inside in the winter.
    We don’t use any paper napkins, though. I have a huge collection of cloth napkins and those get tossed into the washer with towels.

  6. Laura in ATL says:

    Cleaning up Hairballs from the cats?
    Papertowels are the only way to go.


  7. Katie says:

    As a cat owner, I find it kind of depressing that pets necessitate more paper towels than young children!

  8. Tracy says:

    I make the decision based solely on what it is I’m cleaning up – if it’s spilled oil, even cooking oil, it’s safer to use paper towels than it is to use rags. (Cooking oil that isn’t completely removed in the wash cycle has been known to start fires in dryer – if you do wash rags that have cleaned up oil or grease spills, wash them more than once before putting them in the dryer – or line dry them if you can)

    And even though technically it’s probably not any grosser if it’s pet waste than if it’s people (bleach and detergent would still fix it!) it’s still one of those things that I feel

  9. Brian says:

    We use rags exclusively at our house. It’s nice to see your breakdown because I’ve never done the work to see what they cost us.

    For the light tasks though, such as the face wipe, I just rinse the thing in the kitchen sink, wring it out, and hang it on the stove for later use.

  10. DivaJean says:

    If I am recalling correctly, this article is basically a big ole rephrasing of an article Amy Dacysn did years ago….

  11. Des says:

    At Amazon, you can get Bounty Natural Choose-a-size rolls (the ones with the smaller towels) for one penny a sheet. We use these when that is all that is required (like, wiping a child’s face, or other light-duty applications). The normal paper towel size is just too big, and much goes to waste. So, those might be cheaper for you.

    However, we also have a well/septic system and wash our clothes in cold, so our cost per load would be cheaper as well. Probably still a wash (no pun intended :)

  12. Des says:

    Also, if we really want to split hairs, you might take into consideration how much your garbage service costs, and if those costs could be reduced by eliminating disposables. Also, Brian #9 above would want to account for the extra water that is being used to rinse out the rag for later use.

  13. jackie says:

    Those are some really expensive paper towels! I use both rags and paper towels. I have a rule to never pay more than $1.25 per roll, usually less than $1/roll. I only buy paper towels out of recycled paper, which are harder to find on sale and more expensive yet I manage to consistently buy them for 1/3 of the cost that this article uses.

  14. Becky says:

    I use fewer rags now that we have to use a laundromat for the majority of our laundry. The hardest part was keeping them separated for different uses; once a rag gets used in the garage, I don’t want to use it in the kitchen, for example.

    In an organized world, I’d have different color rags for different purposes, but I’m not there yet. Maybe when we get our water filter/washer/dryer/septic in a few years, I’ll implement something like that.

  15. Becky says:

    @ Jackie I think Trent is looking at rolls of towels with a lot more sheets than the ones you are buying. You have to look at the cost per sheet, not the cost per roll.

  16. Marinda says:

    Rags, old mate lost socks and paper towels. Rags and socks get marked with a marker so I know its duty. D for dusting, K for kitchen and B for bath, I agree with the poster, once it goes to the cars, it stays there and gets tossed. I have the rag bucket and they get their own wash about once a week or when they send up a scent. I cut up old ratty tee shirts and really miss the diapers that were in the rag pile, Linen also does a lovely job for lint free cleaning. But I do buy paper towels in bulk and take a roll on vacation, because I do not wish to travel with rags that would be wet or get smelly.

  17. Kate says:

    @#2, I also love seeing some numbers rather than just raw emotion and opinion! Like other commenters, we use a combination. Snake poo => paper towel, for example. We have a variety of rags, including cut-up t-shirts, old washcloths, and worn dishtowels. I never re-use a rag, but will grab a 4×6″ t-shirt piece for a small job instead of a 10×10″ washcloth. Rags, floor rugs/mats and other more dirty laundry is all washed together whenever we get a full load.

  18. Jonathan says:

    Anyone who gets water from a well or other no-cost source will of course have lesser cost to wash the rags than Trent. Also if you line dry then there would be no cost for the drying. Either of these would make the argument for using rags even more convincing. Of course there are other reasons to choose rags over paper towels, including environmental concerns or an aversion to waste.

  19. Telephus44 says:

    I generally choose rags over paper towels for environmental reasons, though I have noticed my DS and MIL use a LOT of paper towels. I am considering buying some cloth napkins and hiding my paper towels under the sink!

    I also really like math posts like this. I know its the same idea as TWG, but it never hurts to update with accurate costs.

  20. Lindsay says:

    I’ve heard some people go as far as to use rags/cut up old bed sheets instead of toilet paper, laundering them the same way one would launder disposable diapers.

    Want to run those numbers? I think there’s much more of a nausea factor with that choice!

  21. Kai says:

    Why on earth would you *purchase* rags?
    Isn’t the entire point of the existence of rags that you use other bits of cloth which no longer serve their original purpose?

  22. Jules says:

    We use a combination of microfiber cloths, old t-shirts, cut-up towels, and toilet paper for the truly icky jobs. The rags go into the washer after a few uses, so they never have a chance to get too gross, and every few days (we have a small machine) I empty the hamper and run a load.

    I’m also rather puzzled as to why you’d buy rags. It makes sense to purchase microfiber cloths, because they really are a godsend and I use them every day, and chamois if you’re that fussy about your glass, but surely there must be some old t-shirts lying around that could be cut up.

  23. Larabara says:

    I bought several packs of cheap terrycloth washcloths and use them whenenver I can instead of paper towels.

    One novel use I found is for the Swiffer mop head. Instead of buying those Swiffer refills, one washcloth will secure by pushing the cloth through those slits on the corner of the mop head. I can rinse the cloth in a vinegar & water solution for cleaning, or use a spray bottle for spot cleaning the kitchen floor. This saves having to buy those refills for the Swiffer mop.

  24. LB says:

    I only use clean dish clothes/ rags for counters and the table, then the rag goes above the sink where it can be reused for spills on the floor. After the second use, then I wash it. I don’t have kids, and I’d guess that I wash 4 or 5 rags a week. We also use cloth napkins about half the time. I would guess that napkins and rags only make up 5% or less of our laundry so the cost of washing them is negligible.

  25. BirdDog says:

    I use a combination of rags and paper towels. The cost of my rags are extremely negligible. When my white undershirts start to look a little dingy, it gets cut up into a rag (everything but the pit area, that just seems gross). I don’t factor in the costs of washing them as they get thrown in with a load of light colored towels I would have to wash even if I didn’t use the rags.

    Once they get used to wax the truck, they get tossed.

  26. Diane says:

    I keep a roll of Scott 1000 toilet paper under my kitchen sink. It serves the purpose when I have a smaller mess and don’t want to waste my heavily rationed paper towels. It works very well!

  27. almost there says:

    Think sanitation and bacteria when using rags. I always hated the smell of dish rags in the kitchen as a child even though they were rinsed out. I later looked into the bacteria that grows on dish rags even after they are rinsed and decided to use rags for non food areas. I don’t wipe counters or tables or use rags in the kitchen. Think about the tables that get bussed in dining establishments. The don’t use paper towels but the dirty old rag that cleans many tables at a time before it gets rinsed unsuccessfully at an attempt freshen it up. Think back to when one is a new parent. Everyting is super sanitized. By the time one is on the next kid, the pacifier is most likely wiped off on a shirt and stuck back into the babes mouth unless it landed in dog drool.

  28. Jules says:

    @ almost there: doesn’t the Bible say a man must eat a peck of dirt before he dies, or something like that? :-)

    And, if there is any smell coming off the rags, then that means you really need to wash them more often. I use a clean one to clean the kitchen, and then that goes right into the washer. Ones that are just used to swipe crumbs into the sink stay for maybe two days at most. The only ones that do smell are the ones I use to polish the wood furniture with–and they smell (faintly) of the furniture polish.

  29. Chris says:

    I use microfiber towels. You can buy a huge bunch of them (36) for under $25 on Amazon, and they last for years. Great for all kinds of cleaning around the house, the car, etc.

  30. deRuiter says:

    Buy rags? Wow! I do buy bunches of bath towels at yard and especially estate towels. If you’re an early shopper you can get some great towels cheap. If I’m buying fragile items at a sale, the owner will often allow you to take some towels to wrap breakable things, for free, never hurts to ask. Paint your bathroom white and any color towels look fine. When the bath towels start to get a bit thin from use, they’re demoted to kitchen dish towels. When they get thinner and ratty, they’re cut up into rags. Washing cost is negligible as the rags are washed along with similarly colored laundry which would be washed anyway. Everything is line dried, outside in nice weather, inside in inclement weather, so there’s no cost and the tiny bit of exercise helps negate part of the cost of an expensive gym membership. Rags are used for dish washing for the day. Next day they wipe up spills on floor, and are tossed into laundry. Certain really gross messes may require a paper towel, but if I have a dish rag which is really worn, I use that and toss it into the trash with a clear conscience. Since old bath towels are made of cotton, you could even compost them if you mix them in with kitchen waste and have a lot of time for them to decompose. Try not to buy! Recycle, reuse, repurpose! It’s good for your financial bottom line, good for the environment, and good for the people who want to sell things they don’t want. My two favorite towels are two thick, lush orchid colored towels. Arrived at a yard sale on trash day. These two huge, almost brand new towels were on the top of bags of trash. Both had some white paint spots and they were soaking wet from the night’s rain. I took them off the trash, washed them at home. Each had a couple of white paint spots as the previous owner had used them to wipe up a paint spill. Both towels are thick, fluffy, obviously were expensive and work fine. The small dabs of white paint have never come off, and each time I see them when the towel is used, I think of that nice sunny day and snagging two good towels for free. When they eventually wear thin, the towels will give me the same satisfaction as dish towels, and then rags.

  31. Georgia says:

    I also use both. A roll of the perforated paper towels lasts me about 3-4 months. I live alone and don’t cook a lot. And I basically get them for free. Our food bank is open one day a month and you get, according to your household, some of the giveaways as long as you have worked for at least 3 hours. I usually do 5-7, or until we are finished. I don’t always get paper towels, but I have 4-5 in the top of my cabinet awaiting use.

    The rags I use are old wash cloths and cut up old towels. deRuiter – I am ready to throw out 2 towels I just bought for $6.49 each on sale. I’ve only used them twice. The reason is that I absolutely hate good quality, fluffy towels. Whenever I use them after a shower, it takes ages for me to feel dry. I’ll take a cheap, line dried towel anyday. It is rough and soaks up excess moisture quickly. Guess I’m a weirdo, but at 74 I can be whatever I want to be. Ain’t being old the best thing in the world?!!!

    In the summer months I line dry my clothes and in the winter I use a special trick I found on a frugal site – I just throw my stuff in the dryer, throw in a big dry towel and set the timer for 1/2 the time. Then, since most of my stuff is permanent press type, I leave it in the dryer for an hour or two to use up the leftover heat. As I take them out, I just smooth lightly with my hand and it’s all copacetic.

    And I reread Trent again and he does buy any rags at yard sales. I think his price is a little high. Here we could get used towels for double that price and get at least 8-10 rags from it or more, depending on the uses.

  32. CArol says:

    I use rags for plenty of cleaning tasks, but never know what to do with the wet, dirty rag until time to throw in throw wash. Can’t really throw them into a basket since they will get mildew, so it’s almost like you have to wash them immediately, which isn’t always convenient. That is my dilemma. I usually end up throwing the rag over my laundry tub to dry but it is unsightly.

  33. Georgia says:

    Carol – I have a tall, 13 gallon trash container that I put a liner in and use it as my dirty clothes hamper. I throw the rags in there, but if they are wet, I just hang them around the top edges of the container until dry & then drop into it. Since I live alone, I usually only do washing once every week to week and a half. This works well for me.

  34. Jonathan says:

    @Lindsay (#20) – This is something I have looked into a bit. More for environmental reasons than financial reasons, however. I believe the a person’s diet has a major impact on the nausea factor in this situation.

  35. Maggie says:

    Tupperware makes a wonderful towel that I use for drying vegetables and other things. It absorbs water faster than a paper towel and can be washed and reused many time, too.
    I use one for cooking and one for drying tables and counters and other cleanings.

  36. Steve says:

    For those disputing the “buy rags” aspect, it’s moot, since Trent went through all the trouble to calculate it only to turn around and throw it away by rounding down. If you’re going to calculate stuff down to the penny like this, it seems awfully inaccurate to throw away almost four tenths of a cent, 20% of the cost.

  37. Georgia says:

    I also use both rags & paper towels. Paper towels are used for doggie doo(have a 3 mo old puppy)& grease. Rags for almost everything else. I cut up old t-shirts, socks & anything else that will make a rag. Great thing to do when you’re watching tv.

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