Frugal Options in a Toilet Paper Shortage

One of the most interesting things I noticed in the last few weeks is that people are searching Google with terms like “how to make toilet paper.” Likely, these folks found themselves in a situation where there wasn’t any toilet paper in their local stores due to shortages and they were looking for solutions to the problem of missing out on that bathroom staple.

So, let’s dig into the details. What are the frugal options when it comes to toilet paper? Are there any options that don’t leave people dependent on the toilet paper supply chain?

So… can you really make your own toilet paper?

Unfortunately, if you want to make anything approximating toilet paper that won’t clog your septic system, you’re not going to be making it at home unless you have a lot of specialized equipment that would fill up your basement. You could potentially make some really dreadful toilet paper at home if you wanted to, but it would be unpleasant to use and have a solid likelihood of clogging your septic system, something you don’t want to happen.

If you want to know the details, here’s a nice short from the Discovery Channel that covers the challenges of making toilet paper in a clear and entertaining video. In short, toilet paper needs to be flimsy enough to flush easily while also being sturdy enough to do the job it’s intended for, and it needs to be made in large quantities. That’s a surprisingly fine balance, one you’re not going to pull off at home.

Cloth alone isn’t a pleasant option.

The next obvious solution is to simply use cloth instead of paper. Obviously, cloth isn’t disposable, but it can do a really good job of cleaning you up.

The issue, of course, is that cloth needs to be cleaned up. You could throw it away, of course, but that’s incredibly wasteful and you have to deal with it before it leaves your home. You could wash them, too, but you have to deal with it before it gets to the washer.

This is actually very similar to the challenge we had when we had young ones and cloth diapered them. When we used cloth diapers, we had a careful routine where we put them in a resealable bag after each changing, rinsed them thoroughly at home, and then washed them when we had several of them.

How did we rinse them? We used a solution suggested by a friend — we installed a wand bidet on one of the toilets in our home.

A wand bidet is basically a metal or plastic rod attached to a flexible hose that goes to the water supply on the back of your toilet. You simply push a button on it and it squirts out a stream of water. So, we’d simply hold the wand bidet over the toilet and thoroughly rinse out the diaper, letting the dirty water run into the toilet until the diaper was pretty well rinsed. After that, it would go pretty directly into the washing machine.

In theory, you could do the same thing with pieces of soft cloth. It would be a system that would absolutely be less expensive than toilet paper and wouldn’t be subject to people emptying the store shelves of toilet paper, but it would be a lot of work.

There’s another option, though, and it’s how many countries outside the United States use the toilet normally.

Consider a bidet.

Throughout much of southern Europe, Southeast Asia, northern Africa and portions of South America, bidets are a common feature in bathrooms. The idea behind a bidet is simple — rather than using toilet paper to clean yourself, you use a spray of clean water to get yourself clean, then either use a very small amount of paper, a cloth or a blast of air to dry yourself off.

Bidets are considered less wasteful and more sanitary than using toilet paper, but using them is a much different experience, something that most Americans are completely unaccustomed to. I’ve used one several times (because it was seemingly the only option available) and while the experience was unusual, it did leave me feeling quite clean afterward without producing any waste. Plus, there was no waste left behind, thus no ongoing costs. A little blast of water and then a little blast of air is less expensive than a big fist full of toilet paper.

There are many different variations on bidets.

The simplest option is a portable handheld bidet, which is basically a well-designed squirt bottle. You would still need a bit of toilet paper or a cloth to dry off with, but it would drastically reduce your toilet paper usage.

As I noted, we have a wand bidet installed on one of the toilets in our home that simply squirts water, leaving you to your own means to dry off. Using that approach means that you still have a need for either toilet paper or a supply of drying clothes. A friend of mine who grew up in Italy uses a wand bidet in his home along with a small basket of drying cloths and a closed hamper for used cloths, which he washes on occasion. Here’s a more detailed guide, if you’re curious.

In addition, there are also bidets that are replacements for the toilet seat, using various means to clean and dry you. Some of them are quite elaborate — and quite expensive.

There are also separate bidets that look like small toilets that you lean over which spray water upwards (and hot air in some models). This famous scene from the film Crocodile Dundee demonstrates one of these (and the comical confusion of its operator).

Simple bidets are inexpensive and are available at your local hardware store, and they’re really easy to install on your own toilet. So, let’s examine the costs.

Could a bidet save money?

Essentially, a bidet replaces the ongoing cost of toilet paper with an up-front investment in a wand bidet, some drying cloths, and a small hamper to store them once they’re used. The cost of establishing a setup like this is around $50. Installing a simple wand bidet, as I noted above, is a very easy job, as you basically insert it in the water line between your toilet and where the water attaches to the wall.

Once you’ve covered that initial expense, there is almost no ongoing cost. You’ll have to wash the reusable cloths occasionally by tossing them in with a laundry load of towels, but the cost to do that is measured in pennies, and the amount of water used is virtually zero.

On the other hand, a jumbo pack of toilet paper, depending on the type you buy, gives you about 6,000 sheets for about $20. If you average 10 sheets per use, that’s about 600 uses for $20, or a little over three cents per use. A wand bidet setup pays for itself after about three batches of toilet paper. After that, it’s significantly less expensive. Furthermore, you’re not forced to make toilet paper at home that will clog your septic system and cause more trouble than it’s worth.

There’s another advantage, too: you’re really only reliant on having running water. If there’s ever a rush on toilet paper at the stores, it won’t affect you because you have a solution already in place at home.


Some people may read this article incredulously, but I’d like to point out that a bidet mostly seems incredible because you’re not culturally familiar with it. Bidets are common in many parts of the world, as noted earlier. Many people in other regions prefer a bidet to toilet paper for sanitary reasons and because it feels cleaner. Others prefer it because it doesn’t produce any extra waste — you’re not constantly buying and flushing away toilet paper. Plus, as discussed above, it quickly becomes less expensive than toilet paper without adding much additional effort.

While I’m not recommending that everyone go out and buy a bidet, I encourage you to give one a try with an open mind if you’re in a situation to use one. There are many good reasons why other parts of the world use them. If you’ve used one in the past, recognize that setting one up isn’t too expensive and it will save you money and reduce waste once your setup is in place.

Plus, it’s a lot more likely to result in success and cleanliness than trying to make your own toilet paper.

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.