Optimizing Laundry for Money and Time

A few months ago, I made an offhand mention of the fact that I find breaking down common household tasks to be as inexpensive and time efficient as possible to be an enjoyable hobby, and I pointed to how I honed several frequent household chores in this way, including laundry.

After that, several readers wrote in and asked me to spell out in as much detail as possible how I minimize the cost and time investment of laundry. How do I keep the costs low? How do I keep from devoting tons of time to it?

I thought it might be worthwhile to walk through my system for keeping my laundry done as cost-effectively as possible.

Re-wear a lot of your clothes.

I wash undergarments after a single use, but with shirts and pants and other garments, I take a moment to evaluate them as I’m changing clothes. Does this item still look and smell clean? I’ll look it over for a few seconds and give it a sniff test in a few spots. If anything doesn’t pass muster, it goes straight in the dirty clothes, but if it looks and smells fine, I fold it, hang it up or put it in the “transition pile.”

The truth is that many days, I get up and take a shower and then put on clean clothes and then don’t do anything particularly active for several hours, at which point I might change into gym clothes or going-out-of-the-house clothes. If those clothes aren’t dirty, I simply don’t wash them.

My rules for re-wearing line up very well with this article from Unexpected. To summarize:

1. Never re-wear undergarments.
2. Almost always re-wear jeans.
3. Have a “transition pile” for frequently-worn garments that aren’t really dirty or clean, like hoodies and jeans.
4. If you got sweaty at all, wash it.
5. Give it a careful sniff test and if it fails at all, wash it.

My “transition pile” is on top of my dresser, which usually has a couple of pairs of jeans and a folded hooded sweatshirt there. I generally only draw from that if I’m just lounging around the house, and it’s usually destined for the laundry basket after that.

Have a separate basket for whites in your room and prep your clothes for washing when you take them off.

Rather than sorting laundry, which is just a silly task, I just have a multi-basket system. Ordinary colored clothes go in one basket and whites and lights go in another. That way, there’s never really any laundry sorting to do.

Furthermore, when something goes in the basket, it’s 100% ready to be washed. Pockets are checked and fully emptied when I take the item of clothing off. Shirts are completely unbuttoned. Zippers are zipped up so they don’t snag on anything. It is far more efficient to do it immediately and then just trust the laundry basket when it’s time to do laundry.

Apply stain remover as soon as you take a garment off.

I keep some laundry soap for stain remover close to my clothes baskets so that if I’m removing an article of clothing with a potential stain on it, I apply some of that soap directly to it immediately before tossing it in the dirty clothes. The soap will stay on the clothes for several days until the next load, and that seems to often get it perfectly clean.

That way, I don’t have to examine clothes for stains or anything like that when I’m washing. I literally head straight to the laundry room with a basket of dirty clothes.

Avoid garments that require special washing like the plague.

The reason I only need two baskets is that I avoid special garments like the plague. I have two suits that I rarely wear, and when I do wear them they get evaluated carefully afterward and go to a dry cleaner if needed. Nothing else of mine has any sort of special washing instructions, and if I’m considering a new garment, special washing instructions are an absolute deal-breaker.

I don’t have time for garments that can’t be easily washed, not in a world with such a wide variety of clothing out there.

Wash your clothes with optimal load size.

If I go much beyond that level, the clothes don’t get clean — I can tell by the faint smell of a really sweaty shirt. Below that level, the washer is wasting water and energy. Filling the basin 3/4 full of dirty clothes without pushing them down is just about perfect.

It’s worth noting that all washers will vary slightly here. Some can be filled right to the brim, while others seem to not wash even a medium load very well. Pay attention to your washer, but I find that a 3/4 full load without pushing clothes down is optimal.

Basically, I just walk into the laundry room, open the lid, and start tossing in clothes until it looks 3/4 full, then I add soap (as noted below) and I’m ready to go.

If I still have a few items in my dirty clothes basket, I’ll usually go into the kids’ rooms and grab some of their stuff to make up a second load, one that I’m sure is close to 3/4 load. Over time, I’ve become pretty good at eyeballing what a perfect load looks like in a laundry basket.

Wash your clothes with optimal settings.

For me, this means cold wash and cold rinse, every time. It gets my clothes clean and eliminates the use of hot water, which means that I’m not paying for the cost of heating up that water to wash my clothes.

I always choose the large load setting as that matches the number of clothes I put in the machine, as described above. Again, it’s all about optimizing energy and water efficiency to keep my energy and water bill low.

Use homemade laundry soap.

The last thing I add before closing the lid and starting the load is laundry soap. I have a small Rubbermaid container in our laundry room that contains an equal mix of washing soda, borax, soap flakes, and I have a tablespoon-sized measuring spoon in the container. I just pull off the lid, add a spoonful of the soap mix, toss the spoon back in and close it again.

If I notice I’m about to run out of soap mix, I take the container upstairs, grab a measuring cup, and add a single cup of borax, a single cup of washing soda, and a single cup of soap flakes to the container, then I shake it like crazy while walking back to the laundry room, where I pop the spoon back in there and close the lid. I’m good to go for another 50 loads.

This gets the cost of cleaning laundry down to about $0.04 per load. It’s even cheaper if I’m willing to grate a bar of cheap soap, but I found it’s not much more expensive to buy a bag of soap flakes at the store or at Amazon, so it’s not worth the time to grate it. Washing soda and borax are available at most grocery stores in my area. A box of each and a bag of flakes will last more than a year of doing a laundry load per day.

I keep a small amount of this in a little container near the laundry in my bedroom (actually in a dresser drawer, but another arrangement might be easier for you). If I have a stain, I’ll get the stain wet and then rub a bit of the powder into the stain for a few seconds.

If you absolutely don’t want to use homemade laundry soap, then I strongly encourage you to try whatever store brand laundry detergent is on sale at your preferred store. Store brand laundry soap or detergent does a really good job in my experience.

What about drying your clothes versus hanging them on a line?

I experimented with using a line to hang out clothes, but I found that the time invested in hanging up clothes and then taking them down (which often added up to 10 or 15 minutes) wasn’t worth the actual energy used in a dryer load (which added up to around $0.40 or $0.50), so I mostly tumble dry my clothes.

I will occasionally lay out garments if the environment is really dry, as it often is in winter around here, but it doesn’t help if the air is humid as the clothes dry extremely slowly.

Dry your clothes with optimal settings.

I use the “permanent press” setting on my dryer for almost all loads. It uses a mix of heat and air to dry the clothes, which means that you’re using less heat overall, plus it does a splendid job of minimizing wrinkles on most garments. I set the load size to “large” to match the washer load size.

The only time I don’t use the “perm press” setting is if there are a lot of towels and jeans and sweatshirts in the load — thick garments, in other words. I use a normal setting in that case, since those items are unlikely to wrinkle anyway and need more heat to dry efficiently.

Check and clean the lint trap every single time.

One important step before you start the dryer: always check and clean the lint trap. We have a small container in the laundry room just for the lint. Lint in the lint trap drastically reduces the efficiency of your dryer and, if it builds up, can become a fire hazard, so just get in the routine of spending five seconds clearing the lint trap each time you are about to start a dryer load.

Don’t use laundry softener unless softened clothes are really important to you.

My advice on laundry softener, whether in liquid form or sheets, is this: don’t use it by default without thinking about it. Try washing some loads without laundry softener and see if the items that come out are fine. For me, the “softening” effect doesn’t make much of a difference, and I actually detest it with towels and gym clothes as it seems to make them far less absorbent.

I mention this because I know I used to use fabric softener without really thinking about it, and I learned recently that several cousins do the same thing.

Try some loads without fabric softener and make absolutely sure it’s giving you value. If it’s not, cut it out — it’s extra time and money with little benefit for you.

Wool dryer balls help marginally, but aren’t worth the cost.

In my experience, wool dryer balls make clothes slightly softer and can shave a tiny amount off of drying time if you’re willing to notice a few minutes’ difference on the timer. I do use one in most loads, but I don’t think it makes an enormous difference and I don’t think they’re worth the cost. However, if you come into one for free, it doesn’t hurt to use one.

I don’t think it’s a replacement for fabric softener except as a “natural” alternative that doesn’t soften quite as well. I don’t think it’s a big energy saver, either. It just does both of those things a little.

Pull out your dryer at least once a year and check for lint in the exhaust.

Something that should be on your annual household maintenance list is to pull out your dryer and check the pipe that connects the dryer to the exhaust. It can easily begin to fill up with lint back there. What you’ll notice if you don’t do this is that your drying starts to get less and less efficient. A setting that used to easily dry a load of clothes no longer gets them completely dry and you often end up having to run clothes a second time through the dryer, which is really inexpensive. Given enough time, the built-up lint can become something of a fire hazard.

This takes about 15 minutes to do, most of which is spent (in my experience) getting the exhaust pipe properly reattached to the dryer.

Make sure your washer and dryer are level at least once a year.

Another important annual task for doing your laundry is to make sure your washer and dryer are both level. Both can become gradually unleveled over time due to slight shifts in the floor itself and (more importantly) the repeated rotational motions of the machines.

Most washers and dryers have adjustable feet that make it really easy to rebalance them. You just twist a particular foot in one direction or another to raise it, just ensuring that one foot isn’t out of balance with the others and causes the machine to wobble. Both of those machines should be completely wobble-free and register as levels with a bubble level. Here’s a great tutorial on leveling a washer, and the same procedure works for our dryer.

This takes about ten minutes, but it really helps with the efficiency of your washing and drying.

If you’re doing multiple loads of laundry in quick succession, save the folding for a bulk folding session all at once.

I often do laundry on Fridays and I usually end up with a little more than a load, which means that I hunt down enough to make two loads. I’ll sometimes also do a load of towels, so that makes three loads during the day on a Friday.

The most efficient way to do this is to simply make a pile of unfolded items and do all of the foldings at once when all of the loads are done. That’s so you can just make piles of different types of folded clothes as you’re folding and put them all away at once. You can do some folding in the middle, but there’s no reason to put away those folded piles until the end.

Practice and master efficient folding strategies.

This one’s a huge time saver. It is well worth your time to really master how to efficiently fold different types of clothes. Here’s how I do it.

For T-shirts, a Miracle Folder is really efficient, but I found that practicing and mastering the pinch fold is even faster. I can go through a pile of T-shirts in a minute, folding all of them, but it takes practice. The first hundred or so times you do this, it will feel awkward and slow, but it will just get faster and faster.

For jeans, I simply do a triple fold, folding the legs together, folding the paired legs in half, then fold in half again. I basically do the same for towels — half, then half, then half, then done.

For socks, I pair them up and simply pull the top of one sock over its partner.

For underwear, I fold them in half. Done.

I hang up all button shirts and have a bunch of hangers on-hand right there so I can hang them immediately. I make a pile of clothes to hang with the hangers all pointed the same way so I can hang them all up at once.

I really haven’t found anything more efficient than these methods. The key is to aim to do them quickly each time and really focus on what you’re doing so you get faster at them. If I fold laundry in front of the television, it will take me a long time; if I do it while standing at the bed or at a table, I can fold a load in a minute or two.

As I’m going along, ideally through several loads at once, I’m making piles all around me based on their destination. Basically, similar clothes go into each pile — one pile for each of my dresser drawers, another for the closet, another for the linen closet, another for the rag drawer, and one each for each child’s bedroom. That way, when the folding’s done, each pile goes directly to where it should be.

It’s a mix of common sense and efficient techniques.

With things like this, you’ll read it and find that most of it is common sense with a few good ideas sprinkled throughout, and that’s how it should be. The interesting thing is that the things people find to be common sense and the things people find to be good ideas are different. Some people will find one technique to be something obvious they’ve always done, while it’s a fresh new idea to someone else.

Anyway, that’s how I do laundry, and it’s optimized to the best of my ability to maximize speed and savings. Compared to my methods when we first moved into this house, I spend a fraction of actual time dealing with laundry and the cost has declined quite a lot, too, due to much better energy efficiency and water use.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.