Optimizing Showers for Money and Time

Over the last few months, I’ve written a few articles on how to “optimize” particular common household tasks in terms of both money and time. I’ve written about laundry, dishwashing, and meal planning and grocery shopping.

A few readers have popped in stating that they like the series and asking for posts on similar common tasks that people do every day, and so I thought I’d continue the series with an article focusing on optimizing a daily shower.

So, what’s the purpose here?

My goal is to break down common household tasks that I do every day into their nuts and bolts, so that I can do them as efficiently as possible in terms of money, time and quality. If I can figure out how to spend, say, a dime less on a shower every single day without reducing the enjoyment of the shower or the level of cleanliness I get, then that’s $36.50 a year with no drawbacks to my life. If I can figure out how to spend a minute less on that shower without reducing enjoyment or cleanliness, then I’m saving six hours a year without any real drawback to my life.

$36.50 might not seem like much over the course of a year, of course, but if it comes with no drawbacks for me, that’s just found money. Even more, if I pair that efficiency approach with similar efficiency approaches with all of the other common tasks in my life, suddenly I have noticeably more free time in each day, and my regular expenses silently decrease, too, without hurting my quality of life in any way. It saves money and time and gets the same good results I’ve always had.

So, over time, I’ve tried to optimize all of my regular tasks and routines. I kind of enjoy it, actually; it’s a bit of a hobby for me. I’ll spend a few hours breaking down the routine and optimizing it, and spend some time re-learning a few of those basic skills to do things more efficiently, and then it all just fades into a “new normal,” except that it’s a little less expensive and a little less time-consuming.

Here’s what I’ve done with my own showering routine, with the goal of getting myself just as clean as always while trimming out a bit of the cost and a bit of time.

Invest in a good “bang for the buck” low flow showerhead.

First of all, the big expense when it comes to water in the shower isn’t the water itself, but the cost in heating the water. Most of us take a reasonably warm shower, which means that we’re using some mix of hot water and cold water in the shower. The hot water has to be heated.

So, let’s say we have a shower head that spits out 2 gallons of water per minute, and you take a 10-minute shower. That’s 20 gallons of water. If you have it reasonably warm, you’re probably heating up 2/3 of that water — call it 13 gallons — and it’s mixed with 7 gallons of cold water. The costs of heating that water is quite variable, but if you have a typical gas tank water heater, it probably costs around $0.20 to heat that 13 gallons of water in that tank.

What happens if you get a showerhead that spits out 1.5 gallons of water per minute? That one change reduces the cost of heating the water down to $0.15 — you save $0.05 per shower.

Before you do this, you’ll want to figure out the flow of your current showerhead. If you know what you have, it’s as easy as a Google search. If you don’t, get a bucket or other container of a size that you know and fill it with the showerhead using straight cold water. See how long it takes. So, if you have a five-gallon bucket — and it has a five-gallon mark on it — and it takes 2.5 minutes to fill, then your shower head is a 2 gallon per minute showerhead (five gallons divided by 2.5 minutes).

If you want a recommendation for a great “bang for the buck” low flow showerhead, this one is great. I’ve used it (or a very similar model) and it produces a very nice shower, with a lot of little tricks to make it feel like there’s a lot more water flow than it actually produces. (Our current shower head is about 1.75 gallons per minute.)

If you like your current showerhead and it’s below 2 gallons per minute, you probably won’t gain a lot from switching. If you have a shower head that produces three gallons or more per minute and you’re very used to that, don’t jump down to a 1.5 gallon per minute shower head — just remember that any notable reduction will save a lot of money, but don’t aim to go so low that it reduces your shower enjoyment or your sense of getting clean.

What about a tankless water heater?

Tankless water heaters are great if you live in a home that rarely needs hot water for multiple tasks at once. If you live alone or just with your significant other and don’t usually have a lot of overnight guests, it can be a great option when replacing your tank hot water heater. However, if you have several people in your home and you’re often doing a load of dishes while taking a shower or multiple people sometimes shower at once, it’s not the best option.

Don’t obsess over shortening your shower or using cold water.

This might seem like surprising advice here, but it’s true — you can try to reduce your shower time if you want, but doing so won’t shave off as much time as you think, and if you’re cutting out a minute or two of really enjoying standing under the warm water, then it’s not worth it. You’re saving a couple of pennies and lose some real enjoyment.

If you really want to speed things up, just focus on washing efficiently as soon as you get in the shower. Wash from the top downwards, starting with your hair, because the soap will run down your body as you wash. My biggest tip for a more efficient shower in terms of water use is to turn off the tap while you’re scrubbing your hair or body. Just turn it off entirely, so that you’re not washing away the soap or shampoo or conditioner as you’re cleaning yourself. Turn it back on to rinse or to just enjoy the warm water, but don’t leave it running while you actually scrub yourself. Basically, use the principles of the navy shower, but don’t cut out the enjoyable parts.

(It’s a personal choice whether to shave in the shower. I’m not fully convinced either way on it being a time or money saver.)

Seriously, don’t cut out the parts of the shower that you enjoy. For me, that’s usually rinsing with warm water, which feels really good, so I take plenty of time with it. I usually finish with a short blast of cold water because I enjoy the “shock” of it. That routine, which eats maybe two or three cents of hot water, isn’t worth cutting out. On the other hand, turning the water off while I’m scrubbing makes no difference and is a pure saver.

What about using colder water? That will definitely save money, but if it turns something that’s a mildly enjoyable experience into a much more miserable experience by reducing the temperature by 10%, you’re losing some life quality for two or three cents of saving — a change that isn’t worth it. The goal is to optimize, which means maintaining quality while being faster and less expensive, and that doesn’t mean making a shower worse in quality to save a few cents. Feel free to experiment with a slightly cooler shower, but the savings of dropping a few degrees in water temperature is very small and if it makes the shower less enjoyable, don’t worry about it.

Bar soap is more cost-efficient than body wash.

This might seem counterintuitive because bottles of body wash are much bigger than bar soap, but the reason bar soap is more efficient than body wash is that much of the body wash just runs down the drain. It is quite hard to put just the right amount of body wash on a rag, and the excess just goes to waste. With bar soap, you just wait for a bit of lather and then you waste very little.

If I’m buying bar soap, I usually buy something that’s on sale and buy several bars of it at once. I rarely pay full price for soap, but if I did, the best “entry-level” men’s soap (for bang for the buck) in my opinion is ordinary Irish Spring. It’s not wonderful – it just does the job of cleaning at a very good price. I don’t have particularly sensitive skin, however. If you do, stick with the bar soap that works well for you. If you’re used to body wash, do some homework about bar soap first to find one that should work for your needs.

A final tip about bar soap: it should be resting on some kind of rack that can breathe on the bottom. If you put wet soap on a spot that doesn’t have air circulating on the bottom, the bottom will get mushy and it will eat right through your bar, wasting a lot of it. A good wire shower rack that hangs over your shower head is a great option if you’re using bar soap. If that’s not possible, get a sponge to leave in the shower and have your soap sit on the sponge, or look for a very inexpensive soap rest – they can be found pretty cheaply at dollar stores on occasion.

If you insist on body wash, get a good pump bottle.

These work really well but shop around for what works for you.

The goal of using a pump bottle is it lets you dispense a small amount of body wash at a time. You can pump once on your washcloth (or whatever you use to wash) and if the body wash is decent at all, you’ll get a great lather. If you just use the bottle that body wash comes in, a much larger volume will come out unless you’re extremely careful.

Another advantage is that you can buy a giant container of body wash and just refill this pump bottle as needed, enabling you to make a bulk purchase.

Similarly, use a pump bottle for your shampoo and conditioner.

These fall under the same concern as the body wash bottles: they often dispense more than you want in a single use.

I keep my hair short, so I only need a tiny amount of shampoo and conditioner to get things clean. If I use an ordinary non-pump bottle, I’m basically guaranteed to get too much of both and the excess just runs off my head and down the drain.

I don’t have particular recommendations for shampoo and conditioner – I am absolutely not the person to recommend this kind of product, as I have a short and simple hairstyle and coarse hair that’s easy to clean. My only suggestion regarding this is the pump bottle so that you’re not wasting the excess, and to look for lower-cost brands and “bang for the buck” options that work for your hair.

Organize your tools.

You should have your tools arranged in a way that’s really efficient for you so that you’re never looking for anything when you’re in the shower and it’s all right at hand. Make sure that your towels and washing tools (washcloth, brush, loofah, whatever you use) are easily available close to your shower and that your hamper or basket for depositing used items is easily available, too. Your other tools should be ready to go in the shower.

If you use a shared shower, having your tools ready in a shower bucket or other tote is really useful. However, it’s really hard to keep bar soap from getting soggy under these conditions, so this is a situation where body wash might make more sense.

Another note: if you notice something is empty and needs a refill, take it out of the shower with you so you remember to refill it. I’ll sometimes sit it on the floor outside the shower so I notice it when I get out, which reminds me to refill it and put it back when I’m finished with the shower.

The savings here are small, but the changes don’t reduce the quality of a shower one bit.

Doing things like using bar soap, turning off the water while scrubbing yourself, using a slightly lower flow showerhead and using pump dispensers are little changes you can make that will save a few cents or a bit of time during each shower without reducing the quality of the shower, and if you repeat that savings for each shower, it adds up tremendously over the course of a year.

Just focus on pulling out the tactics that make sense to you from this article and mindfully repeat them until they become the new normal for you. Focus on, for example, turning off the water while scrubbing yourself until you do it that way automatically. Get some inexpensive pump bottles and fill them up with your shampoo and conditioner. Just integrate the changes that work well for you, and you’ll find yourself saving time and money, bit by bit.

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.