Revisiting the Last Little Bit in the Container

Tubes of toothpaste. Bottles of shampoo. Soap dispensers. All of these things are easy to use at first when they’re full, but eventually they empty out, leaving just a bit of the soap or paste inside.

This isn’t just in our imaginations, either. Most packaged liquids and pastes tend to leave a little behind in the bottle or the tube:

In order to determine how much product does not come out, Consumer Reports conducted tests. A total of 22 products were tested, including glass cleaners, lotions, liquid detergents, and toothpaste. The tests found out that lotions were the hardest to empty, and pump bottles leave 20 percent of the lotion behind. Glass cleaners delivered most of the product. Plastic squeeze tubes can trap 10 percent of the toothpaste.

Last fall, Consumer Reports conducted similar tests on skin lotions, liquid detergents, condiments, and toothpaste. Testers emptied a product “in the usual way,” and waited a couple of days for the remains to settle. Then they “pumped, poured, squeezed, shook, and tapped as much as any frugal but rational consumer might.” Lastly, the testers weighed what was left inside. The results revealed that skin lotions left the most product, about one-fifth of their total contents. Toothpaste left one to 13 percent behind. Colgate and Crest brands were used in the tests.

Everyone seems to have a strategy for getting the last little bit out of the container.

For toothpaste tubes, for example, I’ve seen people roll the tube up carefully from the end, pressing down with every turn. There are even “keys” – little metal devices that help with this process by “turning” over the tube as you use it up. I’ve run toothpaste tubes over the edge of a countertop in order to get a few more uses out of the tube.

With things like shampoo, it’s a common strategy to add a little water to the bottle. Shaking it around with the water in there can produce enough “shampoo” to get another wash or two before the bottle is officially empty. I’ve seen bottles turned upside down (with the lid on) in order to cause all of the remaining shampoo or conditioner or body wash to drip down to the part of the container where the cap is, just to get one or two more washings out of the bottle.

My favorite trick? I take the cap off of the old shampoo bottle and tip it up so that it dumps into the capless top of the new shampoo bottle for 24 hours or so, until my next shower when I discard the old fully empty bottle.

Are these tactics really worth our time? It can be useful to squeeze another use out of these items when you forgot to pick up more at the store, but is it actually much of a money-saving tactic for the time invested?

Years ago, I concluded that it’s only worthwhile to do this if it’s trivially easy and takes no extra time or effort. If you’re spending 30 seconds getting just one more use out of that tube of toothpaste, you’re probably only gaining a few cents for that time and effort, and that’s not worth it. However, if it’s something trivially simple, like sitting your shampoo bottle upside down, then it’s worthwhile to use that tactic to get another use out of the bottle.

Over the years, I’ve discovered a few additional tactics that help solve this problem.

First, focus on using the actual recommended amount of whatever it is you’re using and the last little bit becomes a little less relevant. With toothpaste, you’re generally supposed to just use a pea-sized amount, but the commercials show huge amounts being used and that’s often the pattern we follow in our own use. Similarly, things like dishwashing detergent and shampoo and body wash flow so freely that it’s easy to use far more than you should.

My solution is to use a dispenser that dispenses the right amount easily. Whenever I come across a good pump dispenser, I put it to use for things like shampoo and dish soap. I use wide mouth dollar store dispensers for both of those things. Whenever I buy a new bottle of shampoo from the store (for example), I turn it upside down on the dispenser, leaving it sit upside down on top of the container to get every last bit out. Then, with a pump container, I don’t run the risk of using far too much shampoo or dish soap. I just get a single pump and use it and then only get a second if the first doesn’t provide enough. This causes me to get far more out of the package.

If using the right amount of a particular item rather than too much of a particular item means that you cut the amount you use in half each time, then you’re cutting your costs related to that item by 50%. Let’s say, for example, that you buy a tube of toothpaste for $4 every other month, adding up to $24 a year. Cutting your toothpaste use per brushing in half means that a tube now lasts four months, meaning your cost adds up to only $12 per year. If you can do the same for shampoo, conditioner, hand soap, bath soap, dish soap, laundry soap, window cleaner, and so on, the savings add up to a pretty serious amount of money.

Second, I cut open toothpaste tubes with some tough scissors I keep in the bathroom. I have some really hefty scissors that stay in the bathroom by default and when a toothpaste tube gets low, I just cut off both ends with a single snip, then cut down the side with about two snips, which takes me maybe five seconds. I then just rub my brush around on the inside of the tube and the end of the tube to get the last bits of toothpaste out. I don’t even bother to roll up the tube as I go or anything – I just cut it open when it starts getting tough and from there I’ll get about ten or fifteen more brushes out of the contents for about five seconds of effort. My guesstimate is that this adds about 10% to the life of that tube, so if a tube costs me $4, that five seconds of effort saves about 40 cents. If I do that by default with every tube we use – and my wife and I go through about six or so tubes a year – that adds up to an hourly rate of about $288.

A quick principle here: things that take very little time and save a few cents are almost always worth making into part of a routine. If you can do something that saves a few cents in five or ten seconds or less, it’s almost always worthwhile to do it. Something that saves five cents for five seconds of effort adds up to a $36 an hour rate after taxes. To me, that’s always worth it.

Finally, you can turn the containers of thicker liquids and pastes into a mini-“jar”. Hand lotion is a perfect example of this.

All you have to do is use the product until it’s beginning to get difficult to squeeze out more of the contents. Then, cut the mostly empty tube in half the short way and scoop out the stuff remaining in the smaller end of the tube. Put the content you scoop out of the smaller end into the other end, then use the smaller end as a “cap” over the top of the other end to keep it from drying out. After that, you just use it like a jar – store it vertically and, when you need to use the contents, pull the smaller end off of the other end and scoop out what you need with your fingers. If there’s a pump in there, just cut off the pump’s straw as you won’t be needing it any more. This whole process takes about 30 seconds to set up and enables you to get quite a few more uses out of the tube’s content.

This is a great tactic to use if you have an expensive hand cream or something where you spent a healthy amount per use and don’t want the 15% or 20% still stuck in that tube to go to waste. This lets you use virtually everything that’s left in the tube or bottle with ease.

My general rule is this: if I can’t conveniently get at what’s left in the container by destroying/modifying the container or turning it upside down, then it’s not worth the time and effort. Those two tactics are so quick and slick that I don’t bother with anything else.

However, the real secret is to use the actual recommended amount. Just doing that will save you far more than just getting the last little bit out of the container.

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.