Updated on 08.29.11

Saving Pennies or Dollars? Dishwasher Detergent

Trent Hamm

saving pennies or dollarsSaving Pennies or Dollars is a new semi-regular series on The Simple Dollar, inspired by a great discussion on The Simple Dollar’s Facebook page concerning frugal tactics that might not really save that much money. I’m going to take some of the scenarios described by the readers there and try to break down the numbers to see if the savings is really worth the time invested.

Cheryl said, Making my own powdered dishwasher detergent actually seems more expensive than just buying it at the dollar store.

This was a pretty intriguing comment to me as I’ve made my own liquid laundry soap at a price per load that is about 10% that of Tide. While dishwashing detergent is a bit of a different animal than laundry detergent, I’m interested in how the prices compare.

After scouring the internet for recipes (and trying a few), I found that the best recipe was a very simple one: one part borax, one part washing soda, one part water. This creates a liquid dishwashing soap that seems to clean our dishes pretty well.

As we’ve seen before, I can obtain borax for $2.89 for a box that contains six cups, washing soda for $1.89 for a box that contains six cups, and water is basically free (a tiny fraction of a cent for six cups). If you mix these together, you get 12 cups of dry dishwashing detergent for $4.78 (or 18 cups of liquid), about $0.40 per cup of dry detergent.

I then visited a few different stores in the area and examined their dishwashing detergent prices. I found that the cheapest box I could possibly find in any store was at a dollar store (as Cheryl mentioned), with a box containing approximately four and a half cups of powdered dishwashing detergent for $2. This is a price of about $0.44 per cup of powdered detergent. There were some larger containers of the same detergent, but the price per cup was virtually identical.

I tried out this low-end detergent and found that it did a comparable job to my homemade soap. I would give a slight nod to my soap simply because it managed to get some dried spaghetti sauce off of a pan completely, while the low-end detergent didn’t get all of it. Neither one left significant spots on the glasses or anything and I’d be happy to use either one in my dishwasher.

Simply put, I can save about $0.05 per cup by mixing together borax and washing soda as compared to buying the cheapest powdered dishwashing detergent I could find. Does that make it a bargain? It’s a small bargain in my estimation, but it’s there. This mostly comes about because, by mixing a box of borax and a box of washing soda, you’re making twelve cups of the soap, saving you roughly $0.56.

Now, could we make either item cheaper? It’s certainly possible that dishwashing detergent could be found at an even lower cost than what I found it for. At the same time, it’s certainly possible that I could find borax or washing soda for less than what I found it for. Hitting a sale at just the right time could easily upset the value proposition described here.

Of course, the actual effort involved is also something worth addressing. Mixing together a container (say, an old jug of some sort) with equal amounts of borax and washing soda is pretty simple and if you’re mixing together several cups of each at the same time, you’re saving a little under a nickel per cup of finished product. If you can save just short of sixty cents for a minute or two of effort (which is completely reasonable here), it’s worthwhile.

In my eyes, making your own dishwashing soap is not nearly as strong of a value proposition as making your own powdered laundry soap. There is a bargain to be found here, but making your own powdered dishwashing soap saves pennies, not dollars.

That doesn’t mean I won’t do it, of course. I’ll happily keep using my borax and washing soda mix on my dishes. Sixty cents for two minutes of work is an hourly rate of $18 in pure savings, which isn’t bad at all. Just don’t expect to change your entire world by making your own dishwashing soap.

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  1. Vicky says:

    I used this recipe for a year. After a year, my whites are… very dingy… and stuff doesn’t look very bright. I give up. I’ve tried altering the recipe over and over to find something that works better, and after a year – I just can’t stand it anymore.

    This just isn’t working for me.. I feel like a quitter as I say this, but it did not compare to using commercial detergent – and I’ve got back to using Arm and Hammer. Things just look cleaner and brighter with this than they did with the home-made version.

  2. lurker carl says:

    Purchase your cleaning products when on sale with coupons, the stuff is practically free. Besides, very few home made concoctions are as good as commercial products.

  3. Jonathan says:

    There are reasons to use homemade products aside from the money that can be saved. If those reasons are a priority, then the fact that homemade is comparable in price is just a bonus. If those reasons are not a priority then it probably makes more sense to use a commercial product. Especially if the commercial product produces a better result in an area that is a priority for you, such as dishes looking better.

  4. Riki says:

    I find a more effective method for saving money on detergent (for clothes or for dishes) is to use slightly less than the recommended amount. I did some experimenting and found that just over 1/2 the recommendation for my laundry detergent works just fine.

    I did some of my own calculations:
    $13.00 for a box of dishwasher tabs @ 60 washes per box = approx 0.22 cents each. I don’t cut them in half but it’s still pretty cheap.

    For me, this is about pennies rather than dollars and it isn’t worth it to make my own detergent (for anything).

  5. Telephus44 says:

    While I find these calculations interesting (that’s not sarcasm – I really do!), this is one of those situations where I think finding the costs of ingredients really factors in. None of the stores I shop at on a regular basis carry borax or washing soda. I would need to make a special trip – the cost of which would totally negate the $.05 per cup savings. I do shop at the dollar store on a regular basis. This is my personal situation though, and not everyone shops the way I shop.

  6. Carole says:

    Although I consider myself to be frugal I don’t use the homemade washing soap because it’s hard to grate and the results aren’t as good. I don’t use the dishwasher very often so I just buy the expensive stuff and it lasts me a long time. I use Basic H and Basic G (Shaklee products) diluted in a spray bottle and diluted in a bucket of water. Vinegar and baking soda have their place also.

  7. Kai says:

    Homemade detergent to Tide isn’t a fair comparison. I bet the savings would be vastly less compared to a cheaper brand, let along a store or no-name brand.

  8. moom says:

    The reader was talking about powder to put in a dish-washing machine whereas you made liquid detergent for washing dishes by hand. That’s not a like and like comparison.

  9. Enid says:

    I’d like to try this recipe simply because it is a more natural dish detergent. The fact that the cost is similar to cheap dish detergent is just an added bonus.

  10. kc says:


    It’s clear that he’s using a dishwasher. See the paragraph which begins “I tried out this low-end detergent and found…”

  11. shris says:

    Hm, I’d be wary of using borax on dishes. It’s mildly poisonous–and yeah, you think it’s getting rinsed off, but is it *all* getting rinsed off? You are, after all, sticking the forks and spoons in your mouth and sucking the edges of drinking glasses..

    Maybe there’s borax in the commercial stuff, I don’t know..maybe there’s stuff in the bought soap that’s even worse, hard to tell.

    I thought about making my own dishwasher soap, but the borax was one thing I couldn’t reconcile, personally. I tried a couple of different commercial varieties, and ended up sticking with the one highest rated from consumer reports, because it actually got all the gunk off the dishes. The lower priced brands left gunk behind, ew.

    I also tried the laundry soap recipe from this site. Even after some adjustments it still didn’t do well enough getting out our particular stains and smells. Even the lower priced commercial ones can’t overcome that, so I’m back to Tide. It saves me time and effort re-washing stuff, and saves me embarrassment about the state of our socks, sheets, shirts, and undies..

    I am all for frugal living and highly recommend folks to try something different and see if it works. But I am also for observing the evidence and choosing the method that works best for my situation.

    Personally I don’t feel like a failure giving up on the less effective method for me. I am perfectly content to pay for performance in areas that are important to me. I am also a member of two different CSAs so I can get organic vegetables and sustainably grown meat. I have a vegetable garden in the back yard, and will be planting some fruit in the back yard too, to go along with the pecan tree.

    None of it is especially cheap, but money for health and skills is a trade I’m willing to make.

    Highly recommend everyone to find their personal favorite ways to be frugal and be happy in that. Don’t feel guilty that you don’t like someone else’s favorite frugal ways.


  12. Michael says:

    I’ve been using your liquid laundry detergent recipe for over a year now and have been quite satisfied with it for run-of-the-mill laundry (i.e., stain-free laundry).

    So we decided to try home-made dishwasher detergent (borax, washing soda and salt). The white dishes came out clean but were marked with rust stains wherever the plastic was worn out in the dishwasher. It’s a 25-year old dishwasher – so there are a lot of bit of metal showing. We’ve switched back to standard dishwasher detergent and the stains on our dishes have started to fade… Maybe we shouldn’t have used the salt…

  13. Vanessa says:

    Why did I get a popup for a survey about tax preparers?

  14. Stacy says:

    I’ve tried the homemade dishwasher detergent, it didn’t work well for us at all. We have extremely hard water and the detergent left a cloudy film on all of the dishes. We buy the generic powder- it’s pretty cheap and even doing a load of dishes every day the box lasts a while.

  15. aj says:

    We make our dishwasher detergent in similar fashion but add a generic lemonade koolaid packet (0.08 at Walmart) for the citric acid that makes the dishes rinse really well & sparkle. I believe it is a cup of borax, cup of wash soda, & 1 packet of lemonade. I usually mix up atleast twice that at a time. The thing is we make our own laundry detergent so we always have the borax and washing soda on hand.

    I love making our own detergents because I know exactly what is in it, and we stock up on the individual ingredients when we are at stores that carry them (Walmart has the fels naptha soap for 0.99 and borax for around $3 I think, Krogers has the Wash soda for about $3)

    We always have the ingredients on hand so when we run out we just make up some instead of having to run to the store. Love the results and the convenience, and the savings!

  16. Jonathan says:

    I was suggesting this recipe to my wife and she mentioned another consideration for the cost comparison. Trent is comparing homemade to the cheapest detergent he can find. For someone like us who only buys environmental friendly detergent, however, the savings are even greater. I don’t have a price on the stuff we buy, but it is more than the cheap stuff Trent bought at the dollar store.So if you are already buying the more expensive environmentally friendly products then homemade is even more price competitive than the commercial stuff.

  17. Rachel211 says:

    Here is something about both powdered dish and laundry soap in general:

    Our money saving tip that we learned from the $200 visit from the septic man – if you have a septic system don’t use any powdered soaps. The residue builds up in the pipes leading to the system and clogs it up. The only real way to get it all flushed out is having a sucker truck hooked up to your outflow, fill all the sinks in the house with hot water and try to flush/drain/suck it out all at once.

    So if I used powders over the course of a year it would end up costing me an expensive septic visit! ;)

  18. Tizzle says:

    I am very surprised to hear that the dishwasher detergent from the dollar store is effective. Their liquid soap is the one I say, without equivocation is NOT worth the dollar. It didn’t clean my hands, hair, or dishes (I don’t have a dishwasher), and was so watered down as to be pretty much worthless.

    I totally agree with the commenter who said use half the amount. that works for me with laundry.

  19. SLCCOM says:

    Where the heck do you find borax, anyhow?

  20. Tom says:

    It’s a small white box, generally with the laundry detergent. I’ve purchased it at Target, Walmart and I think BabiesRUs carries it too.

  21. AnnJo says:

    When I’ve run out of my big-box brand of dishwashing gel, I’ve made an expedient dishwasher detergent from borax, regular baking soda and just a couple-three drops of dishwashing liquid (Dawn). (Why mix the powders with water ahead of time? They mix just fine in the dishwasher.) The tiny bit of dishwashing liquid seems to make a big difference. Baking soda bought in bulk is much cheaper than washing soda. Borax is also usually cheaper bought in larger sizes.

    I always use vinegar in the rinse dispenser, which seemed to counter the tendency of the homemade stuff to cloud up the glasses.

    The longest I’ve used the homemade stuff was three months, and it handled the job OK.

    DO NOT overuse the dishwashing liquid in a dishwasher or you’ll have suds all over your floor. 2-3 drops are plenty.

  22. Georgia says:

    #5 Most Borax and washing soda are found in the detergent aisle of most stores. I heard a friend say her daughter couldn’t find it and ordered it on the internet. It cost her double what she would have paid at our local grocer. Ours is a small town store and it still carries it.

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