Updated on 05.27.16

The Snowball Effect

Trent Hamm

How Little Moves Now Can Create Huge Effects Later

I often write about how a person can save a few dollars here and a few dollars there by making a few little changes in their life. For some of my readers, this seems pointless, and they’re quite happy to tell me so. “Why bother saving $3?” they’ll ask.

Over the last month or two, I’ve really begun to understand the reasons for frugality: those little choices snowball into something big over time. Let me show you exactly how it works.

An Example of the Snowball Effect

Make your own laundry detergent

Let’s say I decide to try out being frugal by doing something that’s quite fun (at least for me): making a big bucket of homemade laundry detergent. Each load done with the homemade detergent described in that recipe versus the cost of Tide with Bleach Alternative saves me seventeen and a half cents. We do a load of laundry each day, so that adds up to $5.25 a month in savings.

Use that savings to buy a big pile of CFLs

You save that $5.25 every month and after three months, you have $15.75 saved up. You take that $15.75 and use it to buy a set of four 100 watt equivalent CFL bulbs and replace the 75 watt bulbs in the light fixtures in the room you spend a lot of time in – say, four hours a day. Since the bulbs are then free, you can rack up the savings. Each bulb is now savings 52 watts, or a total of 208 watts every hour they’re on – plus, they have the lifetime of five incandescent bulbs. So, over the course of the next year, you’ll save 208 watts over four hours each day for 365 days, plus the cost of three incandescent bulbs (roughly the number that will burn out over that year). If your electric company charges a dime per kilowatt hour, that means you’ll save $30.36 on your electric bill over the next year, plus you save on the cost of three incandescent bulbs, which cost $2.36 each, you save $37.44 over the course of the year, or $3.12 per month.

Use that savings to buy a big pile of cloth diapers

Now, from the CFLs and the detergent, you’re saving $7.98 per month. Now you find out you’re pregnant, so you save up that $7.98 per month for seven months, giving you $55.86. You use that money to buy three bumGenius 4.0 One-Size Stay-Dry Cloth Diaper (bumGenius are what we’re using). These diapers save you $0.26 per diaper change over disposable diapers and you’re able to run a load each day. That’s $23.40 for the first month, and then after two months, you’re able to order another batch of three, and after the third month, another batch – all paid for by frugal savings. After that, you’re saving $0.26 per change on an average of five changes per day – a savings of $39 per month. When the child grows out of diapers, you just keep saving that money anyway.

Use that savings to buy all of your nonperishables in bulk

Now that your savings all around is $46.98 per month, you are able to start buying things in bulk at the store. Instead of having to cut corners, you can buy things like rice, beans, dishwashing soap, garbage bags, bar soap, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, fabric softener, deodorant, and so on in bulk. You use one month’s worth of savings to get a membership at Costco and thereafter cut about $25 per month off of your spending because you’re buying many items in large quantities, storing them, and using them as you need them.

Use that savings to buy a deep freezer and start buying food in bulk to freeze

Your savings is now $70 per month with basically no lifestyle change at all. At this point, you set up an automatic deposit into an online savings account – $70 each month goes into that account, which earns 3% interest. After five months, you have $352 in the account, so you use it to buy a deep freezer for the frugal benefits. You then start buying items like bread and milk in bulk and freezing them, saving you another $5 a month. After two months, you’re able to afford buying a portion of a cow in bulk from a local farmer, already cut up and processed for you, substantially cheaper than at the store. You store this in the freezer, too, and all told, you wind up saving about $20 more a month on food costs.

Use that savings to buy a used, fuel-efficient economy car

You’re now socking away $90 a month into that savings account. Nine years later, the kid is old enough to be involved in a pile of youth activities, so you start looking for a more fuel-efficient and reliable car. You look in that account and magically there’s $10,971 in there ($90 a month, compounded at 3% annually). You trade in your current vehicle and pay for the rest of that late model fuel efficient car in cash. Your monthly gas bill drops by $60 and on average you’re saving $20 on repairs, too, with this new, efficient car, and that doesn’t even include the savings from not having to make a “normal” car purchase with payments and such.

Use that savings to pay for college

Now you’re socking $170 a month into the account. Nine years after that, your child is ready to go to college. You peek into that account. $20,724.57

And it all started twenty years before by making a batch of homemade laundry detergent.

That, my friends, is what frugality gets you. One little change, conserved over time, can snowball into something amazing. Why not get started today by finding a little change you can make in your life and putting away that difference?

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  1. This is pretty convincing. However, time is money, and if you can work for a nice pay instead of taking the time to make your own detergent, it might make sense to do that.

    I do agree that the power of compounding means that it’s important to start saving as early in life as you possibly can. I’m sure you already wrote about that.

  2. imelda says:

    Trent, that’s wonderful!! I don’t have time to go into the math and double-check–I assume it’s correct. But I can’t tell you how encouraging this is, especially for me as I’ve sort of fallen a bit from my frugal ways, and figuring it wasn’t a big deal.

    It’s a HUGE deal, as you’ve just shown. Oh, I bet this is going to be a really popular article, probably one of your best posts. You know posters like “Minimum Wage”, who claim they don’t have enough money to cut back anywhere? This is EXACTLY what they need!

  3. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    That’s just it – it starts off with something I can do ~purely for fun~ that saves me a little bit of money, and snowballs from there.

  4. Rob in Madrid says:

    “Your savings is now $70 per month with basically no lifestyle change at all.”

    that is really the key, spending less and enjoying life more. The real payback comes in a few months when suddenly there is not only money in the bank but less stress in the house.

  5. Mister E says:

    Awesome post, really drives home how much a few dollars or even cents can add up over time.

  6. luvleftovers says:

    I tend to spend singles rather than use up the change in my purse. Every night I put it in a plastic jar about the size of a peanut butter jar. At the end of the month, I take it to the bank that has the change machine, and deposit it into a savings account. When the savings hits about $800, I take out $500 and open a CD. I’m averaging $70 in change a month and I don’t even notice it. I sometimes add in other money, like the $5 I found in a pocket or something. This has really helped to boost my emergency fund.

  7. Melissa says:

    “…and putting away that difference” would be the part I need to work on. I’m getting much better at finding the savings but there seems to be somewhere else to put it, always! Thanks for such a colorful illustration – it helps. I really enjoy reading your work!

  8. Julie says:

    While I agree with you in principle, I’ve always had a problem with this type of reasoning. Namely, you need to be planning to spend the money in order to save it. I could sit down today and say I saved $5 by eating at home and not buying lunch, but if I were only half-heartedly planning on buying that lunch anyway, it’s not a real savings. I could say I saved $12 by not going to a movie yesterday, but that doesn’t matter if I didn’t really have the money to go to the movie in the first place.

    Maybe I’m a bit biased because I’m a college student living on a fairly low income (I start a new job next week that will probably be bringing in just over $300 a week), but I’ve always been slightly miffed at the people who talk about “savings” when they’re spending more than they earn anyway.

    Please note: the last sentence doesn’t refer to you specifically, but just to many people who discuss this topic in general.

  9. Sandy says:

    You fail to realize that all those activities your hypothetical 9 year old’s activities cost alot of money! (Don’t do alot of expensive activities when they are tots..parks, playgrounds, and other free stuff are perfect.) Trust me, the older they get, the more expensive their activities get..not to mention the class trips to Washington and such that cost $300 or more!All your prior savings will go toward these things…but of course, by living frugally, you don’t have to put it all on the credit card!

  10. Dorian Wales says:

    I’ve recently wrote about small changes myself. The heap paradox is a good metaphor for how stacking cents and nickles might transfrom into a large sum soon enough.

  11. Karl says:

    “However, time is money, and if you can work for a nice pay instead of taking the time to make your own detergent, it might make sense to do that.”

    I believe that falls under the principle that Trent and other PF bloggers have said over and over:
    Spend Less OR Make More.

    Either option results in more cash that can be applied to the snowball. What it really comes down to is which option will provide you with the highest PROFIT per hour.

  12. TheCFONow says:

    Brilliant! But it would be pretty easy to absorb that $5 savings from detergent if you’re not careful. But its true the little things do add up!

  13. Miranda says:

    I like the idea of small savings adding up to become eventually large savings. I think about this a lot. Why save $3? If you saved $3 a week and invested it instead of spending it, eventually it would add up to much, much more that you could use for something else that you might enjoy more down the road.

  14. Lorraine says:

    Great concept Trent – I agree wholeheartedly.

    Somewhere recently I read: ‘I don’t need to save $1000 dollars – I need to save $1 a thousand times’.


  15. Amy says:

    I don’t know what I’m missing with the CFLs…but I am so not sold on them. We’ve had two burn out long before they’re supposed to–so much for that money savings. And, the light is UGLY. We replaced our kitchen bulbs with CFLs and I hated the fluorescent cast they gave the kitchen. It totally changed the color of the yellow paint. Yuck.

    Plus, aren’t there issues with mercury in them and proper disposal–i.e., you can’t just throw them away?

  16. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Amy, there’s a bit of mercury vapor in them, but so little that if you break one, there’s no problem at all in a ventilated room.

    I don’t use them in light sockets where I need good reading light, but I use them everywhere else where just ambient light is needed.

  17. kim says:

    Well said!

  18. Katrina says:

    @ Amy : This entirely not scientific evidence, but I’ve heard a lot of people I know put CLF’s into outdoor sockets during the winter, and they burn out within a few months. I live in the Northeast, and we get some harsh cold spells, so maybe it’s the extreme cold? I’ve had them in my apartment for a while now, and haven’t had a problem.

    Trent, have you heard of this phenomenon? Or is this an anecdote specifically concentrated on my acquaintances?

  19. Fred says:

    I’ve had pretty good luck with Sylvania CFLs. They’re a little more expensive than other brands I’ve bought at Lowe’s, but the light seems much better.

  20. Michael says:

    I realize that this question may not be the most appropriate column to post this question to, here it is anyway.

    I read an article in Money magazine that pointed to the site moneycenter.yodlee.com as the best software that allows one to track personal spending/budgeting and such. It mentioned Mint.com and Quicken and MS Money as other options, but said that the yodlee site was the best. I had tried the other options, but had never heard of this new one.

    Has anyone had any experience with it, good or bad?


  21. Faculties says:

    I have to intervene on the CFLs — if you break them, they warn against vacuuming, because it will vaporize and disperse the mercury. There are whole government websites about how to sop up the mercury very carefully and double-bag it and dispose of it as hazardous waste. And if you break a bulb on the carpet, you’re supposed to cut out that piece of carpet and *throw it away.* Around here, to safely dispose of them means driving to the toxic waste collection site, which is about ten miles away (that’s assuming you didn’t break them). I think I’ll save my money by turning off unnecessary lights the regular way. I agree with everything else in the post — just wanted to say.

  22. Deborah says:

    Trent, this is an awesome post on how starting small can really lead to huge savings over the years. Each step in the process can be changed for those of us who don’t have children, or who might not want to make laundry detergent at home but start taking a lunch to work just twice a week.

    Great ideas!

  23. Bert says:

    This is brilliant! Thanks for the inspiration, as usual.

  24. Bob says:

    We put CFL’s into our outside sockets last fall and they are still working here in northern Illinois (after one of the fiercest winters in many years). So far we’re 5 for 5 with them working all winter.

    I do have to disagree, though, about the math that is being done. I’m actually surprised I’m the first one stating this, but you spend the $5.25 saved in the first paragraph when you buy the lights in the second paragraph. When you go to buy the cloth diapers you state that we have $7.98 available, but that’s not necessarily so. If you spend the 5.25 on lights, then you only have 2.73 available for diapers. Of course, if you assume that you will only need to purchase these items once, then there might be a case for it, but many of these items have to be bought more than once.

  25. Skeptical George says:

    Sorry to burst everyone’s bubble but this analysis has so many holes in it.

    Switching Light bulbs – This assumes that the cost of energy doesn’t change. With natural gas and oil rising in price, electricity WILL BE more expensive this year than last. The money “saved” doesn’t exist as it is eaten up by higher costs.

    Cloth diapers – I’m assuming these get washed in hot water (extra energy use anyone?) with bleach?

    Buy a deep freezer – Doesn’t that use a great deal of electricity? Repair & Maintenance anyone?

    It saddens me that people get so easily mislead.

  26. Karl says:

    In response to the mercury in CFL concerns:

    A CFL contains between 2 and 5 mg of mercury (Canada’s Energy Star website). I’ll go with a moderate assumption of 3 mg per bulb.

    Now, assume a room in a house is 10′ x 10′ and 8′ tall (3 m x 3 m x 2.5 m), that would give a volume of 22.5 m^3, or 22,500 L (1000 L per m^3) of air inside the room.

    Dividing the 3 mg of mercury into 22,500 L of air would give a concentration of 133 ng/L which is pretty small. Granted, it is still larger that the normal concentration in air of ~10 ng/L ( range of 4 to 20 ng/L http://nadp.sws.uiuc.edu/mdn/maps/), but there are many factors I am not considering.

    What if it diffused throughout a moderate 1600 square foot apartment with 8′ ceilings? That’s 375,000 L of air, and a concentration of 8 ng/L, the concentration in ambient air.

    This of course doesn’t take into account that a lot of the mercury would stay adsorbed onto the surface of the bulb, and would never be released into the air anyways when you clean up the bulb. Also, airing out the room by opening a window would quickly reduce the concentration of mercury back to the normal levels.

    Finally, consider that every second you are breathing air contaminated with mercury, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Breaking the occasional CFL will have no noticeable effect on your health or the health of your family as long as you are moderately responsible in terms of cleaning it up promptly and airing out the room for a little while afterwards.

  27. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Each one of those instances could be analyzed in mind-numbing detail, and for most of them I link to earlier articles where the actual costs are figured out in such detail. Here, I’m just using the results – or thumbnail sketches of the results – to discuss a bigger pattern.

    In other words, if you want more details, follow the links in the article. That’s what they’re there for.

  28. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “This assumes that the cost of energy doesn’t change. With natural gas and oil rising in price, electricity WILL BE more expensive this year than last. The money “saved” doesn’t exist as it is eaten up by higher costs.”

    This is completely nonsensical. If energy prices go up, then CFLs and other energy saving tactics actually become MORE effective, not less.

    Let’s say, hypothetically, you replace a 60 watt bulb with a 15 watt CFL and you use both for 4 hours a day. If electricity is at $0.10 per kilowatt hour (as it is right now), that’s an annual savings of $6.57 from the reduction in energy use.

    Let’s say energy prices then go up like crazy so that electricity is now $0.15 per kilowatt hour. The bulb then has an annual energy savings of $9.86 compared to using the incandescent bulb.

    If energy prices go up, CFLs produce *more* savings, not less, in comparison to the cost of running incandescent bulbs.

  29. Karl says:

    “Switching Light bulbs – This assumes that the cost of energy doesn’t change. With natural gas and oil rising in price, electricity WILL BE more expensive this year than last. The money “saved” doesn’t exist as it is eaten up by higher costs.”

    Ummm, higher electricity costs would save more money, and make CFL’s even more cost effective. Let’s assume the following:
    An incandescent uses 100 W
    An equivalent CFL uses 25 W
    Assuming 4 hours of use per day, for 1 year:
    Incandescent: 100 W * 4 hours per day * 365 days per year = 146 kWhrs per year
    CFL: 25 W * 4 hours/day * 365 days/year = 36.5 kWhrs per year
    If electricity was at $0.10 per kWhr (approximately the US average)
    Incandescent: $0.10 per kWhr * 146 kWhrs = $14.60 per year
    CFL: $0.10 per kWhr * 36.5 kWhrs = $3.65 per year
    Saving with CFL: $10.95 per year

    Let’s assume electricity doubled in cost:
    If electricity was at $0.20 per kWhr (approximately the US average)
    Incandescent: $0.20 per kWhr * 146 kWhrs = $29.20 per year
    CFL: $0.20 per kWhr * 36.5 kWhrs = $7.30 per year
    Saving with CFL: $23.73 per year

    Yes, the absolute cost for the CFL’s goes up, but the same applies to the incandescents. Looking at the savings from one scenario to the other, as electricity increases in price, the savings going with CFL’s increase as well.

    “Cloth diapers – I’m assuming these get washed in hot water (extra energy use anyone?) with bleach?”

    Because buying diapers doesn’t have an associated cost? Trent did a cost breakdown in his situation and found it was cheaper: https://www.thesimpledollar.com/2008/03/17/cloth-diapering-a-real-world-analysis/

    “Buy a deep freezer – Doesn’t that use a great deal of electricity? Repair & Maintenance anyone?”

    Depends on how you use the freezer. You do realize that if you didn’t open the door on a freezer, it would use less energy than an incandescent light bulb. If you are buying and preparing foods in bulk (saving money), and storing them in a freezer that you open once or twice a day, the electricity cost is likely far lower than the savings obtained from the food. And how often have you repaired a freezer? Freezers last years without problems. I don’t think freezer repair is that big of a concern.

  30. Kathy says:

    Absolutely terrific post Trent! Best I’ve read so far. If people can’t get past the details of the financial saving (which I think make perfect sense, by the way) then they should just concentrate on the principal. This is truly like a debt snowball in reverse and gives some purpose to those little savings that get built into a frugal person’s life. I loved it!

  31. Don’t forget the savings from making your own bread!!! MMM, MMM, MMM and some kind of fit to eat too!!! Thanks for sharing the bread recipe a while back! My family loves it!

  32. Alexis says:

    @ Bob (post 24)
    The next month after buying the CFL’s (and every subsequent month) would generate $5.25 from the homemade laundry detergent, plus $2.73 from the CFL’s, then plus whatever other savings you get from the next step in the chain. You don’t have to keep buying more CFL’s after the initial purchase, making the $5.25 available for the next purchase….the reasoning being that the CFL’s have a longer lifespan – why keep buying more unless the ones you have burn out?

  33. Shevy says:

    While mercury contamination *can* have devastating consequences, I think the current worry over exposure from one broken CFL is overblown.

    I wouldn’t suggest anyone try this now but I recall playing with mercury in school (in science class, I assume) more than 30 years ago. We touched it repeatedly, breaking it apart and nudging it back together again *with our bare fingers*!

    It was probably a very bad thing to do, but we didn’t drop dead from it or get hauled off to be decontaminated. So, while contact with mercury is dangerous, it’s not like being exposed to radioactive waste (which is what I always think of when I read the instructions for mercury cleanup).

    Besides, if you have silver fillings in your mouth you’re carrying mercury around with you all the time and most people aren’t totally freaked out about that. (Of course, there are dentists who now advertise mercury-free dentistry and remove old fillings with highly specialized equipment, but they are still very much in the minority.)

  34. Mark says:

    We love that snowball effect. We have it rolling downhill pretty good now. We just paid off $3.300 in credit car bills and our mistake (I mean car payment of $430.00 per month is next)

    Thanks for a timely post. You must have read my mind.

  35. New York Travel Beat says:

    Nice post! People don’t seem to be able to refrain from spending that extra $5, thinking it really won’t make a difference in the long-haul. Despite the fact that I consider myself frugal, I even feel that way sometimes myself. Thanks for reminding it does matter!

  36. You must have read my mind! I just used (a modified version) of your homemade detergent yesterday. Next I want to try fabric softener and making my own household cleaners. I figure I can shave over $10 from my monthly budget, at least.

    As far as skeptical George, it’s amusing to me that you’re saddened and feel we’re all’ mislead’. These are just Trent’s opinions. I doubt any of us take them as gospel, but rather a suggestion, a new way of thinking, an idea that small things can add up.

    And other posters mentioned it’s either time or money. That’s all very true, you are making a sacrifice. But my homemade powder detergent took about 5 minutes to make and switching to home cleaners I make will probably take about the same. I figure 5-20 minutes of my time to do something frugal and interesting is worth it.

  37. savingforoz says:

    Been reading your blog for a while now, Trent, and this post has inspired me to post – that’s simply the best explanation of how little things add up to something much bigger that I’ve read.

    I used to be guilty of thinking “oh, it’s not worth saving a few pounds (I’m British) here and there – what can they matter?” Then I changed my thinking, revamped all my expenditure and found myself saving £2,000 each year – which is being channelled into my retirement fund.

    Great post, brilliant blog.

  38. Mister E says:

    Regarding freezer maintenance.

    My parents had a deep freezer for almost 20 years and it never needed any kind of servicing, my mom sold it working beautifully. My grandparents had one that did eventually die but it took about 30 years. I also worked in several restaurants over the years running freezers that were 10+ years old (and getting far more abuse than would be typical in a home).

    Maybe I’ve just had good luck with freezers.

  39. Char says:

    Loved this post, it helps me be more conscious of the little things. I have been using CFL’s since they first came out, I asked for money for my birthday and Christmas one year from my in-laws so that I could purchase them (super expensive back then and they were the round tubes that flickered when you turned them on) I have never broken one in the almost 20 years! I think the glass is much thicker than incandescent. The brand does make a difference, Amy, maybe give a better brand a try before you totally give up on CFLs. I found that I had poor luck with the “Free with Rebate” at Menards(home store like Lowes)ones, the lighting was poor as you mentioned and they burned out quickly as someone else pointed out. I do buy the name brand CFLs for this reason BUT since I rarely replace them (I still have one of those old circular tube ones in my basement) I don’t mind the extra $ spent on a better brand. This type of thinking if applied all over your life really can make a difference in your savings. It isn’t just this one path Trent planned out it can be applied to choosing not to eat out, have the latte 3x/week or walking to work instead of driving. Do this in enough areas and BOOM you have some real savings started! I have to say, making the laundry det. while not for some, was fun and I liked doing that instead of working extra hours because, well 1. my boss only lets me work 40 hours and I don’t want another job but don’t mind working around the house and 2. while I do things like this and cooking from scratch I can still talk and goof off with my kids which I couldn’t do if I was working. Plus, I think it teaches the kids to be innovative, they may not make laundry det but it won’t be beyond their thinking to make things instead of always buying. My kids harass me the whole time I am making laundry detergent but I can tell they think it is cool. Keep up the great posts Trent!

  40. sunshine says:

    I have to agree with the majority of the above posters. I loved this post. When I read your posts sometimes, I will occasionally think, “Dude, it’s 3 bucks. Whoopdeedoo.” But this post does an excellent job of illustrating why that $3 is important, particularly if you are trying to be frugal. Equally important is the point of actually saving that $3 you worked so hard (or not) at being frugal for. Thanks!

  41. jm says:

    “Now you’re socking $170 a month into the account. Nine years after that, your child is ready to go to college. You peek into that account. $20,724.57”

    You forgot to account for inflation in your numbers.

    hehe, just kidding.

  42. jm says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever broken a light bulb period, let alone a CFL.

  43. Michael says:

    I broke a CFL blub by twisting it as hard as an incandescent bulb. Spheres are less fragile than spirals. We do appreciate the lower electric bill, though.

  44. Rebecca says:

    Yet another benefit to the cloth diapers:re-sale value! Trent, you have mentioned that you plan on more kids so you can just save them. If this is the last kid, however, they can be sold to get some of the money back. This makes them even less per change!
    Also, do you find that the BumGenius do OK with your Homemade detergent?

  45. Skeptical George says:

    The point I was making with the bulbs is that you are not “banking” the cash flow from “saving” when switching if energy prices go up.

    If you spend .10 per kilowatt today, switch to CFL and use 0.05 per kilowatt you save money. If the cost of electricity goes up to .20 per kilowatt you’re back at .10 per kilowatt.

    So you’re left spending the exact same amount of cash as before. True, you’ve saved yourself from the higher cost and perhaps that’s better than nothing except you’ve invested money in the higher more expensive bulbs too but where’s the extra cash flow?

    Looks like Jimmy’s college fund just got a little emptier.

    This is the same way of saying, I’ll give you less food for the same price. You’re using less electricity but you’re paying the same bill.

    This my friends is the magic of inflation.

    And please find me concrete proof that a freezer uses less electricity than a bulb.

  46. luvleftovers says:

    $3.00 per day.

    As per bankrate.com, (inflation not considered)

    $3.00 x 30 days – $90 per month.

    $90 per month deposit, 3% interest compounded monthly, for 10 years is $12,576.73.

    Not bad for giving up one cup of designer coffee.

  47. JonB says:

    3 months for CFLs, 7 months for diapers, another 3 months for more diapers, 1 month for Costco. Total time until Costco = 14 months.

    What if you just skip all that and get the Costco membership right away? Rather than 3 months of saving $5 and 7 months of saving $7, you’d start saving $25 immediately. I suspect you’d end up with way more money, even if you put the initial $50 on a credit card.

    Also, you left the $39 for diapers in forever, and it’s true that you “save” that money when the child stops wearing diapers, but you’d have to take into account that you’re “saving” even more money if the child was wearing regular diapers and then stopped. So I think that $39 should be excluded after a year or so.

  48. Kristen says:

    The detergent you are making can’t be used on your diapers. Borax isn’t good on the fabrics and soaps leave a build up on the absorbing fabrics. The detergent buildup will cause the diapers to lack absorbency and they will leak over time.

    A good alternative for diapers is simple green and washing soda.

    I have used BumGenius diapers and love them. So easy, contain messes and they are 1 size. I would recommend purchasing them only when you need them as they may make improvements before you really need them.

  49. Lucy says:

    I posted this on GRS, but it seems to be a timely topic so I’m reposting over here. I just found a hand-powered tabletop clothes washer that washes a 5 lb. load in just a couple of minutes. Along with an electric spinner made by the same company that you only need to run for a couple of minutes per load, I imagine this will be a huge savings. Less water, less soap, no electricity at all for the washer, very little power to use the spinner. The washer only costs $42 and the spinner is $135. These will pay for themselves in no time!

  50. Great article as always Trent–small habit changes can bring about enormous results if you’re just willing to apply a little creativity and discipline.

    But can you actually get pregnant by making your own detergent and using CFLs?

    “Now, from the CFLs and the detergent, you’re saving $7.98 per month. Now you find out you’re pregnant, so you save up that $7.98 per month for seven months, giving you $55.86.”

    Wow, they left that part out of sex ed when I was a kid! :)

    Casual Kitchen

  51. Ginger says:

    I am having a huge problem finding ‘washing soda’ at my local Safeway. I tried the slime, had fun making it but used baking soda instead. My clothes didn’t feel as ‘clean’, so went back to regular detergent. Now I’ve found the ‘dry’ recipe and want to try that. Help!

  52. Sharon says:

    I’m trying CFLs now that they are having a sale at Shoprite on them…pack of three for 3.99.

  53. Ginger says:

    Found washing soda online, but with shipping 55 oz comes to around ten bucks, way too much. BUT, I stumbled across 2 more cool recipes for natural cleaners (and thanks Innovative Traveler for your recipe).

    Natural Cleaner
    Combine in a spray bottle
    1 tsp Borax
    2 tblsp vinegar
    1/4 tsp veggie based liquid soap
    1/2 tsp super washing soda
    Add very hot tap water, shake till all is dissolved

    Natural Scouring Powder
    1 cup baking soda
    1/4 cup Borax
    1/2 cup super washing soda
    Combine and put in jar.

    I have just GOT to find the washing soda. Arm & Hammer makes it but I guess there’s no demand in my area. :(

  54. George says:

    @Skeptical George –

    I’m beginning to think you’re a skeptic because you don’t do any research. I used Google for a quick search on freezer electricity use… and quickly found an upgright GE freezer model FUF14DPRWH uses 621 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year and a 60 watt bulb left running for 365 days uses 525 kilowatt-hours in the same period.

    While that’s not less than a 60 watt bulb, it’s a reasonable bet that there’s a model out there that uses less than a 60 watt bulb.

  55. George says:

    @Skeptical George –

    Oh, wow, another 3 minutes of research and I discover that your government is at work for you:

    Looking through the list, you’ll notice that about half the models listed use less than 525 kilowatt-hours in a year.

  56. Colleen Costello says:

    FYI Amy and others who have CFC bulbs go out “early” — Keep the package and write the purchase date in marker. If one blows too soon, CALL the 1-800 number. We have been less than impressed with the lifetimes of some ofthese bulbs so far, but when you call the company to tell them you had a burnout, they are GREAT and will send you a coupon for a free replacement. The last rep I spoke with told me they keep on working to improve the bulbs but in the meanwhile, whenever one is a poor performer they are happy to replace it. I have called about 3 times and each time they send me a coupon for up to $10 which actually buys me a whole new PACKAGE of lights at Walmart. All they ask is the number off the package.

    Also, I want to add that while groceries are definitely getting more expensive, I save a ton of money buying practically NO MEAT. I don’t agree with offering much of it to my children and don’t want them to grow up thinking food has to come from animals. In the meanwhile I am saving a fortune (so I can splurge on some veggie burgers!)

  57. darkness_and_light says:

    Skeptical George, your analysis is giving me fits. You are using a hypothetical increase in energy costs selectively, applying it to the CFL case but not the iridescent bulb case. Increased energy costs, inflation, hidden costs for hot water, etc. do take a bit out of the projected savings, but it seems that there is enough margin that its still a net gain.

  58. 1) I have a house full of fluorescent light bulbs, but if one breaks, I’m cleaning it up asap, with a protective mask. Mercury=Bad.

    2) I stopped buying a coffee at work every day, and put the two dollars into a can. I now have about $200 dollars painlessly saved (I bring tea bags from home).

  59. amy says:

    am i missing something? u take the savings from detergent to go to lightbulbs. how can u take that money and put it in the bank again for later use (ie college fund, car fund, freezer fund)?

  60. gr8whyte says:

    @ Ginger (comment #53) : I’ve gotten 25 lb plastic buckets of washing soda from pool supply stores and 50 lb bags of anhydrous from chemical supply stores. The 50 lb bags were the best deal — pure stuff at ~50 cents/pound — but this was a few years ago. Be aware anhydrous sodium carbonate is by weight ~2.7X stronger than washing soda which is sodium carbonate decahydrate with 10 molecules of water of hydration. Be careful with washing soda; it’s insidiously powerful stuff that can wreck clothing color and texture if used excessively (I’ve done it). It’s also best to first crumble any lumps into powder before adding it to the water as lumps don’t break up and dissolve well.

  61. yoth says:


    He’s saying that you roll the savings from one thing into the purchase of the next, etc., etc. until you eventually STOP spending (you now own a freezer and have purchased in bulk) and start saving the money you would have been spending. It’s a sound theory and pretty low-risk, if you have spend habits that you can curtail as in the example.

  62. yoth says:

    You know, this reminds me. The accepted number for the “price” associated with having a child is $250k. These questions are loosely related. 1. I’ve heard that this is through 18 years of age for the child so I’m guessing that doesn’t include college? 2. Is that adjusted for inflation to today (they just turned 18 today) or to 18 years ago? 3. Is it fair to say that reducing the number of children you intended to have is increasing your savings by this amount? If so, would it be logical to say that you will have saved X dollars for your children by reducing your intended number of children? You could argue that this isn’t money saved to an account and so not tangible, but it appears that the ‘snowball’ approach taken in this entry primarily ‘reinvests’ and only takes money out of the investment at the end, and puts it into savings so I would think that the same logic would apply. This last one is probably more philosophical than anything else but not terribly off-topic.

  63. Matt says:

    Great post, Trent, if for no other reason that giving people the ability to think on their own and run excursions off of your example. The people who have been posting “what-if”‘s and insults clearly have no clue what the point of this article was.
    The idea of saving money by not buying your daily coffee for $2 is great. I for one am not into making that ghastly concoction for detergent, or use cloth diapers, because I find the disposal a great benefit of my time than cleaning the majority of filth off, then keeping it separately until I get enough of the rancid smelling diapers together to run a load of laundry with them :)

    But the bottomline is that anyone can save, and it all starts with saving a little. Just clipping coupons and buying in bulk can easily save a family of 4 $50-100/month in groceries. Eating out one less time a week with a family of four can easily save $100/month in dining out.

    Just like the budget calculator that was proposed, streamline this snowball effect to feel natural for your way of life. Whether it’s lightbulbs, coffee or a deep freezer, the important thing is to do it!

  64. Matt says:

    1.) $250K for a child up to 18 doesn’t include college, you’re correct on that.
    2.) Cost of a child is in CY dollars. It adds up each year using basic inflation indices, and is reported in the current year. So if this study was compiled in 2007, then you’ll have to inflate it again to put it in 2008 dollars. Inflation was something on the order of 3% last year, I believe. Oh, and it starts as if you’re having the child today (or in the year the survey was conducted :))
    3.) The way the cost of having a child is calculated includes a bunch of things that you won’t see as savings by not having the child. The biggest example would be housing space. The $250K includes the assumption that you upgrade to a larger house to accomodate the child. (I believe 300 sq ft per child or something like that). And extra gas and a different type car to accomodate child seats, etc. There’s also the cost of buying in bulk that you won’d really realize, because feeding four cost less per person than feeding one. You will realize a good chunk of that $250K, but not nearly all of it. I’d personally say $150K. I have a hard time believing it will cost >$1000/month per child for 18 years!!

  65. yoth says:

    Makes sense. Thanks Matt!

    Maybe, to your point, the cost savings is for the first child and subsequent ones consume less resources.

  66. Leah Ingram says:

    I agree with the first commenter here. I don’t buy into this notion of working twice as hard to save a little bit of money. Maybe because I’m a self-employed writer and am always thinking about the return on my investment of time, doing something like making my own detergent to save so little each month just doesn’t seem worth the effort. In fact, I would say that this is a cheapskate mentality more than a frugal mindset. Don’t get me wrong, though. I love saving money, but not when I have to spend my earning time trying to reap small savings benefits. Does that make sense? Thanks.

  67. steve says:

    “However, time is money, and if you can work for a nice pay instead of taking the time to make your own detergent, it might make sense to do that.”

    While this argument has its place, I find it less than convincing for the following reason:
    Yes, if it’s possible to work extra hours, you may net more by working for the time it would take you to make the detergent than by spending the time making the detergent.

    However, in practical terms, most people cannot pick and choose the hours they want to work (their employer picks their hours, and they have to accept it or get another job). So, for most people, doing moneysaving activities in their spare time (activities which they also find to be enjoyable, like Trent does) is an excellent way to add money to their bottom line.

    A second part of this analyis would have to include the possibility of getting a second job and working more hours that way, but even in this case, there is a limit to how much time you want to spend in someone else’s environment working on someone else’s agenda. Unless you have a pressing need for the extra cash, It’s more enjoyable to be at your own home, doing “frugal” things, than it is to be at work.

    regarding CFLs:
    there have recently been studies comparing cleanup methods, and there are now firmer guidelines for how to clean up after them if/when they break. The mercury of a broken bulb tends to stay on the bulb shards themselves, as well as the floor in the immediate area of where they broke.

    The safest procedure is:

    take it seriously

    1st step is the get everyone out of the area and air it out for at least 15 minutes to eliminate as much as possible of the breathable mercury vapor.

    Then take a glass jar (mason jar), not a plastic bag, and, using disposable gloves, pick up the pieces of broken bulb, placing them in the jar.

    then take sticky tap[e like duct or packing tape and cover the area where the bulb broke, pressing the tape down to get good adhesion.

    pull the tape up and dispose of it in the jar (a big jar is good) as well. Seal the jar and mark it with warning signs re: the mercury. Bring to a hazardouse waste disposal area to dispose of.

    elemental mercury that stays on the floor surface is easily volatilized to high levels by vacuums (especiall) and foot traffic so it should be removed with adhesive.

    Never vacuum to remove the mercury, it will basically just disperse it into the air where it can be breathed.

    The safest procedure is to not install them on knockable lamp fixtures or where very young children can knock into them and break them.

    Actually, recently some chemists have invented a powder that can be spread on the area of the broken bulb and will “lock up” the mercury so that it can be cleaned up safely. However, this stuff is not on the market yet.

  68. Becky says:

    Trent, what are some practical ways to actually “capture” the savings from frugal tactics, so that you can begin to create the snowball effect? I have problems really “saving” the savings I encounter, because the savings just stays in my checking account and I end up spending it eventually. I’d like to improve on this but am not sure if there is a simple approach.

  69. manila says:

    I will probably start with the diapers portion until I can find the soap ingredients.

    And probably look for other things to do to save money.

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