Updated on 08.27.09

Your Mileage May Vary

Trent Hamm

“You should try it! It’s a great way to save money! You could write about it on The Simple Dollar!” She looked at me with her big round eyes, and I didn’t know what to say.

To put it frankly, the tip seemed weird and I wasn’t going to try it. I was simply polite and agreed with her that it was a great way to save money. I didn’t mention that the idea of actually doing that at home was not something I was going to do.

Some things work well for some people and don’t work well for others.

Here are several examples of what I’m talking about.

Would you be willing to wash Ziploc bags? I won’t wash the small sandwich ones, but I will wash the gallon-sized Ziploc ones. Some people will wash both, but others won’t bother washing either one.

If sausage is on sale for $0.50 a pound, will you buy it? Some people will be all over it, while others will keep on going because of their dietary choices or their religion. For me, I’d be suspicious and would want to examine it before buying it.

A local dairy farm wants to get you on their milk route (yes, this may actually be happening in our area – a milkman!) and the price is surprisingly low, but not quite as low as the local grocery store. Do you sign up or not? A lot of personal values and personal routines jump in here.

You can hire a maid, once a week for four hours, for $56 a week. Is it worth it? It comes down to how much you value your time and how much overtime you’re pushing.

I know one lady who, when she was unemployed, sucked up her pride and went to several of her closest friends and family members, offering her services as a house cleaner. She was hired by many of them, giving her enough money to get by. Many people simply would not have the personal courage to do this type of thing – their personal pride would stand in the way.

What about my pattern of sometimes jotting down notes from books in bookstores? I’m a writer who has books for sale in bookstores, yet I still support this behavior. Why? I think if you write down a useful tip or two from a book, you’re far more likely to buy it – so by all means, pick up my book in a bookstore and jot down a good idea you find there, because if it’s actually useful, you’ll likely come back to it and eventually buy it. Other people see such note-taking as equivalent to stealing, either from the bookstore or from the author – personal ethics come into play.

Almost every money saving tip you read will involve this kind of balance. When you read a list of tips, some of the tips will work for you and some of them simply won’t. That’s because your life is different and unique, yet we all share a lot of experiences. It’s just that the set of experiences you and I share are probably different than the set of experiences you share with others in your life.

With that in mind, take a look at this list of 100 tips for saving money (it’ll open in a new window). I guarantee that there are at least a few tips on that list you’ll find useful – and a few tips you can’t imagine using. Which tips are simply beyond the pale for you? Which ones perfectly match your life? Why? I’m curious – let me know in the comments.

In the end, personal finance is just that – personal. We don’t all do the same things to save money. Sure, we use some of the same tactics, but we use different ones as well. We can only grow by keeping our ears and eyes open for great ideas from unexpected places.

Oh, and because you’re probably curious, here is the tip she offered me: she uses the old cloth diapers (the ones she used thirty years ago on her children) for toilet paper. She puts them in a small waste can in the bathroom, one of those that you can step on at the base to lift the lid, then she washes them once every other week or so. That’s just beyond the pale for me – I can handle dealing with cleaning up after my one year old daughter, but I really don’t want to confront it from anyone else.

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  1. DivaJean says:

    This would be my frugality limit as well Trent.

    No way would I want to have to explain to company how to use old diapers and what to do with the used rags when they are headed to the bathroom! And even if I were to consider a “medium level” approach to this idea- ie using regular toilet paper for company and rags for day to day family use- I am already running 2 or 3 loads of laundry a day for a family of 6. Its not just the yuck factor coming into play- its practicality too.

  2. KC says:

    Seems to me you’d waste a lot in hot (and I mean hot) water, detergent, and energy that would probably make toilet paper cheaper. I’d have to use as hot a water as my hot water heater would allow, I’d probably use extra soap than normal and I’d run a long cycle. It just wouldn’t be worth the expense or the extra use of energy. I’ll just wait and buy my favorite toilet paper on sale.

  3. Julia says:

    I can’t cut my own long, curly hair. I rarely buy used clothing. Discount food stores make me nervous about eating what I purchase from them. I speed.

    I do eat lower on the food chain, drink water and coffee almost exclusively, plan my meals ahead of time, buy staples in bulk, cook many things from scratch, belong to a community garden, utilize my bike as transportation, and manage to live without collecting much ‘stuff’.

  4. leslie says:

    I was a ziploc bag washer for a week when I decided that buying bags, in general, was stupid. Instead, I save ALL containers/jars that my food comes in and just use those for storage and lunches instead of the bags.

  5. Todd @ The Personal Finance Playbook says:

    That’s past my frugality threshold as well. More power to her, though. That’s a lifestyle sacrifice that I would not make under the current state of my financial affairs.

  6. This is the cool thing about the many tips you offer for saving money. We can select those that will work for us, and ignore the rest. (I like choices, the more the better.)

    On that taking notes from books in bookstores, I do the same thing, and also often end up buying the book later. As a matter of fact, I took notes from a book on Friday night, that I’m heading out to buy for a friend in about an hour or so.

    Writing down an excerpt has a way of cemmenting a book in my mind. If there’s anything quotable in the book, it’s probably worth owning.

  7. I wouldn’t rent out part of my home. We are very private people. We have considered reusable toilet paper, but I hand wash our laundry. Although I wash our baby’s diapers, I can’t stand the idea of scrubbing my husband’s excrements.

  8. Jill says:

    Haha, oh my goodness, the “cloth diaper” suggestion just made me laugh out loud to myself :) I guess whatever works..

    Anyway, a lot of good information in your post. I will be checking out those 100 tips.

  9. Kat says:

    Diapers are expensive, I understand using cloth ones for that. But…toilet paper’s really not. Buy it on sale, generic, in bulk, or with coupons. Not expensive. Having to wash those diapers negates the savings, I would think.

  10. MegB says:

    Ew. Yep, I guess we all have out limits.

  11. Diana says:

    I was plastic bags to reuse them but I rarely buy them myself. If I go berry picking at my Aunts Berry far and she puts my berries in gallon ziplock bags I wash and reuse them until they fall apart or melt or something.

    I try to only use tupperware though or reuse produce bags. I feel like it’s not just a matter of money but it’s a huge waste of resources to through away plastic bags after one use.

  12. alison says:

    I can’t do yard sales or thrift shops, but I find amazing clothes in the clearance racks.

    I love playing homemade games with my kids.

    We have a family we’re great friends with, and we exchange babysitting or will talk over a homemade dinner. It’s great to “go out” and socialize, and not spend any more money than we would have cooking at home.

  13. Jessica says:

    Oh wow. I’m quite frugal and definitely into repurposing, reducing, reusing and doing without, but being an epidemiologist with a Master’s of Public Health, I certainly am *not* going to use reusable toilet “paper”– from the ages, people have used disposable (though natural) items for this purpose (leaves, corn cobs, tufts of wool…)! YIKES!!! And only washing them every two weeks would breed a huge amount of fecal bacteria. That is highly unsanitary.

  14. Bill in NC says:

    I have considered one of those bidet-style adapters for a regular toilet (most, however, are cold water only)

    Were I building a house I’d have a bidet in at least the master bath…even heated water is a lot cheaper than toilet tissue.

  15. Steve says:

    I’ve been pretty broke, as in homeless, but just can’t see where exchanging the time and laundry expense makes the reusable toilet paper a viable choice. I am in the process of buying a VERY cheap home because I will be able to rent out the extra bedroom and that will reduce my monthly living expenses to even less than the 400 a month I currently pay to rent a room myself. Sharing living space has always been one of my main frugality moves but I guess not everyone can make that choice.

  16. deb says:

    Big NO on the diapers. Eeew. I think she should wash them more frequently, too.

    I will wash/reuse freezer weight zipper bags. My Mom washes and reuses sandwich bags – cheap store-brand fold over ones (they don’t even zip). That is just a waste of time to me and when I’m doing dishes at her house I throw them away instead of washing them.

  17. Sheila says:

    I do wash plastic bags (all sizes) unless they’ve had cheese or meat in them. I try, however, to use the washable kinds of storage containers, however, and even keep one in the car so that I can bring home food in it when we go to a restaurant. I usually get the book from the library, but I will jot down notes (e.g., Frommer’s Guide to wherever I’m going). I think I do about 85% of those tips, but I will never cut my own hair. When my oldest son was little, I’d cut his hair, but I never did a great job (photos don’t lie). Definitely did cloth diapers when my kids were little, but using them for toilet paper–yuck! They make great dust cloths, however.

  18. Laura Webber says:

    Re-purposing old school cloth diapers into toilet “paper” is actually referred to as “Family Cloth!” We happily cloth diaper for our child, but NOT the rest of the family!!!

  19. chillyrodent says:

    This thread makes me happy! I’m smiling at the “family cloth” responses, especially. We don’t do this, but I understand that the cloths are not used for poo. I think it’s actually a pretty good idea for reducing the load on a septic system, besides being frugal and conserving paper resources. I don’t know that I’d instruct my guests, though; I might keep a roll on hand for the uninitiated.

    I was surprised by the 100 list, because I only found three that I wouldn’t do:

    1) make my own Goo-Gone, after I read the recipe,

    2) garden (I just hate gardening), and

    3) set up automatic student loan repayments. I know there’s an APR bonus, but the fine print says that only the minimum amount due will be paid in this way. So, if you’re in the habit of paying on your principal, those long-terms savings will be gone.

  20. Esme says:

    I’ve heard of people who use cloths for pees but use paper for poops. I assume thats somewhat more sanitary..? And the people who did this washed them every day. Its farther than I’d go.
    That said, I do wash and reuse baggies unless they’ve had really messy foods or meat/dairy in them. Its dumb to toss a baggie because it carried a few carrot sticks or a cookie. And I use baggies only when I can’t use small sealable, reusable plastic containers for whatever reason.

  21. Little House says:

    I like my toilet paper. I don’t think I could be this ecofriendly and reuse cloth diapers. Also, it’s better to use Tupperware than rinse out Ziplock bags. Every other item on your 100 tips to save money, I completely agree with and do about 90 of them. I just can’t give up my Starbucks, though I do take my own cup and save 10 cents per drink!

  22. Hatch says:

    After reading the first couple of paragraphs, I was waiting for you to get campy and mention making your own laundry detergent as something that some people wouldn’t be willing to do. TSD is to making your own laundry detergent as Adam West’s Batman is to “Blam!” :-D

  23. Yuck! If I felt that strongly about not using TP, I guess I’d spring for a bidet.

    Semi-Demi-Exboyfriend was given to using the backyard hose for daily showering. Fine in 110-degree heat — I have a bottle of shampoo in back to use with the hose after I climb out of the pool — but he washed outdoors all year round. When he kept on doing it after he moved to a development with no backyard fences, that was beyond the pale. LOL! Literally!

  24. friend says:

    I did cut my own hair for two years when I was in the Peace Corps — but I’m grown up now & have some money, and I consider it well worth it to have my hair cut professionally.

    I wouldn’t buy used clothes, either, though my best friend always does!

    But, walking to work, drinking water, cooking at home, cutting the cell phone bill, putting investments on autopilot: I am with you all the way on those. Fun post, Trent.

  25. mollyh says:

    It’s good to know I’m not alone in being grossed out by the ‘adult cloth diapers’!

    I already do most of the things suggested in the ‘100 tips’ post, especially using the library, cooking at home, and having friends over. However, there are a few things I won’t do…

    I don’t think I would rent out space in our house unless it was to a friend or family member on a short-term basis. I’m just not comfortable with ‘strangers’ in our living space. I also will not cut my own hair. I don’t spend a huge amount of money, but I do get quality haircuts, and I think it is worth it in order to look professional and polished.

  26. Courtney says:

    @ chillyrodent – regarding the student loan payments; I have the autodraft set up for the interest rate discount. Yes it only drafts the minimum payment, but you can always pay extra at any time. You can set up a recurring payment to pay X amount every month (which goes directly to principle) or you can manually make payments whenever you like. It’s definitely worth it.

  27. Kat says:

    chillyrodent, I want to second that you can make payments on your student loan anytime. Set up for your bank to automatically do it if the lender only takes the minium on their auto payments and you need it to be automated to be sure you’ll do it. Or manually do it whenever you feel.

  28. Jamie says:

    Wow. Yeah. That is too much for me.

  29. tina says:

    Another take on TP and frugality….

    It’s not so much about the cost we pay, but the cost that we’re not paying when we buy toilet paper. Water is not priced accurately. Think about all the water and resources that go into making toilet paper. Then, think about where it ends up…

    In my house-hold, we use what we refer to as “the Nepali method.” It involves a pitcher full of water and 1 left hand. It sounds disgusting at first, but I have realized that a) it uses a ton less resources, b) you feel cleaner (think washing instead of smearing), and c) you wash your hands after anyway so it’s not that much more hassle.

    I was loathe to try it until I found myself in Asia for 5 months. You have to be really committed to toilet paper (or spending a lot of $) to not be forced to try this method. I also think that the bidet/sprayer is another great option.

  30. Juli says:

    Buying a bidet attachment would cost very little, be very sanitary and would pay for itself quickly. The thought of what she is doing just turns my stomach.

  31. Michael says:

    I hope a local dairy farm starts a “milkman” service, but I’m concerned it’d have to be pasteurized, and if so we would continue to pick up raw milk from another local farmer.

  32. I have no problem buying second hand clothing at thrift stores, reusing dryer sheets or gussying up left overs into a main course, but I draw the line at anything that smacks at unsanitary, like the used diaper thing.

    Another category would be trying to save money by doing things the hard way rather than paying for some level of convenience. For example fixing my car–I may be able to do it, but the time I’d spend on it wouldn’t justify the savings on hiring someone who does it all the time and can do it quickly.

    It takes longer to do things when you’re trying to save money, so you have to be careful that you’re not spending all of your extra time saving money when you could be earning more. Opportunity cost is a real cost too.

  33. Rabia says:

    We already do a lot of what’s on your list. The tips that have no impact on my spending habits have to do with credit cards. I buy less with credit cards than if I had cash. Real money slips to my fingers like water because it’s easier for me to spend a dollar here and there than buy something that’s more than $10. Since I won’t pull out my credit card for a few bucks, I’m better off carrying as little cash as possible.

    Other things that I won’t/can’t do: take public transportation (not convenient where I live), cut my own hair, pack lunch for a long car trip (not a big fan of sandwiches), go the speed limit on the highway (I live about 30 minutes from everything, so I’ll take the hit to my gas bill in exchange for saving me some time), or make my own gifts (I’m not just that crafty and I’ve gotten too many homemade gifts I’ve never used–not all of us like fancy soap and soup mixes).

  34. EGD says:

    It’s interesting to see so many have said they won’t cut their own hair. I’ll add myself to that list, though my husband would disagree. He’s cut his own hair since high school — but his haircut requires no skill, he just shaves it off! At least one of us spends nothing on haircuts!

  35. Bobby says:

    Fantastic tips–the thirty-day rule should be particularly useful. My girlfriend uses plain chalk to prevent ants from entering her house. Apparently they don’t like to cross chalk lines–I don’t know the science behind this but it works. Saves on expensive pesticides–and the health risks associated with noxious chemicals.

  36. Matt says:

    Tip number 10 is the TRUTH! I see a lot of “so called” grown people who spend un-imaginable amounts of money entertaining children who are so young that 2 days later they won’t remember what happened. That is a great way to save money.

    The toilet paper idea?…. …… ……. …..

  37. sewingirl says:

    You all missed a biggie, reusable sanitary products for women. There are whole websites with directions for making washable pads, and “other” things. I had four kids that wore cloth diapers, and I never bought a single thing all those years. I made washables, and just dropped them into the diaper pail. If the diapers were sanitary enough to go back on the babies behind, the pads were sanitary enough for me.

  38. Noelle says:

    We were adamant about not letting people copy from books at the NYC bookstore where I used to work. But that’s because we had actors come in and copy down entire monologues. The reference books were also a problem for copying, because that was the entire reason for their sale. It’s a fine line between good customer service and setting a bad precedent.

    That being said, I go to bookstores and copy down ISBN’s quite often for purchase elsewhere, later.

  39. colleen c says:

    Everyone remember to be careful when reusing any type of plastic for food storage. Some plastics are not meant to be washed a re-used over and over again and can leach into foods. Certain containers are safe to reuse. From what I have read, #2, #4 and #5 are fine to reuse. DO NOT wash and reuse #1 (water bottles.)

    My family recently invested in stainless steel water bottles and they are working out well.

  40. DivaJean says:

    Another reason not to convert to diaper wipes-

    When teaching kids how to potty train- the phrase “No job is complete until the paperwork is done” will be rendered useless.

  41. Rachel says:

    I absolutely hate buying toilet paper! I think of how that money could go to something else that doesn’t get flushed away. Also, the cost seems to be rising for paper products. But using the homemade kind, I don’t know. Depends on how poor we actually were. I can’t imagine my husband going for it at all. I’m really surprised at the number of people who will not try to cut their own hair. I don’t “cut” mine, but I do trim between haircuts. I wear my hair short, so it requires more maintenace, and it grows very fast. I just kind of cut off the parts that look wrong to me, and I cut it when it is dry. At $25.00 per cut, if I go from 12 to 6 cuts a year I have saved $140.00. To me that is a lot of money, and worth something I can spend 5 or 10 minutes doing.

  42. deRuiter says:

    Many times at the grocery store, an item is marked, “$X. (whatever amount) coupon when you buy 2 of this product.” At the checkout counter, when the items are scanned, out pops a coupon of $X. amount. You are supposed to get this coupon after you pay, and bring it back the next time you shop. It’s more effiecient (and you won’t lose the coupon or have it expire!) if you keep back a few items, pay for your groceries, collect the $X. amount coupon AND USE IT TOWARDS BUYING THE REST OF THE GROCERIES. After getting generous coupons like this, and losing them or having them exire, I started using them immediately, harvesting my savings right away. Works like a charm!

  43. anna says:

    I’m all for the reusable feminine hygiene products, or the menstrual cup. I’ve even crocheted myself a tampon. Sorry for revealing that… Anyway I’ve been in countries where people were so poor, there was no toilet paper. It was newspapers or nothing. Funny how you get used to it.

  44. C says:

    Ha Ha Ha You threw that part in about the old cloth diaper just to see what every one would say and you are sitting behind your desk laughing about how gullible we all are. You went one step too far and I’m not buying it.

  45. Rosa Rugosa says:

    I think the toilet paper tip just reminds us that we all have to draw a line somewhere – and it’s a personal decision. I’m glad that my budget decisions never get to this level!

  46. Ms. Ferret says:

    Agreed on the reusable feminine hygiene products. I’ve been on the flannel pads/Keeper bandwagon for years and will never go back to sticky uncomfortable plastic pads.

    Don’t think I’d be able to do the cloth toilet paper thing though — blood != poop, and I only have to deal with the blood one week out of the month.

  47. Fairy Dust says:

    We used a Flowbee to cut the family’s hair for years – worked great and saved a fortune! Now, DH and I just let out hair grow. Our son is out on his own – sometimes (when he has no $), he cuts his hair, but usually he pays for a cheap cut at some place like the salon in Wal Mart (often to fix what he started himself – LOL!).

  48. Steve says:

    decent toilet paper on sale can be had for around a penny for 10 sheets. that’s a price I’m comfortable paying.

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