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True Luxury: The Real "Quicker Picker Upper"


Save your money -- convert to cloth.

NanaWhen my grandmother first saw our son in cloth diapers, she clucked (the "Nana" cluck) and shook her head. She explained that when she was raising my father in an apartment in the late '40s, she had to use cloth diapers. Which she washed by hand. In her kitchen sink. (Sounds like fun, don't it?)

When my aunt came along seven years later and the first disposable diapers were out, Nana was using them. Despite being very expensive and leaky, not washing diapers was clearly the way to go.

My sense is that most Americans of the WWII generation were like Nana: They were grateful for the prosperity and freedom that disposable paper goods represented. Their children, the boomers, and their grandchildren (me!) knew no other way of life.

Our "cloth" conversion happened early in my marriage. We were broke with student loans, house payments, and car debt. In my usual gusto to try practically anything to save money, we started using cloth napkins after I read about it in the Tightwad Gazette.

And, surprisingly, using cloth napkins wasn't too bad. So we tried cloth diapers and using wash cloths instead of wipes at home when my son was born. And we survived that, too. At some point, we replaced every paper good in the house except toilet paper. (I haven't found that bidets pay for themselves fast enough.)

We have saved a great deal of money over the course of a decade. The cloth diapers alone probably saved us $2,000 between two kids. I haven't calculated the additional savings from avoiding Costco-sized loads of paper towels, napkins, and Kleenex (KMB). I can tell you, however, that $150 is an expensive grocery week for our family of four on a high-cost diet.

shopping cart
And in addition to saving a lot of money over the years, I discovered another little secret:

Our cleaning cloths (old recycled diapers), cloth napkins, and handkerchiefs aren't only cheaper, but work much better and are far more convenient than anything I've found in the paper-goods aisle.

Go ahead, read that statement again. I'll wait…

Unlike my grandmother, I have easy access to a dependable and cheap washing machine in my home. Thanks to that machine, what was inconvenient about cloth goods has completely disappeared. I spend far less in time, money, and dedicated storage using cloth goods than by shopping endlessly for "bargain" paper equivalents. And cloth works much better than their instantly soggy and ripped alternatives.

The bigger truth at work here is that convenience is relative. Companies like Procter & Gamble (PG) still feel the need to spend millions annually telling us how "convenient" their products are, despite decades of mass adoption of paper goods.

Why? In part, because if they stop advertising, you might notice a few things. Like the fact that it's not particularly convenient to earn money, then go shopping for and store cases of paper products to use them once and just to throw them in the trash. And then pay again for trash pickup.

To be clear, we haven't completely removed paper goods from our lives. We buy a roll of paper towels about once every month or two to wipe up grease that's a pain or potentially dangerous in a dryer. I have no plans to stop buying toilet paper, a fact for which my husband is very grateful.

So consider dipping your toe into the world of cloth goods. You don't have to change your habits or even the whole household all at once. Pick just one item that appeals and try changing your habits for a full month. I guarantee you'll save space, time, and money.

And one more thing: Be sure to have a designated hamper so that dirty cleaning cloths, napkins, and/or handkerchiefs aren't staining your clothes. And be sure to avoid the polyester/no-wrinkle cloth napkins. They're like wiping your face with a raincoat.
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