Baby Steps -- and a Few Giant Leaps -- Towards Saving




About: I am a paper engineer, writer, maker and chemist wannabe. In addition to pop-up cards I design and build furniture, lights, costumes or whatever I happen to need at the time. Lipstick, a mixing studio, all-p...

Lots of subjects have been covered in this money saving contest, including my favorite dumpster diving, saving old stuff for parts, or just consuming less. Here are a few of the things I do which I haven't seen (and I apologize for the repetitions if you already have described some of my tips and secrets).
Not all are DIY -- some involve products to buy which will save you money in the long run -- but I've only included those if they really save you a lot, and might even change your life like the next step changed mine....

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Step 1: Selzer!

This is the one thing in my life which I could never give up... Even though I broke my back and hurt my hands carrying the bottles up the stairs, even though I felt guilty about the absurdity of using all the energy and materials necessary to produce the innumerable bottles I'd consume and the gas necessary to ship them, even though the modest cost of a bottle was adding up to several hundreds of dollars a year, I could still not give up the habit.
I'd thought of building some sort of seltzer making set-up, and found a few descriptions of how to do it, but they all seemed too involved, (and dangerous) to be practical for me. Then I found the soda club, and it did, literally, change my life. In a way it is DIY because I now make the selzer... I don't need to carry the weight or pay for the water. I use tap water (transported via the force of gravity) and just pay for the bubbles -- about 20 cts per liter. Not only do I save a whole lot, but I don't have to carry the water and I never run out! Safe, easy, cheap. What more can you ask for?

Step 2: Renovation

Although renovation costs do seem to balloon uncontrollably, there are some ways to keep them in check:

Reuse. When I tore down the bathroom walls I saved the old tiles and used them as a backsplash in the kitchen. I also saved the accessories (toilet paper holder, etc) and put them into the new wall.

Give away. When I tore out the kitchen cabinets, even though they weren't so great I found somebody who would take them for free. I found a scrap metal guy who picked up the huge old bathtub. Not only were these people glad to have the stuff, I saved hundreds of dollars the contractor would have charged to cart them away...

Find free stuff. There's the aforementioned dumpster diving, online resources such as Craigslist, but if you make friends with your architect and contractor (or if your friends and family happen to be architects and contractors), ask them for stuff they're tearing out of their other projects. I got a free stove, dishwasher and a butcherblock countertop (in addition to smaller things like door hinges, handles, mirror, light fixtures, doorbell, etc).

And of course, do as much as you can yourself... but beware of false savings! It would have cost me more to rent the floor sanding equipment and supplies than it cost to pay someone else to do the job (better and faster, too). That might be because I would also have had to rent a car to get the equipment. Still, figure in all your costs before you decide to do everything yourself.

Step 3: Hope

This tip and the next come from Obama -- remember when McCain mocked him for suggesting these economy measures? Boy was he wrong....

Put your power warts onto a power strip and turn them off when you don't need them!

Step 4: Car Tires

and fill up your car tires, for those of you who are forced to drive.

Step 5: Bike Riding

but if you can, ride a bike or use public transportation

Step 6: Excercise

but give up the gym. Who needs a stepmaster? Walk up the stairs! Forget the elevator. You'll be saving electricity too. Chances are it won't be your money saved, but it'll still be good for your heart.

Step 7: Weddings

Don't do it! You can still get married (the so-called marriage tax isn't true, being married does save you money), but elope instead of hosting a bunch of people you don't even know.
I used to edit wedding videos -- what some people spend on weddings could buy them a house! I know first hand because I was living off of them...
You might think now it's what you've always dreamed of, but in less than a year you'll be shelving all those pictures, the video, and you'll never think of that extravaganza again (unless you're still paying off the debt). It's not worth it.

(Update: you eloped but you can still celebrate with a DYI wedding cake!)

Step 8: Washing

Front loader save water and energy, but I recently discovered they start smelling moldy after a while. Apparently this is a problem inherent to the design. You can buy super expensive tablets or use bleach and run them in an empty machine, but then you're wasting all the water and energy you'd saved... A much cheaper solution is to add borax to the wash with your clothes (20 Mule Team can be found next to other laundry detergents).

I also make my own cleaning products. It's quick, easy, cheap and green!

I'll be testing my own high borax mix for h.e. washers and I'll publish that when it's ready....
Update: don't try the high borax mix! In high concentration, borax will form crystals -- you don't want those clogging up your washing machine pipes.

Step 9: Drying

There are some good instructables for building a clothesline, but they are all addressed to those lucky enough to have a yard... For apartment dwellers (albeit those lucky enough to have laundry in their apartment or building), the commercial solution pictured here no longer exists, but I found this similar one:

drying rack

This can go anywhere, you don't necessarily need a laundry room... a very large closet, a hallway, the bathroom, even your bedroom. I wouldn't put it in the kitchen though, unless you never cook.

I'm sure this could also be a DIY project... after all, it's only a few pulleys, a couple bars, cable and a crank... But that last item was why I opted for the commercial solution. You could theoretically replace the crank with a cleat and pull your bars up and down, but the crank makes it much, much easier. When you're doing laundry every two or three days, it makes a difference. A bar full of wet clothes is pretty heavy. Plus by the time you've bought all the separate items, I'm not sure you'll have saved that much money...

As you can see I do still have a dryer, but it uses gas (more efficient and cheaper to run), and it's useful for sheets and towels. Hang the rest!

Step 10: Cleaning

Don't go for all the specialized sprays and nonsense which are marketed all over.

Make rags -- cut up your old Tshirts and moisten them with warm water... that's all you'll need for dusting (trust me, I live right next to a highway so I know all about dust...).

Don't buy softener -- plain white vinegar works just as well (and it won't smell)

Forget the $10 carpet cleaner (even though I'll admit the foam is kind of fun) -- spray your carpet with water, sprinkle it with Borax (20 Mule Team is in any supermarket with the laundry supplies), wait for it to dry and vacuum. Not only will you get the dirt, you'll also kill the fleas...

Click here for some good and very cheap cleaning supply recipes.

Step 11: Learn to Cut Hair

There are several instructables with different techniques in this subject, so I would just look up the method which suits you best. Another way to learn is to have your hair cut professionally and pay close attention.

Just two pieces of advice:
The fist time you cut someone's hair, choose a subject who is older than 14 (younger than that they tend to move and jump around too much), not too vain, and preferably broke. That way you'll be forgiven for any mistakes.
If you don't want to cut your own hair, don't enlist someone who appears to be nervous. I was once left with half a haircut after my improvised hairdresser panicked and refused to finish the job...

Step 12: Don't Sponsor Hallmark

Make your own cards. Much cheaper, faster (think of how long it would take to go buy the card), and much nicer for the person you're giving the card to.

Here's an instructable for making this pop-up dove, or you can find many other free (or very cheap) templates to download from my website.

Step 13: Don't Sponsor Big Pharmaceutical Companies

I tend to be cautious when it comes to medication, but if you have heartburn I'm confident this recipe is safe and will save you A LOT of money.

Step 14: And Also Make Your Own Toys

No battery-operated plastic toy will ever be as fun as a huge refrigerator box, or even any oversized cardboard box. Packing peanuts are great fun too, but I will never allow them to be used as playthings again -- those styrofoam peanuts are evil! They literally jump out of the scoop as you try to throw them out. You'll be picking them up for months.

Check out these ideas for turning empty bottles into toys.

If you like paper craft, you can download my popup kitchen to make a very cheap and portable toy. Or go all the way and make a whole pop-up paper house, sturdy enough for real play. It also comes apart and folds flat for storage (this one isn't free, but it is a whole lot cheaper than any other fully furnished doll house you can find).

Here's another cheap toy idea: I used to play this game surreptitiously during class on notebooks or scrap paper, so I was horrified when I saw "Battleship" for sale as an expensive toy with hundreds of small plastic pieces -- all you need is a pencil and some paper, but drawing the grid can be tedious so I made this PDF file which can be downloaded and printed.

Step 15: Let There Be Light

But let it be efficient!

Here are links to two lights I've designed:
Can reading lamp
Mahogany bed light

You will find many more designs and ideas all over instructables and the web.

Step 16: The Next Generation

Think long term. Pass on your conservative values (as in "conserve energy") to the next generation.
A few years ago, when the boy in this picture was only 5 years old, he became very angry at me. He went around the apartment, turning on every single light.
"What are you doing?" I asked, trying not to sound as annoyed as I was.
"I am wasting energy!" he said, furiously. He knew that it was the best way to get back at me -- and he never guessed how much his answer had pleased me.

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    42 Discussions


    4 years ago on Step 8

    To prevent the smell Leave the door partially open at all times when not in use so there will be an air exchange helping dry it out and prevent mold.

    If you will not be using the washer for sometime like going out of town for two weeks I would recommend doing a load with bleach (vinegar might work) then when the load is done set it to spin and drain. That will push more water out. Remove the load and wipe the inside out throw the towel in with the wet clothing and dry. Do not forget to leave the washer door open till your next load.


    8 years ago on Step 15

    Based on curiosity, given the initial expense of these LED lamps, are you recouping the savings Vs a standard Light bulb?

    I am currently a lighting technology student, and i am a huge supporter of where LED lighting is heading, and the only thing that has kept me away is the $20 price tag. Theoretically, the energy efficiency coupled with the long life of the LED source should recoup the cost, but i have learned to be skeptical of theories on paper. How does this real world application stand up to theory?

    1 reply

    Reply 8 years ago on Step 15

    For this particular LED lamp, I would say yes, I'm definitely recouping savings, because I've had it for quite a while now (three years) and it's still going strong. I haven't been quite as lucky with some of the other LED fixtures I've bought (in particular beautiful flat 2' by 2' panels which have failed me -- though I almost forgive them because the light they gave out was gorgeous, bright but also soft and flattering). I suspect the problem isn't so much the LEDs, usually it's the LED drivers, the power supply, which disappoints. If the power supply isn't perfectly calibrated and dependable then the LEDs fry...


    8 years ago on Step 11

    Just $0.02 on this subject :) I used to cut my first husband's and our friends' hair when we were in the Air Force. We were young and poor, and even though getting your hair cut on base/post is incredibly good value, still, $5 is $5. So got some hand-me-down clippers and got to work.
    *Lessons: Military hair is great. If you totally screw up, you can just shave it or switch to a jar-head Marine look, haha. Lie and say you lost a bet if you must go to the shave. Also, start with someone with straight hair. Waves are little more intimidating.
    Now I'm in marriage #2, and have 3 little boys (4 and under!) and a hard working husband. Still poor. Still cutting hair at home!
    *Lessons: Little boys aren't that hard.
    I started with scissors at 15 months, until they were old enough (around 2 y.o.) to not mind the clippers. It helps when they've seen the clippers used on Dad, and let them feel it on their skin of the hand or something first. A lot like preparing for the dentist!
    They will be wiggly, but it's still workable. Let them do something REALLY AWESOME while you cut their hair, esp. the first few times. My first time cutting a child's hair, I put a chair in front of my dresser (with mirror) and let him dig through some non-valuable jewelry (WOW!!) while I snipped away. Major success. Or, in front of a sink in the bathroom with a soap crayon in hand. Now they are older, I can let them watch a movie while I clip and snip away (I am a low-tv parent, so this is a treat).
    Again, if you really screw up, just clipper it really short or shave it if you have to, and tell them they are playing Army. =D Keep a positive attitude, it rubs off.
    *Cheap and easy Ladies' hair: let it grow!! Nothing is faster or cheaper than long hair! My hair is classic length (bottom of bum) and it takes me about TEN SECONDS for my usual hairdo. Really!! Much faster to twist it into a bun and secure with a hair stick than do all that drying, curling/straightening, fussing, applying product, etc. that most ladies are wasting time and money with. Not to mention the salon costs and time!!
    Go to the Long Hair Community forum for instructions on how to trim your long hair yourself and instructions on different hair styles if you need ideas.

    Spaceman Spiff

    10 years ago on Step 7

    I eloped, it was great! We took a lot of heat from the fam. for it though. It took nearly two years for everyone to calm down.

    1 reply
    DudelySpaceman Spiff

    Reply 8 years ago on Step 7

    Wow, I don't envy you! We eloped and it was over within a week. We're both pretty strong personalities though. . .


    8 years ago on Step 16

    lol when my Hubby is mad at me he wastes paper towels. I love the lamp and I love this step! I don't have any kids but I'm trying to teach my nieces and nephew my values.


    10 years ago on Step 10

    The best is vinegar and water. I use it for almost everything. Oh also, reuse spray bottles from old cleaners instead of throwing them away or recycling them. That way you don't have to buy new spray bottles for your cleaners. Just make sure to relabel the bottles with whatever you put in them. I use old band stickers or other marketing stickers to label mine. For instance, my vinegar and water is marked with a Science Commons sticker and my dishsoap and water is covered in Firefox stickers. That way my roommates and I know can tel them apart _

    2 replies

    Yes, and a lot of cleaning products are being sold in "concentrate" packets which are a fraction of the cost of the pre-made stuff. Saving your spray bottles works, and then by the concentrate. A little more work, but saves money in the long run. Cleaning products are always so expensive.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    YAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 5*. saving energy, recycling, being crafty!!!!!!!!!! YAY!!!!!!


    10 years ago on Step 11

    At my work, we have a lady who comes in and cuts everyone's hair for $10 per person. She's a great stylist who would cost more in her salon, but this is a way to get a bunch of business packed in and guaranteed on a slow day for her I guess. Look around and see if a hair stylist will give you a bulk discount if you and some of your coworkers, friends, or neighbors all get appointments together.

    1 reply

    Reply 10 years ago on Step 11

    That is a great idea, that is a very enterprising hair stylist! Instead of marketing to bring people to her, she's going to the market. Brilliant.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    How exactly is one supposed to fill his car tires with air? Take it down to Jiffy Lube? You'll spend more money on them checking your tires than the 2 cups of fuel you save from having them inflated, I'm pretty sure that's why John McCain mocked his tire inflation idea, you're better off with the bike, but that can be stolen easily. :P

    1 reply

    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    I have never owned a car in the 20+ years since I got my license, so I'm definitely not knowledgeable about car maintenance... but here in NYC I go to a garage to fill up my bike tires for free, and I've seen car owners fill theirs up too. If the rest of the country's garages don't offer free air that would explain McCain's attempts to denigrate this simple energy saving technique.


    10 years ago on Step 12

    Give money to charities and they send you free cards in the mail all the time. Kind of annoying to get the spam, but I always have a bunch of cards on hand.


    10 years ago on Step 8

    Oh one other thing. I read in the manual that a musty smell can also be caused by using too much detergent. Front loaders need to use detergent made for high efficiency washers (I'm not sure of a homemade recipe for this, but I'm sure you could come up with one...) and you have to use a LOT less than in a normal washer. Again that's a money savings. I use a ton less detergent than I used to.


    10 years ago on Step 8

    I keep a microfiber towel hanging by my washer and just dry the tub, the seal, and the detergent cup out whenever I'm done washing for the day. Since I started doing this (takes like 1 minute), I never smell anything, but before that I had one issue with a musty smell. All I did to get rid of it was run a load of white towels with some bleach. The smell went away and bleach made my towels white again. No big waste there...Although drying it out seems to be the best solution. Overall I love my front-loader and my water and power bills have gone down since I got it (power goes down cause the dryer doesn't have to work as hard to dry your clothes). One other money saving bonus about this is my city offers a rebate for buying a HE washer, so I got a check for 100 bucks when I bought it.


    10 years ago on Introduction

    lets tryy not to bring politics in here every1 will be at each others throats.