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10 eco- and budget-friendly household helpers

Bring back the mop, feather duster and rags. Also, buy a bread machine.

By Karen Datko Oct 28, 2009 12:05PM

This post comes from Annalise Silivanch at partner blog Wise Bread.


Cleaning? Cooking? Ugh, you say. Make friends with it, compadre; they've got to be part of the frugal warrior's toolkit.


Me, I avoid cleaning as much as possible until a young offspring can't find clean underthings and I want to howl in the chasm of Boring Adult Responsibilities and go hide in the kitchen, which I enjoy much more.


When that no longer works, and when the children look at me like you did this to me, I look for ways to make it easier. I also look for ways to make it cheaper, because when my frugal and eco-selves are in partnership, then I can feel my groove coming back. Because if there is one thing I've learned, it's that I want to spend my better days kicking butt and making change, and not spend them in Target buying overpriced refills and feeling like some crazy woman on a commercial who smiles at her mop while a song plays in the background.


So you understand why I need, need, need to share these revelations with you. Some of these tools or tricks don't save any time, and a few take more time. But if I spend a few more minutes living out my values, then it's like I'm the thing plugged into the outlet and feeling my power.


The carpet sweeper. I bought a Casabella carpet sweeper for my kids from a Montessori-based toy and supply catalog ("Now you're Mommy's little helpers, darlings!") and now I join in the fight to use it. It picks up a surprising amount from our well-traveled rugs and floors, and I don't need to use electricity, or my own stress circuits, as much.


Take back the mop. C'mon, Swiffer. How hard is it to pick up a mop and bucket filled with hot water and Murphy's Oil Soap? I'd rather take two minutes to do that than pay for your expensive refills. Plus the carpet sweeper gets bits in the meantime. Jealous, much? Plus flushing that dirty water down the toilet is pure victory.


Area rugs. Do you remember relatives who would take rugs outside and beat them? Small area rugs just beg for this simple cleaning. Roll them up or just shake them out the window -- you've just saved yourself some money and gotten an upper-body workout. Fantastic for when guests are coming in 1.5 seconds: As they are walking up your steps, you can be shaking the bathroom rug out the window and feeling confident that their private bathroom time won't involve passing judgment upon you. You can't beat it with a stick, man.


The art of the drying rack. Don't have the space or the time? You might be surprised. A strong drying rack can cost under $20, but if you air-dry most of your clothes, you could save 5% or more on your electric bill and some of the beating dryers can take on clothes. Do you have a small outdoor space or deck on which to place a drying rack? If not, then consider washing a load of clothes during the day and then setting up the rack overnight in your kitchen. Newer washers pretty much take all the drippiness out of wet clothes, anyhow, so most items will try overnight. For items that take longer, fold down one half of the rack and leave the rest to dry through the day, until the next load is ready.


Air-drying is not a huge effort when it becomes part of your routine, and I've actually found the process pleasant in the way I find gardening pleasant: Your efforts are met by Mother Nature's, to your benefit. If you go so far as to wash out your plastic bags, drying racks can also hold these. Just puff out the sides before placing them between the rungs. (Yes, I do this, and yes, I also wear makeup, so calm down.)


Feather duster. Speaking of Swiffer, they have helped fuel a feather duster backlash. Dusters spread dust, they say. I'm so over that assertion. What takes less time, my friends: feather dusting OR dusting and then running out to buy refills? When I see other people wiping things down I want to scream, because that strikes me as Stepford territory. If you dust before you vacuum, gravity helps you get all the yuckies. So find a lovely duster with a wooden handle and real feathers. Some of these are almost things of beauty. After you've dusted a room, just take it outside and twirl it between your palms quickly to release the dust to the air. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.


Windows. Room air fresheners, candles and other artificially scented items are outrageously expensive and contain toxic pollutants that are even worse for you if they mix with ozone. If your house smells stale or your pets have given it a bad name, open the windows for a few minutes. (So what if you lose heat, or cool air? Your house stinks, so make an energy offering to the gods.)


If you have guests coming, light a beeswax candle (the other ones are junk) and ask yourself if you have 15 minutes to bake something quickly (such as fruit with oatmeal, butter and brown sugar on top), so you can fill your home with a lovely smell and have a treat on hand to boot. The 20-second fix? Heat a pan of water on your stove and add cinnamon, oranges, and any other spices you enjoy. You can reuse the water for tea later.


Cast iron pans. I can't believe people ever stopped using these incredibly affordable pans. Get used to the way it handles temperature, and you'll have yourself a non-stick pan every time -- except, for me, eggs on occasion. Get a pack of scrubbers and have no fear of Teflon poisoning your soul. Wash with water or a dab of mild soap and dry by wiping or letting it sit on a hot stove for two minutes. Oil as necessary. Once you cook a grilled cheese in a cast iron pan, or grill vegetables on a grill-top piece, you'll never look back.

Hand blender. I've burned out a motor in both a pricey little mini-Cuisinart AND an electric hand blender. I love the burnt smell of $50 out of the window. I've hemmed and hawed about replacing them for long enough that I started to use a hand blender in the meantime. I had bought it for my children to help with baking projects, but it did light whipping and blending jobs beautifully. The older, full-sized metal rotary blenders are so strong and fast that there is less likelihood of burnout. Obviously, you'll still need a large Cuisinart or blender, or both. But the invention of small appliances that sputter out at chopping nuts or bread crumbs is NOT a frugal cook's best friend, so nuts to them.


Bread machine. You there. I heard you scoff when I suggested you bake in order to scent your home. Fine. I still say speed cooking kills two birds with one stone: gives you something to eat and makes your house feel homey and alluring to everyone around. Have you seen a bread machine at a yard sale lately? Grab it. Buy one new, even (gasp). Why? Just do the math: bread costs $2 a loaf, and a loaf may get you through a week of bagged lunches if you're lucky. Less time if you have to pack multiple school lunches. Really flavorful, natural breads cost twice as much. Crusty farmers market bread might run you as much as $6, and I've had to tamp down my bread snob self if I want a shred of convenience.


Spend 10 minutes in the morning drinking coffee and dumping six or seven items into your bread machine's loaf pan, and an hour later (if you use the speed-bake setting) you have a loaf appropriate for any meal, made with the ingredients you can control and improve upon. Add nuts and dried fruit for a real meal. You can program the newer bread machines to operate while you are out, and you can come home to warm bread. Winter may not be so bad after all.


Rags. Post-recession, has it come to this, you ask? Rags? I can still afford paper towels, thank you very much. Cool. Go with your paper towel self. But notice how, on the days you can't find the size-a-sheet varieties, you don't leave the store quite as cheerful as when you came in. Notice how you may wipe up a water spill and leave the sheet out to air dry and reuse. If this scenario fits you, you are ready for rags.


Note: This is not the Great Depression. Not every shirt that your washing machine shrinks or stains needs to be reborn as a rag. You will find fabrics that you like to use. You may just want a few of those pretty microfiber cloths that polish glass with water alone (ka-ching!). You may be all about the old cloth diapers, mama. Just embrace rags: Fill a whole drawer with them, and your cleaning caddy to boot. Once you are in a laundry routine you will always have a rag on hand and you will save the paper towels for special occasions.


Feeling good? Maybe you are ready to graduate to cloth napkins, and total frugal domination. Join us in the fight, and take back the home. And when you're done, get the heck out of the house and go do great things in the (hopefully) greener world.


Related reading from Annalise Silivanch and Wise Bread:

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