506 comments

Are You Cleaning Out Your Own Wallet?

Little MM and a friend from the neighborhood engage in healthy dirtplay.

Little MM and a friend from the neighborhood demonstrate better living through dirt.

I’m pretty sure we’re all being scammed.

I have been collecting evidence on this for over 15 years now, and it’s starting to look pretty compelling. If you’re skeptical, see what you think of these stories:

1997: Mr. Money Mustache, Mr. Frugal Toque, and two other friends move into a house together, all of us newly graduated tech workers ready to begin our careers. Between the parties and late nights of work, we notice that one of those other roommates appears to be running an underground laundromat: when he is home, the washer and dryer are always running simultaneously, and he is running up and down the stairs with bags and baskets full of clothes. The rest of us, of similar age, stature, and occupation, find we only need to do laundry every week or two, often sharing a load.

2000: Several homes later and in a new country by now, I rent a room from a woman named Carrie in Boulder, Colorado. She has a “chore wheel” which has all of us devoting every Sunday morning to cleaning the house. I find myself missing hours of precious Rocky Mountain morning sunshine, crouched under the pedestal sink of my personal bathroom, spraying and wiping tiles that I just wiped last week, with no discernible result: Why am I cleaning this bathroom?, I wonder,  I can’t even tell which part I have just re-washed, and which part was “dirty”.

2013: In the comments section of this very blog, I hear from one woman who spends $5200 per year on a housekeeper, because it “Saves me five hours a week of cleaning”, and a man whose family of five does 30 loads of laundry per week (with a corresponding $300 per month electric bill), because, “Five showers a day yields five towels – that’s one load per day right there, isn’t it?”

Happily Oblivious

In my own life, I’ve rarely had much occasion to think about cleaning. Sure, if a surface or an object looks or smells inappropriately dirty, I’ll wash it. But this is a tiny part of life – I dump the laundry basket into the machine when it gets full every week or two, and press “Start”. When it beeps, I enjoy a meditative 2-5 minutes while hanging up those clothes.

I sweep the wood and tile floors when I notice leaves or dust accumulating and maybe run the vacuum cleaner over the rug every month or so. When guests are coming for an extended stay, we might even treat ourselves to some sparkly bathrooms by getting out the sponge and bucket and cleaning everything to like-new condition.

Our family secret to the weekly laundry is “reusable clothing.” Sure, underwear may only be good for a single day on your active buttocks, but T-shirts can often survive two, and my button-up outer shirts can be reused 5-10 times before they look grubby. My jeans are usually good for a similar number of uses, because I wear the fancy ones only around my clean house and city, and always change to the dusty heavy-duty Carhartt pair when heading to the construction site.

And as for those bathroom towels: I don’t even know how often I wash mine. In the cool, dry winters I might need a shower every 2-3 days. With careful re-hanging, my towel will last at least 10 showers before it smells anything less than perfectly fresh. So, once a month would be my own towel-washing schedule, on the high side. In the summer, more frequent showers are offset by the open windows which will dry the bathroom and the towel even more quickly*.

But that is it. Even in a 2600 square foot house with an energetic 7-year-old in residence, this adds to perhaps one workday of cleaning per year. And the bottles of cleaning products get used so slowly that their graphic design becomes noticeably obsolete by the time you’re tossing the empty bottle into the recycling bin.

I’m sure cleaning is not such a small deal to everyone. Every single grocery store has an entire aisle devoted to the collection of brightly-colored hazardous wastes that people use in the interest of maintaining cleanliness. Many of the purported functions are completely alien to me, like “Rinsing Agent”, “Sanitizing Wipes, and “Febreeze”. Worldwide, this is millions of square feet and billions of dollars per month being spent on these bizarre cocktails that did not even exist for well over 99% of our species’ time on this planet. What gives?

Evolutionary Roots

Whenever you notice yourself doing anything ridiculous as a human, it is good to ponder where that behavior might have come from in the first place. Sexual attraction has an obvious benefit to a selfish gene looking to replicate itself. A desire for social status could be boiled down to just a fancier way of making yourself attractive to others. A desire for cleanliness, in the sense of “Don’t Shit Where you Eat”, is perfectly sensible when you look at it as a mechanism for preventing disease. But when you are inhaling Chlorine ions as you spray bleach onto each of your child’s toys after having a few kids over for a birthday party, or idling in a line of SUVs on a fine weekend morning waiting for admittance to the automated car wash, I’d say it is time to go back to the biology textbooks.

A Revolutionary Thought

The answer? Fuck Artificial Cleanliness!

It is time to discard the marketing message that has been programmed into us since the days of the 1950s stay-at-home housewife. Back then, advertising for cleaning products became so prevalent that the cheap dramas that stitched together the advertisements were called “Soap Operas”. To complete the circle, the grocery stores started stocking magazines about the soap operas and related celebrities, to sell to the people who were there buying the soap.

It is also time to open up a watchful eye against the “germophobe” compulsion that creeps into highly sterilized societies like our own. You do not need to wipe the handle of your grocery cart with a “sanitizing wipe”, and you do need to pick up your food if you accidentally drop it on the floor, and continue to eat it. Instead of being afraid of germs, I like to imagine myself gleefully plowing through a sea of them every day, getting a daily workout for my immune system.

Let Them Eat Dirt

A friend of mine is a successful physician who runs a family practice clinic with several other doctors. His medical office sees more coughs and illnesses every day than I will see in a lifetime, which is why a comment he made during a recent trip together really struck me:

“My favorite name for a practice specializing in children would be ‘Let them Eat Dirt Pediatrics’.”

Hearing that from a doctor really piqued my interest, because my own less-educated instincts pointed the same way. I have always ignored germs and sanitation, and always enjoyed excellent health. The germophobes and the see-a-doctor-as-soon-as-I-have-a-sniffle crowd I have known seem to be less fortunate in the health department. Is this correlation or causation? I asked him if adopting a more Badass attitude towards germs and sanitation really is good for general health, and here was his response:

Yes! Exposure to bacteria and viruses in the environment educates our immune systems so they will be ready to fend off attack as we go through life and encounter real pathogens. Excessive avoidance of the normal bugs in the environment may leave you more vulnerable to infection. And, there are indications that kids who grow up in pet-loving households, likely exposed to more interesting molecules early in life, have lower rates of suffering allergies and asthma. A well educated immune system is a strong immune system–bring on the mud pies!

 Dirty is the New Clean

Thus we have our counter-cultural lesson for the day. Rather than seeking to avoid germs and maximize your cleanliness, it is much more profitable to seek out Training for your Immune System, and optimize your life so that things get cleaned the minimum amount that allows you to maintain a functional and prosperous household. The reward is thousands of dollars and countless hours saved, and if you’re lucky, dozens of illnesses prevented.

By all means, keep things happily minimalist, decluttered, and organized – a simplified physical environment is good for the mind. You can also wash your hands with normal soap after a big day out and cook your food properly. But in your own home where no babies are delivered and no surgeries performed, you can safely let yourself off the hook when it comes to wiping, sterilizing, washing, drying, and polishing. You and I were made to live in a forest, and while even Mr. Money Mustache can appreciate a nice clean wood floor as an upgrade over soil and rocks, the earlier you draw the line, the further ahead you will be.

 

*Before any complaints come in about “But I don’t live in a dry high-elevation place like Colorado!”, I should note that this pattern also worked just fine where I grew up in the humid Great Lakes region, as well as during extended stays in Hawaii, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Australia, Austin, Guadalajara, and Miami – even while using bikes and feet instead of cars to get around! Excessive cleaning is driven by mental, rather than physical, constraints.

Epilogue: Wow, it looks like this is really a hot-button topic, as almost 300 comments have piled on within the first two days. Whenever something is emotionally charged and related to time, money, and effort, you know it is worth looking into very closely so you can challenge any brainwashing. While you’ll see lots of badass innovation and enthusiasm in the comments below, you’ll also enjoy some truly amazing counterpoint, like this one that just came in:

“While MMM has provided many great pearls of wisdom in past posts, this particular post has turned our stomachs. It is obvious that the average household wastes hundreds of dollars a year on unnecessary cleaning products. It is great advice to switch from expensive cleaners to bleach, ammonia, etc. But to take it a step further by showering less, giving clothes the “sniff” test, washing sheets and towels infrequently, etc. is not being frugal, it’s being CHEAP. Reusing towels for weeks on end is UNSANITARY. Not cleaning your toilets on a weekly basis is UNSANITARY. Crawling between the sheets when you’re covered in sweat, bacteria and even just body oils on a daily basis, and washing them on the same infrequent schedule as your bath towels is UNSANITARY. There is a huge difference between being “overclean” and “dirt phobic” and maintaining basic sanitary living conditions in a home — not to mention basic human dignity!! What is next? A recommendation that we switch from toilet paper to leaves and newsprint to save even more money? We all have the right to live how we want in our own homes, but I am also free NOT to associate with people I encounter who believe that throwing on some extra deodorant is a substitute for taking a shower.”

This amazes me, that so many people can make a moral issue out aligning one’s shower schedule with the rotation of the Earth. The funny part is, it has nothing at all to do with cheapness – we make no decisions based on money these days, because money is not limited. This is about health, logic, and free time. Responsible use of water and energy is important too, but even with a magic solar-powered rainwater shower I would not bother to shower on days when I hadn’t become dirty. I’d rather spend the extra five minutes writing to you.

  • Mina July 19, 2016, 8:06 am

    Can’t agree with this more!

    My significant other is obsessed with showering. He showers every day and puts his shirt in the laundry every day. I can’t say it bothers me too much from a practical/financial point of view. We’re hardcore minimalists, so chores are few and far between, but to touch on your comment about sexual attractiveness that’s exactly what bothers me about him showering. I absolutely love the smell of him when we go camping, and wish he wouldn’t!

    Reply
  • Jessie July 21, 2016, 3:00 am

    Nice to read that cleaning all the time is not necessary. I am not a natural with the cleaning, unlike my mother and sister who enjoy cleaning all things including the ceiling. Yes really! I also don’t like chemical loaded cleaning products and all so we use the old school basics to clean at home, white vinegar, baking soda and plain dishwashing liquid – keeps the kitchen bench clean and free from harsh chemicals! I’m also about to experiment with homemade laundry powder. I like the reference point by MMM that it’s all a step up from outdoor jungle living! I will keep that in mind!!! :D

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  • Sarah De Diego August 31, 2016, 7:12 pm

    Thanks for taking your extra 5 minutes to write to us and save the environment at the same time. FYI, I skipped my weekly shower to write this comment to you.

    Together we can change the world. Or if not, maybe we can retire a few days earlier. Either way, I’m in.

    Besos Sarah.

    Reply
  • Kris October 5, 2016, 12:00 pm

    Well I am married to a Portuguese woman and there is absolutely zero chance of a thorough house cleaning not happening each and every week. As a child my mom taught us boys how to do all the cleaning and we were required to do these chores every week, which taught us some great lessons. But the Portuguese take it to a whole new level. If every hard, horizontal surface of your house is not clean enough to eat from, then it’s not clean. And we don’t use a bunch of weird cleaners, usually just water and a touch of soap. There is no compulsive hand washing, no antibiotic soap and no wipes in our house, so we are not germaphobes, but there certainly is something to be said for living in a nice, clean house. Like my mother in law says, when they were kids in Portugal there were poor and even had dirt floors, but it didn’t cost anything to keep clean so that is what they did, and it was a source of pride to have a clean house, especially when there were pigs, chickens and a cow living in the back yard.

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  • Cory October 10, 2016, 8:00 pm

    Amen! Great article!

    George Carlin did a great skit on this exact topic (germs strengthening the immune system). As a bonus there is a bunch of swearing and George sports a sweet white beard and stache.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X29lF43mUlo

    Reply
  • Trip October 26, 2016, 6:16 pm

    Your examples here are shocking to me. I cannot imagine people going this overboard on cleaning. It’s interesting how so often what’s good for the wallet is often what’s good for the environment as well (reducing environmental impacts from less water and electricity used spent cleaning). You’ve got a great message here!

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  • Gromm November 3, 2016, 3:38 pm

    I know that I’m just adding to The Long Tail and all, but as much as my parents taught me about not having to shower as much as the next guy, I’ve learned that Circumstances Can Vary Widely.

    My wife is blessed with skin that isn’t as disastrously oily as mine is. Her side of the bed demonstrates this in spades. Just like you say, it’s clean! No need to wash there! But then, when you look at the big oil stain in the pillow and sheets on *my* side, you could easily come to the conclusion that I don’t shower enough.

    Yet I shower every single morning. And what else happens to my personal appearance if I don’t is a shambles. My hair gets extremely greasy on the rare days that I forget to shampoo, even if I shower. And if I don’t use the *right* kind of dandruff shampoo, I break out in a patchy rash everywhere I have hair. Yes, even there. It makes one wonder after a short time what kind of strange disease one has managed to mysteriously contract, but nope, just dandruff, and no, the cheaper alternative just doesn’t work.

    So while I’m certainly not in the camp of “cleanliness is next to godliness, you unwashed heathen!” I’m certainly in the camp of “shower twice a day in the summer and once a day in the winter”. Because I have to.

    You might want to add a “your mileage may vary” to your post! Also, you should consider yourself lucky.

    Reply
  • Sandy December 15, 2016, 2:55 am

    Love this post! I’ll never understand peoples need for daily showerd (and I know enough people who shower twice a day!). I take three showers a week, using 2 small towels (the first I put on the floor after I use it once, to stand on and the next I’ll use twice). My husband is the same but he uses only one large towel (using my first one to stand on!). Shirts and knickers get changed daily but trousers might go for 5 or 6 days before they don’t pass the ‘sniff test’ anymore.

    When our toddler had a skin condition and we took her to our family physician, she actually told us to bath the little one less often! We were bathing her ever other day (as per instruction from the midwife) but the doctor told us that twice a week was more than sufficient. Nooks and crannies that might start to smell, can be whiped off with a damp wash cloth. No more skin condition for our little one since we’ve started bathing her twice a week!!

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  • Christine March 10, 2017, 10:23 am

    You are right. If anyone disagrees, read Dr. Josh Axe book called ‘Eat Dirt’. There are tons of good bacteria and dirt based probiotics that we need more exposure to.

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  • Raegan March 23, 2017, 2:56 pm

    So, I can’t whole-heartedly embrace this post. I love the part about re-wearing clothes because although I don’t mind doing laundry (the machine does all the hard work), I hate folding clothes. This results in me folding less clothes, which is only a good thing. This did let me off the hook quite a bit. I do have more important things to worry about than mopping my floor weekly. The one thing I am having a really tough time getting on board with is the combination of less showers and changing the sheets monthly. These two pieces of advice, at least in my case are mutually exclusive. I am only partially clothed in bed and I have my own bit of neuroses when it comes to showering because of this. I believe that showering at night is the only solution. If you shower in the morning (or every third morning), shouldn’t you change your sheets daily (with the same frequency you change clothes)? Anyway, that has always been my thought. Using a towel for a whole month has proved less troublesome. I am 3.5 weeks in on mine, my husband changed his out last night after he reported it was ‘crusty’. Best of luck to everyone with their dirtier lives!

    Reply
  • Wallet Squirrel April 9, 2017, 6:19 pm

    lol I’m not sure “Dirty is the new Clean” but I totally dig what you’re saying. My family vacuumed twice a week whether the house needed it or not. Maybe this isn’t a huge money killer, but trust me does it suck up time. Get it, suck up? =)

    Now that I live on my own in a Studio Apartment in downtown Denver (let’s not talk rent). I’ve definitely adopted some more reasonable cleaning habits. I clean my shower and other areas when they’re dirty.

    I call “dirty” a state of dirt in which I’m embarrassed to have people over. This isn’t scientific, but allows me more flexibility to enjoy my life rather than spend (both time and money) cleaning.

    PS. Totally letting my future kids eat dirt. Running with scissors may be the only line.

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  • Shelley April 18, 2017, 1:47 am

    I clean houses for a living and I am sure glad a whole lot of people don’t think like you. If you saw how much dog and cat hair I clean daily and all the crap and piss all over toilets and floors I clean, as well as how filthy my mop pads are per house, you’d change your mind about cleaning more frequently.

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  • Tara May 4, 2017, 7:07 am

    I discovered MMM about a week ago and I love it. Today I logged on to get an attitude adjustment before diving back into my 9-5 job.

    I LOVE THIS POST!! Not cleaning = being frugal and earth-friendly!!
    I tend to throw my clothes into the dirty laundry hamper when I take them off, but I need to remember to check just how dirty they are. Cat hair is the main thing that makes my clothing dirty (I have 2 indoor cats), but with a lint roller, I could probably save some serious coin.

    Similarly, I pay to get my car washed about once a year. It’s a birthday present to myself. “Why wash it? It’s just gonna get dirty again!”

    I do need to keep my kitchen pretty clean because it’s susceptible to ants, but now I’m thinking I could dilute that glass cleaner with water and make it last even longer.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

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  • Ogan May 17, 2017, 2:48 am

    I used to be a shower twice a day kind of guy. Then I got into bike touring, where a lot of the times taking a shower is simply not an option. I quickly understood that showering so much is just unnecessary and probably detrimental, my skin problems always dissapear when I’m on a bike tour.

    Reply
  • YoungGun May 19, 2017, 6:12 pm

    There are also alot of natural, cheap, and n0n-toxic cleaners that are out there. A good one is Isopropyl Alcohol (91%).

    It is antibacterial, anti-fungal, great for bathrooms, windows, glass, kitchen counters, sinks, toilets. It also kills bugs, roaches, ants, etc. Put it in a bottle and PRESTO! You have a multi-purpose cleaner.

    In a pinch, it is also a good fire-starter. The point is that you don’t have to spend BIG MONEY on the FANCY CLEANER RIPOFFS.

    In fact, if you were to buy the super-fancy Carl Zeiss lens cleaner packets (come in foil and are $10 for a pack of 20), guess what is the main ingredient? ISOPROPYL ALCOHOL

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  • partgypsy October 4, 2017, 10:43 am

    I’m going to make a wild guess, that Mrs. MMM does more picking up and cleaning that MMM does without being him being aware of it. As far as I know houses don’t stay magically clean (especially with one or more kids) without a little more effort than described in the post. I can definitely see a difference in my bathroom after 1 week simply from dust and pet hair.
    I don’t wash my clothes after one use, but I would definitely re-wash towels more frequently than what he suggests (10 or more uses!). I would allow I get 3-5 uses of a towel out, because I have an electronic towel warmer that dries and warms the towel after each use (highly recommend). Damp towels used by someone excessively sweaty, dirty, maybe 1 use and then into the hamper.

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  • Liz October 23, 2017, 5:55 pm

    Totally on the same page. Cleaning the house? Not my hobby. I can’t even walk down the cleaning aisle because of the fumes and long before the insanity about germs amped up I’ve known that exposure to dirt and germs was a good thing. The germ lunacy has gotten so out of control that it occurred to me the other day that soon people will start calling you out for *not* sanitizing your hands upon entering the supermarket. Love this post from start to finish.

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  • Alicia Kennelly October 27, 2017, 8:40 am

    I divide uncleanliness into three categories. Clutter, Dirt, and Filth. Clutter are the papers, and other debris of daily living that tends to accumulate on surfaces from just receiving them or not putting things away all the time. Dirt is pretty self-explanatory. Filth is the accumulation of dirty food items and other such things. I draw the line at filth, that is gross and attracts vermin and insects. Dirt I battle with and try to do somewhat better, it ebbs and flows. Clutter gets hidden when guests arrive.

    I do average a load of laundry a week, as I do find I need to wash shirts about every second wearing. Work pants land about the same, casual ones a little longer. I find they do start to smell and possibly have things dropped on them. Towels make it a week even with careful hanging before they get a little too musty.

    I wash my cars more than necessary, as they are my babies. However, I would recommend people who live in salt areas to wash their cars or have their car washed regularly to delay rust and corrosion.

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  • Crystal Blue November 22, 2017, 8:03 am

    Hello, I’ve diving into financial blogs to re-vamp our household finances so we can save more money. I found this post on the culture of clean an interesting read. I am lucky enough to have a career job that allows me to work from home, vs. an office, so the savings on business clothing and dry cleaning and makeup has been great. Also saved about $3000 annually from vehicle expenses and fuel.
    As for the expense of clean, let’s just say I learned from this homily: ” don’t let perfect be the enemy of good” – perhaps this is where the mindset of people get skewed- advertising’s repeated images of perfect clean clothes, bodies and homes leave us feeling, well…imperfect! No one died from dust bunnies – unless you have a dust allergy. There is a psychological benefit from tidiness, but no one but the cleaning companies said it has to be spotlessly, hygienically * immaculately clean. You live in a home, not an operating room.
    Anyway, I’ve made a few cleaning products, and recently started experimenting with my own shampoo, body wash, and facial care products. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if I can make my own skin toner with hyaluronic acid, aloe and green tea in a quantity of 1/2 gallon for $10 vs. spending that $10 on 200 ml on a bottle, you bet I will. It was something that fit me, so that’s a way I save money, and have a hobby that is somewhat useful.

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  • David September 13, 2018, 11:42 am

    The idea of a tee-shirt lasting through two days of “muscle over motor” activity in Houston’s humidity is laughable! During strenuous activity, the shirt, and often the underlying jeans, underwear and socks, become wringing-wet soaked. I’ll often have to change clothes once or twice a day, just as one would after getting caught in a heavy rainstorm. They take a day or two to dry (I refuse to run the A/C just to dry dirty clothes!) Once dry, the white salt stains and stiff texture render the garments unusable until washed.

    Ditto for towels. I usually wash them once a week, and often endure the smell of mildew for the last day or two. If they start smelling early in the week, then an accelerated wash schedule is required.

    Reply

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