The Dirty Side of Frugal

July 14, 2009 by  
Filed under Spending

Intrigued by that title?

First I will concede that the title of this post – the “dirty” side of frugalism – is literally accurate but somewhat misleading. I’m not offering up celebrity gossip or stories of crime and deceit.

Instead, I’m going to tell you about my visit to the local dry cleaner. But stay with me – it’s relevant.

Being employed in a somewhat conservative profession, I reluctantly pay to have some of my shirts and other clothes professionally cleaned and pressed. I don’t like it and do the least I can get away with, thereby earning Mr. ToughMoneyLove the title of worst-dressed attorney in my firm.

One of the habits I have developed since the economic crash of 2008 is to ask small business owners I encounter how things have been going for them.  I popped that question this week on the nice Korean-American owner of a local dry cleaning business. Based on the demographics of the community in which we live, my prediction was that she would tell me that business remained steady.

I was wrong.

She told me that her cleaning business had fallen off  “due to the economy.”

Before I analyze that statement, I have another confession to make.  I had been cutting back my use of cleaning services even before 2008. First, I intentionally buy and wear fewer clothes that require professional cleaning. Second (and this is going to sound bad), I sometimes wear a shirt twice before taking it to the cleaners. Yes, I am a cheapskate. I try to be selective in which shirts I recycle through the closet. I do have minimal sensory standards, if you get my drift. So far so good. No one has complained to my face.

Back to the owner of the dry cleaning business. Why would her business drop off in an upscale residential area? Are folks working less? Or are they like me, wearing clothes longer before cleaning them?

I’m thinking the latter. Being frugal and saving money in a tough economy means tolerating a little extra dirt for a little longer. And there is nothing wrong with that. I can tolerate it if you can.

The question is:  When things get better, will we get cleaner? Or will the dirty side of frugalism stay with us? I think that service businesses like dry cleaning should adjust to a permanent decline in business. There’s nothing like actually doing without something temporarily that will teach a consumer that you can do without that something permanently.

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10 Responses to “The Dirty Side of Frugal”
  1. andyg8180 says:

    Of course theres a reason they made febreeze lol… Shirts get a 2 day run (not consecutive lol) and pants can get a 3 day run (sometimes consecutive :-/)… Febreeze (or your cheap alternative) really does wonders… Now if i were to get food or if its hot and i sweat, then those multi-day runs are null n void :-)

    Only things i ever dry cleaned were suits… And that was only during wedding season!!

  2. My Journey says:


    I would check out Non-Iron shirts from Brooks Brothers. I LOVE THEM, and depending how much you spend per shirt they 100% “pay” for themselves within a couple months since you are just throwing them in the normal laundry.

    The wife wrote a post about them on her personal blog (since she does all our laundry):

  3. PW says:

    I have been using the Brooks no iron shirts now for almost 2 yrs, and well worth the price. Am trying other brands and Lands End seems to be a little better and cheaper. Husband also an attorney and we cycled to the 2 day prof laundered startched regime a while back, so the Brooks is for in between and I wanted to try them. You take them from dryer, hang them, MAYBE a minute of 2 of ironing, as they get older they need more ironing. But they don’t wrinkle during wear. Prof. laundered shirts wrinkle right away. Love them and can get at a good price on sale. Costs a $1.25 per shirt for prof. starch so if you add gas, etc. and time to get them there and pick up you are definitely saving $,but because I work, sometimes I don’t get to iron on a regular schedule. On court days he spiffs up. His clients are a bit slow pay and I am in sales for medical group insurance–frugal wins!! He has to wear nice shirt and suit and tie every day, poor thing! He also got some very high end used suits several yrs ago and they were so cheap but top quality. We are hoping this takes him to retirement a few yrs from now. When does frugal become cheap?

  4. No Debt Plan says:

    Telling on myself here but I’m not ashamed! I have three pairs of work pants. They are washed… weekly. My shirts are washed occasionally. That may sound disgusting, but it really is not a big deal at all. Of course if something gets dirty, or I go out to eat with a client at a japanese, BBQ, or other highly aromatic restaurant, then of course it goes straight in the laundry pile.

    But my normal days are spent behind a relatively clean desk, in a relatively clean chair. I don’t sweat at work. There is a highly limited amount of dirt that I interact with on a daily basis.

    The clothes last a lot longer and the colors stay brighter longer due to a lack of intense washing on a weekly basis.

  5. Rick Beagle says:

    Hmm…. I am sitting in a pair of jeans that I have worn three days straight… not at work mind you, but this is my attire for putzing around the house. Putzing isn’t a word? I figure you all can figure out what that means….

    But I digress, in reading your article it occurred to me that a good portion of the dry cleaners business may come from professional service industries and that the drop in business was due to that segment of their work. If I had to guess that is where the drop in their income is felt the most. Soooooo… I think it would be a bit premature to call Americas’ dirt bag mentality the end of dry cleaning profits as we know them.

    Rick Beagle

  6. AC says:

    I also wear shirts twice before washing. The Brooks Brothers shirts do wash well without needing to be ironed, but they are expensive, which is why I haven’t yet bought so many. Some Land’s End shirts are also good – I think the 60/40s are better than the 100% cotton, though I forget now which was which (the bad one needed ironing).
    As for pants, I often go a week with the same pair, assuming they aren’t visibly dirty or particularly sweaty.

  7. Gail says:

    I’m not at all surprised your local dry cleaner has noticed a drop in her business despite the favorable demographics of your community. Taking clothes in for dry cleaning is a very conscious and regular expense that would immediately show up on the radar of anyone interested in trimming their budget. As a working woman whose wardrobe has evolved from almost 100% to virtually 0% dry-clean-only over 25+ years, I can attest to the huge amount of time & money you save by nixing the dry cleaning bills. Fortunately these days there’s a wide selection of quality, affordable, and attractive washable merchandise suitable for most professionals (both men & women) and I think the trend will increase as manufacturers respond to customer’s needs in the current economic environment. And I completely agree with the last sentence of the article, based on my own personal history. The dry cleaning industry may need to regroup!

  8. I work in a corporate casual environment, and now I only buy wash-and-wear clothes. But I only wear a garment once, as I tend to sweat more than the average person, and wouldn’t want to put my coworkers through any obnoxious smells (we have enough guys with bad hygiene running around here already). I thought losing weight and cutting out coffee would cure it, but no. Everything gets washed in cold water, so there’s a small savings. The only time that I need the dry cleaner is for the occasional wedding or funeral.

  9. lurker carl says:

    I’d hate to see that industry vanish, a cleaner is about the only place to get hems and alterations anymore. Few Americans under the age of 30 actually know how to sew.

  10. I’m not surprised. As Gail says above, women in particular don’t use dry cleaners any more. We check the label of the garment before we buy to make sure we can just throw it in the washing machine at home.

    It’s a little different for men because the fabric suits are made of don’t do well in washing machines. But wait till someone invents a blend that does…

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