Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Crazy Talk Tip: Cloth Napkins

There are some things I’ll do to save a buck or two that seem really obvious to me, but which I’ve been told don’t necessarily occur to people as potential ways to save money. I’ll throw them out, you use them if they make sense to you…or ignore them if they don’t. Most of them are nickel and dime items – but you put enough of them together and they start adding up to tens and twenties pretty quick.

We’ve used cloth napkins for the last twelve years. I’ve bought paper napkins precisely one time in all that time, for a party. We still have more than half the package out in the garage.

Cloth napkins are marvelous. They can handle anything you care to dish out to them – you know that thing paper napkins do, when you’re eating something even moderately messy and you try to wipe your hands? The shred and cling thing? A cloth napkin won’t do that to you. Well, maybe if you’re eating sulfuric acid or something they will. But normal food? Never.

They feel good, too. Like comfortable clothes, they get softer and easier on your face with each washing. We think they feel luxurious; there’s something just kind of loving about cloth napkins, something paper napkins just can’t approach. This is not McDonalds – it’s Mom’s Kitchen.

Best of all, you buy them once and use them forever. We still have about half of the very first set of twelve napkins we bought – and we use them, every single day. Twelve years of constant use, and they still look pretty darned good. Granted, if the Queen were visiting, I’d probably use the ‘nice’ napkins I keep put away for just such an occasion, but for friends and family they’re still tough, absorbent, and reusable.

So, what’s the cost savings?

From what I’ve observed when paper napkins are present, each member of my family would go through an average of four napkins per meal (more for the younger ones, fewer for the older ones). That’s 24 napkins per meal for the six of us, or 72 a day (holy cripes). So we’re looking at using up about one 400 count package per week (given that not all meals are eaten at home or require a napkin anyway), at $4.29 for the cheap brand. That’s $223 a year for the paper napkins for this family.

The cloth napkins run about a buck apiece. One napkin per person per meal will do you. I’ve got 32 in my napkin drawer right now, plus two sets of twelve for ‘fancy’ occasions and probably about eight in the wash. I’ll call that a total initial investment of about $70.

The maintenance of them is, I feel, negligible. Half a load of laundry a week? Hardly worth thinking about. I once figured that a load of laundry ran me about $0.50, so a quarter a week to wash and dry half a load of napkins, or $13 a year.

That’s $210 a year difference, minus the one-time $70 investment. I can think of a few things I’d rather do with $210 than fill up a landfill with my family’s discarded napkins…

Things I Have Learned About Cloth Napkins:

Choose absorbency over ‘cool pattern’ for your daily-use napkins. Those slick, shiny, gold-ribbon-runs-through-them deals are neat for your Occasions, but on a day to day basis what you want is a good sturdy cotton-like feel. It needs to be able to wick moisture away from your greasy fingers. If it feels like water would bead up on it, give it a miss.

Look for napkins with a good cloth thickness. The Dollar Store cloth napkins – eh. Not so great. You want it to feel like a good-quality t-shirt between your fingers. I once bought a set of 24 napkins at the Dollar Store, and they were worth every penny, if you get my drift. (Positively shredded within a matter of a couple weeks – I think paper napkins would have held up better in the wash!)

WalMart usually has good deals on napkins; but don’t diss your local department stores or out of hand. My favorite set of napkins I got at Linens-n-Things a couple years ago (when it became painfully obvious that we needed more than twelve napkins to get from laundry day to laundry day) for about fifty cents apiece on sale.

If you’re going to be drastically upset by stains on your napkins, get sturdy white ones. Put them in the bathroom sink with a teaspoon or two of bleach for half an hour or so before washing, and even the most stubborn of chocolate stains will come out. No evidence, no crime, that’s what I always say after I’ve scarfed down an entire box of dark chocolate all by myself in the darkened playroom while everyone was out. Or, uh, what I would say, if I’d ever done such a thing…

Under normal circumstances, I don’t iron my napkins. Martha might tell you it’s a must-do kind of thing, but then again she also re-panes her own garden shed windows and only sleeps a few hours a day. I just fold ‘em and stick ‘em in the drawer. It isn’t that they don’t look nicer after ironing – it’s just that my four year old really doesn’t appreciate the effort and I have a life outside of laundry.

When a cloth napkin begins to die, it makes a great rag for a long time after it ceases to be ‘table worthy’. They do a good job at ‘scrubbing’ jobs, like getting apple juice remnants off the Pergo or ketchup off the windowsill.

Give them a try. Of the crazy talk things I’ve done to save a buck or two over the years, this one has worked out really well for us.

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