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Ways to save on dry cleaning

By Gary Foreman

The New Frugal You
New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman
Gary Foreman is a former financial planner who currently edits The Dollar Stretcher website and newsletters. He writes "New Frugal You," a weekly Q&A column about frugal living, for CreditCards.com

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert Dear New Frugal You,
I see you specialize in frugal questions, and I have one: My husband and I both work in service jobs that require us to wear very nice clothes, but don't pay all that much. Dry cleaning bills are eating us alive. Any alternatives? -- Edna

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert Dear Edna,
You're right! Dry cleaning can be an expensive drag on a frugal budget. Industry experts say that the average family spends about $150 each year on dry cleaning, but families that need to dry clean their business clothes can spend up to 10 times as much!

Let's begin by talking about what dry cleaning really is. Commercial dry cleaning isn't really a dry process, except in the senst that it doesn't use water.

The reason is that some fabrics, including rayon, silk and wool blends, don't play nicely with water. There's a chemical reaction that your humble frugal correspondent won't even try to understand! So your local cleaner immerses clothes in chemicals that won't hurt the fabric and are good at removing oil and greasy stains. Hence dry cleaning is recommended on the label for many garments.

But, not all "nice clothes" require dry cleaning. As much as you possibly can, avoid "dry clean only" items, even if it means paying more for the substitutes. Before you buy, consider the total cost to own an item.

For example, suppose that one garment costs $30 and a similar item $50. But the $30 item requires dry cleaning and the $50 one does not. Further, suppose that you wear the item every other week for a year and dry clean it each time for $2. That would add $52 (26 x $2) to the cost of owning that item. So the $50 item is actually less expensive to own.

You'll also want to shop sales. Buy your nice clothes at a discount. You can save big by buying quality clothes at end of season closeouts. The money you save can be used to help offset the cleaning bills.

Ok, now that you've added as many washable items as possible to your work wardrobe, what else can you do? You still have two more options.

Dry clean at home. There are dry cleaning kits that you can buy that imitate the dry cleaning process at home. Dryel, Custom Cleaner and FreshCare are the most popular. They cost less than a 10th of taking the item to the cleaners.

You'll need to follow the directions carefully, but you don't need to be a chemist to use the kit successfully. If you can read, you're qualified.

And, even with items marked 'dry clean' often you can carefully hand wash them or spot clean them. Begin by checking the label to see what type of material you have.

Wool and rayon can be gently hand-washed in warm (100-degree Farenheit) water. Use a mild soap or white vinegar. With silk you can hand wash, but only use castile soap. And you should hang all items inside to dry. The sun's UV rays can cause damage. Especially to silk.

Typically you'll want to dry clean an item at least once before you try hand washing.

Often you don't really need to clean the entire garment. Cleaners estimate that 75 percent of the garments they clean need ironing and odor removal, not remove stain removal. So in many cases you can get the same results without a trip to the cleaners.

  • Sweat stains can be removed with shampoo or white vinegar.
  • Vodka will eliminate many odors.
  • You can spot spray it on most items.
  • Steam will remove wrinkles. You can buy a steamer or just run hot water in your shower and let your garment hang dry.

How you dry your item can be important, too. If you're using a dry cleaning kit, follow the directions on how to use your dryer. If you're hand-washing, avoid the dryer completely. Line dry items indoors.

Finally, remember that it's not all or nothing. You can always take your clothes to the cleaners every third or fourth time. In between visits to the cleaner just give the garment some attention to freshen it up for the next use.

See related: Dry cleaning alternatives

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Published: October 26, 2013


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