Keeping your nice clothes looking good for less

Avoiding Dry Cleaning Bills

by Gary Foreman

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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 our jobs don't pay all that much. Dry cleaning bills are eating us alive. Are there any alternatives?

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 ten times as much!

Let's begin by talking about what "dry cleaning" really is. Commercial dry cleaning isn't really a dry process. It's only dry in that it doesn't use water.

The reason is that some fabrics like 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 them.

And, 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 second 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 tenth 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 (100F) 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.

Try Crystal Wash. 1000 loads of laundry - no detergents, no dyes, no chemicals, no perfumes.

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 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. You should 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.

Gary Foreman

Gary Foreman is a former financial planner and purchasing manager who founded The Dollar website and newsletters in 1996. He's been featured in MSN Money, Yahoo Finance, Fox Business, The Nightly Business Report, US News Money, and Gary shares his philosophy of money here. You can follow Gary on Twitter. Gary is also available for audio, video or print interviews. For more info see his media page.

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