I Was a Paper Towel Addict: Here’s How I’m Kicking My Expensive Habit

Paper towels
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I go through a pack a week — easily.

I unconsciously grab for them. If they’re not around, I panic. It’s an addiction, really.

They’re paper towels. Yes, I sound dramatic (I kind of am), but my paper towel addiction is real — and super wasteful.

It gets pricy, too.

I prefer the 2-pack Bounty “HUGE” rolls: $5.09 at Target. When I lived by myself, I usually bought two packs a month. (I never bought in bulk because I walked to the grocery store.)

Let me tell you all the ways I use these suckers.

After washing my hands, I dry with one. After rinsing my fruits and veggies, I use a layer of paper towels for drip-drying. After spilling milk, I swipe up the mess with a wad.

If it’s a rare occasion that I hand-wash dishes, I use several paper towels to dry. If I’m sitting down to eat… you guessed it.

I know. Permission to cringe.

But I was sparked with inspiration when a Penny Hoarder wrote in our community group:

Kelly’s simple comment resulted in a flood (one you can’t clean up with paper towels) of tips and advice to purge the product.

I decided to take a few suggestions and try it out on my own.

Finding Adequate Paper Towel Replacements

Before I dive into this mess, I offer a quick aside: Right now, I’m living with my parents, who didn’t want anything to do with my experiment.

So do note that, as I struggled throughout the challenge, two rolls of paper towels continuously taunted me from our kitchen countertops. Two.

I’ll walk you through all the moments I was tempted — and how I coped. And I really do hope some of y’all can relate so I don’t feel so crazy…

Preparation For My Paper Towel Purge

I brainstormed all the ways I use paper towels. I made a list and shared it with my co-workers for advice and alternatives. I also consulted comments on our Facebook community page.

Here are some alternatives:

  • Hand washing: Hand towels. Our senior editor, Heather van der Hoop, distinguishes between hand towels and dish towels. Hand towels are thicker, better for drying hands.
  • Napkin replacements: Community member Linda Brooks had some great advice. She said you can get 100% cotton bandanas for $1 at Walmart. Our director of media relations, Lizabeth Cole, says she buys super cute, washable napkins from Target or Homegoods. Dana Sitar, our staff writer, stocks up on fast food napkins when she gets too many.
  • Rinsing fruits/veggies: I received more great advice from van der Hoop, who’s been amused by my addiction:“I don’t dry them… just shake ’em off — this is enough if you’re going to chop them to cook or add to a salad. Or use a salad spinner for greens. Or if you *really* need to dry them, use a dish towel.” Another staffer suggested simply leaving whatever it is in the colander to dry.
  • Drying dishes: Sitar said she just uses a dish rack or drying pad and puts her dishes away later.
  • Cleaning up surface messes: I received a ton of advice on this one. Another van der Hoop suggestion: Use rags: “You can make different types and thicknesses from old pillowcases, towels and T-shirts. Buy ’em at the thrift store for like 25 cents or use your own old stuff.” Our senior writer, Susan Shain, helped me ease into this process by suggesting reusable rags. “Now I use thicker, washable cleaning towels from the dollar store,” she said. I found some multi-purpose wipes. For the tougher stuff? Community member Jasmine A. Gonzalez said she uses paper bags to get grease off pans. (Think: bacon)
  • Messes from animals: My family has a 25-year-old pet bird. We used to always use old newspapers, but we don’t get those anymore. Cole suggested a big ream of kraft paper from an office supply store. Looks like I could get 40 pounds of it at Staples for $24.99.Sitar made another good suggestion: junk mail.
  • When the messes get too bad… Like what if there’s a bug or the cat throws up? Sitar still insisted rags or old T-shirts are OK. She said if they get too gross to wash, toss ’em.

So with my paper towel tips, I stopped by Salvation Army and Dollar General to pick up supplies. I had no luck in Salvation Army, but I picked up a variety of dish cloths and those reusable, washable cloths Shain suggested at Dollar General. My subtotal was $5.

Other community members had great recommendations about where to snag affordable alternatives, including shopping for linen tablecloths from discount fabric stores (cut and hem the edges) and asking members of your local Freecycle for cloth napkins.

No, I’m not completely deprived — I have dishtowels at home. But I wanted to do this independently.

My Day-By-Day, Task-By-Task Experience of Purging Paper Towels

With my purchases complete, I was ready for the experiment to begin…

Or so I thought I was. I put it off for a few weeks but finally decided to give it a go. Actually doing things shed a whole lot of light on my addiction, everyday tasks and solutions.

Take a look at my findings.

Day 1: A struggle, to say the least

It was a Monday, and I’d just returned from a weekend trip. I decided to start my experiment on a whim, which gave me less time to talk myself out of it.

Task 1: Make coffee.

I slugged over to the coffeemaker at 6:45 a.m. I hadn’t expected to run into a “situation” so quickly, but I realized I typically tear off one paper towel each morning as I prep my coffee.

I guess I do it to keep the counter clean. It’s just a nice place to set down my mixing spoon and wipe the counter clean after.

Because I wasn’t fully prepped or awake, I panicked a little. I looked around and grabbed the spoon rest from the oven. I put my sticky, coffee-laden mixing spoon on it. That is its purpose, after all.

And it worked out well. I use this strategy now, and it simply takes a quick rinse to clean it up!

Task 2: Wash coffee travel mug. Before I even headed off to work, I ran into another dilemma and actually used a paper towel — without thinking. I washed out an old travel mug and tore one off to wipe it dry. Flustered, I placed the crumbled paper towel on top of the rack and dashed off to work. Mom wasn’t happy when she found it later.

Note to self: If I want to dry something immediately, reach for a dish towel.

Task 3: Eat lunch at work.

I was at work, and this salad was calling my name.

I headed to the kitchen to fill up my water bottle and reached for a paper towel for any inevitable messes — nope.

I didn’t know how to handle this, so I just ate lunch without my security blanket (or towel, in this case). No messes, thank goodness.

Any tips? I suppose I could stash a handkerchief in my bag each day.

Task 4: Make it through dinner.

Dinner went about the same. Because I didn’t have any food in the fridge, I grabbed a Publix sub and resisted any paper product temptations. I’d resolved to start using cloth napkins — I just hadn’t gotten that far in my journey yet.

Day 2: Seeing a change

Already I felt myself breaking through the habit. I woke up and resorted to my trusty spoon holder for my coffee mixer.

I also washed a dish (gasp!) and used a cloth towel to dry.

I ate lunch out (served with a cloth napkin, by the way) and didn’t encounter the issue again until dinnertime.

Task 1: Tackling dinner.

Mom made beef stew that night, and I couldn’t say no.

I helped my mom out by putting Pillsbury biscuits in the oven (big task, I know). I sprayed down the baking sheet beforehand, careful not to overdo it because I always used to spread out the excess oil with a paper towel.

In the process, my fingers got greasy. It felt more natural reaching for the dish cloth at that point.

Task 2: Prepped lunches.

Up until this point, I was pretty lazy with my meals (you know how it is when you’ve been out of town). However, I’d stopped by the store and grabbed supplies to build salads for a week of lunches.

I had chicken that needed to be baked and strawberries in need of rinsing. I only see hurdles.

Before I started, I laid out my dish cloths from Dollar General and assigned them a task: I’d use the red one for spills and foodstuff, the patterned one for my hands and the waffle one for the unexpected. (This was inspired by a tip from community member April Campbell.)

I found this helpful. I got the chicken in the oven without a hitch — surprisingly.

I turned to the strawberries I’d already rinsed. They sat in the colander, but I was ready to cut them up. (I’m all about saving time in the mornings.) I end up dabbing the extra water off with a towel. It felt way weird. There has to be another solution. Help? Before the end of it all, I accidentally rip one off the roll, but I decide to stick that in the bottom of my container before putting the berries in to help soak up moisture.

Next I washed off a cutting board and sliced and diced ’em on there. (Usually, I use a paper towel.) I used another cutting board for the chicken.

Whew, I finished with only one mishap. I tossed my towels in the washing machine and got to bed.

Day 3: Feeling less anxious

I got on with my third day without as much thought — made my coffee, prepped lunch. Good to go.

When I got home, I opted for my dish towels a few more times. I emptied the dishwasher, dabbing off extra water with a towel. I made a PB&J for dinner — without paper towels. I made it to bed — without paper towels.

I decided at this point it’s possible to do these things. However, I found a hole in my research. The material of the towel or dishcloth is key.

The Conclusions of My Paper Towel-Purging Experiment

Senior editor van der Hoop caught me paper towel-handed in the office kitchen the other day as I helped clean up a cooking video shoot.

So I haven’t stuck with this total purge, but I have made a few changes.

The most inspirational community member comment, for me, was that one from April Campbell. She said she uses a set of tea towels and uses the patterns to determine the use. This is what I did when prepping that salad.

And the final piece of advice I’ve adopted that meshes best with my lifestyle? If I do need a paper towel, I do what community member Debra Whittaker said: Cut ’em in half (or rip them, for the impatient, imprecise types like me).

Nearly a month since taking on this challenge, I’m still using paper towels — but not nearly as many. I find myself reaching for the dish towel each time I wash up for dinner or dry a dish.

So, yeah, I haven’t totally purged yet, but I’m steadily making progress!

Your Turn: There are so many questions I want to ask. What are your favorite paper towel alternatives? Where’s the best place to shop for them and save? What’s the best material? Help.

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. After recently completing graduate school, she focuses on saving money — and surviving the move back in with her parents. If you haven’t noticed yet, she has really, really strange habits.