Does size matter?

By Mir
July 11, 2006

Probably not realizing that I would go straight for the lowbrow joke, Laura writes:

I love your site! I’m hoping you can help me figure out a small house-hold quandry.

Right now, I buy just about the cheapest paper towels available, in large-ish quantities, so as to save money. We go through a roll about every week and a half, but I know that we’ll be using a lot more once I have my baby.

I’m wondering if maybe buying the more expensive brand with “Select-a-size” gimmickry might actually save money in the long run. As it is now, I use at least one whole cheapo paper towel for any job, but it’s pretty rare that I actually need that much towel. Given the higher quality and increased absorbency of say, the Bounty paper towels, maybe it would be worth it.

What do you think?

As always, there are a few questions in here, which we’ll look at individually.

A roll of paper towels every week and a half? Laura, what are you doing with them? No, wait; I don’t want to know. Seriously? A roll and a half?? Wow.

Okay, so the first issue is usage. Clearly. Do you need to use paper towels for everything you’re currently using them for? Once you have that baby, I promise you that cotton spit-cloths will start breeding around your house. Before you know it, you’ll be using those cloths for random cleaning because, well, they’re there, and you’re doing laundry pretty much every day, anyway. It’s possible that as you move into this new phase of your life—the one where you’re too tired to clean, anyway—you’ll be using fewer paper towels. So that’s one thing.

Next issue: The select-a-size option. It used to be that you could only get premium paper towels with the smaller sheets. This is no longer the case. You don’t have to cash in the kids’ college account to afford select-a-size paper towels, because lots of manufacturers make them. Marcal comes to mind as a cheaper option, for example. But even some supermarket brands are now available in select-a-size.

(Keep in mind—you may prefer a premium paper towel, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t. I’m just saying that “premium” and “select-a-size” don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Depending on what you use them for—and here we are again, Laura, wondering what in the heck you’re doing with them—a cheaper quality towel may be sufficient for your needs.)

Do you want the smaller size option? I’d argue yes, if you’re using the paper towels for anything other than hardcore cleaning. We use them as napkins, sometimes. Or to kill bugs. Or for any of the thousand other things my children deem necessary. And rather than argue with them that “you don’t need a paper towel for that,” I buy select-a-size and comfort myself with the knowledge that yes, they’re being wasteful… but only half as wasteful as if the paper towels were regular-size!

Lastly, it all comes down to price. Doesn’t it always? Once you know what you want, you want to find it as cheaply as possible, of course. All of the standard ideas apply: Use coupons, stock up on sale, buy in bulk to save money. The additional trick I’ll suggest is to keep office supply stores in mind. No lie—I am still using paper towels from a case I purchased at Office Depot several years ago. They were on sale and I found an online code and I bought enough to sop up the entire Atlantic. Places that tend to offer free shipping (Amazon, and office supply stores usually do this over a certain purchase amount) can wind up being a great deal if you don’t mind buying a lot at once.

Remember the Amazon $10 off of $49 grocery deal? They carry both your beloved Bounty and Marcal. (Although, you know what? The Bounty is a better deal, there. Forget Marcal. Bounty forever!)

My trick is to do a shopping for paper products, when I’m trying to get up to a certain spending point to use a coupon. So, $50 in paper towels sounds insane, I’m sure, but it’s not hard to get up to $50 with paper towels and toilet paper and tissues.

But don’t get me started on toilet paper. Cheap toilet paper is a crime against humanity.


  1. Thanks for the great tips about paper towels. We buy them in bulk also. Paper supplies don’t have to be expensive if you just keep track of bargains, as you said in your post.

    I keep a supply of cleaning rags on the shelf above my washing machine. And I use them as often as possible in place of paper towels. I’ve even started using them to clean the glass top of my outdoor table. Works great!

  2. Thank god for those cloth diapers! Now that the kids are older they clean everything in our house and get tossed in the wash! We can make a case of paper towels last 6 months around here and that’s with 3 kids. Also I made some cloth napkins about 2 years ago (cut a 12 1/2″ square of cotton fabric, do a simple hem around the edges and fold like a “regular” napkin) we have 20 that we use for everyday meals that get tossed in the wash along with the laundry, these napkins are adorable and I haven’t bought paper napkins since! Easier and cheaper! Plus the napkins can be themed for the kitchen, mine are all fruit fabrics that my oldest helped me pick out when they were on sale….

    Love the tips, I read this site everyday for more great ideas!!

  3. The Office Depot option is no lie…I picked up all that they had on the clearance table once for dirt-cheap. Woohoo! I don’t use quite as many paper towels as Laura, and I recently found a store brand that I like. I do keep an eye out for sales, with coupons in hand.

  4. Thanks for the tips! I love the site. We, too, use cheap cloth – but not old diapers. (My kids are 14 and 19) I uby cheap washcloths and they become clening rags for everything from washing the kitchen table to wiping up after the rabbits get bathed (no, you don’t want to know.) And yes, I wash them in HOT water in between uses.

  5. No, we don’t reuse tea bags around here…but my mother insisted that we reuse Bounty paper towels! A cloth dishtowel is the best bet for drying hands, but if anyone in the family used a Bounty for drying clean hands or a clean glass or something like that, he or she was expected to spread the used towel out so it could dry and be reused! (By the way, one of those magnetic towel racks attached to the front of the fridge is a great place to hang a hand towel…)

    To this day, I buy generic brands for a lot of products, but it’s ALWAYS Bounty paper towels and Scott toilet tissue.

  6. man, I don’t think she uses a lot of paper towels…we probably go through at least one roll a week! ha

  7. I’m a cloth person. It’s taken me almost 4 months to go through one roll, and we use 2 every day in our lunches (as napkins).

    Mind you, I do go through (and wash) more linens than everyone else. I probably have almost 60 wash-cloths/dish-cloths, and that lasts me a little over a week with two kids, two pets and a husband who’s a little on the clumsy side.

  8. I have recently discovered microfiber cleaning cloths (as opposed to just using paper towels for everything). At Target, I picked up a great 4 pack: a dusting cloth, a furniture polishing cloth, a mirrors and windows cloth, and a kitchen & bath cloth. You can use them with or without cleaners (so not only do I use less paper towels, but I also use less cleaner) and just throw them in the wash when I’m done!

  9. We go through paper towels. I would bet a roll every few days -yikes! I have discovered microfiber towels recently too. They are really expensive on the cleaning aisle – but check out the automotive department. They are cheaper and in bigger packages. I got something like 20 good sized microfiber towels in the car department at Cosco for 8 bucks a few months ago.

  10. Thanks for making fun of my paper towel usage, Mir, as well as offering some helpful advice for reducing costs!

    I must say, in self-defense, that estimation of a roll/1.5 weeks is very, very rough. I was gratified however to get some support from other paper towel hog readers.

    Today I found a great deal at Sam’s Club on their house brand jumbo rolls that came out to about 98 cents per roll. Can’t beat that (Bounty was $1.37/roll)! I also stocked up on TP (don’t worry, not the cheapo single layer kind – I totally agree with you on that one) and paper napkins.

    When I left, the little old man who checks your receipt at the door said to me, “You sure stocked up today – we’ll see you at Thanksgiving!” har har.

    Kate – that’s a good idea about the automotive towels. I saw those in passing today and in the back of my head thought, “Hmmm, those might be useful burp/multi-use cloths.” I’ll probably pick some up next time I’m there.

    p.s. I swore I’d never follow in my mother’s footsteps on this one, but I do wash and reuse my ziploc bags. Never heard of reusing paper towels though. LOL.

  11. I must say now I think I’m in the minority. I don’t buy the select-a-size because I tend to use MORE paper towels. I guess I don’t find the single halfish sheet enough (which might mean I have bigger messes, but we don’t need to go there).
    We have worked to cut down our paper towel use — I use cotton towels for drying hands and try to only use paper when I wish to “throw the dirt away.” But even still with a boy and the animals, I go through the paper towels (not to mention the husband who will open a new roll to avoid going up to the kitchen to get a sheet off the one by the sink.)

    Thought I’d share my 2 cents.

  12. I found a stack of 25 cheapo white washcloths at Kmart for $5 (being a single-type, I don’t have old diapers in the house). These have been a godsend.

    I love the idea of the inexpensive, hand made cloth napkins.

  13. We just moved into a new house and they had left behind a large trash bag of rags… how bizarre! Looking at it to make sure it was okay to throw away, I realize they cut up clothes that were too yuck, too small, not good enough to sell or give to good-will and used them as rags. What a great idea!! 🙂

  14. I think I officially win the paper towel usage award. We use approximately one roll every 2 or 3 days. Yes, I said DAYS. In my defense, I have a husband, a toddler, three dogs, and one cat. The biggest hog of the paper towels is cleaning up ‘accidents’ left by the potty training toddler, the excitable dogs, and the hairbally cat. These are just messes I’d rather throw away.

    To offset the expense of the towels, though, we quit using commercial carpet stain cleaners and started using a half water half vinegar solution. This was per the advice of a professional carpet cleaner guy. We use the vinegar solution is good for all kinds of general cleaning instead of 409 or something like that.

    We are slowly replacing all our carpet with easier-to-clean laminate/tile/linoleum.

  15. Oh thank goodness for those few people who said they go through rolls of paper towels in 2 or 3 days – because we do too. I get the whole ‘use a rag’ thing, but I have yet to convince my husband to do that. (The man uses 2 or 3 papertowels every time he washes his hands!!) I buy paper towels in bulk, as you can probably guess.

    I’m trying to search for an article I read once – it was a comparison of paper towels: select-a-size versus traditional, and inexpensive versus name brands. If I find it, I’ll let ya’ll know.

  16. I probably use too many paper towels, but I don’t have anything on my fiance’s family. They use paper towels in the kitchen AND the bathrooms. His mom’s house has two bathrooms and his dad’s house has three. Paper towels by all sinks. No handtowel options offered whatsoever. Sheesh.

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