Beyond the Slow Cooker: 10 Eco- and Budget-Friendly Household Helpers That Progress Left Behind

Cleaning? Cooking? Ugh, you say. Make friends with it, compadre; they've got to be part of the frugal warrior's toolkit. Me, I avoid cleaning as much as possible until a young offspring can't find clean underthings and I want to howl in the chasm of Boring Adult Responsibilities and go hide in the kitchen, which I enjoy much more. When that no longer works, and when the children look at me like You Did This to Me, I look for ways to make it easier. I also look for ways to make it cheaper, because when my frugal and eco-selves are in partnership, then I can feel my groove coming back. Because if there is one thing I've learned, it's that I want to spend my better days kicking ass and making change, and not spend them in Target buying overpriced refills and feeling like some crazy woman on a commercial who smiles at her mop while a song plays in the background.

So you understand why I need, need, need to share these revelations with you. Some of these tools or tricks don't save any time, and a few take more time. But if I spend a few more minutes living out my values, then it's like I'm the thing plugged into the outlet and feeling my power.

1. The Carpet Sweeper

I bought a Casabella carpet sweeper for my kids from a Montessori-based toy and supply catalog ("Now you're Mommy's Little Helpers, darlings!") and now I join in the fight to use it. It picks up a surprising amount from our well-traveled rugs and floors, and I don't need to use electricity, or my own stress circuits, as much.

2. Take Back the Mop

C'mon, Swiffer. How hard is it to bring up a mop and bucket filled with hot water and Murphy's Oil Soap? I'd rather take two minutes to do that than pay for your expensive refills. Plus the carpet sweeper gets bits in the meantime. Jealous, much? Plus flushing that dirty water down the toilet is pure victory.

3. Area Rugs

Do you remember relatives that would take rugs outside and beat them? Small area rugs just beg for this simple cleaning. Roll them up or just shake them out the window — you've just saved yourself some money and gotten an upper-body workout. Fantastic for when guests are coming in 1.5 seconds: as they are walking up your steps, you can be shaking the bathroom rug out the window and feeling confident that their private bathroom time won't involve passing judgment upon you. You can't beat it with a stick, man.

4. The Art of the Drying Rack

Don't have the space or the time? You might be surprised. A strong drying rack can cost under $20, but if you air-dry most of your clothes, you could save five percent or more on your electric bill and some of the beating dryers can take on clothes. Do you have a small outdoor space or deck on which to place a drying rack? If not, then consider washing a load of clothes during the day and then setting up the rack at overnight in your kitchen. Newer washers pretty much take all the drippiness out of wet clothes, anyhow, so most items will try overnight. For items that take longer fold down one half of the rack and leave the rest to dry through the day, until the next load is ready.

Air-drying is not a huge effort when it becomes part of your routine, and I've actually found the process pleasant in the way I find gardening pleasant: your efforts are met by Mother Nature's, to your benefit. If you go so far as to wash out your plastic bags, drying racks can also hold these. Just puff out the sides before placing them between the rungs. (Yes, I do this, and yes, I also wear makeup, so calm down.)

5. Feather Duster

Speaking of Swiffer, they have helped fuel a feather duster backlash. Dusters spread dust, they say. I'm so over that assertion, because I hate to dust. What takes less time, my friends: feather dusting OR dusting and then running out to buy refills? When I see other people wiping things down I want to scream, because that strikes me as Stepford territory. If you dust before you vacuum, gravity helps you get all the yuckies. So find a lovely duster, with a wooden handle and real feathers. Some of these are almost things of beauty. After you've dusted a room, just take it outside and twirl it between your palms quickly to release the dust to the air. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

6. Windows

Room air fresheners, candles and other artificially scented items are outrageously expensive and contain toxic pollutants that are even worse for you if they mix with ozone. If your house smells stale or your pets have given it a bad name, open the windows for a few minutes. (So what if you lose heat, or cool air? Your house stinks, so make an energy offering to the gods.) If you have guests coming, light a beeswax candle (the other ones are junk) and ask yourself if you have 15 minutes to bake something quickly (such as fruit with oatmeal, butter and brown sugar on top), so you can fill your home with a lovely smell and have a treat on hand to boot. The 20-second fix? Heat a pan of water on your stove and add cinnamon, oranges, and any other spices you enjoy. You can reuse the water for tea later.

7. Cast Iron Pans

I can't believe people ever stopped using these incredibly affordable pans. Get used to the way it handles temperature, and you'll have yourself a non-stick pan every time — except, for me, eggs on occasion. Get a pack of scrubbers and have no fear of Teflon poisoning your soul. Wash with water or a dab of mild soap and dry by wiping or letting it sit on a hot stove for two minutes. Oil as necessary. Once you cook a grilled cheese in a cast iron pan, or grill vegetables on a grill-top piece, you'll never look back. (Plus it adds iron to your diet, an added plus for women who like to kick ass.)

8. Hand Blender

I've burned out a motor in both a pricey little mini-Cuisinart AND an electric hand blender. I love the burnt smell of $50 out of the window. I've hemmed and hawed about replacing them for long enough that I started to use a hand blender in the meantime. I had bought it for my children to help with baking projects, but it did light whipping and blending jobs beautifully. The older, full-sized metal rotary blenders are so strong and fast that there is less likelihood of burnout. Obviously, you'll still need a large Cuisinart or blender, or both. But the invention of small appliances that sputter out at chopping nuts or bread crumbs is NOT a frugal cook's best friend, so nuts to them.

9. Bread Machine

You there. I heard you scoff when I suggested you bake in order to scent your home. Fine. I still say speed cooking kills two birds with one stone: gives you something to eat and makes your house feel homey and alluring to everyone around. Have you seen a bread machine at a yard sale lately? Grab it. Buy one new, even (gasp). Why? Just do the math: bread costs $2.00 a loaf, and a loaf may get you through a week of bagged lunches if you're lucky. Less time if you have to pack multiple school lunches. Really flavorful, natural breads cost twice as much. Crusty farmer's market bread might run you as much as $6, and I've had to tamp down my bread snob self if I want a shred of convenience.

Spend ten minutes in the morning drinking coffee and dumping six or seven items into your bread machine's loaf pan, and an hour later (if you use the speed-bake setting) you have a loaf appropriate for any meal, made with the ingredients you can control and improve upon. Add nuts and dried fruit for a real meal. You can program the newer bread machines to operate while you are out, and you can come home to warm bread. Winter may not be so bad after all.

10. Rags

Post-recession, has it come to this, you ask? Rags? I can still afford paper towels, thank you very much. Cool. Go with your paper towel self. But notice how, on the days you can't find the size-a-sheet varieties, you don't leave the store quite as cheerful as when you came in. Notice how you may wipe up a water spill and leave the sheet out to air dry and reuse. If this scenario fits you, you are ready for rags.

Note: This is not the Great Depression. Not every shirt that your washing machine shrinks or stains needs to be reborn as a rag. You will find fabrics that you like to use. You may just want a few of those pretty microfiber cloths that polish glass with water alone (ka-ching!). You may be all about the old cloth diapers, mama. Just embrace rags: fill a whole drawer with them, and your cleaning caddy to boot. Once you are in a laundry routine you will always have a rag on hand and you will save the paper towels for special occasions. Feeling good? Maybe you are ready to graduate to cloth napkins, and total frugal domination. Join us in the fight, and take back the home. And when you're done, get the heck out of the house and go do great things in the (hopefully) greener world.

This is a guest post by Annalise Silivanch, writer and Area Chair of Humanities at University of Phoenix.

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Guest's picture

Just a heads up on cast iron pans. Make sure they are seasoned before using them (instructions on seasoning should be with the pan). You shouldn't use any soap on them, just scrub when hot with a rag and salt to clean. You can't use them on glass top stoves, b/c they can crack the glass b/c of their weight. You shouldn't put tomatoes in them, b/c there will be a chemical reaction with the acid in the tomatoes and the pan itself. If you want to use tomatoes in one, you should use an enameled cast iron pan. To keep it well seasoned you should oil it after every use. Cast iron pans are awsome, my husband loves cooking with them (he has several different types). They are also sometimes cheaper if you you look for them back in the camping items part of the store.

Guest's picture

I don't buy these. I buy white felt squares at Joanne's Fabrics for 25 cents and use these and wash them. They fit the swiffer sweeper head and can be washed and reused many times.

Guest's picture

We have one cast iron pan that we use pretty much every day, and from living with a variety of roomates I can pretty much say that you can pretty much wash it however you want as long as you're not sticking it back in the cupboard for weeks between uses. People get scared off by having special handling instructions, and they're pretty unecessary.

And I love my Swiffer - I just use old cut up rags on it, instead of the stuff they sell. Damping a rag and using it, then tossing it in the wash, is WAY easier than lugging around a mop and bucket.

Guest's picture

You can't use tomatoes in cast iron pans? C'mon...I only agree with going "eco friendly" only if it sames me money, time and doesn't make my life harder. The fact that I can't use soap on a pan after I cooked raw chicken and eggs makes me sick to my stomach....

I do agree on the Swiffer mops...I still use the swiffer duster, because one box of refills has lasted me over a year (you don't have to change them often) I stopped using the mop though after we bought a house with all wood floors. It's great for a small apartment (with one linoleum floor, no point in making a huge mop bucket) but when you have a lot of wood floors, you go through the refills often and it doesn't seem to clean as well.

Guest's picture
Amy W.

Everyone says you can't use soap on the pans, but I always have, and my mother, and my grandmother. We live in the south in the country and you don't find a home without an assortment of iron skillets. We have no problem using the soap. These things are indestructible. You can find rusty ones at flea markets and take it home, season it up, and they are good as new.

For the best cornbread that won't ever stick, use the same iron skillet everytime and only wipe it out instead of washing with soap. Only use for cornbread and you will have the best tasting cornbread in town. Other than that go to town with the soap, it won't hurt a thing as long as you dry after washing.

Guest's picture

The acids from the tomato will affect the pan just like spaghetti sauce will bind to your Tupperware (just use some vegetable oil to remove it!); you truly don't have to worry about it as long as your cast iron is seasoned well. We used to make stews and spaghetti sauce in dutch ovens as boy scouts and it never had a detrimental effect. The comments about soap carry similar weight; cast iron is naturally porous which accounts for why you need to season the piece. Soap may get drawn into the pours and the next time you cook with the piece, you might get soap residue in your food - this has sent many an inexperienced scout to the latrine!

We use cast iron all the time at the firehouse; Teflon really doesn't tolerate abuse and the qualities of cast iron really cannot be beat - nothing heats more evenly than cast iron.

You will find a dramatic difference in price/quality between different manufacturers. I have Lodge cast iron products (pans and dutch ovens) and I haven't had a problem. Check your local Walmart, Farm & Fleet or for products from Lodge.

Guest's picture

The way most of us keep the "cure" on cast iron skillets is to clean them (rinse and scrub, no soap) and then heat them REALLY hot with vegetable oil. No bacteria is going to survive that.

Guest's picture

Great points on the tweaks you can make with a Swiffer base head: felt (I should try this!), rags, etc. There is a whole cool world of felt crafting: maybe some craftier-than-I Etsy superstar can corner the market on beautiful, multi-colored felted Swiffer replacement pads.

Re: cast iron no-no's: I need to learn more about the cast iron-tomato reaction. I have not heeded this, but with no ill effects that I can tell. If you are concerned about raw meat/etc contamination, simply lightly wash the pan and dry over VERY high heat, then perhaps wipe or wash again. I still feel cast iron is the best pan to use because it cooks fast and treats flavors well. (Some would say it retains the flavors from the previous meal, mixing them all with strange alchemy - unless the last meal was fish, and then you might want to let that flavor burn out of the pores before starting again.)

Putting the pan back on the stove to dry while I wipe down the counters doesn't seem like extra time now that I'm used to it.

I suppose one's pans become very personal and taste-driven once they are used often. That's an interesting discussion in itself.

Guest's picture

Follow up note: if you do use soap on them and you feel it has begun to strip the pan of its sheen, then simply slater on another thick coat of oil and place in a hot oven, in order to allow the oil to soak into the pan. As far as I know, there is no "ruining" these pans.


Andrea Karim's picture

Thanks for putting a smile on my face. Your style makes frugality that much less boring!

Guest's picture

You want to double up your savings and save time? Just use a reel mower! Works your forearms and legs, saves time going to the gym, and gives you a nice lawn.

You feel like you've accomplished something, too.

Guest's picture

This was a great post! I got my bread machine for $5 on half-price day at Goodwill. I love it! I actually posted a recipe for it just this morning that my mom developed for my brother. You keep the basic mix in the freezer in individual ziplocks, and just add water, butter, and yeast. By making the packets up ahead of time, it takes literally 30 seconds to add everything else.


Guest's picture

Never had a problem with tomatoes, either. And if I did, I'd just reseason it. Big deal! Seasoning a pan is pretty easy once you know how. And I find that bacon grease and hot, hot temps is the key. Vegetable oil doesn't work as well, imho. It leaves it too sticky.


The key word there is *cooked*. If you *cook* raw chicken and eggs then they aren't raw anymore. Your pan should be plenty hot to kill pathogens -- otherwise you probably shouldn't even be eating the chicken. (Raw eggs don't scare me, but then mine come from the backyard and not some disease infested chicken factory.)

Also, if you're worried that your pan didn't get hot enough in some places, just stick it in the oven till you're satisfied. Add a little bacon grease and you can reseason it at the same time if you need to.

Guest's picture

I actually bought a bread machine -- not a cheap one, either -- but we didn't use it all that much and finally sold it. It's great if you eat a lot of bread, but it's just my husband and I and we're trying to eat fewer refined carbs, not more.

Plus, if you do want to make you're bread you do not need to spend the money and space on a bread machine. In addition to the traditional recipes, there are also plenty of no-knead recipes you can find online. And there are other types of "bread" that are easy to make such as steamed buns, tortillas, flat bread, etc.

We just got an industrial size dust mop. It's 3 feet across and tackles our rooms in no time. Beat that Swiffer!

For dusting, I just use rags or old socks. They really do work well.

Guest's picture

See, why would I use cast iron pans? All this talk of re-seasoning and putting it in the oven, washing etc etc, when my non stick pans - I cook and I stick it in water and everything washes off quick and easy. I don't have extra time to be doing 500 steps for one pan.

Guest's picture

I've used cast iron to cook pretty much everything for my entire adult life! Just made alfredo sauce last night in the frypan- I actually bought an awesome Griswold 12" cast iron fry pan at a garage sale years ago for $1 and I also bought an entire set of lemon yellow descoware (precursor to Le Creuset) enamel-lined cast iron also at a garage sale for $2 about 3 years ago. I cook everything in the cast iron frypan, including tomatoes and I have never used soap on it. Still alive and kickin' at 50 and rarely sick. I do re-season it just for kicks about once a year. Just finished canning 6 pints of hot pack tomatoes this morning using...yep, the enamel-lined dutch oven. Cast iron and enamel-lined cast iron are very versatile and useful. Yah, they are a little heavy, but I also don't bang the pans on my GLASS TOP electric range either:) I've been using the cast iron on the glass top for 10 years...I'm just sayin'...

Guest's picture
Stainless man

Spend the money and buy a good quality stainless pan. They are bomb proof, and with minimal care they will last for many generations.

If you get one with a high-ish side (say 2 inches), and a lid, it can also double as a stew pot, vegie steamer, etc.

Guest's picture

I don't think you will ever convince most people to use cast iron, which is fine with me, that's why they are so cheap. I have always heard that cast iron is the best thing to cook tomato sauce in because it adds extra iron to your sauce. We've been doing it all my life. As far as not using soap, that is a positive too. Just rinse it out and put it back on the stove. Our two pans never leave our stove top and are used constantly.

Guest's picture

You can use your bread machine for more than bread. Use it as a mini oven to bake things like vegetables or whatever, even a chicken or a roast if you eat meat.

All you need is a pan that will fit in the machine and something to rest the pan on so it is above, and not resting on, the heating elements.

I put a small pyrex dish in the bottom of the bread machine to act as a spacer (to keep the pot I am cooking with above the heating element) and then just set it to bake at whatever temperature I want. I suspect it is more energy efficient and less expensive than firing up the oven for a single dish.

I have made baked roasted rice this way in a covered round metal pan (used to have a handle but that fell off years ago) and it worked fantastically. Also I baked an entire butternut squash last week. Pressure cooker would be even more efficient for the squash, though.

Guest's picture

A half cup of white vinegar set in a room will deodorize it.

Guest's picture

I love my 9" cast iron skillet that I got at a garage sale many years ago! I mostly use it for eggs (a little butter on medium heat, can be turned off when partially cooked because the pan retains heat so well it will finish cooking) on my glass top electric stove. I always wash out my pan with hot water and a little soap and simply dry with a dish towel. How simple can it get. Of course it was well seasoned when I got it. By the way, I am 61 years old and healthy.
I have stainless steel pans for cooking other things. Oh, and the iron skillet makes great cornbread in the oven. I melt butter in it before I pour the batter in and it makes a nice crispy crust. What a fun discussion you've got going here. My son suggested I check it out.

Guest's picture

I'm happy to say I already use most of these items in my home. I have the set of iron skillets that my parents received as a wedding present in 1959, and they are by far the easiest to clean and cook with.

I also found a good bread machine at Goodwill, and love it. I've started making the dough in the machine, then removing it and baking in the oven. I hardly use the clothes dryer anymore, as I actually enjoy hanging laundry outside.

I take issue only with the feather duster and the hand blender. A swiffer duster picks up the dust rather than just spreading it around. As for the blender, I used one this summer at our cabin which has no electricity. I couldn't believe how long it took to whip cream with that thing! After 20 minutes I had to stop and have someone else take over. Ouch!

Guest's picture

because I just had to comment about cast iron not actually needing special handling, but which is actually more important.

I spent YEARS trying to get used to using the crock pot, and it's just not very good for healthy cooking. I do use it once or twice a week when it's cold out, but the thing that really made scratch cooking easier and faster for us was a pressure cooker and a good pressure cooker cookbook. We literally use the thing every day, it doesn't heat up my kitchen as much in the summer, it is good for vegetarian and lower-fat foods (risotto! squash cooked so you can just eat the skin!) and took a lot of the pre-cooking steps, like soaking beans, out of our routine.

I am giving pressure cookers to a bunch of newly-learning-to-cook relatives for Christmas this year (we got ours last year, for Christmas).

Nora Dunn's picture
Nora Dunn

I totally forgot about carpet sweepers! Hazzah. On my way to use it for my area rug (too big to shake out the window).

Ditto to @Retirement Saviour (#10) on the Reel Mover...just gota find one.

I'm addicted to bread machines. (I was lucky enough to acquire mine from a friend who didn't use theirs and was all too happy to see it out of their kitchen).

And dust? Meh. Who needs to dust!? (just kidding - I use rags).

And in Australia where I'm curently living, clothes dryers are not as common. Drying racks and clotheslines are generally the name of the day, even for many people who own dryers. (They only dry certain items based on necessity or time or wet weather).

Guest's picture

Oh, cast iron pans! Will you ever be understood?

My wife and I were given expensive, high quality, heavy gauge stainless steel pots and pans when we got married. We've bought a few cast iron pans. We use the cast iron almost exclusively because they are easier to use and to clean, and because food cooked in them tastes better. It's not any more steps than stainless - in fact it's less*. And where some of our "stainless" pieces actually have stains from too high heat or being left unattended too long, the cast iron is pretty much indestructible.

If you're at all curious, pick up a small cast iron skillet at the local MegaMart for $20 or less. Most or all now are pre-seasoned - get one of those. Give it a few tries, get used to it, and get some flavor in it - don't try to burn anything, but don't worry about it if you do. Try bacon and eggs, easy and tasty. After each use, wipe it out with an oily paper towel - to remove any remaining food chunks and refresh the seasoning a bit. Don't wash it, but if really necessary you can run it through some very hot water and scrub it with anything - but no soap. Then swipe with the oily towel once the pan is dry.* Pretty soon you'll love it - or you'll pass it on to someone else who will.

P.S. Here's a tip for eggs and meat, for cast iron or stainless: Heat your pan to the temperature you're going to cook at - should be pretty hot. Add room-temp oil immediately before the proteiny food. If you flip, flip once - not until the first side is done; you'll be able to tell because it will unstick itself from the pan. Give it a little test poke at an edge, when it's ready to be flipped it will go from stuck tight to easily scoopable.

*Our schedule, when using a cast iron skillet once each day, is roughly: after enjoying our meal, we wipe out the now-just-warm pan to remove food chunks. About every other time or so, we pour in a very small pool of olive or vegetable oil and smear around with a paper towel or rag. About every week (again, given using it every day) we'll wash the pan by scrubbing under very hot water, no soap. Dry well and while still warm from the wash, do the oil thing. Overall, very low maintenance, especially compared to our stainless, which we have to scrub each time (even if they're going into a dishwasher), sometimes using special cleaner.

Guest's picture

I LOVE my bread machine! I make a Whole Wheat, Sugar Free, high protein bread, it takes 4 hours to bake.
I have folding clothes racks, My personal clothes Never see the dryer. I do dry towels and sheets in the dryer.

Guest's picture
Dr mom

I send my anemic patients out to the thrift store to buy a cast iron skillet and start cooking. I have to admit I have to use hot soapy water to clean it. These skillets are great and they are easy to maintain. No longer do you have to worry about ingesting byproducts of Teflon.

Guest's picture

One common misconception about dusters is that they move the dust around. This is true if you have inferior feathers. However, ostrich feathers do pick up the dust and hold it. My favorite demonstration is to run an ostrich feather duster over a chalkboard and then shake the duster out (outside, of course).

I make my own Swiffer covers that do a much better job of grabbing pet hair off the floor. I found the pattern on the internet; it's a simple crochet pattern that can be made with leftover yarn.

One thing I love about my cast iron is not having to think twice about putting these pans in the oven. I never have to worry if something is going to melt off. I purchased some excellent French cast iron pans from IKEA a few years ago.

Guest's picture

If I have a mop and Murphy's Oil Soap don't I then have to rinse with a separate clean mop? I thought that any soapy water formula needs to be rinsed with clean water and or vinegar. Have been I avoiding the old-fashioned method due to misinformation?

Guest's picture

I love my cast iron pans and I avoid non-stick as much as possible which is why I haven't bought a bread machine yet, since all of them have non-stick pans. Does anyone know of a bread machine that has a safer material pan? Or a replacement pan that I can buy. I really, really want a bread machine!!! TIA
PS. I scrub my well seasoned pans with soap. However, I don't scrub my iron wok but do use soap.

Guest's picture

Living in Arizona, things are dry! So why dry EVERYTHING in a clothes dryer? I do thick towels, knit tops, sweaters and especially jeans on the drying rack. Add an oscillating fan and clothes dry in no time... got to save on the high electric bill in the scorching summer.

I also like a real feather duster, have had mine since I read Speed Cleaning by Jeff Campbell a few years ago. I also use a mop with pads that attach with velcro... two pads clean my kitchen and bathrooms and then get tossed in the wash with the RAGS.

@helade: I do like the idea of washable felt squares for the swiffer. Thanks!
I never use toxic air fresheners, ew. I must get a carpet sweeper! Great post!

Guest's picture

There's no reason to avoid soap on cast iron. I cook with cast iron and gas exclusively and always wash with soap. This is an old wives tale going back to the days of when soap was typically made of lye. Modern soaps do not damage the pan in any way. My only tip is to make sure they are dried properly so they dont rust, if you have a gas range just toss them back in the oven and they'll dry quickly.

Guest's picture

I place my clothes rack in the spare bathroom tub.

Guest's picture

The slowcooker saved my life in college. Great article!

Guest's picture
Wong Tho Kong

The dog you forgot the dog! Automatically laps up your dinner table fall out.