The 50-Percent Solution

When I started getting serious about frugal living, my husband dredged up one piece of juicy financial advice he recalled from his grad school days: Use half of what you normally would. He was talking about consumable goods like shampoo and dish soap. The idea is to reduce by half the amount of these things you use by doling out smaller portions. Normally use a quarter-size dollop of shampoo? Try cutting back to a dime.

There's no need to stop at half, actually. You can keep scaling back your usage gradually until you hit a point where you actually don't have enough, and then creep back up to the last place it felt good. Maybe that dime-size drop of shampoo isn't enough for your hair, but a nickel-size portion gets the job done nicely.

This approach works. I bought a large container of dish soap at Costco in March of 2009 and have not run out yet. This is not for lack of doing dishes: There are five people in my household, and we do all of our cooking from scratch. We make a lot of dirty dishes, and we wash a few sinkfuls a day.

One reason cutting back on consumption has worked so well for me is that I automated it. Rather than depend on my fragile mind to remember to use smaller sloshes of soap or shampoo every time I wash, I buy my cleaning products and personal care items in bulk and pour them into smaller containers — at half strength. The small plastic bottle next to the kitchen sink contains half water and half soap. I use the same amount when I wash the dishes, but I'm going through the soap at half the rate I used to.

The 50-percent solution has worked so well for me with my household goods, I decided to expand it to other areas of my life. In addition to basic consumables, I've applied to 50-percent solution to:

  • Shopping for clothes. I mostly don't shop for clothes, but on the rare occasion that I do, I've learned to ask: Do I need two of these? I picked up the habit of buying multiples of something I like when I was younger. While that often works out well, just as often I can get by with one pair of jeans or one new bra.
  • Going out to bars and restaurants. This is often a trouble spot for me, since I love going out with friends. Scaling back that type of social activity by half lets me stay close to the people I care about without busting my budget.
  • Over the counter medications. Take two aspirin and call me when you've tried cutting back to see if one will do the trick. I wouldn't suggest trying this with your prescription meds, but for simple over-the-counter stuff like headache medicine, I've found that a half dose is often perfectly effective.
  • Groceries. My kids will eat a near infinite amount of fresh fruit, pretzels, and yogurt. How much is enough? The only way to tell was to gradually buy less until we ran out and they complained. We've cut our grocery budget in half combining this with other grocery savings hacks. We also waste practically no food these days, which is a pretty great feeling.
  • Therapeutic appointments. My husband sees a chiropractor regularly for chronic back issues. Over time, they've gradually scaled back their appointments from twice a week to only twice a month. This saves us time and money. As with all these measures though, the key is to get to Enough. Cutting back too much on these appointments would cause him pain and interfere with his life. The balancing act is to be sure he gets what he needs from his chiropractor, without over-committing resources that could be better used elsewhere.

Basically, we've tried tapering off anything I routinely spend money on where I have some control over the amount I use. For example, cutting dinner dates with my husband down from once a week to once a month felt too scarce, but every other week is a good balance between staying frugal and staying connected.

In general, this approach saves me money. In a few cases, it's prompted me to spend more. I wasn't spending enough time with my husband, for example. As our financial situation has stabilized, that's a problem I've started throwing more money at, taking us out for “date nights” a few times a month instead of insisting that we always stay in. Yes, eating out is expensive. But the time alone together away from the weight of housework and unfinished tasks at home is priceless.

As with any money hack, the most important thing isn't how I save the money, it's what I do with it. A dollar saved is only really saved if I don't immediately spend it on something else.  The savings from these gradual reductions in consumption are often harder to see than the clear figures one gets from canceling a subscription and saving the monthly fee.

How much have I saved on laundry soap over the past year? It's possible to track that data and get a real answer, but I don't keep records that detailed. The dollars I've saved didn't get banked straight into my savings account. Instead, they've padded my margin a bit, making it easier to stick to our budget each week and possible to splurge on treats like dinners out with my husband.

Even beyond the actual money saved, I get a psychological benefit from doing this. Like my commitment to buy nothing new or my 30-day list, the 50-percent solution acts as a checkpoint for purchases. Do I really need this? Do I need all of this? Could I make do with less?

Being in the habit of asking myself those questions has saved me a lot more money than just cutting my shampoo with water does. It helps me stay in a frugal mindset when I'm shopping. That's not easy to do. Stores are designed to push you towards impulse buys, and being armed with mental money hacks helps me fight back against their subtle (and not so subtle) marketing.

I love this approach because it helps me find balance. It's not about committing to a life of extreme austerity, it's about avoiding waste. I often think of the curve at the beginning of Your Money or Your Life that shows a person's happiness increasing as they have the resources to supply their basic needs, and then some comforts and finally a few luxuries. Beyond that magic point of Enough, the curve calls off as more and more luxuries are piled on but fail to satisfy.

The 50-percent solution helps me know what my personal Enough is. What's Enough soap? Enough entertainment? Enough snack food?

Scaling back incrementally lets me find those magic points on the curve and stay close to them. I get to have Enough to be happy, without wasting resources like money, time and energy on acquiring more of something than I need or want.

Welcome Lifehacker readers – feel free to join the conversation and share what has worked for you. Also don't forget to follow Get Rich Slowly on Facebook and Twitter.

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Jeff
Jeff
10 years ago

Please don’t recommend people cut their recommended doses of ANY medicine in half, even if it is OTC. The Aspirin example is particularly dangerous. I know you mean well with regards to headaches but people take it to prevent heart attack and stroke and I as a pharmacist would NEVER recommend taking half dose to save money. This advice literally could kill people.

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

Great post! It’s also important to note that when we cut back like this, we’re also using less resources, reducing our exposure to all the chemicals in products, and reducing the environmental toll. (Less product used = less chemicals going down the drain.)

Not to sound like an environmental do-gooder here, but the things we do to help our budget make our lifestyles more sustainable in many ways 🙂

bon
bon
10 years ago

Great post — sorry for the somewhat un-related comment — but your husband should check out physical therapy with a therapist trained in the McKenzie Method — once he learns the techniques he can do them himself at home — so no need for repeated visits to a therapist or chiropractor. I have no affiliation with this but it has almost completely resolved issues for my husband who has had severe back problems.

finallygettingtoeven.com
finallygettingtoeven.com
10 years ago

Great post and great ideas. We have been playing what we call ‘use the least amount as possible game’, a spin-off from the original use half. You are so correct when you say sometimes you can go less than half and still get great results. I am using about 1/4 the amount laundry det i used to use and now adding vinegar to the rinse cycle and my clothes are coming out better than ever (of course i took up line drying too so they are lasting longer). I am still working on the eat half (i love to snack)… Read more »

uncertain algorithm
uncertain algorithm
10 years ago

This is one of those applied Micro Economics lessons that some students could never grasp.

Elysia
Elysia
10 years ago

I like to buy a foaming handsoap and then refill it with handsoap/water mixture. I put in as little soap as it takes to make the foam (probably exactly what the manufacturer did). That’s less than 1/8 of the container, so the handsoap “concentrate” lasts forever. I never buy the dishsoap in bulk, but it sounds like I should start! Does your husband do yoga? I go once a week (12-15$ per session depending on whether you’re a drop in — in the middle of Massachusetts), and my whole body feels better, with considerably less back and body pain. A… Read more »

Molly On Money
Molly On Money
10 years ago

To save money I’ve been making my own laundry soap, liquid soap and cleaning supplies for a year now. I could never go back! Not only is the cost lower ($3 for laundry soap as opposed to $18) there’s also less additive and chemicals I don’t need. Here’s a good site for liquid soap: http://greenliving.suite101.com/article.cfm/diy_make_liquid_soap Making your own laundry soap: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gfEJHb5lfds I don’t spend much time. The laundry soap took about 20 minutes and lasted me 9 months and the cleaning supplies take about the same and last about 6 month. As an ex-professional dancer with chronic back/joint issues I… Read more »

andy
andy
10 years ago

While some of this makes sense, other parts of it is potentially stupid and even dangerous. Cutting back on soap usage is fine, if you use too much. If you use soap sensibly in the first place you only reduce the chance of infections and illnesses. There is a reason why we use soap, not only so stuff will look clean, but it has a mild disinfectant effect. This only works at a sufficient dosage (but overdoing it won’t make it even safer either ;-). And as probably noted in other comments, cutting back on OTC and prescribed drugs is… Read more »

HollyP
HollyP
10 years ago

I try to make sure I never get to a check out line without first looking at every item in the cart to verify that it fills a need, not a want.

(My grocery store approach is to do this only when I exceed the $75 mark.)

MissPinkKate
MissPinkKate
10 years ago

I think this is a good idea overall- but there is NO WAY in hell I’m cutting back the amount of ibuprofen I take when I get cramps. Doing that to try and save money would be really, really dumb.

Avistew
Avistew
10 years ago

As far as headaches go, I found out that if I drink a big glass of water it often goes away. Apparently sometimes it’s just dehydration, and what makes you feel better isn’t the aspirin but the water you took it with! Of course when it’s an actual headache, you need the medication. Still, I alway try having just water first, and more often than not that’s enough. For things like soap, it definitely works. For toothpaste, there is something very silly: blocking part of the opening. Apparently no mater the width, people use the same length of toothpaste, so… Read more »

elisabeth
elisabeth
10 years ago

While using less laundry and dish detergent saves pennies per use, I’d rather look at where cutting back saves dollars. I have a “dinner group” of women friends and when we go out, our total ticket is reduced because we a) share desserts b) sometimes order an appetizer and salad rather than appetizer, entree or entree and salad…
Similarly, for more savings, dear husband and I have reduced our vacations — four days in a fun city can be just as relaxing as a week, we’ve found.

Holly
Holly
10 years ago

I read the post’s information for the OTC drugs as a suggestion to try one pill at the first sign of a headache instead of automatically grabbing 2 (the ‘Aleve’ label recommends one only and then a second only if the first pill was ineffective; but no more than 2 pills in any 24-hr. period). I think many people are susceptible to overdoing OTC medications which can wreak havoc on the stomach. My mother had developed issues (ulcers, etc.) from constant overuse and disregard of suggested dosages. And she was a nurse, so she should have known better! I don’t… Read more »

Steve
Steve
10 years ago

For the chriropractor, try the 100% solution. Cut it out entirely.

Jacque
Jacque
10 years ago

I guess each person has their own priorities for their finances, but some of these sound like they could really reduce quality of life or happiness for the sake of a few extra dollars, which goes against one of the GRS tenants. I can only imagine how little of it they are getting if even the kids are starting to complain that they aren’t getting enough fresh fruits in their diet.

erika
erika
10 years ago

@Jacque #15 – Sierra mentioned the issue of balance more than once in this article. It is not about using as little as possible, but about challenging your assumptions about how much you have to use to be happy or satisfied. I believe she is advocating mindful usage vs. routine or impulsive usage, which is definitely a tenant of GRS (in regards to spending).

Brian
Brian
10 years ago

For laundry and dishwasher detergent, this advice is especially valuable. I’ve read numerous articles that have shown the amounts given on containers for an “effective” wash are far more than necessary, and can even hurt the machine in the long run! This simple advice will save money on soap AND appliances in the long run.

Cathy
Cathy
10 years ago

Quit being cheapskates

Tiffany
Tiffany
10 years ago

Great Point Avistew. Water is a natural resource that nourishes the body and keeps us away from too many meds. It’s simple solutions like these that impulsive consumers never consider. Gaining a frugal state of mind is not easy!

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

Hah! I am surprised no one has brought up JD’s own post on cutting back on his hot chocolate!

Liz Pulliam Weston explored that post and other ideas related to this in her article.
http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/SavingandDebt/SaveMoney/frugal-or-tight-wheres-the-line.aspx

It’s all in how far you take it. Take it too far and you’ll realize a few pennies isn’t worth it. The overall idea is sound though. Reduce your consumption to save. The reason why it works – because you are doing the first step to successful personal finance – becoming aware of your habits. (think tracking your spending)

Suzy
Suzy
10 years ago

These are not the kinds of choices I want to make. Cutting my soap products with water, skipping half my social opportunities, seeing my therapist less often, messing around with meds… I don’t think you could make me more unhappy if you were trying to. 🙂 If my household goods are costing too much, I’ll find a way to buy them at discount, or I’ll cut back a “luxury” expense to pay for them (check). If going out to eat with friends is too expensive, we go to each other’s homes (check). Etc etc. This is a well-written piece, and… Read more »

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

I routinely take half doses of antihistamine or decongestant tablets when my allergies kick up. Guess what? Symptoms abate and I am not stoned for four hours as I would be with a full dose. As to OTC pain meds … agree with an above commenter that a glass of water (and a walk around the block) is often more effective than a dose of painkillers. Don’t assume that the dosage information is based on what’s best for *your* health. You may be a 100-lb woman and the dose may have been calculated for a 200-lb man. I use half… Read more »

Eric
Eric
10 years ago

Cutting back 50 percent sounds like a great idea to learn how much is enough without over doing it and still enjoying life. I’ll have to try this and see what happens.

Neel Kumar
Neel Kumar
10 years ago

A few years back, my dentist told me that I was using too much toothpaste. How did he know? Well, he said that even though I was brushing my teeth enough, the amount of toothpaste was making my brushing ineffective. So, now I use far less toothpaste and my dentist is very happy.

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

This is one of those big differences between how my DH and I were brought up. I especially notice it with toilet paper. We buy really nice toilet paper so that you don’t have to use an armful at a time. But DH just does automatically. Since the toilet hasn’t clogged yet I keep my mouth shut, even though it’s a pretty solid expense (because I am picky about TP and only use good stuff). The idea isn’t to use less of something than you need. The idea is to use exactly the amount of something that you need and… Read more »

Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate
Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate
10 years ago

“The rule of halves” is a great notion in our over-inflated lives. I remember watching something on PBS years ago which talked about this very concept. I wish I could remember the show, but it was when my now middle schooler was a baby.

I wrote a similar Non-Consumer Advocate post awhile back:

http://thenonconsumeradvocate.com/2008/05/the-rule-of-halves/

Sadly, my children believe in the “rule of doubles,” which is why I buy our shampoo at the dollar store. 😉

Katy Wolk-Stanley
“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

mary
mary
10 years ago

Some of the commenters need to take time to read more carefully before they are so critical. Some things they seem to have missed: “wouldn’t suggest trying this with your prescriptions meds’, “The key is to get enough”,”making it easier to stick to our budget each week and possible to splurge on treats”,”a checkpoint for purchases”, “it helps me find balance”, and “enough to be happy without wasting”. Sounds pretty smart to me.

John G
John G
10 years ago

Cool idea. I suggest cutting back on the Chiropractor 100% though 🙂

Karen
Karen
10 years ago

I think this is a good example of something that takes a lot of energy and thought every day to accomplish, but you end up with very little to show for it. Shampoo, dish soap—these are not things that cost a lot in the first place, nor are they purchased often. I buy maybe 3 bottles a year of each of them. If I stopped buying them entirely I’d save maybe $10/year. Sorry, that isn’t worth my time! It makes more sense to consider cutting back on things that are more frequent and larger expenses. For example, cut back on… Read more »

Shari
Shari
10 years ago

I agree about cutting out the chiropractor. Their practices are designed to keep you coming back. I do not know anyone who a chiropractor has been able to “fix”….they just make you feel better temporarily, sometimes not even for a full day! A physical therapist or a real doctor will try to find a permanent fix so you can feel better all the time and not have to keep going back.

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
10 years ago

We’ve been cutting how much laundry detergent we use to half simply because using too much left too much residue on the clothes. A quarter to a half of those laundry scoops works great!

Otherwise, I’d have to agree with Karen (#29)…I rather worry about cutting the big stuff like fast food and entertainment than the little stuff like shampoo.

Overall though, I love the point…only use what you need and maximize the things that add value to your life. Sounds like good advice to me.

Early Retirement Extreme
Early Retirement Extreme
10 years ago

What if you applied the same principle to your income? The impact would be tremendous. It is called the 50 cent principle after all. Not the “half your soap” principle.

I’m surprised none of the comments picked up on that!?

ebyt
ebyt
10 years ago

Don’t skimp on the sunscreen or veggies, kids!

Lauren
Lauren
10 years ago

As a professional organizer, I try to help my clients see the bigger picture. Most clients come to me looking for help in achieving happiness in organization. I do my best to help them find organization that fits THIER life, not the other way around. That is going to be what works, and what ultimately provides the best balance between organization and happiness. I’m not sure about the OTC stuff, but I agree with the overall message of this post…trying to find that point where saving money and happiness intersect, and I can certainly respect that. My husband and I… Read more »

Tom
Tom
10 years ago

@30: “I do not know anyone who a chiropractor has been able to “fix”” You do now, Shari [/waves] I had severe back and neck issues a decade ago; went to a chiropractor for approx. three months. Sure, he wanted me to keep coming back regularly, but after a few months of adjustments I was feeling 100% better. I went back a couple of times for flare-ups, but the last time I saw him was around 01/02. I haven’t had an issue with my back in years. I’m sure the detractors will claim that the chiropractor didn’t actually do anything,… Read more »

partgypsy
partgypsy
10 years ago

I don’t particularly enjoy clothes shopping. So if I find a bra (or a tank top) that fits well, I’ll buy 2. I’ve never regretted doing this, though I have regretted the opposite (buying only 1 and then once it wears out not being able to find it again in the stores).

Rosa Rugosa
Rosa Rugosa
10 years ago

I’ve been experimenting with using a little less of some products (laundry detergent, fabric softener). It truly isn’t costing me much in the way of effort, and I’m not noticing less satisfactory results, so I think it’s worthwhile.

Ginsu Avenger
Ginsu Avenger
10 years ago

I’m taking this to the next level. During a cash crunch I bought my toiletry items in travel size and was amazed at how little you use when you have little to spare. Not to mention the space I saved. Being the only human in the house, a travel-size of toothpaste lasted quite a while, and there was no twisted behemoth of coagulated Colgate to throw away when it got too gross. Now that I have my mini-containers I’ll use the 50% solution and it may be a year before I have to surrender my precious dollars to Walgreen’s…………….BWAHAHAHAHAH!

L
L
10 years ago

I went to a chiropractor a few months ago because I was having major back pains, and am only 24. He treated me and I immediately felt better, but I realized within 24 hours I had shingles on my lower back, which was causing the pain. I got to my regular doctor four days after, and did take an anti-viral to speed up the process, but the pain was fairly manageable. I’m not saying all chiropractors/shingle cases/etc. are equal, but I do feel that getting the adjustment helped me deal with the pain/stress of shingles. A good, honest chriopractor would… Read more »

quinsy
quinsy
10 years ago

Love the principles… Conserving resources is something we don’t always take kindly to but I think we need to always be examining how we can make it a part of our lives… Just don’t take a half dose of OTC meds and then come to the emergency department to visit me because of your less than fully treated symptoms… 🙂 It is amazing how many people spend money on an emergency department visit when all they need is a throat lozenge or an ibuprofen… I am on the ‘chiropractors are a waste o money’ side, most back pain goes away… Read more »

Kelley
Kelley
10 years ago

We started doing this about a year ago. We use half a dishwasher tablet, half of a fabric softener sheet, and even reuse coffee filters the next day. For us it’s about saving a little bit of money, but also putting less into a landfill (plastic for laundry soap, extra coffee filters). It’s not always about the money, but sometimes it’s nice to save a buck!

Kat
Kat
10 years ago

I think the recommendation to use a half dose of OTC meds was made with good intentions. If you routinely take 2 Advil, try taking only one. Of course, you should be buying store-brand ibuprofen instead of Advil, unless you have a good coupon or sale that makes Advil cheaper than the generic. Obviously you need to be cautious about splitting pills, OTC or not… you should ask your pharmacist first. I found a hidden benefit of taking a lower dose of Benadryl. I switched to the generic children’s liquid form. The liquid form seems to work faster, and by… Read more »

megan r.
megan r.
10 years ago

about the chiropractor, i agree that a traditional chiropractor doesn’t really help in the long run. I always ask people, “Why traumatize your bones/muscles when they are already traumatized?” Now, of course we all think our own ways are the best, but I found a chiropractic technique that actually works. Its called directional non-force technique. I’ve been going since I was 9, and I usually only go in for 1 visit and I am done. The best part about my personal chiropractor is, he will let you know if he can’t help you. He doesn’t keep trying to milk money… Read more »

Saranicole
Saranicole
10 years ago

I’ve cut down on spending by figuring out which products I use that don’t have to be perfect – such as barbecue sauce, salad dressing – and using the easy DIY version instead. Especially in the case of trendy health foods – Hummus, I’m looking right at you – the ingredients are so much cheaper that over a period of time the savings add up. To the overall question of 50%, I agree with commenter Nicole that the standard serving size may be more than what I need, and the better practice is to take only what I will definitely… Read more »

Mark
Mark
10 years ago

I know that this isn’t exactly the same thing, but I’ve also always used a “50-Percent Rule” for my raise any time I have gotten one at work. I invest half of the raise amount, and the other half is fair game for spending in my monthly budget. Of the half that I invest, I typically split it in half again; half to general savings, and half to a retirement vehicle. Now that I have children, I also rotate in an increase to their 529 fund contributions. I don’t always beat inflation from year to year in my spendable budget,… Read more »

Torcant
Torcant
10 years ago

Nice article but completely wrong on health issues.
1. Don’t recommend cutting medication in half
2. Chiropractice is a scam. You’re already wasting tons on it and it dwarfs all other efforts

Ajtacka
Ajtacka
10 years ago

I agree 100% with this post, even about the painkillers and chiropractors. I used to get very bad headaches almost every day, I went through ibuprofen very, very quickly and it was beginning to affect my work. My sister recommended her chiropractor, and over about 3 months my visits were reduced (by him) from twice a week to ‘whenever you need’. The following 3 months I went maybe twice, and never since. That was about 8 years ago. The same chiropractor also told off my brother-in-law for coming in too often! After about 2 more sessions he didn’t need to… Read more »

Lynette
Lynette
10 years ago

I discovered a cool trick for automatically reducing our (mother of 5) consumption of anything coming from a pump dispenser (without diluting it – a pet peeve). You know the pointy, colorful, eraser tops you can buy for extending the life of your pencil once the eraser is used up? Well, if you take one of these and cut the pointy dome off…using only the round part that fits snuggly on the pencil…then slice it open at one point so that you can ‘snap’ it around the dispenser pump, you will find it automatically governs the amount dispensed. Now when… Read more »

Jess
Jess
10 years ago

All right, a bunch of you are going to think that this is really dumb but here goes: I own a pony, and about two years ago she went lame (limping, stiff, obviously in pain). So we had the vet out. Vet does normal vet stuff, recommends that we inject her hocks (pricey). We do it. Pony is still lame. Vet comes back out recommends that we inject her back. We do it. Pony is still lame. We notice that one of the pony’s hips is higher than the other. Obviously, at this point traditional veterinary medicine isn’t solving this.… Read more »

Phyllis
Phyllis
10 years ago

We learned in my marketing 101 class that shampoo companies DOUBLED their sales with one simple word: “Repeat.” In case you haven’t already figured this out, it isn’t necessary to soap up twice.

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