The Nickel Pincher: Spring-Cleaning, Naturally (and Affordably)

You can freshen up your house without blowing your budget.

April 9, 2009

Clean and green: Make your own window cleaner and keep harsh chemicals out of your air.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Spring is here! Some of the coming days will be chilly, of course, and we will certainly have frost on some nights for a few more weeks. But as I look around our farm, I see the early daffodils have joined the exuberant purples and yellows of the late crocuses, the apricot trees down in the orchard are draped in dainty pink flowers, and three adorable white lambs are frolicking with their wooly moms. Everything outside looks fresh and clean, and even I—the most casual of housekeepers—feel inspired to make the inside of my home look and smell the same way.


Most of the cleaning products on your supermarket’s shelves are overpriced, and loaded with nasty stuff that is far worse for you than the grime and dirt it promises to remove. So let’s take a look at how to go about basic cleaning the ecofriendly AND economical way. You can buy good all-natural cleaning products in just about any supermarket these days—but it pays to check the ingredients list first, as there are no regulations as to just what “natural” means on a cleaning product. It pays even more to make these cleaners on your own. Doing so will cost you far less money in the long run, and it’s easier on the environment since your cleaning won’t depend on generating dozens of single-use plastic bottles, putting toxic chemicals down the drain and into the air, or shipping stuff (mostly water) all over the country.

More tips on natural cleaning, anytime:
Keep your air fresh: 4 Ways to Clean Your House without Polluting Your Air
Save time and money doing laundry: 9 Laundry Tips for Cleaner Clothes, Lower Costs
Avoid harsh dry-cleaning chemicals: Dry Clean Only? Nah, There Are Cheaper, Safer Ways
Mix your own green cleaners: How to Make Green Cleaning Recipes That Really Work

Here are some of my favorite ecofriendly, economical cleanser recipes, and how I use them:

Window Cleaner
¼ cup vinegar
½ teaspoon natural liquid soap (optional; I use natural dish liquid or Dr. Bronner’s)
2 cups water

Put all ingredients in a spray bottle and shake to blend. If you want to, you can add a single drop of blue food coloring if you need convince your family that it really is window cleaner.

To use it, spray onto the glass, covering as much as you can finish in a few minutes at a time, scrub as needed with the rough side of a kitchen sponge, and squeegee off. Use a cotton cleaning cloth to dry off the blade of the squeegee between swipes, and to wipe up any liquid that puddles at the bottom edges of the windowpanes. Toss the cleaning cloths in the wash basket, and enjoy your sparkling windows.

Almost Everything Cleaner
2 teaspoons borax
1 teaspoon washing soda (not baking soda)
Hot water
4 tablespoons vinegar
½ teaspoon natural liquid soap (I use natural dish liquid or Dr. Bronner’s)
¼ teaspoon tea tree oil
8 drops rosemary oil
8 drops tangerine oil
8 drops lavender oil

Dissolve borax and washing soda (you’ll find both in the laundry boosters section of the supermarket) into 2 cups very hot water, strain the mixture through a very fine sieve, and funnel into a 1-quart spray bottle (or pour in slowly, leaving behind any undissolved powder). Add the rest of the ingredients (you can find essential oils at a health-food store) and shake to blend. Top off with more hot water and shake again.

This spray cuts through even the greasiest grime, and the essential oils help chase away germs and odors while leaving behind a delightful (and healthy) fragrance. The ingredients will cost you a bit more up front than buying a bottle of ready-made cleaner would, but in the long run they will make dozens of bottles of cleaner, costing far less per bottle.

To use, spray onto any hard surface, scrub as needed with the rough side of a kitchen sponge (give really yucky areas an extra squirt and a few extra minutes to soften before sponging), and wipe off dirt and cleaner with a dry cotton cleaning cloth. Toss the cleaning cloth (I use cloths cut from old terrycloth towels) in the wash basket when you’re done.

Floor Cleaner
You can use either of the above cleaners to wash your floor, but plain vinegar and water will do most jobs just fine and won’t leave a haze on shiny surfaces. If you are spry, just scrub the floor as you would any other surface. If you prefer to stand comfortably while making your floor shine, get yourself a flat-pad-type mop (I have a Swiffer Sweeper I’ve been using for at least 15 years; it has four little grippers designed to hold the brand’s disposable pads, but they hold real cloth just fine) and a stack of terrycloth rectangles cut to fit it. If your sweeper came with an attached bottle, as mine did, you can fill the bottle with the cleaner of your choice, or simply use a spray bottle adjusted to release a loose stream.

Mold and Mildew Cleaner
If you need a little extra cleaning power for an area that has gotten moldy or mildewed, spray it generously with undiluted vinegar. Allow the vinegar to work for a few hours (overnight for bad cases) and then wipe the area dry. Use a fan to completely dry it. Follow up by determining why the area was damp enough to allow the problem to develop in the first place, and fix leaks and/or improve ventilation to prevent a repeat. Vinegar has been shown to kill 82 percent of mold strains, so chances are it will do the trick. If it doesn’t, get a bottle of pure grapefruit-seed extract, mix 20 drops into 2 cups of water, and spray the mix onto the area. In the unlikely event you still have problems, mix 2 teaspoons of tea tree oil into 2 cups of water and spray the area with that. Tea tree oil kills virtually all molds, but its distinctive smell will linger for a few days.

Farm gal, library worker, and all-around spendthrift Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on

Tags: eco home