My Fabric Softener Epiphany

I was preparing to go to Kroger for some groceries and household items last week when I asked my partner if he had anything he needed me to pick up. I volunteered that I knew we were out of dryer sheets so I already had those on the list.

“Well, then you can go ahead and put fabric softener on there, too.”

For an instant, I thought he had lost his mind and the world had turned upside down. What on earth was he asking me to do?


The habits and routines we set up for ourselves are powerful things.

In my case, I am still struggling to escape the pervasive thriftiness of my earlier adult years. As I sunk into credit card debt in my 20s, I became more and more thrifty (also known as “cheap”) with my everyday expenses. It was part of a schizophrenic cycle of treating myself to occasional clothes purchases and restaurant meals that I couldn’t afford (and therefore charged on my cards), on the one hand; and, on the other, following a strict budget for my everyday purchases because of my limited income.

Gradually my cards became maxed out or their minimum payments were eating up my meager budget, so the splurges mostly stopped. By the early 2000s, I was only operating on the thrifty side of the spectrum. I remember spending $15-$20 per week on groceries and treating myself to dollar value menu specials at Checkers and Taco Bell. Aside from bills, I was spending less than $50 a week. This went on for years.

Now here I am nearly 20 years later, with a professional job, a substantial portion of my earnings going to savings, and the ability to take vacations and take care of unexpected expenses that would have devastated subsistence-era me. I’m aware that the sudden fragility of the economy in the wake of the impact of the novel coronavirus could easily take me down a few notches, but so far, so good.

But occasionally I find myself blindsided by remnants of that prior version of myself, still   manifesting itself in the most mundane of ways. The request for fabric softener last week was one of those manifestations. When it occurred, I experienced two knee-jerk responses. First, there was a belt-and-suspenders alert; dryer sheets already soften laundry, so why buy the liquid? Second, and less logically, came the thought: we can’t afford to buy that!

The second thought snapped me back to reality. In point of fact, I’ve been able to buy fabric softener without endangering my financial solvency for ten years or more. But somewhere in my brain, a belief was hard-coded: dryer sheets are much cheaper, perform the same function, and won’t cause me to scramble to pay my other bills. Never buy fabric softener again.

(In truth, washing machines also used to require you to add the fabric softener at a specific point in the cycle, and I didn’t care to have to remember to go back to the machine at that moment. So it’s only fair to mention the ease-of-use, as well.)

This moment of contemplation broke the spell I’d been under. I had a sudden, luxurious thought: I can buy dryer sheets AND liquid fabric softener! And if I buy it myself, I can feel free to use it on my own laundry! In an instant I experienced the rush other, more normal people, must feel when they slip behind the wheel of a new sports car they’ve just purchased.

So I went from a moment of resistance to full-scale excitement about throwing Downy in my cart and having my laundry smell and feel ways it’s never smelt or felt for the past quarter-century!

Fast forward a week to the first load of laundry I washed with my newly acquired luxury good. As I looked down on my washing machine, the little compartment to the left of where I pour in detergent came into focus–I had barely noticed it before. It looked hungry, and with relish I fed it the beautiful, viscous, baby-blue liquid that I had withheld for years. And then I waited for a couple of hours as the washer and dryer completed their work on my clothes. In a stubborn nod to my thriftiness, I only allowed myself one dryer sheet this time–after all, I had already used fabric softener in the wash cycle (and barely half a capful at that–less is usually more!).

Then, the magic moment. I pulled the clothes from the dryer and folded them. The smell and feel of the clothes was top-notch. I took in the moment and felt the value of the experience. Although I did not realize it at the time, this was a final, well-plotted step to breaking the ingrained, hard-coded, no-fabric-softener rule that had held silent sway over my clothes and linens for lo, these many years.

I will now make fabric softener part of my permanent shopping list. And I look forward with relish to the next discovery, the next everyday item I told myself I was fine without. It will no doubt unlock another realm of luxury and further fortify my existence.


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