I just went into the kitchen to fix myself a nice cozy cup of tea to enjoy as my evening winds down. I forgot for a moment that such a mindless task in this house is an undertaking that requires memory skills and fortitude.

Before me on the kitchen counter laid an assortment of sad-looking used tea bags. Here’s the thing: At this house we don’t just reach for a fresh tea bag from the cabinet shelf. Instead, we recycle our bags because they are “good to the last drop!” (This not-so-useful expression is a holdout from childhood.) Our tea bag rules keep me on my toes and are right up there with solving a Sukoku or a word scramble.

Sipping a simple cup of tea in this house reminds me of those multiple-choice tests we took in school: Can you remember what the tea bag with the tag cut in half means?

A.) It means the bag has been used only once.

B.) It means the bag has been used more than twice and needs to be dunked with another used bag to get a weak-flavored cup of tea.

C.) It means the tea bag is the last of its kind and this is our reminder to buy more.

In addition, there are bags with just the corner clipped off and bags with no tag. Each means something different around here. That latter one is the real challenge, for I don’t know what flavor of tea I’m getting when the tag is gone.

As I stared at the numerous tea bags crowding their little bodies on the spoon rest, I began to think of other such frugal measures that exist in this household. And right there before my eyes was another example. The Keurig pods.

I didn’t know that those small pods could be reused for a second and maybe a third cup of coffee, depending how fond you are of drinking light-brown heated water.

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I’m pretty sure every family has rituals and idiosyncrasies like the tea-bag tagging system that make perfect sense to them as they go about their daily routines.

I remember when, growing up, we used to think our parents’ frugal ways (“Clean your plate, other children are starving”) rested with the fact that they were products of the Great Depression. I’m not certain what accounts for such behavior in this family.

For instance, although most clothing items nowadays come with washing instructions, this house doesn’t stop there. Indeed, suggested laundry directions to extend the life of my husband’s jeans go something like this:

If the jeans have a black magic-marker circle on the tag, that means they fit well right now and are to be dried in a warm dryer or, better yet, just dried for a few minutes and then hung up to finish air-drying.

If the tag has no black circle, then those jeans can be dried hot for a longer amount of time. They were a bit big, and the drying might help them shrink. (This is a system that is no longer used, for after several washings, the black dot washed off, and with it our ability to discern the difference. Oh darn.) Sweatpants and T-shirts have the tags cut out before wearing them, so there are no washing instructions to even give me a chance to get those right.

There are also washing rules to increase the longevity of socks. A sock placed in the laundry turned inside out should eventually hook up with another inside-out sock, because those are older and the elastic is wearing out. Socks with right sides turned out end up together because they have lots of spring in their step yet.

I have learned that toothpaste tubes can be squeezed within an inch of their lives and then cut in two to scrape out the minuscule remnants of paste yet stuck inside. All bottles, be they shampoo or ketchup, can be turned upside down to use the very last drops.

As dinnertime draws near, I might ask, “What do you want to eat tonight?” The reply might be, “Is there anything we need to use up in the fridge or cabinets so it doesn’t go bad?” Yes sir, forget a pleasant evening meal based on desire. Let’s use up the hunk of cheese with a little blue on the edges, the last piece of bread in the sack, and last night’s tofu burger with no bun. Yum!

Donna Reed of Champaign is a freelance writer.

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