Extraordinary Uses for Household Staples You Already Own

via Reader's Digest

Save time and money with these ingenious tips for getting more out of the stuff you already have

From The Book: Extraordinary Uses for Ordinary Things



YOU CAN’T ALWAYS get what you want. That’s a lesson our parents and the Rolling Stones have long made clear, but we’ve relearned it the hard way this year as the pandemic has disrupted so much in our lives. That doesn’t mean you have to accept defeat, however, or even delay. These 39 items are domestic superheroes: They have secret skills that can save your bacon—not to mention the dirty frying pan—in a pinch. There they sit, minding their own business under your sink, in your fridge, or in that grab bag drawer. They look so ordinary. Yet once you discover their powers, they will save you unwanted trips to the store, expensive visits from the handyman, gnashing of teeth, and more.


SUBSTITUTE FOR YEAST: Looking to make a loaf of bread? Mix one teaspoon each of powdered vitamin C (or citric acid) and baking soda. What’s more, the dough you add it to won’t have to rise before baking.

REPLACE BAKING POWDER: Substitute two parts cream of tartar mixed with one part each baking soda and cornstarch. The cornstarch slows the reaction between the acidic cream of tartar and the alkaline baking soda, which helps the compound maintain its leavening power longer.

PROTECT VEGGIES IN THE FRIDGE: Line your refrigerator’s crisper drawer with paper towels. They will absorb the moisture that causes your fruits and vegetables to rot. When the lining gets dirty, just throw it out and replace with fresh paper towels.

KEEP FRUIT FRESH: Do your berries and grapes get moldy before you’ve had a chance to enjoy them? Store them in a colander—not a closed plastic container—in the refrigerator. The cold air will be able to circulate through the holes and around the fruit, keeping it fresher for days.

REVIVE SOGGY LETTUCE: Don’t toss those sorry leaves in the garbage. Add the juice of half a lemon to a bowl of cold water, put the soggy lettuce in it, and refrigerate for about an hour. Make sure the leaves are completely dry before using them in salads or sandwiches.

TENDERIZE MEAT: Soaking inexpensive cuts of meat in vinegar for up to four hours doesn’t just break down tough fibers; it also reduces carcinogenic compounds that form during grilling. Experiment with different vinegar varieties for added flavor, or simply use apple-cider vinegar or distilled vinegar. Just be sure to rinse the meat off before cooking.

SAVE A BOTTLE OF WINE: If the cork breaks apart when you open a bottle, no problem. Pour the wine through a coffee filter. It will catch everything but the liquid.


GET RID OF SOAP SCUM: Spritz that gunk with cooking spray and let it sit for a couple of minutes. The scum will come off with just a swipe of a towel. Then wash the surface with soap and water.

ELIMINATE GREASE STAINS: Rub some chalk on greasy spots on clothes or table linens and let it absorb the oil before you brush it off. If the stain lingers, rub more chalk into it before laundering. To get rid of ring-around-the-collar stains, mark them heavily with chalk before laundering to absorb the oils that hold in dirt.

REPEL DUST FROM YOUR SCREENS: Because televisions and computers are electrically charged, they attract dust. Fabric softener sheets will get them clean and keep them that way.

RESCUE A RUG: If you’ve spilled coffee or tea on the carpet, there’s another tasty beverage that can clean the mess: beer. Rub a few teaspoons (or more, if you made a really big mess) lightly into the fabric. Flat beer will also polish up your wood furniture.

DISSOLVE TARNISH ON SILVERWARE: Grab some potatoes and boil them up. Remove them from the water and save them to eat later. Then place your silverware in the potato water and let it sit for an hour. Remove and wash it. The tarnish should have disappeared.

UNSTICK GUM: Got chewing gum smooshed into the carpet or on the wall? WD-40 will loosen it. This works on wax drippings too.

REMOVE WATER STAINS FROM FURNITURE: Did your guests somehow miss the coasters? To get rid of those annoying white rings left by moist glasses, gently rub some non-gel toothpaste on the wood with a soft cloth. Wipe it off with a damp cloth and let the area dry.

LIFT A SCORCH MARK: If you singe your favorite shirt with a hot iron, wet the area and cover it with cornstarch. Allow the cornstarch to dry, then brush it away.


UNCLOG A BATHROOM SINK—WITHOUT A PLUNGER: Cut off and discard the top third of an old tennis ball. Place the open end of what remains over the clogged drain. Block the overflow hole with a damp cloth and run a small amount of water into the basin to make a seal with the edge of the ball. Using the ball of your hand, plunge down hard and fast.

CLEAR A BLOCKED DRAIN: If the tennis ball plunger doesn’t work, pour in half a cup of baking soda and let it sit for a few minutes. Then add one cup each of vinegar and hot water. Cover with the stopper for ten minutes, then flush with hot water. Repeat, and plunge, if needed.

FILL A CRACK IN THE FLOOR: Crayons make great fill material for small scratches, gouges, or holes in many floors. Select the color that most closely matches yours. Melt the crayon in the microwave over waxed paper on medium power, a minute at a time, until you have a pliant glob of color. Now, with a plastic knife or putty knife, fill the hole. Smooth it over with a rolling pin, a book, or some other flat object. You don’t even need to sand it.

SUBSTITUTE GLUE: Egg whites can act as a replacement when you need to adhere some paper or light cardboard together.

ADD INSULATION: Cut window-sized pieces of wide Bubble Wrap, then duct-tape them to windows for extra warmth and savings on winter fuel bills. Don’t like the look? Lowering the blinds will make it less noticeable, and keeping them closed once the sun goes down will save on fuel bills too.

JUMP-START THE FIREPLACE: Dried orange and lemon peels make even better kindling than newspaper. Not only do they smell better and produce less creosote than newspaper, but the flammable oils found inside the peels enable them to burn much longer. Don’t want to wait for the peels to dry out? Put them on a cookie sheet in a 200°F oven for 25 to 30 minutes.

RESCUE A DROWNING LAPTOP: You just spilled water on your computer. Now what? Power down and disconnect any accessories. Open the screen at a right angle, then place the laptop upside down on a dry towel overnight in a warm, well-ventilated place. The next day, blast air into the machine for 15 minutes with a hair dryer set to the lowest heat setting. Keep it about six inches above the keyboard and move it constantly to avoid creating hot spots.

REPAIR A SCRATCHED PHONE SCREEN: For shallow scratches, first clean the affected area using a fresh, lint-free cloth dipped in water. Wipe it dry with a second lint-free cloth. Then rub the affected area lightly with a clean, soft pencil eraser, following the direction of the scratch. You might need to repeat this several times before the scratch disappears.

HALT A WINDSHIELD CRACK: If you’ve developed a small crack in your windshield, stop it cold with some clear nail polish. Working in the shade, brush the crack on both sides of the glass with polish to fill it well. Move the car into the sun so the windshield can dry. But take note: This fix is only temporary. Try to get the glass replaced within a day or two at most.

FIX A LOOSE BATTERY: Got a battery that won’t stay in place in a flashlight? Ball up a piece of aluminum foil and put it at the bottom of the cannister.
MAKE AN EMERGENCY SHOELACE: If you’ve busted a sneaker lace, cut off a piece of duct tape that’s as long as you need and rip off twice the width you need. Fold the tape in half along its length, sticky side in. Thread your new lace onto your sneaker and tie it up.


FERTILIZE YOUR PLANTS: Don’t throw out those old coffee grounds. They’re full of nutrients that your acid-loving plants crave. Save them to fertilize rosebushes, azaleas, rhododendrons, camellias, and evergreens.

REPEL INSECTS: Scatter a border of ashes from your fireplace around your garden to deter cutworms, slugs, and snails—ash sticks to their bodies and draws moisture out of them. Also sprinkle small amounts over garden plants to manage infestations of soft-bodied insects. Be warned: Since ash is alkaline, it shouldn’t be used on acid-loving plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons, hydrangeas, and mums.

KEEP FLOWERS FRESH: Cut flowers will stay perky longer if you add a copper penny and an aspirin to the vase water. And don’t forget to change the water daily.


DISINFECT A CUT: No rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide? An alcohol-based mouthwash can clean a shallow cut and disinfect your skin. Alternatively, you can dab a few drops of lemon juice directly on the cut.

TREAT MINOR BURNS: If you sustain a minor skin burn, quickly pour some baking soda into a container of ice water, soak a cloth or gauze pad in it, and apply it to the burn. Keep applying the solution until the burn no longer feels hot. This treatment will also prevent many burns from blistering. Another option: Apply vanilla extract. The evaporation of the alcohol in the vanilla extract cools the burn.

EASE ACHY SPOTS: For pain in your knee or other joints or muscles, rub in some warming liniment and wrap the area with plastic wrap. The wrap will increase the heating effect of the liniment. Test on a small area first to make sure your skin does not burn.

RELAX STIFF MUSCLES: If you prefer to soak your sore spots, take a bath in Epsom salts and throw in a few tablespoons of prepared yellow mustard. The mustard will enhance the soothing effects of the salts.

REMOVE A SPLINTER: You can avoid the agony of digging a splinter out with a needle by covering it with adhesive tape instead. After about three days, pull the tape off slowly, and the splinter should come out with it.

SAVE YOUR SHAVE: If you run out of shaving cream, try slathering some soft butter on your wet skin for a smooth, close shave.

MAKE A DEHUMIDIFIER: A humid closet, attic, or cellar can wreak havoc on your health as well as on your clothes. Get rid of all that humidity with homemade dehumidifiers. To make one, just put some charcoal briquettes in a large, clean, lidded can and punch a few holes in the lid. Place one or more in humid areas. Replace the charcoal every few months.

REPEL TICKS AND OTHER INSECTS: Going for a walk in the woods? Smear some mentholated chest rub on your ankles, wrists, and neck before you leave the house. It might not be your favorite scent, but gnats, mosquitos, and disease-carrying ticks hate it, and they’ll go in search of a sweeter-smelling victim.