Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Money Crashers: Can You Live Without a Car?

About a year after Brian and I got married, I sold my car and we became a one-car family. It was a pretty easy decision for us, since my car had been sitting mostly unused throughout that year. I was working from home by them, so I didn't need it for commuting; it was only trotted out for the occasional trip to the store or the doctor's office during the day. And since Brian was only using his car to get to work when the weather was too bad for bike riding, most of the time I could just take that car if I happened to need one.

So for the past eleven years or so, not only have we limited ourselves to one car, but that one has spent a lot of time just sitting in the driveway. Brian rides his bike to work whenever the weather allows, and I do most of my errands during the day on foot. Even when the car is available, I generally prefer to walk if I can, because I enjoy walking a lot more than driving (and worse still, parking) in city traffic.

And yet we've never seriously considered the idea of dumping the one car we have and going completely car-free. Every time we think about it, it quickly becomes obvious that there are just too many places we can't easily get to without a car. We could, in theory, take a bus or a train down to Princeton every week for dance practice instead of driving (though we would no longer be able to run other errands en route, and even shopping in town would be a lot more difficult). And we could fly to Indiana to visit his family every Christmas, though it would be both expensive and stressful. But there's literally no way we could get to my parents' house from ours without a car. It's too far to go by bike, and the roads aren't that safe for cycling anyway—and the nearest bus and train stations are miles away from where they live. Theoretically, I guess, we could take a cab (or an Uber), but it wouldn't be very convenient, and it would probably end up costing us more per year than our paid-off car does.

So living without a car just doesn't work for us. But that doesn't mean that it couldn't work for you.

In my latest article for Money Crashers, I explore the topic of car-free living in detail. I talk about the pros and cons of a car-free life and examine the various alternatives to car ownership, including foot power (walking, cycling, and in-line skates), public transportation, and using cars that belong to other people (through carpooling, taxis, ride sharing, car sharing, and rentals). Then I offer a step-by-step guide to crunching the numbers so you can figure out whether you could reasonably replace your car with some combination of these alternatives.

Perhaps you'll find, as we did, that the answer is no—and that's okay. The point is to get a clear idea of how your life could look without a car, so you can make an informed decision.

But on the other hand, maybe after looking at all the alternatives, you'll realize that living without a car really is the best option for you. In that case, count yourself lucky. By giving up your car, you can save lots of money, improve your health by exercising more, and reduce your stress levels by driving less. And, of course, you get the satisfaction of knowing that you've personally lopped a big chunk off your personal carbon footprint.

As MasterCard would put it: "New bicycle: $500. Bike lock: $30. Helmet: $20. Being able to tell people you don't own a car: Priceless."

Can You Live Without a Car? – Cost Savings, Benefits & Alternatives

Monday, October 24, 2016

DIY desk dingus

When I upgraded my computer a few weeks ago, the one piece of software that I had to ditch completely was the pair of apps that came with my camera. I can't say I was really sorry to see them go, because they'd always been incredibly clunky to use; you had to plug in the camera and use one piece of software to download all the pictures from it, then close that and open a different piece of software to view the pics, and then manually copy the files from that program and paste them into the folder on my hard drive where I keep images for uploading to this blog. The whole system was one big ugly kludge, but I put up with it because it was the only way I had of getting the images off the camera and onto the computer.

With my new OS, however, the software no longer worked, and the camera was so old that no upgrades were available for it. So after some experimenting, we concluded that the best way to get the pictures off the camera would be to buy a little microSD card reader that I could just pop the camera's card into directly. That only cost about 15 bucks at NewEgg.com.

This setup worked fine, and it was a lot easier to use than the old system, but it made my desk a bit cluttered. I had the little Mac mini itself sitting next to the monitor, a USB hub plugged into that (for the camera and various other peripherals that are used only occasionally, such as a webcam), an external hard drive, a pair of speakers, and a power strip that holds the plug for my monitor and the charger for the camera battery. The little gadgets all stuck out at odd angles, and the various cords that connected them looked exactly like chew toys to our cats.

I searched Staples and other office supply sites for an organizer to corral all these little gadgets, but I couldn't find anything suitable, so Brian generously offered to custom-build one for me. First, he constructed a simple stand out of scrap wood that would fit over the top of the Mini.

This would hold the USB hub and the card reader side by side, with the cord from the card reader plugged into the back of the hub and the cord for the hub extending out the back and down to the power strip below.

To plug the card reader into the hub, he had to raise it up to the same level, so he added a block for the card reader to sit on. He added two little blocks in the back to hold it in place. Then, to hold the hub in place next to it, he cut a wooden frame to fit snugly around the back of the hub.

He glued the block and the frame to the bottom of the stand. With those in place, both peripherals would stay fixed in position and aligned with the front of the stand.

Once that was done, he added a top piece. He glued the wooden frame for the USB hub to the top as well as the bottom to keep it extra secure. (The card reader wasn't completely snug against the top of the stand, so he shimmed it up with a piece of cardboard cut from a raisin bran box.)

At this point, the stand did everything it really needed to do, but he went the extra mile to make it look nice. First, he stained the outside with some leftover stain in a dark color. (I believe it's "Rosewood," the shade we used on our living-room futon frame.)

Then, he made a face plate for it out of some thin wood, and stained that piece to match.

Then came the hard part: cutting the holes in the face plate for the slots of the hub and the card reader. He measured carefully to get the positions exactly right and traced their outlines onto the wood. Then he cut around the outlines with an Exact-o knife and used a woodworking tool to scrape away the plywood from the middle. It wasn't the most elegant way to do the job, but it worked.

He wanted the face plate to be screwed on rather than glued, so it could be removed to pull the peripherals out if necessary. Initially, he used a pair of wood screws, but their bright steel heads clashed with the dark finish, so he ended up replacing them with darker-colored drywall screws. 

The finished stand sits next to my desk and keeps everything neatly contained. The hub and the card reader are tucked inside the stand, the power strip sits neatly next to it, and the external hard drive rests on top.

The best part, from my ecofrugal standpoint, is that the whole gadget was made from materials we had on hand: scrap wood, stain, screws, and glue. So while he invested a fair amount of time in building it, he didn't spend a penny on materials. And this free, handmade contraption does a much better job containing the clutter on my desk than any fancy organizer the tech world has to offer.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Money Crashers: Is Daylight Savings Time Helpful or Harmful?

Lately, I seem to have more and more trouble getting myself out of bed in the morning. Then, by the time bedtime comes at night, I just don't feel ready to sleep, and it takes me a while to drop off.

If this were happening at any other time of year, I might think I needed to see a doctor. But right now, I suspect, the problem is that Daylight Saving Time is going on too long.

Back when I was a kid, Daylight Saving Time lasted only from the end of April through the end of October—six months out of the year. In 1986, when I was a teen, the start of DST got bumped back to early April, so we were spending more time on DST than we were on "Standard" time. And in 2005, DST got extended to a full eight months, starting in early March and lasting all the way until the start of November. Pushing the end of DST later in the fall was touted as a benefit for the kiddies, who would be able to go trick-or-treating in daylight (as if there were any fun in that).

Anyway, the point is, my internal clock expects DST to last for six months, seven at the most. As the days start getting shorter in October, my body starts wondering: shouldn't we be back on Standard Time by now? No? What about now? It's the end of the month...how about now?

Now, Congress had its reasons for extending DST back in '86 and again in '05. Allegedly, this move was supposed to save energy, improve traffic safety, and reduce violent crime. (The fact that it also made it possible to keep playing golf later in the day, resulting in massive pro-DST lobbying from the golf industry, was supposedly just a bonus.) But has it actually served those purposes?

Well, according to my research, yes and no. In my latest Money Crashers article, I delve into the effects of DST on energy use, crime, and traffic...as well as some effects on health, workplace safety, and the economy, which Congress didn't consider. And the upshot of it all seems to be that, yes, DST is good for some things...and really, really bad for others. So basically, whatever benefits we gain from resetting our clocks twice a year may be offset completely by the damage the time change does to our health and our productivity.

The issue is more complicated than that, of course, so if you really want to get a handle on it, check out the full article: Is Daylight Savings Time Helpful or Harmful? – History & Effects. It explores the various upsides and downsides of DST, then goes on to evaluate some suggestions for fixing the system to get more of the pros without so many cons.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Super Umami Quinoa

This month's Recipe of the Month came about sort of by accident. We had this container of Streit's quinoa that we'd picked up on a lark last spring, when it was on sale as a Passover-friendly grain substitute. (Quinoa is technically a seed, not a grain, and therefore most rabbis consider it acceptable for Passover as long as it's not processed with any forbidden grains.) But since we don't actually know any recipes that call for quinoa, the container had just sat in our pantry for several months, and Brian thought it was probably time we found some way to use it up.

So he started experimenting. First he tried some of it in place of the couscous in our favorite couscous salad from The Clueless Vegetarian. That experiment actually turned out remarkably well—even better than when we tried it with kasha last year—and will probably become a regular part of our summer supper repertoire. We may even start making the dish with quinoa instead of couscous as the default option, since it's apparently super nutritious. (According to Authority Nutrition, a cup of cooked quinoa has 222 calories, 8 grams of protein, 5 grams of fiber, and loads of minerals—and it's "usually grown organically" even if it doesn't say so on the label. And, of course, it's also suitable for all our gluten-free friends.)

So, emboldened by this success, he decided to try inventing a quinoa dish so completely from scratch, just throwing in whatever he could find in the fridge. We had a pound of mushrooms and a small red pepper from the garden, and he thought if he cooked these together with the quinoa, he could make a sort of pilaf. To make sure it had enough flavor, he also added garlic, walnuts, and some soup stock made with our favorite vegetable soup base from Penzey's, which packs enough flavor punch to liven up even the dullest soup.

By the time it was done, however, he feared he might have gone a little overboard. The finished dish didn't look all that appetizing—it was sort of an amorphous brown mass—and after tasting it, he warned me that it actually might have "too much umami." (Umami, for those who don't know, is a Japanese word that translates roughly as "savory." It's one of the five basic flavors that our tongues can distinguish without any assistance from our sense of smell, along with bitter, salty, sour, and sweet.)

To my tongue, however, this dish actually tasted a lot better than it looked. There was plenty of umami, for sure, but I didn't find it overpowering. And the soft-cooked veggies, chewy quinoa, and crunchy walnuts made for a pleasing combination of textures. The only problem with it was that Streit's quinoa apparently isn't cleaned all that well, so every so often you bite down on a hard piece of chaff or sand or something that shouldn't be in there. But made with some other quinoa, I think it would be fine.

If you want to try it for yourself, here's how:
  1. Saute 1 pound sliced mushrooms, 1 chopped red bell pepper, and 2 minced garlic cloves in olive oil in a large cast-iron skillet until the veggies start to soften. 
  2. Add 1 cup quinoa, 2 cups rich vegetable broth (can be made with Penzey's soup base according to the directions on the can) and 1 cup water. Stir to mix, then top with 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  3. Cover the pan and cook on low until the liquid is absorbed, uncovering the pan once in a while to give it a stir.
So will we make this dish again? Well, probably not in this exact form. Brian wasn't all that wild about it, and while I liked it fine, it's not a dish I'd request specially. But we will almost certainly continue to experiment with quinoa in the future, so perhaps some later Recipe of the Month will be influenced by this one.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Money Crashers: 5 Ways to Reuse Items to Save Money and Reduce Waste

Last weekend, Money Crashers published my latest post, which is all about the idea of reuse. However, I didn't immediately post a link to it here, because I wanted to focus on getting out my other post about tidying up my life for the new year, which included upgrading my computer and cleaning out my closet. It wasn't until I finished that post that I realized the two topics were actually thematically linked.

See, one way to reuse is to get more use out of the things you have by maintaining and repairing them. That's what I did recently with our window shades, and it's what I did with my computer by upgrading it. Some folks in my position would probably have decided that, after five years, it was  time for a whole new computer. But I preferred to stick with the one I had if at all possible—partly because I assumed it would be less hassle to upgrade than to shop for a new machine and then transfer all my files to it, partly because it would be cheaper, and most of all, because I didn't want to discard a computer that still worked. So instead of heading for the mall (real or virtual), I just downloaded some software and spent a total of $150 instead of $500 or more.

Another way to reuse is to pass along items you don't need to someone else who can use them. And that's what I did when I cleaned out my closets: all the usable clothing got donated (except a few items I set aside to offer to friends and family), and all the non-usable clothing went into the textile recycling bin. Of course, I can't be sure Repurpose New Jersey will actually be able to use all of it, but at least I did everything I could to keep it from going to waste.

In the Money Crashers article, I explore these forms of reuse in detail, along with several others: replacing disposable items with reusable ones (as we've done with our rechargeable batteries), shopping secondhand (as I did this year during Thrift Week), using the sharing economy to spread out the use of one item among many people, and my favorite kind of all, creative reuse—turning trash into useful stuff, as Brian did with my magnet board and his hardback-book tablet case.

Read more about how you can choose to reuse, and the benefits of doing so, here: 5 Ways to Reuse Items to Save Money and Reduce Waste

Sunday, October 9, 2016

A time of renewal

Last Monday was Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish year. It's a time for reflecting on what was good and bad about the past year and what you'd like to change in the year to come. There's even a ritual called Tashlich, in which you toss bread crumbs into a river or lake to symbolize casting off your sins—or, if you're a more modern type of Jew, your personal shortcomings—so you can start the new year with a clean slate.

Well, I didn't go to any actual services this year, but I have been spending this past week cleaning up my life in a variety of ways. For starters, last weekend I finally took the plunge and decided to upgrade my computer. Ever since I got this computer five years ago, I've been using the same OS it came with, Snow Leopard (MacOS 10.6), never daring to upgrade because I feared that a new version of OSX would break all my software. Before I got this refurbished model, I'd tried a new one running Lion, or 10.7, and it was so impossible to work with that I decided I was just going to stick with what I had as long as it still worked.

However, for several months now, I've been seeing signs that "as long as it still worked" wasn't going to last much longer. Various websites started warning me that they would no longer work with my current browsers (I use both Firefox and Chrome), and I couldn't upgrade the browsers without upgrading the OS. Then the browsers themselves started popping up warning messages saying they were "no longer supported." Wordpress, the online editor I use with one of my clients, took to crashing unpredictably; without warning, my work would disappear and Chrome would pop up a message saying, "Oh snap! This page could not be loaded." Fortunately I always saved a backup copy in Word on my hard drive, since Wordpress had always been persnickety—but then Word itself started crashing when I tried to paste content from Workpress into it. I eventually realized that I was going to have to either upgrade or replace the whole machine, and I figured the upgrade would be—if it worked—the more ecofrugal option of the two.

Unfortunately, Apple came out with a brand-new OS about a week before I came to this conclusion—and this latest version, Sierra (10.12), was so advanced that I couldn't upgrade directly to it from Snow Leopard. So I had to upgrade first to the "interim version" of the previous OS, El Capitan, and then upgrade from there to Sierra. And once that was done, I had to download new versions of all my software: browsers, mail program, productivity software, and so on. The whole process took most of the weekend, but aside from the time involved, it actually went pretty smoothly; all my old documents are still readable, my old e-mails are still accessible, and my old bookmarks are still working. And the only piece of new software I actually had to pay for was the latest version of Office, which set me back about $150. (I would have just gone with the free open-source version, LibreOffice, but another of my clients requires its documents to be in Word form, and my editor there said that conversion between the two doesn't always work smoothly. So I had to spring for the paid software, but at least I can deduct it as a business expense.)

While Brian was busy fiddling with my computer, I was in the bedroom cleaning out my closet. This was another move that had been sort of brewing for a while; over the past year, I'd been pulling the odd unused item out of my wardrobe and tucking it into a bag of stuff I intended to either donate or discard—eventually. But after a while, I decided that the bag was just cluttering up the bedroom, and I should really go through my entire wardrobe properly, cull all the unwanted items, and donate the lot. So last weekend, I was in and out of the bedroom, trying on pretty much everything I own, periodically popping out to model an outfit for Brian and get a thumbs-up or thumbs-down from him before deciding.

Some of the choices were difficult for me because they were items I'd only bought recently. Like the velvet jacket I found at a rummage sale that was, on further examination, really too long for me—and not something I'd ever really have an occasion to wear, anyway. Or the pair of shoes I picked up at last month's town-wide yard sales after only a brief try-on, which proved, after more extensive wear, to be uncomfortably snug. If I decided to give these items away, it would be like throwing away the money I'd spent on them—which is something I just hate to do, even if it's only three bucks. But looking at it rationally, I was forced to conclude that there was no way I was going to get my money's worth out of these items by keeping them unused in my closet; they'd just be taking up space that could go to clothes I would actually wear and enjoy.

So item by item, the pile of clothing on my bed grew: pants I'd bought online that had never really fit me properly, too-long sweaters, oversized shirts. I refused to be swayed by sentiment: gifts from my late grandmother and the dress I wore to my sister's wedding were not spared the axe. The one exception was a long-sleeved shirt I've had for years, which I always loved because it looked so good on me, but which has now worn out to the point that the sleeves just develop new holes the minute I stitch up the old ones. So I merely cut the sleeves off that one, and I'm planning to try stitching up the armholes so I can continue to wear it at least a little while longer as a tank top.

Aside from that one item, all the clothes got sorted out into three piles. Items in good condition that I thought might look good on my friends or relatives were set aside to be offered to them the next time I see them. Items in good condition that were the wrong size for everyone I know went into a big box to be picked up by the war veterans' association. And items that weren't fit for anyone to wear went into a small bag to be dumped in the nearest textile recycling box. (It's a couple of miles from our house, but less than a mile from the H-Mart, so we just made a small detour to drop off the items on our latest grocery run.)

And while we were at it, Brian and I took the opportunity to do the "recycling rounds" of our town as well and get rid of some other hard-to-recycle items that had been accumulating in our house. We took a big batch of cereal-box liners, along with a couple of toothpaste tubes and deodorant canisters, to the Terracycle bin at the Reformed Church, then deposited a collection of plastic bags in the bag bin at the local Stop & Shop.

So, as the new year begins, our waste receptacles are empty, my computer is functioning, and my closet has been stripped down to the stuff that actually fits and is useful to me. I know, of course, that this situation won't last forever. The bins will fill up again; new "improvements" to software and websites will inevitably slow my computer down again; and the items in my closet will wear out or become less useful as my shape and/or my lifestyle change. But for the time being, at least, my year is off to a fresh start.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

How to repair Roman shades

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the difficulties we'd had repairing several things that had broken around our house. When our patio door broke, we had to get the glass professionally replaced, a job that ended up taking more than three weeks. Replacing our broken shower diverter knob was a job we were able to do ourselves, but it took us several trips to the home center and one unsuccessful purchase. And as for our tablet computer, it looks like we're going to have to replace the whole thing—or else decide to do without it.

More recently, however, we had a case that actually went the other way around: an item that we thought we'd have to replace turned out to be repairable. So I thought I'd share this story to show that sometimes a repair job does have a happy ending.

When we first moved into this house, over nine years ago now, we needed some window treatments for the kitchen. That room faces out onto the street, and we discovered that with the windows bare, passersby tended to glance in at us while we were eating, as if we were some sort of exhibit at the zoo. So we wanted something that would give us some privacy, but would still let in daylight even when closed, and could also be opened fully whenever we needed to open a window for ventilation. And, since it's a kitchen, it also had to be fairly simple and non-fussy. So we went to IKEA and picked up a basic pair of Roman shades in a lightweight fabric for just $8 each.

These served us well for several years, but after repeated use, the strings that rose and lowered the shades became weak and started to break. Brian kept tying knots in them to repair them, but eventually all those knots started to interfere with the operation of the shades. It was difficult to raise and lower them, and pretty much impossible to keep them level.

Now, normally, we'd just try to fix these by replacing the strings entirely. But Brian thought it might not be worth it in this case considering the condition of the shades. Over nine years of use, they'd developed a number of small rips and stains, and Brian thought it was only a matter of time before we'd have to replace them anyway. So he figured we might as well just shop for new shades now, rather than trying to repair something that was already on its last legs.

So we started searching for a new set of shades that would meet our needs. At first, we thought we could just get another set of Roman blinds, similar to what we have now. But when we checked out the selections during our recent trips to Home Depot and Lowe's, we realized you can't pick up something like this for eight bucks nowadays. Apparently at some point, someone decided that simple Roman shades like ours, with the strings exposed in the back, posed a strangulation hazard. So now there are two kinds of Roman shades: hidden-cord models, with the drawcord tucked between two layers of fabric, and cordless models, which have little magnets attached to the slats that are supposed to hold them up. The hidden-cord models, in addition to being pricey, are a lot more opaque than what we have now, so they'd make our kitchen a lot darker—and the cordless ones, as we discovered when we checked out a set at IKEA, don't always work very well. On the floor model, at least, the shade kept tumbling back down when we tried to hook it in place. And even if it had worked perfectly, the placement of the magnets would limit the use of the shade; it could only be raised or lowered to certain fixed positions determined by the placement of the slats. So there would be no way to adjust it to fit the height of our windows.

We considered other types of window treatments, but they all seemed to have serious drawbacks. Venetian blinds can be set to block the view or let in the light, but not to do both at once. Lightweight roller shades would work, but they're not very attractive. Honeycomb shades would be suitable, and they'd also help to insulate the windows, but we quickly realized our cats would shred them. Inexpensive matchstick blinds had the same problem. And sheer curtains might have worked, but they didn't seem very appropriate for a kitchen. I had the idea of trying to make curtains out of a loose-weave burlap, a rustic style I'd seen once on a decorating show, but Brian thought those would quickly turn into cat toys as well.

At this point, we started thinking that maybe it would be worth trying to repair the old shades after all. Sure, we'd still need to replace them eventually, but at least we wouldn't have to be in any hurry about it. With the old shades in working condition, we could take our time about searching for a replacement that could do exactly what we wanted at a reasonable price. We weren't sure whether restringing the shades would work, but we figured it was at least worth a try.

So we set out to try and find some suitable string for this job. The local drugstore and grocery store had some string for sale, but none that was thin enough to fit through the holes in the shade. The dollar store also had some that might have worked, but it looked rather flimsy and likely to break or fray. So we headed to the nearest Michael's, where we examined a wide variety of string selections in different materials, including cotton, nylon, and hemp. We eventually settled on an $8 ball of waxed cotton string, which looked narrow enough to fit through the holes and sturdy enough to hold up to the strain.

The most difficult part of the job, as it turned out, was getting this string off the ball. For some reason, it had been wrapped in such a way that neither end of the string was on the outside of the reel, and when we tugged on a loose bit, we just kept pulling out bigger and bigger loops of string that flung themselves out all across our kitchen. Eventually we managed to extract one loose end, and then we were able to get down to the actual job of restringing. And since a picture is worth a thousand words, I'll let the pictures I took do most of the job of explaining how we did it:

First, we laid out the entire shade on the table. As you can see, the strings run up the back from bottom to top, running through the fabric at each seam.

Then we cut off the original strings. We just cut them loose at the bottom and then pulled them clean through. We also cut off the two knobs that went on the ends of the drawcords, saving them so we could reuse them with our new cords.

Next, I threaded my largest needle (I think my sewing kit said it was a "sack needle") with the new string and started running it up through the shade, from bottom to top, making use of the holes that were already there.

I ran it out through the metal loop at the top and across to the second loop closer to the edge, where the drawcord would come down. I pulled it all the way down to the second pleat in the shade, so we knew we'd have plenty of cord to work with even when the shade was fully lowered.

Once I had the string to the length I wanted, I ran it through the knob we'd saved...

...and tied a knot to hold the knob on. As soon as I was sure it was secure, I cut off the extra string dangling past the knob.

The whole time I'd been doing this, the string was still attached to the reel. But once it was fully strung, Brian cut it off at the bottom and knotted it around the slat at the bottom of the shade to hold it in place, cutting off the excess.

Then we simply repeated this entire process on the other side. The only difference was that when I got to the top, I had to run the cord all the way across and thread it through both metal loops. That way, pulling on the two cords together raises both sides of the shade by an equal distance.

And once we had the first shade finished, knobs and all, we hung it back up and repeated all these steps with the second shade. The whole process, start to finish, took us probably half an hour.

The repaired shades aren't as good as new, of course. They're still stained in places, and they still have one or two small tears that haven't been repaired yet. But at least they work now, and they should hold up just fine until we finally manage to find something else we like. On the other hand, in light of our success with the strings, maybe we should actually take a crack at mending the tears and getting those stains out, as well. If we can get them looking decent again, we'd much rather keep them than spend money on a replacement that probably won't fit our needs nearly as well.