Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The SNAP Cookbook

After completing my Reverse SNAP Challenge last month, I thought to Google the phrase and see whether anyone else had also attempted this particular twist on the standard SNAP Challenge. I didn't find anyone who had, but my search led me to someone else who has come to many of the same conclusions I did about eating healthy on a SNAP budget. Canadian-born Leanne Brown, who moved to New York City to pursue a masters in food studies, was unimpressed with our country's food aid program, finding it less flexible than the assistance offered in Canada. She found that a lot of people relying on SNAP were eating a carb-heavy diet with lots of processed foods, but when she went looking for resources online about how to make healthy choices on a SNAP budget, everything she found was either "very governmental" or "too preachy." She concluded that "an appealing, tasty, practical, healthy set of recipes" would be a big help to many SNAP beneficiaries.

Her solution is Good and Cheap, a collection of recipes that's available online in PDF form at no charge. Since many people who use SNAP don't have Internet access at home, Brown also raised $145,000 through Kickstarter to make the book available in print form to those who need it. The print version isn't out yet, but you can pre-order copies on her website. She's set up a special pricing system so that you can buy your own copy for $20, but for a little extra, you can also donate copies to people who need them: $25 to donate one copy, $29 for two, and $100 for ten. (I must admit, I don't quite understand this price structure: the price per donation starts out at $5 for one copy, drops to $4.50 each for two, and then suddenly shoots up to $8 each for ten, which makes it far less efficient to donate multiple copies. It seems like the best use of money would be to make three $29 donations, so you could donate six books at $4.50 each, keep one copy for yourself, and give two as gifts. Nonprofits can order the books in bulk for $4 per copy, which coincidentally is the amount it costs to feed one person for one day with the recipes in the book.)

According to this article about Brown on the NPR blog "The Salt," one of the things that makes this cookbook special is its emphasis on flexibility, with "lots of options for substitutions, especially when it comes to the produce aisle, where prices can fluctuate based on season and availability." Brown says in the introduction to the book that her recipes "use ingredients common to most low-income New York City neighborhoods," but what's common in New York might not be common in Atlanta or Des Moines, so they also "encourage substitution based on availability, taste, and price." Brown doesn't always stick to cheap ingredients, either: paging through Good and Cheap, I found recipes that called for olives, fresh mozzarella, and shallots (though with this one she allowed for the substitution of an equivalent volume of onion). However, these high-end ingredients are minor components of the recipes, used to add flavor; the bulk of the ingredients are fresh veggies and grains. She gives an estimated price for each recipe, both in total and per serving, and it's rare for any dish to price out at more than $1.50 per serving even with the pricey ingredients. Substitute cheaper ones, and you could spend even less. Many of her recipes are variations on a basic dish, like oatmeal (13 cents a serving) or popcorn (25 cents), which allow you to eat the same inexpensive breakfast or snack for days on end without tiring of it. (Of course, I eat popcorn with just a touch of olive oil and salt every day and haven't tired of it yet, but many people crave more variety.)

One thing I found particularly interesting about Good and Cheap is that Brown seems to have come to many of the same conclusions I reached about healthy eating on a budget at the end of my Reverse Snap Challenge. For instance, I noted that "a cheap diet tends to be heavy on grains, light on meat," and this description fits most of the recipes in her cookbook. While it includes a few meat-centered dishes, like roast chicken and pulled pork, the bulk of her recipes "celebrate the vegetables rather than the meat." She also emphasizes the importance of cooking at home, saying "Kitchen skill, not budget, is the key to great food." And, like me, she recognizes that food availability is essential to eating well on a budget, which is why she designed her recipes to be flexible and allow for substitutions.

I downloaded Brown's book as soon as I discovered it, and so far we've tried two recipes from it. The first was her "Cold (Spicy?) Noodles," which appealed to me because it's heavy on cucumber, something we're dealing with a bumper crop of at the moment. She says to use one large cucumber to 12 ounces of noodles, but I think it could have taken even more cucumber without difficulty. Of the optional "additions" the recipe suggested, we chose peanut sauce and shredded carrot. The dish was hearty and flavorful, though both Brian and I agreed that it needed a little more soy sauce. However, perhaps with the optional spice oil, the flavor would have been high enough not to need it. Next time we might just use two chili peppers in the peanut sauce rather than one. This is also one of the few recipes that I think would be better if the cucumbers were peeled, at least partially; there's such a large volume of cucumber in it that the toughness of the skins is a distraction. Still, overall it was a very tasty dish that we felt no guilt about eating our fill of. The recipe claims to serve four, and that seems about right; it made one dinner for the two of us plus two subsequent lunches for me, with just a bit left over for today's lunch.

We also tried her "Brussels Sprout Hash and Eggs," since we happened to have some Brussels sprouts left over in the fridge after cooking a batch of our favorite Roasted Brussels Sprouts last weekend. This recipe calls for olives, which we didn't have and I don't like, so in the spirit of substitution, we compensated by adding a little more garlic and lemon juice. The result was pretty good, but not extraordinary. It's a quick and easy dish to prepare on a weeknight, but it seems like a waste to use Brussels sprouts on it when they could be roasted with garlic (mmm). If it had instead called for some more everyday vegetable, like cabbage, we might have been more impressed with it; as a cabbage recipe, it would be above average, but as a way to prepare sprouts, it pales in comparison to roasting. So perhaps, we'll substitute a little further to try it that way next time and see how we like it.

On the whole, I'm impressed with Good and Cheap, and I intend to try many more of Brown's recipes in the coming weeks. (I've already got some cantaloupe chunks chilling in the freezer at the moment to turn into a Melon Smoothie.) And obviously, you can't beat the price, at least for the free online edition. I have only two quibbles with the PDF version of the cookbook. First, it seems to be rife with copyediting errors: in just the few recipes we've tried so far, Brian and I found missing words that made the meaning ambiguous and ingredients in the ingredient list that the recipe never told you when to add. So I do hope these glitches will get fixed before the final version of the the book goes to print.

The other problem with the book is that it's hard to print the recipes out. The whole book is in PDF form, but shrinking a two-page spread to fit onto a single 8.5-by-11 sheet makes the print so tiny it's hard to read, and I haven't found any way of selecting and printing out only one page from a spread. To print the two recipes we've made so far, I ended up copying the text and pasting it into a Word document, and even then I had to fiddle with the text before I could print it because the formatting came out all wonky. So if I enjoy future recipes from this book as much as I have the first two, I'll probably go ahead and spend the $20 for a printed copy—or better yet, $25 for a printed copy and a donated copy or two. (But, unless she fixes the pricing structure, definitely not ten.)

Monday, August 18, 2014

Patio furniture follow-up

It's now been about a year since we officially completed our patio project by furnishing our new outdoor space with this Askholmen dining set from IKEA. At the time, this 5-piece, $120 set, made of solid acacia wood, looked like an outstanding deal, considering that similar outdoor dining sets sold elsewhere were going for $650 or more. Sure, it was just a basic wooden picnic table and chairs, but it felt reasonably comfortable, it seemed fairly durable, and, when first put together, it looked quite nice on our new patio. In our excitement, we didn't pay too much attention to the description of our new patio set, which said it was finished with "acrylic glazing paint" rather than stain and that we could "easily protect [it] against wear and tear by reglazing it on a regular basis, for example once a year."

Turns out, we should have taken that as a warning. After a year of wear and tear, the warm brown finish on our chairs and table had not only faded to a greyish hue but was also flaking off in big, uneven patches. If the fading were the only problem, we might have just decided to stick with the "weathered" look, but the flaking was definitely unsightly. And re-glazing with another coat of the same stuff didn't seem like the greatest idea, since both our past experience and the description from IKEA suggested that we'd just end up having to do it again every year.

So we cruised the aisles at Lowe's looking for something more durable, and we came across a can labeled "Olympic Maximum Stain + Sealant in One." It said it was for "decks, fences & siding," so we figured it ought to be durable enough for our outdoor furniture. It promised to protect against "water damage and graying for a minimum of 4 years," and a quart can, which looked ample for our small refinishingproject, was only $15. The only catch was that it was an oil-based product. I normally have a strong preference for water-based finishes, which dry faster, clean up with plain soap and water, and don't produce fumes that can knock you out. However, for this particular job, the durability of an oil-based product seemed to outweigh these advantages. We'd be applying the stuff out in the open air anyway, so the fumes wouldn't be too bothersome, and applying "one thin coat" to finish everything would definitely be a lot less work than taking multiple passes to apply stain plus at least three coats of water-based sealant, sanding after each round. And it wouldn't matter that much if it took 24 hours to dry, since we wouldn't have to apply a second coat afterwards.

Actually, as it turned out, the fumes from this product weren't that bad at all. Not only did we not feel any lightheadedness or headache after working with it for a few hours, we couldn't even smell it unless we leaned right down next to the can. We speculated that the people who make these things must have come up with something less toxic to use than old-fashioned polyurethane; the label says it's mainly a "modified acrylic resin," with a few other unpronounceable chemicals thrown in. (Of course, the original finish on this stuff was acrylic too, which isn't too encouraging—but that 4-year guarantee offers some reassurance.)

Although the stain was easy enough to work with, the project was still a pretty big hassle. The problem is that, as you can see from the pictures, these pieces are made of lots of individual slats. Each of these slats has multiple exposed surfaces, and each one of these surfaces had to be gone over twice: first with sandpaper to remove the old, flaking stain, and then with the new stain. Brian did the larger, flattish surfaces with an orbital sander he'd picked up at a yard sale, while I used a square of sandpaper to work on the little fiddly bits in between slats and on the ends where the sander couldn't reach. The disk on the sander gave out, along with our supply of medium-grade sandpaper, by the time we'd finished the table, so we ended up having to make a Home Depot run to pick up more, and we then burned through about one sanding disk and one quarter-sheet of sandpaper on each of the four chairs. We also produced a huge quantity of sawdust, but fortunately Brian had had the foresight to put down a tarp under the patio set before we started, so he just carefully gathered it up and dumped the contents directly into the trash. We didn't risk putting them in the compost bin for fear that the residue of the original "acrylic glazing paint" wouldn't agree with our plants.

After that, we had to go over those same multiple surfaces with the stain. This was a bit trickier, because each piece had both a top and a bottom, so we had to do all the surfaces on the underside first, leaving just enough exposed wood to grab it by and flip it before we could do the top surfaces. We found the easiest way to work with the stain was to get a goodish amount on the brush, then apply the bulk of it to a single horizontal slat, and then use the little traces that remained on the brush to squeeze into the little fiddly areas between slats. Doing it the other way around mean that too much of the stain came off at once and pooled in the crevices, leading to drips. The whole process took us most of the afternoon, but eventually we had five nicely refinished pieces sitting out to dry in the fading sunlight, while we dumped our cheap foam brushes straight into the trash (rather than mess around with mineral spirits trying to clean them) and ourselves into the shower.

The final result is far from perfect. Although we went over every bit of the chairs with both sandpaper and stain, we couldn't manage to get all the old finish off in some of those little hard-to-reach spots, so the wood tone is a bit more uneven than it was before. There are also a few spots, particularly on the undersides, which didn't get sanded very thoroughly, so the surface is a bit rough. Still, it's unlikely anyone's ever going to bother looking at the undersides, and any flaws in the finish are only noticeable if you know where to look for them. The main thing is that the chairs look overwhelmingly better now than they did just a couple of days ago.

Overall, I'd still recommend that this IKEA patio set as a good deal. After all, $120 is a lot less than you'll pay anywhere else, and even if the finish didn't hold up that well, the wood itself is still in good shape (although we found that after a year of use, many of the hex nuts needed to be re-tightened). However, I'd now offer a caveat to anyone planning to buy the Askhomlen dining set: either keep it sheltered from the weather when you're not using it, or else go over all the pieces with a durable outdoor finish before you put it together. This whole project would have been a lot easier if we'd had a bunch of flat pieces to work with, instead of fully assembled chairs with lots of nooks and crannies.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Breaking the Law of Beverages

Lately, I've discovered, a major rule of for frugal shopping that I learned at my mother's knee has begun to break down.

When I was growing up, I hardly ever poured myself a drink from a carton. The main beverages I knew were water, which came right out of the tap; milk, which came a big cardboard box; and juice, which came in a cardboard-covered cylinder that you stored in the freezer. When I left home and started buying my own groceries, these habits stuck with me—not just because it was what I was used to, but also because I could plainly see that the powdered milk and frozen OJ I grew up with were a lot cheaper than their fresh equivalents. And buying this way seemed like the most earth-friendly choice as well, because shipping the milk and juice to stores in their concentrated form used less fuel. Indeed, if I'd ever thought to lay out an Ecofrugal Law of Beverages, it would have been something like, "Don't pay for the water when you can add it yourself."

In more recent years, though, I found that this law wasn't quite as hard-and-fast as I'd thought. For instance, I discovered that a really good sale could sometimes drop the price of refrigerated orange juice to a point that was actually cheaper than the equivalent volume of the frozen stuff. And, as we started buying the sale-priced juice more often, we discovered that there were actually significant differences in taste between brands. The kind labeled "not from concentrate" (NFC), usually sold in a plastic bottle, tasted better to us than both the stuff in cartons and the kind we mixed up ourselves. So even as the bottles dropped in size from 64 ounces to 59 and the usual sale price rose from $2 to $2.50, we were willing to pay a bit more per ounce for it. However, when I speculated on this blog about whether, once our mortgage was paid off, we might want to start buying this stuff even when it wasn't on sale, Brian balked. He liked the NFC better, he said, but not enough to pay $4 a bottle for it. So, barring the occasional sale, the Law of Beverages was still holding.

Just recently, however, our local Aldi started carrying its own brand of NFC juice, called Nature's Nectar. (Apparently it's actually been around for a while, since this article from 2009 mentions using it in a taste test, but we only started seeing it at our store recently.) Its regular price has just dropped from $2.49 a bottle to $2.29 a bottle, making it actually cheaper than the sale-priced juice at most other stores. And, when he tried it, Brian said he liked it at least as much as Tropicana. So, if we've already deemed it worth paying an extra 90 cents or so for the NFC juice on sale, then clearly it's worth paying an extra 70 cents for the Aldi NFC juice at its regular price.

On top of that, it looks like the Law of Beverages is breaking down with regard to milk, as well. As recently as 2011, I observed on this blog that milk from powder was only 50 cents a quart, while fresh milk cost roughly twice as much. Not long after that, however, the price of a 20-quart box of dry milk jumped from $10 to $13, and by now it's up to $15. At the same time, sales on fresh milk are growing more common; where once it was rare to find a gallon of milk for less than $3.50, now it's fairly common to see it for $3, which is exactly the same price per quart as the powdered.

Of course, powdered milk still has some other advantages over fresh. Since it comes in a great big box, you don't have to buy it nearly as often. You can mix up just a quart at a time, as needed, rather than filling up your fridge with gallon jugs. And it also keeps almost indefinitely, making it handy to have around in case of emergency. So even if it were actually more expensive than fresh milk, we'd still keep a box of it on hand. But for everyday use, we now find ourselves pouring fresh milk nearly as often as dry, and every time I pull out that big gallon jug, it feels like I'm rebelling against my upbringing.

What I have to keep reminding myself is that what my mother was really teaching me all those years wasn't simply what kind of milk to buy; it was the much broader principle of not wasting money. So if I really want to stay true to that principle, I have to be willing to change my specific buying habits in response to a changing market. The Law of Beverages may no longer hold true, but Franklin's Law—"A penny saved is a penny earned"—is still valid.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Discretionary spending

Just this morning, I read an article in Redbook called "What your spending says about you." (If you're wondering, by the by, how I came to have a subscription to Redbook in the first place, it was a freebie I got for taking some survey or other.) In this article, three successful businesswomen in their 30s share their "discretionary spending" over the course of a week, showing pictures of their purchases and the price of each item. At the bottom of the page, accountant Clare Levison—the author of Frugal Isn't Cheap: Spend Less, Save More, and Live Better—analyzes their expenses and suggests strategies each of them could adopt to save.

What struck me about the article wasn't Levison's money-saving tips, most of which I'd heard before, but the sheer amount of money these women went through in a week. Two of them spent around $220, and the third splashed out with a whopping $492. Their highest spending categories were:
  • Clothing. One woman went shopping with a friend from out of town and ended up spending $67 on a new dress, a T-shirt, and a swimsuit for herself, plus another $11 on a onesie for her soon-to-be-born baby. Another, a subscriber to a clothing subscription club called Stitch Fix, received a $185 box of clothing from them (five items, including a pair of jeans, a blouse, and a huge costume-jewelry necklace) and spent an additional $62 on a pair of ankle-strap heels and $40 on frilly underwear. Levison's advice to her was not, for some reason, to give up the clothing subscription; instead she said to promptly return any items she didn't love, and also to use coupons when shopping elsewhere.
  • Personal care. The lady with the clothing subscription also subscribes to a similar service called Wantable for "makeup, jewelry, and intimates," which she describes as "so good for the working mom." That may be true if the working mom has lots of cash to spare; the box she got from them contained five cosmetic items costing a total of $36, and she spent another $18 elsewhere. The second subject bought only three items—a pot of foundation and two bottles of what might be shampoo—but they cost a total of $64. The third didn't buy any cosmetics, but she spent $84 on a haircut.
  • Food and booze. The editors said their definition of discretionary spending left out "the things on the must-buy list, like gas and milk," but they apparently included food items that they decided should count as luxuries. These included all meals eaten out, all alcoholic beverages, all beverages purchased on the go, and certain grocery items that were deemed luxuries, including fresh fruit for the woman who lived in Juneau and ice cream for the pregnant lady. Even whole foods bought for use in recipes (fresh coconut, fresh herbs, lemons and limes) were dinged as unnecessary purchases. For one woman, a food blogger and cookbook author, luxury foodstuffs accounted for $83 of her $225 total.
Now, admittedly, some of the purchases the editors labeled as "discretionary" were questionable. While wine and desserts may be unnecessary, you can't be a cook without buying ingredients. Cosmetics may be luxuries, but I think most people would consider shampoo a necessity. And I certainly didn't understand why the $20 the Brooklyn dweller put on her MetroCard was labeled as unnecessary spending. (Maybe the idea was that, since she works from home, she doesn't really need to go anywhere.) But even so, these totals seemed awfully high to me. I mean, hundreds of dollars of discretionary purchases in a week? A month I could understand, though I'd still consider it on the high side. But a week? Do most women buy themselves a new outfit and over $50 worth of personal care items every week?

Then I wondered if maybe I was being too judgmental. Maybe my own discretionary spending was actually higher than I realized. So I decided I was going to put my own budget to the same test. I went back over all my purchases for the past week and pulled out all the items that I thought would be considered unnecessary according to the editors' criteria. I counted only my own purchases, not Brian's, since that appeared to be what the women in the article had done. I didn't treat the money I spent on fresh produce as an unnecessary purchase, since I don't live in Alaska and I'm not paying inflated prices for it, but I counted all the foodstuffs that could be considered treats rather than basic nutrition. I also, after some hesitation, included the bottle of body wash I bought, since I could, in theory, bathe with ordinary bar soap instead (though I don't think it would actually save me any money). So here's my week's discretionary spending. All prices include tax, where applicable.
  • Bath Basics coconut shower gel (to replace an existing bottle that was nearly empty): $5.34 at Rite Aid. This is actually a 3-in-1 bubble bath, shower gel, and shampoo, but I use it only for bathing, so a quart bottle lasts me several months.
  • Five pounds of organic, Fair Trade baking cocoa: $53.27 (including shipping) from Dean's Beans. I've stopped buying my coffee from them since I found a better deal at IKEA, but they're still the cheapest source I've found for Fair Trade cocoa, even with the shipping costs. The new bag actually hasn't arrived yet, so I photographed the old one, which we bought in January and have nearly used up.
  • A bottle of diet cream soda: 82 cents (on sale) at Stop & Shop. The limes you see in the picture were actually bought just over a week ago; there was a big bag of them on the reduced-price rack for $1.63, and Brian had the idea that we could use them to make our favorite non-alcoholic cocktail, a Knightsbridge. (Actually, it's only virtually non-alcoholic, because it contains a dash of Angostura bitters, together with cream soda, ice, and the juice of half a lime.) We bought one bottle of cream soda at the same time as the limes, then went back for a second bottle so we could share some with friends.
  • Two bags of kosher marshmallows: $4.28 (on sale) at Stop & Shop. As a semi-vegetarian (or "conscientious omnivore," if you prefer), I don't eat regular marshmallows, which are made with gelatin, a slaughterhouse by-product. However, I enjoy making s'mores over the coals from our barbecue grill, so I like to pick up a bag or two of kosher marshmallows (made with fish gelatin) when they happen to go on sale. These were reduced from their regular price of $3.29 a bag to $2.
  • One can of whipped cream: $3.19 (on sale) at ShopRite. I go through a lot of this stuff, but as luxuries go, it's not that indulgent: only 15 calories for a 2-tablespoon spritz. We go through about a can a month.
TOTAL: $66.90. This is actually a bit higher than average for me, thanks to that $53 bag of cocoa, but it's still way lower than what any of the women in the Redbook article spent.

So what, in the words of the Redbook article, does my spending say about me? Well, first of all, obviously, it says I'm not a big spender. It also appears to say that my favorite luxury items are foodstuffs, particularly foodstuffs that are Fair Trade and organic. It says that I'm concerned about animal welfare, what with the kosher marshmallows and the cruelty-free body wash. And it says that I'm a pretty avid bargain hunter, since nearly all the luxury items I bought (plus quite a few non-luxury items, not shown in the picture) were on sale or purchased in bulk to save money. In other words, it says that I'm ecofrugal, which is just what you'd expect it to say.

And, if Clare Levison wants to tell me how to trim the fat in my budget, she'd better bring her A game.

Anybody else want to play this game? Just post your list in the comments, or link to a blog entry covering the same topic.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Gaming the credit card rewards system

Last week, I came across an article at Money Talks News with the somewhat cumbersome title, "No Rewards Credit Card in Your Wallet? You're Likely Missing Out Big Time." I clicked on it mostly out of idle curiosity, not expecting to learn anything from it that I didn't already know. After all, I currently have two rewards credit cards in my wallet—one Citi Dividends and one Chase Freedom—both of which pay me 1 percent cash back on all my purchases, plus an additional 4 percent on specific categories that change quarterly. To make sure I get the most out of my rewards, I jot down these categories on a crib sheet in my wallet, so I can always use the card that pays the highest bonus at any given location. And, of course, I always pay off the balance on all my cards in full, so the 5 percent cash back is really 5 percent and not just a discount on an interest rate of 15 percent. So all in all, I thought I was doing a pretty good job gaming the system.

However, my confidence started to falter when I got to this sentence: "The real trick here is to find a rewards credit card that pays a bonus in categories in which you spend the most money each month." This, I had to admit, was a weak point of both my rewards cards. Because the categories that pay bonus points keep changing, we don't consistently earn the best rewards on our biggest-ticket categories. Some quarters, to be sure, one of the cards will pay a bonus on gas or groceries (two categories in which we're guaranteed to spend at least some money every month). At other times, one will pay a bonus in areas where we spend money at least fairly often, such as restaurants or home improvement stores. But there are also times when the bonus categories are all but useless to us. Right now, for instance, my Citi card is paying bonus rewards on hotels, car rentals, movies, and theme parks—four categories in which we haven't spent a single penny in years.

I did some rough calculations and found that over the past three months, we've earned 1.2 and 1.4 percent respectively with our Citi and Chase cards. That was a bit of a disappointment, because I knew for a fact that we could do better than that. I've recently seen several ads on Hulu featuring Samuel L. Jackson touting the Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards card, which pays 1.5 percent cash back on everything—no limitations, no exceptions. However, the Money Talks News article mentioned another card that might be still better for us: the Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express, which pays 3 percent at supermarkets, 2 percent at gas stations, and 1 percent on everything else. Both of these cards are free of annual fees, which is a bottom-line requirement for me, and their interest rates are comparable to those on our current cards—though that doesn't really matter, since we never carry a balance anyway.

It looked like either of these two cards would be better than the two we have now. To really maximize our benefits, of course, the best thing to do would be to get both of them, and then use the Blue Cash Everyday card exclusively for supermarkets and gas stations (which would be easy to remember without the need for a crib sheet) and the Capital One Quicksilver card for everything else. However, I was reluctant to apply for both cards at once, since having too many inquiries on your credit report is likely to ding your credit score, which could reduce our chances of actually getting either card. (Also, both cards offer a bonus of $100 if you spend a certain amount in the first three months, which is easier to do if you can concentrate your spending on one card at a time.) So which of the two would be more useful to get into my wallet first?

To find the answer, I figured, I'd need to go back and look at our credit card statements for the past 12 months. For each card, I could add up the amounts that we spent each month on groceries, gas, and other stuff and get a total for each category for the year. Then I'd multiply each category by its appropriate percentage—3, 2, and 1 respectively for the Blue card, 1.5 across the board for the Quicksilver card—and see which gave me a higher total. I assumed the easiest way to do this would be to set up a little spreadsheet on Excel. However, as I was perusing the details of the two credit card offers at Credit Karma, I noticed that the site was providing an "estimated savings" figure for each card, with a note saying that I could get a more accurate estimate by logging into my account. Credit Karma, for those not familiar with the site, is a website that will, with your permission, pull up your credit report and show you your credit score for free (though, as this article points out, the score they show you isn't identical to the FICO score used by most lenders). The way they can afford to do this for free is that once they know your financial situation, they can start trying to sell you financial products you might have a need for, like insurance or bank accounts. Of course, you can just ignore these offers, and most of the time, I do. However, in this case, they were offering me information about a product I actually did have a use for: a better rewards card. Why not let them do the math and tell me which card would be the best deal for me?

So I logged into my account, and bam, up popped a total of my monthly credit card spending, neatly sorted into categories. Based on these numbers, I could search their database of credit card offers to see which one had the best payoff for me. I had to do a little fiddling with the search feature to find the most useful offers, weeding out the cards with travel rewards (which are about as useful for me as a set of matched luggage for a tortoise) and the ones that charge an annual fee. Once I'd narrowed down the list, I could sort it based on criteria such as average user rating, average percentage cash back, or total payout over one, two, or three years. The Capital One Quicksilver card turned out to be the best deal over the long term: Credit Karma estimated it would pay me $308 a year, plus a one-time bonus of $100 if I spent $500 on it in the first three months, which would add up to $1,025 over three years. The Blue Cash Everyday card came in second, at $837 over three years, and my existing Chase Freedom card was a close third at $828.

These findings should have been conclusive, but something about them gave me pause. I noticed that the listing for the Chase card showed its "average rewards rate" as only 1.2 percent, and I had already determined that over the past three months it had been closer to 1.4 percent. Looking more carefully at the spending breakdown the site was using, it appeared that it was based solely on my most recent bill for each card, rather than on an average over the entire year. So it was likely that their estimates of the rewards we'd earn with each card were skewed by what we'd happened to buy in the last month.

To double-check their figures I went ahead and punched in the numbers into Excel just as I'd originally planned. Once I did this, I discovered that the savings estimates were actually significantly lower than the ones I'd gotten from Credit Karma. The Quicksilver card was still ahead, but it would only have earned us about $175 over the past year—and that's if we'd shelved all our other cards and made all our purchases on the Quicksilver card exclusively. Even with the $100 bonus, our three-year savings would be only $624. The Blue Cash card, under the same terms, would give us $157 a year, or $571 in three years with the bonus. Our current Citi Dividends and Chase Freedom cards, by contrast, are earning us a total of $144 a year. So switching the bulk of our purchases to a new card could put a little more money in our pockets each year, but not that much: only $13 for Blue or $31 for Quicksilver. It's still probably worth applying for the Quicksilver card, but it's certainly not going to be a game-changer.

It's a little disappointing that we won't be able to get that big a reward from a new rewards card, but I guess it's not that surprising. After all, the rewards you earn are based on what you spend, so the only way to rack up really huge bonuses is to spend a whole lot of money—which doesn't leave you ahead in the long run. It's the same sort of problem I've noted before with articles about saving money or cutting your energy use: you can't eliminate very much waste if your life wasn't that wasteful to start with. So I guess I should find it comforting that we can't earn really massive rewards with a credit card; it just goes to show that our credit card bills themselves are nice and lean.

Monday, August 11, 2014

One-day yard makeover: after

After a fairly long day of heavy lifting, we have managed to bring at least a little bit of order to Tim's yard. And when I say heavy lifting, I mean it very literally, because our first task was to clear those railroad ties from the driveway. Tim had done a bit of calling around beforehand and learned that, as I feared, these aren't so easy to dispose of. There's no curbside trash pickup in his neighborhood, and the dump where he takes the rest of his garbage won't take them. So we ended up hauling most of them to an out-of-the-way spot in the back yard, where they could rot away in peace.

Getting them to their designated resting spot, however, was a job and a half. Ironically, the ties that looked the worst—the ones that were half rotted away already—were by far the easiest to move; there were even some that I could carry without assistance. The heaviest, sturdiest timbers, by contrast—the ones that didn't look all that bad where they were—were absolute doozies to move. One particular monster took all three of us to carry, pausing for frequent breaks. After we manhandled that one into place, I proposed that the two remaining timbers that were in good condition, rather than going all the way to the back yard, should be used to replace the somewhat more damaged timbers currently serving as a border for the foundation plants in the front yard. That way, they wouldn't have to travel more than a few yards. Brian was able to move them most of that distance using a lift-and-push method: he lifted up one end of the heavy railroad tie, pushed it into an upright position, and then pushed it over so that it fell in the general direction he wanted to move it. By doing this several times in a row, he was able to get them close to their resting spot, and from there we could sort of roll and shove them into place.

Before we could position the new timbers, however, we had to remove the old ones—a slightly more manageable job thanks to their half-rotted condition—and then clear out the weeds choking the bed, since that was a job that would be easier to handle without the edging in the way. Since most of the weeds were poison ivy, this job fell to Brian, who is least sensitive to it. He used a variant of the Plastic Bag Method advocated by Mike McGrath of WHYY's "You Bet Your Garden":
  1. Place a plastic bag over your hand.
  2. Grasp the little bugger with the bagged hand and pull it until it comes out.
  3. With your other hand, invert the bag so that the poison ivy stays completely enclosed within it and it never touches your skin.
  4. Put all the bagged plants into a larger garbage bag, which you then tie shut for disposal, keeping all the poison ivy plants double-bagged within it. (Since Tim is quite severely allergic, we added yet another bag over top of this bag to make sure that he couldn't come into contact with anything that might have touched the plants.)
He didn't take all the additional precautions McGrath recommends (wait until after a heavy rain, apply Ivy Block, cover every inch of your skin, and strip down and rinse off immediately after you finish the job), relying instead on his natural immunity to protect him. It seems to have worked, as he hasn't developed any hint of rash. However, he did sustain a wasp sting after disturbing a nest that was sitting right under one of the old landscape timbers. He had to take off his wedding ring and spend ten minutes sitting in the kitchen with a poultice of baking soda on his hand. Fortunately, that has left no discernible swelling either. Unfortunately, it meant that we had to skip the step of pruning the big overgrown shrub that sits right on top of the wasps' home. rather than risk annoying them further. So we just plunked the new timbers into place and let it go at that.

While Brian was working on the weeds, Tim and I started laying down some patches of moss in the yard. There was plenty of it in his driveway, so we just started prying up large clumps of it and laying them down on the dirt. We gave each patch a good soaking with water and then stepped on it firmly to encourage it to take root in the soil. (You might think stomping on a new plant is a good way to kill it, but with moss, apparently, it's the right thing to do.) We scattered these fragments throughout the yard, and I left Tim with instructions to keep them moist and keep walking on them periodically. We'll just have to wait and see how they do in their new home.

Our next task was to start laying the path from the driveway to the door. Once we started digging out the flagstones, we discovered that (a) there were actually a lot more of them in the yard than we realized, and (b) they were made of a different sort of stone than the three slate ones Brian and I had brought from our yard. So we ended up setting those aside and using only the local stone, as it were. The pieces varied considerably in size, so we laid them out in order from biggest to smallest. This seemed appropriate, since the smaller stones at one end mingle with the gravel of the driveway, while the larger stones at the other lead up to the big, solid slab of the doorstep. Plus it seems somehow to conveys the sense that the path is opening up as you go to welcome you in.

The hardest part of laying the path was digging out a spot for each stone to lie in. The soil in Tim's yard is all hard-packed clay, incredibly difficult to get a shovel into. Brian could jam the shovel into the dirt and then jump onto it with both feet and it wouldn't penetrate more than half an inch. So, to spare his back, he sat on the ground next to the spot we'd designated for each stone, chipping away at the dirt with a shovel and emptying it into a bucket. Fortunately, the stones were only about an inch thick, so he didn't have to scoop away more than the top layer of soil. (He wisely started at the end nearest the house, so that the stones got lighter and the areas to be dug smaller as he went along.)

The difficulty Brian had with digging was enough to convince him that it would be futile to try and dig holes to plant all the lilies of the valley we'd brought with us. Instead, he proposed attacking the problem from the other direction: plunk down clumps of lilies wherever we thought they'd look nice, and then pile dirt around them from the bucket he was filling. It wouldn't give the lilies much of a head start at putting down roots, but given how stubborn these plants have proved to be, we thought they'd at least have a fighting chance. So Tim and I set out several little bunches of lilies around the base of each large tree, covered their roots with dirt, watered them deeply, and then just hoped for the best. According to this site, lilies with small "bulblets," like these lilies of the valley, only need 1 to 2 inches of soil coverage, so there's some grounds for hope, at least. And even if they don't all make it, they'll at least give the yard a temporary and much-needed burst of green.

Before packing it in around mid-afternoon, we added one last finishing touch. In addition to the large, flat flagstones, Tim had in his yard several thicker and narrower pieces of what appeared to be bluestone. Rather than let those sit around looking untidy, we stacked them in a little triangular array around the unsightly well pipe in his yard. There weren't enough of them to conceal it completely, but they at least help it blend in better with its surroundings.

By 3pm, we were all dirty, aching, and ready for a shower and a good meal. But the yard looked decidedly better for just one day's worth of work...and if we're lucky, the moss and lilies that we put down will spread, causing the yard to grow still greener as time goes on. It's a pity we didn't get to tackle those big shrubs, but maybe at some point we'll get a chance to do the job properly and just replace them altogether.

Friday, August 8, 2014

One-day yard makeover: before

Last weekend, my friend Tim—the same one whose den I helped redecorate last winter—asked me if I could help him make over his front yard. For as long as I've known him, he's mostly ignored this part of his property. He'd tend to critical matters like filling in holes in the driveway or removing trees that grew too close to the house, but with just about everything else, his approach was "live and let live." Hence, the weeds have run rampant; the foundation shrubs have grown up to obscure the windows; the gravel drive is overgrown with moss and lined with rotting landscape timbers; the outdoor lamp-post is nonfunctional, missing all its glass, and rusted nearly clean through; and, although the yard boasts several mature trees, there's nothing under them but bare dirt.

None of this bothered him at all until just recently, when he started dating a woman whose own yard he describes as "very nice," and he began to think he ought to make his more presentable before letting her see it. So not only is he trying to make up for years of benign neglect, he's also trying to do it on a rush schedule. So the plan is for me and Brian to go over there and help him with the biggest jobs tomorrow, in the hopes that we can accomplish enough to make the yard pass muster.

Clearly it isn't going to be possible to fix everything that's wrong with this yard in one day of work, so I went over for a preliminary visit earlier in the week and we set a few priorities. Our goals for tomorrow are:
  • Clear away all the rotting landscape timbers. (His original goal was to put something nicer-looking in place to define the boundaries of the driveway, but I thought they'd look reasonably okay undefined, and it seemed to me that a lot of other jobs were more urgent.) 
  • Remove the worst of the weeds. These include a couple of stands of poison ivy and a stubborn catalpa tree that's growing perilously close to the house; Tim has already tried to remove it twice, and it keeps coming back. Looks like a job for our King of Spades.
  • Trim back the overgrown foundation shrubs. (Personally, I'd like to remove them completely and replace them with something more reasonably sized, but even if I could talk tim into it, I'm assuming it's not a job we could do in one day.
  • Build a path from the driveway to the front door. Currently, there is none, or at least none that's navigable. Tim didn't see this as a problem because he never uses his front door anyway, preferring to enter the house from the garage side—but I suppose he eventually came to the conclusion that it looks a bit unwelcoming. Fortunately, most of the slate flagstones that used to form the path to the front door are still in his yard and reasonably intact, and we also have a few in our yard that we don't have a use for. By pooling our resources, we should be able to manage a path leading diagonally from the driveway to the house, so you can traverse it without having to wrestle with the shrubbery.
  • Add a bit of greenery to the area under the trees. Grass doesn't grow well in full shade, which is why there's none of it left, but there are various other things that do. My first thought was, since he has plenty of moss in various parts of the yard, he should try to spread it across the entire bare section using the "moss milkshake" method: grinding up moss with buttermilk in a blender and just painting it on the areas where you want it to grow. Sadly, when I went looking for the recipe, what I found instead was a site all about moss that says this method doesn't actually work very well. It's still possible, according to the same site, to propagate moss by planting tufts of it directly on bare soil and keeping it moist and clear of debris, but the process takes months if not years. Tim is still planning to try and spread some moss in the area, but it's not going to turn into a lush, green carpet overnight.
Fortunately, we had something else in our yard that thrives in shade and grows so vigorously it's hard to get rid of even if you want to. Directly in front of our wildflower bed, there was a heavy stand of lilies of the valley. They used to form a dense carpet all around the foundation shrubs before we ripped them out; we thought we'd removed most of them with the shrubs, but several big clumps survived, forming an untidy mass in front of the wildflowers.

So this evening, we dug the whole lot of these up (or at least, all of them that we could see; they spread by underground rhizomes, so we shouldn't be surprised if a few more pop up in the spring and have to be yanked). We piled as many as we could fit into our collection of big garden buckets, as well as an old litter box we had sitting downstairs the workshop; the rest we threw in the compost bin, where we'll hope they don't take root and start taking over the yard again. So if all goes well, we should be able to add a splash of green to Tim's yard tomorrow, and come spring, he'll have several patches of fragrant flowers. Perhaps eventually we can even turn it into a proper woodland garden with a whole bunch of perennials that bloom at different times, like bleeding hearts or forget-me nots...but for now, we'll just work with what we have.

Tune in on Monday for the exciting conclusion of Tim's garden makeover. Or at least, I hope it will be exciting.