Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Money Crashers: Private School vs. Public School

Following on the heels of my Money Crashers article about how to compare types of diapers, here's one on another topic that becomes important to parents pretty much the minute those kids are out of diapers: education. Specifically, the choice between public schools and private schools, and the cost of each.

We all know, of course, that private school costs money. But sending your kids to a top-rated public school costs money too, because houses in those districts are expensive. So the question is, which actually costs more: ponying up for private school tuition, or taking on a hefty mortgage so your kids can go to the best public school?

The short answer seems to be that if you have just one child, private school is cheaper, but with two or more, public school is a better deal. But that's just a general rule, because there are all kinds of factors that come into play, such as where you live, what kind of school you're considering, and what financial aid options might be open to you.

So to get the details on the relative costs of public and private school, check out the full article: Private School vs. Public School – Cost & Comparison

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Money Crashers: 3 Ways to Listen to Free Music Online

Last week, for the first time, I set up an account on Spotify. Mind you, I still don't have the actual app installed on my computer, because I'm running an antiquated operating system that isn't compatible with it (and I'm scared to upgrade for fear all my other software will stop working). But Brian allowed me to use the app on his computer, and this enabled me to create and share a playlist dedicated to my new favorite nerd crush, Critical Role. (This is a Geek and Sundry show in which a bunch of self-described "nerdy voice actors" play Dungeons and Dragons. If you think D&D as a spectator sport sounds dull, that's because you have not personally experienced the storytelling skills of dungeon master Matt Mercer. Forget wizard characters, this guy is the real thing.)

Anyway, since making themed playlists in iTunes is a favorite pastime of mine, I immediately started putting together one based on the show. Once it was done, I wondered whether I could share it with all the show's other fans (known as "Critters") via iTunes, but there doesn't seem to be a way to do it anymore. So I signed up on Spotify, recreated the playlist there, published it, and then shared it on the Geek & Sundry forum for the show. (The post has attracted no responses, but most posts don't, so I don't feel too bad about that. All the real fan discussion goes on in the chat room while the show is streaming, and since that happens on Thursday nights while I'm otherwise occupied, I just watch from the sidelines.)

I bring this up here as an example of just how many different ways there are these days to enjoy and share music online. This is the topic of my latest Money Crashers post, which goes into all the different services you can use to stream or download music for free (and legally). I cover Internet radio, streaming services, free music downloads, and old-fashioned broadcast stations—which, far from being killed off by the digital alternatives, are being revitalized through live Web streams.

Read all about it here: 3 Ways to Listen to Free Music Online – Downloads, Streaming & Radio

Money Crashers: Cloth Diapers vs. Disposable

When I gave my sister a set of cloth diapers as a Hanukkah gift three years ago, I was intrigued to see just how far cloth diapers have come since my childhood. The flat, white rectangles we wore as babies, with all their attendant apparatus of safety pins and plastic pants, have given way to elaborate - and expensive - "diaper systems" in a breathtaking array of styles and colors. This led me to wonder: are disposable diapers still more convenient than cloth, or have these fancy new diapers closed the gap? And are cloth diapers still cheaper, or do these pricey diaper systems end up costing just as much?

Eventually, my job with Money Crashers gave me the chance to research all those questions in painstaking detail. I learned about the many different types of cloth diapers now on the market and how much they cost to use, as well as the advances in disposable diaper technology and how to evaluate "green" claims. I then compared home-laundered cloth diapers, disposable diapers, and diaper services to see how they measure up in four areas:
  • Cost
  • Convenience
  • Environment
  • Health
Based on my research, I think I can safely conclude that the most ecofrugal choice for new parents—the one that offers the best overall savings in cash, natural resources, and time—is a hybrid diaper, laundered at home. Let's break it down quickly:

If you're an eco-conscious parent, then you presumably won't consider any disposable diaper unless you're confident that it's free of any kind of toxins that could harm your baby. A detailed study at Baby Gear Lab, which I relied on heavily for this article, shows that the best value in a "green" diaper is a brand called Earth's Best Tender Care, which costs 36 cents per diaper, or about $2,160 for three years' worth. Add in the cost of a large diaper pail ($125) and disposable wipes ($360), and your total cost for diapering one baby for three years comes to $2,645.

By contrast, the best buy in a cloth diaper is the Flip Hybrid, which costs just $300 for three years of use. Since you'll already be laundering the diapers, you can also use a reusable cloth wipes (about $45 for a three-year supply) and a smaller diaper pail with a pair of cloth liners ($100). You also need to spend $70 on a diaper sprayer and shield to prep the diapers for cleaning, and about $200 for additional laundry costs. That comes to $715 total, less than one-third the cost of disposables—and all the diapers and accessories can be reused for a second baby, reducing your cost still more.

Of course, the cloth diapers are also more work. In addition to a couple of extra loads of laundry per week, you have to spend a minute or so dumping and spraying the diaper before dumping it in the pail —though the editors at Baby Gear Lab point out that, in theory, you should do that with a disposable diaper too, as it's illegal in most states to put human feces into a landfill. So if you're a truly eco-conscious parent, the disposable diapers might not actually be any more convenient in that regard. But there's also another way to eliminate this part of the job: use a removable, flushable diaper liner that you can simply lift out and deposit in the toilet. That adds another $420 to the three-year cost of the cloth diapers, but your total is still only $1,065, less than half the cost of disposables. And you can also compromise by using a diaper sprayer at home and liners when you're on the road, for a cost somewhere in between.

How about environmental costs? Well, according to my research, as far as global warming is concerned, it's kind of a wash. According to a British study from 2008, cloth diapers have a lower carbon footprint if you wash them in cold water, dry them on a line, and reuse them for a second child—but if you wash in extra-hot water, and tumble dry, the cloth diapers actually have a significantly larger carbon footprint than the disposables. Of course, greenhouse gases aren't the only consideration; you also have to consider the amount of water used for laundering and the amount of landfill space used by disposables—both of which may or may not be a concern, depending on where you live. And there's also the resources involved in the actual manufacture of the disposables, which studies show significantly outweighs the resource use for cloth—though all these studies are at least 10 years old, so the numbers may not apply anymore. But when you factor in the whole "poop in a landfill" problem, it becomes pretty clear that cloth diapers are definitely greener overall, making them a win on both counts.

If you want more details (lots more), you can read the entire article at Cloth Diapers vs. Disposable – Cost, Types & How to Choose for Your Baby. It tells you everything you ever wanted to know about choosing a diaper, and probably a lot more.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Gardeners' Holidays 2016: Festival of Seeds

We've been having a pretty weird winter here in New Jersey. We've only had one snowstorm, but it was a big enough one to make the national news, dumping two feet of snow across much of the eastern seaboard. Okay, maybe that amount of snow in one shot is no big deal to folks who live in Wisconsin, but around here, it's enough to bring things to a standstill.

So basically, we spent one day being snowed in and the next day digging ourselves out. But ever since then, the weather has been quite mild, even unseasonably so. So two feet of snow dumped on us in 24 hours, and ever since then it has been slowly melting away. There's actually quite a bit left even now—proof of just how much we had to start with—but the piles are getting smaller every day, in testament to the fact that spring is on its way. Not here yet, of course, and we may yet get another big snowstorm or two before it comes, but winter is definitely on the wane.

And of course, that means it's time to start thinking about next year's garden. Our new seeds for this spring arrived last month—all of them, including the coveted Klari Baby Cheese pepper—and I spent some time last weekend planning the layout of the beds for this year. This is always a tricky job, since there are certain crops I make a point of rotating (tomatoes, peas, zucchini), and I only have a limited amount of space to rotate them in. And, on top of that, there are certain crops I always want to keep together if possible (tomatoes and basil, cucumbers and green beans) and others I want to keep apart (peas and onions). So the whole thing, as I noted last year, is a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

The easiest way to do it, of course, would be to come up with an arrangement that works one year, and then simply rotate the four beds from one position to the next over a four-year cycle. But the problem with that is the zucchini, which take up nine square feet per plant. If I simply shifted an entire bed's worth of plants, then I'd always end up with a zucchini plant in the spot occupied by a zucchini plant the previous year. So I have to move the zucchini to the other end of the bed, and that means I have to displace the pepper plants as well to make room for them, and then it's back to the jigsaw puzzle.

Fortunately, this year the pieces fell into place without too much trouble. I was even able to make a little bit of extra room, squeezing in the peas and lima beans behind the zucchini plants, so as not to waste a bit of our precious trellis space.

So now all that remains is to get out our seed-starting apparatus and start the first seedlings of the year, the parsley. This will be the first year we've set out the seedlings in the presence of our new cats, and I'm hoping they'll be able to coexist peacefully. (Last year, when we adopted the kittens, the seedlings were already established, and the full seed-starting tray didn't really leave enough room for the cats to jump up on the table and mess with the plants. So until we have a full complement of seedlings, we may just need to fill up the table with other odds and ends to keep the cats off.)

Here's to the coming of spring...ideally without another blizzard first.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Black Bean Soup

There was so much going on this January—our visit to our friends in Virginia, Thrift Week, Winter Storm Jonas, and my belated birthday dinner with my folks—that I completely forgot about coming up with a Recipe of the Month. Fortunately, Brian took care of it for me by preparing a black bean soup out of our food Bible, Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, on the last day of the month. So even though this entry is a little late, the recipe itself actually squeezed in ahead of the deadline.

Visually, this soup isn't very exciting. It's basically an undifferentiated brown slurry...and since we served it with Brian's new brown bread (recipe to come once he's perfected it), the entire meal was brown. But taste-wise, it's quite flavorful, heavy on the cumin and brightened up with a splash each of sherry and lime juice. Brian also used Penzey's vegetable stock as a base, which makes any soup more savory.

So on the whole, this soup wasn't bad, but it wasn't terribly exciting. To me, I think, it was the uniform texture that made it less interesting. Most of my favorite soups are chunky ones, with lots of different flavors and textures in each spoonful: pasta e fagioli, loaded with beans and veggies and pasta; mushroom barley, with the chewy barley grains set off by the larger pieces of savory mushroom; matzo ball, with the tender matzo balls and chewy bits of carrot and celery gloating in a warm, salty broth. So this basic brown soup, even with its abundance of seasoning, felt a bit...meh.

Brian, however, quite liked it and expressed an interest in making it again, as long as I didn't object. I didn't exactly dislike the soup, though I wouldn't want to eat it for several days in a row—but as long as Brian is willing to dispose of the leftovers, I don't mind a bowlful of this for dinner every now and then. Although next time, perhaps, I might prefer a different sort of bread with it, just to give the meal as a whole a bit more variety. Perhaps a chewy sourdough would provide enough of a contrast in flavor and texture to make the soup more interesting.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Two Frugality Meters

These days, my frugality is a pretty big part of my identity. After all, I write about personal finance and smart shopping for Money Crashers and ConsumerSearch during the week, and then I come here on the weekend to post about my thrift shopping adventures and DIY projects. When someone asks me, "What do you do?" the most honest answer I could give would probably be, "I tell people how to save money."

So on those rare occasions when I do spend a large chunk of money, it kind of throws me for a loop. Yesterday, for instance, I went on a bit of a shoe-shopping spree. As I've noted before, it's very hard for me to find shoes that fit both my oddly shaped feet and my vegetarian lifestyle, so any time I see a pair that looks like it could possibly be suitable, it's very tempting to snap it up—even if I know I might end up just having to return it. Last year, in fact, I ended up buying and returning several pairs of shoes in quick succession, spending about $20 in shipping fees and still having no shoes to show for it. After that, I started refusing on principle to buy shoes online unless both shipping and returns were free, so at least I wouldn't have to pay just to try the shoes on.

This time, however, I found a way around that problem. After discovering an attractive, comfortable-looking, leather-free pair of three-season shoes on a website that did not offer free returns, I did a little investigation and found that the same shoes were also available online at Kohl's—so if they didn't fit, I could return them to a Kohl's store at no charge. And since several reviewers on the site said the shoes run large, I decided to order them in both my usual 6 1/2 wide and a 6 wide, figuring I could keep whichever pair fits and return the other. While I was at it, I decided to check the same site for a nice pair of boots—and when I didn't find any, I surfed over to Payless and took advantage of a sale there to buy two pairs of boots, a dressy pair and a sturdy snow boot.

So altogether, I spent about $140 on shoes in one day—something that's extremely out of character for me. Admittedly, no single pair cost more than $60...and I was able to use coupon codes on both purchases to knock an additional 15 to 30 percent off...and I know I'm going to return at least one of the four pairs. But even so, it kind of shook my self-image. Could anyone who spends that much on footwear, I asked myself, really describe herself as frugal?

Fortunately, I knew just how to set my mind at ease on this point. There are two different tools available online that prove I'm frugal—at least compared to other Americans of my income level.

The first one, called the Frugal Meter, lives on the Shnugi Personal Finance website (a name I swear I am not making up). It's incredibly simple to use: you just punch in your monthly expenses, based on your household budget, and then list the income range to which you want to compare yourself. When I tried it, the site told us we spend "a bit less than average" compared to others in our income range: however, by "a bit less," it means "for every 100 people there are about 7 who spend less or the same." To me, that sounds like a lot less, but I guess it's the number that really matters.

Unfortunately, after looking at the comments on the article, I started wondering whether the number itself was all that useful. For instance, one commenter asked whether the figure for expenses was supposed to include taxes and got the reply "Expenses include all taxes." Well, my household budget doesn't cover taxes as an expense, so I had to go consult last year's tax returns to figure out how much we actually pay in taxes per month—and when I tacked those on, our household expenses jumped from the 7th to the 21st percentile. But then I realized the numbers still weren't right, because the site also says expenses should not include "your retirement saving contributions (pension, SS, 401k or IRA)," and the figure I was using for taxes included Social Security taxes. And trying to sift out how much of last year's tax payment was for Social Security, while allowing for all the various deductions we take, was just too tangled a task to be worth the effort.

So, since this simple little calculator proved so complicated in practice, I moved on to the Frugalometer on the Frugal Fringe site, which looked a little more sophisticated. This one asks for three numbers—your annual pre-tax income, your annual expenses ("excluding social security and pension payments"), and your annual state and federal taxes—and gives specific instructions on how to calculate each one. Once you enter them all in, it compares the numbers to data from the Bureau of Labor's annual Consumer Expenditure Survey (CES) and gives you a "Frugalometer score" to show how you stack up.

When I punched in our numbers on this one, it gave me a score of 251 (as compared to the average of 100) and a grade of A+++. However, I quickly realized that this calculator, too, had one serious flaw. I was already familiar enough with the CES to know that it includes health care costs as part of "annual household expenses"—but our biggest health care expense is the insurance premiums that get deducted directly from Brian's paycheck, and thus never make it into our household budget at all. Frugal Fringe's instructions for calculating your annual expenses don't account for this; they just say to figure out how much you charge to each of your credit cards in a year, how much you pay in checks and online bill payments, and so on, and add it all together. A pre-tax premium that never makes it into your bank account obviously doesn't come out of it. Given that the average "consumer unit" spends $2,868 a year on health insurance, and the average couple spends $4,040, that's a pretty big expense to leave out.

So, once again, I turned to our records, using Brian's final paystub for 2015 to figure out how much we'd spent in pre-tax dollars on health and dental expenses. That came to about $5,840, which I tacked on to our income in box 2. Our Frugalometer score instantly dropped from 251 to 209—still good, but not nearly as outstanding as it looked at first blush. (I wrote a comment on the Frugal Fringe site to point out the flaw in the Frugalometer's formula and proposed adding a fourth box for health expenses, but so far my comment hasn't showed up on the site.)

The good news, though, is that even our modified Frugalometer score is high enough to earn us an A+++ grade. So as far as A. Noonan Moose, the blogger at Frugal Fringe, is concerned (this is another name I swear I am not making up), we're doing great—my latest shoe-buying binge notwithstanding. And after all, even if I end up keeping three of the four pairs, that's about $100 for what should be at least a year's worth of shoes—not so bad when you consider that, according to the CES, the average couple spends $367 on footwear each year. If I can manage to make even one of my new pairs of shoes last for two years or more, I should be way ahead of the game.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Money Crashers: Difference Between Needs & Wants

About three years back, I posted some musings on the line between necessities and luxuries. I noted that what was a necessity for one person might be a luxury for another; for instance, high-speed Internet, free-range meats were necessities for me, while air conditioning and a smartphone were luxuries.

This post gave me the idea of writing about the same subject on Money Crashers, where I could explore it in a little more depth and from a less personal viewpoint. Here are a few of the facts I discovered during my research.
  • Gallup tracks Americans' access to 13 "basic necessities," including clean water, access to fresh fruits and vegetables, a safe neighborhood, and affordable health care. Currently, nearly 1 in 5 Americans is living without at least one item on the list.
  • Every few years, Pew asks Americans which of several different technologies they consider necessities, and which they view as luxuries. The numbers have changed noticeably over time; most notably, many items that moved from the luxury to the necessity column in 2006 dropped back to luxury status during the latest recession.
  • Economists define "luxury goods" as products that people are much more likely to buy when their income rises. One classic example is a flat-screen TV, which only 5% of respondents rated as a necessity in the last Pew poll.
  • A 2014 paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that performing tasks that gave people a feeling of accomplishment made them feel more interested in buying luxury brands. Appealing to their feelings of snobbery didn't trigger a similar interest. Yet when people saw others wearing luxury brands, they tended to view the wearer not as an accomplished person, but as a snob - suggesting that people who give in to the impulse to buy luxury goods are actually sending a message exactly opposite to what they're feeling.
And these are just the highlights. To get the whole story, check out the article here:
Difference Between Needs & Wants (Luxuries) and How to Draw the Line