Thursday, February 26, 2015

The bathroom library

Today while browsing Apartment Therapy (the home website that I'm hoping to make my new substitute for Young House Love), I came across an article called "How Not to Embarrass People Who Use Your Bathroom." The article itself offers advice for thoughtful hosts about cleaning the bathroom well, having plenty of toilet paper on hand, and providing a means to cover up embarrassing noises or odors. What particularly interested me, however, was the comments below, where one person raised the topic of "reading materials"—and immediately got a host of shrill responses about how "gross" it is to read in the bathroom. "I don't want unwashed hands on my reading materials," protested one reader, following it up with "(shudder)."

This widespread reaction, I'll admit, kind of baffled me. I can see why you might think it's gross for people to pick up and handle books after using the toilet (and before washing their hands), but why is it gross for them to do so while using the toilet? Their hands are, at this point, no dirtier than they were before they went into the bathroom, and presumably you don't hide all your books before every party to make sure that no one touches them with hands that haven't been freshly washed. (I mean, unless you're truly disturbed and in need of psychiatric help.)

Speaking for myself, I like to keep reading material of some sort in every room of the house, and the bathroom is no exception. Of course, I always try to make sure that the material I keep in there is particularly suitable for the, ahem, function of the room, so I try to select books or magazines that are broken up into nice, small nuggets that can easily be consumed in a short visit. My upstairs bathroom has a small basket on top of the toilet tank, containing:
  • Living on Less, a collection of pieces from Mother Earth News magazine about "affordable food, fuel, and shelter"—an appropriate assortment for our ecofrugal household;
  • Ex Libris, a collection of whimsical essays about books by Anne Fadiman;
  • Idiots, Hypocrites, Demagogues, and More Idiots: Not-So-Great Moments in American Politics a collection of amusing gaffes of various sorts from American public figures; and
  • Humorous Cryptograms, an assortment of puzzles that I keep in there mainly for my own use, since they're just about long enough for me to solve during a single potty break.
That, I think, makes a fairly nice assortment—a blend of the amusing and the informative, all in handy bite-sized chunks. In the downstairs bath, I have a similar blend of genres on the shelf of our refinished corner cabinet that sits opposite the toilet:
  • 6 months' worth of Atlantic magazines that I got from a freebie subscription (why keep them on the coffee table when the bathroom is so much more suitable for reading while visiting a friend?);
  • a collection of New Yorker cartoon puzzles (the puzzles have all been solved already, so now it's really just a collection of New Yorker cartoons with writing in it);
  • The Utne Reader Alamanac, an assortment of "123 Ideas, Innovations & Insights" on topics such as daily life, work, relationships, the media, and spirituality;
  • The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, a collection of advice on how to survive situations you're extremely unlikely ever to find yourself in, from alligator attacks to leaping from a moving car; and
  • The Best of Bad Hemingway, a set of winners and runner-ups from the annual Bad Hemingway contest, which challenges writers to come up with "a really good page of really bad Hemingway."
So that's my bathroom library, and frankly, I feel like I'm a much more considerate hostess for providing it (not to mention I always have something to occupy myself in either bathroom). How about you? Do you keep books in the bathroom, or do you think that's gross? And if so, can you explain to me why?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Winter tip medley

February may be the shortest month of the year, but it sure feels longest. Especially when it's such a brutal, frigid, snowy February as the one we've had this year. Fortunately, it looks like March will bring some relief: for my area, at least, the weather forecast shows that daytime temperatures should be consistently peaking above the freezing point all month, and by the middle of the month it might get up to a balmy 50 to 55 degrees. But we've still got three more days of winter chill to plow through before we get there, so I figured I might as well share a quick roundup of useful tips for wintry weather.

First, from the Tip Hero website, a recipe for a simple homemade ice melter you can make with common household ingredients. The website has a video that shows how to do it, but in a nutshell, you just fill a gallon jug half-full with warm water, then add six drops of ordinary dish soap and two ounces of rubbing alcohol. I already know from experience that rubbing alcohol will melt ice, but I'm not sure what the dish soap is for; perhaps it makes the alcohol solution penetrate the ice better, or something. In the interests of proper reporting, I mixed up a half batch of this in my own kitchen and tried it out on some ice in our driveway that we didn't manage to clear away after the last snowfall. As you can see from the pictures, it didn't really make all that much impression on the ice. It washed away a bit of it, but I'm not sure plain hot water wouldn't have worked equally well. It certainly didn't do any better than the commercial ice melt I tried earlier in the day, and it isn't nearly as convenient to use, since a single batch only covers a small patch of ice. But if the stores happened to be completely out of ice melt (a situation we encountered last winter), this stuff would probably do the job in a pinch.

The second tip, also from Tip Hero, is about improving your gas mileage in cold weather. The article is actually about getting better gas mileage in general, but a few of the tips in it relate specifically to winter driving. For instance, the author notes that a cold engine doesn't run as efficiently, so keeping your car in a garage where it's at least somewhat protected from the cold will help it get up to its ideal running temperature more quickly. It also recommends combining short trips, so you'll be starting the engine when it's already warmed up—which is good advice even in warm weather. Unfortunately, we don't have a garage to stash our car in, and there's not much we can do about the multiple short trips Brian has to make back and forth to work. (We suspect the drop in our average gas mileage each winter has at least as much to do with the fact that he can't bike to work in the winter, and so more of the car's miles are city driving rather than highway driving, as it has to do with the cold itself.)

The third tip comes from the Readers' Tips section in the Dollar Stretcher. It's about making your home more comfortable in the winter by boosting the indoor humidity. This reader suggests doing your laundry in the evening and letting the clothes hang to dry, adding their moisture to the air. This probably wouldn't work too well in our house, where the nighttime temperature is in the 50s and the humidity tends to be over 50 percent even in the winter; most likely, the clothes wouldn't be anywhere near dry by morning. But if you have to do laundry anyway, there's no real downside to doing it this way. Even if the humidity boost is trivial, it should still cut down somewhat on dryer time and save you some energy.

And lastly, here's a just-for-fun suggestion from this week's Tip Hero newsletter: snow ice cream. This is a bit more elaborate than just pouring syrup on the snow to make snow cones; you have to harvest two to three quarts of "fresh, clean snow," sprinkle it with vanilla extract (which will presumably melt it slightly, since it contains alcohol), and fold in a ten-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk. From the picture, it looks a bit more like gelato than ice cream—somewhat icier and less creamy in texture—but with such simple ingredients, I guess there's no way it could actually taste bad. And you could always try making different flavors by blending the milk with chocolate syrup or coffee before mixing.

So here's hoping these tips will help see you through the last of winter in reasonable comfort, and we'll all make it through to spring quickly.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Ways to cut expenses in retirement...before retirement

This week's Dollar Stretcher newsletter features an article called "Reducing Expenses After Retirement." Laid out in a slideshow format, it offers useful tidbits on such matters as cutting the cost of transportation, food, and entertainment once you no longer have the demands of a nine-to-five job to cope with. I flipped through it without too much optimism, thinking that advice for retirees might not be that helpful for someone who doesn't expect to retire for a good twenty years or so. But in fact, I found that the problem was just the opposite. Not only did the advice in the article apply to me and Brian, it all applied so well that we were pretty much following it already.

The five topics covered in the piece were:

1. Driving expenses. The article points out that a couple working two jobs probably needs two cars, while after retirement they can go down to one. Sound advice, but Brian and I did this years ago, after I left my office job to become a freelancer. Working from home is still work, but it doesn't involve a commute, so it allowed us to become a one-car family even with two two incomes.

The article also notes that the extra time you have to spare in retirement may make it easier to do your own auto maintenance, at least for basic jobs like oil changes. The truth is, our jobs don't keep us on such a busy schedule that we don't have time to do an oil change on a weekend; we used to do it all the time with our old Accord. We haven't been changing the oil on our "new" Honda Fit (actually about four years old now) partly because the tools we had for the old one didn't fit it, and partly because we thought only a professional could reset the new car's electronic oil life indicator. However, this turns out to be pretty simple to do yourself (this YouTube video shows how), so it might be worth investing in the proper oil filter wrench for the new car—or just using an old belt to remove the filter, as recommended in this other video.

In any case, being employed certainly is no barrier to doing this job ourselves. In fact, it seems to me that doing this job ourselves is probably easier for us now, while we're still reasonably spry, than it's likely to be in twenty years, when we don't bend so easily.

2. Food costs. The article lists several reasons it may be possible to spend less on food during retirement. First, kids are probably grown up and out of the house, so you're no longer "feeding ravenous teenagers" (a problem we've never had and never expect to have). Second, you can cut the lunches out and overpriced coffees that are part of so many people's workday routine. And third, after retirement you can spare the time to pare down your food bill by shopping sales, clipping coupons, and even gardening to raise your own produce.

Again, this is all sound advice, but it's advice we've already been following for years. Neither of us has ever made a habit of lunching out on workdays, and while I did at one point spend a couple of bucks each day on coffee and a roll for breakfast before taking the train to work, I eventually gave that up as well in favor of home-brewed coffee and an English muffin in a paper bag. And though we aren't exactly extreme couponers, we've always kept our grocery bill down by shopping multiple stores to get the best deals, buying store brands, stocking up on sale items, and using coupons as appropriate. As for our garden, I think that's a hobby that's just as useful for de-stressing from the work week as it is for keeping busy in retirement. So once again, these are tips that work just as well before retirement as they do afterward.

3. Selling unwanted stuff. The article recommends "giving your closets...the cleaning they so desperately need" and selling all the excess stuff at a yard sale, on eBay, or in whatever other way you can to pick up a few extra bucks. This only works, however, if (a) you actually have a lot of excess stuff lying around, and (b) it's stuff that other people would be willing to pay for. Brian and I have been pretty good at getting rid of stuff we no longer need over the years, so that we don't have huge piles of unwanted items lurking in every closet and corner, but I'll concede that we probably a fair number of things we don't really need that we've never bothered to dispose of (because, as I noted in my first post of the year, we had plenty of room to spare). But I feel quite confident in saying that none of these things have any significant value. We had a yard sale once, a few years ago, and made so little money that we concluded it would be a better use of our time to spend the whole yard-sale weekend shopping, rather than selling. Even if there happen to be a few items in our Freecycle pile that might be worth a few bucks to someone, the meager amount of money involved definitely isn't enough to justify the extra time and hassle. Anything that had enough value to make it worth selling, we've already sold.

4. Entertainment costs. With all the extra time on your hands in retirement, the article suggests, you can dump your pricey satellite TV and instead enjoy local events, such as outdoor movies and concerts, or check out books, movies, and music from the local library. This struck me as one of the sillier ideas in the article, because what is there about an outdoor movie that takes more time than watching the same movie at home on your "premium movie package"? Just the time it takes to walk there and back, and that counts as exercise. The same goes for watching the same movie on a DVD from the library. There's literally nothing about this advice that's more appropriate for retired people than it is for working folks—which is why Brian and I eschewed cable completely for so many years, and only have it now in order to save on our phone and Internet bills.

The only idea in this section that seemed valid to me was that retired people can more easily give up restaurant meals and invest some time in learning to cook at home. Cooking from scratch does indeed take more time than eating fast food (although there are many meals you can make at home in less time than it would take to go out and order them at a restaurant). And learning to cook, if you don't already know how, is an even more significant time investment. But if you already know how to cook—or if you have a husband who knows how and enjoys it—then there's no good reason to eat out any more often during your working years than during retirement. You just save the more time-consuming dishes for weekends.

5. Home maintenance. The last suggestion in the article is to devote your extra time in retirement to taking over home maintenance tasks, such as yard work, that are now hired out. It goes so far as to suggest that yard work and gardening together could provide enough exercise to take the place of  "your expensive health club membership," for a further savings. Here, once again, we have a piece of advice that works just as well before retirement as afterward—if not better, because younger muscles are better equipped for pushing a mower and wielding a hedge trimmer. And, of course, if you've never had a pricey gym membership in your life, you can't save anything by dropping it, though you might gain some health benefits by adding more activities to your routine.

So all in all, I'd have to say there really isn't a word of advice in this article about spending less during retirement that isn't just as useful before retirement. In fact, adopting most or all of these habits before retirement, as Brian and I have done, should allow you to get to retirement much sooner. In the first place, you'll be saving more money during your working years, so you'll build up your nest egg faster; and in the second place, you won't need as big an egg to retire on. Once you're used to living on a smaller budget, you won't need to accumulate as much to support yourself throughout retirement in the modest lifestyle to which you have become accustomed. So it's definitely in your interest to adopt frugal habits while you're still working, rather than waiting until you retire—because every dollar you save before retirement benefits you twice.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Friday, February 20, 2015

Seed starting: preliminary results

Last week, I outlined the new system that Brian and I are planning to use to start this year's seedlings: a layer of ordinary garden soil, baked to sterilize it, underneath a layer of commercial seed-starting mix. This is the latest refinement to our existing seed-starting system, with tubes of PVC pipe for the seedlings, packed into juice cartons and kept under a DIY grow light. Now, after ten days and three batches of early seedlings, I can give at least a preliminary report on the success of the system. And so far, the results are encouraging. Take a look at these:

Those are the parsley seedlings, which we started twelve days ago. It may seem like overkill to start them quite so early, but most years, it takes them weeks even to germinate, and they're still pretty tiny by the time they go out into the garden in April. But this year, we've already got seven little sprouts up, all green and healthy.

We had even faster results with the broccolini, which got started just five days ago. This is the first year we've tried growing this crop, so I relied on the advice from Square Foot Gardening as to when to start broccoli seedlings. But now I'm wondering whether I was actually a little too early, because here they are already:

The third crop to get started was the leeks, which always require a very long lead time to produce healthy shoots for transplanting. These can be planted pretty thickly, so we always start a whole bunch of them, but Brian decided to do just a dozen or so with what he had left of his first batch of sterilized dirt, and then start the rest once he'd had a chance to bake some more. The second batch hasn't even been started yet, but already, two of the seeds in that first batch are starting to poke their little green heads out of the soil.

Since there are now actual green shoots rather than just sleeping seeds, we've set them out under the grow light, and we've covered them up with the cut-off tops of clear plastic egg cartons to help hold in warmth and moisture. (Brian further refined this part of the system by cutting the egg carton lids crosswise and overlapping the two halves to provide a snugger fit over top of the juice cartons, so less moisture can escape.)

So at first blush, at least, our new seed-starting mix appears to be a rousing success. Of course, it's too early to say for sure how the seedlings will fare in the long run; it's possible that they've started off beautifully, but the baked dirt won't end up providing enough nutrition for them to grow big and strong. But just having them sprouted at this early stage is definitely a promising start.

Brian has already baked up a second batch of dirt, so the rest of the leeks can go in this weekend. Then we'll have a hiatus of about a month before the really big planting of Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, and marigolds, which will really be the make-or-break test for this seed-starting system. Everyone keep your green thumbs crossed.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Looking for the next Young House Love

In my latest edition of Stuff Green People Like, I lamented the fact that my favorite DIY blog, Young House Love, closed its doors four months back. It used to be part of my daily routine, every weekday morning, to take a break from my work at 10 am and check out the latest YHL post, and now that there are no new posts to check, I've been feeling a bit cast adrift. Up to this point, I haven't found anything that could really take the place of Young House Love in my life, but lately I've started to think that maybe I just haven't been looking hard enough. So I decided to actually undertake a search for the next Young House Love: a new site that can fill that same spot in my heart and my schedule.

My first thought was to do a search for "best DIY blogs," but after poking through those results feeling unsure where to start, I had a better idea: why not start with my own budget decor posts? I've already done four of these, and they all feature the exact sort of DIY project that interests me most: an ecofrugal room transformation, done on a shoestring budget with minimal waste. So I decided to go through those, visiting the original site where each makeover was featured, to see if one of them could become my new Young House Love.

Some of the makeovers in my original budget decor post could be skipped over right away, because they came from the original Young House Love, which is no longer available (waah). Several other makeovers in the first, second, and fourth posts were harvested from the sites of Better Homes and Gardens and This Old House, and I ruled those out as well because these sites are simply too annoying to deal with. In a blatant attempt to maximize the number of page views (and hence the amount of ad revenue) they get, the editors of these sites turn practically every article they post into a slideshow spread out over multiple pages. This means that not only does it take forever to click your way through, say, a list of 20 great budget remodeling tips, it's also impossible ever to see the before and after pictures on the same page. Moreover, these magazines don't really have an ecofrugal attitude: although they occasionally feature budget remodels, most of the makeovers they cover are of the rip-it-out-and-start-over variety.

So instead, I looked for blogs run by the frugal remodelers themselves. Not every makeover had a blog associated with it, but I found several:
  • Rice Designs was the original source for the boy's bedroom redo I featured in my first budget decor post. This was a great-looking room, and it was done in a very ecofrugal way, with lots of refinished and repurposed items. Searching the main site, however, I didn't see any new room renovations along similar lines, and in fact, I found that the blog as a whole hadn't been updated since last January. Well, Young House Love has been updated more recently than that, so this clearly isn't much use as a substitute. Next?
  • Two It Yourself supplied the a-mazing bath makeover I covered in my second post. This blogger achieved a truly incredible transformation on an even more incredible budget (under $100). But this blog, like the first one, had few posts along similar lines and no updates at all since last July.
  • SG Style (formerly known as A Home Full of Color) was the source of the great kitchen redo featured in the same post, which I originally discovered through Better Homes and Gardens. This blog has been updated recently (though not daily), and her posts are indeed colorful, but they're a little light on the nitty-gritty details that kept me coming back to YHL. Her home tour is just a series of "after" pics, with no info about what they did to each room—not even links to the "reveal" post in which they show the details. 
  • Kruse's Workshop did the bathroom remodel featured in my third post. This site is awfully slow to load, but once I managed to get a few posts up on my screen, the solutions in them looked very creative and DIY-oriented. The problem is that there's no budget information in them, which is kind of key for me. On the entire page, I found only one dollar sign.
  • View Along the Way supplied the bedroom and laundry room makeovers in my fourth budget decor post. I flipped through the photos in her house tour, and it appears that her design style is very similar to the Petersiks' (of Young House Love fame), but her tone is rather different. It's still light and perky, but it's also very Christian-centric. I think there's hardly a post in which Jesus doesn't come up at least once, and that's a bit much for me.
  • Designer Trapped in a Lawyer's Body was the source for the other, even more frugal laundry room makeover in post #4. This was a remarkable budget redo, with lots of ecofrugal reuse (she calls it "going shopping in your own house"). However, after looking at her "room reveals" page, I found myself somewhat torn. Some of the "after" pictures were quite nice, in a modern style similar to YHL's, and some of the budgets shown, such as the $700 kitchen redo, were simply amazing—but I have serious problems with some of her choices. Painting over natural wood is bad enough in my book, but seriously, covering up a natural stone fireplace with concrete? You do know that can never be undone, right? I was afraid reading this blog on a regular basis might become too frustrating for me.
That was all the individual blogs I could find, but there was still one site left that had covered several of the budget remodels: Apartment Therapy. Three of the kitchen remodels I covered in post #3 were found on The Kitchn, a subsection of the larger Apartment Therapy site, and the main site features plenty of remodeling posts as well. However, this is only a small fraction of what's available there. Apartment Therapy isn't just a DIY site; it's devoted to all things home-related, with sections for "Style," "DIY," and "Homekeeping." There are house tours, photos of individual rooms, and projects refinishing a single, small piece; there are whole sections devoted to "Small Spaces" and "Budget Living." All in all, it looks it's just up my alley.

So I'm thinking that of all the sites I visited for my budget decor posts, this one is probably the winner. But can it truly take the place of Young House Love? That, only time will tell. I plan to visit the site regularly over the next few weeks, and we'll see if it becomes my new home obsession.