Monday, April 27, 2015

Provisioning a Yard-Sale Expedition

This Saturday, Brian and I spent the morning indulging in one of our favorite spring/summer pastimes: yard sale shopping. We'd seen a flier advertising a town-wide sale in Princeton, which meant that we could expect the yard sales to be reasonably thick on the ground—which, according to Livingston's First Law, would maximize our chances of coming home with something useful. But even if we didn't, we'd still spend a pleasant morning walking around town in the nice spring weather, and we could stop at the Trader Joe's on the way back, so the trip wouldn't be wasted.

Since the yard-sale territory was about 40 minutes' drive from home, we made a point of packing a bag before we left with everything we were likely to need while we were out. And it occurred to me as we did so that, while I've written before about important things to do when preparing to host your own yard sale, I've never actually written about how to prepare when heading out for a day of yard-saling. So here, based on my 20-plus years of yard-sale experience, is my list of:

Essential Provisions and Preparations for a Yard-Sale Expedition
  1. Dress in layers. Particularly if you are planning to be out for several hours, the temperature can change a lot over the course of a day, so it's handy to be able to add or shed layers to adjust. If you are planning to do any shopping for clothes, then the ideal outfit for yard-saling is like the one I favor for thrift-shopping: layers of clothing that allow you to try on other clothes under or over them. On top, your undermost layer should be a snug-fitting tank top or camisole, so you can try other shirts on over it; on the bottom, a long, loose skirt worn over tights lets you slip another skirt or a pair of pants on under the skirt without exposing yourself. (For the fellas, trying on clothes is trickier. You can probably strip down to your undershirt without raising too many eyebrows, but there's really no way to try on pants without taking off the ones you're wearing. Probably the best you can do is to wear a pair of bike shorts underneath, so you can drop your trousers and still remain technically decent.)
  2. Wear comfortable shoes. You are going to be on your feet all day, so it's essential to choose a pair of shoes that fit well and don't cause fatigue. Sneakers, hiking boots, or well-broken-in loafers are good choices.
  3. Be prepared for changes in the weather. Bring along both a folding umbrella and a bottle of sunscreen, so you're ready for rain or shine. A wide-brimmed hat is also useful, though if it's a straw one, you may have to shed it if a rainstorm blows up.
  4. Bring sturdy bags to carry your haul. Avoid bags you have to carry in your hands, since (a) that gets tiring and (b) you'll have to keep setting them down to pick other things up. Instead, go for a backpack or a roomy bag with shoulder straps. This is where all those tote bags sent by charities and public radio stations come in handy. 
  5. Have plenty of cash. Most yard sales are cash-only, so if you run across a great $70 futon when you're carrying nothing but 85 cents and a credit card, you're probably out of luck. Some sellers might be willing to take a check for a large item, but flashing a wad of cash is more likely to close the sale at the price you want. Ideally, your wallet should contain a good mix of large and small bills, as well as some small change, since yard-sale sellers aren't always organized enough to make change for a $20 on a $2 item.
  6. Carry provisions. You may be walking for several miles, and you don't want to get dehydrated or suffer a blood-sugar crash. Stopping somewhere for a bite to eat isn't always an option, and even when it is, the cost of the meal could outweigh all the money you saved on your yard-sale bargains. So make sure you have a bottle of water with you and a portable, quick-energy snack, like a peanut-butter sandwich or a couple of granola bars.
  7. One thing you can't take with you is a bathroom. You may well need one during a multi-hour excursion, however, so make a point of checking a map ahead of time and scoping out the available public restrooms in the area. In our case, we were heading into familiar territory in Princeton, so we knew there would be one at the public library right in the middle of town—which turned out to be very useful information.
  8. While you've got your map out, check the parking situation. In most suburban areas, you can simply pull up on the street next to a likely-looking sale, but if you're in a more built-up area, you may have to put the car in a lot and hoof it. Paying for parking will also eat into your yard-sale profits, so if necessary, figure out where you can stash the car for free. (Years of living in Princeton had acquainted us with a handy side street where parking is free for two hours, and even that limit is rarely enforced.)
  9. If you're hitting a town-wide yard sale, as we did on Saturday, see if there's a map or an app available that shows where the sales are. This will help you full advantage of Livingston's First Law by focusing your attention on the areas with the highest concentration of sales. It'll also allow you to plan out an efficient route to hit as many sales as possible in a given area.
  10. Even if you can't find a map app, bring your smartphone if you have one. It can help you check important details that you might not know offhand, like "Is $10 really a good price for this or would it only cost $15 new?" and "Is this the same brand as the blender we used to have that broke down so spectacularly?" A smartphone would have come in handy for us on Saturday when we came across a make-your-own-book kit that included a free bound copy, which we thought would have made a nice present for a niece or a nephew. The only snag was that we weren't sure whether the company that made the kit was still in business, so the item might have turned out to be useless. If we'd had access to the Internet on the spot, we could have checked on it and made an informed choice. (If situations like this keep coming up, we may want to revisit the issue of getting a smartphone.)
  11. Lastly, if there's anything in particular you're hoping to find at the sales, make sure to write out a list of what you're looking for. You may think you'll remember, but in my experience, these things have a way of popping right out of your head just when you need to know them. And, if you're yard-saling with a partner, run through the list ahead of time and agree on what you're willing to pay for each item, so that you're on the same page when it comes time to negotiate.
So there you have it: Livingston's Second through Twelfth Laws of Yard Sales. May they serve you as well as they have me.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

What I Did for Earth Day 2015

This year's Earth Day, like last year's, didn't involve any grand gestures for us. We didn't spend the day cleaning up a river, or planting trees, or upgrading to more efficient appliances, or doing anything extra-specially green. In fact, Brian couldn't even ride his bike to work, due to predictions of thunderstorms and high winds in the weather report. He'd already missed his ride on Monday and Tuesday due to rain, and it was perfectly sunny and nice when he went out the door, grumbling, "If it doesn't rain today I'm going to be pissed." But fortunately, the thunderstorms and high winds showed up as promised in the afternoon, so he didn't have to feel any guilt about driving. And he's making up for it by riding to work this morning, even though he has to be in by 8am for a meeting and the temperature is currently around 45 degrees.

Nonetheless, I did manage, as usual, to do a lot of little things in honor of the earth. Here's my Day in the Green Life:

1. I learned to say "climate change" when I mean "global warming." Though the two terms are often used interchangeably, they don't really mean the same thing. Climate change is any long-term shift in the earth's overall climate. Global warming is a specific type of climate change: the long-term trend toward higher average temperatures over the past century or so, which virtually all scientists agree is a result of rising greenhouse gas emissions. However, according to a poll at Cornell that I read about on Accuweather, "global warming" is an issue that most people have firmly made up their minds about, one way or the other: that is, with the scientific consensus or against it. (See, I just proved the point.) When you use that phrase, people are likely to respond by citing and sticking firmly to the opinion they've already formed, no matter what evidence you may cite to the contrary. By contrast, when you use the phrase "climate change," people are more open to hearing about the data and possibly altering their views in response. So the Cornell professor who ran the study suggests using the term "climate change" in place of "global warming" if you want to get a real discussion going, rather than just, "Is not!" "Is too!" (Of course, Governor Scott of Florida has apparently anticipated this strategy and banned both phrases—along with "sustainability"—in any documents issued by his staff. But that just shows that there are some people it really isn't worth trying to reason with.)

2. I ran into some problems with paper reuse. Brian and I routinely use one-side-used paper (scavenged from his office) for our printer at home, but our new 3-in-one printer seems to have some problems with it. When I try to print out my daily crossword puzzle, the printer sometimes grabs multiple sheets and spits out blanks along with the printed page. This isn't a big problem, since I can always just feed the blank ones back into the paper tray, but this time it actually spread the crossword across two pages instead of one. This used to happen with our old printer too, but we thought it was the printer's fault; now we have to consider the possibility that there's something wrong with the paper. Brian thinks the problem may be that the used paper is sometimes bent at the corners, so the printer is mistaking two sheets folded together for one extra-thick sheet. So it looks like we may just need to be more careful when feeding paper into the printer, making sure the sheets are all neatly aligned and leaving out any that are too badly bent or torn.

3. I corrected a misapprehension about energy use. An article in the Dollar Stretcher about quick tricks for trimming your budget mentions unplugging off any electronic items you're not using, since many of them continue to draw a trickle of power even when they're shut down. This is perfectly sensible advice, but the article goes overboard by advising readers to "pull the plug on the toaster oven, coffee maker, [and] lamps." The author seems to be under the impression that all electrical devices use power whenever they're plugged in, not just electronic ones. A fact sheet from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory about standby power use explains that you can usually identify phantom power users because they have "an external power supply, remote control, continuous display (including an LED)," or internal batteries that require charging. Now, I suppose some ultra-fancy modern toaster ovens or coffee makers might include a display screen (though my 20-year-old models definitely don't), but a lamp is basically just a wire that you run a current through to produce light. There is no way it can draw power when it isn't switched on. There was no place to leave comments on the article itself, so I sent a gently worded note to the editor asking him to let readers know that there's no need for them to go around unplugging all the lamps in their houses in order to save electricity. Instead, they can just focus on electronic devices, which are easy to power down by plugging them all into power strips that can be switched off at night.

4. I got my first quote on a solar power system. Last Tuesday, I got a preliminary estimate on the cost of solar power from a website called EnergySage, and the numbers were encouraging enough to convince me to register with the site and let solar installers contact me with quotes. So far, two installers have expressed an interest, and one has actually come forward with a quote on a 2.5-kW system. The bad news is that their quote was quite a bit higher than the initial estimate I got from the site; they say it would cost $10,600 to install, or $7,420 after the tax rebate. The good news is that in addition to the $500 or so we could save on our electricity bills each year, they think we could also earn about $420 (at least the first year) by selling SRECs (Solar Renewable Energy Certificates) to PSE&G. Thus, they claim, over the course of 20 years, the system could net us $11,200, for a return of better than 10 percent on our investment. Of course, that's assuming an annual increase of 3.5 percent in electricity costs, which may or may not be right. But at least it's a starting point for figuring out whether this is a plunge we want to take.

5. Following a link from Google's home page, I rechecked my global environmental footprint on the Earth Day Network site. I've used this site before and been frustrated that, despite all my green lifestyle choices, my footprint still comes in at more than 3 Earths. A few years back, I discovered that this appears to be less because of how I live and more because of where I live; there's simply no way to live as an American without weighing in at 3 Earths or more. A person living only a moderately eco-friendly lifestyle in South Africa, by contrast, would have a footprint of just over 1 Earth. So this time, just for the heck of it, I decided to see how my current lifestyle would measure up if I were living exactly as I do now, but in Ontario. And I noticed that, first of all, the questions the quiz asked were different for Canadians than for Americans. Instead of asking how much I spend on my utility bill, for instance, it asked what temperature I heat my home to (which is a good thing, because I have no idea what my heating bill would be in chilly Ontario). But even so, answering the questions just as I would in real life, I found that my footprint had magically dropped from 3.3 Earths to only 2.1. The biggest section of U.S. Amy's ecological footprint, shown in pie chart form, was "services," which the site defines as "governmental and social service activities" that "can only be indirectly altered through social influence for governmental change." By contrast, Canadian Amy's footprint was about 1/3 services, 1/3 food, and 1/3 for everything else. So apparently, Canada's social policies make it an inherently greener place to live than the US, despite its shorter growing season.

6. While I was at it, I also rechecked our carbon footprint on the EPA website. It, too, has changed its format in the past year. The new version says our household carbon footprint is now 12,143 pounds per year, which is an improvement from last year's estimate of 13,575 pounds. However, we're not doing as well in relation to the average American, who now uses only 28,919 pounds per year as opposed to around 36,000 last year. But then, I guess that's good news, right? Also, unlike the earlier version, the new edition of the planner actually offered some useful information about reducing our footprint. It says, for instance, that we would have saved about 728 pounds of carbon a year with a high-efficiency boiler (though I think that estimate is high; my calculations last year showed a savings of only 351 pounds per year). However, this pales in comparison to the amount we could save by replacing our windows with Energy Star versions: a whopping 2,947 pounds per year. Of course, this estimate is probably high as well; the site may be assuming that our house has more windows than it really does, and that they're old single-pane windows instead of the fairly modern double-glazed ones we really have. (The calculator also claimed that this move would save us $150 a year on our energy bills, but a more precise estimate on the Energy Star site shows that in our area, upgrading double-pane windows will save only $91 a year.) But it's still interesting to know that the energy-efficient windows offer bigger savings than an energy-efficient boiler. After all, we'll have to replace these windows some time, and since the costliest part of that job is probably labor, it might actually be worth going for the super-duper-efficient ones. Another interesting detail gleaned from the site: the green steps we already take (such as washing our laundry in cold water, line drying, maintaining our car, recycling, and using green power) are saving us about 4,000 pounds per year.

7. To protect our supply of local produce, I planted my second installment of arugula and lettuce in the garden. Staggering the plantings like this, planting one square each week instead of the whole area at once, allows us to spread the harvest out over a longer period, instead of ending up with 36 bunches of arugula in one week. While doing this, I discovered a downside of the "carpet bombing" method we've been using to grow plants from seed. It's great for choking out the weeds and ensuring that we have enough healthy plants, but it also makes it harder to allocate the seeds over the numbers of squares to be planted. I discovered when I'd finished planting this batch that I had just barely enough arugula seeds left for the one more square I still need to plant, and even less of the lettuce. So I'll have to fill that last square by combining the few Blushed Butter Oaks lettuce seeds I have left with the remainder of my Tom Thumb Baby Bibb seeds from last year, throwing it all in there, and hoping for the best. And next year, I should either husband my seeds more carefully or just buy a bigger packet.

8. I sent off a sample of our household water for testing. On our last visit to Home Depot, there was a display near the checkout with packets labeled "FREE WATER TEST," each containing an envelope and a small plastic vial. You just fill the vial with your household water, fill out a form with your contact information, pop them both in the prepaid envelope, and get back a report on your water quality. We already get regular water quality reports from the local water department, and they always say that our town's water meets or beats all federal and state standards, but I figured it couldn't hurt to find out how the numbers look for our specific location. So I popped the envelope in the mail yesterday, and if the results reveal anything interesting, I'll share them here.

9. I did a little reading about asbestos. The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance contacted me last week, asking whether I'd be interested in doing a post about asbestos and its dangers. Since I've been fortunate enough to have no personal experiences with asbestos in my life, I did a little research to learn more. I was surprised to discover that asbestos hasn't actually been banned in the U.S. The EPA tried to ban it for most uses in 1989, but a court overturned the ban, so now it's only banned for a few specific uses, like pipe insulation. Though it may be found in homes, most people who develop asbestos-related illnesses were exposed to it at work, particularly in the shipbuilding industry. Wikipedia reports that lawsuits over asbestos exposure are "the longest, most expensive mass tort in U.S. history." If you'd like to know more, you can find lots of information on the MCA's asbestos page.

10. Finally, during my afternoon walk, I made a deposit with Terracycle. When I first learned about Terracycle back in 2011, I didn't think it would be very useful for us, since the only packaging they were taking at the time was things like juice packs and candy wrappers, which we didn't use. More recently, however, we've learned that there's a bin at one of our local churches that will take lots of stuff we actually use, including toothpaste tubes, cereal bag liners, deodorant tubes, and all sorts of foil-lined wrappers (including the ones from Fiber One bars, which have lately become a minor obsession of mine). So we now keep a small basket on the shelf with our other recycling bins in which we deposit all items of this sort, and whenever I notice it's looking a bit full, I dump the contents in a bag and cart them off to the bin. Yesterday, I dropped off a dozen or so bag liners, several foil wrappers, one toothpaste tube, and one deodorant tube—about a pound or so of waste that will now be kept out of the waste stream. (Of course, on the way home, I got caught in the promised thunderstorm that had kept Brian from riding in to work that morning. But thanks to my raincoat and sturdy umbrella, I only really got soaked from the knees down. Which, I guess, is one way of getting in touch with nature.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Salad of the Month: Colorful Rice Salad

Since the weather has finally warmed up, I thought a salad would be more appropriate for April's Recipe of the Month than a soup. At first, I was thinking of trying a recipe I found in Redbook for a grilled avocado with shrimp salad, but I eventually rejected it because it didn't really seem like my idea of a salad. Yes, it had a vegetable in it, if you consider the avocado a vegetable rather than a fruit, but it was also 350 calories for one serving: half an avocado topped with about two ounces of shrimp. That didn't look like it would do much for my ultimate goal of eating healthier, less calorie-dense meals.

So instead, I turned for guidance to my culinary Bible, Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. There were a couple of salad recipes in there that I'd bookmarked to try later, and this seemed like a good time for it. The first one, Chick Pea Salad with Arugula, looked tasty, but it seemed like a pity to make it now with store-bought arugula when there's fresh arugula just starting to come up in the garden that should be ready to pick in a couple of weeks. So instead, I turned to a section called "The World of Rice Salads": one basic salad recipe with a whole series of variants that incorporate different flavors from international cuisine.

Since this was our first time making it, we decided to stick with the basic recipe, which is extraordinarily simple. You just toss cooked, cooled rice with a variety of chopped veggies—scallion, celery, carrot, and red or yellow bell pepper—and a simple red wine vinaigrette. Season it with salt and pepper and a sprinkling of parsley, and boom, it's done. We already had most of the ingredients for it on hand, although I did have to shell out $1.50 for one out-of-season yellow pepper. Our scallions in the garden aren't up yet, but we were able to harvest enough from the potted scallions we keep on the plant shelf in the guest room, and we got the parsley by cannibalizing the two extra seedlings we potted that didn't end up going into the garden. (They were getting too big for their starter tubes anyway, so we'd have had to repot them and give them away if we didn't eat them.)

The resulting mixture is nice and colorful; in fact, with the yellow pepper that we used, the mix of colors matches the rather flamboyant team colors of my Morris dance team. And for something so extremely simple, it's surprisingly flavorful, as well. Brian didn't add a single thing to the recipe—in fact, he didn't even use any pepper, just a little sprinkle of salt. So the only seasonings in it were the olive oil, salt, and vinegar in the dressing, which allowed the fresh flavors of the vegetables themselves to shine through.

Having enjoyed the basic recipe, we're now keen to try some of the variants, like Japanese style (with miso sauce, tofu, nori, and sesame seeds) and citrus (which leaves out the veggies and uses any sort of citrus juice in place of vinegar). But we'll definitely be making the basic recipe again, as well. I figure this dish would be an excellent choice for a potluck party, because (a) it doesn't need to be kept warm; (b) it's both vegan and gluten-free, so pretty much everyone can eat it; and (c) it's something that I myself can eat as much of as I like with virtually no guilt. And better still, if the potluck is hosted by the dance community, we can label the dish as Millstone River Mor-Rice Salad.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Rethinking solar

It's been a little over a year since I last crunched the numbers on the possibility of installing solar panels at our house. What I found at that time was a pleasant surprise: based on my back-of-the-digital-envelope calculations, it looked like a solar array on our roof would, in fact, pay for itself eventually. However, it'd cost between $5,000 and $10,000 to install, and it would take anywhere from 9 to 13 years for us to make that money back in energy savings. Given that we're already powering our house with renewable energy through New Jersey's Clean Power Choice Program, it didn't seem worth the hassle of getting set up for solar if the payback time was going to be that long—especially with the prices of solar panels still dropping. It made more sense to wait until we needed to replace our roof, and then look at what it would cost to add solar panels at the same time.

Last weekend, however, I suddenly found myself bombarded on all sides by promotions for solar energy. Saturday brought an e-mail from Green America, urging me to get quotes on the cost of a solar installation. Then InboxDollars, one of my survey sites, sent me an e-mail on Sunday morning, offering a free quote on a solar system from SolarJoy. And then on Sunday afternoon, my Morris dance team performed at an Earth Day fair, and a friend of mine was there, staffing a table for a company called Solar City, which leases solar panels to homeowners. With the message "Go Solar!" coming at me from every direction, I started wondering whether maybe the universe was trying to tell me something. So I figured, well, maybe it couldn't hurt to look into the question one more time and just find out how the numbers looked for us at this point.

I clicked on over to the Green America site, which offered the option of an "instant estimate" to see how much I could save with solar. I figured it made most sense to do that before getting actual quotes, since there was no point in going through the process if it didn't look like a solar system would be cost-effective. And, unlike most other solar cost estimators I've tried, with this one the "instant" claim was pretty accurate. I only had to answer two questions. First, it asked for my address and pulled up a map so I could pinpoint the location of my roof. Second, it asked me how much I spend on electricity "in an average month." My electric usage actually fluctuates quite a bit from month to month, but since I keep track of it in a handy little Excel spreadsheet, it was quite easy to average together the numbers from the last twelve months. (The total I gave it, $42, includes the few bucks a month I pay as a surcharge for green energy from the Clean Power Choice Program. I knew that might make my electric use look a little higher than it really is, but I figured that's what I pay for green power right now, so I might as well try to get an apples-to-apples comparison.)

The site crunched the numbers for a minute and came back with some intriguing and surprising results:
  1. Our house has 180 square feet of sunny roof space. That's enough room for a 2.6-kilowatt system, which would be enough to meet 100 percent of our energy needs (on average). This estimate is roughly in line with the one I got from Affordable Solar last year.
  2. We could buy such a system outright for a net cost of only $5,400. That's after rebates and tax credits, which the site says could cover 30 percent or more of the cost. Presumably the up-front cost would be around $7,700, and we'd be able to get about $2,300 back.
  3. The site claims this system would pay for itself in only 5.8 years. However, I'm not clear on how they came up with this number, since when I divide a net cost of $5,400 by our $507 per year in energy bills, I get a payback time of nearly 11 years (10 years and 8 months, to be exact.) Maybe the site is assuming that the price of energy will be rising every year, while my solar panels, once paid for, will stay paid for. Given how volatile energy prices are, though, that assumption seems a little iffy to me.
  4. The site claims that, over 20 years (presumably the lifetime of the solar array), this system would net us about $13,000 in total savings. Once again, I'm not sure where these numbers come from. According to my calculations, over the course of the next 20 years, we should expect to spend about $10,100 in electricity bills; deduct the net cost of the solar system, and that cuts our savings down to $4,740. Even if you assume that our electric bills will gradually double over that 20-year period, our total savings still wouldn't hit $10,000.
  5. According to the site, buying the system outright is actually the most cost-effective option. Buying the solar panels with a loan at 0 percent down would only save us $9,900 over 20 years, because the interest payments would eat into our savings. And renting the system, though it would cost us nothing up front, would yield only $4,200 in savings over 20 years—about a third of what we'd save by buying.
If these numbers can be trusted, it looks like buying a solar system is definitely our best option, and the up-front cost isn't actually that bad at all. However, given that the site's numbers are way out of line with mine, I'm still skeptical.

So perhaps the best way to do a reality check on these figures is to go ahead and get some real quotes. It'll be a lot more work, since I may need to spend a lot of time on the phone with the different companies giving them all the same details about our property, or possibly even having installers out to look at the site in person. But in the end, I should have a more accurate idea of just how much we could actually save with solar panels, and over what time period. And, even if it doesn't turn out to be cost-effective at this time, it seems like an appropriate way to commemorate Earth Day.

Of course, there's also the possibility that we'll sign up to get quotes and won't actually receive any, because our energy needs are so low that no company would want to bother with the piddly little system we'd require. But hey, that's useful information too.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Deciding when to upgrade

When it comes to technology, my motto has always been, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." If I've got a system that works for me, no matter how old, clunky, and outdated it may look to others, I'll stick with it—because any attempt to "upgrade" to a newer, sleeker system may just unleash a host of problems that I didn't have with the old one. In other words, if it ain't broke now, it may be after the upgrade.

The ecofrugal corollary to this is, "If it is broke, fix it—don't replace it." As I've said before, I'm a lover, not a lister; I would almost always rather find some way to keep an old item working than toss it out and buy a new one. It's usually (though, as I've noted, not always) cheaper to repair than it is to replace, and it saves resources as well. And while both fixing up an old system and installing a new one can be a lot of work, I find the patch-up kind of work much more satisfying. Plus, the less you change the original system, the less risk there is that it will be even more broke after the upgrade.

In the fast-changing world of technology, however, sometimes things just get so broke that they can't be fixed anymore. Which is how we ended up making two upgrades to our computer system in the past month—one hardware and one software. Both of them were clearly necessary, but one of them was a smooth process with only a few minor bumps that left our overall system much more efficient and streamlined than it was to start with. The other—well, the other is still in progress, and it may be a month or more before I actually get all the kinks worked out.

The hardware upgrade was our printer. Remember how, way back in July, I had trouble printing out a board game for Brian's anniversary present because the printer kept running out of ink? Well, over the next six months, the problem just kept getting worse. It seemed we were refilling the thing every week, and even when it had just been refilled, print jobs often came out uneven and blotchy (and sometimes spread across multiple sheets of paper). We thought perhaps the problem was that the print heads had gone bad, which meant that buying new ink cartridges  might fix the problem—but it might not, and it would cost us over $60 to find out (assuming we had to replace both the black and colored cartridges). Replacing the entire thing, by contrast, would cost as little as $95 for the best home-office printer at ConsumerSearch.com. This put the repair well outside the "50 percent rule" established by cheapskate guru Jeff Yeager.

Moreover, for just a few bucks more we could replace the printer with a well-rated all-in-one model, which would also replace an increasingly unreliable fax machine and a flatbed scanner so old that drivers for it were no longer available for my Mac. (The only way I could use it was via a "virtual box" running Windows.) It got good marks for reliability and low ink use, and, in a nice ecofrugal touch, the three colored ink vessels were separate—so we could replace or refill just one without having to mess with the other two. So our office now has just one big machine in place of three—and since it's wireless, we've eliminated a lot of cables from the rat's nest behind the desk as well. The only thing that the new printer couldn't replace was the answering-machine function on the old fax machine. But after a little trial and error, we succeeded in reinstating the voice mail system on our phone (which is included with the cost of our VOIP) and instructing it to forward any voice mail messages to our e-mail inboxes, so we don't have to remember to dial in—or even check a viewscreen—to find out about them. And we even managed to give away our old printer on Freecycle, with the caveat that it "appears to need new ink cartridges"—so this all-in-one upgrade was a complete win-win-win.

My e-mail, however, is another story.

Basically, I've been using Eudora to read my e-mail ever since...well, pretty much ever since I got my first real e-mail account (where "real" means "not AOL"). I've stuck with it through multiple changes of computer, operating system, and e-mail provider, because it was just so comfortable and intuitive to use. Even when the manufacturer stopped supporting it, I clung to my old copy, because I just couldn't find another program that had all the features I'd come to depend on, like multiple mailboxes (so I could keep all my different categories of mail separate) and labels (so I could easily identify all the ones that were on a particular subject). But over the course of the past month or so, Eudora has become increasingly unstable. I mean, unstable to the point where I'd try to open an e-mail message, and the whole program would crash...and then I'd restart it and it would immediately crash again trying to load that same message. By the time I'd restarted it for the seventh or eighth time on Tuesday, I realized that, much as I might love Eudora's features, they were no use to me if the program simply wouldn't run.

So, reluctantly, I admitted that it was time to find myself a new e-mail client. But which one? Last time I'd gone looking, I'd failed to find anything that included all the features I liked in Eudora, but a couple of years had passed since then; maybe there might be something better out there now. So I started searching on "best alternative to Eudora for Mac" and found a couple of recommendations for Thunderbird, a free program developed by Mozilla, so I decided to download it and give it a try. And that was where I ran into my first problem: I made several attempts to download the program using Chrome (my default browser), and it just sat there whirring to itself for half an hour before aborting the download. I might have given up there, but I figured, well, Mozilla also makes Firefox; maybe this page only works properly in Firefox. So I went into Firefox and managed to complete the download successfully.

Having made it past the first hurdle, I proceeded to install the program. Setting it up to read my Gmail account was, as promised, easy, but when it began to download my mail, I remembered why it had been such a huge hassle the last time I tried to switch e-mail clients; I have been using Gmail for over seven years now, and Gmail has kept basically every message I've received during that time—over 90,000 of them. And Thunderbird was proceeding to download all of them. I didn't actually need to download all of them; I had all the important ones backed up on my hard drive already, via the extremely low-tech method of saving each individual message as a text file. But there didn't seem to be any way to download some of the messages without downloading all of the messages. So basically, I just had to let the thing run all night and load up the lot.

I spent a good part of the next day slogging through the massive archive of all my old sent and received messages, looking for the recent ones that I actually needed to have in my inbox and all the other folders I currently use in Eudora (which I had to re-create one by one in Thunderbird). I haven't exactly reproduced them all yet, but I've managed to get at least the most important folders set up and at least the most recent messages in them. However, I ran into yet another problem when I attempted to set up my other e-mail account, the one I use for work. While Gmail automatically downloaded all the messages I've ever received, Optimum Online didn't download any of them. I went to its webmail program to try to download them manually and discovered that they weren't there; apparently, the minute I downloaded them with Eudora, the server deleted them. So while I can now receive and write new work e-mails on Thunderbird, all my old work e-mails are still on Eudora; if I want to reply to any of them, I have to go into Eudora, copy the text and the address, and paste all that into a new message in Thunderbird. (I've tried to import the old messages directly from Eudora, but every time I hit the button, the process starts and then stalls.) So for the next month, at least, I expect to be stuck running both Thunderbird and Eudora, bouncing back and forth between the two so I can read and respond to my old mail and my new mail at the same time. Gaaah!

I'm beginning to wonder if maybe it would be a better idea just to forget about Thunderbird completely and actually pay for something like MailMate or PostBox, which is actually designed to be able to do everything Eudora can do. Yes, I'd have to shell out between 10 and 50 bucks for it, but given that ecofrugality is supposed to be about saving all resources, including time, that might actually be a worthwhile investment.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Savings Challenge, Week 7: Saving on shaving

I seem to be going through a long dry spell with the Bankrate 52-Week Savings Challenge. Three weeks ago, it was making your own dog food, and we don't have a dog; two weeks ago, it was the financial fast, an idea I'd already considered and deemed unproductive; and last week, it was the spending journal, which I already do routinely and thus couldn't try out for the first time. And now this week, Bankrate reporting Mark Hamrick leads off with "This will be a rare tip aimed at men, so apologies to the ladies," before presenting his recipe for homemade shaving oil.

Now, simply having a challenge that's "aimed at men" wouldn't necessarily make it useless for me, since I happen to be married to one; I could simply make up a batch of the homemade shaving oil for him. The real problem is that, until I saw this challenge today, I'd never even heard of shaving oil, and neither had Brian. Apparently it's something you put on before your shaving cream to get a closer shave with less irritation. But these benefits come with a hefty price tag: according to the article, shaving oil can cost $10 or more per ounce, and that's in addition to whatever you already spend on shaving cream.

Now, if you are already in the habit of buying shaving oil, then making your own could indeed save you a tidy sum of money. Hamrick's recipe uses about $11 worth of basic ingredients (grape seed oil as a base, castor oil as a thickener, and eucalyptus oil for fragrance) to produce around $150 worth of shaving oil. Hamrick estimates that by using it, he's saving at least $200 per year. But the thing is, this implies that he used to be spending upwards of $200 per year on shaving oil. Brian, by contrast, doesn't currently spend one red cent on shaving oil, and neither does any other man I know. So it's hard to see how this tip can really be a money-saver for most men. It might still be worthwhile as a cheap luxury, but adding a luxury item—even a cheap one—to your existing budget is never going to save you money.

So, rather than spending $11 on ingredients to make up a batch of a product we don't currently use, I'm instead going to discuss a few tips of my own that Brian and I actually do use to cut (ha ha) the cost of shaving:
  • Clean the blade. I use a cartridge-type razor for shaving my legs, and over time, it gets clogged up with hair, making it much less effective. So I always rinse it carefully after each use, and that helps me go longer on a single blade.
  • Reduce rust. I simply dry the blade carefully with a towel to keep it from rusting, but other folks use more extreme remedies, like coating the blade in Vaseline (though I'm not sure how you do that without cutting yourself) or storing it in a cup of oil. Which, come to think of it, would also keep it nicely lubricated, thus serving essentially the same function as a shaving oil.
  • Strop the blade. Stropping a blade, as Wikipedia explains, is not exactly the same thing as sharpening it; it doesn't remove chipped or dulled edges, but instead realigns the edge without removing any material. However, it does serve much the same purpose as sharpening: to give you a closer shave with the same old blade. Various sources around the Web recommend stropping your blade with a leather belt, a leather-soled shoe, and even a pair of blue jeans, but by far the easiest method I've seen is to strop the blade against the inside of your own forearm. After all, you always have it handy when you're getting ready to shave, so why climb out of the shower to go get a belt or a piece of denim?
  • Skip the shaving cream. I shave in the shower, so i just use my regular body wash. I have to wash with it anyway, so I may as well shave it off my legs instead of just rinsing it off, right? I once tried some shaving cream instead (a visiting friend left a can behind) to see if it gave me an appreciably closer shave, and it didn't, so I see no reason to squeeze one more container into the shower bin.
  • Grow a beard. This is Brian's preferred method, though it has less to do with saving money and more to do with (1) how it looks and (2) not having to bother with shaving every day. Unfortunately, he isn't one of those fortunate guys whose beard grows in precisely down to the chin and leaves the neck perfectly clean, so he still ends up having to shave his neck—but most of the time, he just cuts the hair down to short stubble, using his beard trimmer with the guard off. Only when he needs to look extra snazzy does he get out a proper razor—which is to say, borrow mine—and shave completely smooth.
So how much do we actually save on shaving this way? Well, the only thing I actually pay for is my razor cartridges, which cost about a dollar apiece, and the pack I'm using now has lasted me for—well, I'm not exactly sure, because I can't remember when I bought it. At least a year, anyway.

As for Brian, he just uses an electric beard trimmer. As I mentioned last week, the rechargeable, cordless models he used to buy always seemed to die after a year or two, their batteries gradually weakening until they could no longer hold enough charge to last through a trim (and there doesn't seem to be any way to replace the battery once this happens). So this time, we decided to invest in a corded model. We couldn't find any reviews for beard trimmers at ConsumerSearch, my usual go-to site, but this report at the Sweethome (a sister site to the technical site the Wirecutter) recommended the Wahl Peanut, which it says is "tough enough to survive a few years at a time in a high-volume shop" and should provide "many years of service" for individual users at home. So we're hoping this $39 investment (which was actually $23.25 out of pocket, because we cashed in some credit card rewards) will be good for five to ten years at least.

So, assuming Brian's trimmer lasts at least five years, and my 8-packs of razor cartridges are lasting me at least one year, that means the annual cost of shaving is, at most, $12.65 for the two of us. Which, coincidentally, is about what we'd have to spend on the ingredients to try out a batch of that "money-saving" homemade shaving oil. So even if those ingredients are good for a whole year's supply of the stuff, adding it to our shaving routine would roughly double its annual cost. Thanks, but no thanks.

[EDIT, 4/26/15: Since writing this article, I decided to try swiping my razor, after I've rinsed and dried it, through the coconut oil I keep in the shower for my skin. I was only thinking that it might help a bit with preventing rust, but I've noticed since I started doing it that I seem to get an appreciably closer shave than I used to, as well. So perhaps there is something to this shaving oil idea, after all. But apparently, you don't need to buy $13 worth of ingredients to get the benefits.]

Monday, April 13, 2015