Friday, July 31, 2015

Money Crashers: How to Deal With Funeral Costs

Money-saving sites and newsletters, such as Money Crashers, are always stuffed with tips for saving on weddings, but you almost never see any for funerals. In fact, the very idea seems almost shocking. People seem to feel as if when a loved one has just died, it's heartless even to be thinking about money. But unfortunately, not thinking about it has a serious cost—about $11,000 for a typical funeral in the US. (And that's just for the service, not including any gathering you might have afterward at home.)

I don't know about you, but when I go, I don't want $11,000 of the money I've left to my heirs being spent just to put what's left of me into the ground. Yes, I want the people who remember me to gather together and share those memories, but that doesn't cost anything. It's the fancy caskets and tombstones that cost the big bucks. At least there's some sense in paying for a nice tombstone if you're going to be looking at it every time you visit the grave, but why spend thousands on a coffin that's just going to get covered up with dirt?

For anyone else who would rather, when the time comes, have a funeral that's truly meaningful than one that's impressive, I've covered this topic in detail in my latest Money Crashers post. I talk about your rights when dealing with funeral homes (and your almost total lack of any when dealing with cemeteries), how to compare prices, the value of pre-planning (so you can do your thinking about money at a time when you're not completely overwhelmed by grief), and some money-saving alternatives like cremation, direct burial, and donating your remains to medical science. I also discuss the home funeral, which is far more traditional than the "traditional" funeral of today: the body is simply "laid out" at home for visitors, and the family stays with the deceased until the end. (I noted in my original draft that many people who have done this say that tending personally to the bodies of their beloved dead gives them a greater sense of closure, but the editor cut this out for some reason.)

The writing in parts of this may seem overly formal and unlike my usual style; that, too, was the editor's decision. But there's useful information in it, all the same. Here's the full article: How to Deal With Funeral Costs – Planning Guide & Checklist

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Money Crashers: Toy Lending Libraries & Exchanges

This particular post for Money Crashers deals with a topic that I don't personally have a lot of experience with: kids' toys. Of course, Brian and I do have some experience with toys, having a total of nine (count 'em, nine) nieces and nephews between us: we have given them quite a few toys over the years at Christmas/Hanukkah time, and we have also seen quite a lot of their toys whenever we go to visit. But that's not quite the same thing as living among them, surrounded on all sides, day in and day out—not to mention dealing with the kids' pleas for new ones. I can only guess at how frustrating this situation is for moms and dads, but based on the little taste I've had of it, I'd have to guess it gets old pretty quickly.

So for all you moms and dads out there, even if I can't personally empathize with your
3 situation, I can offer an idea that might help at least a bit: sharing toys. I don't mean just persuading your own kids to share with each other and with their friends, but paring down the size of your toy collection at home by drawing toys from a pool that's shared with a whole bunch of other kids.

One way to do this is a toy library, if your town happens to have one. It's just like a regular library, except you can borrow toys instead of books. Doing this lets your kids rotate their selection of toys at home, so they get to try new ones every few weeks without completely flooding the house with them—or sinking your wallet.

If you don't have a toy library available, another alternative—though it's a bit more work—is to organize a toy exchange. Basically, you just gather up all the toys your kids are tired of, get together with a bunch of other families who have done the same, and swap your old toys for theirs. Everyone gets to go home with toys that are new to them, and everything left over goes to a worthwhile charity.

If either of these sounds like it might make at least a small dent in your home's toy budget and toy clutter, check out the full article here: Toy Lending Libraries & Exchanges – Benefits and How They Work

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Soup of the Month: Chilled Honeydew with Mint and Lime

Back in February, I decided to make my Recipe of the Month a salad rather than a soup, in spite of the wintry weather. This month, going in the opposite direction, I decided to do a soup, even though the daytime temperature is regularly peaking well above 90 degrees. I originally assumed that in this heat, a salad would be the obvious choice, but when I started searching through my cookbook shelf for an interesting salad recipe I hadn't tried, my eye fell upon the recipe for Chilled Honeydew Soup with Mint and Lime in Mollie Katzen's Vegetable Heaven, and I thought you could hardly find anything more cool and refreshing than that. So this is actually two firsts for the Recipe of the Month: the first cold soup, and the first fruit-based soup.

Making this soup could hardly be simpler. It has only three ingredients: an entire honeydew melon, which I was able to pick up for $3 at the local farmers' market; a quarter-cup of lime juice, which the recipe says should be freshly squeezed, but we made do with bottled; and two tablespoons of minced mint leaves, which we harvested from our herb garden in the front yard. The recipe also mentions using fresh blueberries as a garnish, but since they're optional, I decided not to spend the extra $2 at the farmers' market. Then, all you have to do is chop the melon into chunks, dump it in the blender with the juice and mint, puree everything until it's smooth (or at least smoothish), and chill it thoroughly in the fridge. Brian prepared the soup on Saturday morning, stuck it in the fridge while we went out on a jaunt to Princeton to celebrate our anniversary, and it was all ready and waiting for us when we got home.

As I'd predicted, the soup was quite cool, light, and refreshing. The flavor was a fairly even balance between sweet and tart, which made it seem a bit strange to be eating it out of a bowl; both the flavor and the texture seemed more like a slushie that should be drunk with a straw. In fact, I tried doing just that with some of the leftover soup today, but it proved a bit too thick to consume that way; I ended up having to add some water to it, and it was still rather difficult to slurp up through the straw. But Mollie Katzen does note that you can make this soup into a granita by pouring it into a shallow dish and freezing it, with a stir every half hour or so to keep it from turning into a solid block of ice. Consuming it that way, out of a sherbet glass, might feel like a better fit for the blend of flavors. But of course, then it couldn't count as a Soup of the Month.

Next month, it'll probably be back to salads. Perhaps something with tomatoes, since I both hope and believe we're going to have a plentiful crop.

Money Crashers: How to Start a Seed Savers Exchange

So, as you all know, Brian and I are gardeners. Not large-scale gardeners, maybe not particularly skilled gardeners, but reasonably avid gardeners. We do a lot of the semi-hardcore stuff that other hobby gardeners don't waste time with, like starting plants from seed and making our own compost. We've even tried saving seeds from our crops, though considering the hassle involved, it didn't really seem to be worth the trouble.

One thing we've never really done, though, is seed swapping. We've sort of flirted with the idea from time to time, exchanging some extra seeds with my dad or accepting Freecycle offers for half-empty seed packets, but we've never gone to a full-scale seed exchange with dozens of other gardeners. Mainly, that's because we don't know enough other gardeners to swap seeds with, and our town—though it's very sustainable in many ways, with a good curbside recycling program, a great public library, and a community cafĂ©—doesn't have such a thing as a permanent seed library.

Such things do exist, however, and in some places, they're apparently very successful. In my latest Money Crashers article, I discuss seed exchanges: how they work, where they're found, and how to start one. I don't think I'm quite up to starting one myself—based on the research I did for this article, it sounds like rather a lot of work—but if I ever hear of one in my area, I'll certainly be happy to contribute.

Here's the full article: How to Start a Seed Savers Exchange for Gardeners in Your Community

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Savings Challenge, Weeks 19-20: Clean and pretty

Once again, the Bankrate 52-week savings challenge has served up two challenges in a row that are already quite familiar to me. The first one deals with DIY cleaning products, the second with DIY hair care—two things that I've been doing for years. But, for the sake of argument, let's go through them:

Week 19: Make your own cleaning products

The Bankrate reporter who tried this challenge, Laura Dunn, decided to try homemade versions of three specific cleaning products: laundry booster, oven cleaner, and carpet stain remover. This struck me as a bit odd, since these are three products that I use very seldom, if at all. It seemed to me that the best way to save money on cleaning products would be to try a DIY version of an all-purpose cleaner that you use every day.

Her choice might still make sense if Laura Dunn uses these products a lot more often than I do, but based on her experience with the laundry booster, it appears that this was a product she'd actually never tried before. Basically, she just took a friend's advice to add vinegar to the wash cycle when doing laundry to "kill any bacteria" that could be causing "the smell you may have detected in your towels." Dunn was impressed with the result, because her towels came out "very fresh-smelling" and "decidedly softer than usual"—and at $2.48 per gallon, she figures the vinegar costs her only 4 cents per load. Which is all very well, but it's still an extra 4 cents per load, not a savings. Dunn tries to argue that this trick is actually saving her money by extending the life of her towels; in fact, she goes so far as to suppose that the vinegar treatment is actually doubling their lifespan, thus saving her $150 on a set of towels every five years—but she gives no reason at all for this supposition, and no one who commented on the article offered any evidence to back up the claim. Given that I have towels I've been using for 15 years and I've never added vinegar to the rinse cycle, I'm a little skeptical. (I also can't honestly say that I've ever found my towels to smell bad when they've just been washed, so it would make no sense for me to spend an extra 4 cents per load to deal with a complete non-problem.)

The other two DIY products Dunn tried were even less successful. The DIY oven cleaner, a paste of baking soda and water, worked fine, but Dunn calculated that it cost about 56 cents per use, while a bottle of Easy-Off costs maybe 50 cents per use. She thought this was only a worthwhile tip for people who prefer eco-friendly products. Personally, I'd say that baking soda has one other advantage: it's something most of us always have in the house. So if you decide after a cooking debacle that you really need to clean that oven, you don't have to run out and buy a bottle of a product that can only do one job and will probably take years to use up. (We've owned this house for seven years, and I don't think we've cleaned the oven more than once—and it doesn't look particularly dirty inside.)

As for the DIY carpet cleaner, made from a mixture of dish soap, baking soda, and hydrogen peroxide, it ended up bleaching Dunn's carpet, and she had to buy a commercial stain remover to undo the damage—which, she notes, cost less than the homemade stuff. Personally, I wouldn't use anything with hydrogen peroxide on any kind of fabric unless it was already solid white—but then, I also wouldn't try this recipe in the first place, since our house doesn't have any carpets. We have a few area rugs, but we've never yet had to remove a stain from one, so there's really no way we could save much money with a DIY carpet cleaner.

So on the whole, Dunn's success rate with DIY cleaners was pretty unimpressive and unlikely to inspire her readers to try them. Which is a pity, because if she'd tried DIY versions of common, everyday cleaners—like good old vinegar and water—she could probably have achieved some much more impressive savings. I use this old standby on practically everything—bathroom, kitchen, floors, windows—and I haven't bought any sort of commercial surface cleaner in years. It's not tough enough for scrubbing the tub, but I do that with a "dish wand" dispenser filled with a mixture of half dish soap and half vinegar, and it works better than any commercial product I've tried. And for anything vinegar can't handle, there's baking soda.

The one thing I can't seem to do with either vinegar or baking soda, or a combination of the two, is removing the faint brown stain our walnut cat litter has left on the inside of our white toilet bowl. I may eventually have to resort to nasty, toxic chlorine bleach for that one.

Week 20: Be your own hairstylist

Bankrate reporter Crissinda Ponder says it costs her $60-$70 to have her hair straightened and styled, and keeping it that way all the time would mean shelling out that amount every other week. So she cut her salon visits back to "a handful" per year with the help of tutorial videos from YouTube. She embeds one such video that shows how to create "super cute summer curls," and the results certainly are as advertised, but alas, it's specifically for African-kinky hair, so it won't work for me.

Now, I can't really say how much I save each year by styling my own hair, because it's been so many years since anyone else did it for me. The last time I had a professional haircut, I think, was when my sister treated me to a session with her posh Boston stylist as a wedding present. I came out of the salon feeling not at all like myself, and I ended up stopping in the restroom and sprinkling water on my blown-out curls to bring them back to normal.

After that, I came to the resolution that I wasn't going to bother with professional hair care anymore. I had never, not once in my life, come out of a hair salon feeling like I looked better than when I went in, and my recent experience had convinced me that going to a pricier salon wouldn't make any difference in that regard. If I just trimmed my own hair at home, maybe it would never look really great, but at least I wouldn't have to pay someone to make me less happy with it.

After several years of trial and error, I now have a simple routine that I'm pretty happy with. It's basically a simplified version of the Curly Girl Method: I wet my hair thoroughly in the shower, then wrap it in a microfiber towel to soak up excess moisture while I do my exercises, and then I comb in some plain old VO5 conditioner and let it air dry. Once it's completely dry, I can fluff the curls up to an appropriate volume. And when then look like they're getting too long or too uneven, I just trim a bit off here or there until it looks right. The results may not look "professional"—but I'm happier with them than I've ever been with a professional cut.


So that's two more challenges that pose no real challenge for me. Perhaps next week's, which has to do with meal replacement shakes, will prove more interesting.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Money Crashers: How to Get Free Stuff at Free Stores

One of the staples of the ecofrugal lifestyle is secondhand shopping. As I've observed many times, thrift stores and flea markets are an ecofrugal three-fer, because you get to save money, save resources, and prevent waste all at the same time. However, in my latest Money Crashers post, I discuss something that's even better than thrift shops: free stores. These are like thrift shops taken to the ultimate extreme: everything is not merely cheap but free. Yes, free! You can bring in your unwanted stuff, and you can take home someone else's unwanted stuff, and you never have to get out your wallet at all!

I've never had a chance to experience a free store (or its more temporary cousin, a Really Really Free Market, or RRFM) firsthand. The closest I've ever come is occasionally dropping off or picking up items at the "Freecycle table" at the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, where the Minstrel concert series is held on Fridays. And sadly, in the course of working on the article, I discovered that I haven't simply been overlooking the obvious: there actually are no free stores or RRFMs in New Jersey at all. The nearest one to me is in Manhattan, and since a trip into the city costs around $30 (either $24.50 for the train plus $7 for the subway, or $19.50 in tolls plus an indeterminate amount for gas and parking), I can hardly imagine that making the expedition would be a money-saving venture.

Some of you, however, might be more fortunately situated. To find out, take a look at the article: How to Get Free Stuff at Free Stores and Swap Shops (or Start Your Own)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Money Crashers: How to Shop at Reuse Centers

When we were remodeling our downstairs bathroom four years ago, one of the things that helped us keep the cost down was the Habitat for Humanity ReStore up in Morris County. It supplied us with handsome, slate-look tile for around $2.67 a square foot, as well as a new-condition cultured-marble sink and vanity top for $30. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to score many other bargains there, because it's over an hour away, and the only time it's open that we could make it there is on Saturdays. Also, the last time we made a special trip out there in the hope of finding some bargains for our kitchen and office, the selection was much less impressive than it had been on previous visits, and not as well organized, either.

However, for those who are lucky enough to have a good building reuse center in their area, it's a fantastic resource for home improvement projects. In my latest Money Crashers article, I've written about what you can find at reuse centers (and their close cousin, architectural salvage stores) and the many advantages—and a few disadvantages—of shopping there. I also include a list of some of the most noteworthy reuse centers around the country and some resources for finding a center in your area. (Sadly, the closest one to us is an architectural salvage store in Barnegat, which has some remarkable stuff, but at far from bargain basement prices.)

Check out the full article here: How to Shop at Reuse Centers & Architectural Salvage Stores to Save on Home Improvement