Monday, September 29, 2014

DIY Lessons

When we first started planning our guest room redo way back in April, we figured this would be a good sort of starter job for us to test our DIY skills on. Since we knew we were bound to make some mistakes, we figured it would be best to make them on this small, seldom-used room, so we'd know better by the time we started working on our most-used living spaces. And for this purpose, I must say, the remodel is shaping up to be a remarkable success. We've only been working on it for a week, and we've already made enough mistakes to learn several very important lessons about this kind of DIY job. So I'm now planning to share them here, in the hope that maybe you can learn from our mistakes without going to the trouble of making them yourself.

Lesson 1: Plan for the unplanned.

When we first started planning this job, we figured it would probably be a fairly quick one, since it was a small room and didn't need any major changes. All we had to do was pull some nails from the wall, patch the holes, prime and paint, and then bring in some new furniture and artwork. How long could that take?

Hah.

Turns out, the answer to this question is "A lot longer than you expect." Because no matter how simple a job looks on the surface, there will invariably be bigger, more complicated jobs hidden below the surface, which won't come to light until you actually start getting your hands dirty. Like, for example, the chunks of the wall that are actually made not of intact wallboard but of crumbling filler, which you can't see until you start pulling nails out and find large chunks of the wall coming with them.

Sometimes, it's true, these hidden problems turn out to have fairly quick fixes. For instance, one of the two windows in the room had a seriously wobbly windowsill, and Brian feared that the wood might have warped due to water incursion or maybe suffered insect damage. However, when he actually pulled off the windowsill to examine it, he found that the wood was mostly intact; one of the two pieces had a crack in it, but nothing that couldn't be fixed with wood glue. It was the wallboard behind the sill that had mostly rotted away due to water damage. Fortunately, this was a problem Brian already knew how to fix: just cut out the damaged parts, cut some smaller pieces of wallboard to fit the hole, and screw them into place. So we dodged a bullet there by not having to attempt to build a whole new windowsill from scratch. But it could just as easily have turned out the other way.

So the lesson we've learned here for future DIY jobs is always to allow more time for them—a lot more—than it actually looks like they should take. When the time comes to redo the bedroom, for instance, I'm going to assume that we'll need to set aside a full week for it just as we did with the patio last year—and that we might still be sleeping in the guest room after that week is out.

Lesson 2: You cannot remove just a small patch of paint (at least not from a wall that was never properly primed).

In the picture I showed you last week, we had a large, irregular, vaguely map-shaped section of paint peeled away underneath the soon-to-be-removed windowsill. At that point, I thought we'd peeled all the paint we'd need to peel in that room. But nope, turns out it's like potato chips: you can never stop at just one. The more nails we removed, the more sections of paint came out with them, and as we peeled at each newly formed loose edge, larger and larger sections of wallboard were exposed, and the peeled-away areas joined up with each other, until we ended up with more wallboard uncovered than covered. Unfortunately, there wasn't always a clear line of demarcation between spots where the paint was well adhered to the wall and spots where it wasn't, so one minute I might be peeling away a big sheet of loose paint from the wall, and the next minute, I might find myself tearing a chunk of paper from the wallboard because there was one little spot in the middle of the sheet of paint that had managed to stick to it. All of these spots will, of course, have to be patched before we can get started on priming and painting.

The moral here, I guess, is to try as much as possible in future jobs to minimize the amount of paint we disturb. And the best way to do that is to heed the next lesson:

Lesson 3: Don't pull out a nail that you could push in.

The main reason we did so much damage to the walls in the process of pulling out all those nails is that in some cases, nail heads that appeared to be bulging out of the wall actually turned out, once the paint was scraped away, to be buried pretty deeply in it. I thought perhaps the best thing to do would be to simply spackle over them, but Brian pointed out that if they'd pushed their way out of the wall once, they were bound to do it again, because they obviously weren't well secured to it. So at that point we figured the only way to avoid this problem was to pull them all out—which often involved gouging out big sections of the wallboard to expose the edge of the nailhead so we could get the pry bar under it—and replace each one with a wood screw.

Now, this worked, in the sense that it got the walls secured back in place, but it was a lot of work, and it created a lot of big holes that would have to be filled and sanded later on. It was only after we'd done this with about three dozen deeply buried nails that we figured out that we could simply add wood screws without removing the nails first. That would fix the wallboard in place so it wouldn't bulge out, and once it was secure, we could just pound the nails in to hold them down. Oops.

So, that was a lesson learned the hard way, and one that left us with about three dozen holes in the wall, but at least we figured it out now. Next time we tackle one of these bedrooms, we won't bother pulling out nails; we'll just add screws next to them, and then bang the nails back into place.

These are the first three lessons we've learned from this remodeling job, but I'm sure they won't be the last. We've still got a wide array of tasks in front of us—mudding, priming, painting, replacing the windowsill, replacing outlets, painting the heater covers—and I'm sure each one will have its own lesson, or set of lessons, to teach us. But at least with any luck we'll learn them all now, and we'll have them down by the time we tackle our next room.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Welcome to the Ecofrugal Living podcast!

I'm trying something new here on the Ecofrugal Living blog: a podcast.

I've recorded the blog entry from Monday as an audio recording, which you can listen to here. Once this post is published, I should, in theory, be able to create a feed for it via FeedBurner, and all you folks out there in cyberworld will be able to subscribe to it. I've never done this before, so it's an experiment, but if all goes according to plan, you should shortly be able to listen to the Ecofrugal Living podcast, Episode 1: Price Sensitivity, or the $16.72 Quart of Ice Cream.


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Solving problems without money

In her latest "Live Like a Mensch" blog post, Emily Birkin muses on a saying her mother's relatives often used when she was growing up: "A problem that can be solved with money isn't really a problem." As she understood it, this meant that "money was fungible"—meaning that one dollar is exactly equivalent to another—and so "it was always possible to earn more money and replenish the stores."

This seems, on the face of it, like a startling thing to say. I suspect a large majority of Americans would be very surprised to hear that their money problems aren't really problems. And indeed, Birkin acknowledges that only "economically privileged" families would be likely to use this saying, since "You can only view money as no big deal if you’ve never really gone without it." Nonetheless, she maintains that for those who have a high enough degree of "money competence," it really is true that lack of money needn't ever pose an insurmountable barrier. To those who have the skill, she claims, getting more money is a "straightforward" problem that can always be overcome: "I can always earn more money, rearrange my budget, change my priorities, or save up." Lack of "time, infrastructure, talent, or support," by contrast, makes a problem much more complicated to solve.

At this point, I realized that what she was saying wasn't really that lack of money isn't a problem at all: it's that it's a problem she already knows how to solve. It's like the old joke about how a mathematician boils a pot of water: if she comes into the kitchen and finds a pot of water on the table, she moves it to the stove and then lights the stove. However, if the next time she comes into the kitchen she finds the pot of water on the floor, then she just moves it to the table, because now she's reduced the problem to one she's already solved. In the same way, if Emily Birkin can reduce a problem to a simple question of money, then she knows the problem is solvable.

However, I think this way of thinking has its drawbacks, as well. If you view problems involving money as non-problems, or at least easily solvable problems, then it can become too easy to jump to the conclusion that money is the best solution to any problem. And indeed, for most problems, spending money is the easiest and most obvious solution. But in many cases, there may also be another solution that doesn't involve spending money—which you'll never find if you simply take the shortcut of reducing the problem to the already-solved one of using money. Here are a few examples just off the top of my head:
Problem: You've received a last-minute invitation to the theater, and you don't have a thing to wear. (Confession: I stole this example from Christine Lavin.)
Easy/obvious solution: Run out to the store and buy something black and formal—and hope you don't hate it when you catch your reflection during intermission.
Cheap/creative solution: Go through your closet and try to figure out if your existing clothes could work if combined differently or accessorized differently. Or borrow something from a friend. Or go casual, and pretend you're just being rebellious. 
Problem: Like Brian, you find it uncomfortable to sit at a desk all day long, and you want a setup that will allow you to switch back and forth between sitting and standing.
Easy/obvious solution: Spend $335 on a convertible desk and spend a whole morning setting it up in your office and dismantling your old desk. And then live with the fact that your new desk has far less space to work on and clashes with everything else in the office.
Cheap/creative solution: Spend $10 on a Lack table from IKEA and set that on top of the desk when you want to stand. (If this proves a bit too tall to be ideal, as it did for one of Brian's coworkers who tried it, get Brian to build you a little step stool out of scrap wood to stand on when you want to use the desk in standing position. Or just saw the ends off the legs of the Lack to make it lower.) 
Problem: Like Emily Birkin herself, you have a greyhound who really, really loves his "deluxe Cadillac of a dog bed." During the day, rather than joining the family downstairs, he will stay upstairs to lie on it—and then cry because he isn't with his people.
Easy/obvious solution: Spend another $150 to get him a second bed for downstairs.
Cheap/creative solution: Make him a cheaper bed out of a folded comforter to sleep on downstairs. Or, if he refuses to use it (as their greyhound did), just drag the dog bed downstairs every morning and back upstairs every night.
In every case, if you simply take the most easy and obvious approach, you'll solve the problem all right, but you'll also spend money that you didn't really need to spend. This creates problems of its own, because every dollar you spend has to be earned, and earning money requires time and energy that you then can't devote to other things. Countless financial writers have written about this work-spend treadmill and its many negative impacts on your life. Working more hours to earn more money to buy more stuff, they point out, takes time away from friends, family, and pursuits that are a lot more fulfilling than earning and spending; it can lead to exhaustion and a host of stress-related illnesses; and it ultimately isn't fulfilling, because once you get used to a certain level of luxury, there's no longer any particular pleasure in it—so you have to keep raising the stakes, which means more spending, more earning, and more stress.

Probably the best-known attack on this way of life is Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. Birkin herself, as I've noted before, is a major fan of this book, and she actually cites it in explaining why she chose not to spend money on a second doggie bed: since you have to trade your "life energy" for money, and "For everything you choose to buy, there is either something else that you cannot buy, or there is more life energy you have to expend in order to earn more money." Thus, she says, "I try to spend money on things that matter to me, because the money flowing through my life is finite." Which seems to directly contradict the idea that "A problem that can be solved with money isn't really a problem," because getting more money is a problem: it's the problem of what else you will have to give up in order to get that money. Thus, it always makes sense to look first for a solution that doesn't require money, particularly one that addresses the problem by simply putting a bit more thought into it. This kind of creative problem-solving is fun and satisfying, so it actually enhances your life energy, rather than consuming it. And, as an additional plus, solutions that don't require spending money are often better for the environment as well, which is the whole basis for the idea of ecofrugality.

In fact, now that I think about it, nearly everything I've ever written about on this blog could be considered an example of substituting creativity and/or effort for money in one way or another. Paging through my "greatest hits," I see that readers have responded positively to posts on:
  • budget decor, or the ways in which people have used creativity to refinish whole rooms on a very low budget;
  • thrift-store shopping, which lets you stretch your clothing dollars by thinking outside the big box store;
  • our DIY patio project, in which we got the pavers from Freecycle (an unconventional source), shopped around for stone and gravel (putting a little more effort into finding the best deal), and did all the work ourselves (substituting the sweat of our brows for money spent on contractors);
  • ConsumerSearch, a site that helps you get the best value for your shopping dollar with just a few minutes of work;
  • our groundhog fence, another DIY project that lets us coexist peacefully with our resident furballs; and
  • choosing a ground cover for our front yard, so we won't have to invest time and money into maintaining the conventional lush, green lawn.
So I think that, for frugal-minded folks, the saying "A problem that can be solved with money isn't really a problem" tells only half the story, and not even the most important half. A more useful version would be, "Just because a problem can be solved with money doesn't mean it should be." Defaulting to a solution that requires money is a good way to use up your supply of it, making it harder to solve future problems in the same way. By contrast, if your default problem-solving mode is to look first for a solution that doesn't use money, you're a lot more likely to have a good supply of money when you actually need it. And, because you'll be in the habit of thinking creatively, you're also a lot more likely to be able to come up with ways to get the money if you don't have it—for instance, by making cuts in other areas of your budget.

In other words, if you always follow the second piece of advice (which comes down to "Don't spend money if you don't have to"), then the first one (which comes down to "You can always get money if you need it"), is a lot more likely to be true.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Guest room makeover, stage 1

As I believe I've mentioned before, when it comes to home renovation, Brian and I aren't the fastest workers around. I often justify our slow-and-steady approach to home remodeling by arguing that we prefer a good and cheap job to one that's fast and cheap (but not that good) or fast and good (but really expensive). By taking our time with a room redo, I proclaim, we can wait as long as it takes to find really good deals on materials, and we can do all the work ourselves in our free time rather than hiring professionals. All of which is perfectly true.

But sometimes, I have to admit, our home projects get off to a slow start less out of a conscious decision to pace ourselves and more on account of simple procrastination. A case very much in point right now is our small back bedroom. Remember how I announced, back in April, that we were planning to redo that little room as a guest room? And remember how I predicted that we should be able to get started on the project "by May, if not sooner," just as soon as all our seedlings were transplanted out into the garden? Yeah, well, turns out I was off by four months or so. There's no real excuse for it; it's not as if we had some other big project we had to deal with first, or a major illness, or a financial crisis, or anything of that sort. It was just all the other little everyday things on the to-do list that kept pushing the room remodel down to the bottom.

But even if we tend to put jobs off sometimes, we do get around to them eventually, and this one is no exception. Last week, removed most of the furniture from the room, pushed the one remaining table with the recycling bins on it into the center, and got down to brass tacks. Or to be more accurate, steel nails—nails that had slipped out of their places in the drywall and were now forming visible bulges in the walls and ceiling. Removing those, and patching the resulting holes, was going to have to be our first job before we could get down to the work of mudding, priming, and painting.

Fortunately, Brian had a tool that turned out to be just the thing for getting in under the paint and working the nails loose from their positions. The manufacturer, Titan Tools, describes it as a "pry bar/scraper": it's a straight, flat length of steel, about a handsbreadth in length, that curves up at one end and has a wickedly sharp, wide edge on both the flat and curved ends. We had to handle them with extreme care to avoid slipping and nicking any important blood vessels, but they sure made it the job of prying nails from the walls go a lot faster. (We still have to tackle the ones on the ceiling, which may prove a bit trickier, since we'll be working at a more awkward angle and simultaneously trying to keep the nails from landing on our heads when they pop out.)

Unfortunately, removing the nails turned out to have an awkward side effect: each one that came out took with it a good-sized chunk of the plaster and paint. Patching the holes isn't a big deal; all it takes is a bit of spackling. But the paint is trickier, because once a single edge starts to peel up, it just keeps going and going. Brian thought we might end up having to strip the paint off the entire wall, which he thought might be a blessing in disguise, since it would have given us a clean, smooth surface to prime over. But as it turned out, the paint was stuck on much better in some places than others. It peeled off in big sheets, but only up to a point; beyond that point, it was almost impossible to peel at all. As a result, we now have a large bare patch on the wall that vaguely resembles a map of Afro-Eurasia. We can only hope that once it's been primed and painted over, it's outline won't be visible.

And talking of paint, we've made a start on choosing colors for the room. Since it's quite a small room, we know we want to go with a light shade that's not too vivid, something in the white-to-beige family. However, this doesn't narrow it down nearly as much as you might think. As I stood in front of the paint display at Lowe's, my mind positively boggled at how many shades of white-to-beige the folks at Valspar can apparently distinguish with the naked eye. (In fact, I now think they should write a bestselling novel about a tempestuous love affair between two house painters: Fifty Shades of Beige.) So far I've managed to narrow down the candidates to about half a dozen, from "Bungalow White" at left to "Churchill Hotel Ecru" (an official National Trust for Historic Preservation shade) at right. I'm currently leaning toward "Cake Batter," although Brian thinks that may be just because I like the name.

Of course, choosing any of these colors may be premature, because I'm not sure Valspar is actually the brand we want to go with. It's the one we've tended to use in the past, but the latest report on interior paint from ConsumerSearch recommends a much pricier brand, Benjamin Moore Aura. At $54 a gallon, it's more than twice the price of Valspar, but on the other hand, it promises "one-coat coverage" with no need for a separate primer, so one gallon of Aura might be cheaper than two gallons of Valspar plus one of primer. It's also low-odor and very quick-drying, though the review notes this can be a negative as well as a positive; it sometimes dries so fast that you can't cover a whole area before it starts to dry, resulting in streaks. So I haven't decided yet whether it's worth it to spring for the fancy stuff or just go with our trusty old budget brand. In any case, there's no need to choose just yet; we still need to finish removing nails, cleaning and patching the walls, repairing woodwork, and possibly (depending on which brand we choose) priming before we're ready to paint.

All of which, if we work at our usual rate, shouldn't take us more than three or four months.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Gardeners' Holidays 2014: Harvest Home

The autumnal equinox arrived a bit late in 2014 (as commemorated by today's Google Doodle). While it's normally on the 20th or 21st of September, this year it didn't officially hit until 10:29 last night, according to this article in the Christian Science Monitor. The article goes on to talk about the ways in which different cultures around the world have marked the fall equinox, but it doesn't mention the English festival of Harvest Home or Ingathering, which honored the last day of the grain harvest. Participants celebrated by "singing, shouting, and decorating the village with boughs," as well as making a harvest doll from the last sheaf of grain as a totem to bring good rains for next year's crop.

Our garden doesn't include any grain to harvest, but there are plenty of other crops that are just at their peak. Every day Brian comes in with at least a couple of tomatoes fresh from the vine; so far we've had mostly Early Girls and Glaciers, but the Rutgers, Amish Pasta, and Cosmonaut Volkov are now starting to be more productive, so we'll most likely be picking more of those over the next few weeks. Around this time last year, we were drowning in Sun Golds, prompting me to decide that this year I would plant no more than two of them; however, this plan actually ended up backfiring, since neither of the seedlings we planted survived, so this year we have no Sun Golds at all. I guess next year we'll have to buy a fresh packet of the Sun Gold seeds, start several of them, and then plant the one or two healthiest seedlings, and maybe then we'll manage to get some of these little orange delights without being completely inundated with them.

As always at this time of year, we have lots of basil as well. After last year's experience trying to process a huge volume of basil all at once, I had planned to reduce the amount of space devoted to this crop as well, but Brian convinced me to go ahead and seed the full four squares, saying that as far as he's concerned, you can never have too much of this stuff. Which is all well and good, except that it means we're once again heading into fall with a huge thicket of basil that will need to be preserved before the frost hits, and we haven't even used up all the stuff we stored last year yet. (We haven't so much as started on the salt-preserved basil yet, which is why you haven't yet seen a post here on how well the three different preserving methods worked out.) So I think this year we'll have to be proactive about harvesting and processing the basil in small batches, rather than waiting until the first frost and trying to do it all at once. And considering how much of the stuff we have both in the garden and still in storage, I imagine some of our friends and relations will be getting homemade pesto for Christmas this year.

We're also finally starting to get a few little peppers on our pepper plants. Aside from one very productive jalapeño plant in our first year as gardeners, we've consistently had very bad luck growing peppers; no matter how early we start our seeds or what medium we plant them in, the seedlings invariably come out tiny and scraggly, not big and healthy like the ones you get from the plant sales. This year, only one of the peppers we started from seed (a Cubanelle) survived at all, and we ended up planting three banana peppers from the Rutgers plant sale to compensate. (I had hoped to have better luck with the Klari Baby Cheese peppers I ordered from Fedco, but they sent me a generic pimiento instead—grrr.) Next year, we've pretty much decided not to bother starting any peppers from seed at all; we'll just get out to the plant sales as early as possible so as to have a decent choice of pepper plants.

On the bright side, we do have a couple of new crops this year that we didn't have at this time last year. Our little patch of leeks has already yielded half a dozen small ones, and we also have lima beans for the very first time. While our second picking of beans continued to yield a fair number of the odd little shriveled ones, it also gave us about five more ounces of plump, healthy white ones, some of them still tinged with green. Apparently, by the way, our method of letting the pods dry before picking them isn't the standard way to harvest them; last week, on a trip to the farmers' market, we saw that one of the vendors was selling lima beans still in their fresh, bright green pods. A quick search turned up this page indicating that lima beans should indeed be harvested when the pods are "plump and firm"; if they dry out, the plant will stop producing, and the beans will be "tough and mealy." So I guess we'll know better going forward with the rest of this year's crop, as well as in future years.

In the meantime, however, we have about 13 ounces of beans that we did allow to get dry before harvesting, and we can't really let them go to waste. So I guess the best way to celebrate Harvest Home this year is with a batch of butter beans and cornbread, a meal that also pays homage to the holiday's origins as a festival celebrating the grain harvest. I'm currently soaking the beans in brine, as recommended in this video from America's Test Kitchen, in the hope that this will mitigate the "tough and mealy" quality. Then we'll cook them according to a recipe we originally found on Cooks.com. Unfortunately, it's not there now, but the gist of it is that the beans are cooked with bacon drippings, onion, and garlic, in a little bit of water until tender; then you make a sauce by sautéing scallions in butter, thickening it with flour, and stirring in a cup of the cooking liquid from the beans. Then you mix everything together and season with salt, pepper, and paprika. Serve it up with a pan of fresh-baked cornbread, which is just right for sopping up the sauce.

We normally prepare this recipe in the Crock Pot, since the beans just cook all day on low and have just enough liquid left that you can dump them right in with the sauce as soon as you've finished cooking the scallions. But today, the beans have to soak during the day rather than overnight, so I guess we'll just cook it up on the stove. And maybe the next time we make this recipe, we'll be using proper fresh-picked lima beans, and we won't have to soak them at all.

Incidentally, this meal is best prepared while singing the song "Cornbread and Butter Beans." Which I guess is appropriate, since singing is part of the traditional Harvest Home festivities as well.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Price Sensitivity (or, the $16.72 Quart of Ice Cream)

Last week, as you may recall, I wrapped up my $1-a-day local shopping challenge with a trip to the library, where I picked up a copy of The Economic Naturalist by Robert H. Frank. I'd paged through the book before, so I was familiar already with a lot of the ideas discussed in it. When I read through the whole thing at once, however, I found one concept that seemed to come up over and over again was "price sensitivity." What this means, in a nutshell, is that some shoppers—like me, and, if you're reading this blog, probably like you as well—care much more about how much things cost than other shoppers. But it's a bit more complicated than that, and it has a great deal of influence on the actual prices we pay for just about everything.

Here's an example. Let's say the World Wide Wicket company (famously portrayed in the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) can produce wickets for $1 apiece. Their factories are capable of producing 5 million wickets a year, and their goal, obviously, is to make as much money as they possibly can for those wickets. The problem is, not all buyers are willing to pay the same price for a wicket. There may be as many as 2 million potential buyers out there who just want the best-quality wickets they can get, and they're willing to pay as much as $10 per wicket for them. However, there are an equal number of buyers who aren't willing to pay that much. Maybe they're on a tighter budget, or maybe they just don't have as urgent a need for wickets, but for whatever reason, these "price-sensitive" buyers won't spend more than $5 per wicket. And there may even be another million shoppers out there who normally wouldn't want to buy wickets at all, but they could be persuaded to if they were an especially good deal—say, $2 per wicket.

What should the company do in this case? If they set the highest possible price for their wickets, $10 each, then they'll only sell 2 million of them, making a $9 profit on each one, for a total of $18 million. If they drop the price to $5 each, they'll sell twice as many, but for only half as much per wicket. Minus their production costs, they'll make only $4 each on the 4 million wickets they sell, for a profit of only $16 million. And if they drop the price to $2 each, they can sell all 5 million wickets they make, but they'll only make a dollar on each one, for a measly $5 million profit.

Under the circumstances, it looks like the $10 price is the best one. But that will leave an awful lot of the World Wide Wicket company's production capacity going to waste, and an awful lot of buyers who would be willing to buy wickets at a lower price will be going without them. What the company would really like to do is charge customers different prices based on what they're willing to pay—$10, $5, or $2 per wicket. Then they could sell all the wickets they make and earn the maximum possible profit. But they can't just mark some wickets at $10 and others at $2 and pile them all on the same shelf, or everyone will buy the $2 wickets and leave the $10 ones. So how can World Wide Wicket charge the appropriate price to each buyer?

Well, as it turns out, there are a lot of different tricks companies can use to squeeze the maximum profit out of non-price-sensitive buyers while still selling their products, at a lower profit, to price-sensitive ones. For example:
  • They could set the regular price of their wickets at $10 each, but also hold sales once or twice a year in which the price drops to $5 or lower. Non-price-sensitive buyers, who don't mind paying $10 a wicket, will buy at retail price, while price-sensitive ones will wait for the wickets to go on sale before they buy. This is why so many department stores seem to have sales on different items every month; they can rope in the deal-seekers during these sales and still sell the same items at full price to the spendthrifts during the rest of the year.
  • They could offer their wickets for $10 each, but charge a special reduced rate for slightly damaged wickets. You may have seen the "scratch and dent rooms" at major appliance retailers, where they keep the still-working appliances that have been damaged during shipping or display. Price-sensitive buyers will happily accept a fridge with a small dent on one side (which may end up against the wall anyway) in order to get it for half price. In fact, Frank notes that back when Sears pioneered the scratch-and-dent sale, there were rumors that Sears had employees in the warehouses deliberately hammering small dents into perfectly good appliances so that they could be included in the sale. These appliances could have been sold at full price, but only if there were enough non-price-sensitive shoppers willing to buy them; by deliberately scuffing them up, the store could sell them to price-sensitive buyers without lowering the price they charged to non-price-sensitive ones.
  • They could set the regular price of their wickets at $5 each, but sell them at an inflated price of $10 each in locations where non-price-sensitive shoppers are likely to find themselves in need of wickets (such as, presumably, on croquet courses). This is the same technique used by hotels when they stock their minibars with $3 chocolate bars that you could buy at the corner drugstore for 50 cents. Price sensitive buyers will shake their heads at these ridiculous prices and trot round the corner to the drugstore, while non-price-sensitive ones will just pay the inflated price to avoid the trouble. By hitting the less price-sensitive lodgers with higher prices on extras like minibar items (or dry cleaning, or other services), hotels can in effect charge these customers a higher rate for the room, while still advertising a low rate to attract the price-sensitive folks. Similarly, airlines will advertise low fares to appeal to price-sensitive travelers, but then charge extra for meals and headphones.
  • They could charge $10 for their wickets but offer a $5 mail-in rebate. Less price-sensitive buyers will consider it too much trouble to mail in the rebate form, while price-sensitive ones will use it to get the wickets at a price they consider reasonable.
After reading this book, I found myself noticing examples of this sort of differential pricing in my daily life. For example, on Friday, as I passed by the local Baskin-Robbins, I noticed a sign outside offering "pre-packed quarts, 2 for $9.99." It only took a moment of mental math to realize that this worked out to $5 per quart. By contrast, a 1.5-quart container of ice cream at the local supermarket sells for anywhere from $2.49 for the store brand to $4.49 for Edy's—that is, $1.67 to $3 per quart. However, as Brian pointed out, customers at Baskin-Robbins wouldn't be comparing the price of the ice cream quarts to the supermarket price; they'd be comparing it to the price they'd pay buying it by the scoop, which is $2.09 for a 4-ounce scoop. Since 4 ounces is half a cup, that works out to $16.72 per quart. Compared to that, $10 for 2 quarts looks like a real bargain.

This price structure separates the price-sensitive chaff from the non-price-sensitive wheat; the least price-sensitive buyers will just go in and order a cone apiece, because they came here to go out for ice cream and, by gum, they are going out for ice cream, even if it costs 10 bucks to feed the family that way. More price-sensitive buyers may decide instead to pick up a couple of packed quarts; that way, for that same $10, the whole family can have double scoops tonight and tomorrow, too. And the most price-sensitive buyers of all will see the "2 for $9.99" sign, realize that's more than twice what they'd pay at the supermarket, and make a half-mile detour to pick up a container of the store brand ice cream for $2.49.

So the good news, for all us price-sensitive folks, is that there's usually a way to pay less than full price for just about anything. It may involve waiting for a sale, or comparison shopping online, or going half a mile out of your way for ice cream, but it's usually there if you look for it. The bad news is that the lower price almost certainly won't be easy to find—because it if were, everyone would be paying it. But that's actually good news too, because it means that the bargains are being distributed in the fairest possible way. To get the lowest prices, you don't have to be rich (which would be absolutely unfair, since rich people need them least) or have special connections (which would still be somewhat unfair, because most people would still be shut out from the lower price). Instead, the best deals go to those who are most willing to work for them.

In other words, when it comes to bargains, seek and ye shall find—because it's in the seller's interest if you do.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bonus Recipe: The Vegan Fudge Cookie

One of the people in our new RPG group (that's role-playing game, to the uninitiated) is a vegan. Most of the goodies we usually bring to game nights, like muffins and cookies, tend to have eggs in them, so Brian has been experimenting with recipes to make them more vegan-friendly. Last night, on the spur of the moment, he threw together a hodge-podge of available ingredients to make a sort of oatmeal raisin fudge cookie. It sounds weird, but it turned out to be a big hit with the members of the group, vegan and non-vegan alike. So for those who are interested in experimenting with vegan baking, here's the recipe. (By the by, it's also fairly light on the flour, so it could probably be made into a gluten-free cookie with the substitution of any gluten-free flour, such as rice or tapioca, without changing the texture too much.)
BRIAN'S VEGAN FUDGE COOKIES
1. Combine 1 Tbsp. water and 1 Tbsp. soy flour in a bowl, and mix well. (This is the substitute for the egg.)
2. Add in no particular order:
  • 1/2 c. canola oil
  • 6 Tbsp. water
  • 3/4 c. sugar
  • 1/2 c. cocoa powder
  • 1/2 c. flour (any type)
  • 1/2 c. oats
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/2 tsp. salt.
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 c. raisins
3. Mix well. Drop largish spoonfuls onto an ungreased baking sheet and bake at 350°F for 12 to 13 minutes.
Note that I am not billing these as "healthy" cookies. The recipe's got gobs of sugar and oil in it, and while it's probably possible to reduce them both (e.g., by substituting in applesauce or pumpkin puree), the cookies almost certainly won't taste as good without them. But it is a cookie that both vegans and nonvegans will happily eat, and that's a rare enough thing in this world.