Sunday, August 23, 2015

Savings Challenge, Week 24: Pay Your Credit Card Bill Every Week

I'm still working my way through a small backlog of Bankrate Savings Challenges. Last week's is "Pay your credit card bill every week," and if you don't particularly see the point of that, well, I didn't either. Reporter Jeanine Skowronski, however, swears it has several benefits:
  1. It "helps me stay on budget" and "ensure I don't rack up an uncontrollable balance." The idea is that, when she pays her bill weekly, she sees how much money she's already spent and how much she has left in the bank. That way she can avoid making any purchase that she doesn't have the money to cover. Which is a good thing, I guess, if you're in the habit of buying things without thinking about whether you can really afford them. But I don't spend carelessly, so I'm not in any danger of going overboard with frivolous purchases...and for necessary but unexpected expenses, I have a healthy cash cushion in the bank. So this particular benefit is of no benefit to me.
  2. It lets her keep an eye on her statements and spot inaccurate or fraudulent charges. She points, for example, to a $40 purchase she made which was double-billed, which would have cost her $40 if she hadn't noticed the error. Which is, again, a good thing...but is she implying that she wouldn't have spotted this error if she had waited until the end of the month to pay her bill? Because I always make a point of going over my bills before I pay them each month (which, as I've noted, is the reason I don't use automatic bill payment), and that works fine for me. 
  3. It helps her credit rating. This is the first benefit she's mentioned that actually applies to me as well. As she explains it, your credit rating is based on your "most recent statement balance" for each debt you owe—so if you happen to rack up a particularly high bill one month, even if you pay it off immediately, as far as the record is concerned, you're still carrying around a couple thousand dollars in debt. So it's true that paying off my credit card weekly instead of monthly might nudge my credit rating up a bit. But that's not a particularly strong argument with me, for two reasons: first, if your credit score is already in the "excellent" range (750 and up), then a few extra points don't really make any practical difference; and second, the only thing you really need a good credit score for is to borrow more money, which isn't something we expect to have any need to do in the foreseeable future. Skowronski claims that excellent credit can also help you qualify for better rates on cellphone or insurance plans, but I've never been offered any such deal.
  4. Skowronski's final argument is that, if you carry a balance on your credit card bill, then you'll pay it off faster if you pay weekly, because interest won't accumulate as fast. Once again, a valid point, but one that doesn't apply at all to me, or to Skowronski herself.
So the bottom line here appears to be that, if you're a person who has had any problems with credit in the past—problems that have left you with a balance to pay off, or a habit of careless spending that you're still trying to kick, or  a less-than-stellar credit rating that you want to rebuild—then paying your bill monthly, instead of weekly, is a relatively easy way to deal with these problems. But if you're already in fine shape, thank you, then all this tip will do for you is create more paperwork, because you'll have four monthly payments to enter in your checkbook instead of one.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Money Crashers: How to Create a Home Inventory

An item that's been on my to-do list for a while is to create a home inventory. For those who aren't familiar with this term—as I wasn't, until I read about it in the Money Talks Newsletter—a home inventory is a list of all, repeat all, your belongings, along with estimates of their value. According to MTN, you need to be able to document all your possessions, "down to your last sock," in order to file a home insurance claim. If you don't name the items, the company won't pay you for them.

Now, when I first read that, it didn't sound right to me, because I know that on my home insurance policy, I have a specific dollar amount of coverage for my personal belongings. So if my house were to burn to the ground, wouldn't the company just pay me that amount? But when I checked my insurance company's page on "recovering after an event," it said to "Prepare a list of damaged or lost items for your adjuster, and if available, give the adjuster receipts for those items"—and it recommended preparing a home inventory ahead of time "to remember items...that can be easily overlooked or may have been destroyed." I realized at that point what the flaw in my reasoning had been: a disaster wouldn't necessarily destroy all our belongings. Unless the whole house really does burn to the ground, or get carried away to Oz by a tornado, at least some of its contents would probably survive, and naturally the insurance company wouldn't want to pay out for anything we still owned. So yeah, we really do need to be able to give them an accurate list.

However, cataloguing every single item in my house just seemed like such a monumental task that I kept putting it off. But eventually, I got the bright idea that I should just write about this topic for Money Crashers. That way, in the process of researching the article, I could learn about—and possibly try out—all the various apps and tools that are available for doing a home inventory, and perhaps I'd hit on one that would make the whole process vastly easier.

Sadly, it didn't work out that way. I learned that there are indeed a vast assortment of free apps and spreadsheet templates you can use to make a home inventory—but none of them can get you around the basic problem of having to go from room to room, writing everything down. I went so far as to set up an account for Know Your Stuff, a free Web-based application provided by the Insurance Information Institute, and I was scared off at the first screen, which asked me to provide a whole host of details, such as purchase date and model number, about each object I wrote down—details that, in most cases, I'd never known, and definitely couldn't document.

Some apps promise to make things a little easier by letting you just scan bar codes on your belongings and have the program pull up the details from the Internet, but there are three problems with this:
  1. most of our belongings don't have a bar code on them;
  2. the ones that do, like books, are not high-value items, so it would make a lot more sense to say "800 books, estimated value $10 each" rather than catalogue them individually; and
  3. even if we wanted to scan bar codes, we'd have to have a smartphone to do it, and we are the last living middle-class couple in the country who don't.
In the end, I concluded that the easiest method would be to go through each room, photographing its contents—getting a few shots of the whole room that take in all most of it, and going in for close-ups on anything particularly big or high-value. This saves the trouble of handling every single item and try to come up with minute details about it; I can just rely on the photos to guide my memory. I can supplement these photos with or other documentation for the relatively big-ticket items, like our computers and the one set of really nice cookware we got as a wedding present. But since most of our belongings were just picked up on the cheap at yard sales and such, I figure the photo should be enough.

Even taking photos of all your belongings isn't all that quick a process, but I figure I can make it more manageable by breaking it down—say, shooting one room at a time. Then when I've got all the photos taken, I'll store them on my Google Drive, where I can reach them in the event of an emergency that destroys my computer. And once I've got the photos safely stowed away, I can start filling in the details with any other documentation I have available.

So that's what works best for me. But of course, your mileage may vary, particularly if you have a smartphone. If you want to learn more about the various other alternatives for making a home inventory, check out the full article: How to Create a Home Inventory for Insurance – Methods, Apps & Checklist

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Savings Challenge, Week 23: Use Air Conditioning Efficiently

We're just coming off a short but severe heat wave, with the heat index peaking at over 100 for several days in a row. Most of our neighbors, I suspect, spent most of that time inside with the air conditioning cranked up...and paid a tidy sum for the privilege. Bankrate reporter Sheyna Steiner, who leads off the Bankrate savings challenge for week 23 with the confession that "air conditioning reigns" in her house all summer, routinely pays about $30 more for electricity during the summer months than she does in the wintertime. (She posts a graph of her electric bills for the past 14 months that shows her bill in dollars, her usage in kilowatt-hours, and the average temperature, and you can clearly see how her usage ticks steadily upward as summer temperatures rise.)

To see if she could keep this cost down, Steiner decided to "crank up" the temperature in her house all the way to—wait for it—78 degrees. She claimed she couldn't go any higher than this during the day because of her three dogs, even though the American Kennel Club says dogs only "begin to show signs of overheating when the air temperature is between 81 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit." Steiner was irked to find, after suffering through a whole month of sleeping in a 78-degree house, that turning up the thermostat by a whopping 2 degrees in June had only saved her $4 over what she'd spent in May...and she'd actually spent $17 more than she had the previous June. (The average monthly high temperature, according to her graph, was exactly the same both years.)

Well, I hate to break it to this lady, but at our house, we have actually gone through entire summers without using the air conditioner at all. This summer, we have used it exactly once, on a sultry July day when our window fans running at full blast were unable to drop the indoor air temperature below 90 degrees by bedtime. So we spent that night camped out on the futon in the office with the window AC running on low and the cats amusing themselves by running back and forth over us all night. And just that one night (plus a couple of hours during the day) reminded us how costly air conditioning really is; our electric usage in July jumped to a whopping 421 kilowatt-hours, compared to 294 the previous year. 

So how do we manage to get through most of the summer without AC? Well, our main tool is electric fans, of which we have a wide assortment:
  • A tiny desk fan mounted on a stand made of scrap wood (to replace its original clip-on mount) that sits by my side as I work, pointed straight at my head, and keeps me tolerably cool throughout the day.
  • A huge, powerful, and noisy floor fan, which Brian puts in the kitchen window atop a small, portable bookshelf to drive hot air out of the house and pull cool air in through the other windows. By doing this in the evening, we can manage to get the indoor temperature down to a tolerable level for sleep, and then we set it up again in the morning to pull in as much cool air as possible before the outdoor temperature gets too high. The only problem with this strategy is that we sometimes have to switch everything off in a hurry when the cool air we're pulling in becomes laced with marijuana smoke from next door. 
  • A dual window fan that we keep in the bedroom to pull cool air in during the night. Brian shuts it off and pulls down the shade when he gets up around 5am to pee, so the light won't come into the room and wake me up too early. Since this fan can switch from intake to exhaust, we've also tried using it in the office to blow air out on the upwind end of the house when our neighbor is smoking, while pulling cool air in from the windows on the mostly smoke-free other end. This is better than nothing, but it just can't generate as much airflow as the big floor fan.
  • Another desk fan that sits on a small end table at the foot of our bed, pointed straight at us as we sleep, to help cool us directly during the night. For a while, we were moving this one between the bedroom and the living room so we could also use it to cool ourselves while we sit on the couch to watch TV in the evening, but eventually we decided to splurge and spend 15 bucks on a duplicate fan for the living room, so now we don't have to keep moving it back and forth.
  • A ceiling fan in the kitchen, which runs whenever we're in that room to keep us cool as we eat...and sometimes when we're not, just to help keep air circulating through the house.
These fans, combined with a few other tricks I outlined in an earlier post, are usually enough to keep us tolerably comfortable even on the hottest summer days. However, tolerably comfortable isn't exactly the same thing as comfortable, so I was intrigued to see an article titled "Stay Cool Naturally" in this month's issue of Mother Earth News. Unfortunately, most of the tips of offered on staying cool without AC were things I'd already tried, such as:
  • Acclimatize yourself to the heat. The article says that the more time you spend in an air-conditioned environment, the harder you'll find it to adjust to normal summer temperatures. This is fine for me, since I don't have AC at home to get used to anyway, though not so great for Brian, who has to work every day in an air-conditioned office. However, I draw the line at going out in the blazing hot midday sun just so it will feel cooler inside when I come home. I've been taking my walk during the relatively cool morning hours, and during the heat wave, even that was enough to exhaust me. The house felt cooler compared to the outside, but I sure didn't, and it took me about an hour of sitting in front of a fan chugging cold water to feel close to normal again.
  • Cool yourself with water. Even on the hottest days, I can't stand an ice-cold shower, but I have been adjusting the taps to a mix with more cold than hot. I've also tried the technique of soaking a cloth in cold water and draping it around my neck, but it doesn't seem to help much, and it's really not practical to do while sleeping.
  • Use swamp coolers. Evaporative coolers, or swamp coolers, send a stream of air over water, which is supposed to pull heat out of the air as the water evaporates. Unfortunately, that only works in a climate where the water can evaporate, and with the humidity around here at over 75 percent, this technique doesn't work too well. 
The only new tips I saw that looked potentially useful were in the "Readers' Tips" section. One reader recommends soaking your feet in a tub of cool water, which he says "can cool you off for hours." Another suggests freezing a bottle of water—he recommends salt water, since it freezes at a lower temperature—and putting it in front of your fan to add an extra chill to the air it sends your way. So when the next heat wave hits, maybe I'll try pulling out one of those tricks before I consider another expensive bout of AC use.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Salad of the Month: Rosy Summer Salad

Today, the temperature climbed to a high of around 92, with the heat index peaking at 103. When Brian came home from work and asked what I wanted for dinner, the idea of cooking anything at all didn't seem very appealing. It seemed like a perfect day to just go pick some garden veggies and make a nice, cool salad. And since we have all these raspberries right now, I thought it would be nice to toss some of those with some greens and maybe a few nuts, serve it with some bread, and call it dinner. A nice, light, cool meal for a hot day.

Unfortunately, our summer lettuce crop has been pretty scanty, so we had to make a quick trip to the store to buy the lettuce. But fortunately, the H-Mart had red leaf lettuce on sale for only 99 cents a head, so we went ahead (ha ha) and bought two of them, along with a few other assorted produce items for the rest of the week. Then, after returning home, we made a second quick trip around to the raspberry bed to harvest today's crop, gleaning about another half pint of berries. With these in hand, we were ready to assemble the new salad.

I'd never made a salad with raspberries before, but I had ample experience making salads with a combination of veggies and fruit, and I knew from experience that if you combine greens, bite-sized bits of fruit, and anything crunchy, you can't go too far wrong. The Citrus Spinach Salad in The Clueless Vegetarian, for instance, combines spinach with chopped oranges and sweet onion, using the juice from the oranges as a dressing. I've made a modified version of that recipe using red leaf lettuce, grapefruit, and walnuts, and I've played on the same theme to make a strawberry spinach salad. So adapting the same recipe to use raspberries was a logical step.

The only decision I had to make was which kind of nuts to use out of the choices we had available: walnuts, pecans, almonds, or pine nuts. I thought pine nuts would probably work well, but since they're frightfully expensive and there are some recipes that really won't work with anything else, I figured it would be best to save them and go with pecans instead. So Brian toasted up some pecans and chopped them up, and then he set them out next to the rest of the ingredients—torn up red lettuce leaves, fresh raspberries, and Mark Bittman's Honey-Balsamic Vinaigrette—and we each assembled our own bowlful, adjusting the proportions to taste.

Since it contained both red leaf lettuce and raspberries, I decided to dub this concoction Rosy Summer Salad. As I expected, it was light but satisfying, and eked out by a lightly toasted English muffin, made a suitable dinner for the hot evening without adding any more heat to the kitchen. And as a nice bonus, there weren't a lot of dishes to wash.

I suppose it's sort of cheating to count this as a brand-new salad recipe when it's really just a variation on the standard greens-fruit-nuts recipe I've used before, but it can't hurt to remind yourself now and again that recipes were made to be modified. Especially recipes like this one, which is pretty close to foolproof.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Money Crashers: Shop Local

From time to time, I've written here about shopping locally: the ways in which I try to do it, and the reasons I wish I could do it more. I like to support my local businesses because I think a town that has thriving local businesses is simply a better place to live, and I want to help keep Highland Park that kind of place.

But I've also felt torn about local shopping from an ecofrugal standpoint. It's a better choice for the environment to run errands on foot when I can, and sometimes it even saves me money—like when I patronize a local mechanic who offers both better prices and better service than the Honda dealership, or I manage to assemble a new outfit with finds from the local thrift shop. But in other cases, buying locally definitely costs me more. A cafe mocha from our local coffeehouse costs about 5 bucks, which is more than 60 percent more than the smallest size from Starbucks, for about half as much coffee—and frankly, it's not as good. Then, too, sometimes local businesses don't really offer the best service, like the local hardware store that I refuse to patronize because I don't want to be subjected to Rush Limbaugh tirades. And most often of all, the problem is that I just can't find what I want in town. It's possible, for instance, to buy clothing and books at the local thrift shop—but to find a specific book, or a specific item of clothing in my size, I nearly always have to hit a shopping center outside of town.

So my latest Money Crashers post goes into some of the ways to work around these problems. First, I talk about the various benefits of shopping local, from a stronger economy to reduced traffic. Then, I outline some ways to support your local economy, even when you're on a budget, such as visiting the local farmers' market or keeping your money at a community bank. See the full article at:

4 Ways to Shop Local and Support Small Businesses in Your Local Economy

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The fruits of our labors, part 2

This spring, our two-year old plum trees bloomed for the first time. We kept an eager eye on them throughout the spring and summer, watching the tiny balls in the middle of each blossom slowly grow to about an inch and a half in diameter. We kept thinking this couldn't be their final size, because the plums you see in the store tend to be at least two inches across, but apparently ours are either a smaller variety or just smaller because the trees are younger, because once they reached an inch to an inch and a half across, they gradually started to change color. Unfortunately, they also gradually started to drop off the trees before they'd fully ripened. I don't think we got a single plum off the Mount Royal tree, and we managed to harvest only one rosy-hued Opal plum before losing the rest.

So what you see here in this bowl is pretty much our entire plum harvest: about seven Golden Gage plums, each barely bigger than a large cherry. However, small as they were, they were still very tasty. Brian, not normally a great lover of plums, bit into the first one he picked and commented, "Oh, wow," so then I had to try one, and I found it sweet and juicy with just a hint of tartness. But sadly, each one was little more than a mouthful, so they were gone all too soon. We managed to harvest one more, and we had three others still on the tree waiting to ripen—but apparently, in the last two days, they went from being too green to pick to falling off and rotting on the ground. So that's the end of our plums for this year. Still, for a first harvest, it wasn't too bad, and we can hope that as the trees grow bigger, they'll yield more—and possibly larger—edible fruits.

Fortunately, our other fruit-bearing plants have been much more productive. We've already harvested eight cups of cherries, and that was only from four of our five bushes; the little Jan bush in the middle of the row was later to ripen than the others, so its fruit was still green two weeks ago. But it's now ripening nicely and should be ready to pick in the next week, so we probably can probably get another cup or so there. And as you can see above, the raspberries have started to produce as well. True to the pattern they established in their first year, they've been giving us about a handful at a time for the past few weeks, and by yesterday, we were finding so many ripe ones that we couldn't hold them all in our hands and had to use my hat as a receptacle. (I thought A Hat Full of Raspberries sounded like a Newberry-award-winning children's book, but Brian believed it would be more appropriate to use Raspberry Sun Hat as the name of an alternative band, along the lines of Strawberry Alarm Clock.)

As you may or may not be able to judge from the size of the hat, we got a good half-pint of raspberries from just this one picking. As it happened, we'd just returned from a trip to the local farmers' market at the time, and Brian noted that a comparable volume of organic blackberries would have cost us five bucks—so the raspberries are definitely earning their keep. And moreover, there's lots more where those came from; there are lots more berries on the canes, ranging from barely big enough to see to almost ripe enough to pick. So by September, we should be bringing in a truly bountiful crop—possibly even enough to "put up" some preserves for the winter.

All in all, I think our fruit crops are justifying the effort we put into planting them over that one long, dirty, chilly March weekend two years ago. The raspberry canes are yielding a good yearly crop already, and the cherry bushes, while still small, are producing enough for a few good desserts each year. And the plums, even if they're not very productive yet, at least offer a promise of tasty fruit for the future. Plus, at the rate they're growing, they may even be able to provide some nice summertime shade in a few years.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Money Crashers: Community Cafes – What They Do and Where to Find One

When I first discovered our local community cafe, A Better World Cafe, back in January 2010, I'd never seen anything like it before. Indeed, back at the time, community cafes were still a pretty new idea, and A Better World was only the fifth of its kind in the country. Yet the idea seemed so appealing in so many ways—healthy, sustainably produced food, in whatever portion you prefer, at whatever price you can afford—that I couldn't understand why it wasn't more popular. Shouldn't there be places like this all over the country?

Well, now there are—at least 40 of them, with more in the works. And as the community cafe movement goes mainstream, som big namess are starting to hop on the bandwagon. Jon Bon Jovi has opened his own community restaurant, JBJ Soul Kitchen, in Red Bank, with plans for a second one in Toms River. And Panera Bread, the popular restaurant chain, is now running four Panera Cares cafes, in Clayton, Missouri; Dearborn, Michigan; Portland, Oregon; and Boston, Mass. These look and feel just like a regular Panera, right down to the free wi-fi, but operate on the community cafe model.

My latest post for Money Crashers explores the community cafe movement: how it started, how it works, and its various benefits, from fighting hunger to supporting local farmers. Read more about this uniquely ecofrugal type of eatery in the full article: Community Cafes – What They Do and Where to Find One.