Thursday, March 23, 2017

Money Crashers: 4 Worst Financial Mistakes

This is the second of my articles based on the Claris Finance survey about financial decisions. It's based on two sections of the survey: one that asked people about their worst financial decisions, and one that asked them what advice they'd give to a younger version of themselves.

In real life, of course, it's not possible to go back in time and steer yourself away from future mistakes—but it is possible to guide others so they don't make the same mistakes. So this article is aimed more at younger folks just starting out on their financial journey. First, I warn them about the decisions they're most likely to regret later in life, such as overspending, racking up debt, and avoiding investment. Then I point them toward strategies that can help them avoid these mistakes, such as making a budget, eating out less, and taking advantage of automatic deposits.

For those who are older and may already have made some mistakes of their own, this advice can still be helpful. For instance, it may be too late to avoid getting into debt, but it's not too late to get out—and the suggestions in this article can help you do it faster. Get the details here: 4 Worst Financial Mistakes Young People Regret & How to Avoid Them

And lest you think I'm being too much of a negative Nelly, don't worry: there's a third article in this series coming out soon, which is all about the best financial decisions to make—particularly for young folks, but for the rest of us, better late than never.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Money Crashers: 5 Best Money-Saving Strategies

As I've noted before, occasionally companies looking for free publicity send me press releases about their work in the hopes that I'll write about it for Money Crashers. They can be pretty persistent, too; if I just delete the messages with no response, they usually follow up a few days later to ask, "Did you get my e-mail? I would be happy to discuss it with you!" I've actually had to resort to sending a form reply, politely thanking them for the message and explaining that I can't respond to it personally "due to the large volume of such requests I receive," but I'll certainly consider the information and use it if I can. Then, most of the time, I dump the message straight into the trash.

Once in a while, however, I get an e-mail on a topic that I think I actually can get an interesting article out of. And recently, I got one that was an absolute bonanza. It was a link to the results of a survey by Claris Finance, which asked people about the best and worst financial decisions they'd made in their lives. Looking them over, I realized they could probably provide meat for not one but several articles on how to save money, make sound decisions, and avoid financial regrets.

For instance, one section of the survey asked people about what strategies they'd tried to save money, and which ones actually worked for them. This stuck me as solid, practical information that pretty much anyone could benefit from. So in this article, I explore the five strategies that people found most useful, how well each one worked, and how to make them work for you. For instance, I outline the steps in making a budget (the #1 saving strategy people found useful), offer tips on how to eat out less (the #2 strategy), and go into detail about how to avoid different types of consumer debt (the #4 strategy).

Learn all about the five money-saving tips that actually work, and how to follow them, in the full article: 5 Best Money-Saving Strategies Proven to Work for Anyone. And keep an eye out for my other Money Crashers articles based on the same financial survey, coming soon.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Gardeners' holidays 2017: Garden Planning Day

Well, this is apparently what the first day of spring looks like now:

At least the snow is melting instead of still coming down, but there's still enough out there to make our regular annual celebration of First Sowing a little impractical.

But perhaps it's just as well, since it really wouldn't be practical to start putting seeds in the ground just yet this year anyway. As I mentioned last spring, our garden bed frames have been falling apart for some time now, and we've concluded that this is the year we're going to have to take them apart and replace them completely. (We've decided to go with the pressure-treated wood, and Brian has already acquired the materials—40 2-by-4s and five pounds of stainless-steel screws—with the help of a pickup-driving coworker.) So if we put any seeds into the beds now, we'd just disrupt them when we tore down the frames.

So, instead, our plan is to tear down and replace at least one of the beds next weekend, and then plunk the peas down in the newly assembled bed. And in order to make that happen, I need to get busy and figure out just how we're going to lay out the garden this year, so I'll know which bed we need to replace first.

In order to make that process a little simpler, I've decided to try simplifying my crop-rotation scheme. Garden books always advise you to make sure you don't plant any crop in the same spot where it's been for any of the past three or four years, which is kind of hard to do when you've only got 96 square feet to work with. In a frantic attempt to make it work, I used to juggle all the squares in the beds individually, moving plants not only from bed to bed but also from one end of the bed to another, trying to find new blocks of 9 squares each for the zucchini plants and 4 squares each for the peppers, all while trying to maintain the optimal companion plantings of tomatoes with basil and leeks far away from peas. But in the end, I always ran up against the same old problem: there are only so many squares for our plants, and only so many ways to fill them. No matter what I do, I'm going to end up breaking at least one of the rules.

So this year, I'm taking a more laid-back approach. Rather than trying to place each individual plant in the perfect spot, I'm going to rotate entire beds from year to year. That will ensure that the tomatoes, which are heavy feeders, always go in the spot just vacated by the peas, which add nourishing nitrogen to the soil, and the plants that need to be kept together in one bed (or kept apart in separate ones) always stay that way.

Then, to keep the zucchini and pepper plants from ending up in exactly the same spots as the previous year, I'll flip each individual bed horizontally, moving each plant to the mirror image of the spot it had last year. This will put the pepper plants on a two-year rotation, bouncing from one end of the bed to the other every year, while the two zucchini plants will progress around the eight ends of the four beds on a four-year schedule. It's not perfect, but it's probably the best we can do with this limited space, and it's a lot easier than trying to fit each plant into the perfect square like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

One additional wrinkle is that we have a lot more space in the garden this year than we had last year. We've decided to drop two crops entirely: the Brussels sprouts, which only yielded one very late and rather stunted crop in all the time we've had them, and the eggplants, which never gave us a single fruit bigger than a walnut. Their absence leaves us with ten whole extra squares in our garden, and since we haven't selected any new crops this year, we're not sure what to put in them. The winter lettuce, which seems to have successfully overwintered from last year, can occupy four of them; for the other six, the best plan we have at the moment is to expand our plantings of green beans and basil, which we can always use more of.

I suppose a Gardeners' Holiday devoted to laying out the garden, moving little squares around on a spreadsheet, isn't quite as thrilling as putting actual seeds into the actual ground (even if we'd have to move a layer of snow aside to do it). But for this year, at least, it's a lot more useful. By getting the garden beds mapped out now, we can be prepared to start replacing the frames this weekend, which will help keep our garden growing over (we hope) the next twenty years. So we're sacrificing the short-term satisfaction of planting seeds right now for the long-term gain of growing more and better crops in the long term. Which, if you think about it, is pretty much how gardening is supposed to work.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The world's easiest DIY cat toy

Our two cats are a bit picky about toys. We've tried all sorts of mice sold at the big pet superstores, and the only one they ever showed any partiality for was a little stuffed critter covered in black-and-white spotted fabric. Winnie loved that little mouse, but she kept batting him under doors and furniture where we'd have to retrieve him, and at some point he got completely lost. And, of course, the store no longer carried any like him, so we've never been able to find a good replacement.

The only other pet-store toy they really liked was these little spirals, which are just pipe cleaners encased in sheaths of colorful fabric. Both cats would bat enthusiastically at these, and run after them when they went skittering away across the floor; when they caught one, they'd lie down and clutch it in their paws and pull at it until it came uncoiled. It was very cute, and I appreciated the fact that it distracted them from gnawing on other long narrow objects that they might otherwise take a shine to, like my computer cables.

Unfortunately, they played with these toys so energetically that they quickly wore holes in the fabric covers, and the pipe cleaners came poking out. Once that happened, we no longer felt safe letting the cats play with them unsupervised for fear that they'd hurt themselves on the wire or even swallow part of it. (It may sound like we're just being paranoid, but several reputable pet sites, such as Catster, warn about this as a danger, and we have read horror stories about cats being rushed into surgery over a swallowed pipe cleaner.) I tried stitching the fabric back up, but they just tore it open again, and eventually we had to give up on the toys.

We tried to get more at the pet store, but they were no longer available, and we couldn't even find anything similar online. The closest we could find was this larger blue spiral, but the cats didn't seem to appreciate it like the fabric ones. It's made of a much stiffer material, and when dropped, it just lands on the ground and sits there; it doesn't bounce or roll in the same unpredictable way that made the pipe cleaners so appealing (like having real prey to chase.)

We made several attempts at making our own spiral cat toys, but they didn't work too well. Brian tried taking a piece of wire from a coat hanger, which he thought would be less hazardous, and sewing it up in a piece of scrap fabric—but like the blue coil, this toy was too stiff and stable to interest them much.

I thought a pipe cleaner might be okay if I could just wrap it up securely in one of those stretchy fabric bandages they use at the blood bank—but once I'd wound it several times around the pipe cleaner, it was too thick and ungainly to make a very good coil. Plus, Brian was still concerned that they'd manage to get the wire out from under the wrappings, so he didn't want to let them have it without supervision.

So one day, in a desperate attempt to come up with something to distract Winnie from the computer cables, I hit on the idea of trying something similar with a strip of newspaper. I just tore off a long strip from the edge, like this...

...and twisted it up into a long, thin string, like this.

I wasn't able to make this into a coil shape like the original fabric spirals, because it wouldn't stay put, but I found just tying it into a little bow made a lightweight shape that the cats enjoyed batting around. It seems to move in the same random way as the pipe cleaners, so they like tossing it, catching it, grabbing it, and generally amusing themselves without supervision. They also like to pull on the ends and try to untie it, but if they succeed, that's no problem; I can just grab it and tie it back up in a minute.

Needless to say, these little paper toys don't hold up all that well. After being subjected to claws and teeth for a week or so, they get pretty limp and ragged-looking, and they're not as much fun to play with. But that's okay; when they wear out, they can just go straight into the recycling bin (or the compost, if they're really torn to shreds) and I can easily whip up a new one in a few minutes.

So this is pretty much the ultimate ecofrugal cat toy. It costs nothing, it's made entirely from scrap material, and it can go right back in the bin when it's worn out, creating no additional waste. And if the cats don't love it quite as much as the spirals, they will at least occupy themselves with it long enough to let me get some work done.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Money Crashers: Save Money on Car Insurance

My latest Money Crashers article is about auto insurance. This isn't the most exciting topic, perhaps, but it's certainly an important one: As I note early in the article, insurance is one of the biggest expenses of owning a car. In fact, drivers pay more each year for insurance than they do for maintenance, tires, or even gas.

How much you pay for a car insurance policy has a lot to do with factors beyond your control, such as your age or where you live. But there are also several things you can do to rein the number in. These fall into two broad categories:
  1. Changes to your policy. For instance, you can raise your deductible, drop collision and comprehensive insurance, negotiate with your carrier for a lower rate, or just switch to another carrier entirely.
  2. Changes to your behavior. Obviously, you get a lower rate if you avoid accidents. But you can also get discounts for improving your credit score, getting good grades (if you're young), taking a defensive driving course, or paying your bill online.
Not all these changes apply to every one, but even with just one or two of them, you could possibly lower your premiums by hundreds of dollars a year. So check out the full list here: 10 Ways to Save Money on Affordable Car Insurance

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Russian Mushroom and Potato Soup

On the first day of March, Brian was searching for something to make for dinner with the ingredients we had on hand, which included a pound of mushrooms, several pounds of potatoes, and some leeks. So he punched those ingredients into Google and came upon a couple of recipes for a dish called Russian Mushroom and Potato Soup. All the ingredients in it were things we liked, so it seemed like a safe bet—and a good chance to get our Recipe of the Month in early.

Brian made a couple of minor changes to the recipe as written. First, it was supposed to make 12 servings, which was way too much for the two of us, even with the soup being served as a main dish rather than a first course. So he cut all the ingredients down by 25 percent, which still made a very generous potful.

Second, it called for half-and-half, which we didn't have, so he whipped up a quick substitute using powdered milk. We already knew that a mixture of equal parts powdered milk and water could be used in place of cream, so he just took about a cup of the skim milk we already had and dumped in maybe half a cup of powder. If it made any difference in the taste of the soup, it wasn't noticeable to us.

The finished result, I have to say, didn't look anything like the picture on the AllRecipes website. Instead of a light, golden soup with big, distinct chunks of potato and carrot floating in it, it came out as more of a thick, brown liquid full of miscellaneous veggie bits. But it tasted better than it looked—rich and savory, with the meatiness of the mushrooms and the pungency of the leeks giving it plenty of body. And with the potatoes, shrooms, and carrots crowded together in every bowl, it was plenty satisfying enough for a main course.

The one flavor that struck a slightly discordant note for me was the dill. I'm used to thinking of this as a springtime herb, to be enjoyed in light dishes like salads or pasta. In a hot, hearty soup like this, it tasted out of place. It wasn't bad, exactly; it just didn't seem like quite the right complement for the other flavors. Brian thought maybe thyme would work better, while I was leaning toward rosemary.

However, Brian revised his opinion about the dill when eating the leftovers for lunch a few days later. To his taste buds, it seemed that the dill blended much more smoothly with the rest of the soup after it had been sitting for a while to let the flavors mingle. So maybe the ideal solution for this soup is to cook it the day before you serve it, so the dill can blend in properly. Or maybe it would be better to try it with thyme and see if it tastes better on day one.

To be honest, though, I'm not sure whether we'll want to go to the trouble of finding out. We already have a couple of good soup recipes that use mushrooms, and another good one made with potatoes and leeks, so we don't especially need one that puts all three of those ingredients in the same pot. If this soup were vastly superior to those others, it would deserve a spot in our repertoire, but since I didn't actually like it quite as much, I see no reason for it to displace either of them. So we'll probably only make it again if we happen to find ourselves with potatoes, leeks, and shrooms that all need to be used promptly—and for some reason we don't want to make a veggie pot pie.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

7 easy household hacks for the bathroom

Brian and I have a disagreement about the word "hack"—specifically, its use to mean a handy shortcut for everyday life. Brian objects to it on the ground that it's overused, sometimes even in contexts where it really doesn't apply at all (such as these kitchen tips from XKCD.) But personally, I like it. To me, it conjures up images of Alexander cutting through the Gordian knot—a quick, direct solution to a complicated problem. Even the shortness of the word feels appropriate for a short, simple workaround.

Over the past few months, I've noticed that we seem to have come up with a lot of household hacks specifically for use in the bathroom. Some are for cleaning, some for grooming, and some for repairs, but all of them are specifically bath-related. So I thought I'd sum them all up in one post, as a sort of tribute to the Spirit of Hacking.

Hack #1: Clean hair from the sink drain with a plastic bag tie
Every so often, the drain in our sink gets a little sluggish. That's a sure sign that it's clogged up with hair (and usually bits of nasty grime that are clinging to the hair), and it won't run smoothly again until it's cleaned. We have a special tool for this purpose, known as a Zip-It: a long, flexible plastic shaft with little barbs on both sides. You feed this thing carefully down into the drain, and the barbs catch on the hairs so you can pull them back out. The Zip-It emerges from the drain trailing long strands of hair and associated gunk like seaweed off a lobster trap, which is disgusting, but effective.

The Zip-It is only $2.50 at Home Depot, and it both easier and safer than those vile chemical drain cleaners, which eat through the hair with caustic chemicals that can damage your plumbing (and possibly you, if you splash any on yourself). But if you don't happen to have one on hand when a clog pops up, you can achieve similar results with a plastic garbage bag tie (the kind with rows of little jagged teeth on it, like this). Feed it down into the drain, and you can pull up the hairs from the top few inches of the pipe. It won't penetrate the pipe as deeply as the Zip-It, but it's easy to do, and it should clear away enough of the clog to get the drain running again.

Hack #2: Clean the tub with a dish wand
I used to drive myself crazy trying to get our bathtub clean. My go-to ecofrugal cleaners, vinegar and baking soda, seemed to have no impact at all on the film that clung to the base of the tub. I moved on to various commercial cleaners, including sprays, liquids, and powders; I experimented with different tools, going at the scum with a rag, a sponge, a scrubby pad, a brush, and even a special "shower scrubber" tool with an extendable handle and pivoting head, designed specifically for cleaning the tub from a standing position. (This was worse than useless, as every time I put any real pressure behind it, the head would just flip over.) No matter what I used or how vigorously I scrubbed, I could never get the tub completely clean. All I had to do was scrape my fingernails along the edge, and they'd come away with that whitish film under them.

I turned for help to my pals at the Dollar Stretcher forums. One of them enthusiastically recommended "Ajax grapefruit scented dish soap," applied with a long-handled brush while the tub and tiles are wet, and another suggested a mixture of Palmolive and sudsy ammonia in a spray bottle. Not having either of those brands on hand, I decided to try grabbing an old dish-scrubbing wand filled with generic dish soap and applying that to the wet tub right after my shower. This worked much better than anything else I'd tried. At first, I followed up with a vinegar-and-water spray to rinse all the soap residue off, but eventually I got the idea to add equal parts dish soap and water to the scrubbing brush and apply everything all in one go, then rinse it off.

This is now my regular weekly routine for cleaning the tub. I keep the dishwand hanging at the ready on the towel bar, so once a week, I can just grab it right after I turn off the shower and give everything a quick scrub before rinsing it. That way I don't have to mess around getting into grubby clothes specially for cleaning. I have since seen blog posts saying this vinegar-and-dish-soap concoction works in spray form as well, which might be even easier...but since it took me so long to find a method that worked, I'm not inclined to mess with it.

Hack #3: Remove stains from porcelain with oxygen laundry booster
A few years ago, we switched to a walnut-based cat litter from Blue Buffalo. In most ways, we love it: it clumps firmly, doesn't track as much as the wheat stuff, and controls odor so well that we have never had to change the litter once since we started using it. We just keep scooping out the clumps and adding more litter, and the box keeps not stinking. This makes it a much better value than any other brand we've tried, despite its high cost per pound, because none of it goes to waste.

There's only one problem with it: the walnut fragments tend to leave a darkish stain on the inside of the toilet bowl. My usual cleaning method—vinegar-water spray and a quick scrub with the brush—had no effect. Once again, I tried upgrading to stronger cleaners, including some with chlorine bleach, but to no avail. Brian tried going at the stains with steel wool and was able to get them out temporarily—but that just ended up scratching the porcelain, so fresh stains soaked in faster than ever.

So when I got a coupon for a free carton of OxiClean, I figured it couldn't hurt to try that too. Cleaning bathrooms wasn't one of the listed uses for this product, so my hopes weren't high. But to my amazement, after I'd sprinkled it on and let it sit for a while before brushing and flushing, the stains had faded to near-invisibility. I now repeat this routine once a week, and the porcelain remains in a state of near-pristine whiteness. And I've discovered, after some experimentation, that cheaper brands of oxygen-based laundry booster, such as All, do the job just as well.

Hack #4: Strop your razor on your forearm to maintain its edge
I've mentioned this hack before in my Saving on Shaving post. As this post at Tools for Woodworking explains, stropping a blade isn't quite the same thing as sharpening it on a stone; it's more like smoothing a surface with sandpaper, gently abrading away nicks and scratches. I've seen tips on how to prolong the life of your razor blade by stropping it on a leather belt, a leather-soled show, or even an old pair of blue jeans—but the simplest method of all is this one, which I discovered on LifeHacker. You simply give the blade several backwards strokes against the bottom of your own forearm, which you can do right in the shower before you shave.

This method, combined with regular drying and lubrication of the blade, worked well enough for me to keep the cartridges on my old Rite Aid razor going for months on end. Sadly, that razor gave up the ghost last year, and I've yet to find a really satisfactory replacement. I tried samples from both Dollar Shave Club and Harry's, and their fancy four-or-five-blade razors just didn't give me as smooth a shave as my old, obsolete three-blade razor (not to mention that the one from Harry's literally fell apart on its third use). So for now, I'm using an el cheapo MicroTouch razor, which claims to be able to go a month on a single blade without any special interventions. I'm continuing to dry and hone the blade regularly, and while I can't exactly claim to be impressed with the results it's giving me, it is at least holding up pretty well.

Hack #5: Fix a running toilet with a drinking straw
I discovered this trick back in 2013, when we had a problem with our toilet. Basically, the flapper kept getting stuck open because the chain would either get stuck underneath it or snag on it so it couldn't close. Shortening the chain didn't work (it ended up too short, so the flapper couldn't close at all), so I adopted a trick from Wikihow: I detached the chain, fed it through a soda straw, and reattached it. This worked only partially; the rigid chain-and-straw unit was now forcing the flapper closed too quickly, before the bowl had fully filled. So Brian adapted the hack by cutting the straw in half at the middle, allowing the chain to bend. This fix worked so well that even after we eventually replaced the flapper, we reinstated the straw on the chain to keep it from snagging again.

Hack #6: Adapt your toothbrush holder with coat hanger wire 
Brian devised this toothbrush hack back in 2014, when I was trying a new brand of toothbrush that wouldn't fit in our old-fashioned toothbrush holder. This toothbrush holder dates from a simpler time when all toothbrushes had straight, smooth handles, and today's chunky, molded hand-grips just won't fit through the holes. And since it's built into the wall, replacing it isn't really an option, and leaving it unused seems like a waste.

So I hit on the idea that the way to make the toothbrush fit in the holder would be to add on some kind of construct that would allow it to slide in from the side. After a little trial and error, Brian managed to achieve this by bending a piece of coat-hander wire to make a loop that would fit around the handle, then threading the ends of it through the hole in the front, under the bottom, and out on the other side. As built, this dingus can only accommodate one bulky toothbrush, but you could modify it to add a second loop on the other side if you wanted to hold two at once. Or you could just run a second set of wires through a different hole.

Hack #7: Fix a trash can that won't close with a felt pad
Ever since we adopted our two mischievous kitties back in 2015, we've kept finding new things around the house that need to be cat-proofed. Our cat-safe vase is the most notable example, but we've also had to replace a couple of wastebaskets because the cats would either chew on the wicker basket itself or fish things out of it. The worst culprit was the bathroom wastebasket, which contained enticing strands of dental floss that the cats viewed as wonderful toys. We, on the other hand, viewed them as potential garottes for unsuspecting feline throats, and we were determined to keep them out of the kitties' paws. So we bought a small covered waste bin, the kind with a lid that you can open by stepping on a pedal.

This sort of worked, but there was a problem: sometimes the lid would get stuck in the open position, allowing the kitties to go Dumpster diving for dental floss. We tried shimming the can up in the back so it would naturally tilt forward and force the lid closed when you weren't actively stepping on the pedal, but that didn't seem to be enough. So Brian tackled the problem from the other direction; instead of forcing the lid down, he decided to force the foot pedal up.

His repair is simplicity itself. He cut a couple of strips from a felt pad, the kind you put on the bottoms of chair legs to keep them from scratching the floor, and stuck them to the lip of the trash can underneath the pedal. Now, when you step on the pedal, it lowers enough to open the lid, but it doesn't go all the way to the floor, and as soon as you remove your foot, it pops back up again, closing the lid.

This hack went through a couple of iterations before he got it to work. First he tried one layer of felt, but that wasn't enough to push the pedal back up, so he had to add a second layer on top. And he initially tried sticking the felt pads on with just their own adhesive, but they didn't stay put, so he ended up pulling out the big guns and sticking them on with epoxy. Now those pads aren't going anywhere, and those kitties aren't getting their paws on any more dental floss.

So there you are: seven simple hacks for the smallest room in the house. If you know of any more ecofrugal hacks for the bathroom that you think deserve a wider audience, please feel free to share them below; I'm always looking for more ideas.