Friday, May 22, 2015

I'm a Money Crasher

Just a quick note here to apologize for not updating the blog as frequently the past couple of weeks. I've been busy getting started as a writer for Money Crashers, a website all about personal finance. My first article there, on cutting the cost of laundry, has just gone live, and you'll probably recognize some of the topics it covers from my laundry-related posts on this blog—such as the value of clotheslines and the dubious benefits of homemade laundry detergent.

I have several more Money Crashers articles in the pipeline, all on topics I've previously touched on here, from warehouse clubs to organic shopping. I'll continue to keep you posted as they appear on the site.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Waste is a terrible thing to mind, part 3

I was planning to write today about the latest topic in the Bankrate Savings Challenge (saving on hotels), but the link for the article doesn't seem to be working—and it's not really a topic I have much experience with, anyway. So instead, I'm going to post a quick little update on our household waste situation. A bit of background: a few years ago, I wrote a post called "Waste is a terrible thing to mind," in which I lamented that there wasn't much we could do to reduce our household waste. We'd already taken all the steps most experts recommend—recycling whenever possible, composting, choosing reusable rather than disposable containers, buying products with less packaging—and I didn't see what else there was to try. I followed this up with a second post that examined the contents of our trash cans in detail, considering how difficult it would be to eliminate each scrap of waste and whether it was really worth the cost.

At the time, I was truly convinced that I'd done literally all I could do to reduce our household waste (and, by extension, the use of natural resources and energy that go into it). But the other day, I came across this post again, and I discovered that in the past few years, we've actually found ways to recycle or eliminate many of the items I'd thought were unavoidable trash. For instance:
  • Plastic windows from junk-mail envelopes. I discovered while researching my "How to recycle everything" post that you don't actually have to rip these out of the envelopes before recycling; the lightweight plastic will simply be filtered out during the recycling process.
  • Cereal box liners. As I reported in my Earth Day post, we now have a Terracycle bin that takes these, as well as deodorant containers and toothpaste tubes (caps and all). 
  • Seltzer bottle caps. I used to find it frustrating that I could recycle my seltzer bottles, but not the caps from them. Now, thanks to my new Primo Flavorstation (courtesy of my awesome sister), I make all my own seltzer at home and have neither bottles nor caps to discard. This has also cut way down on the bulk in our recycling bin.
  • Cat litter and fur. Our new bathroom compost bin allows us to compost this, along with other biodegradable odds and ends such as cotton swabs and scraps of tissue. The original bin, an ice cream container with a coat of spray paint, didn't hold up very well, so I've since replaced it with a repurposed hot cocoa container from Trader Joe's. It's not as big, so it needs to be emptied more often, but it looks nicer, and it's amusing to see a container of what appears to be "Trader Joe's Compost" on our bathroom counter.
So what does this leave still in our actual trash cans? Well, right now we've got:
  • a few Band-Aids (though not the paper wrappers, since we can compost those);
  • several plastic food bags: raisins and popcorn from Trader Joe's, the wrapper from a block of mozzarella cheese, the window from a box of pasta, the inner liner from a tub of yogurt;
  • the inner foil wrapper from a bar of chocolate (though not the recyclable paper wrapper);
  • the plastic wrapper from a pair of insoles (though this is a green choice in a way, since the new insoles allow Brian to wear a pair of secondhand sneakers, which felt lumpy and uncomfortable without them);
  • and, as before, dental floss.
Of these, the one we could most easily eliminate would probably be the plastic bags. If we bought our raisins and popcorn from the bulk bins at the Whole Earth Center, instead of at Trader Joe's, that would get rid of two of them—but once again, it's a question of cost. You'd expect bulk foods to cost less because you're not paying for packaging, but it doesn't always work out that way. Organic raisins are $2.99 a pound in bags at Trader Joe's, $3.56 per pound in bulk at Whole Earth. Trader Joe's organic popcorn is around $1.13 per pound, while Whole Earth's is $1.79 a pound. These are small differences, to be sure, but is it worth paying even an extra 50 cents to avoid just one little plastic bag in a trash load that's so light already?

For the time being, probably not. But nonetheless, I'm optimistic that at some point in the future, we'll find cost-effective ways to eliminate even more items from our trash can. Three years ago, I thought we'd cut our household trash down to the absolute minimum; today, we've slashed it even more. So apparently, even when you've already harvested all the low-hanging fruit, there's still fruit out there if you're willing to reach for it.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Savings Challenge, Week 10: Eat your leftovers

The Bankrate Weekly Savings Challenge for May 5 is "Learn to love leftovers," yet another of those challenges that doesn't really work for me. I'm sure the Natural Resources Defense Council is right when it claims, as quoted in the intro to the article, that "the average American throws out between $28 and $43 of food per month"; all I can say is that we're not personally contributing any significant amount to that average. At our house, leftovers turn into lunches, and vegetable scraps go into the stock bag for soup. Maybe once a year we'll fish a jar of something unidentifiable out of the back of the fridge and dump it into the compost, but that's about it.

Yet the statistic becomes a little more understandable when you read the rest of the article. Jessica Patel, the reporter covering the challenge, leads off by saying, "There are lots of people out there who don't 'do' leftovers," including her husband. If your attitude toward leftovers is that they are no longer food, but simply waste, then it's hardly surprising if you end up dumping $28 to $43 worth of food straight into the rubbish bin each month.

Of course I'm aware that there are people who just don't know what to "do with" leftovers, because the various frugal-living sites I read are always running articles about how to deal with this "problem." But frankly, it's an attitude I've simply never understood. The way I was raised, what you do with leftovers is eat them—for lunch if you have a small portion left, and for a second dinner if they're a larger portion. If anything, I would say I have the opposite problem: I don't know what to do without leftovers. When there are none in the fridge, I don't know what to eat for lunch.

I suppose normal people—the kind who throw their dinner leftovers in the trash—simply assume that lunch is a meal that's always eaten out. If they're even aware that there is such a thing as a brown-bag lunch, they probably assume that it's the same sandwich, apple, and two cookies they got as kids in elementary school, and they decide that the prospect of eating the same old sorry sandwich day after day is more than they can face. The concept of lunching, as we did last week, on veggie frittata, spinach pasta, and roasted eggplant, simply by taking last night's leftovers to work in a little Rubbermaid container, probably never crosses their minds. And certainly the idea of planning a large dinner specifically for the purpose of creating lunch leftovers would be completely foreign to them.

Now, Jessica Patel, to do her justice, does not fall into this category. She says she'll "often try to make something hearty on a Sunday, then space it out over the next few days." She proudly trots out her baked ziti as an example of how much she saves this way: for $20 worth of ingredients (plus another $2 to $3 for garlic bread), she can make a dinner that feeds her husband, her son, and herself, and have enough left over to make lunch for herself and her son the next day. This, according to her calculations, is a savings of $16, since she would have had to pay that same $22 to buy the ziti dinner for three as take-out, plus $8 apiece for the two lunches at work. That sounds like an impressive savings until you realize that what she's measuring it against is the cost of ordering both dinner and lunch from a restaurant. If you assume that she would have cooked dinner at home on Sunday anyway, then her savings from eating the leftovers is only $7.20—the $16 she would have spent on work lunches minus the $4.40 per serving she actually spent on the ziti. Eating this way wouldn't get her very far on the Reverse SNAP Challenge. But at least she's doing better than her husband, who is presumably shelling out $40 per week at the cafeteria rather than eat the same meal two days running.

Seeking an alternative her husband might be willing to consider, Patel turns for advice to Tawra Kellam of Living on a Dime. Kellam's approach to leftovers is to plan three meals at a time: for instance, making a roast chicken on Monday that she plans to turn into chicken and dumplings on Tuesday and chicken salad on Wednesday. She scoffs at Patel's (and our) method of dealing with leftovers: "With a casserole like that, no one wants to eat it for days at a time." What she recommends instead is to divide the leftover ziti up into individual portions and put them in divided freezer trays, along with individual portions of cooked veggies and dessert, to make "your own homemade TV dinners."

Kellam thinks this sounds like a brilliant idea, but personally, I can't see the point. In the first place, Kellam's family isn't eating ziti for "days at a time": three people have it for dinner on Sunday, and then two people have it for lunch on Monday or Tuesday. I've certainly had the experience of getting sick of a particular meal after eating it for several days in a row, but if I liked it when I first had it for dinner, I'm not going to be too tired of it to eat it one more time for lunch. And popping one container of leftovers into the microwave at lunchtime is a lot less work than portioning everything out into those little TV dinner trays. (Besides, if you're not actually planning to eat your meal in front of the TV, why would you want to eat it out of a tray?)

So at our house, we deal with meal leftovers the easy way: just eat them. The only leftovers that actually pose a challenge are leftover ingredients, such as the 1/3 cup of celery I had left after experimenting with tuna-avocado salad, or the five mushrooms we had left after the rest of the package went into a batch of pasta primavera. But fortunately, we have a few standard recipes for dealing with these. A stir-fry can accommodate just about any vegetable, and all you need to round it out is some fish cake or tofu and a batch of rice. The "Fast Frittata" recipe from The Clueless Vegetarian is also a good dumping ground for leftover veggies of any sort. And if neither of these seems appropriate, that's when Brian gets creative and devises a new recipe, like his Hearty Bluefish Chowder, to use up the odds and ends.

So, basically, I don't think Brian and I need any lessons in loving leftovers. But if the folks at Bankrate do, we could probably teach them a trick or two.

Salad of the Month: Chick Pea Salad with Arugula

Last month, when I switched over from soups to salads for my Recipe of the Month, I picked out two salads from Mark Bittman that I wanted to try. I chose the rice salad over the Chickpea Salad with Arugula because it seemed like a pity to buy arugula from the store when we had arugula growing in the garden that would be ready to eat in a month or so. We'd planted our arugula one square at a time, about a week apart, to space out the harvest so that we'd get enough for one or two nice salads each week instead of a whole week of salads at once. We'd also sown it thickly, using the "carpet bombing" method that we first adopted with our basil, which guarantees that enough of the plants will grow to fill the square nicely and also helps choke out any competing weeds. Thus, we figured, by early to mid-May, we should have at least one square of arugula that was ready for thinning, and the tender young plants we pulled out to make room for the surrounding plants to grow should be just right for this salad.

Sure enough, by last weekend, the first square of arugula had formed a nice, dense patch of little plants all crowded together, ripe for thinning. Brian pulled out the excess, along with a couple of volunteer arugula plants he discovered growing in the neighborhood of the compost bin, and carefully washed off all the dirt that clung to the roots. This, he reports, was the most labor-intensive part of preparing the recipe.

Making the dressing, by contrast, was pretty simple: just sauté some fresh ginger, garlic, and cumin seeds in olive oil for a couple of minutes, then add a can of chick peas (with salt and pepper to taste) and stir it around for another few minutes, and then take it off the heat and stir in a tablespoon each of water, honey, and rice wine vinegar. (Rice wine vinegar, more properly called rice vinegar, has a sweeter and milder taste than most other vinegars. We had actual rice wine vinegar on hand, having bought some at the H-Mart after encountering a couple of recipes that called for it, but if you don't, you can substitute apple cider vinegar with a pinch of sugar added.) While you're doing this, mash up a few of the chick peas with a fork to give the mix a more interesting texture. This dressing goes over top of the arugula while it's still warm, along with a thinly sliced red onion. And presto: dinner.

This light and simple recipe made a meal for the two of us, with just a little homemade rye bread (and a bottle of Mike's Hard Limeade) to accompany it. And for such a quick meal, it was remarkably flavorful. The arugula, being young and tender, had a milder and less peppery taste than mature leaves, but the lightly sweet and spicy dressing provided plenty of flavor. And the leaves, slightly wilted by the hot dressing, made a nice texture contrast with the crisp red onion and the chewy chick peas. Brian didn't even bother to add any salt and pepper during the cooking, and I thought the dish stood up perfectly well without it, though Brian found a touch of salt helpful to bring out the flavors. Between us, we polished off the entire bowl, but considering that everything in it is so wholesome, we didn't feel any guilt about eating it all. And Brian commented, "We'll definitely be making this again"—which shouldn't be a problem, since there's plenty more arugula where this batch came from.

So, five months into the year, our soup-and-salad experiment is going pretty well. January's Hearty Vegetable Soup was a bit of a disappointment, but February's Winter Soba Noodle Salad was worth making again, as was the Hearty Bluefish Chowder Brian dreamed up for March.  And last month's Colorful Rice Salad will certainly come in handy for pot luck meals, since it's both vegan and gluten-free, meaning that pretty much everyone can eat it. So all in all, I think this year's version of the Fruit or Veggie of the Month experiment has been the most successful so far at helping me eat healthier. Here's to seven more months of tasty soups and salads that are easy on the waistline.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

April Spending Results

Last month, when Bankrate announced its "no-spend month" challenge, I announced in turn that I would be taking the challenge in a modified form. Instead of skipping all spending on everything other than "necessities" (defined as "gasoline, groceries, rent, utilities, etc.," with that "etc." left as an exercise for the reader), I planned to write down all my expenses and sort them into three categories: clear necessities, clear luxuries, and investment purchases. This last category is for all the things that I didn't absolutely need to buy, because I could survive without them, but that would save me money or otherwise make a clear improvement in my quality of life over the long run.

Now that April is over, I can announce the results of this experiment. I already disclosed my first week's expenses and the categories they fell into, but I think listing all my individual purchases for the whole month would get too tedious, so I'll just give the totals for each category, along with a bit of detail about what went into it.

Necessities: $2,550

Nearly two thirds of this was for our quarterly property taxes, which come due at the end of April. The rest included groceries, gas, personal care items (such as toothbrushes and all the skin care products I bought at the beginning of the month), the monthly premium for our pet insurance, and some basic maintenance for our car and our heating system.

It also included one item I was really annoyed about: a traffic ticket. On our way home from Morris dance practice on Thursday, we got pulled over by a police officer who explained, in the nicest possible way, that our car's registration was expired. This came as a shock to both of us, because we hadn't received any sort of notice from the Motor Vehicle Commission that our registration was up for renewal, and our inspection sticker was good until 2016. But when we checked the registration cards themselves, sure enough, they said that they were only good until February 2015. The cop obviously believed our story, because he said he was going to treat it as a minor violation that wouldn't put any points on Brian's license—but we still ended up paying $56 for the ticket, plus an extra $2 "convenience fee" to renew our registration online so that we wouldn't still be driving around with an expired one. Not to mention that it took me a couple of hours on the Web and on the phone figuring out how to renew it online, since the first thing it asks for is the confirmation code from your registration renewal form—which, of course, we didn't have.

Paying what Dave Ramsay calls "the stupid tax" is annoying enough when you're paying for your own stupidity—for example, if you get the notice to renew your car registration and forget to do it—but having to pay $58 for someone else's stupidity is really, really annoying. But on the whole, taking a whole day to go in to court and contest the ticket would probably have been even more annoying, especially if it didn't work. At least by paying the $58 up front, we could put the whole mess behind us. So I think it's fair to classify it as a necessary expenditure, even if it's one we shouldn't have had to pay.

Luxuries: $74.72

The biggest category here was food. We only ate one meal out (a lunch in Princeton that broke up our day of yard-saling), but we also frittered a way a dollar here and there on sweets: irresistibly priced candy on sale after Easter, a bun from the bakery, dessert and coffee at the Minstrel concert, ice cream with the Morris team after a performance. On top of that, we spent $12.83 on an unusual purchase for us: a bottle of wine from the Rite Aid. Over Christmas vacation, my brother- and sister-in-law had taken us to the New Day Craft Meadery, a place that makes and serves different varieties of cider and mead, and we'd liked some of them quite a bit, so when we spotted this bottle of "honey wine" at the Rite Aid, we decided to splurge. On the whole, though, we didn't like it as much as most of the meads we sampled at New Craft, nor even as much as the $6 port wine Brian buys from Trader Joe's. So this wasn't a particularly worthwhile luxury.

Another luxury category was entertainment. This wasn't a particularly big-ticket item: we spent $7.99 on our Hulu Plus subscription and also made two trips to the Minstrel. As volunteers, we didn't pay the $9 admission fee, but we put $10 each night into the creel as a tip for the performers. The rest of our luxury expenses were kind of miscellaneous: $5 for clothing items (pants from the thrift shop, a sweater and some shoes at a yard sale), $1 for the hurricane lampshade I used to make my cat-safe vase (which I'm pleased to say is still keeping the prying paws at bay), $2 for makeup (concealer, which is just about all I ever use), and $5 for a new cat toy. I debated whether to call that an investment purchase, but I decided since the cats had plenty of toys already, this one was definitely unnecessary. We mostly bought it out of curiosity to see how they respond to catnip. (Answer: quite favorably at first, but they quickly lose interest.)

Investments: $680.91

The bulk of this was for our monthly giving. I ended up classifying it as an investment purchase because it didn't really feel right to call a donation to Doctors Without Borders a necessity, but it clearly wasn't a luxury either. It may seem like a stretch to call it an investment, but not if you think of it as an investment in the future of the world as a whole, rather than just our personal lives.

The next biggest category was home improvement. We spent $130 on a new orbital sander and sandpaper, which Brian plans to use to refinish all the doors throughout the main floor of the house. (One down, nine to go.) This project produces a ridiculous amount of dust, so we also had to invest $6 in a new filter for our Shop-Vac. And we also spent around $4 on some carpet samples for our new DIY cat tree.

Aside from that, it was a little of this and a little of that: a phone we picked up at a yard sale to replace an old one that no longer rings, a bread knife from a yard sale that will serve for cutting bagels and other breads that won't fit in our fiddle-bow knife, a new battery for Brian's watch, his new corded beard trimmer (which we hope will last much longer than the cordless ones), and some cork strips to repair his clarinet. This isn't a necessity, because he doesn't have to play the clarinet in order to survive, but it doesn't quite seem like a luxury either, because our Morris team can't perform if Brian doesn't play the clarinet, and he can't continue to play it without fixing it. So it's not just Brian's hobby, but also my hobby—and my primary form of exercise—that's at stake. I think that's enough to qualify the purchase as an investment rather than a luxury. And anyway, it's only $6.50.

So overall, our spending breaks down as:



As I predicted, our spending on necessities and those hard-to-classify investment purchases dwarfed our spending on luxuries. But even more importantly, all the luxuries that we bought were items we considered carefully and deemed to be worth the price. We didn't have to go out for ice cream with the dance team or buy a bottle of wine, but we decided, upon reflection, that these little luxuries were worth splurging on. So I can say with confidence that while we treat ourselves to the occasional splurge, mindless spending—what the financial fast is designed to combat—is definitely not a problem for us.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Gardeners' Holidays 2015: The Age of Asparagus

Apologies to all for being a bit late with this Gardeners' Holiday post. Technically, the Age of Asparagus holiday falls on May 1, the cross-quarter day, but that's also May Day, which my Morris dance team celebrates by dancing from the crack of dawn until mid-afternoon, and drinking together after that. So by the time we made it home, I was so tired that I'd forgotten all about the blog.

Fortunately, our asparagus has not been too tired to produce for us throughout the past week. In fact, after getting off to a sluggish start in April, it came into its own right around the start of May, sending up spears so fast that we're picking new ones every day, sometimes twice a day. Once or twice, I've snapped off the tallest spears in the morning and passed over two or three others because they were too short...only to pass by the bed again in the late afternoon and see that those same spears have now shot up higher than the ones I picked in the morning.

Although the asparagus is growing fast, we still don't have a huge volume of it, because we just don't have that many plants. So the amount we pick in a single day usually isn't enough for a meal. Simply leaving the spears in the bed longer isn't an option, because left to their own devices, they will branch out into big fronds no longer suitable for cooking. In fact, some of the spears we didn't get to fast enough—or considered too small to be worth picking—have already gone to fern. (After a few weeks, we'll need to stop picking the spears and let them all turn into ferns, so they can spend the rest of the year gathering nourishment for the roots to produce next year's crop.)

To keep the asparagus fresh until we have enough to use, we harvest the spears not by cutting them off at ground level, but by snapping them off at their natural breaking point, leaving the ends in the ground. Then we stick the broken spears into a jar with a bit of water at the bottom and store them in the fridge. This keeps them firm and green until we're ready to turn them into a meal.

And turn it into meals we have. One of the cookbooks on our shelf, Easy Vegetarian Dinners from Better Homes and Gardens, contains several recipes that call for asparagus, and this is the only time of year we really get the chance to make them. So we've picked a couple of our favorites and enjoyed them multiple times in the past couple of weeks. The first, appearing in the "Bravo Beans and Grains" section, is Polenta with Mushrooms and Asparagus. The hardest part of this recipe is actually making the polenta; once that's done, you just keep it warm while you sauté some chopped onion in a pan. As soon as it's tender, toss in the sliced mushrooms and asparagus with some minced garlic, cook it a few minutes more, and stir in a little white wine and salt. Then ladle that over the polenta and top it with some toasted chopped nuts and a bit of Parmesan for a simple, elegant meal.

Good as this recipe is, it's a bit time-consuming. On Friday, after returning from our Morris-dancing adventures, we didn't want to wait for the polenta, so instead we cooked up a pound of gnocchi from Aldi and tossed that with the asparagus-mushroom mixture instead. We quickly discovered that we like this version even better than the original. The tender texture of the gnocchi makes a wonderful foil for the tender-crispness of the veggies, and the little potato pillows soak up the flavor of the sauce much more effectively than the polenta. I think we will definitely have to pick up some more gnocchi at the earliest opportunity so we can make this recipe at least once more before asparagus season ends.

The other asparagus recipe we've been eating lots of is Roasted Asparagus with New Potatoes, from the "Bumper Crop" section of the cookbook. Last month, we actually tried this for the first time with real new potatoes, since we picked up a bag of little fingerling potatoes as a splurge on a recent trip to Trader Joe's. These tiny potatoes can be roasted whole, side by side with the asparagus, drizzled with a little olive oil and salt, and they'll come out tender in under 15 minutes. The recipe says to stir in a bit of fresh rosemary and pepper, then garnish with toasted pine nuts and Parmesan and call it a meal—but we've taken to adding the extra step of dumping the whole mess into a pan and cooking it up with a couple of beaten eggs for a bit of additional protein. This makeshift frittata is both hearty enough and flavorful enough to make an all-around satisfying meal. And while it's particularly delicious with those buttery little fingerling potatoes, if you don't happen to have any, you can just dice plain old baking potatoes into chunks and it'll be nearly as good.

The other crop that's at its height right now is the rhubarb. Last year around this time, the four plants started sending up long flower spikes, which looked fascinating, but seemed to slow their production somewhat as they diverted energy from leaf and stalk production to the important business of germination. (Kind of like human adolescence, when the reproductive urge becomes so overpowering that it's hard to concentrate on anything else.) So this year, we've been ruthless about seeking out and snipping off those flower stalks before they get too tall, and the plants have rewarded us by developing into massive bushes of greenery. This week, we harvested the first crop of the year and turned it into Skillet Chicken and Rhubarb for last night's dinner—and there's still plenty out there to be enjoyed in the form of pies, crisps, and crumbles.

For summer is a-coming in, and winter's gone away, o!