Saturday, January 20, 2018

Thrift Week 2018, Day Four: Brian's Basic Brown Bread

So far, my food-based Thrift Week celebration has focused strictly on dinner recipes—which also provide leftovers that double as lunches. But if we're really going to cover a full week of frugal eating, we also need to talk about breakfast. What does a frugal morning meal look like?

In my case, it's almost always the same thing: a cup of cocoa and a couple of pieces of toast. The easiest way to make this breakfast would be to grab a loaf of bread from the store, which has around 20 slices, for about $2.50. That comes to a quarter for two slices; a bit of margarine or butter adds another penny or two. Add a packet of Swiss Miss, and the total comes to around 37 cents, which is not bad at all for a whole meal.

However, at our house, we prefer to cook from scratch, which is usually tastier as well as cheaper. We used to make all our bread in a bread machine, until it died a tragic death back in 2013. Rather than replace it, Brian decided to try making our bread the old-fashioned way, actually kneading it by hand. This requires a little more planning, since it takes the better part of a day to get from flour to finished loaf, but most of that is just rising time; the only hands-on part is the kneading, and Brian actually seems to find that a soothing activity.

So Brian now makes all our bread, using a variety of recipes—some from books, others of his own invention, such as Granola Bread and Mega-Fiber Health Bread. He'll whip up one of these special breads if I request it, but his default loaf is an unadorned whole-wheat bread that I've dubbed
Brian's Basic Brown Bread 

  1. Dissolve 4 tsp. yeast in 1 3/4 c. warm (not hot) water.
  2. Combine this in a large bowl with 3 1/2 c. whole-wheat flour, 1/4 c. honey (or brown sugar), 2 tsp. salt, 3 Tbsp. unsalted butter (or other oil), 1/2 c. wheat bran, and 2 Tbsp. wheat gluten. (You can leave out this ingredient, but the bread will rise much better with it.)
  3. Knead the dough for 10 minutes.
  4. Cover and allow to rise in a warm, moist environment for about an hour, or until the dough has roughly doubled in size. Brian usually puts it in the oven (switched off) with a damp cloth over top of the bowl and a pan of hot water underneath.
  5. Punch down the dough, knead it again briefly, and divide it up into two loaf pans.
  6. Return the pans to the warm, moist area and let the dough rise again until it puffs over the top of the pans.
  7. Bake at 375°F for half an hour.
The ingredients for this bread cost us $1.92. We get three of the ingredients from the bulk bins at the Whole Earth Center: wheat bran ($1.28 per pound), wheat gluten ($5.46 per pound), and yeast ($4.59 per pound). We most recently bought whole-wheat flour and butter at the Shop-Rite: $2.99 for a 5-pound bag of flour, $1.99 for a pound of butter. The honey came from Costco, at an impressive price of $11.99 for a massive 5-pound jar, and the salt probably cost a penny or less. That $1.92 makes two loaves, and we probably get 15 slices from each loaf, so my two daily slices cost around 13 cents.

For my morning cocoa, however, we actually pay more by cooking from scratch. That's because sugar and cocoa are two of the ingredients I always insist on buying organic, since conventional methods of growing them are so damaging to the environment. Fortunately, we have currently found sources for both that, while still pricier than their conventional equivalents, are quite a bit cheaper than what we've paid in the past. First, we got a 10-pound sack of organic sugar at Costco for just $7.99, or around 80 cents a pound—less than half what we used to pay at Trader Joe's. And then we discovered a half-pound bag of organic, Fair Trade "cacao powder" at Trader Joe's for $3.99, which is noticeably less than the $10.65 per pound we used to pay (including shipping) to buy our cocoa by the pound from Dean's Beans. (Yes, I'm aware that raw cacao powder is not the same thing as cocoa powder, which is heated to high temperatures to soften its bitter flavor, but the stuff from TJ's isn't labeled as raw cacao. As far as I can tell, it's just cocoa that hasn't been Dutch-processed, which is fine by me, since I think that process just emasculates the flavor.)

I make my cocoa with 1 teaspoon of organic, Fair Trade cocoa powder (4 cents), 1 teaspoon of organic sugar (1 cent), half a packet of artificial sweetener just to cut the sugar content a bit (less than 1 cent), a cup of skim milk (14 cents, since we got a really good deal on that at Costco as well), and a few drops of our homemade vanilla extract (about 1 cent, as I've estimated it costs about 50 cents per ounce to make). That's 21 cents per cup, while Swiss Miss packets bought in bulk cost only around 10 cents apiece. But my homemade stuff is lower in sugar, richer in nutrients, and, if I do say so myself, a lot tastier. I consider the extra 11 cents per cup to be money well spent.

So, all told, my morning breakfast costs around 35 cents: 13 for the bread, 11 for the cocoa, and 1 for a teaspoon or so of Blue Bonnet spread, our preferred margarine. And with all that nice, healthy fiber in the homemade bread, it's satisfying enough to keep me going until lunchtime. But if you can't be bothered to make your own bread and cocoa, you can make this same breakfast with store-bought ingredients, and the cost will be about the same.

By the way, the crossword puzzle shown at left in the photo is also part of my complete breakfast. It's the daily cryptic crossword from Best For Puzzles, which you can pick up here. Be warned that this is a British-style puzzle, so the clues are very different from what Americans are used to. If you've never solved a cryptic crossword before, check out this tutorial first. And be aware that you may encounter answers, like British TV shows or cities, that aren't familiar to most Yanks.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Thrift Week 2018, Day Three: Skillet Kugel

For Day Three of our Thrift Week menu, Brian prepared a recipe of his own invention: Skillet Kugel, which appeared as my Recipe of the Month in September 2014. He created this dish a few years back, adapting the potato kugel recipe from The Clueless Vegetarian to make it both lighter and quicker to prepare. Since then, it's become one of our go-to-recipes because, first of all, we both like it, and second, it's easy to make with ingredients we always have on hand: potatoes, onions (or leeks if we happen to have any), eggs, oil, flour, and salt. So if we're ever stumped for a dinner recipe, we can always trot out this old standby.

We generally serve this dish accompanied by frozen peas and applesauce, which Brian has become adept at making in the pressure cooker. The recipe for this is so simple it hardly deserves the name, but if you want to try it, here's how:
  1. Peel and core 2 large apples and cut them into small pieces. (We do this with an old-fashioned apple peeling machine like this.)
  2. Load the pieces in the pressure cooker with a tablespoon or two of water.
  3. Cook for 6 minutes at full pressure.
So, for this complete meal, the ingredients and their costs were:
  • 3 potatoes (about l pound): about 25 cents. Our most recent purchases of potatoes were 5 pounds for $1.50 and 10 pounds for $2, so it works out to 25 cents a pound on average.
  • 1/3 onion: about 3 cents, from the bag we bought at the H-Mart.
  • 2 Tbsp. cooking oil: about 6 cents. We generally pay either $1.80 per quart for canola oil at Aldi, or $2 per quart at Shop-Rite.
  • 2 Tbsp. flour: about 2 cents. We last paid $1.81 for a 5-pound bag at Aldi)
  • 2 large eggs: 50 cents. This is the priciest ingredient, since we only buy organic, Certified Humane eggs. We last bought these for $3 a dozen at H-Mart. If you made it with conventional eggs, you could cut the cost by around 34 cents.
  • 1 tsp. salt: less than a penny.
  • 2 apples (12 ounces): about 25 cents. We got a ridiculously good deal on apples at Aldi recently: 99 cents for 3 lbs. Normally we pay more like a dollar a pound, which would triple the price of this ingredient.
  • 3 ounces frozen peas: about 37 cents. We buy the organic frozen peas from Trader Joe's for $1.99 a pound, so once again, you could cut this price nearly in half by buying conventional, store-brand peas.
That comes to $1.48 total for roughly four meals: one dinner for the two of us, and leftovers for two lunches. That's just 37 cents for each meal. However, we usually don't have any peas left over, so we end up having to supplement the lunch a little bit - maybe with another piece of fruit. So, factoring that in, it might average out to as much as 50 cents a meal, which is still pretty darn good. And pretty darn tasty, too.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Thrift Week 2018, Day Two: Pasta Fagioli

One of the biggest problems with being born in January is that you're always celebrating your birthday in freezing cold weather. This kind of limits the options for entertainment, and even food. Cake is all right in any weather, but ice cream is a lot less appealing when the temperature is below 30 degrees.

However, there is one food that's always welcome in winter: hot soup. So for Day Two of my edible Thrift Week, Brian is cooking up another of our favorite ecofrugal soups, Pasta Fagioli. This is sometimes spelled as "Pasta e Fagioli," which is Italian for "pasta and beans"; since the recipe comes from the south of Italy, it's pronounced with a slight slur, making it more like "Pasta Fazool."

There are lots of versions of this dish, using different types of pasta, beans, and veggies, but our favorite recipe comes from The Clueless Vegetarian, one of our go-to vegetarian cookbooks (which was featured in my 2014 Thrift Week celebration). This version uses two types of beans: white kidney beans, which are mashed up with a fork—liquid and all—to thicken the broth into something with more the consistency of a sauce, and red kidney beans, which are drained and left whole. The cookbook calls the result "A cross between a soup and a pasta. Let's not nitpick. Whatever it is, it's good." And it is: rich and savory, with the thick broth/sauce and the chewy chunks of bean, veggie, and pasta making a pleasing combination of textures.

The cookbook goes on to say this soup is "perfect accompanied by Parmesan Onion Bread," but we find it makes a perfectly satisfying meal all on its own. The recipe makes a nice, big potful—enough for a dinner and two lunches for the two of us. And, according to my calculations, it costs us only $2.33:
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil: 15 cents (using olive oil from Costco, which is only $4.73 per quart)
  • 1 carrot (organic): about 15 cents ($1.75 per pound at the Whole Earth Center)
  • 1 stalk celery (conventional): maybe 5 cents? It's so cheap I've never bothered to price it out.
  • 1 onion: about 10 cents ($1.49 for a 2-pound bag at H-Mart)
  • 2 garlic cloves: about 4 cents ($1.29 for a sleeve of 5 heads at H-Mart)
  • 5 cups vegetable broth: about 40 cents. This would be cheaper if we used our homemade stock, but we prefer to prepare it with our favorite Vegetable Soup Base from Penzey's, which gives the soup tons of flavor. Brian uses about 1 1/2 teaspoons of the soup base to 5 cups of water, and that's plenty.
  • 1 can each red and white kidney beans: $1.00. We got these on sale at Shop-Rite during their recent "Can-Can Sale"; if we made the dish with cooked dry beans, it would be even cheaper.
  • 1 cup small pasta: about 44 cents. We usually make it with orzo, which is about 2 1/4 cups to the pound; we can get it for about $1 a pound on sale.
  • Salt and pepper to taste: With the Penzey's stock, we don't really need to add any other seasoning.
So that's $2.33 for six servings, or less than 40 cents per serving, making this even cheaper than the mushroom barley soup. And on a cold night like this, it's certainly a meal you'll have no complaints about.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Thrift Week 2018: The Edible Edition

Over the years, I've covered a variety of different topics for Thrift Week. I've looked at the seven top items in a typical household budget; explored seven different things you can do to help the environment; discussed seven essential websites and seven essential books for the ecofrugal; and taken a tour of my area thrift shops. And as 2017 was drawing to a close and I was casting about for an idea for this year's Thrift Week, I started worrying that maybe I'd just run out of ideas.

However, it eventually occurred to me that there's one perennial topic I never grow tired of discussing in this blog's pages: food. I've got far more articles devoted to food than any other subject, currently numbering 219 out of the nearly 1,000 articles on the site. Over the years, I've shared (virtually, at least) hundreds of meals with you guys, including all my Fruit and Veggie of the Month picks from the past five years and numerous recipes of Brian's own invention, from his hearty bluefish chowder to his granola bread and butternut squash pizza.

So I decided maybe the appropriate way to handle Thrift Week this year would be to cover seven of our favorite ecofrugal recipes. Brian has agreed to make a different dish each night, as needed, so I can get photos of them, and I'll present you with the actual recipes if I can.

As it happens, however, he didn't need to do anything special tonight, because one of our ecofrugal staples was already sitting in the fridge. Last weekend, he'd whipped up a big batch of our favorite Mushroom-Barley Soup, and we still had some left over. So I ate a bowlful of this for lunch, marking the start of my Week of Ecofrugal Eating.

Those of you who were around when I did the One Harvest challenge back in 2013 have heard me mention this recipe before. It was one of the ecofrugal homemade meals I matched up against the food packages offered by One Harvest to see which was more cost-effective, and it helped contribute to our ecofrugal menu's triumph in the challenge. (The prices for the two were essentially identical, but that's because ours was made largely with organic ingredients; if you bought everything as cheaply as possible, our menu would have been the clear winner.)

You can find a recipe for mushroom-barley soup in just about any vegetarian cookbook, but the one we use comes from Vegetariana by Nava Atlas—a whimsical collection in which recipes are interspersed with drawings, quotations, and interesting facts about food. In a comment on the 2013 post, I was asked for the recipe, so at the risk of copyright infringement, I'll repeat it here:

Chop 1 large onion and 2 large celery stalks, and slice 1 large carrot. Put into a large soup pot with 3/4 c. raw barley, 2 bay leaves, 2 Tbsp. margarine, 1 tsp. dried dill, 1 tsp. seasoned salt, 1/2 tsp. dried summer savory, salt and pepper to taste, and 6 c. vegetable stock or water. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, over moderately low heat for 30 minutes. Coarsely chop 10-12 oz. white mushrooms and add to pot. Simmer 20 minutes more, or until veggies are tender. Stir in enough low-fat milk or soy milk (or use skim milk, as we do) to achieve a slightly thick consistency. Let stand 30 minutes off the heat before serving. Serves 6 to 8. This soup will thicken quite a bit if refrigerated; when reheating, add more milk or stock as needed and adjust the seasoning.

The soup is hearty, nourishing, and tasty, packed with veggies and whole grains—all the stuff doctors (well, most of them, anyway) want you to eat more of. And, using the ingredients from our local stores, it only costs $2.71 per pot:
  • 10 oz. organic mushrooms: $1.56 ($2.49 per pound at the Whole Earth Center)
  • 3/4 c. barley: $.50 ($1 per bag at Stop & Shop)
  • 2 onions: about $.20 ($1.49 for a 2-pound bag at H-Mart)
  • 1 organic carrot: about $.15 ($1.75 per pound at the Whole Earth Center)
  • celery, garlic, and spices: roughly $.30
  • veggie stock: free, because we make our own from vegetable scraps we store in the freezer
We usually serve this with homemade biscuits, which add another 75 cents or so for flour, milk, butter, baking powder, and salt. That brings the total cost of the meal to $3.46, and it provides at least six meals' worth of food: one dinner and two lunches for each of us. That comes to about 58 cents per serving—a price that's pretty hard to beat for a satisfying meal.

However, in the week to come, I will try, and we'll see if some of our other ecofrugal favorites can top this recipe for value, or at least come close. Stay tuned for the next day's menu.

Money Crashers: 5 new articles

After a long hiatus—nearly three months—Money Crashers has worked its way through a backlog and started getting some of my articles up on the site again. In the past week, five of my articles have gone live.

Unfortunately, I didn't find out about any of them until today, since the site doesn't have any way of notifying me when an article is published. And since Thrift Week starts today, and I'll be busy all week posting on that topic, I can't take the time to put up a post for each of these articles individually, the way I usually like to.

So I'm just going to make one quick post here covering all these new articles in a bunch, with just a little short blurb for each one. Perhaps later, when Thrift Week is over, I can take the time to talk about some of these topics in more detail, since I think some of them are particularly germane to the blog's ecofrugal focus.

What is Hygge? 12 Ways to Embrace this Frugal Danish Lifestyle
The first to be published is one that I wrote last August and has been waiting until now to be published. That's okay, though, because winter is actually a more appropriate time for it. It's about the Danish concept of hygge, which, as you may know, is a hot trend right now in the English-speaking world. (Well, at least it was last year. The topic may have peaked by now.) The word hygge has no exact English translation; the closest word would be "coziness," but it actually means a lot more than that, embodying the ideas of companionship, comfort, simplicity, relaxation, and harmony with nature, all in one. In other words, it's the perfect ecofrugal lifestyle. In fact, when I first read about this "trendy" topic last year, I was amazed to discover that for once in my life, I was actually ahead of the curve. I've been doing this all my life, only I never knew there was a name for it.

To learn more about what hygge means, what makes it ecofrugal, and how to jump on the hygge bandwagon, check out the article.

Are Monthly Subscription Boxes Worth It? Costs, Pros & Cons
Article #2 deals with another hot and growing trend: monthly subscription boxes. These days, it seems, you can have nearly anything—clothing, makeup, food, books, games, pet toys—delivered to your door in a box every month. But does shopping this way really make sense? In the article, I explore the ins and outs of subscription boxes: what kinds are available, what they cost, their pros and cons, and how to decide whether they're a good deal for you.

Home Security Scams – How to Protect Yourself From Fake Services
Article #3 is about home security scams—something I only learned existed while working on another scam-related article. Apparently, there are shady home security companies out there that will come to your door and try to trick you into buying security products and services that are overpriced at best, completely useless at worst. In this article, I explain how to spot these home security scams and what you can do to protect yourself. Then, for those who still feel the need of some protection, I finish with some pointers on choosing a legitimate security company.

How Does Advertising Influence People’s Purchases?
Here's one I was rather proud of. It explores some of the most common techniques advertisers use to lure you into buying their products, complete with some highly successful examples of each one—such as the "I'm a Pepper" ads for the bandwagon technique, or the "Be Like Mike" campaign for Gatorade. (Don't worry, I also covered other examples that don't involve beverages.) I analyze six advertising strategies (fear, bandwagon, sex appeal, values, celebrity endorsements, and humor), explain why they work on us, and offer tips on inoculating yourself against their insidious messages.

12 Cheap Luxuries to Help Avoid Frugal Fatigue
Finally, another topic that's particularly important for us ecofrugal folks: frugal fatigue. For those not familiar with the term, this is what happens when you've been on a tight budget so long that eventually you crack under the strain and start spending willy-nilly, like a celery-maddened dieter scarfing down a whole box of chocolates.

In the piece, I first discuss the causes of frugal fatigue and how to recognize the symptoms. Then I offer my formula for heading off this ailment: treating yourself regularly to small luxuries that fit into your budget, so you never feel deprived. The bulk of the article covers ideas for treats it's possible to enjoy on a tight budget, such as good coffee, fresh flowers, and fancy toiletries.

That's it for the five new articles. I hope, if all goes well, that from here on out my pieces will be published on a somewhat more regular schedule, and I'll be able to post about them here as they pop up, rather than having to cover them in a clump like this.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Recipe of the Month: Veggie Macaroni and Cheese

It's become a yearly tradition for me and Brian, when we go out to visit his folks for Christmas, to make a trip to the local Half Price Books. This is a chain we don't have out here in Jersey, which is a pity, because it carries books on all manner of topics, along with some new and used CDs and DVDs, at prices well below Barnes and Noble's. Sometimes we come home with an armful of new books, other times we just browse, but it's always an enjoyable outing.

On this occasion, we picked up only one new book for ourselves: the Fix-It and Forget-It Vegetarian Cookbook. Unlike most cookbooks in the Fix-It and Forget-It series, this one isn't limited to recipes for the slow cooker; instead, it boasts "565 Delicious Slow-Cooker, Stove-Top, Oven, and Salad Recipes, plus 50 Suggested Menus"—all of them meatless. And since it includes one whole section devoted solely to vegetables and fruits, I thought it would offer a fertile field of possible Recipes of the Month for 2018.

We decided to start off with a simple one: Veggie Macaroni and Cheese, listed in the pasta section. It's pretty much just a basic baked mac-and-cheese recipe, but with lightly cooked broccoli and cauliflower florets and sliced carrots and celery added to the macaroni before baking. There's also a sautéed onion and a spoonful of Dijon mustard added to the cheese sauce, as well as a sprinkling of paprika on top, which I thought would give the dish a bit more interest than the Kraft packaged variety I grew up with. And since we didn't happen to have any macaroni on hand, we decided to make the dish with penne, which we figured would make it a bit more sophisticated.

When the dish came out of the oven, it certainly looked a lot more appealing than basic macaroni and cheese: a mass of pasta swimming in rich, golden cheese sauce, dotted with colorful veggies, and dusted with russet-brown paprika. Unfortunately, its flavor wasn't quite as impressive. I like pasta with veggies, and I like pasta with cheese sauce, but these two great tastes just didn't taste great together. It seemed like the veggies, which would probably have tasted just fine with the pasta in a simple garlic-and-oil sauce, didn't really harmonize with the mustard-laced cheese sauce. It was perfectly edible, but it just wasn't inspiring. And since fresh cauliflower turns out to be quite expensive to buy in January, it wasn't really the most frugal choice to start off the year, either.

However, trying this dish wasn't a complete waste of time. As it happens, we already have a recipe for a healthier version of macaroni and cheese that we quite like: it also contains cauliflower, but pureed and mixed in with the cheese sauce. This doesn't noticeably affect the flavor, but it makes the sauce extra thick and creamy, as well as giving it a nice nutritional boost. The only problem with the dish is that it's a trifle bland. We usually sprinkle it with a little Penzey's Mural of Flavor to kick the flavor up a notch, but after trying this new recipe, I'm inclined to think that maybe what it really needs is a little mustard stirred into the sauce—and perhaps a dash of paprika on top to give it color and zest. So we'll probably add those modifications the next time we make our usual mac-and-cheese dish, and see if they take it from good to great.

In the meantime, we've already picked out another recipe to try from our new cookbook: Quinoa with Broccoli and Hoisin Sauce. This one looks a lot lighter and healthier, since it has protein-packed quinoa instead of pasta and isn't loaded with cheese. We picked up the ingredients for this today, and if it turns out well, we'll have a new recipe to add to our repertoire of dishes we can serve to gluten-free guests.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Household Hacks: How we're keeping (somewhat) warm

Here on the East Coast—and in many other parts of the country as well—we are now about two weeks into a deep and prolonged cold snap. Ever since Christmas, we have not seen outdoor temperatures over 20 degrees, either here in Jersey or back at my in-laws' place in Indiana. Every day the news reports new record low temperatures somewhere in the country. Meteorologists are amusing themselves by making up new and terrifying terms, like "bomb cyclone," to describe the brutal weather conditions.

In the face of the bitter cold outside, our little boiler is struggling to keep up. Ever since we got home, the thermostat has been set to 68 degrees 24/7 (rather than our usual regimen of 67 by day and 56 by night), and we're still lucky if the indoor temperature ever creeps above 65. So we've been using a variety of tricks to keep ourselves warm. If you're also stuck shivering at home, perhaps some of them will help you as well.

Winter Warmer #1: Layers—lots of layers.

As I type this, I am wearing a total of four layers of clothing: a turtleneck, a pullover, a fleece zip-up that I picked up at Goodwill over Christmas vacation, and my wearable blanket over that. I also have fleece-lined leggings on under my trousers, two pairs of socks under my fuzzy slippers, and a hat. The only part of me I don't have under wraps is my hands, since I can't manage to type with gloves on. (Look, I['ll show you. See what; I[ mean>?")

Winter Warmer #2: Baking.

In the summertime, we tend to choose meals that we can prepare without heating up the kitchen too much. We grill, eat cold salads, or use the Crock-Pot and the pressure cooker, and avoid running the oven as much as possible. During this cold snap, we've switched to the opposite strategy, running the oven as much as possible. In the past week, Brian has baked bread, apple crisp, cookies, and lasagna, and after each recipe he leaves the oven door open to spill as much of that heat into the kitchen as possible.

Winter Warmer #3: The pressure space-heater.

An old trick for warming up the house is to heat up a pot of water on the stove. As it slowly cools, its stored heat will transfer to the air (along with moisture, which will make it feel warmer). The problem is, if the pot stays on the stove, only the kitchen will get noticeably warmer. Brian had the thought that if he could heat a pot and then move it into whichever room we happened to be using, it would serve as a little space heater, radiating warmth in our immediate surroundings. However, he was reluctant to try this with our big stock pot for fear of spilling the water.

The solution he hit on was to use the pressure cooker instead. Every day this week, he has put the pressure cooker on to boil with nothing in it but water. Once it comes up to full pressure, he lets it vent, then moves it to a hot pad atop my desk, where it gently radiates heat as I work. I have to be careful not to touch the hot pot early in the day, but by evening it's completely cool to the touch (although even then, we've found the water inside is still slightly warm). He's also tried setting the hot pot on the coffee table as we watch TV in the evenings, where we can put up our feet next to it.

Winter Warmer #4: Hot tea.

While the pressure-cooker heater is helping to heat my outside, I also warm myself from the inside out by sipping hot tea throughout the day. This may sound confusing if you've heard that sipping hot drinks in hot weather is actually cooling, but as this article from the Guardian explains, that's because their heat stimulates increased sweating (which is why this trick doesn't really work in humid climates). On a day like this, there's no way a cup of tea will be enough to cause sweating, so its warmth will instead stay in your tummy and help you keep your core temperature up. Plus, holding the hot cup helps keep my exposed hands warm.

Winter Warmer #5: Heavy-duty bedding.

Even with all these warm-up tricks, it's a struggle to keep warm during the day. But at night, we have no problems at all. We stay toasty warm with a combination of fleece sheets and a lightweight comforter from IKEA. When we bought this comforter, we hesitated between two different weights; this one, which was labeled as a "cooler" comforter suitable for warm weather, and a mid-weight one that was slightly pricier. We settled on the cheaper one, figuring that we could keep it on the bed year-round without overheating, and in the winter we could always add another blanket to keep warm.

To our surprise, this "cooler" comforter turned out to be very warm indeed—so warm that we have to remove it entirely in summertime, leaving only the empty duvet cover. Maybe in Sweden it would be comfortable all summer long, but definitely not in New Jersey. And even in winter, it's so warm that we haven't needed to put a blanket on the bed since we bought it. If this is IKEA's idea of a warm-weather comforter, I can hardly imagine how warm their cold-weather ones must be.

We'd probably stay warm enough under this comforter even with plain cotton sheets, but there would still be those few minutes of unpleasant chill upon first sliding between them. Even flannel ones have a fairly smooth surface that feels cold to the touch at first. By contrast, our fleece sheets, with their high, fluffy loft, feel as warm as blankets against our skin. Tucked in between these, with our warm sweat pants on and our plush comforter over top, we stay snug as the proverbial bug all night long. The only difficult part is getting out of bed when the alarm goes off.

Fortunately, the cold spell is scheduled to break at last on Tuesday, with temperatures soaring up to a balmy 40 degrees. At that point, we'll be able to venture outside again during the daytime and finally give our boiler a break at night. But I'll be filing away these frugal winter-warmth tricks for future reference, since both extreme lows and extreme highs seem to be part of the new normal.