Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Money Crashers: Meet "The Compact"

As I've mentioned before here, I'm oddly fascinated by frugal lifestyle challenges. I've spent a week each eating on a SNAP (food stamps) budget, living on a minimum wage budget, and subjecting myself to WWII-style rationing, and I've posed myself not one but two local shopping challenges. And, while I haven't done these things myself, I've devoured books by families that have spent a year eating only local food, or refusing to buy anything made in China, or refusing to buy anything at all except necessities.

So for my latest Money Crashers post, it seemed like a natural choice to write about The Compact, a group of people who have pledged to do all their shopping secondhand (with certain obvious exceptions, like food and fuel). After all, buying secondhand is one of the linchpins of the ecofrugal lifestyle: it keeps waste out of landfills, saves the natural resources and energy that would be used to make new goods, reduces pollution (including greenhouse gases), and as the icing on the cake, it saves money. So I went into the assignment fully expecting to come out of it with a profound admiration for the "Compacters," and possibly even be inspired to try their secondhand-only lifestyle for myself.

To my surprise, my reaction ended up being just the opposite. The more I read about The Compact and its members, the more they started to annoy me. I first started to feel irritated when I read the basic rules for the Compact on its official blog. Along with such reasonable rules as "charitable donations are allowed," blogger Rachel Kesel offered such stern admonitions as:

  • New socks and underwear are okay, but they must be "utilitarian--non-couture or ornamental."
  • It's okay to spend money on services as long as they're "utilitarian services," like calling a plumber to unclog your drain. "Recreational services," such as movies and massages, are fine for gifts, but "should not be over-indulged in for personal gratification."
  • Plants and cut flowers are acceptable to buy "in extreme moderation," and only from local businesses.
What was that all about? I thought the point of The Compact was to reduce clutter and protect the environment. A new pair of undies takes up the same amount of space and uses the same amount of resources whether it's "utilitarian" or "ornamental," so why insist that only plain panties are acceptable? Kesel's preachy pronouncements against excessive "personal gratification" seemed to smack of puritanism.

I might have thought it was just Kesel, but I seemed to encounter this same emphasis on self-deprivation in other members of the group as well. A story about The Compact in the Washington Post, for instance, told how during its first year, members would petition the group for permission to buy things they deemed necessary, and a member who asked to buy a new toilet brush on the grounds that it was a "health issue" was turned down. A new toilet brush? This is their idea of hedonism?

Now, admittedly, all these stories were about the ten members of the original The Compact group in San Francisco back in 2006. The group today has over 1,800 members who connect on Yahoo!, and some of them presumably are less strict than others. In fact, I joined the Yahoo! Group as part of my research for the article, and I saw a recent question in the discussion area from a woman who wanted help finding new shoes to fit her husband's extra-wide feet. So she was clearly willing to buy new in a case where her husband's health (at least the health of his feet) was at stake. Still, the whole experience kind of left a sour taste in my mouth, and it left me with no desire at all to take on the challenge of living under The Compact for myself, even on a temporary basis.

I didn't mention my personal reactions in the article itself, which you can read here: "Meet 'The Compact,' a Frugal Group Dedicated to Buying Secondhand Only." But I'd be curious to hear from all you readers whether the group's attitude strikes you at all the same way it did me.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Salad of the Month: Kasha Salad

The local produce challenge we undertook last week turned out to be a little complicated. My original idea was that all the produce we ate during the week should be locally and sustainably grown, but that didn't quite work, because when we picked up the CSA box on Sunday, we still had a couple of items left over from the previous week—an avocado, a nectarine, and a banana or two—that still needed to be eaten.

So then I thought, well, maybe all the produce we buy during the week can be locally grown. The problem there was that we made a trip to Trader Joe's yesterday, and they had their usual $3.49-a-pound deal on fresh Brussels sprouts. Now, roasted Brussels sprouts are one of my very favorite dishes—possibly my absolute favorite vegetable dish—and our own plants, although they're big and healthy, haven't even begun to form recognizable sprouts yet, let alone ones big enough to harvest. So even though the sprouts were plainly labeled "product of Mexico," I just couldn't pass them up.

So my current plan is to count our week of eating local produce not from Sunday to Sunday, but from Tuesday evening to Tuesday evening. That takes us past the point at which we'd disposed of all the leftover non-local produce, but it still allows us to roast up some Brussels sprouts on Tuesday or Wednesday. Thus, I can't report on the final results of the challenge yet.

To complicate matters further, we were right in the middle of this week of local eating when I realized that time was running out for us to try a new Soup or Salad of the Month for June. Between the CSA box and the plants in our garden, we had everything we needed to make a Couscous Salad, one of our perennial favorites from The Clueless Vegetarian, but that wasn't a new recipe, and my New Year's resolution specifically called for trying a new soup or salad each month to expand our repertoire. But as it happened, I'd been toying for a while with the idea of trying this recipe with kasha (otherwise known as buckwheat groats) in place of couscous to make a version we could serve to our gluten-free friends. So I decided that this was a significant enough modification to the existing recipe for it to qualify as a "new" salad for the month of June.

The original version of this recipe calls for 4 scallions, 2 medium cucumbers, 2 medium green peppers, 1/2 cup fresh parsley, and "whatever else you like" in terms of veggies. The CSA box contained two cucumbers—not really big enough to be called "medium," but enough to supply the necessary cucumber presence in the salad—and our own pepper plants supplied one very large frying pepper, big enough to fill in for the two medium green peppers the recipe called for. To make up the extra volume, we also threw in a bunch of sugar snap peas (the Cascadia variety we tried this year has proved to be very productive indeed) and a small bunch of broccolini, one of the completely new crops in our 2015 garden.

Brian prepared the kasha in the usual way, mixing the kernels with a beaten egg and browning the coated grains in the pan to seal them before adding the water to cook them with, which means that this version of the salad is gluten-free but not vegan. Once the kasha was cooked, he simply tossed it together with all the copped-up veggies and a simple dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, and ground cumin.

This variant worked out better than either of us had expected. The nutty flavor of the buckwheat was not only compatible with the other flavors, it actually made a more interesting contrast to the cool, crisp veggies and the light, lemony dressing than the couscous does. Brian said he liked it better than the original Couscous Salad, and I thought it was at least as good. So I don't know whether we'll be making this recipe with kasha in place of couscous by default from now on, but it's at least an alternative that we'll be keeping in our salad collection for the future.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Money Crashers: What Is a Tool-Lending Library

While working on my article for Money Crashers about when to DIY as opposed to hiring a contractor, I stumbled across an interesting idea for saving money on home-repair tools: a tool library. This is basically what it sounds like: a library that lends out tools instead of books. I dug a little deeper and found that Money Crashers had never covered this topic before, so I decided it was time to remedy that oversight.

Tool lending libraries are a great example of ecofrugality. They save money, because you don't have to shell out for new tools for every home repair. They save resources, because a single circular saw or extension ladder can serve the needs of a dozen families, instead of every household having its own. And they provide a place to get together with other like-minded individuals and share knowledge, possibly forming the core of a new ecofrugal community. Read all about them here:

What Is a Tool-Lending Library - Benefits & How to Start Your Own

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Money Crashers: Living on Minimum Wage - Is It Possible?

My latest Money Crashers article covers the Live the Wage Challenge, which I took last summer. In the article, I compare my experience taking the challenge with the experiences of the various politicians and other bloggers who tried it (spoiler alert: I made it through the week on minimum wage, but most others didn't). I also discuss the various flaws in the challenge that I identified while taking it, and I link to the New York Times interactive calculator that I think is a much better tool for figuring out how well you could manage on minimum wage.

Here's the full article: Living on Minimum Wage - Is It Possible? (Live the Wage Challenge)

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Gardeners' Holidays 2015: Cornucopia

Well, here it is, the official first day of summer (although the weather has been summery for nearly a month now), and we are celebrating with a box of goodies from the CSA that Brian's coworker was nice enough to let us pick these up in her absence. Her subscription entitles her to a half-bushel share rather than a full bushel, so this morning we picked up a small box containing:
  • 1 head of red leaf lettuce
  • 1 smallish head of cabbage
  • 1 bunch of arugula
  • 1 bunch of some other leafy greens that we aren't sure about—maybe some sort of chard?
  • 2 zucchini
  • 2 small cucumbers
  • 3 garlic scapes
  • 1 half-pint of blueberries
This bounty will be the foundation of our local produce challenge, the only one of the recent Bankrate savings challenges I've seen fit to try out for a full week. The veggies, eked out by what's in our garden right now, should be more than sufficient to get us through the week, but that one little cup of blueberries definitely isn't going to be enough fruit. The plums on our trees aren't ready to eat yet; although some of them are starting to turn red and fall off the trees, they're still rock-hard and no bigger than a large grape. And today Brian tasted one and confirmed that it was really, really sour—though at least it had an identifiable plum flavor.

So, in order to get through the week eating only seasonal, local produce, we'll have to find some other source of local fruit. We could probably find something bearing the "Jersey Fresh" label at the supermarket, but as I noted last week, New Jersey fruit isn't necessarily more sustainable than something shipped from California unless it's organic as well. So I'll have to pick and choose based on what I know to be sustainable. I feel pretty confident about buying local blueberries, because I know that they're really, really easy to grow in New Jersey; my parents had a hedge of blueberry bushes when I was growing up, and we could go out there every weekend and pick them by the quart. So if I can't find any local, organic peaches or nectarines, I guess I can always stick to blueberries for the rest of the week.

Ironically, with all this wealth of veggies in the fridge to choose from, we're not actually going to be cooking anything at all tonight, because we're having dinner with my parents. But that's okay as far as the challenge goes, because my dad told me he's planning to make pasta with grilled veggies and chicken—and the veggies in question are fresh from his own garden, which is definitely local and organic. And if there's any chance he won't have enough, we can always bring him one of our zucchini as a Father's Day gift. (Our zucchini plants are already starting to produce their first little tender fruits, so there's basically no risk that we'll run short during the week.)

I'll try to fill you in on the local produce challenge as it unfolds, and if I can't get to it during the week, I'll at least give you an update on the outcome next weekend. Until then, happy summer!

Frugal fizz update

It's now been about five months since the last time I bought seltzer at the store, thanks to the Primo Flavorstation soda machine I received as a birthday gift from my sister. The machine performed admirably for most of its first five months, but a week or two ago I started to notice that it was taking a lot longer to carbonate its little half-liter bottle of water. It would sit there fizzing away for a couple of minutes without producing the "buzzing" sound (really more of a rude farting noise) that signifies the carbonation is done, and when it finally went off, it was more of a short, feeble honk than the sonorous blast I was used to. And even when the soda was finally ready, it didn't seem as well-carbonated as before, and my egg creams didn't foam up as nicely as they used to.

Matters came to a head on Friday, when I tried to carbonate a bottle and it just sat there, fizzing and fizzing, without ever giving me the "stop" signal. I was also hearing a bit of a hissing sound, which made me wonder whether maybe the bottle wasn't screwed in securely, so I tried to readjust it—only to find that apparently there was still some pressure built up in the bottle, because the machine went off with a loud bang, spraying water everywhere and blowing off the bottom piece that Brian had already glued back in place once.

At this point, I came to the conclusion I probably should have reached before: it was time to refill the CO2 canister. I'd never actually done this before, and I was a bit nervous about it, because I'd heard one or two stories about sporting goods stores refusing to refill the Primo canisters on the grounds that their CO2 isn't "food grade." But as it turns out, the process went off with only one minor hitch (the Sports Authority store we tried first said its CO2 machine was broken, so we had to go to a nearby Dick's Sporting Goods). We just went in, said we had a canister to refill, paid at the front desk, took the canister to the back, and came back out with a full, cold canister. Once we put it back in the machine, voilĂ , everything was working once again.

So I now know that at the rate I go through seltzer, a single canister lasts me about 5 months. This means either that one canister doesn't carbonate nearly as many liters as the 200 claimed on the package, or else I drink a lot more seltzer than I realized. Based on the rate at which I've been topping up the bottle—about every other day—I think it must be a combination of the two. If I'm consuming seltzer at a rate of about 3.5 liters per week, then I got about 76 liters out of the first canister, and the refill cost me $4.27. So, assuming I get as many liters out of this second fill as I did the first time, which seems like a reasonable guess, that works out to about 5.6 cents per liter, not counting the negligible cost of the water. That's a savings of 34.4 cents per liter—or, if I continue to drink seltzer at the same rate, about $63 a year.

And, as an extra perk, there are no more seltzer bottles or cans in the recycling bin, which means we don't have to take it out as often.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Money Crashers: What Is Umbrella Insurance?

My final Money Crashers post for this week is about umbrella insurance. I've talked about insurance here before, as in this post about my quest for lower rates on our auto and homeowners' insurance policies, but never about umbrella insurance specifically. In fact, this was a topic I knew very little about until my editor at Money Crashers asked me if I'd like to do a post on it—which, apparently, puts me in good company, since the sources I consulted say this is the least-understood type of insurance on the market. What it does, basically, is protect you against a large lawsuit, covering any expenses that either aren't covered on your other insurance policies or are over the maximum those policies will cover. So it makes sense to have it if (1) you have a lot of assets to protect, and (2) there's any reasonable chance you could be sued.

I'm glad I ended up getting this assignment, because I'd never given serious thought to this type of insurance before. Now that I know more about it, I'm thinking that it will probably be a good idea to pick up a policy in a year or two. I don't think we need it yet, because our assets haven't hit the point where we can't cover them under our auto and homeowners' policies—but in another year or so, they'll be above the limit on those policies, and tacking on an extra million (usually the minimum you can get) in umbrella insurance coverage will provide a nice safety net.

If you're in a similar situation, or think you might be, you can find out more in the article: What Is Umbrella Insurance - Do I Need a Policy?