Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Thrift Week 2017, Day 2: Socially Responsible Investing Day

The second day of the original Thrift Week was "Invest Safely Day." And unlike having a bank account, this is a topic that a lot of modern-day Americans still don't really understand. However, there are plenty of articles already out there on the basics of investing safely, such as diversification (i.e., not putting all your eggs in one basket) and balancing risk with return (choosing higher-risk, higher-return investments for the long term, and safer, lower-return investments for money you'll need in the near future). Indeed, I've written a few such articles myself, such as this one on low-risk investments, this one on reaching financial independence, and this whimsical little one on financial advice from the Bible.

None of that, however, has much to do with ecofrugality. The ecofrugal side of investing is socially responsible investing, or SRI. I've covered this topic at MoneyCrashers as well, and you can read about it in detail there, but I'll quickly sum up the main points here:
  1. SRI means choosing investments based not just on their value, but on your values as well. For most investors, this means investing in companies that have a good record on "ESG issues": environment, social justice, and corporate governance.
  2. You can choose your investments using either negative screens (avoiding things you disapprove of, such as tobacco or fossil fuels) or positive screens (seeking out investments in things you approve of, such as renewable energy or organic farms). One particular form of SRI is community investing—making loans to support small business owners and community development organizations, especially in low-income areas. Socially responsible investors also take part in shareholder action to influence the behavior of companies they hold stock in.
  3. There are a wide range of SRI investments to choose from, from mutual funds to microfinance. A good way to get started with SRI is to visit the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (US SIF), which offers a variety of resources on how to invest in ways that promote different causes.
Unfortunately, while I've understood the basics of SRI for years, I've never done a very good job of praticing it. These days, I do most of my investing through my automatic investment plan at Capital One, which pulls some money out of my online bank account every month and plops it into a simple "lazy investing" portfolio (a few ETFs with low fees that, between them, cover the whole market as broadly as possible). This is definitely the easy way to invest, but it has a downside: this ultra-simple portfolio doesn't include any social screens. And I never really figured out a good way to find investments that meet both my financial goals (low fees, broad diversification, modest but steady returns) and my social goals (clean energy, women's rights, all that good stuff).

Until now.

I decided, this being not only Green Thrift Week but also Inauguration Week, it was an appropriate time to finally put my money to work building the kind of world I'd prefer to be living in. So I did a quick search and found this US News article that recommends seven top-rated socially responsible mutual funds and ETFs. Then I punched each one of those into the search box on Capital One's website to see how the funds stacked up against others in the same category—in particular, the ones I regularly invest in now.

After looking at their returns, I selected a fund called iShares MSCI KLD 400 Social, or DSI, which is a "large blend" fund somewhat along the lines of the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTI) I've been investing in. It's not as diversified, and its returns aren't quite as good, but they're still above average for the category, and I'm willing to sacrifice a little bit of my return for the sake of investing in a world I can live with.

So, I have made one small change to my ShareBuilder plan, swapping out VTI for DSI, and voilĂ ! I am now a Socially Responsible Investor! Starting next month, a portion of my money will be automatically invested in "companies that have positive environmental, social, and governance characteristics." If my returns suffer much as a result, I can always switch the funds back and try something else.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Thrift Week 2017: Everything old is new again

Happy Thrift Week, everyone! For the past few months, I've been trying to think of an interesting and original new theme for Thrift Week 2017, but I just couldn't come up with anything. So instead, I've decided to revisit the themes of the original, official Thrift Week—Have a Bank Account Day, Invest Safely Day, and so on—but put an ecofrugal spin on them. For example, the first day of Thrift Week, Have a Bank Account Day, won't just discuss the benefits of having a bank account and how to open one; instead, it will talk about the most ecofrugal way to bank—the way that maximizes both the financial and the social/environmental benefits.

Now, while it may not be easy to identify the most ecofrugal type of bank account, it's pretty obvious what kind is the least ecofrugal. That would be an account with one of the huge "mega-banks"—Citibank, Chase, Wells Fargo, GMAC, and the most heinous of all, Bank of America—whose transgressions against people and the planet were so well documented during the big financial flap of 2008. Green America, in its "Break Up With Your Mega-Bank" campaign, outlines the biggest problems with the biggest banks, including:

  • Predatory lending. The big banks have systematically and deliberately targeted poor and ill-educated borrowers for loans they clearly can't afford in order to load them up with outrageous interest and fees. (The attorneys general of 49 states, plus the District of Columbia, sued the banks over these practices and reached a settlement in 2012, but the Mass Alliance Against Predatory Lending found in 2013 that they were still at it.)
  • Illegitimate foreclosures. The big banks have illegally foreclosed on thousands of homes—including, in a few cases, homes that had already been paid off. Probably the most egregious examples date from 2010, when Bank of America seized not one but two houses in Florida that had never had mortgages at all.
  • Ludicrous CEO salaries. Even as the banks accepted federal bailout money for the subprime mortage mess they had created, they awarded massive bonuses to the very CEOs who had led them into the morass. In 2010, the Financial Times reported, bank CEO salaries in the US and Europe jumped by 36%.
  • Dirty energy. BankTrack reports that Chase, Citi, and Bank of America are the three biggest funders of the coal industry worldwide.
  • Whopping fees. The big banks aren't just bad for the world as a whole; they're bad for their customers specifically. MyBankTracker lists the banks that are the harshest in several categories—monthly service fees, minimum balance requirements, overdraft fees, out-of-network fees, and fees for mobile banking—and nearly every list features two or more of the five biggest banks. Bank of America alone makes three lists out of five.
  • Lousy service. If you've ever banked with one of these megabanks, I'm sure this one needs no explanation.

So we know the megabanks are terrible. The question is, what's the ecofrugal alternative? That depends on your specific situation, but there are at least three choices worth looking into:

1. A credit union

The big banks' primary job is not to serve their customers, but to generate profit for their owners. If it comes down to a choice between the customers and the stockholders, the stockholders' interests take precedence.

With a credit union, by contrast, the customers are the stockholders. As this Money Crashers article (not one of mine) explains, everyone who has an account at a credit union is a member, and therefore shares in the profits. Thus, whatever is good for the customers is good for the owners, too.

Thus, it's hardly surprising that credit unions typically offer better interest rates, lower fees, and better customer service than banks. On the downside, they're less convenient to use. They don't have as wide a choice of products, and they have far fewer branches, making it more difficult to get to a branch or ATM that you can use. Also, many of them don't have state-of-the-art online banking systems.

These drawbacks are the main reasons Brian and I have never seriously considered joining a credit union. There isn't one with a branch here in town, so moving our money to one would mean having to get in the car every time we needed to make a withdrawal or deposit a check, rather than taking a stroll down to the local branch. And we'd lose our online banking, which I currently rely on to pay nearly all our bills.

However, just because credit unions don't work for us don't mean they can't for you. If you're lucky enough to have a good credit union right in town, with a good online banking system, there's no good reason not to have your account there. You'll enjoy good rates and never have to deal with big-bank bureaucracy again.

2. A community bank

Google defines a community bank as one that "derives funds from and lends to the community where it operates, and is not affiliated with a multibank holding company." Community banks get their funds from local account holders; they lend them out to local businesses; and they employ local workers. So when you put your money in one of these locally owned and operated banks, you're actually investing it in your community.

The Huffington Post outlines several other advantages to community banks. First, they're banks that operate solely as banks—not subsidiaries of some big financial corporation that has its finger in several pies. That means their banking account holders are not just their first priority, but their only priority. Also, these banks tend to focus on "relationship banking"—having a small, loyal core group of customers—rather than "transactional banking," which relies on volume. And finally, community banks make most of their money the old-fashioned way, from the interest they collect on loans. Bigger banks tend to rely more on fees—which is why they charge more of them.

It may be a bit of a stretch to call the bank we belong to, Provident, a community bank. It's a chain with over 80 branches in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, so you can't exactly say that it's tied to one specific community. But it definitely is a New Jersey-centered bank, one that supports the New Jersey economy, and it definitely offers more personal service than we've ever had from any of the megabanks. It combines the small-town charm of a local branch with friendly tellers who remember your name with the convenience of a decent statewide ATM network and online banking. So for us, it's the best of both worlds—not too big, not too small, but just right.

3. An online bank

If you have neither a good credit union nor a good local bank in your area, your best option might be a bank that has no branches at all. Because online banks have no buildings to maintain and staff, they keep their costs low, and those savings translate into better rates and fees for customers. NerdWallet recommends several online banks with interest rates as high as 0.76% APY (it's kind of pathetic that this is considered a good interest rate, but such is the 21st-century economy), low fees, and excellent customer service.

Nor do you have to worry that not having a branch limits what you can actually do with your account. Online banks don't own ATMs, but they partner with other banks to give their customers access to an ATM network and often reimburse them for ATM fees from out-of-network banks. They can provide savings accounts, checking accounts, and loans, just like a brick-and-mortar bank. You can do just about anything with an online bank account that you can with a regular bank account.

Brian and I actually have an online bank account at Capital One 360 (formerly ING) in addition to our Provident Account. When the balance in our regular savings account gets too high, we transfer money out to the online account, where it can earn more interest. And this account is also conveniently tied to an online investment account (more about that tomorrow), so we can automatically move money from there into our investments and earn an even better long-term return.

So there you have it: three options, each with its own pros and cons, but all significantly better than the evil megabanks. Moving your money to any of these alternatives will get you a better return, better service, and possibly a better world as well.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Closing the my pants waist

I don't know if it's just me, but I can never, ever find pants that fit me properly. Invariably, if they're big enough to fit over my hips and butt, they're way too big in the waist. The last pair of pants I bought was a heavily marked-down pair of Lee Comfort Fit pants from Burlington Coat Factory, which proudly touted its "no-gap waistband." Ha ha, that's all I can say. Does this look "no-gap" to you? (And before you ask, no, a smaller size wasn't an option—they were all way too tight in the thighs and backside.)

For a while, I tried to wear these and just put up with the huge gap at the rear. It wasn't too bad when the pants were fresh out of the dryer, but after they'd been worn once or twice, it started to get truly annoying...and since they're the only really warm pants I have, throwing the pants in the wash after every wearing would have left me shivering until the next laundry day. So I started looking into ways to alter them that wouldn't tax my extremely rudimentary sewing skills too heavily.

Now, in the past, I've been able to take in the waistband of a pair of pants using a method outlined on the Colorful Canary blog: just fold over a pinch of fabric along each side seam and stitch it down. But I quickly determined that wouldn't work with these, because the fabric was too thick and the seams were quite heavy already. Adding an extra fold of fabric on each side would have left me with huge, knobbly seams that wouldn't fit neatly at all.

So I started searching for other methods. The simplest way I found was to insert a piece of elastic into the waistband, as shown here on It's Always Autumn. This is kind of similar to the improvised fix I did with my thrift-shop walking shorts, but it uses a thicker piece of elastic that can handle the heavier fabric of the pants. A more complicated method involved sewing darts into the rear of the pants, as shown at Cotton and Curls. This looked like it might possibly produce a smoother fit, but it might also be beyond my very limited abilities.

So over Christmas vacation, I consulted with my mother-in-law, who's a much abler seamstress than I am. She agreed that with these pants, the elastic method would probably be more practical, since the placement of the pockets would probably interfere with the darts. She even kindly provided me with a piece of heavy elastic for the purpose. Armed with this, I was ready to tackle the pants as soon as I had the time, which turned out to be this weekend.

My mother-in-law advised against trying to rip out and sew up part of the pants seam the way Autumn did. With these thick seams, she thought it would be easier to just cut a small slit in the fabric on each side, the way I did with my shorts, then feed the elastic through and stitch it down. So, somewhat nervously, I did this—carefully positioning the slits behind the belt loops, so they wouldn't be too visible when the repair was complete.

Then I pinned a safety pin to one end of the elastic to give me something to grab onto, fed it into one of the slits, and maneuvered it through to the other.

Next came the hard part: adjusting the elastic to the right snugness. First, I pulled on both ends of the elastic until the pants felt fairly well-seated on my waist. Then I pinned them in place and tried sitting down and standing up several times to make sure the fit was smooth. I knew I'd only have one chance to get this right, so I took my time with it.

Once I was satisfied with the fit, I began the process of stitching down the elastic. I ran my needle repeatedly through the elastic and both layers of fabric, in and out, all the way along the width of the slit...and then back down again, and up and down one more time, until I was sure it was securely stitched down. Once I had it secured, I snipped off the extra elastic...

tucked the end into the slit in the waistband...

...and stitched the slit closed.

Then I did the same thing on the other side and put on the finished pants to try out the result. Look, Ma, no more gap!

Okay, it's not perfect—you can see a hint of puckering in the waistband from all the extra fabric—but it's a vast improvement from the way the pants fit before. The waist is still loose-fitting enough to be comfortable and to allow me to tuck in a shirt, even a fairly heavy one. In fact, I suspect I could have pulled the elastic even snugger, but I was afraid of overdoing it. Maybe next time I try to take in a pair of pants this way, I'll be a little bolder.

For now, though, I have a pair of pants that fits acceptably well in both the waist and the hips—which is something I literally couldn't buy in any store.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Money well spent

Usually, the ecofrugal triumphs I post on this blog are times when I've managed to satisfy a personal need without buying something new. I'll write, for instance, about how we managed to repair our old Roman shades with an $8 ball of string instead of shelling out $100 or more on new window treatments, or how Brian built me a new desk organizer for my computer peripherals out of scrap wood and stain we had on hand. Small victories like this are the essence of the ecofrugal life. They show how it's possible to do more with less—to save money while also preventing waste. They keep your tinkering skills limbered up and encourage you to strive for ever greater feats of tightwaddery.

All that said, it's important to remember that frugality isn't about not spending money. It's about not wasting money on things you don't need. Sometimes, making a purchase—even a fairly pricey one—is clearly the wisest thing to do.

A case in point is my new winter boots. I've posted before about how difficult it is for me to find shoes that fit both my feet and my values (both of which are, shall we say, a bit out of the mainstream). For me, the ideal pair of boots has to be leather-free, comfortable, decent-looking, reasonably well-made, not too expensive, and available in my size—a combination that's about as rare as a green unicorn. Back in 2013, I concluded that if I wanted to make it through the winter with dry feet, I was going to have to compromise on at least one of these criteria.

At that time, I ended up buying a $50 pair from Payless that compromised just a little bit on several of them: the fit was acceptable but not ideal, they lacked in support but were okay with an insole added, and—the biggest problem of the lot—they weren't very durable. They held out for the rest of that winter and most of the next, but by the time 2015 rolled around, they were letting in water like a sluice gate. They were okay in dry weather, but stepping in one puddle (which is often unavoidable with our town's lousy drainage) would leave them basically useless for the next two days.

For the rest of 2015 and all of 2016, I managed with a pair of secondhand Timberland hiking boots that I'd picked up at Goodwill for $15. But the last time I wore those out in the rain, it was apparent that they'd fallen victim to the same type of leak as the previous pair. I could have tried to repair them with Shoe Goo, but that would leave me without boots for a couple of days while they dried, and there was no guarantee the patch job would actually do the trick. So, reluctantly, I started shopping.

This time, I thought I had a trick up my sleeve. I had discovered at some point that while a D width is "wide" in a women's shoe, it's actually the standard width for "youth" shoes. And since my feet are wide but not long, I can usually get by with a size 4.5 or 5 in a kids' shoe. And, as a bonus, these are usually cheaper than the adult version of the same shoe.

So after consulting The Wirecutter's report on the best winter boots, I decided to try the kids' version of the Columbia Bugaboot. While the adult boot sells for around $120, I was able to find the kids' version on sale for just $55—and, just to make sure I got a pair that would fit, I ordered two sizes, a youth 5 and a youth 6 (the largest available). The smaller pair ended up being canceled because it wasn't available, but the 6 was wearable—sort of. I could get my feet into them, but they were so huge and bulky that I felt like an astronaut. I had to sort of march instead of walking because my ankles wouldn't bend normally.

So those went back to the store and I tried a pair in a duck-boot style from Sperry Top-Sider. I had high hopes for these, because the entire base of the shoe was fully encased in rubber, which I thought was sure to be both waterproof and durable. Unfortunately, this design also made the boots stiff and inflexible, so it was very difficult to squeeze my feet into them—even with the kids' size 6. They weren't too uncomfortable once I managed to get them zipped, but I couldn't imagine going through that kind of contortion every morning—and with my thickest socks, I doubted I'd be able to get them on at all. So back they went to Zappos, which fortunately offers free shipping both ways, so I wasn't out any cash for that unsuccessful attempt.

After that, I wasn't sure what to try, so I tried doing a search on shoes for wide feet and found several recommendations for a brand called Propet, which offers shoes in a vast range of widths—from men's narrow to women's extra-wide. Back to Zappos, and I found a Propet boot that came in both wide and extra-wide and appeared to tick pretty much all the boxes on my list. It was completely leather-free; reviews described it as warm, dry, and comfortable for walking; and it looked unobtrusive enough to wear indoors as well as out. The only downside was the $80 price tag—but since several owners also said the boots were quite durable, I figured I'd probably get my money's worth out of them.

Since reviewers disagreed about the fit, I decided to hedge my bets by ordering both a 6.5 wide and a 7 wide—a sound decision, since the 7 turned out to be the better fit. So the smaller pair is boxed up waiting to go back to Zappos, and the larger pair has now been put to a trial by fire, or rather ice. It was 20 degrees out yesterday, with heavy snow and a stiff wind, and these boots kept my feet snug, dry, and skid-free through several rounds of shoveling and a trip to the train station to pick up my folks. Plus, I've walked a couple of miles in them and suffered no foot fatigue.

So this story has two morals. First, if you have hard-to-fit feet, Propet footwear is definitely worth a look; and second, sometimes spending more money up front is the most ecofrugal choice. I could have tried to make my old, leaky Timberlands last the rest of the winter, and I might even have succeeded—but it would only have postponed the inevitable, and in the meantime, my feet wouldn't have been nearly as warm and dry as I expect them to be in my new boots. They cost more up front than I've ever spent on a pair of winter boots before, but an $80 pair that should see me through the next several winters is a better deal than a $50 pair that will barely make it through one—and it means I won't have to go through this same shopping rigamarole again next year.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Green Gift Roundup 2016

In 2015, I never got around to doing a Green Gift Roundup for the holidays. For one thing, we didn't manage to give as many green gifts that year as we had in previous years; only about 44 percent of all the gifts we gave were secondhand, locally purchased, sustainably sourced, or energy-saving, as compared to 72 percent the previous year. Also, the green gifts we did purchase, such as books and toys, weren't the most successful gifts we gave that year. The biggest hits of all our presents were the "home spa treatment system" we got for my sister and the Dungeons & Dragons starter set we gave my oldest nephew—and while I was pleased that they liked the presents, there was really no way I could spin them as green. So I decided to let the subject drop for that year.

This year, however, things are different. We managed to get our green-gift ratio all the way back up to 69 percent of our purchases, and the most successful presents on our list were all sustainable picks in one way or another. Also, we received several presents—both large and small—that qualify as green. So I figured this year I could do at least a quick Green Gift Roundup to share which green ideas worked the best for us.

Our green holiday giving started early this year, on Thanksgiving weekend. My aunt had said that what she really needed this year was new clothing, since she'd recently dropped a size, so she was asking for gift cards to Macy's or Ann Taylor. However, I'd just finished writing my article on sustainable clothing, and I really didn't like the idea of turning around and supporting fast fashion. So I offered her an alternative proposal: while she was in New Jersey for Thanksgiving, I'd take her out to Greene Street Consignment in Princeton and buy her an item of her choice. This turned out to be a bigger success than I imagined; she had a blast trying on over-the-top party dresses for her Sister Goddess gatherings, and in addition to the dress I eventually bought her (a jazzy one-shoulder number in silver lamé), she bought three more for herself. She even suggested making the thrift shop an annual tradition.

We also bought sustainable Hanukkah and Christmas gifts for several other family members, including:

  • A subscription to Yes! magazine for my mom. She often finds the news depressing (hardly a surprise) and calls me up to ask if I have any good news, so I thought a magazine filled with all good news—about the environment, social movements, and sustainable communities—was just what she needed. She hasn't received her first issue yet, as it's a quarterly, but she has already started reading and enjoying the online edition.
  • Also for my mom, a book called NYPD Puzzle that we picked up at the library book sale. This is part of the Puzzle Lady series, featuring a crossword constructor and her crime-solving aunt, and it includes puzzles right in the book that provide clues to the mystery. Since my mom loves both mysteries and puzzles, it seemed right up her alley. So I told her I was giving her one present to distract her from what's going on in the world, and one to make her feel better about it.
  • A pashmina shawl from the annual craft fair at the Morristown Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, where our favorite folk series is held. My sister had specifically requested pashminas this year, particularly in bright red, pink, and purple, and this one happened to have all three colors in a lush, soft fabric. Though it was a lot pricier than the ones at Target, it was also a lot nicer, and Fair Trade to boot, so I figured it was worth a splurge. And since she mentioned the "gorgeous scarf" in a recent e-mail, I guess she liked it too.
  • Two books for my brother-in-law and sister-in-law. This is the same brother-in-law who, two years back, let me pick through the discards from his shelf of gardening books, so I knew he was interested in growing and preserving his own produce. So when my other brother-in-law requested a specific book on craft cider making (which I didn't get for him because someone else snapped it up), I decided it would make a good gift for this other couple. While I was at it, I threw in a second book called Drink the Harvest, which covers not only cider but also juice, tea, and mead. He only glanced at the books when he opened them, but she picked them up and became absorbed in them, so I think there's a good chance they'll get some use out of these. Maybe they'll even return the favor with a gift of home-brewed cider next year.
  • Two more books for my youngest nephew. While we were in Princeton thrift-shopping, I stopped in at the library and browsed through their used-book section, where I picked up two little paperbacks from the "young readers" section: a Nate the Great mystery (one of his favorite series) and a biography of Neil Armstrong, since he's obsessed with everything to do with outer space.
  • For that same nephew and his younger sister, a pair of "Magic Cloths." These are basically a homemade version of Playsilks, using low-end fabric from Jo-Ann Fabrics that we hemmed ourselves. (Well, Brian did it, actually, since I can't sew a straight seam on the machine to save my life.) I also threw in a little "instruction manual" to go with them: a poem illustrated with little stick figures (thanks again to Brian) that show all the different things a Magic Cloth can turn into: a superhero cape, a princess gown, a parachute, a pool of water, etc. I wasn't sure whether these counted as a green gift, since they're not all-natural silk like the originals—but they are a highly versatile toy that requires no electricity and encourages imaginative play. My sister said they were a "huge hit" with her kids.
  • For my two craft-loving nieces, an assortment of beads that we picked up at the last town-wide yard sale. For a mere 50 cents, we got two boxes of beads: one with a variety of colorful glass beads, and one with tiny "seed beads" (which we urged our nieces not to open on the spot, since they are very easy to scatter everywhere). That should be enough to keep them in bracelets for a good few months.
  • For their younger brother, the Big Book of Riddles, Puzzles, and Enigmas. This was another yard-sale find, and we weren't quite sure whom to give it to, so we picked this nephew almost at random. This turned out to be a good guess; when he opened it, his eyes lit up and he displayed the book to the entire room like Vanna White showing off a fabulous prize. He spent much of the day lying on the couch, poring over the puzzles and occasionally trying them out on his relatives. And a quiet child was a great gift for the rest of us.
  • Finally, an experiential gift: a Chinese banquet on Christmas Day. This year, we weren't able to get the whole family together to open presents until the 27th, so on the 25th I offered to take those who were around—my in-laws and Brian's brother—for a traditional Jewish Christmas. Apparently, a lot of other people had the same idea, as the Formosa Seafood Buffet was packed. Afterward, we skipped the movie theater and instead went home to watch a DVD. We went with A Christmas Story, since I'd never seen it—and it turns out, that includes a memorable Chinese Christmas dinner as well.

In addition to the gifts themselves, I had the opportunity to use a few of the fabric gift bags my sister-in-law gave me in 2014. I used a couple of them for gifts to that same sister-in-law, since I knew she would use them again, and a couple for other people. The downside of this is that I didn't really receive any new gifts that were in fabric gift bags—so if I carry on at this rate, my stock of them will gradually disappear. I guess I'll have to get this darned sewing machine figured out so I can make some of my own.

We also received a few gifts that qualify as green. Brian's brother gifted us two bottles of mead from the local "meadery": a growler of strawberry-rhubarb mead and a smaller bottle of cherry. (The former turns out to be dry and slightly fizzy, so I'm toying with the idea of trying it in a Bellini.) His sister slipped some mysterious cardboard objects into his stocking, which turned out to be homemade fire starters made from dryer lint and candle wax stuffed into egg-carton cups. These might prove handy for the charcoal grill, or if we ever pick up the fire pit I've been toying with the idea of adding to our patio.

Her gift to me was a vegan faux-leather purse, which the salesclerk assured her was "really high quality" but was marked down because it was last year's model. This may make it the first purse I've ever owned from a brand that actually has different models for different years—but what I like about it is that it has a long strap so it can be carried cross-body fashion. A therapist I've been seeing advised me to switch to this type of purse because it would put less strain on my back and neck, so this was a particularly timely gift.

Brian received a couple of ecofrugal gifts from my family as well. My mom and my aunt both gave him silicone baking mats—something I suggested because we've been using such a lot of parchment paper lately for baking. And my sister gave him a handy multitool for bike repairs, which will make it easier for him to bike to work without carrying quite as much stuff.

Finally, during our trip to Indiana, we picked up a couple of eco-friendly items for ourselves. We visited not one, but two Goodwill stores in Indianapolis, where we found a pair of jeans for Brian and corduroys and a long-sleeved shirt for me, all for a flat $18 (including the small donation that we made to each store by rounding up to the nearest dollar). And after making sure no one else was going to give us one, we stopped by Fry's and bought ourselves a new tablet computer to replace the one that met with an accident last fall. Calling this an ecofrugal purchase is debatable, but we found after several months of going without one that there really were quite a few things we could do more easily with one, like reading online news and books from the e-library—which will mean fewer books to buy and clutter up our shelves. Yes, that's a bit of a stretch, but at the very least, it was a purchase that we thought out carefully and can be sure we won't regret. So if nothing else, it's a case of using our money wisely. (We also invested $20 in a good protective case to go with it, so this tablet won't meet with the same fate as the last one.)

And that wraps it up for our holidays. I hope yours were equally festive and green.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Money Crashers: Should I Repair or Replace a Broken Appliance?

One of the basic premises of the ecofrugal life is that it's usually better to repair an item, if you can, than to replace it. Repairing is usually cheaper; it prevents waste; and it saves the energy and other resource costs of making a replacement item. That's an ecofrugal win-win-win.

However, every rule has its exceptions. Sometimes repairing an item isn't possible, or is so difficult as to make it impractical. Sometimes it actually costs more than replacing. Sometimes it's cheaper, but only just, and the additional years of life you'd get out of the repaired item aren't enough to justify the cost. And sometimes keeping your old item can actually cost you money, as in the case of an old appliance that uses vastly more energy than a newer model. In a case like that, replacing would actually be both cheaper and greener in the long run.

Back in 2011, I did a whole series of posts exploring this "Repair or replace?" dilemma. It started with the case of Brian's old bike, which needed a moderately pricey repair to keep it running, and how that compared to my old computer, which I'd chosen to replace when an upgrade failed to get it up to a reasonable working speed. I went on to examine other specific cases—a damaged pair of boots, an old coat in need of alteration—and concluded with a set of general rules I'd found for deciding when repair is a better option than replacement, and vice versa. (This whole series is now marked with the label "repair or replace," so you can view all the posts on one page if you like.)

Recently, I decided to sum up my findings from all those posts with my readers in a single article on Money Crashers. It compares the benefits of repairing and replacing in detail and then outlines a series of questions to help you decide which is the better option in any given case. In brief, the questions are:
  1. How hard is it to repair?
  2. How do the costs compare?
  3. How worn out is it?
  4. Is it costing you money?
  5. Will its value increase?
  6. What's the disposal cost?
  7. Do you love it?
This, in short, is the article I wish I'd had handy for reference back when we first started having trouble with Brian's bike five years ago. If you have anything broken lying around your house and you just can't decide whether it's worth repairing, perhaps this article can make your decision about repairing it a little easier than ours was back then.

Should I Repair or Replace a Broken Appliance? – Here’s How to Decide

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Gardeners' Holidays 2016: The Changing of the Garden

As you can see from today's cute Google Doodle, today is the start of winter, and thus time for the final Gardeners' Holiday of the year. This year at our house, The Changing of the Garden is extending beyond the vegetable garden and into the front yard. As you know, we've had very uneven results trying to grow flowers in front of the house. They looked great to start with, but eventually they all flopped over in a strong storm, and they never really recovered. Our first attempt to tame the unruly flowers with of stakes and string proved unsuccessful, and our second attempt this spring was doomed from the start because by that point, the bachelor's buttons had completely taken over, crowding out everything else. I finally got fed up and decided to yank them all out, and once they were gone, we discovered there was nothing left but a few scraggly daisies and poppies. It looked less like a bed of wildflowers and more like an abandoned plot of land in which a few wildflowers had managed to pop up.

So we decided that this fall, we'd just pull everything out and reseed the bed, this time with an all-perennial mix that doesn't have any of those pesky cornflowers in it. However, this plan was complicated by the installation of our new front stoop. We didn't want to put the seeds in before the stoop was completed, for fear the workers would just end up ploughing up the area and disrupting all the seeds. Unfortunately, while the steps themselves went in at the start of December, the railings didn't get installed until this Monday. (First we had to wait for the new railings to be constructed, and then our appointment to have them put in kept being rescheduled on account of freezing temperatures that made it impossible to use the water-cooled drill.)

So it wasn't until Monday afternoon, after the ironworkers were gone, that we finally managed to get seeds in. We ended up having to use our big spade to dig up—or more accurately, chip away—the area immediately next to the steps, which had been soaked with the spray from the drill and completely frozen over, but we eventually managed to scatter the seeds and compress them into the dirt, leaving them uncovered as the package instructed. Now we just have to cross our fingers that they manage to germinate and give us something nicer-looking than we had the first time around. (We'll probably want to install stakes and string with the new bed, too, as the new perennial mix also has some very tall blooms in it.)

Once that was taken care of, we were able to turn our attention to cleaning up the vegetable garden. On Tuesday, Brian tore out most of the withered remains of this year's crops. It turned out to be impossible to pull out the squash vines without ripping out most of trellis netting with them, so he just ended up pulling the entire mess out, leaving that trellis bare. He'll have to put new trellis netting in next year when we plant our spring crops on First Sowing day.

Before he can do that, however, he'll most likely have to replace the entire garden bed frame. His home-grown design for raised beds constructed of 2-by-4's has held up remarkably well until now, but after eight years, the boards are starting to warp and decay to the point that the bed can no longer hold itself together. So next spring we'll have to replace at least one of the beds, and possibly all four. This time around we'll most likely use pressure-treated wood, which should hold up better to the elements. I was unwilling to use it last time because I kept reading warnings about the dangers of the arsenic used in preserving the wood leaching into your soil. But it turns out this particular chemical, called chromated copper arsenate (CCA), is no longer used in pressure-treated wood sold for domestic use, and newer preservatives appear to be much safer. So I figure at this point, I figure the only real downside to using this material is a somewhat higher one-time cost, and it's well worth it if we don't end up having to replace the beds every eight years.

As you can see from the pictures above, we haven't completely stripped the garden bare. The parsley and the winter lettuce are still green and growing, so we've left them in place in the hope that we can continue to harvest them throughout the winter or, failing that, let them overwinter and pop up again in the spring. We've also left in the Brussels sprouts plants because they actually do have tiny but identifiable sprouts on them, and we can't quite bring ourselves to pull them out if there's even a chance those sprouts could survive to become big enough to eat. It's a long shot, but we have nothing to lose at this point. However, given the distinct lack of success we've had with this crop over the past three years, we're definitely not devoting any of our precious garden space to it next year.

Another crop we've decided to leave untouched, sort of as an experiment, is our raspberry canes. When we first bought these plants back in 2013, we decided to follow the cut-every-year method of growing, which gives you one large crop in the fall instead of a steady stream of berries throughout the summer. We chose this method mainly because it's a lot easier than the more traditional method of growing them, which is to selectively prune the bushes each year, cutting off the two-year old "floricanes" while leaving the one-year-old "primocanes" intact. However, this year, it occurred to Brian that, since we've been cutting everything down each year, we know that what we have out in the bed right now is nothing but primocanes—so why not just leave them there to develop into floricanes and let next year's primocanes come in behind them? That way, we'll get a crop off the floricanes in the summer and off the primocanes in the fall—and after that, we can just cut everything down and start over again. So we're giving that a try, and if it turns out to give us a better yield overall, we'll stick with this two-year cycle from now on.

The other bit of garden-related news is that our new Fedco seed catalogue has arrived. So as per our new holiday tradition, we'll bring that with us on our Christmas jaunt to Indianapolis, perhaps even taking it in the car so I can browse through it and propose new crops to Brian as he drives. By the time we return home, we should have it all figured out what new goodies we want to plant in next year's garden. (We'll probably be devoting a bit more of our time to the garden in 2017, as focusing on the one bit of the planet we can control should be a welcome relief from all the upsetting things happening elsewhere in the country and around the globe.)

So that wraps up our Gardeners' Holidays for 2016. We're off to Indianapolis shortly, and I may or may not have time to update the blog while I'm there—so in case I don't post again this year, a happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, or winter solstice holiday of your choice, and I'll see you all in 2017.