Sunday, March 11, 2018

To almond milk or not to almond milk

Recently, our local Stop & Shop gave us a coupon for a free bottle of So Delicious organic almond milk. We chose the vanilla flavor, which Brian has been enjoying on his breakfast cereal, saying it tastes like candy. (Ironically, this particular brand of almond milk actually has less sugar in it than regular milk contains naturally, but the vanilla makes it taste sweeter.)

This got me wondering, as I occasionally have before, whether we should consider switching from regular milk to almond milk. It's been a couple of decades now since I gave up most meats on account of objections to factory farming (outlined in more detail in my "How to Become a Vegetarian" article), and I know that most of those same objections apply to dairy milk as well. The cows don't live a normal cow life; they're kept indoors most of the time and fed on grain, which isn't their natural diet. That, in turn, causes them to produce a lot more methane, making dairy farming one of the most carbon-intensive industries in the country. It also consumes a lot of water, and while milking one cow over its lifetime is a more efficient use of resources than butchering it and eating it all at once, it's still a much less efficient way to convert land to food than growing grain. So if I really wanted to be intellectually consistent, I really ought to give up milk and cheese as well as meat.

However, there are a few details that always give me pause. The first is the cost: at most stores in our area, a half-gallon of soy or almond milk costs around $3, roughly the same as a whole gallon of nonfat dairy milk. I've looked into recipes for homemade almond milk to see whether it's any cheaper, but it appears to be exactly the opposite. This recipe from Kitchn calls for a ratio of one cup of almonds to two cups of water; according to this analysis from Huffington Post, that works out to just under six ounces of almonds to produce about 14 ounces of almond milk. The best price we've ever found for almonds is around $5 a pound, so that works out to $8.57 for half a gallon of almond milk—and it's considerably more work than buying it in a carton.

However, even at $3 for half a gallon, almond milk is still cheaper than organic dairy milk, which typically costs at least $4 for the same volume. So if I were ever to decide that I just couldn't sleep at night while drinking regular milk any more, switching to almond milk, or another plant-based milk, would definitely be the cheaper alternative. What's less clear, though, is this thorny question: Is almond milk really better for the environment?

At first glance, it seems like this should be an easy call. After all, we already know how inefficient and destructive raising animals for meat is; making a milk substitute out of plants should obviously be greener. Yet if you really delve into the question, it's by no means clear that this is the case. I was doing some investigating of the topic this morning, and after spending a good half-hour or more looking through Google results (at least the ones that looked reliable), I emerged more confused than ever. Here's what I found:
  • A 2016 life-cycle analysis of almond milk and dairy milk by UCLA undergraduates finds that almond milk has a much lower carbon footprint than cow's milk: about 0.36 kg of CO2 equivalent per liter, as opposed to 1.67 kg. However, its water use is much higher. It takes 77 gallons of water to produce a liter of dairy milk, but more than 1,611 gallons to produce a liter of almond milk.
  • However, One Green Planet vehemently disputes these figures. It claims that it takes only 30 gallons of water to produce one gallon of dairy milk—but a gallon of almond milk uses only 23 gallons. (Its source for these figures is a 2014 article in Mother Jones, which in turn cites a variety of academic and government sources dated between 2005 and 2012.)
  • The Guardian, a British news source that's normally very thorough in its fact-checking, takes a position that appears to be in between these two extremes—but it's a little hard to interpret. It claims (citing Mother Jones again) that it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow one almond, but 100 liters of water to produce 100 milliliters of cow's milk. Unfortunately, this isn't exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, since it's not clear how many almonds go into a liter of almond milk. The UCLA paper used the recipe from Kitchn in its calculations, with its ratio of 1 cup almonds to 2 cups water—but based on their nutritional information, it appears that most commercial versions don't use anywhere near this volume of almonds. The Guardian claims that Alpro, one of the most popular brands in Britain, contains only 2% almonds by volume. The blogger at Treading My Own Path crunched the numbers using a less almond-intensive recipe and concluded that it requires 384 liters of water to produce a liter of almond milk, while cow's milk uses roughly 2.5 times as much.
  • However, the water required to grow almonds is proportionally more damaging because 80 percent of the world's almonds are grown in California. Tom Philpott of Mother Jones that even in the middle of a drought, the state continues to plant thirsty new almond groves to satisfy the ever-growing demand for the white stuff. These trees not only use up scarce water supplies, they're actually draining aquifers so fast that the ground is sinking at a rate of 11 inches per year in one area. This undermines buildings and increases the risk of earthquakes.
  • Meanwhile, Hilary Lebow of Alternative Daily comes out strongly in favor of "raw grass-fed milk," arguing that it's not only a "nutritional powerhouse" (packed with such buzzwords as "good bacteria," "digestive enzymes," "conjugated linoleic acid" that's "proven to reduce carcinogenesis," and "beneficial saturated fats, proteins and amino acids") but also completely free of all the environmental problems that plague factory-farmed milk. These eco-conscious dairy farms don't just have a smaller carbon footprint than the big factory farms, Lebow argues, they're "often actually improving the state of the land"—though she provides no evidence to back up this claim. 
Since I was getting so much conflicting information about the relative merits of cow's milk and almond milk, I decided to cast a slightly wider net and consider other plant-based milks to see if any of those offers clearer benefits. Perhaps one of the many other alternatives, such as soy, rice, oat, hemp, coconut, or the latest in the field, pea-based milk (often labeled as "plant protein milk," because "pea milk" doesn't sound very appetizing) would be a better bet in terms of both cost and eco-benefits.

Unfortunately, finding a clear comparison between these different plant-based milks proved even more complicated than nailing down the figures on dairy versus almond milk. Umbra of Grist magazine, normally very detailed in her research, ducks the issue, saying "it stands to reason" that a plant-based milk would be better for the planet than cow's milk (though not actually showing this to be the case) but saying it's practically impossible to compare the different types directly. She concludes that all commercial plant milks have their problems and urges readers to try making their own—which, as we've already seen, is quite a bit more costly than buying the stuff.

Well and Good is a little more helpful, listing various factors that affect the sustainability of nut milks and arguing that milk from peas "might" be the best option. They're higher in protein than nuts and much less water-intensive to grow, and because they're a nitrogen-fixing crop, they actually improve soil quality rather than using up tons of carbon-intensive fertilizer. It is a highly processed foodstuff—much more so than almond milk, according to the Washington Post—but at least all the stuff going into it is pretty earth-friendly.

Of course, these the same benefits also apply to soybeans, which were once the most popular source for plant-based milk. The Culture-ist recommends soy milk as the best of the plant-based milks, saying it's "comparable to cow’s milk" in protein and fat content (though lacking in calcium) and uses less than 30 percent as much water to produce. Unfortunately, soy milk has one big drawback, at least in my opinion: it tastes gross. The one time I experimented with soy milk, I quickly switched back to cow's milk because I couldn't stomach the stuff.

So maybe it's time to give pea protein milk a try. Organic Life notes that it offers 8 to 10 grams of protein per cup and has a "mildly nutty and sweet" flavor, as opposed to the "beany" taste I found so off-putting in soy milk. Unfortunately, the stuff ain't cheap: Target lists a 48-ounce carton of Ripple at $3.99, which works out to a whopping $10.64 per gallon—way more than almond milk and even higher than organic cow's milk. But perhaps Stop & Shop will come through with another coupon, and we'll get a chance to see how we like it at a more reasonable price.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Money Crashers: What Is Slow Food

Brian and I don't eat out very often. Once or twice a month we'll stop by Starbucks for a fancy drink and a game of cribbage, but if we ever go out for an entire meal, it's generally either because we're out with friends—which is a bit of a special occasion for us—of because we want something special that we can't make at home. Thus, we hardly ever set food in the kind of restaurants that are usually labeled as "fast food." We might pop into one once or twice a year when we're caught short while out shopping, but that's about it.

Now, if the headlines are to be believed, we're doing ourselves a favor by skipping the burger joints. Although these places have made some improvements recently, their food still isn't all that healthy, and eating out of a paper bag in a plastic booth under glaring light isn't exactly soothing. Then, of course, there's the impact all that factory-farm meat (which is still the main ingredient in most fast-food meals) has on the environment. And finally, there's the cost, which can add up to thousands of dollars for a burger-a-day habit.

The Slow Food movement was founded in the 1980s to counter all these problems. Its goals are to promote food that's "good, clean, and fair"—that is, healthful, tasty, environmentally friendly, and good for workers. In other words, ecofrugal.

My latest Money Crashers article delves into all aspects of the Slow Food movement. I explain how it started, what it stands for, and the benefits of eating this way. I also attempt to dispel some misconceptions about Slow Food (e.g., that it's expensive or snobbish) and explore ways to enjoy Slow Food on a tight budget.

What Is Slow Food – Join the Movement for Healthy Meals on a Budget

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Money Crashers: What “True Cost to Own” Means and Why It Matters

When we first bought what I still think of as our "new" car, about seven years ago, one of the factors I paid most attention to was how much it would cost us to own over the long term. I wanted to know not just how much we'd pay for the car itself, but how much we should expect to spend on gas and maintenance over the time we'd own it. Those "cost to own" calculators on sites like Edmunds were a big help with this, and helped convince me that spending the extra money on a hybrid wasn't worth it for us. (The money we'd spend on the car would never pay for itself in reduced gas costs, and if my goal was to minimize our carbon footprint, I could do it much more cheaply by buying a reasonably efficient gas-powered car plus some carbon offsets.)

Since then, I've done similar calculations for other big purchases, such as our new boiler (for which we chose a moderately efficient model, rather than a hyper-efficient one that was vastly more expensive) and a potential solar array (which we've decided will probably be cost-effective, but should wait until it's time to replace the roof). I've even crunched the numbers for much smaller purchases, like LED light bulbs and even new winter boots.

No one ever seems to talk about "cost to own" for purchases like these, but they really should. Any time you're spending a significant amount of money (whatever "significant" means to you) on a product you expect to keep for a long time, it's worth thinking about how much that product will cost you, not just up front, but over its entire useful life. There may not be cost to own calculators online for appliances or power tools, but it's still worth doing the math on your own.

My new Money Crashers article is an attempt to supply this need. In it, I explain how to decide when cost-to-own calculations are important, and how to perform them for five different kinds of purchases: cars, appliances, computers, tools, and clothing. That's not a complete list of all the products for which the cost to own is worth knowing, but with the techniques laid out in the article, you can figure out how to do the math yourself.

Check it out here: What “True Cost to Own” Means and Why It Matters for Big Purchases

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Money Crashers: What Is a Living Wage?

For the last year or so, there's been a lot of noise at all levels of government about raising the minimum wage. Folks on the left (mostly) clamor for a $15 minimum, insisting that anything less is not a true "living wage"; those on the right (mostly) insist that raising the minimum wage to this level will hurt small businesses and ultimately throw more people out of work.

I don't have the economic skills to say whether the second argument is true, but I figured I could at least address the first. So in my latest Money Crashers article, I delve into the question of what a true living wage is.

This turns out to be a more complicated question than it appears, because it depends on so many factors. Location matters, because the cost of living is much higher in some parts of the country than others; so does family size, because obviously it takes more money to raise a family than to support only yourself. And, of course, there's the thorny question of what is an acceptable minimum standard of living. Obviously, you need a roof over your head and enough food to stay healthy, but what about, say, Internet access? Health care? Retirement savings?

In the article, I talk about the ways various organizations have attempted to answer this question, and the pros and cons of each model. I also discuss how cost of living varies by location and draw some conclusions about the most useful way to address the minimum wage issue.

Check it out here: What Is a Living Wage? – Minimum Income for Basic Needs Above Poverty

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Money Crashers: 10 DIY Projects You Can Make Out of Free Wooden Shipping Pallets

Last year on Earth Day, I wrote about my conflicted feelings about shipping pallets. On the one hand, I know that using so much wood for pallets that will only be shipped once is really wasteful—but on the other hand, I really love the fact that all this waste wood provides a source of free (or nearly free) material for DIY projects. And I'm fascinated by all the different things it's possible to make with this free material. We've never done anything more complicated than a compost bin, but there are websites online devoted solely to pallet projects, and some of them are truly amazing: furniture, walls, floors, even entire buildings.

So I decided to indulge my fancy for pallet projects by devoting an entire article to this subject on Money Crashers. In this piece, I explore the many types of home and garden projects it's possible to create with pallet wood, from outdoor furniture to wine racks to wall art. (Basically, it's pallet porn.) I also discuss strategies for finding free pallets, selecting the best ones, and not least importantly, getting them home (something we ran into trouble with when we discovered full-sized shipping pallets are one of the few things that don't fit in our Fit).

Here's the article: 10 DIY Projects You Can Make Out of Free Wooden Shipping Pallets

Sunday, March 4, 2018

What to Buy Where (A Kind of Comprehensive Guide to the Best Grocery Prices in NJ)

This morning, I came across an article at Money Talks News entitled, "25 Ways to Spend Less on Food." (It appears to be a requirement now that any article published on the Internet contain at least one number in its title.) I started out just skimming through this, assuming it would just be yet another assortment of tips that I've heard dozens of times before, like "Cook at home" or "Buy generic brands." (Well, duh.) That turned out to be true for the most part, but the author actually caught my attention when she started talking about where she prefers to shop.

In one of her tips, "Consider a warehouse club membership," author Maryalene LaPonsie claims that her Costco membership is "saving me a bundle," particularly as she has a family of seven to feed, complete with two hungry teenage boys. However, she's much less enthusiastic about Aldi, saying "my experiences have only been so-so" at this store. That struck me as curious, since I've always found that of all the stores in our area, Aldi typically has the lowest prices on foods across the spectrum. Costco, by contrast, has provided only a few particularly good deals. So if I were on a tight budget and could only go to one store, Aldi would definitely be my first choice.

In real life, though, we're not under any such constraints. Rather than do all our shopping at Aldi (where the produce, in particular, is very hit-or-miss), we prefer to spread our shopping out across several stores. Instead of going to one store and buying everything we need for the week, like most people, we schedule stops at different stores every month or so and stock up on the things we know are cheapest there. That way, we always get the absolute best price on every item we buy.

So I decided that, rather than recommending one specific store as the best place for bargains, it would be much more useful to go through my price book and note which individual items we buy at different stores. That way, all of you out there in readerland can take advantage of the legwork we've already done.

Here, then, is the list of all the stores where we regularly shop, and what we buy there. (Note that it doesn't include most produce items, as those tend to vary widely in price from week to week, based on what's in season and what's on sale.)


  • Butter: $2.99 per pound
  • Cereal (raisin bran): $1.99 for 20 ounces. (It used to be only $1.79, but it's gone up and is now at the very edge of our arbitrary, 10-cent-per-ounce limit. If it goes up any more, Brian—the cereal eater in our household—plans to switch to oatmeal for breakfast.)
  • Cheese (shredded or block): $2.49 to $3.60 per pound
  • Chocolate chips (for baking): $1.79 for 12 oz.
  • Dish detergent: $1.89 for 24 ounces.
  • "Fiber Now" snack bars (a knock-off of Fiber One): $1.89 for a box of six
  • Flour tortillas: $1.19 for a package of 20
  • Orange juice (the good stuff, not from concentrate): $1.99 for a 59-ounce bottle
  • Parmesan cheese in the can: $2.29 for 8 ounces
  • Peanut butter (organic): $3.39 per pound
  • Peanuts (for snacking): $1.89 per pound
  • String cheese: $2.79 per pound

We'll also buy produce here if it happens to be both a good price and in good condition; it varies from week to week. We also look here for items like cooking oil, salt, pasta, rice, and canned goods if we can't find them elsewhere on sale.


  • Birdseed: $13.59 for a 40-pound bag
  • Milk, nonfat: between $2.20 and $2.30 per gallon
  • Olive oil in the can: $5 per liter
  • Raisins (organic): $2.37 per pound. (Trader Joe's comes close, at $2.99 per pound.)
  • Rolled oats: 5 cents per ounce. (Aldi comes very close, at 5.45 cents per ounce.)
  • Sugar (organic): $.80 per pound, far better than any other store
  • Walnuts: $4 per pound

Raisin bran is also a good deal at Costco when it's available, at $1.53 per pound, but on our last several visits they haven't had any.


  • Eggs, Certified Humane: These vary in price, but we can usually find one brand that's on sale for between $2 and $3 per dozen, which is better than any other store in our area. "Cage free" eggs are sometimes cheaper, but as the Humane Society observes, this label is actually pretty meaningless.
  • Scallions: Prices vary from 20 to 80 cents per bunch—either much better or only marginally better than our local supermarket.
  • Tofu: Usually around $1 for a 20-ounce package.

We also buy other produce at the H-Mart if the prices are good. The store doesn't sell much in the way of organic produce, but its prices on conventional produce are usually better than other local stores'. Recent buys include 2 pounds of red onions for $1.49, limes for 20 cents each, and a 5-head pack of garlic for $1.29. We also shop here for other Asian staples, such as soy sauce, sesame oil, coconut milk, and rice noodles, but we don't buy these very often. This store probably has the best regular prices on fresh fish as well, but we prefer to buy it at Shop Rite on sale.

PA Dutch Farmers Market

  • Bacon ends (free-range): About $5 a pound
  • Kielbasa sausage (free-range): About $6 a pound
  • Rye flour: About $1.20 a pound
  • Turkey franks (free-range): About $4 a pound.
  • Whole-wheat flour: About 85 cents a pound

Unlike most of the stores on our regular round, the Amish market on Route 27 isn't a place we can conveniently visit in the course of our weekly routine. It's only open on Thursdays and Fridays until 6pm and Saturdays until 4pm, so we have to plan a special trip to shop there. We generally schedule a visit there every few months to buy a few pounds of free-range meat and, if we need it, some non-white flour. Prices vary from month to month, but they're lower than any other store's prices for free-range meats, and the flour is cheaper than any other store's regular price.

Shop Rite

  • Milk, nonfat: $2.50 to $3 per gallon. (It's cheaper at Costco, but it's not worth going to Costco if all we need is milk, so if that's all we need we'll stop by the Shop Rite instead.)
  • Milk, powdered: $14.99 for a box that makes 20 quarts. (We mostly use fresh milk ever since we found that it was actually cheaper, but we always keep some of the dry stuff on hand in case we run out and can't make it to the store right away.)
  • Whipped cream: $3 for a 14-ounce can.

These are the only items we regularly buy at Shop Rite, but the store also has good weekly sales, so on most of our trips there we also pick up several items that are on special. Recent buys included 5 pounds of whole-wheat flour for $2.99, a 20-ounce can of diced tomatoes for $1.19, and a pound of asparagus for $1.56.

Trader Joe's

  • Brussels Sprouts: $2.49 per pound
  • Chicken legs (free-range): $1.99 a pound
  • Chocolate chips (vegan): $1.99 for 12 ounces. (We use the slightly cheaper chocolate chips from Aldi for most things and save these for feeding our vegan friends.)
  • Cocoa powder (organic, Fair Trade): $3.99 for 8 ounces. (This is labeled "cacao powder," but it's not labeled "raw cacao," so we're assuming it's the same as cocoa. We haven't actually tried it yet because we're still working our way through our last 5-pound bag of cocoa from from Dean's Beans, which cost $10.65 a pound with shipping. So we're hoping this stuff from TJ's will prove to be a usable, cheaper alternative.)
  • Frozen peas (organic): $1.99 a pound
  • Frozen spinach (organic): $1.99 a pound
  • Gnocchi: $1.69 per pound
  • Greeting cards: 99 cents apiece
  • Popcorn (organic): $2.29 for 28 ounces
  • Raisins (organic): $2.99 a pound (if we don't have a chance to get to Costco)
  • Soap: $1.69 for 2 bars
  • Tawny Port: $5.99 for a 750-mL bottle
  • Toilet paper (recycled, 80% post-consumer material): $4.99 for 12 rolls
  • Toothpaste (cruelty-free and SLS-free): $2.49 for 0.6 ounces 
We also look here for bargains on organic produce, though we don't always find them.

Whole Earth Center
  • Bananas (organic): About 89 cents a pound
  • Chocolate (organic, Fair Trade): Usually we can find one brand that's on sale for about $2.50 for a 3-ounce bar. (Most recently it's been the Endangered Species rhino bar, with cranberries and almonds, which is really good.)
  • Mung beans (for sprouting): $2.12 per pound
  • Mushrooms (organic): $2.49 a pound. (Occasionally these are cheaper at Aldi, but not usually.)
  • Wheat bran (for baking): $1.28 per pound
  • Wheat gluten (for baking): $5.46 per pound
  • Yeast (bulk): $4.59 per pound

As for our local Stop & Shop, there's nothing that we consistently buy there, but we still both stop and shop there frequently—sometimes to pick up something we need in a hurry and are willing to pay a little extra for, other times to stock up on something that's on sale that week. Last Friday, for instance, Brian bought a jar of mayonnaise (which probably would have been cheaper at Aldi, but we happened to need it that night), a pound of penne that was on sale for 88 cents, and a box of matzo ball soup mix on sale for $1.

So there you have it: a comprehensive list of where to find the very best prices on groceries in central New Jersey. Of course, if you don't happen to live in central New Jersey, or if your list of staple items differs from ours, your mileage may vary. But our list should at least give you a good jumping-off point for finding bargains on the kind of grocery items ecofrugal individuals are likely to buy.

One final note: You'll notice that one item conspicuously absent from all the above lists is coffee. I used to buy UTZ-certified coffee (which isn't exactly the same as organic or Fair Trade, but meets strict standards for sustainability and fair pricing) at IKEA, which was quite flavorful and less than $7 a pound. However, IKEA has now let me down by discontinuing its UTZ-Certified line in favor of a new, Fair Trade-certified line called PÅTÅR, which does not include a decaf coffee. Neither Costco nor Trader Joe's carries any coffees that are both organic and decaffeinated, and the best price I've found at any regular supermarket is $12 a pound. I can still buy the beans in bulk from Dean's Beans, but it now costs $12.60 per pound with shipping—not to mention that I have to buy 5 pounds at a time, and at the rate I drink coffee, it will lose its flavor long before I've consumed all of it. So if anyone out there knows a good place to buy organic, Fair Trade, decaf coffee at a more reasonable price, please mention it in the comments. I may not drink coffee as often as I used to, but I'd still like to have a decent brew available when I want it.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Money Crashers: Why a Cheaper Wedding Can Mean a Better, Happier Marriage

This summer, Brian and I will celebrate our 14th wedding anniversary. We were married in 2004 in the picnic grove in a state park, which we reserved for $50. I wore a bodice I bought on eBay, paired with a skirt made by Brian's mother, and a wreath of ivy on my head; Brian wore his good suit. We served a light lunch of sandwiches, fruit, cheese, punch, coffee/tea, and wedding cake, which we ate at picnic tables covered in dollar-store tablecloths and decorated with flowers from the local farmers' market. Planning this green and frugal ceremony, I often think, was what first got me interested in the topic of ecofrugality. (It was later featured in a story by American Public Media about wedding costs.)

All this has given me a lingering interest in the topic of weddings and, specifically, the cost of weddings. It led me to do a post on budget weddings (many of them ones that I learned about while planning my own) and a more recent one on how to find dresses for a beach wedding at a reasonable price.

So, naturally, I was interested when I first read about a study at Emory University that found the cost of a wedding is inversely related to the length of time the couple is likely to stay married. Spending big bucks on an engagement ring is also a predictor of shorter marriages. On the other hand, this doesn't mean a small private ceremony is the best way to start a lasting marriage; couples who didn't invite friends and family to their weddings were also more likely to end up divorced.

All this was so intriguing to me that I decided it was enough material for an entire Money Crashers article. In the piece, I go over the findings of the Emory study, one by one, and translate them into practical advice for couples. It's useful advice for anyone planning to get married in the near future, and interesting stuff to know for everyone else.

Check out the article here: Why a Cheaper Wedding Can Mean a Better, Happier Marriage