Monday, December 20, 2010

Merry Christmas to All

Once again, this is a bit off topic, but I had kind of an annoying experience today. My "Tip Hero" newsletter, which is a weekly compendium of frugal tidbits, included an article called "Christmas Spirit and Frugality." It talks about classic holiday movies and how they show the true spirit of Christmas, which is "A time of joy, celebration, peace and love - all things that you can't buy." It was kinda sappy, I'll admit, but its heart was in the right place. However, it was not well received by readers. The first response it got was:

"One BIG problem: Christmas is about the CHRIST! The word Cgristmas [sic] reflects it! The scriptures proclaim it! It is not about you and me and family and feelings, it is about HIM! God who condescended to robe Himself in flesh and give us what we need most: salvation! Pick another time to feel warm and fuzzy or look at cartoons or other of your "meaningful" stories. This story has been written already and it's not up for grabs so you can have joy, celebration, peace and love without HIM! There is no Christmas without Christ - PERIOD!"

Now, I have no problem with anyone celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday, and I can even sympathize with those who feel that the holiday has moved too far from its religious origins and plead to "keep Christ in Christmas." What I do have a serious problem with is folks who get up on their high horses and declare that everyone else is celebrating Christmas wrong. Hey, you, cut out all that celebrating and bonding with family! Knock it off with the "warm and fuzzy" stuff! It's about Jesus or nothing!

Do these people actually think this is a "Christian" attitude to take? Honestly, do they think their faith requires them to condemn other people's feelings of "joy, celebration, peace and love"? (It reminds me of this 10-year-old story from The Onion: "Religious Cousin Ruins Family's Christmas.")

So, in what I hope is a more appropriate Christmas spirit, I'd like to offer this little playlist of Christmas tunes that show the holiday in all its aspects—sacred and secular, positive and not so positive. (By the way, I tried to publish this as an iMix, but iTunes wasn't being cooperative, so I'm just listing the titles and artists instead.)

Shepherds Arise (Finest Kind)
Twelve Days After Christmas (Caltech Chamber Singers)
Wachet auf (Canadian Brass)
Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow (Jethro Tull)
River (Joni Mitchell)
Gaudete (Steeleye Span)
Chiron Beta Prime (Jonathan Coulton)
Straw Against the Chill (Bob Franke)
A Christmas Carol (Tom Lehrer)
O Holy Night (Studio 60 Soundtrack)
Homeless Wassail (Broadside Electric)
Christmas Trilogy (Finest Kind)
Oh Come Emmanuel (Aliqua)
Fairytale of New York (The Pogues)
Christmas / Sarajevo 12/24 (Trans-Siberian Orchestra)
Home By Another Way (Grant Baynham)
Christmas Letter Song (Lou & Peter Berryman)
This Mountain (Hugh Blumenfeld)

And as Tiny Tim says: God bless us, every one.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Buying the label

The most recent Freakanomics Radio podcast, available on the New York Times website, poses the interesting question: "Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?" It's worth listening to the entire story, but in a nutshell, the answer seems to be: yes, but only if you know they're expensive. When people know the price, they overwhelmingly prefer more expensive wines. But in blind taste tests, cheap wines actually do slightly better than pricey vintages. And that holds true across all groups of people, from wine-club newbies to highly trained sommeliers.

Now, I'm not a wine drinker, so I can't comment on this story from personal experience. But I have seen similar studies that highlight the same phenomenon for other products. For example, as I observed back in September, tap water is just as good, objectively speaking, as bottled water—it's just as clean, if not cleaner, and it does as well or better in blind taste tests. Yet bottled water drinkers consistently claim that bottled water in general, and their brand in particular, tastes better than tap water. In an episode of "Penn and Teller: Bullshit!" (which you can see here on YouTube) patrons in a fancy L.A. restaurant discourse at length about the differences in taste among bottled waters, even though each made-up brand is really the same L.A. tap water in a different bottle. (Amusingly, one of the varieties is called "L'Eau Du Robinet"—French for "tap water." You'd think at least a few of those highbrow diners would have been tipped off by that.) Also, Vance Packard reported sixty years ago in The Hidden Persuaders that most cigarette smokers are loyal to a specific brand, yet the majority of them can't correctly identify their own brand in a blind taste test.

And when you think about it, this same kind of misplaced brand loyalty really applies to all kinds of products, not just the ones you can taste. The Mercedes first became a status car because old-money types chose it for its reliability (eschewing the flashier models that were status cars at the time). But the Mercedes models of today no longer have a particularly good reliability record, yet people continue to buy them just for the name. And I've already mentioned how little premium in you get in terms of style or quality by buying designer clothes.

So what's the moral of this story? Well, there are probably all sorts of conclusions you could draw from it about social class, how expectations influence experience, the nature of brand loyalty, and the dangers of putting too much faith in of so-called experts. But for me, the most useful lesson for us ecofrugal folks is: the best snobbery is inverted snobbery. It's a lot cheaper than the other kind, and just as much fun. So if you're a wine fancier, I urge you to go pick up one of the best cheap wines and serve it at your next party. Depending on your inclinations, you could put it in a decanter and wait to surprise your guests with the name, or openly flaunt the cheap bottle (or box) and chat about how remarkable it is what a great wine 12 bucks will buy. "I just don't understand why some people pay hundreds of dollars for a bottle of wine," you can muse as make the rounds with the bottle, dressed in your best thrift-shop togs. "I mean, it's really just the label they're buying, isn't it? People who really appreciate wine only care about the taste."

Monday, December 6, 2010

What a crock!

I thought of something else that should go on the list of Stuff Ecofrugal People Like: slow cookers. We used ours a few nights back to prepare a mushroom-barley soup that we've made many times before, a delicious and hearty soup with only one real drawback: it takes about an hour and a half to cook. As a result, it's always been a weekends-only recipe. But last Friday we decided to just throw all the ingredients in the Crock-Pot and see how it came out, and behold, it was good. Brian actually thought the long slow cooking made it better, because the flavors had more time to blend.

Okay, that's all very nice, but what's so ecofrugal about it? Simple: by making it easier for us to cook at home on nights when we're busy, our slow cooker helps us avoid falling prey to the temptation of restaurant meals or convenience foods. And that's only one way that a slow cooker can contribute to the ecofrugal lifestyle. It can also:
  • make it easier to use dry beans instead of the pricier, more packaging-intensive canned beans. The biggest barrier to cooking with dry beans is the prep time involved: they have to be soaked overnight, then drained, rinsed and cooked for at least two hours before you can use them in your recipe. A slow cooker doesn't eliminate the need for advance preparation, but it does eliminate most of the active work involved. You can just throw the beans in the crock the night before, cover them with water, drain and add fresh water in the morning, and set the pot on low. By the time you get home in the evening, the beans will be ready to use in whatever you're cooking. And if you cook up extra beans, which takes no extra work, you can freeze the rest and have beans in your freezer, ready to use (after just a few minutes in the microwave) on those occasions when you can't soak and cook them ahead of time.
  • help you make your own veggie stock. This is a trick we learned from The Clueless Vegetarian (my favorite vegetarian cookbook and one I highly recommend for newcomers to vegetarian cooking). Basically, you keep a bag in your freezer in which you store all the vegetable scraps that you would normally discard: potato and carrot peelings, cut-off ends of onions, the innards of green peppers, mushroom stems (very flavorful), celery leaves, etc. When the bag gets full, you just dump it all into a pot of boiling water and cook it down. Normally, this would keep you tied to the house for two hours while the pot boils away on the stove, but with a slow cooker, you can just throw the veggies and water in first thing in the morning, set it on low, and strain it in the evening. (Or, if you prefer, you can throw everything in before bedtime, let it cook overnight, and strain it in the morning.) This is an ecofrugal three-fer: you get something for free that you'd ordinarily have to pay for, you avoid the packaging waste involved with canned stock, and you get additional use out of scraps that would normally be discarded. And the boiled-down mush that's left after you've strained off the stock can still go into the compost bin—you've just given it a head start on decomposition.
  • make a small amount of meat go farther. We're not exclusively vegetarians, but we eat only meats that are humanely farmed, and those tend to be expensive. Roasting a whole chicken would run into money, but a single package of chicken legs makes several meals when cooked up with chick peas, onions, almonds and cinnamon in a Moroccan chicken stew. (Note: no tomatoes. Most recipes seem to call for tomatoes, but mine doesn't, and I like it without.) Stretching the meat out with other ingredients makes the meal much cheaper, and (since meat is more resource-intensive than veggies) greener as well. And, another bonus for meat-eaters: slow cooking is an ideal way to tenderize tougher, and thus cheaper, cuts of meat.
And those are just the ways I've tried personally. I've heard of other, less conventional uses as well, like setting up a batch of steel-cut oats overnight so you can have a hot breakfast in the morning. Cold cereal is one of the priciest items in our grocery cart, so eating oatmeal more often would certainly be a money-saver—and because it's less processed, it's greener too, not to mention chock-full of healthful whole grains. And the slow cooker could replace other convenience-type foods, too, like dessert. I've even heard of people baking cakes in it, though I've never quite understood how that works. Clearly, this ecofrugal tool has benefits far beyond my current knowledge—a rich field for further exploration.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Veggie Thanksgiving

This question came up at dinner tonight, and I thought I'd put it to all of you: if you wanted, for some reason, to serve a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner, how would you do it?

This isn't the same thing, mind you, as serving a Thanksgiving dinner at which some vegetarians will be present. Nowadays, my folks get a free-range bird for Thanksgiving from Griggstown Quail Farm (they ain't cheap, but it's only once a year) so that I can partake, but before they started doing that, I used to manage quite nicely on the potatoes and veggies and dressing and cranberries and salad and, of course, pie. I never ran any risk of going hungry. But supposing that you had to accommodate a crowd composed mostly of vegetarians, or that you yourself didn't want to serve any meat, how would you go about it?

Would you try to create a new, vegetarian centerpiece for the meal to take the place of the turkey? (This is the approach a lot of vegetarian magazines seem to take, which gives them an opportunity to shoot gorgeous cover photos of some show-stopping dish.) Or would you have just the traditional side dishes that usually surround the turkey, as described above, but without the bird? Or would you throw out the whole idea of the traditional Thanksgiving meal and do something else entirely?

I think my favorite approach is a sort of middle ground. I wouldn't scrap the traditional Thanksgiving menu entirely, but I wouldn't be limited by it. So rather than trying to construct a meal with one big main dish and a bunch of sides, I'd serve several hearty, seasonable dishes that would complement each other: butternut squash soufflé, succotash, "half baked" potatoes (i.e., cut in half and then baked, so they get nice and crispy), and of course, cranberry sauce. Probably some sort of green veggie, too, like that wonderful sesame spinach someone brought to the last Folk Project Evening of Music (note to whoever it was: if you're reading this, please send me the recipe). I might do some sort of dressing (you can't call it "stuffing" if it's not served in the bird) in place of the potatoes, since that's normally my favorite part of the meal and I think I'd miss it if it weren't there. On the other hand, it's really not the same without any gravy. Perhaps I'd just make a mushroom gravy to serve with it.

What do y'all think?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Gates of Heaven

Well, it's official: I don't hate Bill Gates anymore.

I was already on the fence about him, because on the one hand, he turned Windows—which I loathe in all its forms—into the dominant operating system in the world, so that now even those of us who hate it have to use it in order to be compatible with everyone else. But on the other hand, he has taken the billions he made from this venture and invested them in things like worldwide vaccination and better agricultural techniques, helping to ward off famine and pestilence around the globe.

Then today, I read in my "Climate Minute" newsletter that Gates is devoting millions of dollars to the goal of developing carbon-free energy sources—the silver bullet as far as alleviating global warming is concerned. Here's a quote:

Today, we're very dependent on cheap energy. We just take it for granted—all the things you have in the house, the way industry works. I'm interested in making sure the poorest countries don't get left behind, so figuring out how they can get cheap energy is very, very important. Whether it's fertilizing crops or building housing, a lot of it comes down to energy.
Investigating further, I discovered that back in February, Bill Gates gave a talk about clean energy at the TED conference. One of the big technologies he highlighted in the talk was a new type of nuclear reactor that can run entirely on depleted uranium—something we already have enough of in this country to meet our energy needs for the next 100 years. The company in question is named TerraPower, and the new reactor it's developing is called a traveling wave reactor, or TWR. And Bill Gates is one of its biggest investors. So I'd definitely bet on it to be a financial success, because if that man can out-compete every rival with an inferior product, then just think what he'll be able to do with a truly superior technology. (I'd have bought some of their stock myself, but it's a privately held company.)

The point is, we're talking about a machine that can take spent nuclear fuel, something we desperately need to get rid of safely, and turn it into cheap, clean energy, something we desperately need more of. This is ecofrugality on a grander scale than anything I've ever conceived of before, and Bill Gates is the guy who's going to make it happen. How can I possibly go on hating him?

I still hate Windows, though.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Stuff Green People Like

Yesterday, my uncle Jay forwarded me this link to the blog "Stuff White People Like." It's a reference to the late, lamented TV show "My So-Called Life," which played out its first and only season during my senior year of college. I was indeed a huge fan of the show, but I was actually kind of ticked off by the implication that this is a characteristic I share with all "white people." After all, if all white people liked the show that much, then how come it got canceled after one season? Back at the time, liking that show was something that actually set us fans apart from mainstream America. So how does this guy Christian Lander reckon that being a fan of it now is simply a part of mainstream, white-American culture?

Perusing the blog in more detail, I found that what annoyed me about this one entry was really typical of the blog as a whole. It's obvious from the title of the blog that it's going to be nothing but blatant stereotypes, but that would be pardonable if the stereotypes were incisive and funny. The problem is, Lander is actually promulgating a stereotype of a very specific subculture of white America (and Canada)—the upper-middle-class, northeastern liberal elite so despised by the Tea Party—as belonging to "white people" in general. It's not just an invidious stereotype; it's an invidious, inaccurate stereotype. Sarah Palin probably hates everything on Lander's full list of Stuff White People Like, from organic food to Bob Marley.

Aside from the fact that this just promotes the idea that racial profiling is okay, as long as it's aimed at a privileged group (they're stereotypes of white people! Get it?), I couldn't help being annoyed at the wooliness of the stereotype itself. I pretty clearly belong to the group Lander is trying to satirize, and many of the things on his list (farmer's markets, David Sedaris, recycling) are things I like a lot. Yet there were also quite a few things on the list (having two last names, modern furniture, being offended) that I positively dislike, or at a minimum, have no interest in. And as I ticked my way down the list, I kept finding items that are antithetical to my ecofrugal lifestyle: you'll never catch me going to a place that charges $9 for a sandwich, especially when most of the items on the menu aren't vegetarian, nor am I about to pay $10 for a Moleskine notebook that isn't even made with recycled paper.

So I've decided to start my own list. It's called "Stuff Ecofrugal People Like," and it's for people who are really part of my tribe—regardless of skin color.

1. Public libraries. More books than one person could ever read, plus music recordings, movies, Internet access, and even community gatherings like film screenings, poetry readings, and classes for kids. All for free! (Well, not exactly free, since it's paid for by your tax dollars. But if you have to pay them anyway, you might as well get your money's worth, right?)

2. Creative reuse. Take an object that's no longer useful for its original purpose, and turn it into something else—the more unexpected, the better. Plant flowers in an old boot. Turn an obsolete Macintosh computer into a fish tank. Make coasters out of unwanted CD-ROMs. Make your own notebooks out of scrap paper (much more frugal than Moleskine). This is an ecofrugal three-fer: it keeps waste out of landfills, saves the money and resources that would otherwise be used on new stuff, and gives you the creative kick of seeing an old object in a new way.

3. Freecycle. Also a three-fer, this allows you to prevent waste, get rid of stuff you don't want, and get useful stuff for free. It's even better than thrift shops and yard sales, which ecofrugal people also love.

4. The Habitat ReStore, where you can get all manner of useful stuff for your home (from a single nail to a complete set of kitchen cabinets), save resources, and support a good cause all at the same time.

5. Wasted Spaces, a home-improvement show hosted by a sexy Australian who actually makes an existing space work better instead of tearing everything out and replacing it. A typical budget for this show is around $500 rather than $5,000 or $15,000 or $25,000, and it's great fun to see all the creative ways Karl finds to make use of space that the homeowner probably never realized was there. (Did I mention he's a sexy Australian?)

6. Trader Joe's, which sells green goodies like organic raisins, Fair-Trade coffee, and free-range chicken for lower prices than anyplace else, along with a tempting array of tasty prepared treats like maple sandwich cookies, crumpets, and fizzy limeade. (To keep the frugal in ecofrugal, we limit ourselves to one non-list purchase per visit.)

7. Biking to work. Hybrid cars are nice, but they ain't cheap. A bike, by contrast, costs little to buy and maintain, uses no gas at all, and gives you some exercise into the bargain. Plus it enables you to skirt right around traffic jams and feel smug.

That's all I have so far. If there's anything else you think really needs to be on the list, post a comment and let me know.

Oops

Meant to post this here on November 2, but I accidentally put it up on the old blog instead:

Waah, no election day freebies!

Remember back in 2008, when you could get free coffee, ice cream, and other goodies just for voting? I missed out on the free ice cream that year, so this year I was determined to find out just what kinds of free stuff were available. So, before running out to vote, I did a quick Google search on "election day freebies." Sorting through the results was a bit tricky, because most of them were actually from 2008. At last I found a link specifically about the 2010 election—but instead of listing free goodies, it talked about the lack of any. Yes, it appears that all those companies that were so eager to help get out the vote back in 2008 have now decided that there's nothing wrong with voter apathy after all.

OK, I realize that participating in the democratic process is supposed to be its own reward, but it's still a disappointment. It's like going to give blood and finding they're all out of cookies.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sweet success

So, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, we recently found a bottle of maple flavoring at the Amish market down the road, after having searched in vain for it at all the other stores in our area (and out of our area) for more than a year. (Actually, the stuff I really wanted was "pure maple extract," which seems to be impossible to get anywhere; the stuff we found contains "natural and artificial flavor," but it smells and tastes reasonably maple-y, and I'm not inclined to be picky at this point.) The reason I particularly wanted it was so that I could try whipping up a batch of homemade pancake syrup, using the recipe from The Complete Tightwad Gazette. We are kind of syrup snobs, and we've always eschewed the store-brand pancake syrup in favor of pure maple syrup—generally stocking up on it at BJ's whenever we get a free day pass, as that's where it's cheapest. But even there, it now costs more than $14 a quart, so we figured it was worth investing four bucks in a bottle of maple extract to give the homemade stuff a try.

So, last weekend I made a small test batch, and I can report that while it's not absolutely indistinguishable from Grade-A maple syrup, it's so close that we probably wouldn't notice the difference if we didn't know it was fake. It's a bit thinner, and it doesn't have quite as rich a maple flavor to it, but the difference is so subtle that I could only detect it when I tasted them side by side. It's definitely closer to real maple syrup than the store-bought stuff.

The recipe I used was submitted by a Tightwad Gazette reader, who presumably won't mind if I reprint it. It's very easy: In a pot, combine 3 cups granulated sugar, 1 1/2 cups water, 3 Tbsp. molasses, 1 tsp. each vanilla and maple extract, and 2 tsp. butter flavoring (we left this out; if I want my pancakes to taste like butter, I'll put butter on them). Bring it to a "good rolling boil," stirring until sugar dissolves; turn off heat and leave pot on burner until bubbling stops.

Here's my cost breakdown for the ingredients:

Organic sugar, 3 cups: $2.10
Water: essentially free
Organic blackstrap molasses, from bulk bin, 3 Tbsp.: 6 cents
Homemade vanilla extract (made from organic vanilla beans and cheap vodka), 1 tsp.: 10 cents
Maple flavoring, 1 tsp.: 33 cents

Total: $2.59 for about 30 fluid ounces, which works out to about $2.77 a quart—less than one-fifth the cost of real maple syrup, even made with organic ingredients. Maybe not quite as cheap as the store-brand stuff, but soooo much better. :-9

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Seasonal decorations

'Tis the season for Halloween displays. Yesterday, on our way to a party at my friend Tim's house, we saw that his next-door neighbor had set up an elaborate graveyard scene in his yard, complete with an actual carriage driven by what appeared to be some sort of ghoul. We applauded this scene as being much more tastefully ghoulish than most of the ones in our neighborhood, which tend to feature strings of orange lights and/or large, illuminated, inflatable pumpkins and ghosts.

Me, I tend to go for simplicity. The first Friday in October, I head down to the farmers' market and pick up three miniature pumpkins, the kind they call "Jack-Be-Littles," for $2. I set out one pumpkin on each step of our front stoop, and there they stay, remaining seasonally appropriate until Thanksgiving. At that point, they go into the compost bin (I believe they're technically edible, but I don't care to eat them after the squirrels have nibbled at them) and we deck out the porch railings with white lights, red ribbons and a dollar's worth of trimmings from the local Christmas tree vendor. Simple, but seasonal and festive.

The thing is, I always find myself at a bit of a loss after the Yuletide decorations come down in January. I don't want to be one of those people who leaves them up until spring (actually, I find that really annoying, as if the folks are refusing to admit that Christmas is over). But at the same time, in those bleak months of January and February, when nothing is growing outside, the house does get to looking a bit bare. It seems like during those cold, dreary months in particular, it would be nice to have something to dress the place up and make it look more cheerful. But I want it to be something that's actually fitting to the season. It doesn't seem right to leave the holiday greenery up past its season, and it certainly doesn't seem right to dress the place up in spring pastels while the ground is frozen solid. Nor do I want to make a big deal out of Valentine's Day and drape everything with red and pink. That just seems like lending unnecessary dignity to a Hallmark holiday that basically exists purely for commercial purposes.

So what could I display that's both cheerful and seasonally appropriate? If only I had a holly tree in my yard, it would keep its red berries all winter and shed them in the spring all on its own. But for those who aren't blessed with one, and don't have the space to plant one, is there anything else to display that brightens up the landscape in a way suitable to the season, without either clinging to the ghost of Christmas past or trying to rush ahead to spring?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

XKCD

OK, this is a bit off-topic for the blog, but I really wanted to send Randall Munroe a comment on today's XKCD comic, and I couldn't find a way to do that.

So I'm going to have to do the next best thing, and post it here for the world to see (or that minuscule fraction of the world that reads this blog):

How do you know they're not? It's not like they would be keen to make that fact public so all their competitors could start doing the same...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

To market, to market

My in-laws are visiting this weekend, so yesterday we planned a little excursion to a place that we thought they'd like: the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers' Market in Kingston. We've only been there once ourselves, as it's only open on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and it's not really close to anyplace else we'd normally go on a Saturday. It is on our normal route to Princeton that we take every Thursday—but it's always closed by the time we go past. We did stop by there one time when we were on our way to someplace else, just to see what they had (the answer is "pretty much everything"), but we couldn't take full advantage of it because we hadn't brought a cooler to keep our purchases chilled during our day out. This time, we came prepared.

First we stopped by King's Salads and Jellies, where we tried some samples of different pickles and jellies that they had available for tasting. I didn't buy anything from them, but Brian's folks picked up a half-pint of pickled red peppers and one of cherry jam. Then we visited the woodworker's stall, where we oohed and aahed over the beautiful handmade furniture and gasped in awe at the prices. Brian's dad eventually hustled us out of there, saying "We have to leave before I start to get ideas" (not about buying anything, but about trying to duplicate the pieces with his own woodworking equipment at home). We also looked at the handmade quilts and pillows, and Brian's mom was highly amused by an embroidered one that read, "I smile...because you are my daughter. I laugh...because there is nothing you can do about it."

At the poultry stall, we bought two pounds of "country turkey sausage" for $3.89 a pound—less than the $6 a pound we used to pay for free-range chicken sausage at Trader Joe's, back when they carried it, and far less than the $8 a pound they currently charge at Whole Foods, the only other place we've ever found it. Then we popped into the baker's booth, where we found two things that absolutely delighted us. The first was a two-ounce bottle of maple extract, which is a key ingredient in a recipe I have for homemade pancake syrup. We've looked absolutely everywhere for this stuff and never found it. The Whole Earth Center only had "maple flavoring," which had nothing in the ingredients list to suggest that any part of it had ever come from a tree, and noplace else--from Whole Foods to Penzey's Spices in Indianapolis, which is supposed to have absolutely everything--had anything remotely close. A friend of ours even looked for it on a recent trip to Vermont and came up empty. We could have bought it online, but we'd have had to pay $6 to $10 in shipping for a $4 bottle. And there it was all along at the Amish market, not half an hour away from us. The other discovery was a container of "pink pig sprinkles," which are exactly what they sound like: sugar sprinkles, the kind you scatter over cupcakes, in the shape of little pink pigs. We didn't buy any, but we were tickled to know that such a thing exists.

We browsed around the other stalls, trying more samples, and at one point my mother-in-law emerged in great triumph from a bakery declaring, "I found pecan rolls!" This is apparently a delicacy that she hasn't seen anywhere since their local bakery stopped carrying them. (We had some for breakfast this morning, and they're quite tasty.) Then we had a bite to eat at the pretzel stall and headed outside, where we spent an additional fifteen minutes sticking our heads into all the sheds that the woodworker had for sale out in the parking lot. Some of these looked so much like little houses that we were musing about what it would take to actually live in one (a bit of insulation, a pellet stove, a composting toilet...). There were also a couple of garages, a horse barn and a truly magnificent hen house.

All in all, I would heartily recommend this type of market—for anyone who lives within striking distance of one—as a highly entertaining place to visit, and possibly a good place to dig up some tasty and hard-to-find treats at a good price.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Ecofrugal dilemma

So, it turns out we need a new boiler. This is hardly a surprise; the one we have now is, as best we can tell, the original heating system in our 40-year-old house, so it's actually a bit remarkable that it's still running at all. But when I had the guy in last week to do a tune-up, he advised me that our boiler lacks not only some basic energy-saving features (like electronic ignition and vent dampers) but also a couple of basic safety features (a low-water cutoff and a backflow preventer) that would cost about $1500 to add. Not really worth it for a 40-year-old boiler, so it was time to start shopping for a new one.

So far we've only received one quote, and it seems a bit on the high side, so I doubt we'll be going with that company. However, they did tell me one thing that has me a bit perplexed. The "comfort specialist" who came to our house said that while we could get a new boiler that was 90 percent efficient, it would cost about $3000 more (including installation) than an 84 percent efficient model. True, we could get half of that back through the federal tax credit for energy efficient home improvements, but that would still amount to an extra $1500—and given how modest our home's energy use is now, it's essentially impossible that we'd ever make up that extra cost in energy savings over the 15-to-20 year life of the new boiler.

Now, this estimate may just be completely off. It's possible another company will come back with a quote that shows only a $1000 difference between the more and less efficient models. But assuming that there really is a $3000 difference, what's the right choice here? Is it worth paying an extra $1500, knowing we'll never recover more than a fraction of it, just to know we're really doing all we can to reduce our carbon footprint? Or would we be better off going with the reasonably efficient, but not super-efficient, equipment and offsetting the extra emissions? Right now, we pay less than $100 a year to Carbonfund.org to offset all our carbon emissions for the house and the car combined, so it seems like the difference between an 84 percent efficient boiler and a 90 percent efficient one couldn't account for more than an extra dollar per year. That's a heck of a lot less than $1500, so unless we expect to own this boiler for more than 100 years, offsetting is clearly the better choice financially. But is it the better choice morally, or is it just a greenwashing cop-out?

Or is it really too little a detail to worry about, and am I just a bit too obsessed about maintaining my green cred?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

More progress

News on the bathroom front: this week we got two more projects completed, one small and one large. First, we bought and installed a new light fixture to go over the vanity (the vanity itself isn't in place yet, but you can see where it will go). We spent about $50 altogether: $25 for the fixture itself (on sale at Lowe's); $16 for the shades, which were sold separately; and $8 for a couple of 40-watt-equivalent CFL bulbs that are fully enclosed. (We tried putting in a couple of standard-size 60-watt-equivalent CFLs, and they stuck out from under the bottom of the shades and looked weird. So we figured the extra eight bucks was a reasonable investment. Of course, we could have just put in incandescent bulbs, but that would be against my ecofrugal principles. Even at 4 bucks apiece, the CFLs will save us money in the long run, and they'll use a lot less electricity from the get-go.)

The big project, as you can see in the picture, was tiling the bathroom floor, which took up a good chunk of this weekend. In addition to the tile we'd already bought from the Habitat ReStore, we had to pick up thinset mortar, grout, spacers and the appropriate tools: a notched trowel, a "float" for the grout, a sponge, and a a tile cutter (the $3 one we bought from a yard sale this summer was unfortunately too small to handle these 14-inch tiles). We did make one ecofrugal choice: we got our thinset and grout in powder form, to be mixed with water, rather than the ready-mixed stuff that was about twice as expensive. Brian spent several hours yesterday cutting and laying tile, while I read aloud to him and occasionally fetched things, and the grout went in this afternoon. And I'm pretty pleased with the end result: it has that sort of rustic look that I was going for.

Tomorrow or Tuesday, we should be able to reinstall the toilet, and then we will once again have a functioning—if not fully finished—second bathroom. Still a lot of work to do, including building the new vanity (though we'll most likely put the old sink and vanity back in place temporarily when my in-laws come to visit in a couple of weeks), covers for the radiators, and shelving. But the groundwork is laid. Onward and upward!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Stuff Most People Pay Too Much For

First of all, apologies for the two-week delay since my last entry. My new job writing reports for ConsumerSearch has been keeping me so busy that I haven't had time to blog except on weekends—and between Yom Kippur services with my mom on Saturday and a fall-equinox celebration with friends on Sunday, last weekend was crammed full.

By the by, let me take a moment here to insert a plug for ConsumerSearch, an incredibly handy site that I would recommend even if I weren't working for them. Here's an example of how it works. Suppose you're shopping for, say, a TV set. Normally, you might start by consulting Consumer Reports to see which models they recommend. Then you might check a few other publications that have reviews of electronic items, such as Wired, to see if they agree with those recommendations. If you really wanted to be thorough, maybe you'd go to a site like Amazon.com or Epinions.com to see what users have to say about the model you're interested in: do they like it, or have they discovered problems with it that didn't show up in the professionals' tests? And finally, once you'd settled on a TV, you'd visit several sites to compare prices before deciding where to buy it.

Well, ConsumerSearch does all that work for you. We consult the best publications and the user review sites, and then we report on what we find there and make recommendations in several categories; for a TV, these might be different types—LCD, plasma, etc.—or different sizes, or different price ranges. You can click on a link to read more about the particular product that interests you and see price comparisons from around the Web. Having worked on these reports, I can attest that they're very thorough; it takes me about 30 hours of work to research and write one, but it only takes about fifteen minutes to read it and have everything set out neatly for you. And if you have even less time than that to spare, you can read just the front page, where we identify the top products, with a paragraph about each one laying out its pros and cons.

I think this is a really great tool for the ecofrugal, because it helps you spend your money wisely (and protect the environment at the same time by choosing products that will last, rather than needing replacement after a year or so). ConsumerSearch reports don't generally focus specifically on the "green" features of a product, but we do, where appropriate, include "green" products as one of our Best-Reviewed categories (for example, with laundry detergents).

So there's my pitch. We now return you to our regularly scheduled blog entry, the topic of which is: Stuff Most People Pay Too Much For. This idea was inspired the article "6 Outrageously Overpriced Products," which has become the subject of a lively discussion in the Dollar Stretcher forums. The six items in the article are movie theater popcorn, greeting cards, textbooks, bottled water, printer ink, and designer clothing. This struck me as a good list of items to discuss in ecofrugal terms, because one thing that struck me about them was just how many of these overpriced items are also wasteful from an ecological point of view.

Bottled water, for instance, has been the subject of a whole campaign by the Center for a New American Dream, an organization with an ecofrugal focus, which points out how much energy and material is wasted in making, filling, shipping, and disposing of all those plastic bottles and urges people to replace them with reusable bottles they can fill from the tap. When I first applied to work for ConsumerSearch, they asked me to audition, as it were, by writing a sample report on bottled water using sources they provided. This process reinforced what I'd already learned about just how wasteful bottled water really is. The sources revealed that (1) municipal drinking water is actually held to higher safety standards than bottled water, (2) tap water costs about half a cent per gallon, while bottled water can cost anywhere from 79 cents a gallon for a supermarket brand to a whopping $159 a gallon for the fancy French stuff, and (3) in blind taste tests, tap water generally fares as well as or better than bottled water.

Likewise, new printer cartridges are not only expensive but also wasteful. Throwing out a whole cartridge and buying a new one just because it's out of ink is even more of a waste than discarding a bottle because you've finished the water. Refilling the ink cartridges is a much better use of resources—including cash. We bought a big bottle of black ink and a color refill kit for our inkjet printer several years back, and it cost us about as much as a single new cartridge; since then, we have refilled the cartridges many times and had no problems. We did eventually have to replace one of them because the print head got too worn down to work, but that's a much better deal than replacing it every single time it runs out of ink. (Back when we bought the printer, the sales guy tried to dissuade us from refilling the colored ink cartridges, claiming that this would "destroy the print heads." Um, okay, so if it does, we'll have to do what? Buy a new cartridge, right? Which is exactly what we'll have to do if we don't refill it, right? So what do we have to lose by trying it?)

Greeting cards and textbooks? They're not exactly wasteful, but there may be better alternatives. A hand-written note is more thoughtful, and probably more welcome, than what Miss Manners calls the "canned sentiments" of a store-bought greeting card, and if you want it to go on a pretty card, you can get nice blank ones that are suitable for all occasions for a very reasonable cost. (I actually get mine for nothing; I have two partially-used boxes of them that I've received as gifts from family members, and a bunch more that I've been sent as "gifts" from organizations looking for donations.) And I've heard of colleges making their course textbooks available in electronic format, for download to either an e-reader or a personal computer. (One of my own publishing clients reportedly says, "The book is dead" and prophesies that in future all their material will be published in electronic formats. This may be a bit of an overstatement—as I observed back in June, there are still plenty of good reasons to prefer a book rather than an e-reader for curling up with—but for textbooks, I think the advantages of easy-to-update electronic media may well outweigh those of print.)

Designer clothing isn't as green as thrift-shop clothes, but it's not necessarily less green than new clothing from a low-end retailer. But boy, the cost differences sure are shocking. This was brought home to me recently when I got a free trial issue of Real Simple magazine in the mail, and the page on "Trends Worth Trying" featured a big handbag that the editors promised was "destined to be a classic." It's a nice enough bag, if you like that sort of thing—multicolored cotton canvas with leather trim (you can see a picture here)—and it measures a capacious 15 by 23 inches, but the price tag was a jaw-dropping $998. Nearly a thousand dollars. For a handbag. The ironic part was that right before that page, there was a two-page advertising spread devoted to the Merona line of clothes, sold at Target. The model is wearing a classic-yet-modern plaid trench coat with jeans and riding boots, and she's carrying a large black tote priced at $25. I actually like this bag better than the Ralph Lauren one, not just because it's basic black and will go with everything, but also because it's made of faux-leather, with no real leather parts. No animals were harmed in the making of this bag. It's not as big as the Ralph Lauren "weekender," but for one-fortieth the price, I think I'd happily make that compromise.

Movie theater popcorn, by the same token, isn't necessarily more wasteful than home-popped corn; it's just way, way more expensive. But it's an expense we haven't had to deal with in years, because we've pretty much stopped going to movies. It's not just that we balk at paying $10 for a ticket to a movie we know we'll most likely be able to check out of a Redbox in another few months for $1 (or out of the library for nothing); we actually prefer watching them at home. We can sit on our own comfy couch instead of the theater's seats, which may or many not work properly; we don't have pick our way through other people's spilled popcorn and sticky gum; we don't have to sit through a half-hour of annoying advertisements and trailers for movies we would never want to see before getting to the one we came to see; we don't have to listen to children screaming or adults yakking on their cell phones before (and sometimes during) the movie; we can hit the pause button when we have to pee, instead of either pushing past a row of people twice (coming and going) and missing part of the film, or else sitting through half the movie with a full bladder; and we can make our own popcorn for pennies a bowl. (Of course, I won't deny that all the discomforts I just mentioned are only exacerbated by the fact that you have to pay through the nose for the privilege of being subjected to them. But even if the cost were the same, I think we'd still prefer a home movie night to a trip to the theater.)

When I started writing this entry, I was planning to discuss another article as well, sent to me by my mom: "Ten things that aren't free - but should be (and how to get them for free anyway)." But looking at the ten items covered in this article (checking accounts, corkage fees, directory assistance, driving cross country, TV, movie rentals, college tuition, books, toothbrushes, and online games), I find that they don't strike me as wasteful in the same way as the items on the first list. They are, for the most part, items worth having; they're just not necessarily worth paying for. Also, this article seems to be pretty long already. So perhaps I'll save a discussion of those items for another day. Watch this space for "Stuff Most People Pay Too Much For, Part 2."

Sunday, September 12, 2010

News from the bathroom front

The good news is that we have just finished painting the downstairs bathroom, and it looks fabulous. The sponging-off technique came out just as I envisioned it: a subtle, opulent, warm, sort of Tuscan-stucco effect. The bad news is that we did the entire bathroom with just one quart of glaze, leaving us with an extra quart that, because it's a custom color, can't be returned. A bit of a setback for ecofrugality. But I guess, when you look at the project as a whole, not too large a setback. Perhaps we can donate the other quart to the Habitat ReStore.

And talking of the Habitat ReStore, the other good news is that we made a trip up there on Saturday and picked up four boxes of that gorgeous Italian ceramic tile that we were able to get only a sample of on our last visit. The fact that it's Italian gave me a bit of pause (hmm, that's a lot of miles to market), but the fact that it came from the Habitat store seemed to give it automatic ecofrugal cred, since it wouldn't be there if it weren't some sort of leftover material that could otherwise have gone to waste. And while I know we could probably have found some sort of tile that we would consider acceptable for less than $2.67 a square foot, this stuff looks like slate, costs way less, and will require less maintenance. Score another point for ecofrugality. The other bad news, though, is that these 14-by-14-inch tiles are too big to fit into our yard-sale tile cutter, so we'll have to do them by hand. A bit more work. But hey, fewer grout lines.

Tune in for our next exciting episode, when you may hear Amy say, "Can't we get any grout that's closer to the color of the tile?"

Monday, September 6, 2010

Work in progress

Those who followed this blog last February and March will recall that just last spring, Brian and I finished up the long-drawn-out process of remodeling, or refinishing, or what have you, our large downstairs room (which, by the by, is still being referred to as the downstairs room, as we have yet to come up with a more suitable name for it). During the summer months, we did a bit of messing around outside—planting the garden, painting the shutters, and so on—but only in the past few weeks did we really make a determined start on our next big project: remodeling (or refinishing, or what have you) the downstairs bathroom.

As with the big room remodel, we're aiming to keep this project as ecofrugal as possible. To that end, we're reusing as much as we can of what's already there. Fortunately for us, some bits of this room have been updated fairly recently. We got the seller to replace the old shower, which was cracked and leaking, back when we bought the house, so that's one big job we don't need to do ourselves. And the old water-hog of a toilet with its mismatched lid (which you can see in the photo) broke in our second year of ownership and was replaced with a sleek, efficient model. But pretty much everything else in the room—sink, walls, floor, lighting—has to be redone.

A couple of months ago, we made a start by removing all the old vinyl tile, which wasn't good-looking enough to be worth salvaging. Just in the past few weeks, we started in earnest with patching the damaged walls, slapping on something like a gallon of drywall in the process. We also moved the old bathroom fan (which originally was not only wired up wrong but also vented directly into the side of the cement porch steps) to a side wall—a process that involved actually breaching the hull of the house to make room for the new vent, which felt oddly daring. And we installed a new canister light in the ceiling where the fan used to be. By late last week, we'd finally managed to bring the room to a state that might be considered a blank canvas: all the fixtures and flooring removed, the walls repaired and freshly primed. In other words, we've finished all the taking away we need to do in the room, and we're ready to start adding, which is always more interesting.

Step one is going to be painting the walls, and in what may be an overly ambitious move, I've set my heart on a two-toned, sponge-painted effect. The base coat (Valspar's "Cream Cake") is drying now, and our next free evening will probably be devoted to the more elaborate process of first rolling on and then sponging off the tinted glaze ("Golden Moon"). After that, it's on to adventures in tiling, a new experience for both of us. We're going with ceramic tile, as a more durable and therefore greener alternative to vinyl, and I'm hoping our nearby Habitat Restore will provide a nice-looking tile at a reasonable price. If it's leftover or salvaged from a building site, then it will be both eco and frugal.

Watch this space for updates!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Summertime blues

Sigh. After a week of cooler weather that lulled me into thinking fall might be arriving early, we have been dumped back into the dog days, with highs in the nineties for most of this week. This may be the proper place for a somewhat shocking confession: I don't really like summer. I never have. Even when I was a kid, summer "vacation" to me was just three months during which I wouldn't get to see much of my friends, since most of them lived in other towns and my parents did not care to be treated as a taxi service. A book I was reading last month quoted Henry James as saying, "Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language," and my reaction was, "Not in New Jersey, they aren't." Around here, summer evenings can sometimes be pleasant—if they're tolerably cool and the mosquitoes aren't too bad—but summer afternoons tend to be stifling.

So I always look forward to fall, and you would think I would appreciate the efforts of the local shopkeepers to bring it to me early with their autumn-themed displays. To me, however, those cheerful cheerful stuffed scarecrows and bundles of bright leaves have exactly the opposite effect. When the temperature is 93 degrees, it's perfectly obvious that fall isn't here, and pretending it is just seems like a cruel joke.

Actually, I think I've mentioned elsewhere on this blog that I generally resent the way stores always try to get the jump on the natural cycle of the seasons. Around here, for example, the "back to school" displays went up before school had been out a month, and now, with the schools not even open yet, they're already giving way to scarecrows and bags of candy for Halloween, which is still over two months away. But by the time Halloween actually gets here, there won't be so much as a plastic pumpkin to be found, because the shelves will already be decked out in their Christmas finery (skipping right over Thanksgiving as if it didn't count, since only the grocery stores can actually sell anything for that holiday). Then it will be Valentine red and pink in January, Easter pastels in February while the snow is still thick on the ground, and charcoal and flags for the Glorious Fourth in the middle of April.

Am I the only one who's bugged by this? Am I the only one who feels that to every thing there is a season, and mid-August is not the season for Halloween costumes? I realize the stores just want to sell their wares, and they think they'll sell most if they get an early start. But does it ever occur to them that people might not really be in the mood to do their Christmas shopping in mid-October—that in fact, seeing those premature reminders of the approaching festive season may actually sap their holiday cheer before the holiday even arrives?

To me, it seems like anyone who appreciates nature at all should want to recognize and respect the cycle of the seasons. That's why I like to eat asparagus in April, strawberries in June, zucchini in July, tomatoes in September, and apples in October. I like to appreciate what the earth has to offer in its proper season, rather than buying strawberries shipped up from Guatemala in the middle of winter (which are never much good anyway, since they had to be picked well before they were ripe to survive the journey, and by the time they arrive half of them are still green and the other half already mushy). And I want to put on my Halloween costume at Halloween and put up my Christmas lights at Christmastime—not two months before.

So maybe it's time to get a grip on myself and stop fretting over the hot weather. Maybe I just need to go pick some ripe cherry tomatoes, fix myself a glass of cold lemonade, settle down in the shade, and appreciate what's left of August.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Frugal Suitor

Someone on the Dollar Stretcher forums posted a link to this article in last week's New York Times: "How to Be Frugal and Still Be Asked on Dates." The upshot of it seems to be that although saving money has become a lot more popular and socially acceptable in the past couple of years, it's still widely seen as a turn-off in the dating world. In a way, this makes sense, if you think of the way our society has traditionally been structured: women of earlier generations had to marry to achieve financial security, so a man hoping to attract a mate would flash around his money to prove that he had plenty of it. Unfortunately, this strategy is likely to backfire, since a spendthrift mate is actually less likely to have money in the bank with which to support a family. It also creates a problem for frugal folks seeking partners with similar inclinations. Spending lavishly on your partner, as seems to be expected during courtship, is a good way to attract a mate with expensive tastes—not someone who's prudent with money.

Amy Dacyczyn wrestled with this problem in the first Tightwad Gazette book. She pointed out that a marriage is more likely to work out if both partners have the same views about money. Unfortunately, it's hard to find a frugal partner when society expects you to spend extravagantly while dating. So her suggestion to tightwads seeking same was to resist this urge, which sends the wrong message to potential partners, and instead put out "frugal date bait." Her examples include home-grown flowers, home-cooked dinners, picnics in the park, and for the truly adventurous, "tightwad dates" like an afternoon of yard-saling. With this type of "bait," rather than expensive outings and gifts, you're more likely to attract a mate who doesn't value a romantic gesture based on how much it costs.

Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that frugal dates and gifts are my favorite kind. It's not that I don't appreciate the occasional fancy meal or expensive present—especially coming from my fellow-tightwad husband, who never spends extravagantly on himself. But the little things, in their way, mean even more. One of the first "dates" Brian and I ever had together was a visit to a big sort of gallery/flea market. I tried on a dress at one of the secondhand clothing booths, and he admired it so much that he bought it for me—for all of $15. It was such an impulsive, romantic gesture that I cherish that dress to this day, even though I haven't been that size in years.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Calloo, callay!

Just had to celebrate a couple of freebies that fell into my lap today:

1) Coupons.com, which usually has few if any coupons for products I have any interest in, today popped one up for Blue Bunny ice cream, my absolute favorite brand. It's a premium brand like Breyer's, but without the premium price: only $3 a carton at the Shop-Rite, so with the dollar-off coupon, it's only $2. Or, if we wait for it to go on sale for $2 a carton, which happens not infrequently, we could get it for only $1. Hooray!

2) Also, I just discovered that the DIY Network site now has the first two seasons of Wasted Spaces (which, as you may recall, I described in a previous entry as the best home show ever) available to view. I've already viewed all of Seasons 3 and 4 on Hulu, so finding a whole 26 more episodes that I haven't seen yet is like being given a wonderful present.

Ice cream and fluffy TV—does it get any better than this?

The Great Bulb Debate

I recently read an article on LiveCheap article about "How to Cut Your Electricity in Half." As with so many of these articles, the number one suggestion was to replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). This suggestion sparked a couple of comments to the effect that CFLs are (1) hard to dispose of safely, (2), dangerous if they break (one poster suggested that you would "require a HAZMAT crew to come and clean if God forbid you drop one and break it"), and (3) inferior to the newer, still-more-efficient light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs.

I had previously encountered similar suggestions in a Dollar Stretcher article by Rich Finzer, "CFL versus LED." Finzer claimed that CFLs "are extremely fragile, perform poorly in cold locations, and are nearly impossible to recycle," and also that they "require a warm-up period before reaching full illumination." He went on to claim that LEDs were "a smarter choice" because of their longer life and ultra-low energy use.

After reading his article, I submitted a post on the Dollar Stretcher forum debunking his claims. I pointed out that Consumer Reports had addressed these claims in a recent issue (you can read the "myths and realities" on the magazine's blog). It said that most modern CFLs come on instantly and reach their full brightness within about 30 seconds (a delay that I hardly even notice with mine; even at less than full brightness, the bulbs are plenty bright enough to see by). It also points out that unbroken CFLs are accepted for recycling at all IKEA and Home Depot stores, as well as some Ace and True Value stores, and that broken ones, while they do pose a health hazard, are not nearly so difficult to clean up as some people think. (The EPA provides detailed guidelines at this site.)

Then I went on to tackle the question of the economics of CFLs versus LEDs. There is no denying that in terms of bulb life and energy use, LEDs are greatly superior to CFLs, just as CFLs are to incandescents. The only question was whether the energy savings would be enough to offset the much higher initial cost of the LED bulbs. I crunched some numbers and concluded that in terms of their lifetime cost, an LED bulb came out just barely ahead of a CFL--but it would take most of the lifetime of the bulb, which could be more than 15 years, to pay for itself. I concluded that while LEDs might indeed be the bulbs of the future, it was worth waiting for the price to come down before making the switch.

After reading the Live Cheap article, I decided to revisit these figures and see if the price of LEDs had come down enough in the past two years to make them cost-effective. I found that the cost of an LED bulb has indeed fallen—but so have the prices of CFLs. The price of incandescents has actually gone up, but so has their lifetime. Here are the updated figures, based on a search of products available at Amazon.com:

1. GE 60-watt incandescents: 4 for $1.99, estimated lifetime 1,500 hours

2. GE 13-watt CFLs, claimed equivalent to 60W incandescents: 8 for $6.99, estimated lifetime 12,000 hours

3. EagleLight Nichia 6-watt LED, claimed equivalent to 60W incandescents: $43 each (with free shipping), estimated lifetime 35,000 hours. (I had to go to the manufacturer's page to get this information.)

The other thing that's changed is that my utlility's price for electricity has dropped by half a cent per kilowatt-hour. Between that and the changes in price, the lifetime costs of all three types of bulbs have dropped significantly. Over the course of 35,000 hours of use, you would pay for:

1. 23 incandescent bulbs at 50 cents each ($11.66) and 2100 kilowatt-hours at 17.5 cents per kWH ($367.5): total $379.16

2. 3 CFLs at 87.4 cents each ($2.62) and 455 kilowatt-hours at 17.5 cents per kWH ($79.63): total $82.25

3. 1 LED at $43 and 210 kilowatt-hours at 17.5 cents per kWH ($36.75): total $79.75

So once again, the LED is just barely ahead of the CFLs on lifelong costs. (Of course, there are other factors that might make LEDs more desirable, like the fact that they'll last nearly forever. Thirty-five thousand hours in a fixture that's used 5 hours a day is over 19 years. That might make LEDs practical in fixtures that are really, really inconvenient to change a bulb in.)

I'm keeping my CFLs for now and waiting for the price of LEDs to drop more (as I'm sure it will). After all, I paid $25 for my first CFL years ago (and this was an old-school CFL, bulky and not as warm-toned as an incandescent)—so when LEDs get down into that approximate price range, I think it'll be worth springing for one.

However, one thing these figures really reinforce for me is what a small amount of electricity we're talking about here. Even the relatively power-hungry incandescent bulb is using only $367.50 worth of electricity over the course of 19 years, or about $1.60 a month. Someone who is hoping to cut his electric bill in half by switching out a few light bulbs is probably in for a serious disappointment.

Postscript: Just spotted this entry on the Consumer Reports blog about a new LED bulb being sold at Home Depot that costs only $20. However, this model is intended to replace a 40-watt incandescent, so it doesn't fit neatly into my comparisons above. It's certainly cheaper over its lifetime than a 13-watt CFL, but it also gives less light. I'm not planning to buy any, but I'll be keeping an eye out for higher-wattage versions.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Frugality versus simplicity

Following up up on last week's entry, my mom sent me a link to this interview with the woman described in the Times article who made the transition from the "work-spend treadmill" to a life of extreme frugality. This article contrasts Tammy's "before" lifestyle (a $40,000 salary, a two-bedroom condo, two cars, $30,000 worth of debt, and "enough wedding china to serve two dozen people gazpacho at the same time") with her "after" lifestyle (no car, no TV, a 400-square-foot studio that she shares with her husband Logan, about $24,000 a year from freelance work, and no more than 100 personal possessions in total). Then the site poses the question: Which would you choose?

Now, I'm sympathetic with Tammy's decision to simplify her life. I definitely think that when the stuff you own is not contributing to your happiness, you should get rid of it. And I absolutely agree that it's better to do a job you enjoy and earn a modest income than to pay for an extravagant lifestyle with work you hate. But all the same, my honest answer to the question was "Neither." I certainly wouldn't want her "before" life, with a job she didn't care for and an apartment full of stuff that wasn't making her happy. But when I contemplate living the way she lives now, I have to admit that I don't think I could be happy that way, either.

I mean, think about it for a minute. One hundred possessions total? Including books? Okay, I'm willing to admit that among the books presently filling (and overfilling) my shelves are a lot of volumes that I'll probably never read again (or in some cases, never read at all). I'm sure I could part with some of them and never miss them. But even if I kept only the ones that I really love and read (or refer to) over and over, I'm sure I'd have more than one hundred. And I can't believe that getting rid of them all—or even just the ones I only look at once in a while—would make me a better and happier person.

Likewise, I can't see myself becoming happier by giving up our beloved house and yard in favor of a one-room apartment. We worked and saved for years to buy this place precisely because we knew we wanted a home of our own, a place we could keep and tend and make all ours. Yes, we do spend a lot of hours working on the house and the yard—but we do it willingly, even joyfully, because it gives us a sense of satisfaction to make the place we live in as beautiful as it can be. I can't see how giving that up could ever make us happier. And while I can admit that our house has more space than we really need for just the two of us (although it's still much, much smaller than most new houses) I really don't think that a single 20-by-20 room would be enough space for us to cook, eat, sleep, work, and play in. I can't help thinking I'd always be going and hiding in the bathroom just to get a couple of minutes to myself—not because I don't love spending time with my husband, but because I don't want to spend every minute of my life with anyone.

Tammy Strobel's story seems to me to be less about frugality than about simplicity—getting rid of the excess in your life. Naturally, these two goals overlap to a certain extent, but they're not the same goal. A lot of people's idea of a "frugal" life is a bare-bones life like Tammy's—which is an appealing vision for some, and so unappealing to others that it turns them off to the whole idea of saving money. But my version of frugality doesn't have anything to do with austerity. Rather, it has to do with abundance—having more and doing more with less (as I discussed in this entry back in May).

For example, in the interview Tammy Strobel claims that "Americans spend one-fifth of their income on their cars," and posits that giving up your car could make you happier by freeing up all the hours you have to spend working to make those payments. But when I consult our budget, I see that Brian and I spend approximately one-fiftieth of our income on our car (and that's take-home pay, not gross). By making the distinction between luxury (a shiny new car for each of us) and necessity (one reliable car that can get us to all the places we can't reach via foot, bike, or mass transit) we get what we need at a price we can easily afford. And the same principle applies to every aspect of the frugal life—housing, food, clothing, and those books stuffing my living room shelves.

To put it another way, we really can have our cake and eat it too, as long as we're willing to bake it ourselves. And to me, that's a much better deal than going without any cake at all.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ecofrugal tidbits

Today we bring you an assortment of ecofrugal tidbits, gleaned from e-mails from family and friends.

Our first topic, at the risk of being morbid, is ecofrugal funerals. This article, forwarded to me a few weeks ago by my friend Laura in Knoxville (thanks, Laura!), describes a funeral home in Tennessee that's started offering "green" burials as an alternative to the traditional formal funeral complete with embalming, a costly casket, and a vault to put it in. Options include direct burial, with just a shroud, or a simple wooden casket. Green funerals are not only easier on the earth but less expensive, as well. According to this article from the Dollar Stretcher, a basic funeral costs $10,000 on average—even without "extras" such as overpriced thank-you cards and elaborate floral arrangements, which unscrupulous funeral homes often try to push onto grieving relatives at this vulnerable time. Yet all this pomp and ceremony doesn't necessarily serve the real purpose of a funeral—to help people honor their dead, express their sorrow, and say goodbye in a meaningful way. People interested in simpler, more meaningful last rites (for themselves or someone else) may be interested in joining a memorial society. For a small membership fee, these organizations will step in at the time of a death and help the mourners make the arrangements, rather than being left to the tender mercies of a funeral home more concerned with racking up as big a tab as possible than with helping the grieving family.

Topic number two, also from Laura, is about a novel way of coping with invasive plants. This article from a Knoxville news outlet describes how officials at Fort Dickerson Park have brought in goats to eat the ubiquitous kudzu that threatens native plants and even trees. This method is a much healthier alternative to herbicides, which can't distinguish between native plants and invasive ones, and which don't necessarily get to the root of the plant (meaning it can come back next year). Goats eat the stuff right down to the roots and don't appear to be harmed in the least by the harmful chemicals the plants put out. (Apparently, goats can even eat poison ivy without ill effects—though humans shouldn't drink their milk for a while afterwards.)

And lastly, from my sister, we have an interesting article from today's New York Times about the relationship between money and happiness. The gist of it appears to be that what makes people happy isn't stuff; it's experiences. Thus, the only category in which spending more money leads to increased happiness is recreation. Spending money on an experience (a vacation, for instance) is more likely to increase your happiness than buying a new car—unless the new car makes it possible for you to have a lot more Sunday drives in beautiful places. Spending on stuff only supports happiness when that stuff contributes to better experiences, like a board game that leads to spending more time together as a family. (The article does cite a contrarian viewpoint from people who deeply love clothes and argue that buying, owning, and wearing beautiful things truly contributes to their happiness. However, I don't think that necessarily contradicts the main point, since for these people, wearing wonderful clothes is an experience.)

I enjoyed the article, but I couldn't help wondering: would these same experiences contribute any less to people's happiness if they hadn't spent so much money on them? Is a week spent touring Europe, staying in fancy hotels, really more satisfying than a week spent camping in the woods—or a week spent visiting family members or friends you seldom see? Is the experience of reading a novel more satisfying if you go out and buy the hardcover as soon as it comes out, rather than waiting for the paperback—or taking it out of the library? I'm willing to concede that spending money on experiences may be more satisfying than spending it on stuff—but why not go the extra distance and have the great experiences without spending the money?

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Living small

Last week, in my post on living rooms, I remarked on how modern houses often contain more rooms than they really need. This link, courtesy of my mom, shows a house that's exactly the opposite: a tiny house with a place for everything and everything in its place. The builder, Jay Shafer, now makes a living building small houses, ranging from a truly tiny 65 square feet (less than some bathrooms) to 835 (nearly as big as the main level of our house). You can view his designs on his website.

There is also a couple out in Texas who are doing much the same thing, but they go Shafer one better: not only are all of their "Tiny Texas Houses" little (anywhere from 10 feet by 16 to 12 by 28), they're built almost entirely from salvaged materials. The owner says the costs to build one range from $38,000 to $90,000, plus the delivery fee. Now that's ecofrugal!

The amazing thing about all these tiny houses is that, based on the pictures, they actually look more luxurious than a generic builder-made home. They have so many lovely little details, like the wood paneling and stained glass window inserts, that would never be affordable in a larger home. Less quantity means more room for quality.

This same concept is also the basis of architect Sarah Susanka's highly popular "Not So Big House" books. However, her concept of "not so big" is quite a bit bigger than Schafer's; her rule of thumb is that a Not So Big house is about two-thirds the size you think you need, but costs just as much. Still eco, perhaps, but not really frugal (although it is still more frugal than a big box, since a smaller house is still cheaper to maintain and to heat and cool). However, Ross Chapin, one of the architects featured in the Not So Big House books, has plans available on his website that start at 307 feet—comparable to the Tiny Texas houses, and around the middle of the range for Tumbleweed Houses.

The only real problem with these houses is that the only way to get one is to build it from scratch. What I'd really love to see is a set of guidelines for remodeling an existing house, on a budget, to give it this kind of detailed, lavish feel in the same small space.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Cheapskate Next Door

Just read a guest post on one of the Dollar Stretcher blogs from Jeff Yeager, also known as the Ultimate Cheapskate. In it, he cited some of the findings from his new book, The Cheapskate Next Door. Yeager claims to have interviewed hundreds of cheapskates to get these results (although I don't know how he selected them; he may just have included anyone willing to apply the term to himself/herself.) You can go to the post to read all of them, but here were a few I found interesting:
  • Only 10 percent of cheapskates have a household budget. Yeager calls this finding surprising, but it didn't come as a great shock to me. Most financial advisers seem to treat a household budget as an absolute necessity for managing your finances, but as one of Yeager's interviewees put it, “We live our budget. It’s second nature. We don’t waste time writing about it.” This resonated with me, as I have always lived within my means without ever needing to adhere to strict instructions about how much I'm allowed to spend on this or that. A budget, it seems to me, is like a diet: a set of rules you follow to force yourself to keep your consumption under control. But for me, controlling my spending is a matter of reflex; I don't need a set of rules to make me do it.
  • Less than 15 percent of cheapskates have a designated "emergency fund." Here, again, I'm with the cheapskates and against the financial community. Like most cheapskates, I have a good chunk of money put by, but I treat all of it more or less the same. I don't make a rigid distinction among the money I use for day-to-day expenses, the "savings" I'm allowed to use for rare purchases such as a new piece of furniture, and the "emergency fund" that's not to be touched except in case of unemployment or medical crisis. To me, my savings is simply a sum of money that's there to be used for whatever I need, whenever I need it.
  • More than 90 percent of cheapskates say that "they think, worry, and stress-out about money less, not more, than their non-cheapskate peers." I don't know whether this applies to me or not. I certainly do spend a fair amount of time thinking about money, in both abstract and concrete terms (after all, it's what I've chosen to blog about, at least in part). I pay attention to prices and shop around for the best deals, and that takes a fair amount of time. But on the other hand, I may actually stress about money less because I know that I live within my means, and I know that I have a cash cushion to see me through a financial crisis. That doesn't mean that I never fret when business is slow, or when the threat of a job loss hangs over our heads. But I stress about it less than others might in the same situation, because I know that I have money in the bank—and I also know that I have the skills to get us by on even less if we have to.
So I guess I can proudly count myself among the cheapskates of the world. Oh, and there's one other thing: apparently being eco-conscious isn't a concept that most cheapskates find foreign or counter to their goals. Yeager notes that "Nine out of ten cheapskates say that their decision to live a more frugal life isn’t about trying to amass a big savings account; rather it’s primarily grounded in some higher ideals, such as religious beliefs or environmentalism. That’s why, of the cheapskates polled, they donate nearly twice as much to charity as the average American."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Why don't we live in the living room?

My mom recently called my attention to an article on the New York Times' "Opinionator" blog about the history of living rooms—or at least, rooms that are referred to by that name. If you read literature more than a hundred or so years old, you'll find that the room in which people sat around, talked, read, and entertained guests might be called a "parlor" (which makes sense, since it comes from the French parler, meaning "to talk") or a "drawing room" (actually short for "withdrawing room," since you "withdrew" to this room after dinner) or simply a "sitting room." Or, to look at a completely different social setting, consider the Ingalls family in the Little House series. They did most of their daily activities—cooking, eating, reading, working, and playing—in the large "front room" of their log cabin. They even bathed in there (once a week, on Saturday night, so as to be clean for church on Sunday). So clearly, homes have had rooms used for talking and relaxing for centuries.

In modern homes, however, the room that's known as the "living room" is often a space that isn't used for day-to-day living at all. Instead, it's a showplace, an area used only for formal entertaining, an activity that families today tend to do a lot less of than they did in the past. The actual day-to-day living, as well as informal socializing, takes place in a separate "family room" or in the kitchen. It even seems like you can't find a new house these days that doesn't have a separate living room and family room, as if this were a basic necessity of life.

Now, mind you, I have no problem with the idea of having a room set aside for entertaining for families that actually do a lot of entertaining. One of the commenters on the Opinionator piece (#15) observes that she uses her living room for this purpose, and while "living room" may not really be the right name for it, she can't think of anything else to call it that doesn't sound silly. However, as commenter #20 laments, formal entertaining has become such a rarity in the modern world that for most people, a room set aside for this purpose is no longer useful. And I can hardly think of anything less ecofrugal than setting aside a whole room in your home—a room that has to be heated, cooled, and cleaned, as well as paid for in the price of the house—for a purpose that will seldom, if ever, be fulfilled.

So what's the solution? Well, here's a modest proposal: why don't we all try actually living in our living rooms? Set them up to accommodate the actual activities we do on a daily basis, whether that's chatting, watching TV, or playing board games. Surely a basic living room can handle these activities and still be cleaned up for guests when the occasion calls for it. If we all did this, we might be able to get along just fine in a house without a "family room"—or, if we can't actually find such a house, convert that extra space into a room we really will use, like a home office, or an exercise room, or even an extra bedroom, allowing a family to get by with a house one bedroom smaller than they thought they needed. We'd all save money, building resources, and fuel—and the folks who build the houses would be no worse off, because they could fit more of these smaller houses onto the same parcel of land. So as a bonus, each new development would use up less green space.

In fact, according to the article I cited back in February, this very idea seems to have occurred to a lot of Americans, resulting in a trend toward smaller and more efficient homes. It's just conceivable that ten or twenty years down the road, we may find that the name "living room" has once again come to mean just what it should: a room that gets lived in.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Box full o' savings

There's nothing quite so deflating as opening up your mailbox and finding nothing but bills. This seldom happens to me these days, since I receive most of my bills online. Today, however, I was pleased to find that I was having almost exactly the opposite experience: nearly everything in my mailbox was a freebie or money-saver of some kind. The contents included:
  • A free sample of "Stayfree Ultra Thins," which I sent for online via the "Top Freebies of the Week" feature on Tip Hero. (Normally I prefer Glad Rags as the most ecofrugal way of attending to—ahem—feminine necessities, but I keep one or two of the disposable kind in my purse to use while on the road.)
  • The Consumer Reports 2010 Buying Guide, which was included as part of a "trial subscription" to the magazine—and which, to be honest, was the only reason I signed up for it. I've subscribed in the past and decided it wasn't worth the money, but if they insist on continuing to send me mail trying to rope me back in, it's their fault if they lose money on me. (I also got a free copy of a Consumers Union publication called How to Clean Practically Everything, which will probably end up on Freecycle, since I already own a copy from my last trial subscription.)
  • A notice from Chase reminding me to register online for this summer's bonus categories on my new credit card. (This seems to be a gimmick a lot of credit card companies are using: offer you 5 percent cash back, for a limited time, in certain specific categories, and then switch categories every three months. I've taken to putting sticky labels on my cards to keep track of which card is giving which rewards at a given time.)
  • The usual envelope of coupons from Valpak, most of which aren't useful to me, but every so often there's one for my mechanic or some other business I use regularly.
  • My new Wellness Plus card from Rite Aid, which gives me discounts on store-brand stuff and points that I can cash in for additional discounts.
  • A new set of ID cards from Allstate to use if we need roadside assistance. (I'm counting this as a savings because having this included with our insurance policy means that we don't have to shell out $80 a year to Better World Club.)
Yeah, my mail isn't exactly glamorous, but for an eager saver like me, all this stuff is pretty exciting.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Togs for tots

My weekly Tip Hero newsletter just alerted me to a new online service called ThredUP. (Yeah, goofy name, but stay with me here.) It's a sort of clothing swap, like I discussed in my May 5 entry, but it's specifically for children. As I've noted in the past, secondhand clothes make a lot of sense for children, because still-growing kids outgrow clothes while they've still got plenty of life left in them. For parents with several kids, "handing down" clothes to younger siblings is so commonplace that most parents probably don't even think of these clothes as "used." But only children, or kids with no same-sex siblings, pose more of a problem. Parents may have to hunt through ill-organized piles at yard sales and thrift shops to outfit the little nippers.

The idea behind ThredUP is that you pick out a box of clothes suitable for your kids and exchange it for a box of your own used but serviceable items. Your only cost is a flat $13 for shipping (which, as the site notes, works out to around $1 per garment). Because you're going through a middleman—the ThredUP site—you don't have to match yourself up with a specific person who both has what you need and needs what you have. The site serves as a marketplace to get the goods to those who can use them.

Now, $13 a box for kids' clothes may not be the absolute lowest price you could pay. Hand-me-downs (from siblings, other relatives, or friends and neighbors) are obviously cheaper, and yard sales and rummage sales might also—with a little diligent searching—yield clothes in good condition for less than $1 per item. But when you factor in both cost and convenience, ThredUP looks like a pretty good deal for busy parents. And, of course, since it means less production and less waste, it's a good deal for the environment as well. (And I wouldn't worry about the impact on the economy of reusing clothes instead of buying new ones. Except for the really high-end stuff, it's mostly made overseas anyway.)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Is tech frugal?

One of my cohorts on the Dollar Stretcher forums recently brought up the subject of modern technology. Many folks said that they found new technology confusing and frustrating. One noted that "I yearn for a simpler life...I used to see my parents and grandparents as old fashioned and not up on what's going on in the world. Now I see that perhaps they, as I have, made a conscious choice to not clutter my mind and life with things that I didn't need before and find no need for now."

This got me thinking: is modern technology frugal or anti-frugal? Is it a waste, something that we don't really need, or it is something that saves time, money, and other resources once when we use it well?

Naturally, the answer isn't entirely one or the other. Some modern technologies are obviously more useful, more frugal, than others, and the same gadget will be more useful to one person than to another. So maybe a better question is, how can you tell whether a specific piece of technology is or is not frugal for you?

My answer to this question is pretty simple: I evaluate new technology the way I would any other consumer choice. I ask myself, "Is this something I need? Will it make my life better? Is it worth the money?" If so, I embrace it; if not, I ignore it. For example:
  • I do have a cell phone (just one that I share with my husband), but I am one of the five or ten people on the planet who truly does use it only for emergencies. It's a very basic model with a prepaid plan, and we pay about $5 a month for it. Anything more than that would be, for me, unnecessary.
  • We don't have cable TV or satellite, but we do have a home-built media computer that lets us get free entertainment from Hulu and other such sites.
  • My computer is a 9-year-old Mac that's been upgraded multiple times over the years and is still quite capable of handling everything I need for both work and personal use. (I specifically bought it instead of one of those cute little iMacs because I thought it would be easier to upgrade, and would therefore serve me longer. So far, so good.)
  • I'm not tempted by the new e-book readers, since, as I noted last month, I don't see any compelling reason to prefer them to the paper-and-ink book. However, I am somewhat tempted by MP3 players (if I could find one cheap enough), mainly because with one we could listen to podcasts of our favorite radio shows during long car trips.
  • We have high-speed Internet at home mostly because I rely on it for work, but the money we spend on our cable modem saves us on all kinds of other things, such as postage (we use e-mail for personal correspondence and pay bills online), a newspaper subscription (the New York Times can be read online for free), and entertainment (see above regarding our media computer).

There are probably many other examples that don't come immediately to mind. But my point is, although many people equate frugality with "the simple life"—living off the grid, churning your own butter, that sort of thing—a fast-paced modern lifestyle can be just as frugal, albeit in a different way. If your home is full of gadgets that save you time and money and genuinely improve your quality of life, there's absolutely no reason to feel inferior to the person who cooks over a woodstove and reads by candlelight. To each tightwad his own.