Monday, March 29, 2010

More praise for Freecycle

Back in January, I posted about the virtues of Freecycle as a way to get rid of unwanted stuff. Well, now I can also laud it as a way to get new, useful stuff. Yesterday we scored our first ever major acquisition from Freecycle: nearly 1000 cement pavers. The poster was so eager to get rid of them that he even offered to transport them for us in his pickup, which took a lot less time than repeatedly loading and unloading the trunk of our little sedan. So after a couple of hours of lifting and stacking, we now have sore arms, sore knees, and enough pavers to build a 10-by-20-foot patio. Hooray! Now we just need to keep scanning the Freecycle postings until someone offers a few cubic yards of gravel and sand...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Luxury

Every so often, usually while taking a shower, I'll be struck by the thought of just how luxurious my lifestyle is. That may sound odd coming from someone who lives without so many of the amenities that lots of her peers think of as necessities of life (air conditioning, cable TV, convenience foods, and so on). And indeed, I'm well aware that I'm not nearly so extravagant in my habits as most Americans of my age and income level. Yet compared with most of the people who have ever lived, I live in positive luxury. Consider, for example: I take a hot shower almost every morning. Now, cast your mind back to the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, if you've ever read it. That family had to haul every bit of its water from a stream or a well, and to heat it one kettleful at a time on the stove before pouring it into the bathtub. Considering what an undertaking that was, they naturally couldn't think of doing it every day. The whole family bathed once a week, on Saturday night (so they'd be clean for Sunday), and they all took turns in a single tub of water. Now granted, the Ingalls family wasn't rich, even for their own time, but 150 years ago, even those who were rich enough to have servants draw a bath for them couldn't expect them to stand there pouring hot water over their bodies continually. Yet I not only spend five minutes each day under a stream of hot water but take this blessing almost entirely for granted and get grumpy if the water supply fails for any reason.

Perhaps this kind of thing is the reason for the saying, "A luxury once tasted becomes a necessity" (which I've seen attributed variously to Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Alex Berenson, and "the Greeks"). I first encountered this line in Andrew Tobias's modestly titled The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need (an excellent volume that I may get around to reviewing in a future post), and at the time, I didn't quite see the point of it. I've certainly sampled luxuries in my life—from champagne to silk underwear—that I felt I could go on living quite happily without. Yet I often forget how many of my own personal "necessities," like hot showers and electric lights and high-speed Internet, are really luxuries. I don't always appreciate what a treat it is to be able to sit up reading long after the sun has gone down, or to enjoy a cup of hot cocoa every morning even though the nearest cacao plantations are over a thousand miles away, or to type in a phrase like "when was the shower invented" or "where is cacao grown" into Google and find an answer in seconds.

Maybe the saying really ought to be, "A luxury once accustomed becomes a necessity." I can easily live without luxuries I've tried once and been indifferent to; I can even live easily without luxuries I've tried once and enjoyed purely as a change of pace. But a luxury that's become part of my daily life is truly hard to give up.

So while I have no intention of foregoing my daily shower, I guess I should at least try to make a point of appreciating it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Two out of three ain't bad

Last month, the LiveCheap site ran an article by a guy who had worked in the information and software business. He laid it down as a basic law of software development that out of fast, cheap, and good, you can have any two, but not all three. If you want to develop good software quickly, you should expect to spend serious money; if the client insists on having it done both quickly and cheaply, then the quality will suffer. However, if you are prepared to spend some extra time, you can get the job done well on a low budget. He then goes on to explain how this same principle applies to many other areas of frugal living, from buying a computer to booking a hotel room.

I can personally attest that this rule definitely holds true in the area of home improvement. For instance, the previous owners of our home seem to have tried to make every job as fast and cheap as possible. We saw many examples of this when we started work on the big basement room. Rather than taking the time to make the walls smooth, they had covered up the defects with cheap (and cheap-looking) plastic paneling. When putting up the ceiling, they had slapped the panels into place willy-nilly, without bothering to align them with the joists. They hadn't even bothered to make sure the panels they used were all of the same thickness. They'd thrown down a piece of sheet vinyl on the floor that didn't even reach all the way to the edges of the room; they'd left a visible gap between one wall and the ceiling; they'd wired up the lights in a way that made no sense and didn't really illuminate the room.

Now, I've watched enough HGTV to know that a lot of homeowners, faced with a problem like this, would spend thousands of dollars on a good and fast solution. They would rip out everything and start over from scratch, hiring professionals to put in new walls and ceilings, reframe the windows, and install new flooring. However, we approached the problem differently. Since we didn't need the space right away, we could afford to take the time to do a good and cheap job. Over the course of two and a half years, we worked on every single part of that room—ceiling, walls, windows, doors, lighting, and floor. We always looked for inexpensive solutions that would salvage as much as possible of the existing material. We also did as much of the work ourselves as we could. The only professional we hired was an electrician (and that was mainly because our town really makes it difficult to get permits for DIY work). It took time, but the results were worth waiting for, and we can feel confident that we got our money's worth out of the job. And as a bonus, we have a space we can feel proud of, because we know it's the fruit of our own labors.

I have to admit, though, that as we gear up for the next big project—the downstairs bath—I'm starting to wonder if maybe it would be worth spending just a little more money so we can see results a little faster. So while we're planning to become regular customers of the Habitat ReStore up in Morris County, if we can't find everything we need there in a reasonable amount of time, then the hell with it—I'm prepared to...[whispered] pay retail.

Friday, March 19, 2010

If you try sometime, you just might find...

A recent article on the Get Rich Slowly blog discusses the difficulty of striking a balance with money. The author, in her youth, was a big-time spender and racked up major debt. When she finally decided to change her ways, she went completely to the opposite extreme, cutting her spending to the bone and adopting a no-frills lifestyle. She got her debts paid off, but in the process she went from being a compulsive spender to a compulsive saver. She now finds it difficult to spend, even when it's appropriate.

I can recognize some of this compulsive-saving instinct in myself, too. Sometimes I obsess too much over tiny expenses, like whether I should really spend $5 on a new tube of face cleanser or wait until I've used up the old cleanser, even though it doesn't seem to work very well. But in general, I think I manage to strike a pretty healthy balance. I do think carefully about every purchase, but I'll spend the money when I'm convinced it's worth it. (For instance, I did go ahead and buy the new brand—but only after popping back home to make sure there wasn't a coupon available online.) I don't feel like I deny myself anything I really want; I just try to get what I want for as little money as possible.

So when I followed a link to another article on Get Rich Slowly that was about something called "The Balanced Money Formula," as outlined by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi, I fully expected my spending to be in balance. Their formula breaks down spending into Needs and Wants. They say you should spend no more than 50 percent (ideally, no more than 35 percent) of your take-home pay on Needs, spend 30 percent on Wants, and put aside least 20 percent for Savings. I pulled up my little budget spreadsheet and ran a rough analysis of our spending, and I found that our spending on Needs was within the 50 percent limit (though not quite down to 35 percent) and our Savings were well above the 20 percent mark. Where we fell down, according to Warren and Tyagi, was that we weren't spending enough on Wants. The article suggested that those who spend less than 20 percent of their income on Wants "might be missing the point of money." While you won't get into financial trouble spending too little on Wants, they say, "you should ask yourself—are you making enough room for fun?" I suspect that Warren and Tyagi, looking at the 12 percent of take-home pay we spend on Wants, would answer that question with an emphatic no.

The thing is, we don't feel deprived. We just don't have very expensive tastes. We don't need to spend a lot to do the things we enjoy. We go to concerts a couple of times a month, but they're typically folk shows, where the tickets range from $7 to $25 (or where we can get in free by volunteering). We don't have TV service, but we watch shows on Hulu and borrow DVDs from the library (and enjoy low-tech pursuits, like reading aloud and playing board games). And also, a lot of the things we enjoy fall into categories that get lumped in under Needs rather than Wants. Gardening counts as a Need, because we grow vegetables to eat, but it's also something we do for fun. Home maintenance is a Need, because it includes the money we spend to keep the house standing and the heat running, but it also includes money we spend to make the house look nicer just because we like it that way. I counted meals eaten out as a Want and groceries as a Need, but a mocha frappe whipped up in the blender is just as much an indulgence as a Starbucks Frappuccino. So the line between those two categories gets a little blurry.

My conclusion? Warren and Tyagi are may be right to say that it's a mistake to spend too little on Wants. However, how much is too little depends on the person—it doesn't have to be a hard-and-fast number. The question isn't how much of your income you're spending but how satisfied you are with what you have. Why spend more on Wants than you really want to?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Partying like it's 1899

On Saturday, we had a big rainstorm—rain falling almost horizontally, squeezing itself through previously undiscovered gaps in the windowframes, and wind yanking the gutter guards loose from the gutters and banging them against the side of the house. And around 5:30 pm, just as the daylight was failing, the power went out.

Now, as an ecofrugal individual, I'm always inclined to think of myself as being less dependent than most folks on modern conveniences. In many ways, we live a pretty old-fashioned lifestyle. We hang our clothes on a line; we wash our dishes in the sink. So I guess I assumed that, if we had to, we could manage without electricity better than most people. However, it didn't take us very long to discover the limits of what we could do without it. Our heating system runs on gas, but the pump that circulates the water is electric, so no power meant no heat, either. We could still light the stove with a match, but we couldn't use the oven because the controls are electronic, so we had to set aside the ingredients for that night's casserole and reheat some leftovers on the stove instead. We lit a bunch of candles, but we quickly found that they didn't actually shed that much light, and although I have a little oil lamp, I couldn't find the oil to fill it. And after eating and washing the dishes by candlelight, we found ourselves at a bit of a loss as to what to do with the rest of the evening. We'd planned to eat some homemade ice cream and watch the latest episode of Project Runway; now the TV was out of commission and we didn't dare open the freezer. First I tried reading aloud by the light of a wind-up flashlight, and then we played cribbage by candlelight, but we could barely see the cards. Finally I suggested that we just get out of the house and—believe it or not—go to the mall. So we passed the next couple of hours browsing in a Barnes and Noble and came away with two new books. Rather than making us more ecofrugal, two hours without electricity was enough to drive us straight into the arms of the mainstream consumer lifestyle.

Not knowing how long the power outage was likely to last, we decided the next morning to prepare for the worst. So we went out and bought a bunch of batteries for our radio and for a couple of little LED lights that we'd been meaning to install under the kitchen counters. We also thought about buying some ice in case we needed to try and save the contents of the fridge or freezer, but when we found that the ice at the corner store was all half-melted, we decided to wait until we were sure we needed it and then drive to the supermarket so we could get the bag home still frozen. Apparently these few steps we took were enough to invoke Murphy's Law, because when we returned, the power was back on.

Of course, no sooner had we verified this than the phone rang with a recorded message from the borough telling us that there was a "boil water advisory" due to local flooding—meaning that we now have power, but not potable water. Luckily, we really were prepared for this possibility, with 20 gallons of water stored up in jugs in the basement, so we have plenty of clean water to drink, wash dishes in, and brush our teeth with. The only tricky bit is remembering to use the stored water for these things, rather than turning on the tap reflexively. At least we don't have to go out and haul it from a well.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Ecofrugal fantasy mall

A couple of miles up the road from us, there's an old strip mall that's been undergoing renovations for most of the past year. Prior to that, it wasn't much use as strip malls go; the only stores in it we ever went to at all were the Asian supermarket and a huge discount warehouse called National Wholesale Liquidators, which unloaded at rock-bottom prices all the junk that other retailers couldn't sell. In amongst all the junk there were occasional gems, like the pair of compact fluorescent torchères we picked up for only $8 each, but finds like those were few and far between, and we weren't terribly sorry to see the place close down. However, I have found myself wondering, each time I passed by that derelict hulk, whether all the money the owners are putting into stucco and stonework will actually attract any new stores—and if so, whether they'll actually be stores I would want to patronize.

So I started thinking about what I'd really love to see move into this old, run-down strip mall once it becomes a new, spruced-up strip mall. Here's what my ultimate fantasy configuration would look like:
  • The former Asian grocery would become a new Trader Joe's. At present, the nearest one to us is in Westfield, half an hour away. With a new one a couple of miles away, we would no longer need to make a special trip to stock up on organic raisins and recycled-fiber toilet paper.
  • The big National Wholesale Liquidators space would house a new Habitat ReStore. These are like thrift shops for home improvement goods of all kinds, from tile to paint to furniture. The goods are donated and sold at, I'm told, mouth-wateringly low prices. I've never been to one yet myself, because the nearest one to us is in Freehold, half an hour away (in exactly the opposite direction from the Trader Joe's) and is only open from 10 to 3 on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Having one right in our back yard would be an ecofrugal dream come true.
  • The other big storefront, which I believe used to be a discount children's clothing store, would become a Goodwill store or some other big thrift shop. Right now, there is only one thrift shop within walking distance of here, and it has a very unimpressive, seldom-changing selection, plus it is only open about ten hours a week. There is a Goodwill store about 20 minutes away by car, but since it's not close to any other stores we patronize regularly, we have to make a special trip to visit it, so I seldom get the chance to browse.
  • One of the smaller storefronts could house a fabric store, a type of establishment that seems to be going the way of the dinosaur. The only big chain left is JoAnn Fabrics, and the nearest one of those is in the Mercer Mall, nearly an hour away. But we all know that lots of frugal practices and skills are making a comeback in this recession, so why not sewing?
  • And then, just to add an extra kick to each trip, I'd like to throw in a coffeeshop of some sort. A crunchy, hippie-type coffee bar offering Fair-Trade brew and soymilk would be great, but I'd settle for a Starbucks.
Hey, a girl can dream, right?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Coming out of hibernation

After being cooped up in our cave all winter long, venturing out only to shovel snow and go to hardware stores, the Troll and I are finally starting to emerge from our long winter's nap. He rode his bike to work this morning, and I just finished hanging up the year's first load of air-dried laundry. After three big snowstorms in February, it's hard to express what a delight it is to be outside on a bright March morning, pinning socks and underwear to the line. The days may not be long enough or warm enough yet to get everything dried completely, but after months of being confined to the tumble dryer, I can't help feeling that my clothes will appreciate the chance to get out and get some air. I know I do.

This first touch of spring came right on time for us, too, because we've finally finished up the project that's been keeping us busy indoors through the long winter months. Yes, the room we are tentatively calling the "big room" is now finished—floored and finished off with molding throughout. Here's a slightly blurry picture of the final result. It isn't exactly furnished yet, but we've moved in a few big items (a futon, a dining table) and we can now finish it off at our leisure with rugs, curtains, art, and so on. And, having met my informal mental deadline of having the room done "by spring," we are free to move on to outdoor projects now that the weather is nice enough to allow it. I know pruning and weeding are bound to be tedious chores in the heat of July, so I may as well do as much of them as I can now, while it's still a refreshing change of pace.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Best Home Show Ever

Brian and I are too cheap to pay for cable service at home, so I was pleased to discover recently that the HGTV website has episodes of several shows available to watch online. (One minor drawback: although there are only a few short commercials in each episode, it's usually the same 30-second commercial repeated several times in each episode—and it will show up again and again in different episodes. And trust me, these are not commercials that improve with repeated watching.) So I watched a few episodes of some of their more popular shows, and after a while I found I was getting frustrated. The problem I was having is that, with a few exceptions like "Designed to Sell," these shows appeared to approach the job of redesigning a space with reckless disregard for the cost. Oh, some of them had a nominal budget, but it was a budget of, say, $25,000 to $35,000 to make over a dated kitchen—and that's without any new plumbing or wiring work. Their approach to pretty much anything the homeowners didn't like was to rip it out and replace it with new, high-end materials. And the most annoying part of all was the way they would install $10,000 worth of new stonework and then brag about how they saved the homeowner $75 by refinishing the existing light fixture instead of buying a new one.

So after a while, I was starting to wonder if there were any shows out there that didn't take such a wasteful approach to home redesign. Then, while browsing on Hulu, I discovered "Wasted Spaces." This is the perfect antidote to those spendthrift HGTV shows: a show with an ecofrugal approach. The premise is, the host/builder (a delightful Aussie named Karl Champley) comes into the homes of people who need more space in a particular area and shows them how to make use of unused spaces—overhead, in the floor, in the walls, or in other rooms of the house. Then he designs and helps them build a custom storage unit, tailored to their space, out of materials you can buy at any home center—often for as little as $100. His projects have included a recessed pantry built into the wall between the kitchen and the garage (with additional shelves on the garage side for storage there); a custom desk with a hideaway laptop drawer that doesn't even need hinges; a wall-mounted rotating art display; and a set of hidden storage compartments set into the floor for stowing away valuables.

Unlike the hosts of many home shows, who tend to be annoyingly chipper and sound scripted even when they're ad-libbing, Karl Champley is down-to-earth, has a sense of humor, and really knows his stuff. His shows are full of useful tips like, "When you're buying lumber, never take the first board in a stack; it's usually warped" (something that the Troll and I had already learned through personal observation). He takes the time to show the homeowners (and the viewers) the nuts and bolts of a project—sometimes quite literally, as when he demonstrates how the hardware on a new cabinet works. He can make an exquisite corner cabinet out of plywood and ceiling tile. And, incidentally, he's really hot.

This show, to me, captures the essence of ecofrugality: avoiding waste. Rather than throw everything away and replace it for thousands of dollars, it shows you how to make the most of what you have for hundreds. Seasons 3 and 4 are available on Hulu, and well worth a look.