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?