Sunday, January 23, 2011

Thrift Week, day seven: Lust

And so we come to the end of our Thrift Week celebration, which concludes with the always interesting topic of lust. There's no shortage of examples in which lust, in its most literal sense, can be costly: we can see plenty of cases in the news of men in high places being brought down by sex scandals, but even among ordinary folk it's clear that the inability to control sexual impulses can lead to costly affairs, costly divorces, and in some cases, costly habits such as prostitution or pornography. For young women, the consequences can be even more serious, since they're the ones who generally bear the financial burden of unintended pregnancy. Early childbirth can mean abandoning college—perhaps even not finishing high school—and being stuck on welfare or in dead-end jobs. It's hard to think of any other mistake a girl could make that's so likely to trap her in poverty. And, of course, people of both sexes can be financially harmed by lust—or even love—when it leads them into an imprudent marriage with a partner who has expensive tastes or wasteful habits.

To me, however, it's still more intriguing to consider a less literal interpretation of the word lust. As I noted in the first post of this series, the sin now known as lust or lechery was identified in the original Latin as luxuria, a term more literally translated as "extravagance." The author of the TipHero piece on the seven deadly sins also took this angle on lust, talking about how often people "fall in love" with some luxury item and just have to have it, regardless of the cost. This figurative form of lechery—what we might call "consumer lust"—bears a strong similarity to the more literal kind. Think about how often people talk about "falling in love" with a house, for instance, so that they're willing to go completely out of their price range to satisfy their longing. Or consider how cars, another big-ticket item, are often discussed in sexual terms. The fabled "new-car smell," in particular, seems to be a more potent aphrodisiac than any perfume. (In fact, if they could find a way of bottling that elusive scent, a woman could probably make herself more irresistible to men with it than with any fragrance now on the market.)

Though this form of lust is often treated as an exclusively female affliction, a moment's consideration makes it obvious that it isn't really anything of the kind. Women may be most vulnerable to the attractions of clothing, footwear, and furniture, but page through any electronics catalogue and you'll see in a minute that the newest and priciest items are being marketed as toys for boys (of the grown-up variety). In fact, according to this article, a five-year-old study done at Stanford shows that shopping addiction (which is now recognized as a genuine mental disorder), is nearly as prevalent among men as it is among women. And even when shopping isn't actually pathological, men are by no means immune to temptation. Another survey dating from around the same time shows that while women may spend more time shopping, men actually spend more money, at least during holiday sales.

And here's another, less obvious point: according to this article, referenced by Doug in response to Thursday's entry, sometimes consumer spending actually is linked to lust in its more literal form. According to this 2009 article, "men in the mating condition" are more inclined to spend money on "conspicuous luxuries" than men who aren't looking for a mate. The article went on to note that men seemed likely to spend in order to impress women only "when the potential mating situation is a short-term hook-up rather than a long-term relationship"—in other words, when lust rather than anything that might be called love is the driving factor. (Women, interestingly, don't seem as inclined to spend in order to attract a mate; they're more likely instead to engage in "conspicuous pro-social volunteering." In other words, men show off for women by spending money, while women show off for men by being active in the community. The article didn't say how well these strategies actually work; personally, I can't help wondering if trying to attract a mate through volunteerism is likely to do much good, especially with men who are looking mainly for "a short-term hook-up.")

So, to sum up, lust can drive spending in three ways:
  1. spending money on people we're attracted to;
  2. spending money on stuff we're attracted to; and
  3. spending money on stuff in order to attract people.
And which of these is the most destructive? That will obviously depend on the people involved—as well as the stuff.

And with that, we conclude our Thrift Week series. Talking about sin all week, I have to say, hasn't been nearly as entertaining as I'd hoped. Maybe next year I'll come up with a juicer topic, like tax strategies.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Thrift week, day six: Sloth

And so we come at last to sloth, the sin that gave me the idea for this whole series in the first place. What inspired it was this comment from my friend Laura on my "Canventory" entry, in which she commented on the absurdity of buying pre-peeled onions for $2.49 apiece when a whole bag of plain white or yellow onions costs much less than that. She thought the people buying these must be "ignorant" about onions, but I suggested that perhaps they were just too lazy to peel an onion themselves (or perhaps too lazy to do the math and figure out just how much extra they're paying someone to peel that onion for them). And I pointed out that there are all sorts of other convenience foods that basically charge you a premium for the right to be lazy, some of them healthful (e.g., pre-washed salad greens) and some not (e.g., Tater Tots). And of course, the ultimate example of this is the complete meal prepared by someone else in a restaurant—for which, as I pointed out in yesterday's entry, you'll pay 2.5 to 4 times as much (not counting the tip) as you would to make the identical meal at home.

Of course, the ways in which laziness can cost you money aren't limited to food. Any time you pay someone to do a job you could do yourself—cleaning your house, painting your living room, changing the oil in your car—you're likely to pay a lot more for it than you would by doing the same job yourself. (Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. If it's a job that requires special skills you don't have, you'll quite likely spend less overall by hiring someone to do it right the first time then by tackling it yourself and making a mess that you'll have to pay someone else to clean up.)

Laziness can also cost you money when it leads you to put off a job that you do intend to do yourself—later. To take an example that we heard on "Car Talk" this morning, if you put off going to the gas station until the fuel gauge is on empty, you risk running out of gas and having to a) trek to the gas station to pick up a can, or b) make an embarrassing call to the auto club for help. (Assuming you've paid your auto club dues, this shouldn't cost you any extra money, but it will cost you plenty in lost time and lost dignity.) Or, to take an example inspired by yesterday's mail, which contained several tax forms: if you put off doing your taxes until the last minute, you risk missing the deadline and having to pay a penalty. And if you put off doing regular maintenance on your car, you could end up paying a lot more to fix some crucial part than you would have paid to replace a much smaller part.

Of course, the most obvious example of losing money through sloth is being unwilling to work to earn a living. Benjamin Franklin, in whose honor Thrift Week is observed, was particularly fond of pointing out the perils of idleness:
Remember that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad or sits idle one-half that day, though he spend but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.
But on this point I don't entirely agree with old Ben. Suppose I have an assignment to complete that will pay me $600. Say that if I work at a nice, easy pace, it will take me six days to get the job done. I'll make only $100 a day, but I'll also have plenty of time to do other things: run errands, cook meals, get some exercise, visit with friends, and just relax. Say, by contrast, that if I absolutely knock myself out, I can get the job done in four days. I'll make $150 a day, but my house will be a mess, I'll be short on sleep, and the stress will have me constantly on the verge of tears. When I compare those two options, I have to conclude that to me, the extra $50 a day isn't worth it. And that's one reason I care so much about being frugal in the first place: because the less money I spend, the less I need to worry about how much I make. Through frugality, I can buy myself a luxury that only the wealthiest can normally enjoy: the freedom to work no more than I want to. Paradoxically, the harder I work at pinching my pennies, the less I have to worry about money.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Thrift Week, day five: Gluttony

So, where were we? Oh yes, gluttony. This is an interesting one, because according to Wikipedia, gluttony—at least as defined by the theologians of the Middle Ages—doesn't simply refer to eating too much. Instead, it can involve any kind of unreasonable obsession with food. Thomas Aquinas identified six distinct forms of gluttony:
  • Praepropere - eating too soon.
  • Laute - eating too expensively.
  • Nimis - eating too much.
  • Ardenter - eating too eagerly (burningly).
  • Studiose - eating too daintily (keenly).
  • Forente - eating wildly (boringly).
Obviously, the one that's most likely to hit your wallet hard is laute—being a gourmet rather than a gourmand. Of course, eating too much will also have some effect on your grocery bills, but how much you spend depends a lot more on what you eat than on how much. (In fact, it's possible to spend less on a high-calorie diet than on a healthful diet, because lots of fattening foods are relatively cheap to buy.)

However, if you happen to have a taste for fine cuisine, there are ways to gratify it without spending an unreasonable amount of money—which means you won't be "eating too expensively," and Thomas Aquinas will have no reason to get annoyed. For example, you can cook your own gourmet meals at home, rather than eating out. Yes, you'll still have to shell out for the fancy ingredients, but you won't have to pay for the service and the atmosphere, which accounts for the lion's share of the cost. (According to this 2007 article from Forbes, aimed at people who are thinking of starting up a restaurant, only 25 to 40 percent of the cost of a restaurant meal is for the food.)

As for those fancy ingredients, there are ways to trim costs there, too. Here are just a few we've stumbled on over the years:
  • Shop around. We've found that no single supermarket in our area has the best prices on everything, but there are several stores that offer great bargains on a few specific things. The Whole Earth Center in Princeton sells mushrooms in its bulk bins for $2.29 a pound, much less than the packaged shrooms at our local Stop & Shop. But its prices on fresh herbs are exorbitant—as much as $3 for a tiny package. So now we get our parsley and cilantro (when we're not growing them in the garden) for a dollar a bunch at the H-Mart down the road, and we get so much for that dollar that some of it's likely to end up in the stock bag.
  • Use substitutes. We have a recipe for a wild mushroom soup that's absolutely delicious, but it calls for two cups (!) of dried porcini mushrooms and half a pound of "fresh wild mushrooms." If we followed the recipe to the letter, it would cost something like four dollars a bowlful. So we compromise by using a combination of plain white button mushrooms from Whole Earth, as mentioned above, and flavorful shiitake mushrooms, which we can get reasonably cheap by buying them dried at the aforementioned H-Mart and reconstituting them. The soup admittedly has a rather different flavor with these changes to the recipe, but it's still mighty tasty.
  • Grow your own. When choosing crops for our garden, we devote extra space to the ones that are expensive to buy at the store (arugula, snow peas) and skip the ones we can buy relatively cheaply (potatoes, onions). Yes, I have heard that home-grown potatoes really don't compare to the supermarket variety, but when you've only got 100 square feet of garden space to work with, you have to make the most of it.
  • Go veggie. Or at least partially veggie. Meat is the priciest part of most meals, so leaving it out—or choosing recipes to make a little meat go a long way—will give you more bang for your grocery buck, and leave you with extra cash to spend on all those other delicacies.
And of course, avoiding the more common form of gluttony and taking smaller portions will help you get more meals out of one recipe.

(Hmm...I seem to have a lot more personal experience to draw on when talking about food than when talking about more abstract concepts like envy and pride. Why is that, I wonder? :-))

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Thrift Week, day four: Wrath

This entry is going to be a rather short one, I think, because it's late and right now I'm feeling more in tune with sloth than with wrath, my allotted subject for today. It was kind of poor planning on my part to schedule wrath for a day when I would have less time than usual, because it's probably the hardest of the seven sins on the list to link to finances. The only way I can really think of to make the connection is to think about it in terms of negotiation. One of the key rules of negotiation is to stay calm, because you're more likely to get what you want if you ask for it in a polite, reasonable way. (Side note: actually, there are exceptions to this rule. Miss Manners, in her Guide for the Turn-of-the-Millennium, relates an incident in which she called up a newspaper office several times to complain that her paper wasn't being delivered, without result. An employee finally explained to her that it was the company's policy not to take any action unless the complainant "could be characterized as irate." Miss Manners reports that she "asked timidly if he would be so kind as to put her down as having been loud and obscene, and he gallantly promised to do this.")

But in general, being polite gets you better results than being rude. If you're dealing with customer service, for instance, if you lose your temper and start yelling insults, they're not going to want to deal with you; they'll just hang up, and you'll be no closer to solving the problem. By contrast, if you stay calm but determined, they'll be more willing to hear you out. (They still may not fix your problem, but at least it won't be your own fault.) Or if you're trying to persuade your neighbor not to use power tools in his yard in the wee hours of the morning (and you're defining the wee hours as anything earlier than 10 am on a weekend), he's more likely to agree, or at least consider a compromise, if you ask him politely than if you barge up to him shaking your finger in his face and threatening to call the cops on him for disturbing the peace. In any negotiation—financial or otherwise—keeping your cool is a better way to get what you want than going in hot (which is likely to get the other party heated up as well, causing the whole situation to boil over).

I'm sure there must be more to say on this subject, but I can't think of anything at the moment, and anyhow, it's bedtime. Tomorrow we can have fun with gluttony.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Thrift Week, day three: Avarice

Continuing our ongoing Thrift Week parade of sins, today we come to the topic of avarice. This one may seem a little counterintuitive: sure, being too fond of money can hurt you in a variety of ways, but how exactly can it hurt you financially? Won't piling up your money invariably make you richer? Well, no, not necessarily. There are actually lots of ways in which being too attached to your money can actually hurt you. Let's look at a few examples, which we'll illustrate with a character we'll call...let's see...Bill.
  • Bill's car starts making a funny squealing noise. He hesitates to take it to the mechanic, because he doesn't want to spend the money to have it looked at when it might be nothing. (Deep down, he's even more reluctant to have it looked at and find out it really is something—something that's going to cost a bundle to fix.) So he just ignores it and hopes it goes away, and one day it does—only to be replaced by a horrible grinding noise that turns out to be the scraping of the metal plates in his brakes, forming the percussion line to the tune of hundreds of dollars in repairs. If he'd attended to the problem early on, he could have just replaced the brake pads; now he'll have to repair the rotors as well.
  • Bill has a huge old dinosaur of a refrigerator that positively guzzles electricity. He's thought about replacing it, but when he looks at the price of a new one, he turns pale at the thought of shelling out seven or eight hundred dollars all at once. So instead, he just keeps shelling out 15 extra dollars each month on his electricity bill, even though the energy savings on a new fridge would be enough to pay for it in just a few years.
  • Bill hears about a hot new stock that's sure to take off. He promptly puts every penny he's got into it and loses his shirt when the stock tanks.
These are just a few examples; once you start thinking about it, you can come up with lots more. Bill's problem is that his eagerness to make as much money as possible, and his unwillingness to part with what he's got, isn't tempered by rational judgment. There's nothing wrong with wanting not to spend money when you don't have to; it's only a problem if you blindly hold on to your cash without stopping to think about whether it's really in your interest to do so. Sometimes, refusing to spend money now will just cost you more later; in other cases, spending the money will bring you other benefits that are really worthwhile, even if they can't be measured in dollars and cents. (Giving to charity is one example; spending money on something you truly love to do could be another.) To put it another way: the difference between being financially savvy and being greedy is whether you're controlling your money or it's controlling you.

Am I just stating the obvious here? Well, perhaps. But the obvious can be worth stating sometimes, I think. Anyhow, tomorrow I'll see if I can come up with any more interesting observations on the subject of wrath.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Thrift Week, day two: Envy

Another day, another deadly sin. Today's topic in our Thrift Week symposium is envy and how it can hurt you financially. (Never mind emotionally and spiritually—that's beyond the scope of this blog.) The dangers of envy are somewhat similar to the perils of pride; it's just the motivation for them that's different. Both of them can lead you to spend too much, trying to maintain a lifestyle you can't afford. To illustrate this, let's introduce a character called Ivy (because she's green with envy, get it? Ah, sometimes I amuse even myself.)

Ivy is a recent college grad who's just landed her first job: an entry level-position at a high-class firm. But instead of being happy to have a firm footing on the corporate ladder, she's discontented because all her colleagues make so much more money and lead such extravagant lifestyles. She thinks, "I'm just as talented as these bozos! Why shouldn't I get to wear designer clothes and drive a Mercedes, too?" And so to assuage her feelings of resentment, she loads herself down with debt, taking out a massive car loan with the tiniest of down payments and giving her credit card regular workouts at high-end boutiques. She doesn't actually need a luxury car—she can get to and from work just fine on the subway—and she could put together a perfectly presentable, professional wardrobe at consignment shops, but she thinks she "deserves" the same lifestyle her colleagues have, even though she isn't yet earning the salary to support it.

Like Leo, Ivy's an extreme case. But just about any of us can fall victim to the occasional attack of "I deserve it" and wind up shelling out money for something we didn't really need, and might not even have wanted if someone else didn't have it. After all, sowing this kind of discontentment with our lot is more or less the whole purpose of advertising, whether it's for shampoo (your hair isn't pretty enough!), cars (your car isn't exciting enough!), or breakfast cereal (your cereal doesn't give you superhuman strength and unearthly beauty!).

Interestingly, studies show that what makes people feel rich or poor is not how much they have in absolute terms, but how much they have relative to those around them. For instance, a study at Harvard (cited in this story on the public radio show Marketplace) found that most respondents would rather earn $50,000 a year at a company where most of their colleagues earned $25,000 than earn $100,000 a year at a company where most of their colleagues earned $200,000. They would feel more content with their lot making only half as much money, as long as it were twice as much as everyone else made. Some scholars speculate that this response shows it isn't really about the money; people just want to earn more than their coworkers because they see the salary as an indication of how much they're valued in the workplace. But even so, the need to feel more valued than all their colleagues—to be, in effect, at the top of the grading curve—does smack of envy, and it does carry this basic disadvantage: that no matter how well someone like Ivy does at work, how fast she climbs, much she earns, how extravagantly she can live, she'll never be satisfied as long as there's someone else who's doing even better. Even if she reaches the very top of the corporate ladder, she'll always have to worry about someone else coming along to challenge that position—just like Snow White's stepmother constantly checking her mirror to make sure that she's still the fairest of them all.

Speaking for myself, I don't think I'd really be happy with either of the hypothetical jobs described above. I wouldn't like to make twice as much as all my coworkers, and I wouldn't want to make half as much either. I'd be much more comfortable in a work situation where everyone made $50,000 a year, because then I could interact with my coworkers on even terms, as equals. Given the choice, I'd prefer neither to envy others, nor to be an object of envy to them. Neither one really seems to make for a healthy relationship.

By the by, I've just realized that I've managed to get Marlowe's list of sins a bit out of order, because I confused "covetousness" with envy when it's supposed to be avarice. So I'll go back and pick up that one tomorrow.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Seven Anti-Frugal Sins

Happy Thrift Week, everyone! (For those who missed last year's explanation of what Thrift Week is, you can read it here.) This year's celebration of Thrift Week is inspired partly by a comment my friend Laura posted on last week's entry, and partly by an article published last summer in Tip Hero, "How the 7 Deadly Sins Warn Us to Live Frugally." Since there just happen to be seven deadly sins and seven days of Thrift Week, I thought exploring this topic in a little more detail might be an appropriate theme for this week's entries.

First, I refer you to Wikipedia for a little background on the concept of the seven deadly sins. It appears the list most people are familiar with, as presented in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (pride, covetousness, envy, wrath, gluttony, sloth, and lechery) has evolved somewhat over time. The original list, developed by a fourth-century monk, contained eight sins rather than seven: gluttony, fornication, avarice, despair, wrath, discouragement, vainglory, and pride. To modern readers, of course, that list seems to have a lot of overlap, as well as at least a couple of items that are no longer generally recognized as deadly sins. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory I revised the list down to seven, but even then they weren't the same seven we're familiar with: the first item on the list was "extravagance," followed by gluttony, avarice, discouragement, wrath, envy, and pride. If this were still the list today, it would be very easy to kick off this week's entries by showing how extravagance is a wasteful habit: in fact, it's more or less the literal opposite of frugality. But over the years, extravagance was replaced with lust and discouragement modified to sloth, giving us the list we know today.

So where to start on this list? I think I'll take them in the same order as Marlowe, since a) pride is a particularly easy one to tackle and b) it saves lust, which is the most entertaining, for last.

First of all, let's be clear on what we mean by pride. Nowadays, the word pride is often considered a positive term: we talk about being proud of our country and proud of our children, and we encourage those children to be proud of themselves when they do well at something. But this use of the word pride is more or less a synonym for satisfaction, pleasure in your own accomplishments. The sin of pride, by contrast, is closer in meaning to hubris, or arrogance: thinking that you are, or deserve to be, more important than everyone else. (While these two emotions can certainly go together, it's also clearly possible to be pleased with your own achievements without concluding that you're too good for everyone else.)

It's easy to see how this kind of pride can be costly. If you care a lot about your image, you're going to spend a lot of money maintaining that image. Let's make up an example character to illustrate this: we'll call him Leo. Leo cares a lot about how other people see him, so he decided to become a doctor—not because he really likes medicine, but because he wants to make plenty of money and have people look up to him. Unfortunately, medical school left him with a lot of debt to pay off, so even with a hefty salary, his expenses still exceed his income. Because he has an image to live up to, he has put himself still further into debt buying a big house in a fancy neighborhood. He leases a car, even though it's the most expensive way to drive, because he can't afford a new car and can't afford to be seen driving a used one. He also has to shell out for at least a couple of new designer suits each year—since clearly he can't be seen in last year's styles—and have all the latest gadgets. He's making a lot of money, but he's spending more than he makes, saving nothing, and working at a job he doesn't enjoy.

Leo's lifestyle isn't just expensive; it's wasteful as well. He has to heat and cool that big house with only himself in it; he has to keep buying new clothes instead of keeping the old ones; and he has to keep replacing his computer, cell phone, and other electronics with the latest models, and sending the old ones—with all their toxic components—off to the dump.

Most of us aren't Leos, but we can still keep an eye out for smaller, subtler ways in which pride might be hurting us, financially or otherwise. For example: say I've got a leaky faucet in my bathtub. I don't actually know how to fix it, but I'm too proud to ask for help with a job I think I should be able to do myself. So I just put off dealing with it, while 11 gallons a day drip down the drain. If I keep neglecting it for three months, I'll waste 132 gallons of water and bump my water bill up into the next tier, costing myself about $14. (Granted, a visit from a plumber would cost a lot more than that, but swallowing my pride and asking a friend to show me how to put in a new washer would cost almost nothing.)

Got any more good examples of how pride goeth afore a massive credit card bill? Feel free to share them below. And tune in tomorrow for another exciting episode, in which we'll meet Ivy, the embodiment of envy.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


Brian and I just hit Shop-Rite's annual "Can Can" sale, where all manner of canned goods (and some other products as well) are available dirt cheap. Since this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Can Can sale, several items were on sale for 40 cents, including beans, tomatoes, and pasta. We loaded up to the limit on these products, then got them home and were faced with the problem of how to cram them all into our woefully small pantry. Eventually we concluded that some items would have to go into overflow storage downstairs, so we started sorting through the entire contents of the pantry to figure out what should go where. The biggest problem was making sure that the stuff downstairs didn't become a case of "out of sight, out of mind" and get restocked prematurely, so we hit on a solution that I have dubbed the "canventory."

The canventory is simply a list of all the canned goods and all the pasta boxes we have, sorted by type. It shows the size of each package, the number of packages we have, and where they are stored. A typical entry looks like this:

Beans, kidney, dark 15.5 oz. 2 cans 2 upstairs 0 downstairs

I've entered the full list into an Excel spreadsheet, which can be easily updated on an ongoing basis and will automatically re-tally the number of cans or boxes we have left. So now all I have to do is pull up the list to see at a glance how many we have of any given item, so that we don't buy too many or too few of anything (like the big 20-quart box of powdered milk we just brought home from the Shop-Rite, not remembering that we already had an unopened box stored away in the pantry).

So how is this system ecofrugal? Simply put, it allows us to make better use of three available resources: space, time, and money. We use space more effectively by storing the foodstuffs we're most likely to need where they'll be most accessible, and keeping everything else in reserve. We save time because we don't have to hunt through two different storage areas to see what we've already got. And we save money because we can take better advantage of massive sales like today's without fear of overloading on any particular product. (In fact, after a moment's consideration, I've just added a new column to the canventory: "Last price paid." That column will show how much we paid for a particular product last time it went on sale, so we can evaluate future sales to see just how good a deal they really are.)

I'm hoping this same system will prove useful later in the year to help us keep track of our (I hope) abundant garden produce. For that purpose, I'll probably have to add another column to the inventory—expected shelf life—to make sure everything we grow gets eaten while the eating is good. But of course, that particular point is moot until I figure out what I'm actually planting this year, and where—about which, more in a future entry.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Dreaming of a green Christmas

Happy New Year, everyone!

One of my New Year's resolutions last year was to update this blog at least once a week. Looking back over the past year's entries, I see that I met that goal most weeks, but not quite every week. So I'm aiming to be more consistent this year (and also to build a website for my business, finish the downstairs bathroom, and do a better job planning my garden than I did last year).

The main reason I didn't update the blog last week was that I was away for most of it, visiting the in-laws for Christmas. As I observed last year in the old blog, the holiday season is all too often the least ecofrugal time of the year—a period of unbridled consumerism and waste. So I thought that this year, I'd take a moment to focus on the positive and consider the ways in which our holidays actually were ecofrugal. To start with, here's a list of some of the most ecofrugal gifts we got and gave this year:
  • Several secondhand or discounted books. Brian's gifts to me included two volumes of cryptic crosswords, purchased on, which I was delighted with. (Note to Mom: don't worry, I like the one you got me too, and it wasn't a duplicate.) My gift to him was a cookbook called $3 Slow-Cooked Meals, bought from a wonderful discount bookstore in Indianapolis called Half-Price Books (though this particular volume was actually marked down to well below half its original price). This gift was an ecofrugal two-fer: not only did it cost very little, it will also help us be more ecofrugal all year long by making better use of our slow cooker. I've already requested the "Apple-Raisin Pudding Cake" for my birthday in two weeks.
  • Several secondhand toys, mostly from yard sales, for our nieces and nephews. These included a Brio building set for our niece (which her dad also seemed to find entertaining) and this wooden shape sorting clock for our nephew (which we know got played with by someone, because three of the pieces were lost almost immediately. Oh well.)
  • Cow and pig sprinkles from the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmer's Market for my brother-in-law's girlfriend Jessica, who loves to bake. Not an extravagant present by any means, but she found them hilarious.
  • A new set of cloth napkins (the ecofrugal alternative to disposable paper) and matching placemats from my in-laws.
  • All manner of homemade goodies. As usual, we gave cherry cordials to my mother-in-law, but because Brian made them himself, he was able to fill up a whole bucket with them for approximately the same amount we'd have spend on a small box from the local chocolatier (and his dad claims that Brian's are better). We also received lots of scrumptious homemade treats, including chocolate truffles from Jessica, a jar of apple butter that Brian's sister and her husband made from their very own apple trees, and an assortment of cookies and candies from our friends in Washington.
  • A soft-sided cooler from Brian's sister and her husband, which she suggested we could take to the farmer's market in hot weather, but which I think will be more useful for stocking up on frozen foodstuffs at Trader Joe's (free-range chicken legs only $2 a pound! Organic veggies same price as the conventional ones at the supermarket! Yee-haw!) and humanely farmed meats at the aforementioned Amish market.
  • A beautiful homemade cribbage board, also from Brian's sister and her husband. I don't think the wood came from their very own apple trees, but it's very cool all the same.
  • And from Brian's dad, several things that weren't officially gifts, but will come in very handy all the same: two more glass-topped canning jars (like those shown in the picture at the top of this page), several heads of garlic (he bought in bulk and offered us the surplus), and a big jar of baker's yeast that he opened before realizing he already had some. We will not need to buy yeast for months, if not years.
Other ecofrugal moves we made over the holidays:
  • Singing carols with Brian's family, a cozy group activity that costs no money and uses no electricity.
  • Making the trip in a fuel-efficient car (38 miles per gallon on the highway! Yee-haw again!). Driving with two people in a car is less carbon-efficient than traveling by inter-city bus or train, according to energy maven Michael Bluejay, but it's cheaper and a lot more practical for us—and it's still way cheaper, as well as more efficient, than flying.
  • Bringing our own food in the car to save on highway fare and reduce the number of stops needed.
  • Reusing wrapping paper and gift bags whenever it was practical.
  • Decking out the house with our usual simple decorations: a single strand of LED lights (much more efficient than the old incandescent type, and less of a fire hazard), trimmed-off evergreen boughs from the tree vendor at Home Depot (who let us take all we wanted for free), and two spools of red-and-silver holiday ribbon from our local dollar store (which we've been reusing for the past several years now and managed to keep in decent shape).
Here's hoping that in 2011, we'll be able to make the holidays even greener, even as global warming—ironically—increases the likelihood that Christmas will be white.