Wednesday, March 30, 2011

First Picking

Just about a month after First Washday, we celebrated another spring milestone: First Picking, or the first meal of the year to contain something harvested from our own yard. If you think late March seems awfully early to be harvesting anything from the garden, you're quite right; our garden beds are still empty, except for a few holdovers from last year (a stubborn parsley plant and a few leeks that finally decided to germinate this spring after I'd given them up for lost). Even our perennial crops, asparagus and rhubarb, have only just begun to show their heads in their separate little beds, and it will probably be a few weeks at least before any of them are ready to pick.

No, the edibles harvested from the yard for last night's dinner weren't actually planted there; they grew up all by themselves. In fact, they're probably growing in your yard, too, whether you want them to or not. I'm referring, of course, to the lowly and much-maligned dandelion. This tough little weed is the bane of many gardeners because it will grow anywhere and is practically impossible to eradicate. However, as the saying goes, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade—and when your garden gives you dandelions, make salad.

Dandelion greens are supposed to be at their best this time of year, when they're young and tender. Picking them is tricky, because if your yard is anything like ours, the dandelions are mixed in on the ground with twigs and crabgrass and fallen leaves, all of which you have to pick out of the dandelion leaves before you can use them. The greens also come out covered in mud, so you have to wash them very thoroughly. I put them all in a big bowl of water and then completely drained and changed the water three times before I considered them clean enough to eat. I also had to remove the roots, the blossoms (you can eat those, but it's a different recipe) and the tougher stems. However, once you've done all this prep work, the actual cooking is pretty easy. We used a recipe gleaned from Mother Earth News, although it's basically just a variant on the generic recipe for greens that appears in Mountain Cooking, a collection of traditional recipes from Appalachia:

Chop four slices of bacon (in our case, certified humane bacon from Trader Joe's) and fry it until crisp. Pour off all but a tablespoon of the drippings (Note: if you don't eat bacon at all, you can just heat up a tablespoon of olive oil) and add a diced red onion, or a couple of chopped scallions, to the skillet. Stir in 2 teaspoons of brown sugar and 2 tablespoons of cider vinegar, then pour the hot dressing over your greens to wilt them. Toss, and add salt and pepper to taste.

And there you have it: fresh, organic, extremely local (less than 100 feet), seasonal greens for free. Can't get more ecofrugal than that.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Before and Almost

So, the downstairs bath isn't really 100 percent done yet. The old floor molding, which Brian went to so much trouble to salvage and refinish, turns out to be not quite flush with the not-quite-even walls, so it will have to be replaced with some smaller shoe molding. The threshold isn't in place, the doorframe still needs to be finished off with some quarter-round, and eventually, we'll want to replace the old set of corner shelves with something that matches the rest of the room a bit better. But enough of it is done that I thought I could produce a reasonable set of before and after pictures to show just how big a transformation this room has undergone.

So here, to start with, is the "before," taken on the day we first came to look at the house. Now, there are a lot of problems you can't really see in this photo. For example, you can't see the cracks in the old shower surround that were causing it to leak all over the floor, the cracks in the old sink, or the truly hideous old light fixture hanging up over it. You also can't tell that the ventilation fan in the ceiling is both improperly wired and improperly vented, so it doesn't work at all. And from this angle, you can't see the big hole in the wall directly opposite the door, put there for a perfectly valid reason—to provide access to the main "stack" (plumbing drain)—but awful to look at. But you can see enough of the old fixtures, ghastly institutional-style vinyl tile, and haphazardly arranged items on the wall to realize that this room was obviously going to take a lot of dealing with.

Now here is the "after"—or to be more accurate, the "almost there." Observe: old, leaky shower enclosure replaced with new one-piece shower surround and nifty blue-and-yellow shower curtain; walls repaired and repainted golden yellow with a lovely tone-on-tone effect; new slate-look tile, courtesy of the Habitat ReStore; new toilet, sink, and vanity (built from scratch); new covers for the heaters, which serve the additional purpose of covering the hole in the wall; entirely new lighting; wiring and ventilation problems fixed; old wall-mounted medicine chest removed, but the mirrored door salavaged and refinished; hole in the upper wall covered with a handy little plug made from scavenged materials; doorframe and door refinished; new artwork hung up; and new "jewelry" (towel rack and toilet paper holder, not visible in photo) and towels. The result: what was unquestionably the ugliest room in the entire house (at least, of all the rooms that are actually used for living space) has been transformed into possibly the nicest-looking of all.

All told, this project took us about eight months from the time we first set to work in earnest on the room. ("Slow and steady wins the race" is our motto when it comes to home renovation.) We've spent a total of $875 (this does not include the new shower surround, which our lawyer talked the seller into installing for us before we bought the place). It's more than I had originally hoped to spend, but it's still less than half the amount the bloggers at Young House Love spent on their full bath remodel, and they were delighted to come in at $1819 (especially considering that two contractor friends of theirs had independently quoted them a figure of around $10,000 to have the whole room professionally redone). So on the whole, I think our drawn-out DIY bathroom remodel can be considered an ecofrugal success.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Coupon Experiment

Tightwads seem to be deeply divided over the issue of coupons. Many, if not most, money-saving guides mention coupons as a key strategy for saving money on groceries. My Tip Hero newsletter recently ran two stories on "couponing," one on the basics of coupon use and one on the more hardcore practice of "extreme couponing." Both articles include videos showing coupon veterans ringing up whole cartloads of groceries for a trivial sum.

It's hard to argue with results like that, and yet the comments on the stories are mixed. While some readers say they coupons have helped them take control of their finances, others complain that they are all but useless. The arguments against them include:
  1. Coupons are only available for name-brand products. In most cases, the store brand will be cheaper, even with the coupon savings factored in. (You can get around this problem by combining coupons with sales, but that only works if you happen to have a coupon available for a sale item.)
  2. Coupons do not offer significant savings unless they are doubled (or tripled), and many stores do not do this.
  3. Most coupons are either for non-food products or for unhealthful, highly processed foods. There are few or no coupons available for fresh produce and other whole foods (the stuff Michael Pollan says we should be eating).
At least one noted tightwad, the redoubtable Amy Dacyczyn of the Tightwad Gazette, considers coupons to be of limited use. In her article "The Scoop on Coupons," she compares the regular price on several products with their price after double coupons, and then goes on to show how each product could be acquired for even less using a different strategy (e.g, buy the store brand, cook from scratch, or substitute a reusable product for a disposable one). She also notes that since most coupons are for convenience foods, using them could result in "acquiring a taste for these more expensive and less healthful items," leading to higher grocery bills down the line. And she also makes the ecofrugal point that since most of these highly processed foods are also overpackaged, they are inherently wasteful even when they cost nothing.

In the past, I've generally come down on the side of the coupon skeptics. I don't subscribe to a newspaper (reading the news online, which is free and results in less paper waste, appeared to be the more ecofrugal choice), so I haven't had access to the Sunday coupon inserts that sites like Frugal Living and Couponing 101 say are the best source of coupons. However, I do get some coupons free each week in the "Smart Source" insert that comes with my local store circulars, and I diligently click through each week's offerings on In each case, I seldom find more than two or three coupons that I think I might be able to use. The rest are for products I would never use, either because I don't like them, because they're not healthful, or because I can make them so much cheaper from scratch. And of those I do clip, most end up in the recycling bin because they never happened to stack up with a sale on that particular brand good enough to make it cheaper than a store brand.

Still, when I see videos like the ones shown on Tip Hero, I can't deny that there are obviously some folks out there who are significantly cutting their grocery bills with coupons—in some cases, cutting them down to nothing, or very nearly. So I find myself wondering: why does this work for them and not for me? Am I just looking for my coupons in the wrong place? Would it actually be worth subscribing to a Sunday newspaper just to get the coupons?

I've generally assumed the answer to this question would be no, simply because I've had so little luck with coupons from other sources that I can't see how the savings from coupons could possibly be enough to offset the cost of the paper. Yet many articles insist that the savings from coupons should easily be enough to pay for the cost of the paper and then some. Trent of The Simple Dollar claims that "We usually find about two to three coupons per paper worth clipping, and the savings is usually enough to pay for the paper and a bit more."

So I finally decided it was time for an experiment. I would buy one Sunday paper at the newsstand price, extract all the usable coupons, see how many I ended up using, and then calculate my net savings. Based on the results, I could determine whether or not a Sunday newspaper subscription would be a worthwhile investment.

My ecofrugal instincts recoiled as I shelled out $2.00 for yesterday's issue of the Sunday Star-Ledger (Middlesex Edition)—and then recoiled a second time as I pulled out the coupon insert and dumped the rest into the recycling bin after only a brief glance. My first discovery was that most of the coupons in the Sunday paper are the same ones I already get for free in the "Smart Source" packet. I did find a few coupons that I hadn't already seen, but as with the free coupons and the online coupons, most of them didn't look usable. I even tried expanding my definition of a useful coupon, asking myself, "Would I take this item if it were free?" For the majority of the coupons, the answer was no. (I'm holding on to the coupon packet just in case, as I've heard that if you wait a month, you'll often find your coupons matching up with sales. Perhaps these items will start to look better to me if they're actually free. But I'm not counting on that.)

In the end, I clipped only two coupons (barring a couple of duplicates that I'd already extracted from the Smart Source flier): one for $1 off two boxes of Chex cereals and one for $1 off two boxes of Cheerios cereals. Since these are $1 off coupons, our local store will not double them—so I will have to use them both just to make back the money I spent on the paper. So I can't possibly do better than break even. Also, in order to make it worth while using those coupons, I would have to combine them with a sale that reduced the cereals in question from their usual price of around $4 a box to no more than $2 a box, and sales like that, while not unheard of, are extremely rare. It seems highly doubtful that one will pop up in the five weeks before the coupons expire.

Thus, the preliminary results of my coupon experiment appear to be that (1) coupons will not pay for the cost of a Sunday paper, and (2) coupons of any kind, paid or free, will not save me significant amounts on my grocery bill. So I guess the bad news is that I'll never be able to reduce our grocery bill to pennies on the dollar like those "coupon queens" in the videos—but the good news is that I can just stick with the relatively simple strategies I'm using now (buying store brands, cooking from scratch, and looking for sales), rather than spending several hours a week on couponing.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ecofrugal word cloud

This is cute: I used Wordle to make a word cloud showing the frequencies of the words used in this blog over the past 15 months.

Wordle: Ecofrugal Living

Unfortunately, since I'm on an ancient Mac running OS 10.4, hooked up to an almost equally venerable HP Deskjet printer, I can't get it to print. I had some notions of framing it and hanging it up in the office for a piece of ecofrugal artwork. Humph.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Roger Cohen writes in Saturday's New York Times about British Prime Minister David Cameron's proposal to develop a "national happiness index" for his nation.  Although many Brits have mocked the plan, Cohen appears to approve of it.  He points out that gross domestic product may have been the most useful measure of a nation's success back when "the issue for many was survival," but today "most people have enough — or far more than enough by the standards of human history," and more money won't necessarily increase their well-being.

Cameron's idea isn't entirely new.  There's already one nation on Earth that measures its citizens' happiness: the South Asian kingdom of Bhutan.  Its index of Gross National Happiness, or GNH, includes indicators in nine different categories: time use, living standards, good governance, psychological wellbeing, community vitality, culture, health, education, and ecology.  Of these, only one (living standards) is purely economic, covering questions like "How well does your total household income meet your family's everyday needs for food, shelter and clothing?" and "In the past 12 months, did you postpone urgent repairs and maintainance of your household?"  The other indicators cover questions ranging from "How often do you experience frustration?" to "Do you know the name of species of plants and animals in your local surrounding?" to "How much do you trust your neighbours?"

What makes people happy may, of course, vary from one country to another.  For instance, Cohen notes in his column that "Brits link happiness to bird song, knowing themselves, the environment, responsible pet ownership, contributing to society, going out into the wild and reading Socrates."  (Digression: how they're supposed to read the works of a philosopher who left no writings, I'm not sure, but perhaps it makes them happy to think they're reading Socrates.)  Certainly, we in the West might have a problem with some of the measures on the GNH index, such as "Do you consider karma in the course of your daily life?"  Nonetheless, it does seem pretty obvious when you think about it that, by measuring our well-being solely in terms of economic factors, we're overlooking an awful lot of other factors—factors that may be just as important, or more important, in determining how good people's lives really are.

When I first came up with the term "ecofrugality," I was trying to articulate a broader, more inclusive idea of frugality than the simple concept of spending as little money as possible.  I wanted to take the word "frugal" back to its Latin root, frux, meaning "fruit," and show how frugality can be part of a fuller, more "fruitful" life in ways that go beyond money.  And the heart of ecofrugality, to me, was the idea that less can sometimes be more—that it's possible to have a fuller, richer life while spending less money.  Now it seems like a couple of world leaders, at least, might be on the same page.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Paradox of Efficiency

John Tierney's column from Monday's New York Times, entitled "When Energy Efficiency Sullies the Environment," raises a disturbing possibility: that in some cases, stronger energy efficiency standards can actually lead to increased global warming. This is so completely counterintuitive that it sounds like it can't possibly be right, but stay with me here:

Suppose that some category of product, such as cars, becomes more fuel-efficient across the board. You might expect the outcome to be that someone who now drives 12,000 miles per year in a 30-mile-per-gallon car will start driving 12,000 miles per year in a 40-mile-per-gallon car, saving 100 gallons of gas. But according to Tierney, what tends to happen instead is that the driver with the 40-mile-per-gallon car will start driving more. If he drives an extra 4,000 miles each year, that will totally wipe out the gas savings from increased fuel efficiency, in what's known as the "energy rebound effect." And this effect, Tierney claims, is often so large that it more than offsets the savings from energy efficiency, resulting in higher total energy use. It's like the case of a dieter who sees that baked potato chips contain only 1.5 grams of fat per serving and thinks, "Great, I can eat a whole bag of these for the same amount of fat as just a handful of regular chips," and consequently takes in far more calories overall.

Now, I can see how the rebound effect could potentially lead to higher energy use, although I should point out that Tierney doesn't provide any actual data to show that it does so in reality. (The closest he comes is citing two studies that say rebound effects "could sometimes erode all the expected reductions in emissions.") But I have to say, I'm not really sold on this argument. It's true that a person who's bought an energy-efficient car might start driving more—or, at the very least, might not make as strong an effort to drive less. But most people I know don't have all that much flexibility as to how much driving we do. The daily commute, for example, is usually of fixed length. Someone who lives 10 miles from work, and consequently drives 20 miles a day (or roughly 1,000 miles a year) getting to and from work, will use less gas driving those 1,000 miles at 40 mpg than at 30 mpg. True, that person will now have less of an incentive to bike to work or carpool as a way of saving gas, since the amount of gas used on each trip will be less. But I suspect that people who bike to work now aren't suddenly going to stop doing so just because they've bought a more fuel-efficient car. ("Well, on the one hand, I do get more exercise this way, and it's better for the environment, and I can steer around traffic jams—but on the other hand, this car is so efficient, it seems a shame not to use it.")

Tierney also argues that more fuel-efficient cars pose another drawback: their smaller size makes them less safe. "Because of the smaller and consequently less safe cars built to meet federal fuel-efficiency standards starting in the 1980s," he claims, "there were about 2,000 additional deaths on the highway every year, according to the National Research Council." I have one word for this argument: hogwash. Today's cars (and I do mean cars, not SUVs) are both much more efficient and much safer than those built fifty years ago. Check out this video made by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in which a 1959 Chevy Bel Air (which got about 17 mpg at highway speeds) is crashed into a 2009 Chevy Malibu (30 mpg). The before-and-after photos from the crash show that the passenger compartment in the Bel Air is crushed, while that in the Malibu remains intact. Clearly, it is possible to make cars more efficient without making them less safe.

Ah, but, Tierney points out, there is an "indirect rebound effect" as well. Even if drivers don't respond to increased fuel efficiency by driving more, they may opt to "use the money they save on gasoline to buy other things that produce greenhouse emissions, like new electronic gadgets or vacation trips on fuel-burning planes." Again, I think this connection is highly doubtful. For one thing, wouldn't a driver with a more fuel-efficient car be more likely to opt for driving as opposed to flying? (Actually, if this article is to be believed, that's not really an improvement—but that's a subject for a separate entry.) And also, aren't the type of people who buy fuel-efficient cars also the type of people who would be more likely to invest the savings in other products that benefit the environment, like organic produce or better insulation? (Or is Mr. Tierney going to argue that insulating your home is a bad idea too, because it will only encourage you to turn up the heat and strip down to your shirt sleeves? He does apparently think that buying more efficient light bulbs will only encourage you to increase the light level in your home, as he points out that "we spend the same proportion of our income on light as our much poorer ancestors did in 1700," even at much less per lumen. But does it follow from this that if I go out and buy a dozen compact fluorescent bulbs to replace less efficient incandescents, I'll look at my lower electricity bill the next month and think, "Wow, at these prices, I could put strobe lights and a huge disco ball in the garage"?)

Now, I'm not trying to dispute Tierney's conclusion, which is that energy efficiency standards alone are not sufficient to make a dent in global warming, and we also need to "consider alternatives like a carbon tax." Certainly, when facing a problem as massive and as threatening as global warming, we need to use every available tool. But I do confess myself skeptical that efficiency standards are, in and of themselves, destructive. They're not going to solve global warming by themselves, I grant that freely. But it's going to take more solid data than Tierney provides in his column to convince me that they're actually harmful.