Saturday, October 29, 2011

First Snowday

If the beginning of spring—or at least the beginning of the end of winter—is marked by First Washday, then I guess we've just hit its counterpart at the other end of the year: First Snowday, the first snowfall of the year. Here in New Jersey, this event usually comes in November or December, but this year, for some reason, it's arrived before Halloween. Currently, they're predicting accumulations of one to three inches by tomorrow morning. Fortunately the temperature is supposed to stay above freezing tomorrow, so with any luck the neighborhood kids won't have to go Trick-or-Treating in the snow on Monday. But sheesh, what is up with this? I expect to be raking leaves in October, not shoveling snow.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Built from scratch

Just a quick post to show off Brian's latest woodworking project: a second bookshelf for the living room, to accommodate our inexorably expanding collection of books (and some of our videos). Like the one next to it, this one is designed to fit a particular set of specifications:
  1. to maximize the use of space, it has mostly small shelves that will just fit a paperback book (or a video), with one big shelf on top for bigger books;
  2. the top shelf is within my reach (not much over six feet); and
  3. the bottom is specially designed to fit over the baseboard heater without blocking it. (This is the main reason we had to custom-make these bookcases instead of just buying a Billy the Bookcase from IKEA.)
This adds one more item to our ever-growing list of furniture pieces we own that have been either built from scratch or modified in some way. In fact, I once went through and figured out that pretty much every room in our house contains at least one item we've built, refinished, or fixed up in some way:
  • In the living room, we have these two bookcases and the futon frame (bought unfinished), plus the shelves that hold our media computer and the computer itself. Also, a little bracket that Brian built to hold the curtain pull-cord when the original bracket it came with broke.
  • In the office, we have my desk (basically a plywood top rigged to sit atop a yard-sale-purchased cabinet at one end and a small chest, originally a nightstand, at the other), as well as our nifty homemade cat scratching post and a little track-thingy (the technical term) that Brian made to hold the sliding doors, because they kept popping out of the original track-thingy.
  • In the back room, there are a couple of wooden crates we bought at Michael's and refinished to hold our recycling. (These are sitting on a beautiful homemade table we got from my father-in-law, originally built to fit into a specific spot in our old apartment's kitchen where it effectively doubled our counter space, but that piece doesn't count since we didn't make it ourselves.)
  • In the kitchen, we have our spiffy new rolling pantry shelves, a couple of other shelves we added to various cabinets, a rolling cart from Ikea that we bought unfinished, and a spiffy glassware rack that Brian made. Also, all the cabinets themselves, which we refinished, and the little tilt-out drawer Brian installed under the sink.
  • In the upstairs bathroom, there's the vanity, which we redid from top to bottom, refinishing the wood parts, replacing the hardware, and painting the countertop. (I take a particular pride in this piece since it's the only one I did mostly myself.)
  • In the big downstairs room (which we still don't have a good name for), Brian constructed all the windowsills and window jambs from scratch, as well as refinishing the shelf that sits alongside the stairs (which you can see in the picture at the top of this blog page). We also installed the paper floor, and in one corner there's the modified corner shelf from IKEA that Brian adjusted to fit over the baseboard heater.
  • And in the downstairs bath, there's the new vanity, the refinished mirror that we stripped off the old medicine chest, the repainted corner cabinet, and the covers Brian built for the heaters. Not to mention all the other pieces we installed ourselves, even if we didn't build them from scratch: the new sink and toilet, the tile floor, the repaired and repainted walls, the exhaust fan, and all the lighting fixtures. Basically, there's hardly a part of this room we haven't altered.
That leaves only the bedroom with nothing in it of our own device. (Now, what could we add to rectify that situation? Maybe I should learn to quilt.)

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Repair or replace revisited

Over the past few months, I've done a series of posts on the question of "Repair or replace?" I discussed a series of decisions I've had to make about various items (an old bike, a computer, a pair of shoes, a coat) that needed repair, and how I went about deciding whether it was better to fix them or just go ahead and replace them. In one of these posts, I bemoaned the lack of any useful rules of thumb that can help with this decision (except for specific items, like cars and major appliances).

Well, it looks like I should moan no more. Jeff Yeager, the self-dubbed "Ultimate Cheapskate," has published a post on this very subject at The Daily Green, in which he proposes several guidelines for the repair-vs.-replace decision. According to Yeager, you should repair an item if:

1) the cost of the repair is not more than half the cost of a replacement item (he calls this "the 50 percent rule"),
2) the item itself is likely to appreciate in value over time (e.g., antiques of any kind), or
3) the repair is a fairly trivial one (e.g., replacing a faulty electrical cord or a missing shirt button).

On the other hand, you should opt to replace it if:

1) the cost of the repair is more than half the cost of a replacement,
2) a replacement will pay for itself in reduced running costs (e.g., a more efficient appliance), or
3) the replacement is fairly inexpensive (e.g., non-designer clothing items), so you don't stand to save much by doing the repair.

In light of Yeager's rules, it appears that our rather fumbling decision-making process did lead us to the correct choice in most of the cases I mentioned. Repairing my husband's old bike was the right decision, because we could do the repair for about $80, while a new bike (judging by what we saw at the bike shop) would cost at least $500. Replacing my old Mac, by contrast, was the right decision, because the slowness of the old computer was actually costing me money (by making it take longer to complete work assignments that involved a lot of Internet research, and thus cutting my hourly wage). Replacing Brian's old shoes was the right call, because the new ones were cheap (around $35), actually less expensive than repairing the old shoes. And by the same token, I'm better off replacing my old coat rather than trying to repair it, because the repair would cost as much or more than a replacement and might not work at all.

All that makes sense from a purely economic perspective. But what about the environmental costs?  Shouldn't I try to factor in the resources (materials and energy) that will be used to make the replacement items, and the problems associated with disposing of the old ones? As soon as I put the question to myself in those terms, the answer became obvious: only if I actually do dispose of them. If I simply pass them on to someone else, then there is no waste created—and the resources used in the manufacture of a new item will be saved down the line, because someone else will be buying (or otherwise acquiring) a secondhand item who might otherwise have had to buy one new!

So, I can buy myself a new computer, and Freecycle the old one to help out some impoverished student who just needs a reliable machine to type papers on; I can buy myself a new coat, and give the old one back to Goodwill (where I got it in the first place) to be bought by someone with bigger shoulders than mine; Brian can buy a new pair of shoes, but hold on to the old pair as a backup (thus extending the life of the new ones). In all these cases—counterintuitive as it seems—buying a new item is the best choice from an ecofrugal perspective; it saves the most money and, in terms of other resource use, it's a wash. Who woulda thunk it?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Hershey the enslaver

So, for the past year or so I've been boycotting Hershey's chocolate because of its use of forced and child labor on cocoa plantations. Yes, I know this is a problem everywhere in West Africa, and the other major chocolate manufacturers have been involved in it too. But ten years back, they all signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol, committing to clean up their supply chains and address these abuses. To date, all the other chocolate manufacturers have taken at least some steps toward complying. All except Hershey. In fact, they refuse even to say who their suppliers are—so there's no way for any third party to find out whether they are using slave labor or not. The company's recalcitrance has made it the target of a campaign called "Raise the Bar, Hershey" that is petitioning the company to (for a start) trace its supply chain, ask its suppliers to stop using forced labor, and add at least one Fair Trade-certified chocolate bar to its lineup. (You can read more and download a detailed report on the company's practices here.)

It was only today that I learned that Hershey is also exploiting workers right here in the United States. Oh, not American citizens, of course—not people who might actually be able to do something about it. These are foreign students here as part of a "cultural exchange" program to experience American culture. Instead, they're working long shifts in a Hershey's warehouse and being threatened with deportation for failing to meet production schedules. The money they're making isn't even enough to cover the cost of the visas they paid for to take part in this "cultural" experience.

What's interesting is that Hershey's approach to this labor problem on American soil is pretty much the same as the one it's taken with its chocolate: know nothing so you can deny everything. In the case of the student workers, they claim that this particular plant was being managed by a vendor and they knew nothing about the abuses taking place there. And with regard to the folks who grow their cocoa, they simply refuse to trace their supply chain so that they can claim they don't know a thing about any abuses taking place on the cocoa plantations. In other words, they simply refuse to look.

I've generally tried to avoid being too overtly political in this blog, but this has pushed me over the edge. I am going to go against my usual practice and ask outright: will you, all you folks who read this blog, join me in my boycott and spread the word to others? Ultimately, I think nothing but a direct hit to the pocketbook is going to get Hershey to take any action.

Oh, and in case you're wondering what the alternative is (since buying nothing but Fair-Trade-certified chocolate would make this a pretty expensive Halloween): M&M/Mars has committed to get 100 percent of its chocolate from sustainable sources by the year 2020, and they're on track to meet the 10 percent mark this year. So to encourage this positive commitment from a major company, I'm getting little Snickers bars for Halloween this year. (The fact that I really like Snickers bars is just a minor bonus.)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Technical difficulties

I've just heard that some users are having trouble posting comments to this blog. I don't know how many people are affected by the problem or how long it's been going on. To help me gather more data, could I ask my regular readers to try writing comments in response to this post and see whether they go through? And if you try to post a comment and it doesn't work, could you e-mail me (those of you who have my e-mail address) and let me know? Thanks.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The high cost of living apart

Back around Valentine's Day, I wrote a post about the ways in which it's cheaper to live as part of a couple. I noted that couples can also have some expenses that singles don't (gifts and "romantic dinners," for instance), but they pale in comparison to the cost of maintaining two separate households instead of one. Now, a recent article in the New Brunswick Star-Ledger speculates that this may actually be one reason why good old New Joysey has the lowest divorce rate in the nation: "because up here, well, it's just too expensive to break up."

There are other factors involved, of course. The article mentions several: couples in the Northeast are likely to wait longer to marry than Southerners, for instance, and they're more likely to live together before marriage (reducing the chances of a hasty decision). But the financial factor appears to be a significant one. One interviewee says the "half a house" he now rents in Somerville, NJ costs $500 more per month than the mortgage on his old house in Atlanta—meaning that the cost of maintaining two homes adds up to "thousands of dollars a month." The fact that average incomes are higher also adds up to "more money to fight about." A lawyer quoted in the article says that when she tells clients how much they're likely to end up paying in alimony, "their faces turn stone white and they look at me as if it's the second coming."

So I'd like to offer this addendum to my original post: while it may indeed be cheaper to live as a couple, getting married in order to save money is definitely not a good idea. Marrying in haste is a good recipe for a short marriage and an expensive divorce, and that's far costlier than staying single in the first place.