Sunday, August 26, 2012

Stacking 'em up

Visit any couponing site, and one of the main points you're sure to see made is the importance of "stacking" sales with coupons. The idea is this: all manufacturer coupons, and many store coupons, are for name-brand items, which are generally way more expensive than store brands. Thus, a coupon for a full-priced item, even if doubled, is unlikely to reduce its price to the point where it's cheaper than a store brand. However, sales on name-brand items can often reduce their price to this point. If you wait for such a sale before applying the coupon, you'll maximize your savings. And the biggest savings are gained with taller stacks—e.g., a sale plus a manufacturer coupon plus a store coupon plus a rebate. It's like putting your Q on a Double Letter square in Scrabble, and then getting the whole word to hit a Triple Word bonus.

I don't achieve this kind of stack often (in shopping or in Scrabble), so I always feel a certain glee when I can pull it off. I managed it earlier this week at the drugstore, and I thought I'd share my joy with you—and in the process, provide a handy illustration of how "stacking" works.

This stack was an unusual one because it actually involved a store-brand product. Name-brand Prevacid capsules (which I take as a maintenance drug) costs $28.99 for a six-week supply, while the store-brand equivalent costs only $22.99. So choosing the store brand saved me $6, or 26 percent, right off the bat.

I also used my Wellness Plus card. This gives me a point for every dollar I spend at Rite Aid in a given year, and once I reach 250 points, I get 10 percent off all Rite Aid store brands for the rest of that year. I hit the 250-point mark last month, so the card took an additional $2.30 off my purchase, reducing the price to $20.69. Total savings: 29 percent.

The particular box I bought had a $3 peel-off coupon that could be applied at the register, knocking the price down to $17.69. Total savings: 39 percent.

Finally, I applied a $3 UP reward from an earlier purchase. UP Register Rewards are part of the Wellness Plus program: when you buy certain products, your receipt includes a reward that can be applied as a discount toward a future purchase. (Some people like to count savings from UP rewards when they get them, but the way I see it, you haven't actually saved the money until you've spent the reward—especially since an UP reward that isn't used within a month will expire and become worthless. So I count these savings whenever I use them.) Final price: $14.69. Total savings: 49 percent.

Now, if I'd been shopping at the grocery store, these savings wouldn't have been enough to celebrate over. Brian and I actually play a game when we shop supermarket sales, in which we compare our "savings" at the bottom of the receipt (the total amount taken off via sales and coupons) with the amount we spent, and if the savings are greater, that means we "won." But at the drugstore, it's rare for me to get more than 10 or 20 percent savings, so a "stack" that gets me to nearly 50 percent is enough to send me out the door with a big, smug smile on my face.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Back-to-school "needs"

It's been many years now since I had any reason to do any back-to-school shopping (although, as I mentioned back on the old blog, it took me over a decade to shake the impulse). So I was completely taken aback to read in the electronic pages of my Tip Hero newsletter the claim that the average family with kids in school will spend about $688 on school shopping this year. That's the amount per family, not per child, but the average American family with kids under 18 only has 1.86 of them, so that's still nearly $370 per kid. My mind boggling, I tried to cast my memory back to my own school days. What kind of supplies did I buy at the start of a new school year? I remember the teachers sending us lists of things we'd need—a notebook for each class, some pencils and highlighters, maybe a calculator or a compass for math class. I might have had a new backpack or lunch box if the old one was worn out, but I didn't automatically get a new one every year. How could that kind of stuff possibly add up to $370?

I consulted the National Retail Foundation, the source of the statistic, and found that the items I'm thinking of—"school supplies such as notebooks, pencils and backpacks"—add up to only a fraction of the total. Parents expect to spend about $95 on these items (which still seems like a lot), but a far bigger share is going toward "clothing, accessories and electronics." The average family with kids in school expects to spend $246.10 on clothes, $217.88 on electronics and $129.20 on shoes. Nearly 60 percent of these families, according to the site, will be buying "some sort of electronic device" for their kids.

I suppose it's possible that my parents used to spend the equivalent of $375 a year (adjusted for inflation) on clothes and shoes for me and my sister, but I don't recall that being a back-to-school expense specifically. We got new clothes and shoes (or, as often as not in my sister's case, hand-me-downs) when we no longer fit into our old ones, not when it was time to start a new school year. In fact, I personally don't see the point of going out and getting your kid's entire wardrobe for the upcoming school year in August. If the kid isn't growing very fast, then last year's clothes may still fit, and if he is, then the clothes you buy now might not fit by the time it gets cold enough to wear them. Yet somehow, sometime between the time I reached my full height and today, a new school wardrobe every fall became the paradigm.

As for the electronic devices, it's true that these are something I didn't need back when I was in school because at the time, most of them weren't around. I did get my first computer in junior high—a gift from my grandfather—and I did use it increasingly throughout high school, but I also had to share it with my sister. Maybe nowadays parents assume each kid needs his own computer, but surely they don't have to be replaced every year, do they? I can see how the cost of a couple of computers, averaged over their useful lifetime, might work out to $218 per year—but that doesn't explain why six out of ten parents expect to spend some money on electronics in any given year. Clearly there are some other kind of gadgets involved, but what? Cell phones? MP3 players? How do these qualify as back-to-school items?

I can't help thinking that there must be some sort of inflation here of the list of items being defined as back-to-school "needs." On a recent trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond, I picked up a copy of the store's "College Checklist"—an illustrated booklet of a dozen pages—and found what struck me as a ridiculous number of items to be checked off before your kid can be deemed ready to start college life. In addition to your basic sheets, blanket and pillow, the "sleep checklist" includes a mattress topper, duvet cover, bedside table (for apartment dwellers) and a mattress protector to keep out bedbugs. And that's just one of the six checklists in the book; there are separate ones for organization (of the closet and dorm room—the study space gets its own list), cleaning (including an iron and ironing board, which is wishful thinking on the parents' part if I ever heard it), eating (which apparently they figure students won't be doing primarily at the dining hall), and relaxation (my favorite, including such items as iPod speakers, iPod accessories, and "room fragrance." I think this is a modern term for what used to be called "air freshener," possibly changed to reflect the fact that it doesn't.)

I'm not trying to suggest that the tips Tip Hero had to offer on ways to save on all these back-to-school purchases aren't useful. I'm sure they are, but I think perhaps parents could save an even bigger chunk of change by taking a good hard look at their back-to-school shopping lists and then taking a hatchet to them. The Center for a New American Dream apparently agrees with me, as their latest blog entry suggests cutting back on back-to-school spending (and the aggravation that goes with it) by keeping it simple. They point out that multiple copies of the same item (such as pens) will just get lost, while a smaller number will be easier to keep track of, and that basic versions of most supplies will work just as well as pricier ones. And they offer the modest proposal that, you know, if your stuff from last year is still good, you can actually keep using it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Fabulous prizes

A thought just occurred to me as I was browsing through the list of weekly giveaways from Tip Hero. Some of these are for fairly small prizes, like a $100 gift card, while others are for really big items, like a car, a cruise, or a big lump sum in cash. As I looked through these, I reflected, as I do every week, that most of them really didn't interest me, but what struck me this time was that the ones that did appeal to me were all the smaller prizes. Winning a $50 Barnes & Noble gift card, for instance, would actually make me a lot happier than winning $10,000 in cash. This may not seem to make much sense, because with $10,000 you could buy the equivalent of 200 gift cards. But the thing is, if I won $10,000, that isn't what I'd do with it. If I suddenly had an extra $10,000 in the bank, it would merely be an extra $10,000 in the bank—nice to have, but not really exciting. But a $50 Barnes & Noble gift card would be $50 that could only be spent at Barnes & Noble. I wouldn't have the option of putting it sensibly away in the bank; I would have to spend it frivolously, on the sorts of things they sell at Barnes & Noble—books, games, music. In other words, the $50 prize would be $50 worth of fun money, as opposed to $10,000 worth of useful money. And fun money is, well, more fun.

Intellectually, of course, I know that if I won a larger prize, there would be no reason not to take $50 of the money and spend it on something frivolous. Skimming $50 off the top of a $10,000 prize would still leave plenty of money to set aside for a rainy day, or pay down the mortgage, or whatever. But I know I can't be trusted to do it. I might tell myself I was going to spend the money, or some portion of it, on something fun, but when it came time to withdraw the mad money from the account, I'd just think, "Well, there's really nothing I need at Barnes & Noble," and I wouldn't bother to do it. The advantage of the gift card is that it forces me to spend frivolously, when my own conscience won't do it.

How pathetic is it that I have to trick myself into listening to my id instead of my superego?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Waste is a terrible thing to mind, part 2

Ever since posting two weeks back about how our household trash compares to that of other homes in our neighborhood, in the U.S., and around the world, I've been paying much closer attention to everything that goes into our wastebaskets. I notice not just what I throw out, but what comes into the house that might need to be thrown out. Last week, for example, when we went to the grocery store to stock up on some sale items, I found myself sizing up all the packages that went into our cart with a critical eye: "The Blue Bunny ice cream comes in a recyclable plastic carton, so that's good. But the brand of pasta that's on sale comes in a bag, not a box, so you can't recycle or reuse it; it's just trash. And what about these orange juice cartons? We can reuse them for seedling trays, but how many more of those do we really need? Could we compost them, or are they plastic-coated?" (The best answer I could find was this article at, which says that the cartons are about 80 percent paper and 20 percent plastic. You can recycle them in some areas, but not where we live.)

This led me to the conclusion that there actually are still things we could do to reduce our household waste; it's just that we'd have to spend more money to do so. We've already done all the things that are obvious win-wins from an ecofrugal standpoint: eschewing bottled water, carrying reusable shopping bags, using cloth hankies instead of paper tissues (although those can actually be composted), and so on. Now we've reached the point where we have to choose between eco and frugal, where cutting our waste further means skipping the sale items in favor of slightly pricier ones that come in more eco-friendly packaging. So the real question at this point is, how much more should we be willing to pay to reduce waste? Is it worth paying 20 cents more for a pound of pasta to eliminate an ounce of plastic packaging waste? That would work out to $3.20 per pound of waste eliminated; is that a good deal? How can you decide?

Here's a peek at some of the items currently in our trash cans, and my estimate of what it would cost to remove each item from future trash loads:
  • Several plastic windows torn out of junk-mail envelopes. I've already signed up for the Direct Mail Association's mail preference service, but that doesn't affect solicitations from charitable and political groups. The only way I can think of to eliminate these would be to call the charities individually and ask to be removed from their mailing lists. Cost: probably nothing in dollars (since most organizations have toll-free numbers), but potentially hours of phone time, and no guarantee that it would actually work. Weight saved: far less than one ounce per week.
  • The plastic envelope in which our new futon cover was delivered. This is a tough one. Keeping the old futon cover wasn't really an option (after eight years, it was neither presentable nor structurally sound), and short of sewing it myself (which is definitely beyond my limited skills), I'm not sure how we could have bought a new one that didn't come with packaging. I guess it's possible that if we'd gone down to the local futon shop, we could have bought one and told them, "no bag, thanks, we'll take it as it is." But their covers start at $166 for a double mattress, and the one we just bought cost $40 at So that makes a cost difference of $126 to save a little over an ounce.
  • A few plastic liners from cereal boxes. I've never found any brand of breakfast cereal that didn't come in either a bag or a lined box, so I guess to eliminate these, we'd have to stop eating breakfast cereal altogether and start baking more homemade granola. Cost: factoring in the ingredients and fuel, about 25 cents per week—plus the time it takes to bake, and the annoyance factor of heating up the house in the summertime. And Brian would probably get tired of granola pretty quickly.
  • A seltzer bottle cap. The bottles themselves are recyclable, but the caps don't have a number on them. Eliminating these would be as simple as switching to cans, which can be recycled in their entirety (and also crushed to save space in the bin, which might be a plus). Seltzer costs about 62 cents per quart in bottles, 66 cents per quart in cans, so that's only an extra few cents a week—but the amount of waste saved is pretty trivial.
  • An empty deodorant container. There are "alternative" deodorants that don't come in these plastic containers—natural salts and such like—but as far as I can tell, they don't work at all, so that would just be a big waste of money. So I guess the best alternative would be Tom's of Maine, which comes in a recyclable plastic tube. This costs about $5 for a 2.2-ounce stick, as opposed to $1 for a 3-ounce Speed Stick or Arm & Hammer bought on sale—so over the course of two months, we'd be spending about $6.80 extra to eliminate a single tube that weighs about 1.5 ounces. (And of course, we don't really know how effective the Tom's deodorant would be. The social costs wearing a deodorant that doesn't work are hard to calculate.)
  • One of the most puzzling items, several strands of dental floss. Most dental floss is made from nylon, so it can't go in the compost. It seems like there ought to be some out there that's biodegradable, but when I searched for "biodegradable floss," all I could find was floss that comes in biodegradable containers, such as Smart Floss and Eco-Dent. Eventually I managed to find a brand called Radius, which is made of silk (!) and costs $4.50 for 50 yards, as opposed to the $1.50 we pay for 100 yards. So that's a difference of $7.50 for something that weighs less than an ounce for the entire package (including the plastic case, which is recyclable) and takes us more than three months to go through. Out of curiosity, I also checked to see whether there is a reusable alternative to floss. I found one called the Bryton Pick, which is made of flexible stainless steel with a plastic handle—but since it can only be reused for "up to 30 days," I suspect this would produce a lot more waste, as measured by weight, than the floss. I also found a blog entry describing a product called Stim-U-Dent Thin Plaque Removers, which appear to be glorified toothpicks. The thin ones (which I suspect I would need, since my teeth are pretty tightly spaced) cost $3.79 for 160, an 80-day supply for the two of us, as opposed to $1.20 for an equivalent amount of floss. That's a cost difference of $2.59, or about a dollar a month. It's better than the silk floss, but still, is it worth it to save such a trivial amount of weight?
  • Most evil of all, a Styrofoam tray—the kind that meat comes on, only this one held veggies from the bargain rack at the grocery store. Even in our town, where just about any plastic item with a recycling symbol can go in the bins, you can't recycle Styrofoam. The veggies it held were marked down to $1.23, so if that was half price, it would cost $1.23 extra to eliminate this very lightweight but relatively bulky item.
Looking over this partial list, I realize that the problem is that each individual item is so small that eliminating any one of them could provide only a tiny reduction in weight. It could add up over time with items that get used regularly, like the deodorant, but even that doesn't get used up very fast. So in most cases, it seems hard to justify spending extra money to eliminate such as small amount of weight.

The only change that seems like it might be worthwhile is buying seltzer in cans—because although I'm saving only the weight of the cap, not the whole bottle, the cans aren't much more expensive and are actually somewhat more practical. They're smaller, so they don't go flat as fast, and I can keep just a couple of them cold in the fridge and the rest in their case on top of it, which helps reduce fridge overcrowding. But the thing is, if I switched to cans, I'd be doing it mainly for those benefits—not for the immeasurably small amount of waste it would eliminate. So none of this actually gets me any closer to figuring out what's a reasonable cost per pound for waste reduction. Anyone got an idea for a reasonable rubric?

Garden Fresh, part 2

Just a quick post about how we've managed to take our garden-fresh eating to a new level recently. Tonight's dinner was a couscous salad in which all the vegetables—cucumber, green pepper, scallions, and cherry tomatoes—came from our garden. The only ingredients we didn't grow ourselves were the couscous, a can of black beans, and some olive oil, lemon juice, and cumin for the dressing.

Also, the weekend before last we went to a party (an entire day spent playing one game of Advanced Civilization, which we still didn't manage to finish), and we brought two contributions to the snack fare. One was our usual sourdough muffins, which Brian makes from his grandmother's recipe on a weekly basis, so they go with us to almost any event. Those always go over well, but we got even bigger raves for our other contribution: homemade dill pickles. Not only did we make them ourselves, but our garden supplied nearly all the vegetable ingredients—cucumbers, dill, and even whole coriander, which is what you get (in surprising amounts) if you let all your cilantro go to seed. Since they went over so well, and a couple of people even asked for the recipe, I'll share it with you in honor of the occasion:
Refrigerator Dill Pickles

In a quart jar, layer:

2 good-sized cucumbers, sliced
4-5 sprigs of fresh dill
a couple cloves of garlic, minced
2 Tbsp coriander seeds

Pour in:

3 Tbsp kosher salt dissolved in 2 cups water + 6 Tbsp white vinegar

Make sure the veggies are fully immersed, close up the jar, and refrigerate at least 48 hours.
In the words of the Naked Chef, "simple as."

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Coming attraction

Yesterday, while out for my afternoon walk, I spotted a "coming soon" sign on one of our town's many (unfortunately) empty storefronts. It announced the pending arrival of a coffeehouse called OQ Coffee, accompanied by the phrase "start a conversation" and a Web address. After checking out the latter, I found that this local company is in the business of roasting and distributing sustainably sourced specialty coffees. Its coffee is sold online and at local farmers' markets and is served at several local eateries, including our community cafe, A Better World (which I've previously blogged about here). Yep, it's pretty much the definition of a bobo business.

Now, on the one hand, I'm very happy about this, because a proper coffeehouse is something our town sorely needs. Right now, what we have is a choice of two chain establishments. PJ's Coffee serves up a variety of pricey coffee drinks, smoothies, and sandwiches in a cozy, den-like setting—but it closes at 8pm (except on Fridays and Sundays, when it closes at 6pm). Also every Sunday afternoon, it has live jazz played at a volume that makes conversation—which is more or less what coffeehouses are for—impossible. The local Dunkin' Donuts, by contrast, offers assorted coffees, doughnuts, ice cream, and a limited selection of sandwiches at much lower cost—even though, unlike the PJ's, it actually uses Fair Trade-certified beans in all its espresso drinks. It's also open all night. However, as far as atmosphere goes, it doesn't feel like a coffeehouse at all: the lighting is glaring, the furniture plastic, and the music "easy listening" (which I find harder to listen to than just about anything else).

Eager as I am to see this business succeed, however, I can't help wondering just how often I'll actually go there. The problem is the prices. Sustainably sourced coffee doesn't come cheap; a quick comparison of the price of whole-bean coffee at Starbucks and at OQ Coffee's online store reveals that prices are about 33 percent higher at the latter. If this price differential translates to all the coffee drinks served up in the cafe, then the equivalent of a tall Frappuccino that costs $3.30 at Starbucks would come to about $4.40 at OQ. At those prices, I don't think it's ever likely to be more than a monthly splurge for me. And if the coffee itself is out of my usual price range, then it's not much good as a hangout, either. (In the three years since I posted on the old blog about my lack of a "third place," I still haven't found one that meets my needs: a place to spend time without spending a lot of money.)

Maybe it's premature to be worrying about this before the coffeehouse has even opened, but I can't help wondering: just how much should I be prepared to spend to support a local business I like? Maybe Brian and I need to go ahead and give ourselves a local shopping budget, as we've discussed from time to time—say, $25 a month that we can spend supporting any of our local businesses. Then we could spend, say, $15 extra buying a game from our local store rather than, and still have $10 left over to blow on a coupla cups o' joe.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

An unexpected perk of home ownership

Over in the Dollar Stretcher Community, there is currently an interesting discussion in progress about whether it makes more sense to buy a home or rent one. This is a decision, of course, that involves a lot more than just financial factors. When Brian and I were first married, we already knew—without having any idea of which way the real estate market was heading—that our biggest financial goal was to buy a house, because (a) we both wanted a house and yard rather than an apartment, and the rental market around here is mostly the latter, and (b) we both wanted a place of our own, one where we could knock down walls or replace windows or do anything we wanted that wouldn't actually violate fire codes, without having to answer to a landlord. However, we also tended to assume that buying a house would be a wise long-term investment—not because we expected to be able to sell it a few years later for more than we paid for it, but because each month's mortgage payment would bring us just a little bit closer to owning the place outright. After 30 years of making mortgage payments—or 15, or 10, or even less if we paid down the principal aggressively—we would have a home that was entirely ours. After that, for the rest of our lives—which might be another 30 years, or 40, or even longer—we would never have to make a monthly payment again. (True, we would still have to pay property tax, maintenance, and insurance, but a quick calculation showed us that this would never cost as much per month as rent.)

The downside of this, we figured, was that buying a home rather than renting would cost us more in the short term. We'd have not only a high up-front cost for the down payment but also a higher monthly payment throughout the term of the mortgage than we'd have if we continued to rent. However, it now appears that the second of these two assumptions may not have been accurate at all. Today, after reading on a Washington Post blog about how much home prices had risen in the past few months, I popped over to to see if our house's value had risen since the last time I checked it about six months ago. As it turns out, it hadn't (in fact, it had fallen, which I guess makes our neighborhood a contrarian one), but while I was there I made an interesting discovery. Along with its estimate (or "Zestimate") of overall value, Zillow provides a "Rent Zestimate" of how much it thinks a home could fetch in rent. And our Rent Zestimate turns out to be about $300 higher than our current monthly mortgage payment.

Isn't that something? Of course, Zillow's estimate may not be entirely accurate, but if it's even close, it means that we are actually paying less per month to buy this house than we'd pay to rent a similar one. Of course, this doesn't take into account the amount we ponied up for the down payment, but according to this calculator from the New York Times, that would pay for itself in just a few years. That makes "buy or rent," for us, a true no-brainer. We always figured that the benefits of home ownership would outweigh the downsides—but we never thought those benefits would include a lower monthly payment.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Getting my kicks for free

Woo-hoo! Today has been a veritable bonanza of free entertainment discoveries. This morning, while consulting the comments on last week's Saturday Puzzle from the Wall Street Journal site (in hopes of finding some hints for the clues that had me stumped), I discovered that the creator of this particular puzzle actually has his own website, A-Frame Games, which includes more than 20 free puzzles. Then, later in the day, I came across this post I made last year about the TV show "100 Dollar Makeover," which (unlike most shows of its kind) takes an ecofrugal approach to home design. I loved the way the hosts would stretch their extremely limited budget through such strategies as repurposing existing items, building from scratch, and buying secondhand; my only complaint was that only three episodes of the series were available to view online. However, after rereading the post, it occurred to me to search and see if there were any additional episodes to be found—and lo and behold, the entire season (nine episodes) is now posted on the A&E website!

I feel like chortling, "Calloo, callay!" as I did roughly two years ago, when I discovered two whole previously inaccessible seasons' worth of Wasted Spaces, my favorite home TV show, on the DIY Network site. And, to make the parallel complete, I also have a fresh container of Blue Bunny ice cream (mint chocolate chip) in the freezer, purchased last weekend with a sale/coupon combo that reduced its price to a buck fifty. More ice cream and fluffy TV, and cryptic crosswords to boot! The best things in life really are free—or at least cheap.

Who wants to not spend like a millionaire?

Here's what the Washington Post had to say yesterday on "the delicate politics of wealth and class":
We want the pony. We want the Jet Ski. We want the big house on the beach, the big account at the bank (Swiss or otherwise), the big car in the garage (especially if that garage comes equipped with a super-cool elevator that lifts the car from one floor to the next.)
Face it, we want what Mitt Romney has — we want to be rich. Americans don’t just want to be rich — when we’re young and looking ahead at our lives, many of us really believe we will become rich. It’s in our national DNA. An American Dreamscape of private jets and bubbly...Wouldn’t you like to be able to casually throw around $10,000 bets, own a couple of Caddies, haul in a few hundred grand to give a few speeches? And would it matter to you whether you made your dough building widgets or buying and selling shares in a widget-manufacturing company, hitting a baseball or collecting an inheritance?
The rest of the article explores the question of why Mitt Romney is taking so much flak for being a clueless rich guy who doesn't understand the problems of the common man, considering that what the common man really wants is to be just like Mitt. It's an interesting point—if you accept the initial premise, which is that what all Americans want, deep down, is immense wealth. And the article does back up this claim to a certain extent, producing poll numbers to prove that over 60 percent of Americans think it's good for the country to have "a class of rich people" and more than half of all young adults believe they will one day be rich (in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary).

But for me, those two initial paragraphs just stuck in my throat. Because the simple truth is, I don't want the pony, nor the Jet Ski, nor the big house, big car and elevator in the garage. The idea of "casually throwing around $10,000 bets" and "owning a couple of Caddies" doesn't appeal to me in the least. So either the article is wrong about what Americans want—or else it's me, rather than Mitt, who is completely out of touch with the mainstream culture. An American anomaly. A freak.

Mind you, I'm not trying to suggest that I object in the least to having a nice, healthy balance at the bank. After all, what are all my frugal efforts for, if not to improve my financial condition? I don't even object to the idea of having a big enough amount to my name (say, a round million) to be considered "rich." What bothers me is the assumption that not only I should want to be rich, but the reason I should want to be rich is so that I can own lots of fancy toys (the pony, the Jet Ski, the Caddies, and so on). Indeed, the article seems to be working from the assumption that this is what "being rich" means.

Now, I can think of lots of good reasons for wanting to be rich, but a Jet Ski doesn't appear anywhere on the list. For me, the chief benefit of wealth would be never needing to worry about money. It would mean knowing that we can survive any financial crisis—a job loss, a natural disaster, a major health problem—without losing our home or having to tighten our belts to the breaking point. It would allow us to enjoy our jobs more by turning them into a choice—something we do because we want to, not because we need them to pay the bills. And it would give us the freedom to spend freely on the things that matter to us most, such as making our home beautiful and sustainable, supporting local businesses and organic farms, and donating to charities. Oh, sure, we'd probably buy more treats for ourselves, too—dinners out, concert and theater tickets, maybe even buying new clothes before our old ones have worn out—but I just can't imagine either of us developing a sudden hankering for a pony simply because we could afford one.

In fact, I would say that having this kind of wealth—more commonly known as financial security—generally means not spending a lot on fancy toys. If you want to be able to live entirely off your investments, without having to rely on a salary, there are two ways to do it: build up your nest egg to the point that the income it brings in is sufficient to support a lavish lifestyle, or pare down your expenditures to the point that you can live off the interest from a much smaller sum. And at today's pitiful interest rates, the latter approach is a lot easier. (This is the route to financial independence touted by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin in their hugely successful self-help book, Your Money or Your Life.) So for me, the whole point of being rich is having enough to support a modest lifestyle without additional income, not having enough to put an elevator in my air-conditioned garage.

Does this mean I'm out of touch with America? Well, maybe, but I'm not entirely convinced. The statistics cited in the article show that Americans have no problem with the idea of wealth as such and, indeed, aspire to become rich themselves—but nowhere do they show that the average American's idea of what it means to be rich is a huge house, several huge cars, and an Olympic-caliber racehorse. In fact, the very Gallup poll cited in the article finds that most Americans, while saying they would like to become rich one day, do not actually believe that the rich are happier. The Gallup folks suggest several possible reasons for this discrepancy: "Americans who are not rich may simply not want to concede that they are missing out on something that would make them happier, or they may perceive that being rich carries with it new problems or that happiness is related to much more than wealth." However, here's another possible interpretation that might make sense of the findings: "Sure, I'd like to be rich, but I don't think most of the rich people we have now are actually making themselves happier with their money. As far as I can see, they just spend it all on great big houses and Jet Skis. I bet I could do a lot better with it myself."

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Waste is a terrible thing to mind

Last night, while taking out the trash, Brian realized that it must have been at least a month since we'd last taken it out. (In case you're wondering how, he discovered some lipstick-blotted tissues in the downstairs bathroom wastebasket and reasoned that, since I don't wear lipstick—and neither does he—they must have been left there while his parents were visiting us at the beginning of July.) Since the amount of trash we put out was just about enough to fill one large trash bag, I concluded that our household's rate of trash production must be one bag per month (not counting recyclables, which are collected separately). I was pluming myself on this discovery, since most of our neighbors put out their trash once a week, and I assumed that our longer time between pickups meant that we were doing a better-than-average job of keeping our waste production low. But then I started wondering: is a bag a month really that low? How do we actually stack up against the average American, or, for that matter, the average human being on earth?

Finding statistics for American waste production wasn't too difficult, though interpreting them was a bit harder. According to the EPA's Office of Solid Wastes, the average American produces 4.3 pounds of waste per day, of which about 2.9 pounds ends up headed for the landfill. However, the site couldn't say what percentage of this waste comes from businesses rather than homes, except to note that it "is often a significant portion." Assuming, purely at a wild guess, that households account for about half of all the solid waste produced in this country, a two-person household like ours would be producing an average of 2.9 pounds a day, or 87 pounds a month. Now, I didn't weigh last night's bag of trash before we put it out, but I know it can't have been anywhere close to 87 pounds, or Brian would have had to lift the bag in both arms just to get it out to the curb, probably throwing his back out in the process. Since he was, instead, able to pick it up with one hand, I'd guess it weighed no more than 20 pounds, which works out to two-thirds of a pound per day—about 23 percent of the average household's waste production. This is a seriously rough estimate, obviously, but it tallies reasonably well with my earlier observation that we only need to put out the trash once a month while our neighbors generally do it weekly. So it looks like a reasonably safe guess to say that we produce somewhere on the order of one-quarter as much trash as a typical American household.

Fair enough, but how do we stack up against the rest of the world? I found a report from the World Bank that breaks waste production down by region, showing figures ranging from 0.45 kilograms per day in South Asia to 2.2 kilograms per day in "the OECD countries," which I take to mean heavily developed parts of the world like Europe and North America. The snag is that the report doesn't show what percentage of this waste is recovered or what percentage of the remainder is produced by homes rather than businesses. So, resorting to more wild guesstimation, I figured that if South Asia's total per capita trash production is about 20 percent as much as that in nations like the USA, then probably its household waste production is also about 20 percent as much. So if we assume, as I did above, an American home produces 1.45 pounds per person per day, then a South Asian home would be producing about 0.3 pounds per person per day. Extending this assumption to the other parts of the world, an African home would produce about 0.4 pounds per person per day, an East Asian home about 0.6 pounds, and one in Central Asia, Latin America, or the Middle East about 0.7 pounds. So our household, at one-third of a pound per person per day, is just a bit more wasteful than one in South Asia, but still less wasteful than others elsewhere in the world—always assuming that my rough guesses are anywhere close to right.

So, hey, not too shabby, right? Well, in absolute terms, right. But here's the snag: measurements of eco-friendliness aren't always made in absolute terms. Sometimes, rather, your success in "going green" is evaluated not by comparing you to the rest of the world, but by measuring your progress against your own baseline. As an example, last year for Earth Day, the city of Austin, Texas produced a reality TV mini-series called "Dare to Go Zero," in which four families competed to see how much they could reduce their household trash. If we'd been part of that competition, we'd probably have been the first family to be eliminated. We wouldn't set any records for waste reduction for the same reason that Kate Moss won't set any records for weight loss: there just ain't that much there to start with. We'd have to try and skew the baseline by making sure our our initial trash weigh-in was a full month's worth, like today's. (Maybe we could even throw in a large item that we'd been saving for a while, like the old box spring that we finally put out for bulk waste pickup this morning after we couldn't get anyone to take it on Freecycle. Wow, look, we went from 70 pounds to 5 pounds in just one week!)

This is a perfect example of a frustrating problem I've encountered often in my efforts to green our lifestyle: diminishing returns. Advice on how to make your life greener tends, not surprisingly, to focus on the low-hanging fruit, the stuff that provides the biggest bang for a fairly small number of bucks. The families in "Dare to Go Zero," for example, were given gifts of compost pails, reusable grocery bags, and reusable water bottles, with explanations of how using these items regularly could reduce their waste load. They also got advice on what to recycle and how. Similarly, it's common to see articles or websites promising that you can "cut your household energy use in half" by such simple measures as replacing incandescent light bulbs, installing low-flow showerheads, and adding insulation. But what if you've already done all the easy stuff? Where's your 50 percent savings supposed to come from then? There seems to be a serious shortage of advice out there on what to do next once you've already taken all the baby steps.

In our case, looking at the contents of our trash—plastic windows torn out of junk-mail envelopes, dental floss, bottle caps that can't be recycled although the bottles themselves can—the only thing I could think of that would reduce it at all would be to dump the contents of the dustpan (mostly cat hair and wheat-based litter) into the compost bin after sweeping. And given that I usually sweep the bathroom floor in the morning right before hopping into the shower, getting fully dressed to take the dust out rather than just dumping it in the nearest wastebasket would be a fairly big inconvenience in return for a fairly tiny reduction in waste. It seems like at some point, you may just have to shrug your shoulders and decide that one bag per month is good enough.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Zucchini surgery follow-up

After two and a half weeks, I think I can give at least a tentative report on the outcome of my zucchini surgery. For the first few days, it looked like both plants were likely to survive and might even continue to produce. Encouraged by their outwardly healthy appearance, I decided that they might do better if I trimmed away some of the dead and damaged foliage to make more room for the healthy leaves. As I worked, I discovered more of the orange "fress"—that icky sawdust-like material—at the bases of the leaves. So I went digging in a little further with my knife and discovered yet more of the borer grubs working their way up the stems. In my efforts to extricate and kill them, I ended up breaking the main stem of the smaller plant and breaking off a large section of the larger one.

The smaller plant was clearly a lost cause, so I just picked all the remaining squash and tossed the leaves into the compost bin. The larger one looked as though it might be salvageable, so I killed the grubs and trimmed away all the damaged parts, leaving behind a much smaller but reasonably healthy-looking plant (shown at right). However, knowing that it had already suffered additional borer damage, and also that there might still be more borers in there that I hadn't been able to locate, I wasn't too optimistic about its chances.

That was nearly two weeks ago, and as you can see from this second picture, the plant is still hanging in there and has even produced a couple more fruits. (Pay no attention to all the lush verdure outside the actual bed—our weeds have benefited from an influx of rain and a couple of busy weekends that prevented us from tending to yard work. I've really got to make up my mind what kind of surface to put down on those garden paths.) So I'm now cautiously optimistic that I may have managed to root out the borers and that this plant, though somewhat diminished in size, may actually remain productive well into August—long enough, at least, to see us through until our tomato crop starts coming in. And meanwhile, I figure I can use the nine square feet left behind by the removal of the other zucchini plant to put in some cabbages for fall.