Sunday, October 28, 2012

Battening down the hatches

So, for those who haven't heard, there's a hurricane headed our way. (Actually, I'm not sure how you could have managed to avoid hearing about it if you live anywhere east of the Mississippi that isn't under a rock. In the past week, we've received e-mails warning us about the upcoming storm from our local government, the power company, the phone company, the cable company, and my mom. :-)) So, being a list-maker by disposition, I naturally started running through all the possible ways in which the storm might affect us, and what we should do to prepare for each possibility. The list turned out to be pretty short:
  • Possible event: Local flooding.
    Possible impacts: This would almost certainly not affect our house, which is high on a hill outside not only the 100-year but also the 500-year floodplain, and which has never had more than a trickle of water before. But it could easily flood out low-lying roads in our area.
    Necessary steps: In the morning, look outside and see if the roads are flooded. If they are, stay home. 
  • Possible event: Tainted water supply.
    Possible impacts: Most likely, we'll still be able to shower, but we'll have to use our emergency water supplies for drinking and washing dishes.
    Necessary steps: Count the number of bottles of water we have stored up in the basement. Conclude that if we're without water for more than two weeks, we might actually have to buy some more. Get some cash.
  • Possible event: Power outages.
    Possible impacts: Since it's only October and our heating system isn't even fired up yet, we won't freeze to death. If it gets a bit chilly in the house, we've got blankets and warm clothes. Our phone will still work, because it's a cord-connected relic from the 80s. The fridge and microwave won't work—but we've got plenty of canned goods, and we can light our stove with a match. Lights won't work—but we've got flashlights with extra batteries, matches, and plenty of candles. The TV won't work—but we've got board games and lots of books. My computer won't work—but if the outage is local and the roads are passable, then Brian and I can both go to his workplace to get some work done (if I borrow his laptop and transfer files from my backup disk).
    Necessary steps: In the morning, check to see if the lights go on. If not, make one quick foray in the fridge to retrieve essentials like the Brita pitcher and the peanut butter and then keep it firmly shut until the power is back on.
  • Possible event: Disruption in Internet service.
    Possible impacts: I won't be able to work from home, since my work depends heavily on Internet research, but I can go to go to Brian's workplace as described above if the outage is local. If it's widespread, I'll have to take a day off work. And I'll be out of e-mail contact for a while, though we'll still have the phone for emergencies.
    Necessary steps: Make sure important e-mails are dealt with before bed.
  • Possible event: Disruption in phone service.
    Possible impacts: We won't be able to get any calls from political candidates asking for money.
    Necessary steps: Keep fingers crossed.
All in all, this left us with a fairly short to-do list. In fact, pretty much the only items on it were normal jobs that we just needed to take care of promptly, such as covering up the air conditioner. Last year the plastic cover we put over it for the winter kept blowing off in heavy weather—even wrapping it around with duct tape, our sovereign remedy for most household problems, wouldn't keep it in place—and eventually blew away altogether. So this year we added a couple of little eye-hooks (just visible in the photo) screwed into the side of the house and tied it down to those. We'll see how that stands up to the gale-force winds they're promising us. We also swapped out the screens on our screen door for storm windows and put the padlock back on our shed door (since the latch won't hold it securely). Then we went out to run a few errands and saw the first concrete evidence of the approaching storm: lines at the supermarket extending way back into the aisles. Peeping into the baskets of our fellow shoppers, it looked more like they were just picking up the week's groceries a little early rather than preparing for the apocalypse, but the checkers were no less harried on that account. It looked like they'd actually run out of plastic bags—and when I wondered why they weren't pushing their reusable bags as an alternative, Brian speculated that they might actually be out of those too. Faced with a choice of paper or paper, I felt very thankful (and just the tiniest big smug) to have my own reusable bag ready to hand.

So, our hatches are now securely battened, whatever that means, and all that's left to do is sit back and watch how everything plays out. Frankly, I think the amount of hype we've seen just increases the likelihood that the Storm of the Century will instead turn out to be a Tempest in a Teapot—but luckily, we're prepared for the best as well as the worst.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Actual Savings: So why do I hang my laundry?

For some time now, I've been meaning to write a blog entry—or several—about the book All the Money in the World, by Laura Vanderkam, which my mom loaned to me a couple of months ago. Subtitled "What the Happiest People Know About Getting and Spending," it's an analysis of the ways in which having and using money does, and doesn't, make us happier. I've recently started rereading it, aloud, to Brian, and the chapter we went through this morning was "The Chicken Mystique," which discusses the trend toward urban homesteading and self-sufficiency, as epitomized by backyard chickens. Vanderkam says that as a childhood fan of The Boxcar Children and Little House on the Prairie, she can understand the appeal of this kind of lifestyle—but ultimately, she questions whether it's really worth it for most people. As she points out, raising your own food and making your own clothes aren't the only way to live a meaningful, sustainable life. For someone like herself, it makes more sense to devote her limited time to her "core competencies," which include writing and caring for her family, and then use the money she earns from her writing to buy food and clothing produced by others (for whom growing food and making clothes are their true life's work). She backs this claim up by crunching the numbers on home-raised eggs:
A small batch of chickens might lay you two dozen eggs a week. Organic free-range eggs cost about $4 a dozen in the store...The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. If you could clear $6 an hour, then your chicken work would have to take you less than 1.33 hours per week to be economical...and that doesn't include the start-up costs, which are highly variable.
Well, okay, fair point. I do think that she's overlooking one of the key benefits of home-grown food, which is that having our country's food production more widely distributed is an inherent good. When we depend for our food on a few big growers, than anything that hurts one of those growers can potentially threaten our entire food supply. When food comes from many sources, by contrast, losing one of them is less of a disaster. But then, the producers of organic free-range eggs tend to be small growers anyway—so I can buy Sauder's Farm eggs at the store and still support local growers rather than huge agribusinesses.

However, her strict dollar-cost analysis came back into my mind later, as I was hanging out my laundry on the clothesline. I'd made a point of doing the wash today because the weather forecast was calling for a mostly sunny day with highs around 70—the kind of perfect laundry day we probably won't have many more of before winter sets in. Yet as I sorted through the wet clothes and pinned T-shirts up on the line, I found myself wondering, "Why do I do this? Is it really a good use of my time?"

Asking this question at all felt a bit shocking—in fact, almost blasphemous, from an ecofrugal standpoint. After all, line-drying clothes just seems like such an ecofrugal no-brainer: why on earth would you use fossil fuels, for which you have to pay money, to dry your clothes when the sun will do the job for nothing? But I recalled Vanderkamp's observations about how chicken farming, and many other money-saving activities, have large costs in terms of time—which, unlike money, is an inherently limited resource. Most of us could find some way to make more money if we had to, but no one can increase the number of hours in a week. Throwing my wet clothes directly into the dryer would take me two minutes; hanging them on the line takes ten to twenty minutes (plus another five or so to take them down at the end of the day). Why, exactly, do I consider this time well spent?

Well, for starters, it does save me some money. But it's not that much money, really. Michael Bluejay, who calls himself "Mr. Electricity," claims on his website that clothes dryers make up "a whopping 12% of electricity use in a typical household"—but our household clearly isn't typical. For one thing, we do only one or two loads of laundry per week; for another, our dryer runs on gas rather than electricity (though the tumbling does use some). Bluejay estimates the cost of a single tumble-dried load of laundry at 49 cents for an electric dryer, 24 cents for a gas dryer (based on the energy rates we pay here in central Jersey). So by hanging my laundry, I'm taking at least 10 minutes to save at most 24 cents. That means that my hourly wage for this activity is, at best, a paltry $1.44—less than a quarter of the federal minimum wage, even after taxes.

Okay, but hanging my laundry to reduce energy use doesn't just save me money—it also helps shrink my carbon footprint, right? Right—but again, not by that much. According to Bluejay's calculations, drying a single load of clothes in my gas dryer uses about a quarter of a therm of gas. One therm of gas, according to the EPA, produces roughly 0.005 metric tons of CO2. Our household's carbon footprint for the past year, according to Carbon Footprint, is 8.73 metric tons (well below the average for the US, but still above the worldwide average, and much higher than the level of 2 metric tons per person that they cite as a reasonable target for mitigating global warming). So each time I hang a load of laundry, I'm shrinking our household's carbon footprint by less than one-thousandth of one percent. Every little bit helps, no doubt, but it's pretty clear that hanging all our laundry isn't going to get our footprint down to the target level.

So, given that the financial and environmental benefits are so tiny, why do I willingly, even cheerfully, spend 20 minutes on this chore, once or twice a week? Why not just spend that time on something else productive and pay a little more to Carbonfund each year for my carbon offsets? If I'm being totally honest about it, I think I have to admit that I hang laundry because I enjoy it. I enjoy it partly because of the admittedly illusory sense that I'm doing something to lower our energy bills, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and stave off global warming apocalypse. But if that were the only reason, I could just admit that it's a silly reason and put my time to better use. No, I think there must be more to it than that. I like hanging laundry, quite frankly, because it gives me an excuse to spend 20 minutes outdoors on a nice, sunny day. It gets me out of the house and doing something active, even if 20 minutes of pinning clothes on the line doesn't qualify as much of a workout. It gives me a sense of connection with the natural environment—even if it's only the environment of my own back yard. It helps me feel in tune with the cycle of the seasons; it makes me pay attention to how the amount of daylight changes from month to month, and how the temperature gradually drops throughout the fall. It makes me more aware of winter when I have to stop hanging my clothes out on the line because it's below freezing even in the daytime—and it makes me more aware of spring when I can celebrate the arrival of the first warm day by ceremonially hanging out the first laundry load of the year. And I think those benefits, frankly, are more than enough to justify the use of 10 or 20 minutes of my time. Sure, I could have spent that time working and (at least in theory) earned a few bucks that I could spend on something that would increase my happiness down the road—but being out in the open air, feeling the sun on my back and the wind in my hair and the wooden clothespins between my fingers, makes me happy right now.

Raising chickens to save a nickel per egg, on the other hand, I can live without.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What are we saving for?

Last weekend, Brian checked our bank balance at the ATM and noted that it was about time to make an extra payment on our mortgage principal. Ever since we first bought this house, we've been making these lump-sum payments pretty much any time we had cash to spare (beyond the amount we keep on hand as an emergency fund). We did this partly because we're both really uncomfortable with debt and eager to get it paid off quickly, but also because, in the present economic climate, it seemed like pretty much the soundest investment we could make. During the first two years, in particular, we had a 30-year loan at 6 percent APY—a much better interest rate than we could earn at any bank, and a much safer return than we could hope to get in the unpredictable stock market. After two years, we refinanced what was left of the balance for 15 years at 4.5 percent APY—but by that time interest rates had plummeted to nearly nil, so a guaranteed 4.5 percent return still looked like a pretty good bet.

There's no doubt that doing this has helped us financially. If we'd simply kept paying off our original loan at the original rate, we would have paid more than $375,000 in interest charges over the 30-year life of the loan. As it is, we'll end up paying less than $40,000 in interest, and we'll have the loan paid off in less than eight years from the time of purchase. And that's if we stopped making prepayments right now; if we continue to pay at the rate we've been going, we can have the whole thing paid off in less than seven years. By April 2014, or maybe even sooner, we'll be debt free.

And then what?

For pretty much the whole time we've been together, we've been fixated on this one financial goal. For three years, all our spare cash went into a fund to be put toward the down payment on a house; once we had the house, we started working all out toward getting it paid off as fast as possible. We never really stopped to think about what to do with our money once we reach that goal. Of course, we will still need to save for retirement, and indeed, we have been doing so during this time: Brian has money taken out of his paycheck to put in a 401(a), and I put a lump of my freelance earnings into an IRA once a year. So once the mortgage is paid off, we could simply take the extra money we've been putting into the house and start feeding it into our retirement accounts instead. But when Brian suggested this, I questioned whether it would really help us. Owning our home outright was a specific goal that we knew we could reach faster—a lot faster—by paying down the principal. But would putting more money away for retirement help us retire any sooner? Probably not, because we need our jobs (or Brian's job, at least) to provide us with health care. There's always private health insurance, of course, but the costs, at least in New Jersey, are astronomical. To get coverage comparable to what we now have, we'd have to spend four figures a month—just about enough to make up for the mortgage we'd no longer be paying. So unless the new state-run health exchanges mandated by "Obamacare" lower health care costs by a significant amount, at least one of us will have to remain in a full-time job until we're both eligible for Medicare, which won't happen until 2038. And who's to say that we'll want to retire even then? We both like our jobs, more or less, and neither of them is so physically demanding that we couldn't keep doing them well into our 70s.

So while we could start putting more money away for retirement (and almost surely will), this won't really give us a new goal that we can work and save for with the same fervor we're now putting into paying off the mortgage. It almost certainly won't absorb all our extra cash the way mortgage prepayments are doing now. So what will we do with our savings? Will we continue to save just as a matter of habit? If so, where will we stash the money, once we no longer have our nice safe 4.5-percent-guaranteed investment to tuck it into? Might it actually make more sense, if interest rates remain as pitifully low as they are, to—gasp—spend more of our money?

Amy Dacyczyn addresses this question at the end of her first Tightwad Gazette book, in an article entitled, "When You Don't Need to Be a Tightwad." She says it's not uncommon for a couple to find, "after decades of pinching pennies," that their mortgage is paid off, their kids are through college, and they have all the money they need for retirement—and they find themselves "confused as to how to let go of a lifestyle that has brought order and control to their lives and that they have come to enjoy." Family and peers may pressure them to spend in ways that they don't find rewarding, and they may be unsure how to respond to kids' or grandkids' pleas for treats when they can no longer plead poverty. The solution, according to the Frugal Zealot, is to "understand that the tightwad life is not only about spending's about spending in a way that reflects your values, and that should not stop if you have a billion dollars." (If the idea of a billionaire tightwad sounds farfetched, recall that retail mogul Sam Walton continued to drive a beat-up old pickup truck throughout his life, and Warren Buffett still lives in the same house he bought for $31,500 more than 50 years ago.) Thus, for example, tightwads who have achieved their financial goals might choose to spend more on environmentally sound products (like organic veggies or solar panels that have a long payoff time); they might choose to support local businesses that have higher prices; or they might give more to charity. They could also treat themselves more in ways that aren't inherently wasteful, like going out to dinner or hiring people to do the jobs they've always disliked (whether that's painting the house or cleaning the bathrooms). And of course, those who have jobs they don't like can choose to retire early—or switch to a different job that's less lucrative, but more satisfying.

So I suspect that, once the monthly mortgage payment is no longer a part of our lives, we'll be doing a little bit of all these things. Sure, we'll put away more for retirement, because it can't hurt to have extra, and because that cash cushion will help protect us against a financial crisis like a job loss or a major medical problem. But at the same time, we'll need to start adjusting to the idea that it's okay to spend more when we want to. We can ramp up our charitable giving, increasing our donations to the groups we consider most worthy (while continuing to screen out those that don't use our money effectively). We can continue to buy some of our holiday presents at yard sales, but not feel bad about filling in the gaps in the gift list with expensive goodies that we know will go over big. We can pay someone to landscape the back yard if we want, rather than putting it off until some future time when we have a free week and good weather and no troublesome muscle problems. We can buy the good orange juice, the stuff that's not from concentrate, even when it's not on sale.

It will be a big change, I'm sure. But I suspect that in time, we can get used to spending our money, and maybe even like it.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Garden setbacks

Our efforts to make our landscape more edible suffered a couple of setbacks today. First, our beautiful, bountiful basil crop, which we were all set to harvest today and turn into puree to keep us supplied throughout the winter, got zapped by a frost last night. By this morning, more than half of the leaves had  turned a sort of bruise-colored brown, either all over or in spots. I pulled the plants and salvaged what I could, but by the time Brian had picked it over and processed it, we only had enough puree to fill about eight compartments in the ice cube tray. So I guess we'll have to ration ourselves to one or two basil cubes per month if we want this to hold us through the winter. Makes me feel like a real dope for not checking the weather report last night and rushing out to get it picked sooner.

Then, today, we finally began the process of turning the remains of our forsythia bushes into mulch—and quickly discovered the practical limitations of our little secondhand chipper. It can't handle anything much bigger than a finger's width in diameter, and it frequently stops in mid-mulch and needs to be cleared. Brian eventually determined that the crack in the housing, which we'd first tried to glue shut and then patched over with duct tape, was catching hold of stick fragments and causing them to jam the mechanism—and the crack itself was growing gradually bigger as more and more sticks got wedged into it. So we had to call a halt to the mulching process until we can figure out a more secure way of repairing the machine. Brian has determined that it needs to be patched on the inside, not just the outside—which lets out duct tape, because it would quickly peel off and gum up the motor. On the other hand, we can't use anything too rigid, either, because it wouldn't adhere well to the curved housing, and if it fell off it would get caught in the blades. I wondered whether some sort of plastic could be molded to the case and then melted into place, but Brian considers that idea unworkable. So it appears we'll have to (a) figure out a way to fix the chipper, so that we can (b) actually fix the chipper, before we can (c) finish processing the hedge into mulch. And even when we've ground up all the small bits, we'll still have to (d) bundle up the larger sticks that the chipper can't handle, and (e) try to persuade our friend with the fireplace to take the stumps.

Oh well, no one ever said this growing food stuff would be easy.

Friday, October 12, 2012

A compost conundrum

This week, moved by some impulse to simplify, I decided to clean out the medicine cabinet. I ended up pulling out about half a dozen packages of medicines and supplements that were past their expiration dates. This wouldn't stop me from continuing to use them, as health experts say that most drugs remain safe and effective long past their expiration dates, but the reason these products expired in the first place is that we no longer use them. Along with various generic medicines, the items included
  • A bottle of milk of magnesia (purchased, strange as it may sound, because I read that it could be used as a deodorant. It worked reasonably well, but I discovered that for me at least, its laxative properties are still apparent when it's only applied topically. Don't ask me how it's possible; all I know is that it's a side effect I wasn't willing to live with.)
  • A bottle of iron supplements in tablet form, which I had to stop taking because they had the opposite effect from the milk of magnesia (though one helpful friend suggested I should just use both and let them cancel each other out).
  • A bottle of biotin supplements in capsule form.
The question now: how to dispose of all this stuff? It's not as simple a question as it sounds. Some people simply flush them down the toilet, but then they just end up in the water supply—and municipal water treatment may or may not be able to remove them. Many sites tell you to return prescription drugs to the pharmacy where they were purchased, but the one time I tried that, the pharmacist told me it was against the law in New Jersey for them to take back any drug once it had been dispensed. Back when Brian was working in a lab, we simply slipped the offending medicines into the biohazard bin for safe disposal, but that's no longer an option. And while I might have considered offering unwanted, still-usable medications on Freecycle to those who could use them, I seriously doubt anyone is going to take bottles that are not only opened but outdated.

I consulted the website of the Food and Drug Administration, which says the recommended ways to dispose of medicines are, in order:
  1. Follow the instructions on the label (there aren't any on these packages, so no help there)
  2. See if your community has a "drug take-back program" (New Jersey has them for prescription drugs only, so no help there)
  3. If all else fails, dispose of them in the trash, after first removing them from their original containers, "mixing them with an undesirable substance, such as used coffee grounds or kitty litter," and then sealing them in a new leak-proof container. The purpose of this is to prevent anyone from swiping them out of your trash and using them inappropriately.
All this struck me as a bit wasteful, and I got to wondering: could any of these items safely go in the compost bin? Not the actual drugs, obviously—who knows what those would do to our garden plants—but the supplements? After all, vitamins and minerals are things you want in your food, and in the soil where it's grown. So intuitively, it seems like adding these things the soil should be good for it. But I also know that garden soil's a very complicated system, so how could I be sure?

Finding a reliable answer to this question proved tricky. I found an article on eHow that says supplements can be ground up and added to compost, but that's hardly a reliable source. Likewise, some folks on the GardenWeb forum thought this was fine, but while they're mostly experienced gardeners, they're not exactly soil scientists. So then I tried looking up the individual supplements, but the results weren't much better. Searching on "can you compost iron supplements" turned up several sources suggesting that this is a reasonable idea, but again, no reliable ones. And "can you compost biotin" and "can you compost milk of magnesia" got no useful hits at all.

So thus far, these three bottles continue to sit out on the bathroom counter while I waffle about what to do with them. I fear that at some point, I may end up just shoving them back into the medicine chest to get them out of the way—which would kind of defeat the purpose of cleaning out the cabinet in the first place.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Edible landscaping follow-up

Last night I finally managed to get in touch with the nursery that sells the bush cherries by calling them up in the evening, when I figured they wouldn't be "out in the fields." (I still got a machine, but they called me back within the hour.) The guy I talked to explained that they ship the bush cherries, and all other shrubs, in the spring only, because that's the best time to plant them. "A lot of people do plant them in the fall," he explained, "and a lot of them die." So he took my address and promised to send me a catalogue, which should arrive around New Year's. At that time, I can get my order in early for the cherries, and the bushes themselves should arrive by the time the ground is thawed enough to plant them. Hooray!

Now we'll have plenty of time to clear away and shred the remainder of the forsythia carcasses in the meantime. No, we still haven't gotten to it yet—first we had a near-solid week of rain, then we both came down with colds, and then we spend last weekend away at the Folk Project Festival. But this weekend we should be able to manage it, surely. If it doesn't rain. And it's not too cold. And we don't have to go to a football game. :-)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Another Halloween dilemma--postscript

Well, apparently I should have checked last week's Tip Hero newsletter before complaining that nobody makes homemade Halloween costumes anymore. One of the tips is about just that topic: "Any Ideas for Cheap or Free Halloween Costumes?" Suggestions that have showed up in the past week include:

  • superheroes (colorful jogging suit with cape to match) (though one of the suggested heroes to portray this way was Spider-Man, who doesn't wear a cape, does he?)
  • animals (jogging suit or, for a baby, one-piece fleece zipper suit, with appropriate nose/ears/tail)
  • wrapped present (made from a large box)
  • bunch of grapes (made with balloons pinned to the clothing)
  • robot (fairly elaborate prep work needed for this one)
  • ghost (the classic white sheet)
  • witch (the classic black dress and hat)
  • mummy (the classic strips of white fabric)
So there you go...homemade costumes still exist in the frugal subculture.

Postscript to the postscript: just found another article dealing with homemade costumes on the ConsumerSearch blog. It contains nine links to sites with costume ideas (and one site that sells costumes, for those who are truly pressed for time).

And here are still more ideas for making your own costume at

And lastly, my Dollar Stretcher newsletter included links to this site, which includes multiple ways to make various traditional costumes (ballerina, devil, skeleton, princess), and this site, which has a variety of costume ideas sorted into categories: "Cardboard box costumes," "Altered sweatshirt costumes," and so on.

Another Halloween dilemma

Around this time of year, Freecycle starts teeming with requests for Halloween costumes. Some are for specific costumes, such as "I am looking for an Ariel Halloween costume and accessories for my 5 year old daughter"; "Hi everyone, am looking for an  Elmo, cars or buzz lightyear costume size 2t/3t"; and "Looking for a Ninja costume for my 5 year old son." Others are just for any costume in an appropriate size: "Looking for a girl's costume in a size 5/6 tOddler. Also a boys in a size 10/12." Costumes for adults get requested too: "Seeking a Minnie Mouse costume with accessories in women's size, large" and (from the same person) "Seeking a men's complete costume in extra large size of Mickey Mouse or Pluto." 

No doubt, these frugal parents see Freecycle as the best way to get their kids the costumes they've requested without having to spend a lot of money. And after all, they might reason, reusing a costume from last year is green, too, since the alternative, presumably, would be to buy a new one. That's most likely the idea behind a recent e-mail I received from Green America promoting National Costume Swap Day on October 13. The website advertises swap events in 37 different US states, plus the District of Columbia, and 3 Canadian provinces. Some of these are informal swaps, where you can just drop off your old costumes and browse for ones you need; at others, you bring in a used costume and receive a "swap ticket" that you can cash in for a new one. Some of them are fundraisers, so you donate your old costumes and can then buy those brought by others—presumably for less than they'd cost to buy new.

Naturally, as an ecofrugalista, I'm all in favor of reusing and recycling costumes. If you have a store-bought costume that you don't plan to wear again, it's obviously sensible to pass it on to someone else who can. But as I read through these lists, the one question that keeps running through my head is, "Haven't these people ever heard of making costumes?"

Back when I was still young enough to go Trick-or-Treating, pretty much all us kids wore homemade costumes. I knew that store-bought ones existed, but as I remember, I always felt sorry for the kids who "had to" wear them; the way I saw it, their parents didn't have time, or didn't care enough, to make them "real" costumes. Neither my sister nor I was ever reduced to Trick-or-Treating in store-bought garb, although I did once wear a costume based around Wonder Woman Underoos—but that was because I already owned a set. At the time, I didn't think much about the fact that homemade costumes were cheaper than store-bought ones; to me, their biggest advantage was that we could ask to be absolutely anything we wanted. Rather than being confined to whatever the store happened to have, our costume selection was limited only by our imagination and our parents' skills. My sister won a prize in the Halloween parade one year dressed as a U.S. mailbox, crafted by my dad out of corrugated cardboard; another year she went as a can of Campbell's tomato soup, à la Andy Warhol. I went one year as Pac-Man, wearing a papier-mâché mask that my dad made using a beach ball as the base. (Mom did buy me a Pac-Man T-shirt to wear with it—but it doubled as my nightshirt for the rest of the year.) I didn't win a prize with that one, but I was part of the Best Group one year when some friends and I went as the four leads from the Wizard of Oz. My Tin Woodman costume was a suit of posterboard armor, with separate pieces for arms, legs, and torso, all spray-painted silver; I carried an axe made of the same material, stapled around a broomstick.

That's why I'm so puzzled by the number of Freecycle requests for costumes. It seems to me that a lot of these parents are missing out on the best part of the holiday by trying to get their kids' costumes—or their own—ready-made, denying themselves the thrill and the challenge of putting something together themselves. Admittedly, a kid's request to go as the Little Mermaid might be hard to accommodate with limited time or sewing skills, but how hard is it to dress a 5-year-old boy as a ninja? Just dress the kid in black, wrap a black scarf around the head and face, and give him a sword—either store-bought or cut out of cardboard and spray-painted silver. What, is a kid that young going to complain that it's not authentic enough?

One blogger, at least, is aware that homemade costumes are an option, and often a desirable option: Emily Birkin of Live Like a Mensch. Her problem is that she's short on time as well as money, making it hard to come up with a costume for her two-year-old son that won't look too slapdash. The problem, as she puts it, is that
As I see it, there are three types of costumes:
1. Store bought.
2. Painstakingly homemade.
3. Homemade and clearly thrown together at the last minute.
I admit that the "painstakingly homemade" costumes are generally better than the "thrown together" ones, but the latter kind can still be perfectly adequate. Although the costumes I remember most fondly from my childhood were the elaborate ones, I remember wearing simpler costumes too, some of which were literally thrown together at the last minute—yet they were nothing I was ashamed to be seen in. The year I was 13, for instance, I decided I was too old to go Trick-or-Treating and didn't plan a costume. At the last minute, though, I just couldn't stand to see my kid sister going out without me, so I hastily got myself up as a mime: black clothes, white face paint, and a cardboard sign reading "Trick or Treat" on one side and "Thank You" on the other. I didn't get nearly as many comments as my sister in her mailbox costume, but I still got candy. :-)

I don't know exactly when, or how, store-bought Halloween costumes became the norm in American culture. I suppose the growth of the costume industry is partly responsible. We've been getting fliers from Spirit Halloween in the mail for weeks now, selling complete costumes for both kids and adults at $30 to $60 a pop (although we've noticed that the adult female versions of most costumes appear to be normal costumes modified by the term "slutty": slutty vampire, slutty nurse, slutty Little Red Riding Hood, etc.). Our local drugstore has likewise had an entire aisle devoted to costumes since mid-September. With these constant hints passing under parents' noses every day, it's easy to see how they might start to get the idea that a ready-made costume is a necessary part of this holiday. But that can't be the whole story, because industries don't grow up in a vacuum; there has to be a demand before businesses start rushing to supply it. So why has the demand for store-bought costumes grown so dramatically since my childhood? Perhaps it's because parents today have less time—but they don't seem to have more money, so why should they jump to shelling out $40 for a store-bought costume as the default solution, rather than scaling back to simpler homemade costumes? Or is this just another example of how our culture is becoming increasingly commercialized, to the point that we automatically assume the solution to any problem is something to be purchased?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Hershey update

This just in: since my last post about the difficulty of finding more sustainable treats for Halloween, I have received word that Hershey has followed M&M/Mars in pledging to get 100 percent of its cocoa from sustainable sources by the year 2020. So as from today, my boycott of Hershey is officially over—although I still went with M&M/Mars products for my own Halloween handouts. Their deadline for sustainably sourcing their chocolate is the same as Hershey's, but they have a two-year head start and are already more than 20 percent of the way toward their goal, so I figure that makes them 20 percent more moral (or, to put it another way, less evil) than Hershey. Plus, as I may have mentioned before, I just happen to like little Snickers bars.