Thursday, December 27, 2012

Price Check: Costco revelation

Back in 2006, I wrote an article about my experience checking out BJ's Wholesale Club, a local warehouse club. I went in with a free one-day pass and my price book and checked the prices on a lot of staple items (toilet paper, tuna, onions, etc.) to see how they compared to the deals we were getting at local supermarkets. My conclusion was that for the way we shop, BJ's just didn't offer much in the way of savings—certainly not enough to justify the $45 membership fee (which has since gone up to $50). So I just decided that for us, a warehouse club membership wasn't a good value.

Since then, we've gone back to BJ's a few more times, using either a one-day pass or a one-month trial membership, and I've seen nothing to make me revise this opinion of this particular store. However, until today, I didn't have much opportunity to check out Costco, another warehouse store, which has built a reputation around being the anti-Wal-Mart. Unlike BJ's, Costco doesn't offer trial memberships or day passes; it won't even allow a non-member to buy a gift card for a friend who has a membership, as I discovered when I tried to buy one for my sister a few years back. This experience soured me a bit on the store, so I decided, in fox-and-grapes fashion, that it probably wasn't worth bothering to check out their membership costs. After all, I figured, if BJ's wasn't a good deal, why would Costco be any better?

Well, it appears I was a bit too hasty. Today I made a trip out to Costco with my in-laws, and I must admit, it was a revelation. The main difference between Costco and BJ's was that Costco, with its focus on the high-end market, sells a lot more organic and Fair Trade products. This includes coffee, which I've been having a lot of trouble finding at local stores. Until recently, I was buying it five pounds at a time over the Internet from Dean's Beans, a Massachusetts-based dealer in Fair Trade coffee (and cocoa and sugar). But when the price on their decaffeinated beans went up to $45—which works out to about $11 a pound with shipping—I thought maybe I could do better buying it at the store. The problem is, while both my local supermarket and Trader Joe's carry some coffees that are Fair Trade certified and some that are decaffeinated, I couldn't find any that were both. I managed to pick up a bag of Caribou Coffee on sale at Target for about $8 a pound, but the regular price was higher than the cost of Dean's Beans, and the Rainforest Alliance certification it carries isn't as stringent as Transfair's. At this point, I was more or less resigned to paying $12 a pound from now on for the Equal Exchange coffee my local Ten Thousand Villages store carries. So you can imagine how my eyes popped when I walked along Costco's coffee aisle today and found a two-pound bag of their house brand coffee—whole bean, decaffeinated, and Fair Trade certified—for only $13. That's less per pound than a lot of the conventional brands at my supermarket.

Nor did the surprises stop there. Hard on the heels of this discovery, I found a five-pound sack of organic sugar for only $1 a pound. Up until now, the best price I'd ever seen was $1.40 a pound at Trader Joe's—and that's since gone up to $1.60 a pound. And I also spotted a couple of other nifty items at lower-than-average prices, like smoked salmon at $12 a pound rather than the $25 a pound I usually see at the supermarket. (Granted, this is more of a rare splurge than a staple item, but at $12 a pound, we might be able to go for it twice a year instead of once.)

So, there are at least a couple of staple items, like coffee and sugar, that are significantly cheaper at Costco. But would the savings on these items be enough to cover the $55 annual membership fee? Let's crunch the numbers: I probably go through about a pound of coffee per month, so 12 pounds per year would cost $78 per year, as opposed to $144 for the Equal Exchange coffee. That's a $66 savings right there, which would pay for the $55 membership fee with $11 to spare. Our sugar usage is harder to calculate, since it varies widely from month to month depending on how much baking we do, but if you estimate it at about a pound a month, that's an additional savings of $7.20 a year. That would put us at $18.20 to the good. So we would at least come out ahead, if not by a huge amount.

But here's the rub: in order to stay ahead, we would have to avoid the dreaded Costco Effect. Because Costco is huge and sells absolutely everything, you can't make your way through the vast warehouse without being bombarded by temptation on every side. Remember that $12 a pound smoked salmon I mentioned before? Throwing a pound of that in the cart would more than offset the $11 we'd be saving on a bag of coffee. And salmon is just the tip of Costco's retail iceberg, which includes everything from pharmaceuticals to furnishings. Compounding the problem, our nearest Costco is a bit off our regular shopping route—so it would hardly seem worth the trouble to go all the way out there just for a bag of coffee or sugar. We'd almost feel obligated to load up the cart with goodies in order to justify the trip. (Granted, they'd be relatively inexpensive goodies compared to what they cost elsewhere—but given that we wouldn't buy them elsewhere, that doesn't qualify as a savings.) Or, worse yet, we might decide it wasn't worth making the trip out to Costco at all if all we needed was coffee—and then our $55 membership would never even get a chance to pay for itself.

So now I'm faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, I'm not convinced that buying a Costco membership would actually leave us with more money in our pockets at the end of the year. But on the other hand, now that I've seen Fair-Trade decaf on sale for $6.50 a pound, I'm just not sure I can bring myself to pay $13 for it locally. So it seems I may be forced to either (a) give up coffee, (b) stock up on it every time we visit my in-laws, or (c) find more friends with Costco memberships who are willing to sneak us in with them.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Building a better shovel

Forget mousetraps. After spending the past half hour shoveling eight inches of snow from my in-laws' sidewalks (with more falling all the time), I think the real way to get the world to beat a path to your door is to build a better snow shovel.

As an ecofrugal individual, I'm generally opposed to snow blowers just on principle. After all, why should I burn fossil fuel to do something that I could do with my own muscle power (and then pay for a gym membership to get in shape)? But as I worked my way along the sidewalk, I found that the most difficult part of the job was not scooping up the snow; it was getting the snow off the shovel blade. After every scoop, I had to beat the blade against the fence or the ground—sometimes several times—to clear it, and often I'd still be left with a significant coating of snow stuck to it. I found myself wondering: what kind of technology would it take to make a shovel that the snow would actually come off of?

My first thought, perhaps influenced by my recent work on the cookware report for ConsumerSearch, was that a Teflon-coated shovel might release the snow more easily. As a cookware material, Teflon actually has its problems; no mater how carefully it's handled, it will eventually peel off and end up in your food. But a shovel blade doesn't have to come into contact with anything except snow, so it might hold up better. A quick Google search revealed that not only is there such a thing as a Teflon snow shovel, there is also a Teflon-based spray that you can apply to an existing shovel to help keep the snow from sticking. In fact, spraying the shovel with Teflon is one of the tips this chiropractor offers for snow-shoveling safety, since it reduces the weight of the shovel and reduces the change of injury.

The next idea that popped into my head was a little weirder. What if you made a snow shovel with a swing lever, like an ice cream scoop, to clear the snow out of the shovel? A Google search on "snow shovel with lever" didn't turn up anything like what I envisioned, but it did point me toward some other intriguing shovel concepts. For instance, check out this wheeled snow shovel, which uses leverage to clear a big volume of snow and toss it a long distance—kind of like a manual-powered snow blower. The top review on Amazon says that it's incredibly silly-looking, but well worth a little embarrassment for the amount of effort it saves. And then there's this big snow scoop, which is more like a manual snowplow than a shovel. It has a fiberglass blade to keep the snow from sticking, but it looks like it would be hard to maneuver.

So it looks like there definitely are easier ways to clear snow without using fossil fuel. Probably the most ecofrugal of the lot would be the spray, since it allows you to keep using your existing shovel rather than replace it. (A little further searching revealed that you can also get a silicone-based spray that doesn't have the problematic chemicals used in the manufacture of Teflon.) But I have to say, that wheeled shovel looks like a lot of fun. At $133, it's a lot more expensive than a shovel, but it's still a lot cheaper than a snow blower—and if it really can cut shoveling time by two-thirds, it might be a worthwhile investment if global warming is going to be bringing us more and bigger snowfalls every winter.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

When is a waste not a waste?

One of the key tenets of my ecofrugal lifestyle is to avoid throwing things in the trash whenever possible. It's always just seemed like a no-brainer to me: by following the four R's (reduce, reuse, recycle, repair), I could save money, save the natural resources and energy that go into manufacturing new goods, and of course, keep my old stuff out of the landfill. Which was, I always assumed, a good thing—not the main point of recycling, perhaps, but certainly a worthwhile goal in itself. After all, land is a limited resource too, right? Obviously we don't want to use any more of it than we have to for storing waste, right? And the less waste we produce, the less land we need for landfills, right? Right.

So you can well imagine that when, as I was out for my daily walk yesterday, I saw a garbage truck drive past bearing the legend, "Our landfills provide more than 17,000 acres of wildlife habitat," it pretty much stopped me right in my tracks.

I'd just always assumed that landfills were basically waste land. Sure, I knew that a modern sanitary landfill was more than just a pit full of garbage, but I always thought features like protective liners and methane capture were just there to protect the surrounding environment from pollution. The landfill area itself, I figured, was obviously unsuitable for anything.

Wrong, it turns out. In fact, Waste Management, the company that owns that truck I saw, has more than 100 landfills in 25 US states and 3 Canadian provinces certified as wildlife habitats. Altogether, their landfills provide 25,000 acres of wildlife habitat (it's obviously grown since that truck was painted). In fact, as development eats up more and more available green space, it almost seems like a landfill—which is unsuitable for building on—is one of the few spaces left that can effectively be set aside for wildlife. 

All of which has left me wondering: have I had it completely wrong all this time? Could it be that throwing more stuff away—thus increasing the amount of land required for landfill space—is actually a good thing for the environment?

Of course, I know that the land needed to dispose of waste isn't the only factor in the reuse-or-replace equation. As I said above, there are also energy and natural resources to consider. But knowing that landfills can be environmentally beneficial makes the equation a lot more complicated. Before, when weighing the pros and cons of throwing out the old and ringing in the new, all I really had to consider was cost. The environmental benefits, I figured, were all on the side of repairing rather than replacing (except in rare cases like ancient energy-guzzling appliances), so I merely had to stack those up against the benefits—financial and other—of buying something new. But now, I actually have to factor in environmental costs and benefits on both sides, which makes an already tough question even tougher. I was beginning to worry that every time I thought about throwing anything away—say, an old pair of boots—I'd have to go searching for statistics and estimating figures and crunching numbers to figure out whether the ecological gains from added the landfill space/wildlife habitat needed to house my old boots would outweigh the costs of a new pair in energy use and other resources, and eventually I'd just end up huddling on the couch refusing to move so that the old boots wouldn't wear out and I could avoid making a decision.

Fortunately, a little further searching on the Waste Management webpage was able to set my mind at rest. On further examination, I found that setting landfill space aside for wildlife isn't the only thing these folks do to help the environment. They also generate electricity from both solid waste and landfill gas, run their trucks on clean-burning methane (some of which actually comes from landfill gas, neatly closing the circle)...and bill themselves as "North America’s largest recycler." In other words, even though they're largely in the business of putting trash into landfills, they still consider keeping trash out of landfills through recycling to be economically and socially beneficial. And since they probably have a whole stable of guys and gals in pocket protectors crunching the numbers for them, I don't have to do it myself; I'm perfectly happy to take their word for it.

So basically, it sounds like I can stick to my previous practices. Keep recycling the things that it's reasonably easy to recycle; keep reusing and repairing old things as long as it's practical to do so. And when it's finally time for an item to go into the landfill, know that it's going to a better place—one with lots of birds and butterflies.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Holiday Tour of Highland Park

At this time of year, one of the best sources of free entertainment is walking around (or, if you want to be a bit less ecofrugal but warmer, driving around) looking at holiday decorations. Just walking from one end of our moderately sized town to the other—about a mile—I can see quite an assortment of them, ranging from, as they say, the sublime to the gorblimey. There are Christmas displays and Hanukkah displays, tasteful displays and...less tasteful ones. (No Kwanzaa decorations that I noticed, but there's always next year.) I found myself thinking that a photo tour of our town's holiday decorations, perhaps with awards for the best displays, would be a nice addition to a local paper...but the closest thing our town had to its own local paper, the Highland Park Mirror, made the transition from paper to online only last year, and even the website hasn't been updated since February. So I decided, what the hey, if we don't have a local media organ to display them, I'll just put some photos of our town's holiday trappings up right here on the blog for all of you to enjoy. And you don't even have to put your coats on to see them.

The coveted Winter Wonderland award (well, it would be coveted if anyone had actually heard of it) goes to Roberts Florals on Raritan Avenue for its glittering window display:

They've put quite a lot of stuff into this window, so here are a few close-up shots to show you some of the details. On one size of the window, we've got Rudolph wreathed in evergreen:

And on the other, an assortment of twinkling stars, trees, and gilded reindeer. Look, there's even a menorah at the bottom!

First runner-up in this category is our local toy and tchotchke shop, Through the Moongate and Over the Moon Toys. The first shot shows the tempting assortment of toys and holiday delights through the window; the second, taken after closing time, highlights the festive star lanterns that make the shuttered store look even more magical and exotic by night.

Second runner-up goes to our local Ten Thousand Villages store, which showcases its holiday wares amid a shower of snowflakes and light-tipped branches, beneath the legend, "Every Product is a Miracle." (A bit of an overstatement, perhaps, but every product is handcrafted and Fair Trade certified, and that's pretty impressive.)

The award for Most Creative Decoration goes to this charming little metal snowman, who's taken up residence in a planter outside our local Century 21 office. At least he's not in any danger of melting if we have a warm spell.

A close runner-up is the giant PVC pipe menorah erected by the Chabad House at Rutgers University...

...right next to our town Christmas tree, because that's the kind of ecumenical burg we are.

The prize for Most Tasteful holiday display goes to this festive, yet understated row of poinsettias in the window of the Fredrick Scott salon.

Runner-up in this category is the neat little row of scarlet-tipped evergreens outside Aposto Italian restaurant. 

And lastly, the undisputed winner for Most Over-the-Top is the menagerie of inflatables outside the Magnolia Gardens apartment building on Woodbridge Avenue. They're vivid enough by day...

...but nearly blinding by night.

And that picture doesn't even show all of them. There are more around the side of the building:

And here's one last display that doesn't really fit into any category, but I thought it looked neat. All the lampposts along Raritan Avenue are currently wreathed in light and topped with giant, luminous snowflakes—which have the advantage of not being attached to any particular religious holiday, so they don't discriminate among religions and, as a bonus, can stay up all winter long. (When we first took this picture, we thought that the exposure time in the darkness was so long that we had actually caught the traffic light in the background going from red to green—but on closer inspection, it's just a red light with a green arrow for those hanging a right.)

A happy Christmas (or other winter holiday of your choice) to all, and to all a good night! And don't forget, there's someone watching over our town who knows if you've been bad or good....

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Pride of ownership

This post, unlike last week's, is going to be about holiday presents. (One present in particular.)

For more than 20 years, one of the most treasured items in my wardrobe has been the cardigan sweater my grandmother gave me for my 13th birthday. What I love most about it is that it has such a huge variety of colors—grey, red, maroon, forest green, blue, purple—that it can be worn with practically everything in my wardrobe. Since I rely on multiple layers of clothing to keep myself warm throughout the winter, this sweater was just about the most useful winter garment in my wardrobe: an outer layer that could be worn over virtually any combination of inner layers. Black turtleneck, purple Henley, favorite cardigan. White shirt, red pullover, favorite cardigan. You get the idea.

Obviously, this sweater was also amazingly well made to have lasted this long. But over 25-plus winters of wear, even the most durable item will eventually start to fall apart. My beloved cardigan is now heavily darned in the elbows, and there are holes in the lining big enough to allow me to put the sweater's pocket into my pants pocket from the outside. On top of that, I haven't exactly stayed the same size since my teens, so the sweater now can't be buttoned all the way without straining across my middle-aged booty. So, reluctantly, a few years ago, I started looking for a replacement.

Well, it seems that as useful as this sweater is to me, it's not a very popular style with manufacturers. In fact, after combing through dozens of retail sites, as well as listings on Amazon and eBay, I couldn't find anything even remotely like it. This made the old sweater, tight and worn-out though it was, even more valuable to me, and I clung to it all the tighter as it deteriorated.

I mentioned this problem to my sister, not this year, but last year, and she took up the quest to help me find a replacement. She sent me link after link to pictures of multicolored cardigans with the query, "How about this"? Turns out I'm incredibly picky: I rejected garment after garment with complaints like, "No, the colors are wrong"; "that one doesn't have pockets"; "that one looks too long for me." I didn't get a new sweater that year.

But my sister, a teacher by trade, is nothing if not persistent. This year she started sending me more links, and finally one of them got the response, "That would be just about perfect if it's my size." And sure enough, that just-about-perfect sweater was what I unwrapped last Saturday when we celebrated the first night of Hanukkah at my sister's house.

As it turns out, the sweater wasn't altogether perfect. Melanie pointed out to me a couple of small flaws: it was missing a button, and it had a small hole or two that would need to be stitched up. But she also pointed out the label sewed into the collar: Missoni. Being an ecofrugalista who doesn't really keep up with the fashion world, I had to have it explained to me that this is an extremely high-end Italian designer line. A quick search revealed that a brand-new sweater from Missoni would run three or even four figures.

Now, obviously, this sweater wasn't brand-new and wasn't in perfect condition. In fact, over the course of the past week, I've found and fixed several holes in it, aside from the ones that my sister initially pointed out. And because I didn't want to schlep all the way down to the nearest fabric store (45 minutes away) for new buttons (and also because the buttons on the sweater are really nice, and I might not find anything as nice to replace them), I simply removed the bottom button from the sweater and moved it up to fill the empty spot. (After all, how often am I going to fasten that bottom button anyway?)

And here's the part that reveals just how well my sister really knows me: making these minor repairs to the sweater actually makes me love it more. Now, instead of being just "the sweater my sister gave me for Hannukah," it's "the sweater I fixed up myself to look as good as new." Putting my own work into fixing the sweater up before wearing it makes me all the more attached to it—a phenomenon that behavioral economists have called "the IKEA effect." As Dan Ariely put it in his book Predictably Irrational, which I just finished reading, your attachment to your belongings—and the amount of money you'd consider them worth—is directly proportional to the amount of time you spent assembling the cabinet, wiring the TV set, or even, as he notes whimsically, feeding, diapering, and singing a lullaby to the baby.

For me, as an ecofrugal person, this sweater would make a much less satisfying gift if I had received it new in the box, especially if I had some idea how much it cost. Rather than feeling loved and pampered by it, I'd never be able to put it on without thinking, "She really shouldn't have spent so much on me." My sister knows me well enough to realize that, so she made no secret of the fact that it was bought secondhand on eBay—which makes it both eco-friendly and a bargain. And the fact that it had a few minor flaws that I could fix myself made it doubly satisfying, since it's now a reminder not only of my sister's patient search (and clever bargain-hunting skills) but also of my own careful labor. This sweater is now my sweater, more than any off-the rack purchase could ever be. Happy Hannukah to me, and mazel tov!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My wish list

Note: No, this isn't going to be another post about holiday shopping.

I carry a little notebook around with me in my purse. It's not exactly a diary, since I don't write in it every day: it's more a place to collect and save thoughts that happen to pop into my head at any moment. I use it to keep track of expenses on trips and cribbage scores when we play in coffeehouses (without a board); I make notes in it of e-mail addresses and interesting quotations that I'd like to remember and observations that I might like to discuss later on this blog. Most of the things in it, however, are lists. As anyone who knows me well will tell you, I'm a major fan of lists—lists of every kind, useful and otherwise. In fact, just to illustrate the point, here's a short list of some of the lists I have in my notebook right now:
  • Good chorus songs (for pub sings and round robins)
  • Things I'd do if money were no object (this list may become the subject of a future post, but it's not the one I'm discussing right now)
  • Best commercial jingles of all time
  • Things I associate with summertime
  • Green businesses in my hometown
  • Things to look for at yard sales
  • Questions to ask the landscaper
One of my favorite lists, however, that I refer to often and re-start every time I switch notebooks, is called, simply, "Things I Want." Some of the items on this list are physical objects, like a new pair of shoes (acquired) and a new fruit tree for the front yard (pending). Others, however, are wishes for events—things that I'd like to achieve or have happen, like "I want my foot to get better" (following a diagnosis of plantar fasciitis. It's nearly there.) As each of these wishes on my list is fulfilled, I check it off rather than crossing it off. That way, I can see not just what I still want, but all the things that I have wanted recently and gotten. This can be very a comforting reminder at times when it seems like nothing is going right.

Now, some of the items on my list are goals that I can work toward, like losing weight or creating a website for my business. Writing down personal goals is a popular motivational technique, recommended by health textbooks, life coaches and folks who live in the self-help section of the bookstore. The idea is that having your goal written down, in a place where you will see it often, keeps it constantly in front of you and reminds you to keep working toward it. However, I also make a point of including some items on the list that aren't goals—things that are pretty much guaranteed to happen with no effort on my part, like "I want spring to come." This may seem kind of pointless: after all, if spring is going to come anyway, what's the point of writing it down?

For me, the answer is that a lot of my personal goals—like New Year's resolutions that keep showing up year after year—haven't been reached yet, and in fact, haven't moved forward much at all. If my list includes "I want to lose fifteen pounds," then seeing that item on the list regularly can remind me of all the things I can do to make it happen: skipping seconds at dinnertime, passing up desserts, exercising more, and so on. But I also know that, if I adopt one or more of these strategies, there is no guarantee that I will stick with it or that, even if I do, it will actually make a significant dent in my weight. In fact, if past performance is any indicator of future results, I have good reason to suspect that it won't. So if my list said nothing but "I want to lose fifteen pounds," then every time I turned to that list, I would be confronted by that same unfulfilled goal, and I would shortly begin to feel like my life is a complete failure. But if I fill out the list with smaller goals that I can easily achieve (e.g., "I want to tear out that overgrown hedge in our front yard") and with items that are pretty much guaranteed to happen in time (e.g., "I want to get over my cold"), I can ensure a pretty much steady stream of items that I can check off as they happen. That way, when I look at the list as a whole and see all the items that I've mananged to check off already, the few that I haven't achieved yet don't seem like such a big deal. (Okay, so I may not have everything on my wish list yet, but just look at all the things I do have! Wow, my life must be pretty good!)

A couple of the items on the list could even be said to fall into both categories. "I want to pay off the mortgage," for example, is something that, barring some unforeseen disaster, will definitely happen, even if I do nothing at all to speed it along. If I simply sit back and watch our mortgage payment come automatically out of our checking account at the beginning of each month, then slowly but surely, the principal will be whittled down until it disappears completely. Yet at the same time, I can, if I choose, take steps to make this dream come true faster. Each time I put an extra thousand dollars towards our mortgage principal, it knocks a month or so off my sentence and brings me closer to that approaching goal line. Wish items like these may be the most satisfying of all, because they allow me both to take pride in my own efforts and to feel confident that, even if I happen to slack off, I will definitely succeed in time.

What's nice about this list is that it helps me see the ways in which my own happiness both is and is not tied to money. When I check off an item like "I want spring to come" or "I want my foot to get better," I remind myself of all the things that money can't buy, the little happinesses that come free of charge. Yet when I check off something more tangible, like "I want a pair of comfortable shoes" or "I want to finish my holiday shopping," I remind myself of all the ways in which money, properly applied, actually can buy happiness—and I keep myself motivated to keep on using my money as wisely as possible so that these little items will always be easy to move into the "completed" column.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Blanket statement

Ever since the cold weather set in, Brian has been listening to me complain about how cold I get working at my desk. We keep our thermostat set at 67 on winter days—a number I've settled on as a compromise between being comfortable physically and being emotionally comfortable with the size of my carbon footprint—and in most parts of the house, this temperature doesn't bother me. I don't particularly notice it while cleaning the bathroom, eating at the kitchen table, or curling up on the living room couch to watch TV. But for some reason, my section of the office always feels freezing to me. I don't know whether this one corner is actually colder than any other spot in the house, or it's the fact that I sit there for hours at a time moving nothing but my fingers, but I'll often be shivering in four layers of clothing plus a hat.

So earlier this week, Brian brought me home an early Hanukkah present: a mini electric blanket. His idea was that this would be the most efficient way possible to keep me warm with electricity, because it would transfer heat directly to me instead of throwing it around the whole room. I was thrilled with the ecofrugality of this plan. Don't turn up the thermostat; don't run a 1000-watt space heater; just put that 115 watts' worth of electricity right where it's needed!

I would love to be able to say that this worked beautifully, and I am now toasty warm while writing this blog entry. But alas, it turns out that the makers of the otherwise ridiculous Snuggie were on to something when they claimed that you can't really wrap yourself in an ordinary blanket and still keep your arms free. I was able to sort of spread it out in my lap, but I found that only warmed up my lap about as well as an ordinary blanket would, while leaving my hands and arms as cold as ever. And when I tried sort of draping the whole thing over my head and upper body, I found that there is really no way to drape a blanket that's stiffened by having wires running all through it.

So right now I've fallen back on Plan B: an ordinary $5 fleece throw from the Rite Aid, about 5 feet by 4 feet, with a hole cut in the middle for my head. This is loose enough to go on over top of my multiple layers of clothes, covering my chest, my lap and most of my arms in a sort of little heat-trapping tent. It's better than other alternatives I've tried in the past—including my fleece bathrobe, a shawl, a cloak, and a poncho—because it's both large enough to cover most of my upper body and loose enough to trap a good amount of warm air. I suspect it's also better than a real Snuggie/Slanket/other wearable blanket, because it's all one piece, so my arms get to share the warm air trapped next to the thermal mass of my torso, instead of being isolated in their own separate sleeves to fend for themselves. It's not quite as long or quite as thick as I might like, but maybe after I've used it a while, I might decide it's worthwhile to take the plunge and cut a hole in a full-sized blanket, which would cover my legs and arms completely. I'd still have to put my hands outside the tent in order to type, but maybe if I can manage to keep my core temperature up, they'll stay warmer too.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to think of a good use for the little electric throw. My latest issue of Mother Earth News contains an article on seed starting that mentions that seedlings like a warm environment, and "bottom heat" is especially helpful. On the other hand, the author says that specially designed seed-starting mats aren't really worth the money, because they usually die after a couple of seasons of use. this in the "so crazy it might work" category, or is it more like "so crazy it's just plain crazy"?