Monday, February 27, 2012

Ecofrugal artwork

Just a quick post today to show off my new ecofrugal artwork. Ever since we got the futon for our downstairs room, about two years back, we've been trying to come up with something suitable to hang over it. Well, a couple of months ago, I happened to think of my collection of Harmony catalogue covers. Harmony is a company that grew out of Seventh Generation (purveyors of eco-friendly cleaning supplies and recycled paper goods) and eventually became part of Gaiam, and for a while during the 90s, they were sending out catalogues about eight times a year with beautiful, seasonal nature photographs on the cover. I started saving these and eventually collected together 15 of them, which I trimmed down to 8 inches by 10 to put them in a photo frame screen like this one. But the screen got broken during a move, and since then, the pictures have just been stashed away in a box with other unused artwork.

We didn't have any picture frames in our collection that were the right size to display these in their new, truncated size. I tried hanging them in 8-1/2 by 11 document frames, but the tiny sliver of white space around the edges looked untidy. So then I tried buying some cheap 8-by-10 frames from the Dollar Tree, only to discover that this is one of the cases in which the adage "you get what you pay for" really holds true. The cheap frames were backed with cardboard, which was very difficult to squeeze out of and back into the frames without crushing the pictures in the process—and eventually I broke the glass in one of them as I tried to cram the back into it. So I decided to try the next step up and see what Michael's had to offer. I took the precaution of checking the Internet for coupons first, and I found that, lo and behold, there was a coupon good that very weekend for 25 percent off any order of picture frames—including sale items. And when I got there, printed coupon in hand, I found that most of the picture frames they had in stock were on sale, as well. So I ended up buying eight 10-by-13 frames with an 8-by-10 mat, reduced from $9 each to $5, and with my coupon I paid just $32 (including tax) for the lot. I took a picture of the final result, though I'm afraid it didn't come out very well with the reflection off the glass—but it gives you the general idea.

For me, I'll admit, even $32 is more than I would normally spend on anything that's purely decorative—but it's probably less than we'd have had to pay for a single large piece, and it's green both in its thematic material and as an example of creative reuse.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Thought for today

My favorite cryptograms site just presented me with this interesting quotation from Eric Butterworth (a New Age theologian and minister in the Unity Church, not to be confused with the more mainstream Unitarian Universalist Church):
Prosperity is a way of living and thinking, and not just money or things. Poverty is a way of living and thinking, and not just a lack of money or things.
This is hardly a new idea; in fact, various forms of it have been attributed to many writers and thinkers through the ages. The philosopher Diogenes, for instance, claimed that the key to happiness lay in desiring little, so that you could always have everything you wanted with little effort. According to one story, Diogenes owned nothing but the clothes on his back and a wooden cup, and when he saw another man drinking water out of his hands, he threw away the cup. By his interpretation, this act didn't make him a poorer man; instead, the discovery that it was possible to drink without a cup made him richer, since it gave him the ability to be content with even less. Similar ideas show up in the writings of Lao Tzu, Thoreau, and lots of others, Eastern and Western, ancient and modern.

I'm certainly not as extreme in my own frugal practices as Diogenes. I own a lot more than one suit of clothes—but I am in the process of cleaning out my closet, because I've concluded that I'll be happier with, say, 20 garments that fit and look good than with 40, half of which are uncomfortable or unflattering. I own a house—but I deliberately chose a small house with few amenities, rather than going deeper into debt to own a big, luxurious palace with half the rooms reserved for "special occasions." I haven't attempted to eliminate all my desires—in fact, in a way, I think I'm happier having something to wish for and work for. But I have found that it's a lot easier to get rich by being happy with a small house and a pared-down wardrobe than it is to get rich by earning millions of dollars to satisfy an ever-growing appetite for luxury.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Seed starting, part 2: DIY lighted seedling tray

Three weeks ago, I started my first batch of seeds for 2012 using an ultra-basic seed-starting system: lengths of PVC pipe lined up in empty juice cartons, combined with a bag of potting mix from Home Despot, a funnel for feeding it into the pipes, and a "pusher" for extricating the seedlings when it's time to transplant them. Today, the first tiny sprout of cilantro has just poked its head above the soil, and so we're just in time to deploy the second half of the system: a new lighted tray in which to store the seedlings so that they can get additional light. Basically, it's a shallow wooden box (painted on the inside with white exterior paint to protect it from drips) with a trellis attached over the top from which the light fixture is suspended by chains. The light is hooked up to a timer (which we already had on hand) that will turn it on around 5pm, just as the daylight is fading, extending the seeds' light exposure by an extra six hours or so. As the seedlings grow, we can adjust the height of the light by shortening the chain, thus keeping the light at the appropriate distance from the tops of the seedlings. (Of course, it isn't perfect, since we'll be starting different types of seeds at different times, and it can't stay the same distance from all of them if they're all of different heights themselves. But close enough.)

The best part is that the whole contraption didn't cost that much to build. The only two components we actually bought were the light fixture itself and one two-by-four, which cost us about $29 put together. All the other components were either scavenged or left over from other projects. The plywood used for the base was left over from the new vanity that Brian built for the downstairs bath; the side pieces were left over from the new bookcase he built in October. The power cord (which wasn't included with the light fixture) was scavenged from a discarded computer peripheral, and the cup hooks holding up the chains are left over from a package of four that we bought last year to hang a curtain over our linen cupboard in the upstairs bath. As for the chains themselves, we have no idea where they came from—they were among the miscellaneous junk we found in the workshop when we bought our house, and they've been sitting their ever since, just waiting for the right project. And all the stain and paint were leftovers as well. So altogether, we've spent just under $40 on a seed-starting system that will, we hope, save us $6 to $10 each year on nursery plants, as well as allowing us to grow all kinds of interesting varieties that are only available in seed form.

We've also made an additional modification to the system: our 1.5-inch lengths of PVC pipe have been joined by some .75-inch-diameter pieces, which we're using to start leeks. Last year we tried direct-seeding them and got bupkes, so this year we're taking the advice of the gardening column in the Washington Post and starting some indoors. However, since these will be skinny little seedlings that get planted fairly tightly in the garden (12 per square foot), we knew we'd need quite a lot of them, so we decided to put them in their own tiny little starter pots that will take up less room on the tray. We can fit nineteen of these little pipettes into a single juice carton, as opposed to just eight of the full-size pipes, so we can start enough seeds for two squares' worth of leeks and still have enough room for all our tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings later on. And the narrower pipe didn't cost us any extra, since we had it left over from our original attempt at building garden trellises (later superseded by sturdier wooden trellises made from two-by-fours).

One final refinement was the decision to cover the individual cartons with clear plastic covers to help them retain moisture. An article that I read on seed starting in Mother Earth News noted that "Some [seed-starting trays] come with a plastic dome that will help preserve moisture...but covering trays with a sheet of plastic wrap will also work." Not having any plastic wrap to hand, I had a quick dig through the recycling bin and pulled out a plastic egg carton composed of three sections: top and bottom pieces with 12 individual cups to hold the eggs, and a flat piece that fits over the top of the whole thing. It seemed a bit like overpackaging when I first saw it, but I became reconciled to it as soon as I realized that the top piece would do just fine for a greenhouse cover. It's a bit longer than the juice cartons, but just wide enough to fit over the top, and it does in fact keep moisture in just fine (you can even watch the condensation forming on the inside of the lid, like a miniature cloud chamber). So now my little seedlings only need watering every day or two instead of twice a day, and once again, it didn't cost a penny extra.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why take stone counters for granite?

 About a week ago the Washington Post ran a highly amusing article in the Lifestyle section on the subject of granite countertops—which, it claims, have gone well beyond a mere decorating trend to almost a way of life. The article quotes a Virginia real estate agent as saying that it's become impossible to sell or even rent a house without granite counters; it would be "almost like trying to sell a house without a toilet." But the real question that author Monica Hesse seeks to answer is: why? Just what is so special about this material that now every house, in every price range, has to have it?

The article offers several possible answers. The most basic: granite is easy to clean, unlike, say, tile (one homeowner says her decision to replace her old tile counters with granite was based on the fact that "the grout was all yicky"). An HGTV host, Anthony Carino, suggests that "People wanting granite countertops is people wanting to sound like they know what they’re talking listening to two guys talk about hot-rod cars." And Richard Trimber, president of a retailer called Counter Intelligence, says that the purpose of granite is to make "a statement about who you are and where you are in life." Granite, in Hesse's words, "says: I am not living in a group house in Mount Pleasant anymore. It says: I am not holing up in my parents’ basement. It says: I will throw parties in my open-floor-plan great room, refilling the hummus for the kitchen island while chatting with my guests. I will buy the hummus from Trader Joe’s." In other words, it says that you have made it.

The article does note that the granite craze may have passed its peak; the real "forward-looking design snobs," Hesse notes, consider granite passé and now prefer "poured concrete in swirling designs." But the one question Hesse doesn't really attempt to answer is whether granite actually is, in any meaningful way, better than other materials. Aside from its beauty, which is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, what does this substance actually have going for it?

Despite being a natural material, granite has definite drawbacks from an environmental standpoint, according to the U.S. Building Council's Green Home Guide. It's not a renewable resource, and it's also very heavy, which means that transporting it consumes quite a lot of fossil fuel. According to the editors of the Green Home Guide, granite is only really a green choice "in states like New Hampshire where it is quarried." On the plus side, it produces no VOCs, and it is a durable material that can last a lifetime if properly treated. Proper treatment includes sealing it once a year to protect it from stains, wiping up all spills promptly, and avoiding acidic cleaning products like that ecofrugal standard, vinegar and water. This means that "easy-to-clean" granite actually requires significantly more maintenance than much-maligned laminate. And, of course, it comes with a significantly higher price tag. The August 2010 issue of Consumer Reports, which focuses on kitchens, puts the price of granite at anywhere from $45 to $200 per square foot. Although some other counter types cost more than a low-end granite, really top-of-the-line granite is more expensive than any other option. By contrast, the cheapest countertop materials, tile and laminate, cost only $10 to $30 per square foot.

Overall, it seems clear that to an ecofrugal homeowner, granite should not be the default choice for countertops. But what should?

Carino, the HGTV host quoted in the Post article, is "trying to turn people on to quartz, which is even harder than granite, even less porous." Consumer Reports finds that engineered quartz has fewer disadvantages than any other countertop material: it's stain-resistant and heat-resistant, and unlike natural stone, it doesn't require sealing. Its only drawback is that "edges and corners can chip," and choosing rounded edges can mitigate this problem. Moreover, the editors of the Green Home Guide agree that engineered quartz is a truly green material: it's nontoxic and produces less waste throughout its life cycle than natural stone. Although its price tag is high—comparable to granite's, in fact, at $50 to $100 per square foot—it is a long-lasting material that shouldn't need replacement. (It might seem like terrazzo, a material made largely from recycled glass, would be a still greener choice, but the eco-benefits of recycling are partly offset by the epoxy or concrete base that the glass chips are set in.)

This probably makes quartz the most ecofrugal choice for those who are building a new kitchen from scratch. However, most of us aren't doing that. When homeowners decide to spring for granite countertops, it's usually because their old countertops are, as the homeowner quoted in the Post article put it, "yicky"—not because they're completely unusable. So I submit that the most ecofrugal choice of all is to salvage as much as possible of your existing countertop and replace only the "yicky" part: the visible surface. You can lay tile right over top of an existing laminate counter, or you can simply re-cover your existing laminate surface with a new sheet of laminate. A four-by-eight sheet (which would be enough to cover all the counters in our little '70s kitchen) costs around 50 bucks at Home Despot—less than half the cost of an entire new countertop. True, the material itself is petroleum-based, but there's not that much of it; even the Green Home Guide points out that laminate counters can be an eco-friendly choice. And if you don't care for the visible joints created by putting a vertical strip of laminate on the front of the countertop, you can replace it with a strip of finished wood molding instead (a favorite trick of Sarah Susanka, author of the popular "Not So Big House" series). The Natural Handyman warns that wood edges are "more vulnerable to moisture and wear," but DIY Network claims that wood molding actually offers "a more durable edge" than laminate, so it seems to be a question of what look you prefer.

Re-laminating a counter requires far less new material than installing a new counter of any kind, it keeps your old countertop out of the landfill, and it also saves you a bundle of money. From an ecofrugal standpoint, doesn't that beat a massive slab of stone hands down?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Coupons made easier

Last year, as some readers may recall, I conducted an experiment to see whether it would be worth subscribing to the local Sunday newspaper just to get the coupon savings. The answer, I found, was "probably not"; most of the coupons in the paper were the same ones I already got in the free "Smart Source" insert that came with each week's store circulars, and few of these were for products I'd ever buy. I concluded that taking up couponing as a hobby was unlikely to be worthwhile for me, and despite a run of unusual good luck with coupons a few weeks later, I haven't had cause to alter this view much in the past year.

Consequently, when I first heard about a site called CouponMom, I didn't bother to look into it, since I assumed it would be oriented towards hard-core couponers. However, last week I stumbled across a reference to it somewhere that talked about how much easier it made the couponing process, and I wondered whether this site might have value after all. So I checked it out, and I found that this site really does have the potential to make a regular coupon habit worthwhile, even for casual users like me.

First, a bit of background on how couponing works. As serious couponers already know, if all you do is clip coupons and use them on whatever happens to be on your shopping list, you won't save much. The real savings are in combining coupons with sales. When you start with a product that's already being sold at an extra-low price, and then add on the extra savings from a coupon—which may be doubled, depending on your store—that's a triple whammy that can reduce the cost of the item by 60, 80, or even 100 percent. And if you manage to do this consistently, every time you shop, then you can take a big bite out of your grocery bill.

So far, so good. The problem is—or has been, for me—that stackable deals like these just don't pop up very often. Sales are certainly common, and we take advantage of them regularly, but we seldom, if ever, have a coupon that we can stack with the sale. And since those deals are few and far between, it hasn't really seemed worthwhile to do the legwork needed to find them—meticulously going through each week's sale fliers and comparing them with a stack of coupon inserts to see if I happen to have the needed coupon.

That's where CouponMom comes in. This site takes a lot of the work—really, almost all of it—out of coupon matching. Once you set up a free account, you can search the site for deals on specific items you need, or you can ask to see a list of the best grocery deals in your state. It will show you a list—which you can sort by store, by type of item, or by total savings—that shows you which sales at your local stores can be combined with coupons, and where those coupons can be found. If it's an electronic coupon site, there will be a link right on the page that you can click to get and print the coupon. If it's a coupon insert, like Smart Source or Red Plum, it will show you the date on which the coupon appeared. This saves an immense amount of time, because you needn't actually clip any coupons until you need them; you can just save your coupon inserts as they arrive, sorted by date, and when you see a deal that you want, you just pull out the appropriate insert, clip the appropriate coupon, and off to the store you go. You can even print out your shopping list directly from the site, showing which items you plan to get and what the final price should be for each one. Paper-clip your coupons directly to this list, and all the organization is done for you.

The site also has a special section for drugstore deals, which tend to be more complicated than supermarket deals, since they often involve not only combining coupons with sales, but also factoring in the drugstore chain's own special savings programs, such as ExtraCare Bucks at CVS and UP rewards at Rite Aid. These more complex deals are also much more profitable, often resulting in products that are free or even money-makers (where you end up, after all savings and rewards, with more money than you actually spent). And the site can help you find store coupons, such as Target's, that can be stacked with manufacturer coupons to maximize savings.

CouponMom isn't the only site of its kind, but it's the first one I've seen that doesn't charge for membership (it's paid for by ads). So even if it turns out that you don't save anything by joining, you haven't lost anything either. And it takes only a few minutes each week (probably on Sunday, when the site updates), to check out the "extreme deals" page and make a list. So even if, like me, you can only take advantage of a few deals, the cost and effort involved is so low that there's really no reason not to do it.

Sadly, I discovered this site's benefits at the worst possible time. For months, I'd been diligently saving stacks of coupon inserts, because other coupon sites had assured me that if you simply waited a month or two, that was when the coupons would start stacking up with sales to give you free or nearly-free items. But after several months of this, I found that I'd never once gone back to the stack to retrieve a coupon I hadn't clipped initially, so I concluded that it wasn't worth storing them and tossed the lot in the bin. Therefore, several of the deals currently listed on CouponMom aren't available to me because they call for coupons from the January Smart Source coupon packets, all of which went out with last week's recycling pickup. But I will start saving my coupon inserts once again—this time without even bothering to flip through them first, since CouponMom can do the work for me—and in another month or two, I should once again have a pile that I can delve into and extract coupons from as they become useful.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Two more pointless challenges

Last month, you may recall, I posted about the "Food Stamp Challenge," which is to feed yourself for one week on a strict $30-per-person budget. I concluded that for us, taking this challenge would be pointless—even counterproductive—because the constraints of the challenge itself would force us to spend more for that one week than we normally spend, on average, for seven days' worth of food. Then last week, the mail brought me not one but two more examples of money-saving challenges that struck me as singularly unhelpful. The first one, "The February Freeze," appeared in the latest issue of the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. The goal of this challenge, according to the article, is to have "no discretionary spending at all" for the month of February. You still pay your rent and any bills that come due during the month, and you're allowed to refill your gas tank and buy essential perishable groceries like milk and fresh fruit, but aside from that, you don't buy anything. You stock your pantry ahead of time and eat only what you have on hand; if "a pipe clogs or your water heater goes out," you're supposed to fix it yourself, or get a friend to do it, or find a way to pay for it through barter. (And if none of these strategies works, well, I guess you're just supposed to manage without running water until March.)

The second challenge is along the same lines, but not quite as strict. It's a plan developed by Michelle Singletary, a financial columnist for the Washington Post, called the "21-Day Financial Fast." During this 3-week period, you are allowed to spend money—but only in cash, and only on "true necessities like food and medicine." Singletary says the point of this challenge is to break "spending habits that have become automatic," like buying a latte every morning or indulging in "retail therapy." But even if you don't have any careless spending habits, Singletary insists that the fast is still for you. "Even the most frugally and financially responsible person," she says, "can find something more they can do"—like giving more to charity, or increasing retirement savings, or helping friends in need. (Apparently it doesn't matter if you already give to charity, help friends, and fund your IRA to the max; as far as she's concerned, you, yes, you, NEED to engage in this fast, and that's all there is to it.)

Here's what particularly annoys me about both of these challenges: like the Food Stamp Challenge, they impose a set of arbitrary rules that could actually end up costing you money in the long run. Under the rules of the February Freeze, for instance, if a sale flier arrived at your door during the month of February advertising an unbeatable price on several staple foods at your local grocery store, you wouldn't be allowed to go stock up on these items, because the rules say you have to eat only from your pantry. So instead of buying potatoes for 20 cents a pound and cheese for $2 a pound during February, you'd have to wait until March to replenish your supplies at the regular price, which could be two to three times as high. During the 21-Day Financial Fast, you would still be allowed to stock up at the grocery store, since groceries count as a "true necessity"—but you wouldn't be allowed to take advantage of a sale on anything you didn't have an immediate need for, no matter how long you'd been looking for it or how good the price was. Say you've been shopping around some time for a slow cooker, which costs about $35 new. Then you come across the exact model you want at a yard sale for $5. It doesn't matter that this is the best deal you're ever likely to find; it doesn't matter that the amount of money it could save you on food would more than make up for the purchase price. The point is, you can live without it, and therefore you can't buy it. End of story.

Another thing that bugs me about the 21-Day Financial Fast is the insistence that even if you're buying necessities, you mustn't pay for them with plastic. The rationale for this is that credit cards make it "too easy" to acquire things you don't really need. Singletary cites a study done at Britain's Warwick University that found "customers using credit cards spend more than those paying with cash or checks in purchasing situations that are otherwise identical." I couldn't find information about this study, but I do know from personal experience that I tend to put larger purchases on credit cards and pay cash for smaller ones—but the use of the credit card is the effect of the size of the purchase, not the cause. That is, I don't go into the store thinking, "Okay, I'm putting this on plastic, so I can buy whatever I want"; instead I buy whatever's on my list, take it up to the checkout, and only after I see the total do I decide whether to whip out a twenty or my Visa card. And to me, that's the problem with most studies that profess to prove that credit cards increase spending (like this one from the Journal of Applied Psychology); it's never really obvious to me whether the credit card use is really producing the higher spending or is caused by it. (And at least one controlled experiment, done at Carnegie-Mellon in 2009, found that deciding ahead of time to pay with credit rather than cash made no appreciable difference in how much people spent on their lunch.) Moreover, in my case, if I can get 1 percent cash back by using my credit card, then every time I pay for a purchase with cash, I'm actually losing money. So that's yet another way in which this Financial Fast, rather than saving me money, would mean less money in my wallet when the three weeks were up.

Now, some of you may be thinking, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." It may sound like I'm just rationalizing, insisting that these challenges aren't helpful because I'm not willing to confront my own irresponsible spending habits. Well, it's possible, I suppose, but I really don't think so. I know myself pretty well, and I know that I'm very, very careful with money. In fact, over the past year or so, I've begun to think that my biggest financial weakness may lie in the other direction: I'm not willing enough to spend money, even on things that I can easily afford. Sometimes I have to remind myself that the whole point of saving money is so that you have it to spend on the things you really want, the things that will really make you happy. And while having my mortgage paid off early will certainly make me happy, that's a goal I can easily meet and still treat myself to a new handbag. (Especially if it's a handbag with a lifetime guarantee—so if all goes well, it'll be the last one I ever have to buy.)

I'm not trying to suggest that the February Freeze and the Financial Fast can't be helpful for anyone. I can definitely see how, for people who really do have mindless spending habits that they are trying to break, they could both be useful exercises. And for those who have a lot of fat to trim in their budgets, the unnecessary expenses they'd avoid over the course of three or four weeks would certainly offset the short-term costs of the bargains they'd miss out on. The only thing that really bothers me about them—especially about the Financial Fast—is the insistence that they're important for everyone, no matter what their actual habits or financial situation may be. I don't deny that these challenges could be helpful for a lot of people, but with respect, I have to insist that I know better than Michelle Singletary does what will or won't be helpful for me.