Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Ecofrugality Quiz

Today I'm going to try something I've always wanted to do: putting a quiz on the blog. I love quizzes myself; maybe they're just a nostalgic reminder of my school days, but for whatever reason, I just can't resist them, from the serious ("Test Your Financial Know-How") to the trivial ("Which Downton Abbey Character Are You?"). So I decided it was time to create one of my own, on the topic (naturally) of "How Ecofrugal Are You?"

Blogger doesn't seem to have a feature for incorporating a quiz into a blog entry, so I'm afraid you'll have to write down your answers the old-fashioned way, with pencil and paper, and then scroll to the end to score yourself. (By the way, I know that for many of these questions, your real answer is likely to be "none of the above," but just pick the answer that's closest to reality.) Pencils ready? Question one:

1. When you crave a good cup of coffee, you head for
a. Starbucks.
b. McDonald's—same coffee selections, but much cheaper.
c. your local coffee shop, where they will serve up organic, shade-grown, Fair-Trade coffee with hormone-free organic milk in a reusable cup that you brought from home.
d. your kitchen, where you can brew your own from fresh-ground, organic beans that you bought in bulk at the co-op.

2. The clothes in your closet are most likely to be
a. from high-end boutiques.
b. bought on sale at Target or Wal-Mart.
c. made with high-priced but eco-friendly fibers such as organic cotton or hemp.
d. secondhand.

3. Your dream home would be
a. a sumptuous villa in Tuscany.
b. rent-free.
c. a beautiful retreat in the countryside, built with reclaimed materials and outfitted with solar panels.
d. in the middle of a vibrant neighborhood with everything you need in walking distance.

4. If you needed a new set of wheels, you'd most likely opt for
a. a snazzy little convertible.
b. an old beater—it's cheaper to buy and to insure.
c. a new Prius (50 miles per gallon, baby!).
d. a bicycle.

5. Your cart at the grocery store is most likely to contain
a. prepared foods like frozen pizzas or TV dinners.
b. store brands and whatever's on sale.
c. all-natural, organic items—bagged washed salad greens, hormone-free milk, humanely farmed meats, and Fair Trade chocolate.
d. staples like dry beans, rice, and flour for cooking from scratch.

6. You always wash your clothes with
a. the same brand of detergent your mom used.
b. the cheapest detergent available.
c. an all-natural, phosphate-free, environmentally friendly detergent.
d. only one tablespoon of detergent—they get just as clean that way.

7. Most of the light bulbs in your house are
a. halogen—they simply give the best-quality light.
b. incandescent—on sale, they're only 25 cents apiece.
c. LEDs—they may cost $20 apiece, but they use 7 watts and they'll last for 25,000 hours.
d. CFLs, for now—no point in replacing them with LEDs until they burn out.

8. If you had to remodel your kitchen, you would probably
a. splurge on the granite counters, the custom cabinets, and the glass tile backsplash—if you're going to invest a lot of time and money anyway, you might as well go all the way and get the best.
b. keep costs down with laminate counters, stock cabinets, and vinyl flooring.
c. scour the Internet for deals on recycled glass countertops, cork floor tiles, and sustainably sourced wood cabinets.
d. try to salvage and reuse as much material as possible from your old kitchen.

9. Next Christmas/Hanukkah, you're hoping to delight your kids/grandkids/nephews and nieces with
a. a new Wii.
b. a board game off the sale rack at Wal-Mart.
c. a set of building blocks made from sustainable hardwoods.
d. any of the above, so long as you can get it for five bucks at a yard sale.


This quiz will give you two separate scores: one for your eco-consciousness and one for your frugality. Here's how to calculate your score:
For each A answer, give yourself 0 points.
For each B answer, give yourself 1 point for frugality, 0 for eco-consciousness.
For each C answer, give yourself 1 point for eco-consciousness, 0 for frugality..
For each D answer, give yourself 2 points for frugality and 2 points for eco-consciousness.

How to interpret your score

If you scored less than 9 points on both scales, you are a Profligate. You think money is for spending, and natural resources are for using. You believe you deserve the best and you'll spend whatever it takes to get it. Problem is, every dollar you spend today is one you won't have to spend tomorrow. By trying out just a few ecofrugal tricks, you can eke out more delight per dollar—and maybe help the rest of the planet a bit while you're at it.

If you scored more than 9 points for frugality and less than 9 for eco-consciousness, you are a Tightwad. You're always trying to do things as cheaply as possible, and you aren't too concerned about the environmental consequences. However, if you focus too much on saving money up front, you may end up spending more than you need to in the long run. If you look at lifetime costs, you may realize that in many cases, the greener choice is also the one that will put the most green in your pocket.

If you scored less than 9 points for frugality and more than 9 for eco-consciousness, you are a Tree Hugger. You care about the environment, and you're willing to pay more for products that help you tread more lightly on the planet. What you may not always realize is that the products with "Eco-Friendly" on the label aren't always as green as other choices that are much cheaper, or even free. If you consider all the options, you may find that sometimes, you can save the planet and save money at the same time.

If you scored more than 9 points on both scales, you are a Master Manager. You can't stand waste—of money or natural resources. When making a purchase of any kind, you consider all the factors involved, including up-front cost, energy use and environmental costs. By making wise use of the resources available to you, you are ensuring that you will always have plenty for the future. In your home, money really can grow on trees.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

St. Patrick's Day topic: Paddy O'Furniture

Every so often, we manage to get ourselves on a mailing list that's completely inappropriate for us. A month or so ago, for instance we bought a small rug on clearance from the Home Decorators Collection, and now we're regularly receiving catalogs touting $400 TV stands and $50 fake flowers. The latest issue features outdoor furniture, and I'm agape at how much it's possible to pay for it. Here, for instance, is a set (admittedly, a very nice set) with a 42-inch-square table and four armchairs, made from eucalyptus wood, for $650. And this is actually the least expensive set in the whole catalog; other dining sets for four range from $700 to $1,000.

I might actually have started thinking that $650 was a reasonable price to pay for something so simple you could practically make it yourself out of two-by-fours, if I hadn't just recently received a flier from IKEA with a similar focus: "Celebrate the Great Outdoors." This flier features a four-piece dining set for just $100, marked down from the regular price of $150. It's not identical to the Martha Stewart set—the table is a bit smaller, and it has a bench and two chairs instead of four chairs, and it's made of acacia wood rather than eucalyptus—but it's pretty similar, and it costs less than one-sixth as much. (Okay, so the Martha Stewart set includes cushions—but you can add a set of those to the IKEA furniture for just $50, and it's still less than one-quarter the cost.) And moreover, IKEA offers several comparable sets ranging in price from $100 to $650. The most expensive set they sell is the same price as the least expensive set in Home Decorators.

Now, this is all a moot point for me anyhow, since we don't actually have a patio (after two years, we still haven't gotten around to making use of all those free pavers we picked up from Freecycle), but it is a puzzle. If it's possible to sell decent, basic lawn furniture for under $500, why aren't more stores doing it? I've looked at outdoor dining sets in Home Depot, and I didn't see a single one in the store with a price tag under $400. Wouldn't you expect Home Depot to sell more lawn furniture if they offered some for a reasonable price? Maybe they just assume that people will bite the bullet and pay $400 or more if they aren't offered any other choices—but in today's economy, is that really a safe assumption to make? Is there just something special about patio furniture that makes people willing to pay hundreds of dollars for it, even when they're cutting back on everything else?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Save Highland Park...from what?

Spring has come early to New Jersey. The first crocuses showed their heads in February, and now the daffodils, cherry blossoms and magnolias are in full display, nearly a month ahead of schedule. However, amid the riot of spring blooms, a new, strange type of flower has started to appear: bright yellow signs put up by a group called Save Highland Park, urging residents to "save" our town from the dangers of high-density development.

To understand what this is all about, you need a bit of background on land use in New Jersey, and particularly on what's known as the Mount Laurel Doctrine. More than 35 years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the zoning rules of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, on the grounds that they unfairly excluded low- and middle-income housing. This decision led to nearly a decade of legal wrangling and eventually a second Supreme Court decision, which established the principle that all municipalities in New Jersey are legally responsible for providing their fair share of low-income housing, in proportion to their population. If a town does not produce a plan for providing the requisite low-income housing, then it opens itself up to "builder's remedies": a developer can claim the right to take a chunk of land and put up a housing development that will include low-income housing, even if such a development would normally violate zoning rules.

In Highland Park, developers have apparently taken an interest in two separate properties for this purpose. Both are long-abandoned industrial sites on the north side of town, near the railroad tracks. If both are turned into apartment buildings as the developers propose, the result would be roughly 500 new apartments, all located along a short stretch of road. The Save Highland Park website explains the situation (though not very clearly) and urges people to write letters protesting this "overdevelopment." What it doesn't explain—indeed, doesn't even make any attempt to explain—is why, exactly, the group thinks that this new development will be harmful. Apparently the founders of Save Highland Park believe that "high-density housing" is an evil in itself, and that the reasons for opposing it should be self-evident. The closest the group comes to explaining its position is in its sample letter to be sent to legislators, which mentions the following potential "impacts":
  1. Increased class sizes in local schools
  2. Increased traffic on the stretch of road in question
  3. Increased strain on "infrastructure," such as water and sewer, trash collection, and emergency services
  4. Unspecified "effects to our local environment and wildlife"
The irony is that all the negative effects they cite for high-density housing are actually much lower for this type of development than they are for low-density housing—otherwise known as suburban sprawl. Consider the following points:
  1. Apartment complexes are much more likely to attract single people, childless couples, and empty-nesters rather than families with children. While the new developments will undoubtedly add some children to our schools, many if not most of the new tenants will be adding money to the town's coffers without adding children to draw on them. Thus, the amount of increased property tax revenue that the new developments bring in will almost certainly be more than enough to offset the increased costs of educating any additional school children. (Moreover, more support for our public schools could be a blessing, since we are presently in danger of losing many students—and with them, a huge chunk of our school budget—to proposed charter schools.)
  2. Traffic is indeed a problem on that road, and adding more housing will certainly aggravate the problem. However, high-density development adds fewer cars per housing unit than low-density development, and more importantly, it will certainly include parking lots or garages, and therefore will not be adding increased numbers of parked cars along that street. (My husband, who regularly travels that stretch of road both in the car and on his bike, reports that the main reason it's so dangerous is that there are parked cars on both sides of the street, making it impossible for cars to pass freely along the road in both directions. If the new development inspires the town to take such long-overdue measures as banning on-street parking, or at least limiting it to one side of the street, and adding a traffic light where that street intersects with the main thoroughfare, it would probably make driving and biking on that street more safe rather than less so.)
  3. High-density housing makes more efficient use of existing infrastructure than low-density housing. It's easier for a garbage truck, for instance, to make one stop and pick up all the trash for a large development than to go from house to house along the street, stopping to pick up one trash can in front of each one.
  4. High-density housing has a much, much lower impact on the environment than low-density housing, and for obvious reasons: putting up a lot of units in a small space leaves more green space open than putting up an equivalent number of units spread across a much larger space. Compact developments are also less car-dependent, making it easier for people to walk from place to place rather than increasing congestion, air pollution and noise by driving. (This is one reason that compact development is a basic principle of "smart growth.") Moreover, in this case, the properties that are being developed aren't green space now: they're vast, abandoned stretches of impenetrable concrete, just sitting there doing nothing. So it seems to me that turning these lumps of developed, yet unused property into something useful is an unmitigated good.
I did, of course, consider the possibility that there might be other problems with high-density development that Save Highland Park, for some reason, hadn't bothered to cite on its Web page, so I ran a quick Google search to see what had been written on the subject. I searched the phrase "high-density development" all by itself, without any additions such as "benefits" or "risks" that could influence the results. The first page of hits was entirely devoted to articles on why high-density development is both smart and sustainable—most of them scholarly articles from reliable groups such as the California Department of Housing, the Urban Land Institute, and the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank. All these sources made more or less the same points that I just made above, with additional data to back them up.

So what is it, exactly, that has these good citizens of Highland Park up in arms about the proposed new development? It may, of course, be simple ignorance: they may think that high-density housing really is responsible for all the evils they attribute to it, and they may not be aware that all the available data points in just the opposite direction. But I can't help wondering whether there isn't a bit of class prejudice at the root of it all. After all, the proposed high-density developments would be designed, at least partly, to provide low-income housing—and maybe these residents just don't want a bunch of poor people moving into their neighborhood. (Although given that "low income," in the context of the Mount Laurel doctrine, means less than half of the median income for the county, and given also that the median household income for Middlesex County is over $60,000, one of the highest in the nation, the term "poor" hardly seems to apply.)

I think what offends me most about Save Highland Park is that the development they're so violently opposed to is very similar to some that already exists in my neighborhood. There are a couple of large apartment complexes just down the road, and I pass by them frequently on my daily walks. From what I've seen of them, they're reasonably neat and attractive; they're no noisier than any other part of town; they actually include a fair amount of green space in their grounds; and they haven't made the traffic on our street, or any adjoining street, particularly heavy. Yet what the members of Save Highland Park seem to want is to "save" their neighborhood from turning into...our neighborhood.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Why I don't use automatic bill pay

Every so often, a company I do business with will try to sell me on the convenience of automatic bill payment. Just sign up for their service, they promise, and whenever your bill comes due, the money will come right out of your checking account, automatically, with no need for you to worry your pretty little head about it. Not surprisingly, these offers don't appeal to me, because I like to maintain as much control over my money as possible. I want to know exactly how much a bill is going to be before I pay it, for three good reasons:
  1. to make sure there's enough money in checking to cover it, so that I won't be stuck with an overdraft fee;
  2. to make sure the bill itself is accurate; and
  3. so that I won't forget to look over my bills and take note of any expenses that I need to rein in for the future.
Admittedly, reason 2 has sometimes struck me as a little bit paranoid. Okay, it's a good idea for my credit card bills, since I have found inaccurate charges on them once or twice that I wanted to dispute—but what are the odds that my phone bill or utility bill is going to be wrong?

Well, I just got an answer to that question. My utility bill for the month of February, which arrived on the 23rd, was about $200 higher than I expected it to be. This is a combined bill, with separate charges for natural gas and electricity. The gas portion of the bill looked fine; our gas usage for February was roughly the same as it had been in January, and actually a good bit lower than it had been in February of 2011. But the electric portion showed total usage of 1165 kilowatt-hours—more than five times as much as we'd used in January, or, for that matter, any other month in the past year.

At first, I was flummoxed. I tried to think of what could possibly have increased our power usage that much—the new grow light for our seeds? The electric space heater we ran a couple of times while working in the basement? But after a moment's reflection, it occurred to me that perhaps the meter reading was just wrong. I went out and checked the electric meter, and I found that the reading as of that date, February 23, was 61944, and the reading listed on our bill, dated February 16, was 62902. At that point, it was obvious what had happened: the second dial was right on the line between 1 and 2, and the meter reader accidentally read it as a 2 when it should have been a 1. A simple mistake, and one that should be easy to fix, right?

Well, you would think so. I called up PSE&G and explained the situation, and they said, no problem: just give me the actual reading you took yourself, and we'll send you out a new bill with that reading in place of the one we used. So I said fine, gave them my reading, and hung up, thinking that the matter was now taken care of. Ha ha, silly me. My new bill arrived on the 25th, and the electric meter reading on it was...62902, exactly the same as on the first bill. The only change they'd actually made was to remove the charge for "clean energy certificates" that we normally pay.

So I called PSE&G again and explained the situation once more, adding that my previous call hadn't fixed the problem. They said they couldn't understand why, but they promised to send out a new bill with my meter reading from the 23rd, and they assured me that this time the change really would be made. Well, you can probably guess what happened: a new bill arrived on the 29th, and the total was exactly the same as on the second bill. I checked the electric section, and sure enough, the meter reading was still 62902.

Okay, I thought, maybe the third time's the charm. I called them once more and told them that I had now received three inaccurate bills in a row, and they once more expressed puzzlement and promised to send out a new bill using my meter reading. I asked them to please double-check and confirm that the number listed for the meter reading was now 61944, and they assured me that yes, it really was. I hung up the phone still feeling skeptical and decided that if I got a fourth bill and the reading was still wrong, I'd go down to the nearest PSE&G office in person and see if I could fix it that way.

The new bill arrived today, and I was pleased to see that it was indeed much lower than the first three. But just to make sure, I flipped to the electric section to make sure they really had used my reading from the 23rd. Well, they hadn't; instead they'd given me an "estimated reading" of 61879. Still, that wouldn't have been a problem by itself; it was pretty close, and any discrepancy would be corrected when they took the reading for March. But then I looked at the next line and I saw that instead of the actual reading from the previous bill in January, they'd inserted the actual reading from November: 61400. So now, though they'd corrected the reading for February, they were attempting to re-bill us for two months' worth of electricity usage that we'd already paid for!

This story doesn't have an ending yet, as PSE&G has neither office hours nor a phone line available on Sundays. At this point, my plan is to go down to their office tomorrow, armed with hard copies of the four inaccurate bills I've received so far, as well as my bill from January (so that I can prove a reading actually was taken that month) and a photo of my electric meter as of today (reading: 62000). Then I plan to lay out the story in full detail and refuse to leave until they give me, in my hand, an accurate bill for February, with both the correct February reading and the January reading. At that point I will hand them, in return, a check for the actual amount I owe, and that, I sincerely hope, will be that.

And if they ever try again to talk me into paying my bill automatically, I will not hesitate to tell them exactly why I don't think that's a good idea.