Thursday, July 26, 2012

Our Big Fat Cheap Wedding, part 2

Last month, I wrote a post about being interviewed by American Public Media for an article/blog entry on wedding costs. For those who enjoyed that post, I thought I'd mention that you can now hear the audio component of my interview (or at least, the most interesting couple of minutes of it) here. My segment is number five out of six, but the others are quite interesting too. The speakers include:
  • A bride who eloped without telling anyone, because she still wants to have a "real" wedding later
  • A former wedding photographer who observes that weddings often grow because the mother of the bride wants to give her daughter the wedding she never had
  • A woman who was married in Vegas by an Elvis impersonator while wearing a dress made of balloons
  • A wedding officiant who talks about how peer pressure influences the style and cost of weddings—and how little the wedding cost has to do with the quality of the marriage
  • A bride who explains how planning her wedding at the last minute actually helped her get discounts
In addition to the interviews, the site has about a dozen wedding photos covering a wide range of events. Styles run the gamut from an "elegant Goth wedding" to an outdoor wedding on a working farm, and event costs range from $175 for a "small family wedding with a picnic dinner" to $20,000 for a 150-guest shindig at a boat club. The Vegas bride also makes an appearance in her balloon dress, which is truly a sight to behold.

I was also pleased to see that at least one other couple (the one with the farm wedding) shares my ecofrugal perspective, as the groom describes “Delicious, organic and local food and drink. Reduced, reused and recycled everything. Emphasis on the ‘reduced’ — which saves money!” Yeah, ecofrugal brother—testify!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Book repair

One of my favorite ecofrugal pastimes is reading aloud to my husband, often while he's working on stuff around the house. During the past month or so, I've been reading him Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, a 30-year old volume that's already been read, re-read and consulted many times. (Miss Manners is one of my personal household gods, who in this household all reside on the bookshelves, where they can be consulted in any kind of difficulty.) I'd already noticed that several pages and clumps of pages were becoming dangerously loose, and this final reading—which involved many openings and closings of the book, as well as sometimes splaying it flat on the table or propping it open against a coffee mug—was more than the volume could handle. First individual pages and then whole sections detached themselves, leaving me with not one bound book but a bunch of little individual booklets and a few loose pages.

I've managed to patch up damaged books before, but all my previous repairs have been much smaller, such as repairing a torn page or reattaching a loose cover with clear tape. In this case, I wasn't sure what was left of the book had enough structural integrity to be put back together. But I vaguely remembered reading about a book-repair technique described by Amy Dacyczyn (another of my household gods) in her Complete Tightwad Gazette,  and I figured I had nothing to lose by attempting it before sending off to for a new copy.

The technique the Frugal Zealot (Amy Dacyczyn's nickname for herself in the book) describes is actually intended for reattaching the cover (or two separate covers) to an otherwise intact book. It works like this:
1) Cut a rectangle out of brown paper (such as a grocery bag) that's slightly longer than the spine of the book, and slightly more than twice as wide. (The book says to allow an extra half inch, but that's an approximation.)
2) Roll this paper into a tube and glue together the overlapping edges. (That's what the extra half inch is for.) Once it's dry, cut it to precisely the length of the spine.
3) Remove any old backing from the spine of the book. Apply white glue along the spine and let it dry.
4) Glue the non-overlapped side of the tube to the spine and smooth it down.
5) At this point, the official technique is to glue a strip of cardboard to the exposed side of the tube, then glue a strip of "book cloth" over that and glue the overhanging edges of the cloth onto the book covers. But if you don't care about how the finished result looks, the simpler method is just to apply duct tape directly over the tube, overlapping it onto the covers by an inch or so, and smooth it down firmly.

I decided this had a chance of working with my damaged book if I carefully reassembled all the pages, squared them up precisely, and clamped the book together to hold them in place before attempting to attach the tube. With a bit of pressing and smoothing, we were able to get the tube to stick, as shown above. Once it was dry, I used two lengths of black duct tape to secure the tube to the covers, with only 1/4 to 1/2 inch of overlap (since the covers weren't the part most in danger of coming loose).

Here's the finished result. It's not exactly as good as new, obviously, and it does still have a tendency to fall open at the place where it originally split—but it holds together well enough to be read, and that's what a book is for, isn't it? And while it may not be as elegant as Miss Manners herself, it is at least presentable—good enough, as she would put it, for Ordinary Everyday, if not for Sunday Best.

Friday, July 20, 2012

On not wasting money on cars

In this week's Dollar Stretcher newsletter, there was an amusing article called "How to Waste Money." In it, financial planner Rick Kahler departs from the usual advice we've all heard before on how to save money and instead offers some advice to avoid following. Most of his tips were the kind of suggestions I might make myself if I wanted to give some examples of bad advice, such as "Drive across town to save two or three cents on gas" and "Buy bottled water"—both dumb ideas that will not only cost you money but damage the environment as well. But I pulled up short when, in the section on "How to Waste Money on Big-Ticket Items," the first proposed bad idea was, "Buy hybrid cars."

Now I'll admit, when I bought my last car, I didn't invest in a hybrid. I concluded that paying an extra 10 grand for a 50-mile-per-gallon Prius rather than a 40-mile-per-gallon Fit just didn't make sense. Assuming we drive 12,000 miles a year, the Fit would save us only 60 gallons of gas per year, and I could get a better value for my dollar, greenhouse-gas-wise, by choosing the less efficient car and spending 30 bucks a year on carbon offsets. (And that's to offset all the CO2 emissions from the car, not just the difference between its emissions and those of a hybrid. If I wanted to make my new Prius truly zero-carbon, I'd still have to spend about $25 a year on offsets—so really, the Fit would only cost an extra $5 a year, as opposed to an extra $10,000 at the outset.)

If Mr. Kahler's article had made this argument—even in an abbreviated form, like "Buy hybrid cars, instead of choosing a gasoline car that's nearly as efficient for much less money and donating the rest"—I wouldn't have had any problem with it. But instead, he said without qualification that a hybrid is a waste of money—that choosing to pay extra for a car that won't save you money in the long run, just because it will reduce your carbon footprint (and possibly help just a tiny bit to slow the catastrophic overheating of the planet and the associated epidemics, crop failures, and mass extinctions) is simply throwing money away. Would he also argue that donating money to organizations that protect the environment is "wasting" it? How about giving to other types of charitable organizations, like those that distribute food to the hungry, build houses for homeless folks, provide legal assistance for those who can't afford it, or provide medical care in the Third World? Investing in helping others isn't going to improve your own financial lot, so doesn't that make it, by his reasoning, a waste of money? (Actually, giving to environmental causes makes more sense if you're considering your own interests only, since the problems associated with global warming will affect everyone, while giving to charities that help others can't benefit you in any way except emotionally.)

The other piece of negative advice in the article that I took issue with was also car-related: "Buy cars new instead of used." This is a guideline that I used to take for granted: if a new car loses ten percent of its value the minute it's driven off the lot, then obviously it makes more sense to buy a slightly used car that will cost a lot less and last nearly as long as a new one. So when we were in the process of shopping for our "new" car (which is now about one and a half years old), we initially assumed that we'd be looking for a late-model used car. However, we quickly discovered that there were almost no used cars on the market that met our requirements (efficiency, safety, and a manual transmission). We did eventually find one two-year-old Honda Fit with a stick shift, but we'd have to drive nearly 50 miles just to look at it—and when we compared its price to the new Fit, we found that we'd only be saving a couple of thousand dollars in exchange for a couple of years of life taken off the vehicle (or possibly more, since we couldn't be sure the original owners would drive as carefully and maintain it as scrupulously as we do). Doing the math, we realized that we'd be paying just as much per year of useful life for the used Fit as we would for a new one—and the new one would offer additional safety features, an improved music system, a warranty, and the convenience of a dealership right down the road. So as it turned out, for us, a new car was actually a better investment. Thus, I would amend this piece of bad advice to, "Don't do the math to figure out whether a used car is a better deal for you than a new one." Now that's definitely a good way to waste money.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Zucchini surgery

Just a few weeks ago, we had every reason to expect a bumper crop of zucchini this year. Our plants, despite suffering a little early groundhog damage, were large and flourishing, and tiny squash were just beginning to appear. But the days turned into weeks, and the tiny squash just didn't get any bigger. Eventually, we noticed that some of them were actually starting to turn black at the flower end and wither. My dad warned us that this was called blossom end rot and could be happening because the flowers weren't getting pollinated or because they weren't getting enough water. It has indeed been a very dry summer (the weather report keeps predicting thunderstorms "tomorrow," and then bumping up the schedule to the next day, and the next, and the rain itself never materializes), so we started giving the zucchini more water. And more, and more. A few of the squash grew big enough to harvest, but the leaves themselves started wilting. First a few leaves turned yellow, then they turned brown and dry, and eventually the entire plant started looking droopy and disconsolate.

By this evening, the plants were looking so bedraggled that I started to fear we'd lose the whole crop (and with Zucchini-Sneaking Day still nearly a month away!).  So I Googled the problem and found a page from the University of Minnesota Extension that listed several potential causes, including squash bugs and squash vine borers. The bugs aren't so bad—you can pick them off by hand and they're only really dangerous to young seedlings—but the borers are particularly nasty. As the name would suggest, the adults lay their eggs on the squash vine, and the larva burrows in and starts feeding on the stem, keeping it from getting water and eventually killing it. And while you can't spot the larvae themselves from the outside, a key sign of their presence is "holes near the base of the plant filled with moist greenish or orange sawdust-like material." Yup—we got that.

The UMN article wasn't very encouraging on the subject of dealing with an infestation, saying, "Most management options are limited to control the hatching larvae before they enter the plant." But it was obviously too late for that, and I wasn't prepared to give up all hope of salvaging the plants. So I dug a little further and found this three-year-old blog entry in which a gardener explains how she saved her own zucchini plant with a little timely surgery:
I made about a six inch slit with a sharp knife. I couldn’t see a bug so I scraped out that entire section of the stem and trimmed off the dead leaves. I buried the cut section of stem under a mound of compost.
This initially "sent the plant into shock and it stopped producing flowers," but after a week it perked up, and a week after that it started producing both flowers and fruits again. So I figured it was worth at least attempting the procedure with ours.

Gloved and armed with a paring knife, I went out and started cutting into the stems where the orange dust was showing. On the smaller plant, I couldn't actually find the borer, so I just dug out as much of the goop as I could, covered up the stems with dirt (having no compost ready to hand), and hoped for the best. On the other plant, I dug in with my knife and eventually extracted first one, then two fat white larvae like this. And despite my gentle, nature-loving disposition, I took considerable satisfaction in squishing their little guts out. Then I covered up the stems and crossed my fingers. I know it's likely the plants still won't survive; the blogger said "This is the first time I’ve ever been able to save a plant," and she attributed her success to the fact that she performed her surgery at the first sign of wilting, before the stem itself was affected. So it's entirely possible that I was too late with my surgery, and the plants won't make it, but since there was really no chance they'd survive otherwise, I guess I had nothing to lose. Now we watch and wait.

And if it works, you can call me Doctor Zuke.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Murphy's Law as Applied to Timepieces

About a year ago, I posted about my decision to put a new stainless-steel band, which cost $45, on my old Timex watch, for which I had originally paid $13. I maintained at the time that this decision, peculiar on its face, was actually the most reasonable one under the circumstances: a cheap watch would actually meet my needs better than a more expensive one, so putting a more expensive band on my cheap watch was the most cost-effective way to get what I wanted.

Well, I should have known that boasting about the wisdom of my decision would only be tempting fate. Early this year, my watch started to get a bit unreliable; it didn't stop altogether, but it was losing time and would occasionally stop and then start again at unpredictable intervals. I replaced the battery and that initially seemed to fix the problem, but after a few months, it developed a new symptom: it would stop regularly at 7:30 every morning and evening. It wasn't always exactly at 7:30; sometimes it was shortly before or shortly after, and sometimes, too, it would stop at other times, but it could pretty much be counted on to stop at 7:30. Once I reset it, it would start again and keep going—usually—until 7:30 rolled around again.

I took the watch back to Jimmy's Watches (the same place where I bought the band for it last year), and after testing the battery and finding it full of juice, they said the problem was most likely with the movement—possibly as a result of water damage. I didn't quite buy that explanation, since I'd never taken the watch swimming and wearing it while washing my hands had never caused problems in the past, but when I went into a jeweler's shop for a second opinion, I got the same diagnosis. The movement was kaput, and replacing it would require an expensive trip out to a watchmaker, which would cost not only more than I'd initially paid for the watch, but also more than I could expect to pay for a fully functional replacement. Applying my "Repair or Replace" guidelines, I concluded that unlike the pricier watchband, this really wasn't an expense I could justify.

So, under the circumstances, I decided—regretfully—that the most reasonable thing to do was just to buy another cheap watch and then try, as I had with its predecessor, to keep it going as long as possible. So back I went to Jimmy's and selected a watch from their $15 sale tray that met my basic requirements: a dial face with all twelve numbers and a bracelet band. It doesn't have the little night-light feature that had occasionally come in handy with my old watch, but a little preliminary research had suggested that a watch that did have that feature and also met my other requirements would probably cost at least $55, and I didn't want the light enough to pay nearly four times as much for it.

The real punch line of this story is that now that I have the new watch, my old one actually seems to be working again. It didn't stop at 7:30 this evening, nor this morning, nor even yesterday evening or morning. It's just kept ticking along, right as rain, ever since I made the decision to replace it—almost as if it were deliberately trying to step up its performance in hopes of keeping its job. So now I'm wondering: was buying the new watch enough of a concession to placate the cosmic enforcers of Murphy's law and put the old one back into commission? Can I now start wearing the old watch, which I still prefer to the new one, with impunity? Or will doing that only trigger another Murphy cycle and cause the watch to start acting up again?

It seems likeliest, based on what I know of Murphyonic forces, that the old watch will now continue to behave itself perfectly so long as it's lying unused in a drawer, and possibly even for a few days while being worn—but as soon as I start trusting it, it will then stop again at the most unexpected and inconvenient time. On the other hand, I obviously can't throw away the old watch entirely, as doing that would naturally cause the new one to fail immediately, possibly in some spectacular fashion like falling right off my wrist just as I step onto an escalator. So clearly the old watch has to be kept, but kept unused. (In fact, it's probably just as well that I didn't choose a different watch off the tray, one that looked like it would be able to be fitted with my $45 stainless-steel band if its own band should wear out. I thought this might make that watch a more practical choice, but taking Mr. Murphy into account, deliberately choosing a watch that would work with my existing, expensive band would probably have guaranteed that the band would remain intact while the watch itself stopped working within a month.)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Groundhog Fence 2.2

Well, as you can see, it isn't pretty, and it isn't exactly elegant, but we have managed to graft a "baffle" onto the top of our groundhog fence. Since we already had some of the wire fencing left over from the construction of the main fence, all the project cost us was a bit of back pain and a whole mess of mosquito bites. We just cut lengths of the fencing, bent them at a 90-degree angle along one edge, maneuvered them into place over top of the existing fence, and then bent the clipped-off ends of the wires from our unsuccessful Groundhog Fence 2.1 over them to hold them in place. The result is a bit wobbly-looking, and it makes it a little hard to get the gate open, but as far as we can tell at this point, the little rodents can't get over it. Time will tell, of course, but so long as it succeeds in keeping our one surviving cucumber vine intact, we'll consider it a success. We can always make further modifications to it (versions 2.3 through 2.10) as needed to improve its appearance or functionality.

We're really hoping this works, because the groundhogs are actually pretty cute (as you can see from this recent photo of the mama with one of the babies), and we've found that watching them out the back window is much more entertaining than you might expect, so long as they're munching on clover rather than our cucumbers. So we'd much rather be able to coexist peacefully with them on terms of mutual civility with them than to hound them out of our yard. Ideally, this whole project will turn out to be a case of good fences making good neighbors.