Saturday, December 28, 2013

Green Gift Roundup 2013

On the third day of Christmas, the Ecofrugal Living blog sent to me...the annual Green Gift roundup, all about the best ecofrugal gifts we gave and received this holiday season. Just like last year's, our selection of gifts this year included plenty of secondhand items, mostly from yard sales. The more successful ones included:
  • My birthday gift to Brian, the DVDs of a BBC miniseries from the '90s called Oliver's Travels, which he'd often reminisced about and wished to see again. (It's no longer in print, but I managed to track down a copy on eBay, and we both enjoyed watching them.)
  • For my mother-in-law, two mystery novels culled from our collection: one Nero Wolfe and one Inspector Morse.
  • For a nine-year-old nephew who's said to read anything he can get his hands on, four years' worth of Cricket magazines saved from my childhood.
  • For our seven-year-old niece, a potholder loom just like this one, picked up for a dollar at a yard sale. She put it to work the very day she received it, making slightly lumpy potholders that she and her cousin offered for sale in their "art gallery."
  • For a five-year-old who loves all forms of paper crafts, a book called Pop-o-Mania, all about how to create your own pop-up books—which I was shocked to discover just now sells on Amazon for $90 new and $40 used. The copy we bought may not exactly have been in "Like New" condition when we picked it up at a yard sale, but it was still in excellent shape, and for $1, I'm happy to settle for a copy that the author signed and addressed to someone else.
  • For our four-year-old nephew, a large assortment of LEGOs, including several Star Wars figurines formerly belonging to Brian. His older brother and cousins all got quite elaborate LEGO sets, so it turned out to be nice for him to have some of his very own.
  • For our train-obsessed two-year-old nephew, a huge volume on the history of trains, written for grownups, but with lots of pictures that he appreciated.
Unfortunately, not all our secondhand finds were equally successful. The kaleidoscope-making kit we gave to our other seven-year-old niece turned out to be missing a piece (we checked the contents when we found it at a yard sale, but somehow we overlooked that one). Her papa thinks he can cobble together a replacement, and we've promised to send a new kit if that doesn't work, but it still means that she didn't get to play with her new toy on Christmas Day. Lesson learned: when buying toys or games at yard sales, don't just check the contents to see if it looks like everything is there; actually count the pieces.

Other secondhand gifts met with a lukewarm or ambiguous response. Our nine-year-old niece wasn't immediately enthused about receiving the first six books in the Guardians of Ga'hoole series, but we've been told that her reading habits are a little hard to predict; she may ignore a book for months and then devour it in one sitting, so these might yet turn out to be a hit at some later date. The same goes for the two games we presented to her entire family, Tri-Ominos and Brain Quest (a version that's apparently no longer in print, which children of different ages can play together). Neither of these games (both found on Freecycle) has gotten any play time yet, but they may in time, perhaps at a quieter time there are fewer distractions. As for the nice box set of wooden jigsaw puzzles that we gave to the two-year-old, he certainly enjoyed dumping the pieces out on the floor, but he showed less interest in putting them back together again. Fortunately, his relatives all had fun sorting the pieces back out and assembling them so they could go back in the box.

Other gifts we gave were green but not nearly as frugal. For instance, the gift basket we put together as a Thanskgivukkah present for my cousin and his girlfriend included a pound of Fair Trade espresso beans from our local roaster and coffee shop, OQ Coffee. At $13 a pound, it's not something I'm going to want to drink myself on a regular basis, but it's nice enough to give as a gift. We also gave my eight-month-old niece a gift that was specifically requested by her mommy: cloth diapers from Charlie Banana. They ain't cheap (though we did manage to find a set at Target for a bit less than full price), but my sister swears by them for preventing diaper rash in her highly susceptible offspring, and of course I was happy to give a gift that keeps disposable diapers out of landfills. And, in the same vein, my gift to my parents was a set of compact fluorescent bulbs for their dining room chandelier, the one fixture in their house that's still using incandescent bulbs. My dad complains every summer about how hot they get, but my mom has been unwilling to replace them because she couldn't find any chandelier CFLs without very bulky, ugly-looking ballasts. So we found a set on that looked fairly unobtrusive, mainly because the ballasts didn't appear to have any writing on them the way most CFLs do—and when it turned out that they did have writing on them after all, we simply sanded it off. Dad was enthused about having cooler bulbs to install this coming summer, Mom was impressed with our resourcefulness, and I was pleased to help my folks lower their electricity use.

The gifts we received also included some green items. I don't know whether any of them were acquired secondhand (though I suspect not), but we definitely received a few that will help us conserve resources. Like, for example, this staple-free stapler that we got for Thanksgivukkah. Instead of putting a piece of wire through two pages and folding it over to hold them together, it just punches a tab out of the pages and folds it over to hold them together. Isn't this a brilliant idea? It can only fasten a few sheets (up to four), but most of the time, that's all you really need anyway. And it has the advantage that you can easily separate the pages again if you need to, without having to go look for a tool (or sacrifice a fingernail) to get the staple back out. Plus, it never runs out of staples.

We also got a few energy-saving gifts. My sister-in-law, a reader of this blog, knew about my tendency to get chilly while working at home, so she knitted me (or possibly crocheted—I can't really tell the difference) one of these circle scarves. You can wear it around your neck or pull it up over your head, or, since hers is bigger than the one in the picture, you can double it over and do both. This will help me keep warm without resorting to a space heater. (And on the frugal side, I'm sure she didn't pay anything like $37.50 for the materials.) We also got a set of LED under-cabinet lights for our kitchen from my father-in-law. We already have some of the stick-and-click variety (also a gift from him), but these plug directly into the wall, so we can use them most of the time and save the battery-powered ones for power outages. He also gave us a ludicrously powerful LED flashlight. I couldn't believe it was just a single LED bulb in there, but apparently they come in different brightnesses. It's tremendously versatile: you can set the beam on bright, dim, or flashing (as an emergency signal, I guess) and you can also widen or narrow the pool of light it casts. The LED bulb is actually square, as you can see if you condense the beam down to its smallest size (you definitely don't want to check by looking directly into it while it's lit). So I guess maybe square LEDs are bigger or brighter than the standard little round ones.

A couple of our gifts were sort of ecofrugal through the back door; they're for gardening, which means that they'll help us grow our own local, organic food. We got a nice, heavy-duty trowel and a tremendously impressive tool called the Structron Super Shovel, which has, in the words of Tim the Enchanter, "nasty big pointy teeth" on the end for penetrating clayey and rocky soil. Which is what we got. This came from my brother-in-law, who also gave us our King of Spades shovel, which has proved indispensable for everything from chipping ice to digging out stumps. So if this tool is half as sturdy as the last one, it should stand us in good stead when it comes time to uproot the remaining forsythia bushes on the north side of our yard. There's also a gardening-related "gift" that I bought for myself on our recent trip to Half Price Books: a book called Grocery Gardening, all about "planting, preparing, and preserving fresh food." In addition to general gardening how-tos (most of which I've heard before), it has specific information, advice, and recipes for dozens of different, individual crops, including herbs, veggies, and fruit. I decided I had to buy it when I picked it up in the store and it fell open to a recipe for a sweet rhubarb bread. I don't suppose it's actually any more healthful than rhubarb pie, but it looks like a lot less work.

In addition to the official gifts, we borrowed or swapped several books. My father-in-law, who has a truly impressive collection of fantasy and sci-fi paperbacks, agreed to let us borrow the first four volumes of Jim Butcher's Codex Alera series. (Our local library has volumes five and six, but I hate picking up a series in the middle, so this loan will get us up to speed.) And, on a visit to Brian's friend Jon in Muncie, we offered Jon the P.G. Wodehouse collection we'd just finished, and he returned the favor by giving us a sci-fi novel by Alastair Reynolds. This was an author who wasn't familiar to either of us, and Jon assured us that he really should be, so perhaps this will open up a whole new field of reading pleasures for us. (Sadly, the library doesn't have any, but it can be one more name to keep our eyes out for at book sales.)

Along with the gifts, our Christmas celebrations included a few additional green and frugal activities. We saved most of the wrapping paper from our own presents and scavenged a few big pieces from others, so our stash of usable paper is now well stocked for next year. (Too bad in a way; I was kind of looking forward to trying newspaper wrappings with colorful ribbons. But I think the more traditional wrapping papers may go over better with the kids.) And since our main present-opening extravaganza took place on Christmas Eve (which was when Brian's brother and sister-in-law could be there with his kids), we spent a relaxing Christmas day on such non-energy-intensive activities as reading, playing board games, doing puzzles, drawing pictures, and singing Christmas carols around the piano. (Some, as Brian's sister noted, much better than others.) And today, our last day in town, we're planning a quick jaunt to the local Goodwill store, which offers much better selection and better organization than any of the thrift shops in our area. The first time we went there, I picked up a couple of useful items, so now I make it a point to squeeze in a trip every time we're out here in Indy.

So that was our ecofrugal Christmas. How was yours?

Friday, December 20, 2013

Gardeners' holidays: The Changing of the Garden

So here it is, the winter solstice—the shortest day, the longest night, and the official close of a gardener's year. This is the day I was planning to put my garden to bed for the winter, pulling out all the plants still standing and covering up all the beds with a nice thick layer of leaf mulch to keep them warm and, with luck, relatively weed-free until spring. Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate with my plans. Even though winter has officially only just arrived, we've already had two significant snowfalls in December, so at this point most of the plants left in the garden are hidden under a layer of snow. I was able to find and uproot the larger ones (a couple of pepper plants, the dead and shriveled marigolds, and some massively overgrown arugula), but a few smaller ones remain buried. Some of those, such as the parsley and spinach, may just end up staying there until spring; Brian is curious to see whether these crops can get a head start in spring if we leave their roots in the ground all winter. Others may be pulled out at some point during a thaw. But since we're just about to leave for our Christmas vacation, all that will have to wait until we get back. (Next year, I must remember to keep on top of this and get the garden bedded down right after Thanksgiving.)

This doesn't mean, however, that there is no work to be done. The end of one year, after all, is the beginning of another, so closing up the garden for 2013 just means it's time to start planning for 2014. I've already received my 2014 seed catalogue from Fedco, my favorite seed supplier, a cooperative that specializes in heirloom seeds and varieties suited to Northeastern climes. Although it's no longer a tiny cottage business, the catalogue still has a quirky "alternative" flavor. It's printed in black and white on plain paper, with hand-drawn art instead of glossy photos; in addition to seeds and supplies, it sells "beneficical insects" and books on topics from cover crops to herbal remedies; and its features include fragments of poetry by one of the co-op's founders and political rants about GMO labeling and economic inequality. The real hub and core of it, however, is the seed selections, which are many and diverse and, for the most part, much cheaper than those sold by giants like Park Seed or Burpee.

Unfortunately, not every variety I've bought from Fedco has been a winner. The Winter Density lettuce we bought this year, though productive, was too bitter for my taste; the Ventura celery was extremely pungent, which is useful for a seasoning, but not so desirable in a veggie you want to use to bulk up a dish; and our Czech Black chili peppers and Glacier and Rutgers organic tomatoes, all started as seedlings, never thrived at all. I generally make a point of checking out each new variety before we try it by looking it up on the Vegetable Varieties site at Cornell and consulting the reviews, but even that doesn't guarantee results, as what works in one garden doesn't always work in another. So finding the best varieties for our little plot is largely a matter of trial and error. Fortunately, the more years of gardening experience we have, the more trials and errors we already have under our belts, so we can at least avoid making the same mistake twice.

Of course, picking out seeds for the garden is a serious undertaking, and it can't be rushed. I'm certainly not going to choose all the varieties I want to order for next year's garden in one day. In fact, Brian and I are planning to take the seed catalogue with us on our Christmas trip, so we can peruse it at our leisure and start narrowing down our choices. But I can at least come up with a basic outline of what types of crops to include, based on the analysis I did last month of this year's successes and failures. So here's my preliminary list of seeds I'll definitely need to buy for next year's garden, with the varieties still to be determined:
  • Arugula. The variety we've been growing (Fedco organic) seems to work for us, but we've used up our supply, so it's time to order more.
  • Basil. Ditto.
  • Celery. The Ventura wasn't a success, but it's worth trying again with a different variety.
  • Cucumbers. We've done fairly well with Marketmore in the past, but perhaps we'll mix it up next year and add a second variety for comparison.
  • Green beans. The Jade variety was a total flop this year and hasn't been a brilliant success in past years, so we'll look for another bush variety or perhaps try to spare some of our limited trellis space for a pole variety.
  • Lima beans. No luck with the King of the Garden variety in the past, but we'll take one more crack at it with another type.
  • Marigolds. We enjoyed having flowers along with the veggies in this year's garden, but starting our own from seed will be cheaper than buying plants.
  • Peppers. All the varieties we tried this year (Czech Black, Anaheim, Jimmy Nardello, Chocolate Beauty, Flavorburst, Paladin, and White Hungarian) were more or less flops; some perished as seedlings, while others survived but never yielded much. However, we know we can grow peppers, because we got a bumper crop of jalapenos the first year we planted them, so I guess it's just a matter of finding the right varieties. This will probably take a fair bit of research.
  • Scallions. Variety doesn't seem to matter; as long as we plant them thickly enough, we get loads (which is why we're now all out of seeds and need to order more).
  • New Zealand spinach. We haven't had much luck growing the regular kind of spinach, so perhaps this hardy, iron-rich substitute will work better for us. And if we don't care for it as a vegetable, we can try it as a ground cover in the front or side yard.
  • Tomatoes. We know the Sun Golds will thrive in our garden, but we've got plenty of seeds left for those; the tricky part is going to be finding other varieties that can hold their own on the same trellis.
So it looks like we'll be placing a pretty substantial seed order this year. On top of that, we're hoping to add some new fruit plants to our landscape. Having (we hope) eradicated the grapevine that was running wild each year over our back fence, we're planning to plant some hardy kiwi vines in that spot. We should have enough room for two females and a male. So it looks like it's going to be another busy planting season for us this spring—though we hope not quite as busy as this past spring, when we put in three new trees, five cherry bushes, and a dozen raspberry canes, all in one hectic weekend.

But all that is months in the future. Now, with the harvest all gathered in and the garden beds buried in snow, is the time to rest and plan. The hard work of digging and sowing, watering and weeding, can wait for warmer weather to roll around. For now, both we and the garden can enjoy a long winter's nap, and our spades and trowels can wait patiently on their pegs in the shed until springtime comes around again.

Happy new year, gardeners all!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Fruit of the Month: Ya Li pear

Well, what do you know. I actually fulfilled my New Year's resolution to try a new fruit or vegetable each month in 2013. (Having promised to write blog entries about them all definitely helped me stay motivated to see it through.) Here it is December, and here, right on schedule, is my very last Fruit of the Month entry.

Originally, I was planning to write this post about a green papaya, shown here, that I picked up at the HMart nearly two weeks ago. I'd tasted papaya juice before, but I'd never tried the fruit in its natural state, and I thought it might be interesting to see how it tasted fresh and what kind of things you could do with it. However, after getting it home, I did a bit of research and discovered several things about papayas:
  • A green papaya isn't a particular variety; it's a papaya that isn't ripe yet. If it's ready to eat, it should be a sort of mottled golden yellow.
  • If you leave a green papaya in the fridge, still in its wrappings from the store, it won't get any riper.
  • If you discover your mistake, unwrap the fruit, and leave it out on the counter, it still won't ripen very quickly.
  • It will, however, start to get soft and wrinkly and develop suspicious-looking black spots that lead you to suspect that what you have now can no longer be trusted to ripen to an edible state.
So, rather than stake my chances of completing my New Year's resolution on a questionable fruit that might never become edible, I decided to search the aisles on my next trip to the HMart for something simpler that I could just buy and eat without any special preparations. That way I could get this entry done before we leave on our annual Christmas trip to Brian's family seat out in Indiana. And that's how I ended up with this little Ya Li pear, also apparently known as an Asian pear or, rather poetically, "singing bird pear." It came all individually wrapped like a little Christmas present, in a sort of foam jacket that I'm sure ought to come in handy for something, though at the moment I'm not sure what.

Once I had it unwrapped, it looked just like any other pear, only slightly paler and rounder. The taste and texture, however, were distinctly different. It did have a hint of that familiar pear flavor, but it was much crisper and not nearly as sweet. The texture was more like a firm, watery vegetable than a fruit—perhaps a radish or a crisp cucumber. The flavor was also much lighter than that of the usual Bartlett or Bosc pear, slightly tart, slightly sweet, but not very pronounced. Not bad, and I certainly would eat this fruit again if it were offered to me, but I wouldn't go out of my way to buy it.

Which brings us to the big question: has this Veggie/Fruit of the Month experiment been a success? Well, on the most basic level, it was: I did indeed try twelve (actually, fourteen, if you count the double entries in August and November) new fruits and vegetables, most of which I probably wouldn't have tried if it hadn't been for my pledge. But while my stated goal was merely to try new fruits and vegetables, my actual hope was that this experiment would help or encourage me to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into my regular diet, and I can't really say that it's done that. Of the new fruits and veggies I've tried this year, there are a few that I'd definitely be happy to eat again if the opportunity presented itself, such as February's garlic scapes (which made a tasty and extremely powerful pesto) or May's champagne mangoes (which made a light, yet heavenly dessert when served atop a piece of Korean pop snack with whipped cream). But most of them were, frankly, just okay—nothing I'd ever go out of my way to eat.

Moreover, since I was looking specifically for new and unfamiliar fruits and veggies, I often ended up picking obscure varieties that are shipped from some distant land, and eating these more often would go against my ecofrugal inclination to eat seasonally and locally as much as possible. And while a few of the veggies I tried were new varieties grown in our own garden (such as August's Chocolate Beauty pepper and Moreton tomato, and September's Ventura celery), none of them were particularly successful, in terms of either flavor or yield. So given that space in our garden is an extremely limited resource, I don't expect to grow any of these varieties again next year.

So this leads to another question: should I continue my Fruit and Veggie of the Month posts next year, or drop them? On the plus side, it has been interesting trying all these new veggies and fruits, and it has also been nice having one idea for a blog post each month ready-made. But on the other hand, it wasn't always easy finding a new fruits or veggie to try each month, and as I noted before, I often ended up buying non-local produce, even in what would normally be the height of our growing season. So on the whole, I'm inclined to drop the idea of trying something new each month and approach the eat-more-veggies problem from a different angle. For instance, in 2014 I could simply resolve to try twelve new fruits and veggies (or new varieties of familiar ones) without requiring that they be spaced out at a rate of one per month. Or perhaps I could resolve to add several new veggies and/or veggie varieties to our garden (though probably not twelve, since there wouldn't be room) and report on each new variety as it comes into season. I haven't actually selected my seeds for next year's garden yet (more on that in tomorrow's post), but I'm sure there will be at least a few new varieties—and I'm also sure there will be many old familiar favorites, like Waltham butternut squash and Tom Thumb baby Bibb lettuce.

Perhaps the best approach is not to get hung up on trying new fruits and veggies and instead just focus on having more fruits and veggies. So I could continue to highlight a particular fruit or veggie each month, but it wouldn't necessarily have to be a new one: it could be an old friend, something that I look forward to each year as it comes into season, like the first gleaning of dandelion greens in March, or the first few spears of asparagus in April, or the start of apple season in September. Maybe I could even make room on the blog to celebrate those year-round veggies that we so often take for granted, like carrots and potatoes and mushrooms. After all, it isn't just the new and unfamiliar that deserves to be celebrated: the tried and true is worthy of honor too. And by taking the time to notice and celebrate these familiar favorites, perhaps I can make them new again, and come to appreciate them more.

So here's my tentative plan: instead of trying a new fruit or vegetable every month next year, I'll have a monthly post highlighting any fruit or vegetable—either a new one, or an old standard prepared in a new and unfamiliar way. That way, I can expand my repertoire of fruit and vegetable dishes—and work toward my ultimate goal of eating more of them overall—without having to go far afield to find a whole new type of fruit or vegetable each month. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Holiday Tour 2013

It's beginning to look a lot like Christ-maaaaaas....

A year ago, on this blog, I treated you all to a Holiday Tour of Highland Park, featuring photos of our town's most notable holiday decorations. To make it more interesting, I gave out awards in several different categories, from Winter Wonderland to Most Over-the-Top. This year, I've decided to take the idea a step further: instead of giving the awards myself, I'm just going to post several candidates in each category and let you, my friends and readers, pick the winners. I'm hoping, in the process, to learn how to embed a poll in a blog entry, something I've never attempted here before. (If that doesn't work, you can always cast your ballots in the comments.)

So here, without further ado, are the nominees for the first category: the Winter Wonderland award, for the best decorations overall. Candidate number one is last year's winner, Roberts Florals on Raritan Avenue, which put up a more streamlined variant of its glittering window display from 2012. I couldn't get it all into one picture, so here are two shots, one of each half of the window.

Candidate number two is one of last year's runners-up, Through the Moongate/Over the Moon Toys. This one also gets two pictures, one of its outdoor decorations (fruit-adorned wreaths on the windows and light-bedecked evergreens flanking the door)...

...and one of its interior, complete with paper snowflakes, glowing star lanterns, and a fully decked out Christmas tree.

Candidate number three is another runner-up from last year, our local Ten Thousand Villages. Its window display includes LED light branches (I love those things), abstract snowflakes, and a wide assortment of handmade Christmas decorations and menorahs, shown in the close-up shots below.

Candidate number four is a newcomer to the list: Haven barbershop, which has put together an elegant display of snow-covered branches. Apologies for the reflection in the window: this would probably look better by night, but when we passed by it on an evening walk the display was still under construction.

And finally, candidate number five is the headquarters of Main Street Highland Park, a local community development organization. Its window currently features works by local artists, interspersed with lighted snowflakes and star lanterns.

And although it's not part of the display, here's a shot of the town Christmas tree just outside the building, just for the sake of community spirit.

So, assuming I've managed to do this right, you should be able to cast your votes in the Winter Wonderland category below.

Winter Wonderland award

Moving along, our second category is Most Creative Display. The first nominee in this category is the unusual menorah in the window of Pino's Gift Basket Shoppe and Wine Cellar—made from, naturally, an assortment of wine bottles painted blue and adorned with candles.

The second candidate is another part of Pino's window display: these little liquor-bottle elves.

Candidate number three is the burlap-covered wreath in the window of OQ Coffee, our new "artisanal" coffee shop and roastery. With its all-organic and Fair Trade coffee selections, naturally they chose an organic material for the window display as well. Once again I had a problem with reflections off the window, but I hope the two pictures below give you some idea of it.

Candidate number four is this little collection of carolers in the window of The Hair Company on Raritan Avenue.

And on a related theme, candidate number five is the paper snowman and snowflakes in the window of Music Together, a musical academy for kids. You might not think this is particularly creative until you look closely at the snowflakes...

...and see that they're made of sheet music.

Most Creative Display:

Category number three is Most Tasteful Display. Our classy town had lots of candidates for this award, starting with these cement planters that line Raritan Avenue. In the summer they're full of flowers, but at Christmastime they're decked out with evergreens, white birch branches, and red bows.

On a similar theme, we have this handsome pair of evergreen wreaths on the door of the Baptist Church.

The door of Pino's also has a pair of wreaths, but of the grapevine variety, trimmed with red ribbon.

Another natural display appears in the window box outside Rebarber Family Chiropractic: just some sleek white birch branches with a few sprigs of juniper.

And lastly, moving from the natural to the handcrafted, we have these lovely fabric-covered baubles in the window of Highland Spark jewelry studio.

Most Tasteful Display:

And finally, the ever-popular category of Most Over-the-Top Display. It was actually harder to find suitable candidates for this category, especially since the inflatable menagerie down the street, the undisputed winner of this award in last year's Holiday Tour, hasn't been put up this year. So instead we have an assortment of displays that are perhaps just a bit much, starting with this one in and immediately outside the window of Highland Flower.

The next candidate is the Jewelry Exchange, a local secondhand jeweler. The amazing thing about this one is that the proprietor is Jewish and doesn't even celebrate Christmas. You can, if you look closely, see two plastic menorahs pinned up over the doorway behind all the icicle lights and tinsel stars of David, but most of this stuff actually stays up year-round.

Then we have a set of icicle lights in the window of a Chinese restaurant on Raritan (I can't give you its name because its window displays at least three different ones, and I don't know which one is right). Actually, the icicle lights might not look so glaring if they didn't have the neon "OPEN" sign right in amongst them.

Candidate number four is a Nativity scene in the window of Pure Light Crafts. I wouldn't have questioned its taste level at all were it not for the fact that the principal figure, the Baby Jesus himself, appears to have fallen victim to cradle snatchers.

And finally, just to make sure there's at least one inflatable character in the running, our neighbor's house. (I probably could have found more of these around town if I had really searched, but I only checked out the main drag, and this was the only one that happened to be on the way from my house to Raritan.)

Most Over-the-Top Display

So there you have it: four categories, with five picks in each. Now, I think I've managed to incorporate all the poll questions into this post properly, but I was only able to do it by putting the same poll questions on the main page of the blog and then copying and pasting the HTML code into this post. According to this site, I should now be able to delete the poll widget from the main page without affecting the code here—but the instructions in that site didn't work exactly right for the copying-and-pasting part, so I'm skeptical. Let's see....

Well, it seems to work. The only thing that's weird is these little dotted lines at the bottom of the post, but I think I'm just not going to worry about those, because trying to get rid of them is likely to create more problems. Ignore the dotted lines, everyone. Just have fun with the poll.

P.S. After a little experimentation, it appears that votes take a while to show up after being cast. If you don't see yours, try refreshing the page; it will probably pop up.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Box-ripened tomatoes

Last month, when we harvested the last of our tomatoes that were left on the vine, most of them were still green. Our plan was to tuck these in a newspaper-lined box, stow it down in the basement, and wait for them to ripen. We've done this before and managed to enjoy home-grown tomatoes well into December. However, this year, for some reason, they don't seem to be ripening up very quickly. Maybe it's just the colder weather, but when we checked on the box today, we found that most of the tomatoes were a bright orange, a few were still green or yellowish, and not one was really red. Still more disappointingly, some of the tomatoes were already beginning to go soft or wrinkled even though they weren't properly ripe. So if we left them in the box to ripen further, there was a possibility they might just get steadily softer without actually getting any riper.

So, instead, we opted to cut our losses. We took all the questionable tomatoes, cut out any parts that look definitely bad, and chopped them up into a salsa, along with as many others as needed to fill out the recipe. And the result was, I would say, acceptable. They may not have had quite the flavor of vine-ripened tomatoes, but mixed with all the lime and jalapeno and all, it hardly made a difference. Even if they weren't fully ripe, our tomatoes were certainly up to the standards of supermarket tomatoes, which were all we could normally get at this time of year.

So on the whole, I think the box-ripening technique works acceptably well, but I still wonder if there's some way to improve on it. Maybe putting an apple or something in the box with them to give off more ethylene would speed the ripening process. A quick Google search just now turned up this Wikihow article, which recommends using a green banana for the purpose, but my concern about that would be the banana itself. Left in a closed box with a bunch of tomatoes, tucked away out of sight and out of mind in the basement, it could easily go from green to black before we thought to check in on it. Maybe we should try one of the other methods in the article instead, such as ripening the tomatoes in paper or plastic bags. That way we could keep them in the kitchen where we could keep an eye on them. For now, though, the tomatoes we've got left will probably have to stay in their box in the basement. We're leaving on our annual Christmas visit to Brian's folks next weekend, and we wouldn't want the remaining tomatoes to go from unripe to overripe in our absence.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Wrap session

Whew! After one marathon session yesterday, we have finally wrapped all our Christmas presents (except for a few late purchases that are still en route from But, of course, we wrapped them all the ecofrugal way, without actually buying any new wrapping paper for the purpose. After all, you can hardly get less ecofrugal than cutting down trees to process them into paper that's going to be used once, torn off, crumpled into a ball, stuffed into a garbage bag and sent straight to the landfill—and then paying anywhere from $2 to $10 a roll for it.

Although I like the idea of reusable fabric gift bags that can be used again every Christmas, I've never actually attempted to make any, since (a) my sewing skills are shaky, (b) most of the fabric in our scrap bin isn't very presentable, and (c) there's a good chance they wouldn't actually get reused (and might actually end up being swept up in all the chaos and bundled into a trash bag with the rest of the wrappings). So instead, we tend to reuse wrapping paper we've salvaged from previous Christmases. This means that while other families' gifts can be identified by the unique paper design that family has chosen for this year, ours tend to be a hodge-podge of prints from years past: Santa loading up the sleigh, snowmen holding up Christmas banners, little gold trees on a red background, etc.

The trouble is, we often have trouble saving enough wrapping paper each year to cover all the following year's gifts. Although I don't want to waste paper, I don't want our gifts to look shoddy, either, so I only reuse pieces that are still in good condition—and unfortunately, most of the paper from our Christmas presents is no longer in good condition by the time it's been wrapped and unwrapped. Although we always open our own presents carefully to save the paper if possible, we can only reuse it if the gifts we have to give the next year are smaller than the ones we opened—and since gifts given to small children tend to come in larger boxes than gifts given to adults, the presents we give are often bulkier than the ones we receive. Sometimes we try to grab large pieces from other people's presents before they go into the garbage, but even a very large piece of paper may yield surprisingly little usable material once you've cut off all the bits that are torn or written on. (We tend to wrap our own presents with an eye to future paper reuse, labeling them with little tags attached with tape that comes off cleanly, but since we're generally using paper that's already had one go-round, it still doesn't tend to survive intact.)

Over the years, we've tried several different approaches to deal with our perennial shortage of reused wrapping paper. For several years, we were able to manage quite nicely with the "free gifts" of wrapping paper we received from the National Wildlife Federation (all made from recycled fibers, of course). I really liked these, because the individual sheets were much easier to work with than big rolls, and they tended to have generic wintry designs that were suitable for both Christmas and Hanukkah. But after a while, they seemed to catch on that these annual freebies weren't actually persuading me to send them any money and stopped sending them. So since then, I've supplemented our cache of paper in a variety of ways, such as:
  • Picking up partially used rolls of wrapping paper at yard sales and on Freecycle. Although this isn't quite the same as reusing paper that's already had presents wrapped in it once, I figure it's still less wasteful than buying brand-new paper, since it's salvaging something that might otherwise be thrown out. One roll of light aqua paper with snowflakes on it, picked up for a buck at an estate sale two years ago, yielded enough material to wrap several of last year's presents, most of this year's Hanukkah gifts, and several Christmas presents that didn't fit into any of our salvaged pieces—and there's still a little bit of it left.
  • Alternative wrappings. Once you get past the idea of using only wrapping paper specifically designed for the purpose, there are actually a huge number of other possibilities. Some people recommend using the colorful Sunday comics as wrappings, but we don't actually get a newspaper at home (it's more ecofrugal to get our news online or on NPR). I do sometimes pick up copies of the Rutgers Daily Targum for the crossword, but it doesn't have colored comics, though it does come in handy for stuffing large packages to keep them from rattling. However, we do have a few sheets of plain butcher paper stashed away, and we also have lots of brown kraft paper left over from our brown-paper floor project, which can be handy for wrapping up extra-large items. (A colorful bow makes the plain paper look more festive.) I've also reused colored or printed paper bags from various stores, and pages from calendars and catalogues. (The gift catalogue from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has some particularly nice images, though the pages aren't large enough to wrap anything bigger than a CD.)
  • Franken-wrapping. Brian says this technique has long been popular in his family for using up all the extra bits of paper that get trimmed off or left over at the end of a roll. You just take a bunch of strips of different papers, and tape them together until you have a piece large enough for whatever you're wrapping. This is a particularly good technique for wrapping oddly shaped items, like this one we're giving to my second-youngest nephew, since they're going to look a bit lumpy and wrinkled anyway. (I won't disclose the contents here, but if you could see the package without its camouflage of miscellaneous wrappings, it would be obvious at a glance.)
All this makes wrapping our holiday presents a bit of an adventure. Each year, I have to sift through my stash of reused paper, trying to match each gift with a piece of paper the right size for it, and come up with an alternate method of wrapping it if I can't find one. It's definitely more complicated than just cutting a piece to size off a roll of paper. Sometimes I think it would be easier to emulate Andrew Tobias, my favorite personal-finance writer. He writes in his Only Financial Guide You'll Ever Need that he likes to wrap his gifts in regular newspaper pages (he favors the Wall Street Journal, which "makes a nice gray background") and then add a message to the recipient in colored marker. It wouldn't look as festive as our multicolored assortment of wrappings, but it would definitely be less work—and you would actually be able to tell at a glance which gifts were from us. And if the gifts looked too plain in their black-and-white wrappings, I could always top them with some colorful ribbon, which is a lot easier to save and reuse than paper.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Decking the Halls

When I was growing up, my favorite holiday decorations were the ones in Princeton's Palmer Square. That was the site of the town Christmas tree, with its multicolored lights, but my real favorite was the storefronts. Each door was topped with a big swag of greenery, trimmed with white lights and red ribbons. To my eye, it always looked so festive, yet so tasteful at the same time. So when I finally had a house of my own, I decided to decorate the same way, but on a smaller scale. Every year, as soon as Thanksgiving was past (and not until then, dagnabbit), I'd visit one of the Christmas tree vendors who set up shop in nearby parking lots and pick up a bunch of evergreen trimmings, which were usually available for free (though I'd generally tip the vendor a buck or two). I found some nice twisted red-and-silver ribbon on sale at Michael's, and I'd use that to bind the evergreens onto the front porch railings. Then I'd twine a single strand of warm-white LED lights—special-ordered off the Web back when you couldn't find them in stores—all the way up one railing, across the top of the door, and down the other railing, where they'd plug into an extension cord that snaked in under the door where the door sweep was just loose enough to allow it through. I reused the same strand of lights and the same ribbon each year, so it only cost me a couple of bucks to deck the house out every Yuletide.

Over the years, I came up with a few added twists on this basic idea. First, I got some extra ribbon and started tying greenery on to the side porch railing as well, although I couldn't run lights over there because there was no way to fit the cord through the door.

Then I decided the string of lights looped over the top of the door looked a bit bare without any greenery, so I started pulling strands of the English ivy that grows in abundance alongside the railings and twining it through the strand of lights to give it a bit of color during the day.

This year, however, I decided I'd actually like to do a bit more. I was happy enough with the decorations outside the house, but I wanted some inside as well. And since we'd just recently taken down those two big bushes in the front yard, I had a huge amount of free material to work with. So I challenged myself to use our recycled greenery for the bulk of my new indoor decorations, buying as little additional material as possible. To supplement our evergreen boughs, I went out with a basket gathering natural materials from around our neighborhood. The two large pine trees down the block provided dozens of big pine cones, a couple of Winter King hawthorns had dropped a large collection of red berries, and I even found a couple of trimmed-off holly branches, complete with berries. Then I took the whole lot home and started experimenting.

I had already identified several possible spots in the house that looked like good candidates for a touch of greenery, including the tops of the bookcases and the TV cabinet in the living room, the table in the little back room where we keep our house plants, and the top of the fridge (the only surface in the kitchen that we don't need for a workspace). My original thought was just to arrange some evergreen boughs across these surfaces, but as I thought about it, I realized that the branches would gradually dry out and start shedding their needles, leaving a mess that could be difficult to clean up after New Year's. So I decided instead to arrange the greens in containers that would keep them tidy. And looking at the top of the TV cabinet, I realized that I had some perfectly good containers there already: the collection of ceramic ware that we keep there year round included a nice blue water jug, a matching colander, and a smaller cream jug that's part of a tea set. So I just plunked some juniper sprigs into the two jugs, added a little water to keep them fresh, and arranged some pine cones in the colander.

The tops of the bookcases proved a bit trickier. Together, they make a large surface, and I didn't have any really large baskets or bowls to arrange my greenery in. So I thought perhaps I could use a whole assortment of small containers instead. My original thought was drinking glasses, but I figured we'd need at least six of them, and I couldn't spare that many from their dinnertime duties. So I cast my mind around thinking of other small containers we might have in large quantities, and the answer came to me: flowerpots. Every time we buy plants for our garden, we end up with more of these, and being pack rats, we never throw any away. So we now have dozens of little 4-inch plastic pots, more or less identical, out in the shed. I quickly dug out several that were reasonably clean and started arranging my greenery in them. After some experimentation, I ended up with a pair of pine cones in each pot; a clump of the softer, darker green twigs in back of that; a clump of the pricklier juniper twigs in front, with the white berries for decoration; and a sprinkling of red hawthorn berries to add a touch of color. The finished pots were pretty, but a bit dark, so I decided to brighten them up with some red and silver holiday ribbon that I bought at our local dollar store. I couldn't get the ribbon to stick to the pots or to itself with tape, but since it was wired ribbon, I was able to secure the ends by just twisting them together in the back. Result: a row of cheerful little pots, alternating between red and silver.

The reason I originally bought the ribbon was to try out another decorating idea that struck my fancy: little jingle-bell ornaments, which I discovered in packs of six at the dollar store. Realizing that there are exactly six doors leading off our house's main hallway (office, linen closet, bedroom, back room, bathroom, coat closet), I decided to buy a pack of these, along with some some wide ribbon, and hang a single bell from the top of each door. I originally wanted red-and-silver ribbon, but they didn't have any, so I ended up going with a translucent red ribbon decorated with glitter stars. Each spool had three yards of ribbon on it, so I just divided them into thirds, giving me three feet of ribbon per bell. I ran a length of ribbon through the loop on the end of each bell, twisted the wired ends to secure it in place, and then folded the other end over at the top and secured it to the top of the door with a thumb tack, which holds it in place while still allowing the door to close. Here they are, jingling all the way down the hall.

I ended up using only two spools of the red ribbon for the bells, but I bought a fourth, along with one spool of silver ribbon, for further embellishment—which turned out to be a good idea, since the pots look much nicer with red and silver alternating. And since I had three more pots and quite a bit of ribbon left over, I made a few more for the window sills of our big downstairs room.

Some of the lengths of ribbon I trimmed off ended up being not quite long enough for the pots, so on the principle of "waste not, want not," I wrapped them around a vase we had stashed away, filled it with some more juniper branches, and put it in the downstairs bath in the obvious place.

And I also arranged some of the greenery, plus pine cones and berries, in one of the baskets we picked up at last September's yard sales. This makes a nice complement to the potted plants in our back room.

The only place I ended up using the greenery without any sort of a container, as I originally planned, was on top of the fridge. We have a cute pair of ceramic salt and pepper shakers that look like little snowmen, but we don't generally use them for salt and pepper because they don't work as well as our existing salt shaker and pepper grinder. So rather than leave them cooped up in a box, I decided to make them part of our holiday display, with a big juniper branch for background. (The fence behind them is a little wire shelf that normally lives in our freezer, where it helps keep the contents organized. Since our freezer is stuffed to the gills right now, Brian removed it to eke out a little more room and stuck it on top of the fridge, so I just worked it into the arrangement.)

When I first started work on these decorations, I brought in a large assortment (though by no means all) of the greenery we saved when we took down the two shrubs. After I'd finished doing all the arrangements, I went to tidy up what was left by piling it into a big basket to carry it back out to the shed. But as I started heaping the greens in the basket, I decided they actually looked nice enough to be a decoration by themselves. So I adorned the basket with a few more pine cones, trimmed the handle with what was left of the red and silver ribbon, and stuck in the two holly sprigs I found on my gathering expedition. Then, to set it off better, I stripped off the Indian bedspread that normally serves as a tablecloth on our dining table, bundled it into the hamper for a long-overdue wash, and spread the table with our "good" white tablecloth, which makes a nice wintry backdrop for all the red and green.

By the time I was done with all this decorating, I was feeling just like Martha Stewart. But I felt even more pleased when I calculated the budget for a whole house full of decorations:

Evergreens: $0 (leftover from shrubs in front yard)
Pine cones, holly, berries: $0 (gathered around neighborhood)
Baskets: $1 (50 cents each at yard sales)
Pots: $0 (already owned)
Snow men ornaments: $0 (already owned)
Jingle bell ornaments: $1.07 from dollar store
Ribbon: $4.28 from dollar store (3 spools red, 1 silver)
Total: $6.35

The beauty part of it is that most of these decorations can be reused next year. I just need to find a way to wrap up the ribbon so it doesn't lose all its glitter, and I can stow it away in January to be brought back out when the holidays roll round again. I'll have to gather fresh pine cones and berries, but there's plenty where this year's supply came from. The only part of this year's decorations I won't have next year is all the greenery we got from those two shrubs—but since the Christmas tree vendors always have plenty, I'd say there's no problem there. And since I've already done all the work of figuring out how to put my arrangements together, next year's decorations should not only be cheaper but also a lot quicker to assemble.

Now all we need is a little hot cider and Percy Faith's "Music of Christmas," and I'd say we'll have all the Yuletide spirit we can handle.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

If I Had $5000—Every Week

Back when I was a kid, the ultimate sum of money to imagine and fantasize about was one milllllion dollars. A cool million, the general assumption went, was more money than anyone could possibly need. With that kind of bucks, you'd never need to work another day in your life, you could buy everything you'd ever wanted, and you'd never have to worry about money ever again. Even when I was in college, the Barenaked Ladies were still singing about all the things they'd do if they had a million dollars, as if that were the ultimate in fantastic wealth. (All the items from this song appear in the "thousands" section of this massive and fascinating chart called "Money," from the webcomic XKCD.)

Times have certainly changed since then. Many online retirement calculators today will tell you that for a couple with a joint income of $75,000, a million in today's dollars isn't even enough to retire on. I happen to think these figures are bogus, since the amount you need in retirement should be based on how much you spend, not how much you make, but it still goes to show that one million dollars is no longer a sum that most people would consider fabulous wealth. You hardly ever hear anyone pronounce the word with all those extra l's anymore.

So how much money really is immense wealth—more than anyone could ever need? Well, the banner ad I just saw for the Publishers' Clearinghouse Sweepstakes suggests that the new figure is not a lump sum, but rather an income of "$5,000 a week for life." At first blush, $5,000 a week sounds like a much easier number to wrap your brain around than $1 million. After all, $5,000 is a number that most of us have at least seen; it might be a month's salary, or the amount in a checking account, or the amount left to pay on a student loan. It's a number we can relate to. But $5,000 a week? How on earth could you ever spend that kind of money? If we won that sweepstakes, we'd burn through our entire month's expenses in the first week with room to spare, and then the checks would just keep coming. I mean, with that kind of money, you could pay for a Caribbean vacation every week. You could buy a new Mercedes every fifteen weeks. You could put four kids through Harvard at the same time and still have $20,000 left over.

I know, however, that there are people who do make $5,000 a week—or $260,000 a year—and manage to spend it all, and I assume they're not actually doing any of these things. So I did a quick search and found an article on MSN money about how people live on $250,000 a year. And apparently, it's not nearly as easy to do as I would have thought. Some people, in fact, are actually struggling to get by on this income. The article discusses how a hypothetical family, the Joneses, would fare on $250,000 of combined income in eight different cities, and it found that in seven of the eight, the couple would actually be unable to make ends meet. The author insists that while this "may seem surprising," it's actually perfectly reasonable: between taxes, "maximizing contributions to two 401k's," and "squirreling away $8,000 a year for their kids' college educations," the family can't even afford such little luxuries as "monthly sessions at the hair colorist, or membership at a gym." Even their grocery expenditures fall into the "moderate-cost" monthly food plan, as calculated by the USDA, rather than the pricey "liberal" plan.

Unfortunately, this article doesn't actually break down the Joneses' budget, so it's hard to tell exactly where all the money is going. So I dug a little deeper and eventually found the original article from the Fiscal Times, which provides more details. It notes, for example, that only in some of the eight cities on the list would this couple actually be in the red after paying their taxes and "essential expenses for housing, groceries, child care, clothing, transportation—and their dog." But it goes on to claim that the couple would probably have to spend an additional $20,000 or so on "common additional expenses for a working couple with two children —music lessons, day camp costs...after-school sports, entertainment, cleaning services, gifts, and an annual week-long vacation." It notes somewhat defensively that while their estimates of $5,000 a year for house cleaning, $4,000 for after-school activities, and $1,200 a year for dry cleaning "may seem lavish," it's "impossible" for a family with two working parents to "maintain the home, care for the kids and dress for their professional jobs" on less.

All this completely baffled me, because I know plenty of two-earner couples who manage to do all of those things on incomes less than half the size of the Joneses'—in some cases, less than one-third or even one-fifth the size. Clearly, it is in fact possible. So what is it the Joneses are doing wrong? My first thought was that maybe their biggest problem was the places where they were choosing to live (or rather, where the researchers were choosing to locate them). After all, most cities are expensive to live in, but that's why people move to the suburbs—and there are always some suburbs that are pricier than others. For instance, a family home in Alexandria, VA, is going to cost considerably more than a similar home in a town outside the Beltway, like Franconia or Springfield. But surely a family that's actually getting deeper into debt every year would consider the longer commute a reasonable tradeoff, wouldn't you think?

So I selected the priciest town on the list—Huntington, NY—and started looking at real estate prices there to see how they'd compare to those in neighboring towns. But when I did a search on Zillow to find suitable homes for a family of four, with three or four bedrooms and two baths, I discovered that there were several houses this size priced between $400,000 and $600,000—expensive compared to many other parts of the country, but for Long Island, really not bad at all. I selected one house that looked nice for a family of four and found that the mortgage payments on it were around $21,000 and the property taxes were around $8,000. Yet the Fiscal Times article showed that the Joneses were spending $36,000 a year on mortgage payments in Huntington, and $15,000 a year in property taxes. So on housing alone, the authors have overestimated the Joneses' expenses by $22,000.

That wasn't quite enough to account for their budget shortfall of $27,000, but it made me wonder how many of the other numbers on the list were off-base as well. For instance, they've allowed a certain amount in the tax section for gas taxes, sales taxes, and phone service taxes—but aren't those costs already included in the family's budget under gas, food and clothing, etc? Have they deducted the taxes from their estimates for these expenses, or are they double-counting them? And then there's the figures for health insurance: why are they the same across the board? Shouldn't they differ from state to state? After all, the papers have had a lot to say lately about how Obamacare will most likely lower insurance premiums in some states and raise them in others; that can't be true if they're the same everywhere, can it? And looking further down, I see that the authors have also used the same numbers across the board for child care costs, after-school activities, utilities, food, clothing, travel, and entertainment. If those numbers don't vary from state to state, then it means the authors didn't base them on any kind of real-world data from the eight towns in question. So where did they come up with them? Well, funny thing, they don't say. Or rather, they have a list of sources at the bottom of the chart, but they don't say which number came from which source or provide any links to the sources cited—so there's really no way to check their facts.

So basically, I think these figures are highly suspect. However, even if they're completely made up, they do at least serve to provide an idea of what a $250,000-a-year budget would look like. So I guess the answer to my question is, if you need to come up with a way to spend $5,000 a week, just move to one of the eight cities on this list (and then have two kids, if you don't have them already).

Of course, none of this really answers the question of what we would do with $5,000 a week, since we don't have two kids and don't have any interest in moving to a pricier city (or even upgrading to a fancier house in the same town). But we do happen to have nine nieces and nephews, all of whom will most likely need to go to college in anywhere from eight to seventeen years. So most likely, the best use of our $5,000 a week would be:
  1. First deduct the taxes, which come to around $60,000, depending on how much we deduct for heath care and charitable contributions and so on;
  2. Give a tenth of the remainder, or $20,000, to charity, since that's a nice round figure;
  3. Take out around $50,000 to pay for our living expenses (that's enough for all our current expenses, plus a generous sum each month to pay for private health insurance);
  4. Split the remaining $130,000 nine ways, which gives us $14,444 to set aside in a college fund for each of the kids. Or maybe pro-rate it somehow to set aside more for the older kids, who will need it sooner. After all, that $14,444 times eight years is only $115,552, and even at today's rates, that would only pay for two years of Harvard at most.
Boy, a quarter million just doesn't go as far as it used to, does it?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

CouponMom letdown

A quick note before we get to the meat of today's blog entry: A week or so ago I noticed that the search feature on this blog (that little box at the right, below the member list) seemed to have stopped working. That is, when I typed in a word that I knew could be found in one or more blog entries, I got no results. I tried messing with the settings to no effect. So yesterday, we did a little experiment: Brian tried adding the search bar to his old blog, The Modern Troll, and it didn't work there either. So as far as we can tell, this problem is occurring across Blogger and isn't limited to my site—which is kind of unnerving, considering that Blogger is owned by Google, the search engine that most of the modern world depends on. I've sent feedback to Google about it, but I don't know whether I'll get a response. In the mean time, if you want to search for a specific topic, I suggest you use the labels, which are just below the search bar. Those still work, though it may take a bit longer to find the entry you want.

And, talking of things not working right: some of you may recall that, after being skeptical for many years about the benefits of coupon use, I was won over by a website called CouponMom, which takes nearly all the work out of matching up the sales at your local stores with the coupons available in the major coupon inserts (SmartSource, Red Plum, etc.). I started making a visit to this website the first step in planning my grocery trips, using it to figure out which stores had enough good deals to make them worth visiting each week. I even featured the site in this year's Thrift Week series, which focused on the best money-saving websites.

This week, however, when I ran my regular weekly search on CouponMom, I was very disappointed. It wasn't because the list of good deals in my area was so short; there are always some weeks when the sales and coupons just don't fall into place, and that doesn't bother me. The problem was that the few deals I managed to find didn't actually work. Here's a copy of my list:

Sort by Cpn DateSort Alphabetically by ItemQty.Sale PriceMfr Cpn.Register Price
Per Item
Final Price
All Savings Per Item
% Saved
General Mills Chex Cereals (12.8-14.25 oz.) Cereals
Other Newspaper Coupons: 11-10 S
Printable coupon is for $1.00 off TWO BOXES Chex cereals for a final cost of 1.48. 10/20 coupon expires 11/30.
Pillsbury Flour 5 lb. bag1$0.99-=$0.99=$0.9950%
4-Day Price Break item, price valid 12/4 - 12/7 only!
This is a good item to donate to charity.
10-27 RPTropicana Pure Premium Orange, Grapefruit or Trop50 Juice 59 oz.2$2.50-$1.00=$2.00=$2.0053%
Stop & Shop
General Mills Cereals 8.7 - 14 oz. all varieties
Other Newspaper Coupons: 11-10 S, 11-03 S2
promo: buy (4) and get $6 off instantly
Printable coupon is for $0.50 off ONE BOX Honey Nut Cheerios cereal. Final price is after printable coupon.
11-24 RPNivea Lip Care Kiss of Smoothness or Kiss of Recovery 1 ct.2$1.00-$3.00=$0.00=FREE100%
This is a good item to donate to charity.
Total Price:
$9.24Total Savings: 65%

Those two cereal deals looked intriguing, so I thought I'd check out the coupons for both and see which one would work better for us, or whether there might be some way to take advantage of both. The links to the printable coupons worked fine, but when I went to check the "other newspaper coupons," I ran into problems. The site told me I could find coupons in the November 10 SmartSource and the November 3 SmartSource 2, but when I pulled these two coupon inserts out of the file where I store them, I found no cereal coupons at all in either one. It wasn't that I'd already clipped and used them, because I would still have been able to see the spots they'd been clipped from. They'd simply never been there.

Now, it might seem like this is no problem really, because the printable coupons still work, so I could just use those. This would work at the Pathmark sale, where you only need one coupon to get two boxes of cereal for $1.48 each—but the problem with that is that the boxes are only 14.25 ounces at most, so this price would still just miss our cutoff point of 10 cents an ounce for cold cereal. And the Stop & Shop sale wouldn't work at all, because you need to buy four boxes to get the sale price, and printable coupon sites generally allow you to print only two copies of any given coupon. So there's actually no way to get the $1.29-per-box price shown on the list.

Okay, so that particular deal doesn't actually work. As I noted in my Thrift Week entry, that happens sometimes. But the other deals shown on the list should still be okay, right? Well, no, actually. For example, the orange juice deal at the ShopRite: the list says it's for any Tropicana orange or grapefruit juice, but when I dug out the coupon from the October 27 RedPlum insert, I found that it was for Trop50 only. For those of you who aren't familiar with this product, it's an orange juice blend with "50% less sugar and calories" and no artificial sweeteners. Sounds great, until you check the ingredient list and realize that all they've done is take regular orange juice and water it down. Well, for crying out loud, if I want to drink watered-down OJ, I can buy the regular stuff and add my own tap water, and that will cut the price of the juice in half—a much bigger savings than I'll get with their silly coupon. 

So of the five deals that I found in this week's CouponMom list, only three actually work—and one of those is just a straight-up sale that doesn't require the use of a coupon at all. That's an accuracy record of only 60 percent, which makes me question whether I can continue to rely on this site at all. It's still worth checking, I guess, because it does help me find the printable coupons I can use, as well as the good sale prices that don't require coupons (though I could always find those by just checking the sale fliers). But for helping me make use of my coupon inserts, I'm really not sure whether it's any use at all. I think I might be better off going back to my old system:
  1. skim the coupon inserts when they arrive;
  2. clip anything I think I might be able to use; and
  3. when I search the weekly sale fliers, check my small stash of clipped coupons to see if there are any that will stack.
It's a bit more work, but the results should be a lot more reliable.