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 Amazon.com 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?
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