Thursday, January 31, 2013

The shoe conundrum resolved (probably)

For all those who have been waiting on tenterhooks (whatever those are) to hear whether I managed to resolve the shoe problem I posted about last week, I believe I have finally reached an acceptable solution. Or at least, I have reason to hope so.

The boots shown in the picture are the "Paula" model from Rugged Outback, which are made entirely from manmade materials (in China, but then that's true of most shoes these days). They were the only leather-free boot I could find at Payless.com in a size 6.5 wide (and it's a good thing I bought them when I did, because I just checked the site and they're no longer available). Shipping was free, and I knew I could return them to any Payless store if they didn't fit. This proved to be a good thing, because the size 6.5 wide turned out to be a bit tight. I could get my feet into them, but they only fit comfortably with thin socks, which isn't what you really want to wear in the coldest days of winter.

So I did a quick search online to see if any local stores had them in a size 7 wide, and we found a pair at the Payless in Milltown, about 6 miles away. However, since the boots were delivered around 6:30 on Wednesday evening, it was a little after 7pm by the time I made this discovery, and the store was closing at 8pm. So we hastily packed the shoes back into their box and hustled out the door, reaching the store by 7:30. Fortunately, half an hour from closing time turned out to be plenty. I was a bit concerned that the boots might turn out to be unavailable in a 7 wide after all, but the clerk quickly found me a pair, and I was able to get them onto my feet without discomfort—which was about all I was asking for at this point. So we simply traded in the smaller pair for the bigger one and were back out the door in about ten minutes.

My new boots aren't perfect. For one thing, they do have a slightly raised heel, about an inch and a half, so it will take some adjustment to get used to walking on them. It's also pretty clear that they're not terribly well made; just from putting them on and taking them off several times today, I've already started to pull the lining loose on both boots (though I've managed to stitch it back in place for now). For another thing, there's no denying that a size 7 wide is a bit roomy on me. Finally, they have basically no internal support. However, I think I've managed to mitigate these last two problems by adding a pair of molded insoles from the drugstore.

So what I've ended up with is a pair of boots that fits all my basic criteria—sort of. They don't fit perfectly, but they fit reasonably well with the inserts; they are leather-free; they look acceptable; and they cost under $50, although the inserts actually bump their price up to slightly over that limit. Now if this new pair of boots will just last through an entire winter, I can consider this a successful shoe shopping trip, which is enough of a rarity for me to be worth celebrating.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Not where so much as how

Today while visiting my favorite DIY blog, Young House Love, I happened upon this page called "Where We Got Stuff." Basically, they go through every single room in their house and explain where they got every single item in it. I guess this is for the benefit of slightly obsessive fans who really, really want that exact same ceramic horse head that John and Sherry have.

I started thinking about what a similar list for our house would look like, and I quickly realized that a lot of what we own—maybe even as much as half—came not so much from somewhere as from someone.
Usually that someone is my mom, who loves to shop for house stuff and has run out of room in her own house, but we also have items from Brian's parents, from other family members, from friends, and even from virtual strangers met through Freecycle or some other group. Based on just a quick mental walk-through of the house, I'd say the most common sources of our furnishings and home decor are, in descending order:
  • Items passed down from parents and other relatives, both living and late
  • Secondhand finds from Craigslist, Freecycle, yard sales, and other sources (sometimes found by us, sometimes found for us by my mom)
  • Gifts from family and friends (again, most often my mom, shopping from one of her vast array of home-decorating catalogues)
  • Stuff we bought ourselves at IKEA
  • Stuff we made ourselves
  • Everything purchased from anywhere else
And that last category's not a very big one. Aside from electronic equipment and kitchen gear, the only items I can think of that fit into it are two small bookcases, two area rugs, two closet organizers, two recycling bins, and some picture frames.

What's interesting to me about this is that, when I look at things in our house, I tend to think not of where we got them, but of how. In our living room, I don't see bookcases from Home Decorators and a futon from White Lotus and a coffee table from IKEA: I see the the bookcases that my mom gave me when I moved into that shared house in Princeton with the crazy roommates, and the futon that Brian and I bought on sale and spent weeks sanding and staining and finishing piece by piece on our little staircase landing, and the coffee table that we found on Craigslist and had to maneuver down a flight of stairs in the seller's house, dinging the wall slightly on the way. In other words, each item has not just a retail source but an entire history of how it came into our lives, and so each room is filled not just with wood and metal and ceramic, but with memories.

Of course, I know that's true for the Young House Love bloggers too. After all, they essentially make their living by writing that very history for others to read. I guess my point is just that in most homes, and certainly in ours, a list of "where we got stuff" doesn't begin to tell the whole story. It's not just about where, but also about who, when, why, and how. And that's a much more complicated and more interesting text than a list of retail sites.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The shoe conundrum

My winter boots, which have lasted me through several winters now and been reheeled twice, are finally starting to wear out beyond repair. The sole is so thin that I can feel the sidewalk through it, and the lining is worn away to nothing in places. But I continue to cling fiercely to them, determined to make them last out the winter. This isn't just another example of my reflexive unwillingness to discard anything that's, by any stretch of the imagination, "still good" or possible to repair. No, in this case, I'd actually be quite willing, at this point, to spring for a new pair of boots. The problem is that I can't find any.

You see, for me, a pair of boots (or any other shoes) has to meet a fairly rigid set of criteria:
  1. First and foremost, they have to fit me comfortably—and my shoe size is 6.5 wide. Many shoes come only in whole sizes, and most don't come in wide widths. And in order to be comfortable, they have to have at least a modicum of arch support (though that could be added, if there's room for an insert) and a flat or low heel. The vast majority of women's boots, even those designed for winter use, seem to have heels too high to walk in, at least any farther than from the elevator to your desk.
  2. They have to be vegetarian-friendly. Most shoes, even those that aren't made primarily from leather, have some leather in either the trim or the lining. (I'm willing to wear leather shoes if they're secondhand, on the theory that in that case, my money is going to support the secondhand seller rather than the factory farms that rely on the sale of cowhide to boost their profits. But if finding new shoes in my size is difficult, finding them secondhand is virtually impossible.)
  3. They have to be reasonably well-made. That means that, for a pair of winter boots, they have to be thick enough and warm enough to keep out the cold, rain, and snow. They also need to have at least a little bit of traction for walking on slippery sidewalks. Ideally, they should be study enough to last for several seasons (with repairs as needed), but at a minimum, they have to make it through one winter without falling apart.
  4. They have to look decent. Not gorgeous, just decent. I don't think I'm terribly picky on this point—all I ask is a simple pair of boots in a dark, neutral color—but these days, that seems to be a taller order than you might think.
  5. They have to be reasonably priced. My benchmark used to be around $30 for a pair of boots, but lately I've concluded that $50 is a more reasonable number—yet even that seems to be a hard figure to hit these days. And paying more than $50 for a pair of boots that will only last me one winter just sticks in my craw.
And let me tell you, folks, there ain't a lot at the intersection of that Venn diagram. Back when I was a kid, I used to be able to go to a shoe store, try on shoes until I found a pair I liked, buy them, and take them home. Now, I've pretty much given up hope of ever being able to do that again. Every so often, in a triumph of hope over experience, I'll pop into a shoe store and peruse the racks—but I seldom find even a single pair to try on, and when I do, I usually don't have to do more than slip one of them onto my foot before I hasten to slip it off again.

Unfortunately, this is one area in which the vast shopping mall that is the Internet doesn't offer much help. There's simply no way to know whether a pair of shoes will fit comfortably without trying it on. Most online sellers of shoes have liberal return policies, but they don't cover the cost of shipping—which, because shoes are fairly heavy, can come to $7 or $8 each way. I'm willing—even eager, at this point—to pay more for a good pair of shoes that fits, but not to pay anywhere from $7 to $16 just for the privilege of trying them on.

Over the years, as it's grown harder and harder to find an acceptable pair of boots, I've come to the conclusion that it's necessary to relax at least one of my strict criteria. For instance, the last time I bought  a pair of boots (from Lands' End in 2007), I compromised on the use of leather; the uppers are made chiefly of fabric, but there is a tiny bit of leather in the trim. And I'd be happy to make this same compromise again if I could simply buy a new pair of the same boots from the same manufacturer, but of course, Lands' End no longer makes them. (They currently have exactly three pairs of boots available in wide widths, all made of leather and all priced at $130 or more. I'm willing to compromise on one of my criteria, but not to throw two of them completely out the window.)

More recently, I tried compromising on my fit requirements instead. Back when I was a kid, I sometimes bought shoes that were about half a size too big so that I could "grow into them," so I thought maybe I could make do with a 7 regular instead of a 6.5 wide. So I ordered a pair from ShoeBuy.com, which was offering a deal with free shipping and free returns. I was able to squeeze my foot into it, but it was definitely too tight—and definitely too long, also, so that simply sizing up to an 8 regular was clearly out of the question. So those cozy chukkas are now packed back up, waiting to be dropped into the nearest UPS drop box. (But at least I'm not out of pocket on them.)

At this point, I'm not sure which criterion I need to compromise on next. I could go way out of my price range to buy from one of the specialty vegan-shoe retailers out there, like Pangea or Moo Shoes, but most of them don't carry wide widths, and I'm not about to pay $150 or more for a pair of boots that doesn't even fit properly. So I'm thinking my best bet may be to compromise on quality and give Payless another try. Every pair I've tried on there to date has been flimsy and completely lacking in support, but maybe with a suitable insole...?

I can't believe there are women who actually go shoe shopping for fun.

Friday, January 25, 2013

How we use (and don't use) the Internet

The other day, Brian and I were having a conversation about Twitter. I forget exactly how it started—I think we heard a story on the radio that involved someone tweeting something completely ridiculous—and we started talking about how we don't really "get" Twitter. I mean, what is Twitter, anyway? What is it for? As far as I can tell, all you really do with it is let the entire world know what you're doing at a particular moment. Now, this may be useful if you're, say, in the middle of a war zone or a massive natural disaster, but I think for most of us, most of the time, our updates would look something like "I'm having a sandwich" or "I just finished cleaning the bathroom." Does anyone really want to know that?

Our problems with Twitter extend, to a lesser extent, to social media in general. Neither of us has ever felt any real need in our lives to be on Facebook, or YouTube, or any other social networking site. And I admit, I do sometimes wonder if this means we're just a pair of old fogeys who are set in our ways and can't get the hang of all this newfangled technology because it's not what we grew up with. But the thing is, that criticism would also apply to pretty much the entire Internet. When we were kids, there was no e-mail, no Wikipedia, no blogs, no Google, none of the Web sites I named in my recent Thrift Week posts as indispensable tools for ecofrugal living. Yet we have embraced all of these developments without hesitation.

The thing is, all the technologies I named above—and all the others that we use on a regular basis—are tools that help us to do things we would do anyway. E-mail is just a faster and cheaper way of sending letters. Online bill payment is faster and easier than writing out and mailing a check. A retail website is easier to search and order from than a mail-order catalogue, and its inventory is updated more regularly. Blogs serve more or less the same purpose as magazines, but there's a much greater variety of them and most of them are free. Web sites can take the place of a daily newspaper, a phone directory, and a whole shelf of reference books. Even a bulletin board or chat room is the equivalent of—well, a chat. It's just a way of chatting with people you wouldn't get to meet otherwise on topics of mutual interest.

All these ways of using the Internet save us time, money, or both, compared to doing them the old-fashioned way. Social media, on the other hand, don't seem to have an old-fashioned version. For instance, what's the real-world equivalent of posting an update on Facebook? Standing on a rooftop yawping to the world about how you got a new job or developed a foot problem? Taking out an ad in a newspaper? Are these things you would actually want to do, if there weren't a Facebook to do them with?

Maybe this is the way in which I really am an old fogey. I see the benefits of new technology for meeting existing needs; I just don't really see why the invention of a new technology should create a need that I didn't have before.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Veggie of the Month: buttercup squash

One of the problems with New Year's resolutions is that they're often too vague. "Eat healthier" is a classic example. For starters, what foods do you consider healthier? More fruits and vegetables, probably, but how many more? How many portions, and how often, and how regularly? And do those veggies and fruits have to take the place of other, less healthy foods, or can they be an addition? You could easily end up eating one salad and declaring your goal fulfilled.

Even when resolutions are specific, they often fall into the trap of being too ambitious. For instance, if eating healthier was your goal, you might decide to drop all "junk foods" from your diet—chips, cookies, and anything else that can be found in a vending machine—and snack on nothing but fresh fruits and vegetables. A vow like that is easy to make in the virtuous flush of January 1, but hard to keep as the short, dreary days of January drag on toward February.

So this year, I decided to make a nice, specific resolution that is also modest enough to be achievable. My goal this year is to try one new fruit or vegetable—just one—each month. My hope is that I'll like at least some of them enough to start eating them on a regular basis, which in turn will give me a wider array of fruit-and-veggie options to choose from when planning meals and, ultimately, help me make fruits and veggies a bigger part of my diet. But I'm not making any of that a requirement. If I try 12 new veggies and fruits and I don't end up becoming a regular consumer of any of them, that's okay; I've still tried them, and that's enough to declare my resolution a success. I'm focusing on the process, not the outcome.

My veggie of the month for January is buttercup squash—those green, oblate ones that can often be found piled together in a bin with more recognizable winter squash varieties, like butternut and acorn. We found these selling for a reasonable $1.29 a pound at the Whole Earth center, so we figured this was a good candidate for our first Veggie of the Month. Here's a picture of the fairly diminutive specimen we chose for our first foray into buttercup munching (to get an idea of scale, it's sitting next to an avocado that followed us home on the same grocery trip).

A little preliminary research indicated that this is a squash noted for its sweet flavor, so we decided to stick with a fairly simple preparation for our first taste of it and let that flavor come through in its natural state. Following the advice of food-guru Mark Bittman in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, we simply cut the squash in half, scooped out the seeds, drizzled it with olive oil, and roasted it at 400°F. It took a long time to reach an edible level of tenderness that way, though, and we found that the edges of the squash—the parts that were in direct contact with the pan—tasted much better. They were tender and slightly browned, giving them a darker and more complex flavor, while the inner parts had a slightly chalky texture that detracted from their sweetness. Slicing the squash more thinly would probably help it cook faster and taste better all around, but given the toughness of the rind, slicing it thinly is perhaps easier said than done. It seemed like a saw would be a better tool for cutting this thing up than a knife. Maybe we would have been better off with a larger squash, so that it would have a higher flesh-to-rind ratio.

So, would I eat this veggie again? Yes, but probably not by itself. I think it would work reasonably well in any recipe that calls for "winter squash" in general; its flavor isn't all that different from butternut. However, given that it's tougher-skinned and harder to work with, I don't see that it has any particular advantage over butternut, either. (Bittman agrees, saying "The butternut is by far the most convenient as it's easily peeled and cut (no cleavers required) and its flavor and texture are wonderful.") Its best use, given its squat shape, might be for making stuffed squash; it's more compact than a butternut, and it has a nice big seed cavity to heap full of stuffing. In fact, the recipe for Baked Stuffed Squash in The Clueless Vegetarian specifically mentions "small buttercup squash" as a good choice for stuffing with Multigrain Pilaf (a medley of brown and wild rice, barley, corn, dried fruit, and nuts). Other stuffing ideas they suggest include chili, leftover macaroni and cheese, or "any cooked vegetable mixture." Maybe I'll try something along those lines with the leftover squash half that's in the fridge now.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Thrift Week Day Seven: MyPoints

To wrap up our Online Edition of Thrift Week, I'd like to introduce you to a site that's a little different from all the others. Most of the Web sites I've covered in the past week have been sites that can save you money. MyPoints.com, by contrast, is a site that can help you earn extra money. Not very much, and not very fast, but it doesn't take much time, either, and it can occasionally help you find savings in the process.

MyPoints.com is what's known as an affiliate marketer. The way it works is, when you want to buy something, instead of going directly to the merchant's Web page, you link there through MyPoints. It has a network of merchants in a wide range of categories—including clothing, restaurants, and electronics—that will give the site a kickback for each customer it steers their way. MyPoints, in turn, will kick part of that kickback back to you, in the form of "points." For example, when you shop at the Apple store, you can earn one point per dollar; at Sears, you get five points per dollar; and at some more obscure sites, such as AboutAirportParking.com, you can earn a whopping 15 points per dollar. Once you accumulate enough points, you can cash them in for various rewards. For example, you can turn in 3,950 points for a $25 credit at Amazon.com. Other favorites of mine are the $50 L.L. Bean gift card (6,350 points) and the $10 Starbucks gift card (1,650 points). In the unlikely event that you don't like any of the reward options the site offers, you can also trade in your points for cash: 4,550 points gets you $25 via PayPal. However, you get better value for your points by choosing gift cards, and higher-value cards typically give you the best exchange rate. Another perk is that most of the gift cards or certificates you can get through MyPoints are for sites that are themselves part of the MyPoints network—so you could, for instance, cash in 3,450 points for a $25 L.L. Bean gift card, link to LLBean.com through the MyPoints site, spend that $25, and get 1 point per dollar spent, immediately earning back 25 points.

A down side is that the site usually does send you gift cards through the mail rather than electronic codes—so after you cash in points, you have to sit around for a few weeks waiting for your card to arrive before you can use it. (And if you're an eco-friendly type like me, you then have to fret over what to do with the plastic card, which isn't coded for recycling. I've got a whole stack of these things tucked away while I try to figure out some way to reuse or recycle them.) Even if you do opt for an e-certificate, you may have to wait up to a week for the payment to show up in your inbox. So unfortunately, you can't wait for a great sale to pop up on one of your favorite sites and then cash in points for that specific site; by the time you get your reward, the sale might be over.

Now, it might seem that, for us ecofrugal types, who don't do a lot of shopping, the benefits of a site like MyPoints are limited. After all, if you only get points for buying things, then someone who doesn't buy a lot will take a long time to accumulate enough points for a reward. However, although shopping is the quickest way to earn money through MyPoints, it isn't the only way. There are several others, including:
  • Sign up to receive e-mails from MyPoints partners. Yes, this is basically volunteering to receive spam—but since you have to deal with a certain amount of spam anyway, why not get paid for it? I get about three of four of these e-mails in my box every day, and one or two of them will be "gimme" e-mails, which will give me five points just for clicking on a link to the company's website. I'll also occasionally get an offer that's worth more points, maybe 10 or 15, just for printing out a coupon or filling out a quick survey. The rest of the e-mails require you to actually buy something in order to get points, so those I just delete.
  • Fill out surveys at the MyPoints SurveyZone. I also receive e-mails from MyPoints with survey offers, but even if you're not keen to have your inbox invaded, you can just visit this area of the site any time you have a little time to kill. Typically, you can get about 50 points for completing a survey, although some longer surveys offer more. However, you won't be able to complete every survey you start; the majority of the ones I attempt screen me out within a minute or two because I don't fit into the target group. (Often this is because of my ecofrugal habits, like not going to the movies.) However, I still get a consolation prize of 10 points for attempting a survey that I can't complete, so this is a good way to rack up 50 points or so during a 15-minute break.
  • Do searches with the MyPoints toolbar. This is a little app that you can download and use in place of Google or your preferred search engine. The difference is that hits from MyPoints partners will show up at the top of your search results. This can actually be handy when you're shopping online, since it makes it easy to find the sites where you can earn additional points for buying. But you can still get points for searches even if you never click on any of the results. You get 100 points for downloading the toolbar, 10 points for doing more than 10 searches in a given month, 50 for doing more than 25, and 100 for doing more than 40. (The toolbar doesn't work with all browsers; I had to quit using it when I switched from Firefox to Google Chrome.)
  • Download and print coupons. These are the same coupons found at Coupons.com, but if you print them out from the MyPoints site, you'll get 10 points every time you cash one in.
  • Invite other users to join the site. They'll give you 25 points for each person who joins. Both you and your friend get a 750-point bonus the first time your friend makes a purchase (of at least $20) through the site, and you continue to earn a bonus of 1 point for every 10 points your friend earns. I have never taken advantage of this feature myself, as I have a strict policy of never spamming my friends, but I can see how it would be a good way to rack up some quick points. If you sign up 10 friends and each one makes a purchase right away, that's $7,750 points—enough for a $50 gift card—right off the bat.
A final benefit of MyPoints.com is that it can occasionally help you find useful sites. For example, last time I needed to buy a pair of glasses, I decided, on the basis of this article I read at the Dollar Stretcher,  to try buying them online. Since this was going to be (I thought) a fairly significant purchase, I decided to check on MyPoints for a suitable merchant. It steered me toward Goggles4U.com, where I was able to buy a complete pair of glasses—frames and lenses—for only $30, including shipping. (The site now offers even cheaper options—as little as $10 a pair—but it's no longer linked to MyPoints.) I was very satisfied with the selection, very satisfied with the ordering process, and very satisfied with my new glasses. I now think that buying glasses online, if you have a simple prescription, is definitely the way to go (especially if your vision plan, like mine, will only pay a measly $45 per year for new lenses).

Now if only I could cash in MyPoints for a Costco membership, I could really kill two birds with one stone....

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Thrift Week Day Six: Young House Love

One of my birthday presents from my mom this year was a book by Better Homes and Gardens (aka BHG) called Do It Yourself Kitchens: Stunning Spaces on a Shoestring Budget. It shows several kitchen "remodels" (although most of them appear to be just cosmetic changes, with no appliances moved) done at different budget levels, from $1,000 to $10,000. As my regular readers will no doubt surmise, I was delighted with this present, because I absolutely love seeing how a room (or just a single piece of furniture) turned from drab to dazzling with just a tiny outlay of cash. It's almost like watching a magic trick: we take this perfectly ordinary table, adjust the height, add a little paint, put on a new top, and presto-chango, it's a gorgeous kitchen island!

I could easily devour a book like Do It Yourself Kitchens in a single sitting every day, but at $20 a pop, that would run into money pretty quickly. So I tend to turn primarily to the Internet to indulge my budget-decorating fantasies. I'll often do a Google search to find pages on a specific topic, like "add more closet space" or "curb appeal on a budget," but there's also one site that I visit on a daily basis for all-around inspiration: Young House Love. This site is run by John and Sherry Petersik, two self-described "DIY dorks" who started a blog after buying their first house as a way to share updates on their decorating/remodeling adventures with friends and family. (It was originally called "This Young House," but they had to change the title after the makers of a certain TV show, which shall remain nameless for copyright reasons, threatened to sue them.) It soon became a hit with others as well, and eventually they both quit their jobs to work on the blog full time. So basically, what these folks do for a living is fix up their house and then write about it. Yes, I want their life.

The Petersiks have since expanded their franchise to include a second blog, Young House Life, which is all about the stuff they do other than fixing up their house, and more recently, a book that has hit the best-seller list. I haven't sprung for the book yet, though I might do so sometime, because I find the format of the blog itself more appealing. The book basically provides step-by-step walkthroughs for over 200 specific projects you can do in your home, which is great if you happen to have an interest in one of those particular projects, but not as useful for general design advice. The blog, by contrast, covers a wide variety of topics, such as:
  • Makeovers of specific rooms in the Petersiks' home. These are probably my favorite entries. Because these are usually a multi-stage process—e.g., painting, then furnishing, then accessorizing—you can watch the room evolve gradually over the course of several posts. When it gets to a point that they deem "finished," they'll flash back to the beginning with a "before" picture, contrast it with an "after" picture, and then provide a handy breakdown of their costs. (Here's an example: their recent kitchen remodel, which, at around $7,000, would fall squarely in between two budget categories in the BHG book.)
  • Makeovers of rooms in other people's houses. Labeled as "Reader Redesign," these posts feature before-and-after pictures and sometimes, but not always, include a budget breakdown. (To date, they haven't published my submission of the downstairs bathroom we remodeled for under a grand, even though I think it's at least as cool as this kitchen nook, which doesn't even have a budget total attached.)
  • Retrospectives, in which they compare, for instance, their color choices in their new house with their previous home.
  • Mood boards, in which they put together a whole bunch of pictures and color swatches to create a preview of what they have in mind for an upcoming project. (A recent example: envisioning furnishings and accessories for their new patio.)
  • Giveaways of home-decor goodies supplied by their sponsors, from office supplies to wall-sized maps.
  • Lots of cute photos of their two-year-old daughter, Clara (often referred to as "the bean") and their Chihuahua, Burger (whose age is undisclosed).

Unlike the other sites I've been covering in these Thrift Week posts, this one hasn't necessarily saved me money in any specific, identifiable ways (unless you count the $7,300 a year I might otherwise be spending on design books, as noted above). But I can say that it's been incredibly helpful to me as a source of ideas. For instance: I have been toying for a while with the idea of spray-painting our kitchen cabinet hardware. I really like the cabinets themselves; their dark wood might look "dated" to some, but I love the beautiful grain of it and would consider it a sin to cover it up with paint (as many of the homeowners in Do It Yourself Kitchens have done). The hardware, however, is in really bad shape. It has a copper finish that has darkened over time so it no longer provides much contrast with the wood color—and when I attempted to shine it up with vinegar, I discovered that the copper plating had actually worn off in many places, exposing the base metal underneath. So I was thinking about painting all the handles flat black to resemble wrought iron, but I wasn't sure how well it would work, especially for handles that see a lot of daily use. Then I read this post on Young House Love about how Sherry had updated some of their door handles with an oil-rubbed bronze (ORB) metallic spray paint. (Sherry absolutely loves this color. She uses it so often, on everything from doorknobs to chair legs, that she has turned "to ORB" into a verb.) As soon as I read Sherry's description of the project, I became convinced that
  1. Yes, this is totally doable;
  2. Yes, it will hold up okay in the long term, as this follow-up post indicates;
  3. Even if it doesn't hold up well in the long term, it isn't a big deal, because the total cost for a can of self-priming paint and a can of deglosser is about $10; and
  4. A dark oil-rubbed bronze finish would make a much cooler contrast with our wood cabinets than flat black.
So "ORBing" the handles has now moved to the top of my home project list (or at least, my list of indoor home projects to keep me busy until we can start our landscaping projects in the spring). And if it works, it will have saved me at least $50 (since it would cost about $60 to replace all our cabinet handles with budget-priced ORB-finish handles from Home Depot, and they wouldn't look as cool as our existing ones).

Of course, to be honest, reading Young House Love has probably cost me money on occasion, too. For instance, if I hadn't read Sherry's post about hiring a landscape designer (for half price through a Groupon deal) to help them come up with a plan for their yard, I might never have decided that bringing a landscaper in to look at our yard (at full price, since there were no Groupon deals available) was a good idea. On the other hand, I do think that the ideas we got from that session may well turn out to be worth at least the $150 we paid for it, so that could end up being a cost savings in the long run. In which case, I will not hesitate to give Young House Love the ultimate credit for all the money we save on fresh fruit years from now.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Thrift Week Day Five: Hulu

I've never actually subscribed to cable TV. Back when Brian and I first moved in together, we did have a $7-a-month "basic broadcast" subscription, which only gave us access to the network shows that we theoretically should have been able to get for free with an antenna, but couldn't actually pick up with our little set of rabbit ears. Within a couple of years, however, we dropped that service too. Yet we've never felt deprived as far as visual entertainment is concerned, thanks to two very handy tools:
  • Our high-speed Internet connection. This isn't cheap—Cablevision, which is the only provider available in our area, just raised our rates from $50 to $55 a month—but it's a necessary expense with me working from home, so we might as well do our best to get our money's worth out of it. 
  • Our media spud, the little computer that Brian built specifically to get TV shows over the Internet. (At the time, this device, which cost us less than $350 in parts, was the most cost-effective way for us to get the speed and video quality we needed without paying for a lot of extra functionality we'd never use. Nowadays, with more people choosing to drop cable and do their TV watching online, there are lots of cheaper options, like the $50 Roku or the the $100 Boxee and Apple TV.)
With this setup, we can watch anything that can be found on the Internet—and nowadays, that's a lot. We watch Project Runway through MyLifetime.com, Downton Abbey on PBS.org, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on ComedyCentral.com, and QI—which still isn't available to a US audience through any legal means—by downloading it at The Pirate Bay. (NOTE: Fans of the show who want to see it shown on American TV can sign a petition here.) However, the most versatile site in our TV toolbox is Hulu.com. Through this site, we watched the entire run of "Stargate Universe" with barely a delay from the time when it first aired on SyFy. We've watched episodes of old shows I'd never seen before, like "Quincy, M.E.," "Simon & Simon," and "Hill Street Blues." We've also used it to learn about potentially interesting newer shows, like "Misfits" and "Whites." (We didn't become regular followers of either one, but it was nice to have the change to check them out without paying up front for the privilege.)

When we're in the mood for a particular type of show, we can use Hulu's categories to find something interesting. Recently, for instance, I had a hankering for a good murder mystery, and we'd already watched all the Poirots and Miss Marples in our library's DVD collection. A search on Hulu for "mystery" uncovered the entire first (and only) season of "Ellery Queen," starring the late Jim Hutton. This turns out to be a really good show, with intriguing stories and an appealing sleuth (he's a much more fully developed character here than in the books on which the series is based), and if it hadn't been for Hulu, I probably never would have seen it. I was too young to watch the show when it first aired in the '70s, so I'd never even heard of it until it popped up on Hulu's search screen.

And this is only the stuff that's available on the main (free) Hulu site. For 8 bucks a month—a fraction of the $35 a month we'd have to pay to upgrade our high-speed Internet to the cheapest Internet-plus-cable package—we could upgrade to Hulu Plus and get access to additional shows and a large collection of movies. However, with all the stuff that there is to see just on the free Hulu site and the various other sites we use, we've never felt the need to try it. (We have signed up for free trials of both Netflix and Blockbuster by Mail, and we found in both cases that there was nothing there worth paying $8 to $10 a month for when there are so many good shows available online for free.)

Now, Hulu.com isn't the only site we use to watch TV online, so it doesn't singlehandedly save us the cost of a cable subscription. But I think it's fair to say that if it weren't for Hulu and its copycat sites, which offer a wide variety of shows to watch in a single place, we would have found it much more difficult—maybe even not worth the effort—to get by without cable and the $420 a year it would cost us. So I think that this site deserves a spot in the Thrift Week lineup of sites no ecofrugal person can do without. (Well, unless you're so ecofrugal that you don't have a TV at all in your super-efficient, off-the-grid house, in which case, that's great for you, but please don't lecture me about it.)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Thrift Week Day Four: Mr. Electricity

As I noted in a previous Thrift Week post, saving energy is one of the most ecofrugal choices you can possibly make. It puts money in your pocket by cutting your utility bill, and at the same time it helps reduce all the environmental problems associated with electricity production, from acid rain to global warming. The only problem is that some energy-saving solutions, such as LED light bulbs and super-efficient appliances, cost a lot up front, and it can be tricky to figure out whether they'll actually be cost-effective for you. That's where Michael Bluejay, who calls himself Mr. Electricity, can help. His website is a one-stop source for answers to burning questions like:
  • How much electricity do my appliances use?
  • How much energy do I save by putting my computer to sleep?
  • Does switching light bulbs on and off wear them out faster?
  • How do LED light bulbs compare to CFLs?
  • Will rooftop solar panels be cost-effective for me?
  • If I replace my fridge (washer, water heater, etc.) with a more efficient one, how long will it take to pay for itself?
  • If I cut my home energy use by x kilowatt-hours per month, how will it change my carbon footprint?
In other words, this site is pretty much "everything you ever wanted to know about electricity use but didn't know how to ask."

Michael Bluejay is not an engineer, an electrician, or a scientist of any kind, so many people would not accept his authority as an "expert" on electricity. However, he has obviously done a lot of research on this subject, using reliable sources that he is meticulous about citing. His site may not be as authoritative a source as, say, the EPA, but it's a lot easier to use: there's a handy index right on the left side of the screen, so you can go directly to the page you're looking for, instead of having to dig through page after page trying to find the one fact you want to know (and possibly end up going away empty-handed in the end because the site doesn't address your particular question). I would definitely make his site my first stop when trying to find the answer to any question at all related to electricity, and I would not hesitate in the least to accept any fact I find there as trustworthy.

Actually, the "Saving Electricity" page is just one of the many sections on Michael Bluejay's vast personal site. His home page, http://michaelbluejay.com/, has links to information on many topics related to the ecofrugal lifestyle, such as bicycling, socially responsible investing, and vegetarianism. I've always found the electricity section the most useful, but exploring the other pages on his site can be both entertaining and informative.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Thrift Week Day Three: CouponMom

As regular readers of this blog will know, I'm of two minds when it comes to couponing. I can't but be impressed with the savings achieved by extreme couponers (like this lady in Massachusetts and this one from the "Extreme Couponing" TV show) who amass huge stockpiles of stuff without paying a penny. But every time I've attempted to copy their strategies, I just couldn't make it work. The biggest problem is that most of the coupons available to me fall into one of three categories:
  1. things that I have no use for, such as dog food or cloying scented air fresheners;
  2. things that I really shouldn't be eating, such as chips and candy bars; and
  3. things that I could use in theory, but that will almost certainly be more expensive, even with a coupon, than a store-brand or homemade equivalent—such as high-end brands of salad dressing, olive oil, or detergent.
This means that the only way for me to really save money with coupons is to "stack" a coupon for a name-brand product with a really good sale. This is the strategy the extreme couponers use, but in order to make it work, you have to actually find a sale on the product in question at a local store before the coupon expires. I've managed to do this occasionally, but the sales were almost never good enough to get me the product for free or near-free the way the extreme couponers do—and for the amount of work it took to scour the sale fliers each week looking for deals and try to match them up with the available coupons in my collection, it didn't really seem worth it.

Then, nearly a year ago, I discovered a website called CouponMom.com. This site is a lot like ConsumerSearch in that it takes most of the work out of bargain hunting. Once you register with the site (which is free), you can just search for deals in your state, and the site will show you which stores in your area have sales in the upcoming week that can be stacked with coupons from the major coupon sources (SmartSource, Red Plum, All You, and Proctor & Gamble). You can sort the results by store, by coupon date, by item, or by price; you can search for specific items; you can ask to see only the "extreme deals" that reduce the cost of an item by 50 percent or more; and handiest of all, you can select the specific deals that interest you, then display them all on one page, which you can then print out as a shopping list. (Clip your coupons directly to the list when you go to the store, and you'll have everything you need in one place.)

Checking this site once a week (generally on Sunday, when it gets updated) has become a regular part of my shopping routine. I start by checking the "Extreme Deals" section to see whether I can get anything at a major discount. Since the site shows me which coupon insert provides the coupons needed for a specific deal, I can skip the ones from sources other than SmartSource, which is the only one I have easy access to. However, these aren't the only coupon deals I can use; the site also shows deals involving Internet coupons, complete with a link to the printable coupon. This means that I no longer bother paging through the Coupons.com site once a week looking for potentially useful coupons (which I would then print out, file, and most likely throw away unused because I never got the opportunity to stack them); now I just wait for the deals to pop up and then link directly to the coupons I need. The site also shows deals that don't involve coupons at all—just store sales that are so good, they drop the price of an item by more than 50 percent by themselves. I select the deals I might be able to use, print out my list, and go to my stack of inserts to clip out the relevant coupons.

After that, I check the "Extreme Drugstore Deals" page. These deals are more complicated, often involving store coupons or reward programs, and many of them are for stores that aren't on my usual shopping circuit, like Wal-Mart (which I'm still officially boycotting over its business practices, though I have been wavering as they take baby steps toward being less evil) or Target (which is already somewhat less evil, but is too far away to visit just for a free roll of dental floss). As a result, I seldom find any deals that I can use—but it only takes a minute to look.

CouponMom isn't perfect. Sometimes it does give inaccurate information—showing me a sale that isn't actually in effect in my area, for example, or a coupon that I can't find anywhere in the insert that's supposed to have it. So it is necessary to do a quick double-check against the sale flier before heading off to the store, just to make sure the deal that's supposed to be on is actually on. (Sometimes the problem turns out to be that they're showing a sale that will pop up in next week's sale flier, which their staff have managed to get their hands on early.) But it's still a lot less work than trying to do all the coupon-sale matching myself. And unlike other coupon-matching sites, such as The Grocery Game, CouponMom doesn't charge a subscription fee (which might or might not pay for itself in deals). So even if the site's matching skills aren't perfect, I would have to say the service is a great value for the price I pay.

Thrift Week Day Two: ConsumerSearch

Continuing our Thrift Week tour through the thriftiest sites on the Internet, we come to another personal favorite of mine, ConsumerSearch. As regular readers will know, I have a personal stake in this company, since I'm one of its regular writers—but I was already a fan of the site before I started working there. I first wrote about it on this blog back in 2010, and I don't think I can improve on the description I gave at the time of how the site works:
By the by, let me take a moment here to insert a plug for ConsumerSearch, an incredibly handy site that I would recommend even if I weren't working for them. Here's an example of how it works. Suppose you're shopping for, say, a TV set. Normally, you might start by consulting Consumer Reports to see which models they recommend. Then you might check a few other publications that have reviews of electronic items, such as Wired, to see if they agree with those recommendations. If you really wanted to be thorough, maybe you'd go to a site like Amazon.com or Epinions.com to see what users have to say about the model you're interested in: do they like it, or have they discovered problems with it that didn't show up in the professionals' tests? And finally, once you'd settled on a TV, you'd visit several sites to compare prices before deciding where to buy it. 
Well, ConsumerSearch does all that work for you. We consult the best publications and the user review sites, and then we report on what we find there and make recommendations in several categories; for a TV, these might be different types—LCD, plasma, etc.—or different sizes, or different price ranges. You can click on a link to read more about the particular product that interests you and see price comparisons from around the Web. Having worked on these reports, I can attest that they're very thorough; it takes me about 30 hours of work to research and write one, but it only takes about fifteen minutes to read it and have everything set out neatly for you. And if you have even less time than that to spare, you can read just the front page, where we identify the top products, with a paragraph about each one laying out its pros and cons. 
I think this is a really great tool for the ecofrugal, because it helps you spend your money wisely (and protect the environment at the same time by choosing products that will last, rather than needing replacement after a year or so). ConsumerSearch reports don't generally focus specifically on the "green" features of a product, but we do, where appropriate, include "green" products as one of our Best-Reviewed categories (for example, with laundry detergents).
Actually, that second paragraph is a bit out of date, because ConsumerSearch changed the format of its reports last year. The full report on any given topic is now much shorter, with just a single paragraph on each top-rated product. However, within that paragraph, you'll find a link to a separate page that covers that product in much more detail, analyzing its features, durability, and anything else you're likely to want to know about it. (Here's an example from last month's report on cookware.) So it now takes even less time to read the full report, but if you want to know more about a specific product, you can take a few extra minutes to read about it in more detail.

These days, Brian and I wouldn't even think about making a major purchase without consulting ConsumerSearch first. Checking this site was our first step when shopping for our camera, for Brian's bike, for our microwave, and even for our car. It's helpful for smaller purchases, as well; when I decided to try a new facial cleanser, for instance, reading through a report to find the best choices was a lot easier, and a lot less costly, than going through every product on the shelf until I found one I liked. And we've also used ConsumerSearch when shopping for services, like pet health insurance for our cat.

Unlike Freecycle, this isn't a site you need to sign up for. You can just go to the main page, http://www.consumersearch.com/, at any time and type in the product you're looking for. ConsumerSearch covers a huge range of product types, from electronics to kitchen knives to power tools, so no matter what kind of major purchase you might have on the horizon, this site can help streamline your search.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Thrift Week 2013: The Online Edition

Happy Thrift Week, everyone! This year, I'm planning to use each day of Thrift Week to highlight a different website that I consider a useful tool for anyone trying to live a thrifty life. And it should come as no surprise to regular readers that my first pick is my perennial favorite, Freecycle.

I consider this site the ultimate in ecofrugality. For anyone who isn't familiar with it, Freecycle is basically a network of small groups around the country for people to pass on their unwanted stuff to others who can use it. What makes Freecycle da bomb is that it's an ecofrugal three-fer, because you can:
  1. keep your unwanted stuff out of the landfill;
  2. get stuff you need for free; and
  3. save the energy and natural resources that go into the manufacture of new stuff by reusing.
I first posted about the virtues of Freecycle three years ago, noting how useful I've found it for getting rid of any kind of item you no longer need, from furniture to books to empty cardboard boxes. (More recently, I have learned that there actually are a few things that even the folks on Freecycle won't take, such as my husband's old copies of Diablo and Diablo II, which have been on offer for over two weeks now without even a nibble.) Since then, I've posted several more times about the serendipitous discoveries we've made on Freecycle, from small (window shades for our smallest bedroom) to large (a huge pile of cement-block pavers that has been sitting in a pile in our back yard for nearly three years now. Seriously, we really do intend to turn into a patio someday—I'm hoping to get around to it this summer, in fact. We would have attempted it last summer if Brian hadn't hurt his back.)

If you're not already a Freecycler, it's easy to start. Just go to the main website at http://www.freecycle.org/ and type in your location to find a group near you. Not all parts of the country will have one, but if you cast a wide enough net, you can probably find one for your county, if not your specific city. Not all groups are equally useful, either; in general, you'll have better luck if you live in a city or other highly populated area, because you'll have a larger pool of people around to exchange stuff with. My mom says she has not had much luck getting rid of items through the Mercer County group, while I, living just a short distance away in Middlesex County, have found it very easy to get rid of most items (with certain exceptions, as noted above). I actually belong to two groups, one for Rutgers University/New Brunswick and one for Middlesex County as a whole; if I have an item to dispose of, I typically post it first on the smaller Rutgers group, figuring that I'm more likely to get a quick pickup from someone who lives nearby. If I don't get an offer within a few days, I'll post it on the Middlesex County group as well, and if it doesn't go after several days on both groups, I'll figure it's probably safe to assume that this is just an item that no one is ever going to want.

Once you join a group, you can decide how you want to be notified about new postings of items and requests for items. Some people choose to get a separate e-mail for each posting, which I imagine would only be practical if you live in a sparsely populated area where new posts don't show up more than once or twice a day. You can also receive a "Daily Digest" of posts, which groups together the day's new posts, 25 or so at a time, and sends them in a single e-mail. I use the Daily Digest for the Rutgers Freecycle group, since I'm more likely to be interested in an item if I don't have to travel far to pick it up. For the wider Middlesex County group, I've elected not to receive e-mails at all; if I'm looking for something specific, I just go onto the website and search for it directly. True, I may miss out on a couple of great finds this way, but on the whole, I prefer that to receiving a whole slew of posts every day for items I either don't want or don't consider it worth driving 20 minutes for.

Freecycle does have its frustrations, of course. Sometimes you see a listing for something you would love, only to find that it's already taken by the time you make your request; other times you offer something and can't get any takers; and most frustrating of all, you occasionally get "no-shows," who arrange to pick up an item and then never show up. (Our local group has actually started asking people to report no-shows to the moderators—presumably so that they can be educated about Freecycle etiquette and, if they still don't behave, kicked out of the group.) But on the whole, belonging to this group has been a major advantage to me in my efforts to live the ecofrugal life. I think anyone who is interested in saving money, helping the environment, or both should definitely check it out.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

My birthday present

Back when my grandmother lived in Pittsburgh, she had a unique kitchen backsplash made up of  dozens of decorative ceramic tiles. She'd collected these over many years, some picked up during her travels around the world, some as gifts from friends (or perhaps even from admirers, of which she had many). After her death, her descendants divided up the collection, and I chose two for myself: one depicting a Tudor-era shepherdess and the other an assortment of beans and pasta in glass-topped canning jars, much like the ones shown at the top of this page. We also had one tile trivet that had belonged to Brian's grandmother, and I had an idea that maybe it would be nice to display all three of them together on the wall above the shelf with all the jars as a sort of memorial to them both. I wasn't sure how to hang them, though, and so for a year or so, they just sat tucked away in a box with all the other artwork that we hadn't found a home for.

Back in June, my uncle sent me a couple of photos showing what he was planning to do with his share of the tiles. His plan was to make a trivet/serving tray out of them by making a base of bamboo, like this...


...and then cover the glued-over area with an assortment of tiles, like this:


That got me thinking about whether I might be able to put together something equally simple as a sort of frame for the tiles. I Googled "tile frame" and found several simple examples for under $10. But $10 each is still $30 for three tiles, and the construction looked simple enough that I didn't think it would be too hard to make something similar at home.

So as my birthday approached, I asked Brian if he would make me new tile frames as my present. And as it happened, he already had some suitable material on hand. Remember way back in late 2010 and early 2011, when we were refinishing our downstairs bathroom? Remember how Brian went to so much trouble to save and refinish the old baseboard molding, only to find that it no longer fit flush against the walls once we had the new floor in place? Well, he held on to those painted boards for nearly two years, sure he'd find a use for them someday, and now that day has come. The first thing he did was take a drawknife and strip off all the layers of paint and varnish that he'd so painstakingly put on. Then he cut four pieces to size with mitered corners and stuck them together with glue and small nails. A groove cut into the back holds the tile, and a washer held down with a screw holds the tile in place.

Stripping the wood pieces down with a knife, as you might expect, left them with what is nowadays called a "distressed" look. He was considering sanding and staining it, but he when brought the first frame up to show to me in its raw state, I actually quite liked it. The stripped wood had a natural, rustic kind of look that I thought would be very appropriate for the corner where we planned to hang the tiles. So he just gave the frames a couple of coats of clear, water-based finish and put on the hanging hardware. 

The project hit a bit of a snag at one point when it turned out that he'd only made two frames, because the third tile was still tucked away in the box and he'd forgotten he had it. So he thought we might end up having to make the third frame out of some different pieces of scrap wood, which wouldn't quite match the other two. But a quick rummage through the scrap bin turned up two more pieces of the bathroom floor molding, one short and one long, and with those two, he had just enough material to make a third frame—with nothing going to waste. Here are the three tiles, lined up in a row in their new frames:


And here's a picture of them in their new home, on the wall beside the staircase. Recognize those jars lined up along the shelf?


I don't know what I love most about this birthday present: the way the new artwork really completes the  look of this little corner (which was already one of my favorite parts of the house), the way it welcomes the memory of both of our late grandmothers into our home, the fact that Brian made it specially for me, or the fact that he made it completely from reused materials. So not only did it not cost a penny, it also gives a new life to those old pieces of floor molding that might have gone to waste—and finally justifies the trouble Brian took to salvage them. What could be a more satisfying gift than that?

Non-kitchen compost, part 3

Back in September, I posted about my decision to put a little compost pail in the bathroom (made from an empty Blue Bunny ice cream carton that we spray-painted silver). In the intervening months, it's continued to work out pretty well. I use it to dump compostable litter not just when I'm in the bathroom, but also for things picked up in other rooms—such as tufts of cat hair—that are too small to be worth a trip out to the compost bin. (Yes, it's right outside the kitchen door, but in January, just opening the kitchen door is enough to give a person pause.) So now most of these small items, which used to go into the trash, end up in the bathroom bucket, which gets emptied out into the bin every week or so.

The only problem with the bin is that the paint job hasn't held up all that well. As you can see in this picture, the paint is still in pretty good shape on the body of the carton, as well as on the flat top surface of the lid. The rim of the lid, however—the part that gets bent and distorted as the lid goes on and off—has started to peel, revealing the blue plastic underneath. Since the rest of the lid is in pretty good shape, I could simply scrape the paint off the rim and leave the blue edge exposed, but this wouldn't go well with the color scheme in the upstairs bathroom, which is primarily green and white with some touches of brown.

So does this mean I need to scrap my homemade compost bucket and replace it with a pricey alternative like these? No, all is not lost. As it happens, Blue Bunny also makes frozen yogurt, which comes in a carton with a green rim around the lid (as you can see here). So clearly, what we need to do is buy a carton of the frozen yogurt, eat it all, wash the lid, mask off the green rim, and paint the rest silver. Then we will have a new silver lid with a green rim to put on top of the silver bucket we have now. I'm sure that eating white chocolate raspberry frozen yogurt is a sacrifice we're happy to make, but as a rule, we only buy Blue Bunny when it goes on sale for $2 or $2.50 a carton. The regular price is more than twice that.

So I find myself with one of those peculiar dilemmas that only the truly obsessive penny-pincher faces: is it worth paying full price for a carton of the frozen yogurt just to get the lid? Compared to $20 for a new compost pail, $5.69 for a carton of frozen yogurt doesn't seem like such a bad deal, but paying for materials at all is still a big step down from just reusing stuff we already have. And it's not as if we can't use the compost pail in its current state; it just looks a bit messy. So the real question is, is it worth paying an extra $3 to get the new lid now (or rather, as soon as we've finished eating the contents of the carton), or should we put up with the damaged lid until Blue Bunny goes on sale again (not knowing how far in the future that will be)?

Yes, I actually do devote serious thought to these things. I told you I was obsessive.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The small stuff

Today, before putting in a load of laundry, I wrote the date on the detergent bottle.

Why, you may ask, would I do a thing like that? Do I think the detergent's going to go bad, or something? Well, no, it's more to settle a bet with myself. Several of my cronies on the Dollar Stretcher forums have posted from time to time about homemade laundry detergent as a way to save money. I was skeptical about this, because it doesn't seem to me like laundry detergent is actually all that expensive. We can usually find it on sale at about $2 for a 50-ounce bottle, which is usually labeled as a sufficient quantity to wash 32 loads of laundry. At $2 to wash 32 loads, we'd be paying 6.25 cents per load—so if we do, on average, 1.5 loads per week, we're spending about $4.88 a year on detergent.

Even this figure, though, is probably too high, because when we wash a load of clothes, we generally don't use nearly as much detergent as the manufacturer recommends. (At 32 loads per 50-ounce bottle, the amount indicated by the "fill line" on the cap is presumably around 1.6 fluid ounces, or a little over 3 tablespoons, per load.) I started cutting way back on detergent use after I read about a 1997 experiment conducted by the staff of "The Straight Dope" to see whether those high-priced "laundry balls" actually work. In a controlled test, it turned out that pre-stained clothes got almost as clean when washed with plain water as they did with either Tide or laundry balls. Contributors speculated that this might be because of the detergent residue lingering in the clothes from previous washings, but even so, that's only the merest trace of detergent—so it seems likely that you don't need anywhere near the 1.6 ounces the manufacturer wants you to use. I generally put in one-third to one-half that amount, depending on load size and dirtiness. So logically, a 32-load bottle should actually clean anywhere from  64 to 96 loads, and should last us anywhere from 43 to 64 weeks. That's only $1.63 to $2.41 per year.

But of course, logic has its limits. In practice, I might be underestimating the amount of detergent I use per load or the number of loads I do per week—or the manufacturer might be exaggerating when it claims that its bottle will wash 32 loads. The only way to know for sure, I reasoned, was to take a brand-new bottle and keep track of just how many weeks it took me to use up. So that explains (finally) why I wrote the date on the new bottle of detergent before using it for the first time. What it doesn't explain is, why do I care?

Partly, of course, the answer is that I am an obsessive bean-counter, and I always want to track every detail of my life, from my mortgage balance to my home energy use. But there is some method in my madness. As Amy Dacyczyn (all hail the Frugal Zealot!) wrote back in her first Tightwad Gazette book, if you're trying to live on a budget, it really does make sense to "sweat the small stuff." There are a lot more small strategies for saving money than there are big strategies, and a lot more opportunities to use them in your daily life. Knowing how to negotiate with a car dealer might save you a few hundred or even as much as a thousand bucks at one shot, but only once every, say, ten years. Knowing how to pay less for laundry soap, on the other hand, might save you only a few cents on each load—but you do a lot of loads in a lifetime. And if you put this strategy together with all the other small-stuff strategies that save you just a few pennies a day, after a while, those pennies start turning into dollars.

Moreover, she points out, it usually doesn't take that much effort to net a small savings. True, writing down the date on my laundry bottle can't possibly save me more than a few bucks per year—but on the other hand, it only took me a few seconds to do, and spending a few seconds to save a few dollars is a pretty good return on the time invested. And even if it doesn't end up saving me a penny—even if all I learn is that I'll spend the least by doing what I'm doing already—it's still worth the effort to find that out, because it's "good training." It helps me keep in the habit of thinking about what I spend, which is, as I noted back in 2010, the single most important habit for saving money over the long term.

And finally, it's fun—at least, if you're an obsessive bean-counter like me and the Frugal Zealot. I honestly think that even if I won a 500-gajillion-dollar lottery and never had to think about money again as long as I lived, I would still continue to count my pennies, because I genuinely like doing it. Knowing that I'm using only what I need, and no more, makes me feel smart (and considerate, since it makes me a better steward of the earth and its limited resources). Some people might find it silly to keep track of how much laundry soap you use when you could buy every bottle of laundry soap in the world and never miss the money, but personally, I would feel silly using more laundry soap than I need just because the manufacturer told me to fill the cup up to the line. After all, why let them take advantage of me just because I'm rich? Sure, maybe I don't need the money, but don't I have as good a right to it as they do?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Cat litter revisited

Some of you may remember how, back in November, I posted about our decision to switch from Swheat Scoop cat litter, to which we had been loyal to many years, to World's Best Cat Litter. I cited this as an example of a (rare) case in which it's worth it to us to spend more for a superior product. The World's Best litter clumped so much better than the Swheat Scoop that we decided not to bother trying the Swheat Scoop Multi-Cat, which cost 40 cents less per pound. Without even testing the other alternatives, we decided that it was worth paying more for a product we really liked.

Or was it?

As it turns out, just a couple of days after that post, I found that the cat box was developing a noticeable odor—only about a week after we'd first filled it up with World's Best. This was a very disturbing development, because the main reason we'd switched from Swheat Scoop in the first place was that its new formula no longer seemed to control odors very well. This seemed to be happening because the litter wasn't clumping tightly enough, so waste-soaked fragments were slipping through the scoop. But although the new litter was forming nice, tight clumps, it was still allowing odor to build up—even faster than it had with the old Swheat Scoop. We tried changing out the litter and refilling the box, but it  didn't help; within a week, the odor was back, and more noticeable than ever.

So it was back to the old drawing board. Or rather, back to the cat section at PetSmart, where we perused the various products to see whether we could find any other natural litter that was scoopable, flushable, and nontoxic. We considered trying the scoopable Feline Pine, for which I had a buy-one-bag-get-the-next-free coupon, but on the shelf next to it we noticed a product we hadn't spotted before: ExquisiCat Naturals wheat litter. This stuff looked much like our trusty old Swheat Scoop, and we figured there was a good chance it would perform like it (or rather, like it used to before they changed it). So, long story short, we tried it, and we found that actually performed even better than our old Swheat Scoop, and definitely better than World's Best. It clumps nearly as well as the World's Best, yet it controls odor much better. And best of all, it not only costs less per pound than the World's Best, it's even less per pound than the Swheat Scoop that was no longer performing up to snuff.

So I guess the moral of this story is to avoid jumping to conclusions. After just three days of using World's Best, we were convinced that it really lived up to its name and was therefore worth paying more for. But if we had actually taken the trouble to check out all the options, we would have discovered that the ExquisiCat was both better and cheaper, and we wouldn't have wasted our money on the big bag of corn litter. (We did get our rebate from the original small bag, so we weren't out of pocket for that, except for the postage to process the form.) So from now on, before I decide that I'm willing to pay more for the product I think is the best, I'm going to make a point of trying the cheaper alternatives, to make sure that one of those isn't actually better.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Edible landscaping, stage 2

This week, our long-awaited catalogue arrived from St. Lawrence Nurseries—the only nursery in the Northeast that sells the Meader bush cherries we have been coveting for our backyard. And since we could save on shipping by ordering a whole bunch of other edible landscaping plants at the same time, we decided to buy in bulk. Our check is now in the mail (yes, you have to pay them by check—isn't that quaint?) for five bush cherries, three plum trees and a dozen red raspberries. The plan is to install the bush cherries along the south side of our back yard, in the spot formerly occupied by the monster forsythia hedge. They will provide us with cherries each August for cooking and, if we get really ambitious, canning. (Since we sent in the order, I've found myself cruising the web for recipes for cherry jam and checking prices on pressure canners—even though we have yet to plant the bushes, let alone harvest a single fruit off them.)

The plum trees will occupy the front yard, planted close enough together to allow their branches to intertwine for better pollination. The three varieties we chose are Opal, Mount Royal, and Golden Gage, which are all European-type plums that will pollinate each other. The Opal produces red plums in August, the Mount Royal blue plums in early September, and the Golden Gage yellow plums in early September—so with luck, we'll end up with an aesthetically pleasing rainbow of ripening fruit yet won't have to pick all of it at once. The catalogue says these trees will grow to a height of 12 to 15 feet, which I'm hoping will be just big enough to provide a little summertime shade for the west-facing windows of our house, but not so big that we can't easily harvest the fruit with the help of a small ladder.

Lastly, the raspberries will go in along the north side of the house, where we currently have our rhubarb. (We're planning to dig up the surviving plants, supplement them with a few new plants, and plump the lot down along the west edge of our garden, just outside the groundhog fence. The leaves are poisonous, so the groundhogs won't touch it, if they know what's good for them.) The varieties we chose are fall-bearing, or everbearing, which means they can be grown in two different ways. You see [putting on a mortarboard and picking up a piece of chalk], each year, a raspberry bush produces a bunch of new canes, which live for two years. This year's new canes, known as primocanes, produce a crop of berries in the fall; last year's canes, called floricanes, will produce a crop in the summer as their last hurrah before dying off. In order to get these two crops, however, you have to go through a lot of rigmarole. You have to "selectively prune" the bushes, cutting off all the floricanes as soon as you've harvested them, while leaving the primocanes untouched, and also diligently rooting out all the stray suckers produced by the primocanes to keep them from getting overcrowded. It's also recommended to train the bushes up a trellis to make the pruning and harvesting process easier and to expose the plants to light and air, which keeps them healthier. But Susan Roth's Weekend Garden Guide, which I consider the Bible of lazy gardeners such as myself, says there's a much easier way: Once you've harvested your fall crop, just cut down everything—floricanes, primocanes and all. No need for selective pruning; no need for trellising, since the older canes that can harbor pests and germs are all cleared out; and while you don't get a summer crop, the fall crop tends to be massive because it gets all the plant's resources. And since the birds don't usually go for red berries late in the season, you get to keep all that fruit for yourself. So, yeah, we'll definitely be doing this the easy way.

All this sounds perfectly glorious, of course, but that's because I'm still in counting-chickens-before-they're-hatched mode. In reality, before we can hope to harvest any of this bounty, we have to get the plants into the ground—and the downside of ordering all these plants at once is that we'll have to plant them all at once. So sometime in April, we're going to have a very long day digging in the mud—or possibly in the still-hard, frostbitten earth—to get these suckers into the ground. I'm hoping that all this hard work will pay off in a few years, when we start finding ourselves with more fruit every August and September than we know what to do with. But before that, as Voltaire says, we have to tend the garden.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2012 green gift roundup

Happy New Year! It's time once again for what appears to have become an annual tradition on this blog: the list of ecofrugal gifts we gave and received this year, and how they were received.

Two of our most ecofrugal presents of 2012 were books. My mother-in-law got a hardbound collection of three novels by Golden Age mystery writer Josephine Tey, which we picked up for a song at our local thrift shop. She must have liked it, since she told us she stayed up past her bedtime reading it. My mom also got a mystery book for Hanukkah—a paperback collection of short stories called The English Country House Murders, which we picked up at last September's yard sales. (Not sure how she liked it, since my guess is that she hasn't had a chance to read it yet.)

A small gift we gave to my father-in-law was a metal canister (another yard sale find) that's a replica of the old Quaker Oats can—complete with the original version of the oatmeal cookie recipe on the back. Brian's family used to make cookies from this recipe all the time, until one day they followed the recipe on the can and discovered that the cookies tasted different. At some point, the recipe had changed. (Fortunately, they were able to go downstairs and dig through the old oatmeal cans being used to store items in the basement and find one that had the original recipe on it.) To make this gift complete, Brian made a batch of the cookies and filled up the canister with them. I assume his dad liked them, since his reaction upon tasting one was to say, "Nope, these aren't good—you all shouldn't eat any of them." :-)

One present that we were a little concerned about was the set of old-fashioned letter blocks (also from a yard sale) that we gave to our three-year-old nephew. He had already opened several presents, some of them quite fancy, by the time he got to ours, and we were both thinking, "Uh oh, is this gift too babyish for him?" But as soon as he opened the container, he shouted, "Blocks!" and started picking them up and happily identifying the letters and objects on them. I guess good toys are timeless. (As Brian pointed out, he'd quite enjoyed playing with the blocks at home himself, and he's only 42.)

We also gave one gift that was for all the Midwest nieces and nephews to share: a marble run toy, similar to this one but even more elaborate, with loops and ramps that drop the ball from level to level. We got this on Freecycle and figured it would be just an "extra" present that we'd show to the kids after the gift-giving was done, rather than putting it under the tree. Turns out all the kids, aged three to eight, enjoyed playing with it—as did the teenaged German student who was staying with my sister-in-law's family. So this was definitely a successful gift for all concerned (including us, since the kids played with it in relative quiet for an hour or so).

Some of our ecofrugal gifts were little stocking stuffers. My mother-in-law's stocking included a paper bead necklace (kind of like this one), which counts as doubly green because it's both recycled and Fair Trade. She was sporting it at an open house she hosted  the following Friday, so again, it looks like that gift was a success. We also gave each couple a folding tote bag from IKEA, which is a really handy item to have if you're trying to reduce your use of disposable shopping bags. It's easy to keep some cloth bags on hand for shopping trips, but it's also easy to leave them behind when you're out on foot or making a quick, unplanned stop for just one or two items. The folding totes can live permanently in a purse or coat pocket, so you're never caught short without a bag.

My sister's Hanukkah wish list included two body-care items: raspberry truffle lip gloss from Origins and Sabon vanilla coconut body scrub. The lip gloss, though organic and cruelty-free, doesn't really qualify as an ecofrugal gift, since at $15 a tube, it's definitely a splurge item. However, shortly after she sent me her gift list, I spotted a recipe for a "vanilla apricot sugar scrub" in the Green American's holiday issue, and it said that it would also work with a different carrier oil—such as coconut—in place of the apricot kernel oil. At first I thought this recipe was going to prove too pricey, since all the coconut oil sold at the Whole Earth Center turned out to be really expensive. However, on a trip to Trader Joe's, we found a 16-ounce jar of organic virgin coconut oil (the unrefined kind, with a really strong coconut fragrance) for only $5.99. So the total cost of my homemade, 100 percent organic body scrub was only a couple of bucks. My sister's reaction when she took off the lid for a sniff was, "Whoa!" (I told her that if it didn't work well as a cleanser, she could always throw in some eggs, flour, and baking powder and it should make a pretty good cake.)

My gift to my aunt and uncle in Florida was a window box garden from Earth Easy. I discovered this item when it was featured in a giveaway on the UrbanSherp website, and I thought it looked like the perfect gift for apartment dwellers who like to garden. Although it wasn't an extra-special bargain, I think it deserves to be counted as an ecofrugal gift because it helps the recipient lead a more sustainable life by growing food at home. (Also, with its organic seeds, recycled steel planter, and bamboo lid, its eco-credentials are impeccable.) This was one of the most successful gifts we gave: my aunt said she "absolutely loved" it and had been looking for ways to grow more food in their condo. Score!

Two of the gifts Brian received were inspired by our recent experience in Superstorm Sandy. Compared to many others in New Jersey, we got off pretty easy, with a power outage of less than two full days—but the experience got us thinking about ways to be better prepared for future storms, which we can probably expect to hit harder as the earth gets warmer. So I gave him a battery-powered lantern, which can run for many hours (days, on the lowest setting) on a single set of batteries thanks to its super-efficient LED bulbs. His folks got him a little radio that can be recharged with either a hand crank or a built-in solar panel (though the manual admits that it takes a really long time). Decked out in a butch camouflage pattern, it picks up all the weather stations and can double as a flashlight and a cell phone charger. And I must admit, while I've never considered myself the survivalist type, knowing that we can go off the grid indefinitely and not lose contact with the outside world feels very liberating.

You've already heard about my fabulous secondhand sweater and my electric blanket throw, but I also received a couple of other ecofrugal goodies from Brian: two volumes of cryptic crosswords, my favorite electricity-free diversion. These kept me busy through the quiet parts of our family vacation (when all the kids had gone off to their other grandparents' houses for a second round of Christmas), and I still have lots left to enjoy in the new year.

Lastly, one of our Hanukkah presents from my mom was this little wall plaque, which—though it may not be exactly ecofrugal in itself—definitely celebrates the ecofrugal way of life.

And that's it for our 2012 green gift roundup. Stay tuned for coverage of the first really big ecofrugal holiday of the year, Thrift Week, coming up in just a couple of weeks. (Hmm, I guess I'd better decide what I'm writing about this year....)