Friday, May 31, 2013

The Rationing Challenge

The Dollar Stretcher recently ran an interesting article on food rationing during World War II. It talked about the challenges of learning to make do with less of certain foods and speculated about how difficult it might be for Americans today to deal with the same kind of restrictions. This struck me as a much more interesting idea than the basic Food Stamp Challenge, in which people try to get by for a week on the same grocery budget they'd have on SNAP, the program formerly known as food stamps. NJ political superstar Corey Booker made headlines by doing one of these last year, and he said the hardest part for him was going without caffeine all week. However, when I contemplated taking this challenge back in 2011, I concluded that for me, the challenge would actually be a waste of money; in order to stick to a food-stamp budget for only one week, I'd have to abandon many of the money-saving strategies I normally use, like buying in bulk and stocking up. Trying to live under the rules of WWII-style rationing, by contrast, sounded like it might be interesting and even instructive.

Before I could decide whether to try it, though, I first had to figure out just what the exact rules were for rationing in this country. This proved to be a much harder question to answer than I had expected. I tried Googling phrases like "World War II rationing amounts" and "WWII rationing rules," and I kept getting pages that named the allotted amounts for some foodstuffs but not others. Every time I found a page with what I was looking for—a complete list of all rationed foods and the amounts allowed—it turned out to be about wartime Britain, rather than the United States.

After looking at lots of different sources, I finally figured out that the reason I couldn't find a site with a comprehensive list was that the rules for rationing in the United States were actually really complicated. For some foods, like sugar and coffee, you just got coupons entitling you to a set amount. However, most foods were distributed using a point-based system. Each household received two different coupon books, red and blue, each containing a number of stamps with different point values. Each foodstuff had two prices, one in dollars and one in ration points, and both prices fluctuated based on available supplies. If you think shopping on a budget today is complicated, just imagine trying to do it with two entirely separate budgets and two entirely separate prices for each item—all back in the days before pocket calculators, let alone smartphones.

Eventually, I found a reliable, comprehensive source: a middle school history lesson backed up by primary and secondary sources. Based on these sources, together with Wikipedia, I was able to put together the following list for a Rationing Challenge:
  • Sugar: limited to 1/2 pound per person per week. (This includes table sugar only; honey, molasses, and syrup were not rationed.)
  • Coffee: limited to 1 pound per person every 5 weeks.
  • Red stamp items (includes meat, cheese, and fats/oils): 16 points per person per week. Point costs for different items are shown on this chart. The chart does not include fish and poultry, which were not rationed.
  • Blue stamp items (includes canned and frozen fruits, vegetables, and juices): 48 points per person per week. Point prices for different items appear on the same chart.
Eggs, flour, and fresh milk were not rationed in this country, so a U.S. Rationing Challenge would be a lot less severe than the British version, which would impose limits of just three pints of milk and one egg per person per week. (According to the BBC, vegetarians could swap their meat coupons for other items, but it isn't clear how much you could get for them.) However, lots of nonfood items were rationed on this side of the pond, including shoes, tires, fuel oil, and gasoline. Gas rations varied depending on how "essential" your job was, but most families got just 3 to 4 gallons per week. In addition, a nationwide speed limit of 35 miles per hour was imposed—not to conserve fuel so much as tire rubber. I can't begin to imagine Americans putting up with that today, war or no war.

So, if I attempt this challenge, I think I should ration my use of gasoline as well as foodstuffs, just to get the full historical picture as accurately as possible. However, I do not intend to follow the 35-mile-per-hour speed limit, which would be counterproductive for today's cars (which get their best gas mileage at around 45 mph rather than 35) and unsafe on today's highways (which hadn't been built yet during WWII and which often have a required minimum speed of 45 mph). As for the restrictions on items like shoes and car tires, those wouldn't really apply for a one-week challenge, since those aren't items I would typically buy in any given week.

One difference between this and a Food Stamp Challenge is that it wouldn't require us to do all our shopping for the challenge week at once, eschewing all items already in our pantry and fridge. We could continue to use food we already have in the house, just as long as we didn't use more of it than our weekly ration stamps would allow. So we would not have to risk overspending on certain items just to stay within the limits of the challenge.

On the whole, I think this is worth a try. My plan is to do a little bit of number crunching over the weekend and start the challenge on Monday. This shouldn't interfere with my plans to attend the opening of the local farmers' market next Friday, as fresh produce was not rationed. In fact, since we already have our own little backyard garden planted, we can include eating from our own Victory Garden as part of the historical experience. (It may seem like cheating to do this challenge in summertime, when there's lots of fresh produce available, but I think it's actually more realistic than doing it in the winter, when there is still lots of fresh produce in the stores, but it's mostly imported from California or Mexico. Under those conditions, it would be much harder to figure out which items should be allowable, because I don't know how much fresh out-of-season produce was available in stores back in the '40s. If we do the challenge in June, we can realistically eat whatever's in season.)

So, assuming all goes according to plan, I will be posting throughout the next week to let you know how the challenge progresses.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Cherries!

Wow, these little cherry bushes are real little troopers. They've only been in the ground a couple of months, they're not even three feet high, and yet here they are already trying to set fruit. Four of the five plants have at least one little berry on them. One of them, the largest Joy bush, has so many that she became top-heavy and started to flop over; Brian had to add a stake to help hold her head up.



So, while I don't like to count my cherries before they're ripe, it looks like there is at least a chance that the Fruit of the Month for September might be our very first tiny crop of Meader bush cherries.


Postscript: I just heard from a friend and regular reader of the blog that she has been having trouble posting comments. So I've altered the format of the comments page (again) to see if that works better. Would all you folks out there in Readerland mind trying to post a comment on this post just to see if it works? If I don't get any comments, I'll know something is amiss that may require a chat with Google support. Thanks.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Necessities versus luxuries

About a week ago, the Live Like a Mensch blog ran a post arguing that the secret to living below your means is to lower your standards. The basic argument was that it's much easier to meet all your needs if you simply redefine certain necessities as luxuries. One example she gave from her own life was the 20-year-old Volvo that her husband drives despite the merciless teasing of friends and coworkers. For them, having a safe and reliable car is a necessity; having a car that looks good, or one that was built in this century, would be a luxury. She then invited her readers to name some things that they'd determined to be wants rather than needs, regardless of what others may think.

Interestingly, a similar question had been posed that same week in my Tip Hero newsletter: "What 'Necessity' Do You Think Is a Waste of Money?" Readers' responses included new clothes, coffeehouse brews, makeup, bottled water, paper towels, and high-end cell phones. It particularly interested me to see how the definition of a necessity differed from person to person. Some, for instance, declared a cell phone to be  a luxury rather than a necessity, while others said that a landline phone was a luxury because they can use their cell (or VOIP) for everything. One reader declared central air conditioning a luxury, while readers who lived in South Carolina and Texas insisted that air conditioning was a necessity for them.

All this got me thinking, as I often have before, about where the line between luxuries and necessities lies in my own life. I suspect that many of the things I consider luxuries would be necessities for many of my peers, yet some of the things that are necessities for me might be luxuries for others. For example:
  • High-speed Internet is a necessity; I've tried working from home without it, and it literally wasn't feasible. Cable TV, by contrast, is a luxury—especially since we already have high-speed Internet, which gives us access to nearly as rich a field of entertainment choices.
  • A landline phone is a necessity; a cell phone is a luxury. This, again, is because of my job. It's essential  to me to have a reliable connection in my home, which is also my workplace, but it's not important—or even desirable—to be reachable everywhere I go. For someone with a different job, one that required them to be on the road a lot, the cell phone might be a necessity and the landline a luxury.
  • Central heating in my home is a necessity; air conditioning is a luxury. (An air conditioner in my car, by contrast, I consider a necessity—not so much for cooling as for defogging the windows. Around here, heat is unpleasant but not usually dangerous, while windows you can't see through can be deadly.)
  • Hot and cold running water is a necessity. Separate sinks in the bathroom are a luxury.
  • A dishwasher is a luxury. A microwave oven is a necessity.
  • Having all the meats we purchase be free-range/humanely raised is a necessity, though it isn't a necessity to eat very much of them. Convenience foods of all kinds are luxuries. (Well, maybe not breakfast cereal.)
None of this is meant as an argument that the only things worth spending money on are necessities. On the contrary, for me the main point of frugality is that it frees up money to spend on things that are important to you, and that category is bound to include some luxuries along with the necessities. As Rose Schneiderman observed back in 1911, "The worker must have bread, but she must also have roses." We all need to feed our souls, as well as our bodies. The meaning of frugality is not, and never should be, to do without roses; it's to provide both bread and roses in as inexpensive and sustainable a way as possible. Homemade Golden Egg Bread, for instance, at about 85 cents a loaf, and roses cut from our very own backyard rosebush for free.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Ambrosia

I'm down to my last champagne mango, and I think I may have to go get more, because I've just discovered something absolutely amazing to do with them.

You start with a piece of this Korean popped snack, which I discovered at the H-Mart. I'm absolutely enthralled by this stuff. As far as I can tell, they just make a slurry of rice flour, wheat flour, water, and a bit of oil, and then they put it in this machine that sort of flash-cooks it at high heat until it shoots out with a loud popping sound. (You can watch this fascinating process here.) The result is a feather-light, crispy cake with a taste and texture that I can best describe as something like a giant Rice Krispie. They literally melt in your mouth, especially when dunked first in a cup of hot chocolate or coffee. Best of all, they're only about 15 calories each, so I can indulge to my heart's delight without putting my waistline in any real danger. The only snag is that they're a bit pricey—three dollars for a bag of 15 cakes—so I have to try to pace myself and not gobble the whole thing in two days.

Anyway, when trying to analyze what I found so addictive about these things, I mentally compared the lightness of their texture to whipped cream (which I also adore), and that put the idea in my head of trying one topped with some whipped cream and diced fruit. So I diced up half of my last champagne mango, arranged it on a cake, added a puff of whipped cream, and ohhhhhhhmigod.

This stuff is ambrosia. It's a lot like a Pavlova, only much easier to make. The juice from the mango just barely softens the cake, so it's already melting a little bit when you put it in your mouth. And with the sweet, juicy fruit tucked between the puffy rice cake and the fluffy whipped cream, it's like biting into a fruit-filled cloud. The only fault I can find with it is that it's a bit difficult to eat neatly; the bits of fruit tend to spill off the edge. But that's easily remedied by breaking the cake into pieces before adding the topping.

As desserts go, this is incredibly light in calories as well as in texture. A single champagne mango has 110 calories, which means that half of one has only 55. A piece of popped snack has 15, and a 2-tablespoon puff of whipped cream also has 15. Of course, I have no illusions that I actually used only 2 tablespoons of whipped cream making this, but if I managed to keep it down to four tablespoons, that's only 30 calories, for a total of exactly 100 calories. That's about the same as two Oreos, and way more decadent.

For an Epicurean delight, it's not that expensive, either. The popped snack costs $3.00 for 15 cakes, so that's 20 cents each; the champagne mangoes cost $5.00 for eight, so that's another 31 cents. The can of whipped cream I just bought for $1.50 says that it contains 37 servings, so if I use two servings to make this dessert, that's another 8 cents. Total: 59 cents per serving, making this a decidedly affordable luxury.

The tricky part, I suspect, is going to be talking myself out of using the low cost and calorie count as an excuse to scarf down two or three of these in a row.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Book bounty

Last weekend, our local library held its annual book sale. This event is always a madhouse. The library spends the whole week collecting donated books and recordings from residents, and sorting them into boxes in a back room. Then on Saturday morning, even before the library is officially open, they unlock a back door and let in half the population of Highland Park, as it usually seems at the time, to paw through the thousands of volumes that are roughly grouped into categories on tables in that small back room...and in boxes under those tables...and on additional tables lining the back hallway...and spilling out onto the back lawn.

We go to this sale every year, and every year I forget until I get there just what a zoo it is. The outdoor area isn't too bad; although the books are just loosely (and not always accurately) grouped into boxes laid out in rows on the ground, there's generally enough room for more than one person at a time to examine each row. But the crowd grows much denser once you pass through the door, and denser still when you push your way into the little back room. The tables are so tightly packed together that there's just enough room for one person to squeeze between them, and no room at all for a second person to slip past while the first is browsing the books. This means that if I want to look at the contents of a particular table, I often have to wait for someone else to get out of the way first—and even after I gain access, I don't really feel free to take my time browsing, knowing that I might be blocking someone else's way to the books.

The upshot of this is that, although we're surrounded by thousands of temptingly cheap books, we usually end up actually buying very few. Personally, I no longer even attempt to look at every volume that's on offer. Outdoors, I may take the time to at least glance at every title in the boxes of cheap sci-fi and romance paperbacks, but once I get inside, I concentrate on pushing my way through to the few sections that particularly interest me—gardening, games, economics—and thumbing through the volumes there as quickly as possible to see if there's anything worth a more careful look. If I do find something of interest, I take just a few seconds to read the cover blurb and maybe flip through the pages before making a decision and either adding it to my stack or putting it back. As I make my way through the room, I'll give a cursory glance to the rows of novels arranged on the tables, and maybe even pick up a title that jumps out at me, but I don't take the time to read every title—and I don't even try to look at the ones on the floor. This year, after about half an hour of fighting our way through the crowd, we ended up buying just four books:
  • a hardcover collection of mystery stories from the '70s
  • an Inspector Morse mystery
  • a fantasy novel by Garth Nix (author of the Keys to the Kingdom series)
  • The Starving Student's Vegetarian Cookbook
At $2 for the hardcover and $1 per paperback, we spent a total of 5 bucks.

So how is it that I now have a stack of nine additional books on the table in the back room, which has become our unofficial holding area for books waiting in line to be read? Answer: the real bonanza of the library book sale comes on the Monday after the sale officially ends, when the library offers up the leftover books for free to anyone who's willing to take them. I usually take home a lot more books from the post-sale than I do from the sale, not just because they're free, but also because I can actually take the time to consider books that I barely glanced at on Saturday. There are usually a couple of other people in the room browsing through the discarded books along with me, but nothing like the kind of crowds there were over the weekend, so I can "shop" at leisure. I can examine every title instead of just taking in a box at a glance and picking up anything that jumps out at me. If something looks potentially interesting, I can actually take the time to pick it up and read the first page; if it holds my attention that long, I have no reason not to go ahead and add it to the stack, because what the heck, it's free. As a result, I'm a lot more likely to end up with intriguing-looking titles by authors I've never even heard of, like Waiting for the Galactic Bus or The Dyke and the Dybbuk, which I'd most likely pass over unexamined during the hurly-burly of the sale itself. I even picked up a couple today that I probably would have been willing to pay for, like the Mother Earth News publication Living on Less (a potential treasure trove of material for this blog) and a collection of little-known writings by Ben Franklin, bearing the giggle-inspiring title Fart Proudly. These would almost surely have ended up in our bag if I'd spotted them on Saturday, but they were either hidden in the boxes under the tables or buried in a mass of other volumes that I couldn't take the time to examine carefully.

So, on the one hand, I'm quite pleased with my haul, which now totals 13 books for a mere 5 bucks. But at the same time, I'm a little disappointed to see how much potential revenue the library is losing out on by having so many books that clearly are of interest to people like me go unsold. I wonder if there's anything they could do to improve the shopping conditions at the sale so that people would find it easier to browse the books and, potentially, pick up more of them. The biggest problem is that the little back room where the sale is held is so small, so I'm wondering whether the sale might be able to spread into some additional spaces in the library, such as the individual study rooms. Perhaps each of these small rooms could house a different category of books, so that people interested in one specific genre could focus on those areas and avoid getting in the way of others who prefer different subjects.

The problem, I suspect, is that the librarians don't want the noise and bustle of the sale to interfere, any more than necessary, with the regular functions of the library. But I wonder whether maybe they would be better off just declaring the library officially closed for those two days and turning over the entire space to the sale. The library is already closed on alternating Saturdays and Sundays, so it would only be one day of library access lost. Of course, that would mean that those who use the library every weekend would have to go a week without, and it seems like that happens often enough as it is, with the library closing all weekend for every conceivable holiday from Presidents' Day to Labor Day. But then, maybe if they could raise enough money with the book sale, they might actually be able to keep it open more often, so the patrons would gain more library time in the long run.

On the other hand, maybe the sale is about as successful already as it can stand to be, and I should quit looking a gift book in the mouth.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Herb drying

Recently, "dried oregano" showed up on our grocery list. This is a spice we don't go through very quickly, and in fact, I couldn't really remember the last time we'd bought it. We do have a fresh oregano plant outside in our rather makeshift herb garden, which could probably supply more than enough to season our pizza sauce—but we also use oregano in our homemade chili powder, and for that it has to be dried so that you can pulverize it. Still, it seemed like a shame to buy dried oregano when we already had plenty of nice fresh oregano right outside our door, so I started wondering whether we could just pick some and dry it.

My first thought was to hang the branches up to dry, as we'd done earlier in the spring, when we trimmed back our overgrown sage plant. We tied the trimmings up in a bunch with an old bit of clothesline and hung it up in our shed, and after a couple of weeks it was dry enough to crumble by hand, yielding a nice jarful of dried sage. But the other day I came across an old ConsumerSearch blog entry of mine on unusual ways to use your microwave, and I was reminded that I'd read about a method of microwave-drying herbs in a matter of minutes. So I figured this was a good opportunity to put this technique to the test.

First, I picked a nice bunch of fresh oregano. I didn't have any idea how much I'd need, so I just broke off stems until I had a good handful.

Then, following the procedure on TheKitchn.com, I pulled the leaves off several of the stems and arranged them on a plate. They took up a lot more room this way, so I was only to use two or three of the stems I'd picked. The article said to put them on a paper towel to absorb moisture, but I don't keep paper towels in the house, so I used a paper napkin I'd saved from a takeout meal. If I hadn't had that either, I might have ventured to try it with a cloth instead, but for my first attempt, I figured I'd stick as close to the recipe as possible.

I zapped the plate for 30 seconds at a time, examining the leaves after each round. After just one zap, they'd shriveled to a fraction of their former size but still felt limp to the touch. After the second, they were mostly desiccated, but a couple of the leaves didn't feel completely stiff. I gave them 15 more seconds and they crumbled right in my hands.

As you can see, they shrunk considerably in the process, and crushing them reduced their volume still more. What I finally ended up with was no more than a tablespoon or two of dried oregano.

So while this process is indeed faster than air-drying, it has a very small yield. But since it only takes about ten minutes total, we can always use it again if we ever actually run out of oregano—or we could just pick a bigger bunch and dry it the old-fashioned way.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Too Many Projects, update

So, those of you who read my post a week ago may have been wondering whether we ever got around to the two Projects we had on our list—the broken desk fan and the persnickety toilet—or whether we decided to give in and just buy something new. Well, as it turns out, once we actually took a minute to look at these Projects carefully, they weren't quite so imposing after all. In fact, we were able to complete each one with just a few minutes of work, a little ingenuity, and some parts we already had.

Here's Project #1: the toilet chain and flapper. After it got stuck yet again on Monday, I got fed up and did a quick Google search on "toilet keeps running," and I found a Wikihow article with some troubleshooting instructions. It suggested feeding the chain through a plastic soda straw to keep it from snagging. We had plenty of soda straws, so I cut one down to what seemed a reasonable length, unhooked the chain, and fed it through. That worked somewhat, except that the chain was too rigid; its full weight now rested on the flapper, forcing it closed too soon instead of letting it drop slowly into place. So Brian modified my fix by cutting the straw in half at the middle, and then he replaced the hook at the end with a small key ring so that it couldn't slip off. Total time: 10 to 15 minutes. Total cost: $0.

Project #2, the old clip-on desk fan, was even more straightforward, though it did require a couple of tools. Brian simply took a slab of scrap wood (about 6 inches by 9) and screwed it to the bottom of the fan, first drilling out a hole in the middle of the wood to accommodate the head of the screw. He plunked it down on my desk and said, "That should do for now; I can make it look nicer later." But as I was looking at this slightly kludgey construct and wondering what would be the best way to go about making it look nicer, my eye happened to fall on the stack of gift cards I've accumulated over the past few years, hoping to find some way of reusing or recycling them. And just on an impulse, I picked up the stack and fanned it out around the base of the fan, as you see here. Okay, maybe it's not exactly elegant, but then, a cheap plastic fan isn't going to look elegant no matter what you do to it, so you might as well go for whimsical instead. Total time: about 10 minutes. Total cost: $0. Bonus: a way to put something that had been just taking up space on my desk to good use.

So I'm revising my views on the subject of turning things into Projects. I now think that the real problem is not an unwillingness to spend money to fix a problem: it's the assumption that solving a problem without spending money is going to require a major investment of time, and thus should be put off until you have a large block of time free. Sometimes, it turns out, a cheap fix is also a quick fix.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Fruit of the month: champagne mangoes

Okay, this is actually a bit of a cheat, because I first tried champagne mangoes a week or two before May had started. But since I'd already done my fruit of the month for April, and since I didn't have any other good ideas for May, I decided to go ahead and use it.

Here is what champagne mangoes look like. As you may or may not be able to tell from the photo, they're slightly smaller than most mangoes sold in stores, and they have a more uniform light orange color as opposed to mingled red and green. They also have a thinner rind and a smaller pit, which makes them much easier to manipulate. I got some standard mangoes on sale at Aldi last week, and I ended up cutting two of them open before they were really ripe because I couldn't tell by feel or by smell whether they were ready to eat. By contrast, the champagne mangoes, with their thinner rinds, give easily beneath squeezing fingers when they're ripe, and the ripe-mango scent is clearly present to the nose. And when you do cut into them, it's much easier to separate the flesh from the flat pit than from the large round pit of a normal mango. The thin rinds also come away from the flesh much more easily. The only thing you have to be careful about is resisting the temptation to scrape the remaining flesh from the peel with your teeth; I tried it and it left my throat feeling irritated and my mouth sort of cottony, which I guess serves me right for being uncouth.

The champagne mangoes have a very sweet, delicate flavor, less tart than a typical mango (especially one that isn't fully ripe). I'm not sure how they got the name "champagne," since their flavor is nothing at all like the dryness of champagne—but the name did suggest to me that perhaps they would go well with strawberries, which we also happened to have some of in the fridge. So I cut up half a mango and a few strawberries into roughly even-sized chunks and mixed them together in a nice salad. The combination was indeed very tasty, although the strawberries tasted unusually tart when set off by the extra-sweet mango. But the two flavors complimented each other well, especially when I took care to get both mango and strawberry in each spoonful. So far one whole mango has been used up in this way, and another half a mango got eaten plain. That leaves me six and a half mangoes to enjoy. Probably most of them will just be eaten straight, but I might also try some in a salsa or a smoothie, like this mango lassi. The sweetness of the champagne mango will probably be even better than regular mango for setting off the tanginess of the yogurt.

So, will champagne mangoes become a regular part of my diet? Well, they are a bit expensive ($5 for eight fruits), and they are imported from Mexico, so they definitely have a bigger carbon footprint than local produce. I probably won't eat them when there's fresh fruit in season around here, which there is for most of the summer and fall (from the first strawberries in May through the last apples of November). But I think these champagne mangoes will make a very welcome supplement to canned and frozen fruit (and cold-storage apples) throughout the long winter and spring.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Too many Projects

One of the problems with living the ecofrugal life is that small problems, which most people would solve with a quick trip to the store, can easily turn into Projects. Here are a few examples that have popped up for us recently:

The Case of the Running Toilet
Our upstairs toilet has taken to running indefinitely when flushed. It doesn't do it all the time, but often enough to be annoying. It's not always the same problem, either; sometimes the chain has lodged itself under the flapper, preventing it from closing all the way, and sometimes the chain has grabbed onto the  flapper itself, preventing it from falling into place. We've tried shortening the chain, but then it ends up being too short, so that the flapper can't close at all.

Now, a true spendthrift would solve this problem by calling a plumber, without even bothering to glean all this information about the flapper and the chain. A normal person would probably try fixing the chain once or twice and, when the problem kept happening, would go down to Home Depot and get a new flapper and chain for $5. But even that solution would involve spending some money, as well as throwing out the old flapper. And the thing is, we know the flapper we have used to work properly. So in theory, it should be possible to get it to work properly again. But getting it to work again will be a Project. It might involve cutting the chain, or replacing it entirely, or threading it through a soda straw as this Wikihow article suggests, or maybe shaving down the lip of the flapper so it doesn't catch. There will probably be some trial and error involved, and naturally, all of this will take time to do. So, like all Projects, it has to be set aside until we have several free hours to deal with it, most likely on a weekend. And in the meantime, we have to keep reaching in and fiddling with the chain every other time the toilet gets flushed.

The Case of the Broken Desk Fan
For the past several summers, I've kept a little clip-on fan on the edge of my desk. I think we originally picked it up for a dollar at a yard sale, and it's proved to be a worthwhile investment. It produces enough of a breeze to keep me tolerably cool even with the indoor temperature as high as 90 degrees, so I don't need to switch on the air conditioning more than once or twice in a summer. However, when I removed it from the desk last fall, the clip broke. We tried gluing it back together, but no dice; the glue wasn't strong enough and it promptly split. Then we tried splinting it, and the clip just broke in a different place. We concluded that the clip was not salvageable, but the fan still might be, if we could build some sort of stand for it. So now this broken fan is now a Project, tucked on a shelf in our newly-cleaned-out workshop, awaiting repairs that will require, once again, a free weekend. Which I'm hoping we'll have before the weather gets too hot, because obviously I can't just go down to the drugstore and spend $10 on a new fan if we have an old one that could still do the job with just a little bit of work, right?

The Case of the Worn-Out Soles
As I've mentioned before on this blog, Brian has an old pair of shoes that were quite expensive when new, but have worn down to the point that there's little tread left on the soles. When I took them to the shoe shop to see if they could be resoled, I was informed that this type of sole costs $60 to replace (and even after shopping around online, I couldn't find anyplace that would do them for less than $50, which would come to over $60 with shipping). Given that we'd seen a similar pair of new shoes on sale at the Famous Footwear for $70, this didn't seem reasonable.

So, for a normal person, the solution would be obvious: throw out the old shoes and either get a new pair or, since you've managed without them this long, just continue to do without them. But it seemed like a shame to me to throw out a pair of shoes that still had a possible year or two of life in the uppers just because the soles were worn down. So I Googled "resole shoes at home" and decided to try picking up a pair of heels and half-soles for 12 bucks on Amazon.com. However, when they arrived, it became apparent that they were really designed more for a men's dress shoe with a raised heel, and not for a shoe with a one-piece sole like the Rockports we had. So figuring out how to apply these soles to the shoes became a Project. Could I stick them on with Shoe Goo? Would I have to cut out part of the existing sole to create a flat surface to apply the heels? Would I have to clamp the new soles to the shoes while the adhesive dried? For how long? The more I considered it, the less confident I felt about tackling the job on my own...so the shoes sat out on my desk, waiting for—yes, you guessed it—a free weekend when I could enlist Brian's help to fix them.

This story actually does have an ending, because last night I showed Brian the new soles and heels and asked for his advice. He examined them and concluded that they probably weren't suitable for the shoes he had, and also that it probably wasn't worth putting a lot of time and effort into a pair of shoes that had such an uncertain amount of life left in the uppers. But he did decide that the shoes were still wearable in their present condition—just not in wet weather. So he put the worn-out shoes in the spot next to his dresser where he keeps his everyday shoes, in the hope that he'll remember to wear them in fine weather and get whatever remaining life they have out of them. And the heels and half-soles went into a drawer with his shoe shine supplies, where we'll have them handy should we ever need to repair his 25-year-old dress shoes.

Now if only we could come up with equally satisfactory solutions for the desk fan and the toilet....

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The best of all tightwad worlds

Last Earth Day, the "Live Like a Mensch" blog invited readers to "share your favorite low-cost, free, or money-saving tip for reducing waste, energy usage, or unnecessary purchases." I responded with the complaint, "Just one tip? I have a whole blog's worth!" and then compromised by presenting a short list of my favorite ecofrugal tips, including, "use your library," "bike to work," and "join Freecycle." Another regular reader, who goes by the handle "frugal_fun," quibbled with these suggestions, arguing that you have to use a car to get back and forth to the library and to pick up Freecycled items. I explained that I always walk to the library and try whenever possible to pick up Freecycled items on foot as well, or failing that, to pick them up as part of an already scheduled trip. But even as I was writing that response, I realized that the strategies I was suggesting really only work for town dwellers. If you live in a fairly densely populated area, you can probably walk to your local library (or get there by mass transit), and the folks you deal with on Freecycle will probably live within walking distance or, at most, a short drive. You're also more likely to live close enough to your workplace to make biking to work a reasonable option. But if you live way out in the country, it's much harder to get anywhere without a car—which means you can usually be more ecofrugal staying at home.

This discussion reminded me of an article from the third Tightwad Gazette book, called "The City Tightwad and the Country Tightwad." In it, Amy Dacyczyn (all hail the Frugal Zealot!) discussed the fact that some of her readers seemed to think it was harder to save money living in the city than in the country, especially since her newsletter seemed to focus so much on "gardening, canning, and squirreling away bulk purchases in a large house and a big barn." In truth, she argued, the city and the country have both have their own particular advantages when it comes to saving money. The advantages of town life include cheap transportation, more inexpensive shopping choices, free entertainment options (such as the library I mentioned in my tip), and more opportunities for "curb shopping" (otherwise known as scavenging). The advantages of country life, by contrast, include gardening, cheaper land, more utility options (like solar panels or wood heat), the ability to stockpile more stuff, and "more lifestyle freedom" (that is, fewer neighbors to expose your family to expensive brands or complain about your laundry hanging on the line). As for the sprawling suburbs, so often attacked as the most wasteful of all places to live, they actually combine the advantages and disadvantages of city and country life—as well as having perks all their own, such as plenty of yard sales.

I think this analysis is generally spot on, but after reading it over, it occurred to me that for those who aspire to the ecofrugal life, a good-sized town (like the one where I live) is really the best of all possible worlds. Here in Highland Park, we enjoy most of the advantages Dacyczyn cites for city, country, and suburban dwellers. For example:
  • Like city tightwads, we have a lot of stuff within walking/biking distance. Brian can easily bike to work in good weather, and I can walk to the grocery store, drugstore, doctor's office, post office, and most other places I'd need to run errands. We could use a few more stores in walking distance (like a bookstore and maybe some reasonably priced clothing stores), but still, we often go for days without getting behind the wheel.
  • We also have a pretty good variety of shopping options. While we have just one supermarket in walking distance, there are several others a short drive away, making it easy for us to cycle among them and choose the best-priced items from each one. On the down side, we really don't have any good thrift shops in our immediate area; the local one has a limited selection and even more limited hours, and the next nearest one is a Goodwill store that's about 15 minutes away by car, which I've concluded really isn't worth the trip
  • We have a good variety of cheap or free entertainment. True, it's not the same same variety you might find in a big city, but between our local library, the nearby museum, town-sponsored events, and all the stuff going on at the university, you can generally find something to do on any given weekend.
  • Housing options include the best of city and country. A quick search on Craigslist turned up three rooms for rent, ranging from $465 to $950 a month, which isn't at all bad considering that I paid $400 a month for my first shared apartment back in 1996. Yet those who want a house and land, with plenty of room to stockpile bulk goods and grow a garden, can easily find one. They'll certainly pay more for it than they would in, say, rural Kansas, but with the housing market still in a slump, there are good deals to be had for those who look.
  • We also have all the perks of suburban living without the sprawl. The schools are good; there's lots of stuff within a short drive, and a car won't cost an arm and a leg to park; we have yard sales from spring through fall, including a big town-wide sale in September; and carpooling is a viable option for lots of folks, since so many locals work at the university.
  • Finally, the "lifestyle freedom" Amy Dacycyn lists as a perk of rural living seems to be just as open to us town dwellers. She finds it easier to avoid "material excess" living in the country, where her kids aren't constantly exposed to temptations from junk food to Nintendo—but our town is so diverse that I think local kids accept a wide range of lifestyles without even blinking. Walking around town, I see Jewish boys with yarmulkes and Muslim girls in headscarves walking home from school, and neither attracts so much as a second glance from passersby, so I kind of doubt that a kid without an Xbox—or even without a TV—is going to be looked on as a freak. 
So while I would agree that both city and country have their own unique advantages for ecofrugality, I would argue that a largish town—and especially a college town—truly offers the best balance of both.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Spring cleaning

Brian and I spent most of yesterday cleaning out our storage room (also known as the shop and the laundry room, but it does those jobs only occasionally and stores stuff 24/7). This time I remembered to take a "before" picture:


As you can see, the most obvious pile of clutter in the room is that mass of stuff on the worktable in the middle, most of which is seed-starting supplies that never got put away after we finished potting up all our seedlings for the year. So we started by going through that lot, emptying soil out of tubes, washing the tubes, discarding the more battered cartons, and neatly stacking the clean cartons in a big box marked "seed starting." The seeds themselves stayed out, since there are still several crops that have to go into the garden, but everything else was neatly contained in that box or thrown out. That made a pretty visible improvement right away.

After that, we moved on to tackling some clutter that was less visible, but just as unnecessary. For instance, I had two big bins full of scrap fabric, mostly old pairs of pants, and I had to go through all of that and admit that, realistically, it was pretty unlikely I'd ever use most of it. I still ended up keeping probably more than we needed (I doubt I'm actually going to need six pairs of old jeans just to make patches for newer jeans, for instance), but I still filled up two garbage bags with stuff to take to the  nearest textile recycling bin. I also made a smaller pile of still-usable clothing that can be donated to our local thrift shop. My scrap bin doesn't actually look all that different without the extra junk piled in and on it, but it's a lot easier to open and close.

Meanwhile, Brian was going through piles of other junk. We puzzled for a while over an assortment of electronic debris, trying to figure out what was e-waste we should recycle and what was just regular trash. We eventually decided we could safely trash all the cables, leaving just one small webcam and one old RF modulator to be taken to down to our local Department of Public Works for e-cycling. 

We also had a large box on one shelf marked "give away," full of random stuff that we can't use but still think might be useful to someone else. However, after my recent Freecycle blast, a lot of the larger items were gone, so we were able to consolidate the remainder into a much smaller box. I also pulled a couple of the items out to list them on Freecycle, as well as a few smaller things that we decided it would be amusing to stuff into Christmas stockings. (This also prompted me to get started on this year's holiday gift list, which we generally work on throughout the year as we pick up yard-sale finds and other bargains that come to hand.)

A lot of the remaining work was just tidying up: putting away tools, grouping items to be repaired on a designated "project" shelf, dumping out the accumulated sawdust and wood shavings from earlier woodworking projects, and vacuuming up all the dirt from our seed-starting ventures. Miscellaneous junk got dumped into trash bins (dried-up paint, packing foam) and bundled up for recycling (lots of corrugated cardboard). And after lots of trips upstairs and downstairs and out to the shed, here's what we had at the end of the day:


Doesn't actually look all that different from the "before" picture, does it? Hard to believe that we filled two big garbage cans with trash, two big trash bags with recyclable textiles, and two smaller bags with other items to be recycled, and yet somehow there seems to be just as much stuff in the room as there was before. But trust me, everything is much neater on the inside. At least, I now think that if I went down there looking for, say, a hammer, I could actually locate it within five minutes, which I didn't feel at all confident about before. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

Gardeners' holidays: The Age of Asparagus

So, here it is, the beginning of May—which, according to this chart from the NJ Department of Agriculture, marks the beginning of the "most active" period for asparagus here in Joysey. I'd hoped that I'd be able to celebrate this event with a meal that actually features asparagus as a starring ingredient. A magazine I picked up at our local supermarket had a couple of interesting-looking recipes in it, and while I didn't expect to have the 2 cups of asparagus needed for "Crustless Asparagus Mini Quiches," I figured I could at least muster the 8 spears needed for a "Crab & Asparagus Omelet."


Unfortunately, though, our asparagus patch doesn't seem to have gotten the memo. So far, it's sent up mostly skinny little shoots that went to fern almost immediately. So all I have at this point is two longish spears sitting on the kitchen table with their cut ends in a jar of water. (They, too, were on the verge of going to fern, but they were the fattest spears we had, so I picked them anyway.) Those will probably make about half a cup once chopped, so we might be able to manage a half recipe of a potato omelet out of my Easy Vegetarian Dinners cookbook, which calls for one cup. Of course, it also calls for new potatoes and a ripe tomato—so in order to enjoy our half cup of seasonal garden produce, we'd have to invest in two other ingredients that won't actually be in season until July.

Of course, I could always cheat and declare this the Festival of Spinach instead. According to the charge, that's the one other vegetable that's technically in season (even if it hasn't reached its "most active" stage yet), and we do have a bunch of it in the fridge. But we didn't grow it ourselves, and it doesn't seem like much of a Gardeners' Holiday celebration to eat something that was bought from a store. I guess the best compromise would be to do both; eat the asparagus, which is actually home-grown, to commemorate the holiday, and then eat the spinach as well to ensure that we actually get a decent portion of veggies with our meal.

Unfortunately, our newly refurbished rhubarb patch definitely isn't up to providing us with dessert. While the three plants that we transplanted all seem to have survived, and one of them is literally blooming, there isn't enough new growth on them for a pie or even a crisp. As for the four new plants, only two have come up at all, and they're only barely visible. Maybe rhubarb can be part of next year's celebration.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Having a Freecycle blast

Lately, Brian and I have been doing a bit of spring cleaning. Our shed, which was nearly impossible to walk around in, is now probably the tidiest it's ever been. Unfortunately, I didn't think to take a "before" picture to show you just how chaotic it used to be, but at least you can see from this "after" picture that it's quite neat and well-organized now. Whenever I go in there now, I find myself standing there for a few minutes just savoring all this room we have in there.

Most of the stuff we cleaned out of the shed eventually went back in, just in a more compact and well-organized way. But we did end up with several items to give away, so over the course of the past few weeks, I've been posting them all on Freecycle. I'd list three or four items at a time, and as they were taken, I'd remove the posts and list more items in their place. And since I was making all those posts anyway, I also started working my way through the box of stuff marked "giveaway" that's been sitting on a shelf in the shop for the past year or so, as well as listing a few other superfluous items. I actually belong to two different Freecycle groups, one for the Rutgers University/New Brunswick area and one for all of Middlesex County, so I started out by listing items on the Rutgers group in the hopes of giving them away to someone who lives close by. (I figure it's less wasteful to have the items picked up locally, since it involves less driving, and I also assume—or at least hope—that people who live nearby will be more likely to pick things up promptly.) If an item doesn't go within a few days, I'll post it on the bigger group, and if it still hasn't been taken within a week, I conclude that no one's interested.

Anyway, it occurred to me that this "Freecycle blast" might be a useful way to collect some data about what kind of items generate the most interest on Freecycle, and what kind are hardest to get rid of. As I worked my way through my pile of items, I kept track of what kind of response each item got: how many people responded, how quickly, and how long it took before the item was picked up. We still haven't completely gotten rid of everything, but most items have gone, including all the big ones, so I think I can go ahead and present my findings. So, here they are: Livingston's Laws of Freecycling.
  • The items that are most in demand are useful, as opposed to decorative. A set of jumper cables, a beat-up old shovel, a half-full bag of dry cat food, a bottle of hand lotion, and an assortment of curtain rods all got multiple requests within the first 24 hours. By contrast, a glass jar for displaying a floating candle went several days before getting a nibble, and I still haven't found anyone willing to take any of our assorted mugs with cartoons on them (something everyone has too many of already).
  • The condition of the item doesn't seem to matter that much. Whenever I post an item on Freecycle, I always disclose any problems with the item up front, because I don't want the person who picks it up to have any reason to feel cheated. Yet we had no trouble giving away a rusty old shovel, a digital camera that won't start unless its batteries are charged up to the brim, and a truly antiquated flatbed scanner.
  • Bigger items are more likely to be taken on the larger Middlesex County group than on the local group.  Both the scanner and our old recirculating range hood got no offers when I first listed them, but when I posted the same items on the bigger group they were snatched up immediately.
  • The more information you can provide about an item, the better. Of the two Freecycle groups I belong to, only the Middlesex County group lets you include a photo with your listing. However, I have discovered that when I post to the Rutgers group, I generally get a better response if I can find a picture of a similar item somewhere online. That helps people get a clearer idea of what's being offered, so that (a) they'll know if they're interested, (b) they'll know if they aren't interested and won't change their minds after seeing the item, and (c) they won't be disappointed with what they get. I also try when listing electronic items to include as much of the original documentation, software, cables, and other paraphernalia as I can scrounge up.
  • In addition to being specific in describing the item, it's wise to be specific in stating your expectations about the pickup. I made one post offering three vintage glass ceiling light covers (see the photo for an example) with the note "please take all," and I still got two requests from people who wanted to take just one of them. Next time, I'll spell it out: "Please reply only if you are willing to take all three."
  • It's best to avoid promising an item to someone unless that person can commit to a specific date and time for picking it up. Sometimes I've been kept dangling, waiting for a reply to my "So when should I expect you?" inquiry, while being forced to put off other people who asked for the same item and offered to come get it that very day. I used to give my address right away to anyone who requested an item, but lately I've taken to saying first, "Let me know when you can come get it, and I'll send you the address." I'm not as strict as some people, whose posts always include instructions to "include a date and time for pickup in your FIRST e-mail," but I might end up adopting that approach.
I'm hoping these rules will stand me in good stead when we finally get around to cleaning up the shop, which will probably be a much bigger job than the shed and yield an even larger volume of stuff to be Freecycled.