Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Fruit of the Month: Pluots

As you can see, this month's Fruit of the Month entry is squeezing in just under the wire. We've only been to the H-Mart once this month, and I didn't see new produce options there that struck my fancy, so I nearly ended up missing my deadline. But fortunately, last week's sale flier for our local Stop & Stop featured a prominent listing for pluots at $1.99 a pound, so I grabbed a few of those.

Pluots are a cultivated hybrid between plums and apricots. (According to Wikipedia, they're distinct from "plumcots," which are a naturally occurring hybrid with more apricot-like traits.) However, as you can see in the picture, the ones I bought don't look much like either of their parents; they're definitely larger than an apricot, and larger than most plums, too, with a distinctive tapered shape that's quite unlike the plums I'm familiar with. And they taste very different from their parent fruits, as well. Their skin is extremely tart, while the flesh underneath is quite sweet and bland—almost totally devoid of any distinctive flavor at all. So the only way to make them even moderately palatable is to make sure to get both skin and flesh in every bite and chew them together. That way, the sweet flesh will moderate the sourness of the skin, which in turn will add some character to the otherwise flavorless flesh.

Not all pluots taste the same, of course. Wikipedia lists over 20 varieties, but I couldn't tell from the list which type I'd bought at the store, and the flier didn't identify them. The little dinosaur icon on the label may indicate that these are supposed to be "dinosaur egg" pluots, another name for the "Dapple Dandy" variety, but the don't really seem to match the description in Wikipedia. For one thing, it says that the Dapple Dandy has "firm flesh," while I found these pluots to be extremely juicy; I quickly found that I couldn't eat them out of my hand without dribbling the sticky juice all over the place. I ended up having to put the pluot in a bowl and eat it while holding it over the bowl to catch the juice.

On the whole, I wasn't terribly impressed with these particular pluots, but that doesn't mean I wouldn't like other varieties. Unfortunately, since I don't know the name of this one, it may not be that simple to steer clear of it in the future; I'll just have to go by looks. So if I see any more dark-red, pointy-bottomed pluots roughly equal to a peach in size, I'll probably give them a miss. But a pluot of a different color, or a different shape, or a different size, might also prove to have a different and more appealing flavor.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Two birds with one stone...dust

Yesterday, about three weeks after we theoretically completed our patio project, we finally got around to clearing the big pile of leftover stone dust out of our driveway. And guess where we put it?

Yes, that's right...more than a year after I first started considering the idea, we finally have something other than weeds to cover our garden paths. First we yanked out all the weeds we could get our hands on; then we put down a layer of weed barrier, starting with what we had left over from the patio project and then, when that ran out, going off to Home Depot for another roll. Then we shoveled the stone dust from the pile into the wheelbarrow and started trundling it into the back yard. The first wheelbarrow-load was able to get dumped directly into the garden through the gate, but after that we had to carry it in by hand. Brian used one of our big garden spades to transport it, while I hauled out the smallest of our reclaimed cocoa butter buckets and used that. It was a slow process, but bit by bit, over the course of the afternoon, we managed to transfer the entire contents of the pile from our driveway to the paths. (Well, almost the entire contents—we were racing against an approaching thunderstorm toward the end, so the final load ended up remaining in the wheelbarrow and just being shoved into the shed to be dealt with later. But Brian transferred that last bit to the paths this afternoon when he came up against the laden wheelbarrow in the shed, nearly knocked it over, and decided it had better be emptied before it emptied itself.)

So, after about 15 months of considering and debating, we finally have permanent paths in our garden. And quite by accident, we seem to have come across the perfect surface for them. It won't decompose and require replacing, like mulch; it won't roll around underfoot and escape from the fenced area, like pea gravel; and it packs down to form a firm, almost rocklike surface that even our tough garden weeds should have a hard time poking their heads through, especially with that additional layer of weed barrier underneath. And because the stone dust was left over from the patio project, all we actually spent on the paths themselves was $29 for a roll of weed cloth (and we still have a fair bit of that left over for future applications).

Oh yes, and after three weeks of delays, we finally have the full width of our driveway available to park in, as well.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Poppin' some green tags

Last week Brian noticed that his old belt was nearly worn out and asked me to keep an eye out for a new one. I thought our little local thrift shop would probably have one, but when we stopped by on Saturday morning, we found no belts at all in the men's section. I thought maybe they were filed with the shoes, but when we checked there, the only belts we found were clearly for women. So we decided to add a stop at the Goodwill store in East Brunswick to that day's errands.

As I noted back in February, we don't visit this store that often because it's not really on our regular route, and my last trip there was pretty much wasted. But if we're already headed out to one of the home centers in East Brunswick (which we were), it isn't that big a detour to hit the thrift store too, and I figured that even if it didn't have anything for me, it should at least be able to provide us with something as simple as a man's belt. Well, it did...and, to my surprise, a few other items besides.

Since the belt was our primary objective, we went looking for that first. Brian tried on a couple and found a simple black leather one in a suitable size. It was priced at $12.99, which seemed a bit high for a thrift shop item (though I've never actually bought a man's belt before, so maybe I just don't know what they should cost). However, the tag on it was green, and we were there on a green-tag day, which made the final cost a much more reasonable $6.49.

Then, having found what we came for, we split up to scan the rest of the racks, just in case we happened across anything else we could use. Based on my last visit, I wasn't actually expecting to find anything, but as I flipped through the racks of grey tops (the same ones I'd perused without success on my last trip), lo and behold, I actually found a V-neck cotton pullover that fit pretty well. (I didn't bother waiting in line for a fitting room, just pulled it on over my T-shirt right there in the aisle, and while I couldn't find a full-length mirror to evaluate it from every angle, I was able to see enough of myself in the mirror by the hat section to tell that it looked okay.) This was priced at $7.99—which might have been a bit higher than average due to the Calvin Klein label inside, a feature that doesn't actually add any value for me—and it was a yellow tag, so we had to pay the full amount. But after having spent much of last winter and this spring searching for a simple grey pullover, both in thrift stores and in catalogues, without success, I decided anything that fit me was a bargain at the price. 

I then wandered over to the shoe rack, where, once again, I wasn't really expecting to find anything in my size. And I didn't, exactly, but I did find a pair of sturdy hiking boots in black leather (which I'm willing to wear if it's bought secondhand) in a men's size 5 1/2. That's a little big for me (a men's 4 or 4 1/2 is closer to my usual size), and when I tried them on, they were indeed a bit roomy in the toe. However, they still felt reasonably snug, and would presumably be even more so with a heavy winter sock. And since, as you may recall, I have some doubts about how long my current pair of winter boots will last, spending a little money on a backup pair seemed like a reasonable idea. These were priced at $14.99, but the green tag on their soles reduced them to $7.49. And since they're a well-respected brand (Timberland) and have no visible wear on the soles and just the faintest hint of scuffing on the uppers, they should hold up quite well.

When I rejoined Brian, he was carrying two items: a pair of green shorts and a videotape of the movie Little Big Man. Yeah, a videotape—remember those? We tend to buy new videos in DVD or, more recently, downloadable form, but we've held on to our old VCR, and it allows us to take advantage of the occasional great deal—like this classic film priced at a mere 99 cents (49 cents with the green tag). The green shorts were in a cargo style, which isn't Brian's usual preference, but they were also a size 34, which is small enough for him to wear (after some recent weight loss) even without his new belt. The tag on them was red, but at $4.29, they were still a bargain. (At home, fresh out of the shower with no shirt and his hair uncombed, he put them on and said, "Look, they're Abercrombie and Fitch! Do I look young and hip?" Um, no, but did you actually want to?)

So altogether, we got shoes and a sweater for me, shorts and a belt for Brian, and a movie for both of us—including several name-brand items—all for $26.78 including tax. (Clothing isn't taxed in New Jersey, so the only sales tax was 3 cents for the movie.) For me, that made this trip satisfying enough to cancel out the disappointment of the previous one. So I've now revised my opinion of this Goodwill store from "not worth the trip" to "hit or miss": you might find nothing of use, or you might find lots, and there's really no way to predict which ahead of time. Thus, while I still don't consider it worthy of a special trip (that might only end in disappointment), I do now think it's worth going just a bit out of our way to stop by, if we're already in the general area, to see if we happen to strike it lucky.

Friday, July 19, 2013

We're havin' a heat wave

As you've no doubt heard, New Jersey is now entering day five of a prolonged heat wave. The various news outlets have spent a lot of time explaining that what makes a heat wave dangerous isn't the daytime temperatures, which, at least in our area, haven't actually topped 100. Rather, it's the fact that the heat doesn't let up much at night, so people never really get the chance to recover from the sweltering temperatures of the day. And the longer the heat wave goes on, the earlier the mercury starts to soar in the morning and the less it drops at night.

The heat wave is expected to break some time tomorrow, but until then, experts are advising people to stay indoors as much as possible—in air conditioning, if it's available. However, we don't have central AC at our house, just a couple of room-sized units: one in the living room and one in the window of my office. And being ecofrugal types, we try to use them as little as possible. So I've found myself looking on this heat wave as a challenge: to keep myself as cool as possible, as long as possible, without switching on the AC.

For the first few days, it wasn't too bad. The outdoor temperatures were peaking between 93 and 96 each day, but in our house, it didn't rise above 90 for most of the day, and I can manage to stay comfortable at that temperature while seated at my desk with a small fan trained on me. By 5pm the temperature might creep up past 90, but by that time it was usually cooler outdoors, so as soon as Brian got home from work he'd open up the windows, set up our big fan in the kitchen, and start blowing all the hot air out of the house. Even if it wasn't much cooler outside, the air movement made it feel cooler, and as the temperature dropped outdoors it would drop indoors as well. During meals we'd keep the ceiling fan going in the kitchen, and at night we'd use two fans in the bedroom: a window fan to draw in cooler air from outdoors and a table fan pointed at the bed to keep airflow going around our bodies. This is pretty much our usual routine during summer weather, and for the first part of this week it worked fine.

By Wednesday night, however, our usual remedies were starting to lose their effectiveness. Even with the range hood running, the kitchen got so hot from cooking dinner that we ended up taking our food downstairs to the basement living/dining room, which stays about 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the house, to eat it. By Thursday, I found that my little desk fan wasn't really keeping me cool even on the high setting. So I tried getting creative. Mr. Electricity's tips on cutting summer cooling costs mention the use of cold packs, so I started exploring the reviews on and found a product called the "Chill-Its Cooling Towel," which you soak in cold water and drape around your neck. Although many reviews described it as "amazing," one of the most detailed reviews noted that it didn't really work any better than an ordinary T-shirt used the same way. So I simply soaked one of our floursack towels, normally used for drying dishes, in cold water and wore it like a scarf. This, combined with the fan, managed to keep me at a tolerable temperature for most of the day. However, by 5pm the indoor temperature had climbed to 93, and I actually did relent at that point and switch on the office AC for a little while before dinner—which we ate downstairs again.

When we returned from our weekly dance practice on Thursday night, the temperature in the house was still close to 90. Even with the big fan going, we weren't able to drop it below the mid-80s by bedtime, and as soon as we lay down it became apparent that even our two-fan combo wasn't going to be enough to keep us cool. So we moved downstairs again to sleep on the futon in the living area. It was definitely cooler down there than upstairs, and we brought the table fan with us to help cool us, but we still didn't really manage to sleep comfortably. We also opened up the downstairs windows to try and get airflow going through the cooler basement and up into the main part of the house—but it was still 85 degrees upstairs by the time we got up this morning, and the downstairs didn't feel much cooler.

It's now a little after 10am, and the temperature is 91 degrees outside and 88 on the main floor of our house. Right now I'm feeling tolerably comfortable with the combination of my desk fan and my water-soaked towel (which I stuck in the fridge overnight to add a bit of extra chill), but I'm not sure how long I'll manage to stay that way. The temperature is expected to rise to 95 today, so if it only stays 3 degrees cooler indoors than it is outdoors, it should get up to around 92 in here. Retreating down to the basement, for the first time ever, doesn't seem to bring much relief; although the old-fashioned thermostat we've got down there claims that the temperature is below 80, it feels barely cooler down there than it does up here. And the rest of Mr. Electricity's list of tips hasn't given me any new, brilliant ideas. (I'd already tried his idea of wearing a wrung-out shirt while working on the patio project, and I found that while it may work great for him in Texas, in the New Jersey humidity it didn't help at all. No matter how thoroughly I wrung it out, it still clung to my body and impeded airflow.)

So I may in fact end up having to use air conditioning at some point today; indeed, we might even have to move in here tonight to sleep with it. Sure, I realize that turning on the air conditioner for one day in July, on the fifth day of a heat wave, when the temperature is over 90 indoors, isn't really enough to destroy my ecofrugal cred—but I can't deny feeling a bit disappointed all the same. Given that humans survived without air conditioning for thousands of years, it seems like there must be some way to stay tolerably cool without it, if I were only clever enough to think of it.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Cable revisited

A few days ago, I noted that although we now unexpectedly find ourselves with cable TV service (after Cablevision made us a bundle offer we couldn't refuse), I didn't expect to use it very much. The main reason I didn't see much benefit to cable is that I've become accustomed to watching TV on my own schedule through the magic of the Internet. When we tune into Hulu or visit one of the networks' sites, we can select any available episode of any available show and watch it then and there. After a few years of this, I didn't think I could go back to being limited to whatever happens to be on at a given time.

Well, it turns out that I don't have to...exactly. Perhaps because I'm not the only person who dislikes being tied to a schedule, Cablevision offers a service called "TV to Go," through which we can watch any network that's part of our cable lineup through—yes, you guessed it—the Internet. When I first visited the TV to Go website I had a little trouble figuring out how to scroll through the network sites, but eventually I got the hang of it and managed to click on a link for HGTV, which took me to the HGTV website and popped up a list of shows. Once I selected a show and an episode, I just had to sign into my Optimum/Cablevision account, and bingo, the episode started playing—just like it does when we watch a show on Hulu. (I imagine I could also go directly to the HGTV website, or another network's website, and log in from there.)

Of course, in order to watch this way, you need a way to get online. But fortunately, we already have a way to hook up our TV set to the Internet: our little media computer, the very same one we've been using up until now to watch TV for free. So it looks like we might actually get some use out of our cable service after all—but ironically, we have less reason than ever to actually turn on the cable box. Doing that can only give us the shows that are on right now; going through the Internet instead can give us any show we like. So it looks like the cable service is really more of an upgrade to our media computer than an alternative to it.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Insurance checkup

Every so often, an article like this one shows up on one of the sites I read, talking about supposedly painless ways to trim the fat from your budget. Typically, most of the advice in them is about stuff I already do, like dining out less often or unplugging electronic devices that aren't in use. But invariably, somewhere on the list, there's a tip about checking your home and auto insurance rates to see if you could get a better deal. And invariably, I feel guilty, because this is a job I know I should do at least every couple of years, and I always put it off. I have this tendency to assume that if the company we're using now is the one that offered the best rate when we got the policy, then it must still have the best rates now—even though I know that can change over time.

So this week, seeing that our auto insurance was up for renewal soon, I decided I really should go ahead and get a few more quotes to make sure the company we're using now (Allstate) really was the best deal. Fortunately, I knew of an easy way to do this. Some of the sites from which I take online surveys, including MyPoints, occasionally send me e-mail offers—basically, spam that I get paid to read. I can get a few points or pennies by clicking on the message, and if I actually take them up on the offer, I get a larger bonus. One type of offer that comes up fairly regularly is from insurance shopping websites that will take down your information and then send it out to several insurance companies, which then respond by e-mail or phone with quotes on a new policy. I'd saved the last few e-mails of this type that I received, thinking that I really should take advantage of the offer some time, but putting it off because I didn't want to deal with the ensuing slew of e-mails and phone calls. So now that I had the time to spare, I figured it was time to bite the bullet.

I actually had two different offers for quotes on auto insurance. The first was from a site called RateKick. This proved to be more convenient to use than I'd expected because I didn't actually have to submit a phone number and get calls from individual agents. Instead, the site ran my information through the companies' online quote services and popped up a list showing each company's rate for coverage similar to what I have now. At a glance, it appeared that there was only one company on the list that could beat Allstate's price: the rate shown for Traveler's was about $70 lower for a six-month policy. However, I was skeptical about this quote, because the questions the RateKick site had asked me weren't all that detailed, and I thought the policy it was showing me might not actually be identical to what we have with Allstate. So I went to the Traveler's website and submitted my information there in more detail. To my amazement, the quote I got there was not only higher, it was nearly twice as high as what we now pay with Allstate. Well, gee, forget that.

At this point, I was feeling pretty confident that no one could beat Allstate, but I decided to go ahead and respond to the other e-mail too. (Even if I didn't find a better rate, I'd still get some points for taking the offer.) This one was from a site called NetQuote. I received four quotes through this site, two by e-mail and two by phone. One of the e-mailed ones was from Traveler's, and interestingly, it didn't match either of the quotes I'd received from them previously. It was nearly twice as high as the one I'd received from RateKick, but significantly lower than the one I'd received from the Traveler's website. To add to the confusion, one of the two phone calls I got was from an independent agent, and he said that the best price he could find for the policy I wanted was with Traveler's—and the price he quoted me was different from any of the others I'd seen. However, neither it nor any of the other quotes could match Allstate's price, so I figured it was safe to conclude that we weren't going to find a better price anywhere else.

Having reached this satisfactory conclusion, I thought I might as well check our homeowners' insurance rate as well. For this, I used yet another e-mail offer, this one from a site called InsureMyHome4Less, which worked much like NetQuote. I got two phone calls from agents, one from Farmers and one from Liberty Mutual, and neither one could come close to the rate we get from our current insurer, New Jersey Manufacturers. However, things got a little more complicated when the agents mentioned that I could get a better rate on homeowners' insurance if I switched my auto insurance to them as well. If we did this with Liberty Mutual, the rate for homeowners' insurance would still be a bit higher than the rate with NJM—but the rate for auto insurance would now be lower than Allstate's. So for the two policies together, we'd end up paying about $140 less than we're paying now. Hmmm. Was that a big enough savings to justify the hassle of switching both policies?

Brian was skeptical about this offer, reminding me that when we first bought this house, Liberty Mutual initially told us they could insure us and then recanted, saying they wouldn't write a policy on an house within 10 miles of a coast. I e-mailed the agent to inquire and he explained that the policy had been changed; the limit was now 5 miles, and since we live 7 miles away from Raritan Bay, there should be no problem. However, Brian was still hesitant about it. All the hassles we'd gone through recently with Verizon made him reluctant to switch our business away from a company that, up until now, we'd had no trouble with—especially when the savings to be gained was fairly small. If switching our business could have cut our rates in half, that would be a no-brainer, but this would only be about a 10 percent savings. He wasn't entirely comfortable with that trade-off.

There was still one more possibility to consider: perhaps we could get just as good a deal by switching our auto insurance to NJM, or our homeowners' policy to Allstate. That wouldn't require us to switch both policies, and either way we'd be giving our business to a company we already knew and trusted. Unfortunately, when I contacted NJM for an auto quote, it came back quite a bit higher than Allstate's, and when I asked Allstate about combining our policies, they said they don't offer any discount for that. The agent indicated that the company was looking into it and might start offering a discount next year, but at this point it wouldn't be possible. So perhaps the thing to do is set all these quotes aside for one more year and then see whether we can consolidate everything with Allstate. If their rates for homeowners' insurance are as competitive as they are for auto insurance, we might get a better deal than we have now without the hassle of multiple switches.

Meanwhile, a bit of advice for anyone who's considering buying any sort of policy from Traveler's: make sure you double-check the price before you sign anything. It might have changed in the past half hour.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Found objects

While digging out the base for our new patio, we dug up quite a lot of rocks along with the clay. Some of these just got tossed onto the pile with all the concrete chunks, but I made a point of saving all the smooth, roundish ones that were at least a few inches long. I'd found these useful in the past for landscaping projects; the bed where our raspberries are now, which we originally dug out as a rhubarb patch several years ago, yielded a large collection of stones that I eventually turned into a border for our day lilies in the front yard. So I was pretty sure I could come up with a good use for these round rocks, even if I didn't have a specific one in mind.

Within a week, a suitable use suggested itself. Our cherry bushes, neglected during the week we spent working on the patio, had begun to become overgrown with weeds, some of which were nearly as tall as the bushes themselves. Moreover, the boundary between the "lawn" (if you can call it that when it's more weeds than grass) and the mulched area surrounding the bushes had become fuzzy as the weeds gradually impinged more and more on the mulch. So I thought it would be a good idea to add a border that would create a clear line of demarcation between the area belonging to the cherries, which should be kept as free of weeds as possible, and the lawn, in which the weeds could be allowed to roam free. An added advantage of this plan was that it meant the rocks, some of which were quite large, only needed to be moved a few yards across the yard, rather than hauled all the way out to the front or side yard.

To do this, though, I had to get the mulched area cleared of weeds first, or it wouldn't be clear where the weeds were meant to leave off and the mulch to begin. So I devoted a rather sweaty hour last weekend to yanking up as many weeds as I could manage to root out from under the mulch. Then I grabbed one of our big cocoa butter buckets and started filling it up with the rocks we'd mined from the patio area, making a couple of trips to transport them all to the other side of the yard and pile them up beside the cherry patch.

Monday marked the beginning of the big East Coast heat wave, so I spread the work on the new border out over a couple of days, working only for half an hour at a time in the cooler morning hours. The biggest rocks were the hardest to move, so I left them near the middle and spread the rest out in no particular order along the lawn/mulch boundary. The final result isn't perfectly straight or perfectly even, but it looks much tidier than it did, and we still have some rocks left over in case we need to expand it at any point.

By the way, those two big rocks in the middle actually aren't the largest we pulled out of the patio area. The very biggest one was literally larger than my head—far too large to be incorporated into the border, and really too large for me even to move over to the other side of the yard. So I ended up just rolling it a little way and leaving it propped up against the pole that supports the clothesline. It shouldn't be too much in the way there, and maybe it can come in handy as a sort of a little table to rest the laundry basket on, or even a place to sit.

Monday, July 15, 2013

How we ended up with cable

I've always taken a sort of perverse, reverse-snobbish pride in the fact that I've never had cable TV. Back when Brian first moved in with me, we bought a bare-bones "basic broadcast" package that included only the network channels, but when we discovered that we could tune in most of these with a $20 indoor antenna, we dropped even that. Since then, the options for finding video entertainment online have mushroomed. With the help of our little media spud computer, we can now watch just about any show that interests us, from "Downton Abbey" to "Auction Hunters," without paying a dime. (Well, okay, we do have to pay to get "A Game of Thrones" on DVD.) And through our use of Hulu, we've enjoyed interesting shows that we might never have come across otherwise, such as the Hulu-exclusive miniseries "The Booth at the End," and older shows that are no longer available over the airwaves, such as "Hill Street Blues." Indeed, with such a wealth of free entertainment to choose from, I've often wondered why anyone ever pays for cable at all.

So how, then, did we end up subscribed to cable?

Well, it's a long story. It all started one fateful Wednesday last month, when our phone suddenly stopped working. We contacted Verizon to get it fixed, and they couldn't give us an appointment any sooner than the following Tuesday. And that Saturday, it suddenly started working again. There was still a pronounced hum on the line, but we could in fact make and receive calls, so we canceled our repair appointment, thinking everything was back to normal. And so it was until the following Friday, when the phone suddenly stopped working again. This time we only had to wait five days for the first available appointment—but it was a particularly inconvenient time to be without a phone, as our cat was in the hospital and our Patio Project was just about to commence. Fortunately, we had an old cell phone with a couple of months' worth of stored-up credit on it, so we plugged that in and gave the number to the vet and the folks at Belle Mead Co-Op, as well as friends and family who might need to reach us. And on Wednesday morning, we left a note on the door to notify the Verizon repair person that if we didn't answer on the door, we'd be in the back yard, working on the patio.

We needn't have bothered. Our appointment was scheduled for some time between 8am and noon, but noon came and went with no sign of a repair person. We kept going inside to check the phone and see if maybe it had fixed itself again, but nope, the phone still wasn't working; Verizon had simply decided not to honor its appointment. Nor did they make any attempt to e-mail me or to call on either our old or our new cell phone number, both of which we'd provided to them, to apologize for the delay or to schedule a new appointment. They just blew us clean off.

It was at that point that we decided that we were through with Verizon. Even if they did eventually manage to get our phone fixed, it would be too little, too late.

So we started looking into other alternatives for phone service. I'd toyed before with the idea of switching over to some sort of VoIP in order to save money, but I'd always been unwilling to give up the security of a phone that we could count on to keep working during a power outage. However, given that we no longer seemed to be able to count on it to keep working when there wasn't a power outage, that didn't seem like much of an advantage anymore. So I consulted the ConsumerSearch report on VoIP services, and I found that we had two reasonable options: we could get service from our local cable provider (there is only one), or we could get a device called an Ooma, which costs about $150 up-front, but which allows you to make unlimited calls over the Internet basically free of charge. (You still have to pay government fees and taxes, but that's only a few bucks a month.) The Ooma would definitely have cost us less in the long run, but when we compared reviews for it and for the VoIP service provided by our cable company, it looked like we were likely to get better voice quality and reliability with Cablevision. So we gave them a call to get ourselves set up with phone service.

We strongly suspected, when we placed the call, that they would try to sell us on their package service: phone, cable, and Internet combined. We were already getting letters in the mail an average of once every two weeks offering to sell us this package at $85 a month for a year—but if you looked at the fine print, you'd see that this price was actually available only to people who were switching over from another TV service. For us, it would actually cost about $100 a month—and even that price would only be guaranteed for the first year. So I wasn't at all surprised, when I started talking to the customer service rep, that the first thing he did was try to sell me on the 3-way package. What did surprise me was that he said he could give us the $85-a-month price for it, even if we weren't switching over from another provider. This would actually be $5 less per month than it would cost us to buy just the phone service and high-speed Internet separately. Brian was still suspicious and wanted to know whether it would be possible to cancel the cable when the price went up at the end of that first year. Yes, the rep assured us, we could cancel at any time. So at that point, we were in a bit of a quandary. It was all well and good to refuse to pay even a few dollars extra for cable when we knew we didn't need it, but were we actually willing to pay a few dollars extra not to have it? My penny-pinching instincts rebelled. I think Brian would still have held out for phone and Internet only, even at the higher price, just because he didn't really trust them to let us drop the cable when the time came—but he became convinced that trying to persuade them to give it to us was going to be far more work than just agreeing to the three-part package.

So, last Tuesday (ironically, one day after Verizon finally got our landline working again), a very competent guy from the cable company came out and started hooking things up and testing and tweaking, and by the end of the day, we were the proud owners (or at least temporary stewards) of a newer cable modem, a cable box, a fancy new remote with more buttons than I ever thought I'd need, and a little pink book that explained how to use everything. Everything worked fine, so at first blush, it looked like this deal had worked out entirely to our advantage. However, as Brian pointed out, there are two ways it could backfire on us. The second-worst-case scenario is that we might fail to cancel the cable service before our discount period runs out, in which case we'd have to pay about $15 extra for one month of all three services. But that's less than the $60 we'll save over the course of the year by combining the three, so we'd still come out ahead. The real worst-case scenario, and obviously the one the cable company is hoping for, is that by the time the year runs out, we'll be hooked on cable and won't want to drop it.

I agree that this would be unfortunate, but I also have to say it doesn't seem very likely. So far we've spent about an hour playing around with the new system, skimming through the literally hundreds of channels it includes, and we've found less than a dozen we might conceivably watch—and most of those we wouldn't watch for more than one show. In theory, for example, we could tune into Bravo to watch the next season of Project Runway as it airs, instead of waiting an extra day to see each episode on But if we did this, we'd actually have to watch the show when it's on: Thursday night at 9pm, which conflicts with our Morris dance practice. So it's actually much easier for us to keep watching it online. And even for shows we could supposedly watch when they air, like Auction Hunters (Wednesdays at 9, starting in January), what's the advantage? When we watch them online, we can watch any episode we choose at any time. Why tie ourselves down to the network's schedule?

So on the whole, I'm expecting that having cable for this next year won't really change our lives much. We might scroll through the channels now and then to see what's on; it's just possible we might even discover a new show that we like that way. But chances are, even if we do, we'll soon switch to watching that show online, on our own schedule. And when the year is up, I fully expect to return to my cable-free lifestyle without hesitation or regret. In fact, right now I feel like the one thing I think we've really gained from our experiment with having cable is proof that we don't need it.

I do realize that a lot can change in a year, of course. But unless one of the changes 2013-14 brings is dramatically better programming that's available exclusively on cable, I don't think there will be any problems.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Patio Project, Stage 7: Filling

As I mentioned in my previous entry, when we finished laying the patio pavers on Sunday, Brian attempted to fill in the cracks between them with stone dust, since we had plenty of it left over. However, it turned out to be much too coarse for the purpose. Most of it just ended up sitting on the surface, and neither the broom nor the hose could force it into the cracks. So we came to the conclusion that we'd need something finer, and on Monday, we stopped by the Aldi and picked up a couple of bags of playground sand. (They also had something called "masonry sand," which we might have been inclined to think was most suitable for our purposes, but upon close examination, the playground sand turned out to be finer and also slightly cheaper.)

As soon as we got home, Brian dusted the patio with it and found that it worked much better than the stone dust. However, he also found that a single once-over with the broom wasn't going to be enough to fill in all the cracks. He'd pour sand over an area, sweep it carefully into all the crevices, run over it with the hose, and find that the wet sand had sunk into the cracks without a trace, leaving them just as visible as before. So it looks like getting them filled in is going to be a gradual process—adding one layer of sand at a time, sweeping it in, and hosing it down until the cracks won't absorb any more.

He did, however, make a little more progress toward filling in the much bigger gaps that we'd left around the edges of the patio. Since we still had plenty of fill dirt piled up from the excavation phase, he just scooped up a couple of shovelfuls, dumped it into the cracks, and packed it down. It doesn't exactly look seamless, but
at least it keeps the edges of the patio from wobbling. Eventually we'll get the whole area re-seeded, but the lady at Home Depot advised us to wait until fall if possible, because grass doesn't like to grow in hot weather. So in the meantime, we'll just have a patch of lawn that's a bit straggly and brown, rather than filled with lush, green weeds as high as our knees. Works for me.

So, that about wraps it up for the Patio Project. We've still got all those piles to dispose of, of course, and I'll fill you in on how that goes in future entries, but that's really a separate project—tidying up the yard, rather than constructing the patio. Now all we need is some furniture to put on it, which I'm sure is another topic that will pop up in future posts. (Based on my observations back in 2012, I suspect that IKEA will be the way to go.)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Patio Project, Stage 6: Pavers

As of Friday evening, the good news was that we had the gravel and the stone dust in place and we were finally ready to start putting down pavers. The bad news was that the forecast for the weekend called for temperatures in the 90s, high humidity, and "abundant sunshine". And the back of our house, where we'd be working, would be in full sun until around 2pm. So, rather than risk heatstroke, we decided to shift our work schedule. We spent the morning puttering around the house, taking care of various jobs we'd been too busy to deal with all week long. Only around 1:30, when the shadow of the house had crept out to a distance of about 3 feet from the wall, did we venture out and start actually handling the pavers.

When we first started out, I actually thought it was conceivable that we might be able to lay the entire patio in one day. After all, when we'd first acquired these pavers from Freecycle three years back, we'd actually moved every single paver in the pile three times in one day: once from the original owner's yard to the back of his pickup, which he kindly offered to use to help us with the hauling; once from the back of the pickup to our driveway; and once from the driveway down to the back yard, where they've been piled ever since. (We might have chosen let them sit in the driveway overnight and move them the next day, but a passing neighbor spotted the pile and said, "Hey, are you going to use those pavers?" and we figured we'd better relocate the pile quickly to save it from possible scavengers.)

However, as with every other stage of this project, there turned out to be complications. Moving the pavers was simple enough, but laying them down wasn't. Although the pattern we'd chosen was a simple basket weave, which required no cutting or complicated fitting, it turned out that our secondhand pavers weren't quite uniform in size and shape. So we couldn't just plunk down two vertical ones and then two horizontal ones; we had to carefully select and position pavers so they'd fit into a given space. We also ended up rejecting several of the pavers in our pile—perhaps as many as one in twenty—because they were too badly damaged. Fortunately, we'd chosen a patio size that we knew we'd have more than enough pavers to cover.

Since laying the pavers was such a fiddly job, Brian ended up devoting himself to that part of the work full-time. He sat on the slowly growing patio, testing different pavers for size, aligning them with another piece of two-by-four, and when necessary, pounding them into place with a mallet, while I went back and forth to the pile fetching more pavers for him to work with. Ironically, this meant that I was the one doing the heavy work—especially toward the beginning of the afternoon, when the patio area itself was in shade but the paver pile wasn't. But as the day wore on, the shade extended all the way across the yard, and by evening we were both working in relative comfort, aside from occasional mosquito attacks. So we took advantage of the cooler temperature by working right through our normal dinner hour, finally calling a halt to the work around 8pm.

Unlike Stages 4 and 5, which started on the far side of the patio and worked their way back, this part of the job began in the corner by the patio door. Back in Stage 3 (Excavation), Brian took the opportunity to pry out the cracked concrete that was supporting the threshold of the patio door, as you can see in this picture. So during Stages 4 and 5, the only support under the door was a thin, weathered strip of wood with a note on it saying "Watch the Step" to remind us not to put our weight on it. Thus, getting the pavers into place under that door was our first priority. Also, since the bricks used in this corner would have to slip under the wooden threshold, it made sense to place them first, while we still had room to maneuver, and then work our way forward.

Once we had a row of bricks in place under the threshold, Brian worked his way down the shorter edge of the patio that aligned with the edge of the door. We'd dug the pit a little bit on the big side to leave room for an edging if we chose to add one, so Brian stuck that perennially useful two-by-four along the edge of the newly forming patio to align the bricks. After that, he started worked his way along a diagonal path, extending gradually outward from the original rows.By the end of our first day on the job, we had more than half the pavers in place.

Unfortunately, any hopes that this would allow us to finish the job quickly on Sunday were quickly scotched. The task of fitting the pavers into place got more and more complicated as it went on, since the small dissimilarities in size between them magnified with each row, to the point where they required Brian to search for bricks of a specific size to fit into a given spot and make up the difference. Also, several of the bricks split when tested and had to be rejected. Moreover, Sunday was even hotter than Saturday, and although we once again waited to start work until the back of the patio itself was in shade, the paver pile was still in full, blazing sun. I had to stop for frequent breaks, and toward the end of the day I found myself constantly checking and re-checking the number of bricks I had left to haul. At last, around 6pm, the number ticked down to zero, and I was able to go inside, dump my clothes in the washer, and head upstairs for a shower, leaving Brian to finish laying the last few bricks.

So, we did manage—just—to get the bulk of this patio finished in the week that I allotted for the job. Of course, that doesn't mean that our work here is done; we still have to spread more sand to fill in the gaps between the bricks, and add more dirt to fill in the gaps around the edges and smooth out the surface of the hill that we created with our sod bricks. And since that won't come close to using up all the dirt that we excavated in Stage 3, we also have to figure out a way to dispose of the rest of our huge pile of dirt...

...and our big pile of concrete chunks...

...and the leftover bricks that didn't get used in the patio...

...and the leftover gravel and stone dust. 

But we do at least have, at this point, the basic outline of a patio. Brian actually went so far as to set up the grill Sunday night on the nearly-finished patio and haul a card table and two folding chairs out there so that we could dine on the terrace. The terrace in question may have been covered in stone dust (which he had attempted to sweep into the cracks before determining that a finer grade of sand would be needed) and swarming with mosquitoes, but we'd spent all week building that patio, and by gum, we were going to use it.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Patio Project, Stage 5: Sand

In tonight's performance, the role of "sand" will be played by stone dust.

Actually, this turned out to be the most straightforward part of the whole project. Yes, we still had to use the wheelbarrow and the ramp to haul stone dust down to the patio, but the dust was a lot easier to shovel than the gravel. We did inevitably find ourselves picking up a few bigger bits of stone in each shovelful, but we just picked them out by hand and dropped them into a bucket. No doubt we'll find a use for this leftover stone eventually—perhaps as a weed barrier in some part of the garden.

Brian decided to put down the layer of stone dust using a slightly different method from the previous stage of the project. With the gravel, we filled up the entire cavity first and then worked on leveling the piles. With the stone dust, however, we dumped just a couple of loads at a time and then screeded them, using short lengths of two-by-four and molding to create a reasonably level surface. This way, we didn't need to stand or sit on one dust-covered area in order to smooth out the area next to it. We were also able to keep an eye on the thickness of the sand layer as we worked and make sure that it was at roughly the recommended 1-inch depth. (If we'd filled in the whole thing at once, we wouldn't have been able to see where the top of the sand was in relation to the gravel underneath.) So we started at the far end and worked our way back to the near end where the ramp was, until at last we could remove the ramp and dump the last loads straight into the pit.

This whole process went much faster than I expected. The only complication we encountered was that as we swept our screed boards over the dust, they'd occasionally knock loose a buried piece of gravel, which would leave a furrow in the dust layer below. So we'd just pick these out by hand, toss them in another bucket, and fill in the gaps with more stone dust. We were actually able to fill in the entire area with stone dust by the end of the day on Friday, and on Saturday we just made a few adjustments: checking the level, removing the corner stakes, adding more dust where needed, and tamping it down. In fact, this whole stage was done so quickly that I never managed to get a picture of it while it was in progress, but I did get a shot of the the end result: a (reasonably) smooth layer of stone dust, neatly tamped and ready to accept the first pavers. It's almost a patio!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Patio Project, Stage 4: Gravel

Having completed the excavation of the patio foundation on Wednesday morning, our next job was to fill it up with gravel to a depth of 4 inches. This phase of the Great Patio Project spread across three days, as we knocked off work early on Thursday to go celebrate the Glorious Fourth with friends. Loading in gravel might seem like a more straightforward job than the digging, which ended up turning into a sort of terraforming project, but once again, there were complications. Three complications in particular slowed down the work.

Complication #1: The slope of our yard isn't confined to the back yard. In fact, it slopes even more steeply from front to back, so that our back door is down one level from our front door. The only way to get from front yard to back is through the side yard, down a short, steep flight of concrete steps. This, of course, made it impossible for our truckload of gravel and stone dust to be dumped anywhere near the site of the future patio. It had to be dumped out in our driveway, and we had to cart it down by hand. We bought a small wheelbarrow (about 4 cubic feet in capacity) for about $35 at Home Depot, but that was only a partial solution, because a wheelbarrow obviously isn't designed to go down stairs. So Brian built a ramp out of scrap wood. However, his first test run with it revealed that it didn't offer enough traction for him to push a wheelbarrow down it and maintain control of it. So he modified the ramp by first pushing it to one side, so that he could keep one foot on the steps, and then applying some strips of traction tape that we bought for our basement stairs and ended up not using. This worked okay until dust started to build up on the ramp, making it slippery again. So it became my job, after Brian pushed the wheelbarrow down the ramp, to wipe it down with a damp rag and keep it as dust-free as possible. The traction strips started to peel off around the edges by the end of the second day of work, but it held up long enough for us to get all the gravel into the pit.

Complication #2: Remember how we saved the cost of an extra delivery fee by having the gravel and stone dust delivered in a single load? Well, the down side of this was that the gravel and stone dust ended up in a single pile, with the dust more or less on top—and the gravel was what we needed to use first. We could get at the gravel from one side of the pile, so we started there, but even there the gravel and stone dust had mixed to the point that we were invariably getting some of each in every scoop. To add to the muddle, we received our shipment of gravel on Monday morning in pouring rain, so the pile was thoroughly sodden. This meant that instead of just shoveling gravel, we were shoveling lumps of gravel in a matrix of wet stone dust. The term "stone dust," incidentally, is a bit misleading; its texture resembles nothing so much as clay cat litter. So the wheelbarrow, our shovels, and our work gloves all gradually built up a thick layer of cement-like grey mud, which made them heavier and heavier as we worked, so we had to stop periodically to rinse them. Also, the excess water made the material denser and harder to lift, so each shovelful contained a smaller volume than it would have if the gravel had been dry. All this slowed down the shoveling process, and it slowed still more on the second day, when we hit the point where what we could reach on top of the pile was mostly stone dust. After that point, we had to interrupt our shoveling to attempt to scoop the stone dust off the top of the big pile into separate, smaller piles to get at the gravel underneath. We pushed it around with the shovels and even sifted it through our fingers to remove the big lumps. We suspect there's still at least a bit of gravel buried under the stone dust we have left, but we got to a point where we had to just declare that we'd dug out all the gravel we reasonably could dig.

Complication #3: All those blocks of sod that we piled up around the edges of the patio pit in Stage 3 made a rather bumpy slope over which it was difficult to push the wheelbarrow. Brian fixed this initially by taking a piece of plywood that he'd been using as a worktable (propped up on a pair of sawhorses in the shop) and using it as a ramp to get the wheelbarrow over the turf pile and then dump it off the edge into the pit. However, there were two problems with this system. First, in order to get to the ramp, he had to push the wheelbarrow all the way around to the far edge of the pit, which was the one path that wouldn't take him over any of the turf piles. And second, he could only dump the gravel around the edges of the pit, and we needed to fill the whole area. So eventually he chose a spot on the near edge of the pit where he could manage to push the wheelbarrow up the rough slope, or steps, formed by the sod blocks, and repositioned the ramp so that it led down into the pit from there. He could then dump wheelbarrow-loads of gravel all throughout the pit, working his way in and back from the far edge.

By time we knocked off work on the second day, we had the pit completely filled with piles of gravel. Our challenge then was to turn these hills and valleys into a plain running roughly three inches below the line that we'd marked as ground level for the finished patio. We started out by walking on the piles to squish them down, and then we went to work with shovels and rakes and implements of destruction, pushing gravel from the mounds into the troughs. Then Brian got out a two-by-four he'd bought for the purpose and laid it across the surface with his level on top. This allowed him to check whether the overall surface of the gravel bed was sloping in the right direction, and also to identify any peaks and valleys that were still visible under the line of the two-by-four. So we repeatedly measured and tweaked, pushing a few lumps of gravel this way and that, until we had a roughly even surface. Then, for the final stage, we got out our tamper tool, purchased specifically for this project at Lowe's. Basically, it's just a flat, heavy metal plate attached to a long wooden handle, which you use to pound down the gravel bed so that it's as flat and firmly packed as possible.

The tamper is the one tool that we bought specifically and exclusively for the patio project; the wheelbarrow, though essential for this project, will also be a handy thing to have in the future. The tamper, by contrast, can only do one job, and it's a job we only expect to do once. But for this one job, you really can't do without it, so it was 30 bucks well spent. And as you can see above, by the middle of the day on Friday, we had a nice, level bed of gravel, on which we could begin piling our stone dust to make a cushion for the pavers. And since the stone dust is a lot easier to shovel than the gravel, we're likely to get through Stage 5 a lot faster than Stage 4.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Patio Project, Stage 3: Excavation

Technically, I guess Measurement should be listed as a separate stage before Excavation, but as it turned out, the measurements we took affected the digging process and, in fact, ended up turning it into a combination of digging out and building up. So I'm lumping all three stages together.

You see, our handy patio guide explains that to create a foundation for your patio, you need to excavate the entire area to a depth of 7 inches. Sounds simple enough. However, there are a couple of additional parameters: first, you want the patio to slope slightly away from the house, at a rate of about one quarter-inch of drop per foot of length, so that water will run off. And second, for the same reason, you want the surface of the patio to be slightly above, or at least no lower than, ground level. Now, if you're starting with a nice level surface, this is simple enough: you just dig slightly deeper on the far side than on the near side. But if you're attempting to build a patio that's only slightly sloped in a yard that already slopes significantly in two different directions, you can run into complications.

This picture can give you a rough idea of the problem. The four corners of the patio should be right next to the door, right below the window, and about ten feet out from each of those points. The problem is that the ground slopes down from the window to the door, and slopes even more steeply heading outward from the house. For drainage reasons, the patio couldn't be below ground level at the window, and for more obvious reasons, it couldn't be above ground level at the door. And while having the patio slope away from the house was fine, the appropriate amount of slope for its size would be about 2.5 inches—but the actual difference in ground level was more like 7 inches on the window side and more than 10 inches on the door side.

So how did we fix the problem? Well, you notice how, in the picture, the turf in the foreground looks kind of like stacked blocks, rather than a smooth slope? That's because it is.

Actually, we'd already been wondering about how we would deal with a second problem in the excavation phase of this project: where to put all the dirt we'd be digging up. And since the top layer of dirt that we removed was in the form of nice, neat rectangles of turf, Brian came up with the idea of stacking these blocks around the edges of the patio to make a wall, so that the four corners of the patio would be closer to level. In other words, instead of digging down to an even depth of 7 inches, we'd be building up the edges in the areas where the ground level was too low. We made the wall highest right at the edge of the patio, then gradually dropped off its height as it extended outward into the yard, as you can see here. So Stage 3 of the Patio Project ended up being not just excavation, but also terraforming.

This idea kind of killed three birds with one stone. It solved our slope problem, it gave us a use for the excess squares of sod, and best of all, it reduced the amount of dirt that we actually had to remove to get down to the recommended 7-inch depth. Which turned out to be a very good thing, because while removing and stacking the blocks of turf was hard work, it was a picnic compared to digging out the clay subsoil underneath. The how-to-make-a-patio guides all just gloss over this part of the process, blithely saying, "Dig the patio 7" deep," as if this were a straightforward procedure. And maybe it is for people with normal soil, but our soil is so dense that you can't just scoop it up with a shovel; you have to more or less chisel it out, chopping at the solid mass with a spade and then ramming the shovel into the pile once it's been loosened. Once again, our heavy-duty King of Spades proved indispensable for breaking up the hard-packed dirt. We also had to pause repeatedly to dig out rocks that blocked the path of the shovel—ranging from no bigger than a golf ball, so that you had to wonder how something that small could stop a metal blade dead in its tracks, to one that that was literally as big as my head. It took both of us to heft the thing over the edge of the newly dug hole.

So, with the combination of rain delays on Monday, the added work of stacking sod bricks, and the heavy-duty soil we had to bore through, it took us until around noon today just to finish this stage of the project. But we finally did get the entire hole dug out and lined with garden fabric, held down with metal staples that look like miniature cricket wickets. (Our soil is so dense that even pounding the staples in was a challenge; Brian kept hitting places where they simply refused to be driven into the ground, even by a blow from an eight-pound hammer. He finally ended up moving them around until he hit a spot soft enough to push them in.) The bit of rubble that was left over from the concrete pad we broke up last week got shoved out to the edges—particularly the far right corner, which ended up being lower than the rest of the hole even though we'd removed nothing except the outer turf. We figured the bits of concrete would add a little bulk to help build up the foundation in that area.

And there you have it: a big hole in the ground, ready to be filled with gravel and stone dust from the massive pile sitting out in our driveway. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of The Patio Project, when you'll hear Amy say, "You load four and a half tons and what do you get...."

Monday, July 1, 2013

The laundry lowdown

Work on the patio has commenced, but due to a combination of weather delays and protesting muscles, we weren't able to complete Phase Three (Excavation) today. So I'll wait to fill you in on that job when it's done, and instead give you an update on a much longer-term project that was just completed today: tracking our laundry detergent use.

As you may recall, way back in January I made a note of the date on a newly opened bottle of detergent. This idea was inspired by the frequent posts I kept coming across on frugality websites (such as this one at The Simple Dollar) about the benefits of making your own laundry detergent. I was skeptical about this, because it didn't seem to me that laundry detergent could possibly be a big enough expense for us to make it worth the trouble of mixing up our own. But I figured I couldn't be sure exactly how much we pay for detergent in a year without tracking the amount of time it takes us to go through a bottle. And as of today, I have the answer: exactly 24 weeks.

Now, admittedly, this is actually a much shorter period than I was expecting. There are several possible reasons why I might have "misunderestimated" our detergent use, as our former president would say. Perhaps we actually do more loads of laundry per week, on average, than the 1.5 I estimated in my initial post. Or perhaps I actually use more detergent in each load than the one-third to one-half a capful I thought I was using. Or perhaps the detergent manufacturer is actually exaggerating when they claim that a 50-ounce bottle is enough to wash 32 loads, using a full capful each time. Or maybe it's a combination of all three.

However, it turns out that while my estimate of how long each bottle lasts us was low, my estimate of how much each bottle costs us was high. I said that we "usually find it on sale at about $2 for a 50-ounce bottle," and that's true—but detergent is also one of the few items for which we consistently manage to stack sales with coupons. So not only can we usually find a brand of detergent we like (basically, any brand that's unscented) for $2.00 a bottle, but we can usually combine that sale with a $1-off coupon, or a 50-cents-off coupon that doubles. So our actual cost is only $1.00 per bottle. And at that price, even if we go through a bottle every 24 weeks, our total detergent cost for the year is only $2.17.

Now let's compare this with the results achieved by Trent, the blogger at The Simple Dollar, when he tried mixing his own laundry detergent. He spent a total of $6.97 on the ingredients (factoring in water and fuel costs). He estimates that these ingredients are enough for "at least six batches," each of which will wash 52 loads of laundry, making his cost per load around 2.2 cents. Now, if my initial estimate of 1.5 loads of laundry per week is accurate for our household, then our one-dollar bottle of detergent washes 36 loads of laundry, making our cost per load about 2.8 cents. So switching from sale-priced detergent to homemade could, in theory, save us 0.6 cents per load—which works out to about 47 cents a year. That's pretty far off from Trent's estimated savings of $65.08 a year.

In reality, though, our savings is probably even less than that. As I noted above, it's likely that we are actually doing more than 1.5 loads of laundry per week, because we went through the bottle of detergent much faster than we should have if that were the case. So assuming conservatively that we actually do around two loads per week, our one-dollar bottle of detergent is actually getting us through 48 loads, at a cost of just under 2.1 cents per load. In other words, we're actually paying slightly less for our sale-priced detergent than Trent is paying for his homemade stuff.

Moreover, even if we could save a whole 47 cents a year by making homemade detergent, we'd have to go through the process of mixing up a batch every six months. Trent's recipe calls for grating up a bar of soap by hand, then stirring it bit by bit into a pot of simmering water, and pouring the whole mess into a big bucket along with three gallons of warm water, a cup of washing soda, and half a cup of Borax. This whole process couldn't possibly take less than fifteen minutes, counting the time needed to wash the pot out afterwards. So we'd be spending half an hour per year making detergent in order to save 47 cents, earning a princely wage of 94 cents an hour for our efforts. Moreover, we'd be washing our clothes with what Trent describes as "some slimy-feeling water with various sized pieces of white gelatinous stuff floating in it," which has to be dipped up by the cupful out of a five-gallon bucket (which we'd have to find room to store somewhere in our laundry room). Am I the only one who has better things to do with my time?

The moral of this story, I think, is that advice on saving money should always be taken with a healthy dose of salt. People who write articles for save-money newsletters and blogs know they aren't going to excite anyone by claiming that an idea can save you a few dollars per year, so they are liable to make the most generous estimates possible in order to maximize their claims about how much you can save. Trent, for instance, came up with his estimate that his homemade laundry detergent would save $65.08 per year based on the assumption that you are doing one load of laundry per day—and that if you weren't using his homemade mix, you'd be using Tide with Bleach to the tune of 20 cents per load. For us, both these assumptions were way off base. So whenever you see a claim like this, it's worth taking a minute to think it through, and maybe even crunch some numbers, to see whether the claim is reasonable, bogus, or somewhere in between.