Monday, September 30, 2013

Renaissance Festival Bingo

As I've mentioned in previous posts, last weekend and I Brian attended the Maryland Renaissance Festival with some friends who live in the area. At $22 a ticket, this is not exactly the most frugal form of entertainment, but the real hazard to your wallet comes once you pass through the fairground gates: there's a whole host of vendors inside on the lookout for the chance to part you from your hard-earned ducats. Food booths line the grounds, selling both legitimate Renaissance fare like sausages and beer and decidedly non-period goodies such as ice cream cones. (Turkey legs are also a perennial favorite, even though the turkey cock wasn't introduced into England until the 1540s—well after the joint reign of Henry VIII and Catharine of Aragon, who presided over the court at this festival.) Food sellers also wander through the crowd plying their wares, from pretzels to sweetened nuts (in authentic Renaissance plastic bags, of course). Merchants in their stalls hawk goods of every kind: period costumes, armor and weapons, games, musical instruments, pottery, wood carving, metalwork. Games masters invite you to try your skill at archery, skittles, and contests of strength, all for a modest fee. If you spent an entire day at this event, you could easily end up spending two or three times what you paid to get in.

Fortunately, there's also plenty to see and do without spending any extra cash. The festival has a huge array of entertainers—some on stage at specific times, others wandering through the crowd—but one of the best diversions the festival has to offer is the people-watching. So for this Festival, to help keep myself occupied and reduce the temptations of the merchants, I decided to make a game of it: Renaissance Festival Bingo. I first came up with the idea when I was researching ideas for cheap Renaissance garb for women and I came upon the instructions for making your very own duct-tape corset. I made a mental note to keep an eye out for anyone wearing one of those at the fair, and then I started thinking of other things it might be amusing to look for, and after a while I decided to try and fill a whole Bingo card with them.

Some of my Bingo items proved much harder to get than I had expected, while others were much easier. For example, Brian proposed "glitter on cleavage," which was apparently a hugely popular accessory at the Renaissance Faire he'd attended in California—but while cleavage was as much in evidence as ever at this festival, we didn't see a single wench adorning hers with glitter. "Steampunk," by contrast, was one that we threw in more or less on a whim, thinking that there might be one or two people who opted to wear their steampunk garb to the Renaissance Festival in spite of the fact that it belongs to a fantasy world of a completely different historical period. Yet to our surprise, we saw huge numbers of people in steampunk costume, some of it very elaborate indeed. Steampunk costumes were much more popular than such period-appropriate fantasy costumes as fairies and elves, and perennial Renn Faire types such as gypsies and pirates were hardly in evidence at all. One idea that we actually considered for the Bingo card and then rejected was "Starfleet uniforms," thinking that surely no one would wear a costume from the 23rd or 24th century to an event set in the 16th—yet we saw three of them. The Doctor (as in Doctor Who) was also on the scene, although only in his current incarnation—but then, since he's a time traveler, he's period-appropriate in any setting.

Sounds, as well as sights, were harder to find than I'd expected. I heard only one "Huzzah!" in the whole afternoon we spent at the Festival, and I didn't hear a single incidence of such mangled Renaissance grammar as "How dost I look?" I also didn't encounter a single sourpuss complaining about clothing, music, foodstuffs, or anything else being "not period"—even though we did come across such obvious anomalies as funnel cakes, folks in full period get-up using cell phones, a bagpipe band playing "We Will Rock You," and of course, the aforementioned steampunk outfits.

Overall, we spent about four hours at the fair, and I managed to score a bingo only a few minutes before we left—and even that was perhaps a stretch, as the person we identified as dressed in a Robin Hood costume might actually have been just some sort of woodsman. But I did still fill in more than half the squares:
Duct tape corset Ironic use of modern songs Glitter on cleavage “Huzzah!” Elves
Fairies Homemade armor “That’s not period!” Jester Turkey legs
“How dost I look?” Steampunk Period garb with cell phone Robin Hood Gypsies
Funnel cakes Pirates Kilt (bonus if worn regimental) Juggling Spike heels
Japanese tourists with cameras Harry Potter Noteworthy piercings Dragons Bikini
armor
(worn)

I think this game would certainly be worth playing again, but next time I'd probably use a free bingo card generator such as this one to randomize the list for me. Perhaps that way I could make several cards, drawing from an even longer list, and include some of the additional characters that we saw last weekend—as well as a few other items that didn't make the final cut, like "period clothing with running shoes."

Friday, September 27, 2013

Breaking all the rules

Today I got the bill for my primary credit card—the one I use for everyday purchases like groceries and gas—and, as I always do, I went through it line by line, checking each purchase listed against the receipts that I'd stashed in an envelope to make sure everything matched up. I didn't find any suspicious charges, but I did find something else that interested me: of the twenty-seven individual charges included on this month's bill, eighteen were for groceries. And that wasn't even all the grocery shopping we'd done in the past month: I also found receipts in the envelope for groceries bought with cash at Aldi and at Terhune Orchards, and my expense log for the past month shows two additional cash purchases at our local farmers' market. So we have made at least 22 separate grocery purchases—counting as "groceries" any food not meant to be eaten right on the spot—in the last month. And 15 of those were purchases of $10 or less, representing trips on which which we popped into the store for just a handful of items.

Now, this is exactly the opposite of what most budgeting "experts" advise you to do. This Bankrate.com article on grocery savings, for instance, recommends that you plan a week's worth of dinners ahead of time and then make just one trip to the grocery store (thus avoiding impulse buys and taking better advantage of sales) and, at least once every three months, spend an entire week eating from your pantry and avoid visiting the store at all. Both Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar and Emily Guy Birkin of Live Like a Mensch say they plan their grocery shopping this way. Annette and Steve Economides, who describe themselves as "America's cheapest family," advocate shopping no more than once a month, arguing that quick trips invariably result in impulse purchases—in most cases, they claim, more than doubling the total purchase.

Moreover, the fact that we even use a credit card to pay for groceries is a big no-no according to some budget mavens.  This Investopedia article, for instance, claims that despite the consumer protections offered by credit and debit cards, it's "almost always" best to pay in cash, because paying in plastic makes it too easy to overspend. Michelle Singletary of The Washington Post makes the same argument about "the perils of plastic" in promoting her 21-Day Financial Fast, which I discussed on this blog last year. (As I noted at the time, financial writers and bloggers always seem more eager to pounce on the studies that show credit promotes overspending than on the ones that show the reverse.)

So in theory, at least, we're doing it exactly wrong by making frequent, small trips to the grocery store and using our credit card even for small purchases. But for us, there are several reasons why it makes sense to shop this way. First and foremost, we buy items wherever they're cheapest. If we did all our grocery shopping for the month, or even the week, in a single trip, then we'd have to buy everything we needed from just one store. Our system, by contrast, involves visiting many different stores to take advantage of the best deals at each. Just in the past month, we've visited more than half a dozen stores and picked up different bargains at each one:
  • At Trader Joe's, 2-ply recycled bath tissue for $4.50 per dozen, organic raisins for $2.99 a pound, organic sugar for $1.75 a pound, organic chicken drumsticks for $1.99 a pound, and a toothpaste that's both cruelty-free (for me) and SLS-free (for Brian) for $2.29 a tube—something we can't buy anywhere else at any price.
  • At Aldi, raisin bran for $1.51 a pound, chocolate chips for $1.79 a bag, grated parmesan for $4.78 a pound, and strawberry jam for $1.77 a pint.
  • At the Whole Earth Center, organic white mushrooms for $2.29 a pound, organic bananas for 79 cents a pound, and a Fair Trade chocolate bar for just $1.89 on sale.
  • At Shop-Rite, sale-priced orange juice (the good stuff, not from concentrate) for $1.35 a quart and mozzarella cheese (also the good stuff, sold in blocks that you grate yourself) for $1.99 a pound.
  • At Pathmark, locally grown apples for 98 cents a pound.
  • At H-Mart, free-range eggs for $2.50 a dozen and scallions for 33 cents a bunch.
  • And at our own local Stop & Shop, seltzer at 50 cents a liter and whipped cream at $3 a can.
This isn't everything we bought, of course, just the items that were particularly good deals—but everything on this list was cheaper at the place we bought it than it would have been anywhere else. If we'd tried to buy all these items, along with everything else on our list, at just one store, we would undoubtedly have spent more overall.

You might think that making all these individual trips must cost us something extra in gas. This would be true if we made each trip separately, but we don't. When we check the week's sale fliers, for instance, we don't make a special trip to any particular store unless it has several items we need—or the trip can be combined with a visit to a different store that has different items on sale. We visit the Whole Earth Center in Princeton on Thursdays, when we head down there for Morris dance practice; we stop at the Aldi en route to the same destination; when we need to hit the Trader Joe's, we either visit the Princeton store on a Thursday or the Florham Park one as part of a weekend trip to the Morristown area. And of course, the Stop & Shop being right here in town, we can go there on foot—so not only does it cost us nothing in gas, it also gives us an incentive to get some exercise.

In fact, there are some cases in which we could, theoretically, save more money the more trips we make. That's because some of the stores where we shop give us a discount for bringing our own bag (as we invariably do). Our local Stop & Shop, the one store we visit most often, has discontinued its 5-cent bag discount, but we can get 2 cents off at Shop-Rite and Pathmark, plus an impressive 10 cents for each reusable container we bring at the Whole Earth Center. Thus, if we happen to need five items from one of these stores, we actually save more money by spreading out the purchases over five separate trips and getting the bag discount each time, rather than making one trip and putting all five items in just one bag. (We don't actually plan our trips this way, because it's just not enough money to worry about, but it's still an effective counter to the argument that more shopping trips invariably add up to more money spent on each trip.)

Lastly, we actually save money by putting groceries on our credit card rather than paying in cash. That's because the card we use most often for groceries is our Chase Freedom card (the one I picked up as part of my financial tuneup in 2010), which gives us 1 cent back for every dollar we spend. Moreover, we get a whole nickel back on purchases in certain categories, which change from quarter to quarter, but at least occasionally include groceries. Thus, if we spent $750 on groceries during a three-month period when groceries were one of these special categories, using our card for every grocery purchase would save us $37.50 over the three months—certainly not a huge sum, but not a negligible one either.

Now, you may be thinking at this point that all this is well and good in theory, but how does it work out in practice? How much, in short, do we actually spend on groceries, compared to others who follow different strategies? It's a fair question, and I'll answer it as directly as I can: our average monthly spending on groceries for the two of us is $232.16. This works out to $3.87 per person per day, which, as I've noted before, is comfortably within the spending limits for SNAP (the program formerly known as Food Stamps) in our state. Our monthly grocery spending is about 87 percent of what the USDA estimates a family of two would spend under its Thrifty Food Plan (the cheapest of four possible food plans that all meet the standards for a nutritious diet). Moreover, our actual grocery spending is probably a bit lower than $232 per month, because this number includes various nonfood items purchased at grocery stores (such as the toothpaste and toilet paper I mentioned above), while the USDA's numbers are specifically meant to reflect spending on food and nothing else.

So as you can see, we don't do too badly following our many-stores shopping plan. But could we do even better by adopting the one-trip-a-week or the one-trip-a-month paradigm? Well, Trent Hamm, in his latest Simple Dollar post, estimates that he spends about $100 a week to feed his family of five. This is well below the USDA's Thrifty Plan estimate of $159 a week (assuming two adults between 19 and 50 years old and three children ranging from 3 to 7 years old). In fact, it's about 63 percent of the Thrifty Plan cutoff, which makes the Hamm family more frugal eaters than we are. However, it's worth noting that they haven't always been this thrifty: seven years ago, when they were following much the same basic shopping strategy they have now, their monthly spending was $770 for a family of four—placing them firmly in the "Moderate-Cost Food Plan" range, the second-highest of the USDA's four spending tiers. So while it clearly is possible to save a lot of money following Trent's shopping strategy, it's also clear that following it isn't guaranteed to save you money.

So basically, I think it comes down to a question of personal preference. Both Trent's family and mine now fall well within the boundaries of the Thrifty Plan, yet we follow very different shopping strategies. So clearly, it's unreasonable to say either that his approach is "right" and mine is "wrong," or vice versa; it all comes down to what works best for you. Moreover, just as the Hamm family has brought its grocery bills down significantly in the past seven years without changing its overall shopping strategy, I have no doubt that a family could spend far less than Brian and I do by following the same basic shopping strategy we have. In fact, I know it's possible, because I more or less learned this strategy from the Tightwad Gazette books by Amy Dacyczyn (all hail the Frugal Zealot!), and her family of eight (!) used to spend just 28 percent of the USDA's Thrifty Plan level. Her number puts both me and Trent to shame, but it also is oddly comforting to me, as it shows just how much room I still have for improvement—and all without any major changes in the way I currently shop.


[EDIT, 6/23/14: I just took another look at the Simple Dollar post in which Trent Hamm discussed his family's food-buying strategy, and I noted that in fact, he does not recommend making just one trip to just one store for the week's groceries. He actually says, "Most of the time, when we go grocery shopping, we make at least two stops, but the exact stores we stop at varies from week to week." So it's possible that his ability to cut his family's monthly grocery bill from $770 for four people to around $430 for five people was partly a result of his decision to shop more stores for the best deals—in other words, adjusting his shopping strategy to be a bit more like mine.]

Thursday, September 26, 2013

How smart are smartphones?

A recent article at DealNews.com lists nine electronic gadgets that, acccording to author Simon Hill, are likely to be a waste of money. Hill says that, while "it typically pays to buy slightly older devices" that cost far less than the latest models, it's silly to invest any money at all in technology that's either obsolete or clearly on its way to being so. Thus, he argues, DVDs and Blu-Rays are a waste of money because you can stream all the content you need from the Internet; thumb drives are unnecessary because you can store and transfer files via "the cloud" (which, as far as I can tell, is just "some location on the Internet that you can't exactly identify"). However, the main technology that he identifies as having supplanted a whole slew of other, older technologies at one fell swoop is the smartphone. If you have one of these, he argues, you have no need for
  • a GPS unit, because you can put Google Maps on your Android or iOS device for free;
  • a point-and-shoot camera, because smartphone cameras are just as good and make sharing easier;
  • an MP3 player, because you can play music on your phone (or tablet, or laptop);
  • a handheld gaming console, because you can play lots of casual games on your smartphone for free;
  • a camcorder, because smartphones and tablets can already record video in HD; or
  • an alarm clock, because your phone already has a built-in alarm and can play music of your choice.
The obvious snag in all this, of course, is that it assumes you already have a smartphone, and there are still some of us out there—yours truly included—who don't. But Hill's article made me wonder: just how much am I missing out on by not having one? If a smartphone has this many uses, might it be worth spending the $100 or so to get one?

Well, if that $100 were the only cost, perhaps. But as the comments below the article point out, when you buy a smartphone, the price tag on the phone itself is only the tip of the iceberg. Even Hill himself notes parenthetically that the $149 Nokia Lumia 1020, with its 41-megapixel camera, requires a 2-year contract—which, since this is an AT&T phone, will cost you a minimum of $40 a month for voice and $20 a month for data. At $60 a month, plus the $149 for the phone itself, this smartphone will actually cost you a whopping $869 in its first year of use. Seriously, if you listen you can actually hear the sound of it whopping.

Now, let's compare that to the low-tech—or at least lower-tech—way of doing the same things:
  • GPS: Hill points out that with Google Maps, "it is now possible to load up a map and directions before a journey" onto your phone. However, it has always been possible with Google Maps to look up your route on your home computer before you leave and print out the directions on a plain old piece of paper. The cost is about 0.5 cents for the ink (if you refill the cartridges the way we do) and nothing for the paper (because it's all single-side-used paper scavenged from Brian's workplace). This does require a computer, Internet connection, and printer, but if you already have those, then a smartphone pre-loaded with a map and route provides no additional functionality.
  • Photos and video: Our Canon Powershot A2300 cost us $99.99 at Amazon a year ago. It was already slightly out of date at that time, but it was certainly good enough for the limited picture-taking I do (mostly for this blog). It can also shoot video in HD, though I must confess I've never felt any need to use this feature. I've used this camera for a year now, and I haven't had to spend another penny on it—aside from the negligible cost of the electricity to recharge its battery.
  • Music: We do have an MP3 player, but we don't use it much anymore. When we first received it as a gift, our plan was to use it to play music and podcasts in the car on long trips, via a little MP3-to-tape converter to plug it into the car's tape deck. (Remember tape decks?) However, not long afterwards, that car bit the proverbial dust, and our new one, while it does have an input jack for an MP3 player, also has an even handier feature that allows you to plug in a thumb drive and play music off of that directly on the car's stereo. This is much easier to do while driving (or even while riding) than manipulating the tiny controls on the MP3 player, so these days, we get most of our auto audio off this little thumb drive. However, for those whose cars are slightly less tech-savvy, a basic MP3 player like this Sandisk Clip can cost as little as $23 and holds plenty of music for a cross-country road trip (and can also go jogging with you).
  • Gaming: Playing games on the go is something I've never actually felt much need to do. For killing time on long trips and in doctors' waiting rooms, I prefer a paperback book (which I can borrow from the library for free, or pick up for a buck at its annual book sale) or a crossword puzzle (which I can download and print out from a site such as the Wall Street Journal or Theresa's Cryptic Crosswords). However, if nothing but a game will do, I always carry a pack of real live playing cards, which costs as little as one dollar and can be used for a virtually infinite variety of games, group as well as solitaire.
  • Alarm clock: Most people, I suspect, already have one of these and don't really need to replace it with a cell phone. But even if your old alarm clock should meet with a sudden accident (such as being beaten to a pulp on a Monday morning), you can choose from a vast array of new ones for under ten bucks—from a retro analog model equipped with an actual bell to a color-changing digital with a built-in thermometer and a choice of four "soothing nature sounds" to wake up to.
So all in all, I see no need to spring for a smartphone and data plan unless I should someday happen to actually need 24-hour connectivity everywhere I go. However, there is another option that might offer the best of all possible worlds: get a smartphone without a plan. A new phone, as I noted above, may not be available without one, but an older phone can still perform many of the functions listed above without any need to connect to the Internet. As this article on the British site TechRadar.com points out, an older smartphone can double as your GPS (or SatNav, as they call it across the pond) with the help of some pre-loaded maps; it can serve as a video camera, music player, and game console; and it can perform a variety of other functions that you'd never want to entrust to your actual phone, such as baby monitor, universal remote, "kitchen assistant" (coordinating your recipes and shopping lists in one handy spot), and even a toy for kids (once you've disabled its Wi-Fi connection, of course). And with used smartphones selling for as little as 35 bucks on Amazon, you can do all this for a lot less than the $869 a real, live, fully functional smartphone would cost you in its first year alone.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Ecofrugal Java Jive

Last Christmas, when we went to visit my in-laws, I accompanied them on a trip to Costco and was smitten by the variety of organic and Fair Trade foodstuffs on offer. In particular, their price for Fair Trade decaffeinated coffee—just $13 for a two-pound bag—was enough to have me reconsidering the value of a $55 Costco membership. After all, I reasoned, at a pound of coffee per month, the membership could easily pay for itself in the savings on coffee alone.

That, however, was before I actually tasted the stuff. I still had the remainder of my last 5-pound shipment of Dean's Beans to get through, plus the bag of Caribou Coffee I'd snagged at Target, so it was some months before I actually got around to cracking open the big two-pound bag of Costco beans and grinding some up. And the result was...disappointing. I found the flavor very bitter and heavy, without any of the underlying fragrant sweetness that I associate with good coffee. I know there are some folks who really like their coffee as dark and bitter as possible, but for me, this was just too much.

So I figured it was back to the old drawing board, searching the supermarket racks for sales on anything with a Fair Trade label. Unfortunately, the decaffeinated version of our local supermarket's organic brand, Nature's Promise, was $7 for a 10-ounce bag, which made it pricier than the Dean's Beans. But fortunately, I managed to grab a bag on sale for $6, or just under $10 a pound, and I assumed that was probably the best I could do. However, that bargain paled in comparison to the one I discovered at IKEA when we went there in search of patio furniture last July. In the café just beyond the checkout, I came across 250-gram bags of their various house coffees, which included a decaffeinated medium roast. All of them were Utz Certified, and all were marked down from their already remarkable price of $3.49 a bag—which works out to about $6.35 per pound, less than Costco's price—to an absolutely jaw-dropping $1.99. Naturally, I couldn't pass up a deal like that, but my experience with the Costco coffee had made me cautious. Rather than stock up at this bargain price, I decided to get just one bag at first to make sure that I liked it. Besides, I already had a mostly full bag of the Nature's Promise coffee to get through first, and in the August heat I wasn't drinking coffee at my usual rate anyway. In fact, as it turned out, it wasn't until yesterday that I actually finished off the last of the Nature's Promise coffee and brewed up my first batch of the IKEA stuff.

So how was it? Well, like the Costco coffee, it was definitely on the dark side; in fact, my friend Doug, who got the first cup, remarked, "If that's their medium roast, I'd hate to see their dark one." But while I'm generally no lover of extra-dark coffee, I actually found this one quite likable. It was bitter, but the bitterness wasn't overpowering like the Costco brand's; it let the subtler, aromatic flavors of the coffee come through. Usually I find I can't drink a very dark coffee without sugar, but this one actually tasted fine to me with just milk. It wasn't the best cup of coffee I'd ever had, certainly, but I agreed with Doug's assessment of it as "decent but not extraordinary"—which, as we both noted, is pretty much what we've come to expect from IKEA in general.

So IKEA's Mellanrost decaf turns out to be pretty much everything I could ask for: flavorful, Fair Trade, and a great value even when it isn't on sale. There's just one catch: it's only sold at IKEA, and the nearest IKEA to us is in Elizabeth. We have to take the NJ Turnpike to get there, paying $4.90 in tolls. Thus, if I made a trip there solely to buy coffee, the price of two bags would jump from $6.98 to $11.88, or $10.80 per pound— exactly the same price I've been paying for Dean's Beans.

Fortunately, this isn't an insurmountable obstacle. We usually end up visiting IKEA at least once a year already, so we can just add coffee to the list of items to stock up during these trips, along with jars of lingonberries for Swedish pancakes. We can also make a point of popping into the nearest IKEA when we're on the road; when visiting our friends in the DC area, for example, we'd only have to backtrack one exit along the Beltway. So one way or another, we can stock up on the Mellanrost coffee whenever the opportunity presents itself—and if our stock runs out between trips, we can fill in with a bag or two the Nature's Promise. It should still work out cheaper overall in the long run than buying Dean's Beans five pounds at a time.

Or, what with Hanukkah coming early this year and all, we could just plan to do some of our holiday shopping at IKEA. :-)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Fewer chances to "save"

Last week's Tip Hero newsletter featured a video from blogger Ramit Sethi, of the modestly named finance blog I Will Teach You To Be Rich, in which he promises that you can save "well over a thousand dollars" just by making five phone calls. The idea is, you call up companies you do business with, tell them that you're a long-time customer who "would hate to switch" to a different company, and ask them flat-out if they can offer you a better deal than you're getting now. The five companies he proposes calling are:
  1. Your cell phone provider
  2. Your gym
  3. Your cable company
  4. Your insurance company (or companies)
  5. All your credit cards
Now, there's just one little problem with this: you can only save "well over a thousand" with these phone calls if you're currently spending well over a thousand per year on your cell phone, gym membership, cable TV, insurance, and credit card fees. Apparently Mr. Sethi's idea of "teaching you to be rich" is to teach you to live the expected lifestyle of a rich person—complete with a cell phone plan, a gym membership, and premium cable—for (somewhat) less money. He doesn't seem to consider the fact that it's actually possible to give up many of these amenities without any real sacrifice. Yet many frugal folks—the kinds of people who read Tip Hero—are already doing just that, as the second comment on the video illustrates:
We gave up cable months ago and watch our favorite shows free online. I'm on a promo-rate for internet service with cable company. Once a year before it runs out, I give them a call reminding them of my 20+ years of loyalty and how disappointed I would be to have to go to another provider, quoting comparison teaser rates. I ask to speak to whomever can help keep my rate affordable. No gym, $0 balance on credit cards, and unlimited prepaid cell phones. All tolled [sic], it's much less than one month of cable tv service.
We're in a similar boat. We don't belong to a gym, and we use a prepaid cell phone for emergencies only, paying around $40 per year. We don't pay any interest or fees of any kind on our credit cards, so there's no potential savings there. I did try shopping around for lower rates on our insurance policies a couple of months back and found that we could save a whole $140 by switching both our homeowners' and our auto policies from our current, trusted providers to one we know little about—but when I tried going to our current providers and asking them to cut me a deal, I had no luck. True, we do now have cable, after going without it for most of our married life—and we did succeed, after suffering sticker shock when we received our first bill, in getting our monthly rate lowered. But first of all, we were only able to do this by cutting back to a lower tier of service, something that Mr. Sethi probably doesn't advocate. And second, now that we've done it, we've already harvested the low-hanging fruit as far as savings are concerned. So calling our cable company a second time and asking for yet another price reduction would probably get us nothing.

The basic problem with Mr. Sethi's tips is the same one I've noted so often with financial advice in general: it only saves you money if you're spending way too much to start with. It's the same problem I've encountered when looking at ways to cut energy use or reduce household waste; in order to improve, you have to be doing some fairly wasteful stuff to start with. So for those of us who are already frugal, already eco-conscious—already, in short, doing all the obvious things—there just aren't as many opportunities to "save" as the articles aimed at a more mainstream (i.e., wasteful) audience would imply. It's the same problem that Amy Dacyczyn (all hail the Frugal Zealot!) noted in her article, "Read This Article and Save $150,000," which appeared in her third Tightwad Gazette book:
sometimes to "save" the most, you have to spend the most...If this woman wrote a diet book and marketed it on the claim that she lost 75 percent of her weight, you'd immediately conclude she must have weighed a lot before the diet. Unfortunately, when fuzzy claims are made about how much money can be "saved," we don't always grasp the implication.
So in short, whenever you see an article claiming in big, bold capital letters that you can "save" thousands each year—or hundreds, or even just $100—by following a few basic tips, be suspicious. Chances are, the only people who can really save this much are those who were spending way more than they needed to in the first place.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Rolling in clover

It was early July when, after a week of steady work, we laid down the last paver of our new patio. It's now late September, and we're still in the process of trying to put the rest of the yard back together. First we had to clear the pile of leftover gravel and stone dust from our driveway (in the process giving ourselves the permanent surface for our garden paths that we'd been seeking for over a year); then we cleaned up all the leftover bricks and stashed them in the shed for possible future use; then we started the process of using the leftover fill dirt to smooth out the surface of the slope we'd built up around the patio itself, and we also transferred the pile of waste concrete from the middle of our yard to a less obtrusive spot in a back corner (where it will remain until we find either a use for it or a place to dispose of it). And finally, last weekend, we took the last major step required to restore normalcy: planting the dirt-covered slope with grass seed.

Neither of us has ever actually planted grass before (we've always sort of accepted as "grass" whatever mixture of weeds happened to be in our yard when it came into our possession), so my first step, naturally, was to do a bit of research. I was particularly interested in a seed mixture containing clover, since I knew that clover is a nitrogen-fixing plant that acts as a sort of natural, no-work fertilizer. I'd already filled in a few bare patches in the back yard with Dutch white clover, and it seemed to grow very well in our clay soil—a bit too well, in fact, since it quickly reached heights of six inches or more, which is a bit higher than most people would consider desirable for a lawn. So I did a little digging and found that a company in Denmark has developed and patented a low-growing variety of clover called microclover. If the manufacturer's claims are to be believed, this stuff blends unobtrusively into a grass lawn, crowds out weeds, requires little water, and stays green year-round. What's not to like?

Actually finding a grass seed mix containing microclover, however, proved a bit difficult. When I searched, I discovered a blend on the Home Depot website that looked ideal, but when we actually went to Home Depot looking for it, they didn't have any on the shelves. So we ended up having to special order it through the website and then wait about a week for it to be delivered to the store. We picked it up on Monday, and last weekend we got down to business planting it. First, we added a bit more dirt to the sloped area, smoothing it out as much as possible. Next, following the advice on the seed bag, we mixed in the last of the bagged compost we had left over in the shed (we'd already disposed of the bags that failed the compost test, so we knew this stuff wouldn't kill all our clover seed). We then watered it down thoroughly and left it to dry overnight, as the seed bag recommended. Unfortunately, it rained heavily during the night, so the dirt still wasn't really dry the next day, but we couldn't really put it off any longer, so we just went ahead and started spreading the seed. Since we had such a small area to do, we didn't bother buying or renting a seed spreader; we tried making a makeshift one out of an oatmeal box with holes punched in the lid, but it proved too awkward to use (the lid wouldn't stay put and had to be held on with one hand), so eventually we gave up on it and just spread it as evenly as we could manage by hand.

Once all the seed was down, Brian took the additional precaution of laying down some burlap over the part of the slope where water tends to run off during storms, in the hope that this would keep our seed from washing away downhill. Now all we have left to do is water it regularly for the next two weeks—aiming to keep it moist, but not soaked—and hope the birds don't decide to eat it all. (Since I haven't seen them swarming over the newly seeded area like it was the world's best salad bar, I think they must not consider it food.)

As I had suspected, the process of smoothing out the slope didn't use up all the remaining dirt left over from our patio excavation. Fortunately, however, we had another use for it: Brian discovered some holes in the back part of the yard, possibly left by our old nemesis the garden rat or some other burrowing critter. So between filling in the slope and filling up the holes, we managed to dispose of pretty much all the dirt left in the pile. The rest we simply raked smooth and covered with more grass seed. Unlike the area nearest the patio, it didn't get any compost, since there wasn't any left, but our soil is pretty rich, so I guess we'll just keep our fingers crossed.

Naturally, I'm hoping the grass will fill in both areas nicely, but I can't help wondering: if this stuff really does provide the kind of lush, green carpet advertised on the package, will it make the rest of the yard look bad by contrast? Will we need to start tearing up the rest of the lawn, a bit at a time, in order to replant it and bring it up to the standards of this newly seeded area? Or will the "very aggressive" microclover just spread on its own, gradually battling and defeating our existing lawn weeds as it works its way across the yard?

Or, given that not one of the seeds we just planted has actually sprouted yet, should I quit counting my chickens (or my clovers) before they've hatched?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Gardeners' holidays: Harvest Home

Of all the quarter- and cross-quarter days in the year, the fall equinox is one of the few that doesn't currently have a holiday attached to it, either sacred or secular. Many of the old festivals still have their modern descendants, like Groundhog Day in February and Halloween in October; the spring equinox is linked to Passover and Easter, and the winter solstice is tied to Christmas. Even lesser-known holidays like May Day and Lammas have a few lingering traditions attached to them. But practically no one except orthodox Wiccans actually celebrates the fall equinox anymore, and it's a pity. Because really, Keats's "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" is the most satisfying time in a gardener's year. The hard work of digging and planting, weeding and watering, is mostly done, and all that remains is to gather in the fruits of our labors. The next six weeks—from the start of fall until Halloween—are really the culmination of everything the gardener has worked for all year long.

In our own garden, the zucchini has finally passed its peak and the plants are slowly drying up (though there are two more wee squash that we should be able to harvest before they fade completely). Our cucumber vines also seem to be pretty much played out, with just one tiny cuke left on the vine that we may be able to pick and add to the big jar of homemade pickles in the fridge. Our tomatoes, however, are still producing like mad—particularly the Sun Golds, which I've concluded we planted way too many of this year. (Next year, I'm planning to restrict the number to two, and ideally I'll keep those two isolated from the rest of the tomatoes so they can't take over the whole trellis.) We're picking more of them than we can possibly eat whole; earlier this week Brian processed about a quart of whole tomatoes into a small batch of thick sauce. Turns out that the Sun Golds make a very tasty sauce, especially for pizza; however, it's important to label it as "Sun Gold sauce" before stashing it in the freezer, because in color it's pretty much identical to butternut squash puree.

And speaking of butternut squash, we've got a plentiful crop of those on the vine. I counted seven good-sized squash ready to harvest, not counting the one we picked already—and there might be some smaller ones that I overlooked. It's not quite as big a crop as we got from the volunteer plant that seeded itself next to the compost bin back in 2010, eventually taking over the entire side yard—but it's the best we've managed to do so far growing butternut squash from seed, and I'm fairly pleased with the results. Next year, I think I may put them in the ground even earlier and see if we get a bigger harvest yet.

Our pepper plants, sadly, have been a bit of a disappointment. The one seedling that we thought might be big enough to plant didn't survive, and the three plants that we bought at the spring sales—a Chocolate Beauty, a Paladin, and a White Hungarian—have produced only tiny fruits. They're pretty enough, particularly the White Hungarians (which start out not so much white as pale green and then ripen to a reddish-orange), but they're not providing us with all that much actual food. I guess we'll have to keep experimenting to find varieties that can thrive in our garden and still produce well.

Elsewhere in the garden, there's a somewhat scraggly assortment of scallions and leeks ready to pick whenever we want them, as well as all that Ventura celery that we planted to fill in the gaps in the rhubarb bed. So far, there's little sign of the lettuce and spinach that I planted last month; however, I did find one unmistakeable lettuce leaf poking through the ground, and several tiny sprouts that might be incipient spinach, so there is still some hope of that crop of fall greens. Meanwhile, our arugula, which produced almost nothing in the spring, has suddenly started flourishing, so we should be able to get a couple of good salads out of that. The parsley is thriving too, and the basil has grown up into a veritable jungle. I'm seeing a massive batch of pesto in our near future.

So how are we going to celebrate our harvest? Well, given what we have in the garden at the moment, this would appear to be an ideal time for one of our favorite dishes, pasta à la Caprese. The recipe comes from The Clueless Vegetarian, perhaps my favorite of all the vegetarian cookbooks on our shelf; author Evelyn Raab calls it "the perfect midsummer pasta," but around here, it looks like the start of fall is actually the perfect season for the combination of ripe tomatoes, fresh basil, and ripe bell pepper that goes into the sauce (steeping together with olive oil, garlic, and a touch of salt and pepper to produce, through some sort of mysterious alchemical reaction, a product that's far greater than the sum of its parts). However, as it happens, we just had pasta earlier this week (with pesto and some of those ubiquitous Sun Gold tomatoes), so instead, Brian is turning several of our larger tomatoes into a batch of salsa to accompany tonight's quesadillas. And, to complete the celebration, we've just invited over a friend to join us, because half the joy of the harvest is in sharing the bounty with others. A Happy Harvest Home to all!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Rats II

You know how, at the end of every horror movie, the protagonists finally succeed in slaying the monster that's been menacing their little community, and they can at last bury their dead and go back to their normal lives?

And you know how, at the beginning of every horror movie sequel, they discover that, guess what, that monster wasn't the only one?

Well, that's pretty much where we found ourselves last weekend. We were just hanging out in the living room, chatting with a friend, when Brian suddenly peered out the window and said, "Yep, that's another rat." This one wasn't in the garden, but foraging among our shrubs, and like the first, it fled as soon as it caught sight of us. But Brian quickly discovered evidence that this rodent, too, had found its way into the garden and gnawed one of our cucumbers.

So once again, he fetched out trap (the old-fashioned snap trap, not the fancy newfangled trap that turned out to be completely ineffective), baited it, and set it up under a chicken-wire cage. Since we'd last seen the rat in the shrubs, he set up this apparatus out there, and this time he weighed down the cage with a brick marked "WARNING: DANGEROUS: do not tamper," just in case one of our neighbor's kids caught sight of it and decided to investigate. And there it sat, entirely undisturbed, for the next four days. After a few days, we actually started to hope that maybe this rat was wiser than its colleague and had decided to get out of this place while the getting was good.

Alas, our hopes were dashed today when Brian came home early for an afternoon appointment and made three discoveries in short order:
  1. The trap had been sprung, yet this time, the cage atop it (and the brick atop that) hadn't been disturbed.
  2. Once again, the rat was not in the trap, but lying a short distance away, outside the cage.
  3. This time, the rat was still alive.
This set of circumstances was even more baffling and frustrating than the discovery of the first rat. In the first place, the cage and the brick were still in place, so how had the rat managed to trip the trap and still escape? Brian could only surmise that it had been caught only partially and had somehow managed to pull itself free, but it was too weak to get very far away before we found it. This was quite upsetting to me, since I thought the main benefit of these traps was that they were supposed to dispatch critters as quickly and painlessly as possible. I'm prepared to kill a rat if that's the only way to keep it out of our garden, but I certainly didn't want to torture one.

Unfortunately, we both had to leave at this point, so we didn't have time to dispatch the poor beastie then and there. By the time we got back, the rat was no longer where we'd found it, so Brian had to go hunting through the underbrush until he found it huddled unmoving by a tree. And it wasn't clear whether it was quite dead at this point, so he had to clobber it with a shovel before he could bury it. All in all, it was a bit traumatic. It's left me wondering whether, should we ever have to deal with another rat, we might not be better off with the fancy new Tomcat trap after all. True, it might not actually succeed in catching the rat, but at least it would be clear at a glance whether the rat was killed or not killed; there would be no danger of finding it somewhere in between.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Frugal heresy

The latest issue of the Dollar Stretcher newsletter featured an article called, "10 Things You Can Stop Buying at the Grocery Store." The author, Carol Channon, claims that you shouldn't need to buy any of these items because, for most of them, it's cheaper and healthier to make them from scratch. Now, this is such a standard piece of advice for newcomers to the frugal life that it has almost taken on the status of a Frugal Commandment—"Thou shalt cook from scratch"—and it seems almost like heresy to contradict it. And I do, in fact, think that this is sound advice in most cases, and I frequently repeat it myself. But looking carefully at this particular article, it seems that Channon has managed in the space of a fairly short list to come up with several items that I consider exceptions to this basic rule. Moreover, she doesn't seem to have even attempted to do the math to calculate whether her money-saving advice really will save you money on these ten items. So at the risk of being branded a frugal heretic, I'd like to look at the ten items on her list, one by one, and discuss the actual numbers before coming to any conclusions about whether we should all strike these items from our grocery lists.

1. Packaged meat. Channon argues that it's much better to buy a whole chicken and cook it yourself, because it makes an easy meal and leaves you a carcass to make stock from. The problem is, a whole chicken costs more per pound than a package of drumsticks. We routinely buy free-range, organic chicken legs from Trader Joe's for $1.99 a pound; a whole organic, free-range chicken, according to this Trader Joe's flyer, cost $2.49 per pound on sale more than a year ago, so the regular price is presumably at least $3 a pound. So while a roast chicken may feel like more of a special-occasion meal than baked chicken drumsticks or thighs, it will also cost more.

As for beef and pork, Channon says you save more money by buying in bulk—by the side, or even a whole animal to be butchered—than buying packages. We don't normally buy these meats, so I'll have to turn for guidance here to Amy Dacyczyn (all hail the Frugal Zealot!), who wrote in her third Tightwad Gazette book that the cost of beef sold by the side "is less than the regular supermarket price for the same cut of meat, but more than the supermarket's loss-leader prices." She also notes that, as with the chicken, "you must buy the more expensive steaks to get the [cheaper] ground beef." So once again, buying packaged meats on sale, and sticking to the cheaper cuts, is likely to give you a better price per pound than buying in bulk as Channon advises.

2. Juice. Channon says it's better for you to eat your fruit whole, and if you really want juice you should squeeze your own. I agree that whole fruit is more healthful than most bottled juice, which is why I drink very little of it. But as far as price goes, her advice once again falls short of the mark. As these figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show, Valencia oranges cost about $1.03 per pound, while orange juice concentrate costs $2.54 for 16 ounces, which is enough to make a half-gallon of juice. To get that amount of juice from the fruit, you'd have to squeeze 24 oranges, or between 6 and 8 pounds' worth, at a cost of $6.18 to $8.24. So while the home-squeezed juice might be more healthful (because it has the pulp in) and would almost certainly taste better, it would also be a lot more expensive.

3. Microwave popcorn. This is one item on which I agree with Channon. As long-time readers of this blog will recall, I make my own popcorn in a microwave popper at a cost of about 12.5 cents per bowl, and I season it with just a touch of olive oil and salt. Microwave popcorn in bags, by contrast, costs at least 25 cents per bag, even on sale, and is typically loaded with salt and butter (real or synthetic). So I consider the homemade popcorn an all-around win: in addition to being cheaper, it's more healthful, contains far less packaging, and is just as easy to make. (Channon recommends making it the old-fashioned way, in a pot on the stove, which is also fine, but I think my method is easier and just as tasty.)

4. Vegetables. According to Channon, you should either grow all your own vegetables or buy them at the farmers' market to "support your local farmers and local economy." According to my calculations, Brian and I do indeed pay less per pound for the veggies we grow ourselves (some time I'll get around to sharing the calculations with you), but our little garden isn't nearly big enough to supply all the produce we need—and even if we were to convert every square inch of our yard to edible landscaping, and buy a big freezer and canner to store the surplus, there's no way we'd be able to grow enough to get us through the winter without buying any. We couldn't pick up extra from the farmers' market to tide us over, either, because our local farmers' market runs only from June through November (though the associated artisans' market continues through the end of December).

Of course, as Challon would no doubt argue, we could always extra produce from the farmers' market when it's in season and preserve it at home. The problem is, in my observation, produce from the farmers' market almost always costs more than the same items would at the supermarket. Often, our area supermarkets even carry produce that's labeled as local—Jersey Fresh—at prices far lower than we'd pay by "cutting out the middleman" at the farmers' market. I realize this isn't the case everywhere; two-year-old studies in Vermont and Seattle, for instance, found that farmers' markets in those areas offered comparable prices on conventional produce and much better prices on organic. But around here, at least, the economies of scale at the supermarkets mean that they generally offer the best prices, even on produce that's organic or locally grown. This is not to say that I don't consider the produce from the farmers' markets worth the extra money, at least occasionally; I just look on it as a splurge, not a money-saving move.

5. Cookies. Surprisingly, Channon doesn't make the argument that you shouldn't eat cookies at all because they're bad for you, but she does say that it's much better to make them from scratch. I won't dispute that home-baked cookies made by anyone who's halfway competent taste much, much better than store-bought ones, but are they cheaper? I've seen big packages of generic-brand cookies at the supermarket for as little as a dollar; in fact, I've often thought that if I were ever seriously in danger of starving to death, and I just needed to get as many calories into my body as possible for the lowest possible price, it would be hard to do better than to live off one of these packages for a couple of days. Can a homemade cookie really beat that?

To find out, I calculated the cost of a batch of "Basic Refrigerator Cookies" from The Pillsbury Cookbook, which was the most basic, inexpensive-looking recipe I could find. Assuming that a cash-strapped baker would use margarine instead of butter, replace our usual organic sugar and free-range eggs with conventional versions, and leave out the nuts, I calculated the cost of the ingredients for this recipe using the figures from the BLS:
  • 3/4 cup sugar (3/8 lb.), 24 cents
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar (3/8 lb.), 29 cents
  • 1 cup margarine (1/2 lb.), 59 cents
  • 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract (1/4 ounce), 25 cents (based on the price I found at Trader Joe's last year)
  • 2 eggs (1/6 doz.), 31 cents
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour (1 1/8 lbs.), 60 cents
  • baking powder and salt: 2 cents
This comes to $2.30 for the recipe, which supposedly makes 90 cookies (but would probably make no more than 75 without the nuts). So that's about 3 cents per cookie, while the cheap store-bought cookies were roughly 2 cents each. Not nearly as good, I'm sure, but definitely cheaper.

6. Spray cleaners. This is one of the few items for which Channon does give an approximate price: "You could pay $3 or $4 for that spray cleaner," she avers, yet its main ingredient is most likely vinegar, ammonia, or bleach, any of which can be bought more cheaply. This is one where I agree with her; vinegar costs about 45 cents a quart when you buy it in bulk, which works out to only 23 cents a quart when you dilute it 50-50 with water. A 28-ounce bottle of Method cleanser, by contrast, cost me $2.67 on sale at Target last year (the only reason I bought it was to get a new bottle to put my vinegar solution in). So good old vinegar and water, which is tough enough to handle most everyday cleaning jobs (and nontoxic, to boot), is definitely the frugal choice here.

7. Bottled water. Another item for which I agree wholeheartedly with Channon. As I noted way back in 2010, prices for bottled water range from 79 cents to over $150 per gallon, while tap water—which is actually held to higher health and safety standards and, in most tests, tastes as good or better—typically costs about half a cent per gallon. Even if you don't like the taste of your municipal tap water, you'll still pay far less by running it through a filter than you would by buying the bottled stuff, and you'll produce far less waste as well.

8. Herbs. I agree with Channon that these are way too expensive at the store. We've seen tiny packages selling for $2 or $3, and even if you buy a big bunch for a buck, as we do with parsley, you're left with the problem of how to use it all up before it goes bad. In most cases, when you use herbs, you only need a little bit, so it makes sense to follow Channon's advice and grow your own (either in a garden bed or in pots) and snip off pieces as needed. We have an herb bed outside our kitchen door in which we grow rosemary, sage, oregano, thyme, and mint; they fade in the winter but pop up again green and healthy in the spring. We also grow lots of basil in the garden, and after the frost hits we usually manage to nurse one plant through the winter in a pot. However, we've had no success keeping either parsley or cilantro alive in pots, so if we need these in the winter, we usually either go ahead and buy a big bunch or make do with dried.

9. Bread. This is a tricky one. Brian and I (well, Brian mostly) do bake all our own bread, even after the demise of our bread machine earlier this year, but we do this largely because (a) fresh bread tastes better and (b) Brian likes to bake. And we do spend less on our homemade bread than we would on store-bought bread; according to my calculations, each loaf costs us between 80 cents and a dollar, while the BLS figures show the typical cost of a one-pound loaf ranging from $1.41 to $2.04. However, the bargain rack at our supermarket fairly often has loaves of slightly stale bread marked down to as little as a dollar, so if we made a habit of stocking up on these and freezing them, it would be nearly as cheap as baking our own. Of course, it would require a larger freezer, so for now baking it ourselves is still a better value.

10. Trash bags. Channon's argument here is that if you simply cut back on packaged foods, recycle most food containers, and compost food scraps, you will "have less trash" to throw away. All of this is true, but she overlooks the rather glaring fact that less trash is not the same thing as no trash. As I observed when analyzing the contents of our trash last year, there are still some items that can't be either avoided, recycled, or composted, such as dental floss (I've never found one that's biodegradable), bottle caps, cereal box liners, deodorant tubes, and the occasional styrofoam tray. Also, what about the bones from that whole chicken she just advised us to buy back at the top of the list? You can't compost those, even after you've made stock of them, so they'll have to go in the trash—and once they're in there, they'll begin to make your house unpleasant if you don't get them out to the curb in fairly short order.

Admittedly, cutting down on the amount of waste you produce will mean you go through far fewer trash bags. Brian and I have, I believe, bought only two large boxes of them since we moved into this house over six years ago. But still, we will need to buy some eventually—unless Channon has some alternative to offer that she didn't see fit to mention in her article.

So out of the ten items on Channon's list, there are five that I mostly agree with and five that I mostly disagree with. I'm not saying it's a bad idea to buy whole chickens or local produce, to eat whole fruit instead of juice, to bake your own cookies, or to cut down on waste; I'm just saying that these strategies won't necessarily save you money.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Garb on ye cheape, part 2

After my experience putting together an inexpensive Renaissance costume for Brian, I found myself wondering whether a passable woman's outfit could be assembled just as cheaply. (I don't actually need to for myself, since I'm a big Renaissance geek and already have my own garb, but it's an interesting challenge to consider.) In some ways, we ladies have it easier than the gents, because many of us already have garments in our closets that can pass for Renaissance garb. A quick search on "Renaissance style dress" just now turned up several modern garments (such as this and this) that could probably pass muster at a Renn Faire. For those who don't have a suitable dress, however, the basic women's Renaissance costume had three essential pieces:
  • A loose-fitting, ankle-length skirt 
  • A shift or chemise, which is a lightweight undergarment resembling a nightgown (although a loose blouse will also serve)
  • A bodice, a tight-fitting garment similar to a vest that laces either up the front or up the sides (and is essential for producing the traditional Renn Faire cleavage).
Two of these three are items that many women will already have at home. A peasant-style blouse—or even, in a pinch, a nightgown—can serve for a chemise, and any loose, gypsy-style skirts in a dark solid color will work on the bottom. And even those who don't have these pieces can probably find them at a thrift store without too much difficulty.

The one piece that doesn't really have a modern equivalent is the bodice. There are, of course, plenty of vendors who supply authentic period bodices, complete with boning, but even a basic one can cost 80 bucks or more. However, those who are willing to settle for something a little less authentic could pick up a garment that's close enough for Faire for as little as 18 bucks. Assuming that this is the only piece you need to complete your garb, that's not too unreasonable.

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that you're either really strapped for cash or short on time, and ordering even an inexpensive piece online isn't an option. Is there any way to whip up a reasonable facsimile of a period bodice at home, the way we did with Brian's breeches? Well, I did a little poking around online, and I found a few suggestions for work-arounds:
  • An article offering advice to Maryland Renaissance Festival attendees says that a "close-fitting round or square-necked vest" can serve as a bodice, though without the lacing up the front, it's not quite the same.
  • The same article says that you can mock up a single-use bodice out of cardboard, cut to fit around your torso. Cover the cardboard in fabric, punch holes in it, and lace it together with shoestrings. This might look close enough to the real thing to keep you from standing out, but it sounds like it could also easily prevent you from sitting down.
  • An eHow article suggests skipping the bodice altogether and just layering a long, sleeveless dress over a loose-fitting shirt. This solution only really works if you have a dress that's reasonably close to period garb: full-length and sleeveless, in a solid color rather than a print, with a loose, swirling skirt.
  • A second eHow article suggests converting an ordinary tank top to a mock bodice by cutting open the front, adding grommets on both sides of the cut, and lacing yourself into it. Of course, a tank top, being made of stretchy fabric, won't squeeze your figure in the traditional manner, but it will still have the basic look of the period.
  • Perhaps most intriguing of all: the duct-tape corset, which definitely isn't authentic, but still fits into the whole spirit of why-the-hell-not that characterizes the Faire.
So, to sum up, it sounds like it is possible to put together a quick-and-dirty women's Renaissance Faire costume nearly as cheaply and easily as you can a men's costume. It may not look quite as good as the real thing, but it should be good enough to help you get into the spirit of the Faire while still leaving you plenty of cash to spend on beer and tips for the minstrels.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Garb on ye cheape

In a couple of weeks, Brian and I are going to the Maryland Renaissance Festival with some friends. After a bit of cajoling, Brian agreed to go in period garb (or at least, an approximation thereof) if we could put together an outfit for him that would look reasonable. I already had a shirt for him that I thought would suit the purpose; I spotted it on the racks at our local thrift shop last year and grabbed it thinking that it would come in handy for this kind of event in the future. (It was technically a woman's blouse, but in a size large enough to fit him.) And he already had a couple of different belts that would fit over it. So from the waist up, he was in pretty good shape; we just needed something for the lower half.

I started combing through Renaissance costuming guides to get an idea of what would be appropriate. I did know roughly what the men's fashions of the Elizabethan era actually looked like, but I also knew that strict historical accuracy isn't exactly a requirement in a Renn Faire setting. We are talking, after all, about a place where fully armored knights can come stomping out onto the jousting ground and suddenly begin singing, "Rock the Casbah." So what I was really after was some sort of general consensus on how it's appropriate to dress for this kind of event.

I found a couple of costuming guides produced by individual Renn Faires, as well as websites belonging to dealers in Renaissance garb, and they seemed to offer conflicting information on what sort of pants (breeches, hose, etc.) are appropriate. Some sites claimed that full-length trousers are an absolute no-no; others, including one specifically about the Maryland Renaissance Festival, said that ankle-length breeches are suitable for peasant garb if they are worn cross-gartered (tied close to the leg with overlapping laces between the knee and ankle). I also noticed that the Renaissance breeches sold by vendors such as Medieval Collectibles and Pearsons Renaissance Shop typically included full-length, loose-fitting trousers that looked like nothing so much as modern sweat pants. So I figured, if it was good enough for them, it should be good enough for us.

With a little experimentation, we found that Brian's old sweat pants would stay on just fine when hiked up to the knee or just below—a style that should pass muster even with the most persnickety of critics. We then dug around in his sock drawer and found some brown socks that would reach nearly to the knee, with the elastic neatly hidden under the hem of the sweats. That just left us the feet to deal with. Modern-looking shoes would spoil the look (that's the kind of thing that really will get you laughed at in a Renaissance Faire setting). However, a little more browsing led me to another costume guide that recommended a pair of "Renaissance canvas shoes" that looked just like the basic kung fu slipper sold for $7 a pair at fine discount stores everywhere. The local C.H. Martin, it turns out, no longer carries these, but it did have several other cheap shoes that looked like they would pass muster as Renaissance footwear. Brian tried on a $13 pair of leather sandals that looked reasonable, but they didn't feel very comfortable, so they wouldn't be ideal for a festival where you basically spend the whole day walking around. Eventually we settled on a $6 pair of corduroy slip-ons that were technically bedroom slippers, but looked neutral enough not to call attention to themselves. Though still not very supportive, they were more comfortable than the sandals for less than half the price—and they could still serve as actual slippers when the Faire was over, while the sandals would probably just sit in a closet gathering dust.

The outfit was now basically complete, but it was lacking a key accessory: some sort of belt pouch for storing such modern-day necessities as wallet and keys. However, I figured that even my (extremely) limited sewing skills could handle something this basic. And the project suddenly became even easier when I remembered a trick I'd used in the past: I made myself a makeup bag by cutting off the end of one leg from an old pair of velour pants and stitching it closed at the top. This left a nice, neat hem already sewn at the cuff, and all I had to do was attach some Velcro tape for fastening it. So I figured a variation on this technique would be the easiest possible way to whip up a little drawstring pouch.

I rummaged through my scrap fabric bin and found a pair of black cotton/linen pants that had worn out at the thigh, but still had plenty of good material in the legs. These seemed ideal for the purpose, since linen is actually a typical period fabric. So I hacked off about six inches from the bottom of one leg and quickly hand-stitched the cut end closed. (I do have a sewing machine, but I'm so incompetent at using it that it would have taken me longer just to set the thing up and thread it than it did to sew the piece by hand.) Then I went digging through our collection of shoe-repair materials until I found a pair of black shoelaces long enough to serve as ties for the bag. The cuffs of the pants had already been taken up with a very loose stitch, so it was a simple matter to push the rigid end of a shoelace in between the stitches and, keeping one finger on it, gradually work it along under the fabric until it was halfway around and push it back out at the other end. Did the same thing on the other side, tied the loose ends together, and presto—a simple drawstring bag that's period-appropriate, large enough to hold a wallet and keys, and easy to knot around the belt for carrying.

So here you see the complete ensemble:
  • shirt ($1 at thrift shop)
  • breeches (free from closet)
  • belt (free from closet)
  • belt pouch (free from scrap fabric)
  • stockings (free from closet)
  • shoes ($6 at C.H. Martin)
Total: $7 for a complete (or at least passable) men's Renaissance outfit. Considering that the cheapest (and cheapest-looking) men's Renaissance costumes sold online start at around $35 and don't even include the shoes, I'd say that's not bad at all.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The light bulb myth lives on

I just saw an article in this week's Tip Hero newsletter that kind of got on my nerves. It's one of those ever-popular lists of ways to save on your electric bill that, as I've noted before, seldom have anything to tell me that I haven't heard many, many times before. This article was no exception to that rule, basically trotting out an assortment of chestnuts like "turn off the water when you brush your teeth" and "turn out the lights when you leave a room." The only somewhat new piece of information in it was the recommendation to switch to LED bulbs, and even that was basically an updated version of the traditional recommendation to replace incandescents with CFLs.

There was one detail, however, that particularly annoyed me. In the item on turning out lights when you leave the house or the room, the author of the article made the extravagant claim that this practice "can save you big bucks on your electric bill." Now, even back in the days of incandescent bulbs, leaving lights on was never all that big a waste of energy. If you had a 60-watt bulb, for instance, and you left it burning while you left the room for 15 minutes, then in that time it would use 15 watt-hours, or .015 kilowatt-hours. At the nationwide average electric rate of 12.5 cents per kWh, that's about one-fifth of one penny's worth of electricity. Even if you left that same light on for 15 minutes every single day, the total cost on your electric bill at the end of the month would only come to 5.6 cents. Admittedly, those pennies could add up quickly if you made a habit of leaving all your lights on all the time, and since switching them off was a lot easier to do than, say, upgrading to a more energy-efficient refrigerator, it was a reasonable piece of advice. But even back then, claiming that you could save "big bucks" this way was setting up an unreasonable expectation.

Now, suppose you've followed this author's other piece of advice and started switching over your bulbs to LEDs. A quick Google search shows that an LED bulb equivalent in brightness to a 60-watt incandescent uses 10 watts of energy. So the 5.6 cents you would have saved by switching off that 60-watt incandescent every day for a month is now cut to less than 1 cent. In fact, you could leave a 10-watt LED burning 24/7 for the entire month and it would use only 7.2 kWh of electricity, or 90 cents' worth. There is no possible stretch of the imagination by which that adds up to "big bucks" in savings.

Mind you, I'm not saying that the advice itself is bad. With the price of LEDs now down to as little as $10, this type of bulb has finally become a cost-effective alternative to CFLs, and I will certainly consider one the next time one of my current CFLs burns out. And even if their energy use is low, it still makes sense to turn them out when they're not being used (especially since doing so won't wear them out much faster, as it can with CFLs or incandescents). But promising "big bucks" in energy savings for doing this is simply dishonest.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Green vs. sustainable

I recently came across an entry at the popular green living site Treehugger that called attention to something I'd never really thought about before: the difference between the terms "green" and "sustainable." People often throw these terms around as if they were interchangeable, but the entry cites Ruben Anderson, author of the local eating blog A Small and Delicious Life, as explaining that the two words actually have quite different meanings:
I use green to mean stuff that is less bad – and I chose my words carefully – for the planet and the flora and fauna that live on it. 
Sustainable, on the other hand...means able-to-be-sustained.
It means, for all intents and purposes, that whatever you are talking about can keep on doing what it is doing, and can do so essentially forever.
Now, these two terms are obviously related, and pretty much anything that can be defined as sustainable in Anderson's terminology would also qualify as green. Yet some activities that clearly are green—even extremely green—just as clearly are not sustainable. The example that came to my mind was freeganism. Freegans, as you may or may not know, are people who try to live without buying anything at all. They Dumpster-dive for everything from furniture to food. They won't drive or use mass transit, but will engage in hitchhiking and train-hopping since these activities don't add to the overall number of cars, buses, or trains on the road. They "squat" in vacant buildings and forage for food in state parks.

Now, no one could deny that the way these people live is green. But it's not sustainable. The reason it's not sustainable is that freegans are dependent on the waste of others. An entire society of freegans wouldn't be able to function, because there would be nothing in the Dumpsters to dive for. There would be no drivers to hitchhike with and no trains to hop, and the state parks would quickly be picked clean of all their edible plants. Freeganism is only possible in a wasteful society; it can't be the foundation of a sustainable society.

Less extreme forms of reuse, likewise, are green but not sustainable in the long term. Or rather, to clarify, it obviously is a sustainable practice to keep individual products in use so long as they are still usable—either by repurposing them or by passing them on to others. But it's not sustainable for all the products we use to be reused, because individual products will eventually wear out. Sooner or later, some new goods will have to be produced.

Or take the recurring environmental issue of population growth. Steady growth in the global population is, obviously, not sustainable, because we've only got one planet, and it has a limited amount of space. But steady decline in the global population isn't sustainable either, because eventually, the population will dwindle down to nothing. A decline in global population would be a good thing in the short term, because it would mean less competition for limited resources; in short, it would be green. But it wouldn't be sustainable, because sooner or later the population would have to stabilize. (It could, of course, stabilize at zero, but that wouldn't exactly be a desirable outcome for us human fauna, no matter what a relief it might be for some other species.)

Of course, maybe these aren't really so much examples of unsustainable activities as examples of a problem with this definition of sustainability: what you can call sustainable changes depending on the size of the system you're looking at. Freeganism and reuse might be considered sustainable if we look at them both as just parts of a larger system, one that involves manufacturing as well. In the same way, our backyard compost bin is not sustainable when viewed as a system unto itself: the amount of yard and garden waste that we put into it just isn't enough to produce the volume of compost we need for all the plants we grow. Yet our little compost bin could be a component within a much larger self-sustaining system, one in which all the vegetable waste in (say) the entire country gets processed into compost and used to grow new plants. (On the other hand, this system might still be unsustainable if it's impossible to grow all the plants we grow now, including food crops, with nothing but compost to fertilize them. Which means that a sustainable agriculture system might, as this article suggests, actually require the use of synthetic fertilizers—something we don't usually think of as green.)

Another problem with Anderson's definition of "sustainable" is that when you say you can go on doing something "essentially forever," you are assuming that everything else about your system remains unchanged. This is why Anderson cites "substituting renewables for coal-fired power" as an example of a non-sustainable practice: "Just because coal is not sustainable does not mean windmills are sustainable at the scale needed to replace coal." But in making this claim, he also makes the assumptions that (1) the sources of renewable energy we have now are the only sources we will ever have, (2) the sources of renewable energy we have now will always remain as resource-intensive to produce as they currently are, and (3) improved efficiency will not allow us to reduce our energy needs to the point where they can be met by renewable power. Yet at least two of these assumptions are clearly not supported by the available data. The cost of solar power, for instance, has dropped dramatically since 1980 and remains on a downward trend, while improvements in efficiency—based solely on the technology we have right now—could cut our nation's power use by over 25 percent. Put these two facts together, and it's quite easy to envision a future in which we can meet all our energy needs sustainably without having to scale back our usage to merely "keep[ing] a few lights on, maybe some critical refrigeration" as Anderson suggests in the comments. (I did try to make these same arguments in a comment of my own, but for some reason, Anderson's site has repeatedly refused to publish it.)

So while Anderson's definitions of "green" and "sustainable" sound reasonable, I'm not sure if they're ultimately all that useful. His idea of sustainability is one that only works if nothing ever changes, and the one thing you can pretty much be sure of in life is that things will change. But perhaps more disturbing is that, in defining "green" as merely "less bad" rather than actually good, he seems to dismiss it as having no real validity or use. I would argue, on the contrary, that "green" is actually a useful and necessary step on the road to "sustainable." The only way to get to the long term, after all, is through the short term.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The "Skip It" list

A few weeks ago, the bloggers at Young House Love put up a post called "Skip It" (complete with a video of the '80s toy by the same name). Basically, it's a list of all the things they save money on by just forgetting about them entirely. Their list included food and drink (bottled water, alcohol), cleaning supplies (dusting spray, fabric softener) and some grooming items (most hair products, manicures, lipstick, perfume). Then, at the end, they named a few things that they can choose not to skip thanks to the money they save this way: "project materials, organic produce, cable TV, and ceramic animals."

Reading through their list, my response was more or less, "Check...check...check" as I passed by item after item that we had chosen to skip as well. However, there were a few differences, so I thought I'd write up my own Skip It list here and note how it compares to theirs.
  • Food and drink: The Petersiks say they skip meat "three or four nights a week," which presumably means that they eat it on the other three or four nights. In our case, we eat meat more like three or four nights a month, but when we do, we eat only the free-range stuff. So for us, meat is both a skip and a splurge: we skip it most nights so that we can splurge on the humanely raised meats when we do indulge. Shari Petersik also skips Starbucks by making her chai at home from a mix, saving the Starbucks for "special occasions." I, however, prefer the Frappuccino to the chai, and I've never been able to make a reasonable facsimile of it at home, so I allow myself one per month as a special treat. (At 300 calories a pop, it's probably just as well that I don't indulge more often anyway.) Like the Petersiks, however, we skip bottled water in favor of a filter pitcher and reusable bottles, and we skip alcohol because neither of us cares for it much.
  • Home care: The Petersiks' list includes both fabric softener and dusting spray. I don't think we've ever used either of these, although I will confess that we tend to skip dusting altogether more often than we should. As for fabric softener, I've never understood what it's really for; isn't fabric soft enough already? We also skip most store-bought cleaning supplies in favor of a few staples (dish soap, vinegar, and baking soda), and we've skipped paper towels in favor of rags and dishcloths. And one item we've never bought or even owned is an "air freshener," which I consider a total misnomer. (Yech.) We also join the Petersiks in skipping incandescent light bulbs, but frankly, I consider that a substitution rather than a skip. I mean, it's not as if we're choosing to go without electric lighting altogether.
  • Media: Unlike the Petersiks, we skip anything beyond the most basic cable TV package (and the only reason we even have that is because the package deal was cheaper than phone and high-speed Internet alone). However, we join them in skipping the newspaper and getting most of our news online and from the radio. I don't currently pay for an online newspaper subscription, although I've thought about signing up for one just to support the struggling papers. But with the New York Times currently charging $5 a week and the Washington Post $2.50 a week, I'm not really convinced it's worth the money. I'd sooner go with a print subscription to the weekly Christian Science Monitor, which works out to only 83 cents a week
  • Grooming products: Like the Petersiks, we skip gel, hairspray, mousse, serum, and other hair products beyond simple shampoo and conditioner. I also join Shari in skipping perfume and all "creams and self tanners." However, while she skips lipstick (but does use bronzer, mascara, concealer, and eye shadow), I use lipstick (a $4 tube from Burt's Bees) for special occasions, concealer (a $1 tube from Wet 'n' Wild) as needed, and nothing else. And, unlike Shari, I skip contact lenses: I used to wear them, but they always got dry and uncomfortable by late afternoon, and Brian actually likes the way I look in my glasses. So now I kick it old school.
  • Services: We join the Petersiks in skipping dry cleaning by choosing clothes that are machine or hand washable (with the exception of one winter coat and Brian's good suit). I skip haircuts too, especially since I've never in my life gotten one I really liked—but unlike Shari, I've never gotten the hang of cutting my husband's hair, so he still goes to the barber a few times a year at $17 a pop. (And then I invariably complain that he made it too short.) I do join Shari in skipping manicures and pedicures, but unlike her, I don't bother polishing my nails at home, either. Just clean them, clip them, and call it good. The Petersiks do have one gym membership for John, but we skip them altogether; Brian gets his exercise by riding to work, and I take an hour-long walk every day, weather allowing. One other thing we skip that the Petersiks have is a cell phone plan. We do have one basic prepaid phone, but it's strictly for emergencies: we do not give out the number, period.
  • Transportation: Like the Petersiks, we've skipped the second car; with me working from home and Brian biking to work as often as possible, there really is no need for it (and fitting two cars into our driveway would be a tight squeeze, too). The Petersiks skip bag-checking fees when flying by only packing carry-ons; we tend to go all the way and skip flying altogether.
  • Kids: This is the biggest difference between our Skip It list and theirs. While the Petersiks skipped some baby-related expenses, like a diaper bag and disposable diapers, we have chosen to skip kids altogether—which means we skip a whole array of other expenses as well. This choice isn't for everyone, obviously, but for us it was the right one. And with nine (count 'em, nine) nieces and nephews, we'll never lack for a connection to the younger generation. We're comfortable with our roles of crazy aunt and uncle; Mom and Dad just wouldn't fit us.
So that's our Skip It list, or at least all of it that I can think of at the moment. How about yours? Do you skip some things that we keep, or keep things that we skip? And what kind of splurges do your skips allow you to enjoy?