Monday, July 28, 2014

An ecofrugal spree

When you live an ecofrugal life, you get quite used to the fact that many things you do every day strike other people as weird. Even today, when such basic frugal techniques as using clotheslines and biking to work have become almost mainstream, many "normal" people are skeeved out by more, shall we say, advanced frugal activities, like trash picking or using rags in place of paper towels. Thus, it's hardly surprising that Brian came in for a bit of ribbing at work when he said that we were planning to celebrate our tenth anniversary with a trip to IKEA. "You should be going to Niagara Falls!" declared one coworker. But the fact is, I've seen Niagara Falls, and if you've seen it once, you've seen it all. Very big, very loud, very wet: that's Niagara Falls in a nutshell. IKEA, by contrast, offers new things to see and explore every time we go there. We tend not to make the trip unless we have something big to buy, since it costs us $8.50 in gas and tolls each time, but we'd already assembled quite a long list of small items we wanted to pick up there on our next trip, so I figured, since it was such a special occasion, maybe we could treat ourselves by going and getting them all now. (I told you we were weird.)

As it turns out, it's just as well there weren't any big items on our list, because we ended up spending about $150 just on small stuff. It might seem like dropping that amount on one shopping trip is anything but ecofrugal, and we certainly would hesitate before spending that much money on, say, a fancy dinner or a pair of theater tickets. However, I would argue that our "splurge" at IKEA was actually money well and wisely spent. Going through our receipt line by line, I can make a case that every single item we bought was an item we actually needed, or at least wanted enough to buy sooner or later, and that buying it at IKEA was the most ecofrugal way to acquire it. Moreover, at least some of the items on our list will actually save us money down the line, or help us in other ways to pursue our ecofrugal lifestyle.

For instance, a few of the items we bought at IKEA were gifts. I won't reveal exactly what they were for fear that some of the intended recipients might be reading this blog, but I can say that all of them were for people we'd have given some sort of gift to anyway come December, and gifts from IKEA are probably less expensive and more sustainably produced than anything we might have found elsewhere. Of course, we might have been able to find them something secondhand, but you can never really plan for that. If we do happen to come across something else for these folks at a nice price, we can still get it, because the presents we have now will hardly break the bank—but if we don't find anything, we know we at least have something to give that they'll appreciate.

Several other items on our list were foodstuffs: coffee, chocolate, and lingonberries. I've already noted on this blog that the UTZ-certified coffee sold in the IKEA Bistro has the best price I've ever found for coffee bearing any kind of Fair Trade certification. It's gone up to $3.99 a bag for the decaf, or $7.25 a pound, but that's still a good $3 less per pound than the best price I've found anywhere else (not counting Costco, which sells an inexpensive but very bitter house blend that I didn't care for at all, and which costs $55 a year to gain access to). Their chocolate bars, unfortunately, don't carry UTZ certification (except for their new extra dark bar), but at 99 cents each, or $2.49 for three, they're certainly a better deal than anything you'll find at the grocery store. As for the lingonberries, I've never even seen them in any other store; a quick search on Google turns up prices ranging from $5.24 to $7.95 per jar, so I think the $3.99 we spent at IKEA is definitely the best price we're likely to get. I don't put much faith in the claims that the claims that lingonberries are some kind of fat-fighting superfood, but there's no denying that Swedish pancakes just don't taste right without them.

The rest of the items we bought were, as you might expect, for the house. Some were functional, some merely decorative, but all of them were, in my view, good deals. Our haul included:
  • Two extra-large "bath sheets." The bath towels we currently use are starting to fray badly around the edges, but I hesitated to buy new ones, thinking that perhaps the more ecofrugal choice would be to try and repair the ones we have. However, Brian pointed out to me that I could still try to do this even if we got new ones; if I succeeded, we could just keep the new ones as guest towels. We'd probably want some extra towels anyway to go with our new guest room, and we'd be unlikely to find them elsewhere for less than $10 each.
  • A basic clear shower curtain. We're hoping it will be a sturdier alternative to the cheap plastic dollar-store ones we're using now, which fall apart after one or two cleanings. The more expensive liners we'd tried in the past all had problems; heavy plastic ones had an awful chemical smell, which I suspected couldn't be any too healthy for us to breathe, while washable polyester ones quickly developed stubborn pinkish stains around the bottom. So this simple sheet of PEVA plastic (a much less nasty alternative to the PVC that made such a stink in our old bathroom) looked like a good middle ground and, at $2, a good bargain.
  • Four chair cushions for the patio set we bought last year. At $13 each, these were probably the biggest splurge on our list, but a Google search on "outdoor chair cushions" shows that they're still cheaper than most competing products.
  • A little Lack end table. This was an impulse purchase of Brian's. He'd been thinking for some time about trying to reconfigure his work space to create a standing desk—or, more accurately, a desk that would allow him to switch off between sitting and standing, as he gets sore staying in either position for too long. He got the idea of setting one of these Lack tables up on top of his existing desk (much like this), so he could move the monitor and keyboard up and back down for standing or sitting. Turns out the computer will need a longer cable to make the idea work, but the basic setup seems to be okay, and $10 for a custom workstation is hard to beat.
  • A battery charger and two packs of AA batteries. Of all our purchases, this is the most clearly an ecofrugal investment. We have some rechargeable batteries already, but they're first-generation NiMH batteries as opposed to the new low self-discharge (LSD) kind. The problem with these old batteries is that they lose their charge quickly, which makes them unsuitable for use in low-drain devices like smoke detectors. So our new LSD batteries can take on those jobs, while our old ones stick to their current job of powering TV remotes, and we'll never have to buy alkaline batteries again. We also invested in a new "smart" charger that automatically shuts off when the batteries are fully charged, rather than just running for a fixed amount of time. This upgrade to our old "dumb" charger will prolong the life of our batteries, both old and new. 
  • This plastic bag dispenser. We're not actually using it to store plastic bags; instead, it's holding the assortment of rags we use in place of paper towels in our kitchen. We used to keep them in a sort of long fabric tube hanging up by the window, but it wasn't a very convenient place for
    them, and it didn't really hold enough of them—plus it was ugly. The new dispenser hangs on the inside of the cabinet door just below the sink, keeping all our rags neatly hidden away, yet within easy reach. So this purchase, too, will be a big boost to our ecofrugal lifestyle.
  • Various odds and ends. We bought a pair of much-needed bookends for $2 each; we could possibly have made some for less, but these are the slim-profile kind, which will allow them to squeeze in between sections on our overcrowded bookshelves. We also grabbed a pack of little stick-on pads that go on the ends of chair legs to keep them from scratching up the floor; this small purchase will help postpone (indefinitely, we hope) the day we have to refinish our wood floors again. And lastly, we grabbed a pack of a product called cable reel that helps keep computer cords neatly tucked out of the way. We've done the same thing with pipe insulation in the past, but this stuff actually costs less per foot and will look a bit less conspicuous.
So while not all of the items we bought can be seen as investment purchases, all of them were items we had a genuine use for and could get more cheaply at IKEA than elsewhere. The only real splurge on our trip was the $11 we spent for lunch at the cafĂ©—and as splurges go, an $11 lunch for two is a pretty small one. Indeed, for an anniversary meal, most people would probably consider it downright lame. But then, as I've already noted, we're not most people. We're weird and we like it that way.
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