Thursday, July 31, 2014

Best budget decor, part 3

One of my favorite features on Blogger is the "stats" section, which lets me see not only how many hits my blog is getting overall, but also which particular posts have been the most popular. That's how I know that over the past month, my second post on budget decor has earned a remarkable number of hits; in addition to being the most-read post of the month, it's reached number nine on the all-time top ten list. (Click on "greatest hits" in the "labels" section to see the others.) Apparently, budget decor is a topic that readers just can't get enough of.

If you happen to be one of those readers who helped skyrocket this post to its current position, you're in luck, because I just happen to have collected several more interesting budget home makeovers to share with you. We'll start, as I did last time, with a budget bathroom redo that I found on a blog called Kruse's Workshop. I can't remember just how I first came across it (it wasn't on either Apartment Therapy or Young House Love, which are my two main sources for interesting room remodels), but it depicts what the blogger calls a "medium scale bathroom remodel" on a budget of $600—and a timeline of only two days. The family didn't move any walls or plumbing fixtures (that would probably have kicked it up to "large scale"), but they retiled the entire room, replacing old, moldy shower tile with floor-to-ceiling white subway tile and replacing the old vinyl floor with new tile as well. Like so many projects, this one grew in scale as it went along, since demoing out the old tile revealed that all the plaster behind it was also moldy and would have to go. But that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it gave them the opportunity to remodel the wall, building in a jumbo-sized niche to hold the lady of the house's extensive collection of bath products, which I think is definitely the bit player that steals the show in this remodel. As for the rest of the room, they kept the old tub, but replaced the plumbing fixtures, and kept the old vanity, but gave it a coat of sharp charcoal-grey paint. Topped off with new window treatments and accessories, the room looks like a brand-new bathroom for just a few Benjamins.

Moving on from bathrooms to kitchens, here are several that I came across at (where else) TheKitchn.com, a sub-site of Apartment Therapy. The first one is a quick spruce-up job in a rental in sunny Mexico. This one is noteworthy not because the space looks so incredible in the "after" pictures, but because of how much the tenant has managed to do with a meager budget of just $150. The "before" space is dark and drab, with beige walls, mismatched furniture, and a sink with exposed pipes. She brightened it with glossy white paint, colorful fabric (which hides the plumbing), and some floating shelves—a couple from Home Depot (I guess they have Home Depot in Mexico) and a DIY painted board in a cheerful, vivid blue. She also brought in a long, low table and some wall racks from IKEA (they don't have IKEA in Mexico, but she found them on eBay) to provide much-needed counter and storage space. The finished kitchen is still small, still plain, but it's small and bright and cheery rather than small and dull and depressing. (Reminds me a bit of my first apartment's kitchen, with its teeny-tiny block of countertop that I ended up covering in wood-grain contact paper to make it look more presentable, and its teeny-tiny little eating area into which I managed to squeeze an IKEA gateleg table that folded up against the wall. It was still kind of shabby, truth be told, but it was homey.)

The next kitchen redo is a much bigger room, but its budget is still quite petite at only $500. In the "before" pictures, everything is dark: dark wood cabinets, dark fixtures, dark stone counters, and dark grey paint on the walls. Without actually moving anything, the owners brightened the room from top to bottom, with a lighter paint color on the walls, a coat of crisp white paint on the cabinets (with dark hardware for contrast), and new butcher block countertops (once again, from IKEA) that they actually cut and installed themselves. The homeowner says these new countertops took up "nearly all" of her $500 budget, but they're her favorite part of the remodel. Personally, I think my favorite touches are the DIY pendant lamp, made from a craft-store basket, and the whimsical yardstick backsplash, which she came up with while roaming up and down the aisles of Lowe's looking for something she could afford to install with the dregs she had left in her budget. Necessity truly is the mother of invention! (You can see still more photos from this remodel on the homeowner's site, Ashley Ann Photography.)

TheKitchn.com bills the next remodel as a $500 budget as well, but a look at the more detailed post on the homeowner's site reveals that this isn't strictly true: she planned to do the whole room on a $500 budget, but her husband surprised her with the gift of a new fridge, so her final cost turned out to be $497 plus the cost of a nice new counter-depth side-by-side fridge. These aren't cheap—the ones reviewed by Consumer Reports start at around $1400—so the total cost of this redo was almost certainly over my $1,000 limit for a true budget remodel, but I just had to include it because it is such an AMAZING transformation. The "before" pictures are so utterly plain and drab and dingy, and the "after" ones look like you've stepped into the kitchen of a chic country inn...in Tuscany...in the 1930s. The homeowner painted absolutely everything in this room: the old metal cabinets, the old Formica counters, even the linoleum floor. And when I say painted, I don't mean she just slapped a fresh color on there; she created a faux aged-plaster look on the walls, she stenciled an elaborate design onto the floor, and she redid the counters with a color and faux finish that she made up all by herself. If I set out to do a project on this scale, it would probably take me years just to choose all those paint finishes, let alone execute them. I mean, I am in awe.

Now, to be fair, she didn't actually transform the entire room with just paint. In fact, she brought in a lot of pieces that she already owned, so they didn't count toward her $500 budget, some of which would cost well over $500 to buy. For instance, she replaced the perfectly decent, utilitarian gas range (in fact, from the pictures it looks like exactly the same one we have) with a magnificent vintage stove from the 1940s. To buy a piece like this, you'd probably have to scour antique sites and shell out a couple of grand for it. She also had a really cool old workbench that just happened to fit perfectly into an unused back corner (though she points out that if you don't have one of these lying around, you could always "tear off the counter top of your kitchen island and put a cool old wooden door on top of it, or an old chunky counter from a bar you find in a rehab thrift store or at a garage sale"). But what makes the room for me isn't these big pieces; it's the tiny touches she mocked up on a shoestring, like the fascinating window treatments made of old European grain sacks and the umbrellas that she hung as wall decorations because "I had them in my basement and I was too lazy to go hunt for something better."

What inspires me most of all about this remodel is the fact that she painted her countertops even though, like ours, they have those annoying metal strips on them to hold down the laminate. Every tutorial I'd ever seen on painting over laminate assumed that you were starting with a smooth, bare expanse of counter, so I figured that having those strips in the way meant painting the countertops wasn't an option for us. But if she could do it, who knows, maybe I could too. She says all she did was clean them well, sand them lightly, and then apply two coats of primer, two of paint, the faux finish, and multiple coats of water-based poly. That's not too different from what I did on my bathroom vanity, so...why not? True, I had hoped to get rid of those metal strips because they always seem to trap dirt, but perhaps with a darker color on the counters that wouldn't matter so much.

If you still think it's cheating to include a kitchen redo that didn't really come in under $1,000, then perhaps I can make it up to you by wrapping up this edition with the most absolutely bare-bones budget I've ever seen for any room redo, anywhere. This homeowner, featured in Sunset magazine, perked up her entire kitchen using nothing but paint for a mere $30. No, not $300: $30, three-zero. When most kitchen remodels featured on TV and in magazines involve budgets of five figures or even more, this person redid her kitchen with two. Admittedly, all she really did was change the colors, but the pictures accompanying the article show what a big difference a simple change like this can really make. The space she started with was dark and dated, sporting a brown-on-brown color scheme; the redesigned space, with its pale yellow cabinets and bright blue appliances, looks cheery and whimsical. The article mentions that she also transformed a wall cabinet by removing some doors and "exposing the handsome beadboard paneling," and even turned one of these removed doors into a new table—but there aren't any before-and-after pics of this part of the room, so it's hard to evaluate the impact of this part of the redo. But even the bit that you can see is a pretty remarkable transformation for a mere 30 smackers. Just goes to show how much you can do by replacing money with imagination.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

9 ways to beat Costco at its own game

Recently, in my peregrinations about the Web, I came across an article called "9 Items that Will Single-Handedly Pay for Your Costco Membership." I read it with interest, since this is an issue on which I've personally gone back and forth repeatedly. Back in 2006, I used a free day pass to check out BJ's Wholesale Club and concluded that the prices there weren't good enough to offset the membership fee. However, in 2012, I visited Costco with my in-laws and discovered that this club offered much better deals than those found at BJ's, including great prices on Fair Trade coffee and organic sugar, which could make the cost of membership worthwhile. But then, when I finally tasted the Costco coffee, I found that I didn't like it at all, so I flipped back to my original position: for us, a Costco membership wouldn't pay for itself. Now here was this financial blogger, Joel Larsgaard, claiming to have identified nine different items that could each pay for the cost of a membership all by themselves. Could he be right? Might this article be the key to justifying the membership fee after all?

Sadly, the answer was no. I read through the list and found that most of the items on it were things we either don't buy at all or don't buy nearly often enough to justify paying $55 a year for a better deal. Moreover, for most of them, I could immediately think of alternatives that would cost just as little as Costco's price, if not less, and without the membership fee. So here's my line-by-line list of 9 Items You Can Get for Even Less than They Cost at Costco:

1. Tires. Larsgaard starts off his list with the question, "Where’s the last place you got new tires? If it wasn’t a warehouse club you probably paid too much." Well, as it happens, I just bought three new tires last month, and I got them for 27 percent less than the price quoted by my trusted local mechanic. The tire they recommended, the General Altimax (one of very few tires that's available in the correct size for our Fit), wasn't familiar to me, so I went to check out some customer reviews of it at TireBuyer.com—and I discovered that the price there was over $30 less per tire. When I asked Schwartz and Nagle about the price difference, they admitted quite candidly that they couldn't compete with the prices of a "tire wholesaler" like TireBuyer, and they thought it would be perfectly reasonable to order from there and have the tires shipped to them for installation. (The fact that they didn't try to talk us out of it is one of the reasons I love these mechanics so much.) So, even with the cost of shipping, I saved $95 on just three tires, which is better than the "$70-80 off certain brand of tires at different times of year" Larsgaard says you can get at Costco. (Even he admits that buying tires online is a "legitimate" alternative to getting them from Costco, though he recommends TireRack.com instead.) Moreover, when I went to the tire finder at Costco.com to see what their price would be on the same tires, I found that they don't offer them—or any other tire sized for a Honda Fit. So if you drive a Fit, you can't save a penny by buying tires at Costco. Next?

2. Lunch. Larsgaard says Costco makes "a fantastic place for a date": just stroll around munching on free samples, then top it off with a big 1/4-pound hot dog and a frozen yogurt from the lunch counter for just a couple of bucks. The problem with this for us is that I don't eat meat unless it's free-range, which I assume a $1 hot dog is not. For those who do, I'll admit, the Costco cafeteria looks like probably the cheapest place you'll ever find to go out for lunch—but as several folks point out in the comments below the article, you don't actually have to be a member to eat there. (Note, however, that according to this post on LifeHacker, nonmembers can use the lunch counter only if it's located outside the main store, so you don't need to show your member card to get in.) Alternatively, you could just put together a picnic lunch of some home-baked bread (47 cents), Aldi string cheese (93 cents), and a bar of IKEA chocolate (99 cents) for the same "just over $2" you'd spend at Costco, and take it down to the park to eat, say, on a blanket beside a lake. That seems like a much more "incredibly romantic" date to me than chomping on a hot dog at a noisy lunch counter.

3. Movie tickets. According to Larsgaard, these are a little-known deal at Costco: $17 or less for a pair of tickets, as opposed to the $11-$13 per ticket you'd pay at the theater. That's a significant savings, to be sure, but there are plenty of ways to see a movie for even less. For instance, you can go to a discount theater, if there's one in your area, and pay as little as a dollar per ticket; you can go to a preview screening for free; or, my favorite, you can take home a DVD from your local library, snuggle up on the couch, and skip all the annoying previews, screaming kids, sticky floors, and overpriced snacks. You can even pause the film when you want a bathroom break, rather than climbing over the laps of several disapproving strangers.

4. Baby formula. Larsgaard calls this "probably the sickest value proposition Costco offers," costing less than half what you'd pay at the grocery store. Obviously, this is a savings only for those who have a baby to feed. But if you do, you'll save significantly more by breast-feeding. Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar calculates the cost of a year's worth of formula at over $1,700; by contrast, a good breast pump, which makes breast-feeding feasible for a working mom, only costs about $225. You'd have to cut the cost of formula by over 80 percent to beat that. (Of course, there are all sorts of other considerations to factor in when choosing between breast-feeding and bottle-feeding, and every mother has to make the choice based on her own individual situation. However, if you're looking at the question strictly in terms of cold, hard cash, the breast definitely wins. (How often do you see that phrase in print?))

5. Luggage. Larsgaard says Costco gave him a great deal on his last purchase of luggage: just $100 for "two fantastic pieces" with a lifetime guarantee. I'll admit that, if you have a genuine need for two new pieces of luggage, this deal is pretty hard to beat. But how often do you actually need to replace your luggage? I've been using the same carry-on bag for over ten years now, and while I'm not exactly a frequent flier anymore, it certainly got plenty of use when I was flying across the country to visit Brian several times a year. And when it finally gives up the ghost, I'll probably replace it with a simple duffel bag like this $45 one from L.L. Bean, which is lightweight, fits in most luggage bins, and is also backed by an unconditional lifetime warranty. I guess if you're a real frequent traveler, you might need something more elaborate, but even so, if the luggage Larsgaard bought is really built to last a lifetime as he claims, then it's only a one-time savings. At best, this purchase could offset the cost of his membership for one year–not every year. So perhaps if you happen to need a new set of luggage, it's worth getting a membership for one year just for this purchase (and then get as much use out of it as you possibly can before it expires).

6. Guarantees. Luggage isn't the only purchase that Costco backs with a money-back guarantee; according to Larsgaard, they actually pledge to refund the full cost of your membership at any time if you're dissatisfied. I think that's a commendable policy, but I don't see how it can actually "pay for the cost of your membership." If you keep your membership, then you don't save anything; if you rescind your membership, you're back to where you started. The only way to actually come out ahead would be to sign up for a membership, buy lots of stuff at a discount, and then ask for your money back, which seems unsportsmanlike to say the least.

7. Wine. Larsgaard admits that he doesn't buy wine at Costco himself, not being a wine fancier, but he claims that those who know their wines say Costco offers some surprisingly good vintages at bargain prices. There's even a blog devoted entirely to reviews of Costco wines; I checked out their "best of 2013" list and found a dozen recommendations ranging from $12 to $40 a bottle. Now, I'm not a wine drinker either, but I've always assumed that if I were, my go-to store would be Trader Joe's. It doesn't have an entire site all to itself, but this article from the Wellesley Wine Press recommends eight TJ's wines, all priced under $11. In other words, all eight of them beat the prices of the top Costco wines. (Trader Joe's famous "Three-Buck Chuck," from Charles Shaw, did not make the list.) I don't know if anyone's ever held a head-to-head taste-off between Trader Joe's wine and Costco's, so I couldn't actually tell you which ones taste better, but if all you want is a decent, drinkable wine at a bargain price, it looks to me like Trader Joe's is the place to go. And they won't hit you up for $55 before letting you in the door.

8. Rotisserie chickens & pizza. Apparently, at Costco you can buy a whole rotisserie chicken for only $5. This, like the hot dogs, is only a good deal if you eat meat (or meat that isn't free-range, which I'm assuming a $5 chicken is not). However, if you don't care about how the chicken you eat was raised, you can get one at the supermarket for about $1.50 a pound—so around $4.50 for a 3-pound bird—and roast it yourself. Get it on sale, and you might pay as little as $1 a pound. As for the pizza, I don't know what Costco charges for it (Larsgaard doens't say, and it's not listed on their website), but I absolutely guarantee you that a homemade pizza will cost less. Plus you can make it exactly the way you like—whole-wheat crust, gluten-free crust, extra cheese, fancy toppings, whatever—without paying an arm and a leg for it.

9. Gas. Larsgaard says he doesn't use this one much himself, as the line at the Costco is usually too long, but he claims that if you catch it when it's short, you can save up to 30 cents a gallon. I checked the price on a site called NewJerseyGasPrices.com, and it says our nearest Costco currently charges $3.17 a gallon, while our local Sunoco charges $3.19. So by driving to the Costco to get our gas, we could save as much as 15 cents on each fill-up—but the extra 6.6 miles of driving would burn up 52 cents' worth of gas, leaving us 37 cents to the bad. Of course, presumably if you're a Costco member you simply take the opportunity to fill up when you're there—but if the lines are as bad as Larsgaard says they are, the gas you burn just waiting to fill up might be enough to use up your 2-cent-per-gallon savings.

So it looks like my current position on Costco remains unchanged: while it would probably be lots of fun to have a membership, it wouldn't actually save us money. At this time, the only item I'm aware of that we could save a significant amount on by shopping there is organic sugar—but even at a savings of 75 cents a pound, we'd need to get through over 70 pounds a year to pay for the membership. And I think consuming that much sugar would probably end up costing us more than $55 a year in health care bills.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

ORB Fail

As I've noted before and will no doubt note again, Brian and I tend to take a slow and steady approach to remodeling/redecorating our house. We spend a lot of time deliberating over what we actually want to do in each rooms, considering lots of different options, weighing all the pros and cons, and making sure that we're actually happy with what we've chosen before we plunge in. For instance, it took over a year from the time I first considered installing a brown-paper floor in our basement to the time we actually started the project, and it took another full month before the project was finished. Likewise, I first posted about our plans to redo the small bedroom back in April, and so far, all we've actually done is to acquire a new futon—and even that was mostly a happy accident.

Thus, it will probably come as no surprise that my idea for redoing the handles on our kitchen cabinets by spray-painting them in an oil-rubbed bronze (ORB) finish took 18 months to come to fruition. I first settled on ORB back in January of 2013; in April, we actually took the plunge and bought a can of the ORB spray paint; and it was over a year later that we actually applied it to any of the handles. The main reason it took us so long is that we initially assumed we'd want to take all the handles off all the cabinets at once, clean them thoroughly, spray them with at least two coats, and then reinstall them—and while that's not a huge project, it's one that will noticeably disrupt the kitchen for at least a day or two. We also knew that some of the cabinet doors themselves, which we stripped completely and refinished when we first bought the house, were in need of a little touch-up refinishing, so we had it in mind that maybe we should do that job and paint the handles at the same time, "to save time." The result being, of course, that we turned the project into such a big hassle that we just kept putting off tackling it at all.

Eventually, Brian hit on the notion that we didn't necessarily have to do all the doors at once; we could take down just the two that were in worst shape, refinish those, and spray the handles at the same time. Perhaps it wouldn't be as efficient as doing everything at once, but it would be a much smaller project that we could easily handle without having to set aside a whole weekend for it. So back in June, Brian took down the two most heavily used cabinet doors and transformed them, with sandpaper, water-based finish, and ORB spray, from the "before" picture you see on the left to the "after" on the right.


I quite liked the result and was eager to get the rest of the doors done too, but what with one thing and another, it was a few weeks before we got around to tackling the next pair of doors that needed work. This turned out to be a good thing, as it had become apparent by then that the painted finish on these handles wasn't all that durable. Within a week or two, the paint started to chip and peel—not completely, but just in tiny little flecks that let the underlying finish show through. Take a look at the extreme close-up below, and you can see it quite clearly.


So, as is so often the case, our endless procrastination actually worked in our favor, as it saved us the trouble of ORB'ing all 23 of our cabinet handles only to find that the finish didn't hold up. The bad news was that this failure meant we'd need to take the plunge and buy new handles after all. But the good news was that it took me just a quick search to locate a quite nice-looking set of ORB handles on Overstock.com, which cost only $45 including shipping—and, since I had cash in my PayPal account from survey rewards, it actually cost us nothing at all out of pocket.

Those new handles are winging their way to us now, and when they arrive, installing them will be a simple matter of undoing and replacing two screws on each handle. That's a job I can easily do all by myself during the day, which means it will probably get done much faster than a job Brian and I have to set aside time for on a weekend. And we'll even have nice, clean doors to attach them to, since after all this dawdling and delay, we finally got around to sanding and refinishing the damaged sections of the cabinet doors last night. After all that pussyfooting about, it turned out to be quite a small job that only took an hour or so.

As for the $8 we spent on the can of ORB spray, I don't think that will go to waste, either. We can still use it on the cabinet hinges, which probably won't wear nearly as fast as the handles did because we hardly ever touch them directly. That will save us the expense of replacing all 23 pairs of hinges to match the new handles.

Of course, at the rate we usually go, it will probably be a year before we actually get around to the job of ORB'ing the hinges. But at least we'll know we have a plan.

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.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Frugalversary

Today, Brian and I are celebrating our tenth anniversary. According to this list on Wikipedia, the traditional gift for the tenth anniversary is tin, a material that isn't used that much these days; many things that would once have been made of tin are now made of plastic, which isn't traditional for anything. Still, I thought it would be nice to come up with an anniversary present for Brian that featured some sort of twist on the tin theme.

After toying with the idea of tin for a while (tin soldiers? tintinnabulation? a tin of sardines?) it occurred to me that, as we're both fans of board games, perhaps I could find some game that had "tin" in the title. I already knew there was a game called Brass, so this didn't seem like too much of a stretch. So I did a search for "tin" on BoardGameGeek.com, and at the top of the list was Dungeon in a Tin, described as "a solo or cooperative dungeon-hack." The gimmick is that all the pieces for the game—dungeon tiles, monster dice, treasure, tokens, and so on—can fit into an Altoids tin. Moreover, since the game was designed for a "One Full-Sheet Label" competition, all the printable parts of the game fit onto a single sheet of label paper. How elegant!

The print-and-play version of the game wasn't available on the Board Game Geek site, but a quick Google search led me to the correct page on the game designer's site. He had copies of the rules and the label printouts in both color and black-and-white, sized for both A4 (British) and 8.5-by-11 paper. The only other pieces required to make the game were a single sheet of cardboard (which I could easily get by salvaging a cereal box from the recycling bin), eight dice, assorted tokens, and a tin to keep it in. A quick calculation showed that I could probably put the whole thing together for under $5. True, the game only earned a middling rating from the Board Game Geeks who tried it—about 6.5 stars out of 10—but at that price, what did I have to lose? I knew Brian would be tickled with the idea of it, whether the game itself turned out to be loads of fun or not.

Assembling the game proved to be a little bit trickier than I expected. The rule sheet suggested using 19-mm indented blank dice, which aren't something you can just walk into a store and buy. They had some on Amazon.com, but the shipping would have cost more than the dice themselves. So in the end, I just bought a 10-pack of standard 6-sided dice at the game store. By printing the label sheet out slightly reduced, I ended up with square stickers that would just fit onto the sides of these slightly smaller dice. The actual printing was another unexpected snag; although I had some full-sheet labels handy, our colored ink cartridge chose this time to be uncooperative. First it was completely out of blue ink; then, after Brian refilled the blue, the yellow and magenta wouldn't come out properly. We eventually ended up giving in and buying a whole new colored ink cartridge (though we still saved a bit of money by choosing the Office Depot brand for $17, rather than the official HP cartridge for $21). And then, once the colored ink was working, the black ink ran out and needed to be refilled as well for everything to print properly. So I kept having to ask Brian to refill or otherwise fiddle with the ink cartridges without giving away what I was trying to print, sidestepping his offers to just forward it to him so he could print it out at work. But in the end, I was able to produce a readable sheet of labels and attach them to the cardboard or to the dice, as appropriate.

As for the other components, I used bread tabs (which we had a good-sized collection of) for the experience point and level tokens, soda can tabs (which I thought vaguely resembled padlocks) for the "locked door" tokens, and a small bead I had from who knows where for the "Heart token" that keeps track of your hit points. And I found a suitable tin to hold everything for only 15 cents at a yard sale, thus saving myself the trouble of buying and consuming a whole tin of mints in one month. And presto: a whimsical and appropriate anniversary gift for a total cost of $1.22 (not counting the cost of the new ink cartridge, which we would have had to buy sooner or later anyway).

Brian's gift to me was equally ecofrugal. He, too, played around with the idea of tin and hit on the idea of making me a flower out of sheet tin as a romantic gesture. He originally planned to use some little tin sheets like this that he found at Lowe's, but they turned out to be too hard to work with, and he ended up cutting himself pretty badly on the sharp edge. (Alas, a sacrifice for love!) So he switched to the medium of tin foil (which is actually made of aluminum, but Wikipedia says that's traditional too, at least in America), which he was able to fold, twist, and curl into a very reasonable flower-like shape without risk of bloodshed. Isn't it purty? As for the cost, you can calculate it as either (1) nothing, since we already had the aluminum foil on hand; (2) a few cents, since a 75-square-foot roll of aluminum foil costs about two bucks, and he didn't use more than a foot or two; or (3) $2.73 for the one sheet of tin he used (and therefore can't return) before he figured out that this material wasn't going to work. But no matter how you calculate it, we spent less than $4 total on two gifts that were charming, whimsical, and exactly right for each other.

Of course, we then went out and spent nearly $150 at IKEA on our anniversary celebration binge. But that's okay; even though it's far more money than we'd normally spend in one place at one time, you can make a case that every single item we bought there was an ecofrugal choice as well. But that's a subject for another post.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Bag Problem

One of the staples of an ecofrugal lifestyle is the reusable shopping bag. A single reusable bag, costing as little as 99 cents, can replace literally hundreds of disposable plastic bags, and at many stores, you even save a few cents each time you use it. The only problem with them is that you often have to be quick about using them; sometimes, the checkers will have your purchases scanned and bagged before you can get out the words, "I have my own bag." I find I'm running into this problem less often as reusable bags become more common, but I still get caught out once in a while and end up having to tuck a disposable bag of new items into my reusable bag, which makes me feel like an idiot.

The one place I've never run across this problem before is Aldi. Unlike most stores, Aldi actually charges a direct fee for each disposable bag you use, so reusable bags there are the standard. I've seen people shopping with all kinds of containers, from the standard fabric grocery bag to a cardboard shipping box, and the checkers aren't fazed by them. Since we usually buy a lot of bulky items at Aldi, we generally shop with a collapsible plastic crate that we got from my sister-in-law. Instead of taking a cart, we just go through the aisles filling up the crate with items that we then unload onto the checkout conveyer. When we get to the front of the line, Brian props the crate against the end of the checkout counter, and the checker scans our purchases and dumps them directly into the crate. Sometimes Brian has to rearrange them a little as they come down the line to make everything fit nicely, but by the time the checker gives the total, everything is already "bagged" and ready to go. No fuss, no muss.

Or at least, that's how it's always worked until now.

Last Saturday, we went to Aldi and bought a fairly large amount of stuff (though not too much to fit in our crate). However, when Brian propped up the crate as usual and prepared to receive the groceries, the checker said, "I'll put these at the other end, it'll be faster." We then stared dumbfounded as she proceeded to scan each item and dump it, not into the crate we had ready, but at the back of the pile, just behind the divider that separated our stuff from that of the person behind us. Brian tried to explain, "No, really, I have a crate right here, you can just put them right in," but she kept insisting that it was "faster" to put all our items at the end of the line, where we would have to bag them all after she was finished scanning them, rather than straight into our container. She seemed oblivious to the fact that she was not only adding an extra, unnecessary step to the process, but also creating a risk that some of our items would end up being scanned twice—or that they would end up mixed in with the groceries of the person behind us and would never make it into our crate at all.

Brian and I did our best to adapt to this awkward situation on the fly. Since he was at the end of the line and I was next to the conveyer, I started grabbing the items as the checker threw them at me and tossing them back to Brian so that he could put them into the crate. Then he said, "Here, let's just switch places," and I squeezed past him to the end of the line while he took the crate to the back and started hastily loading in the items that were piling up there. It was a lot slower than usual, but he managed to get everything loaded in by the time I'd finished paying for everything. As we took the receipt and our change, he noted to the checker, "By the way, that really wasn't faster than what we usually do," and she said, "No, trust me, I've been working here five years and this is the best way to do it. See, you can tell it was faster because I was done scanning everything before you were finished bagging." Well, of course she was done scanning before we were done bagging; that's because she turned bagging into an extra step! If she'd just done what every other checker we've ever had at Aldi has done, the scanning and bagging would all have been done at once, and we wouldn't have wasted extra time transferring the groceries to the end of the line and back again!

What really bugs me is that not only did she insist on doing things in this idiotic, inefficient way, but she also insisted that it was store policy. She said something like, "There's actually supposed to be a cart here, so you can just take your groceries over there and bag them and not hold up the line. So you see, it doesn't save any time." Now, I can see how a policy like this sort of makes sense; if you have people who need to sort their cartful of groceries into individual bags, then it makes more sense to scan all their purchases and dump them back into the cart, then have the customers get out of the way while they bag them. But what she couldn't realize was that, in our case, the crate actually was serving as our cart and our bag at the same time. I guess her training didn't cover that situation, so she concluded that the crate was a "bag" and therefore the proper place to fill it was at the bagging station, separate from the checkout, and it would be inefficient to fill it at the checkout. And once she had that idea in her head, nothing—not even the evidence of her own eyes—could convince her that it wasn't so. Look, store policy says that groceries get bagged at the bagging station, not at the checkout! So you have to do it that way, whether you're actually using bags or not!

At this point, I'm just hoping that this checker we encountered was simply a single, isolated idiot, and all we have to do in future is avoid her checkout. What worries me is that maybe Aldi really is training its checkers to follow this dumb, inefficient practice, and we might start encountering it every time we shop there. If that happens, we'll be forced to start taking a cart into the store so the checkers will have their expected receptacle to put the groceries into—and then taking extra time afterward to transfer everything from the cart to the crate in the name of "saving time" at the checkout.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A fortuitous find

Remember my post last year about how I thought I must have some kind of thrift-store mojo that allows me to find items secondhand after I've tried shopping for them online? Well, apparently it also works for yard sales.

As I noted last April, Brian and I have decided to redo our small back bedroom as a guest room. Since the room is so tiny, our plan was to get a daybed that could be tucked in the corner and serve as a couch most of the time. We had our eye on this one from IKEA, which can be either a single or a double bed and even has drawers underneath for storage. The snag is that it's $300 for just the frame, plus another $180 to $300 for the mattresses, which seemed like a bit much to spend on a piece that's only going to be used on those rare occasions when we have multiple guests in the house. Still, we figured it was worth at least taking a look, since we're planning to celebrate our tenth anniversary this Friday with a trip to IKEA (because yes, that really is our idea of a romantic celebration). I even added the daybed and mattresses to the shopping list I made for the trip on the IKEA website—but then I reconsidered and removed them, since we weren't sure yet about getting them.

Then, yesterday afternoon, we decided to go out for a walk. We didn't have any particular destination or plan, other than enjoying the pleasant summer weather. We wended our way through town and found ourselves up on the north side, where we spotted a sign advertising a yard sale several blocks away. It said the sale was going until 2pm, and it was already 1:45, so we weren't sure it would be worth trying, but since we had no place else in particular to go, we thought it couldn't hurt to check it out and see whether there was anything left going for cheap.

We found the sale easily enough and found that, in addition to a few books and oddments, there were a couple of large items that hadn't sold yet—including a nice  "lounger" type futon and frame, which can be set up as a love seat and expands into a double bed with the addition of a separate cushion. All the pieces were there and in reasonably good condition; the larger mattress cover was a bit worn, but it could be replaced for $50 or so. I said casually to Brian, "What do you think about that for the small bedroom?" The seller, scenting a sale, told us that the futon was from White Lotus, a local shop that sells very nice and sturdy pieces (we know, because we already have two of them). He also indicated that he was very eager to sell: "I just don't want it to go into a landfill and I don't want it to go back into my storage unit." After a careful examination and a bit of deliberation amongst ourselves, we countered his asking price of $100 with an offer of $50, and we ended up settling on $70. I ran down to the bank to withdraw the cash while Brian went home to fetch the car, and we got everything loaded up with ease. The seller even threw in the two bungee cords that were binding up the larger futon cushion.

So simply by following a yard sale sign on a whim, we managed to get a bed for our new guest room for only $70—at least $310 less than we'd have spent at IKEA. Actually, we're toying with the idea of moving this new futon down to our current guest room, which doubles as a seating area in the big downstairs room, and moving the one we have there now upstairs. Both pieces are double-width loungers, but the new one has arms, so it will probably be a little wider when set up, which means it probably makes more sense to put it in the larger room and put the narrower one upstairs. (Besides, the covers the futon currently has would coordinate well with the color scheme downstairs, which means we might be able to go on using them a bit longer rather than replacing them right away.) But either way, we're off to a great start at redoing this room on a shoestring budget.

Maybe I should go browse at HomeDepot.com for paint and hardware, add some likely-looking supplies to my online shopping cart, and then delete them. Then if I end up coming across the very same items at the next yard sale we encounter, I'll know I definitely have some kind of superpower. (Have no fear, Bargain Hunter is here!)

Friday, July 18, 2014

The expandable house

When I was growing up, we didn't have guests over very often. Occasionally we might have one or two people to dinner, but the only time we really had a houseful of guests was at Thanksgiving, when my dad's whole side of the family (his mom, his two brothers, and later, their spouses and my cousin) would come for the whole weekend. At those times, my mom would often say that she wished her house were expandable. Our modest 3-bedroom, 1.5-bath house was plenty of room for just the four of us, but it wasn't enough to hold the whole family comfortably. And nowadays, the problem is even more extreme; the house is more than big enough for the two of them since my sister and I moved out, but the Thanksgiving guest list has now grown to four couples plus two kids. Mom definitely doesn't need or want a bigger house on an everyday basis; having more rooms would just invite more stuff to fill them up. But it would sure come in handy to have a few extra rooms that could be folded up and stored most of the time, where they wouldn't have to be cleaned or heated and cooled, and then set up just for that one weekend.

What struck me about this the last time she mentioned it is that, in essence, an expandable house is exactly what Brian and I have now. We have the rooms we use every day––the living room, the office, the bedroom, the kitchen––and then we have the whole downstairs as, essentially, that extra expansion that we can set up when we have guests. Moreover, it doesn't have just one function; it has been, at various times, a guest bedroom (with its own bath), a board-game parlor, and a music room. (No wonder we had so much trouble coming up with a name for it.) And since it's not in use most of the time, at other times it doesn't need to be cleaned (beyond a quick sweeping or wipe with a rag) or heated in the winter. The very fact that it's not used every day, but only as needed, makes it actually one of the most useful rooms in the whole house.

Thinking about our extra room in these terms makes me feel better about our decision to turn our small room into an additional guest room. I settled on that use for it because I couldn't think a better one, but part of me still felt like I really ought to try to turn the room into some kind of space we would use every day, rather than a guest room that will almost never be used at all. But when I think of our house as expandable, containing the rooms we live in plus the extra rooms we use for guests, then it becomes obvious that by making this room a guest room, we're simply adding it to the expandable part of the house rather than the everyday part. And since we already have all the space we need for our everyday activities, adding this extra room to the expandable section is clearly the best use for it.

Moreover, even after it becomes part of the expansion, this room can still do double duty for all the everyday functions it has now: starting seedlings in the spring, storing cookbooks and pet supplies, sorting our recycling, and wrapping gifts before the holidays. It won't just be changing from one type of room to another; it'll actually be several rooms in one. In fact, maybe we can refer to it by different names––the guest room, the conservatory, the lumber room, or even the recycling room––depending on what we're doing in it at the time.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

DIY deodorant testing

In the latest issue of The Dollar Stretcher, an author who goes by "Olivia W" shares her top three tips for reducing her food bill. One of them is to make as many as possible of her personal hygiene products, such as shampoo and toothpaste. She says her "biggest, simplest change" in this area was switching to plain baking soda, applied with a powder puff, as a deodorant. She considers this a "much healthier alternative to the chemicals found in commercial deodorants," as well as a money saver, and says it "works like a charm."

I found this interesting, because as it happens, I'd tried baking soda as a deodorant myself about six years ago. My primary goal at the time was not to save money, though I hoped that might be a bonus; it was to find a cruelty-free deodorant that actually worked. As I posted to the Dollar Stretcher forum at the time, "Most of the big brands use animal testing, and the few that don't (like Tom's of Maine) tend to be both expensive and not very effective. So I was wondering whether making my own deodorant at home would be a practical possibility."

Knowing that both baking soda and vinegar could be used to deodorize spaces in the home (like the fridge or the garbage pail), I wondered whether they would also work on my armpits. So I did a bit of searching online and found several suggestions for ways to use one or the other:
  • plain baking soda, applied with a damp washcloth
  • a mixture of baking soda and alcohol in a spray bottle
  • a solution of vinegar or lavender oil in a spray bottle
  • a mixture of baking soda, corn starch, olive oil, and a nice-smelling essential oil, rubbed into the skin with the fingers
In addition to these, my cohorts on the Dollar Stretcher forum came up with several suggestions:
  • cornstarch scented with essential oil, which one user found effective on her very light perspiration
  • oil of oregano, diluted with olive oil
  • strong sage tea
  • tea tree extract
  • antibacterial cream, which one user said "works very well, but it's neither frugal nor natural"
  • frequent washing
  • milk of magnesia (one user said she "had some generic...and decided to try it," and she found it "works wonderful")
  • change of diet (various users suggested giving up onions, broccoli, beef, fish, and dairy)
  • a mix of alcohol and water, with a few drops of vegetable glycerine and a drop of fragrance oil
  • hydrogen peroxide
I started working my way through these suggestions, beginning with the simplest and cheapest. Baking soda, applied with a damp washcloth, didn't work noticeably. Apple cider vinegar, applied with a cotton ball, worked better than the baking soda (and better than the $3 deodorant from Trader Joe's that I'd been using as a stopgap measure), but it couldn't eliminate all odor. I then moved on to full-strength alcohol, applied with a cotton ball; 3% hydrogen peroxide, applied the same way; and alcohol mixed with baking soda in a spray bottle. None of these had any appreciable effect. 

At this point, I'd tried all the ingredients I had ready to hand. Changing my diet seemed like a pretty complicated and uncertain way to deal with the problem, especially if it involved giving up my morning cup of cocoa. I eliminated oil of oregano from the list because a website I consulted warned against it, saying it was too irritating to the skin, even when diluted. That left two untested ingredients that were both available at my local drugstore: tea tree oil, which was $10 for one ounce, and milk of magnesia, which was $4 for a 12-ounce bottle. Not knowing whether either of these would be effective, I decided to go with the smaller investment. It seemed completely bizarre, but it was only about the same price as one tube of deodorant, and if it didn't work, we could still try it out for stomachaches.

Well, to my great surprise, it did work. A little dab of milk of magnesia, applied to the underarms with a cotton ball, actually kept odor at bay as well as most commercial deodorants. Unfortunately, it also had a side effect. When taken orally, milk of magnesia is a laxative as well as an antibiotic—and I was disconcerted to discover that it seemed to have the same effect when applied topically. I can't explain how this was possible, because I wouldn't expect the stuff to be absorbed through the skin, but after a few days, it became quite clear that the effect was real and not coincidental. So I hastily stopped using it and switched back to my stick deodorant.

At that point, I decided to call a halt to the experiment. Everything I'd already tried had been unsatisfactory in one way or another, and I'd also managed to find a brand of commercial deodorant (Mitchum) that, while not labeled as cruelty-free, was at least not listed as a brand to avoid on the Caring Consumer site. However, this story turned out to have a postscript. A couple of years ago, a friend offered me a bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer that she couldn't use because the fragrance bothered her. I'm not a regular user of hand sanitizer (I prefer plain old soap and water when available), but I accepted it thinking it might come in handy for something. And spotting it one day on my dresser, I decided on a whim to try dabbing some under my arms to see how it did as a deodorant. Since the active ingredient in this stuff is alcohol, which hadn't worked for me, I wasn't expecting it to work—but to my surprise, it did. Maybe having it in the form of a gel made it stay put better on my skin, or maybe it was the type of alcohol that was different, but for whatever reason, it actually kept the odor at bay. So, given that it was both much cheaper than stick deodorant and much lighter on packaging, I decided to keep using it.

I've since found that, as a deodorant, alcohol sanitizer has its limits. For one, it's a deodorant only, not an antiperspirant—which isn't really a drawback for me, but it might be for some people. Also, it's not as strong as the Mitchum deodorant. It will keep me odor-free during light activity in moderate temperatures, but not during a vigorous workout or on a very hot day. So now I use sanitizer all through the winter, spring, and fall, and switch to commercial deodorant on the hottest days of summer and on days when I have dance practice. Eked out by hand sanitizer, which you can get at most stores for around $1 a bottle, a single tube of deodorant now lasts me six months or longer. And there's that much less non-recyclable packaging waste ending up in our trash bin. I've taken to carrying a small bottle of the sanitizer around in my purse, where I can grab it to kill odor quickly in a pinch—or even, if the need arises, to clean my hands.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A peek at Pirc

This week's Dollar Stretcher features a review of a website called Pirc.com that's billed as "a one-stop solution for all things savings and circulars." Based on the description, it sounded much like CouponMom, a site I use often to help me match up coupons with sales at my local stores. However, this site promised a few features CouponMom doesn't have. The biggest problem with CouponMom is that when you pull up a list of sales—whether at one particular store or "extreme deals" across all stores—it includes all the sales listed in the store fliers, most of which are usually on items that you don't need. You can search for specific items, but it adds an extra step. Pirc, by contrast, lets you select specific product types or brands that are of interest to you and display deals on those items only. It will even save your preferences and send you a customized "Pircular" each week in your inbox, showing deals on your chosen products across all your local stores. And, like CouponMom, it will show which coupons (both printed and electronic) stack up with a given sale.

Based on the description, it seemed like Pirc might have enough advantages over CouponMom to make it worth a try—especially in light of CouponMom's occasionally unreliable performance. So I checked out the site and found, first of all, that you aren't allowed to view the deals on the site unless you create an account. Since I never sign up for anything without reading the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy first (you know, to make sure they don't have a legal right to my firstborn or anything), I read through those and discovered a second drawback: e-mails from the site and its "marketing partners" are opt-out rather than opt-in. That means that when you sign up for the site, you also sign up for a barrage of e-mails about "products, services, and offers, both from ourselves and from third parties, that we believe you may find of interest." In theory, you can opt out of receiving these e-mails, but the site warns that it may take up to 10 days for your request to be processed, during which time you'll continue to be bombarded with spam. And of course, that's assuming the site actually (a) honors your request and (b) works as it should.

Rather than risk having my e-mail account spam-bombed, I decided to sign up for the service using an old AOL address I used when I lived with my parents. (I've kept it active precisely for situations like this, to let me use sites that require an e-mail address without compromising the ones I actually use.) After logging into my old AOL account (which had over 1,800 messages in the inbox, all from commercial sites) to verify my registration, I was finally able to view my "Pircular," and that was when I discovered the third and biggest drawback of this site: it only searches the circulars of five stores. It checks the three major drugstore chains in my area (CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens), as well as two big boxes that have their own pharmacy departments (Wal-Mart and Target). For the categories I'd chosen—groceries, excluding meat and soft drinks, and cat supplies—it found only 40 sale items in total, and not one that looked like a real bargain.

Given that all the stores covered by Pirc are covered by CouponMom as well, I see no particular advantage in adding it to my shopping routine. I'll be sticking with CouponMom; it may suffer from occasional glitches, but at least it's thorough. And so far as I can tell, it hasn't been spamming me, even on my AOL account.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Recipes of the month: two cucumber salads

Cucumber season is in full swing. We picked our first two cucumbers last week and enjoyed them in a couscous salad that I considered using as my Recipe of the Month for July, but since it was only a minor modification of a recipe we'd made before, I decided to wait for something that was truly new. So last night, when Brian brought in two big fat cucumbers fresh off the vine and asked what I'd like to do with them, I suggested serving them up in some sort of salad.

A search on "cucumber salad" turned up a wide assortment of choices at AllRecipes.com, but most of them called for other ingredients we didn't have on hand, like tomatoes (which aren't quite in season yet in our garden) or avocados (which we don't usually buy unless we need one for something specific). So we settled on a very basic one called "Mom's Cucumbers": thinly sliced cukes, salted until they wilt, tossed with onion and a simple dressing of water, sugar, vinegar, and celery seed. (Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture of this one before we ate it all up.)

The result was pretty good; Brian thought it tasted a bit like a sweet pickle. But somewhere in the back of my head, I had this idea that at some point we'd made a cucumber salad that was even better—something with sesame oil. Where was that recipe? I had the notion that maybe it was in Vegetariana, so I checked there first. No dice. Then I went through the rest of our vegetarian cookbooks, from Mark Bittman to Molly Katzen. Nothing. So finally I concluded I'd just have to make it up myself.

We still had half a cucumber in the fridge, so I started by halving it and slicing it as thin as I could manage. I thought maybe cucumber by itself would be a little dull, so I sliced up part of a green pepper we had in the fridge into little matchsticks and tossed that in with the cukes. Then I started tossing together a dressing. The first cucumber salad we'd made used 1/4 cup of vinegar for 3 large cucumbers, so for the half cucumber I had left, I used just one tablespoon. Next I stirred in a teaspoon of sesame oil, which seemed like it would be enough to taste without adding too much fat. Finally, recalling that Mark Bittman's recipe for "Vastly Improved Ramen Noodles" uses a tablespoon of soy sauce to a teaspoon of sesame oil, I stirred that in as well, whisked it all together, and poured it over the cucumbers.

The result was close to what I'd had in mind, but the proportions seemed a little off. There was too much dressing for the amount of veggies, and the sesame flavor wasn't quite pronounced enough. Also, it seemed like the half-moon cucumber slices were a little too big to take the dressing well. And I thought red bell pepper would probably taste better than green, adding a hint of sweetness as well as a splash of color. So here's the way I intend to make it next time:
CUCUMBER SESAME SALAD
1 large cucumber, quartered lengthwise, then thinly sliced
1/2 red bell pepper, cut into matchsticks (cut in half crosswise, then in thin strips lengthwise)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar or rice vinegar
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
Whisk together the soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil. Toss this dressing with the veggies, then sprinkle sesame seeds on top.
Of course, I haven't actually had a chance to try it this way yet, so it's still just a beta version. Brian thinks, for instance, that it could do with a touch of sugar or honey. But I expect that with only minor tweaking, it will become a good alternative to yet another jar of pickles for dealing with an abundant cucumber crop.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Flower flop

Alas, the flowers I was so delighted with just a month ago have now fallen down on the job. Literally. The first time we had a really strong storm, all those tall blue cornflowers flopped over forwards. They eventually righted themselves, but the next storm sent them tumbling down again, and this time they didn't bounce back. And because they're all bent over forward, most of the shorter flowers (including candytuft, California poppies, and the new rose mallows that had just started to appear) are now largely buried.

I Googled the problem and found that this isn't unusual behavior for cornflowers. This gardening guide advises putting "peony cages" over them while they're still small to keep them from falling over. I doubt that would have been feasible in this flowerbed, with so many of them growing so close together, but in any case, it's a bit late late to try it now. Other sites recommend staking them, but I don't think it would work in a bed this size with lots of other flowers. An article in the North American Farmer says planting them in "mixed plantings" will help give them support, but it didn't seem to help in this case because all the other flowers in the bed were shorter. Maybe once some of the the taller flowers (such as cosmos, chrysanthemums, and coreopsis) have reached their full height, they'll help hold up the bachelor's buttons—but how to keep the bed from looking scraggly until then?

So far, all I've been able to think of is to go along the bed, trimming all the spent flower heads that I could easily reach off the stems to reduce their weight. (This is something the garden guide says you should do anyway to "prevent seed production and self-sowing while also encouraging the plant to produce further blooms.") It seems to have worked, sort of; at least, some of the bachelor's buttons are now standing upright again. Unfortunately, others are still lying down, which means that the bed as a whole looks more haphazard than ever. But perhaps after the next thunderstorm (which is expected to strike some time this evening) they'll all bounce back within a reasonable time. And if they don't, maybe I can try physically pulling them back with a rake—much like a mother trying to discipline her child's unruly curls. (Hmm, maybe what I really need to hold the plants in place is some sort of giant barrette.)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Toothbrush hack

Brian and I both use Fuchs Ekotec toothbrushes. The main reason I like these is that they have replaceable heads, so instead of having to replace the entire toothbrush every three months, I can replace just the part that's actually worn out—the bristles—and keep using the same handle. They're also a bit cheaper to use in the long run than most other toothbrushes, since the replacement heads cost less apiece than a whole new toothbrush. But there's a third thing I really like about them that has nothing to do with ecofrugality: they're practically the only toothbrush you can find these days that fits into a standard toothbrush holder.

Look in the bathroom of any house built before, say, 1980, and you'll probably find a built-in ceramic piece mounted next to the sink that holds a cup and anywhere from two to six toothbrushes. Back when these houses were built, this was a really useful feature, because it made use of wall space to store the toothbrushes and freed up much needed surface space on top of the sink. The problem is that, in the intervening decades, toothbrushes have become much more "advanced," with angled bristles and big, chunky, ergonomic handles that no longer fit in the holders. Thus, in most of these older houses, you'll see the built-in toothbrush holder sitting unused, just taking up space on the wall, while the family toothbrushes sit out by themselves or in a cup of some sort, taking up counter space.

Every six months, when Brian and I go to the dentist, he gives each of us one of these new, modern toothbrushes for free. And every time, we come home and stick the new toothbrushes the linen closet, while our Ekotecs retain their place of honor in the toothbrush holder over the sink. Over the years, we've accumulated quite a collection of these freebies, and it's gotten to the point where we've both started muttering, "We really need to find a way to get rid of these." We could, of course, just throw them out, but there's not much point in buying toothbrushes with replaceable heads in order to reduce waste and then throwing out a bunch of perfectly good toothbrushes, head, handle, and all. I found myself wondering: is it really ecofrugal to keep buying replacement heads for our Ekotec toothbrushes when we have a bunch of brand-new, free toothbrushes sitting unused? And I must also confess to a tiny bit of curiosity about whether maybe these sophisticated modern toothbrushes might actually do a better job.

So finally I decided to give one of these free toothbrushes a try. It felt a little gentler on the gums, maybe, but aside from that, it didn't really seem to have any significant advantage over my old Ekotec. However, having used it once, I figured there was no point in discarding it until it was worn out. The problem was where to keep it. It wouldn't fit in our toothbrush holder, and because of its curved, molded handle, it wouldn't like flat on the vanity either. And if I tried to stand it up in the drinking cup, it would just fall over.

For a while I just kept the toothbrush in the plastic package it came in, but it wasn't the most attractive solution. I kept thinking there must be some way to modify our toothbrush holder so that one of these chunky modern brushes would actually fit in it. Simply making the hole bigger, even if we had a way of doing it, wouldn't really work, because the head isn't much wider than the handle; any hole wide enough to accommodate the handle with ease would also be wide enough for the whole toothbrush to slip through completely. Finally, it hit me: the only way to hold this kind of toothbrush upright is to slide it in from the side, just like the glasses in this stemware rack Brian built for me.

Once I had the idea, it was just a matter of figuring out how to make it. I tried wrapping a wire twist tie around the existing toothbrush holder and it sort of worked, but it wasn't terribly sturdy. Finally, Brian hit on the right material for the job: coat hanger wire. He cut a straight piece of wire, bent it double, and then bent the middle of it in on itself to form an indentation the right size to hold a toothbrush handle. Then he threaded the cut ends through one of the holes in the built-in toothbrush holder, bent them up to run flat under the bottom, pushed them back out the hole on the other side, hooked them in place, and snipped off the excess.


Thanks to this simple and inexpensive hack, our toothbrush holder can accommodate my chunky modern toothbrush for as long as it remains useful, and it still has plenty of room to hold my old Ekotec toothbrush while it waits patiently to come back into use. Because frankly, having tried the new one, I think we're just as well off sticking with our Ekotecs and donating the rest of these free toothbrushes to the food bank. Yes, they'll still end up in the waste stream eventually, but they'll be used by people who would probably have been using a regular disposable toothbrush anyway.


Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Reverse SNAP Challenge: Wrap-Up

The Reverse SNAP Challenge has officially concluded. Here are our totals for the final day:

Amy's breakfast (toast and cocoa): 27 cents
Brian's breakfast (cereal with add-ins and juice): $1.07
Lunch: leftover couscous salad, leftover quesadilla, 1 cup blueberries (99 cents a pint at Aldi = 50 cents), 1 peach ($1.49 a pound at Stop & Shop = $1.68 for 3 peaches = 56 cents), the last two leftover raisin cookies (very stale, 20 cents), half a cup of milk (10 cents). Total: $1.36
Amy's afternoon snack: popcorn and an egg cream (39.3 cents) topped with a spritz of whipped cream (4.5 cents), plus 1 ounce string cheese (29 cents). Total: 73 cents.
Dinner: potato-zucchini pancakes. We used a 12-ounce zucchini from our own garden, 13 ounces of potatoes (42.9 cents a pound at Aldi = 34.9 cents), 6 ounces of onion (73 cents a pound at Aldi = 27.4 cents), 6 tablespoons of flour (5.6 cents), 1 teaspoon of salt (about a penny), and 1 egg ($2.49 a dozen at H-Mart = 20.8 cents). We also had about half of a $2.19 jar of applesauce from the Stop & Shop ($1.10). Total: $1.98.
Dessert: ice cream with chocolate syrup for Brian, ice cream soda for Amy. I had more ice cream in it than usual—about 1/2 cup instead of 1/4 cup—so that adds an extra 10 cents, for a total of 70 cents.
Additional snack: 1 ounce peanuts (15 cents).
TOTAL FOR WEDNESDAY: $6.26
TOTAL FOR DAYS 1-7: $53.60, or about $7.66 per day. Not only is this well within the limits of our $63 budget, it's comfortably within the limits of the reduced budget that the standard SNAP Challenge is designed to protest: $1.40 per person per meal, or $58.80 a week for the two of us. (And incidentally, this total includes the leftovers we had in our fridge at the end of the challenge: 1 of the 3 quesadillas we made on Tuesday, about 1/3 of the salsa, 3 of the 15 zucchini pancakes from last night, and about half a loaf of rye bread. The value of all these put together is about $1.91, so if you subtract that from the total, our spending for the week was only $51.69, or $7.38 per day.)

This figure, however, doesn't include the cost of the produce we used from our own garden. As I promised at the start of the week, I counted up everything we ate from the garden during the course of the week and went to the supermarket to see what it would have cost to buy all that at the store. Of course, our garden produce was both local and organic, but since this challenge is all about eating on a budget, I used the price of conventional produce for comparison if it was available. Here's what we ate from the garden:
  • 4 ounces of arugula. Organic arugula (the only kind available) is $3.99 for a 7-ounce package at Stop & Shop, so that's $2.28.
  • About 1.5 pounds of zucchini for Monday's and Wednesday's dinners combined. Local zucchini is $1.99 a pound at Stop & Shop, so that's another $2.99.
  • 2 small cucumbers, probably about 1/2 a pound total. Local cucumbers are 99 cents a pound at Stop & Shop, so that's 50 cents.
  • Two scallions. We couldn't find any scallions at the Stop & Shop, but last time we bought them at H-Mart they were 3 bunches for a dollar, so this works out to around 10 cents.
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley. This is 99 cents a bunch at Stop & Shop; the amount we used is worth around 20 cents.
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil. Organic basil was $4.99 for 4 ounces at Stop & Shop. If you use this conversion rate, that means 1/4 cup of basil is worth 78 cents.
  • 1 pound rhubarb. There was no rhubarb for sale at Stop & Shop, but we saw organic rhubarb just recently at the Whole Earth Centre for $4 a pound, so we'll say that's another $4.
  • 6 ounces green beans. These were $6.99 for a 2-pound container at Stop & Shop, so that's $1.31.
  • 2 lettuce leaves. Conventional lettuce is $1.99 a head at the Stop & Shop; the tiny amount we used can't be worth much more than 10 cents.
TOTAL VALUE OF GARDEN PRODUCE: $12.26. Add this to the amount we actually spent on food—even leaving out the leftovers—and our total for the week jumps to $65.86, nearly $3 over our $63 limit. In dollar terms, the produce from our garden accounts for nearly 20 percent of all the food we ate during the week. Without it, this challenge would definitely have been a lot more challenging (though, as I've noted below, not impossible).

So now that the challenge is officially over, what have I learned or accomplished by doing it? Well, unlike most participants in the standard SNAP Challenge (such as these folks on the Huffington Post site), I can't honestly say I've gained a much greater understanding of or empathy for people who live in poverty. During the past week, Brian and I ate pretty much exactly the way we always do; the only time we actually gave anything up was when Brian had to pass up a free bagel during a meeting at work. Aside from the extra paperwork, this challenge didn't really change our lives at all. Still, I do feel like I've learned a few lessons that might be worth sharing.

Lesson #1: The Reverse SNAP Challenge is a lot more manageable than the standard SNAP Challenge. People who have taken the regular SNAP Challenge usually talk about how much it dominated their thoughts during the week, and what an incredible sense of relief they felt when it was finally over. With the Reverse SNAP Challenge, by contrast, the biggest hassle I faced was all the paperwork and calculations I had to do—and honestly, that got a lot easier as the week went on and I had more and more different staple foods already priced out. One of the biggest problems people talk about on the SNAP Challenge is how little variety they get in their diets, and how heavily they have to rely on just a few basic, inexpensive foods to stay within the limits of their budget. But honestly, I think the main problem isn't that they have so little to spend; it's that the artificial limits imposed by the challenge require them to buy everything they eat that week out of their limited budgets. Thus, they have to forego most spices and condiments, because it isn't worth spending $1.49 of your meager $31.50 budget on a jar of mustard if you're only going to use a teaspoon of it. But in real life, food aid doesn't work that way; you aren't required to turn in the entire contents of your fridge and pantry in order to receive your EBT card. If you have a jar of mustard in the fridge, you can continue to use it; when it runs out, you can squeeze $1.49 out of your budget to buy a new one that you can use gradually over the course of the next year. At no point is it necessary to replace everything in your pantry at once, and buying just one or two condiments each month is manageable even on a $4.50-a-day budget.

Lesson #2: It is possible to eat well on a SNAP budget—if you have the right resources available. One problem many SNAP recipients face is that they live in "food deserts," where they don't have access to fresh, affordable food. If the only food store in your neighborhood is a convenience store, then you'll definitely have a much harder time getting enough to eat on $4.50 a day, and if you do manage it, the foods you end up eating won't be nearly as healthy. The neighborhood where I live, by contrast, is practically the opposite of a food desert; you might say it's a food oasis. We have one supermarket, plus a natural foods store, plus several convenience stores, plus a weekly farmer's market in the summer, all within a mile of our house; there are two other large food stores within a half-hour walk, and many more within a 10-minute drive. We have the luxury of shopping at multiple food stores to take advantage of the best prices; we can wait for a sale to stock up because, with so many stores within striking distance, the chances are good that a given food will go on sale somewhere before we actually run out of it. Thus, I would argue that the biggest problem with food aid isn't that the amount in dollars is too low; it's that far too many families don't have the resources they need to put those limited dollars to the best possible advantage. In other words, the best long-term solution is not simply to increase the amount of aid but to address the problem of food availability. Unfortunately, that's a much harder problem to solve—which may be why politicians prefer to wrangle over the dollar amounts and ignore the bigger, tougher issue.

Lesson #3: Having a garden is a big help. One of the complaints you hear most often from people who have taken the standard SNAP Challenge  is that they couldn't afford to eat enough fresh fruits and veggies on a SNAP budget. We, with the help of our garden, ate lots of fresh produce and never came close to going over budget. However, I don't think it would actually have been impossible for us to complete the challenge without a garden; I just think we would have picked our produce based on price rather than on what was ready to harvest out in the garden. For instance, if we hadn't had loads of fresh rhubarb ready for the picking, we never would have chosen to make a rhubarb pie for the potluck on Friday. Instead we'd probably have made one of our go-to potluck dishes from The Clueless Vegetarian, like Simple Sesame Noodle Salad or Incredible Onion Tart—either of which would have cost less than the $3.43 we spent on the other ingredients for the rhubarb pie. Just knocking off that $4 worth of rhubarb would have been enough to keep us within our $63 budget.

Lesson #4: Even a window garden is a help. Most SNAP recipients probably don't have the space for a real garden, unless they're lucky enough to live in a neighborhood with a community garden. But based on the list above, it seems clear that even growing one or two herbs in flowerpots can save you quite a bit of money. The basil we used on Day 4 cost us virtually nothing to grow; we paid $1.70 for enough seeds to plant four square feet of it, and we still have seeds left over. Yet if we'd had to buy it in the store, we'd have paid $5 for four ounces of it, which we'd then have had to use up before it wilted in the fridge. Of course, we never actually did this, even before we had a garden; instead we kept a basil plant in a pot on a windowsill and cut off sprigs as needed. Fresh herbs are an expensive luxury when you buy them in a store, but a cheap and plentiful ingredient when you grow your own. (And in the case of scallions, you don't even have to buy seeds; just plant the cut-off ends of a scallion you've used the green parts of, and wait for a new green part to pop up out of the dirt.)

Lesson 5: A cheap diet tends to be heavy on grains, light on meat. Most of our meals were based around some sort of grain product: bread, cereal, pasta, rice, or couscous. In our one-week challenge, we prepared meat only once, on Saturday night. That dinner was the most expensive one we ate all week, and it left us with the smallest volume of leftovers. Of course, the meat we buy is all free-range, and thus more expensive than most. But I don't think we could have managed to stay within our $63 budget if we'd eaten meat every night. By contrast, a dinner based on grains, supplemented with fresh veggies and some kind of protein source (cheese, eggs, and/or beans) provides ample bulk for minimal cost. (And it will lower your carbon footprint as well.)

Lesson 6: Most important of all, the only way to make it on a SNAP budget is to cook your own meals. I don't think there's any way we could have fed ourselves three square meals a day (plus a few snacks) on this budget if we'd had to buy them all ready-made. And while the meals we enjoyed during the past week were varied and tasty, none of them (with the possible exception of the rhubarb pie) were really that hard to make. They didn't require any fancy equipment and, for the most part, didn't take terribly long to prepare. All you need is a basic kitchen and a couple of decent cookbooks. (Of course, this isn't terribly helpful advice for SNAP recipients who don't have access to even a basic kitchen, because they're living in shelters or boardinghouses or even, God forbid, on the streets. But I don't think that's the fault of the SNAP program; in those cases, it's housing aid that's inadequate.)