Friday, August 29, 2014

Live the Wage Challenge: wrap-up

DAY 7 (Thursday):
Rite Aid: $2.94
Total spent: $2.94
Total remaining: $21.49

So, as you can see, I made it through the Live the Wage challenge with money to spare. My only expense was the bottle of vitamins I decided to go ahead and buy at the Rite Aid after initially hesitating over the purchase on Tuesday. And as it turned out, they cost me only $3 rather than $5, because I had a two-dollar reward that I'd forgotten about ready-loaded onto my Wellness Plus card (the Rite Aid store loyalty card). So in the end, I had nearly one-seventh of my $154 budget for the week left over, and I didn't refrain from buying a single thing that I would have bought under normal circumstances.

Our experience on the Live the Wage challenge was clearly not typical. Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois says she "didn't quite make it" through the week when she tried the challenge, and she concluded that it was "impossible" to survive on $7.25 an hour. Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio ran out of money on day 5 with the purchase of a bag of trail mix. And former Ohio governor Ted Strickland ran out on Thursday evening, despite having made such sacrifices as walking to a meeting a mile from his home and eating from the McDonald's dollar menu.

So why was this challenge so easy for us when it's so hard for most people? I think one major reason is quite obvious: we're a married couple with no kids. That meant we had $77 for each person in the household, which gave us a lot more wiggle room in our budget than Strickland (who had only $77 for himself) or Ryan (who had to support a family of five on a $154 budget). As I've observed before, it may not be true that two can live as cheaply as one, but it's certainly the case that two people together, sharing the cost of housing, food, and all sorts of incidentals, can live a lot more cheaply than two people apart. Yet having kids can easily eat up all that extra income and then some; Ryan's biggest budget-busters during the challenge were $25 worth of "vitamin D drops and other incidentals" for his newborn child and "summer camp for his 10-year-old daughter."

Clearly, though, being a childless couple wasn't our only advantage. Schakowsky was in exactly the same situation, with $154 to support herself and her husband, and she still exceeded her budget for the week by $4.47. CBS also quotes her as saying that on a budget this strict, "There’s no way that you can stop into a Starbucks"—even though Brian and I did exactly that on Sunday. So what did we do that Schakowsky didn't?

Her account of her experience gives a couple of clues. First of all, she notes that one of her biggest expenses was "Driving 140 miles round trip to my granddaughter’s birthday party," even though she counted only the cost of gas and tolls and not car maintenance or insurance. Brian and I, by contrast, drove our car only once during the whole week, when we made our big grocery-shopping trip on Friday. The rest of the week, the car sat in the driveway as Brian took his bike to work. Admittedly, this is an unusually small amount of driving even for us. Our usual Thursday-night dance practice was canceled due to low attendance, so we didn't have to make a trip down to Princeton for that. We also didn't drive up to Morristown for the Minstrel concert on Friday night, which we typically do at least once or twice a month, and we were fortunate enough to have a whole week of sunny weather, so Brian didn't have to drive to work even once. But even if we'd done our usual amount of driving, it's unlikely we would have had to buy any gas, since we'd just filled up the tank on the 20th, and a full tank usually keeps us going for around two weeks. And even if by some chance we'd started the challenge with a nearly empty tank, we could still have gotten by with only a few gallons—about $13 worth—to get us through the week. That wouldn't have broken our budget.

Schakowsky also observes in her account that "pets are luxury," saying "Our family dog Lucky is disabled and his needs quite expensive." Well, we also have a pet, but we didn't need to purchase anything for her during the week. A big bag of her favorite dry food costs only $25 from the PetSmart and lasts her for months; a bag of her new cat litter (which I'll tell you about sometime) is around $20 and is also good for several months. If we had to take her to the vet for some reason, that would be a significant expense that would almost certainly put us over our $77-per-person budget, but typically, all she needs is a yearly checkup, which is an expense we can plan for. Adding up all the costs of caring for our cat over the course of a year, I find they come to around $1,086, which works out to $20.88 per week. So if the Live the Wage challenge were spread across a whole year rather than compressed into one week, the cost of pet care would definitely be manageable. Of course, our pet isn't disabled like Schakowsky's, so it's not surprising that her needs are less expensive, but I think an equally big factor is that she's a cat, and as these figures from the ASPCA show, cats are cheaper to own than dogs in general.

Finally, Schakowsky notes that on the Live the Wage challenge, "We didn’t have enough money to pick up our dry cleaning, nor could we do our laundry in the coin operated washer and dryer in our D.C. apartment building." We, by contrast, did two loads of laundry in our very own washer and hung them on the line (though one of them ended up getting caught in an unexpected shower and had to go in the dryer after all). The cost of both loads, factoring in detergent, water, electricity, and gas, was almost certainly under a dollar, and most of that is covered under utilities anyway, which aren't part of the $77 budget. As for dry cleaning, in general, we just don't do it. I think the only garment we actually own right now that requires dry cleaning is Brian's good suit, which hasn't been worn in over a year.

So, to sum up, here are my rules for making it through the Live the Wage Challenge, along with some ideas for how they could be applied to real people trying to survive long-term on the real minimum wage:
  • Challenge Rule #1: If at all possible, do the challenge as part of a couple. That way, you can split the costs not just of housing (which isn't counted in the budget) but also food, Internet service, medicines, household goods, and to some extent, transportation (since you only need to make one trip to the grocery store rather than two separate trips). What this means in real life is that, if you're a single person living on minimum wage, your ideal living situation is to either live with family or have a roommate and share your living expenses as much as possible. (This piece in the New York Times tells the stories of minimum-wage workers who live with their parents, share a home with a significant other, or rent a room in a friend's house to save money.)
  • Challenge Rule #2: If you drive, have an efficient car that's cheap to maintain—and then don't drive it that much. It's best to avoid making a 140-mile round trip if possible, but if you have to, you're definitely better off making it in a car that will take 3.5 gallons of gas to go that distance than one that will take 7. Biking to work, as Brian does, will help if you're in an area that allows it; so will carpooling, if you can find someone to ride with. And in real life, if you live in an area with a good mass transit system, you might be better off not owning a car at all (though as I noted in this post, if you already have a car, you won't save much, if anything, by using transit instead).
  • Challenge Rule #3: If you have pets, stick to smaller ones. Obviously, if you already have a dog (or several), you're not going to get rid of it for the sake of a one-week challenge. You probably won't even want to get rid of it if you're suddenly forced to live on minimum wage in real life (though you may be forced to eventually). But if you're only thinking about getting a pet, it's worth giving some thought to how much it will cost, not just to buy but to care for on a year-round basis. Cats are cheaper than dogs, and smaller pets, like a mouse, bird, or fish, are cheaper still. If you're trying to get by on a low wage, this is definitely a big consideration.
  • Challenge Rule #4: Wear low-maintenance clothes. Avoid anything that requires dry cleaning; you'll be doing the environment a favor, as well as your wallet. If you work at a job that requires you to wear a suit every day, then you're almost certainly doing this challenge for one week only, and not as a way of life; you can probably manage to get by for the space of one week wearing the same jacket every day, or going with a more business-casual look. And if you're a real-life low-wage worker, then wash-and-wear clothes are probably the most practical for you anyway. Of course, if you're an apartment dweller, then even washable clothes can be a bit costly to care for; according to my records, when we were living in an apartment, we used to spend between $6 and $23 at the laundry every month. But this is another area in which sharing with others will help keep your costs down. Two people do not produce twice as many loads of laundry as one; more likely, they'll just do two large loads per week rather than two small loads (whites and colors). At a laundromat, where smaller loads may cost just as much as larger ones, sharing your laundry could cut the cost in half.
And finally, here's one rule that doesn't work for a one-week challenge, but does work in real life: plan ahead. The politicians who took the Live the Wage challenge talk about being derailed by "unexpected" expenses, such as health care. When you only have $77 to get through the week, having a big lump of that go for a doctor visit or medicines can break your budget. But in real life, you know that you're bound to get hit by this kind of expense at some point, so you can plan for it. You can budget a certain amount each week for health care, knowing that most weeks you won't use it, but when you do, you'll go through several weeks' worth at once. If you set the money aside as you go, it'll be there when you need it. This is a strategy that nearly every budgeting expert recommends, yet it's one that you can't reasonably follow during a one-week challenge, when it's largely a matter of luck whether you get hit with an unexpected expense or not.

This just brings me back, full-circle, to my biggest gripe about the Live the Wage challenge: doing it for one week simply isn't realistic. In one way, it's too easy, because you know it'll only be a week, so you can just put off large, expected expenses like the cable bill (or pay for them ahead of time). Yet in another way, it's too hard, because you can also get hit by large, unexpected expenses, and you don't have any time to plan ahead for them. As a test of your ability to live on the minimum wage, I think the simulator at NYTimes.com is actually much more useful.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Live the Wage Challenge, day 6

DAY 6 (Wednesday):
Stop & Shop: $1.00
Stop & Shop: $6.05
Total spent: $7.05
Total remaining: $24.43

On Wednesday, our only purchases were a few additional grocery items to supplement the big shopping trip we made on Friday. In the morning, I stopped by to pick up a couple of liters of seltzer after discovering that the last two cans in the case I bought at Shop-Rite had dented and gone flat. Then, in the evening, we made a second trip out there for some ice cream and, while we were there, grabbed a bottle of orange juice and a box of raisin bran. (Both of these are items we normally get at Aldi, but right now the Stop & Shop has them on sale for less.) Altogether we spent $7.05, which makes our total grocery spending for the week $53.93—almost exactly the amount that I initially estimated it would come to based on our experience in the Reverse SNAP Challenge.

So, with one day left to go, we're down to $24.43, which is just slightly over the $11 per person, per day allotted by the budget. At this point, I think there's no doubt we'll succeed in meeting the challenge. Thanks to the good bicycling weather this week, our car hasn't been driven since Friday, so there's no need for us to buy any gas; we don't currently need to repair any part of our house, our car, or ourselves; and the activity we have planned for tonight is a live radio play at our local library, for which admission appears to be free of charge. (The listing for the event says it's "sponsored by the Friends of the Library," which technically means I've already paid for it with my annual dues.) I'm even inclined to go back to the drugstore and pick up those vitamins I didn't get on Tuesday, just so I can say I made it through the challenge without making any changes in my normal spending habits.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Live the Wage Challenge, day 5

DAY 5 (Tuesday):
Total spent: $0
Total remaining: $31.48

Tuesday was the first day in my Live the Wage challenge when I deliberately refrained from spending money. Up until then, I'd just been spending normally, loading up with groceries on Day 1 and even indulging in a Starbucks Frappuccino on Day 3. However, after the monthly cable and Internet bill ate up most of the cash left in my budget on Day 4, I started to wonder if there was actually a chance I could run out of money before the week was out, and I became a bit leery of buying anything I didn't have an immediate need for. Such as, for example, a bottle of B vitamins at the Rite Aid.

I came across a recommendation for B-complex vitamins on a health forum while searching for information about headaches related to shifting hormone levels. A follow-up Google search turned up several sources indicating that B2 and B6, in particular, had shown good results in preventing migraines. I wondered if they might also help with my acne, which also seems to flare up at "that time of the month," and sure enough, a second Google search turned up several sources suggesting that they might help with this problem too (though results on this score seemed to be more mixed; some patients found it actually made their acne worse). That was enough evidence to convince me they were worth trying, and under normal circumstances, I'd simply have dropped by the Rite Aid, checked the prices on the racks, picked up the cheapest one, and given it a try. But this week, knowing my budget was down to $31.48, I got as far as identifying the cheapest bottle on the rack—and then hesitated. Sure, it was only five dollars, but did I really need to spend that five dollars now? I was almost through with this cycle anyway; wouldn't it make just as much sense to wait until next month to give the B vitamins a try, and not spend money on something I didn't actually need right away?

Even at the time, I realized I was probably being unreasonable. After all, there were only three days to go in the challenge, the bills for the month were all paid, and we weren't expecting to make any more shopping trips after our big grocery stock-up last weekend. It was highly unlikely that this $5 expense would actually break my budget. But, well, wouldn't it make just as much sense to wait, just to be on the safe side? Or at least to wait until the last day of the challenge, when I could be pretty well certain I wasn't going to go over budget? Even if these pills did help with my symptoms—and of course, I had no guarantee that they would—would it really make a difference if I waited a couple days more before trying them?

I think it was that last "if" that finally made me put the bottle back on the shelf. If I'd been suffering from a headache right that minute and I had no ibuprofen in the house, then I wouldn't have hesitated to spend the money for immediate relief. But the B-vitamin remedy was mostly a shot in the dark, something I thought might help in the long term. That's something I wouldn't hesitate to spend $5 on when I have plenty of discretionary income, but when I'm on a strict budget, it becomes a splurge item, something I can indulge in if I have the money left at the end of the week.

So I guess I can say I did learn at least one thing from the Live the Wage challenge: it only takes a few days on a really limited budget to adjust your ideas of what separates a necessity from a luxury. I guess for Americans earning minimum wage, this is the kind of line you have to draw on a regular basis. (Fortunately, most people in this category are teenagers, so the small amount they earn probably isn't their sole source of support. But for the adult workers struggling to make ends meet on minimum wage, it's easy to see how a $5 bottle of vitamins could become an expense you have to think twice about.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Live the Wage Challenge, day 4

DAY 4 (Monday):
Total spent: $62.89
Total remaining: $31.48

After Sunday's dilemma about how to handle a utility bill, I ran into another version of the same problem on Monday with my phone bill. Or to be more precise, my phone/cable/Internet bill, since we pay for all three services together as part of a bundle (which is cheaper than buying just phone and Internet separately). The bundled bill comes to $96.56 per month, which is more money than we had left in our budget for the week, so paying it would mean failing the Live the Wage challenge instantly.

However, I'd already determined that "utilities" were included under housing for purposes of the challenge. So if my phone and Internet service could be considered utilities, then this bill, like my gas and electric bill, shouldn't count toward my $77 budget. But should they be? I tend to think of landline phone service as a basic utility and cable TV as a luxury, but broadband Internet service seems to fall somewhere in between. WebProNews argues that Internet service should be considered a basic utility, as does tech policy expert Susan Crawford in this Time magazine article—but the very fact that they have to make the argument suggests that it isn't universally accepted as such.

A search on "Live the Wage phone bills" provided no help. None of the various articles available online about the Live the Wage challenge addressed the topic of phone or Internet service in any way. However, my search led me to an interesting page at NYTimes.com, which is basically a virtual, interactive version of the Live the Wage challenge. This version of the challenge addresses most of the problems I identified with the real version. You use the minimum wage for your state, rather than the federal minimum; you use your actual expenses for housing, rather than some ill-defined "average"; and you calculate your budget over the course of an entire year, rather than just one week. However, like the real challenge, it's designed specifically for "a single childless worker," making it hard to figure out what your expenses should be if you share a home in real life.

Out of curiosity, I decided to fill in our expenses on this virtual form and see how we did. For most of the categories, I simply took our actual household expenses and divided them by two, since if we were both working minimum-wage jobs, we'd each be contributing exactly half of the household expenses. Since we don't currently pay for our health insurance out of pocket, I used this calculator from the Kaiser Family Foundation to estimate the amount we'd pay for premiums under the Affordable Care Act, then added in the amount we currently pay for out-of-pocket expenses. To estimate our taxes, I used the average weekly amount thoughtfully provided on the Live the Wage challenge page. I also adjusted our charitable donations down to 10 percent of our new imaginary income (after taxes).

Based on these figures, it looks like Brian and I could squeak by on a minimum-wage budget without cutting our current expenses, but it wouldn't leave us much wiggle room: just $854 a year in savings (or $1,708 for the two of us). However, if we cut back to the bare-bones budget that I worked out as an emergency backup plan (which includes other forms of government aid, such as heating assistance and a free emergency cell phone), we could manage to save as much as $7,420 per year. So it looks like in the real world, Brian and I could do okay if we were both earning minimum wage, with some judicious belt-tightening and a little help from our Uncle Sam.

None of this, however, was any help in figuring out how to deal with the immediate problem. Should I count my phone/cable/Internet bill as a utility expense, which is covered under housing, or as a discretionary expense, which comes out of the $77-per-person budget? Or should I just put off paying the bill, which isn't due until September 5, until the challenge was over? Technically, the notice I'd received from the bank wasn't my actual bill; ironically, my Internet provider is the only company I deal with that still refuses to send my monthly bill in electronic form, so in theory, I could just wait until I received the actual paper bill in the mail before paying it. Perhaps by then, the challenge would be over and I wouldn't have to worry about it. But that just felt like sidestepping the issue.

In the end, I decided that the fairest thing would be to cut out the portion of my bill that was for phone service, which everyone seems to agree is a true utility, and count only the cable and Internet portion against my minimum-wage budget. The total for those two services came to $62.89, so after paying it, I have only $31.48 to get through the next three days. All of a sudden, this challenge is starting to look like a real challenge.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Live the Wage Challenge, days 2-3

DAY 2 (Saturday):
Hulu Plus: $7.99
Total spent: $7.99
Total remaining: $99.13

On Day 2 of the Live the Wage challenge I ran up against a slight snag. My to-do list said it was time for me to do my monthly giving, making contributions to various causes. (Some people do this once a year, usually in December, but we prefer to spread our donations out over the year.) However, the amount that we give in a typical month would eat up our entire budget for this challenge three times over. Obviously, if we were really living on minimum wage, we couldn't afford to give nearly this much—but cutting back on our giving didn't really seem in tune with the spirit of the challenge, which is meant to promote empathy with low-wage workers. By the same token, it didn't really seem right to put off my monthly giving until the challenge was over and keep these worthy causes waiting for their money. So I decided to go ahead and do my giving on schedule, but not count it toward my budget for the challenge.

On the other hand, I did count the $7.99 fee for our monthly subscription to Hulu Plus, which automatically renewed on Saturday. Normally I don't count this item as part of our expenses, since it comes out of my PayPal account, which is funded with survey reward points. However, I figured that was a resource not everyone would have, so I treated the $7.99 as if it had come out of my actual wallet. That was our only expense for Saturday, so we're now down to $99, or about 64 percent of our budget for the week.

DAY 3 (Sunday):
Starbucks: $4.76
Total spent: $4.76
Total remaining: $94.37

On Sunday, a new wrinkle arose in the Live the Wage challenge: my monthly utility bill arrived, with a balance of $64 due. Paying it right away, as I would normally do, would leave me with only $35 for the rest of the week, which wouldn't be impossible by any means, but it would certainly mean we'd have to watch our spending carefully for the next four days. Of course, the bill wasn't due until September 9, so I could have simply delayed paying it until the challenge is over, but that kind of felt like cheating.

To complicate matters further, I wasn't really sure whether I ought to count this expense against my $77-per-person budget at all. As I noted when I first introduced the challenge, it's not clear whether utilities are supposed to be counted as part of your housing expenses. I tried Googling "live the wage challenge utilities" and eventually turned up this article in Time that says the $77 budget is for "all their expenses, not counting utilities and rent." This was the most definite answer I could find to the question, so I went ahead and paid the bill but ignored the cost, just as I did with my monthly giving on Day 2.

The only other expense we had on Sunday was a trip to Starbucks. Yes, that's right, Starbucks—the very definition of a frivolous expense, the first thing most people would assume they needed to cut in order to get by on a strict budget. Financial guru David Bach has even coined the term "latte factor" to refer to all the little mindless spending habits that add up to big money over the course of a whole year. But for us, a trip to Starbucks isn't a mindless habit; it's a special occasion. Since our nearest Starbucks is about a mile and a half away, taking a walk there and back is a good way for the two of us to enjoy a pleasant late-summer day together—and by making the 3-mile round trip, and splitting a Double Chocolatey Chip Frappuccino rather than each getting our own, we take some of the curse off this highly caloric treat. And we also keep the expense of the whole excursion under $5, which may be high for a snack, but isn't bad at all for an entire Sunday outing. And since happiness economists say that most people get more enjoyment out of an occasional treat than they do out of a routine expense, spending $5 or $10 a month this way maximizes the happiness bang for our buck.

Moreover, in most cases, the $5 or so we spend at Starbucks doesn't even count toward our monthly budget. That's because I pay for it with my Starbucks card, which, like our Hulu Plus subscription, gets funded with survey points via my PayPal account. But once again, I decided that since most minimum-wage workers don't have this source of bonus income, I should count our Starbucks splurge against my limited budget. So the $4.76 we paid for our Grande Frappuccino was our sole expense for Sunday.

Tallying up our expenses over the first three days, we've now spent $59.63 of our $154 budget. If you break down our $154 budget to $22 per day, then our budget for the first three days was $66, which means we're now back on track and under budget after our high spending on Day 1. If the rest of the week goes like the past two days, we should have no trouble meeting our $154 goal for the week.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Gardening surprises

Sometimes it seems like every time you solve one problem in the garden, you create a new one in its place. Our asparagus bed is a case in point.

Problem #1: Asparagus prefers a sandy soil, and most of the dirt in our yard is heavy clay.
Solution: Plant the asparagus on the south side of our house, the one spot that has a fair amount of sand.
Problem #2: The asparagus planted in this location has a tendency to flop over when it gets to its tall, ferny stage, obstructing the path from front yard to back.
Solution: drive a stake into the ground on the near end of the asparagus bed, and run several lengths of twine across from that stake to the fence on the other side to hold up the ferns.


Problem #3: The end of that stake is rather sharp, posing the risk of injury to someone who slips and falls onto it.
Solution: Stick an old tennis ball on the end of the stake to blunt it.
Problem #4: Wasps have built a nest inside the old tennis ball. 
Solution: Um....


We discovered this newest problem when Brian pulled the tennis ball off to try and tighten the twine and suddenly there were a bunch of wasps buzzing confusedly around. When he picked up the tennis ball to put it back, he hastily dropped it, seeing that the wasps' nest was actually inside it. (The odd thing is that the wasps, with their home displaced from its usual spot, don't seem to know where to go. Several of them came to rest on the end of the stake where the tennis ball used to be, as if they couldn't quite grasp that the nest wasn't there anymore.)


Brian's idea is that we should just leave the tennis ball where it lies for now, then come back tomorrow and see whether the wasps have decided to go elsewhere. If so, we can just stick the tennis ball back on the stake and forget about it. I'm not optimistic about this, but I have to admit I don't have any better ideas. I don't want to kill the wasps with nasty chemicals (especially since they prey on other insects that are much bigger pests), but I also don't want to go sticking my hand into what they consider their territory. We may end up just having to leave the tennis ball lying there until winter kills off the wasps, at which point we can safely replace it.

Of course, not all surprises that the garden throws at you are unpleasant ones. Shortly after we discovered the wasps' nest, Brian found some Irish moss growing in the cracks of our front walk where he was weeding. I'd bought a couple packets of seeds for this stuff a year or so ago, thinking that if I planted it the cracks of the driveway and sidewalk, it might eventually crowd out the weeds and save us the trouble of pulling them. The instructions on the packet said to "sow seed in cell packs or flats," and then transplant them, but I couldn't figure out any way to transplant anything into such a tiny space, so instead I just did my best to sprinkle the teensy-weensy seeds directly into the cracks. When no green stuff popped up after a few weeks, I assumed the seeds just hadn't taken. And now we discover that some of the stuff actually took root after all. (Of course, the fact that Brian discovered it while weeding means that it hasn't actually crowded out the weeds as I'd hoped it would, but maybe over time it will take over more of the area.)


One thing you can definitely say for gardening as a hobby: it never becomes routine. One way or another, a garden will always be full of surprises.

Live the Wage Challenge, day 1

DAY 1 (Friday)
Farmers' market (apples): $5
Shop Rite: $12.44
Aldi: $29.44
Total spent: $46.88
Total remaining: $107.12

On Day 1 of the Live the Wage challenge, we bought nothing but groceries, but we bought a lot of those. In the afternoon I stopped by the farmers' market and picked up a big bag of apples for $5; there weren't any sales on fresh fruit in this week's supermarket fliers, so that looked like the best deal I could get. Then, in the evening, we went out and hit two supermarkets. First we stopped by Shop-Rite to pick up a few sale items: block cheese, flour, and whipped cream. The sale on whipped cream was so good that we actually got two cans, so that's an extra $2.79 that we didn't strictly need to spend—our first real "indulgence" on our minimum-wage budget. However, I opted not to drop $1.49 on a bottle of sale-priced coffee creamer, so that sort of balances out. Total spent at Shop-Rite: $12.44 (including our 5-cent discount for the reusable shopping bag).

Next we went to the Aldi to stock up on some staples we always get there, including oats, milk, butter, canola oil, peanuts, potatoes, graham crackers, and shredded mozzarella. In addition to these basics, I decided to pick up a container of facial cleaner. I've been using ordinary store-brand cold cream, but they just changed the formula to include parabens, an ingredient I try to avoid due to the health risks. (What happened, apparently, was that Pond's Cold Cream changed its formula for the first time in decades, and the store brands changed theirs to match.) When I searched the racks at Rite Aid for an alternative, I couldn't find anything that was non-drying, paraben-free, and not tested on animals. So when I checked the ingredient list on Aldi's Lacura Hydrating Facial Cleanser and saw no parabens or other ingredients of concern, I thought it was worth $2.66 to check it out. (That's for an 8-ounce bottle, so it's actually cheaper than the cold cream, so it'll be a good deal if it works.)

The other non-essential item we added to our shopping crate was a couple of bags of hot dog buns for a party we're throwing next weekend, since they're cheaper at Aldi (89 cents) than anywhere else. I could have put off buying these until after the challenge week was over, but since I would normally buy them at Aldi if I had the chance, I decided not to skew my results. As it turns out, however, we actually ended up paying more for the buns than we would have if we'd bought them for at the Stop&Shop, because our checker had billed us for three bags when we'd only bought two. Normally we keep an eye on the tally as the items run through the checkout, but this checker was tossing everything into the cart so fast (once again, not giving us a chance to use our reusable crate instead) that Brian had his hands full transferring everything to the crate, and I was stuck at the other end of the line where I couldn't see the register. So that's an extra 89 cents out of our limited budget gone completely to waste. Total spent at Aldi: $29.44.

So as you can see, we've gone through nearly a third of our $154 budget in one day. On the other hand, we've now done the bulk of our grocery shopping for the week, and groceries are the biggest expense we have during a typical week. So I maintain that, even if we spent a lot at the beginning of the week, we'll still come out ahead at the end.

Friday, August 22, 2014

A new challenge

While Googling around to see whether anyone else had ever done a Reverse SNAP Challenge like mine, I discovered a different, but related, challenge called Live the Wage. The idea behind it is to see whether you could get by on the minimum wage—$7.25 per hour. This works out to $290 for a week for a 40-hour week, but the designers of the challenge (a group called Americans United for Change) say that after taxes and housing costs, it leaves only $77 for all discretionary spending. The site invites people to try living on this budget for a week (specifically, the week of July 24) and write about their experiences. Several politicians, all Democrats, attempted it; you can read about their experiences on ABC News and CNN.

Like the original SNAP Challenge, Live the Wage seems to me to have several problems with its structure. After reading through the fact sheet, I came up with several quibbles:
  1. The challenge seems to be designed specifically for a single person. The fact sheet about the challenge says "the approximate weekly budget for someone earning the federal minimum wage is $77," so that's how much you have "to cover a week’s worth of your meals, groceries, transportation, and recreational spending." The "you" in this sentence is pretty clearly one person, and there's no information on the site about how to adapt the challenge for a couple or a family. Do you just assume you have two wage earners, both earning minimum wage, and thus your weekly budget is $77 per wage earner? Or are you supposed to pretend that you have one wage earner struggling to support the rest of the family on a $290 paycheck? What about your housing expenses—are you supposed to assume those are exactly twice as high as they would be for a single person? (The CNN story says Representative Tim Strickland, who took the challenge, went with a budget of $154 per week for his five-person household, but it's not at all clear from the website that this is the approved way to do it.)
  2. The website says the $77 budget is based on a $290 paycheck minus the "average" costs for taxes and housing, but it doesn't explain how the group came up with these numbers. The figure for taxes is probably a reasonable one; there are lots of tax calculators on the Web, such as this one, that you can use to work out the tax on a $290 paycheck. But using some arbitrary "average" cost for housing seems a bit unfair to me. When you're trying to get by on a low income, probably the single most important thing you can do is to cut your housing costs down to the minimum, whether by sharing a house with five roommates, cramming into a one-bedroom with your sweetie, or staying home with good old Mom and Dad. By forcing you to assume you're paying the "average" cost of $176.48 a week (or about $756 a month), Americans United for Change is taking that budget-cutting strategy away from you.
  3. The minimum wage isn't the same everywhere. Here in New Jersey, for instance, it's $8.25 an hour rather than $7.25, and for good reason; the cost of living in New Jersey is higher than the national average. So if Brian and I were to try and live on a $77 budget, we'd have to pay above-average East Coast prices for food, transportation, and entertainment, but without the above-average minimum wage to support those costs.
  4. The biggest problem with the Live the Wage challenge is the same one I noted with the standard SNAP Challenge: it only covers a period of one week. Most people may buy groceries and gas at least once a week, but what about all the other expenses that come up less often than that? A monthly rent payment is presumably covered under "housing," but what about phone bills and utility bills? Are those lumped in with housing as well? How about insurance or maintenance for car owners? Those are expenses you know you'll have to pay sooner or later, but not every week; are you supposed to pro-rate them, setting aside a certain amount of your $77 to deal with them? If so, how much? What about other expenses, like clothing? That's something you obviously have to buy sometimes, but just as obviously don't have to buy every week; is it cheating to just put off all necessary purchases of clothing until the one-week challenge is over?
So, as with the SNAP Challenge, I'm not really sure this challenge is all that useful as a learning experience. I think we could do it quite easily; our current food budget, as we know from the Reverse SNAP Challenge, is around $55 a week, and our average spending on gas for the past three months works out to about $13 a week. That comes to only $68, less than half of our $154 budget for the two of us. We'd have 86 bucks left to cover all unusual expenses, whether strictly necessary (like a doctor visit), strictly optional (like a concert), or somewhere in between (like hardware and toiletries). As long as we didn't happen to get hit with a major, unexpected expense during the week, like a car repair or an emergency trip to the dentist, I can't see us having any real problems with it. But I can't see us really learning anything from it, either. The whole point of Live the Wage is supposedly "to give a glimpse into just how little the minimum wage provides a working family in this country"; as a two-income couple with no kids and a frugal lifestyle, I don't think we'd actually be glimpsing anything all that different from a typical week.

Still, it's always possible I'm being too sanguine. After all, I thought the Reverse SNAP Challenge would be a walk in the park, too, but at the end, I discovered that the produce we ate from our garden would have put us over budget if we'd had to buy it from a store. (We could still have made it through the challenge without it, but our food choices would have been different.) So perhaps there are similar lessons to be learned from the Live the Wage Challenge. In any case, there's only one way to find out. So I'm going to record all my expenditures for the next week, starting today, and see how I do. Even if I learn nothing from it, I'll at least get an easy week's worth of blog entries out of the deal.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Emergency plan 2.0: Our new ventless gas heater

Last October, as you may recall, I was feeling pretty good about how well our household was prepared for emergencies. In addition to a stove that would function without electricity, a well-stocked pantry, and a supply of stored water, we had just acquired a battery-powered LED lantern, an emergency radio that could be powered via hand crank, and a jumbo box of chemical hand warmers. These supplies, I figured, would be enough to get us through two weeks or more of being stuck at home without power, summer or winter.

By February, however, I was no longer feeling so sanguine. At that point, we knew what a prolonged wintertime power outage was actually like, and it turned out that the chemical heat packs weren't actually much good for keeping warm. They can keep a specific part of you warm, assuming you have some way to secure the heat pack to the appropriate part, but they aren't much good at warming your whole body. We attempted to buy and install a little gas heater as a backup heat source, but it turned out that installing one of these was really a job for a professional. So we had to shelve that plan, and fortunately, we made it through the rest of the winter without incident.

I made up my mind, however, that it was going to be the last winter we would go through without some kind of emergency backup heating. So I started doing research into emergency gas heaters. I found that unvented gas heaters, like the one that we initially tried to install ourselves and ended up having to return, are by far the cheapest and easiest to install, but there's a bit of controversy about how safe they are. Carbon monoxide poisoning isn't a serious danger, as these heaters produce only a tiny amount of CO, and it shouldn't build up to dangerous levels as long as there's enough ventilation in the room. (This website from a distributor of heating appliances says that in most homes, just the natural "breathing" of the house through cracks and crevices should provide enough ventilation, but other sites, like this one, recommend opening a window to make sure.) Having the flame use up all the oxygen in the room isn't a problem, either, because all these heaters now come with an O2 sensor that automatically shuts them off if the oxygen level in the room drops below a certain point. However, sources like the Green Building Advisor still recommend against using them for three reasons:
  1. "Even when working perfectly, they put a lot of water vapor into the house." Manufacturers counter this claim with a study showing that moisture buildup is typically a problem only when these heaters are used in northern climates and in confined spaces—and even then, the problem can be solved by choosing a heater that isn't too powerful for the space. I didn't think it would be a problem for us, since the heater would be installed in a big, open space and would only be used for emergencies anyway.
  2. "Drafts, fans, candles, and tight houses can mess up the combustion process." Our 1970s house is neither especially tight nor especially drafty, so those concerns didn't seem to apply for us. We obviously wouldn't be using a fan during a power outage, and with our new battery-powered lantern as an alternative, we wouldn't be likely to use candles either. And if something did manage to go wrong somehow, there would be a CO detector just a few feet away.
  3. "Many homeowners don't understand how to operate or maintain them." Since I always read the manual, I didn't expect this to be a problem in our case either.
So, having weighed the pros and cons, I decided that a ventless heater was probably the best choice for us and asked the contractors who came to give us quotes on our new boiler what they would charge to install one. We got a variety of reactions to the question: one contractor said, "We don't do those," citing the concerns I mentioned above, while another said, "Oh, those are great—I have a friend who uses his all winter long." The contractor we ended up going with said that if we hired him to do the boiler, he'd throw in the heater hookup for $100, so long as we provided the heater. However, due to a minor screw-up on my part (the heater I ordered from Amazon was a propane model, rather than the identical-looking natural gas version, and had to be returned), we didn't have the heater yet at the time the guys came to do the boiler. So they just put in a valve hookup for it and said to call them back when we got the actual heater.

So, after returning the propane heater, I ended up finding a reconditioned gas model on a site called Factory Buys Direct for only $80 ($105 including shipping). Of course, I'd also taken a $41 hit for returning the first one (ouch). But on the plus side, even with the extra $41, I still paid less altogether than I would have if I'd bought the correct Mr. Heater model from Amazon in the first place, and the one we ended up with is both more powerful and, in my opinion, nicer looking. Here it is, mounted to the wall in the room I've finally decided to start referring to as the rec room.

With the addition of this backup gas heater, our emergency plan is truly complete. We can now be snowed in for a week without power and still keep warm (in the rec room), cook meals (on the stove, with the food stored in the pantry), entertain ourselves (with books and games, a battery-powered radio that we can recharge with a hand crank, and an LED lantern as a light source in the evenings), make necessary phone calls (with our cell phone, which we can recharge via the radio), and even take showers (since the water and the water heater still work). We'll still have to do without e-mail, Internet, and TV, but it'll be more like a vacation in the country than a sojourn in the wilderness.

Of course, I'd rather not actually be snowed in for a week without power in the first place. But if we are, I'll be a lot happier being snowed in with this thing than without it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The SNAP Cookbook

After completing my Reverse SNAP Challenge last month, I thought to Google the phrase and see whether anyone else had also attempted this particular twist on the standard SNAP Challenge. I didn't find anyone who had, but my search led me to someone else who has come to many of the same conclusions I did about eating healthy on a SNAP budget. Canadian-born Leanne Brown, who moved to New York City to pursue a masters in food studies, was unimpressed with our country's food aid program, finding it less flexible than the assistance offered in Canada. She found that a lot of people relying on SNAP were eating a carb-heavy diet with lots of processed foods, but when she went looking for resources online about how to make healthy choices on a SNAP budget, everything she found was either "very governmental" or "too preachy." She concluded that "an appealing, tasty, practical, healthy set of recipes" would be a big help to many SNAP beneficiaries.

Her solution is Good and Cheap, a collection of recipes that's available online in PDF form at no charge. Since many people who use SNAP don't have Internet access at home, Brown also raised $145,000 through Kickstarter to make the book available in print form to those who need it. The print version isn't out yet, but you can pre-order copies on her website. She's set up a special pricing system so that you can buy your own copy for $20, but for a little extra, you can also donate copies to people who need them: $25 to donate one copy, $29 for two, and $100 for ten. (I must admit, I don't quite understand this price structure: the price per donation starts out at $5 for one copy, drops to $4.50 each for two, and then suddenly shoots up to $8 each for ten, which makes it far less efficient to donate multiple copies. It seems like the best use of money would be to make three $29 donations, so you could donate six books at $4.50 each, keep one copy for yourself, and give two as gifts. Nonprofits can order the books in bulk for $4 per copy, which coincidentally is the amount it costs to feed one person for one day with the recipes in the book.)

According to this article about Brown on the NPR blog "The Salt," one of the things that makes this cookbook special is its emphasis on flexibility, with "lots of options for substitutions, especially when it comes to the produce aisle, where prices can fluctuate based on season and availability." Brown says in the introduction to the book that her recipes "use ingredients common to most low-income New York City neighborhoods," but what's common in New York might not be common in Atlanta or Des Moines, so they also "encourage substitution based on availability, taste, and price." Brown doesn't always stick to cheap ingredients, either: paging through Good and Cheap, I found recipes that called for olives, fresh mozzarella, and shallots (though with this one she allowed for the substitution of an equivalent volume of onion). However, these high-end ingredients are minor components of the recipes, used to add flavor; the bulk of the ingredients are fresh veggies and grains. She gives an estimated price for each recipe, both in total and per serving, and it's rare for any dish to price out at more than $1.50 per serving even with the pricey ingredients. Substitute cheaper ones, and you could spend even less. Many of her recipes are variations on a basic dish, like oatmeal (13 cents a serving) or popcorn (25 cents), which allow you to eat the same inexpensive breakfast or snack for days on end without tiring of it. (Of course, I eat popcorn with just a touch of olive oil and salt every day and haven't tired of it yet, but many people crave more variety.)

One thing I found particularly interesting about Good and Cheap is that Brown seems to have come to many of the same conclusions I reached about healthy eating on a budget at the end of my Reverse SNAP Challenge. For instance, I noted that "a cheap diet tends to be heavy on grains, light on meat," and this description fits most of the recipes in her cookbook. While it includes a few meat-centered dishes, like roast chicken and pulled pork, the bulk of her recipes "celebrate the vegetables rather than the meat." She also emphasizes the importance of cooking at home, saying "Kitchen skill, not budget, is the key to great food." And, like me, she recognizes that food availability is essential to eating well on a budget, which is why she designed her recipes to be flexible and allow for substitutions.

I downloaded Brown's book as soon as I discovered it, and so far we've tried two recipes from it. The first was her "Cold (Spicy?) Noodles," which appealed to me because it's heavy on cucumber, something we're dealing with a bumper crop of at the moment. She says to use one large cucumber to 12 ounces of noodles, but I think it could have taken even more cucumber without difficulty. Of the optional "additions" the recipe suggested, we chose peanut sauce and shredded carrot. The dish was hearty and flavorful, though both Brian and I agreed that it needed a little more soy sauce. However, perhaps with the optional spice oil, the flavor would have been high enough not to need it. Next time we might just use two chili peppers in the peanut sauce rather than one. This is also one of the few recipes that I think would be better if the cucumbers were peeled, at least partially; there's such a large volume of cucumber in it that the toughness of the skins is a distraction. Still, overall it was a very tasty dish that we felt no guilt about eating our fill of. The recipe claims to serve four, and that seems about right; it made one dinner for the two of us plus two subsequent lunches for me, with just a bit left over for today's lunch.

We also tried her "Brussels Sprout Hash and Eggs," since we happened to have some Brussels sprouts left over in the fridge after cooking a batch of our favorite Roasted Brussels Sprouts last weekend. This recipe calls for olives, which we didn't have and I don't like, so in the spirit of substitution, we compensated by adding a little more garlic and lemon juice. The result was pretty good, but not extraordinary. It's a quick and easy dish to prepare on a weeknight, but it seems like a waste to use Brussels sprouts on it when they could be roasted with garlic (mmm). If it had instead called for some more everyday vegetable, like cabbage, we might have been more impressed with it; as a cabbage recipe, it would be above average, but as a way to prepare sprouts, it pales in comparison to roasting. So perhaps, we'll substitute a little further to try it that way next time and see how we like it.

On the whole, I'm impressed with Good and Cheap, and I intend to try many more of Brown's recipes in the coming weeks. (I've already got some cantaloupe chunks chilling in the freezer at the moment to turn into a Melon Smoothie.) And obviously, you can't beat the price, at least for the free online edition. I have only two quibbles with the PDF version of the cookbook. First, it seems to be rife with copyediting errors: in just the few recipes we've tried so far, Brian and I found missing words that made the meaning ambiguous and ingredients in the ingredient list that the recipe never told you when to add. So I do hope these glitches will get fixed before the final version of the book goes to print.

The other problem with the book is that it's hard to print the recipes out. The whole book is in PDF form, but shrinking a two-page spread to fit onto a single 8.5-by-11 sheet makes the print so tiny it's hard to read, and I haven't found any way of selecting and printing out only one page from a spread. To print the two recipes we've made so far, I ended up copying the text and pasting it into a Word document, and even then I had to fiddle with the text before I could print it because the formatting came out all wonky. So if I enjoy future recipes from this book as much as I have the first two, I'll probably go ahead and spend the $20 for a printed copy—or better yet, $25 for a printed copy and a donated copy or two. (But, unless she fixes the pricing structure, definitely not ten.)

Monday, August 18, 2014

Patio furniture follow-up

It's now been about a year since we officially completed our patio project by furnishing our new outdoor space with this Askholmen dining set from IKEA. At the time, this 5-piece, $120 set, made of solid acacia wood, looked like an outstanding deal, considering that similar outdoor dining sets sold elsewhere were going for $650 or more. Sure, it was just a basic wooden picnic table and chairs, but it felt reasonably comfortable, it seemed fairly durable, and, when first put together, it looked quite nice on our new patio. In our excitement, we didn't pay too much attention to the description of our new patio set, which said it was finished with "acrylic glazing paint" rather than stain and that we could "easily protect [it] against wear and tear by reglazing it on a regular basis, for example once a year."

Turns out, we should have taken that as a warning. After a year of wear and tear, the warm brown finish on our chairs and table had not only faded to a greyish hue but was also flaking off in big, uneven patches. If the fading were the only problem, we might have just decided to stick with the "weathered" look, but the flaking was definitely unsightly. And re-glazing with another coat of the same stuff didn't seem like the greatest idea, since both our past experience and the description from IKEA suggested that we'd just end up having to do it again every year.

So we cruised the aisles at Lowe's looking for something more durable, and we came across a can labeled "Olympic Maximum Stain + Sealant in One." It said it was for "decks, fences & siding," so we figured it ought to be durable enough for our outdoor furniture. It promised to protect against "water damage and graying for a minimum of 4 years," and a quart can, which looked ample for our small refinishingproject, was only $15. The only catch was that it was an oil-based product. I normally have a strong preference for water-based finishes, which dry faster, clean up with plain soap and water, and don't produce fumes that can knock you out. However, for this particular job, the durability of an oil-based product seemed to outweigh these advantages. We'd be applying the stuff out in the open air anyway, so the fumes wouldn't be too bothersome, and applying "one thin coat" to finish everything would definitely be a lot less work than taking multiple passes to apply stain plus at least three coats of water-based sealant, sanding after each round. And it wouldn't matter that much if it took 24 hours to dry, since we wouldn't have to apply a second coat afterwards.

Actually, as it turned out, the fumes from this product weren't that bad at all. Not only did we not feel any lightheadedness or headache after working with it for a few hours, we couldn't even smell it unless we leaned right down next to the can. We speculated that the people who make these things must have come up with something less toxic to use than old-fashioned polyurethane; the label says it's mainly a "modified acrylic resin," with a few other unpronounceable chemicals thrown in. (Of course, the original finish on this stuff was acrylic too, which isn't too encouraging—but that 4-year guarantee offers some reassurance.)

Although the stain was easy enough to work with, the project was still a pretty big hassle. The problem is that, as you can see from the pictures, these pieces are made of lots of individual slats. Each of these slats has multiple exposed surfaces, and each one of these surfaces had to be gone over twice: first with sandpaper to remove the old, flaking stain, and then with the new stain. Brian did the larger, flattish surfaces with an orbital sander he'd picked up at a yard sale, while I used a square of sandpaper to work on the little fiddly bits in between slats and on the ends where the sander couldn't reach. The disk on the sander gave out, along with our supply of medium-grade sandpaper, by the time we'd finished the table, so we ended up having to make a Home Depot run to pick up more, and we then burned through about one sanding disk and one quarter-sheet of sandpaper on each of the four chairs. We also produced a huge quantity of sawdust, but fortunately Brian had had the foresight to put down a tarp under the patio set before we started, so he just carefully gathered it up and dumped the contents directly into the trash. We didn't risk putting them in the compost bin for fear that the residue of the original "acrylic glazing paint" wouldn't agree with our plants.

After that, we had to go over those same multiple surfaces with the stain. This was a bit trickier, because each piece had both a top and a bottom, so we had to do all the surfaces on the underside first, leaving just enough exposed wood to grab it by and flip it before we could do the top surfaces. We found the easiest way to work with the stain was to get a goodish amount on the brush, then apply the bulk of it to a single horizontal slat, and then use the little traces that remained on the brush to squeeze into the little fiddly areas between slats. Doing it the other way around mean that too much of the stain came off at once and pooled in the crevices, leading to drips. The whole process took us most of the afternoon, but eventually we had five nicely refinished pieces sitting out to dry in the fading sunlight, while we dumped our cheap foam brushes straight into the trash (rather than mess around with mineral spirits trying to clean them) and ourselves into the shower.

The final result is far from perfect. Although we went over every bit of the chairs with both sandpaper and stain, we couldn't manage to get all the old finish off in some of those little hard-to-reach spots, so the wood tone is a bit more uneven than it was before. There are also a few spots, particularly on the undersides, which didn't get sanded very thoroughly, so the surface is a bit rough. Still, it's unlikely anyone's ever going to bother looking at the undersides, and any flaws in the finish are only noticeable if you know where to look for them. The main thing is that the chairs look overwhelmingly better now than they did just a couple of days ago.

Overall, I'd still recommend that this IKEA patio set as a good deal. After all, $120 is a lot less than you'll pay anywhere else, and even if the finish didn't hold up that well, the wood itself is still in good shape (although we found that after a year of use, many of the hex nuts needed to be re-tightened). However, I'd now offer a caveat to anyone planning to buy the Askhomlen dining set: either keep it sheltered from the weather when you're not using it, or else go over all the pieces with a durable outdoor finish before you put it together. This whole project would have been a lot easier if we'd had a bunch of flat pieces to work with, instead of fully assembled chairs with lots of nooks and crannies.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Breaking the Law of Beverages

Lately, I've discovered, a major rule of for frugal shopping that I learned at my mother's knee has begun to break down.

When I was growing up, I hardly ever poured myself a drink from a carton. The main beverages I knew were water, which came right out of the tap; milk, which came a big cardboard box; and juice, which came in a cardboard-covered cylinder that you stored in the freezer. When I left home and started buying my own groceries, these habits stuck with me—not just because it was what I was used to, but also because I could plainly see that the powdered milk and frozen OJ I grew up with were a lot cheaper than their fresh equivalents. And buying this way seemed like the most earth-friendly choice as well, because shipping the milk and juice to stores in their concentrated form used less fuel. Indeed, if I'd ever thought to lay out an Ecofrugal Law of Beverages, it would have been something like, "Don't pay for the water when you can add it yourself."

In more recent years, though, I found that this law wasn't quite as hard-and-fast as I'd thought. For instance, I discovered that a really good sale could sometimes drop the price of refrigerated orange juice to a point that was actually cheaper than the equivalent volume of the frozen stuff. And, as we started buying the sale-priced juice more often, we discovered that there were actually significant differences in taste between brands. The kind labeled "not from concentrate" (NFC), usually sold in a plastic bottle, tasted better to us than both the stuff in cartons and the kind we mixed up ourselves. So even as the bottles dropped in size from 64 ounces to 59 and the usual sale price rose from $2 to $2.50, we were willing to pay a bit more per ounce for it. However, when I speculated on this blog about whether, once our mortgage was paid off, we might want to start buying this stuff even when it wasn't on sale, Brian balked. He liked the NFC better, he said, but not enough to pay $4 a bottle for it. So, barring the occasional sale, the Law of Beverages was still holding.

Just recently, however, our local Aldi started carrying its own brand of NFC juice, called Nature's Nectar. (Apparently it's actually been around for a while, since this article from 2009 mentions using it in a taste test, but we only started seeing it at our store recently.) Its regular price has just dropped from $2.49 a bottle to $2.29 a bottle, making it actually cheaper than the sale-priced juice at most other stores. And, when he tried it, Brian said he liked it at least as much as Tropicana. So, if we've already deemed it worth paying an extra 90 cents or so for the NFC juice on sale, then clearly it's worth paying an extra 70 cents for the Aldi NFC juice at its regular price.

On top of that, it looks like the Law of Beverages is breaking down with regard to milk, as well. As recently as 2011, I observed on this blog that milk from powder was only 50 cents a quart, while fresh milk cost roughly twice as much. Not long after that, however, the price of a 20-quart box of dry milk jumped from $10 to $13, and by now it's up to $15. At the same time, sales on fresh milk are growing more common; where once it was rare to find a gallon of milk for less than $3.50, now it's fairly common to see it for $3, which is exactly the same price per quart as the powdered.

Of course, powdered milk still has some other advantages over fresh. Since it comes in a great big box, you don't have to buy it nearly as often. You can mix up just a quart at a time, as needed, rather than filling up your fridge with gallon jugs. And it also keeps almost indefinitely, making it handy to have around in case of emergency. So even if it were actually more expensive than fresh milk, we'd still keep a box of it on hand. But for everyday use, we now find ourselves pouring fresh milk nearly as often as dry, and every time I pull out that big gallon jug, it feels like I'm rebelling against my upbringing.

What I have to keep reminding myself is that what my mother was really teaching me all those years wasn't simply what kind of milk to buy; it was the much broader principle of not wasting money. So if I really want to stay true to that principle, I have to be willing to change my specific buying habits in response to a changing market. The Law of Beverages may no longer hold true, but Franklin's Law—"A penny saved is a penny earned"—is still valid.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Discretionary spending

Just this morning, I read an article in Redbook called "What your spending says about you." (If you're wondering, by the by, how I came to have a subscription to Redbook in the first place, it was a freebie I got for taking some survey or other.) In this article, three successful businesswomen in their 30s share their "discretionary spending" over the course of a week, showing pictures of their purchases and the price of each item. At the bottom of the page, accountant Clare Levison—the author of Frugal Isn't Cheap: Spend Less, Save More, and Live Better—analyzes their expenses and suggests strategies each of them could adopt to save.

What struck me about the article wasn't Levison's money-saving tips, most of which I'd heard before, but the sheer amount of money these women went through in a week. Two of them spent around $220, and the third splashed out with a whopping $492. Their highest spending categories were:
  • Clothing. One woman went shopping with a friend from out of town and ended up spending $67 on a new dress, a T-shirt, and a swimsuit for herself, plus another $11 on a onesie for her soon-to-be-born baby. Another, a subscriber to a clothing subscription club called Stitch Fix, received a $185 box of clothing from them (five items, including a pair of jeans, a blouse, and a huge costume-jewelry necklace) and spent an additional $62 on a pair of ankle-strap heels and $40 on frilly underwear. Levison's advice to her was not, for some reason, to give up the clothing subscription; instead she said to promptly return any items she didn't love, and also to use coupons when shopping elsewhere.
  • Personal care. The lady with the clothing subscription also subscribes to a similar service called Wantable for "makeup, jewelry, and intimates," which she describes as "so good for the working mom." That may be true if the working mom has lots of cash to spare; the box she got from them contained five cosmetic items costing a total of $36, and she spent another $18 elsewhere. The second subject bought only three items—a pot of foundation and two bottles of what might be shampoo—but they cost a total of $64. The third didn't buy any cosmetics, but she spent $84 on a haircut.
  • Food and booze. The editors said their definition of discretionary spending left out "the things on the must-buy list, like gas and milk," but they apparently included food items that they decided should count as luxuries. These included all meals eaten out, all alcoholic beverages, all beverages purchased on the go, and certain grocery items that were deemed luxuries, including fresh fruit for the woman who lived in Juneau and ice cream for the pregnant lady. Even whole foods bought for use in recipes (fresh coconut, fresh herbs, lemons and limes) were dinged as unnecessary purchases. For one woman, a food blogger and cookbook author, luxury foodstuffs accounted for $83 of her $225 total.
Now, admittedly, some of the purchases the editors labeled as "discretionary" were questionable. While wine and desserts may be unnecessary, you can't be a cook without buying ingredients. Cosmetics may be luxuries, but I think most people would consider shampoo a necessity. And I certainly didn't understand why the $20 the Brooklyn dweller put on her MetroCard was labeled as unnecessary spending. (Maybe the idea was that, since she works from home, she doesn't really need to go anywhere.) But even so, these totals seemed awfully high to me. I mean, hundreds of dollars of discretionary purchases in a week? A month I could understand, though I'd still consider it on the high side. But a week? Do most women buy themselves a new outfit and over $50 worth of personal care items every week?

Then I wondered if maybe I was being too judgmental. Maybe my own discretionary spending was actually higher than I realized. So I decided I was going to put my own budget to the same test. I went back over all my purchases for the past week and pulled out all the items that I thought would be considered unnecessary according to the editors' criteria. I counted only my own purchases, not Brian's, since that appeared to be what the women in the article had done. I didn't treat the money I spent on fresh produce as an unnecessary purchase, since I don't live in Alaska and I'm not paying inflated prices for it, but I counted all the foodstuffs that could be considered treats rather than basic nutrition. I also, after some hesitation, included the bottle of body wash I bought, since I could, in theory, bathe with ordinary bar soap instead (though I don't think it would actually save me any money). So here's my week's discretionary spending. All prices include tax, where applicable.
  • Bath Basics coconut shower gel (to replace an existing bottle that was nearly empty): $5.34 at Rite Aid. This is actually a 3-in-1 bubble bath, shower gel, and shampoo, but I use it only for bathing, so a quart bottle lasts me several months.
  • Five pounds of organic, Fair Trade baking cocoa: $53.27 (including shipping) from Dean's Beans. I've stopped buying my coffee from them since I found a better deal at IKEA, but they're still the cheapest source I've found for Fair Trade cocoa, even with the shipping costs. The new bag actually hasn't arrived yet, so I photographed the old one, which we bought in January and have nearly used up.
  • A bottle of diet cream soda: 82 cents (on sale) at Stop & Shop. The limes you see in the picture were actually bought just over a week ago; there was a big bag of them on the reduced-price rack for $1.63, and Brian had the idea that we could use them to make our favorite non-alcoholic cocktail, a Knightsbridge. (Actually, it's only virtually non-alcoholic, because it contains a dash of Angostura bitters, together with cream soda, ice, and the juice of half a lime.) We bought one bottle of cream soda at the same time as the limes, then went back for a second bottle so we could share some with friends.
  • Two bags of kosher marshmallows: $4.28 (on sale) at Stop & Shop. As a semi-vegetarian (or "conscientious omnivore," if you prefer), I don't eat regular marshmallows, which are made with gelatin, a slaughterhouse by-product. However, I enjoy making s'mores over the coals from our barbecue grill, so I like to pick up a bag or two of kosher marshmallows (made with fish gelatin) when they happen to go on sale. These were reduced from their regular price of $3.29 a bag to $2.
  • One can of whipped cream: $3.19 (on sale) at ShopRite. I go through a lot of this stuff, but as luxuries go, it's not that indulgent: only 15 calories for a 2-tablespoon spritz. We go through about a can a month.
TOTAL: $66.90. This is actually a bit higher than average for me, thanks to that $53 bag of cocoa, but it's still way lower than what any of the women in the Redbook article spent.

So what, in the words of the Redbook article, does my spending say about me? Well, first of all, obviously, it says I'm not a big spender. It also appears to say that my favorite luxury items are foodstuffs, particularly foodstuffs that are Fair Trade and organic. It says that I'm concerned about animal welfare, what with the kosher marshmallows and the cruelty-free body wash. And it says that I'm a pretty avid bargain hunter, since nearly all the luxury items I bought (plus quite a few non-luxury items, not shown in the picture) were on sale or purchased in bulk to save money. In other words, it says that I'm ecofrugal, which is just what you'd expect it to say.

And, if Clare Levison wants to tell me how to trim the fat in my budget, she'd better bring her A game.

Anybody else want to play this game? Just post your list in the comments, or link to a blog entry covering the same topic.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The rewards credit card shuffle

Last week, I came across an article at Money Talks News with the somewhat cumbersome title, "No Rewards Credit Card in Your Wallet? You're Likely Missing Out Big Time." I clicked on it mostly out of idle curiosity, not expecting to learn anything from it that I didn't already know. After all, I currently have two rewards credit cards in my wallet—one Citi Dividends and one Chase Freedom—both of which pay me 1 percent cash back on all my purchases, plus an additional 4 percent on specific categories that change quarterly. To make sure I get the most out of my rewards, I jot down these categories on a crib sheet in my wallet, so I can always use the card that pays the highest bonus at any given location. And, of course, I always pay off the balance on all my cards in full, so the 5 percent cash back is really 5 percent and not just a discount on an interest rate of 15 percent. So all in all, I thought I was doing a pretty good job gaming the system.

However, my confidence started to falter when I got to this sentence: "The real trick here is to find a rewards credit card that pays a bonus in categories in which you spend the most money each month." This, I had to admit, was a weak point of both my rewards cards. Because the categories that pay bonus points keep changing, we don't consistently earn the best rewards on our biggest-ticket categories. Some quarters, to be sure, one of the cards will pay a bonus on gas or groceries (two categories in which we're guaranteed to spend at least some money every month). At other times, one will pay a bonus in areas where we spend money at least fairly often, such as restaurants or home improvement stores. But there are also times when the bonus categories are all but useless to us. Right now, for instance, my Citi card is paying bonus rewards on hotels, car rentals, movies, and theme parks—four categories in which we haven't spent a single penny in years.

I did some rough calculations and found that over the past three months, we've earned 1.2 and 1.4 percent respectively with our Citi and Chase cards. That was a bit of a disappointment, because I knew for a fact that we could do better than that. I've recently seen several ads on Hulu featuring Samuel L. Jackson touting the Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards card, which pays 1.5 percent cash back on everything—no limitations, no exceptions. However, the Money Talks News article mentioned another card that might be still better for us: the Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express, which pays 3 percent at supermarkets, 2 percent at gas stations, and 1 percent on everything else. Both of these cards are free of annual fees, which is a bottom-line requirement for me, and their interest rates are comparable to those on our current cards—though that doesn't really matter, since we never carry a balance anyway.

It looked like either of these two cards would be better than the two we have now. To really maximize our benefits, of course, the best thing to do would be to get both of them, and then use the Blue Cash Everyday card exclusively for supermarkets and gas stations (which would be easy to remember without the need for a crib sheet) and the Capital One Quicksilver card for everything else. However, I was reluctant to apply for both cards at once, since having too many inquiries on your credit report is likely to ding your credit score, which could reduce our chances of actually getting either card. (Also, both cards offer a bonus of $100 if you spend a certain amount in the first three months, which is easier to do if you can concentrate your spending on one card at a time.) So which of the two would be more useful to get into my wallet first?

To find the answer, I figured, I'd need to go back and look at our credit card statements for the past 12 months. For each card, I could add up the amounts that we spent each month on groceries, gas, and other stuff and get a total for each category for the year. Then I'd multiply each category by its appropriate percentage—3, 2, and 1 respectively for the Blue card, 1.5 across the board for the Quicksilver card—and see which gave me a higher total. I assumed the easiest way to do this would be to set up a little spreadsheet on Excel. However, as I was perusing the details of the two credit card offers at Credit Karma, I noticed that the site was providing an "estimated savings" figure for each card, with a note saying that I could get a more accurate estimate by logging into my account. Credit Karma, for those not familiar with the site, is a website that will, with your permission, pull up your credit report and show you your credit score for free (though, as this article points out, the score they show you isn't identical to the FICO score used by most lenders). The way they can afford to do this for free is that once they know your financial situation, they can start trying to sell you financial products you might have a need for, like insurance or bank accounts. Of course, you can just ignore these offers, and most of the time, I do. However, in this case, they were offering me information about a product I actually did have a use for: a better rewards card. Why not let them do the math and tell me which card would be the best deal for me?

So I logged into my account, and bam, up popped a total of my monthly credit card spending, neatly sorted into categories. Based on these numbers, I could search their database of credit card offers to see which one had the best payoff for me. I had to do a little fiddling with the search feature to find the most useful offers, weeding out the cards with travel rewards (which are about as useful for me as a set of matched luggage for a tortoise) and the ones that charge an annual fee. Once I'd narrowed down the list, I could sort it based on criteria such as average user rating, average percentage cash back, or total payout over one, two, or three years. The Capital One Quicksilver card turned out to be the best deal over the long term: Credit Karma estimated it would pay me $308 a year, plus a one-time bonus of $100 if I spent $500 on it in the first three months, which would add up to $1,025 over three years. The Blue Cash Everyday card came in second, at $837 over three years, and my existing Chase Freedom card was a close third at $828.

These findings should have been conclusive, but something about them gave me pause. I noticed that the listing for the Chase card showed its "average rewards rate" as only 1.2 percent, and I had already determined that over the past three months it had been closer to 1.4 percent. Looking more carefully at the spending breakdown the site was using, it appeared that it was based solely on my most recent bill for each card, rather than on an average over the entire year. So it was likely that their estimates of the rewards we'd earn with each card were skewed by what we'd happened to buy in the last month.

To double-check their figures I went ahead and punched in the numbers into Excel just as I'd originally planned. Once I did this, I discovered that the savings estimates were actually significantly lower than the ones I'd gotten from Credit Karma. The Quicksilver card was still ahead, but it would only have earned us about $175 over the past year—and that's if we'd shelved all our other cards and made all our purchases on the Quicksilver card exclusively. Even with the $100 bonus, our three-year savings would be only $624. The Blue Cash card, under the same terms, would give us $157 a year, or $571 in three years with the bonus. Our current Citi Dividends and Chase Freedom cards, by contrast, are earning us a total of $144 a year. So switching the bulk of our purchases to a new card could put a little more money in our pockets each year, but not that much: only $13 for Blue or $31 for Quicksilver. It's still probably worth applying for the Quicksilver card, but it's certainly not going to be a game-changer.

It's a little disappointing that we won't be able to get that big a reward from a new rewards card, but I guess it's not that surprising. After all, the rewards you earn are based on what you spend, so the only way to rack up really huge bonuses is to spend a whole lot of money—which doesn't leave you ahead in the long run. It's the same sort of problem I've noted before with articles about saving money or cutting your energy use: you can't eliminate very much waste if your life wasn't that wasteful to start with. So I guess I should find it comforting that we can't earn really massive rewards with a credit card; it just goes to show that our credit card bills themselves are nice and lean.

Monday, August 11, 2014

One-day yard makeover: after

After a fairly long day of heavy lifting, we have managed to bring at least a little bit of order to Tim's yard. And when I say heavy lifting, I mean it very literally, because our first task was to clear those railroad ties from the driveway. Tim had done a bit of calling around beforehand and learned that, as I feared, these aren't so easy to dispose of. There's no curbside trash pickup in his neighborhood, and the dump where he takes the rest of his garbage won't take them. So we ended up hauling most of them to an out-of-the-way spot in the back yard, where they could rot away in peace.

Getting them to their designated resting spot, however, was a job and a half. Ironically, the ties that looked the worst—the ones that were half rotted away already—were by far the easiest to move; there were even some that I could carry without assistance. The heaviest, sturdiest timbers, by contrast—the ones that didn't look all that bad where they were—were absolute doozies to move. One particular monster took all three of us to carry, pausing for frequent breaks. After we manhandled that one into place, I proposed that the two remaining timbers that were in good condition, rather than going all the way to the back yard, should be used to replace the somewhat more damaged timbers currently serving as a border for the foundation plants in the front yard. That way, they wouldn't have to travel more than a few yards. Brian was able to move them most of that distance using a lift-and-push method: he lifted up one end of the heavy railroad tie, pushed it into an upright position, and then pushed it over so that it fell in the general direction he wanted to move it. By doing this several times in a row, he was able to get them close to their resting spot, and from there we could sort of roll and shove them into place.

Before we could position the new timbers, however, we had to remove the old ones—a slightly more manageable job thanks to their half-rotted condition—and then clear out the weeds choking the bed, since that was a job that would be easier to handle without the edging in the way. Since most of the weeds were poison ivy, this job fell to Brian, who is least sensitive to it. He used a variant of the Plastic Bag Method advocated by Mike McGrath of WHYY's "You Bet Your Garden":
  1. Place a plastic bag over your hand.
  2. Grasp the little bugger with the bagged hand and pull it until it comes out.
  3. With your other hand, invert the bag so that the poison ivy stays completely enclosed within it and it never touches your skin.
  4. Put all the bagged plants into a larger garbage bag, which you then tie shut for disposal, keeping all the poison ivy plants double-bagged within it. (Since Tim is quite severely allergic, we added yet another bag over top of this bag to make sure that he couldn't come into contact with anything that might have touched the plants.)
He didn't take all the additional precautions McGrath recommends (wait until after a heavy rain, apply Ivy Block, cover every inch of your skin, and strip down and rinse off immediately after you finish the job), relying instead on his natural immunity to protect him. It seems to have worked, as he hasn't developed any hint of rash. However, he did sustain a wasp sting after disturbing a nest that was sitting right under one of the old landscape timbers. He had to take off his wedding ring and spend ten minutes sitting in the kitchen with a poultice of baking soda on his hand. Fortunately, that has left no discernible swelling either. Unfortunately, it meant that we had to skip the step of pruning the big overgrown shrub that sits right on top of the wasps' home. rather than risk annoying them further. So we just plunked the new timbers into place and let it go at that.

While Brian was working on the weeds, Tim and I started laying down some patches of moss in the yard. There was plenty of it in his driveway, so we just started prying up large clumps of it and laying them down on the dirt. We gave each patch a good soaking with water and then stepped on it firmly to encourage it to take root in the soil. (You might think stomping on a new plant is a good way to kill it, but with moss, apparently, it's the right thing to do.) We scattered these fragments throughout the yard, and I left Tim with instructions to keep them moist and keep walking on them periodically. We'll just have to wait and see how they do in their new home.

Our next task was to start laying the path from the driveway to the door. Once we started digging out the flagstones, we discovered that (a) there were actually a lot more of them in the yard than we realized, and (b) they were made of a different sort of stone than the three slate ones Brian and I had brought from our yard. So we ended up setting those aside and using only the local stone, as it were. The pieces varied considerably in size, so we laid them out in order from biggest to smallest. This seemed appropriate, since the smaller stones at one end mingle with the gravel of the driveway, while the larger stones at the other lead up to the big, solid slab of the doorstep. Plus it seems somehow to conveys the sense that the path is opening up as you go to welcome you in.

The hardest part of laying the path was digging out a spot for each stone to lie in. The soil in Tim's yard is all hard-packed clay, incredibly difficult to get a shovel into. Brian could jam the shovel into the dirt and then jump onto it with both feet and it wouldn't penetrate more than half an inch. So, to spare his back, he sat on the ground next to the spot we'd designated for each stone, chipping away at the dirt with a shovel and emptying it into a bucket. Fortunately, the stones were only about an inch thick, so he didn't have to scoop away more than the top layer of soil. (He wisely started at the end nearest the house, so that the stones got lighter and the areas to be dug smaller as he went along.)

The difficulty Brian had with digging was enough to convince him that it would be futile to try and dig holes to plant all the lilies of the valley we'd brought with us. Instead, he proposed attacking the problem from the other direction: plunk down clumps of lilies wherever we thought they'd look nice, and then pile dirt around them from the bucket he was filling. It wouldn't give the lilies much of a head start at putting down roots, but given how stubborn these plants have proved to be, we thought they'd at least have a fighting chance. So Tim and I set out several little bunches of lilies around the base of each large tree, covered their roots with dirt, watered them deeply, and then just hoped for the best. According to this site, lilies with small "bulblets," like these lilies of the valley, only need 1 to 2 inches of soil coverage, so there's some grounds for hope, at least. And even if they don't all make it, they'll at least give the yard a temporary and much-needed burst of green.

Before packing it in around mid-afternoon, we added one last finishing touch. In addition to the large, flat flagstones, Tim had in his yard several thicker and narrower pieces of what appeared to be bluestone. Rather than let those sit around looking untidy, we stacked them in a little triangular array around the unsightly well pipe in his yard. There weren't enough of them to conceal it completely, but they at least help it blend in better with its surroundings.

By 3pm, we were all dirty, aching, and ready for a shower and a good meal. But the yard looked decidedly better for just one day's worth of work...and if we're lucky, the moss and lilies that we put down will spread, causing the yard to grow still greener as time goes on. It's a pity we didn't get to tackle those big shrubs, but maybe at some point we'll get a chance to do the job properly and just replace them altogether.