Thursday, December 31, 2015

Money Crashers: What Is Considered Middle Class in America?

Last year, I ran across Bob Sullivan's "Restless Project" series on Money Talks News, in which he argued that today, a middle-class family needs to spend at least $100,000 a year "just to feel like it's paying all the bills." I took issue with some of his calculations, and you can read about why in the original post, but I was interested by his attempt to pin down the idea of just what a middle-class lifestyle means. According to his argument, a typical middle-class family has:
  • Two working parents
  • One child in day care
  • One child in private school
  • A 3-bedroom apartment "near one of America's largest cities - Washington, D.C., or Seattle, or Chicago"
  • $500 per month in student loan debt
I had this picture in the back of my mind as I worked on my latest Money Crashers article, which explores just what it means to be middle class. As it turns out, defining the middle class is an extremely touchy subject, and no two authorities seem to agree on what the term really means. I explored news articles, academics, and opinion surveys, and I found many different definitions based on many different factors, from income and net worth to lifestyle and life goals.

I find this topic interesting from a personal point of view, because I'm always trying to figure out where exactly in the American class structure I personally belong. I've never been entirely sure whether the term "middle-class" really fits me or not, and I feel like my research on this article has only muddied the waters further. According to some definitions, like Robert Reich's (which defines a household as middle-class if its annual income falls anywhere between $21,433 and $112,262), Brian and I are solidly middle-class. Yet according to other guidelines, like this interactive graphic in the New York Times, our combination of income, wealth, jobs, and education makes us upper-middle-class rather than middle-class. And our lifestyle makes us middle-class in some ways (owning a home, having health insurance, saving for retirement) but not others (no kids, no regular vacations, annual spending below $38,000 per year). So I still can't say definitively whether I belong to the middle class or not—but at least I can explain why I'm not sure.

Anyway, if you're interested in the same question, whether from a personal standpoint or a purely academic one, you can examine the topic from all angles here:

What Is Considered Middle Class in America? – Definition, Income Range & Jobs

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A disturbing discovery about Fair Trade

Way back in May, while working on my article about organic food for Money Crashers, I noticed that they'd never actually done a piece on the site about Fair Trade. So I added that topic to my list of article ideas, and this month I finally got around to writing the article. In it, I discuss the goals of the Fair Trade movement, the various Fair Trade labels and what they mean, where to find various kinds of Fair Trade products, and how to buy Fair Trade on a budget. You can read about all that here: What Is Fair Trade and What Does It Mean? – Definition, Products & Facts

While working on this piece, I discovered something rather interesting. As I mentioned two years ago, I now buy all my coffee from IKEA because it's UTZ Certified—but I'd always sort of assumed that in doing so, I was making a kind of ecofrugal compromise. UTZ is often described as "Fair Trade light," so I figured its environmental and social standards weren't as stringent as "real" Fair Trade's—but since it's still a lot better than mainstream coffee, I considered it the best overall balance between cost and sustainability.

Well, it turns out I may have had it backwards. While researching Fair Trade standards, I came across a very troubling article in The Guardian, a left-leaning British newspaper. Researchers from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London had spent four whole years investigating plantations in Ethiopia and Uganda, and they made a startling discovery: the workers in the areas dominated by Fair Trade collectives generally made less money and had worse working conditions than those where the main growers were big plantations run by big, evil international corporations. This was true even when they controlled for other factors, like the scale of production.

Furthermore, the researchers found that the community development projects funded by Fair Trade premiums—things like schools and medical clinics—often weren't available to the poorest workers. One cooperative had installed new toilets, but they were only for the use of the co-op's senior managers. Another had built a medical clinic, but the families of the cooperative's former workers couldn't use it without paying a fee. And one used the Fair Trade premiums to improve its schools, not by cutting fees so more students could afford to go there, but by building new housing for the teachers, who were already far wealthier than its workers. As a result, the school fees remain out of most workers' reach.

Still more disturbing was the Fairtrade Foundation's response to the SOAS report. They began by saying they "welcomed" the research and would use it to improve their work—but they followed that up by saying the whole thing was fundamentally flawed and shouldn't be taken seriously. They also claimed that "many independent academic studies" showed their Fair Trade model actually does improve the lives of the poor, so this report, which found otherwise, simply couldn't be right. In other words, rather than expressing their concerns about the report's findings and pledging to root out the problems it exposed, they basically said, "Nuh-uh!"

SOAS itself released a response to the Fairtrade Foundation, pointing out several problems with the accusations it made:

  1. The Fairtrade Foundation claims that SOAS "failed to find Fairtrade certified farms for half its research sites...making a balanced comparison between Fairtrade and non-Fairtrade systems impossible." SOAS points out that they did not "fail to find" anything; the whole point of their research was to compare areas dominated by Fairtrade production with areas that weren't. That doesn't "make a balanced comparison impossible"; it's the very thing that makes it possible.
  2. Fairtrade says the SOAS comparisons were "distorted," because they looked both at large plantations and at small grower collectives. SOAS explains that, first of all, they controlled for size and still found that Fairtrade has no benefit; and second, what matters to consumers is whether the workers are better off or worse, and they were generally better off on the big farms because they paid more, had better working conditions, and provided more days of work. (As a side note, this mades the decision of Fair Trade USA to split off from Fairtrade International in 2011 so that it could apply its certification to large plantations as well as small collectives—widely lambasted at the time by Fair Trade groups such as Equal Exchange and the Fair World Project—seem not only reasonable, but constructive.)
  3. Fairtrade claims that other studies show their model does work. SOAS points out that their own study is "by far the most rigorous study of the impact of Fairtrade on workers to date," and the other studies Fairtrade refers to were mostly their own work. In one case, they looked at three producer organizations and talked to a grand total of four workers—in the presence of their manager. In another study, the researchers refused to go beyond a four-hour drive from Nairobi because they didn't want to spend a night outside the capital. And in a third, which involved "3,750 interviews across six products in just 30 days," the researchers themselves remarked on how little they had managed to learn. And finally, SOAS notes, while Fairtrade claims its studies prove the Fairtrade model improves the lives of workers, most "independent reviews of impact studies" find little to no evidence that it does.
So in short, the most extensive study of Fair Trade (or rather, the Fairtrade International model) finds that it doesn't help workers, and may actually harm them. Under the circumstances, I think my decision to go with UTZ-certified coffee—which, unlike Fairtrade, focuses largely on "better farming methods" to improve yields, and hence raise incomes—may actually be the best possible choice.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Money Crashers: 4 Things With Falling Prices That Are More Affordable Than Ever

Remember how, last April, I made the discovery that a home solar system might be more affordable than I realized? I'd sought out quotes on solar panels in the past, but the upshot at that time seemed to be that our electric bills were so low, a solar system wouldn't really pay for itself over its lifetime. However, when I rechecked the figures last spring, I found that the cost of solar energy had apparently dropped enough to make solar panels a reasonable investment—though they'd still take around 10 years to pay for themselves in energy savings.

As it turns out, solar power is only one item that's fallen dramatically in price in recent years. Gas prices have dropped sharply in the past year or two, while airfares and electronics have been declining in cost for decades. My latest piece for Money Crashers discusses the reasons why these four items have fallen in price, how their lower costs could affect you, and whether the trend is likely to continue.

Read about it here: 4 Things With Falling Prices That Are More Affordable Than Ever

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Money Crashers: What to Do With Unwanted Holiday Gifts

My previous Money Crashers, on buying and making green holiday gifts, came out a bit late for Christmas (and way too late for Hanukkah). This one, by contrast, is a bit early: It's all about what to do with those holiday gifts you can't use. I offer tips on making returns and exchanges go smoothly, as well as advice on considerate regifting. There's also a section on how to host a post-holiday gift swap party, where you and your pals can exchange your unwanted gifts for others that, ideally, are more useful.

Read it here: What to Do With Unwanted Holiday Gifts – How to Return, Exchange & Regift

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Money Crashers: Green Gifts for the Holidays

When I started working for the now-defunct ShopSmart site last year, one of the articles I proposed was eco-friendly gifts for the holidays. They rejected it on the grounds that "green" stories didn't "resonate" with their readers, but I held on to the idea and successfully pitched it to Money Crashers this year. The article discusses what types of gifts are considered "green," offers green gift ideas for various types of people, and points you toward DIY resources for making your own. I made a particular point of getting it written before Thanksgiving, so they'd have plenty of time to get it up on the site before Christmas.

Well, turns out I needn't have bothered. Money Crashers sat on the article for weeks and finally got around to publishing it today—four whole days before Christmas, and over a week past the end of Hanukkah. By this time, everyone except the most extreme procrastinators is already finished with holiday shopping, and no one has any time to start a new DIY project before Santa comes crashing down the chimney.

But seeing as how it's there, I suppose I might as well pass it along to all of you. Even if it's too late for this Christmas, I suppose it can always I help you get a head start on some ideas for next year. Here's the article: How to Buy or Make Green, Eco-Friendly Gifts for the Holidays

Gardeners' Holidays 2015: The Changing of the Garden

As usual, Brian and I are spending Christmas week in Indiana with his family, away from our house and our garden. But we've also stuck with the tradition we started last year of bringing the Fedco seed catalogue with us, so we can discuss this year's garden and choose crops for next year.

This year, some crops did very well, others very poorly—and they weren't necessarily the same crops that performed well or poorly in the past. So I'm going to do this post in the style of the "hits and misses" column in the paper, outlining our garden's successes and failures of 2015 and what we intend to do about them in 2016.

HIT: The arugula, which gave us only a modest crop in the spring, but then reseeded itself (partly in the bed where it was planted, partly in the paths between the beds) to provide a much more ample crop in the fall. In fact, the fall crop of arugula is still producing, even after several hard frosts, and probably will keep going until either we eat it all or the ground freezes solid.
To do: Replenish our stock of this variety (Rocket OG) for next year.

The basil, which once again produced a monster crop this year thanks to our "carpet sowing" method. We have stored enough, both in frozen cubes and packed in oil, to get us through the winter easily (especially since we still have a tiny bit of our 2014 crop left).
To do: Replenish our stock of this variety (Sweet Basil OG) and stick with the "carpet sowing" method.

MISS: The broccolini, a new crop that we tried for the first time this year. We'd had no success growing standard broccoli, but we hoped that the broccolini might prove easier to grow and possibly tastier as well. But alas, like the head broccoli, it produced only a few little, scrawny stalks.
To do: Drop the broccolini as a crop and instead take another crack at growing eggplant, a veggie we go through quite a lot of since we discovered/invented our recipe for eggplant and string beans in garlic sauce. Our previous attempts to grow eggplant were miserable failures; first the squirrels pulled the fruits off before they got larger than thumb-sized, and then, after Brian invented his squirrel excluder to keep them out, the seedlings we started were so scrawny that they never produced any decent-sized fruits. But Brian thinks our new seed starting method, which combines sterilized garden soil with potting mix, may succeed in producing large enough plants to give us decent-sized fruits. So we're planning to buy some of the Pingtung variety, a long Chinese-style eggplant that's supposed to be vigorous and reasonably high-yielding.

MISS: The Brussels sprouts. We made a point of starting them early this year, and the plants got nice and big and leafy...but the actual sprouts, the part you eat, still haven't grown big enough to harvest. On the plus side, the plants still seem to be healthy even despite the near-freezing temperatures, so we figure we'll just leave them out there in the garden until they either die or provide edible sprouts. If they're still alive in the spring, we'll just let them stay put.
To do: Seeing as how we did manage to get some actual sprouts on the plants this year, we figure it's worth one more try to see if we can get any that are big enough to make a nice batch of roasted Brussels sprouts. This time, we're planning to try removing the lower leaves from the plant, which is supposed to encourage the sprouts to grow bigger. If that still doesn't give us a decent harvest, I think we'll just give up on this crop and resign ourselves to buying our sprouts at the store.

MISS: The cucumbers. Although both varieties we planted this year, the Marketmore and the Calypso, are listed in the catalogue as "tolerant to PM" (powdery mildew), both sets of vines were pretty badly infected with it this year, as were all our other squash plants. We still got a modest crop off them, but not nearly as many as we were anticipating, considering the absurdly huge harvest we got in 2014.
To do: Don't ditch the remaining Calypso and Marketmore seeds we have, but do add a new variety, Cross Country, which is described as actually "resistant to PM" rather than merely "tolerant."

HIT: The green beans, a bush variety called Provider OG that gave us a pretty decent harvest—enough for a few meals—in only three squares of space.
To do: Check our stock of these seeds, and buy more if needed.

HIT: The leeks, which produced plenty of healthy, decent-sized plants.
To do: Check our stock of this variety (Lincoln), and buy more if needed.

MISS: The lettuce. We planted three varieties of lettuce this year: the Summer Mix we grew last year, a new variety called Blushed Butter Oaks that was supposed to be an early producer, and a cold-hardy variety called Winter Marvel that could allegedly keep producing all winter long. Unfortunately, none of these gave us much of a crop. The Blushed Butter Oaks produced almost nothing; the Summer Mix gave us a few scattered leaves throughout the summer; and the Winter Marvel has yet to yield a significant amount—though it is still growing, so I guess there's hope for the winter.
To do: Let the Winter Marvel overwinter and see how it does before deciding whether it's worth planting more next year. In the spring, we'll try going back to a butterhead variety—perhaps the Tom Thumb we've grown successfully in the past, or maybe a new one like Bronze Mignonette. But since we can't count on a good crop of lettuce with any of these varieties, we'll devote less space to it next year—maybe just three or four squares—and plant the rest with New Zealand spinach. (We bought some of this last year, planning to plant it in the side yard, and then forgot to do it, so we'll try it in the garden next year and hope it's still good.)

MIXED: The lima beans. The vines grew to huge size and looked really impressive, but we didn't actually get that much edible material off them.
To do: Go ahead and plant them again next year. They didn't give us that much food, but they didn't take up that much space, either, since they grew entirely on trellises—and Brian says he finds it very satisfying to see at least one set of really big, green, thriving plants in the garden.

HIT: Our new Vanilla marigolds, which bloomed clear into November and supplied us with lots of beautiful blossoms for the table (though unfortunately we had to keep them under glass so the kitties wouldn't eat them). I couldn't tell whether they actually did anything to keep bugs off the tomatoes, as marigolds are supposed to do, but they sure looked nice.
To do: Go ahead and buy some more of these. At $1.30 for a tiny little packet, they're a bit pricier than some of our other crops, but they're still way cheaper than buying fresh-cut flowers.

MISS: The peppers. Since we've had such terrible luck with pepper seedlings in the past, we decided not to start any peppers at all this year, but to buy four plants at the Rutgers plant sale. Two of these, a jalapeno and a frying pepper called Mamma Mia Giallo, did okay, but both the bell peppers—Staddons Select and Chocolate Beauty—failed miserably, producing maybe one or two edible peppers apiece.
To do: Since bell peppers never seem to do well in our yard no matter what we do, we're not bothering with them at all next year. And since we already have plenty of jalapenos in the freezer, we shouldn't need to grow more of those next year either. So we're going to buy another frying pepper (the Jimmy Nardello variety we've tried with moderate success in the past) and make another attempt to order the highly touted Klari Baby Cheese pepper, making absolutely sure to say NO SUBSTITUTIONS on the order form this time. Then we'll start these with our new seed-starting method and see whether the resulting plants are healthy enough to go out in the garden without being mistaken for worms by hungry birds.

HIT: The scallions. Our generic white scallion seeds, carpet sown across four squares, kept us in scallions all summer long.
To do: Check our stock of these seeds and replenish as needed.

HIT: Our new Cascadia snap peas, which gave us a plentiful crop that lasted well into June.
To do: Continue to devote one full trellis to this crop next year (and continue to start them as early as possible).

MIXED: The butternut squash. We grew two varieties this year, the fast-ripening Ponca Baby and the larger Waltham OG, and neither one gave us all that many squash. Moreover, some of the Walthams didn't ripen fully before the frost hit and we had to pick them all.
To do: After searching the catalogue, we couldn't find another variety that was both good-sized and fast-growing, so we're planning to continue planting both of these next year. That way we can hope to get some larger squash, while still being sure of some that will have a chance to ripen fully.

MIXED: The tomatoes. We grew four varieties this year:
  1. our usual highly productive Sun Golds;
  2. a new mid-season variety called Black Prince OG, which was moderately productive;
  3. Amish Paste, which didn't give us that many overall, but kept going longer into the fall than the others; and
  4. Moskvitch, an early-season plant we bought at the Rutgers plant sale, which didn't actually produce much of anything.
To do: Stick with the first three, but try to find a new early-season tomato that we can start ourselves. With our new seed-starting method, we figure we have a good chance of producing a vigorous enough plant to actually give us an early crop. We've got our eye on a variety called Glacier, which ripens in a mere 56 days and is highly cold-tolerant.

HIT: The zucchini. Even though we lost one of our two plants to squash vine borers and the other suffered badly from powdery mildew, we still managed to get a reasonably
plentiful crop.
To do: Stick with the Raven variety we grew this year. We considered trying a new one called Sebring that's supposed to resist powdery mildew, but there's no such thing as a zucchini plant that can resist borers, and we can't be sure the Sebring's overall production will match the Raven. So we're keeping the bird in the hand.

So those are our plants for our 2016 garden. As soon as we get home, we'll check our existing seed supply and place our order with Fedco, so we have as good a chance as possible of getting everything on our list. Stay tuned to hear more about our new crops in February, when the Festival of Seeds rolls around.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Money Crashers: What Is the Tiny House Movement

About a year ago, I stumbled on the phenomenon of Tiny Houses while browsing on HGTV (the only channel in our cable lineup that I actually miss now that we're cable-free again). I found these minute homes oddly fascinating; they're so small they look almost like a child's playhouse, yet they're so fully fitted out that you can actually live in them - and live pretty well, if the shows are to be believed. Watching the Tiny House shows is like exploring the model apartments at IKEA, which somehow pack space for cooking, eating, sleeping, bathing, working and relaxing into 250 or 400 square feet. You keep finding new nooks and crannies turned to uses you never would have imagined and marveling at the designers' cleverness.

The whole concept intrigued me so much that I decided to write a story for Money Crashers about it—basically allowing me to spend a couple of days exploring Tiny House sites and get paid for it. In the article, I outline the various types of tiny houses, discuss the advantages and disadvantages of living in a space less than 500 square feet in size. Then I provide profiles of several tiny house owners - single folks, families, and collectives - and discuss the ways they cope with the challenges of tiny house living. Finally, I wrap it all up with some resources for those who would like to find out more.

Read all about it here: What Is the Tiny House Movement – Plans, Resources, Pros & Cons

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Money Crashers: What Are Pop-Up Retail Stores

For a few years now, I've been lamenting about all the empty storefronts along Raritan Avenue (the main drag here in Highland Park). It seemed like every time a new store opened up to fill one of the vacancies, another one would close somewhere else, and the total number of blank store windows never got any smaller.

Just recently, however, it's started to seem like the tide is finally turning. The last several stores to have closed along Raritan Avenue in the past few months have all found new tenants almost immediately. The former health food store turned into additional space for a gym two doors down the street; a Chinese restaurant reopened with a new name; an organic spa turned into a new spa; a thrift shop became a new salon (something our town can apparently support a virtually unlimited number of); and a jewelry shop closed briefly and reopened as a "vintage" shop (which still sells mostly jewelry, so I think that was more rebranding than replacement).

And a couple of weeks ago, one of the empty storefronts across from the supermarket suddenly started sporting holiday decorations, an assortment of gift baskets, and a sign in the window saying "Pino's Holiday Baskets." A signboard inside the door explained that this was a "pop-up" expansion of Pino's, a local wine store that's been a Highland Park fixture for 85 years.

Pop-up stores, for those who don't know, are temporary businesses that set up shop in empty storefronts and other unused spaces, like public parks. Some, like the Pino's store, provide extra space for local businesses; others are new outlets for local artists and artisans. Some even serve as short-term "incubators" for businesses that eventually find a permanent home.

Coincidentally, not long before the Pino's pop-up store opened, I wrote an article all about this new business trend for Money Crashers, which has just been posted. It goes into details about the different types of pop-up stores, the ways they can benefit a community, and how to host your own one-day pop-up event...or even start a local pop-up initiative to encourage this type of store on a regular basis.

Get all the details here: What Are Pop-Up Retail Stores – Benefits and How to Support Them

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Soup of the Month: Sausage-Spinach Soup

Well, here it is at last: the final Soup of the Month for 2015. And this is a particularly special recipe to wrap up the year with, because it's the first one I invented all by myself.

This recipe is loosely based on Brian's vegetarian chili recipe, which substitutes Lightlife Gimme Lean Veggie Beef for ground beef. For the two of us, he browns half a tube of the Gimme Lean, then sets it aside and sautes a chopped green pepper, onion, and garlic. Then all this goes into the pot with two cups (or one can) of cooked kidney beans, a can of tomatoes, and three tablespoons of our homemade chili powder, and he just simmers it until it's nice and thick.

Brian was planning on making this chili for his family over Christmas, but he thought we might have to bring our own tube of Gimme Lean, because the stores in their area don't seem to sell it. I suggested Trader Joe's, but he reminded me that they no longer carry the Gimme Lean beef; they only have the sausage version. And that got me wondering: just what would you have if you tried to make this recipe with the sausage instead of the beef?

I quickly realized it wouldn't work as a chili, because the flavors aren't compatible. But you could use the same basic method—brown the sausage, then the veggies, then put it all in a pot with beans and appropriate seasonings. I thought white beans would probably make a better complement to the sausage than kidney beans, and sage and bay leaf would make compatible seasonings. I hesitated over the tomatoes, but eventually decided to leave them out and use veggie stock instead to make up the volume. And then, since it seemed like it could still use some more veggies, I decided some spinach would make a good finishing touch.

Now, we actually ended up making two versions of this, because the first time he tried it, Brian forgot the spinach. He also used veggie stock made with our Penzey's Vegetable Soup Base, a powerful, savory mix that's great for raising the flavor of an otherwise bland vegetable soup—but this stuff already had plenty of flavor from the sausage and onion and garlic and seasonings in there, so when made the soup base, it was actually too flavorful. Brian said he quite liked it, but I thought it was a bit too much, and I also felt like it really needed more veggies.

So the next night, we tried it again, leaving out the soup base and throwing in half a pound of thawed frozen spinach—plus an extra can of white beans so the spinach wouldn't be too dominant. Yet even so, the finished dish was awfully spinach-heavy. As I suspected, it had plenty of flavor even without the soup stock—all Brian had to add was a teaspoon of salt—but the spinach really dominated the texture.

I think the ideal version of this soup would probably be a cross between the first and second versions: some spinach, but not so much that it's the primary ingredient, and some soup base, but not so much that the flavor packs too hard a punch. So I think we'll be trying this again some time soon, this time cutting back the spinach to just 4 ounces, or else substituting an equal volume of chopped fresh spinach (which is less dense) for frozen. And perhaps we'll use some of the Penzey's soup base in the stock, but at half rather than full strength. With those two tweaks, I think this soup will be exactly what I envisioned: a hearty, savory, filling soup that, eked out by whole-wheat biscuits, makes a satisfying meal on a cold winter night. In other words, an ideal alternative to chili when you're in the mood for a change of flavor.

So, with this recipe, I've successfully carried out my resolution to try a new soup or salad each month for 2015. But I have to admit, it wasn't easy. Limiting myself to soups and salads, rather than any kind of veggie dish, made it much harder to find suitable recipes, and there were some months when I ended up having to fudge the definition of "soup" or "salad" a bit to squeeze my recipe in. Plus there were a couple of interesting-looking new recipes that I clipped out of magazines but ended up not trying, because they weren't soups or salads, and if I only had time to try one new dish that month, it had to be a soup or a salad.

So I think for 2016, I'll probably expand my horizons a little. Instead of limiting myself to soups and salads, I'll make my Recipe of the Month any dish that puts either fruit or veggies front and center as the focus of the meal. That should promote my ultimate goal of making healthy fruits and veggies a bigger part of my diet, without putting too many restrictions on how we accomplish that goal.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Money Crashers: How to Become a Vegetarian

I just had a look at the list of labels I use on my posts here, and I discovered, not much to my surprise, that the most common of all is "food." (It's currently beating "gardening" by 178 posts to 143.) I think this topic comes up more often than any other for two reasons:
  1. It's something you need every day. Home renovations may only get done every few years; new crops only go into the garden once a year; but you've always got to eat.
  2. It's an infinitely rich and varied topic. There are only so many things you can say about yard sale shopping or invasive plants (though every so often I do learn something new), but there's literally no limit to the number of ways to grow, prepare, and serve food.
Since I eat a mostly vegetarian diet, a large percentage of the posts I make about food are about vegetarian cooking. I'm not a true vegetarian, as I'll eat meat that's humanely raised, but since that stuff is pretty expensive, we eat very few meals that truly center on meat. We'll do it for something truly worthwhile, like Chicken in Rhubarb Sauce, but most of our meals contain no meat at all or use only a touch of it as a flavoring agent, like a bit of bacon in a pot of baked beans. The only reason I haven't made "vegetarian" a separate category is that nearly all the recipes I post are vegetarian anyway, so it seemed superfluous.

However, I've never really made a post here that was specifically about vegetarianism: its benefits, its challenges, and the ways to adapt to it if you're used to a meat-centered diet. So for those who are curious to learn more about this subject, my latest Money Crashers article is a good place to look. It's a complete primer on vegetarianism, covering:
  • The many different types of vegetarian diets, and what they all mean
  • The answer to the age-old question, "But what do you eat?"
  • The benefits of a meatless or meat-light diet, including animal welfare, environmental benefits, health benefits, and lower cost
  • How to make sure you get enough of specific nutrients
  • Learning how to cook vegetarian
  • How to stick to a vegetarian diet when eating out or dining with friends 
Get all the details here: How to Become a Vegetarian – Diet Types, Benefits Challenges

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Cat-safe holiday decorations

A couple of years ago, I started putting up holiday decorations indoors as well as out. Since the decorations I use outside are a simple mixture of natural greenery and ribbons, I continued this theme inside, with bits of evergreen, pine cones, and red berries, dressed up with some bright holiday ribbon. The only store-bought touch was the jingle-bell ornaments I hung from lengths of ribbon on each of the doors along the upstairs hallway.

I was pretty satisfied with this decorating scheme, but it didn't take me more than a minute to realize some parts of it just weren't going to work with our new cats in the house. Unlike sedate Amélie, who almost never jumped on anything higher than the futon, these cats get into, onto, and through everything within reach. If I tried to put baskets of evergreens on top of the tables, the cats would be sure to drag all the green stuff out of the baskets to play with or, worse still, eat. As for those little jingly bells, I was sure the kitties would find them so fascinating that they would jump up and bat at the doors as many times as it took to bring them down, and when that was done, they'd try to pull down the ribbon and shred it.

So this year, I figured I'd have to modify my decorations to make them cat-safe. For the most part, this meant putting them in high-up locations where the cats either can't or don't care to jump. Thus, I was able to keep my little pots of greenery on top of the living room bookshelf...

...and even add a couple more on the office bookcase.

I was also able to keep the bunches of evergreens in the pitchers on top of the living room TV cabinet, since that surface is too cluttered with pottery for the cats to jump on it. In fact, we've even added a few new items, a set of dessert dishes from my folks...and since I couldn't use the jingle-bell ornaments on the doors, I came up with the idea of putting them into these dessert dishes with a little spray of evergreen each and then twining the ribbons around their stems. That looked so nice that I added one to the colander full of pine cones, as well, and I think the finished display is both festive and elegant.

That still left me with one jingle-bell and length of attached ribbon, and I found the perfect place for that on top of the bathroom medicine chest, yet another spot the cats don't jump onto because it's too narrow for them. I just tucked the bell into the potted plant that's sitting up there, twined the ribbon around its basket, and set a little pear ornament next to it to reinforce the holiday theme.

In the kitchen, I was able to keep my usual arrangement on top of the refrigerator, with a pair of snowman salt and pepper shakers accompanied by a star tree topper my folks got us from Ten Thousand Villages. I added another of my little evergreen pots and our menorah to round out this holiday grouping. (We figure we'll have to set the menorah up there after lighting it all throughout Hanukkah anyway, since it's the only place we can put it where it's out of the cats' reach and away from anything flammable.)

That left me with no decorations in the guest room or anywhere downstairs. There is one surface in the guest room that's out of the cats' reach, but it's entirely covered with toys (mostly belonging to Brian, though I'll own up to a few of them). But toys are a natural match for Christmas, so I figured all they needed was something to dress them up. I was all out of the red and silver sparkly ribbon, so I pulled out a length of some other holiday ribbon I had and draped that around the shoulders of the Iron Giant and across the rest of the gathering.

The big downstairs room (still can't quite make up my mind what to call it—I thought I'd settled on "rec room," but it doesn't roll naturally off my tongue) posed a problem. Last year I put pots of evergreens on both windowsills, but I know the cats habitually hang out on one of those windowsills, and the other is at least theoretically reachable for them. I could only find one spot that was definitely out of the cats' reach: a teeny-weeny little shelf on the very top of the etagère where we keep our family photos. So I set one last little pot of evergreens in that spot, though it isn't much decoration for such a large room. Maybe I need to make something a little bigger, like one of those miniature tabletop Christmas trees. In that spot, we could probably even hang ornaments on it without having to fear that they'd end up as cat toys.

And finally, since I'd added some decoration in the upstairs bathroom, I decided to do some in the downstairs bath as well. The one high-up spot is on top of the corner cabinet where I keep my collection of cobalt glassware, so I did the same thing there that I'd done with the toys in the office; twined the last little bits of silver ribbon through the glassware, as well as a piece of gold star garland that I'd picked up at some office party. Since the downstairs bath has a sort of sun-moon-and-stars decorating scheme, this fits in quite nicely.

Ta-da! Cat-safe holiday decorations, on a budget. In fact, since all the ribbon and other materials was reused from last year, we actually didn't spend a penny on them. Though I might be inclined to pop into the dollar store and see if I can find any more of that red or silver ribbon...I think there are a couple of light fixtures I could drape some on while still keeping it out of reach of curious paws.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Household Hacks: DIY magnet board

For years, I kept a 2-by-3 foot cork bulletin board over my desk. I kept all sorts of odds and ends on it, some for reference and some just for decoration. It had notes about the schedule for the public library, useful websites and phone numbers, cartoon clippings, fortune-cookie slips, amusing photos, a list of movies I wanted to watch, instructions for what to do if the Internet goes out, and a copy of the ecofrugal word cloud I made four years ago.

There were four items in particular on the bulletin board that I used and updated regularly:
  1. An ongoing list of all our expenses for the month, which I use for budgeting and general reference
  2. An envelope stuffed with credit card slips, which I save to check against my monthly statement before paying it
  3. My to-do list, which changes daily
  4. A list of article ideas for this blog
Since these four items were regularly pulled off the bulletin board to be amended, I kept them secured with easy-to-remove pushpins rather than thumbtacks, which need to be pried up with a fingernail. Repeatedly pulling out and replacing these pins gradually wore away the cork near the bottom of the board, but we just flipped the board over to expose a fresh area of cork for pinning, which we figured would hold up for another year or so.

Why then, you may ask, am I referring to this bulletin board in the past tense?

To which I respond: cats.

Our two new cats are adorable, soft, and playful, but they are also little troublemakers. They get into absolutely everything that isn't nailed down. I've already had to replace the flower vase on our kitchen table with a cat-proof version, and we've also had to remove or rearrange various decorations to either keep them out of the cats' reach or make them less appealing. And a couple of weeks ago, the cats—particularly Winnie—started setting their sights on my bulletin board. I think it was the shiny pushpins that caught her eye, because she kept hopping up on my desk and batting at them. I had to remove her several times, but I couldn't keep an eye on her every minute, and she eventually managed to knock one of the pins loose.

Since I didn't want sharp pointy objects rolling around loose where either we or the cats might step on them, I decided to try replacing them with thumbtacks, even though they were less convenient. Unfortunately, by this time Winnie had become obsessed with the objects on the bulletin board, and rather than mess with the thumbtacks, she simply grabbed the paper itself with her teeth and pulled it loose—sending the thumbtack flying in the process.

At this point, I came to the conclusion that there was no way to make the bulletin board cat-proof, and I would have to replace it with something else. Brian suggested a magnet-board, since the cats probably wouldn't be strong enough to dislodge a fairly strong magnet—and even if they managed it, a loose magnet wouldn't be nearly as much of a hazard to our feet as a loose pushpin. He'd seen something along those lines for around $10 at IKEA, but since our nearest IKEA is about 35 minutes away and costs $5 in tolls, we decided to try Staples instead. They had a selection of magnetic dry-erase boards in various sizes, but they were pretty pricey; to get one the size of my old cork board would have cost nearly $50, not counting the magnets.

So Brian's next idea was to stop by a home center and pick up a piece of plain sheet steel. He figured we could build a frame for it out of plain wood molding, bolt the whole assembly to the wall so the cats couldn't pull it down, and have ourselves a DIY magnet-board for much less than it would cost to buy one. Unfortunately, this plan didn't work out either. Home Depot, to our surprise, didn't actually have any sheet metal; Lowe's did, but it wasn't well labeled, so it took us a while to figure out the prices. Eventually we deduced that a 2-by-3 piece of thin sheet steel would cost around $30. Once you tacked on the cost of the wood molding and the magnets, it wouldn't actually be that much cheaper than the Staples model, and it would take a lot more work.

At this point, making the trip to IKEA was starting to look like a more reasonable option. So we headed home, where Brian, seized by a sudden inspiration, dove down into the shop and started rummaging through the piles of scrap material. There he unearthed a flat steel object, about 16 inches by 20, bearing the label "stove/counter mat." It had been down there when we first bought the house, and Brian squirreled it away thinking it might come in useful some day. And now, that day had come.

Brian located the wall studs, drilled a couple of holes, and bolted the mat securely to the wall. I then raided our stash of magnets and found enough to secure the most essential pieces from my old bulletin board to the new magnetic board. This new board is still mildly interesting to the cats, but not nearly as fascinating as the old cork board, and so far, they have had no success at all pulling anything off it.

This improvised magnetic board isn't nearly as large as my old cork board, so it doesn't have room to store all the items I used to keep on it. Some of the less useful items, and all of the decorative ones, have had to be stashed away. But since these aren't items that need to be taken down and put back up regularly, Brian has promised to find a way to fit them all into frames and hang them up next to the magnet board—which will also fill the awkward gap on the wall between this smaller board and my wall-mounted ukulele hanger.

Then all we'll have to do is figure out some way to keep the cats from sitting directly in front of my computer monitor while I'm trying to work, and we'll be all set.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Money Crashers: Financial Benefits of Marriage vs. Being Single

Back in 2011, I made two posts here exploring the idea of how marriage affects your finances. In the first, I questioned the idea that it's easier for young, single people to save than it is for couples with kids. Drawing on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I showed that while most people under 25 (who tend to be childless) have lower expenditures, they also have lower incomes, and consequently lower savings, than householders with kids.

In the second post, I discussed a study I'd seen that found couples in lasting marriages tend to accumulate wealth faster than single people. I then explored the reasons why it might be easier for couples to save, many of which have to do with the fact that they typically share one household rather than maintaining two, and speculated that two single people sharing a home might have the best of both worlds

This two articles together became the inspiration for my latest Money Crashers post, which explores the financial pros and cons of being married as opposed to being single. First, I take a detailed look at the costs and benefits of marriage—from wedding expenses to taxes and benefits to the risk of divorce. Then, I consider how having children changes the picture for both single and married people, and how the benefits of sharing a home apply to both. I wrap the whole thing up with some savings tips for both groups, including the importance of communicating with your partner about money for married couples and some frugal dating tips for singles. Here's the full article: Financial Benefits of Marriage vs. Being Single – What’s Better?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Money Crashers: 4 Holiday Entertaining & Party Ideas on a Tight Budget

Four years back, I did a post about holiday entertaining. It was inspired by this New York Times article, in which the author challenged an elite party planner accustomed to five- and six-figure budgets to plan a "transcendent" holiday dinner party for eight people in the author's West Village apartment on a "recessionary" budget. His definition of "recessionary" was as $30 a head.

When this story showed up in my Tip Hero newsletter, the comment section on the website erupted with derision. The most common response was along the lines of "$30 a head is cheap?" They found it highly amusing that on a budget that they considered lavish, the best the hotshot party planner could do was a potato-based dinner and paper snowflake decorations. At least one poster scoffed that for that price, she could serve her guests champagne and filet mignon. So I responded with a post about how I would go about throwing a similarly "transcendent" party in my home. I ended up coming up with nature-based decorations, a fancy vegetarian dinner, a homemade pie, and some cheap wine from Trader Joe's, all for about $55—less than a quarter of the budget the original article provided.

In my latest Money Crashers article, I've expanded on that idea. Instead of just one party idea, I've come up with multiple ideas about how to put together the elements of a great holiday party—decorations, food, drinks, and entertainment—on the cheap. First I explore each element in turn, and then I discuss several ways to put them all together to create themed parties on a budget of $40 to $65. Read all about it here: 4 Holiday Entertaining & Party Ideas on a Tight Budget.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Soup of the Month: Roasted Root Vegetable

November's Soup of the Month is another one that came about more or less through the "Stone Soup" process: throw in whatever you've got and see how it comes out.

The "stone," in this case, was a couple of turnips that we received as part of a CSA box three weeks ago, when Brian's coworker offered it to us because she was going to be out of town. We only knew one recipe that called for turnip, and after making that one, we still had one big turnip left, which wasn't getting any younger. I'd found a recipe somewhere for a roasted vegetable soup that used turnips, but we didn't have the other ingredients needed, so Brian decided to try whipping up his own.

Since we had some carrots and sweet potatoes left over from the CSA box as well, he diced up one of each along with the turnip, plus a few plain white potatoes for ballast. He coated them all with olive oil and salt and roasted them at 450°F for 40 minutes. Then he decided that as long as he was roasting, he'd make some roasted garlic to raise the flavor of the soup. However, he knew that if he roasted the whole head wrapped in foil, in the traditional way, he'd have to wait for it to cool before he could pull apart the cloves and extract their insides—so in another moment of improvisation, he decided to separate and peel all the cloves first, then wrap them all together in the foil and put them on the roasting sheet with the veggies. And lo and behold, this worked beautifully. When the bundle came out of the oven, all he had to do was unwrap the foil and dump the contents straight into the blender with half a cup of water, puree it all together, and dump it into the pot.

The pot itself, meanwhile, was bubbling away on the stove with 3 1/2 quarts of water in it. After dumping in the garlic mixture and the roasted veggies, he started adding seasonings willy-nilly, throwing in whatever seemed like it would taste good: a teaspoon and a half of salt, a bay leaf, 1/2 teaspoon of dry mustard, 1/2 teaspoon of ground ginger.

Then, tasting the mixture, he decided it needed a bit more body. His first thought was nuts, so he roasted a quarter cup of chopped walnuts, but when he smelled them and the soup together, he thought it wasn't quite right. So he got out a jar of peanuts and smelled those alongside the soup, and that combination seemed much better. However, rather than chop up the peanuts and stir them in, he decided to add a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter—the "natural" kind, with nothing in it but peanuts and salt—so that it would blend more completely with the rest of the soup. He went ahead and threw the walnuts in anyway, since he had them. After simmering this hodge-podge together for 20 to 30 minutes, during which time it thickened to an almost porridge-like consistency, he deemed it ready to eat.

And it was...interesting. Certainly not like any other soup I'd ever had before. The hint of peanut butter was vaguely reminiscent of the tahini in Brian's favorite chick pea-spinach soup, but the other ingredients were so completely different that it didn't have at all the same vibe. The roasted veggies made a a nice, smooth base, and the toasted walnuts added an interesting bit of crunch. On the whole, everything seemed to go together reasonably well, but there was one discordant note: the turnip. Roasting vegetables usually softens bitter flavors and brings out their sweetness, but in this soup, it was still definitely present. Every time I got a mouthful of turnip, there was this jarring bitter flavor, almost like ear wax, that didn't go at all with the milder and sweeter flavors of the carrot and sweet potato.

So if we ever make this recipe again, we'll probably skip the turnip—effectively making the stone soup without the stone. And if we ever again find ourselves unexpectedly in possession of a turnip or two, we'll find some other way to dispose of it than putting it in a soup. Real Simple has a couple of recipes, including Roasted Turnips with Ginger and Mashed Turnips with Bacon, that look more promising.

So that's eleven months of Soups and Salads of the Month down, and only one more to go. Almost there!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Money Crashers: Two SNAPpy pieces

A little over a year ago, I took the Reverse SNAP Challenge. This was an inverted form of the regular SNAP (Food Stamp) Challenge that I designed because I thought the original version - just give yourself a $30 budget to buy all the food you eat for a week - had too many unreasonable and unrealistic constraints. I complained in my original post about the SNAP Challenge that most of the strategies we use to keep our food budget low—buying in bulk, shopping sales, gardening—would actually be impossible to use on a one-week basis. Even if we succeeded in staying within the SNAP budget for the week, I argued, we'd inevitably be paying more to eat during that week than we would by sticking to our usual shopping habits.

To get around these problems, I came up with the idea of taking the challenge in reverse. Instead of setting aside all the food in our pantry and eating only what I could buy with $30 per person, I'd eat from our pantry, and then take money out of the budget for what we'd actually spent on the ingredients when we bought them. As I noted in my wrap-up for the challenge, taking the challenge this way made bookkeeping a bigger hassle, but we didn't struggle at all to stay within our budget, and we didn't feel the least bit deprived—unlike most of the politicians, bloggers, and other notables who wrote about their experiences on the standard SNAP Challenge.

This contrast between my experience and the usual one inspired me to write a post for Money Crashers about the SNAP Challenge. In it, I go into the rules of the challenge and the experiences different public figures, from Corey Booker to Gwyneth Paltrow, had when they tried it. After that, I outline some of the problems I (and others) identified with the structure of the challenge and the steps I took to correct them in my Reverse SNAP Challenge. You can read the whole story here: The SNAP/Food Stamp Challenge – Could You Eat on $4.15 a Day?

As a companion to this piece, I also wrote an article about the SNAP itself. I discuss how the first Food Stamp program came to be and how it evolved into its present form, and I provide some details about who participates in the program today and how benefits are calculated. Lastly, I go into details about how to apply for and use the program, and I offer some tips about getting the most from SNAP benefits—with a nod to the Good and Cheap cookbook I've written about here before. To learn all you ever wanted to know about Food Stamps but were afraid to ask, read the full article: How to Get EBT Food Stamps – SNAP Program Eligibility & Application.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Modest Proposal to Fight Spam

Ever since I started writing for Money Crashers, I've been receiving messages several times a week notifying me about new comments on my posts. Unfortunately, very few of them are actually comments on my posts. Actual comments would support or dispute the information in my posts, or add new information that I didn't cover, or in some way address the subject matter covered in the post. But the majority of the comments I get do none of those things. Instead, they look something like this:
I left` my desk` `job` and now` I `get` paid` $85` every` h. ...Wonder` how? I` freelance` `online!` My` old` job` was` making` me `unhappy` ,so I chose to take my chance on something` new… 2 years` after`...I say it was the smartest` decision i ever` made!` Let` me show you what` i` do...go and check` this ``websiteLINK`` my` `Proffile!` for `detailed` `info`
or this:
May` I Tell you `Something` `really` Interesting` and which is`Worth` paying` `Attention`. An `effective` and `excellent` online` `opportunity` for those people` who want to `utilise` their free time so that they can `Earn some `extra `Money` using their `computers`... I have been `working` on this for last two and half years and I am earning` 60-90 `dollar`/ hour` … In the `Past` `Week` I` Have `Earned` 13,70 `DoLLars` For `Almost `20` hours` `Sitting` ….
`Any` Special``kind` of `Skills, `Degree` or Specific qualification is not `required` for this, just `typing` and a `good` `working` and `reliable` `internet` `connection` ….
`Any` `Time` `Boundations` to `Start work` is not `Required` … You may do this `work` at any `time` when you `Willing` to do it ….
I have Been Working on this and Getting Results.....….Hope over to``website`` `page` `LINK` which is on Prrof!le of mine
In other words, they're spam.

Now, Disqus, which handles the comments system on Money Crashers, does offer some tools to combat spam. Any time I get a comment that is clearly spam, I can flag it, and the moderators will eventually spot it and remove it. I can also flag the user as a spammer, with a link to the spam message in question, in hopes that the moderators will block that user from posting any more comments.

The problem with this approach is that it puts the burden on me, the victim, to spend my time responding individually to each spam comment and each spam poster. It only takes a few seconds to flag a comment, and perhaps 30 seconds to flag a user, but that adds up when there are a lot of comments at once. In many cases, a single user will put the same piece of spam on several of my posts at once, and I have to spend five minutes flagging all of them. So it would be a lot more useful to have a way of blocking out these spam comments before they're posted.

Disqus provides some ways, within limits, to limit the comments you get. For instance, in its document on "Dealing With Spam," it explains how you can blacklist specific users who are known spammers—but here, once again, the burden is on you to identify and block those individual users, and that takes time. And these spam sites are a bit like the hydra: every time you cut off one individual source, two more pop up in its place. It's quite easy for a spammer to create a new fake online identity, carpet-bomb the Internet with comments, and then disappear into the ether. Trying to catch the individual users is pointless, because by the time you catch one identity, they've already moved on to the next.

Another feature Disqus offers is the ability to block any comments containing links, so that they must be approved before they're published. But this doesn't get around the problem, because I still have to look at every one of these comments myself before rejecting it. Moreover, most spammers have figured out that comments containing links may be rejected, so they've come up with a sneaky little workaround: instead of putting the link in the comment itself, they put it in their "user profile" and tell readers to "check` this ``websiteLINK`` my` `Proffile!` for `detailed` `info`." (The random misspellings and haphazard punctuation are apparently yet another way to try and foil spam filters.)

Now, one thing I've noticed about these users who have links in their profiles is that the profiles themselves are invariably set to "Private." That is, when you click on the profile, you get a picture of a little smiley-face that isn't smiling, wearing sunglasses, with a message saying "Deal with it: This user's activity is private." This, presumably, is to keep interested users who click on the profile from noticing that every single one of the user's posted comments is exactly the same and suddenly realizing, "Hey, wait a minute! This is just spam! It's probably not a real unbelievable businesses opportunity at all!" instead of clicking blithely through. (Frankly, I don't see how any user who fails to realize that a comment like the ones posted above is spam could be tipped off by seeing the same message posted in 200 other places, but apparently it happens.)

So it seems to me that what would really be useful for authors who are sick of dealing with spam comments on a piecemeal basis is a way to block comments from ANY user who has a a private profile that contains a URL. Users who want to put their legitimate website in their profiles would be allowed to post, as long as they make their activity public. Users who want to keep their activity private for some reason would also be allowed to post, as long as they aren't linking to a website. But any user who has both a private profile and a link in that profile would be blocked, because in my experience, every single post that comes from this kind of user is spam.

I tried to submit this suggestion to Disqus, but they don't make it easy. There's no link anywhere that says "contact us," and when you click on the link for "get help," it just directs you to their existing "knowledge base" of published articles—none of which tells me how to do the thing I want to do. The only way I've found to get a message through at all is to click on a link marked "Feedback?" at the bottom of a user profile page. That sends you to a Survey Monkey poll where you can submit ideas, and I sent my modest proposal to them that way. However, since I'm only one person, I have no idea whether my comment will make any impact.

So I'm turning to my own personal blog as a way to get my idea out there in the world, where maybe it can have some sort of impact. I'd like to encourage anyone else who agrees with it to submit the same idea to Disqus, via the same feedback survey or any other means you can find. Perhaps if they hear from enough of us, they might actually decide to make this change, and we will be able to make a pre-emptive strike against spam instead of just striking back against it. If we can succeed in making spam an ineffective means of reaching potential customers, then perhaps these businesses will have to turn to legitimate methods of marketing, or else go out of business. Frankly, I don't care which.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Money Crashers: 5 Black Friday Shopping Alternatives

Ever since I was a kid, Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. It wasn't the turkey and cranberries that appealed to me most; it was the family gathering. We always spent the whole four-day weekend hanging out at my folks' house with my dad's whole side of the family, eating leftovers, going for walks in the autumn chill, and playing Scrabble and Charades. That one weekend was more fun than any other in the year.

Needless to say, I never felt the slightest inclination to hit the mall on Black Friday. Even once I got old enough to care (a lot) about bargains, I couldn't see how any "holiday deals" could be worth missing out on the holiday that was still going on right then. I wanted to spend my Thanksgiving weekend with my family, not shoulder-to-shoulder with a bunch of complete strangers at the mall.

Apparently, though, my distaste for the Black Friday madness wasn't widely shared. The sales have only grown bigger over the years, and they're starting earlier and earlier, now often cutting into Thanksgiving Day itself. (My efforts to protest this phenomenon and keep the focus on Thanksgiving have so far had no effect that I can see, but I keep on trying.)

The thing is, I can sort of see why so many people are willing to sacrifice Thanksgiving for the sake of a good sale, because I also love a good bargain. But are the Black Friday sales really the best place to find one? What if you could get equally good deals on all your holiday shopping without going anywhere near the mall?

That's the subject I'm exploring in my latest Money Crashers post. It outlines the reasons to avoid the Black Friday mayhem and explores several alternatives that can help you save money and your sanity at the same time. Read about it here:

5 Black Friday Shopping Alternatives – Reasons to Stay Home & Still Save

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Back to the 70s

A recent post on the Dollar Stretcher forums invited readers to flash back to the 1970s (presumably in a hot tub time machine) and compare their lifestyle and budget today with what they had back then. It shared an article by financial writer Liz Pulliam Weston in which she compared the homes, cars, and other trappings of 1970s life with what we have today. Weston points out that back then, people used to live "rich, fulfilling lives" without many of the things many modern Americans consider necessities, including microwave ovens, home computers, cell phones, cable TV, and in many cases, air conditioning. They also lived in smaller houses, drove smaller cars, and spent less on dining out, vacations, and entertainment. By dialing back to a 1970s lifestyle, she suggests, we could save lots of money and still enjoy the same quality of life we had back then.

It's an interesting premise that makes for an amusing article, but I see several problems with it:
  1. First, happiness economics shows that quality of life isn't just about what you have; it also depends on you have relative to others in your peer group. So living without a home computer and an Internet connection back in the '70s, when no one else had these things either, is quite a different matter from living without them today, when all your friends and neighbors have them. It would be a bit living in the '70s without a home phone, and arguing that everyone got along just fine without them back before World War I.
  2. Second, Weston's '70s budget focuses on all the things that were cheaper back in the '70s while glossing over the things for which we used to pay a lot more and get a lot less. Sure, back in the Disco Era no one had to pay for cable TV, but if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the theater and shell out two bucks for it. Today, by contrast, for eight dollars a month - only $1.76 in 1975 dollars - you can subscribe to Netflix or Hulu and have hundreds of movies at your fingertips, plus the complete runs of entire TV series. No one back then had an MP3 player - but a good 8-track stereo system cost $500, or $2,262 in today's dollars. Plus, it was big and clunky and you had to switch out the tapes by hand.
  3. And finally, Weston doesn't mention the fact that a lot of the things we do spend more on today are things we can't simply scale back to '70s levels. Health care, for instance. In 1975, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average American spent $170 out of pocket on health care ($601 in 2013 dollars). By 2013, that number had risen to $1,076. Even assuming that you would want to limit yourself to the type of health care available 40 years ago, you wouldn't be able to get it; that system no longer exists.
So I don't think it's fair to say that Americans in general live more extravagant lives than we did in the '70s; it's just that we spend our money on different things. As a reality check (and for the sake of nostalgia), here's a peek at the way we lived when I was growing up:
  • The house we lived in was technically a 3-bedroom, though it also had a den that we used as a guest room; it just didn't have a closet. I can't honestly remember whether it had central AC, but I know we didn't use it most of the time. Instead, we had a big whole-house fan that made this really powerful WHOOOOOSH when you turned it on. (My folks still have it, I think, but nowadays they just run the AC all summer.)
  • We had a washer and dryer; my mom experimented with a clothesline, but our back yard just wasn't well set up for it. I don't remember exactly how old I was when we got the dishwasher, but I remember it was a big deal. We pretty much had to reconfigure the whole kitchen to make room for it. I think we got our first microwave while I was in junior high or high school.
  • According to Weston, the majority of US households in the 1970s didn't have two cars, but we did. The town we lived in was (and still is) quite small and isolated, and you can't get much of anywhere on foot. When my parents first moved to New Jersey they had only one car, but they quickly realized my dad needed one to get to work and my mom needed one to get to anyplace else while he was at work. (I remember she told me later how ridiculously bourgeois that second car made her feel.) The cars they drove throughout my grade school years - an old Ford Fairmont and an even older Plymouth Valiant - didn't have air conditioning. When the Valiant died, my mom got a "new" Mazda that came with air conditioning, but my dad replaced the Ford with a stripped-down Geo Prizm that didn't. That was the car I got my driver's license on at age 17, and 20 years later he sold the same car to us - badly rusted, but still running strong - after our old Honda met with an untimely death.
  • I'm just old enough (my sister probably isn't) to remember when we had only one small black-and-white TV. When we got our first color TV, which was SO COOL, the smaller set moved downstairs, so for most of my childhood we had two. However, until my teen years (I think it was actually after I left for college), we didn't have cable. Instead, we used a rooftop antenna with an "antenna rotator" to reposition it. You turned the knob and it made this THUNK-thunk, THUNK-thunk sound as it reoriented itself to pick up either the New York stations or the Philly stations. And, of course, we also had a record player (which could play 33s, 45s, AND 78s) and a tape player, though we never owned an 8-track player.
So how does this compare to our lifestyle today? Well, our house is actually a product of the 1970s - as near as we can tell, it was built in 1971 - so it's much smaller than most modern homes, with just 936 feet above ground. However, since we've also finished most of the basement, it probably has about as much usable space as the house I grew up in. And with three bedrooms and two full baths for just the two of us, it certainly gives us more living space. We have a washer and dryer, but we generally don't use the dryer (except in the wintertime when clothes hung out on the line would freeze solid). We've never had a dishwasher, but we have a microwave that we use all the time - though we can also function with just our gas stove during a power outage.

Now that I work from home, Brian and I can easily get by with one car (which has AC, since that's standard these days). For us, a second car would be a luxury - but high-speed Internet connection is a necessity. But on the other hand, thanks to that high-speed connection, we no don't need cable (and I'm still a little embarrassed about having had it for two years, even if it was just to save money). We have just one TV set, a modest-sized flat-screen, but we have...let's see...four computers: my desktop, Brian's work laptop, the "media spud" that he built before Roku and Fire Stick became available, and a little Raspberry Pi that he fools around with, plus a tablet (with a nifty homemade case). We still don't own a smartphone, just one basic cell phone with a $3 a month prepaid plan, and one landline. We used to have a little SanDisk music player, but we gave it to my mom, and we haven't felt the need to replace it. Our car has a built-in music player that runs off a flash drive, and at home we listen to music on the computer. (Yeah, audiophiles can gripe about the sound quality, but I'm willing to sacrifice a little high- and low-end fidelity for the sake of being able to listen to any song in my collection, at any time, at the click of a mouse.)

So do we have more today than we had when I was growing up? Yes, definitely: we have the Internet, and that changes everything. (Without it, I wouldn't have seen this article in the first place...and I wouldn't have a blog to share my thoughts about it.) But is our lifestyle more expensive or more extravagant than it was then? Honestly, I'd have to say no. Sure, we spend more a lot more money on some specific things that we didn't have back then, like our broadband connection...but if you look at all the things it replaces, from movie tickets to newspaper subscriptions to books, I think you'll find it more than balances out.

So in short, I don't think the modern world is more decadent than the '70s; it's just different. And 40 years from now, assuming I'm still around then, I'll probably look back on the life we lived today and marvel just as much at how much more we have...and how much we no longer need.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Money Crashers: 10 Ways to Save Money Eating Out at Restaurants

Brian and I, as a rule, don't go out to eat very often. Last month we ate lunch out once when we were in Maryland for a Morris dance event, and we chipped in once for pizza at a game party. The month before that, we didn't eat out at all.

There are a few reasons for this. First, Brian's a pretty good cook, and so a home-cooked meal from his hands is better than the average restaurant meal. Thus, it's not really worth paying for a restaurant meal unless it's way better than average. Home-cooked meals are healthier, too, and it's easier to choose ingredients that meet our ethical standards (free-range meats only, organic produce where possible).

But the main reason we don't eat out more often is, well, we're cheap. And a home-cooked meal isn't just cheaper than a restaurant meal; it's a lot cheaper. Only about 25% of the price of a restaurant meal is for the ingredients; the rest goes to cover labor and other expenses involved in running the restaurant. So if you cook the same meal at home, with the same ingredients, you'll pay only one-quarter as much.

However, even for us, it's nice to eat out once in a while. Sometimes we're just really tired and don't want to cook; sometimes we're in the mood for a particular dish, like sushi, that even Brian can't make; and sometimes we get invited out with friends, and we're willing to pay for a meal for the sake of the company. So it's useful to know, on such occasions, how to go out for a meal and still keep the bill under control.

That's what my latest Money Crashers article is about. It offers tips for saving by choosing the right restaurant, going at the least expensive time, knowing what to order, and getting discounts when you pay. Check it out here: 10 Ways to Save Money Eating Out at Restaurants

Monday, November 2, 2015

Gardeners' Holidays 2015: Late Harvest

Here in New Jersey, autumn has hit its peak. The trees are at the height of their fall color, a blaze of red maple, orange beech, and yellow hickory. The nights are growing longer and chillier, and we've already had our first couple of frosts. Summer's cotton sheets have given way to flannel, and the warm comforter has taken its place on top. And this morning, we finally set the clocks back to Standard Time, which keeps getting shorter and shorter (we now spend nearly twice as much time on Daylight Savings Time as we do on Standard Time, which makes you wonder what's "standard" about it). All the signs show that winter is on its way, and the harvest season is winding to its close.

Our garden isn't quite stripped bare yet, however. We've already harvested all our tender crops, and this weekend Brian brought in the last tiny butternut squashes (after leaving them on the vine as long as possible to give them time to ripen) and the last bedraggled stalks of rhubarb, which are looking somewhat the worse for wear after the frosts. But there are still lima beans on the vines that aren't yet plump enough to harvest, and our Brussels sprouts, despite the early start we gave them, are still too small to eat. If they don't reach full size before the snow flies, we may just have to give up. (According to the Old Farmers' Almanac website, removing the lower leaves from the plant can help the sprouts to grow bigger, so I guess we can take one more shot at growing them next year and see if this change is enough to give us a crop. If that doesn't do it, I guess we need to give up on them.) The cold-weather greens, arugula and parsley, are also holding their own...though sadly, the new "Winter Marvel" lettuce we planted this year in hopes of a crop that would overwinter doesn't seem to have come up at all.

Fortunately, with a little help from our friends, we still have produce to celebrate the Late Harvest. First of all, we went to a show last weekend with my folks (yes, an actual play in a real live theater!) and they brought us a bushel of apples from their tree, from which they harvested a whopping 31 pounds this year. So this morning, we had some of those apples pan-fried as a pancake topping, which, with some crushed walnuts, made a much heartier dish than plain old pancakes with maple syrup.

And then, after breakfast, we went out to pick up a CSA box belonging to one of Brian's coworkers, who generously offered it to us since she was going  to be away this weekend. This is the same coworker who let us claim her box in her absence last summer, giving us a generous assortment of greens, zucchini, cucumbers, blueberries, and garlic scapes for our weeklong local produce challenge. The fall assortment we picked up today is rather different, comprising:
  • 1 smallish head of red leaf lettuce
  • 1 bunch of mixed greens (definitely including some spinach and some arugula, and we're not sure what else)
  • 1 small head of broccoli
  • 2 large turnips (not a vegetable we usually eat, so we're not sure yet what to do with them, but we figure you can't go wrong with roasting)
  • 4 large sweet potatoes
  • 3 small beets (which I think are yucky, but Brian likes them pickled)
  • 1 HUGE bunch of carrots, tops and all (we have a good carrot soup recipe, but we're still puzzling over what to do with the greens)
The cat shown in the upper right corner was not included with the CSA box. She just found its contents interesting.

The lettuce furnished us with salads for both lunch and dinner, though both were fairly light meals because we had a substantial afternoon tea in between. (Yes, we actually had people over for tea. We held one of those "How to Host a Murder" parties that comes in a box, and we decided to do it over tea rather than dinner.) But sadly, there was none of our own garden produce served at tea, since we were no longer producing cucumbers for the traditional cucumber sandwiches.

So our celebration of the late harvest was spread out over the day, with the apples at breakfast and the salads at lunch and dinner. And to top it all off, one of our murder mystery guests brought us some kiln-dried apples from her own land up in Vermont, which were quite astonishingly delicious. We had two kinds of cookies at our tea, plus granola bread, plus cake and pie that some other guests brought, but the apples were the thing I found most irresistible.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Money Crashers: Should I Buy Refurbished Electronics?

About four years ago, we decided that my ten-year-old PowerMac could no longer be maintained. The Internet had changed too much, and no amount of extra memory or upgraded software was going to make the old hardware capable of copying with it. So we took the plunge and got me a new Mac Mini running the brand-new version of MacOS, Lion.

This turned out to be a bad idea.

First of all, the new OS had all sorts of weird quirks, like insisting on scrolling down when you moved the scroll bar up (which it claimed was "more intuitive"). I could perhaps have gotten used to those. I could probably also have gotten used to the new Mac Mail program, which I was forced to adopt because my beloved Eudora mail program wouldn't work with the new OS. But the real deal breaker was the new version of Office I was forced to purchase to use with the new system, because that, too, was not back-compatible. The new version of Word wasn't that different from the old one, but it crashed all the time. I mean, ALL THE TIME. I was hitting "force quit" and restarting the program literally dozens of times each day. I was saving documents after every two sentences because I never knew when it was going to crash again.

I called up Apple and asked if I could downgrade from Lion back to my old OS, Snow Leopard, so I could use my old programs. The answer, in a nutshell, was no. So I sent my shiny new computer back to Apple and bought myself a refurbished version of the previous year's Mac Mini from PowerMax. It was about $40 cheaper than the new one I'd just returned, and it was much, much easier to use. (I still have it, and to this day, I'm still running Snow Leopard on it for fear that any upgrade will break all my programs.)

The point of this long, sad story is that for me, a refurbished computer was a much better deal than a new one. And if you're in the market for anything electronic, from a phone to a music player, it might be for you, too.

To find out, take a look at my latest Money Crashers story, which is all about refurbished electronics. I explain the difference between used and refurbished, the best things to buy refurbished, and how to find good deals. Check it out here: Should I Buy Refurbished Electronics? – How It’s Different From New & Used