Thursday, February 26, 2015

The bathroom library

Today while browsing Apartment Therapy (the home website that I'm hoping to make my new substitute for Young House Love), I came across an article called "How Not to Embarrass People Who Use Your Bathroom." The article itself offers advice for thoughtful hosts about cleaning the bathroom well, having plenty of toilet paper on hand, and providing a means to cover up embarrassing noises or odors. What particularly interested me, however, was the comments below, where one person raised the topic of "reading materials"—and immediately got a host of shrill responses about how "gross" it is to read in the bathroom. "I don't want unwashed hands on my reading materials," protested one reader, following it up with "(shudder)."

This widespread reaction, I'll admit, kind of baffled me. I can see why you might think it's gross for people to pick up and handle books after using the toilet (and before washing their hands), but why is it gross for them to do so while using the toilet? Their hands are, at this point, no dirtier than they were before they went into the bathroom, and presumably you don't hide all your books before every party to make sure that no one touches them with hands that haven't been freshly washed. (I mean, unless you're truly disturbed and in need of psychiatric help.)

Speaking for myself, I like to keep reading material of some sort in every room of the house, and the bathroom is no exception. Of course, I always try to make sure that the material I keep in there is particularly suitable for the, ahem, function of the room, so I try to select books or magazines that are broken up into nice, small nuggets that can easily be consumed in a short visit. My upstairs bathroom has a small basket on top of the toilet tank, containing:
  • Living on Less, a collection of pieces from Mother Earth News magazine about "affordable food, fuel, and shelter"—an appropriate assortment for our ecofrugal household;
  • Ex Libris, a collection of whimsical essays about books by Anne Fadiman;
  • Idiots, Hypocrites, Demagogues, and More Idiots: Not-So-Great Moments in American Politics a collection of amusing gaffes of various sorts from American public figures; and
  • Humorous Cryptograms, an assortment of puzzles that I keep in there mainly for my own use, since they're just about long enough for me to solve during a single potty break.
That, I think, makes a fairly nice assortment—a blend of the amusing and the informative, all in handy bite-sized chunks. In the downstairs bath, I have a similar blend of genres on the shelf of our refinished corner cabinet that sits opposite the toilet:
  • 6 months' worth of Atlantic magazines that I got from a freebie subscription (why keep them on the coffee table when the bathroom is so much more suitable for reading while visiting a friend?);
  • a collection of New Yorker cartoon puzzles (the puzzles have all been solved already, so now it's really just a collection of New Yorker cartoons with writing in it);
  • The Utne Reader Alamanac, an assortment of "123 Ideas, Innovations & Insights" on topics such as daily life, work, relationships, the media, and spirituality;
  • The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, a collection of advice on how to survive situations you're extremely unlikely ever to find yourself in, from alligator attacks to leaping from a moving car; and
  • The Best of Bad Hemingway, a set of winners and runner-ups from the annual Bad Hemingway contest, which challenges writers to come up with "a really good page of really bad Hemingway."
So that's my bathroom library, and frankly, I feel like I'm a much more considerate hostess for providing it (not to mention I always have something to occupy myself in either bathroom). How about you? Do you keep books in the bathroom, or do you think that's gross? And if so, can you explain to me why?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Winter tip medley

February may be the shortest month of the year, but it sure feels longest. Especially when it's such a brutal, frigid, snowy February as the one we've had this year. Fortunately, it looks like March will bring some relief: for my area, at least, the weather forecast shows that daytime temperatures should be consistently peaking above the freezing point all month, and by the middle of the month it might get up to a balmy 50 to 55 degrees. But we've still got three more days of winter chill to plow through before we get there, so I figured I might as well share a quick roundup of useful tips for wintry weather.

First, from the Tip Hero website, a recipe for a simple homemade ice melter you can make with common household ingredients. The website has a video that shows how to do it, but in a nutshell, you just fill a gallon jug half-full with warm water, then add six drops of ordinary dish soap and two ounces of rubbing alcohol. I already know from experience that rubbing alcohol will melt ice, but I'm not sure what the dish soap is for; perhaps it makes the alcohol solution penetrate the ice better, or something. In the interests of proper reporting, I mixed up a half batch of this in my own kitchen and tried it out on some ice in our driveway that we didn't manage to clear away after the last snowfall. As you can see from the pictures, it didn't really make all that much impression on the ice. It washed away a bit of it, but I'm not sure plain hot water wouldn't have worked equally well. It certainly didn't do any better than the commercial ice melt I tried earlier in the day, and it isn't nearly as convenient to use, since a single batch only covers a small patch of ice. But if the stores happened to be completely out of ice melt (a situation we encountered last winter), this stuff would probably do the job in a pinch.

The second tip, also from Tip Hero, is about improving your gas mileage in cold weather. The article is actually about getting better gas mileage in general, but a few of the tips in it relate specifically to winter driving. For instance, the author notes that a cold engine doesn't run as efficiently, so keeping your car in a garage where it's at least somewhat protected from the cold will help it get up to its ideal running temperature more quickly. It also recommends combining short trips, so you'll be starting the engine when it's already warmed up—which is good advice even in warm weather. Unfortunately, we don't have a garage to stash our car in, and there's not much we can do about the multiple short trips Brian has to make back and forth to work. (We suspect the drop in our average gas mileage each winter has at least as much to do with the fact that he can't bike to work in the winter, and so more of the car's miles are city driving rather than highway driving, as it has to do with the cold itself.)

The third tip comes from the Readers' Tips section in the Dollar Stretcher. It's about making your home more comfortable in the winter by boosting the indoor humidity. This reader suggests doing your laundry in the evening and letting the clothes hang to dry, adding their moisture to the air. This probably wouldn't work too well in our house, where the nighttime temperature is in the 50s and the humidity tends to be over 50 percent even in the winter; most likely, the clothes wouldn't be anywhere near dry by morning. But if you have to do laundry anyway, there's no real downside to doing it this way. Even if the humidity boost is trivial, it should still cut down somewhat on dryer time and save you some energy.

And lastly, here's a just-for-fun suggestion from this week's Tip Hero newsletter: snow ice cream. This is a bit more elaborate than just pouring syrup on the snow to make snow cones; you have to harvest two to three quarts of "fresh, clean snow," sprinkle it with vanilla extract (which will presumably melt it slightly, since it contains alcohol), and fold in a ten-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk. From the picture, it looks a bit more like gelato than ice cream—somewhat icier and less creamy in texture—but with such simple ingredients, I guess there's no way it could actually taste bad. And you could always try making different flavors by blending the milk with chocolate syrup or coffee before mixing.

So here's hoping these tips will help see you through the last of winter in reasonable comfort, and we'll all make it through to spring quickly.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Ways to cut expenses in retirement...before retirement

This week's Dollar Stretcher newsletter features an article called "Reducing Expenses After Retirement." Laid out in a slideshow format, it offers useful tidbits on such matters as cutting the cost of transportation, food, and entertainment once you no longer have the demands of a nine-to-five job to cope with. I flipped through it without too much optimism, thinking that advice for retirees might not be that helpful for someone who doesn't expect to retire for a good twenty years or so. But in fact, I found that the problem was just the opposite. Not only did the advice in the article apply to me and Brian, it all applied so well that we were pretty much following it already.

The five topics covered in the piece were:

1. Driving expenses. The article points out that a couple working two jobs probably needs two cars, while after retirement they can go down to one. Sound advice, but Brian and I did this years ago, after I left my office job to become a freelancer. Working from home is still work, but it doesn't involve a commute, so it allowed us to become a one-car family even with two two incomes.

The article also notes that the extra time you have to spare in retirement may make it easier to do your own auto maintenance, at least for basic jobs like oil changes. The truth is, our jobs don't keep us on such a busy schedule that we don't have time to do an oil change on a weekend; we used to do it all the time with our old Accord. We haven't been changing the oil on our "new" Honda Fit (actually about four years old now) partly because the tools we had for the old one didn't fit it, and partly because we thought only a professional could reset the new car's electronic oil life indicator. However, this turns out to be pretty simple to do yourself (this YouTube video shows how), so it might be worth investing in the proper oil filter wrench for the new car—or just using an old belt to remove the filter, as recommended in this other video.

In any case, being employed certainly is no barrier to doing this job ourselves. In fact, it seems to me that doing this job ourselves is probably easier for us now, while we're still reasonably spry, than it's likely to be in twenty years, when we don't bend so easily.

2. Food costs. The article lists several reasons it may be possible to spend less on food during retirement. First, kids are probably grown up and out of the house, so you're no longer "feeding ravenous teenagers" (a problem we've never had and never expect to have). Second, you can cut the lunches out and overpriced coffees that are part of so many people's workday routine. And third, after retirement you can spare the time to pare down your food bill by shopping sales, clipping coupons, and even gardening to raise your own produce.

Again, this is all sound advice, but it's advice we've already been following for years. Neither of us has ever made a habit of lunching out on workdays, and while I did at one point spend a couple of bucks each day on coffee and a roll for breakfast before taking the train to work, I eventually gave that up as well in favor of home-brewed coffee and an English muffin in a paper bag. And though we aren't exactly extreme couponers, we've always kept our grocery bill down by shopping multiple stores to get the best deals, buying store brands, stocking up on sale items, and using coupons as appropriate. As for our garden, I think that's a hobby that's just as useful for de-stressing from the work week as it is for keeping busy in retirement. So once again, these are tips that work just as well before retirement as they do afterward.

3. Selling unwanted stuff. The article recommends "giving your closets...the cleaning they so desperately need" and selling all the excess stuff at a yard sale, on eBay, or in whatever other way you can to pick up a few extra bucks. This only works, however, if (a) you actually have a lot of excess stuff lying around, and (b) it's stuff that other people would be willing to pay for. Brian and I have been pretty good at getting rid of stuff we no longer need over the years, so that we don't have huge piles of unwanted items lurking in every closet and corner, but I'll concede that we probably a fair number of things we don't really need that we've never bothered to dispose of (because, as I noted in my first post of the year, we had plenty of room to spare). But I feel quite confident in saying that none of these things have any significant value. We had a yard sale once, a few years ago, and made so little money that we concluded it would be a better use of our time to spend the whole yard-sale weekend shopping, rather than selling. Even if there happen to be a few items in our Freecycle pile that might be worth a few bucks to someone, the meager amount of money involved definitely isn't enough to justify the extra time and hassle. Anything that had enough value to make it worth selling, we've already sold.

4. Entertainment costs. With all the extra time on your hands in retirement, the article suggests, you can dump your pricey satellite TV and instead enjoy local events, such as outdoor movies and concerts, or check out books, movies, and music from the local library. This struck me as one of the sillier ideas in the article, because what is there about an outdoor movie that takes more time than watching the same movie at home on your "premium movie package"? Just the time it takes to walk there and back, and that counts as exercise. The same goes for watching the same movie on a DVD from the library. There's literally nothing about this advice that's more appropriate for retired people than it is for working folks—which is why Brian and I eschewed cable completely for so many years, and only have it now in order to save on our phone and Internet bills.

The only idea in this section that seemed valid to me was that retired people can more easily give up restaurant meals and invest some time in learning to cook at home. Cooking from scratch does indeed take more time than eating fast food (although there are many meals you can make at home in less time than it would take to go out and order them at a restaurant). And learning to cook, if you don't already know how, is an even more significant time investment. But if you already know how to cook—or if you have a husband who knows how and enjoys it—then there's no good reason to eat out any more often during your working years than during retirement. You just save the more time-consuming dishes for weekends.

5. Home maintenance. The last suggestion in the article is to devote your extra time in retirement to taking over home maintenance tasks, such as yard work, that are now hired out. It goes so far as to suggest that yard work and gardening together could provide enough exercise to take the place of  "your expensive health club membership," for a further savings. Here, once again, we have a piece of advice that works just as well before retirement as afterward—if not better, because younger muscles are better equipped for pushing a mower and wielding a hedge trimmer. And, of course, if you've never had a pricey gym membership in your life, you can't save anything by dropping it, though you might gain some health benefits by adding more activities to your routine.

So all in all, I'd have to say there really isn't a word of advice in this article about spending less during retirement that isn't just as useful before retirement. In fact, adopting most or all of these habits before retirement, as Brian and I have done, should allow you to get to retirement much sooner. In the first place, you'll be saving more money during your working years, so you'll build up your nest egg faster; and in the second place, you won't need as big an egg to retire on. Once you're used to living on a smaller budget, you won't need to accumulate as much to support yourself throughout retirement in the modest lifestyle to which you have become accustomed. So it's definitely in your interest to adopt frugal habits while you're still working, rather than waiting until you retire—because every dollar you save before retirement benefits you twice.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Friday, February 20, 2015

Seed starting: preliminary results

Last week, I outlined the new system that Brian and I are planning to use to start this year's seedlings: a layer of ordinary garden soil, baked to sterilize it, underneath a layer of commercial seed-starting mix. This is the latest refinement to our existing seed-starting system, with tubes of PVC pipe for the seedlings, packed into juice cartons and kept under a DIY grow light. Now, after ten days and three batches of early seedlings, I can give at least a preliminary report on the success of the system. And so far, the results are encouraging. Take a look at these:

Those are the parsley seedlings, which we started twelve days ago. It may seem like overkill to start them quite so early, but most years, it takes them weeks even to germinate, and they're still pretty tiny by the time they go out into the garden in April. But this year, we've already got seven little sprouts up, all green and healthy.

We had even faster results with the broccolini, which got started just five days ago. This is the first year we've tried growing this crop, so I relied on the advice from Square Foot Gardening as to when to start broccoli seedlings. But now I'm wondering whether I was actually a little too early, because here they are already:

The third crop to get started was the leeks, which always require a very long lead time to produce healthy shoots for transplanting. These can be planted pretty thickly, so we always start a whole bunch of them, but Brian decided to do just a dozen or so with what he had left of his first batch of sterilized dirt, and then start the rest once he'd had a chance to bake some more. The second batch hasn't even been started yet, but already, two of the seeds in that first batch are starting to poke their little green heads out of the soil.

Since there are now actual green shoots rather than just sleeping seeds, we've set them out under the grow light, and we've covered them up with the cut-off tops of clear plastic egg cartons to help hold in warmth and moisture. (Brian further refined this part of the system by cutting the egg carton lids crosswise and overlapping the two halves to provide a snugger fit over top of the juice cartons, so less moisture can escape.)

So at first blush, at least, our new seed-starting mix appears to be a rousing success. Of course, it's too early to say for sure how the seedlings will fare in the long run; it's possible that they've started off beautifully, but the baked dirt won't end up providing enough nutrition for them to grow big and strong. But just having them sprouted at this early stage is definitely a promising start.

Brian has already baked up a second batch of dirt, so the rest of the leeks can go in this weekend. Then we'll have a hiatus of about a month before the really big planting of Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, and marigolds, which will really be the make-or-break test for this seed-starting system. Everyone keep your green thumbs crossed.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Looking for the next Young House Love

In my latest edition of Stuff Green People Like, I lamented the fact that my favorite DIY blog, Young House Love, closed its doors four months back. It used to be part of my daily routine, every weekday morning, to take a break from my work at 10 am and check out the latest YHL post, and now that there are no new posts to check, I've been feeling a bit cast adrift. Up to this point, I haven't found anything that could really take the place of Young House Love in my life, but lately I've started to think that maybe I just haven't been looking hard enough. So I decided to actually undertake a search for the next Young House Love: a new site that can fill that same spot in my heart and my schedule.

My first thought was to do a search for "best DIY blogs," but after poking through those results feeling unsure where to start, I had a better idea: why not start with my own budget decor posts? I've already done four of these, and they all feature the exact sort of DIY project that interests me most: an ecofrugal room transformation, done on a shoestring budget with minimal waste. So I decided to go through those, visiting the original site where each makeover was featured, to see if one of them could become my new Young House Love.

Some of the makeovers in my original budget decor post could be skipped over right away, because they came from the original Young House Love, which is no longer available (waah). Several other makeovers in the first, second, and fourth posts were harvested from the sites of Better Homes and Gardens and This Old House, and I ruled those out as well because these sites are simply too annoying to deal with. In a blatant attempt to maximize the number of page views (and hence the amount of ad revenue) they get, the editors of these sites turn practically every article they post into a slideshow spread out over multiple pages. This means that not only does it take forever to click your way through, say, a list of 20 great budget remodeling tips, it's also impossible ever to see the before and after pictures on the same page. Moreover, these magazines don't really have an ecofrugal attitude: although they occasionally feature budget remodels, most of the makeovers they cover are of the rip-it-out-and-start-over variety.

So instead, I looked for blogs run by the frugal remodelers themselves. Not every makeover had a blog associated with it, but I found several:
  • Rice Designs was the original source for the boy's bedroom redo I featured in my first budget decor post. This was a great-looking room, and it was done in a very ecofrugal way, with lots of refinished and repurposed items. Searching the main site, however, I didn't see any new room renovations along similar lines, and in fact, I found that the blog as a whole hadn't been updated since last January. Well, Young House Love has been updated more recently than that, so this clearly isn't much use as a substitute. Next?
  • Two It Yourself supplied the a-mazing bath makeover I covered in my second post. This blogger achieved a truly incredible transformation on an even more incredible budget (under $100). But this blog, like the first one, had few posts along similar lines and no updates at all since last July.
  • SG Style (formerly known as A Home Full of Color) was the source of the great kitchen redo featured in the same post, which I originally discovered through Better Homes and Gardens. This blog has been updated recently (though not daily), and her posts are indeed colorful, but they're a little light on the nitty-gritty details that kept me coming back to YHL. Her home tour is just a series of "after" pics, with no info about what they did to each room—not even links to the "reveal" post in which they show the details. 
  • Kruse's Workshop did the bathroom remodel featured in my third post. This site is awfully slow to load, but once I managed to get a few posts up on my screen, the solutions in them looked very creative and DIY-oriented. The problem is that there's no budget information in them, which is kind of key for me. On the entire page, I found only one dollar sign.
  • View Along the Way supplied the bedroom and laundry room makeovers in my fourth budget decor post. I flipped through the photos in her house tour, and it appears that her design style is very similar to the Petersiks' (of Young House Love fame), but her tone is rather different. It's still light and perky, but it's also very Christian-centric. I think there's hardly a post in which Jesus doesn't come up at least once, and that's a bit much for me.
  • Designer Trapped in a Lawyer's Body was the source for the other, even more frugal laundry room makeover in post #4. This was a remarkable budget redo, with lots of ecofrugal reuse (she calls it "going shopping in your own house"). However, after looking at her "room reveals" page, I found myself somewhat torn. Some of the "after" pictures were quite nice, in a modern style similar to YHL's, and some of the budgets shown, such as the $700 kitchen redo, were simply amazing—but I have serious problems with some of her choices. Painting over natural wood is bad enough in my book, but seriously, covering up a natural stone fireplace with concrete? You do know that can never be undone, right? I was afraid reading this blog on a regular basis might become too frustrating for me.
That was all the individual blogs I could find, but there was still one site left that had covered several of the budget remodels: Apartment Therapy. Three of the kitchen remodels I covered in post #3 were found on The Kitchn, a subsection of the larger Apartment Therapy site, and the main site features plenty of remodeling posts as well. However, this is only a small fraction of what's available there. Apartment Therapy isn't just a DIY site; it's devoted to all things home-related, with sections for "Style," "DIY," and "Homekeeping." There are house tours, photos of individual rooms, and projects refinishing a single, small piece; there are whole sections devoted to "Small Spaces" and "Budget Living." All in all, it looks it's just up my alley.

So I'm thinking that of all the sites I visited for my budget decor posts, this one is probably the winner. But can it truly take the place of Young House Love? That, only time will tell. I plan to visit the site regularly over the next few weeks, and we'll see if it becomes my new home obsession.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ecofrugal Living podcast #12: Stuff Green People Like

Here's the latest Ecofrugal Living podcast, based on the blog entry for November 14, 2010.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

My frugal Valentine

Valentine's Day is the most problematic of all holidays. If you're single, obviously, it feels like a slap in the face to be surrounded everywhere you go by red hearts and roses and teddy bears, a massive consumer binge in celebration of romantic love that you have no part in. But at least you know how to react to it. You can just grumble at how stupid it all is, and then do your best to dismiss it from your mind. That may mean going out and partying with your single friends, or staying in and vegging in front of the TV, but either way, you get to stay above the V-day fray.

Being part of a couple, however, doesn't necessarily mean that you hate all the rigamarole surrounding Valentine's Day any less. It just means that it's harder for you to ignore it. What do you do if you're happily partnered, but you consider red hearts and roses and teddy bears to be corny, trite, or just plain sickening? If you decide to skip the whole thing, your partner may feel ignored and hurt, but it's almost worse to give a mass-market present that you just grabbed off the shelf; unless your partner actually likes red hearts and roses and teddy bears, giving any of these things makes it seem like you were just trying to meet an obligation, rather than actually looking for a way to please your sweetheart. So, as this XKCD cartoon shows, you end up trying desperately to come up with something clever and original, in order to avoid being either "a consumer tool or an inconsiderate jerk."

This is the main reason that, in the 14 years we've been together—marriage, engagement, and long-distance courtship—Brian and I have never really come up with a satisfying way to celebrate Valentine's Day. Sure, we always go to the special Valentine's Day show at the Minstrel concert series, in which individual Folk Project members take turns doing songs or other pieces about love, but that's more a way of supporting the Folk Project than celebrating each other—and since it's always on a Friday night, it usually doesn't fall on Valentine's Day anyway. Over the years, I've offered Brian various little things for Valentine's Day, from poems to baked goods, but he's never seemed very enthusiastic about any of them, or had any ideas about how to reciprocate. So after yet another uneventful Valentine's Day last year, I finally got fed up and said that this year, I wanted to do something to celebrate.

Being an ecofrugal couple, however, we couldn't very well celebrate with any of the conventional gifts that the stores have been pushing since early January. Roses in February, in addition to being ludicrously expensive, are sure to have been either grown in an extravagantly heated greenhouse or shipped up from the southern hemisphere, either of which requires loads of carbon-emitting fossil fuel; according to Scientific American, the 100 million roses given for Valentine's Day each year in the United States are responsible for over 9,000 metric tons of CO2. The heart-shaped boxes of chocolates lining store shelves, though tasty, are mostly neither organic nor Fair Trade—and, as we learned recently, may well be contaminated with dangerous levels of cadmium or lead. And the priciest Valentine goodie of all, jewelry, comes with a host of environmental problems, from the catastrophic pollution caused by gold mining to the habitat destruction of gemstone mines.

Fortunately for me, I had a good idea for a gift fall more or less into my lap. Brian and I had just finished reading the paperback of Gunmetal Magic, an adventure in the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews, and it seemed to me that there must have been some piece of the storyline that we'd missed at some point. So I checked the website and found not one but two novellas in the series, both of them love stories, and both of them available as Kindle books for only three bucks. (Kindle books aren't included in my current boycott of, because they aren't shipped through Amazon's prison-camp warehouses—though if they don't clean up their act soon, I might decide to cut off this source of revenue to Amazon as well.) So I ordered one of them for him as a gift, which means that an e-mail gets sent to him with a claim code to download the book. Then, to make it more interesting, I set up a little treasure hunt to lead him to his gift. The first clue was waiting for him on the breakfast table in the morning:

Oh, I wonder, wonder who, who wrote the book of love?
That planted the idea of a book, which led him to our bookshelves. Fortunately, he didn't have to hunt through our whole collection to figure out which was was "the book of love," because my little Shakespeare doll was sitting between two bookends holding clue #2:

He's working late 'most every night, he doesn't phone, he doesn't write
This clue directed him to the office, where he eventually figured out that the book he was looking for was his homemade book tablet case. Inside that, he found his third clue:

My baby, she wrote me a letter
That told him to check his e-mail, where he found his Kindle book waiting for him with the message, "Come on baby, light my fire! Happy Valentine's Day!" (I think the main reason I went ahead and bought the book for Kindle rather than trying the Nook app was to have a chance to use that line.) Of course, the whole process of downloading the book turned out to be another puzzle in itself (they really could make it simpler), but we eventually got our book, and I read the whole thing to him over the course of that day. So that was our romantic Valentine's Day activity.

Brian, for his part, got me two small presents. The first was a photo he'd taken a few years back of our cat, who has been sick lately, so a picture of her in good health was a nice memento. He just printed it out on plain paper and put it in a little frame he had tucked away in a box, so the whole gift was repurposed and cost nothing except the ink.

Then, knowing that I wouldn't be interested in traditional, environmentally destructive jewelry, he instead picked up a whimsical little pair of earrings from our local Ten Thousand Villages store. Aren't they cute? The tag calls them "a whimsical tribute to eco-friendly transport around the world," made from recycled materials by artisans in Kenya. And even though they were paid a living wage for their work, the cost to us was still under $10 on account of the store's February jewelry sale. What could be more ecofrugal than that?

And finally, to top off our romantic day, he made me chocolate pudding (with organic cocoa and sugar, of course), and we ate it on the couch while watching Mythbusters. The perfect geek date.

So if I had to give a single tip for avoiding the Valentine dilemma, here's what I'd suggest: pay no attention to what the stores are selling. Instead, think about what your sweetie really enjoys, and choose a present that you know they'll appreciate. Because a $3 gift that really shows how well you know and care about each other is way, way more romantic than a $50 gift that you could have given to anyone. Better yet, make your gift an activity that you can do together, and show your love with quality time instead of cash.

And, for all you singles out there who still think the whole thing is annoying: there's no rule that says you can't treat yourself to something special on the 14th of February, or any other day that strikes your fancy.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Salad of the Month: Winter soba noodle salad

As I noted last August, I'm currently receiving a free subscription to Redbook magazine. I discovered after the first couple of issues that there normally isn't much in it that's of any interest to me, but it hasn't seemed worth the effort to cancel it, since (a) I'm not sure how to cancel a subscription that I only got as a freebie and (b) I wouldn't get any money back by doing so. So, since it keeps showing up in my mailbox every month, I go ahead and take a few minutes to flip through it, and often I can manage to find one or two useful or entertaining tidbits. In the January issue, for instance, there was an article called "The 7-Day Healthy, Yummy, Fresh Plan For Truly Easy Weight Loss," which featured 21 "filling, easy-to-follow recipes." Most of them didn't appeal to me, since they contained either meat or pricey, out-of-season ingredients, but the "Winter soba noodle salad" looked quite tasty, seasonally appropriate, and easy to make. So I decided this salad would make a good alternative to a soup as my Soup or Salad of the Month for February.

You can see a photo of this dish, along with the start of the recipe, on Redbook's webpage. However, on my browser, at least, only the first two lines of the recipe are visible. So I hope the editors won't be too annoyed with me if I copy out the full version of it here:
Winter soba noodle salad 
Toss 2 cups cooked soba noodles with 1/2 cup grated carrots, 1/2 cup cooked edamame beans, 1/2 cup sliced snow peas, and 1/2 cup thinly sliced cabbage. Whisk together 2 tsp each sesame oil, water, low-sodium soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and all-natural peanut butter; a pinch of grated ginger; 1 minced garlic clove; and a squeeze of Sriracha (or your favorite hot sauce) and pour over salad. Divide salad between bowls and top each with 2 Tbsp chopped scallions and 2 tsp crushed peanuts. Makes 2 servings. Each serving: 306 cal, 12 g fat (2 g sat fat), 14 g pro, 39 g car, 5 g fiber.
We didn't have most of the ingredients for this dish on hand, so we had to make a quick trip out to the H-Mart. Snow peas were a lot cheaper there than we expected, only $1.99 a pound, so we picked up a little extra to enjoy in a stir-fry. The soba noodles, by contrast, were pricier than we'd remembered. Most packages on the shelf cost upwards of $5 a pound. We managed to save a bit by buying in bulk, opting for a 30-ounce package that brought the per-pound price to under $3, since we figured we had plenty of other recipes on hand that called for soba. I was also disappointed to see, as I examined the packages, that soba, which are usually called "buckwheat noodles," aren't made entirely of buckwheat; the main ingredient listed in every case was "wheat flour," which means these noodles aren't a useful alternative for my gluten-averse friends and relations.

We had a little trouble finding the edamame (green soybeans), which we'd never bought at H-mart before. We started out looking for fresh edamame in the produce section; then, when we couldn't find any, we tried the freezer cases. We had no luck until it occurred to Brian to check in the case where they keep the sushi-grade fish, on the theory that Japanese foods might all be stored together. Sure enough, right next to the sushi case (from which, sadly, they'd taken down the sign that formerly read "Roll Your Own") was a freezer case stocked with several brands of edamame, both whole and shelled. There was even an organic brand, but it was sold in the pod, so we opted for a bag of shelled beans that we thought would be easier to work with.

Unfortunately, when we got home we realized that there were a couple of additional ingredients we'd neglected to buy. We had some fresh ginger in the fridge, stored in a little jar of vinegar and water, but it turned out to be moldy, so we had to make do with a sprinkle of powdered ginger. We also discovered we didn't have any sort of hot sauce in the house, so our version of the salad was probably a lot less zesty than the original. Nonetheless, it was fairly tasty, and quite easy to make. The crunch of the snow peas and cabbage contrasts nicely with the slippery smoothness of the cooked noodles, and the protein-rich edamame beans and peanuts make it a heartier dish than most salads. I thought it needed a touch more soy sauce (even though we'd used the regular stuff and not the low-sodium kind the recipe calls for), but overall, it was quite good. Moreover, the recipe is a pretty generous one. As written, it makes two servings, but Brian expanded it by about 50 percent, so we actually had enough for three generous bowlfuls—one for each of us and a pint container left over for lunch.

So, flavor-wise, this soba noodle salad was a lot more appealing than last month's vegetable soup. I have no doubt we'll be making it again—perhaps in the summer, when a cold salad makes a much more appealing dinner. Our snap peas should start producing in late May or early June, and this may make a good use for some of them.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Stuff Green People Like, Part 3

It's been several years now since I first posted on the topic of "stuff green people like" (my attempt at a more positive version of Christian Lander's popular site, and subsequent book, called Stuff White People Like). That original list had 7 items on it, and last year I wrote a second post expanding it to 14, based partly on comments I received from others and partly on new ideas I came up with later. Now, another year has passed, and I thought I might have enough new ideas for a third installment. So here are my next six suggestions for Stuff Ecofrugal People Like:

15. Young House Love (2007-2014). This DIY site was once the best of its kind. Hundreds, if not thousands, of fans like me dropped by regularly to see what new, clever ideas John and Sherry Petersik had come up with for updating their home in a creative and frugal way. We stayed with them through three houses, two kids, two book deals, a house show, and more than 50 makeovers of individual spaces. I named it as one of my seven favorite websites for the ecofrugal in my 2013 Thrift Week celebration. And then, in 2014, as the Petersiks were busily juggling a new house, new book, and new baby, they announced that they would be dialing back their blog entries from five per week to four (one of which was only a raffle to enter, with no actual house-related content). Then they followed that with the news that they would be taking a hiatus from blogging...and when they returned, it was only to say goodbye for good. The site remains live for now, preserved as a kind of time capsule, but the last new entry was four months ago. I still come back there once in a while and prowl around, kind of like visiting an old neighborhood, but the neighbors have all moved away. And so far, no other site I've found—about DIY or anything else—can come close to taking its place.

16. Rehab Addict. This show has replaced the late, lamented Wasted Spaces as my favorite DIY-themed TV show, and its host, Nicole Curtis, has joined Karl Champley in my pantheon of household gods. This five-foot powerhouse knocks out walls, refinishes bathtubs, replaces damaged panes in old leaded glass windows, scavenges Dumpsters for antiques, and keeps a huge pile of scrap wood in her garage—all in the name of keeping old houses true to their original style. Nikki is in the business of buying, restoring, and selling houses, but unlike most flippers, she doesn't just rip everything out and replace it with the newest and latest. She doesn't want to make an old house look new; she wants it to look like a beautifully maintained old house, so she takes an ecofrugal approach in her renovations, saving the original materials whenever possible and, failing that, bringing in vintage materials from elsewhere. (I'm totally envious of her access to Bauer Brothers Salvage in Minneapolis, a store where you can find everything from old windows to light fixtures in every style and period, at bargain-basement prices. The Habitat ReStore in Morris County used to be a bit like that, but on our last trip there we found the selection so disappointing that it no longer seems worth the two-hour round trip.) Sadly, this show isn't to be found on Hulu or anywhere online. There are 17 episodes available on the HGTV website, but they're a few years old and I've already watched them all. New episodes of this show appear regularly only on the DIY Network, which isn't part of our extremely basic cable package. We do get HGTV, but it usually shows Rehab Addict on Thursday nights, when we have dance practice. Occasionally, though, HGTV will run a whole bunch of episodes back-to-back during the day, and I'll make an exception to my usual no-TV-before-dinner rule and binge-watch for two or three hours.

17. Vegetarianism. From an ecofrugal standpoint, a meatless (or meat-light) diet has everything going for it. Eating organic is better for the environment, but it's also costly; a diet of ramen noodles at 25 cents a packet is cheap, but not very healthful. But a plant-based diet reduces your grocery bill and your carbon footprint at the same time—while also offering an assortment of health benefits and, for many people, a clearer conscience. And for those who are used to a more traditional, meat-heavy American diet and aren't sure whether they'd be comfortable giving it up, it's fairly easy to try out vegetarianism on a part-time basis before taking the plunge. Even cutting meat out of just one or two meals a week can make a pretty nice dent in your grocery bill. And adding a couple of meatless meals to your diet can be as simple as having Spaghetti Night on Wednesday and Stir-Fry Night on Friday. Or, if you're looking for a little more variety, just one basic vegetarian cookbook, such as The Clueless Vegetarian, is all you need to get started.

18. Rain barrels. Using a rain barrel has the same appeal as drying clothes on a clothesline: it feels like getting something for nothing. Sure, our municipal water is pretty cheap, but why use it at all when water falls from the sky for free? Admittedly, according to my calculations, using our new rain barrel only saved us around 15 bucks on our water bill last summer, but it also kept an extra 1,000 gallons of water in the municipal reservoir, making our town that much better equipped to withstand an unexpected drought. And in the event of a water main break, which is a much more common disaster in our area, our garden won't have to go thirsty.

19. Aldi. I've noted many times that this no-frills chain consistently has the best prices on foodstuffs in our area. Admittedly, its selection is a bit limited; for most foods, they only carry their house brand, and you shouldn't expect to find obscure or trendy ingredients like arborio rice or Sriracha there. But for the foods that they sell, Aldi's prices are the lowest anywhere. It's the only place we can find breakfast cereal at a reasonable price without stacking sales and coupons, and it's also our go-to store for staples like oats, cheese, chocolate chips, and peanuts. It used to be that Aldi represented the "frugal" half of the ecofrugal equation, while stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's (which I named as a Thing Ecofrugal People Like in my original list) focused on the "eco" part. But lately, Aldi has started muscling in on TJ's turf. In addition to carrying the basics, its shelves are now stocked with upscale goodies like balsamic vinegar, bottled lattes, and a line of cheap organic foods that can often beat the price of non-organic versions sold at other stores. So far, Aldi hasn't actually pulled any of our shopping dollars away from Trader Joe, because the items we usually buy at TJ's (organic chicken legs, organic raisins, recycled-fiber toilet paper, cruelty-free toothpaste and bar soap) are still a better deal there. But if the gentrification of Aldi's product line continues, who knows? Our nearest Aldi store is a lot closer than the nearest Trader Joe's, so shopping there is definitely more convenient; we'd be just as happy to go to Aldi regularly and make our visits to Trader Joe's a special once- or twice-a-year outing.

20. Shopping local. Actually, I think what ecofrugal people really love is the idea of shopping local. You don't have to drive around and burn fossil fuels, and you help keep your community strong by supporting its local businesses. It seems like such a complete win-win. But sadly, the reality isn't always as satisfying. Local businesses typically can't offer the same selection as the big chains, and because they can't achieve the same economies of scale, their prices are usually higher. So while local businesses cater to our eco sensibilities, they often go against our frugal instincts. But fortunately, there are exceptions—like my local mechanic, who not only does a better job with our car than the dealership and is much easier to get to, but also charges far more reasonable rates. So in cases like these, shopping local really is a win-win-win. If only our town had just a couple more thrift shops and a good used bookstore, I'd indulge a lot more often.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Seed starting 3.0

It's been a week now since I noted that it was time to start my parsley seeds—always the first crop to kick off our gardening year. However, the seeds didn't actually make it into their pots until Sunday, because Brian was still pondering possible changes to our seed-starting technique. We've tried several different methods of starting seeds over the years, none of them very successful. At first, we tried starting our seeds in regular potting soil, but it wasn't very reliable. Then, on my dad's advice, we switched to a commercial mix designed specifically for seed starting. We packed this into our PVC-pipe seed starting tubes, packed the tubes into an empty OJ carton, and kept them all under a basic fluorescent light setup.

This basic setup seemed to do a reasonably good job of getting the seeds started, but the seedlings didn't really thrive. Even after weeks under the lights, they were always much smaller and scrawnier than the ones sold at the annual Rutgers plant sales. I mentioned this problem to the landscaper we consulted with in 2012, and she explained that the seed-starting mix is a good medium for starting seeds, but not for growing plants; it doesn't provide the nutrients they need. She recommended starting them in this mixture and then, once they'd sprouted, transferring them to larger containers of real garden soil. But this idea posed several problems:
  • It wouldn't allow us to use our handy seed-starting tubes. We'd have to start the seeds in small containers and then transfer them to larger ones, which might not fit in our juice-box trays, which in turn might mean that we wouldn't have room for all our seedlings in our DIY lighted tray.
  • It would be a lot more work, because we'd have to plant each seedling twice—first planting the seed in the starter mix, then transplanting the sprout to real soil—before it could even go out into the garden.
  • It would pose a greater risk of "transplant shock" to the seedlings, because each one would have to be uprooted and replanted twice (starter to soil-filled pot and soil-filled pot to garden).
So, to circumvent these problems, we decided to try growing the seeds in a 50-50 mixture of seed-starting mix and potting soil. We hoped this would be both light and fluffy enough for the seeds to sprout well and rich enough in nutrients to keep them growing. This worked better than the straight-up seed-starting mix, but the seedlings still seemed to come out scrawny. So this year, Brian was considering putting just a thin layer of seed-starting mix on top for the seeds to germinate in, with regular garden soil below for them to take root in and get their nutrient fix. But he wasn't sure whether this would actually be an improvement over the methods we'd tried before.

So I started doing a little research on the subject. I found that different sources actually recommend quite a variety of methods for starting seeds:
  • The most common advice is to start the seeds in a sterile, soil-free starter mix, then transplant them to soil, as recommended in this article from the Old Farmer's Almanac. But this is the method we rejected last year because of the hassle and the doubled risk of transplant shock. 
  • Many other sources, such as Organic Gardening, recommend avoiding this problem by start the seeds in a sterile seed-starting mix and just keeping them there, adding fertilizer to them to provide the nutrition they need until it's time to plant them. This is less risky than the first method, and it's not as much work, but it doesn't seem very ecofrugal to buy a synthetic fertilizer if your plants could get all the nutrients they need from free garden soil.
  • Burpee claims you can just leave your seeds in the starting mix with no fertilizer at all, since "seeds contain the nutrients the seedlings will need." But this is the method we were using up until 2012, and the resulting seedlings were pitiful.
  • WikiHow article suggests tackling the problem from the other direction. Instead of starting the seeds in a starter mix and adding fertilizer, it recommends sprouting the seeds with no soil at all, just a damp cloth, and then planting the sprouts directly in garden soil. It's an intriguing idea, but I'm not that confident about it. A lot of other sources suggest that baby seedlings really need a loose mix that holds in moisture well, and most recommend that it also be sterile to protect the seeds from germs. I don't know how well such tiny transplants would fare well in straight-up garden soil.
  • An old article from Mother Earth News recommends making your own light-yet-nutritious potting mix by blending compost with peat moss or coir. The article says to sterilize the compost first to make sure it's pathogen-free, and cover the newly planted seedlings with vermiculite to hold in moisture. This sounded more promising, but it seemed like a lot of work—first sterilizing the compost, then mixing in the peat—and it would require buying some pricey and non-renewable ingredients.
  • Finally, after digging through the first page of results, I managed to find one source that recommended a variant of the layering technique Brian had in mind. This paper from the Department of Horticulture at Purdue said one good method for starting seeds was to "partially fill a flat or pot with sterilized soil mix, and then top it with a layer of vermiculite or milled sphagnum moss in which the seeds are planted." It also said you could just use "a mixture of about one-third loam garden soil and two-thirds vermiculite," provided the soil was sterilized.
So basically, it looked like the key to growing our seeds in ordinary soil was going to be sterilizing the soil first. That would protect the seedlings from germs, but still give them the nutrients they need as they grow. The Purdue paper helpfully outlined a method for sterilizing ordinary garden soil: put it in a baking dish, cover it with foil, and bake it in the oven at 200 until the temperature of the soil reaches 160 to 180 degrees. Or, if you don't have a candy thermometer, you can "place a raw potato in the center of the soil and bake in a medium oven until the potato is done."

So on Saturday, Brian went out to dig up a bit of soil from one of the garden beds. Both a trowel and our King of Spades bounced right off the frozen ground, but our Structron Super Shovel, with its vicious pointed teeth, bit right into it and tore up a nice big clump, which Brian then managed to get spread out in a baking dish. The Purdue paper warned that it would "give off a strong odor" while it was baking, and it did—a very unpleasant, acrid odor, heavy on the ammonia. So Brian kept the range hood running for about an hour after removing the pan, and he transferred the pan itself down to the basement to cool down. I peeled back the foil just long enough to get a picture, but the whiff I got while the foil was off was enough to convince me to put it back in place and leave it well alone.

On Sunday, once the soil had cooled, Brian got down to the business of prepping the containers for it. The Purdue paper and several other sources stressed the need to sterilize the containers the seeds go in, since there's no point in using a sterile potting mix in a non-sterile container. So he started by washing all our seed-starting tubes and cartons with a touch of bleach, then drying them thoroughly. He also cleaned out a big coffee can to hold the extra dirt, ready for subsequent batches of seedlings.

Next, he lined up the tubes in the carton. Since we only need about four parsley plants, if even that many, he prepped just six tubes, filling them about 2/3 full with the sterilized soil...

...and then topping them off with bagged seed-starting mix.

He tucked the little seeds into this top layer, misted them well with water, and covered them with a panel of clear plastic to help hold the moisture in. 

They're sitting now on our designated seed-starting table in the guest room, where they will be joined in about two weeks by leeks and broccolini, then marigolds, tomatoes, and Brussels sprouts a month after that. There may be ice on the ground and snow on the way, but the 2015 garden season is afoot!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Recipe: Low-Sugar Coconut Granola

As I've mentioned before, one of the ways Brian and I keep our grocery bill down is that we don't eat a lot of convenience foods. We almost never buy frozen meals or sides, aside from the occasional box of sale-priced pierogies (or pierogi, if you want to use the proper ethnic term). We eschew most packaged snack foods, preferring to nosh on fruit or pop our own popcorn. And of course, we don't have kids, so we don't have to buy special foods that they're willing to eat.

The only convenience food we haven't really found a way to do without is breakfast cereal, which is Brian's standard weekday breakfast. We usually buy raisin bran from Aldi, which is the only cereal that falls within our cutoff of 10 cents per ounce. Occasionally we can get a price this good or better by stacking sales and coupons, but most of the time, it's raisin bran Monday through Friday, which gets a little dull after a while. On top of that, Brian's a bit frustrated about all the packaging waste left behind from all those boxes of cereal. Yes, the cardboard boxes can go in our paper recycling, and we've recently discovered a Terracycle bin at a local church that will take the liners, but recycling is still only a distant third best to reducing and reusing.

The only homemade alternative we've found that's reasonably easy to make is granola. We used to use a recipe from the Tightwad Gazette, which I calculated to cost about $1.60 a pound (that's how we came up with our 10-cents-per-ounce benchmark for cereal costs). However, Brian doesn't really like it as well as the Aldi raisin bran, because it's too sweet for his taste even when cut with plain oats. It's also a bit of a hassle to make, because the mixture comes out really sticky. You have to keep stirring it as it cools to keep it from adhering to the pan, and even once it's completely cool, it has a tendency to form a single huge clump in the storage bin from which each day's serving has to be chipped off.

So earlier this week, Brian decided to try tinkering with the granola recipe to see if he could come up with something a bit less sweet and sticky. While he was at it, he cut down on the amount of oil in the original recipe and threw in some wheat bran to make it more healthful and filling. Here's what he did for his first small batch:
1 cup + 2 Tbsp    rolled oats
1/4 cup              chopped walnuts
1/4 cup              wheat bran
1/4 cup              light corn syrup (Karo red)
1 Tbsp                coconut oil
1/4 cup              raisins 
Combine first three ingredients in bowl.  Heat syrup and oil over medium heat until they boil; pour over dry mixture and mix thoroughly with a fork.  Spread in a pan and bake 20 minutes at 350 degrees F, stirring once at 10 minute mark. 
Remove from oven, add raisins, and allow to cool, stirring occasionally to prevent clumping or sticking.
This came out a lot less sticky than the original granola, and a lot less sweet. To my taste, in fact, it wasn't really sweet enough. He was considering adding a bit of honey to the mix, and I suggested throwing in some sweetened coconut to give it a little sugar boost. However, when he tried his first bowlful this morning, he said that he actually finds it quite sweet enough for a breakfast cereal—a bit sweeter than the raisin bran, in fact. So he might just keep the basic proportions as is, and maybe add a bit of unsweetened coconut and/or some of his favorite flaxseeds for a little extra flavor interest.

From an ecofrugal perspective, though, the real question is: how does this homemade alternative compare to the Aldi raisin bran in terms of cost per bowl? To figure this out, I checked the price per pound we usually pay for all these ingredients (guessing at the ones I didn't have any recent figures for) and calculated that this entire first batch of granola cost about $1.75 to make. That's the good news; the bad news is that it made only about two bowls' worth of breakfast. That works out to 88 cents a bowl, while Brian's usual breakfast of cereal plus add-ins, based on my calculations from last year's Reverse SNAP Challenge, is around 61 cents a bowl. (In fact, it's actually a little bit less now, because the price of the Aldi raisin bran has dropped.) So while Brian's new granola will cut down on packaging waste, it won't actually save us any money.

We may, of course, be able to tweak the recipe to cut its cost a bit. Those walnuts are a pricey ingredient (I calculated their cost based on what we usually pay per pound at the Whole Earth Center, not on the amazing bargain we got at last year's yard sale), so maybe we could substitute something cheaper, like some sunflower seeds or shredded coconut. And it might actually work out better to use some other sweetener in place of that corn syrup. But for now, I'm willing to pay the higher price of the homemade granola just for the sake of giving Brian a break from the raisin bran routine.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

What's Your Millionaire-Next-Door Quotient?

The other day, browsing through some videos on the Kiplinger's Personal Finance website, I happened across this one called "Secrets of the Millionaire Next Door." It examined the habits of the "invisible rich": people who live so simply that no one would ever suspect how much money they really have stashed away. Three particular behaviors the video identifies are:
  1. They don't spend beyond their means. When shopping, they look for value rather than prestige.
  2. They don't swing for the fences. They're happy to earn a safe, sure rate on a simple investment they can understand rather than reach for the highest possible returns and risk losing everything on some exotic trading strategy.
  3. They keep themselves covered, having plenty of insurance to protect them against loss.
All of this sounded very familiar to me. Brian and I certainly aren't millionaires (at least not yet), but according to this video, we're already living like millionaires—at least the invisible kind. We live in a nice but modest house, drive a nice but modest car, and are satisfied with nice, modest investments, such as index funds, that meet but don't beat the market averages. And hearing that many of those who live just as we do are bona fide millionaires encourages me to believe that if we just keep up what we're doing, one day we will be too.

The end of the video, however, notes that "that's not all the invisible rich have to teach us" and encourages viewers to search the main site for the phrase "millionaire next door." So I tried that, and I found a longer article (available in slideshow or single-page format) that covers the same material in the video, but expands the list of three savings secrets to nine. I knew my lifestyle was already hitting all of the frugal talking points covered in the video, but would I fare as well against the full list?

The answer, as it turns out, is "not quite." Apparently, Brian and I share eight out of nine habits with the Millionaire Next Door, but we—or more precisely, I—fall down in a big way on the ninth. Here's what I have in common with the invisible rich, and what I don't:

1. They don't spend beyond their means. Naturally, since I have a whole blog about saving money, I had no trouble with this one. Even when I was young and earning very little, I always made a point of living within my income, even when it meant spending an extra six months living with my parents while searching for an apartment I could afford. I've learned a lot more tricks and tools for saving money since then, but the principle is the same.

2. They educate themselves. One thing the invisible rich don't hesitate to spend money on is education, which the article calls "a prime driver of income." I can't take much credit for this one, since they money spent on my college education was not mine but my parents', but I have made a point of continuing to educate myself—in particular, about money. I've learned a lot over the years about how to save it, to spend it wisely, and to invest it, and I'm learning more all the time—enough to keep a whole blog going on the subject.

3. They pick the right field. This is the one question I blew. In college, I studied literature, because it was what I cared most about, but I have to admit, it's not a field where they pay you the big bucks. Yes, I've been able to earn a modest living with my writing skills, but it's grown steadily more modest in the past few years, and I find myself wondering more and more whether I need to go back to point #2 and study something else, something more lucrative, if I want to keep earning a living at all. Admittedly, I'd rather have a low-paying job doing something I like than a high-paying job doing something that holds no interest for me, but I think I could stand to have the scale tipped just a little more toward earning.

4. They save and invest early. I'm back on solid ground here, as I started investing in my company's 401(k) plan just as soon as I qualified for it. I started out putting in just enough to earn matching dollars from the company, but as I climbed up the ladder, I put away a larger share of my increasing income with each pay raise. After becoming a freelancer, I rolled the whole thing over into an IRA that I continue to fund to the max each year, even when my income is low.

5. They don't swing for the fences, investment-wise. I handle pretty much all our investments, and I tend to stick to index funds. No, I'll never beat the market average that way, but I'll never get less than the market average either, which is what I seemed to get with every managed fund I've ever owned. Nowadays I mostly use ETFs, which are easier to trade, but they're still straightforward investments that don't follow some complex strategy even the people who created it can't understand.

6. They keep themselves covered. We actually don't pay for life insurance; Brian gets a policy as part of his workplace benefits, and I don't need one because he doesn't depend on my income. But we have all the basics—health, home, and car—all with nice, high coverage limits.

7. They're wise about windfalls, preferring to save them up rather than splurge. Personally I've always had trouble answering questions like, "What do you plan to do with your tax refund?" or "What would you do with an extra $5,000?" because, to me, it's all just money. There's nothing special about those particular dollars that seems to require me to do something different with them from what I do with all my other dollars: put them in the bank, withdraw them as needed to pay for day-to-day expenses, and transfer them to my investment account if the balance gets too high. A tax refund or a small inheritance may be "extra" money, but that's never struck me as a reason to do something "extra" with it that I wouldn't normally do.

8. They hang onto their cars (and houses). We've only ever owned one house, and it's more than big enough for the two of us (maybe even too big, in some ways), so we certainly have no plans to upgrade. As far as I'm concerned, our "starter" home can also be our finisher home—or at least our until-we're-ready-for-assisted-living home. As for cars, well, I must confess that we now have one that's less than five years old, and we even bought it new (after figuring out that we wouldn't save anything by buying a similar model used). But the car we had before this was a 16-year-old Honda that we only gave up after an accident left it completely undriveable—and that was after the insurance company had already "totaled" it in an earlier collision, and we'd patched it up and continued to drive it for another two years. So if past performance is any predictor of future results, we'll be driving this car for another 11 years at least.

9. They avoid debt. On this point, some might argue that we're actually too extreme. The only debt we've ever had was our mortgage, and during the whole 5 years we had it, we were laser-focused on paying it down as fast as possible. Many people would (and do) argue that this is a mistake: with mortgage interest rates as low as they are, it would make much more sense to keep the mortgage and put the extra money into higher-yielding investments, like stocks. But the thing about the stock market is, it's unpredictable. Paying off our mortgage, by contrast, offered us a guaranteed return: 6 percent for the first two years, and then 4.5 percent after refinancing. So while we might have been able to get a higher return by investing in stocks, it would have been a lot less certain, and as cautious investors (see point 5), we chose the bird in the hand over the, what, maybe 1.6 birds in the bush.

So, with our lifestyle matching that of the invisible rich on 8 points out of 9, it looks like our Millionaire-Next-Door Quotient (MNDQ?) is 89 percent. How's yours?

Monday, February 2, 2015

Gardeners' Holidays 2015: Festival of Seeds

With a good eight inches of snow already on the ground and more "wintry mix" still coming down, it's hard to believe that it's actually time to be starting work on this year's garden. But the calendar doesn't lie: today is definitely February 2, and if I want my parsley plants to be ready to go into the ground in two months, they've got to be started now. And since I can't tell how many seeds to start until I know how many plants I want, that means I also need to get cracking on this year's garden layout.

As you've seen in previous years, I map out my garden beds each year in an Excel spreadsheet. It's probably not the best program for this purpose, but it's handy, since it's what I already use for keeping track of the planting schedule. If you look at the garden maps I made for 2013 and 2014, you'll see that instead of keeping the same basic layout from year to year, I move my crops around as best I can in the limited space available. Rotating crops is a standard gardening trick for fighting pests and disease; if critters or bacteria are left behind in the soil from one year's plants, they won't find anything suitable to prey on in the same spot next year. It can also be helpful for plant nutrition, since some plants (like tomatoes), are "heavy feeders," while others (like peas and beans) actually add nitrogen to the soil. So I like, when possible, to plant my tomatoes in the spot where I had peas last year, so they'll have plenty of good soil to feed on.

Unfortunately, when I first started rotating my crops, I didn't really plan for the long term. I just made sure that the peas and tomatoes each went into a different spot from where they'd been the previous year. This means that for the past four years, the tomatoes have been progressing clockwise from trellis to trellis around the garden, while the peas have been moving in the opposite direction. Logically, it would make sense for them both to move in the same direction, so that the tomatoes would always move into the spot just vacated by the peas. But because I didn't start out doing it that way, I can't just start doing it now; that would mean putting this year's tomatoes in the same spot where they were two years ago, which would leave them vulnerable to disease. So basically, the only spot where I can safely put the tomatoes is in the back right corner.

The zucchinis pose a similar problem, and on a bigger scale. Each plant takes up three square feet of garden space, and because they like a lot of sunlight, the only really good spot for them is at the southern end of the garden. Unfortunately, keeping them there all the time would make them easy prey for the squash vine borers and the powdery mildew that caused such a lot of trouble for us last year. So those two plants pretty much have to go in the only two corners that haven't hosted them for the last four years.

These constraints make the process of putting the garden beds together a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle. The tomatoes and zucchini are like the corner pieces, fixed in place, and everything else has to fit in around them. Let's see, cucumbers over here...beans near the cucumbers, which is supposed to be a beneficial combination, and basil near the tomatoes for the same the individual squares in around the big blocks...and you end up with something a bit like this.

I'm hoping that in future, I can manage to get everything arranged so that I can just rotate whole beds instead of trying to piece all the crops together one by one. It'll be a lot less work that way. But I'll have to wait at least one more year to get the zucchini rotated into a reasonable spot.

For now, though, I'll consider it enough of a triumph to have a workable plan for this year. In the middle of February's frozen wasteland, I can look on this garden map—and my first batch of seedlings—as tangible evidence that, no matter how frigid it feels right now, spring is definitely on the way.