Friday, July 31, 2015

Money Crashers: How to Deal With Funeral Costs

Money-saving sites and newsletters, such as Money Crashers, are always stuffed with tips for saving on weddings, but you almost never see any for funerals. In fact, the very idea seems almost shocking. People seem to feel as if when a loved one has just died, it's heartless even to be thinking about money. But unfortunately, not thinking about it has a serious cost—about $11,000 for a typical funeral in the US. (And that's just for the service, not including any gathering you might have afterward at home.)

I don't know about you, but when I go, I don't want $11,000 of the money I've left to my heirs being spent just to put what's left of me into the ground. Yes, I want the people who remember me to gather together and share those memories, but that doesn't cost anything. It's the fancy caskets and tombstones that cost the big bucks. At least there's some sense in paying for a nice tombstone if you're going to be looking at it every time you visit the grave, but why spend thousands on a coffin that's just going to get covered up with dirt?

For anyone else who would rather, when the time comes, have a funeral that's truly meaningful than one that's impressive, I've covered this topic in detail in my latest Money Crashers post. I talk about your rights when dealing with funeral homes (and your almost total lack of any when dealing with cemeteries), how to compare prices, the value of pre-planning (so you can do your thinking about money at a time when you're not completely overwhelmed by grief), and some money-saving alternatives like cremation, direct burial, and donating your remains to medical science. I also discuss the home funeral, which is far more traditional than the "traditional" funeral of today: the body is simply "laid out" at home for visitors, and the family stays with the deceased until the end. (I noted in my original draft that many people who have done this say that tending personally to the bodies of their beloved dead gives them a greater sense of closure, but the editor cut this out for some reason.)

The writing in parts of this may seem overly formal and unlike my usual style; that, too, was the editor's decision. But there's useful information in it, all the same. Here's the full article: How to Deal With Funeral Costs – Planning Guide & Checklist

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Money Crashers: Toy Lending Libraries & Exchanges

This particular post for Money Crashers deals with a topic that I don't personally have a lot of experience with: kids' toys. Of course, Brian and I do have some experience with toys, having a total of nine (count 'em, nine) nieces and nephews between us: we have given them quite a few toys over the years at Christmas/Hanukkah time, and we have also seen quite a lot of their toys whenever we go to visit. But that's not quite the same thing as living among them, surrounded on all sides, day in and day out—not to mention dealing with the kids' pleas for new ones. I can only guess at how frustrating this situation is for moms and dads, but based on the little taste I've had of it, I'd have to guess it gets old pretty quickly.

So for all you moms and dads out there, even if I can't personally empathize with your
3 situation, I can offer an idea that might help at least a bit: sharing toys. I don't mean just persuading your own kids to share with each other and with their friends, but paring down the size of your toy collection at home by drawing toys from a pool that's shared with a whole bunch of other kids.

One way to do this is a toy library, if your town happens to have one. It's just like a regular library, except you can borrow toys instead of books. Doing this lets your kids rotate their selection of toys at home, so they get to try new ones every few weeks without completely flooding the house with them—or sinking your wallet.

If you don't have a toy library available, another alternative—though it's a bit more work—is to organize a toy exchange. Basically, you just gather up all the toys your kids are tired of, get together with a bunch of other families who have done the same, and swap your old toys for theirs. Everyone gets to go home with toys that are new to them, and everything left over goes to a worthwhile charity.

If either of these sounds like it might make at least a small dent in your home's toy budget and toy clutter, check out the full article here: Toy Lending Libraries & Exchanges – Benefits and How They Work

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Soup of the Month: Chilled Honeydew with Mint and Lime

Back in February, I decided to make my Recipe of the Month a salad rather than a soup, in spite of the wintry weather. This month, going in the opposite direction, I decided to do a soup, even though the daytime temperature is regularly peaking well above 90 degrees. I originally assumed that in this heat, a salad would be the obvious choice, but when I started searching through my cookbook shelf for an interesting salad recipe I hadn't tried, my eye fell upon the recipe for Chilled Honeydew Soup with Mint and Lime in Mollie Katzen's Vegetable Heaven, and I thought you could hardly find anything more cool and refreshing than that. So this is actually two firsts for the Recipe of the Month: the first cold soup, and the first fruit-based soup.

Making this soup could hardly be simpler. It has only three ingredients: an entire honeydew melon, which I was able to pick up for $3 at the local farmers' market; a quarter-cup of lime juice, which the recipe says should be freshly squeezed, but we made do with bottled; and two tablespoons of minced mint leaves, which we harvested from our herb garden in the front yard. The recipe also mentions using fresh blueberries as a garnish, but since they're optional, I decided not to spend the extra $2 at the farmers' market. Then, all you have to do is chop the melon into chunks, dump it in the blender with the juice and mint, puree everything until it's smooth (or at least smoothish), and chill it thoroughly in the fridge. Brian prepared the soup on Saturday morning, stuck it in the fridge while we went out on a jaunt to Princeton to celebrate our anniversary, and it was all ready and waiting for us when we got home.

As I'd predicted, the soup was quite cool, light, and refreshing. The flavor was a fairly even balance between sweet and tart, which made it seem a bit strange to be eating it out of a bowl; both the flavor and the texture seemed more like a slushie that should be drunk with a straw. In fact, I tried doing just that with some of the leftover soup today, but it proved a bit too thick to consume that way; I ended up having to add some water to it, and it was still rather difficult to slurp up through the straw. But Mollie Katzen does note that you can make this soup into a granita by pouring it into a shallow dish and freezing it, with a stir every half hour or so to keep it from turning into a solid block of ice. Consuming it that way, out of a sherbet glass, might feel like a better fit for the blend of flavors. But of course, then it couldn't count as a Soup of the Month.

Next month, it'll probably be back to salads. Perhaps something with tomatoes, since I both hope and believe we're going to have a plentiful crop.

Money Crashers: How to Start a Seed Savers Exchange

So, as you all know, Brian and I are gardeners. Not large-scale gardeners, maybe not particularly skilled gardeners, but reasonably avid gardeners. We do a lot of the semi-hardcore stuff that other hobby gardeners don't waste time with, like starting plants from seed and making our own compost. We've even tried saving seeds from our crops, though considering the hassle involved, it didn't really seem to be worth the trouble.

One thing we've never really done, though, is seed swapping. We've sort of flirted with the idea from time to time, exchanging some extra seeds with my dad or accepting Freecycle offers for half-empty seed packets, but we've never gone to a full-scale seed exchange with dozens of other gardeners. Mainly, that's because we don't know enough other gardeners to swap seeds with, and our town—though it's very sustainable in many ways, with a good curbside recycling program, a great public library, and a community cafĂ©—doesn't have such a thing as a permanent seed library.

Such things do exist, however, and in some places, they're apparently very successful. In my latest Money Crashers article, I discuss seed exchanges: how they work, where they're found, and how to start one. I don't think I'm quite up to starting one myself—based on the research I did for this article, it sounds like rather a lot of work—but if I ever hear of one in my area, I'll certainly be happy to contribute.

Here's the full article: How to Start a Seed Savers Exchange for Gardeners in Your Community

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Savings Challenge, Weeks 19-20: Clean and pretty

Once again, the Bankrate 52-week savings challenge has served up two challenges in a row that are already quite familiar to me. The first one deals with DIY cleaning products, the second with DIY hair care—two things that I've been doing for years. But, for the sake of argument, let's go through them:

Week 19: Make your own cleaning products

The Bankrate reporter who tried this challenge, Laura Dunn, decided to try homemade versions of three specific cleaning products: laundry booster, oven cleaner, and carpet stain remover. This struck me as a bit odd, since these are three products that I use very seldom, if at all. It seemed to me that the best way to save money on cleaning products would be to try a DIY version of an all-purpose cleaner that you use every day.

Her choice might still make sense if Laura Dunn uses these products a lot more often than I do, but based on her experience with the laundry booster, it appears that this was a product she'd actually never tried before. Basically, she just took a friend's advice to add vinegar to the wash cycle when doing laundry to "kill any bacteria" that could be causing "the smell you may have detected in your towels." Dunn was impressed with the result, because her towels came out "very fresh-smelling" and "decidedly softer than usual"—and at $2.48 per gallon, she figures the vinegar costs her only 4 cents per load. Which is all very well, but it's still an extra 4 cents per load, not a savings. Dunn tries to argue that this trick is actually saving her money by extending the life of her towels; in fact, she goes so far as to suppose that the vinegar treatment is actually doubling their lifespan, thus saving her $150 on a set of towels every five years—but she gives no reason at all for this supposition, and no one who commented on the article offered any evidence to back up the claim. Given that I have towels I've been using for 15 years and I've never added vinegar to the rinse cycle, I'm a little skeptical. (I also can't honestly say that I've ever found my towels to smell bad when they've just been washed, so it would make no sense for me to spend an extra 4 cents per load to deal with a complete non-problem.)

The other two DIY products Dunn tried were even less successful. The DIY oven cleaner, a paste of baking soda and water, worked fine, but Dunn calculated that it cost about 56 cents per use, while a bottle of Easy-Off costs maybe 50 cents per use. She thought this was only a worthwhile tip for people who prefer eco-friendly products. Personally, I'd say that baking soda has one other advantage: it's something most of us always have in the house. So if you decide after a cooking debacle that you really need to clean that oven, you don't have to run out and buy a bottle of a product that can only do one job and will probably take years to use up. (We've owned this house for seven years, and I don't think we've cleaned the oven more than once—and it doesn't look particularly dirty inside.)

As for the DIY carpet cleaner, made from a mixture of dish soap, baking soda, and hydrogen peroxide, it ended up bleaching Dunn's carpet, and she had to buy a commercial stain remover to undo the damage—which, she notes, cost less than the homemade stuff. Personally, I wouldn't use anything with hydrogen peroxide on any kind of fabric unless it was already solid white—but then, I also wouldn't try this recipe in the first place, since our house doesn't have any carpets. We have a few area rugs, but we've never yet had to remove a stain from one, so there's really no way we could save much money with a DIY carpet cleaner.

So on the whole, Dunn's success rate with DIY cleaners was pretty unimpressive and unlikely to inspire her readers to try them. Which is a pity, because if she'd tried DIY versions of common, everyday cleaners—like good old vinegar and water—she could probably have achieved some much more impressive savings. I use this old standby on practically everything—bathroom, kitchen, floors, windows—and I haven't bought any sort of commercial surface cleaner in years. It's not tough enough for scrubbing the tub, but I do that with a "dish wand" dispenser filled with a mixture of half dish soap and half vinegar, and it works better than any commercial product I've tried. And for anything vinegar can't handle, there's baking soda.

The one thing I can't seem to do with either vinegar or baking soda, or a combination of the two, is removing the faint brown stain our walnut cat litter has left on the inside of our white toilet bowl. I may eventually have to resort to nasty, toxic chlorine bleach for that one.

Week 20: Be your own hairstylist

Bankrate reporter Crissinda Ponder says it costs her $60-$70 to have her hair straightened and styled, and keeping it that way all the time would mean shelling out that amount every other week. So she cut her salon visits back to "a handful" per year with the help of tutorial videos from YouTube. She embeds one such video that shows how to create "super cute summer curls," and the results certainly are as advertised, but alas, it's specifically for African-kinky hair, so it won't work for me.

Now, I can't really say how much I save each year by styling my own hair, because it's been so many years since anyone else did it for me. The last time I had a professional haircut, I think, was when my sister treated me to a session with her posh Boston stylist as a wedding present. I came out of the salon feeling not at all like myself, and I ended up stopping in the restroom and sprinkling water on my blown-out curls to bring them back to normal.

After that, I came to the resolution that I wasn't going to bother with professional hair care anymore. I had never, not once in my life, come out of a hair salon feeling like I looked better than when I went in, and my recent experience had convinced me that going to a pricier salon wouldn't make any difference in that regard. If I just trimmed my own hair at home, maybe it would never look really great, but at least I wouldn't have to pay someone to make me less happy with it.

After several years of trial and error, I now have a simple routine that I'm pretty happy with. It's basically a simplified version of the Curly Girl Method: I wet my hair thoroughly in the shower, then wrap it in a microfiber towel to soak up excess moisture while I do my exercises, and then I comb in some plain old VO5 conditioner and let it air dry. Once it's completely dry, I can fluff the curls up to an appropriate volume. And when then look like they're getting too long or too uneven, I just trim a bit off here or there until it looks right. The results may not look "professional"—but I'm happier with them than I've ever been with a professional cut.

So that's two more challenges that pose no real challenge for me. Perhaps next week's, which has to do with meal replacement shakes, will prove more interesting.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Money Crashers: How to Get Free Stuff at Free Stores

One of the staples of the ecofrugal lifestyle is secondhand shopping. As I've observed many times, thrift stores and flea markets are an ecofrugal three-fer, because you get to save money, save resources, and prevent waste all at the same time. However, in my latest Money Crashers post, I discuss something that's even better than thrift shops: free stores. These are like thrift shops taken to the ultimate extreme: everything is not merely cheap but free. Yes, free! You can bring in your unwanted stuff, and you can take home someone else's unwanted stuff, and you never have to get out your wallet at all!

I've never had a chance to experience a free store (or its more temporary cousin, a Really Really Free Market, or RRFM) firsthand. The closest I've ever come is occasionally dropping off or picking up items at the "Freecycle table" at the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship, where the Minstrel concert series is held on Fridays. And sadly, in the course of working on the article, I discovered that I haven't simply been overlooking the obvious: there actually are no free stores or RRFMs in New Jersey at all. The nearest one to me is in Manhattan, and since a trip into the city costs around $30 (either $24.50 for the train plus $7 for the subway, or $19.50 in tolls plus an indeterminate amount for gas and parking), I can hardly imagine that making the expedition would be a money-saving venture.

Some of you, however, might be more fortunately situated. To find out, take a look at the article: How to Get Free Stuff at Free Stores and Swap Shops (or Start Your Own)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Money Crashers: How to Shop at Reuse Centers

When we were remodeling our downstairs bathroom four years ago, one of the things that helped us keep the cost down was the Habitat for Humanity ReStore up in Morris County. It supplied us with handsome, slate-look tile for around $2.67 a square foot, as well as a new-condition cultured-marble sink and vanity top for $30. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to score many other bargains there, because it's over an hour away, and the only time it's open that we could make it there is on Saturdays. Also, the last time we made a special trip out there in the hope of finding some bargains for our kitchen and office, the selection was much less impressive than it had been on previous visits, and not as well organized, either.

However, for those who are lucky enough to have a good building reuse center in their area, it's a fantastic resource for home improvement projects. In my latest Money Crashers article, I've written about what you can find at reuse centers (and their close cousin, architectural salvage stores) and the many advantages—and a few disadvantages—of shopping there. I also include a list of some of the most noteworthy reuse centers around the country and some resources for finding a center in your area. (Sadly, the closest one to us is an architectural salvage store in Barnegat, which has some remarkable stuff, but at far from bargain basement prices.)

Check out the full article here: How to Shop at Reuse Centers & Architectural Salvage Stores to Save on Home Improvement

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Burning Question

Normally, I believe in the principle that good fences make good neighbors. Take the case of our resident groundhog, for instance. Back when we first put in our garden, the furball was regularly getting in and chomping our veggies, rousing our normally peace-loving natures to such wrath that we talked more than once about shooting, poisoning, or trapping him (as we were eventually forced to do with the rat). But once we'd managed to install an effective groundhog-proof fence to protect our plants, we were able to coexist peacefully with the groundhogs, and even enjoy their antics.

Unfortunately, we have another neighbor who's creating a nuisance that can't easily be fenced out. Namely, an offensive smell. No, we don't now have a skunk living in our back yard as well, although the odor is nearly indistinguishable; instead, we have a college-aged neighbor who smokes a lot of really bad pot.

Let me say here, for the record, that I'm not anti-pot on principle. In general, I feel that if people want to use a mind-altering drug in the privacy of their own homes, that's none of my business. However, as the old libertarian saying goes, "Your right to swing fists ends where my nose begins." And in this particular case, our noses happen to be stuck right in the middle of a cloud of nasty-smelling smoke emanating from our neighbor's yard. (He seems to smoke only outdoors, probably at his mom's insistence.) The smoke from his yard gets into our yard and, from there, into our house if the windows are open.

To make matters worse, our house does not have central AC, so opening windows and running fans is our primary means of staying cool in the summertime. But if we simply open up all the windows in the evening to let in the fresh air, we know that at some point that air is inevitably going to turn not-so-fresh. So then our choices are to swelter with the windows shut or choke with them open. (We can usually manage to air the place out early in the morning if we get up early enough, but we have to be prepared to close everything up again at 7 or 8 am when our neighbor steps outside to light up his first joint of the day.)

I keep going online to search for a solution to this problem—some sort of good fence to enable us and our next-door pothead to be good neighbors once again. Unfortunately, the suggestions I've seen so far haven't been very helpful. They include:

1. Just get over yourselves and live with it, you #*@%ing puritanical hypocrites.

This is the advice I seem to run across most often on pro-drug discussion boards, although it pops up often in other places as well. Basically, the folks offering it take it as axiomatic that pot smoke is harmless, so anyone who claims to have a problem with it is obviously lying and just wants to stop anyone else from having a good time. For me, naturally, this advice is both unhelpful and highly offensive. As I've said, I don't care what people put into their own bodies, but I don't think I should have to let them put it into mine as well.

2. Just talk to them about it. They probably don't know it's a problem, and once they do, they'll be happy to accommodate you.

Here's my response to this one: hahahahahahahaha. These people have obviously never attempted to talk to my neighbor. This is a kid who once literally stole the recycling bin out of our yard right in front of me. I'd just gone out to take in the bins, and I was standing not ten feet from him as he picked up the bin from our yard—having walked right past his family's own bin, which was sitting in their yard, to get to it—and carry it back to his own. I didn't see how this could possibly be an honest mistake, but I gave him every possible chance to correct it if it was, making a big show of standing there in the yard with the bin lid (which he hadn't bothered to pick up) in my hand and a puzzled expression on my face, looking very theatrically back and forth along the street as if to say, "Gee, where could it have gone?" He ignored me completely as he headed back into his own yard and retrieved his family's own bin, stowing it alongside the one he'd just taken from us.

Finally, I figured nothing but a direct approach was going to work, so I walked straight up to him with the lid in my hand and said, "Excuse me, but is there a chance you might have taken our recycling bin by mistake?"—still going out of my way to give him a face-saving excuse. And his response was....nothing. He looked straight past me like I wasn't even there and then turned around and went into the house. So basically, even when I had asked him as politely as possible about something he'd just done right in front of me that he very clearly had no right to do, he was not only uncooperative; he refused even to speak to me.

Despite this unpromising precedent, however, I did once work up the nerve to go and knock on my neighbor's door when the smoke started pouring into our house. His mom answered, and I said, perhaps a little awkwardly but with perfect civility, that I was very sorry to bother her, but the smoke from her yard was getting into our house, and was there any chance she could ask them to put it out or take it inside? Now, she didn't refuse to respond as her son had done, but she did give me a blank, uncomprehending stare, as if I had just uttered a completely random collection of syllables that made no sense whatsoever. Clearly it wasn't the case that she literally couldn't understand me, because she said, "Uh...okay...I'll talk to them," but it was pretty obvious that she was only saying it to get me off her porch. I don't know whether she actually did speak to her son and his friend, but I do know that the problem has in no way abated since then.

3. What they're doing is illegal. Just call the cops.

Since recreational marijuana is still illegal in New Jersey (and I'm pretty sure this kid and his buds aren't lighting up for medical reasons), this is technically an option, but it's one I would consider only as an absolute last resort, for several reasons:
  • Calling the cops on my neighbor is definitely not going to improve relations between us. At the moment, we mostly ignore each other; I don't want their attitude to become openly hostile or even aggressive. I already know this kid is capable of taking stuff from our yard with no provocation whatsoever; I don't really want to know what he might be capable of if he saw us as enemies.
  • As I said earlier, I'm actually not anti-pot. If I narc on my neighbor, I could possibly get him arrested for possession, but I don't really see that as a victory, since I don't think possession should be a crime in the first place. What I'd like to bust him for is polluting our air, but I don't think there's actually any law against that. (If he were smoking tobacco in his back yard, for instance, I don't think we would have any legal recourse.)
  • I don't think it's likely to work. Even though it's technically illegal for him to be smoking pot, even on his own property, I doubt there's much chance the cops would do anything about it. The comments I've seen online seem to suggest that the police generally won't act against marijuana smokers unless they actually catch them in the act of lighting up, and merely being able to smell the smoke—as you certainly can from the street—is not probable cause to march onto someone's property and conduct a search without a warrant. And actually getting a warrant is almost certainly more trouble than they'd be willing to take.
None of these suggestions really fits the definition of the "good fence" I'm looking for. What I want is something that will allow him to smoke in peace, and also allow us to breathe in peace, without having to bother each other.

Now, the thing is, such gadgets do in fact exist. There's a simple device called a sploof, for instance, that you can easily make with a toilet paper roll and a couple of dryer sheets, and blowing smoke through that supposedly traps it and neutralizes the odor. There are also commercial "smoke eaters" that do much the same thing with more sophisticated filtration systems. And a couple of sites note that smoking weed via a water pipe (a.k.a. a bong) or a vaporizer produces far less smoke and odor. But the problem with all of these solutions is, they're tools to be used by the marijuana smoker, not by the innocent bystander. I suspect that even if I were to buy one or more of these devices for my neighbor and present it to him as a gift, he would refuse to use it. I suppose I could make it a carrot-and-stick proposition, with the gift joined to an open threat: "Please use this from now on, or else I'll have to call the cops." But then I'd have to be prepared to follow through on the threat, which brings me back to problem #3.

So what I really want is some sort of system that will somehow allow us to cool our house without drawing in all the smoke from our neighbor's yard. Central AC would obviously be one such tool, but it's an awfully expensive one, both to buy and to run—particularly since our house doesn't have forced-air heating, so we'd have to install a whole separate system. I know from a previous summer when my in-laws came to visit that running a window air conditioner in just one room, for just one week, nearly doubled our electric use for that month; I shudder to think how much it would cost to cool our whole house that way all summer long. And from an ecofrugal perspective, it also bugs me that we should be forced to abandon our green lifestyle just because our neighbor is choosing to pollute the atmosphere.

We have noticed that when our neighbor is smoking, we can still keep windows open on the far side of the house without any noticeable odor problem; it's only the windows on that neighbor's side that are letting in the smoke. So a possible solution would be some sort of fan arrangement that lets us draw air in through all the windows on the opposite side and blow it out through all the windows on the smoky side—thus creating a reasonably good breeze through the house while blowing all the smoke back toward the yard from whence it came.

Brian has already made one attempt at rigging up such a system with materials we had available around the house. He took an old desk fan that we'd stopped using because it was stuck on "high," removed the base, and mounted it in a frame he cobbled together from scrap wood to fit our window. This is certainly better than no ventilation at all, but even running constantly on high speed, it just doesn't generate that much airflow. It's on the right track, but I think a truly ideal system would have to be a good deal more powerful.

Since I haven't been able to find a good fence for this particular neighbor problem, I'm turning to you, my readers, for help. Do any of you know of some kind of system that can ventilate a house in one direction only, so as to keep out smoke from the upwind side? Do you know of some other energy-efficient way of cooling a house without air conditioning? Can you offer suggestions for approaching my neighbor about the problem in a way that might make him more tractable? Or can you think of some other approach to the problem that I haven't yet considered?

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Flower flop, part 2

Back in March, when everything a finally thawing out after that long winter, Brian and I installed a grid of stakes and string in our flower bed. The goal was to prevent a repeat of last year's flower flop, in which the tallest flowers in the bed all bent over forwards in the first high wind, burying the shorter ones under their stems.

As it turns out, this didn't completely work. There were three problems with the new setup:
  1. Some of last year's annuals, particularly the bachelor buttons, reseeded themselves—but because of the way they all flopped over last year, the new plants ended up outside the borders of the flowerbed with its twine grid. So we had a bunch of really tall flowers right in the front, concealing everything behind them.
  2. The arrangement we contrived with the twine and string wasn't quite as secure as we would have liked. The strings didn't stay put very well on the smooth stakes; once the flowers started to bend and put their weight on them, they pushed the string down instead of being held upright by it.
  3. The grid we'd made was very loose, so although it helped a bit to hold the flowers up, it did nothing to keep them from falling over sideways. Thus, instead of a bunch of flowers all flopped forward, we ended up with a tangled mess of blooms pointing every which way.
The one interesting and unexpected perk of the new arrangement is that we discovered a morning glory vine, which certainly wasn't part of our wildflower seed mix, twining itself quite happily up one
of the bamboo stakes. But that's not quite a good enough reason to stick with a system that in other respects isn't doing its job.

So what we've planned for next year is something a bit more rigid, with smaller gaps. A coarse wire mesh, rather like the stuff our groundhog fence is made from, would have openings wide enough to let the flowers grow through, but narrow enough to keep them from bending too much in any direction. Brian says he'd prefer something made of plastic rather than wire, but I'm afraid it might look too obtrusive. We'll have to see what's available at our local home centers.

Of course, that still leaves the question of what to attach the mesh to, and how. We need to mount a horizontal sheet of it at a height of maybe two feet, and possibly even a second sheet above that to hold up the really tall flowers, and the bamboo stakes probably won't be suitable for that purpose. So we may need to buy some metal posts as well to secure everything in place. Brian is convinced we can just figure it out as we go, but I'd feel better about the plan if it were a little more concrete. (If I can't make a list with items that I can cross off as I finish them, I always feel a bit lost.)

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Money Crashers: What Is a Community Garden

Of all the topics I cover on this blog, none comes up more often than gardening. That's partly because there's just so much to learn about it—Thomas Jefferson remarked near the end of his life that he was "but a young gardener"—and partly because it's such a perfect fit for the ecofrugal lifestyle. Growing your own local, organic produce for a fraction of what you'd pay at the supermarket? That's definitely something that green people like.

But what about all those apartment dwellers who don't have a yard to garden in? Well, for them, there are community gardens—shared spaces, usually in a city, where each member can have a plot to tend. And this is, if anything, even more ecofrugal than gardening in general, because it not only yields fresh, local produce, it also turns vacant lots—land that was otherwise going to waste—into thriving urban green space.

My latest article for Money Crashers is all about community gardens: their benefits, an in-depth look at one such garden in New York City, and how to go about starting your own if you don't already have one in your area. Read the full article here: What Is a Community Garden – Benefits & How to Start Your Own.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Savings Challenge, Weeks 17-18: Saving at work

Before I tackle the two latest challenges from the Bankrate 52-week savings challenge, I'd like to report on the final results of the Week 15 challenge, which was to eat only local, seasonal produce. As I noted last Sunday, this challenge ended up being a bit complicated, because the week during which we ate local didn't run neatly from Sunday to Sunday. In fact, even after I shifted the timing of the local-produce week to start and end on Tuesday evening, we didn't synch up with it perfectly, because Brian ended up eating a banana on Tuesday. So while we certainly ate exclusively local produce for at least seven days, they weren't seven consecutive days.

Even if we didn't stick to the letter of the challenge, however, we certainly managed to adhere to the spirit of it. We ate, during the course of the week, the entire contents of the CSA box we picked up on Sunday, plus about three pints of blueberries from the local farmers' market, plus a wide variety of produce from our own garden. In addition to our new kasha salad recipe, we made:

  • A stir-fry using our home-grown snap peas, scallions, and garlic, plus some local organic mushrooms from the Whole Earth Center.
  • Skillet chicken and rhubarb with our own home-grown rhubarb, scallions, and oregano and garlic scapes from the CSA box, accompanied by a salad of CSA lettuce. 
  • Brian's classic rhubarb pie, for a party we attended that we enjoyed our home-grown rhubarb in both sweet and savory fashion.
  • An omelette of local organic mushrooms, with a salad of home-grown lettuce.
  • For the other potluck party we attended over the weekend, the cold sesame noodles from The Clueless Vegetarian, with home-grown scallions, local carrots from the farmers' market, and, in the dressing, one of our new walking onions (a gift from a fellow gardener who had more than she needed) that Brian dug up specially for the occasion.
So, what with the CSA box, our garden, and a few extras from the farmers' market, we managed to put together enough meals for not only a week's worth of dinners, but also sufficient leftovers for a week's worth of lunches...even if, as I say, the week wasn't exactly seven days in a row.

And that brings me quite neatly to the next Bankrate savings challenge:

Week 17: Take your lunch to work

The Bankrate reporter covering this challenge, Mark Hamrick, leads off his story with a pardonable boast (disguised as a "confession") about how he likes to cook, and how he always prepares his own lunch to take to work. Yet on the second page of the article, he posts his grocery list for the week, and it turns out that his "homemade" lunches actually consist of a salad plus a "frozen food entree," such as Amy's or Lean Cuisine, costing anywhere from $2 to $3.79. This, plus the salad veggies, works out to somewhere between $3 and $5 per day.

If you compare this to a cost of a restaurant meal, I guess it's pretty good, but Brian and I—as we learned from last year's Reverse SNAP Challenge—eat on a budget of about $7.66 a day for all our meals. For both of us. The cost of his "frugal" lunch, all by itself, would feed one of us for a whole day.

Hamrick notes that "some days," he can "save a couple of bucks or so more by eating leftovers (from a previous dinner) for lunch." But what Hamrick does once in a while as an extra cost-saving measure is pretty much our normal M.O., as I noted in this earlier Bankrate challenge about using up leftovers. So not only do Brian and I take our lunch to work nearly every day (or in my case, since I work from home, take myself to the lunch that's is waiting in the fridge), we also don't have to do any additional cooking or shopping for said lunch. All we have to do is dish out some leftovers into a microwaveable container and add a piece of fruit on the side. In the unusual event that we don't have any dinner leftovers, we usually go with a peanut-butter sandwich (remember those?) for Brian, and maybe a scrambled egg or a can of soup for me.

Week 18: Ride your bike to work

The folks at Bankrate apparently thought that while they were on the topic of saving money at work, they might as well discuss another way to save on the cost of getting to and from work. Reporter Claes Bell says that making the shift from driving to biking to work has been "a game changer" for him (or possibly her...I can't quite tell from the name), saving about $129 a month. However, that's because the switch to biking meant that he and his wife could downsize from two cars to one, saving on gas, insurance, and maintenance. Most of the savings came from eliminating the second car, not from driving fewer miles.

For me and Brian, since we were already a one-car family before Brian took up biking to work, the savings are a lot smaller. I calculated last year that Brian's bicycle commute probably saved us about $89 a year—less than the Bells saved in just one month. However, it would still be well worth doing even if the savings came to nothing at all, because (a) it's good exercise, enabling Brian to maintain his boyish figure—or more accurately, to acquire the boyish figure he never had as a boy—and (b) he finds riding his bike through the park a much, much less stressful start to the day than driving in New Jersey traffic.

So that's two more weekly challenges that are actually no challenge for us, because ha ha, we're doing them already. Admittedly, we're not saving nearly as much with the bicycle commute as Claes Bell, but then, we're doing a lot better with the brown-bag lunches than Mark Hamrick, so I guess it balances out.