Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Money Crashers: Meet "The Compact"

As I've mentioned before here, I'm oddly fascinated by frugal lifestyle challenges. I've spent a week each eating on a SNAP (food stamps) budget, living on a minimum wage budget, and subjecting myself to WWII-style rationing, and I've posed myself not one but two local shopping challenges. And, while I haven't done these things myself, I've devoured books by families that have spent a year eating only local food, or refusing to buy anything made in China, or refusing to buy anything at all except necessities.

So for my latest Money Crashers post, it seemed like a natural choice to write about The Compact, a group of people who have pledged to do all their shopping secondhand (with certain obvious exceptions, like food and fuel). After all, buying secondhand is one of the linchpins of the ecofrugal lifestyle: it keeps waste out of landfills, saves the natural resources and energy that would be used to make new goods, reduces pollution (including greenhouse gases), and as the icing on the cake, it saves money. So I went into the assignment fully expecting to come out of it with a profound admiration for the "Compacters," and possibly even be inspired to try their secondhand-only lifestyle for myself.

To my surprise, my reaction ended up being just the opposite. The more I read about The Compact and its members, the more they started to annoy me. I first started to feel irritated when I read the basic rules for the Compact on its official blog. Along with such reasonable rules as "charitable donations are allowed," blogger Rachel Kesel offered such stern admonitions as:
  • New socks and underwear are okay, but they must be "utilitarian--non-couture or ornamental."
  • It's okay to spend money on services as long as they're "utilitarian services," like calling a plumber to unclog your drain. "Recreational services," such as movies and massages, are fine for gifts, but "should not be over-indulged in for personal gratification."
  • Plants and cut flowers are acceptable to buy "in extreme moderation," and only from local businesses.
What was that all about? I thought the point of The Compact was to reduce clutter and protect the environment. A new pair of undies takes up the same amount of space and uses the same amount of resources whether it's "utilitarian" or "ornamental," so why insist that only plain panties are acceptable? Kesel's preachy pronouncements against excessive "personal gratification" seemed to smack of puritanism.

I might have thought it was just Kesel, but I seemed to encounter this same emphasis on self-deprivation in other members of the group as well. A story about The Compact in the Washington Post, for instance, told how during its first year, members would petition the group for permission to buy things they deemed necessary, and a member who asked to buy a new toilet brush on the grounds that it was a "health issue" was turned down. A new toilet brush? This is their idea of hedonism?

Now, admittedly, all these stories were about the ten members of the original The Compact group in San Francisco back in 2006. The group today has over 1,800 members who connect on Yahoo!, and some of them presumably are less strict than others. In fact, I joined the Yahoo! Group as part of my research for the article, and I saw a recent question in the discussion area from a woman who wanted help finding new shoes to fit her husband's extra-wide feet. So she was clearly willing to buy new in a case where her husband's health (at least the health of his feet) was at stake. Still, the whole experience kind of left a sour taste in my mouth, and it left me with no desire at all to take on the challenge of living under The Compact for myself, even on a temporary basis.

I didn't mention my personal reactions in the article itself, which you can read here: "Meet 'The Compact,' a Frugal Group Dedicated to Buying Secondhand Only." But I'd be curious to hear from all you readers whether the group's attitude strikes you at all the same way it did me.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Salad of the Month: Kasha Salad

The local produce challenge we undertook last week turned out to be a little complicated. My original idea was that all the produce we ate during the week should be locally and sustainably grown, but that didn't quite work, because when we picked up the CSA box on Sunday, we still had a couple of items left over from the previous week—an avocado, a nectarine, and a banana or two—that still needed to be eaten.

So then I thought, well, maybe all the produce we buy during the week can be locally grown. The problem there was that we made a trip to Trader Joe's yesterday, and they had their usual $3.49-a-pound deal on fresh Brussels sprouts. Now, roasted Brussels sprouts are one of my very favorite dishes—possibly my absolute favorite vegetable dish—and our own plants, although they're big and healthy, haven't even begun to form recognizable sprouts yet, let alone ones big enough to harvest. So even though the sprouts were plainly labeled "product of Mexico," I just couldn't pass them up.

So my current plan is to count our week of eating local produce not from Sunday to Sunday, but from Tuesday evening to Tuesday evening. That takes us past the point at which we'd disposed of all the leftover non-local produce, but it still allows us to roast up some Brussels sprouts on Tuesday or Wednesday. Thus, I can't report on the final results of the challenge yet.

To complicate matters further, we were right in the middle of this week of local eating when I realized that time was running out for us to try a new Soup or Salad of the Month for June. Between the CSA box and the plants in our garden, we had everything we needed to make a Couscous Salad, one of our perennial favorites from The Clueless Vegetarian, but that wasn't a new recipe, and my New Year's resolution specifically called for trying a new soup or salad each month to expand our repertoire. But as it happened, I'd been toying for a while with the idea of trying this recipe with kasha (otherwise known as buckwheat groats) in place of couscous to make a version we could serve to our gluten-free friends. So I decided that this was a significant enough modification to the existing recipe for it to qualify as a "new" salad for the month of June.

The original version of this recipe calls for 4 scallions, 2 medium cucumbers, 2 medium green peppers, 1/2 cup fresh parsley, and "whatever else you like" in terms of veggies. The CSA box contained two cucumbers—not really big enough to be called "medium," but enough to supply the necessary cucumber presence in the salad—and our own pepper plants supplied one very large frying pepper, big enough to fill in for the two medium green peppers the recipe called for. To make up the extra volume, we also threw in a bunch of sugar snap peas (the Cascadia variety we tried this year has proved to be very productive indeed) and a small bunch of broccolini, one of the completely new crops in our 2015 garden.

Brian prepared the kasha in the usual way, mixing the kernels with a beaten egg and browning the coated grains in the pan to seal them before adding the water to cook them with, which means that this version of the salad is gluten-free but not vegan. Once the kasha was cooked, he simply tossed it together with all the copped-up veggies and a simple dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, and ground cumin.

This variant worked out better than either of us had expected. The nutty flavor of the buckwheat was not only compatible with the other flavors, it actually made a more interesting contrast to the cool, crisp veggies and the light, lemony dressing than the couscous does. Brian said he liked it better than the original Couscous Salad, and I thought it was at least as good. So I don't know whether we'll be making this recipe with kasha in place of couscous by default from now on, but it's at least an alternative that we'll be keeping in our salad collection for the future.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Money Crashers: What Is a Tool-Lending Library

While working on my article for Money Crashers about when to DIY as opposed to hiring a contractor, I stumbled across an interesting idea for saving money on home-repair tools: a tool library. This is basically what it sounds like: a library that lends out tools instead of books. I dug a little deeper and found that Money Crashers had never covered this topic before, so I decided it was time to remedy that oversight.

Tool lending libraries are a great example of ecofrugality. They save money, because you don't have to shell out for new tools for every home repair. They save resources, because a single circular saw or extension ladder can serve the needs of a dozen families, instead of every household having its own. And they provide a place to get together with other like-minded individuals and share knowledge, possibly forming the core of a new ecofrugal community. Read all about them here:

What Is a Tool-Lending Library - Benefits & How to Start Your Own

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Money Crashers: Living on Minimum Wage - Is It Possible?

My latest Money Crashers article covers the Live the Wage Challenge, which I took last summer. In the article, I compare my experience taking the challenge with the experiences of the various politicians and other bloggers who tried it (spoiler alert: I made it through the week on minimum wage, but most others didn't). I also discuss the various flaws in the challenge that I identified while taking it, and I link to the New York Times interactive calculator that I think is a much better tool for figuring out how well you could manage on minimum wage.

Here's the full article: Living on Minimum Wage - Is It Possible? (Live the Wage Challenge)

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Gardeners' Holidays 2015: Cornucopia

Well, here it is, the official first day of summer (although the weather has been summery for nearly a month now), and we are celebrating with a box of goodies from the CSA that Brian's coworker was nice enough to let us pick up in her absence. Her subscription entitles her to a half-bushel share rather than a full bushel, so this morning we picked up a small box containing:
  • 1 head of red leaf lettuce
  • 1 smallish head of cabbage
  • 1 bunch of arugula
  • 1 bunch of some other leafy greens that we aren't sure about—maybe some sort of chard?
  • 2 zucchini
  • 2 small cucumbers
  • 3 garlic scapes
  • 1 half-pint of blueberries
This bounty will be the foundation of our local produce challenge, the only one of the recent Bankrate savings challenges I've seen fit to try out for a full week. The veggies, eked out by what's in our garden right now, should be more than sufficient to get us through the week, but that one little cup of blueberries definitely isn't going to be enough fruit. The plums on our trees aren't ready to eat yet; although some of them are starting to turn red and fall off the trees, they're still rock-hard and no bigger than a large grape. And today Brian tasted one and confirmed that it was really, really sour—though at least it had an identifiable plum flavor.

So, in order to get through the week eating only seasonal, local produce, we'll have to find some other source of local fruit. We could probably find something bearing the "Jersey Fresh" label at the supermarket, but as I noted last week, New Jersey fruit isn't necessarily more sustainable than something shipped from California unless it's organic as well. So I'll have to pick and choose based on what I know to be sustainable. I feel pretty confident about buying local blueberries, because I know that they're really, really easy to grow in New Jersey; my parents had a hedge of blueberry bushes when I was growing up, and we could go out there every weekend and pick them by the quart. So if I can't find any local, organic peaches or nectarines, I guess I can always stick to blueberries for the rest of the week.

Ironically, with all this wealth of veggies in the fridge to choose from, we're not actually going to be cooking anything at all tonight, because we're having dinner with my parents. But that's okay as far as the challenge goes, because my dad told me he's planning to make pasta with grilled veggies and chicken—and the veggies in question are fresh from his own garden, which is definitely local and organic. And if there's any chance he won't have enough, we can always bring him one of our zucchini as a Father's Day gift. (Our zucchini plants are already starting to produce their first little tender fruits, so there's basically no risk that we'll run short during the week.)

I'll try to fill you in on the local produce challenge as it unfolds, and if I can't get to it during the week, I'll at least give you an update on the outcome next weekend. Until then, happy summer!

Frugal fizz update

It's now been about five months since the last time I bought seltzer at the store, thanks to the Primo Flavorstation soda machine I received as a birthday gift from my sister. The machine performed admirably for most of its first five months, but a week or two ago I started to notice that it was taking a lot longer to carbonate its little half-liter bottle of water. It would sit there fizzing away for a couple of minutes without producing the "buzzing" sound (really more of a rude farting noise) that signifies the carbonation is done, and when it finally went off, it was more of a short, feeble honk than the sonorous blast I was used to. And even when the soda was finally ready, it didn't seem as well-carbonated as before, and my egg creams didn't foam up as nicely as they used to.

Matters came to a head on Friday, when I tried to carbonate a bottle and it just sat there, fizzing and fizzing, without ever giving me the "stop" signal. I was also hearing a bit of a hissing sound, which made me wonder whether maybe the bottle wasn't screwed in securely, so I tried to readjust it—only to find that apparently there was still some pressure built up in the bottle, because the machine went off with a loud bang, spraying water everywhere and blowing off the bottom piece that Brian had already glued back in place once.

At this point, I came to the conclusion I probably should have reached before: it was time to refill the CO2 canister. I'd never actually done this before, and I was a bit nervous about it, because I'd heard one or two stories about sporting goods stores refusing to refill the Primo canisters on the grounds that their CO2 isn't "food grade." But as it turns out, the process went off with only one minor hitch (the Sports Authority store we tried first said its CO2 machine was broken, so we had to go to a nearby Dick's Sporting Goods). We just went in, said we had a canister to refill, paid at the front desk, took the canister to the back, and came back out with a full, cold canister. Once we put it back in the machine, voilĂ , everything was working once again.

So I now know that at the rate I go through seltzer, a single canister lasts me about 5 months. This means either that one canister doesn't carbonate nearly as many liters as the 200 claimed on the package, or else I drink a lot more seltzer than I realized. Based on the rate at which I've been topping up the bottle—about every other day—I think it must be a combination of the two. If I'm consuming seltzer at a rate of about 3.5 liters per week, then I got about 76 liters out of the first canister, and the refill cost me $4.27. So, assuming I get as many liters out of this second fill as I did the first time, which seems like a reasonable guess, that works out to about 5.6 cents per liter, not counting the negligible cost of the water. That's a savings of 34.4 cents per liter—or, if I continue to drink seltzer at the same rate, about $63 a year.

And, as an extra perk, there are no more seltzer bottles or cans in the recycling bin, which means we don't have to take it out as often.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Money Crashers: What Is Umbrella Insurance?

My final Money Crashers post for this week is about umbrella insurance. I've talked about insurance here before, as in this post about my quest for lower rates on our auto and homeowners' insurance policies, but never about umbrella insurance specifically. In fact, this was a topic I knew very little about until my editor at Money Crashers asked me if I'd like to do a post on it—which, apparently, puts me in good company, since the sources I consulted say this is the least-understood type of insurance on the market. What it does, basically, is protect you against a large lawsuit, covering any expenses that either aren't covered on your other insurance policies or are over the maximum those policies will cover. So it makes sense to have it if (1) you have a lot of assets to protect, and (2) there's any reasonable chance you could be sued.

I'm glad I ended up getting this assignment, because I'd never given serious thought to this type of insurance before. Now that I know more about it, I'm thinking that it will probably be a good idea to pick up a policy in a year or two. I don't think we need it yet, because our assets haven't hit the point where we can't cover them under our auto and homeowners' policies—but in another year or so, they'll be above the limit on those policies, and tacking on an extra million (usually the minimum you can get) in umbrella insurance coverage will provide a nice safety net.

If you're in a similar situation, or think you might be, you can find out more in the article: What Is Umbrella Insurance - Do I Need a Policy?

Money Crashers: Composting 101

My second Money Crashers post for this past week is all about composting, a subject I've discussed here many times in the past. I've written about our preference for cold composting, also known as lazy composting, because you basically just throw everything in the bin and leave it there; about the perils of "killer compost," which contains lingering traces of highly persistent herbicides and can therefore kill your plants instead of fertilizing them; and about the various things we put into our compost that might not be obvious. This new article touches on all those topics, but it's mostly a guide to composting for people who are short on one or more resources:
  • time,
  • space, and
  • money.
It covers specific methods that are useful for busy, crowded, or cash-strapped homes, and it also includes some general info about the benefits of composting, how it's done, and how to troubleshoot your compost pile.

So if you're looking for a nice general guide (either for yourself or for a friend who's new to the compost game), or if you've always wanted to try composting but thought it wouldn't work in your situation, this is the article for you: Composting 101: How to Make Compost & Fertilizer at Home.

Money Crashers: Do It Yourself (DIY) or Hire a Contractor?

Published this week on Money Crashers: an article about when to DIY and when to hire a professional for home repairs and renovations. As you all know, I'm generally a fan of DIY, but there are some jobs—like installing a new furnace or rewiring our basement—that I've willingly ceded to the professionals. I've discussed my reasons for doing this two posts on "the DIY question," part 1 and part 2. This new article is basically a much-expanded discussion of the points made in those two posts. Check it out at the Money Crashers site: "Do It Yourself (DIY) or Hire a Contractor for Home Improvement Projects?"

By the way, this is just the first of three new articles of mine to pop up on Money Crashers this week. So I'll make short posts about the other two as well, and tomorrow I'll give you a proper full-length post to let you know how things are starting off with our local produce challenge.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Savings Challenge, Weeks 11-16

Since I started working for Money Crashers, I haven't had much time during the week to update this blog, and as a result, I've fallen seriously behind with the Bankrate Savings Challenges. The last one I posted was over a month ago, and since then, six new weekly challenges have popped up on the challenge's main page. I don't really have time to post six separate entries to get caught up, and anyway, I doubt I could get a full blog post out of each challenge, since most of them (as usual) aren't really relevant for us. So instead, here's a catchup post, in which I'll run through the six new challenges and what I have to say about them—whether that's taking the challenge in full or just explaining why it doesn't work for us.

Week 11: Bid on hotel rooms to save big

This challenge is all about using Priceline, along with a few other travel sites, to name your own price for a hotel room. Doug Whiteman, the reporter covering this challenge, leads off with the remark, "The idea that some people would spend hundreds of dollars per night on a hotel room has always seemed crazy to me." I'm certainly in agreement with him there, but I'd take it even further: for me, in most cases, it's crazy to stay in hotels at all.

That's because Brian and I don't really like to travel for its own sake. As a rule, we travel for only two reasons: to visit family and friends (in which case we stay with them), or for the occasional work-related trip (in which case it goes on the expense account). The last time we stayed in a hotel, as far as I can recall, was when we went with my parents to visit my sister for Hanukkah in 2012—and on that occasion, they picked up the tab in exchange for having us do the driving. The last time we actually paid to stay at a hotel, as far as I can recall, was on our honeymoon nearly eleven years ago.

Obviously, if you're a person who does like to travel, this strategy won't work for you, and you're better off with Mr. Whiteman's. (My favorite financial writer, Andrew Tobias, also loves it, saying "Many is the time I've stayed in a $300 hotel room for $89.") But skipping hotels completely works fine for us.

Week 12: Conserve gas by carpooling to work

This tip is obviously useless for me, since I work entirely from home (you know, cranking out those articles for Money Crashers) and I don't use a drop of gas walking from my bedroom to the office. Brian doesn't really do it either, because his workplace is only four miles away, and most of his coworkers live farther away than that. Instead, he saves gas in the warmer months (and very occasionally in the wintertime) by riding his bike to work. He finds this method of commuting much more enjoyable than driving, and it helps him maintain his boyish figure (or rather, acquire one, since he's in much better shape now than he was as a boy).

Occasionally, Brian will get a ride home with a coworker (for instance, if he rode his bike to work and then it started raining), or give a ride to one whose car has broken down. But since he doesn't regularly drive to work, forming a regular carpool isn't really an option.

Week 13: Find the best diaper deals

This obviously isn't a useful tip for a couple with no kids, in diapers or out of them. The only time I've bought diapers in the past couple of years was as a Hanukkah present for my sister, and those were not the disposable kind, but eco-friendly cloth diapers from Charlie Banana. These ain't cheap: a pack of 6 costs at least $114, which means enough diapers to get your kid through to potty training will run you upwards of $450. But that's still significantly less than the $1,912 that frugal-living blogger Squawkfox estimates you'd pay for disposable diapers over the same period. Even if you tack on another $375, as Squawkfox does, for the extra laundry costs, you still save more than a grand by using cloth. And that's just with the first kid; those cloth diapers won't wear out in 30 months, so you can go on to use them again with any future kids. And after that, you can sell the cloth diapers on eBay and recover about half of what you spent on them initially. So unless you can get the price of disposable diapers down to about 8 cents apiece, cloth is bound to be cheaper.

Week 14: Eat local, seasonal produce

Ah, now here at last is a challenge that's right up my alley. Indeed, my whole series of Gardeners' Holidays theme is basically a celebration of local, seasonal produce. However, one thing I learned recently makes me hesitate to take on this challenge: food that's locally grown—say, within a 100-mile radius of your home—doesn't always have the lowest carbon footprint. According to this article from the Worldwatch Institute, the transportation of food from farm to table accounts for only 4 percent of its total carbon emissions. So veggies grown in the fertile soil of California, where they need less fertilizer to flourish, may actually have a lower carbon footprint than veggies grown right here in New Jersey.

The article argues that "production practices"—that is, how food is grown—matters a whole lot more than where it's grown. Organic produce, for instance, has a lower carbon footprint because you can cut out all the emissions associated with producing, transporting, and applying chemicals to fields—and it has other environmental benefits too, like reducing water use and preserving biodiversity. But on the other hand, local produce also has some benefits that can't be measured in terms of carbon equivalents. Buying local makes it possible to know the farmers personally, so you actually know a lot more about how their food is produced than you do when you buy at the supermarket. However, this only works if you're actually shopping at the farmers' market and interacting with the growers directly; if you just pick the apples marked "Jersey Fresh" off the supermarket shelf, it doesn't tell you anything except where they come from.

So if I take on this challenge, I think I'll want to take it one step further. Instead of just choosing food that's local and seasonal, I'll want to make sure it's as sustainable as possible. That means all the food I buy during the weeklong challenge should be either
  1. from our own garden,
  2. Certified Organic, and/or
  3. from a farm I know to be sustainable.
This makes the challenge quite a bit tougher, but fortunately, I have an ace up my sleeve. Brian just notified me this morning that one of his coworkers is going to be away this weekend and has offered us her CSA share. So, between the contents of that box, a trip to the all-organic since we'll be picking that box up on Sunday—which, coincidentally, is also my next Gardeners' Holiday—I'll make that the kicking-off point for a week of local, seasonal, sustainable eating. Once I know what's in the box, as well as what's ready for picking in the garden, I can fill in the gaps with seasonal organic produce from the supermarket. So watch for more news about this challenge on Sunday.

Week 15: Shop around for the best insurance rate

Here's another challenge that I've already done. I posted on the results of my insurance checkup two years ago, when I tried to find better rates on my auto and home insurance but ended up deciding it wasn't worth switching both policies to save $140 a year. This past February, however, I tried it again, and this time I found that we could save $227 a year by switching to a new auto insurer. The higher savings, and the fact that we'd only have to transfer one policy, sold Brian on the deal, and we made the switch—with a promise to our old insurer that we'd check back with them next year and see whether they could convince us to switch back. So it'll be at least another 6 months before I'm ready to check insurance rates again.

Week 16: Set up credit card alerts

This week's story really isn't a challenge at all. Instead, it's a little educational article about four ways to use credit card alerts to save money:
  1. Set up payment alerts to let you know when a payment is due, so you never miss a payment and end up owing a late fee. I already receive my bill electronically, so I don't need any additional alerts to remind me to pay it.
  2. Use balance alerts and spending alerts to keep track of how much you're charging, so you don't let your bill get out of hand. I keep track of my spending using a much simpler system: a pencil and a sheet of paper tacked to my bulletin board. So when my monthly credit card bill comes, I already know exactly what's going to be on it—and if there's any transaction I don't remember, I can always double-check it against the sheet.
  3. Use transaction alerts to warn you about any transaction that looks suspicious, so you'll know if someone else is using your card fraudulently. This, I admit, would be a lot more convenient than the system Citibank uses with one of my cards, which is to cut it off with no warning at all if it's used outside of our home territory—as they did once while we were visiting my in-laws in Indianapolis. Apparently the fact that we'd used that same card to buy gas several times on the way to Indianapolis didn't tip them off that we might actually be there. So after that, we had to call up the company and tell them whenever we were going to be traveling. (Now, we just use a different card.) But if had simply alerted us to the fact that someone was using our card in another state, that wouldn't have been so bad. (Unfortunately, I checked and this isn't actually an available alert with any card we use.)
  4. Use alerts to keep track of your rewards, so you know when to cash them in or when to sign up for a new set of spending categories. I already get the alerts to tell me about new spending categories, and I just check the rewards balance whenever I pay the bill, so I don't need to be alerted about it.
And there we are: all up to date. I'll try not to fall this far behind in future, but it may mean making my Bankrate challenge posts little quickies that I can do during the week.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Money Crashers: Can Money Buy Happiness?

My latest post for Money Crashers is one that I'm rather proud of. It's on the fascinating (at least to me) topic of happiness economics, which I've so far covered only briefly on this blog. I wrote a post three years ago in response to a Washington Post article on the subject, in which I summed up some of the major discoveries made by happiness economists, such as:
  • Higher income only improves day-to-day happiness up to a limit of about $75,000. Beyond that point, day-to-day happiness doesn't increase, but "life satisfaction" does.
  • Buying more stuff doesn't tend to make us happier, because we quickly get used to what we have.
  • Spending on experiences does make us happier, because it ties in with our social needs.
In the new article, I go into all these findings in much more detail, along with a lot of others. And I talk about how happiness economists are applying their findings to the health of whole nations, not just individuals, much like David Cameron did four years ago in seeking to create a National Happiness Index for Great Britain.

Here's the full article: "Can Money Buy Happiness? - Understanding the Economics of Happiness"

Also, let me reassure everyone that I will post a real blog entry soon. I've been posting these links to my Money Crashers pieces to fill in the blog during the week, because my work for Money Crashers is keeping me busy Monday through Friday and I usually only have time to update my own blog on the weekends...but I promise not to neglect it entirely.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Money Crashers: Is a Warehouse Store Membership Worth It?

My latest post at Money Crashers is a detailed look into the pros and cons of shopping at warehouse stores. You all know this is a subject I've felt torn about ever since we visited Costco with my in-laws one Christmas and I got a gander at their prices on organic sugar and Fair Trade coffee beans. Was it worth paying an entry fee of $55 a year just to gain access to these bargains? Would we spend enough at the store to make the cost worthwhile—and would the array of cheap luxuries tempt us to spend more than we would at our usual grocery haunts?

For us, I've concluded, the answer is probably no, especially since I've determined that (a) Costco's house brand coffee is undrinkable, and (b) all the items that are supposed to be such unbeatable bargains at Costco are as cheap or cheaper elsewhere. But what's true for us isn't necessarily true for anyone else, so my new article goes into the pros and cons of warehouse stores and the various factors that might make a membership a good deal for you. And I also talk about how to get the most value out of your membership if you do decide to join. Check it out here: Is a Warehouse Store (Costco, Sam's Club, BJ's) Membership Worth It?

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Money Crashers: 5 Best Types of Natural Cat Litter

Money Crashers has just printed my article on natural cat litter. As my regular readers will know, Brian and I have been through several different brands of this stuff. We were loyal users of the wheat-based Swheat Scoop for years, but were disappointed when it suddenly seemed to lose its clumping power, so we switched to the corn-based World's Best despite its higher cost. However, we quickly became disenchanted with the new brand because, despite its super clumping, it really fell down on odor control. So we went back to wheat, this time opting for the cheaper Exquisicat brand. Then, last August, I noted in passing that we'd switched again, but I never got around to posting about the reason for it and how the new litter was performing.

So if you've just been dying of curiosity, you can get the whole story, along with lots more information about natural cat litter, in the new article. It has the scoop (ha ha) on the five main types of natural litter—wheat, corn, pine, walnut, and paper—based on our experiences and what other reviewers have to say. Check it out here: 5 Best Types of Natural Cat Litter.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Curb to curb

Anyone who reads this blog regularly has probably already heard the phrase "cradle to cradle," or C2C for short. In a nutshell, it's the idea that when you design any new product, you should think about its entire life cycle, including how all the materials that go into it will eventually become part of new products. Composting is an example of a cradle-to-cradle process; we harvest vegetables from our garden, eat them, put the waste parts into the compost bin, where they break down into compost that will eventually go onto our garden to grow more vegetables. It's not a perfect closed system, of course, because the digested remains of the veggies go into our town's sewage system rather than our compost bin (some people have systems that can handle human waste, but we're not that advanced) and some of the compost that goes in our garden comes from the store, but still, every bit of the vegetables we grow goes to some useful purpose.

Last weekend, however, I thought of an even more efficient variant on this idea: "curb to curb."

A little background: back when I lived in Princeton, about, oh, 12 or 15 years ago, my apartment was furnished with a mixture of odds and ends: hand-me-downs from friends and family, yard-sale finds, a few cheap new items from IKEA, and a couple of pieces that were scavenged off the curb. Among these was an old wicker rocking chair. One of its arms had obviously sustained some damage, most likely at the paws of a cat or cats, and one of its rockers wasn't very well secured - so either the chair was off its rocker, or I was off mine for picking it up off the curb in the first place. But I just disguised the damaged arm with a throw and positioned it in a spot where the rocker couldn't easily come loose, and with the random hodge-podge of furnishings I had in my apartment, it fit in just fine.

This curbside find ended up following me and Brian from my Princeton apartment to our first apartment in Highland Park and, eventually, to this house, where it settled in the playroom (as we're now calling the big room in the basement, since that's how our cats like to use it). Every so often we thought about replacing it, particularly since a rocker wasn't the ideal type of chair for a room almost entirely surrounded with baseboard heaters, but we never quite got around to it because it wasn't a big priority.

However, once our new kitties took up residence last spring, we noticed that the damaged area of the rocker was gradually expanding. We also started finding fragments of it strewn about the room. And while we weren't that worried about the chair itself being destroyed, given that it was technically trash when I found it, we were a little concerned about the possibility that the cats would ingest parts of it, which we assumed wouldn't be good for them.

So we waited for the first Thursday of the month, which is bulk trash pickup day, and put the chair out at the curb. In fact, we put it out bright and early on Wednesday evening, since we know items that go out for bulk pickup often get snatched up by scavengers before the official trash collectors come for them, and we thought the the chair had a good chance of going to a new home and continuing to live a useful life. And I guess we were right, because when we stepped out to door after dinner to do a little treasure hunting of our own along the curb, the chair was gone.

I would say that's pretty much the ultimate in recycling. The chair came to me off the curb in the first place, got more than ten years of use, and then went back to the curb—and on from there to a new home. So I've now saved this same chair from the landfill not once, but twice. Cradle to cradle is pretty good, but curb to curb—taking something that was waste to begin with, giving it a useful life, and then giving it another useful life after that one is finished—is about as green as it gets.

It would be the perfect end to this story to say we scavenged a replacement for the chair from one of our neighbors' bulk trash heaps, but sadly, it didn't work out that way. So instead we ended up with a Poang chair from IKEA, which I've always wanted just for the sake of the onomatopoeia (bounce, bounce, poang, poang!). And while our cats have not wasted any time taking possession of the new chair, we think they'll at least find this one a little harder to dismantle.