Saturday, October 31, 2015

Money Crashers: Should I Buy Refurbished Electronics?

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

This turned out to be a bad idea.

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 30, 2015

Money Crashers: Bottled Water vs. Tap Water

I've never understood bottled water. I'm old enough to remember when no one drank it except yuppies, and nowadays it seems like no one ever leaves the house anymore without a bottle of the stuff. It's like the bottle is this season's must-have fashion accessory—you're not fully dressed without it. Until it's empty, of course, at which point it gets tossed in the nearest trash can or, too often, on the ground. These days, I find discarded water bottles as litter more often than discarded soda bottles.

When bottled water first started getting popular, back in the 80s and 90s, I really didn't get it. You could get water for free—or practically free—delivered right to your house by tap. Why on earth would you pay for it? Then, as bottled water grew more and more popular, we started hearing more about its environmental costs: the amount of oil required to produce all those bottles and ship them across the country, the theft of precious water from some of the driest regions in the country, and of course, the waste produced by all those plastic bottles. (Less than one-third of them get recycled, and even those are usually "downcycled," turned into products that can't be recycled again, such as fabrics.)

All this seems even dumber when you consider that many bottled waters, including popular brands like Dasani and Aquafina, are nothing but municipal water that's been filtered or treated in some way. Why pay bottled water prices for glorified tap water? If you think the filtering process makes that much of a difference, why not get a cheap pitcher or faucet filter and do it yourself for pennies on the gallon?

So basically, bottled water is pretty much the poster child for a wasteful lifestyle—the exact opposite of what ecofrugality is all about. In my latest Money Crashers article, I expose bottled water for the scam it is, comparing it with tap water on cost, taste, safety, and sustainability. (Spoiler alert: it doesn't come out ahead on any of them.) Then I discuss the few cases in which bottled water could make sense (e.g., unsafe or bad-tasting home water, or always being on the go), and explain how a good filter and a reusable bottle can get you around those problems in a much more ecofrugal way.

Full article: Bottled Water vs. Tap Water – Facts & 4 Reasons to Drink Tap

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Salad of the Month: Grits Gratin with Arugula and Garlic

Once again, I'm fudging the definition of "salad" slightly to use a hot dish as my Salad of the Month. But this time, I have authority to back me up. This recipe, Grits Gratin with Arugula and Garlic, comes from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and he describes it right in the introduction as "Part warm salad, part comfort food." So if it's at least partly a salad to Mark Bittman, who certainly qualifies as an expert, then it's at least partly a salad to me.

We chose this recipe to use up a big batch of arugula that had been growing as a week in our garden paths. These leaves were mature and fairly tough, so we thought they'd be best in a cooked dish. (There are also some younger, more tender leaves that growing in the beds themselves, which seem to have survived last week's frost okay, so we may be able to make a more traditional salad with those.) Searching under "arugula" in the index of Bittman's book, I found this simple, intriguing recipe. It has three basic steps:

1) Make a batch of grits. You can use polenta, but Bittman thinks hominy grits "stand up better to the other assertive flavors." Pour out the grits in a loaf pan or on a baking sheet and let them set. You can do this step up to a day before you make the rest of the dish.

2) Saute a few crushed garlic cloves in olive oil with a bit of sugar until the garlic is soft and just beginning to brown. Turn off the heat and stir in the shopped arugula leaves, with a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and drizzle it with balsamic vinegar.

3) Slice your cooked grits into half-inch strips, season them, and spread them over the cooked arugula. Add a little more oil and some Parmesan cheese (the recipe calls for half a cup, but we cut it down to a few tablespoons with no noticeable problems) and bake it 20 to 25 minutes, "until the topping is golden and bubbling."

This dish was a little bit tricky to serve, partly because Brian had layered the strips over the arugula diagonally, which made it a bit difficult to slice neatly, and partly because the arugula was so old and tough that a spatula wasn't always strong enough to cut through it. But it certainly had an interesting combination of flavors. The garlic and balsamic softened the strong flavor of the arugula, and the grits "stood up" well to the mixture, as promised.

It wasn't as good as it could have been, though, simply because the arugula was too old. Cooking softened the leaves, but it left the stems tough and chewy. So if we make it again, I think I'd like to use younger, more tender arugula, and also realign the strips of grits to make it easier to slice. With these changes, it should be a worthwhile addition to the repertoire of recipes that we can serve to our gluten-sensitive friends.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Money Crashers: 11 Things You Can Get for Free

My latest Money Crashers article is about something everybody loves: free stuff. There are lots of articles out there about "freebies," of course, but this one's a little different: instead of telling you where to find a coupon code for a free movie download or a free sample of hair gel, I talk about how to cover major expenses - food, housing, clothing - on a budget of nothing. This article discusses, among other topics:

How extreme couponing can whittle your grocery bill to nothing
How (and when) to dine out for nothing
How to get new-to-you clothes in exchange for your old ones
How to get a free ride to work every day
How to get free cell phone service
How to enjoy free books, music, video, and live entertainment
How to get free flights, car rentals, and accommodations

Naturally, this involves a bit of creativity, and in some cases, a bit of luck. You won't be able to use this article to shrink your entire household budget to zero. But you'll pick up some interesting ideas that you may not have known before, and if even one of them is useful, it can make a big dent in your budget. And even if none of them is useful, reading about them should provide a bit of entertainment—also for free.

Here's the article: 11 Things You Can Get for Free – How to Get Free Stuff

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Money Crashers: Advantages & Disadvantages of Credit Cards

My latest post on Money Crashers was more or less inspired by an argument I got into last summer—rather foolishly, I suppose—with one of the Credit Haters.

If you regularly visit any sort of blog or forum dealing with personal finance, you're probably familiar with these folks. They're the ones who, every time the word "credit" comes up in any article, post a hundred or so comments to the effect that using credit in any form is bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. Dave Ramsay very prominently—and vehemently—subscribes to this view, and so do his legions of loyal disciples.

Anyway, another financial guru of the Dave Ramsay school is Dr. (he's very particular about the "Dr.") Jason Cabler, who has a blog on the Dollar Stretcher website. Last August, he put up a post about the "21 Things You Can Do Today to Set Up Your Finances for Massive Success." Item #1 on that list was "Go Naked With Credit," meaning get rid of all your credit cards right now, this instant, because "You spend more overall when you use them, and carrying a balance (like the majority of card holders do) incurs interest and fees that increase your cost of living."

Now, I happen to disagree with this, because first of all, I never ever EVER carry a balance, and second, I am seriously skeptical about the claims that simply paying with plastic causes me to spend more. In my experience, I don't usually decide how I'm going to pay for my purchases until after I get to the checkout, so I don't see how using the card could be influencing the amount I spend before I've even decided to do it. (It's all very well to point to studies that show "most people" spend more when they use credit cards, but what really matters to me is whether I do, personally.)

But I probably wouldn't have bothered to argue the point with him if it hadn't been for item #15 on the same list: "Own a Home." I pointed out in a comment that there was a bit of a contradiction between those two pieces of advice, because unless you can manage to save up (or otherwise come by) several hundred thousand dollars in a lump sum, you aren't going to be able to get a house without a mortgage, and you aren't going to be able to get a mortgage without a credit rating, and you aren't going to be able to get a credit rating by refusing to use credit for anything ever. And while I was at it, I also ventured to remark that I didn't quite get why, if he thinks you automatically pay more with plastic, he considered debit cards acceptable.

The good "doctor" responded, "Actually, I don't have a huge problem with taking out a SENSIBLE mortgage," and went on to argue that (a) it's perfectly possible to do this without a credit rating, and (b) people do so spend more with credit cards than they do with debit cards. My rebuttal to that comment was so long that I had to break it up into three separate comments to get around the character limit the forum imposes, and somewhere in the middle of the third comment I started thinking, "Maybe I really need to do a whole post on this."

So here that post is: a comprehensive examination of all the arguments people make both for and against credit card use. I've done my best to include the other side's rebuttals to those arguments when possible, and also the rebuttals to those rebuttals, if they exist. I doubt Dr. Cabler will ever read it, but at least I've said my piece.

Here's the full article: Advantages & Disadvantages of Credit Cards – Do They Help or Hurt You?

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The best way to store home-grown basil

The weather report is warning of an early freeze tonight, so Brian and I just hastened out to the garden to harvest all our tender crops. Two of our butternut squash had unfortunately split open in last week's heavy rains, so they'll need to be cooked up right away and turned into puree for this year's Thanksgiving pie. However, we got a few smaller squash that were intact, along with numerous chili peppers and frying peppers, and a big whopping bucketful of basil.

By getting the basil in promptly, we were able to get it into a bucket of water for immediate storage, thus avoiding a repeat of the marathon basil-processing session we went through two years ago. At that time, we foolishly stripped all the leaves off the plants, not realizing what a massive job it would be to process them all in one night and how inadequate our tiny Magic Bullet Blender—and our patience—would be to the task. We ended up using four different methods to store it all, and even now, two years later, we haven't used all of it up.

This year's hasty basil harvest struck me as a good opportunity to review the four basil-storage methods that we used, discuss how well each one worked, and announce the winners that we're planning to use again for this year's massive crop. Here's the rundown:

Method #1: Freezing Whole Leaves
How It's Done: First, you blanch the leaves by dipping them first into boiling water and then into ice water. This is easiest to do when the leaves are still on the stem, but if you've made the mistake of removing them, you can do it with a little sieve. Then spread the leaves out into a nearly flat layer in a freezer bag, seal it up, and lay it flat in the freezer.
To Use: Pull out the bag and break off a clump of leaves from the mass.
Results: Poor. The blanched basil leaves were wilted and hard to work with, plus the flat bag was awkward to store in the freezer.
Verdict: Not worth doing again.

Method #2: Salting
How It's Done: Thickly cover the bottom of a large crock or jar with salt—about 1 cm or half an inch. Place a layer of basil leaves atop the salt, sprinkle more salt on top, and continue alternating layers of basil and salt until the jar is full. After every 10 layers or so, press down gently to compact the layers of leaves. Fill to within 5 cm or 2 inches from the top, then add another heavy layer of salt to compact everything down. Shake the crock gently to make sure all the crevices are filled with salt. Cover the crock and store in a cool, dry place.
To Use: Remove the leaves, shake off the salt, and cook with them just like fresh basil. Shake the jar to restore the salt layer before putting it away.
Results: Not great. The basil leaves get very dry, and even with the excess salt removed, they have a strong salty flavor. You can still use them in a dish that's meant to be salty, but you have to dial the salt in the dish way down or leave it out entirely. But on the plus side, the basil we stored this way seems to have held up remarkably well. We still have some of it left, and after two years in storage, the basil doesn't really look worse than it did after the first month or two. It's dry and greyish, but it definitely hasn't gone bad.
Verdict: Not really worth it. Basil stored this way is hard to work with and only suitable for certain recipes—which is why we still have some left two years later.

Method #3: Oil-Packing
How It's Done: Pack basil leaves into a container (we used a jar), sprinkling each layer of leaves with salt to cover. Then pour in enough oil to cover the leaves completely. Store in the refrigerator.
To Use: Remove the leaves and use them in any recipe that also calls for oil. The basil-infused oil can also be used for cooking or in salad dressing.
Results: Pretty good. Preserved this way, the basil leaves were easy to work with, and since most of the recipes we make with basil also include oil (such as pesto and pasta à la Caprese), we had no trouble using them up. Stored in the fridge, they lasted for several months. The only real problems with this method were that (1) it uses quite a lot of oil, which isn't cheap, and (2) a lot of that oil stays on the leaves, so you have to adjust the amount of oil in your recipe to compensate.
Verdict: We will probably use this method again, but we will try to fine-tune it a bit. Brian had the idea that if the leaves were lightly coated with oil before being packed into the jar, they should be able to pack down more tightly, and it would take less oil to cover them fully. That's the theory, anyway. We'll see how it works.

Method #4: Freezer Cubes
How It's Done: Grind basil leaves in a food processor with just enough oil to lubricate them and turn them into a slurry. Pour this slurry out into the slots of an empty ice-cube tray and freeze. Pop the basil cubes out of the tray and store them in the freezer in a zip-top bag.
To Use: Substitute 1 basil cube for 1 tablespoon of fresh basil in sauces, soups, and other dishes that call for basil to be finely chopped.
Results: Very good. The individual basil cubes are very easy to store and very easy to use; in fact, for making pesto, they even save you a step, since the basil is already ground up and all you have to do is stir in the other ingredients. Their only drawback is that they won't work in recipes that specifically require basil leaves to be whole. However, for most dishes, chopped basil is fine. These can even be used in our beloved pasta à la Caprese, though they're not really ideal for the purpose. The biggest drawback of this method is that it takes so long to process and freeze all the basil, which is why it's best to do it in several batches.
Verdict: Our favorite method. We plan to use it to store the bulk of this year's basil, but we will also store a jar using the oil-pack method, which is somewhat better for the pasta.

And there you have it: the best way to store your home-grown basil. I hope this comes in handy for anyone else out there who just had to harvest a whole bunch of it in a hurry.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Money Crashers: Landscaping With Native Plants

As you all know, one of my pet peeves is the grass lawn. To me, it seems like I consider the very antithesis of ecofrugality: a plant that produces nothing useful, yet requires lots of time, energy, water, and costly, environmentally unfriendly chemicals to maintain. Bah!

Yet grass is really just one particularly egregious example. Most people's yards are filled with all kinds of high-maintenance plants that take more in (money, time, natural resources) than they give back.

My latest Money Crashers post is about a much more ecofrugal approach: landscaping with native plants. When you choose plants that are native to your area, you know they can grow well on your own without a lot of coddling. And at the same time, they attract native wildlife, such as songbirds and pollinating insects.

The only real downside of using native plants in your landscape is that they're not always easy to find. So in my article, I name several websites you can use to identify plants native to your area, and a couple of other sites that can help you find nurseries that carry them.

Read all about it here: Landscaping With Native Plants – Benefits & How to Plan Your Yard 

Money Crashers: What Is Socially Responsible Investing

I haven't really talked a lot on this blog about investing, because I haven't found many ways to tie it in with the topic of ecofrugality. After all, investing is really about earning more money, not spending less—and "eco" doesn't usually come into it at all.

Except for some investors, it does. Socially responsible investing, or SRI—the topic I explore in my latests Money Crashers article—means choosing your investments based on social goals as well as financial ones. In other words, it's investing in companies you want to support because you approve of what they do, and refusing to invest in companies you'd love to see disappear off the face of the earth entirely.

There's a certain sense to this. After all, if I won't shop at Amazon because its labor practices are so evil, what kind of sense does it make to be investing in Amazon's stock, so that I actually earn a share of its ill-gotten gains? It's inconsistent at best, hypocritical at worst.

But unfortunately, while I've never actually gone and purchased a share of Amazon stock, I'm sure I must own some. See, I do nearly all my investing through index funds, since (a) they provide automatic diversification, (b) they have much lower fees than managed funds (which makes them the frugal choice), and (c) if they never outperform the market as a whole, at least they never underperform it, as most managed funds do most of the time. And when you buy an index that covers the whole stock market, or even just the biggest companies, you end up with stock in Amazon whether you want it or not. So while I approve of SRI in principle, I've found it a bit difficult to do in practice.

However, after researching my article on SRI for Money Crashers and learning about all the different types of socially responsible investments that are available, I've started to think it might be time to give it another try. US SIF, a website devoted to socially responsible investing, offers several investment guides, including Investing to Curb Climate Change, which notes that there actually are index funds designed specifically "to help reduce the overall carbon-intensity of your portfolio." So I'm planning to look into some of these and see whether I can use them with my automatic investment plan at Capital One.

If you'd like to investigate this type of investing more yourself, you can start with the full article on Money Crashers: What Is Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) – Types & How to Get Started

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Visiting the eLibrary

Lately, Brian and I have become fans, or at least casual admirers, of the Southern Vampire series by Charlaine Harris. (This is the series that HBO's "True Blood" is rather loosely based on. Think Twilight for grownups...with a sense of humor, which I've been given to understand is conspicuously absent from Stephanie Meyer's work.) We came across the first one on some freebie table somewhere, and then picked up the second from our local library...but at that point we got stuck, because while the library had several other volumes in the series, it didn't have the third one, and we like to read a series in order whenever possible. And while we enjoy these books, we don't really love them enough to shell out $10 per book for them.

Fortunately, we found a way around this problem. As it turns out, our local library participates in a program called eLibraryNJ, which is like interlibrary loan for e-books. It works like this:
  1. You sign up for an account, using your library card number and a PIN you can get from the library reference desk.
  2. You search the catalogue for the book you want and check it out. If someone else currently has it checked out, you can put a hold on it, and you'll be notified by e-mail when the book becomes available.
  3. You can read the book online or download a copy onto your e-reader or other device. The books are available in various formats; we've been reading them with the Kindle app on our tablet, but we've also seen books in PDF form, a format called OverDrive that you can read in your browser, and an open-source format called ePub that works with most e-readers.
  4. When you're done with the book, you can check it back in to make room for a new one. However, if you forget to do this, the book checks itself back in automatically when it expires at the end of three weeks. If you're not done with the book after three weeks, you can renew it, as long as no one else has it on hold.
This program is an elegant way to make e-books lendable without getting snarled up in copyright issues. With its help, we've been able to make our way through the first five Southern Vampire books, and we've just started on the sixth (though we had to wait a few weeks for that one). And since eLibraryNJ appears to have every book in the series in "stock," we should have no trouble making it all the way through.

And when that runs out, there are heaps of other series we can try, all just a click away. The site even offers suggestions for us based on our previous choices, just like Amazon does. Plus, it has a collection of classic works in the public domain that you can check out for as long as you like; they never expire, and they don't count toward your checkout limit. So if we ever want to read something by Wilkie Collins besides The Moonstone and The Woman in White, the only two novels available at our local library, we're in luck.

All in all, this site is a great resource for all book lovers who live in New Jersey and own any kind of electronic device. Most public libraries seem to belong to the site, and even a few non-public ones, like the Carl C. Brigham Library at Educational Testing Service. And if you don't happen to live in New Jersey, try Googling "e-library" plus the name of your state, and there's a good chance you'll find one you can use.