Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Bifold Project: Phase Two

It may not be all that obvious from this photo, but Brian has actually made a lot of progress on the installation of the new closet doors in the office. It's just that  he's had to proceed in a sort of two-steps-forward, one-step-back sort of way.

Last weekend, he got the doorjambs "skinned," using the new pieces of molding he had cut to size at the local millworks. First, since the doors themselves, weren't quite as tall as the door opening, he fitted all the pieces loosely into place to figure out how just much of a gap he would have at the top.

After measuring the distance carefully, he cut a few pieces of scrap wood to fit into this gap so he'd have something solid to nail the lintel (top piece) into. This didn't have to look pretty, since the molding would eventually cover it, so he just made little blocks of wood and nailed them up into the studs - which gave him his first opportunity to use the new nail gun he got for Christmas. Then, he used the same tool to nail the lintel and jambs into place.

Once that was done, he was able to dry-fit the doors themselves. After puzzling out the somewhat ambiguous directions that came with the doors, he figured out how to install the track hardware, screwing it into the lintel, and mount the doors on it. The fit wasn't exactly perfect - one door hung a tiny bit higher than the other - but it was good enough to confirm that the doors could in fact fit into the newly refinished opening.

Unfortunately, having gone to all the trouble of putting up the doors, Brian then had to take them down so they could be properly stained and finished. So he made a start on that this weekend, using the same maple stain we used on the other doors we have refinished so far (three downstairs and two in the guest room). Since these doors were unfinished to start with, they may need a couple of coats, but eventually they should match the rest of the room and closet doors upstairs.

And in the meantime, Brian has also done some work on the closet opening. This was another part of the job where he had to take a step back before he could move forward: he realized that since the opening is now a bit wider than it used to be, he would need to take about half an inch off the baseboard molding before putting the casing back on. And since he didn't have a tool capable of cutting them in situ without damaging the floorboards, he had to move a bookcase out of the way, pull off the baseboards, take them downstairs, cut them down, and then nail them back in place.

He also had to replace the top piece of molding, which wasn't wide enough for the new, wider opening. Fortunately, we had some extra pieces, because we noticed while cleaning out the closet that it also had casing around the inside that didn't really need to be there (since no one ever looks at the closet door from the inside), so we pulled it all off to give us an extra quarter-inch of closet space. Brian was able to re-purpose one of the long side pieces from the inside of the closet to make a new top piece, cutting it to the proper angle with his miter saw (yet another former Christmas present from his dad, who just loves to shop for tools).

Which brings us back to the original picture we started with: the closet opening with the new jambs and lintel installed and all the casings back in place, waiting to be primed and painted. Tackling that, and completing the staining and finishing of the closet doors, will probably be next weekend's job...and the weekend after that, we can finally get the doors back into place and put the closet back to work again.

So if all goes well, my birthday present should be completed by mid-March, only a couple of months after my actual birthday. It's not so much the gift that keeps on giving as the gift that takes a really long time to give. Next year, maybe I'll ask for something simpler, like a new faucet for the kitchen sink.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Money Crashers: Cohousing – Types & Benefits

A lot of the articles I've been doing for Money Crashers deal with various aspects of the sharing economy. I've covered tool libraries, toy libraries, community gardens, seed exchanges, and community cafes. Sharing is an inherently ecofrugal concept, because it saves both money and resources to have two people share one thing - whether it's a lawn mower or a plot of land - rather than each buying their own.

Now, in my latest Money Crashers article, I'm getting into a way to share something even bigger: housing.

I don't mean sharing a home the way a family does (though I covered that to an extent in my article on the costs and benefits of marriage). What I'm talking about here is cohousing: a type of intentional community in which people have both private homes and shared spaces that they care for as a group. So, for example, you can have your own bedroom, bathroom, living room, and kitchen—but your laundry room, which you don't need to use that often, can be shared with others so you don't each have to shell out for a separate washer and dryer. You can also share a workshop stocked with shared tools, a big communal kitchen that can hold all the seldom-used gadgets you don't need cluttering up your own kitchen, and other spaces like a garden or a playroom for all the kids in the community.

Of course, living in cohousing does take a bit of work. The whole group is responsible for taking care of these shared spaces, so you have to divvy up the chores and hold regular meetings to deal with maintenance and other issues. But for many people, it's well worth the effort to be part of a real community where neighbors don't just wave at each other over the fence—they also share meals together, watch each other's kids, put on plays or concerts together, and help each other out in difficult times.

If this sounds appealing to you, you can learn more about how it works here: Communal Living & Cohousing – Types & Benefits of Intentional Communities. I cover the structure of a cohousing community, the different types that exist, and the financial, environmental, and social benefits of living this way. And, at the end, I provide information on how to find a cohousing community in your area, or possibly even start your own.

Money Crashers: Estate & Inheritance Tax

My latest Money Crashers post is on a topic that isn't exactly related to ecofrugality, but that might be relevant to some of you anyhow: estate taxes. It covers everything you ever wanted to know about estate taxes, but were afraid to ask: the difference between estate taxes and inheritance taxes, how many people actually have to pay federal estate tax (spoiler alert: very few), how the tax is calculated, and how to plan your estate to leave as much money as possible for your heirs.

If any of that sounds interesting to you, you can read the article here: Estate & Inheritance Tax – Threshold, Rates & Calculating How Much You Owe. If not, tune in tomorrow, and we'll return to our regularly scheduled blog.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Our new toy

I didn't do my usual Green Gift Roundup after the holidays this year, because we didn't give nearly as many green gifts as usual, aside from assorted secondhand books. But we did get one gift that was green in more than one sense of the word: a greenhouse. No, really! Take a look:

Now that those vast piles of snow have melted, Brian was able to set it up yesterday in the southeast corner of our backyard, where it'll get sunlight for about half the day. Then he took one of the other Christmas gifts we got, an indoor/outdoor weather station, and set up the "outdoor" sensor in the greenhouse to see just how warm it got in there. And the answer, as it turned out, was pretty warm. Admittedly, after last week's cold snap, we have had a couple of days of rather warm weather for February, so the outdoor temperature was peaking at above 50. But inside the greenhouse, it was a good ten degrees warmer than that. In fact, this afternoon he came in to report that it was about the temperature in the greenhouse as it was inside the house.

His next step was to set up a folding table in there and set up some of our parsley seedlings on it. Brian always makes it a policy to start extra seeds for every crop we grow in case they don't all germinate, but usually most of them do, so we end up with extra seedlings. So he left the four seedlings that we'll need for the garden inside under our grow light, while setting the others outside to see how they do in a less sheltered environment. His plan is to do the same with all our other seedlings as they come up—leeks, peppers, tomatoes, and so on—and compare the indoor plants with the outdoor ones.

The way I see it, this will be like a less extreme version of the winter sowing experiment we tried a few years back, which didn't prove terribly productive. The winter-sown seeds actually did pretty well compared to the indoor ones, but neither set really thrived, and setting them up outdoors was actually more work than keeping them under the grow lights. But our new seed-starting medium was successful enough last year that I think we've eliminated the stunted seedling problem, and having a permanent greenhouse set up will eliminate the extra work of setting up those mini-greenhouses for the outdoor seedlings. So if they turn out to do as well in the greenhouse environment as their indoor counterparts, then we may actually be able to start them all that way next year and bring our gardening process a little bit closer to nature.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Veggie Frittata

First of all, let me offer a quick apology for not posting any updates on our new closet doors. The fact is, like all our other home projects, this one is going rather slowly. It's not that Brian has been putting off the job; it's just that he keeps running into snags. First, after unpacking the doors and reading the instructions, he found that he needed a little more than 48 inches of clearance, and we actually had a bare 48 inches—and we didn't even have that everywhere, since the doorframe wasn't perfectly even throughout. So he had to take off the door frame, and with that, we had an inch to spare—but then we had to go out and buy new, narrower molding to replace it. And after trying both Lowe's and Home Depot, we found that the dimensions we were looking for—1/4 inch thick, 4.5 inches wide, and at least 80 inches long—simply weren't available.

So we ended up having to go to Edison Millwork, a full-service lumber yard about a mile and a half outside of town, where they can cut pretty much any piece of wood to your exact specifications. Shopping there was very straightforward; the guy we talked to understood exactly what our project was (he referred to it as "skinning a jamb," a phrase Brian is now determined to use often in casual conversation), expressed no surprise that we couldn't find what we needed at the "toy stores," and cut down some pine boards to the exact dimensions we needed in a matter of a few minutes. However, it cost us a pretty penny—5,478 pennies, to be exact, bumping the total cost of the project up to about $245. And now, Brian still needs to put the door frame back together, hang the doors, adjust all the pieces to make sure everything fits properly, and then take the doors back down again so that we can stain them and finish them and paint the moldings. So all in all, my birthday request is turning out to be both much more expensive and much more time-consuming than I expected.

Fortunately, one other task on our agenda for this month got done right on schedule: February's Recipe of the Month. Last night, Brian had a few vegetable odds and ends to use up—some broccoli florets left over from a Super Bowl veggie tray, a few Brussels sprouts that didn't fit the pan with our last batch of Roasted Brussels Sprouts, half an onion—and he whipped up a very good frittata to use them all up.

The usual problem with frittatas is that they don't hold together very well; you pour the eggs in around the veggies, and it sets faster in some places than in others, so you end up either burning it on the bottom or trying to flip it too soon and having pieces of it break off. This time, Brian solved that problem by using a trick from the Crustless Veggie Quiche recipe in The Clueless Vegetarian: he added some flour and cheese to the beaten eggs to help the mixture set. The result was a very firm, tasty frittata with plenty of healthy veggies, plus enough protein and carbs to make a satisfying meal. Here's the recipe:
Saute in about 2 Tbsp. oil:
  • 1 Yukon Gold potato
  • 1/2 red onion
  • 4-5 Brussels sprouts
  • 2 cups broccoli florets
Mix in a bowl:
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 c. flour
  • 1/4 c. milk
  • 1/4 c. shredded Monterey Jack cheese
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
Pour the beaten eggs over the veggies in the pan. When it starts to look firm, sprinkle a little extra cheese on the surface (to help it hold together still better) and flip. Cook until set.
Eked out by a couple of slices of oatmeal-wheat toast, this made a satisfying meal for two, with enough left over to provide lunch for one the next day.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Money Crashers: What Does It Mean to Be Rich?

For some time now, I've been puzzling over the whole idea of wealth as the American Dream. Back when Mitt Romney was running for president, I took issue with the idea expressed in the Washington Post that everyone, deep down, wants the kind of lifestyle that he has—"We want the pony. We want the Jet Ski. We want the big house on the beach"—and countered that my idea of wealth, otherwise known as financial independence, was easier to achieve by spending less rather than more.

So I started asking myself: what does wealth really mean? Is it just having a certain amount in the bank? Is it living a lavish, Romney-esque lifestyle? Is it having enough to quit your job and live on for the rest of your life—or enough to provide for your family for life, as well?

In my latest Money Crashers article, I explore all these different definitions of wealth in detail. I don't reach any conclusions about which is the "right" way to define wealth, but I do explain why it's important to figure out which definition is the right one for you, personally—because you need to know what your "dream of wealth" looks like before you can figure out how to achieve it.

Here's the scoop: What Does It Mean to Be Rich? – Defining Wealth by Income, Net Worth & Lifestyle

Money Crashers: What Is Smart Growth

Three years back, I talked about how I considered small towns like the one where I live to be the best of all worlds for people who want to live an ecofrugal life. I pointed out that our town offers "all the perks of suburban living without the sprawl," including good schools, a variety of housing and shopping options, and a good public library—all within walking distance. This partly explains why, at least in New Jersey, towns are attracting a lot more new residents than suburbs.

What I didn't say explicitly at the time, but probably should have, is that this kind of development—compact and walkable, with homes and businesses close together—is a textbook example of "smart growth." This type of development, which is designed to protect the environment and improve quality of life, is based on ten basic principles:
  1. Mixed land use, with housing and retail close together
  2. Compact development (sometimes worded as "growing up, not out")
  3. Varied housing choices
  4. Walkable neighborhoods
  5. Distinctive communities
  6. Open space
  7. Developing within existing borders
  8. Transportation choice
  9. Supportive government
  10. Community involvement
Pretty much everything that makes Highland Park, and other towns like it, such ecofrugal places to live fits somewhere on this list. It's because our town fits these smart-growth principles that Brian can bike to work, I can run errands on foot during the day, we can walk in the park when the weather is nice, and we can stay in with books and movies from the library when it isn't.

So I've written a piece for Money Crashers all about smart growth. I cover the ten principles in more detail; go into the many benefits of smart growth for the economy, environment, and communities; provide several real-life, award-winning examples of smart-growth projects; and conclude with advice on how to get involved with the smart-growth movement where you live. I hope this article will serve as a useful basic primer for anyone who wants to know what smart growth is all about.

You can read it here: What Is Smart Growth – Urban Planning Principles, Benefits & Examples

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Money Crashers: Private School vs. Public School

Following on the heels of my Money Crashers article about how to compare types of diapers, here's one on another topic that becomes important to parents pretty much the minute those kids are out of diapers: education. Specifically, the choice between public schools and private schools, and the cost of each.

We all know, of course, that private school costs money. But sending your kids to a top-rated public school costs money too, because houses in those districts are expensive. So the question is, which actually costs more: ponying up for private school tuition, or taking on a hefty mortgage so your kids can go to the best public school?

The short answer seems to be that if you have just one child, private school is cheaper, but with two or more, public school is a better deal. But that's just a general rule, because there are all kinds of factors that come into play, such as where you live, what kind of school you're considering, and what financial aid options might be open to you.

So to get the details on the relative costs of public and private school, check out the full article: Private School vs. Public School – Cost & Comparison

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Money Crashers: 3 Ways to Listen to Free Music Online

Last week, for the first time, I set up an account on Spotify. Mind you, I still don't have the actual app installed on my computer, because I'm running an antiquated operating system that isn't compatible with it (and I'm scared to upgrade for fear all my other software will stop working). But Brian allowed me to use the app on his computer, and this enabled me to create and share a playlist dedicated to my new favorite nerd crush, Critical Role. (This is a Geek and Sundry show in which a bunch of self-described "nerdy voice actors" play Dungeons and Dragons. If you think D&D as a spectator sport sounds dull, that's because you have not personally experienced the storytelling skills of dungeon master Matt Mercer. Forget wizard characters, this guy is the real thing.)

Anyway, since making themed playlists in iTunes is a favorite pastime of mine, I immediately started putting together one based on the show. Once it was done, I wondered whether I could share it with all the show's other fans (known as "Critters") via iTunes, but there doesn't seem to be a way to do it anymore. So I signed up on Spotify, recreated the playlist there, published it, and then shared it on the Geek & Sundry forum for the show. (The post has attracted no responses, but most posts don't, so I don't feel too bad about that. All the real fan discussion goes on in the chat room while the show is streaming, and since that happens on Thursday nights while I'm otherwise occupied, I just watch from the sidelines.)

I bring this up here as an example of just how many different ways there are these days to enjoy and share music online. This is the topic of my latest Money Crashers post, which goes into all the different services you can use to stream or download music for free (and legally). I cover Internet radio, streaming services, free music downloads, and old-fashioned broadcast stations—which, far from being killed off by the digital alternatives, are being revitalized through live Web streams.

Read all about it here: 3 Ways to Listen to Free Music Online – Downloads, Streaming & Radio

Money Crashers: Cloth Diapers vs. Disposable

When I gave my sister a set of cloth diapers as a Hanukkah gift three years ago, I was intrigued to see just how far cloth diapers have come since my childhood. The flat, white rectangles we wore as babies, with all their attendant apparatus of safety pins and plastic pants, have given way to elaborate - and expensive - "diaper systems" in a breathtaking array of styles and colors. This led me to wonder: are disposable diapers still more convenient than cloth, or have these fancy new diapers closed the gap? And are cloth diapers still cheaper, or do these pricey diaper systems end up costing just as much?

Eventually, my job with Money Crashers gave me the chance to research all those questions in painstaking detail. I learned about the many different types of cloth diapers now on the market and how much they cost to use, as well as the advances in disposable diaper technology and how to evaluate "green" claims. I then compared home-laundered cloth diapers, disposable diapers, and diaper services to see how they measure up in four areas:
  • Cost
  • Convenience
  • Environment
  • Health
Based on my research, I think I can safely conclude that the most ecofrugal choice for new parents—the one that offers the best overall savings in cash, natural resources, and time—is a hybrid diaper, laundered at home. Let's break it down quickly:

If you're an eco-conscious parent, then you presumably won't consider any disposable diaper unless you're confident that it's free of any kind of toxins that could harm your baby. A detailed study at Baby Gear Lab, which I relied on heavily for this article, shows that the best value in a "green" diaper is a brand called Earth's Best Tender Care, which costs 36 cents per diaper, or about $2,160 for three years' worth. Add in the cost of a large diaper pail ($125) and disposable wipes ($360), and your total cost for diapering one baby for three years comes to $2,645.

By contrast, the best buy in a cloth diaper is the Flip Hybrid, which costs just $300 for three years of use. Since you'll already be laundering the diapers, you can also use reusable cloth wipes (about $45 for a three-year supply) and a smaller diaper pail with a pair of cloth liners ($100). You also need to spend $70 on a diaper sprayer and shield to prep the diapers for cleaning, and about $200 for additional laundry costs. That comes to $715 total, less than one-third the cost of disposables—and all the diapers and accessories can be reused for a second baby, reducing your cost still more.

Of course, the cloth diapers are also more work. In addition to a couple of extra loads of laundry per week, you have to spend a minute or so dumping and spraying the diaper before dumping it in the pail —though the editors at Baby Gear Lab point out that, in theory, you should do that with a disposable diaper too, as it's illegal in most states to put human feces into a landfill. So if you're a truly eco-conscious parent, the disposable diapers might not actually be any more convenient in that regard. But there's also another way to eliminate this part of the job: use a removable, flushable diaper liner that you can simply lift out and deposit in the toilet. That adds another $420 to the three-year cost of the cloth diapers, but your total is still only $1,065, less than half the cost of disposables. And you can also compromise by using a diaper sprayer at home and liners when you're on the road, for a cost somewhere in between.

How about environmental costs? Well, according to my research, as far as global warming is concerned, it's kind of a wash. According to a British study from 2008, cloth diapers have a lower carbon footprint if you wash them in cold water, dry them on a line, and reuse them for a second child—but if you wash in extra-hot water and tumble dry, the cloth diapers actually have a significantly larger carbon footprint than the disposables. Of course, greenhouse gases aren't the only consideration; you also have to consider the amount of water used for laundering and the amount of landfill space used by disposables—both of which may or may not be a concern, depending on where you live. And there's also the resources involved in the actual manufacture of the disposables, which studies show significantly outweighs the resource use for cloth—though all these studies are at least 10 years old, so the numbers may not apply anymore. But when you factor in the whole "poop in a landfill" problem, it becomes pretty clear that cloth diapers are definitely greener overall, making them a win on both counts.

If you want more details (lots more), you can read the entire article at Cloth Diapers vs. Disposable – Cost, Types & How to Choose for Your Baby. It tells you everything you ever wanted to know about choosing a diaper, and probably a lot more.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Gardeners' Holidays 2016: Festival of Seeds

We've been having a pretty weird winter here in New Jersey. We've only had one snowstorm, but it was a big enough one to make the national news, dumping two feet of snow across much of the eastern seaboard. Okay, maybe that amount of snow in one shot is no big deal to folks who live in Wisconsin, but around here, it's enough to bring things to a standstill.

So basically, we spent one day being snowed in and the next day digging ourselves out. But ever since then, the weather has been quite mild, even unseasonably so. So two feet of snow dumped on us in 24 hours, and ever since then it has been slowly melting away. There's actually quite a bit left even now—proof of just how much we had to start with—but the piles are getting smaller every day, in testament to the fact that spring is on its way. Not here yet, of course, and we may yet get another big snowstorm or two before it comes, but winter is definitely on the wane.

And of course, that means it's time to start thinking about next year's garden. Our new seeds for this spring arrived last month—all of them, including the coveted Klari Baby Cheese pepper—and I spent some time last weekend planning the layout of the beds for this year. This is always a tricky job, since there are certain crops I make a point of rotating (tomatoes, peas, zucchini), and I only have a limited amount of space to rotate them in. And, on top of that, there are certain crops I always want to keep together if possible (tomatoes and basil, cucumbers and green beans) and others I want to keep apart (peas and onions). So the whole thing, as I noted last year, is a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

The easiest way to do it, of course, would be to come up with an arrangement that works one year, and then simply rotate the four beds from one position to the next over a four-year cycle. But the problem with that is the zucchini, which take up nine square feet per plant. If I simply shifted an entire bed's worth of plants, then I'd always end up with a zucchini plant in the spot occupied by a zucchini plant the previous year. So I have to move the zucchini to the other end of the bed, and that means I have to displace the pepper plants as well to make room for them, and then it's back to the jigsaw puzzle.

Fortunately, this year the pieces fell into place without too much trouble. I was even able to make a little bit of extra room, squeezing in the peas and lima beans behind the zucchini plants, so as not to waste a bit of our precious trellis space.

So now all that remains is to get out our seed-starting apparatus and start the first seedlings of the year, the parsley. This will be the first year we've set out the seedlings in the presence of our new cats, and I'm hoping they'll be able to coexist peacefully. (Last year, when we adopted the kittens, the seedlings were already established, and the full seed-starting tray didn't really leave enough room for the cats to jump up on the table and mess with the plants. So until we have a full complement of seedlings, we may just need to fill up the table with other odds and ends to keep the cats off.)

Here's to the coming of spring...ideally without another blizzard first.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Black Bean Soup

There was so much going on this January—our visit to our friends in Virginia, Thrift Week, Winter Storm Jonas, and my belated birthday dinner with my folks—that I completely forgot about coming up with a Recipe of the Month. Fortunately, Brian took care of it for me by preparing a black bean soup out of our food Bible, Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, on the last day of the month. So even though this entry is a little late, the recipe itself actually squeezed in ahead of the deadline.

Visually, this soup isn't very exciting. It's basically an undifferentiated brown slurry...and since we served it with Brian's new brown bread (recipe to come once he's perfected it), the entire meal was brown. But taste-wise, it's quite flavorful, heavy on the cumin and brightened up with a splash each of sherry and lime juice. Brian also used Penzey's vegetable stock as a base, which makes any soup more savory.

So on the whole, this soup wasn't bad, but it wasn't terribly exciting. To me, I think, it was the uniform texture that made it less interesting. Most of my favorite soups are chunky ones, with lots of different flavors and textures in each spoonful: pasta e fagioli, loaded with beans and veggies and pasta; mushroom barley, with the chewy barley grains set off by the larger pieces of savory mushroom; matzo ball, with the tender matzo balls and chewy bits of carrot and celery gloating in a warm, salty broth. So this basic brown soup, even with its abundance of seasoning, felt a bit...meh.

Brian, however, quite liked it and expressed an interest in making it again, as long as I didn't object. I didn't exactly dislike the soup, though I wouldn't want to eat it for several days in a row—but as long as Brian is willing to dispose of the leftovers, I don't mind a bowlful of this for dinner every now and then. Although next time, perhaps, I might prefer a different sort of bread with it, just to give the meal as a whole a bit more variety. Perhaps a chewy sourdough would provide enough of a contrast in flavor and texture to make the soup more interesting.