Saturday, September 24, 2016

Money Crashers: Home Decorating Ideas on a Budget

Here's a new Money Crashers post I'm rather proud of. Over the years, I've done several posts here on budget decor, which highlight the best examples I've seen online of dazzling room redos on unbelievably small budgets. (Room makeovers from Young House Love show up often, but I've also found great room makeovers on This Old House and numerous other blogs.) These posts have been fairly popular - especially the second one, which for some reason has more than twice as many hits as all the others combined and is on my "greatest hits" list.

So I thought I'd do a single article that outlines all the tips and techniques these budget decorators have used to produce such amazing results with so little cash. Based on my extensive (probably too extensive) examination of budget decor posts, my personal top ten list is:
  1. Do it yourself - whether "it" is painting, tiling, or installing hardwood flooring.
  2. Rearrange the furniture. Use What You Have Interiors, which is probably the world's most ecofrugal decorating service, is built around the premise that you can make a room look and feel completely different just by putting what you already have in different positions.
  3. Repurpose furniture and accessories. Lots of budget makeovers feature old pieces put to new uses, such as a sink vanity made from an old dresser.
  4. Shop secondhand - at thrift stores, reuse centers, on Craigslist, and of course, on Freecycle.
  5. Use paint. This is probably the single most important tool in a budget decorator's toolbox. I go into detail about decorative techniques like ombre, sponging, stenciling, and rag-rolling, as well as how to create the illusion of architectural detail with paint. I also discuss the use of paint on furniture, floors, counters, appliances, and pretty much everything.
  6. Use paper. Wallpaper is pricey when you use it on a whole room, but small pieces, strategically placed, can substitute for even pricier treatments (like wainscoting or a tile backsplash).
  7. Use fabric. Swapping out the fabric pieces in a room - pillows, curtains, rugs, bedding - is even easier than repainting and creates almost as dramatic a transformation.
  8. Add woodwork. This takes a little more work, but there's nothing like a few strategically placed boards and battens to make a builder-grade room look custom-made.
  9. Focus on details. Little touches like faucets, knobs, accessories, and lighting can make a big difference.
  10. Create cheap artwork. I could have done a whole post on this alone, because there are so many ways to DIY your own art pieces on a budget. But I limit myself to a few tips and examples, since once you have the general idea, it's easy to come up with more.
For each of these tips, I provide details about where and how to use it and some examples of budget room makeovers that have used it to great effect. And at the end, I highlight several complete room makeovers that show how you can combine all these techniques to transform an entire room.

Read all the details here: 10 DIY Home Decorating Ideas on a Budget – Tips & Techniques

Gardeners' Holidays 2016: Harvest Home

According to my calendar, the autumnal equinox was on Thursday. But when I stepped out for my walk that day, it sure didn't feel much like autumn. The sun was blazing down, and the heat index was over 90. It was definitely still shorts-and-sandals weather. Even yesterday, when I went to the farmers' market and saw all the beautiful apples and gourds on display, they looked out of place, like they'd showed up while summer was still in full swing.

But today, at least, it actually feels like fall. It's partly cloudy and a pleasant 72 degrees. The trees are starting to show their fall colors, patches of yellow and red blazing out amidst the green. There are acorns scattered around the feet of the oaks and round, ripening hips on the rosebush. It looks like this long, hot, brutal summer has finally come to a close.

And in the garden, we're already beginning to harvest fall produce. The tomatoes aren't producing as prolifically as they normally do in September, but we're still getting plenty of Sun Golds and a few small Black Princes and Amish Pastes. We've also gathered a handful of lima beans so far, and today, Brian went out and picked two good-sized butternut squash: a Waltham weighing at least a couple of pounds, and a Ponca Baby that's just slightly smaller. And while he was at it, he decided to gather some rhubarb, just to make sure we'll have enough for a pie this Thanksgiving.

Unfortunately, we won't get a chance to do anything with all these lovely veggies tonight, because we're going out to a game party and won't be home for supper. But fortunately, the cooler weather is expected to continue throughout the week, so we should be able to fire up the oven for some of those nice, hearty meals it's too hot to make in the summertime. Perhaps we can roast up some of those tomatoes for a Roasted Tomato Fettucine and turn one of those squash into a souffle, or even my favorite Butternut Squash Lasagna.

One crop that's a bit late this year is our fall planting of lettuce. We were supposed to plant it in mid-August, but we forgot about it until the beginning of September—which may have been just as well, considering how unseasonably warm it's been until now. So we put in half the winter lettuce on September 5, and a second planting just went in today. The first batch is already starting to come up, so we'll be able to enjoy some fall salads—and the second batch, we're hoping, will overwinter right in the bed, just as it did last year, to provide us with greens when spring comes around. Because, hard as it is to believe right now, there will come a time when we're just as sick of cold weather as we are of hot weather right now, and those green leaves peeping out from under the melting snow will be a welcome sight.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Things Fall Apart

One of the basic premises of the ecofrugal life is that when things break, you should at least try to repair them instead of running out to replace them. And one of the basic frustrations of the ecofrugal life is how difficult it can be to actually repair anything nowadays.

Over the last few weeks, we've run across this problem repeatedly. Here are several examples of things that have recently fallen apart in our home and the troubles we've had repairing them—some fairly trivial and some, at least so far, insurmountable.

Broken Thing #1: Our patio door

Late in August, Brian came in from doing some work in the yard and said, "I have to show you something you're not going to like." My first thought was that perhaps our friendly neighborhood rat, which we thought had finally fallen to one of the neighborhood cats, had returned to do more mischief, but it turned out that the problem was a bit more dramatic. I went downstairs and saw that the outer pane of our sliding patio door had been transformed from a solid sheet of glass to a surprisingly beautiful array of cracked fragments, which was still emitting popping sounds as the glass continued to break along new fault lines. Apparently the string trimmer had hit a tiny rock while Brian was edging with it, and the rock had bounced into the glass, and this was the result. (Brian felt bad that he hadn't pulled the screen door across to protect the sliding door, but I pointed out that this would just have left the other, fixed pane unprotected, and the rock could just as easily have struck there.)

Well, obviously this was a problem that needed to be dealt with right away, and it didn't take much research to convince me that it wasn't a problem we could really hope to fix ourselves. You can't exactly just go down to Home Depot and buy a new pane of glass for one of these things; it has to be made to order. We could have gone down to Home Depot and bought a whole new door, but replacing that would still be a massive undertaking and would probably cost us at least $500. So the next day, I called up a couple of local glass companies to get quotes on a new pane.

The first company, a small local glass works, simply asked me for the dimensions of the door and then quoted me a price of $425 plus tax—about $455 total—and said it would take two to three weeks to have the panel made. The second company, a bigger chain called Glass Doctor, sent a guy down who measured not only the size of the pane but also the thickness of the door, something the first company hadn't asked about. He quoted me a price of $580 (including the $50-off coupon I'd printed from the company's website) to make and install a new panel, which would take 7 to 12 business days to complete and would be covered by a 10-year warranty. When I told him that was over $100 more than the other company's price, he said I should tell Glass Doctor that and they would definitely be willing to negotiate on the price—probably not to match the other company's bid, but at least to take it down a little.

Well, that turned out to be wrong. When I called up Glass Doctor and told them about the other quote, they said the $580 price was the absolute lowest price they could give us. But Brian and I decided to go with them anyway—partly because of the warranty, but mostly because their promised timeline was shorter and we wanted the door fixed as soon as possible.


After 12 business days had passed with no call, I called up Glass Doctor and they said, well, no, it wasn't ready yet, but that wasn't surprising, because it usually takes 10 to 15 days to make a new panel. This, you may notice, is longer than the timeline we were quoted originally, and about equal to the timeline we were given by the other company, which would have charged us $125 less. But since Glass Doctor already had our deposit, there wasn't much we could do but continue to wait.

When four more days had passed with no call, I called up again. This time they said, well, no, it wasn't ready, because it normally takes "about 15 business days" to complete—which, you may notice, is longer than the timeline they gave us on the first or the second call, and longer than the timeline we got from the cheaper company. But they also said it should be ready by Monday, and if it was, they'd set up an appointment right away to install it, possibly even that same day.

So, as of now, our patio door still has only one pane, and the gap between it and the screen is filled with pretty, wickedly sharp little fragments of glass. And for the past three weeks, we have had to use the side door to get to and from the back yard. Brian has taken to keeping his bike in the shed, since he can't get it in and out of the house, and I have had to take the laundry basket around the long way (up the stairs, out the side door, back down, through the gate, and around the back) every time I want to go hang out the wash. And all this time we are fuming over the fact that if we had gone with the other company, the job would be done by now, and we'd have paid $125 less for it.

There's no real ecofrugal lesson to be learned here, unfortunately. Glass Doctor had excellent ratings from the Better Business Bureau, so we had no way to know they were going to turn out to be a bunch of liars. All we can really do is make a point of never hiring them again, and warn others that they shouldn't trust this company's word about scheduling.

Broken Thing #2: Our shower diverter knob

About a week ago, as Brian was taking a shower, I heard an "Ack!" from the bathroom. I thought perhaps one of the cats had decided to interfere with his ablutions, but once again, the problem turned out to be a bit more dramatic. The diverter knob on the shower—the thing that switches the water flow from the tub faucet to the shower head—had simply fallen to pieces in his hand.

Brian thought at first that he might try to glue it, but after examining the pieces, he concluded that wasn't feasible. But fortunately, we figured this would be a fairly easy fix; all we had to do was go down to our local Home Depot, buy a new knob, and install it, right?

Hah again.

When we finally located the aisle with the type of part we wanted, it turned out that there is no uniform size for these things. Each brand—American Standard, Price Pfister, Gerber—has its own fittings, and they don't play nicely with anyone else's. And unfortunately, though Brian had brought the two pieces of the knob with him for comparison, he hadn't remembered to bring the little piece that fits in the middle that shows what brand it is. And when we tried to ask a salesperson if there was any way to find the right part without knowing the brand, he assured us that it was completely impossible and there was no point in even looking.

Well, we weren't entirely convinced, so headed to Lowe's instead, since that was where Brian remembered we'd bought the actual diverter (the piece that goes inside the knob) when the old one wore out. Unfortunately, we couldn't find a knob there that matched our old one, either. So we picked up one that said it was a "universal" size, figuring that should fit any diverter. And it did, sort of. I mean, Brian was able to put it on, and it would turn to redirect the flow—but it didn't fit as close to the wall as the hot and cold water knobs on either side of it. It stuck out further than the other knobs while leaving a good inch or so of the metal shaft exposed, which just looked stupid.

Fortunately, he was able to find the missing piece of the old knob, which informed us that it was a Price Pfister part. So, armed with that knowledge, we were able to go back to Lowe's, return the "universal" knob, and pick up a new one that we knew would fit. They had them in two styles: clear plastic like the one we had before, and solid metal—which, surprisingly, was exactly the same price as the plastic. So, since we knew the plastic ones weren't that durable, and the metal looked better anyway, there was clearly no reason not to go with metal. And, while we were at it, we decided to replace the hot and cold knobs with metal ones, too, rather than have a mismatched one in the middle.

Once we managed to get the right part, it turned out to be a fairly simple matter to replace all three knobs. And the new ones actually look quite a bit better than the old ones, which, in addition to being made of clear plastic—which shows every bit of dirt that's built up on the inside—were a bit too small to cover the full length of the plumbing shaft. As Brian put it, the old knobs were like "someone with ugly knees wearing shorts," while the new ones fit more like long trousers. Plus, they should hold up better than the plastic ones. So we ended up spending a bit more than we expected (about $31 for all three knobs), but we got a more satisfactory fix for our money. (Although Brian admits that at first, he found it a bit disconcerting to get into the shower and be confronted by these three unfamiliar-looking metal knobs that were never there before. He kept spending the first second or two thinking, "What am I supposed to do with these?")

The ecofrugal moral here: if you ever need to replace a plumbing part, bring all the pieces of it to the store with you, so you can find the proper replacement the first time.

Broken Thing #3: Our tablet

I'm not including a picture of this one because, quite frankly, there's nothing to see. The long and short of it is that a week or so ago, our little Nexus tablet computer took a tumble (unfortunately, it was not in its cute DIY case at the time), and when Brian retrieved it, he found it would no longer start. It was, as they say, bricked.

Now, given that we'd been using this thing for over two years already, and it was already a year old when we got it, you could hardly say it died prematurely. Indeed, most people would probably have long since dismissed it as obsolete and upgraded. But old as it was, it was still more than enough to meet our extremely basic needs. We could use it to download and read e-books from the electronic library; Brian could listen to Pandora on it while working in the basement; we could grab it to check a fact online to settle a dispute during a meal, or to look up something interesting we'd spotted while watching TV; and it was good enough for checking e-mail while away from home for a weekend, without adding too much weight to our baggage. So even though we'd clearly gotten our money's worth out of it, we were still sad to see it go.

When Brian told his dad about the unfortunate event, his response was to treat it as an opportunity: "Here's your chance to take one of these things apart." So Brian did that, but mostly to satisfy his own curiosity; he didn't expect to find anything he could fix, and he didn't. On the contrary, he found that the connector linking the touch screen to the main board of the tablet was severed, and the only way to fix it would be to replace the touch screen entirely. And given that a new screen would cost $50, and we'd only spent $75 for the thing two years ago, it wasn't really worth the cost—especially since we couldn't be 100 percent sure it would work.

So the upshot of all this is, we are currently without a tablet. The part that remains unresolved is what we should do about it.

Brian's viewpoint is that we shouldn't replace the tablet, at least not right away. He says we never used it for anything all that important anyway, so there's no real need to spend the money on a new one. But my argument is that, even if a new tablet isn't really a necessity for us, it's certainly useful, and it would only cost about $50 to buy a decent replacement. (This model, which gets pretty good reviews at ConsumerSearch, is a year or so out of date, but so was the Nexus when we bought it, and it was still perfectly adequate for our needs.)

Of course, we could also look on this as an opportunity to bite the bullet and finally get ourselves a smartphone instead. (No, we still don't have one.) We could use the same $3-a-month prepaid plan we currently have from T-Mobile, but tack on a $5 "data pass" on those occasions when we actually need to look something up while we're out and about. I could use it for downloading all those digital coupons that I currently don't have access to, and we'd be able to check e-mails while away from home (e.g., if we showed up for an event and no one else was there because we'd missed the message canceling it). We could even take it geocaching. But on the other hand, it might not work as well for the things we used to do on our tablet, like reading e-books.

So basically, it looks like we're going to be spending a bit of time living without a tablet to help us figure out whether we really want a new tablet, a smartphone, or neither. Because after all, the whole point of repairing things whenever you can is to avoid buying new things if you don't really need to.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Money Crashers: Who are the Freegans?

One of the basic premises of the ecofrugal life is never to buy anything you don't have to. If something breaks, you try to repair it. If you need something you don't currently own, you try to borrow it. If that doesn't work, you try looking for it on Freecycle before you resort to actually shopping for it. And you're not squeamish about picking through someone else's discards, whether that's leftovers from a yard sale, a big box of books marked "free," or furniture left out at the curb for bulk pickup.

Freegans are people who take this idea to its logical—or perhaps illogical—extreme: they never buy anything. No, not even food. They get that by foraging or "urban foraging"—a polite euphemism for trash picking. And before you say "eww," you might want to check out this NBC interview with a noted freegan advocate, who says her scavenged finds include portobello mushrooms, bread, slightly dented cans, and "half a case of arugula that‘s never made it out onto the shelves of the store, all wrapped up." Considering the prices of arugula and portobello mushrooms, that's enough to shift my reaction from "eww" to "hmm."

Freegans have lots of reasons for choosing to live as they do. Many of them see consuming nothing as the best way to reduce their environmental footprint. Others are more concerned about animal rights or human rights and don't want to support the companies that infringe on them—which, they argue, you inevitably do when you shop. And some are opposed to capitalism itself on principle.

Naturally, the freegan lifestyle is somewhat intriguing to me, because it's kind of the most ecofrugal way of life imaginable. Yet I must admit, I have some problems with it too. Not so much with the Dumpster diving part; these folks know what they're doing, and anyway, they have a right to risk their own health if they want to. What I wonder about is whether it's truly sustainable. Yes, these people are living off stuff that would otherwise go to waste—but that's only possible because the society we live in is itself so wasteful. A society in which everyone lived as a freegan would be a society in which all productive activity simply ground to a halt. Yes, reclaiming waste is a good thing, but is it really an effective way to shift our whole society toward being less wasteful?

In my latest Money Crashers piece, I explore this and other questions about the freegan lifestyle. I talk about why people become freegans and outline the various methods they use to survive without shopping, which include not just urban foraging but also Freecycle, free storeswild foraging, community gardening, walking for transportation, ride sharing, and other such non-controversial staples of the ecofrugal lifestyle. And I also talk about some of the questionable aspects of freeganism, such as the health risks of Dumpster diving (which can be minimized with a few simple precautions) and the moral questions related to squatting, scavenging, and generally living off other people's labor. Here's the full article: Freegan Movement – Principles & Problems of Freeganism

I must confess, as I researched and wrote this article, I found myself feeling less sympathetic toward  freegans, not more. Though I still agree with many of their goals, I found that most of the websites and other sources that promote the freegan lifestyle (such as Freegan.Info, the closest thing the movement has to an official home page, and "Why Freegan?", the original "manifesto" that first outlined the movement and its goals), come across as very judgmental and even downright rude. Instead focusing on the good to be gained from eliminating waste, they rant at length about the evils of our economic system and how everyone who takes part in it—this means YOU—is supporting those evils and is therefore evil by association. The "Why Freegan?" article even recommends shoplifting and employee theft as ways to stick it to the Man. To me, that's a lot more icky than Dumpster diving.

My conclusion about the freegans is that, while I share their goals, I'm just not convinced living as a freegan is the best way to achieve them. Like it or not, we do live in a capitalist society, and I think we can do a lot more to influence that system and mitigate its evils by exercising our power as consumers and supporting businesses that are trying to be more ethical, rather than by refusing to support any of them on principle.

But even if I don't want to be a freegan, I'm still happy to pick up tips from them about how to grow food on vacant land, share belongings, and find good stuff that other people have thrown away. Because even if my ecofrugal lifestyle isn't ideologically pure enough as far as they're concerned, I'm still fundamentally on board with the idea of reducing waste wherever possible. I won't refuse to shop under any circumstances, but I still prefer to share, borrow, and get stuff for free when it's a reasonable option.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Money Crashers: How to Get Help With Heating Costs Through LIHEAP – Eligibility & Benefits

Summer is drawing to a close (or, if you go by Miss Manners, officially over), and that means winter is just around the bend. And with winter, of course, come heating bills.

Now, no one exactly likes to pay heating bills, but it's much harder for some people than others. According to Inside Energy, a news site devoted to energy issues, a manageable energy bill is no more than 6 percent of your household income—but many low-income families are actually paying 20 percent of their income or more. This forces them to make the difficult decision to "heat or eat": pay for heating or cover other basic needs, like groceries.

The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, exists to help these low-income Americans pay their heating and cooling bills. In my latest Money Crashers article, I explain how the program works, who uses it, and how eligibility is calculated. I also discuss how to apply for LIHEAP if you ever need it.

Get the details here:  How to Get Help With Heating Costs Through LIHEAP – Eligibility & Benefits

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Shrimp-Veggie Saute

Last month, I just managed to slip my Recipe of the Month in under the wire by trying two new cucumber recipes in the last week of August. This month, I've swung to the opposite extreme, trying out a new recipe within the very first week of September. This wasn't by design; it's just that last night, Brian asked me what I felt like having for dinner, and what popped into my mind was some sort of seafood tacos. And since we didn't have the ingredients on hand to make our usual fish tacos, which are topped with a cabbage-tomato slaw, we decided to experiment.

We knew we had about half a pound of shrimp in the freezer, the last of a batch we'd bought when there was a good sale at a New Brunswick supermarket. We also had a bag of red onions we'd just picked up at H-Mart, and there were some green peppers on the Jimmy Nardello pepper plants in the garden. I suggested that if we sauteed all these ingredients up together, we could serve it up on tortillas.

Originally I thought we could just season it with a basic chili powder, but then Brian remembered that we happened to have a bottle of Northwoods Seasoning from Penzey's Spices in the cupboard. This blend, according to the label, contains "salt, Hungarian sweet paprika, Tellicherry black pepper, thyme, cracked rosemary, granulated garlic and chipotle." We'd acquired it as a freebie with another purchase a while back, and we'd never been quite sure what to do with it. So, since the bottle described it as "the perfect mix for chicken and fish," we figured it ought to work okay in our new shrimp dish.

Since shrimp cooks quickly, the whole dish didn't take long at all to put together. Brian just sauteed the shrimp, peppers, and onions together in a skillet with a dash or two of the Northwoods Seasoning, heated up a few flour tortillas, and served up some lettuce leaves and Sun Gold tomatoes on the side. And this improvised recipe, though very simple, turned out to be quite satisfying. Of course, it's  hard to go too wrong by frying up shrimp, onions, and peppers in the same pan, but the spice blend really did enhance the mix quite well. Brian had applied it a bit sparingly in the pan because he wasn't too sure about it, but once we'd tasted it, we both started sprinkling more on straight from the jar. In fact, we both liked it was enough that we flipped entirely from wondering how we'd manage to use it up to wondering whether we should buy another bottle when this one runs out. Which, I assume, is what Penzey's was hoping would happen when they gave us the sample in the first place.

Now, admittedly, this "Recipe of the Month" isn't much of a recipe, since all we did was throw what we had on hand into a pan. And you could argue it's not really a veggie dish, even though it has plenty of veggies in it, because it wouldn't really work without the shrimp. So I may end up choosing a second Recipe of the Month for September, one that's a little more veggie-centric. But in the meantime, I thought this simple dish was good enough to be worth sharing.