Saturday, April 30, 2016

Gardeners' Holidays 2016: The Age of Asparagus

I'm celebrating the Age of Asparagus a day early this year, since last year I was so busy with other May Day festivities that I completely forgot to do a blog post.

Unfortunately, this spring our asparagus patch isn't giving us much to celebrate. We've harvested only a handful of spears so far, and right now there aren't more than three or four incipient ones out there. Most of the shoots we've had so far were so skinny, we let them go straight to fern without bothering to pick them.

And the new asparagus plants we added in the back yard two years back, which should theoretically be mature enough to eat this year, are helping any. In fact, of the ten plants we put in, only five appear to have come up at all, and they look even scrawnier and more pathetic than the asparagus in the side yard.

Fortunately, as you can see at the far end of the bed, we do have one spring vegetable in the yard that isn't letting us down: our trusty rhubarb plants. After an early and warm spring, they're already looking quite large, bushy, and healthy. Brian has already had to go out several times to remove the flower spikes so the plants will put more of their energy into producing healthy, edible stalks.

We've already tried one new rhubarb recipe this year, using some (but by no means the last) of the rhubarb we had frozen from last year's bountiful crop. Savory, the freebie magazine they give out at Stop & Shop, had several interesting recipes in its spring issue, and one of them was a simple rhubarb and strawberry compote that looked like an ideal dessert for the Passover Seder. We made a double recipe of it, which turned out to be way more than we needed for the family, so we had a whole jar left over to enjoy during the eight days of Passover. It turns out to make a good topping for matzo brei (which presumably would be equally good on waffles or pancakes), and it's also good with the potato-based porridge I eat as an alternative Passover breakfast. And, of course, it's also quite nice with vanilla ice cream.

For tonight, though, we're going with an old standby: Skillet Chicken and Rhubarb. Brian was thinking of making it with quinoa as an alternative to the usual polenta, since we picked some up at the Whole Earth Center and we need to use it somehow. But since we've never done it that way before, we decided to stick with the tried-and-true polenta rather than risk messing up one of our favorite dishes. We'll think of something else to do with the quinoa, possibly in a veggie dish that can serve as our Recipe of the Month for May.

So tonight, it's rhubarb for dinner, and possibly rhubarb for dessert as well, since we still have a tiny bit of the compote left. And then tomorrow, it's up long before the day-o to welcome in the May-o.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Money Crashers: How to Become a Freelancer

As my regular readers know, I've been a freelancer for about 12 years now. As I wrote back in 2012,  my decision to quit my job and start working as a freelancer was much easier because Brian and I were about to get married that year. His job would provide us with one steady income and a source of health insurance, which are two of the biggest things a freelance job lacks.

Also, in my case, becoming a freelancer wouldn't require any equipment or training I didn't already have. I already had writing skills, experience in publishing, and a home computer, and that was pretty much all I needed to get started. And since the development house where I worked hired freelancers on a regular basis, and I also had contacts in the publishing world, I had several potential clients already lined up. So under the circumstances, quitting was a pretty easy decision for me.

I can also honestly say it's a decision I've never really regretted. Sure, freelancing has its drawbacks: the income is uncertain and the work flow is uneven, with too much work at some times and not enough at others. Also, I have to pay my own taxes every quarter, including the dreaded self-employment tax. But for me, the upsides—no commute, no dress code, complete control over my work schedule—far outweigh the downsides.

However, I also realize that each person's situation is different. For me, the decision to work from home was an easy one, and the right one—but my experience isn't enough of a guide for other people whose circumstances may be completely different. So in my latest Money Crashers post, I've done my best to cover all you need to know about freelancing to decide whether it's a good choice for you. I talk about all the ways there are to make money working from home, the benefits and drawbacks of freelancing, and the most important skills and tools you need to succeed at the freelance life.

Check it out here: How to Become a Freelancer – Types of Work, Pros & Cons

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Money Crashers: 4 Common Health Myths You Can Ignore

Myths, especially in the age of the Internet, have a way of taking on a life of their own. The website exists for the sole purpose of debunking Internet misinformation, yet many stories continue to spread long after Snopes has shown them to be false; I've occasionally received slightly different versions of the same inaccurate story years apart.

Most myths are pretty much harmless. A fake story about Coca-Cola buying up and discontinuing Dr Pepper, or about Prince playing a role in the creation of Air Jordan sneakers, doesn't really hurt anyone, except by wasting their time as they pass it around and read it and pass it on to others. But there's one type of myth that can actually cause physical damage: health myths. If you read and (for some reason) believe an article telling you that a diet of nothing but bacon and 14 hours a day of television is the key to longevity, taking that advice to heart could be a quick ticket to a massive coronary.

So it really annoys me when I keep reading - particularly in sources that are supposed to be reputable - health "facts" that have no basis in fact. One of the most egregious is the old one about how you need to drink 8 glasses of water every day for optimal health. As this New York Times article explains in considerable detail, this claim has "no science behind it," yet health textbooks I worked on as recently as five years ago were still repeating it.

My latest Money Crashers article covers this and three other health myths, explaining where they come from, why they're wrong, and how they could be costing you time, money, or general hassle:
  • The myth that you need 8 hours of sleep a night. Actually, sleep needs vary considerably from person to person - and the average person's need appears to be closer to 7 hours rather than 8.
  • The myth that eggs (or at least egg yolks) are dangerous because of the cholesterol they contain. While the American Heart Association clings stubbornly to this view, most medical studies show that cutting back on eggs doesn't improve health outcomes and may even make them worse.
  • Newest of the lot, the myth that standing desks - like the one Brian build for himself to use at work - are better for your body than sitting in a chair. Although there is indeed evidence that sitting for long periods is bad for you, there's also ample evidence that standing for long periods is just as bad, if not worse. Experts say switching off between sitting and standing throughout the day is better than spending hours in either position (which is why Brian designed his desk to let him do both).
So next time someone throws one of these spurious health claims at you, be prepared to fight back with the facts. You can get them here: 4 Common Health Myths You Can Ignore – Know the Facts

Sunday, April 24, 2016

My floral Valentine

For years, I've been growing increasingly frustrated with the rosebush in our back yard. For one thing, it wasn't really not so much a bush as a vine, so every summer its branches got insanely long and flopped over under the weight of the blossoms, exposing bare spots underneath and getting in the way every time you tried to open the patio door. No matter how rigorously I pruned it back in the winter, I just couldn't get it to grow evenly and compactly.

Then, by the time fall came, these branches would be not only long and straggly, but also nearly bald, having lost all their leaves to black spot. In 2014, I tried pre-emptively spraying it all season long with a baking-soda solution I'd seen recommended on numerous gardening sites. That didn't work, so I switched to a commercial fungicide. That still didn't work, so in 2015, I started spraying the bush with fungicide every week as soon as it developed its first leaves. And when that still didn't work, I decided I'd had it with this bush, and I was going to cut the whole thing down and replace it with a nice, compact, easy-care rosebush with a good reputation for black spot resistance.

So this year for Valentine's Day, Brian gave me a card that said, "Dear Valentine" on the front and had this drawing inside:

In other words, he literally promised me a rose garden. He couldn't very well give me the rosebush itself as a present in the middle of February, but he gave me his word that this year, for sure, the old rosebush would go and a new one would take its place. He even came up with a design for extending our patio to help the new bush blend into its surroundings. (And, if you look carefully at the picture, you can see that he included our two kitties peering out the glass door at the new addition to the yard.)

Now, as I've noted, Brian and I are normally a bit slow when it comes to getting projects done around the house and yard. But Brian promised that this particular project would get done this spring, and he was as good as his word. Earlier this month, we went out to a local garden center and bought a Knock Out rosebush—a variety that's compact, easy to care for, and very resistant to diseases, including black spot. And last weekend, when the weather was clear, we got it into the ground.

As you can see, Brian also stuck to his original design idea about extending the patio. He figured if he was going to do it at all, it would be a lot easier to do it before putting the rosebush in the ground than after, so he spend some time digging into the slope next to the patio and building a small dry-stone wall using some of the leftover pavers from our patio project.

The unusual thing about this job was that it was kind of done from the top down: he started by laying out the pavers directly on the ground around the planting area, and when he reached a spot where the ground was too low to support them, he dug out the dirt until there was room to add another layer of bricks underneath. He also didn't attempt to use any sort of mortar, so the only thing really holding the wall in place is the weight of the bricks and the dirt piled against them. And because the pavers aren't completely identical in size and shape—as we discovered when laying the patio itself—they didn't quite meet up evenly on all four sides. So the finished wall isn't exactly level, and there's one spot against the wall where Brian had to lay a brick in edgewise to fill in a gap. But you'd never notice it from a distance.

So there it is: my new rose garden. Now all I have to do is wait for them to start blooming. The plant was big enough when we bought it that I'm hoping for blooms the first year, but we might have to wait until next year for Brian's sketch to be realized in full.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Money Crashers: How to Eat Local

So far, in my work for Money Crashers, I've written several times about article to eat sustainably. I've already covered organic foods, vegetarian diets, and Fair Trade, so I guess it was only a matter of time before I tackled the same subject from yet another angle: eating local.

Like the other food-related topics I've covered, this is a type of eating I've dabbled in myself but never quite gone all the way with. Last June, for instance, I embarked on a local produce challenge, attempting to eat only Jersey-grown produce for one week. This wasn't all that strict a challenge, since (a) it was only a week and (b) only fruits and veggies had to be locally grown; we didn't even attempt to find local sources of, for example, wheat flour, sugar, or milk. And yet even with the bar set fairly low, we didn't exactly manage to stick to the letter of the challenge. We ate a lot of locally grown produce during a ten-day period, but there was no consecutive seven-day period during which we ate no produce from anywhere else.

Our experience illustrates both the benefits and the challenges of being a "locavore." On the one hand, during our local-produce week, we ate a lot of really good, healthy meals with tasty, seasonal veggies. We tried foods we might not have bought in the store, and we supported our local farmers at the same time. But on the other hand, we had to work harder to figure out recipes that would use nothing but the fruits and veggies available to us locally...and we still didn't succeed entirely, because our choices were limited.

My article on local eating goes into its benefits and challenges in more depth, exploring such questions as the relationship between eating local and eating organic, how supporting local farmers improves our nation's food security, whether it costs more or less money to eat a local diet, and the environmental trade-offs involved in eating an exclusively local diet. And to wrap it up on a practical note, I cover several different places to find locally grown food and ways to make the fruits of the harvest last longer.

Read about it here: How to Eat Local and Become a Locavore – Benefits & Challenges

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Stuffed Shrooms

Brian and I go through a lot of mushrooms. Since we don't eat a lot of meat, mushrooms make a pretty good way to add bulk and texture to our usual vegetarian fare, such as pasta and eggs. We buy most of our mushrooms from the Whole Earth Center in Princeton, where the organic white button mushrooms sell for just $2.29 a pound. That's quite a bit less than our local supermarkets usually charge for conventional mushrooms that come in plastic packages, and as a bonus, they don't leave us with a plastic package to dispose of. So pretty much every time we visit the Whole Earth Center, we make a point of grabbing a pound of mushrooms along with whatever other bulk items we need.

On our last visit to Whole Earth, Brian discovered that some of the mushrooms in the white button bin were unusually large. This inspired him to try an idea he'd been toying with for some time: stuffed mushrooms. We had this recipe for an appetizer called spinach balls, made by mixing Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix (it really has to be Pepperidge Farm, apparently) with chopped spinach and some eggs for a binder, and Brian thought a variant of this mixture might make a good stuffing for the shrooms. And as it happened, we already had half a package of the stuffing mix on hand, left over from a previous batch of the spinach balls, so this was a perfect time to try the experiment.

For the stuffing, Brian made some modifications to the basic spinach ball recipe, based on what we had available and what he thought would work best with the mushrooms. He ended up with this:


Remove the stems from 10 large white mushrooms and chop them. Dice 1/2 red onion, mince 1 clove garlic, and sauté all the veggies in a pan until they start to soften. Add 4 oz. chopped frozen spinach and sauté until all the veggies are soft.
In a bowl, mix 4 oz. Pepperidge Farm Herbed Stuffing Mix, 1 jumbo egg, 1/4 vegetable stock, and 1/4 tsp. salt. Stir in the sautéed veggies.
Spoon this mixture into the mushroom caps and bake at 375°F for 30-40 minutes or until browned.

These proved to be reasonably tasty, but somewhat difficult to eat. These mushrooms were too big to treat as hors d'oeuvres, picking them up and munching them down in a single bite, so we had to eat them with a knife and fork—but unfortunately the cooked mushrooms were rather slippery, so when we sliced into them, the stuffing would slide off the base. So we ended up attempting to spear the slice of mushroom and the escaped stuffing on the fork together in order to eat them as a unit. Once I managed to get everything it into my mouth, the flavors worked together pretty well, but I kept wishing that the stuffing mixture had been stuffed into something else that would hold it more securely.

Given that this recipe is a bit time-consuming to make, and given that we know so many other good things to do with mushrooms that are just as tasty and a lot easier, I don't think we're likely to make this particular dish again. But we'll probably keeping the recipe for the stuffing mixture on hand, since it might work well in some other context. Perhaps we could stuff it into some other veggie, like peppers or squash, or perhaps we could just stuff it into a casserole dish and eat it plain. If we can figure out a matzo-based equivalent for the Pepperidge Farm stuffing mix, we could even make a version of it for Passover next week.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Money Crashers: Conserve Water at Home

One of the first articles I wrote for Money Crashers was "How to Save Money by Living Green," in which covered ways to save money by
  1. saving electricity at home with efficient light bulbs, efficient appliance, and solar panels;
  2. saving gas by driving less and driving more efficiently; and 
  3. saving trees by using cloth napkins, conserving office paper, and reading the news online.
One topic I didn't really have room to address in that article, because it was quite long enough already, was saving water. So I've now rectified that omission with another article that's all about saving water at home. And I was surprised to find, once I got started on it, just how broad a topic it is. I'd already heard all the advice before about taking shorter showers, using faucet aerators, washing full loads of laundry, etc., etc.—but when you collect all those tips together in one place, it adds up to an astonishingly long list.

And that's just the ways to save water inside the house; you could write a whole book (and, in fact, many people have written books alredy) on all the things you can do to reduce water use in the yard. So even though this article is very long and very detailed, there are some topics on which it really just scratches the surface.

But if all you need is a basic primer how to save water at home, indoors and outdoors, then I feel like this piece covers all the bases pretty well. You can read it here: Ways to Save & Conserve Water at Home (Indoors & Outdoors).

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Planting prep

Although our first crop of the year, the snap peas, went into the garden back in March (in the snow), the bulk of the spring planting runs from mid-April to mid-May. So, since we were fortunate enough to have reasonably nice weather today, Brian and I both spent a good chunk of the day outdoors, getting the garden beds up and ready for the season.

The first step was to pull out all the weeds, of which there were many, from the beds. (As you'll see shortly, there were also some other plants that we left behind.) Then Brian opened up the compost bin and dug out as much dark, crumbly compost as he could get—about enough to fill up our four five-gallon buckets twice each. As he filled the buckets, I hauled them down to the beds and dumped them out, and then we both got out shovels and rakes and implements of destruction to spread the compost over the beds.

As we worked, however, we had to take care not to disturb what was already in the beds. The only plant we've actually transplanted so far is the parsley, and of the peas we planted four weeks ago, only a few tiny shoots have popped up above the surface so far. However, there seem to be a few leftovers lingering from last year's garden that might be worth keeping around. For instance, there's a small patch of scallions in the right front bed, roughly where we planted them last year. Unfortunately, since we try to rotate all our crops as much as possible, that's not where we intend to plant them this year; it's the spot we have earmarked for marigolds (right next to the tomatoes, since having marigolds planted in the same bed is supposed to deter tomato-preying pests). Fortunately, the marigolds aren't scheduled to go in the ground for another four weeks, which means we can keep the scallions around until then. A month from now, when it's time to turn their spot over to the marigolds, we can just pull them up and eat them.

Another curious relic of last year's garden is one lone Brussels sprout plant. As I noted in my Changing of the Garden post last December, the Brussels sprouts we planted last year still weren't big enough to eat by the time winter came, so we just left the plants in the garden to see if they'd survive the freeze. As it turned out, they did, and late last January we managed to harvest a batch of little round globes, not much bigger around than a quarter, but enough to make one batch of our favorite roasted Brussels sprouts. After that, Brian chopped off what was left of the stalk, and we figured that was the end of it. Except apparently, it wasn't. As you can see here, the plant has grown a new head, Hydra-like, out of the cut-off neck, and it appears to be developing what looks like a few tiny flowers of broccoli. (In fact, I initially thought this plant was actually a relic of our ill-fated broccolini crop, which did even worse than the Brussels sprouts, but Brian insisted it was the same plant he'd cut the Brussels sprouts off earlier this year.)

So we don't exactly know how this plant survived or whether it will ever yield anything we can eat. But the appearance of the little broccoli heads piqued Brian's curiosity, and he lobbied to leave it in the garden and see what happens. Since we won't actually need that spot until it's time to transplant the eggplants in early June, we really have nothing to lose by making the experiment.

The same can't be said, however, for the other plants we found in that same bed. The Winter Marvel lettuce we planted last year never really produced anything before winter came, and when there was no sign of it by the beginning of February, I figured there was no point in trying to plan this year's garden around it. But apparently my assumption was premature, because when Brian went out to weed the beds this weekend, he found that some of the plants in that bed were unmistakably lettuces. This put us in a bit of a quandary: garden-fresh greens this early in the spring are always welcome, but the spot they were growing in was supposed to be earmarked for the scallions, which were due to be planted today.

Fortunately, we were able to figure out a way to make room for everything. The two squares right next to the one the lettuces are occupying were designated to hold leeks—the one crop that didn't fare very well when we started them indoors. We'd originally planned to try and direct-seed some leeks in the garden at the same time we transplanted the seedlings and see if that would make up the difference, but Brian, figuring a lettuce in the hand was worth two leeks in the bush, made a spot decision to condense the available leek crop into just one square instead, leaving room for the lettuces to stay where they are. So we'll see how big those get, and more importantly, how they taste, before deciding whether to plant more of them this fall. Meanwhile, we also got our first square of spring lettuce planted (the new Bronze Mignonette variety we decided to try in place of last year's disappointing Blushed Butter Oaks), as well as our first two squares of arugula.

In the process of doing all this planting and general tidying up, we also discovered quite a few problems with the garden beds and paths that we're going to have to attend to some time this year. The most troubling is the condition of the beds and trellises themselves, which, after a good seven to eight years of service, are now clearly on their last legs. The beds, which we made out of ordinary, untreated two-by-fours back in 2008, are gradually staring to buckle and even rot away in places, and the trellises are leaning precariously away from their bases. For now, Brian has shored them up with a few strategically placed lengths of scrap wood, but it seems apparent that before next year's crops go in, we'll have to rip out the four entire bed-and-trellis assemblies and rebuild them from scratch.

So the question is, what should we rebuild them with? If we go with ordinary two-by-fours again, we can presumably expect to repeat the process yet again another seven or eight years down the road, so ideally we'd like to use something more durable this time around. So far, I can think of three options:
  • Cedar. More durable than the pine boards we're using now, but it's both pricey and hard to find. A quick search on Home Depot and Lowe's shows that neither one has any cedar two-by-fours in stock, and Home Depot says if it did have them, they'd cost $9 apiece for 8-foot boards. Since a single bed with a built-in trellis requires ten of them, that's a total of $360 for four beds—if we could even find that much cedar. Plus, it's not even clear that this cedar would hold up any better than the untreated pine we used last time; according to Woodweb, the cedar you buy in stores often includes some sapwood, which the author says can break down in as little as two years.
  • Pressure-treated wood. I vetoed this option when we originally built the beds, because some of my gardening books claimed that the chemicals used in pressure-treated wood were highly toxic and should never be used near vegetables you intend to eat. However, since then I've done a bit more research, and it appears that the chemical they were particularly concerned about was chromium copper arsenate (CCA), which isn't commonly used anymore. According to the Oregon State University Extension, most pressure-treated wood these days uses other chemicals such as alkaline copper quaternary ammonium (ACQ), which is nontoxic. (Some copper can still leach out of the wood, but studies indicate it's not enough to hurt you.) At roughly $10 for a 16-foot board, this option would come to about $200 for all four beds. The one thing that's not clear is jut how long this stuff would actually hold up. According to Woodweb, treated wood lasts about 20 times as long as the untreated stuff—but The Natural Handyman claims that even pressure-treated wood really should be treated with a sealant every year to prevent warping and cracking, so I'm not sure which source to believe. I found one sawmill site that says pressure-treated wood in garden beds holds up for "20+ years," so it seems likely we shouldn't have to worry about replacing the beds again for that long, at least.
  • Composite. A composite lumber made with recycled plastic, such as Trex, could conceivably hold up even better than the pressure-treated wood—possibly even well enough that we'd never have to replace it again. However, there are three problems with this idea: first, the design we used for these garden beds is based around two-by-fours, and most composite decking isn't sold in that size. Second, even if we could adapt our design to use thinner boards, we'd still pay something along the lines of $500 for a package of ten 16-foot boards, or $1,000 for all four beds. Given that the stuff is only guaranteed for 25 years, that's a pretty crummy value compared to the treated wood. And finally, Brian has said he's not really comfortable with the idea of using anything in our garden that "won't break down eventually." (Actually, the 25-year warranty suggests that this stuff will actually start to break down after a few decades, but it won't break down into anything natural.)
So it looks like the pressure-treated wood will probably be our best bet for new beds and trellises. Since this year's gardening season is already under way, we'll have to try and make the ones we have last for one year more, but the Changing of the Garden this year will probably have to involve ripping out the beds completely and preparing to put in new ones.

And, while we're at it, we'll probably have to do some work on the paths as well. As you can see from these pictures, the paths we laid in 2013, using garden cloth and stone dust left over from our patio project, just aren't managing to keep out the weeds. In addition to worming their way up around the edges of the cloth, both around the periphery of the beds and around the edges of the fence, they're now poking their way up straight through the cloth and stone dust right in mid-path. So if we really want to get the weed situation under control, I'm assuming we'll have to have another batch of stone dust delivered, yank as many weeds as we can, and then put another thick layer of stone dust over top of what's already there—possibly with an additional layer of garden cloth underneath, as well, to put as many barriers between the weeds and our feet as possible.

A final problem we discovered, while working on all this garden stuff, is that we appear to have an unwanted tenant in our shed—most likely a rat, to judge by its abundant droppings. So at some point, we'll either have to press our rat trap back into service (and hope it works better, or at least causes less collateral damage, in an enclosed area), or find some other way to evict the critter before it can pose a threat to our emerging crops. (I wonder whether there's any way we could recruit the local feral cat population to help us with this job. Could they possibly be bribed with milk?)

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Money Crashers: How to Become Financially Independent

It's been a few years now since Brian and I, having paid off our mortgage, decided to set our sights on Financial Independence (FI) as our new long-term goal. At that time, I did what I considered some extremely rough back-of-the-envelope calculations to figure out how long it might take us to reach this goal, based on our present rates of spending and saving. I made a guess, based on the historical averages for the federal funds rate, that we could count on our investments to bring in a return of 4 percent each year. True, this doesn't look like such a safe assumption now, when the federal funds rate has been stuck at close to zero for over five years—but then, back in the late '70s and early '80s, it was at over 10 percent for nearly the same period, and often above 15 percent. So my theory was that it all balances out.

Since then, I've discovered that my wild guess is actually a well-established rule of thumb, generally known as the 4 percent rule. It's based on a 1998 study called the Trinity Study, which found that as long as you have about half your retirement funds invested in stocks, you can safely withdraw 4 percent of the total each year without depleting your reserves. Over the long term, this rule holds through all the ups and downs of the market. Numerous financial bloggers, from Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar (whom I don't always consider reliable) to J.D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly and Mr. Money Mustache (both of whom I generally trust), rely on the 4 percent rule. And while many sources, from CNBC to the New York Times, have questioned whether the rule still applies in today's economy, a 2015 study found that for households with "considerable wealth"—enough to ride out a market downturn—it's still a reasonable guideline.

The main thing that struck me back then, as I fiddled with the numbers, was how much more benefit you get from cutting your expenses than you do from increasing your income by the same amount. Every dollar you add to your income (after taxes) helps you once: you can add it to your savings. But every dollar you cut from your expenses helps you twice: it increases your savings, and it decreases the total amount you need to save, because you now need less to live on. According to my calculations, a hypothetical saver who trimmed $5,000 a year from his expenses would shorten his time to FI by more than twice as much as he would be getting a $5,000 raise.

All this struck me as so interesting and useful that I decided to turn it into a post for Money Crashers, so I could share it with a wider audience. In the first part of the article, I outline the formula I used (which, I acknowledge, is still a very rough approximation) for calculating how long it will take you to reach FI at your present rates of spending and saving. Then I go into ways to reach FI faster by saving more, and I go into specific strategies for earning more and spending less (with an explanation of why the second approach helps you more). And finally, I outline a simple approach to investing for financial independence, known as a lazy portfolio. Investing this way means:
  1. Pick out two or three funds with low fees—either ETFs or index funds that cover the whole market as broadly as possible;
  2. Invest a fixed amount in each of these funds every month (automatically, if possible, so you don't even have to think about it); and then
  3. Just hold the funds until you're ready to start withdrawing. Don't try to adjust based on performance or market conditions; that's a good way to guess wrong and withdraw your money at exactly the wrong time. Just sit tight, and let it work out in the long run.
I first learned about this strategy from Andrew Tobias, one of my personal household gods, and it's worked out well for me—especially the part about not having to think about it. The term "lazy portfolio" was new to me until I started working on this article, but now that I know it, I'm going to use it often in casual conversation.

So if you want the complete scoop on everything you need to know to become financially independent, you can check out the complete article here: How to Become Financially Independent Quickly Using the FI Formula. However, I would ask you to please disregard that word "quickly" in the title, which was added by the editor. I do not, anywhere in the article, promise that this strategy will help you reach FI quickly; I only help you figure out how quickly you can do it, and then suggest some tips for getting there a little faster. But it is not, in any way, a get-rich-quick scheme, and if you click on the article looking for one, you will surely be disappointed.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Bifold Project: Big Reveal

I've said it before, and I'll no doubt say it again: when it comes to DIY projects, we'll always choose good and cheap over fast results. A case in point is the new bifold doors for the office closet, which we finally got installed last week. It took us about 12 weeks, all told, to shop for them, make the necessary modifications to the closet opening so it would fit them, and get them stained, finished, and installed - but aren't they gawgeous?

Besides looking much better than the old sliding doors, the new ones are a lot more functional. For starters, they're much easier to open and close. Since they have proper knobs rather than tiny little holes big enough to accommodate only the tip of one finger, it's much easier to grasp them to open them—and since they also have proper mounting hardware, unlike the makeshift doohickey that held the old sliding doors in place, they don't get stuck once you've opened them an inch. Plus, it's now possible to open both doors at once to access the full contents of the closet, which makes it a great deal easier to slide large items in and out (like that box in the bottom left corner, which holds gifts we're saving for holidays and birthdays).

With all their advantages, the new doors do have some flaws. Although opening both doors gives us a wider closet entrance than we used to have, the opening with just one door open is narrower, because the folded door takes up a good four and a half inches of space. This means we now have to open both doors to get the laundry basket down from its shelf. Also, the hardware that keeps the doors in place when they're closed sticks out an inch or so from the bottom when they're open, so we both have to watch out for this little dingus to avoid tripping over it or snagging things on it when we're accessing the closet. But overall, the new doors are still much better than the old ones, both to look at and to use.

So this leaves just two questions: first, how much did this project end up costing us? And second, now that we've done the doors, does this mean we need to tackle the rest of the room as well?

The first question is pretty straightforward. We spent $190 on the doors themselves, $11 on a quart of stain (which we'll also be using to refinish the rest of the interior doors on the main floor), and $55 on the new molding we had to have custom-cut to skin the jambs (I just love using that phrase). So altogether, we spent $256 on these new doors, making this easily the most expensive birthday present I've ever asked for.

The second is a little more complicated. In the process of installing these new doors, we had to rip out, replace, and repaint all the trim on that side of the room—so the rest of the trim in the room now looks a bit dingy by comparison. And the main door to the room, which is probably the most battered of the motley lot we've got on this hallway, now sticks out even more next to these nice closet doors. But on the other hand, they don't really look any worse now than they did before, and considering how long it took us just to get the new doors installed, refinishing the rest of the room could easily take us months, if not years.

So I think what we're planning to do at this point is to handle this room piecemeal, as much as possible. We can tackle small jobs like refinishing that door or replacing the outlets without having to tear apart the rest of the room, so we can continue to use it normally. Only after we've done all the little jobs will we take on the big, disruptive ones, like repairing and painting the walls. That's a process took about a month from start to finish in the guest room, but we're hoping the lessons we learned there—like pounding in nails that are bulging out of the wall and then adding a wood screw to hold the wallboard in place, rather than trying to remove the nail and taking chunks of the wall with it—will make it a bit speedier in this room. But we can still expect it to displace us from the office for at least a week, so we'd prefer to put it off until everything else is taken care of.