Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Money Crashers: Should I Repair or Replace a Broken Appliance?

One of the basic premises of the ecofrugal life is that it's usually better to repair an item, if you can, than to replace it. Repairing is usually cheaper; it prevents waste; and it saves the energy and other resource costs of making a replacement item. That's an ecofrugal win-win-win.

However, every rule has its exceptions. Sometimes repairing an item isn't possible, or is so difficult as to make it impractical. Sometimes it actually costs more than replacing. Sometimes it's cheaper, but only just, and the additional years of life you'd get out of the repaired item aren't enough to justify the cost. And sometimes keeping your old item can actually cost you money, as in the case of an old appliance that uses vastly more energy than a newer model. In a case like that, replacing would actually be both cheaper and greener in the long run.

Back in 2011, I did a whole series of posts exploring this "Repair or replace?" dilemma. It started with the case of Brian's old bike, which needed a moderately pricey repair to keep it running, and how that compared to my old computer, which I'd chosen to replace when an upgrade failed to get it up to a reasonable working speed. I went on to examine other specific cases—a damaged pair of boots, an old coat in need of alteration—and concluded with a set of general rules I'd found for deciding when repair is a better option than replacement, and vice versa. (This whole series is now marked with the label "repair or replace," so you can view all the posts on one page if you like.)

Recently, I decided to sum up my findings from all those posts with my readers in a single article on Money Crashers. It compares the benefits of repairing and replacing in detail and then outlines a series of questions to help you decide which is the better option in any given case. In brief, the questions are:
  1. How hard is it to repair?
  2. How do the costs compare?
  3. How worn out is it?
  4. Is it costing you money?
  5. Will its value increase?
  6. What's the disposal cost?
  7. Do you love it?
This, in short, is the article I wish I'd had handy for reference back when we first started having trouble with Brian's bike five years ago. If you have anything broken lying around your house and you just can't decide whether it's worth repairing, perhaps this article can make your decision about repairing it a little easier than ours was back then.

Should I Repair or Replace a Broken Appliance? – Here’s How to Decide

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Gardeners' Holidays 2016: The Changing of the Garden

As you can see from today's cute Google Doodle, today is the start of winter, and thus time for the final Gardeners' Holiday of the year. This year at our house, The Changing of the Garden is extending beyond the vegetable garden and into the front yard. As you know, we've had very uneven results trying to grow flowers in front of the house. They looked great to start with, but eventually they all flopped over in a strong storm, and they never really recovered. Our first attempt to tame the unruly flowers with of stakes and string proved unsuccessful, and our second attempt this spring was doomed from the start because by that point, the bachelor's buttons had completely taken over, crowding out everything else. I finally got fed up and decided to yank them all out, and once they were gone, we discovered there was nothing left but a few scraggly daisies and poppies. It looked less like a bed of wildflowers and more like an abandoned plot of land in which a few wildflowers had managed to pop up.

So we decided that this fall, we'd just pull everything out and reseed the bed, this time with an all-perennial mix that doesn't have any of those pesky cornflowers in it. However, this plan was complicated by the installation of our new front stoop. We didn't want to put the seeds in before the stoop was completed, for fear the workers would just end up ploughing up the area and disrupting all the seeds. Unfortunately, while the steps themselves went in at the start of December, the railings didn't get installed until this Monday. (First we had to wait for the new railings to be constructed, and then our appointment to have them put in kept being rescheduled on account of freezing temperatures that made it impossible to use the water-cooled drill.)

So it wasn't until Monday afternoon, after the ironworkers were gone, that we finally managed to get seeds in. We ended up having to use our big spade to dig up—or more accurately, chip away—the area immediately next to the steps, which had been soaked with the spray from the drill and completely frozen over, but we eventually managed to scatter the seeds and compress them into the dirt, leaving them uncovered as the package instructed. Now we just have to cross our fingers that they manage to germinate and give us something nicer-looking than we had the first time around. (We'll probably want to install stakes and string with the new bed, too, as the new perennial mix also has some very tall blooms in it.)

Once that was taken care of, we were able to turn our attention to cleaning up the vegetable garden. On Tuesday, Brian tore out most of the withered remains of this year's crops. It turned out to be impossible to pull out the squash vines without ripping out most of trellis netting with them, so he just ended up pulling the entire mess out, leaving that trellis bare. He'll have to put new trellis netting in next year when we plant our spring crops on First Sowing day.

Before he can do that, however, he'll most likely have to replace the entire garden bed frame. His home-grown design for raised beds constructed of 2-by-4's has held up remarkably well until now, but after eight years, the boards are starting to warp and decay to the point that the bed can no longer hold itself together. So next spring we'll have to replace at least one of the beds, and possibly all four. This time around we'll most likely use pressure-treated wood, which should hold up better to the elements. I was unwilling to use it last time because I kept reading warnings about the dangers of the arsenic used in preserving the wood leaching into your soil. But it turns out this particular chemical, called chromated copper arsenate (CCA), is no longer used in pressure-treated wood sold for domestic use, and newer preservatives appear to be much safer. So I figure at this point, I figure the only real downside to using this material is a somewhat higher one-time cost, and it's well worth it if we don't end up having to replace the beds every eight years.

As you can see from the pictures above, we haven't completely stripped the garden bare. The parsley and the winter lettuce are still green and growing, so we've left them in place in the hope that we can continue to harvest them throughout the winter or, failing that, let them overwinter and pop up again in the spring. We've also left in the Brussels sprouts plants because they actually do have tiny but identifiable sprouts on them, and we can't quite bring ourselves to pull them out if there's even a chance those sprouts could survive to become big enough to eat. It's a long shot, but we have nothing to lose at this point. However, given the distinct lack of success we've had with this crop over the past three years, we're definitely not devoting any of our precious garden space to it next year.

Another crop we've decided to leave untouched, sort of as an experiment, is our raspberry canes. When we first bought these plants back in 2013, we decided to follow the cut-every-year method of growing, which gives you one large crop in the fall instead of a steady stream of berries throughout the summer. We chose this method mainly because it's a lot easier than the more traditional method of growing them, which is to selectively prune the bushes each year, cutting off the two-year old "floricanes" while leaving the one-year-old "primocanes" intact. However, this year, it occurred to Brian that, since we've been cutting everything down each year, we know that what we have out in the bed right now is nothing but primocanes—so why not just leave them there to develop into floricanes and let next year's primocanes come in behind them? That way, we'll get a crop off the floricanes in the summer and off the primocanes in the fall—and after that, we can just cut everything down and start over again. So we're giving that a try, and if it turns out to give us a better yield overall, we'll stick with this two-year cycle from now on.

The other bit of garden-related news is that our new Fedco seed catalogue has arrived. So as per our new holiday tradition, we'll bring that with us on our Christmas jaunt to Indianapolis, perhaps even taking it in the car so I can browse through it and propose new crops to Brian as he drives. By the time we return home, we should have it all figured out what new goodies we want to plant in next year's garden. (We'll probably be devoting a bit more of our time to the garden in 2017, as focusing on the one bit of the planet we can control should be a welcome relief from all the upsetting things happening elsewhere in the country and around the globe.)

So that wraps up our Gardeners' Holidays for 2016. We're off to Indianapolis shortly, and I may or may not have time to update the blog while I'm there—so in case I don't post again this year, a happy Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, or winter solstice holiday of your choice, and I'll see you all in 2017.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Money Crashers: 7 Stores With Price Match Guarantees

Just a quick post here for the benefit of anyone who's doing a little last-minute holiday shopping (or any other type of shopping) at department stores. I've recently learned about the wonders of price matching, which makes comparison shopping as easy as showing one store's price to another store and getting it instantly. However, each store has specific rules about which prices it will match (e.g., the items have to be completely identical, or you can only price-match one of each item), so I've written an in-depth guide to help you navigate the ins and outs of price matching at seven major retail chains. The article covers Walmart, Target, Best Buy, Home Depot, Lowe's, Staples, and Toys 'R' Us. Even though we don't shop at all these chains, learning all about their policies has already saved us some cash; last time our printer rejected a refilled ink cartridge, we were able to get a new cartridge at Staples for the price, a savings of nearly 50 percent.

Here are all the gory details: 7 Stores With Price Match Guarantees – Walmart, Target, Best Buy & More

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Money Crashers: Sustainable Clothing on a Budget

Last year, when I decided to make thrift shops the theme of Thrift Week, I was inspired in part by an article I'd read about the ecological perils of modern "fast fashion." Aside from how obviously wasteful it is to wear a garment for a single season and then discard it as outdated, today's ultra-cheap garments are usually made with eco-unfriendly fibers, toxic dyes, and sweatshop labor in brutal conditions.

The real question is, what's the alternative? Fast fashion dominates the malls and clothing outlets, so it's hard to find anything that's more sustainably made. And while there are a few retailers out there that specialize in eco-friendly and humanely produced clothing, these "sustainable" garments often have unsustainably high prices. You could, of course, just buy fewer garments each year, which is what consumers used to do decades ago. But high-end, eco-friendly clothing doesn't necessarily hold up to wear any better than the cheap stuff, so you could end up having to replace your $200 pants every year—a bitter pill for an ecofrugal shopper to swallow.

My latest Money Crashers article explores some solutions to this dilemma. First, I examine just what it means for clothing to be sustainable: what types of fibers, dyes, and workplace policies go into making garments that are easier on the earth and on workers. Then I explore the various ways there are to acquire secondhand clothing (the mainstay of the ecofrugal shopper's wardrobe), including thrift shops, yard sales, online sites, clothing swaps, and Freecycle. And finally, I list several eco-friendly brands on the market that actually have fairly reasonable prices—not as low as you'd find at Target or Walmart, but on a par with department-store brands of similar quality.

Here's the article: How to Buy Sustainable, Eco-Friendly Clothing on a Budget

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Money Crashers: How to Stop Wasting Money

Since I started writing for Money Crashers, I've been receiving occasional e-mails from companies hoping that I'll want to mention their latest product or service in an article. I usually ignore these, but occasionally they send me something that's interesting enough to catch my attention. One recent example was a link sent to me by someone at HLoom about a survey the company had done on financial waste. It asked 2,000 Americans what they waste most money on and then broke down the results by gender, age, income, and region of the country.

Since ecofrugality is pretty much all about avoiding waste, this piece intrigued me. The part I found most interesting was the question about which wasteful expenses people were and were not willing to cut back on. Mind you, these are expenses that people personally admit are a waste of money—yet in some cases, they apparently prefer to keep wasting money on them. To my ecofrugal mind, that seems like a paradox; if it's money well spent, it's not a waste, and if it isn't, why keep spending it? But apparently the folks who took this survey define the word "waste" a bit differently than I do. (This may be the fault of the survey designers; as far as I can tell, they never explicitly stated what they meant by "waste," so each of those 2,000 people could be interpreting it a different way.)

Some of the responses they gave to this question seemed particularly odd. For instance, most people say they are willing to cut back on restaurant meals and alcoholic beverages, but not on food waste—meals and ingredients that go uneaten. This seems to me like a complete no-brainer; food you're not eating doesn't benefit you in any way, so why would you want to keep spending money on it? But apparently the folks who took this survey are convinced that doing what it takes to waste less food would have such a negative impact on their lives that they'd rather cut back on clothes, cigarettes, or even home heating.

Another puzzling expense people say they wouldn't cut was bottled water. Only about 11 percent of the respondents think they waste money on it, but those who do apparently consider it a worthwhile waste. Even if they know tap water is cheaper (and, in most parts of the country, just as safe and tasty), they just aren't prepared to let go of their bottles.

Anyway, all this seemed like a fertile enough field that I decided to devote a whole Money Crashers article to exploring it. The post examines the areas in which different people are most likely to waste money, how they vary based on demographics, and which forms of waste people are and aren't willing to cut. Then I go on to discuss ways of wasting less money in all these areas—without making the kinds of sacrifices that survey respondents appear to be afraid of.

Here's the full article: How to Stop Wasting Money and Save on Common Everyday Expenses

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Potatoes with Pecans

In the past few years, Brian and I have become big fans of Brussels sprouts. (We've even attempted repeatedly to grow them in our garden—but after three years of experimenting and no success producing sprouts bigger than a marble, we've decided our soil just isn't Brussels-sprout-friendly.) Our favorite way to cook them, hands down, is the Roasted Brussels Sprouts recipe from Mark Bittman, which was my Recipe of the Month back in March of 2014. It's incredibly easy to do, and though the results vary somewhat—sometimes the sprouts are tender, sometimes crispy, depending on their size—it's always yummy.

Lately, however, I've begun to think we're getting into a Brussels sprout rut. I know there are other good ways to cook them, but every time we get our hands on a bag, we just default to our old standard. So when the latest issue of Savory magazine (the freebie from Stop & Shop) offered up a feature on Brussels sprouts complete with several recipes, I thought maybe this was a good chance to try mixing it up a little. I clipped a couple of recipes that looked promising, and we settled on the Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Potatoes with Pecans (page 39) as the one we'd like to try first.

However, finding the ingredients proved a little challenging. We usually pick up Brussels sprouts at Trader Joe's, but on our last trip there, we discovered the bagged sprouts they usually offer had suddenly disappeared. They had fresh sprouts on the stalk, but those were about twice as expensive, as well as being more work to prepare, so we decided they weren't worth it. And since we didn't get the sprouts, we concluded there was no point in buying pecans, the other ingredient we needed for the recipe, which we'd planned to pick up on the same trip.

That turned out to be a shortsighted move on our part, however. Last Friday, with Brian off work for the day, we decided to make a foray out to the Amish market in Kingston, and while there, we happened on some Brussels sprouts for just $2.49 a pound, the same price we usually pay at Trader Joe's. So we snapped those up straightaway, figuring we could make the new recipe this weekend after all...only to realize that we didn't have the pecans, and the Amish market doesn't carry those.

So we quickly formulated a plan B. We'd received a flier advertising a new Aldi in our area that was supposed to have its grand opening on Thursday, so we figured we could just stop by there over the weekend, pick up a few sale items, and grab a bag of reasonably-priced pecans while we were at it. This plan, however, turned out to have a fatal flaw: when we showed up at the new Aldi today, right around noon, we found several people standing around outside, making no move to enter. When we approached the door, we could see why: the doors were locked, and there was a big sign on the front apologizing for the delay and redirecting us to another Aldi several miles away. It was really weird, because the lights were on in the store, and as best we could see from the door, the shelves appeared to be fully stocked; there were even several people inside. But no one was being admitted, and there was no indication why.

Disgruntled, we decided we'd just pop by the local Stop & Shop and buy some pecans there, even if we ended up having to pay a premium for them. There, our luck finally turned: we discovered a one-pound bag of pecans sitting all by itself on the shelf, with no price marked anywhere, and when we scanned it at the store's little barcode reader, it turned out to be just $7.99—the same per-price pound we'd have paid if we'd just bought them at the Trader Joe's in the first place.

So tonight, at last, we were able to prepare the recipe. We made some minor modifications to the version presented in Savory; it called for a 20-ounce package of "refrigerated sliced potatoes and onions," which we naturally dismissed as an overpriced and overpackaged absurdity, so Brian just diced up a roughly equivalent quantity of plain old bagged potatoes and red onions. We also used free-range bacon ends from the Amish market rather than the sliced bacon the recipe called for, and we left out the half cup of ricotta cheese it says to use as a topping, since neither of us cares for it much. Brian just added a bit of salt at the end of the roasting instead.

The result was, as we expected, quite tasty. Brian commented that he wouldn't have expected bacon and pecans to be two great tastes that tasted great together, but the flavors actually harmonized quite nicely. The presence of the bacon lent a nice smoky overtone to everything, and the crunch of the pecans contrasted nicely with the tenderness of the veggies. Our only quibble was that the sprouts, after their long, slow roasting, seemed a bit dry. We thought perhaps the ricotta was meant to ameliorate this, but it didn't seem like quite the right flavor for the job to us.

What we really thought would improve it would be some sort of glaze on the sprouts...perhaps one made with maple syrup, since that's another flavor that goes well with both bacon and pecans. And Brian remembered that we happened to have some homemade pancake syrup in the fridge, left over from our last batch of waffles. It had crystallized a bit, but there was enough liquid in there for us each to extract a dab and try it on the sprouts, and we immediately agreed that this was exactly what it needed. So next time we make this, we're planning to drizzle a little maple syrup (or more likely, our faux-maple equivalent) over the sprouts before roasting them, and we think this will elevate the recipe from merely good to truly scrumptious.

So with a little more modification, we're expecting this recipe to become a permanent part of our veggie repertoire. And meanwhile, we still have the other Brussels sprout recipe from Savory to try, possibly expanding our collection of Brussels sprout dishes still more.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Cat-safe decorations, year 2

Brian and I ran into a slight snag with our ecofrugal holiday decorations this year. Normally, we adorn the front porch railings with evergreen branches (discards from the local Christmas-tree vendors) and white fairy lights...but this year, we couldn't do that because our front porch currently has no railings. After years of seeing the plaster on the old steps slowly crumbling away, we finally gave in and spent a wad of money to have them replaced, along with the two smaller steps in the front and the walk in between. It was pricey, but we decided it was worth the money because we were simply never going to have the time to do such a big job ourselves...and even if we attempted it, we certainly wouldn't get such nice results as the pros.

However, the folks who install the steps don't do the railings; there's a separate contractor for those, and we had a little trouble getting in touch with him, so our new railings were only ordered a week ago and aren't ready yet. At this rate, it's not clear that we'll have any railings to hang our holiday lights on before the holidays actually arrive. So we've had to content ourselves, for now, with trimming the side porch railings and decking the halls indoors. Of course, just like last year, we have to limit our indoor decorations to places that are out of reach for the cats. However, since last year, I've come up with a few new cat-safe places to display holiday greenery.

Some parts of the decorating scheme are unchanged from last year. I still made up a bunch of my usual little flowerpots filled with spruce cones, evergreen, and bright holly berries, trimmed with red and silver ribbon, to display on all the high shelves throughout the house: six on the bookcase in the living room, two in the office, and one in the kitchen on top of the fridge. And the collection of pottery on top of the entertainment center in the living room got the same treatment as before: evergreens in the vases, pine cones in the colander, and red ribbons twined around the dessert dishes. The arrangement in the bathroom was a little harder to get right, since the plant on top of the medicine chest has grown quite a bit since last year, so I had to figure out a way to get its long tendrils to coexist with the trailing red ribbon. But eventually I found a way to overlap them without getting them hopelessly tangled.

One thing I didn't like too much about my decorations last year was that I only had one tiny pot of evergreens in the whole big downstairs room. This year, it occurred to me that if I wanted a bigger splash of color, I could just fill up a bigger vase with evergreens, and attach the last of my red ribbon trailing down the side. And since I had a perfectly good vase that was no longer using on top of the toilet in the downstairs bathroom (since that spot is cat-accessible), I just filled that up and set it on the top shelf of the etagere in the corner. I even pulled out a wee glass bluebird that I'd been keeping in the bathroom and set it alongside the vase for a touch of added color. It's more visible than the tiny little pot, but wish I had a little more of the red ribbon, since I think this would look even nicer with some longer streamers of red ribbon trailing down both sides of the etagere. (I think I could safely let them dangle down about a foot before they'd be within reach of the kitties.) So maybe I'll pop by the dollar store and see if I can find any more. They were all out last year, but the stock there keeps changing, so you never know.

Once I'd figured out that I could add a vase of evergreens in that spot, it occurred to me that I also had some perfectly good containers in the downstairs bathroom that could also hold evergreens—my collection of blue glassware that sits on top of the corner cabinet. So I went through my assortment of evergreen branches and found some long, skinny pieces to fit in the bottles and the bud vase, and some shorter pieces to fill up the little drinking cup. The bowls of the goblets weren't a good shape for evergreens, so I just popped some pine cones in there instead. Then, just for good measure, I set some small pine cones into the tops of the candlesticks as well. And finally, I took the last stray bits of silver ribbon and arranged them along the sides to frame the whole arrangement.

The final change was in the guest room. Last year, I just draped a long length of multi-colored ribbon around the toys on top of the bookcase, but I thought it would really look better if I could add a bit of greenery up there, too. So I pulled out a tall glass goblet—the same one I used to keep flower arrangements in the kitchen before we had to switch to a cat-safe vase—and filled that up with evergreens. For extra color, I took the last tiny bit of red ribbon and twisted it into a bow around the stem of the glass. Then I just cleared a little space among all the toys on the bookcase, and now the toys are all gathered under their very own Christmas tree—right where toys belong.

Since I already owned all the glassware, and the ribbons and pots were saved from last year's decorations, I didn't have to buy anything at all for this year's holiday decorations. The evergreens were all salvaged from the tree-vendors' trash bin, and the pine cones were gathered right here in our neighborhood. So basically, it's all just debris that would otherwise go to waste—and we have instead turned it into beautiful holiday decorations that didn't cost us a penny. An ecofrugal Christmas to all!