Sunday, October 22, 2017

What do to when IKEA lets you down

Regular readers of this blog know that Brian and I are both big fans of IKEA. We've bought all kinds of goodies there—patio furniture, towels, foodstuffs, rechargeable batteries, kitchen gadgets, and holiday gifts. We've hacked IKEA furniture to fit over our space heaters and to make a sitting/standing desk for Brian. We've even celebrated our anniversary there, preferring an afternoon of bouncing on POANG chairs, exploring the model apartment layouts, browsing the collection of kitchen tools and kids' toys, and eating Swedish delicacies to such traditional, pricey entertainments as dining and dancing.

But lately, I've started to feel like IKEA has been letting us down. It started last year, when we noticed that its selection of LED light bulbs wasn't that impressive. The bulbs weren't really any cheaper than the ones at Home Depot, and they didn't have any that were particularly bright. Then, on our last anniversary trip there, we found that several of the things on our shopping list weren't available. My beloved MELLANROST decaf coffee, which I'd been planning to stock up on had been supplanted by a new line of Fair Trade coffee called PÅTÅR, which doesn't come in a decaffeinated version. And worse still, when we went looking for a refill brush for our old LILLHOLMEN toilet brush holder, we discovered that both the holder and the LOSSNEN refills that fit it were no longer available. Instead, they had a new brush insert, called HEJAREN, which was sized for its newer toilet brush holders and probably wouldn't fit our old one. This was a major bummer, because the whole reason we'd bought the LILLHOLMEN in the first place was because it was so much more ecofrugal to replace the brush with a cheap refill when it wore out, rather than being forced to discard brush and handle together. If the refills were no longer available, the whole piece was now useless—even though the screw-on handle and holder were still perfectly good.

However, we thought there was a chance we could make the LILLHOLMEN work with the new HEJAREN inserts, so we decided to take a $3 risk and buy a couple. After a bit of tinkering, Brian was able to get the new insert screwed into place, and it was just short enough to fit into the base—but it wasn't exactly secure. Every time I tried to brush the toilet bowl with it, the slightest amount of pressure caused the brush to bend and threaten to snap. And eventually, on maybe the third or fourth use, that's exactly what it did, breaking off right at the point where the insert attached to the handle.

To add insult to injury, another IKEA tool that we used all the time in our bathroom, our little shower squeegee, chose the same week to break. I just went to wipe the shower walls with it as usual, and it snapped right off at the handle. I suppose I can't complain too much about this one, since it only cost us $2 to begin with and we'd been using it for several years, but it did feel like all our IKEA products were failing us at once.

Our first thought was to try to repair the damaged items, since that's usually (though not always) more ecofrugal than buying new ones. Brian tried fixing the squeegee with epoxy, fitting it around the join and molding it into all the cracks, but to no avail; the first time I tried to use it, it snapped right in the same place. As for the toilet brush, we could probably have glued the broken end of the insert back on, but we quickly realized there wasn't much point, as it still wouldn't fit the handle. It would still be subject to the same stress every time we used it, so it would almost certainly break again.

So then we headed out to Bed Bath & Beyond to try and find replacements for the two damaged items. And there, we got a quick, sharp reminder of just why IKEA, despite its shortcomings, is still our favorite place to shop for small items like these. The store had a fairly large assortment of shower squeegees, but none for less than $10, when the perfectly functional IKEA one that we'd been using for years had cost only $2. (Even with inflation, a similar item there—made with recycled plastic, no less—costs the same today.) As for the toilet brushes, Bed Bath & Beyond was charging $15 and up for a perfectly plain, utilitarian model such as you could buy at IKEA for under a dollar. At those prices, we could spend the $8.50 in tolls for a trip up to IKEA and spend the same amount (and we'd be able to get a new toilet brush that would be refillable, so it would cost less in the long run).

So we walked out of Bed Bath & Beyond pretty much convinced that there was no reason ever to go back; nothing there, as far as we can tell, is ever going to be a good deal, even with the inevitable 20% off coupon that arrives regularly in our mail. But on the other hand, making a trip up to IKEA for a cheaper alternative is a much bigger undertaking, and we wouldn't have time for it until the next weekend at least. Letting water build up on our shower walls for a whole week didn't seem like a good option.

In the end, we compromised. We picked up a reasonably priced squeegee at Target for $3.50, and Brian took another crack at repairing the old toilet brush using Sugru, a nifty product that's like a cross between Superglue and modeling clay. We can't be sure how well the repaired brush will hold, and even if it does, it will no longer be refillable—but at least we'll be able to use our existing brush a little longer, which will give us time to shop for a more reasonable replacement.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Money Crashers: Cheap Computer Games – Best Free & Affordable Options

As a complement to my Money Crashers article on the joys of tabletop gaming, I've also done one on how to enjoy electronic games on a budget. I've checked lists at gaming publications to find the top-rated games in different categories - war games, fantasy games, MMORPGs - that you can play for free (although some of them are only trial versions, and others charge for in-app purchases).

I've also added a section on my favorite type of computer game, old-fashioned text adventures (like Zork). There's a huge number of these available for free online, they don't require a sophisticated computer setup, and the best ones are, in my opinion, even more compelling than the best graphical games. Sure, I know computer graphics are more realistic than ever, and I know we're on the verge of a revolution in virtual reality that will make it possible to experience the game world even more fully—but I still maintain that there are some things a well-written story can do that no visual experience can ever match. In an IF (interactive fiction) game, you can experience not only sights and sounds, but also smells, tastes, and more importantly still, thoughts and feelings. How can graphics ever do that?

If you've never tried it before, I urge you to give just one of these text adventures a try and see for yourself. Andrew Plotkin's The Dreamhold is a good one for new players, but any of the games in this "starter pack" list could be a good choice.

And to see the rest of the game choices, check out the full article: Cheap Computer Games – Best Free & Affordable Options

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Money Crashers: “Free” Stuff

In this 2013 post, I talked a bit about the psychology of the word "free," and how it can lure us into making decisions that aren't necessarily in our interest. In my latest Money Crashers post, I explore this idea in more detail. I talk about how the use of the word "free" affects consumer behavior and give several examples of "free" offers—free shipping, free trials, free gifts with purchase—that end up costing you money in different ways. Then I wrap it up with a few pointers on how to avoid falling into the "free" trap.

As a side note, you may find the title of this piece—How to Avoid Bait & Switch Advertising Scams Offering “Free” Stuff—a little confusing, since the article isn't really about "scams" and is only loosely related to "bait and switch." My original proposed title was "When 'Free' is Too Expensive," but my editor explained that "there really wasn't any search traffic opportunities" for this topic. So instead, he decided to give it a title about "how to avoid bait and switch scams," a topic that attracted "plenty" of search traffic. Ironically, this means the article itself now is a bait and switch scam, because it's trying to lure in people looking for articles on a completely different topic. But at least I managed to talk him into tacking on a reference to the word "free" in the title, so readers won't be completely baffled.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Recipes of the Month: Wilted Lettuce and Roasted Veggies with Quinoa

This month, Brian and I haven't tried any brand-new vegetable recipes yet, but we have made two new variants on recipes we'd done before. So I figured I'd just share these two variants, and it would add up to the equivalent of one complete Recipe of the Month.

The first one came about because last week we bought a bunch of green leaf lettuce at the farmers' market, and when we tasted it, we found it was unusually tough and somewhat bitter. It wasn't very good as a salad, so Brian came up with the idea of trying it in a different form: wilted lettuce, which he remembered having as a kid. He thought his mom had given him the recipe for it, but when he went through his recipe file, he couldn't find it, so instead he just prepared with the same dressing we use for dandelion greens: chopped, cooked bacon with the drippings, red onion, cider vinegar, and brown sugar. However, instead of just pouring this over the greens the way he does for dandelions, he actually put the torn lettuce leaves into the pan and let them heat until they looked wilted, but not soggy. And the result was...not bad. Maybe not quite as good as the same recipe with dandelion greens, but it certainly made this tough lettuce more palatable. I'd certainly consider using it again if we find ourselves with a head of lettuce, or any other kind of greens, that's too stringy or too bitter to eat raw.

The second recipe was also kind of an accident. At the time we bought the tough head of lettuce, we also picked up a couple of zucchini, intending to grill them. This is a dish we've made several times before; what Brian typically does is to slice the zucchini into narrow spears and toss them with a mixture of olive oil, soy sauce, sesame oil, and garlic powder, then grill them until they're tender. We usually make these alongside free-range turkey franks from the Amish market, since the long and narrow zucchini spears can be tucked into a roll either along with or instead of the hot dog, depending on how you prefer to eat them.

However, a combination of rainy weather and busy schedules conspired to keep Brian from being able to grill throughout the week. And over the course of that week, we also harvested quite a lot of tomatoes. Our new Pineapple tomato is continuing to produce big, plump fruits, and the Black Prince and Mr. Fumarole (which would be a great name for an alternative band) are producing smaller but steady yields. So I'd gone hunting for tomato recipes and discovered one in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian for Grilled Tomatoes with Basil, which basically is just what it sounds like: cut the tomatoes into thick slices, brush them with olive oil, sprinkle on salt and pepper, grill them until they start to caramelize, and serve them with chopped basil.

So my idea was that, as soon as the weather allowed, we could grill these tomatoes along with the zucchini, and serve it all up "on a bed of quinoa or something." (I chose quinoa more or less at random because it seemed like the kind of thing a chef probably would pair with grilled veggies; rice or pasta would probably work also, but quinoa has more protein, so it makes for a more complete meal.) And by this time, farmers' market Friday had rolled around again and we'd grabbed a couple of eggplant, so Brian decided to slice one of those and throw it on the grill as well. He used a modified version of our usual recipe for the zucchini, omitting the sesame oil, which he thought wouldn't go well with the tomato; the tomato and eggplant he just sliced and grilled plain.

The results of this experiment were a bit mixed. The zucchini spears cooked up to their usual tenderness, and the eggplant came out firm and nicely browned, but the tomatoes—two of our big Pineapples—sort of fell apart. Bittman says five minutes on the grill should get the tomato slices "soft but not mushy," but these tomatoes were fairly soft and juicy to start with, so they ended up without much structural integrity. Brian transferred them to a bowl, and we dished them out as a sort of sauce to accompany the other veggies. We rounded out the meal with quinoa, cooked in our favorite Penzey's veggie stock to boost the flavor, and a bit of pesto out of our freezer that Brian added to the assortment on a whim.

I tried various combinations of these ingredients and found that the zucchini, eggplant, and quinoa all went together very nicely. Adding some soft tomato to the mix was okay too, but didn't really do anything to enhance it. As for the pesto, I didn't think it worked that well with the other veggies, but Brian quite liked it with the quinoa. Since we didn't finish it all, he decided to re-freeze the rest of it and plan to make quinoa alla pesto at some later point, so perhaps I'll cover that in a future Recipe of the Month post.

While this "recipe" wasn't a complete success, the parts of it that worked—the zucchini, eggplant, and quinoa—made a very good dish by themselves, and I would recommend the combination to anyone who feels like throwing some veggies on the grill. We'll probably be making some version of this dish again, but I think we'll skip the tomatoes. There are plenty of other good things to do with fresh tomatoes and plenty of other good things to cook on the grill, so there's really no need to put the two things together.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The perils of refilling printer cartridges

In the past, I've indulged in a little bragging about how much money we saved by refilling the ink cartridges on our printer, rather than buying new ones. A great big bottle of black ink, I pointed out, cost less than a single black ink cartridge, and we were able to get so many refills out of it that it actually outlasted the printer. And it kept all those plastic cartridges out of the landfill, as well, making it an ecofrugal no-brainer.

Well, pride apparently goeth before a fall. Because as it turns out, this thrifty habit that we plumed ourselves on has actually backfired on us with our new printer—possibly costing us more money in the long run than we would have spent just buying new cartridges in the first place.

The problems first started last spring, when the printer suddenly started rejecting our refilled cartridges. We were puzzled, since we'd had it for over two years and had no problems refilling it until then, so we did some research and determined that apparently, this printer has an age limit on the cartridges it will accept. Since the original equipment cartridge was over two years old, the printer considered it unusable. So we decided to invest $14 in this chip resetter, which can basically trick the printer into thinking it has a brand-new cartridge. We tried this on the black ink cartridge and it worked, so we figured that was $14 well spent; it was still less than the cost of one new cartridge, and it should allow us to go on refilling our cartridges ad infinitum.

Thus, when the colored ink showed signs of running dry last month, we didn't hesitate to refill that too. This printer, as I mentioned back when we bought it, has three separate reservoirs for colored ink, so you can refill them individually as needed—but in this case, all three were low, so Brian did them all at once. The cyan and magenta inks posed no problem, but when he tried to refill the yellow ink, he saw through the little window in the ink reservoir that the refill ink he was using (from a set we'd bought years ago, back when we had the old HP printer) was reacting with the dregs of the Brother ink that was left in the cartridge, leaving behind a flaky precipitate. So he hastily emptied out the whole cartridge and rinsed it to remove all the precipitate before topping it back up again with the refill ink.

Well, okay, we figured, that was a bit of a nuisance, but at least we'd cleaned all the old ink out of the cartridge, so from here on out, we should have no further problems with the refills. Alas, what we completely forgot about was the ink already in the lines. This week, when I printed out a document in color for the first time since the refill, we found that we weren't getting any yellow ink. Brian tried running the cleaning cycle several times to no avail, so I did a quick search and found this video on cleaning the nozzles—and it was at that point that Brian realized all that precipitate he'd so carefully cleaned out of the cartridge itself had probably formed in the lines as well as soon as we started putting the yellow refill ink through them. In hindsight, he realized, he probably would have been better off just pulling out the yellow tank the minute he discovered the problem and buying a yellow refill from Brother.

But of course, it was too late to undo what we'd already done, so the best we could do was try to get those lines cleaned out. So we spent another $9 on this cleaning kit, complete with cleaning solution, a rubber tube to feed it into the nozzle, and a syringe to inject it. And today, Brian hauled the printer down to his workshop and got to work with the kit, trying to clear the lines. Since we'd been having a little trouble with the black ink as well, he tried it on that first, and it worked just as shown in the video, running right through the lines and pulling out the dried residue. However, on the clogged yellow line, it didn't go so smoothly. He had to apply more pressure to force the fluid into the lines, and when he tried to draw it back out, he wasn't able to clear them fully. So as of now, only the black ink is working. He plans to work on the yellow some more in the next few days, but he doesn't know whether he'll succeed in clearing it or not. If he can't, our only options will be to replace the printer or ditch the colored cartridges and use it only in black and white.

The moral of this story? If you plan to refill your printer cartridges, make sure you're using an ink that's compatible with your particular printer. If we'd sprung for a $26 Brother-specific refill kit at the time we bought the chip resetter, that would still have been cheaper than a new set of color cartridges, and a lot cheaper than having to replace the whole $100 printer.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

An ecofrugal homemade cocoa mix

Since I work from home, it's easy for me to fix myself an afternoon snack every day (usually a bowl of popcorn). For Brian, however, noshing on the job poses more of a problem. Most days he's fine between lunch and dinner, but occasionally his blood sugar takes a dive and he needs a little something to get him through the afternoon. Unfortunately, he's found that he can't keep candy or any other kind of goodies in his desk drawer, because he can't resist munching on them, and then they're not there when he really needs them. So for a while, he had to rely on vending-machine snacks at around 60 cents a pop.

But a couple of years ago, we hit on a solution. I'd been given a gift of some fancy hot chocolate mix for Christmas, and while I liked it, I found I wasn't going through it very fast. It wasn't that much better than my regular homemade cocoa, and it wasn't any easier to make, so I kept saving it for a special occasion that never came. So I offered the mix to Brian to take to work as an emergency blood-sugar booster. This turned out to be just the ticket: it was easy enough to brew up a cup if he needed one, but that extra bit of work was enough to keep him from dipping into it at other times.

So, for the past couple of years, whenever he ran out his supply of cocoa mix, I'd pick up another container for him. We tried the chocolate-mint hot cocoa from Trader Joe's (okay, but not his favorite) and, more recently, the organic hot cocoa mix from Equal Exchange, which was sold at our local Ten Thousand Villages store. It was a bit pricey, but since he didn't go through it very fast, it seemed like a reasonable splurge.

Recently, however, our Ten Thousand Villages store closed down (waaah), leaving us looking around for a new brand to try. Unfortunately, the offerings at the local supermarket were pretty limited. Basically, we could choose either a fancy hot chocolate mix that came only in individual packets, which we deemed both too pricey and too wasteful, or Swiss Miss in a canister, which would probably serve the purpose, but didn't seem like much of a treat.

At this point, Brian decided to take matters into his own hands and try mixing up a hot cocoa mix from scratch. He checked out a variety of cocoa mix recipes on the Web, and they all seemed to have the same basic ingredients—dry milk, sugar, cocoa powder, and sometimes corn starch as a stabilizer. But most of them were missing one key ingredient: vanilla. The only ones he could find that included it called for "vanilla powder," which is an ingredient we've never seen in stores and weren't about to send away for just for this purpose.

Fortunately, my husband is a trained chemist. He was able to come up with a protocol (that's what scientists call a recipe, apparently) for turning our homemade vanilla extract into a form that could be used in a dry mix. He's still tinkering with the proportions, but here's his current protocol:
2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 c sugar
3/4 c powdered milk
3/8 c cocoa powder
1 Tbsp corn starch
Put the sugar in a bowl and sprinkle the vanilla onto it. Allow to dry for about 2 hours. Place the vanilla sugar and the rest of the ingredients in a food processor (NOTE: Brian used our Freecycled Magic Bullet) and grind to a fine powder.
You can then store this and use it just like a commercial hot cocoa mix, tweaking the proportions to suit your taste. Brian prefers to make it into what he calls "the cocoa equivalent of espresso," adding two heaping teaspoons to around half a mugful of hot water, but the same amount for a full mug would probably give you a standard-strength mixture.

I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and found that the ingredients for a batch of this come to about $2.25, using organic cocoa (purchased in bulk from Dean's Beans), organic sugar (from Costco), and our homemade vanilla extract. That works out to about 10 cents per serving. By contrast, the Starbucks hot cocoa mix from Costco would cost around 32 cents per serving, and the snacks from the office vending machine around 60 cents. Combine this bargain price with the organic ingredients and the reusable packaging, and you've got an ecofrugal afternoon snack that any cubicle dweller—well, at least one who isn't a vegan or lactose-intolerant—can love.

Money Crashers: Repair Cafés & Fix-It Groups

As regular readers of this blog will know, whenever anything breaks around our house, our first instinct is always to look for a way to fix it. Over the years, we've repaired a book that lost its cover, patched ripped jeans, created a new stand for a broken desk fan, restrung our old Roman shades, and done numerous repairs to Brian's bike. In most cases, this is an ecofrugal no-brainer, since a DIY repair is both much cheaper than buying a replacement and much greener than throwing an old item into the landfill and buying a whole new one when only one part is broken.

However, sometimes we find we can't fix things on our own, and that's when the repair or replace dilemma rears its ugly head. Is it worth paying someone to fix it, or would it be a better value in the long run to just replace it?

For some people, it turns out, there's a third option. In my latest Money Crashers post, I discuss the new and growing trend of Repair Cafes: regular gatherings where neighbors come together to pool their fix-it skills. So, for instance, this month you could bring in your bicycle and get help from a local fixer to repair the brakes, and next month you could show up to help another neighbor clean the clogged print heads on their printer. Just like Freecycle, these exchanges don't have to be tit-for-tat; everyone helps out where they can or gets help as needed, and no one keeps score. And also like Freeycle, everything is free of charge (though most Repair Cafes will accept small donations to help keep them running).

In the article, I explain how Repair Cafes work, what kinds of things you can get fixed there, how to find one in your area, and how to start one of your own if you can't find one. Read it all here: How Repair Cafés & Fix-It Groups Can Save You Money and Avoid Waste

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Gardeners' Holidays 2017: Harvest Home

According to the calendar—and this cute Google Doodle—yesterday marked the start of fall. But just like last year, the weather remains stubbornly summery. According to the weather report, we can expect highs in the 80s and 90s at least through Wednesday; tomorrow, the heat index is expected to peak close to 100. Celebrating the autumn harvest in shorts and sandals, with a ceiling fan turning overhead, feels a bit inappopriate.

But our garden, at least, is not waiting for cooler weather to start delivering up its fall bounty. Here you see what we've gathered just in the past few days:
  • Five big Pineapple tomatoes. This is a new variety we tried this year, and I'd say it's a keeper. It takes a little while to start producing, but once the tomatoes show up, they just keep coming—hefty, orange-red globes with a firm texture and a pleasant, distinctly fruity flavor. We've tried them in salsa and various pasta dishes, and they seem to work well with everything.
  • One Black Prince and two Mr. Fumarole tomatoes. These varieties have been far less impressive. The Mr. Fumarole is a paste variety we tried this year to replace the disappointing Amish Paste variety, but it hasn't really been any more productive. Last year, in total, we harvested about a dozen good-sized Amish Pastes; this year to date, we've gathered only six smallish Mr. Fumaroles. The Black Princes have done a little better, yielding about ten fruits so far, with a smoky and complex flavor—but since the Pineapples also taste great and are both larger and more prolific, I'd just as soon plant more of those. (By the way, if it looks like these tomatoes aren't ripe yet, you're sort of right; in the past year or two, we've taken to picking our tomatoes at "first blush"—the very first hint of reddening on the end of the tomato—rather than letting them ripen fully on the vine. They ripen just fine indoors, and we don't lose nearly as many to splitting after a heavy rain.)
  • About a cup and a half of our old standby, the Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, which have given us several pounds to date and show no sign of stopping. So far, this is the only early tomato we've been able to grow with any success; other cold-tolerant varieties we've tried, such as Glacier and Moskvich, have given us next to nothing. The small size of the Sun Golds makes them a little hard to work with, but their sweet, mild flavor and incredible productivity mean they'll always have a place in our garden.
  • Two Waltham butternut squash, picked today off a vine that appears to be already dead, or at least dying. All the squash vines are gradually starting to wither, so at some point we'll just have to pick all the squash and store them for the winter, but for now we just grabbed the two that seemed most time-sensitive.
One additional crop that you can't see in the photo is our raspberries, which have been producing at such a rate that we have to go out and gather them nearly every day—braving clouds of mosquitoes, which for some reason tend to congregate in our side yard—just to keep up. Even picking them every other day, we tend to find that a fair number of them have gone from "not ripe enough to pick" to "too squishy to eat." It doesn't help that, even with the new raspberry trellis, the canes are thick and tangled enough that harvesting the berries is really a two-person job, requiring one person to extract each cane and hold it up while the other person gathers the berries thus exposed. Since Brian and I can't do it together every day, I often end up going out by myself, and a lot of berries inevitably get missed—only to be rediscovered later when they're half-fermented and sloughing off the vine. But even with all the ones that we have to discard, we're bringing in a good cup or so of berries every day, and there are still plenty of unripe ones out there on the canes. At this rate, we'll most likely go on harvesting them right up until the first hard frost.

So even if the weather remains unseasonably hot, we have plenty of fall produce to celebrate. We have a butternut squash lasagna in the oven right now, and perhaps we'll indulge in an apple-raspberry crisp for dessert to welcome in the autumn properly—even if a little prematurely.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Money Crashers: Top 13 Tuition-Free Colleges

As the old joke goes, the best way to succeed in life is to choose your parents wisely. Brian and I are a case in point. We were both lucky enough to have parents who could afford to put us through college, so we didn't emerge into the real world carrying a huge load of student debt like so many of our generation. And since we don't have kids of our own, the ever-higher cost of college tuition isn't a problem we've had to worry about since then.

However, I know that many others aren't as fortunate. There are plenty of folks in my age group who are now facing the daunting prospect of dealing with sky-high college costs for the second time with their kids—sometimes while they're still working on paying off their own student loans. So for them, I've written a Money Crashers article that explores an unusual and intriguing solution to the problem of college costs: tuition-free colleges.

Schools like this are rare, and they're not easy to get into. Some of them take only top-level students; others are limited to low-income students from specific areas of the country. Some of them focus specifically on training students for a particular career, such as music, the ministry, or naval architecture. And most of them require students to work in exchange for their free tuition, either while they're at school or by committing to some form of service (for instance, in the military) after they graduate.

However, if you or your offspring are lucky enough to meet the strict requirements for one of these schools, you have a chance of hitting the jackpot: a college education at no cost. (Okay, most of these schools aren't 100 percent free; while there's no tuition cost, they do charge a fee for room and board. But in many cases, you can pay for that with a scholarship or some form of work-study, as well.)

In this article, I describe 13 colleges across the U.S. where you can—with a bit of luck—earn your degree for free. For each one, I outline the requirements to get in, areas of study, and features of campus life. I also discuss the free tuition movement in a growing number of states, which aims to offer at least two years at a community college at no charge to in-state students.

Read about it here: Top 13 Tuition-Free Colleges: How to Get a Degree for Free

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Yard-Sale Index

It's the weekend of the annual town-wide yard sale in Highland Park, and Brian and I spent most of yesterday out hunting for interesting finds. Here's a quick summary of the results in list form, à la Harper's Index.
Hours spent shopping: 6

Number of sales visited: Over 50

Miles walked: About 6

Total amount spent: $18.50

Number of items acquired: 13

Number of those that will be holiday gifts: 3 or 4

Biggest-ticket item: A tie between a $5 Roku box and a $5 set of classic Alec Guinness films on DVD. (The set, which includes "The Lavender Hill Mob," "The Captain's Paradise," "The Man in the White Suit," "The Ladykillers," and "Kind Hears and Coronets," costs $35 new at Best Buy.)

Cheapest item: A tie among three items we acquired for the low, low price of completely free, including two road maps (which we actually do use regularly, since we're late adopters who have yet to take the plunge on a smartphone), four pens (even though I now have a couple of refillable roller-ball pens for everyday use, it's handy to have extras for such uses as logging gas mileage in the car and jotting notes during role-playing games), and a spare computer keyboard

Most useful purchase: A new neck (the part that attaches the handlebars to the frame) for Brian's bike, which currently has a stripped-out neck that makes it impossible to adjust the handlebars, for $1

Most disappointing purchase: The Roku. We bought this as an experiment because our old Media Spud, which has served us faithfully for over seven years, has started having trouble keeping up with the demands of streaming our favorite show, Critical Role, via Twitch—even at the lowest resolution. We'd been considering a Roku to replace it, so when we spotted this one, we figured it was worth risking $5 to see whether it could work for us. Unfortunately, the player turned out upon testing to be so old that it's not capable of streaming either Twitch or YouTube—the two sites that we rely on for most of our shows. However, Brian says he learned a fair amount about how the system works from tinkering with it, such as the fact that the bottom-of-the-line Roku Express should be able to meet our needs for only $25.

Item we were most disappointed not to find: A telephone to replace the one in our kitchen, which wasn't really designed to hang on the wall and has a tendency to drop its receiver off the cradle if it's not put back carefully—once breaking the cats' food dish in the process

Most unexpected acquisition: A flier from a Green Party candidate for Assembly, Sean Stratton, who was using the sales as an opportunity to canvas voters.

Most interesting item we saw for sale: a 1953 MG TD, fair to good condition, black, for $15,000. (We initially saw it parked on the seller's lawn with all the rest of the items for sale, but I caught a picture of it later after it had been moved to a parking spot on a nearby street—possibly by the buyer.)

Our level of satisfaction with the results: Too soon to say, as we still have the opportunity to glean more goodies from the piles of unsold merchandise that sure to be left out with tomorrow's trash.

Money Crashers: Best Affordable Tabletop Games

Regular readers of this blog will know that Brian and I are big fans of board games. We have a large collection of games at home, and we regularly give them as gift to each other, family and friends—for anniversariesbirthdays, and holidays. I consider them one of the most ecofrugal forms of entertainment, measured in cost per hour: you can get countless hours of entertainment out of a single game that costs $20 to $60, or much less if you buy it at a yard sale. And with thousands of different games to choose from, there's something to please pretty much everyone.

Yet this cheap, versatile form of entertainment remains pretty much a niche activity. True, interest in board games is on the rise; the increase in sales has attracted enough attention for such disparate publications as VICE and USA Today to label it a "board game renaissance." But the fact remains that when you talk about "gaming," most people assume you mean electronic games. And that's a pity, because board games offer an experience no computer game can match: the chance to share the fun with other people right in the same room.

So my latest Money Crashers piece is a paean to the joys of tabletop gaming. I wax rhapsodic about many different types of games you can enjoy even in the middle of a power outage: board games, card games, role-playing games (RPGs), and party games such as Charades. In each category, I name several popular choices that can provide unlimited hours of fun for $40 or less—less than the cost of a new console game you'll play only once. I also include at least a few choices that cost virtually nothing: free, printable board games from Cheapass Games, card games that require nothing but a deck of playing cards you can pick up at any dollar store, RPGs with sample rule sets available for free, and party games that require nothing but a pencil and paper.

The fun starts here: Best Affordable Tabletop Games – Board Games, RPGs, Cards & Party Games

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Money Crashers: How to Avoid Miracle Health Scams & Fraudulent Health Products

Just a quick update here to let you know about my latest Money Crashers post, in which I discuss miracle health remedies—which is to say, miracle health scams. This particularly despicable type of scam preys on sick people desperate for a treatment that's easier, more effective, or less expensive than what mainstream medicine has to offer. Unfortunately, the only ones that work at all are the weight-loss remedies—and only because they make your wallet lighter.

In this article, I outline the perils of bogus "miracle cures," identify several conditions for which these scams are common, explain what really works for these conditions, and give a quick rundown of how to spot a health scam and what to do if you've been scammed.

Here's the skinny: How to Avoid Miracle Health Scams and Fraudulent Health Products

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Money Crashers: 6 Ways a Pressure Cooker Can Save You Money in the Kitchen

Since we got our little pressure cooker back in 2011, we've discovered all kinds of things we can do with it. It's not great for polenta, but it can make rice, potatoes, barley, and quinoa in record time. It can cook up dried beans much faster than the a regular pot - even getting some types edible in under an hour with no pre-soaking. And it makes homemade applesauce that's much better than the stuff you buy in a jar.

All in all, this little tool has proved to have so many benefits that I thought it deserved an article all to itself on Money Crashers. The site already had several pieces on the benefits of using a slow cooker, so I thought it was only fair to include one on the pressure cooker, which I've found to be at least as useful, if not more so.

This piece is basically "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Pressure Cookers but Were Afraid to Ask." I go into such topics as:
  • How a pressure cooker actually works
  • The various ways it can save you both time and money in the kitchen (including energy savings, making cheaper ingredients easier to use, and speeding up home-cooked meals)
  • Types of pressure cookers, and what to look for when buying one
  • Steps in the pressure-cooking process
  • Tips for using this tool safely (spoiler alert: don't worry, they're much safer than they used to be)
  • Specific dishes that are great to make in the pressure cooker
  • Where to find pressure cooker recipes

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Recipes of the Month: Fun with quinoa

Last weekend, we made our first official Costco run since signing up for membership in July. We stocked up on a bunch of things we'd found Costco to have the best prices on, including cereal, milk, raisins, sugar, olive oil—and a 4.5-pound bag of quinoa for $10. We dabbled a little bit with quinoa last year, when we picked up a container of it on sale after Passover, and we enjoyed it enough to keep an eye out for good deals on it since then in hopes of trying it again. However, until recently, the best price we'd seen was $4 a pound at Trader Joe's, which was more than we were prepared to pay. When we discovered the stuff at Costco for around half that price, we decided it was time to pick some up and try experimenting some more.

So, after bringing home the big bag, Brian went on a hunt for good quinoa recipes. The first one he tried was this Quinoa with Apple and Sage from the Live Well Network, for which we happened to have most of the ingredients on hand; I'd picked up some apples from the farmers' market, and getting a tablespoon of fresh sage off the enormous sage plant in our front yard was child's play. He did tweak the recipe just a bit, substituting some onion for the shallot and plain raisins for the golden raisins, but he figured these changes wouldn't affect the flavor too much.

The dish was quite easy to make, and it was indeed very flavorful—almost too much so, in my opinion. In addition to the faint nuttiness of the quinoa itself, there were the mingled flavors of apple, raisins, onion, sage, cinnamon, cayenne, curry powder, and the savory Penzey's vegetable soup base we used for the broth, all competing for attention. To me, this felt like it was a bit of a sensory overload. I still liked it, but I found the riot of flavors a bit too overpowering. My inclination is to try this dish again soon, but next time, leave out the teaspoon of curry powder and let the simpler flavors in the dish stand up for themselves.

Pleased with this success, he went straight on to the next quinoa recipe on his list: Quinoa with Leeks and Herbs from A Couple Cooks. Unlike the first one, where all the ingredients are cooked together, this recipe starts out with cooked quinoa, so Brian decided to try something else he'd been curious about: cooking quinoa in the pressure cooker. The instructions at Hip Pressure Cooking claim it's possible to do this in just one minute, but like most pressure-cooker recipes, that's a bit misleading; what it really means is that it only spends one minute cooking at full pressure. Counting the entire time it takes for the cooker to come up to pressure and then depressurize afterward, it's more like 15 minutes total—only about 5 minutes less than the time it takes to cook the quinoa for the other recipe on the stovetop. But it does come out nice and tender.

The good news is that, once your quinoa is done, the rest of the dish comes together in minutes. Just sauté the leeks for a few minutes, chop and toast the walnuts, and stir it all together with salt, pepper, and fresh sage and thyme (once again supplied by our herb bed). This wasn't nearly as complex a dish as the first one, but between the leeks and the herbs, it still packed quite a wallop of flavor. In fact, those green, herbal flavors pretty much overpowered the quinoa itself, and as for the walnuts, you could only tell they were there by the occasional crunch. Of course, a bit of texture variety in a dish is nice, but it does seem like a bit of a waste to use an ingredient as pricey as walnuts—and, for that matter, quinoa—if you can't really taste them.

Indeed, Brian's observation was that it seemed the creators of both recipes seemed to be trying to deal with the "odd" flavor of quinoa by basically drowning it out with other, stronger flavors. That seems kind of silly to me, because if you don't like the flavor of quinoa, why would you eat it instead of some cheaper source of starch like rice or buckwheat? Sure, it's healthy stuff with plenty of protein, but it's not exactly the only food that's high in protein, and many of the others (eggs, chicken drumsticks, tofu) are cheaper. It seems to me the best reason to eat quinoa is because you like eating quinoa, so the best quinoa recipe would be one that highlights and complements the unique flavor of this pseudo-grain rather than covering it up.

Fortunately, Brian's still got one more quinoa recipe on his list to try—a sort of quiche-like concoction with spinach, eggs, and Greek yogurt. So we'll probably try that later in the month and see how it does at letting the flavor of this funky ingredient come through.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Money Crashers: 18 Essential Tools for Do It Yourself (DIY) Projects

Here's another new Money Crashers article, this one on the topic of what tools are most important for DIYers. I've already done a Money Crashers article on tool lending libraries, but naturally, not everyone is going to have one of those in the neighborhood—and even if you do, there are a few really essential tools that you probably don't want to have to run out and borrow when you need to do a quick repair. If your toilet is leaking, you want a wrench right there, ready to hand; you don't want to leave the water running while you run out to get one, and hope it's not already checked out.

So which tools truly are important to keep on hand? I consulted several articles on home-repair sites, and I came up with a list of a dozen tools that multiple experts name as essentials. This article runs through the list, with explanations of how each tool is used, how to choose a good one, and how much you should expect to pay. And for more advanced DIYers, I name an additional six tools that you can add to upgrade your home tool kit when you're ready.

Here's the full list, with details: 18 Essential Tools for Do It Yourself (DIY) Projects

Friday, September 8, 2017

Money Crashers: How to Buy Vegan

After a long delay due to staffing problems, Money Crashers has finally started published some of my articles again. And the first of the lot is on a subject I've touched on many times here: the difficulties of ecofrugal shoe shopping.

I first wrote back in 2013 about what an undertaking it is for me to find new shoes whenever an old pair wears out. The trouble, as I explained, is that I have what is apparently a very unusual combination of circumstances: wide feet, a vegetarian lifestyle, and thrifty habits. Finding shoes that fit me well is hard enough; finding a pair that's leather-free shoes, reasonably well-made, and not outrageously expensive is next to impossible.

Over the years, though, I've learned a few things about where to look. I know, for instance, that if I'm going to shop online for shoes, I have to stick to sites like Zappos and ShoeBuy, which offer free shipping and free returns, so that I don't spend lots of money to try on shoes that don't fit. I've also discovered brands that offer leather-free shoes in non-standard sizes, such as Propet, from which I bought my latest pair of winter boots. And at some point it occurred to me that all this knowledge I've amassed might actually be of some use to other people who find themselves with the same problems I have in finding footwear.

So I've now gathered together everything I've learned, along with the fruits of some additional research, in one comprehensive guide. It lists all the stores I know that specialize in leather-free footwear, with some details about what kind of shoes they sell and what their prices are like. I also offer suggestions on where to find specific types of footwear (such as dance shoes, dress shoes, and athletic shoes) and other accessories (purses, wallets, luggage, and sporting gear such as ice skates). It's the shopping guide I wish I'd had when I first became a vegetarian and had to figure all this out on my own. I only hope that there are a few newbie vegetarians out there who now won't have to.

Read about it all here: How to Buy Vegan and Herbivore Shoes, Clothing & Accessories

Monday, September 4, 2017

A look at Brandless shopping

A week or so ago, I came across an interesting article in Advertising Age about how Millennials shop. Apparently, they're far less brand-loyal than previous generations. They care about the quality of the product, certainly, but not about the name on the label; they'll happily switch from one brand to another to get better quality, or the same quality at a better price.

The article went on to cite Brandless, a new online store that started up just last July, as a retailer that targets this new shopping trend. The goal of the site is to sell high-quality products at low prices by eliminating what the owners call "BrandTax": the advertising costs that get wrapped into the price of most national brands. The owners estimate that BrandTax jacks up the price of the average product by 40 percent, and for beauty products, it can be over 350 percent. So the site is approaching retail from the opposite direction: focusing strictly on the quality of the product, not the brand name. And to emphasize just how much this helps them keep costs down, they've priced every single item on the site at a flat $3. This simplifies shopping on the site and encourages people to try new products, since even if you don't like it, you're only out three bucks.

Since I'm a Gen X-er who shops like a Millennial, this site naturally intrigued me. I always look for the best prices on worthy products—nontoxic, organic, Fair Trade, and so on—and one of the best ways I know to find them is by embracing high-quality store brands at Trader Joe's, Aldi, and now Costco. Would Brandless, I wondered, be a worthwhile addition to my list of places to shop cheap but good?

So I browsed the entire selection of products at Brandless, looking for ones that (1) I would actually use and (2) I couldn't get cheaper somewhere else. Unfortunately, after running through every single product on the site, I came to the conclusion that there weren't any that met these two simple criteria. It wasn't that the Brandless products weren't good; it was just that, on the whole, they weren't any better or cheaper than the ones I'm buying now.

Here are a few examples:

  • Organic Peanut Butter. Both creamy and crunchy varieties are available at $3 for 12 ounces, or $4 a pound. However, a one-pound jar at Aldi is only $3.39.
  • Coffee. The organic, Fair Trade medium roast is $3 for 6 ounces, or $8 a pound. Unfortunately, like the new PATAR line at IKEA—which has supplanted my beloved MELLANROST–it doesn't come in a decaffeinated variety, so it's not much use to me. (Millennials, I guess, don't drink decaf.) But even if you want the hard stuff, PATAR is a much better value if you can get it, at under $5.50 a pound.
  • Organic Raisins. They're $3 for 10 ounces, or $4.80 a pound—much more than the $3 a pound we used to pay at Trader Joe's, and more than twice the $2.37 a pound we're now paying at Costco.
  • Organic Sugar. A 24-ounce bag is $3, which is $2.00 a pound. That's not as good as the $1.45 a pound Aldi charges for a 2-pound bag, and nowhere near as good as the 80 cents a pound we just paid for a 10-pound bag at Costco.
  • Toilet Paper. The "tree free" TP at Brandless is made from bamboo and sugarcane bagasse, and costs $3 for 6 rolls, or 50 cents a roll. The 100% recycled TP we buy at Trader Joe's costs $5 per dozen, or 41.7 cents a roll. 
  • Toothpaste. The toothpaste Brandless sells proudly touts itself as "fluoride free," which is baffling to me, given that fluoride is the one ingredient that actually keeps your teeth healthier. (Even all-natural health guru Andrew Weil says you're definitely better off with a fluoride toothpaste.) So I certainly see no reason to pay 75 cents per ounce for this, instead of 33 cents per ounce for SLS-free, cruelty-free toothpaste from Trader Joe's.

Product after product, the pattern was the same. Dish soap, cotton swabs, coconut oil—all cheaper, and just as good, at the stores where we shop now. Even the few products that were marginally cheaper on Brandless than they are at our local stores—such as the organic beans for a dollar a can, or the organic flaxseeds at $2 a pound—would end up costing us more after shipping. And there were many products on the site that were no use to us at all, such as bagged popcorn (we pop our own), paper napkins and tissues (we use cloth napkins and hankies), organic cotton tampons (I've been using the same set of reusable Glad Rags for close to 20 years), and multi-surface cleaner (we use DIY vinegar-and-water solution).

So is there anyone out there who would benefit from shopping at Brandless? Yes, possibly. One thing Brandless carries is a selection of gluten-free products, such as macaroni and cheese ($1.50 per box), baking mixes, corn-based and quinoa-based snacks, and things you wouldn't normally suspect of containing gluten, like pasta sauce and mayonnaise. So if you're a gluten-intolerant person with a need for this kind of product, Brandless could be a good place to get it—although if you live near an Aldi, I'd recommend checking out their extensive LiveGFree line first. Brandless could also be a good place for people who live in an area without any Aldi or Trader Joe's stores to find organic and natural products at a reasonable price—though it's important to factor in the shipping cost and make sure they're really a better deal than your local store.

For most ecofrugal folks, though, I'd say the most useful thing Brandless can provide is ideas. The site offers a variety of "bundles" that look like they might make useful gifts for the person who's hard to buy for, such as the $24 "beauty basics" bundle for eco-conscious fashionistas (cruelty-free and natural versions of eight products, including hand cream, lip balm, toothpaste, and cotton balls), the $30 "dorm essentials" bundle for college students (various dorm-friendly snacks, herbal tea, a mug, lip balm, mouthwash, and all-purpose cleaner), and the $114 "new home starter kit" for a wedding or housewarming gift (a little of everything, including foodstuffs, cleaning supplies, kitchen tools, and tableware). The thing about these bundles is, you could probably put together your own version more cheaply at a local store, such as TJ's, Aldi, or one of the new Lidl stores that have opened this year from Virginia to South Carolina. So you can check out Brandless for an example of what to put in a gift basket, then assemble it on your own and avoid the shipping fees. Brandless products can also provide ideas for inexpensive stocking stuffers, such as fancy lotion, lip balm, and snacks.

Of course, Brandless is just getting started. If the site is a success, it will no doubt expand its product offerings, and eventually it may even have some bargains to rival those at Aldi and Costco (and IKEA, for home products). So it's worth keeping an eye on the site in the future. But for the present, I think it's more interesting as a concept than as a useful shopping destination.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Why we don't vacation

It's occurred to me that one of the keys to living an ecofrugal life is not caring about the Way Things Are Done.

There are certain things that most people do without thinking about why they do them, or even whether they want to do them, because...well, they're just what you do. For instance, I've noticed that most people, when they set the table, automatically put out a fork, knife, and teaspoon, no matter what they're serving. You need a spoon if you're going to have a soup course, but in that case, it should be a soup spoon, not a teaspoon...and if the soup is the main course, you don't need the fork and knife. Why put out extra utensils you're not going to use, and wash them after the meal even though they haven't been touched? Most people, if you asked them this question, would probably just stare at you blankly. They do it that way because that's the Way It's Done. It simply would never occur to them that it's possible to do anything else. (Even the Emily Post Institute describes this as the proper "basic table setting"—while saying on the very same page that you should "only set the table with utensils you will use." What you are supposed to use that teaspoon for, they never explain.)

Part of being ecofrugal is learning to recognize these mindless habits, question them, and ditch them if they're wasteful. That's how we figure out that there's no need to buy paper towels if you wipe up spills with reusable cleaning rags, which are more absorbent, cost essentially nothing, and can be reused hundreds of times with only a negligible cost for laundering. Or that you can get a perfectly good, plastic-free, reusable water bottle by buying a bottle of Snapple for $1.59, drinking the contents, and rinsing it out. Or that you can pop your own popcorn in the microwave in a Pyrex mixing bowl with a plastic colander inverted over the top, rather than using those overpriced little bags or buying something sold specifically as a microwave popper.

This weekend, I thought of yet another example: vacations. Several times over the past few weeks, I've been asked what I was doing this summer, or whether I was going anywhere. The assumption seemed to be that this is what vacation days are for: so you can set aside a two-week block of time, usually in the summer, and spend all that time—along with a sizable chunk of money—to go somewhere far away from home. The thing is, for us, this idea holds little to no appeal. We both hate flying and aren't crazy about long-distance driving; we're willing to do it to see his family at Christmas time, but we hardly see the point of making a long trip like that just to get away from home. We like our home. We've put a lot of time and effort into making it the way we like it, and we don't see the point of traveling a long distance and shelling out a big chunk of money to stay in a hotel instead. Not to mention all the hassles of finding someone to look after our cats while we're away, packing, stressing over airline or train schedules, and eventually coming home exhausted after a day of travel only to have to unpack and slog through two weeks' worth of mail, e-mail, and overdue household chores. And then the next day, we'd have to slog through a similar backlog of mail and unfinished business at work.

Some folks might argue that the ideal solution to this problem is a "staycation": taking those two weeks off from work, but not going anywhere. We could still go on outings and eat in restaurants and all those other fun (and pricey) activities people enjoy on vacation, but save ourselves the cost and hassle of travel. We could sleep in our own bed, clean up under our own shower, and not have to worry about finding cat care. And this does indeed sound more appealing to me than traveling, but it still has some of the same problems as a regular vacation. Because we'd still be spending two weeks away from work, we'd still have to deal with overflowing inboxes as soon as we returned to work. And because we'd be using up a whole two weeks of vacation time in one go, the return to everyday life would look even more bleak, because it would be months before we'd be able to take any time off again.

What works better for us, we've found, is to take our vacation one day at a time. Instead of taking two weeks of vacation all at once, we treat ourselves to three-day weekends on a regular basis—at least one per month. That way, we never have to go too long without a break—and our breaks themselves aren't so long that they start to become exhausting.

We spend these little mini vacations in a variety of ways. Sometimes we take a short trip to visit friends and spend the weekend playing games and hanging out like we did in school; these brief getaways don't involve any flying, and our cats can manage on their own for the couple of days we're away. Other times, we'll make a little excursion closer to home, such as a visit to IKEA (which is a lot less crowded on weekdays). And sometimes, like this past Friday, we don't go much of anywhere. Instead, we spent that day just relaxing: walking into town to visit the farmers' market (which Brian usually has to miss because it takes place during working hours), swinging by Dunkin Donuts to share a frozen hot chocolate and a couple of games of cards, hanging out at home where I read aloud to Brian while he cooked dinner, and winding up the day on the couch with a cup of cocoa and our favorite Web series, Critical Role. It's all the same kinds of things we could do on any other weekend, except we were able to devote a whole day to them and still get through our list of household chores (such as re-caulking the tub, going grocery shopping, doing laundry, and writing this blog). We were able to do it all in one weekend, without feeling rushed or stressed, because the weekend was 50 percent longer.

I realize there are plenty of people out there who genuinely love to travel, and for them, a series of little breaks throughout the year would be no substitute for a yearly vacation to some exciting, exotic locale. That's fine—if travel is what makes them happy, it's what they should save their pennies and their vacation days for. But I also wonder how many people there are out there who don't really love to travel, but who nonetheless set aside two weeks for a vacation every summer because—well, because that's the Way Things Are Done. For those folks, I suspect, small and frequent breaks like we take could actually be more enjoyable than a long, potentially stressful summer vacation. And certainly for the 55 percent of American workers who don't take all their vacation days every year, typically because they're afraid to leave work for a long period, taking those unspent days one at a time (so they won't ever fall too far behind) would surely make more sense than giving them up.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

How our new Costco membership paid for itself

Over the past few years, I've had a sort of off-and-on flirtation with Costco. It started in 2012, when I went on a trip there with my in-laws and noticed several things we buy regularly, like organic sugar and Fair Trade coffee, on their shelves at prices much lower than we usually pay. I was intrigued, but not really convinced that we'd save enough just on those few items to offset the $55 annual cost (at the time) of a membership. And when I later discovered that I didn't really like the Costco coffee anyway, and that I could get an even cheaper sustainable brew at IKEA, that seemed to settle the question.

However, one lesson I've learned in my ecofrugal life is that value, like everything else, changes over time; what's a good deal this year may not be a good deal next year, and vice versa. (A case in point: when I first compared the long-term costs of LED light bulbs to older CFLs, I found there wasn't enough savings there to make it worth switching. However, in the years since, the price of LEDs dropped sharply, changing the equation and convincing me to spring for my first LED bulb last year.) So, in a similar vein, I've revisited the idea of joining Costco from time to time to see if there were any new developments that would make it a good deal for us after all.

Up until this year, the answer was always no. A 2014 article on "9 Items that Will Single-Handedly Pay for Your Costco Membership" piqued my interest, but a quick analysis of the list convinced me that none of these items really applied to us. Either the we could find better deals on the item in question elsewhere, or it wasn't something we were likely to buy in the first place. And while the comments section below that article outlined several other Costco deals that we thought we might have a use for some day, such as the car-buying and car-insurance programs, none of them were immediate needs, so there was no way they could justify the membership cost for us.

All that changed last month, when Brian went to the eye doctor and was told he had passed through the Great Gate of Middle Age: it was time to switch to progressive lenses. Although this doctor's office also makes and sells glasses, we knew from past experience that filling the prescription there was likely to be very expensive; the last pair he bought from an independent optician came to nearly $400, and that was for single-vision lenses. So we started looking into other options, and this report from Consumer Reports (summarized here at tipped us off that Costco was the best overall, with good service and prices less than half what the independent shops typically charge. (Online retailers, like Zenni Optical, were still cheaper, but their service was poor—and Brian was reluctant to entrust a complicated prescription to an online seller, where he couldn't try the glasses on and deal with any potential problems right away.) If we bought his glasses at Costco, the savings on this one purchase would more than pay for the $60 cost of membership, and anything we managed to save on groceries over the course of the year would be pure gravy.

Being cautious, we made a point of slipping into the Costco optical department first (which you're allowed to visit without being a member) to check the cost of the glasses. Once we'd confirmed that they would be about $180—less than half what we could expect to pay at the doctor's office—we went round to the membership desk, where we were offered two choices. We could get the basic membership for $60 a year, or the "executive" membership for $120, which would give us 2% cash back on all purchases at Costco. My instinct was to stick with the regular membership, since I doubted we'd get enough in benefits to pay for the extra $60, until the clerk told me the kicker: the rewards would be paid out in the form of a yearly check, for which the minimum amount would be the $60 we'd paid. In other words, if we didn't earn enough in rewards to offset the $60 annual fee, Costco would refund it. This meant the worst we could possibly do was break even—which pretty much made the deal a no-brainer.

She then offered us the option of also signing up for the Costco credit card, which would double as our membership ID and give us an array of perks:
  • An additional 2% cash back on all purchases at Costco (on top of the 2% from our Executive membership);
  • 3% for restaurants and travel purchases;
  • 4% on gas—not just at Costco, where the lines are usually so ridiculous that we aren't even tempted by the low prices, but everywhere; and
  • 1% cash back everywhere else.
We hadn't really been in the market for a new credit card, but it didn't cost anything extra with our Costco membership, and the benefits—especially that 4% on gas—looked better than any of our current rewards cards. So we figured, once again, we had pretty much nothing to lose.

So, having signed our pledge of loyalty to Costco, at least for one year, we set out to explore the store and see what kind of deals it had to offer. And the answer proved to be: some great, some pretty good, and some disappointing. For a lot of items on which Costco is reputed to offer great deals, like toilet paper, we found it couldn't touch the prices we're used to getting at Trader Joe's. Its prices on organic chicken legs were just a tiny bit less per pound, but they required buying four or five pounds at once. However, we also discovered a few bargains that actually looked like they could be worth the trip, such as:
  • Organic sugar. We've long been in the habit of buying organic sugar at Trader Joe's for $1.75 per pound. Just in the past couple of months, we were surprised and pleased to find it at Aldi for $1.45 per pound. But Costco blew that price out of the water, offering 10-pound bags for $7.99—a mere 80 cents a pound. With regular sugar at about 50 cents a pound, that means sugar no longer needs a special exemption to the rule of 1.6.
  • Organic raisins. Costco undercut Trader Joe's on organic raisins as well, offering a 4-pound box for $9.49, or $2.37 per pound. That beats the $2.99 we pay per pound at TJ's, and with less packaging waste as well.
  • Olive oil. A 5-liter bottle of Filippo Berrio olive oil (not extra-virgin, just the cheap stuff) was $24.99 at Costco, or $5 per liter. The best we can do elsewhere is $6 per liter at Trader Joe's.
  • Cereal. We've set ourselves a somewhat arbitrary limit of 10 cents per ounce, or $1.60 per pound, for cold cereal. Normally, this limits us to only one type: Aldi's raisin bran at $1.51 per pound. Costco couldn't actually beat this price, but it still met our criteria, at $1.53 per pound for a big box of Kellogg's Raisin Brain. 
  • Oats. Rolled oats, which are also part of Brian's complete breakfast, cost us $2.29 for a 42-ounce can (5.45 cents per ounce) at Aldi. Amazingly enough, Costco was able to narrowly beat this price, offering a 10-pound box of Quaker Oats for $7.99 (5 cents per ounce). We wouldn't make a special trip just for that, but since we were low on oats anyway, we snagged a box and were quite chuffed with ourselves over the bargain.
  • Walnuts. Typically, the best price we can find for these is around $6 a pound at Trader Joe's. Occasionally, we'll find them on sale for closer to $5 a pound—but the 3-pound bag at Costco for $11.99, or $4 a pound, was a steal. (We also found pine nuts for around $18 a pound, which is cheaper than any other store, but decided it was still more than we were prepared to pay.)
  • Milk. We usually get the best prices on nonfat milk at the Shop Rite: between $2.50 and $3 a gallon, depending on the week. But at Costco, it was only $2.21 per gallon—a price we haven't seen in years. This isn't a huge enough savings to make it worth a trip to Costco every time we need milk, but we'll certainly make a point of picking some up whenever we're there.
So all in all, there are enough good deals at Costco to make it worth visiting regularly and squeezing all the value we can out of our membership. We'll see at the end of the year how much we've really used it—but in any case, it will probably be worth keeping it at least one year more, since I'm probably not more than a year out from progressive-lens territory myself.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Melon-Basil Smoothie

August's Recipe of the Month is a first for me. I've had recipes featuring veggies and recipes featuring fruit, savory recipes and sweet ones, salads and soups and main dishes and desserts—but this is the first time I've done a beverage.

First, a little background. This spring, one of Brian's coworkers, who's a much larger-scale gardener than we are, gave him a surplus cinnamon basil plant out of his garden. I'd never heard of cinnamon basil before, but as its name suggests, it's a variety of basil that has a vaguely cinnamon-like flavor and aroma. (According to Mother Earth Living, it's also good for repelling pests such as mosquitoes, but it can't be all that potent, since this is the first year we've grown it and the mosquitoes in our garden are thicker on the ground than ever.) Anyway, we had plenty of space to spare in our garden after finally giving up our attempts to grow Brussels sprouts, and cinnamon basil was reputed to be a beneficial companion for tomatoes, so we willingly set aside a square for it. The plant grew and thrived, and eventually we had to face the question: what do we do with this stuff?

First, we tried some of it in our favorite basil-based recipe, Pasta à la Caprese, but it didn't really work. The cinnamon-like flavor of the basil struck a vaguely discordant note with the tomatoes and garlic, resulting in a dish that was edible, but not fantastic like the original. And based on this experiment, we suspected that simply substituting cinnamon basil for regular basil in other recipes would probably have the same result. The problem, we figured, was that with few exceptions, we use basil in savory dishes and cinnamon in sweet ones, so we didn't have any recipes in our repertoire where the combined flavor of the two would be appropriate.

However, Brian recalled that at the time his coworker gave him the plant, he mentioned that it could be used in an ice cream recipe that was quite unusual and refreshing. So Brian went back to him and got this recipe (which was basically a more detailed version of this one from and prepared a half batch of it. He modified it just slightly, substituting a cup of skim milk (which is what we usually have at home) for a cup and a quarter of whole or 2 percent, and upping the heavy cream from 3/4 cup to a full cup to compensate.

The ice cream itself was, as promised, definitely different from anything we'd ever had before; we just weren't really sure whether it was different in a good way. We kept tasting a little spoonful at a time, pensively, trying to decide whether we liked it or not, and we never came to a firm conclusion. We definitely didn't hate it, but we never really fell in love with it either, and the two pint containers we'd filled just sat in the freezer, as we were never quite inspired to dig into them. Eventually, Brian brought one of them in to work and gave it to his coworker who'd given him the plant, by way of a thank-you, but the other nearly-full container just continued to sit.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, one of the booths at our local farmers' market ran a sale on melons: just a dollar each, which is a great deal around here. I picked up a variety I'd never tried before called golden melon, which looks and tastes rather like a honeydew, but with a bright yellow rind. And after trying a piece, it occurred to me that here was a flavor that might actually go rather well with the cinnamon basil ice cream.

It took me a little while to get around to trying the combination, but last weekend, as the last of the melon was at risk of going bad, I mentioned it to Brian, and he whipped out our little Magic Bullet blender (a Freecycle find from seven years back) and mixed some up on the spot. He initially tried it with half a cup of melon chunks to two tablespoons of the ice cream, but after I tasted it, I thought it could use just a touch more ice cream, so he added one more tablespoon and decanted it.

The resulting mixture was, like the ice cream itself, different—but I found myself a little more prepared to come down on the side of calling it different in a good way. The light, sweet honeydew flavor softened the sort of oddly pungent taste of the cinnamon basil, and the combination was curiously refreshing. It isn't something I'd want to make all the time, but it seems like a pleasant chiller for a hot summer day—and, if nothing else, a reasonable way to use up the rest of the ice cream.

It occurred to me that maybe you could even make this into a cocktail if you happened to have a compatible sort of liquor to throw in. Nothing in our liquor cabinet—cheap gin, golden rum, amaretto, creme de menthe—seemed quite appropriate, but I thought if you had something like Midori or other melon liqueur, you could throw a bit of that in, garnish it with a sprig of mint, and call it something like a "Melon-choly Baby." (I actually considered buying a bottle of melon liqueur for this purpose to experiment, but by that time I'd used up all the golden melon, and the farmers' market this weekend didn't have any more. The only melon on offer was cantaloupe, and when I tried a bit of that with the cinnamon basil ice cream, they didn't complement each other well at all.)

At this point, I'm not sure whether I'll be making this again; I guess it depends on whether any more golden melons or honeydews show up at the farmers' market, or at the supermarket for a reasonable price. But my success with it has encouraged me to continue seeking out new uses for the cinnamon basil. For instance, since it went so nicely with fruit in this drink, it occurred to me that perhaps it would work well in the basil vinaigrette for this cucumber-nectarine salad we tried last year—so if we can find a good deal on any nectarines or peaches in the near future, we'll give that a try. And if anyone else happens to know of any other good uses for this unusual herb, please shout them out in the comments below.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Price Check: Beach wedding wear for (a lot) less

Last week, while researching something completely unrelated, I happened across this article from Elle: "13 Beach Wedding Dresses You Can Buy Off the Rack." Now, I'm not planning a wedding (beach or otherwise) any time in the foreseeable future, but curiosity—mostly about what's considered the proper attire for a beach wedding—led me to click through. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but the author's idea of "beach" wedding wear was frankly baffling to me. I mean, why would you wear a full-length dress with a train on a beach? You'd end up with a skirt full of sand. And the selections with elaborate lacework or beading looked calculated to attract debris.

What seemed even more ridiculous, however, was that the dresses that actually did look "beachy"—the ones that were basically nice sundresses—still cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Scrolling through them, I found myself getting huffy, much the same way I did looking at the outdoor furniture "bargains" in the article I wrote about last month. It was playing on the same "anchoring bias" as the other article: if you think it's normal to pay upwards of $1,500 for a wedding dress—as the average bride does, according to The Knot—then calling a $700 sundress a wedding dress makes it look downright reasonable. But that doesn't change the fact that if you don't slap that "wedding" label on them, you can find perfectly nice, beach-appropriate white dresses for a lot less.

So I decided to go through the entire list Elle had provided—both the dresses that struck me as suitable beachwear and the ones that didn't—and show how it's possible to find an attractive dress in a similar style on a much more reasonable budget. Here's how their picks stack up against mine:

Elle Pick #1: First, we have this off-the-shoulder maxi dress from Self-Portrait, which, with its long train, isn't at all what I'd choose for a beach wedding. Actually, I wouldn't be inclined to choose it for any wedding, as its shapeless tent style doesn't strike me as flattering for any figure type—but even if I did, I certainly wouldn't pay £500.00 for it.
My alternative: This off-the shoulder dress from Bebe has the same full length and lacy detailing around the neckline, but in a much more shapely style, for only $89. Or, if you're on a really tight budget, you could pick this one from Xhilaration, which has the lace cutout section in the skirt rather than up top, for only $21 (marked down from $30) in the Target juniors' department.

Elle Pick #2: This tea-length, halter-neck sundress from Athena Procopiou, in a silk/cotton blend with a faint floral design, actually looks quite suitable for a casual setting like the beach—but its $680 price tag, not so much.
My alternative: Instead, how about this beachy halter dress, with some nice cutouts around the hem, for $27 (marked down from $38) at TB Dress? Or this similarly bare style, with crocheted detailing on the bodice, for only $25 (marked down from $30) at Make Me Chic?

Elle Pick #3: This strapless white column gown from Derek Lam looks, to my eyes, like nothing so much as like a bedsheet that a woman has hastily wrapped around her body upon finding herself caught in the nude. I realize it probably stays up better, but I certainly can't see what makes it worth $1,116 (marked down from $2,790).
My alternative: This doesn't really strike me as a practical style for a beach wedding, but if you like it, why not get this Natalie Deayala strapless column dress for $288 at Nordstrom? (Actually, $288 still seems pretty high to me for a dress that will be worn once—but apparently this deceptively simple style is quite tricky to sew, because I couldn't find a similar one for less. But if you don't mind something with a little more shape, there's always this strapless sheath dress from J.J.'s House for $100.)

Elle Pick #4: Next up is this Grecian-style Elizabeth and James maxi dress, with a plunging neckline in a sort of champagne color. At $425, it looks almost reasonable compared to the dresses Elle has been featuring so far.
My alternative: But it starts to look a lot less reasonable next to this Grecian-inspired dress from Asos, in a "silver shimmer" shade, for $45 (marked down from $89). Since that one's only available in size small, I also searched out this Asos dress, also in a Grecian style, for $48 (marked down from $80, available in medium and large.)

Elle Pick #5: Here's yet another highly inappropriate choice for a beach wedding: an off-the-shoulder mermaid dress from Reformation, with a full lace overlay, for $488.
My alternative: If you're determined to wear this style on the beach, you have lots of less expensive options. You can pay $247 (marked down from $560) for this very similar dress, complete with the lace overlay, from J.J.'s House; you can opt, instead, for a prom dress in the same shape with beading as well as lace, available in white, for $101 (marked down from $140) at Asvogue; or you can choose this less elaborate prom dress, with peek-a-boo lace at the shoulders and hemline, for $32 (marked down from $35) at OASAP.

Elle Pick #6: I'm honestly not even sure how to describe this silk crepe contraption from Juan Carlos Obando. It's like a basic, full-length slip dress, but with a sort of pair of ruffled baldrics that drape over the front and hold the bride's wrists loosely to her sides. It's a unique look, no doubt, but not one I'd consider worth $1,038 (marked down from $2,595).
My alternative: I'll admit, I wasn't able to find anything quite like this on any other site. However, a long slip dress is easy enough to find, like this $84 one from Lulus. Then, for that added draped layer, you can simply add a long white scarf, like this $19 one from Bebe. Or, if you really want that draped-over-the-shoulder look, you could go for this shorter dress from Asos for only $29.

Elle Pick #7: Now here's one that actually does look rather beachy: a sort of boho maxi sundress with lacy cutouts from LOVESHACKFANCY (I swear, that's how the retailer spells it). Only does it really have to be $445?
My alternative: Well, I couldn't find an identical style, but I found a couple of other white dresses with that boho vibe, including the cutouts. This longer-sleeved style is $70 at Showpo, and this daring spaghetti-strap style is a mere $20 at CiChic.

Elle Pick #8: This one, I'll admit, is rather fetching: a long, flared, strapless dress from Marchesa Notte with butterflies embroidered on the bodice and around the hem. By hand, probably, considering the $717 price tag.
My alternative: Once again, I couldn't find anything just like this, but if it's the butterfly motif you're in love with, you could go with this ballgown with blue satin butterflies on the overskirt, available for $158 from the SarahDress booth on Bonanza. (She also offers the same style with red, black, or purple butterflies.) Or there's this little $59 number from Milanoo, though it's much shorter and not strapless.

Elle Pick #9: Aaaand we're back to styles completely inappropriate for the beach, with this Michael Lo Sordo gown featuring an ultra-deep plunging neckline and a train. Despite the simple lines, spaghetti straps, and bare back, it's hardly beachwear, especially at $1,610.
My alternative: The $84 slipdress from Lulus that I mentioned above has a fairly similar style—clean lines, spaghetti straps, bare back, and deep (though not quite so outrageously deep) neckline. Or, you could go for this even more daring dress that pairs the plunging neckline and bare back with a translucent skirt, for $27 at Shein.

Elle Pick #10: Of all the dresses in the Elle article, this one seems the most bizarre choice for a casual beach wedding. Sure, this Monique Lhuillier dress has a simple column shape, but it combines that with huge, poofy, incredibly elaborate sleeves, made of sheer fabric covered in thousands of pearl beads (with more of the same on the neckline). At least you can see why this dress costs a whopping $8,995, but still, that's more than three times what we spent on our whole wedding.
My alternative: Okay, I'll admit it: this dress is unique. I could not find anything, anywhere, that was quite like it. However, I could find quite a number of dresses that had the same general kind of Italian Renaissance look and feel. For instance, this seller on Etsy offers a dress she calls the "Juliette style" (the same name as the pricey one), actually custom made by hand to your measurements, for only $195. And if you don't like that one, there are numerous other Renaissance-style gowns available from other Etsy sellers, some more costly than others.

Elle Pick #11: This frilly little two-piece ensemble by Rodarte is rather daring even for a beach wedding: a tulle bustier top and matching skirt that leave the midriff bare. More alarming still, it was priced (when it was still available) at a jaw-dropping $8,970.
My alternative: I didn't find an ensemble quite like this, but it's simple enough to find similar pieces as separates. This cropped lace camisole top is only $14 at Shein, and this lacy skirt from Asos is a good match for it at $40.

Elle Pick #12: This long, lacy prairie dress from Temperley London is in a simple, rustic style that looks appropriate enough for the beach—all except for the $1,195 price tag.
My alternative: A quick search turned up a lot of dresses in a similar style to this one, but with one catch: all of them are secondhand. This rustic style was very popular in the 70s, so if you're willing to scour eBay and Etsy, you should be able to turn up something like it at a bargain price—such as this vintage ruffled number for $88, or this classic Gunne Sax piece for $40.

Elle Pick #13: Lastly, we have this kimono-sleeve wrap dress from Reformation. At $268, it actually looks very reasonable compared to the others in the Elle article, but it still seems rather pricey for such a simple style.
My alternative: And indeed, you can get this look for quite a bit less. This $110 Topshop dress has basically the same style with a shorter, asymmetrical skirt, while this longer-sleeved version is only $50 (marked down from $80) at GCGme.

So there you have it: 13 off-the-rack looks for a beach wedding, with prices ranging from $21 to $288 rather than $268 to nearly nine grand. And if none of these particular styles happens to be to your taste, there are plenty of others to choose from, at equally reasonable prices, on the sites where they're sold.

The main difference between Elle's selections and mine is that most of mine aren't being sold as "wedding" dresses (though some are sold on wedding sites as bridesmaids' dresses). This is yet another example of how attaching the word "wedding" to anything can at least double the price. So the moral of the story is, if you're trying to wed on a budget, try to do as much as possible of your shopping without bringing the word "wedding" into the equation at all. Look for dresses, not wedding dresses; cakes, not wedding cakes; caterers, not wedding caterers. If leaving out that one word can save you a thousand or more on the dress alone, just imagine how much it could cut the cost of an entire wedding.