Sunday, May 21, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Sweet Potatoes

Our recipe of the month for May is one we've actually been hanging on to for a while now. I clipped it out of the October/November 2016 issue of Savory, the free magazine from Stop & Shop, but we kept coming up with other recipes we wanted to try first. So it only just worked its way to the top of the pile this week.

Since it was printed so long ago, this recipe is no longer available on the Shop & Shop website, so I hope they won't mind if I just reproduce it here:
3 cups peeled and cubed sweet potatoes
1 cup chopped onion
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. orange juice
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup dried cranberries
STEP 1 Preheat oven to 400°F. Spread the Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, and onion on a large-rimmed baking sheet or casserole dish.
STEP 2 In a small bowl, combine oil, orange juice, and cinnamon. Drizzle over the vegetable mixture and toss to coat evenly. Sprinkle salt (in moderation) and pepper over vegetables.
STEP 3 Roast 15 min. Stir gently, add walnuts, and continue to roast for another 15 min., or until vegetables are tender and nicely browned. Add cranberries to mixture and serve warm.
We ended up making a couple of minor modifications to this recipe. We picked up the sweet potato and Brussels sprouts during our weekly shopping, but we forgot to get any dried cranberries, so we used raisins instead. We also used a Vidalia onion, since that was the kind we had on hand.

It's possible these minor changes are to blame, but we found the result a little unexciting. It was perfectly okay, with a reasonably good balance of flavors and textures, but there was nothing about it that really jumped out at us. And it certainly isn't as delicious as our favorite Roasted Brussels Sprouts from Mark Bittman. So all in all, there's no particularly good reason for us to make this dish again.

Fortunately, we still have plenty of other recipes in the queue. I have several more that I've pulled from the pages of Savory, including Soba Noodles with Tofu and Sugar Snap Peas from the January issue, Butternut Squash Noodles with Brown Butter and Sage from the April issue, and the cover meal for April, Spring Roll Noodle Bowl. So we'll be trying those recipes in the months to come, and we'll see if any of them turn out to be keepers.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Money Crashers: How Prescription Drug Discount Cards Can Save You Money at the Pharmacy

I just got home from a trip to the drugstore, highly annoyed because I was conned into leaving with a plastic bag that I didn't need. Usually I'm highly alert at the checkout and manage to squeeze in my "Idon'tneedabagthanks" before they get a chance to dump my purchases in one, but this time the pharmacist distracted me by asking if my card was debit or credit and carefully explaining to me how to insert it into the reader, which I know perfectly well...and when I turned my eyes to that for just one second, he took advantage of the opportunity to slip my tiny little medicine bottle, which I could easily have stuck in my purse, into a plastic bag. (Okay, he probably didn't really go out of his way to foist an unwanted plastic bag on me, but the result is the same. Would it really be so hard for cashiers to ask, "Do you want a bag?" when they ring you up?)

But I guess I really shouldn't complain too much. After all, an unnecessary plastic bag is, at most, a minor annoyance. I should count myself lucky I'm not one of the millions of Americans (about 8 percent of all American adults, according to an NCHS survey) who can't afford their medications at all.

For those folks, those little bins full of cards they display at doctors' offices, promising savings of "up to 50 percent" (or 60 percent or 70 percent or whatever) on prescriptions, must look like a blessing from heaven. But do they really live up to those promises, or is it just a scam?

Well, as it turns out, the answer is no to both. Prescription drug savings cards are legitimate programs that offer real savings—but only on some drugs, at some pharmacies. Overall, the amount you can save with them averages around 16 percent.

Still, if your health insurance won't cover a medication you need (or you don't have health insurance at all), every little bit helps. So in my latest Money Crashers article, I examine the pros and cons of these discount cards in detail. I explain how the programs are able to lower drug costs, why drugstores are willing to accept them, how much you can save with them, and how they compare to health insurance and other savings tools, such as discount generic drug plans. Finally, I offer some advice on how to go about finding the drug discount card that can offer the best savings for the specific drugs you need.

Here's the story: How Prescription Drug Discount Cards Can Save You Money at the Pharmacy

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Computer woes

Once again, the repair or replace dilemma has reared its ugly head to trouble the peace of our ecofrugal life. And once again, it's my computer that's to blame.

Over the past few weeks, my little 6-year-old Mac Mini (well, actually, 7 years old, since it was a refurbished 2010 model when we bought it in 2011) has developed a very frustrating habit. In the middle of some seemingly innocuous activity - pasting a bit of text, clicking on a link, or even just scrolling through a document - it will suddenly freeze up and refuse to respond to any commands at all. You can still move the mouse, but it does no good, since any other program you click on will just freeze up as well. Generally, it comes to again after a few minutes, but sometimes it appears to come to, only to go straight back into its seizure the minute you try to do anything. The only thing that's guaranteed to fix the problem is a hard reboot (which sometimes involves shutting the power off at the source, because the computer won't thaw out long enough to let me shut it down properly).

Now, there are all sorts of problems that can cause a Mac to manifest the spinning beach ball of death, including processor overload, memory overload, insufficient hard drive space, and overheating. All of these are fairly simple to fix. But Brian noted that whenever my computer did this, the spinning ball was often accompanied by a high-pitched whining sound, almost too high to hear, emanating from the machine. That was an ominous warning sign that it could be the hard drive at fault - and that's definitely not a quick fix.

According to this IFixIt guide, replacing the hard drive is only a "moderate" difficulty job, but if that's true, I'd hate to see a difficult one. It takes 23 separate steps just to remove the old drive, each of which has to be repeated in reverse to put the new one in. It would also require at least $20 worth of specialized tools we don't currently own, on top of the $60 or so for the new hard drive itself. And that's just the hardware part of the job. Once that was done, we'd have to reinstall the operating system and all the software - a job that took the better part of a weekend to complete last year, because this Mac is so ancient in computer years - and restore all my data files from the backup drive. It would be, to say the least, an Undertaking. (This article at The Verge, by someone who performed a similar operation on a somewhat newer Mac, describes it as a "horrifying" experience.)

We also looked into what it would cost to replace the machine entirely. I had already decided that this machine was going to be my last Mac, even though I've been a loyal Apple user for over 30 years (ever since I got my first Apple IIc as a bat mitzvah gift from my grandfather), precisely because this "horrifying" upgrade process is all too typical of the way Apple does business these days. They seem to go out of their way to make it as hard as possible to upgrade an old machine, because they don't want people to upgrade; they want them to throw it out and buy the latest model instead. This business model is exactly the opposite of ecofrugality, and I'd made up my mind I wasn't going to support it any longer. So I checked the ConsumerSearch report on desktop computers and found that the "best cheap computer" was the Intel NUC, an ultra-compact machine that can be customized to fit your particular specs. Brian found that a kit that would meet my needs would probably cost between $500 and $600 (including an add-on CD-ROM drive, which I use for ripping music CDs).

But we decided perhaps it was best not to get ahead of ourselves. We didn't know for sure that the problem was the hard drive, and we didn't have the necessary tools to figure it out at home. So we took it to one of our local computer repair places, Linx 8, which specializes in Apple repairs. We'd already checked with them and found that if we left it with them, they could run a set of diagnostics on it to pinpoint the problem, and they wouldn't even charge us for it. So we figured we had nothing to lose by trying it. The only question was, if they found it was the hard drive that needed replacing, how much should we be willing to pay to replace it? We already knew that we could, in theory, do it ourselves for around $80, but only at the cost of many hours of hard work and aggravation and a nontrivial risk of screwing the process up. So how much was it worth to us to avoid that?

Brian and I came up with different answers to this question. Brian's thought was that it was definitely worth $150 - twice the cost of doing the repair ourselves - but $200 would be pushing it. I, by contrast, thought that, according to Jeff Yeager's 50 percent rule, we should be willing to pay up to $275 to fix the machine - half the cost of replacing it. But since he was the one who would probably end up doing most of the work if we did it ourselves, I figured it was his decision to make.

So, when he shop called this afternoon to tell us that my Mac did indeed need a new hard drive, and their fee to replace it - including reinstalling the OS, but not any paid software applications - would be $270, I turned to Brian before giving them an answer. And his response came in two parts: a somewhat disgruntled sigh, followed by consent. It was more than he really wanted to pay, but if it came to a choice between paying the fee or spending the whole of next weekend working on my computer, it was preferable to pay up. (He said no, however, to the additional $75 charge for migrating over all my data, including the large music library. We'll have the original hard drive back from them, as well as the backups, so he thinks we should be able to manage that part ourselves.)

So they're working on that as I type (on Brian's work laptop, borrowed for the weekend), and we should be able to pick up my computer tomorrow or Monday. And I, for one, think we made the right choice. It wasn't the cheapest in dollar terms, but I think it strikes the best balance between saving money, avoiding waste, and minimizing stress. If paying an extra $190 can save us an entire weekend spent fussing over my computer - and keep the old one out of the landfill a little longer - I think it's money well spent.

Money Crashers: How Much House Can I Afford?

When Brian and I first decided to buy a house, back in 2006, we spent over a year shopping before we found one we were happy with. That's mostly because we absolutely refused to compromise on two things: location and price. We didn't want to buy a house at all if it wasn't in a walkable town, with a short commute to work for Brian - which, around here, pretty much narrowed it down to Highland Park or Metuchen. And we didn't want to buy one if it would stretch us too far financially, which pretty much capped our price range at $350,000 total. And frankly, houses in Highland Park and Metuchen for less than $350K were pretty few and far between.

From time to time, people would try to persuade us we should consider looking outside our price range. Our real estate agent, and even occasionally my mom, would encourage us to "just take a look" at a house that was priced somewhere between $350,000 and $45,000, arguing that if we liked it, we could probably talk the seller down on the price. But we held firm. If it didn't fit our budget, we didn't want to see it - because we didn't want to take the risk of falling head over heels in love with a house that we couldn't really afford. If we ever started feeling like we "just had to have" this home, regardless of price, we knew we could talk ourselves into a mortgage that would stretch us thin - and leave us no wiggle room if either of us were ever out of work for any length of time. And in the end, our stubbornness paid off; we found this house, which ticked off all the boxes on our "must have" list and came in well below $350K.

So how did we come up with this number in the first place? In a word, math. First, we determined how much of our monthly income was already spoken for, and how much wiggle room we wanted our budget to have. Based on that, we worked out what percentage of our income we could afford to put toward our housing payment and still feel comfortable. Working backward from that, we were able to figure out how big a mortgage we could manage. And finally, we figured out what we could afford for a down payment, and added that in to come up with the total price.

If that whole description was a little too fast for you, don't worry; my latest article for Money Crashers covers the whole process in much more detail. First, I go into some detail about the hazards of buying too much house - the problems that Brian and I were so eager to avoid when we bought this one. Then, I go through the whole process of finding the right price, including the factors that affect what you can afford (such as your down payment). And finally, I talk about what you can do if you find - as we did - that your target price is so low you can't find any houses in your area to fit it. (Ideas include saving up a bigger down payment, paying off outstanding debts, improving your credit, or looking for special programs to help low-income buyers.)

Get the skinny here: How Much House Can I Afford?

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Small victory: A truly refillable roller-ball pen

In most ways, being an ecofrugal person makes my life simpler. There are a whole lot of things most people have to deal with that I simply skip over completely. I never have to pick up my clothes at the dry cleaner, because I won't buy clothes that aren't washable. I don't have to vacuum the house every week, because we don't have any carpets. I don't have to spend half an hour putting on makeup every morning, because all I normally use is a dab of concealer on any visible zits. And so on.

But every once in a while, my ecofrugal principles suddenly make my life a lot more complicated. In particular, this happens whenever something I own breaks or wears a pair of shoes, or an old Roman shade, or a wristwatch. A normal person would know exactly what to do in this situation: just go to the store and buy a new one. But since I hate to see anything go to waste, I usually twist myself into knots trying to repair the old one first. Then, if it becomes clear that there's no saving it, I throw myself into a frenzy of research trying to find the most ecofrugal possible replacement for it.

A rather extreme example of this came up last month, when I found one morning that nearly every pen I owned had either dried up or disappeared into the Land of Lost Pens. These were all just cheap, disposable roller-ball pens; I'd actually purchased most of them at the local dollar store, since I've found that the pens available there tend to work just as well, on average, as the full-priced ones they sell at Staples and such. And of course, I could easily have just gone back to the dollar store and bought some more.

But even though I'd been fine with doing just that up until now, for some reason the idea of it suddenly chafed. Perhaps it was because so many of my pens had failed all at once, but I suddenly had this sense of being caught in an endless cycle of waste, continually buying these plastic objects only to use them up and throw them away and buy new ones. It seemed like there had to be a better way.

The problem was, I'd tried "refillable" pens before, and I'd generally found them lacking. There are roller-ball pens (the kind I prefer) that are billed as refillable, but what this typically means is that they have two parts: an outer shell, and an insert that contains all the actual workings of the pen itself: a shaft filled with ink and a ball that dispenses it. In other words, a "refillable" roller-ball pen is really just a disposable roller-ball pen with a nice outer case. Moreover, these inserts typically aren't noticeably less expensive than a whole new pen, and they're definitely more expensive than the pens I'd been buying at the dollar store. Spending more money to buy something that's only marginally less wasteful didn't strike me as particularly ecofrugal.

For true pen connoisseurs, the obvious solution to this dilemma is to use a fountain pen. These come in several different types, all of them more ecofrugal than a so-called refillable roller-ball:
  • Cartridge pens take a disposable, self-contained cartridge filled with ink. You have to throw away these empty cartridges, but at least you don't have to discard the guts of the pen as well.
  • Many cartridge pens can be used with a cartridge converter, which fits into the pen just like a regular cartridge but can be refilled from any bottle of ink. These converters don't hold as much as a regular ink cartridge, so they have to be refilled more often, but you pay less per refill.
  • Some fountain pens have their own built-in filling systems, such as a piston or a pump, so you can refill them straight from the bottle. And most ecofrugal of all, some pens can be refilled with a syringe or an eyedropper. Because they use the whole body of the pen itself as the ink reservoir, they can go quite a long time on a tank. (There are also instructions online for converting a cartridge pen to an eyedropper pen.)
So in theory, a fountain pen should be the perfect choice for me. It's cheaper, it's less wasteful, and it makes you look like a real class act to whip out a fountain pen instead of a Bic Stick. There's just one problem: I cannot, literally cannot, write neatly with a fountain pen. I actually own two of them already, both received as gifts, and every time I try to use them I end up with ink all over myself. Maybe if I retrained myself to write differently, as this article suggests, I'd be able to manage it, but I suspect if I had to go to that much trouble just to use my new pen, I'd end up giving up on it and just buying some more cheap disposables.

What I really wanted was a roller-ball that could be refilled like a fountain pen. So I tried searching around on Google, and I found that there are indeed several pens that work this way. Many of them are a bit pricey, $20 or more, but I figured with what I'd save on the refills, spending a little more on the pen itself would be a worthwhile investment.

However, it turned out not to be necessary. When I dug a little deeper, searching for the best refillable roller-ball, I came upon this site for fountain pen enthusiasts, which offered several recommendations for Pilot V5 pens. These turned out to have very good reviews on, and moreover, they were only $3.20 apiece—barely more than you pay these days for a good disposable roller-ball at Staples. (They're also sold on, but the JetPens price is much better.) The V5 takes a cartridge refill, so it's not the most ecofrugal type, but it is easy to refill—and in case I decide later that I'm willing to do a little more work to save money and resources, at least one user says it can be converted to use an eyedropper. (Pilot also offers a "green" refillable pen that's made from 89% recycled plastic, but the refills it takes are the kind that contain the whole pen mechanism, not just the ink reservoir—so in my opinion, they're not actually as eco-friendly as the V5 Hi-Techpoint that I chose.)

Being a cautious consumer, I'd have liked to be able to go to a store and try this pen out before buying it, but after a quick search, I couldn't find any stores in my area that sold it. Still, I figured, at $3.20 apiece, it wasn't that big a risk to take. In fact, I went ahead and bought two of them, along with a pack of cartridge refills, figuring that if I had to pay for shipping anyway, I might as well get my money's worth. The whole order, including shipping, came to $13.35—less than half the price of many fancy refillable roller-ball pens that aren't any more highly rated than the Pilot. And this way, even if I manage to lose one of my nice new pens, I'll still have one to use.

So I am now the proud owner of not one, but two refillable Pilot pens, and I can honestly say they are everything I hoped they'd be. They feel solid and comfortable, and I can actually write a neat line with them. The only downside I've noticed is that ink in them is a little heavy, so when I fill out my bank register with these (yes, I still use a paper checkbook register, because I'm an old fossil), it bleeds through the pages and makes it harder to read what's on the other side. But since these pens are refillable, I can actually fix that problem by switching to a different kind of ink if I want to.

All this just goes to show that even on those rare occasions when my ecofrugal habits are a hassle in the short term, they actually guide me to better decisions that make my life simpler in the end. With these new, refillable pens, I should never have to worry again about having all my pens dry up on me at once—and I'll be spending less and wasting less, to boot. Admittedly, this isn't the kind of huge, life-changing move that will make a huge dent in my carbon footprint, like getting solar panels or switching to an electric car. But for me, eliminating any source of waste from my life—even a small one—is highly satisfying. Yes, it's only a small thing, but the ecofrugal life is a series of such small victories—each one bringing me ever closer to a truly waste-free life.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Gardeners' Holidays 2017: Planting Day

Today has been a busy and exhausting day for us. As always on May 1, we got up long before the day-o to go down to Princeton Battlefield and dance in the dawn with our Morris dance team, followed by a couple of short gigs at local schools, a bit of dancing around town, a final performance as part of the May Day revels at Hopewell Elementary School—my old elema mater—and a pub stop, which is a necessary part of any Morris dance event.

Normally, after all this, we just come home and collapse on the couch. But this year, the Hopewell gig was scheduled earlier than usual, ending shortly after noon. So after dancing all morning, we refueled with a little lunch and hurried home to start putting plants in the garden.

Now, usually, we don't have all that much to plant on May 1. According to our garden schedule, the only things that really had to go in the ground this weekend were the zucchini and a final planting of lettuce. Our big planting day is normally about a week into May, which is when the almanac deems the danger of frost to be past. At that point, we put in a whole bunch of things at once: tomatoes, peppers, basil, dill, string beans, lima beans, cucumbers, and butternut squash.

This year, however, there were two problems with that plan. First, Brian is getting shipped off to England for a conference next weekend, and so he wouldn't be around to assist with any of that planting. And second, our tomato plants were starting to get really tall and leggy; they'd already outgrown their little seed-starting tubes, and Brian thought they were in imminent danger of outgrowing the larger pots he'd transplanted them into. So, since the weather forecast for the next week doesn't predict any danger of frost, he though it was best to get them into the ground right away. (We're also thinking that next year, perhaps we should avoid giving them quite so much light, so they won't get too tall before it's time to plant them.)

Then, while we were preparing to plant the tomatoes, Brian had a look at the other garden beds and noticed something disturbing. The lettuce we'd planted last month in the left rear garden bed was coming up nicely—but the snap peas, which we put in immediately after framing the bed a month ago, hadn't come up at all. There was no sign of them whatsoever. Since the first sprouts normally come up just two to three weeks after planting, this was very puzzling. The seeds were only a year old, the weather hadn't been unusually cold, and there was no sign that birds or other wildlife had disturbed them. So what could have gone wrong? And more to the point, were we now doomed to go all year without any peas?

We couldn't answer those questions, so we did the only thing we could; plant all the remainder of the peas in the packet and hope for the best. At the very least, Brian pointed out, this will help answer the question about what went wrong in the first place; if this batch of seeds comes up, we'll know it wasn't the seeds that were at fault. And whether they do or don't, we'll still plan on ordering a fresh supply next year.

So, having put in the tomatoes, the peas, and the other things on the schedule, Brian decided he might as well go ahead and plant the rest of the seedlings—peppers and marigolds—as well. I said I could just plant them on my own next week, but he was concerned because they were still in their tubes, and extracting them can be a tricky job. In the end, he preferred to do it himself mainly so that if anyone messed up the job, it would be him, and I wouldn't be upset with myself over it. So he transferred the seedlings from tubes to beds, while I traipsed back and forth between the garden and the rain barrel with a watering can to make all our new plants comfortable. Then he popped down some chicken-wire cages (the ones he originally built to protect our eggplants, before we figured out we just can't grow the darn things) over two of the pepper plants in hopes of protecting them from squirrels.

Even that wasn't quite all that we needed to get done in the garden. So far, most of our newly installed garden beds don't have trellis netting up yet; we put some up on the back bed for the peas (which apparently we needn't have hurried to do, since they never came up), but we still haven't done the other three. And since the new tomato plants are so tall already, they'll be needing that support as soon as possible. We actually considered coming back out to the garden after dinner to put some up, but we decided going one more day without support wouldn't kill the plants, and spending any more time on yard work today might kill us.

All this hard work wasn't without its rewards, however. Spending all that time in the garden, we got to see that most of the crops we've put in so far—aside from the peas—have been growing really well. The arugula, after three weeks, is almost big enough to harvest, and the lettuce, scallions, and leeks are coming along nicely. Better still, the winter lettuce, which we left in place last year in the faint hope that enough might survive to give us a salad or two this spring, is so full and lush that it's nearly overflowing the two squares it occupies. In fact, we had to thin it out a bit just to make room for the tomato plants.

So, as it turned out, we did enjoy a bit of home-grown produce to top off our Gardeners' Holiday: a salad of crisp winter lettuce, along with a little home-grown thyme (from our herb bed) and garlic (foraged in the front yard) in some pasta. And now, we can finally collapse on the couch, with no guilt whatsoever. Many things attempted, many things done, have more than earned a night's repose.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Money Crashers: 10 Cognitive Biases in Your Brain That Are Costing You Money

A few months ago, I made a rare impulse buy at the Barnes & Noble in New Brunswick: a book called How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, by Jordan Ellenberg. This turned out to be a fascinating read, examining the many ways in which your instincts can lead you into wrong thinking and how understanding some basic mathematical concepts—not higher math, but stuff like probability, which applies to all kinds of real-world problems—can stop you from being wrong. What makes it so interesting is not the mathematical concepts themselves, but the stories Ellenberg uses to illustrate them, such as the one about how Abraham Wald figured out where to put armor on WWII planes (which I'd first heard as a puzzler on "Car Talk"), or the one about how a bunch of MIT students figured out how to beat the Massachusetts state lottery. And he also discusses ways to apply the same mathematical concepts to your own everyday life, such as figuring out the optimal time to leave for the airport before your plane is scheduled to take off.

This book and its ideas were still in the back of my mind when I happened across this video on YouTube, which discusses 12 common cognitive biases—the same sort of mental traps Ellenberg discusses in his book—and how to beat them. Many of the examples in the video involve mistakes people make with money. Putting this together in my head with the book, I decided the topic of cognitive biases and how they affect our finances would actually make a great article for Money Crashers.

I sifted through the cognitive biases covered in the video, along with a couple of others I'd seen discussed in Ellenberg's book and other sources, and narrowed it down to a list of ten that I thought were most likely to affect you financially. Even with just ten biases, it's a rather long article, but I think it's an interesting one—particularly since it's a topic that applies to everyone, not just folks who happen to be (for example) shopping for a mortgage or looking to save on auto insurance.

If you're at all interested in math, psychology, behavioral economics, or any similarly nerdy subject, you'll probably find this article interesting on an intellectual level. And if you aren't, but you handle money on a regular basis, you'll probably find it relevant enough to your life to be interesting on a purely practical level.

10 Cognitive Biases in Your Brain That Are Costing You Money

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Money Crashers: 8 Tips on How to Improve Your Credit Score Rating

About a year ago, I published an article on Money Crashers about how to check your credit score for free. In that article, I pointed out that your credit score can have a big impact on your life, even if you have no plans to borrow money in the near future. For instance, it can affect the rate you get charged for auto insurance, as well as your chances of landing a job or an apartment. And, of course, checking your credit score regularly can alert you to errors on your credit report that could be a sign of identity theft.

So all in all, I made a pretty good case that your credit score is important, and why it's worth knowing what yours is. But what I never explained is what to do about it once you find out. Learning that your score is low - perhaps low enough to be affecting your mortgage or insurance rates - isn't very helpful if you have no idea how to make it any higher.

My latest Money Crashers article remedies that. It outlines the various factors that affect your credit score - such as whether you pay bills on time, how far you stay below your credit limit, what kind of credit you use, and how long you've been using it - and then explains how you can tweak these factors to boost your score.

If your credit score is only so-so, this article can give you a couple of useful tips on how to bump it up into the very good or even excellent range. And if your score is already at or near the top of the scale, it can tell you how to make sure it stays there.

Check it out here: 8 Tips on How to Improve Your Credit Score Rating

Saturday, April 22, 2017

News from Earth

As usual, Brian and I didn't do anything terribly exciting or dramatic for Earth Day this year. Even though it fell on a Saturday this year, our town decided to hold its local Earth Day celebration on Sunday instead—possibly to accommodate our large Orthodox Jewish population, or possibly so it wouldn't conflict with the Marches for Science taking place in Washington and Trenton. We've been doing the usual array of little things—hanging laundry on the line (though we had to take it down when it started raining), shopping locally, and eating home-grown produce (some of last year's rhubarb for breakfast, and a salad of winter lettuce that we planted last year for dinner)—but nothing too major.

However, I have been pleased to read several news stories lately about other people in the world who are making major strides to help the environment. So in honor of Earth Day, I thought I'd share three stories about Earthlings who are doing their part to save their home planet.

Story #1: Changing the Pallet
Source: Haverford alumni magazine

As an ecofrugal person, I have kind of a conflicted attitude toward shipping pallets. On the one hand, I love them, because they make an incredibly useful source of virtually free building material. For example, our compost bin, which has served us well for seven years before finally starting to come to bits, is an ultra-simple box made of pallets recovered (with permission) from a building at Rutgers. And that's only the beginning of what you can build with pallet wood. I've seen tons of pictures online of gorgeous projects involving pallet wood, from a simple hanging shelf in this bathroom makeover to an entire pallet wall that makes a stunning focal point in a living room. There's a whole website, 101 Pallet Ideas, devoted exclusively to projects you can make from pallets—patio furniture, beds, sofas, and even entire buildings.

But at the same time, I know that the only reason pallets are free and widely available is because there are so many of them being discarded after just one use. They cut down trees to make these things, ship them across the country with stuff on them, and then just throw them away because it's not cost-effective to ship them back. Clearly, that's incredibly wasteful, and salvaging a small percentage of the pallets for building purposes isn't enough to make it sustainable. From an ecofrugal perspective, it would be much better if there weren't so darn many of these things being made and tossed in the first place.

So I was pleased to read in the Haverford alumni magazine that my former classmate Adam Pener is now running a company whose sole purpose is to make eco-friendlier shipping pallets out of corrugated cardboard. These things are better than standard wood pallets in numerous ways. They weigh less (around 10 pounds, as compared to an average of 50 for a wood pallet), so they lighten the load of the trucks that carry them, thus reducing their carbon emissions. Also, it's easy to make them in custom sizes and shapes to pack those trucks more efficiently, so it takes fewer trucks to haul the same volume of goods. They're made largely from recycled paper rather than virgin wood. (The ones made by Adam's company, Green Ox, don't even use glue or staples.) And when they get to their destination, they can easily be broken down and recycled, rather than going into landfills (except for a small number that go into DIY furniture and accessories). IKEA, my favorite green business, has already opted to switch its entire supply chain to cardboard pallets, and has thereby reduced truck trips by 15 percent and cut CO2 emissions by 300,000 metric tons.

The only real downside of the corrugated pallets is that they're not quite as strong as wood. They can't hold very heavy items, and they don't hold up well in the rain. So chances are, there will always be some wood pallets around for us tightwads to scavenge. But if all the rest of them are made of cardboard, that's a good thing as far as I'm concerned.

Story #2: An island of green
Source: The Christian Science Monitor

The cover story in last week's Christian Science Monitor Weekly is "An island of green: How a group of gritty farmers turned Samsø, Denmark, into a premier global model of renewable energy." Back in the 1970s, when the environmental movement was in its infancy, this little island tucked between Jutland and Zealand was entirely dependent on fossil fuels. But when word got out that Denmark was considering building its first nuclear power plant, a vegetable farmer named Søren Hermansen became concerned that Samsø would lose control over its electrical supply to a big, centralized utility. So, along with about 20 other families, he invested in a small wind turbine to power their farms.

Over the next 15 years, he grew steadily more interested in environmental issues. He studied environmental science at college and started farming organically. And when, in 1997, the Danish government announced a competition for communities within the country to become energy independent in the space of 10 years, Hermansen convinced his fundamentally conservative fellow farmers to take up the challenge. Instead of talking in lofty terms about saving the earth, he focused on the practical benefits: the income from leasing their land for wind turbines, the jobs that would be created laying district heating pipes, the improved market value of a better-insulated house. Samsø built a network of wind turbines under community control, along with district heating plants to replace inefficient, individual oil heaters. Today, the island produces all its own energy and actually exports $3 million worth of energy each year. Its overall carbon footprint is negative 3.7 tons. By 2030, it aims to eliminate all fossil fuel use entirely.

Of course, Samsø is just one little community, with a population of "3,750 people and a few sheep." No matter how green it is, one tiny island is probably not going to make that big a dent in the world's overall energy use. But to me, Samsø's success is a proof of concept. It proves that energy independence is possible—and moreover, that it's possible using only technologies that are already available today. Hermansen acknowledges that the same systems that work for Samsø probably wouldn't work in a larger city, because cities have such complex infrastructure—but they could still draw on the same technologies to incorporate green projects throughout the city, "rooftop solar on this block and urban gardening on this one."

What's most encouraging to me is not just how much Samsø has achieved, but how quickly it made the transition. It went from a single wind turbine to a fully energy-independent community in the space of just ten years. This gives me hope that, when the perils of climate change finally becomes impossible for the world at large to ignore, it won't be too late to set ourselves on a sustainable path. If they could do it there, I think there's hope even for the USA.

Story #3: Bipartisan climate change solution is already in existence
Source: The Daily Targum

The final piece of positive environmental news came from an unlikely source: the Daily Targum, the official student-run newspaper of Rutgers University. I say it's unlikely because most of the stories in the Targum are, well, not exactly shining examples of journalistic achievement. It's not the material that's the problem; it's the writing. Apparently most of the students who work for the paper have never been taught even the most basic principles of how to organize a story, such as leading with a sentence that answers the five "W" questions: Who did What, When, Where and Why? Often, I'll be halfway into a story before I manage to figure out what it's actually about.

So I was both surprised and delighted to come across an editorial on the Targum's opinion page that actually made a well-constructed, well-reasoned, well-supported argument in clear, lucid prose. The author, Connor O'Brien, a second-year economics major, starts out by arguing that most of the stories about climate change in the mainstream media center around a false choice: save the earth or protect the economy. He then points out that there already exists a solution, endorsed by American leaders from both parties, that can curb carbon emissions without harming us financially: "a revenue-neutral carbon tax." The basic idea, as he succinctly explains, is to build the environmental costs of carbon emissions into their actual costs in dollar terms. Polluters would pay for each ton of CO2 they produce, giving them a strong incentive to reduce their emissions in whatever way they can. And the cash raised by the tax would go straight back to the taxpayers, effectively putting the money consumers would have to spend on higher-priced goods and services right back into their pockets.

O'Brien acknowledges that the "toxic politics" in the USA remain an obstacle to passing this eminently sensible plan. Many prominent Republicans, eager to reject anything that Democrats favor, have rejected the whole idea of global warming as nothing but a hoax (while remaining a little vague on the subject of who started this hoax, and what they had to gain by going to such vast lengths to sustain it, manufacturing reams of data and co-opting 97% of the scientists on the planet). But the fact that there is a solution that could work, and that is compelling enough to attract supporters among Republicans as well as Democrats, is at least an encouraging sign.

In short, all three of these stories express the same basic idea: change is possible. Just because things have always been done in a destructive way, that doesn't mean they always will be. With folks like Adam Pener, Søren Hermansen, and Connor O'Brien on the job—along with the countless others who marched on Washington today to stand up for reality-based policy—there may be hope for our little planet yet.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Jap Chae

Jewish holidays just aren't that much fun. Passover, when you aren't allowed to eat any grain products, isn't nearly as bad as Yom Kippur, when you can't eat at all, but it's still a challenge, because it lasts eight whole days. And it's even more challenging if you're a near-vegetarian like me, who relies heavily on grain as a food source.

I have a few standard recipes I tend to rely on to get through this week every year, including matzo ball soup and matzagna, a recipe of my own invention that's basically a lasagna with sheets of matzo in place of the noodles. (It turns out I'm not the only person to have this idea; a quick Google search for "matzagna" turns up several recipes. But I did legitimately come up with it on my own.)

But I have learned that you have to be careful about including too much matzo in your diet. It can have, let us say, unpleasant digestive side effects. So I always make a point of including at least a few recipes in my weeklong menu that aren't matzo-based.

Usually, that means potatoes, potatoes, and more potatoes. But this year, I happened upon something at the H-Mart, just a few weeks before Passover, that looked like an interesting alternative. The package was labeled "Vermicelli Asian Style Starch Noodles," and when I flipped it around to see what that meant, it turned out that these noodles had only two ingredients: sweet potato starch and water. Both of which happen to be kosher for Passover.

Since I'd never made these before, I decided I'd just try following the recipe on the back of the package for jap chae, which is apparently a Korean dish of stir-fried noodles and veggies. The instructions for it were quite simple:
  1. Boil the noodles for about 10 minutes, drain them, and toss them with some sesame oil to keep them from sticking.
  2. Next, make a stir-fry of "marinated beef & various vegetables." The package suggested shredded onion, carrot, mushrooms, and green peppers; we included all of those, but left out the beef.
  3. Toss the noodles and veggies together, along with some soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and sesame seeds. The recipe didn't specify any amounts, so Brian put in about a tablespoon of sesame oil and added soy sauce to taste. He left out the sugar, as it didn't seem to need it. The package says you can season this with "various spices," but we had no idea which ones, so we just ate it plain, and it didn't seem to suffer from their absence. 
The texture of the vermicelli was quite interesting. They're nothing at all like wheat or rice noodles; instead they have a certain chewy quality that's odd, but not unpleasant. It's more similar to sauteed bean sprouts than anything else I can put a name to. This may be because, according to the nutrition label, they contain almost no actual starch; virtually all their calories come from sugars, even though they don't taste at all sweet.

As for their flavor, it's pretty neutral, basically just forming a base for the veggies and sauce. It's pretty much just like fried rice, only with the chewy noodles in place of rice. (Actually, the package suggested serving the dish with rice on the side, but that's obviously out during Passover, and the dish hardly seemed to need more carbs.)

On the whole, Brian and I both rather liked this dish. I'm not sure it's something we'd go out of our way to make for non-Passover use, since we can always do pretty much the same thing with rice or some other kind of noodles, which we usually have on hand. But it should make a handy addition to our file of recipes we can serve to our gluten-free friends. (Pro tip, by the way: Passover is a great time to stock up on all sorts of gluten-free ingredients, such as tapioca starch, potato starch, almond and coconut flour, and various types of treats, such as jellied fruits and macaroons. All that stuff goes on sale in early April for us Jews, so anyone who needs to eat gluten-free year round can take the opportunity to load up a cart.)

So, for all you Christians out there on the Interwebs: as you break your Lenten fast tomorrow, spare a thought for us poor Jews, who have another three days left to spend munching on matzo. And for my Jewish readers, should I have any: if you can find any of these sweet potato noodles (also known as glass noodles), give this dish a try. It's not the same as real pasta, but it'll do as a substitute until the Festival of Unleavened Bread is over.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Money Crashers: 4 Ways to Save by Spending More

Last December, my mom sent me New York Times column called, "The Financial Benefits of Buying What You Love." In it, the author argued that sometimes what looks like a wild splurge—like his purchase of a $5,000 Moots bicycle back in 2004—is actually a sound financial choice. He argued that it makes sense to spend more on something you truly love, because "If you love it, you will keep it; if you keep it, you will use it." Thus, not only has his one $5,000 bike served him for 11 years, rather than being replaced by a series of newer, cheaper bikes, but it has also inspired him to ride more.

After thinking this over for a bit, I realized that this was actually only one of several situations in which spending more can save you money in the long run. You also save when you invest in:
  • High-quality products that will last, rather than cheaper ones that wear out and need to be replaced frequently. This depends on the product, of course; buying more expensive soap or toilet paper, for instance, is not a money-saver, because it gets used up just as fast (though you could make a case for it in terms of quality of life). But with items you'll have for years—like a tool, an appliance, or a good pair of shoes—buying something that's built to last can definitely save you money, as well as preventing waste.
  • The best professional services. As I've argued before, if you're an ecofrugal person, you tend to do most jobs for yourself; the only time you ever pay a professional is when it's really important to you to have the job done right. And that being the case, there's no point in paying a professional to do a second-rate job. If you're paying for the service anyway, you might as well pay a little bit more to get the best results. 
  • Energy efficiency. This, of course, is one of the major premises of the ecofrugal life: that when you cut back on your energy use, you save money and natural resources at the same time. And in many cases, investing more up front—for example, in LED bulbs, solar panels, or rechargeable batteries—can pay you back many times over in energy savings over time.
In my latest Money Crashers post, I talk in detail about the ways in which spending more can actually help you save money, and how to decide when to scrimp and when to splurge. Here's the full article: 4 Ways to Save Money Long-Term by Spending More Now

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Money Crashers: Are Fitness Trackers Worth the Money?

I've often said that I seem to be the only person left in the country who doesn't own a smartphone. (We have a tablet, but that's not quite the same.) I don't feel quite the same way about fitness trackers, but I have been noticing more and more people wearing these little gadgets: my sister, my mom, a friend in Virginia, another friend on my Morris dancing team. And so I got to wondering: what's the big deal about these things? Do you really exercise more with them? What can they do that makes them worth spending a hundred bucks on?

So I took the opportunity to research that question and write up the answer for Money Crashers. In the article, I address such points as:

  • What fitness trackers actually do, and how they do it. (For instance, their most famous feature, counting the number of steps you take in a day, is accomplished with an accelerometer. Some of them also have fancy features like a heart rate monitor or a sleep tracker, though it appears these don't always work very well.)
  • How much they really change your habits. (Studies on the subject show mixed results; some find people exercise more with them, though only by a modest amount, while others report no change. But they can be useful for other things, like tracking your progress toward a specific fitness goal.)
  • What they cost. (Recommended models range from $60 for a modest clip-on to $220 for a pimped-out watch for hardcore athletes.)
  • What the alternatives are. (For instance, if you are one of the 318,899,999 people in the U.S. who does own a smartphone, there are apps that can do a lot of what a fitness tracker does for $5 or less. Or you can spend $30 on a simple pedometer, which is more accurate for counting steps.)
  • How to decide whether a tracker is for you, and if so, which one to get.

Based on my findings, I've decided that I don't really need one of these little gizmos. I think I probably get at least 7,000 steps a day anyway, and that's more than a study of other women my age found they were getting with fitness trackers, so I suspect the benefits would be minimal. But your mileage (on foot) may vary, so check out the full article to get the skinny:

Are Fitness Activity Trackers & Watches Worth the Money?

Sunday, April 2, 2017

DIY garden bed frames

Last week, we started the process of tearing out our old, rotted garden bed frames and installing new ones. As you can see from these pics, the old ones really were in pretty bad shape. When Brian mentioned to his folks on the phone that he was planning to tear out the old beds that weekend, his dad asked "Got a sledgehammer?" and Brian confidently predicted, "I won't need one."

And sure enough, all he had to do was give that old, rotted trellis a good kick and pretty much the whole thing came tumbling over. He pulled out the rest of the boards with his bare hands—some of them literally crumbling in his fingers—and was left with a clean, bare patch of dirt to be re-framed.

But while pulling out the old beds wasn't too hard, building the new ones and getting them into place posed more of a challenge. Fortunately, we were able to do the replacements one at a time, as the beds are staying the same size, 8 feet by 3 feet. That's slightly smaller than the 8-by-4 size recommended in most gardening books, but it has a couple of advantages for us. First of all, the narrower bed allows my short arms to reach all the way into the middle from either side, while still being wide enough to accommodate a big zucchini plant. And second, the smaller size allows us to squeeze four beds into the fenced-in garden area we had in the back yard when we moved in. We could have just expanded the fenced area to accommodate larger beds, but it was easier at the time to work with what we had—and it meant we didn't need as much material to replace the old fence with a proper groundhog fence around the area. (We're still making use of the extra space in front of the fenced area with beds for rhubarb and asparagus, which the groundhogs don't eat, so it isn't going to waste.)

We're using the same basic design for the frames that Brian used for our old ones, with a couple of modifications. They're built entirely out of 2-by-4s, which have several perks as a building material. They're thicker, and therefore sturdier, than a standard wooden boards, and much lighter than a heftier wooden plank, which makes them easier to carry from store to car to house. Also, they're quite a bit cheaper. This raised-bed design from Sunset magazine, which is built out of 2-by-12s, has a cost estimate of $120 for a single 4-by-8-foot bed—and that's for a basic box with no trellis, made from untreated lumber. By contrast, the materials we bought for all four of our beds—a total of 96 square feet of garden space—cost just $250, trellises and all. Plus, ours are made of pressure-treated lumber, which means—we hope—that they'll last considerably longer than the first set. That means we'll also save money by not having to replace them in another nine years.

So Brian's 2-by-4 design had clear advantages to start with, and he's improved on it for this go-round. When he constructed the first set of garden bed frames nine years back, he built the boxes by themselves, and later, when we started getting into vertical growing, he grafted the trellises on—a rather awkward, kludgey process. This time, he decided to incorporate the trellises right into the design of the boxes, which gives them extra structural stability—though it also makes the whole unit very bulky and awkward to handle. So building them this way, or at least moving them into place, is definitely a two-person job.

Each bed uses ten 2-by-4s, each 8 feet long. Four of these are used for the sides and four for the trellises, so they don't need to be cut. The remaining three get cut up into four 3-foot lengths for the ends of the beds and three 1-foot lengths. If you're counting, you'll notice that this leaves an extra 1-foot piece left over from each frame, but I'm sure we'll find a use for them.

Once he had all the pieces cut, Brian began to assemble the box. He started by building one corner: one 8-foot piece on the x-axis, a 3-foot piece on the y-axis, and a 1-foot piece on the z-axis. (The other pieces of wood you see in the picture are shims to keep everything level, since our patio isn't perfectly flat.) He attached these with 2.5-inch stainless-steel screws, since they needed to go all the way through one 2-by-4 and most of the way into a second one without poking out the other side. Two screws connect the end piece to the long side, and a third attaches the end to the 1-foot leg piece.

With this corner as an anchor, he continued around building the whole first layer of the box: 8-foot pieces on the sides and 3-foot pieces on the ends.

Then, he added a second layer of 2-by-4s, long and short, on top of the first, attaching the pieces the same way. He also installed a second 1-foot piece at the opposite end of the box and a third one in the center between them (not attached yet in this picture). These "feet" would serve to anchor that side of the box in the dirt. He didn't add any short pieces to the other side of the box, because the feet on that side would be formed by the ends of the trellis pieces.

Once the box was complete, he turned it up on its side to start attaching the trellis to the back. In this picture, you can see the first of the long trellis sides running down through the box and coming out the bottom to form a foot on that side. 

At this point, he got wrapped up in the construction process and forgot to take any more pictures for a while, so you can't really see the trellis coming together. But once the whole thing was done, he let me come in for a close-up to show how he had attached the trellis pieces to the boards of the box with screws in the same spots as the ones that hold the short feet.

And here's the entire bed with the trellis attached. As you can see, there's one long vertical piece running up each side and one in the middle, with one long horizontal piece connecting them across the top.

Then came the really hard part: getting it into the garden. Brian's initial idea was that once he had the whole thing built, the two of us could just heft it as a unit right over the garden fence. I had my doubts about this plan, and as the entire thing took shape under his hands, Brian came to agree with me that it wasn't going to work. So he removed several screws and took the whole thing apart into two pieces: the front of the box with the feet and sides, and the back side with the trellis attached.

But before we could even move these two smaller pieces, Brian had to do a little work in the garden bed itself to prepare the ground. He scooped all the dirt from around the edges of the bed and piled it high in the middle (first throwing a tarp down on the opposite side from where he was digging to catch any that spilled over). Then he dug extra deep in the corners to make room for the support posts.

At this point the two of us hauled the box down to the garden, maneuvered it into the back corner, and dropped it into place. That part wasn't too difficult, but with the trellis side removed, the 2-by-4s that made up the ends of the bed were sort of free-floating and didn't stay quite aligned. So the new box was slightly uneven and had to be realigned before it could be reattached to the trellis.

Then we went back and, with great effort, fetched the trellis piece and carried it into the garden...confirming my suspicious that we'd never have been able to do it with the box attached. I then held the trellis in place while Brian carefully lined it up with the ends of the box so he could reinsert the screws. He ended up having to lie flat on the ground to get the drill in place to insert the bottom-most set of screws, but eventually we managed to get the entire unit assembled in its new home.

We noticed that the level of the dirt in the new bed seemed to be a lot higher than it had been in the old one. Maybe the dirt had just become compacted, and we'd fluffed it up some in the process of digging, or maybe all that extra dirt Brian had dug out from around the edges contributed to the whole. Whatever the reason, we ended up having to scoop out a shovelful or two of dirt and transfer it to a neighboring bed before adding a couple of buckets of our homemade compost to the bed to prepare it for planting.

Then we just raked that all down nice and flat, and we were finally able to get our peas into the ground—about a week late, but with the chilly weather we've been having, it probably didn't make that much difference.

So that's one bed in, and we still have three more to do. Brian's out there now working on the second one, and we figure we'll be putting up one more every weekend until we're done. Fortunately the deadline's not quite as tight at this point, since the next batch of crops to go in the ground—parsley, scallions, leeks, and our first plantings of lettuce and arugula—are all scheduled to go in just two beds, and one of those is the one we've already got. After that, there's nothing new to add until the second week in May, so that's our hard deadline for having all four beds done.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Money Crashers: 7 Best Financial Decisions

Here is the third and final article in my series about the Claris survey on financial regrets. The last one focused on what people, in hindsight, consider to be their worst financial decisions; this one is about the flip side of that, the decisions that people were happiest about.

Like the last article, this one has some advice that's mainly useful for younger folks. For instance, the #1 decision people were satisfied with was going to college, and while it's certainly possible to go back and earn your degree in middle age, the vast majority of people make this choice in their teens. So info about the pros and cons of getting a college degree, and how to get the best value for your education dollar, are probably a bit less useful for adult readers. (On the other hand, I guess for some people it could be useful for figuring out how much they should be willing to finance their kids' education, either now or down the road.)

Other decisions in the article, however, can be made at pretty much any age. These include:
  • Buying a home. If you're already a homeowner, it's too late to decide not to buy, but if you're still weighing the decision, the article has a lot to say about the pluses and minuses.
  • Living below your means. Even if you haven't done this in the past, it's never too late to start.
  • Dealing sensibly with debt. If you have no debts now, this article has some sound advice on which kinds of debt are most likely to help you, and which are most likely to hurt. And if you already owe money, it offers some suggestions about how to pay it off quickly.
  • Investing. If you've never invested before, this article can help you get started; if you're investing already, it can help you squeeze a little more value out of your investment dollar.
  • Having a traditional career. If you're thinking of starting your own business, this article covers the risks of doing it, as well as the possible benefits. It outlines how to decide if this move is for you, and how to minimize the risks if you choose to take the plunge.
  • Travel. I'm not a big fan of travel myself, but many survey respondents said "taking that trip of a lifetime" was the best decision they'd ever made, and who am I to contradict them? So if this is a goal for you as well, the article offers some tips on how to enjoy that once-in-a-lifetime trip without sacrificing your financial future.
Get all the details here: 7 Best Financial Decisions Young People Can Make to Get Ahead

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Even easier DIY cat toy

So, remember how a couple of weeks ago I said I had come up with the world's easiest DIY cat toy?

Well, I spoke too soon. Brian has come up with another toy that is also made of reused materials and is even simpler than the my paper twists. Plus, the cats are even more enthusiastic about it. The only catch is, to get the materials for it, you have to consume five heads of garlic.

At our house, this is no problem. Garlic is a staple for us, and so we routinely buy several heads at a time. They come bundled up together in a little mesh bag, like this. Brian thought these little bags looked like they might be useful for something, so he took to saving them. He'd just roll them up into little balls like this, rather resembling a jellyfish, and toss them in a larger mesh bag (the kind onions come in) for storage.

At some point, it occurred to him that these little balls were the sort of thing our cats might like to play with. They were lightweight and slightly irregular in shape, so when you tossed them, they'd bounce and roll in unpredictable ways—which seems to be the best way to hold the cats' interest. But he hesitated to give them one, because he thought they were so small the cats might somehow manage to swallow them.

Recently, however, we picked up a bag of garlic that was much larger than the stuff we usually buy. It wasn't quite as jumbo-sized as the stuff they call elephant garlic, but it was definitely bigger than average. And consequently, it came in a bigger bag. So Brian decided this bag made a large enough ball that we could safely give it to the cats and see how they reacted.

The answer, as it turns out, was "with great enthusiasm." If you toss this mesh ball for them, they will chase after it even more eagerly than they do the paper toys. They especially love when it goes rolling in a vaguely off-kilter path down the hall, so they can go bounding after it. The best part is that when they catch up to it and snatch at it, the mesh often catches on their claws, causing them to snake them until it comes free—which, of course, sends it flying off again, so they can chase it all over. So all we have to do is toss this toy once, and they will amuse themselves with it for—well, not for hours on end, but at least for several minutes.

I tried to get a few pictures of the cats playing with this toy, but unfortunately, our cats just love the camera. As soon as it comes out, they become far more interested in that than they were in whatever they were doing, and so all you can get is pictures of them staring into the camera and trying to bite it. So you'll just have to take my word for it: they love this thing.

Better still, after observing how our cats play with this extra-large garlic-bag ball, Brian has concluded that probably there would be no harm in letting them play with the smaller ones, as well. So once they manage to lose this toy or chew it to pieces (they've already pulled a couple of small strings loose), we have several more to replace it.

And that also means that if you want to try this toy on your cats, you don't necessarily have to seek out an unusually large bag of garlic to make it. Just buy a regular bag of whatever size your supermarket carries, eat all the garlic, and roll up the bag like this: start by turning up one end, then roll it over a second time, and just keep rolling until you've got the little jellyfish shape shown above. Then send it skittering down the hall, and watch your kitties pounce.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Money Crashers: 4 Worst Financial Mistakes

This is the second of my articles based on the Claris Finance survey about financial decisions. It's based on two sections of the survey: one that asked people about their worst financial decisions, and one that asked them what advice they'd give to a younger version of themselves.

In real life, of course, it's not possible to go back in time and steer yourself away from future mistakes—but it is possible to guide others so they don't make the same mistakes. So this article is aimed more at younger folks just starting out on their financial journey. First, I warn them about the decisions they're most likely to regret later in life, such as overspending, racking up debt, and avoiding investment. Then I point them toward strategies that can help them avoid these mistakes, such as making a budget, eating out less, and taking advantage of automatic deposits.

For those who are older and may already have made some mistakes of their own, this advice can still be helpful. For instance, it may be too late to avoid getting into debt, but it's not too late to get out—and the suggestions in this article can help you do it faster. Get the details here: 4 Worst Financial Mistakes Young People Regret & How to Avoid Them

And lest you think I'm being too much of a negative Nelly, don't worry: there's a third article in this series coming out soon, which is all about the best financial decisions to make—particularly for young folks, but for the rest of us, better late than never.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Money Crashers: 5 Best Money-Saving Strategies

As I've noted before, occasionally companies looking for free publicity send me press releases about their work in the hopes that I'll write about it for Money Crashers. They can be pretty persistent, too; if I just delete the messages with no response, they usually follow up a few days later to ask, "Did you get my e-mail? I would be happy to discuss it with you!" I've actually had to resort to sending a form reply, politely thanking them for the message and explaining that I can't respond to it personally "due to the large volume of such requests I receive," but I'll certainly consider the information and use it if I can. Then, most of the time, I dump the message straight into the trash.

Once in a while, however, I get an e-mail on a topic that I think I actually can get an interesting article out of. And recently, I got one that was an absolute bonanza. It was a link to the results of a survey by Claris Finance, which asked people about the best and worst financial decisions they'd made in their lives. Looking them over, I realized they could probably provide meat for not one but several articles on how to save money, make sound decisions, and avoid financial regrets.

For instance, one section of the survey asked people about what strategies they'd tried to save money, and which ones actually worked for them. This stuck me as solid, practical information that pretty much anyone could benefit from. So in this article, I explore the five strategies that people found most useful, how well each one worked, and how to make them work for you. For instance, I outline the steps in making a budget (the #1 saving strategy people found useful), offer tips on how to eat out less (the #2 strategy), and go into detail about how to avoid different types of consumer debt (the #4 strategy).

Learn all about the five money-saving tips that actually work, and how to follow them, in the full article: 5 Best Money-Saving Strategies Proven to Work for Anyone. And keep an eye out for my other Money Crashers articles based on the same financial survey, coming soon.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Gardeners' holidays 2017: Garden Planning Day

Well, this is apparently what the first day of spring looks like now:

At least the snow is melting instead of still coming down, but there's still enough out there to make our regular annual celebration of First Sowing a little impractical.

But perhaps it's just as well, since it really wouldn't be practical to start putting seeds in the ground just yet this year anyway. As I mentioned last spring, our garden bed frames have been falling apart for some time now, and we've concluded that this is the year we're going to have to take them apart and replace them completely. (We've decided to go with the pressure-treated wood, and Brian has already acquired the materials—40 2-by-4s and five pounds of stainless-steel screws—with the help of a pickup-driving coworker.) So if we put any seeds into the beds now, we'd just disrupt them when we tore down the frames.

So, instead, our plan is to tear down and replace at least one of the beds next weekend, and then plunk the peas down in the newly assembled bed. And in order to make that happen, I need to get busy and figure out just how we're going to lay out the garden this year, so I'll know which bed we need to replace first.

In order to make that process a little simpler, I've decided to try simplifying my crop-rotation scheme. Garden books always advise you to make sure you don't plant any crop in the same spot where it's been for any of the past three or four years, which is kind of hard to do when you've only got 96 square feet to work with. In a frantic attempt to make it work, I used to juggle all the squares in the beds individually, moving plants not only from bed to bed but also from one end of the bed to another, trying to find new blocks of 9 squares each for the zucchini plants and 4 squares each for the peppers, all while trying to maintain the optimal companion plantings of tomatoes with basil and leeks far away from peas. But in the end, I always ran up against the same old problem: there are only so many squares for our plants, and only so many ways to fill them. No matter what I do, I'm going to end up breaking at least one of the rules.

So this year, I'm taking a more laid-back approach. Rather than trying to place each individual plant in the perfect spot, I'm going to rotate entire beds from year to year. That will ensure that the tomatoes, which are heavy feeders, always go in the spot just vacated by the peas, which add nourishing nitrogen to the soil, and the plants that need to be kept together in one bed (or kept apart in separate ones) always stay that way.

Then, to keep the zucchini and pepper plants from ending up in exactly the same spots as the previous year, I'll flip each individual bed horizontally, moving each plant to the mirror image of the spot it had last year. This will put the pepper plants on a two-year rotation, bouncing from one end of the bed to the other every year, while the two zucchini plants will progress around the eight ends of the four beds on a four-year schedule. It's not perfect, but it's probably the best we can do with this limited space, and it's a lot easier than trying to fit each plant into the perfect square like a jigsaw puzzle piece.

One additional wrinkle is that we have a lot more space in the garden this year than we had last year. We've decided to drop two crops entirely: the Brussels sprouts, which only yielded one very late and rather stunted crop in all the time we've had them, and the eggplants, which never gave us a single fruit bigger than a walnut. Their absence leaves us with ten whole extra squares in our garden, and since we haven't selected any new crops this year, we're not sure what to put in them. The winter lettuce, which seems to have successfully overwintered from last year, can occupy four of them; for the other six, the best plan we have at the moment is to expand our plantings of green beans and basil, which we can always use more of.

I suppose a Gardeners' Holiday devoted to laying out the garden, moving little squares around on a spreadsheet, isn't quite as thrilling as putting actual seeds into the actual ground (even if we'd have to move a layer of snow aside to do it). But for this year, at least, it's a lot more useful. By getting the garden beds mapped out now, we can be prepared to start replacing the frames this weekend, which will help keep our garden growing over (we hope) the next twenty years. So we're sacrificing the short-term satisfaction of planting seeds right now for the long-term gain of growing more and better crops in the long term. Which, if you think about it, is pretty much how gardening is supposed to work.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The world's easiest DIY cat toy

Our two cats are a bit picky about toys. We've tried all sorts of mice sold at the big pet superstores, and the only one they ever showed any partiality for was a little stuffed critter covered in black-and-white spotted fabric. Winnie loved that little mouse, but she kept batting him under doors and furniture where we'd have to retrieve him, and at some point he got completely lost. And, of course, the store no longer carried any like him, so we've never been able to find a good replacement.

The only other pet-store toy they really liked was these little spirals, which are just pipe cleaners encased in sheaths of colorful fabric. Both cats would bat enthusiastically at these, and run after them when they went skittering away across the floor; when they caught one, they'd lie down and clutch it in their paws and pull at it until it came uncoiled. It was very cute, and I appreciated the fact that it distracted them from gnawing on other long narrow objects that they might otherwise take a shine to, like my computer cables.

Unfortunately, they played with these toys so energetically that they quickly wore holes in the fabric covers, and the pipe cleaners came poking out. Once that happened, we no longer felt safe letting the cats play with them unsupervised for fear that they'd hurt themselves on the wire or even swallow part of it. (It may sound like we're just being paranoid, but several reputable pet sites, such as Catster, warn about this as a danger, and we have read horror stories about cats being rushed into surgery over a swallowed pipe cleaner.) I tried stitching the fabric back up, but they just tore it open again, and eventually we had to give up on the toys.

We tried to get more at the pet store, but they were no longer available, and we couldn't even find anything similar online. The closest we could find was this larger blue spiral, but the cats didn't seem to appreciate it like the fabric ones. It's made of a much stiffer material, and when dropped, it just lands on the ground and sits there; it doesn't bounce or roll in the same unpredictable way that made the pipe cleaners so appealing (like having real prey to chase.)

We made several attempts at making our own spiral cat toys, but they didn't work too well. Brian tried taking a piece of wire from a coat hanger, which he thought would be less hazardous, and sewing it up in a piece of scrap fabric—but like the blue coil, this toy was too stiff and stable to interest them much.

I thought a pipe cleaner might be okay if I could just wrap it up securely in one of those stretchy fabric bandages they use at the blood bank—but once I'd wound it several times around the pipe cleaner, it was too thick and ungainly to make a very good coil. Plus, Brian was still concerned that they'd manage to get the wire out from under the wrappings, so he didn't want to let them have it without supervision.

So one day, in a desperate attempt to come up with something to distract Winnie from the computer cables, I hit on the idea of trying something similar with a strip of newspaper. I just tore off a long strip from the edge, like this...

...and twisted it up into a long, thin string, like this.

I wasn't able to make this into a coil shape like the original fabric spirals, because it wouldn't stay put, but I found just tying it into a little bow made a lightweight shape that the cats enjoyed batting around. It seems to move in the same random way as the pipe cleaners, so they like tossing it, catching it, grabbing it, and generally amusing themselves without supervision. They also like to pull on the ends and try to untie it, but if they succeed, that's no problem; I can just grab it and tie it back up in a minute.

Needless to say, these little paper toys don't hold up all that well. After being subjected to claws and teeth for a week or so, they get pretty limp and ragged-looking, and they're not as much fun to play with. But that's okay; when they wear out, they can just go straight into the recycling bin (or the compost, if they're really torn to shreds) and I can easily whip up a new one in a few minutes.

So this is pretty much the ultimate ecofrugal cat toy. It costs nothing, it's made entirely from scrap material, and it can go right back in the bin when it's worn out, creating no additional waste. And if the cats don't love it quite as much as the spirals, they will at least occupy themselves with it long enough to let me get some work done.