Sunday, August 20, 2017

Price check: 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 we could also sign up for a Costco credit card, which would cost an extra $60 a year but would give us an array of perks:
  • 2% cash back on all purchases at Costco;
  • 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.
This was certainly a tempting set of rewards—better than we get with any of our current rewards cards—but I had my doubts about whether it would be enough to pay for the extra $60. But before I could refuse, 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.

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—80 cents a pound.
  • 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 came close, 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.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Gardeners' Holidays 2017: Squashmas

For the past couple of years, the August Gardeners' Holiday that began its life as Squashmas has focused more on other crops. In 2015 the squash harvest, though plentiful, was eclipsed by the bounty of our first harvest of bush cherries (which, sadly, has never been repeated since). And last year, our tomatoes were the stars of the garden show.

But this year, Squashmas returns to its roots. Although our attempt to fend off squash vine borers by burying the stems of the plants in dirt was only a partial success, both plants are still producing for now, and today we enjoyed our first zucchini-based meal of the season. The dish, Linguini Aglio Olio with Zucchini, is one we found in Nava Atlas's Vegetariana and enjoy regularly during zucchini season. Basically, it's just zucchini sauteed in olive oil with lots of garlic (the recipe calls for eight cloves to three medium zukes), with a little fresh parsley thrown in until it's just wilted, all tossed with linguini and seasoned with salt, pepper, and oregano. It's a quick and simple meal that always comes out well.

This time, however, the dish had a special feature. Aside from the linguine and the olive oil, everything in it came from our garden. The zucchini, of course, but also the parsley, the oregano (gathered from our herb bed in the front yard), and even the garlic.

This is the first year we've successfully grown our own garlic, though not the first time we've tried. I'd read somewhere that if you simply pull apart a head of garlic and plant the individual cloves, each one will mature into a complete head of garlic, which you can harvest as soon as the green tops turn brown and dry. However, the first time I tried this, not much actually came up. So I did a little more research and found that the easiest varieties to grow in cold-winter areas are "hardneck" garlics, which are distinguished by a stiff stem surrounded by a single ring of large cloves. What we'd planted was "softneck" garlic, which has a softer stem and several layers of cloves, because that was what we'd been able to find at the grocery store. (Most garlic sold in supermarkets is the softneck type, because it stores better.)

So last year, we hit the farmers' market, where we found hardneck garlic for sale for what we would normally consider a ridiculous price—something like a dollar a head. However, we figured if we could manage to turn that one head into a dozen or so, we'd end up paying less than 10 cents a head, which would be a pretty good deal, even if we had to wait close to a year for it.

Now, when you grow garlic, you have to plant it in the fall, leave it in the ground all winter, and harvest it in the summer. So rather than put it into the main garden, where we'd have to work around it during our spring planting, we tucked the cloves into the dirt around the edges of our asparagus bed. I've since read that this actually isn't a good companion planting; asparagus is one of the few crops that doesn't do well next to garlic, which can transmit diseases to it and maybe disrupt its root system when harvested—which might explain why the asparagus in that bed hasn't been doing so well. So I guess next year we'll have to find another spot for it. (Perhaps we could plant it in a ring around our rosebush, as that's supposed to be a beneficial pairing.)

But if the asparagus was at all harmed by the presence of the garlic, the reverse clearly wasn't true. We got some delicious green garlic scapes this spring, and about two weeks ago, Brian went out and came in with a fistful of smallish, but perfectly firm and intact heads of garlic. Unfortunately, he had already trimmed off the stems by the time it occurred to me to check on how best to store it, and according to The Spruce, it's actually better to leave them on until they're fully dried out. But we followed the rest of the article's instructions—brushing off the dirt but not washing the heads with water, and leaving them in a cool, dry room to "cure"—so we should be able to keep it in good condition for two to four months. That is, if we don't eat it all before then.

So this year's Squashmas is really a dual celebration: our usual zucchini crop, and our first-ever crop of garlic. Here's to many more!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Case of the Disappearing Plums

We've been having kind of a roller-coaster ride with our plum trees this year. Last May, it was looking like we might actually get a decent crop of plums for the first time. The three trees weren't all producing equally; the Opal tree, although it bloomed in the spring, never seemed to set any fruit at all. But both the Mount Royal and the Golden Gage were loaded down with clusters of tiny green balls, and we were beginning to speculate about what we might do with them if we actually had too many to eat come August.

Then, around mid-June, we started to notice that several of the plums, particularly the Mount Royals, were dropping off the trees before they'd even ripened. As we'd experienced this same problem last year, I quickly recognized it as brown rot, a fungal disease that I'd hoped we might be able to avoid this year. Pretty much all you can do about it is remove the diseased fruit—making sure to clear all the fallen fruits off the ground, as well, so they don't pass on the infection next year—and hope it doesn't spread. So that's what I did, but since I'd done the same thing last year and it wasn't enough to save any of the plums, I wasn't optimistic. I figured we'd simply have to write off this year's crop, and take more steps early next year to prevent the problem from recurring—pruning the trees in February or March, before they bloom, and dosing them with a copper fungicide during the growing season.

However, as July progressed, it looked like the remaining plums might pull through after all. A few of them continued to shrivel and drop, or to display the telltale brown spots and oozing sap of brown rot, but I carefully removed those as soon as I spotted them, and the rest of the fruit actually seemed to be ripening normally. By last week, the boughs of the Mount Royal were heavy with deep-blue plums, and one of the branches on the Golden Gage was so heavily laden that it was actually drooping under its own weight.

If you're wondering why I don't have a photo of that heavy-hanging branch, well, it's not there anymore. Or rather, the branch is, but the fruit isn't.

Earlier this week, we noticed that nearly all the Golden Gage plums on that one branch had completely disappeared. I don't mean that they'd fallen off, like the ones struck by brown rot; we searched all around the tree, and there was no trace of them. They'd simply vanished, leaving only empty stubs to mark where they'd been. And by this weekend, the last solitary fruit left on that branch had vanished as well. In fact, pretty much all the low-hanging branches on that tree had been stripped bare.

We pretty quickly ruled out birds as a culprit, because they probably wouldn't be able to seize and remove an entire plum; they'd just peck at the fruit, and whatever was left would drop to the ground. Likewise, we didn't think squirrels would be able to remove a whole plum and scurry away with it—and if they were to blame, there would be no reason for them to leave the upper branches unmolested. They were at the right height for a deer to have taken them, but deer almost never come into our neighborhood, and we didn't find any hoofprints. So all the evidence seems to point to a human culprit—one who's not tall enough to reach the upper branches.

But even this theory raises more questions than answers. For one thing, who would want to steal plums that weren't even ripe yet? And why would a thief who was willing to eat nearly-ripe plums take only the green plums off the Golden Gage tree, and completely ignore all the purple plums on the Mount Royal, which were larger, more abundant, and, in appearance at least, much closer to edible ripeness? And, if the thief didn't intend to eat the plums, then what on earth did they want with them? And most of all, what kind of person would do such a thing—just walk up and calmly help themselves to fruit in someone else's yard, without even asking?

For some reason, the idea of losing our plums to a human thief bothers us a great deal more than losing them to hungry animals. It doesn't really make sense, because the end result is the same either way: fewer plums for us to eat. But animals going after your crops is something you more or less expect as a gardener; you plan for it, do your best to minimize it, but accept some amount of loss as the price of doing business. But another human being simply taking the fruit off these trees that we went to so much trouble to plant and tend—as if they had just as much right to the fruit as we did after all our work—feels like an outright violation.

But in either case, there's pretty much nothing we can do about it now. It's unlikely we'll ever be able to catch the plum thief in the act, and there's probably no other way to establish just who—or what—is to blame. And since all the low-hanging branches on the Golden Gage are now stripped clean, and the thief doesn't appear to be interested in the Mount Royals, I guess there's nothing in particular we need to do to protect the remaining fruit.

However, as Brian has now tasted one of the Mount Royal plums and determined that they're ripe enough to be edible (if not quite at full sweetness yet), he's planning to start picking them immediately and packing them with his lunch. That way, we can be sure we get to enjoy at least some of the fruits of our labors—even if they're not as enjoyable as they would be when fully ripe. As for the remaining Golden Gages, we'll just have to keep a sharp eye on them, and go out there with a ladder to harvest them the minute they look ripe enough. Chances are, whoever is responsible for the pilfering wouldn't be bold enough to haul a ladder into our garden in broad daylight and start openly picking fruit off our trees, but with a thief this brazen, you can't be sure.

POSTSCRIPT: No sooner had I posted this than we got proof positive squirrels were to blame after all. We went out to take another look at the trees, and Brian spotted one of the furry little buggers sitting in our neighbor's driveway, cheeky as you please, with a purple plum in its mouth.

So the good news is, we now have an adversary we can feel free to strike back at; the bad news is, it's a wily one, and we can't be sure what will work. Suggestions I've read so far include:
  • Trapping them. I'm skeptical about this, as there are so many squirrels around here that we can't possibly trap all of them.
  • Putting up a baffle—a slick tube or cone of aluminum or plastic that the squirrels can't climb up. The problem here is that it has to go around the main trunk at least four to five feet off the ground, or else squirrels can jump right past it, and our trees aren't tall enough for that.
  • Deterring them with predator urine or human hair. We have plenty of the latter, so we've scattered as much as we could muster around the base of the trees, but it remains to be seen how it will work. We also have two predators (feline) sharing our house, so perhaps some of their used litter would work as a deterrent. A few sources also mention mothballs as a deterrent, but not everyone is enthusiastic about the results.
  • Scaring them with bells or shiny CDs hung from the tree branches. This only works temporarily, as they get used to the noise and light after a while, but it might be enough to get us through to the harvest.
  • Scaring them with fake predators, like owls or snakes. Many people say the little rodents catch on to this within a day or two, but Brian went ahead anyway and put out his rubber snake in the garden, where he found one of our new Pineapple tomatoes had been molested. It couldn't hurt.
  • Spraying the fruit with hot pepper spray. We could probably make some, but we'd have to reapply it after every rainfall—and of course wash it off carefully before eating the fruit ourselves.
  • Smearing the trunk with something sticky. We saw some recommendations for a product called Tanglefoot, which is intended to trap insects, but some people say the squirrels don't like it on their paws. Here, again, we'd have to apply it far enough up the trunk and branches that the squirrels couldn't jump right over it.
We haven't decided which measures to take yet, but at least we know what we're up against.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Money Crashers: 5 Bad Habits That Are Costing You Money and How to Break Them

Just a quick update here to let you know about my latest Money Crashers article, which is all about bad habits and how much they cost you—and what you can do, short of quitting, to keep that cost down.

For instance, my biggest vice is sweets, and while I know I'd be healthier if I kicked the habit completely, I also know it ain't gonna happen. So what I generally do instead is try to indulge in homemade goodies, which are cheaper (and at least somewhat healthier) than pastries from the fancy bakery. I've even learned how to make my own cafe mocha and Frappuccino—though they're really not quite the same as the real thing. This way, I can indulge at less cost.

This article covers ways to do the same with five common habits that are bad for you to varying degrees: smoking, drinking, gambling, caffeine, and fast food. I do cover ways to quit if you need to, but also ways to enjoy less harmful vices without busting your budget.

5 Bad Habits That Are Costing You Money and How to Break Them

Monday, July 24, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Leek and Mushroom Bread Pudding

As the end of July approached, we realized that once again, the clock was ticking for us to come up with a new Recipe of the Month. I had several recipes that I'd marked in cookbooks or pulled out of magazines, but all of them would require ingredients we didn't have, so Brian decided he'd just go searching online for a dish that could be made with what we had on hand. That would allow him to make it, and me to blog about it, this weekend, rather than pushing that deadline right down to the last minute.

We had some leeks and mushrooms in the fridge, so Brian decided to search for for leek and mushroom dishes. Many of these were soups, which we deemed too hot for the weather, or pasta dishes, which we thought were a little too simple to really count as a new recipe. But eventually he landed on this Leek and Mushroom Bread Pudding recipe, which looked perfect. We already had all the ingredients (with a few minor substitutions), and it looked, at a cursory glance, like it could be made in about an hour and a half. So if we started early enough, we'd be able to fix it in time for a 5pm dinner on Saturday and still make it to a baseball game in Trenton at 7pm.

Unfortunately, when Brian started work on the recipe on Saturday afternoon, he noticed a few steps in the recipe he'd overlooked before. The pudding didn't just have to bake for 70 to 80 minutes; it required another 20 minutes after that to brown, and another 15 to 20 minutes after that to cool. All told, it would take more time to prepare than we had before we needed to leave for the game. So he set aside that recipe for Sunday and fixed a tried-and-true dish that took only 20 minutes to prepare.

On Sunday, he made sure to get started on the bread pudding by mid-afternoon, knowing that we'd have to eat around 5pm yet again to make it to an early role-playing game session. Yet even as he was working on it, he realized that there were still more steps in the recipe he'd overlooked; for instance, the ingredients were supposed to sit out for a good half-hour to let the bread soak up the milk before the pudding went into the oven. By this time, he'd already done enough prep work to commit himself to the dish, but if he stuck to the recipe, by the time it was done we wouldn't have any time to eat it. So he ended up making some alterations to the recipe on the fly to get it done on time.

Since I've never tasted the dish in its original form, I can't say for sure that it tastes just as good after these adjustments, but I can say that it still tastes plenty good. Even though he baked it at a higher temperature and left out the extra soaking time, it was plenty moist, and his substitution of whole wheat bread (which was what we had) for "hearty white bread" gave it plenty of body. And the substitution of Monterey Jack cheese for the "Gruyère, Baby Swiss, or Emmenthaler" the recipe recommended was probably an improvement, as the milder cheese allowed the savory flavors of the mushrooms and leeks to take center stage.

All in all, this is a dish I'd certainly be willing to have again, though I must admit that even in its revised form, it's still rather time-consuming. In future, I might like to experiment with making it in the Crock Pot, so it could cook unattended over the course of the day...though I'm not sure how we could do that without forgoing the final browning step, and it would be a pity to lose that nice golden crust. But even if we have to keep the recipe in its current form, it's worth hanging on to for those lazy winter weekends (when we don't have a ballgame or a role-playing game to rush out to).

Here's Brian's revised version of the recipe:
Leek and Mushroom Bread Pudding 
4 cups whole wheat bread, cut into 1/2” cubes
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large leek, diced
½ lb. white button mushrooms, sliced
1½ cups milk (nonfat)
2 Tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
3 large eggs
½ tsp salt
2-3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
4-6 oz. grated Monterey Jack cheese 
Prepare a greased 8” x 8” casserole dish. 
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.  Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper (or a silicone baking mat) and spread bread cubes out on it.  Bake for 10-12 minutes until cubes are slightly browned. 
Remove from oven and increase oven temperature to 325 degrees F. 
Saute the leeks in 1 Tbsp. olive oil until the leeks are soft and slightly browned.  Remove from skillet, add another 1 Tbsp. olive oil, and saute the mushrooms until browned. 
In a bowl, beat eggs and add milk, parsley, salt, and cheese. 
In another bowl, toss toasted bread cubes with melted butter.  Add leeks, mushrooms, and egg mixture and mix carefully.  Pour into greased casserole dish.  Cover with aluminum foil and allow to sit for five minutes. 
Place in oven and bake for 45 minutes at 325 degrees F and 15 minutes at 350 degrees F. 
Remove foil and allow to bake for an additional 15 minutes at 350 degrees F. Remove from oven when the top is browned and the pudding is baked through. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Money Crashers: 7 Ways to Stop Spam Email, Unwanted Messages & Robocalls

It's now been about a year and half since I offered my proposal to fight spam in the comments sections of online articles by allowing authors to selectively block comments from people based on their user profiles. So far, I have no evidence that Disqus has taken up this idea; as Alexanda Petri observed in a 2014 article on Christmas Creep, "It is almost as though writing about things on the Internet had no impact on them whatsoever."

But I can, at least, do something to help you with the more commonplace type of spam - the kind that regularly invades your inbox, displacing important messages about work and social engagements with offers to refinance your house, claim your foreign lottery winnings, or increase your penis size (regardless of whether you actually possess a house, a lottery ticket, or a penis).

My latest Money Crashers article is all about how to fight the scourge of spam. Although there's probably no force on earth that can stop every spam message from getting through, you can slow the flood down to a trickle by learning to recognize it (and ignore it) when you see it, taking steps to keep your e-mail address private, and training your spam filters to do their job better. You can also fight back directly by reporting spammers to the FTC (they can't stop them all, but they can penalize the worst offenders) and protecting your computer so they can't hijack it and put it to use in their nefarious schemes. As a bonus, I offer some tips on how to block unwanted texts and robocalls, too.

Here's the article: 7 Ways to Stop Spam Email, Unwanted Messages & Robocalls

Sunday, July 16, 2017

DIY pallet compost bin

When Brian built our first compost bin, about eight years ago, he used wooden shipping pallets salvaged from behind a building on Rutgers campus. In addition to being free, these were pretty easy to work with: he simply nailed three of them together to make a box with one open side, then attached the fourth one with hinges to make a door that could swing upwards to expose the pile for turning. This simple design served us well for several years, but over the last year or two, it became apparent that the thin, untreated wood of the pallets was gradually crumbling away into compost itself. By this spring, the bin was noticeably crooked, as the rotting timbers of the pallets could no longer hold their shape. Clearly, we were going to need to build a new bin.

Unfortunately, we couldn't simply rig up another simple box like the first one, because we couldn't get hold of the materials. Or, to be more exact, we could have found some, but we couldn't have gotten them home. Our new car, a Honda Fit, can hold practically anything, but it turns out that full-sized shipping pallets are the one thing you just can't squeeze in through either the rear doors or the back hatch. Maybe if we had removed absolutely everything else, we could have managed one, but picking them up wherever we happened to spot them just wasn't feasible.

So, instead, over the course of last year, Brian scavenged several smaller pallets, mostly from the curbside, which the car could more easily accommodate. Then this month, over the long Fourth of July weekend, he started sorting through these and the pile of still-usable two-by-fours left over from our old garden bed frames, trying to work out how best to put them all together into a new bin roughly the same size as our old one. Of the various pallets he'd brought home, he identified four that he thought were sturdy enough to use—but unfortunately, they were all of different shapes and sizes, so simply nailing them together into a box wasn't going to be an option.

However, after a little measuring, he discovered that the four usable pallets all had one dimension in common: each of them was exactly 40 inches long on either its long or short side. So he decided that this would be the height of the the new bin, and he'd use the two-by-fours to eke out the odd-sized pallets to create sides of equal length. Figuring out just how to fit the the pallets together was a little bit tricky; their smaller size would make the bin narrower than our old one, so access to the pile would be a little bit restricted. However, after a little fiddling, Brian finally contrived a design that would allow one whole corner of the bin to swing open, creating a nice wide opening for turning the pile or scooping out the finished compost.

The basic structure of the box was simple enough to build. He just attached three of the pallets together—using the same stainless-steel deck screws we used for the new garden bed frames, instead of nails, to give it more stability.

The hinged extension, however, was much more complicated. He started by building a frame of two-by-fours with one long side and three shorter crosspieces, sort of like an extended letter E.

Then he added on several longer pieces connected to the crosspieces with 3.5-inch carriage bolts, each with a washer and a nut on it, so that they could swivel. This made a sort of giant wooden hinge, which would allow the corner of the new bin to swing open.

Then, he started reinforcing both sides of this hinge with some more long pieces. Attached parallel to each other, about an inch apart, these created an open, slatted structure similar to the pallets we'd already used. He used just two pieces for the short side of the hinge....

...and about six for the longer side. He couldn't add crosspieces all the way to the edge, because that would have prevented it from swinging open... instead he reinforced it with two long pieces on the inside.

Once this odd swinging door was complete, he was able to attach it to the fixed, three-sided structure he'd made with the pallets. The shorter end of the hinge was clamped to the long side of the bin and screwed into place, extending the pallet to make an even longer fixed side.

The longer side of the hinge, which now formed the front of the bin, could swing open freely.

Then, to complete the short side of the bin, Brian took one more of the small pallets and clamped it to this new swinging door at a 90-degree angle.

Screwing this last piece into place was probably the most awkward part of the job, as he actually had to climb inside the bin and crouch down to attach the screws at the right angle.

Here you can see how it all finally fits together. The  three fixed sides of the bin are at the left, and on the right is the door assembly...

...which swings open to give access to the bin. In this picture, it can only open partway, as it's blocked by the pile of compost that had to be emptied out of the old bin. However, with the compost transferred back inside the bin where it belongs, it can swing open nearly to full extension, giving us a nice, wide opening.

The one thing he still isn't sure about is how to keep this swinging door closed. Right now, the bin is only about half full, but as it fills up, the pressure of the contents will likely push the sides outward and force the door open if it's not secured somehow. For now, he's just got a bungee cord latched around the slats; if that proves too awkward to use, we'll have to come up with some more permanent sort of closure.

Here's a final shot of the completed bin from above, with the contents back inside. As you can see, it stands out several inches from the side stoop, because we had to leave enough of a gap to accommodate a drainage pipe that runs through the back of the stoop. Eventually, Brian plans to add a little platform to the back to cover this gap so that waste scraps can't fall in between the bin and the stoop by accident. But for now, it's perfectly usable.

Maybe it's not exactly elegant, but to our eyes, this hodge-podge design seems oddly appropriate for its function. Every time we pass by it, we think, "Now that's a compost bin."

Sunday, July 9, 2017

How we built our raspberry trellis (with some thoughts on good fortune)

When Brian and I (well, mostly Brian) decided that from now on, we were going to grow our raspberries by the two-crop method, rather than the simpler single-crop method, we knew that some sort of trellis to support the now-denser thicket of canes was going to be a must. Unfortunately, neither of us had the faintest idea how to build one. Our trusty Weekend Garden Guide offered a general description of what a simple trellis for berries should look like—a line of posts along each side of the row, with lines strung between them to hold up the canes—but it was woefully short on such details as what kind of wire to use, where to buy it, or how to attach it. We tried searching for more explicit instructions online, but articles like this one, with such cheerfully vague steps as "wrap wire around the stakes" (securing it how, pray tell?) left us none the wiser. The closest thing we found to a detailed outline was this article at Dave's Garden, and its instructions for securing the lines would only work with wooden posts—not the rot-resistant metal ones we intended to use.

So basically, we just walked into a couple of home centers and started poking through the merchandise, trying to find:
  1. A pair of sturdy metal poles about 8 feet long, so we could sink them deep into the ground for stability and still leave them tall enough to reach the top of the raspberry plants;
  2. A suitably heavy, weather-resistant wire that would hold up the weight of the canes; and
  3. Some assortment of hardware that could hold it all in place.
Here's what we eventually ended up with.

The poles aren't visible in this picture, but the closest size we could come up with was 7 feet, which we thought would do if we sank them to a depth of 2 feet. We also got:
  • 50 feet of vinyl coated cable, 3/32 inch thick. Since our two posts would be set 20 feet apart, we thought this would give us enough to string two lengths of wire, one low and one high, with a little to spare.
  • Four "eye bolts," with matching nuts, to secure to the posts and loop the cable through—one for each end of each wire.
  • Eight "wire rope clips" to hold the wire loops in place. That's two for each end of each wire, since I guess Brian wasn't confident a single clip would be strong enough to hold them snug—and at only 68 cents apiece, I wasn't about to argue over it with him.
  • Two 1/4-inch by 7 1/2-inch turnbuckles, to be used for tensioning the wires (one for each cable).
The whole lot cost us just under $50, and we were away home to see if we could figure out how to put it all together.

The first step, setting up the poles, was straightforward enough, if not exactly easy. Brian set the end of the pole on the ground at one front corner of the raspberry bed, placed a wooden block on top, and pounded it repeatedly with a rubber mallet, sinking it millimeter by millimeter into the ground.

By the time he was done with the first pole, it had sunk in about the intended two feet, leaving five feet above ground—just enough to reach to the tops of the tallest raspberry canes.

Unfortunately, the ground at the other end of the bed proved harder, so Brian wasn't able to sink the second post as deeply. After a steady 15 to 20 minutes of pounding, he managed to get it in to a depth of about 17 inches before concluding that was as far as it was going to go. (Also, before he could even start working on the post, he had to trim back an unruly bush that was in the way, producing quite a large assortment of trimmings in the process.)

Next, we had to secure the eye bolts to the posts. Each post had a series of holes through it at regular intervals, so we had to choose the right hole for each bolt to string the wires at the appropriate height. We initially put one bolt in the second hole from the top—we couldn't put it in the very top, because the post had deformed just enough that we couldn't manage to fit the bolt through—and one in the second from the bottom. Later, we adjusted the height of the lower wire a little based on the heights of the canes.

Then, we opened up the big container of cable, located one end, and looped it through the lower of the two eye bolts. We fed the end through one of the rope clips and tightened the nuts to clamp it down, then repeated with a second clip a little farther along. This redundancy ensured that even if one of the clips should come loose, the wire would still be held in place.

Once we had that end secure, we started spooling out the cable all along the front of the bed to measure off the length we needed. Then we prepared to cut it so we could secure it at the far end. Ironically, this proved to be the most difficult part of the entire job. We had assumed that our tin snips would be able to cut through the cable, but after squeezing down on them with all his might, Brian was forced to admit that they just weren't up to the job.

He eventually ended up going back into the house and getting a hacksaw so he could saw through the cable. I didn't take a photo of this part of the process because Brian begged me not to, apparently fearing that his dad (a consummate handyman) would mock him mercilessly for not having the right tool. But it probably wouldn't have been worth shelling out $30 for a pair of wire shears just for this one job. (Though, looking into it just now, I came across one article by a guy who says "I inevitably wind up using my Dremel when I need to make a clean cut" through steel cable—a trick that might have saved us some hassle if we'd thought of it.)

Once he managed to hack his way through the cable, he was able to attach it to the post—but instead of feeding it directly through the eye bolt, he first hooked one of the turnbuckles onto the eye and looped the cable over that. Putting the turnbuckles at the far end of the bed was my suggestion, since the brambles aren't at thick at that end of the bed, so there would be less risk of scratching ourselves whenever we had to reach in and tinker with the turnbuckles. Once the wire was looped around the turnbuckle, two more wire rope clips secured it in place.

As we raised this lower cable into place and where we had and pulled it taut, it started lifting up the very bottoms of the raspberry canes and pulling them upright, just as intended. Well, most of them, at least. We noticed as we went that several of the canes weren't actually inside the bed; they were apparently rogue suckers that had sprung up outside it, which we hadn't been able to make out before within the massive thicket that the raspberry patch had become. So we knew that, even once the trellis was complete, we'd have a bit of work to do tidying up the patch before everything was properly contained.

By this time, the light was starting to fade, but we soldiered on, repeating the process of hooking up the cable to the upper set of eye bolts. Once we had both cables in place, however, we could see that a lot of the raspberry canes were spilling out through the gap between the two, so we decided to raise the lower cable to narrow the gap. Fortunately this was just a matter of unscrewing and moving the eye bolts, so it didn't take too long, and by the time night fell, we had the trellis fully raised with all the canes contained (except the few stray suckers outside the bed, which we pulled out as we cleaned up afterwards).

We've now had our trellis in place for about two weeks, and I can confirm that it definitely makes harvesting the berries easier. It doesn't eliminate all the difficulties; the canes are still pretty close together, so you sometimes have to reach in through the thicket or push some of them out of the way to reach the tempting ruby fruits hanging just out of reach. And even with the canes held nearly upright, the foliage is dense enough that you sometimes have to bend down to spot the berries lower on the canes. But overall, having the canes raised up and contained in a smaller area makes it much easier both to see the berries and to reach them for picking.

All of which brings me to the revelation I had a couple of weeks ago. Every so often in our ecofrugal life, I have this sudden flash of appreciation for just how rich and abundant that life is. Back in 2010, for instance, I mused on what an amazing luxury it is to be able to take a hot shower every morning, when you consider how few people could even manage a hot bath just a hundred years ago. And in 2013, I was struck by how fortunate we are to have fresh-baked bread every week, and fresh flowers on our table—even if we have to bake the bread and cut the flowers ourselves.

This time around, I was heading into the house with a bowlful of fresh raspberries I'd just picked for my lunch, and I was struck once again by the thought, "How incredibly lucky am I to have fresh berries there for the picking, right outside my door? What did we ever do to deserve this kind of bounty?"

Only this time, I realized immediately that I knew the answer to that question perfectly well: what we had done was to plant and tend the raspberry canes. With our own hands, we dug the bed; with our own hands, we planted them all in one chilly spring day; with our own hands, we mulched them and watered them and trimmed them and gave them a fresh dressing of compost every spring; and with our own hands, we built this new trellis to support them. And whenever we want to eat some, we go out and pick them with our own hands as well, braving the scratches for the sake of the berries. We earned this blessing.

And that, I think, sums up the ecofrugal life in a nutshell. It's a life full of blessings that have been earned. Home-baked bread, home-cooked meals, home-grown produce, hand-picked flowers; an abundance of clothing and furniture and books acquired by carefully picking through the offerings at yard sales and thrift stores. And I don't feel I appreciate these blessings any the less for knowing that I've worked for them, instead of having them gifted to me by some gracious and unseen Providence; on the contrary, I think being able to recognize in them the loving labor of my own hands makes me appreciate them all the more.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Price Check: Outdoor furniture for (a lot) less

I was planning to write this week's post about how we created a trellis for our raspberry canes, and how well it's been working out for us. I still plan to post about that eventually, but it will have to wait a little longer, because right now I have another bee I need to shoo out of my bonnet. It's yet another example of something that really annoys me: so-called bargains that are really anything but.

This example comes from the New Brunswick Star-Ledger insert that comes with our weekly coupon circulars. It's just a single sheet filled mostly with ads, along with a few short articles taken from the paid edition of the paper. This week, the feature article is one picked up from the Washington Post on choosing stylish outdoor furniture for your "backyard oasis." It includes several suggestions from a hoity-toity designer for different items, including sofas, rugs, shade umbrellas, and lanterns. There are two picks in each category, one marked "splurge" and a similar-looking one marked "save," to show how you can create a stylish space no matter what your budget is.

So what's the problem with this? All the "save" pieces are priced between $129 and $1,774. That's significantly less than the "splurge" pieces, but it's not what I consider budget-friendly.

So I promptly hit the IKEA website and a couple of others, looking for comparable pieces at real bargain prices. Here's how my finds stack up against the designer's picks:

Outdoor Sofa
"Splurge": Cliffside teak sofa with white cushions from Seren & Lily, $2,498
"Save": Regatta sofa with white Sunbrella cushions from Crate & Barrel, $1,794 (currently marked down to $1,618)
Really save: KLöVEN loveseat, $140, with two KUNGSö cushions in white, $70, from IKEA. Bonus: the frame is made from sustainably harvested eucalyptus wood, not endangered teak.

Shade Umbrella
"Splurge": Tuuci Ocean Master hexagonal Aluma-Teak umbrella in natural with Java finish, from Restoration Hardware, $2,150 (currently marked down to $1,612)
"Save": Vista umbrella by Porta Forma, rectangular in natural, from Frontgate, $1,115 (currently marked down to $669)
Really save: LÅNGHOLMEN umbrella from IKEA, $148.99

Outdoor Rug
"Splurge": 8-by-11-foot Catamaran stripe indoor/outdoor rug in black and ivory, from Dash & Albert, $574
"Save": 8-by-8-foot Trans Ocean Sorrento rugby stripe area rug in black from The Mine, $297.50 (currently marked down to $267.75). Note that this is significantly smaller than the "Splurge" rug; the same rug in a comparable 8'3"-by-11'6" size would cost $441.
Really save: 8-by-10 foot Safavieh Mati flatweave rug in black and white from Target, $221.99 (currently marked down to $177.59). Note that this same rug is also available at for $175.99.

Outdoor Chair
"Splurge": 1966 lounge chair by Richard Schultz for Knoll in white with white mesh and strap, from Knoll, $1,427
"Save": Kingsley-Bate Tivoli club chair in cream from authenTEAK, $820 (currently marked down to $738). Note that the article appears to have the "splurge" and "save" picks mixed up, but I checked the prices and the Tivoli chair is cheaper.
Really save: LACKO outdoor armchair in gray from IKEA, $45. (If you object that this chair isn't white like the others, the VÅDDö outdoor chair in white is only $25, but it doesn't have arms.)

Outdoor Candle Lantern
"Splurge": Teak stainless rope lantern from homenature, $350
"Save": Wood-and-rope lantern, tall, from West Elm, $129
Really save: Burgess indoor or outdoor wood lantern from Pebble Lane Living (via Amazon Marketplace), $49.99. If you don't mind a smaller wooden lantern without the rope, you could get the Zings & Thingz weathered wood lantern from Wayfair for $19.99; if you don't particularly need it to be wood, you can get the BORRBY lantern in black from IKEA for just $7.99.

The juxtaposition of the "splurge" and "save" picks in the article is an example of the anchoring bias (covered in my article on cognitive biases for Money Crashers). Basically, when the first price you see for an outdoor umbrella is $2,150, an umbrella priced at a mere $1,115 suddenly looks like a really good deal. But if you saw the $1,115 umbrella on its own, your reaction would more likely be, "Over a grand for an umbrella?"

So I hope the addition of my picks, which are not just cheaper but much cheaper, helps counter the anchoring bias for you and shows what a stylish room on a reasonable budget can look like.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Money Crashers: How to Use Automatic Savings Accounts & Apps to Build Wealth With Less Stress

You know those annoying people who never seem to gain weight? They eat whatever they like and they stay thin, and when you ask them about it, they say, "Yeah, I guess I'm just lucky that way?"

Well, I'm kind of like that with saving money. When I read articles and message boards where people talk about how hard it is for them to resist overspending, I just can't relate to it. I guess I don't have the shopping gene, because I've never really felt the urge to go on a big spending spree...whether I could afford it or not.

So when I see articles with savings tips like, "Save all your change in a jar at the end of each day - it really adds up!" I just think, "How is that supposed to help? Things cost the same whether you pay for them with exact change or not. Why not just put the dollars into savings instead of the coins?" But the answer, of course, is that some people can't save the dollars; if they have them, they'll spend them. If there's money in their wallets—or in their checking accounts, where it's easy to reach—it burns a hole in their pockets.

For these folks, an automatic savings plan can be a real help. With these plans, you immediately set aside a portion of each paycheck in a separate savings account. You can still get the money if you really need it, but it's out of sight and out of mind, so you don't spend it unthinkingly. It's kind of like hiding the cookies on a high shelf, where they're harder to reach (a temptation I do understand).

My latest Money Crashers article is all about these automatic savings plans. I explain how they help you save and how to set one up. Then, as a bonus, I also discuss various money-saving apps that can help you keep a squeeze a little more savings out of each paycheck—like an electronic version of that big jar of coins on the dresser.

Here's the article: How to Use Automatic Savings Accounts & Apps to Build Wealth With Less Stress

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Roasted Mushroom Salad (plus bonus taters)

This Friday, while deciding what to make for dinner, Brian took note of three cogent facts:
  1. We had some mushrooms in the fridge that needed to get used pretty soon.
  2. We also had plenty of lettuce out in the garden (so far, the one crop we have that's doing well).
  3. I still needed a Recipe of the Month for June to put on this blog.
Putting those items together, he searched the Internet for recipes that included both mushrooms and lettuce, and he found this recipe for Roasted Mushroom and Romaine Salad on the Cookin Canuck website. He had to modify it slightly, since the lettuce in our garden was Boston lettuce rather than Romaine, and the mushrooms we had were white button mushrooms rather than creminis. (Side note: did you know these are actually the same species, Agaricus bisporus? The only difference between them is that creminis are older before they're harvested. Leave them on the ground still longer, and they grow up to become portobello mushrooms. So the only reason portobello mushrooms cost so much more is that it takes longer to grow them. Well, I thought it was interesting.)

Anyway, we figured these changes wouldn't make too big a difference. We both like Boston (butterhead) lettuce better than Romaine anyway, and surely any kind of mushrooms sautéed with olive oil, garlic, and fresh rosemary could only be good. And since we liked all the other flavors in the salad as well—balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, and pecans—putting them all together had to be a guaranteed winner, right?

Well, not really. It only took us a few bites of this salad to conclude that, while all the ingredients of it were good individually, they just didn't play together well. In my opinion, it was the juxtaposition of the mushrooms and the lettuce that didn't work. Adding a hot, cooked ingredient over top of fresh greens wasn't the problem; we'd tried that before with this Warm Chick Pea Salad with Arugula, and we quite liked the combination. It was just the flavor of the seasoned mushrooms that didn't seem to combine well with the salad and dressing. We probably would have enjoyed either the dressed greens or the mushrooms by themselves (or possibly as an accompaniment to pasta or polenta), but the two together weren't satisfying. We managed to finish off the dish, but we felt no interest in trying it again.

Fortunately, one thing saved the dinner from being a total bust. Rather than just slice some bread to accompany the salad, Brian decided to fix some potatoes. And since he was using rosemary on the mushrooms, he thought it would make sense to put some on the potatoes as well, along with a little olive oil and parmesan. And these turned out to be not just good, but fantastic. Roasted alongside the mushrooms in a 450-degree oven, they cooked up crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, and full of flavor. Brian used a pound and a half of potatoes, and we ate up most of them at dinner time and then kept going back to the fridge all evening long to sneak pieces of the leftovers. Even cold, they were still tasty.

So, even if the official Recipe of the Month was a disappointment, we still have one new dish that we'll definitely be making again. If you want to do the same, here's the very simple recipe:

Cut 1 1/2 pounds baking potatoes into good-sized chunks. (Small potatoes can be quartered, larger ones halved and cut into thick slices.) Toss the pieces with 3 Tbsp. olive oil, 2 Tbsp parmesan, 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary, and 1 tsp. salt. Spread them out on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicone liner (like the ones Brian got for Hanukkah last year) and bake in a 450-degree oven for about 40 minutes, or until they're golden and crispy. Then try not to gobble them up too fast.