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.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Gardeners' Holidays 2017: Cornucopia

Summer is off to a disappointing start in our garden this year. Normally, by this time of year, we've already started harvesting our sugar snap peas, and we might even be getting a few early green beans. This year, though, both those crops have been a disappointment. The snap peas, for some reason, didn't come up at all when we first planted them early in April; when we attempted a second planting at the beginning of May, only a straggling few plants appeared, and none of them have even flowered, let alone produced pods.

As for the bean plants, they came up just fine, but then several of them mysteriously disappeared. Some of them were chomped off an inch or two from the ground, while others seem to have been pulled out entirely and spirited away. We might suspect that our resident groundhogs had somehow managed to find a way through the groundhog fence, but our lettuce hasn't been touched, so clearly that's not it. The only critters that can make it into the garden, as far as we know, are squirrels and birds, which shouldn't be interested in our bean plants. So far, our best guess is that we have an infestation of voles—the groundhog fence wouldn't keep those out, and Brian did recall seeing some sort of small tunnel in the dirt near the missing bean plants. But it's only a guess, and we'd have to set out traps to verify it—which didn't work so well with the rat last year.

Other crops are looking disappointing as well. The lima beans we planted this year were seeds we harvested last year, intending to eat them, but planted instead when we realized we'd forgotten to buy more. Apparently, this didn't work well, as not a single bean plant came up. We also got only three cucumber plants from the eight seeds we planted, even though some of the seeds were only a year old. And even our basil, which is normally one of our most prolific crops—so much that we've sometimes had trouble figuring out how to store it all—is coming in small and patchy.

Fortunately, there are a few bright spots in the garden as well. The squash plants are all thriving, and the zucchini are already displaying their first blossoms, which means the actual squash aren't far off. (We've already taken the precaution of covering the stems with dirt, in the hope that we can preserve our plants from falling victim to squash vine borers again this year.) And the butterhead lettuce has grown in thick and luxuriant, so it can now take over on salad duty from the winter lettuce that's finally bolted in the summer heat.

Best of all, our raspberry canes not only continue to produce, but actually seem to be ramping it up as the summer progresses. Yesterday, I went out and picked a whole colander full, giving me a generous portion for that day's lunch, another for today's, and enough left over to dress a couple of green salads for tonight's dinner. (We've also managed to get the berries up on a trellis of sorts—just a couple of stout cables running the length of the bed, attached to posts on either end—which we hope will make it easier to harvest them in future. More details on that project in a future post.)

So even with all the disappointments in the garden, we still have much to be thankful for. Indeed, with organic raspberries costing about $6 a pint at the farmers' market, I'd say we owe at least $20 worth of gratitude already—and there's more where that came from.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Becoming an EDC woman

Last month, when I blogged about my new refillable roller-ball pen, I gave several reasons why I was so pleased with it. I liked the fact that it was comfortable to hold, laid down a neat line, and most importantly, was refillable. It uses a cartridge system, which is the easiest method of refilling, if not the most ecofrugal—and if I ever decide I'm willing to trade off some convenience for sustainability, I can switch it to a cartridge converter or ink-dropper system. So, ideally, now that I own these two refillable pens, I should never need to buy and throw away a disposable pen again.

However, there was one other thing that pleased me about these pens that I didn't mention at the time: adding this pen to my purse made a great upgrade to my everyday carry, or EDC.

What's EDC, you ask? Well, there are two answers to that question. Your everyday carry, or EDC, is simply the stuff that you carry around in your pockets on a day-to-day basis. This doesn't mean the detritus of gum wrappers and cash register receipts that accumulates over time; it means the items you carry deliberately, because you need them and feel lost without them. Your keys. Your wallet. Your smartphone, if you're like most people, or your little notebook and pen, if you're more like me.

But the phrase "EDC" means something more than that. It refers to a whole philosophy built around the idea of choosing your EDC as wisely as possible. People who belong to the "EDC community"—and yes, there definitely is one—put a lot of thought into what they carry in their pockets every day. They invest considerable time and energy into clearing junk out of their bags and pockets, paring down their EDC to a few basic essentials—and then making those essential items as useful and well-crafted as possible. Their goal is to have an EDC that can get them through any event they're likely to run into on a day-to-day basis, without weighing them down.

I first discovered the EDC community while shopping for my new pens. I went searching for reviews of refillable roller-ball pens, and I discovered that some of the most thorough ones were on the Everyday Carry website (yes, of course there's a website). Because naturally, if anyone's going to put a lot of thought into which pen is the best pen to keep in your pocket, it's going to be the EDC folks. These people pay attention to every aspect of a pen: functionality, comfort, build quality, size, and style. Some of them even write, in all seriousness, about how well a pen functions in "the harshest conditions," as if they were planning to take their pens on an Arctic expedition. (Who knows—maybe some of them are.)

People get involved with the EDC lifestyle for different reasons. To some, it's all about being prepared for emergencies. These are the ones who want their watches to have built-in compasses and their pens to stand up to "tactical" use. (The EDC movement isn't the same as the "prepper" movement, but there's definitely some overlap.) Others, by contrast, like the idea of being outfitted as a proper gentleman (since most EDC'ers are male) should be. These are the types who prefer fountain pens and pocket watches and always have a clean handkerchief.

I haven't seen any articles that specifically talk about EDC from an environmental perspective. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the EDC lifestyle is a perfect fit with ecofrugality, because it's all about choosing wisely and wasting nothing. You choose only the exact items you need to carry in your pockets, so you don't waste space; you choose the most efficient set of items, so you don't waste time; and you avoid wasting money and resources by choosing sturdy items that are built to last, not cheap ones that get replaced often.

So when I purchased my new pen, I privately labeled it as my new "EDC" pen—and mentally, I made a vow to start improving the rest of my EDC, as well. As a start, I went on eBay two weeks ago and tracked down a working copy of my old, much cherished Timex watch, which died after ten years of loyal service shortly after I'd invested in a new, solid stainless-steel band for it. It was the only watch I'd ever found that really met my short yet stringent list of requirements: a face with all twelve numbers visible; hour, minute, and second hands; a night light; a metal bracelet band (NOT an extension band that snags my hair all the time); and a design that works with any outfit, dressy or casual. So I decided that rather than searching site after site trying to find another watch that meets all those needs, I should just track down another copy of this old, discontinued watch and buy that. (And, as a bonus, if the band wears out, I already have a stainless-steel one to replace it.) So now I have the perfect EDC pen and the perfect EDC watch, and I'm still working on the ideal phone.

All this inspired me to write an article about the EDC lifestyle for Money Crashers. This piece explains the concept of EDC, outlines its benefits (e.g., saving time, saving money, and being prepared for any emergency), and then goes into details about how to craft your own personal EDC. I discuss the nine essentials that show up on most lists of the ideal EDC—wallet, key fob, cell phone, flashlight, pocketknife, multitool, watch, notebook, pen—with details about how to choose the best ones for your needs.  the basic components of a well-chosen EDC - wallet, keys, phone, and extras like a flashlight or pocketknife - and how to choose the best ones for you.

Here are the details: 9 Everyday Carry Items You Need to Have to Be Prepared for Anything

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Money Crashers: Time Banking Explained

Back in 2011, I was struck by the fact that the Freecycle group I belong to is an example of what an economy would look like with no explicit monetary system. There's a network through which people exchange goods - giving what they don't need, and taking what they do - but there's no explicit "this for that" trade involved. You give something to the group, knowing that at some point you'll get something back that's of value to it. You may not know what or when, but you trust that it will all work out.

However, Freecycle has one limitation: it only works for goods. People give stuff, and they get stuff in return. But what about services? Is there any kind of network where people can exchange those - say, giving five hours of babysitting to one person in the group, and getting back five hours of music lessons from another at some later time?

As it turns out, yes. Time banks are systems that let people pay for goods and, more usually, services with their time, instead of money. The basic premise of all time banks is "One hour equals one hour"—no matter how that hour is spent. An hour of time from a lawyer, whose normal hourly rate is $150 or more, is worth exactly the same as an hour of time from a short-order cook who earns minimum wage. In this way, all contributors are valued equally in a way that they aren't in the money economy. The vast inequality between rich and poor that causes so much trouble in our society just doesn't exist in the time economy.

In my latest Money Crashers article, I explore these fascinating yet little-known alternative economies. I explain how time banking started, how time banks work, the "core values" time banking promotes, and the pros and cons of the system. And I wrap it all up with some advice on how to find a time bank in your area and give it a try—or, if you can't find one, start your own.

Read all the details here: Time Banking Explained – How to Trade Services With a Time-Based Currency

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Raspberry Redux

When we first planted our raspberry canes back in 2013, we planned to grow them using the easy single-crop method. In other words, instead of going to all the trouble of trellising and selectively pruning the canes to keep them healthy, we figured we'd just cut down all the canes every winter and let new ones grow in the spring. That way, we wouldn't get any berries in the summer, but we'd get a generous crop in the fall—and it would be a lot less work. (When in doubt, do it the easy way, that's what I say.)

Last winter, however, Brian had the idea that maybe we should try, just as an experiment, leaving last year's canes in place, and letting next year's canes grow up alongside them. That way, we could get a summer crop off the two-year-old "floricanes," as well as a fall crop off the new "primocanes," before cutting them down and starting over.

Sure enough, this month the canes started producing berries—lots of them. Not only were we harvesting raspberries much earlier in the season than we'd ever had any before, we were getting nearly as many of them in this first crop as we normally get in our single yearly crop. Just yesterday Brian came in with an overflowing handful of berries and declared that, from now on, he wants to grow the berries this way every year.

My reaction to this announcement was a bit mixed. On the one hand, I'm certainly enjoying having lots of fresh, ripe berries in June, instead of having to wait until September. But on the other hand, as I reminded him, the two-crop method of growing raspberries is a lot more complicated. I pulled out my copy of The Weekend Garden Guide and read him the section on bramble cultivation, stressing the following points:
  1. Floricanes have to be pruned back as soon as they're done producing, thus giving the new primocanes more light and more room to breathe.
  2. You must "ruthlessly" root out all stray suckers from the bed and thin the primocanes to 4 to 6 inches apart to avoid overcrowding.
  3. You'll have healthier plants, get more berries, and have an easier time harvesting them if you put them on a trellis. 
If you don't follow these rules, but just let your berries grow willy-nilly, Roth warns that you're liable to end up with "great thickets" that are difficult to harvest from. Even after less than one year, our bramble patch is clearly heading in that direction: last year's canes and this year's are all jumbled up together, creating a thick tangle that it's very difficult to reach into. You can easily pluck the berries that are right on the tips of the canes, but the ones that are lower down tend to get buried, and you have to push the overlying shoots back with some sort of tool to get at them.

So basically, if we're going to start growing our berries by the two-crop method, some sort of trellis is going to be a must. Just harvesting this year's berries without one is tricky enough; trying to find and selectively prune out the floricanes while everything is all tangled up together is going to be a complete nightmare.

Fortunately, according to author Susan Roth, trellising the berries isn't really that big a hassle; you can just build a permanent trellis once and then continue to use it year after year. The type she recommends is a hedgerow: pairs of metal posts on either side of the row of raspberry canes, spaced 20 to 25 feet apart, and joined by wires at 2.5 feet and 5 feet high to support the canes. Once you have this in place, all you have to do is walk along the row once a week, make sure the canes are tucked under the wires, and pull out any little suckers that have spread beyond the limits of the row. The wires keep the canes neatly propped up, making it easy to get in and prune back the floricanes in the fall—a job that Roth says fits easily into a Saturday morning.

Because of the way our raspberries are situated, we figure we can modify Roth's hedgerow plan a little bit. Instead of putting posts on either side of the row of canes, we should be able to make do with just two set of posts, one on each end of the bed, and let the side of the house support the canes on the other side. Brian's only concern about the plan was that the trellis might block access to the telephone box on the side of the house, but I pointed out that it could hardly be more of a barrier than the thicket we've got growing there now. We can always thin out the canes to leave a gap where the box is, and anyone who comes to work on it can just slip in under the wires to get close to it.

I'm actually thinking that, rather than waiting until fall, we should try and get a trellis installed and wrestle these berries onto it as soon as possible. That way we won't have to go out fully armored and armed with a lance just to pick a few berries, and we're less likely to miss out on the ones that we can't see right now through all the foliage.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Money Crashers: How to Buy a Fixer-Upper

As I've noted before, I'm a big fan of home-remodeling shows. One of my current favorites is "Rehab Addict," in which pint-sized powerhouse Nikki Curtis buys up old houses in poor condition—sometimes even ones that have been condemned and are slated for demolition—and "restores them to their former glory." It's great fun to watch the transformation, but what I like best about the show is that it doesn't sugar-coat the process of turning these ugly ducklings into swans. Nikki runs into problems—sometimes really big problems—and you see how she struggles to fix them. There's even one episode where she has a couple of houses that aren't selling, and she's forced to sell her own house just to raise enough capital to keep working. Watching this show, you can definitely tell that fixing up a house is a rewarding job, but not an easy one.

In this way, I think "Rehab Addict" is a good counterbalance to some of the other home shows, which make the process of making over a house look like a lark from beginning to end. Binge-watching a whole bunch of "Fixer Upper" episodes could easily lure a viewer into thinking, "Gee, this doesn't seem so hard! All you have to do is buy a beat-up old house and throw up some shiplap and new tile, and you can make a ton of money!" And in reality, of course, it's almost never that simple.

So in my latest Money Crashers article, I offer a more nuanced look at the pros and cons of buying a fixer-upper. I go into all the nitty-gritty details that the HGTV shows tend to gloss over, such as:
  • Figuring out what repairs a house needs
  • Determining what you can DIY and what you have to hire out
  • Calculating the costs for repairs and permits
  • Financing options that cover both the house and the repair costs
  • Evaluating your own ability to handle a fixer-upper
  • Deciding how much to offer
  • Bargaining with sellers to get a good deal
  • Writing clauses into the contract to protect yourself
If there's a fixer-upper in your future—or you'd like there to be—this is stuff you'll definitely need to know. Get all the details here:  How to Buy a Fixer-Upper House – Save Money & Avoid Risks

Friday, June 2, 2017

Return of the tame-flower bed

Actually, since it's mostly weeds at the moment, I guess I can't exactly call it tame. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a lame-flower bed.

A quick recap: Back in 2014, after pulling out the overgrown shrubs to the left of our front door, we planted the area with a wildflower seed mix we bought from American Meadows. This blend was a mix of annuals and perennials for the Northeastern gardens, and the site promised "show-stopping color all season long, year after year." And, after an unpromising start in spring of 2014, the seeds did actually burst into an impressive mix of blooms by mid-June.

But sadly, this triumph was short-lived. One particular flower in the mix, the bachelor's buttons (aka cornflowers), grew up to a height of about four feet and then, in the first heavy rainstorm, flopped over, burying everything else under their stalks. We attempted to compensate for this problem the following year by installing a grid of stakes and string that we hoped would keep the flowers corralled, but that turned out to be too little, too late. The grid wasn't enough to keep the flowers from flopping, and moreover, the bachelor's buttons had spread beyond the borders of the original bed and were flailing about with no constraints. One year later, they had pretty much taken over the entire area, and pulling them all out left us with a pitiful, scraggly mix of a few poppies and black-eyed Susans looking sadly around for all their friends.

So in 2016, we came up with a new plan. We bought a different wildflower seed blend, this one containing only perennial plants. That, we figured, would remove the overly aggressive cornflowers from the mix. Last fall, we pulled everything out of the bed, planted the new perennial seed mix in place of the old, and crossed our fingers.

And now, nearly six months later, here's what we've got:


What you might notice about that picture is the conspicuous absence of flowers. There's a lot of green stuff, but only a few tiny wallflowers blooming. Worse still, those tallish stems that look like they're ready to bloom before too long are actually....wait for it...BACHELOR'S BUTTONS! These things are like the monster in a horror movie! No matter how many times you kill it, it just keeps coming back!

Now, maybe I'm being too hasty in calling this attempt a failure. After all, at this point in June of 2014, all we had was a patch of baby's breath with a few scattered dots of color, but two weeks later, the bed was a full-on riot of color. So maybe the perennials will undergo a similar transformation (once we get the damn cornflowers out of there).

Unfortunately, we'll have to wait quite a while to find out, as the American Meadows site warns one reviewer that "perennials do typically only show green growth in the first year." So we might not know until next summer whether we're actually going to get any blossoms...and by then, it will be too late to do anything about it until the following year. Which means we might not be able to get anything decent-looking into this area before 2019.

All in all, I'm feeling kind of disappointed with our attempts to grow a pollinator garden in this area, as the landscaper we consulted back in 2012 recommended. I'm wondering if maybe we would have been happier just replacing those big, overgrown shrubs with some slightly smaller shrubs—maybe a couple of hydrangeas or small rosebushes—and calling it good.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Perks of Being a Late Adopter

It's been nearly four years since I first started to ask myself just how much I was missing out on by not owning a smartphone. At the time, I concluded that, while a smartphone would definitely have its uses, there wasn't much I could do with one that I couldn't do without one—certainly not enough to justify the price of the phone and a pricey data plan to go with it.

Since then, I've been revisiting the issue from time to time. I've come up with several additional things I could do with a smartphone that I can't easily do without one, such as:
  • Looking things up to answer questions that occur to us while we're away from home.
  • Using it as a GPS. (Yes, I can print out maps and directions from Google ahead of time, but only if I know where I'm going. If I make a trip on the spur of the moment, or get lost or detoured, having something that could steer me back to safety would be useful.)
  • Geocaching, a kind of real-life treasure hunting game. It looks like fun, but I've never had a chance to try it because it requires a GPS-enabled device.
  • Electronic coupons and rewards apps, such as SavingStar.
  • Taking pictures of things for future reference. For instance, I could snap a photo of my car to remind myself where I parked, or take a picture of an interesting plant so I could look it up later.
  • Keeping my calendar and address book up to date. (I currently use paper versions, but they're harder to update. The squares in the date book are too dinky to write much in, and the only way to update the address book is to cross out an entry and write a new one, so I eventually run out of lines.)
  • Keeping a list of gift ideas for friends and family that's always on hand, so I can jot down ideas as I think of them (or snap pictures of possible gifts).
Now, I wouldn't actually need a smartphone for any one of these activities all that often. Even if you put them all together, they wouldn't really justify spending 30 bucks a month or more on a data plan, as opposed to the $3 a month we currently spend on a bare-bones T-Mobile prepaid plan.

However, I've discovered that it's actually possible to get data with this same plan on an as-needed basis: just $5 for a one-day pass, or $10 for one week. And we probably wouldn't have to do this more than a couple of times a month; a lot of the activities listed above don't even require an Internet connection, and others (such as downloading coupons) could be done at home, using my home wireless network. So overall, the cost wouldn't be too bad. (And knowing that I have to pay for my data by the day would probably keep me from using the phone too often, so I wouldn't risk turning into one of those people who's unable to look up from the damn thing.)

So all in all, I've more or less decided that this will probably  be the year we finally take the plunge and get a (basic, prepaid, refurbished) smartphone. Which will put us only, what, about seven years behind everyone else in the Western world.

Now, you can laugh at me all you like for being so far behind the times. But I firmly maintain that my wait-and-see approach to new technologies is actually a highly ecofrugal choice. All those people who rushed out and bought the very first iPhone when it first came out ten years back paid $500 or for a slightly clunky first-generation device with 4GB of memory. The phone I've got my eye on right now has 16GB, a far superior camera, Bluetooth, and all sorts of other features—for $150. In other words, by dragging my feet on this decision, I'm getting a much better product at a much lower price.

Being a late adopter has benefited me in other ways, as well. For example, I've never gotten around to buying a Blu-Ray DVD player, because I'm not that picky about video quality, and the higher resolution wouldn't make much difference on my smallish TV anyway. I used to figure I'd probably have to get one at some point, because by the time our old DVD player bit the dust, standard-resolution players would no longer be available—but by now, pretty much everything we want to watch can be streamed anyway. So by the time this player conks out, we won't need a new one at all. Voilà—by putting off buying this new gadget, we avoided having to buy it at all!

These experiences were the inspiration for my latest Money Crashers article, which is all about the benefits of being a late adopter. I don't spend the entire piece bragging about how much money and time I've saved by waiting to adopt new technology (though I'll admit to doing it a little bit); instead, I discuss why late adopters, or "laggards," are more common and more visible these days, and how being one can help you save money and avoid tech-related stress.

Here's the full article (complete with an incredibly clunky title chosen by the editorial staff, not by me): How Being a Laggard or Late Adopter of Technology Can Save You Money. Please do your best to ignore the frequent use of the phrase "late adopters or laggards" through out the article, as well; apparently my editors are convinced that the word "laggard," which I've never used once in my life until I wrote this piece, is a term that people might actually search for, and so they need to stuff it into the article as often as possible.

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:
ROASTED BRUSSELS SPROUTS AND SWEET POTATOES1 lb. Brussels sprouts, halved
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 out...like 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 JetPens.com, 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 Amazon.com, 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.