Saturday, April 22, 2017

News from Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Jap Chae

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Money Crashers: 4 Ways to Save by Spending More

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

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

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Money Crashers: Are Fitness Trackers Worth the Money?

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

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

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

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

Are Fitness Activity Trackers & Watches Worth the Money?

Sunday, April 2, 2017

DIY garden bed frames

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




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




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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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



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



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


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


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

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

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Money Crashers: 7 Best Financial Decisions

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

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

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

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Even easier DIY cat toy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Money Crashers: 4 Worst Financial Mistakes

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Money Crashers: 5 Best Money-Saving Strategies

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

Gardeners' holidays 2017: Garden Planning Day

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The world's easiest DIY cat toy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

Friday, March 10, 2017

Money Crashers: Save Money on Car Insurance

My latest Money Crashers article is about auto insurance. This isn't the most exciting topic, perhaps, but it's certainly an important one: As I note early in the article, insurance is one of the biggest expenses of owning a car. In fact, drivers pay more each year for insurance than they do for maintenance, tires, or even gas.

How much you pay for a car insurance policy has a lot to do with factors beyond your control, such as your age or where you live. But there are also several things you can do to rein the number in. These fall into two broad categories:
  1. Changes to your policy. For instance, you can raise your deductible, drop collision and comprehensive insurance, negotiate with your carrier for a lower rate, or just switch to another carrier entirely.
  2. Changes to your behavior. Obviously, you get a lower rate if you avoid accidents. But you can also get discounts for improving your credit score, getting good grades (if you're young), taking a defensive driving course, or paying your bill online.
Not all these changes apply to every one, but even with just one or two of them, you could possibly lower your premiums by hundreds of dollars a year. So check out the full list here: 10 Ways to Save Money on Affordable Car Insurance

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Russian Mushroom and Potato Soup

On the first day of March, Brian was searching for something to make for dinner with the ingredients we had on hand, which included a pound of mushrooms, several pounds of potatoes, and some leeks. So he punched those ingredients into Google and came upon a couple of recipes for a dish called Russian Mushroom and Potato Soup. All the ingredients in it were things we liked, so it seemed like a safe bet—and a good chance to get our Recipe of the Month in early.

Brian made a couple of minor changes to the recipe as written. First, it was supposed to make 12 servings, which was way too much for the two of us, even with the soup being served as a main dish rather than a first course. So he cut all the ingredients down by 25 percent, which still made a very generous potful.

Second, it called for half-and-half, which we didn't have, so he whipped up a quick substitute using powdered milk. We already knew that a mixture of equal parts powdered milk and water could be used in place of cream, so he just took about a cup of the skim milk we already had and dumped in maybe half a cup of powder. If it made any difference in the taste of the soup, it wasn't noticeable to us.

The finished result, I have to say, didn't look anything like the picture on the AllRecipes website. Instead of a light, golden soup with big, distinct chunks of potato and carrot floating in it, it came out as more of a thick, brown liquid full of miscellaneous veggie bits. But it tasted better than it looked—rich and savory, with the meatiness of the mushrooms and the pungency of the leeks giving it plenty of body. And with the potatoes, shrooms, and carrots crowded together in every bowl, it was plenty satisfying enough for a main course.

The one flavor that struck a slightly discordant note for me was the dill. I'm used to thinking of this as a springtime herb, to be enjoyed in light dishes like salads or pasta. In a hot, hearty soup like this, it tasted out of place. It wasn't bad, exactly; it just didn't seem like quite the right complement for the other flavors. Brian thought maybe thyme would work better, while I was leaning toward rosemary.

However, Brian revised his opinion about the dill when eating the leftovers for lunch a few days later. To his taste buds, it seemed that the dill blended much more smoothly with the rest of the soup after it had been sitting for a while to let the flavors mingle. So maybe the ideal solution for this soup is to cook it the day before you serve it, so the dill can blend in properly. Or maybe it would be better to try it with thyme and see if it tastes better on day one.

To be honest, though, I'm not sure whether we'll want to go to the trouble of finding out. We already have a couple of good soup recipes that use mushrooms, and another good one made with potatoes and leeks, so we don't especially need one that puts all three of those ingredients in the same pot. If this soup were vastly superior to those others, it would deserve a spot in our repertoire, but since I didn't actually like it quite as much, I see no reason for it to displace either of them. So we'll probably only make it again if we happen to find ourselves with potatoes, leeks, and shrooms that all need to be used promptly—and for some reason we don't want to make a veggie pot pie.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

7 easy household hacks for the bathroom

Brian and I have a disagreement about the word "hack"—specifically, its use to mean a handy shortcut for everyday life. Brian objects to it on the ground that it's overused, sometimes even in contexts where it really doesn't apply at all (such as these kitchen tips from XKCD.) But personally, I like it. To me, it conjures up images of Alexander cutting through the Gordian knot—a quick, direct solution to a complicated problem. Even the shortness of the word feels appropriate for a short, simple workaround.

Over the past few months, I've noticed that we seem to have come up with a lot of household hacks specifically for use in the bathroom. Some are for cleaning, some for grooming, and some for repairs, but all of them are specifically bath-related. So I thought I'd sum them all up in one post, as a sort of tribute to the Spirit of Hacking.

Hack #1: Clean hair from the sink drain with a plastic bag tie
Every so often, the drain in our sink gets a little sluggish. That's a sure sign that it's clogged up with hair (and usually bits of nasty grime that are clinging to the hair), and it won't run smoothly again until it's cleaned. We have a special tool for this purpose, known as a Zip-It: a long, flexible plastic shaft with little barbs on both sides. You feed this thing carefully down into the drain, and the barbs catch on the hairs so you can pull them back out. The Zip-It emerges from the drain trailing long strands of hair and associated gunk like seaweed off a lobster trap, which is disgusting, but effective.

The Zip-It is only $2.50 at Home Depot, and it both easier and safer than those vile chemical drain cleaners, which eat through the hair with caustic chemicals that can damage your plumbing (and possibly you, if you splash any on yourself). But if you don't happen to have one on hand when a clog pops up, you can achieve similar results with a plastic garbage bag tie (the kind with rows of little jagged teeth on it, like this). Feed it down into the drain, and you can pull up the hairs from the top few inches of the pipe. It won't penetrate the pipe as deeply as the Zip-It, but it's easy to do, and it should clear away enough of the clog to get the drain running again.

Hack #2: Clean the tub with a dish wand
I used to drive myself crazy trying to get our bathtub clean. My go-to ecofrugal cleaners, vinegar and baking soda, seemed to have no impact at all on the film that clung to the base of the tub. I moved on to various commercial cleaners, including sprays, liquids, and powders; I experimented with different tools, going at the scum with a rag, a sponge, a scrubby pad, a brush, and even a special "shower scrubber" tool with an extendable handle and pivoting head, designed specifically for cleaning the tub from a standing position. (This was worse than useless, as every time I put any real pressure behind it, the head would just flip over.) No matter what I used or how vigorously I scrubbed, I could never get the tub completely clean. All I had to do was scrape my fingernails along the edge, and they'd come away with that whitish film under them.

I turned for help to my pals at the Dollar Stretcher forums. One of them enthusiastically recommended "Ajax grapefruit scented dish soap," applied with a long-handled brush while the tub and tiles are wet, and another suggested a mixture of Palmolive and sudsy ammonia in a spray bottle. Not having either of those brands on hand, I decided to try grabbing an old dish-scrubbing wand filled with generic dish soap and applying that to the wet tub right after my shower. This worked much better than anything else I'd tried. At first, I followed up with a vinegar-and-water spray to rinse all the soap residue off, but eventually I got the idea to add equal parts dish soap and water to the scrubbing brush and apply everything all in one go, then rinse it off.

This is now my regular weekly routine for cleaning the tub. I keep the dishwand hanging at the ready on the towel bar, so once a week, I can just grab it right after I turn off the shower and give everything a quick scrub before rinsing it. That way I don't have to mess around getting into grubby clothes specially for cleaning. I have since seen blog posts saying this vinegar-and-dish-soap concoction works in spray form as well, which might be even easier...but since it took me so long to find a method that worked, I'm not inclined to mess with it.

Hack #3: Remove stains from porcelain with oxygen laundry booster
A few years ago, we switched to a walnut-based cat litter from Blue Buffalo. In most ways, we love it: it clumps firmly, doesn't track as much as the wheat stuff, and controls odor so well that we have never had to change the litter once since we started using it. We just keep scooping out the clumps and adding more litter, and the box keeps not stinking. This makes it a much better value than any other brand we've tried, despite its high cost per pound, because none of it goes to waste.

There's only one problem with it: the walnut fragments tend to leave a darkish stain on the inside of the toilet bowl. My usual cleaning method—vinegar-water spray and a quick scrub with the brush—had no effect. Once again, I tried upgrading to stronger cleaners, including some with chlorine bleach, but to no avail. Brian tried going at the stains with steel wool and was able to get them out temporarily—but that just ended up scratching the porcelain, so fresh stains soaked in faster than ever.

So when I got a coupon for a free carton of OxiClean, I figured it couldn't hurt to try that too. Cleaning bathrooms wasn't one of the listed uses for this product, so my hopes weren't high. But to my amazement, after I'd sprinkled it on and let it sit for a while before brushing and flushing, the stains had faded to near-invisibility. I now repeat this routine once a week, and the porcelain remains in a state of near-pristine whiteness. And I've discovered, after some experimentation, that cheaper brands of oxygen-based laundry booster, such as All, do the job just as well.

Hack #4: Strop your razor on your forearm to maintain its edge
I've mentioned this hack before in my Saving on Shaving post. As this post at Tools for Woodworking explains, stropping a blade isn't quite the same thing as sharpening it on a stone; it's more like smoothing a surface with sandpaper, gently abrading away nicks and scratches. I've seen tips on how to prolong the life of your razor blade by stropping it on a leather belt, a leather-soled show, or even an old pair of blue jeans—but the simplest method of all is this one, which I discovered on LifeHacker. You simply give the blade several backwards strokes against the bottom of your own forearm, which you can do right in the shower before you shave.

This method, combined with regular drying and lubrication of the blade, worked well enough for me to keep the cartridges on my old Rite Aid razor going for months on end. Sadly, that razor gave up the ghost last year, and I've yet to find a really satisfactory replacement. I tried samples from both Dollar Shave Club and Harry's, and their fancy four-or-five-blade razors just didn't give me as smooth a shave as my old, obsolete three-blade razor (not to mention that the one from Harry's literally fell apart on its third use). So for now, I'm using an el cheapo MicroTouch razor, which claims to be able to go a month on a single blade without any special interventions. I'm continuing to dry and hone the blade regularly, and while I can't exactly claim to be impressed with the results it's giving me, it is at least holding up pretty well.

Hack #5: Fix a running toilet with a drinking straw
I discovered this trick back in 2013, when we had a problem with our toilet. Basically, the flapper kept getting stuck open because the chain would either get stuck underneath it or snag on it so it couldn't close. Shortening the chain didn't work (it ended up too short, so the flapper couldn't close at all), so I adopted a trick from Wikihow: I detached the chain, fed it through a soda straw, and reattached it. This worked only partially; the rigid chain-and-straw unit was now forcing the flapper closed too quickly, before the bowl had fully filled. So Brian adapted the hack by cutting the straw in half at the middle, allowing the chain to bend. This fix worked so well that even after we eventually replaced the flapper, we reinstated the straw on the chain to keep it from snagging again.

Hack #6: Adapt your toothbrush holder with coat hanger wire 
Brian devised this toothbrush hack back in 2014, when I was trying a new brand of toothbrush that wouldn't fit in our old-fashioned toothbrush holder. This toothbrush holder dates from a simpler time when all toothbrushes had straight, smooth handles, and today's chunky, molded hand-grips just won't fit through the holes. And since it's built into the wall, replacing it isn't really an option, and leaving it unused seems like a waste.

So I hit on the idea that the way to make the toothbrush fit in the holder would be to add on some kind of construct that would allow it to slide in from the side. After a little trial and error, Brian managed to achieve this by bending a piece of coat-hander wire to make a loop that would fit around the handle, then threading the ends of it through the hole in the front, under the bottom, and out on the other side. As built, this dingus can only accommodate one bulky toothbrush, but you could modify it to add a second loop on the other side if you wanted to hold two at once. Or you could just run a second set of wires through a different hole.

Hack #7: Fix a trash can that won't close with a felt pad
Ever since we adopted our two mischievous kitties back in 2015, we've kept finding new things around the house that need to be cat-proofed. Our cat-safe vase is the most notable example, but we've also had to replace a couple of wastebaskets because the cats would either chew on the wicker basket itself or fish things out of it. The worst culprit was the bathroom wastebasket, which contained enticing strands of dental floss that the cats viewed as wonderful toys. We, on the other hand, viewed them as potential garottes for unsuspecting feline throats, and we were determined to keep them out of the kitties' paws. So we bought a small covered waste bin, the kind with a lid that you can open by stepping on a pedal.

This sort of worked, but there was a problem: sometimes the lid would get stuck in the open position, allowing the kitties to go Dumpster diving for dental floss. We tried shimming the can up in the back so it would naturally tilt forward and force the lid closed when you weren't actively stepping on the pedal, but that didn't seem to be enough. So Brian tackled the problem from the other direction; instead of forcing the lid down, he decided to force the foot pedal up.

His repair is simplicity itself. He cut a couple of strips from a felt pad, the kind you put on the bottoms of chair legs to keep them from scratching the floor, and stuck them to the lip of the trash can underneath the pedal. Now, when you step on the pedal, it lowers enough to open the lid, but it doesn't go all the way to the floor, and as soon as you remove your foot, it pops back up again, closing the lid.

This hack went through a couple of iterations before he got it to work. First he tried one layer of felt, but that wasn't enough to push the pedal back up, so he had to add a second layer on top. And he initially tried sticking the felt pads on with just their own adhesive, but they didn't stay put, so he ended up pulling out the big guns and sticking them on with epoxy. Now those pads aren't going anywhere, and those kitties aren't getting their paws on any more dental floss.


So there you are: seven simple hacks for the smallest room in the house. If you know of any more ecofrugal hacks for the bathroom that you think deserve a wider audience, please feel free to share them below; I'm always looking for more ideas.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Money Crashers: Resources for Emergency Financial Assistance

Last summer, when I wrote my Money Crashers article on the evils of payday loans, one alternative I mentioned is to use various forms of emergency aid to get you through a financial crisis. I listed several programs that could help with housing, health care, utilities, and food, but I kept thinking that there was an awful lot of information I was leaving out. I knew there were lots more programs out there, run not just by the government but also by private charities, but there just wasn't room in the article to list them all.

So, my latest Money Crashers article is an attempt to fill in the gaps. It's a complete, one-stop guide to getting financial help in an emergency, covering everything from unemployment insurance to local food pantries. I list a wide variety of programs, grouped into broad categories such as housing, food, and child care, briefly outlining what each program does, who can use it, and how to apply. If you or anyone you know is facing a financial crisis of any kind, this article should tell you everything you need to know about getting help—or at least where to find everything you need to know.

12+ Free Government & Charity Resources for Emergency Financial Assistance

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Best budget weddings

Since my budget decor blog posts have been fairly popular, I thought I'd try doing one on budget weddings. I first got this idea when I discovered an article at The Billfold about a woman's experience helping a friend shop for her wedding gown. Her friend starts out by trying on a simple, elegant gown by Austin Scarlett, priced at a mere $4,000, but then ends up falling head over heels for a $10,000 Vera Wang. It was at this point in the story that I had to pause to re-hinge my jaw. Ten thousand dollars for just the dress? That's nearly four times what I spent on my entire wedding! True, the whole point of the article is that the author was trying to help her friend feel better about not buying that dress, since it was way beyond her budget, but the fact that anyone ever does it is mind-boggling to me.

Now, I realize there are those who would argue, "But it's not just a dress; it's your wedding dress! This is a day you're going to remember for the rest of your life! Surely those precious memories are worth spending any amount of money on!" And I might actually be willing to consider that argument—not necessarily to buy into it, mind you, but at least to consider it—if there were any evidence that costlier weddings actually lead to happier marriages. But in fact, studies seem to suggest that the opposite is true. For instance, a 2014 study by two economists at Emory University found that:
  • Men who spent between $2,000 and $4,000 on an engagement ring were 30 percent more likely to end up divorced than those who spend between $500 and $2,000. (Rings cheaper than $500 were also associated with a higher divorce rate, but that could be because people with much cheaper rings were more likely to have low incomes, which are also linked to higher divorce rates. The study doesn't look at people like us, who didn't get a ring at all, so we have no way to know whether my refusal to wear a ring during our engagement made our chances of a successful marriage better or worse.)
  • Couples who spent $20,000 or more on their nuptials were 46 percent more likely to end up divorced than those who spent between $5,000 and $10,000. In this case, the benefits of frugality apply all along the scale; couples whose weddings cost under $1,000 reduced their risk of divorce by 53 percent. (A recent story at NJ.com shows what happens when you take this case to extremes: a couple who had already spent $325,000 on their wedding never even made it to the vows, calling off the wedding after a fistfight broke out at the rehearsal dinner. The bride's brother is now suing the groom's brother for throwing the first punch, and the groom is suing the bride for the return of the $125,800 engagement ring.)
  • Although spending more money increases the risk of divorce, inviting more guests actually lowers it. For instance, those who had between 50 and 100 people present to witness their vows were 69 percent less likely to divorce than those who stood in front of the altar (or the justice of the peace) all by themselves. Those who invited 200 people or more lowered their risk of divorce by 92 percent. Most likely, this is because couples who invite more guests have bigger social networks to support them when times get tough.
So, if a pricey wedding is a precursor to a rocky marriage, then it stands to reason that a strong marriage starts off with a frugal wedding. Thus, the case histories below should provide plenty of good ideas for anyone who's planning to get married in the near future—and plenty of voyeuristic interest for anyone who just likes peeking into other people's lives. And, to make it more interesting, I'll start with the most expensive wedding—around $7,000, or about one-fourth of the $26,645 that The Wedding Report gives as the average cost of a wedding in 2017—and work my way down to the truly bare-bones wedding that was held on a three-figure budget.

The Penny-Pinching Hedonist Wedding
I'll start off with the 1983 wedding of Shel Horowitz, the "penny-pinching hedonist," who blogs at FrugalFun.com. In a lot of ways, his wedding was very similar to mine. He and his wife married in a local park—just like me and Brian—and had all their floral arrangements provided by Mother Nature. They then adjourned to a synagogue social hall and served their 130 guests a catered dinner—"hors d'oeuvres before the ceremony, table decorations, three vegetarian main dishes, salads, and a great tasting chocolate-orange wedding cake"—for $11 a head. (Coincidentally, this is roughly the same amount we paid our caterer in 2004, but that was for lunch, not dinner.) Again, just like me and Brian, he had a friend take professional-quality pictures for a token fee ($50 plus the cost of the film) and another friend record the ceremony on audio tape (video being still in the future). And, like us, they splurged on a calligrapher for the wedding certificate, which was signed by all their guests. The only major expense they had that we didn't was $250 for a Klezmer band. The total for the wedding came to roughly $3,000—which works out to $7,314 in today's dollars. That's on the high-end for a frugal wedding, but on the other hand, they hosted 130 people for that amount—which, if the Emory study is to be believed, was probably a good omen for their future happiness.

The $4000 Backyard Wedding
Next up is my favorite blogger couple, John and Sherry Petersik of Young House Love, who have featured in so many of my budget decor posts. Their wedding, like their remodels, was a fun, casual affair that managed to be elegant and quirky at the same time. They hosted it themselves in their backyard, investing some of the money that would otherwise have gone toward a wedding venue to repave their "old jagged patio" and "treacherous gravel driveway" to create a nice, even surface for entertaining. Their 75 guests sat on folding chairs for the ceremony, then enjoyed a home-cooked backyard picnic complete with DIY decor. They decked the backyard with long strings of Christmas lights and dressed the tables with white muslin and yellow fabric runners, picked up cheap utensils and glassware from IKEA and Sam's Club, and accessorized with bowls of lemons and limes (much cheaper than flowers) and lots of votive candles. Place cards, favors, serving ware, invitations, and the bridal bouquet were all DIYed. Their one big splurge was a $1,200 photo booth to provide entertainment and souvenirs for the guests. All told, they spent $3,995 in 2007, which adjusts to $4,679 in today's dollars. (Oh, and the bride wore a $190 number from Arden B, which she later dyed so she could wear it to other people's weddings, rather than a $4,000 bridal-salon jobbie that would have doubled the cost of the wedding.)

The At-Home Christmas Wedding
Wendi and Jason Simpson received a "Wedding of the Week" award for their 1996 wedding, which they planned in just eight weeks. They got engaged on Halloween, and since they were already planning a Disneyland vacation at the end of December, they decided to get married right beforehand and make the trip their honeymoon. Naturally, with this accelerated schedule, they had to keep things as simple as possible. They married at Wendi's house, which was already decorated for Christmas, so they didn't need to do any extra decorating. She bought her dress and shoes off the rack and did her own floral arrangements with silk flowers. The groom, after threatening to marry in a T-shirt and shorts, bought a new suit—the single biggest expense, at $500—and the attendants picked out their own clothes. After some dithering, the bride hired a professional photographer, but she was able to barter her services as a website designer for his to keep the cost down. The reception was a dessert-only affair, originally planned for 41 guests but reduced to around 25 by a severe snowstorm; the guests who couldn't make it got a play-by-play of the 5-minute ceremony via IRC. The whole thing, including their silver knot rings, cost $1600, or $2476 in 2017 dollars.

The Renaissance Fantasy Wedding
Vicki Collins married the same year I did, 2004, and her Dollar Stretcher articles about her wedding plans helped convince me that a wedding for under $2,000 was possible. She wanted "an elaborate Renaissance style wedding" with 50 guests, but she aimed to do it on a $1,500 budget. To accomplish this, she sewed her own dress and the clothes for her two daughters, using sale-priced fabric and made-over yard-sale finds, spending about $320 on clothes for the whole family (including a sword for the groom) that could be reused for visits to the Renaissance Faire. She also did her own floral arrangements, using mostly dried flowers and home-grown ivy to save on fresh flowers, and made banners and crests for wall decorations. At the time she wrote the articles, she was choosing among several sites for the ceremony, including a real castle ($325 for the day), a public park with a large pavilion and an outdoor fireplace ($100), and a botanical garden. She hired a pro for photos, but had the music provided by a CD player concealed in a curtained "minstrels' gallery." She planned a period-appropriate menu of roast chicken, turkey legs, roast beef in chunks, bread, cheese, stewed veggies, whole fruit, individual cakes, fruit "grog," and ale; after some initial sticker shock dealing with a regular caterer, she ended up sourcing the meats from a BBQ place, petit fours from a local baker, and the rest of the menu from Sam's Club. I don't know whether she actually kept to her $1,500 budget (which would be $1,928 in today's dollars), but even if she ended up spending as much as $2,500, she still got a lot for her money.

The Community Potluck Wedding
Shel Horowitz, after describing his own relatively inexpensive wedding, goes on to describe an equally memorable wedding on an even smaller budget—probably under $500, or $1,219 in today's dollars. The couple was able to wed on this tight budget by calling on their friends for help with just about everything. They held the wedding in the hall where their dance collective met, donated by the manager for the occasion, and used their dance tapes for music. The food was all potluck, with all the local guests signing up to bring a specific dish for 10 people. The menu included sesame noodles, salads, hummus, and "a wide array of outrageous desserts," and Horowitz confesses it was "the only wedding I've ever been to where the food was even better than at my own wedding." The flowers were all hand-picked wildflowers, the officiant was a family friend, and even the photos were supplied by friends. This bare-bones wedding proved to be "a memorable event that captured the spirit of who they were" as no catering-hall event ever could.

The No-Frills Wedding
The barest-bones budget on the list is the 2011 wedding of Kerry L. Taylor, who blogs as Squawkfox. She spent just $591 total on the event—about $638 in today's money—but she achieved this low, low price by "ruthlessly" cutting the guest list. Because they wanted a "simple, afternoon wedding on the family farm," they refused to invite more people than they could seat at their kitchen table—so they invited only local friends and family members who had invited them over for dinner at least once in the past year. They ended up with a total of eight guests. Taylor tries to make this sound like they were doing all the people they didn't invite a favor, since "out-of-towners will likely have to take time off work and spend some cash to get to your nuptials," but I suspect Miss Manners would see it rather differently. And based on the findings of the Emory economists, whatever benefit the couple gained by spending so little on their wedding is largely offset by having so few people they cared about enough to invite them to attend.

So to be honest, I wouldn't actually recommend this means of cutting wedding costs. With the amount this couple spent on food—less than $5 a head—they could easily have set up a few extra tables in the back yard and invited all the people they care about while still keeping the cost under $1,000. (Unless there really are only eight other people in the world they care about, in which case, well, I wish them good luck, because they'll need it.) I heartily endorse all the other cost-cutting measures they adopted—secondhand wedding attire, digital invites, backyard setting, flowers from Costco, potluck meal, homemade cupcakes, dollar-store accessories, and photos supplied by friends—but I can't get behind the idea that the way to start a happy marriage is to be "ruthless" about excluding friends and family from your happy day. I know what made our wedding day so special was having all our friends and family gathered around, and if we had to spend a whopping $2,700 to achieve that, I think it was well worth it.

These are just a few of the many budget weddings I've seen described online. While researching my own wedding, I came across websites for several others, including a $1,600 wedding put together with the help of friends and family, a $1,400 DIY wedding in Vermont, and a full-out white wedding complete with catered meal, five bridesmaids, champagne toast, the works, for around $2,500. And since then, I've seen many more, which I've filed away for my own amusement and as a store of ideas for any friends and family members who have weddings to plan in the future. So there's lots more where these came from.

If I had to sum up what all of them have in common, I'd say it mostly comes down to three points:
  1. Think outside the box. Don't assume your wedding needs to include something—whether that's a limo, a bunch of attendants, or even a photographer—just because it's what everyone else has. And likewise, don't assume that if you do want these things, there's only one way to get them. Maybe you can borrow something, or buy secondhand, or make it yourself, or barter for it. Keep your mind open, and leave no option unexplored.
  2. Do it yourself—or with a little help from your friends. Relying on the wedding industry to arrange your special day is a sure route to big bills, and a good way to end up with a wedding that doesn't reflect your personality at all. Always look first for ways to make or do things yourself, from flowers to invites to food. And don't be afraid to turn to family and friends for help. Don't demand that your photographer uncle take the photos or your baker aunt supply the cake, but don't hesitate to let them know that you would love any help they can offer.
  3. Most of all, don't lose sight of what the day is really about. The dress, the flowers, and the food are all just window dressing; the real point is that two people who love each other are committing to make a life together. Keeping the focus firmly on that can help you avoid getting bogged down in all the details.