Saturday, January 28, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Carrot and Orange Salad

In the cold, gloomy days of January, we'd normally be more likely to choose a soup for our Recipe of the Month, rather than a salad. However, the most recent issue of Savory magazine (the freebie from Stop & Shop) included a salad recipe that looked kind of intriguing: Carrot and Orange Salad. The only veggies it called for were red cabbage and carrots, which are both readily available in the wintertime; it may be a bit of an exaggeration to call them "seasonal" ingredients, as the description on the recipe did, but at least they keep throughout the winter and their quality doesn't suffer. And the colorful mix of reds and oranges looked like it would add a bit of cheer to a cold, grey winter day.

So we went out and started rounding up the needed ingredients. Carrots, oranges, and red cabbage were easy enough to find at the H-Mart, where we buy most of our produce, but the recipe also called for pomegranate seeds and pistachio nuts, which are a bit more exotic—not to mention expensive. We bought the pistachios from the bulk bins at the Whole Earth Center so we only had to buy about half a cup, but even that tiny amount cost us about $4. And the pomegranate, which we picked up at the Shop Rite, added another $2.50. At these prices, we thought, this had better be one good salad.

As it turned out, it was just an okay salad. It certainly looked pretty, with the base of bright purple cabbage layered with orange slices and sprinkled with the bright red pomegranate seeds, but the flavor didn't measure up. The light vinaigrette dressing—just a few tablespoons of olive oil, a teaspoon of cider vinegar, and a touch of minced garlic and cayenne pepper—wasn't really enough to impart a big flavor punch to the cabbage and carrots that formed the bulk of the salad. The sweet, juicy oranges and pomegranate seeds helped a bit, but it was hard to get these flavors distributed well with the oranges cut in such big slices. I tried cutting them up a little so that I could get the orange mixed in more with the other flavors, and the salad was better that way, but it still wasn't anything we'd go out of our way to make again—especially at those prices.

Luckily, we also had one other intriguing-looking recipe set aside from an earlier issue of Savory: Roasted Sweet Potato, Apple & Scallions. Unfortunately, I can't find this recipe anywhere on the Stop & Shop site, but it's simple enough to describe. First, you peel and chop two pounds of sweet potato into half-inch pieces. You also chop up two apples (cored but not peeled) and a bunch of scallions. (We halved the recipe, so we used just one apple, a few scallions, and one good-sized sweet potato). Then you toss all that together with a mixture of vegetable oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, black pepper, garlic powder, and dried thyme, spread it out on a baking sheet, and roast it for 15 to 20 minutes. Simple—and, as it turned out, quite tasty, with a nice blend of sweet and savory flavors. The half-recipe, accompanied by a toasted sausage, made a hearty meal for the two of us, with a good cup left over for the next day's lunch.

So here's what I've learned from this month's recipes: first, it's not worth spending big bucks on fancy ingredients when all you're doing with them is dressing up a cabbage; and second, in the wintertime, a hot meal is a lot more comforting than a cold salad. I've got my eye on a new recipe for February's Recipe of the Month that also involves red cabbage, but in a much warmer and more comforting form. And by the time March comes along, we may be ready to start harvesting and enjoying the first few tender greens of spring.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Thrift Week 2017, Day 7: Give Wisely Day

Today is the final day of Thrift Week, which was originally dubbed Share With Others Day. I think it's very useful to include a discussion of charitable giving in a celebration of thrift, because many people mistakenly think "frugal" is just a synonym for "stingy." The water is probably muddied by shows like "Extreme Cheapskates," which deliberately portray frugal people as tightwads in the worst sense of the word: embarrassing their families with their aggressive haggling, serving guests Dumpster-dived food that makes them sick, stealing napkins and sugar packets from restaurants, stiffing hard-working wait staff for tips, and so forth. Rather than just avoiding waste, these cheapskates scrimp and and save money at the expense of others. (Or so they're made to appear, at least. According to people who have been on the show, such as like this guy, the producers deliberately stage scenes to show the participants in the most outrageous and unflattering light.)

In fact, this kind of behavior is exactly the opposite of what frugality is all about. The point of being frugal is that you use what you have wisely, instead of squandering it—and using it wisely includes giving to those who need help. In fact, for some people, that's the whole point of being thrifty. This couponing site, for instance, urges people to learn coupon skills not so they can amass a huge stockpile for themselves, but so they can get free stuff to donate to their local food pantry. And as this pamphlet from the Institute for American Values points out, "thrift cultivates generosity"; the more you have, the more you can share with others.

However, giving generously doesn't mean giving indiscriminately. Just as you avoid waste in your own spending, you want to make sure the money you donate doesn't go to waste. Simply opening up your wallet for anyone who asks doesn't put your money to good use, because there are a lot of so-called charities out there that are outright scams. Others operate within the law, but are really charities in name only, spending only a tiny fraction of the money they raise on their programs while devoting the rest to generous salaries and perks for their founders. And still others are perfectly legitimate charities, but not very efficient with their use of funds, frittering away more than half of every dollar on fund-raising and administrative costs.

Fortunately, there are several websites that evaluate charities and help you sort the wheat from the chaff. My favorite is Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities and rates their performance in two broad areas: financial health (how effective they are at raising money and distributing it where it's needed), and accountability and transparency (how open they are about how the charity is run and how the money is used). Its ratings, the website explains, "show givers how efficiently we believe a charity will use their support today, how well it has sustained its programs and services over time and their level of commitment to good governance, best practices and openness with information."

Whenever I'm thinking of giving to a new organization, I look it up on Charity Navigator first. The website provides a whole pile of details about each charity, but I usually focus on just three: the overall score and rating, the "mission" section that describes the organization's work, and the figure for "program expenses," or the percentage of the charity's total spending that goes toward its actual programs. If this figure isn't at least 80 percent, I strike the organization from my list. Some people think this is too harsh of me, since every organization has expenses, but frankly, I don't think it's too much to ask that 80 cents of every dollar I donate go toward actually helping people. After all, there are lots of worthy organizations out there—more than I could ever possibly support—and if this particular one doesn't meet the 80-percent criterion, I can surely find another that does.

I also use Charity Navigator to check up on organizations I regularly support. Each year, before renewing my annual donation, I punch the charity's name into the website to make sure it's still meeting my standards for overall quality and efficiency. This doesn't take too long, because I space my charitable donations out through the year instead of doing a big pile of "annual giving" in December. Giving to just a couple of organizations at a time spreads out the financial impact, since the money doesn't all come out of my account at once, and also spreads out the work so that it only takes a few minutes a month.

Before making my donations, I check each charity on my list for the month and see how its overall score and program expenses compare to what they were last year. If I find the organization's efficiency has increased from last year, I often bump up my annual donation, since I know the extra dollars will go to good use. If its efficiency has declined but is still over 80 percent, I still make a donation, but I don't increase the amount. And if it's fallen below my 80 percent cutoff, I strike the organization from my list and look for a new one to replace it. Charity Navigator helps with this by providing a section at the bottom of the page labeled "Charities performing similar types of work," which makes it easy to compare different charities in the same category at a glance.

Of course, the folks at Charity Navigator can't do all the work of evaluating these charities for free. Instead of charging for the use of the site (which would limit its usefulness) or selling ad space (which could compromise its integrity), they run the whole thing off donations. I always give the site a small donation every year—just a few dollars—as a fee for its services. The owners of the site say that if just one-third of the people who visit the site every year gave a single dollar as a donation, that would be enough to meet their entire annual budget, so I think it's a small price to pay in exchange for helping me donate my money effectively.

So next time you have some spare cash to donate, I urge you to check out this site and see if it can help you put your money to good use. And if you find the site helpful, please consider throwing in an extra buck or two to support its work.

And with that, we've come to the end of Thrift Week 2017. Best wishes to everyone for a thrifty year.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Thrift Week 2017, Day 6: Keep a Green Home Day

In the original Thrift Week schedule, Day 6 was Own Your Home Day. I can see why the founders of Thrift Week chose to devote a day to this topic, because owning a home can be a great financial move. Once you own your house free and clear, you're free of monthly rent payments for the rest of your life—and the money that frees up in your budget can help propel you toward other financial goals, like paying for college or retiring early. In fact, as I noted in my article on Financial Independence (FI), cutting your expenses is a double whammy, because it both boosts your monthly savings and reduces the total amount you need to save (since you don't need as much money to live on). And since the monthly rent or mortgage payment is the single biggest expense in most people's budgets, eliminating it is probably the best single move you can make to fast-track yourself toward FI at one swell foop.

For me and Brian, buying this house and paying it off early was definitely a wise move, one that has opened up the new goal of FI a real possibility for us. But all the same, I'm not prepared to declare flatly that everyone should own a home. As this Money Crashers article (not one of mine) shows, there are significant downsides to being a homeowner. For one thing, in some parts of the country, it's really expensive to break into the housing market, making homeownership impractical for young people and anyone with a low income. Buying a house you can't really afford is certainly worse than renting.

Plus, homeownership carries extra responsibilities. When something breaks, you have to fix it yourself (or hire someone to do it) instead of just calling the super. And owning a home ties you down to one location, which can be a real problem if you have the kind of job that might require you to pack up and relocate to a new city at a moment's notice. Moving is hard under the best of circumstances, but it's much harder when you have to sell your old house and find a new place to live at the same time. And if you can't find a buyer right away, you could be stuck with double payments—one on the old house you haven't sold yet, and one on the new one—for months at a time.

So while owning your home can be an ecofrugal choice, it's not necessarily the best choice for everyone. I think it's much more useful to focus on making the home you have as green and efficient as possible. Boosting your home's energy efficiency, lowering water use, and adding edible landscaping are money-saving moves that can work well for both buyers and renters—and help keep the planet healthy at the same time.

Making your home greener is a topic I've covered quite often on this blog in the past, from lots of different angles. Here are just a few of the ideas I've explored:
  • Energy-efficient lighting. I was an early adopter of compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs, because even back when they cost $25 a pop, they were so much more efficient and long-lived than old-school incandescent bulbs that they were a better deal in the long run. However, when the current generation of LED light bulbs came on the market, I was skeptical about their benefits, pointing out that their lifelong costs were nearly identical to my existing CFLs and there was probably no point in switching right away. I was betting that the new technology would get both cheaper and better over time, and sure enough, it has—so much that last year, I was finally prepared to take the plunge on my first new LED bulb. Over time, I'm sure, these will gradually take over my entire house. For anyone who's still using antiquated incandescent bulbs, I think upgrading directly to new LEDs is definitely the way to go and will net you significant energy savings (plus cut way down on time spent changing bulbs). However, if you already have a houseful of CFLs, I wouldn't recommend throwing them all out; it probably makes more sense to eliminate them by attrition, gradually replacing them with LEDs as they burn out. Who knows—perhaps by the time the last of your old CFLs expires, there may be super-efficient incandescent bulbs will be on the shelves that offer even bigger savings. 
  • Efficient appliances. If it's not worth spending $6 on an LED bulb to replace a reasonably efficient CFL, then it's even less of a bargain to throw out a working appliance to upgrade to a newer, more efficient model. That's one reason Brian and I took so long to upgrade our old refrigerator; we knew that a new one was never going to pay for itself in energy savings alone. However, once we'd made the decision to take the plunge and replace it, it definitely made sense to spend the little bit extra it would cost to choose a new one that was Energy Star certified, which would pay us back with a 9 percent savings on electric use every month for the rest of its life. So while I wouldn't recommend discarding an old appliance (unless it's a really old energy-guzzler) just for the electric savings, I would say that when the time comes to replace, paying extra for a more efficient model is a choice that will pay off.
  • Clotheslines. One appliance that's unlikely ever to pay for itself in energy savings is a new dryer. Since all a dryer has to do, pretty much, is convert fuel to heat, there aren't any big differences in energy use between models. However, there's one kind of dryer that cuts power use all the way down to nothing: an outdoor solar clothes dryer, better known as a clothesline. Based on my calculations, the savings from hanging a load of laundry is pretty paltry—maybe 25 cents for 20 minutes of work, and maybe 3 pounds of CO2—but for me, at least, the time spent outdoors in the sun and wind is a reward in itself.
  • Insulation. One of the first big projects we took on after buying this house was to insulate the attic. We boosted its R-value from around R-14 to R-38, which, according to this Inflation Savings Calculator, should save us about $898 over the first ten years. So the $743 worth of insulation we bought and installed ourselves has probably paid for itself already and is continuing to save us money every winter (and perhaps some in summer too). If your house is under-insulated, you can probably get a similar return adding insulation yourself, and a more leisurely payback if you hire someone else to do it.
  • Solar panels. When I first looked into the costs and benefits of a solar array for our house, I found that it probably wouldn't be able to pay for itself. However, solar prices have dropped precipitously since then, and when I got some quotes on a solar electric system two years ago, it looked like it would actually yield about a 10 percent return on our investment over its 20-year lifetime. So this is something I'm thinking we might actually go for at some point—though since our roof is going to need replacement pretty soon, it makes sense to wait until we've done that first. I can't extrapolate from my experience to say whether going solar will work for you, since there are so many variables, but you can use a calculator like this one to crunch the numbers for yourself.
  • Edible landscaping. In 2013, I calculated that our vegetable garden had produced about $233 worth of food from about $42 worth of seeds, plants, and compost. That same year, we expanded our edible landscape to include raspberry canes, which gave us about $50 worth of fruit in their first year alone; cherry bushes, which took a couple of years to produce but eventually gave us about two quarts of cherries; plum trees, which so far have provided only a handful of plums—but they were very tasty, and the trees are still growing. And that's not counting our asparagus patch (which unfortunately isn't all that productive), our rhubarb (which is ridiculously productive and could keep us in pies all year), and all our fresh herbs. And we're still coming up with new plants to add. Admittedly, edible landscaping on this scale is hard to do if you don't have a yard to landscape—but even apartment dwellers can grow a few herbs in pots on a windowsill, or maybe even a tomato plant on a balcony, and enjoy a little home-grown goodness at a bargain price.
  • Rain barrels. Our rain barrel, a gift from a friend, saved us about 1,000 gallons of water in its first year of use. It's hard to translate that directly into dollar savings, but with a little guesstimating, I put it at about $15. So if your water situation is anything like ours, you could build a barrel yourself with $30 worth of parts, as described at Instructables, and it should pay for itself in about two years.
  • Compost bins. We built our first compost bin out of shipping pallets harvested from Brian's workplace, and we proceeded to make compost in it the lazy way (more respectably known as "cold composting"): just throw everything in and wait for it to break down. It takes practically no work, cuts way down on our household garbage, and gives us enough compost each year to nourish at least half our garden. Anyone with a bit of spare yard space and a source of to shipping pallets could do the same thing and get homemade compost with very little effort. (We'll need to replace the bin this year, as pallets aren't the most weatherproof material, but seven years of use from a bin that was practically free ain't too shabby.)
And these ideas are only the tip of the iceberg! My various articles on Money Crashers offer lots more suggestions, from reducing paper use with cloth napkins and electronic newspapers to decorating your home on a budget. All these ideas will make your home greener and put more green in your wallet at the same time—a thrifty choice that can work for anyone.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Thrift Week 2017, Day 5: Pay Bills Online Day

Day 5 of the original Thrift Week was known as Pay Bills Promptly Day. These days, it's easy to do that with online bill payment, which is an ecofrugal choice for several reasons:
  • It's less work. It only takes me about a minute to log into my bank's online bill payment system, select the bill I want to pay, and enter the amount. That's a lot less work than writing out a check, adding my account number in the "memo" field, putting in an envelope, checking to make sure I've included all the necessary enclosures (facing in the right direction so the address shows through the window), labeling it, stamping it, sealing it, and then walking it down to the nearest mailbox. And since my time is a valuable resource, saving it is an ecofrugal move.
  • It's faster. When I click "pay bill" on the bank website, the payment doesn't go through instantly; usually it takes a day or two to be processed. However, that's still less time than it takes for a paper check to be picked up from my mailbox and delivered to Delaware or wherever the company is located—which means that if I realize I've only got two days before the bill is due, online payment is the best way to make sure it gets there on time and avoid being charged a late fee.
  • It's cheaper. Okay, a postage stamp only costs 47 cents—but when you multiply that by six bills a month, 12 months a year, it adds up to over $30 in postage every year. It's not that big an expense, but why pay it if I don't have to? (Plus I don't have to spend as much time standing in line at the post office to buy more stamps.) 
  • There's less paper waste. Paying my bills online means I can also receive them online, in PDF form, rather than in the mail. There are no more outer envelopes to discard—not to mention all those little paper inserts they throw in trying to sell you extra services.
  • Organization is easier. Back when I used to get paper bills in the mail, I had to store them away in file folders for future reference. After a while, the files got overstuffed, and I had to worry about when it was reasonable to pull old bills out and discard them. Now, I can store my e-bills right on my hard drive, where they take up a trivial amount of disk space and are easy to search.
Because of all these advantages, we now pay almost all our bills online. The only exceptions are the quarterly water and property tax bills; the borough has an online payment system, but there's a "convenience fee" to use it, so I just pay these in person down at borough hall.

Now, many financial sites and blogs argue that it would make more sense to automate our bill payments completely. That way, we wouldn't even have to go to the trouble of downloading them and logging into the online bill pay system. The bills would just go automatically to the bank, and the money would come automatically out of our checking account. It would take no effort at all on my part, and there would be no risk of ever being late with a payment. But I have three good reasons for not doing that:
  1. When I pay bills manually, I can make sure there's enough money in the checking account to cover the bill before paying it. If the bill just shows up and gets paid automatically, without warning, I might get caught short and end up having to pay an overdraft fee. (Our checking account is linked to savings, so the overdraft protection costs only $5 instead of $35, but I see no reason to pay even $5 if it's easy to avoid.
  2. Downloading the bill myself gives me a chance to review it and keep tabs on how much we're spending. If the electric bill is unusually high, for instance, I can think about what we might be doing to use more electricity than usual, and how we might be able to cut back.
  3. If there's an error on the bill, I can spot it and contact the issuer before paying. Once the bill's been paid, it's usually too late to dispute it—the money is gone, and there's no getting it back. Problems don't pop up all that often, but I've had them from time to time on my credit card bill (sometimes from mistakes and sometimes, more rarely, from fraudulent charges), and once I had a glitch in my utility bill that took the better part of two weeks to sort out.
So on the whole, I consider manual online payments—paying bills online, but reviewing them first—to be the most ecofrugal method. It takes a little more time than automatic payment, but it's easier to avoid errors and overdraft charges, and it helps keep track of spending. And the environmental benefits are the same either way.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Thrift Week 2017, Day 4: Local Shopping Budget Day

The fourth day of Thrift Week is designated as Keep a Budget Day. Budgeting is, of course, a favorite topic of frugal-living experts; Money Crashers alone has numerous articles on how to do it, including envelope budgetingzero-based budgeting, and the anti-budget system. It's practically an article of the frugal faith that you have to make a budget of some sort if you're ever going to prosper.

So I realize I'm probably going to shock a few people with this confession: I don't have any sort of budget and never have. I do track my spending, so I can keep tabs on where my money goes, but I've never sat down and decided, "OK, I want to spend 30 percent of my income on housing, 10 percent on food..." and so on and so forth. Instead, I just follow what the blogger at The Financial Diet calls a "minimalist mindset." Rather than setting aside a specific sum for savings, I look on all my money as savings and see my bills as cutting into that savings—so every time I make a purchase, I ask first whether I'm willing to spend my savings on it. This has worked just fine for me for over 20 years, and I see no need to suddenly switch to a rigidly regimented budget now.

In recent years, however, I have discovered that there's one problem with this minimalist approach. Because I've gotten into the habit of questioning every single purchase—"Is this really worth the money?"—it's sometimes hard to convince myself to spend on things that actually do matter to me. For example, as I've noted in previous posts, I really like the idea of supporting local businesses—but when I see their prices, I just balk. $30 at the local comic-and-game shop for a game that costs only $20 online? $10 a pound for fresh mozzarella from the farmers' market? $5 for a tiny cafe mocha from our local organic roastery?, I just can't do it.

To get over this mental block, I've sometimes thought I should give myself a monthly budget for this specific purpose—not to control my spending, but to encourage myself to spend more where it matters. The idea was that Brian and I would set aside some small sum we can easily afford—say, $10 or $20 a month—with the goal that we will spend that money at local businesses. Unlike a normal budget, it wouldn't be a maximum for spending, but a minimum. The point would be to use all of it if possible.

That way, when I see the $30 game at the local game shop and realize I could get it for $10 less online, instead of going home and handing over the money to some stranger, I'd think, "Great, this will just meet my local shopping quota for this month." The extra money would go to support the local economy, helping local businesses stay afloat so our town can thrive. And the $10 lost from my monthly savings would be so trivial a sum that I'd never even miss it.

Over the past couple of months, Brian and I have made more efforts to spend locally. For Christmas, he bought me the latest Sandman graphic novel at the local comic shop, even though it would have been about $9 less online. And this week, I splurged on an $8 tin of fancy, Fair Trade hot cocoa mix from Ten Thousand Villages that he could enjoy at work. But so far, we haven't given ourselves an official local shopping budget to cover these little extravagances.

So today, in honor of Thrift Week, I've decided it's time to make it official. As of now, our local shopping budget is $10 a month, an amount I'm confident we can manage. If I'm finding we can easily meet that goal every month, we can maybe bump it up to $20, but for now I'm keeping it modest.

My rules for this local shopping budget, which I just made up right now, are:

  1. The money must be spent here, in Highland Park. Supporting locally owned businesses in other towns we visit is a nice idea, but it doesn't count toward our local shopping budget.
  2. Priority will be given to independent businesses that are locally owned as well as operated: the comic shop, the art-supply store, the wine shop, the farmers' market (in season), and so on.
  3. Local branches of larger chains, such as the Stop & Shop and the Rite Aid, get second priority. They're not locally owned, but they're still part of our town's economy, and I'd like to see them stay in business.
  4. However, since the point of the budget is to encourage me to buy from local businesses even when their prices are higher, money spent at these stores will count only if it costs more to buy there than it would to go somewhere else. If cereal goes on sale at the Stop & Shop for $2 a box—a better price than I could get anywhere else—and I buy five boxes, I can't count that as my local shopping for the month.
  5. If we buy something that we didn't particularly need—say, the cocoa I got for Brian—then the entire sum can be applied toward the local shopping budget. If we buy something we were planning to buy anyway, but could have bought for less somewhere else, such as the graphic novel Brian gave me, then only the difference in price—the amount we paid for getting it locally—counts toward the local shopping budget.

The $8 I spent on Brian's fancy cocoa mix gets us most of the way to our local-shopping goal for this month, so I just need to find some way to spend an extra $2 in the next 11 days. Perhaps one of those overpriced $5 mochas from the local coffeehouse isn't such a bad idea.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Thrift Week 2017, Day 3: Check Your Life Insurance Day

In the original scheme of Thrift Week, Day 3 was Carry Life Insurance Day. At first glance, there doesn't seem to be any way to put an ecofrugal spin on that. Investments, and even banks, can be more or less eco-friendly, but there's no such thing as socially responsible insurance (at least as far as I know).

However, let's not forget that ecofrugality isn't just about protecting the planet. It's about avoiding waste—all forms of waste. And that includes wasting your money on an insurance policy that you don't actually need, or that isn't a good fit for you.

So for this day of Thrift Week, instead of talking about why you need life insurance and how to get some, I'll be posing the question: do you, in fact, need life insurance? And if so, how much?

First of all, we need to get a handle on just what life insurance is good for. This article at NerdWallet lists several reasons you might want it:

  • To provide income for your dependents
  • To cover the cost of child care, if you are currently your kids' main caregiver
  • To meet your child support payments if you're a non-custodial parent
  • To provide care and support for another dependent relative (such as a special-needs child who will never be fully independent)
  • To cover mortgage payments, so your family doesn't need to move
  • To pay off debts you've co-signed for
  • To meet the costs of estate or inheritance taxes, if your estate is big enough to owe any (we're talking over $5.49 million for the federal estate tax, though states can have lower cutoffs)
  • To leave an inheritance for your heirs if your actual estate is very small
  • To support a business you own (pay off debts, allow a business partner to buy out your share)
  • To provide an additional source of retirement savings (if you choose whole-life insurance rather than term)
  • To cover funeral costs
Now, obviously, not all these reasons apply to everyone. If you don't have any kids, for instance, you don't need to worry about providing for their support. If you don't have any debts, you don't need to worry about paying them off. If you have a normal-sized estate, inheritance tax isn't an issue, but you also don't have to worry that your family will be too broke to cover the cost of the funeral.

For Brian and me, the only possible reason we might need a life insurance policy is the first one on the list. And even that one doesn't apply equally to both of us. Since we live frugally, Brian is not in any way dependent on my income; we can both live comfortably on his salary alone, and he could certainly continue to do so if I died.

If Brian were the one to die, I probably couldn't make ends meet on my freelance earnings alone—mainly because I would need to buy private health insurance, and the Obamacare subsidies that would have made that a manageable expense for me are about to be unceremoniously snatched away. However, I wouldn't need that much extra income to cover this cost. Another $3,000 a year or so would do it—and I'd only need that for the next 21 years until I become eligible for Medicare (assuming the government doesn't snatch that away as well.) So that's $63,000, plus maybe a bit of padding to account for inflation.

Now, as it happens, Brian's job provides him with a life insurance benefit equal to 3.5 times his salary. And I don't think it's giving too much away to say that that amount comes to well over $63,000. So if Brian were to die at any point while he had this job, that insurance payout, added to my income, would be more than enough for me to get by on until I'm ready to retire.

So for us, there's no need for any additional insurance—as long as Brian keeps this job. If he were to lose his job, we'd then need to buy a policy—probably not for him, in that case, but for me, as I'd be the sole breadwinner at that point. But as of right now, there's no benefit to buying more.

Of course, your situation could be different from ours. So how can you figure out if you, personally, need life insurance, and how much? The best answer I've ever seen to this question is by my favorite financial writer, Andrew Tobias, in his The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need:
If you're single, with no dependents, you need little—to assist with burial expenses and, posthumously, pay off a few debts—or none. The great push to sell students life insurance is not entirely unlike the selling of ice to Eskimos, except that a lot more insurance is sold that way than ice.
  If you're married, with a hopelessly incompetent spouse, a family history of heart disease, and a horde of little children, you should carry a great deal of insurance. Less if your spouse has a reliable income. Less still if you have fewer children of if those children have wealthy and benevolent grandparents. And still less as those children grow up.
  If you are very rich, you need no insurance at all, except as it is helpful in providing liquidity to settle your estate. If you live richly off a high income but own outright little more than a deck of credit cards and some cardigan sweaters, it will take a lot of insurance to keep from exposing your dependents to an altogether seamier side of life when you are gone.
This is a bit general, so to figure out where exactly you fall in this scheme, you can check out this Nolo article. It poses several questions to help you assess your family's needs, such as "How many people depend on your earning capacity?" and "How long would it take for your dependents to become self-sufficient?" Going through these questions is a quick way to figure out whether your family will need insurance to cover either long-term needs (making up lost income) or short-term needs (such as funeral expenses or estate taxes).

If you find that you do need insurance, the next step is to figure out how much to carry. Naturally, you want to have enough to meet all your family's needs, but you don't want to carry too much, because that's tying up income that could be put to better use—either for present needs or for other investments that pay more.

I can't give you a simple, concise formula here that will answer this question, because there are too many variables (Are you married? Does your spouse have income? Do you have children to put through college? Do you have debts?). However, there are plenty of online life insurance calculators, such as this one from Bankrate, that can factor in all these variables and come up with a target number that hits the sweet spot: not too much insurance, not too little, but just right.

The final decision to make is what type of policy to get: term or whole-life. Term gives you coverage and nothing else; whole life gives you coverage plus a tax-sheltered savings plan. However, according to Tobias, whose advice I generally trust, the earnings on whole-life insurance aren't usually as good as you could get from other investments, so it makes more sense to "buy term and invest the difference." To find a good deal on a policy, he suggests checking out comparison sites like

By following these steps, you can find an insurance policy that fits your family's needs—or, better yet, find out that you can get by without one. Then you'll have more money left over to funnel into those Socially Responsible Investments we talked about yesterday. Or insulate your house...or buy a hybrid car...or any of those other numerous ecofrugal lifestyle choices you can make that cost money up front, but pay off in the long run.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Thrift Week 2017, Day 2: Socially Responsible Investing Day

The second day of the original Thrift Week was Invest Safely Day. And unlike having a bank account, this is a topic that a lot of modern-day Americans still don't really understand. However, there are plenty of articles already out there on the basics of investing safely, such as diversification (i.e., not putting all your eggs in one basket) and balancing risk with return (choosing higher-risk, higher-return investments for the long term, and safer, lower-return investments for money you'll need in the near future). Indeed, I've written a few such articles myself, such as this one on low-risk investments, this one on reaching financial independence, and this whimsical little one on financial advice from the Bible.

None of that, however, has much to do with ecofrugality. The ecofrugal side of investing is socially responsible investing, or SRI. I've covered this topic at MoneyCrashers as well, and you can read about it in detail there, but I'll quickly sum up the main points here:
  1. SRI means choosing investments based not just on their value, but on your values as well. For most investors, this means investing in companies that have a good record on "ESG issues": environment, social justice, and corporate governance.
  2. You can choose your investments using either negative screens (avoiding things you disapprove of, such as tobacco or fossil fuels) or positive screens (seeking out investments in things you approve of, such as renewable energy or organic farms). One particular form of SRI is community investing—making loans to support small business owners and community development organizations, especially in low-income areas. Socially responsible investors also take part in shareholder action to influence the behavior of companies they hold stock in.
  3. There are a wide range of SRI investments to choose from, from mutual funds to microfinance. A good way to get started with SRI is to visit the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (US SIF), which offers a variety of resources on how to invest in ways that promote different causes.
Unfortunately, while I've understood the basics of SRI for years, I've never done a very good job of praticing it. These days, I do most of my investing through my automatic investment plan at Capital One, which pulls some money out of my online bank account every month and plops it into a simple "lazy investing" portfolio (a few ETFs with low fees that, between them, cover the whole market as broadly as possible). This is definitely the easy way to invest, but it has a downside: this ultra-simple portfolio doesn't include any social screens. And I never really figured out a good way to find investments that meet both my financial goals (low fees, broad diversification, modest but steady returns) and my social goals (clean energy, women's rights, all that good stuff).

Until now.

I decided, this being not only Green Thrift Week but also Inauguration Week, it was an appropriate time to finally put my money to work building the kind of world I'd prefer to be living in. So I did a quick search and found this US News article that recommends seven top-rated socially responsible mutual funds and ETFs. Then I punched each one of those into the search box on Capital One's website to see how the funds stacked up against others in the same category—in particular, the ones I regularly invest in now.

After looking at their returns, I selected a fund called iShares MSCI KLD 400 Social, or DSI, which is a "large blend" fund somewhat along the lines of the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund (VTI) I've been investing in. It's not as diversified, and its returns aren't quite as good, but they're still above average for the category, and I'm willing to sacrifice a little bit of my return for the sake of investing in a world I can live with.

So, I have made one small change to my ShareBuilder plan, swapping out VTI for DSI, and voilĂ ! I am now a Socially Responsible Investor! Starting next month, a portion of my money will be automatically invested in "companies that have positive environmental, social, and governance characteristics." If my returns suffer much as a result, I can always switch the funds back and try something else.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Thrift Week 2017: Everything old is new again

Happy Thrift Week, everyone! For the past few months, I've been trying to think of an interesting and original new theme for Thrift Week 2017, but I just couldn't come up with anything. So instead, I've decided to revisit the themes of the original, official Thrift Week—Have a Bank Account Day, Invest Safely Day, and so on—but put an ecofrugal spin on them. For example, the first day of Thrift Week, Have a Bank Account Day, won't just discuss the benefits of having a bank account and how to open one; instead, it will talk about the most ecofrugal way to bank—the way that maximizes both the financial and the social/environmental benefits.

Now, while it may not be easy to identify the most ecofrugal type of bank account, it's pretty obvious what kind is the least ecofrugal. That would be an account with one of the huge "mega-banks"—Citibank, Chase, Wells Fargo, GMAC, and the most heinous of all, Bank of America—whose transgressions against people and the planet were so well documented during the big financial flap of 2008. Green America, in its "Break Up With Your Mega-Bank" campaign, outlines the biggest problems with the biggest banks, including:

  • Predatory lending. The big banks have systematically and deliberately targeted poor and ill-educated borrowers for loans they clearly can't afford in order to load them up with outrageous interest and fees. (The attorneys general of 49 states, plus the District of Columbia, sued the banks over these practices and reached a settlement in 2012, but the Mass Alliance Against Predatory Lending found in 2013 that they were still at it.)
  • Illegitimate foreclosures. The big banks have illegally foreclosed on thousands of homes—including, in a few cases, homes that had already been paid off. Probably the most egregious examples date from 2010, when Bank of America seized not one but two houses in Florida that had never had mortgages at all.
  • Ludicrous CEO salaries. Even as the banks accepted federal bailout money for the subprime mortage mess they had created, they awarded massive bonuses to the very CEOs who had led them into the morass. In 2010, the Financial Times reported, bank CEO salaries in the US and Europe jumped by 36%.
  • Dirty energy. BankTrack reports that Chase, Citi, and Bank of America are the three biggest funders of the coal industry worldwide.
  • Whopping fees. The big banks aren't just bad for the world as a whole; they're bad for their customers specifically. MyBankTracker lists the banks that are the harshest in several categories—monthly service fees, minimum balance requirements, overdraft fees, out-of-network fees, and fees for mobile banking—and nearly every list features two or more of the five biggest banks. Bank of America alone makes three lists out of five.
  • Lousy service. If you've ever banked with one of these megabanks, I'm sure this one needs no explanation.

So we know the megabanks are terrible. The question is, what's the ecofrugal alternative? That depends on your specific situation, but there are at least three choices worth looking into:

1. A credit union

The big banks' primary job is not to serve their customers, but to generate profit for their owners. If it comes down to a choice between the customers and the stockholders, the stockholders' interests take precedence.

With a credit union, by contrast, the customers are the stockholders. As this Money Crashers article (not one of mine) explains, everyone who has an account at a credit union is a member, and therefore shares in the profits. Thus, whatever is good for the customers is good for the owners, too.

Thus, it's hardly surprising that credit unions typically offer better interest rates, lower fees, and better customer service than banks. On the downside, they're less convenient to use. They don't have as wide a choice of products, and they have far fewer branches, making it more difficult to get to a branch or ATM that you can use. Also, many of them don't have state-of-the-art online banking systems.

These drawbacks are the main reasons Brian and I have never seriously considered joining a credit union. There isn't one with a branch here in town, so moving our money to one would mean having to get in the car every time we needed to make a withdrawal or deposit a check, rather than taking a stroll down to the local branch. And we'd lose our online banking, which I currently rely on to pay nearly all our bills.

However, just because credit unions don't work for us don't mean they can't for you. If you're lucky enough to have a good credit union right in town, with a good online banking system, there's no good reason not to have your account there. You'll enjoy good rates and never have to deal with big-bank bureaucracy again.

2. A community bank

Google defines a community bank as one that "derives funds from and lends to the community where it operates, and is not affiliated with a multibank holding company." Community banks get their funds from local account holders; they lend them out to local businesses; and they employ local workers. So when you put your money in one of these locally owned and operated banks, you're actually investing it in your community.

The Huffington Post outlines several other advantages to community banks. First, they're banks that operate solely as banks—not subsidiaries of some big financial corporation that has its finger in several pies. That means their banking account holders are not just their first priority, but their only priority. Also, these banks tend to focus on "relationship banking"—having a small, loyal core group of customers—rather than "transactional banking," which relies on volume. And finally, community banks make most of their money the old-fashioned way, from the interest they collect on loans. Bigger banks tend to rely more on fees—which is why they charge more of them.

It may be a bit of a stretch to call the bank we belong to, Provident, a community bank. It's a chain with over 80 branches in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, so you can't exactly say that it's tied to one specific community. But it definitely is a New Jersey-centered bank, one that supports the New Jersey economy, and it definitely offers more personal service than we've ever had from any of the megabanks. It combines the small-town charm of a local branch with friendly tellers who remember your name with the convenience of a decent statewide ATM network and online banking. So for us, it's the best of both worlds—not too big, not too small, but just right.

3. An online bank

If you have neither a good credit union nor a good local bank in your area, your best option might be a bank that has no branches at all. Because online banks have no buildings to maintain and staff, they keep their costs low, and those savings translate into better rates and fees for customers. NerdWallet recommends several online banks with interest rates as high as 0.76% APY (it's kind of pathetic that this is considered a good interest rate, but such is the 21st-century economy), low fees, and excellent customer service.

Nor do you have to worry that not having a branch limits what you can actually do with your account. Online banks don't own ATMs, but they partner with other banks to give their customers access to an ATM network and often reimburse them for ATM fees from out-of-network banks. They can provide savings accounts, checking accounts, and loans, just like a brick-and-mortar bank. You can do just about anything with an online bank account that you can with a regular bank account.

Brian and I actually have an online bank account at Capital One 360 (formerly ING) in addition to our Provident Account. When the balance in our regular savings account gets too high, we transfer money out to the online account, where it can earn more interest. And this account is also conveniently tied to an online investment account (more about that tomorrow), so we can automatically move money from there into our investments and earn an even better long-term return.

So there you have it: three options, each with its own pros and cons, but all significantly better than the evil megabanks. Moving your money to any of these alternatives will get you a better return, better service, and possibly a better world as well.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Closing the my pants waist

I don't know if it's just me, but I can never, ever find pants that fit me properly. Invariably, if they're big enough to fit over my hips and butt, they're way too big in the waist. The last pair of pants I bought was a heavily marked-down pair of Lee Comfort Fit pants from Burlington Coat Factory, which proudly touted its "no-gap waistband." Ha ha, that's all I can say. Does this look "no-gap" to you? (And before you ask, no, a smaller size wasn't an option—they were all way too tight in the thighs and backside.)

For a while, I tried to wear these and just put up with the huge gap at the rear. It wasn't too bad when the pants were fresh out of the dryer, but after they'd been worn once or twice, it started to get truly annoying...and since they're the only really warm pants I have, throwing the pants in the wash after every wearing would have left me shivering until the next laundry day. So I started looking into ways to alter them that wouldn't tax my extremely rudimentary sewing skills too heavily.

Now, in the past, I've been able to take in the waistband of a pair of pants using a method outlined on the Colorful Canary blog: just fold over a pinch of fabric along each side seam and stitch it down. But I quickly determined that wouldn't work with these, because the fabric was too thick and the seams were quite heavy already. Adding an extra fold of fabric on each side would have left me with huge, knobbly seams that wouldn't fit neatly at all.

So I started searching for other methods. The simplest way I found was to insert a piece of elastic into the waistband, as shown here on It's Always Autumn. This is kind of similar to the improvised fix I did with my thrift-shop walking shorts, but it uses a thicker piece of elastic that can handle the heavier fabric of the pants. A more complicated method involved sewing darts into the rear of the pants, as shown at Cotton and Curls. This looked like it might possibly produce a smoother fit, but it might also be beyond my very limited abilities.

So over Christmas vacation, I consulted with my mother-in-law, who's a much abler seamstress than I am. She agreed that with these pants, the elastic method would probably be more practical, since the placement of the pockets would probably interfere with the darts. She even kindly provided me with a piece of heavy elastic for the purpose. Armed with this, I was ready to tackle the pants as soon as I had the time, which turned out to be this weekend.

My mother-in-law advised against trying to rip out and sew up part of the pants seam the way Autumn did. With these thick seams, she thought it would be easier to just cut a small slit in the fabric on each side, the way I did with my shorts, then feed the elastic through and stitch it down. So, somewhat nervously, I did this—carefully positioning the slits behind the belt loops, so they wouldn't be too visible when the repair was complete.

Then I pinned a safety pin to one end of the elastic to give me something to grab onto, fed it into one of the slits, and maneuvered it through to the other.

Next came the hard part: adjusting the elastic to the right snugness. First, I pulled on both ends of the elastic until the pants felt fairly well-seated on my waist. Then I pinned them in place and tried sitting down and standing up several times to make sure the fit was smooth. I knew I'd only have one chance to get this right, so I took my time with it.

Once I was satisfied with the fit, I began the process of stitching down the elastic. I ran my needle repeatedly through the elastic and both layers of fabric, in and out, all the way along the width of the slit...and then back down again, and up and down one more time, until I was sure it was securely stitched down. Once I had it secured, I snipped off the extra elastic...

tucked the end into the slit in the waistband...

...and stitched the slit closed.

Then I did the same thing on the other side and put on the finished pants to try out the result. Look, Ma, no more gap!

Okay, it's not perfect—you can see a hint of puckering in the waistband from all the extra fabric—but it's a vast improvement from the way the pants fit before. The waist is still loose-fitting enough to be comfortable and to allow me to tuck in a shirt, even a fairly heavy one. In fact, I suspect I could have pulled the elastic even snugger, but I was afraid of overdoing it. Maybe next time I try to take in a pair of pants this way, I'll be a little bolder.

For now, though, I have a pair of pants that fits acceptably well in both the waist and the hips—which is something I literally couldn't buy in any store.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Money well spent

Usually, the ecofrugal triumphs I post on this blog are times when I've managed to satisfy a personal need without buying something new. I'll write, for instance, about how we managed to repair our old Roman shades with an $8 ball of string instead of shelling out $100 or more on new window treatments, or how Brian built me a new desk organizer for my computer peripherals out of scrap wood and stain we had on hand. Small victories like this are the essence of the ecofrugal life. They show how it's possible to do more with less—to save money while also preventing waste. They keep your tinkering skills limbered up and encourage you to strive for ever greater feats of tightwaddery.

All that said, it's important to remember that frugality isn't about not spending money. It's about not wasting money on things you don't need. Sometimes, making a purchase—even a fairly pricey one—is clearly the wisest thing to do.

A case in point is my new winter boots. I've posted before about how difficult it is for me to find shoes that fit both my feet and my values (both of which are, shall we say, a bit out of the mainstream). For me, the ideal pair of boots has to be leather-free, comfortable, decent-looking, reasonably well-made, not too expensive, and available in my size—a combination that's about as rare as a green unicorn. Back in 2013, I concluded that if I wanted to make it through the winter with dry feet, I was going to have to compromise on at least one of these criteria.

At that time, I ended up buying a $50 pair from Payless that compromised just a little bit on several of them: the fit was acceptable but not ideal, they lacked in support but were okay with an insole added, and—the biggest problem of the lot—they weren't very durable. They held out for the rest of that winter and most of the next, but by the time 2015 rolled around, they were letting in water like a sluice gate. They were okay in dry weather, but stepping in one puddle (which is often unavoidable with our town's lousy drainage) would leave them basically useless for the next two days.

For the rest of 2015 and all of 2016, I managed with a pair of secondhand Timberland hiking boots that I'd picked up at Goodwill for $15. But the last time I wore those out in the rain, it was apparent that they'd fallen victim to the same type of leak as the previous pair. I could have tried to repair them with Shoe Goo, but that would leave me without boots for a couple of days while they dried, and there was no guarantee the patch job would actually do the trick. So, reluctantly, I started shopping.

This time, I thought I had a trick up my sleeve. I had discovered at some point that while a D width is "wide" in a women's shoe, it's actually the standard width for "youth" shoes. And since my feet are wide but not long, I can usually get by with a size 4.5 or 5 in a kids' shoe. And, as a bonus, these are usually cheaper than the adult version of the same shoe.

So after consulting The Wirecutter's report on the best winter boots, I decided to try the kids' version of the Columbia Bugaboot. While the adult boot sells for around $120, I was able to find the kids' version on sale for just $55—and, just to make sure I got a pair that would fit, I ordered two sizes, a youth 5 and a youth 6 (the largest available). The smaller pair ended up being canceled because it wasn't available, but the 6 was wearable—sort of. I could get my feet into them, but they were so huge and bulky that I felt like an astronaut. I had to sort of march instead of walking because my ankles wouldn't bend normally.

So those went back to the store and I tried a pair in a duck-boot style from Sperry Top-Sider. I had high hopes for these, because the entire base of the shoe was fully encased in rubber, which I thought was sure to be both waterproof and durable. Unfortunately, this design also made the boots stiff and inflexible, so it was very difficult to squeeze my feet into them—even with the kids' size 6. They weren't too uncomfortable once I managed to get them zipped, but I couldn't imagine going through that kind of contortion every morning—and with my thickest socks, I doubted I'd be able to get them on at all. So back they went to Zappos, which fortunately offers free shipping both ways, so I wasn't out any cash for that unsuccessful attempt.

After that, I wasn't sure what to try, so I tried doing a search on shoes for wide feet and found several recommendations for a brand called Propet, which offers shoes in a vast range of widths—from men's narrow to women's extra-wide. Back to Zappos, and I found a Propet boot that came in both wide and extra-wide and appeared to tick pretty much all the boxes on my list. It was completely leather-free; reviews described it as warm, dry, and comfortable for walking; and it looked unobtrusive enough to wear indoors as well as out. The only downside was the $80 price tag—but since several owners also said the boots were quite durable, I figured I'd probably get my money's worth out of them.

Since reviewers disagreed about the fit, I decided to hedge my bets by ordering both a 6.5 wide and a 7 wide—a sound decision, since the 7 turned out to be the better fit. So the smaller pair is boxed up waiting to go back to Zappos, and the larger pair has now been put to a trial by fire, or rather ice. It was 20 degrees out yesterday, with heavy snow and a stiff wind, and these boots kept my feet snug, dry, and skid-free through several rounds of shoveling and a trip to the train station to pick up my folks. Plus, I've walked a couple of miles in them and suffered no foot fatigue.

So this story has two morals. First, if you have hard-to-fit feet, Propet footwear is definitely worth a look; and second, sometimes spending more money up front is the most ecofrugal choice. I could have tried to make my old, leaky Timberlands last the rest of the winter, and I might even have succeeded—but it would only have postponed the inevitable, and in the meantime, my feet wouldn't have been nearly as warm and dry as I expect them to be in my new boots. They cost more up front than I've ever spent on a pair of winter boots before, but an $80 pair that should see me through the next several winters is a better deal than a $50 pair that will barely make it through one—and it means I won't have to go through this same shopping rigamarole again next year.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Green Gift Roundup 2016

In 2015, I never got around to doing a Green Gift Roundup for the holidays. For one thing, we didn't manage to give as many green gifts that year as we had in previous years; only about 44 percent of all the gifts we gave were secondhand, locally purchased, sustainably sourced, or energy-saving, as compared to 72 percent the previous year. Also, the green gifts we did purchase, such as books and toys, weren't the most successful gifts we gave that year. The biggest hits of all our presents were the "home spa treatment system" we got for my sister and the Dungeons & Dragons starter set we gave my oldest nephew—and while I was pleased that they liked the presents, there was really no way I could spin them as green. So I decided to let the subject drop for that year.

This year, however, things are different. We managed to get our green-gift ratio all the way back up to 69 percent of our purchases, and the most successful presents on our list were all sustainable picks in one way or another. Also, we received several presents—both large and small—that qualify as green. So I figured this year I could do at least a quick Green Gift Roundup to share which green ideas worked the best for us.

Our green holiday giving started early this year, on Thanksgiving weekend. My aunt had said that what she really needed this year was new clothing, since she'd recently dropped a size, so she was asking for gift cards to Macy's or Ann Taylor. However, I'd just finished writing my article on sustainable clothing, and I really didn't like the idea of turning around and supporting fast fashion. So I offered her an alternative proposal: while she was in New Jersey for Thanksgiving, I'd take her out to Greene Street Consignment in Princeton and buy her an item of her choice. This turned out to be a bigger success than I imagined; she had a blast trying on over-the-top party dresses for her Sister Goddess gatherings, and in addition to the dress I eventually bought her (a jazzy one-shoulder number in silver lamé), she bought three more for herself. She even suggested making the thrift shop an annual tradition.

We also bought sustainable Hanukkah and Christmas gifts for several other family members, including:

  • A subscription to Yes! magazine for my mom. She often finds the news depressing (hardly a surprise) and calls me up to ask if I have any good news, so I thought a magazine filled with all good news—about the environment, social movements, and sustainable communities—was just what she needed. She hasn't received her first issue yet, as it's a quarterly, but she has already started reading and enjoying the online edition.
  • Also for my mom, a book called NYPD Puzzle that we picked up at the library book sale. This is part of the Puzzle Lady series, featuring a crossword constructor and her crime-solving aunt, and it includes puzzles right in the book that provide clues to the mystery. Since my mom loves both mysteries and puzzles, it seemed right up her alley. So I told her I was giving her one present to distract her from what's going on in the world, and one to make her feel better about it.
  • A pashmina shawl from the annual craft fair at the Morristown Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, where our favorite folk series is held. My sister had specifically requested pashminas this year, particularly in bright red, pink, and purple, and this one happened to have all three colors in a lush, soft fabric. Though it was a lot pricier than the ones at Target, it was also a lot nicer, and Fair Trade to boot, so I figured it was worth a splurge. And since she mentioned the "gorgeous scarf" in a recent e-mail, I guess she liked it too.
  • Two books for my brother-in-law and sister-in-law. This is the same brother-in-law who, two years back, let me pick through the discards from his shelf of gardening books, so I knew he was interested in growing and preserving his own produce. So when my other brother-in-law requested a specific book on craft cider making (which I didn't get for him because someone else snapped it up), I decided it would make a good gift for this other couple. While I was at it, I threw in a second book called Drink the Harvest, which covers not only cider but also juice, tea, and mead. He only glanced at the books when he opened them, but she picked them up and became absorbed in them, so I think there's a good chance they'll get some use out of these. Maybe they'll even return the favor with a gift of home-brewed cider next year.
  • Two more books for my youngest nephew. While we were in Princeton thrift-shopping, I stopped in at the library and browsed through their used-book section, where I picked up two little paperbacks from the "young readers" section: a Nate the Great mystery (one of his favorite series) and a biography of Neil Armstrong, since he's obsessed with everything to do with outer space.
  • For that same nephew and his younger sister, a pair of "Magic Cloths." These are basically a homemade version of Playsilks, using low-end fabric from Jo-Ann Fabrics that we hemmed ourselves. (Well, Brian did it, actually, since I can't sew a straight seam on the machine to save my life.) I also threw in a little "instruction manual" to go with them: a poem illustrated with little stick figures (thanks again to Brian) that show all the different things a Magic Cloth can turn into: a superhero cape, a princess gown, a parachute, a pool of water, etc. I wasn't sure whether these counted as a green gift, since they're not all-natural silk like the originals—but they are a highly versatile toy that requires no electricity and encourages imaginative play. My sister said they were a "huge hit" with her kids.
  • For my two craft-loving nieces, an assortment of beads that we picked up at the last town-wide yard sale. For a mere 50 cents, we got two boxes of beads: one with a variety of colorful glass beads, and one with tiny "seed beads" (which we urged our nieces not to open on the spot, since they are very easy to scatter everywhere). That should be enough to keep them in bracelets for a good few months.
  • For their younger brother, the Big Book of Riddles, Puzzles, and Enigmas. This was another yard-sale find, and we weren't quite sure whom to give it to, so we picked this nephew almost at random. This turned out to be a good guess; when he opened it, his eyes lit up and he displayed the book to the entire room like Vanna White showing off a fabulous prize. He spent much of the day lying on the couch, poring over the puzzles and occasionally trying them out on his relatives. And a quiet child was a great gift for the rest of us.
  • Finally, an experiential gift: a Chinese banquet on Christmas Day. This year, we weren't able to get the whole family together to open presents until the 27th, so on the 25th I offered to take those who were around—my in-laws and Brian's brother—for a traditional Jewish Christmas. Apparently, a lot of other people had the same idea, as the Formosa Seafood Buffet was packed. Afterward, we skipped the movie theater and instead went home to watch a DVD. We went with A Christmas Story, since I'd never seen it—and it turns out, that includes a memorable Chinese Christmas dinner as well.

In addition to the gifts themselves, I had the opportunity to use a few of the fabric gift bags my sister-in-law gave me in 2014. I used a couple of them for gifts to that same sister-in-law, since I knew she would use them again, and a couple for other people. The downside of this is that I didn't really receive any new gifts that were in fabric gift bags—so if I carry on at this rate, my stock of them will gradually disappear. I guess I'll have to get this darned sewing machine figured out so I can make some of my own.

We also received a few gifts that qualify as green. Brian's brother gifted us two bottles of mead from the local "meadery": a growler of strawberry-rhubarb mead and a smaller bottle of cherry. (The former turns out to be dry and slightly fizzy, so I'm toying with the idea of trying it in a Bellini.) His sister slipped some mysterious cardboard objects into his stocking, which turned out to be homemade fire starters made from dryer lint and candle wax stuffed into egg-carton cups. These might prove handy for the charcoal grill, or if we ever pick up the fire pit I've been toying with the idea of adding to our patio.

Her gift to me was a vegan faux-leather purse, which the salesclerk assured her was "really high quality" but was marked down because it was last year's model. This may make it the first purse I've ever owned from a brand that actually has different models for different years—but what I like about it is that it has a long strap so it can be carried cross-body fashion. A therapist I've been seeing advised me to switch to this type of purse because it would put less strain on my back and neck, so this was a particularly timely gift.

Brian received a couple of ecofrugal gifts from my family as well. My mom and my aunt both gave him silicone baking mats—something I suggested because we've been using such a lot of parchment paper lately for baking. And my sister gave him a handy multitool for bike repairs, which will make it easier for him to bike to work without carrying quite as much stuff.

Finally, during our trip to Indiana, we picked up a couple of eco-friendly items for ourselves. We visited not one, but two Goodwill stores in Indianapolis, where we found a pair of jeans for Brian and corduroys and a long-sleeved shirt for me, all for a flat $18 (including the small donation that we made to each store by rounding up to the nearest dollar). And after making sure no one else was going to give us one, we stopped by Fry's and bought ourselves a new tablet computer to replace the one that met with an accident last fall. Calling this an ecofrugal purchase is debatable, but we found after several months of going without one that there really were quite a few things we could do more easily with one, like reading online news and books from the e-library—which will mean fewer books to buy and clutter up our shelves. Yes, that's a bit of a stretch, but at the very least, it was a purchase that we thought out carefully and can be sure we won't regret. So if nothing else, it's a case of using our money wisely. (We also invested $20 in a good protective case to go with it, so this tablet won't meet with the same fate as the last one.)

And that wraps it up for our holidays. I hope yours were equally festive and green.