Sunday, May 21, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Sweet Potatoes

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

Since it was printed so long ago, this recipe is no longer available on the Shop & Shop website, so I hope they won't mind if I just reproduce it here:
ROASTED BRUSSELS SPROUTS AND SWEET POTATOES1 lb. Brussels sprouts, halved
3 cups peeled and cubed sweet potatoes
1 cup chopped onion
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. orange juice
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup dried cranberries
STEP 1 Preheat oven to 400°F. Spread the Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, and onion on a large-rimmed baking sheet or casserole dish.
STEP 2 In a small bowl, combine oil, orange juice, and cinnamon. Drizzle over the vegetable mixture and toss to coat evenly. Sprinkle salt (in moderation) and pepper over vegetables.
STEP 3 Roast 15 min. Stir gently, add walnuts, and continue to roast for another 15 min., or until vegetables are tender and nicely browned. Add cranberries to mixture and serve warm.
We ended up making a couple of minor modifications to this recipe. We picked up the sweet potato and Brussels sprouts during our weekly shopping, but we forgot to get any dried cranberries, so we used raisins instead. We also used a Vidalia onion, since that was the kind we had on hand.

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

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

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Computer woes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money Crashers: How Much House Can I Afford?

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Small victory: A truly refillable roller-ball pen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 1, 2017

Gardeners' Holidays 2017: Planting Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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