Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Money Crashers: 7 Effects of Inflation & How to Protect Yourself From the Consequences

Economists agree that the U.S. is now officially in a recession — the most severe one in most people's lifetimes. What they disagree on is what its long-term effects will be. It could be quick and brutal or long and grinding; it could permanently damage some industries while boosting others; and most puzzling of all, it could cause the dollar to either grow or shrink in value. A recent "Planet Money" episode explains how the current recession could lead to either runaway inflation, in which your money is worth measurably less each week than the week before, or deflation, in which both prices and incomes sink through the floor. Both of which are very, very bad.

To help prepare its readers for both possibilities, Money Crashers updated its article on deflation, and it fell to me to tackle the one on inflation. I explain how inflation can be both helpful and harmful — on the one hand, raising prices so your money is worth less, but on the other, boosting incomes so you have more of it. And I outline how inflation can affect all aspects of your financial life —cost of living, income, the job market, government benefits, debt, savings, and investments — and how to plan for these effects so you get more of the upside of inflation and less of the downside.

7 Effects of Inflation & How to Protect Yourself From the Consequences

Since this is a fairly big topic, there are two other articles on inflation coming out soon as well: one on the causes of inflation and one devoted specifically to protecting your retirement portfolio from inflation. Keep an eye out for those in the near future.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Gardeners' Holidays 2020: Tomatofest

Today marks the midpoint of summer. The summer heat is at its blazing height, and looking ahead, we can just glimpse the relief of fall and its shorter, cooler days in the distance. And, in a normal year, this would also mark the high point of squash season, when gardeners are rolling in so much zucchini we're beginning to think about sneaking some onto the neighbor's porch.

But sadly, that's not the case this year. Despite our efforts to keep them at bay by covering the stems in dirt, the dastardly squash vine borers invaded both our two zucchini plants earlier than ever, killing one outright and eviscerating the other. We've harvested a total of one measly squash off both plants all summer, and that's all we're likely to get. (Brian suggested relocating next year's zucchini plants out of the fenced garden entirely and into the "burn ward" he set up next to the house for our extra seedlings, but I couldn't see how that would help; the adult borers lay their eggs on the plants after descending on them from above, and they can surely do that just as easily no matter where the plants are. And even if the plants survived, the groundhogs would be liable to eat all the squash in the unfenced area before we get a chance to pick them. I think Bt spray is likely to do more good.)

Last year, we celebrated this gardeners' holiday as Plumfest, but alas, this year that's not on the cards either. Even though Brian has been diligently spraying the trees with copper fungicide every week since they blossomed, basically all of the Opal and Mount Royal plums still dropped prematurely. Most of the Golden Gages survived, but squirrels started spiriting them away well before they were ripe enough for us to pick. We tried discouraging them with shiny CDs (which are supposed to produce unpredictable glints they find disturbing) and our own hair, but to no avail. When Brian checked the trees this morning, he found that every last plum was gone. So next year, we'll have to return to our full Plum Protection Plan — rigorous pruning, regular spraying, wrapping the biggest branches in collars smeared with Tree Tanglefoot, and picking the plums as soon as they have even a hint of color to ripen them indoors.

Even our Provider green beans have been failing to live up to their name this year. Where last year's plants produced nearly five pounds of beans in total, this year we got a little over one before the supply petered out entirely. And worse, we have no idea what caused the problem, unless the unusually hot weather is somehow to blame — so we have no idea how to prevent it next year.

But fortunately, there's one summer crop we have absolutely no shortage of. Our Sun Gold tomato plants have, as usual, been producing in abundance; they've given us a total of 180 tiny tomatoes already and show no signs of slowing down. Our Premio tomatoes have proved to be reliable producers, too; though not as prolific as the Sun Golds, they've yielded 17 smallish tomatoes so far, with more on the way.

We've already enjoyed our first Pasta a la Caprese of the season (as our anniversary dinner and the prelude to our anniversary cake), so for tonight's tomato celebration, we went for roasted tomato spaghetti. The basil was also home-grown, as that's another crop that seems to be thriving despite the heat. And, looking to the future, our later-season tomatoes (the big Pineapples and the new Opalka paste tomatoes) are also looking quite healthy, as are the peppers and winter squash. So there's reason to hope the next two gardeners' holidays will give us more cause for celebration than this one.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Frugalversery 2020: Homemade chocolate raspberry torte

Brian and I didn't exactly have a traditional wedding, so it seems only natural that we've never really gone in for traditional anniversary celebrations. For years, we celebrated by ordering a miniature version of our wedding cake from the bakery that provided it, then going to the park where we got married to eat it. Then the bakery stopped selling small cakes, so we started making a trip into Princeton instead, going to the bakery in person, and getting a slice either to go or to eat in. Unfortunately, their selection of cakes varied from day to day, so sometimes we'd make the trip and find it wasn't available. So by the time our tenth anniversary rolled around, we'd switched to visiting IKEA and having lunch in the cafe (where we knew we could get a good slice of cake, even if it wasn't the cake). But we'd still make a point of swinging by the coffeehouse whenever we happened to be in Princeton and picking up a slice of our very own special cake as soon as it was available.

This year, however, the routine fell apart completely. Our local IKEA has reopened, but it let us down so badly last year that we've given up on going there at all. And the bakery in Princeton, even if we wanted to take our chances on it, appears to have closed down its cafe entirely during the pandemic and is now offering takeout only.

So, if we wanted to enjoy the fabulous Chocolate Raspberry Torte we had for our wedding as part of our anniversary celebration, we had only one option: make it ourselves.

Well, to be more accurate, Brian would make it, since he's the one who does the baking. My job is usually reading aloud to him while he works, so I asked him if he had a request, and he asked for The Tempest. So I read him that in its entirety, doing my best to present distinct voices for each character (Tim Curry as Sebastian, Aidan Turner as Caliban, etc.), while he worked his way through the complicated process of reproducing this cake from scratch.

Fortunately, we'd anticipated that we might have to do this some day, so we'd already made some notes on just how the cake is constructed. From top to bottom, the layers are: white sponge cake, chocolate mousse, cake, raspberry mousse, cake, chocolate mousse, cake, raspberry jam. It's finished with chocolate curls all around the outside and fresh raspberries on top. So, to recreate it, Brian would have to produce four distinct components — the cake, the jam, and two types of mousse — and then assemble them in the proper order.

At first, I tried simply Googling "chocolate raspberry torte" in hopes of finding a cake more or less the same as ours. Unfortunately, all the recipes I found were chocolate cakes layered with raspberry, rather than white cake with both chocolate and raspberry. However, one of them, from Taste of Home, did include a simple recipe for raspberry mousse that we thought we could use — basically just raspberry jam, sugar, and a touch of raspberry liqueur (which we skipped) folded into whipped cream. This would mean breaking our abstention from dairy products, but we figured for such a special occasion, we could make an exception. And since we needed raspberry jam for the cake anyway, using it to make the mousse would simplify the process.

In fact, as luck would have it, we already had some homemade raspberry jam. After our success putting up our first batch of plum jam last summer, Brian tried preserving some of our raspberries the same way, so he had a couple of small jars of the stuff set aside. And he found a recipe for Genoise sponge cake in The Joy of Cooking and an "easy two-ingredient chocolate mousse" recipe at Kitchn. This recipe starts with a chocolate ganache, which gets folded into whipped cream, so he figured he could make a little extra ganache and use that to stick the chocolate shavings to the side of the cake.

Since the weather has been beastly hot lately, Brian opted to do the actual baking part of the process the night before, when it was cooler. Instead of actual cake pans, he used two of his small deep-dish pizza pans to make two sponge cakes that he thought would be small enough for him to hold upright while slicing them, which would be much easier than trying to torte them horizontally. He lined the bottoms of the pans with circles of baking parchment to make it easier to turn the cooled cakes out in the morning.

Since the sides of these pans are not quite vertical, he had to trim around the the edges of both cakes to make them cylindrical, as well as shaving pieces off the top to make them roughly flat. But eventually he got two layers that he was indeed able to slice in half vertically — kind of like slicing a bagel. This gave him four thin layers to work with.

 Next, he whipped up the chocolate ganache, which would serve as both the outer coating and the basis for the chocolate mousse. Scaling the recipe to fit the size of the cake we were baking, he used 1/4 cup of heavy cream to 1/2 cup of bittersweet chocolate chips, following the procedure in Kitchn's chocolate mousse recipe.

But before actually making the mousse, he turned his attention to the raspberry jam. The batch he'd made hadn't been strained to remove the seeds, and he feared they'd interfere with the silky texture of the mousse, so he put the whole contents of the jar through a small sieve, muddling it with a spoon to get it through. The seedy parts went back into the jar, along with all the leftover strained jam that didn't get used in the cake, and he mixed it together to make a slightly more seed-heavy jam for later consumption.

Next, he whipped the cream and folded ganache into one batch to make the chocolate mousse and jam into the other to make the raspberry mousse. He used 1/4 cup of ganache to 1/3 cup of heavy whipping cream for the first batch, and 2 tablespoons of the strained preserves plus 1 teaspoon of powdered sugar to 1/4 cup of whipping cream for the second. Since he'd made the preserves using a low-sugar recipe, the raspberry mousse tasted somewhat tarter than the filling in our actual wedding cake, but we decided that wasn't a problem; since all the other components were so sweet, the brightness would set them off nicely.

And finally, he got out our smallest grater and started shaving off pieces of chocolate from a Trader Joe's chocolate truffle bar to decorate the outside of the cake. He grated off approximately one ounce of it to make a pile of shavings that looked like roughly the right amount. They weren't so much chocolate curls as chocolate fragments, but they'd have the flavor and texture we were going for.

With all the components now ready to go, it was time to begin assembling the cake. He started with one of the sponge layers, then spread on a fairly thick layer of chocolate ganache, followed by another cake layer and an equally thick layer of raspberry...

...and continued with cake, mousse, and cake until he had the entire stack assembled and ready for decorating. Since he just eyeballed the layers, he ended up not using quite all of the mousse he'd made; there was maybe a third of a cup left of each type. But he probably could have used all of it without hurting the flavor balance any.

Next, he applied the remaining chocolate ganache to the outside of the cake with a rubber spatula. He had just enough of it left to coat the entire cake.

He then applied the chocolate shavings by the simplest method he could think of: tilting the entire plate and sprinkling the chocolate bits over the ganache. He just kept going round and round the cake until he'd used the entire pile of shavings.

And finally, he took the remaining strained jam and spread a thin layer over the top of the cake. And there it was — an approximate reproduction of our wedding cake, made at home. The only component missing was the fresh raspberries on the top, but our raspberry canes aren't producing at the moment (we're in between the summer and fall crops), and we didn't want to buy a whole pint of pricey fresh berries just to get six of them for a cake decoration.

He did all this in the morning, and the cake spent the rest of the day chilling out in the fridge. In the evening, after a dinner of our favorite Pasta a la Caprese (the first of the summer, made with homegrown tomatoes, basil, and garlic, and our homemade vegan mozzarella) and an after-dinner walk, we cut into the cake...

...and found that it had just the same neat, layered structure as the original. And the flavor, while not identical, was pretty darn close. The raspberry mousse was indeed a little more tart than the original, and possibly the chocolate mousse was a little more bitter, but with the sweetness of the sponge layers in between, the overall flavor seemed perfectly balanced. The cake was also a little bit drier than the bakery's version, possibly because the layers were thicker, or possibly because they used a different type of sponge. But again, that was no problem; I always felt the original, if it had a fault, was a little too moist, inclined to become slightly soggy when left over. This version, we hope, will hold up fine, since we still have two-thirds of it left to enjoy.

Brian has written out the full recipe for what he did to create this cake and saved a copy, so on future anniversaries, we no longer need to be at the mercy of the bakery. We can celebrate right at home, with our very own homemade anniversary cake. (He might even attempt a dairy-free version next year, using Coco Whip — the stuff we used in our vegan raspberry fool — for the mousse.) And for my part, I still have 36 more Shakespeare plays to get through.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Money Crashers: 4 Garage Sale Setup Tips

Here's the companion piece I promised to my earlier Money Crashers article on garage sale pricing. This one covers all the other aspects of setting up a sale — cleaning, sorting, and displaying your wares — to make buyers stop and take notice. For anyone who has a yard sale in their near future, it's worth a read.

4 Garage Sale Setup Tips to Best Display Your Items & Make More Money

Money Crashers: Carbon Taxes Explained

Back in January, I told you about the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 763), a bill that aims to fix one of the biggest problems with greenhouse gas emissions: the people doing the emitting aren't the people paying the price. This bill fixes that not by regulating carbon emissions, but simply by raising their cost, so people have an incentive to cut them on their own — using whatever methods work best for them. And all the money it raises goes directly back into taxpayers' pockets, offsetting the increased cost of energy. For the average taxpayer, the money from the carbon dividend would end up being more than they'd pay in higher energy bills — so it fights climate change and puts money in your pocket at the same time. Who could resist that?

What I didn't tell you at the time was how I came to learn about this bill. I became involved with the  the Citizens' Climate Lobby (CCL) in January after having written a piece on carbon taxes for Money Crashers. I've since updated the piece to cover H.R. 763, and it's now gone live on the site.

The article goes into details about:
  • How carbon taxes work
  • How they compare to other methods of regulating carbon emissions, such as cap and trade
  • How they're working out for countries and states that currently have them
  • Their advantages and disadvantages, and how to mitigate the disadvantages
  • Current climate tax proposals in the House and Senate, and their chances for passage
  • What you can do, if you're sold on the idea, to make a carbon tax a reality
In short, it's everything you ever wanted to know about carbon taxes but didn't know whom to ask. Read about it, and join the fight! Go Pigouvians!

Carbon (CO2) Emissions Tax Explained – Pros & Cons, Alternatives

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Money Crashers: 7 Tips for Garage Sale Pricing

My latest Money Crashers post is on a subject dear to my heart: yard sales. I've noted before that one of my biggest pet peeves is a yard sale without any marked prices, so I jumped at the chance to update this old article all about how price your garage sale items. (There was also a section on how to arrange and present your items for maximum curb appeal, but that ended up being spun off into a separate article, which should be published soon.)

This piece covers all the ins and outs of figuring out the right price for an item (which can vary significantly depending on where you live), labeling it clearly, and negotiating with buyers. Read all about it here: 7 Tips for Garage Sale Pricing to Maximize the Value of Your Items

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Money Crashers: Urban vs Suburban vs Rural Living

In the heat of the COVID pandemic, many city dwellers are considering leaving the dense urban environment for what they see as the relative safety of the country or the suburbs. However, this may not be the smartest decision — not just for their health, but for their wealth and happiness too. For one thing, infection rates aren't necessarily higher in urban areas; in fact, studies from the World Bank and ProPublica Illinois show just the opposite. And for those who do get sick, rural and suburban areas don't necessarily offer the same health care resources as big cities.

But more importantly, this pandemic won't last forever. Changing where you live brings big changes in your lifestyle that will persist long after it's over, such as:
  • Income and access to jobs
  • Expenses for housing, utilities, food, transportation, and health care
  • Choice of schools for your kids
  • Access to government resources
  • Options for entertainment and shopping
  • A wide range of other lifestyle factors, from diversity to gun ownership to time spent outdoors
All in all, this isn't a decision to make hastily. It's a choice that affects your whole life, and it's worth considering it carefully from all the angles first. And luckily, my new article for Money Crashers does just that. I explore all the ways living in the city, suburbs, or country can affect your life, and then sum up which kind of person is most likely to be happy in each setting. (My personal favorite is a small town, but sadly, I couldn't cover this as a separate category in the article.)

Urban vs Suburban vs Rural Living – Differences to Consider Where to Live