Monday, September 26, 2011

A no-money economy

A friend of mine recently e-mailed around a link to an article about the invention of money, which contests the popular view that money originally developed as a more efficient alternative to a barter system. The author, David Graeber, points out that present-day societies that don't use money typically don't use barter either: "What anthropologists have in fact observed where money is not used is not a system of explicit lending and borrowing, but a very broad system of non-enumerated credits and debts." In other words, instead of "I'll give you a good cow for a dozen fur pelts," it's "I'll give you this cow today, and then you will owe me a big favor, which I can call in when I need to." Where barter does occur, he says, it usually takes place "between strangers, people who have no moral relations with one another"—not members of a community who can count on social forces to back up their mutual obligations.

This interested me because I realized that I happen to be part of just such a money-free "economy": my local Freecycle group. Within this group, goods are only given and received, never exchanged. Some basic ground rules are that
  1. you can never ask for any sort of compensation for any item you offer,
  2. you're supposed to offer at least one item before you start requesting items for yourself, and
  3. it's considered rude to ask for anything too big or expensive (i.e., "don't ask for an extravagant item like a diamond ring which we'd all like to have").
So there is a sort of vague notion of reciprocity—you're supposed to do some giving, as well as taking—but no one is keeping an exact tally.  More to the point, your transactions—giving and receiving—won't necessarily involve the same people (in fact, they almost never do). But you offer stuff to the group, and you receive stuff from the group, and in this way some sort of karmic balance is achieved. In other words, we have apparently reinvented one of those pre-monetary societies Graeber is talking about, in which other social factors play a much bigger role in any transaction than the notion of giving and getting tit for tat.

In fact, Freecycle just might be a near-perfect Marxist economy: "From each according to his ability and to each according to his need." It's not a complete economy, of course: the goods people have to give away aren't enough to meet all the needs of all the group's members. But within its own limitations, it lives up to this ideal quite well.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Another ecofrugal home show

Home-makeover shows, like the ones on HGTV, are one of my guilty pleasures. However, after a few episodes, I often find myself getting frustrated at how wasteful their approach to home design is. With a few exceptions (like my all-time favorite, Wasted Spaces), it seems like the only way they know to redo a room is to tear everything out, throw it away, and replace it with new stuff. Sometimes there's no mention at all of how much all that is costing—and even with shows like Bang for Your Buck, which is supposedly all about spending your money wisely, the families featured are often working with five- or even six-figure budgets for a single room. For most of us living in the real world, that's not merely unrealistic, it's outrageous.

So when I came across a few episodes on the A&E network site of a show called "100 Dollar Makeover," you can imagine how my ears pricked up. I watched the first episode, and it did not disappoint. This is a show where a team of three experts—a home organizer, a carpenter, and a designer—goes into a badly cluttered home and fixes the problem areas for just $100 per room. To stay within this ultra-slim budget, they use a variety of ecofrugal strategies, such as:
  • Building from scratch. The carpenter shows off his skills by designing and building a custom-made piece to fit the space for only the cost of the lumber.
  • Creative reuse. Furniture pieces that don't work in one space may find a new home and a new purpose in one of the other rooms. Not only that, but they go rummaging through the rest of the house to find other items they can use in building their custom pieces. (In the episode I watched, they scavenged medium-density fiberboard, vinyl-covered cushions that they recovered for their new seating area, and a set of twin sheets that they turned into a window treatment for the bedroom.)
  • Buying secondhand. Though they do make some items themselves, their three-day schedule doesn't allow them to construct everything from scratch, so some items get purchased from a big secondhand store (possibly a Habitat for Humanity ReStore or some local thrift shop). They even manage to talk the seller down on the price.
Another plus for this show is that all the members of the three-person team actually seem like real people—down-to-earth, humorous and occasionally a bit frazzled. Since many home shows have overly perky hosts with perfect teeth and made-for-TV personalities, who somehow manage always to sound like they're reading from a script even when they're ad-libbing, a show hosted by three regular humans is very refreshing.

The only down side: as far as I can tell, there are only three episodes on the A&E website. Maybe I can find a friend who gets A&E...

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The DIY question

Last week's Tip Hero newsletter (which I'm only just getting around to reading) has a handy article addressing the question, "To DIY or Not to DIY?" In a nutshell, it says the times to hire a professional are:
(1) when doing the job yourself could get you killed (e.g., roofing or major electrical work);
(2) when doing the job yourself would take way more time than you're prepared to invest; or
(3) when doing the job yourself would require the purchase of expensive tools that you might never need again.
I would add to that list (4) when doing the job incorrectly could result in damage that would cost far more to repair than the original job itself. Other than that, I agree with the recommendations in the article, both general and specific. It explains why we used to change the oil on our old Honda (hard to mess up) but didn't attempt more major repairs (too big a risk of causing serious damage), and why we did all the work on our basement remodel except the wiring (too time-consuming—it would have taken us months to do what the professional did in one day). We have, on the other hand, done nearly all the projects the article lists as "Things You Can Definitely DIY."

The little video that accompanies the article is cute, too. I've never had to deal with a broken light bulb, but if I ever do, I'll definitely try the potato trick.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

When it pays to pay more

In the reports I write for ConsumerSearch, we usually identify both a "best" product and a "budget" choice. The best product, as a rule, is the one that does the best in professional tests and gets the most positive reviews from users—in short, the best one money can buy. The budget model, typically, is one that doesn't perform as well as the top-rated model, but still does a respectable job for a significantly lower price.

As a consumer, I'm generally more likely to go with the budget model than the best one. One of the usual principles of my ecofrugal lifestyle is never to pay more for anything than I really need to, and so I'll choose the best-priced product that meets my minimum standards of quality. However, in the past week I've realized that there's an exception to this rule. When it comes to goods, I'm inclined to compromise on quality to get the best price—but with services, it's the other way around.

This came home to me last week when I went to my dentist for a filling. Once the Novocaine wore off, I found it hurt to bite down on that tooth (which was particularly annoying, because it was a tooth that hadn't hurt at all before the filling was done). I went back to the dentist and he adjusted the height of the filling—which hurt like blazes, though he didn't seem to notice when I yelped—and said that if that didn't fix the problem, it meant that I "couldn't tolerate" composite fillings and would need to have it replaced with an amalgam filling. That sounded pretty strange to me, since I'd had composite fillings done before with no problems, so I decided to go to my old dentist, Dr. Brown, for a second opinion.

From the minute I sat in the chair, the difference between him and my new dentist was like night and day. He examined the tooth (something the other dentist hadn't actually bothered to do) and told me that part of the tooth that was causing me pain wasn't the filling; it was the exposed dentin around it. This could have been sealed over at the time the filling was done, but to do it now would mean redoing the filling. So he put on a fluoride treatment to speed up healing and advised me to give it a couple of weeks to recover—and he didn't even charge me for the consultation. Based on this experience, I decided on the spot that not only would I go back to Dr. Brown if I needed the filling redone—even if it meant paying out of pocket—but that I would also switch dental plans next year, so that I could start going to him on a regular basis. The traditional dental plan, which lets you choose any dentist, costs more than the DMO we're on now—but if the extra money can save me another experience like the one I'm having with this filling, it will be well worth it.

When I told my dad about this experience, he applauded my decision. He said that although he and Mom are a bit tight-fisted themselves (I come by it honestly), they "would never cheap out on health care." I thought this over, and I came to the conclusion that this rule holds true for other services as well. It's worth paying more to get work you can count on, not just from your doctor or your dentist, but also from your auto mechanic, your hairstylist, the contractors who work on your house—basically, from anyone who's doing a job that it's important to you to have done right. And since another principle of my ecofrugal lifestyle is "Don't pay someone else to do a job you can handle yourself," that description applies to pretty much every service professional I hire.

So I no longer feel guilty—even a little bit—that when we needed our side stoop repaired this spring, I hired the contractor with the highest bid (but the most competent assessment of the problem), rather than the one with the lowest bid (who kept changing his mind about what needed to be done, and his quoted price along with it). At the time, I thought maybe I was going against my ecofrugal principles by paying more than I needed to. But I just hadn't come up yet with the corollary to that rule: "If you do need to pay more to get what you really need, then don't hesitate to do it." It's money well spent if it saves you from major headaches down the road.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The pantry project, part 2

The pantry project is now complete! We had one lucky break when the existing shelves came out more easily than expected, so the wallboard was left intact. Brian concluded that instead of building a whole plywood box to insert into the existing cavity, he could simply screw wooden slats into the studs to support the new rolling shelves, which would make the whole project both faster and cheaper. We did have one setback when his extra-careful measurements of the space turned out to be a bit too precise—the drawer fit exactly, but it was so tightly wedged in that it couldn't move. So we had to rip out one of the 3/8-inch support slats, patch and repaint the wall, and then install 1/4-inch slats along that side instead. But we still managed to get everything done within a week: drawers finished, supports built, drawers installed, and all the food out of its temporary digs and back onto the shelves.

I'm actually a little surprised that the finished pantry doesn't hold more. Since we added one new shelf and extended the length of all the shelves, I would have expected it to accommodate a lot more stuff than the old pantry. But what you see in this picture is merely everything we pulled out of the old pantry, plus two cereal containers that used to sit on top of the fridge and a few extra boxes of pasta. The contents are better organized now, however, and a lot more accessible. And we expect the organization to improve more over time, as we adjust to and make modifications to the new system.

Ironic that it took us four years to get around to tackling this project, but once we actually got started it was done in a week, with less than $300 spent. I wonder how many of the other big projects we've been putting off could be completed as easily once we get up the gumption to do them.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Saling, saling

This weekend is the annual town-wide yard sale in Highland Park. The normal fee for a yard sale permit is waived, and a local Realtor helps to publicize the event, providing signs and maps showing where sales can be found. It's one of my favorite events, since it concentrates such a large number of yard sales in a relatively small space that you're practically guaranteed to find something of interest. Admittedly, we've never been able to duplicate the haul we brought home four years ago, when we'd just moved into this house and we loaded up on tools, including a push mower, a circular saw, and a pair of pruning shears. But we can always manage to find at least a book or an article of clothing, which is more than we usually come away with from a randomly encountered sale.

This year, we didn't do too badly. We set out Saturday morning right after breakfast, and we managed to find a new guitar case for me (to replace the old one that succumbed to mold), a couple of carpet samples that we can use as needed to refurbish our homemade cat scratching post, a book, a puzzle, and a few random gifts for nephews and nieces before hunger, sore feet, and an unexpected squall of rain sent us home again. We also had ample opportunity to see many yard sales, and to observe the difference between a good sale and a bad one. Here's a short list of general rules I've come up with for running a decent, user-friendly yard sale. (Of the many sales we saw yesterday, almost none had followed all of them.)
  1. Arrange items so people can see them. If you have clothes, either hang them up or lay them out side by side on a table, not in a huge pile. If you have books, put them on shelves, or arrange them in boxes with their spines facing up so people can read the titles. If shoppers have to rummage through boxes just to see what's available, most of them won't find it worth the effort.
  2. Group like items together—all clothes on one table, kitchen items on another, tools on a third. Some of the sales we encountered seemed to be nothing but boxes of randomly grouped items, perhaps just hauled down from the attic that morning.
  3. Give people room to move around. Some sales we visited looped round from the front yard to the back, up a driveway or a narrow walkway lined with tables so that there was barely room for one person to stop and look, let alone for others to pass by.
  4. Put prices on items. This was the rule most frequently ignored at yesterday's sales. I think we only saw one sale that actually had every item priced. It was a real nuisance having to ask the price of any item we had an interest in—assuming we could find someone to ask. Which brings me to the fifth and most obvious rule:
  5. Have someone there at all times who is obviously in charge. If buyers can't find anyone to take their money or answer their questions, they'll walk away empty-handed (or perhaps even walk away with stuff they haven't paid for).
As a side note, another interesting lesson we learned from our morning of yard-saling was that if you walk around carrying a guitar case, even if there's no guitar in it, people are a lot more likely to strike up a conversation with you. Before we bought the case, we mingled among the other shoppers more or less unnoticed; afterwards, when Brian was carrying the guitar case around with some of our smaller purchases in it, someone at nearly every sale we visited called out, "Hey, where'd you get the guitar?"

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Repair or replace, part 3

You know, this whole question of whether to repair things or replace them hinges on the idea that it's actually possible to get them repaired. I'm beginning to wonder whether that's true anymore.

A couple of years ago, I bought a fall coat at the Goodwill store—a short one to wear during the months when my winter coat was too heavy and a sweater not heavy enough. The sleeves were too long and it had big, ridiculous 80s-style shoulder pads, but it was made of good, dark-grey wool and fit me well in the torso, so I figured it was still a good deal for six bucks. I just took out the shoulder pads, rolled up the sleeves, and wore it like that for two years.

This year, with the chilly weather approaching, I decided to take the coat to a tailor and see how much it would cost to alter it so that it would fit me properly. It might seem silly to spend $40 on alterations for a $6 coat, but I figured it would still be cheaper and less wasteful than buying a new one. So on Wednesday afternoon, I took the coat to a tailor shop I'd passed by often, about half a mile from my house—only to find that it had gone out of business. I remembered another shop a few blocks away, but when I got there it was closed, with a sign in the window saying that during the month of September they'd be open only from 8am to noon. (What kind of business closes at noon?)

This was starting to get frustrating, but I decided to give it one more try. The next morning, I showed up at the tailor shop well before 9am, carrying my coat. I showed it to the seamstress and explained what I needed done to it, and she said, in effect, "That can't be done." As best I could make out from her broken English, the only way she knew of "taking in" a coat was to remove fabric from the back seam, which would make the coat too tight and leave the shoulders as big as ever.

Well, I knew that what I was asking for wasn't impossible. I don't have the skill to reset a sleeve myself, but at least I know that it can be done. So I took the coat down the street to a dry cleaner that had a sign in the window saying "tailoring and alterations." Once again, I showed the coat and explained the problem. This time, the proprietor didn't actually say it was impossible, but she said it was "probably no good." Her English wasn't very good either, so I didn't quite understand what the problem was, but I did manage to grasp that the whole job would cost me $80 and they still couldn't guarantee the coat would fit afterwards. Given that I could buy a whole new coat that would definitely fit for less than $80, that didn't seem like much of a bargain.

The whole experience left me feeling sort of baffled. I admit, I find it frustrating that it should cost more to repair an existing coat than to buy a whole new one, materials, labor, and all. But I can at least understand why it's the case: the new coat is made by unskilled workers earning a pittance for their labor in Thailand or someplace, while the repair is done by skilled workers here in the U.S. who expect a reasonable fee for their efforts. But can it really be possible that these skilled laborers don't even exist anymore? That nowadays, people who call themselves tailors and charge $80 for a repair can't even manage to reset a pair of sleeves? Has our society really come to the point where, at least where clothes are concerned, throwing it out and buying a new one is the only option?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The pantry project

One thing I've wanted ever since we first bought this house, four years back, is more pantry space. Although we have a lot more space now overall than we used to have at our old apartment, one thing I was very sorry to give up was a huge, sunny pantry that ran the full width of the kitchen, with floor-to-ceiling shelves that made our entire assortment of food visible at a glance. Our current kitchen, though better in most respects, offers only a narrow, deep closet with four shelves for food storage. We installed a small wooden cube at the bottom to make a fifth shelf, which helped a bit, but the biggest problem with it is that the stuff toward the back isn't easily accessible. You can't see what you have (one of the reasons we found it necessary to create our "canventory" to keep track) and even if you know what's back there, you may have to pull out several intervening items to get to it.

The best way we could think of to solve this problem without embarking on a major kitchen remodel was to install sliding shelves in the pantry. These would both give us more square footage (since we could easily squeeze in a sixth shelf in the available space) and make all the space more usable. And now, after four years and a number of other projects, we've finally decided it's time to go for it.

Since our pantry apparently isn't a standard depth, Brian originally intended to make custom-built shelves that would use every square inch of the available space. However, when he looked into the cost of the hardware that would be required, he discovered that building the shelves from scratch would cost as much as or more than buying them ready-made. So we decided to sacrifice an inch or so off each shelf in exchange for the convenience of having them arrive ready-built, as well as the knowledge that they'd all be a uniform size. There are many sites on the Web selling these, but a little research revealed that they all offer pretty much identical models, so we decided on the standard sliding shelf from, which offered the best price. They arrived yesterday, neatly packed in two large boxes, and now all we have to do is stain them, finish them, and—the tricky part—install them.

The reason the last part is tricky is that in order to install them, we have to dismantle the original pantry. First we need to remove the doors and the cabinet frame, ideally without damaging it, since we'll want to put it back at the end. Then we need to rip out the old shelves, which probably won't come loose without a struggle and will end up taking some portion of the wall with them. And after that, depending on where the studs turn out to be, we will most likely have to build a plywood box to fill the whole pantry space so that we will have a secure base to attach the shelf hardware to. (This is not unlike a project Karl did in the first season—in fact, possibly the series premiere—of Wasted Spaces.)

So this is how we expect to spend most of this holiday weekend (and possibly some additional weekends to come). In the meantime, our food is living in temporary digs on bricks-and-boards shelving in the spare room. As the project progresses, I'll keep you posted on the (we hope not too) gory details and the big reveal at the end of our (we hope) spacious, finished pantry.