Monday, March 19, 2018

Money Crashers: Avoid Frugal Fatigue with Cheap Luxuries

I've always made a point of stressing, on this site and off it, that frugality isn't the same thing as deprivation. Ideally, in fact, living a frugal life means you have more money and time to spend on the things that really matter to you. As I put it in this 2010 entry, "we really can have our cake and eat it too, as long as we're willing to bake it ourselves."

The problem is that a lot of people don't really know how to cut back without going to extremes. They'll try to trim their budgets down to the absolute bare bones, and then after a few weeks of feeling deprived, they snap and go on a spending binge. Then follows self-recrimination, a vow to turn over a new leaf, another period of self-denial...and the cycle repeats itself.

The best way to avoid this problem—sometimes known as "frugal fatigue"—is to make sure you allow yourself to indulge a little while you're saving money. There are plenty of treats that you can enjoy for very little money or even no money at all, such as fluffy TV shows, hand-picked flowers, homemade coffee treats, cozy bedding, library books, online puzzles, and other forms of cheap entertainment. Little luxuries like these make a frugal lifestyle a joyful and abundant one.

This is the theme of my latest Money Crashers article. I outline the causes and symptoms of frugal fatigue and then offer a list of cheap luxuries that can alleviate it, such as fresh flowers, fancy toiletries, home-cooked gourmet meals, and even the extra-plushy toilet paper. I give prices for each item on the list and discuss ways of lowering the cost still more, so you can stretch your "mad money" as far as possible.

Read all about these luxuries that won't break the bank here:

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Recipe of the Month: Celery Root and Potato Puree

Our Recipe of the Month for March involves a vegetable we've never tried before: celery root, otherwise known as celeriac. Despite the name, celery root isn't simply the root part of a normal celery plant; it's a related plant grown mainly for its edible roots. These roots smell and taste quite similar to stalk celery, but like most root vegetables, celeriac keeps much better in cold storage than green celery. It's also rich in vitamins B6, C, and K, as well as phosphorus, and it has a not unreasonable amount of fiber and protein.

Despite these benefits, however, Brian and I never had a really good reason to try it until we picked up the most recent issue of Stop & Shop's Savory magazine. In a section on recipes for Passover, there was one for Garlicky Celery Root and Potato Puree, touted as a "creamy side dish [that] goes well with any meal." This versatile dish looked like it might make a good addition to our veggie repertoire, so we decided to stop by the Whole Earth Center and pick up the necessary ingredients. In addition to the celeriac, we'd need some gold potatoes, which are a better variety for boiling than the white or russet potatoes we usually buy.

These ingredients proved to be quite a bit pricier than we'd expected. Even though we were only making a half recipe, we still needed a pound of celery root, which was priced at $2.99 a pound. (We actually bought slightly less than a pound because it was sold in fist-sized knobs, and two of these knobs weighed in at 0.84 pounds. At that price, we didn't think it was worth buying a third one.) We also needed a pound of the Yukon Gold potatoes, which were much pricier than our usual variety at $1.69 a pound. Perhaps we could have paid less per pound by buying a larger bag somewhere else, but we would still have paid more in total, and we would have had to figure out what to do with all those extra potatoes. So the ingredients we bought specifically for this recipe came to $4.20, not counting the olive oil and garlic we already had at home. At that price, this was going to have to be one hell of a side dish to justify the cost.

Making the puree wasn't difficult. Instead of boiling the celery root and potatoes on the stove as the recipe specified, Brian cooked them together in the pressure cooker on his usual potato setting, which worked just fine. Then he browned the garlic in the skillet (using just a bit more than the recipe called for, as is his wont), added the cooked veggies, and mashed it all up together. The resulting mixture had a distinctly different texture from regular mashed potatoes, noticeably thinner and less starchy, but still reasonable to serve in the same position on the plate. Since the dish was new to us, we decided to serve it up as part of a simple meal of baked whiting (seasoned with lemon pepper) and green beans, and let the new recipe be the star of the meal.

The mashed mixture of potatoes and celeriac was definitely more interesting than regular mashed potatoes, though the celery flavor wasn't nearly as strong as we'd expected based on the smell of the celery roots. Perhaps cooking it mellowed the flavor, or perhaps the taste just isn't very strong to begin with, but it was merely a faint hint of celery's usual sharpness in the background, playing off the creamy mildness of the gold potatoes and the mellow flavor of the cooked garlic. It was tasty enough to bring us both back for seconds, but, to be honest, not so amazingly tasty that we thought we'd be eager to make it again. It's not that much work to make, but it's still more work than a plain baked potato, which is almost as good and a hell of a lot cheaper. Maybe not quite as healthy, but there are other veggies you can add to the meal that would be just as healthy without the added expense.

So I'd have to say this Garlicky Celery Root and Potato Puree is interesting mainly as a curiosity. It was definitely worth trying once, but it's not something I feel any need to include in our collection of staple dishes. Maybe if we could find both celery root and gold potatoes a lot cheaper, this lighter and lower-carb variant on mashed potatoes would be worth making more often, but at the prices we pay around here, it's not a good investment.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

To almond milk or not to almond milk

Recently, our local Stop & Shop gave us a coupon for a free bottle of So Delicious organic almond milk. We chose the vanilla flavor, which Brian has been enjoying on his breakfast cereal, saying it tastes like candy. (Ironically, this particular brand of almond milk actually has less sugar in it than regular milk contains naturally, but the vanilla makes it taste sweeter.)

This got me wondering, as I occasionally have before, whether we should consider switching from regular milk to almond milk. It's been a couple of decades now since I gave up most meats on account of objections to factory farming (outlined in more detail in my "How to Become a Vegetarian" article), and I know that most of those same objections apply to dairy milk as well. The cows don't live a normal cow life; they're kept indoors most of the time and fed on grain, which isn't their natural diet. That, in turn, causes them to produce a lot more methane, making dairy farming one of the most carbon-intensive industries in the country. It also consumes a lot of water, and while milking one cow over its lifetime is a more efficient use of resources than butchering it and eating it all at once, it's still a much less efficient way to convert land to food than growing grain. So if I really wanted to be intellectually consistent, I really ought to give up milk and cheese as well as meat.

However, there are a few details that always give me pause. The first is the cost: at most stores in our area, a half-gallon of soy or almond milk costs around $3, roughly the same as a whole gallon of nonfat dairy milk. I've looked into recipes for homemade almond milk to see whether it's any cheaper, but it appears to be exactly the opposite. This recipe from Kitchn calls for a ratio of one cup of almonds to two cups of water; according to this analysis from Huffington Post, that works out to just under six ounces of almonds to produce about 14 ounces of almond milk. The best price we've ever found for almonds is around $5 a pound, so that works out to $8.57 for half a gallon of almond milk—and it's considerably more work than buying it in a carton.

However, even at $3 for half a gallon, almond milk is still cheaper than organic dairy milk, which typically costs at least $4 for the same volume. So if I were ever to decide that I just couldn't sleep at night while drinking regular milk any more, switching to almond milk, or another plant-based milk, would definitely be the cheaper alternative. What's less clear, though, is this thorny question: Is almond milk really better for the environment?

At first glance, it seems like this should be an easy call. After all, we already know how inefficient and destructive raising animals for meat is; making a milk substitute out of plants should obviously be greener. Yet if you really delve into the question, it's by no means clear that this is the case. I was doing some investigating of the topic this morning, and after spending a good half-hour or more looking through Google results (at least the ones that looked reliable), I emerged more confused than ever. Here's what I found:
  • A 2016 life-cycle analysis of almond milk and dairy milk by UCLA undergraduates finds that almond milk has a much lower carbon footprint than cow's milk: about 0.36 kg of CO2 equivalent per liter, as opposed to 1.67 kg. However, its water use is much higher. It takes 77 gallons of water to produce a liter of dairy milk, but more than 1,611 gallons to produce a liter of almond milk.
  • However, One Green Planet vehemently disputes these figures. It claims that it takes only 30 gallons of water to produce one gallon of dairy milk—but a gallon of almond milk uses only 23 gallons. (Its source for these figures is a 2014 article in Mother Jones, which in turn cites a variety of academic and government sources dated between 2005 and 2012.)
  • The Guardian, a British news source that's normally very thorough in its fact-checking, takes a position that appears to be in between these two extremes—but it's a little hard to interpret. It claims (citing Mother Jones again) that it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow one almond, but 100 liters of water to produce 100 milliliters of cow's milk. Unfortunately, this isn't exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, since it's not clear how many almonds go into a liter of almond milk. The UCLA paper used the recipe from Kitchn in its calculations, with its ratio of 1 cup almonds to 2 cups water—but based on their nutritional information, it appears that most commercial versions don't use anywhere near this volume of almonds. The Guardian claims that Alpro, one of the most popular brands in Britain, contains only 2% almonds by volume. The blogger at Treading My Own Path crunched the numbers using a less almond-intensive recipe and concluded that it requires 384 liters of water to produce a liter of almond milk, while cow's milk uses roughly 2.5 times as much.
  • However, the water required to grow almonds is proportionally more damaging because 80 percent of the world's almonds are grown in California. Tom Philpott of Mother Jones that even in the middle of a drought, the state continues to plant thirsty new almond groves to satisfy the ever-growing demand for the white stuff. These trees not only use up scarce water supplies, they're actually draining aquifers so fast that the ground is sinking at a rate of 11 inches per year in one area. This undermines buildings and increases the risk of earthquakes.
  • Meanwhile, Hilary Lebow of Alternative Daily comes out strongly in favor of "raw grass-fed milk," arguing that it's not only a "nutritional powerhouse" (packed with such buzzwords as "good bacteria," "digestive enzymes," "conjugated linoleic acid" that's "proven to reduce carcinogenesis," and "beneficial saturated fats, proteins and amino acids") but also completely free of all the environmental problems that plague factory-farmed milk. These eco-conscious dairy farms don't just have a smaller carbon footprint than the big factory farms, Lebow argues, they're "often actually improving the state of the land"—though she provides no evidence to back up this claim. 
Since I was getting so much conflicting information about the relative merits of cow's milk and almond milk, I decided to cast a slightly wider net and consider other plant-based milks to see if any of those offers clearer benefits. Perhaps one of the many other alternatives, such as soy, rice, oat, hemp, coconut, or the latest in the field, pea-based milk (often labeled as "plant protein milk," because "pea milk" doesn't sound very appetizing) would be a better bet in terms of both cost and eco-benefits.

Unfortunately, finding a clear comparison between these different plant-based milks proved even more complicated than nailing down the figures on dairy versus almond milk. Umbra of Grist magazine, normally very detailed in her research, ducks the issue, saying "it stands to reason" that a plant-based milk would be better for the planet than cow's milk (though not actually showing this to be the case) but saying it's practically impossible to compare the different types directly. She concludes that all commercial plant milks have their problems and urges readers to try making their own—which, as we've already seen, is quite a bit more costly than buying the stuff.

Well and Good is a little more helpful, listing various factors that affect the sustainability of nut milks and arguing that milk from peas "might" be the best option. They're higher in protein than nuts and much less water-intensive to grow, and because they're a nitrogen-fixing crop, they actually improve soil quality rather than using up tons of carbon-intensive fertilizer. It is a highly processed foodstuff—much more so than almond milk, according to the Washington Post—but at least all the stuff going into it is pretty earth-friendly.

Of course, these the same benefits also apply to soybeans, which were once the most popular source for plant-based milk. The Culture-ist recommends soy milk as the best of the plant-based milks, saying it's "comparable to cow’s milk" in protein and fat content (though lacking in calcium) and uses less than 30 percent as much water to produce. Unfortunately, soy milk has one big drawback, at least in my opinion: it tastes gross. The one time I experimented with soy milk, I quickly switched back to cow's milk because I couldn't stomach the stuff.

So maybe it's time to give pea protein milk a try. Organic Life notes that it offers 8 to 10 grams of protein per cup and has a "mildly nutty and sweet" flavor, as opposed to the "beany" taste I found so off-putting in soy milk. Unfortunately, the stuff ain't cheap: Target lists a 48-ounce carton of Ripple at $3.99, which works out to a whopping $10.64 per gallon—way more than almond milk and even higher than organic cow's milk. But perhaps Stop & Shop will come through with another coupon, and we'll get a chance to see how we like it at a more reasonable price.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Money Crashers: What Is Slow Food

Brian and I don't eat out very often. Once or twice a month we'll stop by Starbucks for a fancy drink and a game of cribbage, but if we ever go out for an entire meal, it's generally either because we're out with friends—which is a bit of a special occasion for us—of because we want something special that we can't make at home. Thus, we hardly ever set food in the kind of restaurants that are usually labeled as "fast food." We might pop into one once or twice a year when we're caught short while out shopping, but that's about it.

Now, if the headlines are to be believed, we're doing ourselves a favor by skipping the burger joints. Although these places have made some improvements recently, their food still isn't all that healthy, and eating out of a paper bag in a plastic booth under glaring light isn't exactly soothing. Then, of course, there's the impact all that factory-farm meat (which is still the main ingredient in most fast-food meals) has on the environment. And finally, there's the cost, which can add up to thousands of dollars for a burger-a-day habit.

The Slow Food movement was founded in the 1980s to counter all these problems. Its goals are to promote food that's "good, clean, and fair"—that is, healthful, tasty, environmentally friendly, and good for workers. In other words, ecofrugal.

My latest Money Crashers article delves into all aspects of the Slow Food movement. I explain how it started, what it stands for, and the benefits of eating this way. I also attempt to dispel some misconceptions about Slow Food (e.g., that it's expensive or snobbish) and explore ways to enjoy Slow Food on a tight budget.

What Is Slow Food – Join the Movement for Healthy Meals on a Budget

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Money Crashers: What “True Cost to Own” Means and Why It Matters

When we first bought what I still think of as our "new" car, about seven years ago, one of the factors I paid most attention to was how much it would cost us to own over the long term. I wanted to know not just how much we'd pay for the car itself, but how much we should expect to spend on gas and maintenance over the time we'd own it. Those "cost to own" calculators on sites like Edmunds were a big help with this, and helped convince me that spending the extra money on a hybrid wasn't worth it for us. (The money we'd spend on the car would never pay for itself in reduced gas costs, and if my goal was to minimize our carbon footprint, I could do it much more cheaply by buying a reasonably efficient gas-powered car plus some carbon offsets.)

Since then, I've done similar calculations for other big purchases, such as our new boiler (for which we chose a moderately efficient model, rather than a hyper-efficient one that was vastly more expensive) and a potential solar array (which we've decided will probably be cost-effective, but should wait until it's time to replace the roof). I've even crunched the numbers for much smaller purchases, like LED light bulbs and even new winter boots.

No one ever seems to talk about "cost to own" for purchases like these, but they really should. Any time you're spending a significant amount of money (whatever "significant" means to you) on a product you expect to keep for a long time, it's worth thinking about how much that product will cost you, not just up front, but over its entire useful life. There may not be cost to own calculators online for appliances or power tools, but it's still worth doing the math on your own.

My new Money Crashers article is an attempt to supply this need. In it, I explain how to decide when cost-to-own calculations are important, and how to perform them for five different kinds of purchases: cars, appliances, computers, tools, and clothing. That's not a complete list of all the products for which the cost to own is worth knowing, but with the techniques laid out in the article, you can figure out how to do the math yourself.

Check it out here: What “True Cost to Own” Means and Why It Matters for Big Purchases

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Money Crashers: What Is a Living Wage?

For the last year or so, there's been a lot of noise at all levels of government about raising the minimum wage. Folks on the left (mostly) clamor for a $15 minimum, insisting that anything less is not a true "living wage"; those on the right (mostly) insist that raising the minimum wage to this level will hurt small businesses and ultimately throw more people out of work.

I don't have the economic skills to say whether the second argument is true, but I figured I could at least address the first. So in my latest Money Crashers article, I delve into the question of what a true living wage is.

This turns out to be a more complicated question than it appears, because it depends on so many factors. Location matters, because the cost of living is much higher in some parts of the country than others; so does family size, because obviously it takes more money to raise a family than to support only yourself. And, of course, there's the thorny question of what is an acceptable minimum standard of living. Obviously, you need a roof over your head and enough food to stay healthy, but what about, say, Internet access? Health care? Retirement savings?

In the article, I talk about the ways various organizations have attempted to answer this question, and the pros and cons of each model. I also discuss how cost of living varies by location and draw some conclusions about the most useful way to address the minimum wage issue.

Check it out here: What Is a Living Wage? – Minimum Income for Basic Needs Above Poverty

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Money Crashers: 10 DIY Projects You Can Make Out of Free Wooden Shipping Pallets

Last year on Earth Day, I wrote about my conflicted feelings about shipping pallets. On the one hand, I know that using so much wood for pallets that will only be shipped once is really wasteful—but on the other hand, I really love the fact that all this waste wood provides a source of free (or nearly free) material for DIY projects. And I'm fascinated by all the different things it's possible to make with this free material. We've never done anything more complicated than a compost bin, but there are websites online devoted solely to pallet projects, and some of them are truly amazing: furniture, walls, floors, even entire buildings.

So I decided to indulge my fancy for pallet projects by devoting an entire article to this subject on Money Crashers. In this piece, I explore the many types of home and garden projects it's possible to create with pallet wood, from outdoor furniture to wine racks to wall art. (Basically, it's pallet porn.) I also discuss strategies for finding free pallets, selecting the best ones, and not least importantly, getting them home (something we ran into trouble with when we discovered full-sized shipping pallets are one of the few things that don't fit in our Fit).

Here's the article: 10 DIY Projects You Can Make Out of Free Wooden Shipping Pallets