Wednesday, January 27, 2010

In Praise of Freecycle

Brian and I are doing a little reorganization in our kitchen--a subject I might discuss at more length in another entry, but for now I only mention it because part of the process is clearing out the cabinets and getting rid of unwanted items. Getting rid of stuff is always difficult for us, because we both just hate to throw away anything that's "still good," even if we know we'll never actually use it. But luckily for us, this is where Freecycle comes in.

In case there's anyone out there who doesn't already know, Freecycle is a worldwide network of online communities that help people reuse unwanted stuff. If you have something you want to get rid of, you post an entry like this:

Title: OFFER: left-handed golf clubs
From: Lobelia
Date: 13:39, 26 Oct 2009
Location: Hobbiton
Description: Set of left-handed golf clubs. I don't play golf and I'm not left-handed. Don't ask me what I'm doing with them. Quick pick-up preferred.

And within a day, usually, you will get at least one request for the unwanted item from another member. In fact, it's not unusual to get a deluge of requests within the first couple of hours. (You can choose to give it to anyone you wish, though I usually follow a first-come, first-served policy.) In the past five years, I have successfully used Freecycle to get rid of many items, including:
  • an eight-year-old Macintosh computer
  • several old textbooks
  • a reel-type lawn mower with a wheel that (as I stated quite openly) didn't stay on very well
  • a Weed Whacker with a motor that was (as I also stated quite openly) on the verge of burning itself out
  • an old CRT monitor
  • a surplus of rubber bands
We have also acquired a few items from Freecycle, including books, videotapes, and most notably, the "jungle adventure" tent that turned out to be the most successful gift we gave to any of our nieces and nephews last Christmas. And while we've never actually used Freecycle to request a specific item, I have seen people ask for and get all kinds of things, from computers to out-of-print books.

So, if there is anyone out there in cyberspace who does not yet belong to a Freecycle group: try it, you'll like it.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Thrift Week, Day Seven: Clothing

Well, we've finally made it to the end of Thrift Week. (Whew! Writing an entry every day is harder than I expected.) Our topic for the seventh and final day is clothing--or, as the Consumer Expenditures Survey puts it, "apparel and services"--which costs the average household $1,801 per year. Not surprisingly, clothing for women and girls accounts for the largest share of this expense ($718 per year), followed by clothing for men and boys ($427), footwear ($314), and "other apparel products and services" ($248). I assume "services" refers to dry cleaning and the like. The smallest item in the clothing budget is clothing for children under two, which costs the average family only $93 per year.

I'm going to hazard a guess that the reason clothes for young children cost so much less than clothes for older children and adults is not just that little bitty clothes require less fabric and therefore cost less; I suspect that many children under two years old are clothed largely, or at least partly, in hand-me-downs. Children this young grow out of their clothes long before they wear out, so naturally it makes sense to pass them down to a younger sibling or an acquaintance. However, what's less obvious is that many adults and older children, for one reason or another, also discard clothes before they're worn out. Kids over two may continue to outgrow their clothes while they're still in good condition; adults, as I can sadly attest, may also outgrow their clothes, or in other cases, shrink out of them. Also, picky adults may discard clothes in good condition because they're not the latest style, or because they've just grown tired of them. As a result, buying (or otherwise acquiring) secondhand can help adults and older kids dress themselves just as cheaply as the little ones. And as always, buying secondhand is a sustainable choice as well, because it saves resources and prevents waste.

The best way to find secondhand clothes will depend on your particular wardrobe needs. If you work in corporate America and need to look natty when you show up at the office, you may need to stick to the higher-end thrift shops and consignment shops. You may pay as much or more for a secondhand garment at one of these stores as you would for a new one at a cheaper retail store, such as Sears or J.C. Penney, but the piece will probably be of higher quality. (You can at least be sure that it won't fall apart after the first washing, since it's already had one.)

If you work in a more, ahem, casual environment, as I do, you have a wider range of options. No-frills thrift shops, like Goodwill, offer a wide range of clothes at anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of what they'd cost new. You do have to look each item over a bit more carefully before you buy, as it might have stains or other damage that would cause a consignment shop to reject it. Clothes at yard sales can be even cheaper--one or two dollars per garment or even less--but you usually can't try them on, so you have to size them up by eye only. (Of course, if it doesn't fit, you're only out a dollar, so "when in doubt, buy it" can be a reasonable approach.)

The only thing better than cheap, of course, is free, and there are several ways to get free clothes. Single garments or batches of items often show up on Freecycle, but of course, you don't get to try them on--or, in most cases, even look at them--before deciding whether to take them. Still, if you're willing to pick up a batch, keep what you like, and re-list the rest, you can get stuff you like this way without paying a penny. If you need to see what you're getting, you can get free clothes by having a clothing swap. (Some folks call these "naked lady parties," but there's no reason men can't have them too.) Just pull a bunch of items you don't want anymore out of your wardrobe, then get together with several friends who have all done the same, and pick out new-to-you clothes from what everyone's brought. The leftovers can go to Goodwill or some other organization.

A few other ways to save money and resources on clothing:
  • As much as possible, avoid clothes that require dry-cleaning. A dress that looked like a great bargain in the thrift shop may more than double its cost with the first cleaning. And the chemicals used by most dry-cleaners are appallingly toxic.
  • Give a darn! That is, repair holes to keep garments usable longer. Try to catch the holes while they're little--a stitch in time literally does save nine.
  • If you don't sew, or if an item is beyond your abilities to fix, consider taking it to a professional tailor or seamstress for repairs. You can also get a professional to alter clothes that no longer fit you and extend their useful life. It may not seem worth fixing a secondhand garment if the cost of the repair is more than what you originally paid for it, but it may look better if you compare the cost with what it would cost to replace. And even if it costs as much to fix as it would to replace, you're still saving natural resources. Repairing shoes is even more worthwhile--a good pair of shoes that's molded to your feet is a real treasure, something a new pair really can't replace.
Well, that wraps up our celebration of Thrift Week. Hope you've all enjoyed it. We now return to our regularly scheduled blogging.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Thrift Week, Day Six: Insurance

Today's topic is insurance, which I realize I actually should have covered back on Day Four, because it's the fourth-largest expense in the average household budget ($5,605 per year, or 11.1 percent of total expenditures). What's odd is that this figure covers only "personal insurance and pensions." It doesn't include health insurance (which is covered under medical expenses), auto insurance (under transportation), or homeowners/renters insurance (under housing). Instead it covers "life and other personal insurance" and "Social Security and pensions." This makes it a tricky topic for me to address, because we actually don't have a entry in our budget for these expenses. They either come out of Brian's paycheck before he lays hands on it, or they get lumped in under taxes and savings. So these are sort of "invisible" expenses for us.

In fact, I have to admit that I don't really think of these as "expenditures" as all. I mean, an expenditure is money that you spend--you pay it to someone, and you (presumably) get something in exchange. But Social Security contributions aren't an expenditure; they're part of your taxes. Taxes aren't so much an expenditure as a force of nature, like the weather. You may not like the weather, and you may not like the way your tax money gets spent, but in either case, there's not a whole lot you can do about it (not directly, at any rate). So you pretty much just have to live with it.

As for "pensions," well, I'm not entirely sure what they mean by that. I think of a "pension" as a kind of guaranteed benefit that you get from your employer or, in some cases, from the government--not one you pay for yourself. But it sounds like the Bureau of Labor Statistics is using the term to include all types of retirement funds. The thing is, contributions to a retirement fund aren't really an "expenditure" either. You're not spending that money; you're saving it for the future. True, that means you don't have it right now to spend on something else, but the money isn't gone. It's still your money, just set aside for retirement.

So as far as actual expenditures go, areas in which you could save money by making smarter choices, that just leaves life insurance in this category. And that's an area about which I know little to nothing. I've never actually paid for a life insurance policy in my life. I've never needed it because there's never been anyone dependent on my income. And the basic life insurance policy that comes with Brian's work benefits would be quite adequate to take care of me if he died unexpectedly. So I guess the only useful advice I can offer about life insurance is to figure out how much you need, and carry that much and no more.

Here's how my favorite financial writer, Andrew Tobias, put it in his The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need:
If you're single with no dependents, you need little--to assist with burial expenses and, posthumously, pay off debts--or none. The great push to sell college students life insurance is not entirely unlike the selling of ice to Eskimos, except that a lot more insurance is sold that way than ice.

If you're married, with a hopelessly incompetent spouse, a family history of heart disease, and a horde of little children, you should carry a great deal of insurance. Less if your spouse has a reliable income. Less still if you have fewer children or if those children have wealthy and benevolent grandparents. And still less as those children grow up.

If you are very rich, you need no insurance at all, except as it is helpful in providing liquidity to settle your estate. If you live richly off a high income but own outright little more than a deck of credit cards and some cardigan sweaters, it will take a lot of insurance to keep from exposing your dependents to an altogether seamier side of life when you are gone.
I guess you can probably tell why he's my favorite financial writer. How many other financial writers are actually fun to read?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Thrift Week, Day Five: That's entertainment!

At $2,835 a year, entertainment accounts for 5.6 percent of the average American household's spending. The Consumer Expenditures Survey defines entertainment rather broadly; it encompasses "fees and admissions" (presumably to movies, shows, museums, and so on), "audio and visual equipment and services," "pets, toys, hobbies, and playground equipment," and a catch-all "other" category. Rather oddly, however, it does not include "reading," which falls into a category by itself. Tack it on to the entertainment budget, and the total rises to $2,976 per year, nearly as much as health care.

The cost of reading materials--$116 per year--is dwarfed by the $1,036 per year that the typical household spends on "audio and visual equipment and services." This might suggest that most Americans do more TV-watching than reading, but there's another explanation as well; books, newspapers, and magazines can often be enjoyed a lot more cheaply than audio and visual media. If you are lucky enough to live near a good public library, as we do, you can find many, if not most, of the books you'd like to read without having to pay a cent (and without having to find shelf space for them when you're done). And if you have a fast Internet connection, you can read many newspapers and magazines online--along with some other content that doesn't exist in paper form. In fact, this article on the Consumer Expenditures Survey site suggests that increasing numbers of Americans may be doing just that, as consumers spend more each year on Internet service and less on newspaper and magazine subscriptions.

However, all those folks using the Internet to save on reading might not realize that it could help them with those "audio and visual services" as well. As I noted earlier, with our little media spud, we can get pretty much all our TV through the Internet, using some combination of Hulu and downloads from the network sites. At some point, we might spring for a Netflix account to get access to the more obscure shows that we can't get for free--but at $9 a month, it's still a lot cheaper than $55 a month for a basic cable package with 90 channels, only 5 of which we would ever watch.

Similarly, the local library can be a way to save on those "fees and admissions." Our library's selection of videos and DVDs may not be as large as you might find in a Blockbuster Video, but it's a lot more interesting. Most of last year's movies that were of interest to us--including Up, Slumdog Millionaire, and Julie and Julia--can be found there. And we've discovered that we actually enjoy the whole experience of watching them at home more than we enjoy seeing them in a theater. There are no screaming children (or screaming adults on their cell phones), and we don't have to sit through half an hour of advertisements and trailers for films we would never want to see before we get to the film itself. (Digression: What on earth makes the theater owners think that if I show up to see, say, the latest Harry Potter movie, that means that I would be interested in all manner of action films composed mostly of explosions? And don't get me started on the stuff they subject you to if you show up to watch an animated film.) The seats are more comfortable, the popcorn is free (or at least cheap), and if we have to pee, we don't have to climb over several hostile strangers (twice) and miss ten minutes of the movie.

As for "pets, toys, and hobbies"--well, that would be a whole entry in itself.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Thrift Week, Day Four: Health care (or the lack thereof)

The scheduled topic for day four of Thrift Week is health care, which costs the average American household $2,976 per year, or 5.9 percent of total spending. Of course, this average figure is misleading. Some people pay far more, as this conversation on the Dollar Stretcher forums reveals. Our annual medical expenses, by contrast, come to less than half the national average.

So, you may ask, how do we do it? What thrifty strategies do we employ to keep our health-care costs so low? Answer: pure luck. For one thing, we are lucky enough not to have any serious health problems. But also, Brian is lucky enough to work for an employer that provides a very generous health plan, for both him and his spouse, at a very reasonable cost. If he were ever to lose this job, we would be forced into the private health-care market, and our annual expenses (including premiums, copayments, and medications) would more than sextuple overnight.

So I can't offer any advice about how to be thrifty in the area of health care. Basically, the US has an absurd, arcane health-care system in which the quality of the care you receive and the amount you pay for it are determined almost entirely by luck. If you're lucky enough to have a good employer, or a good union, you will probably have a good health plan; if you're unlucky enough to be unemployed, or employed by a small company that can't afford a good plan, or employed by a big company that refuses to pay for a good plan, you won't. And because of the outcome of the Massachusetts election, there is pretty much no hope that this expensive, inefficient, and unjust system will change any time in the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Thrift Week, Day Three: Food

The topic for day three of Thrift Week is food, glorious food. The average American household spends $6,443 a year on food, plus another $444 on alcoholic drinks. Together, they account for 13.7 percent of the household budget.

Food is another area in which the "eco" part of ecofrugal can sometimes come into conflict with the "frugal" part. Not always, of course. In many cases, the most sustainable food choices are also the cheapest. For example, the biggest-ticket items on many people's grocery bills--meat and prepared or processed foods--are also the ones with the biggest environmental impact. Replacing meat with beans and processed foods with whole foods will save money and help the environment at the same time. But in other cases, the sustainable choice can cost more. An obvious example is organic foods, which can cost anywhere from 20 percent to 100 percent more than their conventional counterparts. A much less obvious one is local, seasonal produce. Logically, if it's the middle of winter, then apples that were grown at an orchard less than 100 miles away and stored in a cold room for the winter should obviously be cheaper than nectarines, a summer fruit, that were shipped all the way from Chile. Yet thanks to the vagaries of supply and demand, it doesn't always work out that way. Here in the so-called Garden State, the big supermarkets (which tend to have lower prices) are more likely to carry imported produce rather than local produce. Thus, you can buy imported nectarines for $2 a pound in February at the Mega-Mart, but to get local apples, you have to go to the natural food store the next town over and pay $2.50 a pound. In a situation like that, what's the frugal choice?

My approach, as with transportation, is to look for the middle ground. Since organic foods cost 60 percent more than conventional foods on average, I've set that as my arbitrary limit on how much more I'm willing to pay for them. If the price differential is less than 60 percent, I consider the organic food to be a good value. If it's more, I'll choose the conventional version--with a few exceptions. For foods with high pesticide levels, like peaches, strawberries, grapes, and peanut butter, I'll always buy organic. The same goes for foods for which conventional growing practices are especially damaging to the environment, like sugar, coffee, and cocoa. (Actually, for coffee and cocoa, the working conditions are a bigger concern than the environment. So I buy Fair Trade, which usually means buying organic as well.)

For most people, eating 100 percent virtuous food may not be practical, or even possible. If you live in an area with a short growing season, there may be no way to feed yourself year-round with only local, organic foods. There are always compromises to make, so I guess it comes down to a question of deciding what you can live with. For me, that means striking a balance between the financial cost and the environmental cost--a balance I continue to adjust over time as circumstances (my own, and the world's) change.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Thrift Week, Day Two: Transportation

Welcome to Day Two of Thrift Week. Today's topic is transportation, the second-biggest item in the average American budget. For the average American household, transportation costs $8,604 a year, or 17 percent of total expenses. That includes the cost of automobile purchases, gas and oil, maintenance and repairs, and public transportation, plus a few miscellaneous expenses like drivers' licenses and auto registrations.

Transportation is a tricky area for the ecofrugal. On one hand, most forms of mass transit, like buses and trains, have a lower carbon footprint than driving--especially driving alone, as so many commuters do. But if you already own a car, it's probably cheaper to drive it than it is to take the bus or the train. After all, you've already paid (or are still paying) for the car itself and the insurance, so all you save by not driving it is the cost of gas. And gas has to get pretty expensive to make driving more expensive than transit, at least around here. As an example: back when I was single and living in Princeton, I used to ride a little train called the Dinky to my job in Princeton Junction. The trip was only a couple of miles each way, but it cost $3.75 round trip--$16.25 per week. At the time, I owned a very fuel-efficient compact car that got about 36 miles to the gallon, so driving that 40 miles per week instead would have used up a little more than a gallon of gas. At the time, gas was only about $1.50 per gallon, so I was paying about $14 extra each week for the privilege of riding the train. (I was willing to pay it because I found the 35-minute commute by train, which included a one-mile walk to the Dinky station and ten minutes of reading or doing crosswords on the train, so much more pleasant than the 20-minute commute by car, which included about 10 minutes of actual driving and 10 minutes of sitting in traffic and fuming.) Taking the Dinky might have been an economical option if it had allowed me to give up my car entirely. But I relied on the car to get me to places where I couldn't go by bus or train--places that literally had no bus or train stop within 5 miles. And this was in New Jersey, a state that has a better mass transit system that most.

So what are the ecofrugal to do? Well, there is some middle ground. For instance, Brian and I can't make do without a car--but we can easily make do with just one car for the two of us. At my old job, I could commute by train, so I didn't need a car most days; now that I work from home, I need one even less often. His job allows him to commute by bike in nice weather, which, unlike mass transit, doesn't cost any extra (the cost of maintaining the bike is only a few dollars a month, which is offset by the savings on gas) and offers a cheap, healthy alternative to joining a gym. Carpooling is another useful option. These days, our car makes very few trips of more than a few miles with only one person in it; usually it carries both of us, or the two of us plus a friend. This lowers the cost-per-person of driving, both in dollars and in pollution. And finally, living in a walkable community saves us money on transportation. We might have been able to find a cheaper home in a suburban area, but by choosing to live in a town with a real town center, we put ourselves within walking distance of the library, the grocery store, the drugstore, the post office, and most of the other places we might need to run errands in a typical week. So the extra money we spent on housing comes back to us in transportation savings, as well as health benefits and a better overall quality of life.

Anyone else want to share ideas about ways to be thrifty with transportation?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Happy Thrift Week!

Did you know that this is National Thrift Week? Well, OK, not officially. The holiday hasn't been officially recognized in over 40 years. But for half of the twentieth century--from 1916 to 1966--the week of January 17 through January 23 was celebrated as "Thrift Week" to encourage Americans to save. There were even special themes for each day of the week: Have a Bank Account Day, Invest Safely Day, Carry Life Insurance Day, Keep a Budget Day, Pay Bills Promptly Day, Own Your Home Day, and Share with Others Day.

Thrift Week began on January 17 because it was the birthday of Benjamin Franklin, the most frugal of the Founding Fathers. Since this happens to be my birthday as well, I thought it would be appropriate to host my own celebration of Thrift Week here on the blog. However, it doesn't seem to make much sense to celebrate the individual days, like "Have a Bank Account Day," since I would imagine anyone reading this blog already has these matters pretty well in hand. So instead, I'm going to spend each day of the week focusing on one of the top seven categories in the typical American budget: housing, transportation, food, health care, entertainment, insurance, and clothing. I'll talk about ways that we're thrifty in each of these categories (meaning not just spending less money, but using resources as wisely as possible), and I'll invite you folks out in cyberland to share your ideas too.

But first, a quick aside: if you visit the website linked above, you'll notice that the "thrift expert" cited on it is David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, whose other big issue is the promotion of "traditional marriage"--meaning mommy, daddy, and kiddies, with the kiddies definitely not optional. Although a self-proclaimed liberal, he has publicly decried same-sex marriage because the "true purpose" of marriage is to provide a stable environment in which to bring up children, and a same-sex partnership is, according to him, inherently unsuitable for this purpose. I wish to stress that my support of Thrift Week does not in any way imply that I also support Mr. Blankenhorn on this issue. I agree strongly with him about the importance of thrift; I disagree equally strongly with his views on marriage. So I'm focusing on the message and doing my best to ignore the messenger.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's turn to our topic for Day One of Thrift Week: housing. According to the 2008 Consumer Expenditures Survey, the typical American "consumer unit" spends $17,109, or 34 percent of its total budget, on housing, making it by far the largest expense for most Americans. Housing expenses include shelter (owned or rented), utilities (gas, electricity, water, phone), household furnishings, and "housekeeping supplies," which includes cleaning products and office supplies such as postage and stationery. Pretty much anything that you use exclusively in your home falls under the category of housing.

Here are a few of the ways in which Brian and I are thrifty in our home:
  • We didn't buy more house than we needed. Actually, some might question whether a couple without children needs to own a house at all. An apartment or a condominium would certainly cost less and use less resources. But on the other hand, many of the frugal things we like to do, like gardening and line-drying our laundry, are things you really can't do without a yard. So we decided that we did want a house, but just a small house--not one where the two of us and our cat would rattle around in all the space. We also decided we were willing to do without a lot of the amenities that many people think of as necessities, like a dishwasher, central air conditioning, and a garage. It took us over a year to find a house in our price range that we were happy with, but it was time well spent. A smaller house meant a smaller mortgage, which meant that our finances weren't strained during my long stretch without work last year. And it saves us money on utilities as well, since there's less space to heat and cool.
  • Anything that we can do ourselves, we do ourselves. If a room needs painting, we paint it, rather than hiring a painter. We don't have a cleaning service; we don't have a lawn service. (In fact, our attitude towards our lawn is pretty much one of benign neglect. We cut it only when it gets long enough to lose small objects in, and we never fertilize it, because if it grew faster we'd just have to cut it more often.) This means that things don't always get done around our house as fast as they might; for instance, we've been in the process of refinishing our basement for over two years now, and there's still a good bit left to do. But after all, we're in no hurry, and when it finally is done, it will be much more satisfying to be able to say we did it ourselves.
  • In wintertime, we keep the thermostat at 67 degrees during the day. (I know some people turn it even lower, but I'm a wuss.) At night, we turn it down to 56. In the summer, we use the A/C only on the hottest days (when it gets above 90 degrees in the house), relying on fans to keep cool the rest of the time.
  • Most of our furniture is secondhand.
  • We keep the place clean with a few basic, inexpensive (and nontoxic) products, such as vinegar, baking soda, and ordinary soap. We use rags in place of paper towels.
  • Here's one that might not be obvious as a household expense, until you remember that "housekeeping supplies" included office supplies: we do most of our banking online, including paying bills. This saves paper, postage, and time.
The one thing we don't skimp on? High-speed Internet. We rely on it for too many things, including my job and the aforementioned online banking. However, you could make an argument that this, too, is a frugal choice. The $50 a month we spend for our cable modem takes the place of many other things we might otherwise have to pay for, like TV service (we can watch TV online with our new media spud) and newspapers (we can read the New York Times online). It also gives us easy access to sites that help save us money, like the Dollar Stretcher, MyPoints (which gives you "points" when you shop online, which you can then cash out in the form of gift cards), and Perhaps for a later entry, I'll do the math on all this and figure out to what extent our high-speed connection actually pays for itself.

How about you, fearless readers? Any thoughts you'd like to share on the subject of thrifty housing?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Winter warmer-upper

Much as I would like to keep the heat turned down in the winter (both to save money and to reduce my carbon footprint), I'm just too much of a wuss. I'm all right at night when I can pile on the blankets, but during the day, when I'm working at my computer, I can't manage anything lower than 67 degrees. Even at that temperature, I find myself shivering under three layers of clothing (plus a hat, plus wool socks and winter boots).

So, as the cold weather set in last November, I was actually considering dropping 40 bucks on a Slanket (a higher-end version of the Snuggie, star of so many TV infomercials. I never considered the Snuggie itself because, according to reviews I've seen, they're no bargain even at $15.) However, when I spotted fleece throws on sale for $2 apiece at Walgreens, I got to thinking that maybe I could make my own blanket-wrap from those. After some experimentation, I found that I could wrap one of them around my torso like a towel, then drape the second one over my shoulders like a cape.

With this double blanket over top of my regular clothes, I can stay toasty warm with the thermostat at 67 degrees. Now if I can just work up the courage to bump it down another degree or two and be a little less toasty....


It started a few years ago with me hauling my 17" LCD monitor and my Dell notebook into the living room so that we could watch videos on the computer while sitting on the couch.  The advent of an LCD television made this process easier, as the monitor no longer had to travel, the notebook connecting nicely via TV-out S-video.  A new notebook for work allowed the old notebook to stay attached to the TV full time.

Until it died, that is, whereupon I realized that I had created for myself a need that had not existed before.

I needed a media PC.

Well great.

So I tried to replace it with various computers I already had.  This turned out to be a learning experience.

From my desktop machine, an AMD 64-bit (2.8 GHz) monstrosity that looks and sounds like a garbage truck, I learned that there is such a thing as too large and too loud when it comes to a piece of machinery that's going to spend its time next to your TV and stereo.

From the Dell notebook that I cobbled together from a scrounged machine augmented with parts from my recently deceased notebook, I learned that there is such a thing as a computer that is too dumb to play video.

And from the lovely Mac notebook that I tried as an experiment (as a work computer, I couldn't consider using it for that purpose), I learned that there is such a thing as a computer being too expensive if its sole purpose is to play video.

So, if I was going to acquire a dedicated media PC, what did I want?

1) It had to have a brain big enough to play video well.
2) It had to be quiet.
3) It had to be cheap...or rather, inexpensive.
4) It had to have low power consumption, as it might get left on for extended periods of time.

And let me tell you folks, there ain't too much at the intersection of that particular Venn diagram.  Even the Mac Mini, probably the best option I could find at first, was (at $600) more than I cared to spend.

And then I read about the NVIDIA Ion.

To put it briefly, the Ion is the Intel Atom processor (a tiny, somewhat feeble processor) souped up with high-end NVIDIA graphics processing unit, i.e., lots of graphics power in a small, energy-efficient package. 

So I took the plunge and started building the MediaSpud:

The motherboard is a Zotac IONITX-A-U (purchased from Amazon) with 4 Gb of compatible dual-channel DDR2 RAM.  This was connected a Western Digital 320 Gb hard drive (2.5", 5400 rpm) and a DVD burner.  To top it all off, I added a combination wireless mouse and keyboard - probably the trickiest part, as both keyboard and mouse had to operate properly at a distance of at least eight feet from the receiver.  After reading a number of reviews of such products, it became painfully apparent that manufacturers' claims about range were a bit, well, optimistic.  I did manage to settle on a combo from i-Rocks that was both well-reviewed and relatively inexpensive.   And I'm happy to say that it has worked as advertised.  The computer communicates both video and audio to the TV via HDMI.  A serviceable HDMI cable can be purchased on Amazon for less than $5 (most of which is the shipping).

All these components came to about $325.  The IONITX-A-U comes with a wireless card and with a built-in power supply, so there was no need to purchase either.

The enclosure is made mostly of 0.5 cm-thick plywood and measures 37 cm wide by 21.5 cm deep by about 8.5 cm tall (including the little cork feet that it stands upon).   I had originally planned to make the case as small as possible, but decided that having a little extra space would make the whole project much easier to execute.  I was right.

The power button I got from Radio Schlock.  I soldered it to a connector wire that I happened to have lying about so that I could turn the machine on without having to short across the power pins in the motherboard with a screwdriver or paperclip.  There are none of the other front-panel connectors and indicator lights that we've become accustomed to having on our computers, but I figure if I need any, I can just add them later.  I have a drill.

Proper (I hope) ventilation is performed by the CPU/GPU heat sink fan, which blows out through the hole in the top of the case.  Air is drawn in through several holes drilled low in the sides of the case.  This fan is the only part of the MediaSpud that makes any appreciable noise - having no variable speed setting - but is still very quiet when running full-tilt.

Both the hard drive and the DVD burner are SATA-2, so the internal cables shouldn't obstruct air flow much.

The four corner posts are cherry and help rigidify what would otherwise be a rather flimsy box.  The motherboard rests on four small posts that are also made of cherry - these pieces are tiny by necessity and the hard wood can take screws without splitting.  The DVD burner and the hard drive are affixed to the case with pieces of steel corner bead which have been snipped to size.  The hole in the top of the case is protected with a bit of screen.  The shortest wood screws I could find at the local Home Deplowe's were slightly longer than the plywood was thick, so I tried to use washers where I could, but the occasional screw does peek out on the outside surface of the case.  It's not pretty, but it does the job.  I will tell everyone that I eventually plan to replace it with a more elegant, better constructed case, but to tell the truth, I'll probably just stain this one and Case version 1.0 will be Case version Only.  Not too bad for under $10.

My mother-in-law having gifted us with a Kill-a-Watt, I decided to see how the various computers around the house fared.  My desktop machine pulled 100 watts when idle and about 130 when playing a Hulu video full-screen.  By contrast, Lobelia's souped-up G4 Mac runs at about 40 watts when idle and a little over 70 when under load (running a Youtube video, which is about the most intense thing it is ever asked to do - we don't dream of playing Hulu vids on it).  The MediaSpud running Windows XP, however, comes in at 22 watts when idle, 25 when running Hulu full-screen, and still only 30 when running the World of Warcraft free trial (which it does quite nicely, despite its tiny brain).  Of course, our 26-inch LCD TV pulls 120 watts, so make of the likely overall power savings what you will...

We're still exploring this computer's capabilities, but I can say that it does everything that I expected it to.  It can handle both 720p and 1080i HD video, though I find I like it better in 720p.  It can't handle streaming HD from Youtube, but I expect that's because those videos are CPU-intensive rather than GPU-intensive.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

All who are hungry, let them come and eat

As an ecofrugalista (if that isn't really a word, well, it is now), I don't eat out very often. Eating at home isn't just cheaper; it also gives me a lot more control. If I want to choose local produce, or Fair-Trade coffee, or free-range eggs, eating at home is generally the easiest way to do it.

But not, it appears, the only way. As it turns out, my little town of Highland Park is now home to the Better World Café, described as a "community café"--the fifth of its kind in the country. It serves up local, seasonal foods at reasonable prices. It lets customers choose their own portion sizes--and also the size of the bill. While the cafe will give you a "suggested price," you can pay less if that's what you can afford, or pay more if you'd like to make a donation. If you don't have any money at all, you can instead volunteer an hour of your time to pay for your meal. So no one goes away hungry. Cheap eats, living-wage jobs, no disposable dishes—how could I not love a place like that?

I'd been meaning to give this place a try since it first opened back in October, but I kept forgetting about it--or at least, forgetting about it during the lunchtime hours (11 to 3) when it's open. Today, as lunchtime rolled around and I realized that there were no leftovers in the house, I decided this was the perfect time to check it out. I wandered in and found a cheerful crowd eating and a server chatting away with one of the customers. She explained how it all worked and pointed out that day's menu on a white board, with suggested prices. I got a bowl of mushroom broth with tofu and veggies, a chunk of bread to go with it, a carrot cupcake with cream-cheese frosting, and a cup of Fair-Trade, organic coffee--all for a suggested total of $5.28, which I rounded up to $6. The soup was hot and savory (though a bit on the sour side), and the carrot cake moist and tasty. It didn't look like a big meal when I sat down, but by the time I finished my coffee and bused my tray, I was stuffed. Yet I didn't have to feel guilty, because it was all nutritious (hey, carrot cake is a vegetable, right?) and locally grown. A hearty, healthful meal for six bucks--from a place that helps feed the hungry, supports local farmers, and strengthens the community. How cool is that?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The thought that counts

Happy New Year! One of my resolutions for 2010 is to update this blog more regularly--at least once a week. I also think that it would be good for the blog to have a clearer theme, instead of just picking up on whatever random thoughts fire across my brain synapses. So I've decided to focus on this concept of ecofrugality that I introduced back in May. There is already another blog out there that goes by the name of "The Ecofrugal," but since it was created in May 2009 and still boasts only one post, I doubt I'll be treading on anyone's toes by picking up the idea and running with it.

So, with this new focus in mind, I'd like to say a few words on the subject of holiday gifts.

Looking back at the presents we gave and received this past month, it seems to me that there was no correlation whatsoever between the cost of a gift and how much it pleased the recipient. The most expensive gift we gave was a $50 Home Depot gift card for my sister and brother-in-law, and they did like it--although my sister actually argued that it was "too generous" a present to give in the middle of a recession. On the other hand, my mom seemed equally happy with the Puzzle Lady mystery I got her from the library book sale. (She likes crossword puzzles, and she likes mysteries, so it seemed like a pretty sure-fire choice.) Of all the gifts we gave our nieces and nephews, the best received was the "jungle adventure" tent that we picked up from our local Freecycle group, which didn't cost a cent.

Likewise, the gifts we loved the most weren't necessarily the most expensive ones. For instance, I was quite pleased with a book of crossword puzzles from my sister-in-law that she candidly admitted had been re-gifted. She said she found the puzzles too hard for her and wanted to pass them on to someone who could handle them; how could I not be flattered by that explanation? The biggest present we got was a check from my in-laws to put toward the purchase of a new fridge, and while we were naturally happy with the check, what really delighted me was the packaging:

So what's the moral of this holiday story? Is it really the thought that counts? I hesitate to say yes, because so many people seem to use that phrase as an excuse for not really thinking about the gifts they give. If you don't care for the present they selected more or less at random, they'll say, "Well, it's the thought that counts," as if that phrase meant "I remembered to get you something, and that's all that really matters." So I'd like to suggest instead that what really matters is the amount of thought that goes into a gift. The best gift will be one that you clearly chose with a specific person in mind, one that really shows you were thinking of that particular person's tastes and interests. In other words, the thought that counts is not "I need a Christmas present for Aunt Mary," but "I know this will make Aunt Mary happy." And if you can't find the gift that fits that thought, a token gift--or none at all--is better than an expensive present that could just as easily have been chosen for a complete stranger.