Monday, May 31, 2010

Happy Marmoreal Day

I always said I'd shoot that groundhog one of these days... here's a shot of him.

Now that he can't get at my veggies, I think he's kind of cute. Brian says this is a literal example of good fences making good neighbors. We built a good fence to keep him out of the garden, and now he's being a good neighbor by eating weeds instead, so we don't have to whack them as often. I'm going to start referring to him as our "lawn service."

Edit: Okay, so I realized that my little pun on "Memorial Day" doesn't really work, because the word "marmoreal" refers to marble rather than marmots. So it's sort of a pun on a pun, which is hardly worth making at all. Phooey.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Good news/bad news

The ecofrugal life has its ups and downs, and an account of my day often reads like one of those good news/bad news jokes. To take today as an example:

The good news is, I discovered a site called "The Thrift Shopper" that has a directory of thousands of thrift stores in the U.S., and it pointed me to two well-rated ones in my area that I'd never heard of before.

The bad news is, the only time they're open when I could reasonably get there is on Saturday morning.

The good news is, we unexpectedly turned out to have a Saturday morning free this weekend.

The bad news is, when we headed out there, we discovered both stores were closed for the holiday weekend.

But the good news is, while we were in the area, we stopped at the "K Produce Mart" for some free-range eggs (best price on these in our area), and we discovered that they were also selling vegetable seedlings, so we bought a little flat of six baby zucchini plants for only $1.99. These will replace the two plants I started in the garden from (good news) organic seeds that I got as a freebie at the Whole Earth Center, only to see the seedlings (bad news) mysteriously vanish before they had their first true leaves out. (The same thing happened to four of the eight tomato plants that I put in the garden earlier this month, which was bad news, but I had extra seedlings to replace them, so that was good news, though it didn't make the disappearances any less baffling.)

So this particular chain of good news/bad news events has a happy ending. Tune in next week, when you may hear Amy say, "I could have sworn I had five pepper plants!"

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Easy Way

A thought occurred to me the other day as I was scooping out the cat box: I'm a big believer in doing things the easy way.

The cat box brought this to mind because it's a case in point. I know of some people who use clay litter and never bother to scoop the box; they just dump it out and change the litter once a week. But I find changing it to be a lot more work than scooping it, so I use a wheat litter, scoop it daily, and only change it every couple of months. And since the litter's flushable, I can just dump everything right into the toilet instead of having to bag it up and take it out every day. (NOTE: Yes, I do know that cat poop can pose a threat to sea otters, but indoor cats don't carry the parasite in question, so their wastes are safe to flush. I discuss this in detail in my review of Swheat Scoop litter on the Associated Content site.)

Our compost bin is another example. Brian and I recently attended a workshop on composting, and we somewhat shamefacedly admitted that we do all our composting in the simplest, crudest way possible: throw all our vegetable matter into a bin, turn it over when we happen to think of it—which isn't more than a few times a year—and eventually, after a couple of years, pull out some usable compost. It was tremendously liberating to hear the workshop leader declare, "There's absolutely nothing wrong with that." (And in case I needed more vindication, a recent article on the Mother Earth News site came to the same conclusion.)

Of course, you could argue that making compost at all, or having a garden to put it in, is doing things the hard way. Sure, it would be easier to get all our groceries at the supermarket. But because we do all our gardening in the easiest, laziest way possible, it only takes us a little bit of effort for a decent payoff in fresh, cheap produce. We use the square foot method, which means less tilling and less weeding; we throw in some compost at the start of the planting season and don't bother with additional fertilizer; we leave the beds uncovered so that the rain can do some of our watering for us. And I don't find that the satisfaction of eating the fruits of our labor is at all diminished by making that labor as light as possible.

So what does this all mean in terms of ecofrugality? Well, I guess what I'm trying to say is that a lot of the things that can be done to save money and resources look like a lot of work—maybe even more trouble than they're worth. And conversely, it sometimes seems as if the only way to make these jobs easier is to spend money on fancy, labor-saving gadgets, like compost tumblers or self-cleaning litter boxes. But sometimes, all that's really needed is a willingness to settle for less than perfection. Our garden may not yield the maximum amount of food per square foot, but it certainly gives us the most for the amount of time we put into it. Our compost bin doesn't produce usable compost in two weeks, as some commercial composters promise to do (though if Mother Earth News is to be believed, ten weeks is more realistic), but left to its own devices, the waste does break down eventually, with no effort on our part. By stripping these jobs down to their essentials—in other words, doing them the easy way—we can get the best results for the smallest outlay in money and effort.

Friday, May 21, 2010

**** Home Depot

I must confess, I do sometimes shop the big-box stores, especially the big home centers. Lately, we've been leaning more towards Lowe's, because the customer service at Home Despot (as we affectionately call it) tends to be so appallingly bad. I also judged Lowe's to be a slightly more socially responsible company than Home Depot, based on the descriptions of both on the Responsible Shopper site run by Green America. (The other shopping guide I use, Better World Shopper, gives Home Depot a grade of B-minus; Lowe's isn't rated.) But I always assumed that the differences between the two were fairly minor, and that I wasn't doing that much social good by choosing Lowe's. So I was pleased—tickled, in fact—to see an article today that gave me another reason to feel good about avoiding Home Depot: "Home Depot Called Arrogant, Ordered to Pay Inventor Millions More." Call it schadenfreude if you will, but I can't help feeling a bit gleeful to see a huge, arrogant corporation get what's coming to it.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Killer Tofu

This week's "Tip Hero" newsletter contained a link to a tip I wouldn't have considered particularly controversial: "A Cheap and Healthy Meat Substitute." The article was about TVP, an inexpensive meat substitute made from soybeans, and most of the comments focused on ways to use TVP and other soy products. However, one of the comments seemed to wander off into the realm of, well, wacko-dom. An excerpted version:
Arrrggghhhhh, soy?? Has anyone ever read "The dark side of soy"? Soy is actually toxic in the bean form and they acid wash it, and do other nasty things, to make it edible at all. It's used as a filler, just like all the chemicals and such in our foods. Soy washes away all the good stuff in our digestive tracts, plus mimics estrogen in our bodies....Don't believe what they tell you out there, they are not out for our health and the government, the FDA, and the Medical field is all about keeping us sick. The only way "some" say it can be used safely and might have benefits, is when it's "fermented" soy. However, there are still those who will argue it's not safe at all.
Now, I already knew for a fact that soy doesn't need to be "acid washed" to be edible, because I've eaten it straight from the pod as edamame, so I was naturally suspicious of the comment as a whole. It sounded like such blatant pseudoscience that my first impulse was to go to and "The Straight Dope" looking for an article debunking these claims. To my surprise, they had never been addressed. I then tried Googling phrases such as "soy inedible," "soy toxic," and "soy safety," but I didn't find a single article on the safety of soy that seemed to be from a reliable, unbiased source. I found one article by alternative-health guru Dr. Andrew Weil, but I hesitated to cite him as a source, since so many people consider his views a bit "fringe" already. An article from the Mayo Clinic looked promising, but it turned out to be about soy-based supplements, rather than soy foods. Eventually I managed to turn up an article from the NIH's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which said only that "Soy is considered safe for most people when used as a food or when taken for short periods as a dietary supplement." (However, it also noted that research is unclear about whether soy can affect estrogen levels, so women who are at risk for breast cancer and other hormone-dependent cancers should "be particularly careful about using soy." It wasn't clear whether "using soy" referred to eating soy foods or taking soy supplements.)

I was surprised at how hard it was to find a single reliable source that evaluated the health risks and benefits of soy objectively. However, one thing I do know is that from an ecofrugal standpoint, the benefits of soy products aren't always clear-cut. For example:
  • Soy isn't always cheaper than meat. A one-pound slab of tofu costs $1.49 at Trader Joe's. A pound of chicken or pork can cost a dollar or less on sale at the local Stop & Shop. (Free-range chicken, on the other hand, starts at $2 a pound.)
  • Tofu isn't a particularly lean source of protein. According to the USDA's National Nutrient Database, half a cup of raw, firm tofu has about 20 grams of protein and 11 grams of fat. A whole cup of white-meat chicken, by contrast, has 27 grams of protein and only 4 grams of fat. (Hardly surprising, when you consider that soybeans are grown largely for oil.)
  • On the other hand, soy does seem to come out ahead from an ecological standpoint. According to Wikipedia, soy farming produces "up to 15 times more protein per acre than land set aside for meat production."
On the whole, including soy foods in my diet seems to be a reasonably ecofrugal choice, and the balance of the evidence suggests that it should do my health more good than harm. But I can't help wondering whence comes all this animosity toward the humble soybean. Are all the anti-soy sites secretly funded by meat producers?

EDIT: Here's a little illustration supplied by Brian to go with this post.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Defining frugality

I just read what struck me as a fairly pithy definition of frugality. It was in a New York Times article about, of all things, a pharmaceutical company based in Israel. One thing that sets this company, Teva, apart from the giants of the American pharmaceutical industry is the way it uses resources (for example, no corporate jets). The article quotes one of the company's officers as saying, “Frugality doesn’t mean doing less. It means doing as much or more with less.”

The thing I like so much about this line is that it counters one of the most common misconceptions about frugality: that it's the same as deprivation, as going without. That kind of thinking leads people to assume that the only reason to be frugal is that you have no choice—in other words, that frugality is for “poor people.” The point that I've tried often to make, and that the Teva executive made particularly well, is that frugality doesn't mean going without; it means getting the most you can out of what you have. It's about abundance, not scarcity, and it can benefit people on every rung of the income ladder.

The formula that Amy Dacyczyn (all hail the Frugal Zealot!) used to express this idea in her Tightwad Gazette books was, “Frugality without creativity equals deprivation.” If you try to save money without thinking creatively, you'll end up going without. But if you put some thought into using your money effectively, you can spend less without feeling deprived. In fact, your frugal choices may end up enriching your life (as I discussed in my Associated Content piece, “Saving Money Isn't About 'Sacrifice'”). I'm pleased to see that there are at least a few folks in the corporate world who take the same view.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Swap 'til you drop

A recent issue of my Live Cheap newsletter pointed me toward this article from USA Today about a growing trend: clothing swaps. Trading clothes with friends is hardly a new concept, and parties for that purpose (sometimes known informally as "naked lady parties") have been around for a while. What's new is the scale on which swapping is now being done. A group in Massachusetts called the Swapaholics hosts huge swap meets for 200 to 300 people in school gyms and warehouses. Online groups are also getting into the act. On sites like and, people post what they have to offer and what they are seeking in exchange—a bit like Freecycle, except that you always give and take at the same time (and, since these aren't exclusively local groups, you may have to pay shipping costs).

This article was rather timely for me, because I engaged in a bit of swapping myself over May Day weekend. Knowing that I would be making a couple of visits on Friday and Saturday, I hauled along a bag full of clothes in good shape that I wasn't wearing for one reason or another. My mom took three items, including a lovely cashmere turtleneck that was too itchy for me (yes, my skin really is so sensitive that even pure cashmere irritates it), and friends at a potluck party on May Day took several more. I'm happy to see my unused clothes go to people who will use and appreciate them, and I got an unexpected bonus: someone else at the party happened to be getting rid of a long lace-up dress in a blue-flowered print that fit me just beautifully. So now I have one new item that I will actually wear, plus the closet space to keep it in.

Swapping clothes and other goodies is an ecofrugal three-fer: you get new-to-you stuff without having to pay for it, you get rid of unwanted stuff without sending it to the landfill, and you keep someone else's unwanted stuff out of the landfill as well. There's really no down side. I've only done it on a small scale up until now, but I definitely intend to check out some of the swap-sites listed in the article. Watch this space for follow-up info on how it goes.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The New Frugality

Last year, when I first introduced the concept of ecofrugality back on the old blog, I speculated that the Great Recession could be "the dawning of the age of ecofrugality," as people adopt green habits to save money. Now a new Associated Press survey suggests that I might actually have been right. Of 44 economists surveyed, two-thirds say that they believe the recession has created a "new frugality" that will continue even after the economy recovers. Interviews with ordinary American consumers support this view, as many say they no longer feel confident spending with abandon. The interviewees say they're sticking to new frugal habits such as gardening, air-drying her laundry, living without a landline phone, and shopping at Costco. As the AP article puts it, "many who became penny-pinchers during the recession are in no mood to start shopping again with abandon for clothes, cars and home additions. They've discovered the peace of mind that comes with rebuilding savings, shopping more prudently and learning to live with less." In a word: ecofrugal!

Which reminds me: my tenth article (and probably my last for the time being) is now up at Associated Content. It's a product review of Swheat Scoop, our favorite cat litter (and one that I consider highly ecofrugal, for reasons discussed in the article). So check that one out, and then I promise I'll stop bugging you for a while.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A victory for frugality!

Well, a symbolic one anyway: today's Kentucky Derby was won by a horse named Super Saver. A fitting symbol of the times, perhaps?