Saturday, July 31, 2010
There is also a couple out in Texas who are doing much the same thing, but they go Shafer one better: not only are all of their "Tiny Texas Houses" little (anywhere from 10 feet by 16 to 12 by 28), they're built almost entirely from salvaged materials. The owner says the costs to build one range from $38,000 to $90,000, plus the delivery fee. Now that's ecofrugal!
The amazing thing about all these tiny houses is that, based on the pictures, they actually look more luxurious than a generic builder-made home. They have so many lovely little details, like the wood paneling and stained glass window inserts, that would never be affordable in a larger home. Less quantity means more room for quality.
This same concept is also the basis of architect Sarah Susanka's highly popular "Not So Big House" books. However, her concept of "not so big" is quite a bit bigger than Schafer's; her rule of thumb is that a Not So Big house is about two-thirds the size you think you need, but costs just as much. Still eco, perhaps, but not really frugal (although it is still more frugal than a big box, since a smaller house is still cheaper to maintain and to heat and cool). However, Ross Chapin, one of the architects featured in the Not So Big House books, has plans available on his website that start at 307 feet—comparable to the Tiny Texas houses, and around the middle of the range for Tumbleweed Houses.
The only real problem with these houses is that the only way to get one is to build it from scratch. What I'd really love to see is a set of guidelines for remodeling an existing house, on a budget, to give it this kind of detailed, lavish feel in the same small space.
Thursday, July 22, 2010
- Only 10 percent of cheapskates have a household budget. Yeager calls this finding surprising, but it didn't come as a great shock to me. Most financial advisers seem to treat a household budget as an absolute necessity for managing your finances, but as one of Yeager's interviewees put it, “We live our budget. It’s second nature. We don’t waste time writing about it.” This resonated with me, as I have always lived within my means without ever needing to adhere to strict instructions about how much I'm allowed to spend on this or that. A budget, it seems to me, is like a diet: a set of rules you follow to force yourself to keep your consumption under control. But for me, controlling my spending is a matter of reflex; I don't need a set of rules to make me do it.
- Less than 15 percent of cheapskates have a designated "emergency fund." Here, again, I'm with the cheapskates and against the financial community. Like most cheapskates, I have a good chunk of money put by, but I treat all of it more or less the same. I don't make a rigid distinction among the money I use for day-to-day expenses, the "savings" I'm allowed to use for rare purchases such as a new piece of furniture, and the "emergency fund" that's not to be touched except in case of unemployment or medical crisis. To me, my savings is simply a sum of money that's there to be used for whatever I need, whenever I need it.
- More than 90 percent of cheapskates say that "they think, worry, and stress-out about money less, not more, than their non-cheapskate peers." I don't know whether this applies to me or not. I certainly do spend a fair amount of time thinking about money, in both abstract and concrete terms (after all, it's what I've chosen to blog about, at least in part). I pay attention to prices and shop around for the best deals, and that takes a fair amount of time. But on the other hand, I may actually stress about money less because I know that I live within my means, and I know that I have a cash cushion to see me through a financial crisis. That doesn't mean that I never fret when business is slow, or when the threat of a job loss hangs over our heads. But I stress about it less than others might in the same situation, because I know that I have money in the bank—and I also know that I have the skills to get us by on even less if we have to.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
In modern homes, however, the room that's known as the "living room" is often a space that isn't used for day-to-day living at all. Instead, it's a showplace, an area used only for formal entertaining, an activity that families today tend to do a lot less of than they did in the past. The actual day-to-day living, as well as informal socializing, takes place in a separate "family room" or in the kitchen. It even seems like you can't find a new house these days that doesn't have a separate living room and family room, as if this were a basic necessity of life.
Now, mind you, I have no problem with the idea of having a room set aside for entertaining for families that actually do a lot of entertaining. One of the commenters on the Opinionator piece (#15) observes that she uses her living room for this purpose, and while "living room" may not really be the right name for it, she can't think of anything else to call it that doesn't sound silly. However, as commenter #20 laments, formal entertaining has become such a rarity in the modern world that for most people, a room set aside for this purpose is no longer useful. And I can hardly think of anything less ecofrugal than setting aside a whole room in your home—a room that has to be heated, cooled, and cleaned, as well as paid for in the price of the house—for a purpose that will seldom, if ever, be fulfilled.
So what's the solution? Well, here's a modest proposal: why don't we all try actually living in our living rooms? Set them up to accommodate the actual activities we do on a daily basis, whether that's chatting, watching TV, or playing board games. Surely a basic living room can handle these activities and still be cleaned up for guests when the occasion calls for it. If we all did this, we might be able to get along just fine in a house without a "family room"—or, if we can't actually find such a house, convert that extra space into a room we really will use, like a home office, or an exercise room, or even an extra bedroom, allowing a family to get by with a house one bedroom smaller than they thought they needed. We'd all save money, building resources, and fuel—and the folks who build the houses would be no worse off, because they could fit more of these smaller houses onto the same parcel of land. So as a bonus, each new development would use up less green space.
In fact, according to the article I cited back in February, this very idea seems to have occurred to a lot of Americans, resulting in a trend toward smaller and more efficient homes. It's just conceivable that ten or twenty years down the road, we may find that the name "living room" has once again come to mean just what it should: a room that gets lived in.
Monday, July 19, 2010
- A free sample of "Stayfree Ultra Thins," which I sent for online via the "Top Freebies of the Week" feature on Tip Hero. (Normally I prefer Glad Rags as the most ecofrugal way of attending to—ahem—feminine necessities, but I keep one or two of the disposable kind in my purse to use while on the road.)
- The Consumer Reports 2010 Buying Guide, which was included as part of a "trial subscription" to the magazine—and which, to be honest, was the only reason I signed up for it. I've subscribed in the past and decided it wasn't worth the money, but if they insist on continuing to send me mail trying to rope me back in, it's their fault if they lose money on me. (I also got a free copy of a Consumers Union publication called How to Clean Practically Everything, which will probably end up on Freecycle, since I already own a copy from my last trial subscription.)
- A notice from Chase reminding me to register online for this summer's bonus categories on my new credit card. (This seems to be a gimmick a lot of credit card companies are using: offer you 5 percent cash back, for a limited time, in certain specific categories, and then switch categories every three months. I've taken to putting sticky labels on my cards to keep track of which card is giving which rewards at a given time.)
- The usual envelope of coupons from Valpak, most of which aren't useful to me, but every so often there's one for my mechanic or some other business I use regularly.
- My new Wellness Plus card from Rite Aid, which gives me discounts on store-brand stuff and points that I can cash in for additional discounts.
- A new set of ID cards from Allstate to use if we need roadside assistance. (I'm counting this as a savings because having this included with our insurance policy means that we don't have to shell out $80 a year to Better World Club.)
Saturday, July 17, 2010
The idea behind ThredUP is that you pick out a box of clothes suitable for your kids and exchange it for a box of your own used but serviceable items. Your only cost is a flat $13 for shipping (which, as the site notes, works out to around $1 per garment). Because you're going through a middleman—the ThredUP site—you don't have to match yourself up with a specific person who both has what you need and needs what you have. The site serves as a marketplace to get the goods to those who can use them.
Now, $13 a box for kids' clothes may not be the absolute lowest price you could pay. Hand-me-downs (from siblings, other relatives, or friends and neighbors) are obviously cheaper, and yard sales and rummage sales might also—with a little diligent searching—yield clothes in good condition for less than $1 per item. But when you factor in both cost and convenience, ThredUP looks like a pretty good deal for busy parents. And, of course, since it means less production and less waste, it's a good deal for the environment as well. (And I wouldn't worry about the impact on the economy of reusing clothes instead of buying new ones. Except for the really high-end stuff, it's mostly made overseas anyway.)
Friday, July 16, 2010
This got me thinking: is modern technology frugal or anti-frugal? Is it a waste, something that we don't really need, or it is something that saves time, money, and other resources once when we use it well?
Naturally, the answer isn't entirely one or the other. Some modern technologies are obviously more useful, more frugal, than others, and the same gadget will be more useful to one person than to another. So maybe a better question is, how can you tell whether a specific piece of technology is or is not frugal for you?
My answer to this question is pretty simple: I evaluate new technology the way I would any other consumer choice. I ask myself, "Is this something I need? Will it make my life better? Is it worth the money?" If so, I embrace it; if not, I ignore it. For example:
- I do have a cell phone (just one that I share with my husband), but I am one of the five or ten people on the planet who truly does use it only for emergencies. It's a very basic model with a prepaid plan, and we pay about $5 a month for it. Anything more than that would be, for me, unnecessary.
- We don't have cable TV or satellite, but we do have a home-built media computer that lets us get free entertainment from Hulu and other such sites.
- My computer is a 9-year-old Mac that's been upgraded multiple times over the years and is still quite capable of handling everything I need for both work and personal use. (I specifically bought it instead of one of those cute little iMacs because I thought it would be easier to upgrade, and would therefore serve me longer. So far, so good.)
- I'm not tempted by the new e-book readers, since, as I noted last month, I don't see any compelling reason to prefer them to the paper-and-ink book. However, I am somewhat tempted by MP3 players (if I could find one cheap enough), mainly because with one we could listen to podcasts of our favorite radio shows during long car trips.
- We have high-speed Internet at home mostly because I rely on it for work, but the money we spend on our cable modem saves us on all kinds of other things, such as postage (we use e-mail for personal correspondence and pay bills online), a newspaper subscription (the New York Times can be read online for free), and entertainment (see above regarding our media computer).
There are probably many other examples that don't come immediately to mind. But my point is, although many people equate frugality with "the simple life"—living off the grid, churning your own butter, that sort of thing—a fast-paced modern lifestyle can be just as frugal, albeit in a different way. If your home is full of gadgets that save you time and money and genuinely improve your quality of life, there's absolutely no reason to feel inferior to the person who cooks over a woodstove and reads by candlelight. To each tightwad his own.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Luckily, George Lakoff, writing on Truth-out.org, has done it for me—in a way that really should have been obvious to me, if I'd thought it through. He points out that, while it's easy to make BP the villain here, disasters of this kind are pretty much inevitable with deep-water drilling. We don't need better safety measures; we need to use less oil. They key observation he makes is that each barrel of oil yielded by drilling can only be used once. Each barrel saved through energy efficiency, by contrast, can be saved many times:
Take insulating a building. It will save a certain number of barrels of oil this year. And the same number next year. And the year after that, and after that, year-after-year! The barrels of oil saved multiply! Without the insulation, those barrels of oil would have to be drilled year-after-year, drill and drill and drill versus save and save and save. Every year, as energy is saved, fewer barrels are needed.
Lakoff argues that if we invested the same kind of money in saving energy as we now invest in finding new sources of fuel, we might be able to eliminate offshore drilling entirely while creating "real, good-paying, non-exportable jobs." He proposes looking for energy savings in every aspect of our society: "our buildings, our cars, our public transportation, our industry, our military bases, our homes." Agriculture, he suggests, could shift toward means of growing that use less petroleum-derived fertilizer and pesticide, and toward "localization of food production" that will reduce the amount of fuel used to transport crops to consumers.
Saving energy on a large scale will require major, far-reaching changes to our nation's infrastructure. But that doesn't mean that the smaller choices we make as individuals have no impact. On the contrary, it's those very choices—when multiplied by a large enough number of people making them—that have the power to tip the balance of the entire market, to convince big corporations that it is in their financial interest to do business in a more sustainable way. If enough people choose to buy organic and local produce, then more farmers will want to grow their crops in that way and tap into that market. If enough consumers start choosing small, fuel-efficient cars, then more auto makers will take interest in developing small, fuel-efficient cars—which in turn means there will be a wider selection of such cars, which in turn will attract more attention from consumers, and the snowball picks up momentum as it rolls down the hill. A virtuous cycle, if you will. Each dollar that I, as a consumer, invest in efficiency does more than save me money and fuel; it's also an investment in a movement toward sustainability for society as a whole.
Energy efficiency is the essence of ecofrugality: making the best possible use of resources. As Lakoff puts it in the conclusion of his article:
Money is fungible: A penny saved is a penny earned.
Oil is cumulatively fungible: A barrel saved is a barrel not needed, year after year after year.
You can't get more ecofrugal than that.
Monday, July 12, 2010
For each question, there were four possible answers: "Yes," "No," "Yes, but I wouldn't do it," and "No, but I would do it anyway." Amy Dacyczyn published the percentage of responses that fell into each category, along with a representative comment that typified the majority viewpoint. (She didn't say which answer she thought was right, though she noted that in most cases she agreed with the majority view.) Here are the ten questions, the response from the Tightwad Gazette readers, and my own response. (Oh, and for those who are concerned about whether my use of this copyrighted material is itself unethical, I believe it qualifies as "Fair Use.")
Is it ethical to:
1. Secretly switch your spouse's favorite, expensive name brand with a store brand to see if they would notice the difference, providing that you eventually let them in on it?
76% Yes; 14% No; 6% Yes, but I wouldn't; 4% No, but I would
Typical comment: "Yes, we both do this all the time."
My response: Yes, but I probably wouldn't do it. I'd most likely let him in on the switch from the beginning. My husband is no more brand loyal than I am and is generally happy to accept a store-brand substitute if it meets his needs.
2. Substitute another receipt to get a rebate if you lost the original receipt? The possible justification here is that you did in fact purchase the product and satisfy the manufacturer's intention.
70% Yes; 19% No; 5% Yes, but I wouldn't; 6% No, but I would
Typical comment: "Yes, I bought the item."
My response: Yes, although I've never actually done it because I am meticulous about keeping everything when sending in rebates. But as long as I actually bought the item, I'm not cheating anyone by taking the rebate.
3. Take all of the unused soap and shampoo from your hotel room?
76% Yes; 14% No; 5% Yes, but I wouldn't; 5% No, but I would
Typical comment: "Yes, but not the light bulbs and rolls of toilet paper."
My response: This one's actually complicated for me. I would have no problem taking the leftovers if I had opened the package and used part of it, because in that case I would assume that the hotel is just going to throw it out otherwise. So I'm just preventing waste. If the package is still unopened and sealed, then I would be inclined to think that if I leave it, the hotel will pass it on to the next guest, while if I take it, they'll have to substitute a new one. So even if I am legally entitled to take it, I'm still promoting waste by doing so. But if the hotel is actually going to discard the package whether it's been opened or not, then obviously it's wasteful to leave it. So I guess that if I didn't know the hotel's policy, it would be best to go ahead and take it. I stay in hotels so seldom that it's not much of an issue anyway.
4. Offer half of the asking price and show a wad of cash to encourage the sale when you are making a large purchase from a private individual? This assumes that the seller does not appear needy.
72% Yes; 15% No; 12% Yes, but I wouldn't; 1% No, but I would
Typical comment: "Yes, that's just good old Yankee trading."
My response: Sure, why not? The seller is under no obligation to take the offer, but if cash on the barrelhead is a big enough incentive to him/her, isn't that a win for both of us?
5. Buy something from a pawn shop, knowing it is likely that someone under economic duress sold the item for a fraction of its real value?
76% Yes; 8% No; 15% Yes, but I wouldn't; 1% No, but I would
Typical comment: "Yes, if the shops did not exist, those in need would have no way to raise quick cash."
My response: Yes, I agree with the above. If I refuse to patronize the pawn shop and it goes out of business, how does that help anyone? The owner is out of a job and people who need cash in a hurry will no longer have a safe and legal way to get it.
6. Return a 10-year-old coat to L.L. Bean, to take advantage of the company's unconditional satisfaction guarantee?
12% Yes; 77% No; 10% Yes, but I wouldn't; 1% No, but I would
Typical comment: "No, this violates the spirit of the guarantee. How can you be dissatisfied after 10 years?"
My response: No. Ten years is a reasonable lifetime for a coat, so I have no grounds for dissatisfaction. However, I would (and have) returned a pair of pants that wore out within one year, because I think pants should last longer than that.
7. Buy toys for a fraction of their original price from a 10-year-old at a family yard sale?
66% Yes; 24% No; 9% Yes, but I wouldn't; 1% No, but I would
Typical comment: "Yes, assume he prefers the money."
My response: Yes. I don't see why anyone would find this objectionable. If the kid is selling the toys, he/she presumably would rather have the money. And "a fraction of their original price" is what you should expect to pay at a yard sale. Unless they're collectibles, they are overpriced at more than 20 or 25 percent of their original value.
8. Take labels off thrift shop designer clothes and sew them onto new no-name clothes for your kids to wear? This assumes your kids know about it.
35% Yes; 45% No; 17% Yes, but I wouldn't; 3% No, but I would
Since this was the only question for which public opinion appeared divided, she published two typical comments: "Yes, if my kids were under extraordinary pressure, I would see this as beating a stupid system" and "No. You're teaching your kids false values."
My response: No. First of all, I think label obsession is just plain stupid, and if I had kids, I would rather try to teach them how to be smart shoppers and pick clothing based on real value. And more than that, I wouldn't want to teach them to be deceptive in their dealings with others. And finally, I think that there's a serious risk that snobbish classmates might be able to spot the sewed-on label, and then their scorn would not only increase, it would actually be justified (because the kid was not just wearing cheap clothes but also being dishonest about it).
9. Get Radio Shack's free battery card, and get a once-a-month free battery even though you never plan to buy anything from them?
63% Yes; 25% No; 11% Yes, but I wouldn't; 1% No, but I would
Typical comment: "Yes, they were trying to bait you, and there were no strings."
My response: Yes. Stores offer promotions like this to get you in the door in the hopes that you'll buy something else once you're there. They know that it won't work on everyone who accepts the offer. There's nothing morally wrong with being the fish that slips the hook. To me, this is just the same as going into a supermarket and buying up a bunch of "loss leaders" and nothing else.
10. Shop at a thrift shop if you have an average or above average income? The possible objection is that you would be buying items that poorer people need.
95% Yes; 2% No; 2% Yes, but I wouldn't; 1% No, but I would
Typical comment: "Yes, most thrift shops have too much merchandise. Profits go to a good cause."My response: Yes, of course. By shopping there, I am supporting the store, which in turn supports a worthy cause. And I'm also helping the environment by buying stuff secondhand. This is a win-win, as far as I'm concerned.
I find it sort of reassuring that I fell in with the majority on most of these, and where I differed with them I actually came down on the more scrupulous side of the fence. I'd like to think that my frugal choices are, on the whole, making the world a better place.
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
who is more frugal? Is it the person who doesn't have to buy things twice as they know where they have put it, who doesn't waste time searching for things, who doesn't need more room to store more stuff? Or is it the person who can nip into the garage and find a whatsit that will perfectly fix the whatchamacallit instead of the proper part, which costs megabucks?This reminded me of a similar situation described by Amy Dacyczyn, the "Frugal Zealot," in her Tightwad Gazette newsletter (no longer published, but archived in book form as The Complete Tightwad Gazette). In an article called "The Frugal Balance," she noted that many people consider some aspects of the frugal lifestyle to be "too extreme" for them. A typical comment, she said, might be:
"Yeah, my sister Thelma is really frugal. You can't move in her house because of all the bread bags, Styrofoam meat trays, rubber bands, and toilet-paper tubes. But I just can't live that way. I guess I'm not the tightwad type."Amy's response was that this isn't a case of being "too frugal": rather, it's frugality out of balance. Thelma is concentrating on saving just one resource–money–by keeping this huge stash. But because she is not using other resources effectively, such as the space in her home, she ends up wasting time, energy, and money because she can't find things when she needs them. A truly frugal person, by contrast, will try to make the best possible use of all resources, balancing the amount of stuff stashed with the amount of space available. A tightwad who lives in a big house with lots of storage space can afford to keep more things "just in case," while one who lives in a tiny apartment must take extra care to conserve space and save only the things that are most likely to be useful. "Because we all have different amounts of money, time, space, and personal energy and different ideas about what constitutes quality of life," she writes, "we must each find our own frugal balance."
For me, striking this frugal balance means taking the environment into consideration as well. In fact, when I have a decision to make involving money, I sometimes think in terms of a "resource equation": money plus time plus effort plus natural resources. Rather than just making the choice with the lowest dollar cost, I try to consider all these variables and come up with the choice that will give me the lowest total cost. Sometimes, a single option is obviously the best choice because it lowers several variables at once: for instance, switching out my incandescent bulbs for CFLs saves both money and natural resources. In other cases, a choice raises some variables while lowering others: for instance, hanging out laundry to dry saves money and natural resources, but takes extra time and effort. I have to reckon in my mind how much that extra time and effort is worth to me to decide whether hanging out the laundry is the best choice overall. (For me, the answer is generally yes in summer and no in winter.) And occasionally, I'll decide that a choice that costs me more money is worth it because of the other resources it saves, such as paying a bit extra for renewable electricity through the state's "CleanPower Choice Program." (Combining this with conservation measures means that I only pay a few extra dollars a month, and when the thermometer hits 100, as it did yesterday, I can switch on the AC without guilt.)
So basically, my whole idea of ecofrugality is pretty much the same as Amy Dacycyzn's concept of the "frugal balance." The key point is that true frugality isn't just about money: it's about using all resources as wisely as possible. Interestingly, I stumbled across a quotation recently on my favorite cryptogram website that expresses much the same idea. In the words of that most venerable of all tightwads, Benjamin Franklin:
Waste neither time nor money, but make the best use of both. Without industry and frugality, nothing will do, and with them everything.