Sunday, February 27, 2011


We've devoted much of today to doing little odd jobs around the house. We haven't tackled any really big projects since the triumphant completion, two weeks ago, of the new vanity (at right), which Brian built and installed with his very own hands in the downstairs bath. Today, however, as Brian tackled several smaller jobs in that room and various other parts of the house, I was struck as I've been struck on previous occasions by my husband's ingenuity, and by just how many problems it's possible to fix with materials you already have lying around the house.

Job #1 was installing the mirror above the new vanity. This mirror was salvaged from the front door of the old medicine chest that used to hang above the old vanity. The chest itself was small, unattractive and not very functional, but the door was a good-sized mirror in a sturdy wooden frame that we thought might look very respectable with a bit of refinishing. Brian contrived to get it loose from the metal cabinet, and all the time we've been working on the rest of the bath, it's been sitting in the workshop, waiting for us to get around to it. This past week, we scrubbed it, sanded it, and refinished it using the stain and varnish we had left over from the vanity. Brian then replaced the old backing, which was very heavy, with a lightweight piece of fiberboard he had left over from another project. However, all that proved to be the easy part: the difficulty was figuring out how to put it back up on the wall. Even with the new back, it was still too heavy to mount with standard picture hangers. Rather than head for Home Depot to look for some sort of heavy-duty hanging hardware, Brian shut himself up in his laboratory (pronounced la-BOR-atory, as all evil and not-so-evil masterminds like to say it) for a while and cobbled together an ingenious solution with materials we had on hand. He affixed to the back of the mirror a length of this sort of steel tape punched with holes, like this...

...and then built a pair of picture hangers consisting of screws threaded through a series of washers, like this... that now the screw holds the big washers in place, and the washers hold the big mirror in place.

After solving this knotty problem, he didn't rest on his laurels. He went back into the la-BOR-atory to work on Job #2, building a tilt-out drawer for the kitchen sink. You may have seen these before: in place of the purely decorative front panel that normally conceals the sink from view, there's a little drawer like this, which you can use to keep your sponge and scrubber neatly stowed away. I've been wanting one of these for a while, but I couldn't see my way clear to paying $26 for a kit that was basically just a little plastic box and a pair of hinges. So Brian finally turned his ingenuity to the problem and built this out of scrap wood. The tab on the end is secured with a screw, so you can turn it to slide the drawer into place and then turn it the other way to hold it there so it won't fall out.

And he also found time for Job #3, reupholstering the cat's scratching post with a new carpet patch that we found at a discount store in New Brunswick. The post itself isn't a new construction, but the fact that he was able to reupholster it as he did proves just how clever a design it is. A year or so ago, we got tired of throwing out the cat's scratching post every year or two, after she'd worn it down to the bare wood, and shelling out $15 for a new one. I'd read a tip saying you could extend the life of the old post by removing the carpet and winding the wood around with sisal twine, but Amélie wouldn't touch the stuff and took to scratching the rugs instead. So Brian came up with a very simple design for a new scratching post: two lengths of two-by four, attached back to back, to form the post; a square piece of plywood, neatly stained, to make a sturdy base; and another scrap of two-by-four, also neatly stained, to cover the top. The only part we actually had to buy was a two-dollar carpet swatch to cover it with (secured with heavy-duty staples), and when the cat wears through it, we just buy a new two-dollar carpet swatch to replace the old one, rather than having to throw away the whole post. Less cost, less waste, and as you can see, a much more respectable-looking post than the ones they sell at PetSmart. (Edit: If you look closely at the picture, you can see that the post itself is set at a 45-degree angle to the square formed by the base. That's so that when the cat pulls with all her 10-pound weight against the post, she'll be pulling the entire piece along its diagonal, rather than sideways, and she'll be much less likely to tip it over. The old PetSmart post used to tip over frequently, but in all the time we've had this new one she's never managed to overturn it—although she has occasionally dragged it across the floor instead.)

So, here in the pages of this blog, I would like to hereby award my husband the title of Master Tinkerer. Three cheers, Brian, and keep up the good work!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Happy First Washday

It seems to be a natural human instinct to create holidays to celebrate the turning of the seasons. The modern pagan calendar marks not only the quarter-days (solstices and equinoxes) but also the cross-quarter days that fall in between, making one holiday to mark the start of every season and another to mark its midpoint. The Christian calendar includes its great winter and spring festivals, and the Jewish calendar ushers in fall with the High Holy Days. Even allegedly secular holidays get roped into the act. The official "summer" season, defined as "the period when it's okay to wear white shoes," is bounded by Memorial Day on one end and Labor Day on the other, even though neither holiday technically has anything to do with the time of year. And the change from fall to winter is unofficially pegged to Thanksgiving weekend, even though that weekend's weather—at least here in the Mid-Atlantic states—is sometimes as balmy as June.

But there doesn't seem to be any holiday that marks the official start of spring. Sure, we have the religious festivals of Easter and Passover, but they move around the calendar so much that it's hard to pin the season to either one. We even start looking for signs of spring in February with Groundhog Day, even though there may still be a foot of snow on the ground. But it doesn't matter what we do; spring just comes when it comes. It's marked by events that don't appear on any calendar: the melting of snow, the appearance of snowdrops and crocuses, the first day it's warm enough to go out without a coat. We can't predict to a day when these events will happen—but they are holidays, all the same. They are festivals, days to celebrate, whenever they arrive.

So I hereby declare today, February 18, 2011, to be First Washday—the first day it's been warm enough to hang a load of laundry up on the line. There was a vague threat of possible showers in the weather report, but I wouldn't let that deter me. Today is First Washday, and I intend to give the event all the honor it deserves. It may be back below freezing by tomorrow night; it may even snow again on Monday or Tuesday; but none of that can change the fact that First Washday has come at last, and a joyous occasion it is.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Does "frugality" always include "eco"?

Just a quick post today to draw attention to an ongoing discussion in the Dollar Stretcher community that I found interesting, about just what it means to be frugal. What struck me about it was just how many of the responses made some reference to frugality as part of an overall value system. Some people specifically mentioned the environmental benefits of frugality, others talked about giving to charity, and some spoke more generally, about spending money in a way that's "ethical" or "matches your values." One of the most common ideas in the responses was that frugality simply means not being wasteful—which means that it's worth practicing even when money is no object.

So, in short, it appears that what I'm referring to in this blog as "ecofrugality" may, to many people, be no different from "frugality."

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Savings and costs for couples

Today I came across an article on that supports my argument in last Wednesday's post that couples with shared income can save money more easily than singles. This article, "Marrying for Richer Rather than Poorer," notes that in a 15-year study of married and single people, singles were able to save about $11,000 of wealth over the 15 years, while "people who got married, and stayed married, accumulated about $43,000 in 10 years of marriage." The article then goes on to point out some of the reasons why married people may find it easier to save. For instance, while it isn't strictly true that "two can live as cheaply as one," it certainly is cheaper to maintain one household than two. You can save on food by buying in larger quantities, and you're less likely to pay someone else to do outside jobs (such as housecleaning) when there are two of you to share the burden.

Tax breaks and other financial perks are a significant issue as well. While some people make a big deal about the "marriage penalty," the fact is that this penalty only applies to couples whose two incomes are roughly equal; if one partner makes more than the other, then filing as a married couple will most likely mean paying less in taxes. Moreover, there are certain tax breaks that are available only to married couples. And
in addition to paying less in taxes, married couples can also inherit each other's retirement assets and collect on each other's Social Security. (In fact, given the various ways the government discriminates in favor of married couples, it's hard to swallow the argument that it isn't discrimination to prevent same-sex couples from marrying—but that's a whole article in itself.)

Now, lest you single folks start fretting about how much you could be saving by tying the knot, I should point out that another Bankrate article points out the costs of couplehood. A romantic dinner for two at Delmonico's, for example, costs about $300. A dozen red roses runs anywhere from $35 to $90 (including delivery), and an engagement ring can run into the thousands. And while this article doesn't go into the costs of an actual wedding, the popular wedding site puts the average cost at an eye-popping $27,800. (Needless to say, frugal individuals can avoid a lot of these costs, or cut them considerably. It is quite possible to eat out for $30 rather than $300, and I can safely say that you can have a perfectly nice, if not lavish, wedding for $2780 rather than $27,800.)

In some ways, it seems like the way to have the best of both worlds—at least in financial terms—is to share a household, but not with a romantic partner. By living with a friend or a sibling, you can share household expenses and chores without being expected to bring flowers on Valentine's Day. True, you don't get the tax perks, but then, you also don't have to explain away the lipstick on your collar (unless your roommate is the one who does the laundry).

Friday, February 4, 2011

Another semi-ecofrugal idea

The same TipHero article that led me to yesterday's discovery of carbon credits for individuals today steered me toward another site that appears, on the surface, to be a model of ecofrugality. The company is called Terracycle, and what it does is collect trash that can't be recycled—juice packs, candy wrappers, Ziploc bags—and "upcycle" it into new products. Most recycled materials end up being "downcycled," or turned into a new product with lower value than the original (for example, office paper and cardboard being shredded for use as packaging material). Terracycle's products, by contrast, are allegedly worth more than the waste materials they're made from. Among the products for sale on their site are a cork board made from used wine corks, a backpack made from Capri-Sun pouches, and an insulated cooler made from Starburst wrappers. The waste materials they use are collected by individuals across the country, who get rewarded for their efforts with a semiannual check to a school or charity of their choice.

I don't deny that this is a very clever idea, and at first blush, it seems very ecofrugal as well. After all, they're taking waste and turning it into useful products, right? Isn't preventing waste the very definition of ecofrugality? Yet the more I browse the site and learn about its products, the more I'm convinced it's not for me.

The first problem I have with it is that so many of the waste materials they collect are for specific name-brand products, such as M&M/Mars-branded candy wrappers, Aveeno beauty product packages, and Neosporin tubes. This means that an ecofrugal person like myself, who prefers store brands, will have a hard time collecting enough of anything to fill a container. And many of these branded packages get upcycled into new products that still bear the brand's name, like Oreo three-ring binders and Clif Bar pencil cases. So Terracycle products are actually a form of advertising for the companies whose materials they use. They serve to promote brand loyalty, which in turn undermines the ecofrugal habits of choosing store brands and cooking from scratch.

Second, even the materials they collect that aren't branded tend to be in some way wasteful. They don't ask for a specific brand of juice pouches, for instance, but all juice pouches, regardless of brand, are absurdly overpackaged. It's much cheaper to buy juice in a big bottle, or better yet in a tube of frozen concentrate to be mixed with water, and both options produce far less packaging waste. I can't help thinking it must be better, in terms of full-cycle environmental costs, to avoid excess packaging in the first place than to assuage your guilt by sending off the wasteful packages to be made into new products. Even if the juice pouches stay out of the waste stream, they still require more materials and energy to produce, ship to stores, ship back to Terracycle, and upcycle into new products than other, cheaper alternatives.

Admittedly, there are some products here that an ecofrugal person might use, such as zip-top plastic bags. There are always some occasions when reusable containers aren't practical. But most ecofrugalites would prefer to save money and resources by rinsing and reusing the bags, and continuing to reuse them until they develop holes. Perhaps they could still be Terracycled at that point, but it does seem like encouraging people to send their bags to Terracycle for "upcycling" after just one use is tacitly discouraging reuse at home (which is much easier to do and wastes no energy on shipping).

My final quibble, and perhaps the most serious, is that many of the products sold by Terracycle don't actually seem to be that useful. Turning a bunch of candy wrappers into a pencil case isn't really preventing waste if the person who buys that pencil case didn't need it in the first place. On the contrary, it's just adding a new level of wastefulness, because now in addition to the materials and energy used to produce and ship the original candy wrappers, you have the energy (and probably some additional materials) required to produce and ship the pencil case to a new owner who was doing just fine without it—not to mention the waste of money on a product that isn't really necessary. Admittedly, some of these products are necessary, like a backpack or notebooks for school—but wouldn't it be more ecofrugal to buy a sturdy canvas backpack and keep it for several years, repairing it as needed, than to buy a new cheap backpack every year, even if it does have recycled cookie wrappers in it?

Perhaps I'm not being really fair to TerraCycle. After all, the majority of consumers probably are going to buy candy bars and juice pouches anyway, and replace their school supplies yearly—and given that, it's probably less wasteful for those candy wrappers and juice pouches to get turned into new school supplies than simply used once and discarded. (I say "probably" because, without an accurate tally of the complete life-cycle energy costs, there's no way to know for sure whether these upcycled products actually require less material and energy to make and ship than would be used in simply landfilling the wastes—or incinerating them to recover some of their value as energy.) But I still feel convinced that those of us who are truly ecofrugal—who already take steps to save money, avoid packaging waste, and buy durable products that will last—will have very little to gain by either sending waste to Terracycle or buying products from them.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Carbon credits for individuals

I just learned about an interesting idea for combating global warming: carbon credits for individuals. As you probably know, companies that fail to meet carbon emissions standards can meet their obligations by buying carbon credits, and companies that do better than the requirement can make money by selling them. But now, the somewhat unfortunately named website allows individuals to get a piece of this action as well. You start by submitting copies of your own utility bills for the past year, and then if you significantly reduce your energy use over the next year, you can sell a Voluntary Emissions Reduction (VER) and earn anywhere from $10 to $25. (Presumably, the site itself makes its money by taking a cut of this.)

This is an intriguing idea, but I can't help wondering how much good it will really do. True, the site gives people a sold financial incentive to reduce their carbon footprint, but in most cases, people already have such an incentive: lower utility bills. In fact, the site itself, to encourage people to sign up, talks about how much they can save rather than how much they can earn—suggesting that the potential savings from lower energy use are much a much bigger prize than the potential earnings from selling the carbon credits. So it seems hard to believe that people who weren't motivated to save energy already are going to be motivated by the lure of carbon credits. And even if this site does encourage more households to start cutting their energy use, by selling the carbon credits, it just makes it easier for big companies to avoid doing the same. So it doesn't actually promote energy savings across the board: it just shuffles the savings around, giving one person credit for another's work. (Of course, this is a problem of the cap-and-trade system as a whole, not the site itself. To be honest, the sale of carbon credits reminds me a bit of the sale of indulgences in the Middle Ages: "Go ahead and sin if you want; just pay some money up front and we can make it go away.")

On the other hand, since the carbon credit market exists anyway, there seems no reason why individual households shouldn't get their own little piece of it. My only real gripe with this site is that it's of no personal use to me. It would be great for someone who's been meaning to take more steps to conserve, but keeps putting it off: the credits would provide a bonus for taking action. But in our case, there just isn't that much left to cut. We've already taken most of the steps the site suggests ("Switch to Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs," "Install a Low-Flow Shower Head," "Hang your clothes out to dry once a week"), and I'm not sure how much more we could reasonably save. True, there are some steps we haven't taken in the past because I found, after crunching the numbers, that they wouldn't be cost-effective, and perhaps with the added bonus from the carbon credits they would be. For example, we chose to replace our old water heater with an efficient tank heater, rather than a super-efficient tankless heater, and maybe the carbon credits would have been enough to make the tankless heater a reasonable choice. But given that we've already replaced the old heater, it's a bit late for that now. Similarly, it's too late to get any credit for adding more insulation to the attic, which we did two years ago. In other words, as far as energy savings go in our house, we've already harvested all the low-hanging fruit—and the steps we haven't taken yet (like upgrading all our windows) would certainly be costly enough to dwarf the potential benefits of a $15 credit.

However, if you should happen to be in a different situation yourself—for instance, if you've just moved into a new home and haven't yet made any energy upgrades—then by all means, try the site and let me know how it works out for you.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Who saves the most?

Today, while cruising the Dollar Stretcher forums, I ran across a link to an interesting article: "How to Save a Third of Your Income." It's an interview with Kimberly Palmer, the author of a book called “Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.” She says that she saved a third of her income throughout her twenties, mostly because she and her husband "continued living like college students" throughout that period. Now that they have a house and a baby, she says they're only saving about half as much, though she hopes to return to saving a third of their income when their child is older.

One response to the article said, "I think it's an interesting realization that it it is so much easier to save when you are young and don't have liabilities." I'd heard this argument before: Amy Dacyczyn, author of the Tightwad Gazette newsletter and books, claims that of all the money she and her husband managed to save up for a down payment on a house, the largest portion was saved during the first year of their marriage, before they had kids.

I thought this over, and my reaction was "It is an interesting argument...but I'm not sure I buy it." I know for a fact that my husband and I save a much larger percentage of our joint income now than I did when I was young and single, and the reason is obvious: I was making barely enough to live on. After college, it took me 6 months to land my first job, and my starting salary was around $18,000. It took me another six months just to find an apartment that I could afford on that. Once I was out on my own (with two roommates), I always managed to make ends meet, but I didn't save anywhere close to a third of my income. I actually thought I was doing quite well to be saving anything at all.

But today, my husband and I have two incomes, and our expenses, while they're certainly higher than one single person's, are nowhere near as much as two single people would spend living separately. Despite my unpredictable freelance income (a couple of years, I've actually made less money than I did at that first job), we've always been able to live comfortably and still save well over one-third of our combined income. Even with a mortgage and a house to maintain, we still have much more slack in our budget than I had during those early years.

Of course, I had to admit that our situation might not be typical. Our combined income is probably above average, and unlike many couples, we have no kids. (Not as many as you might think, though; as of the 2000 Census, there were more married couples without children than with them. On the other hand, this refers only to children under 18, so the figure also includes empty-nesters whose kids have moved out. Still, it's clear that couples without children are not as rare as some people imagine. But I digress.) So I decided to try and dig up some statistics to answer the question: how do the income and expenses of the average single 20-something compare to those of the average married 30-something with children?

After a little poking around, I found what I wanted at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These statistics are all from the 2009 Consumer Expenditure Survey, Table 3: "Age of reference person: Average annual expenditures and characteristics." This table compares the expenses of "consumer units" (which translates roughly to "households") based on the age of a "reference person" (that is, one of the heads of the household). In households where the "reference person" is under 25 years old, the average number of children under 18 is 0.4. Since you can't have a fraction of a child, this means that most of the young folks in this group are childless. In these households, the average annual income is $25,695 ($25,522 after taxes), but the average annual expenditures are $28,119. So the average savings for this group is actually negative; the average person in this group lives beyond his/her income.

Contrast this with the average household of 25-to-34-year-olds. These folks have, on average, 1.1 children, and their expenditures are naturally higher: $46,494 a year, on average. But their average income is also much higher: $58,946 before taxes, or $57,239 after taxes. So this household can save an average of $10,745 a year—about 19 percent of their after-tax income. Move up to the 35-to-44-year-old age group, and things look even brighter. The average household in this group has 1.3 children, and their expenditures have gone up to $57,301. But their income is now $77,005 before taxes, or $74,900 after taxes. So they are saving $17,599 a year, or 23 percent of after-tax income.

Now, I'm not trying to argue that any of these "average" households is representative of how much it's possible to save. My own experience, as well as Kimberly Palmer's, shows that some people are able to save much more than these averages, both in their youth and into middle age. But if we look to these statistics for an idea of what's typical, I would have to conclude that while it may be possible to save money as a single person in your early 20s, it's definitely easier when you're older and part of a two-income household—kids or no kids.