Thursday, July 28, 2011

Self-employment, self-sufficiency

Thought for today: working from home is a big help with living an ecofrugal lifestyle. The time that I don't spend commuting, for instance, can be used for hanging a load of laundry—so I save on gas for the car and gas for the dryer at the same time. And since I set my own hours, I can run errands on foot in the middle of the day and get a bit of exercise at the same time.

Of course, the down side is that if I didn't have a husband working full-time, all the money I save with my little ecofrugal habits, and a lot more, would be eaten up by private health insurance. I'm sure hoping the state health pools that kick in three years from now will fix that.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Repair or replace?

[Note to readers: Once again, apologies for the long lag time between entries. Our last two weekends were completely booked up, the last one with family and the one before that with friends, and during the intervening week our free time was partly filled up with evening engagements and partly drained away by the brain-frying effects of last week's record-breaking heat wave. So this entry, originally started a week ago, is only now coming to press (changing somewhat in the process to reflect the events of the past week). We now resume your regularly scheduled blog.]

My husband's old ten-speed bike, originally cobbled together by his dad from the parts of three other old bikes found at police auctions, looks like it may be on its last legs (or wheels, as it were). The brakes aren't functioning, and the rear wheel has four broken spokes—more than the bike shop is willing to repair.  So we're faced with the age-old question: repair or replace? Is it worth trying to fix it, or is it time to give up and send it to the landfill?

Naturally, we tried first to figure out if there was a way to do the former on the cheap. I put out an APB on Freecycle for a 27-inch bicycle wheel from a ten-speed, but the only response we got was from a guy in another town who said, "Will an old and rusted one do?"—and then didn't respond to my "We'll try it, when can we pick it up?" We might have more luck looking for a whole non-working ten-speed bike, rather than just the rear wheel—but then we'd have the rest of the bike to dispose of.

Next we looked into the cost of repairing the bike with new parts. Brian checked with the local bike shop and found that he could get a new wheel and a new brake line for $70 (plus $20 if he wanted them to install it). But it isn't really clear whether this is a more ecofrugal option than picking up an entire bike secondhand. Is it better, environmentally speaking, to keep our old bike on the road with new parts, or to keep someone else's old bike on the road and scrap ours? I checked on Craigslist and found several used 10-speeds for around $65, a bit less than it would cost to repair the old one—but in each case, we'd have to drive an hour or more to pick up the bike (and we might find after looking at it that it wasn't worth the money).

It seems clear that either buying used or repairing with new parts is the best option, but just to get a complete picture, I also checked to see how much a basic new bike would cost. I checked the ConsumerSearch report on "comfort bikes" (that is, bikes suited for commuting and other light use) and found that their top pick in the "budget" category costs close to $500. This, clearly, is the least ecofrugal option of all; it would cost more than five times as much as repairing the old bike, plus the environmental cost of all the new materials and energy required to manufacture it.

And yet, I must confess, there's a part of me that wants to choose this option. Why? Because we recently went through this same decision process with my ten-year-old Macintosh computer, and the verdict in that case was "replace." So we have just spent about $700 on a new Mac Mini for me (along with the various cables and bits of software we had to replace because the creaky old versions I've been using won't work on the new machine). And even though this computer was a genuine need and not a want—even though my old computer was ten years old, and so slow at Web surfing that it was impeding my ability to do my job, probably costing us money because it took me so much longer to finish each work assignment—even though it's at least partly a business expense that I can deduct on my taxes, and even though I made a good-faith effort to repair the old one first by adding more memory, only concluding that I truly needed a new one when the upgrade failed to speed the machine up significantly—even so, still I can't help feeling somehow that if I got to buy a whole new computer, Brian shouldn't have to settle for repairing his old bike. If we just spent a big chunk of money on me, in other words, we should spend a comparable chunk of money on him.

I know this is an incredibly stupid way to make this decision. I guess the problem is, I don't really have a good sense of what would be a smart way to make it. If I had a straightforward "repair or replace" formula in my head (e.g., [cost to replace] / [cost to repair] * [annoyance factor of current item] / [annoyance factor of repaired item]), I could just apply it and feel confident that I'd always made the right decision. But this seems to be one of those choices that you have to make at least partly based on emotion, and emotional factors (such as "how much do I hate this old computer?" and "how much do I love the new one?") are much harder to quantify. The few formulas I have seen for making repair-or-replace decisions have all been fairly limited in scope—for example, "replace your old car when the cost to repair it exceeds its book value"—and even those seem flawed to me. The cost to repair the car may be more than its book value, but chances are, if you replace the car, you will not be replacing it with a used car exactly the same age, make, model, and condition as the one you have. Even assuming you could find such a car, it still wouldn't be identical to the old car; you wouldn't know how it had been driven over the past several years, or how carefully it had been maintained. (Thus, when we had the accident that totaled our old Honda, we decided to keep driving it, even though the insurance company thought the repairs would cost more than the car was worth. They were, but they were still less than it would cost us to buy another car that we could trust the way we trusted the old one.)

Or, to take an example offered by Consumer Reports, "If your appliance is eight or more years old, usually it makes sense to buy a new one. If you have a favorite high-end, older appliance, you may want to repair it...But skip any repair that costs more than half the price of a new product." This may be a nicely calibrated break-even point if you're doing the calculation purely in dollar terms, but what about environmental considerations? Shouldn't you factor in how much it's worth to you to keep your old appliance out of the landfill (and, on the other side of the equation, the potential energy savings of replacing it)?

Has anyone out there ever heard of—or thought up—a simple, useful rule for determining when it's best to repair an item, and when it's time to replace?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Savings in the bag

The other day, as I walked out of the supermarket carrying one bag of seltzer in my reusable, folding Chico Bag, it occurred to me, as it has several times before, that when I buy only a single item, the nickel I get knocked off for bringing my own bag is actually a significant percentage of the bill. And then I started wondering just how much I actually save in a year by bringing my own bags. Of course, carrying reusable bags is something I would do anyway, even if it didn't save me a cent, because it's such an eco-friendly move. The materials and energy that go into making a reusable bag are presumably more than the amount used to make a single disposable plastic bag—but that plastic bag is good for only one use (or two, perhaps, if you count lining a trash can with it), while the reusable bag will give years of service. But now that so many stores have started giving cents-off discounts for bringing your own bags—anywhere from two cents to ten cents per bag—it's a true ecofrugal no-brainer. Save money, save energy, and prevent waste, all at the same time—can't beat that with a stick.

So, how much does that savings actually amount to? To answer that question, I started checking through my past year's spending records to see how many trips I'd made to different grocery stores.  Here's what I found:

The store we shop at the most often is our local Stop & Shop, less than a mile down the road. Since I generally take a walk in the middle of the day anyhow, I frequently stop by there along the way to pick up just one or two items that I happen to need. Thus, on a typical Stop & Shop trip I use only one bag (generally the little Chico Bag, which I carry with me in my purse so I can never be caught without one). Stop & Shop gives a nickel discount for each bag, so that's 5 cents off per trip—and in the past year, I've made 113 trips to the Stop & Shop. So that's $5.65 right there.

The store that gives the most generous bag discount of all those we visit regularly is the Whole Earth Center, a natural foods store in Princeton. They give a dime off for each container you bring from home—not just the grocery bag itself, but also all the bags you use for your produce and all the containers you use to carry items from the bulk bins. (This produces the interesting result that if you buy a very small amount of something—for example, a spice—the amount you save on the bag may actually exceed what you spend on the product. I don't know whether anyone has ever made a serious attempt to exploit this loophole.) I estimate that on a typical trip to the Whole Earth Center, we use around five containers, including the shopping bag.  So at 10 cents each, that's 50 cents per trip. That means our 31 trips to the Whole Earth Center in the past year have earned us $15.50.

Another store we visit frequently is the Shop-Rite a few miles away. It doesn't have the best everyday prices, but it tends to have the best sales in our area, so we stop in once or twice a month to stock up on sale items. Usually, we take only one bag on these trips (not the Chico Bag but the big string bag I bought years ago from the Whole Earth Center, which can expand by a larger amount than you'd believe possible). This one bag gets us a nickel off on every trip, so on our 21 trips in the past year, we've saved  $1.05.

We also stop by the Aldi once or twice a month to stock up on staples that are cheapest there (such as cereal and orange juice). Unlike most stores, Aldi actually charges for bags—ten cents each, according to this post on When we shop at Aldi, we usually load up the handy folding plastic crate that lives in the trunk of our car; if we didn't have it, we'd probably have to use two shopping bags at a cost of 20 cents per trip. So over the course of 16 trips per year, we save $3.20.

At the bottom of the list, savings-wise, is the Pathmark, which we visit a few times a year for sale items, using an average of one bag per trip. Pathmark is less generous with its bag discount than other retailers—only 2 cents off per bag—so in 6 trips a year, we save a measly 12 cents.

The other grocery store where we shop often is Trader Joe's, which we visit every couple of months to stock up on the items that are cheapest there (such as raisins, 100-percent-postconsumer-recycled toilet paper, and cruelty-free toothpaste). However, Trader Joe's doesn't give you a discount for bringing your own bags; instead, they offer you an entry into a drawing to win a gift card. Since I've never won it, I assume that bringing my own bag there 9 times in the past year has gained me nothing but personal satisfaction.

So, adding it all up, I find that bringing our own bags has saved us $25.52 over the course of the past year. It's not a big number, but look at it this way: bringing our own bags all year long gets us the equivalent of one bag of groceries for free. Or, to put it another way: a $7 Chico Bag could potentially pay for itself more than three times over in its first year of use.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Adventures in Freecycling

I've been having very mixed results with Freecycle in the past week or so. I've been involved in seven different transactions involving nine different individuals, some of them very easy and others extremely frustrating. Here's a play-by-play:

Transaction #1: I posted an offer for a book called The Complete Cheapskate that I picked up off the free table at our library book sale, just on the off chance that it had any useful advice in it I hadn't already heard many times over. (It didn't, and it was written with a heavily Christian slant that I found a bit oppressive.) I got a request for it within one hour, and it was picked up the next day. Result: success.

Transaction #2: I posted an offer for "unidentified tomato plants" in an effort to get rid of the volunteers that popped up in the vicinity of our compost bin. (The squash plants have been transplanted to our regular garden area, where they seem, after an initial rough patch, to be settling in okay.) Three people respond, and I say yes to all three, since there are plenty of tomato plants to go around. One of them (the same one who took the book) shows up as scheduled and takes several plants. The second one gives me a runaround for several days, never actually committing to a specific time, and finally stops responding. The third one offers to come on Monday but will not commit to a specific time, does not show up on Monday because "something came up," suggests coming on Friday but still will not commit to a time, finally agrees to come on Sunday between 11 and 12, and shows up around 2:30 after I had given up on her. At this point, I assumed that the half-a-dozen remaining tomato plants would end up in the compost bin, but the first Freecycler (the one who actually came when she said she would) contacts me again and asks if there are any tomato plants left, as hers didn't survive transplanting. I tell her that she is welcome to all the ones that are left, and she shows up promptly and takes them. Result: eventual success, but with considerable frustration in the process.

Transaction #3: I respond to another Freecycler's request for a microwave cart, offering an old white one that's been sitting unused in our basement. Freecycler responds promptly with, "I can pick it up today," but then writes back saying "Sorry something came up last min" and asks if he/she can pick it up on Saturday after 5pm. I respond in the negative and propose a couple of alternative times, and I also give out my phone number to facilitate scheduling. The Freecycler does not respond and is never heard from again. Result: failure. 

Transaction #4: I post an offer for three incandescent bulbs Brian unearthed while cleaning out our basement. At this point, I am feeling a bit disillusioned with Freecycle, so I'm astonished to get a response within the hour, proposing a specific date and even a specific time for pickup. I agree to leave the bulbs out on the porch (the usual method for transferring items between Freecyclers), and they are picked up more or less on schedule. Result: unqualified success.

Transaction #5: I post an offer for a "joystick with four classic arcade games." This is a little toy we picked up for a buck at a yard sale a few years back, which plugs directly into a TV set and has four 1980s-vintage video games hardwired into it. Since then we'd offered it to several friends, but no one was interested. Assuming we won't get any replies immediately, I then head out to a 4th of July party. When I get home, there's a response offering to pick the joystick up "within the hour if not spoken for." Fearing I may have missed my window, I respond that the joystick is available at any time. The Freecycler offers to come get it that very evening if I will leave the item out on the porch. By morning it is gone. Result: unqualified success.

Transaction #6: I respond to an offer for some "woven wood shades" from a Freecycler in a neighboring town. This Freecycler, apparently wary as a result of experiences like mine over the course of the week, asks me to commit to a specific time before giving an address. I suggest 7pm, and the Freecycler agrees. Brian and I pick them up and find them to be suitable for our small back room (which has gone through the past four years with no window treatments of any kind). Result: success.

Transaction #7: Earlier in the week, as Brian was cleaning out the basement, he discovered that my guitar case (which had been sitting untouched for months if not years) had developed mildew. The guitar itself was okay and is now sitting out on a stand in the downstairs room (where I might, with luck, remember to pick it up and play it once in a while), but I thought it might be handy to get a new case for it—so when I saw an offer for a new but slightly damaged case from a Freecycler right here in town, I immediately offered to take it. The Freecycler agreed and left it out on the porch for me. Unfortunately, as soon as I picked it up, I knew it was too bulky and too heavy for me. I barely managed to lug the thing home. Now it's just sitting in the back room waiting to be relisted for some other lucky Freecycler to pick up. Result: a successful transaction, but an unsatisfactory result.

Looking over the list, it's clear that my transactions have, on the whole, been more positive than negative, so I guess I really have no cause for complaint. But the week has made it abundantly clear that the course of free shopping does not always run smooth.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Green and Greener

Earlier this week I saw an ad online for a company called "The Check Gallery" that calls itself "the green choice for checks." Their checks, they claim, are all printed on recycled paper with vegetable-based inks. If I still used checks on a regular basis, I might have been tempted to pay the $13 for a couple of boxes of these. But I go through checks so slowly these days that I'm still working my way through the box my husband and I got when we opened our current checking account more than four years ago. (We changed addresses shortly after that, but I couldn't bring myself to throw out a practically new box of checks and order new ones; I've just been crossing out our old address and writing in the new one on every check I use for the past four years.)

The reason I use so few checks now is that our bank offers free online bill payment, and so nearly every bill we receive on a regular basis—phone, cable, credit cards, utilities—gets paid that way. I use a check four times a year to pay our water bill, and once in a very great while to pay a merchant who doesn't accept credit cards. Even my taxes now get paid electronically. And as far as I can tell, this option is not only quicker and cheaper than paying by mail with a check; it's also greener. There's no paper waste, and no fuel used for mailing the stuffed envelopes (or for manufacturing new checks and shipping them to me). Admittedly, I do presumably use some electricity to run my computer for the minute or two it takes to log on and pay a bill—but considering that my computer is on nearly all day anyway for work, I'd say the extra electricity used is negligible. (In fact, if I weren't taking a break from work to pay my bills, I'd probably just take a break to play solitaire and keep the computer on anyway.)

This got me thinking about how many other things that are touted as "green" choices are actually less green—and in many cases, less frugal—than other alternatives. Here are a few examples I was able to come up with:
  1. Paper bags rather than plastic ones. Actually, in terms of their overall resource use, it's not altogether clear that paper bags are greener than plastic—but it is decidedly clear that neither one is as green as a reusable bag, which also nets you anywhere from two to ten cents off each time you shop.
  2. Household products, such as cleaners, that are marketed as nontoxic and eco-friendly. Some of these are genuinely green and some not obviously so—but pantry staples, such as baking soda, vinegar, and salt, are decidedly nontoxic and much cheaper than either the "green" cleaning products or their conventional equivalents.
  3. Clothes made from hemp, bamboo, and other sustainable fabrics. These are probably greener than new clothes made from conventional cotton (the most pesticide-heavy crop on the planet) or petroleum-derived synthetics, but they can't compare to secondhand clothes, which require no materials and no energy to produce.
  4. Recycled-paper products such as tissues (not as green as reusable handkerchiefs) and copier paper (not as green as one-side-used paper that would otherwise go straight into the bin).
Those are all the examples I could come up with off the top of my head. Can you think of any others?