Saturday, August 27, 2011

Repair or replace, part 2

The ecofrugal lifestyle rests on a few basic principles, one of which—to invert a phrase from Aldous Huxley—is "mending is better than ending." In other words, repairing an item is usually both cheaper and greener than replacing it. Usually. But as I noted a month ago in my "Repair or replace?" post, the decision isn't always that straightforward. Sometimes the cost of repairing an item exceeds that of a cheap replacement, causing the "eco" and "frugal" halves of ecofrugality, which normally go together like chocolate and peanut butter, to come into conflict.

This week we came across another example. My husband's sturdy workboots became damaged beyond repair—the sole completely split in half, and since it's a molded sole, we couldn't just resole them. We couldn't complain too much, since the boots were free in the first place (gleaned from a pile of stuff our former neighbors discarded when they moved), but since they were his everyday footwear, he needed something to replace them. So our first thought was to try repairing an old pair of shoes that he'd owned for nearly 20 years but had worn very little in the past ten because all the tread had worn off the sole, making them slippery in the rain. I figured that for around $20, we could resole these and possibly make them last another ten years.

Ha ha, silly me. When I took them to our local shoe shop, they informed me that this type of sole cost $60 to replace. I might have thought it was worth the money to extend the life of an otherwise good pair of shoes, but we'd already done a little poking around in a Famous Footwear and found that a new pair of shoes in the same brand and similar style would only cost around $70. So the cost of repairing a 20-year-old pair of shoes, with who knows how much life left in the uppers, would be 85 percent as much as a whole new pair. Eco says repair, frugal says, mental overload!

In the end, we went to Sears and bought him a new pair of sturdy work shoes, which cost $35 on sale and have proved to be very comfortable. But we still haven't come to any firm decision about what to do with the old pair of shoes. Since they have sentimental value as well as usefulness, he doesn't want to throw them out, so it seems like we might as well repair them so they can be used. But on the other hand, is it really worth $60 to give him what would now be only a secondary pair of shoes, since he has a decent pair for every day? Will spending the $60 now save us money in the long run, eliminating the need for future $35 stopgap shoes that might only last a year or two? Or will it be money down the drain, since the uppers will soon go the same way as the soles? Is it truly ecofrugal, in this case, to repair them, or are we better off just keeping them as an extra pair to be worn on sunny days only until they finally fall apart completely?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Spend where it counts (or, a $45 band on a $13 watch)

The watch I wear every day is a cheap Timex Carriage model that I bought nearly ten years ago at Target. I think I paid $13 for it, on sale. I chose it at the time because it met my fairly basic requirements:

1) A dial face with an hour hand, a minute hand, a second hand, and all twelve numbers. (You'd be surprised how hard this last feature is to find in a women's watch.)
2) A bracelet-type metal band. (Cloth ones wear out too quickly, and the metal "expansion bracelets" always seem to snag the tiny hairs on my arm.)

Those were the only features I specifically wanted, and they're pretty much the only features I got. The watch does also have a little built-in night light that has turned out to be handy. But other than that, it's got no bells and whistles: no calendar, no calculator, no stopwatch. It's just a very basic watch—about as close as you can get to the Platonic ideal of a Wristwatch.

For a cheap watch, it's held up surprisingly well—or at least, the timepiece itself has. After a few years of everyday use, however, the plating on the two-toned metal band wore completely through, exposing the base metal underneath, which gave me a rash as it rubbed against my skin. My first attempt at an ecofrugal fix for this problem was to paint over the exposed metal with nail polish, and that kept the watch wearable for a while—but eventually, the links got clogged with dried polish. So I replaced the band with a similar one, but within a year, the plating on the new band started wearing off just as the old one had. Rather than buy another cheap band, I went back to the store and asked if they had one made of solid stainless steel. They did—but it cost $45, more than three times what I'd originally paid for the watch. And I had to make a hasty decision: is it really worth it to put a $45 band on a $13 watch?

My conclusion: not only is it worth it, it's the only choice that really makes sense. What I need from a watch itself is extremely simple: all it has to do is keep good time, and a cheap watch does the job just as well as an expensive one. A cheap band, by contrast, doesn't meet my needs, at least not for very long. Buying a new, cheap watchband every year would cost more in the long run, and surely be more wasteful, than investing $45 in a good one. For my needs, a cheap watch and a high-quality band is simply the best combination.

It seems to me that the same principle applies to most purchases. It almost always makes sense to spend money on the features you want and skimp on the features you don't want. For example, if you have an old car you're happy with, but it lacks some new feature you want (say, cruise control), it makes sense to spend the money to have it added, even if it's more than the value of the old car itself. It will still cost less than a whole new car, so why trade in an old car you're happy with for a new one with lots of features you don't want just to get the one that you do?

Of course, sometimes in order to get the one feature you want, you have to accept some others as well, because the manufacturer doesn't give you a choice. On a new car, for instance, a feature you want (such as extra airbags) may be available only as part of an "option package" that also includes power windows and GPS and other assorted bells and whistles. But by looking carefully at all the alternatives, you should at least be able to avoid taking any features you actually prefer not to have. For example: as some of you may remember from my "Repair or Replace?" post, I recently bought a new computer. All I wanted was more memory and faster processing speed, but buying a new Mac Mini meant that I also got all the additional "features" of the Lion operating system—such as a complete lack of back-compatibility with all existing PowerPC applications. Besides having to abandon my beloved Eudora mail client for a new one, I couldn't use my existing version of Office, and the new version I was forced to "upgrade" to crashed all the time. So I sent it back to Apple and then, after a bit more research, bought last year's Mini instead from a reseller called PowerMax. (Note to anyone in the market for a computer: I recommend them. Their prices are good and their customer service is terrific.) In my case, this "downgrade" was actually an upgrade.

So now I'm happily settled in with my one-year-old Mac, running seven-year-old software, hooked up to an eight-year-old monitor and printer. Because after all, if all I need is a better band, why replace the watch?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Weather permitting

It occurred to me yesterday, as it has before, just how much of the ecofrugal life is contingent on the phrase, "weather permitting." For example:

Yesterday Brian rode his bike to work (having just finished installing the new rear wheel and brake line). He usually bikes to work during the warmer months, unless he needs to get in particularly early or to stay particularly late. But he can't do it during the winter, because it's too cold and, more to the point, too dark. And he has to skip it on those summer days when the temperature is over 100 or there's the threat of a thunderstorm. So although biking to work is an undeniable win-win-win in ecofrugal terms—a way to save money, help the environment and get some exercise all at once—it's also a habit that depends on the weather and climate.

I did a load of laundry yesterday and hung it up on the line. I generally use the clothesline during the summer, even if it means having to put off doing the laundry until the forecast calls for sunshine. But I can't do it in the winter, because the clothes would just freeze solid. (I've heard of people who do it anyway and claim that they're "mostly dry" once they thaw. But I have my limits.) So once again, even though drying clothes for free with sunlight, rather than paying to do it with fossil fuels, is an ecofrugal no-brainer, it's still a practice that only works when the weather allows it.

I also took a walk in the afternoon, as I do on all but the very hottest or coldest days. It was a particularly ecofrugal walk, as I stopped in at the local farmer's market and, after that, at the nearby thrift shop. Locally grown peaches for $2 a pound and pants in good condition for $2 a pair—a definite ecofrugal triumph. But it's a trip I wouldn't have been able to make in the winter or the spring, because our local farmers' market is only open from July through November. (It's also only open on Fridays until 4pm, which means it's really only available to those of us who don't work bankers' hours, which has always struck me as a bit annoying. But I guess they can't really do it over the weekend, because there are other markets to set up in neighboring towns on Saturday and Sunday.) So this particular ecofrugal habit is one that's only available at certain times of year. (The thrift shop is open year-round, but only for a very few hours a week; I'm much less likely to pass by there at a time when it happens to be open if I'm not on my way to the farmers' market.)

Finally, in the evening, we went to a free concert at the park in Hopewell. This happened to be Broadside Electric, a band we particularly know and love, but we've gone to other outdoor concerts like this in our area without knowing the band, simply because they're fun and free of charge. But this ecofrugal form of entertainment is—once again—only available in the summertime. Even if it weren't too cold for outdoor entertainment in the winter, the light wouldn't last late enough to make it practical.

Basically, what it comes down to is that it's a lot easier to be ecofrugal in the summertime than it is in the winter. And that's true not just of a few special events, but of our whole lifestyle. We generally manage to get through the summer without using air conditioning more than two or three times, but we'd never get through the winter without heat.

Perhaps if I want to take my ecofrugal lifestyle to the next level, I should be concentrating on ways to save money and natural resources during the colder months. So far, all I can think of is canning and freezing garden surplus (which would be a great idea if we ever had any surplus) and wearing layers to stay warm (which I already do, and I still can't seen to tolerate any temperature below 68 degrees). So maybe, like a squirrel storing up nuts, I should really make a start now on gathering nuggets of ecofrugal wisdom to get me through the winter. Does anyone out there have any nuggets to contribute?