Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What passes for extravagance

OK, I know I said I wouldn't be posting during our vacation, but this is just a quick post to let you know about what passes for extravagance in our ecofrugal household:

The latest issue of Mother Earth News contained an article about pressure cookers that piqued my husband's interest. By cooking food with high-pressure steam, these nifty tools dramatically cut cooking time, thereby saving energy as well. (My parents had one of these years ago—I still remember the little valve on the top rocking hypnotically back and forth as the broccoli cooked—but lately they seem to have fallen out of favor with the rise of the microwave.) Although it sounded intriguing, he had to admit that we didn't really "need" it, and it probably wouldn't be worth investing $50 or more in a new "toy" for the kitchen.

On Christmas Day, however, the newspaper brought a plethora of fliers advertising after-Christmas sales, including one from JC Penney that showed a five-quart pressure cooker marked down to $20. And, on top of that, the sale flier included a coupon good for $10 off any purchase of $25 or more on the 26th and 27th. Spending the extra $5 wouldn't be a problem, since Penney's is Brian's preferred supplier for underwear, which he actually did need (and which happened to be on sale as well, with a buy-one-get-one-half-price offer). And the Penney's store was in an area that we wanted to visit anyway, to go to Penzey's Spices (a local store that's a great source for intriguing spice blends, specifically a veggie soup base that makes just about any meatless soup taste richer and more flavorful) and the local Half Price Books (self-explanatory)—so we wouldn't even need to make an extra trip.

We did have a moment of indecision in the store itself, when we discovered that the 5-packs of undies were considerably more expensive than Brian had remembered, and he realized that the underwear purchase alone would put us over the $25 limit to take advantage of the coupon. Since we didn't actually need to buy the pressure cooker to get our discount—even though that was what had brought us to the store in the first place—he thought perhaps it would be too frivolous to buy it. But in the end he decided, hey, it's Christmas—it's okay to indulge ourselves. By spending ten dollars (after coupon) on an energy-saving, time-saving, money-saving device for the kitchen that will probably be used primarily to cook dry beans and brown rice.

This is how the ecofrugal lifestyle distorts your perceptions after a while. I truly think Brian felt as extravagant and devil-may-care buying that $10 pressure cooker as other men his age do dropping $30,000 on a little red sports car. And I suspect that, in the end, he'll get just as much pleasure out of it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Frugal meets elegant

This will probably be my last post for a while, since we're off to Indiana soon to celebrate the holidays with my in-laws. I have a whole list of profound, serious topics I could write about for this farewell post, such as why Europeans save more than Americans do, or whether the celebrated female love of shopping is nothing more than a response to social disempowerment, or whether working less and spending less could be the key to a longer, happier life. But the fact is, the topic I really feel most drawn to right now is holiday parties. Specifically, how to have one without spending a ridiculous amount of money.

This is actually inspired by an article that appeared three years ago in the New York Times, in which the writer challenged David Monn, party planner to the stars, to help him "design a transcendent holiday dinner party for eight at my West Village apartment on a recessionary budget — say, $30 a head." When this link turned up in the budget-oriented Tip Hero newsletter, the bulk of the responses were along the same lines as mine: "$30 a head is cheap?" Several respondents also found it ludicrous that the best the celebrated event planner could do with this austere budget was twice-baked potatoes for a main course, a store-bought cake for dessert, and paper snowflakes (like the ones you made in grade school) for decoration. How, the group wondered, did he ever manage to spend $240 on that?

So I decided to pose the same challenge to myself and see just how much more cheaply I could do it. My normal idea of a great holiday party is a potluck supper, caroling, and board games, but to make it a fair test, I challenged myself to plan the same type of party the author of the article wanted: an elegant dinner for eight, complete with holiday-themed decor. Since the closest thing our house has to a formal dining area is in our large downstairs room, guests would have to pass through a good bit of the house to get to it—so the decorations would have to cover not just the dining area itself, but also the living room, hall, and kitchen, to keep the mood going from the time guests walk in the door.

Fortunately, since tasteful holiday decorations tend to be natural and understated, they are easy to make quite cheaply. A Google search for "balsam centerpiece" reveals a variety of pieces ranging in price from $25 to $55 (plus shipping), but our local Christmas tree vendor will be glad to let you gather up an armload of trimmed-off evergreen branches for nothing, and pine cones are easily found under any convenient clump of pine trees. I can also gather clumps of red berries from the sidewalk near my neighbor's house, where a large holly tree obligingly drops them throughout December, and red pillar candles are just $2.50 each at IKEA. That means that for just $7.50, I could put a holiday centerpiece on the dining table and smaller ones in the living room and kitchen—and to keep the festive mood going along the the hallway, I'd deck out each of the doors with a single jingle-bell ornament (available in packs of six from the dollar store) hung from a length of colorful holiday ribbon (also from the dollar store). Total cost for decorations: $10.50 (or $12.50 if I give a tip to the tree sellers).

David Monn also spent some of the $240 budget on prettying up the table, using a $13 roll of what the article called "quilting batting" (though the audio slideshow calls it "bunting," which is probably more accurate) as a tablecloth. We happen to have a nice white tablecloth already that fits our dining table at full extension, but we don't have a matched set of eight napkins—and while we do have eight matched dinner plates, they're Corelleware, with a blue-and-green pattern that isn't particularly elegant or Christmasy. But no problem; I could just borrow my mom's china, a nice white with a simple gold rim that would fit into the holiday decorating scheme just fine. (She'd probably be happy to see it put to good use, since it just sits in a cabinet most of the year.) I might even decide to invest ten bucks in a set of marked-down napkins from Pier 1, since none of ours are Christmas-appropriate.

Which brings us to the all-important question of what to serve. This is the area where I won't skimp: I'll keep the meal as frugal as I can, but not if it means compromising on delicious. (No store-bought cake for me, thank you.) Consulting our recipe files, I found a main dish that's both elegant and frugal: butternut squash cassoulet, from Cooking Light magazine. To fill out the "transcendent" menu, I'd start with the citrus spinach salad from The Clueless Vegetarian, and conclude with one of my husband's famous homemade apple pies. Grocery list:

2 bunches spinach (organic): $5.00
4 large oranges (about 1.5 pounds) (organic): $2.25
1 Vidalia onion: $.50
1 head garlic: $.26
4 ounces bacon ends (from the Amish market, $4.00/lb): $1.00
2 yellow onions: $.22
1 butternut squash (about 2 pounds) (organic, sale price): $2.50
2 pounds dry white beans: $3.00
4 large Granny Smith apples (about 1.5 pounds) (organic): $3.00
1/2 lb. sugar (organic): $.80
1/2 lb. butter (sale price): $1.00
1 lb. flour (store brand): $.36
1 container vanilla ice cream (store brand): $2.50
Total: $22.39. This doesn't count the little bits of other ingredients—olive oil, vinegar, veggie broth, Parmesan cheese, herbs, spices, corn starch, and lemon juice—so if we tack on a couple of extra dollars for that, we can estimate that $25 will cover all the food.

The party in the article also included six bottles of Three-Buck Chuck, which seems like an awful lot of wine for eight people, especially if six of them are driving home. We're not really wine drinkers ourselves, but assuming that our guests are, we'll add on just two bottles for the six of them, to ensure that they can enjoy themselves and still make it home in one piece. So that makes another $6 for wine—or about $7 with tax.

So, tallying up the cost of my frugal party:
Food: $25
Wine: $7
Tableware: $10
Decorations: $12.50
Total: $54.50—less than 25 percent of what the couple in the Times spent. And I think my frugal menu and decor are every bit as elegant as David Fancy-Pants Monn's.

And on that note, I bid you all farewell for the time being, and happy holidays!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Holiday freebies

Just a quick post to say that Amazon.com is once again running their "25 Days of Free Holiday Music" giveaway. This musical advent calendar offers a different holiday-themed track each day, in a variety of genres. Selections to date have included "Greensleeves" as rendered by Mannheim Steamroller, Bing Crosby's version of "Adeste Fideles," and a version of "Deck the Halls" by, I kid you not, Twisted Sister. Even if you don't like the songs, reading the user comments can be highly entertaining: a remixed version of Duke Ellington's recording of "Jingle Bells" prompted such comments as "A good song ruined," "The worst holiday mistake made since colorizing It's a Wonderful Life," and "This took talent...I didn't think anyone could make Duke Ellington sound terrible."

Happy frugal holidays!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Last harvest

Today marks another milestone on the wheel of the year: the last harvest. We went out this morning and cleared away everything from our garden beds. We got several small clumps of broccoli off our broccoli plants (which never yielded a single compact head but instead grew into massive baobabs with tiny little heads of edible broccoli) and a whole big bowlful of arugula (which had apparently been growing there quietly all autumn, concealed by the weeds, until we cleared them away). After pulling out all the dead tomato vines and (we hope) all the dandelions, we made the beds nice and snug for winter with a six-inch blanket of leaves—gathered from our neighbors' curbs, since our own yard doesn't get enough leaves to fill even one bed—and, to bring in the winter properly, filled up the bird feeder. And so here we are, all settled in for winter—and if we start craving a taste of summer during the long dark nights ahead, we'll have a nice batch of arugula pesto all stashed away in the freezer.


That's "SNAP" as in "Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program," the program formerly known as Food Stamps.

In its latest newsletter, the Community Food Bank of New Jersey talked about the difficulty of feeding a family on SNAP benefits and invited people to take the "Food Stamp challenge" for one week. The challenge is to get by on "about $4 per day worth of food or $30 per week– the average food stamp benefit." My initial reaction to this was, "Hmm, $30 a week, that's difficult," and then my almost immediate second reaction was, "Oh wait...is that $30 per person?" Because if so, our average weekly food budget for the two of us (roughly $55) already falls within this limit—and that's including all meals eaten out, which aren't covered under SNAP. For groceries only, we spend about $48 a week, which is well within the limit.

However, in order to keep our food budget this low, we use a variety of strategies that it's impossible to use when you're following the challenge for only a week. We buy certain items in bulk, for instance (such as my Fair Trade/organic coffee and cocoa, which we buy five pounds at a time from Dean's Beans), and stock up on others when there's a really good sale. But under the rules of this challenge, you must purchase all the food you eat during the week with your $30; you can't use any food you already have, and you can't accept any free food "from friends, family, or at work, including at receptions or briefings." (I really don't get that last one—do they really think that if you were on food benefits, you would refuse a free doughnut at a meeting?)

These limits mean that you can't:
  • Buy anything in bulk. Powdered milk costs a lot less per quart than fresh milk, but it comes in a 20-quart box for $10, which would eat up a third of your $30 budget. So you have to buy a gallon of fresh milk instead for $4, paying $1 a quart instead of 50 cents a quart.
  • Wait for a good sale. We would not, for example, be allowed to use any of the cheese we have stockpiled in the fridge, which was purchased on sale for $2 a pound; we'd have to go out and buy more specifically for the week, paying the regular price of $4 a pound or more.
  • Use any vegetables from your garden. SNAP benefits do cover garden seeds, but obviously a week is not long enough to buy seeds, plant them, let them grow, and harvest the crops—so anything grown prior to the start of the challenge is off limits. (I assume that foods you can forage for, such as dandelion greens, would still be allowed.)
  • Go out to eat at any time during the week, even just for a cup of coffee, because restaurants do not take SNAP.
  • Accept any invitations during the week, because that would be taking "free food from friends." I'm not sure whether that means you can't even bring your own food to a potluck; it seems to me that if you made your own contribution with food you purchased out of the SNAP funds, that should mean that you have the right to share your dish with others and eat from whatever they've brought. But the organizers of the challenge might still consider this to be accepting free food, since the only dish you actually paid for is the one that you brought.
In other words, living on $60 worth of food for just one week is a lot harder than sticking to a $60 weekly food budget for an entire year. And it would be practically impossible to do at any time during December, because the month is so packed with parties that you'd have to turn down invitations left and right to keep an entire week of your calendar free from them.

So, I've decided that if I'm going to tackle this challenge at all, I should do it in January, after all the holiday fuss is over—say, January 2 through 8. But I still haven't made up my mind whether it's worth it at all to take a "challenge" that seems so unrealistic as this one. What do you think? Is it worthwhile taking this contrived challenge just to prove that I can do it, or is it better to stick to my regular grocery buying practices, which actually save more money over the long run?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A modest ecofrugal proposal

Here's another quick post, this time to tell you about a story in today's Washington Post: "Recycle homes to fix America's housing crisis." The author, Nancy Welsh (founder of an organization that rehabilitates abandoned houses) points out that there are 3 million American homes now in foreclosure, and there are millions of Americans who lack affordable housing. Some are struggling to pay the rent, some are bunking with family or friends, and some are literally on the street. So rather than tear down the homes in an effort to reduce supply and drive up property values, why not restore these homes as affordable housing for the millions who need it? This plan, Welsh notes, "would also save millions of pounds of construction debris from our nation’s already overburdened landfills," as well as "deferring" millions of tons of CO2 emissions that would be produced by building an equivalent number of units from scratch.

Since ecofrugality is all about avoiding waste, recycling entire houses seems like ecofrugal thinking on a truly massive scale.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Ecofrugal spirits in the material world

Just a quick post today to link to this cute little video produced by the Center for a New American Dream: "The High Price of Materialism." It's about the ways in which materialistic values and a lifestyle that centers around money are harmful to individuals and to society as a whole. One of the points it makes is that the more emphasis a society places on materialistic values, the less it places on "pro-social" values. That is, the more people care about money, the less they care about other people and about the environment. By the same token, when people focus more on "intrinsic values" such as "personal, social, and ecological well-being," they become less interested in materialism. This struck me as a very concise illustration of why the "eco" and "frugal" halves of frugality are natural allies: less spending means less waste and less damage to the environment.

It also, apparently, means a higher quality of life. In the video, psychologist Tim Kasser explains that the more people value money and material goods, the less happy they tend to be with their lives. By contrast, building a life that "expresses your intrinsic values"—more time with loved ones, meaningful work (even if it comes with a lower salary), and involvement in causes you care about—boosts quality of life in ways that more income, more expenses, and more material goodies can't. In fact, the research cited in the video indicates that not only is "eco" a natural companion for "frugal," but also that the word "frugal" itself, in its truest sense, refers not to deprivation, but to enrichment. In the modern world, frugality really does live up to the ancient origins of its Latin root, frux, meaning fruit: a frugal life is also a fruitful life, filled with joy and abundance that mere "stuff" can't provide.