Thursday, December 27, 2012

Price Check: Costco revelation

Back in 2006, I wrote an article about my experience checking out BJ's Wholesale Club, a local warehouse club. I went in with a free one-day pass and my price book and checked the prices on a lot of staple items (toilet paper, tuna, onions, etc.) to see how they compared to the deals we were getting at local supermarkets. My conclusion was that for the way we shop, BJ's just didn't offer much in the way of savings—certainly not enough to justify the $45 membership fee (which has since gone up to $50). So I just decided that for us, a warehouse club membership wasn't a good value.

Since then, we've gone back to BJ's a few more times, using either a one-day pass or a one-month trial membership, and I've seen nothing to make me revise this opinion of this particular store. However, until today, I didn't have much opportunity to check out Costco, another warehouse store, which has built a reputation around being the anti-Wal-Mart. Unlike BJ's, Costco doesn't offer trial memberships or day passes; it won't even allow a non-member to buy a gift card for a friend who has a membership, as I discovered when I tried to buy one for my sister a few years back. This experience soured me a bit on the store, so I decided, in fox-and-grapes fashion, that it probably wasn't worth bothering to check out their membership costs. After all, I figured, if BJ's wasn't a good deal, why would Costco be any better?

Well, it appears I was a bit too hasty. Today I made a trip out to Costco with my in-laws, and I must admit, it was a revelation. The main difference between Costco and BJ's was that Costco, with its focus on the high-end market, sells a lot more organic and Fair Trade products. This includes coffee, which I've been having a lot of trouble finding at local stores. Until recently, I was buying it five pounds at a time over the Internet from Dean's Beans, a Massachusetts-based dealer in Fair Trade coffee (and cocoa and sugar). But when the price on their decaffeinated beans went up to $45—which works out to about $11 a pound with shipping—I thought maybe I could do better buying it at the store. The problem is, while both my local supermarket and Trader Joe's carry some coffees that are Fair Trade certified and some that are decaffeinated, I couldn't find any that were both. I managed to pick up a bag of Caribou Coffee on sale at Target for about $8 a pound, but the regular price was higher than the cost of Dean's Beans, and the Rainforest Alliance certification it carries isn't as stringent as Transfair's. At this point, I was more or less resigned to paying $12 a pound from now on for the Equal Exchange coffee my local Ten Thousand Villages store carries. So you can imagine how my eyes popped when I walked along Costco's coffee aisle today and found a two-pound bag of their house brand coffee—whole bean, decaffeinated, and Fair Trade certified—for only $13. That's less per pound than a lot of the conventional brands at my supermarket.

Nor did the surprises stop there. Hard on the heels of this discovery, I found a five-pound sack of organic sugar for only $1 a pound. Up until now, the best price I'd ever seen was $1.40 a pound at Trader Joe's—and that's since gone up to $1.60 a pound. And I also spotted a couple of other nifty items at lower-than-average prices, like smoked salmon at $12 a pound rather than the $25 a pound I usually see at the supermarket. (Granted, this is more of a rare splurge than a staple item, but at $12 a pound, we might be able to go for it twice a year instead of once.)

So, there are at least a couple of staple items, like coffee and sugar, that are significantly cheaper at Costco. But would the savings on these items be enough to cover the $55 annual membership fee? Let's crunch the numbers: I probably go through about a pound of coffee per month, so 12 pounds per year would cost $78 per year, as opposed to $144 for the Equal Exchange coffee. That's a $66 savings right there, which would pay for the $55 membership fee with $11 to spare. Our sugar usage is harder to calculate, since it varies widely from month to month depending on how much baking we do, but if you estimate it at about a pound a month, that's an additional savings of $7.20 a year. That would put us at $18.20 to the good. So we would at least come out ahead, if not by a huge amount.

But here's the rub: in order to stay ahead, we would have to avoid the dreaded Costco Effect. Because Costco is huge and sells absolutely everything, you can't make your way through the vast warehouse without being bombarded by temptation on every side. Remember that $12 a pound smoked salmon I mentioned before? Throwing a pound of that in the cart would more than offset the $11 we'd be saving on a bag of coffee. And salmon is just the tip of Costco's retail iceberg, which includes everything from pharmaceuticals to furnishings. Compounding the problem, our nearest Costco is a bit off our regular shopping route—so it would hardly seem worth the trouble to go all the way out there just for a bag of coffee or sugar. We'd almost feel obligated to load up the cart with goodies in order to justify the trip. (Granted, they'd be relatively inexpensive goodies compared to what they cost elsewhere—but given that we wouldn't buy them elsewhere, that doesn't qualify as a savings.) Or, worse yet, we might decide it wasn't worth making the trip out to Costco at all if all we needed was coffee—and then our $55 membership would never even get a chance to pay for itself.

So now I'm faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, I'm not convinced that buying a Costco membership would actually leave us with more money in our pockets at the end of the year. But on the other hand, now that I've seen Fair-Trade decaf on sale for $6.50 a pound, I'm just not sure I can bring myself to pay $13 for it locally. So it seems I may be forced to either (a) give up coffee, (b) stock up on it every time we visit my in-laws, or (c) find more friends with Costco memberships who are willing to sneak us in with them.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Building a better shovel

Forget mousetraps. After spending the past half hour shoveling eight inches of snow from my in-laws' sidewalks (with more falling all the time), I think the real way to get the world to beat a path to your door is to build a better snow shovel.

As an ecofrugal individual, I'm generally opposed to snow blowers just on principle. After all, why should I burn fossil fuel to do something that I could do with my own muscle power (and then pay for a gym membership to get in shape)? But as I worked my way along the sidewalk, I found that the most difficult part of the job was not scooping up the snow; it was getting the snow off the shovel blade. After every scoop, I had to beat the blade against the fence or the ground—sometimes several times—to clear it, and often I'd still be left with a significant coating of snow stuck to it. I found myself wondering: what kind of technology would it take to make a shovel that the snow would actually come off of?

My first thought, perhaps influenced by my recent work on the cookware report for ConsumerSearch, was that a Teflon-coated shovel might release the snow more easily. As a cookware material, Teflon actually has its problems; no mater how carefully it's handled, it will eventually peel off and end up in your food. But a shovel blade doesn't have to come into contact with anything except snow, so it might hold up better. A quick Google search revealed that not only is there such a thing as a Teflon snow shovel, there is also a Teflon-based spray that you can apply to an existing shovel to help keep the snow from sticking. In fact, spraying the shovel with Teflon is one of the tips this chiropractor offers for snow-shoveling safety, since it reduces the weight of the shovel and reduces the change of injury.

The next idea that popped into my head was a little weirder. What if you made a snow shovel with a swing lever, like an ice cream scoop, to clear the snow out of the shovel? A Google search on "snow shovel with lever" didn't turn up anything like what I envisioned, but it did point me toward some other intriguing shovel concepts. For instance, check out this wheeled snow shovel, which uses leverage to clear a big volume of snow and toss it a long distance—kind of like a manual-powered snow blower. The top review on Amazon says that it's incredibly silly-looking, but well worth a little embarrassment for the amount of effort it saves. And then there's this big snow scoop, which is more like a manual snowplow than a shovel. It has a fiberglass blade to keep the snow from sticking, but it looks like it would be hard to maneuver.

So it looks like there definitely are easier ways to clear snow without using fossil fuel. Probably the most ecofrugal of the lot would be the spray, since it allows you to keep using your existing shovel rather than replace it. (A little further searching revealed that you can also get a silicone-based spray that doesn't have the problematic chemicals used in the manufacture of Teflon.) But I have to say, that wheeled shovel looks like a lot of fun. At $133, it's a lot more expensive than a shovel, but it's still a lot cheaper than a snow blower—and if it really can cut shoveling time by two-thirds, it might be a worthwhile investment if global warming is going to be bringing us more and bigger snowfalls every winter.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

When is a waste not a waste?

One of the key tenets of my ecofrugal lifestyle is to avoid throwing things in the trash whenever possible. It's always just seemed like a no-brainer to me: by following the four R's (reduce, reuse, recycle, repair), I could save money, save the natural resources and energy that go into manufacturing new goods, and of course, keep my old stuff out of the landfill. Which was, I always assumed, a good thing—not the main point of recycling, perhaps, but certainly a worthwhile goal in itself. After all, land is a limited resource too, right? Obviously we don't want to use any more of it than we have to for storing waste, right? And the less waste we produce, the less land we need for landfills, right? Right.

So you can well imagine that when, as I was out for my daily walk yesterday, I saw a garbage truck drive past bearing the legend, "Our landfills provide more than 17,000 acres of wildlife habitat," it pretty much stopped me right in my tracks.

I'd just always assumed that landfills were basically waste land. Sure, I knew that a modern sanitary landfill was more than just a pit full of garbage, but I always thought features like protective liners and methane capture were just there to protect the surrounding environment from pollution. The landfill area itself, I figured, was obviously unsuitable for anything.

Wrong, it turns out. In fact, Waste Management, the company that owns that truck I saw, has more than 100 landfills in 25 US states and 3 Canadian provinces certified as wildlife habitats. Altogether, their landfills provide 25,000 acres of wildlife habitat (it's obviously grown since that truck was painted). In fact, as development eats up more and more available green space, it almost seems like a landfill—which is unsuitable for building on—is one of the few spaces left that can effectively be set aside for wildlife. 

All of which has left me wondering: have I had it completely wrong all this time? Could it be that throwing more stuff away—thus increasing the amount of land required for landfill space—is actually a good thing for the environment?

Of course, I know that the land needed to dispose of waste isn't the only factor in the reuse-or-replace equation. As I said above, there are also energy and natural resources to consider. But knowing that landfills can be environmentally beneficial makes the equation a lot more complicated. Before, when weighing the pros and cons of throwing out the old and ringing in the new, all I really had to consider was cost. The environmental benefits, I figured, were all on the side of repairing rather than replacing (except in rare cases like ancient energy-guzzling appliances), so I merely had to stack those up against the benefits—financial and other—of buying something new. But now, I actually have to factor in environmental costs and benefits on both sides, which makes an already tough question even tougher. I was beginning to worry that every time I thought about throwing anything away—say, an old pair of boots—I'd have to go searching for statistics and estimating figures and crunching numbers to figure out whether the ecological gains from added the landfill space/wildlife habitat needed to house my old boots would outweigh the costs of a new pair in energy use and other resources, and eventually I'd just end up huddling on the couch refusing to move so that the old boots wouldn't wear out and I could avoid making a decision.

Fortunately, a little further searching on the Waste Management webpage was able to set my mind at rest. On further examination, I found that setting landfill space aside for wildlife isn't the only thing these folks do to help the environment. They also generate electricity from both solid waste and landfill gas, run their trucks on clean-burning methane (some of which actually comes from landfill gas, neatly closing the circle)...and bill themselves as "North America’s largest recycler." In other words, even though they're largely in the business of putting trash into landfills, they still consider keeping trash out of landfills through recycling to be economically and socially beneficial. And since they probably have a whole stable of guys and gals in pocket protectors crunching the numbers for them, I don't have to do it myself; I'm perfectly happy to take their word for it.

So basically, it sounds like I can stick to my previous practices. Keep recycling the things that it's reasonably easy to recycle; keep reusing and repairing old things as long as it's practical to do so. And when it's finally time for an item to go into the landfill, know that it's going to a better place—one with lots of birds and butterflies.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Holiday Tour of Highland Park

At this time of year, one of the best sources of free entertainment is walking around (or, if you want to be a bit less ecofrugal but warmer, driving around) looking at holiday decorations. Just walking from one end of our moderately sized town to the other—about a mile—I can see quite an assortment of them, ranging from, as they say, the sublime to the gorblimey. There are Christmas displays and Hanukkah displays, tasteful displays and...less tasteful ones. (No Kwanzaa decorations that I noticed, but there's always next year.) I found myself thinking that a photo tour of our town's holiday decorations, perhaps with awards for the best displays, would be a nice addition to a local paper...but the closest thing our town had to its own local paper, the Highland Park Mirror, made the transition from paper to online only last year, and even the website hasn't been updated since February. So I decided, what the hey, if we don't have a local media organ to display them, I'll just put some photos of our town's holiday trappings up right here on the blog for all of you to enjoy. And you don't even have to put your coats on to see them.

The coveted Winter Wonderland award (well, it would be coveted if anyone had actually heard of it) goes to Roberts Florals on Raritan Avenue for its glittering window display:

They've put quite a lot of stuff into this window, so here are a few close-up shots to show you some of the details. On one size of the window, we've got Rudolph wreathed in evergreen:

And on the other, an assortment of twinkling stars, trees, and gilded reindeer. Look, there's even a menorah at the bottom!

First runner-up in this category is our local toy and tchotchke shop, Through the Moongate and Over the Moon Toys. The first shot shows the tempting assortment of toys and holiday delights through the window; the second, taken after closing time, highlights the festive star lanterns that make the shuttered store look even more magical and exotic by night.

Second runner-up goes to our local Ten Thousand Villages store, which showcases its holiday wares amid a shower of snowflakes and light-tipped branches, beneath the legend, "Every Product is a Miracle." (A bit of an overstatement, perhaps, but every product is handcrafted and Fair Trade certified, and that's pretty impressive.)

The award for Most Creative Decoration goes to this charming little metal snowman, who's taken up residence in a planter outside our local Century 21 office. At least he's not in any danger of melting if we have a warm spell.

A close runner-up is the giant PVC pipe menorah erected by the Chabad House at Rutgers University...

...right next to our town Christmas tree, because that's the kind of ecumenical burg we are.

The prize for Most Tasteful holiday display goes to this festive, yet understated row of poinsettias in the window of the Fredrick Scott salon.

Runner-up in this category is the neat little row of scarlet-tipped evergreens outside Aposto Italian restaurant. 

And lastly, the undisputed winner for Most Over-the-Top is the menagerie of inflatables outside the Magnolia Gardens apartment building on Woodbridge Avenue. They're vivid enough by day...

...but nearly blinding by night.

And that picture doesn't even show all of them. There are more around the side of the building:

And here's one last display that doesn't really fit into any category, but I thought it looked neat. All the lampposts along Raritan Avenue are currently wreathed in light and topped with giant, luminous snowflakes—which have the advantage of not being attached to any particular religious holiday, so they don't discriminate among religions and, as a bonus, can stay up all winter long. (When we first took this picture, we thought that the exposure time in the darkness was so long that we had actually caught the traffic light in the background going from red to green—but on closer inspection, it's just a red light with a green arrow for those hanging a right.)

A happy Christmas (or other winter holiday of your choice) to all, and to all a good night! And don't forget, there's someone watching over our town who knows if you've been bad or good....

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Pride of ownership

This post, unlike last week's, is going to be about holiday presents. (One present in particular.)

For more than 20 years, one of the most treasured items in my wardrobe has been the cardigan sweater my grandmother gave me for my 13th birthday. What I love most about it is that it has such a huge variety of colors—grey, red, maroon, forest green, blue, purple—that it can be worn with practically everything in my wardrobe. Since I rely on multiple layers of clothing to keep myself warm throughout the winter, this sweater was just about the most useful winter garment in my wardrobe: an outer layer that could be worn over virtually any combination of inner layers. Black turtleneck, purple Henley, favorite cardigan. White shirt, red pullover, favorite cardigan. You get the idea.

Obviously, this sweater was also amazingly well made to have lasted this long. But over 25-plus winters of wear, even the most durable item will eventually start to fall apart. My beloved cardigan is now heavily darned in the elbows, and there are holes in the lining big enough to allow me to put the sweater's pocket into my pants pocket from the outside. On top of that, I haven't exactly stayed the same size since my teens, so the sweater now can't be buttoned all the way without straining across my middle-aged booty. So, reluctantly, a few years ago, I started looking for a replacement.

Well, it seems that as useful as this sweater is to me, it's not a very popular style with manufacturers. In fact, after combing through dozens of retail sites, as well as listings on Amazon and eBay, I couldn't find anything even remotely like it. This made the old sweater, tight and worn-out though it was, even more valuable to me, and I clung to it all the tighter as it deteriorated.

I mentioned this problem to my sister, not this year, but last year, and she took up the quest to help me find a replacement. She sent me link after link to pictures of multicolored cardigans with the query, "How about this"? Turns out I'm incredibly picky: I rejected garment after garment with complaints like, "No, the colors are wrong"; "that one doesn't have pockets"; "that one looks too long for me." I didn't get a new sweater that year.

But my sister, a teacher by trade, is nothing if not persistent. This year she started sending me more links, and finally one of them got the response, "That would be just about perfect if it's my size." And sure enough, that just-about-perfect sweater was what I unwrapped last Saturday when we celebrated the first night of Hanukkah at my sister's house.

As it turns out, the sweater wasn't altogether perfect. Melanie pointed out to me a couple of small flaws: it was missing a button, and it had a small hole or two that would need to be stitched up. But she also pointed out the label sewed into the collar: Missoni. Being an ecofrugalista who doesn't really keep up with the fashion world, I had to have it explained to me that this is an extremely high-end Italian designer line. A quick search revealed that a brand-new sweater from Missoni would run three or even four figures.

Now, obviously, this sweater wasn't brand-new and wasn't in perfect condition. In fact, over the course of the past week, I've found and fixed several holes in it, aside from the ones that my sister initially pointed out. And because I didn't want to schlep all the way down to the nearest fabric store (45 minutes away) for new buttons (and also because the buttons on the sweater are really nice, and I might not find anything as nice to replace them), I simply removed the bottom button from the sweater and moved it up to fill the empty spot. (After all, how often am I going to fasten that bottom button anyway?)

And here's the part that reveals just how well my sister really knows me: making these minor repairs to the sweater actually makes me love it more. Now, instead of being just "the sweater my sister gave me for Hannukah," it's "the sweater I fixed up myself to look as good as new." Putting my own work into fixing the sweater up before wearing it makes me all the more attached to it—a phenomenon that behavioral economists have called "the IKEA effect." As Dan Ariely put it in his book Predictably Irrational, which I just finished reading, your attachment to your belongings—and the amount of money you'd consider them worth—is directly proportional to the amount of time you spent assembling the cabinet, wiring the TV set, or even, as he notes whimsically, feeding, diapering, and singing a lullaby to the baby.

For me, as an ecofrugal person, this sweater would make a much less satisfying gift if I had received it new in the box, especially if I had some idea how much it cost. Rather than feeling loved and pampered by it, I'd never be able to put it on without thinking, "She really shouldn't have spent so much on me." My sister knows me well enough to realize that, so she made no secret of the fact that it was bought secondhand on eBay—which makes it both eco-friendly and a bargain. And the fact that it had a few minor flaws that I could fix myself made it doubly satisfying, since it's now a reminder not only of my sister's patient search (and clever bargain-hunting skills) but also of my own careful labor. This sweater is now my sweater, more than any off-the rack purchase could ever be. Happy Hannukah to me, and mazel tov!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My wish list

Note: No, this isn't going to be another post about holiday shopping.

I carry a little notebook around with me in my purse. It's not exactly a diary, since I don't write in it every day: it's more a place to collect and save thoughts that happen to pop into my head at any moment. I use it to keep track of expenses on trips and cribbage scores when we play in coffeehouses (without a board); I make notes in it of e-mail addresses and interesting quotations that I'd like to remember and observations that I might like to discuss later on this blog. Most of the things in it, however, are lists. As anyone who knows me well will tell you, I'm a major fan of lists—lists of every kind, useful and otherwise. In fact, just to illustrate the point, here's a short list of some of the lists I have in my notebook right now:
  • Good chorus songs (for pub sings and round robins)
  • Things I'd do if money were no object (this list may become the subject of a future post, but it's not the one I'm discussing right now)
  • Best commercial jingles of all time
  • Things I associate with summertime
  • Green businesses in my hometown
  • Things to look for at yard sales
  • Questions to ask the landscaper
One of my favorite lists, however, that I refer to often and re-start every time I switch notebooks, is called, simply, "Things I Want." Some of the items on this list are physical objects, like a new pair of shoes (acquired) and a new fruit tree for the front yard (pending). Others, however, are wishes for events—things that I'd like to achieve or have happen, like "I want my foot to get better" (following a diagnosis of plantar fasciitis. It's nearly there.) As each of these wishes on my list is fulfilled, I check it off rather than crossing it off. That way, I can see not just what I still want, but all the things that I have wanted recently and gotten. This can be very a comforting reminder at times when it seems like nothing is going right.

Now, some of the items on my list are goals that I can work toward, like losing weight or creating a website for my business. Writing down personal goals is a popular motivational technique, recommended by health textbooks, life coaches and folks who live in the self-help section of the bookstore. The idea is that having your goal written down, in a place where you will see it often, keeps it constantly in front of you and reminds you to keep working toward it. However, I also make a point of including some items on the list that aren't goals—things that are pretty much guaranteed to happen with no effort on my part, like "I want spring to come." This may seem kind of pointless: after all, if spring is going to come anyway, what's the point of writing it down?

For me, the answer is that a lot of my personal goals—like New Year's resolutions that keep showing up year after year—haven't been reached yet, and in fact, haven't moved forward much at all. If my list includes "I want to lose fifteen pounds," then seeing that item on the list regularly can remind me of all the things I can do to make it happen: skipping seconds at dinnertime, passing up desserts, exercising more, and so on. But I also know that, if I adopt one or more of these strategies, there is no guarantee that I will stick with it or that, even if I do, it will actually make a significant dent in my weight. In fact, if past performance is any indicator of future results, I have good reason to suspect that it won't. So if my list said nothing but "I want to lose fifteen pounds," then every time I turned to that list, I would be confronted by that same unfulfilled goal, and I would shortly begin to feel like my life is a complete failure. But if I fill out the list with smaller goals that I can easily achieve (e.g., "I want to tear out that overgrown hedge in our front yard") and with items that are pretty much guaranteed to happen in time (e.g., "I want to get over my cold"), I can ensure a pretty much steady stream of items that I can check off as they happen. That way, when I look at the list as a whole and see all the items that I've mananged to check off already, the few that I haven't achieved yet don't seem like such a big deal. (Okay, so I may not have everything on my wish list yet, but just look at all the things I do have! Wow, my life must be pretty good!)

A couple of the items on the list could even be said to fall into both categories. "I want to pay off the mortgage," for example, is something that, barring some unforeseen disaster, will definitely happen, even if I do nothing at all to speed it along. If I simply sit back and watch our mortgage payment come automatically out of our checking account at the beginning of each month, then slowly but surely, the principal will be whittled down until it disappears completely. Yet at the same time, I can, if I choose, take steps to make this dream come true faster. Each time I put an extra thousand dollars towards our mortgage principal, it knocks a month or so off my sentence and brings me closer to that approaching goal line. Wish items like these may be the most satisfying of all, because they allow me both to take pride in my own efforts and to feel confident that, even if I happen to slack off, I will definitely succeed in time.

What's nice about this list is that it helps me see the ways in which my own happiness both is and is not tied to money. When I check off an item like "I want spring to come" or "I want my foot to get better," I remind myself of all the things that money can't buy, the little happinesses that come free of charge. Yet when I check off something more tangible, like "I want a pair of comfortable shoes" or "I want to finish my holiday shopping," I remind myself of all the ways in which money, properly applied, actually can buy happiness—and I keep myself motivated to keep on using my money as wisely as possible so that these little items will always be easy to move into the "completed" column.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Blanket statement

Ever since the cold weather set in, Brian has been listening to me complain about how cold I get working at my desk. We keep our thermostat set at 67 on winter days—a number I've settled on as a compromise between being comfortable physically and being emotionally comfortable with the size of my carbon footprint—and in most parts of the house, this temperature doesn't bother me. I don't particularly notice it while cleaning the bathroom, eating at the kitchen table, or curling up on the living room couch to watch TV. But for some reason, my section of the office always feels freezing to me. I don't know whether this one corner is actually colder than any other spot in the house, or it's the fact that I sit there for hours at a time moving nothing but my fingers, but I'll often be shivering in four layers of clothing plus a hat.

So earlier this week, Brian brought me home an early Hanukkah present: a mini electric blanket. His idea was that this would be the most efficient way possible to keep me warm with electricity, because it would transfer heat directly to me instead of throwing it around the whole room. I was thrilled with the ecofrugality of this plan. Don't turn up the thermostat; don't run a 1000-watt space heater; just put that 115 watts' worth of electricity right where it's needed!

I would love to be able to say that this worked beautifully, and I am now toasty warm while writing this blog entry. But alas, it turns out that the makers of the otherwise ridiculous Snuggie were on to something when they claimed that you can't really wrap yourself in an ordinary blanket and still keep your arms free. I was able to sort of spread it out in my lap, but I found that only warmed up my lap about as well as an ordinary blanket would, while leaving my hands and arms as cold as ever. And when I tried sort of draping the whole thing over my head and upper body, I found that there is really no way to drape a blanket that's stiffened by having wires running all through it.

So right now I've fallen back on Plan B: an ordinary $5 fleece throw from the Rite Aid, about 5 feet by 4 feet, with a hole cut in the middle for my head. This is loose enough to go on over top of my multiple layers of clothes, covering my chest, my lap and most of my arms in a sort of little heat-trapping tent. It's better than other alternatives I've tried in the past—including my fleece bathrobe, a shawl, a cloak, and a poncho—because it's both large enough to cover most of my upper body and loose enough to trap a good amount of warm air. I suspect it's also better than a real Snuggie/Slanket/other wearable blanket, because it's all one piece, so my arms get to share the warm air trapped next to the thermal mass of my torso, instead of being isolated in their own separate sleeves to fend for themselves. It's not quite as long or quite as thick as I might like, but maybe after I've used it a while, I might decide it's worthwhile to take the plunge and cut a hole in a full-sized blanket, which would cover my legs and arms completely. I'd still have to put my hands outside the tent in order to type, but maybe if I can manage to keep my core temperature up, they'll stay warmer too.

Meanwhile, I'm trying to think of a good use for the little electric throw. My latest issue of Mother Earth News contains an article on seed starting that mentions that seedlings like a warm environment, and "bottom heat" is especially helpful. On the other hand, the author says that specially designed seed-starting mats aren't really worth the money, because they usually die after a couple of seasons of use. this in the "so crazy it might work" category, or is it more like "so crazy it's just plain crazy"?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Simplifying isn't that simple

[cue music] It's the most ludicrous time of the year....

A friend of mine, in an invitation to his mid-December game party, did a pretty good job of summing up the frenzy that marks the "holiday season" for most Americans:
It is Christmas shopping season.  The shoppers are at the mall in droves, screaming their car horns at the pedestrians to make them hurry and free up a parking space.  The housewives are clobbering each other in fights over this year's incarnation of the Beanie Baby.  People are yelling at each other for wishing them a "Happy Holiday" instead of a "Merry Christmas" (or vice versa).  People are putting up enormous Santa balloons in their yards, bigger than my house, and somehow believing they look cute.  What could possibly be more insane than the way people behave at this time of year?
Of course, there are, as always, those who oppose the relentless commercialism of the holiday. Some of these are religious Christians trying to refocus the holiday on its spiritual meaning; others are environmentalists who want to reduce the waste associated with the holiday; and still others are cash-strapped folks looking for ways to have something left in their wallets when the New Year rolls around. The most recent "InBalance" newsletter from the Center for the New American Dream contained the group's annual exhortation from to "Simplify the Holidays," with a list of 15 ideas for cutting back on the number and cost of gifts, reducing paper waste, and finding more meaningful ways to celebrate. And last week's mail brought a copy of the Green American featuring the headline "Go Green for the Holidays," with articles on:
  • how to throw a Fair Trade house party. This is like a Tupperware party, only with handwoven baskets, jewelry, woolens and other items that are perfect for the holidays because no one actually needs them.
  • how to "green" holiday traditions like the Yule log (get a clean-burning Duraflame or Java-Log instead) and gift wrapping (choose reusable bags, fabric scraps, or newspaper comics).
  • whether a live or a synthetic tree is more eco-friendly. (Spoiler: decorating an outdoor tree or a live, potted tree is better than either.)
  • 6 "really terrible" gift ideas, including PVC plastic toys and anything wrapped in that incredibly annoying clamshell plastic that's all but impossible to get open and, once open, goes straight into the trash.
  • green gifts and traditions, like giving secondhand gifts, giving gifts of homemade food or body-care products, or "giving the gift of time" by extending invitations to friends and family.
In principle, I agree with all of these ideas. But when I think about putting them into practice, I always come up against some kind of roadblock. For example, I'd love to reduce packaging waste by wrapping gifts in fabric or reusable bags—but knowing the way Christmas Day tends to go down at my in-laws' house, I'm sure this theoretically sustainable packaging would just end up being tossed in the trash with all the rest of the wrappings. (We are already bucking the trend by saving the paper from our own presents so that the intact parts can be reused next year—much to the amusement of the rest of the family.)

Buying secondhand gifts is another idea I love in principle, as it's not only cheaper but reduces waste and energy use as well. In practice, though, I can never seem to get more than about 30 percent of our gifts this way. This year, as Thanksgiving approached, I thought we were in pretty good shape gift-wise; our yard-sale, book-sale, and Freecycle finds had yielded at least one secondhand gift for nearly everyone on Brian's side of the family, so I figured we'd just have to fill in with a few new items for my family members. But then reality kicked in. The gift lists submitted to us by the family members we hadn't yet shopped for were highly specific, and none of the items on them could be found secondhand. Moreover, most of the small items we'd already acquired ended up being deemed too small to be given as the sole gift, so we had to buy more stuff even for the folks I thought were already covered. Thus, within the past couple of weeks, both the number of presents and the total spent have nearly doubled.

Part of the problem is the sheer volume of gifts. This bothers me not just because of the expense—in fact, I honestly think it's not even primarily because of the expense—but because the more presents you give or receive, the less attention you can pay to any one of them. I would much rather receive only one present that's the right present, the one present that's just what I wanted (or better yet, just what I never knew I wanted until I saw it), than a dozen presents that are just okay—chosen by a dozen people, or half a dozen, who clearly picked them out because they had to get me something. And I would, all cost considerations aside, much rather give one present and have it be noticed and appreciated than give a dozen and have them be glanced at and tossed aside in the rush to get through the two-hour-long Rite of Opening.

Wouldn't it be nice, I mused to Brian one night, if we could just decide to give only presents that we truly believed the recipient would really, really love? And if we didn't happen to find a present that a given person would really love, we could just not give one, and know that there would be no hard feelings? Wouldn't it be great not have to worry about just finding something for every single person on our list? (You might think the easiest way to cut down on the shopping, and the associated worrying, would be to reduce the size of the list itself—but even if gift-giving were limited to the immediate family, that would still include 20 people: me, my husband, our parents, our siblings, their spouses, and their kids. And some of those people have birthdays in December as well, increasing the total number of presents still more.)

Alas, I fear this idea is no more than a pipe dream. Like reusable wrappings, the practice of giving presents selectively would probably be too foreign to the Christmastime culture of the family. Those who didn't get something would probably notice, and would probably feel hurt. And I guess, when all's said and done, it's better to put up with a bit of pre-holiday stress than to have hurt feelings at Christmastime. I just wish that there were some way to avoid both.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sins of the Frugal

Bless me, frugal friends, for I have sinned.

This Monday, I went to Target and I... I... [sobs] I paid full price for everything.

Actually, I don't feel as bad as all that about it. Everything we bought was something that we definitely needed: some long johns for me, socks for Brian, and a bag of coffee. None of these is an item that we were very likely to find secondhand, and the prices for all of them were reasonable. It's conceivable that we might have been able to find all three for less online, but we might have had to pay for shipping and would definitely have had to wait for them to arrive, rather than being able to use them right away.

So this was not what most people would consider a wild, heedless shopping spree. In fact, it's exactly what most people would consider a perfectly normal, routine shopping trip...which is precisely what makes it so unusual for us. Because we almost never buy anything, aside from groceries and other consumables, without carefully researching it first: comparing prices, looking for sales, and finally making our purchase only when we feel pretty sure we've found the best deal. So when I waltz casually into a big box store and just toss the things I need in my basket and swipe my card and walk out again, I feel like I've just done something terribly reckless—perhaps even a little bit wicked.

All of which, I guess, is simply proof of how close I live to what Amy Dacyczyn (all hail the Frugal Zealot) called "the edge of the great abyss of skinflintian compulsion." And that's okay—it's good that I make it my normal practice to be mindful about spending, and I don't make a habit of running out to the store every other night for something that, upon further consideration, I might be able to do without. I just need to remind myself every once in a while to stay on the sane side of the line.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Blessings large and small

It's once again that time of year when we reflect, in between bites of turkey and cranberries, on all the things we have to be thankful for. This year, I obviously have one really big cause for gratitude in the fact that Brian and I got off so lightly from "Superstorm" Sandy. More than 100 Americans died as a result of this storm; hundreds of homes were destroyed; here in our own town, many residents were without power for a week in the middle of a cold snap. Here, we were without power for less than 48 hours; our only losses were a pint of milk (which might actually have been still drinkable, but we didn't risk it) and a crotchety old inkjet printer that was on its last legs anyway. No question, we got off cheap.

Yet it occurred to me, as I was taking a shower the other day, that there are a powerful lot of much smaller blessings that it's easy to overlook because we're so used to them. I can take a hot shower every single day if I want to, and dry off with the biggest, fluffiest towel IKEA has to offer. That's a luxury that even the richest of the rich couldn't have imagined just a few hundred years ago, and that would be beyond the dreams of millions of the world's people even today. Yet most days, I don't even pause to think about how lucky I am to be able to enjoy it.

So this year, my Thanksgiving list is going to focus on the little things—the small blessings it's all too easy to take for granted. By focusing my attention on them for this one day, maybe I can help myself be more aware of them on every other day. So....

I'm thankful that simply by flipping a switch, we can have more than enough light to read, cook, play, and (if necessary) work long past sundown.

I'm thankful that, no matter how much I complain about being cold in my office even with four layers of clothing on, I do actually have the option of turning up the heat if I really need to.

I'm thankful that we not only have plenty of food to eat, but plenty of delicious food to eat every day of the week. (Recent meals include pasta a la Caprese, made with the last of our tomato crop, and homemade chicken pot pie, made with humanely raised chicken.)

I'm thankful that Brian's job provides us with good health insurance at an affordable cost.

I'm thankful that we have the biggest library in history—which is also the world's biggest shopping mall, movie theaterroad atlas, news source, and a veritable gold mine of bizarre facts and other diversions—at our fingertips.

I'm thankful that we have enough money to feel no guilt about discarding a pint of so-called chocolate-peppermint coffee creamer, a "seasonal item" that I was initially thrilled to find for a buck fifty at the Aldi, only to discover upon tasting it that I could discern no trace of either chocolate or peppermint in the flavor and the mouthfeel was a bit like melted Crisco. (And I'm positively gleeful that I was able to replace it, today, with a pint of Bailey's coffee creamer—normally $2.59 at the Stop & Shop, on sale this week for $1.50, a mere 50 cents with my dollar-off coupon, and 45 cents after deducting a nickel for our reusable shopping bag.)

I'm thankful that, with Thanksgiving still four days away, we already have most of our holiday shopping done, and thus will have no need to go anywhere near a mall on Black Friday.

I'm thankful that it's still warm enough out this weekend to hang one more (possibly last) load of laundry on the line—and that when it's no longer warm enough, or when it just isn't convenient, I can simply toss it all in the dryer instead.

And I'm thankful that, with so many things to be thankful for, there are probably hundreds more that I just can't think of right now.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Conservation of Yard Waste

Sometimes I wonder if I've discovered a previously unknown law of physics: the Conservation of Yard Waste.

As you may recall, back in September we finally took down our massive, overgrown forsythia hedge, leaving us with a massive pile of brush to be disposed of:

Our first attempt to deal with this pile came to a premature halt when our new little chipper started literally pulling itself to pieces with the effort. But we eventually repaired the cracked housing with some putty and wrapped the whole thing up in duct tape, and over the course of several hours, we managed to reduce all the leaves and small branches in the pile to a surprisingly small quantity of mulch:

At that point, any grand notions we'd had about using this tiny chipper to convert all our yard waste into a sufficient mass of mulch to cover our garden paths pretty much flew like a little bird out the window. And more frustrating still, after all that work, the forsythia carcasses still hadn't disappeared; they'd just been stripped down to a pile of branches and trunks too large to fit into the chipper, which would have to be bundled up to be hauled away by the borough.

So, last weekend, we finally got around to tackling them, and over the course of an hour or so, we managed to reduce that fairly large pile to a smaller pile of nice, tidy bundles:

Now, it might seem as if, at this point, we had actually succeeded in reducing the total volume of yard waste. But no sooner had we completed this task than we turned to another urgent outdoor job: stripping down our garden beds to prepare them for winter. Any hopes we might have had of harvesting a few more tomatoes or peppers before winter set in were pretty much crushed under the weight of last week's early snowfall, leaving us with withered carcasses of tomato vines and pepper plants that had to be pulled out so they wouldn't rot in the garden (and possibly drop seeds that would send up a bunch of volunteer plants next spring in all the wrong places). So we spent another hour or so snipping and untangling and pulling, and by the time we were done, we were left with a brand new pile of yard waste about as big as the one we'd had to start with:

So no sooner do we finish dealing with one massive pile of branches than we turn around and produce a new pile, which we'll have to leave to dry out for another week before we can start turning it into mulch. Hence my theory: no matter how much work we put into our yard, the total volume of waste in it awaiting disposal remains the same. The work we put into the system is, apparently, expended in converting the contents of the pile from one substance to another; the size of the pile itself remains constant.

Perhaps we'd better alter our landscaping plan to accommodate a waste pile (of fixed size but varying composition) and turn it into some sort of a feature. Of course, I thought that was what we were doing when we first built our compost bin—but it's beginning to look like we'll need a second bin just to accommodate all the material waiting to be transferred to the first bin.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Reckless extravagance

As you may remember, in my October 16 post I speculated about what Brian and I might decide to do with our extra money once we have our mortgage paid off. One of my suggestions was that we might start to "buy the good orange juice, the stuff that's not from concentrate, even when it's not on sale." When I mentioned this idea to Brian, however, he was unenthusiastic. His position was that, no matter how much money we had, the good OJ still wouldn't be worth paying full price for, since he's the primary drinker of OJ in our household and he doesn't like it all that much better than the frozen stuff. At first this response made me nervous: was he going to consider all "unnecessary" expenses unjustified? But he assured me that his problem wasn't with the idea of spending more, just with spending more on orange juice. So that got me wondering: what's an example of something that we both would be willing to pay more for?

This week provided me with a perfect example. A little background: Brian and I have, for many years, been loyal users of Swheat Scoop cat litter. I even wrote an article in its praise on Associated Content. But a few months ago, we brought home a bag of Swheat Scoop and found that, for some reason, it just wasn't clumping the way it used to. No matter how carefully we scooped, the clumps would inevitably break apart and ammonia-soaked fragments would slip through the scoop and back into the box. As a result, the box developed a strong odor in weeks instead of months—sometimes in as little as one week—and the litter had to be completely replaced. At first we thought the problem was the unusually humid weather; then we wondered if maybe that one bag of litter was just a dud. But when the next bag we bought was no better, we concluded that the manufacturers of Swheat Scoop must have changed their formula somehow (possibly so that they could sell the original product as a new "multi-cat formula"). So we decided to take advantage of a rebate offer on World's Best Cat Litter and see if that was any better.

Well, it was—decidedly better. The clumps were so much firmer that scooping the cat box, which had become a major proceeding, was suddenly the work of a minute or two. On top of that, the new litter didn't track quite as much. The only drawback was that while Swheat Scoop cost about 67 cents per pound at PetSmart, World's Best was $1.12 per pound. Of course, it may work out to be cheaper in the long run, since we won't have to change out the litter nearly as often as with the new, wussier Swheat Scoop. But I wondered whether, before making up our minds to switch to World's Best, we should try the multi-cat version of Swheat Scoop, which cost only 72 cents a pound, and see whether it was adequate. Well, just imagine my surprise to hear my husband, who's an even tighter wad than I am, respond, "No, I really like this litter now." Yep—after using World's Best for just a few days, he wasn't willing to go back to Swheat Scoop—even the multi-cat version, which is most likely identical to the old Swheat Scoop that we found perfectly acceptable for years. Not even at a difference of 40 cents a pound.

At the time, I was quite tickled to see my prudent husband throwing caution to the wind in this way. But of course, his burst of reckless extravagance needs to be kept in perspective. Back when we were using the original Swheat Scoop, we went through maybe three 40-pound bags of it per year. So if we used the same amount of the new multi-cat Swheat Scoop, we'd be paying about 92 dollars a year (with tax) for cat litter. Substituting World's Best (assuming we use it up at roughly the same rate) bumps up the total cost to 144 dollars a year. So that's an extra 52 bucks per year, or a dollar per week. Whooo, we're going crazy out here! Spending money like it's going out of style!

So there you have it: an example of a product that we're willing to pay more for simply because it's better. And now I'm off to the farmers' market in pursuit of a second example: orchard-fresh apples. (At $6 a basket, or about $2 a pound, these are definitely pricier than the bagged apples at the supermarket—but the supermarket doesn't have Winesaps and Macouns. We may have to settle for Empire apples from the Empire State during the long winter months, but so long as the real jewels of fall are available, we're not going to pass them up.)

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Deny *this*

So, for those who haven't heard: the whole mid-Atlantic region, still struggling to recover from Sandy, was just hit with a "nor-easter" that knocked out still more power lines and delayed the repairs that were in progress. And, at least around here, dumped around four inches of snow on the ground. In November. Early November.

Snow does a lot more damage when it falls while there are still leaves on the trees. Instead of passing through the branches, it weighs them down until they break. It crushes smaller plants that haven't yet gone dormant for the winter. It's harder to shovel because there are damp leaves underneath that have to be cleared along with the snow. And because the daytime temperatures are well above freezing, what's left on the sidewalks melts during the day and freezes again at night, turning into slick ice that's much more hazardous to walk on than the snow itself.

So I'd just like to ask this one question of all the climate change deniers: do you claim that it's NORMAL to see this kind of snowfall in New Jersey in early November? And if so, why is our local vegetation so ill-adapted to deal with it?

Of course, they could just respond that, hey, this is just one freak storm, no evidence of a pattern—but that argument looks a tad weaker given that we were also hit with heavy snow around the end of October last year. Okay, maybe two data points don't make a pattern either, but two years in a row of shoveling snow around Halloween is enough to make me start wondering whether this is going to be the new normal, and what we need to do to prepare for it in future years. For instance, we're in the process of making changes to the landscaping in our yard; should our criteria for choosing new plants include the ability to survive early snowstorms? Should we avoid planting anything to replace the hedge that we removed in the front yard, on the grounds that having that area unobstructed makes it easier to clear snow off the sidewalks? Should we rip out all the shrubs in front of the house so that it will be easier to pile show into that area? (Almost certainly yes to that one, since the shrubs are way too big for the house anyway.) Should we take down the cinder-block wall that boxes in the front yard and replace it with something lower that would be easier to throw snow over?

I'm not sure yet how to answer these questions, but I find it incredibly frustrating that even as I ask them—even as the East Coast reels from the one-two punch of a massive post-tropical storm followed by what in the past would have been a freak snowstorm—some people are still responding to the warnings of the entire scientific community about global warming by, basically, putting their fingers in their ears and singing, "La la la, I can't hear you!"

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Lessons from Sandy

Well, I guess that'll learn me not to try to outguess the weather service. SuperStorm Sandy, as they are now calling it, did in fact turn out to be a storm of unprecedented proportions, and we were very lucky here to escape the full brunt of it. We lost power for less than 48 hours: it went out on Monday evening, just as the Muppets on our DVD were singing, "It's time to play the music! It's time to light the lights!", and came back on Wednesday evening just after we were preparing to go visit a friend in a neighboring town who still had power. Everything else—our water, gas, and landline phone—continued to work normally. A lot of trees fell in our area, but none got anywhere near our house; the biggest thing to come down in our back yard was our neighbor's porch swing, which somehow managed to blow clean over the fence, and it didn't land on anything important. And while the wind did blow away one of our recycling bins and the lid from our trash can (even though it was tied down), we managed to retrieve them without incident.

So just how well did our preparations for the storm work out? Well, food-wise, we did pretty well. I was able to make my breakfast cocoa from powdered milk, and Brian toasted me some bread over the stove burner with tongs. Throughout the two-day period, he kept diving into the fridge to retrieve leftovers so we could eat them while they were still good, and he also transferred frozen items from the freezer to the fridge to keep it as cold in there as possible. The bit of ice cream we had in the freezer did melt after 24 hours, but it was still cold enough to eat (or, more accurately, drink). When the power came back on last night, nearly everything in the fridge was still cold. The only thing we actually had to discard was a pint of milk—and even that might have been okay, but we figured better safe than sorry. (In fact, we actually got some free food on account of the storm, because on Wednesday the cafĂ© near Brian's office started giving away all its ice cream rather than let it melt.)

Keeping warm also wasn't too big a problem. With the power out, our heating system didn't work, but as it was only October, the temperature in the house never fell much below 60. We wore lots of layers and piled on the blankets at night. We also made a brief trip out to Brian's workplace on Tuesday (just long enough to check our work and personal e-mails, deal with the urgent ones, and reassure friends and family that we were okay). The building was on backup power, but the heat was running, so we were able to warm ourselves up for a few minutes. (We considered prolonging the trip by stopping at a bookstore or a Starbucks, but none was open, though there were a few businesses in the area that had power and were running as usual.) On Wednesday, we went in to his office for the whole day, and since I was dressed for an unheated house, I actually came close to being too warm. But I do worry a little about how we'd fare if we had to deal with a storm of similar magnitude in the wintertime. An unheated house is manageable when the outside temperature never drops below freezing, but on a January day when it never gets above freezing, I'm not sure just how cold it might get in here.

The biggest problem, as it turned out, was keeping ourselves occupied. It was too cold for a walk to be enjoyable, and since all the local businesses were closed, we couldn't exactly walk to anyplace and warm up once we got there. I thought we'd be in good shape with so many books and board games, but  the problem is that all these diversions require light. And in the wake of a hurricane, there isn't much of that even during the day. We could still read and play games with the curtains wide open, but once it got dark, we discovered that candles—even five or six of them at a time—just don't throw off that much illumination. We were able to play cribbage by candlelight, but reading aloud proved too difficult because either my body or the book itself kept blocking the light. So the one thing we'd probably find most useful for getting ourselves through future storms (and we can probably assume that there will be more of them in future) is a battery-powered lantern.

Throughout the storm, I kept thinking that we really shouldn't have anything to complain about. After all, a hundred years ago, most people lived like this all the time—no Internet, no TV, perhaps even no electric lights or refrigeration—and they managed just fine. But at some point it occurred to me that a hundred years ago, there was an infrastructure in place to support life without electricity. Houses either had forced-water heating or stoves and fireplaces to keep them warm; ice was delivered right to your home to keep your food cold; rooms had gas or oil lamps in them to read by. Sure, it's still possible in the modern world to build a life around these old-fashioned conveniences, but it takes a special effort and, in most cases, a lot of expense. For most of us, modern equivalents—like battery-powered flashlights and chemical hand warmers—make more sense as emergency backups. (Actually, ever since we saw an SUV parked in a driveway with the engine running and an extension cord hooked up to it—presumably connected to a pump in the basement—Brian has been toying with the idea of buying an inverter that could be hooked up to our car battery as an emergency generator.)

It's easy to romanticize the olden days, when people lived more simply. But it's also easy to remember that people back then didn't live as long, and in many cases, didn't live as fully. If I could choose to live in any time period in history, I honestly don't think I'd be willing to live in any time other than the present day, because I'd just be giving up too much. A hundred years ago, I wouldn't have the right to vote; seventy-five years ago, I wouldn't be able to fight off an infection with antibiotics; a mere twenty-five years ago, during my own lifetime, I wouldn't have access to the most massive library the world has ever seen, all at the touch of a button. And I'd much rather have to plan ahead to figure out how to do without such modern luxuries in an emergency than live without them every single day.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Battening down the hatches

So, for those who haven't heard, there's a hurricane headed our way. (Actually, I'm not sure how you could have managed to avoid hearing about it if you live anywhere east of the Mississippi that isn't under a rock. In the past week, we've received e-mails warning us about the upcoming storm from our local government, the power company, the phone company, the cable company, and my mom. :-)) So, being a list-maker by disposition, I naturally started running through all the possible ways in which the storm might affect us, and what we should do to prepare for each possibility. The list turned out to be pretty short:
  • Possible event: Local flooding.
    Possible impacts: This would almost certainly not affect our house, which is high on a hill outside not only the 100-year but also the 500-year floodplain, and which has never had more than a trickle of water before. But it could easily flood out low-lying roads in our area.
    Necessary steps: In the morning, look outside and see if the roads are flooded. If they are, stay home. 
  • Possible event: Tainted water supply.
    Possible impacts: Most likely, we'll still be able to shower, but we'll have to use our emergency water supplies for drinking and washing dishes.
    Necessary steps: Count the number of bottles of water we have stored up in the basement. Conclude that if we're without water for more than two weeks, we might actually have to buy some more. Get some cash.
  • Possible event: Power outages.
    Possible impacts: Since it's only October and our heating system isn't even fired up yet, we won't freeze to death. If it gets a bit chilly in the house, we've got blankets and warm clothes. Our phone will still work, because it's a cord-connected relic from the 80s. The fridge and microwave won't work—but we've got plenty of canned goods, and we can light our stove with a match. Lights won't work—but we've got flashlights with extra batteries, matches, and plenty of candles. The TV won't work—but we've got board games and lots of books. My computer won't work—but if the outage is local and the roads are passable, then Brian and I can both go to his workplace to get some work done (if I borrow his laptop and transfer files from my backup disk).
    Necessary steps: In the morning, check to see if the lights go on. If not, make one quick foray in the fridge to retrieve essentials like the Brita pitcher and the peanut butter and then keep it firmly shut until the power is back on.
  • Possible event: Disruption in Internet service.
    Possible impacts: I won't be able to work from home, since my work depends heavily on Internet research, but I can go to go to Brian's workplace as described above if the outage is local. If it's widespread, I'll have to take a day off work. And I'll be out of e-mail contact for a while, though we'll still have the phone for emergencies.
    Necessary steps: Make sure important e-mails are dealt with before bed.
  • Possible event: Disruption in phone service.
    Possible impacts: We won't be able to get any calls from political candidates asking for money.
    Necessary steps: Keep fingers crossed.
All in all, this left us with a fairly short to-do list. In fact, pretty much the only items on it were normal jobs that we just needed to take care of promptly, such as covering up the air conditioner. Last year the plastic cover we put over it for the winter kept blowing off in heavy weather—even wrapping it around with duct tape, our sovereign remedy for most household problems, wouldn't keep it in place—and eventually blew away altogether. So this year we added a couple of little eye-hooks (just visible in the photo) screwed into the side of the house and tied it down to those. We'll see how that stands up to the gale-force winds they're promising us. We also swapped out the screens on our screen door for storm windows and put the padlock back on our shed door (since the latch won't hold it securely). Then we went out to run a few errands and saw the first concrete evidence of the approaching storm: lines at the supermarket extending way back into the aisles. Peeping into the baskets of our fellow shoppers, it looked more like they were just picking up the week's groceries a little early rather than preparing for the apocalypse, but the checkers were no less harried on that account. It looked like they'd actually run out of plastic bags—and when I wondered why they weren't pushing their reusable bags as an alternative, Brian speculated that they might actually be out of those too. Faced with a choice of paper or paper, I felt very thankful (and just the tiniest big smug) to have my own reusable bag ready to hand.

So, our hatches are now securely battened, whatever that means, and all that's left to do is sit back and watch how everything plays out. Frankly, I think the amount of hype we've seen just increases the likelihood that the Storm of the Century will instead turn out to be a Tempest in a Teapot—but luckily, we're prepared for the best as well as the worst.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Actual Savings: So why do I hang my laundry?

For some time now, I've been meaning to write a blog entry—or several—about the book All the Money in the World, by Laura Vanderkam, which my mom loaned to me a couple of months ago. Subtitled "What the Happiest People Know About Getting and Spending," it's an analysis of the ways in which having and using money does, and doesn't, make us happier. I've recently started rereading it, aloud, to Brian, and the chapter we went through this morning was "The Chicken Mystique," which discusses the trend toward urban homesteading and self-sufficiency, as epitomized by backyard chickens. Vanderkam says that as a childhood fan of The Boxcar Children and Little House on the Prairie, she can understand the appeal of this kind of lifestyle—but ultimately, she questions whether it's really worth it for most people. As she points out, raising your own food and making your own clothes aren't the only way to live a meaningful, sustainable life. For someone like herself, it makes more sense to devote her limited time to her "core competencies," which include writing and caring for her family, and then use the money she earns from her writing to buy food and clothing produced by others (for whom growing food and making clothes are their true life's work). She backs this claim up by crunching the numbers on home-raised eggs:
A small batch of chickens might lay you two dozen eggs a week. Organic free-range eggs cost about $4 a dozen in the store...The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. If you could clear $6 an hour, then your chicken work would have to take you less than 1.33 hours per week to be economical...and that doesn't include the start-up costs, which are highly variable.
Well, okay, fair point. I do think that she's overlooking one of the key benefits of home-grown food, which is that having our country's food production more widely distributed is an inherent good. When we depend for our food on a few big growers, than anything that hurts one of those growers can potentially threaten our entire food supply. When food comes from many sources, by contrast, losing one of them is less of a disaster. But then, the producers of organic free-range eggs tend to be small growers anyway—so I can buy Sauder's Farm eggs at the store and still support local growers rather than huge agribusinesses.

However, her strict dollar-cost analysis came back into my mind later, as I was hanging out my laundry on the clothesline. I'd made a point of doing the wash today because the weather forecast was calling for a mostly sunny day with highs around 70—the kind of perfect laundry day we probably won't have many more of before winter sets in. Yet as I sorted through the wet clothes and pinned T-shirts up on the line, I found myself wondering, "Why do I do this? Is it really a good use of my time?"

Asking this question at all felt a bit shocking—in fact, almost blasphemous, from an ecofrugal standpoint. After all, line-drying clothes just seems like such an ecofrugal no-brainer: why on earth would you use fossil fuels, for which you have to pay money, to dry your clothes when the sun will do the job for nothing? But I recalled Vanderkamp's observations about how chicken farming, and many other money-saving activities, have large costs in terms of time—which, unlike money, is an inherently limited resource. Most of us could find some way to make more money if we had to, but no one can increase the number of hours in a week. Throwing my wet clothes directly into the dryer would take me two minutes; hanging them on the line takes ten to twenty minutes (plus another five or so to take them down at the end of the day). Why, exactly, do I consider this time well spent?

Well, for starters, it does save me some money. But it's not that much money, really. Michael Bluejay, who calls himself "Mr. Electricity," claims on his website that clothes dryers make up "a whopping 12% of electricity use in a typical household"—but our household clearly isn't typical. For one thing, we do only one or two loads of laundry per week; for another, our dryer runs on gas rather than electricity (though the tumbling does use some). Bluejay estimates the cost of a single tumble-dried load of laundry at 49 cents for an electric dryer, 24 cents for a gas dryer (based on the energy rates we pay here in central Jersey). So by hanging my laundry, I'm taking at least 10 minutes to save at most 24 cents. That means that my hourly wage for this activity is, at best, a paltry $1.44—less than a quarter of the federal minimum wage, even after taxes.

Okay, but hanging my laundry to reduce energy use doesn't just save me money—it also helps shrink my carbon footprint, right? Right—but again, not by that much. According to Bluejay's calculations, drying a single load of clothes in my gas dryer uses about a quarter of a therm of gas. One therm of gas, according to the EPA, produces roughly 0.005 metric tons of CO2. Our household's carbon footprint for the past year, according to Carbon Footprint, is 8.73 metric tons (well below the average for the US, but still above the worldwide average, and much higher than the level of 2 metric tons per person that they cite as a reasonable target for mitigating global warming). So each time I hang a load of laundry, I'm shrinking our household's carbon footprint by less than one-thousandth of one percent. Every little bit helps, no doubt, but it's pretty clear that hanging all our laundry isn't going to get our footprint down to the target level.

So, given that the financial and environmental benefits are so tiny, why do I willingly, even cheerfully, spend 20 minutes on this chore, once or twice a week? Why not just spend that time on something else productive and pay a little more to Carbonfund each year for my carbon offsets? If I'm being totally honest about it, I think I have to admit that I hang laundry because I enjoy it. I enjoy it partly because of the admittedly illusory sense that I'm doing something to lower our energy bills, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and stave off global warming apocalypse. But if that were the only reason, I could just admit that it's a silly reason and put my time to better use. No, I think there must be more to it than that. I like hanging laundry, quite frankly, because it gives me an excuse to spend 20 minutes outdoors on a nice, sunny day. It gets me out of the house and doing something active, even if 20 minutes of pinning clothes on the line doesn't qualify as much of a workout. It gives me a sense of connection with the natural environment—even if it's only the environment of my own back yard. It helps me feel in tune with the cycle of the seasons; it makes me pay attention to how the amount of daylight changes from month to month, and how the temperature gradually drops throughout the fall. It makes me more aware of winter when I have to stop hanging my clothes out on the line because it's below freezing even in the daytime—and it makes me more aware of spring when I can celebrate the arrival of the first warm day by ceremonially hanging out the first laundry load of the year. And I think those benefits, frankly, are more than enough to justify the use of 10 or 20 minutes of my time. Sure, I could have spent that time working and (at least in theory) earned a few bucks that I could spend on something that would increase my happiness down the road—but being out in the open air, feeling the sun on my back and the wind in my hair and the wooden clothespins between my fingers, makes me happy right now.

Raising chickens to save a nickel per egg, on the other hand, I can live without.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What are we saving for?

Last weekend, Brian checked our bank balance at the ATM and noted that it was about time to make an extra payment on our mortgage principal. Ever since we first bought this house, we've been making these lump-sum payments pretty much any time we had cash to spare (beyond the amount we keep on hand as an emergency fund). We did this partly because we're both really uncomfortable with debt and eager to get it paid off quickly, but also because, in the present economic climate, it seemed like pretty much the soundest investment we could make. During the first two years, in particular, we had a 30-year loan at 6 percent APY—a much better interest rate than we could earn at any bank, and a much safer return than we could hope to get in the unpredictable stock market. After two years, we refinanced what was left of the balance for 15 years at 4.5 percent APY—but by that time interest rates had plummeted to nearly nil, so a guaranteed 4.5 percent return still looked like a pretty good bet.

There's no doubt that doing this has helped us financially. If we'd simply kept paying off our original loan at the original rate, we would have paid more than $375,000 in interest charges over the 30-year life of the loan. As it is, we'll end up paying less than $40,000 in interest, and we'll have the loan paid off in less than eight years from the time of purchase. And that's if we stopped making prepayments right now; if we continue to pay at the rate we've been going, we can have the whole thing paid off in less than seven years. By April 2014, or maybe even sooner, we'll be debt free.

And then what?

For pretty much the whole time we've been together, we've been fixated on this one financial goal. For three years, all our spare cash went into a fund to be put toward the down payment on a house; once we had the house, we started working all out toward getting it paid off as fast as possible. We never really stopped to think about what to do with our money once we reach that goal. Of course, we will still need to save for retirement, and indeed, we have been doing so during this time: Brian has money taken out of his paycheck to put in a 401(a), and I put a lump of my freelance earnings into an IRA once a year. So once the mortgage is paid off, we could simply take the extra money we've been putting into the house and start feeding it into our retirement accounts instead. But when Brian suggested this, I questioned whether it would really help us. Owning our home outright was a specific goal that we knew we could reach faster—a lot faster—by paying down the principal. But would putting more money away for retirement help us retire any sooner? Probably not, because we need our jobs (or Brian's job, at least) to provide us with health care. There's always private health insurance, of course, but the costs, at least in New Jersey, are astronomical. To get coverage comparable to what we now have, we'd have to spend four figures a month—just about enough to make up for the mortgage we'd no longer be paying. So unless the new state-run health exchanges mandated by "Obamacare" lower health care costs by a significant amount, at least one of us will have to remain in a full-time job until we're both eligible for Medicare, which won't happen until 2038. And who's to say that we'll want to retire even then? We both like our jobs, more or less, and neither of them is so physically demanding that we couldn't keep doing them well into our 70s.

So while we could start putting more money away for retirement (and almost surely will), this won't really give us a new goal that we can work and save for with the same fervor we're now putting into paying off the mortgage. It almost certainly won't absorb all our extra cash the way mortgage prepayments are doing now. So what will we do with our savings? Will we continue to save just as a matter of habit? If so, where will we stash the money, once we no longer have our nice safe 4.5-percent-guaranteed investment to tuck it into? Might it actually make more sense, if interest rates remain as pitifully low as they are, to—gasp—spend more of our money?

Amy Dacyczyn addresses this question at the end of her first Tightwad Gazette book, in an article entitled, "When You Don't Need to Be a Tightwad." She says it's not uncommon for a couple to find, "after decades of pinching pennies," that their mortgage is paid off, their kids are through college, and they have all the money they need for retirement—and they find themselves "confused as to how to let go of a lifestyle that has brought order and control to their lives and that they have come to enjoy." Family and peers may pressure them to spend in ways that they don't find rewarding, and they may be unsure how to respond to kids' or grandkids' pleas for treats when they can no longer plead poverty. The solution, according to the Frugal Zealot, is to "understand that the tightwad life is not only about spending's about spending in a way that reflects your values, and that should not stop if you have a billion dollars." (If the idea of a billionaire tightwad sounds farfetched, recall that retail mogul Sam Walton continued to drive a beat-up old pickup truck throughout his life, and Warren Buffett still lives in the same house he bought for $31,500 more than 50 years ago.) Thus, for example, tightwads who have achieved their financial goals might choose to spend more on environmentally sound products (like organic veggies or solar panels that have a long payoff time); they might choose to support local businesses that have higher prices; or they might give more to charity. They could also treat themselves more in ways that aren't inherently wasteful, like going out to dinner or hiring people to do the jobs they've always disliked (whether that's painting the house or cleaning the bathrooms). And of course, those who have jobs they don't like can choose to retire early—or switch to a different job that's less lucrative, but more satisfying.

So I suspect that, once the monthly mortgage payment is no longer a part of our lives, we'll be doing a little bit of all these things. Sure, we'll put away more for retirement, because it can't hurt to have extra, and because that cash cushion will help protect us against a financial crisis like a job loss or a major medical problem. But at the same time, we'll need to start adjusting to the idea that it's okay to spend more when we want to. We can ramp up our charitable giving, increasing our donations to the groups we consider most worthy (while continuing to screen out those that don't use our money effectively). We can continue to buy some of our holiday presents at yard sales, but not feel bad about filling in the gaps in the gift list with expensive goodies that we know will go over big. We can pay someone to landscape the back yard if we want, rather than putting it off until some future time when we have a free week and good weather and no troublesome muscle problems. We can buy the good orange juice, the stuff that's not from concentrate, even when it's not on sale.

It will be a big change, I'm sure. But I suspect that in time, we can get used to spending our money, and maybe even like it.