Thursday, October 31, 2013

Jolly green corporate giants, part 2

The latest issue of the InBalance newsletter from the Center for a New American Dream contained several articles that tie in with with topics I've covered before on this blog. For instance, the article "Go Green This Halloween" follows up on my recent Halloween post by proposing additional "ways to celebrate that don’t involve devoting hours in front of a sewing machine or parting with significant amounts of cash," from costume swaps to all-natural decorations. The same article contains a link to the Green Halloween site, the same one I complained about last year because its suggestions for alternative treats were all either really expensive and/or really lame. (The site has since added a few new ideas, such as printed-out puzzles, which seem marginally less lame, but I'm still not sure what percentage of sugar-craving rug rats would perceive them as treats rather than tricks.) There's also an interview with Tammy Stroebel, the blogger whose transition to a minimalist lifestyle prompted me to muse about the distinction between frugality and simplicity, and how it's possible to value one without necessarily wanting the other. If I didn't know better, I'd wonder whether the editors of this site were reading my blog to come up with ideas.

The article that interested me most, however, was this one about "The Scarecrow," a new animated short produced by Chipotle restaurants to draw attention to problems with factory farming and promote their own supposedly more sustainable practices. The video itself, available on YouTube, is both charming and moving, but it's provoked a barrage of attacks from two directions. Supporters of Monsanto have flooded the YouTube site with comments arguing that corporate agriculture is actually the best way to "feed more people while using fewer resources," while environmentalists have denounced the video as an example of greenwashing by a "giant corporation." The author of the article disagrees with both viewpoints, arguing that "Chipotle does have a strong, if imperfect, record on sustainability" and that "'large company' does not always have to equal 'unsustainable.'"

This caught my attention because it's exactly the same argument I made three years ago in response to the protests surrounding the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, which many of the holiday's original founders considered to have been "perverted" from its original purpose by corporate influence. I thought this was a bunch of hooey, because let's face it, there are always going to be corporations, and having those corporations adopt more sustainable practices is decidedly a Good Thing, even if they're just doing it to attract more customers. Heck, especially if they're doing it to attract more customers—because if it works, that will give the other corporations an incentive to do the same thing.

So it's nice to see that there are some folks in the sustainability movement—even some fairly influential ones—who agree with me on this. But seriously, have they been reading my blog for ideas?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cheap thrills for Halloween

Last month, while paging through Better Homes and Gardens, I came on a statistic that absolutely gobsmacked me: Americans typically spend a total of 8 billion dollars each year on Halloween, making it second only to Christmas for the total shelled out on a holiday. Divided over 114 million American households, that works out to about 70 bucks per family. The National Retail Federation predicts that spending is likely to drop to about $7 billion this year due to the uncertain economic climate, but that's still more than $60 per family. What's it all going for?

A Bankrate article pointed me toward some answers to this question. Candy, it says, can run as much as $10 to $15 for a big bag, and the article claims you might need several bags if your neighborhood is a hotbed of Trick-or-Treating. However, that's just the tip of the iceberg: The article also puts the cost of "decor items" at $25 to $50, kids' costumes at $30 each, and adult costumes as high as $140. Dress up two adults and two kids, buy two bulk bags of candy, and shell out for store-bought decorations, and you could easily rack up a tab of over $400 for a one-night event.

On the other hand, there's no real need to spend nearly this much. Indeed, the fact that the average household spending for Halloween is well below this amount shows that, while some families may be shelling out big bucks for this holiday, others are spending much smaller bucks. Moreover, I suspect that these frugal families are probably getting a lot more fun out of the holiday with their DIY costumes and decorations. So, for anyone who's still scrounging around for some last-minute ideas for either treats or tricks, here's my quick list of suggestions for scaring up all the elements of a great Halloween celebration on the cheap.
  • Candy. While Bankrate estimates the cost of a big bag of M&Ms at $10 to $15, I've nearly always been able to score candy for much less during the pre-Halloween sales. Last year, according to my usual custom, I picked up two bags of mini Snickers and Three Musketeers bars for $4—and then we actually got only a handful of Trick-or-Treaters, so most of the booty ended up going to Brian's coworkers. But even if you live in a heavily haunted neighborhood, I think four bags for $8 would certainly be enough to feed the hungry masses. Bankrate also notes that many stores mark their candy down dramatically a few days before Halloween to get it off the shelves, so by procrastinating a bit you might be able to score an even better deal. Or you could take a crack at extreme couponing: the Krazy Coupon Lady site lists several sale-and-coupon combos that can get your final cost per bag down to as little as 45 cents.
  • Costumes. Store-bought costumes may run $30 to $60 a pop, but as I've noted before on this blog, I think homemade costumes are not only much cheaper but also a lot more fun. When you make your own costume, you can be pretty much anything you can imagine—as you can see from this recent post on Young House Love, which explains how bloggers John and Sheri fulfilled their 3-year-old daughter's request to dress up as "a fairy queen of the jellyfish." And if your family members don't happen to have any brilliant, bizarre ideas, there's no shortage of additional DIY costume ideas online. Bankrate and Spoonful have some creative ideas for both adults and kids (believe it or not, "jellyfish" is actually among them), while Real Simple offers some whimsical last-minute costume suggestions.
  • Decorations. This, even more than costumes, is an area in which I think buying ready-made takes all the fun out of it. Why would you ever want to miss out on the chance to go out as a family to the local farm stand, pick up a pumpkin for anywhere from $2 to $10, and carve it yourself? Plus, how could anything you buy at the store ever come anywhere close to the coolness of hand-carved pumpkins like these? (Okay, these are prize-winning pumpkins that generally took around five hours and a set of specialized tools to carve, but come on, even your basic jack-o-lantern with a real candle inside looks a lot cooler than a plastic one that costs 15 bucks.) Bankrate recommends spraying your carved pumpkin with WD-40 so it will last longer, but as Amy Dacyczyn (all hail the Frugal Zealot!) points out in her Tightwad Gazette books, you get even better value by carving the pumpkin the day before Halloween, bringing it back in the day after, and turning it into puree that you can enjoy in your Thanksgiving pies.
  • More decorations. Even if you're after something a little more elaborate than a simple Jack-o-Lantern, surely you can give freer rein to your creativity by building something from scratch than by buying off the shelf from Party City. Once again, there are plenty of sites online just teeming with ideas, from Martha Stewart's elaborate designs to BHG's kid-friendly projects. 
  • Party fare. Naturally, Martha Stewart also has some recipes for spooky treats (and creepy cocktails) to grace your Halloween get-together. But even simple classic homemade treats like popcorn balls and roasted pumpkin seeds are classics, and the ingredients for them are super cheap. Heck, if you're carving your own pumpkin, the seeds come free.
Here's hoping that these ideas will inspire one or two people out there to break out of the big box and try doing it themselves this Halloween—if not for the savings, then for the sheer fun of it. Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Thinking outside the cat box

A few weeks ago, I noticed that our cat was no longer being as conscientious as she used to be about covering her "doings" after using the litter box. This was a bit bothersome, because our litter box sits right out in the open under our wall-mounted sink, so any droppings left uncovered were clearly visible and sometimes smellable as well. I'd thought from time to time about putting up a screen or curtain to conceal the box—which might have the added bonus of reducing the amount of litter that gets scattered out of the box and across the bathroom floor, from whence it migrates into every other room of the house—but I could never come up with an idea for one that wouldn't either look fussy, collect dirt, or get in the way when it was time to scoop out the box.

For a while, I dealt with the problem by simply scattering a little extra litter myself over the top of the box when needed. However, when she actually went so far as to poop next to the box rather than in it, I decided something needed to be done. I did a little research to figure out what might cause the problem, and I found an article that said cats might do this for several reasons:
Maybe the litter's not deep enough or the lining is a pain to negotiate, or the box is too small – it should be 1.5x the length of the cat. Or it's so dirty and stinky that your feline has to hold his breath while watching his step.
Changing the litter and making sure to pile it nice and deep seemed like the easiest fix, so I tried that first. This seemed to solve the second problem, but not the first, so I started wondering whether maybe she could use a bigger box. I measured the one we had and found it was about 18 inches long, and while I had trouble measuring the actual length of the cat (who didn't feel inclined to cooperate with the procedure), it was clearly more than 12 inches. She's also getting on in years—about 12 years old now—and not as spry as she used to be, so I figured she might be starting to have a little trouble maneuvering in the small box.

So the next time we were at PetSmart, I took a look at the selection of cat boxes to see if they had anything a little bigger. I hoped that while I was at it, I might also be able to find something that would be a little more concealed than what we have now, and possibly better at keeping the litter contained. The results, however, were disappointing. Despite what I'd read about the ideal size for a cat box being at least 1.5 times the length of the cat, we didn't find any litter boxes on the shelves that were significantly bigger than our old one, which was a tight fit even for our fairly small cat. And while there were a few boxes with covers or high sides, none of them really looked less obtrusive than the existing box, and all of them looked like they'd be harder for the cat to get into and out of. And on top of that, they all cost at least $20, which seemed like an unreasonable amount to spend for something that might not be any better than what we already had.

As luck would have it, however, I'd recently seen another article on ways to conceal your cat box. Many of them were very clever but wouldn't work for us, because they were designed for a living space rather than a bathroom. However, there was one solution that looked both simple and cheap: a big Rubbermaid storage box. The PetSmart wasn't far from a Target, so we popped in there and found a big, covered storage bin that measured 22 inches long—four inches longer than our existing box—for only five bucks. It also had 14-inch-high sides, which I thought should be much better at keeping the litter contained than our current box's 10-inch sides, and it was a neutral greyish brown that looked like it would blend unobtrusively into the background.

When we got the bin home, the first thing we did was test it to make sure it would fit under the sink. At first it looked like the drainpipe was in the way, but a moment's experimentation showed that the box only had to be tilted slightly to slip under the pipe, so it would still be possible to slide it out for scooping with only a little maneuvering. Now all we needed to do was cut a door in the box for the cat. The original designer of this box simply cut out the hole with an utility knife, but Brian thought it would be a good idea to add a little reinforcement to the bottom edge, both to strengthen it and to blunt it a bit so it wouldn't hurt the cat's paws. Folding over the edge didn't work, as the plastic proved to be too brittle to bend, so instead I proposed instead padding the bottom with a bit of rubber tubing, which we just happened to have lying around the shop. We just cut it to length, cut a slit in the bottom, and slipped it onto the edge of the door. And voilĂ : an extra-large cat box, complete with padded edge, for only five bucks and about twenty minutes of work.

We haven't deployed the new box yet, but we did bring it upstairs to make sure the cat could get in and out of it easily. Despite her normal penchant for exploring enclosed spaces, she didn't show the slightest inclination to investigate the box on her own, so Brian eventually just picked her up and put her in, and she promptly stepped back out through the door with no difficulty. We'll probably get it set up this evening, and I'll keep you posted on how well it does compared to the old one.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Tangled up in gold

Yesterday, I noted that we planted way too much basil this year and need to cut back next year. The same problem applies in spades to our Sun Gold tomatoes. The problem really started back in the spring, when a lot of the tomato seedlings we'd started didn't survive transplanting. We had extra Sun Gold seedlings, so we figured that rather than let those squares sit empty, we'd just plant a couple of additional Sun Golds to put the space to good use. Big mistake. The Sun Golds, which are the hardiest and earliest of all our tomatoes, spread out and took over each trellis where they were planted, practically strangling the other surviving tomatoes as they grabbed for each bit of space they could get their little tendrils on. (Yes, I know you're supposed to prune the plants so they don't do that, but I can never figure out which parts of the vine you're supposed to cut off and which you're supposed to leave on. I do still want to get some tomatoes off each plant, or there's no point in having them.)

Of course, the sheer size of the plants is only part of the problem. A bigger part is that each plant is immensely productive—and instead of producing a few big tomatoes at a time, it produces lots and lots of tiny little tomatoes. That makes it practically impossible to keep up with the task of harvesting them. You have to go out and pick them practically every day, or else they start dropping to the ground of their own accord. If you're lucky, they fall on the path, where it's easy to spot and retrieve them; if you're unlucky, they land in the bed, which is already littered with numerous other tiny tomatoes that have fallen on their own. Every one of these has to be picked up, whether it's edible or not, because if they aren't, you'll end up with a huge crop of tiny tomato seedlings next year that have to be pulled out before they take over the entire bed.

The fact that the plants themselves are so big and thick makes harvesting even harder, since it's difficult to reach in and grab one ripe tomato, or a handful, without knocking several others to the ground. And, to compound the problem, the little Sun Golds have a tendency to split, especially after a heavy rainfall—so a significant percentage of those you pick end up having to be discarded because they might be contaminated. This slows down the gathering process considerably, as every single tomato you pick has to be examined before you can add it to your collection. So as tasty and hardy as these tomatoes are, they can very, very easily turn into too much of a good thing.

So, as with the basil, we've found ourselves with a huge amount of tomatoes to preserve, since there's more of them than we can possibly eat raw. We've tried turning them into salsa and pizza sauce, but these will only keep for a limited time in the fridge, and we don't have space in the freezer for the amount we'd produce from a crop this size. We don't have a canner, so we decided to try a method proposed by Mark Bittman in his massive tome How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: oven-drying. As he explains it, if you just halve cherry tomatoes lengthwise, lay them out on a cookie sheet, and bake them at 225 degrees for 2–3 hours, they'll come out "soft but somewhat shriveled," much like raisins. In this form, they can be used immediately in a recipe that calls for sun-dried tomatoes. If you keep them baking for about 4 hours, they'll be "shriveled and mostly dry," and they can be stored well-wrapped in the fridge or freezer. If you want them to keep for weeks, then you'll need to cook them for 6 or more hours, until they're "dark, shriveled, and dry." Since our goal was shelf-stable tomatoes, we went for the third option.

Brian has tried this method before and found that he actually gets better results by cooking the tomatoes at 225 for just one hour, then turning the heat down to 175. The first picture here shows the tomatoes as they were when they first went into the oven; the second shows them about an hour into the drying process, when he removed them to make room for some enchiladas that needed to bake at a higher temperature. You can see how they've already shrunk in size, but they're still not at the raisin-like stage. When we finally removed the tomatoes from the oven. they were thoroughly dry and crunchy in texture, almost like a potato chip. In this form, they can't really be used in place of sun-dried tomatoes, which normally have a chewier texture, but they can be reconstituted with water for something vaguely approximating a fresh tomato.

The only snag is that even in dried form, the tomatoes we picked yesterday—which don't amount to more than a few days' worth—were more than enough to fill a quart jar. If the Sun Golds continue to produce at the rate they have been until the first hard freeze, we're going to need a lot more jars to store them all, and a lot more pantry space to store them in.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bringing in the basil

On Friday, like Joni Mitchell, we awoke to find the frost perched on the town. With the temperature in the house hovering around 60, we fired up the boiler that we'd hoped to keep dormant until November, and then we turned our thoughts to a big job that we knew was coming sooner or later: harvesting and preserving our massive crop of basil. This year we planted our usual four square feet of garden space with basil, but we used a new method of sowing it: instead of planting just four seeds in each square and hoping to get four big plants, we just carpet-bombed the whole area with seeds. As the seedlings popped up, we thinned out the ones that seemed too close together, and then just let the rest grow as big as they liked. And grow they did: by the time autumn rolled around, those four squares of our garden looked like the Everglades. There was enough basil there to measure in kilos, as if we were drug kingpins. (What's the street value of basil, I wonder?) One light frost probably hadn't been enough to spoil it all, but it meant that we couldn't afford to leave it out there another night.

So, that evening, before it got dark, Brian went out and pulled up the lot. Relocated from its native habitat to our sink, the mass somehow looked even more imposing. He spent the next hour just pulling all the leaves off the stems, while I got through nearly half of an Agatha Christie novel I was reading aloud to him. Eventually, he managed to reduce the huge mass of plants to a somewhat smaller, but still imposing, mass of leaves. Our big metal mixing bowl was filled to overflowing, with enough left over to heap our colander high as well.

At this point, however, the work was just beginning. His plan for storing the basil over the winter was to blend it up with a bit of olive oil to make a slurry, which could then be measured out into ice-cube trays in one-tablespoon units that could be doled out as needed in our recipes. His usual preferred tool for making pesto and other sauces of this kind is our Magic Bullet blender (a Freecycle find that turned out to be surprisingly useful), but with such a huge volume of leaves to process, he decided to give the full-sized blender a try. The results confirmed that for this purpose, the Magic Bullet is indeed the better tool. The blender sort of mushed up the leaves without really grinding them, and getting the half-crushed contents out proved to be a huge hassle. So he decided he'd have to use the Magic Bullet after all—but the problem there was that it only has a capacity of about 12 ounces, and we had a couple of gallons of basil leaves to process. After about an hour more of alternately packing, grinding, and swearing, Brian had only made it through a fraction of the pile, and the motor of the Magic Bullet was starting to emit a burning smell.

With both Brian and the blender on the verge of a breakdown, I proposed finding some other way to preserve the basil—or at least store the leaves overnight and deal with them in the morning. A quick search on "how to preserve basil" turned up this Wikihow article, which provided several options for "short-term refrigerator storage." Since we'd already stripped all the leaves from the stems, only one of them was practical: packing them into a zip-top bag and tucking it in the fridge, to be dealt with in the morning. However, the article also mentioned several other ways of preserving basil over the long term, some of which looked intriguing. Considering what a hassle our usual blend-with-oil method was turning out to be, and considering also how long it would take to convert such a large volume of basil slush into frozen cubes, any method that didn't involve the blender looked very appealing indeed. In fact, I thought perhaps we could look on this basil bother as an opportunity to try out a whole bunch of different methods for storing a whole bunch of basil, and see which one worked the best over the long term.

Of the various methods outlined in the article, we decided to try these three:

1) Freezing whole leaves. The Wikihow article says you can simply spread them out on a tray and freeze them, but we'd tried that before and found they were mushy and not very flavorful when thawed. However, a second article from Food Preservation explained that you can fix this by blanching the basil before freezing it, killing off the enzymes that cause it to degrade. Their instructions for blanching involved dipping a whole bunch of basil in boiling water, then in ice water. We couldn't do this since we'd already stripped the leaves off the stems, so Brian instead came up with what he called the "butterfly method": drop a handful of leaves into the water, swish them around with a sieve, then scoop them back out and dunk them into the ice water. This left them wilted but still green. Then he spread them out in a freezer bag, forming a layer as nearly flat as possible, and popped it in the freezer. The idea is that individual clumps of leaves can be broken off as needed, leaving the rest of the mass intact.

2) Salting the basil. One advantage of this method is that it doesn't require any of our limited freezer space. All it calls for is a large crock or jar and a vast quantity of salt. We didn't have a covered crock that could be spared from its normal kitchen duties, so we chose to pack the basil leaves and salt in a Ball jar. Following the instructions, we started with a thick layer of salt, then layered basil and salt over top, stopping now and then to pack it in, and finishing with more salt. The covered jar will get stored in our overflow pantry in the basement, which should meet the requirements for "a cool and dry spot."

3) Packing in oil. Again, a very simple method with no freezing, but it does use up quite a lot of expensive olive oil. We went with a jar again, loading it up with leaves, sprinkling in salt, and then filling the whole thing up with olive oil. Wikihow promises that leaves packed in this way and stored in the fridge "will remain in great condition for use over the coming months" and can be used just like fresh basil in any recipe. The basil-infused olive oil can be used too, so it doesn't go to waste, but you'd presumably have to use it in a recipe that's very heavy on both oil and basil. Maybe processing the basil and oil together into pesto—in small batches—is the way to go.

In addition to these, we have about thirty of our traditional basil-and-oil cubes in the freezer, and about another fifteen cubes' worth in the fridge waiting to be measured out. Brian actually mulched up quite a large volume of basil on Friday night before he packed it in, so we now have more basil cubes than we usually do when starting the winter, plus all the other basil we've preserved in alternative ways.

Only time will tell how well each different batch of preserved basil holds up, but one thing we've definitely learned from this experience is that we needn't plant nearly as much of it next year. Our carpet-bomb sowing method produces such a massive yield per square that we could reduce the area planted from four square feet to two and still have plenty of basil to use all year long.

Now, it's on to figuring out how to deal with the massive quantity of Sun Gold tomatoes our plants are still producing—but that's a subject for another day.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A losing battle

It's been nearly four weeks now since we planted grass on the bare-earth slope that we built up around the edges of our patio. At the time, I was very excited about the seed blend we'd specially ordered at Home Depot, which contained a mixture of fescue and microclover (a specially bred variety of Dutch clover that stays low to the ground). If the claims on the site were to be believed, this stuff could thrive with little water, stay green and lush without fertilizer, and compete with the toughest weeds. When we first planted the slope back in September, after first stripping it of all weeds and preparing it with some compost, it looked like this (including the burlap we put down as a temporary erosion guard).

And this morning, after four weeks of growth and regular watering, it looked like this.

Now, if you look at this picture carefully, two things may strike you about it. First, an awful lot of the planted area is still bare and brown, rather than lush and green. And second, the lushest, greenest parts are not grass but weeds—mostly the mugwort and dandelions that we labored so hard to eradicate before planting the grass in the first place. Turns out that—surprise, surprise—when you prepare a nice, clear patch of ground, add plenty of compost, and water it regularly, the weeds find it just as congenial a spot as the grass does, if not more so. And though we tried our hardest to pull out every last weed, weeds that spread with long underground runners (like mugwort) or grow from extremely deep-rooted taproots (like dandelions) are virtually impossible to dig up completely. Even if there's no trace of them visible above the surface, they're still lurking down there, and they can grow from a fragment of a root into a huge, thriving plant a lot faster than a tiny grass seed can.

So, at least in its first few weeks of growth, this grass blend hasn't been doing such a stellar job of competing with the weeds. But, not being prepared to give up just yet, we decided to go for one more round of pulling and planting and see if we could manage to get a little more actual grass this time. So once again, we pulled out as many weeds as we could, sprinkled grass seed in all the bare patches (a little more heavily this time, in the hopes that at least one seed in five would take root), and top-dressed it with our last bag of compost. Here's how it looked by the time we went in this evening.

Already, with the weeds gone, it's looking a little better, even though it's considerably more bare than it was this morning. But considering how well this stuff did last time, I can't say I'm truly expecting a thick green carpet of lawn to spring up before the ground freezes. Most likely, we'll just end up with a slightly better version of what we had this morning: a little more grass and a little less weeds, but still a fairly high ratio of weeds to grass overall. I guess we can still hope that the weeds will die back over the winter while the microclover continues to spread, so that it will have an advantage against the weeds when they start to grow back in the spring. But still, considering that this is all we now have left of a bag of seed that was supposed to cover 600 square feet, I can't say I'm terribly impressed with this seed blend overall.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Veggie of the Month: Sweet Dumpling Squash

As October crept past its midpoint, I found myself starting to wonder what I could come up with for my Vegetable of the Month. I had picked up some king oyster mushrooms on our last trip to the H-Mart, thinking maybe those would do for a Fungus of the Month, but I made a couple of goofs with those. First, I forgot to get a picture of them before cooking them, and second, they ended up in a savory wild mushroom soup (out of Linda Fraser's Vegetarian cookbook) along with some plain white button mushrooms and a few reconstituted shiitakes—so although the final result was tasty, the specific flavor of the oyster mushrooms couldn't really be distinguished as such.

So all week, I was on the lookout for something else suitable for my October Veggie of the Month. I could have kicked myself when, after a trip to Trader Joe's on Thursday, I picked up a copy of the Fearless Flier on the way out of the store and discovered only after getting home that one of that week's specials had been on Cucurbita Pepo, otherwise known as delicata squash, a winter squash I'd never tried before. The flavor is described as similar to butternut, but richer and creamier, and it has such a thin rind that it doesn't require peeling like most winter squashes, making it much easier to work with. If I'd only taken the time to look through the flier while we were still in the store, we could have tried this new squash variety for only 99 cents—and if we'd liked it, we might even have considered adding it to our garden crops for next year. But alas, I was too late (and since the Trader Joe's is down in the Princeton area, there was no real chance of popping back in over the weekend to remedy my oversight).

I hoped we might manage to locate the delicata squash at some other local store, so during a round of errands this afternoon, we checked several: first the Aldi, where we had to stop in anyway for some mushrooms, then the Asian grocery store in the same shopping center, then the Shop-Rite across the street, and finally the H-Mart on the way home. Not one of them had delicata or any other squash that was new to us. Frustrated, but not quite ready to give up, I stopped in at the Stop & Shop on the way back from another afternoon outing (helping a friend to move the biggest freaking TV set I've ever seen) and discovered this little beauty in the veggie bin. It looked kind of like the pictures I'd seen of delicata squash, but the label on it actually said "Sweet Dumpling." But I figured, well, that might be just another name for delicata—and even if it's not, it is at least a new variety of squash I haven't tried before, so it will do just as well for my Veggie of the Month entry.

Well, the bad news is, Sweet Dumpling turns out to be a different variety entirely from delicata. It's a true winter squash, with a tough rind that you wouldn't want to eat. But the good news is, it turns out to be pretty easy to prepare; a quick Google search turned up ten different, simple suggestions. We went with the simplest of the bunch, halving the squash and roasting it with a little brown sugar, since it could bake right alongside the free-range chicken legs that we were planning to cook up for dinner. Here it is in its baked form, hollowed out and lightly glazed.

So how was it? Well, like the buttercup squash we tried back in January, it was pretty good, but not extraordinary. The flesh was tender and reasonably sweet, but it wasn't as smooth-textured as butternut, and the flavor didn't seem as complex. Overall, I don't see any real advantage to choosing Sweet Dumpling squash over butternut, and I certainly wouldn't want to give up any of my precious garden space to it. So once again, my Veggie of the Month is an interesting experience, but not something I particularly want to make a part of my everyday life.

Meanwhile, I'm still planning to keep my eyes open for a delicata squash if I can find one anywhere. Veggie of the Month for November, maybe?

Friday, October 18, 2013

A battery of questions

First of all, apologies for the long delay since my last entry. I was busy with work during the week, and we spent the weekend at a folk festival that left me too tired to even dash off a quick blog entry when we got home. I'll try to make it up to you all with some extra entries this weekend.

What's most on my mind right now, though, is a survey I took recently for (one of the multiple survey panels on which I take Internet surveys for fun and a little extra cash) about our household battery use. This survey was a bit more complicated than most: instead of just asking me a bunch of questions online, the panel actually sent me a booklet in the mail and asked me to fill in a chart listing, in minute detail, every device that we had in our home that used batteries, along with the number and type of batteries it contained. I also had to note  how often each device was used, who used it most often, and how often the batteries in it were changed or recharged. The whole booklet was eight pages long: three pages for devices with removable batteries, two for devices with battery packs or built-in rechargeable batteries, and one for extra batteries in storage. Brian and I took a look at it and thought, "This is ridiculous! Who could possibly have that many things that use batteries?"

Well, we were in for a bit of a surprise. We didn't think we had that many battery-powered devices, but once we started searching room by room, we ended up counting more than 35 items with removable batteries alone. And many of these were multiples of the same item: four remote controls for the various pieces of our home entertainment system (not counting the wireless keyboard and mouse we use for our media spud), two identical smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors (one for upstairs, one for downstairs), two travel alarm clocks (his and mine). There were also several items with teeny-weeny little batteries in them that we didn't even think about as powered devices at first, like our car keys and the tiny remote control that operates a floor lamp in our living room. Plus we had nearly a dozen items more that contain rechargeable batteries or battery packs, from Brian's beard trimmer to our hand-cranked weather radio (which we actually had to list twice, because it also contains three plain old alkaline batteries as a backup power source.)

It was a bit disconcerting to realize just how many battery-powered gadgets we actually own. To be fair, the main reason we didn't know how many we had is that many of them, like our electronic stud finder and three battery-powered toys from Brian's collection, seldom if ever get used. But an even ruder awakening came when I got to the "extra batteries" section of the survey and discovered that every single one of our rechargeable nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries—eight AA's in all—was sitting in a drawer with the charger. All the gadgets we had that contained regular (removable) batteries, many of which took the AA size, were running on alkalines.

Now, admittedly, there's a good reason for this. Most of the battery-powered devices we own fall into two categories: items that are only used occasionally (such as emergency flashlights and an MP3 player that we take on long car trips) and items that run continuously, using very little power (like our alarm clocks and programmable thermostat). And for devices of both types, rechargeable NiMH batteries aren't really practical, because they leak—that is, not leak fluid the way really old alkaline batteries do, but leak charge. So if they're inserted, fully charged, into a seldom-used emergency flashlight, then when an emergency actually does come up and you grab the flashlight to use it, you're liable to find that it's almost out of juice. And likewise, if you put them into a device that uses only a trickle of charge, like a smoke detector, they'll run down much faster and need to be changed more often than a regular alkaline battery.

So the only devices we have that really could reasonably use our rechargeable batteries are the few items we use on a fairly regular basis: the camera (which already has its own built-in battery pack), the TV remote, and the wireless mouse and keyboard. But those are currently loaded with alkalines too, because we had a bunch in a drawer that had been partly discharged and could no longer power anything with a high startup load—so Brian decided to put them in a low-drain device to run down the rest of their power before tossing them. And this is, of course, a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and more ecofrugal than using (and regularly charging) our rechargeables while the partly-used alkalines simply sit unused in a drawer, or worse yet, go to the landfill before they're actually used up. But nonetheless, I felt rather embarrassed filling out the online portion of the battery survey, listing item after item loaded up with unsustainable alkaline batteries. Particularly when I got to the series of questions at the end about my attitudes toward the environment, and I had to "strongly agree" with statements like, "I am actively trying to reduce my carbon footprint" and "I believe rechargeable batteries can save money in the long run," all the while knowing that my actual battery usage made it look like I wasn't putting my money where my mouth was. I was hoping for an open-ended question at the end like, "Do you have any additional comments?" that would allow me to explain the situation, but alas, I never got the chance.

So I guess there's not much I can really do about our battery-using habits until we've exhausted our current supply of partly-discharged batteries. But I have made up my mind that when those are gone, I'm not buying any more batteries of this type—at least not in this size. During my examination of the rechargeables currently languishing in our drawer, I discovered that four of them are labeled "pre-charged," which means, according to Michael Bluejay, that they are the Low Self-Discharge type—ones that don't run down nearly as fast as a standard NiMH. So the next time an alkaline battery runs down in a low-drain device like an alarm clock, I'm going to replace it with one of these instead. In fact, I might even invest in some batteries of this type in other sizes, like maybe some AAA's for our carbon monoxide detectors. And as for the smoke detectors, I think next time those get changed I'll put in lithium batteries, which Bluejay claims can last as long as seven years. Might cost a little more up front, but it's better than removing a half-drained alkaline twice a year and tossing it in a drawer.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Big Sale 2013

It's the most bargain-filled time of the year....

Yes, it's that time again: the weekend of Highland Park's annual town-wide yard sale. Shopping this event is always a bit complicated, because the sales are spread out all over town, and about half of them are one day only (Saturday or Sunday, but not both). Last year, I tried to simplify the process by marking up a map to show where the sales would be thickest on the ground. This year, I took it a step further and color-coded the map: green for Saturday sales, red for Sunday, and black for both days. Once we had the map all marked up, the red X's clearly outnumbered the green ones, suggesting that Sunday might be a more fruitful shopping day than Saturday. However, the bulk of the sales were two-day ones, and we knew that we'd find better goodies at those if we hit them early on, before too many other shoppers had picked them over. So we made a point of hitting the streets on Saturday morning promptly at the official start time of 9am.

This turned out to be a good move. Although we still ran across a fair number of sales that were complete duds, we found far more interesting items in just those first few hours of shopping than we'd encountered since we first moved into this house. We were only able to shop for a few hours in the morning, because we had plans to attend a Princeton football game at 1pm, yet in those few hours we picked up everything you see here, including three baskets, nine books, two puzzles, a couple of toys, one soldering iron, a scarf, three Ball jars complete with new rubber rings, and one vintage Erector Set, circa 1971, still in its original packaging and barely touched. (When Brian asked his folks which of our nieces or nephews was most likely to appreciate it, their advice was, "Hold onto it; it might actually be worth something.") And even among the items that weren't of special interest to us, it seemed like we were finding a much better proportion of "good stuff"—tools, furniture, clothes in good condition—at these sales than we had in previous years. In fact, Brian speculated that maybe the improvement in our local yard sales was a concrete sign that the economy was on the mend: people were starting to sell interesting stuff again because they had actually replaced some of their old stuff in the past year, rather than holding on to anything that still worked.

After our run of good luck on Saturday, Sunday's sales proved to be a bit of a letdown. Even though we still set out bright and early in the morning and stuck to the most sale-heavy areas, we found much slimmer pickings than before, even at the sales that were designated as Sunday-only. Maybe we'd become jaded after the previous day's successes, or maybe the areas we shopped on Sunday just weren't as treasure-rich as the ones we hit on Saturday, but whatever the reason, it seemed like we had to pick through a much larger dunghill to extract the few remaining pearls. This time, in three hours of shopping, we found only four books, one game, and a few miscellaneous items for the house. Our best score of the day was a big box filled with squares of cherry wood—at least fifty of them—all for a buck. True, we don't actually have a specific use for these at the moment, but it's really nice wood that could work for a wide variety of projects—anything from a hot plate to an inlaid table.

We did come across one really interesting find that we didn't end up taking home with us. At one of the last sales we visited, Brian spotted a trombone case sitting under a table, and opening it up found that there was an intact trombone inside. Brian tends to look on musical instruments of any kind as yard sale pay dirt, but he later confessed later that a trombone was one that he'd specifically fantasized about finding. It didn't matter that neither of us plays the trombone, and neither of us knows anyone who does; he started spinning scenarios in which he would either take up the instrument himself or pass it on to one of our nieces or nephews (at some later date, presumably, when their arms would actually be long enough to play it). The owner said to take a look at it and then make an offer, but while Brian was standing there contemplating the case and debating over what it was worth, another shopper literally snatched it from under his nose. It was obvious that his rival knew nothing about the instrument and was only interested in it for resale, since he first asked the seller, "Does it work?" (which would have been obvious to anyone who could identify all the parts) and then proceeded to turn the trombone upside down, letting the slide fall to the ground. Brian, seeing his prize about to slip from his grasp, hastily made an offer of ten bucks—but the other buyer promptly countered with twenty, which Brian had already decided was his limit, so he ruefully let it go.

By that time, the shopping was beginning to pall on us. We passed by a few more sales on the way back to our car, and a few more in the car on the way home, but we spared them barely a glance—sales that we'd almost certainly pull off the road for and investigate with care if we happened on them in the dry season, but now dismissed as not worth the effort. So we headed home with our smaller haul and called it a day. Still, putting the two days together, our weekend of sale-shopping can only be considered a rousing success. In just six hours of shopping, we visited over 50 sales, picked up several useful items for ourselves, and made a significant dent in our holiday shopping—all for a grand total of $25.50. We didn't bring home any items we were specially on the lookout for, such as board games, but we definitely got good value for the time and money we spent.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Moving the goalpost

It's been about a year now since I first noted that our goal of paying off our mortgage—up until then, the main target of all our efforts at saving—was coming into view out on the horizon, and started wondering what we should do with our money after that. Unlike many couples our age, we don't have any kids to put (or at least assist) through college, and while we do need to save for retirement, I was thinking of that as a goal that was still a couple of decades away at least. After all, I reasoned, we both like our jobs, so there's no reason to retire early...and even if we wanted to, we'd need at least one full-time job between us for the health benefits.

However, since then, I've learned three important things that have helped change my mind on this point:
  1. While Brian is pretty happy with his job, he doesn't really love it so much that he'd definitely want to keep doing it even if we no longer needed the money. In fact, he would really like to have the option of retiring early, whether he decides to do it or not.
  2. Under Obamacare, our estimated cost for private health insurance will drop to about $7,750 per year. This, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's Subsidy Calculator, is what the two of us would pay for a "Silver plan," which means one that would cover about 85 percent of our health expenses and would guarantee that our out-of-pocket expenses in a given year could not exceed $4,500. It's also nearly $4,000 less than the best price I could previously find at, an online shopping mall for health insurance. (I considered only those policies that actually had an out-of-pocket maximum, which was a surprisingly small percentage of them, considering that the whole point of insurance is to protect you against catastrophic costs.)
  3. If Brian were to lose (or give up) his job, we would also qualify for a health insurance subsidy. Based on my average annual income since I first became a freelancer, we could get about 80 percent of our insurance tab picked up by the government. This makes surviving on one income—or even no income—a much more realistic possibility.
So, now that we have finally succeeded in making our final mortgage payment, I'm officially setting my sights on a new goal: Financial Independence.

The term "financial independence," or FI, gets bandied about a lot in personal finance blogs and articles, and people use it in several different ways. The "Declaration of Financial Independence" on the Dollar Stretcher website lists a wide variety of criteria for FI, from "being comfortable with the things you have" to "having sufficient retirement savings." Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar, in a 2008 post, gets a little more specific, outlining three different levels of financial independence. Level one is "freedom from financial reliance on loved ones" (i.e., earning enough to pay your own way); level two is "freedom from financial reliance on creditors" (being out of debt); and level three is "freedom from financial reliance on income" (having enough to retire whenever you choose). This third level is also the definition used by Amy Dacyczyn (all hail the Frugal Zealot!) in an article called "The Unemployment Opportunity," which appears in her third Tightwad Gazette book. This top level of financial independence—also known as being independently wealthy or having "walk away from it all money"—is what we're looking to as our new financial goal.

One point Dacyczyn notes in her article is that a key to achieving this level of FI is to reduce your living expenses as much as possible. The less you need to live on, the less you need to have saved up to provide you with enough interest to pay all the bills. In fact, when I started doing some very rough back-of-the-envelope calculations to estimate how many years it might take us to reach FI, I made an interesting discovery: when aiming for FI, cutting $5,000 from your annual expenses is much more beneficial than adding that same $5,000 to your income. One reason is that the extra $5,000 in earnings will be taxed (and since it's tacked on to your current income, all that extra money will go into your highest tax bracket). When you cut expenses by $5,000, by contrast, that whole amount goes into your savings. But even more importantly, reducing expenses helps you in two different ways: it both increases the amount you can save each year (speeding up the rate at which you can move toward your FI savings goal) and decreases the amount you need to live on (making the goal number itself smaller).

To illustrate, let's take an aspiring saver whom we'll call (what else) Rich. Rich currently earns $55K per year after taxes, of which he spends $30K and saves $25K. Assuming that his investments can bring in roughly 4 percent interest per year—a reasonably safe bet, based on the historical average for the federal funds rate—Rich would need $750K in the bank to bring in enough for him to live on ($750K times 4 percent equals $30K, the amount he spends now). Rich already has $250K socked away, so he needs an extra $500K to become financially independent. If he continues to save $25K per year, it will take him 20 years to reach this goal ($500K divided by $25K equals 20).

Now, suppose Rich gets a raise that increases his income to $60K a year (again, after taxes). Since FI is his goal, he pumps all this extra cash into savings, increasing his annual savings to $30K a year. With these increased savings, he'll need only 16.67 years to reach FI ($500K divided by $30K equals 16.67). So, he'll get there 3 years and 4 months sooner than he would without the raise, which is good news.

But, suppose that instead of earning an extra $5K, Rich had instead found a way to save an extra $5K each year by cutting his expenses. He's still saving $30K a year, but now his savings goal is lower: since he only needs $25K a year to live on, he only needs $625K to bring in that amount in interest. With the $250K he already has, he only needs to save an additional $375K. And if he's now saving $30K per year, he will reach that goal in just 12.5 years ($375K divided by $30K equals 12.5). This means that he's just shortened his time to FI by 7.5 years—more than twice as much as he was able to shorten it by earning an extra $5K.

So (to get back to a real-life example), I'm looking on the mortgage we've just freed ourselves from as our opportunity to be like Rich. It's reduced our annual expenses (since our only housing payment now is our property taxes), thus making FI a more reachable goal for us, while simultaneously boosting the amount that we can put away toward it each year. Now all I have to do is figure out the best way to invest that extra money so that we can move toward our new goal as steadily as possible.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Paying up is hard to do

There's no shortage of articles on the Web about getting out of debt. Some of them discuss the difficulty of paying off debt, but they generally focus on how tough it can be to cut back your expenses and free up the cash for extra loan payments. Almost none of them talk about how difficult it can be to actually make that final payment and get the bank to accept it.

That's the position we're in now. Last month, Brian and I looked over our bank statement and realized that we were actually within striking distance of being able to pay off our entire mortgage balance and wash our hands of it for good. After a bit of discussion, we couldn't think of any good reason not to do it, so I logged into my Online banking account and set up a transfer from our savings account to our mortgage loan account in the amount of the entire remaining principal. Then, in a state of nervous excitement, I clicked on "make transfer." didn't go through.

Oh well, I figured, it must just be some quirk of the online banking system. Maybe it's not set up to accept a final payoff. No matter; we'll just pay off the bulk of the remaining balance this way and let the final payment come out of our account on the first of the month. So we sent a payment of $5,000, leaving a balance of less than $1,300, which we figured our next monthly payment would wipe out.

This was a miscalculation on my part. I forgot that, of the $1,500-plus we pay each month, only about $1,000 goes toward the principal. A little bit, at this point, is for interest, and the rest goes into an escrow account from which the bank pays our quarterly property taxes. So, after spending the entire day on October 1 nervously checking and re-checking our online banking to see whether than "final" mortgage payment had gone through, I found on the morning of October 2 that our mortgage loan still had a balance of two hundred dollars and change.

Well, this was such a small sum that it seemed even sillier than before to leave it just sitting there for a whole month waiting for our next regular payment to roll around. So I decided to go down to the bank in person and explain that I wanted to pay off my mortgage in full. I brought a slip of paper with me showing the number of the mortgage loan, the remaining balance, and the number of the account I wanted to take the funds from. I figured that would be all I'd need to pay the loan and be done with it.

Ha, silly me. When I spoke to the man at the bank, he told me that the balance on the paper still wasn't the amount I needed to pay; I needed to get the "closeout amount," which would include that balance plus whatever trivial sum still had to go toward interest and escrow, so that the bank's books would balance exactly when the loan was paid off. And of course, I couldn't get that number from him; I had to call up the loan servicing department. He gave me a phone number and told me to call them, request the number, and then come back the next day to complete the payoff.

Well, I called the number, and it turned out that it wasn't the loan servicing department; instead it was the bank's main customer service number. After negotiating my way through the automated service maze, I finally reached a customer service representative and explained to her what I needed. She put me on hold for about ten minutes and then came back saying that I would have to contact the loan servicing department directly—which was what I was trying to do in the first place—and fax them an official "payoff request," including my name, the number of my loan, and the desired date on which I wanted to pay it off. Then they would, supposedly, get back to me with the payoff amount, and then I could, supposedly, take that number to the bank and make the actual payment.

So at this point, I'm stuck in limbo. I faxed my payoff request to the number she gave me, but I have no way of knowing, first of all, whether it was even the right number for loan servicing (which doesn't seem certain, considering that the bank has already given me the wrong contact information once)...and second, if it is the right number, whether the folks there will bother to respond to my faxed request...and third, how long it will take them to do so. It's possible I could wait around for another week and then get a letter from them on October 10 saying, "Okay, here's the number you need to close out your account on October 3," which will, at that point, be a useless piece of information. Right now, it looks like waiting for our next scheduled payment on November 1 might actually be faster, and would certainly be easier, than trying to get the bank to tell us how to pay off the trivial amount that we still owe.

I never thought the hardest part of paying off our mortgage early would be getting the bank to take our money.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Our emergency plan

It's been nearly a year now since I blogged about the lessons we learned in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. Unlike many of our neighbors, we came out of the storm relatively unscathed; there was no flooding either inside our house or immediately outside, and we lost power for less than 46 hours. However, this was long enough to open our eyes to both the strengths and the weaknesses in our disaster preparedness plan. On the plus side, we had a gas stove that would work without electricity, a well-stocked pantry, and an ample supply of fresh water stored up in the basement—so feeding ourselves was no problem. On the down side, however, we discovered that even with plenty of candles and flashlights, we still had trouble lighting up any room enough to read or play games by. Also, while our house didn't get that cold with the furnace off in late October, I couldn't help suspecting that we wouldn't fare nearly as well if we suffered a prolonged power outage in, say, January. And although our landline phone continued to work reliably throughout the power outage, we worried about how we'd manage to stay in touch if a phone line did get taken down by a stray tree branch or something. (This turned out to be a well-founded concern when, several months later, our phone went out twice in the space of a week, which ultimately led to our dumping the landline in favor of VoIP.)

So, to address these concerns, we've added three new items to our storm-preparation kit:

1. A battery-powered LED lantern. This little guy was my Christmas present to Brian last year (appropriately enough, since he thinks it looks like a little plastic Santa Claus). With three D-cell batteries installed, it can run for 380 hours on its low power setting and 195 hours on its high setting, which is bright enough in our windowless downstairs bathroom to make reading quite comfortable. Even if we ran it for six straight hours a day, it could get us through more than a month without power on a single set of batteries—and if for some reason that's not enough, we have more batteries stowed in a drawer.

2. An emergency radio that can be recharged with either solar power or a hand crank. This was also a Christmas gift, one that I suggested to Brian's folks when they asked what he might like. In addition to regular AM and FM signals, it picks up seven emergency weather channels, and a jack on the rear allows it to be used as a cell phone charger as well. And should we need more illumination, it also includes a built-in LED flashlight—though it doesn't hold a candlepower to the light put out by the little red lantern.

3. A super-size box of chemical hand and body warmers. Of all the flaws in our disaster plan, the possibility of being left without heat in the middle of winter was the one that concerned me most. The lack of light might put us at risk for boredom, and the lack of a chargeable phone might leave us out of contact with friends and family, but the lack of heat was the one problem that could actually threaten our physical safety. Most of the backup heating systems I could think of, from wood stoves to generators, seemed far too costly considering that we might never actually have to use it, and most sites cautioned against using propane or kerosene heaters indoors. Some sites recommended crowding your whole family into the smallest room in the house with as many blankets as possible and relying on your body heat to keep warm—but that seemed to me like a pretty uncertain plan, and not much fun even if it worked. So when I came across this site that mentioned chemical hand and body warmers for keeping warm in a power outage, it seemed like the simplest solution. The box contains 40 packets, each of which is supposed to provide heat for up to 18 hours, so even if we each use one a day, we should have enough to get through a 20-day power outage without freezing our booties off. They should also keep for at least six years, so we won't have to worry about replacing them before 2019—and even if there isn't a single blizzard between now and then, the $36 we spent on the box will work out to only 6 bucks a year, which is cheap for a storm insurance policy. Moreover, we were able to stuff a couple of the packets into our car's emergency medical kit—so now we have a little extra protection to carry with us on the road as well.

So, for less than $100 all told, we now have a complete emergency kit, which should see us through a storm at any time of year in safety and at least reasonable comfort. (We've probably spent a couple of additional bucks on matches and spare batteries, but our emergency water supplies are simply tap water stored in empty soda and juice bottles, so they cost us essentially nothing.) And if we're never called upon to use any of it—well, $100 to keep storms away from our doorstep is cheap at twice the price.

Secondhand shopping sites

Last week's Dollar Stretcher newsletter included a link to a article on the best ways to sell different kinds of used goods, from clothing to furniture. I clicked on it without expecting to glean much useful information from from it; I seldom have anything of value to sell, since I tend to keep clothes until they fall apart and electronics until they're well beyond what most people would consider obsolete. However, while I don't do much secondhand selling, I do quite a lot of secondhand buying, and the article turned out to have quite a bit of useful information about secondhand shopping sites I'd never heard of before.

Right on the first slide of the 8-frame slideshow, the article recommended a site called for advertising a garage sale to the public. I promptly surfed over to the site and entered in my ZIP code, hoping to learn about any upcoming sales in or near my hometown. I didn't discover any—in fact, even Highland Park's upcoming town-wide garage sale didn't have an entry—but I did find that in addition to yard sales, the site has listings for secondhand sellers of all kinds: consignment shops, antique dealers, flea markets, and pawn shops. I found two listings for flea markets within a 10-mile radius of my town, when previous searches had led me to believe there was none nearer than Brooklyn. Sadly, the closer of the two listings—less than 3 miles away—turned out to be for a one-time event that had taken place in June 2011, for which the listing apparently had never been taken down. However, the other one led me to the Warren Flea Market, a bona fide market held each Sunday from April through December in Warren, NJ. True, it's about half an hour's drive away in a direction we don't usually go, but it looks like a big enough event to justify a special trip. We've been enjoying some online episodes of Flea Market Flip lately thanks to our new "TV to Go" service, and having a flea market within striking distance might actually give us a chance to try playing the game for ourselves.

The fourth slide had some useful information as well, this time specifically focused on secondhand books. I had already heard of, and was planning to try,, a site where you can list the books you have available to give away and get a credit for each one you "sell," which you can then use to "buy" a book from someone else on the site. (The only cost is for shipping, which is borne by the seller, but the site simplifies the process by providing a free, printable mailing wrapper.) However, before you can start requesting books on this site, you have to list ten books of your own, and I hadn't gotten around yet to culling my bookshelves for excess paperbacks that I could list. (Despite the site's name, it does accept hardcovers as well, but I thought it best not to start with those, since they're heavier and more costly to ship.)

The Bankrate article, however, turned me on to another site that serves the same purpose: This site works much like, but its rules are different. At, you can get credits just for listing books, even before anyone has requested them; for each ten books you list, you earn one credit. ( gives you two "free" credits for listing your first ten books, but after that you have to give books away to earn more credits.) Also, you don't necessarily have to list ten books to get started; if you list five books and one of them gets requested right away, you immediately earn one point that can be used to "mooch" one book from another user. Regardless of how many credits you have on the site, you must give away at least one book for every two that you request—but that's not as strict a requirement as PaperbackSwap's, which requires you to continue earning credits on a one-for-one basis in order to continue requesting new books.

So at this point, I'm wavering between these two sites. I don't want to sign up with both, because I only have a limited number of books to give away, and I can't very well list the same books on both sites (I might end up having the same volume requested by two different users). seems a little less strict, and it also offers a feature that allows you to maintain a "wish list" of books you can request automatically as soon they become available. However, it doesn't have the handy printable mailers of, and since it doesn't give you the two free credits to start out with, it might take longer for me to actually have the chance to earn any books this way (since I don't know how popular my library rejects will be with others). I think ultimately it will just come down to a question of which site has a better selection; I'll need to spend a little time browsing both sites and see which one has more of the books currently sitting on my Wishlist. And, of course, in the process I might learn a bit more about how well the search function works on each site, which could also be a factor in my decision.

But either way, getting free books while getting rid of the ones I'll never read again is a definite win-win.