Sunday, January 26, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Rhubarb Bread

Last year, as you may recall, I made a resolution to try one new fruit or vegetable each month and discuss it here on the blog. In December, I evaluated the results of that resolution and concluded that it hadn't exactly been a rousing success: while I did achieve my goal of trying twelve new fruits and veggies, not one of them actually went on to become a regular part of my diet. So for 2014, I decided to tackle the eat-more-veggies problem from a different angle: instead of trying a new veggie or fruit each month, I'd try a new recipe featuring a veggie or fruit—either a new one or an old familiar favorite served in a new way. That way, I could still expand my horizons produce-wise without having to go out of my way to seek out unfamiliar foods (which might not be local or seasonal).

To kick off this new resolution, I requested rhubarb bread as my birthday cake this year. This recipe came from our new book, Grocery Gardening, which we picked up on our annual December outing to Half Price Books in Indianapolis. In fact, this recipe was the first one I spotted when I picked up the book in the store, and it was probably the main reason I ended up buying it. Although it's called a "bread," it's actually much closer to a cake in texture and sweetness, similar to zucchini bread or pumpkin bread. And, like those perennial favorites, it starts out with a healthful ingredient and turns it into something much more decadent by piling lots of sugar, flour, and oil on top of it. Actually, the oil in this recipe isn't so bad (two-thirds of a cup for two loaves), but the sugar is another story; this recipe actually uses as much sugar as a rhubarb pie, with only half the amount of rhubarb.

I don't want to tread on the toes of Jean Ann Van Krevlen, the author of Grocery Gardening, by repeating her recipe here, but I can give you the gist of it: You make the batter from flour, milk, oil, an egg, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, orange zest, and vanilla. Then you fold in chopped rhubarb and chopped walnuts, pour it into loaf pans, and sprinkle it with a streusel topping made from more brown sugar mixed with butter and cinnamon. The recipe said to bake the two loaves at 325 for 40 minutes, but actually it took over an hour for ours to pass the toothpick test, and both loaves still ended up with a slightly gooey bit in the very middle (possibly a result of the rhubarb de-juicing). So if we had this to do over, we'd probably halve the recipe and bake two smaller loaves so that they'd cook faster.

The final result was certainly good, but it didn't really taste, well, rhubarby. A rhubarb pie or crisp has a distinctive, mouth-watering flavor that comes from the tartness of the rhubarb balanced out by the sweetness of the sugar, and this recipe didn't really have that. It was more like a generic fruit cake; you could easily have substituted any other kind of fruit for the rhubarb without changing the flavor all that much. The texture was a bit odd, too; unlike pumpkin bread and zucchini bread, which usually cook up firm and moist, this rhubarb bread came out rather crumbly. When we tried to cut a slice of it, we were liable to end up with a sort of jagged lump instead. Trying to eat it like a bread generally resulted in large crumbs spilling all over my lap. After my first piece, I decided it made more sense to eat it out of a bowl with a fork—and from there, it was a natural step to topping it with whipped cream, which made it still tastier, but did nothing to improve its nutritional value.

Although we both liked this bread, I doubt we'll be making it on a regular basis. Given the amount of sugar it contains, it's not really something we should be eating often, and if we're going to indulge in a decadent rhubarb dessert, I'd prefer one that has more rhubarb flavor. We might try it again some time with some minor modifications to see if we can improve the texture (and possibly perk up the flavor), but on the whole, I think there are better uses for our limited rhubarb supply. (I can't say this experiment makes me terribly optimistic about the other recipes in our new book, either—but I plan to try at least a couple more of them before passing judgment.)

Friday, January 24, 2014

Can't trust the grid

As I sit right now at my desk typing this entry, I am perched tensely on the edge of my seat, constantly expecting the computer to shut down without warning.

You see, in the past two weeks, we have experienced eight power outages. I told you about the one we had over the weekend of the 11th and 12th, but that one actually wasn't too bad because the temperature was so unseasonably warm for January. In 21 hours without heat, the temperature in the house never ended up falling below 62 degrees. During the next two days after that, we had a couple of "planned" power outages as PSE&G worked to fix the parts that were damaged during the fire that caused the first outage. At least, they were planned from PSE&G's point of view; they still didn't give us a chance to plan for them by warning us when they were going to happen. Still, these occurred either late at night or overnight, so they weren't too disruptive; aside from being cut off in the middle of an episode of "Leverage" (our new favorite mind candy show) one night, we didn't suffer any real ill effects. It was an inconvenience, but we figured it was worth it to have the grid back on line and working reliably before the real cold weather hit this week.

Ha.

On Tuesday night, a major winter storm hit. Brian opted to stay home from work, which turned out to be a good idea, since most of his coworkers who went in reported that it took them several hours to get home—but while he was at his desk trying to work remotely on his laptop, boom, out went all the power again. This time the whole town wasn't affected—in fact, we could see lights on at the apartment complex down the street and at businesses less than a block away—but since the snowstorm made it pretty much impossible to go anywhere, we were just as surely cut off from civilization as if the grid had been knocked out for miles around. We ended up camped out in our kitchen, working on a jigsaw puzzle by the light of a flashlight suspended from the ceiling fan, dining on canned soup, and attempting to keep warm with chemical heat packs as the temperature gradually crept lower and lower. With the outside temperature at 20 degrees and falling, the house lost heat a lot faster than it had during the previous outage; in less than six hours, the temperature in the house fell to 60 degrees. Fortunately, we didn't have to find out just how cold the house would get overnight, since the power came back on at 10pm. We had just enough time to sneak in one episode of "Leverage" before bed.

The next day, the roads looked clear enough to allow Brian to venture in to work. We debated over who should take the cell phone; on the one hand, he would need it if he got stuck in the snow, but on the other hand, I would need it to call him if the power went out again. We ended up leaving it with me, which turned out to be the smart choice, because some time between 10 and 11 in the morning, out it went. Brian fetched me and took me back to work with him, and I completed Tuesday's blog entry on his laptop, then spent the rest of the day hanging out at his office doing crosswords and searching the Web for information about home generators (about which more later). Around 3pm we checked our phone and found it working, so we went home thinking we would finally be able to bake the pizza we'd planned for the night before. Yet no sooner had we walked in the door than wham, out went the power again. Once again, it was just our block that was affected, so we ended up eating at a diner and then hanging out at the Barnes & Noble until the power came back.

By this time, I was starting to feel really paranoid. The constant ons and offs of the grid were making me hesitate to do things that should have been routine. I found myself wondering whether I dared to take a shower, because if the power went out again in the middle of it I'd be left with wet hair in an unheated house. I ended up doing so, but hurrying to dry off and get dressed as fast as possible, expecting at any minute to be plunged into darkness and cold. My siege mentality persisted into Thursday as I hurried to get my last Thrift Week entry written early for fear that the power would fail again. Sure enough, it did, just before 3pm—too late for Brian to come and take me to work with him, so I just bundled up in my warmest clothes and read magazines until the lights came back on at 4pm. Brian was also thinking in the same terms; he came home early in a hurry to bake the pizza that had now been waiting for two days, and fortunately, we just managed to slip it into the window between 4pm and 6:10, when the power went out again. We headed off to Princeton for our dance practice having no idea whether we'd come home to a functioning house or a cold, dark cave.

We are now nearly three days into the siege. As of noon today, the electricity is still on—but I still find myself making constant adjustments to my life in anticipation of an imminent power failure. Operating in crisis mode, I've even found myself going against my usual ecofrugal instincts. I turned the heat up higher in the house (all the way to 70) to build up a reserve of heated air, so that when (I'm no longer even thinking if) the power goes out again, it'll take longer for the temperature to drop into the frigid zone. I also considered washing an extra-small load of laundry, rather than the usual more efficient large load, so that if the washer got be stopped halfway through its cycle, I'd be able to fit the wet clothes on our indoor drying rack. I'm even thinking about going to the store and picking up a box of tissues, which we haven't had in this house for years, because we're all out of clean handkerchiefs and I can't assume that it'll be possible to wash and dry them. (Because of course, all this had to happen at a time when Brian and I are both suffering from nasty colds, on top of everything else.)

All this has got me thinking seriously about the idea of going off the grid, an idea I've never done more than toy idly with in the past. The difference is that before, I always thought of solar panels and wood stoves as things you might install for the sake of living a greener, more sustainable life, and I always concluded that for us, it made more sense to stay on the grid and pay a little extra for power from renewable sources. But now, I'm actually thinking about going off the grid for a completely different reason: because the grid can't be trusted. A portable power generator, which costs only a few hundred dollars, isn't really a viable option; you can't operate one indoors (or inside any structure), yet any outdoor location you keep it in must be completely protected from the elements. Also, we'd need to buy and store fuel for it, either gasoline (which is messy, smelly, and hazardous) or propane (somewhat cleaner, but a lot harder to store in sufficient quantities). A standby generator looks like a more reasonable option, since it could run on our home's own natural gas supply, but we're now talking about a few thousand dollars rather than a few hundred, plus the cost of professional installation. Our biggest concern, though, isn't the money; we're just wondering what happens if we shell out a few grand for this thing and then, during the next big storm, the natural gas supply fails us as well. True, that's never actually happened in any home I've ever lived in, but at this point, we seriously feel like we can't rely on PSE&G for anything.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Thrift Week Day Seven: The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need

In my efforts to live an ecofrugal life, I tend to spend a lot of time "sweating the small stuff," as Amy Dacyczyn (all hail the Frugal Zealot!) would say. Most of the posts on this blog, for instance, tend to be about tiny steps that save us just a few dollars, like preserving our basil crop or finding ways to keep warm at my desk or decorating the house for Christmas as cheaply as possible. And as the Frugal Zealot notes, there's nothing wrong with focusing on tiny details; in fact, as she notes in her article "Do Sweat the Small Stuff," focusing on tiny details is a good thing, because lots of tiny things done consistently over time can add up to big savings. The only problem is that it can be easy to get bogged down in all these little details—that is, to spend all your time thinking about how to save money—and lose sight of the big picture, which is what you're saving for. In my case, when I stepped back to take a look at the big picture, I concluded that our primary financial goal is to achieve financial independence: to be able to get by, if we so choose, without a salary of any kind. And to achieve this goal, we need not only to save money on a day-to-day basis, but also to invest the money we save as wisely as possible to build up our nest egg.

That's where the final book in my Thrift Week series comes in. The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need, by Andrew Tobias, is, in the author's own words, an "immodestly titled book" (he blames the publisher for that) with a perfectly modest goal: to steer you toward the simplest, surest path to financial security. The steps on this path, as Tobias sees them, are:
  1. Cutting your expenses as much as possible, so that you can live comfortably on less income.
  2. Setting aside a nice big chunk of your money in safe, liquid investments to see you through any emergency.
  3. Putting the rest of your money—your long-term investments—primarily into stock-market index funds, which will yield the best return because they keep expenses low. (Tobias recommends splitting these between U.S. and foreign investments to protect yourself against big swings in the U.S. market.)
  4. Sticking with this plan regardless of what the market is doing. Over the long term, the plan will work regardless of short-term bumps and dips, and swerving from it in response to a single piece of good news or bad news is a good way to derail your long-term savings.
Of course, there are lots of investment books on the market, and Tobias freely admits that while his "may be the only investment guide you'll ever need, it is by no means the only investment guide that's any good." But for an ecofrugal investor, this book has several big advantages over most of the others. First, it's one of the few that focuses on reducing your expenditures first, on the theory that "a penny saved is two pennies earned" after taxes. Tobias devotes an entire chapter to tips for saving money on nearly everything: food, vacations, cars, insurance, phone and Internet service, college tuition, books, TV, and on and on. It's the only investment guide you're ever likely to see that offers advice such as "use the library," "quit smoking," and "drink water." He even recommends buying your fiancĂ©e a cubic zirconium for her engagement ring, rather than a real diamond, and putting the savings into "matching his-and-her Roth IRAs." (Of course, given that Tobias himself had a male life partner, presumably he's never had a chance to see how this strategy goes over in real life. I know I'd rather have an IRA than a diamond that could easily be lost or stolen, but somehow I suspect most women wouldn't agree with me.)

Second, Tobias's investment guide, like the Car Talk book, focuses on the big picture. As Tobias explains it,
This one is about the forest, not the trees. Because if you can find the right forest—the right overall investment outlook—you shouldn't have to worry much about the trees. Accordingly, this book will summarily dismiss investment fields that some people spend lifetimes wandering around in. For example: It is a fact that 90% or more of the people who play the commodities game get burned. I submit that you have now read all you need ever read about commodities.
This brings me to the third big advantage of this book: Tobias's writing style. While it may not truly be the only investment guide you'll ever need, it is almost certainly the only one you'll ever read just for the fun of it. The biggest problem with most investment guides isn't that their advice is bad (although sometimes it is); it's that the material is so incredibly dry that you'll probably have too much work just slogging through it to figure out whether the advice is actually useful. This book, by contrast, brings its points to life with loads of humorous anecdotes, like a trip to the racetrack that involved an eventful bet on a long shot named Willow (the phrase "Come onnnnnn, WILLow!" appears as a catchphrase throughout the book for referring to any sort of long-shot investment), or an analysis of a celebrity life insurance ad featuring Gavin McLeod, or "the story of The Greatest Moment of My Life" in the Decision Analysis class at Harvard Business School. (I won't spoil the story for you by repeating it here, but a footnote at the end of it remarks, "Herewith a list of all my other triumphs at Harvard Business School: I graduated.") Because the stories hold your attention, the useful advice actually has a chance to sink in, instead of vanishing into the ether the minute you close the book.

In summary, I'd recommend this book for two groups of people: (a) anyone who has money to invest, and (b) anyone who wants to figure out how to get more money to invest. In other words, pretty much everyone.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Thrift Week Day Six: Reader's Digest's New Fix-It-Yourself Manual

One of the central tenets of ecofrugality is, to invert Aldous Huxley's line, "mending is better than ending." As I noted back in August, it's almost always less wasteful to find some way to fix what you have than to throw it out (creating waste that needs to be disposed of) and buy a whole new one (which requires more money, energy, and natural resources to build). Unfortunately, as I've observed in my various "Repair or Replace" columns, fixing what you have isn't always so easy. To an increasing degree, our society seems to be organized around the idea of planned obsolescence: from the day you buy a new item (computer, microwave, whatever), you assume that you'll need to junk it and buy a new one in a couple of years. The only neighborhood where you can still take a broken toaster to the local Fix-It Shop for repairs is on Sesame Street. True, for big jobs like plumbing, you can still hire a professional to come to your house, but you'll pay big bucks for the privilege (and possibly have to wait days for an appointment).

The New Fix-It-Yourself Manual from Reader's Digest offers an alternative. If your washing machine stops running, you can simply turn to page 295 to troubleshoot the problem. A list outlines the most common causes (faulty power cord, lid switch, start switch, etc.) and directs you to the pages in the book that explain how to test each part and replace it if necessary. Similar lists explain how to diagnose and fix a plumbing leak, a faulty telephone connection, or a broken lawn mower. There's also a section on "Sports and recreation gear" that explains how to maintain and repair bicycles, boats, and other sports equipment like fishing poles, and a section at the end called "Home emergencies" that explains how to plan for and deal with problems like a house fire, a gas leak, or a medical emergency.

The New Fix-It Yourself Manual certainly isn't the only book on the market about home repairs, and unlike some others, it doesn't cover home improvement jobs like laying carpet or hardwood flooring. What makes this manual especially useful, however, is that it explains not only how to do big jobs like appliance repairs and electrical work but also how to fix the little things, the things it might never occur to you that it's even possible to repair. Got a knife blade that's come loose from its handle? Here's how to reattach it.  Got a briefcase with a broken handle? Here's how to replace it. This book can tell you how to repair jewelry, mend window screens, and even replace a teddy bear's lost eye. It also explains how to do jobs that are more basic maintenance than repairs, like sharpening scissors or cleaning a computer keyboard.

Admittedly, the book is nearly twenty years old, and it's certainly starting to show its age in some ways. (The section on typewriter repair, for instance, is unlikely to come in handy very often.) Still, the basic problems with most appliances are much the same as they were in 1996—and even if you have a newer appliance that can break in ways this book doesn't cover, at least the book will help you rule out all the old-school, fixable problems before calling in a professional. After all, why pay $150 to a plumber for a job you could do yourself with a $5 part? Having this book (or another one like it) on hand is the easiest way to avoid hefty repair bills, as well as the hassle and expense of replacing items that still have some life in them. This book may not be able to fix every problem, but at just $5 for a secondhand copy, it's definitely a worthwhile investment.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Thrift Week Day Five: Car Talk

Cars are a big deal in the United States. Although a study last year noted that driving has been on the decline in recent years, figures from the World Bank show that this country still has 797 cars for every 1,000 Americans; the only country that has us beat is the tiny Republic of San Marino, which actually has more cars than people. Owning all those cars is expensive, too. According to this article at Autos.com, the cost of owning a car averages somewhere between $8,000 and $9,700 per year, including the car payment, gas, insurance, and maintenance. That's 15 to 18 percent of the median household income. With so many American households strapped for cash in the wake of a long recession and a sluggish recovery, it sure would be nice if someone could help us all figure out how to spend less of our money on buying and maintaining our cars.

Well, have no fear: Click and Clack are here. Otherwise known as Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the hosts of the popular NPR series "Car Talk" published their first book (also called Car Talk, which makes it easy to remember) in 1991. Its stated goal is to help people save money on their cars in a couple of ways:
We hope to tell you enough about how your car works so that (A) you won't get ripped off by unscrupulous or unknowledgeable repair shops; (B) you won't make bad (or at least uninformed) decisions about how to treat your car; and (C) you won't dump your car prematurely. ("We will junk no car before its time.")
The book starts out with a chapter called "The Big Picture," which explains, in essence, what makes the car go. The chapters that follow focus on specific parts of the car and the things that can go wrong with them, such as the front end, the brakes, and the fuel system. Each of these sections is illustrated with real-life examples picked up from the radio show, which, as Click and Clack note, not only "enable us to draw on our vast wealth of practical experience" but also "make it a hell of a lot easier to write the book." The final chapters of the book are about how to decide when it's time to trade in a car (with a strong emphasis on the benefits of keeping an old one) and how to keep your existing car running longer. Click and Clack argue—and have the figures to back it up—that it is almost always cheaper to buy a used car, or to keep an old one, than to buy a new one. They do note that buying (or keeping) an older car means trading off "comfort, luxury, convenience, and reliability" for more money, but they also point out that the money you save by buying a heap can get you such goodies as a two-week vacation every year...or a year off from work every ten years.

Now, admittedly, this book is now nearly 25 years old, so the Magliozzi brothers' figures are now a bit out of date. Several other parts of the book also reveal its age, such as the comparison between front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive, which you hardly ever see on a new car anymore. The book also doesn't cover such recent developments as hybrid technology. But the basic workings of a car haven't changed much in the past 25 years, nor have the basic economics of buying a new car as opposed to keeping an old one. True, there are plenty of other books on car repair out there, most of which are a lot more up-to-date than this one. Car Talk, however, has three big advantages over most of those others:
  1. The purpose of the book isn't to teach you how to fix your own car; it's to teach you when you need to fix your car. Other books give you a lot of fiddly little details, which can be overwhelming for newbies; Click and Clack give you the big picture in a small package.
  2. While some car-repair books include chapters on how to keep your car running longer (which includes driving it carefully as well as maintaining it scrupulously), this is the only one I've seen that includes information about buying a car as well. In general, there are books about buying a car and there are books about maintaining a car, and neither one goes into much detail about the crucial decision whether you need a new car or not.
  3. Finally, this is the only car book out there that combines useful information with the Magliozzis' humorous writing style. It's goofy, corny, and even obnoxious to some folks, but it makes this book the only car guide you're ever likely to sit down and reread just for fun.
Obviously, this book isn't for everyone. If you've never owned a car and have no intention of ever owning one, then you have no need for it. Conversely, if you're already a car expert and know all about how to fix cars and how to tell when one is no longer fixable, then there's nothing this book can teach you. But for everyone else who owns one of our country's 797 cars per thousand people and would like to have a handle on the basics of how it works and what to do when it doesn't, this book can help. It's no longer in print, but there are plenty of of secondhand copies at Amazon.com (just be careful not to order the audio version or the page-a-day calendar by mistake). If you're still not sure the book is a good investment for you, some of the information in it—plus a lot more that the book doesn't cover—can be found on the Car Talk website. The website doesn't discuss on the tradeoffs between buying a new car and maintaining an old one, though, so I'd consider it worth while to have a copy on the book and look on the website as a supplement to it.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Thrift Week Day Four: The Clueless Vegetarian

One of the simplest ways to lead a more ecofrugal life is to eat less meat. Since raising animals for meat uses more natural resources (water, land, fuel, etc.) than raising an equivalent amount of plant-based protein, going vegetarian (or at least meat-light) is an ecofrugal twofer: it will reduce your grocery bill and your environmental footprint at the same time. For those who are used to a traditional meat-based American diet, however, figuring out how to eat without meat can be a bit daunting. If your dinner plate has always held a hunk of meat accompanied by side hunks of potato and vegetable, then imagining a meal without meat is likely to conjure up images of a half-empty plate.

For anyone trying to go meatless—especially those who are new to it—a good vegetarian cookbook is an absolute must. My shelf currently contains several, including Molly Katzen's classic The Enchanted Broccoli Forest and Mark Bittman's encyclopedic How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. The most battered and bookmarked of the lot, however, is The Clueless Vegetarian, by Evelyn Raab. This book specifically bills itself as "a cookbook for the aspiring vegetarian," and its focus is on recipes that are easy to make and contain no obscure ingredients. Each recipe is marked with handy icons to indicate its level of veggieness (ovo, lacto, ovo-lacto, or vegan), and an additional "quick fix" icon marks the recipes that can be made in 30 minutes or less. The quick-fix recipes are some of the handiest in the book, and our copy of the book is sprinkled throughout with paper tags marking our favorite quick treats, such as:
  • Pasta Fagioli (p. 52), probably my favorite soup in the world, loaded with pasta, carrots, celery, and two kinds of beans
  • Simple Sesame Noodle Salad (p. 67), our go-to dish for potluck dinners
  • Roasted Tomato Fettucine (p. 98), a simple and delicious pasta dish
  • Chick-Pea Curry (p. 133), a staple meal for those times when we're short on both time and inspiration
  • Full Meal Burritos (p. 166), a hearty and healthful take on the classic burrito, "fully loaded" with black beans, spinach, and all manner of other veggies
  • Potato Kugel (p. 182), a delicious comfort food that requires practically nothing but potatoes, onions, and eggs
However, on nights when we have more time, we also indulge in slower-to-prepare meals such as Bean and Barley Salad (p. 65) and Pasta a la Caprese (p. 104), my favorite pasta dish in the entire world (and that's out of a very long list of candidates). Even these longer recipes don't require a lot of babysitting; most of the time they require is for hands-off steps, like allowing the barley to cook or letting the fresh pasta sauce stand so the flavors blend before you serve it. Long or short, I've almost never been disappointed with a recipe from this book, and a surprising number have proved to be good enough to make over and over. The only less-than-fantastic recipes in the book are the desserts, which include "Amazing Eggless Dairy-Free Chocolate Cake" (which wasn't that amazing to me, since it's basically just a wacky cake, which I've known how to make since I was seven) and "Truly Astonishing Tofu Chocolate Mousse" (which would have been truly astonishing if had actually come out with the light texture of a mousse, rather than a very heavy and rich pudding).

In addition to recipes, the book is dotted with helpful features. The opening pages provide a list of "Essential Supplies for the Vegetarian Kitchen" (meaning ingredients to keep on hand, not cookware) and two pages of tips on how to "vegetarianize" existing recipes. Sidebars throughout the book guide you through such essential vegetarian topics as how to cook dried beans, what to do with tofu and tempeh, and a list of innocuous-looking foods that may contain hidden non-vegetarian ingredients, such as Worcesterchire sauce, gelatin, and chicken broth.

Although the target audience of this book is newbie vegetarians, I'd actually recommend it for anyone at all who has an interest in eating more meatless meals. Whether you're a hardcore vegetarian looking for some new recipes that are quick and easy to make or an unrepentant carnivore trying to lighten up the grocery bill with a few meatless dishes, this book can help make your vegetarian cooking easy, tasty, and fun.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Thrift Week Day Three: Use What You Have Decorating

Yesterday's Thrift Week entry dealt with the garden, so today's brings us indoors to tackle the rest of the house in an equally ecofrugal fashion. Use What You Have Decorating is the first book published by Lauri Ward, an interior designer who grew frustrated with the traditional practices of her profession. Typically, she says, she would go into a client's home, get rid of all the existing furniture, and start over from scratch, but the process always struck her as inefficient and wasteful. Many of her clients actually had perfectly good furniture; the only problem was the way it was being used in the space. So in 1981 she broke away to found her own company, Use What You Have Interiors, which offered a more ecofrugal alternative to traditional interior decorating. Her goal was always to start with what her clients already had and figure out how to put it to the best possible use. She might buy a few new items for each room, but the core of each new decorating job was to rearrange the furniture and accessories the client already had (often "borrowing" pieces from other rooms in the house to make the look complete, as well as "banishing" items that didn't fit in their current location). Ward's approach saves time as well as money, since the pieces she works with are already right there in the house, so she can easily transform the room in a day.

Use What You Have Decorating educates readers about how to do the same thing in their own homes. The key, Ward says, is to understand the ten fundamental decorating mistakes that most people make:
  1. Not defining your priorities. Before you place a single piece of furniture, you have to think about how you actually want to use the room. In her first chapter, Ward outlines a "priority questionnaire" to help people figure out just what they need from their space, including who will use it, what its functions are, and what you like and dislike about it now.
  2. An uncomfortable conversation area. Ward considers this the anchor of every living room: a place where people can sit and converse easily. The pieces need to be close enough together, and positioned properly, so that everyone can see and hear each other, as well as having a place to set down a drink or a purse.
  3. Poor furniture placement. Furniture needs to be arranged so that people can move comfortably through the room without disrupting the activities going on inside. A common mistake Ward sees is pushing all the furniture up against the walls, making the room feel more like a doctor's waiting room than a comfortable living space. 
  4. A room that is off-balance. This can happen when all the furniture pieces are either too heavy and blocky or too light and spindly, or when all the big pieces in a room are crowded together instead of spread throughout the space.
  5. Furniture of different heights. This doesn't mean that you can't have a tall bookshelf and a shorter couch in the same room, but you should avoid positioning two tall bookcases on either side of a short chair. Doing this means that the tops of the furniture pieces will keep jumping from one height to another, creating what Ward calls "the roller-coaster effect." 
  6. A room that lacks a cohesive look. Ward is a big fan of pairs: matching chairs, matching lamps, matching candlesticks. Keeping pairs together, she argues, creates instant symmetry.
  7. Ignoring the room's focal point. If a room has a fireplace or a window with a terrific view, Ward recommends arranging all the furniture to center on that feature and make the most of it. If a room lacks a "natural" focal point, Ward says you can create one with furniture and artwork that dominate one wall.
  8. Improper use of artwork. Ward notes two particular problems most amateurs have when arranging artwork: hanging pieces too high and spacing them too close together. Rather than trying to hang pictures at "eye level" (which obviously varies quite a lot), she recommends hanging your art exactly three inches lower than the spot where you think it should go. ("I've tested this theory with hundreds of clients," Ward insists, "and it works!") She also recommends keeping similar pieces together (photos, paintings, drawings) and keeping one wall free of art as a "resting place" for your eyes.
  9. Ineffective use of accessories. Ward is a big believer in grouping like pieces together to increase their visual impact, rather than spreading them out all over the room. Three similar items, she says, are enough to form a "collection," which can be anything from geodes to stuffed animals.
  10. Using lighting incorrectly. Ward goes into detail about the various types of lamps and their uses, but she also notes that the most common reason for a room to be under-lit is that the individual bulbs aren't bright enough. Kicking them up to the maximum wattage the fixture will allow is usually enough to solve the problem (especially now that CFLs and LEDs make it possible to get more light with fewer watts).
These ten design problems are the core of the book, but what makes it so useful and interesting is the way Ward illustrates them with individual case histories. For each decorating problem on her list, she provides several real-life examples, complete with before-and-after pictures to show how the problem was solved with a few simple changes. She also includes a list of what was "banished," "borrowed," and bought to complete each room. Ward's writing style can get a bit cutesy at times, but her pictures really speak for themselves.

Before I got my own copy of Use What You Have Decorating, I read and reread my mom's copy over and over until I was throughly familiar with Ward's methods. Over the years, I've put them to use in every home I've lived in since I left college. Just today, in fact, I applied the Use-What-You-Have method in redecorating a room in a friend's house. Although we did actually end up buying some new furniture for the room, I relied on Ward's techniques to define priorities (making the room comfortable for watching TV and doing office work in separate areas), create a conversation area, balance the room (removing an overly tall bookshelf), and create a focal point (arranging all the AV equipment and videos along one wall with a large painting over top). We even took a leaf from her book about the effective use of accessories, moving some pieces from my friend's antique computer "museum" out of a closet and displaying them as a collection.

So who will benefit most from this book? Well, obviously, it can help anyone who has a room to redecorate. But less obviously, it can be helpful for anyone who has ever felt just a bit uncomfortable with any room in their home and isn't quite sure why. Ward's detailed explanations and illustrations can provide the key to making your home feel a lot more homey without having to go out and buy a bunch of stuff.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Thrift Week Day Two: The Weekend Garden Guide

The second entry on my Thrift Week book list is The Weekend Garden Guide by Susan A. Roth. As its title suggests, this book is an all-purpose reference for those who want a low-maintenance
garden they can care for in the free hours they have on the weekends. She starts out the book by comparing her garden with her next-door neighbor Bill's, which she considers a perfect example of "the wrong kind of weekend gardening." Bill used to spend all weekend, every weekend, out in the yard—mowing his steeply sloped lawn, pruning his massive overgrown shrubs, weeding the flower beds, and hauling "bag after bag of leaves" in the fall—even though he didn't seem to get much enjoyment from any of it. By contrast, Roth and her husband invested most of their gardening hours (which she estimates at about one-fourth of Bill's) in revamping their landscape to make it easier to maintain, as well as more attractive. Over the first four years in their home, they drastically cut back the amount of lawn, filling in the areas with mulch, ground covers, and beds of herbs and perennial flowers. They also added a salad garden to one side of the house, as well as beds of berries and cutting flowers, thus turning a scruffy and hard-to-mow area to productive use.

The Roths' gardening style is fundamentally ecofrugal: they've arranged their yard to make the best possible use of all their resources, including space, money, and time. Whenever possible, they've taken plantings that weren't attractive in one area and put them to good use elsewhere, such as the crowded azalea border hemming in their patio that they transplanted to an open area along one side of the yard, where the bushes could grow to their full size and natural shape while helping to conceal an "unsightly split-rail fence." Rather than bag up their leaves and haul them to the curb as Bill did, they mulched them all up with the mower to spread across the wooded back corner of their lot—thus turning a waste product into a useful resource. And most of all, they always chose their plantings carefully to require little maintenance in future, so that they would need less time, less water, less fertilizer, and less resources in general to keep looking their best.

The Weekend Garden Guide has sections on ground covers, shrubs, flowers (with a special emphasis on perennials), vegetables, fruits, and trees, as well as a full-color insert with 32 pages of photos of gorgeous yards designed along weekend-garden principles. There are also handy boxed features on such topics as pruning techniques, how to divide various types of groundcovers, the best plants for various areas (shade, sun, foundations, etc.), and lists of high-maintenance plants not to include in your yard, from disease-prone trees to "finicky" perennials. Perhaps the most useful section, however, is the "Encyclopedia of Easy-Care Plants for Weekend Gardens," a huge table of plants sorted by type and botanical name with notes on their appearance, cultivation, and uses in the landscape. Combing through this section helped steer me toward potentilla (bush cinquefoil) and bearberry cotoneaster as the best plants to replace the overgrown forsythias and weeds on the steep northern slope in our back yard; other pages throughout the section are bookmarked to indicate plants I hope to incorporate into our yard, such as Meidiland roses, littleleaf boxwood (a possible replacement for some of our oversized foundation shrubs), and barren strawberry (a potential ground cover to replace our hard-to-mow front lawn).

I can't remember exactly where I first got my copy of The Weekend Garden Guide. I can tell it's a secondhand copy, but I can't remember whether I found it at a yard sale, picked it up at the annual library book sale, or actually ordered a copy on Amazon.com. What I do know is that, although I have a whole shelf devoted to gardening books, this is the one I refer to most often—perhaps even the only one I refer to often. If all the books on my gardening shelf were destroyed in some kind of freak accident, this is the first one, if not the only one, I'd replace. The pages of my copy, like those of my Complete Tightwad Gazette, are liberally sprinkled with color-coded paper tags (pink for fruits, yellow for flowers, and green for all other plants). This is the book that taught me the easy way to care for raspberries and informed me about the existence of bush cherries, which aren't even covered in most gardening books (and, as I discovered when we went searching for them, aren't sold by many nurseries either). I'd heartily recommend it to anyone who wants a beautiful garden but doesn't want it to be a full-time job. Whether you hate gardening (but love the results) or love gardening (but have limited time for it), this book will save you hours of effort and leave you more time for the best part of gardening: enjoying the fruits of your labors.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Thrift Week 2014: Print Edition

Last weekend, the scenario I'd been worrying about ever since Superstorm Sandy actually came to pass: we had a prolonged power outage (about 21 hours) in the middle of winter. Fortunately, the weather was unseasonably warm for January, so we never actually needed to deploy our chemical heat packs; the temperature in the house was about 70 when the power went out on Saturday, and it had only dropped to 62 when it came back on Sunday morning. So we still don't know how effective the heat packs will be for keeping us warm in a true winter emergency, but the rest of our emergency plan worked pretty well. Our new battery-powered lantern performed admirably, especially once we got the idea to suspend it from the kitchen ceiling fan by a rope, and the little dual-powered radio did a fine job recharging both itself and our cell phone by means of the hand crank.

The one thing we found it hardest to manage without, to be honest, was our cable connection. Nowadays, that one line serves as our TV, phone, and Internet all rolled up into one, so without it we were largely cut off from the outside world. We could still go out into town, but all the stores there were closed; we could make calls on our cell phone, but we couldn't respond to the calls or e-mails coming in from outside; and without the Internet, we'd lost our main source of both information and entertainment—so we couldn't get any useful information on what was actually going on with the power outage, and there were limits on what we could do to distract ourselves.

One thing this whole experience really reinforced for me was the value of a well-stocked bookshelf. Sure, the Internet is a huge font of useful (as well as useless) information, but it's also one you could lose access to without warning at any time. Our trusty books, by contrast, will always be accessible to us, just as long as we have sufficient light to read them by. So I decided to celebrate the print medium in this year's series of Thrift Week posts. Last year's Thrift Week was the Online Edition, in which I presented seven websites that I considered essential for everyone looking to live the ecofrugal life; this year will be a complementary Print Edition, in which I'll introduce seven books that I've found indispensable to my own ecofrugal life. These are the most battered, dog-eared, bookmarked books on my shelves, the ones I turn to again and again for reference or, sometimes, just for amusement. Taken as a set, they cover nearly every aspect of the ecofrugal life, from house and garden to money management.

Regular readers of this blog will find it no surprise that I'm starting off with the mother of all books on frugality, The Complete Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacyczyn. This is a collection of articles from The Tightwad Gazette newsletter, which Ms. Dacyczyn (otherwise known as the Frugal Zealot) published from 1990 to 1996. It's actually a compendium of three earlier books (The Tightwad Gazette Volumes I, II, and III), together with some additional material from the newsletter's final months. I was never a reader of the newsletter, but I discovered her work when I ran across the first Tightwad Gazette book in the bargain bin at Barnes and Noble around ten years ago. The whimsical cover art caught my eye, and I thought, "Well, this looks interesting, and if it has a few tips in it that are actually useful, it could probably save me enough to pay back the five bucks they're asking for it." Well, not only did I read that book from cover to cover, dog-earing multiple pages as I went, but as soon as I finished it I went back to the bookstore and bought up every copy they had left in the bin to give away as (frugal!) gifts to friends and relatives. I had always considered myself a fairly frugal person, but reading the Frugal Zealot's book opened my eyes to a whole world of possibilities I had never even considered. Shopping at multiple stores to get the best prices? Making pancake syrup from scratch? Building a pirate ship for your kid's birthday party? You can do that?

Once I discovered there were actually two more Tightwad Gazette volumes out there, I just had to have the whole set. I bought my Complete Tightwad Gazette secondhand on Amazon.com (and gave away my slightly battered copy of the original book to yet another friend), and over the years, I have reread it, referred to it, bookmarked pages, and scrawled in the margins more times than I can possibly count. Eventually, I started marking the pages I referred to most often with sticky tags so that I could find them more easily. At the moment, my copy has more than 25 of these tags, including:
  • page 27, a recipe for homemade granola that we used to make on a regular basis before we discovered that the raisin bran from Aldi actually costs less per serving.
  • page 199, an article on budget weddings with advice on how to save on everything from rings to clothes to cake. I didn't use all of her ideas when planning our own budget wedding in 2004, but being aware of them was a great help with the planning.
  • page 314, a chart that lists the weight per cup of common baking ingredients. Having this information ready to hand makes it much easier to work out the cost of the ingredients used in a given recipe. (This is how I was able to figure out that the raisin bran from Aldi is cheaper than the homemade granola.)
  • page 327, a similar chart listing the estimated cost per serving of various breakfasts, with my own annotations in the margins showing the corresponding figures for our family. 
  • page 443, guidelines for saving vegetable seeds from year to year. The article provides information about how long various types of seeds are likely to remain viable, how to store them, and how to test them before planting.
  • page 468, the universal muffin recipe. The Frugal Zealot explains how she invents new muffin recipes and provides a basic recipe in which you can swap ingredients in and out to your liking. For instance, it calls for 2 to 2 1/2 cups of "grain," which can include any combination of white flour, whole-wheat flour, rye flour, corn meal, cereal flakes, or even leftover oatmeal and rice (with suitable decreases in the amount of liquid). She also provides similar recipes for a universal casserole (p. 625) and a universal pilaf (p. 824).
  • page 575, an article outlining Dacyczyn's views about wealth (what you have) as opposed to affluence (what you spend) and why frugality should be associated with wealth rather than poverty.
  • page 622, a simple technique for reattaching the detached cover to an old hardcover book.
  • page 641, a description of a tightwad Christmas celebration shared by the staff at The Tightwad Gazette, complete with lots of homemade, secondhand, and highly personal gifts.
  • page 670, a lengthy and detailed article about the best strategies for gardening on a budget. This is the source that first directed me to Fedco Seeds, which has now become my go-to source for all our veggie seeds.
  • page 806, "The City Tightwad and the Country Tightwad," an article on the best strategies for saving money no matter where you live. I referenced this article last May in my post on the advantages of small-town living for the ecofrugal.
This, mind you, is just a small selection of my personal favorite articles and tips. It doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of all the useful information in the book. It also doesn't really convey the main thing that sends me back to this book over and over again, even after all the surprises are gone: Amy Dacyczyn's whimsical writing style. For example, her article comparing the cost of various foods made from potatoes is called "'Spudgate' or the Great Potato Conspiracy" and is illustrated with a drawing of a potato clad in trench coat, fedora, and sunglasses. Her article on deceptive advertising claims about "saving" money is entitled, "Read This Article and Save $150,000"; in the closing sentence, she explains that you can easily do this by not buying a Rolls-Royce.

So basically, I think this is a book that no one who's serious about living a frugal life can afford to be without. Secondhand copies are going for as little as $12 on Amazon.com, and I guarantee, no matter who you are or what your lifestyle, you will find at least one tip in the book that will be worth the purchase price. If you're still not sold, at least check your local library for a copy and see for yourself what the book has to offer. The Frugal Zealot won't mind that you borrowed the book instead of (or before) buying it; she says herself in the introduction that one of her reasons for agreeing to a book deal was to get the information out to people who needed it, even if they couldn't afford to buy back issues of the newsletter. "I always felt the most honored," she says, "by those who bought the books after they read their library's copies." Once you get your hands on a copy, I'm sure you'll become one of them.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Best Budget Decor

Since we got access to basic cable service at home, Brian and I have started making a habit of clicking over to HGTV when we have a spare hour or half hour before bed. As I've noted before, my favorite shows are the decorating and remodeling ones, but I often find it frustrating how cavalier they are about budget considerations. Often they don't even mention a budget at all, and even when they do, they seldom talk at all about what they plan to do to stay within it. Instead, in their quest to show a dramatic transformation, they tend to take the attitude, "When in doubt, tear it out," tossing aside old furnishings, appliances, and fixtures without even stopping to consider whether they could still be useful (either in that room or somewhere else). This isn't just costly, it's wasteful.

My favorite room makeovers are the ones that involve a big change on a small budget. To achieve this, the designers usually have to take a more ecofrugal approach; instead of getting rid of everything, they have to start by looking at what they already have and considering how to put it to the best possible use. Unfortunately, makeovers like this seldom show up on HGTV. The few shows that specialize in this kind of design—such as "Designed to Sell," "Design on a Dime," and my personal favorite, "Wasted Spaces"—don't tend to stay on the air very long, possibly because it's harder to get sponsors for a show that doesn't recommend buying lots of new stuff.

On the Web, however, it's a different story. Since a website has little overhead, and since people are always happy to talk about their own lives, there's no shortage of homeowners willing to share their own before-and-after pictures of rooms that they've made over, often on a truly impressive budget. Over the past few years, I've made a collection of a few of my favorites. All of these rooms were redone on true shoestring budgets—no more than a few hundred bucks—and all of them made a dramatic difference with a small outlay.

Tackling them on a room-by-room basis, let's start with the bedroom makeovers. Here's one that was featured as a "Reader Redesign" on Young House Love, my personal favorite DIY blog. This mom started with a complete blank slate of a room and transformed it into a fantastic bedroom for her two-year-old son. From the star-and-cloud cutouts on the walls to the artwork cut from the pages of a Shel Silverstein book, the whole room is alive with imagination. Although the blog itself doesn't mention the budget, the post at YHL says the homeowner estimates it as "under $200" for everything from furniture to art.

Another great kids' bedroom makeover was done by the YHL bloggers themselves, when they redid their 8-year-old niece Olivia's room. For $200 exactly, they turned her uninspired space into a girly haven with furniture, accessories, and color. On this meager budget, they brought in a desk, chair, and dresser, added a padded headboard to the bed, and punched up the art and accessories. My favorite features are the heart-themed bedspread and the collection of "Olivia" books displayed on the shelf behind the bed. A year later, they went back and did Olivia's bathroom as well, turning it from blah to bling with paint and accessories on an even more astonishing budget of just $82.58—the cheapest makeover in my whole collection.

The YHL bloggers have several other cheap bathroom makeovers under their belts as well. Both the master bath and the powder room in their new house have undergone what they call "Phase One" renovations, which basically means cleaning them up to the point that they can live with them while they save up for a full-scale remodel down the road. In the powder room, they significantly brightened up the room for an estimated $110 without replacing any of the fixtures by changing up a few key details (such as the dated wallpaper, mirror, faucet, and artwork). The master bath is split into two sections, a "sink nook" open to the bedroom and the bathroom proper, with toilet and shower, behind closed doors. Eventually they want to turn this all into one enclosed space, but their just-for-now redo in the sink nook has made a dramatic difference on a $200 budget. They painted the walls, replaced the old mirror, and made some modifications to the vanity, but the biggest change was to rip out the old carpet and paint a stenciled design onto the subfloor. But their most impressive bathroom job of all was the powder room they redid for John's grandmother, effecting a complete floor-to-ceiling transformation—floors, walls, cabinets, window treatments, and accessories—for a mere $169.50.

All of these bathroom remodels, however, were on half baths (or, in one case, just half of a bath). The most impressive full bath redo I've seen is this one, from the DIY/design blog "In My Own Style." Thinking there might be a move in her family's future, this cash-strapped blogger decided to update her bathroom on a shoestring budget to make it more appealing to buyers. And boy, is it more appealing! This room is almost unrecognizable as the builder-basic space she started with. She added board-and-batten walls, applied decorative molding to the bathtub, framed out two big mirrors, created a bold window treatment, added new cabinet hardware, and even changed the color of the floor tile—all for a mind-boggling $265. This woman is an absolute DIY goddess.

You may notice that up until now we've focused on bedrooms and baths, while ignoring the big DIY elephant in most homes, the kitchen. With so many big pieces that often need replacement (cabinets, appliances, floors), kitchen makeovers tend to run to big money; Better Homes and Gardens estimates that even a "minor redo" generally costs around $5,000, and an "upscale overhaul" can cost $75,000 or more. And yet this amazing couple in Milton, MA, actually redid their entire kitchen for a mere $645, making the subtle shift from "dated" to "vintage" by undoing an unfortunate 1970s makeover and restoring the kitchen to its 1920s feel. The key to their low-budget transformation was that they didn't move any walls or appliances, instead revamping the entire space with paint and a few key accessories: new light fixtures, a faucet, crown molding for the cabinets, peel-and-stick tiles for the floor, and an amazing slate-tile backsplash that this pair of handymen installed from scratch. My sister's reaction, when our mom sent us the link to the article, was, "I hate these people," but personally, I'd be more inclined to say I stand in awe of them.

As for myself, I can't honestly boast of any room remodels that come close to this level of DIY wizardry. I'm happy with the way our downstairs room and downstairs bath came out, but since we spent around a thousand dollars on each one (plus about $640 for the electrical work we had done professionally), I can't claim I'm anywhere near the level of these true masters yet. I can only continue to watch and learn in hope that one day I may have the skill to turn an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan without having to buy it all new feathers.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Actual Savings: LED vs. CFL bulbs (an update)

Ever since LED light bulbs first came on the market, there has been a lot of debate about whether they were superior to compact fluorescents. From the start, LED bulbs clearly had some advantages over the older CFLs, such as:
  • Lower energy use
  • Longer lifetime
  • Contain no mercury, so a broken bulb isn't a hazard
  • Dead bulbs can be safely disposed of at home
  • Reach their full brightness immediately when lit
  • Produce steady light with no flickering (actually, modern CFLs don't flicker enough for me to detect at all, but some people claim that they still notice it)
On the other hand, the early LED bulbs also had a distinct set of disadvantages, such as
  • Directional light (illuminates only the spot it's pointed at, not the whole surrounding area)
  • Cold, bluish light (this was also a problem with early CFLs, but "soft white" CFLs were available well before soft white LEDs)
  • And the big one: high initial cost. When I first attempted to analyze the differences between CFLs and LEDs back in 2008, I couldn't find an LED bulb equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent for less than $55.
At the time, I crunched the numbers to calculate cost of both CFLs and LEDs over 50,000 hours of use and concluded that the LED was indeed cheaper, but only just. Using one LED in place of 6 CFLs would save about $13 over a period of about 16 years—and during that time period, the price of LEDs was sure to drop considerably as the technology improved. I concluded that it made most sense to continue using CFLs until LED prices came down. Two years later, I revisited the issue in this blog post and found that LEDs' edge over CFLs had actually narrowed as both bulbs came down in price: at that time, an LED would only save you about $2.50 over its lifetime. Since the initial cost of the LED was still $43, I concluded that waiting to replace your CFLs was still the smart choice.

Since then, I've kept a casual eye on the price of LED bulbs, glancing at them each time we passed the lighting aisle in Home Depot to see how much they cost. Over the past few years, they dropped pretty steadily, falling below the $20 mark and, recently, even below $10—but the bulbs available for sale were mostly equivalent in brightness to a 40-watt incandescent, while the CFLs we used at home were generally 60-watt equivalents or brighter. When one of the CFLs in our kitchen fixture burned out last summer after 6 years of service, we ended up buying another CFL to replace it because we couldn't find an LED of comparable brightness at a reasonable price. However, last week, on a trip to IKEA, I spotted some LED bulbs on sale for just $7 each, and I decided perhaps it was time to crunch the numbers again and see whether LEDs had finally pulled ahead of CFLs as a better overall investment.

To get a reasonable idea of how much different types of bulbs cost in the store, I went to HomeDepot.com and looked at the lowest-priced bulb in each category: incandescent, CFL, and LED. I also looked at two different levels of brightness: around 500 lumens, the equivalent of a 40-watt incandescent bulb, and 850 lumens, equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent. All the bulbs in my comparison are "soft white," with a color temperature of 2700 kelvin—the warm, yellowish shade of the incandescent bulbs most of us grew up with. In the 500-lumen category, we have three competitors:
  1. The Philips 40-watt incandescent, priced at $1.62 for 4 bulbs, or 40.5 cents each: brightness 500 lumens, power use 40 watts, 1,000 hour lifetime.
  2. The Eco-Smart 40-watt equivalent CFL, priced at $5.85 for 4 bulbs, or $1.46 each: brightness 550 lumens (10 percent brighter than the 40-watt incandescent), power use 9 watts, 10,000 hour lifetime.
  3. The Cree 40-watt equivalent dimmable LED, priced at $5.97 per bulb; brightness 450 lumens (90 percent of a 40 watt incandescent), power use 6 watts, 25,000 hour lifetime.
The first thing that's apparent from these numbers is that the longevity of LED bulbs has actually dropped over the past few years. In 2008, a 60-watt-equivalent LED had a claimed lifetime of 50,000 hours; by 2010, it had dropped to 35,000; and now it's only 25,000. Perhaps manufacturers found they could make the bulbs a lot more cheaply by cutting back on durability, and their lifespan was still long enough for most customers to consider them a lifelong investment. On the other hand, maybe the initial estimates of bulb life back in 2008 were grossly exaggerated, and manufacturers have simply dialed down their claims as real-world results showed that the bulbs weren't lasting nearly that long. Whatever the reason, it's clear that the advantage LEDs have in longevity isn't nearly as great as it initially appeared. They'll last twice as long as a comparable CFL, but they won't last six times as long.

Their advantage in terms of power use also isn't nearly as great as early claims made it appear. An article about LED bulbs that appeared in the Dollar Stretcher newsletter back in 2008 said that they "consume roughly 1/4 the electricity needed to fire up a CF." My own calculations at the time found that this claim was way off: a CFL equivalent in brightness to a 60-watt incandescent used 14 watts, while an LED of comparable brightness used 8, for a savings of only 43 percent. Yet the difference between the bulbs listed above is even smaller. The 6-watt LED uses two-thirds as much power as the 9-watt CFL, and on top of that, it isn't as bright. If you calculate the efficiency of each bulb in lumens per watt, it comes to 12.5 for the incandescent bulb, 61 for the CFL, and 75 for the LED. Far from using only 25 percent as much electricity as the CFL, it's not even 25 percent more efficient.

So how do these three competitors stack up in terms of lifetime costs? Well, to keep a room lit for 25,000 hours, you'd need 25 incandescent bulbs costing a total of $10.13. They'd use a total of 1,000 kilowatt-hours (40 watts times 25,000 hours, divided by 1,000), which, at the current nationwide average of 12.31 cents per kWh, would come to $123.10. Total cost for incandescent bulbs: $133.23. Over the same period, you'd go through 2.5 CFL bulbs, at a cost of $3.65, and they'd use up 225 kWh of power, costing $27.70, so your total cost would be $31.35. Or, you could use just one LED bulb, costing $5.97, and 150 kWh of electricity, costing $18.47, for a total of $24.43. You'd save $6.92, but your room would be about 20 percent dimmer the entire time.

Now, let's look at the competitors in the 850-lumen category:
  1. The Philips Soft White 60-watt incandescent, priced at $1.62 for 4 bulbs, or 40.5 cents each: brightness 860 lumens, power use 60 watts, 1,000 hour lifetime.
  2. The Philips Soft White 13-watt CFL, priced at $7.98 for 4 bulbs, or $1.99 each; brightness 840 lumens (just barely dimmer than an incandescent), power use 13 watts, 12,000 hour lifetime.
  3. The Cree 60-watt equivalent dimmable LED, priced at $7.97 per bulb: 800 lumens (only 93 percent of the incandescent's brightness), power use 9.5 watts, 25,000 hour lifetime.
Crunching the numbers for these three bulbs, we find that over 25,000 hours of use, you'd use 25 incandescent bulbs, costing $10.13, and 1,500 kWh of power, costing $184.65, for a total of $194.78. CFLs would cost you $4.15 for 2.08 bulbs and $40.01 for 325 kwh of electricity, totaling $44.16. And a single LED would cost $7.97 for the bulb and $29.24 for 237 kWh, totaling $37.20. Once again, the LED bulb edges out the CFLs over the long haul, saving you $6.96—this time with only a slight loss of brightness in the room.

It looks like in the past few years, LEDs have increased their lead over CFLs in terms of long-term savings, but not by a huge amount. However, we're also talking about a shorter payback time than we were a few years ago. A $43 LED purchased in 2010 would take 35,000 hours of use—over 19 years for a bulb that burns 5 hours a day year-round—to yield a mere $2.50 in savings. A return of $2.50 on an initial investment of $43 over a 19-year period is...well, I'm not sure of the exact formula, but it's pretty pathetic. Buy an equivalent LED bulb today, however, and you'll spend only $7.97 up front and get back $6.96 in savings over a period of only 13.7 years. Looked at as an investment, that's still pretty unimpressive, which is the reason I'm not about to go replacing any of my existing CFLs with LEDs. But once those CFLs burn out and I need to replace them anyway, I can go ahead and spring for new LEDs with a reasonable level of confidence that they'll be worth it in the long run. And, as a bonus, I shouldn't need to replace them again for at least 13 years.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Entertainment by the hour

It's often said that the best gift is something the recipients will enjoy, but would never buy for themselves. One of our Hanukkah presents this year definitely fell into this category: a pair of theater tickets. Brian and I do go to a show once in a while, but it's usually a summertime production at one of the local open-air theaters, which cost anywhere from $5 to $15 per seat (and depending on the theater, you may have to provide the seat yourself). I think the last time I actually went all the way into the city to see a show was before Brian and I were married. But my sister got word of this production called Potted Potter, in which two guys condense all seven books of the Harry Potter series into about an hour and a half, and she decided we really had to see it.

So last weekend, for the first time in our married life, we actually drove down to Philadelphia and had dinner and a show. And it was indeed quite enjoyable, partly because of the novelty itself; I think I enjoyed seeing the theater all decked out in Hogwarts fashion nearly as much as I enjoyed the actual play. But as we drove home, Brian and I had to admit that, much as we enjoyed it, an outing like this probably wasn't something we'd ever choose to do on our own. This was partly because of the travel time involved, but mostly because of the expense. Unfortunately for my sister, the price of her gift was printed right on the tickets—$69 apiece—and a little quick calculation revealed that, for a 70-minute show, this worked out to nearly two dollars per minute. True, we also got some entertainment value out of the time we spent dining and hanging out before the show started, so you could say it was really more like two hours of entertainment—but then you also have to factor in the tax and the additional money spent on gas, parking, and refreshments to figure out the total cost of that two hours. According to my back-of-the-envelope calculations, a similar evening would cost about $180 for two hours of dinner-and-a-show, or $90 per hour.

This got me thinking about some of the other things Brian and I do for entertainment, and how much they cost on an hourly basis. Our most common evening out is a concert at the Minstrel up in north Jersey, which has an unusual payment structure: it's only $8 to get in, but in order to get out again, you get subjected to a guilt trip about how little you paid and how much this kind of music is really worth, then requested to put the balance of what you should have paid into a fishing creel that hangs conspicuously near the entrance. (The point of this system is to encourage people to come out for acts that aren't familiar to them, knowing that they're only putting 8 bucks on the line to find out whether they like it or not.) Brian and I, however, usually avoid the $8 admission fee by coming as volunteers. The entire show is volunteer-run, so as an incentive, all volunteers get free admission on the night they volunteer plus a "tick" that allows them to get in free to a future show of their choice. So what Brian and I generally do is to sign me up as a baker (spending about $2 on the ingredients for a home-baked goodie) and then use up one of my existing "ticks" for his admission. Our average contribution to the creel is $10, so altogether, we pay about $12 for three hours of music and schmoozing with friends. (Technically, it also costs about $8 for the gas to get to and from the show, but since we often carpool with a friend, our actual transportation cost varies, and it's easier to do the calculation without it.)

So, if the Minstrel is a basic evening of entertainment for the two of us, that means our baseline price for entertainment—the amount that we consider neither terribly exorbitant nor a great bargain—is about $4 an hour. So by using this as a baseline, I should be able to figure out how other forms of entertainment stack up for us in terms of value. However, when I start crunching numbers, I find that nearly every form of entertainment, from movies to board games, can vary hugely in dollar cost per hour. For example:
  • Movies. The last movie we saw in the theater was Wall-E. After wincing our way through the previews and ads before the show, we decided that from then on, we'd be happier waiting for the DVDs. So now, instead of paying $9 a ticket for a two-hour movie ($9 per hour for the two of us), we can spend $1 on a Redbox rental and pay only 50 cents per hour. Or, if we're willing to wait a little longer, most of the movies we really care seeing about will probably show up at the library for free.
  • TV series. As I've noted before, even before we had cable, we could watch most of our favorite shows for free on Hulu or on the individual networks' websites. Last year, we decided to spring for $79-a-year Amazon Prime subscription, which gives us access to an even broader range of choices. We've already watched over 50 episodes of MythBusters, plus a few miscellaneous movies and things, so the average cost per hour of the entertainment we've enjoyed through Amazon Prime works out to around $1.50 so far and will continue to drop as the year goes on. However, there are still some favorites of ours that are neither available for free nor included with Prime. For instance, "A Game of Thrones" is available to us only on DVD, at $40 per season. That gets us ten one-hour episodes plus a few hours' worth of bonus features, so it comes to about $3 per hour. We've also been working our way through the entire run of "Castle." This is a network show (ABC), so it would actually be free for us to watch new episodes, but previous seasons cost money; after borrowing Season 1 from a friend, we had to shell out $20 each for streaming versions of subsequent seasons, which works out to 83 cents for each one-hour episode. However, if we're willing to wait for the current season until all the episodes are available on Hulu Plus, we can just shell out 8 bucks for a one-month subscription and watch the whole season in that one month, spending only 33 cents per hour. (In theory, we could just sign up for the one-week free trial and binge on all 24 episodes in one week for nothing, but that's probably more vegging out than even we can handle.)
  • Books. When I read on my own, I can power through a standard fantasy or mystery novel in a day—say, six hours of solid reading. But when I read aloud to Brian, it takes much longer, and we get to enjoy the book together, so it stretches out to maybe 20 hours of entertainment for the two of us. So a $20 hardcover costs $1 per hour, a $9 paperback costs 45 cents per hour, a $4 secondhand paperback costs 20 cents per hour, and a library book (or one borrowed from a friend or relative) costs an unbeatable zero bucks per hour. (This is the main reason we'll probably never buy a Kindle: a secondhand paperback is still a lot cheaper than a Kindle download.)
  • Video games. Brian gave up his $15-a-month subscription to World of Warcraft years ago—not because it wasn't a good value, but because he was spending so many hours on it that it actually was a good value, and he decided he needed to reclaim those hours. I, however, often have down time between work assignments that I can devote to games, and one of my favorite genres is the point-and-click adventure. The one I've currently got my eye on is "The Book of Unwritten Tales," a highly-rated sendup of the fantasy adventure genre that promises 20 hours of gameplay for $10, or. At 50 cents per hour, that looks like a pretty good value—but the reason I haven't sprung for it yet is that I keep reminding myself that there are loads of interactive fiction games, which I enjoy almost as much, available for free at the Interactive Fiction Database. Some of these provide only about half an hour of play time while others can keep me busy for days if not weeks, but at zero dollars, they're all as good value as it's possible to get.
  • Board games. Brian and I love board games, but we seldom get a chance to play them, because most of our favorites don't work for only two players. This makes spending money on a board game a chancy proposition. Popular games on Amazon.com cost anywhere from $20 to $60, and it's hard to justify spending that much on a game if we're not sure how often we'll actually get to enjoy it. However, if we find a decent game at a yard sale, it's almost always worth snatching up, since it can potentially provide countless hours of entertainment for as little as a dollar. 
  • Puzzles. Crossword puzzles are another of my favorite time-wasters when I'm between work assignments. My favorite type is cryptic crosswords, which are hard to find online (British newspapers like The Times and The Guardian have them, but I can never get through them, possibly because they contain too many UK-only references for me). So this Christmas, Brian got me a collection of them (one of the few that I haven't already worked my way through) for $11.70. The puzzles turn out to be pretty easy, taking me about 10 minutes apiece, so the 50 puzzles in the book will probably provide me with about 500 minutes of entertainment for about $1.40 per hour. The other crossword book he got me, however, is a much better value: just $6.13, including shipping, for 70 crosswords that take me about half an hour apiece. That comes to 35 hours of diversion at a mere 17.5 cents per hour. (I can also download the weekly Saturday puzzle from the Wall Street Journal for free, but that's only good for one day out of seven; the puzzles available during the rest of the week aren't nearly as interesting.)
So, looking at all these options, it's clear that there's a huge variety of choices out there, with a tremendously wide range of hourly cost. The freebies are obviously the best value of all, but even among the paid products, there are lots of options that cost no more than a dollar per hour—less than a quarter of the price of an outing to the Minstrel. Of course, that's not to say that the Minstrel isn't worth the money; for a really good evening of music, $4 an hour is still an excellent value. We'll even pay well above that rate for an act we really want to see; we considered $25 a ticket for a concert with David Wilcox and Susan Werner on the same stage, for instance, to be money well spent. But if the act on any given Friday is only so-so, we might just get better value for our money by staying home with a $1 episode of "Castle"—or a good book.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Seed money

As I've observed before on this blog, offers of any "free" product or service often prove more costly than they look. Emily Birkin of "Live Like a Mensch," for instance, has noted that she often falls into the trap of buying extra products on Amazon.com just to reach the $25 minimum needed to qualify for free shipping. I quite agree that it's silly to buy something you "neither want nor need" just to get something you do want delivered for free—but I also think there are grey areas. Case in point: today I placed my order at Fedcoseeds.com for the seeds for this year's garden. I already knew this was going to be a fairly large order, as we were not only restocking our supplies of several varieties we'd grown before but also adding some new varieties of familiar crops and a few new crops that we'd never tried at all. (We're going to try growing Brussels sprouts and New Zealand spinach, and we're also adding some marshmallow plants to our herb bed.) When I finally added everything to the cart and tallied it up, I saw that all the seeds came to about $23.50—but the $5 handling fee Fedco charges for orders under $30 would bring the order to around $28.50. And I started wondering: would it make more sense to just add a few more items to our order and get the total up to $30 so we could avoid that $5 charge? Sure, we'd actually end up spending more this way, but only about $1.50 more altogether, and we'd actually get an additional $6.50 worth of seeds for that additional $1.50 of spending. So wouldn't this be a much better value than paying $28.50 total for only $23.50 worth of seeds?

The question, I decided, hinged on whether we could actually use the extra seeds. Even an extra $1.50 wouldn't be money well spent if we threw it away on seeds we didn't have room for in the garden. So I started reexamining my shopping cart to see if there was any way it could be padded a little. Since our garden is so small, I habitually order the smallest size packet of every seed variety I buy, but what if I bumped up the sizes of the varieties I know we'll be planting again year after year? Would that enable us to cut back on future orders, or would the seeds go bad (that is, lose their ability to germinate reliably) before we could use them all up? I decided that it didn't make sense to increase the packet size for crops like cucumbers or green beans, since we typically sow just one or two seeds for each plant we want, and we don't have room for that many plants. However, for certain other crops, like scallions and basil, we use a "carpet bomb" method of sowing: just scatter the seed thickly over the entire patch of ground and thin out the plants if too many of them come up. This has the advantage of packing in the veggies tightly enough to squeeze out most of the weeds. So I decided that for crops of this type, I'd bump up the packet size from tiny to fairly small, assuming that the extra seeds would go to good use.

Doing that, unfortunately, only added about a couple of dollars to the order total—not enough to put us over the $30 limit. At this point, we had to decide whether it was worth actually adding more plants to our list, crops that we hadn't actually intended to plant, in order to avoid paying the $5 handling fee. On the other hand, we were now within $5 of the cutoff, so anything we added to our order at this point was essentially free; we'd be paying the extra $5 either way, so we might as well spend it on seeds instead of on handling. First I considered choosing another new tomato variety to add to our mix, which currently included one new variety (Amish Paste) along with several others that we already had seeds for. However, when we considered the amount of available trellis space in our garden, we realized that adding a new tomato variety would mean require us to drop one of the ones we already had, or at least cut back from two plants to one. So instead we chose a new pepper, giving us three varieties instead of two: Klari Baby Cheese, Cubanelle, and Superette Sweet Banana. (All three are completely new to us, since no variety we've tried in the past has ever been all that successful for us—with the exception of the jalapeno we grew the first year, and that gave us more hot peppers than we really had a use for.) We were still just shy of the $30 mark, so we decided to add some chives to our herb bed, bringing our total up to $30.60.

So altogether, we spent about $2 more than we would have spent with our original order—but for that extra $2, we added a third pepper variety to the garden (increasing by 50 percent the odds that at least one of these will actually work for us), diversified our herb selection, and also increased our stocks of arugula and scallions so that they can probably stretch out over at least three years before we need to buy more. So on the whole, I'd say we got good value for our money, though the real test will come when we actually get these new seeds into the garden and see how they grow.

Of course, this doesn't mean that I think I'll get good value by placing a minimum order of $30 from Fedco every year. After all, part of the point of buying extra seeds now was that we won't need to buy as many next year. But I do think that by buying enough extra seeds this one year to avoid the handling fee, I'll be able to pay less for my seeds over the long run. My guess is that in future I'll probably place an extra-large order every few years, stocking up on anything I expect to need, and then I'll cut back to much smaller orders in between. In fact, if I get really lucky, I might eventually find some varieties that work so well for us that I don't need to try out new ones each year, and I'll only need to buy seeds at all when my stocks need replenishing. But alas, I suspect it may take me years of trial and error to reach that goal.

Friday, January 3, 2014

More Stuff Green People Like

A few years back, I decided to start a list called "Stuff Ecofrugal People Like." This was my answer to Christian Lander's spoof site "Stuff White People Like," which I considered (a) inaccurate and (b) not very funny. In the comments on that post, I received a couple of suggestions for additional entries to the list, and I've also thought of a few new ideas since, so I decided it was time for an update. So here, without further ado, are seven more things that egofrugal people like. Since the original list had seven items, we'll start here with number 8:

8. Slow cookers. These are ecofrugal partly because they make it easier for busy people to cook at home, rather than eating out or relying on pricey convenience foods. Take five minutes to throw some ingredients in the pot in the morning before you leave for work, and you can have a hot meal waiting for you when you come home. Moreover, slow cookers are particularly good for making the kinds of dishes that are staples of the ecofrugal diet, such as soups (which make a hearty meal with little or no meat) and stews (which are the best way to cook tougher, and therefore cheaper, cuts of meat). They're also handy for cooking up inexpensive and healthful foods like dry beans and whole grains. Our slow cooker doesn't get used as much these days since we got our pressure cooker, but it's still the ideal tool for making homemade baked beans and scrap-bag soup stock.

9. Clotheslines. As I've noted before, when you actually do the math, it turns out that hanging your wash on a line doesn't actually save all that much money or energy; if you were looking for ways to trim your budget or reduce your carbon footprint, you could no doubt find others that would give you a much bigger bang for your buck. But even these cold, hard numbers can't blot out the irresistable allure of the clothesline. Part of its appeal is that, as my friend Amy noted when she proposed this idea, "it feels like getting something for free." Even if you're actually spending 15 minutes of your time to reap a savings of 30 cents or so, it still feels somehow magical to see your clothes dry all by themselves, just like that. But also, as I noted in my entry, hanging my clothes reinforces my ties to nature. It gets me out in the sun and fresh air and helps keep me aware of the changing seasons. That alone, to me, is enough to make it a good use of my time.

10. IKEA. Okay, this one was sort of on Lander's list as well (in his entry on modern furniture, he describes IKEA as a "key supplier of furniture to white people"), but for us ecofrugal types, the appeal of this store has little or nothing to do with its modern styling. (Actually, I tend to prefer its more traditional pieces, like our Hemnes bed frame and Leksvik coffee table.) Instead, we love IKEA for its wonderful combination of low prices and sustainable products. It's not just their LED bulbs and water-saving faucets, which you can find at most home stores; it's the chain's all-encompassing commitment to the environment at every level of its supply chain. Over 20 percent of all the wood it uses comes from sources certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council, and it's aiming for 50 percent by 2017; it also intends to have all its cotton meet the standards of the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) within the next two years. On top of this, the stores use and generate renewable energy and recycle over 85 percent of the waste they produce, as well as providing stations for customers to recycle batteries and CFL bulbs. Yet while other stores jack up prices on feel-good products with impeccable green credentials, IKEA manages to keep its prices not just competitive, but low enough to blow its competitors right out of the water. I'd like to see Wal-Mart sell me a 5-piece patio set for $120 and a bag of organic, Fair Trade coffee for less than $7 a pound. (No, seriously, I really would like to see it. But I'm not holding my breath.)

11. Hulu. I'm actually slightly embarrassed about the fact that our household now has cable TV. I always hasten to tell people that we only signed up for it to take advantage of a package deal that gave us cheaper phone and Internet service, because I don't want them to get the impression that we're the sort of behind-the-times folks who consider cable a necessity. On the contrary, we got along quite happily without it for years, and one of the sites—perhaps the main one—that made it possible was Hulu. Even just the basic, free Hulu site gives you access to a huge range of TV and film choices, including exclusive original series like the bizarre and gripping "The Booth at the End" and the latest episodes of popular shows like "Castle" and "Grey's Anatomy." Spring for an $8-a-month subscription to Hulu Plus, and you can watch the whole latest season. (This is probably what we'll do when we're ready to watch season 6 of "Castle," since $8 for a month of Hulu Plus is cheaper than $20 to buy the whole season on Amazon.) At those prices, who would ever need to pay $30 a month or more for cable? (Well, er, unless they needed it to save on their phone and Internet service. Ahem.)

12. Edible landscaping. Like clotheslines, edible landscaping feels like getting something for nothing, and in its case the feeling may actually be justified. True, I calculated back in November that our vegetable garden, although it does save us money on groceries, actually yields a pretty pitiful "hourly wage" for all the time we spend on it. However, other forms of edible landscaping, like our herb border and raspberry bushes, require very little effort to maintain. Once you put in the initial money and work needed to plant them—and a little extra effort to make sure they survive their first year—they keep providing food, year after year, with virtually no effort on your part. And they take the place of more common landscaping choices that do take money and effort to maintain—like the inexplicably popular manicured grass lawn, which requires regular watering, mowing, and fertilizing and produces nothing in return.

13. Reusable bags. These are an ecofrugal no-brainer. Not only can a single reusable grocery bag take the place of hundreds of paper and plastic bags over the course of a year, but some stores actually pay you to use them. Our local Stop & Shop has dropped its nickel-a-bag discount, but we still get 5 cents back for each bag we use at Shop-Rite and 10 cents at the Whole Earth Center, and we save the 10-cent-per-bag charge we'd otherwise pay when shopping at Aldi. Sure, these aren't exactly huge savings, but with reusable bags so widely available for as little as a dollar, what's the downside? A 99-cent folding tote from IKEA (there they are again!), which slips into a purse or jacket pocket where it's always ready to hand, could pay for itself twenty times over in its first year of use.

14. DIY. I've long maintained that one of the basic tenets of the ecofrugal ethos is, "Never pay someone to do what you can easily do yourself" (it's important to slip that "easily" in there so that you don't end up trying to do the jobs that would be dangerous or ridiculously time-consuming to tackle on your own). However, if the truth be known, the main thing I like about DIY projects probably isn't the money I save; it's the satisfaction of being able to say I did it myself. (Well, to be fair, in most cases it's more like being able to say that we did it ourselves—or even that Brian did it himself. But that's still a lot cooler than just hiring someone to do it.) Plus, with DIY, you have a lot of options that you probably wouldn't have when working with a contractor. I doubt a contractor would have been willing to construct a patio for us out of Freecycled pavers, for instance, and I don't think we'd ever have been able to install our brown-paper floor in the downstairs room without doing it ourselves.

So, we're up to 14. If I can come up with, say, 100 of these things, maybe I can make a book out of it just like Christian Lander and make some easy money. Anyone want to help?