Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The $1,000 Challenge: or, You Can't Trim Fat You Don't Have

This morning I was checking out some financial blogs, looking for any that might be in need of writers, and I came across a series on the Daily Finance Site called "The $1,000 Challenge." It's a series of eleven posts by financial journalist Brian O'Connor that promise to help you "cut $1,000 a month from your budget." Read that again carefully: $1,000 a month. He's not claiming he can find you a one-time savings of $1,000, or save you $1,000 a year; he says his program can save you $1,000 a month, every month, or $12,000 a year. This sounds like an impossible claim, but O'Connor says he's done it himself: over the course of ten weeks, he "cut $1,000 from my family's monthly spending, trimming $100 from each of our top 10 spending categories." He documented this experience in his "Funny Money" column for the Detroit News, and later in his book The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese.

Now, that fact alone should have been a warning to me that O'Connor's advice was unlikely to be of any use to me. Just as it isn't possible to lose half your body weight unless you currently weigh twice as much as you need to, it isn't possible to cut $1,000 from your monthly spending unless you're currently wasting $12,000 a year. It's the same problem I've noted on this blog so many times before: most of the financial advice out there on the Web (and green-living advice as well) tends to focus on the easy stuff, the low-hanging fruit, and therefore isn't much use to those of us who already harvested it long ago. (That's why I always try on this blog to talk about newer ideas, or take new approaches to old ones. Instead of just saying, "Hang your laundry," I do the math to figure out how much I actually save by hanging my laundry, and then I discuss some of the less tangible benefits that make this activity worthwhile. Or I share new, budget-friendly vegetarian recipes that Brian has invented. Or I post a just-for-fun roundup of budget decorating ideas.)

Indeed, O'Connor himself concedes in his introductory post that most of his readers probably don't have $1,000 worth of fat to cut from their monthly budgets. The only reason he called it the $1,000 Challenge, he frankly admits, is "because it made a good headline"; a more realistic goal might be anywhere from $50 to $500 a month. So at this point, I knew two things about this author: 1) he used to be slack enough in his spending habits to have $12,000 worth of excess to cut, and 2) he doesn't care overmuch about accuracy, since he has no scruples using a deliberately misleading headline to get users to click on his article. Neither of which makes him sound like a great person to be taking financial advice from.

By this time, though, he'd managed to pique my interest. Even if I knew there was virtually no chance that his plan could actually save me $1,000 a month, I was still curious about how it had managed to save him $1,000 a month. Where had he managed to find that much excess to cut?

So I went ahead and read the next article in the series, which O'Connor calls "cleaning out your financial 'junk drawer.'" Just as most of us have a junk drawer in our homes, he says, in which we toss all sorts of odds and ends and then forget about them, so most of us have "odds and ends that pile up, unseen or at least unconsidered, usually on credit cards or via automated checking account debits." He says when he went over his family's monthly statements, he discovered several automatic payments of this sort. The worst of the lot was an old email account that he'd meant to keep open for just one year in case any of his old clients tried to use it and had ended up leaving open for over two years, at $25 a month. And then came the line that really boggled my mind:
If I had been getting a bill in the mail every month for that e-mail account, and had to sit down, write a check, dig out my nifty return-address labels (I know they're around here somewhere), then find a stamp, I would have cancelled that account ages ago. But the charge went directly onto a credit card, where it was easy to overlook.
Easy to overlook?!? How could you have a $25 charge on your credit card bill every single month for over two years and not notice it? When I get the bill for one of my credit cards, I don't pay it until I've gone through it line by line to make sure that all the charges match the amounts on my payment slips. (I actually had a minor dilemma last month over whether to call the company to dispute a charge of $25.76 at a restaurant, because the slip said we'd only paid $24.76—$20.76 for the bill and $4 for the tip. I only let it go because Brian said he couldn't be completely sure he hadn't written down different amounts on our copy and the restaurant's.) So if there were a $25 charge showing up every month for a service I was no longer using, I would definitely notice it was there. For O'Connor to simply "overlook" this charge on his bill, he must not have been checking his statements at all; he was probably just automatically paying the total (or worse yet, automatically paying just the minimum) without even bothering to look at the individual charges. His bill could have been loaded up with charges that were not only unnecessary but completely fraudulent, and he'd never have noticed they were there.

Reading that one line was enough to convince me to read no further. Knowing that this guy had been careless in his spending habits was one thing, but once I'd learned that he didn't even check his bills before paying them, I knew I wasn't about to trust his advice on anything money-related.

So, for all those who were hoping that this post was going to kick off a series on how I embarked on my own $1,000 Challenge, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I don't think I'll be cutting $1,000, or $500, or even $100 a month from our budget, and for a very good reason: because we don't have it to cut. If we had $100 worth of completely unnecessary spending in any particular category of our budget, I'm pretty sure we'd have found it and cut it already. But even if there actually are some hidden expenses lurking in our budget—some clever cost-cutting strategies that we somehow haven't heard about yet—I feel very confident that we're not going to learn about them from Brian O'Connor.

Monday, September 29, 2014

DIY Lessons

When we first started planning our guest room redo way back in April, we figured this would be a good sort of starter job for us to test our DIY skills on. Since we knew we were bound to make some mistakes, we figured it would be best to make them on this small, seldom-used room, so we'd know better by the time we started working on our most-used living spaces. And for this purpose, I must say, the remodel is shaping up to be a remarkable success. We've only been working on it for a week, and we've already made enough mistakes to learn several very important lessons about this kind of DIY job. So I'm now planning to share them here, in the hope that maybe you can learn from our mistakes without going to the trouble of making them yourself.

Lesson 1: Plan for the unplanned.

When we first started planning this job, we figured it would probably be a fairly quick one, since it was a small room and didn't need any major changes. All we had to do was pull some nails from the wall, patch the holes, prime and paint, and then bring in some new furniture and artwork. How long could that take?


Turns out, the answer to this question is "A lot longer than you expect." Because no matter how simple a job looks on the surface, there will invariably be bigger, more complicated jobs hidden below the surface, which won't come to light until you actually start getting your hands dirty. Like, for example, the chunks of the wall that are actually made not of intact wallboard but of crumbling filler, which you can't see until you start pulling nails out and find large chunks of the wall coming with them.

Sometimes, it's true, these hidden problems turn out to have fairly quick fixes. For instance, one of the two windows in the room had a seriously wobbly windowsill, and Brian feared that the wood might have warped due to water incursion or maybe suffered insect damage. However, when he actually pulled off the windowsill to examine it, he found that the wood was mostly intact; one of the two pieces had a crack in it, but nothing that couldn't be fixed with wood glue. It was the wallboard behind the sill that had mostly rotted away due to water damage. Fortunately, this was a problem Brian already knew how to fix: just cut out the damaged parts, cut some smaller pieces of wallboard to fit the hole, and screw them into place. So we dodged a bullet there by not having to attempt to build a whole new windowsill from scratch. But it could just as easily have turned out the other way.

So the lesson we've learned here for future DIY jobs is always to allow more time for them—a lot more—than it actually looks like they should take. When the time comes to redo the bedroom, for instance, I'm going to assume that we'll need to set aside a full week for it just as we did with the patio last year—and that we might still be sleeping in the guest room after that week is out.

Lesson 2: You cannot remove just a small patch of paint (at least not from a wall that was never properly primed).

In the picture I showed you last week, we had a large, irregular, vaguely map-shaped section of paint peeled away underneath the soon-to-be-removed windowsill. At that point, I thought we'd peeled all the paint we'd need to peel in that room. But nope, turns out it's like potato chips: you can never stop at just one. The more nails we removed, the more sections of paint came out with them, and as we peeled at each newly formed loose edge, larger and larger sections of wallboard were exposed, and the peeled-away areas joined up with each other, until we ended up with more wallboard uncovered than covered. Unfortunately, there wasn't always a clear line of demarcation between spots where the paint was well adhered to the wall and spots where it wasn't, so one minute I might be peeling away a big sheet of loose paint from the wall, and the next minute, I might find myself tearing a chunk of paper from the wallboard because there was one little spot in the middle of the sheet of paint that had managed to stick to it. All of these spots will, of course, have to be patched before we can get started on priming and painting.

The moral here, I guess, is to try as much as possible in future jobs to minimize the amount of paint we disturb. And the best way to do that is to heed the next lesson:

Lesson 3: Don't pull out a nail that you could push in.

The main reason we did so much damage to the walls in the process of pulling out all those nails is that in some cases, nail heads that appeared to be bulging out of the wall actually turned out, once the paint was scraped away, to be buried pretty deeply in it. I thought perhaps the best thing to do would be to simply spackle over them, but Brian pointed out that if they'd pushed their way out of the wall once, they were bound to do it again, because they obviously weren't well secured to it. So at that point we figured the only way to avoid this problem was to pull them all out—which often involved gouging out big sections of the wallboard to expose the edge of the nailhead so we could get the pry bar under it—and replace each one with a wood screw.

Now, this worked, in the sense that it got the walls secured back in place, but it was a lot of work, and it created a lot of big holes that would have to be filled and sanded later on. It was only after we'd done this with about three dozen deeply buried nails that we figured out that we could simply add wood screws without removing the nails first. That would fix the wallboard in place so it wouldn't bulge out, and once it was secure, we could just pound the nails in to hold them down. Oops.

So, that was a lesson learned the hard way, and one that left us with about three dozen holes in the wall, but at least we figured it out now. Next time we tackle one of these bedrooms, we won't bother pulling out nails; we'll just add screws next to them, and then bang the nails back into place.

These are the first three lessons we've learned from this remodeling job, but I'm sure they won't be the last. We've still got a wide array of tasks in front of us—mudding, priming, painting, replacing the windowsill, replacing outlets, painting the heater covers—and I'm sure each one will have its own lesson, or set of lessons, to teach us. But at least with any luck we'll learn them all now, and we'll have them down by the time we tackle our next room.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Welcome to the Ecofrugal Living podcast!

I'm trying something new here on the Ecofrugal Living blog: a podcast.

I've recorded the blog entry from Monday as an audio recording, which you can listen to here. Once this post is published, I should, in theory, be able to create a feed for it via FeedBurner, and all you folks out there in cyberworld will be able to subscribe to it. I've never done this before, so it's an experiment, but if all goes according to plan, you should shortly be able to listen to the Ecofrugal Living podcast, Episode 1: Price Sensitivity, or the $16.72 Quart of Ice Cream.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Solving problems without money

In her latest "Live Like a Mensch" blog post, Emily Birkin muses on a saying her mother's relatives often used when she was growing up: "A problem that can be solved with money isn't really a problem." As she understood it, this meant that "money was fungible"—meaning that one dollar is exactly equivalent to another—and so "it was always possible to earn more money and replenish the stores."

This seems, on the face of it, like a startling thing to say. I suspect a large majority of Americans would be very surprised to hear that their money problems aren't really problems. And indeed, Birkin acknowledges that only "economically privileged" families would be likely to use this saying, since "You can only view money as no big deal if you’ve never really gone without it." Nonetheless, she maintains that for those who have a high enough degree of "money competence," it really is true that lack of money needn't ever pose an insurmountable barrier. To those who have the skill, she claims, getting more money is a "straightforward" problem that can always be overcome: "I can always earn more money, rearrange my budget, change my priorities, or save up." Lack of "time, infrastructure, talent, or support," by contrast, makes a problem much more complicated to solve.

At this point, I realized that what she was saying wasn't really that lack of money isn't a problem at all: it's that it's a problem she already knows how to solve. It's like the old joke about how a mathematician boils a pot of water: if she comes into the kitchen and finds a pot of water on the table, she moves it to the stove and then lights the stove. However, if the next time she comes into the kitchen she finds the pot of water on the floor, then she just moves it to the table, because now she's reduced the problem to one she's already solved. In the same way, if Emily Birkin can reduce a problem to a simple question of money, then she knows the problem is solvable.

However, I think this way of thinking has its drawbacks, as well. If you view problems involving money as non-problems, or at least easily solvable problems, then it can become too easy to jump to the conclusion that money is the best solution to any problem. And indeed, for most problems, spending money is the easiest and most obvious solution. But in many cases, there may also be another solution that doesn't involve spending money—which you'll never find if you simply take the shortcut of reducing the problem to the already-solved one of using money. Here are a few examples just off the top of my head:
Problem: You've received a last-minute invitation to the theater, and you don't have a thing to wear. (Confession: I stole this example from Christine Lavin.)
Easy/obvious solution: Run out to the store and buy something black and formal—and hope you don't hate it when you catch your reflection during intermission.
Cheap/creative solution: Go through your closet and try to figure out if your existing clothes could work if combined differently or accessorized differently. Or borrow something from a friend. Or go casual, and pretend you're just being rebellious. 
Problem: Like Brian, you find it uncomfortable to sit at a desk all day long, and you want a setup that will allow you to switch back and forth between sitting and standing.
Easy/obvious solution: Spend $335 on a convertible desk and spend a whole morning setting it up in your office and dismantling your old desk. And then live with the fact that your new desk has far less space to work on and clashes with everything else in the office.
Cheap/creative solution: Spend $10 on a Lack table from IKEA and set that on top of the desk when you want to stand. (If this proves a bit too tall to be ideal, as it did for one of Brian's coworkers who tried it, get Brian to build you a little step stool out of scrap wood to stand on when you want to use the desk in standing position. Or just saw the ends off the legs of the Lack to make it lower.) 
Problem: Like Emily Birkin herself, you have a greyhound who really, really loves his "deluxe Cadillac of a dog bed." During the day, rather than joining the family downstairs, he will stay upstairs to lie on it—and then cry because he isn't with his people.
Easy/obvious solution: Spend another $150 to get him a second bed for downstairs.
Cheap/creative solution: Make him a cheaper bed out of a folded comforter to sleep on downstairs. Or, if he refuses to use it (as their greyhound did), just drag the dog bed downstairs every morning and back upstairs every night.
In every case, if you simply take the most easy and obvious approach, you'll solve the problem all right, but you'll also spend money that you didn't really need to spend. This creates problems of its own, because every dollar you spend has to be earned, and earning money requires time and energy that you then can't devote to other things. Countless financial writers have written about this work-spend treadmill and its many negative impacts on your life. Working more hours to earn more money to buy more stuff, they point out, takes time away from friends, family, and pursuits that are a lot more fulfilling than earning and spending; it can lead to exhaustion and a host of stress-related illnesses; and it ultimately isn't fulfilling, because once you get used to a certain level of luxury, there's no longer any particular pleasure in it—so you have to keep raising the stakes, which means more spending, more earning, and more stress.

Probably the best-known attack on this way of life is Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. Birkin herself, as I've noted before, is a major fan of this book, and she actually cites it in explaining why she chose not to spend money on a second doggie bed: since you have to trade your "life energy" for money, and "For everything you choose to buy, there is either something else that you cannot buy, or there is more life energy you have to expend in order to earn more money." Thus, she says, "I try to spend money on things that matter to me, because the money flowing through my life is finite." Which seems to directly contradict the idea that "A problem that can be solved with money isn't really a problem," because getting more money is a problem: it's the problem of what else you will have to give up in order to get that money. Thus, it always makes sense to look first for a solution that doesn't require money, particularly one that addresses the problem by simply putting a bit more thought into it. This kind of creative problem-solving is fun and satisfying, so it actually enhances your life energy, rather than consuming it. And, as an additional plus, solutions that don't require spending money are often better for the environment as well, which is the whole basis for the idea of ecofrugality.

In fact, now that I think about it, nearly everything I've ever written about on this blog could be considered an example of substituting creativity and/or effort for money in one way or another. Paging through my "greatest hits," I see that readers have responded positively to posts on:
  • budget decor, or the ways in which people have used creativity to refinish whole rooms on a very low budget;
  • thrift-store shopping, which lets you stretch your clothing dollars by thinking outside the big box store;
  • our DIY patio project, in which we got the pavers from Freecycle (an unconventional source), shopped around for stone and gravel (putting a little more effort into finding the best deal), and did all the work ourselves (substituting the sweat of our brows for money spent on contractors);
  • ConsumerSearch, a site that helps you get the best value for your shopping dollar with just a few minutes of work;
  • our groundhog fence, another DIY project that lets us coexist peacefully with our resident furballs; and
  • choosing a ground cover for our front yard, so we won't have to invest time and money into maintaining the conventional lush, green lawn.
So I think that, for frugal-minded folks, the saying "A problem that can be solved with money isn't really a problem" tells only half the story, and not even the most important half. A more useful version would be, "Just because a problem can be solved with money doesn't mean it should be." Defaulting to a solution that requires money is a good way to use up your supply of it, making it harder to solve future problems in the same way. By contrast, if your default problem-solving mode is to look first for a solution that doesn't use money, you're a lot more likely to have a good supply of money when you actually need it. And, because you'll be in the habit of thinking creatively, you're also a lot more likely to be able to come up with ways to get the money if you don't have it—for instance, by making cuts in other areas of your budget.

In other words, if you always follow the second piece of advice (which comes down to "Don't spend money if you don't have to"), then the first one (which comes down to "You can always get money if you need it"), is a lot more likely to be true.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Guest room makeover, stage 1

As I believe I've mentioned before, when it comes to home renovation, Brian and I aren't the fastest workers around. I often justify our slow-and-steady approach to home remodeling by arguing that we prefer a good and cheap job to one that's fast and cheap (but not that good) or fast and good (but really expensive). By taking our time with a room redo, I proclaim, we can wait as long as it takes to find really good deals on materials, and we can do all the work ourselves in our free time rather than hiring professionals. All of which is perfectly true.

But sometimes, I have to admit, our home projects get off to a slow start less out of a conscious decision to pace ourselves and more on account of simple procrastination. A case very much in point right now is our small back bedroom. Remember how I announced, back in April, that we were planning to redo that little room as a guest room? And remember how I predicted that we should be able to get started on the project "by May, if not sooner," just as soon as all our seedlings were transplanted out into the garden? Yeah, well, turns out I was off by four months or so. There's no real excuse for it; it's not as if we had some other big project we had to deal with first, or a major illness, or a financial crisis, or anything of that sort. It was just all the other little everyday things on the to-do list that kept pushing the room remodel down to the bottom.

But even if we tend to put jobs off sometimes, we do get around to them eventually, and this one is no exception. Last week, removed most of the furniture from the room, pushed the one remaining table with the recycling bins on it into the center, and got down to brass tacks. Or to be more accurate, steel nails—nails that had slipped out of their places in the drywall and were now forming visible bulges in the walls and ceiling. Removing those, and patching the resulting holes, was going to have to be our first job before we could get down to the work of mudding, priming, and painting.

Fortunately, Brian had a tool that turned out to be just the thing for getting in under the paint and working the nails loose from their positions. The manufacturer, Titan Tools, describes it as a "pry bar/scraper": it's a straight, flat length of steel, about a handsbreadth in length, that curves up at one end and has a wickedly sharp, wide edge on both the flat and curved ends. We had to handle them with extreme care to avoid slipping and nicking any important blood vessels, but they sure made it the job of prying nails from the walls go a lot faster. (We still have to tackle the ones on the ceiling, which may prove a bit trickier, since we'll be working at a more awkward angle and simultaneously trying to keep the nails from landing on our heads when they pop out.)

Unfortunately, removing the nails turned out to have an awkward side effect: each one that came out took with it a good-sized chunk of the plaster and paint. Patching the holes isn't a big deal; all it takes is a bit of spackling. But the paint is trickier, because once a single edge starts to peel up, it just keeps going and going. Brian thought we might end up having to strip the paint off the entire wall, which he thought might be a blessing in disguise, since it would have given us a clean, smooth surface to prime over. But as it turned out, the paint was stuck on much better in some places than others. It peeled off in big sheets, but only up to a point; beyond that point, it was almost impossible to peel at all. As a result, we now have a large bare patch on the wall that vaguely resembles a map of Afro-Eurasia. We can only hope that once it's been primed and painted over, its outline won't be visible.

And talking of paint, we've made a start on choosing colors for the room. Since it's quite a small room, we know we want to go with a light shade that's not too vivid, something in the white-to-beige family. However, this doesn't narrow it down nearly as much as you might think. As I stood in front of the paint display at Lowe's, my mind positively boggled at how many shades of white-to-beige the folks at Valspar can apparently distinguish with the naked eye. (In fact, I now think they should write a bestselling novel about a tempestuous love affair between two house painters: Fifty Shades of Beige.) So far I've managed to narrow down the candidates to about half a dozen, from "Bungalow White" at left to "Churchill Hotel Ecru" (an official National Trust for Historic Preservation shade) at right. I'm currently leaning toward "Cake Batter," although Brian thinks that may be just because I like the name.

Of course, choosing any of these colors may be premature, because I'm not sure Valspar is actually the brand we want to go with. It's the one we've tended to use in the past, but the latest report on interior paint from ConsumerSearch recommends a much pricier brand, Benjamin Moore Aura. At $54 a gallon, it's more than twice the price of Valspar, but on the other hand, it promises "one-coat coverage" with no need for a separate primer, so one gallon of Aura might be cheaper than two gallons of Valspar plus one of primer. It's also low-odor and very quick-drying, though the review notes this can be a negative as well as a positive; it sometimes dries so fast that you can't cover a whole area before it starts to dry, resulting in streaks. So I haven't decided yet whether it's worth it to spring for the fancy stuff or just go with our trusty old budget brand. In any case, there's no need to choose just yet; we still need to finish removing nails, cleaning and patching the walls, repairing woodwork, and possibly (depending on which brand we choose) priming before we're ready to paint.

All of which, if we work at our usual rate, shouldn't take us more than three or four months.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Gardeners' Holidays 2014: Harvest Home

The autumnal equinox arrived a bit late in 2014 (as commemorated by today's Google Doodle). While it's normally on the 20th or 21st of September, this year it didn't officially hit until 10:29 last night, according to this article in the Christian Science Monitor. The article goes on to talk about the ways in which different cultures around the world have marked the fall equinox, but it doesn't mention the English festival of Harvest Home or Ingathering, which honored the last day of the grain harvest. Participants celebrated by "singing, shouting, and decorating the village with boughs," as well as making a harvest doll from the last sheaf of grain as a totem to bring good rains for next year's crop.

Our garden doesn't include any grain to harvest, but there are plenty of other crops that are just at their peak. Every day Brian comes in with at least a couple of tomatoes fresh from the vine; so far we've had mostly Early Girls and Glaciers, but the Rutgers, Amish Pasta, and Cosmonaut Volkov are now starting to be more productive, so we'll most likely be picking more of those over the next few weeks. Around this time last year, we were drowning in Sun Golds, prompting me to decide that this year I would plant no more than two of them; however, this plan actually ended up backfiring, since neither of the seedlings we planted survived, so this year we have no Sun Golds at all. I guess next year we'll have to buy a fresh packet of the Sun Gold seeds, start several of them, and then plant the one or two healthiest seedlings, and maybe then we'll manage to get some of these little orange delights without being completely inundated with them.

As always at this time of year, we have lots of basil as well. After last year's experience trying to process a huge volume of basil all at once, I had planned to reduce the amount of space devoted to this crop as well, but Brian convinced me to go ahead and seed the full four squares, saying that as far as he's concerned, you can never have too much of this stuff. Which is all well and good, except that it means we're once again heading into fall with a huge thicket of basil that will need to be preserved before the frost hits, and we haven't even used up all the stuff we stored last year yet. (We haven't so much as started on the salt-preserved basil yet, which is why you haven't yet seen a post here on how well the three different preserving methods worked out.) So I think this year we'll have to be proactive about harvesting and processing the basil in small batches, rather than waiting until the first frost and trying to do it all at once. And considering how much of the stuff we have both in the garden and still in storage, I imagine some of our friends and relations will be getting homemade pesto for Christmas this year.

We're also finally starting to get a few little peppers on our pepper plants. Aside from one very productive jalapeño plant in our first year as gardeners, we've consistently had very bad luck growing peppers; no matter how early we start our seeds or what medium we plant them in, the seedlings invariably come out tiny and scraggly, not big and healthy like the ones you get from the plant sales. This year, only one of the peppers we started from seed (a Cubanelle) survived at all, and we ended up planting three banana peppers from the Rutgers plant sale to compensate. (I had hoped to have better luck with the Klari Baby Cheese peppers I ordered from Fedco, but they sent me a generic pimiento instead—grrr.) Next year, we've pretty much decided not to bother starting any peppers from seed at all; we'll just get out to the plant sales as early as possible so as to have a decent choice of pepper plants.

On the bright side, we do have a couple of new crops this year that we didn't have at this time last year. Our little patch of leeks has already yielded half a dozen small ones, and we also have lima beans for the very first time. While our second picking of beans continued to yield a fair number of the odd little shriveled ones, it also gave us about five more ounces of plump, healthy white ones, some of them still tinged with green. Apparently, by the way, our method of letting the pods dry before picking them isn't the standard way to harvest them; last week, on a trip to the farmers' market, we saw that one of the vendors was selling lima beans still in their fresh, bright green pods. A quick search turned up this page indicating that lima beans should indeed be harvested when the pods are "plump and firm"; if they dry out, the plant will stop producing, and the beans will be "tough and mealy." So I guess we'll know better going forward with the rest of this year's crop, as well as in future years.

In the meantime, however, we have about 13 ounces of beans that we did allow to get dry before harvesting, and we can't really let them go to waste. So I guess the best way to celebrate Harvest Home this year is with a batch of butter beans and cornbread, a meal that also pays homage to the holiday's origins as a festival celebrating the grain harvest. I'm currently soaking the beans in brine, as recommended in this video from America's Test Kitchen, in the hope that this will mitigate the "tough and mealy" quality. Then we'll cook them according to a recipe we originally found on Cooks.com. Unfortunately, it's not there now, but the gist of it is that the beans are cooked with bacon drippings, onion, and garlic, in a little bit of water until tender; then you make a sauce by sautéing scallions in butter, thickening it with flour, and stirring in a cup of the cooking liquid from the beans. Then you mix everything together and season with salt, pepper, and paprika. Serve it up with a pan of fresh-baked cornbread, which is just right for sopping up the sauce.

We normally prepare this recipe in the Crock Pot, since the beans just cook all day on low and have just enough liquid left that you can dump them right in with the sauce as soon as you've finished cooking the scallions. But today, the beans have to soak during the day rather than overnight, so I guess we'll just cook it up on the stove. And maybe the next time we make this recipe, we'll be using proper fresh-picked lima beans, and we won't have to soak them at all.

Incidentally, this meal is best prepared while singing the song "Cornbread and Butter Beans." Which I guess is appropriate, since singing is part of the traditional Harvest Home festivities as well.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Price Sensitivity (or, the $16.72 Quart of Ice Cream)

Last week, as you may recall, I wrapped up my $1-a-day local shopping challenge with a trip to the library, where I picked up a copy of The Economic Naturalist by Robert H. Frank. I'd paged through the book before, so I was familiar already with a lot of the ideas discussed in it. When I read through the whole thing at once, however, I found one concept that seemed to come up over and over again was "price sensitivity." What this means, in a nutshell, is that some shoppers—like me, and, if you're reading this blog, probably like you as well—care much more about how much things cost than other shoppers. But it's a bit more complicated than that, and it has a great deal of influence on the actual prices we pay for just about everything.

Here's an example. Let's say the World Wide Wicket company (famously portrayed in the musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying) can produce wickets for $1 apiece. Their factories are capable of producing 5 million wickets a year, and their goal, obviously, is to make as much money as they possibly can for those wickets. The problem is, not all buyers are willing to pay the same price for a wicket. There may be as many as 2 million potential buyers out there who just want the best-quality wickets they can get, and they're willing to pay as much as $10 per wicket for them. However, there are an equal number of buyers who aren't willing to pay that much. Maybe they're on a tighter budget, or maybe they just don't have as urgent a need for wickets, but for whatever reason, these "price-sensitive" buyers won't spend more than $5 per wicket. And there may even be another million shoppers out there who normally wouldn't want to buy wickets at all, but they could be persuaded to if they were an especially good deal—say, $2 per wicket.

What should the company do in this case? If they set the highest possible price for their wickets, $10 each, then they'll only sell 2 million of them, making a $9 profit on each one, for a total of $18 million. If they drop the price to $5 each, they'll sell twice as many, but for only half as much per wicket. Minus their production costs, they'll make only $4 each on the 4 million wickets they sell, for a profit of only $16 million. And if they drop the price to $2 each, they can sell all 5 million wickets they make, but they'll only make a dollar on each one, for a measly $5 million profit.

Under the circumstances, it looks like the $10 price is the best one. But that will leave an awful lot of the World Wide Wicket company's production capacity going to waste, and an awful lot of buyers who would be willing to buy wickets at a lower price will be going without them. What the company would really like to do is charge customers different prices based on what they're willing to pay—$10, $5, or $2 per wicket. Then they could sell all the wickets they make and earn the maximum possible profit. But they can't just mark some wickets at $10 and others at $2 and pile them all on the same shelf, or everyone will buy the $2 wickets and leave the $10 ones. So how can World Wide Wicket charge the appropriate price to each buyer?

Well, as it turns out, there are a lot of different tricks companies can use to squeeze the maximum profit out of non-price-sensitive buyers while still selling their products, at a lower profit, to price-sensitive ones. For example:
  • They could set the regular price of their wickets at $10 each, but also hold sales once or twice a year in which the price drops to $5 or lower. Non-price-sensitive buyers, who don't mind paying $10 a wicket, will buy at retail price, while price-sensitive ones will wait for the wickets to go on sale before they buy. This is why so many department stores seem to have sales on different items every month; they can rope in the deal-seekers during these sales and still sell the same items at full price to the spendthrifts during the rest of the year.
  • They could offer their wickets for $10 each, but charge a special reduced rate for slightly damaged wickets. You may have seen the "scratch and dent rooms" at major appliance retailers, where they keep the still-working appliances that have been damaged during shipping or display. Price-sensitive buyers will happily accept a fridge with a small dent on one side (which may end up against the wall anyway) in order to get it for half price. In fact, Frank notes that back when Sears pioneered the scratch-and-dent sale, there were rumors that Sears had employees in the warehouses deliberately hammering small dents into perfectly good appliances so that they could be included in the sale. These appliances could have been sold at full price, but only if there were enough non-price-sensitive shoppers willing to buy them; by deliberately scuffing them up, the store could sell them to price-sensitive buyers without lowering the price they charged to non-price-sensitive ones.
  • They could set the regular price of their wickets at $5 each, but sell them at an inflated price of $10 each in locations where non-price-sensitive shoppers are likely to find themselves in need of wickets (such as, presumably, on croquet courses). This is the same technique used by hotels when they stock their minibars with $3 chocolate bars that you could buy at the corner drugstore for 50 cents. Price sensitive buyers will shake their heads at these ridiculous prices and trot round the corner to the drugstore, while non-price-sensitive ones will just pay the inflated price to avoid the trouble. By hitting the less price-sensitive lodgers with higher prices on extras like minibar items (or dry cleaning, or other services), hotels can in effect charge these customers a higher rate for the room, while still advertising a low rate to attract the price-sensitive folks. Similarly, airlines will advertise low fares to appeal to price-sensitive travelers, but then charge extra for meals and headphones.
  • They could charge $10 for their wickets but offer a $5 mail-in rebate. Less price-sensitive buyers will consider it too much trouble to mail in the rebate form, while price-sensitive ones will use it to get the wickets at a price they consider reasonable.
After reading this book, I found myself noticing examples of this sort of differential pricing in my daily life. For example, on Friday, as I passed by the local Baskin-Robbins, I noticed a sign outside offering "pre-packed quarts, 2 for $9.99." It only took a moment of mental math to realize that this worked out to $5 per quart. By contrast, a 1.5-quart container of ice cream at the local supermarket sells for anywhere from $2.49 for the store brand to $4.49 for Edy's—that is, $1.67 to $3 per quart. However, as Brian pointed out, customers at Baskin-Robbins wouldn't be comparing the price of the ice cream quarts to the supermarket price; they'd be comparing it to the price they'd pay buying it by the scoop, which is $2.09 for a 4-ounce scoop. Since 4 ounces is half a cup, that works out to $16.72 per quart. Compared to that, $10 for 2 quarts looks like a real bargain.

This price structure separates the price-sensitive chaff from the non-price-sensitive wheat; the least price-sensitive buyers will just go in and order a cone apiece, because they came here to go out for ice cream and, by gum, they are going out for ice cream, even if it costs 10 bucks to feed the family that way. More price-sensitive buyers may decide instead to pick up a couple of packed quarts; that way, for that same $10, the whole family can have double scoops tonight and tomorrow, too. And the most price-sensitive buyers of all will see the "2 for $9.99" sign, realize that's more than twice what they'd pay at the supermarket, and make a half-mile detour to pick up a container of the store brand ice cream for $2.49.

So the good news, for all us price-sensitive folks, is that there's usually a way to pay less than full price for just about anything. It may involve waiting for a sale, or comparison shopping online, or going half a mile out of your way for ice cream, but it's usually there if you look for it. The bad news is that the lower price almost certainly won't be easy to find—because it if were, everyone would be paying it. But that's actually good news too, because it means that the bargains are being distributed in the fairest possible way. To get the lowest prices, you don't have to be rich (which would be absolutely unfair, since rich people need them least) or have special connections (which would still be somewhat unfair, because most people would still be shut out from the lower price). Instead, the best deals go to those who are most willing to work for them.

In other words, when it comes to bargains, seek and ye shall find—because it's in the seller's interest if you do.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bonus Recipe: The Vegan Fudge Cookie

One of the people in our new RPG group (that's role-playing game, to the uninitiated) is a vegan. Most of the goodies we usually bring to game nights, like muffins and cookies, tend to have eggs in them, so Brian has been experimenting with recipes to make them more vegan-friendly. Last night, on the spur of the moment, he threw together a hodge-podge of available ingredients to make a sort of oatmeal raisin fudge cookie. It sounds weird, but it turned out to be a big hit with the members of the group, vegan and non-vegan alike. So for those who are interested in experimenting with vegan baking, here's the recipe. (By the by, it's also fairly light on the flour, so it could probably be made into a gluten-free cookie with the substitution of any gluten-free flour, such as rice or tapioca, without changing the texture too much.)
1. Combine 1 Tbsp. water and 1 Tbsp. soy flour in a bowl, and mix well. (This is the substitute for the egg.)
2. Add in no particular order:
  • 1/2 c. canola oil
  • 6 Tbsp. water
  • 3/4 c. sugar
  • 1/2 c. cocoa powder
  • 1/2 c. flour (any type)
  • 1/2 c. oats
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1/2 tsp. salt.
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 c. raisins
3. Mix well. Drop largish spoonfuls onto an ungreased baking sheet and bake at 350°F for 12 to 13 minutes.
Note that I am not billing these as "healthy" cookies. The recipe's got gobs of sugar and oil in it, and while it's probably possible to reduce them both (e.g., by substituting in applesauce or pumpkin puree), the cookies almost certainly won't taste as good without them. But it is a cookie that both vegans and nonvegans will happily eat, and that's a rare enough thing in this world.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Skillet Kugel

In our house, one of our favorite staple recipes is potato kugel. The recipe for it in The Clueless Vegetarian calls for no ingredients we don't habitually have in the house (aside from fresh parsley, which is optional) and makes a generous panful. Eked out by applesauce and some frozen peas, it's a complete meal and leaves us with plenty of leftovers.

However, much as we enjoy this kugel, there are several ways in which it could be improved. First, it's a bit time-consuming; it takes a full hour to bake, plus preparation time. The preparation itself is a bit fiddly, too, calling for you to heat the oil in the baking pan for five minutes before stirring it into the potato mixture and then dumping the lot back into the pan. And speaking of oil, there's quite a lot of it in the recipe—about six tablespoons. Granted, that's for twelve servings of kugel, but still, it seemed like it ought to be possible to cut it down at least a little. And finally, the kugel bakes in a huge, flat pan, and the middle portions are never quite as good as the parts around the edges, which cook up extra brown and crispy.

So Brian did a little tinkering with the recipe and came up with a revised version that addresses all these problems. The ingredients are basically the same, but the real key difference is that the kugel is baked, not in a big glass pan, but in a cast-iron skillet, like a frittata. The resulting kugel is only about half the size of the Clueless Vegetarian version, so it doesn't feed us for as many meals, but it cooks up in half the time with only one-third as much oil, and it's crispy and delicious throughout. (It's actually a bit of a cheat to make this the Recipe of the Month for September, since Brian first came up with the idea in late August. However, the first time he made it, he did it with onion, just like the original version; when he cooked it this week, he substituted leeks from the garden, and I think that makes the dish even better. So while we first tried the recipe in late August, it was only perfected in September.)
1. Preheat oven to 375°F. 
2. In a large bowl, mix together:
About 3 medium potatoes, grated (skins and all)
1 medium onion or leek, finely chopped
1/4 c. flour
1 tsp. salt
2 eggs
3. Heat about 2 tablespoons of oil over high heat in a cast-iron skillet or an oven-safe nonstick skillet, 9-10 inches in diameter. 
4. When the oil is hot, add in the potato mixture, flatten it down to fill the whole pan, and cook it on high for one more minute. 
5. Transfer the pan to the oven and bake for about 20 minutes. 
6. Remove the pan from the oven and flip the kugel. The easiest way to do this without risk of breakage is to slide it from the pan onto a large plate, then cover it with a second plate, invert it, and slide it back into the pan. 
7. Bake another 10 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool slightly before serving.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Do not disparage

I just read an article in Money Talks News about a new California law that makes it illegal for companies to enforce "non-disparagement clauses" against consumers. I wasn't even aware that there was such a thing, but according to the article, there are some companies that actually prohibit their customers from posting negative reviews online. If they do, they can be hit with hefty fines. An article about the same law in The Consumerist offers the examples of KlearGear.com, which "tried to slap customers with $3,500 penalties if they complain about a purchase in a public forum," and Accessory Outlet, which "charges customers $250 for even threatening to complain online or to issue a credit card chargeback."

You may wonder why any consumer would ever do business with a company that had a clause like this in its contract. Surely its mere presence should be a giant red flag, since companies that actually provide fair treatment and decent service don't need to suppress negative reviews. In particular, a clause that prohibits you from refusing the charges on your credit card seems to say, in essence, "When you enter into an agreement with us, you agree to pay us whether we meet our end of the bargain or not." Why would anyone ever agree to this?

The answer, according to the Consumerist article, is that most consumers didn't agree to it, or didn't know they were doing so. The non-disparagement clause at KlearGear.com was "buried two pages deep on the site’s Terms of Sale, where no reasonable person would be expected to find it." The one at Accessory Outlet was in a Terms of Sale agreement that "customers are not required to agree to before making a purchase." You have to wonder how the company can argue that its customers are bound by an agreement they never actually signed, but apparently they're counting on the fact that most individuals can't afford to take a big company to court even if the law is very clearly on their side.

California's new law makes clauses of this sort unenforceable in that state. Companies that try to enforce one will face civil penalties of $2,500 for the first offense and $5,000 for each subsequent one, plus an extra $10,000 fine for "a willful, intentional, or reckless violation" of the new law. Unfortunately, that doesn't help those of us who live in other states, such as New York, where, according to CNN, the Union Street Guest House threatened to "fine wedding parties $500 for any negative online reviews posted by any members of their parties." (The hotel later claimed this policy was put on their site as a joke and "was never meant to be enforced," but one Yelp reviewer says the hotel management sent an e-mail informing him that "your recent on-line review of our Inn will cost the wedding party that left us a deposit $500. This money will be charged via the deposit they have left us unless/until it is removed.")

So, for those of us who don't live in California, it looks like the best defense against these ridiculous clauses—at least until they're outlawed nationwide or slapped down by the courts—is to refuse to do business with any company that has one. And since you apparently can't count on the companies to tell you about these clauses themselves, that means seeking out the Terms of Sale for any site where you do business and actually reading them in full—or failing that, at least scanning for the words "non-disparagement clause" and treating it as a great big flashing warning sign. After all, as this article from the popular review site Angie's List points out, "If somebody doesn’t want you to say something negative about them, there’s probably something negative to say."

The article also notes that, while those who have actually done business with the company may be prohibited from posting bad reviews, there's nothing to stop people who haven't done business with the company from going online and saying that they refused to do so because the company has a non-disparagement clause. That would also warn other users of the review site that the uniformly positive reviews they see for the company don't mean it has no dissatisfied customers; it just means they don't dare complain for fear of being fined hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Personally, I think that would be even more damaging to the company than a negative review of its products or services. I'm not going to refuse to do business with a company just because of one or two bad reviews out of a mostly positive lot, because I know that there will always be a few cranks out there who just can't be satisfied. But if I see just a single review saying, "This company will fine you hundreds of dollars for complaining about it," my gut reaction is going to be, "Whoa, stay away from these guys."

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Presenting the portable pocket

One of my biggest pet peeves about women's clothing is that it so often lacks pockets. I understand the reasoning behind it: women are more likely to worry about looking fat, so they often prefer the slimmer profile of pants or skirts without pockets. But even full, voluminous skirts, like the one I bought for my local shopping challenge last spring, are often pocketless. I guess in these cases, the designers figure there's no need to go to the extra expense of adding pockets when most women carry purses anyway. But although I never go out without my purse, it really isn't a handy way to carry anything I need easy access to, such as a handkerchief. Although my current handbag is actually rather small by my usual standards, it still holds nearly as wide an assortment of stuff as Mary Poppins' carpet bag, and I'd never manage to hold off a sneeze long enough to find my handkerchief in amongst that lot.

I've seen various tutorials online on how to add pockets to a garment that lacks them, but with my rather rudimentary sewing skills, I've hesitated to try it for fear of ruining a perfectly good skirt. Besides, even if it worked, I'd still have to do it over again several times to modify every pocketless garment I own. What I really want is some sort of portable pocket that I can move from one garment to another, tucking it discreetly under the waistband. But how to hold it in place? Safety pins? Velcro? Hooks on the edge of the pocket that could attach to eyes sewed into the waistband of the skirt?

This morning, I found this idea niggling at me again, and I decided to go rummage through my bin of scrap fabric and see if any ideas struck me. What I originally had in mind was removing the pocket from an old pair of pants and seeing if I could rig up some sort of suspender for it, but when I came across an old pair of underpants that still had a serviceable waistband, I thought, "Hmm..." and I brought them upstairs to experiment.

First, I traced the rough outline of a U-shaped pocket onto the fabric just below the waistband. I made this one just big enough to hold a hanky, but you could do just about any size as long as you had enough intact fabric.

Next, I cut around the waistband and the outline of the pocket, giving me a circle of fabric with two attached flaps. I was in such a hurry to see how it turned out that I cut through both layers of fabric at once, and the resulting shapes came out a bit scraggly and uneven. If I attempt this again, I'll do it properly, tracing the outline on both sides of the fabric and cutting them separately.

I then sewed all the way around the edges of the flaps, making a little pouch attached to the waistband. At this point, the pocket was usable but not wearable, because the waistband was effectively sewed shut. But that was easy enough to fix...

...by simply cutting across the top of one flap and then hemming it...

...to produce a complete (if somewhat lopsided) pocket attached to a waist belt. Ladies and gentlemen (but especially ladies), I give you...the Underpocket!

This can be worn over top of my regular undies, underneath my skirt. It's not quite as accessible as a side seam pocket, but I can still slip my hand into it through the waistband of the skirt.

I wore this around all day and I found that it's not an ideal solution. Its waistband allows you to position the pocket anywhere you like, from right in front to over one hip, but that's not necessarily an advantage, since it makes it a bit tricky to find the pocket without looking. Also, even if I manage to locate the pocket with my hand, it's not that easy to fish anything out of it (though it's certainly easier than fishing in my pocketbook, which would probably require a rod and reel). So the design probably needs some modifications to make it more useful.

Still, it's far better than nothing, and as far as I can tell from Google, it's the only garment of its kind currently in existence. So unless someone else comes up with a better design, I'm going to keep fiddling around with mine, in the hope of one day bringing pockets to the pocketless masses.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Local Shopping Challenge, Day 7: Library loot

To wrap up my 7-day local shopping challenge, I turned to my favorite source of free entertainment: the local library. I'd had my eye for a little while on a book called The Economic Naturalist, which I came across in the library's online catalogue, that promises to explain such "everyday enigmas" as "Why do 24-hour convenience stores have locks on their doors?" and "Why are brown eggs more expensive than white ones, even though the two types taste the same and have identical nutritional value?" I'm a sucker for this sort of "how come" genre, and I've already devoured Freakonomics and several volumes from the Straight Dope and Imponderables series. Because this particular example focuses on economic questions, it may also turn out to provide some useful fodder for future blog entries. But even if all it provides is entertainment, it's still a great value at zero dollars.

All in all, I think this local "shopping" challenge has been a successful one. I've managed to bring home free or near-free stuff in several different categories, from food to reading material to household goods, and I've spent only 75 cents on the whole weeklong project, making it much more cost-effective than my first local shopping challenge. However, like the first one, it was more entertaining than useful. True, all the items I found had some value to me, and none of them cost more than a dollar, but most of them weren't things I actually needed. With the possible exception of the walnuts we found on Sunday, these weren't items I would actually have picked up if I'd had to pay more than a dollar for them.

So next time I set myself a local shopping challenge, I think I'll go about it differently. Instead of just setting a challenge and giving myself a certain amount of time to meet it, I'll wait until there's a specific item that I actually need, and then I'll try to find some way to acquire it locally for as little money as possible. Success will be gauged not just based on whether I found the item or not, but also on whether I was able to buy it without paying significantly more than I would have spent at a big-box store. After all, what really keeps most people from shopping locally is the limited selection and higher prices, so if I can figure out ways to get around both of these problems, that's probably what my ecofrugal readers would most like to know.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Local Shopping Challenge, Day 6: Campus news

Today, I must confess, I sort of punted on the Local Shopping Challenge. The item I picked up was one that's available every weekday, and one that I've actually been picking up every day without counting it toward the challenge: a copy of The Daily Targum, the Rutgers campus newspaper. Copies of each day's Targum are available in a box outside the Stop & Shop, and I've made a habit of stopping by there during my daily walk to pick up a copy.

I usually don't read more than a couple of the stories, which tend heavily toward sports coverage (as you would expect from a Big Ten school), but the "Diversions" section offers an assortment of comic strips and puzzles that are always good for a few minutes' entertainment. The comics include reruns of "Doonesbury," current editions of "Dilbert" and "Pearls Before Swine," and a few others that are at least occasionally funny. The crossword is a pretty easy one (ten minutes max), but it usually has a cute theme that makes it more entertaining. I do the Jumble and word find puzzles as well, and sometimes the sudoku if it's an easy one (too much bookkeeping and it ceases to be fun for me).

To get the most out of my freebie, I'll even read the horoscope and try to figure out if there's any conceivable way that it could apply to my life. While I don't put any faith in astrology, I find that the advice in these columns is usually so general that, if you try and fit it to your personal situation, you can usually find some nugget of useful guidance there. For example, today's column for Capricorn advises me to "Correspond and discuss project details"—something I've been putting off doing with a friend of mine who's asked for help in fixing up his house, and it's probably time I got on it. Of course, I could have found the same basic idea if I'd been a Scorpio ("Chart the road map to a future you envision, and plot the financial requirements") or Aries ("Discuss collaborations and let others lead"). But even if the stars aren't actually telling me I need to take action on this, I already know it in my heart, and seeing it in black and white helps nudge me toward actually doing it.

So that little morsel of midday entertainment, coupled with some vague but still helpful advice, is my freebie for today. Seventy-five cents spent so far on this challenge, and only one day left to go.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Local Shopping Challenge, Days 4-5: The Big Sale

You might think it was a bit of a cheat for me to schedule my weeklong local shopping challenge to coincide with the weekend of Highland Park's town-wide yard sales. Surely on a weekend when nearly there are literally hundreds of yard sales in town, it should be ridiculously easy to find something useful for under a dollar. And yet, as we made our way through the sales on Saturday morning, it looked like we might have less luck looking for free and cheap goodies at these sales than I did just wandering around town on Days 1 through 3. Even with a map to guide us toward the most sale-rich parts of town, we were finding almost nothing that we could use, and the few items we did pick up all cost more than a dollar. Plus, the sky had been grey and ominous all morning, and we knew that once the rain started, the rest of the yard-sellers would almost surely pack up their wares and head inside. I was beginning to fear that the only freebie I'd have to report for Saturday would be a handful of colorful leaves for my little fall basket, which adorns the railings of my side porch every year from Labor Day through spring.

Fortunately, the rain held off until after lunch, so we had time to hit some additional sales on the south side of town, ending up with the big rummage sale at the Reformed Church. There are always lots of household items there, such as the kneeling chair we picked up two years ago, and this time we managed to find several that were useful and priced under a dollar. The best find of the lot was a short-handled metal spatula, one of the few items that we were specifically looking for after our old spatula parted ways with its handle last week. And as you can see from the picture, it was only 25 cents. And just in time, too, as the rain had already started coming down by the time we entered the church; as we made our way back to the car, the few sales still out on the streets were all being packed in.

Sunday's weather was better than Saturday's, but the pickings were still slim. Or rather, slim for us; we actually passed quite a few sales with lots of good stuff, like furniture and appliances, but nothing that we could use. However, shortly before lunch, following a tip from a seller we met, we found ourselves down at one of the local synagogues, which was having its own version of a rummage sale—heavy on the rummaging part. It was a lot bigger and a lot more chaotic than the one at the Reformed Church, with a huge variety of goods of every kind—clothing, kitchen equipment, games, books, toys, and even foodstuffs. Everything had been sort of loosely grouped together into categories, but otherwise it was just laid out willy-nilly, some crammed into boxes, some spread on the ground, and absolutely nothing labeled with a price. Out of the jumble, we managed to lay hands on one thing that looked decidedly useful, an unopened can of walnuts that was still a month away from its "best by" date. We had a bit of trouble locating someone in charge among the throng of shoppers milling around and chatting in half a dozen languages, but eventually, by just sort of holding it up and calling out, "How much?" we managed to get a clear answer of "Fifty cents" from a youngish woman passing by. Since a good price for walnuts normally is five bucks a pound, we handed over our two quarters without hesitation and considered this single find a good enough bargain to justify the trip.

So those are our two bargains for Saturday and Sunday. That's not all we bought at the sales, of course, and perhaps I'll share the rest of our haul in a future post, but these are probably the two under-a-dollar bargains of the lot. Five days down, two to go, and only 75 cents spent.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Local Shopping Challenge, Day 3: A feast for the senses

I knew going into this weeklong challenge that Friday would be the easiest day to meet it. For starters, Friday is the only day when our local thrift shop is open all day. (It's also open on Saturday mornings and for a few hours on Thursday, but even if you manage to get there during its alleged business hours, you may find the doors shut.) This store, as I've noted before, has a very limited selection that seldom changes, so most of the times I go in I leave empty-handed, but on those rare occasions when I find something I like, I can walk out with it for a dollar or less. Moreover, the store has recently expanded its selection to include several shelves of books, which are priced even cheaper than the clothes: just 25 cents for hardcovers and 10 cents for paperbacks. Plus, if you buy three of either, you can get a fourth free.

Friday is also the best day for finding free samples. While you can sometimes find samples at the Stop & Shop on other days of the week, Friday is the day when you're likeliest to see them. It's also the day when the local farmers' market is open during the summer months, and a couple of the vendors there either routinely or occasionally offer samples of their wares. And on top of that, there's often live music, which is a freebie of a different kind.

So I decided that when I headed out for my walk today, I would try to catch as many of these different freebies as I could. First I tried the supermarket, and I found that, sure enough, there was a big tray of bakery items cut into nice bite-sized slivers. There were fragments of both corn muffins and chocolate chip muffins, as well as one little chunk of doughnut, but the tray that was most picked over was the apple crumb cake. It certainly looked the most appetizing to me, and when I tried a piece, it did not disappoint: moist and flavorful and small enough that I didn't feel too guilty about indulging.

After that, I popped over to the Reformed Church to visit the thrift shop. It was open, but as usual, I didn't find anything new and exciting on the racks. I could have tried the bookshelves as well, but I decided that since I already had several unread books waiting in the queue at home, I shouldn't add to the pile.

Outside the church, in the community parking lot, the farmers' market was in full swing—and I mean swing in more than one sense of the word, as a local jazz trio had set up shop between the stands. When I emerged, they were playing an instrumental version of Pink Floyd's "Us and Them," which sounded really odd to me without the words. After that, they moved on to more traditional fare, like "Paper Moon." I also scouted the stands for free samples, but the only stall that had any was the pickle vendor, and he was already swamped. So I just bought some apples and a dozen free-range eggs and came home.

So I didn't find as many under-a-dollar items as I'd hoped, but I still think I did pretty well. Without spending a penny, I got to indulge all five of my senses: sight and sound with the free music and carnival atmosphere of the farmers' market, and touch, smell, and taste with the moist, cinnamon-y sweetness of the crumb cake. Three days down, and so far this "shopping" challenge hasn't cost me a cent. Though that may change tomorrow when we hit the town-wide yard sales.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Local Shopping Challenge, Day 2: A treasure map

For the second day of my dollar-and-under local shopping challenge, I scored a freebie that comes but once a year: the program for our Highland Park's annual town-wide yard sale, which will take place this weekend. This annual event is sponsored by a local real estate office, which signs people up for the sale and, the week before, puts out a list of all the addresses where residents will be taking part. On the opposite page is a map of the town, for those who need help finding the addresses. It's an incredibly useful tool for getting the most out of yard sale weekend; instead of just roaming the streets randomly looking for sales, you can plot out a course that will take you through the most sale-heavy areas. This, according to Livingston's First Law of Yard Sales, will maximize your chances of finding the good stuff.

As I noted in my post about last year's sale, I like to cross-reference the list and the map by filling in all the sites of sales with x's on the map, coded by color to indicate whether they're Saturday only, Sunday only, or both days. This year, however, as I made my way back and forth from list to map with my colored pens, it occurred to me that there ought to be an easier way to do this by just inputting the addresses into Google maps and having it mark all the locations. And sure enough, I found a tutorial on how to do just that on this About.com site. I found the site kept hanging for me due to some kind of wonky script on the page, so in case you have trouble with it too, here's a quick summary of what to do:
  1. Sign in to Google maps and enter your home address.
  2. Click on the marker and select, "Save to map." Then tell it to create a new map and give it a simple title like "Yard sale map."
  3. Then start entering the addresses of known sales and selecting "save to map" for each one. You can change the marker from a basic teardrop to some other shape and color if you like. I selected pushpins, color coded according to my usual scheme: green for Saturday, red for Sunday, or blue for both days.
It took a bit of time to enter all the sale addresses, but it was still a lot simpler than doing it by hand. (There's also an app called Yard Sale Treasure Map that's supposed to make finding and adding sales even easier, but I couldn't get it to work on my Mac.) In case any local readers were thinking of going to these sales, you can view a copy of my yard sale map here.

This may well be the most useful freebie I pick up in this whole week-long challenge: a genuine treasure map. OK, the treasures (mostly) won't be free for the taking, and we may have to search a whole bunch of sales to find them, but at least we don't have to sail all the way across the ocean to get to them and then dig them up by hand. (Too bad the sales aren't next weekend; then they'd overlap with Talk Like a Pirate Day, and my treasure map would be even more appropriate. And we could refer to it as Yarrrrrrd Sale Weekend.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Local Shopping Challenge: Highland Park on $1 a Day

When I successfully completed my first local shopping challenge last spring, I was so pleased with the outcome that I planned to come up with several more of them, possibly even making it a regular feature on the blog. Over time, however, I became a little less satisfied with the whole idea. For one thing, I found that the outfit I'd put together for the local shopping challenge, while acceptable, wasn't really ideal. The skirt and sweater were fine, but the camisole top I bought from the Rite Aid wasn't a very good fit, and I eventually ended up giving it away. So while the local shopping challenge helped me find two nice pieces for my wardrobe that I might not have bought otherwise, it also led me to throw away seven bucks on a top I didn't really need or like, just because I "needed" it for the challenge. (As it turned out, I found a tank top not long afterwards at a yard sale that fit much better and also looked better with the skirt, so if I hadn't been in a hurry to finish the challenge by April 30, I could have just waited and completed the look for under $10 instead of $17.)

So I made up my mind that if I did another local shopping challenge, it would have to be set up in a way that was more consistent with my ecofrugal mission. Instead of forcing me to buy something whether I needed it or not, it should help me find something I needed—or at least wanted—for as little money as possible. After all, it's not as if there's any shortage of bargains here in Highland Park; between the library, the wide assortment of community events, and the free samples often to be found at local stores, it's often possible to go out into town and treat yourself to a little something without spending a penny. Throw in the stuff at the thrift shop, grocery store, and dollar store, and there's an even wider variety of goodies to be found for $1 or less.

So that, I decided, would be my next challenge. For seven days in a row, I would venture out into town and bring back something costing no more than $1. (The nice thing about this rule is that there's no way the entire challenge can cost me more than $7.)

To keep it from being too easy, I set myself a few additional rules:
  1. Since the object is to avoid waste, the item I find must always be something I can actually use. It can be practical (e.g., a new shirt from the thrift shop) or purely decorative (e.g., a flower for the kitchen table), but it has to have real value to me. Bringing home a free copy of a booklet advertising used cars for sale and then throwing it straight in the recycling bin doesn't count.
  2. However, the item doesn't have to be tangible. If I go out in the evening to a free event at the library or the outdoor film series, that can count as my freebie for the day.
  3. Every day, I have to find something different. Bringing home seven different books from the library doesn't count. If I bring home a library book as my challenge item on Thursday, I'm still allowed to pick up another one on Friday, but I can't count it as part of the challenge.
  4. Each day, I have to write a new blog entry about my find, including a photo if possible, stating what the item cost, where I found it, and how it's useful for me.
Today's find was the new Healthy Ideas magazine from Stop & Shop (free). The supermarket puts out a new issue every season, filled with recipes, coupons, and tips for using different foods. I always pick up the latest version when it appears at our local Stop & Shop, and I almost find at least one recipe or idea in it that looks interesting. Paging through the fall issue, I found several items of interest:
  • An ad for Stop & Shop's "limited time" line of pumpkin-based goodies, including fresh pumpkin ravioli. Normally we don't buy a lot of prepared foods, but pumpkin ravioli might be worth making an exception for. (We've tried making our own ravioli in the past, and it's more trouble than it's worth.) Pumpkin bisque and pumpkin muffins, on the other hand, I'm pretty sure we can make at home if we have a hankering for them.
  • A recipe for curried acorn squash soup that looks intriguing. It's made with peanut butter, which means it might have that same odd fascination for Brian as his favorite Garlic, Chick-pea and Spinach Soup out of Vegetarian: The Best Ever Recipe Collection, which contains tahini (sesame paste). It can also be made with butternut squash (which is easier to work with), but since we our whole harvest this year was only six squash, I'm not sure it's worth wasting one on an untried recipe.
  • A recipe for a Greek butternut squash tart (actually more of a pizza). I don't care for feta cheese, but if we substituted in some mozzarella, I think it would be quite tasty.
  • A technique for making pizza crust out of mashed cauliflower, mixed with egg, spices and Parmesan cheese. This will be worth sharing with (or trying on) our friends who have problems with gluten.
So that's actually four useful items, for the price of...none. Zero dollars spent so far, and six days left to go.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Is green the new "in the black"?

NOTE: The search function on the blog seems to be acting up again. If you're trying to find a specific entry, I'd recommend either using the labels in the word cloud at right or looking for the title in the list of archived articles. Sooner or later Google will get it sorted out, but there's little I can do to make them fix it any faster.

Every so often, as a reward for taking online surveys, I'll be offered a free or nearly-free magazine subscription. I'm probably confusing the heck out of our mail carrier, because my monthly mail currently includes Mother Earth News (which I actually paid for), the highly intellectual monthly The Atlantic, the almost entirely vapid Redbook, and Kiplinger's Personal Finance. This last one was a sort of impulse purchase; I feel like I'm already pretty good at saving money, but I wondered whether a finance magazine could help me get better at getting my savings to work for me. I have already branched out a bit beyond "stick it in the bank and forget about it," which isn't really a viable strategy when the best annual rate you can possibly get on a savings account is less than 1 percent, but I know I still have a lot to learn.

So far, my reaction to the magazine has been mixed. I find some of the longer articles, like this month's cover story on "How Much You Really Need to Retire," quite interesting and at least somewhat useful. However, most of the articles in the "Investing" section are way too specific to be helpful to me. They tend to focus on which individual stocks are the best choices, while overlooking the rather glaring fact that most investors shouldn't be trying to pick individual stocks at all. (Indeed, as this Forbes article points out, even most professional money managers can't do it well enough to beat the performance of the market as a whole.) So usually, I just skim the articles in this section.

This month, however, I happened across a piece of advice that made me stop and take notice. It was in an article called "7 Stocks for the Next 15 Years," which is all about specific stocks that are good picks for investors who like to "buy and hold" (i.e., buy a stock and then just sit there and collect dividends, rather than wait for it to go up so they can sell it again). What struck me about it was that two of the seven picks were companies with a green focus. Whole Foods Market, according to author James K. Glassman, is poised for growth as "organic, fresh and local food goes mainstream," while Chipotle Mexican Grill, which uses locally sourced veggies and organic pork and chicken, is "growing like crazy" and still has plenty of room to expand further.

Given that so few large companies have a strong focus on sustainability, why is it that such a large percentage of Glassman's favorites for long-term growth fall into this category? He offers a hint in saying, as an intro to his recommendation for Whole Foods, "I love companies that forge an emotional connection with their customers." A company like Chipotle doesn't just sell burritos; it sells ideals. People who eat there aren't just buying lunch; they're buying an image of themselves that they can feel good about. (The company is obviously well aware of this, as its marketing focuses on the ways in which it's different from other big food distributors like its former parent company, McDonald's.)

Seeing these stocks on the best-picks list is encouraging in two ways. It's good to know that this financial expert thinks these two particular green companies are likely to grow and thrive, but better yet is the possibility that seeing the edge they gain from their "emotional connection with their customers" will encourage other big companies to adopt more sustainable practices too. Even if their efforts are no more than greenwashing, just a hint of green spread across a really big base like Wal-Mart's can make a big difference overall. Maybe in the future, companies will fight to earn a place in the "Green 500" Index, and my list of Stuff Green People Like will be a key to the hottest sectors of the market.