Friday, October 31, 2014

DIY Steampunk Attire, Part 2: For the Gents

When I first thought about putting together a steampunk costume for Brian, my first idea was to do the same thing I'd done with my own costume and look in the closet for some basic pieces to build on. It seemed like it should be even easier to find appropriate pieces for a men's outfit because, as this article at Steaming Apparel points out, "While women's fashion changes remarkably through the years, men's fashion has been comparatively consistent for the last couple centuries." All I really needed to start with was a shirt and a pair of trousers: surely he must have something that would work.

Unfortunately, I found that while the men's clothing of today may have the same basic shape as Victorian-era garb, it tends to fall down on the details. For instance, Brian had several pairs of dress pants (which he hardly ever wears), but most of them have pleated fronts—a distinctly modern detail that completely throws off the look of a steampunk outfit. He had one pair of flat-front pants in his closet, in a fabric that looked fairly appropriate for the period—but since he's recently lost a good deal of weight, the pants were now too big for him to wear without a belt, and belts have only been used for holding up pants since around 1915. (Victorian gents wore suspenders, or "braces" as the Brits called them, to keep their trousers in line.)

Shirts were also a problem. Brian had several simple dress shirts with buttons up the front (which, again, he hardly ever wears), but most of them had button-down collars, yet another modern innovation that looks thoroughly out of place in a Victorian outfit. A couple of the shirts had a "standard pointed collar," which Steaming Apparel describes as "certainly acceptable for steampunk," but they also had pockets on the front, which looked decidedly modern. Of course, if I managed to find him a waistcoat (or vest, in modern parlance), which is a key element of the Victorian look, then it might conceal the shirt pocket—but I couldn't be sure that would work.

So, having had no luck in Brian's closet, we moved on to step 2, which was to check thrift stores. We struck out at our local thrift shop: they had absolutely no flat-front pants in Brian's current size, and no shirts without pockets. Fortunately, we happened to be in Princeton a couple of weeks ago, so we took the opportunity to stop by the Nearly New Shop on Nassau Street. There, we hit the jackpot: a pair of flat-front trousers in a subtle brown fabric (a popular color for steampunk garb) and an absolutely comme il faut dress shirt. One marvelous detail about the shirt was that it had the sort of sleeves that require cuff links, giving us a splendid opportunity to garnish Brian's outfit with a bit of steampunky hardware. The pants weren't quite perfect—they had belt loops, which, as I noted, aren't quite suitable for the period—but we decided to leave them on so that Brian could wear these for dressy occasions in real life, as well. The fact that both pieces could become regular (if seldom-used) parts of Brian's wardrobe helped to justify the $18 price tag for both.

As soon as we got these pieces home, Brian started fiddling with possible ideas for cuff links. After just a bit of rummaging in the basement, he managed to mock up something that looked remarkably appropriate: a simple arrangement of a bolt, a nut, and a couple of washers. It looked pretty good with just the components we had on hand, but Brian thought it would work even better if we could find similar hardware in brass, since a brash finish is another hallmark of the steampunk look. So we popped into Lowe's and picked up four 1/4-inch machine bolts, four matching nuts, and a packet of flat washers, all in brass. At my suggestion, we also grabbed a packet of lock washers, which look very much like gears, since nothing says steampunk like a bit of clockwork. The lock washers only came in stainless steel, but that actually turned out to be a good thing, since the two metal finishes contrasted nicely with each other and made the little cogs stand out. And, since all the hardware could be reused, this additional $5 purchase didn't seem too extravagant.

I'd hoped that one of our thrift shop visits might turn up a vest to finish off the outfit, since the waistcoat was an indispensable part of a Victorian gentleman's costume, but that turned out to be too much to ask for. There actually was one shop in Highland Park that had some, but they were all priced at $60 or more—way too much to spend on a piece that he'd never wear except as part of a costume. Brian suggested just adding a pair of suspenders to tie everything together and give the outfit a more distinctly Victorian look, but these, too, were nowhere to be found in the thrift shops. I searched for instructions online on how to make some, but the only ones I could find either were insanely complicated or called for the use of elastic webbing, which definitely wouldn't look period-appropriate. So I decided to borrow a vest from a friend of ours, who'd worn it years ago as an usher in a friend's wedding. It was a bit too short for my lanky husband, so it didn't quite cover up the belt loops on the trousers, but it definitely made the whole outfit look more complete.

With the basic pieces of the outfit assembled, it was time to turn our attention to accessories, which are what really make the difference between plain Victorian and steampunk. Brian had a pair of suitable shoes, his old black wingtips (which are now old enough to drink legally, and still on their original pair of shoelaces). He also had a very fine hat, a nice wool driving cap that my mom gave him one year as a Hanukkah present. That took care of headwear and footwear; what was missing was hardware, the linchpin of the steampunk look. However, to come up with suitable accessories, we had to have some sort of idea of who Brian's steampunk persona actually was. Brian didn't have any sort of clear character concept in mind, but he said he definitely didn't want to be the sort of character who would carry a gun, which ruled out one of the most popular steampunk accessories right off the bat. Likewise, goggles, a common hallmark of steampunk style, didn't really seem to fit with the rest of the costume.

To me, it seemed like the look we were piecing together style could best be described as "gentleman scientist"—which, after all, is more or less what Brian is in real life. That gave me the idea of using this brooch that I inherited from my grandmother, which looks to my eye a lot like a Starfleet insignia. Brian liked the idea, but he thought that if his outfit was going to be a Victorian Starfleet uniform, he really ought to have some sort of steam-era tricorder or communicator to go with it. I thought perhaps we could mock one up from a cardboard box, but he thought that looked too chintzy. By this time, he was starting to get kind of into this costume idea and to care about how it looked, and his ideal was quality rather than quantity. His outfit might have only a few pieces, but he wanted all those pieces to look as solid and authentic as possible. So I started nosing around the workshop, looking for something that it might be possible to make over as a piece of steampunk Starfleet gear, and I found an old multi-meter (now used only for testing voltages, since its battery was long dead and too obscure a size to replace). With its little dial display, it looked just retro enough to form the basis of a steampunk piece.

Brian, now entirely swept up in the possibilities of this project, threw himself into the task of redoing this gadget in steampunk style. He built a little wooden case to fit snugly around it and finished it in a dark stain. He adorned the case with a few brass thumb tacks, which resemble buttons and add another touch of that always-appropriate brass finish. At the top, he epoxied on two knobs from his old desk, which we'd fortunately thought to save when we redid the office back in March, to give the look of antennas for radio signals. And on the back, he glued on a couple of gears that he scavenged from a pair of toy stirrups that came as part of a cowboy toy set from the dollar store. (I bought this to get the gun, which I wanted for a different costume.) He gave them a quick spray first with the oil-rubbed bronze paint we bought to make over our kitchen cabinet hardware, and while they wouldn't stand up to a particularly close examination, they don't look too obviously plastic.

So here's Brian sporting the complete ensemble (face hidden to protect his anonymity, at least a little). It may not scream "steampunk" the way some of these outfits do, but it's definitely different enough from his usual jeans-and-sweatshirt look to qualify as a costume. And, should we ever have the opportunity to attend a real Steampunk event like the Steampunk World's Fair, held every May right in our neck of the woods, he won't have to show up in blue jeans, which would just be frightfully embarrassing.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

DIY Steampunk Attire, Part 1: For the Ladies

Tomorrow, for the first time in his career, Brian will be going to work in costume.

When he first learned that his workplace would be having a Halloween party, and that workers were asked to come in fancy dress, he wasn't very enthusiastic. He thought maybe he could simply wear his Renaissance costume, the one I helped him put together last year for the Maryland Renaissance Festival. However, I persuaded him to consider something a little more elaborate, and possibly more interesting: a steampunk outfit.

For those who aren't familiar with the term, steampunk is a science fiction genre based on the idea of advanced technology in the Victorian era. Steampunk settings feature machines that can do everything our modern gadgets can, and many things they can't, but they all run on steam (hence the name). Thus, steampunk style starts with the basic Victorian look, but then it adds on all sorts of little gadgets and gewgaws that play up the idea of retro technology. Guns and goggles are two very popular accessories in steampunk, along with pocket watches and anything with visible clockwork. (Some people try to give outfits a steampunk vibe by sticking little cogs all over everything more or less at random, but true steampunk aficionados frown on that sort of thing. As one steampunk fan commented on a site I visited: "The parts don't have to move, but at least think about what they'd do if they did move.")

In proposing a steampunk look for Brian's Halloween party, I had a bit of an ulterior motive. I'd already created a steampunk outfit for myself a couple of years ago, and I was hoping to talk him into assembling a matching look so we could wear them together to steampunk events. Brian was more or less indifferent to the idea, but he he said he'd be willing to try it if I could do the work of putting it all together. I felt fairly confident about accepting this challenge, because I'd managed to put together my own steampunk garb using only items culled from my closet, with a couple of add-ons from the dollar store. So before we get into the details of how we crafted Brian's outfit, I'll take the rest of this post to show you how mine came together.

Because of my penchant for quirky, vaguely period clothing, I already had several pieces in my closet that were more or less Victorian in style. Some of these are items that most women could probably either pull out of their own closets or find easily in a thrift store, like this plain, dark, long skirt. (Of course, it's not truly authentic, as it has pockets and an elastic waist, but none of that shows once I've got the rest of the outfit on.) Others are more unusual, like this white petticoat with a ruffle at the bottom, which I bought years ago from Deva Lifewear (now Deva by Cammy). This piece isn't really essential to a steampunk outfit—I could just wear the skirt by itself—but hitching up the skirt a bit to reveal the petticoat contributes to the steampunk vibe by saying that (a) this is a period look, and (b) we're breaking all the rules of the period, when undergarments were definitely not supposed to be seen. (Or heard, for that matter.)

For my upper half, I had this little sort of lace corset top (not really sure what you'd call it) that I picked up at some trendy little shop in New Brunswick where I wouldn't normally go. The great thing about is that instead of modern-style buttons or a zipper, it fastens with lots of tiny little hooks and eyes for a real period look. Of course, in the true Victorian era, this, like the petticoat, would be considered underwear; in the modern era, it would probably be seen as clubwear. But as part of a steampunk look, it can serve perfectly well as a shirt, because as the folks at Steaming Apparel say, the first rule of steampunk is that there are no rules.

There are, however, guidelines, one of which is to follow the basic outlines of the Victorian and/or Edwardian period. That makes this Ann Taylor jacket the ideal thing to wear over the corset, as it's modeled on an Edwardian riding jacket. Just check out all the cool details: the patterned velvet fabric, the rich plummy-brown color, the slightly puffed shoulders, the fabric-covered buttons, the peplum, and best of all, the classic "frog" closures. I had actually been thinking about getting rid of this jacket because I so seldom had an occasion to wear it, but now that it's part of my steampunk ensemble, it will probably stay in my closet forever.


That covers all the basic pieces, top and bottom. However, the real key to the steampunk look is accessories. I like to say that the three cornerstones of steampunk style are headwear, footwear, and hardware. I already had in my closet a hat that had a good basic shape, a sort of beret with a brim (once again, I don't know its proper name) that I bought at a yard sale. However, I thought in its original form, it looked a bit too plain for a Victorian headpiece, because ladies' hats from this era tended to be huge, brimming with feathers and other trimmings (think My Fair Lady.) So I picked up a foofy little headband from the dollar store—the sort of thing that would look ridiculous in most modern settings, complete with black feathers and a rosebud in a sort of bronze satin, and by putting the two together...

...I ended up with a smashing piece of Victorian headgear.


As for the feet, the most popular footwear for a steampunk look is a big pair of boots—preferably tall ones with loads of hardware. I've never owned a pair like that, but I used to have a pair of little low-heeled Victorian granny boots that I bought on eBay, which would have completed this look beautifully. Sadly, though, I had to give them away because I could no longer squeeze my feet into them (turns out that your feet tend to get wider and flatter with age, and mine were pretty wide to start with). So instead I had to make do with these little buckled flats from Rockport (another eBay find), which look passably period when worn with dark tights.

Hardware was the toughest part. Neither goggles nor a ray-gun, those two staples of the steampunk style, seemed quite appropriate with my ladylike look (plus I didn't have suitable materials to make them anyway). So I settled for just a few little trinkets. I slung a black belt with a large metal buckle over the skirt, allowing me to tuck up one corner of it to show off my petticoat, and I draped my neck in a gold metallic scarf, which started its life as a headband from the dollar store. I originally finished off the outfit with the earrings on the left, which I thought looked fairly Victorian with their ornate metalwork; however, when my family sorted through my grandmother's jewelry after her death, I laid claim to the earrings on the right, which, with their clock faces and dangling gears, have an even steampunkier aesthetic. So now my steampunk garb has a little bit of Grandma in it, as well.

Naturally, most women trying to do themselves up steampunk style won't own pieces exactly like these. But the basic process I followed can work for you too:
  1. Check your own closet first, and look at everything with a fresh eye. Anything with a vaguely Victorian look may be usable. Don't overlook the possibilities of underwear as outerwear, or vice versa.
  2. If you're missing any basic pieces, try your local thrift shop. This article at Steaming Apparel and this one at WonderHowTo offer lots of hints on what to look for.
  3. Check the dollar store for accessories to dress up your existing pieces or finish off your outfit.
Tune in tomorrow to see how we put together a steampunk gentleman's outfit for Brian (with even cooler accessories than mine).

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

'Tis the pre-season

It's beginning to look a lot like some businesses in this town can't read a bloody calendar.

Today's date, as you may have noticed, is the 29th of October. That's two days before Halloween, and nowhere near Thanksgiving—which, back in the day, used to mark the last hurrah of fall before the frenzy of the "holiday season." The trees are ablaze with glorious fall color; the thermometer is at a balmy 74 degrees. Yet when you walk into my local drugstore, here's what greets you as you step through the door:


Rite Aid hasn't completely dismantled its Halloween display, which has been occupying a big part of the store's shelf space since some time around Labor Day. After all, with two days to go, there's still a chance some last-minute shoppers might stop in looking for candy or a few extra accessories for a costume. But even the pumpkins and witches' hats are having to share space with Santa and his merry band of snowmen:


The phenomenon of "Christmas creep," of course, is nothing new. I complained about it on this blog two years ago, and The Consumerist has an entire page devoted to it. Yet much as it annoys people like me, who want to be allowed to enjoy each season in its proper time without being constantly pushed ahead toward the next one, stores sound the Christmas starting gun earlier and earlier each year for one simple reason: because they have to. As Robert Frank explains in The Economic Naturalist, this is an example of an economic "arms race": retailers count on holiday shopping for a hefty chunk of their income every year, and they can't afford to lose any of those sales to a competitor who was ready before they were. So the minute one store decides to start flashing its stockings the week before Thanksgiving instead of the day after, all the others have to follow suit to avoid losing business. But then some other store is sure to think it might be able to gain an edge over its competitors by putting all the holiday merchandise out still earlier—and so on, and so on, until you end up with Christmas ribbons on display at Costco in July.

Frank emphasizes, however, that it's unlikely Christmas will just keep creeping backward until it encompasses the whole year. At some point, he argues, stores will find that giving up floor space to holiday displays costs them more money than it makes them, because they will be taking away space from other types of merchandise that shoppers would be more likely to buy in, say, March. Thus, if we consumers want to combat Christmas creep, the best thing we can do is refuse to play along. If enough of us simply refuse to buy anything holiday-related until after Thanksgiving, then stores will gradually start to find it's not in their interest to sell it.

In fact, I personally prefer to take it one step further and refuse to patronize any store that's currently displaying what I consider to be unseasonable merchandise. Of course, this is mostly for my own personal satisfaction, because I just can't stand to look at snowmen and reindeer in mid-fall. Still, I like to think that in some tiny way, I'm helping to combat Christmas creep by denying my business to stores that haul Rudolph out before Halloween, and toward ones that have appropriate seasonal displays instead. So in that spirit, I'm offering a shout-out to all the local businesses that are treating fall with the respect it deserves, including:
  • Our local supermarket, Stop & Shop, with its display of winter squash and fall mums. (Supermarkets in general are usually the last to hop on the Christmas bandwagon, because they're the one category of retailer for which Thanksgiving is actually a major holiday—which means, fortunately, that I can continue to shop for food during the month of November without being subjected to sleigh bells and Santa Claus.)

     
  • Our local liquor store, Pino's, with its cheerful arrangement of scarecrows and gourds. (I guess liquor stores are another type of retailer that gets some business out of Thanksgiving—though that hasn't stopped the Rite Aid, which makes a good portion of its money selling cheap booze to college seniors, from hopping on the tinsel truck.)


  • A high-end barbershop called Haven, which was a top competitor in last year's Holiday Tour of Highland Park, but which nonetheless is showing no unseemly haste to replace its seasonal display of fall leaves with something more wintry.


  • And lastly, a decidedly non-high-end business, the local dollar store, which is keeping its little scarecrows and ghosts front and center at least until Halloween is past.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Frugality versus simplicity, part 2

In her latest post at Live Like a Mensch, blogger Emily Guy Birkin talks about her conflicting impulses to "embrace a little more minimalism in my life" and to avoid spending money unnecessarily. On the face of it, the two goals seem to be inextricably linked: the less stuff you own, the less money it costs to buy it, maintain it, and furnish space for it all. But as Birkin points out, the two goals come into conflict when it comes to getting rid of stuff you "might need again someday," such as the numerous "big-ticket items" that her younger child has now outgrown—car seat, stroller, sling—but that might be needed if they ever have a third child. On the one hand, these items aren't being used now and may never be used again, so at the moment, they're just a major waste of space. But on the other hand, giving them all away would turn out to be a major waste of money if they ended up having another kid and needing to replace them all.

This article intrigued me, because the conflict between frugality and simplicity is one that I've confronted often over the years, most explicitly in this post back in 2010. In it, I noted that while frugality has a lot in common with simplicity or minimalism, they're really very different ideals. Minimalism is about having less: less earning, less spending, less work, less stuff. Frugality, by contrast, is about having more—more money in the bank, more time for what matters, more enjoyment—without spending more money. Adopting a minimalist lifestyle is one way to achieve frugality, but it's by no means the only way. Indeed, as Birkin notes, in some cases the two goals can actively conflict with each other, because getting rid of stuff may end up costing you more money in the long run. For instance, if you had a tool you seldom used, such as a circular saw, you might decide to give it away or sell because it was "unnecessary"—but then every time you did have a need for a circular saw, you'd need to rent one. It might still be worth doing, if the extra space was more important to you than the extra money, but it would depend on your personal situation.

Amy Dacyczyn (all hail the Frugal Zealot!) wrote about this very problem in a Tightwad Gazette article called "The Frugal Balance." She said frugality isn't just about saving money; it's about making the most of all the resources available to you, including money, time, space, and personal energy. Thus, a hoarder who stuffs her tiny apartment with egg cartons and rubber bands that "might be useful" at some unspecified time, for some unspecified reason, is not being "too frugal"; the problem is that her frugality is out of balance. In her efforts to save money, she's wasting space. Her lack of space may also end up costing her time and energy (because it takes so long to find anything), and even, ironically, costing her money (because she ends up buying new things when she can't find what she already has).

Keeping your frugality in balance is a matter of being lavish with the resources you have plenty of and stingy with those that are scarce. Thus, if you have a high income but little free time, there's no point in spending hours on end making all your holiday gifts by hand to save money; you'd be better off spending working just a few extra hours working to earn extra cash for presents. Contrariwise, if you have a huge house with tons of space, there's no need to live like a minimalist; storing things you "might need someday" is actually easier than living in a half-empty house and running out to rent items (spending both time and money) when you discover a need for them.

If my goal is to make the most of all the resources available to me, it doesn't really make sense to view getting rid of stuff—even unnecessary stuff—as an end in itself. Instead, it's a means to an end: making room for something else that matters more. If I have a sweater in my closet that I seldom wear, that's only a problem if the closet is overcrowded; if I have a massive amount of zucchini in the garden, that's only a problem if it'll go bad before I'm able (or willing) to eat it all. In other words, having a lot of anything is not, in itself, a problem. "A lot" doesn't become "too much" until it starts taking away space (and time, and energy) from everything else.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Great Applesauce Jar Switch

Brian and I are what you might call semi-regular consumers of applesauce. It's not an item you'll always find in our fridge, like it is in some homes (typically ones with small children), but it's our go-to accompaniment for potato pancakes and similar potato-based dishes. So every couple of months, when we have a potato meal on the agenda, I'll stop by the local supermarket to grab a jar of applesauce, which then lingers in our fridge until (we hope) we remember to polish it off before it turns fuzzy. An extra perk of finishing up a jar of applesauce is—or at least used to be—that it leaves you with a nice glass jar, which can be useful for storing all sorts of things, from apple butter and lemon curd to refrigerator pickles to dry beans in the pantry. It also makes an ideal container for carrying soup to work in a packed lunch; unlike our Pyrex bowls, it has a lid that screws on securely, and unlike plastic containers with snap-on lids, it's safe for reheating in the microwave.

Thus it came about that last week, Brian asked me to pick up a jar of applesauce to accompany his Skillet Kugel. When I checked the market, however, I was chagrined to discover that the store-brand applesauce we usually buy was no longer being sold in glass jars; they were all plastic. Moreover, it looked like Stop & Shop was merely following the lead of the name brand Mott's, because all its applesauce was now in plastic jars too. I was baffled. Why, when consumers are increasingly concerned about the health and environmental impacts of plastic, would all the applesauce producers in the country suddenly adopt it instead of glass?

On the face of the matter, it seemed like plastic packaging must fall into the category of "stupid plastic"—the kind that's wasteful and unnecessary compared to other alternatives. But on the other hand, if all the manufacturers had gone to the trouble of switching to plastic applesauce jars instead of glass ones, there must have been some significant benefit to doing so. Curious about what that might have been, I dropped a line to Mott's via its website:
I have noticed that Mott's has recently switched from glass jars to plastic for its applesauce. Store brands seem to have followed suit. I was just wondering when this switch happened and what was the reason for it. With more consumers now shunning plastic due to health concerns, why switch to it?
I wasn't really expecting a response, but to my surprise, I got a call back from a courteous company representative within a couple of hours. She said that the switch from glass jars to plastic for all Mott's applesauce actually happened back in July 2013. However, stores that already had a stockpile of Mott's in the old glass jars would probably have used it up before starting to put out the newer plastic jars, which would explain why the Stop & Shop was still displaying glass ones until recently. As for the reasons behind the switch, she said there were several:
  1. Safety. Customers had expressed a preference for plastic because it's non-breakable—a particularly important concern for parents.
  2. Easier handling. The plastic jars are both lighter and easier to grip, and many customers find them easier to open.
  3. Transportation. The plastic jars are stackable, which means you can pack them more efficiently into trucks and onto store shelves. That, combined with their lighter weight, means that they require less fuel to transport.
It was that third point that really caught my attention. Up until then, I'd been sort of half-assuming that the glass jars, whatever their other disadvantages, were the greener choice. But as the rep pointed out, since plastic jars are lighter, it takes less fossil fuel to transport them to stores, which makes their carbon footprint lower. Low enough to balance out the environmental costs of producing the plastic and recycling it? Ah, well, that's a tricky question to answer. An article on the carbon footprint of packaging at How Stuff Works says it's "still mostly a mystery," largely because "the numbers to answer these types of questions aren't easily accessible for the average person." Likewise, a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer two years ago, comparing the benefits of plastic, glass, and aluminum drink containers, concluded that "Clearly, there's no one best choice for every person or every situation."

So overall, I can't really say that the new plastic jars for applesauce qualify as an example of "stupid plastic." However, I can definitely say that the switch to plastic makes the jars less useful for us, since they're no longer microwave-safe and also not as easy to clean as the old glass ones. So from now on, when we find ourselves in need of applesauce, the first place I check will be not in the canned-fruit aisle, but on the shelf where the store keeps its marked-down produce. If we can pick up a bag of slightly bruised apples for a mere 60 cents a pound, then in less than half an hour, our little pressure cooker can turn them into an applesauce that beats the commercial stuff hollow for half the price. True, we'll end up with a smaller amount than we'd get by buying a whole jar, but that's a good thing; it means we won't have to worry about using up the leftover sauce before it goes bad. And as far as packaging goes, you can't get much more eco-friendly than an apple peel.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Price Check: Health and Beauty Items (Aldi vs. Rite Aid vs. Stop & Shop)

Last week, I embarked on a little investigation into Aldi's prices for health and beauty products, in response to an article on Daily Finance showing that Aldi charged much more for these types of products than other chains. I checked the store's prices for ten health and beauty products I use on a regular basis and found that, if there was a store brand available, it was likely to be a good deal, but if there wasn't, the only option was usually a midrange brand selling for a midrange price. This made it clear that Aldi isn't nearly as great a deal for health and beauty products as it is for foodstuffs, but it didn't tell me the whole story. Were the prices of the non-Aldi brands really higher than the prices of similar items at other stores, and if so, by how much? The Daily Finance article showed, for instance that Aldi's prices in the health and beauty section were nearly twice as high as those at Stop & Shop; would the prices at my own local Stop & Shop bear out that finding?

To answer this question, I took my little shopping list of health and beauty items to two other stores. First, I checked the prices on all the items at Stop & Shop; then, since I tend to buy these sorts of items at drugstores rather than supermarkets, I checked my local Rite Aid as well. In every case, I looked for the lowest-priced brand available at the store, without considering quality or ingredients.

The results, I have to say, were quite surprising to me. Here are the numbers for all three stores, with the cheapest one in italics:

Multivitamins: Aldi, store brand, $3.79/100
     Stop & Shop, store brand, $8.49/100
     Rite Aid, store brand, $7.49/100 ($6.74 with Wellness Plus)

Toothpaste: Aldi, Crest, $2.89
     Stop & Shop, Crest, $2.19
     Rite Aid, Ultra Brite, $1.00

Deodorant: Aldi, Old Spice, $2.99
     Stop & Shop, Speed Stick, $2.49
     Rite Aid, Suave, $1.99 (on sale, $3 for 2)

Shampoo/conditioner: Aldi, Pantene, $3.69
     Stop & Shop, VO5, 99 cents
     Rite Aid, VO5, $1.27

Ibuprofen: Aldi, store brand, $1.99/100
     Stop & Shop, store brand, $6.99/100
     Rite Aid, store brand, $7.49/100 ($6.74 with Wellness Plus)

Cotton swabs: Aldi, store brand, $1.39/375
     Stop & Shop, store brand, $1.99/100
     Rite Aid, store brand, $2.49/100 ($2.24 with Wellness Plus)

Bar soap: Aldi, store brand, $2.49/3 bars
     Stop & Shop, Dove, $2.49/3 bars
     Rite Aid, Ivory, $1.99/3 bars (on sale, buy one, get one half off)

Body wash: Aldi, Dove, $5.39/24 oz.
     Stop & Shop, Great Value (ultra cheapo generic), $2/24 oz.
     Rite Aid, St. Ives, $4.99/24 oz. (on sale, buy one, get one half off)

The first thing you'll probably notice is that, whenever Aldi had a store brand available, it beat the pants off the best price at the other two stores—even if they were store brands also. That's not the surprising part. What I didn't expect to see was that, for half the items on the list, the best price at Rite Aid was higher than the best price at Stop & Shop. Rite Aid typically had a much larger selection, but even so, its bottom-priced item could only beat the supermarket's half the time. And moreover, in cases where the cheapest item at both stores was a store brand, Stop & Shop beat Rite Aid two rounds out of three. Even ibuprofen, the one thing on the list that's an actual drug, was cheaper at the supermarket than it was at the drugstore.

Moreover, in cases where both Rite Aid and Stop & Shop carried the same brand, it was usually cheaper at the Stop & Shop. Sometimes Rite Aid had an alternate brand that was cheaper, like Ivory soap, but Dove at Rite Aid was pricier than Dove at Stop & Shop. Indeed, compared to Rite Aid's, Aldi's prices for non-store-brand same items didn't actually look all that bad. Crest at Aldi is more expensive than the obscure Ultra Brite brand toothpaste, but it's cheaper than Crest at Rite Aid. 

So what I learned from this experiment is that it's probably a mistake to look to the drugstore first for my health and beauty products. Yes, if there's a specific brand I need, I'm likelier to find it at the drugstore—but if the supermarket has it, it'll probably be cheaper there. (And, of course, if Aldi has a store-brand equivalent, that's probably the cheapest of all.)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Three Sisters Soup

The weekend before last, we went to visit some friends in Falls Church, VA, and took advantage of the opportunity to stop in at the local Penzey's Spices. We became fans of this store while visiting my in-laws in Indianapolis, but there isn't one in our area, so we always make a point of poking our noses in whenever we happen to be in a town that has one. The main reason is to replenish our supply of their excellent Vegetable Soup Base (it may look pricey at $10.85 a jar, but it goes a long way and makes any vegetarian soup more flavorful), but we inevitably take the opportunity to browse, as well, since Penzey's is a fascinating store to visit. They have just about every spice you could name, along with others you almost certainly couldn't, as well as their own signature blends. There are big glass jars and bottles of each spice for sniffing, so you can compare the four different varieties of cinnamon, or try to discern the subtle differences among barbecue spice rubs, or just breathe in the heady aromas of vanilla and lemon extract. You'll also see whimsical displays, such as the scaled-down model of a 1940s kitchen that holds all the baking spices in the Indianapolis store, or the nautical-themed display in the Falls Church store for all the various types of salt, featuring a rowboat converted into a set of shelves.

One of my favorite features at Penzey's is the little recipe cards they provide, free for the taking, next to different spice blends to provide examples of how to use them. On our most recent trip, I picked up an intriguing-looking one called Three Sisters Soup, referring to the classic trio of beans, corn, and squash that Native Americans often grew together as companion plants. Since we already happened to have butternut squash in the garden, corn in the freezer, and beans in the pantry, I thought this would be a good dish to try as soon as the weather started getting chilly.

This recipe, unfortunately, isn't among those archived on Penzey's website, so I can't give it to you here in full, but I'll give you an overview. After soaking and cooking the beans, you bake the winter squash until tender (or use the shortcut I learned from a friend and just microwave it whole for about 20 minutes) and scoop out the flesh. Then, in a big pot, you sauté all the ingredients you'd usually find in a vegetable soup—onions, carrots, celery, garlic—and add the squash, along with some veggie stock (which you can make from the Vegetable Soup Base) and bring it to a boil. Finally, you reduce it to a simmer and add the beans, corn, some herbs (the recipe called for dried, but we used fresh), and two cups of chopped tomatoes, and heat it through.

Those tomatoes, when I first read through the recipe, struck a discordant note in my mind. In general, I'm not a big fan of tomato-based soups, because I feel like the tomato flavor tends to dominate and overwhelm everything else. Tasting the mixture of ingredients in my imagination, I couldn't help thinking that it would probably be better without the tomatoes. But I also make it a general policy not to tamper with a recipe the first time I make it (except maybe to leave out something I truly hate, like olives), so I can taste it in its intended form and decide whether it really needs any changes. So our first batch of Three Sisters Soup was by the book, tomatoes and all.

Alas, I think I should have trusted my instincts. The finished soup was certainly colorful, and the blend of flavors was interesting, but those tomatoes tasted just as wrong in my mouth as they had in my mind. I tried to eat them up first so that I could try to evaluate the rest of the soup without them, but unfortunately, their flavor seemed to have permeated and cast its subtle influence over the whole dish. It wasn't bad, exactly, it just tasted sort of...off. I found myself losing steam as I worked my way through it, and by the end, I was so unenthusiastic that Brian ended up finishing my bowl for me. To be fair, I should note that he actually liked the soup very much in its original form and was happy not only to polish off my portion but also to dispose of all the leftovers. But he also didn't think he'd like it significantly less without the tomatoes, so I think it we make it again, we'll definitely leave them out. (This change also has the benefit of allowing this soup to be made all winter long. Corn, beans, and squash will all keep well in the freezer and pantry, but fresh tomatoes aren't much good once the first frost is past, and Brian and I agreed that substituting canned ones really wouldn't work.)

So Three Sisters Soup will remain in our recipe file for now, but with a note on it to skip the tomatoes. Once we've tried it that way, we'll be able to decide whether it's good enough to earn a place in our regular repertoire of winter dishes. (And if you want to try it yourself, you can find the recipe at your nearest Penzey's store. If there's one anywhere near your regular shopping route, you'll find it worth the trip.)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Do not disparage, part 2

Last month I reported here on a new California law designed to protect consumers from "non-disparagement clauses"—nasty little provisions usually buried deep in a company's Terms of Sale that threaten to hit consumers with hefty fines if they ever publish a negative review of the company. Clauses like these have been the focus of numerous lawsuits recently, most notably the notorious KlearGear case in Utah. In this case, a couple posted a negative review of KlearGear.com after placing an order that was never delivered and receiving poor customer service from the company. KlearGear.com got wind of this bad review several years later and ordered the couple to take it down or pay a fine of $3,500 for violating their non-disparagement clause—even though (a) the couple had never actually received their order, and thus technically had never "done business" with KlearGear.com, and (b) this clause wasn't actually a part of the site's Terms of Sale at the time the order was placed. After months of legal wrangling (which you can read about in detail at Ars Technica), a court found in favor of the couple and ordered KlearGear.com to pay $306,750 for compensatory and punitive damages, as well as attorneys' fees. (The clause in question has now been removed from the site's Terms of Use, although given this company's record, it's not inconceivable that they might try to enforce it anyway.)

In my post last month, I noted that California was the only state to have a law protecting consumers from non-disparagement clauses, so the best protection for those of us who live elsewhere is to look carefully for such a clause in the Terms of Sale on every site we use. However, it looks like that may soon change. Just one day after I posted my article on the California law, U.S. Representative Eric Smalwell (D-CA) introduced a bill in the House to ban non-disparagement clauses nationwide. According to Forbes magazine, the bill "says that businesses could not prohibit such reviews, impose a fine for posting a review, or require consumers to provide the business with exclusive rights to such reviews." Any clause that does any of these things would be legally unenforceable and would also be considered a violation of the Federal Trade Commission Act. (You can read a summary of the bill on the official Congressional website.)

I don't know about you, but I've already e-mailed my Representative urging him to cosponsor this bill. I hope enough other people do likewise to give this legislation some momentum and, with luck, help us non-Californians get some protection against these ridiculous, harsh, and blatantly unconstitutional clauses.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Price Check: What not to buy at Aldi

As my regular readers will know, I'm a big believer in Aldi. For those who aren't familiar with that name, Aldi is a bare-bones supermarket that sells mostly its own store brands. You won't find any frills there like free samples, free bags, or even free shopping carts; if you want a cart, you need to pay a quarter deposit to unlock it, which you get back when you return it after shopping. (This ensures that most shoppers return their carts, and the few that aren't returned get picked up by other keen-eyed shoppers eager to save a quarter, thus sparing Aldi the cost of paying employees to go round up stray carts.) The chain doesn't accept either coupons or credit cards; it's cash, debit, or SNAP (a.k.a. food stamps) only.

For those who are willing to put up with these minor inconveniences, however, Aldi offers some fantastic bargains. When Brian and I first discovered the chain, about five years ago, we were blown away by how cheap the breakfast cereals were, even compared to other store brands. (Aldi's Millville Raisin Bran is only $1.60 a pound, a price we never find elsewhere without stacking sales and coupons.) From cereal, we gradually branched out into other staple foods, including oats, peanuts, chocolate chips, cheese, and more recently, OJ and milk. Produce is less consistent, as prices vary from week to week, but when they're good, they're better than anyplace else's. I would venture to guess that buying our staples at Aldi probably saves us more money on our grocery bill than any other shopping strategy we use.

So you can only imagine my surprise when I came across a story today at Daily Finance saying that Aldi isn't the cheapest chain to shop at. In fact, in a comparison of six discount retailers, it's actually one of the worst. The study, done by Kantar Retail, compared prices for 21 products, including "edible grocery, non-edible grocery, and health and beauty aids." For the entire basket, Dollar General came out on top, closely followed by Walmart and Family Dollar. Aldi fell second from the bottom, with only Target doing worse.

How did this happen? A closer look at the numbers shows that Aldi's Achilles heel is apparently health and beauty aids. In the "edible" category, Aldi actually beat its competitors handily; its foodstuffs rang up at only $11.40, while its competitors' prices ranged from $13.20 to $14.79. Its prices for "non-edible groceries" were middling: $12.44 on a scale that ranged from $9.26 to $19.97. But for health and beauty, it came in dead last, at $14.05—nearly three times as much as the $5 total for the same items at the two leading stores.

It was comforting to know that we haven't been overspending all these years buying our edible groceries at Aldi, but I was still puzzled to see that it did so poorly on health and beauty. I haven't tried very many items in this category from Aldi, but the few that I have bought, like multivitamins and facial cleanser, have all looked like really good deals. Unfortunately, the press release on the Kantar Retail site doesn't say exactly what items the researchers included in their market basket, and I'm not willing to pay for a copy of the full report just to satisfy my curiosity. But since we already had a trip to Aldi planned for this evening, I figured I could do the next best thing: come up with my own list of health and beauty items that we buy regularly and check the prices for myself.

After a quick search of our bathroom, I jotted down a list of 11 items: multivitamins, toothpaste, deodorant, bandages, shampoo, conditioner, ibuprofen, antihistamines, cotton swabs, bar soap, and body wash. (That's probably more than the Kantar researchers included in their basket, but I figured it couldn't hurt to be thorough.) After we finished our regular shopping at Aldi, I went to hunt down these additional items and check their prices.

It took me a while to find the "health and beauty" section, since it was quite small and tucked away at at the end of an aisle. Even once I managed to track it down, there were a couple of items on my list that didn't appear to be on the shelf at all. But as I scanned the items they had, I quickly realized why Aldi's prices on them were so much higher than the other stores': unlike most of the items sold at Aldi, they were nearly all name brands. There were a few Aldi-branded items, under the label "Welby Health," and these actually did appear to be competitively priced: $1.39 for 375 cotton swabs, $3.79 for 100 daily multivitamins, and $1.99 for 100 ibuprofen tablets. But most of the items were well-known name brands, like Old Spice deodorant ($2.99), Pantene shampoo and conditioner ($3.69), Dove body wash ($5.39), and Crest toothpaste ($2.89). Moreover, in most cases, there was only a single name brand available, so consumers shopping for these items at Aldi can't compare prices and choose the cheapest option. The only choices are take it or leave it.

So it looks like a better answer to the question of what you should and shouldn't buy at Aldi, in order to get the most bang for your buck, is simply, "Buy the store brands." Any of Aldi's house brands—Millville cereal, L'Oven Fresh baked goods, Simply Nature organics—is likely to be a better deal than you'll find anywhere else. However, for the few products at Aldi that are name brands only, you're almost certainly better off looking elsewhere.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Toilet paper trail

Remember how, last year, I wrote down the date on a newly opened bottle of laundry detergent so I could track how long it took us to use? Well, I'm at it again—this time with toilet paper.

Naturally, this tracking experiment will have to be a bit different from the first one. A single roll of toilet paper takes much less time to go through than a bottle of laundry detergent, and there can be quite a bit of variation in how long it takes us to use a roll. So instead of just marking the date when we start a roll and the date when we use it up, I plan to keep track of the start and end dates for the next dozen rolls we go through. With this information, I can calculate all sorts of interesting facts, such as:
  • How much we currently spend on toilet paper each year. We buy the store brand from Trader Joe's, which is 100 percent recycled, 80 percent post-consumer content, and $4.50 a dozen. (That's practically the lowest price it's possible to find on any brand, and certainly the lowest for any brand with recycled paper, barring the occasional sale-plus-coupon deal.) Once we know how long it takes us to use up one of those 12-packs, we can easily figure out how many we go through in a year, and at what overall cost.
  • How much we could save per year by switching to the cheapest non-recycled brand. I'm hoping and expecting to find that the answer is "very little," so we can point to toilet paper use as yet another green choice that has little to no cost.
  • How much more it would cost us per year to switch to the ultra-plushy paper. That will help us figure out whether the luxury of wiping with something that feels like a hotel bath towel would be worth the extra cost, in both dollars and virgin tree pulp.
  • How much it would cost us per year to switch to a tree-free toilet paper made from bamboo and/or sugarcane bagasse (the pulp left over from sugar production). The blogger at Eco Mum says she switched to a bamboo paper after learning that recycled toilet paper is often contaminated with endocrine-disrupting BPA and BPS. For what it's worth, both the Eco Etiquette column in the Huffington Post and the Ask Umbra column in Grist say that the amount of BPA found in recycled TP is so minuscule that it really isn't worth panicking about, and certainly isn't worth the environmental cost of switching back to virgin pulp—but for those who are worried, the Eco Etiquette advisor says bagasse-based paper is a reasonable alternative.
  • How much we could potentially save by switching to "family cloth," which is a euphemism for reusable, cloth toilet wipes. This is another alternative to recycled TP that pops up in many sources, such as Sustainable Baby Steps. In theory, this seems like an ideal ecofrugal choice, since a key principle of the ecofrual life is that reusable products are almost always better for both the earth and your wallet than disposable ones. Yet family cloth, even aside from the "ick factor," obviously has some costs that toilet paper doesn't. First, you need to find room in your bathroom for a sealed container (like a diaper pail) to store the cloths; for some of us, finding that extra space would mean remodeling the whole room at significant cost. Second, you'll obviously need to do laundry a lot more often—and since these cloths both start out filthy and need to come out sanitized, you'll need to use hot water and probably bleach. All those extra loads of laundry will cost money, time, and natural resources. So on the whole, it's by no means obvious that family cloth is a more ecofrugal choice than TP. To do a real side-by-side comparison, you need hard numbers on both cost and environmental impact—and this TP tracking experiment will give me at least one of those.
  • How long the payback time would be on a bidet, which is another alternative to TP suggested in many of the sources cited above. These devices, which clean the tush with water, are common in Europe and some other parts of the world, but rare in the US. Adding a completely separate fixture, like those found in luxurious French bathrooms, would obviously be impractical, but an attachment that adapts an existing toilet to double as a bidet can cost as little as 60 bucks. Knowing how much we spend on TP per year will help us figure out whether such an option would be cost effective. (Even if it definitely is a money-saver, however, I'd be reluctant to install one without trying it out first to make sure we'd actually find it convenient and comfortable to use.)
Of course, like laundry detergent, toilet paper is only a very small expense. It's quite unlikely that any of the strategies in this list would have all that big an impact on our budget, positive or negative. But as I noted when I first started my laundry tracking experiment, even little expenses are still worth keeping an eye on, because there are so many more ways to save small change than big money on a day-to-day basis. None of these strategies may make a big difference by itself, but none of them takes that much effort, either, and when you put enough of them together, they really do add up. Or, as the Brits have it, "Take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves."

Monday, October 13, 2014

Dry (and warm) run

We returned home today from a weekend trip to find the temperature in the house at 63 degrees. At least, that was the temperature upstairs; the rec room, interestingly enough, was a couple of degrees warmer. At first Brian thought this meant that the lower lever maintained its temperature better due to being partially underground. Then he noticed that it was actually warmer outside than it was in the house and concluded that it was probably just the opposite: the whole house had cooled down during the night, but the rec room, with its big glass door and two windows, had warmed up along with the outdoors because it was less insulated. This was a somewhat discouraging thought, as our current emergency plan for dealing with power outages requires us to hole up in the rec room with our gas space heater to keep warm. How well would that work if the room lost and gained heat that easily?

Since it was already afternoon when we got back and we knew the house wouldn't be warming up any further on its own, I proposed putting the heater to the test. I'd been meaning to conduct a dry run with the gas heater anyway some time before winter hit so that we'd be familiar with it, rather than having to fire it up for the first time in an actual emergency. Doing this test now would help warm up the house so that we wouldn't have to switch on the main heating system, which we like to leave off at least until Halloween if possible.

So Brian agreed to switch on the heater on full blast for just half an hour, keeping one eye on it to make sure it ran smoothly and the other eye on the thermostat to see how it affected the temperature. Here's a quick summary of the results:
  • Starting temperature:  63°F upstairs, 65°F downstairs
  • Temperature after 15 minutes:  64°F upstairs, 66°F downstairs
  • Temperature after 30 minutes:  66°F upstairs, 68°F downstairs. Shortly after Brian turned the heater off, it ticked briefly up to 69 degrees downstairs.
  • Temperature now, about 2 hours after turning off the heater: 68°F upstairs, 66°F downstairs. The lower level is now about the same temperature as it is outdoors, while the main level is slightly warmer because we just cooked dinner. Unfortunately, this kind of throws a spanner into our plan of comparing how fast the upstairs and downstairs lose heat. I guess we'll just have to wait and see how the temperatures compare in the morning.
We did, however, learn a couple more things as a result of this test run. First, we learned that our little ventless heater is powerful enough to raise the temperature in that big downstairs room pretty quickly. Second, we learned that heating the lower level raises the upstairs temperature by about the same amount, though presumably we could trap more of the heat downstairs by keeping the door closed. In fact, we found that while the heater was running, the warmest spot in the whole house was right near the top of the stairwell; hot air seemed to rush readily up the stairs, but didn't diffuse quite as fast from there into the rest of the upper level. Actually, that was only the warmest spot in which it's possible to sit or stand; the warmest spot of all was on the wall directly above the heater itself. Brian checked the temperature there repeatedly while the heater was running, and it got up to around 130 before he quit measuring it for fear of busting the thermometer. Fortunately, he had thought to take down the picture that normally sits on this wall beforehand to make sure it didn't suffer any damage from the heat. So we now know that moving that picture should be the first step before firing up this heater.

Brian also said he ran into a couple of snags when he first turned the heater on. First, it didn't light right away; the igniter just sat there clicking aimlessly. We've noticed this same problem with our gas stove when it hasn't been used for a while, and as far as we can tell, it's the result of air getting into the gas lines. What we do with the stove is to turn it past "ignite" and let the gas run for just a second or two before switching back to "ignite" to give it a spark. With the heater, Brian used a modified form of this technique: he switched it to "pilot" and let it run on low gas, periodically tapping the "ignite" button to give it a spark. The first few times, it gave the same futile click; then there was a brief "whuff" as the gas ignited and promptly went out; and after that it lighted properly. So that was another useful lesson learned from the dry run: if we ever need to light this thing in a real emergency, I'll know to switch the gas on low first instead of trying to light it straight up.

The other problem Brian noticed was that the heater seemed to give off an unpleasant smell. He said it was just a normal gas-stove kind of smell, which led me to wonder whether some of the gas was actually leaking out and not burning. However, when I came down there midway through the test, the smell seemed to be gone, so Brian concluded it was probably just the factory finish burning off the inside of the heater. We don't expect to encounter this problem again next time we use it.

So, all in all, we feel pretty confident now that this little ventless gas heater will see us safely through a cold-weather power outage, should we run into any this winter. Of course, now that we've gone to the trouble and expense of installing it, Murphy's Law dictates that we'll probably never actually need to use it. But that's fine by me; if a one-time expenditure of $250 can save us from having to deal with the kind of endless, frustrating power outages we experienced last winter, I'd say it was money well spent.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Should you go soap nuts?

This week's Dollar Stretcher newsletter included an article on "A Natural and Frugal Laundry Alternative." The words "natural and frugal" caught my attention, so I read on and found that the product being discussed was something called "soap nuts," also called soap berries or wash nuts. According to the distributor, NaturOli, these are the dried hulls of the soapberry fruit, which contain natural saponins, foaming compounds that work just like soap. To wash your clothes with soap nuts, you just put a handful (four or five "nuts") into a little mesh bag and throw it into a hot-water wash. The same nuts can be reused four or five times, and when they start to turn grey or mushy, you can just throw them on the compost pile.

On the face of it, these sound like the most ecofrugal laundry product you can imagine. They're natural and biodegradable, and the article claims they contain "no harmful chemicals or perfumes." They also produce no packaging waste; the muslin bag is reusable, and the nuts themselves can be composted. But what about their cost? The article says that a pound of soap nuts costs $19 at Amazon, but it doesn't say how many nuts are in a pound, so it's impossible to figure out the actual cost per load. The article provides lots of detail about how well the soap nuts clean clothes and how easy they are to use, but the only mention of their cost-effectiveness is an offhand remark about how the soap nuts "could potentially save me money, too!" Considering that the Dollar Stretcher is supposed to be all about "living better for less," this seemed like a pretty big oversight.

So I started digging around to see if I could find any hard numbers on how cost-effective these soap nuts are compared with regular laundry detergents. I checked the comments on Amazon.com and found one enthusiastic review from an owner who carefully tracked her usage to see how long the nuts lasted. She concluded that they used 5.8 ounces of nuts to wash 68 loads of laundry; at $49.95 for a 4-pound package, she found, this "works out to a cost of $.07 per load!" That exclamation point suggests that she considers this a fantastic price, but my own calculations show that our Purex detergent (bought on sale, with coupons, and used much more sparingly than the bottle recommends) actually costs us between 2 and 3 cents per load. That makes 7-cents-a-load soap nuts look a lot less impressive by comparison.

Of course, it's entirely possible that my $1.25 bottle of Purex isn't getting our clothes nearly as clean as the soap nuts would. The Dollar Stretcher reviewer praises the soap nuts' cleaning performance to the skies, saying they removed mud and food stains with ease and left the clothes smelling "clean but not fake, perfume-y clean." She concedes that they weren't quite up to the task of removing a tea stain from a towel, so pre-treatment might still be necessary for "some types of really icky stains." The majority of users on Amazon.com heap praise on the soap nuts as well, saying they do a great job with everything from cloth diapers to grungy work clothes (even those worn for really messy jobs like painting or auto repair). Most users report their clothes come out fresh-smelling and soft, with no need for a separate fabric softener. Only a few reviewers complain that the nuts can't handle tough stains or odors.

Soap nuts also offer some health and environmental benefits over plain old laundry detergent. Various reviewers on Amazon note that soap nuts are compostable, cruelty-free, and hypoallergenic. One user who is allergic to coconut says these are the only decent laundry product she's ever found that contains no coconut derivatives; others say it has cleared up skin problems like eczema that are exacerbated by most detergents. Users also like the fact that these are a natural product, free of the synthetic chemicals in traditional detergent (which one user blames for "cancer, respiratory and skin irritation, and central nervous system damage").

However, these benefits come with an environmental downside: the berries have to be imported from the "pristine Himalayans of India" [sic], so transporting them must require a fair amount of fuel and produce a fair amount of greenhouse gas. On top of that, this natural product isn't generally sold in stores, so buying it probably means ordering online and having it shipped from the processing plant here in the U.S. Of course, as this Worldwatch Institute article on "food miles" points out, simply calculating miles to market isn't a very good way to measure a product's environmental impact, and the fact that these soap nuts have been shipped thousands of miles doesn't necessarily negate their green claims. But it does take at least a bit of the shine off them.

Another problem with the soap nuts, in terms of sustainability, is that they work best when used in hot water. According to the Dollar Stretcher article, using them this way is incredibly simple: just put a handful of nuts in the mesh bag and toss it in with the clothes. However, if you wash most of your clothes in cold water—as recommended by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and most environmental sites—then soap nuts take a bit of extra work. You have to soak the bag of nuts in a cup of very hot water for a few minutes before tossing them into the wash. Some users at Amazon recommend going still further and soaking the nuts for 15 minutes to an hour before washing with them. Obviously, this makes the soap nuts a lot less convenient to use for energy-conscious cold-water washers. (However, to be fair, a couple of users say they don't bother with the pre-soaking step at all and their clothes still come out clean, even in cold.)

So, taking everything into account, how do soap nuts compare to standard laundry detergent? In terms of cleaning power, they seem to be at least equal, and possibly better. They also appear to have the edge in terms of sustainability, with their biodegradability and lack of toxic chemicals outweighing their miles to market. On the other hand, they're less convenient to use in cold water, and switching to hot water for all your washes would probably cancel out all the soap nuts' eco-benefits. But their real fatal flaw is their high cost. At 7 cents per load (a price you can only get by buying in bulk), they may appear to be cheaper than most name-brand detergents, but that's only true if you're paying full price for your detergent and using the full amount. If you habitually use coupon stacking to buy your detergent and then skimp on the amount you use, as we do, you'll pay less than half as much per load as you would with the soap nuts.

Of course, if you have a coconut allergy, or extra-sensitive skin, or your top priority in life is to tread as lightly as possible on the earth, you might consider that money well spent. But if your goal is to save resources of every kind, including your time and your hard-earned cash, then sale-priced detergent is probably a better bet.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Coupon Site Face-Off: CouponMom vs. Krazy Coupon Lady

Couponing is one frugal-living skill I've never really mastered. As I wrote recently in a Dollar Stretcher forum thread on the topic:
The thing about extreme couponing is that when it works, it's like magic. I have found some rare, amazing deals in which a sale price stacks perfectly with my available coupons, such as a 4-for-$6 sale on cereal, plus two 75-cent coupons and two 50-cent coupons, all of which double, so that I end up walking out with four boxes of cereal that would normally cost over $4 each for only $1 total. It's an incredible thrill.
The problem is, deals like that are few and far between...Most of the time, the coupon inserts I get delivered with my local grocery store fliers have only one or two coupons each that are even worth clipping--and most of the ones I clip end up going unused because they expire before a sale comes along to stack with them.
Considering how rarely these "stacked" deals work out for me, I've never really found it worthwhile to put in the time and effort that true extreme couponers devote to collecting coupons and scouting out the best deals. Instead, I coupon the lazy way. First I check the weekly sale fliers to look for good deals; only when I find one do I check to see whether there's any way I could make it still better with a coupon.

For the past couple of years, I have been relying on CouponMom.com to make this part of the process easier. Before a shopping trip, I check the list of "Extreme Deals" for my state, and it shows me which store sales in my area can be stacked with coupons to maximize savings. Unfortunately, as I've noted before, the deals this site lists aren't always accurate. Sometimes, for instance, it will tell me I can stack a sale with a coupon for a specific product, but when I read the fine print in the flier, it turns out that particular product isn't included in the sale. Also, it occasionally tells me I can find coupons for specific items in the SmartSource or Red Plum coupon insert for a specific date, but when I check, the coupons aren't there. Still, I've figured, the site does have the advantage of being free, unlike many similar sites (such as The Grocery Game), so I shouldn't look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth. If I have to do a little double-checking to make sure the CouponMom deals are accurate, that's still less work than hunting them down myself.

Today, however, that thread at the Dollar Stretcher inspired me to do a little searching, and I came across another free coupon site called "The Krazy Coupon Lady." I'd visited her site before, but only for general couponing tips. This time, I decided to check out some of the actual deals on the site and see how they compared to the ones I usually find at CouponMom.

The Krazy Coupon Lady site (I'll call it KCL for short) is organized a bit differently from CouponMom: instead of searching for deals by state, you have to click on the name of a specific store, and the site will pull up a list of all the deals in that store's flier. (CouponMom can be searched this way too, but it also gives you the option of looking at "extreme deals" available across all stores in your state.) At first, this seemed a lot less convenient, since I couldn't compare deals for all my area stores at a glance. After looking at the deals for my local Stop & Shop, however, I had to admit that there was one advantage to KCL's format: it's a lot easier to read. CouponMom compresses everything into one long list, so each specific deal gets only one or two lines devoted to it. To achieve this, the site sums up the details in a shorthand form that's often hard to follow. The Krazy Coupon Lady, by contrast, goes through each deal in detail, listing the sale price for each item and all the coupons that can be combined with it, along with their sources. If they're online coupons, a link is provided; if a coupon expires, the site strikes it out to show that it's no longer applicable. At the bottom, the site lists the best possible price you can get through stacking. Thanks to this easy-to-follow format, I was able to quickly spot two useful deals and link directly to the appropriate coupons at Coupons.com.

Another advantage of the KCL site is that it includes a lot more than just grocery deals. CouponMom covers some drugstores, warehouse clubs and other big-box stores, but the specific items it lists for these stores are basically the same ones you'd find at supermarkets. The Krazy Coupon Lady, by contrast, can help you find special prices on websites, coupons for restaurants, and even freebies available both online and in stores.

However, KCL does have one distinct downside compared to CouponMom: it doesn't allow you to select the deals you want and print out a shopping list to take to the store. Each deal listed for a particular store has a check box next to it, but ticking them doesn't seem to do anything; if you select "print," it just prints out the entire page, with all the deals you didn't want as well as the ones you did. And since KCL lists those deals in long format, you'll end up printing out a whole lot of pages you don't need.

As for accuracy, the two sites seem to be about on a par with each other. When I compared the listings for Stop & Shop across both sites, both sites steered me to a sale on Fiber One 90-calorie bars, and both of them claimed that one of the coupons you could stack with this sale was in the SmartSource insert for September 28. However, when I checked that insert, the coupon wasn't there, and I clearly hadn't clipped it already; there was no place it could have been. Perhaps the problem is that the version of the SmartSource flier these sites use is different from the one I get with my grocery store fliers, but whatever the reason for the discrepancy, it's clearly the same across both sites. So no matter which one I use, I'll have to be prepared for the occasional bum deal.

So which site is better overall? Well, I'd have to say both sites are useful, but for different things. For a quick overview of available deals and where to find them, CouponMom is definitely better. It's the one I'd use if I wanted to figure out which stores were worth shopping at in a given week. However, if I already knew that I wanted to visit one particular store, I'd turn to The Krazy Coupon Lady to help me spot the best buys there and find the necessary coupons. The lack of a shopping list feature is a slight disadvantage, but it's not too big a hassle to just write one out by hand. Or, I suppose, I could just identify the deals I want at KCL, then pop over to CouponMom to find those same deals and make a printable list.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Quest for an Organized Freezer

Ever since Brian and I first moved into this house, I've hated the fridge. I don't have any complaints about its actual performance; it does a perfectly decent job of keeping our fresh food cold and our ice cream frozen. It's a little smaller than average, at 18 cubic feet, but that's a reasonable size for the two of us. The motor is a bit on the loud side, but not so loud as to be disruptive. And its energy use, for a machine its age, is actually quite impressive. We tested it with our Kill a Watt meter over two separate 24-hour periods, one in the winter and one in the summer, and we calculated that it probably uses about 500 kilowatt-hours over the course of a year, which is better than many modern-day fridges. (Sadly, this means that according to the EPA's Refrigerator Retirement Savings Calculator, we can't possibly justify replacing it on the basis of energy savings alone.)

So what is it that bugs me so much about this fridge? In a word, organization—or more accurately, the near-total lack thereof. Here are the major problems with it:
  • The shelves are made of wire. If anything spills in the fridge, it drips right through onto the contents of the shelves below.
  • Although the shelves are theoretically movable, the only place it's possible to create a space that can accommodate tall bottles is on the top shelf—which means that the refrigerator light is smack in the middle of it, so bottles are all forced to one side or the other. It also means there's no way to keep milk on the bottom shelf the way Tip Hero says you should to keep it fresh; there isn't enough vertical space.
  • It has only a single produce drawer. In addition to being very big, heavy, and hard to open and close, it also causes all our veggies to rot faster as a result of being stored along with fruits. 
  • It has no meat and cheese drawer. Our supply of block and grated cheese all has to be piled up toward the back of the bottom shelf, where the stacks tend to fall over and individual blocks can get lost. And if I buy a bag of string cheese snacks, there's no good place to keep it where it will be accessible and not get buried.
  • Although it doesn't have one of those idiotic built-in egg compartments in the door, which are in the wrong place for storing eggs and completely useless for storing anything else, it does have an oversized dairy compartment that's too big for our butter dish and too small to accommodate anything else along with it.
Worst of all, though, is the freezer compartment. It has no shelves at all, just a big open box in which everything gets stuffed willy-nilly and won't stay put. When we first got the fridge, I tried to order a freezer shelf from Hotpoint, since they claimed to offer one; however, this turned out to be false, since the part they sent me was actually an extra shelf for the fresh food compartment. So instead, we've done our best to try and arrange the space with a hodge-podge of makeshift partitions: a wire cabinet organizer that goes only partway across, a couple of mismatched plastic bins, a Rubbermaid breadbox for storing meats, and an assortment of pint-size deli containers. Yet even with these crude organizers in place, we still invariably end up with a variety of bags and boxes stuffed precariously in sideways or upside down, constantly at risk of falling out when the door is opened. It's like Fibber McGee's closet in there.

For years now, I've had ambitions to replace this frustrating fridge. When I wrote the latest report on refrigerators for ConsumerSearch, I thought it would be a good opportunity to figure out which model would be the best choice for a replacement. Unfortunately, what I discovered was that top-freezer fridges—the most efficient, most reliable, and least expensive type—don't tend to get very good reviews. Even my Best-Reviewed choice, a Maytag that did well in professional tests, had a lot of complaints in user reviews about its uneven temperature control; owners said it was impossible to keep the freezer cold enough without freezing everything in the fridge. (It also comes with a built-in ice maker, which is worse than useless to us, since it requires extra plumbing work to install and takes up much-needed freezer space to boot.) My runner-up pick, a Haier, looked ideal except for one problem: the nearest store that carried it was an hour away in Langhorne, PA. I might actually have considered it worth making the trip, but I figured I'd wait for a sale first, and while I was waiting, the fridge disappeared from their inventory altogether, leaving us with no good alternatives at all. Given that the fridge we have now still works, there's no point in spending $850 on a replacement unless it's actually a major improvement.

So while we wait to see whether next year's models offer any better options, I'm looking for ways to make better use of the space in our current fridge, especially the freezer. A series of Google searches on this topic turned up lots of articles featuring pictures of beautifully organized freezers, such as this one at The Kitchn. However, all the homeowners in this article started out with freezers that actually had some kind of interior organization (bins, shelves or both) to start with, rather than what we have, which is basically just a box with a door. If we could simply find some way to add a full-width shelf, that would be a good start, but when I Googled "add shelf to freezer," all I found was an article on Lifehacker that suggests using a wire cabinet organizer—which is what we have now. I have searched and searched for a better one that would cover the full width and depth of the compartment, but to no avail.

Normally, when we have a storage problem to deal with, Brian just builds a custom-fitted piece out of wood to maximize the space (like the dividers for my sock drawer and the tilt-out drawer for our kitchen sink). Unfortunately, in this case, that approach won't really work, since a thick piece of wood would take up too much space and a thin one wouldn't stand up well to freezing. So last night, we went on a hunting trip at Target, looking for some sort of kitchen or home organizers that might help tame this beast of a freezer. Nearly everything we found, however, was unsuitable in one way or another: too big, too small, or not square enough to make good use of the space. In the end, all we came home with was a little $4 ice bin, which fits under the makeshift wire shelf and helps a bit with corralling the loose bags. We also weeded out some unnecessary items like excess ice cubes, and I tried a trick for cutting down the ice cream bucket as shown in this Lifehacker video. (They recommend it to keep the ice cream fresher, but for me, the bigger advantage is the space it saves. Also, we can see how much ice cream we have left without looking inside.)

This "after" picture, however, is only marginally better than the "before," so I'm still looking for better ways to organize. And I think I may actually have hit on a possible solution, if a rather unconventional one. While browsing the Container Store (a site that one of my fellow Word Nerds would call a "panagora" of all things storage-related), I came across these drop-front shoe boxes. The larger ones are exactly the depth, and just under half the width, of our freezer compartment, so two could sit abreast on the bottom and create a complete second level that completely spans the space. We could store meats in one, veggies in the other, and the drop-fronts would give us access the to contents without disrupting the rest of the freezer. And once we'd used those to make a solid base, we might actually be able to fit in some more traditional freezer organizers on top.

Am I crazy, or could this actually work? And is it worth $20 plus shipping to find out?