Thursday, January 29, 2015

Household Hacks: DIY poster matting

Over the past month or so, Brian and I have been slowly putting the last few finishing touches on our new guest room. We've reinstalled the blinds and the cut-down closet shelf, along with the closet door (which still needs refinishing, but we decided that for now, a slightly battered door was better than no door at all). We also pulled a little shelf unit out of our hall closet and set it next to the futon to serve as a nightstand, while also storing my various sewing and crafting supplies. The one thing the room was still really crying out for, though, was some art. The wall above the futon, in particular, was looking very blank and unfinished. The room definitely needed something else to draw your eye when you first glance in the door.

I thought this spot would make an ideal new home for our pair of poster prints from the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire. These two big pieces, framed in cheap 3-by-2-foot wood frames from Michael's, had been living over our bed for as long as it had been our bed, and even before. However, when we bought a new bed (from IKEA, naturally) back in July of 2012, the headboard pushed the two pictures up to an awkward height, and they really didn't look right there anymore. The spot over the futon, by contrast, was just about right for height and width, and the bits of mauve in the right-hand poster would nicely pick up the colors of the quilt we'd put on the futon.

Before moving these posters, however, Brian wanted to fix them up a bit and make them more presentable. The most obvious problem, as you can see from the picture, is that the posters weren't properly matted. It wasn't so noticeable with the one on the left, which is almost big enough to fill the entire frame, but the one on the right was just loosely taped to the paper backing that came with the frame. Over time, the tape had given way, so the poster had fallen to the bottom of the frame, where it looked even sloppier. And on top of that, the frames themselves weren't in great shape; they'd come a bit loose over the years and were starting to bow outward in the middle. So Brian wanted to get both posters properly matted, and the frames shored up, before hanging them in a spot where they'd be generally visible.

The first problem was figuring out how to mat a piece this large. We'd tried matting a picture exactly once before, and we'd made a bit of a mess of it, so doing it ourselves likely wouldn't improve the poster's appearance much. We eventually ended up taking that picture to be re-matted and framed by a professional, which cost us over a hundred dollars—not a reasonable amount to invest in a pair of posters that only cost me five bucks apiece. So I did a little Googling around and turned up this article at Apartment Therapy about a simpler method of matting a print: instead of cutting out a mat to go around the picture, you just center the picture on the matting and stick it down with adhesive. We figured if we just bought a couple of big poster boards from a craft store, we could mount both posters for only a few bucks.

We ran into our second snag when we went looking for the poster boards to put this plan into execution. It turns out that while 24 inches by 36 is a standard size for a picture frame, it's not a standard size for a poster board. In fact, we couldn't find any at all that were bigger than 22 by 28. We could have bought two smaller poster boards and put them together to make each backdrop, but that would leave a narrow seam visible on each side of the poster where the two pieces met. It didn't seem like a terribly elegant solution. Real art mats were available in large enough sizes, but they were quite a bit pricier—around eight bucks apiece—and we also feared they'd be too thick to fit in these flimsy frames. So we debated about what else we might be able to use as a backing for the posters and eventually hit on the idea of trying some of the heavy kraft paper that we bought for our brown-paper floor. (Incidentally, you can now see the full instructions for that project in this HubPages article.) We've got loads of this stuff left over, so we might as well put it to any use we can.

For the first stage of the project, Brian removed the smaller poster from the frame (carefully, since it was still taped to the original paper backing and he had to avoid tearing it) and cut a piece of kraft paper to the size of the frame. He then centered the poster on the paper. (According to the instructions in the Apartment Therapy article, we actually should have left a little more space at the bottom of the mat than at the top so it would look right when viewed from eye level on the wall, but the mat is narrow enough that I don't think it makes much difference.) He secured the poster to the new paper backing with a bit of double-sided tape in each corner. He then cleaned off the "glass" part of the frame—which was actually a large, thin sheet of transparent plastic—with a bit of window spray before slipping the poster back into the frame.

Then, before hanging the poster up, he took some steps to tighten up the frame itself. He ran a piece of string across the back, pulled as tight as he could make it, to put some tension on the frame and fight its tendency to bow outwards. He originally tried doing this with Teflon dental floss, thinking it would be less likely to stretch over time, but it ended up snapping when he pulled it taut. So he just used ordinary household string, stapling it to the wood of the frame on either side. Then he did the same with the other frame. (We decided not to put a mat in that one because the poster was so big it would hardly show, and if we cut the poster down to show off the mat we'd risk damaging it.)

And voilà, here the two posters are in their new home. For a DIY job, the brown-paper matting on the smaller one looks surprisingly neat and workmanlike, and the artwork really does make the room look a lot more complete. We may still hang another picture or two and possibly replace that beat-up old closet organizer shelf with something nicer-looking, and of course we still need to refinish those doors—but I think that the addition of these two big poster prints makes this room, for all practical purposes, complete.

 Now, if we can just come up with something more appropriately sized to fill the now-empty space above our bed...



Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Building a better shovel, part 2: The slick shovel test

The much-vaunted Blizzard of 2015 turned out to be a bit of a tempest in a teapot. Rather than a record-breaking storm that left everyone snowed in for days, it was just a garden-variety winter storm that left behind about six inches of snow, tops. However, we still had to clear it all off our walks and driveway, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to test a tip I'd seen in several places around the Web: spraying your snow shovel with cooking spray.

I'd already learned, a few years ago, that you could buy that Teflon or silicone sprays to help the snow slide off your shovel blade more easily. However, sites such as TipHero and Dollar Stretcher kept reporting that you could get similar results with regular cooking spray. We just happened to have a can of canola-oil cooking spray we'd picked up at Aldi and then hadn't used, because I found that the propellant in the can gave the oil a funny taste. So I figured I might as well put it to good use by trying it out on my shovel to see if it helped. I sprayed the oil all over the blade of the shovel, getting it into all the nooks and crannies as best I could, and then went out to scoop snow with it.

At first, it actually looked like the spray might be helping. My first shovelful of snow seemed to slide out of the scoop more easily than usual, leaving only a little bit clinging to the blade. However, with my second shovelful, the snow started sticking again with a vengeance. It was hard to tell for sure, since it was a new shovel that I hadn't used before, but it almost seemed as if the oil was somehow made the shovel retain more snow than usual. I certainly ended up with quite a lot of it stuck to the blade, even though it was a fairly light and powdery snow.

Wondering if I'd done something wrong, I tried looking at the comments on one of the articles that recommended cooking spray to see whether it had worked better for other people. I didn't find many comments talking about the cooking spray itself, but several people said they'd had success with other coatings, including WD-40, silicone spray, furniture wax, car wax, graphite spray, petroleum jelly, and even "an old candle" rubbed onto the shovel. I did a little scouting to see which of these we had on hand and unearthed a small container of petroleum jelly, as well as several candles. So I figured I'd try the petroleum jelly first, and if that didn't work, I'd go for the wax.

So the next time I went out to shovel, I smeared a thick coating of Vaseline on the shovel blade first. The initial results were disappointing: it didn't actually appear to be making the snow stick any more than before, but it didn't seem to make it stick any less, either. However, when we went out later in the day to clean up the last of the snowfall, I wiped the blade down first, and suddenly, I found that it seemed to be noticeably less sticky. Snow came off it more easily as I shoveled along, and when I brought it in at the end, it had quite a bit less show sticking to it than the shovel Brian had been using.

So, based on the tests I've done so far, it looks like a thin, even coating of lubricant may be the key here. Both the the cooking oil (which went on in a heavy spray of droplets) and my initial thick coating of Vaseline seemed to be so heavy that the snow just clung to the goop instead of sliding off it. But the thin sheen of petroleum jelly that was left clinging to the shovel after my wipe-down was apparently just enough to make it slick without making it damp and clingy. This gives me hope that I may actually be able to put that cooking spray to a useful purpose after all; if I simply wipe it over the shovel after spraying it on, it may give me a thin enough coating to do some good. More snow is expected this weekend (sigh), so I shouldn't have to wait long before putting it to the test.

Now if I could just come up with some equally easy DIY method for getting rid of all the obstructions in our yard, this winter chore might not be too burdensome.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Soup of the Month: Hearty Vegetable

As December rolled over into January this year, I started thinking about New Year's resolutions. In addition to forming new resolutions (like my decluttering one, which I'll update you on some time soon), I considered whether I wanted to keep up my old resolution from last year about trying a new fruit or vegetable recipe each month. As resolutions go, you'd have to say it was a success: I did, in fact, try a new recipe each month—sometimes more than one—and it gave me plenty of good material for this blog. Moreover, several of the recipes we tried as part of this challenge, such as September's Skillet Kugel and March's Roasted Brussels Sprouts, had gone on to become regular staples of our dinner table. So if my goal was to incorporate more vegetable dishes into our diet, I'd done what I set out to do.

Still, thinking back over it, I wasn't really sure how far this resolution had helped me toward my ultimate goal of eating a healthier diet overall. Yes, we were eating more of certain specific vegetables, like Brussels sprouts—but we were eating them in place of, not in addition to, other green veggies. Roasted Brussels sprouts may taste a lot better than steamed broccoli, but they aren't necessarily any better for you, and because Brussels sprouts are a lot pricier than broccoli, you can't really eat more of them, even if you'd like to. And the skillet kugel, while very tasty, probably isn't the most healthful thing you could make with those same ingredients. It's not unhealthy, exactly, but it's still mostly a big slab of starch with a fair bit of oil and only a little smattering of leek. I don't think eating it every night of the week would make me slimmer or healthier overall.

So how, I mused, could I tweak this resolution to boost its benefits? Should I make it a rule that the Recipe of the Month has to meet certain specific health standards, like being low in fat or having veggies as the main ingredient? Or would that be too limiting? After thinking about it for a bit, I decided that maybe the best way to improve on the Recipe of the Month resolution would be to focus on specific types of recipes, ones that are usually low-calorie and nutrient-dense. Salads were one obvious choice, and thanks to my Volumetrics book, I knew that soups were at least as good. So I decided that this year, the Recipe of the Month would be confined to soups and salads only. Probably I'll focus on soups during the chilly months, and move on to light, cool salads as the weather warms up and the garden fills with fresh produce. But no matter which we choose in any given month, it will definitely be something that's genuinely healthful. Even if it's not a great success, just eating it for one meal will be good for us, and if we like it enough to make it a regular part of our diet, the benefits will last throughout the year.

For our first Soup of the Month, I was originally thinking about going with a curried soup that Brian dreamed up one evening. He started with a quart container of chick peas that was sitting in the freezer and just started adding stuff to it: onion, garlic, a package of chicken legs cut up into small nuggets, a nearly-full can of coconut milk, and some coriander, cumin, turmeric, and garam masala. This made a very hearty soup, almost more of a stew, so he served it with rice on the side to make a full meal. It was pretty good, good enough that he intends to make it again, but I wondered whether it was really healthful enough to qualify for the Soup of the Month position. True, it has a lot going for it just by virtue of being a soup, since a soup will satisfy your hunger more readily with fewer calories than the same ingredients with less water—but my Recipes of the Month were supposed to be veggie- or fruit-based, and this one didn't really have any veggies in it aside from the chick peas, which are pretty heavy as vegetables go. I figured I could use it if I didn't come up with anything better, but I was still hoping for a chance to kick off my Soup of the Month posts with a true vegetable soup.

Fortunately, an opportunity fell into my hands when I happened on a copy of the Raritan Valley Review in a local store. This little magazine is mostly ads, typically for local businesses that cater to a Jewish clientele, but it has a couple of articles thrown in to fill it out, and one of its regular features is a recipe page. The January issue featured three soups: cabbage soup, potato-leek, and "hearty vegetable." The cabbage soup didn't look all that interesting, and the potato-leek one was basically the same as a recipe we've made many times before, but the hearty vegetable had potential. It had all the usual veggies that any soup starts with—carrots, celery, onions—but it added red lentils and barley, which looked like it would make for a soup substantial enough to be a meal all by itself.

The only discordant note in the recipe, to my mind, was that it called for three zucchini. I've never seen the point of adding zucchini to any soup: they're mostly water anyway, so they don't add anything significant in terms of flavor, and as for texture, boiling them just turns them into an unappetizing mush. I was all for just leaving them out, but Brian, perhaps inspired by the cabbage soup recipe right next to it, decided to add cabbage to make up the veggie volume left out by the missing zucchini. The recipe also called for an optional garnish of fresh dill and parsley, but since we don't generally have these on hand in the winter, we decided to leave them out and work with what we had. We also made just a half batch of the recipe, since it was just for the two of us. The Raritan Valley Review doesn't have the January issue up on its website yet, so I hope they won't mind my copying out our version of the recipe for you:
HEARTY VEGETABLE SOUP
  • 1 1/2 onions, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 3 carrots, sliced
  • 1/2 cabbage, shredded
  • 5 c. water
  • 1/2 c. barley (the original recipe called for only half this much, but Brian forgot to halve this ingredient with the rest of the recipe, and it seemed to come out okay)
  • 1/2 c. red lentils
  • 1 bay leaf (Brian added this on his own, saying he "couldn't resist") 
  • About 1 Tbsp. salt (the original recipe calls for 1 1/2 Tbsp. kosher salt, which is coarser, so I adjusted it down) 
Sauté onions and garlic until onions are translucent (about 8 minutes). Add remaining veggies and sauté until tender (about 30 minutes). Add water and bring to a boil. Stir in barley, red lentils, and salt. Cook for 30 minutes.
The resulting soup was...not bad. It was definitely hearty and filling, but it seemed to lack a little something. Maybe that fresh dill and parsley would have made a big difference, or maybe it could have used more garlic, or maybe we would have been better off starting with our favorite Penzey's vegetable soup base instead of plain water. I'm holding on to the recipe for now, and we may tinker with it a bit in future. Still, I'd say it makes a good start to my Soup of the Month resolution. It's nutritious and filling, so it sets a good precedent there, but as far as taste, it's setting the bar low enough that we should be able to clear it easily in upcoming months.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Thrift Week 2015, Day 7: Pandemic: The Cure

Remember how, on my birthday, I brought vegan cupcakes to my Saturday night RPG session for the benefit of a fellow player who's a vegan? Well, apparently, if you cast your cupcakes upon the waters, they shall return to you in unexpected ways. Our vegan cohort surprised us at that game session with a gift: a brand-new copy of the board game Pandemic: The Cure. We're big fans of the original Pandemic game, which we've played with our RPG group and various others, so I guess he knew it was something we would like. Awww!

Pandemic: The Cure is not an expansion to the original Pandemic game, but rather a stand-alone game based on the original. The basic premise is the same: the players are a team of scientists trying to combat four different diseases (represented on the board by cubes of different colors) that are threatening to become pandemics. The way the game plays is also similar in many ways to the original Pandemic. Most of the Roles (special abilities that individual players can take) are the same as in the original game—the Medic, the Scientist, and so on—though there are a couple of new ones added. And some of the game mechanics work the same as well, such as the way you treat diseases (removing one cube at a time until a cure is found, after which you can remove them all at once) and the way outbreaks occur (having more than three disease cubes in a location causes the disease to spread to neighboring regions). So anyone who has played Pandemic will probably find it very easy to learn this new variant.

However, this version is different from original Pandemic in three major ways:
  • First, the game "board" is much simpler: instead of a map of the world with different cities on it, there are just six major regions, each represented by a cardboard circle, in which infections can occur.
  • Second, there's an additional element of chance: each player has a set of dice to roll on every turn. That roll determines which moves the player is allowed to make on that turn (although they can be made in any order). It also determines how fast new infections occur: for each die that turns up with an "Infection" result, you have to add more disease cubes to the board. If you don't like the results of your die roll, you can try rerolling some or all of them, but each time you do you run the risk of getting more Infection results.
  • Third, the infection cubes themselves are also dice, which can be used as "samples" to help the players find a cure. On your turn, if one of your player dice turns up a "collect samples" result, you can us that die to pull a cube from the board and add it to your personal collection. At the end of your turn, you can roll the dice for all the samples you've gathered, and if the roll is high enough, you've found a cure. That means that the more samples you gather, the better your chances of curing the disease. The downside is that collecting samples ties up your player dice, so you can't use them for other actions. So deciding how many of your dice to use for this purpose is a key element of the game, one that doesn't appear in the original Pandemic.
So far, Brian and I have played just one game of Pandemic: The Cure, but that was enough to sell us on it. It's a much shorter game than original Pandemic, which means it could be a good filler game for when you have just an extra hour to spare before or after a longer game session. It also takes less time to set up and take down after play. Since we've only played once, we can't say how much variation there will be between games, but I'm guessing there will be a lot more than in original Pandemic on account of the extra element of chance added by the dice. That could be a good thing for those who like less predictable games, or a bad thing for those who prefer a game that's all strategy and no luck. But it will definitely keep the game from growing old too quickly.

I'm not prepared to say that I actually like Pandemic: The Cure better than original Pandemic. They're both very enjoyable, and I think original Pandemic, despite its complicated setup, may be a more elegant game to play. But since they fill different niches in terms of how long they take and how many players they require, I think there's no need to choose one over the other. They're both well worthy of a place on our game shelf.

So, that brings my thrifty birthday bash to its conclusion (though I still have my free Starbucks drink to cash in at my leisure). I hope it's been enjoyable and instructive for you as well. Next week, back to the regular routine.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Thrift Week 2015, Day 6: Birthday freebies

Some of the birthday goodies I got this year weren't from family or friends; they were from companies I do business with. There are lots of businesses—mostly eateries—that will give you a little something extra on your birthday for no extra cost, like a free slice of birthday cake with your meal, or a special buy-one-get-one-free deal. (You can see a list of many such deals at Hey! It's Free!) But there are a few that actually offer birthday freebies that are completely free, with no strings attached, and I happen to belong to three of them:
  1. Baskin-Robbins will give you a free mini cone on your birthday, plus a discount on an ice cream cake. All you have to do is sign up for their Birthday Club. They send you an e-mail during the week before your birthday with a link to a coupon you can print out (or display on your phone, if you actually live in the 21st century and aren't a dinosaur like me). There's no age requirement to join, but I once met with resistance from the server at our local Baskin-Robbins, who turned away my coupon on the grounds that "This is for kids." So I ended up going to the one at the New Brunswick train station for my cone that year. The following year, I came prepared with a printout of the FAQ from the Baskin-Robbins site, which specifically says the Birthday Club is not just for kids but for "everyone who loves ice cream." Since then, I've never had any trouble getting them to honor the coupon. The only catch is that there's a fairly narrow window to collect your freebie. They used to give you a full week before or after your birthday, but it's now dropped to 5 days, as Brian discovered when his birthday coupon expired before he had a chance to use it. So to make it up to him, I split my free cone—vanilla with Snickers—with him on Sunday. Granted, a 2.5-ounce scoop doesn't go far split between two people, but it's practically guilt free that way.
  2. DD Perks, the rewards program at Dunkin Donuts, includes a free drink of any size as a birthday bonus. Like Baskin-Robbins, they give you your freebie by sending you an e-mail with a printable coupon. However, this one is a bit more liberal as to when you can redeem it; when I printed mine out, it said it was good until March 9. However, since I already had one other Dunkin freebie in my wallet with the same expiration date, I decided to go ahead and cash this one in on Monday. Once again, I opted for something I could split with Brian—in this case, a large mint hot chocolate, which turned out to be REALLY large. I checked the website and found that a large drink at Dunkin is 20 ounces, the same as a Starbucks Venti. It was plenty for Brian and me together, and we were agog at the idea that one person could polish it off singlehandedly before it got cold.
  3. Speaking of Starbucks, their My Starbucks Rewards program also includes a free birthday drink. It's actually less complicated than the other two; instead of sending you a coupon to print out, they just automatically credit your account for a freebie, so all you have to do is hand over your Starbucks card and request your free drink. (They still send you an e-mail the week before your birthday to remind you about it.) The redemption period is pretty loose, too; according to my e-mail, the offer is good until February 10, so I don't have to go out of my way to get to a Starbucks before my credit expires. And it means I'll still have one birthday present left to enjoy when Thrift Week is over and done with.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Thrift Week 2015, Day 5: SmartWool socks

In addition to the birthday presents I got from friends and family this year, I bought one little present for myself. As I noted in last Thursday's entry, I'd used a Visa prepaid card that I'd gotten with survey points to treat myself to two new pairs of SmartWool socks. The two pairs of socks, with shipping, used up most of the $25 card, but my previous experiences with SmartWool convinced me that it would be money well spent. During the coldest days of the winter, my SmartWool socks are pretty much the only ones I wear. Even though they're machine washable, I've taken to washing them by hand and drying them on a rack so that I can get them back into circulation faster, rather than having to wait for laundry day. And even with this gambit, I sometimes run through the three pairs I have before they have time to dry. So I decided a couple pairs more, even at $12 each, would be a good investment.

When the socks arrived, I started to question that view, because they looked a lot thinner than the heavy hiking socks I was used to. Would they really be warm enough? I figured the only way to test that question was with a side-by-side comparison. So I put one of the new SmartWool socks on my left foot and one of my old wool-blend socks (not the SmartWool ones, but the lighter-weight ones I wear for milder days) on my right. Since I knew there was a possibility I'd want to return the new socks, I put on a "footie" underneath it—a sock made of thin, pantyhose fabric that covers only the foot. I made sure to put one on the right foot too, so the matchup would be on even ground.


It took less than half an hour of walking around with these mismatched socks to demonstrate that the new SmartWool ones were decidedly warmer than the light wool-blend ones. That was enough to convince me they were worth keeping, but I still didn't know how they would compare in warmth to my old SmartWool hiking socks. So I switched to one of those on my right foot (again, with the footie underneath) and walked around for another half hour.


I was guessing that the new socks would prove to be a good in-between weight—not as warm as the SmartWool hiking socks, but warmer than the blended ones. But to my surprise, I found the new, thinner SmartWool socks were every bit as warm as the heavy ones. They were also a lot less bulky and smoother-fitting (the heavy ones are a bit big and tend to slide around on my foot). So these new socks can take their place in the rotation alongside my three warmest pairs, and with their help, I should be able to make it through the whole winter in comfort.

The test was also helpful in one other way; it showed me just how much difference it made to wear those lightweight footies underneath my socks. The light sock with a thin footie underneath provided noticeably more warmth than I'm used to from the heavy socks worn by themselves. So I now have a secret weapon for the very coldest days; with a footie on under my SmartWool socks, old or new, I should be able to keep my feet warm no matter how frigid the weather. This will be helpful for walking around outdoors, of course, but also for lounging around the house in my stocking feet. I don't like to put my feet up on the couch with shoes on, but I often find they get too cold with just socks—so this added layer may be just the ticket.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Thrift Week 2015, Day 4: Hell Rail

I'm a bit under the weather today, so this Thrift Week post is going to be just a quickie to tell you about the birthday gift I got from my friend Tim. He offered to take me to The Fallout Shelter, our local comic and game shop, and buy me literally anything I wanted. That's kind of a risky offer to make, because board games can cost upwards of $60, but luckily for him the two I liked best were much more reasonable. Candidate #1 was Long Live the King, which is kind of a cross between a traditional tabletop game and a role-playing game. It looked intriguing, but I was put off by the fact that it had a required minimum of 5 players (it can take up to 10, and users say the more the better). I seldom have a really big group to game with, so I thought if I picked this game, it might be months before I got to try it.

So instead, I settled on Hell Rail. This is, on its face, a lot like other rail-based board games in which your job is to deliver loads to various locations, except in this case the loads are damned souls and you have to transport them to their appropriate circle of Hell. It requires a group of 3 or 4 players, so Brian and I can't test it out right away, but it looked intriguing enough on its face to be worth a try—and cheap enough, at its marked-down price, that I wouldn't feel bad about asking for it if I didn't end up liking it all that much. I think what really sold me on it was the fact that it was labeled "third perdition."


I haven't had a chance to play my new game yet, but I've had a look at the rules, and they're—a bit complicated. (I guess the author thinks a fundamental component of Hell is bureaucracy.) Based on the reviews at Board Game Geek, I suspect the first game of this will be a bit of a shambles, and after that it will become clearer. So now all I have to do is talk my Tuesday night group into trying it more than once.

This gift is ecofrugal for two reasons:
  1. It's a form of entertainment that we can enjoy at home with no additional cash and no electricity, and there's no limit to the number of times we can play it. This means its cost per hour of entertainment could potentially be mere pennies, especially at the sale price.
  2. It came from a local business, which I'm always happy to support. Buying local helps keep our local economy thriving, which not only makes it easier to shop without getting in the car, but just generally makes our town a more pleasant place to live.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Thrift Week 2015, Day 3: Primo Flavorstation (the frugal fizz machine)

Last Wednesday, when I popped outside to take in the mail, I discovered a mysterious package on my doorstep. It was a great big box labeled "26-inch pedestal fan," which confused me completely, because I knew I hadn't ordered anything like that. Getting the box inside and opening it unraveled part of the mystery, as I found a smaller box inside labeled "Primo Flavorstation"—one of the items that's been on my Amazon Wish List for a while. I wrote last summer about how I'd been thinking about getting one of these, but I hadn't taken the plunge because I wasn't sure whether it would last long enough to be cost-effective (since the product, and all its replacement parts, are no longer on the market). Now, it appeared, someone had thrown my cap over the wall for me.

So that explained why I'd received the package, but it still didn't tell me where it had come from. There was no clue in the box—no gift message, no receipt, no packing slip—and the return address on the package was a store I didn't recognize. My first guess was that my mom might be responsible, since I'd steered her to my Wish List when she asked me what I wanted for my birthday, but she disclaimed all knowledge about it. So I sent some inquiries around by e-mail to everyone else I could remember telling about my list, and I managed to trace the gift back to my sister.

That unraveled the mystery of where the present came from, leaving only the puzzle of how to assemble the thing and get it working. Fortunately, the instruction manual was pretty easy to follow. There were several pieces in the box: the machine itself, the CO2 canister (called a "sparkler"), the water bottle with its cap, three separate pumps for dispensing flavor syrups, one spoon for measuring out flavor by hand, and four colorful rubber bands for keeping track of whose water bottle is whose if you have more than one. (I'm not sure whey they bothered with the pumps and the rubber ID bands, since the machine came with only one bottle and no flavor syrups, but perhaps the point was to encourage you to buy more accessories.)


The first step in assembly was to screw the CO2 canister into place on back of the machine. The hardest part was getting the translucent cover off, but once we managed that, it was pretty simple to attach the sparkler. The instructions said to turn the machine upside down to do this, though I'm not sure why—maybe just to keep the heavy canister from slipping loose and falling on your toe before you've got it into place. Once it's in, the cover goes back on.


Next, you fill the bottle with water up to, but not beyond, the fill line (overfilling it can result in too much pressure, which can get a bit hazardous) and screw it into its place on the front of the machine.


Then you just press the button to carbonate. There are actually two buttons on top of the machine that you need to use. The button at the front, with a fingerprint on it, is the one you press to add CO2; you're supposed to hold it down until you hear "three loud buzzing sounds in a row." Then, before removing the bottle, you press the red button on the back to release excess CO2 before unscrewing the bottle.


The first time we attempted this, we never heard the buzzing sounds, and when we released the pressure and tasted the water, it had barely any fizz. The second time, we tried screwing the bottle in a little more snugly, and this time the fizz just foamed right in, producing the "buzzing" noise—something like a foghorn blast—in just a few seconds. It was so startling, in fact, that we completely forgot to press the red button before unscrewing the bottle, and we ended up getting a vivid demonstration of just why it's important to do so. The bottle came loose with a loud pop, like a champagne bottle being uncorked in an echo chamber, and the pressure blew the plastic bottom section right off the machine.


Fortunately, this doesn't seem to be an essential piece, either for function or for safety. It probably adds a little to the stability of the machine, but it works just fine without it for now, and Brian figures he can eventually reattach the piece with a little epoxy glue.

Once we managed to work out all the details, this little fizz machine performed admirably. Its home-carbonated seltzer was indistinguishable from the store-bought stuff, but with four distinct advantages:
  1. It's in a little half-liter bottle, so it probably won't go flat before I use it up. And even if it does, no big deal; I can just screw the bottle back onto the machine and add a little more CO2.
  2. It's a lot cheaper to make. Since our municipal water bill is on a tier system rather than a flat fee per gallon, the cost of the water itself is negligible unless I use enough of it to bump us up to a higher tier of usage (not very likely). As for the cost of the CO2, the big advantage of the FlavorStation over the more popular SodaStream is that it takes a standard 20-ounce canister, like the ones used for paintball. That means we can get it refilled at a sporting-goods store like Dick's Sporting Goods ($4 per refill) or Sports Authority ($3.50). Reviewers on Amazon estimate that a full canister can carbonate over 200 liters of water, which works out to less than 2 cents a liter. So if I'm currently going through 80 liters a year at an average of 40 cents per liter, this little device can save me about $32 a year just on seltzer. (If I were a soda drinker, I imagine it would save me a lot more.)
  3. I only need one bottle. I can just keep refilling it over and over (though not indefinitely, as I discuss below) instead of filling up my recycling bin with empty soda bottles and cans. I suspect just introducing this machine to our lives will, all by itself, cut the rate at which we fill our recycling barrel from once every 2 weeks to once every 3, at least in summertime. Plus we won't have to clutter up the fridge with multiple bottles or cans of seltzer anymore.
  4. I won't run out of seltzer again for months, if not years. I used to keep running out of the fizzy stuff and having to dash to the store for more every week or so. Now I can just keep refilling and recharging my little half-liter bottle until the sparkler runs out.
Unfortunately, the FlavorStation isn't perfect. It's better, way better, than buying seltzer at the store, but it has a few drawbacks:
  1. When the sparkler finally runs out of CO2, I can't just run out to the grocery store for more. I'll have to take it to the sporting goods store for a refill, which will probably mean waiting for the weekend to make a special trip. But I can always just go to the grocery store and buy a few liters of fizz to tide me over until I get the canister recharged, so that's not a big problem.
  2. The machine is a bit large. Right now, we've got it sitting out on the kitchen counter, taking up our very limited food prep space. It's not exactly ugly to look at, but it doesn't really enhance the look of the kitchen, either, and it's definitely somewhat in the way. Unfortunately, it's too tall to fit into most of our cabinets; the only place we've found where it could fit is on the top shelf of the pantry, which isn't a terribly convenient spot for something I'm going to be using often. (With the full CO2 charger in there, it's pretty heavy to be transferring to the counter and back on a regular basis.) So we may need to do a little rearranging of our cabinets to find a good place to store it.
  3. The little sport bottle will eventually expire. According to Primo, it shouldn't be used for more than 2 years, because the PETE plastic it's made from will eventually deteriorate until it can't stand up to high pressure anymore. Keep using the bottle after that point, and eventually, BOOM! Water and fragments of plastic all over the place (and possible damage to the machine as well). So I may need to pick up an extra bottle or two on Amazon while they're still available. Or maybe try to rig up some sort of adapter to thread a standard sports bottle onto the FlavorStation.
  4. The bottle is not the only part that may soon be irreplaceable. Because the Flavorstation is now discontinued, the only way to get replacement parts for it is to buy another machine secondhand and cannibalize it. It shouldn't matter for the sparklers, since the canister is a standard size, but if anything else breaks, it may be tricky to fix. Then again, a reviewer on Amazon says the machine is "relatively easy to repair" because it has so few moving parts and notes, "I've already had to repair a broken tube internally and it works flawlessly again." So maybe the bottle is the only discontinued part I actually need to worry about.
Still, even with its flaws, this machine is WAY more ecofrugal than buying seltzer at the store. It saves me time (no more seltzer runs), reduces waste (no more plastic bottles), and even if I have to drop $20 on a backup bottle for it, the savings on seltzer will pay for that within a year.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Thrift Week 2015, Day 2: DIY knife-drawer insert

Our week-long Thrifty Birthday Bash continues with a look at some interesting and ecofrugal gifts I received this year.

My present this year from Brian was made specially by request. I'd grown fed up with the knife drawer in our kitchen, which, until about a week ago, looked like this:


We had about ten knives in there, most of which we didn't even use regularly, and they were all just floating around loose. To keep from cutting ourselves, we'd sheathed all the blades in little cardboard covers, but that just made it harder to tell them apart by looking. I was tired of having to rummage around in there for two minutes just to find the one utility knife that I actually use.

The most obvious solution would be to transfer all the knives from the drawer to a knife block, but I didn't want to do that for several reasons. First, and most importantly, it would take up counter space, which our kitchen has little enough of as it is. Also, most knife blocks are designed to accommodate a standard set of knives, which isn't at all what we have. Our motley assortment, shown below, included three chef's knives, three paring knives, two utility knives, and one fiddle-bow bread knife that wouldn't fit into any knife block and would thus have to stay in a drawer no matter what.


So I asked Brian for a custom-made knife insert, designed specially for our drawer, that would accommodate all the knives we have and make them easy to identify at a glance. And Brian not only gave me just that, he went one better by building the whole thing entirely out of materials we had on hand. He started with a simple block of solid wood, salvaged from our scrap pile and cut to fit the drawer. Then he cut slits in it long enough and deep enough to accommodate the blades of our largest knives. He wavered over the spacing of the slits; he could accommodate more knives altogether by making some of the slots closer together, but that would constrain us to keep specific knives in specific slots (the big ones in the more widely spaced slots, the smaller ones in the narrower ones). Eventually he decided that, since we didn't have that many knives, he could just make them all a uniform distance apart, allowing us to keep any knife in any slot.

The block with the slits was, by itself, all we needed to hold the knife blades, but something had to hold the block itself in place. So Brian added a second, flatter piece of scrap wood to the front of the block, which would hold it against the bottom of the drawer by friction. He secured the two pieces together with some extra-long screws, salvaged from the set of futon hardware we ordered for our yard-sale futon that ended up being the wrong kind. 


To attach the two pieces together, he first drilled holes through the main block from above. Then he laid the pieces out side by side, as they would fit into the drawer, and clamped them together so that he could drill a longer hole that would go all the way through the block and into the bottom piece. 


As you can see in the picture, he also added an extra "lip" piece to the end of the bottom piece. It's just another strip of scrap wood that's glued and nailed on top of the flat piece. Its purpose is to hold the handles of the shorter knives in place, so they don't slide around. The short knives fit into the gap between the main block and the back lip, while the longer knives have their handles resting on the lip. There's still a little bit of wiggle room, so the knives slide back and forth a bit in their slots, but they can't slide completely out of them.


You may also notice from this picture that Brian left a gap at the side of the drawer for the fiddle-bow bread knife, which has its blade mounted sideways and can't go into a normal knife slot. And to keep this knife on a level with all the other ones, he added yet another narrow strip of scrap wood to the side for the bread knife to sit on. This one is secured to the slitted block with a couple of regular-length wood screws, screwed in horizontally (across the width of the piece). It also serves to extend that side of the knife insert the whole length of the drawer, so it doesn't slide back and forth too much when you open or shut the drawer. There's still a millimeter or two of wiggle room, but for the most part, the whole thing stays in place.

So now, with the drawer insert in place, all our knives line up neatly:


We pared down the collection just a little bit to fit them all in. We started with not two, but three chef's knives—a very nice Sabatier that we inherited from my grandmother, an older and cheaper one from Chicago Cutlery that Brian uses most of the time because he's used to it, and a still cheaper third one with a plastic handle that we got from we couldn't even remember where. Since we never used it and we already had a spare, we figured there was no need to hold on to it—so we listed it on Freecycle, where it quickly found a good home. We did keep all the paring knives, even though the insert could only accommodate two of them; there was a little bit of room left at the end of the drawer, so we just stuck the extra paring knife in there with its cardboard sheath still on. We know where to find it if we ever need it, and if we don't, it can always join its friend on Freecycle.

Wood from our scrap pile: free.
Hardware left over from the futon: free.
Being able to find any knife I want in the drawer at a glance: priceless.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Thrift Week 2015: A Thrifty Birthday Bash

As Thrift Week approached this year, I found myself feeling kind of unenthusiastic about it. I had a theme picked out, but I wasn't really all that excited about it—and I had a lot of other ideas for posts that I liked a lot better, and I wasn't happy about having to postpone them until Thrift Week was over. In particular, I'd received several really cool early birthday presents that were also ecofrugal, and I was really a lot more interested in writing about them than about my selected topic.

So finally I decided, why not just stretch out these entries to fill a whole week, and make that my Thrift Week celebration? Sure, it'll be a bit different from previous Thrift Week topics; it's less of a coherent theme, and more of a hodge-podge of different ideas linked together only by the fact that they happened to come up during my birthday week. But on the other hand, maybe that's a good thing. It'll make this year's Thrift Week less theoretical, and more down-to-earth—a sort of "A Week in the Life" celebration of day-by-day thrift.

So, to kick off this thrifty birthday bash, let's take a look at what I'm doing today, my actual birthday, to celebrate. Going out for a meal? To see a show? Treating myself to a shopping spree? Naturally, the answer is no to all of those. I'll be celebrating tonight with some good clean fun that requires neither cash nor electricity: a role-playing game with our Saturday night group. Yes, that means we'll burn a gallon or two of gas traveling to the house of the guy who hosts the group, but that's the only expenditure we'll have. I'll be running a scenario for Dogs in the Vineyard, a system that requires nothing to play except one book (which Brian gave me last year), a bunch of polyhedral dice, and some paper and pencils. (For any readers who are at all into role-playing games, I highly recommend this system. The mechanics are elegant and easy to learn, the character creation process is interesting, and best of all, the book lays out a really straightforward, step-by-step for creating new adventures—which makes it a lot easier to DM than most other games. And it only costs $22 for the one book you need—$15 if you're willing to buy it in PDF form.)

I also promised my gaming group that, since it was my birthday, I would bring cupcakes for the class. And since one member of the group is vegan, that means they'll need to be vegan cupcakes. Fortunately, I already know a chocolate cake recipe that's both vegan and extremely easy to make. I first met this recipe in the pages of my first kiddies' cookbook when I was about eight years old, where it was called "Wacky Cake," but a nearly identical recipe appears in Peg Bracken's I Hate to Cook Book under the name "Cockeyed Cake." She says of it:
This is a famous recipe, I believe, but I haven't the faintest idea who invented it. I saw it in a newspaper years ago, meant to clip it, didn't, and finally bumped into the cake itself in the apartment of a friend of mine. It was dark, rich, moist, and chocolatey, and she said it took no more than five minutes to mix it up. So I tried it, and, oddly enough, mine, too, was dark, rich, moist, and chocolatey. My own timing was five and a half minutes, but that includes hunting for the vinegar.
I'm not going to bother reproducing the recipe here, since you can easily find dozens of versions online by Googling "wacky cake." What's harder to find is a decent vegan frosting to go on top. I hunted through our recipe file and found a frosting recipe that Brian had invented a while back that was based on coconut milk, but I found it also included butter. So I put it the question to him: did he think he could modify the recipe to use coconut oil instead, making it even coconuttier? Brian didn't see why not; the worst that could happen was that the mixture would be a little gloopier than normal, and our gaming group wouldn't care whether the cupcakes looked pretty as long as they tasted good. So he started messing about in the kitchen and came up with this, which I present here for your delectation:
VEGAN DOUBLE COCONUT FROSTING
  • 2 Tbsp. coconut oil
  • pinch salt
  • 1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 - 1 1/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 1/2 Tbsp. coconut milk
Beat the coconut oil, salt, and vanilla together until fluffy.
Add sugar and coconut milk, alternating until smooth. (The more sugar you use, the stiffer the frosting will be.)
Here are the cupcakes, all baked and iced, ready to take to my thrifty birthday party. (We discovered that we didn't have any paper cupcake wrappers, so Brian just greased and floured the pan well before baking them, and most of them came out neatly. That one upside-down cupcake in the corner was the only one that was at all damaged, and it only left one little corner behind in the pan.)

And the best part is, the party goes on all week long. That's right: it's a thrift party, and we're going to kick it ecofrugal style! Stay tuned for the next exciting episode!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The last $1.53

Last November, in preparation for the holidays, I started cashing in a lot of my rewards from my online survey sites for credit that I could put toward holiday presents. For most of them, I chose Amazon.com credit because it's easiest to use; even though I'm boycotting Amazon.com itself on account of its loathsome labor practices, I can still use the credit to buy stuff from third-party sellers on Amazon Marketplace. I ended up buying six gifts this way, shaving $100 off my total holiday budget.

However, because I knew there might be a few gifts that I actually couldn't find on Amazon Marketplace, I decided to hedge my bets by cashing in $25 worth of survey rewards for a prepaid Visa card, which could be used anywhere. Unfortunately, the card ended up not arriving until after we'd finished all our holiday shopping, so I ended up using it to buy a birthday gift for myself instead: two much-needed pairs of SmartWool socks. With shipping, they came to for $23.47. (I know, this sounds like a lot for two pairs of socks, but trust me, in a winter like this one, SmartWool is a totally worthwhile splurge.)

Now, if you've done the math in your head, you'll see that this left me with just $1.53 on the gift card. Originally, I thought that I could just load this surplus onto my new Dunkin Donuts card and be done with it. However, when I went to the DDPerks website, I discovered that you can only load up the card in increments of $10. Great. Now what was I going to do with that extra $1.53?

Fortunately, today I happened across an article on the Wise Bread website that addresses this very problem. The article and the comments below offer several suggestions for using up those last little dribs and drabs left over on a gift card:
  1. Use it to buy gas. A commenter says you can just "Stick the card in and it will pump right up to the last penny before turning off." Unfortunately, this isn't an option here in New Jersey, where pumping your own gas is a criminal act. (Well, a misdemeanor, anyway.)
  2. Launder the extra dollars through Amazon.com. As the site explains it, you can use the exact sum left on the gift card to purchase an Amazon.com gift "card," which is actually a credit code you receive by e-mail. You can then immediately turn around and apply this to your credit balance on the site. The nice thing is, you can do this with as many cards as you like, so if you have $1 here, $5 here, and so on, you can consolidate them all into one nice sum that you can use for anything at Amazon or Amazon Marketplace. (Apparently the site has dropped its requirement that gift cards be at least $5, so there's nothing to stop you from transferring your last $1.53 this way.)
  3. Split a bill at the store. The article mentioned that Walgreens, along with many other stores, will let you pay the first $1.53 of your bill with your gift card, then pay the balance with cash or credit.
This third option looked like the easiest to me, so I thought I'd give it a try. Since the author of the article had used this ploy successfully at Walgreens, I decided to try it at Rite Aid, where I needed to pick up some meds anyway. However, since I'd never done it there before, I was a little uncertain, so I asked the cashier first whether bill splitting was allowed—explaining that I had "about $1.50 left" on my gift card I wanted to use up. The cashier wasn't at all fazed by my request, but unfortunately, she took me at my word about the amount; she just punched in $1.50 to be charged to the gift card, leaving me with 3 cents. I didn't want to hold up the line any longer by explaining that I was a little off, so I just took my $1.50 credit and ran.

So now I have 3 cents left over on this card, and at this point, it's hardly even worth the effort of trying to use it. I'm content to write it off as the cost of a useful lesson; if I ever need to spend a leftover dollar or two, Rite Aid is happy to help. I just need to remember next time to give them the exact amount and not let those last few pennies go to waste.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

An $80 game for $3.86

I mentioned in my last post that while we were in Indiana, Brian stopped into a Michael's to pick up some supplies he needed for a gift. For those who were curious about what he wanted to make that required craft supplies, the answer is: a copy of an out-of-print board game that costs around $90 to buy secondhand. His version used $3.86 worth of card stock, plus a few items we already owned. How's that for tightwaddery being the mother of invention?

The game in question is called Unspeakable Words. We saw it on an episode of Tabletop, where Wil Wheaton introduces it as a word game for people who hate word games. The (admittedly shaky) premise behind the game is that the players are all a bunch of cultists trying to find words of power to summon an ancient, evil god. This sounds like a bad idea to start with, and what makes it worse is that, every time they find such a word, there's a risk it will drive them insane. (Apparently game designer Mike Selinker dreamed up this concept after a night spent playing multiple games of Scrabble and Arkham Horror.)

Anyway, this game starts out like most other word games; you combine letter cards from your hand to make a word and score points for it. The twist is that after scoring your points, you must roll a 20-sided die, and if your roll is less than the number of points in your word, you lose a sanity token. You start the game with five of these, and if you lose them all, you're out. Wheaton's gang played the game with an amusing optional rule that when you get down to your last sanity token, you are officially insane, which means you are no longer limited to legal English words. Any combination of letters at all looks like a perfectly cromulent word to you.

So apparently, after watching this episode, Brian thought Unspeakable Words would make an amusing change of pace for our biweekly game nights. However, when he went searching for a copy online, he found that the game was out of print, and copies were going for $80 or more (plus shipping) at Board Game Geek. However, while looking for a cheaper copy, he happened upon this PDF of the game rules, which contained a complete list of all the cards in the deck with their point values. He realized that all he'd need to do to make his own copy of the game would be to transfer those letters and point values to some blank cards. Throw in a 20-sided die from our collection, some sort of tokens to keep track of sanity, and a copy of the rules PDF, and you have everything you need to play.

Here's what Brian's makeshift version of the game looks like. It has plain, hand-lettered squares of card stock in place of the beautifully illustrated cards in the original, and the sanity tokens are just white and red poker chips (the red one is your "insanity chip," a little flourish he added) instead of disturbing little plastic Cthulhu figurines. (Though frankly, it seems to me that having more of those should make you less sane, not more.) The chips and the 20-sided die are stored in a repurposed spice bottle, the cards in a zip-top bag. It's not fancy, but the game plays exactly like the original, for about $86 less.

I'm considering a few modifications to Brian's design; for instance, I think that while the poker chips make perfectly good sanity tokens, it would be more appropriate to use (and lose) marbles. The trouble with marbles game pieces, of course, is that they roll around, but you could simply substitute the flat-bottomed kind used in decorating. In fact, we already have a collection of those in our Mancala game; we could simply borrow them when we want to play this one.

But overall, I think Brian did a very clever job of recreating an $80 game on a $4 budget. It just goes to show how a little creativity often makes an excellent substitute for cash.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Thanksgiving boycott results

Back in November, I got up on my high horse and announced my intention to boycott all the stores that were planning to keep their doors open on Thanksgiving Day—thus denying their employees a Thanksgiving dinner with their families. I didn't count gas stations or supermarkets that were open for the morning only, since they provide services other people might need for their Thanksgiving celebrations; I only boycotted retail stores that were preempting Thanksgiving in order to get a head start on Christmas. At the time, I wasn't sure how easy this would be for me to stick to, but I was determined to try, if only out of sheer stubbornness.

Well, now that the Christmas season is officially over, I can report that the boycott was actually pretty easy. Since we generally try not to set foot in a mall during December if we can possibly avoid it, the prohibition had little impact on our Christmas shopping. The item we had most difficulty with was the new MP3 player we planned to get my mom to replace her somewhat cumbersome portable CD player. All the stores we could think of that were likely to carry such an item—Best Buy, Target, Sears—were on the "naughty" list. Of course, we could have ordered one on Amazon.com, which has everything, but they're on our blacklist too on account of their appalling labor practices. Besides, by the time we figured out that buying one in a store wouldn't be an option, we were afraid that ordering one might not get it to us in time for Hanukkah. So we decided the simplest solution was to give her our old Sandisk Sansa, which we hardly ever used anyway, and then buy ourselves a replacement at our convenience. This probably worked out even better than buying her a new one, since we were already familiar with the features of the old one and could show Mom exactly how to use it. And as it turns out, so far we haven't really felt any need to replace the MP3 player—so the boycott actually ended up saving us money, since we were able to give an unneeded item to a good home instead of buying a new one.

I also had a little trouble putting together the gift I planned to get my sister: a DIY kit for home mani-pedis. This was something she'd specifically asked for, and normally, it would be a simple request to fulfill. I found a list of all the items needed for a good home mani-pedi on this website, and it would have been as easy as the proverbial pie to stop in at local Rite Aid during my afternoon walk and pick them up. Unfortunately, Rite Aid was on the "naughty" list, and so was Walgreens, the only other big drugstore within a few miles. I tried the two independent drugstores we have here in Highland Park and found a couple of the items I was looking for, but neither store had all of them, so there was no way to complete this gift without visiting one of the big chains.

Fortunately, I discovered that CVS, the other major pharmacy chain her in New Jersey, was not on the "naughty" list. (A site called TheBlackFriday.com, which offers a comprehensive guide to Black Friday deals and hours, said that it was up to individual stores in the chain whether to open on Thanksgiving or not, and I decided that was good enough.) So one Thursday, on our way down to Princeton, Brian and I stopped in at a CVS to look for the items I needed. Surprisingly, the store we visited first didn't have all of them, and we ended up having to visit a second CVS on the weekend to complete the list. So this was the one gift on my list that was considerably harder to shop for because of my boycott. Still, considering that there were about 30 people on my holiday shopping list, having to go out of my way for only one present doesn't seem all that bad.

Avoiding the Rite Aid also caused a few complications in my everyday shopping. I realized about a week into my boycott that I was running low on some medicines I take regularly, like antihistamines. Since I couldn't just stock up at Rite Aid as I normally would, I turned to the local drugstores, figuring I'd just have to pay a bit more for a name-brand version as the price of my principles. But to my surprise, both our local pharmacies actually had store brands. One of them, Saiff Drugs, turns out to be a Good Neighbor Pharmacy—part of a network of local, independent drugstores that has its own house brand of many common drugs. And the other, Unite Pharmacy, carried products from Preferred Plus Pharmacy, a line of private-label drugs sold exclusively at independent pharmacies as a low-cost option. In fact, one of the products I needed actually cost less at Saiff Drugs than it normally does at Rite Aid. So even if my pointless protest did nothing to hold back the relentless tide of the Christmas season sweeping over Thanksgiving and everything else in its way, it had one definite benefit for me: it introduced me to these two local stores and the bargains to be found there. Yet one more example of the local advantage, in price as well as convenience and service.

Unfortunately, there was one service that the local pharmacies couldn't provide for me: a flu shot. Or rather, they could have given me one, but they couldn't accept my insurance to cover the cost. Apparently our insurer deals only with specific pharmacies, and the two independents here in town aren't part of that network. So I ended up cheating just a bit and going to Rite Aid for my flu shot. I tried to rationalize that I wasn't actually buying anything from the store, only using the services of the pharmacy, but it still felt like, at best, a technicality. If I try to do this same boycott again this year, I'll make sure to get my flu shot early and avoid this problem.

Nor was that the only time I had to cheat, or at least fudge, on my resolution. While we were in Indiana, out running errands with my in-laws, Brian said he wanted to stop at a craft store to pick up something he needed for a gift. The nearest craft store was Michael's, which was on the "naughty" list, but I didn't like to ask his folks to drive out of their way to go to the "nice" A.C. Moore instead. So I compromised by telling Brian he could get what he needed at Michael's, but I couldn't go in with him. Once again, it was sort of splitting hairs, but it let me at least pretend to stick to my pointless protest.

I also ended up bringing the protest to a slightly earlier conclusion than I'd planned. My goal was to boycott all the "naughty" stores throughout the entire holiday season, which I defined as lasting through the end of the year. However, as we headed home on December 31, I felt signs of a cold coming on, and I knew my only chance of heading it off was prompt treatment with zinc spray. (Yes, I know Consumer Reports claims it doesn't work, but they're basing that claim on a single study in which participants "began taking zinc regularly 24 to 48 hours from the onset of their colds." The thing is, if you look on the label, you'll see that it clearly advises you to start taking it "at the first sign of a cold." In my own experience, if I take zinc promptly at the first sign of a cold, it's usually milder and shorter, and sometimes I can avoid it completely; if I wait a day or two, it doesn't help at all.) So we stopped at the first convenient exist off of I-70 and went to the first available drugstore, which turned out to be a Walgreens. So I shaved one day off my planned boycott, but at least I made it through the holidays.

Even with these minor hiccups, I'd say that overall, the boycott was no big deal for us. Sure, it was a slight inconvenience having to make those extra trips to CVS, but it forced us to get creative with our shopping in other ways, which ended up saving us money on both my meds and my mom's gift. So on balance, I think the boycott actually did us more good than harm. And while I can't personally claim any credit for the fact that sales during Thanksgiving weekend were down by 11 percent last year, at least I can say that I held my own personal bit of ground against Christmas creep.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Case of the Disappearing Glasses

This post is, perhaps, a little off-topic for a blog about ecofrugal living, but it was too good a story not to share.

A little background: we're in the middle of a cold snap here. Not just normal January cold, but really cold. Last night it was down to 6 degrees; now it's up to a balmy 19 (but the wind chill brings it down to about 7). In weather like this, you just don't want to take a shower and walk around with wet hair unless you have to.

So this morning, I decided I'd skip the shower and just wash my face. I went into the bathroom, took off my hat and glasses, fetched my face wash and wash cloth out of the shower, and cleaned up as best I could. Then I applied a little coconut oil (which I've taken to using in the morning as a moisturizer), put everything away, put my hat back on, and went to pick up my glasses.

They were gone.

I felt in the pockets of my bathrobe, which is where I usually put them when I take a shower. Nothing. I felt in the pockets of the sweat pants I had on underneath, thinking maybe I slipped them in there instead. Nothing. I hunted around the bathroom as best I could, examining the sink, toilet, and medicine chest with my nose about three inches from the surface (which is about as far as I can see without my glasses). No sign of them. I looked in the basket that holds the books on top of the toilet, in the drawers under the sink, in the shower, even in the linen closet, though I was positive I hadn't put them in there. The glasses had just vanished into thin air.

Since I knew I wouldn't get far trying to look for them without being able to see, I went into the bedroom and retrieved my old pair of glasses, which I'd held onto in case this pair broke. With their help, I scouted out the bedroom. My glasses weren't in any of the places I'd normally leave them; they weren't on the dresser or on the nightstand, and they hadn't fallen into any of the dresser or nightstand drawers. Next, I checked the office, the last place I remembered being before going to wash my face. They weren't on my desk, nor on Brian's desk, nor hidden among the papers in my in-basket. I checked the kitchen: not in my purse, not in the pockets of my coat, not on any visible surface. No sign of them in the guest room or the living room—not that there would be, since I hadn't even been in those rooms.

This was completely baffling. Those glasses were off my face for less than five minutes. How on earth had they disappeared so completely? The only explanations I could think of were a poultergeist or an incredibly stealthy burglar with very peculiar tastes.

As a last-ditch effort, I went back to the office and started typing an e-mail to Brian, asking if he could think of anyplace else to look. I started recounting the story, just as I've done here, and I was suddenly struck by a point right near the beginning. Go ahead and look back at the first paragraph and see if you can find it.

I patted my head—and I felt a lump inside my hat. The same hat that I'd taken off while I washed my face, and put on again straight afterward. And the minute I felt it, I remembered that I'd put the glasses in my hat to keep them nice and safe—and then once I put the hat back on, the glasses were nowhere to be seen. :-)

Thinking it over, I realize that this story does have an ecofrugal moral of sorts. No, it's not "Always remember exactly where you put everything," because I know that's a perfectly useless piece of advice. (I'm an intelligent person with an exceptional memory, and I had literally no idea where those glasses had gone.) The useful advice is, "Always keep a backup of anything you literally can't function without." This morning's incident was baffling and frustrating, but without that extra pair of glasses to wear while I hunted, it would have been absolutely nerve-wracking. I would have been pretty much half-functional the whole time—and if the glasses hadn't turned up, I would have stayed half-functional until I could get my hands on a new pair.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

DIY slipper socks follow-up

About three weeks ago, I was crowing about how I'd managed to get myself a much-needed pair of bedroom slippers for free by upcycling a couple of old pairs of socks. As I explained in this post, I simply put on one pair over the other, folded down the tops, stitched them into place, and then added some dots of hot glue to the bottom for traction. It seemed like a win-win situation.

After a couple of weeks of wear, however, I started to discover a few flaws in my design. First, the stitches I'd put in to hold the two socks together started to pop out. Oh well, that wasn't a big problem; the socks were still reasonably well secured. I'd just have to fold the tops back over and re-stitch them at some point.

Then the slippers started to get a bit dirty. Since they didn't have proper soles, all the unseen dust that we hadn't caught with the broom was accumulating directly on the outside of the socks. Oh, well, that wasn't a big problem there either; I'd just run them through the washer and dryer.

That turned out to be a big problem.

Actually, it was two problems, one big and one not-so-big. The not-so-big problem was that, when the drying cycle was done, the slippers weren't actually dry. They felt dry on the outside, but since they had two layers, the inner layer was still damp. OK, no big deal; they'd just have to hang on the rack to finish drying.

The bigger problem was that the hot glue on the soles of the slippers had melted during the drying cycle. Luckily, none of it seemed to have transferred to the other clothes, but it was smeared all over the dryer drum in these bluish streaks. (The color was presumably lint from the surface of the outer sock that had mixed with the glue.)

The good news is, Brian figured out how to get all the dried glue off the dryer drum. He just ran the dryer for a few minutes to heat it up and soften the glue, and then he scraped it off with a plastic paint scraper. (He didn't want to use anything sharper for fear of damaging the surface of the drum.) The dryer now betrays no telltale evidence of my little slipper slip-up.

The bad news is, it's back to the drawing board as far as this slipper design is concerned. If the thread doesn't hold and the hot glue melts away, then basically all I have is a couple of pairs of socks layered together. And they don't even layer all that well; since the outer sock tightened up in the dryer while the inner one stayed damp, the inner sock layer is now to big to fit snugly inside the outer one, and so they won't even fit smoothly together once they're dry.

So if I'm going to attempt this DIY slipper sock idea again with my other two pairs of fuzzy socks, I'll have to make some modifications to it. Maybe I should try stitching the soles of the socks together, as well as the tops. That will help the two socks stay together as a unit, and it might give the soles a bit more traction so I can skip the hot glue. Or maybe I should try and come up with some better sort of sole surface and stitch it over top of both layers.

Or I could just buy myself a pair of slippers. But that would be cheating.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The problem of too much space

Over our Christmas vacation, we discovered a new show on HGTV called "Tiny House Hunters." In a refreshing change of pace from the original "House Hunters" series (and its two existing spin-offs, "House Hunters International" and "Island Hunters"), the prospective homeowners on this show are seeking less space, not more. They have various reasons for wanting to downsize: some are trying to live debt-free in a house they can buy for cash, some live a gypsy lifestyle and want a home they can take with them, and some are just trying to tread more lightly on the earth. Whatever the reason, they're bucking the long-term American trend against seeking more, more, more, by scaling back their belongings until they can fit into a home that, in many cases, is smaller than the kitchen at their old house.

As it turns out, this isn't the only show about the Tiny House movement. While trying to find out the schedule for "Tiny House Hunters," I Googled "tiny house show" and discovered two others: "Tiny House Builders," also on HGTV, which is all about the construction of these space-saving dwellings, and "Tiny House Nation," on FYI, which is like a combination of the other two: each hour-long episode shows both the process of constructing a tiny house to meet a family's needs and the process the family goes through to adjust to living there. Apparently, Tiny Houses are a pretty hot topic right now, and everybody wants a piece of it—which is an encouraging sign for a society in which the average new house is a whopping 2,600 square feet. (According to the environmental site Shrink that Footprint, Americans have more than twice as much space per person in their homes as the Brits and Japanese, and more than 3 times as much as Russians.)

Brian and I have now watched two episodes of "Tiny House Hunters" and two episodes of "Tiny House Nation" (which has full-length episodes available on its website and on Hulu). And after viewing two of them in a row last night, we've made an astonishing discovery: our house is HUGE.

Now, we've always known that our roughly 1,400-square-foot home (936 square feet upstairs and roughly half as much finished area downstairs) was a lot more house than we needed for just the two of us. We certainly could have made do with significantly less, if there had been any smaller houses on the market in the areas we wanted. But still, we've always been accustomed to think of our house as fairly modest in size. After all, it's only about half the size of the average new American home; it's smaller than most of the houses in our town, and even in our neighborhood; and there are a lot of rooms it doesn't have, such as a separate dining room or a formal living room. Yet after watching two episodes in a row of "Tiny House Nation" last night, Brian and I found ourselves wandering around the house saying, "Look at all this wasted space!" The designers on this show put Karl Champley of "Wasted Spaces" to shame, using every single square inch of space—walls, floor, and ceiling—and often putting the same space to multiple uses. In just two episodes, we saw a kitchen with individual induction burners that can be stored in a drawer and pulled out when needed, an entire office that folds up into a movable wall, and a Murphy-style bed that folds up into the wall—and then has a fold-out seating bench on the back.

This raises another question: if our house has so much room, why do we always seem to have so much trouble each year figuring out where to put all our Christmas presents? This year, for instance, Brian got a new air compressor—a small one, but it's still bigger than a breadbox, and it needs to find a new home in the shop, which is already piled so deep in stuff that it's hard to move around or find an empty surface to put anything down (or, once you've put it down, find it to pick it up again when you need it). Even if our house is small by modern standards, it's still got around 700 square feet of space for each of us; why can't we seem to find two square feet to store Brian's new toy?

At first, it's a puzzling question. But the answer actually became obvious to me while I was looking for a place to put one of my presents, a set of fluffy new bath towels. I opened up the cabinet in the downstairs bathroom and thought, "Gee, we have so many towels in here already, how are the new ones going to fit?" So I started pulling out the old towels, most of which hadn't actually been used in years, and that was when it hit me: We can't find room for anything because we have TOO MUCH space.

Yes, this sounds completely counterintuitive. But just think about it for a minute: when you live in a small space, you can't afford to hold on to things you don't need. You need to make the most of every available square inch, so anything that isn't being used has to go to free up space for more important stuff. But when you have extra space, it's easy to let things pile up. I didn't need all those extra towels; they aren't being used, and chances are they never will be used again. But on the other hand, there was no particular reason to get rid of them either, because we had the space. As long as that cabinet was sitting there, there was no reason not to hold on to all our old towels and whatever other miscellaneous linens we could find. There were curtains in there that hadn't been hung since we moved into this house; there were curtains that we'd never hung in any home and couldn't even remember where they came from; there were old shower curtain liners that were stained and had been retired in favor of new ones. But we hadn't dumped any of this stuff, because there was no need to—and consequently, when some nice, new towels that we might actually use came into our life, there was no room for them.

I don't mean to imply by this that I think Brian and I would actually be happier if we traded in our roomy, paid-off house for one less than half its size. After all, a house with more space has certain advantages, such as...well, more space. Sure, this house has more room than we actually need or use on a day-to-day basis, but if the plumbing unexpectedly goes out at my parents' house over Thanksgiving weekend, we can just pack up four guests and settle them in at our place with no difficulties. And when the Folk Project calls around seeking volunteers to host its monthly Home-Made Music Party, which can have anywhere from half a dozen people to over fifty, we can say without hesitation that we have plenty of room to put a big circle of musicians downstairs, fit in a smaller one (or two) upstairs, and still have room for folks to chat over snacks in the kitchen without disrupting the music. No Tiny House is going to be able to pull that off.

So I don't actually want to reduce the amount of space in our house; what I would like to do, instead, is stop using all of it. Because even if we do, technically, have room to store piles of linens that we never use, or repair records for a car that was totaled four years ago, or three old pairs of tap shoes that my sister and I used in high school, having these things in our home doesn't actually make our lives better in any way. They're just filling up space—which then isn't available for stuff that we could actually use.

So the first of my New Year's Resolutions this year is to go through every room in this house—every single room—and remove everything that is just taking up space. Stuff that could still be useful for someone else can be Freecycled; stuff that's worn or damaged, or that no one else wants, can go to the textile recycling bins. And stuff that's absolutely no use to anyone can just be thrown out—because while I normally like to avoid waste as much as possible, keeping garbage cluttering up my house instead of cluttering up a landfill isn't a solution. It's still garbage, it's just in the wrong place.

I'll keep you posted throughout the year on our decluttering efforts. I'm thinking of keeping a list of all the items I get rid of and how, updating it throughout the year to track our progress. By the end of 2015, I'll have concrete evidence of how much useless stuff I've sent on to a better life—and I'll also know just where I have available space for next year's holiday gifts.