Thursday, April 30, 2015

Savings Challenge, Week 9: Cutting cellphone costs

This week's topic in the Bankrate 52-Week Savings Challenge is saving on cellphone service. This is apparently a bigger item in most people's budgets than I realized; according to a financial firm cited in the article, "the nationwide average bill is $90 per phone." Another source puts the number even higher, saying the three biggest carriers all charge upwards of $140 a month. That's more than we pay for our home phone, Internet, and cable service combined.

The personal story linked to this challenge is a bit different from the others I've read so far. While most Bankrate reporters are only trying out a given challenge out for the sake of the article, reporter Barbara Whelehan  had a genuine need to trim her budget after a whopping 50 percent drop in household income, and she saw their equally whopping $160 monthly cellphone bill as a likely spot to cut. She'd already managed to negotiate her personal bill with T-Mobile down to $55 a month from $87, so she tried them again and took advantage of a special deal: "two lines with unlimited talk, text, and data for $100 a month." The process of switching was a hassle—not on T-Mobile's end, but getting her husband's former "Ma-Bell company" to unlock his phone—but it ended up cutting their bill by 60 percent.

According to the mobile editor at Bankrate, Mike Cetera, Whelehan is getting a "very nice deal" paying just $100 for two phones with unlimited talk, text, and data. However, he says they could have paid even less by going with a "discount carrier" such as Ting, which works on a "pay-what-you-use" basis. Given that Whelehan says she generally uses her phone "to call, text and occasionally scan the news if I'm stuck on the road," this would probably be a good deal for them, as they're currently paying for a lot more plan than they need (at least for her phone). With Ting, according to the carrier's website, an average 2-phone family pays just $42 per month. Republic Wireless, another discount carrier, offers plans with unlimited talk and text (plus data over wi-fi only) for as little as $10 a month.

If Whelehan and her husband were willing to accept some limits on talking and texting as well as data use, they could potentially lower their bill even more by switching to a prepaid plan. Their current carrier, T-Mobile, charges only $3 a month for a bare-bones pay-as-you-go plan that includes 30 minutes of talk or 30 text messages. Additional minutes or messages are billed at 10 cents apiece, and you can tack on a data pass when you need it for $5 per day or $10 per week. Admittedly, this isn't nearly enough phone time for most people, but for users like us, who truly do want a cell phone only for emergencies, it's plenty. We switched to this plan a few months ago, and we've never gone over the 30-minute limit. And since we have only one phone between the two of us, that means our phone bill comes to $3 per month total—not exactly an overpriced luxury that's ripe for budget cuts.

So I guess the moral of the story here may be that the best way of all to cut your cellphone bill is to use the phone less. Keep it down to half an hour, and you can get by with a $3 prepaid plan, whittling your bill to just one-thirtieth of the average. (If, on the other hand, you really need that unlimited talk and text because your cell phone is your primary phone, maybe you should just drop your landline instead.)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Savings Challenge, Week 8: Lawn care (or lack thereof)

Once again, I've fallen behind schedule with the Bankrate 52-Week Savings Challenge. I couldn't find any way to link this week's challenge with last week's to cover them both in one post, so instead I'm going to devote this post to last week's challenge, "Mow Your Own Lawn." Then I'll cover this week's challenge in my next post to get caught up again.

Mowing your own lawn isn't exactly new territory for us: since we bought this house nearly eight years ago, we've been cutting all the grass with a manual push mower. This is only feasible because our "lawn," if you can even dignify it with that name, doesn't cover all that much area: a patch about eight paces by ten in the front and maybe two to three times as much total space in the back. Nonetheless, it's not exactly an easy and pleasant chore. The front yard is a sort of raised, semi-enclosed area that we can only reach by hauling the mower up a flight of steps and over a short wall, and the back yard has a sloped portion that's hard to run the mower up and down. The difficulties are compounded by the fact that our "grass", far from being a smooth carpet of uniform green blades, is a dense, motley assortment of grasses and weeds: clover, chickweed, dandelions, and mugwort, punctuated by thick, mower-resistant tufts of crabgrass.

On top of that, I must confess, we're not too good at following the Bankrate article's advice about mowing frequently to keep the grass healthy. They quote an expert who advises to "Mow grass as needed and not as a scheduled weekly chore," but we're doing well if we get to it once every two weeks. On the plus side, we're great at following all the other tips in the article. It says not to overwater; we never waste water on the lawn at all. It recommends "cutting it high and letting it lie"; we keep the mower blade at its highest setting, and we couldn't bag up the clippings if we wanted to, since our little push mower won't even take a bag. And we avoid the perils of "Fertilizing at the incorrect rate or the incorrect time of year for your type of grass" by eschewing fertilizer altogether.

Nonetheless, our attitude of benign neglect hasn't exactly made our lawn easier to deal with. So what we're trying to do instead is gradually whittle away at the size of the lawn so there will be less of it to mow. Over the past seven years, we've cleared strips of grass from the front yard to make room for creeping phlox and day lilies, as well as adding three plum trees surrounded by islands of mulch. (Side note: They bloomed for the first time this year, so we might actually get to pick a few plums this summer.) In the back yard, we converted formerly grassy areas to beds for our bush cherries and rhubarb, as well as replacing a big swath of lawn with our patio. Yet even so, there's more grass remaining than we'd really like.

We're not prepared to go quite as far as the Bankrate reporter who attempted this challenge, who says that just one sweaty session of mowing her Florida lawn with an electric mower was enough to make her consider swapping out the lawn for "low-maintenance rocks and dirt." What we'd prefer, instead, is a nice, easy-care ground cover that can tolerate being trodden on occasionally. We've considered several alternatives, and we actually had a go at seeding an area in the back yard with Dutch clover, but the results were uninspiring to say the least. However, we had much better luck in the front yard with a single creeping thyme plant, which started out as a circle a few inches and "crept" at surprising speed to encompass several square feet. The Mother-of-Thyme plant we tried last year has also thrived, but on a less impressive scale; after a year, it's still less than a foot across. It's lower and denser than the creeping thyme and would probably look nicer spread across the entire yard, but it would just take too many plants to make that happen. With creeping thyme, by contrast, we could probably start with a dozen strategically spaced plants and have the whole lawn area covered in a couple of years. So if we can succeed in finding the plants at the upcoming Rutgers plant sale, I think it's worth taking the plunge. Even if we can only rustle up enough thyme plants to cover half the yard, that's still half a yard we'll never have to mow again.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Monday, April 27, 2015

Provisioning a Yard-Sale Expedition

This Saturday, Brian and I spent the morning indulging in one of our favorite spring/summer pastimes: yard sale shopping. We'd seen a flier advertising a town-wide sale in Princeton, which meant that we could expect the yard sales to be reasonably thick on the ground—which, according to Livingston's First Law, would maximize our chances of coming home with something useful. But even if we didn't, we'd still spend a pleasant morning walking around town in the nice spring weather, and we could stop at the Trader Joe's on the way back, so the trip wouldn't be wasted.

Since the yard-sale territory was about 40 minutes' drive from home, we made a point of packing a bag before we left with everything we were likely to need while we were out. And it occurred to me as we did so that, while I've written before about important things to do when preparing to host your own yard sale, I've never actually written about how to prepare when heading out for a day of yard-saling. So here, based on my 20-plus years of yard-sale experience, is my list of:

Essential Provisions and Preparations for a Yard-Sale Expedition
  1. Dress in layers. Particularly if you are planning to be out for several hours, the temperature can change a lot over the course of a day, so it's handy to be able to add or shed layers to adjust. If you are planning to do any shopping for clothes, then the ideal outfit for yard-saling is like the one I favor for thrift-shopping: layers of clothing that allow you to try on other clothes under or over them. On top, your undermost layer should be a snug-fitting tank top or camisole, so you can try other shirts on over it; on the bottom, a long, loose skirt worn over tights lets you slip another skirt or a pair of pants on under the skirt without exposing yourself. (For the fellas, trying on clothes is trickier. You can probably strip down to your undershirt without raising too many eyebrows, but there's really no way to try on pants without taking off the ones you're wearing. Probably the best you can do is to wear a pair of bike shorts underneath, so you can drop your trousers and still remain technically decent.)
  2. Wear comfortable shoes. You are going to be on your feet all day, so it's essential to choose a pair of shoes that fit well and don't cause fatigue. Sneakers, hiking boots, or well-broken-in loafers are good choices.
  3. Be prepared for changes in the weather. Bring along both a folding umbrella and a bottle of sunscreen, so you're ready for rain or shine. A wide-brimmed hat is also useful, though if it's a straw one, you may have to shed it if a rainstorm blows up.
  4. Bring sturdy bags to carry your haul. Avoid bags you have to carry in your hands, since (a) that gets tiring and (b) you'll have to keep setting them down to pick other things up. Instead, go for a backpack or a roomy bag with shoulder straps. This is where all those tote bags sent by charities and public radio stations come in handy. 
  5. Have plenty of cash. Most yard sales are cash-only, so if you run across a great $70 futon when you're carrying nothing but 85 cents and a credit card, you're probably out of luck. Some sellers might be willing to take a check for a large item, but flashing a wad of cash is more likely to close the sale at the price you want. Ideally, your wallet should contain a good mix of large and small bills, as well as some small change, since yard-sale sellers aren't always organized enough to make change for a $20 on a $2 item.
  6. Carry provisions. You may be walking for several miles, and you don't want to get dehydrated or suffer a blood-sugar crash. Stopping somewhere for a bite to eat isn't always an option, and even when it is, the cost of the meal could outweigh all the money you saved on your yard-sale bargains. So make sure you have a bottle of water with you and a portable, quick-energy snack, like a peanut-butter sandwich or a couple of granola bars.
  7. One thing you can't take with you is a bathroom. You may well need one during a multi-hour excursion, however, so make a point of checking a map ahead of time and scoping out the available public restrooms in the area. In our case, we were heading into familiar territory in Princeton, so we knew there would be one at the public library right in the middle of town—which turned out to be very useful information.
  8. While you've got your map out, check the parking situation. In most suburban areas, you can simply pull up on the street next to a likely-looking sale, but if you're in a more built-up area, you may have to put the car in a lot and hoof it. Paying for parking will also eat into your yard-sale profits, so if necessary, figure out where you can stash the car for free. (Years of living in Princeton had acquainted us with a handy side street where parking is free for two hours, and even that limit is rarely enforced.)
  9. If you're hitting a town-wide yard sale, as we did on Saturday, see if there's a map or an app available that shows where the sales are. This will help you full advantage of Livingston's First Law by focusing your attention on the areas with the highest concentration of sales. It'll also allow you to plan out an efficient route to hit as many sales as possible in a given area.
  10. Even if you can't find a map app, bring your smartphone if you have one. It can help you check important details that you might not know offhand, like "Is $10 really a good price for this or would it only cost $15 new?" and "Is this the same brand as the blender we used to have that broke down so spectacularly?" A smartphone would have come in handy for us on Saturday when we came across a make-your-own-book kit that included a free bound copy, which we thought would have made a nice present for a niece or a nephew. The only snag was that we weren't sure whether the company that made the kit was still in business, so the item might have turned out to be useless. If we'd had access to the Internet on the spot, we could have checked on it and made an informed choice. (If situations like this keep coming up, we may want to revisit the issue of getting a smartphone.)
  11. Lastly, if there's anything in particular you're hoping to find at the sales, make sure to write out a list of what you're looking for. You may think you'll remember, but in my experience, these things have a way of popping right out of your head just when you need to know them. And, if you're yard-saling with a partner, run through the list ahead of time and agree on what you're willing to pay for each item, so that you're on the same page when it comes time to negotiate.
So there you have it: Livingston's Second through Twelfth Laws of Yard Sales. May they serve you as well as they have me.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

What I Did for Earth Day 2015

This year's Earth Day, like last year's, didn't involve any grand gestures for us. We didn't spend the day cleaning up a river, or planting trees, or upgrading to more efficient appliances, or doing anything extra-specially green. In fact, Brian couldn't even ride his bike to work, due to predictions of thunderstorms and high winds in the weather report. He'd already missed his ride on Monday and Tuesday due to rain, and it was perfectly sunny and nice when he went out the door, grumbling, "If it doesn't rain today I'm going to be pissed." But fortunately, the thunderstorms and high winds showed up as promised in the afternoon, so he didn't have to feel any guilt about driving. And he's making up for it by riding to work this morning, even though he has to be in by 8am for a meeting and the temperature is currently around 45 degrees.

Nonetheless, I did manage, as usual, to do a lot of little things in honor of the earth. Here's my Day in the Green Life:

1. I learned to say "climate change" when I mean "global warming." Though the two terms are often used interchangeably, they don't really mean the same thing. Climate change is any long-term shift in the earth's overall climate. Global warming is a specific type of climate change: the long-term trend toward higher average temperatures over the past century or so, which virtually all scientists agree is a result of rising greenhouse gas emissions. However, according to a poll at Cornell that I read about on Accuweather, "global warming" is an issue that most people have firmly made up their minds about, one way or the other: that is, with the scientific consensus or against it. (See, I just proved the point.) When you use that phrase, people are likely to respond by citing and sticking firmly to the opinion they've already formed, no matter what evidence you may cite to the contrary. By contrast, when you use the phrase "climate change," people are more open to hearing about the data and possibly altering their views in response. So the Cornell professor who ran the study suggests using the term "climate change" in place of "global warming" if you want to get a real discussion going, rather than just, "Is not!" "Is too!" (Of course, Governor Scott of Florida has apparently anticipated this strategy and banned both phrases—along with "sustainability"—in any documents issued by his staff. But that just shows that there are some people it really isn't worth trying to reason with.)

2. I ran into some problems with paper reuse. Brian and I routinely use one-side-used paper (scavenged from his office) for our printer at home, but our new 3-in-one printer seems to have some problems with it. When I try to print out my daily crossword puzzle, the printer sometimes grabs multiple sheets and spits out blanks along with the printed page. This isn't a big problem, since I can always just feed the blank ones back into the paper tray, but this time it actually spread the crossword across two pages instead of one. This used to happen with our old printer too, but we thought it was the printer's fault; now we have to consider the possibility that there's something wrong with the paper. Brian thinks the problem may be that the used paper is sometimes bent at the corners, so the printer is mistaking two sheets folded together for one extra-thick sheet. So it looks like we may just need to be more careful when feeding paper into the printer, making sure the sheets are all neatly aligned and leaving out any that are too badly bent or torn.

3. I corrected a misapprehension about energy use. An article in the Dollar Stretcher about quick tricks for trimming your budget mentions unplugging off any electronic items you're not using, since many of them continue to draw a trickle of power even when they're shut down. This is perfectly sensible advice, but the article goes overboard by advising readers to "pull the plug on the toaster oven, coffee maker, [and] lamps." The author seems to be under the impression that all electrical devices use power whenever they're plugged in, not just electronic ones. A fact sheet from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory about standby power use explains that you can usually identify phantom power users because they have "an external power supply, remote control, continuous display (including an LED)," or internal batteries that require charging. Now, I suppose some ultra-fancy modern toaster ovens or coffee makers might include a display screen (though my 20-year-old models definitely don't), but a lamp is basically just a wire that you run a current through to produce light. There is no way it can draw power when it isn't switched on. There was no place to leave comments on the article itself, so I sent a gently worded note to the editor asking him to let readers know that there's no need for them to go around unplugging all the lamps in their houses in order to save electricity. Instead, they can just focus on electronic devices, which are easy to power down by plugging them all into power strips that can be switched off at night.

4. I got my first quote on a solar power system. Last Tuesday, I got a preliminary estimate on the cost of solar power from a website called EnergySage, and the numbers were encouraging enough to convince me to register with the site and let solar installers contact me with quotes. So far, two installers have expressed an interest, and one has actually come forward with a quote on a 2.5-kW system. The bad news is that their quote was quite a bit higher than the initial estimate I got from the site; they say it would cost $10,600 to install, or $7,420 after the tax rebate. The good news is that in addition to the $500 or so we could save on our electricity bills each year, they think we could also earn about $420 (at least the first year) by selling SRECs (Solar Renewable Energy Certificates) to PSE&G. Thus, they claim, over the course of 20 years, the system could net us $11,200, for a return of better than 10 percent on our investment. Of course, that's assuming an annual increase of 3.5 percent in electricity costs, which may or may not be right. But at least it's a starting point for figuring out whether this is a plunge we want to take.

5. Following a link from Google's home page, I rechecked my global environmental footprint on the Earth Day Network site. I've used this site before and been frustrated that, despite all my green lifestyle choices, my footprint still comes in at more than 3 Earths. A few years back, I discovered that this appears to be less because of how I live and more because of where I live; there's simply no way to live as an American without weighing in at 3 Earths or more. A person living only a moderately eco-friendly lifestyle in South Africa, by contrast, would have a footprint of just over 1 Earth. So this time, just for the heck of it, I decided to see how my current lifestyle would measure up if I were living exactly as I do now, but in Ontario. And I noticed that, first of all, the questions the quiz asked were different for Canadians than for Americans. Instead of asking how much I spend on my utility bill, for instance, it asked what temperature I heat my home to (which is a good thing, because I have no idea what my heating bill would be in chilly Ontario). But even so, answering the questions just as I would in real life, I found that my footprint had magically dropped from 3.3 Earths to only 2.1. The biggest section of U.S. Amy's ecological footprint, shown in pie chart form, was "services," which the site defines as "governmental and social service activities" that "can only be indirectly altered through social influence for governmental change." By contrast, Canadian Amy's footprint was about 1/3 services, 1/3 food, and 1/3 for everything else. So apparently, Canada's social policies make it an inherently greener place to live than the US, despite its shorter growing season.

6. While I was at it, I also rechecked our carbon footprint on the EPA website. It, too, has changed its format in the past year. The new version says our household carbon footprint is now 12,143 pounds per year, which is an improvement from last year's estimate of 13,575 pounds. However, we're not doing as well in relation to the average American, who now uses only 28,919 pounds per year as opposed to around 36,000 last year. But then, I guess that's good news, right? Also, unlike the earlier version, the new edition of the planner actually offered some useful information about reducing our footprint. It says, for instance, that we would have saved about 728 pounds of carbon a year with a high-efficiency boiler (though I think that estimate is high; my calculations last year showed a savings of only 351 pounds per year). However, this pales in comparison to the amount we could save by replacing our windows with Energy Star versions: a whopping 2,947 pounds per year. Of course, this estimate is probably high as well; the site may be assuming that our house has more windows than it really does, and that they're old single-pane windows instead of the fairly modern double-glazed ones we really have. (The calculator also claimed that this move would save us $150 a year on our energy bills, but a more precise estimate on the Energy Star site shows that in our area, upgrading double-pane windows will save only $91 a year.) But it's still interesting to know that the energy-efficient windows offer bigger savings than an energy-efficient boiler. After all, we'll have to replace these windows some time, and since the costliest part of that job is probably labor, it might actually be worth going for the super-duper-efficient ones. Another interesting detail gleaned from the site: the green steps we already take (such as washing our laundry in cold water, line drying, maintaining our car, recycling, and using green power) are saving us about 4,000 pounds per year.

7. To protect our supply of local produce, I planted my second installment of arugula and lettuce in the garden. Staggering the plantings like this, planting one square each week instead of the whole area at once, allows us to spread the harvest out over a longer period, instead of ending up with 36 bunches of arugula in one week. While doing this, I discovered a downside of the "carpet bombing" method we've been using to grow plants from seed. It's great for choking out the weeds and ensuring that we have enough healthy plants, but it also makes it harder to allocate the seeds over the numbers of squares to be planted. I discovered when I'd finished planting this batch that I had just barely enough arugula seeds left for the one more square I still need to plant, and even less of the lettuce. So I'll have to fill that last square by combining the few Blushed Butter Oaks lettuce seeds I have left with the remainder of my Tom Thumb Baby Bibb seeds from last year, throwing it all in there, and hoping for the best. And next year, I should either husband my seeds more carefully or just buy a bigger packet.

8. I sent off a sample of our household water for testing. On our last visit to Home Depot, there was a display near the checkout with packets labeled "FREE WATER TEST," each containing an envelope and a small plastic vial. You just fill the vial with your household water, fill out a form with your contact information, pop them both in the prepaid envelope, and get back a report on your water quality. We already get regular water quality reports from the local water department, and they always say that our town's water meets or beats all federal and state standards, but I figured it couldn't hurt to find out how the numbers look for our specific location. So I popped the envelope in the mail yesterday, and if the results reveal anything interesting, I'll share them here.

9. I did a little reading about asbestos. The Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance contacted me last week, asking whether I'd be interested in doing a post about asbestos and its dangers. Since I've been fortunate enough to have no personal experiences with asbestos in my life, I did a little research to learn more. I was surprised to discover that asbestos hasn't actually been banned in the U.S. The EPA tried to ban it for most uses in 1989, but a court overturned the ban, so now it's only banned for a few specific uses, like pipe insulation. Though it may be found in homes, most people who develop asbestos-related illnesses were exposed to it at work, particularly in the shipbuilding industry. Wikipedia reports that lawsuits over asbestos exposure are "the longest, most expensive mass tort in U.S. history." If you'd like to know more, you can find lots of information on the MCA's asbestos page.

10. Finally, during my afternoon walk, I made a deposit with Terracycle. When I first learned about Terracycle back in 2011, I didn't think it would be very useful for us, since the only packaging they were taking at the time was things like juice packs and candy wrappers, which we didn't use. More recently, however, we've learned that there's a bin at one of our local churches that will take lots of stuff we actually use, including toothpaste tubes, cereal bag liners, deodorant tubes, and all sorts of foil-lined wrappers (including the ones from Fiber One bars, which have lately become a minor obsession of mine). So we now keep a small basket on the shelf with our other recycling bins in which we deposit all items of this sort, and whenever I notice it's looking a bit full, I dump the contents in a bag and cart them off to the bin. Yesterday, I dropped off a dozen or so bag liners, several foil wrappers, one toothpaste tube, and one deodorant tube—about a pound or so of waste that will now be kept out of the waste stream. (Of course, on the way home, I got caught in the promised thunderstorm that had kept Brian from riding in to work that morning. But thanks to my raincoat and sturdy umbrella, I only really got soaked from the knees down. Which, I guess, is one way of getting in touch with nature.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Salad of the Month: Colorful Rice Salad

Since the weather has finally warmed up, I thought a salad would be more appropriate for April's Recipe of the Month than a soup. At first, I was thinking of trying a recipe I found in Redbook for a grilled avocado with shrimp salad, but I eventually rejected it because it didn't really seem like my idea of a salad. Yes, it had a vegetable in it, if you consider the avocado a vegetable rather than a fruit, but it was also 350 calories for one serving: half an avocado topped with about two ounces of shrimp. That didn't look like it would do much for my ultimate goal of eating healthier, less calorie-dense meals.

So instead, I turned for guidance to my culinary Bible, Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. There were a couple of salad recipes in there that I'd bookmarked to try later, and this seemed like a good time for it. The first one, Chick Pea Salad with Arugula, looked tasty, but it seemed like a pity to make it now with store-bought arugula when there's fresh arugula just starting to come up in the garden that should be ready to pick in a couple of weeks. So instead, I turned to a section called "The World of Rice Salads": one basic salad recipe with a whole series of variants that incorporate different flavors from international cuisine.

Since this was our first time making it, we decided to stick with the basic recipe, which is extraordinarily simple. You just toss cooked, cooled rice with a variety of chopped veggies—scallion, celery, carrot, and red or yellow bell pepper—and a simple red wine vinaigrette. Season it with salt and pepper and a sprinkling of parsley, and boom, it's done. We already had most of the ingredients for it on hand, although I did have to shell out $1.50 for one out-of-season yellow pepper. Our scallions in the garden aren't up yet, but we were able to harvest enough from the potted scallions we keep on the plant shelf in the guest room, and we got the parsley by cannibalizing the two extra seedlings we potted that didn't end up going into the garden. (They were getting too big for their starter tubes anyway, so we'd have had to repot them and give them away if we didn't eat them.)

The resulting mixture is nice and colorful; in fact, with the yellow pepper that we used, the mix of colors matches the rather flamboyant team colors of my Morris dance team. And for something so extremely simple, it's surprisingly flavorful, as well. Brian didn't add a single thing to the recipe—in fact, he didn't even use any pepper, just a little sprinkle of salt. So the only seasonings in it were the olive oil, salt, and vinegar in the dressing, which allowed the fresh flavors of the vegetables themselves to shine through.

Having enjoyed the basic recipe, we're now keen to try some of the variants, like Japanese style (with miso sauce, tofu, nori, and sesame seeds) and citrus (which leaves out the veggies and uses any sort of citrus juice in place of vinegar). But we'll definitely be making the basic recipe again, as well. I figure this dish would be an excellent choice for a potluck party, because (a) it doesn't need to be kept warm; (b) it's both vegan and gluten-free, so pretty much everyone can eat it; and (c) it's something that I myself can eat as much of as I like with virtually no guilt. And better still, if the potluck is hosted by the dance community, we can label the dish as Millstone River Mor-Rice Salad.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Rethinking solar

It's been a little over a year since I last crunched the numbers on the possibility of installing solar panels at our house. What I found at that time was a pleasant surprise: based on my back-of-the-digital-envelope calculations, it looked like a solar array on our roof would, in fact, pay for itself eventually. However, it'd cost between $5,000 and $10,000 to install, and it would take anywhere from 9 to 13 years for us to make that money back in energy savings. Given that we're already powering our house with renewable energy through New Jersey's Clean Power Choice Program, it didn't seem worth the hassle of getting set up for solar if the payback time was going to be that long—especially with the prices of solar panels still dropping. It made more sense to wait until we needed to replace our roof, and then look at what it would cost to add solar panels at the same time.

Last weekend, however, I suddenly found myself bombarded on all sides by promotions for solar energy. Saturday brought an e-mail from Green America, urging me to get quotes on the cost of a solar installation. Then InboxDollars, one of my survey sites, sent me an e-mail on Sunday morning, offering a free quote on a solar system from SolarJoy. And then on Sunday afternoon, my Morris dance team performed at an Earth Day fair, and a friend of mine was there, staffing a table for a company called Solar City, which leases solar panels to homeowners. With the message "Go Solar!" coming at me from every direction, I started wondering whether maybe the universe was trying to tell me something. So I figured, well, maybe it couldn't hurt to look into the question one more time and just find out how the numbers looked for us at this point.

I clicked on over to the Green America site, which offered the option of an "instant estimate" to see how much I could save with solar. I figured it made most sense to do that before getting actual quotes, since there was no point in going through the process if it didn't look like a solar system would be cost-effective. And, unlike most other solar cost estimators I've tried, with this one the "instant" claim was pretty accurate. I only had to answer two questions. First, it asked for my address and pulled up a map so I could pinpoint the location of my roof. Second, it asked me how much I spend on electricity "in an average month." My electric usage actually fluctuates quite a bit from month to month, but since I keep track of it in a handy little Excel spreadsheet, it was quite easy to average together the numbers from the last twelve months. (The total I gave it, $42, includes the few bucks a month I pay as a surcharge for green energy from the Clean Power Choice Program. I knew that might make my electric use look a little higher than it really is, but I figured that's what I pay for green power right now, so I might as well try to get an apples-to-apples comparison.)

The site crunched the numbers for a minute and came back with some intriguing and surprising results:
  1. Our house has 180 square feet of sunny roof space. That's enough room for a 2.6-kilowatt system, which would be enough to meet 100 percent of our energy needs (on average). This estimate is roughly in line with the one I got from Affordable Solar last year.
  2. We could buy such a system outright for a net cost of only $5,400. That's after rebates and tax credits, which the site says could cover 30 percent or more of the cost. Presumably the up-front cost would be around $7,700, and we'd be able to get about $2,300 back.
  3. The site claims this system would pay for itself in only 5.8 years. However, I'm not clear on how they came up with this number, since when I divide a net cost of $5,400 by our $507 per year in energy bills, I get a payback time of nearly 11 years (10 years and 8 months, to be exact.) Maybe the site is assuming that the price of energy will be rising every year, while my solar panels, once paid for, will stay paid for. Given how volatile energy prices are, though, that assumption seems a little iffy to me.
  4. The site claims that, over 20 years (presumably the lifetime of the solar array), this system would net us about $13,000 in total savings. Once again, I'm not sure where these numbers come from. According to my calculations, over the course of the next 20 years, we should expect to spend about $10,100 in electricity bills; deduct the net cost of the solar system, and that cuts our savings down to $4,740. Even if you assume that our electric bills will gradually double over that 20-year period, our total savings still wouldn't hit $10,000.
  5. According to the site, buying the system outright is actually the most cost-effective option. Buying the solar panels with a loan at 0 percent down would only save us $9,900 over 20 years, because the interest payments would eat into our savings. And renting the system, though it would cost us nothing up front, would yield only $4,200 in savings over 20 years—about a third of what we'd save by buying.
If these numbers can be trusted, it looks like buying a solar system is definitely our best option, and the up-front cost isn't actually that bad at all. However, given that the site's numbers are way out of line with mine, I'm still skeptical.

So perhaps the best way to do a reality check on these figures is to go ahead and get some real quotes. It'll be a lot more work, since I may need to spend a lot of time on the phone with the different companies giving them all the same details about our property, or possibly even having installers out to look at the site in person. But in the end, I should have a more accurate idea of just how much we could actually save with solar panels, and over what time period. And, even if it doesn't turn out to be cost-effective at this time, it seems like an appropriate way to commemorate Earth Day.

Of course, there's also the possibility that we'll sign up to get quotes and won't actually receive any, because our energy needs are so low that no company would want to bother with the piddly little system we'd require. But hey, that's useful information too.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Deciding when to upgrade

When it comes to technology, my motto has always been, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." If I've got a system that works for me, no matter how old, clunky, and outdated it may look to others, I'll stick with it—because any attempt to "upgrade" to a newer, sleeker system may just unleash a host of problems that I didn't have with the old one. In other words, if it ain't broke now, it may be after the upgrade.

The ecofrugal corollary to this is, "If it is broke, fix it—don't replace it." As I've said before, I'm a lover, not a lister; I would almost always rather find some way to keep an old item working than toss it out and buy a new one. It's usually (though, as I've noted, not always) cheaper to repair than it is to replace, and it saves resources as well. And while both fixing up an old system and installing a new one can be a lot of work, I find the patch-up kind of work much more satisfying. Plus, the less you change the original system, the less risk there is that it will be even more broke after the upgrade.

In the fast-changing world of technology, however, sometimes things just get so broke that they can't be fixed anymore. Which is how we ended up making two upgrades to our computer system in the past month—one hardware and one software. Both of them were clearly necessary, but one of them was a smooth process with only a few minor bumps that left our overall system much more efficient and streamlined than it was to start with. The other—well, the other is still in progress, and it may be a month or more before I actually get all the kinks worked out.

The hardware upgrade was our printer. Remember how, way back in July, I had trouble printing out a board game for Brian's anniversary present because the printer kept running out of ink? Well, over the next six months, the problem just kept getting worse. It seemed we were refilling the thing every week, and even when it had just been refilled, print jobs often came out uneven and blotchy (and sometimes spread across multiple sheets of paper). We thought perhaps the problem was that the print heads had gone bad, which meant that buying new ink cartridges  might fix the problem—but it might not, and it would cost us over $60 to find out (assuming we had to replace both the black and colored cartridges). Replacing the entire thing, by contrast, would cost as little as $95 for the best home-office printer at ConsumerSearch.com. This put the repair well outside the "50 percent rule" established by cheapskate guru Jeff Yeager.

Moreover, for just a few bucks more we could replace the printer with a well-rated all-in-one model, which would also replace an increasingly unreliable fax machine and a flatbed scanner so old that drivers for it were no longer available for my Mac. (The only way I could use it was via a "virtual box" running Windows.) It got good marks for reliability and low ink use, and, in a nice ecofrugal touch, the three colored ink vessels were separate—so we could replace or refill just one without having to mess with the other two. So our office now has just one big machine in place of three—and since it's wireless, we've eliminated a lot of cables from the rat's nest behind the desk as well. The only thing that the new printer couldn't replace was the answering-machine function on the old fax machine. But after a little trial and error, we succeeded in reinstating the voice mail system on our phone (which is included with the cost of our VOIP) and instructing it to forward any voice mail messages to our e-mail inboxes, so we don't have to remember to dial in—or even check a viewscreen—to find out about them. And we even managed to give away our old printer on Freecycle, with the caveat that it "appears to need new ink cartridges"—so this all-in-one upgrade was a complete win-win-win.

My e-mail, however, is another story.

Basically, I've been using Eudora to read my e-mail ever since...well, pretty much ever since I got my first real e-mail account (where "real" means "not AOL"). I've stuck with it through multiple changes of computer, operating system, and e-mail provider, because it was just so comfortable and intuitive to use. Even when the manufacturer stopped supporting it, I clung to my old copy, because I just couldn't find another program that had all the features I'd come to depend on, like multiple mailboxes (so I could keep all my different categories of mail separate) and labels (so I could easily identify all the ones that were on a particular subject). But over the course of the past month or so, Eudora has become increasingly unstable. I mean, unstable to the point where I'd try to open an e-mail message, and the whole program would crash...and then I'd restart it and it would immediately crash again trying to load that same message. By the time I'd restarted it for the seventh or eighth time on Tuesday, I realized that, much as I might love Eudora's features, they were no use to me if the program simply wouldn't run.

So, reluctantly, I admitted that it was time to find myself a new e-mail client. But which one? Last time I'd gone looking, I'd failed to find anything that included all the features I liked in Eudora, but a couple of years had passed since then; maybe there might be something better out there now. So I started searching on "best alternative to Eudora for Mac" and found a couple of recommendations for Thunderbird, a free program developed by Mozilla, so I decided to download it and give it a try. And that was where I ran into my first problem: I made several attempts to download the program using Chrome (my default browser), and it just sat there whirring to itself for half an hour before aborting the download. I might have given up there, but I figured, well, Mozilla also makes Firefox; maybe this page only works properly in Firefox. So I went into Firefox and managed to complete the download successfully.

Having made it past the first hurdle, I proceeded to install the program. Setting it up to read my Gmail account was, as promised, easy, but when it began to download my mail, I remembered why it had been such a huge hassle the last time I tried to switch e-mail clients; I have been using Gmail for over seven years now, and Gmail has kept basically every message I've received during that time—over 90,000 of them. And Thunderbird was proceeding to download all of them. I didn't actually need to download all of them; I had all the important ones backed up on my hard drive already, via the extremely low-tech method of saving each individual message as a text file. But there didn't seem to be any way to download some of the messages without downloading all of the messages. So basically, I just had to let the thing run all night and load up the lot.

I spent a good part of the next day slogging through the massive archive of all my old sent and received messages, looking for the recent ones that I actually needed to have in my inbox and all the other folders I currently use in Eudora (which I had to re-create one by one in Thunderbird). I haven't exactly reproduced them all yet, but I've managed to get at least the most important folders set up and at least the most recent messages in them. However, I ran into yet another problem when I attempted to set up my other e-mail account, the one I use for work. While Gmail automatically downloaded all the messages I've ever received, Optimum Online didn't download any of them. I went to its webmail program to try to download them manually and discovered that they weren't there; apparently, the minute I downloaded them with Eudora, the server deleted them. So while I can now receive and write new work e-mails on Thunderbird, all my old work e-mails are still on Eudora; if I want to reply to any of them, I have to go into Eudora, copy the text and the address, and paste all that into a new message in Thunderbird. (I've tried to import the old messages directly from Eudora, but every time I hit the button, the process starts and then stalls.) So for the next month, at least, I expect to be stuck running both Thunderbird and Eudora, bouncing back and forth between the two so I can read and respond to my old mail and my new mail at the same time. Gaaah!

I'm beginning to wonder if maybe it would be a better idea just to forget about Thunderbird completely and actually pay for something like MailMate or PostBox, which is actually designed to be able to do everything Eudora can do. Yes, I'd have to shell out between 10 and 50 bucks for it, but given that ecofrugality is supposed to be about saving all resources, including time, that might actually be a worthwhile investment.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Savings Challenge, Week 7: Saving on shaving

I seem to be going through a long dry spell with the Bankrate 52-Week Savings Challenge. Three weeks ago, it was making your own dog food, and we don't have a dog; two weeks ago, it was the financial fast, an idea I'd already considered and deemed unproductive; and last week, it was the spending journal, which I already do routinely and thus couldn't try out for the first time. And now this week, Bankrate reporting Mark Hamrick leads off with "This will be a rare tip aimed at men, so apologies to the ladies," before presenting his recipe for homemade shaving oil.

Now, simply having a challenge that's "aimed at men" wouldn't necessarily make it useless for me, since I happen to be married to one; I could simply make up a batch of the homemade shaving oil for him. The real problem is that, until I saw this challenge today, I'd never even heard of shaving oil, and neither had Brian. Apparently it's something you put on before your shaving cream to get a closer shave with less irritation. But these benefits come with a hefty price tag: according to the article, shaving oil can cost $10 or more per ounce, and that's in addition to whatever you already spend on shaving cream.

Now, if you are already in the habit of buying shaving oil, then making your own could indeed save you a tidy sum of money. Hamrick's recipe uses about $11 worth of basic ingredients (grape seed oil as a base, castor oil as a thickener, and eucalyptus oil for fragrance) to produce around $150 worth of shaving oil. Hamrick estimates that by using it, he's saving at least $200 per year. But the thing is, this implies that he used to be spending upwards of $200 per year on shaving oil. Brian, by contrast, doesn't currently spend one red cent on shaving oil, and neither does any other man I know. So it's hard to see how this tip can really be a money-saver for most men. It might still be worthwhile as a cheap luxury, but adding a luxury item—even a cheap one—to your existing budget is never going to save you money.

So, rather than spending $11 on ingredients to make up a batch of a product we don't currently use, I'm instead going to discuss a few tips of my own that Brian and I actually do use to cut (ha ha) the cost of shaving:
  • Clean the blade. I use a cartridge-type razor for shaving my legs, and over time, it gets clogged up with hair, making it much less effective. So I always rinse it carefully after each use, and that helps me go longer on a single blade.
  • Reduce rust. I simply dry the blade carefully with a towel to keep it from rusting, but other folks use more extreme remedies, like coating the blade in Vaseline (though I'm not sure how you do that without cutting yourself) or storing it in a cup of oil. Which, come to think of it, would also keep it nicely lubricated, thus serving essentially the same function as a shaving oil.
  • Strop the blade. Stropping a blade, as Wikipedia explains, is not exactly the same thing as sharpening it; it doesn't remove chipped or dulled edges, but instead realigns the edge without removing any material. However, it does serve much the same purpose as sharpening: to give you a closer shave with the same old blade. Various sources around the Web recommend stropping your blade with a leather belt, a leather-soled shoe, and even a pair of blue jeans, but by far the easiest method I've seen is to strop the blade against the inside of your own forearm. After all, you always have it handy when you're getting ready to shave, so why climb out of the shower to go get a belt or a piece of denim?
  • Skip the shaving cream. I shave in the shower, so i just use my regular body wash. I have to wash with it anyway, so I may as well shave it off my legs instead of just rinsing it off, right? I once tried some shaving cream instead (a visiting friend left a can behind) to see if it gave me an appreciably closer shave, and it didn't, so I see no reason to squeeze one more container into the shower bin.
  • Grow a beard. This is Brian's preferred method, though it has less to do with saving money and more to do with (1) how it looks and (2) not having to bother with shaving every day. Unfortunately, he isn't one of those fortunate guys whose beard grows in precisely down to the chin and leaves the neck perfectly clean, so he still ends up having to shave his neck—but most of the time, he just cuts the hair down to short stubble, using his beard trimmer with the guard off. Only when he needs to look extra snazzy does he get out a proper razor—which is to say, borrow mine—and shave completely smooth.
So how much do we actually save on shaving this way? Well, the only thing I actually pay for is my razor cartridges, which cost about a dollar apiece, and the pack I'm using now has lasted me for—well, I'm not exactly sure, because I can't remember when I bought it. At least a year, anyway.

As for Brian, he just uses an electric beard trimmer. As I mentioned last week, the rechargeable, cordless models he used to buy always seemed to die after a year or two, their batteries gradually weakening until they could no longer hold enough charge to last through a trim (and there doesn't seem to be any way to replace the battery once this happens). So this time, we decided to invest in a corded model. We couldn't find any reviews for beard trimmers at ConsumerSearch, my usual go-to site, but this report at the Sweethome (a sister site to the technical site the Wirecutter) recommended the Wahl Peanut, which it says is "tough enough to survive a few years at a time in a high-volume shop" and should provide "many years of service" for individual users at home. So we're hoping this $39 investment (which was actually $23.25 out of pocket, because we cashed in some credit card rewards) will be good for five to ten years at least.

So, assuming Brian's trimmer lasts at least five years, and my 8-packs of razor cartridges are lasting me at least one year, that means the annual cost of shaving is, at most, $12.65 for the two of us. Which, coincidentally, is about what we'd have to spend on the ingredients to try out a batch of that "money-saving" homemade shaving oil. So even if those ingredients are good for a whole year's supply of the stuff, adding it to our shaving routine would roughly double its annual cost. Thanks, but no thanks.

[EDIT, 4/26/15: Since writing this article, I decided to try swiping my razor, after I've rinsed and dried it, through the coconut oil I keep in the shower for my skin. I was only thinking that it might help a bit with preventing rust, but I've noticed since I started doing it that I seem to get an appreciably closer shave than I used to, as well. So perhaps there is something to this shaving oil idea, after all. But apparently, you don't need to buy $13 worth of ingredients to get the benefits.]

Monday, April 13, 2015

Friday, April 10, 2015

Household Hacks: DIY cat-safe vase

One big difference I've discovered between having two young, active cats and having one elderly, sedate cat is that our new kitties get into everything. A case in point: the vase of flowers we usually have on our kitchen table. We used to cut flowers from our garden throughout the year—roses, forsythia, phlox, whatever happened to be in bloom—and put them on the table in a nice glass goblet we'd picked up from a yard sale. This was one of my favorite cheap luxuries, and the fact that they came out of our own garden just added an extra little thrill. And since Amélie was a timid cat who never cared much to jump up on the kitchen table, the flowers were always perfectly safe.

When we brought home Winnie and Gwen, however, we quickly discovered that top-heavy vases and adventurous kitties do not make a good combination. There were no actual flowers in the goblet at the time; instead, I'd made a tasteful arrangement of bare twigs to tide us over the bleak period between Christmas greenery and the first blossoms of April. Unfortunately, these twigs apparently looked just like cat toys to the furballs, because we kept finding them—or pieces of them—scattered around the house. I thought perhaps it was just the twigs that were too tempting for them, so I removed them, leaving the empty goblet to fill with flowers as soon as there were any to pick—only to be awakened one morning by the "thunk" of the goblet itself toppling over.

At this point, I concluded that in order for flowers to coexist with cats, they'd have to be in a more bottom-heavy container that would be hard for them to knock over. So the next thing I tried was a few wildflowers in a simple mason jar. The jar itself stayed put, but the flowers didn't; we found them the next morning pulled halfway out of the jar, their petals scattered across the table. At this point, I began to suspect that any flowers put anywhere the cats could reach them were liable to be treated as kitty snacks.

This was a big problem, because when cats nosh on flowers, the flowers aren't necessarily the only victims. There's a whole long list of flowers that are toxic to cats, and it turns out that many of the perennial flowers in my new wildflower mix are on that list. So after I went to all the trouble of planting a flowerbed out front to supply us with cutting flowers all summer long, it looked like I wouldn't be able to actually bring any of the flowers inside—or any other flower, for that matter, without carefully checking it against the ASPCA's plant database first. And since there are wildflowers in our yard that I don't actually know the names of, that means that I'd probably have to give up on the idea of fresh flowers for the table altogether, except during the brief period when our roses (one of the few flowers known to be cat-safe) are in bloom.

Faced with the choice between possibly poisoning my cats or giving up on bringing nature into my home, I started searching frantically for a third option. A search for "cat safe flower vase" led to a thread on Apartment Therapy with several suggestions:
  1. Get a heavy-bottomed vase the cat can't tip over. (Good, but not good enough, since I also want to keep the cats from eating the flowers.)
  2. Train the cats to stay off the table by squirting them with a water pistol whenever they hop up there. (Since our cats routinely hop up onto the sink and stick their heads in under the running water, I suspect this wouldn't be much of a deterrent for them.)
  3. Get them some "cat grass" to munch on, so they'll leave other plants alone. (I don't know whether they'd like the cat grass or not, but I'm pretty sure they will never leave anything alone that's within their reach.)
  4. Buy only flowers that are nontoxic for cats. (That might be a reasonable idea if I were buying flowers, but I'd like to be able to harvest the ones I already have.)
For us, the most useful idea on the list seemed to be to keep the flowers in some sort of covered container, like a terrarium, so the cats couldn't reach them. However, the one specifically suggested on the site, this IKEA mini greenhouse, looked way too big for our kitchen table. So I started keeping my eyes open, while shopping and walking around town, for something else that might be more reasonable. The spring window display at our local Ten Thousand Villages had a very nice-looking "Secret Garden Terrarium" that was a reasonable size, but the $40 price tag was a little less reasonable. We attempted to cobble together a covered vase from a small canning jar with a larger one inverted over the top, but the patterns on the outside of the glass—together with the fog of condensation that formed on the inside—made it nearly impossible to see the flowers, which sort of defeated the purpose of having them on the table at all. What we really needed, I thought, was something like a hurricane lantern—a glass globe with a narrow chimney at the top, so it provides ventilation but isn't accessible to little prying paws. But where, I wondered, would we find something like that?

Well, as it turns out, at our local thrift shop. I popped in there today and, browsing among the racks of miscellaneous glassware, I discovered not one but two vaguely bell-shaped glass contraptions, open at the top and bottom. I assume them were originally part of some sort of candelabrum, since they both had drips of candle wax on them, but they looked big enough to fit over the top of a small drinking glass, which could hold a smallish bunch of flowers—so they'd be visible but protected beneath the glass shield. I thought we might have a glass at home that was small enough, but just in case, I checked the rest of the glassware rack and picked out one that would definitely fit under the dome. Two dollars for the pair, and I was off home to experiment.

As soon as I got home, I picked a small nosegay of wildflowers—some purple deadnettles and some little white critters that I don't know the name of—and popped them into the small glass with some water. Then I put the dome over the top and confirmed that it meets my requirements in one way, at least: it's actually possible to see the flowers under the glass. What's still unclear is just how well this set-up will protect the flowers from our inquisitive felines. Early signs are good: this afternoon, Winnie hopped right up on the table next to the improvised vase, and she neither knocked it over nor attempted to extract the flowers from under it. But the real test will come tonight, as we sleep, while the cats roam and explore at their will. If we get up tomorrow morning and find the whole apparatus intact, flowers and all, then I'm willing to declare my little makeshift cat-safe vase a success.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Savings Challenge, Week 6: Spending journal

Last week, the 52-Week Savings Challenge topic at Bankrate.com was an idea that I'd already considered and rejected as unhelpful. This week, by contrast, the savings challenge is unhelpful to me for exactly the opposite reason: it's something I already do all the time, as a matter of course. The challenge is to "keep a weekly 'spend' journal," meticulously tracking every dollar you spend over the course of the week. Doing this, according to the experts quoted in the article, helps you see exactly where your money is going and where you might be able to cut back. The idea is that once you see how much "that daily Starbucks Frappuccino or sushi lunch" is costing you over a whole week—or, when multiplied by 52, over a whole year—you'll realize that this money could be put to much better use.

According to Michael McCall, one of the experts quoted in the article, this exercise is useful because "most people truly do not know where their money is being spent and the volume." However, I know for a fact that I'm not one of those people, because, as I noted last week, I always track my spending anyway. I started doing this back when Brian and I were courting and used to fly across the country to visit each other. We decided to keep track of all the money we spent on these trips so that we could split the cost evenly between us. Later, when he moved in, we took to doing the same thing with our household expenditures: we kept a list on the refrigerator door on which each of us would jot down anything we'd purchased that the two of us would share. At the end of the month we'd total up what each of us had spent, and whoever had spent less would give the other a check for half the difference. So by the time we got married and started drawing all our funds out of a joint account, we were already in the habit of writing down our expenditures, and we decided to keep it up, only in one column instead of two. This written record proved to be handy for all sorts of things, like:
  • Remembering where we'd bought something in case we later wanted to return it—or, by contrast, to find another one that matched
  • Working out a budget, because we already knew roughly how much we were spending each month in different categories
  • Estimating how much we spend each year and how much we save, so we can track our progress toward financial independence 
  • Comparing our spending to that of other households, so we'd know how good a job we were doing of keeping our expenses in check
We have even, once in a while, used the information from this tracking sheet to rein in our spending a bit. For instance, after a couple of months of totting up the cost of our habit of eating out every Thursday night before Morris dance practice, we decided to shift our schedule around on Thursdays, having an early dinner before driving down to Princeton for practice. (This turned out to save us time, too, as the traffic gets lighter after 6:30 pm.) We didn't save as much money this way as Bankrate reporter Jeanine Skowronski (I swear I am not making that name up), who discovered when she took the challenge that she's spending over $4,000 each year on restaurant lunches, bottled water, and Gatorade, but we still made a nice little dent in our monthly food budget.

At this point, however, all those wasteful little habits that were hiding in our spending record have already been ferreted out and fixed. So while it would be quite easy for me to take this week's challenge, just by doing what I'm already doing, it's unlikely I'd learn much from it. So instead, I'm going to to use this week's challenge as an opportunity to take a peek at my results so far for last week's challenge (the "financial fast"). I decided that, rather than buy nothing but "necessities" for a whole month, I would instead track my spending as usual and sort it into three categories: definite necessities, definite luxuries, and sensible investment purchases. (This last category is for things I don't absolutely need, but which will be very useful in the long run.) Here's my spending list for the first week in April, broken down by category:

NECESSITIES: $126.53 (81 percent of spending)
  • April 1: bottle of body wash: $5.76 
    • bottle of skin lotion: $8.16
    • groceries: $12.53
  • April 2: facial sponge: $1.92
    • cat food: $31.02
    • groceries: $7.97
  • April 3: OTC medicines: $33.28
  • April 6: groceries: $8.37
  • April 7: orthotic insoles, vitamin pills: $17.52
LUXURIES: $1.05 (1 percent of spending)
  • April 6: candy, $1.05
INVESTMENTS: $27.75 (18 percent of spending)
  • April 3, new battery for Brian's watch: $4.50
  • April 4, new beard trimmer for Brian: $23.25
    • pens: $1.07
As I noted in my previous post, some of these purchases were kind of hard to classify. For instance, should the skin lotion I bought to treat my KP be considered medicine, which would make it a definite necessity, or is it really a cosmetic, which would be a definite luxury? I ended up taking my cue on this from a report on luxury spending covered on the Conversable Economist blog, which classified all "personal care" products as necessities. Thus, I treated all the products I bought last week to help get my KP under control as necessary expenses.

I could have treated Brian's new beard trimmer (bought to replace an old one with a gradually failing battery) as a "personal care" expense as well, but I decided that since it takes the place of a trip to the barber, it really belongs in the category of "apparel and services." The report treated spending in this category as "indeterminate," neither obvious necessity nor obvious luxury. (Wearing clothes of some sort, unless you live in a nudist colony in a very warm climate, is clearly a necessity, but replacing them as often as many people do is clearly not, so it could go either way.) I think it's a good example of an investment purchase, because it's not something we absolutely needed; even if you concede that a neatly trimmed beard is a necessity, the old trimmer was still technically working; it just took all day to charge. But the new one will save him a lot of time and annoyance, and the old one was definitely not long for this world anyhow, so I think it made sense to invest in something more reliable. (Every cordless trimmer he has ever owned, regardless of brand, has died within a couple of years due to battery failure, so this time we just went for a corded model.)

So basically, the only thing on my list that was clearly a luxury item was the marked-down candy I bought at the Rite Aid on Easter Monday. I could have fudged this by calling it a "grocery" item, but I decided that since it wasn't bought at a grocery store, it didn't really count. So my rule for the rest of the month is going to be that all food bought at grocery stores, even sweets, counts as "groceries" and therefore necessities—but food bought anywhere else, including restaurants, coffeehouses, vending machines, and non-food stores, is a luxury.

So far, then, necessities have accounted for most of our spending, while outright luxuries have accounted for only a tiny percentage. Of course, there are still three weeks left in the month, so that may change, but if I were making the call at this point, I'd have to say that we're doing a pretty good job of avoiding unnecessary spending. Which, if you think about it, might just make us living proof that this week's challenge—tracking your expenditures—really works. We've been doing it regularly for over ten years now, and we've got mindless spending pretty much licked.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Seed starting: final results

Back in February, I presented the preliminary results on the the new system Brian developed for this year's garden seedlings: starting the seeds in a layer of commercial potting mix on top of a layer of sterilized garden soil. Now, six weeks later, all the seeds for the garden have been started and had at least three weeks to grow, and the first of them have just made the transition from starter box to garden. So at this point, I think I can safely say the results are in on our new system, and lo, it is good. Just take a look at these beauties:


That's all our leeks in the front, ready to be set out next week. Behind them, on the left, is the parsley we transplanted yesterday, looking bigger and healthier than it's ever been before at the time of transplanting. Way in the back is the broccolini, which we've never grown before, so we can't compare it to our seedlings from previous years; what I can say is that by the time we planted them yesterday, they were overflowing their starter tubes and getting tangled up with each other. Next year, if we grow broccolini again, I think we'll have to start it a bit later to keep the seedlings down to a manageable size.

The rest of the seedlings—marigolds, Brussels sprouts, and tomatoes—still have a while to go before transplanting. In theory, they're all supposed to be planted once the last frost date has passed, some time around mid-May. Considering how big and healthy they're looking already, however, they might be in danger of outgrowing their tubes by then. Take a closer look at the tomatoes: already they're bigger and fuller than any others we've ever produced, and they still have over a month to go. We can't really set them out early and risk losing them to frost, but if they get too much bigger, we may need to transplant them into bigger containers—which is just what we were trying to avoid doing by combining the seed-starting mix with garden soil in the first place. 


Perhaps next year, knowing how the seedlings thrive in this soil, we may need to start them in bigger containers at the outset. That would give us larger plants for transplanting, but it would also create a serious shortage of space in our DIY seed-starting tray. I'm not sure it would be possible to fit eight tomatoes in big pots in there along with all the other seedlings we have now in the tubes. It might be easier just to start the tomatoes a bit later, so they won't get too big before the last frost hits. We won't have great big, flourishing plants to set out in May, but we won't have to revamp our entire seed-starting system, either.

The success of this new starting mix opens up another possibility for next year as well: It may be time to take another crack at starting pepper plants from seed. This year, we decided to give up on the idea and just buy our pepper plants at the Rutgers plant sale, since we'd had such dismal results with home-started plants in the past. But now that we've seen what this potting medium can do, perhaps it's worth buying just one packet of seed and starting a few—assuming we can find the room for them—to see how they fare. If they don't thrive even in this miracle soil, we'll still have the option of buying plants, but I think it's worth at least an attempt. Of course, then we have to figure out some way of cramming those plants into the starter tray, as well. So we may end up needing to redesign the system in any case.

That's the way it always seems to go with gardening: every time you solve one problem, a new one pops up in its place. But at least getting the seeds off to a healthy start is one piece of the puzzle we've figured out.

Monday, April 6, 2015

What we did for Easter

Yesterday, neighbors up and down our street were dressed in their Sunday best, heading to and from church, hunting for eggs, and playing games. Meanwhile, Brian and I were dressed in our grungiest gardening clothes, covered in dirt and grass stains, hauling buckets of compost to and fro. Because while for many people, Easter Sunday means candy and new dresses, for a gardener, it means it's almost time to start setting your first transplants out in the garden—and in order to do that, you've got to get the beds properly prepared. So while our gaily dressed neighbors feasted and frolicked, we spent the whole morning and a good chunk of the afternoon toiling in the fields.

By the time we finally went inside, around 3pm, we were both pretty tired and pretty grungy, but we'd accomplished quite a lot:
  • Brian hauled out the rain barrel from the shed and set it back up on its pad. This job included removing and storing away the drainpipe extension that we used throughout the winter to divert water away from the house, and replacing it with the shorter pipe that routes water from the gutter into the barrel. Once he had it back in its place, however, he found himself wondering whether the empty barrel was too light to resist blowing over in a high wind. He actually considered turning on the outside water to add just enough to the barrel to give it some ballast, but it seemed a bit silly to use household water to fill up the barrel whose whole purpose is to save on our household water use. Since there's rain in the forecast for later this week, he figured the barrel could take its chances until then; it only takes one good rainfall to fill it pretty full.
  • We pulled all the leaves and other debris off the garden beds (stashing it in buckets since there was no more room in the compost bin) and gave all the beds a good weeding. This includes the permanent beds where we keep the asparagus and rhubarb, and the mulched areas surrounding the cherry bushes and the new hardy kiwi vines. I'd been noticing ever since the snow melted that the boundary between the cherry bushes and the surrounding lawn had been growing a bit blurry as weeds gradually encroached on the mulch area, so I took the opportunity to realign the border of smooth stones that separates the two. I ceded a bit of territory to the lawn, but the line of demarcation is now clear again.
  • While we were doing this, Brian noticed that a branch had broken off one of our neighbor's trees and was now dangling by a shred of bark, at risk of coming down in our yard in the next high wind. So, rather than leave this sword of Damocles hanging over our yard, he fetched out the ladder and the handsaw and brought it down with a few well-placed strokes. Then, of course, he had this whole big dead branch he had to cut up, and while he was doing that we figured we might as well go ahead and bundle all the other woody material we had lying around the yard: sticks pulled out of the compost bin, leftover evergreen boughs from last year's Christmas decorations, heaps of dried branches and leaves trimmed off our massive sage plant, and, most hazardous of all, the prickly canes of last year's raspberries that we cut down to make room for this year's new growth. To wrap these up safely, we practiced what Brian termed "bundle engineering": padding the outside of the bundle with some thick evergreen or soft sage boughs and squirreling the prickly stuff away in the middle. That made the bundles reasonably safe to handle, though we still had to be very careful while wrapping them. Turns out those little prickers are sharp enough to go through standard garden gloves. We ended up with six big bundles of brush, waiting for the next bulk trash pick-up. (Pity to let all that wood go to waste, but we made an attempt a few years back at home chipping, and the small electric machine just wasn't up to the job.)
  • Next came the dirtiest part of the work, as Brian opened up the compost bin that had been heaped to overflowing all through the cold winter months. He dug out all the rich, black compost way down at the bottom and shoveled it into buckets, which I hauled down to the garden and spread on the beds. We eventually managed to extract about four buckets of compost per bed—enough to give each of them a thin coating, though definitely not the 1-inch layer that gardening experts recommend. We also added about one bucketful to the asparagus bed. In the process, Brian ended up removing pretty much the entire contents of the bin and then pitching it back in, with all the weeds and other debris we'd removed from the garden thrown in on top. So the bed has now had its annual turning, which is about all it gets from us, since we prefer the "cold compost" (aka "lazy") method. (By the way, those plants you can see still lingering in the beds are last year's Brussels sprouts. They hadn't produced any sprouts by the time winter came, and we never got around to hauling them out of the beds—but when the snow finally melted last month, we saw that they were still alive and starting to form tiny sprouts. So we figured we'd just leave the plants there until we actually need to plant something else in that space, and see whether the sprouts manage to get big enough to eat.)
  • While Brian was setting the compost bin back to rights, I busied myself with the old trash barrel containing the last of the bulk batch of mulch we bought last fall. By tipping it onto its side and scooping out the contents with the shovel, I was able to extract enough to spread a nice inch or two on the asparagus bed. Then Brian helped me haul the barrel up to the front yard and renew the mulch "doughnuts" around our three plum trees. The little bit that was left got dumped onto a stray corner of the raspberry bed that was looking a bit bare.
Our grubbing in the dirt made an amusing contrast with our neighbors' finery and festivity, but it occurred to me as we worked that, really, what we were doing was entirely appropriate for the Easter season. After all, the holiday is all about two things: rebirth and redemption. What could be a better celebration of rebirth than waking up the garden after its long winter's sleep and preparing it to receive another season's plants? And what could be a better symbol of redemption than the transformation of kitchen and yard waste, dead and decaying vegetable matter, into rich, dark, lush compost that will nourish new growth?

Of course, I don't actually celebrate Easter myself; I'm in the middle of Passover right now. But personally, I think gardening is an appropriate way to celebrate that holiday too. It might seem like, if the whole point of the festival is to celebrate being freed from slavery in Egypt, it would be most appropriate to spend the eight days relaxing and not having to work at all—but work isn't slavery when you're doing it for your own benefit. Being able to work hard at a job you've chosen yourself, knowing that you will enjoy the fruits of your labors come the harvest—now that's a celebration of freedom.

So happy Easter and Passover, respectively, to all those who celebrate them. And to everyone else, happy spring!

Friday, April 3, 2015

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Savings challenge, week 5: A financial fast

Once again, this week's topic in the 52-Week Savings Challenge is one that's not particularly useful for us. It's actually a challenge that I've considered before and rejected as unhelpful: a "no-spend month." Bankrate describes this as "a monthlong commitment to spend money only on necessities: gasoline, groceries, rent, utilities, etc." The point, supposedly, is not just to save money by skipping non-essentials for a month, but also to get a handle on how you normally frivol away money on a daily basis. The money expert quoted for this challenge, so-called "Ultimate Cheapskate" Jeff Yeager, says the idea is to "step back and look at the way we spend and probably waste money in a typical week." (His version of the challenge, apparently, is only 7 days instead of a full month.)

I first encountered this challenge back in 2012. In fact, in one month, I came across two different versions of it. The first, printed in the Dollar Stretcher, challenged readers to have "no discretionary spending at all" for the entire month of February. This means more than just limiting spending to "necessities": it means that you should not allow for any spending at all beyond your regular monthly bills. Even groceries are supposed to be bought ahead of time, so you don't make any extra trips to the store (though you're granted a small allowance for "fresh milk and produce"). Spending for medical emergencies is allowed, but if it's your car that suffers a sudden injury instead of you, you're supposed to find some way to do without it for the rest of the month rather than pay for a repair.

The other version, somewhat less strict, was the "21-Day Financial Fast" promoted by the Washington Post's Michelle Singletary. In addition to being three weeks long instead of four, this challenge allows spending for personal needs, including (but not necessarily limited to) gas, groceries, medicines, "essential personal hygiene products," and all "regular household bills." However, all these necessities must be purchased with cash only—no credit cards, and ideally, no debit cards either. Like Yeager, Singletary sees the purpose of the challenge as "breaking the chains that keep you from being a better manager of your money"—i.e., kicking mindless spending habits.

When I first considered this challenge three years ago, I objected to it on the grounds that it "impose[s] a set of arbitrary rules that could actually end up costing you money in the long run." By enjoining you from spending money on anything that can't reasonably be defined as a necessity of life, the challenge prevents you from taking advantage of bargains on items that would genuinely enhance your quality of life and possibly even help you save money in the future. To take a common example: suppose you want to replace all your old, inefficient light bulbs with energy-saving LEDs. And suppose, further, that a local store is offering a special sale on them this week: just $2 for an 800-lumen bulb, which would normally cost around $8 at Home Depot. At that price, the new bulbs would pay for themselves in just a couple of months, according to the savings calculator at LEDwaves.com, and they'd continue to save you $10 a year—each—for the rest of their lifespan. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, sorry, but as long as you currently have some sort of working light source in your home, those new bulbs are not a "necessity." You'll have to wait to buy them until your no-spend month is over and pay an extra $6 per bulb.

It might have been a situation like this that prevented the Bankrate reporter who tried this challenge, Lance Davis, from sticking it out for the whole month. He reports that he "only made it about 10 days," though he doesn't actually explain how he came to fall off the strict-necessities wagon. Still, he claims that the challenge definitely helped him "significantly decrease how much I spend on extras," saving him about $100 altogether. More to the point, it helped him "define what I need and what I think I need," possibly pointing the way toward future savings.

Based on Davis's experience, I can see the possible benefit of a no-spend month, but at the same time, I don't want to get myself stuck in a no-LED-bulbs-for-you situation. So rather than following the challenge as written, I'm going to try to practice mindful spending in a different way. For the whole month of April, I'm going to keep track of all the money that Brian and I spend—which is easy enough, since I routinely do this anyway. But then I'm going to add a new twist: at the end of each day, I'll mark my spending list (possibly with some sort of color-coding) to sort all my purchases into three different categories:
  • True necessities: things I genuinely couldn't get by without.
  • Investment purchases: things that I could manage without, but will definitely manage much better with.
  • Clear luxuries: new clothes, meals eaten out, concerts, any kind of entertainment.
Of course, figuring out what to put into each category will involve some judgment calls. For example, today I spent about $17 at the drug store on several different products that I'm hoping will help clear up a stubborn skin problem I've been having, called keratosis pilaris (KP for short). The products I'd been using weren't helping, so I did some research today and found that my body wash might be contributing to the problem, because some of the ingredients in it can be harsh and drying. So I went out and bought a different body wash, along with a facial exfoliating sponge (also recommended) and a little bottle of skin lotion. But do these grooming aids count as "necessities"? On the one hand, I think some sort of basic hygiene is clearly a necessity of life, but on the other hand, I already had products on hand that I could use; they just might be making my skin look worse. Since the purpose of my new skin-care regime is to treat a medical problem, I could argue that the new products I bought were medically necessary. But on the other hand, KP isn't life-threatening or dangerous in any way; it just looks bad. So maybe that means that these new products should be considered strictly cosmetic, which would make them luxuries. Or, maybe I could hedge my bets and put them in the middle category, investment purchases, because they're an investment in my overall health and self-esteem. There's really a case to be made for all three.

I'm sure this is just the first of many tough calls I'll have to make over the course of the month between necessities, luxuries, and wise investments. For instance, what about charitable giving? It's not a necessity for me, but it may be providing necessities to others; does that make it an investment? Or how about our cable TV bill? Cable is clearly a luxury, but ours is bundled inextricably together with our phone and Internet service, both of which I consider necessities (at least for someone like me, who works from home). So should I pull out the cable portion of the bill and file it under luxuries, or treat the whole bill as a necessity? If we buy a bottle of wine to go with our dinner, does that count as a luxury, or is it lumped together with groceries, a necessity? Does it make a difference if the wine is for the Seder on Friday, and could thus be considered a religious or cultural necessity?

My guess is that, when I look back over my expenditures at the end of the month, I'll find very few definite luxuries, but a lot of tricky expenditures like these—things that could be necessities or luxuries, depending on how you look at them. But after all, the whole point of the no-spend challenge, or at least the main point, is supposedly to make you more mindful of the way you spend your money. So for me, thinking about these fine distinctions, and figuring out where I personally want to draw the line, is probably the best way to do this. I expect that, in the end, it will prove much more useful than blindly following a set of rigorous rules that may or may not be relevant for me.