Sunday, August 30, 2015

The quest for "mom shorts"

It has recently come to my attention that "mom jeans"—that high-waisted, narrow-legged, light-washed style that was once the (ample) butt of late-night sketch comedy—are now cool again.

Naturally, I did not figure this out because I am so keenly attuned to the pulse of modern fashion that I could detect the exact moment when mom jeans stopped being something that Milennials wear ironically to undercut the very idea of fashion itself and started appearing in mainstream stores. Nor did I read about this everything-old-is-new-again trend in Vogue or Elle or any of the other $6 glossy magazines in which a picture had better be worth a thousand words, because they probably don't contain a thousand words altogether from cover to cover. No, I made this discovery by Googling the phrase "I like my mom jeans" and stumbling on a New Republic article all about what a modern, trendy sentiment that is.

The fact is, you see, that I never stopped wearing mom jeans, even when doing so made me the target of surreptitious finger-pointing and snickering. That's because when it comes to fashion, I'm like the stopped clock that's right twice a day: I just keep wearing whatever I personally like, and eventually it comes back into vogue again. And on my high-waisted, pear-shaped figure, pants that sit at the natural waist are actually the most flattering style, as well as the most comfortable. Of course, it wasn't possible to find these in stores during the past ten years, when the juniors department took over the whole floor and the only jeans to be found were so tight you couldn't sit down and so low-slung you didn't dare bend over. But thanks to the Lands' End and L.L. Bean catalogues, which have been carrying the same styles for over 50 years, I was able to keep wearing my comfy jeans until I suddenly found myself on-trend again.

Unfortunately, it would appear that this old/new trend in jeans does not extend to shorts. I recently found myself in the market for new shorts after one of my three trusty pairs of thrift-shop walking shorts wore out beyond repair, leaving me with only two decent pairs that were often both in the laundry at the same time. So around June, I started looking for a new pair of decent walking shorts—ideally, something with a modest length (say, just above the knee), an A-line shape, and a waist that fit around my waist.

This turned out to be a fool's errand. My local thrift shop—there is only one—didn't appear to have any shorts at all, and when we went thrift shopping in Princeton for our anniversary, I couldn't find any in my size. Next I tried, in close succession, Target, Marshall's, and Burlington, and I found that the only shorts on their racks had inseams no longer than four inches and waistbands that barely covered the hipbones. Apparently, the kind of shorts I had in mind were "mom shorts"—a fashion no-no that was off-limits to mainstream retail.

So I turned to the great marketplace of the Internet, which is supposed to have everything. And maybe it does, but what it doesn't seem to provide is any way of finding it—at least not if "it" happens to be a pair of mom shorts. I Googled countless variations of "women's walking shorts" in vain. I searched the websites of every clothing retailer I could think of, including, to no avail. Even my trusty Lands' End and L.L. Bean let me down; they had shorts in styles I'd find acceptable, though $40 a pair is more than I'd planned to pay, but as it was now August, every single pair was either completely sold out in my size or available only in colors I would never wear. The one promising-looking pair I found at—which I ordered in two different sizes to make sure one of them would fit—turned out to be okay in the hips and thighs, but waaaaaaaay too big in the waist. In fact, they fit much better on Brian than they did on me; he said a pair one size smaller probably would have fit him perfectly.

Fortunately, on our trip to return the shorts to Sears, we succeeded in tracking down some shorts on the clearance rack in the Lands' End section. They're a pull-on style, which isn't normally to my taste, but they're comfortable and not overtly silly-looking, and at this point I feel like that's really all I can hope for. And since they were on clearance, I only paid about $10 for them. So those, with the two pairs I have, should tide me over until the weather cools down. (We also paid a quick visit to the Goodwill store in East Brunswick, even though we've had little luck there in the past, and found one pair that, while they didn't exactly fit, looked like it could possibly be altered to fit. But my first attempt at this alteration wasn't very successful, so I'll postpone that story until I've managed to come up with a workable solution.)

Of course, it's not clear how long this fix will last, since the new shorts are based on Lands' End's sport knit pants, a style that, in my experience, wears out in a matter of months. And the old pairs I have are pretty badly worn already and have already been patched more than once. So while these three pairs of shorts can probably get me through the remainder of this summer, it's not clear whether they'll hold up through next summer. But who knows—maybe by then, "mom shorts" will be in style, and I can just pick some up at any store I like.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Savings Challenge, Week 24: Pay Your Credit Card Bill Every Week

I'm still working my way through a small backlog of Bankrate Savings Challenges. Last week's is "Pay your credit card bill every week," and if you don't particularly see the point of that, well, I didn't either. Reporter Jeanine Skowronski, however, swears it has several benefits:
  1. It "helps me stay on budget" and "ensure I don't rack up an uncontrollable balance." The idea is that, when she pays her bill weekly, she sees how much money she's already spent and how much she has left in the bank. That way she can avoid making any purchase that she doesn't have the money to cover. Which is a good thing, I guess, if you're in the habit of buying things without thinking about whether you can really afford them. But I don't spend carelessly, so I'm not in any danger of going overboard with frivolous purchases...and for necessary but unexpected expenses, I have a healthy cash cushion in the bank. So this particular benefit is of no benefit to me.
  2. It lets her keep an eye on her statements and spot inaccurate or fraudulent charges. She points, for example, to a $40 purchase she made which was double-billed, which would have cost her $40 if she hadn't noticed the error. Which is, again, a good thing...but is she implying that she wouldn't have spotted this error if she had waited until the end of the month to pay her bill? Because I always make a point of going over my bills before I pay them each month (which, as I've noted, is the reason I don't use automatic bill payment), and that works fine for me. 
  3. It helps her credit rating. This is the first benefit she's mentioned that actually applies to me as well. As she explains it, your credit rating is based on your "most recent statement balance" for each debt you owe—so if you happen to rack up a particularly high bill one month, even if you pay it off immediately, as far as the record is concerned, you're still carrying around a couple thousand dollars in debt. So it's true that paying off my credit card weekly instead of monthly might nudge my credit rating up a bit. But that's not a particularly strong argument with me, for two reasons: first, if your credit score is already in the "excellent" range (750 and up), then a few extra points don't really make any practical difference; and second, the only thing you really need a good credit score for is to borrow more money, which isn't something we expect to have any need to do in the foreseeable future. Skowronski claims that excellent credit can also help you qualify for better rates on cellphone or insurance plans, but I've never been offered any such deal.
  4. Skowronski's final argument is that, if you carry a balance on your credit card bill, then you'll pay it off faster if you pay weekly, because interest won't accumulate as fast. Once again, a valid point, but one that doesn't apply at all to me, or to Skowronski herself.
So the bottom line here appears to be that, if you're a person who has had any problems with credit in the past—problems that have left you with a balance to pay off, or a habit of careless spending that you're still trying to kick, or  a less-than-stellar credit rating that you want to rebuild—then paying your bill monthly, instead of weekly, is a relatively easy way to deal with these problems. But if you're already in fine shape, thank you, then all this tip will do for you is create more paperwork, because you'll have four monthly payments to enter in your checkbook instead of one.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Money Crashers: How to Create a Home Inventory

An item that's been on my to-do list for a while is to create a home inventory. For those who aren't familiar with this term—as I wasn't, until I read about it in the Money Talks Newsletter—a home inventory is a list of all, repeat all, your belongings, along with estimates of their value. According to MTN, you need to be able to document all your possessions, "down to your last sock," in order to file a home insurance claim. If you don't name the items, the company won't pay you for them.

Now, when I first read that, it didn't sound right to me, because I know that on my home insurance policy, I have a specific dollar amount of coverage for my personal belongings. So if my house were to burn to the ground, wouldn't the company just pay me that amount? But when I checked my insurance company's page on "recovering after an event," it said to "Prepare a list of damaged or lost items for your adjuster, and if available, give the adjuster receipts for those items"—and it recommended preparing a home inventory ahead of time "to remember items...that can be easily overlooked or may have been destroyed." I realized at that point what the flaw in my reasoning had been: a disaster wouldn't necessarily destroy all our belongings. Unless the whole house really does burn to the ground, or get carried away to Oz by a tornado, at least some of its contents would probably survive, and naturally the insurance company wouldn't want to pay out for anything we still owned. So yeah, we really do need to be able to give them an accurate list.

However, cataloguing every single item in my house just seemed like such a monumental task that I kept putting it off. But eventually, I got the bright idea that I should just write about this topic for Money Crashers. That way, in the process of researching the article, I could learn about—and possibly try out—all the various apps and tools that are available for doing a home inventory, and perhaps I'd hit on one that would make the whole process vastly easier.

Sadly, it didn't work out that way. I learned that there are indeed a vast assortment of free apps and spreadsheet templates you can use to make a home inventory—but none of them can get you around the basic problem of having to go from room to room, writing everything down. I went so far as to set up an account for Know Your Stuff, a free Web-based application provided by the Insurance Information Institute, and I was scared off at the first screen, which asked me to provide a whole host of details, such as purchase date and model number, about each object I wrote down—details that, in most cases, I'd never known, and definitely couldn't document.

Some apps promise to make things a little easier by letting you just scan bar codes on your belongings and have the program pull up the details from the Internet, but there are three problems with this:
  1. most of our belongings don't have a bar code on them;
  2. the ones that do, like books, are not high-value items, so it would make a lot more sense to say "800 books, estimated value $10 each" rather than catalogue them individually; and
  3. even if we wanted to scan bar codes, we'd have to have a smartphone to do it, and we are the last living middle-class couple in the country who don't.
In the end, I concluded that the easiest method would be to go through each room, photographing its contents—getting a few shots of the whole room that take in all most of it, and going in for close-ups on anything particularly big or high-value. This saves the trouble of handling every single item and try to come up with minute details about it; I can just rely on the photos to guide my memory. I can supplement these photos with or other documentation for the relatively big-ticket items, like our computers and the one set of really nice cookware we got as a wedding present. But since most of our belongings were just picked up on the cheap at yard sales and such, I figure the photo should be enough.

Even taking photos of all your belongings isn't all that quick a process, but I figure I can make it more manageable by breaking it down—say, shooting one room at a time. Then when I've got all the photos taken, I'll store them on my Google Drive, where I can reach them in the event of an emergency that destroys my computer. And once I've got the photos safely stowed away, I can start filling in the details with any other documentation I have available.

So that's what works best for me. But of course, your mileage may vary, particularly if you have a smartphone. If you want to learn more about the various other alternatives for making a home inventory, check out the full article: How to Create a Home Inventory for Insurance – Methods, Apps & Checklist

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Savings Challenge, Week 23: Use Air Conditioning Efficiently

We're just coming off a short but severe heat wave, with the heat index peaking at over 100 for several days in a row. Most of our neighbors, I suspect, spent most of that time inside with the air conditioning cranked up...and paid a tidy sum for the privilege. Bankrate reporter Sheyna Steiner, who leads off the Bankrate savings challenge for week 23 with the confession that "air conditioning reigns" in her house all summer, routinely pays about $30 more for electricity during the summer months than she does in the wintertime. (She posts a graph of her electric bills for the past 14 months that shows her bill in dollars, her usage in kilowatt-hours, and the average temperature, and you can clearly see how her usage ticks steadily upward as summer temperatures rise.)

To see if she could keep this cost down, Steiner decided to "crank up" the temperature in her house all the way to—wait for it—78 degrees. She claimed she couldn't go any higher than this during the day because of her three dogs, even though the American Kennel Club says dogs only "begin to show signs of overheating when the air temperature is between 81 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit." Steiner was irked to find, after suffering through a whole month of sleeping in a 78-degree house, that turning up the thermostat by a whopping 2 degrees in June had only saved her $4 over what she'd spent in May...and she'd actually spent $17 more than she had the previous June. (The average monthly high temperature, according to her graph, was exactly the same both years.)

Well, I hate to break it to this lady, but at our house, we have actually gone through entire summers without using the air conditioner at all. This summer, we have used it exactly once, on a sultry July day when our window fans running at full blast were unable to drop the indoor air temperature below 90 degrees by bedtime. So we spent that night camped out on the futon in the office with the window AC running on low and the cats amusing themselves by running back and forth over us all night. And just that one night (plus a couple of hours during the day) reminded us how costly air conditioning really is; our electric usage in July jumped to a whopping 421 kilowatt-hours, compared to 294 the previous year. 

So how do we manage to get through most of the summer without AC? Well, our main tool is electric fans, of which we have a wide assortment:
  • A tiny desk fan mounted on a stand made of scrap wood (to replace its original clip-on mount) that sits by my side as I work, pointed straight at my head, and keeps me tolerably cool throughout the day.
  • A huge, powerful, and noisy floor fan, which Brian puts in the kitchen window atop a small, portable bookshelf to drive hot air out of the house and pull cool air in through the other windows. By doing this in the evening, we can manage to get the indoor temperature down to a tolerable level for sleep, and then we set it up again in the morning to pull in as much cool air as possible before the outdoor temperature gets too high. The only problem with this strategy is that we sometimes have to switch everything off in a hurry when the cool air we're pulling in becomes laced with marijuana smoke from next door. 
  • A dual window fan that we keep in the bedroom to pull cool air in during the night. Brian shuts it off and pulls down the shade when he gets up around 5am to pee, so the light won't come into the room and wake me up too early. Since this fan can switch from intake to exhaust, we've also tried using it in the office to blow air out on the upwind end of the house when our neighbor is smoking, while pulling cool air in from the windows on the mostly smoke-free other end. This is better than nothing, but it just can't generate as much airflow as the big floor fan.
  • Another desk fan that sits on a small end table at the foot of our bed, pointed straight at us as we sleep, to help cool us directly during the night. For a while, we were moving this one between the bedroom and the living room so we could also use it to cool ourselves while we sit on the couch to watch TV in the evening, but eventually we decided to splurge and spend 15 bucks on a duplicate fan for the living room, so now we don't have to keep moving it back and forth.
  • A ceiling fan in the kitchen, which runs whenever we're in that room to keep us cool as we eat...and sometimes when we're not, just to help keep air circulating through the house.
These fans, combined with a few other tricks I outlined in an earlier post, are usually enough to keep us tolerably comfortable even on the hottest summer days. However, tolerably comfortable isn't exactly the same thing as comfortable, so I was intrigued to see an article titled "Stay Cool Naturally" in this month's issue of Mother Earth News. Unfortunately, most of the tips of offered on staying cool without AC were things I'd already tried, such as:
  • Acclimatize yourself to the heat. The article says that the more time you spend in an air-conditioned environment, the harder you'll find it to adjust to normal summer temperatures. This is fine for me, since I don't have AC at home to get used to anyway, though not so great for Brian, who has to work every day in an air-conditioned office. However, I draw the line at going out in the blazing hot midday sun just so it will feel cooler inside when I come home. I've been taking my walk during the relatively cool morning hours, and during the heat wave, even that was enough to exhaust me. The house felt cooler compared to the outside, but I sure didn't, and it took me about an hour of sitting in front of a fan chugging cold water to feel close to normal again.
  • Cool yourself with water. Even on the hottest days, I can't stand an ice-cold shower, but I have been adjusting the taps to a mix with more cold than hot. I've also tried the technique of soaking a cloth in cold water and draping it around my neck, but it doesn't seem to help much, and it's really not practical to do while sleeping.
  • Use swamp coolers. Evaporative coolers, or swamp coolers, send a stream of air over water, which is supposed to pull heat out of the air as the water evaporates. Unfortunately, that only works in a climate where the water can evaporate, and with the humidity around here at over 75 percent, this technique doesn't work too well. 
The only new tips I saw that looked potentially useful were in the "Readers' Tips" section. One reader recommends soaking your feet in a tub of cool water, which he says "can cool you off for hours." Another suggests freezing a bottle of water—he recommends salt water, since it freezes at a lower temperature—and putting it in front of your fan to add an extra chill to the air it sends your way. So when the next heat wave hits, maybe I'll try pulling out one of those tricks before I consider another expensive bout of AC use.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Salad of the Month: Rosy Summer Salad

Today, the temperature climbed to a high of around 92, with the heat index peaking at 103. When Brian came home from work and asked what I wanted for dinner, the idea of cooking anything at all didn't seem very appealing. It seemed like a perfect day to just go pick some garden veggies and make a nice, cool salad. And since we have all these raspberries right now, I thought it would be nice to toss some of those with some greens and maybe a few nuts, serve it with some bread, and call it dinner. A nice, light, cool meal for a hot day.

Unfortunately, our summer lettuce crop has been pretty scanty, so we had to make a quick trip to the store to buy the lettuce. But fortunately, the H-Mart had red leaf lettuce on sale for only 99 cents a head, so we went ahead (ha ha) and bought two of them, along with a few other assorted produce items for the rest of the week. Then, after returning home, we made a second quick trip around to the raspberry bed to harvest today's crop, gleaning about another half pint of berries. With these in hand, we were ready to assemble the new salad.

I'd never made a salad with raspberries before, but I had ample experience making salads with a combination of veggies and fruit, and I knew from experience that if you combine greens, bite-sized bits of fruit, and anything crunchy, you can't go too far wrong. The Citrus Spinach Salad in The Clueless Vegetarian, for instance, combines spinach with chopped oranges and sweet onion, using the juice from the oranges as a dressing. I've made a modified version of that recipe using red leaf lettuce, grapefruit, and walnuts, and I've played on the same theme to make a strawberry spinach salad. So adapting the same recipe to use raspberries was a logical step.

The only decision I had to make was which kind of nuts to use out of the choices we had available: walnuts, pecans, almonds, or pine nuts. I thought pine nuts would probably work well, but since they're frightfully expensive and there are some recipes that really won't work with anything else, I figured it would be best to save them and go with pecans instead. So Brian toasted up some pecans and chopped them up, and then he set them out next to the rest of the ingredients—torn up red lettuce leaves, fresh raspberries, and Mark Bittman's Honey-Balsamic Vinaigrette—and we each assembled our own bowlful, adjusting the proportions to taste.

Since it contained both red leaf lettuce and raspberries, I decided to dub this concoction Rosy Summer Salad. As I expected, it was light but satisfying, and eked out by a lightly toasted English muffin, made a suitable dinner for the hot evening without adding any more heat to the kitchen. And as a nice bonus, there weren't a lot of dishes to wash.

I suppose it's sort of cheating to count this as a brand-new salad recipe when it's really just a variation on the standard greens-fruit-nuts recipe I've used before, but it can't hurt to remind yourself now and again that recipes were made to be modified. Especially recipes like this one, which is pretty close to foolproof.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Money Crashers: Shop Local

From time to time, I've written here about shopping locally: the ways in which I try to do it, and the reasons I wish I could do it more. I like to support my local businesses because I think a town that has thriving local businesses is simply a better place to live, and I want to help keep Highland Park that kind of place.

But I've also felt torn about local shopping from an ecofrugal standpoint. It's a better choice for the environment to run errands on foot when I can, and sometimes it even saves me money—like when I patronize a local mechanic who offers both better prices and better service than the Honda dealership, or I manage to assemble a new outfit with finds from the local thrift shop. But in other cases, buying locally definitely costs me more. A cafe mocha from our local coffeehouse costs about 5 bucks, which is more than 60 percent more than the smallest size from Starbucks, for about half as much coffee—and frankly, it's not as good. Then, too, sometimes local businesses don't really offer the best service, like the local hardware store that I refuse to patronize because I don't want to be subjected to Rush Limbaugh tirades. And most often of all, the problem is that I just can't find what I want in town. It's possible, for instance, to buy clothing and books at the local thrift shop—but to find a specific book, or a specific item of clothing in my size, I nearly always have to hit a shopping center outside of town.

So my latest Money Crashers post goes into some of the ways to work around these problems. First, I talk about the various benefits of shopping local, from a stronger economy to reduced traffic. Then, I outline some ways to support your local economy, even when you're on a budget, such as visiting the local farmers' market or keeping your money at a community bank. See the full article at:

4 Ways to Shop Local and Support Small Businesses in Your Local Economy

Saturday, August 15, 2015

The fruits of our labors, part 2

This spring, our two-year old plum trees bloomed for the first time. We kept an eager eye on them throughout the spring and summer, watching the tiny balls in the middle of each blossom slowly grow to about an inch and a half in diameter. We kept thinking this couldn't be their final size, because the plums you see in the store tend to be at least two inches across, but apparently ours are either a smaller variety or just smaller because the trees are younger, because once they reached an inch to an inch and a half across, they gradually started to change color. Unfortunately, they also gradually started to drop off the trees before they'd fully ripened. I don't think we got a single plum off the Mount Royal tree, and we managed to harvest only one rosy-hued Opal plum before losing the rest.

So what you see here in this bowl is pretty much our entire plum harvest: about seven Golden Gage plums, each barely bigger than a large cherry. However, small as they were, they were still very tasty. Brian, not normally a great lover of plums, bit into the first one he picked and commented, "Oh, wow," so then I had to try one, and I found it sweet and juicy with just a hint of tartness. But sadly, each one was little more than a mouthful, so they were gone all too soon. We managed to harvest one more, and we had three others still on the tree waiting to ripen—but apparently, in the last two days, they went from being too green to pick to falling off and rotting on the ground. So that's the end of our plums for this year. Still, for a first harvest, it wasn't too bad, and we can hope that as the trees grow bigger, they'll yield more—and possibly larger—edible fruits.

Fortunately, our other fruit-bearing plants have been much more productive. We've already harvested eight cups of cherries, and that was only from four of our five bushes; the little Jan bush in the middle of the row was later to ripen than the others, so its fruit was still green two weeks ago. But it's now ripening nicely and should be ready to pick in the next week, so we probably can probably get another cup or so there. And as you can see above, the raspberries have started to produce as well. True to the pattern they established in their first year, they've been giving us about a handful at a time for the past few weeks, and by yesterday, we were finding so many ripe ones that we couldn't hold them all in our hands and had to use my hat as a receptacle. (I thought A Hat Full of Raspberries sounded like a Newberry-award-winning children's book, but Brian believed it would be more appropriate to use Raspberry Sun Hat as the name of an alternative band, along the lines of Strawberry Alarm Clock.)

As you may or may not be able to judge from the size of the hat, we got a good half-pint of raspberries from just this one picking. As it happened, we'd just returned from a trip to the local farmers' market at the time, and Brian noted that a comparable volume of organic blackberries would have cost us five bucks—so the raspberries are definitely earning their keep. And moreover, there's lots more where those came from; there are lots more berries on the canes, ranging from barely big enough to see to almost ripe enough to pick. So by September, we should be bringing in a truly bountiful crop—possibly even enough to "put up" some preserves for the winter.

All in all, I think our fruit crops are justifying the effort we put into planting them over that one long, dirty, chilly March weekend two years ago. The raspberry canes are yielding a good yearly crop already, and the cherry bushes, while still small, are producing enough for a few good desserts each year. And the plums, even if they're not very productive yet, at least offer a promise of tasty fruit for the future. Plus, at the rate they're growing, they may even be able to provide some nice summertime shade in a few years.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Money Crashers: Community Cafes – What They Do and Where to Find One

When I first discovered our local community cafe, A Better World Cafe, back in January 2010, I'd never seen anything like it before. Indeed, back at the time, community cafes were still a pretty new idea, and A Better World was only the fifth of its kind in the country. Yet the idea seemed so appealing in so many ways—healthy, sustainably produced food, in whatever portion you prefer, at whatever price you can afford—that I couldn't understand why it wasn't more popular. Shouldn't there be places like this all over the country?

Well, now there are—at least 40 of them, with more in the works. And as the community cafe movement goes mainstream, som big namess are starting to hop on the bandwagon. Jon Bon Jovi has opened his own community restaurant, JBJ Soul Kitchen, in Red Bank, with plans for a second one in Toms River. And Panera Bread, the popular restaurant chain, is now running four Panera Cares cafes, in Clayton, Missouri; Dearborn, Michigan; Portland, Oregon; and Boston, Mass. These look and feel just like a regular Panera, right down to the free wi-fi, but operate on the community cafe model.

My latest post for Money Crashers explores the community cafe movement: how it started, how it works, and its various benefits, from fighting hunger to supporting local farmers. Read more about this uniquely ecofrugal type of eatery in the full article: Community Cafes – What They Do and Where to Find One.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Money Crashers: How to Save Money at Work

I've been working from home as a freelancer for about 11 years now, and I'll admit, it's been a mixed blessing. I love having complete control over my own schedule, but what I don't have so much control over is how much work I actually get, and how much money I can make doing it. Glancing over my records for the ten years for which I have complete records, it looks like on average, I've made about $5,000 less per year as a freelancer than I did when I was working 9 to 5.

This isn't quite as bad as it sounds, though, because my expenses are also lower now that I don't work in an office. For instance, when I lived in Princeton and commuted to work on the Dinky, I used to spend about $800 a year on train fare and another $400 to buy my breakfast each morning at the nearby Wawa. That's over a grand per year I no longer have to spend because my office is now in my home.

Actually, as workers go, I was getting off pretty lightly. Most workers commute by car, and when you factor in all the costs—gas, tolls, wear and tear on the vehicle—that adds up to thousands of dollars a year, not hundreds. The 8 or 9 bucks a week I used to spend on my weekday breakfasts is dwarfed by the $37 a week the typical American worker spends on lunches. Also, since my workplace had a casual dress code, I didn't have to spend extra money on a working wardrobe. And the biggest work-related expense of all, child care, didn't affect me since I was single and childless. A less fortunate nine-to-fiver, one who has to pay all these expenses in order to keep working, could be losing as much as $25,000 out of her paycheck by the time she's hauled that bacon home.

For her sake, I've devoted my latest Money Crashers post to ways to save money on the hidden costs of holding down a job. I deal with ways to save on child care, commuting (whether by car, train, bus, bike, or foot), a professional wardrobe, and workday lunches. Because working for a living is hard enough without having to pay for the privilege.

Here's the full article: How to Save Money at Work on 4 Major Job-Related Expenses

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Pecking Problem

Our tomato crop is being ravaged by an unlikely pest: birds.

Normally, I think of birds as being allies in the war against pests, because they eat all kinds of insects and other critters that attack our plants. But lately, we've started discovering tomatoes with big holes in them, as if something had taken a bite out of them, and since we know the groundhogs are fenced out, it seems birds are the most likely culprit. The tomato shown in the picture here is one of the less damaged ones; the more severely damaged ones are practically torn in two, and Brian doesn't even bother trying to bring them into the house.

Based on what I've read on gardening forums like this one, it appears the birds are attacking our tomatoes not for food, but for water. The most commonly proposed solution is to provide some sort of birdbath or bird waterer, so they have another water source handy and don't need to peck at the tomatoes. I looked for ways to mock up a DIY birdbath and found a slideshow on Bob Vila's site that offers a lot of interesting ideas, but basically, it appears that all you really need is some sort of shallow tray to hold the water and some sort of stand to put it on. Since Brian and I had just recently replaced our cat's water dispenser with a bigger one that the kitties can't push around as easily, we decided to fill up the the old one and set it atop an inverted 5-gallon bucket (the same kind we use for our tree waterers). We figured if this worked, we could always replace it with something nicer-looking later. We could have set this up next to the clothesline, where our birdfeeder is now, but Brian thought it would be best to put it as close to the garden as possible, so the birds could see an alternative source of water right next to the tomatoes. So he set the whole thing up in the little back lane behind the fenced-in garden area where our hardy kiwi vines are planted.

So is it working? Well, it's sort of hard to tell. Since we set it up, there have been fewer tomatoes pecked apart, but we've also been getting fewer tomatoes altogether. Also, the weather hasn't been as hot this week as it was a couple of weeks ago, which means the birds may just not be as thirsty. And lastly, Brian has been trying to safeguard the tomatoes against bird damage by picking them earlier, at "first blush" (when they're just getting rosy), rather than letting them ripen fully on the vine. This is the other major tip recommended on the GardenWeb forum for dealing with bird damage, and one gardener says it's a good idea for other reasons too; it protects the fruit from other pests, such as stink bugs, and prevents splitting, which can occur after a heavy rainfall. According to this gardener, "You lose a lot and gain nothing by leaving the fruit on the stem until it is fully red."

That was news to me, since all the articles I'd seen about buying tomatoes urged shoppers to make sure the ones they bought were "fully vine ripened" and not let the store foist tomatoes on them that had been picked while still green and ripened in some warehouse, or in the truck en route to the store. However, when I Googled "should I let my tomatoes ripen on the vine," the articles I found generally seemed to agree that what's wrong with supermarket tomatoes is that they're inferior varieties bred for endurance rather than flavor, and a decent homegrown tomato will taste good whenever you pick it. This garden blogger, for instance, says she has always picked her tomatoes at first blush and gotten a much bigger crop than her neighbors who insisted on letting theirs ripen fully—and when they tasted some of hers, they were sold.

I know from personal experience that it's possible to pick tomatoes when they're still completely green, before the frost gets them, and ripen them in boxes indoors, but I also know that the tomatoes you get this way don't ripen as reliably, or taste as good, as the ones picked at the height of summer. But if these sources are to be believed, a tomato that has started to turn red—even just a tiny bit—can be trusted to ripen fully on its own and will taste just as good as if it had ripened on the vine. (Tomatoes that are completely green, on the other hand, will never ripen and will just rot in the box—so if you pick fully green tomatoes before the frost, you should find some way of using them in their green state.)

Indeed, according to this article from the National Gardening Association, shelf-ripened tomatoes may actually look better, too, since tomatoes don't turn red at temperatures above 86°F. So if you want a nice, full red color, you're actually better off letting them ripen indoors where it's slightly cooler. In fact, considering that our house occasionally does get above 86°F on the main level, we might be better off leaving them downstairs to ripen.

So the plan for now is to keep picking our tomatoes early, which should help not only with the bird problem but also with cracking and possibly ward off other pests. As for the birdbath, we may as well leave it; even if it's not helping, at least it's probably not doing any harm, and offering the birds a drink will encourage them to hang around our yard and keep eating smaller pests.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Savings Challenge, Weeks 21-22: Basic Needs

There seems to be something wrong with the main webpage for the Bankrate Savings Challenge. When I view it in either Chrome or Firefox, I can't click on the links for the individual weekly challenges. I finally got it to work in Safari, so now I can view the last two challenges and post my responses. If you're also having difficulty viewing the page, try clicking on the links below to go directly to each week's challenge.

Week 21: Try Meal Replacements

This isn't so much a challenge as a hypothetical question: could you save money by replacing some or all of your meals with a liquid meal replacement called Soylent? Unlike liquid "supplements" like Ensure or Slim-Fast, this fairly new produce is classified as a food by the FDA and is guaranteed to provide all the nutrients your body needs.

Claes Bell, the Bankrate reporter who was brave enough to try this stuff for an entire week, reacted to it pretty much like Paul Hogan's character in the movie Crocodile Dundee: "You can live on it, but it tastes like sh--." He says the flavor and texture are "reminiscent of Ovaltine, but flavored with Splenda and sidewalk chalk instead of chocolate," and when he consumes it, "my stomach realizes it's been filled with some kind of nutrients, but it also knows the substance it's been asked to accept isn't food, per se." After a day or two on it, he says, he began to feel a sense of dread every time he started to feel hungry and realized that the only way to get rid of that hunger was to force down more of this vile stuff. He concludes that eating this stuff for the rest of his life would probably be better than an immediate, painless death, but "I'd have to think about it."

The worst part of all, however, was that when he did the math, he found that a diet of Soylent actually costs more than real food. A month's supply of Soylent for one person costs $255 a month; his family of four, by contrast, spends $600 a month on meals, including "the bill for our organic produce buying club, trips to Publix and an occasional meal out." Even if you assume he personally consumes 1/3 of this food rather than just 1/4, his share is still only $200—about 20 percent less than the stuff he found barely preferable to starvation. And since Brian and I spend only $300 a month on food (at home and at restaurants) for the two of us, it clearly wouldn't save us anything, either.

Bell points out that compared to other convenience foods, such as fast-food meals and frozen dinners, Soylent actually is somewhat cheaper. So for people who are always in a rush, keeping a stock of this stuff on hand for those times when there's no time to cook might be a money-saver. However, some of the items on his list—such as frozen meals from Lean Cuisine and Marie Callender's—cost only slightly more than the Soylent, and presumably they taste a lot better. And since you can usually get these frozen dinners for less than their full price by combining sales and coupons, it's unlikely the Soylent would really save you anything at all. Moreover, there are other convenience foods, like canned soup or macaroni and cheese, that cost significantly less per serving than Soylent does, and while you wouldn't want to eat these at every meal, at least eating them occasionally isn't an ordeal.

So frankly, I don't think it's even worth trying this challenge. Even if I succeeded in choking this stuff down, it wouldn't save me any money, so what's the point?

Week 22: Get Rid of Your Security System

Since I don't have a home security system and never have had one, this looks like another one of those challenges that couldn't possibly be a money-saver for me. But as it turns out, the Bankrate reporter who did the investigation, Laura Dunn, is in the same boat. So she opted instead to find out "what alternatives exist for keeping my home safe without adding a new category to my monthly budget."

A real home security system, Dunn found, would cost about $350 a year. That price includes a home alarm system, a security camera, and batteries for the camera. Getting a dog for protection—say, a nice Labrador retriever—would add another $750 a year, and the dog would also require a lot more "maintenance" than the alarm system. Of course, a dog also provides more intangible benefits, like companionship, but if security is your concern, this is an expensive way to get it.

Dunn also talked to a police captain about what she could do to keep her home safer without investing in this kind of pricey system. He recommended a few low-cost strategies to make her house look less "inviting" to thieves, including:
  • trimming shrubbery to get rid of hiding spots;
  • getting better lighting;
  • being on good terms with neighbors, so they'll keep an eye on your place; and
  • investing in a fake security camera (provided it looks convincing enough to fool a thief during a quick drive-by) and a fake "Beware of Dog" sign (without the dog to back it up).
Dunn found she could get herself a fake camera, with batteries, and a plastic "Beware of Dog" sign for about $40 total on, saving about $300 over the cost of a real alarm system in the first year alone. In theory, I could do the same, but to be honest, I've never seen the need. Our street is pretty busy and pretty well lit, even at night; I don't see any way a burglar could approach our house from the street without being spotted. And even if they did break in, we really don't have much of anything that's worth stealing: no jewelry, no fancy electronics, and a couple of computers that most people would consider obsolete. The biggest risk is that a burglar would leave a door open and let the cats out.

So, once again, I don't think it's worth investing any money at all in improved security. However, if getting rid of those huge overgrown shrubs in front of our house will make us safer, I'm happy to do that, since (a) it's free and (b) I've been wanting to get rid of them for years as it is.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Gardeners' Holidays 2015: Cherry Fest

This year, the Gardeners' Holiday we normally celebrate as Squashmas is going to be a bit different. It's not that we don't have plenty of zucchini this year; we've actually got four large zukes in the fridge right now. We managed this year to partly fend off the attacks of squash vine borers by covering the base of the stems with dirt, as recommended by a friend of ours who is a Master Gardener in Mercer County. This ploy saved only one of the two plants, but that's still a better success rate than we've had with any previous technique, such as wrapping the plant stem in aluminum foil (the little buggers just try a different stem) or putting out yellow cups to trap the adults (we didn't catch a single one).

So one of the plants is still producing, and even though the other one still succumbed, we managed to get quite a few squash off it before it bit the dust. So we are rolling in squash right now. In fact, last week Brian picked one that was so big he couldn't squeeze it into the veggie drawer; he ended up baking three loaves of zucchini bread, and even then he had a chunk bigger than his fist left over to throw into a couscous salad. And while the surviving plant is still suffering somewhat from powdery mildew (along with all our winter squash and cucumbers), we seem to be keeping it at bay by spraying the plants weekly with a milk and water solution, as recommended by radio-garden-show host Mike McGrath.

However, the success of the zucchini this year has been completely overshadowed by the advent of a new crop: our first big batch of bush cherries. Since we first planted our Meader bush cherries in 2013, we've managed to harvest only a few handfuls of fruit off them. We got about a cup of cherries that first year, enough to make a tiny cherry tart purely as a proof of concept, and nothing at all last year. But this summer, all five bushes started producing cherries in abundance. In fact, since the bushes themselves still aren't very big, a couple of them were completely bowed down by the weight of their own fruit.

We weren't quite sure how to decide when the cherries were ready to pick. A week ago, they were mostly red, but not quite red all over, and they still didn't come off the branches that easily. And when we tasted them, they were extremely sour—not just tart as you expect a tart cherry to be, but powerfully, mouth-puckeringly sour. So we decided to give them another week. Then on Wednesday, Brian declared that he'd tasted one and it seemed close to normal tart-cherry tartness, and he had also noticed that a few of them were starting to drop off the branches. So we decided it was better to harvest them right away, even if they weren't totally ripe yet, than risk losing the entire crop. We spent a good hour or two sitting on the ground (since the bushes are so tiny) pulling cherries off by the handful, and by the end, we'd filled two plastic colanders with our booty. Brian weighed the contents and found we had 4 pounds, 10 ounces, prior to pitting.

Brian did the pitting on Friday, using the drinking straw method shown here, while I read Anthony Trollope to him. We don't own a cherry pitter, and it probably wouldn't do us any good if we did, since our bush cherries are quite a bit smaller than most tree cherries and would probably slip right through the hole meant for ejecting the pit. The straw method is a bit time-consuming, but Brian found the work relaxing. He actually discovered that it's slightly faster if you push the straw through the cherry from the side, rather than from the stem end as shown in the video. That way the straw catches the pit sideways on, so you don't get the pit stuck in the straw and have to pause to eject it.

When the whole process was done, we ended up with a total of two quarts of pitted cherries. Brian measured out three two-cup portions into one-quart freezer bags and froze them, and the other two cups got turned into a dessert concoction Brian dreamed up. I'd been thinking the cherries would go nicely with a sort of eggy batter, so Brian melded together the recipes for a traditional cherry cobbler and the Giant Mushroom Popover out of The Clueless Vegetarian. This appears to be somewhat similar to the type of fruit dessert called a "buckle," except that with those you put the batter in first, and it "buckles" under the weight of the fruit. This version takes a shortcut by putting the fruit on the bottom to start with.

So, on the theory that bouncing is the opposite of buckling, I'm going to call it:
Brian's Cherry Bounce 
1. Combine 2 cups tart cherries, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 Tbsp. cornstarch, and 1/4 tsp. vanilla. Pour into the bottom of a small baking pan. (Note: this came out a little on the tart side; if your cherries are as sour as ours, you probably need a bit more sugar.)
2. Beat 1 egg with 1/2 cup milk, 1/2 cup flour, 1/2 Tbsp. sugar, 1/4 tsp salt, and 1 Tbsp. melted butter. Pour over top of the cherries.
3. Bake at 400°F for 25 minutes.
And we did get in a little celebration of zucchini season, as well; the Cherry Bounce is following up a main course of Brian's Skillet Kugel, modified with the addition of a grated medium zucchini. Surprisingly, the potato-zucchini-leek mixture held together quite well, and the taste was hardly affected. Add one more way to dispose of excess zucchini to the old bag of tricks.