Friday, July 21, 2017

Money Crashers: 7 Ways to Stop Spam Email, Unwanted Messages & Robocalls

It's now been about a year and half since I offered my proposal to fight spam in the comments sections of online articles by allowing authors to selectively block comments from people based on their user profiles. So far, I have no evidence that Disqus has taken up this idea; as Alexanda Petri observed in a 2014 article on Christmas Creep, "It is almost as though writing about things on the Internet had no impact on them whatsoever."

But I can, at least, do something to help you with the more commonplace type of spam - the kind that regularly invades your inbox, displacing important messages about work and social engagements with offers to refinance your house, claim your foreign lottery winnings, or increase your penis size (regardless of whether you actually possess a house, a lottery ticket, or a penis).

My latest Money Crashers article is all about how to fight the scourge of spam. Although there's probably no force on earth that can stop every spam message from getting through, you can slow the flood down to a trickle by learning to recognize it (and ignore it) when you see it, taking steps to keep your e-mail address private, and training your spam filters to do their job better. You can also fight back directly by reporting spammers to the FTC (they can't stop them all, but they can penalize the worst offenders) and protecting your computer so they can't hijack it and put it to use in their nefarious schemes. As a bonus, I offer some tips on how to block unwanted texts and robocalls, too.

Here's the article: 7 Ways to Stop Spam Email, Unwanted Messages & Robocalls

Sunday, July 16, 2017

DIY pallet compost bin

When Brian built our first compost bin, about eight years ago, he used wooden shipping pallets salvaged from behind a building on Rutgers campus. In addition to being free, these were pretty easy to work with: he simply nailed three of them together to make a box with one open side, then attached the fourth one with hinges to make a door that could swing upwards to expose the pile for turning. This simple design served us well for several years, but over the last year or two, it became apparent that the thin, untreated wood of the pallets was gradually crumbling away into compost itself. By this spring, the bin was noticeably crooked, as the rotting timbers of the pallets could no longer hold their shape. Clearly, we were going to need to build a new bin.


Unfortunately, we couldn't simply rig up another simple box like the first one, because we couldn't get hold of the materials. Or, to be more exact, we could have found some, but we couldn't have gotten them home. Our new car, a Honda Fit, can hold practically anything, but it turns out that full-sized shipping pallets are the one thing you just can't squeeze in through either the rear doors or the back hatch. Maybe if we had removed absolutely everything else, we could have managed one, but picking them up wherever we happened to spot them just wasn't feasible.

So, instead, over the course of last year, Brian scavenged several smaller pallets, mostly from the curbside, which the car could more easily accommodate. Then this month, over the long Fourth of July weekend, he started sorting through these and the pile of still-usable two-by-fours left over from our old garden bed frames, trying to work out how best to put them all together into a new bin roughly the same size as our old one. Of the various pallets he'd brought home, he identified four that he thought were sturdy enough to use—but unfortunately, they were all of different shapes and sizes, so simply nailing them together into a box wasn't going to be an option.

However, after a little measuring, he discovered that the four usable pallets all had one dimension in common: each of them was exactly 40 inches long on either its long or short side. So he decided that this would be the height of the the new bin, and he'd use the two-by-fours to eke out the odd-sized pallets to create sides of equal length. Figuring out just how to fit the the pallets together was a little bit tricky; their smaller size would make the bin narrower than our old one, so access to the pile would be a little bit restricted. However, after a little fiddling, Brian finally contrived a design that would allow one whole corner of the bin to swing open, creating a nice wide opening for turning the pile or scooping out the finished compost.

The basic structure of the box was simple enough to build. He just attached three of the pallets together—using the same stainless-steel deck screws we used for the new garden bed frames, instead of nails, to give it more stability.


The hinged extension, however, was much more complicated. He started by building a frame of two-by-fours with one long side and three shorter crosspieces, sort of like an extended letter E.


Then he added on several longer pieces connected to the crosspieces with 3.5-inch carriage bolts, each with a washer and a nut on it, so that they could swivel. This made a sort of giant wooden hinge, which would allow the corner of the new bin to swing open.


Then, he started reinforcing both sides of this hinge with some more long pieces. Attached parallel to each other, about an inch apart, these created an open, slatted structure similar to the pallets we'd already used. He used just two pieces for the short side of the hinge....



...and about six for the longer side. He couldn't add crosspieces all the way to the edge, because that would have prevented it from swinging open...


...so instead he reinforced it with two long pieces on the inside.



Once this odd swinging door was complete, he was able to attach it to the fixed, three-sided structure he'd made with the pallets. The shorter end of the hinge was clamped to the long side of the bin and screwed into place, extending the pallet to make an even longer fixed side.


The longer side of the hinge, which now formed the front of the bin, could swing open freely.


Then, to complete the short side of the bin, Brian took one more of the small pallets and clamped it to this new swinging door at a 90-degree angle.


Screwing this last piece into place was probably the most awkward part of the job, as he actually had to climb inside the bin and crouch down to attach the screws at the right angle.


Here you can see how it all finally fits together. The  three fixed sides of the bin are at the left, and on the right is the door assembly...


...which swings open to give access to the bin. In this picture, it can only open partway, as it's blocked by the pile of compost that had to be emptied out of the old bin. However, with the compost transferred back inside the bin where it belongs, it can swing open nearly to full extension, giving us a nice, wide opening.


The one thing he still isn't sure about is how to keep this swinging door closed. Right now, the bin is only about half full, but as it fills up, the pressure of the contents will likely push the sides outward and force the door open if it's not secured somehow. For now, he's just got a bungee cord latched around the slats; if that proves too awkward to use, we'll have to come up with some more permanent sort of closure.


Here's a final shot of the completed bin from above, with the contents back inside. As you can see, it stands out several inches from the side stoop, because we had to leave enough of a gap to accommodate a drainage pipe that runs through the back of the stoop. Eventually, Brian plans to add a little platform to the back to cover this gap so that waste scraps can't fall in between the bin and the stoop by accident. But for now, it's perfectly usable.


Maybe it's not exactly elegant, but to our eyes, this hodge-podge design seems oddly appropriate for its function. Every time we pass by it, we think, "Now that's a compost bin."

Sunday, July 9, 2017

How we built our raspberry trellis (with some thoughts on good fortune)

When Brian and I (well, mostly Brian) decided that from now on, we were going to grow our raspberries by the two-crop method, rather than the simpler single-crop method, we knew that some sort of trellis to support the now-denser thicket of canes was going to be a must. Unfortunately, neither of us had the faintest idea how to build one. Our trusty Weekend Garden Guide offered a general description of what a simple trellis for berries should look like—a line of posts along each side of the row, with lines strung between them to hold up the canes—but it was woefully short on such details as what kind of wire to use, where to buy it, or how to attach it. We tried searching for more explicit instructions online, but articles like this one, with such cheerfully vague steps as "wrap wire around the stakes" (securing it how, pray tell?) left us none the wiser. The closest thing we found to a detailed outline was this article at Dave's Garden, and its instructions for securing the lines would only work with wooden posts—not the rot-resistant metal ones we intended to use.

So basically, we just walked into a couple of home centers and started poking through the merchandise, trying to find:
  1. A pair of sturdy metal poles about 8 feet long, so we could sink them deep into the ground for stability and still leave them tall enough to reach the top of the raspberry plants;
  2. A suitably heavy, weather-resistant wire that would hold up the weight of the canes; and
  3. Some assortment of hardware that could hold it all in place.
Here's what we eventually ended up with.


The poles aren't visible in this picture, but the closest size we could come up with was 7 feet, which we thought would do if we sank them to a depth of 2 feet. We also got:
  • 50 feet of vinyl coated cable, 3/32 inch thick. Since our two posts would be set 20 feet apart, we thought this would give us enough to string two lengths of wire, one low and one high, with a little to spare.
  • Four "eye bolts," with matching nuts, to secure to the posts and loop the cable through—one for each end of each wire.
  • Eight "wire rope clips" to hold the wire loops in place. That's two for each end of each wire, since I guess Brian wasn't confident a single clip would be strong enough to hold them snug—and at only 68 cents apiece, I wasn't about to argue over it with him.
  • Two 1/4-inch by 7 1/2-inch turnbuckles, to be used for tensioning the wires (one for each cable).
The whole lot cost us just under $50, and we were away home to see if we could figure out how to put it all together.

The first step, setting up the poles, was straightforward enough, if not exactly easy. Brian set the end of the pole on the ground at one front corner of the raspberry bed, placed a wooden block on top, and pounded it repeatedly with a rubber mallet, sinking it millimeter by millimeter into the ground.


By the time he was done with the first pole, it had sunk in about the intended two feet, leaving five feet above ground—just enough to reach to the tops of the tallest raspberry canes.


Unfortunately, the ground at the other end of the bed proved harder, so Brian wasn't able to sink the second post as deeply. After a steady 15 to 20 minutes of pounding, he managed to get it in to a depth of about 17 inches before concluding that was as far as it was going to go. (Also, before he could even start working on the post, he had to trim back an unruly bush that was in the way, producing quite a large assortment of trimmings in the process.)


Next, we had to secure the eye bolts to the posts. Each post had a series of holes through it at regular intervals, so we had to choose the right hole for each bolt to string the wires at the appropriate height. We initially put one bolt in the second hole from the top—we couldn't put it in the very top, because the post had deformed just enough that we couldn't manage to fit the bolt through—and one in the second from the bottom. Later, we adjusted the height of the lower wire a little based on the heights of the canes.


Then, we opened up the big container of cable, located one end, and looped it through the lower of the two eye bolts. We fed the end through one of the rope clips and tightened the nuts to clamp it down, then repeated with a second clip a little farther along. This redundancy ensured that even if one of the clips should come loose, the wire would still be held in place.


Once we had that end secure, we started spooling out the cable all along the front of the bed to measure off the length we needed. Then we prepared to cut it so we could secure it at the far end. Ironically, this proved to be the most difficult part of the entire job. We had assumed that our tin snips would be able to cut through the cable, but after squeezing down on them with all his might, Brian was forced to admit that they just weren't up to the job.


He eventually ended up going back into the house and getting a hacksaw so he could saw through the cable. I didn't take a photo of this part of the process because Brian begged me not to, apparently fearing that his dad (a consummate handyman) would mock him mercilessly for not having the right tool. But it probably wouldn't have been worth shelling out $30 for a pair of wire shears just for this one job. (Though, looking into it just now, I came across one article by a guy who says "I inevitably wind up using my Dremel when I need to make a clean cut" through steel cable—a trick that might have saved us some hassle if we'd thought of it.)

Once he managed to hack his way through the cable, he was able to attach it to the post—but instead of feeding it directly through the eye bolt, he first hooked one of the turnbuckles onto the eye and looped the cable over that. Putting the turnbuckles at the far end of the bed was my suggestion, since the brambles aren't at thick at that end of the bed, so there would be less risk of scratching ourselves whenever we had to reach in and tinker with the turnbuckles. Once the wire was looped around the turnbuckle, two more wire rope clips secured it in place.



As we raised this lower cable into place and where we had and pulled it taut, it started lifting up the very bottoms of the raspberry canes and pulling them upright, just as intended. Well, most of them, at least. We noticed as we went that several of the canes weren't actually inside the bed; they were apparently rogue suckers that had sprung up outside it, which we hadn't been able to make out before within the massive thicket that the raspberry patch had become. So we knew that, even once the trellis was complete, we'd have a bit of work to do tidying up the patch before everything was properly contained.

By this time, the light was starting to fade, but we soldiered on, repeating the process of hooking up the cable to the upper set of eye bolts. Once we had both cables in place, however, we could see that a lot of the raspberry canes were spilling out through the gap between the two, so we decided to raise the lower cable to narrow the gap. Fortunately this was just a matter of unscrewing and moving the eye bolts, so it didn't take too long, and by the time night fell, we had the trellis fully raised with all the canes contained (except the few stray suckers outside the bed, which we pulled out as we cleaned up afterwards).


We've now had our trellis in place for about two weeks, and I can confirm that it definitely makes harvesting the berries easier. It doesn't eliminate all the difficulties; the canes are still pretty close together, so you sometimes have to reach in through the thicket or push some of them out of the way to reach the tempting ruby fruits hanging just out of reach. And even with the canes held nearly upright, the foliage is dense enough that you sometimes have to bend down to spot the berries lower on the canes. But overall, having the canes raised up and contained in a smaller area makes it much easier both to see the berries and to reach them for picking.

All of which brings me to the revelation I had a couple of weeks ago. Every so often in our ecofrugal life, I have this sudden flash of appreciation for just how rich and abundant that life is. Back in 2010, for instance, I mused on what an amazing luxury it is to be able to take a hot shower every morning, when you consider how few people could even manage a hot bath just a hundred years ago. And in 2013, I was struck by how fortunate we are to have fresh-baked bread every week, and fresh flowers on our table—even if we have to bake the bread and cut the flowers ourselves.

This time around, I was heading into the house with a bowlful of fresh raspberries I'd just picked for my lunch, and I was struck once again by the thought, "How incredibly lucky am I to have fresh berries there for the picking, right outside my door? What did we ever do to deserve this kind of bounty?"

Only this time, I realized immediately that I knew the answer to that question perfectly well: what we had done was to plant and tend the raspberry canes. With our own hands, we dug the bed; with our own hands, we planted them all in one chilly spring day; with our own hands, we mulched them and watered them and trimmed them and gave them a fresh dressing of compost every spring; and with our own hands, we built this new trellis to support them. And whenever we want to eat some, we go out and pick them with our own hands as well, braving the scratches for the sake of the berries. We earned this blessing.

And that, I think, sums up the ecofrugal life in a nutshell. It's a life full of blessings that have been earned. Home-baked bread, home-cooked meals, home-grown produce, hand-picked flowers; an abundance of clothing and furniture and books acquired by carefully picking through the offerings at yard sales and thrift stores. And I don't feel I appreciate these blessings any the less for knowing that I've worked for them, instead of having them gifted to me by some gracious and unseen Providence; on the contrary, I think being able to recognize in them the loving labor of my own hands makes me appreciate them all the more.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Price Check: Outdoor furniture for (a lot) less

I was planning to write this week's post about how we created a trellis for our raspberry canes, and how well it's been working out for us. I still plan to post about that eventually, but it will have to wait a little longer, because right now I have another bee I need to shoo out of my bonnet. It's yet another example of something that really annoys me: so-called bargains that are really anything but.

This example comes from the New Brunswick Star-Ledger insert that comes with our weekly coupon circulars. It's just a single sheet filled mostly with ads, along with a few short articles taken from the paid edition of the paper. This week, the feature article is one picked up from the Washington Post on choosing stylish outdoor furniture for your "backyard oasis." It includes several suggestions from a hoity-toity designer for different items, including sofas, rugs, shade umbrellas, and lanterns. There are two picks in each category, one marked "splurge" and a similar-looking one marked "save," to show how you can create a stylish space no matter what your budget is.

So what's the problem with this? All the "save" pieces are priced between $129 and $1,774. That's significantly less than the "splurge" pieces, but it's not what I consider budget-friendly.

So I promptly hit the IKEA website and a couple of others, looking for comparable pieces at real bargain prices. Here's how my finds stack up against the designer's picks:

Outdoor Sofa
"Splurge": Cliffside teak sofa with white cushions from Seren & Lily, $2,498
"Save": Regatta sofa with white Sunbrella cushions from Crate & Barrel, $1,794 (currently marked down to $1,618)
Really save: KLöVEN/KUNGSö loveseat in white from IKEA, $260. Bonus: the frame is made from sustainably harvested eucalyptus wood, not endangered teak.

Shade Umbrella
"Splurge": Tuuci Ocean Master hexagonal Aluma-Teak umbrella in natural with Java finish, from Restoration Hardware, $2,150 (currently marked down to $1,612)
"Save": Vista umbrella by Porta Forma, rectangular in natural, from Frontgate, $1,115 (currently marked down to $669)
Really save: LÅNGHOLMEN umbrella from IKEA, $148.99

Outdoor Rug
"Splurge": 8-by-11-foot Catamaran stripe indoor/outdoor rug in black and ivory, from Dash & Albert, $574
"Save": 8-by-8-foot Trans Ocean Sorrento rugby stripe area rug in black from The Mine, $297.50 (currently marked down to $267.75). Note that this is significantly smaller than the "Splurge" rug; the same rug in a comparable 8'3"-by-11'6" size would cost $441.
Really save: 8-by-10 foot Safavieh Mati flatweave rug in black and white from Target, $221.99 (currently marked down to $177.59). Note that this same rug is also available at Overstock.com for $175.99.

Outdoor Chair
"Splurge": 1966 lounge chair by Richard Schultz for Knoll in white with white mesh and strap, from Knoll, $1,427
"Save": Kingsley-Bate Tivoli club chair in cream from authenTEAK, $820 (currently marked down to $738). Note that the article appears to have the "splurge" and "save" picks mixed up, but I checked the prices and the Tivoli chair is cheaper.
Really save: LACKO outdoor armchair in gray from IKEA, $45. (If you object that this chair isn't white like the others, the VÅDDö outdoor chair in white is only $25, but it doesn't have arms.)

Outdoor Candle Lantern
"Splurge": Teak stainless rope lantern from homenature, $350
"Save": Wood-and-rope lantern, tall, from West Elm, $129
Really save: Burgess indoor or outdoor wood lantern from Pebble Lane Living (via Amazon Marketplace), $49.99. If you don't mind a smaller wooden lantern without the rope, you could get the Zings & Thingz weathered wood lantern from Wayfair for $19.99; if you don't particularly need it to be wood, you can get the BORRBY lantern in black from IKEA for just $7.99.

The juxtaposition of the "splurge" and "save" picks in the article is an example of the anchoring bias (covered in my article on cognitive biases for Money Crashers). Basically, when the first price you see for an outdoor umbrella is $2,150, an umbrella priced at a mere $1,115 suddenly looks like a really good deal. But if you saw the $1,115 umbrella on its own, your reaction would more likely be, "Over a grand for an umbrella?"

So I hope the addition of my picks, which are not just cheaper but much cheaper, helps counter the anchoring bias for you and shows what a stylish room on a reasonable budget can look like.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Money Crashers: How to Use Automatic Savings Accounts & Apps to Build Wealth With Less Stress

You know those annoying people who never seem to gain weight? They eat whatever they like and they stay thin, and when you ask them about it, they say, "Yeah, I guess I'm just lucky that way?"

Well, I'm kind of like that with saving money. When I read articles and message boards where people talk about how hard it is for them to resist overspending, I just can't relate to it. I guess I don't have the shopping gene, because I've never really felt the urge to go on a big spending spree...whether I could afford it or not.

So when I see articles with savings tips like, "Save all your change in a jar at the end of each day - it really adds up!" I just think, "How is that supposed to help? Things cost the same whether you pay for them with exact change or not. Why not just put the dollars into savings instead of the coins?" But the answer, of course, is that some people can't save the dollars; if they have them, they'll spend them. If there's money in their wallets—or in their checking accounts, where it's easy to reach—it burns a hole in their pockets.

For these folks, an automatic savings plan can be a real help. With these plans, you immediately set aside a portion of each paycheck in a separate savings account. You can still get the money if you really need it, but it's out of sight and out of mind, so you don't spend it unthinkingly. It's kind of like hiding the cookies on a high shelf, where they're harder to reach (a temptation I do understand).

My latest Money Crashers article is all about these automatic savings plans. I explain how they help you save and how to set one up. Then, as a bonus, I also discuss various money-saving apps that can help you keep a squeeze a little more savings out of each paycheck—like an electronic version of that big jar of coins on the dresser.

Here's the article: How to Use Automatic Savings Accounts & Apps to Build Wealth With Less Stress

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Roasted Mushroom Salad (plus bonus taters)

This Friday, while deciding what to make for dinner, Brian took note of three cogent facts:
  1. We had some mushrooms in the fridge that needed to get used pretty soon.
  2. We also had plenty of lettuce out in the garden (so far, the one crop we have that's doing well).
  3. I still needed a Recipe of the Month for June to put on this blog.
Putting those items together, he searched the Internet for recipes that included both mushrooms and lettuce, and he found this recipe for Roasted Mushroom and Romaine Salad on the Cookin Canuck website. He had to modify it slightly, since the lettuce in our garden was Boston lettuce rather than Romaine, and the mushrooms we had were white button mushrooms rather than creminis. (Side note: did you know these are actually the same species, Agaricus bisporus? The only difference between them is that creminis are older before they're harvested. Leave them on the ground still longer, and they grow up to become portobello mushrooms. So the only reason portobello mushrooms cost so much more is that it takes longer to grow them. Well, I thought it was interesting.)

Anyway, we figured these changes wouldn't make too big a difference. We both like Boston (butterhead) lettuce better than Romaine anyway, and surely any kind of mushrooms sautéed with olive oil, garlic, and fresh rosemary could only be good. And since we liked all the other flavors in the salad as well—balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, and pecans—putting them all together had to be a guaranteed winner, right?

Well, not really. It only took us a few bites of this salad to conclude that, while all the ingredients of it were good individually, they just didn't play together well. In my opinion, it was the juxtaposition of the mushrooms and the lettuce that didn't work. Adding a hot, cooked ingredient over top of fresh greens wasn't the problem; we'd tried that before with this Warm Chick Pea Salad with Arugula, and we quite liked the combination. It was just the flavor of the seasoned mushrooms that didn't seem to combine well with the salad and dressing. We probably would have enjoyed either the dressed greens or the mushrooms by themselves (or possibly as an accompaniment to pasta or polenta), but the two together weren't satisfying. We managed to finish off the dish, but we felt no interest in trying it again.

Fortunately, one thing saved the dinner from being a total bust. Rather than just slice some bread to accompany the salad, Brian decided to fix some potatoes. And since he was using rosemary on the mushrooms, he thought it would make sense to put some on the potatoes as well, along with a little olive oil and parmesan. And these turned out to be not just good, but fantastic. Roasted alongside the mushrooms in a 450-degree oven, they cooked up crisp on the outside, tender on the inside, and full of flavor. Brian used a pound and a half of potatoes, and we ate up most of them at dinner time and then kept going back to the fridge all evening long to sneak pieces of the leftovers. Even cold, they were still tasty.

So, even if the official Recipe of the Month was a disappointment, we still have one new dish that we'll definitely be making again. If you want to do the same, here's the very simple recipe:

Cut 1 1/2 pounds baking potatoes into good-sized chunks. (Small potatoes can be quartered, larger ones halved and cut into thick slices.) Toss the pieces with 3 Tbsp. olive oil, 2 Tbsp parmesan, 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary, and 1 tsp. salt. Spread them out on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicone liner (like the ones Brian got for Hanukkah last year) and bake in a 450-degree oven for about 40 minutes, or until they're golden and crispy. Then try not to gobble them up too fast.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Gardeners' Holidays 2017: Cornucopia

Summer is off to a disappointing start in our garden this year. Normally, by this time of year, we've already started harvesting our sugar snap peas, and we might even be getting a few early green beans. This year, though, both those crops have been a disappointment. The snap peas, for some reason, didn't come up at all when we first planted them early in April; when we attempted a second planting at the beginning of May, only a straggling few plants appeared, and none of them have even flowered, let alone produced pods.

As for the bean plants, they came up just fine, but then several of them mysteriously disappeared. Some of them were chomped off an inch or two from the ground, while others seem to have been pulled out entirely and spirited away. We might suspect that our resident groundhogs had somehow managed to find a way through the groundhog fence, but our lettuce hasn't been touched, so clearly that's not it. The only critters that can make it into the garden, as far as we know, are squirrels and birds, which shouldn't be interested in our bean plants. So far, our best guess is that we have an infestation of voles—the groundhog fence wouldn't keep those out, and Brian did recall seeing some sort of small tunnel in the dirt near the missing bean plants. But it's only a guess, and we'd have to set out traps to verify it—which didn't work so well with the rat last year.

Other crops are looking disappointing as well. The lima beans we planted this year were seeds we harvested last year, intending to eat them, but planted instead when we realized we'd forgotten to buy more. Apparently, this didn't work well, as not a single bean plant came up. We also got only three cucumber plants from the eight seeds we planted, even though some of the seeds were only a year old. And even our basil, which is normally one of our most prolific crops—so much that we've sometimes had trouble figuring out how to store it all—is coming in small and patchy.

Fortunately, there are a few bright spots in the garden as well. The squash plants are all thriving, and the zucchini are already displaying their first blossoms, which means the actual squash aren't far off. (We've already taken the precaution of covering the stems with dirt, in the hope that we can preserve our plants from falling victim to squash vine borers again this year.) And the butterhead lettuce has grown in thick and luxuriant, so it can now take over on salad duty from the winter lettuce that's finally bolted in the summer heat.

Best of all, our raspberry canes not only continue to produce, but actually seem to be ramping it up as the summer progresses. Yesterday, I went out and picked a whole colander full, giving me a generous portion for that day's lunch, another for today's, and enough left over to dress a couple of green salads for tonight's dinner. (We've also managed to get the berries up on a trellis of sorts—just a couple of stout cables running the length of the bed, attached to posts on either end—which we hope will make it easier to harvest them in future. More details on that project in a future post.)

So even with all the disappointments in the garden, we still have much to be thankful for. Indeed, with organic raspberries costing about $6 a pint at the farmers' market, I'd say we owe at least $20 worth of gratitude already—and there's more where that came from.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Becoming an EDC woman

Last month, when I blogged about my new refillable roller-ball pen, I gave several reasons why I was so pleased with it. I liked the fact that it was comfortable to hold, laid down a neat line, and most importantly, was refillable. It uses a cartridge system, which is the easiest method of refilling, if not the most ecofrugal—and if I ever decide I'm willing to trade off some convenience for sustainability, I can switch it to a cartridge converter or ink-dropper system. So, ideally, now that I own these two refillable pens, I should never need to buy and throw away a disposable pen again.

However, there was one other thing that pleased me about these pens that I didn't mention at the time: adding this pen to my purse made a great upgrade to my everyday carry, or EDC.

What's EDC, you ask? Well, there are two answers to that question. Your everyday carry, or EDC, is simply the stuff that you carry around in your pockets on a day-to-day basis. This doesn't mean the detritus of gum wrappers and cash register receipts that accumulates over time; it means the items you carry deliberately, because you need them and feel lost without them. Your keys. Your wallet. Your smartphone, if you're like most people, or your little notebook and pen, if you're more like me.

But the phrase "EDC" means something more than that. It refers to a whole philosophy built around the idea of choosing your EDC as wisely as possible. People who belong to the "EDC community"—and yes, there definitely is one—put a lot of thought into what they carry in their pockets every day. They invest considerable time and energy into clearing junk out of their bags and pockets, paring down their EDC to a few basic essentials—and then making those essential items as useful and well-crafted as possible. Their goal is to have an EDC that can get them through any event they're likely to run into on a day-to-day basis, without weighing them down.

I first discovered the EDC community while shopping for my new pens. I went searching for reviews of refillable roller-ball pens, and I discovered that some of the most thorough ones were on the Everyday Carry website (yes, of course there's a website). Because naturally, if anyone's going to put a lot of thought into which pen is the best pen to keep in your pocket, it's going to be the EDC folks. These people pay attention to every aspect of a pen: functionality, comfort, build quality, size, and style. Some of them even write, in all seriousness, about how well a pen functions in "the harshest conditions," as if they were planning to take their pens on an Arctic expedition. (Who knows—maybe some of them are.)

People get involved with the EDC lifestyle for different reasons. To some, it's all about being prepared for emergencies. These are the ones who want their watches to have built-in compasses and their pens to stand up to "tactical" use. (The EDC movement isn't the same as the "prepper" movement, but there's definitely some overlap.) Others, by contrast, like the idea of being outfitted as a proper gentleman (since most EDC'ers are male) should be. These are the types who prefer fountain pens and pocket watches and always have a clean handkerchief.

I haven't seen any articles that specifically talk about EDC from an environmental perspective. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the EDC lifestyle is a perfect fit with ecofrugality, because it's all about choosing wisely and wasting nothing. You choose only the exact items you need to carry in your pockets, so you don't waste space; you choose the most efficient set of items, so you don't waste time; and you avoid wasting money and resources by choosing sturdy items that are built to last, not cheap ones that get replaced often.

So when I purchased my new pen, I privately labeled it as my new "EDC" pen—and mentally, I made a vow to start improving the rest of my EDC, as well. As a start, I went on eBay two weeks ago and tracked down a working copy of my old, much cherished Timex watch, which died after ten years of loyal service shortly after I'd invested in a new, solid stainless-steel band for it. It was the only watch I'd ever found that really met my short yet stringent list of requirements: a face with all twelve numbers visible; hour, minute, and second hands; a night light; a metal bracelet band (NOT an extension band that snags my hair all the time); and a design that works with any outfit, dressy or casual. So I decided that rather than searching site after site trying to find another watch that meets all those needs, I should just track down another copy of this old, discontinued watch and buy that. (And, as a bonus, if the band wears out, I already have a stainless-steel one to replace it.) So now I have the perfect EDC pen and the perfect EDC watch, and I'm still working on the ideal phone.

All this inspired me to write an article about the EDC lifestyle for Money Crashers. This piece explains the concept of EDC, outlines its benefits (e.g., saving time, saving money, and being prepared for any emergency), and then goes into details about how to craft your own personal EDC. I discuss the nine essentials that show up on most lists of the ideal EDC—wallet, key fob, cell phone, flashlight, pocketknife, multitool, watch, notebook, pen—with details about how to choose the best ones for your needs.  the basic components of a well-chosen EDC - wallet, keys, phone, and extras like a flashlight or pocketknife - and how to choose the best ones for you.

Here are the details: 9 Everyday Carry Items You Need to Have to Be Prepared for Anything

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Money Crashers: Time Banking Explained

Back in 2011, I was struck by the fact that the Freecycle group I belong to is an example of what an economy would look like with no explicit monetary system. There's a network through which people exchange goods - giving what they don't need, and taking what they do - but there's no explicit "this for that" trade involved. You give something to the group, knowing that at some point you'll get something back that's of value to it. You may not know what or when, but you trust that it will all work out.

However, Freecycle has one limitation: it only works for goods. People give stuff, and they get stuff in return. But what about services? Is there any kind of network where people can exchange those - say, giving five hours of babysitting to one person in the group, and getting back five hours of music lessons from another at some later time?

As it turns out, yes. Time banks are systems that let people pay for goods and, more usually, services with their time, instead of money. The basic premise of all time banks is "One hour equals one hour"—no matter how that hour is spent. An hour of time from a lawyer, whose normal hourly rate is $150 or more, is worth exactly the same as an hour of time from a short-order cook who earns minimum wage. In this way, all contributors are valued equally in a way that they aren't in the money economy. The vast inequality between rich and poor that causes so much trouble in our society just doesn't exist in the time economy.

In my latest Money Crashers article, I explore these fascinating yet little-known alternative economies. I explain how time banking started, how time banks work, the "core values" time banking promotes, and the pros and cons of the system. And I wrap it all up with some advice on how to find a time bank in your area and give it a try—or, if you can't find one, start your own.

Read all the details here: Time Banking Explained – How to Trade Services With a Time-Based Currency

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Raspberry Redux

When we first planted our raspberry canes back in 2013, we planned to grow them using the easy single-crop method. In other words, instead of going to all the trouble of trellising and selectively pruning the canes to keep them healthy, we figured we'd just cut down all the canes every winter and let new ones grow in the spring. That way, we wouldn't get any berries in the summer, but we'd get a generous crop in the fall—and it would be a lot less work. (When in doubt, do it the easy way, that's what I say.)

Last winter, however, Brian had the idea that maybe we should try, just as an experiment, leaving last year's canes in place, and letting next year's canes grow up alongside them. That way, we could get a summer crop off the two-year-old "floricanes," as well as a fall crop off the new "primocanes," before cutting them down and starting over.

Sure enough, this month the canes started producing berries—lots of them. Not only were we harvesting raspberries much earlier in the season than we'd ever had any before, we were getting nearly as many of them in this first crop as we normally get in our single yearly crop. Just yesterday Brian came in with an overflowing handful of berries and declared that, from now on, he wants to grow the berries this way every year.

My reaction to this announcement was a bit mixed. On the one hand, I'm certainly enjoying having lots of fresh, ripe berries in June, instead of having to wait until September. But on the other hand, as I reminded him, the two-crop method of growing raspberries is a lot more complicated. I pulled out my copy of The Weekend Garden Guide and read him the section on bramble cultivation, stressing the following points:
  1. Floricanes have to be pruned back as soon as they're done producing, thus giving the new primocanes more light and more room to breathe.
  2. You must "ruthlessly" root out all stray suckers from the bed and thin the primocanes to 4 to 6 inches apart to avoid overcrowding.
  3. You'll have healthier plants, get more berries, and have an easier time harvesting them if you put them on a trellis. 
If you don't follow these rules, but just let your berries grow willy-nilly, Roth warns that you're liable to end up with "great thickets" that are difficult to harvest from. Even after less than one year, our bramble patch is clearly heading in that direction: last year's canes and this year's are all jumbled up together, creating a thick tangle that it's very difficult to reach into. You can easily pluck the berries that are right on the tips of the canes, but the ones that are lower down tend to get buried, and you have to push the overlying shoots back with some sort of tool to get at them.

So basically, if we're going to start growing our berries by the two-crop method, some sort of trellis is going to be a must. Just harvesting this year's berries without one is tricky enough; trying to find and selectively prune out the floricanes while everything is all tangled up together is going to be a complete nightmare.

Fortunately, according to author Susan Roth, trellising the berries isn't really that big a hassle; you can just build a permanent trellis once and then continue to use it year after year. The type she recommends is a hedgerow: pairs of metal posts on either side of the row of raspberry canes, spaced 20 to 25 feet apart, and joined by wires at 2.5 feet and 5 feet high to support the canes. Once you have this in place, all you have to do is walk along the row once a week, make sure the canes are tucked under the wires, and pull out any little suckers that have spread beyond the limits of the row. The wires keep the canes neatly propped up, making it easy to get in and prune back the floricanes in the fall—a job that Roth says fits easily into a Saturday morning.

Because of the way our raspberries are situated, we figure we can modify Roth's hedgerow plan a little bit. Instead of putting posts on either side of the row of canes, we should be able to make do with just two set of posts, one on each end of the bed, and let the side of the house support the canes on the other side. Brian's only concern about the plan was that the trellis might block access to the telephone box on the side of the house, but I pointed out that it could hardly be more of a barrier than the thicket we've got growing there now. We can always thin out the canes to leave a gap where the box is, and anyone who comes to work on it can just slip in under the wires to get close to it.

I'm actually thinking that, rather than waiting until fall, we should try and get a trellis installed and wrestle these berries onto it as soon as possible. That way we won't have to go out fully armored and armed with a lance just to pick a few berries, and we're less likely to miss out on the ones that we can't see right now through all the foliage.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Money Crashers: How to Buy a Fixer-Upper

As I've noted before, I'm a big fan of home-remodeling shows. One of my current favorites is "Rehab Addict," in which pint-sized powerhouse Nikki Curtis buys up old houses in poor condition—sometimes even ones that have been condemned and are slated for demolition—and "restores them to their former glory." It's great fun to watch the transformation, but what I like best about the show is that it doesn't sugar-coat the process of turning these ugly ducklings into swans. Nikki runs into problems—sometimes really big problems—and you see how she struggles to fix them. There's even one episode where she has a couple of houses that aren't selling, and she's forced to sell her own house just to raise enough capital to keep working. Watching this show, you can definitely tell that fixing up a house is a rewarding job, but not an easy one.

In this way, I think "Rehab Addict" is a good counterbalance to some of the other home shows, which make the process of making over a house look like a lark from beginning to end. Binge-watching a whole bunch of "Fixer Upper" episodes could easily lure a viewer into thinking, "Gee, this doesn't seem so hard! All you have to do is buy a beat-up old house and throw up some shiplap and new tile, and you can make a ton of money!" And in reality, of course, it's almost never that simple.

So in my latest Money Crashers article, I offer a more nuanced look at the pros and cons of buying a fixer-upper. I go into all the nitty-gritty details that the HGTV shows tend to gloss over, such as:
  • Figuring out what repairs a house needs
  • Determining what you can DIY and what you have to hire out
  • Calculating the costs for repairs and permits
  • Financing options that cover both the house and the repair costs
  • Evaluating your own ability to handle a fixer-upper
  • Deciding how much to offer
  • Bargaining with sellers to get a good deal
  • Writing clauses into the contract to protect yourself
If there's a fixer-upper in your future—or you'd like there to be—this is stuff you'll definitely need to know. Get all the details here:  How to Buy a Fixer-Upper House – Save Money & Avoid Risks

Friday, June 2, 2017

Return of the tame-flower bed

Actually, since it's mostly weeds at the moment, I guess I can't exactly call it tame. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a lame-flower bed.

A quick recap: Back in 2014, after pulling out the overgrown shrubs to the left of our front door, we planted the area with a wildflower seed mix we bought from American Meadows. This blend was a mix of annuals and perennials for the Northeastern gardens, and the site promised "show-stopping color all season long, year after year." And, after an unpromising start in spring of 2014, the seeds did actually burst into an impressive mix of blooms by mid-June.

But sadly, this triumph was short-lived. One particular flower in the mix, the bachelor's buttons (aka cornflowers), grew up to a height of about four feet and then, in the first heavy rainstorm, flopped over, burying everything else under their stalks. We attempted to compensate for this problem the following year by installing a grid of stakes and string that we hoped would keep the flowers corralled, but that turned out to be too little, too late. The grid wasn't enough to keep the flowers from flopping, and moreover, the bachelor's buttons had spread beyond the borders of the original bed and were flailing about with no constraints. One year later, they had pretty much taken over the entire area, and pulling them all out left us with a pitiful, scraggly mix of a few poppies and black-eyed Susans looking sadly around for all their friends.

So in 2016, we came up with a new plan. We bought a different wildflower seed blend, this one containing only perennial plants. That, we figured, would remove the overly aggressive cornflowers from the mix. Last fall, we pulled everything out of the bed, planted the new perennial seed mix in place of the old, and crossed our fingers.

And now, nearly six months later, here's what we've got:


What you might notice about that picture is the conspicuous absence of flowers. There's a lot of green stuff, but only a few tiny wallflowers blooming. Worse still, those tallish stems that look like they're ready to bloom before too long are actually....wait for it...BACHELOR'S BUTTONS! These things are like the monster in a horror movie! No matter how many times you kill it, it just keeps coming back!

Now, maybe I'm being too hasty in calling this attempt a failure. After all, at this point in June of 2014, all we had was a patch of baby's breath with a few scattered dots of color, but two weeks later, the bed was a full-on riot of color. So maybe the perennials will undergo a similar transformation (once we get the damn cornflowers out of there).

Unfortunately, we'll have to wait quite a while to find out, as the American Meadows site warns one reviewer that "perennials do typically only show green growth in the first year." So we might not know until next summer whether we're actually going to get any blossoms...and by then, it will be too late to do anything about it until the following year. Which means we might not be able to get anything decent-looking into this area before 2019.

All in all, I'm feeling kind of disappointed with our attempts to grow a pollinator garden in this area, as the landscaper we consulted back in 2012 recommended. I'm wondering if maybe we would have been happier just replacing those big, overgrown shrubs with some slightly smaller shrubs—maybe a couple of hydrangeas or small rosebushes—and calling it good.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Perks of Being a Late Adopter

It's been nearly four years since I first started to ask myself just how much I was missing out on by not owning a smartphone. At the time, I concluded that, while a smartphone would definitely have its uses, there wasn't much I could do with one that I couldn't do without one—certainly not enough to justify the price of the phone and a pricey data plan to go with it.

Since then, I've been revisiting the issue from time to time. I've come up with several additional things I could do with a smartphone that I can't easily do without one, such as:
  • Looking things up to answer questions that occur to us while we're away from home.
  • Using it as a GPS. (Yes, I can print out maps and directions from Google ahead of time, but only if I know where I'm going. If I make a trip on the spur of the moment, or get lost or detoured, having something that could steer me back to safety would be useful.)
  • Geocaching, a kind of real-life treasure hunting game. It looks like fun, but I've never had a chance to try it because it requires a GPS-enabled device.
  • Electronic coupons and rewards apps, such as SavingStar.
  • Taking pictures of things for future reference. For instance, I could snap a photo of my car to remind myself where I parked, or take a picture of an interesting plant so I could look it up later.
  • Keeping my calendar and address book up to date. (I currently use paper versions, but they're harder to update. The squares in the date book are too dinky to write much in, and the only way to update the address book is to cross out an entry and write a new one, so I eventually run out of lines.)
  • Keeping a list of gift ideas for friends and family that's always on hand, so I can jot down ideas as I think of them (or snap pictures of possible gifts).
Now, I wouldn't actually need a smartphone for any one of these activities all that often. Even if you put them all together, they wouldn't really justify spending 30 bucks a month or more on a data plan, as opposed to the $3 a month we currently spend on a bare-bones T-Mobile prepaid plan.

However, I've discovered that it's actually possible to get data with this same plan on an as-needed basis: just $5 for a one-day pass, or $10 for one week. And we probably wouldn't have to do this more than a couple of times a month; a lot of the activities listed above don't even require an Internet connection, and others (such as downloading coupons) could be done at home, using my home wireless network. So overall, the cost wouldn't be too bad. (And knowing that I have to pay for my data by the day would probably keep me from using the phone too often, so I wouldn't risk turning into one of those people who's unable to look up from the damn thing.)

So all in all, I've more or less decided that this will probably  be the year we finally take the plunge and get a (basic, prepaid, refurbished) smartphone. Which will put us only, what, about seven years behind everyone else in the Western world.

Now, you can laugh at me all you like for being so far behind the times. But I firmly maintain that my wait-and-see approach to new technologies is actually a highly ecofrugal choice. All those people who rushed out and bought the very first iPhone when it first came out ten years back paid $500 or for a slightly clunky first-generation device with 4GB of memory. The phone I've got my eye on right now has 16GB, a far superior camera, Bluetooth, and all sorts of other features—for $150. In other words, by dragging my feet on this decision, I'm getting a much better product at a much lower price.

Being a late adopter has benefited me in other ways, as well. For example, I've never gotten around to buying a Blu-Ray DVD player, because I'm not that picky about video quality, and the higher resolution wouldn't make much difference on my smallish TV anyway. I used to figure I'd probably have to get one at some point, because by the time our old DVD player bit the dust, standard-resolution players would no longer be available—but by now, pretty much everything we want to watch can be streamed anyway. So by the time this player conks out, we won't need a new one at all. Voilà—by putting off buying this new gadget, we avoided having to buy it at all!

These experiences were the inspiration for my latest Money Crashers article, which is all about the benefits of being a late adopter. I don't spend the entire piece bragging about how much money and time I've saved by waiting to adopt new technology (though I'll admit to doing it a little bit); instead, I discuss why late adopters, or "laggards," are more common and more visible these days, and how being one can help you save money and avoid tech-related stress.

Here's the full article (complete with an incredibly clunky title chosen by the editorial staff, not by me): How Being a Laggard or Late Adopter of Technology Can Save You Money. Please do your best to ignore the frequent use of the phrase "late adopters or laggards" through out the article, as well; apparently my editors are convinced that the word "laggard," which I've never used once in my life until I wrote this piece, is a term that people might actually search for, and so they need to stuff it into the article as often as possible.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Sweet Potatoes

Our recipe of the month for May is one we've actually been hanging on to for a while now. I clipped it out of the October/November 2016 issue of Savory, the free magazine from Stop & Shop, but we kept coming up with other recipes we wanted to try first. So it only just worked its way to the top of the pile this week.

Since it was printed so long ago, this recipe is no longer available on the Shop & Shop website, so I hope they won't mind if I just reproduce it here:
ROASTED BRUSSELS SPROUTS AND SWEET POTATOES1 lb. Brussels sprouts, halved
3 cups peeled and cubed sweet potatoes
1 cup chopped onion
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. orange juice
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup dried cranberries
STEP 1 Preheat oven to 400°F. Spread the Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, and onion on a large-rimmed baking sheet or casserole dish.
STEP 2 In a small bowl, combine oil, orange juice, and cinnamon. Drizzle over the vegetable mixture and toss to coat evenly. Sprinkle salt (in moderation) and pepper over vegetables.
STEP 3 Roast 15 min. Stir gently, add walnuts, and continue to roast for another 15 min., or until vegetables are tender and nicely browned. Add cranberries to mixture and serve warm.
We ended up making a couple of minor modifications to this recipe. We picked up the sweet potato and Brussels sprouts during our weekly shopping, but we forgot to get any dried cranberries, so we used raisins instead. We also used a Vidalia onion, since that was the kind we had on hand.

It's possible these minor changes are to blame, but we found the result a little unexciting. It was perfectly okay, with a reasonably good balance of flavors and textures, but there was nothing about it that really jumped out at us. And it certainly isn't as delicious as our favorite Roasted Brussels Sprouts from Mark Bittman. So all in all, there's no particularly good reason for us to make this dish again.

Fortunately, we still have plenty of other recipes in the queue. I have several more that I've pulled from the pages of Savory, including Soba Noodles with Tofu and Sugar Snap Peas from the January issue, Butternut Squash Noodles with Brown Butter and Sage from the April issue, and the cover meal for April, Spring Roll Noodle Bowl. So we'll be trying those recipes in the months to come, and we'll see if any of them turn out to be keepers.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Money Crashers: How Prescription Drug Discount Cards Can Save You Money at the Pharmacy

I just got home from a trip to the drugstore, highly annoyed because I was conned into leaving with a plastic bag that I didn't need. Usually I'm highly alert at the checkout and manage to squeeze in my "Idon'tneedabagthanks" before they get a chance to dump my purchases in one, but this time the pharmacist distracted me by asking if my card was debit or credit and carefully explaining to me how to insert it into the reader, which I know perfectly well...and when I turned my eyes to that for just one second, he took advantage of the opportunity to slip my tiny little medicine bottle, which I could easily have stuck in my purse, into a plastic bag. (Okay, he probably didn't really go out of his way to foist an unwanted plastic bag on me, but the result is the same. Would it really be so hard for cashiers to ask, "Do you want a bag?" when they ring you up?)

But I guess I really shouldn't complain too much. After all, an unnecessary plastic bag is, at most, a minor annoyance. I should count myself lucky I'm not one of the millions of Americans (about 8 percent of all American adults, according to an NCHS survey) who can't afford their medications at all.

For those folks, those little bins full of cards they display at doctors' offices, promising savings of "up to 50 percent" (or 60 percent or 70 percent or whatever) on prescriptions, must look like a blessing from heaven. But do they really live up to those promises, or is it just a scam?

Well, as it turns out, the answer is no to both. Prescription drug savings cards are legitimate programs that offer real savings—but only on some drugs, at some pharmacies. Overall, the amount you can save with them averages around 16 percent.

Still, if your health insurance won't cover a medication you need (or you don't have health insurance at all), every little bit helps. So in my latest Money Crashers article, I examine the pros and cons of these discount cards in detail. I explain how the programs are able to lower drug costs, why drugstores are willing to accept them, how much you can save with them, and how they compare to health insurance and other savings tools, such as discount generic drug plans. Finally, I offer some advice on how to go about finding the drug discount card that can offer the best savings for the specific drugs you need.

Here's the story: How Prescription Drug Discount Cards Can Save You Money at the Pharmacy

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Computer woes

Once again, the repair or replace dilemma has reared its ugly head to trouble the peace of our ecofrugal life. And once again, it's my computer that's to blame.

Over the past few weeks, my little 6-year-old Mac Mini (well, actually, 7 years old, since it was a refurbished 2010 model when we bought it in 2011) has developed a very frustrating habit. In the middle of some seemingly innocuous activity - pasting a bit of text, clicking on a link, or even just scrolling through a document - it will suddenly freeze up and refuse to respond to any commands at all. You can still move the mouse, but it does no good, since any other program you click on will just freeze up as well. Generally, it comes to again after a few minutes, but sometimes it appears to come to, only to go straight back into its seizure the minute you try to do anything. The only thing that's guaranteed to fix the problem is a hard reboot (which sometimes involves shutting the power off at the source, because the computer won't thaw out long enough to let me shut it down properly).

Now, there are all sorts of problems that can cause a Mac to manifest the spinning beach ball of death, including processor overload, memory overload, insufficient hard drive space, and overheating. All of these are fairly simple to fix. But Brian noted that whenever my computer did this, the spinning ball was often accompanied by a high-pitched whining sound, almost too high to hear, emanating from the machine. That was an ominous warning sign that it could be the hard drive at fault - and that's definitely not a quick fix.

According to this IFixIt guide, replacing the hard drive is only a "moderate" difficulty job, but if that's true, I'd hate to see a difficult one. It takes 23 separate steps just to remove the old drive, each of which has to be repeated in reverse to put the new one in. It would also require at least $20 worth of specialized tools we don't currently own, on top of the $60 or so for the new hard drive itself. And that's just the hardware part of the job. Once that was done, we'd have to reinstall the operating system and all the software - a job that took the better part of a weekend to complete last year, because this Mac is so ancient in computer years - and restore all my data files from the backup drive. It would be, to say the least, an Undertaking. (This article at The Verge, by someone who performed a similar operation on a somewhat newer Mac, describes it as a "horrifying" experience.)

We also looked into what it would cost to replace the machine entirely. I had already decided that this machine was going to be my last Mac, even though I've been a loyal Apple user for over 30 years (ever since I got my first Apple IIc as a bat mitzvah gift from my grandfather), precisely because this "horrifying" upgrade process is all too typical of the way Apple does business these days. They seem to go out of their way to make it as hard as possible to upgrade an old machine, because they don't want people to upgrade; they want them to throw it out and buy the latest model instead. This business model is exactly the opposite of ecofrugality, and I'd made up my mind I wasn't going to support it any longer. So I checked the ConsumerSearch report on desktop computers and found that the "best cheap computer" was the Intel NUC, an ultra-compact machine that can be customized to fit your particular specs. Brian found that a kit that would meet my needs would probably cost between $500 and $600 (including an add-on CD-ROM drive, which I use for ripping music CDs).

But we decided perhaps it was best not to get ahead of ourselves. We didn't know for sure that the problem was the hard drive, and we didn't have the necessary tools to figure it out at home. So we took it to one of our local computer repair places, Linx 8, which specializes in Apple repairs. We'd already checked with them and found that if we left it with them, they could run a set of diagnostics on it to pinpoint the problem, and they wouldn't even charge us for it. So we figured we had nothing to lose by trying it. The only question was, if they found it was the hard drive that needed replacing, how much should we be willing to pay to replace it? We already knew that we could, in theory, do it ourselves for around $80, but only at the cost of many hours of hard work and aggravation and a nontrivial risk of screwing the process up. So how much was it worth to us to avoid that?

Brian and I came up with different answers to this question. Brian's thought was that it was definitely worth $150 - twice the cost of doing the repair ourselves - but $200 would be pushing it. I, by contrast, thought that, according to Jeff Yeager's 50 percent rule, we should be willing to pay up to $275 to fix the machine - half the cost of replacing it. But since he was the one who would probably end up doing most of the work if we did it ourselves, I figured it was his decision to make.

So, when he shop called this afternoon to tell us that my Mac did indeed need a new hard drive, and their fee to replace it - including reinstalling the OS, but not any paid software applications - would be $270, I turned to Brian before giving them an answer. And his response came in two parts: a somewhat disgruntled sigh, followed by consent. It was more than he really wanted to pay, but if it came to a choice between paying the fee or spending the whole of next weekend working on my computer, it was preferable to pay up. (He said no, however, to the additional $75 charge for migrating over all my data, including the large music library. We'll have the original hard drive back from them, as well as the backups, so he thinks we should be able to manage that part ourselves.)

So they're working on that as I type (on Brian's work laptop, borrowed for the weekend), and we should be able to pick up my computer tomorrow or Monday. And I, for one, think we made the right choice. It wasn't the cheapest in dollar terms, but I think it strikes the best balance between saving money, avoiding waste, and minimizing stress. If paying an extra $190 can save us an entire weekend spent fussing over my computer - and keep the old one out of the landfill a little longer - I think it's money well spent.

Money Crashers: How Much House Can I Afford?

When Brian and I first decided to buy a house, back in 2006, we spent over a year shopping before we found one we were happy with. That's mostly because we absolutely refused to compromise on two things: location and price. We didn't want to buy a house at all if it wasn't in a walkable town, with a short commute to work for Brian - which, around here, pretty much narrowed it down to Highland Park or Metuchen. And we didn't want to buy one if it would stretch us too far financially, which pretty much capped our price range at $350,000 total. And frankly, houses in Highland Park and Metuchen for less than $350K were pretty few and far between.

From time to time, people would try to persuade us we should consider looking outside our price range. Our real estate agent, and even occasionally my mom, would encourage us to "just take a look" at a house that was priced somewhere between $350,000 and $45,000, arguing that if we liked it, we could probably talk the seller down on the price. But we held firm. If it didn't fit our budget, we didn't want to see it - because we didn't want to take the risk of falling head over heels in love with a house that we couldn't really afford. If we ever started feeling like we "just had to have" this home, regardless of price, we knew we could talk ourselves into a mortgage that would stretch us thin - and leave us no wiggle room if either of us were ever out of work for any length of time. And in the end, our stubbornness paid off; we found this house, which ticked off all the boxes on our "must have" list and came in well below $350K.

So how did we come up with this number in the first place? In a word, math. First, we determined how much of our monthly income was already spoken for, and how much wiggle room we wanted our budget to have. Based on that, we worked out what percentage of our income we could afford to put toward our housing payment and still feel comfortable. Working backward from that, we were able to figure out how big a mortgage we could manage. And finally, we figured out what we could afford for a down payment, and added that in to come up with the total price.

If that whole description was a little too fast for you, don't worry; my latest article for Money Crashers covers the whole process in much more detail. First, I go into some detail about the hazards of buying too much house - the problems that Brian and I were so eager to avoid when we bought this one. Then, I go through the whole process of finding the right price, including the factors that affect what you can afford (such as your down payment). And finally, I talk about what you can do if you find - as we did - that your target price is so low you can't find any houses in your area to fit it. (Ideas include saving up a bigger down payment, paying off outstanding debts, improving your credit, or looking for special programs to help low-income buyers.)

Get the skinny here: How Much House Can I Afford?

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Small victory: A truly refillable roller-ball pen

In most ways, being an ecofrugal person makes my life simpler. There are a whole lot of things most people have to deal with that I simply skip over completely. I never have to pick up my clothes at the dry cleaner, because I won't buy clothes that aren't washable. I don't have to vacuum the house every week, because we don't have any carpets. I don't have to spend half an hour putting on makeup every morning, because all I normally use is a dab of concealer on any visible zits. And so on.

But every once in a while, my ecofrugal principles suddenly make my life a lot more complicated. In particular, this happens whenever something I own breaks or wears out...like a pair of shoes, or an old Roman shade, or a wristwatch. A normal person would know exactly what to do in this situation: just go to the store and buy a new one. But since I hate to see anything go to waste, I usually twist myself into knots trying to repair the old one first. Then, if it becomes clear that there's no saving it, I throw myself into a frenzy of research trying to find the most ecofrugal possible replacement for it.

A rather extreme example of this came up last month, when I found one morning that nearly every pen I owned had either dried up or disappeared into the Land of Lost Pens. These were all just cheap, disposable roller-ball pens; I'd actually purchased most of them at the local dollar store, since I've found that the pens available there tend to work just as well, on average, as the full-priced ones they sell at Staples and such. And of course, I could easily have just gone back to the dollar store and bought some more.

But even though I'd been fine with doing just that up until now, for some reason the idea of it suddenly chafed. Perhaps it was because so many of my pens had failed all at once, but I suddenly had this sense of being caught in an endless cycle of waste, continually buying these plastic objects only to use them up and throw them away and buy new ones. It seemed like there had to be a better way.

The problem was, I'd tried "refillable" pens before, and I'd generally found them lacking. There are roller-ball pens (the kind I prefer) that are billed as refillable, but what this typically means is that they have two parts: an outer shell, and an insert that contains all the actual workings of the pen itself: a shaft filled with ink and a ball that dispenses it. In other words, a "refillable" roller-ball pen is really just a disposable roller-ball pen with a nice outer case. Moreover, these inserts typically aren't noticeably less expensive than a whole new pen, and they're definitely more expensive than the pens I'd been buying at the dollar store. Spending more money to buy something that's only marginally less wasteful didn't strike me as particularly ecofrugal.

For true pen connoisseurs, the obvious solution to this dilemma is to use a fountain pen. These come in several different types, all of them more ecofrugal than a so-called refillable roller-ball:
  • Cartridge pens take a disposable, self-contained cartridge filled with ink. You have to throw away these empty cartridges, but at least you don't have to discard the guts of the pen as well.
  • Many cartridge pens can be used with a cartridge converter, which fits into the pen just like a regular cartridge but can be refilled from any bottle of ink. These converters don't hold as much as a regular ink cartridge, so they have to be refilled more often, but you pay less per refill.
  • Some fountain pens have their own built-in filling systems, such as a piston or a pump, so you can refill them straight from the bottle. And most ecofrugal of all, some pens can be refilled with a syringe or an eyedropper. Because they use the whole body of the pen itself as the ink reservoir, they can go quite a long time on a tank. (There are also instructions online for converting a cartridge pen to an eyedropper pen.)
So in theory, a fountain pen should be the perfect choice for me. It's cheaper, it's less wasteful, and it makes you look like a real class act to whip out a fountain pen instead of a Bic Stick. There's just one problem: I cannot, literally cannot, write neatly with a fountain pen. I actually own two of them already, both received as gifts, and every time I try to use them I end up with ink all over myself. Maybe if I retrained myself to write differently, as this article suggests, I'd be able to manage it, but I suspect if I had to go to that much trouble just to use my new pen, I'd end up giving up on it and just buying some more cheap disposables.

What I really wanted was a roller-ball that could be refilled like a fountain pen. So I tried searching around on Google, and I found that there are indeed several pens that work this way. Many of them are a bit pricey, $20 or more, but I figured with what I'd save on the refills, spending a little more on the pen itself would be a worthwhile investment.

However, it turned out not to be necessary. When I dug a little deeper, searching for the best refillable roller-ball, I came upon this site for fountain pen enthusiasts, which offered several recommendations for Pilot V5 pens. These turned out to have very good reviews on JetPens.com, and moreover, they were only $3.20 apiece—barely more than you pay these days for a good disposable roller-ball at Staples. (They're also sold on Amazon.com, but the JetPens price is much better.) The V5 takes a cartridge refill, so it's not the most ecofrugal type, but it is easy to refill—and in case I decide later that I'm willing to do a little more work to save money and resources, at least one user says it can be converted to use an eyedropper. (Pilot also offers a "green" refillable pen that's made from 89% recycled plastic, but the refills it takes are the kind that contain the whole pen mechanism, not just the ink reservoir—so in my opinion, they're not actually as eco-friendly as the V5 Hi-Techpoint that I chose.)

Being a cautious consumer, I'd have liked to be able to go to a store and try this pen out before buying it, but after a quick search, I couldn't find any stores in my area that sold it. Still, I figured, at $3.20 apiece, it wasn't that big a risk to take. In fact, I went ahead and bought two of them, along with a pack of cartridge refills, figuring that if I had to pay for shipping anyway, I might as well get my money's worth. The whole order, including shipping, came to $13.35—less than half the price of many fancy refillable roller-ball pens that aren't any more highly rated than the Pilot. And this way, even if I manage to lose one of my nice new pens, I'll still have one to use.

So I am now the proud owner of not one, but two refillable Pilot pens, and I can honestly say they are everything I hoped they'd be. They feel solid and comfortable, and I can actually write a neat line with them. The only downside I've noticed is that ink in them is a little heavy, so when I fill out my bank register with these (yes, I still use a paper checkbook register, because I'm an old fossil), it bleeds through the pages and makes it harder to read what's on the other side. But since these pens are refillable, I can actually fix that problem by switching to a different kind of ink if I want to.

All this just goes to show that even on those rare occasions when my ecofrugal habits are a hassle in the short term, they actually guide me to better decisions that make my life simpler in the end. With these new, refillable pens, I should never have to worry again about having all my pens dry up on me at once—and I'll be spending less and wasting less, to boot. Admittedly, this isn't the kind of huge, life-changing move that will make a huge dent in my carbon footprint, like getting solar panels or switching to an electric car. But for me, eliminating any source of waste from my life—even a small one—is highly satisfying. Yes, it's only a small thing, but the ecofrugal life is a series of such small victories—each one bringing me ever closer to a truly waste-free life.