March 2009 Archives

Do it yourself

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In this complex society of ours, it's hard to fathom that everyone used to be a do-it-yourself-er: you didn't go to a doctor, you just mixed up a concoction of whiskey to clean a wound; gargled with salt water for a toothache instead of visiting a dentist; baked your own bread & sewed your own clothing instead of going to a store. That's just how it was.

There are reasons why everything changed, but keep in mind that whatever you might want to buy, you might be able to do it yourself.

Now, with the Internet and it's step-by-step instructional videos and online forums usually moderated by volunteers with a wealth of knowledge, we can learn practically how to do anything. DIY is here to stay!

So that's where I turned when a bulb on my car blew out and the dealer wanted $70 to replace it. I knew there had to be a better way. I knew that dealers made money by outrageously charging for simple services.

Sure enough, there are myriad VW user groups online, and I searched the archives about changing a bulb. It cost a mere $6 for two bulbs at my local car parts store, and it took me more time to print out the instructions (with photos) than it did to open the compartment, reach in, remove the burned-out bulb, and snap in the new one.

I couldn't believe how easy it was.

Nowadays, we research something online first before we call in the professionals, because sometimes DIY will get it done quicker and much less expensively.


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To close out what has become Trash Week, I'll revisit the merits of buying in bulk. In that previous entry, Jen emphasized the direct savings of bulk ingredients being cheaper. It's also worth emphasizing that bulk purchasing generates less waste.

Bulk food in just a plain plastic bag almost invariably means less packaging than it would have otherwise (like the plastic bag then being enclosed in a box.) You can save and re-use these plastic bags. Many stores selling bulk ingredients have a means for you to measure and mark the tare weight of a container so you can put your food directly into it (and not get charged for the container's weight), so you don't have to use a bag at all.

Plastic bags are one of the biggest ingredients of islands of garbage floating in the oceans. There are cities banning plastic grocery bags, and an increasing trend toward stores charging for them. Canvas or other re-usable bags help you reduce waste, and save money.

This won't be the last time we bring up a recommendation of the same thing from a different aspect. That's because it's all connected.

Easiest. Composting. Ever.

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Back on Earth Day in 2000, I attended a composting workshop and received a leaf composter for free so I could put my new-found skills to work. It didn't work out, because there weren't enough leaves from the yard, or even in the whole neighborhood, to support the enterprise. I was extremely disappointed, but somewhat relieved, as the composting regimen seemed complicated, difficult, and could supplant my workouts at the gym if done properly.

However, the house we bought in 2003 came with hard, clay-like soil that begged for organic matter to bulk it up. Zed told me we could do "shallow grave" composting; burying our food scraps in the soil, working our way down a strip of land each time, and three months hence, the food scraps transformed into rich, loamy soil.

It was miraculous! How do those coffee grounds, banana peels, and tough stems from celery become rich, dark soil? For one, basic breakdown from micro-organisms, and two: our friends the worms. They feed on our food scraps, and excrete fertile soil. I tremendously enjoy the burying task these days, as I commune with the worms, crying out, "It's buffet time!" when I start digging.

There are many advantages over traditional composting: no heat buildup which necessitates turning or tumbling, no losing yard real estate to a large plastic container, and it requires absolutely no planning or upkeep whatsoever. I had never heard of Lazy Man's Composting, but I think it needs to be shouted from every rooftop.

We now know not to bury eggshells (they don't break down enough in three months' time) or citrus peel, so we are fortunate that our city greencycles but everything else composts beautifully:

spent tea bags, onion skin, old pasta, apple cores, tough butternut squash peel & seeds, stone fruit pits (a nectarine sent up an optimistic shoot one spring after a few months' gestation in the fertile soil).

An unexpected benefit from lazy composting is the harvest. A few weeks after burying a green & moldy potato, that unattractive spud will be a thriving potato plant thanks to the compost soil. We eat potatoes far superior to the original ones we purchased. And don't even get me started on the zucchini that threatened to take over the backyard last summer. A friend told us it was a zucchini and summer squash hybrid, the two plants sent up from the seeds we had buried... so we created our own "house hybrid"! We harvested our "kitchen scraps" for many weeks' worth of zucchini & fried potatoes accompanying our eggs for breakfast.

I will point out that since we're vegetarian, just about everything we eat is compostable, except for dairy products. If you're not, I hear that meat and fatty foods are not compostable due to the worms' predelictions. And those foods may attract the wrong crowd, i.e., raccoons and ants.

If you have the yard space, it's worth trying. If not, there are many, many different types of indoor compost alternatives. Happy digging!

Save cash with less trash

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Here's one small tip for potential household savings, depending on your municipality and its local refuse collection scheme: use a smaller garbage can.

Most of our neighbors have 45 or 64 gallon garbage cans, so they're paying $93 or $132 per quarter year. We're using a 13-gallon can, and it's costing us $27/quarter. Our city offers a lot of advantages in reducing landfill waste -- glass, steel, aluminum, and #1 PET and #2 HDPE plastic bottles whose necks are narrower than their bodies are all recyclable; yard waste and food scraps have their own collection.

So if you know you're putting recyclables in the trash, you've got a motivation to stop -- if you can decrease your total garbage output from 64 down to 45 gallons, or 45 to 13, you'll save $40 or $54 a quarter, respectively. Hundreds of dollars a year, either way.

Be sure to check with your local municpality for relevant rules and regulations -- there may not be anything that will help immediately, but it's still worth understanding the details.

Coming next: one of our techniques to generate less trash.

After two entries in a row of our talking about taking advantage of free civic and cultural institutions, I'd like to talk about giving back to maintain civic, cultural, and charitable institutions.

Times are tough, and every organization that depends on donations is suffering, while demands on charitable organizations are greater than ever. Here's one telling example:

The Alameda County Community Food Bank operates an Emergency Food Helpline. With just a phone call, those in dire need can receive food at a local pantry on the very day they dial. In 13 years, the Bank's help line had received more than 1,500 calls a month only twice. In 2008, every month topped the 1,500 mark. For the last six months, the average has been more than 2,000 a month and is soon expected to break the 2,500-call barrier.

If you're still doing all right, can you spare anything? If you're longer on time than cash, most organizations could use volunteers (even more than money, in some cases.) If you can't spare either, reconsider when you can.

A philosophy of always selfishly maximizing your own benefit would sometimes suggest the same specific courses of action we'll recommend on this blog. But we're serious about better living through economy. My idea of frugality is informed by Kant's Categorical Imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." If no one supported the organizations that give things away for free, they'd cease to exist, and we'd all be worse off for their absence. That's not the world I want to live in.

Free Admission at museums

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Hey all you unemployed people! Take advantage of the free admission days at your local museum. In the San Francisco Bay area, almost all the museums have free admission days once a month.

The free days are usually a Tuesday or Wednesday, typically low-attendance days, which makes it great for someone unencumbered by a job. The SF MOMA, the De Young, the Legion of Honor, the Berkeley Art Museum, Oakland Art Museum, Cartoon Art Museum, Asian Art Museum all feature no-admission days, so what are you still sitting in front of a computer for?

Of course, if you live in the Washington, DC area, all the Smithsonian museums are free all the time. Since I grew up in DC, it was a shock to go to other cities and (gasp!) pay for museum admissions (for frankly, inferior museums at times).

In my art history class in college, the prof instructed us to truly pay what we could afford as starving students when we visited the Met in NYC. "Believe me, the Met doesn't need your money, they get plenty of it through their foundation."

So don't feel you have to deprive yourself of museums, because you don't always have to have cash in your pocket to partake.

I'm very lucky to be in a city with an excellent public library system. And yours might be better than you know.

You probably know about the books, the magazines, the CDs, the DVDs, the reference section, the access to computers and the Internet. But here are more things your library may offer:

  • electronic access to things not publicly available on the net, like magazine, newspaper, and journal archives, specialized search engines, and references, like encyclopedias. You may even be able to access these from home through your library.
  • the ability to place holds on items, to be delivered to the branch of your choice when they're in (and your place in the queue comes up). At my library, you can do this when an item is still on order -- it's how I've often read popular books when they're still brand new.
  • software and games
  • Teaching Company courses
  • museum passes
  • the ability to renew on-line
  • maybe even tools

You may have access to more libraries than you think. In many states, any state resident is eligible for a library card at any library in the state. And local colleges and universities may offer borrowing privileges.

So, if you haven't been to the library lately, give it a try.

"Refried" Beans

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I am fortunate to work with a few immigrants from Mexico, who have taught me the way of refried beans. What with all the Mexican grocery stores nearby, I felt somewhat ashamed buying beans from a can, when I longed to be part of the dried bean tradition (and not to mention, much cheaper). I thought there would be much planning ahead with soaking and whatnot. I couldn't have been more wrong.

I was instructed to purchase peruanos, or Peruvian beans (the name of the bean, and not their provenance), not pintos. Apparently pintos are not easy to cook. Peruanos are a snap, with a slow-cooker (aka Crock Pot).

Here's the recipe:

1. Right before bedtime, wash the beans, throw in some coarsely chopped garlic, add water, cover and turn the slow-cooker to low.

2. When you wake in the morning, mash with a potato masher, and add salt.

3. This is the step where you would fry the beans in manteca (aka lard), which is so delicious that the first time I ate authentic, homemade refried beans I blurted, "This is so good I want to kill myself."

But we don't want saturated fat causing premature heart disease, so we don't do step #3.

Easy, homemade, delicious (way, way better than from a can) and a low, low price. If you have a Mexican grocery store nearby, dust off your Crock Pot & give it a whirl!

Peace of Mind

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It's that time of year, and I'm busy compiling the paperwork for our annual appointment with the tax attorney to pay our taxes.

Back in our swingle days (aka swinging single), we could get by with filing a 1040EZ which took about fifteen minutes to do. After marriage and a house purchase, our tax return requires many more forms & schedules that simply bore me to tears.

That's where the tax attorney comes in. For a flat fee, he does all our taxes AND represents us in any situation that involves the IRS (i.e., an audit), because he's the one who takes all responsibility for the filings. He specializes only on the tax code and doesn't practice any other type of law. I like that, because it means I don't have to keep up on changes in the tax code.

The tax attorney is the protective emollient barrier between us and the biting winds of the IRS, keeping us baby-soft. For us, it's a worthwhile price for peace of mind.


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An oft-cited subject of financial advice is credit cards. Cut them up. Cancel them. Have only one, for emergencies.

This isn't advice we adhere to. We use credit cards for the lion's share of our purchases. If you pay them off every month, it's like having a 25-day interest-free loan on everything you spend, all the time. For those 25 days, we're the ones earning interest on the money we spent (but not much, these days.) And Jen is a fiend for squeezing the most out of rewards programs.

This works for us because we've always been aware that spending on credit is really spending, that the bill comes due quickly, that finance charges are steep. We've never been tempted to use them to spend money we don't have.

Here I must stress that I'm not claiming this as some moral virtue. Other people can have an open package of cookies in the house and eat them one at a time. I want to eat them all. So, I don't keep packages of cookies in the house.

Temptations are a matter of temperament -- it's easy to avoid the traps in life whose bait doesn't entice you. You need to know what bait works on you. If a new credit card seems like an exciting way to get something you know you can't really afford, then maybe you should follow the "cut them up" advice.

If you know you're not tempted to spend money you don't have, and that you're good about remembering to pay your bills on time, then maybe our tack is right for you, too.

The important thing is to know yourself, and plan accordingly.

In closing, I'll note that I haven't touched on the issues of privacy or risk of identity theft in using credit cards. These issues are real, and if they've persuaded you to avoid using credit cards, I think that's a reasonable choice. Thus far, they haven't persuaded me.

The Last Viridian Note

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Bruce Sterling's Viridian design movement came to its scheduled end last year. His last Viridian note is greatly in line with my idea of frugality.

Sell - even give away- anything you never use. Fancy ball gowns, tuxedos, beautiful shoes wrapped in bubblepak that you never wear, useless Christmas gifts from well-meaning relatives, junk that you inherited. Sell that stuff. Take the money, get a real bed. Get radically improved everyday things. [...]

Now to confront the possessions you already have. [...] "Everything else" will be by far the largest category. Anything you have not touched, or seen, or thought about in a year - this very likely belongs in "everything else." [...]

Remove them from your time and space. "Everything else" should not be in your immediate environment, sucking up your energy and reducing your opportunities. It should become a fond memory, or become reduced to data.

It may belong to you, but it does not belong with you. You weren't born with it. You won't be buried with it. It needs to be out of the space-time vicinity. You are not its archivist or quartermaster. Stop serving that unpaid role.

Are you the unpaid curator of your stuff? Are the readily-accessible drawers and shelves in your home filled with things you don't actually use (while you fumble and search for the things you do)? Are you making do with sub-par everyday things that create daily annoyance?

Frugality is about appropriate spending, not about not spending. Don't skimp on the truly important tools. Sometimes the right thing, the right fix, the right piece of furniture really can make you happier.

Meanwhile, the wrong things (or even the right things in the wrong places) are clutter, and that'll make you unhappier. If a thing is taking up valuable space and isn't doing you any good, then it's doing you bad. Remove it.

We'll be talking much more about both of these.

It takes money to save money

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This is a tough truth....the easiest way to save money is to buy in bulk to take advantage of volume discounts or weekly sales, and then store it in your basement/attic/large pantry.

So what I'm saying is that you have to have enough dollars to buy extra to benefit from promotional prices, and then you have to have a large enough living space (more dollars) to store it for later use.

I acknowledge that it's easier to save money when you already have it.

One way around that is to buy together with a friend or family member, to spread the savings around.