Wednesday, October 27, 2010

In the Laboratory

Here's a little fellow who seems to belong to a genus of critters that I'm beginning to think of as "Advanced Stick Figures."  Since he has a labcoat and a clipboard, he must be a scientist.  Television has taught me that.  

Since we're (or rather I'm - you may be thinking about something entirely unrelated at the moment) on the subject of scientists, I'll take this opportunity to repost my rules for safe and proper laboratory behavior:
  • It doesn't go in your mouth.
  • It doesn't belong in your ear.
  • Don't stick it up your nose.
  • Don't get it in your eyes. 
  • Don't drop it on the floor. 
  • Don't touch it if it's on fire. 
  • If it smells bad, it's probably bad for you. 
  • If it smells good, it's probably worse. 
  • If you can't smell it at all . . . well, it's been nice knowin' ya. 
  • If it can be pointed, be careful where you point it. 
  • Just because the radiation won't kill you now is no excuse. 
  • Read the label first. 
  • If it ain't broke, don't break it. 
  • If two substances are in separate containers, there's probably a good reason for it. 
  • If it kills other living things, there's a chance it's not good for you either. 
  • If metal dissolved in it, odds are your fingers won't fare much better. 
  • An experiment that causes physical pain is a poorly designed experiment. 
  • If you didn't do control experiments, you didn't do any experiments. Start over. 
  • A result you don't like is still a result. 
  • If it didn't work the first time, repeat the experiment. 
  • If it did work the first time, repeat the experiment. 
  • That which does not kill you . . . usually hurts like hell anyway. 
  • Learn to cope with frustration. 
  • Lightning may not strike the same spot twice, but just about everything else will (corollary: if it exploded last time, it's likely to explode this time too).

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Fell Porpoise

I just Googled the phrase "fell porpoise" and came up with nothing.  Nada.  Zippo.  Not a single webcomic.  Not a single blog.  Not a single hipster making a pun along the lines of "no one could fathom his fell matter how much it chittered and squeaked."  Nothing.

Interwebs, you have failed me.

You have failed to come up with every possible inane notion or idea before I have a chance to.  SO I CLAIM THIS ONE.  THE FELL PORPOISE IS MINE!  MINE I TELL YOU!  BWAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!

Take that, Interwebs.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Uh oh

How embarrassing....

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Knights of the Mystic Turnip

I seem to be stuck on a root vegetable theme.  If that is so, so be it.  I'd include an in-depth description of who these little spuds are, but to be honest, I haven't the foggiest.  In fact, I can go so far as to say that I don't carrot all.

Monday, May 24, 2010


I recently realized that there's no reason that I can't post sketches in addition to the fully finished (or at least as fully finished as they're likely to get in my hands) drawings I normally put online.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Let an umbrella be your umbrella

By the way (for those who arrived late), my lovely wife is now setting her thoughts on the subjects of frugality and ecological responsibility adrift upon the breezes of the interwebs at  Check it out if you get a chance.  It's far more interesting than this stuff.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Komodo Bunny

Another hybrid, drawn at the New Jersey Folk Project spring festival:

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Improbable hybrids

A couple of new drawings.  Drawn for a contest over at DeviantArt.
The premise is that they are the products of genetic engineering gone wrong, the first a monstrous cross between Homos sapiens and Aquila chrysaetos, the second a more innocuous cross between two organisms whose names I can't recall at the moment.  Perhaps a polar bear and a Vidalia onion.

It is actually an interesting exercise to imagine what a hybrid between two or more distinct species might look like.  It's very difficult to avoid drawing chimeras.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Laboratory Haiku

No haiku about
RNA polymerase
Can say very much

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

New ecofrugal blog

For the past year or so, I've been sharing this blog with the Troll. However, since I first decided back in January to focus my blog posts on the topic of ecofrugality, the title "The Modern Troll" has come to seem kind of inappropriate. Thus, I have decided to start a new blog that will be devoted specifically to the topic of ecofrugal living. I welcome all fans of this blog to come and visit the new one at I have re-posted several of my old posts on ecofrugal matters at the new site. Meanwhile, The Modern Troll will become the exclusive domain of the Troll once more, although my old posts will remain available, at least for the time being. See you all on the ecofrugal side.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Beautiful weeds

Saturday's mail brought us a flier from Lawn Doctor, offering to help us get a "lush, green, weed-free lawn." This description is so unlike our current lawn that I couldn't help wondering whether they had sent around spies to scope out the yards in the area and target the folks that they assumed were most in need of help. Our yard has become more or less a safe haven for weeds of all kinds, from chickweed to dandelions to wild garlic. One whole slope in our backyard is thickly covered with purple dead nettles, which look beautiful in the morning sunlight as I hang out the laundry. Yet I realize that the sight of this thick, lush growth would sent many if not most homeowners running for a bottle of Roundup. This fact moves me to wonder: who exactly decided that these flowers are "weeds," anyhow? Whose idea was it that the ideal lawn should be a thick, dense carpet of turfgrass with nothing else in it? Why is grass better than dandelions?

My handy desktop dictionary defines a weed as "a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants." So basically, these various wildflowers are only weeds if you don't want them where they are. I'll readily agree that in my garden, a dandelion is a weed, because it's using up water and nutrients that I want to save for my tomatoes. But a lot of people seem to assume that every part of the yard should be filled with "cultivated plants," and therefore wild plants of any kind, anywhere, must be weeds. This seems like an awfully wasteful approach, since it requires you to get rid of all the plants that grow naturally in your yard, with no assistance from you, and put in plants that don't grow there naturally, which will require constant attention from you to keep them looking their best. For example, to keep a grass lawn looking good, you have to mow it, water it, fertilize it, and, oh yes, exercise constant vigilance to keep out the "weeds." (Or you can pay someone like Lawn Doctor to do it, to the tune of about $300 a year. Sure, you may have to stay inside for a couple of hours after they've sprayed all those chemicals around, but isn't it worth it to have a "lush, green, weed-free lawn"?)

So what's the ecofrugal alternative? Well, here's one that's really simple: if only unwanted plants are weeds, then all I have to do to get a "weed-free" lawn is to declare that all plants are welcome in my yard. Without pulling up a single plant, I'll have eliminated all the "weeds" by declaring them to be non-weeds, and it won't cost me a cent!

Monday, March 29, 2010

More praise for Freecycle

Back in January, I posted about the virtues of Freecycle as a way to get rid of unwanted stuff. Well, now I can also laud it as a way to get new, useful stuff. Yesterday we scored our first ever major acquisition from Freecycle: nearly 1000 cement pavers. The poster was so eager to get rid of them that he even offered to transport them for us in his pickup, which took a lot less time than repeatedly loading and unloading the trunk of our little sedan. So after a couple of hours of lifting and stacking, we now have sore arms, sore knees, and enough pavers to build a 10-by-20-foot patio. Hooray! Now we just need to keep scanning the Freecycle postings until someone offers a few cubic yards of gravel and sand...

Saturday, March 27, 2010


Every so often, usually while taking a shower, I'll be struck by the thought of just how luxurious my lifestyle is. That may sound odd coming from someone who lives without so many of the amenities that lots of her peers think of as necessities of life (air conditioning, cable TV, convenience foods, and so on). And indeed, I'm well aware that I'm not nearly so extravagant in my habits as most Americans of my age and income level. Yet compared with most of the people who have ever lived, I live in positive luxury. Consider, for example: I take a hot shower almost every morning. Now, cast your mind back to the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, if you've ever read it. That family had to haul every bit of its water from a stream or a well, and to heat it one kettleful at a time on the stove before pouring it into the bathtub. Considering what an undertaking that was, they naturally couldn't think of doing it every day. The whole family bathed once a week, on Saturday night (so they'd be clean for Sunday), and they all took turns in a single tub of water. Now granted, the Ingalls family wasn't rich, even for their own time, but 150 years ago, even those who were rich enough to have servants draw a bath for them couldn't expect them to stand there pouring hot water over their bodies continually. Yet I not only spend five minutes each day under a stream of hot water but take this blessing almost entirely for granted and get grumpy if the water supply fails for any reason.

Perhaps this kind of thing is the reason for the saying, "A luxury once tasted becomes a necessity" (which I've seen attributed variously to Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Alex Berenson, and "the Greeks"). I first encountered this line in Andrew Tobias's modestly titled The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need (an excellent volume that I may get around to reviewing in a future post), and at the time, I didn't quite see the point of it. I've certainly sampled luxuries in my life—from champagne to silk underwear—that I felt I could go on living quite happily without. Yet I often forget how many of my own personal "necessities," like hot showers and electric lights and high-speed Internet, are really luxuries. I don't always appreciate what a treat it is to be able to sit up reading long after the sun has gone down, or to enjoy a cup of hot cocoa every morning even though the nearest cacao plantations are over a thousand miles away, or to type in a phrase like "when was the shower invented" or "where is cacao grown" into Google and find an answer in seconds.

Maybe the saying really ought to be, "A luxury once accustomed becomes a necessity." I can easily live without luxuries I've tried once and been indifferent to; I can even live easily without luxuries I've tried once and enjoyed purely as a change of pace. But a luxury that's become part of my daily life is truly hard to give up.

So while I have no intention of foregoing my daily shower, I guess I should at least try to make a point of appreciating it.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Two out of three ain't bad

Last month, the LiveCheap site ran an article by a guy who had worked in the information and software business. He laid it down as a basic law of software development that out of fast, cheap, and good, you can have any two, but not all three. If you want to develop good software quickly, you should expect to spend serious money; if the client insists on having it done both quickly and cheaply, then the quality will suffer. However, if you are prepared to spend some extra time, you can get the job done well on a low budget. He then goes on to explain how this same principle applies to many other areas of frugal living, from buying a computer to booking a hotel room.

I can personally attest that this rule definitely holds true in the area of home improvement. For instance, the previous owners of our home seem to have tried to make every job as fast and cheap as possible. We saw many examples of this when we started work on the big basement room. Rather than taking the time to make the walls smooth, they had covered up the defects with cheap (and cheap-looking) plastic paneling. When putting up the ceiling, they had slapped the panels into place willy-nilly, without bothering to align them with the joists. They hadn't even bothered to make sure the panels they used were all of the same thickness. They'd thrown down a piece of sheet vinyl on the floor that didn't even reach all the way to the edges of the room; they'd left a visible gap between one wall and the ceiling; they'd wired up the lights in a way that made no sense and didn't really illuminate the room.

Now, I've watched enough HGTV to know that a lot of homeowners, faced with a problem like this, would spend thousands of dollars on a good and fast solution. They would rip out everything and start over from scratch, hiring professionals to put in new walls and ceilings, reframe the windows, and install new flooring. However, we approached the problem differently. Since we didn't need the space right away, we could afford to take the time to do a good and cheap job. Over the course of two and a half years, we worked on every single part of that room—ceiling, walls, windows, doors, lighting, and floor. We always looked for inexpensive solutions that would salvage as much as possible of the existing material. We also did as much of the work ourselves as we could. The only professional we hired was an electrician (and that was mainly because our town really makes it difficult to get permits for DIY work). It took time, but the results were worth waiting for, and we can feel confident that we got our money's worth out of the job. And as a bonus, we have a space we can feel proud of, because we know it's the fruit of our own labors.

I have to admit, though, that as we gear up for the next big project—the downstairs bath—I'm starting to wonder if maybe it would be worth spending just a little more money so we can see results a little faster. So while we're planning to become regular customers of the Habitat ReStore up in Morris County, if we can't find everything we need there in a reasonable amount of time, then the hell with it—I'm prepared to...[whispered] pay retail.

Friday, March 19, 2010

If you try sometime, you just might find...

A recent article on the Get Rich Slowly blog discusses the difficulty of striking a balance with money. The author, in her youth, was a big-time spender and racked up major debt. When she finally decided to change her ways, she went completely to the opposite extreme, cutting her spending to the bone and adopting a no-frills lifestyle. She got her debts paid off, but in the process she went from being a compulsive spender to a compulsive saver. She now finds it difficult to spend, even when it's appropriate.

I can recognize some of this compulsive-saving instinct in myself, too. Sometimes I obsess too much over tiny expenses, like whether I should really spend $5 on a new tube of face cleanser or wait until I've used up the old cleanser, even though it doesn't seem to work very well. But in general, I think I manage to strike a pretty healthy balance. I do think carefully about every purchase, but I'll spend the money when I'm convinced it's worth it. (For instance, I did go ahead and buy the new brand—but only after popping back home to make sure there wasn't a coupon available online.) I don't feel like I deny myself anything I really want; I just try to get what I want for as little money as possible.

So when I followed a link to another article on Get Rich Slowly that was about something called "The Balanced Money Formula," as outlined by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi, I fully expected my spending to be in balance. Their formula breaks down spending into Needs and Wants. They say you should spend no more than 50 percent (ideally, no more than 35 percent) of your take-home pay on Needs, spend 30 percent on Wants, and put aside least 20 percent for Savings. I pulled up my little budget spreadsheet and ran a rough analysis of our spending, and I found that our spending on Needs was within the 50 percent limit (though not quite down to 35 percent) and our Savings were well above the 20 percent mark. Where we fell down, according to Warren and Tyagi, was that we weren't spending enough on Wants. The article suggested that those who spend less than 20 percent of their income on Wants "might be missing the point of money." While you won't get into financial trouble spending too little on Wants, they say, "you should ask yourself—are you making enough room for fun?" I suspect that Warren and Tyagi, looking at the 12 percent of take-home pay we spend on Wants, would answer that question with an emphatic no.

The thing is, we don't feel deprived. We just don't have very expensive tastes. We don't need to spend a lot to do the things we enjoy. We go to concerts a couple of times a month, but they're typically folk shows, where the tickets range from $7 to $25 (or where we can get in free by volunteering). We don't have TV service, but we watch shows on Hulu and borrow DVDs from the library (and enjoy low-tech pursuits, like reading aloud and playing board games). And also, a lot of the things we enjoy fall into categories that get lumped in under Needs rather than Wants. Gardening counts as a Need, because we grow vegetables to eat, but it's also something we do for fun. Home maintenance is a Need, because it includes the money we spend to keep the house standing and the heat running, but it also includes money we spend to make the house look nicer just because we like it that way. I counted meals eaten out as a Want and groceries as a Need, but a mocha frappe whipped up in the blender is just as much an indulgence as a Starbucks Frappuccino. So the line between those two categories gets a little blurry.

My conclusion? Warren and Tyagi are may be right to say that it's a mistake to spend too little on Wants. However, how much is too little depends on the person—it doesn't have to be a hard-and-fast number. The question isn't how much of your income you're spending but how satisfied you are with what you have. Why spend more on Wants than you really want to?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Partying like it's 1899

On Saturday, we had a big rainstorm—rain falling almost horizontally, squeezing itself through previously undiscovered gaps in the windowframes, and wind yanking the gutter guards loose from the gutters and banging them against the side of the house. And around 5:30 pm, just as the daylight was failing, the power went out.

Now, as an ecofrugal individual, I'm always inclined to think of myself as being less dependent than most folks on modern conveniences. In many ways, we live a pretty old-fashioned lifestyle. We hang our clothes on a line; we wash our dishes in the sink. So I guess I assumed that, if we had to, we could manage without electricity better than most people. However, it didn't take us very long to discover the limits of what we could do without it. Our heating system runs on gas, but the pump that circulates the water is electric, so no power meant no heat, either. We could still light the stove with a match, but we couldn't use the oven because the controls are electronic, so we had to set aside the ingredients for that night's casserole and reheat some leftovers on the stove instead. We lit a bunch of candles, but we quickly found that they didn't actually shed that much light, and although I have a little oil lamp, I couldn't find the oil to fill it. And after eating and washing the dishes by candlelight, we found ourselves at a bit of a loss as to what to do with the rest of the evening. We'd planned to eat some homemade ice cream and watch the latest episode of Project Runway; now the TV was out of commission and we didn't dare open the freezer. First I tried reading aloud by the light of a wind-up flashlight, and then we played cribbage by candlelight, but we could barely see the cards. Finally I suggested that we just get out of the house and—believe it or not—go to the mall. So we passed the next couple of hours browsing in a Barnes and Noble and came away with two new books. Rather than making us more ecofrugal, two hours without electricity was enough to drive us straight into the arms of the mainstream consumer lifestyle.

Not knowing how long the power outage was likely to last, we decided the next morning to prepare for the worst. So we went out and bought a bunch of batteries for our radio and for a couple of little LED lights that we'd been meaning to install under the kitchen counters. We also thought about buying some ice in case we needed to try and save the contents of the fridge or freezer, but when we found that the ice at the corner store was all half-melted, we decided to wait until we were sure we needed it and then drive to the supermarket so we could get the bag home still frozen. Apparently these few steps we took were enough to invoke Murphy's Law, because when we returned, the power was back on.

Of course, no sooner had we verified this than the phone rang with a recorded message from the borough telling us that there was a "boil water advisory" due to local flooding—meaning that we now have power, but not potable water. Luckily, we really were prepared for this possibility, with 20 gallons of water stored up in jugs in the basement, so we have plenty of clean water to drink, wash dishes in, and brush our teeth with. The only tricky bit is remembering to use the stored water for these things, rather than turning on the tap reflexively. At least we don't have to go out and haul it from a well.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Ecofrugal fantasy mall

A couple of miles up the road from us, there's an old strip mall that's been undergoing renovations for most of the past year. Prior to that, it wasn't much use as strip malls go; the only stores in it we ever went to at all were the Asian supermarket and a huge discount warehouse called National Wholesale Liquidators, which unloaded at rock-bottom prices all the junk that other retailers couldn't sell. In amongst all the junk there were occasional gems, like the pair of compact fluorescent torchères we picked up for only $8 each, but finds like those were few and far between, and we weren't terribly sorry to see the place close down. However, I have found myself wondering, each time I passed by that derelict hulk, whether all the money the owners are putting into stucco and stonework will actually attract any new stores—and if so, whether they'll actually be stores I would want to patronize.

So I started thinking about what I'd really love to see move into this old, run-down strip mall once it becomes a new, spruced-up strip mall. Here's what my ultimate fantasy configuration would look like:
  • The former Asian grocery would become a new Trader Joe's. At present, the nearest one to us is in Westfield, half an hour away. With a new one a couple of miles away, we would no longer need to make a special trip to stock up on organic raisins and recycled-fiber toilet paper.
  • The big National Wholesale Liquidators space would house a new Habitat ReStore. These are like thrift shops for home improvement goods of all kinds, from tile to paint to furniture. The goods are donated and sold at, I'm told, mouth-wateringly low prices. I've never been to one yet myself, because the nearest one to us is in Freehold, half an hour away (in exactly the opposite direction from the Trader Joe's) and is only open from 10 to 3 on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Having one right in our back yard would be an ecofrugal dream come true.
  • The other big storefront, which I believe used to be a discount children's clothing store, would become a Goodwill store or some other big thrift shop. Right now, there is only one thrift shop within walking distance of here, and it has a very unimpressive, seldom-changing selection, plus it is only open about ten hours a week. There is a Goodwill store about 20 minutes away by car, but since it's not close to any other stores we patronize regularly, we have to make a special trip to visit it, so I seldom get the chance to browse.
  • One of the smaller storefronts could house a fabric store, a type of establishment that seems to be going the way of the dinosaur. The only big chain left is JoAnn Fabrics, and the nearest one of those is in the Mercer Mall, nearly an hour away. But we all know that lots of frugal practices and skills are making a comeback in this recession, so why not sewing?
  • And then, just to add an extra kick to each trip, I'd like to throw in a coffeeshop of some sort. A crunchy, hippie-type coffee bar offering Fair-Trade brew and soymilk would be great, but I'd settle for a Starbucks.
Hey, a girl can dream, right?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Coming out of hibernation

After being cooped up in our cave all winter long, venturing out only to shovel snow and go to hardware stores, the Troll and I are finally starting to emerge from our long winter's nap. He rode his bike to work this morning, and I just finished hanging up the year's first load of air-dried laundry. After three big snowstorms in February, it's hard to express what a delight it is to be outside on a bright March morning, pinning socks and underwear to the line. The days may not be long enough or warm enough yet to get everything dried completely, but after months of being confined to the tumble dryer, I can't help feeling that my clothes will appreciate the chance to get out and get some air. I know I do.

This first touch of spring came right on time for us, too, because we've finally finished up the project that's been keeping us busy indoors through the long winter months. Yes, the room we are tentatively calling the "big room" is now finished—floored and finished off with molding throughout. Here's a slightly blurry picture of the final result. It isn't exactly furnished yet, but we've moved in a few big items (a futon, a dining table) and we can now finish it off at our leisure with rugs, curtains, art, and so on. And, having met my informal mental deadline of having the room done "by spring," we are free to move on to outdoor projects now that the weather is nice enough to allow it. I know pruning and weeding are bound to be tedious chores in the heat of July, so I may as well do as much of them as I can now, while it's still a refreshing change of pace.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Best Home Show Ever

The Troll and I are too cheap to pay for cable service at home, so I was pleased to discover recently that the HGTV website has episodes of several shows available to watch online. (One minor drawback: although there are only a few short commercials in each episode, it's usually the same 30-second commercial repeated several times in each episode—and it will show up again and again in different episodes. And trust me, these are not commercials that improve with repeated watching.) So I watched a few episodes of some of their more popular shows, and after a while I found I was getting frustrated. The problem I was having is that, with a few exceptions like "Designed to Sell," these shows appeared to approach the job of redesigning a space with reckless disregard for the cost. Oh, some of them had a nominal budget, but it was a budget of, say, $25,000 to $35,000 to make over a dated kitchen—and that's without any new plumbing or wiring work. Their approach to pretty much anything the homeowners didn't like was to rip it out and replace it with new, high-end materials. And the most annoying part of all was the way they would install $10,000 worth of new stonework and then brag about how they saved the homeowner $75 by refinishing the existing light fixture instead of buying a new one.

So after a while, I was starting to wonder if there were any shows out there that didn't take such a wasteful approach to home redesign. Then, while browsing on Hulu, I discovered "Wasted Spaces." This is the perfect antidote to those spendthrift HGTV shows: a show with an ecofrugal approach. The premise is, the host/builder (a delightful Aussie named Karl Champley) comes into the homes of people who need more space in a particular area and shows them how to make use of unused spaces—overhead, in the floor, in the walls, or in other rooms of the house. Then he designs and helps them build a custom storage unit, tailored to their space, out of materials you can buy at any home center—often for as little as $100. His projects have included a recessed pantry built into the wall between the kitchen and the garage (with additional shelves on the garage side for storage there); a custom desk with a hideaway laptop drawer that doesn't even need hinges; a wall-mounted rotating art display; and a set of hidden storage compartments set into the floor for stowing away valuables.

Unlike the hosts of many home shows, who tend to be annoyingly chipper and sound scripted even when they're ad-libbing, Karl Champley is down-to-earth, has a sense of humor, and really knows his stuff. His shows are full of useful tips like, "When you're buying lumber, never take the first board in a stack; it's usually warped" (something that the Troll and I had already learned through personal observation). He takes the time to show the homeowners (and the viewers) the nuts and bolts of a project—sometimes quite literally, as when he demonstrates how the hardware on a new cabinet works. He can make an exquisite corner cabinet out of plywood and ceiling tile. And, incidentally, he's really hot.

This show, to me, captures the essence of ecofrugality: avoiding waste. Rather than throw everything away and replace it for thousands of dollars, it shows you how to make the most of what you have for hundreds. Seasons 3 and 4 are available on Hulu, and well worth a look.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Name That Room

This is only very loosely related to the blog's new ecofrugal focus, but it's something that's been on my mind:

Last night, after a long session of working on the basement floor (which is progressing slowly, but surely), the Troll remarked that the new floor had really transformed the room. It now looked, he observed, "like a room." This might seem like a non-statement, but it's actually a pretty striking observation. When we first laid eyes on that basement, it looked like a basement—a semi-finished, walk-out basement, but a basement nonetheless. From the fake wood paneling to the cruddy vinyl floor to the bare light bulbs, everything about it said that no one was really taking it seriously as a room. But the work we've put into it has transformed it into a real room—bright and well-lit and decidedly finished.

The problem is, we're still in the habit of referring to this room as "the basement." That makes it sound like a dark, musty area that's used only for storage, or perhaps for the occasional woodworking project. If we're going to start thinking of this room as a proper room, it needs a proper name. But what?

My mom has occasionally referred to this room-in-progress as our "family room," but that doesn't sound right to me. A "family room" is the room where you spend time as a family—as opposed to a formal living room, which isn't really for "living" at all, but only for looking at. If it gets used at all, it's only when company comes, and only when the company is someone you don't feel comfortable enough with to treat them as family and sit in the family room. But in our house, the living room is actually used as a living room; it's the place where we sit and watch TV and generally hang out. So the basement room definitely won't be a "family room"; if anything, it will be just the opposite, a big space that we use mainly for entertaining. I've heard of finished basements being referred to as rec rooms (for "recreation"), but to me that term suggests a space whose main feature is a pool table, or a foosball table, or perhaps a big TV set. Definitely not the kind of recreation we have in mind for our room, which will more likely involve board games and perhaps the occasional music party.

I suppose we could call the room the dining room, as our house doesn't currently have one, and this large basement room is the only one in the house big enough to accommodate a full-sized dining table. But this won't be the main room that we use for eating, and eating won't be the main function of the room. If we ever have dinner parties, we'll certainly have them downstairs, as it's the only room big enough, but the big dining table will be used for board games more often than for meals, and the room will also have a sitting area that doesn't fit in with the "dining" function. "Living room/dining room" is a term that might cover both functions, but our house already has a living room, and we're not planning to switch our main living area from upstairs to downstairs.

On the decorating shows, they often refer to a finished attic or basement as a "bonus room," but this term seems to imply that it's an extra space that you get thrown in for free—not really part of the main house. I want the name we give to this room to make it clear that it's a real part of our house, even if it's one we don't use every day. The names of most rooms come from their functions (living room, dining room, bedroom), but this room will be used for a variety of functions—dining, gaming, music, entertaining, and occasionally putting up overnight guests. So what do we call it? The game room? The party room? The great room (because it's large)? The gathering room? Or should we name it for its location, rather than its function, and just call it "downstairs"?

Any suggestions?

Thursday, February 18, 2010


It sometimes seems to me that there should be a word for the kind of changes you can make to a room that are neither redecorating nor remodeling. "Redecorating," to me, sounds like a job you can do in a day. It could range from something as simple as rearranging the furniture to throwing everything out and bringing in new furniture, but in either case, it doesn't involve any changes to the basic structure of the room itself. At most, it might entail repainting or replacing the carpet. "Remodeling," on the other hand, suggests making changes to the basic structure--knocking out walls, putting in windows, that kind of thing. It sounds like the kind of job that you expect to take weeks, if not months, and to make the room pretty much unusable in the meantime.

What there doesn't seem to be a word for is the kind of changes that fall somewhere in between, like the changes we're making now to our basement. Over the past few years, we've ripped out the paneling and the old vinyl floor, rewired the room and put in new light fixtures, built new windowsills, boxed in an exposed heating pipe, repaired and repainted the walls and ceiling, replaced the handrail on the staircase, and painted the stairs. We're on the home stretch of this massive project now, installing the brown-paper floor over the existing concrete. It certainly feels to me like we have done more than "redecorate" this room, but I don't feel like I can really claim we "remodeled" it, either.

Perhaps it would be appropriate to call this kind of work "refinishing." When you refinish a piece of furniture, you strip off the old varnish or paint or whatever and apply a new surface, while leaving the bones of the piece unchanged. That's kind of what we're doing here. Pretty much every surface in this room has been altered, but the basic structure--windows, walls, ceiling--is the same. I think this is a useful ecofrugal concept, because the kind of refinishing we've done in this room can have just as big an impact as actual remodeling, but it will generally cost less, use fewer resources, and produce less waste.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The IKEA Challenge

One of the most popular stories on the New York Times website today is "A Roomy 178 Square Feet," about a New Yorker who has crammed his tiny studio apartment with all kinds of objects on the theory that "the more stuff you put in a room...the bigger it seems." I guess there must be something wrong with my spatial perception, because to me, the room looked tiny, cluttered, and ungepachkit (an incredibly useful Yiddish word meaning "tastelessly overdone--too much of too many things at once"). Not that I'm such a minimalist that I like a room to contain one bed, one chair, one table, and no gewgaws of any kind. No, I like a few accessories to brighten up a space, but I like them to look like they belong in the space. I like it to look like some thought went into the choice of what to put in the room and what to leave out. I like there to be enough furniture to fill a space, but still leave room to walk around. I like to see three or four colors that harmonize together, not twenty different shades fighting with each other.

All of which brings me to an idea I've been meaning to write about for some time: the IKEA challenge.

This idea first popped into my head when the 2010 IKEA catalogue came out (and by the way, yes, it really is spelled in all caps--at least, that's the way they spell it, and I think every person or other entity should have the final say on how to spell his, her, or its own name). As I leafed through it, marveling over the prices I got to thinking, "I wonder if it would be possible to furnish an entire apartment from IKEA for $1000 and still have it look decent?" What I had in mind at the time was a one-bedroom apartment like the one I used to have, with a bedroom, a kitchen, and a living/office area. But seeing this guy's tiny studio (which does, by the way, include an IKEA bed) has inspired me to try a new challenge: furnish a wee 178-foot studio so as to make the best possible use of the space. The pieces must fulfill all the same functions as in my original challenge--a place to sit, a place to eat, a place to work, and a place to sleep--but in one room. The budget is still $1000 ($1500 less than the guy in the article spent to deck out his place, even with all his clever handmade pieces and thrift-store finds).

To do this, it will obviously be necessary to pick out some pieces that do double duty. For example, we'll need a bed that can double as a couch, or provide storage space, or all three. Like, for example, this Hemnes day bed, which can serve as either a couch or a single bed, with drawers for storage underneath--and, with the drawers pulled out, can even turn into a double bed. However, much as I like this piece, I must admit that at $500--not even including the mattress or bed linens--it's too much for our self-imposed budget. No, we're better off with the Beddinge/Lövås sofa bed, only $200 with the most basic cover. We can add the $30 Beddinge storage box to store the bed linens when it's in its sofa form, making the piece even more functional.

So now we have both a bed and a couch. To complete the sleeping area, we'll need a dresser and a nightstand of some kind, and to complete the living area, a couple of chairs and some sort of coffee table. Here, again, it's double duty to the rescue. This eight-block Expedit bookcase, turned on its side, can be stocked with five of these little two-drawer inserts, to serve as a combination dresser and TV stand. A smaller one, stacked on top, can store books and accessories. The whole piece together costs $270. One of these little Lack side tables, available in a rainbow of colors at $8 each, can do double duty as a nightstand, and the matching coffee table ($20) can go in front of the sofa/bed and scoot aside at bedtime.

Chairs will obviously have to do double or triple duty as well--in the sitting area, the eating area, and the office area. So we'll need something light and versatile that's easy to move around, like these stackable Nordmyra chairs at $40 each. The plastic Herman chair would be a lot cheaper, at $15 each, but not as nice-looking, and we can squeeze the nicer ones into the budget if we make the $170 Norden gateleg table, with its folding top and three storage drawers, do double duty as a dining table and a desk.

So far, we've furnished the whole room for only $815 including tax, which leaves plenty of money in the budget for accessories to make this sparsely furnished area look less Spartan. Like a big mirror--say, this 29-by-29-inch Noresund, for $20--to visually increase the size of the small space. A nice Kroby floor lamp will add some light for another $30. We can add what decorators like to call "pops of color" with these Granat cushions, only $4 each, and this Hampen rug, $50, in bright red, and warm the space up with a nice Polarvide throw for $3.50. Throw in some extras--a wastebasket, a couple of potted plants, a few candles for atmosphere, and a handy desk organizer--and the total budget comes in at just over $970. That leaves us an extra $30 for any little odds and ends I may have forgotten. And the finished space looks, in my imagination, a lot more pulled-together than the apartment featured in the Times.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Driving the Bandwagon, Part 2

Last April I noticed that the Troll and I were ahead of the curve on an emerging trend toward frugality. The cable-free, line-dried lifestyle we'd been living for years was suddenly considered hip. While it was a novel sensation to be a trendsetter, I figured it would never happen again.

Well, what do you know? According to this article on Bankrate, the latest trend among homebuyers is to seek out "lower prices, smaller floor plans, greener elements" and other features that "conform to their lifestyles." Many people want to live in neighborhoods that are walkable, close to their jobs, and/or convenient to transit. Formal dining rooms are out; energy efficiency is in. McMansions? So last decade.

In other words, buyers today are looking at the same criteria that we used when we were shopping for this house three years ago. We're trendsetters again! Next thing you know, millions of Americans will be driving 15-year-old cars, playing board games, and listening to obscure folk artists. Knock wood.

Monday, February 8, 2010

World's Biggest Craft Project

A year after I first thought of the idea, I've finally bitten the bullet and started installing a brown-paper floor in the basement. So far, I've managed (with some help from the Troll) to cover about 25 square feet of a room that measures somewhere around 400 square feet. It is, shall we say, a slow process.

Putting down the pieces of paper is actually kind of fun--a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle. To make them look natural, the pieces need to be torn from the roll rather than cut, creating an uneven edge. So they have to be fitted together to avoid leaving bare patches without too much wasteful overlap between pieces. It does get a bit tiring after a while, kneeling on the concrete and pressing piece after piece of paper into place, but it's also satisfying to watch the finished area expand. The really tedious part is preparing the pieces of paper. Each piece has to be torn from the roll, thoroughly crumpled, and unfolded again, to create wrinkles in the paper that will absorb the poly and give it a nice marbleized look. The paper is fairly heavy and stiff, and it's remarkable how fast your hands can get tired crumpling and unfolding dozens of pieces at a time. After several hours of this, my back and knees feel fine, but my hands are still sore.

So, this isn't a quick and easy weekend project, but I'm hoping the payoff will be worth the work. Even from the little bit we've done so far, it's clear that the end result will be much more interesting than a plain painted surface.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Midwinter's Day

Today is Groundhog Day, a holiday not much celebrated except in elementary schools (and, of course, in Punxsutawney, PA). It's a pity, because this little-observed festival is all we really have these days to commemorate the midpoint of winter--the halfway mark between the winter solstice (which comes amid all the hustle and bustle of Christmastime) and the spring equinox (which leads the way for the spring festivals of Passover and Easter). In the past, various festivals occurred at this time of year, from the Irish hearth festival of Imbolg to the Catholic Feast of the Purification of Mary, or Candlemas. It's a traditional date for taking down Christmas decorations, as described in this poem by Robert Herrick. And the tradition of watching the weather for a sign of spring is reflected in the old English rhyme, "If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, / Winter will have another flight. / If Candlemas Day bring clouds and rain, / Winter will not come again."

Okay, perhaps it's not realistic to believe that spring will ever really come this early just because a groundhog can't see his shadow. But even so, this day is a sort of a turning point in the season--not the beginning of spring, but the beginning of the end for winter. We may still have six weeks to go, but we've made it through the darkest and, with any luck, the coldest days. Under the snow, the bulbs are waking up, and soon we'll see the first green shoots of crocuses and snowdrops. The sap is beginning to rise in the trees, and soon it will be time for maple sugaring. For gardeners, it's time to order our seeds and start plotting out next spring's vegetable beds. Winter may not be over, but its days are numbered.

So, for all those who want to honor this point in the cycle of the seasons, here's a little poem I wrote four years back while traipsing through the bleak brown February landscape--tentatively titled "Groundhog Day."

This is the heart of winter,
the certainty of cold.
No snow to make the landscape bright,
no ice to glaze the branches;
just brown, and grey, and mottled green,
mud thick as molasses.
Past is the cheer of holly boughs,
the flickering gold of candles.
This is the long wait for the dawn,
for the first shout of green.
This is not the time for fruits,
not the time for flowers;
this is the time for hidden things,
for seeds that stir beneath the soil,
for frogs that sleep in beds of mire,
for sap that rises in the wood.
This is a breath held, and held, and held.
This is not the end of the year but the beginning.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Other Popcorn Report

I think popcorn is just about the perfect snack. It's healthful, filling, and easy to make. Of course, if you load it up with butter and salt, it's not quite so healthful, but in its natural state, popcorn is a nutritious whole grain with about 125 calories, nearly 5 grams of fiber, and less than 1.5 grams of fat per quart (according to the USDA Nutrient Database). The only problem is, making this kind of stripped-down popcorn usually requires an air popper--a big, noisy appliance that takes up space and can be a hassle to extract from your cabinet. So for the sake of convenience, most people go with pricey, overpackaged microwave popcorn, which is exactly the opposite of ecofrugal. According to an analysis in The Complete Tightwad Gazette, microwave popcorn costs anywhere from 4 to 13 times as much as regular jar-packed popcorn, and each bowlful comes with a throwaway microwave bag and plastic wrapper.

Fortunately, there is an elegant solution that offers the convenience of microwave popcorn without the waste: the reusable microwave popper. This simple device costs about $10 and takes up no more cabinet space than a regular bowl. After some trial and error, I've found that the organic popcorn from the bulk bins at Whole Foods works best in my home microwave. I measure 1/4 cup of kernels into the popper, punch in 3 minutes and 45 seconds, and pull out a full bowl of fluffy white popcorn with no more than half a dozen duds at the bottom. I don't even have to transfer it to another container--I just drizzle on some olive oil, sprinkle it with salt, and dive in.

A pound of the bulk popcorn costs about $1.60 and yields about 13 bowlfuls--12.5 cents per bowl. The cheapest microwave popcorn I've ever found (an off-brand on sale at the Dollar Tree) cost twice as much per bag. So an inexpensive microwave popper is an investment that will pay for itself after, at most, 80 uses--which, at the rate I go through popcorn, means about four months. And because I keep the popper and the popcorn both within easy reach, it actually requires no more work than unwrapping one of those wasteful little bags.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

In Praise of Freecycle

The Troll and I are doing a little reorganization in our kitchen--a subject I might discuss at more length in another entry, but for now I only mention it because part of the process is clearing out the cabinets and getting rid of unwanted items. Getting rid of stuff is always difficult for us, because we both just hate to throw away anything that's "still good," even if we know we'll never actually use it. But luckily for us, this is where Freecycle comes in.

In case there's anyone out there who doesn't already know, Freecycle is a worldwide network of online communities that help people reuse unwanted stuff. If you have something you want to get rid of, you post an entry like this:

Title: OFFER: left-handed golf clubs
From: Lobelia
Date: 13:39, 26 Oct 2009
Location: Hobbiton
Description: Set of left-handed golf clubs. I don't play golf and I'm not left-handed. Don't ask me what I'm doing with them. Quick pick-up preferred.

And within a day, usually, you will get at least one request for the unwanted item from another member. In fact, it's not unusual to get a deluge of requests within the first couple of hours. (You can choose to give it to anyone you wish, though I usually follow a first-come, first-served policy.) In the past five years, I have successfully used Freecycle to get rid of many items, including:
  • an eight-year-old Macintosh computer
  • several old textbooks
  • a reel-type lawn mower with a wheel that (as I stated quite openly) didn't stay on very well
  • a Weed Whacker with a motor that was (as I also stated quite openly) on the verge of burning itself out
  • an old CRT monitor
  • a surplus of rubber bands
We have also acquired a few items from Freecycle, including books, videotapes, and most notably, the "jungle adventure" tent that turned out to be the most successful gift we gave to any of our nieces and nephews last Christmas. And while we've never actually used Freecycle to request a specific item, I have seen people ask for and get all kinds of things, from computers to out-of-print books.

So, if there is anyone out there in cyberspace who does not yet belong to a Freecycle group: try it, you'll like it.

The Name Game

There are famous people, both real and fictional, whose surnames may be a complete mystery to us.  Instead, we're more likely to know them by a combination of their first name and some other descriptive word.  For example, the characters John McIntyre and John Black from the movie "M*A*S*H" are more often referred to as Trapper John and Ugly John, respectively.  Here are ten more that I came up with.  How many of the blanks can you fill without having to resort to a Google search?

1.   ________ Bill (Cody)
2.   ________ Bill (Hickok)
3.   ________ Harry (Callahan)
4.   ________ Max (Rockatansky)
5.   ________ Prudence (Farrow)
6.   ________ Steven (Van Zandt)
7.   ________ Albert (Robertson)
8.   ________ Mary (Mallon)
9.   ________ Eddie (Antar)
10. ________ George (O'Dowd)

Also, are there any others that you can add to the list?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Thrift Week, Day Seven: Clothing

Well, we've finally made it to the end of Thrift Week. (Whew! Writing an entry every day is harder than I expected.) Our topic for the seventh and final day is clothing--or, as the Consumer Expenditures Survey puts it, "apparel and services"--which costs the average household $1,801 per year. Not surprisingly, clothing for women and girls accounts for the largest share of this expense ($718 per year), followed by clothing for men and boys ($427), footwear ($314), and "other apparel products and services" ($248). I assume "services" refers to dry cleaning and the like. The smallest item in the clothing budget is clothing for children under two, which costs the average family only $93 per year.

I'm going to hazard a guess that the reason clothes for young children cost so much less than clothes for older children and adults is not just that little bitty clothes require less fabric and therefore cost less; I suspect that many children under two years old are clothed largely, or at least partly, in hand-me-downs. Children this young grow out of their clothes long before they wear out, so naturally it makes sense to pass them down to a younger sibling or an acquaintance. However, what's less obvious is that many adults and older children, for one reason or another, also discard clothes before they're worn out. Kids over two may continue to outgrow their clothes while they're still in good condition; adults, as I can sadly attest, may also outgrow their clothes, or in other cases, shrink out of them. Also, picky adults may discard clothes in good condition because they're not the latest style, or because they've just grown tired of them. As a result, buying (or otherwise acquiring) secondhand can help adults and older kids dress themselves just as cheaply as the little ones. And as always, buying secondhand is a sustainable choice as well, because it saves resources and prevents waste.

The best way to find secondhand clothes will depend on your particular wardrobe needs. If you work in corporate America and need to look natty when you show up at the office, you may need to stick to the higher-end thrift shops and consignment shops. You may pay as much or more for a secondhand garment at one of these stores as you would for a new one at a cheaper retail store, such as Sears or J.C. Penney, but the piece will probably be of higher quality. (You can at least be sure that it won't fall apart after the first washing, since it's already had one.)

If you work in a more, ahem, casual environment, as I do, you have a wider range of options. No-frills thrift shops, like Goodwill, offer a wide range of clothes at anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of what they'd cost new. You do have to look each item over a bit more carefully before you buy, as it might have stains or other damage that would cause a consignment shop to reject it. Clothes at yard sales can be even cheaper--one or two dollars per garment or even less--but you usually can't try them on, so you have to size them up by eye only. (Of course, if it doesn't fit, you're only out a dollar, so "when in doubt, buy it" can be a reasonable approach.)

The only thing better than cheap, of course, is free, and there are several ways to get free clothes. Single garments or batches of items often show up on Freecycle, but of course, you don't get to try them on--or, in most cases, even look at them--before deciding whether to take them. Still, if you're willing to pick up a batch, keep what you like, and re-list the rest, you can get stuff you like this way without paying a penny. If you need to see what you're getting, you can get free clothes by having a clothing swap. (Some folks call these "naked lady parties," but there's no reason men can't have them too.) Just pull a bunch of items you don't want anymore out of your wardrobe, then get together with several friends who have all done the same, and pick out new-to-you clothes from what everyone's brought. The leftovers can go to Goodwill or some other organization.

A few other ways to save money and resources on clothing:
  • As much as possible, avoid clothes that require dry-cleaning. A dress that looked like a great bargain in the thrift shop may more than double its cost with the first cleaning. And the chemicals used by most dry-cleaners are appallingly toxic.
  • Give a darn! That is, repair holes to keep garments usable longer. Try to catch the holes while they're little--a stitch in time literally does save nine.
  • If you don't sew, or if an item is beyond your abilities to fix, consider taking it to a professional tailor or seamstress for repairs. You can also get a professional to alter clothes that no longer fit you and extend their useful life. It may not seem worth fixing a secondhand garment if the cost of the repair is more than what you originally paid for it, but it may look better if you compare the cost with what it would cost to replace. And even if it costs as much to fix as it would to replace, you're still saving natural resources. Repairing shoes is even more worthwhile--a good pair of shoes that's molded to your feet is a real treasure, something a new pair really can't replace.
Well, that wraps up our celebration of Thrift Week. Hope you've all enjoyed it. We now return to our regularly scheduled blogging.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Thrift Week, Day Six: Insurance

Today's topic is insurance, which I realize I actually should have covered back on Day Four, because it's the fourth-largest expense in the average household budget ($5,605 per year, or 11.1 percent of total expenditures). What's odd is that this figure covers only "personal insurance and pensions." It doesn't include health insurance (which is covered under medical expenses), auto insurance (under transportation), or homeowners/renters insurance (under housing). Instead it covers "life and other personal insurance" and "Social Security and pensions." This makes it a tricky topic for me to address, because we actually don't have a entry in our budget for these expenses. They either come out of the Troll's paycheck before he lays hands on it, or they get lumped in under taxes and savings. So these are sort of "invisible" expenses for us.

In fact, I have to admit that I don't really think of these as "expenditures" as all. I mean, an expenditure is money that you spend--you pay it to someone, and you (presumably) get something in exchange. But Social Security contributions aren't an expenditure; they're part of your taxes. Taxes aren't so much an expenditure as a force of nature, like the weather. You may not like the weather, and you may not like the way your tax money gets spent, but in either case, there's not a whole lot you can do about it (not directly, at any rate). So you pretty much just have to live with it.

As for "pensions," well, I'm not entirely sure what they mean by that. I think of a "pension" as a kind of guaranteed benefit that you get from your employer or, in some cases, from the government--not one you pay for yourself. But it sounds like the Bureau of Labor Statistics is using the term to include all types of retirement funds. The thing is, contributions to a retirement fund aren't really an "expenditure" either. You're not spending that money; you're saving it for the future. True, that means you don't have it right now to spend on something else, but the money isn't gone. It's still your money, just set aside for retirement.

So as far as actual expenditures go, areas in which you could save money by making smarter choices, that just leaves life insurance in this category. And that's an area about which I know little to nothing. I've never actually paid for a life insurance policy in my life. I've never needed it because there's never been anyone dependent on my income. And the basic life insurance policy that comes with the Troll's work benefits would be quite adequate to take care of me if he died unexpectedly. So I guess the only useful advice I can offer about life insurance is to figure out how much you need, and carry that much and no more.

Here's how my favorite financial writer, Andrew Tobias, put it in his The Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need:
If you're single with no dependents, you need little--to assist with burial expenses and, posthumously, pay off debts--or none. The great push to sell college students life insurance is not entirely unlike the selling of ice to Eskimos, except that a lot more insurance is sold that way than ice.

If you're married, with a hopelessly incompetent spouse, a family history of heart disease, and a horde of little children, you should carry a great deal of insurance. Less if your spouse has a reliable income. Less still if you have fewer children or if those children have wealthy and benevolent grandchildren. And still less as those children grow up.

If you are very rich, you need no insurance at all, except as it is helpful in providing liquidity to settle your estate. If you live richly off a high income but own outright little more than a deck of credit cards and some cardigan sweaters, it will take a lot of insurance to keep from exposing your dependents to an altogether seamier side of life when you are gone.
I guess you can probably tell why he's my favorite financial writer. How many other financial writers are actually fun to read?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Thrift Week, Day Five: That's entertainment!

At $2,835 a year, entertainment accounts for 5.6 percent of the average American household's spending. The Consumer Expenditures Survey defines entertainment rather broadly; it encompasses "fees and admissions" (presumably to movies, shows, museums, and so on), "audio and visual equipment and services," "pets, toys, hobbies, and playground equipment," and a catch-all "other" category. Rather oddly, however, it does not include "reading," which falls into a category by itself. Tack it on to the entertainment budget, and the total rises to $2,976 per year, nearly as much as health care.

The cost of reading materials--$116 per year--is dwarfed by the $1,036 per year that the typical household spends on "audio and visual equipment and services." This might suggest that most Americans do more TV-watching than reading, but there's another explanation as well; books, newspapers, and magazines can often be enjoyed a lot more cheaply than audio and visual media. If you are lucky enough to live near a good public library, as we do, you can find many, if not most, of the books you'd like to read without having to pay a cent (and without having to find shelf space for them when you're done). And if you have a fast Internet connection, you can read many newspapers and magazines online--along with some other content that doesn't exist in paper form. In fact, this article on the Consumer Expenditures Survey site suggests that increasing numbers of Americans may be doing just that, as consumers spend more each year on Internet service and less on newspaper and magazine subscriptions.

However, all those folks using the Internet to save on reading might not realize that it could help them with those "audio and visual services" as well. As I noted earlier, with our little media spud, we can get pretty much all our TV through the Internet, using some combination of Hulu and downloads from the network sites. At some point, we might spring for a Netflix account to get access to the more obscure shows that we can't get for free--but at $9 a month, it's still a lot cheaper than $55 a month for a basic cable package with 90 channels, only 5 of which we would ever watch.

Similarly, the local library can be a way to save on those "fees and admissions." Our library's selection of videos and DVDs may not be as large as you might find in a Blockbuster Video, but it's a lot more interesting. Most of last year's movies that were of interest to us--including Up, Slumdog Millionaire, and Julie and Julia--can be found there. And we've discovered that we actually enjoy the whole experience of watching them at home more than we enjoy seeing them in a theater. There are no screaming children (or screaming adults on their cell phones), and we don't have to sit through half an hour of advertisements and trailers for films we would never want to see before we get to the film itself. (Digression: What on earth makes the theater owners think that if I show up to see, say, the latest Harry Potter movie, that means that I would be interested in all manner of action films composed mostly of explosions? And don't get me started on the stuff they subject you to if you show up to watch an animated film.) The seats are more comfortable, the popcorn is free (or at least cheap), and if we have to pee, we don't have to climb over several hostile strangers (twice) and miss ten minutes of the movie.

As for "pets, toys, and hobbies"--well, that would be a whole entry in itself.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Thrift Week, Day Four: Health care (or the lack thereof)

The scheduled topic for day four of Thrift Week is health care, which costs the average American household $2,976 per year, or 5.9 percent of total spending. Of course, this average figure is misleading. Some people pay far more, as this conversation on the Dollar Stretcher forums reveals. Our annual medical expenses, by contrast, come to less than half the national average.

So, you may ask, how do we do it? What thrifty strategies do we employ to keep our health-care costs so low? Answer: pure luck. For one thing, we are lucky enough not to have any serious health problems. But also, the Troll is lucky enough to work for an employer that provides a very generous health plan, for both him and his spouse, at a very reasonable cost. If he were ever to lose this job, we would be forced into the private health-care market, and our annual expenses (including premiums, copayments, and medications) would more than sextuple overnight.

So I can't offer any advice about how to be thrifty in the area of health care. Basically, the US has an absurd, arcane health-care system in which the quality of the care you receive and the amount you pay for it are determined almost entirely by luck. If you're lucky enough to have a good employer, or a good union, you will probably have a good health plan; if you're unlucky enough to be unemployed, or employed by a small company that can't afford a good plan, or employed by a big company that refuses to pay for a good plan, you won't. And because of the outcome of the Massachusetts election, there is pretty much no hope that this expensive, inefficient, and unjust system will change any time in the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Thrift Week, Day Three: Food

The topic for day three of Thrift Week is food, glorious food. The average American household spends $6,443 a year on food, plus another $444 on alcoholic drinks. Together, they account for 13.7 percent of the household budget.

Food is another area in which the "eco" part of ecofrugal can sometimes come into conflict with the "frugal" part. Not always, of course. In many cases, the most sustainable food choices are also the cheapest. For example, the biggest-ticket items on many people's grocery bills--meat and prepared or processed foods--are also the ones with the biggest environmental impact. Replacing meat with beans and processed foods with whole foods will save money and help the environment at the same time. But in other cases, the sustainable choice can cost more. An obvious example is organic foods, which can cost anywhere from 20 percent to 100 percent more than their conventional counterparts. A much less obvious one is local, seasonal produce. Logically, if it's the middle of winter, then apples that were grown at an orchard less than 100 miles away and stored in a cold room for the winter should obviously be cheaper than nectarines, a summer fruit, that were shipped all the way from Chile. Yet thanks to the vagaries of supply and demand, it doesn't always work out that way. Here in the so-called Garden State, the big supermarkets (which tend to have lower prices) are more likely to carry imported produce rather than local produce. Thus, you can buy imported nectarines for $2 a pound in February at the Mega-Mart, but to get local apples, you have to go to the natural food store the next town over and pay $2.50 a pound. In a situation like that, what's the frugal choice?

My approach, as with transportation, is to look for the middle ground. Since organic foods cost 60 percent more than conventional foods on average, I've set that as my arbitrary limit on how much more I'm willing to pay for them. If the price differential is less than 60 percent, I consider the organic food to be a good value. If it's more, I'll choose the conventional version--with a few exceptions. For foods with high pesticide levels, like peaches, strawberries, grapes, and peanut butter, I'll always buy organic. The same goes for foods for which conventional growing practices are especially damaging to the environment, like sugar, coffee, and cocoa. (Actually, for coffee and cocoa, the working conditions are a bigger concern than the environment. So I buy Fair Trade, which usually means buying organic as well.)

For most people, eating 100 percent virtuous food may not be practical, or even possible. If you live in an area with a short growing season, there may be no way to feed yourself year-round with only local, organic foods. There are always compromises to make, so I guess it comes down to a question of deciding what you can live with. For me, that means striking a balance between the financial cost and the environmental cost--a balance I continue to adjust over time as circumstances (my own, and the world's) change.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Thrift Week, Day Two: Transportation

Welcome to Day Two of Thrift Week. Today's topic is transportation, the second-biggest item in the average American budget. For the average American household, transportation costs $8,604 a year, or 17 percent of total expenses. That includes the cost of automobile purchases, gas and oil, maintenance and repairs, and public transportation, plus a few miscellaneous expenses like drivers' licenses and auto registrations.

Transportation is a tricky area for the ecofrugal. On one hand, most forms of mass transit, like buses and trains, have a lower carbon footprint than driving--especially driving alone, as so many commuters do. But if you already own a car, it's probably cheaper to drive it than it is to take the bus or the train. After all, you've already paid (or are still paying) for the car itself and the insurance, so all you save by not driving it is the cost of gas. And gas has to get pretty expensive to make driving more expensive than transit, at least around here. As an example: back when I was single and living in Princeton, I used to ride a little train called the Dinky to my job in Princeton Junction. The trip was only a couple of miles each way, but it cost $3.75 round trip--$16.25 per week. At the time, I owned a very fuel-efficient compact car that got about 36 miles to the gallon, so driving that 40 miles per week instead would have used up a little more than a gallon of gas. At the time, gas was only about $1.50 per gallon, so I was paying about $14 extra each week for the privilege of riding the train. (I was willing to pay it because I found the 35-minute commute by train, which included a one-mile walk to the Dinky station and ten minutes of reading or doing crosswords on the train, so much more pleasant than the 20-minute commute by car, which included about 10 minutes of actual driving and 10 minutes of sitting in traffic and fuming.) Taking the Dinky might have been an economical option if it had allowed me to give up my car entirely. But I relied on the car to get me to places where I couldn't go by bus or train--places that literally had no bus or train stop within 5 miles. And this was in New Jersey, a state that has a better mass transit system that most.

So what are the ecofrugal to do? Well, there is some middle ground. For instance, the Troll and I can't make do without a car--but we can easily make do with just one car for the two of us. At my old job, I could commute by train, so I didn't need a car most days; now that I work from home, I need one even less often. His job allows him to commute by bike in nice weather, which, unlike mass transit, doesn't cost any extra (the cost of maintaining the bike is only a few dollars a month, which is offset by the savings on gas) and offers a cheap, healthy alternative to joining a gym. Carpooling is another useful option. These days, our car makes very few trips of more than a few miles with only one person in it; usually it carries both of us, or the two of us plus a friend. This lowers the cost-per-person of driving, both in dollars and in pollution. And finally, living in a walkable community saves us money on transportation. We might have been able to find a cheaper home in a suburban area, but by choosing to live in a town with a real town center, we put ourselves within walking distance of the library, the grocery store, the drugstore, the post office, and most of the other places we might need to run errands in a typical week. So the extra money we spent on housing comes back to us in transportation savings, as well as health benefits and a better overall quality of life.

Anyone else want to share ideas about ways to be thrifty with transportation?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Happy Thrift Week!

Did you know that this is National Thrift Week? Well, OK, not officially. The holiday hasn't been officially recognized in over 40 years. But for half of the twentieth century--from 1916 to 1966--the week of January 17 through January 23 was celebrated as "Thrift Week" to encourage Americans to save. There were even special themes for each day of the week: Have a Bank Account Day, Invest Safely Day, Carry Life Insurance Day, Keep a Budget Day, Pay Bills Promptly Day, Own Your Home Day, and Share with Others Day.

Thrift Week began on January 17 because it was the birthday of Benjamin Franklin, the most frugal of the Founding Fathers. Since this happens to be my birthday as well, I thought it would be appropriate to host my own celebration of Thrift Week here on the blog. However, it doesn't seem to make much sense to celebrate the individual days, like "Have a Bank Account Day," since I would imagine anyone reading this blog already has these matters pretty well in hand. So instead, I'm going to spend each day of the week focusing on one of the top seven categories in the typical American budget: housing, transportation, food, health care, entertainment, insurance, and clothing. I'll talk about ways that we're thrifty in each of these categories (meaning not just spending less money, but using resources as wisely as possible), and I'll invite you folks out in cyberland to share your ideas too.

But first, a quick aside: if you visit the website linked above, you'll notice that the "thrift expert" cited on it is David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, whose other big issue is the promotion of "traditional marriage"--meaning mommy, daddy, and kiddies, with the kiddies definitely not optional. Although a self-proclaimed liberal, he has publicly decried same-sex marriage because the "true purpose" of marriage is to provide a stable environment in which to bring up children, and a same-sex partnership is, according to him, inherently unsuitable for this purpose. I wish to stress that my support of Thrift Week does not in any way imply that I also support Mr. Blankenhorn on this issue. I agree strongly with him about the importance of thrift; I disagree equally strongly with his views on marriage. So I'm focusing on the message and doing my best to ignore the messenger.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's turn to our topic for Day One of Thrift Week: housing. According to the 2008 Consumer Expenditures Survey, the typical American "consumer unit" spends $17,109, or 34 percent of its total budget, on housing, making it by far the largest expense for most Americans. Housing expenses include shelter (owned or rented), utilities (gas, electricity, water, phone), household furnishings, and "housekeeping supplies," which includes cleaning products and office supplies such as postage and stationery. Pretty much anything that you use exclusively in your home falls under the category of housing.

Here are a few of the ways in which the Troll and I are thrifty in our home:
  • We didn't buy more house than we needed. Actually, some might question whether a couple without children needs to own a house at all. An apartment or a condominium would certainly cost less and use less resources. But on the other hand, many of the frugal things we like to do, like gardening and line-drying our laundry, are things you really can't do without a yard. So we decided that we did want a house, but just a small house--not one where the two of us and our cat would rattle around in all the space. We also decided we were willing to do without a lot of the amenities that many people think of as necessities, like a dishwasher, central air conditioning, and a garage. It took us over a year to find a house in our price range that we were happy with, but it was time well spent. A smaller house meant a smaller mortgage, which meant that our finances weren't strained during my long stretch without work last year. And it saves us money on utilities as well, since there's less space to heat and cool.
  • Anything that we can do ourselves, we do ourselves. If a room needs painting, we paint it, rather than hiring a painter. We don't have a cleaning service; we don't have a lawn service. (In fact, our attitude towards our lawn is pretty much one of benign neglect. We cut it only when it gets long enough to lose small objects in, and we never fertilize it, because if it grew faster we'd just have to cut it more often.) This means that things don't always get done around our house as fast as they might; for instance, we've been in the process of refinishing our basement for over two years now, and there's still a good bit left to do. But after all, we're in no hurry, and when it finally is done, it will be much more satisfying to be able to say we did it ourselves.
  • In wintertime, we keep the thermostat at 67 degrees during the day. (I know some people turn it even lower, but I'm a wuss.) At night, we turn it down to 56. In the summer, we use the A/C only on the hottest days (when it gets above 90 degrees in the house), relying on fans to keep cool the rest of the time.
  • Most of our furniture is secondhand.
  • We keep the place clean with a few basic, inexpensive (and nontoxic) products, such as vinegar, baking soda, and ordinary soap. We use rags in place of paper towels.
  • Here's one that might not be obvious as a household expense, until you remember that "housekeeping supplies" included office supplies: we do most of our banking online, including paying bills. This saves paper, postage, and time.
The one thing we don't skimp on? High-speed Internet. We rely on it for too many things, including my job and the aforementioned online banking. However, you could make an argument that this, too, is a frugal choice. The $50 a month we spend for our cable modem takes the place of many other things we might otherwise have to pay for, like TV service (we can watch TV online with our new media spud) and newspapers (we can read the New York Times online). It also gives us easy access to sites that help save us money, like the Dollar Stretcher, MyPoints (which gives you "points" when you shop online, which you can then cash out in the form of gift cards), and Perhaps for a later entry, I'll do the math on all this and figure out to what extent our high-speed connection actually pays for itself.

How about you, fearless readers? Any thoughts you'd like to share on the subject of thrifty housing?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Winter warmer-upper

Much as I would like to keep the heat turned down in the winter (both to save money and to reduce my carbon footprint), I'm just too much of a wuss. I'm all right at night when I can pile on the blankets, but during the day, when I'm working at my computer, I can't manage anything lower than 67 degrees. Even at that temperature, I find myself shivering under three layers of clothing (plus a hat, plus wool socks and winter boots).

So, as the cold weather set in last November, I was actually considering dropping 40 bucks on a Slanket (a higher-end version of the Snuggie, star of so many TV infomercials. I never considered the Snuggie itself because, according to reviews I've seen, they're no bargain even at $15.) However, when I spotted fleece throws on sale for $2 apiece at Walgreens, I got to thinking that maybe I could make my own blanket-wrap from those. After some experimentation, I found that I could wrap one of them around my torso like a towel, then drape the second one over my shoulders like a cape.

With this double blanket over top of my regular clothes, I can stay toasty warm with the thermostat at 67 degrees. Now if I can just work up the courage to bump it down another degree or two and be a little less toasty....


It started a few years ago with me hauling my 17" LCD monitor and my Dell notebook into the living room so that we could watch videos on the computer while sitting on the couch.  The advent of an LCD television made this process easier, as the monitor no longer had to travel, the notebook connecting nicely via TV-out S-video.  A new notebook for work allowed the old notebook to stay attached to the TV full time.

Until it died, that is, whereupon I realized that I had created for myself a need that had not existed before.

I needed a media PC.

Well great.

So I tried to replace it with various computers I already had.  This turned out to be a learning experience.

From my desktop machine, an AMD 64-bit (2.8 GHz) monstrosity that looks and sounds like a garbage truck, I learned that there is such a thing as too large and too loud when it comes to a piece of machinery that's going to spend its time next to your TV and stereo.

From the Dell notebook that I cobbled together from a scrounged machine augmented with parts from my recently deceased notebook, I learned that there is such a thing as a computer that is too dumb to play video.

And from the lovely Mac notebook that I tried as an experiment (as a work computer, I couldn't consider using it for that purpose), I learned that there is such a thing as a computer being too expensive if its sole purpose is to play video.

So, if I was going to acquire a dedicated media PC, what did I want?

1) It had to have a brain big enough to play video well.
2) It had to be quiet.
3) It had to be cheap...or rather, inexpensive.
4) It had to have low power consumption, as it might get left on for extended periods of time.

And let me tell you folks, there ain't too much at the intersection of that particular Venn diagram.  Even the Mac Mini, probably the best option I could find at first, was (at $600) more than I cared to spend.

And then I read about the NVIDIA Ion.

To put it briefly, the Ion is the Intel Atom processor (a tiny, somewhat feeble processor) souped up with high-end NVIDIA graphics processing unit, i.e., lots of graphics power in a small, energy-efficient package. 

So I took the plunge and started building the MediaSpud:

The motherboard is a Zotac IONITX-A-U (purchased from Amazon) with 4 Gb of compatible dual-channel DDR2 RAM.  This was connected a Western Digital 320 Gb hard drive (2.5", 5400 rpm) and a DVD burner.  To top it all off, I added a combination wireless mouse and keyboard - probably the trickiest part, as both keyboard and mouse had to operate properly at a distance of at least eight feet from the receiver.  After reading a number of reviews of such products, it became painfully apparent that manufacturers' claims about range were a bit, well, optimistic.  I did manage to settle on a combo from i-Rocks that was both well-reviewed and relatively inexpensive.   And I'm happy to say that it has worked as advertised.  The computer communicates both video and audio to the TV via HDMI.  A serviceable HDMI cable can be purchased on Amazon for less than $5 (most of which is the shipping).

All these components came to about $325.  The IONITX-A-U comes with a wireless card and with a built-in power supply, so there was no need to purchase either.

The enclosure is made mostly of 0.5 cm-thick plywood and measures 37 cm wide by 21.5 cm deep by about 8.5 cm tall (including the little cork feet that it stands upon).   I had originally planned to make the case as small as possible, but decided that having a little extra space would make the whole project much easier to execute.  I was right.

The power button I got from Radio Schlock.  I soldered it to a connector wire that I happened to have lying about so that I could turn the machine on without having to short across the power pins in the motherboard with a screwdriver or paperclip.  There are none of the other front-panel connectors and indicator lights that we've become accustomed to having on our computers, but I figure if I need any, I can just add them later.  I have a drill.

Proper (I hope) ventilation is performed by the CPU/GPU heat sink fan, which blows out through the hole in the top of the case.  Air is drawn in through several holes drilled low in the sides of the case.  This fan is the only part of the MediaSpud that makes any appreciable noise - having no variable speed setting - but is still very quiet when running full-tilt.

Both the hard drive and the DVD burner are SATA-2, so the internal cables shouldn't obstruct air flow much.

The four corner posts are cherry and help rigidify what would otherwise be a rather flimsy box.  The motherboard rests on four small posts that are also made of cherry - these pieces are tiny by necessity and the hard wood can take screws without splitting.  The DVD burner and the hard drive are affixed to the case with pieces of steel corner bead which have been snipped to size.  The hole in the top of the case is protected with a bit of screen.  The shortest wood screws I could find at the local Home Deplowe's were slightly longer than the plywood was thick, so I tried to use washers where I could, but the occasional screw does peek out on the outside surface of the case.  It's not pretty, but it does the job.  I will tell everyone that I eventually plan to replace it with a more elegant, better constructed case, but to tell the truth, I'll probably just stain this one and Case version 1.0 will be Case version Only.  Not too bad for under $10.

My mother-in-law having gifted us with a Kill-a-Watt, I decided to see how the various computers around the house fared.  My desktop machine pulled 100 watts when idle and about 130 when playing a Hulu video full-screen.  By contrast, Lobelia's souped-up G4 Mac runs at about 40 watts when idle and a little over 70 when under load (running a Youtube video, which is about the most intense thing it is ever asked to do - we don't dream of playing Hulu vids on it).  The MediaSpud running Windows XP, however, comes in at 22 watts when idle, 25 when running Hulu full-screen, and still only 30 when running the World of Warcraft free trial (which it does quite nicely, despite its tiny brain).  Of course, our 26-inch LCD TV pulls 120 watts, so make of the likely overall power savings what you will...

We're still exploring this computer's capabilities, but I can say that it does everything that I expected it to.  It can handle both 720p and 1080i HD video, though I find I like it better in 720p.  It can't handle streaming HD from Youtube, but I expect that's because those videos are CPU-intensive rather than GPU-intensive.