What’s in the garden?

Garden 1Our garden is going strong this year. We dug some new beds, went to Longmont for four big bins full of composted horse manure, added our own compost pile from last year in an effort to thin out our heavy clay soil, dug up reams of landscape cloth that was used to keep the weeds out of the decorative bark-covered bed we’re destroying, and planted like crazy. We enjoyed the mild spring and suffered through a cold week in early June that took out some of our babies — as well as a hailstorm that left us relatively unscathed, thank goodness.

Here, the rundown of what we’re growing:

Apricot tree (its 2nd year – frost hit the flowers, so no fruit)
Beets – Detroit Red
Brussels sprouts
Butternut squash
Garden 2 Cherry tree (same situation as the apricot)
Green beans (well, at least I hope they’re there — I planted ’em but they haven’t yet shown their heads)
Herbs & flowers
Meyer lemon
Red onions
Sugar snap peas
Thai hot pepper
Tomato – Better Boy
Tomato – Juliet
Tomato – San Marzano
Tomato – yellow pear
Watermelon – icebox
White onions

It’s been in the 90s here (and set a record high at 96 degrees on Sunday and Monday), but our eggplant and watermelon are still on “Wall O’ Water” insulators and they love it. In fact, the insulated plants are now a good four times bigger than the un-insulated versions of the exact same plants.

topsy turvy

I’ll leave you with my crazy tomato plant in its “topsy turvy” planter. Note that it is by far our biggest tomato plant, so maybe there’s something to growing upside down.


Weekly Wrap-Up: 7 Money Mistakes and what is enough?

The mental side of money mistakes: This one’s been kicking around for a few weeks, but it just showed up in our local paper this week. The article offers food for thought about common financial mistakes — and more importantly, why we make them.

And to end the week on the same note with which we began, here are two takes on whether the bits we do are enough.

This post from a 90% reduction leader (working to cut their household consumption on many levels by 90%, to just 10% of what the average American family consumes) doesn’t raise the actual question, but given human nature, many of the people participating (or admiring) their project will believe they have to do it all or nothing: “You mean buying local isn’t enough — I also have to make my own tortillas from home-ground corn?”

For most of us, that simply isn’t practical without giving up some basics (sleep, for example). But it’s important to remember that her life is her life, and yours is yours, and any effort is better than nothing.

This latter point is explained more eloquently by GreenPa. He’s got an elegant metaphor and the laws of physics to back him up.
And No Impact Man this week quoted a New York Times article that addressed the dizzying array of “green” claims.

Hint: A bug zapper isn’t green. Living with the bugs is. DEET … well, I don’t know.
Do what you can, consider your mind, and as they say, keep on truckin’.

Give yourself credit: Add student loan debt cautiously

I know, you’re on summer vacation – but school bells will be ringing soon enough, and more importantly, the next couple of months are when most students will be finalizing their student loans.

Today, some 60 percent of people go to college, and two-thirds of undergraduate students graduate with some debt.

They started the process by completing the FAFSA or Free Application for Student Financial Aid. The absolute final deadline for the previous year is around this time — July 2, 2007, for the 2006-2007 school year, and June 30, 2008, for the 2007-2008 school year. But don’t get too excited thinking you have a whole year — most schools require the FAFSA to be submitted in January for financial aid the following autumn.

The most common student loans are Federal Stafford Loans. These have annual limits on how much you can borrow, and you’re supposed to borrow only to pay for education-related expenses (tuition, fees, books, room and board, and some related items, like a necessary computer). The limits for an independent student (not relying on parents for support) are:

  • Freshman year – $7,500
  • Sophomore year – $8,500
  • Junior or senior year – $10,500
  • Graduate or professional – $20,500

There’s a lifetime limit of $46,000 for undergraduate students and a limit of $138,500 for grad students.

The interest rate is fixed at 6.8 percent — and the good news is that within certain income limits, interest paid on student loans is tax-deductible. (Here’s the IRS take on what is deductible.)

Most loans have 10 years for repayment. If you borrow the maximum every year, graduate this month, and start repayment when your six-month grace period ends in December, you’ll have payments of $529.37 per month for the next 10 years, and you’ll pay $17,524.34 in interest. You could pay less interest by adding more to the payment each month, but with that whopping figure (and college grads in business earning an average starting salary somewhere in the $40,000s) that’s not so likely to happen.

But wait. An average four-year public college costs $5,836 per year (I think that’s tuition and fees, but the Web site isn’t clear on that).

If you’re actually an independent student, chances are you’re working to pay your living expenses. Save many, many dollars by not taking that full student loan. (Borrowing $6,000 a year for all four years would set you back $276.19 a month for 10 years, with $9,143.14 in interest paid — and if you invested the difference and earned 7 percent, you’d have $43,821 after the 10 years ended. Leave that balance in a retirement account for another 30 years and without adding a dime, you’d have about $356,000.)

Most important for managing this technique: Watch your student loan checks carefully. This is anecdotal, but based on first-hand experience: No matter what amount of student loan money you request, you’re likely to receive a check for the full amount for which you are eligible. Lenders know that once you have those thousands of dollars in your hot little hands, it’s hard to give it back.

Give it back.

If your check is for more than you requested, contact your school’s financial aid office. Then contact your student loan lender. They will tell you how to return the money so that it is never credited to you as a loan amount.

If you need the money, you need it, and in that case borrow. But borrow judiciously, because money never borrowed is money in your pocket — and how worse to borrow than unintentionally?

Deal of the week: Summer living and bargains delivered

The hammockOne of the feeds I subscribe to is Slickdeals.net. This site delivers great deals reported by readers. Many of the bargains focus on technology, but if you keep an eye out, there’s something for everyone.

Last week, the site notified readers of an online coupon for a free smoothie (buy one, get one free) at Jamba Juice. Click here to print and enjoy — good through July 4 — and take your own cup if you can!

If a fruity smoothie doesn’t say summer, how about relaxing in a hammock? Little Cheap and I have been craving a hammock for the yard. We’ve seen them for $200, $100, down to about $70 with a stand (we don’t have a deck or enough big trees to hang one that way).

But Slickdeals delivered a couple of weeks ago. They posted an offer from Sports Authority for a hammock with stand for $22 — including shipping. I got the hammock in five days. That’s it at the top. It’s not the snazziest — but it sure is the cheapest, so that makes up for it.

I’ve also gotten some nice deals on LL Bean pants for Mr Cheap ($12 a pair, sturdy canvas that works for school, teaching and “normal” life and ought to last for years), and cheap PJs from the Children’s Place for Little Cheap. You can subscribe to their feed in your blog reader to stay up to date.

My only word of caution: Don’t get so excited about the bargains that you start buying things just because you can. A great deal on something you don’t need is a crappy deal.

Now, where’s my smoothie …

Financial quandary: What if you’ve already cut the corners?

Periodically, I see articles like this one, titled “Turn $1 a Day Into $67,815.”

These kinds of tips are inspiring, and I’m fortunate enough to be able to stash away $1 a day (and I think I’ll try to start after reading his final figure there).

But the author’s suggestion is that $1 a day is just the change from your purchases that day. I’ve seen other articles suggesting that the way out of debt is to not spend $5 or $10 a day and instead apply it to your debt or save it.

I feel like I live like a pretty normal bourgeois American, but I don’t spend $5 a day or $10 a day that I could cut out. Sure, some days I do spend that much — but generally, no. I do have a jar where we collect the day’s leftover coins. I get up to about $40 every three months or so. That’s half his minimum level.

The author has some specific suggestions for how to save even more – he projects $123 per month easily. His suggestions are:

  • Take-out vs. dining out once a month – save $45 a month
  • Manicure less often – save $15 a month
  • Fewer trips to car wash – save $12 a month
  • Video rental vs. movie monthly – save $11 a month
  • Regular coffee instead of a cappuccino on weekdays – save $40 a month

The total annual savings of $1,476, he says, could grow to $278,040 in 30 years.

Now that’s just depressing.

  • My dining out bill is usually closer to $35 for our family, so even if we substituted take-out (does this mean something like Chinese? That costs about $16) we would save $19.
  • I never get a manicure. Save $0.
  • I go to the car wash about every three or four months. Don’t think I’d better cut that down. Save $0
  • We might go to a movie once every six weeks or two months. If I cut that out I’d never go. Occasionally we rent a DVD from Redbox for $1. Otherwise we get them for free at the library. Save $0.
  • Regular coffee instead of a cappuccino on weekdays – aha! I do buy a latte, sometimes twice a week. I wouldn’t bother buying regular coffee out. Save $30

My total savings if I completely eliminate coffee out would be $49, not $123. That translates to $588 a year or $105,589 after 30 years.

It’s not so shabby, and likely worth doing. After all, $100k is nothing to shake a stick at. But if you already live relatively bare, cutting out “just a few luxuries” can feel like cutting out everything.

The quandary, then, is: Do you cut out “everything” and save, save, save, or do you throw your hands up and figure you’ll worry tomorrow?

I usually try to strike a middle ground. I don’t save our change jar proceeds for retirement — we either earmark the cash for date night or put it into our Christmas gift fund. Sometimes I am content to cut out “everything” (which I put in quotation marks because as a middle-class American, I’m rich by the world’s standards even when I feel I’ve eliminated all my luxuries). Other times I simply must have a latte, and I go ahead, and figure I’ll start again the next day.

Are you good at stashing away “extra” funds? Do you have a failsafe savings strategy? Do tell …

Dealbusters: Do just one thing: Bring your own bag — or don’t take one

A common topic of discussion in the eco-blogosphere is eliminating plastic, especially plastic bags. In fact, San Francisco has outlawed the use of traditional plastic shopping bags by large grocery and pharmacy chains.

One argument against the ban, as reported in the article at the link above, was lodged by the chair of the grocers association:

“We’re disappointed that the Board of Supervisors is going down this path,” said Kristin Power, the association’s vice president for government relations. “It will frustrate recycling efforts and will increase both consumer and retailer costs. There’s also a real concern about the availability and quality of compostable bags.”

The assumption here is that people NEED plastic bags.

You don’t need them. And it’s not that hard to do without. So far in June, doing all my regular shopping, I’ve avoided taking 47 plastic bags.

47 is a lot, and the month’s not over. According to the stats at that same article, 47 bags requires one-fifth of a gallon of oil for production.

Most of those bags were not used at the grocery store, where my figure is based on their recommended stuffage of five items per bag. In addition to not wasting plastic, avoiding the bags paid me back at most grocery stores at 5 cents per bag — a savings of a few dollars, although some stores are eliminating that practice. (Hopefully they’re eliminating it because too many people are bringing bags!) IKEA not only doesn’t pay customers to bring their own bags — it charges them to use a plastic bag.

So what do you do? If you do only one thing, I suggest this: When you are purchasing a single item, please refuse a bag. Put the item in your purse, your backpack or just carry it in your hand and set it on the seat of your car. See? It’s easy.

If you want to go further, here’s how I recommend switching from plastic:

The cost breakdown:

First, get yourself some nice bags — with estimated cost.

  1. Think about what you need: I walk to the grocery store, so I like sturdy bags with long straps so I can fit them over my shoulder, making them easier to carry home. I need about six bags to be on the safe side (I shop weekly for our family of three).
  2. In Colorado, Vitamin Cottage is selling “Just 1 Bag” bags for $0.99, and periodically they give bags away free with purchase. Their new bags are attractive, dark blue bags shaped like a paper grocery sack, with a sturdy handle. In other areas people can buy bags at shops like IKEA or Trader Joe’s. Three store-brand bags = $4 (with tax)
  3. Convert canvas, fabric, mesh or plastic totes that are sitting around your house to grocery bags. Where did you leave the tote bag you got at that trade show … Two reclaimed bags = Free
  4. Buy new ones: A vast assortment is available at badlani.com or ReusableBags.com. One or two bags bought because they’re so darn pretty = $20
  5. If you’re handy, make your own – choose the pattern you prefer at Squidoo.

Total per bag = $3.42
Uses to make up the cost at a $0.05 bag credit per use = 68

The how-to’s:

Keep your own bags handy. Here’s what I do:

  1. I carry a large purse. Trendy and useful for toting items out to the car or home.
  2. I have my grocery shopping bags stashed on the shelf of a storage tower in my kitchen. When I grab my coupon book, I grab the bags.
  3. I have a large insulated zipper bag (bought at Costco) that stays in the cargo space of my car. It’s easy to haul into Costco with me and fill at the register.
  4. I also have an emergency mesh bag in the cargo area of the car to corral larger items or several items from running a few errands on one outing.
  5. We invested in a three-pack of ChicoBags this year. One stays in my purse, one in Mr. Cheap’s bag, and one in the glove box of our car. They fold into a tidy little pouch and then expand into a sturdy nylon bag. They are cute, made in a fair labor/fair wage facility, and you can send them back to the company when they’re kaput and they’ll be “repurposed.” Buy them at the ChicoBag Web site at 5 for $20 and have your pick of colors.

Use them.

  1. Put the bags on top of your groceries or in front of your groceries at the store so you don’t forget to hand them over and then feel guilty for making the checkers re-pack all your stuff … or worse, leave with your own bags AND plastic bags.
  2. At grocery and especially at non-grocery stores, speak up! Watch the checker/bagger and say in a loud, clear voice, “I don’t need a bag today.” For 50% of checkers who are on autopilot, you might need to repeat yourself: “No bag for me today, thanks!”
  3. Remember, you are not required to take a bag. Carry your receipt and the store can confirm if you paid for what you carry.

I’ve used my ChicoBag this month at Lowe’s, the local hardware store, Target, Macy’s, Vitamin Cottage and Goodwill. Clerks have acted confused at Target and a little bit angry at Saver’s — but overall, they get it. My Goodwill checker was thrilled and told me that she’s replaced all her light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs. You go, sister!

My next project might be to make some produce bags. I have a deep envy for this person’s pirate lace.

The priceless factors:

  1. No storage issues with plastic bags bursting out of shopping bags bursting out of your basement.
  2. No guilt over those images of misshapen turtles and whales dead from ingesting plastic or toxins from disintegrating plastic.
  3. No trips to recycle them (if you have the option).
  4. No more bags fluttering in the trees, bringing down your property values (a cruel blow for the homeowners among us!).
  5. No grocery sacks ripping and dumping stuff everywhere.
  6. No more of what my grandma might call “nerds” — the staticky plastic cutouts from plastic bags, sticking to your food or your foot or the kitchen floor.

The verdict:

In other words, it’s not only virtuous to move away from plastic bags — your life will be better for it.

And even fiscally, if you go to the grocery store weekly, your bags will pay for themselves in less than 16 months — and that’s assuming you take the not-so-cheap path to getting started.

Grade: A+

How do you do it? Other advice?

Spreadsheet frenzy, or moderation in obsession

Starting this blog has been an incredible motivator for me.

I have a tendency to obsess, to calculate, to love spreadsheets and data, although I’ve been told I’m more a creative type. A couple years ago, when I became intent on lowering our grocery bills, I dove in full-bore, subscribed to The Grocery Game for coupon notifications, and read the entire back catalog of the now-defunct Tightwad Gazette (the link is to Amazon, but I checked it out from the library).

Now that I’m blogging on frugality and greenness, my mind — and my copy of Excel — are awhirl.

All the information hasn’t yet made it to this site. But I’m keeping track of:

  • The cost of homemade products vs. the store-bought versions, their merits and bad points.
  • How much I spend and save on groceries (look for a rundown after the end of the month).
  • My total savings per month in dollars, water, and plastic bags avoided (I’ll unveil this one, too, at the beginning of July) — and how I do it.
  • Changes in my net worth (updated around the 10th of the month).
  • What we use. This one has my head spinning. We sometimes talk about moving to a more self-sufficient life. That raised the question for me: What exactly do we use? How much utilities do we consume?

The challenge for me — with money and ecology — is not to be too hard on myself. This afternoon, rain was looming. I had a load of sheets in the washer. Should I hang the sheets out, risking one of those spattering rainshowers that just sprays dirt all over the laundry? Or should I break down and throw them in the dryer? I chose the latter, but not without some guilt. The guilt was compounded by the fact that I’d washed the laundry in hot water, with a little dab of bleach (I don’t have washing soda on hand yet, or I’d have tried that) — this load of sheets and cloth pads needed to be sanitized.

I decided to go with the guilt this time, and call it my “normal American load of laundry.” That’s OK. Thanks to my spreadsheet, I can tell that my other 12 loads of laundry this month have been washed in cold water, in my high-efficiency washing machine, and hung to dry.

Moderation in all things is the key. No need to go crazy with consumption. No need to kill ourselves over an imperfectly ecological decision.

Sometimes I see other bloggers remark that even with small groups of people giving up their refrigerators or their cars, many more Americans would need to join them to reverse the trend toward global warming or bring our nation to a level of consumption on par with that of other nations. This implies that everyone should dramatically slash their consumption — or why bother?

The same could apply to money. If we’re trying to be ultra-frugal, it’s easy to get angry over one Starbucks stop. If we’re deep in debt, it’s easy to fly off the handle and argue, “I’m so far gone, what does it matter what I do?”

On the other hand, why not do a little? If everyone did one little thing, it might not make up for all the harm that’s ever been done — but surely it would help. Again, this applies to money as to saving the earth.

Mostly cold. Once in a while hot. And never too obsessive.

What’s your prescription for success? What do you want to see here? Let me know, and if I can, I’ll add it to my spreadsheets. Within moderation, of course.