Weekly Wrap-Up: Fair Trade and Grilling Costs

Life is extremely busy around here, and we can tell it’s almost August by the way the garden is out of control. At least one tomato plant is now taller than I am (I’m 5’8″); the Brussels sprouts are dwarfing the carrots; the cucumbers have climbed all over their trellis and now threaten to swarm the walkway to the hose spigot; and the twin butternut squash plants are surrounding the basil and, Little Cheap warns, about to get burned up as they invade the “fireplace” area of her play structure.

Luckily, there’s still been time to find some good articles this week:

How much does it cost to grill? Trent at the Simple Dollar has it all figured out — although I agree with his readers that the home cooling issue is a good addition. http://www.thesimpledollar.com/2007/07/23/how-much-does-it-cost-to-grill/

Fair trade me! Here’s a great list of fair trade items, who makes them and where to find them on Money and Values: http://moneyandvalues.blogspot.com/2007/07/fair-trade-bananas-rice-sugar-and-more.html

And while we’re being fair, does buying less mean we’re hurting the personal economies of others? No Impact Man takes a look: http://noimpactman.typepad.com/blog/2007/07/if-rich-people-.html

Give yourself credit: Protect your credit identity

If you’re reading this on your computer, surely you have antivirus and firewall software installed. Given that you probably have many passwords and much private information on that computer, you need that protection.

It occurred to me this week that another step we should take to protect our credit is to heed the number of credit cards we have listed on sites like Amazon and Paypal. Information hacks happen infrequently at these huge sites — but what if they do? Or what if someone steals your computer and hacks into your passwords? (Or worse, can just log onto the site to charge everything under the sun to your Visa — you don’t have Web sites save your passwords, do you?)

If you *do* have sites save your passwords and you’d like it to stop, you might need to contact the site directly. But on most computers, first go to the Tools menu and then to Options. Look for options like “Clear Private Data,” “Clear Cookies,” and “Clear History” to have your inputs no longer just pop up on screen.

Then go to the Web sites and check what’s on file. The last time I went to Amazon, I realized I had six cards listed there. They had multiplied bit by bit — when I needed to order something for work, I added my business card; I switched my main credit card and added another; once I ordered something with my debit card and on it went, and so on.

The obvious danger: If someone stole my laptop, figured out my password, they could max out all my credit cards faster than you can say “holy security code, Batman!” Be careful with debit cards, too — they could allow access to your whole bank account.

Leave one and axe the rest — just in case.

Un-deal of the week: Hit me! Hit me! Hit me with your stupid tax!

That’s “Stupid Tax” as in “tax on my own stupidity,” and it’s exactly what Uncle Ed, the dictator of the political regime known as Plumb-istan, slapped me with on Monday.

We’ve had two faucets leaking badly. The back hose faucet has been leaking ever since we turned on the swamp/evaporative cooler (which uses water out of the faucet). We’ve been rotating the hose as a “soaker” around the yard, but meanwhile, the sound of water running day and night has been driving me nuts.

Then I turned on the hot water in my laundry sink. That makes it sound easy; it required about 15 minutes of banging and chipping at the painted-shut faucet handle, and then a few minutes of letting the rusty water run. (I’ve used the cold water in the laundry sink, but never the hot — but now I have three huge bags of greasy sheep’s wool in my basement for my new hobby of spinning wool, and it needs washing — in HOT.) But once I turned it off, it just dripped. I collected the water (about 8 gallons a day from that one drip) in buckets and hauled it upstairs to use for flushing the toilet and pre-filling my daughter’s bath, but again … the waste was giving me hives.

We sort of knew that both faucets just needed a washer “or something.” But I couldn’t even find the shutoff valve for the laundry sink pipes. Add to that that we are really busy — Little Cheap is finally in an all-day summer camp, Mr. Cheap is working and in school full-time and spending his free time fulfilling a blacksmithing obligation, and I’m working full time and taking a class. Then there is the endless list of household tasks from intensive gardening to figuring out how to license our camper to …

So we called Ed the plumber. He came that same day. His son tackled the back, Ed tackled the laundry (and turned off the water with one swift twist of a valve above the hot water heater — oh yes, I saw that!). They were here for 25 minutes. And my bill was $118.

That’s a $20 trip charge (I don’t actually mind paying them to drive across town — I’m a business owner, it’s only fair). And something for “supplies” (probably about 20 cents for three washers). And so I figure the Stupid Tax for not doing it ourselves was about $98. Ouch.

I had the same sensation after Ed replaced our kitchen faucet, which in turn led me to repairing a rotted-out J-pipe under our bathroom sink by myself (a fix that is working perfectly). Believe me, Ed (or any other representative of Plumb-istan) will not be returning to our home unless the matter is dire.

But I’ve rationalized the expense. Now I know where the water shutoff is. Now I know for sure that yes, a leak just needs a washer — or it’s sure as heck first a try at first.

And I suppose it’s another of the hidden costs of home ownership — that doggone Stupid Tax.

Eco-quandary: When is enough, enough?

I’ve been working hard on our eco baby steps around here. I got several gasps of alarm at the no-TP move, but that’s really a drop in the bucket (or toilet) in terms of waste. I realized this especially on Sunday afternoon, when I was madly re-organizing the basement.

I wound up throwing out two 13-gallon bags full of things like Styrofoam — and to boot had two bags of trash this week instead of one, totaling 7.4 lbs.

I’ve been weighing our garbage a la the 90% Reduce program, and the last couple weeks we had about 4.5 lbs. of garbage for the week. But we also hand over a three-quarters full recycle bin every other week. Last week we had a big bundle of branches left over from trimming our tree in the spring (although many of the branches have been re-purposed into garden fences, trellises, tools and playthings for Little Cheap).

It’s all discouraging. Yes, I could possibly recycle Styrofoam by driving 35 miles away to a recycling center that will accept it. But I have only so much time in my life. I just can’t do it right now. I’ve been trying to save water, but in doing one project I turned on the hot water flow to my laundry sink — and now it’s dripping constantly, so I’m collecting that water for flushing while I look for the time to call the plumber to come fix the leak because I don’t have the time to figure out how to do it myself.

Therefore, in an effort to cheer myself (and those of you who might find yourselves in the paragraphs above or the list below), here are the activities my family does to save the environment — and many of them save money, too. Perhaps one will give you a new idea — or if you want to hear more about any in particular, just ask.

Saves Money?
Hang laundry to dry Yes – $6/month
Do not accept plastic bags Yes – bag credits – $1/month
Mr. Cheap takes the bus to school Yes – bus pass free with tuition; saves parking
and gas
Compost waste Yes – no buying purchased garden fertilizer
Recycle waste No
Turn off lights we’re not using Yes – $2/month if we save an hour a day with a
60-watt bulb
Turn off water while rinsing/brushing Yes – minute
Use high-efficiency washing machine Yes
Dishwasher – full loads, water saver, turn off
dry cycle
Yes – over regular dishwasher load
Use cloth handkerchiefs Yes – $1/month on tissues
Use cloth napkins Yes – $1/month on napkins/towels
Bring own water bottle Yes – $5/month on purchased drinks
Make own foods (less packaging) Yes – $5.81 in June
Buy bulk products & refill Sometimes
Wash and re-use plastic bags Yes
Grow our own vegetables Yes
Drive gently to get better mileage Yes – $10.93 in June
Use re-usable lunch bags Maybe
Use re-usable juice box container Yes
Bring re-usable coffee cup No
Use low-flow toilets and flush less Yes – $0.22 in June
Choose EnergyStar appliances Yes
Add low-flow showerhead and faucet aerators Yes – minute
Get books/movies at library instead of buying/renting Yes, lots
Use evaporative cooler, not A/C Yes
Use programmable thermostat to turn heat down
at night/when gone
Yes
Use bio-friendly soap No
Clean with baking soda & vinegar Probably
Bought recycled rubber rug pad instead of new No
Eliminated subscriptions (1 newspaper, 10 catalogs,
3 companies)
Yes – $3/month on the paper
Buy many items used Yes – $122 in June
Recycle, Freecycle, consign, donate instead of
trashing items
Yes – tax deduction for donations
Choose “cleaner” energy-using appliances Yes
Switch to compact fluorescent bulbs Yes – $1/month in our case
Use natural light instead of electric Yes – minute
Invest in “social” funds No
Use cloth toilet “paper” No
Use cloth pads Yes – $1.25/month
Buy organic and/or local foods No
Turn refrigerator temp from factory-set 38 degrees to 43 degrees Yes – minute
Unplug my officer copy machine Yes – minute
Attach TV/DVD to a power strip and turn them off Yes – minute
And the grand total saved per month: $160 in June

It’s a drop in the bucket, but at least it’s something. Onward and upward! Or maybe, in terms of consumption, that should be onward and downward.

Dealbusters: Recycled-content toilet paper

Natural ValueLast week we looked at to TP or not to TP. Now, I’ll introduce my toilet paper chart, in which I compare the eco-friendly and cheapo-friendly toilet paper options here in Denver, Colo. These are sorted by cost per square foot of toilet paper. Your mileage may vary.

  Cost Quantity Cost per roll Sheets per roll Cost per sheet Square feet per roll Cost per square foot Notes
Seventh Gen
1 ply –
Amazon bulk
$43.56 48 $0.9075 1000 $0.0009 117.1 $0.0077
Seventh Gen
1 ply –
Vitamin Cottage
$0.99 1 $0.9900 1000 $0.0010 117.1 $0.0085
Kirkland $15.69 36 $0.4358 425 $0.0010 53.1 $0.0082 Bleached; individually
wrapped in
plastic
Seventh Gen
– King Soopers
w/ coupon
$1.39 4 $0.3475 260 $0.0013 32.5 $0.0107 This became a great
deal with online $1
coupon; can print 2
at a time
Natural Value
– VC
$1.59 4 $0.3975 250 $0.0016 31.3 $0.0127
Seventh Gen
12 – Vitamin
Cottage
$9.65 12 $0.8042 400 $0.0020 50.0 $0.0161
Seventh Gen 2 ply
– Vitamin
Cottage
$0.99 1 $0.9900 500 $0.0020 58.5 $0.0169
Whole Foods
365 – 24 pk
$8.00 24 $0.3333 180 $0.0019 19.7 $0.0169
Seventh Gen
– Gaiam
$96.95 96 $1.0099 500 $0.0020 58.6 $0.0172 Claims to have twice
as many sheets per
roll as regular TP
Seventh Gen
4 – Vitamin Cottage
$3.49 4 $0.8725 400 $0.0022 50.0 $0.0175
Green Forest
– VC
$1.75 4 $0.4375 198 $0.0022 24.8 $0.0177
Seventh Gen
– King Soopers
$2.39 4 $0.5975 260 $0.0023 32.5 $0.0184
Seventh Gen
2 ply – Amazon
bulk
$52.95 48 $1.1031 500 $0.0022 58.6 $0.0188
Whole Foods
365 – 4 pk
$3.00 4 $0.7500 360 $0.0021 39.3 $0.0191
Seventh Gen
– Whole Foods
$12.00 12 $1.0000 400 $0.0025 50.0 $0.0200
Cloth $1.00 1 yd $1.0000 35 $0.0286 9.0 $0.1111

Cost per roll winner: Whole Foods 365.

Cost per sheet winner: If you can handle the single-ply paper, that’s by far the cheapest option — even beating out Costco/Kirkland pricing.

Cost per square foot winner: If you’re a two-ply snob, the deal I nabbed on Seventh Generation on sale with a coupon was very good. Next best is “Natural Value” paper from Vitamin Cottage. And from there the costs keep easing upward.

I was surprised to find that ordering in bulk from Amazon – 48 rolls at a time – was no dollar-saver. Even buying 96 rolls at a time from Gaiam costs more per roll and per square foot than picking up a roll when you need one from Vitamin Cottage.

The moral of the story is that yes, it costs more to go green for your tush, but better deals can be found. Shop around and you can save almost half the cost — even on recycled-content toilet paper. (Or use cloth bought on clearance – it’s going to shake out to be the very, very cheapest.)

Photo is lovingly borrowed from the Virtual Toilet Paper Museum. They seem to be even more fascinated by toilet accoutrements than I am.

Weekly Wrap-up: Gas with a conscience, Million-dollar TV and the state of the garden

Juliet tomatoesGot gas? Check out this socially conscious gas guide: http://moneyandvalues.blogspot.com/2007/07/socially-conscious-gas-guide-part-1.html

Got a TV? Give it up and you’ll net $1 million — or so this article posits: http://biz.yahoo.com/ts/070712/10367373.html?.v=4&.pf=banking-budgeting

CucumberGot a garden? We do, and pretty soon we’ll be eating out of it. That’s my prize cucumber at left, and I expect some ready for pickling in another week or so.

Actually, I exaggerate — we’ve already harvested a few things:

  • Sugar snap peas – These have been and gone. Yum.
  • Scallions. We’ve not bought scallions since spring.
  • Strawberries – a whole bunch. Almost a dozen — but I only planted them in June.
  • One beet.
  • One turnip.
  • Two okra pods (and one of the two okra plants is going great guns now that we’ve pulled out the peas that were shading it. Trust me, growing okra in Colorado is no small feat.)
  • About six white onions are aging on the patio; we can start using these next week.
  • Parsley – all we can eat.
  • Basil – we’ve made one double batch of pesto and we’re ready for another one.
  • Collards – nothing like fresh bitter greens to, um … give you vitamins. (The collards belong to Mr. Cheap.)

Here’s the tiniest baby watermelon (at the right) … And no, I don’t know why the pictures won’t fit in my post. Sorry.

Watermelon

Give yourself credit: Why I bought my refrigerator (on credit)

refrigeratorIn May, I made a $900 impulse buy. But as it happens, that “impulse” was well thought-through.

The back story

Our house came with an older, off-white refrigerator that froze foods on the top shelves and leaked a river at the bottom. It stuck out 6″ into a narrow walkway, and from the living room, all you could see was a wall of white refrigerator.

We live one block from the grocery store, so we bought a small (9 cubic feet) refrigerator that matched our décor and our budget, but didn’t hold much. We figured it would be OK because we could go shopping more often.

As it turns out, I don’t like to go to the store more than once a week. And the little fridge wouldn’t level completely. Periodically, one of us would open the door only to have a jar of pickles tip out and smash on the ceramic tiles.

The beginning of the decision

Earlier this year, we talked about getting a new refrigerator. But to fit in our kitchen without further compromising the already-narrow walkways, we needed a counter-depth refrigerator.

Counter-depth refrigerators often cost upward of $1,800, allegedly because their cooling elements are internalized, making the appliance shallower. We decided we might have to go for it, and planned that later this year we would think about saving up for one.

The fateful day

In May, we were at Home Depot. I suggested we walk through the appliance department to see what they had there. Lo and behold, someone had returned a counter-depth black refrigerator with French doors on top and a freezer drawer on the bottom. Because it was “scratch and dent” (it did have a hairline scratch along the back of one side), it was on clearance for $885.

I wasn’t planning on spending cash we didn’t have right then. But saving $1,000 on something we were thinking of buying this year seemed like an awfully good deal. I came home, measured our kitchen, researched the product, and looked up a delivery service that could pick up the fridge the next day (the store wouldn’t deliver since it wasn’t at their warehouse).

The breakdown

Charging the purchase (it came to around $950 with tax) set us back on paying off our lone credit card — but only by a month or so. At our 12.24 percent interest rate, that month will cost us $10. Our total savings, therefore, on what we anticipated spending is still somewhere between $800 and $1,000.

If we stay in this house, we’ll have a new refrigerator (with an estimated annual energy cost of $43, according to EnergyStar ratings). The energy use is 94 kilowatt hours per year more than our old fridge (480 vs. 386, at more than twice the capacity), but we should about break even by unplugging the mini fridge (estimated at 100 to 150 kwh per year) we used for backup.

If we move (not in the works now, but you never know), we can either take the refrigerator with us or leave it to add about $1,000 in equity and appeal to our kitchen.

Was it worth it?

Overall, I’m pleased with the deal. We sold our old refrigerator for about what we had paid for it, which covered nearly one-third the cost. I wonder if I should have used emergency funds on this purchase rather than charging it — but for $10, I don’t think so.

A caveat: This charge-it-by-the-seat-of-your-pants strategy should only be used if you know you’re able to pay off the charge quickly. If you’re making minimum payments, not able to pay on time or worried where your next $20 is coming from, don’t do it.

And the reason I knew this was a good deal was that because I knew this purchase was coming up, I’d been paying attention to prices for several weeks. That made my impulse buy not really an impulse buy — just a bit of a surprise.