Weekly Wrap-Up: Best cars and last of the red-hot ‘maters

squashOn the Web: MSN Autos released its annual Top 10 of the most fuel-efficient vehicles. No surprise: The Prius ranked No. 1. See the rest of the list here.

On the shelves: Part of our butternut squash crop. All told, we wound up with 15 squash. Their average weight is about 8 lbs. This has led Little Cheap to seek out the produce section at the grocery store in order to mock their squash’s miniscule size. I pointed out that not everyone wants or needs an 8-lb. squash.

This morning was a glorious day: The last time I have to peel and seed paste tomatoes for this year. I processed 8 lbs. of Juliet tomatoes for our last batch of tomato sauce (about 15 cups). We use a recipe from Cooking From an Italian Garden. The recipe would be easy, except that we don’t own a food mill, so I go through the tedious (and finger-stinging) process of cutting an x in the butt of each tomato, dropping it in boiling water for a few seconds, swishing it out, peeling off the skin, and squishing out the seeds as best I can. We did once own a food mill, but I think it was defective, and we got rid of it. Does anyone else own a mill? How does it work for you?


Of course, that’s still not the end of the tomatoes. We have a basket full of ripening Juliets, and a big basket full of green Better Boys. Some of those are trying hard to turn red already.
green tomatoes

But the gardens have been put to bed. With last weekend’s snow came our first (and only) killing frost so far. I spent about four hours on Saturday pulling out tomatoes and squash and eggplant and basil and bagging up the uncompostable (tomato vines and powdery-mildew infested squash vines). For the first time this year, we had bags and bags of garbage to set out. I envy Seattle’s yard-waste recycling program.
Perhaps best of all (well, except for the delicious beets we pulled), one neglected spot in the garden yielded this:


That’s right – peanuts, grown right in our Colorado backyard. These came from a single peanut plant we purchased last spring at Paulino Gardens. It’s a variety cultivated to grow in New Mexico, right next door, so we thought we’d try it. In the spring, we were overambitious, and the poor plant was cruelly crowded and shaded and nearly strangled. But it still made some peanuts. This morning, Little Cheap talked us into eating the peanuts in the single-bean shells. They were in a beautiful pink skin, like Spanish peanuts, and tasted very sweet, with a beany aftertaste. I’m saving the rest to plant next year, now that they are acclimated to Colorado — and I will give them more room to grow!


Eco-quandary: Staying warm and saving energy

Last weekend, we in Denver had our first snow of the season. Sunday and Monday were downright chilly (although Saturday was in the 70s, and we’re expected to get there again today).

Our home is a 1950 brick bungalow-style. Despite new windows and a hearty layer of insulation in the attic, that old brick gets very cold. The walls are frigid in winter, and the cool seeps through the house.

I work at home, and I’m one of those stereotypical women with seemingly no circulation to my outer extremities. As I type this, it is 72 degrees outside. The inside thermostat is set at 68. And my toes are numb and my fingernails are literally blue. (I’m not in shorts and sandals, either — I’m wearing socks and sneakers, chinos, a t-shirt, a light wool sweater and a jean jacket.)

So, keeping warm is a challenge. All the more so when I take energy efficiency into consideration.

Crunchy Chicken has set up a “Freeze Yer Buns” challenge for those inclined to join with others in turning down the thermostat. There’s no way I can top her group, just because of my physical nature. But this fall, I’ve been spending some money and time coming up with a game plan for this winter:

  1. Personal warmth. Last year, I bought a long-underwear top. This fall, I invested in some silk-blend long-underwear — another top and two pairs of pants that can fit under my regular pants.

  2. Fingerpicking. Remember the spinning-wheel hobby? I am spinning some baby alpaca yarn (super soft — if you’re a texture buff like me, find some to touch!) and plan to knit myself some fingerless gloves that I can wear even while working on the computer. Problem is, this might not happen until after I finish my Christmas-gift knitting.

  3. Program the temperature. We have a programmable thermostat. It’s set to 60 at night, and I am thinking about moving it to 55. During the evening, it’s set to 68. During weekend days, it shoots for 66.

  4. Default to low. Our thermostat is set to keep daytime temperatures at 60 degrees. Is this comfortable for me? Absolutely not. Therefore, most days I wind up pushing it up to 68 or so. But I like keeping it set low in case I’m not home — I don’t have to worry about forgetting to turn it down.

  5. Heat what you use. Last year we used space heaters in our bedrooms at night to cut the chill. They have two benefits: You heat only the area you sleep in, avoiding the furnace coming on; and our wind-power electricity is a “cleaner” energy than our natural-gas furnace. We did use less gas than the year before in December, January, March and April. But our electricity use skyrocketed compared to the previous year — by 17 percent in December and a whopping 92 percent in March! Ouch!

  6. Cut the watts. This year, I hit a buy one-get one sale at JCPenney, where I also had a 20 percent off coupon for the day, and bought electric blankets for our bed and Little Cheap’s bed. Our plan is to primarily use them to preheat our beds (because I have been known to climb between the sheets, wearing two layers of clothes and socks, and start shivering pitiably). When it’s really cold, we’ll leave them on low. I hope the added, immediate warmth will make it easier to turn down the heat further. The energy advantage? Our space heaters use 600 kilowatts per hour on low, or 1,200 kilowatts for two. The electric blankets use around 100 and 200 kilowatts per hour respectively — a 75 percent cut in our energy use.

  7. Work out. This was a reliable strategy for me last year, and it has health benefits to boot. If I hit the gym in the morning for a good aerobic workout, my body temperature is raised enough to keep me warm until 1 p.m. or later. At last, a good use for the heat that turns my face an unattractive red every time I exercise!

How low do you go? What are your heat-conserving strategies?

Blog Action Day: Save Oil AND Money With Driving Techniques

It’s Blog Action Day – a day for bloggers all over the Net to focus on environmental topics. And with oil hitting a record high of more than $86 per barrel today, let’s talk about saving gas.

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while. In the meantime, I wrote an article on this subject with a client, so I’ll let the article speak for me (and give the client a little publicity!). These are the basic techniques we use to save several miles per gallon, so drive them all the way to the (green) bank.

October is National Car Care Month, and it’s the perfect time to check up on your vehicle before winter conditions set in — and to make some changes that could save you money at the gas pump this month and in the future.

While vehicle mileage varies from 50 miles per gallon and up for the latest hybrids, to the single digits for some super-thirsty SUVs, vehicle owners do have some leeway in determining just how efficient their vehicle is. Consider these suggestions to slake your car’s thirst — and at the same time put some extra money in your pocket.

1. Take it easy. Aggressive driving — accelerating as fast as possible, keeping your foot on the gas at every moment and hitting the brakes hard when you need to stop — burns through gas. In fact, recent tests by the driving experts at Edmunds.com revealed that driving more moderately can improve gas mileage by up to 37 percent. This means taking off from a stop at a moderate pace, driving slower (say, the speed limit or below), and giving yourself a long braking distance so you can slowly come to a stop. You’ll be safer, too, and if you aren’t speeding you eliminate the risk of a ticket — which will save you some more money in the long run.

2. Switch it off. Don’t idle. If the vehicle will be stationary for more than a minute or so, turn off the engine.

3. Lighten the load. Take a look inside your trunk. If you’re carting around your husband’s bowling ball, your son’s hockey gear and your dog’s kennel, clear out the car to reduce your weight and improve mileage.

4. Check it out. Follow the vehicle’s recommended maintenance schedule. A well-maintained car — especially one that has regular oil changes, fuel filter changes and air filter changes — runs more efficiently and safely.

5. Cruise. Do use cruise control to maintain your speed and eliminate unnecessary acceleration. But if you’re driving in hilly terrain, turn if off, as it wastes gas powering up slopes.

6. Pump it up. Inflate tires to the recommended pressure (check your owner’s manual). This makes the ride smoother and smooths out gas mileage. More importantly, it extends the life of the tires and improves control and safety, which will save plenty of money in replacement tires and avoided medical and insurance bills.

7. Fresh air or A/C. Whether you open the windows or turn on the air conditioning, you will lower your gas mileage. But the net effect is about the same, so do whatever makes you comfortable (but not both).

8. Fill it to the brim – but not beyond. Don’t “top off” your gas tank after the automatic gauge stops. Chances are, you’ll spill gas — wasting money and creating a hazard.

9. Park in the shade. In warm weather, parking in the shade decreases gas evaporation and gives you more time between fill-ups.

10. Skip the rush. If possible, avoid driving during rush hour. Stop-and-go driving sucks up gas. If you must drive during rush hour, look into alternate routes that keep you moving at a slow but steady pace.

11. Just say no. Of course, the best way to save on gas is to avoid driving. If your company offers a bus pass or carpool program, take advantage of it. For an even less expensive way to commute, look into bicycling to work — you’ll get your workout and your commute at the same time.

With a few changes, drivers can enhance their mileage — and in many cases, improve their safety on the road at the same time. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!

— Andrew Housser, Bills.com

Based in San Mateo, Calif., Bills.com is a free one-stop online portal where consumers can educate themselves about complex personal finance issues and comparison shop for products and services including credit cards, debt relief assistance, insurance, mortgages and other loans. The company blogs about consumer finance issues at http://www.bills.com/blog. Since 2002, Bills.com has served more than 30,000 customers nationwide while managing more than $500 million in consumer debt. Bills.com is a division of Freedom Financial Network, LLC, whose co-founders and CEOs, Andrew Housser and Brad Stroh, have been named Northern California finalists in Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year Awards.

Give yourself credit: Do you have life insurance?

Remember that sentence you read way back when in that one financial planning book about being prepared for contingencies … and how you promised to go buy life insurance that minute?

And how then you went to a movie and — oh, was that eight years ago already?

This past week, the father of an acquaintance of ours passed away. We were told that what the family needs now is money, because he didn’t have life insurance. With burial costs averaging $5,000 in the United States, not having insurance means, at a minimum, you’re going to cost your family if something happens to you. Worst case, if you have dependents, their lives are going to become very difficult without your income.

We have inexpensive life insurance through TIAA-CREF (and no, they’re not paying me to write that). At least when we purchased the policies, they had great rates. How’s the coverage? We haven’t died yet, so I don’t know, but it is a solid company.

TIAA-CREF also offers a calculator where you can try to determine how much insurance you need. A rule of thumb for income replacement is about 60 percent of the insured’s income is needed. For our family, we considered having the ability to pay off the mortgage important, because that would make that much of one salary unnecessary. You also might want a college fund for your kids or to pay off any outstanding debt.

People often debate whether life insurance is needed for a child. One agent suggested to us that if you don’t have the assets to pay for a child’s funeral should the unthinkable happen, you might want to have an insurance policy. Most likely, you’ll never need it. But if you did, the last thing you would want would be to have to write a check to Visa every month for years to pay for your child’s funeral.

The younger and healthier you are, the less expensive insurance costs. Buy a renewable policy that will carry you through your kids’ childhoods, at least, so that you know you are covered for twenty or thirty years. By the time you’re no longer supporting a family, life insurance is less necessary. The process is relatively painless — provide some information and, usually, undergo a short medical exam, often at your home. Go do it now — before you forget about it for another year.

Econ-quandary: How rich are you?

If you’re reading this in the U.S. (or Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, where most of my readers come from), chances are you’re really rich. To find out the specifics, visit the Global Rich List site, which will tell you how you rank among the world’s wealthiest people.

Apparently, our household is in the top 1 percent of households worldwide. That makes us something like the 47 millionth-and-some richest people. The specifics are news, but the concept isn’t. I often think how utterly privileged we are that we can take a hot shower anytime, have loads of food piled around our house and a grocery store a block away where we can buy whatever we want, a furnace, three times as many rooms as residents in our house, and a car to drive us all over town.

Take a minute to think of how much you have — even when it feels like you have nothing. Then find a way to distribute a little bit of that to somebody who needs it.

Weekly wrap-up: Far away Disney and close-to-home farms

Save on going to Disney World: Free Money Finance did a lengthy (for him, not for me ) post about this on Wednesday. I especially loved the ParkSleepFly tip – although we aren’t far from our local airport, I’m going to file that away for return trip options.

The Motley Fool published a short piece on the cost of going organic with a link to Local Harvest, which can connect you to a local CSA. It inspired me to try again to find a CSA (so far, the ones near us have no space available and/or I can’t get in touch with them). Good luck to you.