Signs of spring

It’s a gorgeous day here in Denver. Currently 76 degrees, with all the signs of spring — despite a forecast of snow later this week.

The tulips are coming into their glory.


The crabapple tree is just wrapping its flowers up; soon they’ll rain down into the yard.


The baby apple trees are covered with blooms.


Even the cherry tree is trying to get in on the game.

cherry blossom

The strawberries have awakened and are starting to bloom.


The spinach is growing; we ate our first batch on Sunday.


The lettuce is well on its way.


The onions are getting taller.


Even the dog’s pet hippo is out sunbathing today.


It’s hard to believe that in the next day or two, things will be soggy and slushy and dark.

At least inside, life goes on — the seedlings are raising their anemic-looking heads (this is pumpkin and okra and, at the far left, scarlet runner bean).



8 ways to cut costs & impact on vacation

This year, I’m taking a vacation.

Well, to be honest, I’m taking a few.

I know flying isn’t low impact, by any means, and until last week, I hadn’t been in a plane since May 2004. However, I hadn’t seen my dad in a year and a half, and he lives a 14-hour drive away. Little Cheap and I squeezed in a long-weekend visit in April, and rather than spend all our time off in the car, we flew.

To celebrate Mr. Cheap’s finishing three years of grad school, we are going to take a grownups-only trip to New York City. We’re going to walk all day, visit every museum and gallery we can squeeze in, and eat exotic food. Not to mention sleep in and visit old friends.

And this summer, we’re all heading across the country to see the other side of the family, including cousins Little Cheap hasn’t seen in three years, and to let our little Pisces hit the beach. We thought about driving on that trip, but it’s hard to stomach six days of driving for the round-trip, so most likely we’ll fly there, too.

How will we try to minimize our footprint?

  1. Fly direct. I choose this for convenience whenever possible, but this Marketwatch article mentions that planes use the most energy taking off and landing, so you save something (beyond your sanity) by avoiding a transfer.

  2. Carbon offsets. When I purchased tickets directly from Continental, I could immediately link to a site where I could choose one of several carbon offsets to instantly purchase. Talk about motivating! And with airfares skyrocketing, what’s another $11?

  3. Use public transit. When we go to NYC, we will fly into Newark so we can take the Air Train right into Manhattan. It’s easy and, at $15 a ticket, cheaper (and probably faster) than a cab too. We’ll take the subways and buses while we are there, with no need to rent a car. Coming home from Minnesota, we planned to take our bus system’s Sky Ride from the airport back into the city (full disclosure: our plans were derailed by a sick child, and even the shuttle bus system would have taken us nearly 2 hours, and WAY out of our way, so we wound up taking a cab after all). But assuming your health allows, check out your destination’s public transit options.

  4. Rent a smaller car. I’m hoping we can rent a hybrid when we go to the East Coast this summer (I’d love to try one out). Even if we can’t, we’ll rent the smallest car that can accommodate us to try to get the best mileage.

  5. Rent an apartment. In New York, we looked at renting an apartment instead of staying at a hotel, although my timing was too late in the spring “high season.” Renting an apartment is usually more economical (for one thing, you don’t have to eat every meal out). And you aren’t paying for — or creating — the infrastructure of building a special lodging just for tourists. We rented an apartment in Paris seven years ago and did a home swap visit to California two years ago. It’s a great way to travel. Check listings on Craigslist or other ad sites, but remember, buyer beware — be cautious about where you send your money.

  6. Turn things off. I’ve known people who shut their water off when they go on vacation, in hopes of preventing a flood when no one is there. For our trips when we’re all away, I’m going to emulate them and go a step further: Turn off the hot water heater and unplug everything except the refrigerator in an attempt to bring our energy use down to almost zero while we are not living in our house.

  7. Bring snacks. You can’t bring liquid snacks on a plane anymore. But pack your own chewing gum for the ups and downs and bring along granola, homemade oatmeal cookies, chunks of cheese or nuts to give yourselves an energy boost without running up your credit card at the post-security shops.

  8. Make your own meals. If you’re staying in lodging with a kitchen, bring along home-cooked and frozen meals and you’ll save a bundle. Even if you buy frozen pizza or frozen lasagna to make life easy on vacation, a family of three can save $25 a meal over a mid-range family restaurant. Over a week, that’s almost enough to pay for someone’s airfare.

We certainly won’t be traveling this much every year — but I’m not ready to just stay home (and give up seeing most of our relatives) for the rest of our lives.

How do you shave costs — or your environmental impact — when you travel?

Dealbusters: Homemade baked tortilla chips

tortilla chips

This Monday series checks out whether something that sounds like a good deal — or takes a bit of extra work — is a good deal. We’ll look at cost and benefit — with everything filtered through my individual experience. Please chime in with your take.

I’m hooked on nachos. I love tortilla chips, in general. And of course, I always feel guilty about them: Fried, salty, come in a plastic bag.

I’ve bought the “baked” chips, but somehow they tend to have the texture of reconstituted paperboard (perhaps soaked, reconstituted, lightly salted and baked into a semi-crispy cardboardy texture).

Instead, I’d rather make my own chips. With my oven’s convection feature, they take about 15 minutes. They do require a special use of the oven, but baked tortillas also save 5.5 grams of fat (that’s 53 calories or half a tablespoon of butter) per serving over tortilla chips – and that’s if you stop at one serving. They even save calories over purchased baked chips.

How I do it:

  1. Turn the oven on at 350F. If you have a convection feature, fire it up.
  2. Cut corn tortillas into eighths diagonally, or cut them into strips and cut the strips in half.
  3. Spread the tortillas on a rack on a baking pan (you can also just do it on the pan, but Mr. Cheap innovated the rack to make them crispier).
  4. If you like, give them a spritz with cooking spray or oil in a mister.
  5. Sprinkle with sea or kosher salt.
  6. Pop them in the oven.
  7. After about 5-10 minutes, take them out and stir them around. If needed, give them another spritz/salt. Sample one and see how much more cooking they need.
  8. Take them out when they are crispy and golden but not too brown.

You can also stack up several stacking racks for a bigger portion size and stick the whole shebang in the oven.

The cost breakdown:

I usually pay about $2.69 for a 16-ounce bag of chips at the store. More for “baked” chips. These bags contain an alleged 16 servings. For comparison’s sake, I will say that we consume 12 baked corn tortilla chips in a serving (the same number of chips as in a one-ounce serving of a purchased brand).

Ingredients Cost
Corn tortillas – 1.5 $0.11
Cooking spray $0.02
Salt – 1. tsp $0.01
gas (oven) $0.03
TOTAL $0.17

TOTAL = $0.17 for each one-ounce/12-chip serving.

Savings = 26 percent cheaper than baked chips, which cost $0.23 per serving, and exactly the same price as fried chips.

The winner: Homemade, as long as they won’t sit out a long time … that grease keeps ’em fresh, and without it I suspect they would get dry or flabby.

The priceless factors:

Simple ingredients.

Can be as organic as you want it to be.

No plastic bags.

The drawbacks:

Takes some planning. You have to have tortillas on hand and watch the oven. It would be harder to make a lot of chips than to buy a bag.

The verdict:

Worth it. If you want nachos, toss some cheese on and throw them back in the oven. (You can turn the oven off for the melting step.)

But there’s something just not as remarkable about homemade. Wait … I think it’s just that I’m missing that gross feeling from eating too many chips.



Friday wrap-up: Why we pay more; enjoy the recession; recycle more

Here are three four great articles I stumbled across this week.

This blog post examines the reasons we pay more than we have to, from many perspectives. It’s no crime to pay more — but it is a wise idea to make that decision consciously, rather than falling into constant overspending.

This article isn’t a compendium of tips, but it is a thought-provoking (and wry) look at how a recession just might change our consumer-focused society for the better — and maybe let us relax. Read “How I stopped worrying and learned to love the recession.”

And here’s an excellent article and resource list for how and where to recycle a variety of odd garbage. Read “10 things to recycle that you never thought you could.”

Edited: I just saw this one, too — a look at why you don’t have to buy a bunch of stuff to have a smaller environmental footprint.

My only quibble: She says they can’t put in dimmer switches because it’s “expensive if you’re not a do-it-yourselfer.” I haven’t done this task, but looking at the how-to instructions, if you can screw in a lightbulb and put together a puzzle, you can do it! This is not legal advice, but the key information you need to have to change a light switch is MATCH THE WIRE COLORS so you don’t burn anything up. If you run into questions, call an electrician. Since it would take an electrician about 20 minutes (or less) to do this job, odds are it would cost $50 or so to do two switches.

However … do bear in mind that CFLs don’t work as well with dimmer switches (and to have them work at all, you have to purchase special bulbs). So if you’re going to use CFLs in the fixture, skip the whole lightswitch-switching and just change your bulb. That’s definitely an easy fix – and cheaper than the electrician, too.

Buy Nothing update

LegoIt’s nearly the end of April and I’m still hanging in there with my attempt at Buy Nothing month.

I missed the Sunday confession because I was out of town, but last week I bought … uh … plane tickets. But this is the previously planned graduation-celebration trip.

Other than that, I didn’t buy much. We visited the Mall of America, where I was tempted by Lego Harry Potter key chains, but we didn’t buy any out of respect to the challenge. On our whole weekend trip, all I bought was medicine and some water and coffee at the airport after we passed security.

And on Tuesday I ordered a gift for Mr. Cheap’s birthday: Handmade items for his summer hobby, that I could probably have made myself if I’d been able to find the time.

I also bought a few things for Little Cheap’s upcoming overnight field trip that I couldn’t find used on short notice.

That is a lesson from this experiment: It’s somewhat easy to buy things used if you have ample time to search them out. Having time also gives you the option of budgeting for an upcoming event. Something we lose in our society, either through spontaneity or through the idea that we are so busy that no one has time to plan for future events, is the ability to choose to buy used, make your own, make do, etc.

For instance, with my daughter’s field trip, her class takes the trip every year. I believe they even go to the same place, at the same time, which would have the same requirements. A bargain/used shopper could use the supply list early in the year — they could have handed it out as an FYI. Then I could have been looking all year to buy or make the things I had to purchase: rain pants, warm waterproof gloves, and wool socks.

Instead, we received the list a few weeks before the trip, which doesn’t allow for the thrift-store scouring, Freecycle posting, eBay-cruising work so necessary to the buy it used lifestyle — at least not combined with my overworked life at the moment. We lucked into some used hiking boots, but that was it.

I don’t blame the school; most people check the list and go buy what they need. By a similar token, I would not have purchased three bottles of water this weekend if I could bring my own on the plane. I suppose if I’d thought ahead better, maybe I could have brought an empty bottle to fill from a drinking fountain.

These are the rules (airport) and the way our world works (school & birthday gifts) and it’s challenging, indeed, to swim against the tide. I think the challenge is creating some awareness about unnecessary purchases, but mostly I’m just trying to shift my consciousness a little more.

Deals of the Week: Bed, Bath & Beyond and Economic Stimulus Bonuses

We haven’t had a deal of the week in some time, so here are a couple of money-saving tips.

I just heard an anecdote from someone who bought a pricey item at Bed, Bath & Beyond — at a time when she didn’t have one of their ubiquitous coupons with her. The store associate told her to bring back her receipt with a coupon, and they would do a price correction. She did it yesterday, and it worked. So if you buy at BBB without a coupon, don’t despair — return when you’ve got the coupon in hand.

This article in Boulder, Colo.’s Daily Camera mentions that Sears and Kroger are offering a 10% bonus on gift cards if you purchase them with your economic stimulus check. If you aren’t planning to pay off debt right away and can take your savings a little at a time, a $1200 check coming to many couples would net a $120 bonus — a better return than any of the cash-back credit cards people fight to get!

Newspaper pots for Earth Day

potsHappy Earth Day! It was a gorgeous day here in Denver.

I helped with a project this afternoon for my daughter’s Daisy Scout troop, planting bean seeds in newspaper pots.

If you haven’t ever made these seedling pots, they are a great way to start seeds. They recycle newspaper, which adds a carbon (dry) aspect to your garden, and they provide a very gentle way to transplant seedlings — gentle enough that you can even give a head start to plants that don’t really like to be transplanted. When it’s time, you simply dig a hole and put the whole pot in the ground. The newspaper readily decomposes, and the plant’s roots are free to grow as if the pot never existed.

Sadly, I had to tear through the explanation of the project because Little Cheap had a bad stomachache and we had to leave Girl Scouts early. I hope the girls got something out of it, but I’m afraid it was so disjointed they might not have.

Anyway, here’s the play by play for those of you who weren’t at Girl Scouts today — or who saw me as the blur I felt like I was.

suppliesYou’ll need:

  • Newspaper
  • Potting soil & trowel
  • Seeds
  • A bottle, cup, yogurt container or any other cylinder of about the size you want your pot to be
  • Some kind of container (waterproof) that you can set the finished pot(s) in

Time commitment:

  • A few minutes per pot.

How to do it:

  1. stripCut or tear a strip of newspaper about 5″ wide (for bigger pots) or 3″ wide (for smaller pots) and 20″ long (I just cut a strip off the length or width of our newspaper). For bigger diameter pots (3″ or so) I use two strips on top of each other; for smaller pots (1.5″ wide) I use one strip.
  2. Place your cylinder across about half the width of the short side of your paper strip.
  3. Roll the paper around the cylinder to the end of the strip. The cylinder will fill half the width of the roll; the other half of the roll will be hollow.
  4. Fold/crush the hollow half of the roll up to meet the bottom of your cylinder.
  5. Gently remove the cylinder, holding the cup-shaped pot in place. It will be a little – but not too – flimsy and will want to tip over.
  6. Fill it most of the way with soil. Set the new pot in a waterproof container. (In my photo, I’m using old clamshell containers from salad greens.)
  7. Plant your seeds in the soil.
  8. Water and leave in a warm place. If your home isn’t warm this spring, you can cover the container with the clamshell lid, waxed paper, a pan, etc., to keep it warm and humid while the seeds sprout. Keep the soil moist. Seeds will sprout in the dark. Once they have germinated, they need light to grow.
  9. When the seeds have grown to a good size (2-4 inches high in most cases) and you have passed your area’s last average spring frost date (for instance, here in Denver, ours is around May 15, but I’ll generally wait till June 1 for warm-weather plants just in case), you can plant them outside. To do so, dig a hole big enough for the pot you are planting and put the entire pot — newspaper and all! — in the hole.
  10. Water it in well and watch it grow.

This was our technique for last year’s champion butternut squash plants (two vines generated 15 8-lb. squash — and they are still lasting! We have two or three left in the laundry room). Today, I planted this year’s crop: Butternut squash, cantaloupe, pumpkin, okra, peanuts (from our plants last year) — and the scarlet runner beans from today’s Girl Scout activity.

Let us know how you marked Earth Day – and what you’ve got growing for spring.