Making green preparations for Thanksgiving

We are going to be hosting Thanksgiving this week, and yesterday, we were at ye olde Bed Bath & Beyond again, looking for some tray tables.

Tray tables are exactly the kind of purchase I love to hate … too expensive and not attractive, but I know we will get a lot of use out of them. We have been looking at secondhand stores for probably a year, so we threw in the towel and bought new. I did price compare online, and BBB had the best deal, especially with the 20% off coupon thrown in. (We also bought a Christmas gift, and yes, they allowed us to use multiple coupons!)

The store, of course, was a madhouse yesterday! Per square foot, it was more crowded than Costco, where we also stopped yesterday.

The holidays are coming, and many Americans feel the temptation to buy all new things and decorate so life is beautiful. Our household is in no way exempt from this desire.

But when I looked at napkin rings and saw that many of them cost $5 to $10 each … for inexpensive pieces made in China or India … I thought that we can surely do better. I took a breath, moved away from the beautiful luxuries, and thought about what I can do at home.

First, I took a second look at this article about bringing a green spirit to Thanksgiving. (Full disclosure: The Green Parent published the article from a news release I helped a client write and distribute.) I have been thinking about centerpiece ideas, and I think the idea about using autumn items to craft a centerpiece is a great one. Besides, it will give us something to do during commercials.

When we talked about napkin rings, we realized we are swimming in beads and wire. I’m hoping Little Cheap will sit down and work with us to make some napkin rings to decorate the tables. If you are crafty, you could knit some napkin rings from yarn, or get uber-crafty with wire and beads.

As for napkins, check out discount stores for cloth napkins if you haven’t got any. We received napkins years ago for Christmas, and we’ve updated our stash, each year or two demoting the fanciest to “daily” because we aren’t fanatical about getting out stains. I saw this article, too, where comments mentioned stitching worn-out sheets (the nice parts, obviously) into formal napkins.

For other items — from candle holders to serving dishes to that extra ottoman — check out your local secondhand store first to see if you can recycle something. Sure, you might still have to buy something new, like our tray tables, but at least it’s worth a try to save a few bucks and a tree.

How are you planning to have a greener Thanksgiving?

Save with old gift cards at Brookstone

Brookstone e-mailed me this week that they will take any old gift card (from another retailer … in any amount) and turn it into 15% off your purchase.

I wish I had known this when I bought the item that put me on their mailing list. But if you are looking at buying one of their luxurious, $1,500 massage chairs, you could save a fortune.

This is a great opportunity for those really old cards … like the one my daughter has left over from a toy store purchase, with a balance of $0.98 on it.

One could argue, however, that smacks of desperation — so you would be wise to be cautious about buying new gift cards from this retailer.

Here’s the original notice they sent to me:

How I got a new Dyson vacuum for $92

Around our house, Mr. Cheap does the vacuuming. For about a year, he has bemoaned the poor suction and general overall lack of wonderfulness of our Dirt Devil vacuum, which I purchased three years ago in a split-second decision at KMart on moving day, when the cleaning ladies looked like they weren’t going to show up.

Then, this summer, I added a dog that sheds to our household. Did I mention that technically, Mr. Cheap is allergic to dogs? He can touch the dog with his hands, but if he gets the fur on his forearms, he gets hives. Isn’t he nice to let me adopt this guy?

So when Mr. Cheap said he would like to have a Dyson vacuum for a Christmas gift, even if it was the only thing he received from all members of the family combined, I could see his point.

But I felt a little bad thinking a vacuum cleaner would be his only Christmas present, and even more so thinking that we might not even get it together to manage it.

So I came up with a plan to get a new one for $92 net. Here’s what I did:

  • Researched models and prices and found that $400 is typical. This just might be worth it with the 5-year warranty on parts and labor that Dyson offers.
  • Pricked up my ears when my sister mentioned that the Bed, Bath & Beyond coupon for 20% off does apply to Dyson vacuums. That saved $80, bringing the price down to $320. (And I always thought you could only use one BBB coupon at a time, but the woman in front of me was handing in a stack — one per item, but multiple coupons per visit — so that technique might be worth a try.)
  • Turned in my Visa Rewards points for gift cards to Bed, Bath & Beyond. We do a lot of spending on credit cards (to be paid off each month … but be careful that this strategy doesn’t get out of hand!) just to accumulate rewards points. I had 20,000 points that converted to $200 in gift cards. That brought my total down to $120, or $145 with tax.
  • Paid for the vacuum with my American Express Blue Cash card. This will give me 2% back on my cash reward at the end of the year (another $3, bringing it down to $142), and it will give me another year of warranty coverage.
  • Transferred the amount of the vacuum from my new ING Checking account, which soon will be receiving a $50 bonus that can help pay for the vacuum. ($142 minus the $50 bonus is $92.)

And there you have it. With a few months of planning and scheming — and all those saved-up credit card rewards — and we get a premium vacuum cleaner for the cost of a basic one.

The old one? It is better than nothing (truth be told, in my opinion it works all right, but who am I to complain about my husband doing the vacuuming?) so we will donate it to another family.

Now I just have to hope he doesn’t stumble across the ginormous box during the next month.

Frugal kitchen: Make your own broth

This is a kitchen-oriented addition to the Dealbusters series that checks out whether something that sounds like a good deal — or takes a bit of extra work — will really help your budget. We’ll look at cost and benefit — with everything filtered through individual experience. Please chime in with your take.

How many recipes within your shelf of cookbooks include the ingredient “broth” or “stock”? In my experience, many soups, braised vegetables, and grains call for — or benefit from — the rich flavors of broth.

And yet from cost and environmental perspectives, using all that broth can be a whopper. Bouillon cubes (the fallback of my childhood) can be laced with too much sodium, MSG and other needless ingredients. And packaged broth comes in Tetra-Pak containers that, at least in my area, are not collected by municipal recycling and require a special trip — one that most of us are unlikely to make. To add insult to injury, packaged vegetable broth typically costs about $2 per quart.

What if you make your own?

Making your own stock is no big deal. Things you will need:

  • A large pot.
  • A stove.
  • A colander.
  • Quart-size containers for storage in the freezer.
  • Vegetables, old or new (see below).
  • An hour or two of your time.

Ingredients

Basically, you can put whatever you want in stock. The basic ingredients are:

  • Carrots (about 2 large ones)
  • Celery (about 4 stalks)
  • Onion (a big one, chopped in quarters, skins and all)
  • Parsley (a few good stalks)
  • Thyme (fresh or dried)
  • Black peppercorns
  • Water

If you have saved carrot peels, potato peels, onion ends or other miscellaneous ingredients in the freezer, adjust your ingredients accordingly.

Some people like to add garlic for spiciness; ginger for an Asian infusion; various vegetables, from potatoes to whatever else you have on hand; or a variety of meats.

Be aware, though, that:

  • Garlic can make stock bitter or spicy.
  • Brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, greens) usually don’t do a stock any favors — they taste strong and bitter.
  • Turnips can put serious peppery spice into your stock.

Adding meat (or meat-like flavor)

The “right” stock tastes great in a recipe, but if you don’t have beef stock on hand and instead you use vegetable stock, the world won’t stop turning. Therefore, we usually make veggie stock to keep on hand for all purposes.

However, if we buy chicken, I buy it on the bone so we can use the bones for stock later. You can freeze the bones (be generous with what meat you leave on the bones … it makes cutting easier, too) in a container — they will keep for months.

Other meat bones — mainly beef — are also good in stock. With any bones, place them in the pot (still-frozen is fine) with the other ingredients.

If you want rich flavor — say, for French onion soup — without the meat, you can roast your vegetables before preparing the stock. Put chopped veggies on a pan, drizzle with oil, and roast in a 400-degree oven for 45 minutes or so, turning and watching that they brown deeply, but don’t burn. The resulting stock will be deeper and richer.

Start your burners …

  • Throw everything in a large pot, fill with water, cover and bring to a boil. Then, turn down the heat and let the stock simmer for about an hour. Any longer, and it will start to develop a stronger flavor that you might or might not like.
  • Strain the stock into another pot or a large bowl using your colander. Used vegetables can go in the compost pile. Bones should go in the trash.
  • Salt the stock lightly to taste, if you wish.
  • Allow the stock to cool. Set the pot or bowl in a sink full of cold water. In the winter, we put the lid tightly on the pot and set it out on the back step overnight.
  • Pour the stock into quart-sized containers. If you use Mason jars, don’t forget to leave room at the top so they won’t crack. I use plastic, square quart containers because I like that the stock block will slide out into a pan to finish thawing.
  • Freeze the stock. (Sometimes I label it with a masking-tape label so I remember which is which.) If you keep it in the refrigerator, boil it every couple of days or it will go bad.

The cost breakdown

For my basic organic veggie stock, the savings over organic Tetra-Pak stock is 84 percent — a cost of $0.32 per quart for homemade stock.

**UPDATED** – click here to see a brief spreadsheet explaining the nitty gritty of my cost calculations.

Gift cards – buyers and holders beware

We’ve all seen the “for lease” signs that show a business has gone down. “Going out of business” can indicate a great sale, but it turns out that those left holding gift cards for a business that declares bankruptcy are left holding a worthless piece of plastic.

This week, several media outlets have reported on bankrupt stores whose bankruptcy agreement declares that gift card holders can’t use those cards after the store files for bankruptcy.

If you give gift cards at the holidays, you might be wise to give cash this year. Alternatively, you can buy a Visa, Mastercard or American Express gift card, but those all involve fees to the buyer.

And if you have gift cards in your wallet? You would be smart to spend them ASAP. Maybe even use them to save a few bucks and do some of your Christmas shopping. After all, if they’ve been sitting around for a year, perhaps you’re not that desperate to shop at that store – right?

If you have leftover gift cards, useless gift cards or take your empty gift card back from a retailer that doesn’t reuse it, you can try this idea for turning gift cards into coasters. They also can be reused as ice scrapers, dish scrapers, or made into guitar picks, earrings … or perhaps you have some inspiration to share below!

My new favorite dish soap

mmm, soap.

mmm, soap.

My birthday is in September, and this year, a few weeks after the event, my dear cousins sent me a box of fantastic gifts: a set of small Williams-Sonoma dish towels (how did they know the towels I received as wedding gifts 13 years ago are getting a bit extremely shoddy?), along with big refill-sized bottles of Williams-Sonoma’s dish soap, hand soap and lotion in “Winter Forest” scent.

The scent is a very strong piney smell with a bit of mint and cedar, from essential oils. It smells lovely for the fall and winter. Mr. Cheap loves it.

The soaps are biodegradable and packaged in recycled plastic bottles.

But I have saved the best for last: With this soap, our dish rags no longer get that nasty, mildewy, disgusting smell that makes Mr. Cheap and me fight over whether to use a dish rag (stinky in a matter of hours with our old dish soap) or a sponge (not PC, but at least I can throw it in the dishwasher, and it dries out and doesn’t smell).

I normally would say I wouldn’t ever spring for a dish soap that costs this much. But now I’m starting to wonder.

Apparently, ours is not to wonder why … the dish rag smells disgusting. Ours is just to wash and dry — with this yummy new soap.

Now I can’t wait until my bathroom hand soap runs out so I can fill up that container, too.

Snapfish photo book creation deadline extended

If you, like me, signed up for the free photo book coupon, but didn’t have time this weekend to get the book together, take heart: You now have until Nov. 22 to make your book.

Apparently, all the demand has made their computers super slow. Their loss is your gain — and the company encourages us to make albums in the late morning or early afternoon on a weekday.

Happy photo-booking!