More bread on the Web

This must be a fine week for bread on the Web. In addition to my own post yesterday about Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, I came across two other relevant posts to make your home-baked bread the best it can be:

  • Down to Earth featured a tutorial and recipe for making basic bread. She bakes one beautiful loaf Down Under.
  • And if you have questions — from “Why are there yellow streaks in my loaf?” to “Why is my bread so small?” — TipNut has answers.

My comments on a couple of TipNut’s tips:

  1. Their responses assume you have fat in your dough, but fat isn’t necessary for good bread. It is included in certain doughs to make them richer and smoother, but it’s not mandatory.
  2. If you are concerned about your yeast, “proof” some yeast in a bit of warm water with a sprinkle of sugar. Mix well and let it sit for 5 minutes. If you see activity, your yeast is probably still viable. If it looks exactly the same after 5 minutes, buy new yeast.
  3. You can keep yeast in the freezer to prolong its viable life.
  4. Use a thermometer to check what “warm” water feels like. Most people say you should use water about 100 degrees Fahrenheit to activate yeast. This might be warmer than you think. Check the temperature formally with a thermometer until you know it well enough to recognize the right temperature on your fingers or wrist. (It depends on your temperature, too — my hands are always freezing, so sometimes 100F feels very warm to my touch.)

And more info regarding yesterday’s bread recipe:

  • A couple of commenters mentioned that they’ve made same-day bread by mixing up a batch, letting it rise for 2 hours, and then baking up part of it.
  • One person asked, “Why not let the bread rise in the pan in a cold oven?” — instead of letting it rise on the counter and preheating the pan in the oven. The answer to that is that part of the beauty lies in the cool risen dough landing in the hot, hot lidded pan. When the bread goes immediately into a hot oven (in a hot pan), it quickly activates  its last burst of rising, making beautiful bubbles and holes in the bread. Also, going into a hot pan (with a lid) traps the steam from the dough inside the Dutch oven, which helps the crust become chewy and crunchy. In turn, that crunchy crust helps hold moisture inside the loaf, keeping it moist. Together, this creates a perfect chewy, crusty loaf of bread. The processes of putting a steam pan inside the oven and spritzing a baking oven/loaf with moisture are designed to achieve the same result.
  • Someone also asked that I direct readers to the Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day Web site. That site was linked a couple of times in the post, but for easy reference, here it is again! Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day – they have errata on the site, and you can subscribe to their blog for updates and new recipes.

And that bread at the top? That’s a new loaf I baked yesterday morning … after my big dog apparently couldn’t resist the aroma and ate the remaining half loaf I baked on Tuesday while the dogs were left alone for a few minutes. Back to the crates for the dogs, and back to the oven for us!

Do you have other tips? Did you whip up a loaf last night? Let us know.

Wrap-up: Save money with DIY, organic coupons

Some good ideas around the Web this week for saving money and living naturally:

Real Simple’s money-saving March

Wise Bread wrote about some of the ideas in this month’s issue of Real Simple for saving money. Some of them don’t seem very frugal to me (there’s absolutely no way I would consider meat that costs $5.99 a pound a “bargain,” especially if it’s not even natural/organic), but others are worth a look.

Cheaper oil change

If you’re interested in the tip from the article above about changing your own oil, Mother Jones has the lowdown on exactly how to do it. Note the caveats on cost and waste disposal.

I’ve never changed my own oil (honestly? I just reaaallly don’t want to), and I do believe in changing the oil every three months or 3,000 miles, approximately. (The vehicles I’ve owned and always followed the scheduled maintenance have been virtually failsafe.) I use coupons from the e-book or similar coupon books to cut costs. But most often I go online to (my car manufacturer’s site), where for the price of free registration, we regularly get coupons for money off or discounted services. Often, we can find a coupon for a $15 oil change. Recently, I got a coupon for 15% off any service — which saved me $200 on a major maintenance-and-upkeep session in December.

Organic Grocery Deals site

I recently came across this site, Organic Grocery Deals, which offers searches and a forum for finding good deals on organic groceries. I haven’t used it yet, but it looks like it might be worth exploring.

Less lumpy laundry

If you’re trying to convert to more natural ways of doing laundry, but still using the dryer, the issues of static cling and fabric softening are sure to come up — whether in your own concerns or in conversations with your mother, neighbor or grandma.

We’ve long gone without fabric softener in our household — family members have some skin allergies that don’t get along with it. I really don’t notice any difference in terms of softness.

Ways to eliminate static cling and soften your clothes in the dryer include:

  • Traditional dryer sheets. Don’t use them! My stepmother uses them to repel mice from her trailer — a sure sign that they could be a little bit toxic. Wise Geek explains it well:

There is some concern among certain groups over the use of dryer sheets, as the chemicals they contain are known carcinogens. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved their use in dryer sheets based on the assumption that chemicals passed from clothes to the skin would not and do not penetrate the skin. Many believe this to be an outmoded notion, pointing to treatment “patches” such as the nicotine patch, which relies on chemicals passing through the skin to be effective.

  • Fabric softener in the wash. No no no. Same exact issues as dryer sheets — except you are pouring the chemicals into your wet laundry to be absorbed before being heated and set in the dryer.
  • Reusable anti-static sheets and/or baking soda and/or vinegar in the wash — These are natural alternatives to the chemical sheets and liquid, for freshening and odor resistance. It’s not clear to me what is in those reusable sheets. As for the baking soda and vinegar, I felt that vinegar left a bit of an odor on clothes … and really, the soap and water seem to get our laundry “fresh” enough. (Ask yourself, really: How “fresh” do you need to be?)
  • A ball of aluminum foil. This is the option I use. Aluminum foil is resource-intensive to produce. However, I use a sheet of foil every once in a while, and reuse it whenever possible. It’s also highly recyclable. I took a good-size chunk of foil, balled it up, and threw it in the dryer. It does seem to dramatically reduce static cling. I have used the ball over and over for at least a year — although I do hang out laundry sometimes. If it needs refreshing, I can recycle the old one.
  • Wool dryer balls. Some people swear by these to soften laundry in the dryer, although I’m not so sure about their static-fighting aspects. If you’d like to make your own, find a tutorial here. You can also find them made by individuals and for sale on or other online sites. They can be reused again and again, and theoretically could be composted at the end of their life.

Easy upcycled contemporary photo frames …

made from jars. Hoorah, a use for those random jars that might, just speaking purely hypothetically, fill up an entire milk crate in the laundry room of some people’s houses. (Not mine. I only keep useful items. Ahem.)

They look cute, and they’re easy to change. I can imagine a color copy of a photo in a jar being a great way to personalize a gift of some homemade bean soup mix or similar, too. In a big jar, you could squeeze in a pair of knitted gloves or a scarf, with a photo card showing through.

Amazingly easy, incredible bread – and cookbook GIVEAWAY (winner named – see 3/19 post)

I own a cookbook that has a recipe titled “Best and Easiest Home-Baked Bread.” The recipe has you mix up a starter and let it sit 2 to 8 hours; make a sponge and let it rise 4 to 8 hours; knead more flour into the sponge to form a dough (by hand, mixer or food processor); let that dough rise an hour; turn it out into a bowl or basket so the loaf can rise; heat the oven to 500 degrees and put cornmeal on a baking stone; slash the loaf — and bake. The next time you want bread, do it again.

Don’t get me wrong. That makes a good loaf of bread. But I think I’ve REALLY found the easiest and best way to make the easiest and best bread — not to mention pizza, sweet rolls and other things I haven’t even discovered yet.

My new method is a hybrid of the no-knead bread I wrote about last year, and the methods described in the wonderful cookbook Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. The latter has all the information you need to make many different varieties of bread, from bialies to whole-grain to sweets to … you name it. Honestly, I haven’t delved completely into the book, because I have been hung up on the perfect bread.

Read to the end to win a free, autographed copy of “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day”!

Where the melding comes in is in the baking process. Artisan Bread in Five calls for you to put the loaf on a stone, spritz the oven, etc. Those steps make for a great bread, and for a special loaf I’m willing to do them. But for every day, I find all those steps so time-consuming (and likely to burn my clumsy hands) that years ago, I gave up and started buying my bread at Costco.

But by combining the two, I haven’t bought a loaf of bread in weeks and weeks.

The only caveat: You must mix it one day and bake it on another day. The days don’t have to be consecutive, but you do need to give the dough time to grow.

Here’s how to do it:

Mixing day:

1. Get a container that can hold several quarts of dough. This is a 2-gallon plastic container with a lid, from Wal-Mart. I contemplated using a glass jar (perhaps my old pickle crock that has no pickles in it), but the dimensions of this one mean it takes up little space in the fridge.

Add ingredients as follows:

  • 3 cups of warm water
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons of yeast
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt
  • 6 1/2 cups of flour. The recipe calls for all-purpose flour. I usually bake bread with bread flour, which is a higher-protein flour that typically makes longer strands of gluten. And I like a little bit of whole-grain tooth. For this recipe, I’ve generally been using 1 cup of whole wheat flour (ours is stone-ground and quite rough), 1 1/2 cups of bread flour, and 4 cups of all-purpose flour. Experiment with mixtures you like.

(The book describes a mnemonic device to remember quantities: 6-3-3-13. That stands for {*EDITED* to be correct! Thx Jessie!} 6 cups of water, 3 tablespoons of yeast, 3 tablespoons of salt, and 13 cups of flour. HALVE this for one batch of dough … or make a huge batch in a bigger container.)

2. Stir up the ingredients until everything is damp. If you live in a dry climate and your flour seems exceptionally dry, add a little bit more water (a couple of tablespoons). Don’t worry about being super thorough — overmixing isn’t necessary. This should take about 2 minutes.

3. Put it in the refrigerator. Overnight is good. A full day is great. Up to a week or two should be OK. This is what it will look like after it’s been chilling and rising:

Baking day:

1. Get the dough out of the fridge. You’ll want a nice, peaceful, nonstick surface for your dough to rise on. I like to use a Silpat mat — it is nonstick, nontoxic, reusable, heat safe, and flexible for easy dough-dumping. (I got mine 10 years ago at New York Cake & Pastry, which is stamped on the mat, making them a useful souvenir of my time cooking in NYC.) If you don’t have a Silpat, you can use the counter, a towel or a small plate or cutting board.

2. Dust your rising surface with a good coat of flour. Any kind will do.

3. Pull off a hunk of dough. Again, the book gives fabulous guidelines: A piece the size of a grapefruit is about a pound. A piece the size of a cantaloupe is about 1 1/2 lbs. I use a piece probably closer to 2 pounds — the size of a really big cantaloupe, or maybe a somewhat petite honeydew. The book suggests cutting the dough; mine usually tears easily and doesn’t require cutting.

Set the dough on the floured surface. Flour your hands. Shape the wad of dough into a round loaf just like this:

4. Cover the dough with a towel and let it nap for a while. How long it rises will depend on how warm your kitchen is. An hour is sufficient if it’s warm (75-80 degrees and up). My kitchen is usually freezing (60-62 degrees), so I leave it out about 2 to 3 hours.

5. About 25 minutes before you want to start baking the bread, put your covered heatproof pan in the oven and turn the oven on to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. (My pan is a Williams-Sonoma covered cast-iron Dutch oven skillet that my co-worker Jill, God bless her, gave me in 1992.) I like to put the pan in the oven when I start the bread rising, long before I turn the oven on; otherwise, I am prone to forget it and just heat the oven sans pan. We leave our pizza stone in the oven all the time, so that’s the surface that you see under the pan.

6. When the oven is preheated, uncover your dough. It doesn’t look too much different — just a little bit taller, softer and more refreshed after its rising “nap.”

7. I bend the edges of the Silpat around the dough to shake as much flour close to the dough as I can to minimize the mess. Take the pan out of the oven (careful! It’s SO hot) and remove the lid. Carefully dump the dough into the pan. What was the bottom will be on top, with some rough edges showing. That’s OK! It will all work out in the end.

8. Bake for about 30 minutes. Then open the oven, take off the lid, and let the bread keep on baking for about 20 minutes longer. (Notice how those rough edges have made a gorgeous crown on the bread.)

9. It comes out of the oven brown and amazing!

10. Gently (and carefully!) tip the bread out of the pan and let the bread cool completely on a rack.

12. Slice it and enjoy the texture. It should be moist, chewy and crusty — perfect for toast, sandwiches or just scarfing down with butter. (For the butter, check out this post.)

Please note that it has probably taken you almost as long to read this post as to make the bread!

Tip: For breads with a firm crust like this, you don’t even have to wrap them up to store them for a day or so. Just set them with the sliced edge down on a clean cutting board and slice as needed.

What else can you do with this dough?

The short answer: What do you want to do?

So far, we’ve used it for:

  • Sandwich bread. Instead of forming a boule, stretch the dough into a rectangle, about 8″x10″, with your hands. Roll it up from one short end and place in a greased loaf pan to rise. Bake (by itself at 375F, or pop it into the oven with the boule) for about 40 minutes. Knock on it to see if it’s done — if it sounds hollow, it’s ready. Brush the top with butter or oil before or right after baking if you want a non-ashy finish.
  • Pizza. Mr. Cheap is a champion pizza maker, and this dough makes the best (and easiest!) pizza dough ever. No starting dough after work (even though that is fast). Just grab a lump from the fridge, roll it out flat, top it and pop it in the oven, either on a pizza pan or using a peel and sliding it onto a stone.
  • Little rolls from the last bit in the container.

  • Baguettes — stretch the dough into a rectangle, roll it up from the long side, pinch the bottom together, elongate the ends and let rise in a baguette pan. Slash the top (I think I forgot with the ones in the photo!) and bake at 450F for about 25 minutes. (For this one, because the steam won’t be trapped inside the Dutch oven, and a crispy, firm crust is necessary, I did use a water bath in the bottom of the oven. The steam helps form a hard crust and seal moisture into the loaf. Fill a metal pie pan with about 1″ of water and place it on the bottom rack when you preheat the oven.)

  • And of course, I made the pecan rolls from the book. They’re as good as they look!

Then what do you do?

This might be the best part: When you use up the last bit of dough, you … start again.

No washing the container. No scrubbing little bits of sticky bread-dough goo out of the bowl, out of your sponge or brush, out of the sink.

And on about my fifth batch, the container has begun to develop a faint, wonderful sourdough aroma. No-hassle sourdough? That’s phenomenal! Just begin again with the ingredients, mix it together, and wait for your dough to get more and more delicious.

(but please note: If you forget your dough, or your container with dough in it begins to develop any suspicious colors, aromas, etc., please do wash and sanitize the container and start ALL over.)

The only drawback?

I’m afraid we’re spoiling our 7-year-old and creating a bread-snob monster. This week, I found a loaf of store-bought sandwich bread in the freezer and brought it in to use up in toast and sandwiches. Yesterday, her lunchbox returned home with what looked like her sandwich … minus the innards — just the two half-slices of bread resting neatly together in her box, the cheese gone from inside.

“What’s up with the bread?” I asked. “You didn’t like your sandwich?”

“The cheese was good,” she answered. “But the bread … I really didn’t like it. It was neither warm, nor crusty.”

So parents, beware — but I think the price is worth the suffering.

Enter the giveaway

The Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day cookbook includes information on how to make a same-day loaf, rye bread, bread with nuts, seeds or other goodies, whole wheat bread, corn bread, flatbreads — and a lot of great-looking recipes using those doughs. It also includes all the details you need to bake perfect bread yourself.

Want a copy? Leave a comment below by the end of the day Wednesday, March 18, and you’ll be entered in the random drawing to win a free, autographed copy of the book from the authors, Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois! Be sure to include an e-mail address, either in your login or your comment itself, so we can contact you if you’re the winner!

Thrift SCORE!

Do you ever find such amazing things at the thrift store that you’re just dying to share?

I’ve had a few of those experiences lately. They include books at the St. Vincent De Paul for $1.49, then marked half off …

A men’s Calvin Klein jacket, brand-new condition, for $4.99:

The yogurt maker, large Crock Pot, and brand-new games scored at Goodwill recently for 80% off retail (don’t have photos of those).

This copy of “The Complete Joy of Homebrewing” for $2, complete with notes, additional recipes and loving homebrew splatters from the previous owner:

(we have our first batch of beer brewing as I write — watch for a post on homebrewing coming up)

This cookbook found at Goodwill on Saturday (watch for some experiments based on its contents!):

Then there are gently used shoes … I’ve purchased a pair of Keen sandals for Mlle. Cheap [note the new name: now that she is nearly 8, she finds “Little” offensive] for $2 (retail: $50) and recently bought a pair of child-size Doc Martens, the de rigeur footwear of my youth and an orthopedic classic, for $3 (retail: $60).

And I’ve saved my happiest score of all for last: I’ve been needing to replace a pair of clogs that I’ve worn extensively for two years. They go on sale periodically for around $50. But a couple of weeks ago, I stopped in at a new Goodwill on a whim and found these Danskos instead, for $4.99 (retail: $115).

They have white scuffs on the toes … which is something I always do to my own shoes anyway. If I get into a not-so-lazy/busy phase I’ll go find the shoe polish and cover it up. They are brown AND black, which is perfect for my wardrobe. And best of all, I’ve always wanted to try this brand, but didn’t want to spend that much when I wasn’t 100 percent sure they would be comfortable. (The verdict: They are comfortable after all!)

All of these finds are especially thrilling because I’ve been concerned recently that the growing popularity of thrift stores would mean declining quality in the goods therein — but not so, thrifty friends.

What are your favorite thrift “scores”?

Coming right up on Cheap Like Me …

I’m juggling a super busy life this week, so I’m slow in posting, but I have a lot of great things on tap for you in the near future.

  • Making your own bread – easier than ever.
  • An update on life with the Diva Cup reusable menstrual cup, 8 months down the road.
  • Revisiting the world of yogurt-making.
  • How Costco (or other warehouse club) memberships pay for themselves.
  • Is making your own beer cost-effective? And does it work? (We just started our first batch last night.)

If you have topics you’d like to see me write about, now is the time to put in your requests!

In other news, I’m also working toward putting this blog on its own domain in the next few weeks, which will hopefully add some more flexibility, features and general beauticiousness.

Meanwhile, I Twittered three great deals from around the Web this morning. Click here or click on the link in the right-hand bar to follow me on Twitter.

Friday wrap: Cabin fever, gentle cleaner, cheaper tax deals

This week brings a group of heading-to-spring posts, from beating cabin fever, to gearing up for spring cleaning, to saving on the spring ritual of filing an income tax return.

Eco cleaner for marble and other scratchable surfaces

If you’re interested in cleaning with natural products, you probably know the most popular drill: Baking soda and vinegar! But what if you’re cleaning something fragile? Something that could scratch easily? Baking soda, after all, is quite abrasive. Fortunately, TipNut slides to the rescue on a soapy, eco-friendly cloth with a recipe for homemade granite cleaner. The cleaner also is appropriate for marble, acrylic, wood, ceramic tile and more. And it probably smells nice.

Beat cabin fever – on the cheap

Some of you are likely counting down the days till spring. Yes, we see you, there with the notches carved into your headboard, counting down until March 21 … or possibly June, depending where you live. Save the day with this list of six frugal ways to beat cabin fever. I have a few other things I think help, too:

  • Invite friends over. Someone who can make you laugh can make a day sail by.
  • Hit the thrift store for some new games or movies for entertainment.
  • Go hang out at the library. Read magazines or pore over a stack of decorating books, even if the only redecorating you plan to do is change your sheets.
  • Organize. If you can work up the mood, you can spend hours on a project like filing or organizing photos, cleaning out a closet or sorting through your pantry stash. Vindictive emotions can be vented as you toss, shred and compost the unneeded bits. You’ll be exhausted at the end, and satisfied by a nice clean closet/cabinet/file drawer. (Caution: If you are the type of person who won’t finish the job, don’t dive in all at once. Start little by little, in 15-minute segments, so you don’t end up with a big mess on your hands … that lasts until spring.)

Planning for taxes

If you haven’t filed taxes yet (that would be … most of us), Bargainist posted some deals on tax preparation software. Before jumping in to buy tax prep software, do be aware that you might be able to file online for free, depending on your situation. And even if you’re getting a deal, double check prices. I bought my TurboTax at Costco, after price checking (even with coupons and offers) at Intuit, OfficeMax and Office Depot.

Make your pet more frugal

A post I published last week mentioning frugal fitness garnered a couple of comments that getting a dog is not a frugal choice.

Of course, we make many decisions in our lives that are governed by more than frugality. At least, I hope so.

But the facts are in, and pet ownership certainly is not cheap. This chart prepared by the ASPCA shows the rundown. I don’t yet have pet insurance, which it lists as a cost, but annual vet exams and vaccinations more than make up the difference for my two dogs (one large, one small). Additionally, there are other unanticipated expenses: Our big dog just had his teeth cleaned (he’s a rescue, and they were awful), and the little dog has allergies that require him to take daily medications. Little dog had a growth on his ear that needed lab testing, and big dog has fatty tumors that will, undoubtedly, lead us to other lab expenses.

There are ways, however, to make pets more affordable:

  1. Buy the best, cheapest food that works for your pet. Free Money Finance (which often writes about how costly pets are) just posted about pet food. The comments provide some additional information. One of our dogs eats the formula that seems to work best for his allergies and digestion, which is a medium-expensive brand from PetSmart. The other eats Kirkland Ultra Premium dog food from Costco. Compare costs by ounce or by pound to find the best value. But don’t sacrifice cost for price — you’ll pay in irritability, weight gain, a not-so-shiny coat, allergies and/or excessive amounts of poo. And no one likes poo.
  2. Avoid wet food. It’s more expensive, can cause bad breath, and doesn’t clean the teeth like dry food does.
  3. Brush their teeth. Just as with our own teeth, an ounce of prevention is worth several hundred dollars’ worth of dental cleaning. Nothing like a little beef-flavored toothpaste to get that brush in the mouth. (Unfortunately, I find it as hard to remember this as to remember my own flossing regimen — but fits and starts is better than nothing.)
  4. Get care at a discount. Simply Thrifty mentioned that this month is National Pet Dental Health Month, so many dentists are offering discounts on cleaning. Call now to get in. She also mentions dental schools for human dental care. I wonder if vet schools offer similar bargains?
  5. Go no-groom. Frugal pet owners will choose a pet that doesn’t require professional grooming, which can run around $200 per year or more. Or, learn to do the job yourself.
  6. Go smaller … but not too small. The smallest dogs are expensive to care for because they can have health issues. Big dogs are expensive to care for, too — and they eat more food. Plus, a dog on the small side will cause less wear and tear on household furnishings, and require smaller (and thus less expensive) beds, toys, treats, collars, leashes and crates.
  7. Forget status. A rescue dog or shelter dog costs less to adopt than a pedigreed pooch. Cats at a shelter are extremely inexpensive to adopt (around $25 at our local shelter, and they sometimes come buy-one-get-one-free). An older pet might have the bonus of already being spayed or neutered (the procedure costs $100 to $300 typically), perhaps (hopefully!) have been trained, and will likely have outgrown the puppy or kitty crazies that drive animals and owners to destruction/distraction.
  8. Crate train your dog. Train the dog to stay in a crate or confined area when you are away. You will gain peace of mind, and in terms of dollars and cents, you will avoid the costs of replacing furniture, rugs, clothing and toys that could be destroyed by a rampaging pooch — or just worn out faster by a pup jumping on and off the couch a thousand times a day. Plus, you might avoid a vet bill after Fido or Kitty eats something he shouldn’t have.
  9. Spay/neuter – and shop around. In addition to avoiding unplanned litters of “grandpets,” the ASPCA also mentions that spaying and neutering animals dramatically lowers their incidence of breast, ovarian, uterine and testicular cancer. Many municipalities offer low-cost spay/neuter clinics and low-cost vaccination clinics. Check the yellow pages in your area, call the Dumb Friends League, or inquire with your pet licensing authority for recommendations.
  10. Keep their weight healthy. Just like humans, pets’ health suffers if the animal is overweight. Unlike humans, pets are at the mercy of owners who can control the pets’ weight by changing the amount of kibble they eat at each meal and eliminating unhealthy snacks. Ask a vet about your pet’s ideal weight and keep him or here in the ballpark. Most pets like a bit of fruit or veggie for an occasional treat — find what your pet likes and what agrees with his/her system, and keep other snacks low-fat.
  11. Track health conditions. Some conditions like fatty tumors (or lipomas) are common, could be worrisome, but generally aren’t. If your pet is prone to them, get the vet’s initial rundown on their safety. Then make a “map” of your pet, mark where existing lumps are located and write down the approximate size. Check the pet every so often and compare to your “map” to be sure any lipomas aren’t growing.
  12. Compare prices. Human pharmacies fill pet prescriptions, according to this article. I haven’t tried this one yet, but with my dog that requires chronic medication, a quick price comparison shows that filling his prescriptions at the Costco pharmacy could save $126 dollars a year, cutting 53 percent of what I’m currently paying the vet. I think I’ll bite the bullet next time a refill comes up and ask the vet to write a prescription.

Please chime in with your tips, too. Stay cheap … but please, allow us to love our furry friends.

Some (sort of) good economic news

Everywhere you turn, the news is loaded with sludge: We’re in a recession. Is it a depression? Nobody knows … but it’s bad. We’ve lost 25% to 30% of the value of the stock market. Our home values have declined. Unemployment is up.

A common descriptor is “the worst recession since the Great Depression.” The problem is, that comparison makes many people jump to the conclusion that this is as bad as — or the same as — the Great Depression.

But let’s take a glass-half-full approach. We’re still much wealthier than most people in the world. In 2007, the average world income was $7,000.

Still, only about 19 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with per capita incomes at least this high. Countries with an average income near $7,000 include Mexico, Chile, and Latvia. They rank about 40th in the global income table.

Now vs. Great Depression

Want to compare life now to the Great Depression to get some perspective?


  • Unemployment stands at 7.6 percent.
  • 13.6 million Americans have lost jobs during the past year. U.S. population is nearly 306 million. Those job losses have hit individuals comprising 4.5 percent of the population (not counting the families that depend on them.)
  • 37 million Americans live below the poverty level. (This is about 12 percent of the population in 2007.)
  • The Dow Jones Industrial Average is at about 7,600, down nearly 40 percent from 12,350 one year ago.
  • 24 banks failed in 2008; 13 more have failed thus far in 2009.
  • All failed banks’ holdings are insured by the FDIC up to $100,000, and with temporary hardship measures, up to $250,000. Consumers experience a lot of hassle, but do not lose their money.

Not fun. But as bad as the Depression? Nuh-uh.

During the Great Depression:

  • The unemployment rate was over 23 percent in 1932 and 1933.
  • 13 million Americans lost their jobs from 1929-1932. The U.S. population in 1932 was nearly 125 million. Individuals who lost jobs comprised 10 percent of the population.
  • In 1929, more than half of Americans live below the minimum subsistence level.
  • Industrial stocks lost 80 percent of their value in 2 years.
  • In 1933 alone, 4,000 commercial banks failed.
  • Bank failures resulted in losses of $1.3 billion to Americans. FDIC insurance was put in place in 1934. (This would be equivalent to about $13 billion today.)

Other numbers to watch out for

Similarly, recent job loss figures were accompanied by dire noises that they were the worst job losses since the end of World War II. But let’s think about it: World War II ended. The men came back from war, and the women went back home (mostly), resulting in a great loss of employment. Munitions and aircraft factories shut down, ending more jobs. And the U.S. population in 1945 was 132 million, or about 43 percent of what it is now. Take a deep breath.

If you want to know more …

A recent article on the Financial Post blog takes a look at why things might not be (or feel) as bad as they’ve been touted:

A wise adviser to President John F. Kennedy, Arthur Okun of Yale, devised the “misery index” to gauge the pain of economic crisis — a measure that simply adds together the unemployment rate and the inflation rate. It hit 22% in June, 1980, during an inflationary recession that preceded the Fed’s disinflationary squeeze of 1981-82. The misery index was nearly as bad in January, 1975, at 19.9%.

Assuming inflation was close to zero this January, the misery index would have been roughly the same as the unemployment rate, or 7.6%. By this standard, we have a very long way to go before the economy feels nearly as miserable as it did in 1975 or 1980.

What’s next?

Could things get worse? Oh, yes, and just today, stocks have fallen based on worries that the situation is declining.

Worry, in a sense, is at the heart of the problem. The credit crisis (here’s a primer) is the problem’s “lungs” — without credit, our economy can’t breathe.

The Cheap family is doing OK, although Mr. Cheap’s job as a teacher doesn’t feel as secure as it did six months ago (school districts around us are cutting staff because of budget shortfalls). I’m a freelancer, so I have several streams of income; losing a large one cut my monthly income by a third last fall, but at least I still have work. Most friends who have been laid off have found new positions, while others are hanging on. And of course, we live in Colorado, where conditions are among the best in the nation.

Meanwhile, however, take a deep breath, do what you can, share what you have, and hope and work for the best.

And feel free to share how things look in your neck of the woods.

Get thee to the garden!

Garden season is nearly upon us. Have you started plans? Plants?

Last year, I wrote a tutorial about creating newspaper pots to start seedlings. This year, I spotted a list of other DIY seed-starting pot tutorials on Green Daily, too.

We haven’t started much around our house other than plans. We did so well with our CSA membership that we anticipate that will provide most of our vegetables this year. I don’t think you can beat organic, local, affordable, and easy to pick up.

The fabulous news about this development? It frees us up to grow what we WANT to grow. Instead of trying to grow all my tomatoes, all the squash we can eat, and greens galore, we are going to focus on things that are fun to do. Last year, we wound up being busy, the weather was uncooperative, the dog ate all the green beans, and Brussels sprouts that grew all the way to just about full size wound up being so intensely infested with aphids at the last minute that they were disgusting. As a matter of fact, their hideous wilted yellow stalks are still standing at the edge of the garden now, as if to bear testament to our Brussels-sprouts-growing hubris.

What to do this year?

I am admittedly sad about my apparently inability to grow Brussels sprouts. But they take up a fair amount of room, and I’ve tried to grow them at least six times without ever eating a sprout, so they aren’t going to go on my wish list this year.

We have a few plants on our wish list, things that are not likely to show up in our CSA box:

  • In the spring, a few radishes and maybe small carrots, and sugar snap peas.
  • Okra – delicious fried or in some Indian dishes. I have several techniques for growing this in our Colorado climate, and I’m proud to say my okra usually turns out great. (I realize that this pronouncement dooms the crop this year.)
  • Tomatillo – Mr. Cheap loves the sour salsa it makes.
  • Lettuce – for early spring/summer salads before CSA deliveries get going in June. We are hoping to make a cold frame, too, to keep it going into the winter.
  • Leeks – If we have more space available, we might try some leeks, which take about a year to mature (or did the last time we grew them, a decade ago).
  • Tomatoes – A perfect heirloom tomato, a cherry for snacking, and some paste tomatoes to put away for the winter. We just need to figure out how to make all the paste tomatoes *ripen.*
  • Cucumbers. I’m going to return to my old cucumber patch and put up the tilted fence lattice that worked so beautifully in 2007, growing so many cucumbers that I pickled my little heart out and finally sold the leftovers at a yard sale (they were the best sellers at 70 cents each). Mr. Cheap loves his dills, Little Cheap is starting to like them too, and I like my bread-and-butter pickles, plus my sister might need a refill on curry pickles.
  • Haricots verts – These slim green beans were so good last year, I’m going to try again in a dog-safe area.
  • Strawberries. I hope these will expand — we might even add some more. And we need, again, to add fencing to keep the dogs from eating the berries.

I might consider making a better/larger mint patch. We have a few plants (planted in pots in the ground — mint is terribly invasive!). But my daughter drinks a LOT of mint tea, and it would be great to grow more for our use. I also would love to grow chamomile, but I have never successfully germinated it. Maybe this is the year to buy a plant.

And in our efforts to make life a bit more sustainable, we keep coming across new ways to help out. This post on growing loofahs (or luffahs) is intriguing — I’m not sure if our hot season here is long enough, but it bears some investigating.

What NOT to do?

This year, I vow NOT to grow certain things:

  • Brussels sprouts. Obviously.
  • Broccoli and cauliflower. They take up too much room, and they come in our CSA box.
  • Beets. Maybe. Although I might grow some to pull as babies and pickle. I do love beets, but we get many huge ones from the CSA.
  • Kale. Collards. Mr. Cheap tends to go crazy with these, and they last in the garden forever.
  • Squash. We might grow one plant and feel free to eat the flowers. The CSA also delivers a lot of squash — I still have several in my laundry room.

What else is on our agenda?

The big plan is that we are scheming to make over our back yard this year. Mr. Cheap needs a good spot for his forge for his blacksmithing hobby. And we need a way to keep two dogs out of the garden.

We have a long driveway that runs the length of our property. It was probably installed with the house in 1950, and the concrete is about 2″ deep with no reinforcing rebar. The bad news is that the concrete is badly chipped, cracked and spalled. The good news is it will be relatively easy to remove. We are planning to rip out some driveway to make room for the apple trees we planted last year — they currently live in holes quickly gouged out of the cement when we found the trees on sale for $10 each.

Then we are hoping to install a patio where the driveway was, and build a nicer, fenced-in garden with raised beds. We have a source for endless horse manure, which we hope will combat the dense clay of our neighborhood, which in this case will have been compacted by the driveway. Mr. Cheap wants to make over our back shed into a shop (the walls currently aren’t really attached to the ground, and they are made of plywood that is weathering badly) and build a pergola over the pad where our hot tub used to be for his forge area.

We hope these improvements will make the yard more functional for us, while maintaining or increasing our home value. Sound like a big plan? It is. For that reason, this will be the perfect year for us to think small in the garden.

If you want to think REALLY small — or you are just craving a way to grow something fresh and green NOW — check out this tutorial on a “garden in a bowl” — growing sprouts with no fuss or muss.

What’s planned for your garden this year?

How do you save your money?

This post over at Get Rich Slowly has drawn a lot of “me too” comments and a lot of flack for the idea being stupid. Intrigued? The guest subject pays her bills, then if she has any extra, she shuttles the money right into a savings account so she isn’t tempted to spend it.

Easy-peasy, right? But how many of us do it? I won’t ask for a show of hands.

I save money several ways:

  1. I have savings accounts set up with ING Direct for an emergency fund as well as Christmas, vacation, my child’s school tuition, summer camps, etc. Mr. Cheap has his own “fun money” account there too. Every month, those accounts reach into my checking account and automatically transfer set amounts into savings. It’s like another bill and I never miss it.
  2. In addition to a basic emergency fund deposit, long ago I started depositing $1 a day into my emergency savings account. Each week, that account pulls $7 into savings. I don’t even notice a transaction of that size. But in the 19 months I’ve been doing it, I’ve effortlessly saved $532, plus another $20 or so in interest over that time. $550 that feels like nothing … isn’t nothing.
  3. I save change in a change jar. When the jar is full, I turn it in at Coinstar. I use the receipt to pay for groceries (the machine is at the grocery store), but then I transfer that amount to my savings account.
  4. I sock away extras. If I get paid for extra work, or sell something on eBay, I transfer the money into savings. We sold some of my daughter’s old toys this fall for big bucks. She got part of it to invest in new toys and her own savings. I put the rest aside to buy her a new mattress, something she really wants.
  5. From my business, I put 25% of each and every client payment into a savings account. I have to pay self-employment tax and quarterly estimated income taxes. This amount more than covers what I need to pay, which means that it leaves a nice cushion for months like this one, when an invoice got lost and a client paid late. Plus, no freaking out at tax time if I earn more one year — I’ll have the extra to cover a tax bill if need be. (When I started out and didn’t yet have a child and a mortgage, I was able to set aside 50% of each check — and at year’s end, paid off my remaining student loans in a lump sum.)

A new tool to try

I’m thinking about adding one more method. I’ve been observing myself using shopping self-restraint lately … and thinking about some big home improvements I’d like to make. I’m thinking I should make note of the small purchases I don’t make — maybe a latte, maybe an item of clothing, maybe a little something at Target — but could probably afford, or would normally buy. Then I could tally up those totals over the week and transfer the amount to an account for fixing up other areas of life. I think it just might provide the motivation to hone my attention to purchasing even more.

I’ve heard of people getting aggressive about grocery savings and then taking the “you saved $xxx today” amount from their grocery receipt and transferring it to savings.

One could do the same thing with thrift store purchases — add up how much you might have spent and pay it to yourself instead.

What do you do?

What are your little tricks for saving money? Share the wealth!