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 mySubaru.com (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 Etsy.com 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.

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Sign up now for CSA vegetables

Some of us are complaining about holiday debt. Much of the North American population is bellyaching about the frigid temperatures. But for some of us, the worst part of this time of year is opening the fridge and finding that we have to actually go to the store to purchase vegetables.

Sure, we miss the food we grew in our garden. But honestly, between the kale overload, the dog eating all of my beautiful haricots verts, the tomatoes that didn’t get ripe enough, the peanuts that didn’t grow and the Brussels sprouts that (as usual) did not manage to finish their sprouty business before winter arrived, the garden was a bit of a drag.

What we are really lacking is the produce from our CSA, which overflowed our refrigerator from June through December.

That’s because last year, we joined a community-supported agriculture program that supplied our veggies from mid-June to mid-December. We’ve just signed up again, and I hope you’ll think about doing the same.

What is a CSA?

If you’re unfamiliar with CSAs, here’s the rundown. Community-supported agriculture is just as it sounds: The community supports an agricultural enterprise directly. Members of a farm’s CSA arrangement pay a subscription fee for a “share” (or a portion of a share) of the farm’s produce. Some CSAs require members to pick up produce at the farm. Others set up convenient locations where members collect their shares.

  • Farmers benefit from having a predictable income stream, and gaining income that comes in before they have to start purchasing seeds and other supplies.
  • Members benefit from paying ahead for their produce, obtaining local (and usually organic) produce nearly direct to their door. Usually, the price for the share is a fair deal — and sometimes it’s a great deal.

Joining now is a great idea

Ideally, CSA members pay the fee as early as possible, so that the farm can purchase seeds, equipment, hire employees, pay for insurance, and handle all the myriad expenses that go along with growing our food.

In the words of our CSA, Grant Family Farms:

This is a very important time for the farm, for when there is nothing to harvest, we have no cash flow, and with the CSA we have embarked on an attempt to become a sustainable farm model, a new chapter to the history of farming.

Here in Colorado, where our CSA is based, farmers are facing challenges heading into this growing season. Again from Grant Farms:

As you know we took a very direct hit this season with a very angry August hail storm. Thankfully, you all had patience and understanding as the crops recovered for a great bounty in the fall.  To make a long story short, with the hail storm and the devastatingly strong winds in October, blowing much of our corn harvest to the ground, Grant Family Farms had a very bad year and are in need of cash flow to start buying seeds, making payroll, fixing tractors and all that goes into growing food.

This farm is absolutely not alone. In Colorado, 24 counties received a disaster designation following these storms. Tornadoes, dry weather, wet weather and all kinds of unexpected conditions dashed farmers’ hopes around the world. It’s part of being a farmer. And by joining a CSA, you can share the risk — and the joy — of growing and enjoying local food.

What will you get?

We chose a small or half share of produce. Each week, we picked up a large, reusable plastic box (or emptied its contents into our own bags).

Inside we found a variety of items. I detailed our first CSA pickup here. It was our skimpiest; in Colorado in June, without greenhouse conditions, the pickings are slim (most often including lettuce, radishes, possibly peas, and spring onions).

Throughout the season, the selection expanded. In October, the heart of harvest season as Colorado farmers and gardeners hold their breath, hoping Jack Frost will wait, I wrote about putting some of our stash away.

Each week, I would estimate we received around 20 lbs. of produce. Toward the end of the season, boxes were even heavier, loaded down with weighty beets, enormous cabbage and a wide variety of winter squash.

The cost breakdown: Less than $1 per pound!

And we didn’t even receive the peppers and tomatoes we had hoped for, because they were demolished by the brutal hailstorm. Better luck in 2009 is likely.

What can you do with it?

  • Of course, you can eat it!
  • We had extra veggies many weeks, and we happily shared bits and pieces: kale and corn to a neighbor, cabbage and greens to my massage therapist, parsley to my mother-in-law’s bunnies, cauliflower to my knitting group’s fearless leader, and a variety of goodies to our parents.
  • We also put a lot of it away. We cooked and froze cauliflower, sliced corn off the cob and froze it, chopped and blanched and froze spinach and kale.
  • From our basement laundry room/root cellar, we have been gradually working our way through potatoes, cabbage, squash and onions.

What it means for us this year

This year, we plan to grow our own garden differently. We’re going to grow just for fun:

  • The tomatoes we love.
  • A tomatillo for salsa.
  • Some jalapenos.
  • Our fruit trees.
  • Lettuce and radishes in the spring, before the CSA is operating.
  • My beloved okra.
  • And a few things we’ve heard of but never tried.

Join Grant Family Farms

If you are on the Colorado Front Range and are interested in joining the Grant Family Farms CSA, you can sign up here.

They offer all kinds of goodies:

  • 26 weeks of great organic vegetables
  • 5% off every share paid in full by Feb. 28
  • 5% off shares PLUS a free T-shirt AND a free canvas tote bag if paid in full by Jan. 31
  • Full, half and single shares and the opportunity to split shares with a friend or neighbor to accommodate all household sizes
  • Or the opportunity to put down a deposit now and finish paying later
  • A great annual party for all CSA members at the farm
  • Opportunity to purchase meat, egg, flower and fruit shares — or whatever they come up with this year!

I can assure you from our experience this year that Grant Farms has a fabulous, generous spirit. We received unexpected goodies including a bottle of their own wine, a holiday evergreen wreath and samples of fruit preserves from their fruit share partners. YMMV, but it was fun to be surprised.

If you do join Grant Farms, please mention that you heard about them here!

Find a CSA

If you are one of many readers outside this area, and/or if you want to check out all your options, there are many ways to find the perfect CSA near you. Try these avenues:

Some CSAs specialize in staples, some in exotic produce. Some ask you to commit to working on the farm; others offer working shares as an option for those who can’t afford to join.

Whatever option you choose, a CSA is a great way to truly put your heart — and your dollars — behind local agriculture.

Thrift stores won’t be affected by lead-testing law

Good news for those, like me, who have been alarmed by news about new lead-testing requirements from the Consumer Product Safety Commission: As of yesterday, federal regulators have decided thrift-store and consignment operators won’t have to test used children’s clothes for lead.

This is a big relief for people like me who like to buy children’s clothing used — and even more so for those who must do so, and of course, most of all, for operators of these establishments.

The law requiring testing passed last August and goes into effect on Feb. 10. Still up in the air as to how it will affect them are smaller retailers, craftspersons, and people who sell or distribute books — including libraries.

The law’s purpose is to eliminate lead and phthalates from children’s products. So far, so good. Many thrift and consignment stores already do not sell plastic toys because of concerns about contaminates in the plastic. But re-use stores were worried — and small craftspeople still are — that the onerous testing fees would drive them out of business immediately.

But who has heard of a child sickened or killed by a T-shirt? Logically, clothing should be less risky than toys for children, simply because it is less likely to be chewed or sucked on, and because children wear each garment only sporadically (4-year-old boys in superhero costumes excepted).

Thankfully, regulators seem to be coming to their senses. It’s all well and good — and important — to protect our children. But eliminating the trade in used items, making clothing affordable to everyone, and keeping all those briefly worn garments out of landfills, would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Do you have any information or opinions about this issue, or scientific backing to share?

Why to go organic

This morning I came across this guest post on Focus Organic listing 10 reasons to go organic.

It is interesting reading, although I’d love to see the author’s sources referenced.

My biggest reasons are his #1 (pesticides are killers, ergo likely not good for your body either), #5 (protect water from excess pesticides, because they kill living things in the waterways), #7 (organic farms are better for wildlife) and #9 (workers on organic farms are not exposed to scary levels of pesticides).

His #4 is argued by some meat producers:

If you eat dairy or meat products, going organic is essential to safeguarding your family’s health. Traditional, non-organic raised dairy cows and farm animals are fed a dangerous cocktail of anti-biotics, growth promoting drugs, anti-parasite drugs and many other medicines on a daily basis, whether they are sick or not. These drugs are passed directly onto the consumers of their dairy produce or meat.

Many producers say these things are not in their meat products. Many environmentalists believe otherwise.

But I do believe #4 is valid — choose organic meat and dairy whenever possible — because of the fact that some pesticides are fat-soluble, meaning they are concentrated in animal fat. You could undo your organic-produce-eating by absorbing pesticides from conventional meat and dairy.  Because of this situation, the U.S. government actually recommends that consumers trim fat from meat and skin from poultry and fish.

I also buy organic to support farmers who are trying to do the right thing by our health, our planet and the natural order of things.

EDITED: Just after I posted this, I came across this post with a link to a new study that found organic farming can be more productive than conventional methods – fascinating reading.

Why do you — or don’t you — buy organic?

Green (and cheap) your shipping by unpacking plastic

‘Tis the season to send gifts far, far away … and whether you’re shipping a handmade gift to your grandma, a box of donations to children in another country or (we won’t tell) an item so perfect that you averted your green AND cheap mindsets just this once, I ask you to consider your shipping supplies.

Whatever the contents, wherever the destination, whichever the shipping service, think about doing what you can to unpack the plastic and waste from your shipped items.

Padding packages

A couple of months ago, I wrote about UPS and their plastic bubble wrap envelopes. After that experience, I started looking around for more earth-friendly padded envelopes. At first, I thought of those envelopes filled with insulation-like fiber — but the world is awash in complaints about how the paper fibers can get everywhere, ruin DVDs and videos, render outfits unpresentable, etc. And once used, even assuming the recipient is clever enough to pull the opening tab instead of cutting open one end and unleashing the dusty filling, they can’t really be used again, and probably are difficult to recycle. (Although apparently they are perfect for shipping “oily components.”)

Then I found this GreenWrap at Staples. It is imperfect (not recycled), but a great alternative to plastic.

Greenwrap comes in sheets and is a substitute for conventional plastic bubble wrap. Over 75% of the fibers in Greenwrap are sourced from Certified Sustainable Forests and the product is fully recyclable with mixed papers.

I was pleased to see that much of the padding in a gift box I ordered recently from Uncommon Goods was Greenwrap.

I have shipped several items in Greenwrap and a plain 8 1/2 x 11″ envelope – perfect!

Unplastic the tape

What had not crossed my mind until recently was to seek out alternatives for plastic shipping tape. This site — referred to by Fake Plastic Fish, who was promoting a No Plastic Packaging Challenge — looks great, and it’s a good place to order paper packing tape. For good measure, the paper tape is much cheaper than plastic tape. At case rates found online, plastic tape costs 3.7 cents per foot; paper tape costs 0.125 cents (1/8 of one cent) per foot. Apparently, you can buy a case of 24 rolls of paper tape for $5.

To finish eliminating plastic tape, I’ll need to:

  • Handwrite addresses instead of taping on pre-printed shipping labels from sales channels like Amazon.com and Alibris.
  • Using environmentally friendly shipping labels instead of taping on pre-printed postage labels when postage is printed online from eBay or the USPS.
  • Or better yet, just stop by the post office en route to somewhere else and managing postage manually, with stamps or simple water-based, glue-on metered postage.

Reuse

For most readers of this blog, this goes without saying, but reusing any packing material is better than buying new anything else. If you throw away the bubble wrap you receive and run out to buy paper padding, you aren’t doing yourself any favors. Use the old and you’ll save time, money and resources.

If you have too much bubble wrap or too many packing peanuts, drop them off at a shipping store. You’ll still be recycling and they’ll be happy to see you coming, because you’ll save them a few dollars, too.

If you are looking to pack your shipments for free and you don’t have enough shipping materials to reuse, this post mentions a bunch of places to find free shipping supplies.

Save money on shipping fees

When it’s time to actually get that package out the door, it’s hard to know what method will be most cost-effective. A new beta site called ShipGooder proposes to help you with that. Enter the starting point, destination, size and weight, and it will return a chart of options to help you find the least expensive route for your goods.

World Vegetarian Day: What do you eat?

It’s World Vegetarian Day today, Oct. 1, and the kickoff of Vegetarian Awareness Month. Let’s recognize the day with a poll to gauge our collective level of vegetarianism (or the lack thereof).

How much meat do you eat?

1) Meat free, baby – I’m vegan.
2) Ovo/lacto vegetarian.
3) I eat fish, but no other meat.
4) My taste likes chicken.
5) Red meat once in a blue moon.
6) Red meat once a week.
7) Iron man/woman – red meat daily.
8) No restrictions as long as it’s organic.

View Results

Make your own poll

Where my diet stands

I’m not a vegetarian. For about ten years, I was, with the exception of some fish and the occasional strip of bacon — and the dishes served at family get-togethers (“it’s all vegetarian; there’s just some sausage in it”). I gave up meat for health reasons and because I’d never much cared for it. I stuck with it after college environmental science classes addressed factory farming and environmental degradation.

I married a meat-eater, but for a long time he indulged only outside the house. Then I worked for a French cooking school (where some of the chefs mocked vegetarians, both with words and with tempting, tasty dishes). Finally, I conceived my daughter and really, really NEEDED to eat beef flautas (I’ve since mostly given those up, but not the guacamole that came with them).

And yet I get an uncomfortable feeling when too much meat comes into my life. It’s just not who I am. So I have a sort of compromise: I do eat dairy, I do eat eggs, I do eat some meat — perhaps a couple of times a week, which sounds like a lot to a former vegetarian.

I avoid endangered fish. The beef I eat is pretty much only from our own organically raised quarter animal, raised locally and stored in our chest freezer. I buy organic chicken. Sometimes I eat meat at a restaurant, often something tempting like lamb, which comes from a local farm and not a factory, or a bison burger, (which I presume is pretty much all range-fed, although I can’t find details online — anyone have info on bison?).

My solution isn’t perfect, but it keeps my husband from weeping about his lack of meat. By choosing our meat consciously most of the time, it keeps our level of consumption in check, too.

How do you resolve the meat-or-no-meat issue?

Keeping it clean

In addition to keeping my conscience cleaner, the way we eat also provides a higher comfort level when it comes to the dangers of our mass-production society. Verda Vivo recently published a post about the 6 Dirtiest Foods — those most likely to contain contamination. Five of the six are animal products. A phrase like “A single hamburger may contain meat from hundreds of animals” is enough to make my stomach roil.

I’m something of a kitchen paranoiac, especially given that we try to use greener cleaning products rather than harsh chemicals. Less meat generally means fewer surfaces and items to scrub down and worry about.

Knowing it’s local … or how far it’s come

On a related note, for those eating meat or vegetables and seeking to have a more local diet, Green Daily noted this week that a new law requires foodstuffs to be labeled with their country of origin. Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) should be taking effect now.

Have you seen a difference at your market?

Green gifting, good oil prices & organic ROI

Today’s weekly wrap-up tackles issues sure to raise hackles around family dinner tables, even those that are assiduously avoiding political conversation during the election year: Oil prices, green gifting and whether organic food is worth it.

The good and bad of high oil prices

This week, I came across a wrap-up for my wrap-up. Take a look at One Green Generation’s post on the pros and cons coming from high oil prices, and browse the articles that interest you.

I don’t know if we’ve changed our behaviors based on high oil prices, although I’m trying to squeeze more miles per gallon from my car, and Mr. Cheap has been driving his higher-mpg Toyota more than our Subaru this week. Then again, I work at home, so public transit isn’t really an issue, and the cost of public transit is more than the gas price of driving Little Cheap to school. How about you all? Are you changing your ways?

Giving & getting green gifts

The holidays are just around the corner … at least for those who are shopping ahead and planning to give homemade gifts. This week, The Green Parent wrote about how to give green gifts. I’ve done all of these — and it’s a great reminder that I need to start planning my holiday giving strategy now! I have a few things in mind, but for those things I need to craft, I’d better get cracking.

The cost-benefit analysis of organic food

The Simple Dollar wrote a post titled “Balancing Personal Principles and the Bottom Dollar: The Cost of Healthier Food” that, as I write this, has generated 67 arguments comments. There’s a ferocious battle out there over whether organic food is any good. It’s a complicated matter, and in the end, I think it’s a value judgment — and most of us have to go with our gut (and sometimes, our wallet!).

In my home, as we have become more committed to holding the earth more sacred, and at the same time a little more prosperous, we have shifted back to a high percentage of organic foods. Local is very important too, but I won’t promise to eschew chocolate, never eat a pineapple, give up bananas, or abandon citrus. But we are getting most of our vegetables from our CSA about 60 miles away, some from our backyard; virtually all the meat we are eating comes from our frozen beef that was raised within 100 miles; and I buy organic milk raised in northeastern Colorado, also within 100 or so miles of our home (and perhaps closer).

On the other hand, Mr. Cheap has developed a Pellegrino addiction … that I hope might wane as the hot weather disappears this fall.

It’s all about balance, and I wish you the same.