Friday, April 30, 2010

More weird crap for the compost heap

Yes, those are balloons. According to the package, they are “100% natural biodegradable,“ so we’ll toss them in the compost heap (minus the plastic package) and see what happens.

At first I assumed this was another example of Corporate America jumping on the “Go Green” bandwagon. But it turns out that balloon litter is a big problem because of all those balloon releases at public events. Eventually what goes up must come down. Balloon fragments are commonly found among the debris gathered during the Center for Marine Conservation’s International Coastal Cleanup.

The balloon industry has been pushing biodegradable rubber balloons for years in an effort to improve its image among environmentalists, arguing in a widely cited article on the Internet that  balloon litter is “a disintegrating issue.”

Well, these used balloons are going in the compost today. We’ll see how they do against the  Sun Chips bag, which has a five-week head start. And our compost, by the way, is gaining momentum. When I turned the pile on a frosty morning earlier this week, I saw steam.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Price check reveals the bigger picture

I went looking for small trash can liners at Walmart yesterday, just to see what those cost these days. As I suspected, the four-gallon bags cost nearly 10 cents each -- which just happens to be my target price for both 13-gallon tall kitchen bags and 30-gallon standard trash bags.

What did surprise me, though, was how hard it was to even find the four-gallon size on the shelf. While large kitchen trash bags took up several feet of shelf space -- representing four brands, at least three different styles, and varying numbers of bags per box -- I could find only one box of the small bags, made by Glad. (Further searching eventually turned up a roll of cheaper bags on the bottom shelf.)

Obviously, despite the campaign to get everybody to switch to canvas shopping bags, most people who shop at this store still reuse plastic shopping bags to line their small wastebaskets. If Walmart ever succeeds in convincing customers to provide their own bags, you can bet it will have pallets of Great Value brand four-gallon trash bags waiting in the wings.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The insecurity tax in action

I almost never buy birthday cards, preferring to let the kids make them instead. It saves me money, and it’s a homeschool art project for them. But I needed to send gift cards out to a couple of nephews on a tight deadline yesterday. (Though one was several weeks late, the other stood an outside chance on arriving on the actual birthday.) Under the circumstances, I decided to cave in and buy a couple of cards.

I found a couple of workable 50-cent cards at Walmart. Then doubt set in. I don’t see these boys as often as my sister’s kids, and they don’t have much opportunity to view my frugality in the context of what I hope to be my other finer points. If several months go by and their only reminder of me is a cheap gift or birthday card, what impression do they form?

The reality, of course, is that they go for the gift card inside without giving the card a glance.  But I couldn‘t help taking a look at the midrange cards, just to compare. I wound up with a pair of “nephew” cards, one with a wisecrack about the kid being cooler than his dorky parents, and the other with a picture of a cute dog on the cover. I spent $5.00 on the cards -- a $4 insecurity tax for not sticking to my principles.

And the stupid thing is, in retrospect, I think one of the cheap cards would’ve actually been a better fit.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Making a chip bag disappear (or not)

The "World's First 100% Compostable Chip Package" is supposed to break down in 14 weeks. It didn't take nearly that long to break down my resistance to buying a bag of SunChips, despite the fact that they're priced way above my usual 10 cents-per-ounce standard for salty snacks.

I finally caved in and bought a bag on March 19, less than a week after I saw an online ad promoting the new bags. The chips are, after all, delicious. And I was curious to see how the bags would perform. The answer: In our case, not so hot. At least, not so far.

This may be as much a reflection on the poor internal combustion of our compost heap as anything else, but  when we dug up our SunChips bag yesterday after 31 days submerged in a stew of old oak leaves, weeds and food scraps, it looked ... well, like a filthy but otherwise uninjured chip bag.

But the test continues. Not just of the bag, but of our admittedly less-than-scientific composting skills. Before dunking the bag back under yesterday, we added a big dose of grass clippings and gave everything a good stir, which may help.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Plastic tumbleweeds

I saw another shopping bag blowing across the street the other day. Reminded me of a tumbleweed. Which made me wonder: How many wind-surfing plastic bags are on the move in this country at any given moment, versus how many tumbleweeds?

This is the kind of question that makes you want to upgrade to the Star Trek version of the Internet, because my superficial web surfing didn’t turn up any easy answers. (Though I did discover that some tumbleweeds are radioactive. Turns out that before they take flight they sink really deep roots, some of which tap into nuclear test and waste sites out West.)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Global economic blowblack

The other day at work I edited a wire story saying that furniture prices are going up because of higher labor prices in Asia, along with increases in Pacific shipping rates. That strikes me as a good thing. Maybe once the planet’s supply of cheap human labor is exhausted, we can all get down to the business of figuring out how to live smarter without taking advantage of each other.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Settling for freebies

The good news: Got a free reusable shopping bag the other day. The bad news: It’s so ugly I haven’t been able to bring myself to use it. Somehow Tony the Tiger just doesn’t look right in muted colors.

Because of my innate reluctance to buy stuff, I’m always settling for whatever I eventually stumble across that’s cheap or free or sometimes, just there. This explains our kitschy dinner plates and those Tommy Hilfiger shirts I wore around the house but didn’t want to actually be seen in. (Luckily, I’ve lost enough weight they don’t fit anymore anyway).

I justify this practice by thinking of ugly-but-useful free crap as a “first draft” item. When I come across a suitable, more pleasing replacement, I strike the offending object from our lives.

The thing is, despite my past grumbling on this subject, I really do want to test drive a shopping bag. Especially after I saw yet another plastic bag blowing cross the park yesterday, no doubt on its way to join its friends in that enormous floating plastic-trash island that roams the Pacific.

So I think what I’ll do is try this out on my next stop at an Aldi store, where you’ve got to pay for grocery bags if you don’t bring your own. I hardly ever see anybody I know there anyway.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A bad play vs. a bad call at the grocery store

I’ve been in a slump lately in terms of my grocery game, but then yesterday at Meijer I was suddenly “feeling it” again, as Jim Renney, the small town Lex Luther of Stephen King‘s latest blockbuster, would say. Everywhere I looked I saw incredible opportunities. Or at least I thought I did. I guess my grocery goggles had come back, but my execution was still rusty, because the two maneuvers where I expected to make a big score didn’t pan out. One turned out to be a bad play on my part, while the other was definitely a bad call. In either case, ordinarily I would say it makes more sense to shrug it off and move on than to ruminate on what might have been. Trouble is, I like to learn something from my mistakes, and while I definitely learned -- or rather, was reminded -- that a coupon on the exterior of a package usually means you’re supposed to use it right then and there instead of on a future shopping trip, I’m still baffled by the two-pack of flavored Cheerios that promised, in big gawdy type, $2 off fruit it never delivered. Definitely a bad call, and I decided to take it up with the officials.

So I called Meijer, who said it was General Mills’ fault, since it was their promotion inside their packaging. And then I called General Mills, who said, essentially, “huh?” The person I spoke with couldn’t seem to track down the promotion I was holding in my hand, and suggested I mail it in so they could take a look at it. I sent digital photos via e-mail instead.

So, will General Mills rule in my favor? I suppose they’ll send me another coupon, hopefully a real one this time. Personally, I see the whole thing as a reminder that when you mess around with coupons, it’s easy to get burned. The best way out of my “slump” is to focus on the fundamentals -- meal planning and tracking my spending -- instead of hoping for a quick coupon score to raise morale. But I’m not too sorry for protesting the bad call, if it gets General Mills to correct a ripoff that might affect other people.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Self-imposed taxes

There are some taxes that have nothing to do with the IRS. In fact, you may not even be aware of them. But they cost you money just the same. See if any of these sound familiar:

The clutter tax -- This term, coined by my husband, has been in our family lexicon about as long as we’ve had kids. (Though we weren’t immune to clutter before, the problem certainly escalated from that point forward.) Basically, it applies anytime you buy something that you already have -- either because you didn‘t remember that you had it, or simply couldn‘t find it. A good example of this, for us, is duct tape. We almost always have a roll somewhere, but it’s usually been appropriated by one of the kids and relocated to some hidden location.

The disorganization tax -- I became aware of this one on Christmas Eve at Wal-Mart, where I was hunting for last-minute stocking stuffers. I have a time-tested formula for filling Christmas stockings, and usually I wrap this task up by November, having found everything I need at garage sales or on clearance. But I’d fallen behind this year, and so there I was, making decisions on the fly. I realized, as I stood in the check-out line, that I was about to be assessed a stiff fine for my lack of preparation.

This tax hits hardest, and therefore most noticeably, on gift-giving occasions like birthdays, Easter and Valentine’s Day. But I wonder if it doesn’t do more overall damage at dinner, which for many people, comes with an automatic lack-of-planning surcharge.

The insecurity tax -- This is another tax I associate with Christmas, but it applies anytime you pay extra because you’re worried about offending someone. There are some people on our gift list, for example, who are thrilled with a $2 book on tape (or CD) from the library sales rack. Other relatives might enjoy the same gift, but because there’s no precedent for secondhand presents at that gathering, I’d feel compelled to bundle the CD-pack with something else, like a shirt.

It can be horrifying to calculate the total cost of all these hidden, self-imposed taxes. But the good news is, most of them can be eliminated with better planning and resolve -- unlike the taxes assessed by the IRS.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Another nominee for the frugal bible

I keep wondering if I should try to wedge MFK Fisher into my frugal bible. She’s not a great fit, because you don’t get the sense she was naturally frugal so much as necessarily frugal during the lean years of the Depression and World War II. (The concluding chapter of her 1942 book, “How to Cook a Wolf,” suggests that readers imagine concocting such recipes as shrimp pate, even though the ingredients were then nearly impossible to find, much less afford. “This therapy, unconscious or deliberate, is known to any prisoner of war or woe,” she wrote.)

I can’t help thinking, though, that Fisher would be an improvement on Job, the rich Old Testament dude forced to suffer in an experiment Satan cooked up and got God to endorse. You can’t blame Job for whining, though he does go on and on about his troubles. Whereas Fisher, at least in her writing, retained her good humor while focusing on how to get through the darkest days without “living like earthworms ... existing as gracefully as possible without many of the things we have always accepted as our due: light, free air, fresh foods, prepared according to our tastes.”

Fisher saw hard times as a good time to espouse philosophies that would be a harder sell in times of plenty. She railed against American white bread, for instance, long before it was fashionable to do so, and criticized the notion that each meal must be “balanced” like a school cafeteria lunch. “Perhaps this war will make it simpler for us to go back to some of the old ways we knew before we came over to this land and made the Big Money,” she wrote.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Human flesh, at $4 a pound

That’s how much it cost me to lose 30 pounds on the Weight Watchers program: Around $120, or $4 a pound. And that’s because I did it in 12 weeks. Judging from what I hear at the meetings, that’s a fairly fast clip, so a lot of people are paying more -- sometimes quite a bit more -- per pound.

I’ve got to say, it’s a dandy program. As someone who’s tried focusing on calories or fat or carbs without much success, I think it makes a lot of sense to factor fiber into an overall equation that the company’s number crunchers have then reduced to a fairly simple points system. (I love the way you can add something to a food to make it less fattening. Just last week, Ben stirred some unprocessed bran into his ice cream and reduced the points value from 8 to 6.)

When it comes right down to it, though, once you get your informational materials, it seems like the primary reason to stick with the program is the weekly weigh-in. And it seems like there ought to be some way to achieve the same effect without paying close to $10 a week to have someone else chart your weight. But it’s not quite that simple. I could probably get my husband or my sister to do it, but then I could also probably talk them out of it if I had a particularly rotten week.

The other factor, for me, is that I feel like I‘m trying harder because I‘m paying to do this. Four dollars a pound. So far, I think it’s been well worth the price.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Blowin’ in the wind

I saw a shopping bag blowing across Main Street in Bluffton yesterday, and it made me wince, because even though I’m still suspicious of Big Business’ attempt to shift packaging costs and pollution guilt to the consumer, I do realize that these bags pose an environmental problem when they’re allowed to roam free like that. And they do, far too often. Blowing bags just aren’t that uncommon a sight.

But why is it that you never see plastic trash-can liners blowing across the street? Because people spend money on them, have a use for them, and perhaps most importantly, have a well-designed box to store them in. A 12-pack ramen noodle box takes care of the storage problem, and many people do use these bags in lieu of commercial wastebasket liners. Is the gimme factor the problem, then? Because the bags are free, they’re perceived to have no value, and thus people don’t treat them the same way they would plastic bags they’ve spent money on?

If that’s the case, maybe Big Business is right to shift the cost of shopping bags to consumers. But I’m still not buying it.

Monday, April 5, 2010

When did Easter become a second Christmas?

When I was a kid, the Easter Bunny confined his efforts to filling your basket. But now, at least in those households where the breadwinners still have good jobs, it seems like the basket has become the springtime equivalent of the Christmas stocking -- just a starting point. Or from the kids’ perspective, maybe it’s more like an afterthought. The good stuff is what spills out onto the table or floor, too big and expensive to be confined to such a quaint container. Checking the basket comes after you’ve examined that shiny new bike or video game system.

I’d been vaguely aware of this trend the past few years, but it came sharply into focus yesterday when it was revealed that our youngest child was grumbling about how “everything we get is suckish” compared to cousins and friends.

Here all this time I thought we were celebrating the arrival of spring with symbolic representations of new life. I can build a case for chocolate bunnies, or even springtime accessories like batting gloves or Frisbees, but they’ve got to fit both an Easter basket and our budget. Which, now that I think about it, does make Easter a lot like Christmas, because at our house Santa still confines his gifts to what he can wedge into a stocking.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A black hole in disguise

If there were a Journal of the American Academy of Clutter-Control Science, I’d feel compelled to file a report on the gravitational pull of that ramen-noodle box that’s been recommissioned as a plastic shopping-bag container.

It looks like an ordinary noodle box. But if you peer through the tear in the plastic cover, you can see a tightly compressed stack of neatly folded plastic shopping bags inside. Outside the container, where the usual laws of clutter physics apply, those bags would explode into an unwieldy mountain of airy nothing that would quickly scatter to the ends of the earth. Instead, they’ve been sucked into a deceptive black hole.

And it wants more. It sits there in the pantry, thrumming, sending out search-party signals that are somehow programmed through my eyeballs, seeking more and more and more. And its finding them: Crumpled plastic bags in the garage, the back of the van, the furnace closet. Only last week I averted my eyes, seemingly blind to their creeping presence. Now, once detected, they have no chance of escape. The awesome appetite of