Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Frugal brain farts

Several years ago I made the mistake of super-sizing a store discount by signing up for a charge card. At the time I thought I was being really smart, picking up four early Christmas gifts for a total of $16. But then I neglected to pay the bill on time and got socked with a $16 late fee -- doubling the cost of my “great deal.”

I thought I’d learned my lesson, but apparently not, because just last month I made the same mistake trying to get a better deal on a dress Rowan needed for something or other. (The “no new clothes” vow primarily applies to me, though I do get most of our kids’ clothes secondhand as well.) At any rate, the bill rode a wave of chaos into the house and was misplaced just long enough for me to forget about it until it was past due. I don’t remember what the original savings was, but I’m sure it was less than the $20 late fee.

I know that these days there are at least as many ways for consumers to "beat the system" as there are ways to get screwed, but experiences like these make me think I’m better off opting out of that game. It’s time to return to the days when I carried more library cards than credit cards in my purse.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

No new clothes update

When I decided to go a year without buying myself any new clothes, it didn’t occur to me that I might shed 45 pounds in the first five months of the year.

I still haven’t bought any new clothes. Which means that I‘m scanning the racks at the local thrift shops with greater urgency these days. The hardest thing to find is workout clothes, which I’m now wearing much more often. Might have to target some garage sales in some high-end subdivisions to find more of that stuff.

The one thing I might let myself buy new (in addition to undergarments) is a pair of running shoes. Now that I’m regularly jogging 10 miles a week or so, I think decent footwear could be considered a piece of equipment. I’m still holding out for a used swimsuit, though.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The economics of homeschooling

It’s that time of year again, when we pause to consider how the kids’ education is coming along and whether they’d be better off at home (like the younger three) or in school (like their big sister, who’s finishing up her sophomore year at the public high school down the road.)

Cost has never been a big factor in these discussions -- so far -- but homeschooling is definitely intertwined with our family’s frugality. The most obvious way homeschooling cuts costs is by eliminating the need for a closetful of trendy clothes for each kid. (Rowan, who was homeschooled through eighth grade, continues to create most of her funky and often-complimented wardrobe out of garage sale and thrift shop finds.) It’s also cheaper to feed kids at home than at a school cafeteria. (Though Rowan usually takes her lunch, and would qualify for 40-cent reduced-price lunches if we ever got around to filling out the form.)

These savings can easily be balanced out by the expense of buying textbooks and other educational materials, but not necessarily. A library card and a little ingenuity can go a long way toward a child‘s education.

When I think of how homeschooling intersects with the natural thrift philosophy, though, those aren’t the factors that strike me. It’s not the cost savings so much as the economic efficiencies.

In a real-life learning laboratory, you can unleash kids’ curiosity and creativity on actual problems that need solved. Like learning how to construct a rain garden to fix a backyard drainage problem, a project that fascinates Colleen. Or designing a bridge over a small ditch that can accommodate not only a wheelbarrow but a garden tractor, a project that Ben will take the lead on. Cassie’s interest in losing weight has led her to keep a Weight Watchers-style food diary, an important health project that’s also improving her math and spelling skills.

And when it comes to art, we’re always considering function as well as form -- there are always birthday cards to make, rag-rug style potholders and pan hooks to construct and clothes and pillows to recycle into new pieces of wearable or usable art.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Shopping bag art

Here's my design for the Kroger Design a Reusable Bag contest. Actually, Kroger is the grocery chain I selected on the website; I'm not sure which Illuminati overlords are running the contest. If you want to enter, though, better hurry: You only have until 5 p.m. today to do it here.

(And if you want to buy my design on a cafepress bag, you can do that here.)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Too cute to go in the soup

You’ll never find a heart-shaped potato in a bag of frozen french fries or a box of instant mashed potatoes. We found this one near the bottom of a 15-pound “thrify pack” with a label indicating the contents were “packed for” Golden Sands Farms in Plover, Wis.

Which makes me wonder: Did any human gaze upon this potato before we pulled it out of the sack? Probably not, because you'd think they'd have wanted to set it aside -- especially after President Obama made a big fuss about a heart-shaped potato he got from an audience member on the David Letterman show last year.

I couldn't find a web site for Golden Sands Farms in Plover, Wis., though I did find a reference to a hog farm with that name. But here's a highly detailed look at the central Wisconsin potato harvest that indicates machines dig the potatoes, scoop them up and pour them into trucks that then unload themselves. There does appear to be a point in the process involving human beings sorting taters whizzing by on a conveyer belt -- but it's not clear to me whether that's standard practice or whether that occurred at the smaller of the two farms the guy visited.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Finally: the perfect compost tote

When I look back to past failed composting attempts, I can’t help wondering how much of our problem was due to having an inadequate compost container.

I’ve always refused to buy a bucket specifically designed for carrying food scraps, yet I never found anything around the house that worked very well. A large plastic ice cream tub has both a lid and a handle, but the handle is too weak to carry much of a load. And it doesn’t help that it’s transparent.

I wonder how many times I’ve tossed one of these re-engineered coffee canisters in the recycling bin before I finally realized that I was holding the perfect compost tote right there in my hand.

Think about it: That side handle, built right into the container, is never going to fail you. Sturdy, well-fitting lid: Check. You can’t see through it. And it’s really the perfect size, because if a bucket of compost gets too heavy, you’re less likely to want to deal with it. And that‘s how the process can begin to break down, long before your compost does.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Clutter craft to the rescue

So we were supposed to make puppets for Colleen’s religious education class on Sunday, and as usual we didn’t have all the supplies we needed. But I really hate to go buy craft materials when there are so many things you can make out of crap hanging around the house.

The lesson was based on “The Big Brag,” a little known Dr. Seuss story in which wisdom is dispensed from a worm’s point of view. We had googly eyes and socks for the worm, but the eyes were way too small. So we either needed to make larger eyeballs or smaller worms. 

We decided to make smaller worms, by cutting strips from an old T-shirt and braiding them together. The end of each strip included a piece from the bottom hem of the shirt, and so when we tied those ends together it made a natural mouth flap. The googly eyes fit perfectly on top of the mouth flap.

The nice thing about this technique, which I learned from some long-forgotten book on making rag rugs, is that it requires no sewing whatsoever. You just tie the strips together at both ends.

As it turns out, we didn’t wind up doing the lesson or the craft due to a scheduling glitch. But Colleen loves her worm. And we’ve got a ready-made project for some other day.

Friday, May 14, 2010

New & Improved Bag Box

As previously reported, our recommissioned ramen noodle box did a dandy job as a plastic shopping bag container. Ours held up to 70 bags, easily accessible and ready for reuse. Most importantly, it kept migrant bags from cluttering up our house and vehicles, where they were at risk of being whisked away by the wind.

Our new bag holder doesn’t hold quite as many bags -- ours can tolerate about 60 -- but it doesn’t take up as much space, either. It’s basically a large kitchen trash bag box. The cardboard sunroof is just as good a compressor as the plastic covering on the noodle box, but less ugly -- especially after we covered it with wildlife pictures clipped from old magazines.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Another entry for the predator ad guidebook

The other day I found myself reaching for an unusually attractive member of the bottled beverage species, with psychedelic skin and one of those cute little Smart Cars printed on its thorax. “Green is smart!” read an emblem under the design. “Drink up and you could win!”

That’s when I noticed the ghastly orange fluid lurking beneath the surface. I’d nearly been had by an angler fish -- my daughter's suggested term for ads and marketing techniques designed to disguise products as somehow being good for the environment, even if they‘re not. An angler fish (pictured below) is a scary looking dude that lives deep in the bottom of the ocean, preying on tiny fish and other creatures it attracts with a luminescent stalk on top of its head. Once the prey gets close enough, the angler's jaws slam shut. (I was going to call this variety of predator ad a "green gila monster," but Rowan, the biology fan, pointed out that gila monsters aren't green. "Besides," she said, "they don't fool their prey -- they just pounce."

I’m not suggesting that Sunkist orange soda is dangerous, at least not in small doses. But it is on the "Eat This, Not That" list of the "20 most sugar-packed foods in America."  Consumed on a regular basis, over time, it could very well inflict damage such as cavities, obesity and diabetes.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Weighing the cost of obesity solutions

Lately I’ve been feeling squeamish about monitoring my weight loss on this blog. But then I see the Atlantic Monthly cover story on obesity, and I think, hey, if I’m working this problem from the inside out -- making mental changes that translate into physical results, as opposed to Marc Ambinder, who can’t seem to fathom how the national obesity problem could be solved without bariatric surgery for millions of people, at a cost of billions of dollars -- isn’t that information I should be sharing with people?

I’ve lost 40 pounds in 16 weeks on the Weight Watchers program, which cost me a little less than $160, or $4 a pound. Ambinder lost 85 pounds after $30,000 bariatric surgery, which works out to $352.94 a pound.
As a public health move, it would make a lot more sense to pay for millions of people to attend a Weight Watchers-style program than to have stomach-shrinking surgery. Not only would it cost much less, but it gives people time to gradually reduce their intake and make adjustments, both physically and mentally. And there’s that built-in support system.

Granted, Weight Watchers doesn’t work for everybody. My mom’s started and quit this program many times before. She’s losing much more slowly than I am, but this time she’s kept going despite enduring weeks in which she’s had to step on the scale after a weight gain. She’s dropped less than a pound a week, but over time that's added up to nearly 15 pounds. A slow pace, but at least she’s headed in the right direction.

As a frugal person, I hate the idea of paying somebody else to help me eat less. But the weekly weigh-in is a great way to stay accountable, and the points system is a fairly easy game that allows you to fit in occasional treats while rewarding you for good nutrition and exercise. There’s no doubt in my mind that my $160 has been well spent, not just because of the increased energy and mental clarity, but because at the time I started I was getting worried about my blood pressure -- not just the physical risks, but also the possibility of having to pay for long-term medication. Though I still have more weight to lose, those fears have since disappeared.

But enough about Weight Watchers. What I really wanted to share is a mental tip that recently helped me register a 3.4 pound loss after a week in I succumbed to five oatmeal cookies on one day and a bunch of pizza the next.

It wasn’t just the greatest comeback in my own personal dieting history, it was the only such comeback. In the past, I would have surrendered after a couple of binges like that. But this time, I reminded myself that though I’d suffered a couple of huge penalties, I was still in the game.

The most important difference is that I continued tracking my points even though I was devastated by the score. Then, I figured out how I could get back to where I wanted to be by the end of the week, by ramping up my exercise and decreasing my intake -- not by starving myself but by adding a bunch of zero-point veggies for a couple of days.

I knew I’d succeeded because the scoreboard in my tracking notebook said so. Sure enough, I was rewarded when I stepped on the scale.