Category Archives: Frugality

Eco-Saturday: Buy used furniture

Used furniture is one of my favorite forms of recycling. While I purchased a couple of new pieces during my big redecorating project last year, much of the furniture in my house was used when I got it.

My coffee table and end tables came from the Herrin City Library, which sold off or threw out much of its original furniture during an expansion many years ago. The clock in my bedroom came from the same source, and I think that might be where Mom picked up those great lamps that grace the end tables, too.

This cute mid-century bookshelf came from an antique shop on Main Street here in Cape. I expect it will hold up considerably better than the 3-year-old particle-board shelves it replaced:

shelf1

I went looking for mid-century dining furniture at Annie Laurie’s but wound up falling in love with this uber-’70s table and chairs, which came with an extra leaf:

table

The set was too cool to pass up, so I bought it and declared the dining room a ’70s zone — a look I punctuated with a metal faux-woodgrain shelf I found hiding under a layer of unfortunate contact paper at a little shop on Spanish Street:

shelf2

A can of WD-40 and a little patience yielded a nice nostalgia trip, as Mom displayed her houseplants on similar shelves when I was little. Mine serve as a sort of holding pen for stuff that lands on the dining table and for whatever reason can’t be put away yet. About once a month, I look over the contents of the shelf and determine which items are ready to go to more permanent locations.

To my way of thinking, used furniture has three big advantages over new:

1. It’s already here; nobody has to cut down another tree or pull another barrel of oil out of the ground to produce it.

2. With the exception of valuable antiques, used furniture tends to be cheaper than comparable new items. I gave $85 for my dining table and chairs — about $400 less than the IKEA set I was considering, and probably more durable.

3. The antique stores here in Cape are all mom-and-pop operations located in historic buildings, which means when I shop there, I’m not only keeping more of my money in my community, but I’m also contributing to the upkeep of a historic property. WIN.

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Fall garden chores

We’re sneaking up on the first frost of the year, which means it’s time to start putting the garden to bed.

This is always a bittersweet task for me — more bitter than sweet, because I’ve never liked winter — but prepping the garden for winter ensures it’s ready to go in the spring, and this year, I have a long list of projects to work on.

I’ll share more specifics about some of these tasks as I go, but today, I’d like to offer a general overview, in case you’re looking at a soon-to-be-dormant garden and trying to figure out what to do before the next planting season. Your garden’s specific needs may vary, but here’s my to-do list for the next 25 weekends:

* Make compost. Not sure how? Click here.
* Buy six more fire rings. These will become raised beds.
* Harvest seeds. Instructions here.
* Harvest the last of the produce and pull out the old plants.
* Rake leaves. If yours are from safe trees, compost them. We don’t have that luxury, as our house is flanked by pecan and walnut trees, so we’ll have to let the city take ours.
* Plant daffodils and tulips.
* Winterize the pond.
* Winterize the quail pen. The Great Stuff I used to seal it when I built it is wearing out, and the polystyrene panels are degrading a bit, so I’ll have to hit the hardware store for replacements.
* Fence the berry patch.
* Treat the strawberries with coffee grounds. Supposedly this will ward off slugs.
* Inventory beekeeping and gardening equipment.
* Buy flagstone and install more paths.
* Mulch between paths.
* Mulch strawberries.
* Build raised bed in the front yard.
* Prune rosebush.
* Map next year’s garden.
* Order seeds. Two good sources: Seedsavers.org and Baker Creek Heirloom seeds.
* Start plants. Check the USDA planting-zone map and consult your seed packets before you schedule this.

Chaff on the left; seeds on the right.
Harvesting seeds: Chaff on the left; seeds on the right.

Harvesting seeds is one of my favorite fall chores. This year, I’ve brought in tomato seeds, which are drying on paper towels on top of the refrigerator as we speak; Trail of Tears beans, which need to be removed from their pods; and a newcomer to the garden this year: zinnias.

This doesn't really look like an hour's worth of work, does it?
This doesn’t really look like an hour’s worth of work, does it?

I spent the better end of an hour the other day separating zinnia seeds from chaff. It’s tedious work, but there’s something hopeful in the act of saving seeds — a sort of contract between the plants and their caretaker. The seeds contain the promise of spring; saving them is an act of faith in that promise and a statement of intention: “I’ll be back to tend you in a few months.”

Emily

Tiny Tuesday: Kitchen-sink organizer

When I started washing dishes by hand last winter, I discovered another storage need and another example of wasted space in my kitchen.

Dishwashing tools — rags, scrubbers, Scotch-Brite pads, rubber gloves and the like — are fairly ugly and tend to clutter up the area between the faucet and the backsplash.

Fortunately, thanks to the positioning of the window and cabinets in my kitchen, I had a big, empty vertical space to the left of my sink, so last winter, I rigged up a storage caddy from a small metal sign, some magnetic clips, and a dollar-store basket.

It wasn’t pretty, and the magnets occasionally slipped if I put something too heavy in the basket, but it kept my tools handy, and I decided it was probably worth my effort to construct a more permanent setup.

Here is what I came up with:

Cheap and handy.
Cheap and handy.

And here is how to make it:

Materials
Cheap Masonite clipboard
Clothespins
Two Command hooks or similar product
Small, narrow plastic storage basket
Gel-type super glue
Lacquer
Sturdy cup hook
Paint and/or paintmarkers (optional)

Instructions
Decorate the clipboard to suit your tastes. (I doodled a sort of faux-mid-century pattern on mine, but I’m not wild about how it turned out and will probably paint over it at some point.)

Super-glue the clothespins to the clipboard. Arrange them at whatever height and spacing seem convenient based on what you’re planning to hang up there.

Super-glue the Command hooks to the clipboard about two inches from the bottom and as close to the edges as possible based on the spacing of the holes in your basket. (I put the hooks on the basket and then laid the whole thing on the clipboard to figure out the spacing.) If you can find very small screws that won’t go all the way through the clipboard, you can use them to reinforce it, but I didn’t have anything that small on hand, so we’ll have to see how the glue works by itself.

Work in progress.
Work in progress.

Seal the board with lacquer on both sides, making sure to coat the edges so the Masonite won’t get too wet and start to deteriorate.

After the lacquer dries, use the cup hook to hang the clipboard from the side of the cabinet, hang the basket from the Command hooks, and you’re good to go.

Clutter corralled.
Clutter corralled.

I like this little organizer because it’s cheap, easy to make, and corrals all my dishwashing tools in a convenient spot while reclaiming some previously unused vertical space.

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Toaster oven

In my relentless march toward a tiny house somewhere off the grid in New Mexico, I’ve spent a big chunk of the past year experimenting to see which appliances are expendable, which are helpful but not absolutely necessary, and which are completely non-negotiable. (More on that in a future Tiny Tuesday post.)

About a year ago, as part of my experimentation, I bought a lower-end toaster oven similar to this one and started using it in place of my regular oven.

Small but mighty.
Small but mighty.

Even if you bake regularly and are absolutely committed to using a full-sized oven for cakes, cookies, Thanksgiving meals, etc., you can do the environment (and your power bill) a big favor by using a toaster oven instead of your regular oven as often as possible.

I cook most of our meals at home, and for just about everything I make, I’ve found the toaster oven equal, if not superior, to the regular oven. Its compact size means I don’t need to preheat it, which saves me time and money every time I bake. I always hated preheating, partly because it took extra time, and partly because I resented the fact the heating element was drawing power for 10 minutes without giving me anything in return.

The smaller size also means you’re not wasting money and energy heating a lot of empty space around your food. If I’m just making a small fritatta for the two of us or a few break-and-bake cookies to soothe a craving, I don’t need to heat five cubic feet of space. Instead, I use the toaster oven to get the same results in roughly one cubic foot, thus knocking down my energy consumption for that meal by about 80 percent.

Two other ways the toaster oven saves resources, neither of which would have occurred to me before I bought it:

1. The smaller space means I cook smaller batches, thus reducing the risk of having more leftovers than we can eat. (This also helps with portion control, as I don’t end up eating more than I need just because it’s there.)

2. Most toaster ovens come with a timer that shuts off the oven when the time is up, reducing the likelihood of wasting food by burning it.

A toaster oven won’t work for every household or every project. But it’s a nice option, and one I’ve used far more than I expected.

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Check your tire pressure

Have you checked the air pressure in your car’s tires lately?

According to the EPA, you can boost your fuel economy anywhere from 0.6 percent to 3 percent just by keeping your tires inflated to the level recommended by your owner’s manual.

Properly inflated tires last longer, too, which helps conserve money and resources in the long run.

There are dozens of pressure gauges on the market. Invest in one and use it regularly to keep your car running efficiently and safely.
There are dozens of pressure gauges on the market. Invest in one and use it regularly to keep your car running efficiently and safely.

It’s a good idea to check your tire pressure regularly all year, but this time of year is especially important, because changes in temperature affect air pressure, and I’ve seen tires that were inflated to the correct level on an 80-degree afternoon drop by 5 psi or more overnight because the temperature dropped. A couple of years ago, we went to visit Ron’s family in central Illinois, which is about two planting zones north of us. The weather was warm when we left Southeast Missouri that morning, but thanks to a cold front moving in from the north, the temperature dropped about 40 degrees in the span of 200 miles, and as we headed home that night, the low-pressure warning light came on about 15 miles from my in-laws’ farm. We pulled into a gas station and discovered all four tires were running at 30 to 35 psi — well below the recommended pressure of 40.

Half a percent might not seem like much, but it adds up quickly — especially when you consider the cumulative environmental impact of millions of cars rolling around on underinflated tires — and it’s well worth the five or 10 minutes it takes to check your pressure a couple of times a week and top it up as needed.

Emily

Make-It Monday: Free cord concealer

As part of my redecorating project this summer, I got rid of the rickety, cheap-looking vertical shelf that had been supporting my turntable and DVD player and replaced it with an open-front credenza fashioned from a storage-cube unit and a set of mid-century-style legs. I love the credenza — which looks sleek, provides a lot of storage, and goes well with the rest of the furniture — but because it’s much shorter than the shelf it replaced, the cords for the television and peripherals were visible, and they looked anything but sleek.

See that f'ugly mess?
See that f’ugly mess?

You can get fabric cases for cords, but they don’t always match the walls. I wanted something I could paint the exact same color as the wall. I looked at some of the rigid PVC cord hiders at the hardware store, but they seemed unduly expensive, and they were all designed to mount flat against the wall, which wouldn’t work well with our swivel-mounted TV. I needed something lighter and more flexible but still paintable.

Enter the humble wrapping-paper tube.

Cardboard tubes are big enough to hold several fairly thick cords, and they’re lightweight enough that you can cut them with scissors and fold or twist them as the situation warrants. Perhaps best of all, they’re free. Here’s how to turn one into a cord concealer in about 10 minutes.

Slit the tube.
Slit the tube.

1. Use scissors or a sharp knife to slit it all the way up one side and trim it to the length you need.

It's OK if it tears a little bit. That's why God made Scotch tape.
It’s OK if it tears a little bit. That’s why God made Scotch tape.

2. Use leftover wall paint to cover the entire outside of the tube, the ends, the edges of the slit, and a few inches up the inside. (Note: You do NOT need to be very neat about that inside part.)

That's a tomato-stake tie. Handiest stuff this side of duct tape.
That’s a tomato-stake tie. Handiest stuff this side of duct tape.

4. Bundle the cords together and use twist ties, Velcro strips, tape, or string to secure them in a couple of places.

Much neater.
Much neater.

5. Once the paint dries, slip the tube over the cords with the slit pointed toward the back. If necessary, secure it with a little transparent tape.

Free, easy, and it took me less than 15 minutes of actual work to create and install mine.

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Reusable containers

One evening about 10 years ago, I looked at my motley collection of plastic food-storage containers — some stained, some cracked, some missing lids, and some permanently infused with strong odors that limited what I could store in them — and got fed up.

In a moment of frustration or clarity (or maybe both), I tossed out the whole mess and took myself to Target for replacements.

I came home with three white Corning soup mugs with vented plastic lids and a big set of Pyrex containers with lids in assorted sizes and shapes. All of the containers were heavy, stain-proof, odor-resistant, microwave-safe, freezer-safe, dishwasher-safe, and — with the exception of the lids — oven-safe. This meant I could bake a small casserole or batch of lasagna in them, snap a lid on, and stick them in the fridge or freezer to warm up in the microwave later.

I don’t remember exactly what I paid for the set, but I want to say it cost about twice what I’d have paid for good-quality plastic containers in similar sizes. Given the limited lifespan of plastic containers — I’ve never managed to keep a set going longer than three or four years — they’ve paid for themselves and kept a lot of plastic out of the landfill.

I did notice the lids on the Corning mugs were starting to get brittle with age this spring, so Ron contacted the company to find out where we might be able to purchase replacements. A Corning rep emailed him back, asked for our address, and sent us three new lids at no charge. I was impressed; I haven’t seen a company provide customer service like that since Tupperware did that lifetime-lid-replacement warranty in the ’80s.

I’m completely sold on the merits of tempered-glass containers with plastic lids, but if you can’t afford them, reusable plastic containers are certainly better than disposables. I focus a lot on portion control to make sure I’m getting the right balance of nutrients to support my lifestyle, but I try to avoid excess packaging, which means I usually buy in bulk and then divide up the food into single-serving containers I can take to work. IKEA’s 17-piece Pruta set, which I picked up for $4.99 last time we were in St. Louis, is really handy for this, as it has a nice mix of bigger containers (good for packing fresh fruits and vegetables) and little ones (ideal for single servings of salsa, crackers or pretzels).

I still use disposable storage bags now and then — usually for freezing big or awkwardly shaped items — but I’ve been phasing them out gradually over the last decade, and I can’t say I miss them. If you’re not already doing it, I challenge you to replace one plastic bag per week with a reusable container and see how quickly you can reduce your environmental footprint.

Emily

P.S.: As always, nobody paid me anything or gave me any free product to get me to write this post; these are just my personal experiences with stuff I’ve bought and liked.