Tag 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

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

Vegetarian Friday: Vegetable stock

Remember a few weeks ago, when I told you to start saving vegetable scraps in a freezer container? It’s time to get out that container and reap the rewards.

This won’t be the prettiest thing we ever make, but vegetable stock is the basis for so many winter recipes, it only makes sense to prepare a batch now and keep it on hand as we head toward soup season.

You can buy vegetable broth at the store, but it’s usually outrageously expensive, comes in packaging that’s difficult to recycle, and often includes a lot of excess salt and preservatives. Vegetable bouillon is cheaper and involves less packaging, but the sodium content is through the roof, and many brands are made with monosodium glutamate or other chemicals that trigger problems for people with certain food sensitivities.

Our DIY version is free, tastes better, uses little to no packaging, and takes less than 10 minutes of actual work to prepare.

Ingredients

At least 2 c. vegetable scraps
Water

That’s all you need. The scraps can be mushroom stems, celery trimmings, onion peels, herb stems, baby carrots left over from a veggie tray, bell-pepper cores, or just about anything else you have on hand. Every time you cook, instead of tossing these leftovers into the compost bin, throw them in an old ice-cream tub or similar container and keep it in the freezer.

The Crock-Pot turns vegetable scraps into broth with minimal effort.
The Crock-Pot turns vegetable scraps into broth with minimal effort.

When the container is full, take two minutes to dump it into a Crock-Pot and cover the contents with water. Turn the Crock-Pot on and let it cook at least 4 hours on high or 8 hours on low. The longer it cooks, the more concentrated the flavor will be.

Shut off the Crock-Pot and leave it alone until the broth is cool enough to handle safely.

When the stock cools, freeze it in ice-cube trays, then store the cubes in a ziplock bag.
When the stock cools, freeze it in ice-cube trays, then store the cubes in a ziplock bag.

Strain the finished broth into a large pitcher, pour into ice-cube trays, and freeze. Pop out the finished cubes and store them in a ziplock bag or other freezer-safe container to use in any recipe that calls for broth. Compost the cooked vegetable scraps.

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Clean your dryer vent

Here’s an easy project that will make your dryer run more efficiently and reduce the risk of house fires: Clean out your dryer-vent hose.

I bought a fancy $40 kit at the hardware store that was supposed to attach to my cordless drill and work in tandem with a Shop-Vac to clean all the lint out of my dryer vent. In theory, it should have worked beautifully. In reality, it was a pain to assemble, the directions were unnecessarily complicated, and the part that was supposed to fit into the chuck on my drill just freewheeled instead of turning with the drill because it was round instead of hexagonal. Poop. 😦

The good news is that the brush and flexible wand extensions that attached to it worked just fine for hand-cleaning the hose. Mine is the crinkly foil kind that accordion-folds, so this is how I cleaned it:

1. Connected the flexible wand extensions to the brush attachment.
2. Unplugged the dryer. (If you have a gas dryer, you’ll need to shut off the gas and disconnect the line as well. Be sure to seal it properly when you reconnect it.)
3. Disconnected the vent hose from the dryer.
4. Moved the vent hose to a spot where I could straighten it out as much as possible.
5. Grabbed the cleaning wand close to the brush and moved it around inside the vent, sticking my arm as far into the vent as I could, scrunching up the hose as I moved forward.
6. Whenever I came to a clump of lint, I grabbed it and pulled it out with my hand.
7. When I got all the way to the end, I slowly pulled the brush out, twisting it around to rake out any smaller bits of lint that were caught in the folds of the hose.
8. With the hose extended, I ran the brush back in and out a couple more times just to be sure I’d gotten everything.
9. Pulled out the lint filter on the dryer itself and used a longer brush attachment that came with the kit to clean out the inside of the dryer.
10. Reconnected the dryer.
11. Turned on the dryer, went outside to make sure it was venting properly, and let it run a few minutes to blow out any loose lint and dust. (If you have an exterior screen on your vent, you may need to pull it off and clean it out after this step.)

This is all the lint I removed:

dryer2

I haven’t run the dryer since I cleaned it, but a guy over on Treehugger discovered a load that normally took 90 minutes to dry took 25 minutes after he cleaned his filter. That’s a substantial improvement.

I was disappointed the cleaning kit didn’t work with my drill, but I didn’t really mind doing it by hand, and I imagine I’ll get my money back in improved efficiency and correspondingly lower power bills.

Emily

Looking ahead

I was standing in a garage at the Blue Swallow Motel with a paintbrush in my hand one bright afternoon in April when the managing editor of the local paper dropped by to talk about the mural I was working on. When he found out I was a professional journalist, he mentioned he was planning to retire soon.

One might, at this point, question why I am posting this from Cape Girardeau and not from Tucumcari.

The answer: I’d have had to take a 30 percent pay cut, and the income just wouldn’t have been enough to cover two car loans, two mortgages and the $5,000 transmission bill we’d gotten stuck with last winter. We live pretty frugally, but I know from experience that moving cross-country is an expensive proposition when you already have an existing mortgage.

A few weeks after we got home from Tucumcari, I picked up a book called Possum Living, which is about a young woman and her father who spent several years living without any sort of regular income. I loved it, partly because it validated my long-held belief that a sensible financial plan depends more on eliminating expenses than amassing wealth, and partly because it inspired me: If I paid off our debts, I could afford to move without undue stress.

I did some quick math and realized the best way to accomplish that goal would be to stop eating meals out.

In the span of five years, we’d eaten the equivalent of a new Volvo. If I took the money we were spending in restaurants and applied it to my credit-card bill, we could pay off the transmission by spring. With that paid off, we could use the newly freed-up money to pay off the car — then roll that money into the mortgage. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, we could be debt-free by Oct. 15, 2021, at which point we could start shopping for land in New Mexico to build the tiny house of our dreams.

Since early August, we’ve sent about $1,850 to the credit-card company. Every time I cook at home, I write down what that meal would have cost at a restaurant, and once a week, Ron sends the credit-card company the money we didn’t spend on dinner. It adds up fast: We’re averaging about $100 a week, and I expect that to go up in April, when our cellphone contracts will expire and we can switch to cheaper phones with cheaper plans.

I’m also losing weight (I’ve dropped 20 lbs. since July) and generating less trash via paper wrappers and cardboard boxes, which is better for the environment.

If we keep going at this rate, we should be debt-free in 2,119 days. Go, us!

Emily