Monday, September 22, 2008

Why being frugal with water is important

In looking at Google Analytics for my blog, I was intrigued by the search "why should i be frugal of my water usage". I was surprised a person was asking why should he or she be frugal regarding water usage, but decided to tackle the topic as part of my ongoing pursuit of green living and sustainability.

Water is a limited resource.
Freshwater makes up 3% of the total available water on our planet. Of that amount, nearly 68% is locked up in glaciers (Source: U.S. Geological Survey). In the United States, we have several regions experiencing water shortages from the south to the west. Even the Great Lakes region where I live, water resources of abundance are becoming more scarce. We are withdrawing more water than can be replenished in the groundwater. More of our lakes and streams and groundwater reservoirs are contaminated with chemicals including our own bodily waste. In a particular location, water may not be expensive, but careless use of water means fewer resources for all of us whether we are in the United States or subSaharan Africa. And regardless of where one lives, water is essential to life.

Americans use more water than the rest of the world.
Why do we need to use 100 gallons of water per day per person? We need to consume water to live, but do we need to take a shower where 2.5 gallons of water per minute rain down on our head? Do we really need to use drinkable water to flush toilets, using another 5 gallons every time? A green lawn may look nice to some, but all I see is water that could be used for drinking or growing food. Does the faucet really need to run to hot water before washing hands? Well-applied soap does well even without hot water.

Learn to love your rain barrel (or other water-collection device).
Lawns are a huge drain on water resources. I am always surprised Kentucky bluegrass is planted in places other than Kentucky. While it might be all right in Tennessee, I doubt it is well-adapted to Arizona. Instead of growing grass, create rain gardens to allow water to infiltrate back into aquifers, replenishing groundwater, rather than running off onto asphalt streets, collecting all the chemicals and debris on the road surface, and draining into lakes and rivers. Let the lawn go dormant when it is dry, and then revive with rain, or remove lawn and replace with xeriscaping. Native plants require less water than lawns. Who wants boring old grass when you can grow your own food, plant beautiful flowers or towering trees? And hey, less lawn means you can reduce the amount of time mowing. I'm all for that!

In the end, be more aware of your own water usage. According to my calculations, I use around 45 gallons of water per day. This is less than half the US average and is thanks in part to my conscious efforts to reduce my usage. Areas I need to improve: my showers and my dish washing. These are my biggest water usages. My rain barrels supply the water needed for plants outdoors and use of the initial water run in the bathtub helps flush my toilet. I even reuse gray water and the moisture collected by my dehumidifier in the basement.

Every little bit of conservation and reuse helps. Remember, other than for drinking and cooking, nonpotable water can be used for most things like watering plants, flushing toilets and washing cars. Turn off faucets when rinsing dishes, brushing teeth or soaping hands. Our water resources are precious and minimizing your own usage keeps us all appropriately hydrated and reduces ground- and surface water contamination.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Frugality and grocery spending

Like most people, I have noticed the increasing cost of groceries. In fact, my last grocery trip, half of my spending allocation went to meat and dairy products. I love my milk and cheese! Part of the reason for the large purchase was I would be hosting my family for dinner. However, until this most recent trip, I did not realize how great a share the meat, cheese, milk, sour cream, butter and cream cheese take up in my grocery spending. I can certainly see how people insist going vegetarian is not only green, but may help the pocketbook. Being the woman I am, I will not be changing my omnivore habits (heavy on the dairy) any time soon.

In my various postings on my monthly grocery trip, planning it, what my allocation is, and the tools I use, I realized I never discussed how I kept my grocery spending fairly steady. Yes, I occasionally exceed the amount of money in my spending plan for groceries (this month is one of them). However, as I became more aware of the cost of items, I adjusted my purchases to give me the best value for each dollar. For example, I used to purchase shredded cheese for use on pizza and in recipes. However, using a bit of elbow grease to shred my own cheese resulting in lower spending for the yummy dairy product and a bit more room in my grocery spending for another item that may have increased in price. As I did more of my cooking and baking, and purchased fewer convenience foods, I could keep the amount of money for groceries the same but without decreasing the quantity of food.

Most frugal and personal finance bloggers would say to bank the money not spent. In fact, this would have been the ideal use for the extra cash my behavioral changes freed up. However, I have only increased my grocery allocation by $5 in the last three years of using my spending plan. Even with the price of food rising astronomically, I have no plans to increase the money for groceries. I have been able to occasionally buy in bulk (I have enough dried milk for a couple years), buy larger quantities (purchasing 10 pounds of bread flour saved me more money than purchasing 5 pounds) and occasionally buy items at farmer's markets.

As I take a look at what I eat and my grocery spending, I can see as I took on more of the baking and cooking myself, I was able to leave more cushion in allocated amount for price increases. Baking my own bread, experimenting with new recipes, discovering the joy of making my own freezer jams, and growing my own food make it easier for me to keep my grocery spending steady without sacrificing the items I do want. Yes, I do crave highly processed foods (potato chips and soda!) and have five or six frozen entrees for lunches if I have not cooked something with leftovers to bring to work. However, my efforts at being frugal coupled with my desire to live a greener life by minimizing plastic packaging mean I stretch my grocery dollar a bit further and learn to be just a bit more independent. Now if I could only learn to cook and enjoy eggplant and peppers...

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Reducing my consumption levels

I have starting keeping up with Sharon Astyk's blog Casaubon's Book. Her topics and ideas are great food for thought regardless if I agree with her perspective or not. Throughout various entries, she kept mentioning something called Riot 4 Austerity, piquing my interest. Once I found a web link, I followed it here. To summarize, people pledge to reduce their consumption in one, some or all of seven different categories by 90%. This means they try to use ten percent of the current levels of consumption of natural gas, consumer goods, gasoline, water and electricity, only throw away 10% of the garbage, and increase the amount of locally grown and purchased food. Being the numbers gal I am, I calculated several numbers to compare my consumption to the average and see how close to 90% I am. To be honest, I did not think I would have made it close, but I had the sense I was running ~50% of average numbers. How did I measure up?

Riot 4 Austerity: The average American uses 500 gallons PER PERSON, PER YEAR. Ten percent levels means 50 gallons per person, per year.
In keeping track of my miles per gallon, I had a handy-dandy notebook that could tell me how much gasoline I have consumed in the past year. From July 7, 2007 to July 8, 2008, I consumed 377.35 gallons of gasoline, just over 75% of average usage. This number was achieved with minimal carpooling, combining trips, driving to and from work five days a week as well as at least monthly visits to see family. When I did carpool twice a week, eliminating one trip to work per week, I used 366.87 gallons of gasoline (July 6, 2006 to July 7, 2007). With similar consumptions rates for the last two years, I can see that I have not really reduced my gasoline usage. I have started working from home once every two weeks, occasionally carpool to work and am conscious of how much driving I do. I hope I reduce my consumption, but anticipate it will not drop below 300 gallons unless the mpg suddenly skyrockets. In fact, since I have started keeping track of my consumption, I have reached and passed the 90% reduction goal of 50 gallons in two months. However, this number may look promising, but my gas mileage decreases in the winter compared to the summer. I would love to achieve 300 gallons in one year, but I could reach 350 gallons for one year.

Riot 4 Austerity: The average American uses 11,000 kwh PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR, or about 900 kwh PER HOUSEHOLD PER MONTH. A 90% reduction would mean using 1,100 PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR or 90 kwh PER HOUSEHOLD PER MONTH.
I like my modern life equipped with my iBook, TV, dehumidifier, lights, oven and refrigerator. However, some of these, Energy-Star certified or no, suck down the kilowatts like price is no object. I used 4,705 kW of electricity from July 2007 to June 2008. While this is 42% of the average consumption, I know my electricity usage spikes during the warmer months. Between central air and dehumidifiers (and adding in a chest freezer), my consumption dramatically spikes compared to the cooler months. I average ~400kW per month, four times the goal. While I buy 300kW worth of renewable energy, I have not completely offset my usage. I want to reduce my usage to an average of 300kW per month so I am solely buying renewable power. With the cooling season almost over, reducing my AC use is easy. In fact, I have already seen a drop in my most recent bill compared to the month before. I am slowly replacing my incandescent bulbs with CFLs as the incandescents break. The clothes dryer is convenient especially in winter, but I will try a few days in the winter to hang out my clothing. I am still looking for other ways to reduce my electric consumption without giving up all my electric-powered toys.

Natural gas
Riot 4 Austerity: US average Natural Gas usage is 1000 therms PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR. A 90% reduction would mean a reduction to 100 therms PER HOUSEHOLD PER YEAR.
According to my calculations, I used half the average amount in 2007--500 therms, but this is still above the 90% reduction suggested. While it is easy to keep the consumption low during the summer since only my water heater is pulling natural gas (last bill, I used 6 therms), winter is my highest usage. I already set my thermostat as low as I can handle it, but I plan on setting it lower during the nightime hours. Last winter, I set it to 55 when away from home, 64 when home and 58 when sleeping. I will have my daytime and nighttime temperatures agree this winter and see if I can decrease my usage further. I have a down comforter and an electric blanket. With the electric blanket to take the edge off the cold bed just before I climb in and the down comforter, I should stay warm overnight. Blankets, slippers, robe and sweaters are my usual winter wear. I have supplementary heating based off electricity, but I will try not to use it much to keep my kilowatts down as well.

Riot 4 Austerity: The Average American uses 100 Gallons of water PER PERSON, PER DAY. A 90% reduction would mean 10 gallons PER PERSON, PER DAY.
This is a tough number to hit. If I cannot reduce my natural gas, gasoline and electricity usage to 10% levels, how could I get water down to 10 gallons a day? According to my water meter, I use about 1,100 gallons per month. This comes out to ~36 gallons/day. Guesstimating what I use when at work, I believe I use ~45 gallons per day. This is pretty good, about half of the average daily consumption. My biggest water waster is the shower followed by the dishes. I could halve the amount of water I use in the shower if I shut it off when lathering, but in my current setup, this is a hassle. I am working on minimizing the water I use to rinse dishes and hoping I can further reduce the water used. My goal is to get to 1,000 gallons a month.

Riot 4 Austerity: The average American generates about 4.5 lbs of garbage PER PERSON, PER DAY. A 90% reduction would mean .45 lbs of garbage PER PERSON, PER DAY.
I mentioned in an earlier post about how surprised I was to find out how people could throw away 4.5 pounds of garbage a day. Between recycling and composting, I have reduced the amount of waste coming from my household. The fewer packaged items (especially plastic) I use, the emptier my garbage bin is. I put out my garbage can less frequently than my neighbors including the person who occupies the other half of the duplex and is there less than 50% of the time. I estimated that I throw out about half the average person, but have started keeping track of the garbage I discard. Based on the last nine weeks, I have discarded approximately 2.75 pounds of garbage per week. This is based on the weight of the garbage in from house plus ~1lb/week allowance for work and eating out. Since I eat out approximately once a week and up until September, used paper towels in the bathroom, I thought this was adequate. I am thrilled I can meet at least one of the 90% reduction goals. This calculation excludes the weight of my old windows. The installers said they did go to the landfill (minus one pane I kept). If I take that weight on myself (and I am unsure of the total), I would exceed the 90% reduction, bringing my total closer to 5 pounds/week. This is less than the typical household, but I will keep working on this number. Being so conscious of what I discard, I feel guilty when I throw away plastic I cannot recycle or reuse (e.g., CD-ROM for an old printer).

Consumer goods
Riot 4 Austerity: The average American spends 10K PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR on consumer goods, on things like gifts, toys, music, books, tools, household goods, cosmetics, toiletries, paper goods, etc… A 90% cut would be 1,000 dollars PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR.
So how is this one calculated? The site states: Used goods are deemed to have an energy cost of 10% of their actual purchase price. That is, if you buy a used sofa for $50, you just spent $5 of your allotment. The reason for this is that used goods bought from previous owners put money back into circulation that is then spent on new goods. This would apply to Craigslist, Yardsales, etc… but not goodwill and other charities, as noted below. This rule does not apply if you know that the item would otherwise be thrown out - that is, if someone says, “If you don’t buy it, I’m going to toss it.” Those items are unlimited as well, because they keep crap out of landfills. Goods that were donated are deemed to be unlimited, with no carbon cost.

With that in mind, I am attempting to keep track of my spending on consumer goods. According to my totals, I have spent $128.58 since July 12. I cannot exclude I have missed a few entries, but most of my purchases are for secondhand goods, many of which have no dollar charged to them since I purchased the items at a charity thrift shop. The remainder are trips to the hardware store and one excursion to Bath and Body Works. I rarely purchase music since I have $5.11 left from my $25 iTunes gift card from Christmas 2007 and have only purchased a used book this year. I hope I can hit the $1,000 mark, but know that garden purchases and any electronics will bring me closer a lot quicker than I anticipate. I would like to keep it under $2,000 and will report on my progress here.

There is one other category (food), but I have chosen to work on these six. How do you think you measure up to the "average" American consumer?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Workplace green-living challenges

I recently had an interesting experience at work that I wanted to share. In my own pursuit of decreasing my waste footprint, I decided rather than throwing away paper towels after washing my hands in the bathroom, I would bring a cotton terry towel to work and use that. This reduces my contribution to the garbage bulk coming from my company, which gets buried in a big hole in the ground, and I purchased the hand towel at a local charity thrift shop, a lovely lilac color with many good years of use left in it.

So while I was cheering myself for my choice and feeling self-righteous, I visited a colleague with some questions on a project. Interestingly, she was clearing out her drawer of old food. Glass jars, cardboard boxes and other items filled up the garbage can to the brim, an item that stands about 18 inches tall, likely a standard rectangular office garbage can. I was stunned not only by the wastefulness of food, which she claimed she was frightened to touch, but the sheer bulk of the items being thrown out. The glass, cardboard and other items could have been recycled. The raisins could have been used in cooking or baking even if past the expiration date. Dry cocoa mix, packets of Pop Tarts, items that have lots of plastic packaging and preservatives are not likely to be bad, just stale.

I just stood there looking at all the waste and just felt overwhelmed. How do I fight against this? Is it just so easy to throw things away that we do not even think about what we are doing? I had wondered how the statistic that each person throws away an average of 4.5 pounds of garbage a day was achieved and now I understand why. For me, the decision to bring a reusable towel to work to dry my hands was a step forward in my more sustainable life, but my stomach dropped looking at my colleague's garbage can. I did not say a word about the waste and walked back to my own cube with its two pieces of garbage, an empty box from my microwave lunch and a facial tissue.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not left the consumer life behind. I just finished two plastic bags of cereal. After ferrying cat poop from the basement, the bags will be thrown away. My 13-gallon kitchen garbage can is nearly full of stuff, much of it plastic, even if it has not been emptied for a month. I do try to think of alternative uses before discarding an item, but many times, the packaging or item is a one-time use only. With curbside garbage and recycling pickup, I can see what my neighbors discard and some of it could be reused (e.g., furniture) or discarded correctly (e.g., computer monitors). I feel like we have let our life become a mindless throw-away one.

If you had been standing at my colleague's desk looking at all the food in containers she was throwing away, what would you have said?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Update on my financial goals for 2008

I have not kept up with my financial goals since May 7 so these are in sore need of reflection. My last update I challenged myself to fully fund my Roth IRA for 2008 rather than just $3,000, an amount I have easily contributed, and kept the other four goals the same. How have I progressed in the intervening months?

1. To reach a net worth of six figures ($100,000).
I was feeling quite optimistic about reaching the six figures in May, but seeing that I have $10,000 to go and only four months left in the year, I am not so certain. Just from a cash basis, I would need to keep $2,500 per month to reach this number, but am likely to only see an extra $2,500 for the next four months if the savings is not touched. Extra money would help, but I have not fully explored what I would need to do to enhance my earnings. I am considering a part-time job for extra savings, but it would likely be short term. Since the stock market has been quite volatile, I am uncertain how much I can count on my retirement funds to make up this value in four months.

2. To have $15,000 in liquid savings for emergency expenses.
I have almost reached this number. I currently have just over $14,000 in savings accounts and CDs and will easily reach my goal by November 2008, pending any emergencies. Part of this money is allocated to car savings, but in a true emergency, I would use all resources if necessity required more than the $6,000 in my bricks-and-mortar credit union. I am glad to see that I can reach such a lofty number and may set some specific goals for emergency only money versus other savings I have allocated for a newer car, a farm, utilities, charity, etc.

3. To have $500 in my "found money" account.
My current balance is $257.49. I used some money to pay for a chest freezer, but also had a substantial deposit of money with an internet subsidy from my workplace. I am earmarking this money for a future computer purchase instead. Taxes took a big bite out of the award, but I hope the interest will make up some of it. Otherwise, contributions have been $2 here, $3.50 there. I am impressed how much these small amounts of money can add up. While I do not think I will reach $500 as a balance in this account, I know that total contributions have reached $500. This really shows the power of small contributions giving a good size total over the year.

4. To fully fund Roth IRA for 2008 at $5,500. Since I can add funds through April 15, 2009 for my 2008 Roth IRA, I will need the extra money from my 2008 Federal tax refund. I usually get some money back, but with my monthly contributions, my tax rebate and the cash from my life insurance, I will have invested almost $4,000 in year 2008. This is good for me as it is ~$1,000 more than last year. Money from extra income or the found money account as well as tax refunds will likely help fill out the balance of the Roth IRA for 2008. This is a stretch goal so I will have to see what I need to do to fulfill the maximum contribution.

5. To generate $2,000 from an alternative income source.
Unless I am inspired and can really build up a business in a short period of time, I am unlikely to reach this number. While I sold many things in the first half of the year, getting me to ~$500, I have not done much in the last few months. This means little was added to the balance from my alternative income. In fact, I have been more focused on buying things for my home and garden than finding ways to make money. With winter coming up, I will have time to consider all possibilities and even implement some before the weather gets too awful.

These results are not as encouraging as I hoped for when I wrote down my goals. While I am thrilled at my cash position, I need work on my net worth and ability to bring in income not based on my salary. My next analysis will likely be at the end of December so I hope that my net worth does reach my goal, but some of that is likely dependent on me being able to generate additional income rather than depending on the stock market to increase my portfolio value.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Analyzing my net worth for August 2008

I am still surprised we have reached September already. It just seems like summer slipped by me although my garden would tell me otherwise. Where does the time go? The same place my money seems to go--in the wind. Actually, August was not that bad, but I realized I have not checked in with my yearly goals so that will be the next post after this. After two months where my assets decreased, I have a positive month. I am reservedly cheering my 2.3% gain and hope that the trend continues.

That crazy 401(k) (and Roth IRA)
In August, both the Fidelity 401(k) and T. Rowe Price Roth IRA were up. While the Roth IRA gained almost $100 of value over my monthly contribution, the 401(k) was up but no where near the amount contributed. However, I will take a few hundred dollars more than last month especially with the markets closing more down than up. The very modest gains seen with the mutual funds prevented these stock-driven values from decreasing my total assets, contributing to a gain for the month.

The extra paycheck month
Being paid biweekly means twice a year, I receive an extra paycheck. Since I calculate all my expenses based on 24 paychecks rather than 26, I carefully plan how to save the extra month I receive. While a good portion is taken by the automatic transfers set up for each pay period, the extra $1,000 means I can pad my emergency savings account or open a new account or CD. This month I chose to split the money from my extra paycheck among emergency savings, car savings, found money account and opened a farm account. The farm account is for accumulating money for my long-term goal of owning and operating a small farm in the country. The extra check also means a boost to my overall cash situation, substantially helping August end on positive note.

Lack of activity on other accounts
Some of my assets are updated yearly, biannually or quarterly. Without new statements, these numbers remain unchanged. With half of my assets remaining unchanged and the others moving into positive territory, I came out with a gain for August.

While I am glad my mortgage is moving glacially downward and my assets are increasing, the gain is not moving as quickly as I like. I really need to buckle down and determine what means I can use to generate more income. I still have plenty of items to sell, but need something more sustainable for the long term to really get me closer to my goals. In looking at my finances, I need an extra $150 per month to get me closer to my dream of self-sufficient living on a farm.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Referral Love for August 2008

Thank to all who are reading this blog whether by subscription or by search. August was not a stellar month for postings, and I hope to make up some ground in September. If my words tickle your fancy, consider subscribing to my RSS feed so you can stay updated with my blog.

I contributed to articles to two carnivals:
Managing my income at The 164th Carnival of Personal Finance: City Slickers Edition hosted by Squawkfox.
Dealing with a monthly paycheck at Carnival of Money Stories #71-Wander Around the World with Me hosted by Value for Your Life.

Thanks for including my posts!

Top Five Referrers
1. Google I find it interesting to see what searches hit my blog and wonder how Google refers people here.
2. Squawkfox
3. The Festival of Frugality I am glad to see people liked my posts enough to follow my blog.
4. Frugal for Life
5. Financial Ramblings I did better in the rankings for July versus June, but FR exhausted me with his multidimensional analysis of the pfblogosphere.

Top Two Articles
1. Planning for Christmas gift giving
2. Recipe Monday: Smoked Gouda Mashed Potatoes
My postings were light in August so Top Five Articles seemed silly.