Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Keeping up with the Joneses, gasoline-guzzler style!

Along the same lines as my previous post, I also keep track of my consumption of gasoline. As I discussed earlier, giving up my car is not an option for me at this point in time. Therefore, I consume gasoline like an American--as long as I can pay for it, I will keep driving. In tallying up my statistics, I was surprised to find that from July 8, 2008 to July 7, 2009, I bought 351.42 gallons of gasoline. Adding in my carpooling opportunities, I consumed an estimated total of 354.92 gallons. Surprisingly, this is down just over 22 gallons from the year before.

While I am nowhere near the Riot 4 Austerity goal of 50 gallons of gasoline for the entire year, I consumed 71% of average. Not great but I improved over last year. To what do I attribute this difference? I suspect part of the reason is my twice monthly work-at-home (telecommute) day. Based on the mileage to work and my car's average mpg, I should have saved about 26 gallons. That is close to my actually gallon savings.

To fill out my numbers game, I tallied my mileage over this same period (9,638.8 miles) and divided by the gasoline consumed by my car to yield a 27.4 mpg over the last 12 months. I thought I calculated closer to 28 mpg last time so I was disappointed that I lost some ground. Still, that means in August 2011, I will reach the average mileage lifetime for my car if I am still driving it. Here is hoping I can make it to 150,000 miles!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Consumer goods spending for the past 12 months

As part of the Riot 4 Austerity goals, I have been keeping track of my consumer goods spending. The Web site states:
The average American spends 10K PER HOUSEHOLD, PER YEAR on consumer goods, not including things like mortgage, health care, debt service, car payments, etc… Obviously, we recommend you minimize those things to the extent you can, but what we’re mostly talking about is 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.
Used goods are deemed to have an energy cost of 10% of their actual purchase price.
Goods that were donated are deemed to be unlimited, with no carbon cost.

Since I have been tallying my spending for a year, I thought I would finally add up what I have spent on consumer goods according to the rules. Since much of my money was spent at charity thrift shops, I did not count any of those totals. Garage sales and craigslist's finds were only 10% of what I spent and everything else (Walgreens, hardware store, etc.) was full price as I was paying for new.

So what was my total? Acknowledging that I may have forgotten to note a few spending opportunities, I spent $1,138.33 from July 2008 to July 2009. I will round that up to $1,150 to accommodate spending not accounted for. I really wanted to hit the $1,000 goal and I would have except I did buy a new tree for my yard. While I was not sure if gardening items were really part of this (shrubs, trees and plants), I counted them anyway.

Then I remembered I had a large purchase in June--a replacement laptop plus supplies from Amazon. Instead of nearly reaching the 90% reduction goal, I spent $3,100 over the last year. If I would have been able to wait until next year (or at least until August), I could have patted myself on the back at reaching the consumer goods goal. Unfortunately, a large purchase was enough to more than double what I thought I spent. However, this gives me a personal goal to reach in the next 12 months--spending less than $3,000 in one year.

Other expenses that added up included a couple of heavy spending trips. Once or twice a year, I take a day or a week off and among other things, do a lot of my accumulated "want and need" spending. That is, if I need more socks, want new light fixtures or the bath mat is beginning to wear, I make a list and hit several stores in one day. Not being a big fan of shopping, this gets what I need and what I would like to stock up for a year out of the way at once. Fighting crowds is not my idea of fun so I prefer to go on a weekday in the morning. Since these trips are heavily invested in new items, I noticed about 60% of my accumulated spending came from two shopping trips (excluding my new computer purchase).

While this goal was not the success I hoped for, I can continue to focus on buying secondhand, whether off craigslist, at a garage sale or from charity thrift stores. Much of my spending was kept lower because I pursued this option. I believe I can do better for next year but acknowledge that a curve ball (or two) could throw off me off my goal.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The big environmental hurdles

Despite professing my desire for greener living and lowering my environmental footprint on this planet, there are changes I have not embraced. These include:

My diet
I was raised with meat and potatoes as the staples of my supper. As the daughter of a dairy farmer, I consumed plenty of meat and dairy products except for Fridays because we were Catholic and did not eat meat that day of the week. While I now drink 1% milk rather than raw whole milk, the quantity has not decreased. However, I have decreased my meat consumption but never to zero. I find myself craving a hamburger if I have not had red meat for a while and I desire milk when I have not consumed for as few as two days. Asking me to part with cheese is like asking me to mow 10 acres of lawn--extremely undesirable.

I know that the environmental costs of keeping me in a meat diet are much greater than eating lower on the food chain (i.e., a vegetarian diet). I can mitigate some of the evils of my diet by going local and organic but I have converted little of my diet to grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and sustainably harvested fish. While I might incorporate more of locally grown and harvested food in my diet, I still enjoy eating meat I can easily find at a grocery store.

My car
I live in a suburb in the United States of America. I was raised in a country that has a love affair with cars and thinks little of jumping in one and traveling to wherever his or her heart desires. While I may combine errands, enjoy my occasional telecommute to work and try to park the car at least one day a week, I still use my car at least five times a week. While I may not feel a strong attachment to my car like some, I have few other options to get me to my workplace, the doctor, my family and necessities. Therefore, I consume gasoline, pump out carbon dioxide and otherwise pollute to use the easy transportation of a car. Unfortunately, I see no way around it. Despite looking for a carpooling buddy and knowing people at my workplace drive from the same city, I still drive alone because few seem interested coordinating rides with another person. I could look harder than I have for someone to carpool with but I have had no response when I have made attempts.

Even with a desire to carpool or even park my car for five or more days of the week, I work at a distance greater than I am able to bicycle and there are no mass transit options. Because my desire is leading me to a rural location, I anticipate my future driving needs will stay the same or even increase.

My electrical and natural gas consumption
While I am conscious of my fossil fuel use and what burning it does to the environment, I still use it. I keep my thermostat low in the winter and high in the summer. However, I also have a refrigerator, a chest freezer and in the summer, two dehumidifiers, all keeping my kilowatt hours high. Currently, I have four computers (three laptops and one desktop), an electric toothbrush, electric lawnmower, electric snow thrower, TV, electronics and lights with occasional contributions by my iPod and iPhone when they are recharged. While the use of some of these are optional (e.g., television), I leave them all plugged in when not in use. I also like having warm water at the turn of faucet handle, all heated with my natural gas water heater.

While I try to reduce how much electricity I consume, I am not planning on replacing my refrigerator (~12 years old) or my air conditioning unit (~15 years old) just to reduce my electrical usage. I can think of no good alternative to running two dehumidifiers in my basement and there are too many things like my MacBook Pro and electric toothbrush I just cannot give up without a fight. Nor can I completely abandon use of the air conditioner (temperatures are predicted to be above 90 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity for the next two days) or my furnace. Therefore, I will continue to use my devices of my modern, convenient life including my natural-gas burning furnace and water heater.

It is not easy to walk away from things that would have the greatest effect on my use of finite resources. I plan to take advantage of the local farmer's market for some of my needs but it does not replace my monthly run to the grocery store. I continue to be conscious of my fossil fuel use but will attend the monthly family dinner that requires me to drive 150 miles round trip. My love affair with my MacBook Pro will not end anytime soon. Therefore, I will continue trimming here and there and hope I can reduce my consumption of nearly five times my share of this planet to a more reasonable two or less. My planned changes get me closer to four so I will continue to seek ways to reduce my environmental footprint.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Workplace worries

It is interesting to learn how each of us feel we are vulnerable at work. Recently, 70% of one of the departments at my workplace was let go--including the Vice President in charge of the department. While we had been seeing some reorganization with occasional "release" of people without positions, there was no wholesale firings. With this latest salvo, all of us in my department became more concerned with how long we might have our jobs.

Honestly, I believe that more people would be fired before anyone in our department would be touched. We are intimately connected to the company's Web content and technical literature so wholesale firing will not happen. In fact, we have enough work that we could take on another person or two to help out.

I have been in my department for 4.5 years but I still the newest person in the department. If nothing else, I can imagine that the newest person would be fired first. One of my colleagues thinks that since she does not have a computer at home (and in many ways, only tolerates her computer at work), she is more vulnerable because she is not technosavvy. Another person who runs much of the administrative work in our department feels that when the content management system is put into place, she is out of a job.

I feel both of these people add more to their job than lack of technology knowledge and entering and keeping track of lots of data. However, the end result is that even if you have 20 years with a company, they can still make a financial decision and let you go. I know that in three years or so, I will have to decide if I keep my position with the company, ask to change the situation (e.g., part-time with a mostly telecommuting option) or leave. Hopefully, my company and I will not part ways until I am ready, not because the restructuring left me out of my position.

How vulnerable are you feeling at work?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Fix it or buy new, that is my choice

I may write about how my savings accounts are growing and that my net worth is up but I still make decisions that may set me back. Recently, I had to decide between fixing my electric lawn mower or repairing the one I have. Let me set up the story:

I was reluctantly mowing my lawn and completed cutting 2/3 of my grassy area when I decided to stop and get a drink of water. After I came out of my house and tried to mow again, absolutely nothing happened. I did the basic troubleshooting: is it the power to the lawn mower? Fuse box was fine. Was it the cord? Second cord (with light on end) lit up but did not move the motor. What did the owner's manual say? Perform the steps I did and if that did not resolve the issue, take the mower to a Black and Decker service provider.

Two weeks later, I get the news that the motor was the problem, a replacement part was $150 and labor would be $60. I was advised to junk my lawn mower and get a new one. My dilemma was do I fix what I have and waste fewer resources or buy a new lawn mower and hope it lasts longer than three years? I was assured that the lawn mower would not simply go into the big garbage hole in the ground so that was one less burden.

After doing some looking around, reading specifications and consumer reviews, I settled on buying a new lawn mower for $205. However, it had been two weeks since I last mowed my lawn and while my neighbor kindly offered his gas-powered lawn mower whenever I needed it, I have not asked him for it. With the necessity of mowing my lawn (some areas definitely needed a trim), I paid extra for two-day shipping bringing my total purchase to $280.

Buying a new lawn mower was not in my sights at all. I was happy with my Black and Decker model--until it quit on me. I am disappointed I received just under three seasons of service before the motor came to the end of its lifetime. I am hoping my new Earthwise 20-inch electric mower has a longer lifespan than my other corded electric model. Luckily, I did have money in my home savings account that easily covered this cost but I did create a greater cost by paying for two-day shipping.

Do you agree with my actions?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Overwhelmed by my garden!

Sometimes the garden bounty is too much. My plans for my cucumbers this year included pickling with some jalapenos to create hot pickles for my brother for Christmas. I have never pickled anything before--a new task for me to try--and an easy way to create a gift. Or so I thought. However, early destruction of half my cucumber plants had me worried that I would not have enough to make pickles.

I also started the Early Jalapeno peppers later than the rest of my seedlings so I had blossoms on my cucumbers while the pepper was still growing. Okay, poor planning on my part but I could still pickle my cucumbers, right? If I catch them in time.

Every time I visit the garden, which is daily with all the green beans coming in, I find another slicing cucumber or two. While this is not bad alone, I wanted pickling cucumbers, which are smaller, and I am only one person. I like cucumbers but not that much! So what do I do? Hope I catch the cucumbers earlier and give away my produce. I would have thought with only two plants, I could keep up with the cucumbers but I have proven that false. The darn things hide, I swear!

Here is hoping I run out of cucumbers before I run out of neighbors and friends!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Trying something new--the shampoo bar

In my quest to reduce my plastic consumption, I have examined my personal care products for ways to improve my environmental footprint. Not only does shampoo, conditioner, body wash and facial cleanser come in plastic bottles, many additives are not great for me or the environment. Down the drain does not mean gone forever as extensive tests and scientific reports have shown.

At the farmers market I visit weekly, one vendor sells homemade soap. While I have the best of intentions to make my own soap with lye, olive oil and a touch of honey, the ingredients are still on my pantry shelves and I remain hopeful I will make it in the future. One item that caught my eye recently at the soap vendor was a shampoo bar. Talk about environmentally friendly packaging and reduced waste! Here was a solid bar for shampooing my hair, the ingredient list was short (and understandable) and the packaging was minimal--just a thin cardboard box.

When I inquired about the item, the seller explained I just had to use on my hair as it lathers up like liquid shampoo and rinse it out. If I felt a residue, more prone to this in hard water than in soft, use some diluted vinegar (~50% solution from what you buy in the grocery store) and spray on my hair to rinse it clean.

I was excited to try my new shampoo bar because it was novel. I wet my hair, easily moved the bar over the hair and lathered well. It felt just like I was using liquid shampoo except I rubbed a bar on my roots. I rinsed it out and while the hair was a bit tackier than normal, it was clean and free of oil and styling products. My hair curled nicely but I did notice the tackiness I felt after shampooing translated to more gunky feeling hair by the end of the second day. Since I wash my hair every two days, this was not awful but I plan on rinsing with some vinegar the next time I use it.

In total, I used the shampoo bar three times and was happy with its performance. The tacky residue was disconcerting but my hair did not seem to act differently than with liquid shampoo. I will definitely keep using the bar and will try the vinegar rinse to see how it affects the tacky feeling and the residue after two days.

While I am happy with the shampoo bar, there are still several bottles of perfectly good shampoo stashed away and even some I really enjoy using. I will not be trading in the plastic bottle for the cardboard box permanently, but as a companion to my current personal care regime. Now if I could only find the perfect facial cleanser for summer and winter...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Latest frugal acquistion

I am a person who can become intently focused on an idea or a plan. To ensure I had enough canning supplies, I recently added more pectin, jars, lids and bands to my collection even though I am not sure how much I will really use for canning jam and tomatoes with my water bath canner. In 2007, I decided I wanted a used bicycle for around $20. It took me a few months but I purchased one for $25 in wintertime. My latest quest: a used tent.

Now, I have never been camping except in a truck-topped camper when I was a young lass. There is no urge to pack up and hit the road with a tent. However, it would be nice to sleep outside when it is warm and see how I might like camping in a tent--at least in my own yard. My first stop was craigslist, and my experience was more interesting than I wanted it to be.

Again, I was setting the threshold for cost low because I did not want to invest much money in something I may or may not be using. So my target cost was $20. Surprisingly, there were more than a few near this mark. Unfortunately, I encountered several issues in seeking a tent to call my own:

  1. I did not contact the seller soon enough and lost out to someone who e-mailed quicker.

  2. My offer was too low for the seller.

  3. I was looking at tents that while in my price range were larger than I needed (and were difficult for one person to assemble).

  4. I was treated to a reprimand on how to do business when the seller was unhappy I chose not to buy his tent.

However, my persistence and desire not to go beyond $25 paid off. I attended a garage sale where a two-person tent was available. It was a dome tent, shorter than me and could be assembled by one person. The price on the item was $20, and the seller was on her third day of the garage sale. I offered $15 and she accepted it.

To prove that even an ignorant person like myself who only saw a single one tent assembled could put one together, I set it up on my lawn--successfully. It was the size, style and ease-of-assembly that I realized I could use. The drawback to my purchase: some transfer of darker color to lighter color on the fabric and an interesting aroma I will try to bake out of the tent. Even if I get only a use or two out of the tent, it will be worth spending $15 to try it out.

What do you think of my tent deal? Was I cheap or was I frugal?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Second quarterly update for my 2009 financial goals

Net worth: Since I last reported in April, I have seen my net worth increase each month. My focus on saving and consistently contributing to both my 401(k) and Roth IRA have given me a 12.6% increase in my net worth since April 1. This is much better than I ever expected especially in the face of losses in late 2008.

1. Fully fund my 2009 Roth IRA with $5,000.
I am 47.7% to my goal. With the 1.9% merit increase in my pay check, I placed most of this new money toward my Roth IRA. With a little help from my regular savings account, I am on track to nearly fully fund my account by the end of the year. Plus it is nice to see the balance this account back above five digits and moving fund worth closer to amount I contributed (although still lagging).

2. Save $2,500 for purchase of a newer vehicle.
I am pleased about my progress towards this goal. To date, I have an additional $1,454 in this account. Much of this increase is due to systematic contributions but leftover money from my gasoline spending category has helped. This month, I will have additional savings from my extra paycheck. With more than halfway to my goal, I am confident I will reach this goal.

3. End the year with $1,500 in my farm savings account.
With monthly transfers to this account, my savings has reached just over $807. I plan to contribute some money from my extra check (three pay periods instead of the usual two this month) so this should push me closer to my goal. This goal seems to be within my reach.

4. Accumulate $800 toward buying a new computer.
Unfortunately, I was unable to hit this goal. With my trusty iBook G4 losing its cooling fan and me being addicted to Apple laptops and surfing the Web, I purchased a refurbished 15" MacBook Pro for $1528.70 with a $262.67 AppleCare Plan, and had to use $1,100 from my regular savings account to fund the purchase. This meant I did have just under $700 saved for the computer purchase. Because I owe myself money, the money I get from selling my iBook G4 and the final installment of my internet funding award in 2010 will go toward mitigating the raid on my savings account.

4. Save $600 by August 2010 for a potential vacation.
This is my replacement goal and one I should be able to fulfill. My monthly contributions will get me to $533 and I had a few dollars extra from my FSA account that I had subtracted from my spending plan. With at least two more pay periods before August that have a bonus check, I should be able to reach my goal with little stress.

Overall, I am doing better than I thought I could be. While a positive trend is nice in the stock market, good old-fashioned savings is also boosting my bottom line. How are you doing financially?

Friday, July 17, 2009

A change in my savings goals

An opportunity to visit a part of the United States I have not see before has arisen. My dad's mother's side of the family whose German relatives hosted the family reunion in Germany in 2007 is now looking to gather in Missouri in September 2010. While I have not committed myself to the trip, I am interested enough that I started looking at where I could save money for this trip. My reasoning is twofold:
  1. Saving money for this trip means it does not come out of my emergency funding nor steals from my other financial goals.

  2. If I decide against the trip, the money can be redistributed or used for other purposes.

The drawback to my savings plans: I have no idea how much I need for the trip. My mother suggested I aim for $500. Starting with that number, I carefully analyzed my spending plan and my current savings amounts. This is what I have decided:
$10 from my monthly cat care allocation (I have only one cat to care for)
$10 from my personal care allocation (my spending has decreased in this category)
$1 from my gift spending account (buying secondhand and making items has given me more breathing room here)
$10 from savings (I reduce the amount to savings by this amount every month)
$10 from house savings (I decrease my contributions by this amount each month)
$41 total

Since there are 13 months between now and September 2010, I estimate that I can save $533. That does not include money from extra checks (there are three between now and then) or any other sources. This is a good start for my vacation fund and an extra cushion if something else arises. I may change my mind after I see the estimated price tag for the family reunion but more savings will help fund my other financial goals.

What do you think of my changed plans?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Summer garden update

My garden and its harvest is keeping me busier than I anticipated. With sparse rain, I have to water the garden using captured rain water. Weeds seem to have gotten away from me and my asparagus trench needs to be filled in. Too bad I lack enough dirt to do so. (Can you help, Dad?) And my future plans include converting more of my lawn to grow food. Is putting in a garden and laboring over it worth my time?

This is all part of my learning process. Just because I grew up on a farm and my mom had a large garden does not translate into instant ability to grow things. I have lost corn seeds, corn seedlings, herbs, cucumbers, carrots and beans to various predators of the insect or mammalian variety. I am still uncertain what was attacking my beans but have accepted the loss as part of vagaries of gardening.

So far I have harvested 70 ounces of strawberries, two garlic scapes, 25 ounces of peas (includes the pod) and 8 cups of rhubarb from my garden. I purchased ~35 pounds of strawberries either at a u-pick farm or from the farmer's market, and I picked 14 cups of rhubarb from a friend's house.

My own strawberry harvest took at least a 25% hit from insect damage and ~25 ounces of pea pods has given me about a cup and a quarter of peas. Since picking peas is still new to me, I harvested pods before the peas had matured. The garlic scapes are too new for me to incorporate them easily into my diet but part of the reason I put in a garden was to try new things, both growing and eating them.

I estimate my 3.3 pounds of strawberries was worth ~$13 at a farmer's market.
My 8 cup rhubarb harvest is worth ~$6.50 at the farmer's market.
The garlic scapes are worth less than $1 since I saw one vender at my regular farmer's market selling garlic scapes for $2.50 for 1/2 pound.
The 21 ounces of Romaine-type lettuce was worth ~$3.50
My current 12 ounce pea harvest is worth ~$5.00 with more on the vine.

My garden is in a holding pattern between the early and midseason crops. The garlic and onions are nearly ready and blossoming potatoes means I can harvest small ones while the beans and solo pepper plant have only started blooming. My corn has tassels and silks, my plants are loading up with green tomatoes, the carrots seem healthy and the cucumbers are tiny. I am hoping to plant some broccoli and carrots for the fall. My herbs are still in small pots and need to be transplanted. I plan on getting around to it before cooler weather settles in--permanently. Surveying the garden, picking wild black raspberries and fighting Japanese beetles are taking a goodly share of my time. My next post will address some changes to saving my money.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Being safe in a turbulent world

During a recent family gathering, my siblings and I were discussing crimes. I mentioned that a couple years ago, my city had a rash of home break ins where teenagers were getting into homes through unlocked sliding glass doors and taking purses from kitchen tables. Since I emphasized the unlocked doors, my brother commented "So are you saying they asked for it?" My response: "No one asks for that but I believe in being cautious."

What do I mean by being cautious? For example, placing a sturdy piece of wood or length of metal pipe to prevent the sliding door from opening more than a few inches is a good precaution to take to deter intruders and still get the air circulating in the home. If a person might be looking for a crime of opportunity (e.g., unlocked door and visible purse), making it more difficult to get access to the home may help prevent your home from being invaded.

What does this have to do with money aside from the obvious? Having a savings account and spending less than you earn is one way to be safer in a world determined to part you from your money. By playing defense with your earnings, putting away the extra and accumulating a stash of money over time, you can reduce and eliminate debt, cover unexpected emergency expenses and even support yourself in case of job loss or injury.

No one likes to consider the worst case scenario. Despite my own health scare a year ago, I still have not put together a will. However, I could cover my living expenses for at least 10 months if I became sick and unable to work. I also have disability insurance through my workplace that would cover part of my salary during my illness or injury.

By earning more than I spend and saving what I can, I have built up a cushion of money that can help me through many obstacles. While contemplating the loss of a job is no fun, I know I have some time before money gets critical, which is better than losing my job and wondering how I will pay all my bills next month.

Like keeping a length of wood in a sliding door to deter thieves, a savings account can alleviate some of the anxiety of financial emergencies or job loss. The risk is not eliminated as I could be searching for a job longer than my 10 months worth of savings, but I can minimize the effects of a turbulent job market (and reduce my stress) by having money to help me through any rough spots I encounter.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Taking on more than I realized

In my previous post, I talked about how I had picked strawberries, was making jam and had plans for more strawberries and more jam making. Well, I picked nearly 20 pounds today and picked up four quarts at the farmer's market on Thursday. Needless to say, I am overwhelmed and wondering how I can get it all down. Until I have managed my oversupply of strawberries, I will be absent.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Jamming with strawberries

Where I live, it is strawberry picking season. I have been harvesting from my own patch and supplementing my small quantities with a u-pick strawberry place, the one I visited last year. So far, I have picked 10.6 pounds and harvested ~1 quart from my own patch. My plans include harvesting at least 20 pounds more of strawberries at the u-pick farm. Quite ambitious for a single woman so what do I plan to do with all those strawberries?

After picking my first quantity of strawberries, I came home and made a batch of strawberry freezer jam (three pints total). I was so thrilled to finally have some strawberry jam in the house and could not wait to share with my friends and family. Just in time for birthday gifts! I also froze about 96 ounces of strawberries for later use. I love jam but I do not need to have all the jam made now. However, it would be interesting test to see if I had purchased enough jelly jars to handle all the jam.

I had tried the reduced sugar freezer jam last year and thought the result was all right. Since strawberries are sweeter, I have higher hopes for the flavor but this second batch of 3.5 pints of freezer jam was stored for later eating.

There was one last package of pectin left in my house and I decided to take an adventurous leap. At Christmastime, I asked for and received the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. There are many different recipes for jams and jellies in the book and after a looking it over, I decided to try the strawberry rhubarb cooked jam. This would not only be my first foray into cooked jams (aside from childhood memories of my mom making it) but also the first time I was using my hot-water-bath canner I purchased from craigslist.

Other than some uncomfortable splashes from the hot fruit, I managed to get through the preparation, cooking and canning steps. In fact, all six of the half-pint jars sealed almost immediately after removal from the water bath. And my sample said the strawberry rhubarb jam was excellent. Now I can save some freezer space and know that I am able to can successfully. I wonder what jam I will make next--after restocking pectin of course.

Do you have any jam-making plans?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Gardening can be discouraging

I have spent a lot of time over the three and a half years I have lived in my house digging, planting and otherwise altering the landscape to my liking. In the last two years, I have become more serious about raising my own food. Despite all my best efforts (and many of my lazy ones), it is still an uphill battle.

I have killed one tree only 12 inches tall because I did not water it enough. I have planted hostas that may or may not have returned the next year; ditto with phlox and a daylily. I have a half-hearted attempt at a return from one of six nodding pink onions I planted. My butterfly weed has pulled a vanishing act (hardy native plant--yeah right) and I only imagined planting all those tulips and crocuses.

However, the most frustrating is trying to grow your own food and pests have decided to interfere. My beans, mostly bush type, are looking quite tattered. I have no idea what insect is the cause. The tops of my good-looking carrots are looking shorter and more naked--is an adventurous squirrel or another animal getting through my fencing? My cucumbers are looking stunted and a corn plant was sacrificed to the appetite of one of those bunnies I see running through the neighborhood.

I put up more fencing, I tried to protect the carrots by caging them (no free-range carrots for me) and I am hoping I see some beans this year. At least the lettuce, tomatoes, onions, garlic and potatoes are looking good. The strawberries have been nibbled on but are mostly intact.

Why do I list all these incidents? Because it can be frustrating. Weeds are a constant battle. Successfully growing what you want among items you are not so fond of is a challenge. I just keep trying at the homestead, keeping plants as healthy as I can and experiment with compost topdressing, more mulch, liquid fertilizer and judicious watering. I try to learn from my errors and try again, even if weeds get the better of me. It will all work out, right? The bean harvest just may be lighter than I hoped for.

Like my financial plans, I keep doing the best I can and examine my progress at the end of the year. If nothing else, I have shaved 15 minutes off my lawn mowing time.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Sometimes prudence does not win

I have been saving for a new computer and looking forward to this time next year when I would purchase a new MacBook Pro to replace my iBook G4. My Quicksilver G4 Tower despite being older, is not slated for replacement. I plan on keeping it as long as I can access all my electronic accounts and use the hard drive as a back up. However, after dealing with unexpected veterinary bills that added up to $700, my iBook G4 decided it was time to freeze because the cooling fan stopped running.

While alone, the fan does not seem like a big issue, I did not realize what the problem was at first. Unfortunately, I started seeing errors regarding start up files and the iBook was starting up suspiciously quickly. Frugal Pursuit goes into panic mode, starts backing up files to the G4 Tower and the backup hard drive. Then she realizes how addicted to using a portable Mac to access the web and visits the Apple Store to see what refurbished MacBook Pro models are available.

The bottom line: I spent $1,528.70 for a refurbished 15 inch 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro. After I receive the new computer, I will transfer all content onto the new Mac, confirm all the information is present and then sell my iBook G4 either on craig's list or on eBay. Someone else may want to tinker with the computer and I get it out of my house.

The MacBook Pro is a want but I have a nearly nonfunctional iBook and an insatiable desire for Web surfing on my sofa. While I do have to dip into savings for the new purchase, I should not have to buy a new laptop for another four years.

What do you think of my purchase?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Planning for a shady future

When people talk about the responsibilities of being a homeowner, items like mowing the lawn, cleaning out the gutters, replacing appliances and repairing roof shingles or siding are usually discussed. Still tangible but not directly related to the home are the trees around the property; specifically the mature trees. When I purchased my house, it had only one tree on the property, likely planted when the duplex was built. This means I have a ~40 year-old green ash tree on the southwestern corner of my house.

When I took ownership, one of the first things I did was plant another shade tree, Tilia americana or a basswood in Fall 2006. Aside from the Japanese beetles that like to defoliate the tree, my originally ~6 feet-tall tree is now nearly 9 feet tall. In the intervening years I have planted a total of four trees, all of different genuses and varying heights but always less than six feet. While some are slower than others (my Sorbus americana or mountain ash [excruciatingly slow] versus Ostrya virginiana or hophornbeam [definitely growing]), I knew I was planting for the future and to maximize the diversity on my small lot.

My first spring in the house, I had noticed that my mature tree had some dead branches and was worried the part overhanging my roof would pose a danger. After talking with three arborists, I hired one to trim my tree and lighten the load from the ends of the branches. The arborist I chose estimated I may have 20 good years left in the tree, assuming no other factors like weather intervene.

Last summer, I noticed the western side of my tree had leaves that looked scorched and were dropped early. While I had some concerns, I did not seek the advice of an arborist. In the face of slow leafing out and almost nothing on the western side this spring, I did ask an arborist to stop by and look at my tree. He diagnosed anthracnose, a fungal disease. While a healthy tree can live through this disease with some support, my tree is more like a shrub with no leader stem and many branches with leafy weight on the end. Furthermore, there is an open wound on the tree that may not be healing all that well. On top of all this, emerald ash borer is now present in my state. These factors lead the arborist I consulted to suggest I plant a tree right next to the green ash so there is an established tree when it needs to be taken down.

While there is no way to know if my tree will survive another five years or more, I was worried that the lone mature tree on my property was under threat if not in dire straits. Lacking a mature tree does affect the value of my home. However, I had already chosen another tree to plant just in case I had to select one to replace the ash tree. Therefore, I visited a local nursery, picked out an Acer saccharum (sugar maple) and planted it seven feet from my green ash tree. It stands about nine feet tall and based on my research, should be a good shade tree for the property.

I had hoped that my ash tree could last until I sold the property but having a new tree in place, ready to take over when other needs to be removed will help diminish the loss of my sole mature tree. If conditions are ideal, the sugar maple can grow up to 12 inches a year. If the ash tree lasts long enough, the sugar maple will make a worthy transition from small tree to shade tree.

Have you encountered similar tree-related issues?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

How I deal with overspending

I talk about my spending plans and my savings goals but rarely talk about breaking the budget. Most times, my spending plan keeps me on track to ensure I spend less than I earn. However, there are also times I just do not keep within the spending limits of my category allocations. How do I handle this situation?

Minimize the excess spending.
This is always the best strategy even if it may not be the most realistic. I estimate I overspend ~5% of the time so this reduces the chances of spending too much. I also try not to go more than a few dollars over the spending plan allocation. Again, this can be a challenge but I try to reduce the chances I need to steal from my savings account to fund my overspending.

Keep the overspending in the same month's budget.
This is where I start playing with several categories allocation. For example, if I exceed the limits of my personal care category, I see if there is any money I can use in miscellaneous or even entertainment. Yes, I do stretch some definitions but I am trying not to use my savings. If overspending occurs at the end of the month, there may not be enough left in other categories to fund my shameful excess.

Use the next month's allocation if the same month cannot fund the excess spending.
Yes, I do spend into the next month if I see no other way around my overindulgence. In May, I did exceed my grocery limit and could no longer use money in my eating out allocation. Therefore, I subtracted the amount from my June grocery allocation. I do not recommend this because the overspending can carry over too far. If the category is exceeded in the next month, I suggest either taking the money from savings before compromising another month's spending, or rethink the amount allocated in a particular spending category especially if this category tends to run over more than twice a year.

Raid the savings account.
This is the last resort because the reason for the spending plan is to keep my spending in check. However, I sometimes have to admit defeat and just steal from my savings account. This is not ideal since overspending does not constitute an emergency. As long as this happens two times or fewer in a year and does not exceed $100, I forgive myself the excess. More than that, I start to take a closer look at why I exceeding my spending caps and what do I need to do differently.

Any thoughts on overspending and how to handle it within a spending plan?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Coming soon: Changes to my city's garbage collection

One of my personal goals was to attend a city council meeting where I live. While I have not made it to a full council meeting, I recently made it to a special meeting of the Public Works Committee. Why did I care about the Public Works meeting? It was discussing changes in refuse and recycling pickup in my city. Four different contractors were competing for the city's contract, which is set to expire January 1, 2010.

Our current garbage and recycling handler is the largest in the United States--Waste Management. They manually collect garbage and recycling curbside with unlimited pickup. What does this mean? Residents are not charged extra for discarding lots of items on the curb. For those of us who put out a garbage can once every three months, we subsidize those who put out garbage weekly. In an ideal world, I would rather have a pay-for-what-you-discard plan.

However, the meeting was about the four potential contractors giving a short presentation and answering six questions posed by the city council. All four put in bids for automated collection of garbage and recycling; two put in bids for manual collection including the city's current contractor. Automated recycling means each address would have to get two new bins, store them and wheel them out on collection day. The size of the containers ranged from 32 gallons to a whopping 96 gallons. When I asked a contractor why give someone license to discard 96 gallons worth of stuff, he answered, "large families need it" and informed me about the unlimited pickup. I was skeptical about this "necessity". When I was growing up, I was one of five children and we did not discard enough garbage to fill up a 96-gallon bin in a single week.

The main lesson I learned from this meeting: garbage and recycling collection by contractors is not a simple process. The meeting was sparsely attended for an issue that affects the entire city. All the contractors emphasized how using automated pickup increased recycling efforts by over 10%. Two contractors informed the audience that the automated collection bins helped beautify the city with our garbage neatly contained in the plastic bins and picked up automatically. I can vouch for the messiness of manual pickup since I have found items by my curb that I never discarded. Yet, we would have to pay for these brand new bins and still deal with the old ones we have. Not the greenest endeavor for the planet.

While I appreciated learning more about how garbage and recycling collection works, I was discouraged by the fuel surcharges, the size of the bins and the emphasis on being greener via recycling without any consideration for the pollution generated by 25 ton garbage trucks that stop and start constantly. I have my personal pick for the contract I would like to see filled but the smaller, family-owned operation with their own recycling plant will likely be outbid by the larger companies. I will see what happens later this month when the committee votes on the matter.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Referral Love for January-May 2009

I have not offered a thank you posting for a while so I shall rectify the matter immediately!

There have been many kind people and blogs that have mentioned Frugal Pursuit and driven additional traffic to my modest postings. I appreciate the links from blog home pages and tweets of my offerings. Thanks to all those who have commented; I enjoy hearing from my readers. To save you the frustration of visiting my blog and finding I have not posted yet again, please subscribe to my RSS feed. This is an easy way to get updates without the time-consuming visits to my URL.

Top Five Referrers (excluding search engines):
1. (I swear these cannot all be my visits!)
4. (Have subscribed to the RSS feed and enjoying the posts)

Top Five Articles for 2009 (YTD):
1. Creative reuses for plastic bags Thank you to @lighterfootstep for tweeting my posting.
2. Roundabout mortgage payment with escrow
3. Eating what you want for less Thanks again to @lighterfootstep for the tweet of my post.
4. A brief overview of Roth IRAs I am always looking for more information on retirement accounts; the popularity of this post shows I am not the only one.
5. Getting my 2009 tax refund now

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Being prepared in an unstable world

The only debt I currently hold is my mortgage debt. I live off less than 50% of my gross income from my current job and can comfortably afford my mortgage and other expenses. If the worst comes along, how prepared am I to pay for my necessities?

Keep an emergency savings of at least three month's expenses.
This is in place with additional savings if I raid the accounts that are funding my savings goals. This means at my current expense level, I can afford to draw down my savings before I run into financial troubles. Of course, there are expenditures I can cut in the face of no income that would also help stretch my savings.

Update your resume.
Unfortunately, I am not prepared. I have two things working against me: complacency in my job and laziness. While I have thought about updating my resume, I have not translated this into action. There are always other things (gardening, my cats, other issues) that arise and distract me from this task. The way to turn this around: decide to take action and make it a priority.

Maintain your network.
Keeping in touch with your neighbors, friends, acquaintances, current and former colleagues will only help if you lose your job. The more people you can ask for help, the more likely you are to find something because they know something of you. My network is rather small but I leverage it as well as I can when I need help. While I have yet to do this, make sure your LinkedIn profile is up-to-date and your virtual network ready to tap. In this market, the want ads are sparse and finding job leads are difficult.

While I believe my job is secure, it behooves me to be prepared in the event I am downsized or I find an opportunity I want to pursue. A current resume with a great network and several months of expenses saved are a good basis for continuing that mortgage payment and other financial obligations without wondering where the money will come from.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Decorating the outdoor space for less

Before, I listed some ideas that would help a new (or not-so-new) homeowner in decorating and furnishing the interior of a house without going into debt. However, there comes a point where the inside is not all that needs to be refurbished. What about the green(ish?) space outside? Here are a few ideas that might get the creative juices flowing

Throw yourself on the mercy of your neighbors.
Well, maybe not literally as that might get you an unwanted reputation. However, neighbors may have been around the suburb, city, countryside for a while and have some plants that might need dividing. You might inquire if you can have some plant divisions in exchange for helping refresh their garden beds. You get something to plant around the house out of the deal, and a neighbor is happy that she had some garden work done and a sucker to take that plant off her hands. Plants that can be divided include hostas, coneflowers, daylilies, bleeding hearts, rhubarb (why not go for edibles?), chives and many more.

Shop curbside.
If you have never scavenged and live in a semiurban to urban area, you are in for a treat! People throw out the darndest things--garden hoses, rakes, lawn mowers, lumber, chairs, fencing and so much more. If you can make minor repairs, many of these items can be yours and functioning with minimal cost. Find a bench that has seen better days? Sand it down and paint it; now you have a seat for under the shade tree. Scrap lumber can mean a new raised bed for flowers or veggies. That leaky hose that someone threw out can become your drip irrigation system. Just add holes and lay it where you need it.

If the repair is outside your capability, offer the item on craigslist for free and let someone else have the joy of fixing it. You might even work out a deal where you pay a small fee and they fix it for you!

Check the classifieds (e.g., craigslist).
If curbside is not your thing (I urge you to try it as it is difficult to beat the price), shop from the comfort of your own home. People offer a wide array of items on craigslist and other free electronic classifieds. Plants, trees, animals, rusted old farm equipment, items the owners cannot figure out--all there for you to find and pay a small fee to bring home. If your neighbors' selection of plants do not satisfy you, I know you will find more on craigslist. Try the farm and garden section for most of your outdoor needs or use the search box if you dare. I have been lucky enough that some people will deliver items that I cannot fit in my car.

Use word of mouth.
People love being helpful. Ask around at work or the hardware store or wherever you can strike up a conversation about working outdoors or gardening. Someone will know someone else who has a son who runs a lawn mowing business. You lack a lawn mower but a neighborhood boy can help you out. The guy at the hardware store may recommend someone who hires himself out for small outdoor jobs or his truck for hauling things. Your work colleague may know where to get free mulch and compost in town. A neighbor might be in construction and bring you some scrap items you can assemble into a fantastic sculpture. Place a call to city hall and ask about whatever you want to know around town.

There you have it--a few strategies to keep the costs of lawn maintenance and installing foundation plantings and new trees from stressing the savings account. Remember, some creative thinking can allow you to see the potential in that pile on the curb or that worn-out bench on craigslist. Whether you are working on the interior or exterior of your home, you can beautify without heavy use of the credit card. Happy homeowning!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Interior decorating without breaking the bank

As a homeowner, I want to make the house I bought into a home I can enjoy. This comes down to creating a look inside and outside that I like and want to spend time in and around. So how to beautify the inside without losing a large amount of money in the process?

Paint with colors.
By the time I bought my house, I was eager to put colors on the wall rather than look at the eggshell white so prevalent in apartments. Other than my ceilings, none of my walls are white. I have green, yellow, blue, yellow sponged on green and rose walls. All are dramatic departures from off white. Painting is not all that difficult except for getting the color to meet between ceiling and wall or so I have experienced. Painting with friends and family make it go faster. And if you are not as particular about colors, save money with paint returned to hardware store. Painting supplies can be purchased secondhand or borrowed; the only item to purchase new is a cover to put on the roller.

Furnish with used items.
As soon as the house is purchased, many people go and buy new furniture to fill all the rooms in the home. While I did not feel there was a gap that I needed to furnish instantly, I did slowly add to my collection from craigslist and secondhand stores. Buying used saves money and pushes you to think creatively about what will work in the room you are decorating. Make your own curtains by sewing them from fabric or threading a rod through some lovely sheets. Start an pot collection for all your indoor plants. Use an old trunk as storage space and a coffee or end table.

Use texture.
I have an unhealthy attachment to my velvet love seat. It is purple and so smooth, I stroke it every time I sit in it. Many surfaces in my home are smooth but some have corners, some not. Some are made of natural substances, some are metal, plastic or ceramic. All the items from furniture to curtains to decorations on the all add to the ambiance of a room. Shop at different venues, see what you like and do not like, and judiciously bring the stuff you do like in the house. A rich fabric draped over the back of a plain chair can really add dimension to a room. Plants of different types and sizes planted in different pots all in a cluster will catch the eye, adding both color and texture to an area. Bring out that collection of glassware or figurines for decorations. I have a platter from my china collection hanging on my wall.

Bring in natural elements.
I love wood items. My bookshelf, my tables, my commode, my dresser--all items made of wood, all stained to show the grain of the item and all a welcome part of my interior. The items show up well against the painted wall and either blend or contrast with the curtains chosen for the room. My plants are happy in the living room but the one in the kitchen enjoys hanging out. (I have the plant suspended from the ceiling with a hook.) I love fresh flowers from the garden while interesting tree branches can be used in many ways--to hang curtains, entertain the cat or as a funky corner decoration.

Decorating your home can be a frugal endeavor. Think differently about that box or that globe and you may find the next treasure to adorn your home. I know some of you might be saying "but I am not creative!" While I might be better at sewing something for the house, you might find that oddly colored rock interesting and bring it home, or enjoy refinishing that small table that would fit in that corner you have trouble decorating. Reuse, repurpose and a little imagination can help furnish and decorate a home without abusing the credit card.

In my next post, I will offer some ideas for beautifying the outside of your new home.

Friday, May 29, 2009

My frugal way of life

When choosing to live frugally and within my spending plan, I use whatever resources I have to minimize spending. My actions also tend to be more green by keeping my resource use lower.

I buy used items whenever possible.
This includes clothing, gifts, gardening implements, beauty supplies, fabric, canning supplies, furniture, housing and vehicles. I shop the local charity thrift shops and visit garage sales. I save money by not buying new, I reduce my demand on the earth's resources when buying secondhand and my money goes to a family's savings or helps people in need. That seems like a win-win situation to me.

I reuse or repurpose items.
I enjoy yogurt but the curbside recycling will not take plastic that has held dairy other than milk jugs. The yogurt cups are perfect for starting seedlings. Two liter bottles can be used to get water to the roots of plants if holes are poked in the sides and buried into the ground next to tomato plants. I wrote about a few other gardening repurposing ideas in 2008.

I consider whether I need the new item I want.
There are some things I cannot easily find used. For example, paint for the exterior of my house. Other issues include how to get items into my car and to my home. Considering how necessary the item is and what it will do for me ensures that it is something I will use and will not add to the clutter in my household.

I take advantage of scavenging opportunities.
If you put it on the curb and I have an idea how to use it (and it fits in my car), I will take it home with me. My three new raised garden beds were made of scavenged wood. One of my potato plants is tucked inside a wood bushel basket picked up from a neighbor's curb. (I would prefer not to dig far into the ground for the potato harvest.)

These strategies have served me well, and I like finding treasures at the thrift shop, on a curb or at a garage sale. It is fun in a way that going to a large retail store lacks. Do you have a favorite way to save money?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What works for me

I have not been writing much about frugality or my money. Gardening, which is part and parcel with self-sufficiency and frugality, has taken much of my time. My current situation has a good-paying job that looks fairly secure, a lack of consumer debt, and always spending less than I earn. I keep my strategies simple:
  • Transfer money automatically from my checking account to my savings accounts every pay period.

  • Pay my bills immediately using electronic bill pay.

  • Subtract any spending from my budget within two days.

  • Spend no more than I allocate for each spending category.

  • Contribute to my retirement accounts regularly.

  • Keep a well-funded emergency savings account (at least two months worth of spending).

My emergency savings has come in handy as one of my cats was extremely ill. With all her treatments, an emergency over a holiday, room and board for several days stay at the veterinary clinic, the costs really added up. My emergency fund was able to cover this unexpectedly large expense.

Being a homeowner is an expensive responsibility. The lone mature tree on my property has never been in good condition but looked to have some years left. A recent diagnosis left me with a shortened life span and the need to plant a new tree close by as soon as possible. My house savings account has enough money to help me fund this unexpected expense.

The bottom line is I spend less than I earn by keeping myself on track with automatic savings and a spending plan. What have you found that works for you?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Trepidation about green living choices

When I moved from doing the simpler going-green actions like composting my food waste, using cloth napkins and handkerchiefs and combining my errands to using cloth wipes in the bathroom and bringing my own hand towel to work, I felt a certain bit of trepidation. With the towel, I carry it from my cube to the bathroom and leave it by the sink as I use the toilet. It is not something I can hide. My initial concerns were "what were people going to say?" Honestly, no one has said anything to me. They may be thinking all they want but I have not been confronted with "why are you bringing your own towel?"

If that was not bad enough, I have sewn cloth wipes and reusable menstral pads. With the anonymity of the blog, I feel comfortable enough writing about these facts. However, I do not go around telling other people that I use cloth rather than paper in the bathroom. Line drying these items is a bit nerve wracking. I either hang up other larger pieces of laundry then the wipes or pads behind them, or I hang up the pads and wipes and quickly put larger items up to hide what I am placing on the line. Who knows what the neighbors and people driving by think.

When my family was over recently, I had a choice: do I put the cloth wipes under the sink so no one will see or just leave them out? Despite my concern, I left them out--and no one said anything to me. Either they did not know what they were or did not want to touch the subject at all. The bonus for using cloth wipes: I take months to go through a 12-pack of toilet paper.

It can be scary doing things outside what many people call "normal" but I like the feeling of self-sufficiency and the greener lifestyle. I made these items out of fabric and scraps I had onhand, I freed myself from having to buy disposable items, and I like that I am reducing my consumption and the amount of stuff headed for the landfill. I encourage you to stretch your greener and frugal wings and try something a bit radical. You may find you like it while helping your bottom line and living a bit easier on the planet.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Eating what you want for less

I love dairy products. Part of this is a legacy of growing up the daughter of a dairy farmer but I also really enjoy dairy foods. Give me a glass of milk with my meal, cheese on whatever I can, sour cream in dishes, ice cream for dessert, yogurt for a snack, cream cheese in sweet or savory dishes, butter spread on freshly baked bread or toast, heavy cream whipped to top my pies, and half and half in my cream sauces. My position is dairy is about 50% of my diet. This may not be the healthiest especially the items made of cream and full-fat milk but they are very satisfying. However, they are also quite expensive. How do I afford my dairy habit?

1. I buy in bulk.
Not all items are amenable to this and you will need a chest freezer or similar to store your purchases. However, I have found that purchasing three pounds of sliced American cheese is cheaper than a single 12 ounce package (and has less plastic as well). Furthermore, the sliced cheese can be frozen. The same holds true for cream cheese, 1% milk and butter. For the sliced American cheese, butter and 1% milk, I noticed no change in taste or texture. For the cream cheese, the texture become more grainy when used but loses no flavor. If you purchase shredded cheese, that can also be frozen and thawed when needed.

The bulk buying comes when you know the price is good and you have room to store it in your freezer. For the American sliced cheese, I keep out one pound and store the other two. Milk needs to have liquid removed from the top prior to freezing but stores fine. Of course, a good price on ice cream means you can stock up.

2. I buy whole cheeses rather than presliced or shredded.
Aside from American cheese that I use in toasted cheese sandwiches, I buy cheese by the pound and shred it myself. When the price of dairy went up last year, I found this saved me money so I could still buy cheese in the same amount. Preslicing and shredding are conveniences and the price reflects that. By slicing the cheese and shredding it yourself, you save money with only a minor time investment.

3. I go with what tastes good and has a reasonable price.
I will buy cheese from a lesser known cheesemaker that costs less and continue to do so if I like the flavor. I select milk from a smaller dairy because the milk is 10 cents cheaper than the big name. I comparison shop and chose based on both price and flavor. Your price point may be different from mine but I have found little difference in taste but a great difference in price per pound of cheese.

These strategies keep me well-stocked with dairy products and add to the quality of the food I make and eat. Not everyone shares my love of dairy but these principles can help you with your preferred food group like meat, wine, fruit and vegetables. Do you have any tips on saving money on your desired foods?

Friday, May 15, 2009

What gardening means to me

This is the time of year where gardening becomes an all-consuming activity as the work has to be done now. Since all my raised garden beds are now full of topsoil and the weather is warm, I am in the middle of mapping out the best arrangement, amending the soil, sowing seeds and transplanting seedlings. My strawberries are blooming, my asparagus crowns are making an appearance almost 20 days after planting, my peas are coming up and my greenhouse is still in service.

However, it is easy to get overwhelmed--and behind. In fact, I had to push myself to plant some lettuce, carrots, peas and beans by saying "What if your garden is your only source of food?" The truth is relying on my garden for self-sufficiency would have me starving. I only have about 250 square feet of garden space right now, some of which still needs to be reclaimed from sod. While that is more than some people have available, I lack the space to grown sufficient amounts of food to feed myself for an entire year. The dandelion crop on my lawn is truly impressive but currently going to seed and honestly, I am not a fan of dandelion greens.

My motivation for planting a garden is twofold: self-sufficiency and less lawn to mow. Saying that I loathe mowing the lawn is strong but I prefer to put off mowing the grass for as long as I can. With the rains every few days and the cool spring temperatures, the grass (and weeds) are growing vigorously so mowing once a week is expected.

And while my garden is not ready to feed me for an entire year, I will take a few weeks. Plus, it is difficult to argue with fresh fruits and vegetables grown locally and picked at the peak of ripeness. The more I successfully grow and harvest, the better I improve my skills for the future when I have a larger plot of land, the healthier I eat, and the more I save by not having to buy the items in a grocery store. Gradually easing into the demands of my suburban plot, growing more food and figuring out what to do with all the homegrown produce helps me learn what I like to grow, what I do not like to grow or eat, and what techniques work best for me. I am a scientist at heart and I like to experiment. And if I get something delicious out of the deal, that is just a sweet reward.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The benefits of buying secondhand

Making the choices I have over the past few years has brought me to a place I like. I take pride in entire outfits including socks that were purchased secondhand, washed in my homemade laundry detergent, softened using vinegar, and dried outside in the sunshine. My secondhand spade made it easier to dig the trench through the sod to plant my asparagus while I amended the soil with free composted horse manure. The metal rods and chicken wire, purchased at the thrift store or free, will help protect my garden. My nieces and nephews have been gifted repeatedly with books, toys and clothing I purchased from garage sales or the thrift store. I smile at the hosta poking through the ground, the tulips blooming and the wildflowers coming up I either dug from another's yard or purchased from someone who dug it right out of her garden for me. I enjoy every loaf of bread I bake in my craigslist-purchased bread machine. Why am I listing the results of my choices?

I can live this way simply as a frugal measure to help me pay less for what I need and save more money toward my financial goals. However, frugality is not my sole motivation. I help out families looking to make some extra money themselves by shopping a garage sale. I find gifts and items I can use and the families get rid of stuff in their house and gain a bit of cash. At the charity thrift shop, I find items I am looking for and they put my money to use in the community, helping out those in need. Finally, I am living a greener life because I am not asking to have raw materials extracted from the environment to make something new, contributing to overproduction. The environmental benefit alone is important to me but the frugal side has its say as well.

This way of living requires patience. It is easy to drive, bike or take mass transit to one of many stores like Target, Wal-mart or Costco, and buy whatever you need--instantly. I discussed making a list of things I need to purchase and hunt for during garage sale season. It took me nearly three months to find jeans in my size to replace the fraying ones I was wearing. Still, I paid half the typical sale price for nearly new jeans. Right now, I am looking for navy and gray pants to replace the one I just ripped, the other is on its last legs. This search may take even longer but I have all summer to replace them.

Shopping secondhand is not about instant gratification. However, if you have patience and search regularly, you will get what you want at a fraction of the price of new. I like the adventure of trying to find what I want. It can be frustrating but I find it more emotionally rewarding when I finally find what I can use.

What are your experiences with purchasing or finding used items?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Hidden treasures in plain sight

I am not new to scavenging on curbside but I have not done it in a while. Frankly, I am somewhat uncomfortable with it especially when doing it alone. If I know the people are not home, I am less self-conscious. However I know if the people wanted the items, they would have figured out what to so with them prior to placing them curbside for garbage day. In the end, I am rescuing usable things so they are not consigned to a landfill. My prize: several aluminum rods that with some trimming of the ends will make nice anchors for the sides of raised garden beds, an old wooden basket that would be great to grow potatoes so I do not have to dig into the ground for the harvest and a piece of fabric that has a use yet to be determined.

However, I am a novice compared to the authors of The Scavengers' Manifesto and the blog Scavenging. One of the entries I read highlighted their recent post on no-cost gardening. It was a fascinating read that made me admire the bloggers ingenuity. In fact, I started exploring the entire Scavenging blog. If gardening is not your interest, the two women have entries on bartering, where free stuff is being offered (e.g., food for teachers and free comic day), how a couple furnished and refinished their Victorian home with curbside treasures, and more.

I recommend visiting the blog and seeing how you can think differently when looking at someone else's trash.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Why "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" is important

There is a reason the earth-friendly mantra is "reduce, reuse, recycle". Having fewer things means less to throw away. Finding a new use for an old item allows you to save money and repurpose something that was just taking up space. Recycle is for those items that you do have and are finding difficult to repurpose. The last thing you want to do is consign the item to the landfill.

One of my coworkers proudly stated that the plasticware and cardboard containers provided by our company's food service is biodegradable. The cardboard is made from recycled paperboard, a positive move, but is coated in plastic so moist food can be added to the container for eating and storing. The cups, utensils and soup bowls are made from plant-based plastic PLA. On one hand, the corn starch-based items are made from a renewable resource. On the other hand, a home compost system is not going to break down PLA.

When I pointed out that unfortunate fact (the compostable plasticware will not break down in a backyard composter, only a commercial one), she informed me that it will biodegrade in a landfill. Unfortunately, that is not true. Most composting happens under aerobic conditions with water, heat and microbes with a nice stir to add oxygen occasionally. A landfill is lined with clay and plastic, items are packed in tightly and the few microbes found are working anaerobically, that is without oxygen. So no sunlight (for photodegradable items like plastic bags), no water and no oxygen means little breakdown is occurring in a landfill.

The truth is once an item is sent to the big hole in the ground, it just sits there. That is why "reduce, reuse and recycle" sends fewer things to the landfill, keeps more money in your pocket and stimulates the imagination (e.g., what can I do with a penny whistle, some old nails and a plastic cup starting to split). For more information on biological activity in landfills, visit the following links:
How Stuff Works (love this site)
Summary of Garbage Breakdown (
US Composting Council (technical but interesting page)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Success and failure in the garden

I have found gardening to be a rewarding experience. While I could do without the invasive quack grass and always-stubborn dandelions in the middle of my garden beds, seeing the green plants break ground and grow, the flowering plants blossom and the edible plants mature always gives me a thrill. However, it take hard work and dealing with failure to get through the growing season.

To become more self-sufficient, I have expanded my growing space for fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, I would like to grow everything from seed to gain a portion of self-sufficiency and reduce my costs. Starting from seed means pots, soil and a sunny place to put the newly sown seeds. Pots were reused four-pack plastic containers from other plants I purchased and yogurt containers. To minimize my use of fossil fuels, I chose not to use the fluorescent grow lights I have nor did I buy a seedling mat. Instead, I used the four-shelf greenhouse I purchased used or when it was freezing overnight, brought in the pots and placed them on my kitchen table, which faces a southern exposure. Despite the hassle of shuttling my motley crew of seedlings, I noticed improved seedling vigor compared to the year before. Unfortunately, germination rates varied from 20-100% but I try to celebrate successes rather than failures.

Breaking sod is not easy and when I am determined to do it by hand, well, it can be tough. One way to make sod removal easier is to wait until after a rain. The sod will be heavier but easier to push a shovel or spade through and easier to dig in the dirt. It is still time consuming as I planted four Purple Passion asparagus roots in a hand-dug trench six feet long and 12 inches wide after working outside for one hour.

I also plant for beauty as well as for food. Some of my first attempts at new foundations plantings turned out to be a poor choice. I installed a purple phlox in the fall that never appeared the next spring. Moving an established white phlox also ended in nonregeneration for the following spring. The third time seems to be the charm--I see sign of the pink phlox I installed last fall. One of the five hosta plants I placed on the west side of my house has struggled with growing and showing up the next spring. I planted it in fall 2006 and see no sign of it this year. Tulips are doing moderately well, but I know I planted more than I am seeing now compared to spring 2007. I am still waiting on some native plants I installed in early summer and late autumn so the verdict is out on whether I have wild onions or little bluestem in my future. Luckily, I seem to have more success than failure with my flowers. Now if only the last two cloves of garlic would break ground...

I love seeing green things breaking ground and watching them grow. With my tulips blossoming, most of my trees leafing out and all my rhubarb letting the world know who is boss, I am looking forward to my 2009 garden. I still have to haul the rain barrels out of storage and the forecast is predicting rain.

Any news on your garden front? Do you have a favorite flower or plant you are proud of?

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Consider the downstream effects

Getting rid of unwanted, unused or expired items is not as simple as throwing it in the trash can. While many people do this, there are consequences to this action that affect the quality of our water, our air and our soil. Computer monitors and televisions contain heavy metals which are toxic when consumed. All those plastics do not break down especially in a landfill, and burning garbage just adds more greenhouse gases and unpleasant chemicals to the air.

However, one of the most worrisome trends is all the medications that can be measured in our waters. Hormones, steroids, antibiotics and nonprescription medications can all be detected in our waterways. Unfortunately, the way we have been disposing of old or outdated medication is by flushing it down the toilet. Water treatment facilities are not equipped to handle the drugs and the medication is passed without alteration into the water system. While there is debate about how much those dilute amounts of drugs may affect us, there are more than just humans drinking the water. In fact, there are many organisms that live their entire lives in water and they are being affected, altering their physiology, including their reproductive capability.

My city recently hosted a medication disposal and sharps collection program. All citizens were encouraged to bring unused, old and unwanted medications for proper disposal. I had two pet medications, old topical prescription products and several other expired over-the-counter drugs including Aleve and sleeping pills that I brought to the disposal site. This is one way I ensure old medications are not merely thrown away or flushed down the toilet.

I encourage you to find such a program in your area. If there is not one, talk to your local medical facility about starting one. Taking the time to dispose of medications correctly helps not only yourself and your neighbors but the entire ecology. The fish and frogs thank you.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Getting out the last drop

Recently, a local news show has been highlighting money-saving tips for families squeezed by the economy. The two-minute segment talked about how to get the most out of the items you purchase. I was surprised at the advice they gave because the ideas were practical. My thought was "people do not do this all the time?" So I thought I would present them:

Cut lotion containers and toothpaste tubes in half to get the last bits inside.
I hate throwing things away without getting the remnants out especially lotions because I buy many from Bath and Body Works. These lotions moisturize well, smell great and come at a premium. While I tend to slice the lotion tube vertically and not horizontally, I do use my fingers to get every last drop.

Use a spatula to get all the mayonnaise or salad dressing from the jar.
I use a spatula most of the time I use mayo or Miracle Whip. Of course, when there is just those small amounts clinging to the side, the spatula can really help retrieve them for your sandwich.

Add water to the shampoo bottle to use for another wash or two.
Even dilute, shampoo works quite well. I also add water to body wash and use on my shower puff. The bottle gets rinsed out before recycling. May as well use the rinse to your advantage.

Make vinaigrette right in the bottle of olive oil.
I do not use vinaigrette dressing on my salads but could see how adding the ingredients directly to the bottle to use the olive oil remaining would be useful. Plus the salad dressing could be stored in the bottle.

So, do you use these tactics to get the most for your money?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Greener living, one day at a time

I view the world differently. While my neighbors are firing up their lawnmowers, I am considering how to decrease the amount of lawn and increase my ability to grow more food. To me, a sunny, open expanse of lawn equals a place to grow fruits and vegetables. Collecting rain water is a cause for joy and using my urine in the garden as a nitrogen source just makes sense. I gladly wash my cloth wipes and reusable menstral pads and hang them up on the clothesline outside. I keep track of my water usage and the weight of garbage I dispose of to challenge myself to use or trash less. I clean using vinegar, baking soda and borax.

What is the point of me listing all these activities? I need to remind myself how far I have come. A year ago, I had not conceived of using cloth wipes in the bathroom. Three years ago, I scoffed at using the umbrella clothesline. Two years ago, I shrugged at the amount of water I used and said, what can I do other than collect rain water? Even though I had read about making my own hygiene supplies nearly two years ago, it was only the beginning of this year I actually made some. Last year, urban homesteading was a new and crazy concept to me. I began reusing shopping bags nearly 18 months ago.

Today is Earth Day, a day to celebrate this singular planet with its wonderful bounty. It is also a time to reflect on the legacy we would like to leave. While you can revel in your children, your comfortable home, your friends, your animal companions and your financial situation, none of this would be possible without the resources the Earth holds. On this day, think about that next step to take in your green living path. Whether motivated by frugality, self-sufficiency or lower-impact living, take the time to do something good for the environment. Plant a tree--or three, convert part of your lawn to a garden plot, compost your yard waste and vegetable peelings, or carpool at least once a week. Be kind to the Earth, share your garden bounty with your neighbors, and leave a legacy of lasting natural resources to your children. Make today the first step in your green-living journey.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Retirement investing: A cautionary tale

I have discussed rolling over your IRA, for example, when you have left a place of employment. In fact, I have rolled over my 403(b) into a traditional IRA. Hindsight being what it is, I wish I would have done things differently.

When I was looking to rollover my 403(b), I had to wait over six years for the amount of money I put in and the value of the account to equalize. This was made more difficult by the fact I make my contributions from 1999-2001 and then left for a new employer. The tech stock crash of 2000-2001 left me with almost 50% of the value of my pretax contributions gone. It was not a pretty sight and I ignored the account for the better part of five years.

However, I received a call from a new financial advisor in late 2006 to ask me to come in and evaluate my accounts. I had not talked with anyone for a while since my previous advisor had left the credit union of which I am a member. So I came in with my statements and we discussed my options. He recommended rolling over my 403(b) into an IRA account. Since the value was near my contribution values, I was interested in doing something different. The financial advisor suggested a growth investment portfolio with TransAmerica, and said he was invested with them as well. I thought that was a good recommendation.

He explained that the account was a front-load fee and was actively managed with shares of stocks and other mutual funds changing as the managers saw more opportunities for growth. My advisor told me that even though a 5% fee would take money from my initial investment, I would likely make it up the money in a year or two.

What does this all mean? Well, a front-load fund basically means that the mutual fund firm takes my money, removes 5% from the money and then invests the remainder for me as I specified. In the case of the fund I invested in, no fees would be charged to take out the money when I would want it in the future. I basically paid a fee up front for the company to take my money and invest it. I made this decision based on two flawed ideas:
1. My financial advisor liked the fund enough to invest in it himself so it has to be good.
2. As long as my money continued to grow, I did not think much about the 5% front-load fee.

Why are these ideas flawed? I never asked if the financial advisor received any benefit from me investing with the company. The second, why give up more of my precious money than I had to? I started out with a small amount of money, $5,400, to invest. Removing 5% then putting it in a market starting in 2007 was not an ideal move. I lost money to start with and my last statement had me with a value of just over $3,100. And that was after nearly gaining back my 5% fee off the top. If I was going to lose over 40% of my portfolio, I would rather have lost less of my money to fees.

If I had to do this over again, I would invest only in no-load funds (those with no fees), most likely index funds like those of Vanguard, Fidelity and T. Rowe Price. Yes, the value would still be down but I would still have more than if I invested in loaded funds. Now I know to check not only what fees are charged for investing, but the maintenance and management fees which can easily add up to 2% or more of the value of the fund. For the future, I plan on keeping more of my money for my investments and both asking more questions and reading the fine print more closely.

To educate yourself about investing, visit the following resources:
CNN Money 101
Balance Track overview
Fidelity basics

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

How to start gardening

My passion for gardening was uncovered during my three years of homeownership. While I have always had indoor plants in my home, I tried edible container gardening once and was dissatisfied with the results. With the ability to shape the landscape around my house and the raised garden bed on the west side of my home, I began to ask "what did I want?" One advantage I had was the landscaping was haphazard. There were some Korean boxwoods along the driveway, a poor choice for something that would always have snow piled on it in the winter, Juniper bushes along the front of the house and some orange daylilies on the southwest side of the foundation. There were two raised garden beds, one 3 feet by 3 feet with a Stella d'Oro daylily planted and a 9 feet by 9 feet bed with some nonproductive strawberries, a white phlox and lots of weeds. The property was topped off by a mature Green Ash tree on the southwest corner of the house.

I started with what I did not like, the juniper bushes, and had them ripped out. My first full winter demonstrated that the Korean boxwoods were ill suited for their location; I gave them away. My second year found me uninterested in the orange invasive daylilies so I gave away all of the roots that people could dig up.

My next step was to plant what I wanted. Summer demonstrated a single tree on the southwest corner was little protection for the east and southeast of the house. So I chose to plant more shade trees on the east, southeast and west sides of the house. I also chose native trees to plant with the exception of the park row tree. I also planted what I thought was pretty like pink phlox, red and purple daylilies and tulips. I make mowing around my mailbox more manageable by surrounding the area with pavers and planting tulips and crocuses. I moved the lone Asiatic lily from a shaded area where it was unable to bloom to full sun where it both bloomed and produced more lilies. I filled in empty areas around the foundation with hostas (and bleeding hearts) because they did well in partial to full shade. The former location of the juniper bushes became a bounty of native bushes and flowers. Other people gave away their landscaping or split off their plants so I could add variety to my own property.

I tried my hand at growing edibles in the large raised garden bed by planting what I liked (corn, onion, rhubarb, lettuce) and had a tiny harvest because I failed to test my soil. The next year, I fought fewer weeds and grew more food because the soil was heavily amended. I experimented with growing new things like cucumbers, beans, peas and carrots. I added a raised bed to grow strawberries and built raised beds to grow more vegetables. All the while I was planting and experimenting, I intended to put in two rain gardens and have not started one.

What is the moral of this story? Just try planting something. Like with my juniper bushes, it can be easier to figure out what you do not like than what you do. Start small, just a 12 inch square patch and toss in some tulip bulbs or set in a daylily. These are plants that are fairly easy to care for and add a lot of color and vibrancy. If you want to eat something, try beans or lettuce or even herbs. Grow for beauty, grow for food or grow for wild life. All are wonderful choices and add much to your life. There is something revitalizing and fascinating about green growing things, and I get excited as they grow and mature and flower.

Whether you start with a small patch of dirt or a large garden spread, the growing venture will reward you in both tangible and intangible ways. I rarely started my gardening knowing exactly what I wanted in a particular spot. I chose what I liked and hopefully was well-adapted to my property. If not, I either fixed the problem (e.g., amending the soil with the right nutrients) or tried again with a different plant.

What are you growing this year?

Monday, April 13, 2009

What can your library do for you?

I go in streaks when seeking out knowledge. For example, I wanted to understand more about organic gardening, how much care a plant needs, how to amend the soil, how to establish a new garden bed, etc. Searching on the web can be a start and blogs may help, but generally, the topic is not addressed in the manner I needed. Only a few of the fruits or veggies I am interested in are mentioned or there are mentions of books without a lot of detail. I like to read more in depth and gain my own perspective on the method or idea.

When I am focused on gaining knowledge, I start with my public library. However, I rarely go to the library itself. It is merely a place to collect the books I am interested in reading. Based on my earlier Web search, I may have found some book titles to read. Doing a search on relevant terms in the online library database also brings up possible resources for me to examine further.

Here is where the library works for me: I request the books to be sent to my local branch when available. I have access to books from several libraries in multiple counties, giving me a larger resource base for the information or books I am seeking. Rather than going to the local library and trying to find books relevant to my information seeking but still not get all I want, I am informed via e-mail when the books I requested are available and take a few minutes once a week to pick up the books in my library. This saves me time spent at the library and can be integrated into other errands in town.

Libraries help save you money by helping decide if a book is worth buying for your own collection as a reference or better off as a singular read. Your property taxes help pay for establishing and maintaining the public library so take advantage of what they can offer. I have requested DVDs of movies and television series. By sitting in the library for an hour or so, I can read up on various cars or appliances I am interested in buying in the near future to compare models, prices and total cost of ownership. I did not pay for an individual subscription and may save myself money when purchasing the product.

Libraries are also great places for social interaction. Most libraries host reading groups and have rooms available for other groups to meet. I attended a meeting about green living there and I know there were monthly gatherings on different topics.

To sum up, libraries are great resources for entertainment, learning, saving money and meeting new people. This can be done on your own schedule by requesting items and picking them up when available at the nearest branch. Searching for DVDs or books can be done in the comfort of your own home and picked up when convenient for you. Or meet people with similar interests and expand your network of contacts. Check out your library's Web site, talk to the librarian or look at the bulletin board in the library to learn what is all available.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Green up your Easter celebration

Easter tends not to be a green holiday what with all the plastic-wrapped candy, plastic grass and high-fructose corn syrup. To reduce your ecological footprint, I have a few suggestions based on decades of experience--my mother's! Our Easter tradition was finding our Easter basket on Sunday morning after the Easter bunny hid it, having a few pieces of candy and then going to church.

Reuse was a big part of the family Easter celebration. I had the same Easter basket for nearly 30 years with the same plastic grass it in every year. How many people could say they reused the plastic grass over generations, hm? While plastic is not the best choice, reusing it each year minimizes the waste of resources. Consider paper grass for reuse or composting or sew Easter bags to hold gifts or candy using Easter-patterned fabric. For those who can knit or crochet, how about making bags from yarn? There are lots of fun colors and patterns that could be used for Easter.

Buy candy with the least amount of packaging. For example, the Easter bunny always gave me M&Ms without a bag. Instead of purchasing the fun size individual packets, the chocolate was free to hide in the plastic grass, making it an adventure to find the candy. There was still foil-wrapped chocolates, a milk-chocolate bunny and even Reese's peanut butter eggs so our family was not free of plastic wrapping. Try using homemade treats that you only make for special occasions instead of buying chocolate. My sister-in-law makes stellar fudge and I enjoy chocolate-covered pretzels.

While the Easter bunny only gave me chocolate in my basket, one way to make Easter sugar-free would be to give other sorts of gifts. Fun toys for the kids or nice fun yet educational books. You might give them some coins to put in a piggy bank or help them plant a tree or some flowers to decorate your home and benefit the environment. You could make it a tradition to add something new to the yard each year.

Of course, there is the edible and biodegradable option: hard-boiled eggs. While I am not a fan of eating them, I always liked decorating them. Vegetable-based dyes are not harmful and hunting for hidden eggs is always an adventure. Plus, the shells can be composted and eggs are good for you.

So enjoy a little treat for Easter whether you celebrate with family or friends or yourself. Consider reusable or biodegradable alternatives to disposable plastic stuff. I am looking forward to the 58 degree temperatures, seeing my family and sampling my mom's Easter brunch. Happy Easter!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The power of collective creativity for greener living

Earlier this week, my work day started poorly and did not improve. I was running later than I wanted leave for work and then when I stopped for gas and sat back in my car, my pants ripped in a fashion that was both catastrophic and unable to be disguised. Since I was on my way to work and only a few minutes from home, I called in my wardrobe malfunction and went home to change. My colleagues made me feel better as they shared their own stories but I was still left with a pair of pants that were unusable as pants but still had plenty of life in them. So what could I do with the fabric?

I had a couple ideas that included using it to sew doll clothing or create a rag rug. One of my colleagues suggested cutting the pants up for rags, but that is what I use worn out socks and underwear for. I have been accumulating denim from jeans that I plan to sew a rug using strips of denim. The twill pants could be used for this purpose as well. However, I decided to turn to the Web and see what I could find.

I discovered a cool Web site titled How can I recycle this? When I was looking at uses for ripped pants, I found this entry on torn trousers. Being curious, I explored the site and found a treasure trove of information offered by other people on how to reuse various items including burnt matches, old teddy bears, toothbrushes and empty paint cans. The search function helps you find what you are interested in. Furthermore, there is a link to a Web site that answers the question whether an item is compostable or not for your biodegradable edification.

I am always looking for ways to improve my green living. By finding suggestions for reusing items most people would throw away, I can decrease my footprint. Use the Recycle This Web site to help you figure out what to do with your worn out or seemingly unusable items.