tips, topics, info and insight to help you save money and make our world a little greener

Friday, June 4, 2010

Making a difference, a little at a time...

With the horrific oil spill taking center stage in the news, the small environmental steps we take...recycling, turning lights off and the heat down, buying used clothing and locally-grown foods...can look insignificant. It takes a bit of staying power not to feel like throwing in the towel. With the Gulf and its beaches and wetlands going to straight to hell, what difference will my tiny efforts in Pennsylvania make?

But I'm going to keep on because, deep down, I really do believe that our individual efforts can add up to important movements. I know that by staying true to what I think is important can help change other people's behaviors.

I hope that my friends and fellow eco-warriors don't become discouraged or bitter or cynical. They have every reason to go in that direction. Maybe I'm just being a Pollyanna, but I'm going to keep trying, and keep believing that we can make a difference.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Extreme frugal food? Great way to save money. Is it green? Not so much.

It's been about two months since I've posted...sort of lost my momentum for a bit. But now I'm back on track and eager to share things I've learned and ideas I've been working on.

Though I haven't been writing, I have been doing a lot of reading on green and frugal topics. Just recently, I've discovered Kristen Hagopian's blog Brilliant Frugal Living. This month Kristen is chronicling her efforts to feed herself for a month for $25. Total. That's 3 meals a day! She is able to pursue this unlikely goal by purchasing steeply discounted canned goods from a grocery outlet that offers 155 cans of vegetables, fruit, pie filling, ready-to-eat foods like hash and Chef Boyardee ravioli, for $2. That's $2 for all 155 cans! Kristen shops at the B&B Grocery Outlet in Morgantown, PA, which is near Pittsburgh. Not convenient for, but a search for grocery outlets produced a website with lisings by state, along with many other sites with regional and local listings. I may check one out in Allentown, PA, about an hour's drive from my home.

For people on a very tight budget, these stores can be a God-send. But, given the quality of the foods in the $2 boxes, I would hope that most would only turn to this approach if they are truly desperate. Think about the salt, the preservatives and, possibly even worse, the BPA in those cans of food. Then there are the environmental issues creating by industrial farming techniques, processing methods,  packaging and food transport. Extreme food savings is obviously not green.

However, saving money on food is an important part of every frugalista's plans, and it's a goal that can be reached with a variety of strategies. First, there is the issue of waste. By reducing the amount of food we throw away, we can reduce the amount of money we spend. Jonathan Bloom has been covering this topic brilliantly on his blog Wasted  Food. Next, it pays to really understand the relationship of food to real nutrition and health. Reading books like Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma helps put this into perspective. The reality is we can eat less, if we eat better. Then there is the idea of reducing the amount of meat we eat, and using the savings to purchase higher quality meat that comes from pastured, antibiotic and hormone free, humanely-raised animals. Cookbook writer Pam Anderson has written about this on her blog, Three Many Cooks. Other avenues include bulk buying, food co-ops and seasonal purchases of inexpensive produce to freeze, can or store in a root cellar.

And finally, there is growing your own. This something very dear to my heart. Some of my readers may know that my dad and I have written a book entitled The Complete Idiot's Guide to Vegetable Gardening. I'm convinced that just about anyone, just about anywhere can grow at least some food. Much more on this topic in future posts.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Dirt on Laundry Detergent

I'm not particularly brand-loyal and will usually buy whatever is on sale or for which I have a coupon, or better, both. But we, that is, our family, has used Tide laundry detergent for decades. Specifically, we have used Tide Free since it was introduced.

But a recent article from Money Talks News is pushing me to rethink this. The gist of the article is that we (American consumers) use far more detergent than they need to, and have increased the amount they use when they use the super-concentrated products. What's insidious about this is that many of us bought into the super-concentrated promotion because we think it might be more environmentally-friendly. According to the founder of Method, a company that manufacturers cleaning products, 53% of people who wash their clothes use too much detergent.

In fact, an article in the Wall Street Journal cited in the Money Talks News piece paints the propensity for us to uses too much laundry detergent each time we do a load as part of the industry's over-all strategy.  From the WSJ article:

"Take a cap and look at where the lines are—nowhere near the top," says Adam Lowry, co-founder of San Francisco-based Method. "That's not accidental. In an extremely mature market like laundry, for established players to grow they have to either steal share or get people to use more," Mr. Lowry says. "They are trying to dupe people into using more product than they need."

"They are trying to dupe people." That's strong language.  Even if the intention is not duping consumers, the result is the over-use of detergent. It's wasteful. We spend more money than we need to and many people are using petroleum-based products that are harmful to the environment, and are non-renewable resources.

So what is the solution to this problem?  One tactic would be to be extra-diligent when pouring. First read the directions, then use exactly the amount suggested. Another possibility is making your own detergent using ingredients that are kinder to the environment. There are dozens of recipes. My friend Leah Ingram who writes the Suddenly Frugal blog makes DYI  detergent using borax, soap and Arm & Hammer washing soda.

Some experts actually suggest that soap isn't all that essential to clean clothes.  From the WSJ article: 

"Seventh Generation's co-founder, Jeffrey Hollander, wonders why more people haven't stumbled upon laundry's big, dirty secret: "You don't even need soap to wash most loads," he says. The agitation of washing machines often does the job on its own."

I didn't know that. But as I looked further into this issue, there seems to be a consensus that clothes can be cleaned in agitating water without soap. It's not likely that this is a story that will sell well. But it does make sense for us to keep cutting back on the amount of detergent we use until we find that our clothes aren't clean. I would love to hear from anyone who has given this a try.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Frugal & Green Update

It's time for another report on some of my regular frugal and green efforts.

Home Recycling - A little less than usual this past month because I've been taking cardboard boxes to the UPS store for re-use (see below).
Office Recycling - I am happy to report that things are improving on this front. Though I still find the stray water bottle or soda can in the trash, most recyclables are going into the designated bin. And I now have an occasional helper with the paper. I've discovered that I have to get everything out of the office before the cleaning crew comes in on Thursday nights, or the bins will be emptied into the dumpster out back. Sometimes this means that the back of my car resembles a recycling center until I can get the stuff to its appropriate destinations.
Other Recycling - Earlier this week, I bought a new phone (see unexpected expenses below), and recycled my old one, along with the plastic clam shell packaging it came in, at the AT&T store. When I have time, I will take the chargers that went with the old one to the store too. I don't know what they do with it, but am told it gets recycled somehow.

Compost -  We seem to be producing very little kitchen waste these days....I'd like to think that we're being a little more diligent about using up produce before it spoils. A client sent me a gift box of fabulous citrus from Florida so we've added more than the usual amount of orange peel and grapefruit rind in the compost. And I brought home peelings from about 10 pounds of potatoes from a family get-together (I couldn't bear to see it go down my sister-in-law's disposal!).

Reuse - I've been taking just about all the cardboard boxes from my office to the UPS store for reuse. It makes so much more sense than cutting them up for recycling, though I sometimes wonder what happens to my boxes after they'e been shipped. Do they wind up in the trash? Would it be better if I recycled them?  Two weeks ago, I "rescued" a half dozen boxes from the curb prior to trash pick up on my street. One of the boxes was full of styro peanuts. These also went to the UPS store after spending two days in my car. Another reuse - or perhaps better described as an up-cycle - success story came when I gave three old china plates to a friend who makes mosaics from broken tiles and china. She has promised me some photos which I will post. The plates came from our friend's storage unit which is slowly being cleared out.

Waste - We put another load of yard debris leftover from fall clean-up in the trash last week (see Trash below). I think we're just about at the end of it. But it really bothers me that we're adding that much organic matter to the landfill. While not really a waste of money, it's a waste of organic resources. By next fall, I hope I'll have a solution for this problem.

Trash - We continue to keep our regular trash limited to about one small grocery-sized plastic bag, twice a week. But we still have the leftover yard debris which we've been putting out once a week (see above). If our trash hauler charged by the bag, container or by weight, we would pay the minimum, I'm sure. Something to look into.

Energy - With warmer weather and longer days, I do believe we've reduced our home energy use substantially compared to this past winter. Our most recent energy bill was $253, compared to over $400 last month. We are also making fewer stews, soups and baked or braised dishes, so we're using less gas for cooking less too.

Frugal Steps - With warm weather comes a change in wardrobe. I have decided to shop in my closet for the spring season rather than adding anything least for awhile. The challenge will be making some of the older things feel fresh...a task I'm not sure I'm capable of tackling. I think this will be a topic for a new post soon.
We've been fortunate this past month. When I took my car for a regular maintenance, I thought I might have to replace the brakes, but the service manager told me they still some life left...a nice reprieve. Ditto for the tires. We did have to replace a decripit calculator (the kind with a tape that is essential for doing billing and taxes). It only cost around $20, but we didn't have time to comparison shop, so we may have paid more than we might have had if we weren't in a rush to replace it.

Frugal Finds -  No big savings recently beyond a few coupon doublers. However we did make a nice score of some fabulous organic, free trade, shade-grown coffee from a local roaster who sells at the Stockton Farmer's Market. They had a half-price basket so instead of $12 a bag (about 12 oz.), we paid $6. The reason it was reduced is because it was a few days past its optimum use date. We thought it made delicious coffee.

So that's my Green and Frugal Update for mid-April. Happy Spring!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Meatless Monday (and maybe Tuesday too)

For several years now, we've been eating less meat, especially red meat, than we had in the past, in part because of our expanding understanding of the health benefits of a more plant-based diet, also as a step toward reducing our food expenses, and in response to an increased awareness of the appalling conditions in which most animals are raised for market.

The concept of Meatless Monday came from the efforts of a not-for-profit initiative of the Monday Campaigns in conjunction with the John Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health to reduce meat consumption by 15%.

Accrding to their website, "Going meatless once a week may reduce your risk of chronic preventable conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. It can also help reduce your carbon footprint and save precious resources like fresh water and fossil fuel."

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not opposed to eating meat. In fact, we enjoy meat and eat it often. We're just using a lot less now. For example, instead of a meat sauce for pasta that calls for a pound of ground beef, we might make a rich tomato sauce using three slices of good quality bacon to give it a little more flavor. In the past we might have added chicken to a hearty vegetable soup, but now we are content to use organic chicken stock and let the vegetables stand on their own.  And we're more likely to make a stir fry with just vegetables and maybe some shrimp, whereas in the past, we almost always added some chicken or leftover pork.

My good friend, cookbook author and Three Many Cooks  blogger Pam Anderson is working on a new book entitled Meatless Mondays, offering recipes and menus for meals made without meat. The book grew out of her own realization that her family's health, and the health of the planet are tied to meat consumption.

A well-rounded omnivore, Pam also knows that by reducing the amount of animal flesh she prepares for her family and guests, she will reduce the amount of money she spends on meat products. This savings allows her to buy better quality, more humanely raised and slaughtered meats...just less of it.

On a recent blog post, Pam wrote,
     "I wasn’t ready to go full-time vegetarian. I love Easter lamb, Christmas prime rib, Fourth-of-July   ribs, and Memorial Day burgers too much to foreswear flesh. But it was becoming clear: I didn’t need to eat as much meat, and especially not the kind of meat being produced today. If I could eat less meat, I could afford to buy better meat.

    With the zeal of day-old dieter, I made the shift to meatless with relative ease, simply trading eggplant for sausage on pizza and white beans and cauliflower for Bolognese. But three meals a day, in all kinds of situations—at home, at parties, in restaurants—eventually it gets tough. To be vegetarian for the long haul I had to integrate the new way into my old life. It wasn’t good enough just to substitute vegetables for meat. Like weight maintenance, if it’s for real and forever, I had to make a life-style adjustment.
     Two things happened. I started developing a set of techniques and formulas a la How to Cook Without a Book, so I could easily cook without recipes on meatless days. Second, I started developing meatless dishes that were as fun and enticing as entrees con carne. For me they had to be so good I’d be just as likely to make them on days when I didn’t “have to.”"

I'm looking forward to reading and cooking from Pam's new book, and I hope many people will buy it and learn how to enjoy meatlesss Mondays, and maybe a few Tuesdays too.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Garden Update: The Peas are Planted

Last Tuesday, we finally got the first of the peas in. It's not that we procrastinated. It's just that we had all that snow, then rain, so the soil was too wet to work. Then it took a while to prepare the bed, which had been rototilled back in November. In the photo you can see that one row is planted. I used two twigs and some twine to give us a straight line. Then we pulled the worked soil up from one side to form a long raised row. We had to rework the soil a bit by hand because there are still some root clumps from the tilled grass, and lots of rocks. With that chore done, it was easy to straighten the row,  pat down the sides and smooth the top. Then Michele and I started planting the Oregon Sugar Snap Snow Pea seeds we got from Burpee. These seeds look just like little peas (which they are), except that they are white-ish, rather than green, and are a little shriveled-looking. I made a small hole about 1 inch deep with my dibber, which is a clever, wooden tool you can see in the photo above. I bought that dibber in England many years ago when I took my mother on one of our tours of gardens there. Michele followed me and placed a pea in each hole. Then we filled the little holes with soil and patted the row down firmly.  This week, we'll plant another row of peas so that we have a succession of harvests. If we planted them all at once, then they would all ripen more or less at the same time. This way, the harvest will be stretched out over a couple of weeks. In the meantime, we're getting a lot of rain. I hope it isn't so heavy that is washed the seeds out.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday's Frugal Food: Another Dinner from Leftovers and Odds & Ends

Yesterday was one of those extra busy days - back-to-back appointments, afternoon floor duty at the office,  end-of-the-day appointment, and finally a 7 pm committee meeting. There wasn't enough time for a "real" dinner, but I hadn't eaten lunch and was really hungry. Typically when I have evening meetings, I'll just heat up something leftover and eat before I go out. But it was pretty slim pickins - or "slim chickens" as we say in our house - in the fridge.

But even with no obvious leftovers - like some roasted chicken, a pot of soup or stew, or the remains of a casserole - there are usually a few things stowed away in food savers that can up to a meal. Here's what I used:

  • a package of 3 zucchinis from the past-their-prime shelf at the SuperFresh
  • 1/4 large onion
  • 1/3 of a box of orzo
  • about a cup of left-over, home-made spaghetti sauce
  • fresh parsley
  • fresh thyme left over from a spectacular pork dish
  • 1/2 a cucumber from the same source as the zucchini
  • 1/4 of a head of iceburg lettuce, another Frugal Find at the grocery store
Here's what I did:
  • sliced the zucchini and onion  (I would have added garlic, but we had run out)
  • chopped about 2 tbsp. of parsley
  • stripped the leaves from 4 stems of thyme
  • sauteed the zucchini and onion in a little olive oil until nearly carmelized
  • added the parsley and thyme
  • cooked the orzo in salted water per the package instructions (about 9 minutes)
  • added the cooked orzo to the sauteed onion and zucchini
  • added the spaghetti sauce to the orzo-vegetable mix and heated thoroughly
  • adjusted the seasoning with a little salt and pepper
Then I made a quick salad of cucumber and lettuce and topped it with a little of Nadine's Salad Success vinaigrette.

Done. My husband added some red pepper flakes and grated locatelli cheese later - he ate after I did because, really, 6:30 is just too early for dinner. The dish wasn't particularly pretty, but it was tasty. And I used up foods that might have gone too far past their usefulness if left in the fridge much longer.

Here's a break-down on how much this nutritious, filling and reasonably flavorful meal cost:

  • zucchini                  .45
  • onion                      .20
  • orzo                        .33
  • leftover sauce         .50
  • olive oil                  .20
  • cucumber               .20
  • lettuce                   .30
  • salad dressing         .25
  • locatelli                  .50    
  • pepper flakes          .05 
  • parsley and thyme   .20
  • So the whole meal - dinner for two - cost just over $3. Not bad.