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

Friday, January 29, 2010

Using Home-Grown Herbs Adds Big Flavor For Little Money

Last week I made several onion quiches for a couple of open houses at listings, and for a party. The filling was really simple:  onions, a little olive oil, eggs, salt, pepper, and a bit of finely grated locatelli cheese. But what really added flavor were the herbs I used - fresh parsley and rosemary and some dried tarragon, thyme and sage. The parsley was straight from the grocery store, but I plucked the rosemary from the sorry-looking plant pictured here. The other herbs I picked fresh in the fall and dried in paper bags before putting them in jars for storage.

Most herbs are very easy to grow, take up very little space, will grow happily in pots and cost next to nothing if you start them from seed. Even if you buy small herb plants, the cost is low.

Many herbs are perennial - they come back year after year. Thyme, marjoram, sage, tarragon, oregano and mint are reliably perennial almost everywhere. In warmer parts of the country, rosemary, which I've grown from cuttings, gets as big as an azalea in my father's southern California garden, while I struggle to keep my rosemary alive in the sunroom when it's cold outside her in southeastern PA.

Cilantro, dill and parsley are typically grown each year from seeds, though technically parsley is a biannual. That means it will come back a second year to set seeds. But the leaves taste best in the first year, so I treat it as an annual.

As my gardening group plans and plants our garden in the weeks to come, I'll be reporting on what we're doing. In the meantime, I hope you'll share some of the ways you use herbs to "spice" up your meals.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Thrifty Ways To Deal With Odd Socks

Missing socks are a fact of life. I'm guessing there isn't a family in America that hasn't experienced the exasperation of putting a pair of socks in the wash and winding up with only one of the pair by the end of the wash cycle. It's like money down the drain.

What to do with all those odd socks?
I've trolled the web for ideas, found some good ones, and added them to my own:

  1. Use them as dust rags. This is what I mainly use them for...not that I'm big on dusting. But a sock fitted over your hand is very effective for dusting just about any surface. When the sock gets really dirty, I toss it in the pile of other dirty rags and wait until I have enough for a full laundry load.
  2. Substitute a small sneaker sock for a bath scrubby.
  3. Fill a sock with pot pourri, lavender, pine needles, bath salts, cedar shavings, or even baking soda; close off the top with a rubber band (topped with a ribbon if you want) and use it as a sachet in a drawer or closet. Make sure there are no holes in the sock. Simply Sweet Home has directions for several variations on sock sachets.
  4. Institute a "mismatched socks" day at your children's school or camp.
  5. Wear them. This is the super frugal solution. As long as the socks have the same thickness, does it really matter if they don't match when you're running, hiking, working in the garden or wearing boots?
  6. Use a little baby sock as a coin purse; close it with a safety pin, a rubber band or a stationery clip, or get fancy and make slits through the top for a draw string.
  7. Make sock puppets. I've seen some really cute ones in craft shops and Etsy.
  8. Make a sock bunny.
  9. Use thick socks for polishing shoes; thinner ones for polishing silver, copper or brass.
  10. Fill a small sock with catnip; tie or sew it closed and give it to Kitty.
  11. Tie two heavy-duty socks together and use it as a dog toy.
Such a long list for uses of odd socks begs the question: how does one avoid having mismatched socks in the first place. Here are a couple of ways to avoid the odd sock problem:

  1. Always buy multiples in the same style, size and color so when one goes missing there are more that match.
  2. Pin pairs together with safety pins before you put them in the washer.
  3. Pair them as they come out of the washer and line dry them together (this prevents socks from sticking to or inside other articles of clothing).
  4. Have a designated place - a drawer, basket, bin or shelf - where odd socks are placed by everyone in the family. This is an answer to the many times one sock is in child A's drawer and the other is in B's dresser, where they may linger as odd socks for eternity.
What do you do about the odd sock problem? Please share.

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010

    Frugal and Green in the Kitchen - Use Less Foil, Baggies and Wrap

    Earlier this week, my husband made a turkey meatloaf for dinner. The loaf was done before the potatoes were, so he took it out of the oven, placed it on a cutting board and pulled open one of the kitchen drawers to get some foil. There was no foil. There hadn't been for about a week but neither of us had remembered to buy some. The choices to cover the loaf so it wouldn't get cold were wax paper, parchment paper and some plastic wrap...all of which could cover it, but none would keep it warm.  I had an "ah ha" moment, pulled a mixing bowl out of a cupboard and popped it over the meat loaf. Ta da.  Dinner stayed hot.

    Sometimes you just have to use foil: to prevent the skin from browning too early when you're a roasting turkey or chicken; to keep the top layer of cheese from melting while the lasagna bakes; to cover a quiche or pie to avoid a soggy crust. And there are times when plastic wrap and plastic Baggies are essential tools.

    But in the past few years, we've cut way back on our use of these disposable products. And we've subsequently made our kitchen greener and more frugal. Here are some of the ways we do it:

    1. We keep a big collection of covered containers of all sizes and shapes. Our favorites are glass food storage containers with plastic lids from Crate and Barrel. We have rectangular, square and round versions in three sizes. They nest so they don't take up tons of space. Just about every kind of leftover fits in these - big round ones for soups and stews; little square ones for that last bit of salad that no one wants now but is enough for lunch tomorrow; and the large rectangle for the second half of the meatloaf that will be dinner two nights from now. The glass containers are also great for heating things up in the microwave. No worries about heated plastic leaching toxic chemicals into the food.
    2. We use food containers instead of plastic wrap or foil to store half-used onions, sweet peppers, scallions and other salad fixings, as well as a half grapefruit or orange that will be eaten later. They'll stay just as fresh and you can easily see what's inside the container.
    3. Instead of keeping lettuce and leafy greens in plastic bags in the fridge, or in damp paper towels (a trick that does help them stay fresh, but still seems wasteful), invest in a SaladSac. These special terry cloth drawstring bags keep greens remarkably fresh for what seems like ages. If I were really clever, I might try making my own salad bags.
    4. Pack lunches and snacks in reusable containers instead of Baggies, foil and wrap. Sandwiches fit nicely into the containers take out food or restaurant leftovers sometimes come in. A cut up orange, celery sticks or some cubed cheese go in the round tubs that olives or fresh mozarella once came in. We don't buy all that much stuff in plastic containers, but over the years we've accumulated quite a few.
    5. Use the wax paper liner of a cereal box for your sandwich, pretzels or cookies. Close it with a paper clip or clothes pin.
    6. Reuse Ziplock freezer bags. This is one disposable I can't live without because we freeze a lot of fruits and vegetables from the CSA, garden, farmer's markets and U-Pick farms. But if a bag is still in good shape after it's been emptied of frozen blueberries, chard or green beans, I wash the bag out in hot soapy water, turn it inside out, place it over a glass or bowl in the dish rack and let it dry.  Then it's ready to be used again.
    Do you have a tip for using fewer disposables for transporting and storing food? Please share.

      Monday, January 25, 2010

      Why Worry About BPA

      In one of my first posts - it was about making soup stock from scratch - I briefly mentioned the issue of BPA in food containers. Last week, the New York Times published an editorial advising Americans to avoid using products that contain bisphenol-A or BPA.  BPA is "a key component used to make epoxy resins and polycarbonate plastic, which are used to make consumer goods," according to the Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group of the American Chemistry Council which represents most of the major manufacturers of BPA.

      BPA is used in the manufacture of eyeglasses, bike helmets, cell phones, CDs and DVDs, cars, planes and medical equipment. It's also found in most plastic containers that have the number 7 inside the recycling arrow on the bottom of the containers. Water bottles, baby bottles and the inside coatings of cans for food are made with BPA, and this is where the big concern lies. 

      The issue raised in the New York Times editorial is "concern about the potential effects on the brain, behavior and prostate in fetuses, infants and children" as a result of studies by The National Toxicology Program which is part of The National Institute of Health.

      This isn't new news apparently. According to the editorial, and a number of articles, The National Toxicology Program expressed their concern in September of 2008. But the FDA, which had issued a draft report in August of 2008 saying "that small amounts of BPA that leach into milk or food are not dangerous," is now also expressing "some concerns" about the dangers of the substance.

      In my on-going efforts to live a greener life, I have greatly reduced the amount of plastic in my home. But I do have glasses, a bike helmet, cell phone, CDs, and DVDs, though these items aren't leaching BPA into my food. A thorough search of the house didn't turn up one #7 plastic container. But my pantry has a few the moment there a half dozen cans of beans, two of coconut milk and one of clams. Is the food in these cans contaminated with BPA? If it is, what will the affect be on my family - I'm not pregnant and I don't have any infants or young children at home. Because my exposure is pretty limited, I'd say the risks are slim to none.

      But for pregnant women and families with young children, the risks are frightening.

      The good news is that most baby bottle makers are no longer using BPA in their manufacturing process. Parents can check the bottles they have on hand and throw away any they suspect are made with BPA. And the FDA is recommending that consumers not pour hot liquids in containers made with BPA, though my inclination would be to chuck them all.

      The Environmental Working Group has published a list of tips on how to avoid BPA in canned food. Of particular note is infant formula - almost all manufacturers of canned liquid baby formula use BPA in the containers. The Environmental Working Group recommends using powdered formula whenever possible. If that is not available or suitable, the organization recommends buying formula packaged in glass or plastic containers. Of course, a simple fix is breast-feeding, though I'm not going to get preachy about that.

      Another way to keep BPA out of your food is to grow, can and freeze your own, especially tomatoes as the acid in them may cause more BPA to leach out than other foods; buy fresh fruits and vegetables from farmer's markets and local growers, or through a CSA or co-op whenever possible; and to purchase dried beans instead of canned.  Or you can look for canned food labeled BPA-free. In a July 2009 Huffington Post article,  Nena Baker, author of The Body Toxic, profiled Eden Foods,  a company that has been using BPA-free cans in 1999.

      In the meantime, the FDA is doing fmore studies to determine how BPA will be regulated in the future.

      Does BPA concern you? Are you doing anything about it? Please share.

      Change the Buttons, Update the Look

      If you are living frugally, chances are you aren't spending a lot on your wardrobe. And if you are seriously eco-conscious, you're probably not inclined to buy mass-produced clothing from  polluting factories in far away places. The most frugal and green among us keep their clothes for a long time, only buy what they need when they need it, and often select their "new" clothes from thrift shops and second-hand sales. But that doesn't mean they don't want to have an attractive, up-dated wardrobe.

      While those with sewing, or even better, tailoring skills can completely rearrange a frumpy garment into something that is far more au courant, many of us might find shortening a pair of pants or repairing a droopy lining a big challenge.

      But just about anyone can sew on buttons. New buttons can totally change the look of a piece of clothing. And while I've seen price tags as high as $25 for a single button, most fall into the moderate to really cheap categories. You may already have some buttons. I have an old cookie tin filled with buttons that were my mother's. She did a lot of sewing in the '50s and '60s, and many of the buttons date to those decades. A few are much older.

      If you haven't inherited a button box, start your own. Save all the extra buttons that come with new clothes - you may need them for replacing lost buttons, of course, but you'll wind up with lots of extras. Remove the buttons from clothing you turn into rags. Look for buttons at yard sales, flea markets and estate sales. If you find a second-hand garment that doesn't work for you but has great buttons, don't feel guilty about buying it just for the buttons. You can always replace the ones you like with ordinary ones from your button box; then give the garment away. Fabric stores, craft shops and knitting shops are the best sources for new buttons. And you could try making your own if you are clever. A friend of mine made wooden buttons from thin slices of hardwood twigs. Someone else I know made clay buttons she decorated and fired in a kiln.

      Here are a few ideas for using buttons to change the look of some of your clothes:

      1. If your black winter coat is getting a tad tired, change out the existing black buttons to gold or silver metallic buttons. Or if had metallic buttons, substitute black buttons. For a dressier look, find jeweled buttons.
      2. Recover cloth buttons with a contrasting material. Or make new cloth buttons to replace boring, plain buttons. A button covering tool can be found at fabric and craft stores. Here is a short tutorial.
      3. Consider changing the size of buttons on a good jacket or coat to give it a newer look. If you go up quite a bit in size, you'll need to have the button holes made larger. A tailor or dressmaker can do this at a cost that will be a lot less than the price of a new coat. 
      4. Use mismatched buttons of the same size to make a dull shirt more interesting.
      5. Add rhinestone or pearl buttons to a vintage cardigan sweater to really jazz it up.
      6. Sew a collection of interesting buttons of the same color, but different shapes and sizes, around the neckline of a simple T-shirt or sweater.
      7. Substitute a really dramatic button for the top button of a shirt, jacket or coat.  
      Have you used buttons to change the look of a piece of clothing. Please share.

      Friday, January 22, 2010

      Freecycle - Helping Givers and Takers Stay Frugal and Go Green

      It amazes me that more people don't know about Freecycle. If you're one of them, let me introduce you. Freecycle is an on-line recycling organization that is now world-wide. The system is simple. People with things to give away post their offerings on the website. And those who want things, pick up the items.

      I discovered Freecycle about five years ago when there was a write-up about the Bucks County group in our local paper. That first year I gave away a treadmill and a rowing machine, two boxes of graduation party invitations that were deemed by family members as too ugly to send, two large Boston ferns that lived outside and were about to be frosted, and a very old Mac laptop computer. Since then, I've given fellow Freecyclers more computer stuff, a kitchen table, fax machine, soccer balls, cracked dishes (for an art project), backpacks,  a devil costume and witch hat, sports gear, old wooden shelves, several bags of kid's clothes, some Christmas decorations and other stuff that I can't recollect.

      I've also been on the receiving end. Last summer I posted that I was looking for some hostas (for you non-gardeners, hostas are beautiful shade-loving plants grown mostly for their interesting foliage - I'm a big fan). I got two responses, and as luck would have it, they were located about 10 minutes from each other, and only about a twenty-minute drive from me.

      When I arrived at the first "giver," I was pointed in the direction of the hostas and told to have at them. I had been instructed to bring my own spade so I was prepared. After about an hour of digging, I had some 20 small hostas, along with a few stray sedums. At the next stop, the man who answered the door took my spade and did the digging for me. The hostas were in four gigantic clumps that I might not have been able to wrestle into the car without his help. After the two stops, the trunk of my car was full and the back seat was loaded too. Later, when I planted the hostas in my garden, I did a  guestimate of their value.  I believe these gorgeous second-hand plants would have sold for a total of
      about $250 in a retail garden center. Seriously. 

      Some of my other Freecycle scores include a couple of belts that I passed on to someone else; a pair of wood breakfast bar chairs that I planned to use for staging listings but had no room to store (I subsequently sold them for $20); a pair of brand new clogs with sheerling lining (I'm wearing them as I type) and a pair of floor lamps. I was offered a food dehydrator, and a collection of men's ties I thought about using for a project, but both pick ups were too far away to be practical.

      In my area there are Freecycle organizations in Bucks County,  Doylestown, Princeton and Hunterdon County. I looked for, and found one in Falmouth where my family has a summer home.  Turns out it's in Falmouth, England!

      If you have stuff in your closets, garage, basement or shed that you no longer need, think about posting it on Freecycle. For those who are nervous about strangers coming to their homes, arrange for pick ups at your office or at busy places like shopping center parking lots. Most people just leave things on their porch or at the end of the driveway.

      Some people will post that they will put all the leftovers from a garage sale or flea market out on the curb at a certain time. Often a number of Freecyclers will stop by to pick through the stuff. It usually results in far fewer items to haul off to Goodwill or the Salvation Army.

      Freecycle puts goods into the hands of people who want or need them and keeps lots of stuff out of landfills. If you haven't tried it already, I hope you will soon.

      What kinds of items have you given away or recieved through Freecycle? Please share.

      Thursday, January 21, 2010

      Brrr. Taking Frugal Living To A New Level

      A few weeks ago, I posted about our efforts to keep our heating bills down which include using a timer on the thermostat, turning the temperature down several degrees during the day, not heating our bedroom, using space heaters, and wearing extra layers of clothing. While effective for us, they're unimpressive when compared to what some unusual people, profiled in today's New York Times "Home" section, are doing: they have chosen not to heat their homes...even in the dead of places like Colorado and up-state New York!

      We're talking about freezing - really freezing, like as in below 32 degrees - inside. One young group living in a loft in New York City has created a yurt in the center of their space in an effort to keep warm. (FYI, you can actually buy a made-in-America yurt, but these seem to be most attractive to folks who run summer camps or who want to live off the grid.)

      Motivation for deliberately deciding to live without heat range from a super thrifty attitude to passionately concerned about the environment to what appears to be a somewhat flaky approach to clearing one's head.

      Mentioned early in the article is Deanna Duke (who is blogs as Crunchy Chicken) and her Freeze Yer Buns challenge. Deanna has asked her followers to set their thermostats to 55 degrees. That's chilly. Now, I'm pretty darned thrifty and very eco-conscious. But I just can't function well when the house is that cold. I admire Deanna and her followers who have accepted her challenge, but I'm just not going there.

      How do you feel about this extremely thrifty and over-the-top green approach? Please share.

      Wednesday, January 20, 2010

      Easy-To-Pack Snacks Are Frugal and Green for Families on the Go

      Here's a scary statistic:  according to a study by Packaged Facts, a consumer research group, and reported in an article in the Dining section of Today's New York Times, Americans consumed $68.1 billion worth of packaged snack food in 2008. The article was actually an essay by a mother who has grown to resent the number of snacks she has to prepare for her children's extracurricular activities.

      While the issue of snacks replacing meals in American diets is a big cause for concern, the amount of packaging surrounding those snacks really makes me cringe! Think about all those juice boxes and plastic straws; the mylar-like bags of potato chips and cookies; the foil pouches filled with trail mix or pretzels. How many tons of trash does that $68 million in snack money represent? How much do all those packaged snacks cost? And what kind of preservatives and non-food chemicals are used to make them?

      Packaged snacks aren't frugal. They aren't green. And they may not be all that healthy.

      How much extra effort is it to pack healthy snacks for kids (and busy adults) in reusable containers? I know every one is over-scheduled and always in a rush to get from school and practice to music lesson and dentist appointments.  But with just a little thought and planning, it's not that tough to put together tasty, interesting, healthful and filling snacks without creating trash.

      Here are a few easy ideas:

      First, make sure you have a good selection of reusable containers in lots of sizes, including those that are appropriate for drinks. Tupperware, Glad, Ziplock, Rubbermaid and other manufacturers make a huge variety of containers. Deli and take-out containers are useful too, and an inexpensive option. And look for insulated containers like the old Thermos types with screw on lids for packing hot snacks. Yes, these items are plastic, and we do want to reduce our use of plastic. But if you reuse these containers dozens or more times, their environmental impact is far lower than the snack packaging.

      Baggies can also be rinsed out and reused. Some people use the waxed bag inside cereal boxes to hold snacks in lieu of a plastic Baggie or Ziplock bag. Also, look for utensils like forks and spoons at yard sales and on Freecyle. You don't want to send your good flatwear along with the snacks, but it would be another move in the right direction to rule out plastic utensils.

      Finally, collect a few appropriate bags for carrying snacks - an old backpack; insulated lunch kits; small, reusable market totes; home-made bags fashioned from old denim jeans; there are so many options.

      And here are some simple and mostly inexpensive snacks to prepare:

      1. Cut up celery and carrots into convenient-size sticks and keep on hand in the fridge. Fill a reusable container with a handful as you are running out the door to munch on in the car or after practice.
      2. Do the same with oranges slices. Or send along a whole Clementine, tangerine, peach, pear or a small bunch of grapes.
      3. Slice some apples; put them in a non-disposable container; shake in a little cinnamon. The cinnamon adds great flavor and hides the slight discoloration apples get after they've been sliced.
      4. Instead of buying individual-sized containers of cottage cheese, yogurt, applesauce or pudding, buy large containers and spoon it into small non-disposable cups with lids. Send along one of your inexpensive spoons with the snack.
      5. Cut up your favorite hard cheeses into small cubes and dole it out in bags or lidded cups. Add a few crackers or a slice of crusty whole-wheat bread.
      6. Heat up some leftover soup, stew, mac and cheese or spaghetti with sauce and pack it in an insulated container. Don't forget to include a spoon or fork.
      7. Home-made cookies; or banana or pumpkin bread with a schmeer of cream cheese
      8. Water with lemon and lime slices or iced green tea.
      Making and packing these snacks are not as easy as buying big boxes of individually-wrapped snack foods. But it's not harder to shop for the items in bulk and only takes a few more minutes to pack. Aren't your children, and the future of their environment, worth it?

      What are your snack plans? Please share.

      Monday, January 18, 2010

      Simple Steps to Saving Money

      While I am a life-long frugalista, I pushed my thrifty ways into over-drive as the economy took a nose dive in 2008. We have always been careful with our resources, but we had to make ever-larger cuts in our budget as the real estate market (I'm a Realtor) grew worse. Here are a few of the steps we took:

      Heater not turned on until it got really, really cold, and then thermostat set a degree, or even two lower than usual. Air conditioner only in our bedroom, only at night, and only when it got really, really hot. Lights out in rooms we aren't using. Far fewer restaurant meals. Extra-diligent meal planning based on sale prices and what was already in the fridge and pantry. Dry cleaning at a bare minimum. Land line phone service reduced to basic (still can't get rid of it altogether). Limited magazine renewals. Less expensive coffee (though we really miss those artisanal, fresh-roasted beans!). Hand-made Christmas gifts. Shopping limited to necessities. And that's just scratching the surface of our frugal efforts.

      Now that the market is improving, will we go back to our pre-recession spending? I don't think so. Well, maybe the coffee beans. But the fact is, we don't miss most of the things we gave up. We don't feel deprived. We're used to a slightly cooler home in winter and dress appropriately. We don't need lights on in empty rooms. We're glad to have the call-waiting service a thing of the past because it was so annoying. And when we replaced our house phones, we bought a system (on sale) with built-in voicemail so we no longer need to pay for that. We don't miss all those magazines. I was able to add some great new items to my wardrobe at the clothing swap I organized. And I really enjoy knitting and sewing gifts for family and friends.

      Here are 4 simple steps you can take to save money every day:
      1. Turn out the lights.
      2. Turn down the thermostat - even a half a degree (or up in the case of air conditioning).
      3. Don't buy things you don't need. Remind yourself that there is a big difference between a "want" and a "need."
      4. Take care of your things so they last.
      No matter what your finances, these steps provide a practical way to conserve your resources, with the bonus of conserving natural resources as well.

      What simple, everday things do you do to save money? Please share.

      Sunday, January 17, 2010

      Growing Veggies in Small Spaces = Big Savings

      When I wrote  The Potted Garden in 1997, I devoted a few pages to growing vegetables, and other edibles, in containers and other small spaces. In my newest book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Vegetable Gardening, I explore the concept of small space gardening even further. It's a topic that really intrigues me.

      Our tiny, in-town back yard is too small and too shady for a typical vegetable garden, so for years I have grown tomatoes, kale, lettuce, spinach and herbs among the geraniums and other ornamentals in pots on the terrace.  It's easy, rewarding and inexpensive.

      This morning, I was delighted to read a New York Times article about a program in San Jose that is helping families create organic vegetable gardens in their urban back yards. Organized by a Master Gardener, the program's volunteers have, so far, installed 30 raised-bed gardens, each with seedlings, new soil and a drip irrigation system, in low-income, mostly Latino neighborhoods where many residents are food pantry clients.  Each garden costs $210 to install. The program, called La Mesa Verde, also provides bi-lingual gardening classes and twice-a-year visits from volunteers to help the novice farmers master gardening techniques. La Mesa Verde plans to install a total of 100 gardens by spring.

      The new gardens are producing onions, broccoli, peas, cilantro and more. One newly-minted gardener claims that the garden is saving her family $90 a month on their food budget. Since the climate in San Jose is suitable for nearly year-round gardening, that family may be saving close to $1000 on food a year. And they'll be eating fresh, organic foods that might not be accessible in their urban environment.

      As the program grows, organizers and volunteers hope that gardening know-how will be passed along from parent to child and neighbor to friend. Small space organic vegetable gardening, while not a cure-all for the economy or the environment, is one of those little green and frugal steps just about anyone can take.

      Do you garden in a small space? I'd like to know about it.

      Thursday, January 14, 2010

      A Rant on Waste

      Last week I posted about the case of clothing retailers in New York destroying brand new merchandise rather than offering it to organizations that help the poor. This week, there was yet another New York Times news report about the intentional destruction of new clothing.

      This time, the city of New York was in charge of the destruction. Twelve tractor-trailer loads of knock off merchandise, including men's suits, winter coats, shoes and underwear were shredded, while many additional tons of new clothing and shoes were incinerated.

      Apparently until 2009, the Police Department routinely offered knock-off clothing to charitable organizations like World Vision and New York City Clothing Bank. After the labels and logos were removed or altered to prevent resale, the clothing and shoes would be distributed to needy people throughout the city, and, in the case of World Vision, thoughout the world.  At some point, someone responsible for the hand off from government agency to charity made a mistake. The excuses are pretty lame, as in "they never asked for it." How stupid and wasteful can you get!!?? Now, as a direct result of the 2009 fiasco, there is an acute shortage of men's clothing for the needy in NYC.

      I don't guestion the legitimacy of actions taken by law enforcement agencies to shut down counterfeit operations. But, come on, let's use some common sense. I don't know how this kind of monumental waste can be eliminated in the future. Any thoughts?

      Wednesday, January 13, 2010

      Frugal Lunch Revisited

      A few days ago, I wrote a post about how you can save money by making your lunch at home and taking it to work, rather than buying it from take out places and restaurants. Here is a great website called that shows how, by using non-disposables, you can save as much as $246.60 per child per school year if you pack your kids' lunches, and also reduce your family's contribution to the waste stream. The site includes tips for packing healthy, kid-friendly lunches, ideas for lightening your at-home workload as it relates to packing lunches and ways to reduce your family's food waste. promotes programs in elementary schools designed to reduce waste levels in the lunchroom on a school-wide basis. The website offers a step-by-step plan for implementing a program in your school. Worth a visit.

      Tuesday, January 12, 2010

      Getting Creative with Coffee Grounds

      Everyday - more or less 365 days a year - we brew a pot of coffee. And when we clean up, we throw away the coffee grinds. Well, not exactly throw away. Mostly we throw them in the composter. Sometimes, I'll take them outside and spread them around the hydrangeas (the grounds increase the acidity of the soil and make the blue hydrangeas bluer).

      Mrs. Greene, at My Zero Waste, recently posted a list of other uses for coffee grinds created by the Impact and Sustainability manager of Cafedirect..  Here are some of them  (I particularly like the cat repellent suggestion!):

      1. Eco Exfoliant - apply grounds and massage your skin; then rinse.
      2. Hair Rinse - use leftover coffee as a final hair rinse for dark hair for extra shine
      3. Slug Repellent - scatter coffee grounds around the base of plants to keep slugs away
      4. Cat Repellent - mix coffee grounds with orange and lemon peels and scatter in the garden where cats are a problem. They will hate the smell.
      5. Odor Control - use a bowl of grounds in the freezer to soak up bad smells; rub coffee grounds on your hands after cutting up onions and garlic to neutralize the odor
      6. Furniture Care - remove small scratches on furniture with wet coffee grounds
      7. Grow Mushrooms - moist used coffee grounds can be used as a medium for home-grown mushrooms
      8. Ant Deterrent - apparently the critters won't cross a line of coffee grounds
      9. Potted Plant Food - add a little coffee grounds to indoor plants to increase acidity of the potting soil. Just don't over do it.

        Any additions to the list? Please share.

      Draft Dodgers

      We, along with most of the country, have been experiencing  REALLY cold weather this past week. Our furnace has been working overtime, even though we have it on a timer, keep it set no higher than 68,  and don't heat our bedroom on the attic level. Despite our frugal, energy-saving efforts,  we're  not looking forward to seeing the next gas bill.  I'm always interested in ways to keep our house warmer without turning up the thermostat. Here are some ideas:
      1. add or replace weatherstripping to windows and doors. This link lists the types of weatherstripping available, the best uses, the advantages and disadvantages and the comparative costs.  Weatherstripping can deteriorate or  become dislodged over time, so this isn't a once-and-done solution.
      2. look for air leaks on outdoor walls behind light switches, electric outlets,  phone jacks and cable junctions. These leaks can be plugged using various types of insulation including foam gaskets. Just make sure whatever you use is fireproof and meets building code regulations.
      3. remove window air conditioners for the winter. If you can't remove it, wrap the unit in an insulated cover.
      4. consider using an efficient electric heater in the room or rooms you spend the most time in, rather than turning the heat up throughout the house.
      5. make sure the damper on your fireplace fits well and is closed whenever the fireplace is not in use.
      6. close blinds, curtains and draperies at night to keep warm air from escaping.
      7. add a few rugs, even over wall-to-wall carpet. This is especially helpful if the space below is unheated, or if the room is on a slab.
      8. leave the oven door open after you've baked something, and you've turned it off to let the warm out into the room. However, NEVER use the oven to heat the house. 
      Sitting by the fire, while not always frugal, and not particularly green, is another way to beat the chill. What house-warming strategies are you using this winter? Please share.

      Monday, January 11, 2010

      Know Your Carbon Footprint

      In case you want to know more about what a carbon footprint  is, and why it's important to know your own, here's a terrific explanation.

      Sav-on Soap

      For many years our family used regular grocery store soaps like Tone, Caress, Ivory and the more old-fashioned sounding Palmolive. Back in those days, I typically bought whatever was on sale, though we avoided deoderant and highly-perfumed brands. And I wouldn't buy Irish Spring because I hated the TV ads.

      Over time, I began to notice that the soap, even the giant yellow bars of Tone, disappeared quickly, seemingly foaming away to nothing after what seemed like only days on the shelf in the bath tub. A few years ago, the soap did its normal disappearing act, but on a day when there weren't any replacement bars in the cupboard. I went to the stash of  hand-milled soaps that had been, until then, saved for use by guests in the powder room. Everyone noticed how different the "fancy" soap was. It smelled wonderful. It made our skin feel smooth and soft. And the bar lasted a really long time.

      When that first bar was finally used up, we tried another one from the powder room. This one too got great reviews, and lasted just as long. We were hooked. Now, we only use the high-quality soaps. They are expensive, though you can get great bargains at places like Marshall's and T.J.Maxx; and we are fortunate to often receive them as gifts. At some of the specialty stores like Sabon in NYC, where my wonderful niece Jaya works part time, the experience of trying samples and buying beautiful soaps that are cut from a huge mother soap, are worth the extra expense as a special treat. Farmer's markets and craft fairs are another source for local, artisan-made soaps.

      Though I'm not sure I can really call the practice truly frugal, high quality soaps do seem to last much longer. I believe the final cost may be about the same as the grocery store soaps.

      I did a little price comparison at our local SuperFresh to get a better idea. For example, two bars of Tone soap (a total of 8.5 oz.) was priced this week at $2.99. Two bars of Lever 2000 (4.5 oz) cost $2.77. Palmolive was a bargain at $1.49 for three bars (9.6 oz). And Ivory was on sale - four bars (18 oz. total) for $1.99. By comparison, three bars of Pecksniff's grapefruit & citron peel moisturing soap (10.5 oz total) was $3.99 at T.J. Maxx just before Christmas. It's more than twice as expensive as the Palmolive and more than three times the price of the Ivory on sale. But, my experience is that each bar of the posh soap will last about three or four times as long as the other brands. A little bit of research produced an interesting fact: Ivory soap has air whipped into it, which is why it floats. It may be that other shorter-lasting brands also have lots of air. And they may have higher percentages of water, which is an ingredient in most soaps.

      So is the higher quality soap less expensive? Probably not. Is it more pleasant to use? Yes. I go for the far more pleasant experience, while probably paying slightly more.  I also like the fact that if I use fewer bars of soap, I am unwrapping fewer packages so there is less packaging waste. I still have to get over the transportation issue of using imported soaps (though shipping by sea, I'm told, uses less energy than trucking). And if I buy local, artisan-made soap, I can feel good about supporting the local economy and not creating extra transportation carbon.

      To make soap last even longer, I make a point of keeping it out of the direct stream of water from the shower. It also helps if I let the bar dry out between uses - not that practical if your family members take serial showers. And when the bar is reduced to just a sliver, I break that little piece into even smaller pieces and add it to a soap dish by the sink in the hall bath (see the photo above). It looks kind of pretty and eventually, even those little shards will be used up so there is no waste.

      One more thing. I avoid using anti-bacterial soaps because of the issue with superbugs. Here is an interesting piece on why plain soap with out anti-bacterial ingredients is the better choice.

      Sunday, January 10, 2010

      Coupons for Office/School Supplies

      Tomorrow I'll be going to Staples to buy a 5-pack of Pentel ballpoint pens and a 3-pack of Pentel mechanical pencils for $1 each with coupons from this week's ad circular. Some of the other $1 deals are notebooks, envelopes, glue sticks, a stapler and dry-erase markers. I don't need any of those additional items. But I do need pens and pencils. So I'll save $7.48 on things I really need and always use...maybe double that if I buy 2 packages of each.

      Basic Tomato Sauce from Scratch

      We eats lots of pasta with sauce. It's been a family dinner staple for ever. And I know we are not alone. According to the National Pasta Association, Americans consume about 29 pounds of pasta per person per year. I'm betting that a large percentage of that is eaten with sauce. Commercially-prepared tomato sauce is generally pretty inexpensive. I found that it ranges from $2.29 for a jar of Ragu to as much as $4.15 for one from Paul Servino Foods. Barilla, a brand I like, was recently on sale at $3.00 for two jars. The ingredients are fairly straight-forward, though quite a few are made with soy bean oil and dehydrated onions, garlic and herbs. I prefer olive oil and fresh herbs. Another problem is that the salt content can be quite high.
      Even though commercial sauce can be a bargain, I like to make my own. It just tastes so much better. And in the summer months, when I use home-grown onions and parsley, along with fresh tomatoes from the garden, I know that the cost is pennies. In the winter, I use jars of home-canned tomato sauce that we "put up" at a big gathering of my brother-in-law's family over Labor Day weekend. The tomatoes are from local growers in New Jersey. I feel good about supporting area farmers and I know that the transportation distances for the tomatoes are relatively low. I know exactly what is in the sauce - tomatoes and home-grown basil, nothing more -  and I can re-use, not just recyle, the jars and ring lids (the flat lid get recycled as it can not be used more than once for safety reasons).

      Here is my recipe for home-made tomato sauce:
      2 tbs. olive oil
      1 med. onion chopped
      1 (or more depending on your preference) garlic clove(s) pressed or chopped fine
      1 qt. tomato sauce (just tomatoes, maybe with a basil leaf or two)
      1-2 tbs. tomato paste (I used the kind in a squeeze tube - less waste than the small cans because you only squeeze out the amount you need; with the cans, there always seems to be a bit left in a can that disappears in the back of the fridge only to grow mold)
      handful chopped parsley
      handful chopped basil 
      salt and freshly-ground black pepper
      1/4 tsp (or to taste) red pepper flakes
      freshly-grated Locatellli cheese (about a half cup)

      Saute the chopped onion in the olive oil until soft and transluscent. Add the garlic and saute until it, too, is soft, being careful not to let it overcook. Add the tomato sauce,  paste  and basil to the onions and garlic; season with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste and simmer on low heat until the sauce thickens.  Just before serving stir in the cheese and parsley.

      Of course you can add meat to the sauce - pancetta, bacon, ground beef, sausage, leftover chicken or pork - but a simple tomato sauce is so satisfying on its own, it makes it easy, even a pleasure, to reduce your meat consumption.

      The taste of pasta sauce made with home-canned tomato sauce can not be matched by anything store-bought. In future posts, we'll talk about growing tomatoes specifically for home canning, and about the canning process. In the meantime, mangia bene!

      Friday, January 8, 2010

      No More Wasted Food

      Every year,  millions of tons of trash goes into the waste stream.  While the over-
      whelming amount is paper (up to 40%), a disturbing 7.5% is food waste.  Jonathon Bloom blogs brilliantly on the topic of the world-wide issue of wasted food, and what people can do and are doing about it. He states that over 40% of the food produced for consumption in the United States - over $100 billion worth -  is wasted every year.

      The problem is worse than rotting food resources and squandered money. Once your over-ripe apples, unwanted leftover lasagna and wilted lettuce leaves have joined the discarded coffee grinds, potato peelings and stale bread in your garbage can, and have found their way to a landfill, it can take only 28 days for the garbage to decompose, creating methane gas as a by-product. Methane is about 20 times more efficient than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere, making it a major contributor to global warming.

      Until more landfills are equipped to trap the escaping methane and convert it to fuel, keeping food waste from entering the waste stream in the first place is a front-line tactic for improving the world's environmental health.

      Here are some easy steps you can take:
      1. Only buy as much food as you will actually consume. Simple, right? But how many times have you bought fruit or vegetables that have turned into brown mush in the fridge? Planning your shopping lists to more closely match your meal plans will help you avoid wasting food - and save you money.
      2. Freeze leftovers and other foods as soon as you realize that you won't be able to eat them before they go bad.
      3. Find alternative uses for foods that aren't useful in their present form. For example, make bread crumbs from stale bread; bake apples that are not as firm as you would like for eating raw; make rice pudding or stuffed peppers with leftover rice; make a big pot of soup with odds and ends of vegetables, leftover pasta, rice and beans; dry citrus fruit skins for pot pourri; make pickles from watermelon rinds.
      4. Make stock or broth from meat bones.
      5. Cut out the bruised, soft or unattractive parts of vegetables and fruits and use them up rather than throw them out.
      6. Offer potato, carrot and apple peelings, wilted lettuce, kale stems and other vegetable remains to a friend or neighbor who raises chickens.
      7. Compost all your organic kitchen waste (except oils, grease, meat and dairy products). The photo above is of my stainless steel kitchen composter whch I use to collect kitchen waste. When it's full, we empty it into the big compost bin the yard. The kitchen composter, which has a carbon filter so it doesn't get smelly) is available from CleanAirGardening (they also have a bamboo version), WilliamsSonoma, Crate & Barrel, Sur la Table and Target, among other vendors.
      Even city dwellers can compost their organic kitchen waste. No Impact Man Colin Bevin uses a worm composter he keeps under his kitchen sink. And many New York City citizens take their kitchen waste to the City's Green Markets where the Sanitation Department collects it in big bins.

      If you're not quite ready to do your own composting, a subject we'll talk about again, find out if one of your neighbors has a bin and is willing to accept your contributions. Or look into community composting. In the mean time, I'm challening you to make an effort to waste less food. Tell me what you are doing/will do to meet this challenge.

      Thursday, January 7, 2010

      Let's Do Lunch

      Eating a lunch prepared for you by a restaurant or take-out place can range from super cheap to downright  pricey. According to a recent report , the average price paid for a buffet lunch with beverage by U.S. restaurant patrons in 2009 was $7.85, though the price can go through the roof at posh city eateries.  Sandwiches from restaurants near my office cost from $4.50 for a grilled cheese to $10.95 for a Maryland crab melt. Salads are in the $7 to $11 range. Soup goes for $3 to $6 a bowl. A large pizza with 1 topping is about $11.00, while a slice goes for about $2.50. And at McDonald's, you can get a double cheese burger, small fries and a small Coke for a little over $3.

      But, I'll bet you dollars to donuts (where did that expression come from?), that even if you gorge on McDonald's Dollar Menu every day, you would still save money - not to mention fat, calories and salt intake -  if you brought your lunch from home.

      With just a little forethought, it's easy to plan and pack nutritious, healthy and tasty lunches for a fraction of what you have to pay for restaurant and take-out food. The bonus factor is that, when you pack your meal in reusable containers and eat with reusable utensils, you can reduce the amount of plastic you use and the amount of trash you generate. It's completely win-win.

      Here are some suggestions for easy brought-from-home lunches and snacks:

      * leftovers - this is a no-brainer. When you're cleaning up after dinner, pack some of the left-over spaghetti with sauce, macaroni & cheese, chili, stew, pot roast, soup, chef salad, potato or macraroni salad, whatever, into a container with a lid and put it aside for the next day. Most of these possibilities assume that you have a microwave available at work.
      * home-made sandwich - how hard is that? Make one for yourself while you're packing lunch for the kids.
      * veggies & salad dressing, hummus, dips or spreads
      * cheese & crackers
      * cut up fruit
      * hot or cold cereal  - don't forget to bring along some milk
      * nuts, sunflower & pumpkin seeds
      * yogurt or cottage cheese
      * leftover pizza (some people, my husband included, enjoy a cold slice from time to time)
      * juices in recyclable or reusable containers

      Another option is to organize group lunches. A few years ago, when I worked in a very small office, my colleagues and I would take turns bringing in lunch for the whole crew. The menu ranged from quiche and salad to winter squash soup and home-made bread to spaghetti and meatballs, and everyone pitched in for set up and clean up. The cost was far less than ordering enough pizzas to feed everyone, and when we used real plates and silverware rather than paper and plastic, we were pretty eco-conscious as well.

      What is your favorite lunch-time strategy? Please share.

      Wednesday, January 6, 2010

      Recycle Those Clothes

      This morning I read an article in the New York Times that made me really mad. It seems that some retailers (in this article H & M and WalMart were specifically mentioned) are regularly ruining unsold clothing and dumping it in the trash, rather than offering it to charities, or at the very least, selling it for rag or other recycled uses.

      This is just wrong.

      According to the Council for Textile Recyling, about 3.9 million tons of textiles go into the U.S. solid waste stream every year. Fortunately, about 2 million tons of that is diverted by textile recyclers. Most of this astounding tonnage is pre- and post-consumer waste. The pre-consumer waste includes things like scraps and remnants from the various fiber and fabric industries. Post-consumer waste is made up of  carpets and mats, bedding, and used clothing - and, as we have seen in the New York Times article, new, unsold clothing that retailers have deliberately ruined.

      Most people I know are pretty good about recycling their unwanted clothing. They donate to church sales, school fund raisers, St. Vincent de Paul clothing collections, local thrift shops, many of which benefit charities, and large social service organizations like Goodwill Industries and the Salvation Army.  I typically take my no-longer-needed clothing to a thrift shop that benefits an organization called Network of Victim Assistance (NOVA). The photo above is a of a pile of garments (left over from the clothing swap I organized a few months ago) that is destined for the NOVA Thrift Shop...I have promised my office mate that the pile will be gone this week!
      There are many alternatives for recycling clothing. There is the traditional hand-me-down function among families and close friends. There are coat drives and  mitten collections.Items that aren't good enough to be sold at Goodwill or other thrift shops can be sold by these organizations to companies that recyle textiles into rags and polishing cloths, insulation, paper, blankets and more. And there are lots of creative people who repurpose clothing into new fashions, decorative items, housewares and more.

      What do you do with your used clothing? Please share

      Tuesday, January 5, 2010

      Saving vs. Hoarding

      I have a confession to make. I am fascinated by the TV show Hoarders, a scary look inside the homes of some seriously troubled people who have unhealthy relationships with their stuff. 
      The photo above is not from the TV show - rather it was taken in an otherwise ordinary home in a pretty neighborhood. The owners wanted to sell their house, but it was so full of debris, they were unable to allow showings. When a buyer agreed to purchase the property without seeing the interior (this was awhile ago when the market was very hot), the sellers held up the transaction for weeks as they tried to divest themselves of the boxes, litter, trash, and who knows what. Eventually, after enormous effort, apparently great emotional turmoil and even legal action, they hauled most of their possessions out of the house. And, still, before the new owner could move in, she had to remove several Dumpster loads of  junk from the house.

      It would be simplistic to say that a hoarder is someone whose proclivity for collecting, saving and storing objects has gotten out of control. Hoarding is actually a difficult-to-treat mental disorder. And most savers aren't at risk for becoming hoarders.

      Saving or storing stuff often makes lots of sense. There are many things that aren't needed today, that may come in handy next week, next month or a few years from now. For example, sewers may save bits of fabric that will eventually become a quilt. Parents save their older children's clothing to pass down to the younger ones,or store their books and toys until they have grandchildren. Frugalistas save wrapping paper, boxes, gift bags, tissue and ribbon for future gift giving; creative cooks clip recipes and collect cook books; thrifty people store no longer-needed equipment, furniture, books and other objects for a summer yard sales; overweight optimists save their size 6 clothing with the hope that they'll fit in them again someday.

      I save and collect old sweaters that I have been slowly repurposing into scarves, neckwarmers and felted items; leftover yarn from knitting projects; no-longer-needed decorative items and collectibles for a future yard sale; evening bags that I am unable to pass up at yard sales, thrift shops and flea markets, but rarely use (though I lend them to friends pretty regularly);  and good quality second-hand clothing that I keep thinking I will tailor to fit me. And of course, there are the newspaper and magazine clippings; wrap and ribbons; single socks (the mate will turn up eventually, won't it?); worn out towels and sheets - I'll think of a good use for them...).

      What do you save, store or collect? Are there things you can't part with because you know they'll be useful some day? Please share.

      Monday, January 4, 2010

      To Market, To Market

      I love market bags. All kinds. And I use them just about everyday...when I go to the farmer's market, the CSA, grocery or drug store, to haul files, to carry my knitting or sewing, to bring home recyclables from the office or committee meetings. Sometimes I'll use one as an overnight bag when I make a quick visit to NYC to visit my daughters.

      I always have at least five or six bags in the trunk of my car. And I keep one in my hand bag - usually a small, fold-up one like the Baggu bag made of parachute fabric that was a party favor from a museum benefit or, more recently, the cute red and white flowered envirosax  that my sister-in-law Beth gave me for Christmas. Another favorite is an old blue plaid Burberry bag that sometimes doubles as a casual purse.

      Even when I did some holiday shopping at Marshall's and Old Navy, I toted my tote bags. A few clerks seemed not to understand that I really didn't want my purchases put in plastic bags, and proceeded to do just that even after I said "I have my own bag, thank you." But the sales woman at a local cookery ware store thanked me for not taking a store bag.

      The SuperFresh grocery store, where I frequently shop, encourages customers to bring their own bags by offering a 2 cent credit per bag, although I have to remind the clerks to punch the rebate into the register. The nearby Giant grocery store doesn't offer a rebate, but they do seem to sell a lot of their own reusable bags.

      Leah Ingram wrote extensively about bag rebates in one of her Suddenly Frugal posts I wish more stores would offer rebates, or at the very least ask customers if they would prefer to use their own bags. Do you regularly carry a reusable market tote? What is your favorite?

      Saturday, January 2, 2010

      Save Money on Salad Dressing

      Salad is an important part of just about every evening meal we serve. Sometimes our salads are simple - a few lettuce leaves, maybe some red onion or shaved red cabbage. But during the long gardening season, salads become really extravagant with lots of different lettuces, arugula, tomatoes, peppers, beans, summer squash...whatever veggie is fresh, crunchy and great to eat raw. And for me, no salad is complete without dressing.

      For years we used the store-bought bottled variety - Kraft and Wishbone with coupons were inexpensive choices. Sometimes we would splurge on a bottle of Annie's Shitake. But once I started learning more about good food, reading ingredients more carefully, and being concerned about packaging and the carbon cost of food miles, these commercial products lost all their appeal. Now we always make our own salad dressing. It's easy. It's very inexpensive, even when made with the highest quality ingredients. There is very little packaging involved. I know exactly what's in it, and what's not - like preservatives, artificial flavors and dyes. And, the best part, it tastes fantastic.

      The simplest vinaigrette uses only four ingredients: oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. A classic recipe adds a bit of Dijon mustard and minced shallots or garlic. There are thousands of recipes for home made salad dressings, with all kinds of variations, available in cook books and on the web.

      My dear friend Nadine Frush has made it easy with her on-line Salad Success, where you'll find some great salad dressing recipes
      Nadine also sells a clever salad shaker with a spout that makes whipping up a batch of salad dressing a piece of cake.

      One of my favorite variations on basic vinaigrette has a raspberry twist:
      1/4 cup vinegar - use the best quality you can afford, preferably made with red wine or Champagne, or use raspberry vinegar
      3/4 cup high quality extra-virgin olive oil
      1/2 tsp. salt
      1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard
      4 to 5 raspberries (fresh or frozen - I freeze them in season to use all year long)
      fresh ground black pepper to taste
      Whisk the vinegar, salt and mustard together. Slowly pour the oil into the bowl and whisk continuously as it combines. (You can also do this in a food processor or even a blender). Try not to over-due the whisking. You want it to blend nicely but not be beaten up. Finally add the garlic or shallots and the raspberries mixing gently. Place the dressing in a container with a screw top and allow it to sit for a half hour or more so that the raspberry flavor deepens. Shake the container well to remix all the ingredients before using to dress your salad. Store it in the fridge but bring it up to room temperature before serving.

      Friday, January 1, 2010

      New Year's Resolutions

      Let's forget about the typical list of resolutions as we ring in 2010. I'm not going to ask you to quite smoking (though I hope you will), or lose weight. There will be no push from me for you to find a new job or pay down your debt. I am simply suggesting 4 simple concepts to keep in mind throughout the year:

      1. reduce your carbon footprint
      2. limit your nitrogen footprint
      3. conserve water
      4. become more environmentally active

      In the next weeks and months, I will share easy, and perhaps more complex, strategies, practices, behaviors and attitudes that can help you turn these concepts into realties in your life. Stay tuned.
      In the meantime, I wish everyone a most wonderful, healthy, happy and prosperous new year.