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

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Time to Plan the Spring Vegetable Garden

Here we are at the end of February and all my gardening friends are really getting itchy to be in the garden. Some ordered their seeds months ago and have started seeds on trays under grow lights in the basement or on sunny window sills. Others are still pouring over the catalogs (on line, I hope - paper catalogs aren't very green). And the lucky ones have already been able to dig in the dirt and plant seeds outdoors. One of my favorite bloggers, Deanna Duke of The Crunchy Chicken, just started her Urban Farming 2010 series and reported yesterday that daffodils and cherry trees are blooming in her Seattle backyard. She has planted asparagus, parsley and cilantro, and is getting ready to put in the peas and beets.

In southeastern Pennsylvania where I live, we still have a foot of snow on the ground. Despite current temperatures in the 40s and several days of rain in the forecast, it will be weeks before we can begin to work the soil. Traditionally, we plant peas on St. Patrick's Day. While I'm hoping that will be possible, I'm not going to expect it.

In the meantime, I've placed a small order with Burpee Seeds (full disclosure: I have written for Burpee publications in the past; have tested and written about some of their seed varieties; and will be reviewing a group of seeds on this blog during the gardening season; they will be giving me some of those seeds, others I will purchase).

The Burpee order is for arugula, Bush Champion cucumbers, Oregon Sugar Snap II snow peas, Classic Mix mesclun, Sunburst Hybrid patty pan summer squash, Early Acorn Hybrid winter squash, Blue Baby Hybrid hubbard squash, Cornells Bush Delicata winter squash, Heatwave looseleaf lettuce and 4 Seasons lettuce.

I also plan to buy additional seeds for green beans, zucchini, gold and red beets, butternut squash, dill, parsley and basil. Later, when all danger of frost is past, which will be somewhere around Mother's Day here, I'll buy seedlings - tomatoes, eggplant, sweet peppers along with sage, thyme and rosemary - from local growers.

The garden I'll be planting is a cooperative one. My friends Michele, Leah and Kim and I are developing a 400 square foot vegetable garden at Michele's home. Our goal is to grow as much fresh produce as we received from the two CSA shares we had between the four of us for the past three summers, but for less money (we paid $800 per share). We also hope to have more of the veggies we like best.

In the fall, we hired a man to rototill the space. His fee worked out to $38 each, which was less than the cost of renting a tiller for the day, transporting it to the site and back to the rental firm - not to mention the fact that he was much better at that chore than we would have been. Michele has generously offered to pay a contractor to erect a fence around the garden (rabbits, ground hogs and deer are an issue) so that is an expense we won't have to share..

We have met twice - once in the fall and once in January to fine-tune the list of plants we will grow (no Brussells sprouts because Kim hates them; lots of summer and winter squash because we all love them; a little rainbow chard because it's one of my favorites, and I've decided it's a non-negotiable item; and tons of tomatoes because what's a summer garden without tomatoes?!).

We have decided that we will use only organic fertilizers including chicken manure from Michele's chickens; we will deal with insects without commercial pesticides; and we will not limit ourselves to organic plants and seeds. The work load will be divided up as evenly as possible. Michele will take on a lot of the watering duty since, because, depending on the weather, some plants may need watering more than once a day. Everyone will plant and weed. And we'll need to work out a harvesting schedule.

Our next pre-planting task will be to plot out the garden. We'll use a graph-paper type planner to determine what plants will go where, how many rows we'll need, how long and wide each row will be, and how many plants we'll have room for.

We'll also start collecting materials for staking the tomatoes using postings on Craigslist and Freecycle. We may attempt to make our own tomato cages. Fortunately, we still have plenty of time for that.

What do you have planned for your garden this year? What do you do to keep your gardening expenses in check? Please share.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Tips for the Frugal Home Seller: Getting the House Ready

In the go-go real estate market of a few years ago, when mortage lenders were throwing money at buyers and properties were increasing in value every 15 minutes, what your house looked like didn't seem to matter all that much. Buyers would look at a home with a shabby facade or dated interior and say to themselves, "I'll spend a few grand on fixing it up and sell for a huge profit." Many people did just that. And then it stopped.

Today, mortgage money is tighter and buyers want turn-key. And if the house isn't perfect, they'll want deep discounts. It's a new world.

But just because, in general, the real estate market is skewed in favor of the buyer these days, doesn't mean that you should give up on selling your home. There are still plenty of qualified buyers, and in some markets, there is pent up demand after a year or more of flat sales. If you are thinking of selling your home in the near future, it's important to present it in a way that enhances its perceived value, and to make it more appealing to prospective buyers.

Here are 4 simple and inexpensive (some will cost you nothing but your time) steps you can take before you list your home for sale:
  1. Get rid of stuff. This is probably the hardest part, so do it first. Start out in the most cluttered room in your house - let's say it's the kitchen. Methodically work your way through every cupboard, drawer and pantry shelf and "edit" the contents. Do you really need 3 sets of mixing bowls? Save the best looking one and box up the rest (we'll talk about what to do with all that stuff in another post). Pare down the contents of your spice shelf to the 10 you use most often. Put seasonal items (heart-shaped baking pan, Christmas cookie cutters, Thanksgiving-themed napkins, Passover platters) in storage. Go through bedroom closets and remove out-of-season clothing, luggage, outfits you no longer wear and any items that could go somewhere else. The point is to make the closets look larger than they are, and to send the message to prospective buyers that it's easy to be organized in this home. Do this same editing in every room in your house. I'm not going to kid you...for most people, this is an odious task. It can take weeks, if not months, if you're like me, have lived in your home for a long time and tend to avoid parting with things. It helps if you have a big supply of boxes. You may also want to look into renting a storage unit.
  2. Clean. I mean really clean - from top to bottom. First vacuum the whole house - along all the baseboards, in every corner, in the far reaches of the basement and attic, inside closets, cupboards and drawers. Then scrub down every surface. Use envrionmentally-friendly home-made cleaning products and rags from cut up T-shirts to keep your costs down. Attack stained grout in the bathroom. Wash every window, inside and out. Dust light bulbs. Scour sinks, toilets and the inside of the washing machine. Pull the refrigerator away from the wall and clean off the coils. Scrub the floors. Consider renting a steam cleaner to refresh your draperies, upholstery and carpets. Once your home is squeaky clean, develop a plan for keeping it that way until it's sold.
  3. Refresh the front door. The front door of your home is like a person's creates that all-important first impression. Take a good, long, objective look at the front door. Is the paint chipped? Are any window panes cloudy or cracked? Is the door knocker tarnished? What shape is the door knob in? Making the most of the front door may be as simple as scrubbing off some street grime and and washing the windows. Or you may have to spend a few dollars on a mini-face lift. Fresh paint in an inviting contrasting color might do wonders. Before you chose a color, check out some model homes, or properties that have sold for good prices in your community to see if there are certain colors that are favored. In some areas, lipstick red doors are popular, while in other communities, that may be seen as so yesterday. Your real estate agent might have a good suggestion. Replacing the hardware, knocker and light fixture could set you back several hundred dollars, but might be just the thing to give the entrance the wow factor that was missing.
  4. Repair and replace. No matter how well you maintain your home, there are always inspection issues that will come up...a leaky faucet or broken toilet seal, for example. And when your home is on the market, little issues can spell big doubts from a buyer's perspective. A proactive approach is key. Before the first showing, try to do as many repairs as possible so that small objections don't turn into a no-sale situation. If you're handy, you'll be able to do many of these things yourself. Some common repair items that might set off alarm bells with buyers include deteriorated flashing, broken roof shingles or tiles, broken window seals, double taps on the electric panel, small leaks, ripped/missing weather stripping, loose stair railings, nail pops, stains from old leaks, non-functioning outlets or light switches, holes in wallboard, cracked sidewalks and worn stain on decks. A few hours of your time, or a few dollars spent the skills of a repair person will go a long way toward convincing prospective buyers that your house is well-maintained and unlikely to have lots of hidden problems.
In future posts, we'll look at inexpensive options for staging your home to make it look fabulous and at simple and frugal ways to add curb appeal.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Super-Cheap Clean-Out-The-Fridge Soup

With the sun out, all those mountains of snow are beginning to melt. It's beautiful, and the weather is mild. But when the sun sets, we know it's still winter. And during the winter, soup is always on the menu. Right now, the fridge is full of odds and ends, bits and pieces, a little of this and some of that. So we're going to make Super Cheap Clean-Out-The-Fridge Soup. Here's how:

First, we'll see exactly what ingredients are available. In the fridge, there are 6 carrots, 3 onions and 2 scallions that need to be used ASAP. There's also a quart of corn leftover from the 2 quart bag we defrosted earlier in the week for another meal, and some leftover coconut rice (though that might not be a good match with anything else). In the freezer there are lots of other goodies: chopped celery, kale, beet greens, Swiss chard and some edamame. And we'll pull some canned beans, or maybe dried lentils, a jar of home-made tomato sauce and half a bag of egg noodles from the pantry.

If there's time, we'll stop at the grocery store to pick up some chicken stock. But in a pinch, water will do, maybe with a little wine to add some flavor.  We'll use about 6 cups of liquid - a combination of water, tomato sauce, wine and stock. The proportions don't matter that much - though probably not more than a cup of wine.

The next step is to chop the carrots, onions and scallions. These are added to the thawed chopped celery in the soup pot with a little olive oil. If I had a couple of bacon pieces, I would dice them and fry up the pieces, then use the bacon fat instead of or with the olive oil to sautee the vegetables.

When the onions are transparent, the liquids go in...a total of about 6 cups, but no need to be exact. After bringing the mixture to a boil, I'll reduce the flame and add some of the greens (I'll use kale or chard or beet tops, but not all together). Since the greens were only blanched prior to freezing, they'll need to boil gently for a bit (maybe 15 or 20 minutes) until tender.

Once the greens are cooked, I'll add a the pasta. If the pasta is left-over rather than uncooked, I'll add it just before serving so it can heat up without getting mushy. The can of beans will go in just prior to serving as well so the beans are nice and hot but don't get over cooked. If I'm using dried beans or lentils, I will allow the required cooking time.

If there is any leftover meat - bits of chicken, pork, beef or sausage, these too will be tossed in, earlier rather than later so that the meat flavors can mix with the vegetables. For more flavor, I'll add herbs like fresh parsley (there are usually a few stray pieces in the bottom of the crisper drawer - no matter that they have seen better days), a bit of dried thyme, marjorum and tarragon. Then salt and pepper to taste.

Finally, I'll make some toasts from stale bread spread with a tiny bit of olive oil or topped with a bit of grated cheese to use as croutons. Or if I'm feeling a little more ambitious, I'll make corn bread with the leftover corn, some cornmeal, flour and a bit of cheddar cheese.

Mmmmmm. Delicious. And cheap!

Do you have a few super cheap meals in your bag of frugal tricks? Please share.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Save Water = Save Money: 8 Tips for Using Less Water

After the rainy summer of 2009 and snowy winter of 2010, it might be hard to get people in our little corner of southeast Pennsylvania to worry about water usage. But, even here, with our unpredictable river that gave us three devastating floods in 2 years (we haven't had a major flood in more than 3 years, knock wood), water is a precious commodity that we can't afford to take for granted. While the water table is high right now, and the aquifer may have had some replenishment, our water needs are always at the mercy of Mother Nature. And she can be downright stingy with water sometimes.

Last summer, when we had more rainy days than sunny, and the vegetables were rotting in the garden from too much moisture, my dear friend Nadine was suffering through yet another summer drought in Northern California. Last spring the Southeastern part of the country was recovering from a wretched 2 year drought. And according to NOAA, (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) there will be presistent or intensifying drought conditions in 8 western states this year, and abnormally dry conditions in another 6 states.

Over all, drought predictions in this country are no where near as grim as they could be. But water conservation practices make good environmental sense. And saving water can save you money. Here are some steps you can take to reduce your household water consumption. Some you may already do; others are so simple, you'll want to start doing them right away. I'll admit some may be too crunchy for everyone's lifestyle:

  1. Don't run the water when you brush your teeth. Simple enough to do. Squeeze some toothpaste on your brush. Wet it with a drop of water from the tap. Turn the water off. Then brush. Spit. Wet your brush again. Repeat. Add a little water to a glass (reusable, please). Rinse. Done. You've used less than a cup of water, and probably saved about 3 gallons. If there are 4 people in your household, and everyone brushes twice a day, you could save 24 gallons of water a day. Multiply that by the 350 days (I'm giving you some vacation time in this calculation) and you've saved 8400 gallons of water. With the average price of 1000 gallons of water at about $2.81, that would save you $23.88 per year. But water is far more expensive than that in some communities, and in other places, usage fees go up with the more water you use.
  2. Use this basic premise with shaving too. Or shave in the shower.
  3. Run full loads in the dishwasher and washing machine. By only running the machines when they are full, you will use them less often, so you'll use less water. And, if you're thinking about getting a new washer, check out the front loaders...they use between 40 and 75% less water than top loaders. Interestingly, doing dishes by hand uses a lot more water than if you use a dishwasher. Seems counter-intuitive, but it's true. You can read what my friend Leah Ingram, the Suddenly Frugal blogger, wrote about hand-washing vs. diswashers here.
  4. Keep a pitcher of water in the refrigerator. While tap water is usually cool, it can often take a few minutes of running the water to get it to the point where it is cold enough to drink. If you always have a big pitcher of water in the fridge, you won't every have to run the water to get it cold.
  5. Save the water that runs before it's hot enough for your shower. Sometimes it can take a good 3 or 4 minutes, or more, for the water to get hot in the shower. And all that cooler water just runs down the drain...a terrible waste. To capture the wasted water, keep a couple of buckets in the bathroom and put them under the tap while you wait for the water to warm up. Then use the water to fill the toilet tank, water indoor plants, water the garden, fill the dog's water bowl or a bird bath or to add to the washing machine.
  6. Avoid using your garbage disposal. Most in-sink garbage disposals require that you run water while they churn, with average water consumption of 4 gallons per minute. Think about composting most of your kitchen garbage (except grease and meat and dairy products). You'll use less water and you'll wind up with some nice, rich organic matter for your garden. 
  7. Flush less. OK, here's where I might lose some of you. But I'm going to throw it out there. Many years ago, when my parents visited old friends at their walnut ranch near Paso Robles, CA, the area was experiencing a severe drought. The friends cautioned my parents that everyone, guests included, had to participate in pretty heavy-handed water conservation practices. This included fewer flushes. Next to the toilets were little signs that discreetly said "If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down." At my first, my mother was ready to head for the nearest Motel 6. But she says they got used to the concept. And, it seems, that the men were perfectly happy to pee outdoors. And that leads us to another approach to the fewer flushes water conservation method. Deanna Duke, whom many of you know as The Crunchy Chicken, suggested using diluted urine for fertilizer in the garden.   She had 115 comments to that post! It seems that quite a few people tried it out with favorable results.
  8. Take fewer showers. If I haven't lost you by now, then maybe you'll be open-minded about this one too. I'm not advocating turning your back on personal hygiene. But some people may find that they don't actually have to shower every day, especially in cold weather, and when they aren't doing any strenuous  exercise. People with very dry skin, or skin conditions like ecxema may get some relief by limiting baths or showers to every other day. And one can always clean one's smellier parts with a soapy washcloth. Just a thought...
To help you determine how much water your family uses each day, use this handy chart. And consult this list for many more water-saving tips. If you've got a water saving tip, please share.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

8 Simple Ways to Save Money Now

It seems that many conversations among friends focus on ways to stretch budget dollars. Everyone knows someone who is out of work or whose income has been reduced. And even for those whose situation is stable and comfortable, the recession has made frugal and thrifty everyday words. There are hundreds of ways to save money ranging from practical, hardly-noticeable adjustments in everyday tasks to major lifestyle changes. Here in today's Thrifty Thursday post we'll look at 8 of the easiest ways to save a little money:

  1. Make your coffee at home or in the office. Instead of buying your morning dose of caffeine at a drive-through, convenience store, coffee shop or vending machine, brew your own. The average American drinks 3.2 cups of coffee a day with prices ranging from $.79 to $5.00  - the average price is $1.38. By contrast, the cost of the average cup of home-brewed coffee is $.10  based on an 11.5 oz. can of coffee priced at $3.00. (I buy coffee that is usually priced at $4.99 for an 11.5 oz bag, so my one cup a day sets me back about $0.12.)  If the average coffee drinker pays the average price per cup, he shells out about $4.42 a day, which translates to $22.05 per work week. The thrifty coffee drinker will spend $1.60 for the same amount of coffee during that work week. When you add the savings up over the course of a year, it's more than trivial.  To make it easier to adopt this thrifty practice, invest in a nice thermal, stainless-steel coffee travel mug.
  2. Wash your clothes in cold water; then line dry. This isn't one of those big-money savers, but why spend money if you don't have to? Heating the water is the bulk of the energy costs in washing clothes. By using only cold water, the average yearly savings will be about $61. Air drying takes a little more effort and won't work for everyone all the time. But just about anyone can air dry some items some of the time. We air dry underwear, washable sweaters, sweatshirts and just about anything made of cotton using a drying rack, hangers, bathroom towel racks and the shower curtain bar. In the summer, I also air dry just about everything outside - I love the smell of laundry that has dried in the sun! If air dried clothes are too "crispy" for you, try air drying them until they are only slightly damp, then giving them a quick spin in the dryer to soften them up.  According to Project Laundry List, the average family can save around $300 a year by air drying their wash. And there's a bonus: your clothes will last much longer.
  3. Take the junk out of your trunk.  Did you know that for every 100 extra pounds that you carry around in your car you lose 1% fuel efficiency. Right now, I'm guilty of having too much stuff in my car: the folding table I used at a broker's open house; a couple of bags of clothes that I plan to drop off at a charity thrift shop, 2 pairs of boots (I always carry 1 pair because I frequently show farms and land in my job as a real estate agent - but I really don't need 2 pairs), 2 or 3 umbrellas, and a box of cardboard from the office that has to be cutup for the recycling bin. I know all this stuff is reducing my car's fuel efficiency and that's just wasteful. Tomorrow, I'm going to get that junk out of my trunk!
  4. Drink Tap Water. Bottled water bought by the case costs about $.30 a bottle. When purchased singly at a convenience store or vending machine, the price may be triple that, or more. And much of the water in those bottles is municipal tap water! Most Americans have access to clean, potable tap water. Take advantage of it! Pour water from your tap into reusable containers (but first make sure that the container you use is BPA-free - you can read about BPA in an earlier post). If you don't love the taste of your local water, get a water filter. Our water tastes a bit of chlorine so we use a Britta filter for most of the water we consume (making ice cubes, cooking, drinking, making coffee and tea). The filter costs about $.83 a day (based on a $5 per filter cost and a useful life of about 60 days each). Even with the price of the filter, it's far less expensive than bottled water. Eliminating plastic water bottles from your life is also a great step in the green direction.
  5. Quit smoking. I'm probably preaching to the choir on this one. But there are still plenty of smokers out there (on Tuesday, I saw three of them huddled outside the back door at my office). Smokers with a pack-a-day habit are spending around $5 each day for their cigarettes...that's over $1,800 a year.  If you quit, not only will you save money, you'll improve your health, which, in the long haul, will save even more.
  6. Avoid ATM fees. ATMs are a great invention. They make having access to your money easy. But, all too often, the cost can be alarmingly high. At some ATMs, you may pay as much as $2.00 per transaction, no matter how much of your own money you withdraw. So, if you take the maximum ($200 in one business day is typical), you might pay $2.00 or 1% to access your own money!  And if you've only taken out $20 (this is common for young people who don't have large balances and take money out of their accounts prior to going to the movies or out for pizza), then the "interest" on their money is a whopping 10%! To avoid ATM fees, you can take the advice of Some of the suggestions include moving to Iowa or Connecticut where ATM fees are illegal, switching to a bank with no ATM fees and that has branches that are convenient for you, and by looking for ATMs with a "No Surcharge" label. Check out for tips on finding ATMs that don't charge fees.
  7. Use cloth napkins. This is one of those small money-savers that is in the "why spend money if you don't have to" category. Over the course of a year, the average family might spend about $50 on paper napkins. You can pick up attractive cloth napkins for $4 a piece. Say you buy 8. That's $32. With the cost of laundering the napkins, it's probably a wash over the course of a year when compared to the cost of paper napkins. But the cloth napkins will last for more than a year. I have some that are 10 years old. Cloth napkins are even less expensive if you make them yourself out of fabric remnants.  
  8. Keep the freezer full.  A full freezer works more efficiently because it takes energy to cool empty space. We tend to fill up our freezer in the late summer and early fall with seasonal fruits and vegetables. Then as the winter progresses, the freezer starts to empty out. To keep it working efficiently, you can add plastic milk jugs filled about 3/4 of the way with water. These will freeze and help keep the temperature even.

    Friday, February 5, 2010

    Friday's Frugal Food - Kudos for Cabbage

    Cabbage is a wonder food. Seriously. It's filling, nutritious and versatile. And it's usually very inexpensive.

    Cabbage can be buttered, baked, braised, boiled, pickled, stuffed, fried, wilted, scalloped or used raw. It is an ingredient for salads, soups, main dishes with meat, vegetarian main dishes and appetizers. The website offers 175 recipes for cabbage dishes. And that's just one site.

    And did I mention, cabbage is cheap?

    A member of the Brassica family, cabbage is a close relative of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, cauliflower and kale. Types of cabbage include Savoy, Chinese, red, green and Napa.

    All cabbages are low in calories (about 19 per cup), high in dietary fiber and offer various amounts of vitamins A, C, K, B1, B2 and B6. Cabbage is also a source of folate, magnesium, potassium, manganese, protein, thiamin, calcium, phosphorous and copper.

    And then there's the fact that they cost next to nothing.

    Our personal cabbage dish repertoir includes stuffed cabbage (rice, ground beef, herbs & spices, egg & bread crumbs baked in a tomato sauce); cole slaw (with a vinegar-based dressing as opposed to mayo); pork loin on braised red cabbage (made with onion & apples); choucroute (lots of pork products with potatoes and braised green cabbage); corned beef and cabbage (ok, I've never made it - but my husband's version is fabulous); various soups made with cabbage; and vegetarian stir fry with bok choy (a Chinese cabbage) as the main ingredient.

    A simple side dish I make when the fridge is almost bare and we need something filling and cheap, is sauteed cabbage and onion, pictured pre-saute above.  Here's how I do it:

    roughly chopped cabbage  (the photo is of about 1/2 a small Chinese cabbage)
    1 roughly chopped onion
    1 tbsp oil (I typically use olive oil, but it's not critical)
    1 tbsp red wine vinegar
    a pinch of red pepper flakes
    salt & pepper to taste

    Heat a saute pan, add the oil and reduce heat to medium. Add the cabbage and onion and saute, stirring often, until the cabbage is limp and the onion is translucent. Lower heat and stir in vinegar. Add pepper flakes. Season to taste. Turn up heat again to make sure everything is nice and hot. Serve.
    This is enough for generous servings as a side dish. It's easy to expand to serve more.

    At a typical 69 cents a pound for cabbage, it's one of the most economical (and healthful) ingredients you can have in your kitchen...a truly frugal food.

    Do you have a favorite cabbage dish? Please share.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010

    5 Tips for a Frugal and Greener Valentine's Day

    With Groundhog Day behind us, Valentine's Day can't be far off.  While once a saint's day honoring love and affection, the holiday has unfortunately been manipulated by the greeting card, candy, floral, lingerie, restaurant and jewelry industries into a spending frenzy stoked by guilt and manufactured tradition. Until the 19th century, Valentine's Day was observed with hand-written love notes exchanged by lovers as tokens of affection. Then in the mid-1800s, new printing techniques in Germany launched the era of mass-produced - though very beautiful - die-cut chromolithographs, copies and knock-offs of which are now incorporated into the greeting card industry's repetoire.

    The holiday became further commercialized by the association of flowers, jewelry, and more recently, racy undies, along with restaurant dinners to the original sentiments of love and affection. Now husbands, fiances and boyfriends feel compelled to spend lots of money on gifts or, if one were to believe the advertising, face the wrath of a disappointed woman. Even children are sucked into the commercialism of the day with mass-produced cards featuring sappy sayings that the kids don't really get, and cheap candy handed out at classroom parties.

    Enough! Let's take back Valentine's Day and make it more meaningful, less expensive and not so wasteful. Here are 5 ideas that might help do that:

    1. Ban the mass-produced greeting cards. Get out your stash of construction paper, glue, glitter, ribbon, lace, buttons, sequins and even colored macaroni, and make your own Valentine's Day cards. Kids love crafts and they should be encouraged to make special cards for the people they care about...a teacher, grandparents, parents, best friends. Teachers could instruct kids to not exchange cards in class so that no one would feel left out if some didn't get as many cards as others. With just a few special cards, there will far less paper waste.

    2. Ix-nay on the cheap candy. It's not worth the calories, or the few bucks a couple of bags of SweetTarts and Jolly Ranchers cost. Instead make mini-cupcakes, brownies or cookies. Have fun with a heart-shaped cake pan and lots of red icing. Try making marshmellows or fudge from scratch.  If a classroom party is planned, perhaps just a few parents can take care of the snacks to avoid waste. There are plenty of opportunities during the rest of the year for full participation. But no class needs 22 parents sending in sweets. With home-made treats (served on paper napkins made from recycled paper or even a collection of plastic plates that can be washed and reused; or contained in wax-paper bags instead of plastic Baggies), there are no nasty plastic wrappers and bags to throw away.

    [Because I consider really good dark chocolate an essential food group, I fully approve of a gift of a box of chocolates on Valentine's Day. Not frugal. Probably not green. I don't care.]

    3. Avoid cut flowers. Now, I love flowers. I really do. But it turns out that the average bouquet of cut flowers creates about 5 pounds of carbon before it even lands in the U.S. from Ecuador or Columbia where 80% of cut flowers sold in the U.S. originate. And if the carbon footprint of imported flowers isn't bad enough, things get really scary when you think about the amounts and types of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are used in the industrial greenhouses where most of these flowers are grown.  If the flowers don't grow near you, don't buy them. Instead, give your sweetheart a plant that will grow in your garden or on your windowsill. Or buy a couple of seed packets of his/her favorite flower. Check out the Burpee, Johnny's  or Park seed  collections on-line. Reserve a fruit tree at your local nursery for planting in the spring. Or make a contribution in your loved one's name to an organization that builds or sustains public gardens, reforestation programs or community gardens.

    4. Many couples become engaged on Valentine's Day. It's a very sweet tradition. An engagement often means a ring, usually a diamond. There are all kinds of issues - political and environmental - with diamonds these day. And, of course, there is the enormous expense. An about-to-be-engaged couple might want to consider having an existing diamond in a ring or other piece of jewelry (one that has been in the family or found at an estate sale, auction or even a flea market) and having it reset. For other jewelry gifts, why not consider something hand made by a local artisan or crafter, or a vintage piece from a specialty shop, thrift or resale shop or a flea market?

    5.  Eat in instead of out. Valentine's Day may only be second to Mother's Day in numbers of restaurant reservations. When restaurants are that busy, they aren't at their best. And we all know that eating out is expensive, especially if you add liquor and/or wine to your tab. Instead, plan a really special meal at home. OK, maybe it won't be romantic. And you'll still have to do the dishes. But it can still be sensational. Splurge on filet mignon or halibut. Make a gorgeous dessert (or buy one at the top baker in town). Set the table with your best china and silverware. Get dressed up. You'll still spend half of what you would on a restaurant meal and you might have leftovers for a great second meal. If you have children at home, include them and make them feel really special. Encourage them to make place cards and a centerpiece.

    The point is Valentine's Day should be about you and the ones you love, not about a greeting card writer's sentiments or a store's bottom line. Create new traditions that have meaning for you.

    Do you have any special things you do for Valentine's Day that are frugal and green or both?

    Tuesday, February 2, 2010

    Recycling Is So Easy...So Why Aren't People Doing It?

    Today at the office, I pulled 2 plastic water bottles, 1 soda can, a couple of small, light-weight cardboard boxes and at leasst 5 lbs of paper out of the trash...and this was just from 3 of about 20 trash cans in the building. It made me mad. My reaction was inappropriately strident. I know I over-reacted. But it's just so frustrating.

    Every week I take all the non-paper recyclables from my office and put them in the container at our house for curbside pickup. I take the paper to the Abitibi collection bins in the parking lot at the local school. Serving as the self-appointed in-house recycle fanatic is a role I have willingly taken on. Once in a while, if I ask, someone will take the paper for me, or take the cans and bottles home to his or her bin. But the general lack of interest on the part of many of my co-workers is starting to get depressing. Even with a bin for paper right next to the waste can, some of them till drop their unwanted paper in the trash!

    Is this a trend? Are people tired of the recycling message? Is it worth the effort? Are we experiencing "recycling fatigue.?

    The statistics aren't too encouraging. According to BevNet, a beverage industry website, the recycling rate for plastic water containers was 30.9% in 2008, a 32% increase over the 2007 rate. So, even with a major growth in recycling rates, nearly 70% of the water bottles didn't get recycled!

    An article on Waste Age, notes that Americans recycled 54 billion aluminum cans in 2007, representing 53.8% of the cans that that were sold. Am I guilty of looking at the can half empty if I  ask about the the 50 billion cans that weren't recycled?

    An EPA report says that 28.1% of glass was recycled in the U.S. in 2007, which is mostly attributed to mandatory glass recycling (deposit bottles) in 11 states. So, it appears that about 70% of glass bottles are not recycled.

    There is some encouraging news. A news item on RedGreenandBlue, a website that covers environmental politics, reports that in 2009 San Francisco recycled 72% of its municipal solid waste. The city even requires that construction debris be recycled. Seattle had increased its recycling levels to 50% by 2008. And the island of Nantucket recycled at an incredible 90% in 2007.

    Unfortunately, most communities are stuck at the 25 to 30% level, or worse. Low prices and diminished markets for the recyclables are adversely affecting municipal and private recycling programs. But why would that translate into individual lack of participation?

    Can you shed some light on this? Are you experiencing recycle burn-out? Please share.