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Should you, or shouldn’t you? April 4, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. When you live on an extremely restricted budget, as our friend Ben and I do, impulse buys are a fantasy and every expense must be weighed aginst the corresponding loss of money. The “should we or shouldn’t we?” question inevitably comes up, and we have to weight the pleasure of the experience against its cost. Sometimes pleasure wins, sometimes it doesn’t.

I was reminded of this just this morning, reading our local paper’s “Go Guide.” I hate reading this because it’s packed with things to do in our area: restaurant reviews, restaurant ads, movies, concerts, museum exhibits, the lot. And all of them cost money, often outrageous amounts of money. And of course I want to go, go, go.

Today’s section had a review of a wonderful Japanese restaurant and sushi bar that I’d never been to and that had an absolutely fabulous menu, an announcement of special April Saturday brunches at one of my all-time favorite restaurants, a recreation of an authentic supper on the Titanic at another restaurant, featuring actors playing roles as guests and crew, and a France-versus-Italy supper and wine taste-off at a local landmark hotel. (I was especially tempted by the Titanic meal, since Last Dinner on the Titanic is one of my favorite cookbooks.) And that was just the food (and just a very small selection of all that was on offer).

“Hey, Ben, look! They have $5 and $10 off coupons for Fiesta Ole!” I blurted. Fiesta Ole is our favorite local Mexican restaurant.

“How long are they good for?”

“Through April 17th.”

“Why don’t we go tonight?”

Gulp. Suddenly, we were in “should we or shouldn’t we?” territory. We both enjoy Fiesta Ole; it makes the best, to-order guacamole I’ve ever eaten. (They’ll do it tableside for $3 more, and someday I’m going to splurge to see what they’re doing.) I love their high-end margaritas. But our friend Ben swears that the margaritas I make are the best he’s ever had. I know my refried beans are the best anybody’s ever had. And I also know that I could make us an in-house “Fiesta Night” with tacos or burritos and all the toppings, with chips and an assortment of salsas and guacamole, and with margaritas and/or sangria and/or palomas, for maybe half the cost of going out. Aaaarrrgghhh!!! What to do?!

This applies to vacations, too. OFB was adamant that this summer, we’d go to Arizona and New Mexico. Great idea! We both love Pueblo pottery, jewelry, and other Native crafts of the Southwest. I haven’t been out there but once, and that was over a decade ago. OFB would be thrilled to go every year. So okay, we’re going… in theory.

Also this morning, OFB suddenly said, “Of course, we could go to the Finger Lakes instead. You loved the Corning Glass Museum when we went a few years ago.” Yes, I did. Yes, I loved the boat ride on one of the lakes. And yes, we didn’t see any of the others, or follow the famous wine trail, or have time for many of the other pleasures the area offers, since it was our first trip and we only had three days. But also yes, it would cost us a lot less to drive a few hours north than to take a trip that took us far to the west. It seems that “should we or shouldn’t we?” was at work again.

So we probably will go to Fiesta Ole tonight. It won’t absolutely kill us to spend $40 or whatever after the coupon deduction, and it will be our first dinner out in a couple of months. Will we go to the Southwest, or even the Finger Lakes, this summer? Who knows? Should we, or shouldn’t we?

‘Til next time,

Silence

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2011: Another year of making do. January 3, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Here in the Lehigh Valley, the part of Pennsylvania where our friend Ben and Silence Dogood live, the recession has hit hard. Unemployment remains high and hiring remains low. Reading the dismal headlines, we wonder where the so-called economic recovery is taking place.

We were especially horrified to read an article in yesterday’s local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, which predicted that gasoline prices would soon hit $4 a gallon, and continue to climb to $5 by 2012. Heating oil prices were also headed through the roof. Given that this has been the most bitterly (and consistently bitterly) cold winter we can remember, with temperatures consistently in the teens or below at night from November on, and barely making the twenties during the day, this is very bad news for those of us who heat with oil. A stratospheric December electric bill merely presaged the horrors of January’s deregulation, when the cost of electricity may shoot up by 30%.

People with ample disposable income can counter all this with a series of sensible moves: Buy a hybrid or electric car to reduce gas dependency, or, if you live in the city, take public transportation, carpool, or bike to work and save your car (if you even keep one) for an emergency. Trade in your inefficient, energy-guzzling appliances for new Energy Star models.

Bring in the experts to trade your doors and windows for the latest in heat- (and, in summer, cold-) retention and add the best insulation, and plenty of it. Switch to LED lighting. Set up solar arrays, hydropower units, and/or wind turbines to reduce or eliminate dependency on fossil fuels. Go greener, and berm your house and/or add a living roof and rain catchments. Install solar showers, composting toilets, and greywater retention systems.

We applaud each and every one of these improvements, and every other one that helps people become more energy-efficient and energy-independent. But, as in so many cases, it takes money to save money. Either you need to have the money in hand, or you need a rock-solid job that lets you borrow it against your future earnings. If, like us, you have neither, these longed-for changes remain pipe dreams.

Instead, we do what we can. We dial the thermostat down to 50 and add layers to compensate. We try to combine as many errands as possible so we don’t have to drive more often or farther than we must. We abandon eating out and going to movies, much less concerts and other performances. We put up insulating curtains and Bubble Wrap. We wash our dishes by hand and do one or two loads of laundry a week, air-drying as much as we can. We restrict travel to unavoidable family obligations. We have rainbarrel systems (made from recycled 55-gallon plastic drums) set up to catch roof runoff for our outdoor plants.

And, most important, we avoid temptation. Our friend Ben and Silence are very easily tempted. We see, we want, we buy. But if we don’t see, we don’t buy. So in 2011, it’s going to be another year of not going on Amazon, not going to bookstores, not going to the wonderful olive oil and vinegar emporium in nearby Bethlehem, not going to flea markets, not going antiquing, not going to crafts fairs and towns renowned for their delightful shops, not going on eBay, not going, period.

Instead, we’ll patronize our local library, and if we desperately need clothes, we’ll head to the Goodwill or Salvation Army. We enjoy Netflix and will see our movies through them. We’ll remind ourselves that no restaurant in our area can make better food than Silence can, so eating at home is no hardship. We may have had to sacrifice our gym membership, but there’s a public park within walking distance, and we have weights and an exercycle at home.

Our greatest vulnerability lies in our dependence on gas, fuel oil, and electricity—that triumvirate of skyrocketing commodities. Unlike city folk, we live in the precise middle of nowhere, where we must drive ten minutes to get to a grocery, pharmacy, or pet store. (Or, obviously, anything else, and much farther to get to a mechanic or specialist.) We work from home, so having access to electricity and high-speed internet is a given. And we couldn’t afford to trade our venerable fuel-oil furnace for, say, an efficient propane model, even if we wanted to. So we’re stuck with car transport, oil heat, and electric bills. And frankly, we’re just grateful that we still have the resources to make the weekly grocery run.

2011: Another year of making do. Punching a few more holes in the already-tightened belt. We could sell off some of our family heirlooms, but sadly, we’re both really pathetic when it comes to bargaining, and we don’t know anyone with that killer instinct who could sell them for us. So instead, we’d rather sell our collective brainpower, the ultimate renewable resource. We have plenty to spare and love to think!

What are your plans to survive 2011?

Frugal living tip #49. December 14, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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6 comments

It’s Monday, and that means it’s time for a Frugal Living Tip here at Poor Richard’s Almanac. We committed to giving you a useful tip to help all of us get through these hard economic times every week throughout 2009. As you can see, we only have three more tips to go. If you’d like us to extend the series into 2010, please let us know!

Today’s tip is about reducing the cost of weddings and funerals. Please excuse our friend Ben while I rant about the two most pointless expenses ever created. To turn two of the most sacred events in people’s lives into excessive, tacky, bankrupting spectacles is, to me, both stupid and sacreligious. Many marry, and everyone dies. Can’t we manage to perform these ceremonies without putting ourselves, our parents, or our heirs in debt for a decade at least?

The average wedding now costs $20,398, not counting the cost of the engagement ring and honeymoon. When you add those in, you’re probably looking at $25,000, and that’s just an average: Half of all weddings in the U.S. now cost more.

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood think there’s a better way, and this time, sure enough, it’s the old-fashioned way. Throughout much of history, the groom passed along a treasured engagement ring to his bride-to-be that had come down in his family. This heirloom carried great sentimental value and cost not a cent (or at most a few dollars to have it resized for the new bride). The wedding dress was often passed down from mother or grandmother to daughter. The wedding itself was a very elaborate affair held at the church, synagogue, etc., but the reception was a lovely, simple affair held at home.

We wholeheartedly endorse this approach: Give the pomp and ceremony full play in the holy place where you exchange your vows, then go for the simple but heartfelt home-based party afterwards. Have your friends bring desserts, flowers (better tell them the color scheme you prefer!), or champagne instead of gifts. Hold your reception in the backyard and string sparkly white lights in the trees. Or create a unique reception that captures who you are: a grilling party, a pirate-theme party, a locavore celebration where all the foods are produced locally, a poolside party, a picnic. So much more fun, so much more low-key, so much more real.

What if your parents want to throw a big do? If they really have that much money to burn, tell them to just give it to you as a wedding gift instead. You can use it as a downpayment on a house, buy a new car, take three months off and travel the world, pay for your doctoral degree. Or, say, pay off your credit cards. Whatever the case, that money will do a lot more good in your bank account than it would giving a great big party that lasts a couple of hours.

By the way, if religion isn’t your thing, you can still have a lovely wedding, as our friend Ben’s sister did: She was married in our parents’ gorgeous Colonial garden, surrounded by flowering trees, shrubs, and perennials, with a fountain splashing in the background as she and her husband exchanged vows with family and friends in attendance. True, our family spent a fair amount of time that summer making sure the garden setting was perfect, but even adding lovely blooms cost us less than $1,000, and that included the flowers and delightful celebratory feast we’d prepared and set out in the great dining room afterwards.

Now, let’s move on to that other unavoidable expense, funerals. Our friend Ben was in fact inspired to write this post by an article that appeared in our local paper, the Allentown, PA, Morning Call, called “Keeping funeral costs in check.” You can read the whole article at www.themorningcall.com.

Wow, a funeral’s such a bargain by comparison to a wedding: According to figures our friend Ben found online for 2007, it only costs an average of $10,000! Heaven only knows how much it costs now, on the verge of 2010. But one thing that all sources acknowledge is that most people can’t afford it. I was shocked to read that more bodies were being unclaimed at mortuaries because the families simply couldn’t afford to bury them. Cremation is way up because its cost is so much lower—more like $1,000 rather than $10,000—and more people are donating their bodies to science for the same reason; in the case of donation, disposal is free.

Ugh. How about respecting the dead and celebrating their life and death? Our friend Ben thinks of the Amish custom as the ideal in this respect. The dead are washed and dressed in their own clothes by their loving family, and laid out in a simple pine coffin built by community members. They are displayed in a room in the house so family and friends can gather and sit by the coffin, reminiscing about the dead or simply keeping respectful watch. (Neighbors, family and friends also deluge the grieving family with home-cooked foods to sustain them during their time of grieving.) Then an unadorned service is held for the dear departed and they’re taken to a private burial plot for interment. The cost to the bereaved? $0. The comfort provided, the respect for the dead? Incalculable.

For us non-Amish, this may be a non-option. It is apparently still legal to bury one’s dead on one’s own place in some states, but given most people’s rootlessness in today’s society, even were it legal where you lived, could you really say for sure that you’d live in your present place all your life, and your heirs and their heirs would do likewise? Here in rural PA, our friend Ben has seen many a private graveyard tucked away on a farm, and wondered if the farm was still owned by the descendants of the graveyard’s occupants. If not, what a burden to bequeath to strangers!

Frankly, it sounds like the military gets the best deal in terms of cost-free funerals—and God knows, they’ve earned it, risking their lives for the rest of us. If you or a family member was in the military, you and your spouse get free and honored burial and a free gravestone. But you need to contact the Department of Veteran Affairs, request a plot, receive confirmation, and file that confirmation with your papers, while, of couse, letting your family know. You (and your dependents) can also request burial at sea, also free, but family members can’t be present.

There are plenty of other options and cost-cutting suggestions both in the Morning Call article and in an online piece called “Plan a funeral for $800 or less” on MSN Money (Google the title for the link). Our friend Ben suggests that you check them both out and that you think seriously about what you’d like to have done with your remains, and what sort of ceremony you’d want performed to send you on your way. Do it while you’re not pressed by “old mortality,” so it seems more like a creative exercise than the icy breath of Father Time on the back of your neck. Yes, you could set money aside for an elaborate funeral so at least your heirs aren’t strapped to pay for it. But why not give that money to them and enjoy a serene, dignified, inexpensive funeral celebration instead? (Or, if you’re a riotous type, you could always specify that they celebrate a potluck wake in your honor instead, and it, like a wedding, could have a theme that highlighted something central to your life and enjoyment, such as Harleys, model trains, The Beatles, or what have you.)

The best funeral celebration our friend Ben ever attended involved a dear friend of mine named Norm. Norm’s wonderful wife Dolores chose to have a life celebration, and invited friends and family to come and offer their own memories of Norm. When our friend Ben’s turn came, I marched up to the front with a basket of hot peppers, Norm’s favorites, and gave a very short speech saying why I thought hot peppers were a fitting tribute to Norm’s memory, since he was much like a hot pepper himself (memorable, fiery, assertive, unafraid of taking his own stand, etc.). Norm’s family and friends, who knew him well, loved this, and fortunately the funeral bouquets featured hot peppers and garlic (Norm’s other favorite) along with the flowers, so my tribute fit right in. Dolores also showed a computerized slideshow of Norm and played his favorite music while it followed the high points of his life. It was just amazing. And then she had a tribute lunch afterwards so people would have a chance to see and talk to each other and celebrate Norm’s life in a more personal setting. I’ll never forget that day.

Our friend Ben urges you to think about your own wedding and funeral with an eye toward frugality. These are both times when sentiment, not expense, should be uppermost, when the triumph of the human spirit in love here and hereafter should be celebrated. In both instances, you deserve the best. And it’s the best, not that money can buy, but that the community of your friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues, acting in loving communion, can provide.

As is the case with so much else in life, taking the time to plan things carefully in advance can make all the difference between an expensive—sometimes ruinously expensive—and impersonal performance and a heartfelt, personal tribute and celebration. Time is money. Take the time now, while it’s not urgent, to make sure that when the time comes, you get what you really want.

Frugal living tip #48. December 8, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. This week’s Frugal Living Tip is especially for all you folks who buy boxed cereal. Once again, it comes to us courtesy of Spencer Soper’s “On the Cheap” column in our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call.

Our friend Ben and I aren’t big cereal eaters, though in cold weather, we enjoy a hot bowl of oatmeal with maple syrup and milk or (if we’re feeling decadent) browned butter and brown sugar, OFB’s father’s preferred topping. And in warm weather we’ll occasionally eat a bowl of bite-sized Shredded Wheat’n’Bran. (OFB and our black German shepherd puppy Shiloh are both fond of snacking on the little squares dry. Eeeewww.) But we buy our oatmeal in bulk, and are unikely to buy more than a couple of boxes of Shredded Wheat a year. So when I first read one of Spencer’s columns about ingenious uses for the waxed paper inserts inside cereal boxes, I was impressed, but not to the point of passing the tip along.

However, this past Sunday, Spencer’s “On the Cheap” column featured a slew of ingenious uses for the cereal cartons themselves. Okay, I thought, this really is too good not to pass along, and I can combine it with the earlier column so those of you who go through one or more boxes of cereal a week will have some great frugal options for reusing the empty packaging.

First, though, let me just say that on the rare occasions when OFB and I have a cereal box, we use the cardboard portion, as we do all cardboard packaging, for kindling, mixing it with some of the endlessly falling twigs and branches on our very shaded property. (“Pick Up Sticks” is one of our most constant chores.) If I have a bunch of smaller twigs, I’ll stuff them right into the empty box and add it to our firepit under a couple of logs. Works like a charm! Otherwise, we’ll flatten the box and add it to our bag of other flattened boxes (as in Kleenex), cardboard toilet and paper-towel rolls, envelopes, and the like, then use it the next time we build a fire.

But getting back to Spencer and his ingenious crew of contributors. In Sunday’s column, “An out-of-the-box solution for gift-giving” (ouch, Spencer!), he tells how reader Ellen Fried cuts out pieces of cereal boxes and reconfigures them into small gift boxes, which she fills with candy and money for Hallowe’en and jewelry and money for Christmas. Access the article online (http://www.mcall.com/onthecheap) and you’ll find a video in which Ellen demonstrates how to make the little boxes. The photo of them in the paper looked just adorable, and though I’d never go to that much work, it must be easier than it sounds, since she’s taught all her friends to make them and started a mini-craze.

This did give me an idea, however. If you make toffee nut or caramel nut popcorn and give it at Christmas, or make your own Christmas cookies, cheese straws, cheese biscuits, or crackers (yes, Virginia, people really do make crackers from scratch, but it’s not exactly easy), or the like, rather than buying yet another set of tins to put them in, why not put them in the cereal boxes, wrap them, and hand them out? The waxed-paper insert would keep the contents fresh, and if your lucky recipients decided to transfer your homemade treats to previous years’ tins, it would be up to them. Mind you, you should attach a little card or something to reassure the recipients that they’re not getting boxes of cereal for Christmas!

It also occurred to me that you could (after removing the waxed-paper insert) use an empty cereal box to package a scarf, gloves, hat, book, and/or many another gift, especially if you’ve been prudent enough to save tissue paper from previous years’ gifts to yourself to use as padding. (If not, dollar stores to the rescue!) Gift-wrap the box and you’re done. And you don’t have to turn the box into origami and piece it back together.

Apparently I missed an earlier column in which one of Spencer’s fans wrote in suggesting using cereal boxes to make magazine holders and desktop organizers. At a guess, you’d cut off the top of the box and maybe two-thirds of one side, use wrapping paper and glue to dress it up, add your magazines, printouts, or whatever, and voila!

But let’s get back to that first column, the one about reusing the waxed-paper inserts in the cereal boxes. This column, called “Cereal killers can help save on plastic bags” (okay, I actually loved this headline, I guess I’m a sucker for a really good pun), shared reader tips about reusing the waxed inserts from the cereal boxes to wrap bacon and other meats. One reader, Mary Collins, wraps ground meat in the cereal bags, then stashes them in freezer bags and freezes them. Since the meat never touches the freezer bags, she can reuse them indefinitely. But there’s more: “If I’m making meatloaf or meatballs, I put the bread crumbs and the eggs in the bag and just mix it up in there and knead it and I don’t have to touch the meat,” says Mary. “It’s nice because you can mix everything up in there and you don’t dirty a bowl. If I’m making hamburgers, I can shape the patties right in the paper.” You can read the article and watch a video of Mary at work while you’re checking out Ellen’s boxmaking technique.

But wait. That wasn’t the cereal box waxed-paper tip I remembered. A little more investigation revealed yet another column, this one called “Cereal box yields a hidden prize,” from way back in September 2008. (And yes, even back in the Stone Age, Spencer added a video you can enjoy.)

Here’s the tip I remembered, from reader Gayle Getz: “It’s about the inserts in the cereal boxes. I very seldom have to buy wax paper because I always use those inserts for baggies or I flatten them out and I use them for wax paper. I use them for wrapping bacon. I use it for little garbage bags. I use it for any kind of wax paper needs and also for little baggies. So it really saves on buying wax paper and little baggies.”

So there you have it. Doubtless there are plenty more uses for cereal boxes and cereal-box inserts than we’ve seen so far. Please feel free to send us yours! And Spencer, as always, thanks for keeping frugal tips in the public eye.

         ‘Til next time,

                  Silence

Frugal living tip #48. December 2, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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3 comments

Silence Dogood here. This week’s Frugal Living Tip is about clipping coupons. Well, not exactly. Luddites that we are, here at Hawk’s Haven I still clip coupons from the circulars in our local paper. (My beloved mama, who despised coupon-clipping as a massive waste of time, must be turning in her grave.) But this week, the paper featured an interesting story on getting the most from e-coupons. (Read the whole story, “A new generation of penny pinchers” by Carolyn Bigda, online at www.themorningcall.com.)

According to the article, the two big online coupon sites are Coupons.com and Shortcut.com. In order to print the e-coupons, you have to download free software from each site. (Gads.) But apparently plenty of people are: In the first five months of 2009, consumers saved $300 million using Coupons.com coupons.

Now, however, Coupons.com has launched a user-friendly feature that is sensible to the point of being awesome. I quote: “There’s nothing worse than clipping coupons and later forgetting to use them at the store. [Well, I could think of a few worse things.—Silence] So Coupons.com has recently launched a feature allowing you to load coupons from its site onto your store loyalty card. At checkout, simply swipe the card and the coupons automatically get deducted from your bill.” The bad news is that, at this point, only Safeway-owned stores are honoring the card coupons, and not all brands are included. (Besides Safeway, stores accepting the card coupons include Dominick’s and Tom Thumb, none of which are in our area.) The good news is that Coupons.com expects other chains and manufacturers to jump on the bandwagon.

Given the price of printer ink, I think this is a great innovation. No printouts, no downloaded software, no hassle. But I ask myself, how do you remember which coupons you’ve put on your card? Back to the good old grocery list. And yes, of course I hand-write mine.

But you can always create a custom printout grocery list like my friend Delilah does. She lists all the staples she and Chaz (and their dog Dukie) eat each week and puts check boxes next to each item, then adds blank lines at the end of the list for non-standard items. By grouping a bunch of these lists on a standard 8-by-10-inch grid, she can print out a page of them, cut them apart, and then check off the items she needs that week and add any extras, keeping the additional lists to use later. Great idea!

However you make up your list, if you’re lucky enough to be able to use the card-coupon option, I’d suggest putting an asterisk next to any items you’re planning to use the invisible coupons for. Then you won’t forget to pick up the items and also won’t forget what coupons you’ve put on the card. (Make sure you note next to the item if you have to buy a certain number or size for the coupon to be valid.)

The article listed another resource I’d never heard of. If you use coupons, you probably try, as I do, to combine them with store sales for maximum savings. But if you’re not sure what’s going to be on sale, apparently there are online sites that actually list coupon/sales matches at specific stores. Check out CommonsenseWithMoney.com, DealSeekingMom.com, and Hip2Save.com. Whoa, who’d’a thunk?! I guess you really can find practically everything on the internet if you just know where to look.

One last piece of advice. The article quoted an “expert” as saying that you’ll get the most from your coupons if you buy in advance, i.e., before you’re desperate for something and have to rush out and buy it no matter how much it costs. So true. Last week, I was frantic. I’d run out of soy and tamari sauce and was planning to make my marvelous, rich Mushroom-Cashew Stroganoff, which calls for one or the other, for guests. Yikes!!! I wasn’t looking forward to paying full price for what was probably an inferior soy sauce because I lacked the time and money to buy high-end tamari or a superior aged soy sauce. Fortunately, my next-door neighbor came to my rescue and leant me her soy sauce. And then this morning I found a bottle of extremely high-quality soy sauce lurking in my liquor cabinet. Whew! But yes, buying before the need arises is a great money-saving strategy that lets you combine coupons and sales and buy at your convenience, when the price is right.

If, like my mama, you feel that clipping and using coupons is a ridiculous waste of time in comparison to the money saved, I’d like to end with a quote from our hero and blog mentor, Benjamin Franklin: “A penny saved is a penny earned.”  Combining coupons and store sales, it always cheers me up at checkout to hear the cashier tell me I’ve saved a fourth, a third, or even a half of my grocery bill. That’s one pretty penny!

            ‘Til next time,

                       Silence

Frugal living tip #44. November 6, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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5 comments

Silence Dogood here, with another Frugal Living Tip from Poor Richard’s Almanac. This one’s about getting your home ready for winter, and it’s courtesy of the newsletter in our monthly bill from our electric utility company. They suggest removing any cracked caulking around doors and windows and recaulking to keep frigid drafts out. Makes sense, right?

Then they add: “The same is true for worn weatherstripping, and gaps and holes around vents and pipes that lead into your home or attic. Seal large gaps around pipes with expanding foam.” Great advice, but hardly rocket science.

But they go on to say: “While you’re at it, add foam gaskets behind outlet covers and switchplates, and use safety plugs in unused outlets. These are prime spots for letting cold air in.” Foam gaskets. Wazzat?!!!

Hmmm. Guess you really do learn something new every day. Thanks, PPL!

Meanwhile, we’re getting insulated curtains for the home office and tacking up bubble wrap “curtains” over every leaky window, putting draft stoppers at every outdoor door and any inside doors (such as the door to our mudroom and one door to a very drafty closet) that could let in cold air, and adding enough layers to the bed to make a cozy nest even if we turn the thermostat down to 55 at night. We try to open our curtains early enough to let in maximum light and heat and close them early enough to keep out cold. We have fleece-lined slippers to wear indoors and numerous layers to keep us “just right” however cold it gets. We haven’t gotten to the point of wearing nightcaps, but it could happen yet!

You probably recall that in Mediaeval times, people kept warm by hanging tapestries on the walls and piling furs on the floors and beds. It’s still a smart idea (especially now when you won’t be sharing them with fleas, lice, and God knows what else!). Carpets and rugs keep your feet from cold floors, and contrasting rugs on carpets add another layer of insulation while providing a decorative touch. Hanging a decorative textile like a quilt or antique coverlet, Navajo rug, or weaving on a wall not only warms your space visually but also helps conserve heat literally. Insulated curtains keep heat from being lost through window glass. You may not want to pile bear or wolf skins on your bed, but you can put on flannel sheets, down comforters, wool blankets, and duvets until your bed is warm in even the coldest room. Cats tend to be only too happy to pre-warm the bed for you, too. We have an outside cover for our air conditioner (we also cover the inside with bubble wrap, then conceal the whole thing behind half-window shutters) and a foam cover for our one outdoor faucet.

Then there’s my favorite winter warming technique, using the oven as often as possible to warm us inside and out. It’s great to feel the heat radiating from the oven (something I try to avoid all summer) and smell the wonderful aromas of supper cooking at the same time. Yum!!!

But hmmm, we never thought of foam gaskets for our outlets. How do you winterize your house? 

         ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

Frugal living tip #43. October 30, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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4 comments

Silence Dogood here. As faithful readers know, we’re posting a Frugal Living Tip here at Poor Richard’s Almanac every week in 2009 to try to help folks like ourselves get through these hard financial times. This week’s tip is about sheets.

Yes, you read that right: sheets. If you buy new sheets, you know they’re not cheap. And if, like us, you have six pillows on your bed (we each sleep with three), trying to buy extra matching pillowcases ranges from pricey to impossible. And yow, new (even expensive new) sheets are scratchy. There’s another problem with storebought sheets: They tend to be boring. And I don’t know about you, but since I have to make the stupid bed every single day, I’d appreciate anything that could turn a tedious chore into something more fun—such as colorful and/or entertaining sheets.

So you can imagine how delighted (but also chagrined) I was a few years ago to read somewhere that you could easily add a touch of vintage “flower power” to a bedroom with mismatched but color-coordinated sheets and pillowcases. Why hadn’t I thought of that?! They went on to suggest adding an Indian cotton bedspread to the bed or as a window curtain, tossing some exotic cushions on the floor for seating, putting a bead curtain at the door, and setting up lots of candles, Moroccan lanterns, and incense for a total hippie look. And yes, this would all be cool. But we’re talking about frugal living here.

What this said to me was that I could buy sheets and pillowcases for a dollar or less each at thrift stores and still create a wonderful, one-of-a-kind display. Sure enough, the local Goodwill and Salvation Army between them provided enough flower power for anybody’s spring and summer sheeting: a pink fitted sheet with wonderful clusters of black-and-white flowers, and a pink top sheet with truly psychedelic orange, black and white flowers, along with two matching pillowcases, two plain pink pillowcases, and two pink-based pillowcases with a contrasting pattern. All for less than $5! For a fall set, I was even luckier, since I found the same psychedelic sheet pattern in a different thrift store—a bottom and top sheet and two pillowcases in yellow with green, orange and brown flowers—then went on to get other pillowcases in green, yellow, and orange to go with them.

Nobody could describe our bedding as boring now! But it sure was cheap. And as you know if you grew up with or inherited frequently-washed sheets, the older they are and more often they’ve been washed, the softer they are. Aaahhhh!!!

Too bad the local thrift stores don’t carry Moroccan lanterns.

           ‘Til next time,

                     Silence

Frugal living tip #42. October 19, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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5 comments

Silence Dogood here. Once again, Spencer Soper of the Allentown, PA Morning Call‘s “On the Cheap” column has sparked the idea for one of our weekly Frugal Living Tips here at Poor Richard’s Almanac.

Spencer’s column this Sunday was titled “Put a lid on the high cost of food containers.” It shared a tip from a woman who buys a quart of wonton soup to go from her local Chinese restaurant for $2.80 and ends up with not just the soup but a super-durable quart-size container that’s microwave-, dishwasher-,  and freezer-safe, free. She says she’s been using these original containers for over a decade and they’re still holding up fine. Why pay up to three times as much for a plastic container without the soup?

It works for us. Our friend Ben and I had heard of a nearby Asian restaurant a couple of months ago and decided to try takeout. Turns out, we weren’t too thrilled with the cuisine. But the takeout containers were fantastic! When I took some homemade lentil stew to our neighbors, I packed it into one of these great takeout containers. And sure enough, it returned none the worse for wear after a trip through her dishwasher, with some yummy little desserts tucked inside. We’ve exchanged food in these selfsame containers several more times since then, and they’re still in beautiful shape and just the right size for an entree for two (or, say, a lavish dessert for OFB). Mind you, ours aren’t soup containers, they’re shallow rectangular containers with clear plastic lids (another convenient feature) that stack beautifully without taking up vertical space.

Spencer and his contributor are definitely on to something here. Why pay megabux for durable storage containers when you can get them free with your food?!

         ‘Til next time,

                     Silence

Frugal living tip #41. October 15, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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7 comments

Silence Dogood here. Every week in 2009, we here at Poor Richard’s Almanac have tried to provide a Frugal Living Tip to help folks get through these tough economic times. I’d call this week’s “The Layered Look.”

Temperatures here in our part of Pennsylvania have recently dipped into the 50s during the day and the 40s, and even the 30s, at night. It may not be freezing, but boy, it’s cold. It’s especially cold when, like us, you have your thermostat set on 58 to try to reduce your fuel oil and electric bills. I don’t know about you, but for me, 58 is too cold. And once I get cold, I can’t get warm, no matter what I do. But with what we consider astronomical oil and electric bills, and the announcement last week that our electric company was planning to raise its prices by 30% in 2010, we don’t have the luxury of cranking up the heat to 65, or even 62.

Now, we do have a woodstove in our living room, but we try to save our cordwood for power outages when we desperately need it. (And even at its best, the woodstove really only heats the living room.) So to help keep the warmth in our home during the cold months, we use insulated curtains, draft stoppers at every door that leads outside (this really helps!), and tons of bubble wrap.

Say what?! Bubble wrap. We save it when we receive bubble-wrapped packages. Then we use our free stash to cover openings, make “curtains” for drafty windows, fill in behind curtains for extra insulation, and cover our one air conditioner on the inside. (We have a “real” cover to put over the outside.) And of course we make an effort to open the curtains just after sunrise and let in as much daylight (and warmth) as we can, then close them all as the sun begins to set to conserve warmth. 

Fine, it all helps. But it’s still damned cold in here. I work from home, and trust me, it’s hard to sit at a computer and type when you’re freezing. It reminds me of Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, and the real-life Victorians shuddering away in their icy houses with their chilblains.

So, how do you stay warm without spending bazillion dollars on heating and/or electric bills? Go for the layered look. As I write, I’m wearing my standard work clothes of tee-shirt and skirt. But because it’s now cold, I’m wearing a few extra layers, too: legwarmers (remember those from “Flashdance”?); fleece-lined ankle-high slippers; a fleece vest; and fingerless gloves our dear friend Sarah knitted me for Christmas a couple of years ago. 

Trust me, I have even more layers in case of need: cushy socks, a warm and yummy long-sleeved fleece jacket, a super-soft scarf, long-sleeved flannel shirts. But I’m one of those people who hates covering myself up. If I could wear a tee-shirt, skirt, and (when going outside) sandals all year, I’d be ecstatic. I don’t want to be swaddled like The Mummy. But I don’t want to freeze or swelter, either. So during the cold months, I tend to add and subtract layers as needed to keep myself adequately warm. And at night, we burrow under flannel sheets, a down comforter, a bedspread, and a wool blanket. It may be cold enough to frost the windows on the inside of the bedroom, but we’re cozy and warm under our mound of blankets.

The layered look works for us. Now, if we could just figure out how to afford to set up a few solar panels before that 30% price jump!

How do you stay warm in winter?

         ‘Til next time,

                     Silence

Frugal living tip #40. October 6, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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3 comments

Silence Dogood here. I can’t believe we have just 12 more weeks of Frugal Living Tips to go in 2009! You all will have to let us know if you want us to continue with a Frugal Living Tip each week in 2010.

Anyway, this week’s tip is about dessert. In my family, desserts were reserved for birthdays and holidays, and then they were amazing things. The concept of eating dessert every night is astounding to me. (For one thing, how could anybody have room?!) But now that our friend Ben and I live in Pennsylvania, we’re surrounded by the dessert-loving Pennsylvania Dutch, who traditionally might have dessert with every meal, including breakfast. (The infamous shoo-fly pie was apparently a breakfast tradition back when the area was mostly agrarian and hearty meals were the order of the day.)

In today’s more sedentary society, desserts tend to be costly, both in terms of calories and ingredients, even if you forego the ready-made option and make them yourself. So how can you satisfy that sweet tooth without blowing your grocery budget and/or gaining 10,000 pounds?

My first thought was to suggest ending your supper with fresh fruit—grapes, cherries, melon slices, mango, a ripe peach, what have you, perhaps with cheese in the Continental tradition. But decadent as this sounds to me, it’s hardly Moose Tracks ice cream and/or brownies.

My next thought was to recommend the Wise Dieter Way: Make or buy the most decadent dessert imaginable, the dessert of your dreams, then eat one—count it, one—bite. But guess what, talk about a self-indulgent waste of money! Yow. It’s one thing if you’re all splitting a dessert and you take exactly one bite and let everyone else finish it off. But if you have an entire helping and eat one bite, then what? Unless you eat one bite every night for the next two weeks, you’re still wasting money. And let’s just say that I’d be willing to bet that by the second night that luscious dessert will already be losing most if not all of its charm. Yuck!

Then there’s the “have one tiny square of dark chocolate after your meal because it’s good for you” school. Just this morning, I read yet another endorsement of the “one tiny square of dark chocolate” as a health promoter. Okay, fine. But we’re talking about one tiny square, folks, the size of one of those chocolate mints they bring you in restaurants to send you into sugar shock so you won’t go into sticker shock when you see the size of the bill. Is that going to be enough? What happened to that big, fat slice of red velvet cake or that handful of double chocolate-chip cookies?!

So okay, let’s tackle dessert head-on here. What’s really satisfying and economical? (And please don’t anybody even think about mentioning those horrid Rice Krispy squares. God help us!) Here are some options:

* Baked apples. You’re right, I’m back to the fruit thing. But baking an apple turns it into a luscious, caramel-drenched, decadent treat that would satisfy anybody’s sweet tooth. To make them, core tart apples like Granny Smiths. Pour about 1/2 inch of cider, apple juice, or water in the bottom of a baking dish and set the apples in the dish. Fill the cored part of each apple with a pat of salted butter and a teaspoon of brown sugar. Add more butter and brown sugar to the cider/apple juice/water around the apples. Sprinkle ground cinnamon over the apples, then bake them for an hour at 350 degrees F. They will be unbelievably rich and decadent!

* Grilled or baked peaches. When peaches are cheap and in season, you can bake them or simply halve, pit and grill them just long enough to heat them and produce grill marks on the underside. You can serve them as is or brush them with marmalade, red currant jelly, or Balsamic vinegar. (If you bake them, you can brush the marmalade, jelly, or balsamic vinegar over each cut-side-up half before running the baking dish in the oven. Again, bake just long enough to heat through; check at 20 and then 30 minutes at 350 degrees.)

* Grilled grapes. My friend Delilah turned me on to this delicious way to prepare grapes. Grill seedless grapes—preferably red or purple—just five minutes, which caramelizes the flesh. Serve warm with Brie. Yum! 

* Grilled bananas. Okay, okay, this is the last fruit dessert… I think. Halve bananas lengthwise, still in their skins, and grill face down just long enough to heat and produce grill marks. (The skins keep the bananas from falling apart during grilling.) Remove the skins and serve two halves per person with a sprinkling of almond or pecan pieces and a splash of maple syrup. Or go for it and add a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

* Rice pudding. Rice pudding has two things going for it: It’s cheap, and it’s classic comfort food, especially when served warm. See our earlier post, “A rice pudding roundup,” for six diverse recipes for both white and brown rice pudding.

* Bread pudding. Made from leftover stale bread, bread pudding may have been the original frugal dessert. Some people love it, some people (including yours truly) hate it, but it’s definitely worth checking out.     

* Cinnamon toast. Don’t diss the potential of beloved childhood favorites to transform themselves into frugal but delicious desserts. Suppose, for example, you take slices of bread and cut them into fun shapes with cookie cutters. Then you smear them with salted butter, sugar, and cinnamon, and run them under the broiler just long enough to melt the topping. Fabulous! Ditto for dessert waffles. Top them with cherry preserves, seedless black raspberry or blackberry jam, or maple syrup, and a dab of whipped cream, and you have a dessert fit for any family meal.

* Angel food cake. Our family always got to pick their own cakes for their birthdays, and I always chose angel food cake. These days, the idea od beating 9 to 16 egg whites (depending on your recipe) and going on from there is a bit much.  But ready-made angel food cakes are one of the most affordable (and low-cal) desserts in any grocery store. When I want something luscious but trouble-free, I’ll often slice up an angel food cake and top it with some combination of seasonal fruits: strawberries, for example, or peaches and blueberries or red raspberries. Then I’ll top each fruit-covered slice with whipped cream. Mmmmmm!!!    

* Pound cake. A delicious slice of my coffee pound cake would satisfy anybody’s dessert cravings. (See my post “The best coffee pound cake” for the recipe.) It’s not only easy and affordable to make, it keeps well, so you can enjoy a slice every day until you’ve eaten it all without fear of its going stale on you.

* Milkshakes. If you simply must have ice cream, mixing it with milk makes it (and your budget) stretch further. But only if you serve up those milkshakes in normal-sized glasses rather than huge fountain-size vases, I mean, glasses.

* Meringues. Made with egg whites, sugar, and a dash of vanilla, meringues are both decadent and cheap. And they’re so easy to make! Whip 7 egg whites stiff, adding 1 1/2 cups sugar a teaspoon at a time as you’re whipping the whites. Finally fold in a teaspoon (or two) of vanilla and 3/4 cup sugar. Spoon cream-puff-sized blobs onto an aluminum-foil-lined baking sheet and bake in a slow oven (225 degrees F) for 45 to 60 minutes, or until the outside turns a lovely light pinkish-tan. Unlike storebought meringues, these will be crunchy on the outside and soft and succulent on the inside. I love to eat them as is, but you can also bash in the tops and fill them with fruit and/or whipped cream or ice cream. And please, don’t waste the yolks! Give some to your dog as a special, coat-glossing treat, and add the rest to your next batch of scrambled eggs or French toast batter.   

* Berries. You’re right, I’m back to fruit. But I don’t know of a single dessert more delicious than ripe berries in season. My all-time fave is black raspberries, but black cherries, red raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries are also in the running. The key to both savoring them and getting them affordably is to buy them in season (assuming you don’t grow your own; then they’re free!), and only then. It makes them so special you’ll find yourself longing for that fragrance, taste and texture all year. Then, once you have them, enjoy them in a bowl with a little milk or cream, or display them on a salad plate with a handful or almonds or pecans and that famous little square of dark chocolate. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and enjoy!

What are your favorite frugal desserts? I think confirmed chocoholics could especially use a few good suggestions here!

          ‘Til next time,

                         Silence