willpower and spending featured

Willpower and spending

One of my Cheapist thrills is my public library.  I rarely set foot inside, but I download e-books and audio books regularly.  I have been listening to The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal.  She illuminates why our best intentions so often fall prey to our illogical impulses, including when it comes to willpower and spending.  The writing is accessible and applicable and the case studies are fascinating.

I was hoping for an advantage in controlling my diet, but McGonigal addresses a wide range of willpower challenges including spending habitsThe biggest take-away for me is that willpower, as a character trait, doesn’t exist.  There are behaviors and situations that help and behaviors and situations that sabotage.  When someone’s habits and life conditions enable them to make good choices, our perception is that they have “willpower.”

The people with “strong willpower” are just people whose behaviors and situation enable the logical, long-term thinking part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) to control decisions.  People who demonstrate behaviors that run contrary to their rational, long-term goals (based on the primitive mind and the brain’s response to temporary stimuli), have “poor willpower.” She encourages the reader to “become a willpower scientist” and to make themselves the subject of everyday willpower experiments.

Main ideas about willpower from Dr. McGonigal

Understand that different parts of the mind give different messages.  Imagine the motif of the angel and the demon sitting on your shoulders. You can change your behaviors and situation to give your willpower mind the advantage.  Following some key behaviors will enable you to have what we perceive as willpower.

brain illustration

Realize that almost everyone is totally oblivious about how they make decisions.  We think that we are free to make our rational choices, but researchers (and advertisers) have demonstrated repeatedly that this is not the case.  If a scientist can predict your decision with incredible accuracy by manipulating stimuli and conditions, how much choice did you really have? We interpret our decisions as a choice when it is often our hormones or primitive impulses calling the shots.

Think of willpower as a battery that can be charged or drained.  If your will-power mind becomes over-taxed or stressed, the impulsive mind takes control.  We celebrate people who seem to have an iron will, but, for most of us, this drive for “mind over matter” often backfires.

willpower battery

Dopamine is a fiend. It is an anticipation hormone, not a happiness hormone.  Pay attention to how willpower challenges induce anticipation.  Remove or avoid unwanted dopamine manipulations when possible.  We mistake the excitement of wanting for happiness.  For example, we are driven to eat some cake, but while we should be enjoying the cake, our mind is already preoccupied with getting another piece.  The cake does not deliver the happiness that the dopamine promises.  Pay close attention to what you are actually feeling.  Are you really getting satisfaction or just the constant promise of satisfaction?

Even though conventional wisdom tells you to “put it out of your mind,” don’t try to block thoughts, it doesn’t work. “Surf the urge” by stopping to think about what you are feeling, what you want, why, and what it will feel like if you act on the impulse.  Usually this kind of introspection will help you make the logical choice.

Beating yourself up for a setback causes increased setbacks.  Don’t say, “Well, I’m going to punish myself at the gym for this setback.” Nor should you say “Well, I’m a loser, I might as well eat the whole thing.”  You are a human being and you have challenges and setbacks like every other human being.  One setback (or even many) does not change your worth or what you want for yourself.

man who lost willpower

Use meditation (the willpower of denying distractions) to strengthen your prefrontal cortex.  I don’t believe in any kind of higher plane or transcendence, but meditation (especially if you think that you are terrible at it) actually changes your brains behavior.  Meditation can put your mind in the right frame of mind to make logical, long-term decisions.

meditating increases willpower

Use breathing (very slow and mindful) to manipulate brain activity.  The closest physiological signal that your mind is primed to demonstrate “willpower” is the what Sciency-ologists call heart-rate variability.  Very slow breathing actually puts your mind in the willpower zone.  I don’t really understand it, I’m not a seismologist, but McGonigal explains it well.

Stress, poor health, and tiredness drop heart-rate variability (the best physiological metric of willpower).  Exercise, sleep, and take care of yourself.  Deciding that your iron will can overcome poor conditions is a losing strategy. If you just drive yourself without taking care of yourself, you are sabotaging your mind.

Avoid unnecessary stress. You might think that you are avoiding stress (Isn’t everyone?), but do you like scary movies or CSI shows? How about those sensationalized investigative shows or even the news?  You may be enjoying the show, but it is putting your mind in a state to act on impulse.

scary news image

Find ways to increase your “I want” power.  Create reminders of your real goals.  What will it be like when you have started to follow the behaviors that you want to follow?  Can you envision the positive changes? How can you create a visual or consistent reminder of your thoughtful mind’s desires? This does not apply if your long-term goals include eating cake daily, declaring bankruptcy, and ruining your relationships.

Pre-committing works.  Telling others about your goal helps.  Establishing a irrevocable commitment helps.  For example, if you are going to run your first 5K, pay for it in advance, find someone to run with you, and tell others that you are going to do it.  You may feel like you are risking embarrassment, but you are much more likely to go through with your plans.

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Social pressure works.  Despite what we may say or believe, we are profoundly influenced by the behaviors of people around us. Behaviors are contagious; realize that the people you spend time with influence your behavior. On the plus side, this works for good behaviors as well.

Don’t lie to yourself about what you deserve.  As Clint Eastwood said before shooting the town’s sheriff, “Deserve has nothing to do with it.” People say, “I haven’t gone to the mall all week, I deserve a new pair of spats.” (Yes, I hear people say that all the time.) Sabotaging your long-term goals because you have been working toward them makes no sense.  (But I have been so good this week!)

Related post: The Tao of Cheap: What Taoism Teaches about Money

Don’t lie about your future self.  Your primitive brain is programmed to reward your current self at the expense of your future self.  This made more sense when humans were scavenging in the savanna and living day to day.  Your future self will not be happy to pay for today’s bad choices.  You might think, “I’ll eat out less when work isn’t so crazy; my future self will be happy to cook and do the dishes.” Your future self will not be happy cook and do the dishes, and work will always be crazy. Your future self will not be happy with the credit card bill from your past self. Your future self will not have more patience, time, money, etc.  Do your future self a favor and stopping using them as an excuse.

sink of dirty dishes

Willpower and spending habits

McGonigal relates many of her willpower examples to spending.  She addresses spendthrifts in some examples, but she also analyzes what is going on in the psychology of a bargain hunter.

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I love stores like Harbor Freight, Ollie’s, Dollar Tree, Ocean State Job Lots, etc., because I feel that I am beating the system and thumbing my nose (literally) at all of the suckers spending more.  I must remind myself that when I am bargain hunting, I am psychologically identical to someone in a designer boutique.  My dopamine is firing.  I am being manipulated by “halo” words like “mark-down” and “close-outs.” A bin of factory seconds has the same effect on me as a glamorous Gucci installation on someone else. Am I thinking about the money I am “saving” and not about how much space I have left in the garage?  Is keeping the money (and my long term goals) worth more to me than the items in question?  Am I tired or stressed? Are the other crazed bargain hunters influencing my behavior? Will I be as excited about the deal when I get home?

Conclusions on increasing your willpower

Be mindful of your mind.  What is going on beneath your present decisions? Is your rational, long-term mind really making the choices? Is the deal, item, bad habit, or treat really that great or is has your impulse mind taken the wheel?

I have done a poor job relating how fascinating this book is, but if you want to be more mindful of your choices and behaviors, The Willpower Instinct offers amazing insight and is easy to read (even if you are not a Scientologist).

best homemade gifts for adults wrapping

The argument for homemade gifts for adults

The promotions for holiday loans make me sick.  If you need the loan, should you really be spending so much on gifts?  Perhaps you should be saving up your emergency fund or paying down debt instead.  There are more thoughtful ways to make gifts special without taking out a loan.  Homemade gifts for adults can slash your budget and need not be lame, even if you don’t have crafty skills.

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Creative Commons photo by Christopher Porter

You may not be able to save money by making gifts for the young people in your life.  Most kids neither want nor appreciate a homemade gift, so focus on ideas to make homemade gifts for the adults.  This makes sense because it is probably impractical to make all the gifts that you need.

Purchasing gifts for adults is never as easy as we hope.  Think about how many hours you spend looking for the perfect gifts only to give up and buy the default cooking knife, coffee set, hand towels, slippers, or fill-in-the-blank.  Adults usually have the things that they need and are very picky about what they choose to keep in their homes.  Consumables (tea, wine, olive oil, coffee, stationary, etc…) are always welcome, but may not adequately express your regard.

Approach 1: Use your skills to make homemade gifts for adults.

Do you like to knit? Crochet? Do you have graphic design skills?  Can you bake? Can you brew beer? Bedazzling? Sewing? Photography? Canning? Sketching? Are you musical? Could you make candles or soaps?  Think about what you can do or would like to try.  

homemade gifts for adults woodworking

I enjoy woodworking.  Two years ago I made cutting boards, last year I made lantern thingies, this year I carved spoons from some local walnut.  I try to make several of one item because it is more efficient.  I don’t make too many because it starts to feel like a chore.  If I can think of purchased gifts for half of the people on my list, I can give the other half something homemade.  This allows me to eliminate the weakest shopping ideas and cut my budget.  Oftentimes, the purchased gifts that I thought were great ideas get a lackluster reception after all.

homemade beer for gifting
I brewed two holiday beers for gifting.  Plan to lose a few packs to “quality control.”

My go-to skills are woodworking and brewing.  What can you do?  Think about anything you have done in the past or would like to try.  This is a great opportunity to try something that you think you might enjoy.

TIP: If you are making homemade gifts for the adults in you life, make sure to start early, months early.  There is nothing worse than having your efforts defeated by unrealistic planning.

Homemade gifts for adults (skilled)

Woodworking gifts: Keepsake boxes, custom cutting boards, candle-holders, etc.

Knitting gifts: Gloves, hats, scarves, etc. make great gifts and don’t require too much time.

knitted fingerless gloves
My wife knit these for her mommy.

Felting gifts: Felting is a great thing to try if you want to be crafty but are intimidated by other needle-arts.

Photography gifts: Take a great photo with the recipient in mind.  Plan a photo shoot of their favorite place, pet, activity, etc.

Original sketch or painting: Create with the recipient in mind.  Are they into a particular animal, activity, astrological sign, celebrity, philosophy, or community?

Graphic design gifts: Compose an original logo, family crest, collage, etc.

Memories video: If you are into editing video, you could create a gift that will truly be cherished.  If you don’t have all the video that you need, use stills.  How about a highlight reel of their three-year-old in karate class?

Song recording: Can you compose, play an instrument, or sing like an angel? (I sing like the angel of death.) 

Original poetry: You could present the poem in a cool way, like painting the poem onto a piece of driftwood or something.

poem on driftwood
Creative Commons photo by Constanza

Homemade beer or wine: If you are trying this for the first time, remember that there is some aging time involved.  Also, people think its neat when you make the labels.

Canning gifts: I love it when I receive preserves.

canning gifts
Preserves from my sister-in-law.

Sewing gifts

Homemade jewelry

Baking gifts

Candle making

Fancy soap

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Creative Commons photo by Sonia Scommegna

General gift making: If your are a bit handy with the glue, you can make some cool stuff. Home and garden decor is a good candidate here.

homemade decor
Creative Commons photo by Frédéric BISSON

Approach 2: Use your time to make homemade gifts for adults.

Even if you don’t have any skills that naturally lend themselves to gifting, fear not.  There are lots of gifts that require effort if not special skills.

Prepared foods and mixes are a great choice.  Acquire a bunch of mason jars (always save these as the labels can be soaked off with oxygen-based cleanser) and fill them with goodies: baking mix, pancake mix, dry soup mix, granola, trail mix, salad dressing, dehydrated fruit, marinade, venison jerky, etc…  There are so many great and easy recipes to explore, and they require no special skills or equipment.

Homemade decorations are fun to make, give, and receive.  Increase your swagger with homemade swags.  Is your neighborhood full of holly bushes or evergreens?  How about arborvitae or English ivy?  Get a some ribbons, wire, little bells, or ornaments, and have at it.  If you want to challenge yourself, try making a wreath or garland.

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You may be surprised at how warmly your homemade gifts are received.  Beyond the holidays, homemade gifts can keep you prepared for house-warmings, anniversaries, appreciations, condolences, and so on.

Homemade gift ideas for adults (unskilled)

Mini-succulent arrangement

Mini-herb garden arrangement

Prepared foods and mixes

Homemade pasta: This can be frozen or dried.  It is always better than the pasta from box.

pasta maker
Creative Commons photo by vigilant20 (דָרוּך)

Dehydrated stuff: You can make awesome beef jerky or other dried foods in your oven.  You don’t need any fancy devices, but you might want one if this will become a habit.

Home and garden decor: Swags or garlands are easy to make.  Pressed flowers in a picture frame can be very attractive. Another idea is to take a memento and turn it into a snow globe.  Affix the item to the inside of a the lid to an attractive jar, add some sparkles and water and you are in business.

homemade bird feeder
Creative Commons photo by Susy Morris

Photo collection

Pickled veggies: There are many great websites to get you started.

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Creative Commons photo by Christopher Porter

The gift of time: Organize a special outing, event, or dinner.  Make a real effort to show how much you care.  This gift is highly under-rated.

Homemade gifts for adults is not a waste of time.

Adults know how precious time is.  When you use your time and effort rather than money, they will feel truly special.  Even if the gift is a bit of a flop, they will appreciate your efforts.  Don’t be insecure about your skills.  I am by no means an expert woodworker, but people adore the modest fruits of my labors.  Try making homemade gifts for the adults in your life, and I promise your time will not be wasted.

dumpster diving season

“Spring time and garbage pickin’ is easy / dumps are jumping and the garbage is high.”

-from Porgy and Bess

When people look at my body, they are surprised to learn that I am a competitive diver.  However, if they watched me on Fridays (garbage day), they would see me moving pretty fast and flexing my lifting muscles in some world-class dumpster diving.

Trash-picking saves money, helps the environment, gives the thrill of victory, and offers some cool old stuff that may be better quality than what you will find at Target, IKEA, or the rest.  If it helps you sleep at night, you can call yourself a free-cycler, up-cycler, or curb surfer.  Not me, I’m a old-school trash-picker / dumpster-diver, and there is no shame in my game.

In the competitive world of dumpster diving, Spring is playoff season. Everyone in your neighborhood has spent the winter reading Marie Condo and watching episodes of Hording: Buried Alive, the real-estate market is starting the Spring thaw, and divorce filings reach their yearly peak.

Do some calisthenics and put on your game-face, ’cause it’s time to score.

Note: I had so much fun writing this post that I decided to go deeper with this topic.  Check out my newer post, Free Stuff on the Curb: 29 tips for scoring big.

Top 5 Dumpster Diving Targets

5) Plastic containers

Paying for storage containers sucks, but people throw them away just because they are dirty.  Utility shelves, milk crates, storage totes, and old coolers are all fair game.  Just make sure you are not taking your neighbor’s trash receptacle.

uses for old coolers
All of these coolers were free.  The red one has been retrofitted for brewing beer.  The grey one is now a solar generator that I take camping.  The blue one is, well, for keeping things cool.

4) Vintage curios

If you live in or near an area with some old houses, you can find some really neat, old stuff.  I have an affinity for older stuff made made from “real” materials.  Some of these finds might even be eligible for resale.

freecycling vintage
I ordered an LED bulb to replace the florescent bulb in the lamp.  The stapler from the 60’s weighs eight pounds and is bullet-proof.
vintage maps
This awesome map set was in a school dumpster, but I had to make the brackets.

3) Patio furniture

People throw away patio sets just because they have ripped cushions or a damaged top.  Replacement cushions (fitting most designs) can be found in the home center, and you can pick a design that you like.  For many bases a different top can be attached.

replacing cushions on patio furniture
I made wooden tops for the stools since I wanted them to double as stands.

2) Construction materials

Even if you only do one or two projects a year, materials from the home center can really add up.  If you have a place to store these materials, you can save a lot of money.  Even a couple of 2x4s makes a difference.  As a bonus, you might save yourself a trip to the Home Cheapo.

salvaged construction materials

using old windows
I made this cabinet with two old window that I liked.  It now houses my wife’s knitting stuff.

1) Older furniture (nothing upholstered)

They don’t make ’em like they used to.  Old dressers, chairs, tables, etc. are almost always better made with better materials.  Wooden furniture is easy to spruce up.  A little wood glue, an added screw, some sanding, or some lemon oil can go a long way.  If you are going to give a piece some TLC, just be wary of lead or other toxins.

curb furniture
This stand from Denmark only needed some reinforcing and some lemon oil.  The cocker spaniel was salvaged also, but he has been much more trouble.

Top 5 Trash-picking Strategies

5) Think about bed-bugs.

If I brought pests into my house, my marriage would be over faster than you can say, “No, you cannot crash at my place you cheap bastard.”  Anything with stuffing, upholstery, or fabric is a non-starter.

4) Know the schedule, but don’t change yours.

I don’t make special trips around to look for scores.  It isn’t necessary.  I know the trash schedules for the neighborhoods around me, and when I walk the dogs or run errands, I peep the goods.  Taking a different street on the right day can make all the difference.

3) Institutions / huge houses.

Some buildings just give it up again and again.  It’s like being a home-run hitter and choosing to play for the Rockies at Coors Field.  Huge, old buildings have decades of goodies that need annual culling.

CASE STUDY: A young couple decided to fix up a massive house near me.  They were throwing out good stuff every Friday for years.  When we finally had them over for dinner, they realized that all of my furnishings came from their house.  They left early and now cross the street when they see me coming. OK, but it could have happened.

2) Prep. your kit.

Keep an extra hammer (the bigger the better), some screwdrivers, a saw, straps, etc. in the car.  One time a saw a desk with a beautiful top, but the base was ruined.  A few swings with the engineer’s hammer and the top was mine.  Another time I smashed some damaged Ikea bookcases since I wanted the melamine to make some closet shelves.  It’s a good idea to keep some tools in the car anyway.

1) Hit well-to-do areas.

It’s kind of like how poor kids go trick-or-treating on the nice side of town.  I am usually shocked at what rich people throw away.  (Couldn’t they even bother to call the donation center for a pick-up?)  The rewards are high and the competition low.  I think it was Socrates who said,  “One treasurer’s trash is a trashy man’s treasure.”

Related post: Thrift Store Tips to Become a Jedi Master of Resale.

Do you have any great moments in free-cycling to share? Any good tips that I can add to my repertoire? Please leave a comment.

tips for heating with wood easily featured

How not to heat with wood

Where I live now (Philadelphia), people pay eight dollars at the supermarket for a little, plastic bag of birch to burn in the fireplace for an hour or two during the holiday get-together.  This is great for ambiance, but you are keeping a complete heating system functioning for no practical benefit.

Where I grew up (northern Vermont), wood burning is a different beast entirely, and it used to be a real beast.  In the bad old days (before advances in home and stove efficiency), people had to burn cords and cords of wood to stay alive.  They had to get up several times a night to feed several stoves.  Summer months meant endless cutting, hauling, splitting, and stacking.

However, you can benefit from wood heat without extinguishing your will to live by following some tips for heating with wood the easy way.

tips for heating with wood thermometer
The bone-chilling truth about Vermont mornings

Reasons to heat with wood

Environmental reasons to heat with wood

Many less-informed environmentalists see heating with wood as an unforgivable practice.  (Do these people think that their homes are heated by positive feelings?) However, the actual environmental impact of burning the wood is almost carbon neutral. The carbon released by the burning is the same as the carbon released from a tree rotting on the forest floor. Furthermore, modern stoves include a secondary burn that significantly reduces pollution.

You do want to make sure that your firewood is harvested sustainably and locally. The machinery and transportation have an obvious impact, but if you are responsible in acquiring your firewood, it is much less harmful than heating with oil, gas, or most sources of electricity.

tips for heating with wood sourcing wood

Economic reasons to heat with wood

Low initial investment

If your chimney and flu are in good condition, setting up an efficient, wood stove is pretty cheap.  Even a massive, brand-new stove capable of heating a 2,200 square-foot space will only cost about a grand.  Compared to other heating systems, this is a great deal.

If your chimney and or flu situation is problematic and requires an investment, you will have to think carefully about whether or not heating with wood will pay off.

Firewood is cheap.

firewood ends
The savings stack up.

Even if the firewood is being purchased and delivered, homes heating with wood spend a fraction of what other homes use.  Depending on the home and location, this could save you thousands of dollars a year.  Where I live, hardwood firewood is currently $225 a cord, they will even stack it for another $60.

If you are willing and able, your firewood can be almost free.  Even where I live, finding wood to burn is pretty easy.  I can go to the one of the city’s organic recycling centers (where they dispose of fallen trees) and cut all the wood that I can carry.  (By the way, you meet some interesting characters if you go to do this.)

Firewood prices are not as susceptible to market fluctuations as other fuel prices. Firewood is a local, renewable resource.  If the prices get high, companies and individuals will increase harvesting and stabilize the price.

Self-sufficiency (and the impending zombie apocalypse)

Zombies_NightoftheLivingDead

After a long day of fending off zombies, you will want to relax in warmth.  The zombies at the utility company are even less useful than they were before “the outbreak.”  If your heating methods are less dependent on an intact civilization, you will have nothing to worry about…well…except zombies, medical care, finding food, etc.

Joking aside, heating with wood may give you a reassuring feeling of self-sufficiency.  You will be less susceptible to market fluctuations, less dependent on utility companies, and less likely to have costly mechanical problems.

15 Tips for Heating with Wood the Easy Way

Now that we have established our reasons, here are my tips for heating with wood the easy way. Heating with wood need not be backbreaking or inconvenient. These tips for heating with wood the easy way show that a bit of thought and planning makes all the difference.

Tip #15) Think about your heating portfolio.

Heating with wood alone is not practical for many.  If your home freezes when you are away, your pipes, tanks, etc. are going to burst.

Think about how you will diversify your heating portfolio. How much time and effort are you willing to spend in order to save money? What is your overall heating budget, and how much are you trying to save? How much wood can you store? For example, you might decide that you will always heat with wood when you are home and try to cut your heating bills by 50 percent.

You do not need to cut off your other forms of heat to save big by supplementing your heating with wood.

Tip #14) Run a tight ship.

tips for heating with wood storm windows
Installing interior storm windows

Identify where your home is losing heat. A 15-minute fix might save you a ton of work (literally). Make heating with wood easier by reducing the amount of wood that you need to burn.

Perform your own heating audit. Go through every space in your home with a clipboard and make notes about heat loss issues.

  • Double check the weather stripping on windows and doors.
  • Look for windows and doors that aren’t closing properly.
  • Decide which interior doors should stay closed most of the time. (You do not need to keep the laundry room at 72 degrees.)
  • Use a feather to check for drafts.
  • Identify which surfaces are transferring the most cold into your home. Touch the surfaces or use an infrared thermometer (you just point it at the surface). If a surface feels cold it is cooling your home.

Look at the notes from your heating audit and decide which issues you want to address in the short term. Window sealing kits, caulk, and spray foam cost very little and can make a big difference. In the long term, consider investing in interior storm windows, additional insulation, or upgraded entry doors.

Tip #13) Get your firewood delivered and stacked.

tips for heating with wood delivery
Photo by Tim Dickinson

If you enjoy harvesting and processing your own firewood, that’s wonderful, but do not feel guilty about having your firewood delivered and even stacked.  You can never be as efficient as a pro. Even if you are paying 300+ dollars a cord, you will still be saving money.

Tip #12) Plan for efficient firewood delivery.

Heating with wood is one of the major systems of your home, and it deserves careful planning.  Make sure that the driver can easily deliver the firewood to where you need it. If the truck cannot get to your storage, you will be doing extra lugging every year.

It is not unreasonable to plan your landscaping, driveway, etc. around firewood delivery.  If you need to tear down a garden shed, move a fence, or extend a driveway so that the truck can get closer to where it needs to be, do it.  It will pay dividends for years to come.

Tip # 11) Set up a dedicated kindling station.

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Nothing is worse than trying to scrounge up kindling on a cold morning.  You are less likely to run out if your kindling station makes things safe and easy.

Kindling Tips:

  1. Set up a dedicated chopping block at a comfortable height.
  2. Flank your chopping surface with platforms to prevent the wood from landing all over the place.
  3. If your are chopping up wood scraps, hold the piece with a large spring clamp to keep your hands away from the hatchet.
  4. Have two kindling crates so that you can switch them out without running out.
  5. Consider investing in a Kindling Cracker tool.

Tip #10) Minimize transport.

handtruck for firewood

One of the most important tips for heating with wood easily is making your regular trips for firewood as painless and efficient as possible.  Minimize strain, how far you need to go, and how many trips you need to make

  • Store the wood as close to its final destination as possible.
  • Make your delivery route as convenient as possible. Consider paving paths, leveling the ground, or even building ramps.
  • Use a cart or hand truck (like the one in the image) to make fewer trips and save your back. Handheld wood carriers are great, but only if your goal is the brutalize your hands, walk like a penguin, damage woodwork, and make many trips.

Tip #9) Store firewood off the ground

tips for heating with wood firewood racks

Raise your stacked firewood at least several inches off the ground.  The less bending over you have to do the more comfortable your chores will be.  Do your future self a favor by stacking your wood up on a rack, a couple of timbers, or what have you.

Storing your outdoor wood off the ground has the added advantage of helping keep your firewood dry, clean, and pest-free.

Tip #8) Burn only dry, seasoned wood.

Make sure your wood is seasoned (dry on the inside) and kept dry.  Ideal storage keeps wood covered while allowing air to circulate around and through the stacks.

Throwing wet or unseasoned wood into your stove is counter-productive.  It is like throwing a bucket of water into the fire.  It may seem like it is burning just fine, but the stove will be burning cooler and dirtier.  You might even do some real harm to your stove or flu.

Avoid burning wood that has a moisture content higher than 25 percent. You can use a moisture-meter if you really want to know how dry the wood is.

As a bonus, wood that is seasoned and dry is significantly lighter.

Tip #7) Set two storage zones.

Even if you are buying wood that is supposedly seasoned (dried all the way through), it may have a higher-than-ideal moisture content.   It is best to create two storage zones so that you can do additional seasoning and keep track of the more recently acquired wood.  This can be as simple as setting a divider in your wood rack.

Make sure that you can access one storage zone one year and the other the following year without having to do any rearranging or rotating.

Tip #6) Minimize your firewood handling.

Tips for heating with wood minimize handling
Note: This fireplace is purely for ambiance.

Don’t handle the wood six times before it burns.  The optimum number of times is zero (which is possible if you can find some chump who thinks this chore is “charming” or blackmail the neighbor’s kid).

Rolling carts are excellent because you stack once and then leave the cart by the stove.  If you are loading the cart and then re-stacking next to the stove, you are adding an unnecessary step.

Tip #5) Forget about fireplaces.

tips for heating with wood fireplace
From the University of Maryland

Fireplaces are efficient, but only at wasting wood, time, money, and heat.

If the ambiance is worth it to you, fine, but don’t pretend that you are heating. The warm air is being sucked right out of the house. If you do have a fireplace, make sure that the damper closes tightly and that your are closing it faithfully when it is not in use.

If your fireplace has no damper and you rarely use it, stick a nasty clump of un-faced fiberglass insulation up the flu to stop the flow of air. (Make a sign so that everyone knows the fireplace is not ready for use!)

Tip #4) Use an efficient stove.

This is perhaps the most important of the tips for heating with wood the easy way.  Modern, EPA-approved stoves have a secondary burn, control air flow, and exchange heat efficiently.  If you are trying to produce some serious heat, quaint antiques are out.

During my childhood, we had a beautiful, antique cook stove in the kitchen.  It was charming, but for heating it was under-powered, inefficient, and messy.  We replaced that stove with modern stove shown above.

Tips for heating with wood antique stoves
The old Glenwood stove is headed to a new home.

The video above shows a stove that seals up tight, allows you to control the air flow, and has a secondary burn (note the perforated tubes at the top of the burn chamber in the clip below).  The secondary action burns up flammable exhaust gases and some pollutants.  You burn more completely and cleanly.

You want the stove to burn hot while taking in little air from the room.  Once it is properly set, the fire will almost seem to be burning in slow motion.  Your wood burns longer while minimizing the heat being lost up the chimney.  As an added benefit, the air quality in the home is much better.

Tip #3) Load it up.

Your stove is meant to burn full and hot.  Do not keep little fires, as they will burn dirtier and less efficiently.  Besides, loading it up means that you can spend less time tending it.

Tip #2) Close the dampers and stove doors when the stove is not in use.

A flu is continuously drawing warm air from the house through convection.  The removed air is creating negative air pressure that sucks cold air in wherever it can.

Tip #1) Suffocate the fire over night.

With modern stoves, you can load them up, close the air intake almost completely, and leave them all night.  Some stove even claim to have a 10+ hour burn time. In the morning, you will have enough coals to get the fire blazing in no time.

Safety tips for heating with wood

Any form of combustion has inherent risks.  Heating with wood is no exception.  Be responsible in protecting yourself, your loved ones, and your neighbors.

  • Be vigilant regarding smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
  • Keep fire extinguishers maintained, visible, and accessible.
  • Establish fire emergency procedures.
  • Pay attention to the materials and clearances around your stove.
  • Do not use your stove as an incinerator.
  • Have your flu inspected and maintained regularly.
  • Follow all of the safety instructions that come with your stove.
  • Educate yourself on burning wood safely.

Should I burn wood pellets?

Switching to wood pellets can be an awesome solution, but there are also some important drawbacks.  My in-laws switched to wood pellets and have been very pleased.

Pros:

  • Extremely efficient
  • Longer burn time (The hopper feeds the fire for you.)
  • Clean burning (less flu problems and minimal ash)
  • Easy storage and handling
  • Less mess
  • Improved indoor air quality

Cons:

  • Depends on electricity to run the blower and auger (although there are some gravity-fed models)
  • Units are slightly more expensive.
  • Susceptible to price fluctuations
  • Slightly noisy

“15 Tips for Heating with Wood the Easy Way” conclusion

The chores associated with wood burning can be easy and even pleasant if you create efficient, comfortable systems.  You want to get the most heat from the least amount of wood, prevent problems, and deal with the wood as little as possible.  A bit of forethought can make your life easier and more comfortable for years to come.

How did I do with “15 Tips for Heating with Wood the Easy Way”?  Did I miss something important? Do any of my tips miss the mark? Please leave a comment.

Grocery store rip-offs featured image

Before thinking about grocery store rip-offs, let’s stop whining about the cost of groceries.

Americans spend less on groceries than ever before.

In 1960 American households spent almost 18% of their total income on food. American households today spend less than 10% of their income on food (even though we eat out more than ever before).

Per capita disposable income spent on food in the U.S., 1960-2013

Americans spend less on groceries than any other nation.

Americans currently spend a smaller percentage of household income on groceries than any other nation.  According to the world economic forum, Americans spend 6.4% of household income on groceries whereas people in many nations spend more than 40% of household income on food eaten at home.

 When it comes to food prices, Americans today have less to complain about than any other people in history.  Every time you leave a grocery store, you are literally getting the deal of the century.

Grocery budgets are easy to modify.

With these facts in mind, it seems obscene to think about “grocery store rip-offs.”  It makes more sense to think about how our food industry is negatively impacting our health and our world.

Nevertheless, grocery costs are within your control. Unlike home insurance, your kid’s braces, or the vig you owe your bookie, your grocery costs can be lowered simply by your desire to do so.

In the short term, the money you save avoiding grocery store rip-offs might enable you to shop with an eye to social responsibility, improve the quality of your diet, pay off a credit card, or plan for something special.  In the long term, many years of lower grocery bills could seriously improve your financial well-being.

Top 15 grocery store rip-offs

grocery store rip-offs canned peaches
“Well, this discussion on canned peaches has given me a lot to think about.”

#7) Frozen potato products

Do not by frozen french fries, home fries, or hash-browns. Buy a big, cheap sack of potatoes instead.  Processed potato products are more expensive, full of objectionable ingredients (palm oil, trans fats, excessive salt, etc.), and require wasteful refrigeration.

Making a big tray of baked fries or grating some potatoes for hash browns is not that big a deal.  The result is better tasting, healthier, and cheaper.

TIPS:

  • I like to spiralize potatoes and bake them on a rack with a bit of olive oil spray and seasoning.
  • Never store potatoes in a plastic bag; the trapped moisture will ruin them.
  • Make a big batch of potato salad that you can use all week.

#6) Bottled water

grocery store rip-offs bottled water

Bottled water is a waste of money with an incredible environmental impact.  Think of all the packaging involved; even if you are recycling, the recycling process has a carbon footprint.  Think about all of the fossil fuels used moving the product around.

If you are destroying the Earth so that you can drink water from Fiji’s pristine rain forests, please take a moment to slap yourself as hard as you can.

If you have a legitimate concern about the quality of the water from your well, pipes, or municipality, get the water tested.

If the taste or healthfulness of your water is below your standards, invest in a high-quality water purification system. A whole-house system will pass all of the water through carbon filters and bacteria-killing UV rays and can cost a grand or more with installation.  If you are replacing your bottled water, this expense is completely unnecessary. (Your toilets do not need filtered water.)

An under sink, faucet-mounted, pitcher-style, or counter-top water filter will save you money in the long run.  The initial investment and the occasional replacement of the filter (many filters are rated to process several thousand gallons) are well worth it.

#5) Beef

imageBeef is (comparatively) expensive.  It also has the highest environmental impact of any major food source.  When you eat meat you are also consuming all of the food that the animal ate.  It should be expensive.  It should be more expensive.

I love a big steak, but this should be a rare (literally, in my opinion) treat.  Start reducing your beef consumption by eating more poultry, fish, and vegetarian options. Learn to cook fish well; your heart will thank you.

Start trying out substitutes for beef wherever you can. Switch the beef out of your tacos, burritos, meatloaf, lasagna, stuffed peppers, etc. These types of meals are very tasty with a substitution.

#4) Quick rice

top grocery store rip-off quick rice
“I only regret that I spent so much time cooking rice.”

Minute rice, ten-minute rice, parboiled rice, and frozen rice are all unnecessary.  Is it really that demanding to boil rice?  Think of all that wasted packaging. Buy a big, cheap sack of rice and stop being in such a damned hurry.

1 serving Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice = .50

1 serving bagged rice = .06

#3) Pre-seasoned entrees

grocery store rip-offs salmon

More and more grocery stores are selling pre-portioned, pre-seasoned entrees like salmon steaks or pork chops.  You are paying the store to make small portions, repackage, sprinkle on some paprika or whatever, and slap on a sticker with instructions.  Don’t do it.  Believe in yourself; you can sprinkle your own paprika, and you can Google instructions.

Have a well-stocked spice rack and a collection of vinegar, oils, glazes, etc. It will pay off.

#2) Paying full price for shelf-stable items

checking the pantry
My dog checking the pantry inventory.

Not everyone has the space to store a surplus of shelf-stable items, but if you have a bit of space, you should have a “stash.”  You do not need to be an extreme coupon-er to benefit from a stocked pantry.  If you know that you use a canned item that is on sale, why not buy five? This will basically mean that you are always getting your canned and dried goods at a serious discount.

It is also amazing how many times the “stash” can bail you out when you have no idea what to make for dinner.

TIP: Check the unit price on the shelf ticket.  Larger sizes are usually a better deal but not always.

#1) Hummus

hummus price

Marketers have convinced us that hummus is a mystical, exotic concoction that can only be produced by Middle Eastern ascetics living in an undisclosed desert oasis.  It is simply chick peas, olive oil, and sesame seed paste.  These ingredients are cheap, and hummus is fun to make.

Imagine this situation: Your bookie’s goons visit you more often than your mother.  The bank has repossessed your ’83 Cimarron.  You are selling your blood plasma and volunteering for medical experiments.  You bought your son a do-it-yourself braces kit. And all because you were too lazy to make your own hummus?!  Get some chick peas, tahini, olive oil, and seasonings and take your life back.

TIP: An immersion blender makes making hummus quick and easy.  Just dump the ingredients in a big vessel and put the blender to it. Your hummus is finished.

top grocery store rip-offs hummus

Related post: Money-saving Grocery List

8 dishonorable mentions

Prepared side dishes

Come on people, we put humans on the moon and cured polio; we can make our own macaroni salad and coleslaw.

Bottled teas

I can understand if you do not want to make your own carbonated beverages at home (although it can be done), but there is no reason to buy bottled teas.  Make a big pitcher of iced tea, add some lemon or whatever, and save big.

Microwave popcorn

Microwave popcorn is not only a rip-off, it also tastes weird.  Start popping your corn on the stove top and you will never go back.

Brand-name cereal

It is common for the same plant to produce brand name and store brand cereals.  The formulations may differ slightly, but you are really paying for the marketing.

Non-edibles

Whether you are talking about magazines, beauty products, greeting cards, diapers, or tea kettles, if you are buying it in a grocery store you are probably paying too much.

Some organic foods

In some cases, there is a huge difference in how organic produce is grown.  Other times, not so much.  Click the link below to learn about which fruits and vegetables are worth the organic difference.

Related link: Organic Foods: What You Need to Know

Candy and snacks

We like to buy small portions of candies and snacks because we worry about self-control, but there is no doubt that these small impulse buys are grocery store rip-offs.

Prepared fruits and veggies

It is tempting to toss a vegetable platter or fruit salad into your cart, but try not to.  You are paying a hefty premium just to avoid some washing and chopping.  Pick the individual fruits or veggies that look best to you and you will have a superior result.

The costs of laziness and thoughtlessness.

The amount of money you spend on food is easily adjusted.  For all of the grocery store rip-offs on this list, you are trading money for convenience (or supposed convenience). You can reduce your costs without feeling deprived.  In fact, in many cases you will be eating healthier and tastier food.

By eliminating these rip-offs and buying the best deals habitually, you can really help your budget. Check out my Money-saving Grocery List, because the amount you spend on groceries is part of you budget that you can adjust easily.

Related post: Reasons to Shop at Aldi

How did I do with my list? How have you cut your grocery costs? What are the biggest grocery store rip-offs in your view? Please leave a comment.

reducing coffee habit costs featured
“I buy lattes every day and have no emergency fund. #YOLO!”

Let’s think about the “latte factor” of our budgets.

Are your coffee habit costs worth it?  Is watching other people on their laptops the highlight of your day?  Does scoring the big, comfy seat with the least repulsive stains make you feel like a winner? Do you curate a collection of cups with your name misspelled? Perhaps the mere thought of giving up extra-caffeinated Starbucks favorites leaves you whimpering for hours in the fetal position.

If the convenience and/or experience of your cafe visit truly improves your life, don’t worry about reducing coffee habit costs.  Perhaps your daily coffee stop really is a special place, or you use the opportunity to meet with someone special.

starbucks factor espresso

On the other hand, if your daily cafe visit feels like an “I’m still alive tax,” and you just want your caffeinated treat, think about how you can reduce coffee habit costs.  This post explores your cumulative coffee habit costs and offers solutions for trimming coffee costs by making great coffee, espresso, cappuccino, etc. at home.

Cumulative coffee habit costs

Some personal finance gurus use the term “latte factor” in reference to recurring, trivial, voluntary expenses.  This is an apt term, since cafe spending is habitual and seemingly low cost.  These coffee habit costs are not trivial when examined closely.

trimming coffee costs making your own
Spilling the beans on your latte factor.

Crunching the numbers of coffee habit costs

According to ABC news, the average American worker spends $14.40 on coffee outside the home. For younger workers, the average is even higher.

Let’s follow a hypothetical example where an individual spends an average of $20 a week ($2.86 a day) on their coffee habit.  This is slightly less than the price of one Starbucks latte per day (the smallest size).

In this example the person switches to making their own caffeinated treat at a cost of $5 a week, for a net savings of $15 a week.  This is quite conservative since the cost of the ingredients (coffee beans, milk, sugar, cinnamon, ice, etc.) is extremely low.

How much might this person amass after ten years of reducing coffee habit costs?

Burying saved coffee habit costs in the back yard: $7,800

reducing coffee habit costs dog
“Find the money, Sparky!” Photo by Eselsmann

Simply stashing the money away for ten years would result in $7,800.  Since you are not earning any interest and the purchasing power of your money is falling due to inflation, you might be better off spending the money as you go. Fancy weekend getaways, concerts, generous gifts, etc. are more memorable than convenient lattes.

Putting your saved coffee habit costs in a savings account (Barclay Online 1.15%): $8,216.28

You are not quit keeping pace with historical inflation (so the purchasing power is falling), but your $15 a week has grown to over eight grand in ten years.

Investing saved coffee habit costs in a low-fee index fund (9%): $11,850.49

trimming coffee costs graph

Note: 9% is slightly lower than the S&P 500 historical average since its inception in 1928.  This chart does not account for fees or capital gains tax. On the other hand, it does not include dividend payments offered by many companies.

Investing is always a risk, but index funds diversify your investment so that you are essentially investing in the economy as a whole. They also have minuscule fees since no highfalutin, “market-beating” managers are taking a cut.

Just by reducing coffee habit costs to five dollars a week, our hypothetical coffee lover has amassed almost twelve grand.  This really shows the power of investing as little as $15 a week.

Now, let’s see what reducing coffee habit costs could do in the long term.

If you saved the same $15 a week by reducing coffee habit costs for thirty years, it is likely that you will have about $106,319.88 (according to historical averages). The chart below illustrates just how much of this total comes from the interest.   Of course, this projection is based on historical averages, and investing always includes risk.

reducing coffee habit costs

If you are planning to put away money for the long (as per our example) consider starting an IRA to minimize tax liability.  I bet that you will enjoy watching your money grow more than you will dislike making your own caffeinated treats.

Related link: “Many millennials spend more on coffee than they save for retirement” from Business Insider

Reducing coffee habit costs without sacrifice.

Cutting your latte factor does not mean accepting sub-par coffee (Heaven forbid!). To make great tasting cafe treats at home, look to the past.  Forget about big, expensive machines; you don’t even need electricity.  With a little practice, you may discover that you are your favorite barista.

Freshly-ground is better

I can taste the difference when I grind the beans fresh.  As an added bonus, you can save by buying in bulk. Whole bean coffee does not oxidize (and become stale) nearly as fast as grounds, so you can stock up.

I keep it old-school by using a manual mill; I just like it. A manual mill really doesn’t take too long if it is properly adjusted.

reducing coffee habit costs grinder.jpg
This old, cast iron mill will outlive us all.

Whatever type of grinder you are using, make sure that the grind is adjusted for the brewing method that you employ.  For example, espresso beans should be very fine whereas a French press works better with a courser grind.

Use a French press to keep standards high when reducing coffee habit costs.

French presses are fast (4 minutes of heating and 4 minutes of brewing), cheap, small, easy, durable, and make great coffee.  I microwave the water in a big Pyrex cup for speed.  I keep a larger French press around for company and Sunday mornings.

Since there is no heating element (like on a drip coffee maker), I recommend getting French presses that are vacuum insulated.  The presses shown (one glass and one steel) are both vacuum insulated and keep coffee hot for an hour or so without scorching the precious contents.

reducing coffee habit costs french press

insulated french press trimming coffee costs
Weekday size
large insulated french press
Weekend / company size

Reduce coffee habit costs by making espresso / cappuccino the way Nonna did.

Stove-top espresso makers are great; they take up very little space and come in a variety of sizes. Make sure that you are using beans that are roasted specifically for espresso to get the authentic taste.

If you want to make cappuccino, heat up some milk while the espresso maker is working.  Put the milk in the microwave until it starts to bubble.  Hit the milk with an inexpensive whipper thingy, and spoon on the foamy goodness.  You can add all of the steamed milk to make it latte style.

filling stove top espresso
The grounds shown are way too course for true espresso, but I was just making a regular coffee for the photo.
espresso maker working
You shouldn’t leave the top open, but I wanted to show the action.
reducing coffee habit costs milk whipper
This little, battery-operated whipper thing does a fine job and only cost $5.

stove top cappucino starbuck factor

Making it to go

If you need your treat to go, you can’t beat vacuum insulated containers.  Pre-treat your container with cold or hot water for best results.  Also, the larger the volume the longer it will maintain temperature, so you have a good excuse for over-caffeinating.

Using your own travel cups means that you are not paying for disposable.  It also means that you are reducing your impact on the environment.  If the person in our hypothetical example switched to reusable containers, they would eliminate the environmental impact of 3,650 cups, lids, and stirrers.

reducing coffee habit costs thermos

Conclusion on reducing coffee habit costs

There is nothing at Starbucks that you cannot make cheaply at home.  You may need ice, syrups, spices, etc. to make your favorites, but a little research and experimentation go a long way.  There are many websites explaining how to make all the cafe treats that you crave.

Reducing coffee habit costs takes a bit of time and effort. However, it is fun to engage in this culinary alchemy and the savings can literally change your life.

Related post:“Is Aldi Worth an Extra Trip?”

Related post: “Top 7 Grocery Store Rip-offs”

Any hot Starbucks hacks to share?

What is your coffee system?

getting the most from your public library featured

Stop wasting money and get the most from your public library.

I am not sure what causes many of us to ignore our public libraries. Perhaps it is because marketers have done a wonderful job convincing us to pay for books, media, and downloads.  Public libraries offer the same opportunities for free but without the marketing.

I mainly get audio books for dog walking and driving and Ebooks for evenings, but there are many ways to get the most from your public library.

14 ways to get the most from your public library:

  1. Ebooks
  2. Audio books
  3. Virtual research libraries
  4. Hanging out
  5. Programs for adults
  6. Programs for kids
  7. Social services
  8. Meeting space
  9. Periodicals
  10. Events and exhibitions
  11. Downloadable movies, music, and comic books
  12. Free WiFi
  13. Borrowing movies and music
  14. Old-fashioned book borrowing

1) Ebooks

get the most from your public library ebook

Ebooks are a wonderful way to get the most from your public library.  This is especially true if you can be a bit flexible in your selections.  Do not be surprised if you cannot access every book by your favorite author.  You can sort by what is currently available or add yourself to a wait list (you simply get an email when your loan is ready).

Do not risk wasting money on something you won’t like or even finish.  Even if you are buying cheaper Ebooks, there is always a risk that you might not like it, and you cannot get a refund.

Life is too short to read books that you are not enjoying.  There are too many great books out there to waste any time.  When I am reading a book and decide to give up on it, I chuck it across the room (scaring my wife and the dogs.)  I had to stop doing this when I switched to Ebooks, so I keep a sacrificial physcial book that I hate to throw across the room (A Walk in the Woods) when needs must.

Now that I download books for free, I can chuck A Walk in the Woods across the room at will and have no qualms about it.  Three minutes later,  I am reading something that I enjoy.

I recommend having a dedicated e reader.  Reading on even a largish phone is simply not the same.  Additionally, there are two many distractions on your phone.  When I sit down with my e reader it puts me in the right frame of mind.

2) Audio books

get the most from your public library audio books

Most of us wish we had more time for reading, so audio books are great help.

I have always loved audio books, even in the olden days when we had to keep big stack of scratched CDs on the passenger seat.   Get the most out of your public library by downloading audio books to enjoy while driving, walking the dog, mowing the lawn, or pretending to watch your kid’s soccer game.

3) Virtual research libraries

Whether you are working on your master’s thesis or supporting your conspiracy theory on how big oil got Friends cancelled, virtual research libraries can help.  You do not need to be at university to conduct scholarly research.  You might be surprised to learn that even small libraries provide access to excellent virtual research libraries.

4) Hanging out (get the most from your public library space)

hanging out at the library

Sometimes you just want a calm, comfortable place to hang out and read a magazine. Maybe your home is not an ideal environment for quiet introspection.  Think about your local library as a cozy coffee shop where you are not expected to buy anything.

Related post: Trimming Your “Starbucks Factor”

With the growth of online access, library branches have adapted their mission.  Libraries are less about borrowing and leaving.  Many libraries offer meeting areas, study zones, comfy couches, and little parks. It is a nice way to meet people in your neighborhood that you might not run into in another setting.

5) Programs for adults

Get the most out of your public library by thinking about your library as a senior center for people of all ages.  Whether you are trying to explore your creative side, meet interesting people, or engage in a favorite activity your public library might have a perfect program for you.

Related link: Free Library of Philadelphia programs

6) Programs for kids

get the most from your public library kid reading

Programming your kid’s time can get expensive in a hurry, before you sign them up for interpretive Tae Kwon Do, get the most from your public library.  I just checked on my branch’s page and they offer everything from homework help, to science labs, to culinary arts.  Kids programs have gone way beyond story hour.

7) Social services

More and more libraries are serving their communities with social programs.  They are helping people access healthcare, find jobs, learn languages, transition from incarceration, gain citizenship, and on and on.

Get the most out of your public library by learning about how programs like these can help you improve your life.

8) Meeting space

Many branches provide meeting space.  You simply sign up for a time and the space is yours.  Now your Living with Kleptomania support group can stop meeting at your house.

9) Periodicals

I love killing time at the library reading magazines to which I would never subscribe.  Let’s face it, the bass fishing news cycle does not require monthly updates.

10) Events and exhibitions

Get the most out of your public library by joining the email list and keeping tabs on upcoming events.  Meet filmmakers, experts, policy makers, artists, and authors.  See performances and exhibits.  The kinds of things you miss after leaving college can often be found at your public library.

11) Downloadable movies, music, and comic books

You might be surprised by the downloadable media access your library provides.  My library subscribes to Hoopla which offers music, movies, shows, and even comic books for download.

12) Free WiFi

If you watch your data usage like a hawk, take advantage of the free WiFi at your local library.  I have been known to sit on a bench near the library while I take a lunch break and watch cat videos or horror movies (depending on what kind of day I am having).

13) Borrowing movies and music

Many branches still offer media loans allowing you to cut down on the number of kid movies you have to buy or expand your musical tastes.

14) Good, old-fashioned book borrowing

When you invest money in a book, you might resolve to force yourself to finish the whole book before starting anything else.  Then you will procrastinate and watch re-runs of Bonanza instead.  Before you know it, you are illiterate, you can’t watch any movies with subtitles, you lose your job, and your spouse leaves you. (I’ve seen it a hundred times.) All of this because you didn’t want to take the time to get a library card?  It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Get the most from your public library by broadening your horizons.

Since you are paying nothing, you are more likely to try new things. You might investigate an activity even if you are not sure you will enjoy it. You might try books that you normally wouldn’t.

I confess that I have been listening to self-help books more than I used to (don’t judge me).  They don’t require the same level of concentration when walking the dogs as, say, War and Peace.

Video link: George Carlin on self-help books (Viewer discretion is advised.)

If you are not using your public library, you might fail to discover something that you really enjoy.

“Get the Most from Your Public Library” conclusion

Do you pay any taxes? I thought that you might.  Why would you not take advantage of a resource that you paid for?  Libraries have so much more to offer than physical lending. Give it a try, you might like it.

There are seven billion people on this world and many of them are creating fascinating content.  Much of this content is available through your public library; you don’t need to spend much on media if you do not want to.

Related post: Spending less on TV: How to survive cutting the cord

homemade pizza simplicity

Want to toss pizza night up to new heights but your budget is stretched thin? Gourmet pizzeria prices leaving you cheesed off?  Is there a way to stretch your dough and still raise your pizza expectations?

Pizza at home is a slice above when you make your own dough and sauce and experiment with toppings.  This method for homemade pizza simplicity is cheap, easy, and fast.

homemade pizza simplicity ingredients
Save some scratch by starting from scratch.

Make your own dough for homemade pizza simplicity

Making a delicious dough that can even be accomplished on a weeknight is the key to homemade pizza simplicity.  You can make pizza dough that is ready for the oven in less than an hour.  Of course, yeast, water, salt, sugar, and flour cost next to nothing.  I often get my basic staples at Aldi where they are even cheaper.

Related post: Is Aldi Worth an Extra Trip?

To a large bowl add…

  1. 1.25 cups warm water
  2. 1.5 teaspoons sugar (dissolve by stirring)
  3. .25 ounces (2.25 teaspoons) active dry yeast (give a gentle stir to moisten the yeast cells)
  4. Allow the mix to rest for 5 minutes.
  5. Then add 3 cups flour (you can add some whole wheat etc. for texture)
  6. 2 teaspoons salt (optional)
  7. Mix together for 2 minutes (I use a stand mixer with a dough hook, but kneading works).
  8. Then add 1 teaspoon olive oil (lubricating the mixing a bit)
  9. Mix or knead for another 6 minutes or so.
  10. Place the dough in an oily bowl and cover it.  A warm spot will speed rising.
  11. Allow the dough to rise for 45 minutes or so.
homemade pizza simplicity dough
Ready to mix in the flour
homemade pizza simplicity rising dough
Rising dough; The dough on the left is %50 whole wheat.

Homemade pizza simplicity: pizza sauce

Making your own sauce is easy and yields a healthier product. You have complete control over sugar, salt, and additives.  Even if you only used uncooked, crushed tomato as your sauce, it would still tastes pretty good, so don’t worry about messing it up.  You can decide the amount of oregano, basil, garlic, etc.  If you want to get adventurous, there are a lot of unconventional sauce ideas to try.

pizza toppings

Recipe

  1. Add the tomatoes. I like to use canned, crushed tomatoes with no salt added when tomatoes are out of season. You can add tomato paste if you like a thicker sauce.  The large can in the picture will make sauce for two pizzas.  If you are watching your sodium intake, pay attention when buy canned tomatoes.
  2. Olive oil (a couple table spoons)
  3. Seasoning (basil, fresh garlic, oregano, etc… to taste)
  4. Simmer for a while and taste it a couple of times.  Simmer the sauce while your dough is rising so the flavors can meld and some moisture can evaporate.
simmering pizza sauce for homemade pizza
I use a garlic press. Cut off the extruded garlic as you press.

If you really want homemade pizza simplicity, you don’t even have to make a true sauce.  Slice some tomatoes (thin) and allow some of the moisture to drip out of the slices.  Then spread them out on the pizza dough with some olive oil and Italian seasonings – very fresh and tasty.

You could also make a pesto sauce that is ready in thirty minutes.

Put it all together

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees (a little lower for thicker crust).

Oil your pan. Almost any kind of cooking tray or pan will work; you don’t need to go out and buy something just for pizza.

Spread the dough. Decide if you want thin, hand-tossed, thick, whatever.  Sprinkle some flour on your prep. surface and hands.  Stretch the dough out from the center with your finger tips and the heels of your palms.  Flip the dough over once or twice while you do this.  Once the dough is close to your desired shape, flop it onto the cookware and give a final shaping.

pizza tossing for homemade pizza simplicity
Don’t try this at home unless you have extra doughs.

Chop all your desired ingredients. This is my favorite part and works best with a glass of wine and good company.  I always keep some marinated veggies, canned olives, red onions, anchovies, etc. on hand.  Remember that a large quantity of fresh veggies will release a lot of moisture and could make your pizza soggy.

Add the sauce, cheese, and toppings. Go easy on the cheese and sauce; you don’t need too much.  When the cheese melts, it will seem like more and you can always put extra sauce in the freezer.

Put the pizza in the oven.  If you have convection, use it.

chopping pizza toppings

cleaning up a kitchen mess
Keep a cocker spaniel handy to clean up and mishaps.
homemade pizza simplicity pans
Any pan will do. I used a broiler pan for the thin crust and a skillet for the deep dish.  These pizzas are ready for the oven.

How do you know when your homemade pizza simplicity is ready to eat? When the pizza looks done (top and bottom) it is done.

NOTE: No matter how great your oven is, cooking two pizzas at the same time can cause them to cook unevenly.  If they are side-by-side, it is not so bad, but if they are on different racks at the same time, it can cause problems (e.g., the top is burned and the bottom is doughy).

finished homemade pizza
These pizzas are ready to party.

Homemade pizza simplicity conclusion

If you call a gourmet pizzeria when you want to have a fancier pizza night, you could end up dropping a nice chunk of cash.  Bargain pizza tends to be bit gross.  Pizza is supposed to be cheap but also good.  When you take the time to make your own pizza from scratch, the difference is easy to taste.  You have complete control over the ingredients, the recipe, and the costs.

Homemade pizza simplicity means that you can get creative.  I recommend trying eggs and bacon pizza.  Fry the bacon first and then plop three or four eggs on the top of the pizza when it is about half-way done – I love it.

How do you like your pizza? Any bizarre combinations that I should try? Please leave a comment.

 

spending less on TV main

Should You Cut the Cord to spend less on TV?

It depends on what you value.  I think most people would like to spend less on TV, but many never take the time to calculate what they spend on subscription TV, streaming services, and premium add-ons.  Add up what you are spending and think about what TV is worth to you.

What does “cord cutting” mean to you?

Data show that more and more people are cutting the cord and ditching their subscription TV service to spend less on TV, but are they really “cord cutters?”  That depends on your definition. Does it include those dropping local cable service and picking up a subscription live TV streaming service? How about people dropping cable and picking up several a la carte services for non-live TV (Hulu, Netflix, HBO Now, CBS All Access, etc.)?

Perhaps you are a hardliner and require the ritual murder of everything with a screen at moon-rise of the winter solstice. (Yes, I’m including you, calculator).

Spending less on TV destroyed TV
Photo by Robin Jacob

Unless you are seeking some kind of moral or intellectual authority, the requirements for calling yourself a “cord cutter” are immaterial.  What matters is finding the right solution for you.

Do you want everything but are mainly trying to spend less on TV?  How high is your tolerance for commercials?  Are your viewing interests very specific?  Are you trying to do something more enriching with your free time?

Now, more than ever, you can customize to fit your needs.

Different forms of cord cutting to spend less on TV

1) Switching to full-service streaming.

If you still want your complete, live cable TV, but would like to spend less on TV, there are several streaming options for you.  Consumer reports has a great article comparing the services and so does PCmag.com.

  • Make sure your device will support the service.  Do you have a compatible smart TV or will you need an accessory for streaming like a Roku Stick?
  • How fast is your internet? You may find that the drop in audio-visual quality is a deal-breaker.
  • Check the channel package carefully.  Do your research to make sure that the package in question includes your favorite shows, teams, etc.  If you are a sports fan, make sure that the games you want won’t be blocked due to broadcast restrictions.
  • Consider the DVR features.  Cloud DVR (shows are saved remotely on the provider’s server) can add costs and get a bit complicated.  For example, Sling TV’s cloud DVR does not work on all channels.

steaming cable to spend less on TV

Whatever the advertisements may say, full service streaming replacements like Hulu with live TV and PlayStation Vue are not cheap, so you might decide it is better to keep your internet and TV subscriptions bundled and not spend less on TV.

2) Old-school terrestrial broadcast

Depending on where you live, a cheap HD antennae may meet your needs and help you spend less on TV.  (They can be as cheap less than $20.) This is especially true if you only care about the evening news, network shows, big events, or if you just turn TV on for occasional background noise.

Your smartphone can help you get the most out of traditional broadcast TV: the DTV Antennae app will help you position your antennae, and the Guide app replaces your cable channel menu.

What you might need:

HDTV Antenna

Depending on where you live, you may want to invest in a more substantial antenna (indoor or outdoor).  They range from $50 to $200 dollars.  Many claim to have a range up to 120 miles.  A smartphone app can help you determine where the broadcast towers are in your area (it is pretty neat and very simple).

save money on TV antenna app

Tuner

Make sure that your TV is equipped with an HD tuner, or the signal will do you no good.  If your TV does not include an integrated HD tuner, you will have to purchase a separate HD tuner (they range in price from $50 to $100)

DVR (made specifically for traditional broadcast)

If what you want to watch is available through terrestrial broadcast, consider buying a DVR.  You can skip all of the commercials and watch the news whenever you want.  If you set the DVR to record the evening news and your favorite network show, you could be all set.

The DVRs made for recording terrestrial broadcast range from less than $50 to $100 and have various features.  The simplest ones let you set the channel and time but do not have a guide.

spend less on TV family time

3) A la carte digital services to spend less on TV:

Services like Netflix and Amazon Prime offer wide variety of shows. If you have more specific interests (old movies, British shows, baseball, etc. ) there is probably a service for you.  BuzzFeed has an article listing the more esoteric streaming services and their costs. This option minimizes commercials, but the cost of multiple services can add up quickly.

bollywood movies
Bollywood movies through Spuul

4) Hard core cord-cutting:

Perhaps you want to make screen time a thing of your past.  How much would your life change? What would you do with the savings? There is only one way to find out.

My “cord cutting” approach to spend less on TV

I love TV.  I love cable TV.  I have a top-of-the line Smart TV.  I love weird shows about sasquatch, alternative lifestyles, pressure cookers, and people falling off foam towers.  However, I don’t like wasting money (especially on perpetually renting a DVR from my local provider) or watching commercials.  I decided to “cut the cord” about a year ago, but I knew I would need to take a moderate approach.

We have had a Verizon Fios bundle for a while now (TV, internet, and home phone).  We kept our high-speed internet but dropped the home phone and TV service.  I picked up a $10 antennae and kept the Netflix and the Amazon Prime.  For me, these two streaming services are an excellent value and provide more than enough choices. We did not add any additional a la carte subscriptions, so we are spending less on TV (about $80 a month.)

I am still considering setting up a DVR to record antenna TV.

netflix to spend less on TV

Reflections on cutting the cord

The best part for me has been spending less on TV.  It has also meant that I watch a little less TV and far fewer commercials.  There are so many interesting things to watch on Netflix, Prime, and YouTube, that I don’t miss the cable shows.  I read more books, listen to more podcasts, and spend more time futzing around in the garage.

Related post: “If you are not using your public library, your life is a sham.”

The worst part of the experience relates to sports.  Subscriptions can overcome this problem, but I have been unable to watch the Phillies or Flyers regularly as they are usually broadcast on NBC Sports (formerly Comcast Sportsnet).  You need a subscriber password to stream NBC Sports, and listening on the radio is a poor substitute.  I could get a friend to give me their password, but I don’t really feel good about that.

I would still like to overcome the sports issue, but I am not planning to add a TV subscription any time soon.  Regarding commercials, I am now completely spoiled.  When I do watch terrestrial broadcast, I find the commercials insufferable.  Overall, I have been very pleased with spending less on TV.

Do you have some opinions or tips about cutting the cord?  Please leave a comment.

making molding with a router featured

Making molding with a router saves money on projects.

Doing your own home improvements makes sense if you enjoy the projects and have the aptitude, but the average DIYer spends more on the materials than a pro.  One way to overcome this disadvantage is by making molding with a router.  After all, you have already resolved to spend your time rather than you money.

Another reason to make your own molding with a router is for environmental sustainability.  You can make dozens maybe even hundreds of linear feet of molding from even the most derelict board.  Save a few boards from the garbage, prep them for milling, mill them up, and reduce your environmental impact.  The stuff at the home center has traveled a long way and burned fossil fuels all the while.

making molding with a router environment

The costs of buying molding

Purchasing shoe molding, door stop, quarter round, casings, etc. can quickly cost you the money that you saved with all of your hard work.  Even a simple quarter round will cost you almost a dollar a linear foot, so it adds up fast.  Making molding with a router is a great alternative.

Furthermore, molding from the home center is often faulty softwoods, pvc, mdf, or some other junk that the home centers invented while I was typing this. Besides, I would rather spend my time making sawdust than in the home center.

making molding with a router set up

Steps for making molding with a router

1) Find your stock.

You will be amazed how many linear feat of molding you can mill from a few salvaged boards.  Abandoned boards are easy to find, but there are a few thing to consider:

  • Avoid boards that have fasteners that will be difficult to fully remove.
  • Avoid chemically treated woods like pressure-treated yellow pine; you don’t need to unnecessarily expose yourself to these chemicals.
  • If you are applying a natural finish, the wood species must match.
  • If you are applying paint, the species doesn’t matter except that you should reject cedar and redwood. (I thoughtlessly used some ceder in my project and it didn’t take the paint as well as the rest.)
  • If you will be using a thickness planer, save boards that are slightly thicker than the target thickness.
  • I you will not be using a thickness planer, the boards must be your target thickness.
  • Get more than you need.  Once you start milling you will discover hidden defects.

wood in a dumpster

Related post: Spring Is Dumpster Diving Season

2) Prepare the stock to be milled.

When making molding with a router, make sure that the reclaimed wood is completely free of metal objects or you will damage your machinery.  The best way to do this is with an inexpensive metal detector.  Swiftly move the metal detector along all four sides of the board and remove all metal before doing any machining.

metal detector for woodworking

If you are only milling smaller dimensions, they are so flexible that you really don’t need to do any jointing.  Just make sure that you find (or plane to) the right thickness.  If you are looking for a cheap thickness, planer, I have been happy with this WEN.  It is not as good as having helical rather than straight cutters, but it gets the job done.

thickness planer making molding

3) Set up for making molding with a router.

I made a little, drop-in insert for my portable table-saw.  It drops in to place when the side is extended fully.  I have a very small “shop,” and this “router table” can hang on the wall.

Do not worry if you can’t rig a slick option; you do not need to build anything fancy. A board with a hole in it on top of some sturdy sawhorses will work, just make sure that everything is secure.

Find some appropriate screws to mount the router to the surface.  You are essentially making a very large router plate. Choose bearing-guided bits so that you don’t need to deal with setting up a guide fence.  The image below shows a router bit that includes a guide bearing.

router insert for table saw
The depth can easily be adjusted from the side of the table.
cheap router bits
These cheap Harbor Freight router bits are OK for limited use.

Do not buy router bits individually unless you are really forced to.  They are invariably cheaper when purchased as a set.

Set up an out-feed surface to support the work piece if you are making longer pieces.  You will be more comfortable, and you will be working safer.

4) Be safe.

Before you turn on any machinery for making molding with a router, think about protecting your ears, lungs, and hands.  Wear hearing protection, use a respirator, and remove loose clothing and jewelry.  Can you imagine what will happen if your sleeve gets caught in the router? I thought you could.  Keep your fingers, hands, clothing, and jewelry away from the bits and blades.  Use push sticks with the table saw.  If something feels awkward or dangerous, stop what you are doing and walk away until you find a safer method.

making molding with a router safety

5) Start making molding with a router.

Do not try to run narrow pieces through the table saw, it is dangerous and awkward. Use the router to put the desired shape on the wider board first. You will mill the profile on the side of the board, cut it off the board, and repeat.

Carefully adjust and test the bit height on a test piece before milling everything.  Once the height is set, don’t mess around with it until you are finished with that profile or they may not match perfectly.

To speed things up, put the desired profile on both sides of the board.  Then run the piece through the table saw with the profiled edges against the fence.

bearing-guided bit
Once you chuck the pieces spoiled by knots, you will be impressed with the quality of the trim.

squaring a table saw fence

TIP: I noticed that something wasn’t quite right when I was using the table saw.  I don’t know how it came to be, but my fence was way out of square (as shown in the image).  After some adjustment it was much better. Take the time to fine tune your tools when they are not perfect.

Repeat the routing and the sawing until you have much more than you need.  When making molding with a router, make a materials list of all the trim that you need, and try to do all of your milling in one go.  It is a pain to set everything up again, and you will minimize the possibility that some of your trim will not match.

It will go quickly, so make plenty.  Once you are installing the molding, it is so nice to make mistakes or chuck substandard pieces without a second thought.

custom molding for cheap
I needed these unusual moldings to go cover the center part of my interior storm windows. I would not have been able to buy them anyway, so it is nice to be able to make them.
cheap molding collection
I made plenty because I like to measure once and cut twice.

Conclusions on making molding with a router

Now I have all of the pieces that I need to finish my project.  Not only did I spend no money, I cleared some scrap pieces out of the garage.  This little collection of cheap molding easily saved me $200, so it was worth my time.

Have some tips for making molding with a router or saving money on materials? Leave a comment!