Book Review: The Complete Tightwad Gazette

>> Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Complete Tightwad Gazette
Amy Dacyzyn

Rating: *****

I left my copy of this book sitting around one day at my sister's house over Christmas vacation, and when my mom noticed it, she commented, "I used to watch this lady on TV!"

The Complete Tightwad Gazette is a collection of all of the newsletters Amy Dacyzyn published about living a frugal life from 1990 to 1996, and although some information in the book is dated (don't listen to anything she says about computers), most of the book is perfect.

I devoured this 1,000 page book over Christmas. I read it like it was a crime novel, though I never could figure out what had me so hooked. The articles in the book range from the philosophical ("creative deprivation" of your kids so they will be more grateful) to the practical (how to make potholders out of old blue jeans) to the totally off the wall (detailed instructions on how to safely dumpster dive) interjected with tips and advice from readers of the Tightwad Gazette.

You could keep this book around as a reference guide for what to do all your old milk jugs (there are dozens of uses for milk jugs in this book), for advice on how to slash your grocery bill (Amy Dacyzyn spent about $175 dollars a month to feed a family of eight), or for cheap homemade recipes (universal muffins, anyone?).

But I think the ultimate beauty of this book for me was the overall philosophy change I felt myself experiencing as I read it. Dacyzyn points out that if you want more money, you can earn more, or you can practice frugality and learn to save. Most people don't have the option to earn more money, so they should learn to live frugally.

I've always thought of myself as a frugal person, but I realized while reading this book that it has mostly been what Dacyzyn calls "fake frugality." She describes this as the type of person who focuses on how much he saved rather than how much he spent. For example, someone who says, "I bought this shirt on sale so I saved $15," ignoring the fact that the shirt still cost $50 even being on sale, and that he could have gotten a perfectly good shirt for $3 at the thrift store.

Also, Dacyzyn promotes earning money and living frugally as a means to an end. She encourages readers to figure out what their monetary goals are and to work toward them through living frugally. For example, she and her husband decided when they got married that they wanted to buy an old farmhouse with an attached barn and have a large family, but they didn't want to have to rely on babysitters or day care while they worked. Through frugal living, they were able to save up a huge down payment and achieve their goals.

I realized that my husband and I are always talking about our goals, but we haven't made any real financial steps toward achieving them. Hopefully, the advice in The Tightwad Gazette will help us prioritize so we can save up for the things that really matter to us.

Next up on my reading list...The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones


Make Your Own: Pitas and Pizza Crust

>> Monday, January 26, 2009

My bread recipe makes four loaves at a time. I like using a large recipe because I can keep my freezer stocked with bread, so there's rarely a time that we don't have bread in the house. But some weeks, the freezer's already full, so I only make a couple loaves and use the rest of the dough to make pitas or pizza crust.


Homemade pitas taste sooooo much better than store bought, and it's pretty cool to open the oven and see the dough all poofed up. I'm not an expert pita maker, but I have about a 90% success rate for each batch. Besides, even the failed pitas (the ones that didn't puff up and don't have a pocket) taste really good.

After the first rise, divide one or two loaves into 12 pieces each and let them rest for 15 minutes while the oven preheats to 475 degrees. Roll each piece into a circle less than 1/4 inch thick. Don't roll too hard or the pitas won't puff up. Place on a baking sheet and bake for three minutes on the bottom rack of the oven.

Pizza Crust

Pizza is an easy option for dinner on the day I'm making bread. I follow my bread recipe exactly, but after the second rise, I roll one of the loaves out onto a pizza pan and bake it for about 10 minutes on the bottom rack of the oven while the rest of the bread is cooking. Then I take it out of the oven, add pizza toppings, and slide it back into the oven for about 10 more minutes.

This method makes a very thick crust. If you prefer a thinner crust, you could just use less dough - maybe dividing one of the loaves in half and using the halves to make two crusts. I haven't tried this, though, because I like my homemade pizza dough thick.


Spotlight on Raleigh: A Morning in Carrboro

>> Sunday, January 25, 2009

My interest in Carrboro was first peaked while reading Garbageland when the author mentioned several places that were working toward the goal of zero waste. She listed San Francisco, New Zealand, Australia, a few other countries in the Pacific, and Carrboro, NC.

Really? Carrboro? One of these things is not like the other...

Carrboro, NC has a population of only 16,000 people and is located on the far side of the Triangle, just west of Chapel Hill. Except for its close proximity to UNC-Chapel Hill, there doesn't seem to be anything special about it, and yet Carrboro has a reputation for being one of the most liberal cities in the South.

Besides its goal of zero waste, Carrboro gets environmental bonus points as the location of the first Weaver Street Market, a community owned grocery store that opened in Carrboro in 1988. Like the Weaver Street Market in Chapel Hill, it's a huge, thriving co-op that carries local and organic produce, all natural foods, and environmentally friendly cleaners. They also have a large deli and salad bar and a cafe that was hoppin' when I was there, even though it was only 10:00 in the morning.

Weaver Street Market is next door to the Carr Mill Mall, an old cotton mill that was converted into a shopping center. The mall is primarily filled with small, locally-owned businesses selling everything from toys to clothing to jewelry. It also includes Panzanella, a community owned Italian restaurant that is well-known for its bread, produced at the Weaver Street Market bakery.

Across the street from Weaver Street Market is the Maple View Farm ice cream parlor. I really wanted to try their ice cream since I buy Maple View Farm milk from the farmer's market, but they weren't opening until noon, and I didn't have an excuse to stick around in Carrboro that long. I guess I'll have to come up with a reason to make another trip back.

I was surprised at the number of bikers I saw in Carrboro, considering that it was the middle of winter. Maybe it's just the proximity to the University, but with lots of sidewalks and bike lanes, Carrboro seemed like a perfect place for pedestrians and bikers.

Although I wasn't able to visit it, Carrboro is also well known for its year round farmers market. The market has two rules: everything sold at the market must have been grown within a 50-mile radius, and vendors must represent their own products. At the market, you can find locally grown fruits, vegetables, flowers, cheeses, meats, soaps, and much much more.

I think Carrboro is a great example of what a small town can do toward building a strong local economy and environmentally conscious communtiy. Small towns of America, take note!


Plastics Primer, Part 2: Solutions (Sort of...)

>> Thursday, January 22, 2009

I overanalyze everything, so the plastics problem is a difficult one for me because my brain works like this: "If I have a choice between plastic and something else, is the something else really better? Paper production is incredibly destructive, especially to water, which they say is our most precious resource. Glass is good because it's reusable and readily recyclable, but it's also heavier than plastic, so transportation of glass is a global warming issue. Metal is pretty good, but cans are lined with an epoxy resin (plastic), so I'm back where I started. Aaargh!"

When my brain runs in this circle, the conclusion I always come to is that we just need to buy less in general. Perhaps plastic is the worst material, but if I'm not buying at all, I won't be faced with the dilemma of what to buy in its place.

Of course, there will always be situations where you'll still have to make the choice to buy plastic or buy something else, so here are a few suggestions to help you out:

  • Stop buying disposables. Disposable is a pretend word anyway. It refers to products that are inexpensive, so you're not supposed to feel bad about throwing them out. But from a frugal standpoint, anything thrown in the trash is money lost. And from an environmental standpoint, trash is trash, even if you call it "disposable."
  • Bring your own bag, water bottle, mug, take home container, etc, etc, etc.
  • Buy products that last, and fix them when they break. You can't avoid buying a plastic TV, computer, or cell phone, so take care of the things you buy and make them last a long time.
  • Avoid excess packaging. If something is overpackaged, don't buy it. If you can find a product with less packaging, choose that product over the other. When mailing things, choose packaging that can be easily recycled, and don't use styrofoam peanuts.
  • Look for products with no packaging like fresh fruit and vegetables and many soaps.
  • Buy used. Not only does used mean no packaging, but it can give many plastic products one more life before they head to the landfill.
  • Buy in bulk. Shop the bulk bins at health and natural food stores (bringing your own container of course), and buy bulk containers of other products.
  • Buy concentrates. The main ingredient in many products is water. Choose concentrated products and add your own water. You'll save packaging and money.
  • Choose plastics that can be recycled. In my area, that's only plastic bottles and plastic bags.
  • Buy recycled products such as recycled trash bags, bottles with recycled content, and recycled toothbrushes.
  • Find ways to reuse plastics, especially those that can't be recycled. Use old egg cartons as planters for starting seeds. Take berry baskets back to the farmers market. Wash out and reuse plastic baggies.
  • PET bottles are not meant to be reused for drinking. Because the plastic is very thin, PET bottles become a breeding ground for bacteria. It's best just to use these bottles once and recycle them, or stop buying them at all.
  • Avoid storing liquids and fatty foods in plastic, and avoid heating foods in plastic. Both conditions increase the likelihood of chemical leaching.
  • #2 LDPE, #4 HDPE, and #5 PP are your best bets. They are the most recyclable and the least likely to leach toxins into your food.


Plastics Primer, Part 1: The Problems with Plastic

>> Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The other day, I was watching Living with Ed, and they had a little montage where Ed was reciting the plastic codes, the type of plastic each corresponds to, and the type of products each is made into. I thought it was funny because I can do that:

#1, PET, soda bottles and water bottles
#2, HDPE, various food containers and bottles
#3, PVC (vinyl), pipes, shower curtains
#4, LDPE, grocery bags, plastic wrap
#5, Polypropolene, yogurt containers, food storage containers
#6, Polystyrene, styrofoam
#7, Polycarbonate aka mystery plastic

Before you decide I'm a total eco-dweeb, let me clarify that I didn't set out to learn the plastic codes. I have a good memory and read a lot of environmental news and blogs, and in the environmental world, plastic is a dirty word. In Garbageland, one environmentalist refers to plastic as "the devil's resin," and I'm constantly seeing other bloggers say things like "I'm trying to avoid plastic."

If you take just one cursory glance around your home, I think it's pretty safe to say that it's impossible to give up plastic. But why would you want to try?

  • Plastic is made from petroleum and natural gas, two non-renewable resources.
  • Creating plastic is an energy and pollution intensive industry. According to the Green Guide, "producing a 16-oz. #1 PET bottle, for instance, generates more than 100 times the toxic emissions to air and water than making the same size bottle out of glass. Major emissions from plastic production processes include sulfur oxides and nitrous oxides (both of which contribute to global warming) and the chemicals styrene, benzene and trichloroethane."
  • Plastic does not biodegrade, it photodegrades, which means it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that will never go away. These tiny pieces are ingested by birds and fish, which we then eat.
  • There's a spot in the Pacific ocean where so much plastic has accumulated, they call it the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It's an island of plastic the size of Texas, where plastic is choking out all the sea life.
  • Plastic is difficult to recycle. It can only be recycled a few times before becoming too weak to recycle anymore, and if you mix resin codes, it becomes even more difficult to recycle. Plus, recycled plastic is not in high demand by manufacturers; it's just cheaper and easier for them to use virgin plastic. Because of that, the yogurt tub you put into your recycling bin is rarely ever made back into a yogurt tub. A yogurt tub becomes a toothbrush which becomes plastic lumber, and plastic lumber is where plastics go to die. This type of recycling is called "downcycling."
  • Recent scientific research has shown plastic as a health issue. Phthalates, a chemical additive that gives some plastics their flexibility, and Bisphenol A (BPA), a component of some plastics, have been found to interfere with hormones and reproductive development. According to Garbageland, "In an EPA ranking of the twenty chemicals whose production generates the most total hazardous waste, five of the top six are chemicals used by the plastics industry."
  • PVC is one of the most widely used forms of plastics, but it may also be the worst. The production of PVC creates dioxins, a known carcinogen and hormone disrupter. Some types of PVC also contain the aformentioned phthalates. Disposal of PVC is also an issue since it is difficult and expensive to recycle, so most PVC ends up in landfills where dioxins, hydrochloric acid, and phthalates leach into the air and water.
This is all I can think of for now, but I'm sure I'm leaving something out. I am no plastic expert; that title goes to the amazing Fake Plastic Fish, and if you're concerned about plastic, I strongly recommend that you peruse her blog.

Plastic is such a big issue that this blog post got really really long, so I'm dividing it into two parts and will discuss the "What You Can Do" factor tomorrow. In the meantime, take a look at the following resources:

The Green Guide: Plastic Containers Buying Guide
Earth 911: Plastic
Plastic Ocean: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Algalita Marine Research Foundation

Photos from


January Round-Up

>> Monday, January 19, 2009

Considering that this was the holidays, I don't think we did too badly. Of course, we went way over budget on entertainment, but that's Christmas for ya...

Monthly Spending (budgeted amount in parentheses)

  • Groceries: $426.43 ($500)
  • Transportation: $290.59 ($300)
  • Electricity: $93.38 ($150)
  • Water/Sewer: $20.00 ($50)
  • Entertainment/Miscellaneous: $593.29 ($300)
  • Clothes: $13.52 (no set budget)
  • TOTAL: $1437.21 ($1,300)

Trash Report: 5 bags of trash (13 gallon bags); 1 bag of metal and 2 bags of paper (reusable bags about the size of a paper grocery bag)

Changes I Made This Month:
  • I didn't do too much because the holidays have kept me busy, but I have started taking a closer look at my personal care products and will continue that next month.

Goals for Next Month:
  • more personal care products - specifically focusing on plastic use
  • I'm attending a meeting sponsored by the Sierra Club this weekend to learn about getting Raleigh to build more energy efficient. I also plan to attend some Sierra Club committee meetings this month.


A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down

>> Thursday, January 15, 2009

This post is my submission for this month's APLS Blog Carnival. The subject is "mind games." Check out all of the APLS bloggers on January 22nd at VWXYNot.

My kids got Mary Poppins for Christmas, and I'm enjoying re-learning all the great songs and dances from that classic musical. I've also found myself quoting her to my children many times the past few days. In her wise words...

“For every task that must be done, there is an element of fun.
Find the fun, and snap, the job's a game.”

I've also been applying this mantra to my own life as I've tried harder and harder to be less consumeristic. In my own home, I'm safe, but as soon as I step out into the real world, I meet a thousand enticements to slide right back in to that spend, discard, spend, discard cycle.

For example, I went to the mall last November for the first time in several months, and suddenly I was intensely aware of how drab my clothes are, how my shoes are out of style, and how I have no cool jewelry. I was feeling a little despondent about my dowdy appearance and had the impulse to spend to my heart's desire to make myself feel better.

Instead, I came up with a compromise: I could buy myself new clothes whenever I wanted as long as they came from a thrift store.

Up to that point, I had never enjoyed thrift store shopping. But as I began visiting my thrift store on a weekly basis, I began to see the fun in it. It is a challenge to find good buys. And when I do find them, I feel a victorious high that I've never felt from a shopping spree at the mall.

If you're trying to live a low-impact lifestyle, it's easy to start feeling deprived, but if you find the fun in your new way of life, it becomes a game, and it can be amazingly rewarding.

Here are some more examples:

  • I am hooked on Craigslist. Why would I ever want to buy something new again when there are so many “like new” items on Craigslist? And like shopping at thrift stores, I see Craigslist as a challenge. I have a running list of things I want, and I check it regularly. I have to be patient until just the right item at just the right price comes along. But if I put in the effort, I reap some amazing rewards.
  • In my attempt to be more frugal and buy less, I've started seeing everything in a new light. Before buying something, I ask myself, “How could I improvise and use something I already have to do this job?” Before I throw something away, I ask myself, “Is there any way I could reuse this?” When I come up with a way to solve a problem using that method, I feel creative and satisfied.
  • Trying to support my local economy, I do a lot of shopping at the farmer's market. I hate going grocery shopping, but the farmer's market is fun every time. I only take one kid with me at a time, and we make it a date, giving me a chance to teach each child on an individual basis about where our food comes from. First Son always asks, “Momma, are these eggs from happy chickens?”
  • Sometimes if you're willing to be behind the times, you can reap some great benefits. For example, we still have a VCR. I can pick up old VHS tapes, like Mary Poppins, from the thrift store for a couple dollars. The videos are getting extra use instead of heading straight to the landfill, and we get to enjoy some classic old movies without waiting for them to be released from the Disney vault.
If you're feeling deprived in your non-consumer, green lifestyle, take a note from Mary Poppins. Make it a game, and you'll be surprised at how much fun it can be.


I Need...Personal Care Products

>> Wednesday, January 14, 2009

I'm lumping a lot of products into this category. Basically everything required to make me feel clean and presentable in the morning: soap, shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream, toothpaste, deodorant, etc. Some of these I plan to look at individually later, but I wanted to take a broad look at this category to address why this is an area in need of change.

A couple years ago, my brother spent the night at our house, and in the morning after using our Tom's of Maine toothpaste to brush his teeth, he said, "Okay, I have to ask you. Do you like that stuff?"

I replied, "I like knowing that my toothpaste is not poisoning me."

I admit the Tom's of Maine takes a little getting used to (but you do get used to it and then Colgate starts tasting funny). And maybe my old toothpaste being poisonous is an exaggeration, but I don't really know. Have you ever looked at the ingredients on a Colgate tube? Or your L'Oreal shampoo? Or your Degree antiperspirant? If the ingredients are even listed, chances are, you can't identify them, let alone pronounce them.

According to the Environmental Working Group, 10,500 unique chemicals are used in personal care products, including carcinogens, pesticides, reproductive toxins, endocrine disruptors, plasticizers, degreasers, and surfactants. How many of these chemicals have been tested for safety? "An EWG analysis found that in its 30-year history, the industry's self-policing safety panel has reviewed the safety of just 11 percent of the 10,500 ingredients used in personal care products."

The FDA's policy on cosmetics states, "FDA's legal authority over cosmetics is different from other products regulated by the agency, such as drugs, biologics, and medical devices. Cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA premarket approval authority, with the exception of color additives." And "Cosmetic firms are responsible for substantiating the safety of their products and ingredients before marketing. " Not the FDA or an unbiased third party.

That just doesn't seem like a very safe policy to me, so it's no wonder that I keep hearing about ingredients in personal care products being linked to cancer and hormone disruption in both humans and animals. Google pthalates or parabens, two common ingredients in personal care products, and see what you find. I admit that some of the health concerns might be all hype, but I am a "better safe than sorry" kind of person, especially when it comes to the health of my kids.

On a side note, the cool thing about using natural care products is that because you can recognize (and pronounce) all the ingredients, you start to learn what works for your body, and you can look for products with that ingredient. For example, I have very dry sensitive skin, and since I know that avocado oil is good for dry skin, I look for soaps and lotions with that ingredient. If I had oily skin, I might look for something with jojoba oil. Cool!

You can take that coolness to awesome level by making your own personal care products. Then not only can you tailor the ingredients to your needs, but you can add your own essential oils to make your preferred fragrance. I hate floral scents, and it seems like companies are always making women's care products smell like flowers. If I make my own products, I can make them smell like what I like: food. I love to use vanilla, almond oil, sweet orange oil, and peppermint in my products.

Here are some ideas to get you started on greening your personal care products:


  • Use fewer products. Think about your morning routine. How many products do you use? Do you really need that many? If you can leave something out, then do it.
  • Use less. It only takes a pea-sized dollop of toothpaste to get your teeth clean. Average length hair only needs a nickel-sized drop of shampoo.
  • Buy in bulk. Besides the health problems I've mentioned, personal care products involve a whole lot of unnecessary packaging. Buy your products in the biggest size possible, and make sure the packages are recyclable.
  • Look up your products on the Skin Deep Guide, the Environmental Working Group's cosmetic safety database. They have tested thousands of products for toxicity and rank them on a 0-10 scale, with 0 being the best and 10 being the worst. Even some products labeled as "natural" rank high on the scale, so it's important to check out all products before you buy. Update 2/18: Beth over at Smart Family Tips has created an awesome list of products that rate low on Skin Deep and can be found at most drugstores, Target, or Kroger.
  • Avoid the Dirty Dozen. These are the ingredients that have been most commonly linked to health problems.
  • Look for products with no packaging. Health food stores often sell soaps with no packaging at all, and sometimes you can even find shampoo bars. You can also look for a Lush store near you. Lush makes personal care products with minimal or no packaging, though it's very pricey.
  • Make your own. Check out Better Basics for the Home or The Green Beauty Guide for tips and recipes.
  • Go without. I'm not advocating not brushing your teeth, but in areas that are obviously culturally based (like shaving, wearing makeup, painting your nails, coloring your hair), you could consider jumping off that bandwagon.

Tips for the Budget Conscious
Making your own is the cheapest route here, but if you're not interested in that kind of thing, Whole Foods has a reasonably priced line of products. They're not rated on the Skin Deep site, though, so proceed with caution. As far as soap goes, Dr. Bronners castille soaps are affordable and score well with Skin Deep.

Where I'm At
I switched to more natural care products a few years ago, but that was before I knew about the Skin Deep site. I plan to check out the ratings for the products I've been using and also look for products with less packaging.

Photo by Ali Edwards


Make Your Own: Body Lotion

>> Monday, January 12, 2009

I have very dry sensitive skin, so winter for me is the season of constantly putting on lotion. This recipe is the best homemade lotion I've found for my skin. It soaks into the skin and makes my hands feel moisturized instead of coated with oil like other homemade lotions I've tried. And the best part is the cost! It's made from all organic ingredients but only cost me a couple dollars to make.

Basic Glycerin Lotion Formula
(from Better Basics for the Home)

1/2 c. distilled water
1/2 c. organic aloe vera gel
2 tsp. vegetable glycerin
2 tsp. organic avocado oil
10-20 drops essential oil of your choice

Combine the ingredients in a bowl, and mix with a hand mixer or whisk. Dab some on your fingers and massage into your skin.


An Energy Update

>> Sunday, January 11, 2009

I've been working on making my home more energy efficient, and feeling inspired by my friend Maren, I decided one night to bump our heat down to 60 to see if we survived. I put a space heater in the boys' room since Third Son is not yet old enough to sleep with a blanket, and my husband and I cuddled up under a stack of blankets. Actually, the blankets were for me because my husband exudes body heat and rarely ever feels cold. If you've read the Twilight series, you'll understand what I mean when I say that I think he's part werewolf.

Anyway, when we woke up in the morning we discovered two things about our apartment:

1) We have a heat pump.

This is an important thing to know because a heat pump does not work the same way as a furnace, so the blanket statement "Turn down your heat at night and when you're away from your home" does not completely apply to those of us with heat pumps.

We had a heat pump in our last home also, so as it was explained to me by the guy who inspected our home before we bought it...Unlike a furnace, which heats up the air, a heat pump draws heat from the outside air and pumps it indoors. When the outside air drops too low, the heat pump kicks on a backup heating source, which is made up of a panel of electric coils.

Heat pumps are great for moderate-to-warm climates because they are very energy efficient. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, "an air-source heat pump can deliver one-and-a-half to three times more heat energy to a home than the electrical energy it consumes." If you live in a cold climate, though, a heat pump is not a good idea because the heat pump will have to work harder to heat your home and will end up using that backup heat source a lot, which is more expensive and less efficient than the heat pump mode.

We even ran into problems with the heat pump in Maryland, which is not a very cold place but does get snow a few times a year. Without fail, our heat pump died after the first snowfall every winter we lived in that house. The thermostat said it was running on backup heat, but the backup heat could never get our house back up to a comfortable temperature and we would have to get it repaired. I don't know if that's typical of heat pumps, I'm just saying that's what happened to us.

The point of all this jibberish is to say that if you have a heat pump and you follow the typical advice of lowering your heat at night, you end up losing on efficiency because when you raise your heat, the heat pump will kick on its backup heat, which as I said, is more expensive and less efficient to use.

So that leads to the second discovery about my apartment:

2) It faces south.

My husband and I have been talking about someday building a passive solar house for a couple of years now, so my brain is full of research on this subject. I'm not going to go into too much detail here, but basically, it works like this: you design your house so that the south side contains most of the windows to allow the winter sunlight to enter the home. You also need a thermal mass that soaks up the heat during the day and then releases it at night, keeping your house at a nice cozy temperature of 65 to 70 degrees. Generally, this means that your house is built on a concrete slab. You can also create a thermal mass by building an interior wall of brick or stone.

We are on the second floor of an apartment building, so we don't have any thermal mass per se. But our apartment does face south, and that whole side of the apartment has huge picture windows.

So that morning after I'd dropped our heat down to 60, I woke up and went to the thermostat to raise the temperature back to a more comfortable 68. (This, by the way, was a huge sacrifice to me as I am a cold-natured person and prefer a house around 75.) As soon as I bumped up the temperature, I noticed the light come on the thermostat indicating that the backup heat source was being used. That's when it dawned on me that we had a heat pump.

I grudgingly dropped the heat back down to 60 and went to find a sweater. A couple hours later, I noticed as I was walking past the thermostat that it said that the temperature was 65, even though I had it set at 60. A couple hours after that, the house was up to 70 degrees.

Since then, I've kept the thermostat set at 60 degrees all the time. During the day, the house warms up to 70 by noon just with the warmth of the sun. At night, the kids have a space heater, and I have my werewolf to keep me warm.


You Don't Have to Do Everything All By Yourself

>> Friday, January 9, 2009

A week ago, I wrote this post with tips on how to go green on a budget. I've thought of one more tip, based on this discussion at Arduous Blog, which stemmed from a discussion at Crunchy Chicken:

You don't have to do everything all by yourself.

I have this great quote from Bil McKibben: "Cheap energy created a world where we became affluent, that same cheap energy used in huge quantities is now destroying the environment, but it had a third affect too. Cheap energy and the kind of prosperity that it built has allowed those of us in this country to become the first human beings who essentially had no need of our neighbors."

As Americans, we have a tendency to desire complete independence. We want big houses for our 2-3 person families and big cars so we can commute by ourselves, and now among environmentalists, the trend seems to be toward self-sufficient homes where we grow, can, freeze, and dry all our own food, make our own soaps and cleaners, sew or knit our own clothes, and even raise chickens, goats, and bees.

Okay, I admit that lifestyle appeals to me, and I've done my share of talking about DIY projects for the sake of saving money. But as I said at the beginning:

You don't have to do everything all by yourself.

Building a sense of community is not only nice, but it can be a time and money saver. Consider this: you and your neighbor both have gardens, but you choose to grow a bunch of tomatoes and he grows a bunch of strawberries. You can lots of tomato sauce, and he makes lots of strawberry jam, and then you each take half. Canning in bulk is a lot more efficient than canning small amounts of a variety of things.

You could also trade skills. Say you're good at sewing but your friend is good at knitting. You could sew your friend a couple skirts in exchange for a home-knitted sweater.

I've even heard of people who trade cooking nights with their neighbors. One night, you make double of whatever you're cooking for dinner and take half to your neighbor. The next night, she does the same for you. You each get a night with a home-cooked meal and no cooking. Sweet!

Do it yourself projects can be good for the environment and your pocket book, but you don't have to do everything all by yourself. Get to know your neighbors and you can do it all together.


Now Is the Time

>> Tuesday, January 6, 2009

This post is my submission for the Green Moms Blog Carnival. The topic is global warming. Check out the musings of all the great Green Moms on January 12 at the Not Quite Crunchy Parent.

A month or so ago, I watched President-Elect Barack Obama on 60 minutes soon after his election. The interviewer asked him if changes in energy policy are less important now that gas prices have dropped so much. Obama replied that energy is more important and when pressed for an explanation, he responded:

"Well, because this has been our pattern. We go from shock to trance. You know, oil prices go up, gas prices at the pump go up, everybody goes into a flurry of activity. And then the prices go back down and suddenly we act like it’s not important, and we start, you know filling up our SUVs again.

And, as a consequence, we never make any progress. It’s part of the addiction, all right. That has to be broken. Now is the time to break it."

I mentioned awhile back that I listened to Alisa Gravitz, the Executive Director of Co-op America, speak at the DC Green Festival about her organization's proposed 12-steps to curb the climate crisis. The premise of her speech was that we have ten years to take extreme action to stop increasing carbon emissions, by 2050 we have to start moving in reverse, and by the turn of the century, we need to be producing zero carbon emissions. She repeated many times during the speech, "We can do this. We can."

So if “Now is the time to break it” and “We can do this. We can!”, then why does it seem like so few people care? Why am I still wondering what to say to others about environmentalism without offending them? Why are other environmentalists still feeling embarrassed about their “unusual” actions? Why was “green” voted the most annoying word of 2008?

I think that people would be willing to sacrifice to counteract climate change if they felt like there was a real eminent crisis, but the American public is still getting mixed messages from scientists and the media.

I feel like we need one of those emergency weather warnings:

"blaring annoying ear-piercing sound"

“We interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring you this message from the National Weather Service. If we don't all start taking climate change seriously RIGHT NOW we will all be in for some seriously bad weather!”

The twelve steps outlined in Alisa Gravitz' speech were:
  1. Increase fuel economy. We need to go from the worldwide average of 27 mpg to 40 mpg by 2012 and then to 60 mpg by 2020.
  2. Reduce driving. Cut miles driven per car in half between now and 2050.
  3. Accelerate the production of zero emission vehicles like plug-in hybrids.
  4. Develop waste-based biofuels. She stressed waste-based, not corn or palm oil.
  5. Building efficiency. Get every new building right.
  6. Improve efficiency inside of existing buildings.
  7. Increase solar power. Solar needs to be the major form of energy by mid-century. By 2012-2015, solar will be as cheap as coal.
  8. No more new coal plants.
  9. Replace 1400 of the most inefficient coal plants with natural gas.
  10. Get the remaining coal plants to be more efficient until we can phase them out.
  11. Stop deforestation.
  12. Eat local, eat organic, eat vegetarian.
You may notice that few things on this list are actions an individual can take. Most of the steps are wide-scale changes that are going to require mass support and policy change.

Environmentalist writer and activist Bill McKibbin also gave a speech about climate change at the DC Green Festival, and at the end of his speech he says something to the effect of: "I was asked what the three most important things are a person could do for the planet, and my answer was, 'Organize, organize, organize.'"

If we are going to curb climate change, we have to organize. We have to stop being afraid of what others think, and we have to act now.

Now is the time. We can do this. We can.

You can listen to Alisa Gravitz' and Bill McKibben's speeches at

I also recommend this video about the effects of climate change on island nations, specifically Kiribati where a friend of mine served in the Peace Corps.


Make Your Own: Homemade Bread

>> Monday, January 5, 2009

There are many advantages to making your own bread: inexpensive, less packaging, healthier ingredients, and better tasting to name a few.

When I started making my own bread about two years ago, I was frustrated with the lack of clarity in bread recipes. For example, I have a recipe from my Grandma with an unspecified amount of flour in the ingredients list and the instructions, "Mix, knead, let rise, shape into loaves, let rise, bake 350 degrees." I'm sure that was plenty of information for women who were taught how to make bread by their mothers, who were taught by their mothers, etc. But I needed a little more information.

So if the recipe here is not specific enough for you, please let me know. Any suggestions are also welcome.

Wheat Bread
YIELD: 4 Loaves
COST: $1.65/loaf

2 pkg. active dry yeast (4 1/2 tsp.)
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 c. water at 110 degrees
1 1/2 c. milk
2 c. water
1/2 c. oil
1/2 c. honey
1 Tbsp. salt
6 c. whole wheat flour
6 c. white flour
  • Heat 1 c. water to 110 degrees
  • Dissolve yeast and 1 Tbsp. sugar in water. Let sit for about 10 minutes. The yeast and sugar mixture should get frothy. If it doesn't, your yeast is bad and your bread will not rise.
  • Combine milk, water, oil, honey, and whole wheat flour. Add yeast and let rest 15 min.
  • Add white flour and salt, then knead. In my Bosch mixer, this takes about 10 minutes. It should take at least 20 minutes if you're kneading by hand. When you've kneaded the dough long enough, you should be able to stretch the dough very thin without it breaking.
  • Place the dough in a large greased bowl and let rise until double (about two hours). I put my dough in the oven and place a heated towel over the top of the bowl. This creates a warm humid place for the dough to rise.
  • After the dough has risen, punch it down and shape into four loaves. Put the loaves in greased 9X5 loaf pans.
  • Let rise until it peaks over the top of the bread pans (approximately an hour). I do this again in the oven, removing it a few minutes before the end of the rising time to preheat the oven.
  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  • Bake 30 minutes.


Sustainable Road Trip

>> Saturday, January 3, 2009

Sustainable road trip is kind of an oxy-moron, don't you think? Especially when you factor in that we are a three-carseat family, so we have a mini-van. We are also a budget-conscious three-carseat family, so options that might have been more environmentally friendly (like taking a train or bus) were not an option for us.

I think being an expert sustainable road-tripper is something that would take a lot of practice and advance planning. We did pretty lousy at it this time around, but as we clocked in a lot of road time this holiday season (approximately 40 hours), I've had a lot of time to think about what we could have done better.

The Car

What We Did: After a long night of packing, we woke up at 4:00 am, loaded up the car, and set off with sleepy kids still in jamamas (First Son's word for pajamas).

Ways to Do Better Next Year:

  • Make sure our car is ready for the trip, including checking the tire inflation, checking the oil, and getting the oil changed if necessary.

The Trash

What We Did: Each member of the family brought his or her own reusable water bottle, but we also packed a cooler of Coke cans and juice boxes and a bag of snacks. By the time we reached our destination, the car was strewn with litter, which we gathered up and tossed in the trash can.

Ways to Do Better Next Year:
  • Designate a bag as the “recycling bin” and make sure as many drinks and snacks as possible come in recyclable packaging.
  • Homemake more treats to eliminate packaging all together.
  • Do not open mail or Christmas packages in the car.

The Dining Experience

What We Did: Surprisingly, we only ate at restaurants six times on our whole trip (that means 30 meals that we did not eat out). I made muffins before we left, and we ate those a couple times for breakfast. Also, whenever we had a chance to eat at someone's house instead of eat out, we did.

Ways to Do Better Next Year:
  • Pack a cooler of sandwich items, and stop for a picnic at a rest stop or eat in the car.
  • Choose fast food restaurants that are more environmentally friendly and dine in to avoid excessive amounts of trash. Check out Better World Shopper and Green America's Responsible Shopper for ideas.
  • Plan food stops in advance using the Eat Well Guide's trip planner.
The Overnight Stay

What We Did: Most of our trip was spent with various friends and relatives, who do not all share our views on environmentalism and conscious living. We also spent two nights in a hotel.

Ways to Do Better Next Year:
  • Dealing with family who don't share your viewpoints can be a touchy situation and should be approached with care. Sure, you could set up recycling bins at your non-recycling relatives houses, but if that's going to cause family tension, I don't think it's worth it.
  • We don't often stay at hotels, but if we need to again next year, we could look for one that is environmentally conscious.
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