Happy Earth Day

Today is Earth Day. I have mixed feelings about the holiday. As a Christian, I do not always agree with the way a lot of people celebrate earth day. I think it is important to place the earth in its context as part of God’s creation. However, because it is a part of creation, we have the responsibility to take care of it, and not destroy it.

I believe it is important to conserve our resources and our environment, as well as to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Jennifer and I have tried our hardest to “live simply” for the last five years or so, although I have to admit my main motivations are health and to save money, but if our efforts benefit the environment, that is great. Here are a few of the small things we do that help the environment (and our bottom line!):

– We turn the hot water heater down to low when we are gone for longer than a day, saving natural gas

– We keep the thermostat at 62-65 in the winter, and 75-78 in the summer

– We hypermile in our cars, squeezing an extra 32% fuel efficiency over what my relatives get in their cars

– We have placed a filled 2 liter bottle in our toilet tank, which saves 2 liters of water every time we flush.

– We are starting a garden

These are just a few of the small things we do. They are not necessarily trendy or massive, but just solid ways to live a little more simply…and we did it before the recession made it trendy ;).

Don’t Throw that Container Away Just Yet…

coin containers

I have a problem: I like to save everything, especially the plastic and glass containers that peanut butter, jelly, salsa, etc, come in. “Hey I *paid * for those! There has to be another use! Surely I can *make* something from this…” are thoughts that race through my head as I start to throw something out. I also think it might be genetic, but we won’t get into that here… Don’t worry. If you visit our house, you won’t see myriad peanut butter jars lining the halls or anything. I do keep my habit in check, though not as much as David might like. I have a bin, once it is full, I have to either use them, or lose them. Cleaning is pretty easy, as I let them soak for a day or 2, rinse, remove the labels and then toss them in the dishwasher (top rack of course).

containers

But why do I save them? Well, besides the fact you pay for packaging, it is a great way to recycle, and they satisfy quick and simple storage needs. I currently use old peanut butter jars to store various grains (like bulk quinoa, etc). I have my knitting notions in a small honey jar. But my favorite use is for coins.

David hates having loose change in his pockets, and there is only so much one girl can carry in her purse, so the coins seem to always end up lying around the house. And in our house, only paper seems to pile up faster than the coins! Something had to be done. I know many people have coin jars. As a matter of fact, when I was young, I remember my parents’ closet being lined with bottles of pennies. Having worked in a bank, I know it is faster to have your coins separated by type when you cash them in. I have 4 glass bottles, all left over from kitchen staples, that I place excess coins in once a month. It works like a charm and provides a nice bonus when you cash them in. I have friends who pay for vacations just using the money they have in change!

Below are a few other ways I use previously-used containers:

1. Fruit fly trap
2. Compost storage (until you can carry it out to the heap)
3. Storage for homemade bath products
4. Storage for homemade cleaners
5. Storing leftovers, or as to-go containers for guests
6. To prevent rust rings in the shower (using plastic lids as coasters)

What are your favorite uses for old containers?

Why I Don’t Really Notice the Economic Downturn

Financially, I may be a little better off this year than last year. I am not bragging, or gloating, because I know it could be fleeting, but I am stating the reality that living frugally and financially sound has its benefits. However, before I begin this post, let me say that the main reason I am doing okay is that I have a job. No amount of frugality would make up for a lack of a job, so obviously frugality has its limits, but I think my point remains the same.

Let me provide a few details of what I am talking about. I started getting into finance in 2002. I just got out of graduate school, and had little money, and few job prospects in the area where I grew up. I could have moved across the country, but I was tired of being away from any meaningful support network. I started subbing, and I also learned I had to save money in any way I could. One of the first things I did was conserve energy whenever possible. I turned the thermostat down in the winter, and up in the summer. I began hypermiling to save gasoline, before the term was even widely used. I refused to buy a big car or SUV when everybody else was getting into them. I shifted most of my excess money into high-interest online savings accounts, instead of relying on local bank accounts with paltry returns. I lived with my parents for a few years, saving thousands on rent, and when I did get an apartment, it was a nicely-sized cozy place, not some expensive condo I could hardly afford. I opened quite a few credit cards, but promptly paid them off, getting them mainly for the rewards (yes, I make money off of credit cards). I have always bought generic if possible, and shop at Aldi for most of my groceries these days. When we bought a house last year, we bought one that we could afford, choosing the one that was built solidly, with a newer roof and furnace, and that was in a nice neighborhood 2 blocks from my work. I buy most of my books, music, and furniture used.

Now, I may seem cheap, but I really am not. I buy things when I really want them. I give money to charity, and allow myself to do all sorts of fun things. Here is how I view it: I save money on certain things so that I can have money to do the things I really want to do. For example, I keep the house at 64 in the winter so I pay less money to the gas company, because I would rather use that money for books, family things, or my Y membership. The 40-50 dollars I save each month on energy pays for my Y membership.

Again, I am not bragging, but rather pointing out that I have done for years what many Americans are now being forced to do: be financially responsible. This is why I personally hardly notice the bad economy, because I am not going from the “high life” to something closer to reality. I have been responsible for years. In fact, I am doing a little better this year because energy prices are significantly lower. Maybe the real issue is that I never truly felt the benefits of the recent boom. For example, I didn’t borrow against an over-valued home. The only real thing I notice is that my mutual fund is about where it was when I opened it. Not cool, but it hasn’t really affected me.

This crisis was caused in part by Wall Street, and in part by poor government policies, but folks, we residents of Main Street had a major role in this too. Quite frankly, I think we don’t know what matters any more. It used to be that the people in a house were what mattered, and as long as a family was together, a house was truly a home. Now, it is the house itself that matters, and without a big house, life has no meaning, so people bought houses they knew they couldn’t afford, and mortgage brokers seemed more than willing to give them these shaky loans. Now that people are defaulting on these loans, some are shocked, truly shocked. Shocked? Please. Basic, sound financial principles tell us that someone making 30,000 a year cannot afford a 500,000 house. My basic sense tells me not even to look at a house that costs 1/3 of that! The same is true of credit card debt. Do the credit card companies try to squeeze us dry? Yes, and I am happy new regulations are coming. However, do the companies come to our home and make us use their cards at gun point? No. What is the best way to get back at the credit card companies? Don’t use their cards, or if you do, spend within your means so you can pay off the cards without interest. I have a great relationship with my credit card companies: I don’t pay them interest and they pay me rewards.

So basically, making sound, financial decisions for the last 6 years has allowed me to weather this current downturn, and given me the tools to deal with bad economic situations. I may not be making millions of dollars investing in bubbles during the booms, but I am better equipped to increase my wealth slowly over time.

Some Good Economic News…Some Not So Good

Good News: Oil prices have dipped dramatically lately. I have followed energy prices at the futures level since 2002 when I became upset that gas was skyrocketing to the insanely high price of $1.70. These days, $1.70 seems cheap. While I don’t think we will see $1.70 gas again, I do think a price around $1.99 is possible in many areas by December. Some people have said prices are going down because “an election is near.” Nope. It is because our economy is weak and getting weaker, and demand is down in developed countries, like the U.S. Thus businesses are using a lot less fuel, and so are consumers. Part of the price drop is that Americans have finally wised up, and have started conserving energy.

This is an example of why it is important to conserve energy. Using less fuel lowers prices. That is basic capitalism. If you want to lower a price you do one of two things. You either increase supply or reduce demand. Right now, the oil market is well-supplied because there is a lot of supply and weakening demand. It is a shame that it took a near economic collapse to lower oil prices, but there is at least a little good news amidst the doom-and-gloom. I just hope we don’t forget about $4.00/gallon gas, and that we keep conserving, and keep developing alternatives, or we will be back at $4.00 very soon.

Farmer’s Almanac: Cold Winter on the Way

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, a cold winter is coming for most of the U.S. With many families struggling with energy costs this could be problematic. Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing some of the ways we reduce energy consumption in the home (yes, our families are used to hearing “put on a sweater” in the winter!). I also have to admit that I dislike winter more and more each year, especially after Christmas is over. The colder the winter, the worse it is, it seems. We’ll try to address ways to survive the winter blahs as well. Keep posted.

Some Friendly Advice: Buy Gas Now

Oil and Gasoline futures shot up big time today (the dollar weakened and speculators jumped back in the market). I have a feeling the local stations will bump up their prices soon, probably tomorrow or possibly not until Monday. I bought gas for 3.43/gallon today for this reason.

I could be wrong, but usually this is a big predictor that a jump is coming.

UPDATE: As of today 8-22-2008, oil has fallen the largest amount for one day since 1991. Wow is the oil market ever volatile. However, oil rose by about the same amount yesterday, when I gave the above advice, so you can understand my warning. For those who are getting $3.43/gallon, I still suggest taking it!