Let’s be Honest

starbucks_receiptYou need to be careful when you calculate how much you will save by changing some small habit.  I’ve heard or read statements like, “Coffee at the Starbucks costs $2.70.  So make your own and you’ll save $1,000 per year”.

How did that $1,000 get calculated?  It looks like they took $2.70 per day and multiplied by the number of days in a year, $2.70 × 365 is $985, and then rounded to $1,000.

What’s wrong with that savings of “$1,000”?

  1. Can you produce coffee at home for free?  If not, then your daily savings aren’t going to be equal to the cost of the coffee you buy away from home.  Coffee made at home costs something.  Your savings will be the cost of the away-from-home coffee minus the cost of made-at-home coffee.  Let’s say $1.00 is the cost of the made-at-home coffee.  If so, then your savings are $2.70 – $1.00 = $1.70.  You savings will equal the cost of away-from-home coffee only if you give up coffee completely.
  2. Do you really buy away-from-home coffee every day of the year?  If you only buy one cup of coffee on days you work, and you don’t work every day of the year, then you probably don’t buy coffee more than 250 times per year.  (That’s 5 days a week × 50 weeks per year.)  Of course, if you buy coffee twice a day, …
  3. Does the coffee at Starbucks really cost $2.70?  If you order something less expensive, you’re annual savings aren’t going to be less.  (On the other hand, yes, if your coffee costs more than $2.70 per day, then you can save more.)

Don’t get me wrong!  I still think that you can save a significant amount of money by avoiding convenience and doing as much DIY as possible, but it’s also important to do our calculations honestly and make sure our expectations are in line with reality.

There are some who say that they give up the away-from-home coffee, but they don’t see the savings.  Problem is, there are so many other expenses.  Some come irregularly or change from one month to the next.  It’s personal finance chaos!  The made-at-home coffee savings signal gets drowned out among all the financial noise from all the other expenditures.  This, however, doesn’t mean that there are no savings.  There are.  It’s the accounting that is the problem here.  If you’re actually spending $1.00 per day instead of $2.70, then you need to take control of that money and ensure you don’t spend it on something else.  Take that daily savings of $1.70 and literally put a dollar and a few quarters in a jar every day.  Or move $8.50 from out of checking and into your savings account each week.  Whenever you’re developing new habits to save money, you need to really save that money.  Be careful not to let it just sit around telling you to spend it on something else!

Now that we’ve taken care of that …

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Olive the Truth About Saving Money

Avoid convenience.  Save a lot of money.  That’s all of the truth about saving money.  Here’s an example.

olivesLast week I opened the refrigerator to find olives … in single-serving packs.  I don’t know why anyone would buy such a thing, let alone my own wife.  Maybe, (I hope) they were on sale.

Even on sale, it’s a very dumb purchase.  $2.99 for 4.8 ounces of olives is about 62¢ per ounce.  At the normal price of $3.69, it’s over 76¢ per ounce.

Compare that to a can of olives.  $1.87 for 6.0 ounces = 31¢ per ounce.  (The can contains liquid, but the 6.0 ounces is the weight of the olives.)

You want the convenience of having a little pack of olives every day?

Get some food storage containers.  Purchased in quantity, they’re about $1 each.

Open the can of olives, distribute its 6.0 ounces of olives into 5 food storage containers so that each container holds 1.2 ounces of olives.   You’ve now got 5 DIY packs of olives-to-go at a cost of about 39¢ each (including 1¢ for the cost of the food storage container, assuming you can re-use it about 100 times).

Compare that to the pre-packaged olives which cost or 92¢ per serving.  (Regular price.)

DIY and save yourself $1.82.

Remember, $1.82 saved is $1.82 earned.  Considering how much time it takes to open a can and parcel out the contents, this is a DIY job that pays over $50 per hour.

Removal Salt, Avoid Rust

In much of North America the last snow of the winter usually occurs sometime in February or March, which is also the time of the last road salting.  Once the salt is gone — and it’s good to wait until there’s been a heavy rain that gives the roads a good rinsing — you will want to get the road salt off your car.  You could go to the local car wash and spend money … or you could avoid convenience and save money by doing it yourself.  I’ve always gotten good results with a bucket of warm water mixed with a little dish-washing detergent.  Apply with a large sponge, scrub, dump the remaining detergent-water mix over the car, and rinse well.

auto_rustHowever, removing the road salt from your car’s unpainted undercarriage is even more critical than washing the car’s body.  It’s the metal parts under the car that can be damaged by salt’s corrosive powers.  The painted body can usually withstand contact with road salt pretty well.  Also, the top of the car gets rinsed by the rain.  The underside of the car isn’t exposed to rain.  Most people know this, which is why commercial car washes offer an “undercarriage wash” and why they do such a good business after the end of the snowy season.

But you don’t need to pay $$$ (not to mention, wait in a long line) to give your car’s undercarriage a good washing.  You can just use a garden hose and a lawn sprinkler.  When I wash the car for the first time after the last of the winter snow, I attach a lawn sprinkler to the garden hose, turn on the water, and use the hose to slowly push the sprinkler back and forth under the car.  It’s a good idea to avoid spraying too much water into the engine compartment.  You might need to get down on your hands and knees to make sure the water is directed at the wheels and suspension.  There are actually special tools that attach to a hose to perform the undercarriage washing.  Some clever people have made their own.  In my honest opinion, it seems that a lawn sprinkler works just as well. The whole point is to get the salt off your car, and because salt is water-soluble, all you really need to do is get water into contact with the underside of the car.

It takes a little time, but … as usual, avoiding convenience means you’re paying yourself instead of paying someone else.

(However, if you search the internet you can find lots of people saying that you need to use some kind of special salt-removing product to really do a good job.  All I can say is that the sprinkler method has worked for me, but as the saying goes, your mileage may vary.  What’s happened to me is anecdotal.  I haven’t owned enough cars to do a scientific study.  It might be that my car is less susceptible to rust or maybe I reduce my driving when roads are icy and salty.  (The second part is true.  I really do try to avoid driving when there’s ice and snow … and salt … on the roads.)

Cutting the Cheese

cut_the_cheese“You don’t mind if I cut the cheese?”, I asked my colleagues eating lunch with me at our workplace cafeteria.  As I said it, I held up the table knife I keep at my desk and the block of cheese I was eating that week (and probably the next week too).  It was a good cheddar I got at Costo.  As in most everything, it pays to avoid convenience and do the work yourself.  In this case, I was cutting the cheese to have with the crackers and salami I was having for lunch that day.  Just like the way I pay myself to carry a box of snacks to work (instead of paying the man that stocks the vending machine), just like I pay myself to bring my own iced tea to work, I can also pay myself to not only bring the cheese to work, but to also to cut it into slices.

Make Your Own Soap

The basic principle of avoiding convenience applies to soap.  You can make your own soap and save money in the process — and probably get better soap.  Exact soap-making instructions are a bit beyond the scope of this blog (you can find plenty on the internet and there are lots of instructional videos on youtube), but I’ll give an overview of the basics.

All you need are three ingredients:

  • Fat (such as lard, coconut oil, or olive oil)
  • Lye
  • Distilled water

You can also add some other ingredients for scents or added effects (such as lavender, peppermint, honey, oatmeal, and various coloring).

The preparation method for basic soap-making is

  • C-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y add the lye to the water (rubber gloves and eye protection are mandatory)
  • Warm the fat over low heat
  • Get both the fat and lye-water to the correct temperature (which usually means warming the fat while waiting for the lye water to cool)
  • C-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y blend them together
  • Mix until thickened
  • Add any optional ingredients
  • Pour into molds and cover
  • Allow to cool slowly
  • Remove from molds
  • Allow to cure in the air for several weeks

That’s all.

homemade_soapYou can get very creative with the scents, colors, molds, and packaging.  You might be inspired by the soap-makers in your family tree.  (“Your great-grandmother used to make her own lard soap in the backyard.”)  You might explore the soap-making traditions of your ancestors.  (“This is the kind of soap they made in the old country.”)  Once you’re a skilled soap-maker, you have an excellent and one-of-a-kind unique gift for all-purpose giving.

You’ve probably heard that lye is dangerous.  It is dangerous.  That’s why you wear gloves and safety glasses.  You should also wear long sleeves and pants.  It’s also a very good idea to work with the lye outside, as combining lye and water creates toxic fumes.  But, in my opinion, the danger level isn’t so inordinately high that soap-making must be left only to professionals working on an industrial scale.  I’d say it’s not too far from the danger level of making using hot oil on a stove to make a large batch of french-fries.  Of course, you do need to be careful and, to repeat for emphasis: wear safety glasses.

Do some research and if it interests you, procure the ingredients and make a batch.  You should find a tried-and-true recipe and follow it exactly.  Measuring quantities and temperatures precisely is absolutely essential when you’re making soap.  It’s not like making a stew or soup that you can easily vary by adding more of one ingredient or less of another.  The fat, lye, and water must be combined in the correct amounts and at the right temperature for saponification to occur.

Depending on what fat you use and how you obtain it, I think there’s a good chance that you’ll find the money savings and the high quality of the product are worth the effort.  You might come to see, as we have in my household, that making your own soap isn’t much different than making your own breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Hand-Powered Washing Machine

wonderwashFor a long time, I’ve wondered if maybe some day I might take an old washing machine and hook it up to a stationary bicycle such that peddling the bike powers the washing machine.  Maybe some day.  While thinking those thoughts I searched the internet for inspiration and I discovered a hand-powered washing machine called the Wonderwash.

Basically, it’s a bucket with a watertight top that is attached to a base that allows the bucket to spin on an axis when a crank is turned.  Put dirty laundry in the bucket, add water and detergent, close and spin, … you get the idea.

Recently, the goddess of good luck smiled on me and I found a Wonderwash machine at the local Goodwill.  As it was only about 1/5 of the normal price, I couldn’t resist buying it.  After using it a few times, here are my thoughts.

First, most people will probably find that it won’t replace a full-size washing machine.  You will still need your regular washing machine to do large loads, especially for things like blankets or towels.  But for small loads, the Wonderwash is a good alternative to using a regular washing machine — especially if that would require transporting clothes to a laundry room or laundromat (as apartment dwellers often need to do).  I can easily see how someone could save time and money by using the Wonderwash for washing loads of small things like underwear, tee-shirts, and socks.  It might also be useful for camping trips or in a cabin or vacation house that doesn’t have a regular washing machine.

Most videos of people using the Wonderwash show them using it in a kitchen.  I thought it made more sense to use it in the bathtub.  I did a load of 3 tee-shirts, 3 shorts (underwear), and a fitted sheet, which seemed like a good-sized load for the Wonderwash.  I filled it about half way with hot water, using the bathtub’s handheld shower.  I added just a small spoonful of liquid laundry detergent.  After screwing on the top, I turned the crank a few times to spin the bucket, then let the laundry soak for a minute or so.  I should mention that the bucket is well-balanced on its axis and spins quite easily.  I continued to crank few times each minute or so for about ten minutes.  (During this time I took a shower, with the Wonderwash right there in the tub with me.)

The machine has a drainpipe at the bottom (which you need to attach to use, but need to remove to spin the bucket), but as I had the machine sitting in the bathtub I thought it was easier to just dump the water out the same way it went in, by removing the top and tilting the bucket.  Then I added fresh water for the rinse cycle, closed the top and spun it a few times.  I like my clothes well rinsed, so I repeated the rinse cycle.  After dumping the rinse water out, I removed the clothes, wrung them by hand to get out most of the water, and hung them up to dry.  The next day, the clothes were dry and seemed just as clean as if they had been washed in a regular washing machine.

Overall, I’m glad I have the machine.  Even though we do most of our laundry in a regular washing machine in the basement, this is a good alternative for small loads or when the regular washing machine is unavailable because someone else is using it.  And, as already mentioned, if I lived in an apartment and didn’t have my own washing machine, I’d certainly consider getting one of these so as to minimize trips to the laundry room or laundromat.  Using the Wonderwash in a apartment would save all the time (and perhaps money) it takes to transport clothes to a laundry room or laundromat.

This is a Coffee Maker

Years ago (I mean, in the 1970s), Father Guido Sarducci was selling “Mr Tea” — a “tea maker” that was little more than a funnel under which you would place a cup with a teabag in it.  Sarducci said something to the effect of, “Just add boiling water, and Mr Tea does the rest!”

But think about it: your electric “coffee maker” doesn’t do anything more than bring water to a boil and let it drip over some ground coffee in a coffee filter.

ceramic_coffee_filter_holderDo you really need a machine to do that?

I assume you already have a machine that can bring water to a boil.  It’s your stove.  And you have hands and arms and a brain.  So use you brain and ask yourself:  Why should I spend money for a machine that does something that I can do with things I already own?

It’s called “pour-over coffee” and you make it with a coffee-filter holder that fits over a cup or carafe.

A “pour-over coffee maker” costs a fraction of what an electric coffee maker costs.  And it is easier to maintain.  And it takes up less space.  And it doesn’t use any electricity.  And it will probably last longer — like, it might last for the rest of your life — while you will probably need to buy a new electric coffee maker at least once every 10 years, maybe more often.

Okay, so the pour-over coffee maker doesn’t have a clock and a timer.  You’ll live.

Use your stove.  Use your hands, your arms, and your brain.  Don’t buy something you already have.

In addition to saving money by not buying coffee-making machines (that are just going to eventually end up in a landfill), you will also save $$$ of money by making your own coffee beverages from ground coffee that you buy by the pound.  Brewing DIY coffee by the cup costs a fraction of the cost of coffee “pods”, which are in turn much less expensive than retail coffee by the cup.