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.

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If You Absolutely Must Buy Something For Christmas

You don’t have to be an economist to know what retailers are going to do when they know you have to have something before December 25.  Shopping with an absolutely-positively-must-have-it deadline puts you at a distinct disadvantage.  Of course, retailers are going to charge the highest possible price.  If you choose to observe that December 25 deadline, you give them the power to do that.

If you want to save money, do as much of  your Christmas shopping as possible on December 26 or shortly thereafter.*  It’s something of a tradition at our house to head out to the uppity import shop and fancy grocery store and buy things that were outrageously priced just a day earlier for 50(or more)% off.  When the shopping season starts on December 26, you’ve got the advantage.

We always find lots of holiday foods at great prices.  We enjoy it just as much the week after Christmas as we would have enjoyed it the week before — and a good-sized number of dollars stays in our bank account instead of going to the merchant’s.

We did this with toys and games that we bought for the kids’ presents when the kids were younger.  You think they even noticed that a special gift came a day or two later?  Hardly.  Just buy the thing at the much lower post-Christmas price, slip it under the tree, and say, “Oh, look there’s one more thing under the tree that you didn’t see.”  There is some chance you might not get the exact thing you want (and it’s this fear that retailers are counting on to make you buy the thing at the extra-high full price before December 25), but you can usually find something good and keep the savings.

bayberry_candlesDoing as much of your Christmas shopping as possible starting on December 26 works especially well for decorations, wrapping paper, candy, and similar items.  And it works online too.  I just got some high-quality scented candles that we will use next year, for 50% less than I would have paid last week.

Of course, what’s best for the spirit of Christmas (and your bank account) is not to make Christmas a consumption frenzy.  The best Christmas purchases are the ingredients you need for special Christmas cookies and dinners that you prepare yourself in your own kitchen — and these things are often on sale at good prices before Christmas.


*Remember, Christmas season actually lasts until Twelfth Night.

Why Buy Gift Cards?

gift_cardsI don’t get gift cards — both literally (I don’t buy them) and figuratively (I don’t understand why people do buy them).

There are two types of gift cards, so let’s consider them one at a time:

Gift cards issued by retail stores:

I can only think of a couple reasons I would buy a gift card for a particular store.

  1. There’s a discount or bonus that comes with a gift card purchase.  Like: buy a $100 gift card and get a $10 gift card as a bonus.  Or: buy a $100 gift card and get a coupon for 50% off any purchase.
  2. It’s necessary to make sure that the recipient uses the money as intended.  Like: buy a Subway gift card for a college student so that the gift can be used only for food and not for beer or marijuana.

Other than that, what’s the point of gift cards?  Are the recipients of your gift cards better off because they are restricted to shopping at only one store?  It’s hard to see how that would be true.  Cash is good everywhere.  Store-issued gift cards aren’t.

Also, store-issued gift cards sometimes have non-use fees that will slowly reduce the value of a card that isn’t used after a certain number of months.  And, if the company goes out of business, then its gift cards could become worthless (.e.g., Borders, Circuit City).

And, stores will sometimes be tricky when you use a gift card.  I once received a Target gift card that was worth $30.  I used it for a purchase that was a bit more than its value, let’s say, $30 and 25¢.  I gave the clerk a one-dollar bill and the card, expecting to use up all the value on the card and get back 75¢ in coins as change.  But the clerk applied the $1 bill to the balance first, and then gave me back the gift card with a new value of 75¢.  I don’t know if the clerk was just careless or if perhaps she was doing something Target wanted her to do — leave me with a gift card with an insignificant balance, hoping I would lose or misplace it thus allowing the store to keep the 75¢.  (I made her re-do the transaction so that the card value ended at zero and I got the six bits.)

Gift cards issued by banks and credit-card companies:

Gift cards that look like credit cards have the advantage that they can be spent anywhere credit cards are accepted.  But watch out for fees: activation fees, dormancy fees, non-use fees, service fees … these can add up to a large amount of money relative to the value of the gift.  Read the fine print.  Some credit-card gift cards look like they’re “no fee” at a glance, but are really loaded with fees.  Would you really pay $4 so you can give someone $25?  Does that make sense?  Wouldn’t your recipient be better off is you just gave them $29 in cash?  And if the recipient doesn’t use the gift card quickly, its value will probably decrease each month.  So, you paid $4 to give a $25 gift card, but the recipient didn’t use it soon enough and really only got $21.  Wow.

cash_gift_envelopeThe thing to do: Get some currency gift envelopes.  The credit union where I keep a checking and savings accounts gives these envelopes away free.  Avoid the fees, give more gift.  A gift of cash can be used for anything — it can even be saved or invested where it will earn interest or dividends.  Can’t do that with a gift card.

A few other things about gift cards:  Does this country really need more plastic garbage in our landfills?  Do we really need to see more advertising?  And, btw, you might be able to save money by buying gift cards that someone else doesn’t want on eBay or similar.

Buy Birthday, Get Well, Sympathy, Etc Cards in Advance

greeting_card_assortmentIf you like to send cards for special occasions, you can save money by buying a boxed assortment of cards before you need them.  Then, when someone has a birthday, wedding, baby shower, mother’s day or father’s day, or you need to say get well soon or thinking of you, or whatever … you go to your box instead of the store.  Like most things, buying greeting cards in quantity will save you about 50% compared to buying single cards at normal retail prices.  It also saves you time because you won’t need to make a special trip to buy a card.

I’ve not seen any of these card assortments in the local stores, but I have seen them on Amazon.com and Costco.com.  As you use them, restock the box with new cards from the dollar store or your online source.