Coffee heat rising

25 strategies for more affordable living

The rumination on ways to maximize Social Security income — and even use early start-up payments as an interest-free loan from the government — led me to consider how I might stay in my home after I retire.

The house a little expensive to operate, it’s probably too large for one person, and the neighborhood is a whisper on the iffy side. On the other hand, I like the house quite a lot. It’s paid for, it’s centrally located in a neighborhood adjacent to a park and a very upscale enclave, and so far I’ve seen nothing comparable in a better area that I can begin to afford. Given that Biker Boob, Dave’s Used Car Lot, Marina, and Weed Arboretum, and the nightly presence of cop helicopters amount to the trade-off for an affordable home in a halfway decent central neighborhood, before I decide to move to cheaper housing, maybe I should first consider ways I can invest in my present home tocut operating costs.

ThoughI contemplatethese ideas in connection with pending retirement, they apply to anyone who’s trying to live frugally, and certainly to families who would like tohave one spouse quit working to stay home with the kids.

Ours is a hot climate. Winter heating bills are negligible, but summer cooling bills will knock you over. Each year they rise higher. Ditto water: though my yard is desert landscaped, July and August still bring $160 bills. These are the largest consistent hits. Other big costs are taxes and insurance, gasoline consumed in driving to safe, upper-middle-class shopping, and repairs & maintenance. So, some strategies to make my home permanently affordable:

Climate Control

  1. Install a programmable thermostat. Set the summertime temperature several degrees higher in the daytime and have it drop to 78 at night.
  2. Build a shade structure over the front entryway to cast shade on the flagstones and concrete. Make this large enough to seriously protect the front of house from summer heat.
  3. Remove the shade structure Richard built in back, which is out of code and sagging, and replace it with a shade structure that will run the entire length of the back wall. Again, make this wide enough to provide real shade.
  4. Replace the two remaining single-paned windows with double-paned low-E windows.
  5. Blow extra insulation into the attic.
  6. Install an attic fan, if this is feasible with blown-in insulation.
  7. Have Bila fir out the west and south walls in the master bedroom, install insulation, and apply new drywall over it.
  8. Remove the dying ash tree and replace it, now, with a tree that will grow big enough to cast shade on the west side of the house by the time I retire.
  9. Get the chimney cleaned. Install one of those heat-recirculating devices in the fireplace, so the fireplace can be used to heat the family room and kitchen during the winter.
  10. Provide the dog with a warm blanket so she can sleep comfortably on the floor during the winter.

Water Conservation

  1. Remove some of the overgrown planting in the front yard. Be sure all drippers and spigots leading to former plants are shut off.
  2. Confer with Matt the Tree Dude Extraordinaire to determine which xeriscapic plants in front are now established well enough to endure drought, and how to cut back on watering.
  3. Remove planting between flagstones in courtyard; replace with river stones. Turn off sprinklers in courtyard or convert them to drippers.
  4. Persuade Gerardo to create wider basins for the citrus trees in back. Deep-water established citrus only once a week in summer.
  5. Get Gerardo to put the potted plants in back on their own valve, or, failing that, get rid of the potted plants.
  6. Get timers for all three hoses and use them! Never leave the water running in the pool or on a plant.

Other Costs of Running the House

  1. Find out the answers to these questions: Do I really need enough insurance to rebuild the house if it burns down? Realistically, what are the chances it will burn down? Given that all the floors are tiled and the washer is in the garage, what are the chances it will ever suffer flood damage? Short of complete destruction, what is the worst that could happen and what would it cost to repair?
  2. With the answers to these questions in hand, reconsider the insurance coverage on the house. Reduce it, if that seems reasonable.
  3. In any event, raise the deductible as high as the Hartford will allow.
  4. Inventory the house’s contents. Estimate value. Insure the house’s contents for no more than what the stuff is really worth.
  5. Purchase a fire-proof, water-resistant safe. Bolt it to the floor in a closet. Place crucial documents and all real valuables inside this safe. Do not insure gew-gaws thatare stored insidethe safe.
  6. Challenge the next tax assessment. Raise hell and put a block under it the next time the county raises taxes.

Costs of living in a waning central city core

  1. At retirement, buy a car that uses less gas, so as to drive to now far-flung middle-class shopping and medical care.
  2. Add security to Arcadia doors, and replace back screen door with security door.
  3. Use train to ride to AJs, central library, museum, and downtown theaters.

B-a-a-a-d basselope! Frugality 0, Spending 1

Okay, I fell off the frugality wagon with a resounding thud this afternoon, cleverly managing it at a moment when I probably should be pinching every penny that comes my way. What the heck: life’s short and tomorrow we die.

For several years, I’ve been quietly watching for a sideboard that would go with my dining room table, please my finicky tastes, and not bankrupt me. Right now there’s a console table sitting in the dining room, the sort of thing you put behind your sofa to hold a lamp. That’s what the table’s doing there: holding a lamp. It has no storage, and storage is desperately needed, given that the former homeowner’s kitchen remodel was beautiful but short on cabinet space. So I’ve wanted something with shelves and maybe even a couple of drawers.

Today a friend and I headed out in search of a desk to fit a small space in her house. After several hours spent traveling across the city, exploring many new stores we had never visited, we ended up at the Crate and Barrel, which is having a summer sale. And what should we see but…ta-DAAA! Not just “a” sideboard on sale, but THE sideboard, marked down $550.

At $1190, the price was still a bit rich for my blood, but I do have it in my diddle-it-away savings. True, it will drain Diddle-It-Away to zero, but why does one have diddle-it-away savings if one does not intend to diddle them away? It is incredibly gorgeous. It’s also set up to serve as a media center, so if I have to move to a smaller house in the future, it’s versatile enough to adapt to a different purpose.

Even though I’m sure I could have acquired something cheaper, this is well made with solid wood and mortise-and-tenon construction, and it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for. M’hijito will get the console table — also a very nice piece of furniture — and I will now have a place for serving items presently stashed in a back closet and in the garage. So I guess I don’t feel too guilty…after I get over the sticker shock, I’m sure I’ll be very happy I bought it. Especially if I don’t lose my job….

Live and Learn

Little Dog and the Human have been under the weather the past few days. Cassie has given her sore leg a hot spot by licking it. I’ve been sick at my stomach for upwards of a week; starting to wonder if I got into some of that salmonella the press has been dramatizing.

The vet and I collaborated to make things worse for the dog by giving her a couple of doses of an overpriced prescription NSAID called Metacam, which knocked her for a doggy loop. She’s refused to eat for two days, and all day today she could barely wriggle.

Now that the drug is wearing off, though, she’s returning to normal. Just got back from a very zippy doggy-walk.

Personal finance hook

I dreamed up a frugal way to bandage a hot spot on a dog’s leg, by way of discouraging the licking that gives rise to such wounds. Having no gauze or tape in the house, last night I stuck a Bandaid over the sore. To my amazement, she not only didn’t rip it off instantly, by this morning the bandage was still in place. After a while, though, she figured out that she could lick around and under it. With a queasy belly and a ton of work to do this morning, I just didn’t feel like driving through the heat in search of still more stuff to buy.

Stashed in a drawer, what should I find but an athletic bandage made of a slightly tacky, stretchy material-instead of securing it with Velcro or little metal hooks, you just press it together and it sticks to itself. But unlike surgical tape, it doesn’t stick to your skin and pull out your hair-or fur. Perfect.

A bit of a clean cotton ball with a dab antibiotic ointment placed over the sore spot, and then I wrapped the dog’s leg with the sticky athletic bandage. And voilà! After a moment’s annoyance and a small adjustment, she didn’t seem bothered by it. Kept it on all day without trying to chew it off. This evening the limp is about gone and the hot spot looks much better.

Personal finance hook no. 2

If you wouldn’t put it in your mouth, don’t put it in your pet’s. Would I have taken a prescription drug for a minor ache? N-O-O-O-O! So what possessed me to give it to the dog? Especially after a baby aspirin did the job with no problem the other day, for a tiny fraction of the cost. This Metacam stuff can kill the dog’s appetite; cause nausea, diarrhea, and lethargy; and damage the liver. Charming.

Well, we got the appetite loss and the lethargy. Hope that’s all.

It was another bad buy from Big Pharma. If your ailment (or your dog’s) is neither life-threatening nor excruciating, try a nondrug treatment first; then move to an over-the-counter nostrum before rolling out the heavy pharmaceutical armament. Probably the dog needed no painkiller at all, just rest. But if she did need a pill, an inexpensive baby aspirin would have sufficed

A Gourmet Cooking Party: Fun, frugal, and delicious

Pasta! Make Pasta!

Yesterday we spent the afternoon at La Maya’s house experimenting with a friend’s pasta machine. We had the idea that we wanted to actually make our own pasta (having been told that it’s much better than the dried stuff you get at the supermarket) and decorate it up with made-from-scratch sauce.

Even with everyone helping in the kitchen (or maybe especially with everyone helping!), we expected this to be a huge honking project. But it turns out that pasta is extremely easy to make, and you don’t actually need a machine to make simple shapes-a rolling pin and a sharp knife or pizza cutter will do the job. However, pasta machines are pretty inexpensive. Amazon.com has one for as little as $19. We think our friend’s cost around $150-it appears to be the $95 Atlas shown at Amazon-but on that same site the Imperia looks similar (except it doesn’t clamp to the countertop) looks very similar and sells for $64. If you like pasta and love to play with your food, one of these could be worth the investment.

La Maya found semolina flour in bulk at Sprouts. I scored some fresh tomatoes from M’Hijito’s backyard garden, and SDXB brought a creditable bottle of cheap red from Trader Joe’s.

Plain, unembellished pasta consists of nothing more than eggs and flour with (sometimes) a little water added. Following instructions that came with the machine, we made ours by mounding up about a cup of flour, making a little well in the middle, and breaking a couple of whole eggs into the crater. Mix it together with a fork until it holds together and then gently knead it between the palms of your hands until it’s no longer sticky. If it sticks to your hands, add a little more flour and massage the stuff until it holds together like good Play-Doh.

If you’re going to run it through a pasta machine, you don’t want it to be gooey, ’cause it’ll stick to the machine’s little blades just as it sticks to your fingers. It should be fairly firm.

The machine has a roller that flattens the dough out. You can adjust a setting to make it come out quite thin or fairly thick. Not having a clue what we were doing, we went for a medium setting, so we had pieces of dough about 1/16 of an inch thick. These we put through a blade that disgorged fettucini-shaped strips. Once we figured out how to do it, the process was incredibly easy.

After we saw how this worked, we realized that you could just roll out the pasta on your countertop or breadboard to whatever thickness you like and then slice it into long, thin pieces with a sharp knife.

Tomatoes cook down into a wonderful, light sauce in a matter of minutes. La Maya had basil growing in the backyard; we could have used some Italian parsley instead of or in addition to fresh basil. We diced several tomatoes, cut up a small fistful of basil, and minced some garlic.

I started the sauce by stirring the minced garlic around in a little hot olive oil, briefly-don’t let it brown. Then added the tomato and basil and let them cook gently until they simmered into a nice sauce. While the tomatoes were cooking down, I added a splash of wine, and at the last minute we poured in a small amount of heavy cream. If you wanted, you could use orange juice, or you could combine a little grated orange or lemon zest with the tomatoes.

On the side, I sauteed some excellent prawns that I found at Costco, adding a little cumin for extra flavor.

Meanwhile, SDXB made a very fine tossed green salad.

While the sauce was cooking, we brought a large kettle of water to a rolling boil. To cook the pasta, all you have to do is drop the fresh noodles into boiling water and let’em cook for just a few minutes. As soon as they seemed to be getting just al dente (which is very fast), we lifted them out of the water and into the pan of hot sauce. Tossed them into the pan of sauce to finish cooking and to coat them with the delicious tomato mixture and then served them up.

The result was incredibly delicious! Also, to our surprise, even though we ate ourselves stupid none of us felt uncomfortably stuffed. The noodles expand while cooking and kind of “puff up” in a way that dried store-bought pasta does not. The result is an unexpectedly light dish, compared to what we normally expect of pasta.

The whole adventure was a lot of fun-good company, good eats-for not a lot of expense. This is a great way to enjoy yourself and stay frugal: have a cooking party with good friends.

Personal finance nerds 1, spendthrifts 0

So, who’s “funny about money”* now? In the face of a recession that could deepen to the point of (dare we say it?) depression, frugality is suddenly a trend. Such a trend, we might add, that think-tank scholars are climbing aboard for the ride.

David Brooks, writing in today’s New York Times, reports on a paper from the Institute for American Values titled For a New Thrift: Confronting the Debt Culture. To make 19 column inches short, the gist of this document, to which 62 scholars have signed their names, is “get out of debt, stay out of debt, and live within your means.”

Brooks puts an interesting moral spin on the issue, suggesting that fundamental American values have been corrupted by an evil confluence of forces: credit-card debt, the growing financial polarization between the haves and the have-nots, lotteries, pay-day lenders, and even Wall Street with its obscene executive compensation.

Uh huh.

“The Devil tempted me and I did eat.”

Brooks offers a few half-baked attempts at solutions to this metaproblem, none of which are worth much. But he does point out something that probably is correct:

Benjamin Franklin spread a practical gospel that emphasized hard work, temperance, and frugality. . . . For centuries [the United States] remained industrious, ambitious, and frugal. . . .

There are dozens of things that could be done. But the most important is to shift values. Franklin made it prestigious to embrace certain bourgeois virtues. Now it’s socially acceptable to undermine those virtues. It’s considered normal to play the debt game and imagine that decisions made today will have no consequences for the future.

Lordie! Let’s hope we reform our evil ways before we’re all tossed out of Eden!

*Funny about Money’s title came from a (former) friend who, imagining no one was listening, remarked on another friend’s voicemail that I was “a little funny about money.” She’s in her mid-70s now, working three jobs to pay off the huge debts her million-dollar appetite racked up. Observers tell me she looks very tired.

Time to buy a new car?

With $5.00-a-gallon gasoline staring us in the face, I’m wondering if it’s time to trade the Dog Chariot, a 2000 Sienna, for a more gas-efficient vehicle, even though it looks like careful driving will yield almost 26 miles a gallon.

I know I should be looking at used cars. However, I don’t know enough about cars to tell whether I’m getting ripped off, and around here not a single car dealer can be trusted. Toyota dealerships are especially obnoxious for their high-pressure tactics. I don’t own a male voice-studies have shown that women consistently get worse deals from car dealers than do men-and so I buy through a broker. The guy I’ve used in the past will negotiate only for new cars, so if I’m to have a man front for me, I’ll have to buy new.

I’d planned to drive the Sienna for 10 years and then get something smaller and, preferably, much jazzier. However, with gas prices soaring, the value of large vehicles is crashing. Right now the Kelly Blue Book value of the little tank is $5,610, precious little compared to the price of a new vehicle. I have about $15,000 in savings to buy the next vehicle, which I expected would be the last or second-to-last car purchase of my lifetime. If I buy a new car now, that will guarantee I’ll have to buy another one before I die-meaning I have to pinch still more pennies to stash another 20 or 30 grand for that purpose, just as I’m about to retire. Whee!

So, what’s out there?

The Prius gets 48 mpg in town and 45 mpg on the highway. The lowest-priced model, the “standard” hatchback, costs $22,870, slightly more cash than I have in hand, assuming I actually get the Blue Book value for the Sienna. That mileage is very nice, but

a) I’m suspicious about the long-term reliability of the new technology; and
b) that’s really more than I want to pay.

The Camry hybrid gets 33 mpg in town and 34 mpg on the highway. Its price tag is $24,740, more than the Prius. Its gas mileage is not all that much more than the 26 mpg I’m getting right now…certainly not almost 25 grand worth!

The Toyota Corolla gets 26 mpg in town and 35 on the highway. The cheapest model costs $15,166. Uh huh. I should pay 15 grand for a roller skate that gets the same mileage as a paid-for vehicle that can actually carry some cargo? Even if hypermiling extracts a few more mpg, I don’t think so.

Even as gasoline reaches the exorbitant level, the cost of a new vehicle is so much more exorbitant—and such a black hole into which to throw money, because depreciation converts what ought to be an asset into a distinct liability—that it’s not worth trading in a functional though relatively low-mileage vehicle.

We need to drive less and drive smarter.