As I’ve mentioned before, I have grand plans for a vegetable garden in raised boxes, but I haven’t had time to build the boxes or decided where I’m going to put them. So, I decided to start learning how to grow vegetables in the meantime. When I have the boxes, I’ll start from seed, but these tomatoes started from seedlings.

Tomato Project Part 1
My decision to plant tomatoes was a rather spontaneous one. A member of my gardening meetup scheduled a meetup at Tomatomania. It’s the largest tomato seedling sale in Los Angeles County. They have hundreds and hundreds of seedlings in at least one hundred varieties. Frankly, it was hard to choose, because how different is a stupice from a striped Roman from a bull’s heart? I did opt for heirlooms because I’ve heard that hybrid tomatoes don’t taste as good and the seeds may not be savable.

The week before Tomatomania, I went to Costco to stock up on some supplies. I purchased:

1 2.5 cubic foot bag of potting soil (also needed for other plants)
5-pack of gardening gloves in different styles

I also went to Armstrong Nursery to buy a 1.5 cubic foot bag of planting compost.

I initially planned to put the tomatoes in pots, but that would be expensive, so instead I went to Ace and bought a shovel so I could amend the soil with the planting compost and potting soil.

At Tomatomania, I bought three seedlings: black oxheart, chocolate stripes, and striped Roman.

The next morning, I used the shovel and a trowel to dig a trench in the clay soil near our fence (sunniest part of the yard) and mixed the potting soil and compost into the trench. Then I planted the seedlings about two feet apart and watered them. I was very happy my gardening glove set included heavy-duty leather gloves while I was using the shovel. Even with the shovel, my hands had red marks from the hard work.

A week later, I stopped at Armstrong again to buy Tomato and Vegetable food and then fertilized each plant. So far they’ve each grown three to four inches. They grew at least three of those inches after a nice hard rain last week.

Costs to Date
I’m not necessarily growing my own tomatoes to save money, although I probably will. I’m mostly growing them to have fresh food in my backyard. Nevertheless, I’m tallying the costs.

Compost: 13.14
Potting soil: 13.14
Seedlings: 12.00
Tomato food: 7.66

The compost and potting soil were both used for other projects, though, so I’ll only count half of it for the tomatoes. The gloves and shovels can also be used for other projects, so I didn’t include those in my tally.

The cost of the tomatoes to date is $32.80. I will need to build a support system for them because I plan to force them to grow up rather than become bushes or crawl across the ground. That will be part two of the project.

Are you growing food this year? What have you planted?

Last Friday, NPR’s Marketplace had an interesting report on the true cost of all our modern necessities. Taken individually, we don’t really think about what all these things cost us, but taken together they add up to quite a bit of our budget. So, how did we get here and do we really need to be here?

Life in a Simpler Time
People like to hearken back to a simpler age, the 1960s, when talking about how a family could afford to live on one income, and yet they puzzle over the fact that a TV or refrigerator cost ten times more (when inflation is factored in). How could these families flourish on less income and still buy these things?

It’s simple – they didn’t buy as much stuff, and they didn’t have as many supporting expenses for that stuff. Back then a TV cost $300-$500 (more if you wanted color), which was a much larger chunk of the average $5500 income than a modern $300 TV. But, they only had one TV. And they didn’t have cable. So, they paid for the TV and the electricity to power it, and that was it. Since there were only a few channels, they didn’t watch as much of it, either.

Where the Money Goes Today
Household Incomes are ten times higher than the 1960s (although really, they’re only double when adjusted for inflation), yet TVs cost about the same as they did back then. The difference now, is that most families have two or three of them, plus cable, a DVR or two, and DVD player or two. Then you need stuff to watch on that, so add on a movie subscription, too.

Or, let’s look at telephones. Again, most families only had one. It had a cord and they probably rented it from the phone company. Long distance was expensive, so they didn’t make many of those calls. I can’t find an exact cost for the average phone bill, but let’s just go with “less than now.”

Flash forward to today. In addition to a home phone (if you have one), there are cell phones for every member of the family. Some of those have data or texting plans.

Of course, you also need to add in internet access and computers with which to access them.

Want music? Well, then, you’ll need an MP3 player and maybe a CD player.

What My Family Spends on New Necessities
Just as a real life example, here’s what my husband and I spend on our “necessities” for one month:

$88.40 for cable with DVR (one TV, one Premium channel, one upper tier package)
$66.33 for home phone and internet bundle (no long distance or other frills)
$95 for two cell phones (no data or texting plans)
$9.99 for Real Rhapsody (music)
$19.99 for Blockbuster Total Access (3 movies at a time)

Our total is $279.71 per month.

Of course, we get reimbursed $90 a month for our phones, although that’s taxed, so we’ll call it $75 a month. That brings us down to $204.71 a month.

Additional Costs of the New Necessities
Since we’re spending all this money to entertain ourselves and stay connected, we have to earn at least $2456 a year to pay for all of it, on top of our actual necessities like food and shelter. We probably need two incomes to pay for all our new necessities, so that also means daycare, extra commuting costs, as well as less time to enjoy all those modern benefits.

I’m not suggesting that we give up our cell phones and broadband access, I am suggesting however, that we all take a hard look at how necessary the things in our life are and what we can cut. If we had to, we could cut Real Rhasody and Blockbuster easily. We could also reduce our cable bill. The home phone I insist on keeping because we live in earthquake country and landlines/corded phones have never failed me in a major earthquake.

What could you cut?

You may have heard references to the “lost decade” on the news. This isn’t related to the “lost generation,” which is either a group of post-WWI literati, or the post-WW1 generation. Instead, it’s the first decade of this century. The 2000s, the Aughts, whatever you want to call it, it pretty much sucked financially. While people who contributed regularly to retirement did earn returns, much of it came from those contributions rather than serious growth (and it was probably wiped out by the recession.) So what do you do know that you’re facing down a new decade right back where you started ten years ago?

Emergency Fund
So, if you started this recession without an emergency fund, your first response was probably panic. If you don’t have any sort of emergency fund (and I don’t mean credit cards), then you should establish one now. Start with 2% of your income as a goal, but your real target should be at least six months of vital living expenses (not income, because hopefully you spend less than you earn.)

Once you’ve got at least a small emergency cushion, then start to increase your retirement fund. Due to my husband’s disability leave, I had to delay my plan to double my retirement withholding, but I will be doing that as soon as he returns to work. You should consider getting more aggressive with your contributions and your holdings in order to jump on the post-recession stock boom, if you haven’t already.

If you want to make up for the last decade, you should plan on being aggressive. With luck, this decade will offer better returns than the last one, because really, the total return from the decade was worse than the return for the 1930s. Take a look at the 40s and 50s, and then at the 80s and 90s. We can only hope that the 10s and 20s will be the same. So, take a look at your budget and figure how much you can afford to put in your non-retirement accounts in addition to your retirement accounts (after those are maxed out.)

If there’s one thing we did well in the 2000s, it was spend money. So, rather than make up for the decade, you need to do less than before. Establish a spending plan and learn to stick to it if you haven’t already. You don’t have to stop buying, just be thoughtful about it.

Your Home
If you bought before the bubble, congratulations. Now is a great time to do maintenance you deferred during the last decade. If you bought during the bubble, then you may be tempted to let other things slide, but remember that deferred maintenance or shoddy upgrades will hurt your resale value even more, so don’t skimp, but don’t go overboard, either. If you bought during the slide or are looking now, congratulations. Buy what you can afford and make upgrades slowly and carefully. You should plan on owning the home for 7-10 years, so you’ve got plenty of time.

After your emergency fund, and your retirement, and your investments, there’s no reason not to save money in an interest-bearing account. Use that money to buy cars, take vacations, upgrade your home, and replace furniture so you don’t pay credit card interest or need to take out a loan.

Most of all, we have to hope that we avoid the stagflation of the 1970s and the economic condition in Japan after its real estate market collapsed.

What are you doing to combat the lost decade?

I support environmental causes. I believe that some aspects of the frugal lifestyle are inherently good for the environment, but others can be wasteful. I shop at the farmer’s market and buy grass-fed beefc. But, I don’t pay more for most products labeled as being. There are, of course, exceptions. Products with really big price tags like energy-efficient windows and hybrid cars cost more to make and have a proven effect (they also may save you money in the long-run.) But “green” clothes and “green” cleaning products? No way. Here are ten products where being green doesn’t make it worth paying extra.

Anything Labeled “Natural”
Okay, this isn’t one specific product. Lately, manufacturers have gotten really loose with the “natural” label. They’ll slap that on the package, put on some green pictures, and then raise the price. But “natural” isn’t a regulated term. High-fructose corn syrup advertises itself as natural, and so do many canned products. Take a gander at the label instead. Are there any ingredients you don’t recognize? Does it contain “natural flavors”? Then it’s not all that natural. An apple is natural. A jar of artificially-sweetened applesauce isn’t.

Green Cleaning Products
It’s true that some major household products companies are producing more environmentally-sound products (hello Clorox Greenworks products), but they come with a higher price tag. Some companies then apply their “greener” chemicals to disposable cleaning wipes, which sort of defeats the purpose. And costs more. If you really want to clean green without the extra marketing costs built right in, first try Trader Joe’s, which has had green products for a while, and they’ve always been cheaper (although they’re not as effective in older, less-efficient dishwashers.) Or, go homemade. There’s nothing more natural than a lemon when it comes to cleaning.

Green Clothing
Eco-dyes, bamboo fabrics, recycled materials. Yes, it’s theoretically good for the environment, but is it worth the extra cost? At this point, I’m not ready to spend $60 for an environmentally-friendly T-shirt, especially if the bamboo isn’t organically grown and might actually be rayon! And those cheap shirts that claim to be made with organic cotton? What about the rest of the chemicals in them? Sorry, I’m not buying it.

Recycled Diapers
It’s great that diaper manufacturers want to do their part to make diapers more eco-friendly, but diapers are still going to wind up in a landfill. Rather than buying disposables, opt for cloth diapers. Once the kid is potty-trained, the diapers become cleaning rags. Call it upcycling at its finest. Yes, you have to wash them and that consumes energy, but it’s still cheaper and more ecologically sound than a mountain of plastic diapers.

Organic Feminine Hygiene Products
There’s no bandwagon feminine hygiene products won’t jump on. Organic is just the latest. But an organic all-cotton hygiene product still winds up in the trash along with the old-school regular cotton one. So go one better and get a Diva Cup. No more trash at all, and it’s only $30 for ten years of use. Beat that, Tampax!

Biodegradable Paper Plates and Plastic Utensils
Even disposable products like paper plates are getting into the green thing, by claiming to be biodegradable, except we all know that things don’t really break down in the trash. Plastic utensils claim to be made from recycled materials. Where do they wind up? The trash. Instead, use real plates and utensils.

Non-Hybrid Cars
If you saw the Superbowl, you probably saw the ad for the “greener” Audi A3 TDI. What does this amazing green car run on? Diesel. While Diesel isn’t quite as bad as it used to be, and diesel vehicles do get better gas mileage than traditional cars, it’s still a gas-powered car and it has a $28,000 price tag (plus the higher cost of diesel in the US). True, it gets 34 miles to the gallon, but that’s far less than a Toyota Prius or Honda Civic Hybrid.

Bottled Water
Bottled water manufacturers are touting their reduced packaging and commitment to the earth, but they’re still bottling water. Unless you’re traveling somewhere the water is unfit to drink, use a reusable glass and tap water (or filtered water). Going on a roadtrip? Fill your reusable bottle from the tap, and pack a thermos or two.

Recycled Paper Towels
They can make them out of recycled fibers, they can use natural dyes, they can do whatever they want, paper towels are fundamentally ungreen. (So is toilet paper, but I have to draw a line somewhere.) Instead, use towels. We’ve nearly eliminated paper towels in our house. I believe our current roll has been on the counter for over a month and we’ve used half of it. Pretty much the only time I use a paper towel at home is to pat dry raw chicken because I haven’t come up with a place to store wet, potentially-contaminated towels and I don’t want to run the washing machine for one towel.

Green Cosmetics
Some makeup claims to be environmentally friendly because it uses less chemicals, but it’s still usually comes in plastic packaging that is meant to be disposable. Sometimes they claim it’s green because it’s powder minerals, but those same minerals are found in most pressed powder products. So why pay more for something that’s pretty much the same? If you want a mineral makeup because you like the way it feels, go for it, but don’t do it to be green.

When we first moved into our house, I started using Yelp and Craigslist to find contractors for repair jobs where we didn’t have referrals from our Realtor. We had success with finding a floor refinisher and a mover via Yelp. I had a much harder time finding good reviews or resources for smaller tasks like woodworking or bee removal. A friend mentioned that she always found good service people through Angie’s List.

Angie’s List Membership Fee
The thing that had prevented me from joining Angie’s List was the fee. In Los Angeles, it’s $4.50 a month or $45.25 for the first year ($35.25 a year after that.) I opted for the latter since I expected to use them for more than one month.

Then I discovered the abandoned wasp’s nests in my eaves. I searched Yelp, but couldn’t find anything local. I reluctantly joined Angie’s List and found several reviews for local companies. I called one that had good reviews and reasonable prices. They came out an hour later (on a Saturday morning). They were done in 15 minutes and did more than I asked!

Contractor Reliability
We had a contractor I found on Craigslist give us an estimate to fix some cabinets, but he flaked once we decided to hire him (no money changed hands.) I found three more on Angie’s List, as well as some door contractors to replace a door. When we call and mention Angie’s List, they’re always quick to return calls or arrange for estimates.

Member Reviews
The reviews system is the best part. Not only do you see customer summaries of services performed, but you also see the price they paid and the age of the house they worked on, so you have some idea whether the contractor is appropriate for your needs.

Angie’s List actively encourages members to leave reviews. Due to my husband’s surgery, I didn’t contact any contractors immediately after investigating them. Angie’s List called about a month later to see if I was ready to leave reviews for them.

Sponsored Results
In some categories, you’ll see some results highlighted in yellow at the top. Based on how other sites operate, these appear to be sponsored results. I typically read these results, but I also scroll down to find other contractors with good ratings who aren’t sponsored results. In fact, I typically ignored the sponsored results with few reviews in favor of the unsponsored results with many reviews.

Overall Review

Angie’s List has reviews for all types of services, even doctors, but I think it’s really best for homeowners. The home repair business is so full of shady operators that it’s worth paying a small membership fee to find trustworthy contractors. Although it’s not complete protection, a contractor with more than a couple reviews and several A grades is probably more reliable than someone you found on Craigslist.

Angie’s List doesn’t operate in the categories where Yelp excels (restaurants and local shops), so if that’s all you need, don’t bother joining Angie’s List. If you just need one service, consider asking a neighbor instead of paying for reviews. For example, we hired our gardener because he knocked on our door and told us our neighbor had sent him to see if we needed help. (It was a couple days after I told my neighbor after my husband’s surgery.) In that case, we chose him without other estimates because he already works at 3 or 4 houses on my street – that’s the best reference of all.

Now that we’ve lived in our house for several months, problems are starting to crop up. Some will require a handyman or even a major replacement, but others are things I’m learning to fix myself. My husband’s first response to most issues is to suggest calling the handyman, which is weird because his dad was a plumber. My first response is to see if we can fix it ourselves. Usually, it’s faster to do it ourselves, and a lot cheaper. Here are a few examples:

Quick Sink Repairs
The faucet had a slow leak for a few days before I discovered the cabinet under the sink was full of water. I mopped that up and then tracked down the source of the problem. I finally determined, after a few minutes of testing, that it was the connector between the pull-out faucet and the hose. When I unscrewed it, white tape came off. My husband’s best friend happened to be over and confirmed that we needed Teflon tape. We also need a new faucet head eventually because the buttons are cracked, but the tape would fix the leak pronto. Off I went to Ace Hardware. Ten minutes and 89 cents later, the problem was solved. We would have paid the handyman $50 for that.

Toilet Repairs
We have two toilet problems. One is a slow leak, which is evidenced by gasping noises from the tank. We happen to have air bubbles in our pipes right now, which made it very easy to look into the tank and see exactly where the leak is coming from. I consulted our home repair manual and will be buying a new set this weekend to install in our toilet.

The other problem was a clog. A really stubborn clog. Again, my husband wanted to call the handyman, but I didn’t want to pay $50 for a toilet clog. Instead, I consulted the internet. First I tried putting dish soap down the toilet, but that didn’t work. After bailing out the sudsy water, I consulted the home repair manual, which recommended a closet auger (toilet auger). Off to OSH I went, where I also stocked up on gardening supplies. That night, we tried the auger, but couldn’t figure it out. I called my dad, who said to keep trying. Back I went to the internet.

I love the internet. Several plumbers have posted videos showing you how to use the auger. I watched both videos, then returned to the bathroom. It was a struggle, and one of those occasions when three hands really would have been helpful, but I did it.

Cheap Weatherstripping
Our windows had terrible drafts. Again, I consulted the home repair manual to determine my options, then went to Home Depot to buy weatherstripping. It was simple to pop it into place and the room instantly felt warmer. It cost me just about $20 for the supplies and took maybe half an hour.

We could have spent far more getting a handyman in to fix those items, but it’s a lot cheaper to learn to use tools so you can solve them yourself. Especially since most of these problems tend to occur at the worst time – like Christmas. You don’t want to pay for a plumber on Christmas!

It’s the day after April Fool’s Day, but a family emergency prevented me from posting this on the actual day of fools so I’m posting it anyway. This is all about the times I’ve been a financial fool. Some of them are doozies.

Not Selling a Stock When I Knew I Should
This one goes all the way back to 1999 and the days of the tech bubble. There was also a bubble in genome stocks. One day I realized my stock had increased 988% from the purchase price. If I’d sold that day, I would have earned $12,000. Instead, I decided to wait one more to get it to a nice 1000% increase. Then I would sell. My intuition was screaming at me to sell, but I didn’t listen. That very night after the markets closed, President Clinton gave a speech that made it sound like he was reversing gene patent law. He wasn’t, but the bubble popped. I wound up selling it at a 300% gain, which isn’t bad, but nowhere near what it could have been. I was a greedy fool, plain and simple.

Being Talked Into Buying Something I Didn’t Need
This was a recent frugal failure and I’ve blogged about it before. When I bought my sofabed, I was talked into buying not only sofabed sheets (which are weird and impossible to fold), but fabric protection. I wasted $170 (plus tax) for no good reason! Definitely foolish.

Being Too Honest
My first job was with a television show where I was paid $6 an hour. Rather than pad my hours, I was 100% honest. I was also 100% honest with my mileage, even though I was entitled to $100 a week in mileage and driving was part of my job. After about a month, the studio accountant spoke to my supervisor, who came to me and told me that I needed to mark at least 12 hours per day on my timecard and make sure I got the full $100 in mileage. I barely made enough to live on, and I could have earned far more that first month if I’d known more about the studio system. I’m a very honest person, but that’s not how Hollywood works. We were paid so low because we were expected to lie.

Spending Too Much on Brake Service
The first time I needed to get my brake pads replaced, I went to Midas and was completely scammed. They told me all sorts of things were wrong with the brakes. I wound up spending $400 on unnecessary work. To make matters worse, the brake pads they installed squealed terribly. I returned twice to have this corrected, and they said it was normal. I visited another Midas franchise about the squealing and they tried to tell me that my calipers needed to be replaced. They could do the work that day for $800. A deal, they said. I didn’t believe them and went to Goodyear – my first time there. Nope, the calipers were just fine. I also had the squealing pads replaced at Goodyear. The new ones didn’t squeal. Incidentally, I did end up having the calipers replaced about two years later, but Goodyear took me under the car to show me the torn boot and caliper damage.

I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t been extremely financially foolish, but losing $12,000 out of pure greed is certainly a hard lesson to learn. When have you played the financial fool?

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