Thursday, July 24, 2008

Sweet spots and sailing

I'm taking a beginning sailing class, and that has me scheming about ways to continue sailing after the class is over, namely buying a sailboat. Last time I was at the library I stumbled across Jerry Cardwell's Sailing Big on a Small Sailboat, which is a real gem.

This blog isn't about sailing, so I'll skip to the part about living a deliberate life. Cardwell's thesis is that sailing is most enjoyable on sailboats that are just large enough to have an enclosed cabin, yet light and small enough to be towed by a regular passenger vehicle. He writes,
...many people who are tired of the complexity, equipment and maintenance costs, crew requirements, and limited sailing time on their big boats are downsizing in order to continue sailing, and to actually do more of it...For many of us, life is in great need of a heavy dose of the simplicity these smaller sailboats offer.
Caldwell argues that this size is the sweet spot: just large enough to have all the amenities of a large yacht, but small enough to keep things simple. Larger boats need a place to dock, a large piston engine, maneuvering thrusters, multiple sailors, trailering permits, specialized repair and launching facilities, and can cost more than a house. Trailerable sailboats cost about as much as an economy car and depreciate rapidly. The set-up and tear-down process is inherently quicker, making you more likely to actually sail.

This kind of analysis is key in any resource-intensive activity. It takes a certain minimum expenditure to to get fully running, to get to the "real deal." Spending more on top of that provides diminishing returns; the marginal reward of each additional dollar or hour is less and less.

In sailing, the sweet spot seems to be 22-24' trailerable sloops. In video games, you need a complete system and a large television, but don't need the latest technology. In carpentry you do need a large, stable workspace, but only need a few well-chosen tools. In cooking you need one great knife, a few good pots and pans, and a few other implements, but you don't need gadgets or gizmos. In amateur drag racing you need 300-400 horsepower to make driving a challenge, but beyond that parts costs escalate rapidly. And so on.

I don't think there's any point in pursuing an activity if you can't afford to get to the sweet spot, and it's rare that spending past the sweet spot is really worth it. I'll be reviewing my hobbies to verify that I'm in each one's sweet spot.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Visiting Austin

We spent last week on vacation in Austin, Texas, and had a great time.

Amanda's employer flew her out to San Antonio for a conference, and we took that as an opportunity to visit some friends and explore Austin. We did a lot of free activities and one of our friends hosted us, so our only expenses ended up being my air fare, a rental car, and dining (and lots of it).

Since this blog is purportedly about frugal bon vivant lifestyle I won't catalog our entire itinerary, but rather describe how we managed to have a rich travel experience without spending very much money. Our objective for the trip was to relax and catch up with our friends, but also to scout the Austin area as a potential place to live. So most of our activities were trial runs of the sorts of activities we'd do if we lived there. Before we left we compiled a list of things to do, based on recommendations from our Austinite friends as well as web pages for the city, travel bureau, and local universities.

Some specific strategies:
  • focused attention and expenditures on things we valued, in our case Texas-sized portions of cuisines we can't find at home
  • grouped activities by location so we didn't waste time or gas shuffling around
  • used local knowhow and patience to get free parking
  • ate at restaurants with live entertainment, and the Alamo Drafthouse which screens a free movie with dinner
  • attended a 4th of July festival, and watched the fireworks, in free parks
  • guided ourselves on a tour of historic neighborhoods
  • visited free museums
  • explored the state capital building and nearby college campuses
  • went canoeing on the river at nominal cost
  • traveled on a long weekend so we didn't use many vacation days
  • piggybacked on job travel to get one round trip flight for free
  • shopped online well in advance to get a good deal on the second plane ticket and the rental car
  • stayed with a friend, eliminating hotel costs
  • used small luggage so we didn't pay the overweight fee, could rent a small car, and were limited to very small souvenirs
  • packed based on a checklist so we were well prepared and didn't need to buy supplies such as sunglasses or sacrificial "lake shoes"
  • exercised moderation in staying up late, drinking, and exertion, so we didn't lose time to recuperation
We didn't explicitly set out to spend as little money as possible, but I realized on the plane ride home that our trip was very cheap yet also very memorable. I think this is an example of simple living axioms sinking in to the point where they start to become second nature.

Our general approach was to treat our time there as if we were residents on the weekend. I think this is a good mindset since it naturally steers you away from expensive tourist traps and toward things that give you a good feel of the area. Having local guides is also great because they can help point you toward the good stuff. In our case this was a two way street, as our presence nudged our guides to explore some attractions they hadn't visited yet.

Total World Stock Index

Recently Vanguard opened a new mutual fund, the Total World Stock Index. This is an index fund tracking the FTSE All-World Index, which is a close approximation of all the stocks in the entire world.

This is interesting for me because in general I'm a believer in allocating equities between US and foreign stocks according to their markets' capitalizations. Until now the simplest way of doing that was buying a total US fund (e.g. VTSMX) and a total ex-US fund (e.g. VGTSX) in roughly a 50/50 split. Now you can get the same effect with a single fund, and you don't have to worry about revisiting that 50/50 ratio over time.

In fact, I'm contemplating the following three-fund portfolio for my Roth IRA:
  1. Total World Stock Index, for 100% of equities
  2. Short Term Bond Index, for 50% of bonds
  3. TIPS fund, for 50% of bonds
You could carry the minimalist aesthetic even further and merge the bonds into a single fund (I'd probably use short term), but I think TIPS are worth having in there as an inflation hedge.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Are garage sales obsolete?

Last weekend we participated in a garage sale with some other members of our family. Unfortunately it was mostly a bust. Our gross sales were about $150, and that was split among four households. I'd estimate that we sold about 1% of the goods we offered for sale. It was nice to get rid of the stuff, but still, we were disappointed.

I have to wonder what went wrong. Very few shoppers came. The ones that did bought a pretty decent amount of stuff, so I don't think there was a problem with the goods or the way we laid them out. I think the sale was well advertised and there were no weather problems, so I think it was simply lack of interest in garage sales.

My hypothesis is that three trends are killing garage sales.

The first is fuel prices. The value proposition of a garage sale gets a lot worse when it costs a few dollars to drive to it. So I bet some garage sale veterans are (rationally) choosing to go garage-saling less.

The second trend is the rise of eBay, Craigslist, and Freecycle. All three are more convenient than garage sales since they let you shop for precisely what you want instead of sifting through a pile of everything. Most people probably prefer Craigslist and Freecycle for nearly-free stuff, and eBay and thrift stores for more valuable used items. That leaves a very narrow gap for garage sales to fill.

Finally I think this is part of the broader trend of Generation Y's preference for electronically-mediated interactions. Craigslist and eBay are fully Web 2.0-ified, but a garage sale is a purely in-person, face-to-face, analog affair. Our sale's customers support this idea, at least anecdotally. Almost all our customers were middle aged or older; we only had one group under the age of thirty, and the neighborhood kids ignored us entirely.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Products vs projects

A key mindset in frugality or simple living is to think in terms of utility rather than products. Our consumer-driven society is oriented to solving all wants by purchasing retail goods. The frugal mindset turns this on its head, and looks for means to ends. Buying something is but one of many solutions. It's push vs. pull. Marketing pushes: "you should be worried about identity theft and insurance solves that." Frugalers pull: "I need news. Talk to my neighbor? Blogs? Get a radio from Freecycle? Watch TV at the pub? If all else fails buy a newspaper or pay for cable."

This principle is manifested in a lot of bulleted money saving tips: brew your own coffee, buy used cars, use the library, and so on. The common thread is to identify the need, separate the core necessity (e.g. a book to read) from the unneeded frills (e.g. ability to keep the book permanently after it's read), and find the minimal solution that meets the core need.

When the "pull" mentality becomes an instinct these lists of tips become redundant because you automatically do this stuff as a matter of course. You might notice one or two clever ideas you hadn't thought of, but that's trimming around the edges. Detailed budgets become redundant as well. There's no need to monitor and ration your book expenditures (for instance) when you're already avoiding time-wasters and maximizing your library usage.

There's also a sense of calm that comes from acquiring things in response to only your own impulses and not the implied expectations of others. Those marketing messages work by instilling insecurities and providing solutions to them. Next time you see an ad, ask yourself "what is this ad designed to make me insecure about?" It's a relief to block out all those seeds for insecurity.

This all crystalized for me while watching a Linux machine install itself. Bear with me here. Historically Linux software had utilitarian, descriptive names. The Editing Macros are "emacs". The C Pre-Processor is "cpp". Free software isn't meant to be sold, so its name is just a utilitarian identifier. Indeed, the developers are sensitive about calling their work projects, never products. It's the "pull" mentality, and it's refreshing.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Frugal Entertainment: Pub Trivia

My favorite frugal entertainment activity is Trivia Night at our local pub. $2 will buy your way in to participating in the trivia event, in which teams of up to 8 people battle it out to be crowned "King/Queen with the most useless knowledge". I am a connoisseur of all things pop culture related, and thanks to wikipedia, Kevin has more obscure knowledge than he will ever need. Lucky for us, we have friends with similar mental prowesses, and most nights, we make a damn fine team (especially with entire categories devoted to knowledge of swords).

The pot for winning an evening of trivia can range from $60 to $120, depending on how many teams are playing that evening. If your team is lucky (and knowledgeable enough) to win, you walk away with a profit from partaking in this experience (or breaking even, at the very least). And even if you don't win, you have an enjoyable evening drinking and commiserating with like minded people. Always a positive in my book. Try for a listing of pubs that hold trivia nights in your neck of the woods!

Monday, June 2, 2008

GLOwing weekend

Early in graduate school, a friend and I termed the phrase "General Life Organization" (GLO), pronounced "glow". GLOwing means catching up on all the loose threads: running errands, catching up on housework, computer maintenance, paperwork, setting up furniture, and all those kinds of low-priority tasks that pile up.

We spent this weekend "GLOwing". I'd been under rapid-fire deadlines for the past two weeks so the entropy was stacking up. Things reached a breaking point when one of our book shelves tipped, triggering a "bookvalanche" that made a huge mess. Our biggest accomplishment was reorganizing our office space, including identifying a huge pile of books to get rid of. We also stocked up on food at Costco and the farmer's market, bought some much-needed clothes, made a thrift store run, organized our recipes into a binder, replaced a flaky network cable, and got about 90% of the way through merging our two always-on Linux computers into one machine.

I'd estimate we're getting rid of 4 linear feet of books. Most of them are old textbooks, which turned out to be worthless. Lesson learned: if a textbook isn't worth keeping forever, sell it ASAP. I'm getting rid of all my roleplaying game books from high school; those have a little sentimental value but I learned that I can buy PDF copies of the few that I care about. I'm pretty happy to convert bulky, rarely-read books into a PDF file on my computer. We're trying to unload the books on Amazon and an upcoming family garage sale, and will donate whatever's left over.

Sifting through the books wasn't fun. In many of the borderline cases we'd either feel frustrated by the money we once spent, or anxious that we might want the book "someday" for some reason. But seeing that heap of clutter leaving the house was well worth it. It's a couple hundred pounds of material that we are no longer responsible for, won't have to move, and someone else can benefit from. Our bookshelves were overflowing, and now we have ample space. Now we're on the warpath for more clutter to jettison. My pile of spare computer parts is the next target.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Why bother?

This article in the Green Issue of the New York Times, written by Michael Pollan (author of the famed “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto”), does an amazing job of explaining why we should all bother to change our habits in this current environmental climate. Sometimes it takes the words of people much smarter than I am to remind me that the actions of individuals can be powerful. Read it.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Dead car battery

Amanda and I both own cars. My commute is a walk, and Amanda's car works better for routine errands, so my car is relegated to "backup" duty. A couple weekends ago we tried to use it while taking her car to the shop for some maintenance, and found that the battery had drained out and my car wouldn't start.

The car was boxed in on an incline in a busy parking lot, so jumping it was impossible and moving it would be a risky feat of strength. According to my Hank Hill-approved maintenance file, the battery is 5 years old; young enough to be salvageable. After some analysis I decided the most prudent solution was to order a battery charger online, wait for it to arrive, then recharge the battery outside the car.

Right now we're on the "charging" step. The charger registered a fault at the fastest charge rate, so I'm trying the slowest charge rate. The battery might be toast -- which would be unsurprising for a 5 year old battery that's been deep-cycled -- but hopefully I can nurse it back.

This whole thing reinforces several rules of thumb:
  1. Keeping (comically) detailed maintenance records has a concrete benefit.
  2. Modern cars are outrageously complex. They are full of limitations (need electricity to start) and patchwork fixes (rechargeable batteries) that may fail (drain out after a month of non-use).
  3. If you can afford to be patient, you save money. The charger took a week to come from Amazon via free shipping, but was a lot cheaper than buying a charger or new battery locally.
  4. Every "thing" in your life has the potential to cost time and money, even seemingly-inert things like parked cars.
  5. Keeping an old car running feels expensive because it amounts to occasional out of pocket expenses, but in reality it's usually cheap. A $31 charger is a lot less than a single monthly payment on a new car.
  6. If my car were parked in my own garage this would have been easier to solve. Houses offer a lot of little miscellaneous benefits.

Friday, May 16, 2008

"Investing" entertainment experiences

Mass-market entertainment gets cheaper as it ages. Examples:
  • movies start showing at dollar theaters
  • shows on premium TV channels become available for rental through Netflix
  • DVDs, CDs, video games, and books become available used
And on longer time frames,
  • libraries add media to their collection
  • movies are broadcast on over-the-air television
  • media formats go obsolete (e.g. VHS tapes now, CDs and non-HD DVDs soon) and become extremely cheap
As I discussed in my post on old video games, this creates an opportunity to enjoy media for pennies on the dollar. Instead of paying for entertainment when it first comes out, set it aside until its price lowers to a "strike price" you're comfortable with. The cost becomes much smaller, so you can either
  1. consume more with the same amount of money, or
  2. use a lot less money for the same amount of consumption.
There are two big downsides:
  1. you don't get to experience the excitement of premieres at the same time as other people
  2. if you're excited about something you have to wait until it eventually shows up under your terms
At first downside #2 is discouraging because it effectively cuts off your flow of entertainment. I.e. if you decide to only watch movies at a dollar theater and you've already watched everything that's showing there, then you can't watch any movies. However once you wait through an entire release cycle you will enter a "steady state" where movies debut at the dollar theater at the same rate as a first-tier theater, just offset a few months later.

These tradeoffs parallel those of investing. Let's say you decide to invest $1,000. Then you are depriving yourself of the short-term gratification of $1,000 worth of consumption now, for the promise of much more than $1,000 worth of consumption later. If you choose to wait to see Iron Man until it's at the dollar theater or on Netflix, in a sense you are "investing" the experience of watching Iron Man for the promise that the experience becomes much cheaper in the future.

We apply this mentality to the media we consume. When something comes out we make a quick assesment as to where our "strike price" is. A movie is either worth seeing at a full-price theater, a discount theater, renting on Netflix, or not seeing at all. In addition to saving money, this moment of reflection also helps us sort out the movies that are actually worth our time, from the ones that we're only interested in due to marketing pressure.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The "Big Project"

In a previous post, Kevin had alluded to some "big projects" that we are currently absorbed in. I'm here to finally announce one of them: Kevin and I are engaged and will be getting married later this year! As I'm sure many of you know all too well, traditional weddings are one of the most expensive events that will ever occur in your lifetime.

Kevin and I hope to share parts of our wedding planning on this blog as a way of helping others out there in a similar situation. It's difficult trying to balance the traditional aspects of having a wedding that both our families had hoped we would do, and the frugal and simplistic way Kevin and I are accustomed to living our lives. I will tell you, it hasn't been easy so far. Imagine the horror I was met with when I mentioned I didn't want anything to do with bridal salons or "princess" wedding gowns. Imagine the shock when I came home with my bridal dress: a sweet little (used) white lace dress that cost me a mere $5!

Every step of the planning process has been like this so far, but Kevin and I are confident that we can pull off an event that is both something that will please our families, and won't cause us to be in debt for the rest of our lives. More updates to come...

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The cost of basic sustenance

Our breakfast routine includes oatmeal we make from steel cut oats. We buy them in bulk at a local health food store.

Last time we bought some we tried to get enough to last a month or so, and it cost less than $2. This got us to thinking about how cheaply one could live on oats alone.

Steel cut oats cost 49 cents per pound at the health food store. According to Quaker, every 40 grams of dry oats yields 150 kcal. If you assume a 2,000 kcal/day diet, then the arithmetic works out to 1.2 lb/day, which is 59 cents per day or $17.64 per 30-day month. I guess the water and energy to cook the oats might cost something, but that would be pretty insignificant. We cook ours in a crock pot, which is pretty efficient.

So basic sustenance like this costs about $18 per person-month. Even less if you buy the oats by the 20 lb sack instead of by the scoop. This is certainly not a nutritionally balanced diet; multi-vitamins would be a real good idea, and there are probably a bunch of other nutritional deficiencies you'd have to worry about. And I'm sure unflavored oatmeal gets gross fast when it's all you ever eat. But it's reassuring to know that in a desperate situation we could stave off starvation for $36/month.

This also gets me to thinking about our own grocery costs. We cook a lot of recipes at home, and use a lot of the usual tricks to keep the costs low. But even with those tricks, we spend a lot more than $36/month. I had thought of our grocery spending as spartan, but in absolute terms it's luxurious.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Frugal hobby #1: classic video games

My post on my frugal approach to hobby computing got me thinking about other frugal hobbies. So this is the first in a series of "Frugal Hobby" posts where I'll highlight a pastime that can be enjoyed frugally.

I'm going to focus on activities that are customarily expensive, or aren't well known. It's easy to point out that blogging is a cheap activity, but I'm hoping to dig a little deeper like I did with computers.

My first post is about classic video games. The console video game industry has adopted a cycle wherein every manufacturer releases a new product at the same time, and those products comprise a "generation." By "classic" I guess I mean systems not from the current generation, nor the one before, but rather two or more generations back. Right now that would mean the "fifth generation" consoles, or Sega Saturn, Sony Playstation, and Nintendo 64, or even older systems.

Video game hardware and games depreciate extremely quickly. A new, state of the art Playstation 3 costs about $400, and a Playstation 1 seems to be worth $10-$30 on eBay. These things were sold in large quantities, so you could probably find one at a thrift store, garage sale, or freecycle without too much trouble. Further, you can tap into the hindsight of others to help choose systems and games that are particularly good. By the same token you can "go crazy" and experiment with some oddball game when it only costs a couple bucks.

So these games' cost is very low, but their utility really isn't. Good older games were a blast when they were new, and the human condition hasn't changed enough in the last few years to change that. A game that was intrinsically fun 5 years ago will still be fun now; the only difference is that our expectation of graphics quality has risen. Some classics, like the Super Mario Brothers series, also have a certain "retro" appeal.

You can also go one step further and play these games through an emulator, which is a piece of computer software that simulates the behavior of the entire game system -- it's CPU, graphics chip, and so on. Emulator software is typically free, and copies of the games ("images") are generally available on the internet. Playing games this way has the added benefit of avoiding the clutter of keeping all the specialized hardware lying around. Keep in mind that game images are copyrighted works, and are supposed to only be used as backups for games that you own on their original media (cartridge).

There are emulators for arcade games, too, and some people have built their own wooden cabinets around a spare computer to make something resembling an arcade game. Obviously a project like this will take up a lot of space, and may not be very cheap. But then again part of the fun is making the thing, a lot of the parts could be salvaged, and you end up with something that's more capable and easier to maintain than an obsolete game console. And there's a certain frugal charm to squeezing some more fun out of an old PC and some nearly-forgotten arcade games.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Simplifying cosmetics

I'm revising my array of cosmetics to deal with two problems. First, I'm concerned about harmful synthetic chemicals in mass-market cosmetics. There's debate over whether this is a grave concern or not, but then again I apply this stuff to my skin every single day. Second, I find choosing cosmetics to be annoying and have been frustrated with my favorite products becoming unavailable at my local stores for one reason or another.

Accordingly, I'm shaking up the line of cosmetics I use. My preferred disposition for any given product is, in order of preference:
  1. Eliminate my need for it
  2. Use a homemade version
  3. Find an "all natural" product that's likely to endure
  4. Find a "mass market" product that's as safe as possible
Eliminating something is the ultimate simplification, of course. "Homemade" ranks highly because I like the idea of knowing all the ingredients in this stuff, and staying stocked in raw materials is simpler than tracking various brands and products when they're changing all the time.

I've replaced shampoo, body wash, and even shaving cream with Dr Bronner's liquid soap. It's affordable and readily available at health food stores and the internet. It's a real win to replace the need for three separate packaged products with one substance that's sold in bulk.

Method seems to be a decent compromise for hand soap and dish soap. It's also affordable and easy to find.

I've never been convinced that conditioner does anything, so I don't buy that.

Replacing deodorant has been difficult. None of the "all natural" products have really worked at all. For now I'm using unscented Sure, which, according to the Skin Deep cosmetics database, is just as safe as "all natural" stuff.

I'm still working on face scrub, aftershave, toothpaste, and mouth wash. Face scrub and toothpaste are prime candidates for making at home, but I haven't found the right recipes yet.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Update on the Hefeweizen

I realized that I posted about bottling my batch of Hefeweizen but never said how it turned out.

It turned out pretty well! It certainly has the taste, appearance, and head of a Hefeweizen. I was trying to amp up the natural banana overtones produced by Hefe yeast, and was pretty successful in that regard.

It's a little more watery and hoppy than I'd like, so next time I'll steep the hops less and use a higher concentration of wheat malt.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Free Online Magazines

I just discovered The Winding Road, an online-only magazine about cars rather like Car & Driver. Like a traditional print magazine, it's published monthly and typeset into a page-based layout. Subscribers can access an in-browser viewer application that simulates reading a paper magazine two pages at a time. Subscription is free; the magazine is supported by advertisements embedded in the magazines.

I'm pretty happy that something like this exists, and frankly surprised I didn't find out about it earlier.

I've replaced nearly all of my magazine and newspaper consumption with blogs, because blogs:
  • are free
  • don't create the clutter of old issues
  • don't involve the waste of printing and shipping
  • are upfront about their viewpoint/bias
  • are written by enthusiastic volunteers or entrepreneurs
  • don't pester me with misleading renewal ads
However, blogs fall short in a small number of areas. Blog posts tend to be limited to the equivalent of a printed page or so, and sometimes I appreciate an article that goes into more depth. I also appreciate professional-grade writing, and frankly this is rare among blogs. And there are some kinds of articles -- testing very expensive equipment, for example -- that require resources and connections that individual bloggers can't muster.

So I'm happy to see this compromise of a professionally-written periodical that's still free and supported by ads. This combines several of the "pros" of blogs I listed above, with the "pros" of print magazines. I read somewhere that magazines get nearly all of their revenue from advertising, not sales, so this business model should be sustainable.

Hopefully more magazines like this will crop up, covering a variety of topics. Then I could finally ax my last couple magazine subscriptions.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Frugal inspirations

Part of figuring out the whole simple living thing is deciding on which things to do without, and which things are worth working for. As I triangulate in on my personal sweet spot, I've found it helpful to look at examples of simple lifestyles for comparison.

Some are fictional characters:
  • The main characters of The Riches - a family of grifters that's accustomed to living in an RV
  • Various characters in reruns of Northern Exposure
  • Luke Danes, the owner/operator of the diner in Gilmore Girls
Others are real people:
All of these people have adopted standards of living that are simpler than mine, in different ways. I find it helpful to imagine myself in their place, and think about what I'd like and what I wouldn't, or what possessions or resources I'd miss, and which I wouldn't.

So far these thought exercises have helped me change my mind about some things that I used to consider necessary: a cellular phone, and living in an urban environment, for instance. They've also helped me figure out where my boundaries are. As frugal as it would be, I don't think I could handle living on a free Alaskan land grant that's only accessible by charter plane. I think it's safe to say Amanda would agree on that point.

I think eventually we'll end up in a lifestyle somewhere in between these sorts of extremes and a conventional American suburban standard of living. Looking at examples like these for inspiration is really helpful in figuring out exactly where our compromise lies.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Enjoying expensive hobbies frugally

A lot of simple living and personal finance advocates say you should drop expensive hobbies and take up cheap ones. This makes sense, but there's also a place for "frugalifying" hobbies that are typically expensive.

When I went to college I met Linux enthusiasts and became interested in Unix system administration and networking. To pursue those interests I needed multiple computers. I was a working college student, so buying several new computers was out of the question.

I poked around and learned three important facts: 1) computer equipment depreciates very quickly, 2) it's possible to tear down and reassemble a computer using with only a screwdriver and patience, and 3) free Unixes were available (Linux and BSD) and had very low system requirements. So I started scrounging around for free or cheap broken, derelict computers, pulled them apart, and built computers that met my needs from the parts.

This became a game: when I needed more hardware to try some new setup or run some new service, I would try to cobble it together from spare parts I had on hand. If this wasn't possible, I'd try to find some free or cheap parts that would be sufficient. I ended up with some weird solutions sometimes, but it was a fun creative challenge and I learned a lot.

The point of all this is that I found a way to participate in a hobby I enjoyed in a frugal way. Most of my computer geek friends pursued the hobby by running "gaming PCs" or by being Apple diehards. Those paths involve buying brand new hardware all the time, which gets very expensive (not to mention wasteful). I'm glad that I didn't give up due to sticker shock, since the hobby has given me a lot of enjoyment, and also bolstered my resume and helped open up some career options.

So it's possible to pursue conventionally-expensive interests in frugal ways, if you're willing to turn things on their head a little bit.

My other main hobby is cars...I've really got my work cut out for me there. More on that later.

State of the blog

It's been a while since we've posted. For the last month or so we've been absorbed in some big projects, which will hopefully make it on here in some form.

I have a growing backlog of half-finished essay style posts that I'll be doling out, but we're also working on getting shorter snippets out more regularly.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

DIY iced tea

One of our latest projects is to brew our own iced tea. Iced tea is a healthy alternative to other cold flavored drinks like soda or even juice; it has very few calories, and benefits from the same "superfood" qualities that hot tea does. And it's easy to make yourself!

Our recipe (if you can call it that): bring one gallon of water to a boil. Remove from heat and add two generic tea bags and one flavored herbal tea (e.g. rasberry, ginger peach, etc.). Stir once, then steep for about 15 minutes. Remove the tea bags, allow to cool, and refrigerate.

If you prefer sweet tea, you can add the sweetener of your choice to each glass. It would probably also work to dissolve in some sweetener right after you remove the tea bags.

We've tried it using only generic "TEA" bags, and with a blend of flavored tea, and definitely prefer the flavors. The result is similar to the flavored iced teas sold as soft drinks.

At our grocery store, generic tea bags cost about 2 cents each, and fancy flavored tea costs about 25 cents each, so a whole batch costs about 29 cents to make. If you get a full gallon batch, that works out to about 2.7 cents per 12 ounce serving. Which is pretty cheap.

We'll be experimenting with different flavors to see which one we like best. I also want to try using green tea, like some of the new green iced tea products I've seen.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Bottled the Hefeweizen

We brew our own beer.

Yesterday I bottled a batch of Hefeweizen that had been fermenting for the last month. I'm a fan of Hefeweizens, so I'm eager to figure out a homebrew "Hefe" recipe for my everyday beer. The bottling went smoothly; there were no mishaps and I got all 48 bottles' worth out of the fermenter. This was a batch of MoreBeer's malt extract based Hefeweizen kit. We tried a small sample, and it looked, tasted, and smelled like a Hefeweizen should, so I'm optimistic about the final result after the beer "mellows" and carbonates for a couple weeks in the bottles. I'm especially happy that the banana overtones are noticeable, since that was what I was going for.

Now we don't have any beer brewing, which is unusual. We still have some of the last three batches, plus these 48 Hefes, so I don't think we need to start another batch too soon. It's always challenging to decide when to brew a batch since the whole process takes 5-6 weeks, and we need to have enough empty bottles on hand when the fermenting is done 4 weeks in. Right now bottles are our biggest obstacle since my bottle scavenging has hit a dry spell for the last couple months.

Since this is our first post about home brewing, I'll give a couple references. My primary references are John Palmer's online book How to Brew, and the HomeBrewTalk forum. I get my supplies from and O'Shea Brewing in Laguna Niguel.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Selling clutter-books on Amazon

Lately I've been weeding out possessions I don't really need as part of my quest to simplify things. I've been a working student my whole adult life, so I haven't accumulated a whole lot of "stuff." However I have found some things to get rid of: media I don't need or like any more, semi-obsolete computer parts, and materials for hobbies I no longer practice.

Most of these things have very little value, so I donate or recycle them. But a few seem valuable enough that I ought to sell them. I don't have a lot of time or energy for this, so I try to sell this stuff in ways that are fast and painless, even if I don't maximize the proceeds. I've been happy selling books through Amazon's used book marketplace and shipping them with USPS flat rate envelopes.

My process works like this:
  • Find the book's page on Amazon, enter the book's condition (e.g. "Used - Good"), and a brief description (e.g. "Crease on cover"), and my price. I usually set my price so my book is one of the cheapest available.
  • Wait for an email from Amazon saying that a book sold.
  • Go to Amazon's page and print an invoice for the book.
  • Put the book and invoice in a Flat Rate Envelope.
  • Go to the USPS web page and use their "Click'n'Ship" facility to buy flat rate postage and print a shipping label.
  • Tape the label to the envelope and drop it in a mailbox.
  • Go back to Amazon's page and send the buyer a message with the tracking number.
After some practice this only takes about 5 or 10 minutes per book. I've found it helps to keep a "workstation," with a pile of the envelopes and a roll of packing tape, near the printer.

The beauty of this system is that once it's set up, I can sell books without interacting with customers or leaving the house!

Friday, January 25, 2008

The philosophy behind the blog

Kevin has been extremely good about posting here. I have not, but plan to remedy that. As you may have noticed, we are making a concerted effort to make things ourselves and rely less on the hyper-materialistic consumer machine. What we've found is that making things ourselves is not only cheaper, and more satisfying, but is also easier in many circumstances. With a well stocked pantry or refrigerator, we can start a new batch of yogurt or a new loaf of bread with much less effort than it would take to drive to the grocery store and buy one.

What we haven't spoke of is what caused this shift in our thinking-- from one of running with the pack mentality of consumerism to a life of voluntary simplicity and frugality. Living in Orange County, CA has definitely tinged my outlook on life in a variety of ways. We are surrounded by wealth, excess, narcissism, and selfishness every time we step out of our front door, and have chosen to create a world of our own that is decidedly dissimilar from the rest. We hope to one day live in a place that more closely echoes out ethos, but for now, we are making the best of it.

We would also be entirely remiss if we don't mention the book that really started it all for us: The Simple Living Guide, by Janet Luhrs. This book really taught us that every day you have a choice about how you want to live your life. Voluntary simplicity can take many forms for different people, but for us, as a young couple just starting out, it means that we will never aspire to the "keeping up with the Jones'" mentality that traps so many people in this country in debt and despair. We hope to give you all some good tips for doing the same.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

One nice thing about media PCs

We use "media PCs" -- regular computers in the role of media appliances -- instead of conventional electronics like TVs, DVD players, and TiVo boxes. I'll probably describe our whole setup in a future post, as well as sketch out the trials and tribulations of running a multi-node MythTV setup.

Recently the DVD drive in our living room computer has had trouble reading a lot of discs. I think it's worn out. I tried rummaging for a DVD drive in our housing complex's electronics recycling pile but didn't find anything, so I'll probably order the cheapest drive I can find on Newegg.

This made me realize a hidden benefit to using media PCs instead of consumer electronics: it's possible to repair and upgrade computers. Consumer electronics like DVD players are not designed to be serviced and replacement parts are not available, so if we owned a regular DVD player instead of our media PC we'd have to throw the whole thing away and buy a whole new DVD player (about $75 new). Instead we only have to discard a 5.25" DVD drive and buy a new one (about $20 new, and easy to find used or even free).

When I set up our media PCs it seemed like a pure extravagance, but it turns out that we exchanged a need for "throwaway" products for equipment that can be maintained easily and cheaply. So maybe using maintainable equipment like old PCs is defensible even when it's overkill for the task at hand.

I wonder if this is true in other areas -- for instance, using an industrial-grade stove or clothes washer that's designed to be kept in service for a long time.