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.