Tag Archives: frugal

Saving Money by Ignoring the Siren Song of Unlimited

How much mobile data do you really use?  Judging by the average ad that I hear on the radio for various cell carriers everyone must be clamoring for more and more mobile data.  Unlimited…the idea is as American as apple pie, monster trucks, and hair in a can.  We want to gorge at the all you can eat buffet of whatever.  You can’t stop us.  We do what we want!

Heck, until recently I had an unlimited data plan.

However, I could not have told you how much mobile data that I used in any given month.  Surely, I needed unlimited data.  With a nearly broken iPhone in hand, an unsatisfying visit to my legacy carrier, and mounting frustration I returned home to the Internet.

Armed with the desire to opt out of legacy cell carriers—offering me a leased iPhone X for $45 a month while a new customer gets the same phone for $5 will make you want to switch—and to save some money I started investigating the alternatives.  Wading through months of prior bills I discovered that even in our heaviest usage months—December and March, which correspond to trips to Colorado—our mobile data usage never exceeded 4 gigabytes.  On average, we used approximately 2 gigabytes of mobile data per month.  I had no idea.

This revelation took me down a path of prepaid wireless carriers and lower cost phones.  There are a lot of budget or pay as you go carriers out there and I could spend a lot of column inches, there is a dated reference, describing each one.  I do not know who wins in the end if you rack and stack all of the variables.  I chose to switch to Project Fi from Google.  The pricing structure was simple and reasonable.  One phone line is $20 per month.  An extra phone on the same plan is $15 a month.  Data is $10 per gigabyte up to 10 gigabytes when so-called bill protection kicks in.  At maximum you are looking at $120, plus taxes and fees, for two phones and unlimited data.

The kicker is that you can spend a whole lot less if you watch your data usage.  With an easy to access data usage feature in the Project FI app, data saver features on your phone, and a judicious use of available WiFi you can become a data miser in no time.  It’s the same phenomenon I witnessed when my solar photovoltaic system was installed last year.  Our household electricity usage was already low compared to American averages, but seeing the production outstrip consumption made me think about little things a lot more.  Those little things can really add up over the course of the month.

The past two months have seen a dramatic decrease in data usage as it has become a game.  How much less usage, you ask?  How about 0.3 gigabytes for two phones for an entire month.  Yep, I am going to end up paying ~$3 for data.  Suck it unlimited.

All in, for two phones we are paying ~$50 per month versus almost $140 with our prior carrier.  That is a difference of almost $1,000 per year with no real change in day to day usage.  What could you do with an extra $1,000?

Once you take yourself out of the phone rat race where you need to have the latest iPhone or Samsung Galaxy it is amazing just how capable budget or mid-range phones have become.  What would have been a so-called flagship phone a few years ago is now a budget phone.  For $200 I purchased a Motorola G6.  It has a bigger screen than my iPhone 6, it has expandable memory, and it runs everything I use on a daily basis with no problems.  Tell me again why I was looking to spend $1,000 on an iPhone X?

All of this begs the question why we spend so much on our mobile phones.  If you can get similar performance for a fraction of the cost what is the benefit to being cutting edge for the average user?


NOTE: I chose Project Fi with no input or incentive from Google.  I paid for two phones and monthly service without any incentive from Google.  I am not a pimp for Google.  I am just trying to save some coin.

Friday Linkage 9/21/2018

It is just 46 days until the midterm election.  If the Keystone cops routine led by Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley with regard to the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh is anything it is motivation to get another party in power as a check or balance to the Trumpian instincts of the Republican Party.

The midterms are not about impeachment.  The midterms are about rescuing a sense of common decency that is lost when people like Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and Donald Trump control all the levers of power.

On to the links…

Why Growth Can’t Be Green—I do not know if I agree with the entirety of the thesis that growth cannot be green, but I do agree that we need to rethink our entire economic paradigm.  It is leading us to ruin.

Here’s A Radical New Plan To Tax Carbon And Give Everyone In America $2,237—A carbon tax is coming.  Once the basic mechanism is in place it will be the most powerful ecological and economic tool in the recent history of the United States.

Trump’s Methane Rule Rollback Burns the Natural Gas Bridge—Methane is a potent greenhouse gas.  Natural gas wells and pipelines that leak methane might as well be coal plants shooting dirty flue gas into the sky.

U.S. Cities, States, and Businesses can Nearly Hit the Paris Climate Goals–Without Trump—Action on a state, local, and corporate level can make a difference.  Our federal government may be an obtuse retrograde comedy of errors, but we can make progress in the interim in other locales.

Renewables = 43% of New Power Capacity in USA in 1st Half of 2018—I wish it were closer to 100%, but baby steps.

Utilities have a Problem: The Public Wants 100% Renewable Energy, and Quick—You would be hard pressed to find a more hide bound and conservative industry than utility companies.  These companies make banks and insurance companies look like early stage tech startups run by nineteen year olds living on Red Bull and Taco Bell.

Australia on Track to Miss Paris Climate Targets as Emissions Hit Record Highs—Just when I think we are doing the worst in the United States, Australia seems to jump out of the corner of the room and yell, “Look at me!”  Government instability, coal industry trying to run things, etc.

Steep Emissions Reductions Targets Won’t Drive Up Power Bills, Modelling Shows—We can do right by the planet and it will not cost us an arm or a leg.  Or both.

EIA Report Says Coal Still King on State-by-State Basis—Despite all the progress made in reducing coal’s role in electricity generation, it is still the dominant form of electricity generation in most states.  More work to be done folks.

“Golden Sandwich” Photoelectrode Harvests 85% Of Sunlight—Wow.  Just wow.  How can we find money to deploy into making this a commercially viable product?  Imagine my smallish 4.69 kWh solar array suddenly being able to produce over 20 kWh in the same area. Talk about repowering.

This Breakthrough in a Type of Photosynthesis could Provide the World with Unlimited Energy—This reminds me of 1950s newsreels that promised nuclear energy would produce electricity that was too cheap to meter.

Bombardier Revives the Battery-Powered Train—For the short haul train routes between urban locales doesn’t using this type of train make more sense than stringing high power lines all over the place?

Tenfold Improvement in Liquid Batteries mean Electric Car Refuelling could Take Minutes—Liquid or flow batteries have been touted as an alternative to lithium ion batteries for a long time.  The energy density has always been too low to make the debate serious.  Maybe times they are a changing.

What Bison in South Dakota can Teach us about Fighting Climate Change—More effective rangelands policy could help the world sequester carbon in soils, improve water quality, and produce animal protein at the same time.  Now, the impediment would be that we would probably have to get rid of the cows and sheep on rangelands.

Frisco Leads Water Efficiency Charge, Reduces Municipal Consumption by 30 Percent—Drought will become the new normal for much of the American west.  However, our profligate use of water continues unabated.  This does mean that we have a long way to go with efficiency as a way of reducing our demand on precious water resources.

Why Fashion Brands Destroy Billions’ Worth of Their Own Merchandise Every Year—What a freaking waste.

20 Habits of Frugal People—There is an intersection of frugal people and environmentalists that is not really discussed.  Frugal people, generally, are not big consumers and environmentalists should also not be big consumers because of consumption’s ecological footprint.  The best part is that being frugal is a cheap way to be an environmentalist.

Tomorrow is a Dangerous Word

It is my contention that tomorrow is not the hopeful word that we make it out to be but that it is a dangerous word.  Perhaps, it is the most dangerous word that we frequently use without considering the ramifications on our daily lives.

A few years ago CSX, the railroad giant, had a television ad that featured the word tomorrow in all of its hopeful glory.  The idea was that tomorrow held infinite possibilities for good things.  All true, no doubt, but what if we never act on those possibilities because there is always the perception of another tomorrow.

I posit that tomorrow is the most dangerous word because it lets all of us off the hook.

All of the things that might be a little difficult today we put off until tomorrow.  And tomorrow never comes for a lot of the things that we put off.  I will ride my bike to work tomorrow.  I will pack my lunch tomorrow.  I will plant that tree tomorrow.  I will be a better person tomorrow.

The idea of tomorrow allows us to bask in the glow of the virtuous thing we intend to do without actually having to accomplish anything.  We will get to it tomorrow.  It is so tantalizingly close as if it were today.  Tomorrow is the instant gratification that our Instagram obsessed culture demands.

However, the environment may not have a tomorrow because we are so greedy today.

What if there is no tomorrow?  What would you do today?

Friday Linkage 6/8/2018

Can we begin to say the words “dictatorial” when speaking about Donald Trump?  He is not a dictator, but he sure would like to be one.  It’s not surprising given his personality, his history, or the sycophants who surround him.  The man believes that winning an election through the technicality of the Electoral College has given him the mandate to reshape America in his orange image.

However, every vote can be an opportunity to offer rebuke.  The midterm elections coming in November offer the best opportunity to gut punch the efforts to gut our democracy.  I may not like Nancy Pelosi, but can you imagine Trump having to deal with a woman on daily basis to get anything through Congress.  The steam is already coming out his ears and his thumbs are ready for a tweet.

On to the links…

New Disclosures Contradict Pruitt’s Claims about Lobbyist Connected to his Fancy Condo—Scott Pruitt is the whack-a-rat of political scandals and corruption.  He just keeps on popping up no matter how many times he gets smacked in his smug face.

Noted Competent Man Scott Pruitt’s Latest Scandal Involves Chick-fil-A—Nothing says “drain the swamp” like trying to use your position as Trump’s poisoner in chief to strong arm a religious extremist chicken chain into giving your wife a franchise despite her lack of experience in the industry.

How Does Scott Pruitt Survive?—I will give you one reason: his actions enrich corporate America at the expense of the American people.  It’s not too hard to figure out.

Rick Perry’s Premium Class Travel Cost Taxpayers $63,500 Last Year in First 7 Months Alone—This administration is giving out a master class in grift, if not outright theft.  The corruption is so pervasive that garden variety corruption just does not cut it as headline making news anymore.

Trump orders Department of Energy to look into propping up failing coal plants—This is the beach that the Trump administration wants to die on.  In an effort to line the pockets of coal barons who backed Trump early and often the administration is going to go against the advice of everyone except Rick Perry and the coal barons.  Good luck with this.

All Of US Could Be Powered By Solar Alone?—This does not even beg the question of do we need to produce as much power as we use today.  What if we used dramatically less power at home and at work?

Nevada Utility Is Putting $2 Billion into Solar Power and Storage—$2 billion is a lot of money.  The better part is that energy storage is part of the equation.  Nevada should be a great test case for solar plus storage because the state gets a good amount of sunshine, the population is relatively concentrated, and utilities finally seem ready to embrace the future.

How California is Bringing Solar Energy to Low-Income Renters—Unfortunately, solar photovoltaic systems are generally something deployed by the affluent on homes that they own.  Renters or low income households have not been able to take advantage.

What Does it Mean to be Frugal?—No word in our lexicon has a more troubled meaning than frugal.  Something that should be celebrated is generally regarded as a bad thing.  Frugal is more often than not associated with being cheap.  It is not, however, a synonym for cheap.

How to Use Less Plastic Without Fully Going “Zero Waste”—No one ever comes out and says the best way to make less waste is to buy less stuff?  Oh right, advertisers are not down with that message.

Bangkok’s Hidden Train Repair Yard Keeps Thailand on its Rails—The transformation of these rail cars from dilapidated to functional is amazing.  It makes me wonder how much usable life we leave in the things we junk.

In Our Overworked Society, Take Time to Do Nothing—We work too much and relax too little.  Is it a wonder that our brains are fried, our focus gone, and our sleep is troubled?

This Weed-Killing AI Robot can Tell Crops Apart—What if you could deploy a similar technology that does not use herbicides at all?  Imagine a solar powered robot running along the rows of plants with an armature using a pair of snips or cutting wheel to trim weeds.

Not Everyone Loves the Museum of Ice Cream and Its Instagram-Famous Sprinkle Pool—Who would have thought that having people frolic in a pool of plastic sprinkles would be a problem when those sprinkles inevitably ended up outside?  Oh wait, anyone with half a brain.  Do we really need a pool of faux ice cream sprinkles in a faux museum dedicated to ice cream that really only serves as a backdrop for people’s Instagram photos?

No More Pay TV

I might start sounding like an ascetic here pretty soon. I’ve cut my beer consumption down to near zero. I’ve reduced household spending to such a level that my wife might start howling over the winter. Yes, I turn the heat down to 56 degrees at night. Yes, it’s chilly but everyone is under several layers of down, fleece, and flannel. Deal.

Now, I’ve cut the cord. More accurately I ripped the dish off my house and cancelled DirecTV. Why? Like the average DirecTV customer my bill was ~$105 per month and the television had become a huge time suck. A little wiped out at the end of the day? Just sit down, fire up the DVR, and watch three hours of television shows you really do not care about. Pretty soon it is 10:00 PM and you are off to bed. Rinse and repeat the next day.

Stop the insanity.

With the latest increase in my bill notice coming via email I called DirecTV and cut the cord. The customer service representative was surprisingly pliant when I asked to cancel. It was not the horror show of redirection that I expected. I suppose that they think you will just be back shortly.

Another payoff of cutting the cord was the reduction in energy usage. As Markos Moulitsas has shown in his excellent series of posts on saving energy at Daily Kos  , the energy requirements of entertainment devices are huge. Here is the breakdown:

Even though I upgraded to DirecTV’s latest and most efficient receiver over the summer, my DirecTV infrastructure sucks up 42 watts of continuous power draw, or just over 1 kWh per day—about seven percent of my daily total usage, for something that is on 3-4 hours a day. Cable boxes, particularly those with DVRs, are equally inefficient. When I cut the cord, the 365 kWh I shave off my annual consumption will save me (at my average $0.19 rate) about $70, and that’s before I even tally the savings in programming (which will be dramatic).

My DirecTV infrastructure is probably similar—two receivers with on being a DVR—so compared to my rolling monthly average electricity consumption I would be saving nearly one month’s worth of electricity per year by not having these devices plugged in. Damn. Start multiplying that kind of power consumption across all the people with multiple televisions and receivers. Pretty soon you are talking about some serious energy usage.

In the meantime I do not know how this is going to affect my television viewing. I will more than likely start picking up a lot more movies at the Cedar Rapids Public Library. I might even get a Netflix subscription. Maybe I will read a few more books instead of placing my brain on the end table and absorbing entertainment.

Homemade Dishwashing Detergent

If you cook most of your meals at home—like we do in our house—than you know that there is one immutable truth to the home centered economy: you create a lot of dishes. Between breakfast and dinner on the weekdays or three meals plus snacks on the weekends there is a load of dirty dishes in the dishwasher once a day it seems like.

What this also means is that you use a lot of dishwasher detergent. Granted, dishwashers use a lot less water in their modern incarnations and there is a commensurate reduction in the amount of detergent required. However, these costs can add up when you are looking for a phosphate-free detergent that works and does not cost a bunch of money. It’s not easy being green and cheap.

Enter homemade dishwashing detergent. It sounds like the stuff of hair shirts and DIY toothpaste, but it really should be much more mainstream and it could not be easier. Or cheaper for that matter.

The internet is full of recipes for various combinations, but this is what I have found works best for me and my local conditions. Most recipes consist of four ingredients—Borax, washing soda, kosher salt, and citric acid.

The ratio/recipe that has worked the best for me is as follows:

  • 1 cup Borax
  • 1 cup washing soda
  • ½ cup kosher salt
  • A few packets unsweetened lemon drink mix

Washing soda is important and you cannot just substitute baking soda as some recipes might suggest. While the two compounds share soda in the name and are produced by the same companies there is a distinct chemical and physical difference between the two. You can create washing soda from baking soda with a little heat. Put some baking soda in an oven at 400 degrees or so for about thirty minutes and the chemical bonds keeping the H2O and CO2 will break creating washing soda. Or just find a bag of it in the laundry aisle of your favorite store. I went with option 2.

All the ingredients are dry powders, so you can put them in the container of your choice—I chose a glass jar with a tight fitting lid—and shake the bejeesus out of it. Just use it like you would your store bought and branded powdered dishwasher detergent.

If you listen to the paid hacks hawking mainstream commercial products you will hear about the need for additional scents/perfumes, sanitizers, etc. Bollocks. You want you dishes to be clean not smell like the industrial version of a fresh meadow and most dishwashers have a sanitary cycle that utilizes hot water to achieve sanitation, not chlorine.

Granted, you might want a rinse aid but that does not need to come in the form of a mysterious colored liquid. Good ol’ distilled white vinegar in the rinse aid dispenser will do the job. Yes, vinegar is an amazing product that can be used for about a million different things around the house. Trust me, as I was cleaning for guests this weekend I felt like I should own stock in a vinegar factory given the number of cleaning chores that humble liquid was performing around my home.

My Lunch Break

I was not feeling up to working out over lunch today.  It’s one of the fringe benefits of having small children–you end up with every cold and sniffle that they do just usually delayed a day or two.

What to do…

Twelve Pints

I have done a variation of this pickling recipe before and followed something similar this time.  I omitted the turmeric, which accounts for the lack of a golden colored brine, and increased the amount of garlic cloves because that is the one thing that my father cannot get enough of when he opens a jar.

Wanting to see what the impact of added spices was I omitted any additional spices in the second set of jars (the six on the right). It will be interesting to see what the difference is in a couple of weeks.

Yeah, I might have gone a little overboard during lunch.