June 25, 2008

Site to See: NYT's Frugal Traveler Blog

Living simply means living well -- living abundantly -- and a jewel of an example lies within the pages (or screens) of the New York Times, with its Frugal Traveler blog.

First, it's much simpler to read the New York Times online than it is to purchase the print version. Cheaper, easier on the trees.

Second, Matt Gross, the Frugal Traveler, really knows his stuff. Check out his current Grand Tour of Europe on a Budget -- he's covering Europe over 12 weeks this summer, and on a budget of less than 100 euros a day (or 156 dollars). His average daily total thus far has been $143.53 -- not the cheapest vacation for some simplifiers, but heck. It's EUROPE.

On June 18th, Matt Gross was in Rome. He's staying at a beautiful convent (found at MonasteryStays.com); he's drinking 70 cent macchiato (yes, that is 70 cents, take that Starbucks); and having fresh, delicious Northern Italian meals (roast veal, zucchini, beer) for 14 euros.

It's nice to read and daydream about ... travel can be done, and done well, on a budget. Even Europe. Even Rome.

June 24, 2008

Reverse Mortgages - Don't Get Scammed

You've seen them. Seems like there are more and more advertisements for reverse mortgages every day on TV and in the paper. They make reverse mortgages sound like something that's almost too good to be true. It might be: the government reports that reverse mortgage scams are on the rise.

Before you even contact one of these companies, go to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development website and read everything they provide: some of these companies are asking people to pay for this free information. Don't pay for what's free! For example, HUD offers the "Top Ten Things to Know About Reverse Mortgages" at its site.

AARP has lots of good info on its website, too. AARP has information on how to decide between selling your home outright and opting for a reverse mortgage (the pros and cons) as well as five questions to ask yourself before considering a reverse mortgage.

Finally, the Federal Trade Commission is a great source of free information about reverse mortgages.

The FTC also warns Americans:

"Be cautious if anyone tries to sell you something, like an annuity, and suggests that a reverse mortgage would be an easy way to pay for it. If you don’t fully understand what they’re selling, or you’re not sure you need what they’re selling, be even more skeptical.

"Keep in mind that your total cost would be the cost of what they’re selling plus the cost of the reverse mortgage. If you think you need what they’re selling, shop around before you buy.

"No matter why you decide to take a reverse mortgage, you generally have at least three business days after signing the loan documents to cancel it for any reason without penalty. Remember that you must cancel in writing. The lender must return any money you have paid so far for the financing."

June 23, 2008

Example of Excess 5: Huge Homes

TMZ.COM has collected photos of various celebrity homes, and they are simply amazing.

How many rooms do you really need? (Candy Spelling has a gift-wrapping room.)

How many planes and cars? (John Travolta has two private jets (not just planes -- jets) with their own runways at his home, along with a garage for 16 cars.

June 22, 2008

Cooking With the Sun: Solar Ovens

The first time I saw a solar oven was on Ed Begley, Jr.'s television show, "Living With Ed," and it looked like a cool science project -- no wonder Ed is friends with Bill Nye, the Science Guy (who's guested on Ed's show). Something fun for the kids sort of thing -- but now, with oil prices soaring, meaning electricity is costing more and more ... well, maybe solar ovens are something I should ponder more seriously.

Come to find out, solar ovens come in all shapes and sizes, and you can make one from some pretty cheap materials as well as buy one, ready-made. SolarCooking.Org gives all sorts of examples - square ones, round ones, collapsible ones, there's even one with dual settings.

Last year, America's Test Kitchen's Chris Kimball (the guy that's so hard to please) tried out several solar ovens for CBS's The Early Show --- he roasted a chicken, made some chocolate-chip cookies, and cooked up some rice along with some broccoli. The result? Stuff that slow-cooks well tends to be best for solar cooking: the roast chicken turned out well. The broccoli never made the grade. Seems there are variables to contend with: clouds passing over, the amount of sunlight available (10 to 2 are the best times, and some months are much better than others, you get the idea). The cookies? They did okay.

The USDA warns that "solar box cookers" may not get foods hot enough, or fast enough, to be safe from bacteria and suggests that everything be monitored with food thermometers. (Their microbiologists are concerned with how long foods stay in the "Danger Zone" of 40 - 140 degrees while in a Solar Box Cooker.)

Manufacturers are almost zealots in the marketing of their solar oven products. SunOvens sells its model for $279 online, and promotes its product as not only reducing one's energy footprint, but also helping rebuild deforested areas as well as women and children in developing countries.

You can also buy the Sport Solar Oven from the non-profit organization, the Solar Oven Society. It's $150.00 (includes shipping) and only weighs 10 pounds.

Finally, you can make one of these things pretty darn cheap. And easy. There are lots of sites that give instructions for this, but my favorite has to be the Pizza Box Solar Oven made by students at Union Elementary School in Montpelier, Vermont. Their site shows the kids lined up with their Pizza Box Solar Oven, and gives detailed instructions on how they did it. Maybe you can't roast a chicken in one of these things, but their mention of English Muffin Pizzas and S'Mores sounded like lots of fun ...

(Image: the Sport Solar Oven, sold by the non-profit organization, Solar Oven Society.)

June 20, 2008

Make Your Own Water Out of Thin Air

This gizmo may seem expensive (price is a little over $1000), but boy does this sound like a great thing to have. And, the possibilities it has for helping some third world countries is phenomenal -- as well as addressing those water shortages we keep hearing about ....

The Liquid-Air Water Generator literally takes the air surrounding it, and turns it into pure drinking water while cleaning up the air, as well. Use it indoors, you've got a nice water supply. Use it outdoors, you'll triple your volume.

Of course, this works better the more humid your environment. Those living along the Gulf Coast may fare better than someone in Phoenix, obviously.

The quality of the water generated by the Liquid -Air Water Generator is excellent, too: a series of filter remove dust, air particles, chemicals, and odors from the water -- and it automatically recycles whatever you don't use.

Considering this as an alternative to buying bottled water, and the cost doesn't seem as high.

Plus, think of how much this can help -- in 2002, a Houston firm contracted with the Liquid-Air manufacturer to ship a bunch of these WaterMakers over to Africa, at half-price. In Houston, they get around 4 to 6 gallons from a machine; in Africa's high humidity, estimated daily production per machine is 10 to 12 gallons. Wow. WOW.

June 18, 2008

CouchSurfing for a Cheap Vacation

The service at CouchSurfing.Com may not be for everyone, but it's a great find for those who are looking for a cheap and fun vacation where they meet lots of new people and get outside the usual tourist box. And, yes, it's free.

What is it?

The Couch Surfing Project is an international, non-profit organization with the following mission:

"CouchSurfing seeks to internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance and facilitate cultural understanding. ... We make the world a better place by opening our homes, our hearts, and our lives. ...CouchSurfing wants to change not only the way we travel, but how we relate to the world!"

How does it work?

At the website, you create a profile for yourself (similar to MySpace or Facebook), get to know fellow members through the forums and discussion boards, and when you're ready to travel, you plan your trip around your new CouchSurfing pals - who open their homes up to you for free. Of course, it's a mannerly exchange (you have to request an invite, and they have to say yes) and there are safeguards (members are "vouched for" or "verified" and there are a number of privacy settings).

And, there's a range of hospitality here. Maybe one host feels fine offering you a "couch" at their house; another may be willing to meet you for coffee or drinks, or give you a ride to/from the airport. You set the hospitality boundaries both as a host and as a guest.

It's a worldwide membership and all sorts of people are listed as members. All ages, all sexes, singles, couples, families, from all over the world are establishing online friendships via the site before traveling - or before inviting guests into their homes. This service may not be for everyone, but it sure seems like a great find for the adventuresome ....

June 17, 2008

Six Ways to Maximize Your Car's Gas Mileage

Of course, the best way to maximize your car's gas mileage is to use alternative transportation: subways, trains, buses, bikes, use your feet ... but if you live in some areas of the country (like San Antonio), mass transportation isn't always available as an option and you need to drive your vehicle. Fuel efficiency becomes very important when you have to drive to work or school. Here are some ways to help get the most bang for your gas buck:

1. Keep your tires inflated - a little bit extra helps. It takes more gas to drive a vehicle that does not have its tires inflated to the proper air pressure. What's the right pressure? Check the manual or the little sticker on the inside of your driver's door panel to find the number. Then, buy an air pressure gauge and follow the directions. Don't buy the cheapest model, either: a gauge that cost a bit more will be much more accurate.

There are also those who advocate putting a little extra air into your tires: it's true that a little bit over the manual's reccommended amount will not harm the tire and may help with mileage. It's also true that it means literally a little less rubber meeting the road, which makes for a slippery and more dangerous ride. Careful here.

2. Keep up with your regular car care (esp. oil, air filters, spark plugs). Change that oil every 3000 miles (there are all those quickie drive-thru places around town, this isn't that big a deal); and make sure you keep up with your manual's scheduled tune-ups, too.

Fresh spark plugs and air filters can make a big difference on mileage: change the air filter every 4 months, and if you want to be zealous about it, buy a cloth one instead of paper. They are more expensive, but they work better. (You can purportedly up your fuel efficiency by 10% just by changing out your air filters regularly.) Spark plugs should be replaced regularly as well. Again, don't go for the cheapest option: spark plugs are the gizmos that literally light your car's fire (actually, the air/gas combo in your engine) and those that do an efficient job of this make for better gas mileage.

3. Monitor Your Wheel Alignment. Just driving over a couple of surprising speed bumps in the road can mess with your car's wheel alignment. Potholes, jumping the curb, and just extended, normal driving can compromise wheel alignment - which essentially means that one of tires is wanting to go slightly one way, while the rest are wanting to go another. The result drains your fuel efficiency, as well as wears down the tires and makes the car a bit harder to drive.

How to check? In a careful section of road, point your car straight ahead and start moving forward. If the car turns itself to the right or the left, you've got an alignment problem. Get it fixed. It doesn't cost much.

4. Use Fuel Injection Formula. This stuff is a magic potion that is added to your fuel tank -- at some stations, it's offered as part of the purchase by those annoying automated voices. Cost is minimal, and the gook will go thru the fuel system, cleaning up the fuel injectors.

Why do you care? Fuel injectors should be spraying a mist of gas, not a splat - but that is what happens if they aren't really clean. Over time, they will get gunky. The Fuel Injection Formula cleans out that gunk. Wait though: once you've added it, you're not done. Get out on the road, and gun the engine a few times. Pedal to the metal, in a good way (don't go over the speed limit, of course) to get that potion circulating well. Do this monthly.

5. Drive Smart and Plan Your Routes. The faster you drive, the more gas you use. The more air conditioning you use, ditto. Stopping and starting in traffic just burns up your gas budget, as does rapid acceleration.

What to do? If you can, plan to run errands earlier in the day so you don't have to run the car's air conditioner the whole time. Take routes that keep you out of traffic jams and intersections where you know you'll take awhile to get thru the red light. Drive slower overall, and learn to keep some space between you and the cars ahead: it saves gas to slowly come to a stop when needed, instead of pushing (or slamming) the brakes so you can stay a maximum speed for as long as you can.

6. Get That Junk Out of the Trunk. Your car is a transportation machine, and it will carry whatever is placed within its frame - and the heavier the car, the more gas it will need to do this job. So, don't carry along anything you don't have to take with you. Car trunks and truck beds should not be portable storage facilities. Store just your emergency stuff (flares, first aid kits, spare tire, etc.) and discipline yourself to keeping it lean and mean.

June 16, 2008

Six Ways to Keep Your Home Cooler For Less

1. Plan meals to avoid using the oven. Invest in more than one size of slow cooker, as well as toaster ovens, George Foreman grills, and/or Panini presses, all of which avoid heating the entirety of the kitchen. Grilling outside is another option, and it’s fun, too. And, remember, whether you’re cooking indoors or out, always make more than you need so you can use the leftovers during the week.

2. Rearrange your rooms to fight the heat. Warm air is less dense than cool air, and it rises. Your second floor will be warmer than the ground floor, and your ground floor will have more warm air than the basement. Then, there’s the sunlight bombarding your house to consider. Insulation from the heat keeps interior rooms cooler than the ones exposed to sunlight; plus, the room sharing a wall with the garage will be warmer than any interior room. Fight the heat by finding which rooms are naturally located to remain somewhat cooler than the rest. Consider rearranging your rooms accordingly: if the formal living room will be cooler than the great room next to the garage, then start using the living room for everyday activities. If the guest room is located better, cooling-wise, than the home office, ponder switching those two rooms. Make it a family habit to keep doors shut between rooms, so you can have some rooms cooler than others, and block off vents for rooms that are not needed every day. Don’t let the traditional uses for your rooms control your thinking: it’s your house, do what’s best for your family even if it’s unconventional.

3. Position furniture to maximize cooling. Move your furniture to maximize airflow: a sofa pulled away from the wall will get more air circulation than one backed against it. Bookshelves, filing cabinets, armoires, entertainment centers, even tapestries and a wall of framed photos provide added insulation for a room.

4. Use stand fans and box fans. Incorporate stand fans, or box fans, where you'll spend the most time. Stand fans usually come with remote controls and multiple speeds. Some are generic white plastic, but more and more stand fans are becoming available in designer treatments (Cottage, Art Deco). The new ones are much quieter, too. Why fans? Flowing, moving air will make you feel cooler.

5. Heat-proof your window treatments. It can be hard to sacrifice that great view through a big, clear window or patio door, but glass is far from the best insulation – even if it is double-paned. Covering windows can make a big difference in keeping rooms cooler, and it doesn’t have to cost a lot to do so. Mini-blinds can be purchased for less than five dollars per window, and can make a big difference on how cool room will be on a hot afternoon. For a little more, you can buy mini-blinds that are specifically made to help with heat, as well as draperies specifically designed to block a blinding hot sun blaring into a room on a hot, summer afternoon. The room will be darker, and you may lose that view, but the goal of keeping the room cooler before you start spending your budget’s electricity dollars will be met.

6. Use room air conditioners instead of the central system. Use room air conditioners, or portable air conditioners, rather than a central air-conditioning system, cooling only the rooms that you actually use. These units come with timers and thermostats, which allow you to coordinate cooling the rooms only when it will be needed. For example, bedroom room air conditioners can be programmed to start up and run for approximately 2 hours before bedtime, with the thermostat automatically controlling the air temperature of the room throughout the night. Portable air conditioners can also be used in the den and home office when needed. The central system can be ignored, or its thermostat set much higher than in previous years: 88 degrees, for example, with only the den and the bedrooms kept at 78 degrees in the evenings with room air conditioners, and unused rooms having closed-off vents, is a comfortable environment and much less expensive than the central system being used for all your square footage.

For more information:

How to Cook 3: Slow Cookers

June 6, 2008

Great Coupon Shopping - Coupon Codes

Coupon codes give extra savings at lots of online sites. You shop at the store's website, and essentially you mimic handing the paper coupon to the cashier by inputing a code identification number as part of your purchase information.

Sure, it means you are shopping online, and there are some purchases that seem more web-worthy than others: personally, I don't want to buy groceries or shoes online right now (this may change, I found some really good deals today), but I'm happy to buy a book, an appliance, or a purse over the internet.

Coupon Code Sites to Check Out:

1. CurrentCodes.Com sorts codes for over 1800 stores, and my quick surf through the list found some very nice discounts.

2. RetailMeNot.com is another code provider -- much bigger than CurrentCodes and with lots of big national names -- but maybe not the most current of sites. Lots of free shipping and handling, and I did find some nice discounts on online buys.

3. 1001coupons.com has another directory filled with retailers and their current coupon codes. Chadwicks, for example, has buy-one-get-one-free going at this site; Shoes.com had an extra 15% off sales and clearance items. Also didn't seem as current as CurrentCodes, but appeared to have some different stuff.

Searching For Even More Deals

Other than these collection sites, you can always investigate for yourself. Try searching for "coupon code" and a specific store name, e.g., "Target coupon code" or "Amazon coupon code" and see what pops up. Some good finds can come from this ....

You might also try surfing with synonyms for the phrase "coupon code" such as:

discount code
key code
promotional code
voucher code
promotion code
promo code
source code.

Do this without or without a specific store name. You can also try this with a specific product in mind.

When I did this, I found Ann Taylor (25% and free shipping); Kohl's (50/60/70% off sale items, depending on department); and some totally free stuff with your online order over at Yves Rocher.

Warning: searching around for the really good deals can be very, very addicting....
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