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Saturday, 8 November 2008

Poll: If it's yellow, let it mellow?

We all want to save money, of course. And saving the environment surely isn't a bad thing either, but would you go as far as flushing your toilets less frequently to save water?

I remember the first time I was invited to spend the night in a European's home. I was studying abroad and some friends of friends who lived a fair distance outside the city were hosting a party. Because they lived in such an inconvenient location, they were nice enough to let a few of us crash at their place for the night. After everyone else had cleared out, our host brought me a clean towel, showed me which door had the big dog behind it, and other such things. Among them was the house rule:
If it's brown, flush it down. If it's yellow let it mellow. Actually, that's a pretty American way of saying it. When they said it, I think it came out more like, "Only flush it if it's solid."

It took me a minute to comprehend what they were saying, and I sincerely hope that my face did not reflect this or whatever
was going on in my head. I was raised on penny-pinching, waste-not-want-not frugality but this blew my mind. As it was, I'd only just begun to think of the two-buttoned toilets I found in Europe, with a big-flush for solids and little-flush for liquids, as commonplace. The idea that there were actually people in this world who didn't flush their toilets every time in order to save water was still a little beyond me.

It's been many years since then, and I realize now that somewhere along the way I adopted a version of this rule, though saving water wasn't always the main reason. Maybe I didn't want to wake my sleeping puppy. Maybe I was just too lazy to pull the lid off the toilet and manually flush the thing because we still hadn't gotten it fixed. Maybe it's because I'm in a long-term, committed relationship with a man from that same country so all sorts of weird things don't seem weird to me any more. Whatever the reason was, I adopted it.

Would, or have, you? Would it make a difference if I told you that the average person flushes about 18.5 gallons of water a day and that those 18.5 gallons make up just over 30% of that person's indoor water use each day?

Vote in the poll to your right to find out how mellow we really are.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Fax For Free via the Internet

In my last attempt to be able to vote on November 4th (my absentee ballot came too late for me to send it off in time) I tried to fax a copy of my ballot to my city clerks office. Unfortunately, I don't have a fax machine. More unfortunately, I live in a rather third-world African city that just so happened to be experiencing violent demonstrations that day so I couldn't go out, not that I have easy access to a car or know where the heck I would have found a fax machine anyway.

I seemed to remember having seen once or twice, or two hundred times, annoying pop-up ads that said something about sending faxes through the internet. So I started browsing around online for other solutions. An initial Google search brought up dozens of sites offering this service, but, being me, I decided I was feeling lucky after all and typed "free" into my search bar and tried again. I got dozens more options, but what I was really looking for was advert-free, registration-free, no-strings-attached faxing services - a pretty tall order.

The closest thing I found was the free faxing service provided by drop.io. Drop.io allows you to upload files to a URL you specify, for example http://drop.io/whateveryouchose, so that you can pass the URL on and share them with other people or access them later. All types of files can be uploaded, not just a simple email message. You can also send people the files that you've uploaded, including by fax. It's completely free and while you do have to chose a password to associate with the URL you picked, you don't have to provide an email address or name, or register in any other way, making this an awesome choice. However, on further investigation, after uploading my files and going through the whole process, I discovered a glich. Drop.io has temporarily (I hope) suspended their faxing service. Their reason: unreliable service from their partners. They say that they are looking for other companies to team up with in the future so that they can start the faxing service again. I was disappointed to be sure, but happy to have found out about their file storage anyway; you never know when that might come in handy. And I'll keep checking back about faxing and if they offer it again, I'll let you know.

The next service provider I looked at was TPC, another totally free option, although they do ask for your email so that they can send you a confirmation notice when your fax is complete. I wouldn't be too worried about that though, as they're just a couple of really nice people who run the show for research purposes and out of the goodness of their hearts; I don't think you're headed to spam central, but that's just my judgment call. Obviously, you have to decide for yourself. My reason for not using their service was that I needed to send a copy of my ballot, not just a simple message. TPC doesn't allow you to fax files, only messages, so this wasn't going to work for me and, frankly, I can't see many uses for it as usually the whole point in faxing is to send a signed document and the like, not a simple message. But I guess if you needed to send a telegram-style message to someone living in the dark ages where they didn't have an email account but had a fax machine it might come in handy.

In the end, I had to settle for a free faxing service with adverts. I used faxZERO, and while I did have to give them my email address, I didn't have to register with a username and password and I haven't seemed to have gotten any more spam than usual (though I did use an alternative email account I created for these types of things just in case). With faxZERO you can only send one file less than 3 pages and the recipient will be shown an advert on the coverpage.

I sent my ballot off and hoped for the best. About 15 minutes later I got a confirmation email from faxZERO and shortly afterwards and an email from my city clerks office. They couldn't count my vote. Only absentee ballots arriving by hand or by snail-mail are considered valid in my state, but I was applauded for my efforts and can confirm that faxZEROs services do indeed work if you're ever in a similar pinch. Once again, thank you, Internet. At least now I can say I did everything in my power.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

New Beginnings

It's been nearly a year since my last post. Life simply got in the way and I had to leave Fanny's Place behind in pursuit of other projects. I'm still in Africa, though now in another country, and in my efforts to keep up with the U.S. news these past few months I couldn't help but notice that for most families thriftiness and frugality are becoming more important and necessary than ever before. So, I decided to stop by the old blog, read any new comments, check the associated email account, and so on.

I'm amazed at the number of visitors the site is still receiving almost one year after my last post. In fact, more people are reading than ever before. The message was clear - I need to start blogging here again. So, of course, I slept on it, and then slept on it again until days turned into weeks and still no new posts. I probably never would have gotten back around here again accept for that this morning, when I woke up and read the news like every other day, I was greeted with a call for change. A call for hope. A call for new beginnings.

This is my own, personal, new-beginning. I'm starting over with Fanny's Place. I'm blogging again. What's your new beginning?

Friday, 4 January 2008

4 Fastest Ways to Save Money in January: Eat Simply

I always think of January as the great month of purge. Armed with our New Year's resolutions, we march into battle, trying to fight off the consequences of our excessive holiday consumption. Our wallets feel thin even as we struggle to squeeze them into the pockets of our tighter-than-ever jeans. Everything seems stacked against us, from the temperamental furnace in the basement to the balding all-weather tires on the car. It's not exactly an encouraging month.

And yet, there are simple things we can do to keep our money in our pockets so that come the end of the month we can pay off those bills. Over the next few days, I'll be posting 4 of the simplest and fastest ways to save money this January.

The first one is to eat simply. After weeks of cookies, candy, pies, and roast turkey with gravy, it's time to stop. Not only does holiday food pack on the pounds, it takes a serious bite out of the budget.

Planning and making your meals yourself really pays off. As hard as it is to go to the grocery store instead of the restaurant, especially if you did all of the holiday cooking, there's probably little else that will turn your financial blues around faster. Remember how you planned out everything you needed for your holiday meal, wrote it all down on a list, and then cooked it up yourself? See, you have the skills already. All you have to do is transfer them to your day-to-day life for one month. Just remember to:

1. Set a budget.
Before anything else, you should set a budget for your meals. Know the maximum amount of money you want to spend on food each week and be prepared to stick to these spending goals.

2. Write a meal plan.
Plan out what you and your family are going to eat for the week by writing down the details of every meal, including the exact foods you will eat, how many people will be at the meal and where/when you intend the meal to be. When you've finished, make a quick list of the ingredients required to make each meal, keeping in mind the number of mouths you will be feeding. This will help you later when you make your shopping list and it gives you the opportunity to estimate the cost for each meal and revise your plans accordingly.

Remember to portion correctly. There should be no food left over when the meal is finished. Making extra food tempts you to eat more than necessary and/or risks that you will forget about the leftovers and end up throwing them away. If you want to make a lot of food so that you will have left overs for another meal, schedule the leftovers meal into your weekly meal plan in advance. Make just enough food for the two meals and then immediately store half of the cooked food in the refrigerator. Do not put all the food on the table, or you risk over eating and not having enough food left for the second meal.

Once your meal plan is complete, compare your estimated costs with your budget and revise your plan until these match. If you have scheduled to eat meals at restaurants or cafeterias, you can save money by planning to make your own foods. If the meals you have planned to make yourself are too expensive, choose different recipes, avoiding special ingredients, spices you don't already have on hand, and processed, pre-packaged foods. Base your meals on staples like pasta, potatoes and rice and inexpensive meats like ground beef and chicken thighs/legs.

3. Make a shopping list.
Once you know what you're going to eat and what you need to buy to prepare your meals, make a shopping list. The longer your meal plan and more comprehensive your shopping list, the fewer trips to the grocery store you will have to make, saving you gas. Another way to limit transportation costs is to avoid going to more than one store, if possible. If not, make separate lists for each store you intend to visit, so that you are less likely to forget something and need to return.

4. Don't shop when you're hungry.
If you skipped lunch and are heading straight to the grocery store after work, watch out. Everything looks tastier when your hungry and you put yourself in danger of buying things that aren't on your shopping list.

5. Skip the snacks.
Feeling hungry? Try chewing gum instead of picking up a bag of chips at the fuel station. If you're a constant snacker, you'll do best to schedule snacks into your food plan that way your mini-meals are sure to be cheap and fit into your budget. Even better, just drink water when you feel the urge to fill your stomach between meals (from the tap, of course). Many times, a glass of water can curb the munchies.
Applying the same forethought we applied to the holidays, we can make January a budget-friendly food month by eating simply.

Bon App├ętit!

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Is It Okay to Re-gift?

The holiday season is officially over. I hope you got, and were able to give, everything you wanted.

For me, the holidays were anything but typical. Accustomed to extreme cold and snow, I felt a little out of place surrounded by palms trees in African heat, but it was still the holidays. The essential elements were there: good food, good humour, good people. If there was one thing noticeably lacking, it was gifts.

Now I'm not the material type, a fact which makes living the frugal lifestyle infinitely easier for me, but I do like to have something for people to unwrap come late December. Like they say, it's the thought that counts, and if you don't have anything to give, it's a good reflection on the fact that you probably haven't done much thinking. I pride myself on coming up with thoughtful gifts that don't break the bank but this year was particularly challenging. I became very aware of how disconnected from the rest of the world the tiny West African country I currently call home actually is. Simply put, there's nothing to buy here and even the best online deals turned out too expensive when delivery costs were calculated in. So I had to get creative.

Instead of buying too many gifts, I made my own. Basically, I hit the kitchen and baked - cookies, cakes, pies, anything I could find the ingredients for. This approach had three affects. 1: It really started to feel like the holidays; there's something about cooking that gets me in the festive spirit like nothing else. 2: I saved a lot of money on gifts and was able to give my friends something novel they could really use and enjoy. 3: I put on those holiday pounds! (Which means there will be a few inexpensive exercise and diet ideas coming your way in the next couple of days...)

In my struggle to find suitable gifts I found myself reviewing and reconsidering my approach to gift-giving in general and the practice of re-gifting fleetingly danced through my head. I have never, ever been a proponent of re-gifting, or giving something as a gift that was once given to you as a gift (usually something you didn't like or ever use). If it's really true that it's the thought that counts, then what kind of thought goes into re-gifting? But in a place like Africa, where there's simply nothing to buy and it's too expensive to order anything, or in other such unusual situations, is it okay?

Personally, I'm still inclined to think not, but I started to wonder how often the practice really occurs and what people actually think about it. So I've decided to issue a poll (in the far-right sidebar) to see what you all think. Is it okay to re-gift? Did you see or experience re-gifting this year?